Sunday 29 May 2011

Long overdue...

The Victoria day weekend threw me off schedule, so it feels like I haven't written in a long time.  I was planning on writing this morning, but we wanted to get out and enjoy the day before the rain began, so we headed to St Jacob's for a walk and a stroll through town.  I'm so glad that I waited to post, as I made a few purchases that might be of interest.

I'll start with my original post topics.  We discussed Timothy Findley's novel, Piano Man's Daughter, in my book discussion group on Friday, and everyone seemed to have enjoyed it.  That was a relief, as I'm always worried that my group members will not like a particular selection, especially if it's my selection.  What I've learned, though, is that the measure of a gook book club selection is not whether everyone likes it, but, rather, whether it's discussable.  It's just as interesting to talk about why we didn't enjoy a book as it is to discuss why we did enjoyed one.  We all agreed that Eliza was our favourite character, and that there were many interesting minor characters in the novel in addition to the main characters, Lily and Charlie Kilworth.  While Findley's novels are each very different, they often deal with issues of mental illness, identity and sexuality, and this novel is no exception.  His attention to historical detail is impressive and adds texture to this already complex novel.

I also finished listening to Trespass by Valerie Martin.  I think she is my new favourite author.  The novel dealt with what it means to "belong" and what is considered "foreign".  Who is trespassing on whose territory?  Who should be kept out and how?  How must these views change as we face new "enemies" and different wars in our changing political environment?  I don't pretend be historically- or politically-minded, so I'm sure I could have appreciated this novel much more if I understood the political references in greater depth.  Even with my slight understanding, though, this novel spoke to me, and the characters were real and three-dimensional.  I wanted to know more about the poacher, and how the relationships turned out (I'll leave this intentionally vague so I don't give anything away).  It was an excellent novel, and I felt the narrator captured the intentions of the author. 

It's hard to tell with an audiobook how much the narration adds to the enjoyment of the story.  I know that narration is an important aspect of the audiobook experience because I have stopped listening to a book due to narration that was annoying to me.  But no matter how much you may enjoy a particular narrator, the story still has to grab you.  I have downloaded an audiobook narrated by John Lee, my personal favourite, but the novel was not one that I was enjoying and so I stopped listening.  I conclude, then, that it must be a combination of good narrator AND good story to make it an enjoyable audiobook experience.  Speaking of enjoyable audiobook experiences and John Lee, I first heard him narrate White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and it was amazing!  I'm not sure that I would have enjoyed reading it, but he really brought to book alive for me.  I loved it!

So the reason today's purchases may be of interest... I bought a new mug for my tea and two new novels.  The mug was handmade by a potter in St. Jacob's, and I always like  to support local artists and craftspeople.  I'm drinking my tea out of this mug right now!  The books that I purchased are:  The Female of the Species by Lionel Shriver and Attachment by Isabel Fonseca.  I would like to find another novel by Shriver that engages me enough to finish it, although I don't expect the same depth of experience as with We Need to Talk About Kevin.  I'm hoping this one will be the one.  I know nothing about Isabel Fonseca, but I'll admit I'm a pushover for new trade paperbacks, and for the price, I couldn't go wrong.  I guess we sometimes do judge a book by its cover, or in my case, its format.  I'll hope for the best with both of these novels, but even if I don't thoroughly enjoy them, I've supported a local bookseller, which is always a good thing.

And the rain held off all day, so we may be in for a wild thunderstorm tonight, but it's been a great day so far.

Bye for now!

Monday 23 May 2011

A short post for a long weekend...

What do you do if you have a book club meeting coming up and you're just not finished the book selection?  Do you stay up all night the night before trying to finish it in time for the meeting?  Do you go to the meeting and pretend you finished it?  Do you not go to that particular meeting?  Or do you go to the meeting and admit to the rest of the group that you didn't finish?

Staying up all night to finish the book demonstrates your determination to engage completely with your book group.  I applaud any member of my own book group who makes the effort to finish the selection in this way.  But it's not always a possible, nor a necessarily pleasurable, way to finish a book.  I don't think I could do it!  So I would say, don't feel obligated to finish your book in this way.  Do so if you have the determination but be prepared to feel the effects of an all-night reading marathon the next day.

Going to the book club meeting and pretending that you've finished the book can be tricky.  I'll admit that I've done this on one occasion with my own book group, so I can say from firsthand experience that it's very awkward.  You can't take part in the discussion in your usual way, and your questions and comments may be completely off-the-mark without knowing how the book ends.  I would not recommend using this option in this situation unless you are a skillful poker player.

Not attending a meeting because you didn't finish the book can be either a smart choice or a poor choice, depending on your reason for making the choice.  If you choose not to go to the meeting because you don't want to be told the ending, then it's a smart choice, but it's unfortunate because you miss out on the whole book discussion.  If you choose not to go to the meeting because you feel you won't be able to contribute to the discussion, then I would say it's a poor choice.  If you choose to not attend because you feel guilty for not finishing the book, that you're somehow "letting the group down", then I would say this is also a poor choice.  With my group, the fun of our meetings is as much about getting together as it is about the book discussion.  So don't feel you "shouldn't" go just because you haven't finished the book.

Going to the meeting and informing the group that you haven't finished is, in my opinion, the best of these options.  It shows your dedication to the group and your enthusiasm for the book, despite not finishing it yet.  You can still make valuable contributions to the discussion, and your presence will be appreciated by the other group members.  The only caveat I have for this option is this:  be prepared to find out how the book ends.  You don't want to come to the meeting and caution the others not to reveal the ending.  After all, the ending is so very important to the discussion that this would stifle the conversation for the other members. 

These options apply equally to not having read the book at all (except for the part where I say you still make valuable contributions to the discussion - you may be limited in your ability to contribute in this instance).  If your intention is to read the book at some time, then if you go to the meeting, you can at least reflect on what the other members have said when you finally get the chance to read the book yourself. 

These opinions are strictly my own, but having been a facilitator of a book group for more than four years, I feel that they reflect my personal thoughts regarding book club meeting attendance in these situations.  Only you can make the decision to pretend or not, to attend or not, to contribute or not.

Bye for now!

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Wednesday's rainy morning...

What is it about the rain that makes us want to curl up in a comfy chair with a good book?  What do books do for us that make them the best companions on a rainy day?

Books are comforting, they are quiet, they are not intrusive, they are patient and undemanding, they are small and portable, and they can help us forget the rain outside or, in the case of a book like Wuthering Heights, they can enliven the rain and wind and make us experience them, too, whipping up our passions while keeping us safe and dry.

Books are comforting.  We can choose what type of book to read based on our mood, but also on our personal or emotional needs.  They can often keep us company and let us know that we are not alone in our experiences or suffering or personal dilemmas.  We can learn from the behaviours, thoughts and actions of the characters in a book.  I once read an article suggesting that those who read fiction tend to be more compassionate and empathetic than those who don't read fiction.  I can imagine that this is true, since every novel takes us inside the thoughts and actions of the characters, and we experience situations vicariously through these characters that we would otherwise probably never experience in our own lives.  In this way, fiction readers are regularly faced with "What would you do if...?" scenarios, and the actions and responses of the characters inform us of various possibilities and consequences.  Sometimes we agree with what the characters do, and sometimes we disagree with their behaviour or responses, but it makes us think about the situations and consider what the possibilities and consequences are.  I believe that this may make fiction readers more empathetic and compassionate than other types of readers.

Books are quiet and non-intrusive.  They are patient and undemanding.  They can sit on your coffee table or bookshelf quietly for days or even weeks, never nagging you to "Read me!"  Books don't have a deadline or a "best before" date (well, unless they are library books that cannot be renewed, or a book that needs to be finished before your next book club meeting!).  Isn't it wonderful to have something in your life that is not demanding something of you RIGHT NOW, that can be picked up and set aside at will, that truly fits with your schedule? 

Books are small and portable.  OK, maybe not always small, but they are usually of a manageable size to suit most people, even hardcover copies of James Clavell's Shogun or Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.  And if a book is too hefty to cart to work and back each day, a reader can always have an "at-home" book and an "at-work" book.  Books come in all shapes and sizes, all moods and characters, all settings and tones.  Whatever it is we as readers need, we can surely find between the covers of a book.

Books can help us forget the rain outside.  They can take us to tropical beaches or winding Venetian streets.  They can take us to Paris or Athens, or the crowded streets of Bombay.  Or they can make us experience the weather as a character in and of itself.  They can transport us to the windswept Yorkshire moors of the 1840s.  I love pathetic fallacy, "nature in sympathy with the deeds of men".  It rarely happens in real life, but often happens in the novel and while it may be considered contrived, I think it can also be very effective in helping to elicit the desired emotional responses from the reader towards a character's situation or actions when used skillfully by an author.  Remember the classic line, "It was a dark and stormy night..."

So we can see that books are great companions for a rainy day.  Next time, maybe we can consider why books are perfect companions for sunny days, snowy days, holidays, bus rides, train rides, solitary meals, shared evenings ...

Bye for now!

Sunday 15 May 2011

Sunday book thoughts...

There will be an author reading at the Princess Cafe in Waterloo this Tuesday, May 17th, I think at 7pm (to confirm, please check Words Worth Bookstore's website: .  Robert Rotenberg will be reading from his new novel, The Guilty Plea.  His first novel, Old City Hall, was recommended to me by my father-in-law, who knows I like reading mysteries.  I started it, and was very impressed.  Unfortunately, I was too busy at the time to concentrate fully on this complex murder mystery set in Toronto, with all its many characters and plot twists, and so did not finish the book (it's all about mood and setting!).  I think I'll try reading it again soon.  I may go to see him on Tuesday, although I met him at this year's OLA SuperConference in February and spoke to him briefly (missed his reading, as I had a session to attend).  This event is free, and will surely be worth attending.

I finished The Red Thread on Friday, and I must say, she did a nice job of bringing all the characters' lives together in the end.  Even though I now know that the novel is semi-autobiographical and deals with issues from the author's own life such as the loss of a child and the adoption of orphaned girls in China, I still feel that it is a "light" novel, mainly due to the treatment of these issues.  But it was definitely worth reading.

I am now reading The Piano Man's Daughter by Timothy Findley, which is the book selection for our next book club meeting on May 27th.  I haven't read this title for some time, and hope I'll enjoy it as much this time as I did before.

That's all I can think of to write about for today.  I guess it must be the rain, or the fact that I finished my tea some time ago, but I'm feeling less-than-inspired, so I'll sign off.  More on Wednesday...

Bye for now!

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Wednesday's book thoughts...

It's Wednesday morning, and I'm trying a new tea that was sent to me accidentally when I received my online tea order in the mail last week.  Not sure whether I'll like it, but, like a new book, you can't know if you'll like it or not without trying it (just don't feel obligated to finish the whole cup!)

I'm nearly finished The Red Thread by Ann Hood.  As I got further into the novel, I was thinking of other books I've read that are similar to this.  It definitely reminds me of The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg in terms of story and style, although Hood's novel is more complex.  It also reminds me of Maeve Binchy's novels, in that there are many characters whose stories are interwoven by one common link; in Hood's novel, the link is Maya and the Red Thread Adoption Agency.  These novels are all what I would call "light" novels, in that they explore complex situations in ways that are not in-depth, more surface treatments.  Perhaps this is because they involve so many stories that it would take much more than 300 pages to give in-depth explorations of each story.  Perhaps it is also the intent of the author to only offer most of her characters as one- or two-dimensional so that the reader focuses on, or identifies with the main character, who is usually presented in a more complex, three-dimensional way.  I can think of at least two Binchy novels that use this technique of bringing many stories together by one common link, Nights of Rain and Stars and Tara Road, both novels which I have read and enjoyed in the past. 

The Red Thread, with its "light" treatment of complex issues for a number of characters and stories, is in direct contrast to Valerie Martin's Trespass, which I am listening to as an audiobook.  Trespass presents an intense exploration of the relationship between two university students, Toby, an American, and Salome, a Croatian, and the tension this relationship causes for Toby's family.  While at first it appears to be simply a study of their domestic situation, I suspect that the family tensions are going to run deeper and become more political.  There is a darker, sharper edge to Martin's work than Hood's novel.  I said above that Hood's novel was "light", and I meant it as in the opposite of "heavy" or "deep".  Perhaps it can also be used as the opposite of "dark".  I would use the terms "heavy", "deep" and "dark" to describe Martin's novel.

My personal preference for reading materials, when I'm in the mood for such a novel, is for the "dark", "heavy" and "deep" type.  When I read what I would call "psychological fiction", I expect to find serious character exploration and development.  The Red Thread doesn't have that, but I've now invested enough time in it, and it's an easy enough read, that I will finish it.  But I will not pick up another of her books anytime soon.  If I want this type of "light" reading, I'll stick to Maeve Binchy.

Bye for now!

Sunday 8 May 2011

Sunday's reading thoughts...

I finished Left Neglected by Lisa Genova on Friday night.  It was well-written and interesting, exploring a type of neurological condition I've never heard of before.  But, in my opinion, it was no Still Alice.  Now I haven't read Still Alice for a few years, but this is how I remember it.  Still Alice chronicles the experiences of the main character as she suffers early-onset Alzheimer's.  Left Neglected tells the story of a woman recovering from a neurological condition called Left Neglect after sustaining a head injury from a car accident.  While Alice was fresh and unpredictable, Neglected was more than predictable, it was clichéd.  Where Alice was sometimes sombre but always realistic, Neglected was excessively upbeat, at times almost comical.  It just didn't compare to Still Alice.  Having made all these seemingly negative comments, I want to assure you that I enjoyed Left Neglected.  I just think Still Alice was a better book. 

This is the problem with personal reading history.  If I had never read Still Alice, I would probably think that Left Neglected was amazing.  But I have read the first, and so naturally I make a comparison between them, and find the second book wanting in some ways.  This leads me to consider the book reviewer.  When I read, I compare the book I'm reading with other books I've read, or I compare characters in one book to those in another.  If I were a book reviewer, however, I expect that I would have to acquire the skill of compartmentalizing books and seeing each book as an entity unto itself.  There is no guarantee, say, that the author of a novel about a particular subject that I may have read has also read another novel about that particular subject that I have also read.  So while I may compare the two novels, this comparison is unfair to the second novel, since it may be an original idea for that author, even though it's been done before by someone else.  Does that makes sense?  (I guess it’s fair to compare books by the same author, though, since the author being “reviewed” is obviously aware of his or her own earlier works.)

I also want to talk about the things that appear on the covers of books or inside the book jackets.  When I pick up a book for the first time, if I am unfamiliar with the story, I usually want to read a summary of the plot before I start.  Paperbacks have this summary on the back cover, while hardcovers usually have this written on the inside front flap.  On the back flap of hardcovers, there is usually information about the author, and the outside back cover usually has reviews of that book or previous books by the author.  These reviews are often from different newspapers or magazines, such as the New York Times or the Toronto Star.  The back cover for Left Neglected had reviews by various authors such as Jodi Picoult, Brunonia Barry and Ann Hood.  Although I don’t usually intentionally read these reviews, I can't help but notice them there on the back cover.  I found these ones particularly interesting, since I had just listened to an audio version of a Brunonia Barry novel, and I had a novel by Ann Hood sitting on my desk at work waiting to be read.  I suspect these “reviews” are meant to also serve as recommendations, sort of like when you go to Amazon or Chapters online and look up a title, and at the bottom of the page, a list of other books comes up letting you know that others who bought the book you’re interested in have also purchased these other titles.  So if you like Lisa Genova, you may also want to read Jodi Picoult, Ann Hood and Brunonia Barry.  Hmmm... interesting.  I think I prefer reviews by newspaper reviewers, as I believe them to be more unbiased than reviews by fellow authors.  (By the way, I didn't finish listening to the audiobook by Brunonia Barry, as I didn't really like the narration, and the story was getting too weird and hard to follow...more on audio books another time!  I am, however, currently reading The Red Thread by Ann Hood, and find it interesting so far.)

That's all for today.

Bye for now!

Wednesday 4 May 2011

It's Wednesday morning tea time again...

What is reading really about?  Of course reading is about the book.  We all want to read "good books", and are always searching for the next "good book".  No one can have a good reading experience without a good book... or can they?  There have been occasions when my book group has come together to discuss a book that at least one member said she really didn't like, maybe didn't even finish, but by the end of the discussion, that same member admitted that she wanted to reread it, or finish it, because the group discussed aspects of the novel, or reasons for the characters' behaviour, or the author's intent, that made the novel more appealing to her.

So reading is about more than the book.  It's certainly about personal setting.  For me, there's something about a Wednesday morning, with a steaming cup of tea and classical music playing in the background that calls me to open a book and read.  It's a solitary time, a time to reflect, to learn, to allow a feeling of inner silence while the world goes about its busy-ness outside this cozy retreat.   Or on a bus heading to Toronto, as I've done so many times over the past four years, I can completely lose myself in a novel because there are no interruptions, nothing to distract me from the pages.  We often refer to "beach reads", those light, easy novels that don't require much concentration, because the book is not the main focus in those settings, the beach or holiday is.  I remember once years ago being at the beach in Toronto and I was reading Crime and Punishment.  Someone lying on the sand near me commented that this was definitely NOT the type of light reading one should bring to the beach in the summer.  This person may well have been right, as it took me forever to finish it!  Maybe I should have waited to read it in November, when I could focus a bit better.

Setting also goes hand-in-hand with mood.  There have been a number of times when I've read a book for the first time and either loved it or hated it, only to reread it at another time and have the exact opposite reaction.  It's important to choose a book that you feel like reading, and not to struggle with a book that you want to read but that is just not working for you at that moment.  I would advise that you put it down, take up something else, and try the first book again at another time.  You may find that it was just your mood at the time that was standing in the way of your ability to enjoy it.

Our reading experience is also made up of our personal reading history.  No book stands alone in a reader's encounter with it.  We are always referring to books we've read before, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes intentionally.  I read Lois Lowry's The Giver for the first time a few summers ago for a Children's Collection Development course I was taking, and I really enjoyed it.  I could see similarities with The Handmaid's Tale and 1984, both dystopian novels that I have read and found interesting.  I also found similarities with a short story I read long ago for a course I took for my undergrad degree, I think the title is "The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas" by Ursula LeGuin.  I made these connections to my previous reading experiences, even going as far back as my undergrad days and a relatively obscure short story I read for an elective course I took, probably in 1990, which helped me to appreciate The Giver more fully.  If I had never read these other novels, how might my experience of The Giver been different?  In my opinion, you can never really "un-read" something, although I guess you can forget something that made absolutely no impression on you whatsoever.

Reading history leads me to the social aspects of reading.  Reading has always been perceived as a solitary activity.  But look how book clubs have increased in popularity over the past few years.  Everyone, it seems, belongs to a book group, which is great!  Reading can be a social activity, too!  As I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, sometimes a book that seems uninteresting after a personal reading can seem better, or more interesting, after a group discussion.  Everyone in the group brings their own reading and personal history to the book, and so everyone's experience of a book is going to be different.  Sharing this with others can be a wonderful experience, and I would certainly encourage anyone who may have an interest in joining a book group but hasn't yet done so to find a group and go to one or two meetings.  It's amazing how you can learn from this experience, and be encouraged to read books you never would have tried otherwise. 

And so we've come full circle.  Reading is about the book, and it is a personal, solitary activity.  It is affected by the setting and mood of the reader, and it can be enhanced by sharing your personal reading experience with others.  I'm sure there are many other aspects I haven't even considered here, but I'm running out of time. 

Bye for now!

Sunday 1 May 2011

Sunday morning book thoughts...

On this rainy Sunday morning, while I'm waiting for my husband to get ready so we can start our day, I thought I would take some time to write about what I've read, what I'm reading, and what I'm planning to read (this is how this book lover's thought process works regarding books). 

I finished The Confessions of Edward Day on Friday, and, as I said in my earlier post, I continued to be intrigued by the story and wanted to know what would happen next.  It was strange to recall that this was written by the same person who wrote Property, since they were so different in nature and in writing style.  While I wouldn't necessarily recommend Edward Day in particular, I would definitely recommend the author, Valerie Martin.  With what appears to be a wide variety of themes and topics for her novels, I think I can safely suggest that almost anyyone would find at least one title that would appeal.  For more information about her, check out her website:

I mentioned on Wednesday that I wanted to check out more Orange Prize-winning titles.  I've included a list of these titles below, for your reference and mine.

Orange Prize Winners
1996: A Spell Of Winter, Helen Dunmore
1997: Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
1998: Larry’s Party, Carol Shields
1999: A Crime In The Neighbourhood, Suzanne Berne
2000: When I Lived In Modern Times, Linda Grant
2001: The Idea Of Perfection, Kate Grenville
2002: Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
2003: Property, Valerie Martin
2004: Small Island, Andrea Levy
2005: We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
2006: On Beauty, Zadie Smith
2007: Half Of A Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2008: The Road Home, Rose Tremain
2009: Home, Marilyne Robinson
2010: The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver

I've read some of these titles, those by Shriver, Shields, Michaels, and Martin, and while I was at the CFUW Used Book Sale on Friday, I picked up On Beauty and Home.  I also have Small Island at home in my collection, and have been meaning to read it some time.  Maybe I'll start it soon. 

My book club met on Friday (Friday was a busy "book" day for me!), where we discussed The Kite Runner.  Our book selection  for the May meeting is The Piano Man'sDaughter by Timothy Findley.  I'm looking forward to rereading this title, as it's been a while since I've read anything by Findley. 

Last night I started reading Left Neglected by Lisa Genova.  I read Still Alice a couple of years ago and thought it was well-written and very emotionally moving.  Still Alice is the title I've chosen for my book group to read in June, but with the recent release of her new title, it may be difficult for everyone to get hold of a library copy of that selection.  We may need to rearrange the selections to accommodate this.

I think my husband is ready to go out now, so I'll sign off. 

Bye for now!