Wednesday 27 July 2011

Wednesday morning tea and book thoughts...

What a clear, fresh, lovely Wednesday morning!  My tea is steaming in my beautiful mug, I'm listening to classical piano on CBC Radio Two, and I'm going to write about books - I'd say this is practically a perfect morning!

I finished listening to The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman last night, and as I mentioned in a previous entry, it's not uplifting at all.  In fact, the only positive aspect of this book I can think of is that we know WWII eventually ends (I feel I can safely say that without giving away any of the plot).  But I learned alot about pre-WWII Germany, I appreciated the work the author put into expressing his thoughts and creating a coherent story, and I discovered a new author.  In my mind, that is a win-win situation.

I'm reading The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas right now.  I'm about half-way through this rather thick trade paperback set in Australia about what happens to a group of friends when a man at a barbeque slaps a child who is not his own.  This Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2009 Best Book Winner is riveting to this reader because the situations, individuals and relationships that are explored in this novel are complex and all-too-real.  I enjoy books that present a situation in a character's life where, in an instant, his or her whole life changes forever.  I wonder how many of us have had instances like that in our lives, where one decision, one action, one choice affected the rest of our lives?  I can certainly think of a few choices I've made that have changed the entire course of my life.  Sometimes we wish we could go back to the moment before that act and change our action, sometimes we're happy we chose to act as we did.  I've read others that deal with these types of life-changing situations, but I can't think of any offhand - I'll have to go through the list of books that I've read to find other examples.  Anyways, The Slap is probably not going to be uplifting, either;  at least it's not uplifting so far.  But it is very interesting.  I haven't read many Australian authors - Bryce Courtenay and Peter Carey may be the only ones.  So Tsiolkas' novel is interesting on a number of levels, a glimpse into the lives of a group of average Australian people, relationships ,and dealing with the results of impulsive actions, to name a few.  I'm looking forward to finishing it.

And finally, my book group agreed on The Joy Luck Club for our August selection.  One member, who is a former high school English teacher, said she's read it quite a few times because her students often chose that novel for independent study projects, but she agreed to read it again for our next meeting.  I haven't read it for years, but think it's definitely a good book club selection, as it presents much that can be discussed.  And I think its themes are universal and timeless.  I hope they like it!

Time to go and read some more before getting ready for work.

Bye for now!

Friday 22 July 2011

Friday evening post...

I'm all out of sorts this week, due to the heat and a general sense of lethargy.  This post (late!) will likely be brief, although I have lots to write about.  I'm lacking time and enthusiasm right now, but I often try, when faced with the choice of doing something now or doing it later, to do it now.  So I'm writing now.

My book club met today to discuss The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham.  I was so worried that they wouldn't like it, that it was too difficult to get a copy and it wasn't worth the effort to read it, that it was dated, that they wouldn't like the characters; in short, all the usual worries I have when I've put on our list one of my favourite books.  But of the 6 members who showed up today, only 2 didn't really like it, but did not despise it vehemently.  And of the other 4 members, at least 3 really liked it, and the other found the characters and situations maddening but couldn't wait to finish it to find out what happened.  We spent more than 2 hours discussing it, and still we could have talked about it for much longer, but we had to go.  I'd say that represents a successful book club selection.  We talked about the characters, their interactions, philosophy, Hinduism and Christianity, India, spirituality, sincere release from worldly goods versus that which is just for show, relationships, whether marriage without deep love and passion can be happy, and many other complex and interesting topics that are explored in the novel.  We also talked about Maugham as a writer and a person.  In my not-very-indepth research on him (I love Wikipedia!), I found out that he had been the highest paid author in the 1930s, bisexual, and a British spy in WWI.  A collection of short stories based on his experiences as a spy had supposedly influenced Ian Fleming's James Bond series.  We definitely had a long and lively discussion today, which makes me very happy.

This is an example of a situation where I, as facilitator, put on our list a favourite book of mine, with the expectation, or hope, that everyone will love it.  But then the worries begin.  What if they don't love it?  What if they don't even like it?  This has only happened once, where most of the group did not like the book that is one of my favourites.  That was hard to bear, and I found myself initially defending the book, but then I had to let go and allow that everyone experiences a book differently, and that just because I thought it was brilliant, not everyone else would share my opinion.  So I let it go.  If you recommend a book to someone, you have to be prepared to accept his or her response to it, and this is especially true in a book club setting.  As long as it generates good discussion, whether the members like it or not, it is a good selection.

That's all for tonight.

Bye for now!

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Tea and books on a Wednesday morning...

I've been on a quest for a suitable "feel-good" book selection for my book group in the past week or so, and I have to say it's been a real challenge.  I receive the e-newsletters from Abebooks, and about 6 weeks ago they sent one wiith a list of 25 "feel-good" book titles, which I brought to my book club meeting in answer to one of my member's questions regarding feel-good books for her friend.  These titles seemed like a hit, so I thought I could start with this list to find a selection for my group.  I bought a copy of Bridget Jones' Diary from a second-hand bookstore and started to read it, but it just didn't seem suitable for my group, and I'll admit it did nothing for me, either.  So that's off the list.  I checked the library catalogue for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, but there were not enough copies of that title for my group, so that's off the list.  Then last week while I was out on an errand, I stopped in at another second-hand bookstore to see if the staff person could recommend any titles.  I figured that, while I don't read many feel-good books, others certainly do and so I would seek help from someone else.  While the staff person did not have many titles to suggest personally, I got a few ideas just seeing what was on the shelves there.  I think that our August selection will be The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.  I read this title many years ago, and I think the stories of the mothers and daughters presented in this novel, while complex and sometimes melancholy, are generally hopeful and empowering.  And there are plenty of copies available at libraries and used bookstores, so it will be easy to get a copy of the novel in time for the meeting.  (I can't say that about The Razor's Edge, our July selection, as there seems to be a shortage of available copies.  I hope everyone can get a copy in time to read it.)

My quest for "feel-good" titles, and my lack of personal reference for these types of books, leads me to determine that I read mostly serious or "depressing" books.  I don't think of them as depressing, but some may refer to them that way.  Abebooks just sent another e-newsletter, this time with a list of "More Bleak Books", a follow-up to their original list of "10 Bleak Books" that was created and sent out about a year ago.  According to the newsletter, this list was so popular, with comments that these books weren't bleak enough, that they created this new, updated list.  The first book on the original list, which is our September book club selection, is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (uh-oh!!).  I'll admit that I was more intrigued by this list and the original list than the list of feel-good titles.  I've even read many of the titles on the lists (see link and found them to be worthwhile reads.  Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, the first on the new list, is certainly depressing, but it's also uplifting because, as you're reading it and wondering if and how the main character is going to survive, you realize that he does in fact survive because he's writing the book!  So there's almost always hope, even in the bleakest stories.

Speaking of bleak stories, I'm listening to Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman, and it's certainly bleak.  Set in Germany in 1932-33, it tells the story of a detective on the hunt for a murderer who appears to also be involved in bizarre surgical experimentation, and who may or may not be a Nazi.  The story is strange and disturbing enough, but set against the backdrop of Germany in the early 1930s, as Hitler and the Nazi's rise to inevitable power, this listener cringes every time the characters, the "good guys", make comments like, "When this Nazi madness blows over..." or "The Nazi party finally seems to be losing power...", because I know that not only will it not pass, but this is just the beginning.  When various characters tell the main character, Kraus, who is a famous Jewish detective, to leave the country, I want to tell him to take their advice and get out while he still can.  But he continues to make excuses and is convinced it will all pass once the people see what Hitler and the Nazis really represent.  "Run, Kraus, run!!"  I'm nearly finished listening to it, and as I read reviews of the book the other day, I was surprised to find out that this is the author's first novel, which is impressive.  Yes, it has some cliched characters and scenarios, but the detailed descriptions of the pre-WWII German settings, both physical and psychological, work really well, at least for this reader.  I would definitely recommend it, but not for the faint of heart or other readers who prefer "feel-good" stories.  (Believe it or not, I'm really a very happy, cheerful, positive person!)

Bye for now!

PS A note about my tea this morning... I usually make a thermos of chai tea using loose tea and adding lots of warm milk to the mug before straining in the steeped tea.  This morning I used my milk frother to froth up the warm milk before adding the tea, which I do occasionally, but what was different this morning was that I added a piece of cinnamon stick and some whole cloves to the loose tea in my thermos for steeping.  I must say, my tea today is particularly delicious, and it even looks fancy!  YUM!

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Tuesday evening post...

I'm not sure why I decided to post tonight instead of tomorrow morning, but sometimes change is good.

I finished reading A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George on Monday.  I've watched all the Inspector Lynley episodes on DVD from the library, and have really enjoyed them.  I've also listened to at least one of George's novels, Careless in Red, as a downloaded audiobook.  I may have even read one of her novels in the past, although I don't think it was this one.  I have to say, when I first found out that she was not British, but was born and raised in America and currently lives in California, I nearly fell off my chair.  And now, having read her first novel in the Inspector Lynley series (and her first novel ever), written in 1988, I must say, she's "more British than the Brits", to use a well-worn phrase.  I've read a number of British mystery writers, such as Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, Ian Rankin (oops, he's Scottish!) and Mark Billlingham, and I think Elizabeth George portrays the British people and the British lifestyle convincingly in her novels (at least they are convincing to this non-British reader).  I enjoyed her over-the-top portrayal of the American tourists in A Great Deliverance, Hank and Jo Jo (I can't recall their surname), I think they're from Texas.  They are funny and stereotypical, but they offer some comic relief in an otherwise dark novel that is filled with tension and explores disturbing themes.  I will definitely read the next one in the series, Payment in Blood, if I can get my hands on a copy.  I think I may undertake to collect them all in paperback and read them in order, which is what I finally did with Peter Robinson's mysteries.  George has 16 in this series so far, with another expected out sometime next year.   

I'd love to one day write about the differences between British mysteries and American mysteries (and they are definitely different!), but I'm not prepared for that type of exploration and comparison tonight.  For now, I'll sign off with a recommendation:  if you're planning to start reading a mystery series that's new for you, start with the first one in the series, just to get the context.  After that, you could probably safely skip around a bit if you don't want to read them all in order, but be prepared then to encounter characters that you may not be familiar with.  Best case scenario, you'd read them in order, which is generally the way they were written and so they portray the characters and any character development in the way it occurred in the author's mind.

Bye for now!