Wednesday 26 October 2011

Book thoughts on a rainy Wednesday morning...

Rainy days are the perfect days to write about books, don't you think?  There's something about the rain that makes us more thoughtful and encourages us to curl up in a comfortable chair with a hot cup of tea and spend the hours reading a good book, particularly if it's atmospheric, maybe even gothic (maybe you can tell I'm thinking specifically of the works of the Bronte sisters, particularly Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights).  Alas, I'm not going to settle down to Heathcliff and Catherine once I finish this post, but to either The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock, which is my next book club selection, or The Grifters by Jim Thompson, which I have recently checked out from the library.

I want to discuss three books today, The Devil's Feather by Minette Walters, Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George, and Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre.  I finished listening to the Minette Walters audiobook while on vacation, and I was not surprised at the quality of the writing or the complexity of the story, characters, plot, etc.  She rarely disappoints in any of these areas.  I did, however, feel that the ending was rather abrupt for this novel, like there should have been more to flesh out the conclusion.  Since I was listening to it as an audiobook, I wondered if I had somehow missed a section, but I don't think that happened.  Maybe I'll find a copy of the physical book and skim the last few chapters to make sure.  Anyways, still a worthwhile read, even if the conclusion is a little brief.

I also finished reading Well-Schooled in Murder while on vacation.  It was pretty good, very complex plot and characters.  In this book, everyone seemed to have some guilty secret they didn't want anyone to find out about!  Interesting characters, love the descriptions of the settings in her novels.  From the windswept cliffs of the Isle of Skye to the deserted country cemeteries and the claustrophobic rooms of boarding schools, George describes it all with detail and skill.  She also writes convincingly of the class distinctions in British society.  While she is not my favourite British mystery writer (not even British!), she's definitely interesting enough to keep me reading her books.  Here's something a bit curious: I started the fourth book in the series, A Suitable Vengeance and found that it presents the characters in their situations prior to the very first book in the series; that is, Tommy and Deborah are getting engaged in the fourth book, but if I remember correctly, in the first book on the series, A Great Deliverance, Simon and Deborah get married and are on their honeymoon when the murder investigation begins.  The relationships between Deborah, Simon, Tommy and Helen play a significant role in the storylines of these novels, so I'm not sure why the author chose to write the novels seemingly "out of order".  Ah well, at least when I read the fourth novel, I'll finally figure out all the references to past relationships that are made in the first three books.

And finally, on to Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre, which I finished last night.  I haven't read many novels by le Carre.  I tried to read An Honourable Schoolboy a number of years ago, but felt lost right from the first because I didn't understand any of the lingo or jargon the author used, probably because it was political and referred to a whole world I knew nothing about, that being the world of British espionage in the 1960s and 1970s.  Ever since then, I've wanted to be able to read and appreciate this author's works, because, although I didn't read much of that first novel, I knew that it was extremely well-written, and that this was an author with great talent and skill.  Since that time, I've discovered the TV series "MI-5" or "Spooks", which has helped me tremendously in understanding the workings of the British Intelligence.   In the past few years, I've watched the film "The Constant Gardener", and then read the book, which was really well-written and interesting.  And I could understand the story because it dealt with contemporary issues, as opposed to the autor's earlier, and probably most famous, George Smiley novels.  I wanted to read more, so when I came across this paperback at the library, I decided to check it out.  With a bit of research, I found out that Our Kind of Traitor is his most recently published novel (2010), and that he celebrated his 80th birthday last week.  I believe that the film "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley is due to be released in December (I didn't know that before I started reading this novel, but now I feel so current!!).  So the novel was extremely accessible for me, who knows nothing about international politics.  I think having been exposed to "MI-5" helped with my understanding, but that I would have done alright without that exposure.  All of characters were interesting and well-drawn, especially Luke, Perry and Dima.  Their relationships with each other were intricate and evolved as the novel progressed.  There were many suspenseful situations where anything could happen, but there were also times where nothing happened, where the author writes of the mundane, but necessary, details when organizing and executing the type of escape plan that is central to the novel.  He doesn't make spy work sexy or alluring, but suggests that the reality is much more dangerous and ethically challenging than, say, Ian Fleming (to be honest, I've never read a James Bond novel, just seen the movies, so I'm making assumptions here).  According to a quote on the cover of the book, someone from the Globe and Mail states, "'Let me be specific:  I think the man deserves the Nobel'".  I would agree.

Oh my, I'm running out of time, so I better close.  In short, I would recommend all of the books I mentioned in this post.

Bye for now!

Monday 17 October 2011

Monday morning book thoughts...

I think this will be a brief post, but I wanted to talk about the book group's discussion of The Bell Jar before I forgot what we said.  I may post again later in the week with other book thoughts.

I had nearly a full house on Saturday to discuss The Bell Jar, which was a positive sign in itself.  We caught up on a few housekeeping details then launched into the discussion of the book.  Most of the book club members thought that it was depressing to read this and to know that the author, Plath, really did make several unsuccessful attempts to commit suicide and one final attempt that was successful, but that the book itself ended on a hopeful note.  Some had read the book before, but not all, so this was a new reading experience for some members.  We then talked about depression, and the prevalence of this mental health condition among women, particularly among teens and young adults, and what types of responses people suffering this condition have been and are still met with.  In the book, the main character, Esther Greenwood, experiences signs and symptoms of what we would now recognize as clinical depression as a young woman.  She is treated by electro-shock therapy which is done incorrectly by her first psychiatrist.  Her situation does not seem to be taken seriously by her mother, who comments to Esther that "I knew you'd decide to be alright again", and later by her friend Joan, who may or may not be a real character in the book. When she goes on to attempt suicide, she is transferred to a psychiatric hospital where she undergoes shock treatments again, but these are done correctly and explained to her by her new psychiatrist. These treatments are effective in alleviating Esther's symptoms, as she feels the "bell jar" lifting and hanging slightly above her, instead of trapping her in her own "sour air" as was her previous perception.  This is really a novel of its time, exploring the changing roles and expectations of women in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the misconceptions and stigma that surround mental health issues then and now.  Despite the fact that we were discussing a book that made it to the list of the Top Ten Bleakest Books according to AbeBooks (see link at right sidebar), I was surprised at how much laughter accompanied our discussion, particularly when discussing Buddy and his desire to show Esther his "equipment" and her response to this display (which may cause depression in men - just kidding!!).  I was pleasantly surprised by the response to the book, and the varied topics that arose in our discussion.  I give credit to my group members for being so open-minded and willing to read and discuss books that they may not have necessarily chosen to read on their own. 

I think I'll close for now, as I'm running out of time, but I wanted to be sure to encourage any who are shying away from reading The Bell Jar for fear that it is too depressing to go ahead and read it!  It's an interesting read and ends in a way that gives the reader hope for the main character.

Bye for now!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Wednesday morning tea and books...

I take back what I said about the Minette Walters' audiobook - it is not too graphic at all, but extremely complex in plot and character.  She's an author whose books I can easily reread, as they are so complex, I have a hard time keeping track of the details and so rereading is never a problem.

Oh, I forgot to comment on the weather and my tea in my haste to correct the misrepresentation I offered about the audiobook.  Well, it's extremely bright in here today, the sun is shining through my side window right in my eye (I think I'll have to move!).  There, that's a bit better.  I love this time of year, when the leaves are changing colour and there is a nip in the air, you can put away your summer clothes and switch over to a whole "new" wardrobe of cool-weather clothing, and it's completely OK to wear black, brown and gray on a regular basis.  This time of year always makes me think of new beginnings, or starting a-fresh, which is strange since really nature is dying off and going into hibernation in the autumn.  I guess I'll always associate this time of year with going back to school, and since this is the first time in four years that I'm not taking a course or two, it's a good time for me to start a new project or "get organized".  I feel so energized by the cool weather, unlike the languor I experience in the humidity of the summer.

Oh boy, I think that's enough about the weather!  You can probably tell I feel strongly about this!  Anyway, I finished The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison last night and I must say I was rather disappointed.  It started off interestingly enough, with a late-summer weekend get-together of two couples who have clearly complex relationships amongst themselves and with each other.  The narrator seems a bit dodgy at first, but over the course of the weekend, his delusions spin out of control and he causes no end of grief for all those in attendance at the get-together.  Throughout the time I spent reading this novel, I was trying to recall which novel it reminded me of, and it finally came to me as I was finishing it up last night - Amsterdam by Ian McEwan.  The rivalries between the two main characters in Morrison's novel, Ian and Ollie, are very similar to those of the characters in McEwan's novel, both situations dealing with competition in school, careers and women, or more specifically, one woman.  I found McEwan's novel to be more interesting and engaging, but I wonder now if I would have enjoyed Morrison's novel more if I hadn't always had that niggling feeling in the back of my thoughts that I'd "read this before".  This is an example of one's "reading history", which I'd explored in past posts, and how each of our reading experiences is influenced by those books we've read before.  We can never "un-read" a book, and even if we don't recall all the details, usually something of a book sticks with us (well, I've experienced some books that were so "bad" as to be totally unmemorable, but I don't often read books like that - I like my books to "mean" something to me).   So would I have enjoyed it more if I'd never read McEwan's novel?  I'll never know.  Having said that, I enjoyed Morrison's writing style, so I will try reading And When Did You Last See Your Father?.  I saw the film version of this memoir that presents the writer's conflicting memories of his father and his attempts to find resolution to their problematic relationship as he helps care for him in his childhood home during his father's final days.  I don't often read memoirs, so I have no idea if I will enjoy it or not, but I won't know unless I give it a try.

I will be away on vacation next week, so I'm not sure when I will write my next post.  Probably not until after my next book club meeting, which will be on October 15th.  We will be discussing Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and I'm so curious about the response my book club members will have to the novel.  Some members expressed their reluctance to read this, so the discussion should be interesting.  I haven't read it for a number of years, so I hope I'll find it as interesting and well-written as I remember.

That's all for today.

Bye for now!