Sunday 29 July 2012

Book talk on a Sunday afternoon...

On a lazy sunny summer Sunday afternoon, I want to take some time to look back on my week's reading experiences.  I've read, listened to, discussed and recommended a number of books since my last post.

First, I read A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen, an author who lives in Winnipeg.  This is her first novel, and tells the story of a woman, Janet, who is in her early 40s, an English professor with a toddler and a loving husband.  Her relationship is good, her job is uneventful, and she loves her child, yet she has doubts and second thoughts about her life, which she expresses in a most delightful way.  There is really no story to this novel, but her musings on her life made me chuckle and nod my head while simultaneously cheering her on and hoping she gets through her "motherhood" and "wife" crises.  Her husband is trying to lose weight so he suggests to Janet, or Janey, that she use the names of vegetables as pet names for him.  Throughout the novel, she refers to her husband as parsnip or radish, among other root vegetables.  Their friend, Jam, and his potential love story give the reader an opportunity to wonder what will happen next, while still maintaining interest in Janey's life experiences.  It was not a laugh-out-loud novel, but it was delightful and heartfelt.  I not only liked Janey's character, I completely identified with her - well,except the "toddler" part, but even that was not praised or idealized or even outright mocked, as in some novels about the motherhood experience.  It was just a humourous and realistic representation of an average woman's life as she faces various life situations.  It may be a bit religious for some, as God, and Janey's references to Him, make up a significant portion of the novel. Having had a semi-religious upbringing, not only was I not disturbed by this aspect, but it was yet another way for me to identify with the character.  I think I especially liked this book because the main character is telling the reader that most times, life just doesn't live up to our expectations, and that the actual experience is nothing like the experiences we read about in books; that life is sometimes "boring", but it's really like that for everyone.  Maybe no one really "fits in", even though some may appear to have it all "together".  I may have just found a new "favourite" Canadian novel, and I anxiously await Sorensen's next book.

My new book group met on Thursday and discussed Saturday by Ian McEwan, which detailed the experiences of a successful neurosurgeon in London on Saturday, one of his days off.  Of the five of us, only one other member besides me loved the novel at the beginning of the discussion (our newest member did not have a chance to finish it by the time of the meeting).  The other two members were unsure how they felt about it, but no one said they disliked it, which I appreciated, since I selected it.  By the end of the discussion, though, I suspect the two who were unsure about it felt differently, or at least had a better appreciation for the novel, the language, the characters and the author.  That often happens when there is a book discussion:  a reader has an opportunity to hear how another reader responded to the book, and it is often very different from one's personal experience.  In this case, the other person who loved the book felt very much as I did about it, that it looked at the interconnectedness of individuals in society, that it looked at personal experiences and ways in which our lives affect others, that it dealt with family and the relationships different family members have with others.  She also said that she felt McEwan was giving her a glimpse into the thoughts of a 21st century man as he experiences mid-life in a large urban centre (I'm paraphrasing, but something like that).  If you recall, I mentioned earlier that this novel was very slow, and that not much happens even by the end of the book, but that it is very much a novel of self-awareness for the main character, Henry Perowne.  It is interesting that only  the two of us who enjoyed this novel have read others by McEwan, and I wonder if that has something to do with our responses.  I suppose we were not surprised by the "lack of plot" because we knew this was a common occurrence in his novels, and that it would all be worth it in the end, as it always is.  Preconceived notions of how a book will be can affect a reader's response in various ways.  I'm sure we've all had situations when a book was so highly recommended to us that we absolutely had to read it, and yet our response to the book fell far short of our expectation.  I wonder if that is why I don't really like to get book recommendations from others, but would rather choose books based on my own various book selection methods.

I'm listening to a book by Rose Connors, Absolute Certainty, a courtroom drama/mystery about a possible wrongful conviction of a murderer in a small town near Boston.  This book is part of a series featuring Martha Nickerson, an assistant distict attorney.  I've listened to one other book in the series some time ago (can't recall the title).  It's OK, not thrilling, not so suspenseful as Defending Jacob, but it will do for now.

And we had a family BBQ at our place this weekend, so various family members were asking me for book recommendations.  I recommended Saturday to one member who I felt would appreciate the introspective nature of this book.  I recommended Chai Tea Sunday to another member who I felt would enjoy reading a book about one women's experiences dealing with and overcoming challenges in her life.  I also recommended The Daughters Who Walk This Path and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to this same family member, as I felt that these book might suit her reading needs at this time.  I hope she enjoys at least one of these titles.

I've run out of books to discuss, so I'll close for today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 22 July 2012

Sunday morning tea and booktalk...

I'm sitting in my cool house on this hot day (I love air conditioning!) with my cup of chai tea and thinking about what I will write today.  I have a couple of books to talk about, but I think this will be a short post.
I finished reading Saturday by Ian McEwan last night.  That is the book I selected for our book group to talk about on Thursday evening.  I mentioned last time that the main character is Henry, a successful neurosurgeon who, after witnessing a plane make an emergency landing early on a Saturday morning, contemplates the state of the world post-9/11.  It takes place during a 24-hour period on a Saturday, when a seemingly insignificant occurrance leads to a chain of more serious and unexpected events. I selected this title mainly becuase I have read many of his other books and really enjoy his writing.  This was a title I had not yet read, but I had recently picked up a copy from a flea market and was looking forward to reading it.  I have to admit that I don't think it's one of his best works.  That is not to say that it's not a good read, and maybe my opinion will change once I've had more time to think about it, as I finished it around 10pm last night.  I find that is the case with some of his books, that appreciation for them increases the more I think about them.  So, since I am the one who selected this book, I need to come to our meeting with some information about the author and/or the book, as well as a few questions, in case our discussion gets stalled.  I was thinking about this question last night, and actually throughout the reading of the book -  what is this book really about?  I think it is about many things.  Most obviously, it is about political responsibilities of idividuals and governments.  It is about individuals taking responsibility for their actions as they impact others, those close to them as well as those in society whom they may not know but who may be affected by their actions.  Conversely, it is also about the impossibility of knowing how your actions may impact others, especially, of course, those you do not know.  It is about the responsibilities those in the medical profession have towards their patients.  It is also about the generation gap, the contrast between the attitudes of the young and the not-so-young, the "mellowing", perhaps, that comes with age and experience.  It also highlights the the ways in which we can make a difference in people's lives directly as individuals through our personal choices, as opposed to taking part in a faceless demonstration to make a change on a larger scale, in this case the demonstration to stop the war in Iraq.  I think it is about the uncertainty of outcomes that exist in people's lives, and how, no matter what we do and how much we consider the outcomes of our actions, we can never know what will happen in any given situation.  We are all connected in society, and the outcome of one person's actions is related to the unknown responses of others to these actions.  I guess what I'm saying is that this book is about the human condition, which McEwan often explores in his novels, but in different ways and settings.  Other examples of this exploration in his works includes Atonement, about the outcomes a young girl's accusations have on the members of her household, both her family members and those in her family's employ.  On Chesil Beach is another book that deals with the outcomes of seemingly inconsequential actions by newlyweds on their honeymoon in the early 1960s.  Enduring Love explores the outcomes of a man's chance encounter with a stranger while witnessing a terrible accident.  He has written many other fabulous (in this reader's mind, anyways!) novels and I highly recommend just about anything he's written.  Be warned, though, that his later novels are a bit on the slow side but they are generally excellent and well worth the patience it may take to get past the slow beginnings.  I've been a fan of McEwan's since the 1990's when I read The Comfort of Strangers, a bizarre story of love and obsession that takes place in Venice - his early books, while generally much shorter than his later works, are also a bit strange, but very interesting.  I'm looking forward to our discussion on Thursday evening.

I also finished listening to Defending Jacob on Thursday.  It was fabulous!  I don't usually try to guess the outcome of mystery-dramas, don't usually try do guess whodunnit or whether the person in question is really guilty or innocent, and how this will be proven, but this one had me in suspense to the very end.  It was brilliantly written and compelling to the last... I was going to say "page", but since it was an audiobook, I guess I could say, compelling to the last "word".  I checked to see if there were any other books by William Landay available as audiobooks through the library, but there were no other titles available.  He does, however, have two other novels, The Strangler and Mission Flats - I may have to check to library catalogue for these titles in print.  I would definitely recommend Defending Jacob.

I was trying to decide on my next audiobook, and started listening to a few titles I had downloaded, but none of the titles I had available appealed to me, so I had to check out a few more titles and download them from the library.  I love the free access the library provides, as you really can't know about an audiobook until you download it and listen to it.  I'm sure I dislike and delete as many books as I listen to, so if I had to buy all of these titles, I'd probably be a very discouraged listener.  I now have a few Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie titles downloaded, as well as some random titles by authors I know nothing about but which sounded mildly interesting.  I started listening to Rendell's Babes in the Wood yesterday, but only had a chance to listen to the prologue so far. 

Summer really is busier than fall and winter, so I can understand why people often choose to read "light" or fast-paced books during this time, as it's difficult to find enough time to devote to a "serious" novel.  I have to choose something to read over the next few weeks, as it is far too early to start reading my next book club choice - we won't be meeting until August 11th.  I have a few books in mind (none of them light!), and will have to make a decision to start one today.  Hmmm... another Ian McEwan (I have an advanced reading copy of his newest book, Sweet Tooth, a novel of espionage and desire), or something by a new author (new to me, at least)?  I'll let you know next time.

Bye for now!

Saturday 14 July 2012

Saturday afternoon tea and book talk...

This is strange, writing a post on a Saturday afternoon.  But it's hot outside, it's cool in the house, and my husband is out for a while doing some errands so I've got the place to myself for a few hours.  I just had a sudden urge to write about the fabulous books I've been reading and listening to since my last post.

After the book club discussion last weekend, I started to read a book that, from the description on the back cover, I thought sounded incredibly depressing and too dark for me to read.  I put the book on reserve at the library because I had ordered it for the fiction collection of one of the libraries for which I select materials, and thought it sounded interesting.  The book is The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, a Dutch author who has won the IMPAC literary award.  It tells the story of a Dutch woman who moves to an isolated farmhouse in Wales.  She calls herself Emilie and has run away from her husband in Rotterdam, for some inexplicable reason.  There are geese on the farm, and they seem to disappear on a regular basis.  There are sheep that suddenly appear to graze, and a questionable landlord whose visits are not necessarily welcome.  A young man shows up and stays on at the farm, and a curious relationship develops.  All the while, the husband is trying to find his errant wife and bring her home before New Years.  Does this sound like a strange, dark plot to you?  I was thinking that this would be a novel better suited to the introspective reading months of November or February, not the light, airy month of July, but I picked it up nonetheless and couldn't put it down.  The language was sparse and there was little description that wasn't absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the setting.  It was really about a woman who is getting in touch with herself and coming to terms with her physical situation.  Information about Emilie is meted out to the reader slowly, and we, or at least this reader, is left with some unanswered questions at the end.  But it was fabulous!  It reminded me in some ways of Bear by Marian Engel, a novel that also features a woman who goes to a remote location to discover herself.  Bear is one of my favourite books, and I could see quite a few similarities, but also many differences, between these two novels.  So I would definitely recommend this novel, but be prepared for a slow, dark exploration into the self, and maybe leave it until the fall or winter - it's pretty dark, and it takes place during the few weeks before and after Christmas (but don't read it at Christmas-time - not uplifting enough for that!!).  I'm looking forward to reading his first novel, The Twin, the novel for which he won the IMPAC award.

The audiobook I'm listening to now is Defending Jacob which is excellent as well, but in a different way than The Detour.  I think I mentioned that the main characters are named Lori and Andy, which I was finding a bit confusing since I'd listened to several audiobooks recently that featured characters with these names, all narrated by the same person.  Well, I'm over that confusion now, and I can't wait to get tot the end, but yet I want it to keep on going.  It is the story of a father whose son is on trial for the murder of a classmate, a 14-year-old boy who was found stabbed in the park as he made his way to school one morning.  All the evidence points to Jacob, but the father refuses to believe in his guilt.  I'm so anxious to find out if Jacob is guilty or innocent that, if this was a physical book, I'd probably skip to the end to read the last few pages.  As it is an audiobook, I can't do that, which is probably a good thing, since it has never been my habit to read the end of a book before I catually get to it.  Anyways, I don't know anything about the author, William Landay, but I will definitely check out more of his novels, if there are any others, after finishing this one.  It's so suspenseful that I almost want to listen to it to get ahead even at times when I don't normally listen to an audiobook - that is usually reserved for the time I spend getting home from work or time spent walking to or from a destination.  I guess I'll just have to be patient.  Another strong recommendation for this title.

And I've started reading the next book for my new book club, which meets on July 26th.  We will be discussing Saturday by Ian McEwan, and this was my selection.  I really enjoy his novels, and I think I've read all of his adult titles except Solar and this one.  Remember, he wrote Atonement, the novel on which the film was based.  Like Atonement, this novel is starting out slowly, and really describes the inner psyche of the main character, his thoughts and feelings about his home life, his family, his work, as well as his attitudes towards society, politics and the state of the world.  It is very introspective, much like The Detour.  The main character, Henry, a successful neurosurgeon, wakes up at 3am one Saturday morning and goes to the window, where he sees what he originally thinks is a comet, but which turns out to be a plane whose engine has caught fire.  This has made him consider the state of the world post-9/11, as he does not know that this emergency landing has not caused any deaths.  I've only read up to the point where he is beginning his day in earnest, and I believe that there will be a situation that occurs which will set off a chain of events that will deeply affect Henry's life views.  Hmmm, clearly not for me are fast-paced, action-packed thrillers or light reads that are typical "summer" fare!!

But our next book club selection, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Jenzen, is supposed to be light and funny.  In fact, I just picked up a copy from the library today and on the inside cover, it says  "A hilarious and moving memoir about a woman who returns home to her close-knit mennonite family after a personal crisis", and every review on the front and back covers, from fellow writers or reviewers, uses the word "funny" at least once.  So that should be uplifting after I finish McEwan's novel.

That's all for today.  Happy Saturday!!

Bye for now!

Sunday 8 July 2012

Short post on a hot day...

Good Sunday morning to you!  As I sit with my cup of chai on this hot Sunday morning, I'm trying out my new computer, which is much bigger than the little Netbook that I have used for previous posts.  It will take some getting used to in terms of size and keyboard spacing, but the screen is bigger, brighter, and clearer, which is fabulous.

My book group met yesterday to discuss The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  This Young Adult novel tells the story, from the point of view of Death, of Liesel, a young girl in Germany during World War II who is relocated to a foster family, and relates her experiences from age nine to thirteen.  During her relocation, her brother dies on the train and she finds a book in the snow at her brother's funeral which she steals.  Her foster father teaches her to read, and from that point on, she finds comfort and solace in reading, but also stealing, books.  The novel deals with much more than just her experiences, though, since the narrator is Death, and so sees beyond just that one character.  We get the experiences of the foster parents, the various townspeople, and the perspective of battle throughout Europe as it pertains to the work Death has to do.  Most of the book club members had similar issues with the book as I had.  We felt that the choppiness of the text, the way it was written in short blurbs that included commentary from the narrator, descriptions, lists, and other types of information, was disruptive and distracting for the reader (we prefer traditional writing and story-telling methods).  We also felt that the use of language in "creative " ways was excessive - some of his descriptions were "over the top", and this type of language was used regularly throughout the novel.  We felt that it was perhaps over-long, that maybe if it was shorter it would have appealed a bit more.  I admitted that, while it was a long book, I was able to get through a large number of pages in a short period of time.  I had set myself a schedule of 120 pages per day to be finished in time for the meeting, and I exceeded this schedule every day without really trying.  In the end, we agreed that it was a worthwhile read, and that it would likely appeal to older teens perhaps more than adults, but was possibly too "heavy" for young teens to read and appreciate.  One of my book club members, though, loved it.  She thought it all worked well together, both language and style, and that it was not too long.  She thought that using Death as the narrator was interesting, and that by doing so the author "humanized" Death a bit for the reader, and made us realize that death is not something to be frightened of, but that he's just "doing his job".  It was definitely an interesting discussion, and there was so much more we could have touched on - in fact, we didn't even look at the discussion questions that were provided in the back of the book.  Only one member had read this book on her own before this meeting, and so to prepare for our discussion she reread the first 150 pages, then decided that she would listen to the audiobook for the remainder, which worked best for her. All the others agreed that they wouldn't have chosen this title if it wasn't on our list.  So I think that signifies a successful book selection, even if most people didn't "like" the book.

I haven't had the opportunity to start another book yet.  Well, not true; I started a book that was recommended highly, but it's not grabbing me, so I will put it away for another time perhaps, and will choose something else to read for this afternoon, as I sit in cool comfort in my air-conditioned house.

Bye for now!

Sunday 1 July 2012

Tea and book talk on Canada Day...

Happy Canada Day!  I just sat down with a cup of chai tea and am thinking about the books I finished this past week. 

This weekend always seems to symbolize the real beginning of summer for me; school is done for just about everyone, there will likely be consistently hot weather, many people take vacations, so the end of June seems to be a kind of ending for me, end of this part of the year, or the spring season.  I mention this because on Thursday last week, June 28th, I finished three books, which seemed appropriate, for the reasons menioned above.  I had these three books on the go simultaneously and finished them all in the same evening.  The first was Strange Affair by Peter Robinson.  I brought that to work to read on my lunch each day, and since I take a short lunch, there is not much reading time.  It wasn't worth dragging my "at home" book to work with me each day, so I chose a novel that I was familiar enough with that I could just read short sections at a time and still maintain the thread of the plot.  Of course it was excellent, but I've been reading it over the past few months, so I was glad to finally reach the end.  The next was my audiobook, Shades of Blue, by Bill Moody.  That one didn't take me as long to get through, but I was ready to get to the end of that one, too - it usually takes me about a month to finish an audiobook.  And when I got home, I finished Ruth Rendell's End in Tears, which I started last weekend.  I made a comment in my last post about needing something "light" to read and so chose a Rendell mystery.  I want to clarify.  Rendell's writing is not "light" at all.  She is an excellent writer and uses just the right expressions to capture a situation perfectly.  These situations are often dark, such as her description of the homes of elderly people.  She writes, "Their eyes are no longer able to see the dirt and untidiness... The curtains in their windows...once pristine white, collect dust and hang limp inside fly-spotted windows that are seldom opened, if by now they can be, for the elderly feel the cold.  Mostly, too,they are poor and often proud so that their relatives think this is their chosen way to live, not what it really is, a precarious hanging on to life at whatever cost."  These insightful passages appear throughout this novel, making the word "light" rather inappropriate.  I guess because it is a mystery I referred to it as "light" because books in a mystery series don't usually deal with serious issues at such great lengths as to make the reader think deeply about these issues.  Having said that, the Robinson novel I just finished dealts with human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, a rather serious issue.  I guess I mean the focus is usually more on the investigation of the crime and arrest of the perpetrators rather than the issue itself.  Sometimes the main characters, usually the detectives, are light-hearted or behave in humourous, off-handed ways, giving the mystery a light-hearted tone.  I believe Janet Evanovich is a writer who uses humour and wit to give her novels a light-hearted tone.  I usually prefer mysteries that have this darker, more serious tone.  I think I really meant that the book was a paperback, and so was literally "light", in that it didn't weigh much.

So there was this coincidence of completing three novels at the end of the month which symbolizes for me the end of the "serious" part of the year.  On Friday I began a new audiobook, Defending Jacob by William Landay, which I chose because it is narrated by Grover Gardner.  It also must have sounded interesting to me, although I didn't know exactly what it was about before starting it.  Anyways, the main character is an assistant district attorney named Andy, who has a wife named Lori.  This audiobook is narrated by Grover Gardner.  The last book I listened to was narrated by Gardner and, while the main character's name was Evan Horne, his girlfriend's name was Andie and she was an FBI agent.  The audiobook I listened to just before the Evan Horne book was also narrated by Gardner, and the main character was named Andy, an independently wealthy lawyer, whose girlfriend, a chief of police, was named Lori.  This is just too many Andy's/Andie's and Lori's for me to dismiss lightly.  And because they are all narrated by the same person, the names all sound the same, same inflection and pronunciation.  So it's a bit weird, and I'm having a challenge keeping the stories straight, especially the Andy-and-Lori couples, but I will plug away with this audiobook anyways.  I just started listening to it, but it seems to be about a man who is involved in the investigation of the murder of a boy who went to school with his son Jacob, and the ways in which Jacob may have been involved in the murder. 

I seem to be drawn in by these mystery-dramas, and I wonder why.  I never try to solve the mystery or figure out whodunnit.  I guess I like to read these types of books because they are so different from anything I am likely to encounter in my own life that they are an "escape" of sorts, though usually of a dark and murderous kind.  I really enjoy watching mystery series as well, usually British mysteries, but also the American series "Criminal Minds".  Yes, I'll admit it, it's my guilty secret.  In an ideal world, where free time was unlimited and responsibilities few, I would spend many an afternoon watching back-to-back "Criminal Minds" reruns.  Good thing I have responsibilities and free time is not unlimited!!   

As it is, while I would love to indulge myself in the television activity described above, I have to get reading my next book club selection, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, as we are meeting next Saturday.  Oh my, I just started it yesterday and it is long.  Not only is it long (over 500 pages), but it is written in a rather disjointed way, with short little blurbs that are descriptions and commentary about a young girl, Leisel (the "book thief" of the title), who is gone to stay with a foster family during WWII, told from the point of view of Death.  And it is a book written for teens.  Each of these factors alone would make this book a challenge for me to finish in time for the meeting, but with all of them together in one novel, I'm despairing even before I start!  Having said that, I've heard many adults rave about this novel, and I believe it was published at least three years ago yet it is still extremely popular, at least at the library, as there are rarely any copies available on the shelf (I found a copy in a used book store, which was fortunate).  I will plug away at this novel over next couple of days, and hope that I, too, get caught up in the story.

I think that's all for now.  I need to get reading - I think I will take a chair out on the porch and take advantage of the breeze to enjoy this lovely, not-too-humid holiday weather.

Bye for now!