Sunday 30 December 2012

Last post for 2012

This week has been a better reading week for me than last week, and so I want to write about the book I finished yesterday.  I also want to give you my Top 10 (+1) Reads of 2012.

I just finished reading White Heat by M J McGrath, a novel of mystery set in the far north of Canada, on Ellesmere Island, and Greenland.  Edie Kiglatuk is a teacher and hunting guide in Nunavut, where she has given up drink and wants her stepson, Joe, to complete his nursing training so he can have a good life in the community where he grew up.  When one of the men on her latest hunting expedition is shot, the event is dismissed as an accident, although Edie is not happy with that conclusion.  When, some time later, the other man from that first expedition goes missing, she begins to suspect that there is a connection, and that this is a situation that is much bigger than a couple of small-time hunting expeditions gone wrong.  She proceeds to conduct her own investigation into the matter, with surprising results.  This novel has been compared to Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and I can certainly see the similarities.  Hoeg’s book takes place in I think Norway, and Smilla is a descendent of the natives of Greenland.  Edie is also half-Inuit and half “qalunaat” (white), and of course the setting is similar to Hoeg’s book.  Both Smilla and Edie are amazing in their resourcefulness and insight, and they are determined to uncover the truth no matter how much or in what ways their investigations are blocked by various parties.  Smilla’s story is much “sexier” and the characters perhaps more likeable, but Edie and her group are more believable, at least to this reader.  I also felt that I learned something about the Inuit culture and a bit of their history, including the shameful ways that they have been treated by the Canadian government and have been dismissed as “you people”.  I found it compelling and well-written, and I guess this is the author’s first work of fiction.  There was also a recommendation on the back of the book from an author, Liz Jensen, who wrote The Rapture, an eco-crisis novel which I loved.  Having read McGrath’s novel, I want to read Jensen’s and Hoeg’s novels again!  Alas, I have no time for that right now.

I’m also listening to Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman.  It tells the story of a man and his wife and their son in a small town.  The man seems too good to be true, so when he is arrested for the rape and murder of a girl in another town fifteen years earlier, their lives, and the whole town, are shattered.  I’m not that far into it, and I have to say, I’m not loving it, but I will stick with it because it’s an interesting story.  What I don’t really like is Hoffman’s writing style.  There is too much “back story” to every encounter.  For example, when Jory’s best friend, Charlotte, meets Barney, a local successful attorney, in the street, they can’t just have a conversation.  Hoffman provides a whole history to their relationship, from his high school crush on her, and his now-successful career, his happiness and her failing marriage.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is so much of it that I as the listener begin to lose track of the actual encounter.  I no longer remember that they are meeting in the street outside Jory’s house, and that the story is really about her.  But I’m having a hard time finding a good audio book, so I will listen to this one to the end.

Now I have a list of my Top 10 (+1) Reads of 2012 (in chronological reading order):

Bel Canto Ann Patchett (book club selection)
Before I Go To Sleep S J Watson
State of Wonder Ann Patchett
*The Lightning Field Heather Jessup (“required reading” box)
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time Mark Haddon (book club selection)
*Before the Poison Peter Robinson
Detour Gerbrand Bakker
*The Large Harmonium Sue Sorensen (“required reading” box)
*The Town That Drowned Riel Nason (“required reading” box)
*Our Daily Bread Lauren Davis (“required reading” box)
*Tell It To the Trees Anita Rau Badami (“required reading” box)
(* - Canadian)

And I have a special request to anyone who reads my blog.  I’ve been writing for nearly 2 years, giving my thoughts on books that I’ve read (and books I haven’t read!), audio books I’ve listened to, and other book-related news and events.  I thought it would be a good idea to get some book recommendations from you, as I am going to have much more reading time in the immediate future and would love to know what you think I would enjoy reading.  Your comments don’t need to be published if you would prefer that - they go first to my inbox, so you can indicate if you do not wish them to be published.  I look forward to hearing from you and reading your recommendations.

Happy New Year!!

Bye for now!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Mmm... tea and book talk...

It’s been a rather disappointing reading week for me, so I’m not really excited about writing this post.  At least I’ve got my cup of tea beside me to cheer me up.

I finished reading Stray Love last week.  This novel by Canadian writer Kyo Maclear tells the story of Marcel, a man approaching his fiftieth birthday, as he looks back over his life.  He was a “stray”, growing up with Oliver, a foreign correspondent who is not his real father, never knowing who his mother was, sometimes the only “beige” boy at school, moving from London to Saigon and back, sometimes living with the neighbour, Pippa, and her sister, sometimes living with Mrs. Bouwn, Oliver’s “Blitz” mother (his own parents died during the war), in love with Kiyomi, his childhood friend and soul mate.  As he cares for Kiyomi’s daughter, Iris, for a few weeks while Kiyomi tends to her ailing mother, these memories all rush back to Marcel, although this reader suspects he’s never really moved past these memories of “what could have been”.  While it was beautifully written and heartbreakingly sad, I found that this novel was just a bit too emotional, that every sentence was imbued with sadness and meaning, almost too heavy to read.  One can understand that, if this was the kind of childhood Marcel had, it’s no wonder the adult Marcel has never been able to move on.  It's not even as if Marcel is yearning for "what could have been" - it's as if he's never known what that option was.  I have never read anything else by this author, who has written a previous novel and has recently won an award for a children’s non-fiction title, Virginia Woolf, but she clearly has skill and talent as a writer, and I believe that she was drawing on her own childhood experiences for this novel as the daughter of a foreign correspondent.  It really was a “good” novel, well-written, emotional, sensitive, multilayered;  I guess it was just not my style, non-linear and too emotional.  Or maybe it wasn’t the right time for me to read it, having recently read The Cat by Edeet Ravel, another emotionally-charged Canadian novel. It also reminded me a lot of Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, in that it dealt with mixed-race individuals in Europe in recent history, the 1960s (Stray Love) and WWII (Half-Blood Blues).  The main characters in Maclear’s novel are a writer, Oliver, and an artist, Marcel, while Edugyan’s novel features jazz musicians.  The authors are both Canadian women writing from the points of views of (sometimes elderly) male characters.  I probably wrote a post about Half-Blood Blues, which I read in the spring of this year for my “friends” book group, and if I did, I probably noted that this novel did not “grab” me, but that I was glad I had a reason to read it.  I feel the same way about Stray Love.  I’m glad I had a reason to finish reading it (it was one of the titles from my “required reading” box), and I really want to love it… maybe I will read it again at a different time in my life and will think it was fabulous.  Would I recommend it?  Well, I already have recommended it to a friend who loved Half-Blood Blues.  I think I would recommend it to others, but I would warn them that it may be a bit slow, and the story shifts from past to present, often offering stories that seem to be randomly plucked from the characters’ lives.

I picked up a copy of Virgin Suicides from work and started reading it last week.  This novel by Jeffrey Eugenides was written in the early 1990s and tells the story of the suicides of five sisters over the course of a year, told from the point of view of the neighbourhood boys.  These girls, the Lisbon sisters, are elusive and mysterious, and the boys who watch them are obsessed by this elusiveness and their unattainability.  While I feel that I should read something by this Pulitzer Prize-winning American author (The Marriage Plot, I think), I’m really having a hard time getting into it.  So far the novel has consisted of nothing but the yearning and angst of the narrator and his friends over the death of the youngest daughter, Cecilia.  It’s probably a good novel, too, but I think it’s not the type of book that would suit my reading mood right now, so, because I can, I will put it aside and take up something else.

And I’ve been having a hard time choosing an audiobook, too.  Circle of Friends was a delightful listening experience, and I’ve had challenges following it up with something else.  I’ve listened to Murder on the Orient Express (good old reliable Agatha Christie) this past week, but am now at a loss.  I’ve downloaded a few titles and have tried to listen to something by Mary Higgins Clark (not my style) and Anne Perry (still not sure, but I think I will not finish it).  I have also downloaded some books by Alice Hoffman, a writer I have never read and don’t actually think I will like, but I’m willing to give it a try as an audio book.  Maybe I will try Blue Diary, a novel about which I know nothing.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 16 December 2012

Mugs and book talk...

I have a couple of small things I would like to mention today, and then I want to talk about our recent book club discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Last Sunday we went downtown to the Chriskindle Market, which we always enjoy.  I’ve been on the lookout for some new mugs, and we found a lovely set at a place that is new to the downtown core, but it used to be in St. Jacob’s, Entertaining Elements.  I love my new mugs, which are a cream colour with what looks like cinnamon swirls in the ceramic.  I use these mugs for regular tea or soup, but for my special Masala Chai on Sunday mornings, only my handmade pottery mug from St Jacob’s will do - I actually think my tea tastes better from that mug on a Sunday morning!  (maybe that’s because I associate it with writing my blog post).

I’ve nearly finished listening to Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy.  I remember reading this book years ago, the first book I’d ever read by this author, who recently passed away.  It tells the story of Benny and Eve, two girls who become friends in the small town of Knockglen, outside of Dublin, in the 1950s.  The novel follows them as they move from schoolgirl friendship to university, and relates the changing relationships they have with various townspeople and their new friends and relationships in Dublin.  It is a lovely story that explores what true friendship really means, and how friends remain loyal despite outside influences.  I have about 15 minutes of listening time left, and am a bit sad to be reaching the end of the audio book.  I like reading Binchy’s books periodically, as they are “gentle” books.  They are not really gritty, and while they may offer  situations or characters that are not necessarily pleasant (in Tara Road, the main character’s husband is having an affair and leaves her and the children, in Circle of Friends, Nan’s father is a verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive alcoholic man), there are no graphic details presented to the reader, nor does the author dwell on these situations.  Rather, they are just part of the fabric of the story, along with the usually female main characters who develop unlikely friendships and grow stronger as the story progresses.  I would recommend her books as a welcome change from heavier novels that may be grittier or more psychological.

We met on Thursday evening to discuss One Hundred Years of Solitude,  If you recall, I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I was not going to read this novel, having tried to read it once before, and again when it was chosen for the group.  I just don’t enjoy reading magic realism.  Well, I was relieved to learn at the meeting that no one had finished reading the book, and that those who made it to the meeting did not really enjoy what they had read thus far.  They had issues with the names of characters and keeping them straight (too many sons with the same name as their fathers).  They also had trouble figuring out where the story was taking place, and during what time period (they thought it might be taking place at the beginning of time, and yet lawyers in top hats also turn up at one point, suggesting the 15th century or later).  The one member who hadn’t finished the book but was actually enjoying it was unable to make it to the meeting, which was unfortunate.  The other members decided that they were going to plug away at the novel and finish it, because it was a classic literary masterpiece and the author was a Nobel Prize winner.  I felt no such personal inclination.  If anyone asks about classic literature, I can say with confidence that I may not have read One Hundred Years but I have read Crime and Punishment, and not because I had to - it was a choice!  This brings to mind that list I wrote about in one of my very early posts, a list presented in a novel by Milan Kundera of books that you feel you should read, books that you have heard so much about that you feel as if you have read it, books that you read so long ago you feel they should be reread, etc.  Well, this was a book that I thought I should try to read and get through, but having given it a try twice, I think I can safely stroke it off my list of “Books I feel I should read”.  After all, as an adult, I can make these choices and spend time reading books I really enjoy or want to read.

I’m about halfway through a Canadian novel right now, Stray Love by Kyo Maclear.  I’ll write more about this book next week once I’ve finished reading it.

And that's all for today…

Bye for now!

Sunday 9 December 2012

Very short post...

This will be a very short post, as I'm feeling under-the-weather this morning, but thought I should try to write something for this week.

In my haste last week to write about the similarities between Tell It To The Trees and Fall On Your Knees, I completely forgot to tell you about my book club discussion last weekend.  We discussed Alistair MacLeod's To Every Thing There is a Season, a very short story about a boy's Christmas in Cape Breton in I think the 1930s.  When I chose it as a book club selection, I didn't realize that it was a short story, probably less than 20 small pages of text.  When I took my copy out of the library, I wondered if there would be enough for us to discuss, but I must say, it was one of the best discussions we've had.  This short story tells of a young boy's move from childhood to adulthood during the Christmas season.  He no longer believes in Santa Claus, but he tries to hang onto some aspects of his childhood beliefs.  His brother comes home shortly before Christmas, and they go off to church together through the snowy wood.  When they come home, he is invited to join the adults in a room where his brother's boxes of "clothes" are unpacked and revealed to contain gifts, some labelled "From Santa".  The boy realizes that he will never again receive a gift with this label, that he must let go of some aspects of his childhood and accept the loss of innocence that is inevitable.  His father reassures him by telling him that some things pass, but that good things are left in their place.  It was a lovely story which touched me on several levels.  It brought to mind the innocence of childhood, and I wondered if it is human nature to idealize childhood.  After all, this story was written 40 years later, and the author was recollecting the experience.  Perhaps the boy at the time did not think the open-carriage drive through the snowy wood was so wonderful, perhaps he was cold and tired, maybe even cranky and impatient for the morning to arrive, when he could open his gifts.  We discussed this at the meeting, along with the shift the holiday season has undergone over the years, and the commercialism of it now.  There seems to be less appreciation for simply getting together and enjoying the company of family members now, and the holidays these days seem to run to excess.  We talked about the beautiful illustrations in the small book, and how they really captured the essence of the story.  We also talked about the detailed descriptions of the animals, how these descriptions were as significant to the story as any other part, and how animals at that time were a source of warmth, both physically and symbolically.  In short, we loved it, and we had a wonderful discussion about the holiday season, childhood memories, and loss of innocence.

I had a struggle coming up with a book to read last week, so I took The Sculptress by Minette Walters off my shelf to reread.  It tells the story of a writer, Roz, who is interviewing Olive Martin, a woman in prison for  murdering her mother and sister, with the intention of writing a book about her.  I've read it before and actually found sticky notes inside the cover with discussion notes on it, which reminded me that I once discussed this novel with my very first book group, a group of friends who used to get together once a month.  I'd completely forgotten about that.  Anyway, I still think Walters is a brilliant writer of psychological mysteries, but I'm rather disappointed to see that Roz, the author in the book, is much like the main character in The Scold's Bridle, who is a doctor.  Both characters are weak females who allow themselves to be in relationships with fairly abusive, or at least controlling, males, who seem to cause these characters to go "weak in the knees".  I've never noticed that before, and I'm finding it quite disturbing.  I wonder why Walters felt the need to portray women in such a naive, vulnerable way, and not just once, but in at least two of her novels.  Now I recently listened to The Dark Room and I don't remember her using this type of character in that novel; Jinx, the main character, is fairly strong and seems to know her own mind.  Well, however Roz behaves in the rest of the novel, I will finish reading it, as it is well-written, and I've forgotten what the outcome of the story is, since it's been many years since my last reading.

That's all for today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 2 December 2012

Rainy December day...

On this bleak, gray December morning, I’m sitting with my cup of chai, feeling less-than-energetic as the rain pours down outside.  Since this is a perfect day for reading, I’m trying to decide what to read next, as I just finished a book last night and have the whole day of reading opportunity ahead of me.  Hmmm... it may help to think about what I’ve just read.

I mentioned last post that I was reading Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami.  Well, I finished that novel very quickly, as it was so compelling.  It tells the story of an inter-generational family from India who are living in northern B.C.  The body of a woman is found on the road at the beginning of the novel, and the reader is drawn into the domestic story of this secretive, dysfunctional family.  The novel is told from alternating points of view.  Varsha is the 13-year-old daughter of the father, Vikram, and the first wife, Helen, who died in a car accident as she was making her escape from the family.  Suman is the second wife and mother of Hemant, the younger son and Varsha’s brother.  Other characters that comprise this household are Akka, Vikram’s invalid mother and Anu, the Canadian-raised Indian woman who is renting the backhouse for the year.  This novel was so compelling for me that I finished it in just a few days (I would have finished it in one sitting if I hadn’t had to fit my reading time around the rest of my life!).  This was the same reading excitement I remember feeling when, so many years ago, I read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees for the first time.  I read that 600+ page novel in just three days, even while working and living.  I remember walking to work and back on the streets of Toronto and reading while I was walking, it was that good!  I actually found many similarities between Fall On Your Knees and Tell It To The Trees.  Daughter Varsha reminds me of Mercedes, with her overprotective ways and motherly attitude towards her younger brother, and her antagonistic behaviour towards her abusive father, whom she nevertheless loves in that conflicting way that is common to young children of abusive parents.  Then there is Hemant, the frail younger brother who resembles Lily in MacDonald’s novel.  Both are weak figures who are made weaker by their overbearing, overprotective older sisters and treated as possessions rather than siblings.  This again is probably common siblings, but is intensified in abusive situations, making it increasingly damaging to both parties.  There is a real sense of isolation in both Canadian novels, although MacDonald’s novel takes place on the East coast in the 1930s and Badami’s is set on the West coast in the 1980s.  The haunting scenes of Anu at the window for Hemant towards the end of Trees is reminiscent of Old Pete (I think that’s his name), the scarecrow that haunts Lily’s dreams in MacDonald’s novel.  And Other Lily is like the lost little brother in Trees, who are nearly as present as characters in the novels as if they were both actual living, breathing characters.  The abuse is present in both novels, suspected in the communities but not spoken of, and the honour of the families is placed above the safety of the wives and children.  In both novels, you know something really bad is going to happen, but you feel compelled to keep reading.  I read a review of Trees which criticized the novel for having “no mystery”, but in my opinion, that is the best, or at least most interesting, part about this novel, that you know it’s going to end badly but you keep reading because you must, you can’t put it down.  While I am comparing it to MacDonald’s novel, I must say it is much shorter and less complex, which is not meant to be a criticism.  While Fall On Your Knees was an amazing literary achievement and a wonderful, horrible, fascinating book, it was so complex and lengthy that it was sometimes difficult to keep track of all the characters and events.  Trees, on the other hand, is more compact, but still extremely interesting, and perhaps less daunting to first-time readers.  A last similarity I wanted to point out before I move on is the use of the description, “making sounds like a puppy”, which is used by both of these authors.  I don’t recall ever hearing that exact description used in another novel, although I’m sure it has been.  I guess when I came across that phrase in Trees, it brought to mind Knees and I started seeing the similarities between the two novels.  Anyway, I would highly recommend this excellent novel.  And now I feel like I should Read MacDonald’s novel again.  Hmmm...

I also read The Cat, by Edeet Ravel, another Canadian novelist, but one with whom I am not familiar.  This short novel tells the story of a woman who loses her 11-year old son in an accident, and her move from grief to acceptance.  The reader really feels like she gets inside the head of the main character, Elise, as she deals with this tragic even in her life and struggles to find a way to cope.  It is heart-wrenchingly sad, and I don’t know if I would recommend it without that caveat.  I certainly went through plenty of tissues while I read it.  Well-written, but heartbreaking.

And I finished listening to The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.  It was a good story, which would probably have been more interesting if I knew more about the history of Ireland, but interesting nonetheless.  It is told in alternating narratives, “Roseanne’s Testament of Herself” and “Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book” (I think that was how each section was announced).  The novel recalls the life of long-time patient of a mental hospital, Roseanne McNulty.   Dr. Grene is particularly interested in Roseanne’s story, as her own account conflicts with the documentation he receives from the hospital where she was originally housed as he is trying to assess her case.  His obsession with this patient, and her unwillingness to recount her history, form the basis for this novel.  The narrator used two very different accents when narrating each section, which this listener appreciated, as she gave real life to the characters.  I’m not sure how I felt about the ending of the novel, and I’m not sure if I would enjoy reading this or other books by Barry, but I definitely enjoyed listening to it.  And it was so different from the types of books I usually choose to listen to.  It really was all about language and character, not about plot at all.  The descriptions were often lengthy and the language sometimes excessive, but these were absolutely necessary to the story – this novel couldn’t have worked any other way.  So would I recommend it?  Well, as an audiobook, sure, give it a try.  It’s worth it just t to hear the narrator speak in Roseanne’s Irish brogue.
That’s all for today.  I will go a peruse my bookshelves to find something to read on this rainy day.
Bye for now!