Monday 29 April 2013

Last post for April...

On this rainy, cool Monday afternoon, a hot cup of tea fits the bill perfectly.  It is not my special chai tea, as I don’t have the patience to wait for it to steep properly (I need a cup of tea NOW!), but it is still hot and milky, with a few grains of brown sugar, so I’m happy at last.

I did have a wonderful used book sale shopping experience last Friday, despite the rain.  I purchased a number of books, mostly ones I had not already read, and have nearly completed my collection of Elizabeth George “Inspector Lynley” paperbacks.  I went back the next day shortly before they closed at noon, so I managed to fill a bag with hardcovers and quality paperbacks for $5.00, a real bonus, since you can fit a lot of books into a reusable shopping bag.  I also ran into my former landlady, now living in Stratford, who is still a member of CFUW and was volunteering for a few hours at the sale, so that was an added surprise.  I’ve had to purge my bookshelves to make space for the new titles, so I also went to a used bookstore on Sunday with some of my books that I thought they might be interested in purchasing.  They took some titles, and the rest will go into the pile for the yard sale I am planning to have sometime this summer.  So it’s a win-win situation.

Since my last post, I’ve read Peggy Blair’s The Poisoned Pawn.  This is a mystery novel written by an Ottawa author, the second in the “Inspector Ramirez” series but the first I’ve read.  This novel tells of two parallel investigations, one in Ottawa investigating a possible murder and one in Havana which begins with the murder of an elderly woman and then expands to include a series of poisonings.  These investigations eventually connect, and the results are complex and interesting.  The main characters are also interesting, particularly Inspector Ramirez and his experiences when he comes to assist with the Canadian investigation and arrives in Ottawa in January.  His comments regarding Canadian weather, airport security, and architecture, among other things, are both humourous and insightful.  Because this book is written by a woman but most of the main characters are male, I think this book would have appeal with a wide audience. Having just been in Cuba, this mystery had particular appeal for me.  I haven’t read The Beggar’s Opera, the first in the series published in 2012, but I have it on hold at the library.  I think I would have appreciated the story more if I had read that one first, since this one is a continuation of the mystery presented in the first, but I thought the author clarified things well enough for a first-time reader to understand what was going on.  I actually just read that The Beggar’s Opera has been nominated for the Arthur Ellis First Novel Award (the Arthur Ellis Awards are for Canadian works of crime fiction and non-fiction).  I would definitely recommend this mystery to just about anyone, as it had suspense, humour, strong characters, flawed characters, Canadian history, Cuban history, a bit of romance, and some useful domestic advice (when commenting on the inaccessibility of the internet in Cuba, Ramirez tells Canadian Detective O’Malley that, in Cuba, if a man wants to know everything about a particular subject, he uses the traditional method - he asks his wife).  Blair is a former lawyer.

Since finishing that novel, which I have included in my list of “required reading”, I began another novel on that list, Y by Marjorie Celona.  This Canadian novel tells the parallel stories of Shannon, a girl who is abandoned by her mother in front of the YMCA when she is only hours old and grows up in a series of foster homes, and her teenaged mother Yula, who has issues of her own to deal with.  These stories will eventually converge, but I’ve not reached that part yet.  So far, Shannon has finally settled into a foster home, but she is beginning to ask questions about her origins.  I am also close to reaching the point in Yula’s story when she reveals why she abandoned her baby.  Alas, I have had to set this novel aside to finish reading my book club selection, and so I will finish it later.  It is an interesting story, with possible appeal for some young adult readers, as the story is bleak and it contains plenty of teen angst, yet I feel that it is really written in a style that is meant for adult readership.  More on that one when I have a chance to finish it.

And I’m halfway through The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, the selection for Friday’s book club meeting.  This book is written from the point of view of Renee, an overweight, unattractive Parisian concierge with bunions on her feet and Paloma, a twelve-year-old who plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday to avoid becoming trapped in the goldfish bowl that she envisions will inevitably become her life.  Both Renee and Paloma are more intelligent than they let on to others, and although Paloma lives in the building where Renee is concierge, their stories have not yet intersected, although I expect that is just about to happen.  While this novel has been on book club lists and bestseller lists for a very long time, I can’t say that I would stick with it if I didn’t have to lead a discussion on it in just a few days.  It is more philosophy than story, which does not exactly suit my reading mood right now, but I can see that there are many sections that are insightful, so I’m sure it will prove to be a worthwhile reading experience once I’ve finished.  I am also sure it will evoke a lively discussion with my ladies, which is always satisfying for me, particularly when I’ve included on the selection list a title I have not already read.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!

Friday 19 April 2013

April showers bring...

On this rainy Friday morning, I wanted to write a short post for a few reasons.  The weather forecast is for sunnier days over the weekend and early next week, so I’d probably prefer to be outside on those days than inside writing a blog post.  I’m also going to the big CFUW Annual Book Sale today, which always seems significant for me, as it marks a “birthday” for this blog.  Julie’s Reading Corner is two years old!  Happy Birthday!

I was thinking of making a list of books in which birthdays are significant, but I could only come up with a few titles.  The Slap by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas begins with a BBQ arranged by his wife Aisha to celebrate Hector’s birthday.  During this event, his cousin Harry slaps the spoiled child of another couple who is threatening his own child with a stick.  This slap sets off a whole series of responses from each individual, within and among the group, some of which could have life-altering consequences.  I really enjoyed this sprawling, ambitious novel, although it got mixed reviews for the use of raw language, racist comments and graphic sex scenes.  I remember thinking that it could have been shorter, or a bit less ambitions, but it was still a satisfying read.

Another book in which a birthday is significant is Stray Love by Canadian novelist Kyo Maclear.  As Marcel, born of ethnically diverse and often absent parents, approaches his fiftieth birthday, he reflects on his life growing up with his Caucasian father, Oliver, a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, who often left him in the care of unreliable neighbours and friends.  Marcel has never really belonged anywhere.  As he cares for his friend’s eleven-year-old daughter, Iris, while her mother cares for her own ailing parent, he is encouraged to share stories of his life with Iris, and to find some sense of meaning and belonging in his life.  I really wanted to love this book, but I just couldn’t do it.  I finished it, but it was a disappointing reading experience for me.

The only other work I could come up with was “The Birthday Party” by Harold Pinter.  I read that play many, many years ago when I was studying English Literature at Wilfrid Laurier Universy in the early 1990s.  I should reread it, as I’m sure I would enjoy it.  It relates a scene in a British boarding house where the owner’s wife plans a birthday party for her husband.  Two strangers show up looking for one of the boarders, and turn the party into a nightmare.  I rarely read plays any more, but I remember enjoying them in the past, particularly those considered as part of the Theatre of the Absurd (examples:  “Waiting for Godot”, “Rhinosceros”, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”).

Anyway, that is my “birthday” book list.  I also read a “required reading” novel this week, A Beautiful Truth.  This novel by Canadian novelist Colin McAdam tells the parallel stories of a childless couple in Vermont in the 1970s who adopt Looee, a chimpanzee, whom they raise as a child, and the experiences of various apes at the Girdish Institute, a primate research facility in Florida.  This novel was definitely interesting, and heartbreaking at times.  Some of the scenes were very disturbing, but I was not as distraught as I would have expected to be, given that I am a serious animal lover and there were parts of the novel where terrible things were being done to these poor animals, page after page of experiments.  This tells me that the author handled this difficult subject matter with intelligence and sensitivity.  If I were to recommend it, I would certainly caution potential readers of the disturbing animal scenes.

That’s all for today.  I’m looking forward to a fabulous used book shopping experience today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 14 April 2013

Here comes the sun...

“Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter,
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here.

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
And I say, it’s alright”

Rember that Beatles’ song that seems so appropriate for today?  I’m not so bothered by the long cold winter, but the past week of rain has been making me stir-crazy, despite all the fabulous books I’ve been reading, so I’m thrilled to see the sun this morning, as I enjoy my cup of chai and write this post.

Since it’s been raining so much, I’ve had lots of time to read and have finished two books this week.  The first is a “required reading” title, The Age of Hope by David Bergen.  This novel focuses on the life of Hope Koop, born in 1930 in a small town outside of Winnipeg, and her experiences as a daughter, wife, mother and finally widow in the present day.  As the novel begins, Hope is a beautiful young woman, a nursing student with her whole life ahead of her.  She meets Roy, a car salesman, and marries him after completing just one year of training.  She has four children, towards whom she feels remote, yet she worries about her children and especially about what others in the town may think of her family.  Roy becomes quite successful and is a fair and steady employer, husband and father.  Hope seems to lead a fairly conventional life, yet she never seems content or connected - she appears to be always unfulfilled, and vaguely aware of this state, although she fails to do anything about it.  There are some scenes that are not particularly “in character” for her, such as when she picks up hitchhikers and when she befriends Emily, a liberated woman who attempts to introduce feminist ideas to her.  She also has several bouts of depression which lead to stays in the nearby mental institution, but she always returns from these experiences to the same role she has been fulfilling for years.  None of these events seem to enlighten  Hope, and this reader’s interest was beginning to lag at her inability to act on these insights and make productive changes.  Her daughters, unlike Hope, embrace the changing roles of women in society, but their attitudes and lifestyles are almost stereotypes of the new freedom offered to women.  I was not convinced.  Only towards the end of the novel, when Roy has passed away and she is no longer responsible for anyone else, does Hope show any signs of sustained happiness and fulfilment.  But for this reader, by the end of the novel, it was too little, too late.  Upon further consideration, I believe this was intentional on the part of Bergen.  Early in the novel, when discussing with Roy a book that Emily had given her to read (maybe Lady Chatterley’s Lover), she remarks that a novel about a woman’s life where nothing happens would be boring.  Towards the end of the novel, when one of her daughters tells her that she is planning to write a novel about a woman born in 1930, Hope assumes the novel will be about her own life and cautions her daughter that her life has been too boring to write about.  And yet here I was, reading a novel about her life.  And yes, I did find it boring.  In the end, it was ultimately a disappointing reading experience for me.  It brought to mid a novel I read last year by Heather Jessup, The Lightning Field, which dealt with similar themes, but in my opinion, Jessup’s novel was far superior to Bergen’s in that it offered more insight, and the language and imagery in that novel was amazing, while Bergen’s was just run-of-the-mill.  I guess I felt that this novel lacked depth, which is disappointing because I began reading with such high hopes (no pun intended).  Ah well, at least it was a quick read for me.  Would I recommend it?  I think there are better novels that deal with the same themes that I would recommend before this one.

My “friends” book group is meeting next Thursday, so I reread Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami in preparation for that discussion.  If you recall, I read this novel a few months ago and raved about it.  Well, it was just as good the second time through, maybe even better, since I could pick up on the subtlety of the language that would foreshadow the ending.  This novel tells the story of the Dharma family, Canadians of Indian descent living in a remote town in northern British Columbia.  The household is made up of the tyrannical, controlling father, Vikram, his elderly and frail, yet feisty, mother, Akka, his first wife, beautiful but adulterous Helen (deceased), his second wife, Suman, compliant and naïve, Helen’s possessive and unbalanced daughter, Varsha and Suman’s innocent, naïve son, Hemut.  Later in the novel, there is a tenant that arrives at the house to rent the back room, Anu, also a Canadian of Indian descent who wants to get away from her busy life in New York to try her hand at writing.  But almost as important as those currently living in the house is Vikram’s long-deceased father, Mr J K Dharma, tyrant husband of Akka, and the mystery that surrounds his life and death.  This is a literary mystery, a novel of domestic abuse, a novel that explores cultural norms and expectations, and the secrecy that surrounds this dysfunctional family.  It is remarkable that, for such a short novel (less than 300 pages), the author is able to create such complex relationships between characters.  It definitely reminds me of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, one of the best Canadian fiction titles I’ve ever read, but this novel is perhaps a bit more manageable in terms of length, and also more realistic and believable.  I would definitely recommend this book, but I would caution the potential reader that it contains scenes which may be disturbing.

And I’m nearly finished listening to the second book in Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy, The Secret Speech.  I listened to the excellent Agent 6 first, not realizing that it was the third book in a trilogy.  I then listened to the first book, Child 44, which was also amazing.  This one is my least favourite so far.  It features the same main characters; Leo Demidov, an agent with the MGB/KGB in Soviet Russia in mid-twentieth century, his wife Raisa, daughters Elena and Zoya, as well as other agents with whom Leo works.  While it is as well-written as the other novels, I think the reason I’m enjoying this audio book less than the others is that, while the others had a clear storyline, this novel seems to lack a coherent plot.  The novel begins with the printing and distribution of a speech by Krushchev denouncing Stalin’s governing strategies of fear and violence.  It then explores the ways in which the society copes with the changes this speech necessitates, this new attitude of leniency and fairness, particularly for members of the militia, prisoners and guards, and the “vory“, groups of thieves who are outside the law.  There is so much going on in this novel that I can’t remember what’s been happening, and really just want to get to the end.  Having said that, this fast-paced thriller has certainly held my interest, and the narrator is excellent.  As an aside, I just discovered that Child 44 was inspired by a real-life serial killer of children, Andrei Chikatilo, in Soviet Russia.  This is interesting in itself, but it is also interesting for me because the last audio book I listened to, The Crime of Julian Wells, mentions this serial killer as one of the murderers the main character investigates for one of his books.  Until that novel, I had never heard of Chikatilo.  Anyway, I’m ready to finish this audio book and move on to something else.  Perhaps I will have the opportunity to finish it today.

That’s all for now.  I want to get outside and enjoy the sun.

Bye for now!

Monday 8 April 2013

Tea and book talk on a sunny spring morning...

I have a few book-related things to write about today as I enjoy my cup of tea and listen to the birds singing through the (still-closed) windows on this sunny spring morning.

We had our book club meeting on Friday to discuss The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  I was surprised that only one of my book club members had read this novel before, as it was very popular at the time of its release in 2001, particularly because it was chosen to be an Oprah book and then, when Franzen expressed concern that this would alienate male readers whom he was trying to reach with this novel, this offer was rescinded.  Well, no publicity is bad publicity, right?!  (By the way, Franzen and Oprah have since resolved their issues).  Anyway, the novel revolves around the members of the Lambert family, the elderly parents and their three adult children as Enid, the mother, wishes to have one last Christmas in the family home before changes must be made to accommodate her husband, Alfred’s, condition as he suffers progressive symptoms of Parkinson’s and dementia.  I was not surprised that most of my members did not like the book.  None of the characters were particularly “likeable” in the traditional sense, and rarely were the scenes pleasant or fun.  They especially did not enjoy the scatological imagery and sexual content which was used liberally throughout the novel.  There was one member, however, who did enjoy the book, and through her insights, we were able to forge a lively discussion about the rigidity of family life when the father is repressive and the mother must assert herself through manipulation, the fact that each child in a household grows up differently and faces his or her own challenges as he or she makes his or her way through life, and the fact that adult children are often still seeking parental approval even after attaining “success” in their own lives.  Some members found humour in parts of the novel, something I also appreciated when reading this book.  We all agreed that the character we disliked most was Carolyn, the wife of the eldest son, Gary, for the way she manipulated her sons to gain power over her husband and her refusal to accommodate Gary’s wishes for this one Christmas holiday.  The one member who had read this novel before had not had time to reread it before the meeting.  She was one of the members who did not like the book, but by the end of the discussion, she felt that she should read it again.  As much as I enjoyed it, I definitely felt that it was flawed.  Maybe the author didn’t need to use so many scatological images, or present so many sexual scenes; maybe it could have been a bit shorter; but then, would the novel have been as effective?  I'm not sure.  Would I recommend it?  Absolutely!

I also read Stony River by Tricial Dower, a Canadian novel that is one of my “required reading” selections.  It tells the story of three girls growing up in a small town in the 1950s and their very different experiences.  Linda is twelve years old at the opening of the novel, when she and her friend Tereza, aged thirteen, watch as police remove two mysterious children, Miranda and Cian, from a house on the edge of town, a house where everyone thought Crazy Haggerty lived alone.  What follows are the separate stories of each girl as they grow up in a time that was not necessarily as innocent as it is believe to have been.  This novel presented interesting stories that were somewhat unbelievable, at least for this reader, and the writing was often uneven, but I can see how it would have appeal for some readers.  I enjoyed the sections focusing on Linda the most, as it was the most straight-forward narrative with the most believable storylines and characters.  Many bits were left unexplained, which left this reader ultimately disappointed.  Would I recommend it?  Well, only with a warning that the whole novel may not appeal to all readers.

I also wanted to talk about film adaptations of books.  I recently went to see “Life of Pi”, the film that is based on the novel by Yann Martel.  It tells the story of Pi Patel, a young boy who is on a ship headed from India to Canada with his parents and some of the animals from their zoo when a storm capsizes the boat.  Pi manages to get on a life boat and is accompanied by a zebra with a broken leg, Orange Juice the orang-utan, a hyena, and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.  The rest of the novel details his trials and adventures as he struggles to survive, in mind, body and spirit.  I didn’t think I would like the book, but I loved it, both times I read it.  I thought about rereading it before going to watch the film, but I knew that would probably be a bad idea, as it has been so long since reading it that I have forgotten the details and so would be less likely to compare the film to the book than if the details were fresh in my mind.  I thought the film was awesome!!  It definitely made me want to reread the book, although I’m sure there were many differences in the adaptation.

Another adaptation I have recently encountered is the BBC series “DCI Banks”, the film versions of some of Peter Robinson’s mysteries featuring Detective Alan Banks.  I’ve watched two episodes so far, and I must say, I’m less than impressed with them.  Because I have read many of the mysteries a number of times, I’m pretty familiar with the characters and the details, and so I find some of the changes they have made in the adaptations to be unnecessary.  For example, in “Aftermath”, a novel which deals with the abduction and murder of young girls by a husband and wife, why would they change the husband’s first name from Terry to Markus but leave the wife‘s name, Lucy, as it is in the novel?  Also, in “Playing with Fire”, why did they change the first name of one of the main character from Phil Keene (book) to Mark Keene (film)?  I can understand why they have changed some of the characters’ situations and behaviours, since they have not made adaptations of the whole series from the beginning.  For example, they have changed Annie Cabot’s character significantly, transforming her from the mild-mannered, yoga-practicing detective in the book to a tough, ambitious officer in Complaints who wants to move to Serious Crimes (in the books, she is only moved to Complaints temporarily as a disciplinary measure after she committed some small indiscretion in an earlier book).  So I think I would probably enjoy the episodes more if I was not so familiar with the books.  Too bad… I will still watch them, but it won’t be as much fun as watching, say, the Inspector Lynley series, whose books I have either not yet read or have only read once and so don't remember them.

Better go and get reading and enjoying the sunshine before the rain begins.

Bye for now!