Monday 27 May 2013

Last post for May...

After a weekend of lovely sunny weather, during which I did little reading (shame on me!), I am enjoying this cool, sunny morning with CBC Radio, a cup of Chai tea and a slice of homemade Date Bread… mmm!

I’m three days into the readings from John Lukacs’ Five Days in London:  May 1940, that non-fiction title I mentioned last week about the meetings in the War Cabinet in London at the beginning of WWII, where decisions made changed the course of history.  I must say, as a non-history person and a non-non-fiction reader, reading these sections on particular days reminds me a bit too much of homework, where students are assigned certain chapters on certain days.  I’m not in high school any more!  But the sections are short, and not too difficult to read, although the few non-fiction titles I have read generally read more like novels than non-fiction works, whereas this one would never be mistaken for a fiction title.  Having said that, I’m enjoying this interesting reading experience, and look forward to reading the sections for today and tomorrow, and then the last section, which I assume is a summing up of the outcomes of the decisions made by Churchill and his government.

I also read The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks last week.  That is the next selection for our “friends” book club, which will meet on June 6th.  The way we selected this rather old title (1991, I think), is that, at the last meeting, when we discussed Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami,  we checked online to see if Merritt’s Point, the small town where the novel is set, really exists.  It does not, but Merritt, BC, is a real place, and also the location where the film “The Sweet Hereafter ” was shot.  We then got talking about the film, which was based on the book, and voila!, a book selection was made.  This book tells the story of a school bus accident in a small New York town in which 14 children were killed.  Lawyers come on the scene trying to encourage the grieving families to sue someone or some organization, the town or the school board or the bus company, for negligence, and the town becomes divided.  Told in chapters narrated by different characters, this novel may seem deceptively simple at first glance.  The stereotypical small-town mindset is applied heavily and the narrative styles of each character are far from complex and educated.  But the structure of the novel, told in these individual narratives which follow on the heels of the previous section to continue the story while also filling the reader in on the backstory of the narrator, is like a string of pearls that pulls the reader along and leads him/her deeper into the makeup of the community and into the role and purpose of blame in a crisis that affects a small town.  I know I read this novel around the time that it was first published, but I’d forgotten what a fabulous novel it was, simple yet complex, where reality is much more than initially meets the eye, things are not black and white, and judgment must be reserved until the final page and beyond.  I’m curious what the others will think of this novel; I wonder if they will find it a bit dated, although I feel that it deals with the universal human condition and so the essence of the story is timeless.

And I’m going to the library today to pick up a novel by Andrew Pyper, a Canadian novelist whose first book, Lost Girls, I read a number of years ago, but whose following books I have neglected to read for various reasons.  I saw him read at Words Worth Bookstore last week, along with Robert Rotenberg, author of Old City Hall, whose new book, Stranglehold, is currently available.  I’ve read the first two novels by Rotenberg, but I now have a renewed interest in checking out Pyper’s earlier novels as I wait for a copy of his latest, The Demonologist, to come into the library for me (I’m also on hold for Rotenberg’s new novel).  Anyway, I’m hoping to read Pyper’s novel by the weekend, and then move on to Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, which is the selection for my next volunteer book club meeting on June 7th.  So many books…

Bye for now!

Sunday 19 May 2013

Happy Victoria Day!!

It’s a sunny Sunday morning on this long weekend, and although I have seeds to sow and plants to dig into the garden, I wanted to take some time to write about books I’ve read or listened to, books I’m planning to read, and maybe a title or two about royalty on this weekend when we celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday.

I mentioned in my last post that I was reading The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvaduria.  To recap, this Canadian novel tells the story of Shivan Rassiah, beautiful grandson of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage who captures the heart of his wily, land-greedy, cunning grandmother.  Shivan grows up to become a handsome gay man and as the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to bring his now elderly and ailing grandmother to Toronto to live our her final days.  It was a fabulous read, exploring issues of guilt and responsibility in an extended family in a culture which has very different norms, customs and expectations than the one I am familiar with.  It was most interesting to learn about the backstories of various characters in the novel, the grandmother and mother in particular.  I find that this is a common theme in novels set in countries such as India and Sri Lanka, something I always enjoy reading about.  I will admit that this novel dragged a bit near the end, but it was certainly well worth it to stick it out to reach the end.  It was definitely a satisfying read for me, and I may just go back and read some of this author’s earlier novels.

I also finished listening to Red on Red by Edward Conlon.  This novel tells the story of two detectives with the NYPD.  Nick Meehan is a recently separated man of Irish descent who cares too much about the job.  He is intelligent, melancholy and introspective, and he tries to always do the right thing.  His new partner, Esposito, is a wise-cracking, reckless detective who wants to achieve a result, regardless of the rules he has to break to get there.  When Nick becomes involved in Internal Affairs and is instructed to inform on Esposito, he is conflicted but does his job even while he is troubled by it.  Their investigation of a series of crimes, the apparent suicide of a Spanish woman found hanging in a tree in a park, the troubles of a man with his 13-year old daughter who is reported “missing” but is still attending school, and her subsequent “rape”, and the murder of a man who is thought to be a drug-dealing gang member but turns out to be his brother, are intertwined and interspersed with reflections on family connections and responsibilities.  As an audio book, I sometimes found it difficult to keep all the stories and details straight, as I did not have a physical copy to refer to if I needed to refresh my memory, and it was quite a lengthy read.  Having said that, it all came together in the end, and I realized that the details weren’t as important as the words used to express the characters’ thoughts and views, as well as the overall meaning of the stories themselves with respect to the individuals within society.  It was an excellent novel, although I’m not sure whether I would classify it as a crime novel or general fiction, as both the crimes and the explorations into friendship and family hold equal importance in the novel.  The author, a former NY detective, wrote a memoir of his time on the police force, Blue Blood.  This is his first novel.
PS The narrator, Mark Deakins, did an AWESOME job of narrating this novel - the characters really came alive with his skillful reading, and his various accents were spot-on.  I have downloaded a few more titles where he is the narrator.

I was thinking about the weekend, and was trying to come up with books I’ve read where members of royalty are the main characters, but I had a difficult time coming up with any titles.  Not that there aren’t many novels that deal with royalty, but I guess that I’m just not interested in that type of novel, although I definitely enjoy watching films about royalty.  The only book I could think of that I’ve read is Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie, an excellent non-fiction title about the last days of the last Tsar of Russia and the involvement of Rasputin in their lives.  It was an excellent book, reading much like a novel and exploring really interesting characters and situations within Russian history.  I have also put on my “to read” list The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, a novel of Catherine the Great.  It is nominated for the Evergreen Award this year, and I’m adding it to my book club’s reading list for 2014.  I’m just not a huge fan of historical fiction, which is probably why I haven’t read many novels that deal with royal figures, which is unfortunate, as I’m sure there are many great books out there that fall into this category, and many people love this genre of fiction.  Oh well, we can’t all enjoy everything.

And speaking of historical books, a friend of mine recommended Five Days in London:  May 1940 by John Lukacs.  This non-fiction title looks at the days from May 24 to May 28, 1940, which altered the course of the history of the twentieth century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or to continue the war.  These dates begin on Friday and end on Tuesday, which coincides with the days on which these dates fall this year, and my friend plans to read each day’s section on the date with which it corresponds.  I also plan to do this, and will read the section about Friday, May 24th,1940 next Friday, May 24th, 2013.  I’m looking forward to a unique, interesting reading experience.

OK, time to get out in the garden and do some planting while the sun is out and before the rain comes.  Happy Victoria Day!

Bye for now!

Monday 13 May 2013

Book talk on a chilly Monday in May...

I have no cup of tea in front of me as I write my post this morning.  I usually go to Nougat Bakery once a week for a delicious chai latte, but for various reasons, it’s been more than two weeks since I’ve had a cuppa there so I went early this morning to enjoy a “bowl” of chai with lots of froth and cinnamon, and a little cookie on the side.  YUM!  It was exactly what I needed on this chilly morning - when I walked to Nougat, it was snowing lightly!

This entry may be a bit disjointed, as I was away for a few days last week, and then yesterday was Mother’s Day, so not much reading got done by this reader since my last post.  Following up on last week’s entry, I wanted to let you know that I abandoned Studio Saint-Ex - not that it was a bad book, or poorly written, but it just didn’t grab me, so I had to let it go and move on to something else.  That was a wise decision on my part, as the “something else” turned out to be The Stop:  How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  I’m not a non-fiction reader by any stretch of the imagination - I can probably count on one hand the number of non-fiction titles I’ve read in the past 10 years, but with this title, I had trouble putting it down.  It tells the story of The Stop, a food bank in an impoverished neighbourhood in Toronto, and the evolution of this community service, under the visionary leadership of Saul, into a “good food” movement.  Spanning 13 years, Saul takes the reader through the changes and challenges of The Stop as it moves beyond a place for economically-challenged community members to pick up a hamper of processed meals and dented canned goods to an after-school program, a Healthy Beginnings new mothers’ group, an East African Men’s cooking class, just to name a few of these wonderful programs.  Saul and writer-spouse Curtis intersperse anecdotes with statistics as they strive to bring awareness of poverty in our wealthy nation to the reader.  One of the main messages in this book, apparent right from the beginning, is that Saul recognized the stigma associated with the need to use a food bank, and he endeavored to offer this assistance to his users while maintaining their dignity.  He regularly points out the relationship between processed foods and illnesses, physical illnesses such as diabetes as well as mental health issues.  As he states, if healthy, organic foods are good for the wealthy, doesn’t it stand to reason that these foods are also good for those less wealthy?  This is an issue I believe in, and this book really made me think about the foods I regularly purchase for donation to our local food bank.  Next time I'm out for groceries, maybe I’ll bypass the boxes of mac and cheese and choose tinned tuna and dried lentils instead.  When I next go to Toronto, I will make a point of visiting The Stop and maybe their Green Barns as well.  I would recommend this to anyone, but be prepared to be alternately moved by the community members and outraged by our government’s politics surrounding poverty.  By the way, Andrea Curtis is the author of a children’s book, What’s For Lunch?:  How schoolchildren eat around the world which is an interesting look at food around the world.

The other book I started reading is The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai.  This recently published Canadian novel is part of my “required reading” (The Stop is also one of these titles), and tells the story of Shivan Rassiah, beautiful grandson of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage who captures the heart of his wily, land-greedy, cunning grandmother.  Shivan grows up to become a handsome gay man and as the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his grandmother, now elderly and ailing, to remove her from the home—now fallen into disrepair—that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live our her final days.  I have only just started it, but it totally grabbed me and I can’t wait to delve into it again and lose myself in this dysfunctional family for another 300 pages.  This is the kind of enthusiasm I hope for when choosing a book, but which I encounter far less frequently than I would like.

And I was in Chatham last week for a few days, which brought to mind a couple of books associated with that small city.  The first is The Daughters Who Walked This Path by Yejide Kilanko.  I read this novel last year in the spring as one of my “required reading” titles and, although it is set in Nigeria, the author currently lives in Chatham and works as a Child Protection worker.  This moving novel tells the story of Morayo, a young girl coming of age in an oppressive, patriarchal society, whose experiences are both good and bad, and who finds  comfort in the network of women in her family and the community.  It was a really interesting read, and the author’s first novel.

Chatham also makes me think of Robertson Davies, that great Canadian writer, critic, professor, “man of letters” and novelist who grew up in Thamesville, a small town outside of Chatham.  I believe that Deptford, the town that is the setting for Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders (“The Deptford Trilogy”) is really Thamesville.  A visit to Chatham always makes me want to reread Davies’ novels, although my favourite is not part of “The Deptford Trilogy”  but  A Mixture of Frailties, a novel that tells of the experiences of a young Canadian girl who wins a music scholarship and goes off to Europe to study under some interesting, eccentric teachers.  This novel is the third in “The Salterton Trilogy”.

And because it was Mother’s Day yesterday, I was trying to think of books I’ve read which centre around mothers and motherhood.  I came up with only two titles offhand:  The Age of Hope by David Bergen and A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen.  I wrote an entry on Bergen’s novel recently, in which I expressed my initial excitement but ultimate disappointment with this rather depressing, flat novel about Hope Koop and her experiences with conventional life as wife, mother and finally widow.  Much more rewarding as a reading experience was Sorensen’s novel about a university professor in Winnipeg and her often hilarious but also moving experiences as a new mother, but also wife and faculty member.  Of these two novels, I would recommend Sorensen’s novel with much more confidence than Bergen’s novel.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!

Monday 6 May 2013

Spring is definitely here...

On this Monday morning, while I think about what I will write for my post this week, I have all the windows open and the birds are singing their little hearts out in my backyard, possibly in response to the crackers I’ve just thrown out for them to have for breakfast, or maybe just to thank the sun for coming out today.  My own heart is giving thanks for the hot cup of tea I’m about to enjoy… we’re all having a good morning!

We discussed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery on Friday at my book club meeting.  I had spoken to two of my members earlier in the week for different reasons and both needed encouragement to continue on with this book.  As I mentioned in my last post, I was not really taken with the novel myself, but persisted because it was something I had to finish for my book group.  Just a quick recap of the story:  Renee is the concierge of a posh apartment building in Paris.  She is 54 years old, short, pudgy, unattractive, with bunions on her feet.  But she is also very intelligent, and entirely self-taught, but she must hide this intelligence from the residents of the building and play the part of a stereotypical concierge.  Paloma is a 12 year old girl, the younger daughter in a family who lives in the building.  She is also smarter than she reveals to anyone, hiding her intelligence and “dumbing herself down” regularly when she is around others.  She plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday to avoid growing up and living the rest of her adult life in the goldfish bowl that she believes is her inevitable fate.  Was I ever glad I had to finish it - it was wonderful!  And those ladies I had to encourage to finish the book… they were also glad they had to finish it, as they, too, loved it.  In fact, that was a nearly unanimous response to the book from my group members:  “I couldn’t really get into it at the beginning, but then I started really liking the characters, and by the end, I loved the book”.  Most of us agreed that the book made us feel that we didn’t know much, since Renee knew so much about so much, particularly philosophy, art and music.  She also read a lot (my group suggested we put Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on our selection list - read Hedgehog  to find out why).  Some of the highlights of our discussion:  the book was about snobbery, not just of the residents in the building, but also of the narrators, Renee and Paloma; it was so philosophical because it was so very “French”, it leaves your head swirling with ideas; also the arrogance is very “French”; it was amazing how so many characters and stories could be taking place in just one building;  it was easy to fall in love with the characters, Paloma, Renee, Manuela, Kakuro, Olymphe, even Leo, and the concept of a “concierge” was wonderful, more than a superintendent, someone to watch over the building and its people, take packages, announce visitors; the novel is about class, about hiding who you are, about perceptions; that for all the learning and philosophy, it is human contact that is really what makes life worthwhile.
Poignant comments by my book club members:
It was a bit of a challenge, I didn’t get all the philosophy, but it was a good read.
There was too much profundity.
It reminded me of the film “Shirley Valentine”.
Maybe you need to understand French culture to really understand the book.
This was a life-changing book.
This book tells you to focus differently.
Everyone agreed that it inspired lively and interesting discussion, and only one book club member held fast to her belief that it could have been much shorter.  I had also entertained that thought, but then decided that nothing could have been removed without seriously affecting the exploration of any of the characters, particularly Renee, and thus changing the way we as readers perceived them, which would have profoundly affected the impact of the events at the end of the novel.  So once again, it was a successful meeting, and I’m always thrilled when my ladies really enjoy a book I’ve selected.  Hurray!!

I also finished reading Y by Marjorie Celona last week.  This Candian novel tells of a young girl, Shannon, who grows up in a series of foster homes after being left on the doorstep of a YMCA on Vancouver Island hours after she is born.  There is also the parallel story of Yula, Shannon’s teenaged mother, which provides the backstory and explains why Shannon was abandoned.  It was well-written and interesting, some parts more interesting for this reader than others, but ultimately a moving and satisfying read.  I would definitely recommend it to just about anyone, but may caution potential readers that the novel contains a lot of teen angst, which some readers may find challenging to get through.

I’m now trying to get into something else, preferably a “required reading” selection, of which I have many from the library, sitting in a pile on the table in front of me, beside my now-empty mug - time for a tea break…

Ahhh, that’s better - my cup is full once again and I am completely happy.  Well, I would be completely happy if I could find a book that “grabbed” me.  I started reading Perdita by Hilary Scharper, a novel that tells the story of a woman, Marged, living in a retirement home on the Bruce Peninsula, who may or may not be the oldest woman on Earth at 134 years of age.  She passes on her diaries to Garth, a man who is working for the Longevity Project, in order to reveal her past and prove that she is in fact the Marged of the birth certificate she so carefully protects.  As Garth becomes enthralled in Marged’s story of love, loss and myth, he enlists his childhood friend, Clare, to help him make sense of the mysteries he finds.  This novel sounds like a great story, and I was really excited when I started it, but so much of the story is told from the point of view of Marged in the form of diary entries that I’m losing interest quickly - diary entry is not my favourite form of storytelling in a novel, especially entries dating back to the 1890s.  I may finish it at a later date, but it’s just not holding my attention right now, although it seems to be fairly well-written.

I’m now giving my attention to Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado, another Canadian novel, this one set in New York, Montreal and Paris in the last years of World War II.  It tells the story of Mignonne Lachapelle, an up-and-coming fashion designer from Montreal who moves to New York to make her name and becomes embroiled in a fiery romantic triangle with the literary figure, Antoine de Saint Exupery of The Little Prince and Wind, Sand and Stars fame, and his talented female partner.  I don’t know if this is based on a true story or not.  I’ve literally just started this novel, and while I can’t say it “grabbed” me, it is a compelling story for this reader, so I think I’ll stick with it for a bit longer to see if it grows on me.  By the way, this author will be reading at Words Worth Books ( on May 15ht along with Colin McAdam, author of A Beautiful Truth, which I recently read.  I'm planning to attend that author visit, so hopefully I can finish this book in time for that event.

I think sometimes I’m an impatient reader.  I often want a book that grabs me right away and pulls me in, a book I just can’t put down… but I realize they can’t all be like that, and that sometimes a book that draws you in slowly can be just as rewarding a reading experience, if you let it happen, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, something you can mull over and think about.  Once again, it’s all about reading mood, and with the birds singing and the sun shining, let’s face it, I’d rather be outside walking, biking or gardening than reading, so the book has to draw me in and hold me or I’ll abandon it for some outdoor pursuit as quick as you can say “The Little Prince”…

And so I will close and get outside, maybe with a book, or maybe with a trowel, we will see, we will see…

Bye for now!