On this sunny, cold Sunday morning, my tea is a welcome companion as I think about what I’ve been reading over the past week.
I finished reading The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud last week, and it was fabulous! Just a quick recap: Nora Eldridge is an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father. She is also the favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston. At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enters her life. Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart. She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams. Of course, this can’t really happen, and since the Shahids do not reciprocate the need Nora feels towards them, they move on and Nora must cope with this loss as best she can, clinging to the memories of her year with them. I felt that the ending was great, until the very, very end, when I felt the author tried too hard for a big finish that, in my opinion, felt limp. Having said that, I loved the writing style, and the way Nora expressed herself and her feelings towards others and the life she feels has been (unfairly?) dealt to her. I also thought that Nora’s feelings at that time in her life (37 and single, no children, no life as an artist, a third-grade teacher, which was never her career goal at any stage in her life) were realistic and true, although raw and sometimes self-indulgent. But this book was ABOUT HER, so of course it was self-indulgent! That was one of the criticisms of the book in at least one review I read, but clearly that book reviewer had never been a 37 year old single woman whose life had not lived up to her expectations. It is definitely a book whose main character demands that the reader identify with her, in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin did. Now I’m not saying you have to have had those experiences to appreciate these books, but it helps a lot if you can at least envision what it would be like to have your ambitions thwarted because you made the wrong choices in life, or tried to do the right thing for others which maybe held you back in life. Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that this book may not be for everyone, but I thought it was great, despite the weak ending. Read it if you choose, but be warned that it is not a “feel-good” novel.
My book group got together on Friday to discuss The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It was a suggestion from one of the members who said she read it and “didn’t get it”, and she was hoping that, if we all read and discussed it, maybe she would be able to “get it”. I will admit to having read this short allegorical tale many years ago and also not “getting it”, but so many people love this book that I put it on the list for December, as I had not yet made a selection for this month. In case you haven’t yet read it, this short novel tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia who is encouraged by various people to follow his Personal Legend, head to Egypt and find the treasure about which he has had recurring dreams. Along the way, he meets a cast of characters and learns many life lessons, and has to decide more than once whether to stay where he is and settle for what is known or to continue on his journey to he-knows-not-where in order to possibly find this elusive treasure, but possibly to lose everything he’s worked for, including the woman he loves. My personal responses to this book on this second reading were that a) this felt more like reading a self-help book than reading a well-written piece of literature and b) this book reminds me of many other titles that I have read. These titles are The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, and The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, all for different reasons, but the messages of each of these other titles seemed to be lumped together into this one short allegorical novel about finding your personal destiny and living up to your full potential. One of my ladies, who had never read it before, loved it. She thought it was simple yet she felt she could apply the lessons and experiences in the story to her own life. One of the lessons that we talked about in the meeting was the way the universe conspires to help individuals find their Personal Legend, and we shared stories of how individuals or events in our lives have led us to making good choices or finding unexpected opportunities that were exactly right for us at that time, but would never have happened if all these other events had not led us to that place. One of my ladies felt that the emphasis on God and Allah, and maktub (meaning “it is written”) reminded her of religious fundamentalists, young men who train as suicide bombers. I had never thought of that, but once she mentioned it, I could see how hints of obsession and religious fanaticism, the belief that one’s destiny is already written, could be gleaned from the text. Another member didn’t bother rereading it, having read it a number of years ago. And one member thought it had many valuable lessons in it, but that it wasn’t a great book. I don’t know if everyone should necessarily read this particular text, but it is very popular, and is still a bestseller, 25 years after it was written, and since the film adaptation is due out sometime next year, if you haven’t yet read it, you will probably want to do so before you see the movie. All I can say is, at least it’s short and easy to read. Enjoy!
And I finished listening to Mermaids Singing, the first in the “Wire in the Blood” series by British author Val McDermid featuring clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. I have read others in this series, and have watched some BBC film adaptations, but this novel gave me the background to their relationship and set up the characters that appear in later novels. In this novel, Hill is brought in by the Bradfield police to help catch a serial killer they’ve dubbed “The Queer Killer” because he dumps the bodies in locations frequented by the city’s gay population. These bodies, before being dumped, have all been tortured in various ways using specially designed traditional torture instruments such as the Rack and the Judas Chair. The relationship of Hill and his newly established Special Task Force with the police force is explored, as is the relationship between Hill and Jordan. I listened to this as an audiobook and found the parts narrated by the killer to be particularly graphic and disturbing, but it was otherwise a good listening experience. I have also downloaded Wire in the Blood by McDermid, but will take a break and listen to something else first.
Time to get out and start my day.
Bye for now…
Bye for now…