Sunday 29 June 2014

Book talk on the Canada Day weekend...

On this hot, humid Sunday morning, I’m thinking about all the great authors we have in our country, and how different and varied are our choices when looking for books by Canadian writers.  We are very lucky indeed.

One of these awesome Canadian books is a novel I finished yesterday, one I mentioned in my post last week.  It took me two weeks to finish reading the 400+ page novel, Three Souls by Janie Chang, but not due to lack of interest.  I tried to find reading time whenever I could, but these past couple of weeks have just been so busy that whole days would go by with no chance to indulge in reading time.  Just a quick review of the plot… Set in China in the 1920s and 1930s, a young woman, Leiyin, is observing a funeral when she recognizes the name on the ancestral tablet as her own.  She realizes that she is dead, and wonders why she has not crossed over into the afterlife.  She sees three figures across from her, and recognizes them as her three souls, yin, yang and hun.  Together they must examine the details of Leiyin’s life and discover which choices and actions she must atone for in order for them all to leave the earth.  They begin when Leiyin is seventeen, when she wishes to continue her education and follow the young man whom she believes to be her true love rather than be married off to another wealthy family.  She dishonours her family but, rather than cast her out on the street, her father makes a hasty match for Leiyin to a young man from a well-respected family in a small village.  She does not realize her own good fortune, and when she meets her early demise, she must find ways to atone for some of the choices she made before she and her souls can ascend to the afterlife.  This novel is part ghost story, part political mystery, and part lesson in Chinese history during the civil war.  It is a novel that explores choices, consequences and atonement, a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist just happens to be a ghost.  I would highly recommend this titles to just about anyone… well, it may not appeal to male readers so much, but it paints a vivid picture of what life was like for young girls in China at a time when traditions where being challenged and history was changing, while also creating an atmosphere of suspense, with a dash of political intrigue.

I thought it would be interesting to end this post with a list of titles that I’ve read in the last few years that are favourites written by Canadian authors:

Bishop’s Man Linden MacIntyre
Lightning Field Heather Jessup
Before the Poison and Children of the Revolution Peter Robinson
Town that Drowned Riel Nason
Our Daily Bread Lauren Davis
Tell it to the Trees Anita Rau Badami
Headmaster’s Wager Vincent Lam
Poisoned Pawn Peggy Blair
Silent Wife ASA Harrison
Stranglehold Robert Rotenberg
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World Janet Cameron
Colonial Hotel Jonathan Bennett
and last but certainly not least Fifth Business Robertson Davies

That’s all for today.  Happy Canada Day!

Bye for now...

Sunday 22 June 2014

Books, audiobooks and tea on a perfect summer morning...

It is truly summer now, after the Summer Solstice yesterday, and the weather this morning definitely attests to this.  It is perfect, not too hot, no humidity, sunny, blue skies with just a few fluffy white clouds and a bit of a breeze… If every day was like this, I would be a summer person for sure. 

If you recall last week in my post, I was struggling to find a book that would capture my attention, and had tried a few that just didn’t do it for me.  Well, I did luck out almost immediately after posting my last entry with an excellent debut novel by Canadian writer Janie Chang called Three Souls.   This novel opens with a young woman, Leiyin, observing a funeral from above.  When she realizes that the name of the deceased carved into the ancestral name tablet is her own, she is momentarily shocked.  This shock is quickly replaced by wonder as she attempts to figure out why she has not crossed over into the afterlife.  She then recognizes the three figures across from her as her three souls, yin, yang, and hun.  Her yin soul is impulsive and romantic, her yang soul is stern and disapproving, and her hun soul is wise and just.  Together they must help Leiyin recollect her life and determine where she has made her misjudgments and for what choices and actions she needs to atone in order to leave the earth.  They then proceed to examine her life in detail, beginning when she is just seventeen years old, offering judgment and advice, compassion and guidance at every step of the journey to the moment of her death.  I will describe the story in more detail when I finish the novel – I’m about halfway through the 400+ pages now – but it has totally engaged for me and I can’t wait to get back to it. 

And I’m nearly finished listening to a fabulous audiobook by Chris Pavone entitled The Expats.  Set mainly in Luxembourg,  this spy thriller is told from the point of view of Kate Moore, a woman who gives up her 15-year career in Washington to move to Europe with her husband, Dexter, and their two children, Jake and Ben, while Dexter pursues an opportunity to fulfill a lucrative one-year contract in banking security.  Kate thinks Dexter has been working in internet banking security, and Dexter thinks Kate has had a career with the State Department writing proposals.  The suspense of the story is built on the fact that neither spouse really knows the truth about what the other is doing.  In Kate’s opinion, Dexter is straightforward and readable, with no mystery about him whatsoever, which is why she chose to marry him, since her own life has been made up of layer upon layer of lies and secrecy.  Only when she discovers that Dexter, too, has his own secrets does she start to doubt her notions of their life together and to call into question everything she has believed for the past ten years.  As things begin to unravel and the couple has to make sudden yet life-altering decisions, they reveal more of their own truths to each other while they attempt to maintain their lives together as a couple and as a family.  I’m nearly finished listening to this novel, which involves the FBI and the CIA, and it is keeping me on the edge of my bus seat as I look for more listening opportunities.  It is not necessarily fast-paced, although there are some parts that are nail-bitingly tense.  In fact, it often focusses on the details of daily life for Americans abroad, but it manages to be intriguing because this American abroad is suspicious of everyone.  It meshes mundane details like how to fill the day in a foreign city with coffee dates and shopping for bathtub cleaning items with information about the design of windows in Luxembourg and how easily Kate can break into Dexter’s office coming in from the window ledge and opening such a window from the outside without alerting anyone to her presence.  This technique reminds me of John Le Carré, in that Le Carré also explores the real humdrum nature of the lives of spies.  Not sure if this author has published other books, but I will definitely find out and read or listen to them if they are available.  I would highly recommend this title to anyone who enjoys well-written and intriguing espionage thrillers.

That’s all for today.  Stop reading and get outside!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 June 2014

Tea and books on Father's Day...

As I sip my cup of chai tea and nibble away at my date square (not homemade, but no less delicious, since it was purchased at City Café Bakery, YUM!), I am not contemplating what I’ve been reading lately, because I haven’t finished a single novel since Fifth Business, which was more than a week ago.  I’m a bit disappointed about that, as I hate wasting valuable reading time, but I’m hoping for better luck this week.

I have been trying to read several books to review for the local paper.  One of them, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, is told from the point of view of Maud, an elderly woman suffering Alzheimer’s who is certain her friend, Elizabeth, is missing, although she has been assured repeatedly by her daughter that Elizabeth is fine.  She therefore sets out to solve the mystery, and also discover, along the way, what happened to her sister, who disappeared many years ago, shortly after WWII.  Armed with handwritten notes, Maud’s search leads her deeper into the past to discover the truth about these disappearances.  This sounds like an awesome book, exactly the type I enjoy – family secrets, long-buried mysteries, lone amateur sleuths resolved to discovering the truth.  But the character is too far gone with Alzheimer’s to be left living on her own, and I was finding the narrative to be too repetitive and depressing – I wanted to find a spot in a long-term care facility for Maud myself!  It reminded me quite a lot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, (remember, the main character was trying to solve the mystery of Who killed Wellington?”) but less humourous, more depressing.  It got great reviews, though, so maybe I should give it another go.

Then I tried reading Us Conductors by Sean Michaels for my committee.  This novel tells the story of real-life Russian inventor Lev Termen, who created the theremin, a device which can create music by waving one’s arms (arms as antennae to probe electrical fields for melody).  Set in the early 20th century, this novel follows Lev from Russia to New York, where he is unwittingly used as an infiltrator and spy for the Russian government.  It explores such themes as history and politics, love, music, artists and performers, science, and what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land at that time in history.  I wanted to love this book, and I was really enjoying it, but then I wasn’t.  I think it is written too much like historical fiction, very descriptive, which is not the type of book I normally enjoy.  So I will set this one aside and hope for something that really grabs me.

It’s a really busy time at work right now, so I think what I need, in terms of reading material, is a fast-paced book that is all about plot, not so much about character development.  In two weeks, though, I will be off for the summer, so I’m hoping to have more reading time and can get to all those “slow” books that I want to finish but haven’t had the patience for.

Happy Father’s Day to all the great men out there!

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 June 2014

Tea and book talk on a cool-ish, overcast Sunday morning...

I thought there was no rain in the forecast, but as I was baking and cooking and doing laundry this morning, I checked today’s weather and found that there is a 60% chance of rain this afternoon.  While the chance of rain will make me rethink my plans for the day, it is only a mild irritation.  Maybe instead of getting outside for a walk or a bike ride this afternoon, I will have to stay home and read!  I hope my laundry outside dries before the rain starts, as there’s nothing better than freshly washed sheets that have been dried outside on the clothesline… well, except the smell of freshly baked date bread on a plate next to a steaming cup of chai tea (got those, too!).  Oh yes, I almost forgot that I’m supposed to talk about books in this blog!

My book group met yesterday to discuss Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, written in 1970.  I won’t summarize here, as I wrote about the novel extensively in last week’s post.  What I will do is relay the general responses I got from my book club members.  Of the seven ladies who showed up yesterday, only one had read this novel before, but this was her fifth time reading it (she is a retired high school English teacher).  She said the first time she read it, she loved it.  The second and third times, she enjoyed it less, the fourth time she didn’t enjoy it at all, and she was dreading having to read it again for this book club.  But the fifth time she read it, she loved it again.  Four other ladies said that it was much better than they expected, and felt that the first two-thirds of the book were easier reading than the last bit, when it got too “bogged down in Ramsay’s running around, chasing after saints”.  One woman was surprised at how much she enjoyed it, and made no comment on which parts were better than others.  We talked about those people who were significant in Ramsay’s life, most of them women, and about the significance of his search for information on obscure saints.  We talked about persona, and the mask we present to others while we keep our true selves hidden from most people, except perhaps a confidante, who may be a most unlikely individual.  We discussed the significance of heroes, and why we need them.  We also discussed “love”, and what that means at different times in a person's life.  We discussed truth, guilt and denial, and the reliability of the narrator, Dunstan, whether his views of the actions of others are to be believed whether they are open to interpretation.  And we discussed how he presented himself, and what his aspirations may have been.  We also discussed the book covers, as each of us had a different edition.  I was very apprehensive about including this novel on our reading list, as it is so very literary and “high-brow” (one of my ladies used that term), but I feel confident that everyone was glad to have read it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few of them went on to read the next book in the trilogy, The Manticore, which I am also thinking of rereading.  Further to this topic, one of my ladies confided that, while she doesn't feel she'll ever reach the level of "high-brow" literature appreciation, since joining our book group she no longer takes much pleasure in reading the "low-brow" authors she used to enjoy, which I think was meant as a compliment, although she now has a more difficult time finding books that are engaging for her.  So the discussion was a success once again, and I would highly recommend this novel to just about anyone, but I believe that better appreciation for this book comes with either a second reading or discussion with a group.

When I’m making up the book club reading list, I try to choose books that lend themselves well to discussion.  I don’t include too many “literary” texts, as they are sometimes just too difficult to read, and I want this group to be fun, not like reading for school.  But I also try not to include anything that is too “light”, as these do not offer enough discussion potential.  I started yesterday’s meeting off by presenting two flyers, one from Lee Valley and the other from Canadian Tire.  The Lee Valley flyer features fewer products with extensive descriptions of each item.  For example, here is the text accompanying the photo of Grill Tiles:  “As a barbecues’ lava rocks become old and saturated with drippings, flare-ups can blacken even the most carefully attended food.  The solution is to replace the old lava rocks with these cordierite ceramic tiles that distribute heat uniformly.  Their shape allows them to catch drippings, reducing flare-ups.  They are even self-cleaning, as they can be simply flipped over to burn off any residue”.  I’ve never heard of these things, but after reading this elaborate description, I want a package of them!  Compare to Canadian Tire:  “Sale $16.99  Reg $25.99  Yardworks Decorative Cast-Iron Hose Hanger.  Hose sold separately”, accompanied by a photo that is at least as large as the description.  These, I argued, were like comparing great literature to bestsellers:  one is comprised of text that stays with you long after the reading is done, with each word carefully chosen to convey the message the author intends and to appeal to the audience on a personal level, while the other is all about flash and instant satisfaction, something you can flip through quickly and easily and then move on to the next flyer.  The first you have to spend time reading and considering, the other you look at and forget the instant it hits the recycle bin.  One of my ladies, the newest member of my group, said that she struggled with Fifth Business, then moved on to a Jeffery Archer novel, but while reading Archer’s book, she was left wondering, “But what are the characters thinking?  Why are the acting this way?  What are they feeling?”  It was the Lee Valley/Canadian Tire dilemma, and we all agreed that we can’t only read great literature, as it takes too much time and effort, and that sometimes we need something light, with maybe more story and less psychological exploration, depending on our personal reading mood at the time.  Watch what is going on next time you are out shopping or at work, and I bet you will notice that these comparisons as presented above are all around you in life, and consider what your responses to things are based on the content and intention of the material.

WOW, that was more in-depth than I thought I was prepared to discuss this morning, but there you have it - literature and bestsellers all around us. Have a great day, whatever you decide to do!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 June 2014

Sunday morning tea and book talk...

The weather has been fabulous the last few days, which has made it a difficult task to justify reading when I really should have been outside, but I managed to fit in a fair bit of it along with other activities to balance out my scorecard. 

I have a book that I was planning to read and review for the local paper, and once again, I spent most of the week trying to get through it, but at the halfway point I just had to put it down and move on, first because I had my next book club selection to read for next week, but also because the book just was not grabbing me.  This is disappointing, because the author is one I have read and enjoyed in the past.  I will not mention the title here, as I may go back and finish the book, which may turn out to be worth the struggle in the end.  So I set it aside and started on Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, a book that I have read several times over the years, for school and for pleasure, but which I have not read for quite some time.  I was worried that it might have been a poor choice for my book group, but once I started it, I remembered why I had included it on the list.  It is quite literary but so wonderfully written, humorous and heartwrenching at the same time, and able to convey the melancholy that is ordinary life for a young man from a small town in the first half of the 20th century.  Dunstable Ramsay is ten years old when the story, written as an address to the Headmaster of the school from which Ramsey has recently retired, begins.  He and his friend, Percy Boyd Staunton, are racing home one winter evening when they encounter the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his pregnant wife, Mary, walking along the road.  In an attempt to dodge a final snowball that he suspects Percy is going to launch, Ramsay ducks in front of the Dempsters, and the inevitable contact is made with Mrs Dempster’s back, knocking her down and causing her to go into early labour.  Shortly thereafter, Paul Dempster is born, premature and ugly, and the guilt Ramsay feels follows him through his life as he befriends the Demspters, works at the local library and his father’s newspaper, lies about his age and enlists to join the troops in the trenches in WWI, comes home to a hero’s welcome, attends school in Toronto, becomes a teacher, and pursues his research of obscure saints in Europe as well as a study of religion and myths.  This is as far as I have read, and I think the book is awesome.  It speaks of the guilt Ramsey feels throughout his life:  he is convinced that the shunning and ultimate ostracizing of the Dempsters from the village was his fault, for if he had not ducked in front of them, Paul would not have been born prematurely and Mrs Dempster would not have “gone mad”.  It is about boyhood rivalry, which also follows Ramsay throughout his life, and he must learn to overcome his envy and jealousy of Percy in order to understand who he really is.  And it is about the fiction that is life, that we are all cast in different  roles at different times in life, and it is often our obligation to fulfil the expectations others have for us in order to maintain normalcy, even when we recognize the absurdity of it all.  Ramsey sees himself as “fifth business”, supposedly a theatrical term applied to those roles, being neither hero nor heroine, neither confidante nor villain, that are nonetheless essential to move the story along and bring about the conclusion.  I hope my ladies enjoy it, and I will comment on the discussion next week.

I finished listening to On Borrowed Time by David Rosenfelt, and I must say that I found this stand-alone title to be a big disappointment.  I have always enjoyed listening to Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter” books, so I had high hopes for this audiobook, which tells the story of a New York journalist, Richard Kilmer, whose life seems to be going extremely well:  his girlfriend, Jen, has agreed to marry him, and they decide to celebrate by driving to a beautiful waterfall Jen used to go to when she was young.  They are caught in a freak and sudden storm, and Jen disappears.  As Richard tries to find her, he is faced with shrugs and denial all around him – no one admits to every having met Jen, yet Richard is certain that she exists, for he has clear and dinstinct memories of her and of their time together.  As his search continues, he uncovers clues that lead him deeper and deeper into a maze of cover-ups and conspiracies, until at last he finds the answers he needs to uncover the whole truth.  With audiobooks, it’s often difficult to tell how much the narrator influences the relative enjoyment the listener experiences.  Take this book.  Grover Gardiner usually narrates Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter” books, and he is able to emphasize the humour in the novels, while still providing a reliable reading, which makes these somewhat farfetched thrillers a good listening experience for me.  The narrator of this extremely farfetched novel, however, was far too serious for me.  He was so serious, I often missed the humour at first listen, and only after thinking about it did I get to appreciate it.  So perhaps it is not the book, but the narrator, that was disappointing… oh well, it was short, and now I can move on to something else.

That’s all for today.  Happy sunny Sunday!

Bye for now…