Sunday, 30 November 2014

Mystery and intrigue to brighten up a dreary November morning...

Oh, the dreary weather is making me sleepy!  It is warm-ish and damp, which is not inspiring me to get to all the tasks that should be done today.  I guess I’ll just have to stay inside, drinking tea and reading!  
This is not a bad thing, as I’m a bit more than halfway through my next bookclub selection, Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace:  a novel of Catherine the Great.  I put this title on the list reluctantly, as I am not a fan of historical novels, but one of my members loves this genre of fiction.  It is over 400 pages, a rather large, intimidating hardcover that, I have to admit, I was dreading having to read.  I don’t like reading historical novels in general because, based on the few I have tried to read, I have found them to be too descriptive; the author feels it necessary to describe in detail the settings, the clothing, and the customs of the time period in which the story is set.  That is not interesting to me; that is, when I’m reading, I don’t want to be transported to another time and place, as some others who enjoy historical fiction have described their experiences.  I like character-driven novels that explore the journey or development of the main character, either psychological, emotional, spiritual, or whatever kinds of journeys there are.  But I also like a good mystery, and a good spy story, and a novel that explores political scandal.  Well, The Winter Palace is all of these things, and more!  It is an incredibly well-written, detailed account of the intrigues, scandals and secrets that all played into the making of one of the most famous figures in all of history, Catherine the Great.  I am historically-challenged, so I know virtually nothing about Catherine the Great, so, as much as it shames me to admit, I don’t know really how the book is going to end.  What is keeping me interested is the deviousness of some of the characters, especially Empress Elizabeth, and the nasty, underhanded ways she behaves towards Catherine.  I suspect that, in the end, Elizabeth’s plan will backfire and, rather than getting rid of Catherine, her actions will help her to become an even stronger woman and a better leader of the Russian people.  Told from the point of view of her attendant/maid and only real friend, Barbara, or Varvara, this novel chronicles the transformation of playful Prussian teenaged princess Sophie to one of the most powerful women in Russian history.  It is an intense mystery, a gripping drama, and an exploration into one woman’s struggle to overcome her oppressors, and Stachniak hardly ever describes what the women were wearing or what the ballroom looked like.  For that, she gets two thumbs up from me.  I will talk about this book more next week, after my book group meets to discuss it, but I had to tell you about it today, since it is such an awesome book.  If you haven’t read it yet, run, don’t walk, to your nearest public library and check out a copy of The Winter Palace – you won’t be disappointed!  
I’m also listening to an excellent audiobook right now, Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder, a British mystery about the brutal murder a young girl near a canal in Bath, and the search for her killer.  I’m loving it, but will tell you more when I’ve finished.
WOW, today’s post was quite a teaser.  I don’t usually write about books I haven’t finished, but that’s all I had to work with today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Book talk on a grey morning...

On this wet, grey, rainy Sunday morning, I’ve got no sweet treat, homemade or otherwise, to accompany my lonely cup of steaming chai tea, no date square from City Café, no vanilla scone from Future Bakery, no gingerbread biscotti from that small bakery in Erin, not even a slice of my own homemade date bread.  Ah well, the tea is delicious, and maybe I should try to appreciate it more, savouring each sip rather than just gulping it down.  Although this may sound like whining, it is actually my way of segueing into today’s post.
My “Friends” book club met on Thursday night to discuss Big Brother by Lionel Shriver.  This novel follows successful Iowa entrepreneur Pandora Halfdanarson as she tries to deal with the extended visit of her brother Edison Appaloosa, a washed-up New York jazz pianist who never quite made it big.  Pandora’s current family is made up of husband Fletcher, a specialty furniture maker who has filled the basement with unsold pieces, teenaged stepson Tanner, who hates school and wants to quit in order to write screenplays, and stepdaughter Cody, a shy girl who wants to please everyone.  When Edison shows up at the Iowa airport, Pandora doesn’t recognize the morbidly obese man being pushed along in a wheelchair by airline staff as her brother, a man she has idolized all her life, remembering him as cool, slick, and attractive.  Four years later, he has become an object of public ridicule and Pandora is put in a position that threatens her own family as she must decide how to help her brother before it is too late and he eats himself to death.  There is so much in this novel to discuss, that one meeting is not nearly enough time to cover everything.  This book is about relationships, and how we deal with those we love; it is about responsibility, and how we offer support to them, while also taking responsibility for ourselves.  It is also about dealing with those we do not love, but whose presence in our lives we cannot truly escape.  It is about mid-life crisis, and realizing that this is “as good as it gets”.  One of my book club members works with people who have addiction issues, and she commented that the weight loss plan Pandora had for Edison and herself was very responsible, one that was realistic and could actually work, taking into consideration not just the weight loss, but also considering why we eat, what purpose food serves, and how those needs could be otherwise met.  Shriver went into detail describing Pandora’s experience eating a salmon steak, describing the grainy texture of the flakes against her tongue (I told you my decision to savour my chai tea relates to the content of this post!).  We discussed Fletcher, his obsession with cycling and fitness, and determined that, at age 47, he was doing exactly what any other man of that age would do; in fact several of our husbands were doing these same things, though not to the lengths Fletcher was taking them.  We talked about their marriage, and thought it was also realistic.  One member, who was unable to make it but who email comments to me, was concerned about the way they were dieting, drinking only shakes made from envelopes of protein powders for months at a time.  I, too, was disturbed by this method, but I suppose for someone morbidly obese, it would make sense to, as Shriver writes, “eat nothing” for a while rather than trying to eat small portions of healthy food, as personal restraint around food was clearly one of Edison’s issues.  We talked, of course, about the ending, and why Shriver would use this technique, what she intended with the original ending and the “real” one.  I have read this book before, and I remember getting to the “fake” ending and feeling somewhat disappointed, then reading the “real” ending.  My first response to that was, “This was a cop-out; she couldn’t decide how to end it, so she used both options”.  But as I thought about it more, I decided that it was brilliant!  How many times have we made major decisions and regretted the outcomes, and these regrets haunt us as we imagine how things “could have been”?  I’ve certainly had this experience, and sometime, if we imagine a different outcome often enough, it becomes almost reality.  As I was reading this book, I thought that Shriver was dissecting the relationships we have with others, particularly family members, as well as the decisions we make involving those we love, decisions we make every day and don’t really think about them.  Shriver has a way of describing them that is exactly right – while her writing is complex and often difficult to understand (one of the members said she had to have a dictionary nearby!), in the end, she gets to the heart of the issue in exactly the right way. She also uses words in a unique way, such as when she talks about Edison“slow suicide by pie”.  One member said that this book helped her understand what kind of books she likes:  she pointed out that this book didn’t have much of a plot, but was intensely character-driven.  She enjoyed this book so much, she’s moved on to Shriver’s Orange-prize winning novel, We Need toTalk About Kevin.  We also talked about the way Shriver describes society’s values, and how we make snap judgments of others based on first appearances, particularly regarding weight.  When Pandora first weighs herself before they start their liquid diet, she responds with amazement and denial.  Shriver writes:  “(T)he weigh-in was now subject to the most ruthless of interpretations.  I believed – and could not understand why I believed this, since I didn’t believe it – that the number on the dial was a verdict on my very character.  It appraised whether I was strong, whether I was self-possessed, whether I was someone anyone else would conceivably wish to be.” (p. 230)  Due to her successful business, Baby Monotonous, Pandora is often asked to give interviews and pose for photo shoots, something she grudgingly endures.  These experiences incite her to consider herself as someone others see, making the reader, too, consider this.  How often do we look in the mirror every day, but not really see ourselves as others would see us?  I think it is healthy to get on with life without obsessing about how we look to others, but I suppose it is also good to take a step back and get outside ourselves sometime and assess who and what we are to other people.  Oh boy, there are soooo many things in this book to discuss, but I must stop now or I’ll be at the computer all day!  I really wanted to compare Big Brother with We Need to Talk About Kevin, since the one member who is now reading Kevin brought up some similarities.  Unfortunately I’ve run out of “writing” time.  In closing, Shriver’s brutal honesty will make readers look inward and explore their own character while hoping for the best for Panodra, Edison, Fletcher, and the other characters who populate the pages of this outstanding, thought-provoking novel. 
That’s all for today!       

Bye for now...
Julie

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Books, audiobooks and tea on a snowy Sunday morning...

On this grey, chilly morning, I have been rushing through all the cooking and baking I needed to do so I could get to my computer and write about the awesome books I’ve read and listened to over the past week.  I was in such a hurry, I forgot to add sugar to the thermos as I was steeping my chai tea – it’s still good, but not quite a sweet as I’m used to.  Ah well, the delicious gingerbread biscotti I had with it made up for the lack of sugar.
In my last post, I didn’t t know what to read next and promised to surprise you in this post.  Well, it was certainly a surprise to me, too, when I picked up and started reading The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, a book that some of my committee members have reviewed, not always very favourably.  I was not going to read it based on some of their comments, but one member really liked it so I started reading it and was immediately hooked.  This novel follows the main character as she tries to make sense of her past in order to move on with her life.  Tooly Zylberberg is a thirty-something woman who owns World’s End, a failing secondhand bookstore in Wales.  When she gets news from an old boyfriend, Duncan, that her father is ill, she returns to New York to care for him, an event that motivates her to revisit her past.  It is not her father who is ill, but Humphrey, an elderly Russian man who was instrumental in caring for and raising Tooly during her preteen and young adult years.  As we find out, Tooly was “not exactly kidnapped” when she was ten, taken from her father, and brought to live, ostensibly, with her mother, but in reality, Humphrey and the elusive Venn, a man who helped to shape Tooly’s character, teaching her to let go of any attachments to others and look for ways to take advantage of and gain from them.  Tooly’s relationship with Humphrey consisted of his attempts to educate her to be a great intellect by reading science, history and philosophy.  The chapters visit different periods in Tooly’s life:  1988, when she is just ten years old and living with her father Paul, a technology expert working for the US government, seeking long-term foreign postings, at this time posted in Bangkok; 1999, when Tooly is a young woman living with Humphrey in New York, a time when she meets Duncan, a law student, and his roommates, and infiltrates their lives, pretending to herself that she is part of this normal student life; and 2011, when she is a wanderer who has purchased an unprofitable secondhand bookstore in a small Welsh village where she can hide from reality, her only real contact being her lone employee, Fogg.  The structure the author uses of dropping the reader into seemingly random periods with each new chapter makes this novel somewhat challenging to follow, but it is well worth the effort to keep track of the storyline, as Tooly’s past begins to be revealed to her and the reader simultaneously.  I was just reading a review of this book in which the reviewer describes it as “haunting and melancholy”.  I would agree with this, but when I reached the last page of the novel, the first thing that came to mind was that this was one of the most delightful novels I’ve read in a long time.  All of the characters were flawed, but they were endearing, too: Tooly, the lost orphan, a woman who is searching for her own identity in a sea of hidden memories and half-truths, Humphrey, the doting Russian caretaker, Duncan, the unhappy lawyer and former boyfriend, and Fogg, the dedicated employee, to name a few.  Venn was not endearing, but he was, in the novel as in Tooly’s life, such an infrequent presence that I could not hold too much of a grudge towards him; Sarah, on the other hand, was most irritating, and frustrating, and selfish, but again, she wasn’t in it enough to mar my overall reading experience.  I would highly recommend this novel to just about anyone who enjoys a novel of self-discovery.  The writing was superb, the story interesting, and the characters, well, endearing.  I dare anyone who reads this book to not develop warm, fuzzy feelings towards Tooly, Humphrey, Fogg, and maybe even Duncan.
On a totally different note, I just finished listening to an audiobook that was AWESOME!  Since I enjoyed Our Kind of Traitor so much, I thought I would take a chance with another John LeCarré novel in the hopes that I could understand the story.  I downloaded Mission Song from the library, and, not knowing anything about the story in advance, jumped right into the listening experience.  As I began listening, I commented to my husband that the narrator sounded a lot like Danny, from the BBC series, “MI-5”.  When I checked online, I discovered that it was, in fact, David Oyelowo who narrated this audiobook, and he did an absolutely wonderful job of it.  I’ll admit that, with his lilting British/African-accented voice, he could be reading the phonebook and I’d keep listening.  Thankfully, this was better than the phonebook.  This novel tells the story of Bruno Salvador, an East Congolese orphan and love child of an Irish Catholic missionary and a beautiful Congolese woman, both deceased.  As an adult, he is in London, working as an interpreter, making a career of his gift for understanding even the most obscure African dialects.  Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage with Penelope, an up-and-coming newspaper reporting star, he enters into a relationship with Hannah, a Congolese nurse who has captured his heart.  At a dinner party celebrating Penelope’s promotion, Bruno is whisked away on a special assignment to interpret for the British government as he witnesses the negotiations over a contract involving the Congolese warlords and the “Syndicate”, their Western backers.  He is instructed, if asked, to say that he can interpret only French, English and Swahili, keeping all his other languages “below the waterline”.  He inadvertently listens in on one of the key Congolese delegates being tortured by his employers, forcing him to sign off on the contract, which would give the Syndicate the opportunity to plunder the coltan and other minerals in Kivu, a small Congolese village, providing all the wealth to the West and offering nothing to the villagers or the Congolese people.  The rest of the novel follows Bruno as he tries to foil the planned attack, set to take place in just two weeks.  Working with Hannah, and attempting to evade detection from British “enforcers”.  Bruno must think fast to get this information into the right hands while also protecting Hannah’s safety.  Although the pace at the beginning is rather slow, the novel picks up speed until the knuckle-biting conclusion that is emotionally bittersweet, politically damning, yet ultimately hopeful.  I definitely recommend this novel, and Oyelowo does a brilliant job of bringing to life each character, even those Irish and Scottish voices that pepper the novel.  If there was an award for audiobook narration, he would definitely have my vote.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy what’s left of the weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Tea and bunnies on a chilly November morning...

I’ve been chopping vegetables and cooking all morning, and am happy to finally be sitting down with a cup of steaming chai to write my blog post for the week – whew!  This is such a treat for me, to have the technology and the opportunity to share my weekly reading experiences with so many people in such a laid-back, fun way (almost like working in my pajamas!).
My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Richard Adams’ classic novel, Watership Down.  I was disappointed that one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, was unable to make it.  I recall that when I announced the substitution to the group last month, she clapped her hands, grinned and exclaimed, “Oh goody!  I love that book!  Every time I see a dead animal on the side of the road, I think to myself, ‘Oh, the hrududu got him!’”  I now know what that means, and I have to admit, after reading this novel, I will never look at rabbits or roadkill in the same detached way again.  This novel relates the epic journey of a group of rogue rabbits who, on the advice of Fiver, a runt bunny possessed of wisdom and foresight beyond his size, leave their warren to escape the unnamed destruction certain to befall their former home.  Led by Hazel, a seemingly cowardly bunny from their original warren, they search for a new place to call home.  They find a group of large, healthy rabbits at Cowslip and consider joining their group, but something seems unnatural about them and once they discover the source of their discomfort, promptly hightail it out of there.  Once again relying on Fiver for advice, they settle on Watership Down, a grassy hill where enemies are few and food is plentiful.  But alas, they have no females to carry on their legacy, so the rest of the story tells of the perils they encounter while searching for does to bring to their warren.  These perils include men, cats, dogs, and rabbits from another warren, the Efrafra, a Nazi-like group with a militant leader who will stop at nothing to keep his bunnies under his control.  But their experiences are not all bad.  They also make unlikely friends along the way, including a mouse and a black-headed gull named Kehaar who speaks with a Norwegian accent.  I’m sure I won’t spoil it for anyone if I say that there is a happy ending in store, but that there is plenty of bloodshed on their road to freedom.  Most of my ladies loved it.  Some had read it before, years ago, and found it well worth rereading.  Only one member did not read it, but gave up and started next month’s book selection.  Everyone agreed that it was difficult to get into, but once the adventures began, it proved to be much more interesting.  We also all agreed that it would be difficult for a child to read on his or her own, but that a high school student could read and understand it, or a child might enjoy it if it were read aloud to him or her.  It is one of those novels that can be enjoyed by readers of different ages, as it is so complex that it can be read and understood on many levels.  We discussed the names of the rabbits, Blackberry, Clover, Woundwort, Hazel, and Dandelion, among others, and noted that they are all named after types of plants.  One member compared the name of General Woundwort’s rabbits, the Efrafras, to the Luftwaffe, and noted that the plant woundwort is often used as a healing remedy, the complete opposite of the character in the book.  I discovered that the gull, Kehaar, was based on a Norwegian pilot Adams knew in the war, which explained the accent.  We liked all of the characters, and felt that there was interesting character development throughout the novel.  We talked about the unnaturally large, healthy rabbits at Cowslip, and I compared it to the situation in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson or “The Ones Who Walked way form Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin, both short stories that tell of peaceful, successful communities that are bought at the price of an annual sacrifice, and of the community members’ acceptance of this sacrifice as preferable to risking their guaranteed peace to chance.  We discussed the mythological aspects of the novel, and the anthropomorphization of the bunnies to enable them to have rich inner lives and culture.  We felt that there were many life lessons in this novel, and that Hazel was the perfect leader, strong and confident, but also open to advice from others.  Regarding the quotations at the beginning of each chapter, we did not agree:  some loved them while others found them confusing.  One member pointed out that, like many other children’s classics, this one began as stories told to entertain Adam’s daughters on long car rides.  It was a hit with the group, and by the end of the discussion, the one member who had given up determined to keep on and finish it.  I’m certainly glad it was on the list, as I would not have read it otherwise.
Now I must decide what to read next.  I have many choices:  books for my committee, books for review, or a book for work, which would be a young adult book.  Hmmm… I will surprise you next week with my choice.
That’s all for today.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Short post for an extra long day...

Oh, how I love when this day rolls around every year, the day when we turn the clocks back and get an extra hour!  And how I hate the “partner” day in the spring, when we lose an hour.  The benefits of the extra hour seem to be lost after such a short time, but the costs of the lost hour seem to linger for weeks!!  So I will make the most of my extra hour today and read a bit more than I would otherwise have time to do!
This will be a short post because last week was not a very rewarding or productive reading week for me.  Not sure why… maybe I just couldn’t find anything to grab me in the first few days of the week, which are my really good reading days, or maybe I was distracted.  Anyway, I finished Peter Robinson’s mystery, Abattoir Blues, on Sunday, and it was just OK.  Not his greatest book, but a quick, easy read.
Then I started another book called A Good Day’s Work:  in pursuit of a disappearing Canada, by John DeMont.  This non-fiction title explores the disappearing jobs in our country as society changes and evolves.  It is nostalgic and melancholy, as the author pines for the “good old days” which, according to Pierre Berton, ended in 1967, “the last good year”, as he dubbed it.  The author visits, interviews and/or rides along with milkmen, blacksmiths, cowgirls and travelling salesmen, to name a few of the occupations that have been lost over the past half-century.  As a librarian, I fear that my chosen profession, too, may join this list of lost occupations.  It was a fairly light read, one that I just skimmed, as I found the author to be a bit too melancholy for my liking.  I mean, really?  Were those days truly as “good” as he remembers them?  But I think it would appeal to many readers, so just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean you won’t.
Then it was already Wednesday night, and I was still without a good book to read!  Ach!!  What a dilemma!  Knowing that I was running out of time, and that I could not possibly finish a book between then and today, I decided to tackle the book that we are discussing at my next book club meeting, Watership Down by Richard Adams.  I have never read this, but one of my book club members recommended this as a selection, and no one wanted to read Anna Karenina this month (I wonder why?!), so I made a quick substitution and here we are.  My paperback copy is very old and tattered, and the print is really small, so it may only be 475 pages, but really it’s about 600 pages if the print was a normal size!    Have you ever noticed that old Penguin paperbacks use really small print?  Anyway, I knew nothing about this book before I started reading it, except that it was about rabbits.  I am having a hard time getting into it, and can only read a few pages at a time, so it’s a good thing that I gave myself extra reading time to finish this.  I always thought it was a children’s book, but it is far too difficult and mature for children, although maybe high school kids could read and study it in class.  In case you, too, are unfamiliar with this classic, it tells the story of a group of rabbits who, on the advice of a wise bunny named Fiver, believe that a great danger is about to befall Sandleford Warren, and so form a band of roving rabbits, including Hazel, Bigwig and Silver.  The book follows their adventures and perils as this pack of brave bunnies search for a new place they can call home.  I have to say, the first 100 pages was a struggle, but I may be getting in the right mindset.  I just don’t enjoy reading fables, and this type of story seems more suited to children, although the language Adams uses and the writing style is far too advanced for kids.  I will write more once I have finished it and we’ve had our meeting, but I have to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it.  My book club members, on the other hand, all seemed quite excited about this selection, so it should be an interesting discussion.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy that extra hour!

Bye for now…
Julie