Sunday 25 January 2015

Tea, book talk and haggis on a chilly Sunday morning...

In past posts, I’ve mentioned Vanilla Scones from Future Bakery, which are a favourite treat of mine that are often difficult to find.  Well, I was lucky enough yesterday at the Kitchener Market to find one of these, and am eating it now with a steaming cup of delicious chai tea… mmmm!!  And, in honour of Robbie Burns Day, (January 25th), I made a pan of Vegetarian Haggis, which is also delicious, but it is a lot of work, so I usually only make it once a year.  I know almost nothing about Scottish poet Burns, except the famous lines “The best laid plans/of mice and me/ do oft go awry” from the poem To a Mouse.  But I use this day as encouragement to make this dish, which really is almost more work than it’s worth, but it is so very yummy.
Enough about food… I’m here to talk about books!  I just finished reading A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, which is due out next month.  It tells the sprawling epic tale of the Whitshanks, a family in Baltimore who, to outsiders, seem like the perfect family.  Part One begins with Red and Abby, aging parents of four adult children, receiving a phone call from their youngest son, wayward Denny, who tells Red that he is gay.  When he responds with surprise, Denny promptly hangs up, leaving Abby and Red worrying about him, but unable to contact him as he has not disclosed his whereabouts.  Red is the owner of a construction company, and although in his 70s, he still participates in the hands-on part of the job.  Abby is a semi-retired social worker who continues to open her home to “strays”, just as she has done over the years.  When Abby starts to wander and later can’t recall where she’s been, her children worry that they need help, but Red and Abby refuse their offers.  Only when Red has a heart attack do they accept that things must change.  Daughters Jeannie and Amanda take charge, and son Stem and his family move in to help out.  When prodigal son Denny appears at the door, also wanting to move in and help out, strains between family members escalate as family secrets are revealed and we discover that all is not what it seems.  When a sudden death occurs, rocking the family to its core, tensions mount as solutions are sought and discarded in an attempt to cope with the resulting situation.  Part Two begins, “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning in July of 1959…”, the phrase that is always used to begin the oft-repeated story of how Abby and Red fell in love.  Tyler offers the story behind the story, and we as readers feel that we are getting to know these characters on a deeper level.  In Part Three, we are taken back several decades earlier, to the time when Red’s parents, Linnie Mae and Junior, are moving into the Brills’ house as a young family.  We learn of Junior’s origins, and the truth behind the much-admired family on Boulton Street.  Never over-the-top, always presented with honesty and sensitivity, this sprawling family epic portrays the drama of one family over generations, whose members will make you laugh and cry as you are pulled into the drama that is their lives.  This is the only book I’ve read by this award-winning American novelist, and while it is not exactly my favourite genre, her use of language often captured the essence of the scene precisely.  I did find it too long and drawn-out, and I didn’t really get all the information I wanted about some of the family members’ stories, particularly the children, but I would definitely recommend this to anyone who has read her works in the past, or anyone who enjoys domestic fiction or family sagas.
Not sure what I will read next, but I want something that is fast-paced and engaging, maybe The Secret Place by Irish mystery writer Tana French.  With the windchill today not getting much above -16 degrees, I think it will be a good afternoon to stay inside where it is warm and read, read, read. 
Happy Robbie Burns Day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 January 2015

Tea, treats and books on a lazy Sunday morning...

I’m feeling very lazy this morning, as I sip my delicious tea and enjoy fresh-baked Date Bread… Do Sunday mornings get any better than this?!

I had a great day yesterday in terms of books.  I went through my bookshelves a couple of weeks ago and found a number of books that I’ve either read and want to get rid of or books that I thought I wanted to read but are no longer interesting to me.  I then made two piles:  books that I could bring to a secondhand bookstore and ones that are either in rough condition but still readable or ones that are library discards – those I will bring to the little “Community Library” that was built by one of the people who uses the co-op Community Garden around the corner.  These are popping up everywhere, little sheltered wooden boxes where people can leave books or take books, no formal arrangement necessary.  I’ve donated quite a few books to them, and picked up a few, too.  I think it is an awesome way for people to share books without the hassle of due dates or records.  I managed to sell all of my secondhand offerings, so I once again have credit for when I need to buy some used books.  I also went to the library and found a copy of February by Lisa Moore, the book we are going to discuss for my book group in February (yes, that was intentional).  This reminded me that book collections are fluid, not stagnant, and that there is a difference between books we want to keep in case we want to reread them, and books we read once and then sell, donate, pass on or bring back to the library.  I know I have one bookshelf where I keep all my “good books”, books I am proud to display.  They are generally in good condition and represent the “literary” side of my reading habits, or have some personal historical significance.  I keep all the “light” or “trashy” reads or obvious library discards in poor condition hidden on the bookshelves upstairs – does that make me a book snob? 

Anyway, one of the books I brought to the secondhand bookstore yesterday was The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger, which I also bought secondhand last month.  This was the book that my “friends” bookclub discussed on Thursday night.  If you recall, I’ve mentioned more than once that I am not a fan of historical fiction, and at this point I feel that I’ve been reading that genre back-to-back-to-back since December (The Winter Palace, The Postmistress and now The Mistress of Nothing).  There were four of us that came out, and two of us agreed that we do not like historical fiction in general, that we prefer psychological fiction or fiction that in plot-centred.  The other two said that they enjoyed historical fiction because they like to feel transported to another place and time, or because they feel like they are learning something.  This book is based on the true story of Victorian writer and intellectual Lady Duff Gordon, or Lucie, who suffered from tuberculosis in the 1860s.  In the hopes that a hot, dry climate would aid in her recovery, she left her husband and family behind and travelled to Egypt with her maid, Sally.  Once arrived, she settled in Luxor and began the next stage in her life, shedding the conventions of British life, along with conventional clothing, adopting instead the loose attire worn by Egyptian men, and cutting her hair short.  She allowed her maid, Sally, much freedom, for which Sally was ever grateful.  Loyal servant though she was, however, she broke one too many rules, with dire consequences.  Lady Duff Gordon, rather than demonstrating her usual leniency and understanding, banished Sally from her household and ordered her to return to England, alone and without a position or reference.  What Sally does to survive demonstrates that she learned quickly how to survive in adverse circumstances.  Told from Sally’s point of view, this novel offers an interesting look into what may or may not have happened when Lucie was faced with the one challenge from her loyal servant for which she could not offer forgiveness.  Lady Duff Gordon’s letters home from Egypt were published in a book, and I believe they are still available, although I haven’t looked for them at the library.  Much of this book is based on information found in those letters.  I was willing to start the discussion, and shared my thought that, although the novel was quite short (250 pages), I was frustrated that the first 80 pages were taken up with nothing but descriptions:  descriptions of their travel, descriptions of their household in England, descriptions of Lady Duff Gordon’s illness, descriptions of their house in Luxor, descriptions of their surroundings and the village activities, and the Nile, and the boat, ad nauseum, all the while described in the nauseatingly devoted tone of the loyal maid Sally, with her “my Lady” this and her “my Lady” that.  Then, finally, on page 80, a full one-third of the way through the book, something happened!  He kissed her!  WOO HOO!  I thought, aha!  Now the story is going to get interesting.  At this point, another member stopped me and said, “He kissed her?  I stopped reading before then because it was too descriptive and nothing was happening.”  So we filled her in on what happened in the rest of the book, but I’m not sure that she was interesteded enough to go back and finish it.  One person said that she found it fascinating to learn about the social customs and expectations in both Britain and Egypt at the time, and the different ways each country viewed the roles of women.  We discussed how free Lady Duff Gordon felt in Egypt, but also noted that she was a British woman in Egypt, a woman with her own means who could basically do as she pleased, even adopting men’s attire.  Her experiences were very different from those women who were born in Egypt and were made to follow traditional Egyptian customs.  There is one scene near the end of the book when Sally is discussing her life in England with Mabrouka, an Egyptian woman, and Mabrouka is amazed that Sally was allowed to take the train once a month and go to the museum in London by herself, since she herself was not allowed out in public where there might be men present.  We talked about why Lady Duff Gordon was so harsh in her treatment of Sally after what she perceived as Sally’s disloyalty, whether it was borne of envy or a sense of betrayal.  We felt that any of the relationships in the book would have been really interesting if they had been explored more deeply, but that they all lacked sufficient depth – the book was too superficial in its treatment of the many interesting relationships that really should have been explored if this had been a longer, dare I say “better written” book.  Shame on me for that last comment, but it wasn’t just my opinion - we all agreed that this was true.  I can’t honestly say that I would recommend this book to anyone, but it did win the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, so clearly some important readers liked it.  I promptly added it to my pile of books to be brought to the secondhand bookstore, and it was rejected by the first one, but I brought it to another bookseller and he bought it.

That’s all for today.  I hope to make some real headway on my next book, which I received in order to review it, the new Anne Tyler book, A Spool of Blue Thread.  It’s a fairly long book, and one that should be read in large chunks, not one I want to pick up and put down often.  Have a great day!

Bye for now...

Sunday 11 January 2015

Tea and books on a cold, bright Sunday morning...

I am thrilled to be drinking my usual Masala Chai tea this morning!  These past few weeks without it have been a real struggle, as I tried and failed to find a suitable replacement.  I ended up ordering it online from Tweed and Hickory ( and have 1.1 lbs of this delicious loose black tea blend, so I expect to have enough tea for the rest of the year!  It arrived on Friday, and while I was tempted to make a cup yesterday, I resisted the temptation and waited until this morning, so it makes this “first cup” while blogging a bit special. 
I had my book club meeting yesterday morning, and we discussed Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress.  If you recall from my last post, I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I was enjoying this novel, and I thought it would be a big hit with my book club ladies.  Well, I think I was the only one who actually enjoyed it.  The other three members who showed up yesterday had very wishy-washy experiences with it.  One member was sick, and this was also going to be her last meeting, as she is moving at the end of the month, so she sent in a card to say goodbye to everyone, but she also included a note about the book.  She was not very enthusiastic about it, and felt that there were too many long, drawn-out descriptions of emotions and motives, and too much “soul-searching”, which she thought got a bit tedious.  Another member thought there were too many coincidences in the book to be believable - she thought the stories were too contrived.  She felt that Will’s decision indicated a weak character, and didn’t believe that a real person would choose to act in such a way.  Since this is one of the main stories in the book, it casts a shadow of doubt over much of the plot in the rest of the book.  She did say that the scene with Emma and Frankie near the end of the book, when they went to the beach and Emma was finally able to release her anguish was a very moving scene, one that touched her and rang true. Her conclusion was that she had mixed feelings about the book.  Another member thought that the title was misleading, as the only character she felt she really got to know was Frankie, who was not the postmistress but the reporter.  She liked the writing, and thought that Emma’s concern that she was not valuable or even visible if no one loved her was food for thought.  Another member felt that the author tried to put too many things into the book, that there were too many stories that were not developed deeply enough.  She thought that this book presented a different perspective on WWII, specifically Frankie’s story as an American reporter before the US had even joined the war, and that this book offered an insight into, as the author says more than once in the novel, “the story around the edges”.  This is not the story of the men on the battlefields, but of the people, predominantly women, around the edges, those who are waiting, and doing what they can to help in a situation where they do not know what is really going on.  We thought the scene where Frankie is reporting from France with the German censor right by her side was very vivid, as were the scenes when she was on the train trying to collect stories from the other passengers, especially the scene with Thomas and the little boy (I won’t give away the details, but that scene was particularly memorable).  We also discussed Iris’s designation as postmaster, and Frankie’s comment near the end that, in Britain, she would be called the postmistress.  I pointed out that I felt the book was really about the changing roles of women at that period in history, and I passed around a picture of Rosie the Riveter, the cultural icon in the US that represented American women who worked in factories during WWII.  I also mentioned the movie “Rear Window”, and the fact that Frankie was a war correspondent, similar to Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film, who was a photojournalist.  Stewart doesn’t think his girlfriend, Grace Kelly, could survive in his rough and rugged man’s world of foreign environments that lacked the creature comforts she would need.  Grace Kelly and Frankie both prove that women can adapt to any situation and can survive just about anything the world can throw at them.  We all agreed that there were just too many deaths in the novel, especially the final deeath near the end, which we thought was totally unnecessary.  Overall, it was a great discussion, and I think those who were able to make it to the meeting had a more positive response to the book after the meeting than they had when they arrived, as is often the case.
After finishing this novel, I had time to read All Saints by K. D. Miller.  This book is a series of interrelated stories, with the common thread being the fictional Anglican church called All Saints located in Toronto, to which all of the stories’ characters are connected, either firmly or loosely.  This book, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Trust Fiction prize, was both interesting and varied.  Toronto writer Miller uses different voices for each of her stories, which can be read alone but which, if read in the order in which they are presented in the book, offer a much richer reading experience.  One story tells of Garth, a man who has been in a loveless marriage for years, and who, now in his eighties, is trying to build a room in the basement for his friend Barney, with whom he fought in the war and with whom he may have had a fleeting homosexual relationship years ago.  Another tells of recently widowed priest Simon, who secretly lusts after one of his parishoners.  Yet another tells of Alice Vipond, an elderly woman who attended the church when she was a girl, and who has spent decades incarcerated in a mental institution after murdering her entire grade 2 class.  There are many other stories that are presented in a way that made this reader feel somewhat voyeuristic, a feeling I also had when reading Michelle Berry’s book of interrelated stories, Interference.  There is no official literary term yet that I am aware of for this type of writing, a hybrid between short stories and novel, but there should be, as authors seem to be using this technique more and more.  Anyway, All Saints was an interesting and thought-provoking read, and the writing was excellent.  I would highly recommend this collection to just about any reader.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 January 2015

Short post for the end of the holidays...

On this wet, slushy, rainy, cold Sunday morning, I am enjoying a cup of Winter’s Blend tea that a friend recommended to me, and it is delicious!  This will be a short post - I wrote a full post on Thursday, New Year’s Day, and hadn’t intended to write today at all, but somehow a Sunday morning, as I settle in with my tea, just isn’t the same without a little bit of blogging. 

I have been reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake these past few days, and am getting further along with it than I had expected, so if the rain keeps me inside, I may even finish it before the end of the day.  This is the book we will be discussing at the book club meeting on Saturday, but I wanted to write a short plot summary today so I could devote next week’s post to the discussion highlights.  This popular book club choice tells the story of three American women during the early days of WWII:  Frances “Frankie” Bard is a journalist and reporter, that “radio gal” that Americans listen to for updates on the war in Britain, specifically the Blitz in London;  Iris James is the postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts, a forty-ish single woman who holds a high-ranking government job that, according to some townspeople, should have gone to one of the many men who are out of work; and Emma Fitch, the youthful new doctor’s wife, who must make a go of it in her new town, which is her husband’s hometown.  These three women must learn to cope with the ever-changing atmosphere that surrounds them during wartime, before America officially joined the war, and it is a novel about waiting, about love and loss, and about what it means to be a hero in a world where communication is slow and traditional roles are changing.  I don’t generally enjoy reading what I call “women’s books”, the type of books that focus on the struggles of women against obstacles, personal or man-made, but struggles that are specifically related to women.  They also include details about women’s lives (for example, in this book, childbirth and menstruation are detailed – things I don’t really need to read about).  I chose this book for our book club because it is a popular book club selection and many of my members enjoy reading historical fiction.  I didn’t expect to enjoy it, but despite my misgivings, I have been looking forward to finding opportunities to read this book over the last few days.  I think it is the tension the author has created, the uncertainty that I as a reader feel about the situations in the novel and their outcomes, that perhaps resembles, in some small way, the uncertainty that those during the war felt when they didn’t know what was going on in Europe and didn’t know if those who had gone over were ever coming back.  Although I don’t love her writing style, and would not actively seek out another book by this author, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so interested in this novel.  I think my ladies will enjoy it, too – I’ll let you know after our discussion next week.

OK, that’s all I have for today.  Happy First Sunday in 2015!

Bye for now...

Thursday 1 January 2015

First post for the New Year...

For something a little different, this morning I have a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a slice of Apple Loaf on the table in front of me as I ponder my reading experiences over the past week and the past year.

I just finished reading a short novel by Canadian author Jacqueline Baker called The Broken Hours.  This novel begins with Arthor P Crandle accepting a temporary position as secretary and housekeeper for a reclusive writer in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1936 as a way of escaping the all-consuming poverty he has recently been experiencing.  He also seems to need this employment as an escape from some personal tragedy which has befallen him.  He barely gets to the address of the writer when strange things begin to occur, strange, shadowy things that are just out of reach and just beyond understanding, yet nevertheless felt as very real for Arthor.  So continues the novel, as he explores his room and the rest of the house, cleans the accumulated garbage and grime, attempts to stock the cupboards with edible items, feeds the numerous cats that appear on the roof of the neighbouring house, and befriends the elusive out-of-work actress Flossie, who seems to radiate light in this otherwise dreary, dark, shadowy environment, and to whom Arthor is increasingly drawn.  The elusive author, Arthor’s employer, is none other than science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, a figure who is appears in the novel very little, but about whom Arthor is constantly in search of details as to his life and current condition.  Baker creates a downright creepy atmosphere in this gothic story, right down to the dark and stormy night, the secluded location, the flickering lights in distant windows, absent women and dead children, ghostly figures appearing in the night, a “mad woman in the attic”, and of course the heroine in distress.  I know nothing about Lovecraft, but I think this book has been well-researched by Baker and she did a good job of capturing the essence of Lovecraft’s writing without including too many graphical or gory details.  All-in-all, if you were in the mood for a creepy read, this would be a good choice, despite the vague, inconclusive ending.

And I just finished an audiobook yesterday by Henning Mankell, not one of the books in the “Kurt Wallander” series, but a standalone title, The Man from Beijing.  The story opens with a lone wolf who, due to increasing hunger, has crossed over from Norway to Sweden, where it finds a human leg and thinks itself lucky to have found such a feast.  As we discover, this leg belongs to one of the 19 people who have been brutally murdered in the remote hamlet of Hesjövallen in northern Sweden over the course of one night.  The rest of the novel follows the investigation into these horrific murders, led by Detective Investigator Vivi Sundberg, who wants to close this case as soon as possible.  Enter Brigitta Roslin, a district judge from Helsingborg, who discovers that her parents were distant relatives of two of the murder victims.  Forced to take time off for medical reasons, she travels to Hesjövallen to try to help with the investigation, and discovers some diaries written by her distant relatives, which she surreptitiously removes from the scene when no one seems to take her suggestions regarding the murders seriously.  She thus inserts herself into the investigation, and the novel follows her back to Helsingborg, then to Copenhagen, and ultimately to Beijing, where her experiences lead her to believe the crime is much more complex than simply one man who confesses to the murder but has no motive.  This novel has all the hallmarks of Mankell’s stories:  a dark, sinister atmosphere, a good murder mystery that is much larger than it at first seems, an exploration into corruption, cruelty and colonialism, and the personal struggles of the main characters.  But, although at the heart of this novel is an excellent murder mystery, the reader is pulled along in too many directions and immersed in too much historical detail of the many thousands of Chinese peasants who were transported to America in the 19th century to build the US railroads through the mountains, and who were forced to live and work in horrific conditions.  While this detour was interesting and necessary to understand the overall story, it was far too long and detailed, and threatened to distract the reader from the main story.  If I was reading this as a physical book, I would have skimmed this part, but since it was an audiobook, I was forced to listen to every word.  There were also other sections that digress from the main plot, such as the overly detailed historical account of Mao’s revolution, which, again, is important to understand the plot, but is too long and detailed, and threatens to lose the reader’s attention.  The scope of the novel is too large and ultimately unbelievable, and too many inconsistences exist, and yet, at the heart, if one were to pare away all the extras, the main story is a good one.  Unfortunately, the reader has to continue to dig throughout the novel to separate the murder mystery from the novel of social injustices – perhaps Mankell should have published two shorter novels rather than mashing them into one long, meandering one.

And, as is my habit for the first post of the year, I like to see how many books and audiobooks I have finished over the year.  This year I read 49 books and listened to 18 audiobooks.  That is down from last year on both counts (in 2013 I read 55 books and listened to 23 audiobooks).  I also recall that I was going to limit my Favourite Audiobooks to 5, as I have less to choose from, so my Top 5 titles are:

All Cry Chaos Leonard Rosen
The Expats Chris Pavone
Our Kind of Traitor John Le Carré
Mission Song John Le Carré
The Silent Wife ASA Harrison

That’s all for today.  Happy New Year, and Happy Reading in 2015!!

Bye for now…

PS I have decided that, during my weekly morning blogging time, tea is far better than coffee.