Sunday 26 April 2015

Last post for April...

On this lovely, sunny spring day, I can hear birdsong coming in through the open window to accompany my thoughts of books and reading.  With my cup of chai and vanilla scone on the table in front of me, one cat in my lap helping me type and another in the window, I would say this was a perfect Sunday morning.
I read The Dinner by Herman Koch last week.  It is our next book club selection, and we don’t meet until next Saturday.  I don’t usually like to read the book club book so far in advance, but it just worked out that way this time.  I figured that, having read it before, I would remember enough of the plot and characters to still be actively involved in the discussion.  I will offer a summary of the book and give my initial responses this week, then next week I can just give you the discussion highlights, so you don’t have to read too much of the same thing twice.  This novel, divided into parts that correspond to the courses of a meal, focuses on two couples who are meeting at an upscale restaurant for dinner.  Narrated by Paul, who may or may not be reliable, we are treated to an internal monologue as he discusses everything from the reason for the choice of restaurant to Paul’s relationship with his wife, Claire.  Once the couples get together, their discussion is relayed along with Paul’s commentary.  While it at first appears that they are just getting together to socialize, we later discover that they have a serious item on their agenda.  Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, who has been involved in a horrific act that binds them together and could change their lives forever.  This, then, is the reason for the uncomfortable dinner, to determine what is to be done about the whole situation.  Complications arise in the form of one couple’s adopted son, the occupations and aspirations of each husband and the influences the wives have on them.  This is a darkly comic, disturbing novel that explores how far people would go to protect the ones they love.  I read a review of this book in the local paper a few years ago and thought it sounded like just the kind of book I love.  I requested it from the library and remember being wow-ed by it, by the taut writing, the dark undercurrent that was ever-present, and the slow, subtle deterioration of the situation in the story over the course of one dinner.  I felt that it would be a good choice for my book club, and so put it on the list.  Upon rereading it, I still felt wow-ed by the writing style and the way the book is organized in parts, and the deterioration of the relationships between these couples, all over such a short period of time.  But I felt that it was a bit “over the top” at times, and especially at the end.  I also felt that there were areas of the story that were touched upon briefly that should have perhaps been explored more deeply.  This is one of the problems this reader faces when rereading a book that I have read and enjoyed in the past – sometimes it fails to live up to my expectations.  If the novel has a surprise ending, knowing the ending often spoils the reading experience if creating suspense is a key ingredient to the plot or storyline.  This was evident when rereading Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson.  All of the book club members who had read the book before said the same thing:  it was a great read the first time, but disappointing on reread.  As far as I know, no one in my group has read The Dinner before, so I’ll be very interested to hear what they have to say about it.
So the big CFUW book sale was this weekend, and it was a great experience, as always.  I went after work on Friday, but seemed less interested than I was expecting.  Maybe I was tired after a week of work, or maybe I was seeing too many copies of books I already have.  I ended up buying a stack of children’s paperbacks for my schools’ libraries, a stack of tatty, well-used Agatha Christie paperbacks just for fun, and five books I consider to be my “real” purchases, books that I chose based on the merits of the book itself.  One of the books was The Attack by Yasmina Khadra, another was an Icelandic mystery by Arnaldur Indridason, and one was a non-fiction book that was mixed up in the fiction section, a memoir of a British man who, in 1961, with no experience to speak of, went over to Africa to manage a tea plantation, 500 acres and over 1000 employees.  The title is Tea:  addiction, exploitation and empire by Roy Moxham.   I also picked up an extra copy of The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison for my book club (not enough copies at the library, so hopefully this will allow us to keep it on the list).  Due to my feeling of disinterest on Friday, I swore that I would not return on Saturday, but, as usual, I did get back there around noon, shortly before they closed.  This is a great time to go because all the shoppers from the day before have picked over the books on the tables, so they are restocked with books from the boxes that were under the tables, which is like going to a whole new book sale!  And being so close to closing time, which is 1pm, they just want to get the stuff out the door, so they have a half-price sale or “fill a box for $5.00”.  That is a deal I couldn’t pass up, and so, between my husband and me, we were able to fill a large box nearly to overflowing with books, books, books!  I mostly picked books I had never read before, but I also got a few more for the school libraries and a few titles that I think a friend of mine would enjoy.  It’s shameful to say, but offhand, I can only think of the names of a few of the books I got yesterday:  Daphne Du Maurier’s biography of her father, Solar by Ian McEwan, Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, in case we ever discuss it at a book club meeting, and The Kitchen Boy:  a novel of the last tsar by Robert Alexander, which sounds really interesting.  I also picked up The Distant Hours by Kate Morton - I've never read anything by her before, but it looked good so I added it to the box.  Anyway, Friday for me is usually a calm perusal of titles, but Saturday is a frenzied free-for-all in a really crowded hall filled with books that beg to be taken home.  I loved it!
That’s all for today.  Time to get outside and listen to the birds!

Bye for now…

Sunday 19 April 2015

Happy Birthday, Julie's Reading Corner!

WOW, it’s hard to believe that I started this blog four years ago!  It’s been so much fun for me to share my thoughts about books and reading in general, and also to give you my views of the books I’ve been reading and listening to in particular.  I look forward to having this opportunity every week (and not just because of the tea and treats!), so thanks for continuing to read this blog.
I read a delightful novel by a Canadian author this week, Nothing Like Love, by Sabrina Ramnanan.  Ramnanan is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education Creative Writing Program, and this is her debut novel.  It opens with Vimla hurrying back to her rented room, where she is met by her landlady, Ms. Nelly, who gives her a letter.  Ms. Nelly is so curious about the contents, about which Vimla reveals nothing, that she opens the letter to find only scraps of colourful fabric.  When questioned, Vimla simply says that these are “reminders to keep going”.  Step back to Chance, Trinidad, 1974, where we encounter Vimla and Krishna, two young lovers  who are planning their future together despite resistance from their parents.  Their plans are thwarted when they are discovered together late one night holding hands, a meeting that has  drastic repercussions for both parties.  Vimla, the smartest girl on the island, loses the teaching position promised to her by the headmaster.  Krishna’s actions bring shame on his father, a Hindu pundit, or holy man, and he is immediately betrothed to Chalisa, a young woman who lives in a village two hours away and so has not yet heard of his shameful act.  Neither Krishna nor Chalisa want to go through with the wedding, which is set to take place the next month.  Krishna is then sent away to stay with Auntie Kay, his father’s estranged sister, in Tobago to study scripture until the wedding, which will be arranged while he is away.  Meanwhile, Vimla pines for her lost love and plots with her friend, Minty, to bring Krishna back to her and build a future together.  Along the way, we meet a cast of characters both fierce and hilarious.  Chandani, Vimla’s mother, is so ashamed of her daughter’s actions that she goes on strike, confining herself to her room for days and leaving her husband and daughter to fend for themselves.  Om, Vimla’s father, finds solace in the local rum shop with his friends.  Sangita, Minty’s mother, is having her own clandestine meetings with Faizel Muhammed, while her husband drinks rum with Om.  When Chalisa’s grandmother receives news about an upcoming event that may change the way Krishna’s family feel about the planned wedding, she moves the wedding date forward in an attempt to save her granddaughter from the shame and ostracism she will surely experience due to her own shameful actions.  Blackmail, deception and discovery feature prominently in this race against time.  Will a wedding take place?  And who will marry whom?  Can true love find a way?  And will anyone find happiness in the village of Chance?  All of this takes place in just two weeks, two weeks that could change Vimla’s, Krishna’s and Chalisa’s lives forever.  While reading this novel, I felt like I was reading a Jane Austen novel, a comedy of manners, only set in Trinidad in 1974, in which marriages are arranged according to class and social standing, and women are not meant to have any aspirations other than to be good wives and mothers, but where a whole underside of activities are taking place without the men knowing anything, where the women really are really the ones who make things happen.  This novel will surely appeal to readers who enjoy a lighthearted love story with a twist.  Ramnanan is definitely a Canadian author to watch.
I recently watched a teen movie on TV, “The Moth Diaries”, which was not award-winning material, but it reminded me of one of my favourite books in grade school, Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan.  I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow it from one of the school libraries, and am having fun rereading it after so many years.  This novel, originally published in 1976, tells the story of Rachel, a 15-year old girl living with her family in Albuquerque, whose family learns of the recent death of Rachel's aunt and uncle, along with the young woman they hired to help out around the house.  Her parents immediately leave for the small house built in the Ozarks to bring back their niece, 17-year-old Julia.  Rachel, who has two brothers, one older and one younger, is not entirely thrilled at the idea of suddenly having a ready-made big sister, but she does her best to be welcoming when her parents return with Julia.  Immediately, Rachel senses something is not right about her.  Perhaps it’s those haunting, haunted eyes, or her strange accent and way of speaking, when she speaks at all, perhaps it’s the fact that Rachel’s gentle, loving dog, Trickle, dislikes Julia the instant he encounters her… but no one will believe Rachel, even when strange things begin to happen to her family and her neighbours.  Could Julia really be a witch?  And how is Rachel the only one to recognize her for what she is?  It’s interesting reading this book now, after nearly 35 years, because I recognize many of the features or aspects of this book, which I read when I was 12, which are also present in some of my favourite books and films today.  The haunting, mysterious tone reminds me of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.  The fact that only Rachel recognizes what is going on reminds me of the film “Rosemary’s Baby”, the original film with Mia Farrow, not the remake (I’ve only read the book once or twice, but know that it is a fairly true adaptation).  This recognition tells me that my reading tastes haven’t changed much in nearly four decades, although I hope I’ve significantly expanded my selections to include other genres.  Anyway, it’s fun to reread this Young Adult novel, which I hope to finish today.
Also, I wanted to mention that the annual CFUW Book Sale is taking place at First United Church in Waterloo this weekend (  Even though I don’t “need” any more books (what I really need is more bookshelves!), I am planning to go on Friday after work and likely again on Saturday near the end, when everything is half-price or “fill a bag for $5.00.
That’s all for today.  I think I’ll go out and treat myself to a piece of “birthday” cake!

Bye for now…

Sunday 12 April 2015

Book talk on a sunny Sunday morning...

On this glorious, sunny morning, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a yummy cinnamon bun from the market as I think about this past week’s reading and listening experiences.

My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, which was written during the author’s retreat from Paris into the French countryside during the German occupation of France.  Because she and her husband were both Jewish, they were forced to wear the yellow star that signified inferior legal and social standing.  Written under such precarious and terrifying circumstances, we all agreed that it was amazing that she was able to write such an accomplished novel, the first two of the five parts she envisioned would make up the novel, constucted like a symphony and based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  She had access to no resources and wrote in secret, fully aware that she would likely never see the work published, yet she was able to create such a beautiful work, where no bitterness or blame is evident.  The first book, “Storm in June”, takes place in June 1940, when residents of Paris are fleeing to remote villages to escape the arrival of the Germans.  A cast of characters is introduced, including the Pericands, an upper middle class family with five children, most still at home, but the oldest is a priest in a neighbouring town.  Gabriel Corte is a writer who is also trying to flee from Paris with his mistress, Florence, as he laments the effects of war on art and culture, fearing that he would be too old to adapt to a “new fashion”.  There is also the Michauds, who both work at the bank and are trying to relocate to the bank’s new site.  And Charles Langelet, a single man who loves nothing in life but his possessions, art and sculptures, valuable things which he cannot take with him as he, too, prepares to leave Paris.  The events that befall these characters as they try to flee will bring them together in interesting, unusual, and sometimes comical ways, as they struggle to survive, to help one another, to keep family members together, and to care for those they love.  Book Two, “Dolce”, tells of life in a French village that has been occupied by Germans.  We meet new characters, whose lives are intertwined as they, too, struggle to survive and to create some sense of normalcy while living under most difficult conditions.  This extraordinary novel was a hit with all of the ladies who came out yesterday.  One member said that reading this book reminded her of her own mother’s stories about when she and her husband were living in German-occupied Holland during WWII, and how they used to be approached on their farm by people from the village who would offer them household items in exchange for food.  We talked about the excellent characterization in the novel, that all the characters were believable, that they were both good and bad, and that they all made both sensible and poor decisions.  Sometimes they had to be crafty, and sometime they had to behave in ways that were out of character, in order to ensure survival for another day.  Written without a sense of bitterness, Nèmirovsky presents a balanced view of the characters, including a very complex, human look at the Germans who were stationed in the village.  She presented them as men who are doing a job, even if they don’t necessarily like it.  They, too, had real lives, families and careers or ambitions before the war, which interrupted everything for them as well.  And the villagers’ interaction with the soldiers is also complex:  they appear to be pleasant and co-operative with them, but when push comes to shove, they will deceive them to look after their own people.  We noted that, if we had not read the information about the author, we would never have known that this book was written by a Jewish woman who was trying to evade capture by the Nazis; rather, it was written in a style that was accessible to readers today.  She offered insightful views of both the Germans and the French, the lower classes and the upper classes, which we thought was due to her wide range of personal experiences, since she moved from Kiev to Finland and then to Paris, and from a lower class in Russia to a higher class in France.  Finally, we discussed the two parts, and the way these worked together.  Part One, “Storm in June”, introduces us to many characters and sets the stage for the book.  Although fleeing Paris, the characters somehow expected things to stay the same, and so made impractical decisions when it came to the preparations for their journey, such as when they packed silverware instead of food.  Some of the episodes were almost comical, such as the scene where one group steals the basket of food from another group.  This was humourous, but it also drew attention to the fact that, in dire circumstances, people are capable of behaving in unusual, even cunning ways in order to survive.  Part Two, “Dolce”, we decided, was a much softer story, as indicated by the title.  It focused on the love story of Lucile and Bruno, and the activities of the occupied village.  The characters in this part of the book were also willing to take chances for one another.  Some of the characters from Part One appeared briefly in this part of the book, so we suspected that, had she been able to complete this book, they would have all come together in the end.  We discussed so much more that the points listed above, but these are the highlights of the meeting.  I want to thank Marie for recommending that this book be included on the selection list.  It was definitely a good choice for discussion, and I probably would never have read it otherwise, and would have missed out on a most amazing reading experience.  If the author had not been taken to Auschwitz and had not died in the camp in August, 1942, if she had survived, she planned to write three more parts, totalling 1000 pages, which would likely have been an incredible account of life during that time in history.  If you have not yet read this book, you should definitely put it on your list of Books To Be Read.
And I finished listening to This Body of Death by Elizabeth George last week.  I’ve listened to it before, but I needed something in a pinch, and since it is read by my favourite narrator, John Lee, and is complicated enough that I wouldn’t remember the details from the last time I listened to it nearly five years ago, I felt it was a safe bet.  It has such a complex plot that I will just quickly sum it up here.  Inspector Lynley is still on leave after his wife’s murder when Scotland Yard’s Acting Chief Superintendent Isabell Ardery calls on him to help her out with her first case, a test that will determine if she gets the job permanently or not.  The body of a young woman, Jemima Hastings, is found in a cemetery in Stoke-Newington, and Ardry’s team is called in to find the killer.  Jemima was living in the New Forest until her recent departure from her lover, Gordon Jossie, and her brother, Robbie.  When Jemima’s friend, Meredith Powell, conducts her own search into the disappearance and death, she becomes unwittingly involved in a complex plot of deception and murder.  It was an excellent listening experience, all 19 parts (that’s over 20hours of audiobook!).  I wish there were more of George’s audiobooks available through the library’s free download service, Overdrive Media, but alas, there are only two at this point, and I’ve listened to both of them already, this one twice.  

OK, enough about WWII and dead bodies.  Time to get outside and enjoy the bright, sunny, warm spring day.
Bye for now...

Friday 3 April 2015

Book talk on a long Easter weeked...

On this first day of the Easter weekend, I am enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread as I write this post.  I will be away on Sunday visiting family, so it was either write on Friday or Monday, and since I will have nothing new to write about on Monday, I may as well get a head start on the coming week and write today. 
Another reason I wanted to write today is that Good Friday always reminds me of my favourite book, which I haven’t reread in quite a while.  The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck opens on a “fair gold morning (in) April” with Ethan Allen Hawley going to open the grocery store which his family once owned, but where he is now a grocery clerk for his Italian boss, Marullo.  On his Good Friday, just before he opens the store, Hawley is addressing the restocked wall of canned goods in Latin, and it is this scene, more than any other in any book I’ve read, that comes to mind whenever anyone asks what my favourite book is.  Hawley’s loss of pride and personal shame in the face of others’ success is his fatal flaw, and Steinbeck’s subtle portrayal of his character is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of “show, don’t tell” I’ve ever read.  Hmm… maybe I will have to make time to read this amazing book again sometime soon.
But for now, I must focus on the book I’m reading for my next book group meeting, Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, which is really good, but a rather slow read for me, so dense is it with excellent writing and historical detail.  I will write about that book once we’ve had our discussion next weekend.
I read Tessa McWatt’s latest novel, Higher Ed, last week, and it was a very good read indeed.  This novel intertwines the stories of five characters, each with their own personal worries and triumphs, who are all searching for love, albeit in different forms.  Francine is part of the Quality Assessment and Evaluation team at a college in East London.  She is devastated after witnessing a fatal accident that leaves her distraught and struggling to find meaning in her life.  Robin is a film studies lecturer who faces possible layoff due to the restructuring of his department, but this uncertainty only adds to the complexity of his personal problems as he tries to figure out how to move forward and find true love, while dealing with a complicated issue from his recent past.  Olivia is a charismatic student at the college, pursuing a law degree while also dealing with her own family and personal issues.  Ed works at a council office, where he is in charge of burying the unclaimed and unnamed dead, a job he undertakes with dignity and conviction.  And finally, Katrin is a Polish waitress who is struggling with her job at a café to save enough money to bring her mother over from Poland.  These characters’ lives become intertwined against the backdrop of contemporary London, where layoffs and unemployment loom large as very real possibilities for everyone. This novel had humour, it had strong emotion, the characters seemed very real to me, and the stories were believable and timely.  I have never read anything by this Canadian author, but I would definitely recommend this book to just about anyone.
The sun has come out, but the forecast calls for rain this afternoon, so I best get outside and enjoy the spring weather while I can stay dry.  Happy Easter!
Bye for now...