Sunday 31 May 2015

Tea and books on a cold, rainy morning...

On this rather dreary morning, after wild rains yesterday afternoon, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a lemon-cranberry scone from the market as I think about my book club meeting yesterday morning, and anticipate a day when I am stuck inside, which is a good day for reading.  I’ve also got a few of the first Ontario strawberries in my bowl beside my scone… mmm!!!  

My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg.  The novel opens with 74-year old Gurdial Singh, former chief engineer of the India Railway, the largest transportation company in the world, delivering the last of his newspapers to Mr Kevin at suite 12A at Market Place Tower.  Their usual morning ritual, at 6:30am, with Mr Kevin offering a slice of orange to Singh and making small-talk before returning to his suite, is disrupted when, to Singh’s astonishment, Mr Kevin appears at the door with blood on his hands.  He leans closer to Singh and whispers, “I killed her, Mr Singh...I killed her”.  When the police arrive a few minutes later, they find Kevin and Singh sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea, while Kevin’s second wife, Katherine Torn, lay in the bathtub, dead from a single stab wound.  Did Kevin Brace, famous talk-show host and the “voice of Canada”, murder his wife?  What follows are chapters from the perspectives of different characters who are involved in the investigation and court proceedings surrounding the case.  Ari Greene is an overworked detective who is always trying to make up for the losses his father suffered in WWII, when he lost the members of his first family, but who still finds time to enjoy a clandestine relationship with one of the Crown prosecutors.  Daniel Kennicott is a former lawyer who, after his brother Michael was killed four years ago, joined the police force.  He is a good policeman with a burden of guilt on his shoulders, one who also carries a torch for a woman who was a fellow law student back in his school days.  Albert Fernandez is an up-and-coming defense attorney who is self-conscious of his use of language and is constantly correcting his wife’s poor English.  He strives to improve himself in an effort to impress those he works with:  he arrives early at work to both impress and to take advantage of the early-bird parking rate.  He reads books about how to survive the first years of marriage, as well as books that offer fashion advice (I didn’t know that the best hole for a man to use on a belt is the third one).  Nancy Parish, defense attorney, is frustrated with life and just wants a break.  But she must play the game and try to win this case, her first homicide.  The rules of this game include travelling to the Don jail on a regular basis in an effort to communicate with the defendant, Kevin Brace, who will not speak to her, communicating only by writing cryptic notes to her.  Awotwe Amankwah is a reporter who dreams of being a foreign correspondent, but is stuck doing the nightshift for the overtime pay which is the only way he can make enough money to pay the alimony he owes each month, the only way he will be allowed to keep his limited visitation rights with his children.  He needs a break, and this case could just be it.  These and many other characters feature prominently in this novel by Toronto lawyer and author Rotenberg.  Along the way, we learn about the origin of the English language, the characteristics of Anglo words as contrasted with Saxon words.  We learn the best way to make tea (don’t let the water boil too much, warm the pot first, and don’t pour the water directly onto the teabag - let the bag come to the water).  We learn the best way to treat leather winter boots, and the most effective way to get rid of those salt stains (yet another use for vinegar!).  We are treated to the diverse population of a vibrant city, and learn about other cultures and the difficulties in adjusting to life in a busy Canadian city.  This novel is impossible to slot into one particular fiction genre.  It is a murder mystery, a police procedural, and a legal thriller. It is also an ode to Toronto, and a character study of that city and the people who live and work there.  None of my group had read this book before, and they all loved it.  Actually, one member came out for the meeting even though she had been unable to get a copy of the book, but by the end of the meeting, she couldn’t wait to read it!  Here are some of the things we discussed or commented on:  This book read like a movie, particularly the scene near the end when Daniel is racing for the ferry to cross over from the island and get to court on time.  One member said it was so real that she felt she was racing along with him.  This member grew up in Toronto, so she could picture most of the locations he talks about in the book.  We all agreed that the intentional diversity of the characters did not seem staged or overused, but rather that it realistically represented the heterogeneous makeup of Toronto’s population.  One person summed it up perfectly - she said, “I learned about alot of things I would have never have thought to ask about, but information I’m glad I now have”.  One member said that it was a great mystery because she suspected everyone, while another member said it was great because she didn't suspect anyone.  None of us were disappointed that the ending was left vague, that we didn’t really know what happened or who did it.  I often feel that this kind of vague ending is a bit of a cop-out for an author, that he or she couldn’t decide how to end the book so just left the ending hanging, but with this book, it really worked.   We learned alot about the various strategies police and lawyers use when interviewing witnesses or presenting a case in court, strategies intended to produce certain results. We talked about Bruno Bettelheim, who is only mentioned briefly near the end of the book, but whose works influence the story significantly.  Bettelheim was a once-renowned figure in the field of child psychology, a man whose theories and work with children with autism have now been largely discredited.   Rotenberg has written three other books featuring the same characters, and so I asked the question, “If there is no one main character, is it still a series?”  I used as examples Henning Mankell’s “Kurt Wallander” series, Peter Robinson’s “DCI Banks” series, and Reginald Hill’s “Dalziel and Pascoe” series.  We thought about this for a moment, then someone suggested that Toronto was the main character, which I thought was brilliant.  This could be Rotenberg’s “Toronto” series.  It was a huge success, and I’m sure the book club members are planning to read the other three books in this series, The Guilty Plea, Stray Bullets, and Stranglehold (my personal favourite).  If you have not read any of these books but are interested in checking them out, I would strongly recommend reading Old City Hall first, as it sets the stage for all the others and introduces the reader to many of the characters.

OK, enough about Old City Hall… time to go and read something else!

Bye for now…Julie

Sunday 24 May 2015

Tea and books on a nearly perfect morning...

The birds are singing , the sun is shining, the sky is blue, my chores for the day are done, and I’ve got a steaming cup of tea in front of me.  I couldn’t ask for a better morning.

I want to talk about two books today, neither of which I have finished yet.  The first is The Gallery of Lost Species by Canadian writer Nina Berkhout.  This debut novel opens with 13-year-old Edith Walker spying a unicorn while hiking in the Rockies with her father and sister.  She is still of an age where she believes such mythical creatures are real, and this episode sets the stage for what will become her quest for the rest of her life.  Plain Edith lives in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Vivienne (Viv), who is forced by her mother, Constance (Con), to compete in beauty pageants from a very young age.  Edith feels distanced from these two women, but forms a bond with her father, failed artist Henry, who also lives in the shadow of his wife.  On the trip to the Rockies, when Edith spies what she believes is a unicorn, she also meets handsome geology student Liam, who becomes infatuated with Viv.  So begins her pursuit of the unattainable, a pursuit that will force her to choose between her desire to help her sister and her love for Liam.  I am nearly half-way through this book, and it is hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel, so polished is her use of language.  The imagery is amazing, and the words neatly flow off the page.  It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that she has written several collections of poetry.  But there is something stopping me from finishing this book.  Well, first, I had to stop reading it because I had to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for my book club.  But once my book club meeting was over, I tried to get into this book again, but I just found the characters and situations hopeless.  The main character, Edith, seems to enjoy being a doormat for everyone, especially Viv, Con and Liam.  She seems to have no ambition, in fact she does not even actively pursue Liam, but merely waits passively for him to come around. Well, not quite passively, more like passive-aggressive  It is so frustrating that the thought of another 200 pages of the same is almost more than I can take right now.  But it is so beautifully written that I’m sure I will come back to it again and finish it - I think I just need a break from Edith’s relentlessly depressing choices, particularly when the whether is so bright and the birdsong is so cheerful.  It’s too bad that there have been no glimmers of hope, not even brief ones, for any of the characters in this novel so far.  I would still recommend it, at least for the author’s beautiful use of language.

And I got just over half-way through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, before my group met on Thursday.  There were just three of us at the meeting, and only two of us had made any headway with the book, both getting to about the same spot in the book.  If you have not read it and don’t know anything about this book, it was first published in 1974, after being turned down by 121 publishers.  It went on the become a bestseller, and has been named an American cultural icon in literature.  This autobiographical book follows the narrator on a 17-day motorcycle journey across America, from Minnesota to Northern California, with his son Chris and his friends John and Sylvia, although they leave half-way through the journey to return home.  It is a philosophical exploration into quality and values, and mirrors the author’s own life as he tries to discover his former self, whom he refers to in the book as Phaedrus, the personality he had before he went insane and underwent electroconvulsive therapy treatment.  It seems to follow three strands of narrative:  the first is the motorcycle journey, including the narrator’s relationships with his son and his friends John and Sylvia, and his search for value and connection in a society that seems disconnected and hurried.  His exploration into classical and  romantic attitudes towards life are also compared and contrasted.  The second is his discourse on philosophy.  And the third is his search for his former self, all but forgotten after his ECT treatment.  During our discussion, those of us who read at least some of the book agreed that the text had its ups-and-downs.  While reading the book, I found that I was able to skim the philosophical parts, while devouring the other two strands of the narrative.  The other group member is listening to this book, so is unable to skim parts.  She found it difficult to make sense of the characters, a difficulty I also faced at first, until I did a bit of research to find out more about the book, and discovered who Phaedrus was and what significance he had for the narrator.  It was also a difficult book to listen to because you really have to pay attention to what is happening, which is much easier to do with a physical book that an audiobook.  We both agreed that it had an element of mystery, and was taking us, like the narrator, on a journey of discovery.  We both wanted to finish it, and recommended it to the third member, who was preparing for her daughter’s wedding and so had no free time, nor was she able to focus on anything recently.  So I would recommend this book, but I would also recommend that you do a bit of research about the book first, which will make it easier to understand and to put in context.  I hope to have time to finish it soon!  Alas, I have to put it aside and read  Old CIty Hall by Robert Rotenberg in preparation for my volunteer book club meeting on Saturday.  So many book clubs, so little time…

That’s all for today.  Gotta get outside and enjoy the awesome day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 17 May 2015

Blog post for a long weekend...

I’m trying a new type of Chai Tea that I bought at Ten Thousand Villages yesterday.  I haven’t had a sip yet, but it smells a bit more peppery than my usual, with a hint of licorice.  I hope it’s good!

I read an interesting book last week that I can’t even describe in my own words, so I will insert the publisher’s description of the novel here:  “An unusual and remarkable dystopian novel  
A Free Man by Michel Basilieres is a satirical tall tale presented as the drug and alcohol-fuelled conversation of two old friends getting reacquainted over one night.  It’s also a boy-meets-girl story of the worst kind, and a time travel story about a future where the world is ruled by robots and humans are the vermin.  When timelines cross, the world as we know it bends… Skid Roe is completely self-absorbed and delusional.  His struggle to exercise free will is constantly hampered by the physical manifestation of his inner demons and by the norms and rules of contemporary life.  He’s both aided and hindered by Lem, a robot from the future whose good intentions leave Skid on the run from a shadowy state security agent.  A surreal, beautiful, and powerful mash-up, Basilieres’ long-awaited sophomore effort is inventive and darkly funny.   (  This is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read, and it does not sound remotely like anything I would enjoy, and yet I couldn’t put it down!  It was absurd, but hilarious, and totally off-the-wall, but it also made me think (not too often, though!)  Imagine a cross between Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (the time travel and “humans mating in captivity" parts) and Will Ferguson’s Happiness ™ .  I’m not sure if it was brilliant or just plain bizarre.  Either way, I enjoyed reading this very short book (except the parts that I found outright offensive), but I would probably not recommend it to anyone other than twenty-something bookstore clerks living in Toronto.  Hmmm… maybe that’s why it appealed to me, as that is what I used to be in my past life.  Anyway, I don’t recommend it, so read at our own discretion.

I’m now attempting to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig for my Friends’ Book Club meeting on Thursday.  About six months ago, when we were trying to get some ideas together for book club choices, I put it forth as a title we might consider reading because, as I told the group, I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelf, unread, since I worked at the World’s Biggest Bookstore (now sadly demolished), and would likely never read it unless I had to do so for a discussion.  Well, somehow it became our choice for the May meeting, for which I feel somehow responsible.  I don’t think I’ll have time to read it all by Thursday, but I started it last night and it seems OK, just a guy talking about what it means to be on a motorcycle (in the scene) as opposed to driving in a car (watching the scene).  I can appreciate that.  I don’t really know what it’s about, but I’ll be happy to have at least made an attempt to read it - it’s definitely one of the books on my list of “books I have always wanted to read but have never made the time to do so”.  I’m not quite sure why we decided to read this one, and I’m thinking not everyone is overjoyed at the selection, so I’ll let you know next time what the response at the meeting is.

And, in honour of Victoria Day, I have a few titles about royalty and the royal life to recommend (not a very informed list, as it’s not generally the type of book I like to read):

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K Massie (also The Romanovs)
Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley
The Winter Palace: a novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (also Empress of the Night)
The Kitchen Boy: a novel of the last Tsar by Robert Alexander (haven’t read it yet, but am looking forward to it)

That's all for today. Enjoy the long weekend!

Bye for now...

PS The tea is OK, but I think I'll stick with my original brand.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Books and tea on a summery morning...

On this hot, hazy Sunday morning, I’m enjoying a cup of chai tea as I think about the awesome book I read this past week.  Since we had a family dinner yesterday in honour of Mother’s Day, where I enjoyed delicious homemade Creme Brulee, I am not indulging in a yummy baked treat this morning, although a dish of fresh fruit awaits me on the kitchen counter.  

I read a great book last week by James Bartleman, former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and member of the Order of Canada. Exceptional Circumstances, a quietly gripping spy thriller, tells the story of Luc Cadotte, a young Metis from Penetang in the late 1960s and early 1970s who, faced with social racism, struggles to prove that he is as worthy as any white guy.  His ambition in high school was to go to Business College, marry his high school sweetheart, work in the office of one of the shipyards, and watch his children grow up.  All that changes one day in his final year of school, when a relatively new teacher in town challenges his students with a history lesson that forces Luc to rethink his plans and steers him on a different, potentially more difficult path in life.  He graduates and goes on to University of Ottawa, where he excels, due to his exceptional memory, and applies for a job at the Foreign Office.  After a difficult interview, where his ideals are challenged, he is recruited and sent off to Colombia, where he meets many good people who do bad things as routine, and is instrumental in the deaths of at least two people he held in high regard.  He is then sent off to Cuba, where once again, his expertise in Foreign Intelligence is put to use as he serves a dual role as Canadian Ambassador and CIA operative, gathering information on both potential FLQ connections and secret Russian missiles.  Along the way he acquires a free-spirited wife, which adds complications to both his personal and political life.  And finally, sent back to Canada to assist in the imminent FLQ attack in October 1970, Luc is put in a position where he must choose to act in ways that test his moral convictions, and he must decide whether to stand behind his own words, where he must determine what exactly constitutes “exceptional circumstances”.  I describe this as “quietly gripping” because Luc is just an ordinary guy who wants to succeed.  Like many young people who are entering the adult world, Luc wanted to do well.  Faced with the additional challenge of being Metis in a white-person’s world, he was also motivated by his desire to make his family proud.  And the way he was drawn into the maelstrom of questionable political activities and insidious plots was both unbelievable and all-too-real.  Clearly this is a work of fiction… or is it?  Based on Bartleman’s own experiences, we the reader are left wondering how much is true and how much is embellishment.  The “conversation with the author” at the end of the book is worth reading, as he gives insight into the basis for the book, as well as his purpose in writing it.  This book brought to mind not Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” novels, but rather John LeCarre’s books, particularly A Perfect Spy, or even Graham Green’s  The Quiet American.  I would highly recommend this excellent page-turner to just about anyone.

And I finished an audiobook last week, Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez, an international thriller that moves from South Africa to France to Egypt, Canada and Belgium, as the main character, Franck Sharko, a Paris profiler, explores the mystery surrounding the discovery of five bodies unearthed at a construction site, while also dealing with his own mental health issues.  Meanwhile, Detective Lucie Henebelle is contacted by her ex-boyfriend, film-buff Ludovic, who, after watching an old, obscure film from the 1950sn his home theatre, loses his sight.  (this brought to mind "The Ring" - awesome film, but watch the original Japanese version). Lucie gets him to the hospital, then watches the film herself to try to understand what happened.  What follows is a thriller where murders are committed, bodies pile up, and question after question lead to no clear answers.  This riveting thriller is a blend of police procedural and sci-fi story, on an international stage, with a bit of romance thrown in.  While I thought the romantic subplot was a bit forced and unrealistic, it was still a fast-paced, riveting story that kept me guessing right to the very end.  I guess this is part of a series, so there are some unanswered questions, such as what really happened to Franck’s wife and daughter, but I didn’t feel that this detracted from the story too much.  And I just found out that this is going to be made into a movie.  If they do a good job of it, it’ll be great to watch on the big screen.

That’s all for today.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 3 May 2015

Books and birdsong on a lovely May morning...

It’s a gorgeous morning as I finally sit down to write this post.  I’ve had a morning filled with cooking and baking and laundry and cleaning, so I feel I’ve earned the cinnamon roll and tea that I’m enjoying right now... mmm!!!

Last week I gave you a summary of The Dinner by Herman Koch, but I wanted to give you the highlights of the enthusiastic discussion we had at the book club meeting yesterday.  I’ll start off by admitting that not everyone loved it, which is to be expected in a group where everyone is reading the same book.  I suspected that this would be the case with this book in particular, as it is written in a very specific, very pronounced style.  It also presents a story surrounding a very disturbing subject matter.  So it was not surprising that one of the book club members said that this book was “very annoying”, that there were no nice characters in it, that the dinner was just setting the stage for “a family feud”, and that it was just plain nasty.  Another member loved this book.  This was her second reading, and she said that she enjoyed it just as much as the first time, except that she ended up being left with even more questions this time.  She spent much of the meeting laughing aloud as she read passages from the book that were absurd or satirical.  Another member also said that she laughed aloud as she was reading it, something she doesn’t do often.  We all agreed that it was suspenseful, that the story unfolded very slowly, and that the structure of the novel, separated into parts that corresponded to courses in a meal, was clever and effective.  We also agreed that the maitre d’, with his pinky-pointing, was both annoying and hilarious, and this made us feel, at times, as though the dinner would never end.  The setting of the restaurant was clearly a deliberate way for the author to satirize the upper-classes with their “hoity-toity” attitudes and manners.  Some of us enjoyed the creepiness of the story, and we wondered at the obsession Paul had with the term “wife” in reference to Claire, which led us to consider what the basis of their relationship really was.  One member suggested that Paul took on the role of onlooker into the relationship between their son, Michel, and his wife.  We talked about Paul’s brother, Serge, the political candidate, and how he had to eat “right now”;  that is, he sought instant gratification, which one member suggested represented his character's "id".  We all agreed that Paul was aggressive and had anger issues, that he has a psychopathic character which leads him to feel he is superior to others and to destroy those around him.  It was a great book club choice, as it generated so much lively discussion.

I read an awesome book last week that I will be reviewing for the local paper, A History of Loneliness by John Boyne.  It tells the achingly sad story of Odran Yates, a Catholic priest in Ireland as he looks back over his life, from the time he was a young boy in the ‘70s up to the present day, when Odran must face the role he, too, may have played in the vast and far-reaching cover-up of sexual abuse over decades.   Odran tells how his family went from three to five and back to three again when tragedy struck when he was still young.  After his mother became involved in the Church, she told Odran that he had a calling, a vocation to become a priest, and, faced with no better options, at seventeen, he enters the seminary at Conliffe, where he and Tom Cardle become “cellmates” and, by default, best friends.  Tom, unlike Odran, is not cut out for the life of a priest, but he has no choice in the matter.  This relationship, and Tom’s subsequent actions, form the basis for Odran’s conflicted feelings as he struggles to stay true to his calling in a world where priests have gone from being respected and revered members of the community to being blighted and looked upon with suspicion and even disgust.  Told in a non-linear way, with flashbacks and flash-forwards, we struggle, along with Odran, to face the truth about the far-reaching conspiracy and guilt, which is revealed to us only as Odran discovers it.  But even as we read these passages, we wonder if he may not know more than he is admitting, willfully closing his eyes to matters he does not wish to see.  This skillfully told, heartrending denunciation of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the deliberate cover-up of child abuse by the clergy brought me to tears.  Odran reminded me of John Wheelwright, the main character in John Irving’s  A Prayer for Owen Meany and Dunstan Ramsay, the main character in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business.  The story reminded me of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, and was told in the style of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes- I loved all of these books. I didn’t realize that this novel was written only after the author himself overcame the shame of his childhood, growing up gay in Ireland and facing his own simultaneous sexual abuse and condemnation by Catholic priests.  It is a spare, moving novel that does not downplay the vastness of the problems or the seriousness of the damages done to children at the hands of the Church.  If you read this novel, and I think you should, be prepared for a deeply introspective read.

OK, that’s all for today.  I have to get outside and enjoy the sun.

Bye for now…