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…
Julie

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