Tuesday 30 June 2015

Short post on another cool, overcast, not-yet-rainy day...

This post is partially a test of the new “Get updates by email” feature, and partially an opportunity to talk about the audiobook I finished last week but forgot to write about in my last post.  I’m sitting here with a steaming cup of (regular) tea, with CBC Radio 2 on in the background, so it’s a perfect setting for posting.

I listened to Amy Tan’s book, The Bonesetter’s Daughter recently.  This is a title I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while - a paperback copy has been sitting on my bookshelf next to The Joy Luck Club for I-don’t-remember-how-long.  This novel tells the story of Ruth, a mid-forties woman who makes her living as a ghost-writer of self-help books.  She has been in a common-law relationship with Art, who his two teenaged daughters, for over ten years, and feels that she is underappreciated by everyone.  When her elderly mother, Lu Ling, becomes increasingly forgetful, makes incorrect statements about her past, and starts to behave in erratic ways, Ruth worries that she is beginning to suffer from dementia.  While living with her mother temporarily, Ruth finally has time to read the pages her mother gave her several years before, which Ruth has recently had translated From Chinese to English.  In this story-within-a-story, Lu Ling tells of her own childhood and early adult life, which was fraught with obstacles and bad luck.  Lu Ling also writes of Precious Auntie, a nursemaid from whom she has continued to seek counsel throughout her life, using Ruth as a conduit via a sand tray and a chopstick.  Reading this account of her mother’s young life helps Ruth to appreciate Lu Ling’s character and her treatment of Ruth as she was growing up, and in removing herself from the daily routine of life, Ruth, along with Art and the girls, begin to appreciate their own situation.  In typical fashion, Tan explores the relationship between mother and daughter, and the past of the mother which is kept hidden from the less-than-inquisitive daughter.  I enjoyed this book, but I would have preferred it if it was laid out differently.  In the book, we get Ruth’s story, then we get all of Lu Ling’s story, then we go back to Ruth’s story as she tries to understand and appreciate Lu Ling.  Personally, I wish we got some of Ruth’s story partway through Lu Ling’s story, just to break it up.  Amy Tan narrated part of the book (I’m guessing the part that was Lu Ling’s story) and Joan Chen narrated part, which made for an interesting listening experience.  It seemed a bit overlong to me, and I checked several times in the book I had to see how far along I was (the “parts” of the book on my mp3 player got a bit scrambled, so I couldn’t tell where I was).  But overall, it was an interesting exploration into the inter-generational difficulties families often face, particularly in the case where there is a culture gap between parent and child.  If you have never read any books by Tan, I would highly recommend this one.  I know this book has been criticized for being too similar in theme to her other books, but this story is such an in-depth exploration of one family’s misunderstandings that I think it holds its own in the literary world.

OK, that’s all for today - I want to get out before it starts to rain.  Have a great day, and have a Happy Canada Day tomorrow!
Bye for now…

Monday 29 June 2015

Another day, another test... *sigh*

I've tried adding the "Follow by email" gadget (renamed "Get updates by email") to my blog to make it easier for readers to access new posts, but so far I have not received any new posts in my inbox.  Please let me know if you have subscribed to this feature and whether it is working for you or not.

Thanks, and enjoy the lovely sunny day!
Bye for now...


Sunday 28 June 2015

Tea and books on a rainy weekend...

It’s been raining almost non-stop since yesterday around noon, which is not so much fun if you are trying to get out and do things, but it has been excellent weather for reading and for meeting a friend for a hot beverage and some good conversation about books and kitties.  

Yesterday afternoon I went to Nougat Bakery to meet with a friend I used to work at the library with.  We each had a Chai Latte in a big ceramic cup, a “two-hander”, and she had a delicious chocolate-glazed butter tart - YUM!  We had great conversation about our kitties and about books, and I think she’s been convinced to read The Tale of Despereaux this summer - she knew what “chiaroscuro” meant right away!  

Speaking of Despereaux, now that the summer break has begun, I have a  two stacks of Juvenile and Young Adult titles to read in search of a couple of books that would make good readalouds for my Grade 4 classes at each school.  Despereaux was great, but it was too long - it took us the whole year to finish, so I’m hoping to find a couple of others that are shorter but still interesting and fun to read.  One of the titles, which I’ve read before but not for many years, is The Bad Beginning, the first in the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books by Lemony Snicket.  Another is the first in the “Hank Zipper” series by Henry Winkler (remember him?  He played “The Fonz” in “Happy Days” - who knew he was also a writer?!)  I also like to start the new school year off with a couple of book talks for the older grades, classes I don’t get to interact much with throughout the rest of the year.  One book I have to read is Shattered Glass by Gail Giles, which is described as “suspenseful and disturbing” - sounds like the type of book I really enjoy!  I also have another book in the “Seven” series to read, and an Eric Walters YA title, Visions.  So I expect to be busy reading these titles and more over the summer, while still reading adult selections.

As I sip my chai tea, I want to tell you about a book I read last week.  The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango opens with bestselling writer Henry Hayden’s discovery that his mistress is pregnant.  Betty, his editor, springs this news on him during a clandestine meeting at the cliffs, a regular meeting place for the couple.  She wants to know when he will tell his wife, Martha, and how she will react.  He wants to know how he ended up in this situation in the first place.  She thinks it’s great news, he thinks his life is over.  In an effort to find a solution, he commits a grave mistake.  Now the police are after him, and his facade begins to crumble.  Who is really behind the mask that is talented, likable, admirable Henry Hayden? Circumstances threaten to reveal his double life and expose his past to the world, as Henry races against time to cover his tracks and keep his secrets, doing whatever it takes to remove any obstacles that get in his way.  While reading this novel, I was reminded of those great noir films of the 1940’s and ‘50’s, like “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past”, where all is not what it seems, and you are reminded that you can only run from your past for so long before it finally catches up with you.  This debut novel by German television writer Arango is dark and, at times, macabre, but there are moments of brilliance that show his is a writer of great talent.  As we witness the deterioration of Henry’s environment, we see, too, the deterioration of his soul, and by the end, we, like Henry, are not sure what is true and what are lies.  While I felt that the writing was a bit uneven and parts of the story were beyond belief, I can see that this would have appeal for readers who enjoy books in the noir genre.  A couple of reviews I read online about this book compare it to The Dinner and The Silent Wife.  I would agree with  The Dinner, but The Silent Wife?  Not so much. I didn’t love it, but it was compelling, and the author clearly has talent, so I would say he is definitely a writer to watch.

The book we are discussing next week for my book club is J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and I’ve just barely started it.  It’s nearly 500 pages, so I better hope for many more rainy days this week in order to finish in time!

Have a great day, and Happy Reading!
Bye for now…

PS If you look to your right, at the top of the page, I've added a feature so you can now follow this blog via email. Please sign up if you enjoy reading my posts, as it is an easy and convenient way for you to get the latest ones delivered right to your inbox!

Saturday 27 June 2015

This is a test...

I will be posting at my usual time tomorrow morning, but I just learned how to allow readers to follow me via email, so I wanted to test it out.  Here goes...!!

Sunday 21 June 2015

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

I’m happy to be back to my normal schedule this morning, so as I sit here with my cup of chai tea, my yummy vanilla scone and a bowl of fresh fruit (I’m thrilled that it’s finally strawberry season!), I’m thinking about what I’ve read over the past five days.  Yesterday the forecast was calling for thunderstorms today, so I was expecting a good reading day, but the sky is blue, blue, blue, and the air this morning feels warm and humid.  I’ve just checked the updated forecast and see that there is no rain in sight!  The weather is changeable indeed.

Speaking of changeable, I read two books this week that are not my usual reading fare.  The first was Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley, a graphic novel that explores the possibility of changing your past to make it perfect.  Katie is a young chef whose first restaurant, “Seconds”, is prospering.  She wants to open a new restaurant in town called “Katie’s”, but when construction difficulties arise, she becomes frustrated and questions her decisions.  When her ex-boyfriend shows up at “Seconds”, she wishes they had never broken up.  Katie lives in a room above “Seconds”, and one night while she is sleeping, a white-haired girl named Lis appears to her and reveals a secret, a way to change her past, using a notebook and a magical mushroom.  Katie wakes up and discovers, hidden in a dresser drawer, the very items Lis described, so she tries out this formula to change mistakes made in her past.  Despite the rule of one mushroom per person, when Katie finds a whole drawerful of mushrooms, she takes advantage of this opportunity and tries to fix all of her past mistakes, which leads to disastrous consequences.  With the help of a shy waitress named Hazel, Katie tries to make things right in her life again, and possibly learn from her experiences.  I’m not really a graphic novel reader… ok, I’ve never read a graphic novel, so this was a whole new experience for me.  I had to remind myself to look at the illustrations for clues as to what is going on in the story, not just rely on the text.  That may sound obvious and simple, but when you are used to reading novels, it’s quite an adjustment.  Once I started to study the artwork, I began to get more out of the story.  I also expected the storyline to be pretty basic, and so was surprised at the depth of Katie’s experiences and the themes explored in this book.  Can we change our past mistakes, and will that really make our lives better?  If we change our own past mistakes, how does that affect the lives of others?  And if we change our past, are we still the same person we were before the alterations?  This is a fairly quick read that I would recommend as a good choice to add to your summer reading pile.

The other book I read was Say You Will by Canadian writer and juvenile literature icon Eric Walters.  This Young Adult novel tells the story of Sam, a high school student whose IQ is stratospheric, but whose social skills are lacking.  All of this sets him apart from the rest of the students, and he realizes that what he really wants is to be a bit more like everyone else.  He changes his hair and clothing styles, intentionally gets answers wrong on tests, and tries to make friends with people other than the two friends he’s had since kindergarten.  As prom time approaches, the latest thing at Sam's school is to present a promposal, an elaborate (and expensive) public event staged to ask a potential date to the prom.  As Sam ponders this phenomenon, he, too, becomes swept up in the excitement and enlists the help of his friends Ian and Brooke as he tries to come up with the perfect way to ask the girl of his dreams to be his date for the prom, despite the low probability of success.  This book has all of the ingredients of the best Young Adult literature:  an unlikely hero, an impossible quest, and an entertaining sidekick.  It also explores the preoccupation with consumerism, the need to fit in, and what it means to be yourself, even in the face of social pressure.  Throw in a lesson in psychology, and you will end up with a YA novel that is sure to appeal to just about any reader.  I almost never read YA fiction, so this, too, was outside my comfort zone, but it was an excellent novel.  Eric Walters has written more than 80 novels for children and young adults, and was recently named a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to children’s and young adult literature that help young readers deal with complex social issues.  He is also the driving force behind The Creation of Hope (http://creationofhope.com/), an organization that helps orphans and needy children in Kenya.    

OK, that’s all for today.  Since it is now not going to rain, I should get outside and enjoy the day.  And so should you!  

Bye for now…

Monday 15 June 2015

Short post on a warm, humid evening...

It’s nearly 8pm on a sticky June evening, and I don’t really feel like writing a post, but if I leave it until the weekend, my usual posting time, I will have forgotten the impression I was left with upon finishing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I have no tea nor cup of soup to accompany my writing, but I was at a wedding out of town this weekend, which threw me right off schedule, so I feel that I should catch up now.

I just finished Zen this evening, and I must say, despite my enthusiasm all throughout the reading (which seemed like the something that would never end!), I found the last few chapters oddly muddled and disappointing.  As I wrote in an earlier post, this book 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.  I was really enjoying it, and my copy of the book is filled with sticky-note flags marking poignant passages that I felt were significant enough to change my life.  I even used different-coloured flags for passages that were especially significant; for example, while climbing a mountain during a hike with Chris, the narrator notes that you should take your time and notice the little things, like the different colours and shapes of the leaves:  “To live only for some future goal is shallow.  It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.  Here’s where things grow.”   Further on, he mentions the “gorgeous” girl behind the counter at a restaurant they stop at, and the way some of the other customers were noticing her, too.  He says, “We keep passing through little moments of other people’s lives.”  These are words that mean something, that speak to me personally.  But near the end, he gets too much into the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, and Socrates, all the while exploring his own personal past breakdown, and I became totally lost.  Then, with practically no explanation at all, it was over.  The “Afterward”, too, felt forced, and while the ending did answer some of the questions and wrap up the loose ends of the three narrative strands, it was somewhat anti-climactic, at least for this reader.  Having said that, I’m so glad I read it for a number of different reasons.  I felt that it gave me so much insight into various ways to live better, appreciate more fully, and choose wisely.  I can now also cross this title off my list of “Books I’ve been meaning to read for years but have never made the time to do so”.  And I can, with a clear conscience, pass my copy on to someone else, making room on my bookshelf for other books.  So, in short, I would recommend this book, but don’t think you can read it in a few sittings, and try to take lessons from it as you go, in case the ending is a disappointment for you, too.

That’s all for today.  I look forward to getting back to my regular posting schedule.

Bye for now…

Thursday 4 June 2015

Books, audiobooks and soup on a warm summery evening...

OK, I know… soup?  But I’m not used to writing in the evenings, and I’ve been super busy tonight after work as I am going away for the weekend, so I’m just now finishing my supper.  I’m having a delicious cup of homemade soup that I call my “Very Orange Cream Soup”.  

Since I’m going to be away this weekend, and I have an out-of-town wedding to go to next weekend, I wanted to take advantage of the time I have to write a quick post tonight.  I’m not really in the writing mood, so I apologize in advance if this post seems a bit disjointed.  I finished a book earlier this week called The Hesitation Cut by Giles Blunt.  Some of you may be familiar with this Canadian crime fiction writer’s “Detective John Cardinal” series, set in the Algonquin Bay area.  This is a stand-alone that is not due to be published until August 2015, but I have an advanced review copy, so gobbled it up in three days.  It begins by introducing Brother William, a young monk in a small monastery, Our Lady Of Peace, near New York City.  Brother William seems literally “at peace” in the monastery, quietly organizing the library and tending the sheep (not his favourite job), when his whole life is thrown into upheaval by the arrival of a young woman, Lauren Wolfe, a writer who has come to do some research using resources in the monastery library.  As Brother William helps her, reluctantly at first, he is drawn into her being, her sad eyes and the scar on her wrist.  She spends the day in the library, they have a few exchanges, and then suddenly she is gone from his life.  He just about manages to forget her when he is unexpectedly reminded of her due to unforeseen circumstances, and he experiences a crisis of faith.  Leaving behind the life he has lived for over ten years and the name he has used, he departs from the monastery, once again taking on his former name, Peter, and heads to New York to find, and possibly save, the young damsel whom he clearly believes is in spiritual distress.  What follows is his attempts to find, and then woo, this moderately successful, though very private writer, while also adjusting to his new life, which includes a society he left behind when he was still in college, though the why of his leaving is not revealed until much later in the story.  This dark psychological thriller probes deep into the thoughts and intentions of both Brother William/Peter and Lauren, which draws readers down, down, down into a labyrinth of self-destructive behaviour that is at once frustrating and heartbreaking, and leads to an explosive finale that is sure to surprise even the most seasoned reader.  This is a novel about religions, obsession, sex and death, themes that are often linked, and Blunt handles this combination expertly. It was very engaging and easy to read, and although there were times when I felt very frustrated by Peter’s passive/aggressive behaviour, I found it impossible to put down.  

I also finished listening to an audiobook this week, The White Lioness by Henning Mankell, part of the “Kurt Wallander” series.  This novel begins with a Methodist real estate agent running a few errands then going out to see one last house on a Friday afternoon before she heads home to spend the weekend with her husband and two daughters.  She gets lost on a country road and turns into a house to ask for directions.  Unfortunately, she is in the wrong place at absolutely the wrong time, and meets her demise at the hands of an unknown man for no apparent reason.  Wallander and his team investigate first her disappearance, then her murder, as plots become intertwined across history and continents.  Mankell explores apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s, as a parallel plotline about the possible assassination of a political figure looms large in the very near future.  Wallander, of course, is still suffering from an unhealthy lifestyle, and is still pining over his former lover, Biba, and is still butting heads with his father and his daughter;  in short, he is the same old Kurt we have come to know and care about.  The plots in this book, while well researched and well written, were a bit too convoluted for this reader, and the book could have been much more interesting if it were significantly shorter (17 parts for an audiobook is pretty long!).  But he always explores some social justice issue in his novels, and so these parallel plots were no surprise.  It was an interesting book to listen to, and I did learn alot about the history of South Africa and the Afrikaners, but I will admit that I was glad to reach the end.

OK,time to read a bit more of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I told you I was determined to finish!), then off to bed.  Have a good night!

Bye for now…

PS Mentioning soup reminds me of the excellent children's novel, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, that I read to the grade 4/5 classes at each of my schools. This book's full title includes the subtitle Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup and a spool of thread. I would highly recommend this novel to readers of any age. It is not all light and airy, despite the fact that it was turned into a (in my opinion very poor) film adaptation by Disney. It is, in fact, very dark and the language is mature enough to challenge any reader. So if you are looking for a great summer read, I would definitely recommend this title, available at a public library near you!