Wednesday 22 July 2015

A few days late, but such great books...

I’m enjoying a cup of tea on this cool-ish summer morning, and thinking about the books I’ve read over the past 10 days.  I decided to delay this post until after my “friends” book group met on Monday to discuss our book, and also until I finished an excellent novel that I will be reviewing soon.

My group met on Monday night to discuss Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a selection we made from a list of the Top 100 Book Club Choices on GoodReads.  Set in England in the late 1990s, this novel begins with the narrator, Kathy H, introducing herself and informing the reader that she is 31 years old, and has been a carer for more than 11 years, but that this is her last year in this role.  She admits to being a fairly good carer, that her donors have done better than expected:  “their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’, even before their fourth donation”.  She goes on to talk about other carers and donors, and then begins to reminisce about her early days at Hailsham and her life with the other students during her time there.  She tells us about the dorm rooms, attending classes, and exploring the lush grounds in the country surrounding Hailsham, the pond and the large playing field, a setting that strongly resembles a posh English boarding school.  But instead of teachers, Kathy refers to the adults as “guardians”, and their classes don’t reflect those of other students.  In fact, little details come out through her storytelling that give the reader a sense that something is off, that there is some alternative reality for these students. Like the students, we are “told and not told” what is going on, and as Kathy slowly uncovers the truth about Hailsham and the fate that awaits each of its students, we are drawn into the mystery until all is revealed in a shocking conclusion that is sure to rock even the most seasoned reader.  Both heartbreaking and thought-provoking, in my opinion, this novel is an excellent book club choice.  We had an interesting and lively discussion about this novel, but I can’t give too many details here in case anyone hasn’t read it, as I don’t want to give away the ending.  Most of us had already read this book, and we agreed that knowing the ending detracts from the rereading, since it is the mystery that is so compelling.  Upon rereading, I found the book to be a bit repetitive and slow, but again, this is because I already knew what would be revealed in the end.  We discussed the ethics the situation presented in the book, and agreed that there are certain realities that we know of and accept, but don’t want to know too much about or think about too much, because it may cause us to face moral dilemmas we are not prepared to consider.  Anyway, if you haven’t read this excellent book, I would highly recommend it for just about anyone, and if your book club is looking for a good choice, this is definitely one that will provoke engaging discussion.

I started reading The Past by Tessa Hadly last week, but had to stop two thirds of the way through to read the Ishiguro novel, so I eagerly picked it up again yesterday and finished it.  This novel tells of three adult sisters and a brother who meet up at their grandparents’ country home for their annual summer holiday, but this year may be their last as they consider whether to sell or keep it in the family.  The crumbling house, and the woods and houses surrounding it, are full of memories for all three siblings, and during the three weeks that they are together, their children are having experiences that will become their own childhood memories.  Alice is the youngest of the siblings, unmarried and unlucky in love.  She brings with her Kasim, the 20-year old son of her ex-boyfriend, who sets out to seduce quiet Molly, her 16-year old niece.  Roland, Molly’s father, arrives with his new wife, Pilar, whom the sisters dislike immediately, deciding that she doesn’t fit in with their family.  But Pilar has her own family secrets, which she is reluctant to share with Roland or his family.  Fran arrives with her two children, Ivy and Arthur, ages nine and six, but unaccompanied by her husband Jeff, a musician who claims to have mistakenly booked gigs during their holiday.  And Harriet, the oldest, most reliable, stolid, and placid sister joins them after taking a long and hearty walk in the woods.  What ensues is an detailed, intimate and contemplative exploration into the family’s past, as they consider what to do with the future.  This is a book about the minutiae of everyday life, where nothing is unusual or special, and yet everything is suffused with significance and meaning, as only those activities, undertaken on a lazy, extended summer holiday, can be.  In this claustrophobic atmosphere, the past meets the present and must make way for the future as family secrets and secret relationships are revealed.  I find it most difficult to write about literary novels, because they often don’t have much in the way of plot but they are wonderful to read nonetheless, often because of the amazing, succinct use of language and the way the author describes ordinary things or events that captures the essence more intuitively than the average person, and makes us look at things in a wholly different and more significant way.  This is a book about the loss of innocence, of letting go of the past and moving on:  “she felt resigned to the fact that everything good had to be spoiled eventually”.  This book will be published in September, and I would highly recommend putting a copy on hold at your local library if you enjoy books that explore family relationships and the dilemma that occurs when some family members are ready to move on while others want to hold onto the past.

Oh boy, it’s been an awesome week-and-a-half of great literary reading, and I’m hard-pressed to decide what to read next.  I hate when I’ve just finished reading something so amazing, which then makes all the other choices pale in comparison.  But I’ve got a stack of library books on my coffee table just waiting to be read, so I’m sure I’ll find something else to fill the void that is left after reaching the last page of a great book.

Bye for now…

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