Sunday 25 October 2015

Last post for October...

It’s a perfect October morning as I sip my chai tea, bright and cool and colourful, with the touch of a chill in the air, foreshadowing the season to come.  

I have one book to tell you about today, The Golden Son by Shilpa Somaya Gowda.  The second novel by this Toronto-born author tells the story of a young man who must make difficult decisions as he tries to balance responsibility for his family with his own independence.  Anil is the eldest son of a large family in rural India who is expected to run the farm and fill the role of leader of the clan when his father passes away.  But his father has always encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, which leads him to study in Dallas, Texas.  There he encounters trials that both discourage and challenge him, in his work and in love.  Back home, his childhood friend, Leena, is also facing trials as she tries to fulfill her responsibilities to her family and in her recent marriage.  When things become unbearable, she must make a decision that will change her life and the lives of her parents.  When Anil’s father dies, he makes a lengthy visit home and tries to work things out with his brothers, who are basically running the home while he is off in America pursuing his own life away from the family.  He decides to apply for a further internship in Dallas, and makes no promise either way as to his intentions to return to India.  While he continues his work at the hospital in the U.S., he makes infrequent visits home and has the opportunity to catch up on the news of the area.  When he learns of Leena’s situation, his long-buried love for this fiercely independent girl resurfaces, and he must decide where his future lies, and with whom.  This lengthy novel demonstrates Gowda’s skill as an author.  The writing is solid, the story plausible (despite the rather fairytale-ish ending), and the characters varied and realistic.  She does a great job of portraying the challenges Anil faces as he deals with cultural reproaches both in India about “American ways” and in the U.S. about his “un-American” origins.  There were twists and turns around every corner, and Gowda kept this reader guessing which way the story would go.  There was a real sense of family responsibility in this novel, on the part of Leena and her parents, Anil, Anil’s brothers and sister, Piya, and his mother, which we don’t see here in Canada, and it felt as though this book was a window into another culture.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction with a cultural twist - not an amazing read, but definitely solid.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and play in the leaves!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 October 2015

Books, audiobooks and tea on this chilly October morning...

On this brisk, sunny mid-October morning, I’m finally getting a chance to sit down after a whirlwind of cooking and baking.  I’m sipping a steaming cup of chai masala tea and nibbling on a slice of freshly-baked Date Bread as I think about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week.  

Before I tell you about that, though, I wanted to let everyone in Waterloo Region know that there will be a free fun book event taking place in Waterloo on Tuesday Oct 20 at 7pm:  Waterloo Reads “Battle of the Books” ( features 10 local celebrities defending the 10 Evergreen-nominated titles in the hopes that the audience will select their book as the winner.  I’ve been to this event the past couple of years, and it has always been great.  So if you are in the area and are free on Tuesday night, come on out to take part in this awesome event.  You don’t have to have read all (or any) of the books to enjoy it!

I read the latest book by award-winning Canadian author Nino Ricci last week, Sleep, which tells the story of a man who suffers from a rare sleep disorder that is causing his life to spiral out of control as he tries to navigate an existence through a haze of pharmaceuticals.  David Pace appears to have the perfect life:  beautiful wife, successful career, lovely home and happy family.  Recently diagnosed with a rare sleep disorder which causes him to fall asleep erratically and at any given moment, he seeks help in the form of a cocktail of drugs designed to keep him awake or knock him out, depending on the time of day and the combination.  He does not reveal this diagnosis to his wife until an event occurs which endangers the life of their son.  Sleep both eludes him and haunts him, as he fumbles through his life in a fog.  As his life begins to unravel, the truth about his past is revealed, and it is only when Pace ends up with a loaded gun in his hand that he rediscovers the feeling of being gloriously awake and clear-headed.  As he struggles to find a way to cope, he pushes himself into ever riskier situations and greater dangers in an effort to escape his current reality.  This book got rave reviews, but I just didn’t like it.  It was certainly an ambitious novel, tackling difficult themes such as greed, desire, and the dark side of human nature.  It was written with skill, but for me, it was a flat reading experience.  Not only was the main character unlikable, but there seemed to be no story to keep me interested. That's fine, since it was really a character study, but, in my opinion, it never ended up showing any depth of character for Pace, either.  We got many glimpses of his past, both as the son of a domineering father, as an undergrad and graduate student, and as a young professor in Montreal both before and after meeting the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his son, but while these glimpses were frequent and lengthy, I never felt like I got to know Pace as a boy or young man.  And I certainly didn’t feel like I got to know him as a drug-addicted, self-destructive and ultimately defeated husband and father.  So it was not a fun reading experience, and I really wanted to stop reading it and move on to something I might enjoy, but I kept hoping that there would be something to redeem the character or the book by the end.  Alas, this was not to be, so I was certainly happy to have reached the last page.  I’m sure that many readers will devour this book, but I can’t think of a single person I know to whom I would recommend it.  This was a disappointment from an author whose books I have enjoyed in the past.

I also finished an audiobook last week, A Good Year by Peter Mayle, read by my favourite narrator, John Lee.  You may be familiar with Peter Mayle’s memoirs, A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, and Encore Provence (I’ve only read the first two).  Well, in my opinion, you should just stick with those ones and skip A Good Year.  I really only listened to it because of the narrator, but at least it wasn’t very long.  It tells the story of Max Skinner, a young man who quits his job as a financial trader in London after a lucrative contract he’d been working on for months is taken over by his superior and he is left with no credit and lousy future opportunities.  As he arrives home, feeling at odds with his new unemployed status, he finds a letter from a solicitor informing him that he has recently inherited a farmhouse in Provence from his uncle.  As he remembers with fondness the times he spent in France with his uncle as a boy, he feels that perhaps his life is not as gloomy as it first seemed.  Meeting up that evening with his good friend and ex-brother-in-law Charlie, he discusses his new situation.  Charlie, who recently got a promotion and has also taken a course in wine tasting, encourages Max to check out the house and land and possibly refashion his life as a maker of “boutique wines”, wines made in small quantities from individually owned and operated vineyards.  Charlie does more than encourage Max; he gives him the funds to see him through the next few months in France.  Things seem to be looking up for him as he learns the ways of the small village, but then complications arise.  Will he find a way to make things work?  Will he find love?  And what about Charlie?  I won’t tell you any more, because it’s a fairly predictable story.  I guess it would be OK as a nice, light, easy read, but it didn’t really suit my mood at this time.  I’ve read other fiction titles by this author which were well-written and entertaining, but nothing by him in recent years.  So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it; rather, I would suggest that, if you’ve never read anything by Mayle, you should definitely read A Year in Provence, which I recall was a wonderful read.  PS This book was made into a film starring Russell Crowe.

And I don’t know how I missed telling you about an audiobook I finished listening to in September, The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer.  I have never read anything by Wolitzer before, but I so enjoyed listening to Angela Brazil narrating The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D that I sought out other books she has read.  This novel follows the women of Stellar Plains New Jersey, as, one by one, they fall victim to the spell that is, literally, blowing into their town, causing them to lose interest in sex.  Dory and Robby Lang are high school teachers who have the perfect marriage, the perfect family, perfect jobs, and a perfect sex life.  They vow that, whatever happens, this is the way it will always be.  As the new school year begins, the new drama teacher, mysterious, elusive Fran Heller, arrives in their midst.  When she announces that the school play for the year will be Lysistrata, Aristophane’s comedy about the women of Greece staging a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian Wars, everyone wonders how she will make this work for a high school cast.  As life imitates art, the women of Stellar Plains unconsciously echo the determination of the Ancient Greek women, as they, too, go on a sex strike to end the way their husbands, boyfriends, lovers and mates take them for granted.  At first this seemed like a novel about mid-life crisis, with the main character, Dory, experiencing the changes that go with mid-life, even as her daughter, Willa, is discovering the transformation of first love.  But then the spell falls on all the women, both young and old, married and single, until the emotionally climactic scene where, as one would expect, all is resolved.  It was a bit hokey, with the “icy wind” and the predictability of the play casting a spell over the town, but there were moments of real truth in the story, about the decline of reading and the constant search for instant access to everything in today’s younger generation (Willa and the students at the high school spend hours every day in Farrest, a virtual online forest where they wander as avatars, interacting virtually with those around them rather than interacting face-to-face), as well as truths about relationships and intimacy.  I don’t normally read “women’s fiction”, books where the struggles of women are the main focus, sometimes seriously explored and sometimes dealt with in a light-hearted manner.  This book was no exception - it was OK, but nothing I would run out and recommend to every woman I know.  I would have had a higher opinion of the book if Wolitzer had omitted the last section, which focused on Fran, that I felt was totally unnecessary, and suggested that the author had little faith in her readers' ability to figure out what was going on in the story and why.  But it had some worthwhile moments, and the narration was brilliant, so I would say that, if you are in the mood for a light-hearted audiobook, then go for it! It also made me want to reread The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike, a novel I haven't read for probably 20 years or more!

OK, that’s enough for today.  Enjoy the bright, sunny, brisk day!  And don’t forget to vote!!

Bye for now…

Monday 12 October 2015

Books and tea on Thanksgiving weekend...

On this exceptionally warm Thanksgiving Monday morning, as the yellow leaves drift and swirl through the air (which greatly amuses my cats!), I am thinking about what I am thankful for.  I am thankful for finding a way to order my own supply of chai tea.  I am thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on the books I’ve read or listened to with so many people so easily.  I am thankful for the opportunity to be on a committee which makes me aware of so many great recently published Canadian titles to read and review.  And I am thankful for the Canada Council for the Arts, which gives grants to writers who are working on books - without these grants, and others, what a bleak landscape Canadian literature might be (I mean bleak in selection, not in theme!)

Speaking of Canadian literature, I read a really unique book last week called Birdie.  This debut novel by Cree writer Tracey Lindberg focuses on Bernice “Birdie” Meetoos, a young woman who, while working in a cafe bakery in a small town in BC and living above the store, is processing her experiences of sexual abuse by family members while in her childhood and early teens, as well as her time in care, her years on the street in Alberta, and time spent in “the San”.  While at the bakery, Bernice is also learning to “shift”, a spiritual/dream state where she loses time, becomes one with the earth, and travels while her body remains still.  Although she experienced much of the traumatic events of her earlier life seemingly alone, she had some strong female role models, and these women come to her aid during her time at the cafe, too, to help with her processing and transition.  The writing was rather disjointed and often in the stream-of-consciousness style, with words running together and combining (like "thinkfeel"), which reflects Bernice’s dream-like state and her “shifting”, so it was a bit strange at first, but once I was able to get into the flow of the text, it swept me along and was hard to put down.  Many of the details of Bernice's life are vague, but much is implied, and when I got to the end of the novel and read the interview with the author (for which I was also thankful), I suspected that the truth was much worse than I imagined during my reading.  The writing style, and Bernice’s “shifting”, reminded me of someone in the throes of a dissociative disorder, which I guess is a common state for those who are sexually abused, a way for the abused to deal with these experiences.  Anyway, not an easy or fun read, but well worth the effort if you are ready for a thought-provoking book that deals with a difficult subject. (Didn't I mentioned "bleak" at the beginning of this post?!)

That’s all I’ve got for you today.  Get outside and enjoy the wonderful day!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 October 2015

First post for October...

On this cool fall morning, as I sip my chai tea, I am reflecting on last week’s reading and yesterday’s book club meeting.  I wonder if the sudden shift in weather, from very warm and humid at the beginning of the week to cool and windy, real fall-like weather, by the end of the week has left anyone else feeling a bit out-of-sorts.  I will blame the weather on the poor book club attendance last week - my grade 5/6 book club members didn’t even come out for their meeting on Wednesday!!  Oh well, it was the first meeting and there was also the Terry Fox run that day, so we’ll just try again next week.

My volunteer book group was scheduled to meet yesterday to discuss The Binding Chair, or a Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison.  I got an email from my newest member on Friday saying that she had a scheduling conflict and would not be able to make it.  Then when I got home Friday night, I had a voicemail message from one of the original members of the group letting me know that she would not be able to make it, but that she loved the book and she thanked me for putting it on the list, which was very sweet.  Then when I checked my email later that night, there was a message from another member saying that she would be coming but would not be able to make it until around 11am (we start at 10am).  Another member is away with her family so I knew she would not be there.  But I still showed up on time, in case anyone else came out.  Nearly an hour later, the email message member showed up (good thing I brought a book to read!),  and we had a great discussion about those Little Free Libraries that are popping up everywhere these days - what a great idea!!  And about cleaning house and organizing - it seems that this is the season to change over from summer to winter, including garages, yards and gardens.  Finally we got around to discussing the book.  Then, about 11:30am, my second and final member showed up to join the discussion.  Whew!  It was a small but interesting group discussion.  The Binding Chair opens with May, an elderly Chinese woman in Nice in 1927, trying to find a swimming instructor.  Some applicants she dismisses for a variety of reasons, and when she finally settles on a young man, we are treated to a detailed description of her first lessons.  The reader is then transported back 50 years, a time when May, then a 5 year old girl named Chao-tsing, is subjected by her grandmother to the ancient ritual of foot binding.  Although painful, she is told not to cry out, that this process is necessary for her to secure a good marriage.  She grows up and, by age fourteen, is betrothed to a wealthy silk merchant, who turns out to be a sadist with three other wives.  When she can no longer endure his treatment, she escapes and runs away to Shanghai, where she changes her name and becomes a prostitute in a brothel that serves only white men.  She has a plan - find a wealthy European husband and make an easy life for herself.  Nothing could have shocked her more than to find this in Arthur Cohen, an Australian Jewish philanthropist who goes to the brothel to emancipate a victim of foot binding, only to fall in love with May and her tiny lotus feet.  She becomes part of the extended household in Shanghai which is made up of Dick Benjamin and his wife Dolly, Arthur’s sister, and their two daughters Alice and Cecily.  May and Alice form a close bond, and we as readers begin to understand this bond more as family secrets are revealed and relationships are explored.  There is also an unusual Russian component to this novel, as readers are swept across the world from Shanghai to Paris and London, and the Russian plains, and back and forth across decades, in this complex novel about the universal search for a home and a place to belong, and about the desire to influence the direction of our lives.  We discussed May as a character, and determined that she was strong and smart, a woman who did what she had to do to get where she wanted to be.  But we also pointed out that appearances can be deceiving, and if May appeared to be a woman who has led an enviable life, that may only be because this is what she wished to project.  We discussed the theme of lost children, and swimming, and teeth (you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out!).  I’ve read this book once before, in July 2003 (remember I have a list of everything I’ve read in chronological order for the past 23 years!), and I remembered it to be a good book, but I forgot how much sex there was in it, and not just allusions to the straight-forward kind, either!  So I thought that perhaps this was not the best choice for my group, but the message I got from the one member who could not make it reassured me, as she said she loved it, that she learned many historical things from it, and that she responded very emotionally to May’s plight.  The person who came out for the meeting was disturbed by how many sexual scenes were described in such detail in the book, which was exactly how I felt.  When I was reading it, I thought “This would be a really great book if it didn’t have so many gratuitous sexual scenes”.  But then I remembered the author’s own experiences, which I only know about because I read an early memoir of hers, The Kiss, which was given to me by a friend many years ago.  In this memoir, Harrison writes about the sexual relationship she and her father began when he came back into her life in her early 20s, after being estranged for most of her childhood.  So that may have influenced the content of this early novel.  Also, when I looked up information on foot binding, I realized that a major reason for the continued practice of this ritual for centuries was because it was considered erotic.  And, considering the time period when this novel was set, women did not have much of a role in society that was not sexual in nature.  So, while we both felt that there was too much emphasis on that aspect, we agreed that it could not really have been avoided.  Since the story and characters, even the minor ones, in this book are so interesting, I would recommend it with this caveat:  be prepared for mature content.

OK, that’s all I have for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…