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…

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