Sunday 28 February 2016

Last post for February...

Once again, it is unseasonably mild on this Sunday morning as I enjoy a cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread.  

This will be a very short post, as I am only halfway through the book we are going to be discussing next weekend with my volunteer book group, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  This novel is on all the book club lists and was a bestseller for ages, and I have enjoyed Atkinson’s books in the past, particularly her “Jackson Brodie” series, but I was sure I would not enjoy this book at all, as it does not in any way sound like my type of book (I added it to our list because I knew it was the only way I would try to read it).  The main character, Ursula Todd, born in 1910 in the English countryside, meets an unfortunate end before she even has a chance for her life to begin… until her life begins again, and she survives, only to meet an unfortunate end as a very young girl… and then her life begins again, and she learns to survive a little bit longer, until she once again meets an unfortunate end… and so on, and so on, and so on... I tend to prefer more linear stories, which this clearly is not. But I'm totally enjoying this book - it is awesome!  I’ll tell you all about it once I finish and we’ve had our meeting, but for anyone who is avoiding this book because it sounds too strange, I would urge you to give it a try.

And a few weeks ago I had some macarons as a treat with my tea and was wondering which book it was where I first read about and discovered these delicacies.  I have recently answered my own question - it was in Liane Moriatry’s The Husband’s Secret.  One of the character’s daughter-in-law gives her a box of these and when she tries one, she discovered that they really are as delectable as she’s heard they were.  I'm listening to this excellent audiobook right now, and enjoying every minute of it.

OK, that’s it.  Sorry for the short post, but the new kitty has taken up much of my free time over the past week.  Little Hannah seems to be fully integrated into the routines of the other cats now, so things should be back to normal soon.  Whew!  It’s a lot of work, but they’re worth it!

Have a great day!

Bye for now…

PS I forgot to mention in last week’s post that it was Freedom to Read week, my favourite week of the year, so I hope everyone took the opportunity to read a banned or challenged book!  I always read a challenged book to the students at my schools, and they are always amazed at the reasons for these challenges.  This year we read Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop :  check out this link to find out where and why it was challenged

Sunday 21 February 2016

Books and tea on another mild day...

The weather this winter has been so erratic, up and down, up and down, so it’s hard to know what to expect or how to dress from day to day.  It’s another mild weekend, which I will be taking advantage of soon, when I hang the sheets outside to dry… there’s nothing like the scent of the outdoors to lull me into a good night’s sleep.

I wasn’t sure what to read last week after finishing The Affinities.  I tried a couple of the library books I had piled on my coffee table, but none of them were grabbing me.  I tried a book by Kate Morton that I’ve been eyeing on my bookshelf for some time, but that also didn’t grab me.  I even tried a book that someone from work gave me, a huge historical novel by Philippa Gregory, and that almost grabbed me (I’ve set it aside to read later, when I have more time and can focus).  What I ended up reading was a book I got as a review copy when I was still reviewing books for the local newspaper (I’ve still got a stack of those for future consideration).  Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, was a good read, but was surprisingly unfunny.  Set in the mid-1960s, it opens with Barbara Parker winning the title of Miss Blackpool, then escaping to London to follow her dream of making people laugh on screen, like her heroine, Lucille Ball.  She gets a job at the cosmetics counter of a department store, and a chance meeting with an agent leads to a new name and a new beginning.  In just a few short months, Sophie Straw will become the new little darling of British BBC comedy.  She shines as the lead female character of Barbara (and Jim), a sitcom about a mismatched couple and their misadventures.  The cast of characters in the book include Tony and Bill, the writers, who have known each other since their time in the National Service, the producer, Oxford-educated Dennis, who is in a loveless marriage to posh, intellectual Edith, and Clive, the lead male character, who dreams of greater things and fancies himself a “ladies’ man”.  Their adventures offscreen make up the bulk of the story, and the reader learns much about the joys and perils of working in television at that time in history.  Hornby knows his stuff where this is concerned, as he wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated film, An Education.  It is a historical novel about the golden age of the BBC, and a look at the huge social changes that were taking place at that time in the popular culture of the 1960s. It is also a love story, and an exploration into the creativity and teamwork that go into producing a tv show.  It is a novel of youth, and aging, and the inevitable change that everyone faces, no matter how famous or good-looking.  And it is a defense of and homage to the value of  “Light Entertainment”. I’ve read a few other books by this author:  About a Boy and High Fidelity are my favourites, and they are very funny.  This book takes a more earnest look at the lifestyle of people in the entertainment industry at a period when society was changing so drastically and so rapidly. It is not satirical or critical, but takes a more gentle, nostalgic approach, a bittersweet look at a bygone era (sorry for all the cliches!).  It reminded me a bit of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (up until the part where Plath’s main character tries to kill herself and undergoes ECT treatments):  although Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel takes place a few years earlier than Hornby’s, both novels deal with the choices women had at that time.  It was certainly an interesting read, and very informative, so I would definitely recommend this novel if you are interested in Britain’s pop culture in the 1960’s, or the way tv shows, plays or movies are written and produced, or if you are already a Hornby fan - just don’t expect Funny Girl to cause many laugh-out-loud moments.

I got a new kitty this weekend, so there’s not been much reading going on - hopefully I will have a chance to get into a good book this afternoon.  Have a great day, and enjoy the mild weather!

Bye for now…

Monday 15 February 2016

Happy Family Day!

OK, I take back what I said in recent posts about not believing that we will have six more weeks of winter.  Based on the very frigid temperatures this weekend, I can totally believe it!  Thank goodness for my hot cup of chai and the warm kitty on my lap!

In honour of Family Day, I’m happy to be able to tell you about a book I read last week that is, at heart, an exploration into what it means to be a family.  The Affinities by Toronto author Robert Charles Wilson tells the story of Adam Fiske, a graphic design student from the small town of Schuyler, NY who finds himself in the big city of Toronto with no friends, no connections, no money and no prospects.  He is not close to most members of his family, except his younger stepbrother, Geddy, an awkward teen, and his Granny Fiske, an elderly woman who really supports Adam in whatever he decides to pursue.  She is funding his graphic design education in Toronto, but when she becomes ill and the future funding of his studies is at risk of  drying up, he must consider other options.  He finally gives in to the temptation and decides to be tested for the Affinities, a series of tests that will determine to which, if any, social group he belongs.  It is a bit like Facebook, except it takes in all aspects of one's life, personality and total makeup and groups individuals together with other likeminded people - unfortunately, not everyone fits into these groups, which causes some social awkwardness.  These Affinities are named after letters in the Phonecian alphabet, and Adam is thrilled to discover he is a Tau,  one of the largest, most popular, and ultimately most “powerful” of the Affinities.  Suddenly, all his problems are solved - he finds a job, a place to live and a girlfriend as he joins his Tranche (his local group of Taus).  The only hitch is that members of each Affinity associate only with others in their group, and are expected to conduct minimal interactions with “outsiders”.  Founded by Meir Klein, the Affinities begin as a way to meet others of similar makeup, but over time, rivalries between Affinities develop.  Years late, Klein expresses concern about the way things have evolved, and has ideas about new and better ways to facilitate testing and interaction for these groups. When he is murdered while at a conference in BC, Adam and his immediate tranchemates are drawn into a complex plot as the dissonance within and between Affinities dovetails with greater geopolitical instabilities, most notably in China and India.  Can Adam find a way to move on with his life even as things seem to be falling apart?  And who should he ultimately trust, his fellow Taus or his family?  The summary of this book sounded awesome, and it started out really promising, but I found myself becoming more and more disappointed in it as the story went on.  I’m not sure exactly how to describe my reading experience, but I’ll try.  It was a short book (just 300 pages), but it seemed long.  I felt that it was too vague in many areas, lacking details about the Affinities in general, the Taus specifically, and Adam’s day-to-day life.  But it also had excessive detail about some things that seem inconsequential, although I can’t think of a specific example right now.  Anyway, it should have been a quick read, but it seemed to drag on and on until I finally reached the last page.  The ending almost redeemed this book, and I wonder if the “vagueness” was intentional, given the “big reveal”, so I have mixed feelings about recommending this dystopian sci fi novel.  It was definitely worthwhile, given our obsession with social media, so give it a try if you are in the mood for a light sci fi read.

And I finished listening to an audiobook that had nothing to do with families called The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr, read by my favourite narrator, John Lee.  This novel is set in Germany in 1938, where there is a serial killer targeting young German girls who embody Aryan traits.  Former Police Detective-turned-Private Investigator Bernhard “Bernie” Gunther is contacted by Frau Lange to find out who is blackmailing her son, Reinhardt, over some love letters he sent to his lover, psychotherapist Dr Kindermann.  She also wants to get all the letters back, then let her son decide what to do with them.  Of course, being homosexual in Nazi Germany is a serious crime, and Frau Lange is worried about her son.  Bernie asks his partner, Bruno, to keep watch on a suspect’s house, but during this stakeout, he is killed and the suspect is found hanged in his apartment.  Bernie is then called back to the police force to help out in the search for the serial sex killer who is murdering young blond blue-eyed girls in Berlin.  He has no choice but to join the investigation and is given a team of officers to help him out.  This investigation takes him to Nuremberg, then to a seance in Berlin, all in an effort to uncover the truth.  What he discovers is a complex conspiracy involving members of the SS who may just get away with murder.  I only chose this book because of the narrator, but it was really interesting, with enough details and plot twists to keep me hanging on until the end, when, of course, all is revealed.  I just found out that this is the second in the Berlin Noir Trilogy by Kerr, so I will check to see if the other two are available for download.  

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the last day of the long weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 7 February 2016

First post for February...

On this spring-like morning, with pretty much all the snow melted away, it’s hard to believe that the groundhog saw his shadow last week and that we will have six more weeks of winter.  I don’t quite know how to feel about this - I like the winter, but the sun, the clear walkways, the sight of grass and even the scent of spring, is intoxicating.  It’s still cool enough for me to enjoy a steaming cup of chai tea while I think about my recent reading experiences.

But first I want to let you know that the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading Evergreen 2016 nominated titles have just been announced: 

I have read many of these titles, and have written about them in earlier posts.  I hope you have a chance to read at least a few of these, and if you are in an area where your public library participates in the Evergreen Award program, please get out and vote for your favourite in October!   

My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a sweeping saga of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva, born of the union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon into tragic circumstances in Ethiopia in 1954 as the country hovers on the brink of revolution.  Drawn to a life of medicine, despite being abandoned by their father, both brothers come of age in a home near the hospital where their parents work as surgeons and discover their differences even as they find comfort in their similarities.  But one woman will cause an irreparable rift between them and cause one brother to flee his homeland and seek refuge in America.  In the end, though, he must rely on the two people he trusts least in his life, the father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.  This book was recommended by one of my book club members, so I put it on the list, despite knowing nothing about it.  I found a paperback copy at a used book store some time ago, so I was read to begin reading it last Sunday after finishing my post.  Well, the book was over 650 pages, with fairly small print.  Yikes!  I was never going to finish it in time for the meeting!  And discovering right from page one that it was going to be a book filled with detailed descriptions of everything, including the settings and the medical conditions and procedures encountered at the hospital, I knew it was not the kind of book I normally enjoy.  So I admit to skimming the first 300 pages, at least getting the gist of the story.  But then it got really interesting, once the twins were growing up and nearing their teens, when, in my opinion, the story actually starts.  I found the political details of events happening in Ethiopia at the time (1960s-1980s) interesting and informative, and the account of one man’s experiences growing up at a time of so much unrest and uncertainty was moving and harrowing - I have since found out that this parallels the author’s own experiences.  The choices Marion was forced to make later in life were both realistic and yet unbelievable.  It was not an uplifting book by any means, so I was happy to reach the last page.  When I got to the meeting, I saw that three of my ladies still had bookmarks in their books.  One was about a third of the way through, one nearly halfway through, and one woman has about a quarter of the novel left to read.  The last member had listened to this as an audiobook, and she said it grabbed her from the very first sentence and she was hooked to the last paragraph.  Those who hadn’t finished still enjoyed the parts they read, and planned to finish.  They loved the details of the settings, saying they felt like they were actually there.  They all agreed that the book contained “nuggets of wisdom”, usually from Ghosh, one of the surgeons at the hospital where the twins grew up.  They found the historical and political details fascinating.  We discussed Obstetric Fistula, and female circumcision, both prominent issues in the book.  Unfortunately, with so few of us finishing the novel, we couldn’t really discuss very much, so we just spent the rest of the time talking about a variety of different things, often involving books.  One of the members said that her sister knows the author, as her sister lives in the part of India where Verghese has set his upcoming book, and this member has read his previous books, My Own Country (which she really enjoyed) and The Tennis Partner (which she didn’t enjoy as much).  Would I recommend this book?  It’s definitely been recommended by other sources, and was on the bestseller list for many many weeks when it was first published in 2009.  And I believe it is being made into a film.  So I would suggest that you might enjoy this book if you like sweeping sagas with lots and lots of detail, and you do not feel squeamish when reading (many, many!) details of medical conditions and surgeries.

My preference for books are the shorter books that get right to the point, and use language clearly and concisely.  I have three such books sitting on my coffee table right now, and am looking forward to reading at least one, maybe even two, of them next week.  

But for now, I want to get outside and enjoy the wonderfully bright, clear, early-spring-like day!

Bye for now…