Tuesday 26 July 2016

Loneliness on a Tuesday morning...

It’s a bright, refreshingly “unhumid” morning, and I’m enjoying having the windows open again after days of air conditioning.  As I drink my steaming cup of plain old orange pekoe tea (and no treat!), I’m thinking about a recent book club meeting.

My “Friends” book group met last night to discuss The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and the conversation was certainly animated.  In case you have not read this American classic, here’s a quick summary:  Set in a small unnamed southern town in Georgia in the 1930s, this novel is told from various points of view and spans about two years, ending in 1939. It opens with one of the main characters, Mr John Singer, a deaf-mute, enjoying a wonderfully close friendship with another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, until Antonapoulos develops mental health issues and is put into an asylum.  Singer then moves into his own room and has to make his way in life alone, without any other real connections.  Jake Blount is another major character, a labour agitator who blows into town, gets drunk and is generally irritating to the others, until he befriends Singer and gets his act together… sort of.  Then there is Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, owner of the New York Cafe diner, an observant man in an unhappy marriage.  Mick Kelly is a young girl who shoulders much responsibility for her younger brothers and strives to rise above her circumstances, aspiring to buy a piano and learn to write music.  Doctor Copeland is an idealistic black man who strives to change the circumstances for members of his race, encouraging them to also rise above their current conditions, aim higher and strive for more.  These four characters befriend Singer and seek him out in order to unburden themselves to him, despite the fact that he is unable to hear, although he is able to understand most of what they are saying because he can read lips.  No one knows much about Singer, and no one really asks about his life, nor does he share his details with anyone except Antonapoulos, and at one point in the novel, the narrator says that these characters all assume things about Singer that make him into what they want him to be.  We had a wonderful discussion.  Two of the members had read this book many years ago and found that this rereading offered a new perspective on the novel, mainly dealing with the relationships between the characters.  Written when the author was just 23 years old, we all agreed that this book showed a maturity and perception well beyond her years, and showed a bravery, too, as she dealt with many provocative issues such as race relations, poverty, impending war, and class structure.  One of the book club members commented that these characters almost deify Singer, seeing him as a sage and possibly mistaking his silence for wisdom.  She pointed out the that there is such a thing as therapeutic listening, a deep, empathetic listening that can help troubled individuals (I can't recall exactly what this type of therapy is called).  We tried to determine if there was a “main character” in the novel, or if all of the major characters were equally significant, a point on which our opinions differed significantly.  Several members felt as many literary critics do, that Singer is the main character around whom all the other characters revolve.  I felt that all of the major characters were equally significant, mainly because we as readers learn more about them than about Singer, that we are privy to their thoughts and feelings, their ambitions and desires, whereas we learn so much less about Singer except his desire to maintain his connection with Antonapoulos, despite their separation and Antonapoulos’ seeming indifference to his friend.  We talked about the major themes of love and loneliness and the inability to connect with others, particularly in the white community.  We noted that the black characters in the novel, including Portia, Willie and Highboy, experienced more of a sense of community than their white counterparts, but that Doctor Copeland chose not to participate in that community.  We discussed the overriding obsession with money, and thought that this was a “North American” obsession, that people living in European communities in the years leading up to WWII also experienced poverty and repression but that money (or lack of it) is less often the theme in European literature depicting experiences during that time in history.  There were certainly sexual elements to the novel as well, although nothing explicit, everything veiled in language that was vague yet suggestive.  Someone mentioned that McCullers was bisexual, which explained some of the relationships between characters.  It was definitely a hit with the group and an excellent book club choice.  I would give it a 9 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books that explore the human condition.  It reminded me of a few books I’ve read recently:  Plainsong by Kent Haruf, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, and especially The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

PS I follow the “Baileys Prize for Fiction” site and they recently sent out a list of the 20 Best Novels by Women as voted by Latitude Festival goers.  This novel and the August selection for my other book group are both on the list!  Please see link for the full list:

I’ve read a number of these titles, and may try to make time to read some of the others, too!

Sunday 17 July 2016

Sunday evening post...

One of the great perks (and drawbacks!) of being off work all summer is the flexibility I have with my time.  I am no longer confined by weekly structure to write my post on Sunday morning after cooking and baking.  But of course, by the time I’ve had a long, wonderful day of sun, sand, beach and swimming, I’m feeling too tired to post… it’s a challenge, but if this is the biggest difficulty in my life right now, I’m certainly a very lucky girl!

And I’m lucky to have discovered an awesome book last week, The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin, a Canadian writer from Nova Scotia.  In 2002, she wrote a novel called Heave - it was very popular, but I've never read it.  Then nothing until this book, described by the publisher as “haunting gothic elements… reimagined in this strange tale of madness, murder and dark secrets...” (http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/30656/memento#9780385662413).  Told from the point of view of the main character, Fancy Mosher, it tells the story of the summer Fancy turns twelve, when she and her friend Art went to work at Petal’s End, a huge mansion set on the rugged shores of the Bay of Fundy (although really, it could be just any old eerie mansion located almost anywhere).  Petal’s End is owned by the illustrious, infamous Parker family, who have been absent from the house for many years, and this summer, the elderly Mrs Parker is planning to return from the city for the season and revive the famous garden party.  As the Parker family members return to the crumbling mansion, Art, Fancy and the other household staff make an effort to restore order from the chaos into which the house and garden have descended. But the Parkers return bringing with them all their dark family secrets, which seep into the atmosphere of the house and garden as the summer days drift by.  And Fancy has her own family secrets, including her Grampie’s talent, which her drunken mother believes has been passed down to Fancy, the twelfth born, although Fancy herself is not convinced.  What this summer leads to is a downward spiral into madness and delirium for many of the key players, and that’s not even at the end of the book!  At about ¾ of the way through, I began to think things would have to take an upward swing, that they could not possibly get worse, but I learned that just when you think things could not possibly get any worse, they usually do.  This was certainly one creepy book!  Creepy children, creepy adults, creepy mansion, creepy garden… even the flowers and the swans were creepy!!  And don’t hold your breath for a happy ending.  It was a really compelling read, very atmospheric, but soooo long and included so much repetitive detail that I found myself losing track of the story on more than one occasion and having to go back to remind myself of what had happened.  The writing was excellent, although Fancy’s sporadic use of the vernacular threw me off a bit, as it was not consistent, and in my opinion, the book would have benefited from some serious editing - at nearly 400 pages, it seemed somewhat overlong.  Still, I couldn’t put it down, and would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading gothic novels.  I would rate it a 7.5 out of 10.  One of my favourite parts was when, after yet another horrific tragedy befalls members of the household, Fancy’s friend Art, also just twelve years old, bemoans the passing of his summer and his youth and proclaims that he wants the summer to be fun:  “I just want it to be fun!”  That sums up the story perfectly - sorry Art, there is no fun to be had in this novel!  So if you are in the mood for a not-at-all-uplifting-but-very-creepy-and-compelling gothic novel, this is the book for you!  Enjoy!!

That’s all for now.  Daylight is fading and so am I.  Have a great week, and happy summer reading!

Bye for now…

Monday 11 July 2016

Happy Monday!

It’s Monday morning, and I’m drinking my hot cup of steeped chai on a cool, quiet morning, the first I’ve enjoyed since my summer vacation began.  You know that children’s rhyme, “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker”...  Well, last week my rhyme was “Bang-a-bang-boom, four men in my home, the plumber, the painter, the patio-door makers”, all week long!  And so, not surprisingly, I got no reading done at all, not even the book we were discussing on Friday for my book club.  I’ll give you a short update on the discussion, then I will tell you about an audiobook I finished listening to last week.

The book we discussed this month was One Summer:  America, 1927 by Bill Bryson.  I’ve read several of Bryson’s books in the past, travel writing about his experiences in different countries, as well as book about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail.  These books were light and humourous and easy to get through.  I realize he has written others that I haven’t read, including a book on the history of the English language and a short history of “nearly everything” (I think that’s actually the title of the book!)  But One Summer was a lengthy look at the events that took place in America during the summer of 1927, including the nonstop transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh, the Great Mississippi Flood, Babe Ruth and the baseball season of the NY Yankees, the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and the beginning of the talking-film era with the release of “The Jazz Singer”.  The part that I read (the first 49 pages out of 450), was well-written and clearly well-researched, and I look forward to reading the whole book and savouring every detail.  Only two members were able to come out on Friday, and they had, thankfully, both read the whole book.  They discussed Bryson’s presentation of Lindbergh as both the heroic aviator and the not-so-favourable fascist-sympathizer.  His complicated personal life is also discussed in the Epilogue of the book.  They discussed the Cotton Club, an elite club where black entertainers performed for all-white clientele.  One of the ladies listened to this as an audiobook, which was narrated by the author - that doesn’t happen very often.  She said he did a good job, and of course, since he wrote the book, he would know how he would want it to be read, what parts to emphasize, what tone the book should have, etc., which are all factors that influence how a book is narrated.  I told them that, in preparation for the book club meeting, I watched the film “Double Indemnity” with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurry, based on the James M Cain novel of the same name, which was inspired by the tabloid sensationalized murder by Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray of Ruth’s husband, Albert (this story is related in detail within the first 49 pages of the book).  I told the ladies that Bryson had written these other travel books, and one member asked if he had ever written anything about travels in Canada, or if I knew of any book about this topic.  I have to look into this, but I’m sure such books have been written.  Both ladies agreed that it was an interesting, detailed book, perhaps a bit long, but well worth reading.

And last week I finished listening to a gothic murder mystery by Chris Ewan called Dark Tides.  I know nothing about this author, but the book was interesting, if a bit predictable.  It takes place on the Isle of Man and tells the story of Claire Cooper, a young woman whose mother disappeared on Halloween night when Claire was just eight years old.  Celebrating the Manx tradition of Hop-tu-naa on October 31st, Claire and her mother went out visiting houses and singing songs for treats. When they came back home, she put Claire to bed, and that was the last time she ever saw her mother.  Into her teens, Claire becomes part of a gang of friends who each take turns coming up with a dare for the group every Hop-tu-naa, dares both fun and dangerous.  One such dare gets out of hand and unexpected violence occurs, creating potential ruin for all six friends.  But only one friend suffers from the event, and life seems to go on unimpeded for all the others… until, years later, one friend dies on Hop-tu-naa.  This could be an accident, but the following year, another “accident” happens and Claire, now a detective with the Manx police, begins to investigate further.  As another Hop-tu-naa approaches, she and her remaining friends become anxious and try to safeguard themselves, but can they outwit the psychopath who seems bent on eliminating them all, one year at a time?  The tone of this book reminded me of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, gothic and descriptive and atmospheric.  Because it began with shifts in time periods, from present to past to sometime in-between, it was challenging to make sense of the story at first, but then I clued into how it was being told and how to fit all the bits together, and I could follow from then on.  It was complex and interesting, and dealt with a group of friends with a secret from their past, just my type of book!  The narrator did a good job of capturing the atmosphere of the story, too, using different tones to build tension and suspense when necessary.  I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys gothic mysteries, and would advise that you keep reading or listening, even if it seems confusing at first, because it will all make sense in the end.  I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Mid-week post?

It’s the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, and I’m writing my post now because I can!  This is my first week of summer holidays, and every day has been super busy, with no break in sight for a few days.  We decided to go to the beach on Sunday at the last minute, so I couldn’t blog at my usual time, and then things kept coming up to prevent me from writing.  But here we are, with a steeped cup of tea (but no treat *sigh*) as I think about the last book I read.

I actually started reading a great book last week by Canadian author Peter Behrens called Carry Me, but unfortunately it was due back at the library and I couldn’t renew it as it was on hold for someone else, so I had to bring it back after reading only half of it.  It is a historical novel set between WWI and WWII and tells the story of Billy Lange, son of the skipper, and Karin von Weinbrenner, the daughter of the Baron for whom Billy’s father works.  As they grow up, they develop a difficult, awkward relationship that spans pre-war and post-war days, and results in an unexpected pregnancy during the rise of Hitler to power. The narrative consists of flashbacks and jumps in time that at first seem random and confusing, but which make sense as you get further into the novel.  I can’t really comment on this book as I haven’t finished it, but I’ve placed it on hold and hope to get a chance to do just that very soon.  It certainly grabbed my attention and kept me wanting to read, which surprised me because I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction.  More on that book when I finish it.

Then, in honour of Canada Day, I read a debut novel by Canadian author Amy Jones, We’re All in This Together.  This novel is set in present-day Thunder Bay and tells the story of the Parkers, one of the most dysfunctional families I’ve come across in fiction (well, maybe the Lamberts in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections are nearly as messed up!). Finn Parker calls her brother Shawn and finds out that their mother, Kate, has gone over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel and is in a coma.   Finn knows she has to leave her Mississauga home and her “normal” life and go back to be with her family, the family she fled from three years earlier, with no warning, in the middle of the night, the family she has not been back to see since her flight.  But she really, really doesn’t want to.  And who could blame her?  Her sixty-three year old mother jumps over the Falls in a barrel and is caught on video, a video that quickly goes viral and her mother is dubbed “The Conqueror of Kakabeka”.  Her twin sister Nicki has four children all fathered by different men, one of whom was Finn’s long-term boyfriend at the time of conception.  Nicki is currently married to Hamish, a man ten years younger than her who makes bootleg whisky and sells used stuff on eBay.  Her mother’s behaviour is becoming more and more bizarre, her father is becoming more reclusive, and her oldest niece, London, has been arrested for drug possession.  And the most normal couple of the family, Shawn and Kristiina, along with their two boys, have their own deep-seated problems.  And Shawn isn’t even Finn’s real brother, just a stray lad Kate took in when he was fifteen years old with nowhere to go, a boy who always had one foot out the door… until finally he became more of a Parker than the Parkers.  Can they all learn to overcome their differences and finally become what they’ve fought against for so long, a real family?  I have to say this book started off really strongly.  It was funny, insightful, and wise.  Told in alternating chapters by various characters, it seemed to offer real insight into the experiences of everyone across the three generations of Parkers, and I couldn’t put it down… until it got to the point where I had to put it down.  There was so much “quirkiness” and bizarre behaviour thrown into the book that, at one point, I thought I’d like to plunge over Kakabeka Falls myself!  I think the author tried too hard to fit in everything she could think of, and she offered chapters written by characters who were not really central to the story, which I felt detracted from the story rather than informing the reader.  Overall, it was a light, fun summer read that reached a poignant and emotional conclusion and left this reader feeling satisfied.  It was funny, quirky, emotional and thought-provoking, as only the best Canadian fiction can be.  I’d give it a 7.5 out of 10, and would recommend it to those readers who enjoy “chicklit” (I actually hate that term) or lighthearted, humourous family narratives. I have a favourite section I wanted to share with you. Shawn is thinking about his time with the Parker family: "He has been there for the birth of four children. A wedding. A cancer scare. A difficult goodbye. An epic plunge over a waterfall. But is it the big moments that make up a family? Or is it the quiet conversations on the front porch over a hand of cards, playing Star Wars in the back yard, the mundane arguments, the shared meals and baseball games and cups of tea with a shot of whisky? He doesn't know, so he has to be there for all of them, collect them all and hope in the end they add up to something that feels like a real family."

That’s all for now.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…