Sunday 27 November 2016

Tea and books on a sunny fall morning...

Thank goodness I finished a book this week, so I don’t have to go on and on about the weather!  I’m sitting with my cup of delicious steeped chai tea and a yummy Date Bar from City Cafe, thinking about The Green Road by Anne Enright, which is the book we will be discussing for my book group meeting tomorrow night.  I have to refresh my memory because I finished it a few days ago and have been reading another book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for next Saturday’s book club meeting, and I find that when I read books too quickly in succession, the details of each start to blend into one another.

The Green Road tells the story of the four Madigan children (the “mad Madigans”) and explores their relationship with their mother, Rosaleen, a story that spans from the 1980s to 2005, when they all come home for Christmas to their West Ireland family home.  Dan fled from home to join the priesthood in the 1980s, but ends up scraping together a living on the streets of New York at the height of the AIDS scare among the gay community.  Emmet becomes an aide worker, travelling around the world offering what help he can to those who need it most and have the least, yet being unable to truly care for himself.  The youngest (and prettiest) child, Hanna, moves to Dublin to become an actress and then a mother, fulfilling neither of these roles well as alcohol consumes her.  Only Constance stays close to home and raises a family while her husband acquires more and more wealth.  Rosaleen struggles to cope with the flight of her children and the loss of her husband, Pat, while trying to hold onto some purpose and meaning in her own life.  She is an enigma, and her children are simultaneously repelled by her callous comments and attitude and yet also drawn by the myth of “family hearth and home”.  They want to remember a “wonderful” childhood, yet the reality was anything but wonderful.  This is the story of one family finally coming to terms with the truth about their past and trying to salvage what they can to move forward into the future.  I’ve spoken to a few of my book club members recently who said that they didn’t feel this book was very engaging or memorable, and I have to agree.  I think the problem with this book is the structure:  there are chapters devoted solely to one adult child’s experiences at a particular time in their lives, but there seems to be no real pattern to the time periods chosen, and no mention of the others in each child’s story.  Then, periodically, there will be a chapter exploring Rosaleen’s experiences, but those are more sporadic.  It seems that there is no real rhyme or reason to the book’s structure.  In my humble opinion (not being a Booker prize-winning author myself!), I think this book would have been more engaging if Enright had started out with all the children coming together at Christmas in 2005, then having brief flashbacks to the past to fill in backstories.  I also felt that the chapters focusing on Hanna’s and Constance’s lives were more convincing and believable than those about Dan and Emmet - maybe Enright writes better from a female point of view than that of a male character.  There were some of Enright’s trademark turns-of-phrases that just capture the way things are so simply yet so succinctly:  “Rosaleen was tired of waiting.  She had been waiting all her life for something that never happened, and she could not bear the suspense any longer” (p 259), but these occurrences were fewer and further between than in her past works.  And each of the characters’ stories were interesting and could have been novels in themselves, but thrown together they way they were, they just didn’t seem to work as well as they might have done if the structure was different.  Anyway, I’m glad to have read this book, as I feel that it sheds a real light on the truth behind "happy families" and what it's like to be raised by a mother who manipulates her children psychologically throughout their childhood and plays head games with them to get them to do what she wants. I think it will be an interesting discussion - I suspect we will all enjoy the book just a bit more once we have a chance to talk about it and share our thoughts.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild temperature and the sun!

Bye for now…

Monday 21 November 2016

This is a test...

I didn't get my latest post from Sunday sent to my email, so I wanted to send another as a test to make sure this feature still worked.  Hopefully this will be delivered on schedule.  Thanks for your patience during this technical glitch.

Bye for now...

Sunday 20 November 2016

Tea and chat on a crisp wintery morning...

We were out yesterday running errands in the rain while the temperature dropped as the day went on.  I was looking out the car window at the trees and brush on the side of the roads and thought “These are November colours”.  Everything was yellowing and brown, tree branches were bare and the long grasses were the colour of wheat.  It was beautiful and mournful and brought on a sense of melancholy for the season’s passing.  Fall, in all its degrees of change, is my favourite season, and this month, too, is wonderful, but in a different way than the bright, fiery colours of October, when I feel youthful and energetic and want to walk the trails and appreciate the scenery for all its brief beauty.  The landscape now puts me in a more contemplative mood, where I’m prone to nostalgia and my thoughts turn inward.  It is the perfect kind of weather for reading “serious” books that are thought-provoking, the ones that make you ponder life’s many complexities and consider the human condition.

But this morning promises to be the beginning of a bright, crisp, early winter day - we even got our first dusting of snow!  

I’m spending so much time telling you about the weather and my reaction to it because I have no books to tell you about.  I know, it’s shocking, and my only excuse is that I was so busy hosting a Scholastic Book Fair at one of my schools (my most successful one yet!) that I was just too tired to read when I got home.  Also, one of the nights last week I held a Book Fair Family Event, so I didn’t even get home until after 7:30pm, which left no time for reading.  And one of my cats, Riley, has taken to snuggling with me when I sit down in my reading chair with my cup of tea after I get home from work, so I can’t really read then, either.  In fact, here he is right now!  (I’m typing with one hand, so please forgive any typos - they are entirely Riley’s fault!)

I’ve started reading The Green Road by Anne Enright in preparation for my next “friends” book club meeting in a week’s time, and so far I’m enjoying it, although it’s not wow-ing me like her earlier books did.  I’ll tell you more about it next week once I’ve finished the book.

Oh, I do have a book to tell you about, or rather, an audiobook.  I finished listening to Death of a Nightingale by Danish author Lene Kaaberbol.  This is the third book in the “Nina Borg” series, and tells the story of a Ukranian woman, Natasha Doroshenko, who escapes Danish police custody after being arrested on suspicion of murdering her fiancé.  She is trying to find her young daughter, Rina, who has been held in a refugee camp for the past two years.  Nina Borg is a nurse who works at the camp, and becomes involved in the hunt for Natasha, while also providing a safe haven for Rina, who appears to have become a target, likely as a lure to flush out Natasha.  But why are people looking for Natasha, and why is Rina at risk of being abducted?  As Nina uncovers more secrets, the story of Natasha’s past comes to light, and the clock ticks as the chase across the frozen Danish landscape speeds to its conclusion.  This book was confusing and difficult to follow.  I thought the plot was unnecessarily complex, and maybe it was just me, but I felt that it was kind of a ridiculous story.  I read the first book in this series a few years ago, The Boy in the Suitcase, which I recall enjoying quite a bit, but this one really did nothing for me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I was halfway through, so I stuck it out and was thrilled to reach the end.  I just noticed that I have placed a hold at the library on the latest “Nina Borg” novel, A Considerate Killer - I guess I will leave it on hold and when it comes in for me, I can give it a try.  Maybe Death of a Nightingale was not one of her best books, and  A Considerate Killer will be better.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sun - but remember to bundle up!

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 November 2016

Tea and books on a crisp, bright Sunday morning...

After a morning of cooking and baking, I’m happy to sit down with a steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread as I think about what I’ve been reading this past week.  In place of my usual classical background music, I’ve pulled out my Leonard Cohen cds, in memory of that great Canadian icon, author, poet, musician, wordsmith… “it is you, who must leave everything that you cannot control.. it begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul” (from “The Sisters of Mercy”)  We will miss your thoughts and words, Leonard!

I read a really great novel last week by Canadian author Trudi Johnson, From a Good Home:  a St John’s family saga.  This is the third debut novel I’ve read in a row, and they’ve all been awesome.  From a Good Home tells the story of the Sinclair family history, and begins with the death of patriarch Charles Sinclair, father to Jeanne and Emily, and grandfather to Joe, Lauren and Gregory.  His death throws the whole family dynamic out of sync, as it comes to light that when Charles was a young man, husband and father, he also fathered a child with one of the girls who worked in his household, Hannah Parsons.  Now, sixty years later, the story is revealed and the family must come to terms with what this means for them and how this will affect their lives going forward.  There are no real “main characters”, as they are all important to the story, and the ages of the characters range from early thirties to mid-seventies.  It was a real page-turner, as details of the family secrets were meted out bit by bit, tiny morsels for the reader to devour as we forge ahead to reach the final, satisfying conclusion.  It was a bit like that 1950's novel, Peyton Place, about a small town with scandalous secrets between social classes, but it reminded me more of the Maeve Binchy novels that I’ve read in the past, gentle stories about family and friends, and the bonds that develop in our lives to even the most unlikely people - it was more gossip-y than Binchy but less scandalous than Peyton Place.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, although I sometimes wished there was more to the story than seemingly every character’s obsession with the Sinclair family secrets.  It was a novel filled with longing and regret, but also love and trust, and explored the many types of people who make up our family and our circle of friends - actually, it reminded me a bit of Maeve Binchy’s novel, Circle of Friends, as there are a group of young people who have been friends for years, moving from childhood into adulthood together.  I would give this book a 9 out of 10, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys books that deal with family secrets, domestic stories, or anyone who likes, as one member of my award selection committee described it, a “juicy” read. (Note: according to the author notes at the end of the book, Johnson is working on a sequel to this - hurray!!)

And I’m nearly finished reading a collection of short stories by Canadian author Diane Bracuk, Middle-Aged Boys & Girls.  I don’t normally read short stories, but we try to include at least one collection on our list of nominees for the award, and I think this one might be this year’s choice.  So far there have been stories about:  two friends, one obese but confident, the other slimmer but insecure; a woman whose husband has been stealing the female tenants’ underwear; a single mother dealing with her teen-aged daughter’s budding sexuality; and a former supermodel who must come to terms with her aging body.  These are just a few of the stories that Bracuk shares with us, told with skill and sensitivity, and also a touch of dark humour.  I am planning to read the rest of the collection today, and expect that the quality of the writing will continue.  I would recommend this to just about anyone, but particularly anyone who is middle-aged and facing the changes that come with this phase in life.  I know that short stories have not been very popular for many year, but I wonder why they continue to be unpopular at this time:  in this day and age, when everyone multitasks and has limited time to do anything for any length of time, it’s a wonder that people have time to pick up a legthy novel and stick with it to the end.  Short stories are small, bite-sized nuggets that you can read from beginning to end in one brief sitting, without a huge time commitment, and still have time to do all the other things that fill our days.  Personally, I have no problem findng hours every day to devote to reading, an opportunity for which I am thankful each and every day.

OK, that’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the refreshingly fall-like weather!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 November 2016

First post for November (feels like September!)...

OK, enough with this wacky weather!  It feels like late September, not the beginning of November, and while I love the extra opportunities to hang laundry outside, I'm longing for the day when the weather will finally be “seasonal”!  But I am very thankful for the extra hour today - I wish I could figure out a way to gain an extra hour EVERY Sunday!

I was a bit of a reading machine this week, and have two books to tell you about.  The first is the one we discussed at my book club meeting yesterday, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  This Booker Prize-winning debut novel is told in the form of letters written by Indian entrepreneur Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, Premier of China, and tells the story of Balram’s rise from servant to successful business owner.  His life began in the Darkness, in a small village in rural India, where corruption is as prevalent as in the the Light of the big cities.  With nothing but his wits to help him along, he must somehow find a way to escape his dismal, inevitable fate, despite the pressures from family and society, and he formulates a plan that includes eavesdropping, deception and murder.  But the reader is left wondering whether murder in a corrupt society is a necessary evil, and if a good man sometimes has to do evil things in order to improve the social conditions that surround him.  I listened to this novel a number of years ago as an audiobook, and remembered being impressed particularly with the narration, which was done by my favourite narrator, John Lee.  This was the first book I’d ever heard him narrate, and until I checked, I thought it was narrated by an Indian reader, not a British one.  Anyway, I’d forgotten most of the story, so when I began reading it for the meeting, I wondered if this was really a good choice for discussion.  And I can say that of the members who came out yesterday, two loved the book, two didn’t quite know what to make of it, and one member quite vehemently announced that she hated it and she hoped there were no other books like this on the list for next year (she asked in particular about A Passage to India but I assured her that it was nothing like this book).  These responsess didn’t really surprise me, as the book is “amoral (and) irreverent”, but also “deeply endearing… and utterly contemporary” (from the back cover of the book).  One member who loved the book felt that Balram was to be commended for his desire to break out of his caste and make something of himself besides being the servant of others for the rest of his life, and that he fully realized that he would have to live on the edge of what is moral and immoral, ethical and unethical.  His situation was one of hopelessness, but he was smart enough and ruthless enough to want to get out.  Another member found this book very disturbing, but she thought the humour helped to lighten the mood.  Another member said she had no idea where this book was going, that there was a twist around every corner, and she wasn’t sure if this was, in fact, the story of a poor boy who makes good, as she first thought it was.  At one point, we veered off into a long discussion about biking, bicycalists, and road safety (you'll have to read the book to understand this!). We talked about the culture shock of the East and West (“...our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs” p. 2).  One member wondered why he was writing about his rise to success, what purpose he was trying to achieve by writing these letters and admitting to his actions, all of them, both ethical and unethical:  does he want to be caught?  Is he bragging?  Someone brought up the fact that, despite his success, he has no friends;  he doesn’t trust anyone, and we were pretty sure his family is all dead (not that he had much to do with his family after leaving the Darkness anyway).  The member who did not like this book at all was very disturbed by the inequality, poverty and corruption that is ever-present in Indian culture.  She mentioned the paradox of this:  that India is a land where people make pilgrimages, meditate, go to ashrams, and engage gurus to guide them in their quest for spiritual enlightenment, and yet the country has no morals or ethics and is utterly corrupt.  She said that her social conscience was deeply troubled while reading this book, which is unfortunate (I don’t want my book club members to be upset by the book club selections), but it shows that Adiga has achieved his objective in writing this book:  “At a time when India is going through great changes, ... it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society… that’s what I’m trying to do” (  So I think it was a successful book club selection, and I hope that next month’s choice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, will redeem me in the eyes of the group (just kidding!).  I would highly recommend White Tiger to anyone who is interested in satirical novels, or novels that expose corruption in all its many aspects.  This novel gets a 10 out of 10 from me.

And I have about five pages left of a nail-biter of a novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, the debut novel by British author Ruth Ware.  This unputdownable novel tells the story of a cozy girls’ weekend gone awry, and opens with the main character, crime novelist Nora Shaw, running through the woods.  She is tired and scared, and everything hurts, but she knows she must run, she must keep running, to stay alive.  A few weeks earlier, she received an email invitation to a hen party for Clare, her former best friend from high school, but someone she hasn’t seen for ten years.  Her instinct was to decline the invitation, but when she realized that a mutual friend was also invited, they make a pact to attend and sneer their way through this weekend event, scheduled to take place in a remote glass house in the woods.  Once there, however, Nora’s past, which she has done her best to leave completely behind her, is thrust upon her again and again, and it seems she is unable to escape it this time.  She keeps wondering why she was invited at all, and when things start to go wrong, she suspects that there may be an ulterior motive behind her inclusion on the list of guests.  But she could never have guessed how far one person would be willing to go to secure the perfect life… a life that may not include her.  This book grabbed me from the very first page, and I stayed up late reading long after I should have closed the book and gone to bed.  It was a bit like The Silent Wife meets Before I Go to Sleep, with Nora’s inability to remember the last few hours in the house playing a large part in creating the suspense in the story.  The writing was excellent, offering the reader just enough information in every chapter to begin to piece together the bigger picture, but not giving too much away at any one time.  But the last few chapters, where all is revealed, felt rather forced and unbelievable, a bit over-the-top and disappointing… maybe the last chapter will redeem the ending, but I have my doubts.  Overall, though, it was one of the better books I’ve read in this genre (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Couple Next Door, etc.), although The Silent Wife is my personal favourite.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys these types of thrillers.  I’m looking forward to her next book, The Woman in Cabin 10, due to be released in January 2017.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the gorgeously “unseasonable” weather!

Bye for now…