Thursday 22 December 2016

Books and... soup? on the first post of winter...

Yes, I’m sipping a cup of homemade Carrot Sweet Potato Soup tonight as I write this brief post.  I just realized that next Sunday, my usual posting time, is Christmas Day, so I decided to get something posted well before the hectic few days before the holiday.  

I did end up going back to reread The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan - what a strange book!  This short novel tells the story of a young British couple, Mary and Colin, on vacation in a nameless city (but you know it’s Venice).  They are unmarried but are in a long-term relationship that is clearly not without its challenges.  Still, they are doing their best to enjoy their vacation, despite getting lost regularly in the winding streets and alleyways.  One night, as they are once again lost and in search of an open restaurant, they find themselves approached by a stocky man who, in a gently harrassing manner, takes charge of their search and steers them towards a late-night bar. Talking all night and well into the wee hours of the morning, they learn of Robert’s childhood, with his domineering father and envious sisters. They end up back at Robert’s house, where they meet his wife, Caroline, and they seem to be the perfect hosts, yet the reader, and Colin and Mary, pick up on the somewhat sinister tone underlying their guests’ reception.  Only later do we find out just how deeply sinister their intentions lie.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not read this bizarre, disturbing, deeply unsettling early work by McEwan, since upon rereading it, I realized how much of the “enjoyment” of, or perhaps I should say “appreciation” for, this story depends on not knowing the ending until you reach it.  It definitely embodies major themes of love and death, sexuality and identity, themes which appear in many of McEwan’s novels throughout his decades-long writing career.  But this book is like the distilled version, where only the essence is extracted and all superfluous material disposed of.  It is certainly not a cheerful “holiday” read, but I think it is essential reading for anyone interested in exposing themselves to McEwan’s body of work (and I think all serious readers of literature should give him a go - he isn’t a multi-Booker-prize nominee for nothing!!)  But please don’t just read this one and base all your opinions on it - it was only his second book, and he’s come a long way over the years!

And I read a Young Adult novel, The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel as well.  This novel has been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple Award (suitable for grades 7 and 8 students), and I try to read a couple of these nominees, as well as a couple of Silver Birch nominees (grades 4-6) over the Christmas Break so I can promote them in the new year.  Well, this book was creepy and strange - hmmm, two creepy and strange books in one week, and it’s only Thursday!!  The Nest is a bit of a sci-fi “invasion of the body-snatchers” book, narrated by an anxious young boy, Steven, older brother to his sister Nicole and frail, sickly baby brother Theo.  Steven worries over his parents and his baby brother, and when relief comes in the form of an angel in his dreams, he welcomes this opportunity… until he realizes, over time, that the angel in his dreams may be an otherworldly being in the form of a wasp queen, intent on replacing said failing baby Theo with a brand new, perfectly healthy, unflawed version.  But at what cost this exchange, and what will Steven’s consent and his willingness to help mean?  This book brought to mind the short story by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The ones who walk away from Omelas”, about the perfect town with perfect families and perfect neighbourhoods, but at a high price, a cost the ones who walk away are unwilling to pay.  I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but it was nothing like what I got, a gruesomely disturbing read that was nonetheless a compelling page-turner, even as I grimaced and cringed, the nearer the end I got.  I’m not sure what students I would recommend this to, if any (one reviewer calls Oppel’s tone “visceral”, and I couldn’t agree more).  It was more of a sci-fi horror-type novel, a “nature gone awry” story that is not meant for the squeamish or faint of heart.  Read it at your own risk, but be warned - may cause queasiness.

With that cheerful closing remark, I wish you and your loved ones a Joyful Holiday, and may the New Year be filled with many great books!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 December 2016

Spies all around us...

It’s been a week of espionage fiction, both in audio and regular paperback, offering very different reading/listening experiences for me.
I was at a loss last weekend in terms of what to read, as I had no library books checked out and nothing that I had to read for my committee.  It was a dilemma, one I solved by turning my head slightly to the left and scanning the bookshelf that is closest to my reading chair.  My eyes lit upon the Ian McEwan section, and I realized that there were still two of his books that I own but haven’t yet read, Solar and Sweet Tooth.  I decided quite randomly to read the one with fewer pages, and Sweet Tooth won by nine pages.  In the opening chapter, we meet Serena Frome (“rhymes with “plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, whose first 18 years were so uneventful that she skips over them almost completely.  She has a younger sister, Lucy, who gets herself into a bit of a trouble and goes on to live a hippie-ish lifestyle, despite the fact that it’s the early 1970s.  Serena, on the other hand, does what her mother advises and goes to Cambridge to study mathematics, even though her real passion is reading fiction.  She will read anything, from Jane Austen to Ian Fleming, and anything in between.  She begins seeing a history student, then begins an affair with his professor, Tony Canning, with whom she spends a wonderful summer (weekends only) on a remote island.  Tony teaches her to cook and takes charge of her reading program, insisting she read history texts rather than fiction.  Serena falls in love with Tony, but is unexpectedly spurned by him one weekend, leaving her devastated.  She does, however, follow Tony’s advice and, upon finishing school,  begins working at MI5 in a low-level position.  She forms few friendships, but manages to form an alliance with Shirley Shilling, with whom she works on her floor of the building.  Serena also becomes fixated on a man from another floor of the building, Max, and believes that they are heading towards a relationship.  Serena is finally approached about going out in the field and working undercover as a literary agent, trying to recruit new arts talent, specifically Tom Healy, a graduate student at one of the new colleges who has written some short stories and is to be approached to write a novel.  He is to receive funding, under the guise of a literary foundation that promotes artists whose works have been politically challenged or censored.  She takes on this project, named “Sweet Tooth”, and meets up with Tom at his college office, where he is an assistant lecturer.  She falls instantly in love with him, and they arrange liaisons at his flat on weekends.  Meanwhile, Shirley is suddenly sacked, Serena is furious, but no one will tell her why this happened.  She continues to see Tom, and his novel, which she secretly hates, is being promoted by his publisher as a contender for the Jane Austen literary prize.  All seems to go swimmingly for the couple, but Serena constantly feels guilty that she is deceiving the man she loves, pretending to be someone she is not.  Does she reveal the fact that she works for MI5 and not the literary foundation?  If so, would Tom despise her and end the relationship?  But can she live with herself knowing the relationship is founded on lies?  When I started this book, I was happy to see that McEwan had returned to espionage fiction, like his 1990 novel The Innocent.  But I was soon disappointed when I realized that this was not an espionage novel, it was a love story, and a fairly predictable one at that.  I felt that the characters were underdeveloped and the story uninspired, despite being very literary.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I personally thought that the “big reveal” was pretty much what I expected, although it may account for the shallowness of the main characters.  When I first read McEwan’s 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach, I felt as though it had been a waste of time, but once I had time to think about it, I realized that it was, in fact, a brilliant novel.  I was hoping that the same would happen with this book, but alas, it did not.  The writing was solid, the characters believable (though not very interesting), and the story was OK.  I just felt that it lacked that special something, that “je ne c’est quoi” that would really make it a great book.  If nothing else, this book has made me interested in possibly rereading his Booker Prize nominated 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers, and possibly watching again the fabulous film adaptation of this book, starring Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren. I would rate Sweet Tooth 7 out of 10, and would not recommend it to anyone who has never read anything by McEwan before. By the way, I’m anxiously awaiting notification from the library that his new book, Nutshell, is ready for me to pick up - maybe that will happen over the Christmas Break (“Please, Santa!  I promise I’ve been good this year!”)

And I finished listening to a novel by Daniel Silva, A Death in Vienna, the fourth book in the “Gabriel Allon” series.  It begins with a bomb exploding at a Holocaust research centre in Vienna, killing two researchers and injuring the director of the centre, Eli Levon.  Gabriel Allon is brought in to help find out who sent the bomb, and despite his desire to give up his work as an assassin for the Israeli Office and live out his days peacefully (and safely) as an art restorer, he leaves Venice and travels to Vienna, the city where, over a decade earlier, a bomb went off in his car, killing his son and injuring his wife so badly that she remains hospitalized to this day, having lost her mind over grief and guilt.  Levon, after all, is an old friend, whose mission in life is to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.  It turns out that Levon had been working on a case brought to him by Max Klein, a fellow Jew who thought he recognized a former Nazi SD officer, Erich Radek, living in Vienna under a new name, Ludwig Vogel.  When Klein is also killed, Allon is compelled to follow the clues that lead him deeper and deeper into the world of the Nazi prison camps during WWII, and his own mother’s experiences as a prisoner at Treblinka and as a participant in the Death Marches in 1945, led by Radek.  The search takes him from Austria to Israel to Argentina, and involves not only the Israeli Office, but also the American CIA.  I don’t want to give any more details away about this complex plot, but if you are in the mood for a fast-paced spy thriller, this may be the book for you.  Of course it is not completely believable, but it’s not supposed to be.  The purpose of plot-driven books is to transport the reader and to entertain.  To quote an article I recently read, “Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences” (  It kept me listening eagerly right to the end, and it was narrated by John Lee, which may have played a small part in my sustained interest!  It’s not great literature, but it was certainly complex and interesting, and the myriad of characters kept my attention fixed on the narrative to keep them all straight.  It was a satisfying listening experience, and I would seek out others in this series to listen to (especially if they were narrated by "you-know-who"!).  As a fast-paced thriller, I would give it an 8 out of 10.

That’s all for today.  Have a warm, wintery afternoon!

Bye for now…

Sunday 11 December 2016

Tea and books on a wonderfully wintery morning...

I have a slice of freshly baked Date Bread on a plate beside a steaming cup of chai tea and a kitty slouched over my shoulder as I write this post.  We’ve had a bit of snow over the past couple of days, and as I look out the window, I see that more snow has fallen overnight, making it look like a truly wintery wonderland!

Last week I read the latest book by popular, award-winning Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue,  The Wonder.  Donoghue is most famous for her earlier novel, Room, about a young woman and her son who are kept in a room for years by her male abductor.  I didn’t love the book, but I enjoyed listening to the audio version as it truly sounded as though it was being narrated by a six-year-old boy, which lent some credibility to the story (which, by the way, was based on a true story).  I came to this book with mixed feelings - my other committee members didn’t love it, but I had it on hold at the library and it became available for me at exactly the right time, so I started it, fully expecting to put it down after a few pages and move on to something else.  But it sucked me right in!  Set in Ireland in the 1850s, this novel, also inspired by true stories, tells the story of an English nurse who is sent to the middle of the country to determine whether a young girl who claims to have been living without food for the past four months is, in fact, receiving nourishment surreptitiously.  Widowed Nightingale-trained nurse Lib Wright is sent by her employers at the English hospital where she works to “the dead centre” of Ireland, a small village far from Dublin, a backwards town that is far behind modern times and relies heavily on the Roman Catholic Church for guidance and direction.  Believing that eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell is subsisting on air and the word of God alone, the town and Church benefit from the tourists that flock to this small village to behold “the Wonder”, leaving small gifts and making donations.  But before the parish priest notifies the bishop of this miracle child, who could possibly be the first Irish saint to be canonized since the 13th century, a committee of important village men brings in the nurse and a nun, Sister Michael, to watch over Anna every minute for two weeks and report their observations back to the committee.  They are not to discuss their observations with each other, nor are they to aid or assist the child in any way - they are simply to observe.  What Lib finds on her arrival is a smart, healthy, robust, energetic child who believes that she does not need food to live, but that God is all the nourishment she requires.  Over the course of the two weeks, as she and Sister MIchael work in alternating eight-hour shifts, Lib witnesses the child’s rapid decline in health and mental abilities.  Her hands and feet swell, her physical strength declines, and her hair falls out, leaving clumps of red strands on her pillow.  Lib feels that she is witnessing a slow murder by starvation, and that her presence and that of Sister Michael are impeding the secretive feedings that have been taking place over the past four months, which, while not providing full meals, have provided adequate nourishment to keep Anna fairly healthy.  As her health declines, Lib’s feelings for and attachment to Anna grow, until she knows she must make a decision that will affect the outcome of the observation, a decision that very literally means life or death.  This is a very interesting story, one that was inspired, according to the author, by nearly fifty cases of “fasting girls” from the 16th to the 20th century in various parts of the world, and I found the book to be a real page-turner, but only because of the story itself - I wanted to know what happened next.  The writing, while solid, lacked the “wow” factor, and the character of Lib was positively annoying, and, at least to this reader, was completely unbelievable.  And the love story…?  I can’t even comment on that, except to ask, “What was Donoghue thinking?”  So, to sum up:  I felt that the writing was flawed, the characters were mostly unbelievable, and parts of the story were ridiculous, but I would still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading fiction based on true stories, particularly stories about the unbelievable things that happened in history.  The main story is fascinating, and worth the investment of reading time.

An aside: I was at a friend’s place yesterday for a birthday party, and was talking to another friend who recently got back from an extended visit to China.  As we were talking, it came out that he’s considering making changes to certain aspects of his life, based on his experiences there, and particularly the time he spent in Buddhist temples.  This reminded me of Larry Darrell, the main character in The Razor’s Edge, as Larry , too, experienced life-changing events as he sought to find meaning in life by studying with the mystics in India.  It made me think that it was time to read The Razor’s Edge again.  Then, when I looked up information about The Wonder this morning, I found a review written by none other that the master of horror himself, Stephen King.  I was curious about this review, so I read it, and interestingly enough, he ended his review by saying that The Wonder reminded him of The Razor’s Edge, "only turned inside out...  Maugham’s book is about the power of spirituality to heal.  Donoghue has written, with crackling intensity, about its power to destroy” ( I would have never thought of this comparison myself, but it was interesting that he mentioned these two titles at a time when I was thinking of rereading one and have just finished reading the other - coincidence? Hmmm... I'll have to think about that.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderfully wintery afternoon!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 December 2016

Trees and treats on a chilly December morning...

I’m sitting down to write this blog after a busy morning of cooking and baking.  I have a steaming cup of chai, which is in a special vintage-looking Christmas mug, and a slice of Banana Bread, the first time I’m using a new recipe that I got from my neighbour’s mother.  And I have a brownie that one of my book club members brought to the meeting yesterday - yum, yum and yum!

My volunteer book club got together yesterday to discuss the critically acclaimed classic coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.  This book tells the story of Francie Nolan and her life experiences from the ages of eleven to seventeen.  Set in Brooklyn, the story begins in the summer of 1912, when we first see the tree that struggles, against all odds, to sprout and survive in the tenement district, in boarded-up lots and rubbish heaps.  Francie is just eleven, but she and her younger brother Cornelius/Neely have the run of the streets as their mother, Katie, works to keep house and home together, while their father, the handsome and talented but not-so-reliable Johnny Nolan sleeps or goes out with the other singing waiters in the Union.  The children are collecting stuff to bring to the junkie, where rags, paper and aluminum are weighed and purchased for a penny or two.  This they then turn over to their mother, contributing to the household budget, but not before allowing themselves a treat at the candy store.  The story follows Francie as she attends school, learns about poverty and survival, and the pride that keeps her mother from accepting charity, even in the face of near destitution.  She encounters many characters, including the local librarian and the various shopkeepers in the area.  Her extended family includes her uneducated yet extremely creative Aunt Sissy and her reliable Aunt Evy and Evy's interesting husband Willie.  Over the course of the six years that make up this story, Francie faces death and new life, poverty and comfort, and must make decisions that most children today would never have to make at such a young age.  This semi-autobiographical novel presents a window into the life of an average girl in Brooklyn before and during WWI, and it was a hit with the book club members.  We all agreed that Francie was to be admired for her strength of character and resilience, even in the face of adversity.  This strength she clearly got from her mother, Katie, who encouraged her children to rise above their situation and strive for a better life than she has had.  We thought that most of the women, particularly the Rommely women, were strong characters, while most of the men were weak or were “found wanting”, but then one member pointed out that there were, in fact, many weak female characters in the book, such as one of Francie’s teachers and the librarian, while there are many strong, or positive, male characters, such as the school custodian, the principal and the Jewish doctor.  These strong male and weak female characters were minor characters, but they were important to the development of the story.  Sissy was a favourite character, with her “kooky ways of doing things, calling all her partners ‘John’ (and) getting a baby through some pretty creative tactics”.  We all marvelled at the ways the women tolerated the weakness of the men, and seemed to be almost attracted to it (one member wondered whether Katie and the neighbours, by putting up with Johnny's alcoholism and irresponsibility, were in fact enabling him in this way of life).  We all felt that it was unfair of Katie to favour Neely, but that she did her best to raise both children to be strong individuals, despite her challenges with poverty, an unreliable husband and her ever-changing circumstances.  One member pointed out how interesting it was that the neighbours all took care of each other, but did it surreptitiously, such as when the women from the building cleaned the Nolans’ apartment while they were at Johnny’s funeral, then placed the key back under the mat.  Another member commented on the duplicity that occurred throughout the story, such as when Johnny and Francie lied about her circumstances to get her into a better school, or when Francie said she was sixteen to get a job, or even when Katie used creative means to meet up with Johnny and steal him from her best friend.  While reading this novel, I was reminded of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  Both Francie and Barbery's Paloma were afraid of what the future might hold for them, that life may end up having no meaning:  Paloma likened her future to swimming around and around in a fishbowl, and Francie was afraid of wasting her life, growing old and becoming disfigured.  All in all, it was an interesting discussion about a book that everyone enjoyed, and one that most of the book club members had been meaning to read “someday” - now they can cross that title off their list!

And I finished listening to an audiobook by Paul Doiron, Trespasser.  This follow-up to The Poacher’s Son (which I haven’t read) features Maine game warden Michael Bowditch, and opens with the search of a property that has been vandalized by vindictive ATV users.  Two large and stately oaks have been cut down on private property, and Mike is called in by the owner to help find out who did this.  He is called away to help in a roadside accident - a woman has hit a deer and her car is stranded on the side of the highway.  When he arrives at the scene, both the woman and the deer carcass are gone.  Then the state trooper arrives and tells Bowditch that this is now his case and he will follow up with a search for the missing woman.  Bowditch is uneasy about this arrangement, but he has troubles of his own to worry about, so he heads home to spend time with his girlfriend, who has recently moved back in with him after a separation of several months.  When the state trooper fails to conduct a proper search for the missing woman, Bowditch steps in and follows his own hunches, which lead him to discover a grisly murder scene that bears many similarities to a murder committed seven years earlier, a case that was closed with the conviction of local lobsterman Earland Jeffers.  As leads present themselves and clues are uncovered, Bowditch conducts his own investigation and must follow the clues as they take him on a hunt for the truth about both the current case and that of the murder committed nearly a decade before.  This was the first book by Doiron I’ve listened to, and it was pretty good.  The author really immersed this listener in the community and culture of the east coast, both with the wealthy summer residents and the poor local folk.  I am definitely interested in checking out his first “Michael Bowditch” novel, as there are many references to that book in this one.  It was an engaging thriller that had a realistic setting and an interesting cast of characters, not too fast-paced but still gripping enough to hold this reader’s interest until the satisfying conclusion.

That’s all for now.  Have a great day!

Bye for now…