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…

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