Sunday 26 March 2017

Tea, treats and long short stories...

The woman who runs Bittersweettart was at the market yesterday so I have one of her delicious lemon raspberry butter cookies to accompany my steaming cup of chai tea - I’m so spoiled!  What could be better than enjoying such a yummy treat on this cold, damp, windy March morning?

I read a collection of stories by Daphne Du Maurier this past week.  One of my all-time favourite “desert island” books is Rebecca, which I’ve read numerous times, and I think I’ve read one or two of her other novels, but I recently read something in an e-newsletter promoting her collections of stories, so I got this one from the library, Not After Midnight:  five long stories.  Long stories, indeed!  They were all at least 50 pages, some of them even longer!  Her most famous short story is “The Birds”, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s renowned film, but that wasn’t in this collection.  Instead, I discovered five very different stories set in various parts of the world.  “Don’t Look Now”, set in Italy, tells the story of a British couple who are on holiday, but this trip appears to have a more serious purpose.  The husband is trying to help his wife come to terms with the loss of their daughter, but when they encounter an unusual set of twin sisters, things start to go awry.  “Not After Midnight” is set in Crete, and concerns a teacher at a British prep school who takes himself off on holiday to indulge his true passion, painting.  When an American couple in a neighbouring cabin tries to befriend him, he resists, but is ultimately drawn into their sinister game.  “A Border-Line Case” follows a young actress who, after the death of her father, heads to a remote area in Ireland to find his former army commander and friend, in the hopes that she will understand what caused their falling-out, but what she discovers may change her life forever.   In “The Way of the Cross”, a group of British tourists head off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, led not by their beloved vicar who fell ill, but by a young, inexperienced reverend who runs into various problems while trying to lead the group.  Meanwhile, each and every member of the group is experiencing his or her own problems, either personal or within their relationships.  And finally, “The Breakthrough” follows an electronics engineer as he heads to remote Saxmere on a special assignment for his boss, to help out a friend who is conducting what may be unauthorized experiments using a small staff and some government grant money.  While initially resisting this secondment, he is eventually drawn into the most secret and most dangerous of research, an exploration which, if successful, may uncover the road to immortality.  I’m not a real short story fan, and these were too long to be considered short stories, yet too short to be considered novellas.  But they brought to mind my high school days, when we had to read such stories as these.  The one I recall most vividly is “The Most Dangerous Game”, by Richard Connell, which tells the story of a big-game hunter who ends up on a remote island and is hunted by a Russian aristocrat.  Of the stories in Du Maurier’s collection, I enjoyed the first three the most, perhaps because they were, for lack of a better work, the spookiest.  They all had an element of the supernatural about them that the others lacked.  The fourth story, set in Jerusalem, seemed too broad and unfocused.  And the final story was a bit too sci-fi for my taste.  I discovered on my own shelves a collection of her stories that includes “The Birds”, which I plan to read at a later date.  But that will have to wait, as I have to make a start on my next book club book, A Passage to India, which we will be discussing next Saturday.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 19 March 2017

Tea and books on the last day of winter...

I’m not sure if today is the last day of winter or if it's tomorrow, but I know it’s soon, so I can get away with saying that in my title.  My tea is particularly good today - I got a nice mug from one of my students for Christmas, and because it's bigger than my usual Sunday morning mug, I can put more soy milk in, making is especially creamy... yum! So, as I sip my deliciously steamy cup of chai, I’m thinking about the reading I’ve done (and not done!) over the past week.  Considering that I’ve been off work, I got surprisingly little reading done, and here’s why…

I spent at least half of last week trying to get into Sophie Hannah’s book, The Carrier.  If you recall, I recently read another of her books, A Game for All the Family, which I really enjoyed despite the confusion I felt while reading it.  Unfortunately The Carrier was not riveting at all.  I’m not going to bother telling you what it was about, but here’s a link to her website, where you will find a description of the book:  I read nearly half of this 400+ page book before giving up on it completely.  I was finding it repetitive and tedious, and felt that there was no real story or plot development in the 200 pages that I read, but that the narrative just kept going around and around in circles, repeating details ad nauseum.  This book is part of the “Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse” series, which I haven't really enjoyed in the past (as a couple, Charlie and Simon are annoying at best!), but it wasn’t just their dysfunctional relationship that I was finding irritating, it was the whole story, the characters, everything.  So that was three days wasted on a book I will never go back to finish.

Then I read a very short, rather unusual novel by someone who works with my husband.  The Introvert by Michael Paul Michaud is told from the point of view of the nameless main character, a vacuum cleaner salesman who has a dog named Molly and a girlfriend named Donna.  He leads a quiet, unassuming life, but clearly has some anger management issues (or mental health issues?), because, when people are frustrating him or making him angry, he often has the urge to see them “red and open”.  He (mostly) manages to control these impulses, but when he lands in the middle of a murder inquiry, he must do his best to navigate the police investigation while holding on to his composure and his sanity, even as things threaten to spiral out of control.  In terms of writing style, this sparsely written novel reminded me of some writer(s) I’ve read in the past, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on who:  maybe David Gilmour or Paul Auster, or possibly John Fante, but with a touch of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (I think the nameless narrator is not only an introvert, but is also on the autism spectrum).  If you like short books that get inside the minds of unusual, quirky characters, this may be the book for you.  To use the author’s own words, it may not be much of a book, but it really held my interest.

And speaking of quirky characters, I’ve been trying to get into Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson, the book we will be discussing at my Friends book club tomorrow night, but I’m finding it to be very putdownable.  A reculsive author who, many years ago, wrote one seminal novel, M M Banning is in financial ruin after following some bad investment advice, and her only way out is to write another book.  To do this, she asks her publisher for an assistant to help run her Los Angeles household and attend to her accounts… and to care for her nine-year-old son, Frank, a son no one even knew existed.  Frank is no ordinary child, but prefers vintage or antique costumes to shorts and T-shirts, and playing in the old battered Mercedes to going to a playground with other children.  Twenty-five-year-old Alice Whitley is sent to fill the position until the new book is done, a rather indefinite assignment, as the book hasn’t even been started.  Alice does her best to follow the Rules of Frank, but she falls short again and again.  She is most interested in finding out who Frank’s mysterious, and mysteriously absent, father is, and she finds herself caught up more and more in their unusual lives and unusual relationship.  I’m about a third of the way through this light novel, and while it’s not engaging me at all, I think I will at least skim the rest of it so that when we get together tomorrow night, I can speak somewhat knowledgeably about the story - I can get the gist of most stories if I read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, as well as most of the dialogue.  I think the problem is that this book seems too “light”, feeling more like a collection of humourous anecdotes about a quirky kid and an awkward adult trying to get the measure of one another than a full story with a complex plot and interesting, three-dimensional characters.  The ladies in my Volunteer book group have occasionally asked for something light and humourous for a change from all the dark, depressing novels we usually read, and I have to tell them that they need to come up with book recommendations because I don't read those types of books.  I think this book falls into that category, light and humourous, but lacking depth and substance.  I’ll keep going with the skimming and see if it picks up as I get further along.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine and milder temperature, and don’t forget to keep reading!

Bye for now…

Monday 13 March 2017

March Break post...

On this chilly Monday morning, I'm thankful that Daylight Savings' Time fell at the beginning of March Break this year, so I have a whole week to get used to the clocking springing ahead one hour. I'm taking advantage of this week off and writing my post a day later than usual, which gave me a chance yesterday to go out for a yummy breakfast and also to finish a second book.

The two books I want to tell you about are both page-turners, but in very different ways.  The first is a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware’s first novel.  I had a hold on her second, The Woman in Cabin 10, at the library and was thrilled to get notification that it was ready for pickup.  This novel is set in the North Sea and is told from the point of view of Laura “Lo” Blacklock, a travel journalist who is hoping to advance her career by covering the maiden voyage of the Aurora, a small Scandinavian luxury liner with just a handful of cabins.  Days before she sets off on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, someone breaks into her flat and locks her in her bedroom, where she is stuck for hours until she manages to escape.  Her boyfriend is away at the time, and she fumbles through the next few days until he returns, but just hours after he comes home, she must set off on her assignment.  She is less-than-impressed with the voyage right from the get-go, disappointed with the size of the ship, the rooms, and the decor.  She is also still suffering from mild PTSD from the attack in her flat, and is experiencing claustrophobia and insomnia as a result.  She copes with this by taking advantage of the well-stocked minibar in her room, and stumbles through the first day and evening in a bit of a drunken stupor.  As she prepares for the first dinner, she realizes that she has left her mascara at home, but hears someone in the next room and knocks on the door, hoping to borrow some from a fellow passenger.  She manages to rouse the woman in cabin 10, who reluctantly gives her a spare tube, but refuses to engage in idle chatter.  This is fine, because Lo manages to have plenty of that later on, as she runs into a number of other journalists she knows in the dining room, including an old boyfriend.  She continues to drink alot of champagne, and stumbles back to her room at the end of the night, where she is plagued by nightmares, and she jolts awake to the sound of what she believes is a body being dumped over the side of the ship from the balcony in the room next door.  But when she gets the security man to have a look, she discovers that there is no evidence of this crime, nor is there anyone missing from the ship - all passengers and staff are accounted for.  Was it a dream, or is she in danger as the only witness to this crime?  Stuck on this ship, with no one to help, she must decide whether to pursue her investigation or let it go and possibly save herself.  I was so excited to start this, and found it to be a real page-turner, an Agatha Christie-like mystery that reminded me of And Then There Were None.  But I soon lost my enthusiasm, and finished simply because it was a quick read, but in my opinion, the story lost its credibility soon after Lo witnessed the crime.  I found it really difficult to identify or sympathize with her, and felt that it was not nearly as good as Ware’s first novel, leaving me with a sense of relief when I finally reached the last page.

I also read Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst, a novel that was recommended by a friend who works at my local public library.  Told from alternating points of view, this novel tells the story of the Hammond family and their experiences with an alternative camp in New Hampshire.  Alexandra and Josh have two very different daughters:  11-year-old Iris is the “neurotypical” or “normal” one, the one who behaves the way most other kids do, while 13-year-old Tilly presents one challenge after another.  After trying many different schools, including a private school designed to help deal with children who need special education, they are at their wits’ end.  Tilly is on the autism spectrum, but is high-functioning and has moments of insight that astound the other family members.  Along comes Scott Bean, a self-proclaimed parenting guru whose charisma and compassion finally break down Alexandra’s resolve, and she convinces Josh to give up their life in Washington DC and move to New Hampshire to help Scott run Camp Harmony, a camp designed to give families with “difficult” children new opportunities. There they become involved with other Core Families who are also helping to set up the camp, and we see how one’s freedom and integrity can be slowly broken down and eroded by desperation.  We know disaster is bound to happen, but what form it will take is the slow, quiet mystery that makes this novel unputdownable.  Iris’ chapters offer insight into the world of the family from her perspective as both daughter and sister, the “normal” one, the “good” one, the one who tries to please and sometimes feels left out because she doesn’t need special treatment.  Alexandra’s chapters offer the backstory, the history that led one family into the disastrous situation they ended up being involved in, a situation we are told, right from the first page, that she “would never get mixed up in...  End of story.”  And yet she does, they all do.  Tilly also has intermittent chapters, set in an unspecified date and time, speculating on the possible future of the Hammond family and suggesting what could have been.  I would never have found out about this novel if it hadn’t been for my friend’s recommendation, so I want to thank her for pointing this one out to me - we often enjoy similar books.  This book reminded me of We Need to Talk About Kevin a bit, but in a much gentler way.  Kevin was severe and unrelenting in its intensity, while this story has humour and compassion as well as insight.  If you enjoy fiction that explores the cult phenomena and family dynamics, or novels that explore families with special needs children, this may be the book for you.

That’s all for today.  I’ve got a few books that I’m hoping to read during this week off work, including the book we will be discussing next Monday for my Friends’ Book Club, Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson.  But there are plenty of other things to keep me busy this week, too. So if you are also off, keep reading and "Beware the Ides of March!" (I couldn't resist adding that last bit!!)

Bye for now…

Sunday 5 March 2017

First post for March... or maybe I should say "Marche"!

It’s a bright, crisp, chilly morning as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea and nibble on a delicious Date Bar, reflecting on my book club discussion yesterday.

We read Stephen Marche’s novel, Hunger of the Wolf, which I had read before when considering it for the Evergreen award (it was nominated but did not win).  I blogged about it the first time I read it, so I went looking for my original post and discovered that I read it almost exactly two years ago, in March 2015.  Here’s what I had to say about it last time:
The Hunger of the Wolf by Stephen Marche opens with “Hunters found his body naked in the snow…”  The body in question belongs to Ben Wylie, heir to one of the wealthiest families in the world.  His body was found in the snow near the cabin this American family kept in northern Alberta, a kind of getaway from the pressures of the business world in which they were so embroiled.  The narrator, struggling journalist Jamie Cabot, a man so determined to make it in New York that he is willing to lose his wife in order to stay, decides that he will uncover the truth about the unusual circumstances surrounding Ben’s death.  And Jamie has an in – his family have been caretakers for the cabin in Alberta ever since Jamie can remember, and as a boy, he used to trim the hedges and mow the lawn regularly, even if no member of the Wylie family put in an appearance for months or even years.  What he discovers as he pieces together information gleaned from the fragments of papers, letters and diaries hidden everywhere in the cabin is the secret the family has hidden as they have moved from humble beginnings to the international wealth and fame they have acquired at present – for three days every month, at the time of the full moon, all of the males in the Wylie family turn into wolves.  The Wylies’ rise to wealth and status over several generations is documented in enough detail as to make the reader feel informed, but the author does not overwhelm the story with unnecessary detail.  As for the part about the males becoming wolves, and how they and the other family members deal with this transformation, it is presented in such a way that, while it is important to the story, it is not as unbelievable as it may at first sound, nor is it a detail that consumes the reader’s attention while the rest of the story is being told.  I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I wanted to make that part clear – when I was reading the novel, unless I was at a part where they were turning into wolves or recounting their wolfish experiences, I didn’t think, “Oh ya, well Carl is a wolf as well as a father and businessman”.  If this was intended to illustrate how well the men in the family hid their secret and never talked about it, even amongst themselves, then Marche did an excellent job of it.  This literary page-turner was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  I was particularly impressed with the way in which Marche managed to convey the rise in wealth and status of so many generations in such a short novel – this book was less than 300 pages – yet I never felt that he was skimping on necessary detail or information.  It was all there, clearly and concisely.  He has an amazing skill with language…”
I included it on my book club selection list because it was something different from our usual selections, and I remembered being so impressed with it on my first reading… and of course it was an easy choice for the March meeting (March/Marche… after ten years of book club selections, I look for help anywhere I can find it!!).  On this second reading, I was somewhat less impressed with the book, wondering what it was really about:  wealth?  business? the search for meaning and purpose in life?  I was hoping my ladies would enjoy it, but I had my doubts.  From our discussion, I got the sense that “enjoyed” is not a word I could honestly use, but it was certainly an interesting meeting.  One member said that, had she not been obligated to read it, she probably wouldn’t have finished it, and she felt she had to come to the meeting to hear what others said about the book so she could figure out what the book was about.  We all agreed that it was odd and different, and that the style of writing was interesting and lyrical.  Someone suggested that it was philosophical as well as poetic, but we agreed that it was almost too lyrical and literary, all the way through the book, making it difficult to read and understand:  you couldn’t just skim any sections and get the gist - you really had to pay attention to every word.  We thought it was a social commentary, an exploration into the solitary lives of successful businessmen, their separation from the rest of society, and the ruthlessness of the “hunt”.  We felt that the transformation into wolves was metaphorical, that it was a coping mechanism and represented their release from the anxiety and stress of their regular lives.  One member said that, for all the love of New York that Jamie had, the author didn’t paint a very flattering picture of the city, since all the people Jamie interacted with seemed vapid.  We wondered where the wolfish transformations started - since the story only goes back as far as the family’s poor beginnings in Scotland, perhaps that’s when the “hunger not to be poor” began.  There were clearly mixed feelings about the book, but I think it was a successful discussion nonetheless.  As a book club facilitator, I always have a certain anxiety each month if we are reading a book that I selected (most of them are my selections).  I know that it’s nearly impossible to find books that everyone will enjoy, but I hope that at least a few members will enjoy the book each month, and that no one feels stuck reading books they don’t like month after month.  I hope they will enjoy A Passage to India, which is next month’s book - one member just got back from a month in India visiting her sister, so I’m especially curious to hear what she will say about it.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…