Sunday 28 May 2017

Tea and books on a sunny Sunday morning...

The birds are really singing up a storm this morning - they must be thankful it’s not raining (and so am I!)  Alas, these conditions won’t last, according to this week’s forecast.  But on the bright side, I always say that rainy weather is really just another opportunity to read.

I read a short novel last week, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment.  I don’t know where I heard about this book, but I originally downloaded it as an audiobook. When I started listening to it, I was not enjoying it, so I deleted it.  Then I read a New York Times book review and they positively raved about it, so I decided it might work better for me as a print experience… and it did.  An unnamed forty-one-year-old American man has moved to an unnamed European city and needs to find an apartment.  Over the course of a single day, in which he enlists the help of his friend, twenty-five-year-old Saskia, they traverse the city by public transit, visiting shops and cafes and Christmas Markets, as well as undertaking the ordeal of searching for an apartment during a heavy snowfall.  We don’t know where the man is from, but we know it is a desert town, and then a desert city, and we don’t know exactly why the man is in this cold, snowy city on a different continent, surrounded by a different culture and different language, but we begin to piece together, bit by agonizingly detailed bit, that he is trying to escape something; what that something is, we must patiently follow his inner dialogue to uncover.  We learn that he was in the Navy and was posted in Iraq, that he has been living in a small, unassuming hotel for the past six weeks, and that he recently purchased the most expensive boots he could find, aqua combat boots, an indulgence for which he is clearly grateful.  We learn about his experiences in Iraq, both times he went over there, and eventually get a sense of the reasons behind his disappearance from his former life and his wish to remain anonymous in his new one.  Throughout the book, we learn about the various people he’s encountered over the past six weeks, fellow Americans and native Europeans, his reluctance to engage with them, his ultimate inability to avoid social contact completely, and the life lessons they impart which he uses to move forward on his journey.  He is a ghost, floating through life, "in this world but not of it"… until he discovers that there is truth in the old adage, “wherever you go, there you are”.  This short novel, Baxter’s first work of fiction, is written as one long internal monologue, at times a reminiscence of past experiences, at others a social or political commentary, but ultimately a meditation on one man’s role in his own life.  It was too meandering and thoughtful for me to enjoy as an audiobook, as I enjoy faster-paced books in that format.  But a print book I can read at my own pace, contemplating some parts more deeply than others, and really getting the opportunity to look at the whole, rather than just the parts (if that makes any sense).  It reminded me a bit of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (but way shorter and more engaging!), and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven personal narratives.

And I received an advanced reading copy of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Burning Girl, in the mail.  I read another of her novels, The Woman Upstairs, some time ago and really enjoyed it, so receiving this was certainly a treat.  And reading it has also been a treat!  This YA crossover novel, due out in August, is a coming-of-age story of two girls, best friends Julia and Cassie.  From the very first page, we learn that Cassie and her family have been gone a long time, and we spend the rest of the book figuring out what happened to lead up to this.  Spanning the two years from the summer before grade seven to the middle of grade nine, readers are offered insight into the changes that we know are inevitable.  After all, the girls are from different backgrounds and different domestic situations, and in a small town, perhaps even more than in a big city, these differences matter, particularly as they enter their teen years.  Sturdy, dark-haired Julia has a happy, traditional home life in the “good” part of town, with a dentist father, a feminist mother, and a cat named Xena.  Pale, waiflike Cassie, on the other hand, lives with her mother Bev on a dead-end sideroad off the highway, with no father in sight, and whose cat, Electra, disappeared after just one year.  Bev is a nurse who works in hospice care, and Cassie and she are very close, or were, until the year that everything began to fall apart.  This quietly compelling novel is so real, the experiences and emotions so authentic, that these girls could be any girls, these experiences echoing any woman’s experiences growing up and drifting away from a childhood friend.  I say “quietly compelling” because nothing dramatic has happened, yet the subtle shifts in the relationship are unmistakable, and while reading this, I want to talk to each girl, to reassure them that this, too, will pass, and that it’s best to hang on to that golden friendship, a special relationship that, once lost, can never be reclaimed.  In style, it reminded me of Riel Nason's book The Town that Drowned, or Laurie Halse Anderson's classic YA novel Speak, and the writing style reminded me of Lionel Shriver. I can’t wait to finish it!  

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine while it lasts!

Bye for now…

Monday 22 May 2017

Book talk on a holiday Monday...

It’s Monday morning, and I’m so happy to have this extra day off work.  I did some shopping on Saturday, some family visiting yesterday, and I still have another whole day stretching before me, waiting to be filled with… whatever I choose!  But for now, I’ve got CBC Radio Two, a cup of steaming chai tea and a slice of date bread to keep me company as I write this post.

I had a book club meeting this past Monday night, when we discussed Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.  If you recall from last week’s post, I was nearly finished, but was not loving it.  I thought it was too long, detailed and repetitive, but that parts of the story were good so I was determined to finish it before the meeting.  Well, most of the book club members had the same thoughts about the book.  One member mentioned that the most redeeming thing about the book was the occasional insight into children and memories, and how one’s experiences in childhood definitely influence the person he or she becomes in adulthood - she felt this was “interesting and noteworthy”.  I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s true, and can be applied to most of the characters in the book.  One member has read another book by this author, The Forgotten Garden, which she really enjoyed, but she also enjoyed this book.  The member who chose this book was not at the meeting, so I’m curious to hear what she thought of it at the next meeting.

I then spent the next couple of nights finishing Dead Wake by Erik Larsson (this was my book club selection from two weekends’ ago).  The author managed to sustain the momentum of the story to the end, offering insight into the days, months and years following the sinking of the Lusitania, the investigation into the sinking, the entrance of the US into WWI, and what happened to some of the survivors.  I would definitely recommend this to even the most die-hard “fiction-only” readers, as it reads like a historical novel, is thoroughly researched, and is written with skill and compassion.

Then, with only a few evenings left in the week to read, I struggled to find another book that I could finish in a couple of days.  I tried a few novels that I had on my own bookshelves, and finally ended up pulling out something I’ve on my shelves for years, The Incident Report by Martha Baillie.  Baillie works at the Toronto Public Library, and this novel is comprised of 144 fictionalized Incident Reports, the type of reports one would fill out recording incidents at the library.  These reports are anecdotal, and are much like very short interconnected stories (sometimes a single paragraph, some as long as 2 pages) set in the fictional Allan Gardens branch of the Public Library of Toronto.  Some of these reports reveal information about incidents involving library patrons, while others delve into the personal life of Miriam Gordon, author of these reports, both her difficult childhood with distant parents and her current relationship with the enigmatic Janko.  There’s a mystery (who is leaving those curious notes about Rigoletto, and are they intended for Miriam?), a love story, and an insider’s look at a day in the life of a public library employee (when in doubt about what to do, refer to The Manual of Conduct for Encounters with Difficult Patrons).  I’m just over halfway through this engrossing chronicle and, as a former public library employee, I’m finding it pretty “unputdownable”, although I’ve been forced to put it down for most of the weekend due to prior commitments; I’m confident that I can finish it today, and that it will continue to be intriguing.  

That's all for now. Happy Victoria Day, and enjoy the extra day off, whatever you decide to do!

Bye for now…

PS Have I mentioned that I've been watching the new miniseries A Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's novel? I'm really enjoying it, and feel that it's an accurate depiction of the novel, capturing the essence of Atwood's cautionary tale. I would highly recommend watching this, but definitely start at the beginning and watch it in order. I'm tempted to reread the novel, but I'll wait until I've watched all the episodes - I think there are eight in total, and so far only five have been aired.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Tea, books and audiobooks on a glorious Sunday morning...

It is truly glorious this morning, with the sun shining, the birds singing, and the breeze blowing, an ideal spring morning, perfect weather for a Mother’s Day celebration.  

It may be a coincidence that I am reading a book about mothers for my Friends’ book group, which meets tomorrow night. Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper is a lengthy novel that weaves together three accounts from different time periods in the lives of one family. It begins in 1961, as sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in the treehouse while her family has bundled off to have a picnic to celebrate her brother’s second birthday.  She is bored by life at their English farmhouse and is anxious to find excitement, drama and romance.  Knowing that she will be leaving soon, she is suddenly struck by pangs of guilt, and just as she decides to join the others, she witnesses a shocking crime that will haunt her for the next fifty years and call into question everything she has ever thought she knew about her family.  In 2011, as she returns to her family home for her mother’s 90th birthday, Laurel finally decides to unravel the mystery of that fateful day, and digs deep into the past to discover clues that will help in her search for the truth.  Her search leads her back to 1941, to the London Blitz, where her mother made choices that would alter the course of her life.  I’m 300 pages into this nearly 500 page book, and so far it is exactly as I expected Morton’s books would be - lengthy, detailed family sagas of hidden pasts and shocking secrets.  I’m finding it overly detailed and repetitive, with plenty of padding. I think the story itself is good - it just takes so long to get to any plot development that it is sometimes frustrating.  I am, however, at the point now where the plot has taken an unexpected and interesting turn, so I’m going to try to finish the book today, as I suspect that there will be a surprising plot twist at the end and I'd like to be able to participate in that part of the discussion tomorrow.  I wonder what my other book club members will have to say about it - I’ll give you a summary of our discussion next week.

I also have two audiobooks to tell you about.  The first is a short novel by Jenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner, a heartwarming tale of one woman’s search for a her own happy-ever-after.  Nina Redmond is a librarian who, after being downsized when her library branch is closed, decides that all she really wants to do in life is to find the perfect book for every reader.  She buys a van, moves to a sleepy village in the Scottish Highlands, and opens a mobile bookshop.  She faces challenges and reaps rewards along the way, but will she be able to keep her dream alive and finally find true happiness?  This lighthearted romantic comedy is so different from my normal reading selections that I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  The narrator, Lucy Price-Lewis, perfectly captured the spirit of the story, effortlessly sweeping me along on Nina’s adventures.  I had to suspend my sense of disbelief more than once, but all in all, it was a satisfying fairytale of a book with a lovable heroine, a gorgeous setting, and enough quirky characters to keep any reader smiling and chuckling to the very last page.

The other audiobook I finished listening to is a tale of a very different sort. The premise of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is one that most people are familiar with, if not from reading the book then probably from seeing the movie.  In case you are not familiar with the story, this novel is set in WWII and is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Bruno, who comes home from school one day to find one of the maids in his room packing his belongings.  He is outraged by this, but discovers that his family is moving from their large house in Berlin to a new house near a camp called “Out-With”, the result of a visit from “the Fury”, during which his father was promoted to Commandant.  From his new bedroom window, he can see the camp on the other side of the fence, and is curious about the people there, who all wear matching striped pajamas and striped cloth caps.  Having no friends to play with, and unable to get along with his twelve-year-old sister Greta, “the Hopeless Case”, one day he goes off exploring along the fence that separates him from the camp.  After about an hour of walking, he notices a dot in the distance, which becomes a blob, which becomes a shape, which becomes a boy, and he meets Schmul, a nine-year-old boy living in the camp who miraculously shares the same birthday.  Thus a friendship blossoms, but one that Bruno senses he must keep secret from the rest of his family.  Over the course of a year, Bruno and Schmul share stories and form a strong bond, but when suddenly their friendship is facing an unexpected end, Bruno devises a plan for one last adventure, a plan that will lead to tragic consequences.  This moving fictional account of one boy’s encounter with the evils of war was an unexpectedly riveting listening experience for me.  The narrator, Michael Maloney, did an amazing job of capturing the naive voice of Bruno and bringing to life his experiences, innocence, inner struggles, and staunch refusal to acknowledge the true nature of the camp and the fate of those who were imprisoned there, despite his persistent sense of foreboding.  If you haven’t read this book, I would recommend that you head down to your local library and pick up a copy - I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down until you reach the final, heartwrenching conclusion.  It would also be a great selection for any book club.  It is important to note that this book is, according to the author, a fable, and is in no way intended to be taken as a historical account of any real events that took place during the Holocaust.  

On that cheerful note, I will close today’s post and get outside to enjoy the lovely day.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 7 May 2017

Post on a "thankfully the sun is out!" morning...

We’ve had rain, rain and more rain this past week, which I thought was going to continue into today, so I’m thrilled to see the sun this morning as I sit with my delicious cup of chai and a slice of homemade date bread and think about the book I nearly finished reading last week.

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania just off the coast of Ireland, killing more than a thousand passengers and crew members and significantly influencing the US in their decision to enter into WWI.  I can’t recall specifically whether I realized this when I made up the book club schedule near the end of last year, but surely it was not mere coincidence that we discussed Dead Wake:  the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson yesterday.  This detailed, thoroughly researched book tells the story of the days leading up to, during and following the sinking of this huge British passenger liner by a German u-boat on May 7th, 1915, and relates information about the ship, war strategies, and the individuals involved in making decisions about these strategies. Larson also provides information about just some of the many passengers, intimate details about their lives and why they were on the ship, despite warnings in the newspaper just before the ship sailed, details both interesting and mundane, about passengers who were notable and those whose lives were seemingly unimportant, treating each person with dignity and respect, from the member of the Vanderbilt family to the young American man who was going to England to propose to his fiancé.  My discussion group was small yesterday, just three others and me, but we had a lively discussion nonetheless.  Two of us had not quite finished the book (I ran a Book Fair at one of my schools last week, so was busier than usual and didn’t have as much time to read as I normally would), but we’d both read to the point when the ship sank and people were struggling to survive.  We all agreed that Larson’s book was well-written and read like a novel, but that it was a bit difficult to get into at the beginning.  As he was writing about so many individuals, we struggled to keep track of everyone, unaware that he would do such an excellent job of reminding us who everyone was again later in the book.  And he managed to put a human face on the tragedy, reminding us of the tragedies that have affected so many throughout history, that affect everyone, regardless of status or wealth or social standing.  One of my book club members had recently read another book by Larson, In the Garden of Beasts, which she said was also excellent, so she was quite eager to read this one.  We talked about the magnitude of war, and wondered, along with the author, whether this disaster was allowed to happen to push America to join the war.  We enjoyed reading about the various individuals who were on the ship, and we all agreed that the captain of the ship, Captain Turner, was a good man who did everything he possibly could to get his passengers safely to their destination, and that no fault could be placed on him, considering the poor communication (or intentional miscommunication?) he received.  We also felt that Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, commander of U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the ship, was cold and calculating, and only concerned with filling his quota and going home, but we also realized that he was just doing his job, albeit in a cold, calculated manner that bent the rules of maritime law regarding civilian vessels.  Overall, we felt that this was an excellent book, very well-researched and well-written, and I think we’re all going to try to get our hands on other books by this author.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!  (but remember to bundle up - sunshine can be deceiving).

Bye for now…