Monday 31 July 2017

Last post for July...

The summer is really passing by quickly.  It’s hard to believe that August will begin tomorrow, and we will be entering what I think of as “the dog days of summer”, those hot, sultry days with unpredictable weather and much lying around doing little.  I’m doing that right now, as I slept in late and am enjoying a hot cup of regular orange pekoe tea and the last of the yummy Cape Breton Oatcakes we purchased on our trip to New Brunswick, a beautiful province which, as I understand from the residents there, is often overlooked as a destination - it was referred to as “the drive-thru province” and “the picture province” by more than a couple of people we spoke to who lived in major cities there.

While I was away, I managed to read just one book, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  I have been meaning to reread this fantastic book for some time, since I’ve been watching the new miniseries and also since one of the members of my Friends’ book club has suggested we read it.  In case you are unfamiliar with the premise of this novel, which was first published in 1985, I’ll give you a brief summary.  Set in the near future somewhere in New England, this dystopian novel tells the story of the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, governed by a fanatical Christian sect which, faced with a fertility crisis, has commandeered all fertile women to serve as handmaids to the elite of their ranks.  The role of these women is to provide children for these infertile, often aging, couples (Atwood refers to them as “walking wombs”).  It is narrated by Offred, a woman whose own child has been taken from her as she and her husband Luke tried to flee the state into Canada some time earlier, although how long ago is never really specified.  Her narration is alternately reflective and direct, relating her present experiences interspersed with her recollections of the past, including her time as a university student, her friendship with Moira, and her relationship with Luke.  She relates her experiences as the government revoked the rights of women both subtly and suddenly, effectively removing the abilities of women to lead independent lives.  She is shocked and appalled by her new reality, but she also realizes that she must appear to go along with it in order to stay alive and possibly escape to find her child and/or Luke, in case either one of them is still alive.  She discovers that there may be an underground Resistance movement, but, unsure of who to trust, she is reluctant to participate, mainly due to fear of discovery and certain death.  The narrative depicts Offred’s struggles to hang on to her past while also being lulled into submission by the mind-numbingly routine schedule of her new existence.  Told with sardonic wit and poetic prose, this novel was even better this time than I remembered.  Atwood’s use of language to perfectly capture Offred’s struggles within herself, as well as to describe the environment in which she is forced to participate, is at once jarring and exceptional.  In an article I read recently, she said that nothing in the novel is made up, that all of the conditions of Gilead exist or existed in some societies at some time, reflecting “real life” (  This novel is, of course, particularly timely now, in the Trump era, which explains the resurgence of interest in the book.  If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend that you get your name on the holds list at your local library. Or better yet, go out to your local bookstore and pick up a copy for yourself - I guarantee it will be a book you are going to want to read again and again, and one you will want to share.

Speaking of buying great Canadian literature, while I was away, I went into a bookstore in Fredericton and discovered that Robert Rotenberg’s latest book, Heart of the City, has been released early, so while I was on my way to the library on Saturday to pick up my holds, I stopped at my own local bookstore and purchased a copy.  Unfortunately I will have to wait to read it, as my volunteer book club is meeting on Friday so this week I have to focus on reading The Rosie Project.  

That’s all for today.  Happy last-day-of-July!!

Bye for now…


Friday 14 July 2017

Books and tea on another rainy day...

I know, it’s Friday, but I have to write my post today as we are leaving tomorrow for a two-week East Coast vacation.  I expect this will be the first time since I started this blog that I’ll go for more than a week without posting.  But I’ll still be reading, and will tell you all about what I’ve read when I get back.  Right now, on this overcast, foggy, damp, muggy morning, I’m using the new mug I got in Stratford earlier this week, part of the Royal Worchester Wrendale Collection, to enjoy my deliciously creamy steeped chai tea ( - I have the “What a Hoot” owl design, which is super cute and is a little pick-me-up on this dreary day.

I spent this week reading the next selection for my Friends’ Book Club - we are meeting on July 31st, but I wanted to get it done before I left.  The member whose turn it was to choose a book really wanted us to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but there were too many outstanding holds on all copies at both libraries, so we’re going to wait until they become more readily available.  Instead, we are reading Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Richler, or if I have, it was decades ago, so long I don’t even remember.  This novel takes the form of a memoir, written at age 67, of Barney Panofsky, a Jewish Canadian man living in Montreal, and relates his life from the 1950s, when he was in his twenties, to the present day (1997).  Barney is a wealthy producer of schlock tv shows, commercials and industrial documentaries.  He is writing this memoir, against his better judgement, in response to the negative depiction of himself in his arch-rival Terry McIver’s own autobiography.  The novel is divided into sections, based on each of Barney’s wives, “Clara”, “the Second Mrs Panofsky”, and “Miriam”.  Barney is an embittered old man whose memory may be less reliable than he thinks it is, and he begins his memoir by recounting his Bohemian days in Paris in the 1950s when he, along with other writers and artists, adopted an avant-garde lifestyle similar to writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the 1920s.  This is where he met his first wife Clara and his best friend Boogie, whose disappearance and possible murder underlies the entire narrative, driving the story with the question, “Did Barney murder Boogie?”  This is a compelling storyline, and it is unfortunate that more is not made of it throughout the novel.  Rather, the first section, nearly half the book, seems like the sad, misguided ramblings of an ageing man who wished to be more and regretted his entire wasted life.  It does pick up and gain some structure in the next section, and by the third section, I found it fairly compelling and was barely skimming at all.  I probably would not have finished this book if it had not been a book club selection, but I’m really glad I read it.  I made notes because I didn’t want to forget what I thought about the book by the time my book club meeting came around.  Here are my initial thoughts:  I generally don’t enjoy satirical writing (for example, Philip Roth and John Updike), and this definitely falls into that category.  I haven’t read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler’s definitive novel, so I didn’t really understand the numerous references to that character in this book.  I felt that I just wasn’t smart enough to get all the literary, historical and political references, but I understood some of the references relating to the Paris portion of Barney's life because, years ago, I read that interesting little book by John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse. Glassco, too, was a young writer and poet from Montreal who, at aged 18, sought refuge from his intellectually repressive life by moving to Paris and joining that movement of artists and writers that included James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. I also managed to focus on the interpersonal sections of the book, the ones that dealt with Barney and his wives and children or Barney and his interactions with his friends.  The book would have meant more to me if I, too, were an elderly Jewish Canadian man living in Montreal.  As it is, I thought the narrative was alternately self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, but, “Hallelujah!”, the mystery of what happened to Boogie, buried so deep within the story that I mostly forgot about it as a storyline, is finally solved in the very last section, making it worth the extra effort to get to the end.  It’s not a book I would recommend to just anyone, but I think it will be a good discussion book.  I just hope at least a few of the book club members stuck with it.  

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

Bye for now…

Sunday 9 July 2017

Tea and books on a glorious summer morning...

It’s a delightfully sunny, warm, breezy morning, and I’m trying to savour every minute of it, as the forecast is for rain, rain and more rain throughout the next week, with a chance of thunderstorms nearly every day.  I’ve got towels hanging out on the line (a perfect day for drying laundry), a fresh pot of creamy tomato-yogurt soup on the counter (made with Ontario tomatoes - yum!), and of course my steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar on the coffee table in front of me.  I’d say this was a practically perfect start to a hopefully perfect day.

I’ve been reading up a storm this first week of summer holidays, and finished two books that I want to tell you about.  The first is a book we discussed for my book group on Friday morning, The Giver by Lois Lowry.  This Young Adult dystopian novel is one I’ve read a number of times, most recently a couple of years ago with my students’ book club. It is set in an unnamed community, one of many such communities in the surrounding area, that values sameness above everything, and is told from the point of view of Jonas, a young boy who is anticipating the upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, when he and his groupmates will relinquish their childhoods and, having been assigned an occupation, move on toward adulthood to fulfill their roles within the community.  Like their occupations, they will eventually be assigned spouses and can later apply for children, one boy and one girl, who are already named and have spent their first year at a Nurture Centre, where they will be weighed and measured and assessed, and will hopefully meet the qualifications to move on to become part of a family unit.  No one is ever hungry, all children go to school, there is no overpopulation and no war, everyone accepts their roles and shares their feelings, and precision of language is encouraged from a very young age.  This sounds ideal, and no one questions it. But, as in all dystopian stories, there must be a scapegoat, someone who bears the burden to allow for the happiness of others.  In this novel, this person is The Receiver, the one person chosen to bear all the memories of the past, the joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, and all the colours and sounds and emotions these can bring.  The Elders reasoned that, if everyone had these memories, they might realize that in the past, people made their own choices, and then, Heaven forbid, the members of the community might make the wrong choices, and, as we all know, every choice has consequences.  When the new Receiver is chosen and begins his training, he realizes that, below the calm, unruffled surface of his community, the choice for sameness, too, has consequences, and he must strive to make changes that will, he believes, be for the long-term benefit of everyone.  My students in grade five loved this book, and I have also really enjoyed it every time I’ve read it, so I thought it would make a good choice for my volunteer book group, as I like to include a Children’s or Young Adult selection each year.  Not everyone loved the book, but we all agreed that it brought up many great areas to consider.  I thought that the people with no memories or experiences were like people in our own society who appear to live “charmed” lives, people for whom everything always seems to work out without effort.  The Receiver related the story about the one time, in the recent past, when some memories escaped and went back into the community. The community members didn’t know how to deal with them and it nearly caused total collapse.  This reinforced to me the belief that hardship builds character.  We discussed the makeup of the family unit in the novel, and noted that both spouses worked, and that the children were not related biologically to the parents, but were instead warehoused for the first year of their lives.  We also considered the gene pool that was used in the conception of these babies, and how exactly they were conceived  (Lowry gives no clues about this process!).  We felt that, by having a Receiver, the community elders were acknowledging that memories are useful for governance, as they came to the Receiver for advice if any situations arose for which they had no experiences to draw on, and he would sift through his memories for similar situations in the past.  We thought that, while Sameness might solve some of the problems we face, this way of organizing and arranging society would not be a good solution, even for the widespread corruption that exists at every level and in every corner of our world.  Yes, our world is messy, yes, love is dangerous because it is powerful and painful, and yes, people make bad choices all the time, but all of my book club members agreed that they would rather live in the real world, like Jonas and baby Gabriel did towards the end of the book, than subsist on the uneventful, featureless life offered to those in the community. We discussed the somewhat ambiguous ending, and had varying opinions as to whether the novel's ending was filled with hope or was hopelessly dismal. It is an interesting book and a quick read that I would recommend to fans of The Handmaid's Tale or 1984.

And I also read the new page-turner by Fiona Barton, The Child.  Barton wrote the bestselling mystery, The Widow, which I read in January and loved!  It was one of the best psychological thriller/ “unreliable narrator”-type novels I’d read since The Silent Wife, and I was so excited that she had this new book coming out.  I was even more thrilled when I got notification from the library that my hold was ready.  Like her previous book, this one also features veteran reporter Kate Waters, who is facing cutbacks and redundancies at her newspaper.  The emphasis is no longer on establishing investigative reporting techniques to develop a great story delivered to readers through print media, but rather to write short, shallow online pieces about the failings and foibles of celebrities and politicians.  Kate fears that she will be next on the chopping block, and searches desperately for another great story that will show her editor how indispensable she is.  When she comes across a small article about a baby’s remains found on a building site, she jumps at the opportunity to stretch her investigative wings again and uncover the identity of this mystery baby.  What she discovers is a past filled with secrets and deceptions, hidden truths and blatant lies, and she must arrange the pieces to reveal the whole story and hopefully offer peace, and also long-overdue justice, to those involved.  Like The Widow, this novel is also told from the points of view of several different characters, all of whom play key roles in the mystery, but whose connections are only revealed bit by bit.  This technique allows us as readers to experience the investigation and the discoveries along with Kate, drawing us further and further into the lives of the characters and allowing us to experience things through their eyes.  I felt that her first book was darker and delved more into the psychology of the characters, while this one seemed more, hmm, I’ll use the word “gentle”.  But it was still a book that was difficult to put down, and when I experienced that "aha!" moment and realized how it would all come together, I was pleased to see how smoothly Barton had managed to bring everything together without feeling overly contrived.  This is a book I would certainly recommend to anyone who enjoys psychological suspense.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the good weather before the rain starts!

Bye for now… Julie

Monday 3 July 2017

Canada Day weekend post...

On this sunny, warm Canada Day weekend, I’m enjoying a hot cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh Ontario strawberries as I think about what I’ve been reading over the past week (unfortunately not written by a Canadian author!)

I needed something to read after finishing the book I told you about last week, Magpie Murders, which really was a fun, entertaining literary mystery.  I read a review in our local paper by the manager of one of the community libraries for a book by an author I’ve been meaning to try for some time.  She reviewed Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason, the first in the “Detective Erlendur” series by this Icelandic author to be translated into English.  The body of a 70-year-old man is discovered in his basement flat, having been bashed over the head with a heavy glass ashtray, and Detective Erlendur and his team are called in to investigate.  With only the discovery of a photograph of a child’s grave and a cryptic message as clues, the team must dig further to find suspects and motive.  What they uncover is a decades-old, long-buried accusation of rape, which leads them deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of Icelandic genetic coding.  I have long been meaning to read some of Indridason’s mysteries, and I just so happened to have a copy of this novel on my bookshelf upstairs, so I pulled it down and began to read.  It initially reminded me of Henning Mankell’s “Kurt Wallander” series, since Erlendur and Wallander have many similarities:  they are both gruff, divorced loners who are generally not considerate of the feelings of others and are often not aware of the need to adhere to “political correctness”.  They also both have daughters who are causes of concern.  And the atmosphere for both series is dark, literally and figuratively.  But Mankell’s novels have, in my opinion, more substance than Indridason’s, and Jar City offered a pretty superficial look at the genetic research being done in Iceland (I was reminded of Peter Hoeg’s excellend novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow).  I have another of Indridason’s novels on my shelf, and will give it a chance, as I’m basing my judgments of the whole series on the reading of just one novel.  It was enjoyable enough, a really quick and easy read, with an interesting storyline - I just wish he’d delved more deeply into some of the issues and developed the characters a bit more fully.  Still, it was just what I needed to get me through the last week of school, an easy, breezy, lightweight Scandinavian mystery.

That’s all for now.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine (and no chance of thunderstorms today - hurray!!)

Bye for now…