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…

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