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

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