Sunday 24 September 2017

Book talk on an incredibly hot, record-breaking Sunday morning...

I’ve had to juggle my plans for today.  I normally get up in the morning, cook and/or bake, as required, settle down to write my post, then go for a long walk in the early afternoon, but this weekend has been so hot and humid that today I got up and went for a long walk first, while it was still a bearable temperature, then cooked, and I’m only now getting to this post.  If I seem a bit off, it’s because my routine has been disrupted… grrr, I hate when that happens!  I can’t wait until the end of the week, when we are back to seasonal temperatures.

My “Friends” book group met on Monday night to discuss The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls, author of the bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle.  There were a few people who couldn’t make it, so we were a small-ish group, and our discussion seemed unusually subdued, perhaps because of the unseasonably warm weather, or maybe we were all tired out at summer’s end.  I don’t think it was due to lack of interest in the book, because it was the first book in quite some time that we all enjoyed reading!  This novel, set in the early ''70s, tells the story of two sisters, twelve-year old “Bean” and fourteen-year old Liz, whose mother abandons them in search of fame and stardom in the music scene in California.  She leaves enough money for them to try surviving on chicken pot pies, but after a certain amount of time, the authorities come sniffing around and the girls, fearing removal from their mother’s custody and placement in foster homes, decide to take a bus trip in search of their elusive Uncle Tinsley, their mother’s brother, in a small town in Virginia.  Despite his initial resistance, he accepts his new charges and even thrives in their company. After settling in and making a place for themselves in Tinsley’s house, the town and their new school, they discover many things about their past and the reasons their mother left this place and never wanted to return.  While Bean has an easier time fitting in, creative, artistic Liz struggles to find a place for herself.  When something terrible happens to her, the family and the townspeople must band together to support and protect her while she attempts to seek justice for herself and others who have also suffered at the hands of a manipulative, cruel, power-hungry bully of a businessman.  This is a work of fiction, but as we learned at the meeting, Walls’ own parents were less-than-responsible, taking them off on long road-trips in a caravan and experiencing periods of homelessness.  We all enjoyed reading the book, and agreed that the children in this story were far stronger, better-adjusted and more responsible than the adults.  We felt that Uncle Tinsley, while eccentric and strange, turned out to be supportive and wise, and was more reliable than just about anyone else in the story.  The nasty businessman, Maddox, was too obviously a symbol of evil, and the emus were too obviously symbolic of the girls, particularly Liz, as they had to work hard to earn their trust, and even though they seemed strange at first, when they really got close to the birds, they discovered how weirdly beautiful they were.  We commented that the 1970s were a different time, that no kid today would be allowed to take a bus on their own these days.  We commented on the parallels between Liz and her mother, their artistic natures and creativity, which often goes hand-in-hand with a tendency towards mental health struggles. We discussed the changes in Liz’s and Bean’s characters and personalities over the course of the novel, and noted that they had to remain self-reliant throughout their adventure, that despite seeking help from various adults, they could only really depend on each other for support on a consistent basis.  All-in-all, it was a great book club selection and an interesting read, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction or books about dysfunctional families.

And I read another Japanese thriller last week, Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe.  Most of the story takes place in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Station interrogation room and observation room, as the detectives strive to discover the identity of the person who is responsible for two separate yet related murders.   A middle-aged businessman, Ryosuke Tokoroda, is found murdered at a residential construction site by a neighbour, and the detectives on the case uncover threads that link this man to an earlier murder, that of a college-aged girl at a nightclub.  (I will not use proper names for any other characters, as they are all Japanese names which I would probably either spell incorrectly or mix up with other characters' names.)  They discover that, along with a wife and daughter, Tokoroda had a cyber-family, a “shadow” family that consisted of a daughter, a son and a wife. These people communicated via chat rooms and online board posts, although they did meet in person once.  This idealized “family” contrasts starkly with Tokoroda’s real family life, where he is less-than-faithful and more than a little unreliable.  But could one of the members of Tokoroda’s “shadow” family have been envious enough of his real family to kill him?  Or did someone from his real life find out about this alternate family and want him dead?  This novel, based more heavily on dialogue than on action, kept me turning pages until the mystery was solved and the murderer’s identity revealed.  In my last post, I wrote about another Japanese police procedural, The Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino, and I commented on the “mainstream-ness” of the story, that it could be set anywhere, and that, while it was a well-written novel with an interesting story, it lacked what I referred to as “authentic Japanese style”, which I could not identify but I thought I would recognize it if I saw it.  Well, this book demonstrated this “authentic Japanese style” in that it offered a glimpse into  contemporary Japanese family life.  It presented what I felt was a convincing look at Japanese culture and family, especially relationships with and between young adults, that was different from the kind of portraiture you might find in, for example, a British or Canadian mystery.  The relationships between detectives on the police force, too, differed from the ways British or Canadian police are described as interacting.  I enjoyed this book, and would be interested in someday reading other mysteries by this author.

OK, that’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!  Oh, and Happy First Weekend of Fall, everyone!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 17 September 2017

The "I'm not quite finished, but..." post...

It’s been unseasonably warm this past week, and today is no exception.  The sun is shining and it’s promising to be a warm, humid day, but for now it’s not too warm for me to enjoy a steaming cup of chai tea and a yummy Date Bar as I consider the books I want to write about today.

I’ve got two books to tell you about, both of which I’m not quite finished, but I’m sufficiently far enough along that I can talk about them confidently.  The first is a mystery by Keigo Higashino, The Salvation of a Saint.  I recently received an e-newsletter with a list of Japanese thrillers, so I thought it would be fun to read something a little different.  I managed to find most of the titles at my local library, and early last week I started and stopped reading a few of these titles until I found one that could hold my interest, the one mentioned above.  I guess Higashino is one of the most popular mystery/thriller writers in Japan today, and my library has many books by this author, including others in the series featuring Tokyo police detective Kusanagi and his sometimes-sidekick, physics professor Manabu Yukawa.  This novel opens with a prominent businessman, Yoshitaka Mashiba, informing his wife of one year, Ayane, that since they cannot have children, there is no reason for them to remain married.  She does not seem startled by this declaration, and they proceed to host a small dinner party.  Ayane leaves the next day to head to her parents’ place for a few days, and by the end of the weekend, Mashiba is dead, found poisoned in his home by Hiromi, who is Ayane’s assistant and also Mashiba’s lover.  Ayane arrives home to discover police detectives combing through their home and personal lives in order to uncover clues that might lead to the discovery of the murderer.  Ayane is the obvious suspect, yet she has a rock-solid alibi, as she was miles away for that entire weekend.  But who else had motive and opportunity?  Kusanagi’s junior detective, Kaoru Utsumi, refuses to ignore her intuition, her gut feeling that Ayane is the murderer, and she enlists the help of the physics professor in her quest to figure out how she committed the murder from a distance, and also how to handle Kusanagi’s determination to rule Ayane out as a suspect, this because he seems to be falling a little bit in love with the widow.  I’ve got about 50 pages to go in this mystery and I can safely say it would be a hit with other readers who enjoy fast-paced, detail-oriented mysteries of the sort Peter Robinson, Henning Mankell or even Agatha Christie have written.  It was not significantly different from these other books; in fact, it could be set anywhere.  I guess I was hoping to hit upon an author whose works demonstrate an "authentic Japanese style” of writing, whatever that is, but this one is very mainstream.  Still, it’s a good book, and I’m looking forward to getting to the end and finding out who did it, how and why.  And I’m definitely interested in reading the first book in this series, as I’m curious as to how the relationship between the detective and the physics professor began.

And I’m listening to an audiobook that I’m nearly finished and that I’m really enjoying.  The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld has 19 parts, or more than 23 hours of listening time (most of the audiobooks I listen to have between 9 and 12 parts).  I knew nothing about this book when I downloaded it, but remarkably, it’s held my interest so far, and with just 2 parts to go, I’m both anxious to finish and sad that I’m nearing the end.  This book tells the story of Alice Lindgren, a woman who, when she was in her senior year at high school, drove into another car on her way to a party, killing the boy she was hoping to marry someday.  This accident, and the guilt and loss, overshadows her life for the next 12 years as she becomes a teacher and then an elementary school librarian, and at 30, she figures she’s destined to be single forever.  And then she meets Charlie Blackwell.  Larger-than-life, confident and determined, Charlie sets his sights on Alice and wins her over.  It both helps and hurts his case that he is part of a wealthy family, as Alice believes herself to be an independent woman.  When her life is thrown into turmoil, she determines to change things… and then things really do change, and she becomes first the governor’s wife, and then the First Lady when her husband wins the US presidential election in 2000.  This novel is based on the life of Laura Bush, and it is so interesting, so well-written, and so compelling that I have been looking for additional opportunities to listen.  I read a review of this book and felt that it did such a great job of talking about this book and its place among great American literature that anything I could write would pale in comparison, so here’s a link to the review from the New York Times: I agree with everything the reviewer writes about the book, and I’m really interested in reading other books by this author, about whom I know nothing.  I also know nothing, really, of the life of Laura Bush, but according to the review, this novel was heavily influenced and informed by her 2004 biography, written by Ann Gerhart.  I wonder if the soothing, even tone of narrator Kimberly Farr's voice, her excellent portrayal of the character of Alice, has made this lengthy novel so engaging for me.  I feel like I’m really learning about her life and getting an inside view into what it was like to be George W Bush’s life partner in the years leading up to and during his presidency (as awful as that may sound).  Am I interested in reading Gerhart’s biography?  Not in the least.  I am only interested in the fictionalized account of her life, not the facts.  Is this wrong of me?  I hope not.  The reviewer seemed to enjoy the book and find considerable value in it, and so do I.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading novels that explore “the human condition”, novels that follow a character's development over years and decades and considers why he or she made the choices they did, or fictionalized accounts of the lives of real people.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 10 September 2017

Book club post...

With the terrifyingly destructive weather going on in other parts of the world right now, I’m so thankful for the truly gorgeous morning we have here:  the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and it’s once again warm enough to have the windows and doors open after a spell of cooler-than-average weather with threats of rain nearly every day.  I’ve got a cup of steaming chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread as I think about my book club meeting yesterday.

Since I already posted about our book club selection, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot last week, I won’t give a summary today, and I don’t have many comments from the group discussion that differ from the comments I made last week about the book, that it dealt with racial inequality in the medical field and that it tried to explain the science behind genetics, which we all found rather confusing.  The only thing I can add from our discussion is that we thought Henrietta’s family was not really entitled to anything from Johns Hopkins Medical Centre, as the hospital treated her cells the same as anyone else’s, and that it was just a fluke that they were collected at a time when they had the ability to reproduce (cells collected later in her illness and after her death did not perform in the same way).  We felt that the Lacks family, particularly the sons, were looking for compensation where none was due.  It was a small group yesterday, so the discussion lacked the depth that it has when everyone is able to make it.

I read a book last week that we will be discussing at my next “Friends” meeting on September 18th, Jeannette Walls’ novel The Silver Star.  Once again, there were fewer copies available than there are book club members, so I read it as soon as it became available, then returned it right away, as it was on hold for someone else. I don’t want to comment on this book now, as I think it would be better to wait until we’ve discussed it, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this selection and am glad someone recommended it, as it's not a book I would have likely picked up on my own.

So I though I would focus my post today on book clubs.  Yesterday at my “Volunteer” book club meeting, we spent at least half of our time together re-evaluating our meetings, which I generally do at this time of year.  I subscribe to many book- and publisher-related e-newsletters, and I recently received one that included a feature called “Tips for Book Clubs”.  This was divided into sections such as “Finding a book club”, “How to choose discussion books”, “Leading a group” and “Troubleshooting a book club”.  This last was the section I was most interested in, as I sometimes feel that my “Volunteer” book group digresses too often, and one member complained that we spend too much time socializing - this I tried to address at this time last year, but I don’t think things have really changed much.  In these “Tips”, the writer asks the group to identify the reasons why the group is not running smoothly.  He points out that groups that acknowledge a social purpose to the meetings expect to spend time discussing other things, while groups that want serious book talk will frown on digressions.  That, in my opinion, was exactly the issue with our group.  I think we started out ten years ago as a serious book group, but as we’ve been getting together over the years, the group dynamic has evolved into more of a social one, that the members are more like friends who use the excuse of a book club to come together once a month.  Also we have a great history of shared reading:  a book a month every month over ten years, plus two extra meetings per year for the first five years, makes about 130 books and discussions.  Whew!  That’s alot of shared books!  So socializing in our group is inevitable, since we are all friends who only get together once a month, and we do build that time into our meetings.  As the group leader, I’ve always felt that it was my responsibility to help direct the discussion back to the book if I felt that the digressions were going on too long, and these “Tips” support that notion, but I have been reluctant to do this too often, as I figured my group members are all adults, and if they wanted to be discussing the book rather than chatting, they would be doing so.  I’ve also noticed, as the “Tips” suggest, that the amount of chatter is often directly related to how interesting everyone found the book to be.  What we came up with yesterday was a possible solution to the side-chatting issue:  there will be a brightly-coloured scarf in the middle of the table.  If we veer off-topic and have too many side conversations, and if someone really wants to get back to discussing the book, she will hold up the scarf as a signal for people to stop their conversations.  This way, everyone takes responsibility for directing the discussion rather than leaving it up to me.  I hope it will work.  

The other book club dilemma I’m facing is with my “Friends” book club.  We meet every second Monday at a cafe in a central location, and when we all come out, there are seven of us, which makes a full table (we actually have to push two tables together to fit us all in, including our coffees).  My April 2, 2017 post addressed the problems with adding another member to this group, as one member said her friend was interested in joining our group and asked what we thought.  There were several issues related to having new members join, including the size of the group in general, the difficulties in meeting with such a large group in a public space, and the possibility that we may disrupt the awesome dynamic we have.  What we decided was that we could have a “Bring a friend” night, but the person who was interested in joining us never ended up coming out.  Well, a teacher at one of my schools recently expressed interest in joining us, so I will once again bring it to the next group meeting, and maybe we can try having a “Bring a friend” night for our November meeting, as there will be plenty of copies of that book, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on your Knees, available.  Hmmm… who knew we would be so popular!

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the fabulous day!

Bye for now…

Monday 4 September 2017

Short post for the last long weekend of the summer...

I’m still in the throes of a melancholy mood as I try to squeeze every second of enjoyment out of the last day of the last long weekend of the summer.  I’ve been busy this weekend, cooking and baking and hiking and spending quality time with my cats before the new school year begins in earnest.  I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh local strawberries and peaches - yum!  That, too, will come to an end soon, so I’m savouring every drop of sweet juice.

This past week I read the next book for my Volunteer book club, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  Although we don’t meet until next weekend, there were many outstanding holds on this book at both local libraries, because a movie based on it has recently been released on HBO, so I wanted to finish it as soon as possible in case any of my book club members have it on hold.  I rarely read non-fiction, and generally it’s only because the title is a book club selection.  This one is no exception; despite the fact that it was a best-seller when it came out in 2010, I did not read it, but one of my book club members mentioned that she read it and found it really interesting, so I thought, “Why not?!”  This book tells of the author’s efforts to discover the story behind the most famous cells in history, the HeLa cells, which were the first cells ever to replicate themselves ad infinitum, which had a profound impact on scientific and medical research.  In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman in the US, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31.  Cells from her biopsy were collected and added to the bank of other cells taken from various people during routine medical testing.  The geneticist working on these cells expected them to die off after a few days like all the others, but to her surprise, they not only lived, they thrived and multiplied!  While Henrietta’s condition worsened, despite radiation treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which had a wing dedicated to treating those who were unable to otherwise afford medical care, her cells lived on.  After her death a short time later, these cells became a hot commodity among scientific and medical communities, both nationally and internationally. But who was the woman behind these cells, and what happened to her family members after her death?  This book answers these questions for the reader, exploring the lives of Henrietta’s children, mainly her daughter Deborah, whose life was far from easy growing up, and did not get any easier as she became an adult.  One of her main questions throughout the book went something like, “Why are scientists and companies making millions while my mother’s family members can’t even afford to go to the doctor?”  Skloot explores medical ethics, and the science behind genetics, racial inequality of the medical profession over the past 100 years, and the difficulty in researching a topic when faced with roadblocks at every turn.  Her research was thorough, her treatment of Henrietta and her family members was compassionate and fair, and her writing seemed fairly unbiased in terms of the blame the medical community as a whole should shoulder for the historical treatment of vulnerable patients.  It was an interesting and enlightening read, evoking responses from this reader that ranged from frustration and anger to sadness and empathy, and also to a sense of forgiveness and joy .  I think it was an excellent book club selection, well-written and filled with many discussion points.  I will probably write about this book again next week after the meeting, so I’ll try to avoid too much repetition.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the long weekend, and have a wonderful Labour Day!

Bye for now…