Sunday 26 November 2017

Book talk on a chilly Sunday morning...

It’s chilly and overcast right now as I sip my steaming chai tea and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, but the forecast is promising some sun later in the day, which is always a great way to begin a new week.

Last week I had a meeting with my “Friends” Book Group, where we discussed The Woman Upstairs.  Of the seven people who came out, only two had finished it - one of those people was me and the other was our newest member, who was just trying us out.  Of the five others, one skimmed it to the end, two ran out of time, and two just gave up on it.  The consensus was that the book was too self-indulgent, that it moved too slowly, and that it lacked any real plot.  I get that, and I would totally agree, except that the ending made it all so worthwhile that it was a shame some members gave up partway through.  For those of us who finished, we couldn’t really discuss the ending without giving too much away for those who intended to finish reading it when they had time.  But on the way home from the meeting, I got thinking more about the ending, and wondered who really betrayed whom, and why Sirena really did what she did.  I’ve read this book twice, and it wasn’t until I was headed home that I had these insights, and would have loved to discuss them with the others - I did end up having a conversation about this the next day with our newest member, who is a teacher at one of my schools, and we found the author’s treatment of this situation very intriguing and skillful.  If you think you might want to try this book out, please stick with it until the end, and then give some real thought to the questions above regarding betrayal, guilt and blame (that’s all I can say for fear of spoiling it for anyone!).

A book that, in my opinion, you could certainly stop reading before reaching the end is The Lying Game by Ruth Ware.  I really enjoyed her first book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, but did not enjoy her second book, The Woman in Cabin 10, at all, despite the rave reviews.  This one started out more promisingly, and I was quite excited to sit down with it.  This novel focuses on four women, Thea, Fatima, Isa and Kate, who live in and around London.  One night, Isa, Thea and Fatima receive a text from Kate saying “I need you”, and they know something serious has happened.  They all leave their lives and responsibilities and head to Salten Island, where fifteen years earlier these girls attended a boarding school together and where Kate still lives at Tide Mills, her childhood home that, over the years, has been literally sinking into the marsh.  These women have a secret that threatens to become unearthed, and they need to figure out how to handle this.  Fifteen years earlier, Kate’s father disappeared and they covered up any knowledge they had about this disappearance, along with Kate’s step-brother Luc.  Now it seems the truth is about to come to light and these women need to face up to the choices they made so long ago, choices that threaten to destroy their current lives as well as their futures.  It started off really well, with an interesting narrator, Isa, and an intriguing plotline - I always enjoy suspense stories that involve long-hidden secrets and groups of people being drawn together again after many years because of these secrets.  But at some point I found the story to be too farfetched and totally lacking in credibility, particularly since Isa hauls her six-month-old daughter Freya along with her into potentially dangerous situations again and again, fretting over Freya’s safety in one sentence, then endangering her in the next.  I felt that Ware used alot of repetition as padding, possibly to give the book the heft that she may have hoped would pass for depth.  I found the characters to be shallow and the conclusion unsatisfying.  Strangely enough, Kirkus, which criticizes nearly every book and gives negative reviews of just about everything, gave this books a rave review - when reading it, I felt like we were talking about two different novels!  This just demonstrates how reading experiences are so very personal, and reflect individual reading histories, personal histories, and present reading moods or situations.

That’s all for today.  I’m going to get outside and enjoy the brisk fresh air and still-clear sidewalks.

Bye for now…

Sunday 19 November 2017

Reruns on a tired Sunday morning...

On this bright, chilly Sunday morning, I'm feeling rather wiped out.  I ran a Book Fair at one of my schools last week, which is always exhausting.  I've also had a fairly bad migraine the past two days, and am only now beginning to feel better.  So I was going to take a "sick day" from my post today, but thankfully I finished a book for my book club meeting tomorrow that I've not only read before, but one I've written a blog post about!  So this is a rerun of Julie's Reading Corner from December 8, 2013:

"I finished reading The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud last week, and it was fabulous!  Just a quick recap:  Nora Eldridge is an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father.  She is also the favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston.  At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enters her life.  Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart.  She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams.  Of course, this can’t really happen, and since the Shahids do not reciprocate the need Nora feels towards them, they move on and Nora must cope with this loss as best she can, clinging to the memories of her year with them.  I felt that the ending was great, until the very, very end, when I felt the author tried too hard for a big finish that, in my opinion, felt limp.  Having said that, I loved the writing style, and the way Nora expressed herself and her feelings towards others and the life she feels has been (unfairly?) dealt to her.  I also thought that Nora’s feelings at that time in her life (37 and single, no children, no life as an artist, a third-grade teacher, which was never her career goal at any stage in her life) were realistic and true, although raw and sometimes self-indulgent.  But this book was ABOUT HER, so of course it was self-indulgent!  That was one of the criticisms of the book in at least one review I read,  but clearly that book reviewer had never been a 37 year old single woman whose life had not lived up to her expectations.  It is definitely a book whose main character demands that the reader identify with her, in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin did.  Now I’m not saying you have to have had those experiences to appreciate these books, but it helps a lot if you can at least envision what it would be like to have your ambitions thwarted because you made the wrong choices in life, or tried to do the right thing for others which maybe held you back in life.  Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that this book may not be for everyone, but I thought it was great, despite the weak ending.  Read it if you choose, but be warned that it is not a “feel-good” novel."

I think I would agree with everything I wrote nearly four years ago, although I didn't have such a negative reaction to the ending this time.  I would still compare this to We Need to Talk About Kevin and also Zoe Heller's darkly comic, scathing novel What Was She Thinking?  Notes on a Scandal.  I'll write about the highlights of our book club discussion next week - I'm curious to hear what others thought of this novel.

That's all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now...

Sunday 12 November 2017

Tea and audiobooks on a chilly morning...

It’s been unseasonably cold these past few days, but I’m warm and toasty inside with my steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar.  

I have an audiobook to tell you about this week.  I finished listening to By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham last week, and I have to say that it was a real treat for my ears.  You may recall that Cunningham is the author of the award-winning novel The Hours, which was made into an award-nominated film in 2002.  By Nightfall tells the story of Peter Harris, an art dealer in New York who, at age 44, is feeling somewhat let down by life.  He realizes that it’s nearly too late for him to be one of the “great” art dealers, making the discovery of a “great” artistic talent, and that he may never make it up to his adult daughter Beatrice for not loving her more completely or not finding her beautiful enough.  His relationship with his wife, Rebecca, who owns a small magazine (I can’t remember whether it focuses on literature or art), is just OK - after 20 years of marriage, after raising a daughter who arrived too soon, the spark and passion is gone.  Enter Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), Rebecca’s much-younger, much-doted-upon, and very charming brother (Ethan), who comes to stay with them for a while after being away in Japan, ostensibly trying to “find himself”.  After years in and out of rehab, dealing with various addictions, it appears that Mizzy has finally decided to grow up and live life as an adult, maybe doing “something in the arts”.  He tags along with Peter to observe the installation of a sculpture for a very wealthy client, and there propositions him.  Peter, unhappy with the state of his life, is ripe for this type of adventure, this opportunity to shake things up, but, as we the reader know, this can never happen in the way he imagines it.  But just when we think we know how the novel is going to end, we are treated to a compelling twist that may shock us (I was shocked!) and make us question our own lives and how well we really know the people closest to us.  I downloaded this audiobook without knowing much about it, and almost didn’t listen to it, as the opening scene didn’t really grab me.  But because I didn’t have anything else available that I'd rather listen to, I stuck with it, and I’m so glad I did.  This novel is clearly about a man having a mid-life crisis, but it is so much more than that.  Cunningham puts us inside Peter’s head and allows us to see the world from his point of view.  It was so many things for me:  a dramatic monologue, a running commentary on Peter’s life and the lives of those around him (or what he thinks those lives are about);  it brought to mind T S Eliot’s poetry, particularly "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" (although I’m not sure why, as I barely remember this poem);  it reminded this reader of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, perhaps due to the stripped-down language or the fact that it seemed to be about nothing in particular and everything in general, or that it questions the meaning of life and makes us consider what we are really waiting for, and asks us if this is, truly, as good as it gets, and if so, do we settle for this or go out and try to find something better?  We could spend our whole lives searching for the thing that can make us truly happy, only to find that it was right here in our own home all along.  This is a common literary theme, and Cunningham’s setting and characters are not unusual, but the fact that he puts the reader inside the mind of the main character and allows us to experience things through his eyes, and the fact that he uses language so sparsely and succinctly, made this a wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking listening experience for me.  The characters are intriguing:  Peter is at once insightful and comic, Mizzy is alluring and manipulative, and Rebecca seems shallow and naive (the word "fey" comes to mind... not sure why) but proves to have more depth than we are originally led to believe.  These characters are nothing new, but with Cunningham’s treatment, they tell a moving story that will stay with me for some time.  I read a few reviews of this book before I started writing this post, and they were generally unfavourable, mostly criticizing the author’s many, many literary references.  I didn’t understand all of these references, but I got enough of them that it didn’t detract from my overall understanding of the novel.  I also wonder whether I would have enjoyed reading this as a novel rather than listening to it as an audiobook.  The narrator, Hugh Dancy, did an amazing job of reading aloud a novel that was probably very difficult to render faithfully, capturing the essence of Peter’s ever-shifting character and thought processes, his shifting views of people and art and the things that are going on around him.  I’m curious to have a look at the physical book and read a few pages just to compare, but I’m so thankful to have come upon this novel in the audio format, because I may not have appreciated it as much otherwise.

That’s all for today.  Bundle up and get outside before it rains (or snows!).

Bye for now…

Sunday 5 November 2017

Book clubs and book talk on a rainy Sunday morning...

It’s a mild, rainy morning, and so dark inside that I’ve had to turn the light on as I’m writing.  Dreary is the word that comes to mind to describe today… but on the bright side, we got an extra hour - HURRAY!!  (I’ve already used up my hour, and it’s only 11am!!)

My Volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See.  Set during World War II, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book weaves together two stories, one of a young blind French girl, the other of an orphaned German boy, and builds to their unlikely meeting in a small French village near the end of the war.  Marie-Laure is a motherless girl who, at the age of six, lost her sight completely.  Her father, a locksmith working at the National History Museum in Paris, undertakes to protect her and teach her, encouraging her to become independent.  He is helped in this by his colleagues at the museum, as they take her in and make her part of their community.  Werner Pfenning is an orphan boy who, with his younger sister, Jutta, has spent most of his childhood at the Children’s Home in a village in Germany.  The children at the Home seem to have formed a community of their own, each fulfilling a role, helping out with the other children, and educating themselves by pursuing their interests during their free time.  The woman who runs the Home, Frau Elena, is a French nun who is more fond of children than she is of supervision, so she allows the children more freedom than they may otherwise have enjoyed.  On one of his expeditions, Werner finds a broken radio and manages to figure out how to fix it.  Others in the village, recognizing his talents, start coming to him with their own broken radios.  With the start of WWII, Werner’s exceptional capacity for understanding electronics brings him to the attention of a Nazi official, who offers Werner the chance to go to a boarding school to study, but his education teaches him more than he bargained for.  With the threat of a Nazi occupation in Paris, Marie-Laure and her father try to flee the city, but her father is also on a mission - he is entrusted to deliver a rare, possibly-cursed diamond (real or replica, he doesn’t know) to a safehouse before the Nazis can begin looting the museum.  But he is unable to complete this mission, and so carries this diamond with him to Saint Malo, where his eccentric uncle Etienne lives.  They make a home in this village, but the threat of a Nazi invasion is ever-present.  How the lives of these two young people, from different countries and on opposite sides of the war experience, will eventually come together, and what events will result from this, propel the story forward, taking the reader on a gripping journey through this tumultuous time in history.  It was a small group yesterday, but we managed to talk for nearly three hours!  This was definitely the longest meeting we’ve ever had.  As you can imagine, we discussed more than I can possibly put in this post (and more than you’d want to read!), but yesterday’s meeting was a reminder of why I love book clubs - what could be better than spending time discussing a book, and inevitably your personal and shared reading experiences related to this book, with people you like being with?  I feel very fortunate to be part of two great book groups, as well as running a fabulous group with my students (who are graduating at the end of this school year - I am sad already!).  I had a few questions when I finished this book that my group members were gracious enough to discuss.  How would this story have been different if Marie-Laure were not blind?  Answer:  The blindness made her more vulnerable, so if not blind, she wouldn’t have been as “heroic” or “triumphant” a character; she would have been more “ordinary”.  Were traumatic experiences (ie rape, starvation, relocation, bombings, dead bodies in the street) easier to deal with and overcome during wartime?  Answer:  Since it was commonplace and everyone was experiencing these things, people just accepted it and did what they had to do to survive; they also supported each other more, helping others through their experiences, hoping to make things easier.  And if you are surrounded by violence, you would become desensitized to it - in the midst of war, if you let every act of violence eat away at you, you would be unable to survive.  We discussed Doerr’s succinct phrases, the way he was able to perfectly describe things, like the loose flesh and veiny hands of the old women and the feeling Werner had about the first slice of canned peach, that was like a sunrise in his mouth.  We discussed the guilt German people felt (and maybe even still feel today) about their identity and the horrific crimes committed by their countrymen, even if these were crimes committed by others.  We agreed that this book was a struggle to get into, but that it picked up about halfway through.  One member thought this whole book was a love story, most notably between Werner and Marie-Laure and between Marie-Laure and her father.  We discussed the final chapters, and decided we liked the way the author wrapped everything up, that we were able to find out what happened to everyone, although the fates of some characters made us sad and even angry.  We discussed how much we really control our own lives, a theme that ran through this novel.  We agreed that this was a book that evoked a strong emotional response, and delved into a dark period in history.  I apologized to our newest book club member for choosing such a “heavy, depressing, sad” book, but she pointed out that it’s important to explore these things, that we can’t just ignore what happened (thanks for letting me off the hook!!).  We discussed the ways that members of the community fought against the Nazis, particularly the group of women in the village, and applauded them for their creativity and efforts in the face of such adversity, during a time when it would have been easier to just “do as you’re told” and not fight back.  We discussed the changes in communication, that there will never be any “lost letters” in this age of electronic communication, and that while this is supposed to be a time of connectedness, many people, particularly young people, are actually feeling totally disconnected.  WHEW!  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I have to close now and get on with the rest of my day.  I would recommend this as an excellent choice for any book club.  

Since three of the last four books I’ve read have been about 500 pages, I’m planning to start reading a shorter book this afternoon - not sure yet what that will be, but I have a big stack of loans from the library to choose from and can hardly wait to dive in!  

Have a great afternoon, and take advantage of that extra hour to get some extra reading done!

Bye for now…