Sunday 24 June 2018

"A Man Called Ove" and a Sunday morning post...

It’s a rainy, cool yet muggy morning as I enjoy my delicious Date Bar from City Cafe.  I had tea earlier, so there is no steaming cup before me now, just a finished book, a date bar and a stack of potential “next reads”.
My volunteer book club will meet in two weeks to discuss A Man Called Ove (I think it rhymes with “move” but with an eh sound at the end), bestselling debut novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman.  I have been reluctant to read this, mostly based on the fact that it continues to be a bestseller even though it was published more than five years ago, but also because it has been described as a “feel-good”, heartwarming book, and as you have probably guessed from my previous posts, I don’t read “feel-good” books very often because I don’t usually enjoy them.  But I put this one on my book club list because I try to have a “light, easy” read in the summer, and one of the members of my Friends’ book club has been wanting to have this as a selection for quite some time. The only deterrent is that it is still difficult to get hold of a library copy, but I’m confident my group members will face this challenge with success.  This novel tells the story of Ove, a fifty-nine-year-old man whose life has been anything but easy. At the time of the story, his wife has been dead for six months and he’s just been made redundant at work, losing a job he’s held for more than a third of his life. How is he to fill the time and find a purpose in the face of his current circumstances? This reclusive man can fairly be called curmudgeonly, so when his new neighbours move in, he doesn’t welcome them with open arms.  Heavily pregnant Parvaneh, husband Patrick and their two daughters, however, do not seem able to appreciate Ove’s desire to remain alone, and manage to wheedle their way into his life even as he makes many half-hearted attempts to end it. Among his new “friends” is a mangy tomcat who, like Parvaneh, just assumes welcome into Ove’s life, taking over as if invited. Over the course of the book, a myriad cast of characters appear, and by the end, we take away the message that we never really know the extent or ways in which we touch the lives of others.  It was a heartwarming book, all right, but it started out kind of boring and repetitive, and I was all set to not enjoy it at all. But somewhere along the way, maybe after the first third of the book, the story really took off and I found myself looking forward to silent reading time, despite the always-chaotic end of the school year - it felt to me as if the writing got better as it went along, steamrolling ahead to a satisfying conclusion. I finished it this morning, and determined that it was a priceless book that would appeal to everyone, and would make a wonderful selection for any book club. Unlike Ove, I will admit that my initial thoughts about this book were wrong, and I’m so thankful to my friend from the other book club for recommending this book so often and so passionately.
That’s all for today.  Stay dry and keep reading!
Bye for now…

Sunday 17 June 2018

Short post on a hot afternoon...

It’s late afternoon, and I’m writing my blog post in the comfort of my air-conditioned living room.  I was up extra early this morning, got out for a walk, got all my cooking and gardening done before it got too humid, and now I’m trying to get into a blogging mood, which is actually much more difficult than I thought it would be.  So please bear with me if my post sounds disjointed and less-than-inspired.
It’s a shame that I’m lacking my usual blogging enthusiasm, because the book I read last week was truly amazing.  Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, winner of the 2018 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, explores how the lure of terrorism is affecting Britain’s Muslim youth.  At the age of 28, Isma is finally free to pursue her dreams, after years of raising her twin brother and sister following the death of their grandmother and mother seven years before.  Isma is significantly older than the twins, and with a jihadist father whose life with the children was brief and sketchy at best and who died in uncertain circumstances on his way to Guantanamo many years earlier, Isma has shouldered the role of parent, supported by her extended family, Aunty Naseem and the cousins.  But now she is off to Amherst Massachusetts to resume her PhD studies, where she meets Eamonn, son of the UK Home Secretary, Karamat Lone. She is clearly smitten with him, but he, unfortunately, only has eyes for her younger sister, Aneeka, with whom he takes up a relationship upon his return to London. Aneeka sees Eamonn as a conduit to reaching the Home Secretary in an effort to bring her brother back home.  Parvaiz has been lured by the recruitment arm of ISIS after learning more about his father’s life and mission before his death, and works for the media arm of the terrorist group in Syria, but he becomes disillusioned and wishes to return home to his family and his “real” life. As a member of ISIS, however, this is nearly impossible, and Aneeka does everything in her power to help, including manipulating Eamonn into approaching his father.  What follows is the heartwrenching story of the effects of distorted religious faith in the hands of one family, and the far-reaching consequences and difficult decisions so many people are faced with because of the actions of one misguided youth. I read that this was a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone, about a teenage girl who must choose between obeying the law of the land, as represented by her family, and religious law.  I know nothing about this play, but when reading this short novel, it had the feeling of a play retold, although I didn’t know this for a fact until much later.  I sometimes find novels told from various points of view to be either confusing or repetitive, but this one, told from the points of view of Isma, Aneeka, Eamonn, Parvais and Karamat, was none of these things.  Rather, it flowed as though it was one story told by a succession of storytellers, each patiently waiting for their turn to share the next section of the tale. It was short, barely 275 pages, but Shamsie never made the narrative seem skimped or incomplete, but rather it was told sparingly yet fully, with sufficient detail that I as the reader felt fully engaged.  She may have been able to achieve this because the story is so very timely, and even the most politically illiterate of us (like me!) understands what is going on. This novel had depth and emotional pull, and had me racing to the last page, which offered a satisfying, albeit tragic, conclusion. I would highly recommend this novel and will seek out others by this author (I think this is her seventh book).
That's all for today. Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…

Sunday 10 June 2018

A bit of everything on a perfect laundry day...

I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and the first local strawberries of the season, along with a slice of freshly baked Date Bread on this perfect spring morning.  It is so breezy that the sheets I hung outside about a half-hour ago are nearly dry, and I’ve got another load of sheets from last weekend’s company nearly ready to go.  There’s nothing better than the smell of freshly laundered sheets that have been hung outside to dry, one of the best things about this season.
I didn’t read anything last week, just finished up two books I hadn’t quite completed the week before.  Then I was at odds as to what to read next. I was planning to go and see the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach yesterday, which made me want to reread this short novel again.  But I was too tired out to make it to the movie, and I didn’t read the book, either.  But I did pick up something I had on hold at the library, this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie.  I have enjoyed reading some of the winners of this prize in the past, including We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Property by Valerie Martin, and this one was immediately engaging when I started reading it yesterday afternoon.  I hope to write about it more next week once I’ve finished, but it seems to be about a young woman, Isma, who has spent years raising her twin siblings and is now finally free to pursue her own dream.  She has moved from London, England to Amherst, Massachusetts to take up her PhD studies, but worries about her younger sister, Aneeka, back home and her younger brother, Parvaiz, who has disappeared to follow his own pursuit.  Then Eamonn, the son of a Muslim politician in London, turns up in Isma’s life and seems to offer her a sense of home comfort while she is away. I’m not sure what will happen next, as I’m only 35 pages into this 275 page novel, but so far it seems like a good choice.  I don’t always enjoy literary award winners (remember the recent French literary prize winner, The Perfect Nanny?!), but I can usually count on the Baileys Prize.  
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the glorious spring day! But don't try reading outside - it's too windy!
Bye for now…

Sunday 3 June 2018

Short post in a hurry...

My brother-in-law and his family have just left our place after spending the night, and friends will be arriving from Toronto soon to go the the Maker Expo, so I really only have a few minutes to write up a post for this week.  

My book club met yesterday morning to discuss The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a book that I had read a couple of years ago.  Here is what I said about it at that time:

“I was up early this morning and had time to finish The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.  I don’t normally read historical fiction, and this book was recently voted Best Historical Fiction title on GoodReads (which I almost never check, but I still get their email updates).  Nor am I a huge fan of domestic fiction of the sort Hannah writes. But somehow during a conversation about books with a teacher at one of my schools, this title came up, and next thing I knew, she brought it in for me to read.  I brought this 400+ page novel home and fully expected not to enjoy it, but it totally sucked me in and I had a hard time putting it down. This novel tells the story of two sisters in France during WWII. They are estranged both from their father and from each other, partly due to their age difference (Vianne is 10 years older than Isabelle) and partly due to their personalities.  Vianne is the mild, responsible one who always follows rules and lives a quiet life in a small French village with her husband and daughter, Sophie. Isabelle, on the other hand, gets thrown out of one boarding school after another for a variety of reasons, mostly for not following the rules. She craves the love and acceptance of her father, but he continually shuts her out or sends her away, as he has done with both children since their mother died.  When Germany invades France and occupies parts of the country, Vianne follows all the rules while Isabelle tries to find ways to break them and resist the Nazis. As the seasons pass, the order in Vianne’s world begins to crumble as the Nazi occupiers change the rules daily, threatening to destroy the livelihoods of everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike. Family members are imprisoned, friends are taken away or killed, and no one really knows what is going on.  But still Vianne does her best to follow the rules, hoping that things will get better. Meanwhile, Isabelle joins the resistance movement and is integral in setting up the Nightingale project, a program to help downed airmen in France return to safety. When the situation in the village becomes unbearable, Vianne is forced to break the rules and do what is right for those she loves, and she must learn to live with the consequences. This book has a bit of everything in it:  It is a domestic story of two sisters who must learn to overcome their differences and love one another despite their past experiences. These sisters must also learn to accept their father for who and what he is. It is a love story, well, actually two love stories. It is also a story of war, offering detailed descriptions of the brutal conditions and cruel treatment people were forced to endure at the hands of the Nazis, but told from the point of view of two very different women who made a difference in their own very different ways, and the difficult choices they had to make on an almost daily basis.  It was also a bit of a mystery, as it is told in the form of an extended flashback, and the reader does not discover until the very end who the main character really is. This well-written, gripping novel is sure to appeal to readers on so many different levels, and Hannah does a great job of portraying the lives of these French sisters despite being an American writer. It reminded me of the excellent novel we recently read for my book group, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, although they are very different novels.  While I would never normally have read this title, I’m glad my colleague left it on my desk.  I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or domestic fiction.”

I still feel the same way about this book upon a second reading, and my book club ladies loved it!  We talked about the psychological challenges of the women in this book at that time, and how they had to make on-the-spot decisions on a regular basis that could significantly affect what happened to them and their families.  We appreciated the many sections where food was discussed, the feeding of the families with so little, the hoarding of food by the Germans, and how Hitler used France as a breadbasket to feed the German army. We compared Beck and Von Richer, and discussed what dilemmas Beck, too, faced on a regular basis, when he really believed in what he was doing at the beginning of the war, and how ashamed he was as the war progressed and turned cold-blooded and cruel.  One member mentioned that she wasn’t aware of the use of an escape route over the mountains, another felt that Isabelle’s beauty was an asset as well as a detriment. We talked about the climate at the time, that no one trusted anyone, and individuals had to guess who and what to believe, and how this changed from day to day. One member just said it was a heartbreaking book, all the death and despair, and how, as she was reading it, she kept thinking that she “didn’t want to know”, but at the same time that it was “good to know”.  Her favourite quotation from the book is when Vianne says, “ ‘Men tell stories. Women just get on with it’ “, which led to a discussion about whether it is better to remember or to forget. We had a great discussion, and I would highly recommend this book to any book club.

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

Bye for now…