Sunday 30 September 2018

Tea and book talk on a chilly-ish autumn day...

It’s overcast with a bit of a chill in the air as I write this post.  My steaming cup of chai and delicious Date Bar are a welcome treat for me as I think about what I’ve read recently.  I also have a bowl of the last of the summer fruit, peaches and raspberries, mixed in with the first of the fall fruit, homemade applesauce, which I think perfectly fits in with this time of year, the seasonal transition, as well as the book I read last week.
My Friends’ book club met on Monday to discuss The Winter Palace, and I know I promised highlights of this discussion, but we didn’t really discuss the novel much, mainly because hardly anyone finished it.  This was not due to lack of interest, but more to do with events in life getting in the way. So we talked about politics, historical and current, and about Catherine the Great. One member brought in lovely coffee-table books about the Winter Palace and 18th Century Russian rulers, which was quite fascinating.  We got to see what Catherine really looked like, as well as Peter and Paul, and we learned about real people on which some of the author’s characters may have been based. Anyway, those are the highlights from the meeting, and even though they weren’t directly about the book, they were still related in some way.  
My goal was to read one particular book last week, and I’m glad I found the time to do so.  Autumn, by Ali Smith, is the first in a quartet, Seasonal. It was a book I’d picked up at the Owen Sound Public Library book sale about which I knew nothing, but I loved the book cover design. According to Wikipedia, it is a novel about "the state of the nation" Of course I wanted to read it as the summer turned to autumn, and I’m so glad I did, as not only is it about the state of the nation, but the season itself, and what it represents, how it relates to time and memory, and what the “autumn of life” might look like.  The novel opens with an unnamed man being washed up on the shore of a lake, with wild ramblings about being both young and old, making a suit out of leaves, watching young women dancing around, and being dead. It turns out that this unnamed man is Daniel Gluck, a former songwriter who, at the age of 101, now resides in a long-term care facility.  He is visited by the acerbic Elisabeth, a young woman who grew up next door to Gluck and formed the type of special friendship that can only exist between individuals of vastly differing ages who, nonetheless, share a particular view of something, in this case, the world of art. Gluck becomes Elisabeth’s unofficial tutor and mentor, as her feelings towards her mother growing up, like most teenagers, are condescending at best.  We are treated to snippets from Elisabeth’s life growing up, to her present day experiences, as well as to Gluck’s early years. They often discuss art, mainly the collages and art of Pauline Boty, the only female British pop artist of the 1960s, according to Elisabeth. She is fascinated by Boty's art, and goes on to become an art history professor, never giving up her dedication to promoting the love of art to young people.  These snippets are interposed with memories told in poetry, with song lyrics, with bits of news (this novel is set during the EU Referendum, with its political uneasiness, people both rejoicing and feeling miserable), and fragments of Boty’s life before her premature death shortly after her first child was born. I know nothing about this Baily Prize-winning author, but I was intrigued by the cover design and picked it up for about $2.00 at the book sale.  It was definitely an interesting read, lyrical and melancholy, sad and bittersweet, at times tender and also jarring. The friendships between unlikely individuals, the connections between those who consider themselves to be isolated, was moving and true, a real reflection of the human condition. It reminded me of the Man Booker nominee I read a while ago, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Irish writer Donal Ryan.  Both dealt with isolation and connection, about the need to reach out and break down invisible walls that are the barriers to forming relationships with others.  I loved it, and have just put on hold the next book in the series, Winter, as well as Ali’s Bailey Prize-winning 2015 novel, How to be Both.  An aside: I went to see Linwood Barclay at the Waterloo Public Library One Book One Community event this past week, and something he said rang true while I was reading this novel. Being a writer of crime fiction, he, like most other crime writers, is able to put out approximately one book each year. He was speaking of Wayne Johnston, and how writers of literary fiction sometimes take four or five years to write a book, and he wondered aloud whether maybe their computers were broken or their keyboards weren't working. He also said that literary writers just didn't know how to create a plot. Of course he was kidding. He then clarified that even if he had ten years, he could not write a book as fine as one of Johnston's novels. I thought of this as I was reading Autumn, and how it was not about a plot so much as character, and how it would have taken time and focus to create such a lyrically-resonant work that so succinctly captures the human experience.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend and remember to find time to read.
Bye for now…

Sunday 23 September 2018

Short post on a busy weekend...

It’s late afternoon on Sunday, and this weekend has been super busy.  I had an in-store event yesterday afternoon at Coles in Conestoga Mall for my one school library, an event for which I had spent quite a bit of time baking on Thursday night and Friday morning.  This store has adopted my school for the Indigo Adopt-a-School Program ( and we are busy raising funds to buy new books for the library.  
Because of all this baking and fundraising, I have not yet finished my book club book for tomorrow night’s meeting, and I’m not confident I’ll reach the last page before we get together.  In order to take advantage of this evening’s free time, I’m keeping this post short. We’re discussing Canadian author Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace: a novel of Catherine the Great.  This novel, told from the point of view of Barbara, one of the maids in the Winter Palace, offers an insider’s look at how the palace was run at the time of Empress Elizabeth in the mid 1700s, when Catherine (Sophie) first comes to the Russian Palace from Poland to meet Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter (descendent of Peter the Great) with the intention of marriage.  Barbara genuinely cares for Catherine, and does her best to help her out and keep her safe. But she can only do so much when others conspire against her. The suspense and intrigue in this novel has made me wish I’d had more time to read this week, as the writing is superb. Barbara is an amazing storyteller, and her voice, filled with suspicion, insight and subterfuge, reminds me of Offred in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where everyone’s movements are noted and stored away in case they can be traded off for some other piece of information.
OK, that’s all for now.  I need to finish my book.  Enjoy the rest of the day and Happy First Day of Fall (I think that was yesterday, but it’s still a wonderful thing to celebrate!)

Bye for now…

Sunday 16 September 2018

Book talk on a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon...

There seems to be no end to the humid days around here, or so it seems to me as I try to stay as cool as possible during the hottest part of the day.  I’m trying to use the air conditioning as little as possible, so went for a long walk early this morning while the temperature was still bearable; hence the late post time, but hopefully I’ll finish before the actual time scheduled to get this out to email subscribers.  I’ve got my delicious cup of not-so-steaming chai tea and not one, but two!, date treats, a slice of homemade Date Bread and a delicious Date Bar. YUM!!
Early last week I read Snap by Belinda Bauer.  Bauer is a British crime writer who has a number of mysteries to her name, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by her before.  This novel begins with a mother and her children travelling on a road and needing assistance. The mother leaves the kids in the car and walks alone to find a phone to call for help, but she never returns.  After an hour goes by, eleven-year-old Jack carries his three-year-old sister Merry while Joy shoulders the diaper bag as they head out to meet their mother. What they find instead is the receiver hanging from the phone box and no mother.  Eventually someone stops to help, but by then the damage has been done - Jack was meant to be in charge, and in his mind, he’s failed miserably. Three years later, Jack is fourteen and taking care of his family as best he can after his dad went out one day and never returned.  He will do anything to keep the family together, and so keeps up the appearance of a clean, tidy and well-organized home, but the reality of their situation is much different. Jack relies on theft to supply the family with food and the funds to keep the house running at the barest minimum.  When he enters a house one night with the intent to steal, he discovers a clue that may lead to the truth about what happened to his mother, but he must count on the actions of others to bring this to light or risk being discovered himself. What unfolds are parallel stories that are sure to keep you turning pages until the final satisfying paragraph.  I thought I’d maybe read a review of this book and put it on hold based on that, but I realized that this novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize. It was a good mystery, for sure, with solid characters and interesting storylines, but I’m rather surprised to find it chosen as one of the 10 best books published in the Commonwealth countries and the US in the past year, according to the selectors.  I guess they might be trying to make the nominees more accessible to more readers. It was an interesting read, and this may have served to introduce me to a new mystery writer, but I won’t have time to read anything else by her for a while.
I also tried reading three other nominees, The Overstory by Richard Powers, about trees (not for me, too magic-realism-ish), Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (graphic novel - too visual, obviously!) and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, which started out really well but then became more about the flight of the first hot-air balloon than about the experiences of main character, Washington Black, which totally shut down my interest.  So I picked up The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, which I will eventually have to read because it is our next book club choice, and I’m enjoying it as much this time as I did during my last reading.  I’m glad I started early, too, as I’ve been so busy this weekend I’ve barely made any headway on this 400+ page novel. A proper post about this book next week, and highlights from our book club meeting, too,
That’s all for this afternoon.  Stay cool and read in the shade!
Bye for now…

Sunday 9 September 2018

Tea and book club highlights on a chilly Sunday morning...

It’s absolutely fall-like this morning, a welcome change from the oppressive humidity we experienced this time last week.  I love this sense of autumn in the air, and feeling invigorated by the weather. And I love being able to drink my cup of tea while it’s still hot, instead of waiting until it has cooled down to nearly room temperature before taking a sip, for fear of overheating!  I’m also enjoying a delicious Date Bar as I think about the book club discussion from yesterday.
My Volunteer book group got together to discuss John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, our Young Adult choice for the year, and yet another book set in WWII.  For those who are not familiar with this 2006 book, which was adapted into a film in 2008, here’s a quick summary.  Set in 1942, this novel is told from the point of view of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi Commandant who, at the beginning of the novel, is promoted by Hitler to run the concentration camp at Auschwitz.  Maria, their maid and housekeeper, is packing Bruno’s clothes and belongings for their move from Berlin, which does not make him very happy. He is less than pleased when they arrive at their new house, located in a desolate area with no other houses nearby and no other children to play with except his twelve-year-old sister Gretel, but that won’t happen because she is “a Hopeless Case”.  Being a natural explorer at heart, Bruno discovers a window in his room out of which he is barely tall enough to see. From this window he spies, in the far distance, a fence, and beyond the fence, a whole town of people, men and children, all milling around their small huts, and all wearing matching striped pajamas.  He has been forbidden from going near the fence, and he knows in his heart that he shouldn’t disobey this rule, but he can’t help himself and does just that. To his delight, he meets another boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the fence, and they form a strong bond, despite the fact that they can’t actually play together, they can only sit on the ground on either side of the fence and talk. We learn about the events at Bruno’s house and the camp over the next year through Bruno’s rather naive eyes, and are drawn into this world of seeing-and-not-seeing, witnessing-and-not-understanding, offering a different perspective on the WWII experience than we got in The Nightingale, the vague, innocent perspective of a boy who, nonetheless, knows that something is very not-right about it all.  Bruno's friendship with Shmuel leads to unexpected consequences and an ending that is sure to resonate with even the most stoic of readers.  I was surprised to learn that none of the four book club members who came out to the meeting had read this book or seen the film before.  One member didn’t think she was going to enjoy it, thinking, “Oh no, another WWII book!”. But everyone loved, loved, loved this novel.  One member said it was “brilliant”, another said it was “deceptively innocent”, and another said the vagueness perfectly reflected the level of understanding a young boy of nine would have of the world of war at that time.  We all agreed that Bruno was an engaging and lovable narrator, one with whom we easily formed a sense of closeness. The author did not actually name Auschwitz or Hitler, referring to them instead as “Out-With” and “The Fury”, but of course, we know what he really means.  Boyne calls this book “a fable” on the title page, and we talked about what this might mean for the reader's understanding of the book. I thought it was more like a fairytale, with Bruno being the hero of a land far, far away who is tasked with saving the day.  None of us anticipated the ending, although we all sensed that there was probably no bright light at the end of this tunnel. We discussed our reaction to the ending , and what other alternative endings Boyne could have chosen. It was a great discussion, and a good book choice, and I would highly recommend it to anyone from ages 12-92.
And I finished reading The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner this morning, my second Man Booker nominee.  This novel is set in Stanville Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in California, and is told mostly from the point of view of Romy Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole.  She is twenty-nine years old and has a twelve-year-old son, Jackson, who lives with her mother. She hasn’t seen Jackson since he was seven, but thoughts of him are nearly the only thing that keep her going.  The novel is told in random flashbacks to her earlier life, from her years growing up, as well as her time working as a stripper and lap-dancer at The Mars Room. We are also privy to the thoughts of other characters: Gordon Hauser, the instructor who comes into the prison to teach Adult Education classes, and Kurt Kennedy, one of Romy’s customers, among others.  I didn’t love this book, although it gave me so much information about what it would be like to be in prison (hopefully I’ll never have to learn that first-hand!). I felt that there was really no “story”, that there didn't really seem to be a point or reason for these snippets, and that these stories, offered from both the present and the past, were too random and seemed relatively unconnected. Kushner certainly has talent as a writer, but I never felt connected to any of the characters, their situations or circumstances, and I wasn’t familiar with the many, many places in San Francisco to which she referred regularly, describing beaches and bars and neighbourhoods, etc. - San Francisco was practically a character in the book, but again, not one to which I could relate.  I guess it was engaging and well-written enough that I stuck with it, and I really had high hopes that my reading efforts would be rewarded, but I have to admit that when I reached the ending this morning, it was with a sense of disappointment. It was, however, both quite different from (especially the setting and the main character’s circumstances) and very similar to (like the flashbacks to find reasons for the main character’s current circumstances) books I’ve read in the past, so I guess I clung to the similarities and tried to look past the differences. Some of the techniques she used in the novel, like not really naming the main character, and not revealing her crime until the end, didn't really work for me, and actually made it seem like she was trying too hard to make this book interesting. I would neither recommend nor not recommend this book - I’m totally on the fence about it.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend and keep reading!

Bye for now…