Friday, 19 July 2019

Early post on another hot day...

It’s incredibly hot and humid already, and it’s only 9:30am!  The forecast indicates that we should expect the same into the weekend before it cools down early next week.  One of the benefits of this, however, is that I went out early this morning while it was still cool-ish to purchase a delicious Date Bar in preparation for this post, and it is even more delicious than usual.  This may be because I usually buy it on Saturday and eat it on Sunday morning, so this one is fresher and moister than ever - YUM!  
My schedule is all messed up, too, as I was away last week, home this week, and will be away again next week, so you’re getting two posts in a relatively short time, then there will be a lull before the next post.  Since I’m off for the summer and it’s been so hot this week, I’ve stayed in quite a bit and have had lots of time to read. I started a book with a stunningly beautiful cover, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland, but the serious themes and descriptive writing in tn this book deserve to be savoured on a cooler, more comfortable day when I have the time and can really focus and enjoy the language and the storytelling, so I put it away for another day.  I’m planning to have a yard sale later this summer, so I’ve been going through my bookshelves to see what I could add to my already-large selection of books to sell. I came across one that was a freebie from either the big book sale I go to (“fill a box for $10) or the big library conference I go to every winter.  I’m not a huge fan of the novels of award-winning, bestselling Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, but I have a copy of French Exit, which has a very appealing cover, so I thought I would give it a try.  I’ve tried reading Undermajordomo Minor in the past, but the storyline was too strange for my liking and I stopped without finishing.  I think deWitt favours a style that leans towards the absurd, no, it absolutely is absurd, dark comedies that do not really appeal to my taste as a reader.  This one is no exception, but it may be his most “normal” or “mainstream” so far.  This novel tells the story of Frances and Malcolm Price, mother and son who, since the death of father and husband Franklin, have managed to run through their substantial wealth while doing absolutely nothing of any value for society.  They also have an elderly cat, Small Frank, who lives with them in their apartment in New York, although neither of them likes the cat. As we find out later, Frances believes that the spirit of her dead husband lives on in Small Frank, and she both wishes to get rid of him and feels obligated to care for him in this incarnation as she did not do at the end of his corrupt, immoral life as a man.  When Frances realizes that they have nothing left, she sells everything and moves herself and Malcolm to an apartment in Paris owned by her good friend, Joan. There she executes a two-part plan, the details about which only she knows. The eclectic cast of characters we meet in this novel includes Malcolm’s fiancée, Susan, a level-headed young woman who, for some bizarre reason, is in love with Malcolm, a man who seems to have never moved beyond adolescence, despite being in his early thirties.  There is also Mme Reynard, a lonely woman who attaches herself to the pair in Paris; Madeleine, the fortuneteller they met on the ship; Julius, a shy private investigator whose services they employ; and many others. This “tragedy of manners” was easy to read, and I’m sure that it probably deserves a deeper consideration than my two days of reading afforded, but the story was too bizarre for me to reread it and ponder the significance of this or that occurrence.  It was OK, and now I can say that I’ve actually finished reading something by this Canadian author, but I can’t think of anyone I would recommend it to. This is not to say that I don’t recognize or appreciate deWitt’s skill and talent as a writer, just that I don’t enjoy the type of novels he writes. Still, if you are a fan of his work, you should enjoy this one as well, at least according to the reviews.
That’s all for today.  Since I’m staying inside due to the heat, I plan to go through the piles of books set aside for “discard consideration” from my own collections, then settle down for an afternoon of reading with my next, hopefully good, book.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Short post on a hot day...

It is a hot, hot, hot Tuesday morning and I’ve just been enjoying the last of the local strawberries for breakfast as I think about our book club meeting last night.  

We discussed Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. and everyone who was able to attend enjoyed it.  I’ve listened to this as an audiobook twice before, and here is what I said about it in August, 2015:

... I also listened to The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, narrated by Angela Brazil.  This powerful novel tells the story of two women, friends who are in their late thirties and contemplating their lives thusfar in relation to their children, their husbands, and their halted careers.  Kate, devoted mother of two, struggles with her choices as she considers her return to work as a pastry chef, feeling that it may be too soon. Her close friend, Elizabeth, died the previous summer in a plane crash, which occurred shortly before 9/11.  Kate was given responsibility for Elizabeth’s journals, much to Elizabeth’s husband’s dismay; Dave feels they should have been left with the family, but reluctantly passes them into the hands of Kate, locked in an antique trunk. Kate brings them with her as her family heads off for an extended summer holiday to their favourite beachside cottage in Maine, and she spends her summer reading the journals while tending to her family’s needs.  What she finds during her reading is that Elizabeth was a much more complex woman than she ever realized, leading her to contemplate how much we can ever really know about a person. Written with sensitivity and consideration, this novel explores the roles and expectations of mothers in today’s society, their struggles to balance motherhood and a career, and to maintain a personal identity without sacrificing the needs of their families. It looks at how we deal with loss, and poses the question of whether we can create our own destiny or whether we should just let fate take its own course.  It also makes readers consider whether it is ever justifiable to make decisions that are life-changing for you and your family by yourself, whether one person can take that responsibility solely on his or her shoulders. It was, again, not the type of book I normally read or listen to, being about motherhood and the struggles that women with children face when considering career versus family, but this book was excellent. It was sensitive and considerate, and the author, who was inspired to write it after losing a friend in the attacks of 9/11, did an outstanding job of exploring the randomness of life, the uncertainty we all face every day, and how the constant worry over the possibility of disaster can be paralyzing.  It was a heart-wrenching and heartfelt exploration of the life of one woman who spent her entire life trying to make up for one mistake, and the guilt she carried with her until her sudden death. The narration was excellent, really capturing the anxious tone of Kate and conveying her internal struggles and her constant hypersensitivity to things around her, both actual and potential. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels.

This time I actually read the book, and it was just as good as the audiobook, maybe even better, because I could stop and contemplate sections as I read them, and go back to review parts if I needed clarification or reminders.  As I was preparing for the meeting, I asked myself what I took from this book, and came up with these: value family and friends, anyone important to you; life is arbitrary and random; you can never really know someone; do what you love; and I wondered if we all have rich inner lives that we conceal from others.  I was reminded of a line from a book I listened to recently, something like: “It’s not too late to become the person you always wanted to be”. One member said that the way this book was written created a sense of urgency to read the journals, so much so that she skipped ahead and read all the journal entries first, going back to read the “fluff” that were Kate’s parts afterwards, which she then realized was not “fluff” at all.  We commented that life is more anxious for everyone after 9/11, so Kate’s reactions to the loss of a friend shortly before that attack was natural. We talked about grief and the grieving process, how everyone grieves in his or her own way, and we should never judge anyone. This book really hit home for me at this time for many reasons, and it was eerie how so much of what was written echoed my own life at this time. I was at my sister-in-law’s cottage last week, and while everyone else went out on the boat, I stayed on the dock and read.  I sat down in the chaise lounger and picked up my book to continue reading, starting at a point in the book where Kate sits in the chaise and picks up the journal to continue reading… art imitating life, or life imitating art? Eerie either way. We talked about the reasons each member of these two couples, Kate and Chris, Elizabeth and Dave, lied to each other, and whether keeping secrets was the same thing as lying. We discussed our own losses, and ways themes in this novel reflected our own experiences. One member said she would have liked to have Kate and Elizabeth as friends.  All in all, it was an excellent discussion, often touching on deeply personal themes, and I believe we all know each other a little better after last night’s meeting.

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 5 July 2019

Regular tea and a short post on a humid afternoon...

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m drinking plain old Tetley tea with no delicious date snack of any kind on this extra hot and sultry summer afternoon.  This is all out of my blogging comfort zone, but we just had a book club meeting this morning and I wanted to write this post while I had a chance, as tomorrow will be spent getting ready to leave for our trip out west early on Sunday morning.
We got together this morning to discuss The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, a teen book that I knew nothing about and probably would never have heard of if not for the film that came out in 2012, which I have never seen but am planning to watch tonight.  This is a coming-of-age story set in 1991 and is told from the point of view of Charlie, a fifteen-year-old high school student, in the form of letters to an anonymous friend. Charlie is socially awkward and, in his first year of high school, has no friends, since his friend Michael from middle school recently committed suicide.  He is befriended by two seniors, Sam and Patrick, half-brother and -sister who take him under their wings and guide him through the complex intricacies of fitting in, thereby alleviating his loneliness. Along the way, other students join their group and drift away, relationships form and fade, but nothing escapes Charlie’s notice as he absorbs all the activities and experiences going on around him.  We also gain insight into the relationships he has with his various family members, from immediate family to those that make up his extended family. Taking place over the course of a single year, this short novel follows Charlie from loneliness to social acceptance and personal insight to “aloneness” (is that a word?), which is not the same as loneliness. I think it is a modern-day Catcher in the Rye, except even better, in my opinion (I never really enjoyed the Salinger novel). Chbosky admits to being heavily influenced by Catcher in the Rye, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is evident in the novel.  I didn’t know what to expect from this, but I always try to include at least one Children’s or Young Adult novel on our list, usually during the summer for a bit of a lighter read, so I was thrilled to hear that almost everyone loved this book!  And the person who didn’t love it just didn’t really enjoy the style of the writing - she didn’t hate the book, she thought it was just ok. The voice of Charlie reminded me quite alot of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which we read for my book group many years ago and which everyone loved.  People thought Charlie was sweet and unusually perceptive for his age, that he had a personality that, while socially awkward, did not “put others off”.  We speculated about whether he was “on the spectrum”, but came to no definite conclusions. One member noted that there was lots of crying in this book, mostly by Charlie, but also by other characters.  Another member, who is a teacher at one of my schools, says she thought this captured the experiences of a year in the life of an awkward teenager perfectly. We thought that the epistolary style suited this novel, as it was capturing snapshots of his life, which is how we live. But he not only presented what happened, he also analyzed these experiences, what they meant for him and for others.  We thought the clues as to Charlie’s history were fed to us at the right pace, so we weren’t kept in total suspense and then given too much information all at once. We thought Charlie was “hopeful-sad” - we were optimistic for him, but realized that he would always be more sensitive to his own thoughts and feelings and those of others than most. I would highly recommend this for any individual or any book club with readers of any age, but the content is too mature for kids under age fifteen.  
That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 1 July 2019

Canada Day post...

On this holiday Monday, which is Canada Day, I am enjoying a delicious cup of chai tea, some yummy local strawberries, and some extra tasty freshly baked mini muffins brought over by our neighbour.  It’s a gorgeous summery morning, the first day of my summer break, and I'm listening to Tempo's "We the North" broadcast on CBC Radio Two… does life get any better than this?
I finished a great novel last week (not by a Canadian author, unfortunately), The Altruists by Andrew Ridker, which was so impressive I almost can’t believe this is his debut novel.  In this insightful, tragicomic exploration into what it means to have a meaningful life, Ridker demonstrates an awareness and wisdom far beyond his less-than-thirty years.  The Alter family have recently suffered the loss of mother and wife Francine to cancer. We the readers enter into their lives not quite two years after this loss, and find disillusioned adjunct engineering professor Arthur at a loss to make sense of his life and keep the large family home afloat with his diminishing paycheque from Danforth University in St. Louis.  He uprooted his family from Boston to make this move 15 years earlier, in pursuit of a lucrative professorship which continues to elude him. Francine gave up a well-established practice as a psychologist, but made this move work by seeing clients in their new home. Son Ethan and daughter Maggie fled to New York after their mother’s death, and are still grieving in their separate worlds and separate ways.  They received an inheritance from their mother, an investment that their father knew nothing about, and have been living off of that while they come to terms with their loss. Altruistic Maggie wants to renounce the money and give it away, and Ethan wants to find meaning and happiness, but this search leads him into near-total reclusivity. When their father, with whom they have not communicated since their mother’s death, reaches out to them, they decide to go home for the weekend, thinking it may lead to some sort of closure.  What they get instead is a bumbling attempt to woo them into bailing Arthur out of his predicament and save the house. Will they come to Arthur’s rescue, or will they walk away in disgust? What could have been a sappy or overly satirical look at a dysfunctional family at a time of crisis turned out to be a compassionate, heartfelt, often comical look at the way one family deals with loss and tries to get on with their lives. If The Nest was written by Philip Roth (I’ll admit I’ve never read anything by Roth, but it seems like the right comparison), this is the novel you’d get, and it is a great one.  I know I'm not doing this book justice, but suffice it to say that Ridker is definitely an author to watch.
That’s all for today.  Happy Canada Day, and enjoy the fabulous sunshine!
Bye for now…
Julie