Sunday 29 November 2020

Children's books on a brilliant morning...

I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread to keep me company on this brilliantly sunny, mild morning.  I plan to take full advantage of the gorgeous day before the rain and snow hit us in the next few days.  But first, I have two children’s books to tell you about.

I decided to read as many of the short juvenile chapter books from my shelf upstairs as I could this past week, and was disappointed to have only finished two, but they were both wonderful books.  The first was Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.  This book was published in 1975, and I was a child at that time, so how was it that I’d never heard of it until I started working in my current job?  This novel focuses on the Tuck family, mother, father and two sons, who inadvertently disrupt the life of ten-year-old Winnie Foster, whose family own the woods in the near distance from the Tuck home.  They come across her one morning as she sits alone in the woods contemplating running away, and because she witnesses their conversation, they kidnap her in order to explain their situation.  What they reveal is that they’ve discovered a spring in these woods whose water, if drunk, stops you from aging beyond that moment.  But immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be, and the Tuck family want to warn Winnie not to tell anyone about this spring and also not to drink from it.  What ensues is a kidnapping, a swindle and a murder that is as gripping as I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book.  This story holds more meaning and lessons than is conceivable for such a short novel, and I would highly recommend it to just about anyone.

I also read The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  This novel, published in 1977, is also one I don’t recall ever hearing about until recently.  This makes me wonder what I was reading when I was young… I was reading all the time, but these two books (and who knows how many others!) seemed to have escaped my notice.  Anyway, this book is about the bonds of friendship and the ways we deal with loss.  Jesse Aarons wants to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade.  Over the summer, he practices every morning before doing his chores on the family farm.  His two older sisters seem to have their mother wrapped around their little fingers, and his younger sisters don’t have to do anything around the house since they are so young, so the bulk of the chores, and their mother’s wrath, fall on Jess’s shoulders.  He is a shy, artistic boy who must hide his talents from his parents and his fellow classmates for fear of being shamed or ridiculed.  When the Burke family move into the ramshackled home down the road from Jess, he dismisses them outright, as no one ever stays long in that house.  But then he meets Leslie Burke, who is in his class and ends up being the fastest runner in their grade.  Jess’s whole being resists Leslie’s overtures of friendship, but he eventually breaks down and they form an unlikely twosome, a bond that is sometimes the only thing that keeps Jess going.  They create the magical kingdom of Terabithia in the forest behind their farms, and of course they are the king and queen of the kingdom.  Time passes and their friendship deepens.  One day, when Jess is distracted by an offer that feeds his own needs, tragedy strikes and he is plunged into grief and also feelings of guilt.  He eventually overcomes the deepest pangs of his grief and begins to use his newfound strengths to become a better, kinder, even braver person.  This novel had me in tears by the end, and, like Tuck Everlasting, I would highly recommend this slightly longer children’s novel to anyone who enjoys a coming-of-age story that rings true.

That’s all for today.  Time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine.

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 November 2020

Books and tea on a snowy morning...

How is it that we seem to have so much precipitation on Sundays?  Today we are expected to have snow all day long, but I will try to get out for a walk this afternoon regardless, a bit like the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  

I read a rather disappointing novel last week, To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan.  This thriller centres on bestselling crime writer Lucy Harper, a woman who seems to have it all, a successful writing career, a handsome, loving husband, and the completion of her latest book.  But all is not what it seems:  Lucy is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her younger brother Teddy when she was just nine year old and Teddy was four, a disappearance that was largely her fault.  Thankfully, she’s always had her imaginary friend Eliza with whom to share her deepest emotions and darkest fears, someone from whom she can solicit advice;  in fact, Lucy had become so dependent on Eliza’s presence throughout her years growing up that she even based her books, the “Eliza Grey” series, on her.  When Lucy starts seeing physical manifestations of Eliza, though, she knows things have gone too far, but her attempts to sever their relationship prove to be ineffective.  Her relationship with her husband, Dan, also seems to be faltering as he makes more and more changes to their lives that bring Lucy closer to her traumatic past.  When Dan also goes missing, Lucy is at the centre of the investigation, and she must try to discover what happened to him, and also to Teddy, before she loses her freedom… and possibly her sanity.  This is the latest novel by an author whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in the past, but reading it was like reading an early novel by a writer whose later works I’ve enjoyed and now I've decided to read his/her early novels.  It was so much less polished and skillful than Odd Child Out, What She Knew and The Perfect Girl, something you would expect from early works, not later novels.  Anyway, I kept at it until the end because I thought it might turn out to be really good, which is what happened recently with Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson, but alas, it was disappointing to the very last page.  I guess if this was a first foray into Macmillan’s books, I might have thought it was OK, but I don’t think I as a reader was wrong to have greater expectation from a seasoned writer like her.  Anyway, it wasn’t the worst thriller I’ve read recently, but it was certainly not the best.

OK, I’ve got to go, as I’ve had a number of distractions this morning, so this short post has taken several hours to complete.  Get outside and enjoy the snow!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 November 2020

Books and tea on a rainy autumn morning...

The stretch of mild sunny weather last week seems to be mostly at an end, and I have to say that I’m very happy about this.  I love crisp November days, seeing the stark bare branches of the trees silhouetted against the grey sky, and feeling the chill in the air that makes you want to take a long brisk walk, a gentle nudge towards the winter weather to come. But enough about my ideal fall weather...  I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about today as I sip my steaming cup of chai and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Extra Banana-y Banana Bread and a delicious Date Bar.

Last week I read The Good German by Canadian author Dennis Bock, which was both not what I expected and also exactly what I expected.  In November 1939, German anti-fascist Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials in Munich by planting a bomb at a beer hall where they were holding a Nazi rally.  The explosion did not kill Hitler, who left early that day, but it did kill a number of other Nazi officials and wounded many others.  He was imprisoned and finally sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945.  Imagine if that assassination attempt was successful.  We assume that this would stop the war, but Bock proposes another, much more sinister scenario.  What if, rather than stopping the Nazi movement, it only strengthened their efforts after Hermann Göring assumed the Chancellery?  In Bock’s novel, Göring signs a non-aggression treaty with American president Joseph Kennedy to keep the US out of the war.  What follows is a look at what this alternate history might look like if Elser's attempt had been successful.  From the summary on the book jacket and from reviews, I expected this to be more of a political novel, a bit of speculative fiction, as Margaret Atwood calls it.  I didn’t think this was what Bock usually writes, so I was intrigued to see how he would manage it.  What I got instead was a novel exploring the effects of war on those left behind, a coming-of-age story set in a small Canadian town under Soviet rule.  This is exactly what he usually writes about, so I was somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t writing outside his “comfort zone” but not overly so, as I just changed my expectation and got on with the reading.  It was an interesting novel, exactly as interesting and compelling for me as The Ash Garden, also by Bock.

I was going to write about the audiobook I finished listening to last week as well, but time seems to be moving very quickly this morning and I have lots of other things I still need to do, so I’ll just mention it briefly.  I listened to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which was very interesting, and the narrator, Cathleen McCarron, did a fabulous job of bringing the story and characters to life.  This story centres on Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old woman working as an accounting clerk in a small graphic design company in Glasgow.  She is lonely, socially awkward, and clearly has endured some major traumatic events in her past.  When she inadvertently becomes involved in a situation with a colleague, she slowly finds the healing power of connection and friendship.  That’s all I’ll say about it, except that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about social misfits, loneliness, and the redemptive power of connection (think A Man Called Ove).  

That’s all for today.  Grab a good book and curl up for the afternoon.

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 November 2020

Post on an unusually warm November morning...

I know it’s nearly mid-November, but it’s felt like mid-September these past few days, and it will feel this way for a few more days yet.  Strange that last Monday I wore my winter coat and boots to work, and yesterday I wore sandals and no jacket.  It’s definitely unusual, but I may as well enjoy it while it’s happening.  It’s not too warm to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, though, and that’s what I’m doing right now as I write this post.  

My Volunteer book club met yesterday, first time back in the Community Centre since March, to discuss the classic Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, an eerie read for this spooky time of year… or is it?  Most people are familiar with the basic premise of this story. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen one of the movie or Netflix adaptations, but for anyone not familiar with it, here’s a quick summary:  An unnamed young woman is hired by a man in London to work as a governess in a large house in the remote English countryside, caring for and teaching his young niece and nephew.  While there, she begins to suspect that the children are at risk of becoming “corrupted” or possessed by two malevolent spirits, those of the former governess and the uncle's valet/manservent.  Unfortunately, no one else in the house sees these ghosts, but she is convinced that Flora and Miles are in imminent danger, and that it is her job to protect them at any cost.  The situation spirals out of control until the story reaches a tragic end.  This novella is supposed to be a classic study in evil, a ghost story to set the bar for all other ghost stories, but the first time I read it, I didn’t get that part.  I’ve seen the original 1961 film version, “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, and found it to be quite haunting, and so I’ve always thought that it was just me, that I was not intelligent enough to understand this novella.  I’m happy to say that it’s not just me!  My whole group found this to be a terrible slog - we all agreed with the comment one of the members made about it:  “So many words!”  Another woman said that she’s never read so many words and learned so little.  My long-held belief that the works of Henry James are just too difficult to read has now been confirmed.  The main point of our discussion was whether the ghosts really existed or whether they were all in the governess’s imagination.  Was this less a ghost story than a study in hysteria and psychological deterioration?  My text had many critical pieces in the second half of the book, and I found those to be at least as interesting as the work itself, shedding light on the dense prose as studied by those much more learned than I.  And several of the book club members also read the introductions or critical reviews and shared what they discovered.  We all thought that the ghosts were not real, and that the poor children being left at the hands of such an unstable and ultimately destructive woman was a crime.  We discussed the role of the absent uncle, who did not want to be bothered about the children at all.  We discussed social class and the way it affected the relationship between the governess and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.  We discussed the underlying tone of sexuality in the narrative, a narrative that was supposedly written directly by the governess and sent to her friend many years later.  Was the governess in love with the uncle, and also with the children to some extent, and suffering sexual repression?  We all thought it would be interesting to find out what happened after the story ends, “Another Turn of the Screw” perhaps?  We also discussed what the title might mean.  In the end, it was a great discussion, and everyone agreed that there was so much more to talk about than they originally expected.  I am now interested in going back and skimming to find sections where something actually happens and piecing the story together that way, much as you would a set of plastic dinosaur bones, all the better to review this plot and decide what I think about it without all the filler words that made it feel much like plodding through deep mud.  Thank goodness it was short! (but it felt so long!!) I’m hoping people like our next book selection a bit better.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild, sunny day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 November 2020

First post for November...

I've been busy this morning filling my extra hour with many little tasks in the kitchen, as well as giving my cats some well-earned extra attention.  But now they’ve gone off to have cat naps in their favourite spots and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, as well as a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, to warm me up on this chilly, rainy morning.  

I read a really interesting book this past week, Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson.  I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I’m so glad I did!  Malcolm Kershaw is a middle-aged widower who owns a used bookstore in Boston, and each day is much like the next, until one snowy afternoon when an FBI agent shows up at his door asking him about a blog post he wrote nearly two decades before, a post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”.  This post listed what then-mystery-fiction-reader Malcolm considered the eight best, cleverest, and most “unsolvable” murders in fiction, including Agatha Christie’s The A B C Murders, James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Now Agent Gwen Mulvaney thinks that someone has discovered this list and is re-enacting these murders, but in real life.  Malcolm is more than willing to help uncover any links to these possible crimes, but things become more complicated as further details about the backgrounds and histories of various characters are revealed.  I don’t want to give away anything more, as I don’t want to spoil it if you decide to read it, but suffice it to say that I will try never to assume anything about anyone ever again, especially used bookstore owners!  At first it seemed a simple, straightforward, darkly funny, yet “light” mystery, but the more I read, the darker and more complex the story became, this twisting, turning, metafiction page-turner that moved so fast I had to stop and catch my breath before reaching a relatively satisfying conclusion.  It began as a “Canadian Tire” book but quickly turned into a “Lee Valley” read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys dark, complex psychological thrillers.

That’s it for today.  Enjoy your extra hour, whatever you do, and remember to make time to read!

Bye for now…