Sunday 23 April 2023

Celebrating this weekend with books...

It’s April 23rd, which has long been considered William Shakespeare’s birthday.  It is also the anniversary of his death, and it’s World Book Day, too!  And what better way to celebrate than by writing a post about my favourite book?!

Last week I started reading a few books, but nothing caught my interest, so i decided that it was time to reread The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, my favourite book of all time.  Here’s what I said about it in my April 3, 2016 post:

“... as it was just before Easter, I picked up my favourite book to reread, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.  Every year at this time, I have the urge to reread this book, as it opens with the main character waking up on Good Friday.  A significant portion of the book happens over the Easter weekend, when exchanges occur that drive the rest of the book’s events.  I didn’t read it last year, but this year, because I have much more free reading time, I indulged and enjoyed it as much this time as I did on every other reading.  As I wrote in an earlier post (February 23 2014), Steinbeck infuses this novel with so much wisdom, so many insightful comments on the "human condition", that I could write an essay about something pertinent he addresses on just about every page.  This novel tells the story of the loss of innocence of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendant of a proud New England family whose family once owned half of New Baytown but whose father, through bad advice and bad choices, lost everything, with the result that Ethan is now a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned.  This store is now owned by Alfio Marullo, a man who came from Sicily decades earlier, but is still considered a “foreigner”.  When one unusual occurrence is followed by another and yet another in rapid succession, Ethan is compelled to change himself, to dare himself to become what he thinks others want him to be, regardless of his innately strong moral fiber and his belief in personal truth and accountability.  It is the picture of small-town life, and the exploration of the dynamics that work behind the facades of even the most benign-looking settings and groups.  Ethan speaks directly to the reader, and we are drawn into the journey, the exploration, the insidious corruption that steals up on him and sends him spiraling downward, so that there is no specific point at which we can say, “Here is where he went wrong, here is the point at which he betrayed himself and finally achieved the status he thought he wanted, but at what cost?”  It is difficult to describe this book, because not much actually happens.  It deals more with the deterioration of one man’s soul to fulfill the expectations others have of him.  It is a cautionary tale that reminds readers to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it, and that sometimes the treasure we seek is already all around us.  For juvenile fiction, we would call this a “coming-of-age” novel, where we would refer to the “loss of innocence” of the main character.  I don’t know if there are comparable terms that refer to adult literature, since loss of innocence is generally associated with youth, and surely Ethan has already come of age by the time this story begins.  It was like Catcher in the Rye for adults - the reader wants him to hold on to the golden ring and not become corrupted, just as Holden Caulfield wants Phoebe to retain her childhood innocence.  I can’t praise this book enough.  Clearly, I would give it a 10 out of 10.”

And yes, I still feel this way about the book, but since I’ve read it many times before and know the general storyline, I could really focus on the details.  This novel looks at what it means to be a “Good Man”, (by this I mean person), and asks readers to consider whether one can really be a “Good Man” in today’s society and still be happy and successful. Is success necessary to achieve happiness? And how does one measure success, anyway? It explores morality, ethics and truth, friendship and family, and the struggles of one man to be true to his inner conscience while dealing with the external pressures coming at him from all sides.  This time around, though, I think I questioned whether Ethan was truly a “Good Man”, or whether he was just lazy up until the story began, maybe waiting for the right opportunity or circumstances, for he seemed to be remarkably adept at coming up with a plan and executing it to his fullest advantage.  If you’ve never read this book, I would highly recommend that you pick up a copy and immerse yourself in Ethan’s life for a while.

I also celebrated this weekend by going to the big Canadian Federation of University Women’s (CFUW) used book sale on Friday, the first book sale since before covid.  It was awesome!  I managed to find a few books I’ve never heard of that sounded intriguing, a couple of new books by authors that I’ve read before, a couple books for future book club meetings, and a couple books that I’ve read before but will likely want to reread at some point.  I didn’t spend as much time at the sale this year as usual, since I had previous commitments that conflicted with this event, but I introduced a coworker and fellow book lover to the sale (she left with a box of books!!)  

That’s all I’ve got for today.  Happy Birthday Shakespeare!  Happy World Book Day!  And Happy Birthday, Julie’s Reading Corner!!  (first post on April 21,2011)  Oh, and Happy (belated) Earth Day!!

Bye for now... Julie

Monday 10 April 2023

Late post on a long weekend...

It’s 8pm on Easter Monday evening, and I’m hoping to wind down early tonight because I go back to work tomorrow and have to get up early, but I just finished a book that I want to tell you about.  Apologies:  this post will be brief.

I read three Silver Birch books last week, but I can’t write about any of them, despite the fact that they were all good, especially the third one (it’ll show up on my “Best of” list at the end of the year for sure!).  Then I read a short novel that has been translated from the Japanese called The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Matsukawa.  This delightful story tells of Rintaro Natsuki, a shy, introverted hikikomori teen who has just lost his grandfather, with whom he’s lived for more than a decade, and he is lamenting the move to his distant aunt’s place after shutting up his grandfather’s second-hand bookshop.  He’s stopped going to school and has totally withdrawn into himself, thinking he has no one who cares for him, when he receives an unlikely visitor in the shop, a talking cat named Tiger the Tabby.  The cat asks Rintaro for help to save books from the fates bestowed upon them by various people who claim to love books and reading, but whose actions do not support this claim, and it is up to Rintaro to use his wits and the wisdom his grandfather imparted or that which he gleaned from books he’s read over his lifetime to figure out how to do this.  There are a number of “labyrinths”, or problematic situations, to deal with, and as Rintaro faces each challenge, his confidence and sense of self-worth grows stronger.  But can he outwit the most cunning and difficult opponent of all?  You’ll have to read this book to find out.  It was truly delightful, a fantastical journey into the exploration of what it means to be a book lover, the fate of books and readers, and how to keep the love of reading alive for generations to come.  This could easily have been a teen novel, as the main character is in his late teens, but it works well as an adult book, too. In fact, it reminded this reader quite a lot of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  If you are a lover of books and are looking for something light, short, and inspiring to read, this might just be the book for you!  And the translator did a great job, too, as the text flowed seamlessly.

That’s all for tonight - sorry for the short post!!  

Bye for now…

Sunday 2 April 2023

Early-evening post...

It’s a gorgeous early evening after an equally gorgeous day, with blue skies and sun, sun, sun, a welcome relief after yesterday’s on-again/off-again rain showers.

I had a Volunteer Book Club meeting yesterday to discuss Canadian author Susan Juby’s novel, Mindful of Murder, a cozy mystery that takes place at a meditation retreat on a fictitious West Coast island.  This was supposed to be our book for December, but our April selection, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, was unavailable due to too many holds at the library.  I read and really enjoyed this book last year (it turns out almost exactly one year ago!), and thought it would be a great book club selection.  Here’s what I said about it in April of last year:

I had three adult books from the library to choose from, and I ended up selecting a novel with a really bright red cover that jumped out at me and  turned out to be exactly what I needed.  Mindful of Murder by Canadian author Susan Juby is set on a small gulf island off the coast of British Columbia, where Edna, the owner of a spiritual retreat, has died under what may be suspicious circumstances.  Her former employee, Helen, also a former Buddhist nun and a recent graduate of the American Butler Institute, is the executor of Edna’s will, and one of her duties is to execute Plan B, an elaborate process whereby she will decide who will take over running the institute from a selection of Edna’s grand-nieces and -nephews.  This Plan involves hosting these relatives for ten days and having them participate in concurrent courses to decide who is the best candidate.  Since Edna had been on a self-directed spiritual retreat for several months prior to her death, no staff were retained at the institute, so Helen calls on her friends from the butler academy to help her out, as well as a friend who is also an amazing chef.  She also takes on one of the locals to round out the staff, and calls on two of the regular teachers from the institute to teach the floral design and dance classes.  When the relatives arrive, they appear to be ill-suited for this type of work.  Tad Todd is a handsome, self-absorbed, selfish young man who just wants Edna’s money.  His brother Wills is a bit less grating, but he also doesn’t really want to take part in this retreat that has been thrust upon him, but grudgingly agrees because he also wants her money.  Whitney seems to be more in tune with the spirit of the institute, but she, too, has plenty of personal and family issues and is also in desperate need of financial support.  And finally there is Rayvn, the mystery cousin, who appears to be perfect for the role and doesn't seem to care about money at all, but she also seems a bit too flaky and admits quite freely that her favourite thing to do is sleep.  Helen has her work cut out for her, but takes this responsibility very seriously and manages to keep things running smoothly with the surreal calmness associated with Buddhist mindfulness, despite the many challenges she, the staff and the guests face along the way.  After a couple of unsettling occurrences, Helen decides she must also help with the investigation to find out if Edna’s death was truly by her own hand or at the hands of a murderer.  Between the cast of characters at the institute and those we meet on the island, this entertaining, cozy mystery was a positively delightful read.  It was a mystery, but it also offered insight into mindfulness and Buddhist beliefs and values.  It reminded me of the “Isabel Dalhousie” series by Alexander McCall Smith, in that Isabel and Helen are both amateur detectives and philosophers/Buddhist nuns.  These books are gentle yet thought-provoking, and the protagonists are women that I would be happy to have coffee with (that’s what my book group said about Isabel Dalhousie).  So if you are in the mood for a cozy mystery or an exploration into the basic beliefs of Buddhism (or even the basics of being a good butler!), then this might be the book for you.

I felt the same about it  this time around, and I also made a connection to the vegan cookbook I purchased over the Christmas holidays, written by a Buddhist chef from Quebec who manages the kitchen at a meditation retreat.  My book club members also enjoyed the book, although they thought that there was too much “busy-ness” going on and too many potential threads that were left hanging and incomplete.  I would agree with this, and I’m hoping that some of the things the main characters hinted at will be developed and explained in future “Helen Thorpe” books.  One member commented on how much she enjoyed the random bits of Buddhist beliefs that were dropped into the story, and another said she wanted to be more like Helen, mainly her calm demeanor both as a Buddhist nun and as a butler.  I had to leave the meeting early, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but I think it was a good choice.  I certainly enjoyed rereading it, and would definitely recommend it.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the last rays of the day's sunshine!

Bye for now…