Tuesday, 11 December 2018

White Rabbit

Finished December 3
White Rabbit by Kate Phillips

This is a story of Ruth, a woman in her old age. She has been married to her second husband for many years, but still looks back with longing at her first marriage. She was widowed young, and subsequently fell in love with a man who didn't live up to her ideals, and thus came to marry her current husband.
We are placed in Ruth's life over a day, and see all her regular habits from her sleeping arrangements, to her determinedly planned outings, to her predetermined meals. We see her relationship with her granddaughter Karen, her husband Henry, her cleaner Luzma and her young son Luis, neighbours, acquaintances, and random strangers she meets.
The book often ventures into the past, looking at Ruth's younger life, her mother Elizabeth, her first husband Hale, and her early friendships.
This is a book of relationships, of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and about growing old. A very interesting read.
The white rabbit of the title is a family game Ruth plays, with everyone she knows trying to say the phrase before Ruth does. It also comes up again in other ways as the book progresses.

Like Death

Finished December 1
Like Death by Guy de Maupassant, translated by Richard Howard

This book takes us to Paris in the late 1800s. Olivier Bertin is a well-known, and well-liked painter, a man in middle age, never married. Years ago, at a party he saw a young woman of society, the Countess de Guilleroy, Anne, and expressed an interest in painting her. He was already well-known for his portraits, and, hearing of his interest, she approached him.
The two became lovers, a secret known only to them. Olivier constantly wishes that they were able to marry. They have been in a relationship for years, and Olivier often attends gatherings at the Countess' home. When they first met, the Countess had a young daughter, Annette, and for recentl years Annette has been in the country at her grandmother's, spending time with the ailing woman. Now she is ready to debut in society, and returns to Paris, and Olivier is struck by how much she looks like her mother. Her parents have already planned a match for her, and she proves herself to be quite charming in her society appearances.
But Olivier can't take his eyes off her, finding his love for her mother renewed by her youthful beauty, and Anne begins to realize that he is falling in love with her daughter, despite his love for her.
This is a story of love, of the world of salons, opera, and public walks through the parks. It is a story told with an understanding of the innermost feelings of the characters.
Maupassant is, as always, a master.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The Confidant

Finished November 30
The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson
This novel takes place in France in 1975. Camille is a middle-aged French woman, working in publishing, who has recently lost her mother in an accident. As she goes through the condolence letters, she finds a long letter from someone who hasn't signed their name. The letter seems to be telling a story, and Camille works her way through various thoughts surrounding the letter, and the ones that follow, continuing the story.
At first, she thinks it must be a mistake. Then she thinks that the letters are by one of her authors, trying a new way to get her attention. Then she begins to both hope and fear that the letters are about her own story, one she never knew.
The stories appear to be by a man called Louis, who was a teenager when the war began, and he was separated from a girl from his village that he'd fallen in love with. The young girl, Annie, was an amateur artist, and when a young couple moves into the grand estate near the village, she is drawn into a friendship with the woman, and gradually into a plot to assist them in having a child. As Annie is separated from her friends and family, the impressionable young girl dreams of freedom, of escaping her situation, and of a life beyond her current state.
When Annie and Louis are reunited again in 1942, Annie confides in him, and looks for assistance but the story is one with many tragedies, and as Camille sorts her way through the story to find the truth, she discovers how these events are reflected in her own life.
This is a story of longing, of loss, of revenge, and of a past that returns.

Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life

Finished November 29
Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life by Beverley Brenna, illustrated by Tara Anderson

This children's novel is told from two points of view. One is that of nine-year-old Jeannie. Jeannie's dad has recently moved out as her parents separated, and Jeannie has a lot of emotions around this: frustration, anger, guilt, sadness. She has wanted a hamster for quite a while and her parents finally agreed to let her get one. She's saved money for it, and for the supplies she'll need for keeping a hamster and looking after one.
The other point of view is that of Sapphire, the hamster that Jeannie gets. Sapphire isn't the name that Jeannie originally picks for it, but one that it is more thoughtful later decision. We see Sapphire's experience in the pet store before she gets chosen, as well as on the trip home, at Jeannie's place, and on various adventures. Sapphire is a bit of a philosopher, and has a goal of freedom, but gradually changes what she defines that as.
We watch how Jeannie struggles with her own feelings, sometimes erupting in frustration, anger, or sadness. And we watch how spending time with Sapphire calms her, and others in her household.
The idea of freedom extends beyond Sapphire into others in the story, who are struggling with the freedom to be who they really are, despite how others may react to them. It's about being able to have that freedom to be comfortable in your own skin, to be happy with your life, and to see that life in a positive way. This extends not only to Jeannie's parents, but also to her neighbour, and gradually friend Anna Conda. Jeannie accepts Anna for who she is, and defends her as well, looking for ways to help others find acceptance too.
This book exposes children to a variety of family types, and opens the door to discussion in a positive way of these differences.
A great addition to any library.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Finished November 28
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda, read by the author

This book was eye-opening. Working with the public, and being a manager, communication is something I'm very interested in, so learning how to be better at it was a big draw for me. I also loved both of Alda's previous books that I've read, so was glad to find this one enjoyable as well.
I learned a lot about communication, and about the author.
For instance, I didn't know about the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science before.
Alda takes us through his own journey in learning about communication, and about things he learned while working with science professionals in improving the communication skills of scientists. He gives his take on direct experiences of personal interactions, of workshops with adults and children, and of research that he's either been involved in, or that he's learned about and talked to the researchers about.
One key takeaway was the benefit of teaching improv in terms of improving communication. This isn't about comedy, but about paying attention to the person in front of you, to their facial expression, to their body language, to their gaze, and learning how to respond to those things in ways that improve not only your own communication, but also that of the person you're interacting with. It makes so much sense, but I'd never connected it before. He speaks about a variety of improv games that were used in communication workshops with people of all ages, and the effects that these had on the people involved.
He touches on the power of storytelling, the barriers of jargon, the role of empathy, and ways to get "in sync" with another person.
He also talks about his own personal experiments in changing his behaviour to see what would happen, and how he learned more about himself, as well as generating ideas for further research in this field. He includes his own mistakes and missteps, and what he learned from them.
This is an amazing read, and I highly recommend it to everyone. After all, we all communicate.

Let's Take the Long Way Home

Finished November 25
Let's Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

This memoir is about the friendship between Gail and fellow writer Caroline Knapp. The two women shared many things: a love of writing and books, struggles with alcohol, difficult relationships with men, and the love they had for their dogs.
They bonded quickly, and Carolyn taught Gail how to row in exchange for swimming lessons. In this way, they shared sports as well. They took long walks with their dogs, talking about many things, they encouraged each other professionally. They sometimes took vacations together, and were completely comfortable in each other's presence. They found a friendship that was close and special. And then Carolyn was diagnosed with cancer, And their relationship only grew deeper.
As Gail struggled with the decline of her friend, the loss, and the life beyond, she grew as a person and found a way forward.
This is a story of friendship, intimacy, and growth, that is inspiring.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

His Whole Life

Finished November 18
His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

I read this for my book club, and enjoyed it more than most of the club members. It was a bit of a slower read than others of her books that I've enjoyed.
The book centers around a boy, Jim over a period of several years. It begins when he is ten years old. Jim's mother Nan is Canadian, and takes him to Canada for part of every summer to the house on a lake where his uncle and aunt and their dog Duke live. Jim asks a question on this trip, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" and that question comes up several times throughout the book, as does the idea of forgiveness.
Jim's father George is a man given to resentment. He doesn't seem to enjoy being at the lake, which is something that feels good to Nan and Jim. By the following spring, even Jim can see that his parent's marriage is in trouble, and he and his mother spend extended time at the lake, and his mother is reunited with her childhood best friend Lulu. Lulu has her own issues, with family and with alcohol, and yet she and Jim grow to be friends as well. As we follow Jim over the next few years, we see more closely the relationship between his parents, between his mother and Lulu, and between his older half-brother Blake, from his mother's first marriage and the rest of his family.
Jim, as effectively an only child, despite having older half-siblings on both sides, lives in the adult world more than most kids, and we eventually find out the action that led to that question in the car trip at the beginning of the book. He has become a boy with few friends, a boy who is comfortable in surroundings that his classmates are not. He lives a bit apart from others.
There are lots of themes here: motherhood, forgiveness, our relationship to nature, and I found myself stopping more often to think about what I was reading.