Thursday 27 October 2011

Under an Afghan Sky

Finished October 27
Under an Afghan Sky: a memoir of captivity by Mellissa Fung
Before her kidnapping and captivity in Afghanistan, Mellissa Fung had an active life, with her career in journalism advancing nicely. She was in a relatively new relationship and looking forward to upcoming changes in both her work and personal life.
Her kidnapping memoir shows this and how knowing her support system of family and friends was out there got her through her ordeal. She tries to create relationships with her kidnappers, asking about them and their families and their life goals. She writes letters to friends and family in her notebook, hoping that someday she will be able to give them in person. She prays and finds her rosary a comfort.
Her portrayal of the young men who kidnap her and the world she finds herself in is written in the present tense and comes across as raw and real. I know from media coverage that she found writing this book difficult, but something she needed to do. It gives us a window into her experience and into life in this difficult country. Well worth the read.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

IFOA, the GGs, and IFOA Ontario

I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday, mixing with other hosts of IFOA Ontario, meeting people from the publishing industry, Canada Council for the Arts, authors, and other fans of reading.

I got my picture taken with Margaret Atwood (well, the cardboard cutout anyway ;-}).

I can't believe it is 75 years for the GG. Listening to the readings of the five finalists for English fiction made me want to curl up with a book. Even though two of the finalists couldn't be there themselves, their proxies did a wonderful job of it. And of course Shelagh Rogers was a wonderful host. She even had an embarrassing story to tell about herself and her first book interview, with Timothy Findlay. I've only managed to read one so far (The Free World) but have the others on my To Be Read list, especially after the teasers I got last night.

I'm so looking forward to IFOA Ontario coming to Barrie next Tuesday evening (November 1st). It is our chance to celebrate writers with Canadian writer Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art, a fast-paced true-crime story about the world of international art theft; UK writer Stephen Kelman whose debut novel Pigeon English was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; and US writier Meg Wolitzer who has a recent adult book Uncoupling inspired by Greek drama and a kid's book out The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman set at a national youth Scrabble Tournament. I'll be bringing some books to get autographed for sure.
Tickets are available at the Barrie Public Library and at Page & Turners.


Finished October 24
Requiem by Frances Itani
Itani is an amazing writer and her books never fail to capture me. Her writing just flows so naturally. This novel is about Bin, a painter, who has recently lost his wife to a stroke. The sudden death has hit both Bin and his son Greg very hard. Bin and his family were among the many Japanese to be forcibly moved from Canada's west coast after Pearl Harbour, and they spent the war years at an internment camp in the Fraser River valley. As Bin struggles with grief, he decides to drive from his home in Ottawa across Canada to the camp, accompanied by his dog Basil. The war years and what happened during them and as a result of them are something Bin has never really faced and dealt with, despite his wife's encouragement to do so.
The river that the camp lay beside was the first river to capture Bin's artistry, and rivers have become a major theme in his art ever since. Bin's memories move back and forth to happier days to with his wife and his childhood during and following the internment as he wanders back west. Music is another theme here, one that he can date to his life before Pearl Harbor, and that was intensified with his relationship with Okuma-san, and later a shared love with his wife. The music of Beethoven, his first love, carries him back across the country, both consoling him and reminding him as he goes.
This is a novel of feeling, a novel of grief, a novel of consolation. A joy to read.

Hoarfrost and Cherry Blossoms

Finished October 23
Hoarfrost and Cherry Blossoms by Susan Bainbridge
This novel is set in a small community in northern Canada called Everet in the 1970s. It revolves around a circle of friends who live in the community. The main characters are Brian, who works at the local fuel depot, and his girlfriend Mary, a school teacher. We also see other people in the community, the majority of whom have come from the south and don't stay in the Arctic their whole lives. These include the local RCMP officer, Jackson Pedley; the local priest, Father O'Reilly; the owners of the local hotel and restaurant, Bob and Sandra; and Brian's boss Jim.
The book is a collection of experiences taken over the course of about a year. They range from finding a local man frozen to death while on a cross-country ski expedition, to pranks at the expense of the nearest neighboring town, to harrowing airplane rides. At first the book seems light-hearted capturing the moments that highlight the lives of these people, but before the end we start seeing the underlying depression one of the characters fights against, and how even those close to them don't recognize it for the torment that it is.
This is a story of friends, people who care about others, and a close community that rallies together.

The Accident

Finished October 20
The Accident by Linwood Barclay, performed by Peter Kerkrot
As usual, Linwood Barclay delivers a fast-moving thriller. Themes in this book are around the economic downtown and people caught between rising costs and either stagnant or decreasing incomes. There are many accidents in this book, and many aren't accidents at all. The first accident is one whose aftermath is witnessed by two women tourists making their way to the garment district in NYC looking for deals. They are also among the first victims as they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time (another theme).
We are then taken by to our main  character Glen Garber, a building contractor whose wife, Sheila, is taking a business course at night to be able to offer assistance to him at work. The couple have an 8-year-old daughter, Kelly. When Sheila dies in an accident that doesn't fit with her character for Glen, he can't let go of it. Barclay's characters are ordinary people like you and me, and that is what adds to the intensity of his books. People, even ordinary good people, aren't always what they seem, and you don't always know them as well as you think you do.
There are many twists and turns, when you think you have things figured out and then new information shows you don't. A great, intense, page-turner that also makes a commentary on the current situation many people find themselves in.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Four Strong Winds

Finished October 16
Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia by John Einarson with Ian Tyson & Sylvia Tyson
This is the first authorized history of the singing and songwriting duo and Einarson has accomplished it well. He is careful to give both sides their opportunities to give their take on different moments in history and has interviewed a number of others whose lives touched theirs to show circumstance and how their careers were seen by others. This book concentrates on the musical history of the pair, particularly of the duo together and how their subsequent musical careers touched each others. It does not go deeply into their personal lives, but does include mention of other relationships during their time together.
It is a nice juxtoposition to a previous memoir I read by Ian Tyson, The Long Trail, which gave his take on his life and where he ended up. This book relies on many interviews and other research and is much more factually based as opposed to the personal narrative of Tyson's memoir.

The Perfect Order of Things

Finished October 15
The Perfect Order of Things by David Gilmour
This novel takes a main character from a previous book and has him narrate his own life. Revisiting significant places from his past, he reminisces about the events that made those places special to him. He talks about his family, showing us the relationship with his parents and older brother. He talks about his school friends and the escapades they were involved in. He talks about his first love and how that relationship ended. We see his subsequent relationships, including his marriages and how he continued relationships with both his ex-wives. He talks about his children and the special moments he remembers with them. He is a man obsessed with both Tolstoy and the Beatles, and hooked on the illusion of fame.
His is not an extraordinary life, and he looks back at events both happy and sad. It reads like a real memoir, and because the character is a writer, it keeps feeling like Gilmour is pulling experiences from his own life.
I had to laugh at one line in particular:
     I was fourteen years old, and I was bewitched by a girl from, in my mother's dreadful parlance, "the
     wrong side of the tracks." Her name was Shauna. ("Only girls who have sex in automobiles are called
     Shauna," my mother said.)
Something else to live up to?
A good read.

Saturday 15 October 2011

The Free World

Finished October 15
The Free World by David Bezmozgis
Set in 1978 in and around Rome, this book looks at one family of Russian Jews on their way to a new life. The family is comprised of three generations: Samuil and Emma, their sons Karl and Alec, Karl's wife Rosa and their two sons, and Alec's wife Polina. Samuil is not a practicing Jew, he served in the Red Army and was a card-carrying Communist who had a car and driver. Their life in Rome is one of limbo, waiting for immigration papers for their chosen country and adjusting to life in the West. We see love, responsibility, opportunity, and friendship. Alec is a playboy, always with an eye for a pretty woman. Polina, aware of his weakness has still given up her life to follow him, leaving her family behind. There is a whole community of Soviet Jews, all waiting for life in a new country: Australia, Canada, the United States and, of course, Israel. We see the how this search affects the various family members, and how priorities change as they wait. This is a snapshot of a point in history, done with a close-up of one family caught up in it. Those with good health and sponsoring family members in their destination country move through more quickly, others wonder if they are making the right choices.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

One Amazing Thing

Finished October 12
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, narrated by Purva Bedi, Soneela Nankani and Neil Shah
The situation here is nine people who get trapped in the basement of an Indian consulate in an anonymous American city after an earthquake. They try various means of escape to no avail, and prepare what they have to last until they are (hopefully) rescued. One of them is a college student who has a copy of the Canterbury Tales in her backpack, and she suggests they do something similar to distract themselves from their situation. They each tell a story of something that made a difference in their lives, finding connections through empathy and personal experience.
The characters come from a wide range of backgrounds, and all have beliefs that they bring that influence their actions and come from their stories. A wonderful read, especially with the different voices in the audio format.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Mind Over Mussels

Finished October 10
Mind over Mussels by Hilary MacLeod
This was an enjoyable light mystery set in PEI. This one includes a storm that cuts off part of the island, a few messy relationships, and the power of the mind.
While I enjoyed the village feel and the range of characters, I was sometimes distracted by poor editing and a disjointed plot. Things seemed to jump around a lot and characters talked in riddles.
I found the outcome unsatisfying overall and there seemed to be ongoing storylines where I didn't have enough information. I liked the quirkiness of the characters and the inventiveness of the plot.

Sunday 9 October 2011

This Book Will Not Save Your Life

Finished October 7
This Book Will Not Save Your Life by Michelle Berry
Not only is the title true, but it won't make your life happier either. This is a sad book about a dysfunctional family, the Swamps. The story is told in sections with different points of view, each telling some of the family history and taking the story a little further along.
It begins with Sylvia Swamp, the youngest daughter at 28, being transported by ambulance from the hospital to a veterinary hospital for a scan. At more than 700 pounds, she doesn't fit into the hospital's equipment. She begins to reflect on her life and what brought her to her current state.
We next hear from Sylvia's mother Ruth. Ruth is narcissistic, and becomes addicted late in her first pregnancy to the book Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care. She refers to it for every question she has in her life, struggling to fit its contents to her situation. At the same point she discovers the book, she also discovers a magician who works out of a local hotel. He becomes to her all that her husband isn't and she puts a lot of energy into that relationship at the expense of her family.
The next speaker is Sylvia's older sister Sadie, named by her father after his favourite dog. Sadie both wants to be like Ruth and doesn't want to be like Ruth. She loves her sister Sylvia and hates her. Sadie struggles with her life throughout, having a difficult adolescence.
Finally we have Benjamin, Sylvia's father, a man who seems almost an afterthought, a piece of furniture. He seems a man that things happen to, rather than a man who makes things happen. However, we learn that he does make things happen sometimes and they often have a lasting effect on him and others.
This is a book where things are not always as they seem, where life isn't fair, and where books won't save your life, not even if they are Dr. Spock's.

A Trick of the Light

Finished October 6
A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny, read by Ralph Cosham
Absolutely wonderful. I thought her last one, Bury the Dead, was her best one, but this one comes darn close. As this series progresses, her characters become more complex. Part of that is because you get to know more and more about them, but she also looks at the motivations, reactions and interactions in interesting ways.
Here, Clara is finally having the evening every artist dreams of, a celebration of her work. When the body of a woman from her past is found in her garden the morning after, many questions arise. Who invited or brought her? How did she find Three Pines? What was she doing there? are just some of them.
In addition, Clara takes a harder look at the people around her. She has always been a people pleaser, a smoother of the waters, but at what cost? And what does she need to change to be truly happy?
Gamache and Beauvoir are still recovering from the horrible experiences they had earlier, and the progress is slow.
The theme here is dark and light, shadow and sun, and whether the things that come forward are the truth or, as the title says, a trick of the light.
I laughed, I cried, and I hated to see the book end. A great read.

Monday 3 October 2011

The Find

Finished October 2
The Find by Kathy Page
One of the main characters, Anna Silowski, is a middle-aged paleontologist working as a curator in a museum. Taking a day with some colleagues for an impromptu prospecting trip, Anna discovers a partially exposed fossilized skeleton. An incident later in the day with one of her colleagues creates a division between them and leads to an ongoing struggle between the two regarding the dig project. Anna's choices in life have largely been influenced by her fear of what life has in store for her, specifically the fear that she might have a hereditary disease. It has influenced her personal relationships and is a secret she has kept from everyone except her immediate family. She worries that her actions are symptoms of the disease and wants to confide in someone to help her watch for trouble.
Scott Macleod is a young man who has struggled with his identity as the son of a native woman and white man. He also struggles with his relationship with his father, an alcoholic, where he acts as a caretaker of his father's life, putting his own life on hold.
When the two come together, Anna latches on to Scott to be her watcher, and asks him to assist the dig. He is the only one there without a background in paleontology and that fact creates rumours. The dysfunctional relationship between the two leaders of the dig and their behaviour adds to the tension. When the local natives launch a claim, Scott finds himself taking on another role, one that he never imagined.
The issues around identity, and how others see is comes up several times here. This is an interesting story with the relationships taking precedence to the plot.

The Dovekeepers

Finished October 2
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
This is a dense book with lots of plot, character, and insight. Inspired by the true events when Roman soldiers laid siege to the fortress of Masada in 70 C.E., Hoffman has told the story of four women who worked as dovekeepers at the fortress. Each woman takes her turn in telling her story, and each story also picks up where the previous one left off in the story of life a Masada and the women's relationships with each other.
First we have Yael. Yael's mother died in childbirth and her father has resented her all her life. She has grown to be self-reliant, and her journey across the desert from Jerusalem to Masada has taught her many things and given her both a burden and a gift. Her life at Masada is also a journey, where she acquires more knowledge and skills.
Second, we have Revka, the oldest of the women. Revka fled her small village with her daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons after her husband, a baker, was killed by the Romans. Her life changed again in her journey across the desert, with the death of her daughter turning her son-in-law into a different man and silencing her grandsons. Her life at Masada begins with silence, but she gradually becomes close to the other dovekeepers and their children, and finds a new life.
Third we have Aziza, daughter of a warrior, lover of a warrior, and secretly a warrior in her own right. Aziza has be born three times and has had two names. She is a child of metal, and is unflinching when facing danger. She knows her own limitations and isn't afraid to be true to herself, even if it means defying those who love her. Aziza must rediscover her true self in Masada and play the role she is destined to play.
Fourth, we have Shirah, born in Alexandria to a woman dedicated to the priests and with a secret that determines her life and the life of those she loves. She has been far in her life, travelling to Moab and then to Masada. She is a woman of water, and of power and uses her powers judiciously. She loves her children and tries to defy their destinies even as she fears she cannot.
This book tells not only the history of Masada, a fortress where only two women and five children survived the siege, but also of women's roles, their relationship with other women and with men, and the struggles and courage all the players in this historical event underwent.
This book took longer than I thought it would to read, because there was so much to it, a depth of meaning that wouldn't be rushed. Wonderfully written, with complex characters and a great story, it is a book that will stay with me.