Thursday 21 August 2014

Things Fall Apart

Finished August 20
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, read by Peter Francis James

This classic is one I have long meant to read, and so when I was looking for an audiobook last week, this caught my eye.
Originally published in 1958, this work portrays the life of an Igbo Nigerian village before contact with white men. We see the social structure, the annual cycle, the food grown, prepared and eaten, the religious ceremonies, and the way families interacted. The story centers around a warrior Okonkwo, a man who is self-made, working hard to overcome his lack of support from his father, supporting not only himself and the family he built, but also his parents and his sisters. He wants sons that will carry on in the same way that he has, but finds that his child that he connects the most strongly with is one of his daughters. We see the effect on the family when children don't thrive, and the superstitions that this tribe has around twins, around what their gods expect of them, and around the crop cycle that their lives are built around.
When an accidental death occurs, we see how the one who killed his clansman is punished, and how he makes amends for this sad event. There are rules that these people live by, a system of responsibility, and of community that guides their lives and a system of justice that ensures that people treat each other with appropriate respect.
And then, sadly, we see what happens when first the Christian missionaries come, and then the British colonizing government, those who come to "civilize" these people who already have their own civilization. The British seldom take the time to study and consider how things work in this community before imposing their own values and rules on people who don't understand and who are threatened by this immense change to their culture. The lack of respect these people show to the Africans made me feel angry as well as sad, and the arrogance was horrible to hear of. There are some good men, like the first Christian pastor who takes the time to ask questions about why people do what they do and has real conversations with the elders about their religion and customs. But the one who replaces him is not one who embodies true Christian values, and the way he and the District Commissioner talk as opposed to how they treat the people is almost horrifying.
This is sad reveal of the horrible things down in the name of religion and civilization, a sad story of history that is not that long past.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Best American Essays 2013

Finished August 19
The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, series editor Robert Atwan

This collection of essays has a great variety of topics, and writers from young to old. This year's selection was chosen by Cheryl Strayed from the selections given her by series editor Robert Atwan. The essays were previously published in a variety of literary magazines, both those well-known like The New Yorker, and those less heard of like River Teeth. So this selection highlights not only the writers, but also the magazines that first accepted the pieces included here. This volume includes a Foreword by the series editor, Atwan which tells of how he came to this, but also talks about the sources for the essays, and the selection process. Then we have an introduction by Strayed, which talks of her essay experiences and her selection process. A list of the long list that the twenty-six included here was whittled down from is included at the back of the book, for those who want to read more great essays.
The writers here run from those whose names are familiar, i.e. Alice Munro and Zadie Smith, to those lesser known like Michelle Mirsky and Jon Kerstetter. The topics range from experiences with landlords and fellow tenants to war triage to race to car accidents.
Besides being reflections of real experiences, the other things they all have in common is good writing. Really good writing. After reading a collection like this, I always think that I should read more essays as I enjoy them so much.

The Wood Queen

Finished August 18
The Wood Queen by Karen Mahoney

This is the only book I've read in this series, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read the earlier book in the series. The main character here is Donna Underwood. Donna was deeply scarred, her father was killed, and her mother mentally disturbed after an early childhood encounter with the folk in the Ironwood. Recently Donna has had another encounter with the Wood Queen that has resulted in a hearing where her actions are being evaluated by an alchemist tribunal. This encounter saved the lives of Donna's best friend, a human boy her age, Navin, and Maker, the alchemist who fashioned the work on Donna's arms after her childhood encounter. It also resulted in a burgeoning relationship with Xan, a half-fey young man that the alchemists consider untrustworthy along with other faerie folk. Donna's mother seems to be getting worse, and Donna suspects that she may be under an elven curse.
Aliette, the Wood Queen approaches Donna with a proposition. Aliette will release Donna's mother from the curse, thus saving her life and restoring her mind if Donna will open the door to faerie so that the Wood Queen and her people can return home. Donna's arms seems to be coming awake, responding to her emotional state, and she seems to be developing new powers that she isn't sure how to control or what purpose they might have for her.
She has suspicions that all is not as it seems with the alchemists, and feels that her aunt Paige is not necessarily on her side in terms of what she sees as important. She is intrigued by Robert, the young alchemist from England, but isn't sure what his motives are either.She knows that she can't trust the Wood Queen, but is this trade something she is willing to risk for her mother's freedom from the curse? She isn't as sure of Xan as she was earlier due to his secretive behaviour. Donna has many questions and no real sense of who she can trust. She is guided by her sense of what it is right and by her feelings, but she is young in her powers and has been kept ignorant of the history of the people she lives among.
Donna's naivety and youth make her risk more than she knows, and as a reader I didn't connect with her as well as I would have wanted.

The Patience of the Spider

Finished August 17
The Patience of the Spider by Andrea Camilleri

This continues the series featuring Inspector Montalbano in Sicily. Here, Montalbano is still recovering from his gunshot wound when the kidnapping of a young woman has him called back in to assist. He is not in charge of the case, and so can avoid some of the aspects he doesn't enjoy, like press conferences, but he has the run of things and takes a close look at the evidence, both physical and behavioural, that is exhibited here. His girlfriend Livia has taken a leave from her work to stay with him for this early part of his recovery, and their relationship shows the strain of the togetherness they have now that disrupts their comfortable routine. The case is not straightforward, but I found it easier to figure out that his earlier books, maybe I'm just getting used to his style.
We see the usual characters in Montalbano's fellow police, and also a nice sideline in food, another of Montalbano's passions. Montalbano is even more introspective than usual here, perhaps because he isn't totally back to work yet and has more time on his own.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Crash Course in Dealing with Difficult Library Customers

Finished August 15
Crash Course in Dealing with Difficult Library Customers by Shelley E Mosley, Dennis C Tucker and Sandra Van Winkle
This book covers a variety of situations that one can encounter in a library environment. It begins with an overview of general guidelines when dealing with customer-related problems at the library.
The book is then divided into sections grouping different types of problem customers. Each type within the grouping is described well, and strategies are given for dealing with them, followed by a brief summary. Some of these didn't meet my library's normal procedure, seeming too restrictive or aimed at a smaller library with less resources than mine. Most strategies suggested were helpful and simple to understand though.
The first grouping is disruptive behaviours. This includes those who abuse privileges, those whose behaviour is disruptive to other library users, and those who take up more staff time than their information need should require due to their behaviour.
The second grouping are those who believe that their needs are more important than others. This includes aggressive customers, those who want to censor material, the name-droppers and self-important, and the ones who just like to be difficult.
The next grouping was of parental issues and included a range from permissive to abusive, as well as those who just drop their kids to fend for themselves.
The fourth group was those with social service needs from the job seekers to homeless and mentally ill. Information on other helpful organizations for those in the U.S. are also given in this section.
The fifth group was those who break the law, in terms of property or information. So this includes vandalism, theft and computer crime.
The last group is those who are dangerous or potentially dangerous and covers those with substance abuse issues, sex crimes, and stalkers among others.
There is also a helpful appendix that includes examples of policies, forms, and procedures.
A very good resource that will be helpful to most libraries.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Spring Fever

Finished August 15
Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews, read by Katherine McInerney

This enjoyable romance is set in the small town of Passcoe, North Carolina, the home of the Quixie Cherry Soda company. Mason, the eldest son of the family who owns the company, the Bayless' family, is getting remarried to Celia, an attractive and ambitious young woman who was brought in as a consultant to help turn the company around in a tight economic environment. Mason's first wife Annajane is in attendance at the big do, mostly to please Mason's young daughter Sophie, who is flower girl.
Annajane works in marketing at Quixie, but will be leaving both the company and the town soon for a new job at the ad agency that Quixie has been a longstanding client of. Her best friend is Pokey (Pauline) Bayliss, Mason's sister. As she and Pokey watch Sophie slowly make her way up the aisle, followed shortly thereafter by a resplendent Celia, Annajane catches Mason's eyes and reads his body language, realizing that he is feeling trapped. As she begins to think that this may mean she has a second chance, Sophie collapses in pain, and the wedding comes to a halt.
In the ensuing action, as Sophie's sickness increases and Annajane urges for an ambulance, Celia is pushed to the background of the action, and Annajane finds herself alone with Mason for the first time in a long time, and they begin to talk in earnest.
As the following week unfolds, actions by Annajane and Mason in response to actions by Celia and Mason's brother Davis, result in a three steps forward, two steps back movement in their unfolding relationship.
There are good characters here, and Celia is a delightful character to hate while Annajane is easy to love. Twists and turns that keep the plot unfolding in interesting ways.
A thoroughly enjoyable example of chicklit.

Shotgun Lovesongs

Finished August 12
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

This novel is set around the small Wisconsin town of Little Wing. The story is told in the voices of four friends: Henry, Leland, Kip and Ronny, and Henry's wife Beth.
The story begins as Kip is getting married. Kip is retired from his work as a commodities broker in Chicago where he was very successful and has come back to revitalize the town, and maybe to show off his success a bit. Henry stayed in Little Wing, working the family farm, raising dairy cattle and corn. Ronny made a career in the rodeo world, until a drunken fall caused brain damage that changed him forever. Leland (Lee) persisted in his music, eventually becoming famous around the world and with the money that came with that. Lee is seldom in Little Wing, but always makes it home for big events, and has made sure that Ronny is looked after. This time, Kip has asked him to sing at the wedding, something he didn't do for Henry and Beth, and Lee has agreed. But the way that Kip has handled this breaks the friends apart for some time, and as we see their lives unfold, we also see what came before as they all emerged into their adult years.
This is a story of friendship, of small towns, of love, and of hope.
I loved the characters here, how the complexity of them is drawn out over the story as they all speak of their experiences. You also get a great feel for the setting in small town Wisconsin, the sense of community and the ties to the land. A great read.

The Beaux' Stratagem

Finished August 11
The Beaux' Stratagem by George Farquhar, adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig

I picked this up just before going in to see the play performed at Stratford. I was buying a t-shirt for my husband in the shop, and they had a small display at the cash. In the intermission, I checked it to verify where we were and found that it did not match the production we were watching. So of course I had to read it over in the next day or two to see where the differences lay.
The story was originally written in 1707 and is a romantic comedy where a couple of financially challenged noblemen play at being a rich nobleman and his servant in order to find rich young women for themselves. They arrive in the town of Lichfield and discover there is a likely young woman, and the one man meets her in church one day and falls hard, as does she. So things are looking well. The young woman has a sister-in-law who is unhappily married to her brother, and a flirtation develops between the other man posing as a servant and her. Meanwhile, there is a gang of highway robbers in the neighbourhood, and they are attached to the inn where the gentlemen are staying.
We enjoyed the production immensely and we were lucky to see many of the top actors at Stratford in it. The print version here has scenes that were dropped from the production, and does not contain scenes that were in the production (from the introduction here, it looks like they were in the original, but dropped from this adaptation). Some of the scenes also seemed to be in a different order, and some of the lines were spoken by different actors. It was enjoyable in its own way, and the introduction alone provided useful information on the history of the play, which is little known.

Sunday 10 August 2014

The Poisoned Island

Finished August 10
The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd

This novel begins with an incident in Tahiti in 1769 between an English sailor and a Polynesian woman.
The majority of the novel takes place in 1812, in London, with the arrival of the ship the Solander carrying a munificence of plants from Tahiti for the King's garden at Kew. There are also flashbacks of the ship's stay in Tahiti and the interactions then between the sailors and the local people.
The same day that the ship arrives home in London, even before its cargo is unloaded, one of the sailors is dead. Discovered by chance by the chief constable for the Thames River Police, a man who has recently begun using a new policing method of investigation, the odd circumstances of his death and the ship he comes from add up to make him take the case to his magistrate Harriott.
As more men from the ship die, Horton delves deeper into the suspicion that it is something brought from Tahiti that has tied the deaths together. And whether the cups containing what looks like a type of tea near their outstretched hands has a role in their deaths.
This book has the competitive environment between the various police magistrates, the new-fangled style of policing that Horton has introduced and Harriott encourages, the botanical specimens brought home from the tropics to England, including a particularly interesting one that has drawn the attention of the sponsor, Sir Joseph Banks and his librarian Robert Brown.
Weaving historical figures like Banks, the missionary Nott, the magistrate Graham, and others into the fabric of this mysterious murder case is done skillfully and creatively, bringing us a story that flows well and captures the reader.

Saturday 9 August 2014

French Leave

Finished August 8
French Leave by Anna Gavalda, translated by Alison Anderson

I picked up this short novel in a bookstore some time ago, and put it in my purse this week to read, but got so engrossed, I had to finish it quickly.
Garance begs a ride to a family wedding from her older brother Simon and his wife, Carine. Garance, along with her other siblings worships Simon as the oldest and smartest in the family, and as the one who remains calm despite any provocation. Carine, however, is not loved. She is a pharmacist, and germ-phobic, as well as haughty and rigid in nature. Garance and her older sister Lola love to find ways to taunt and annoy Carine. Lola has just gone through a divorce and isn't sure she's up for the wedding, but calls while they are enroute to get picked up as well. Carine is rather put out by the presence of the sisters, as she had left their children with her mother hoping for couple time with her hubby.
Once at the wedding the three siblings discover their brother Vincent won't be coming as they expected, and Simon unexpectedly suggests they ditch the wedding in favor of visiting Simon.
The story then tells of the weekend spent by the four siblings as they lose themselves in the joy of each others' company and their memories of the past.
A lovely novel, with characters that one wants to know better.

Dog Will Have His Day

Finished August 7
Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds

This is the second novel in the series that started with The Three Evangelists (read before I started blogging), and has just been released in English. Here the main character is Louis Kehlweiler (known to some as Ludwig). He has worked for various government ministries, most recently the Ministry of the Interior, but is not working at present. Louis has people all over France that look for information that might interest him, and send it along. He strongly believes in justice, rooting out corruption and incompetence, and finding answers. He also observes behaviour himself and has set places he goes to watch, benches and trees that he numbers.
At bench 102, he notices something out of place, a small human bone revealed from its previous encasement in dog excrement. He wants to track down the source, be it accident or murder, but knows that the commissaire of the local police won't value this evidence. He visits the station anyway, using this to further another of his plans.
Recently hired to sort through all the incoming information and file it appropriately is Marc, one of the three evangelists from the previous novel. Louis talks Marc into helping his investigation, and Marc ropes in Mathias to assist as well.
The trail leads the three from Paris to the remote Breton village of Port-Nicholas, where the dog in question lives. There, the three discover a comfortable cafe, an odd collector, a mayor spying on his rival, and a man that Louis has been looking for for far longer than this case.
I love the writing, the wordplay the author uses, and the quirky humour of this mystery series. Both for Louis and Marc, we see the inner thoughts as they jump around, repeat themselves and jump again. I also love the descriptions, which are ften surprising but vivid. Here are a couple of examples:

This one of the mayor of Port-Nicholas from Louis' view
His shapeless features and relaxed body language covered up any trace of his active thoughts. It was as if the thoughts were drowning until they rose to the surface and reached the light. Everything about him was submerged, floating, between two tides. A very fish character. Which made Louis realize that those round, wide-open eyes, which had seemed somehow familiar, were ones he had seen before -- on the fishmonger's slab.
and this one of the local spa owner from Marc's view
...who looked rather like a turtle made of boiled sugar that had stuck to the bottom of the saucepan in places, seemed far more virile than the engineer. He was smiling peacefully, as he listened to Sevran, his big hands resting on his thighs, and he shook them now and again as if to get rid of something -- melted sugar, Marc thought -- while casually noting, with his bright brown eyes, every movement -- in the cafe and of all who had taken refuge there.
Wonderful stuff. Hopefully the third in this series, already released in French, gets translated more quickly than this was.

Calling Invisible Women

Finished August 4
Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray

This novel is a funny look at women's lives in today's world.
Clover Hobart is in her early fifties, married to a pediatrician and with two grown children. Her son Nick is living at home after failing to find a job after university, and her daughter Evie is at university.
One morning as she is brushing her teeth, she looks in the mirror and can't see herself. She sees the toothbrush and the shower wall behind her, but not herself. She panics a bit, but a little later that morning finds that she is there, so she is not sure of her earlier experience. She confides in her best friend Gilda, who commiserates and discusses with her the phenomenon of feeling invisible, a feeling that many women find themselves experiencing as they age. Clover moves on.
But the next morning, the invisibility is back, and this time it sticks. Somehow she doesn't feel surprised, only comforted by the knowledge that she wasn't imagining things after all. As she goes through her day, she finds that most people she encounters, including her work-weary husband and her distracted son, don't even notice. Gilda does though, and
As Clover goes through the following days, she finds that she is not the only woman who has become invisible, and a local group has identified the cause, but apparently not the solution. As Clover gains a sense of confidence in what she can get away with in her current state, she takes chances, standing up for those who need standing up for, interfering in bad behaviour to correct and guide others, and finally taking a stand for herself and the other women in her predicament.
With great humour and a sense of fun, this book takes the notion of feeling invisible and makes it real, connecting it to the dynamic of women aging and speaking out. Thoroughly enjoyable.

A Sport and a Pastime

Finished August 2
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

A friend asked if I'd read this one, and I hadn't so picked it up so I could give my opinion. First published in 1967, this book begins with an American man who leaves Paris to take up residence in Autun, in eastern France, living in the country home of friends. Soon after, a younger American, Philip Dean, that he has met through friends in Paris, comes to visit him. Dean is driving a huge older car, a 1952 Delage convertible. He makes himself at home, he makes the acquaintance of a young French woman, and the two begin a liaison. The activities of Dean and the young woman, even those of the most intimate nature, are described by the anonymous narrator as if he were present, watching, aware of the feelings Dean has, the unsure and the over-confident.
Dean is still young, with his money doled out by his father. Since his father wants him to return home to the States, his money flow reduces and then stops. He is hiding his relationship with the French woman from everyone except the narrator. The sex between them seems to be often related to power; she has the power of seduction and her youth, and he has the power of the decider and the suggestor.
I loved the description of the train journey, with everything observed. The rest, not so much.
On page 11, the novel says "none of the is true", making this a fiction within a fiction. I think the problem for me is that I didn't get a feel for the narrator, and so couldn't connect with him, and I didn't like Dean. Dean seemed for me a stereotypical wealthy American abroad, wanting both to experience the culture there, but also wanting to have others to recognize his American superiority. With Dean, as his money supply dries up, the wealth becomes an illusion, the same as his superiority. The French woman too, is here a stereotype, a woman capable of seduction, yet an innocent. She seems all surface and no depth.

Sunday 3 August 2014


Finished August 2
Perfect by Rachel Joyce, read by Paul Rhys

This novel moves back and forth between the summer of 1972 and the present day.
In 1972, two seconds were added to time to adjust for the gradual change in the earth's rotation. When 12-year-old Byron Hemmings learns of this from his friend James, he can't stop thinking about it. When will it happen, how will it affect things. He is terribly worried about it, and obsesses over it. Then, one day, running late for delivering Byron and his younger sister Lucy to school, Byron's mother Diana takes a detour through a street with estate housing, Digby Road, and Byron's obsession and her newly acquired driving skills combine to create a situation that will change all of their lives irrevocably.
At first, only Byron notices, and desperate, he confides in James, who comes up with plans that continue to unfold as more happens, but even when James dictates what Byron should say, Byron realizes that things don't always unfold they way they planned because James didn't predict what the others would say. Byron's strongest feelings are toward his mother,  and this example shows them nicely: He didn’t know how he was going to keep his mother safe. The job seemed too big for one boy alone. There was something about her, something pure and fluid that would not be contained. Byron's need for control and order are beyond his ability to manage real life and things move forward in a sad and seemingly inevitable way. Byron's interactions with his mother, his sister and the little girl Jeannie all show his compassion and tenderness, and his vulnerability. His father is both controlling and distant, both in charge and needy, and Byron can't find the necessary connection to confide in him, even as things deteriorate in Byron's world.
In the present, Jim is adjusting to his new life following the closing of the mental institution that he has spent most of his life in. He works in the cafe of a large store, wiping tables. He lives on the edge of the moors in a camper van. His life is dictated by the rituals that his obsessive-compulsive disorder drives him to do. He has a stutter, possible a result of the electro-shock therapy he was subjected to. He is desperately lonely, but knows his own weaknesses and doesn't believe himself capable of sustaining a relationship. When a coworker, Eileen, captures his attention, he feels a connection with her that he envisions as his one last change to connect with the world. We see how his coworkers begin to see him as a person, one they care about. The writing around Jim and his mental illness is so well done, so empathetic, it is a wonder. I felt Jim's pain and worry. I felt for him, and the desperate way things in his life had led him to where he is.
But this book is also full of humour, and I found myself giggling at some of the action here, like the scene where Jim and Eileen have both used scented products as a way to prepare themselves for a get together.
Joyce's second novel is very different from her first but equally compelling and engrossing. There were times when the voice of Jim reminded me of The Curious Dog in the Night-time, in terms of really feeling the viewpoint of a person with a different outlook. While I listened to this book in audio, I really feel the need to buy a print copy to savour some of the writing. An amazing read.

Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather

Finished July 30
Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather by Pierre Szalowski

This novel is set around the 1998 ice storm that hit Montreal. The 11-year-old boy who narrates the story is the kind of kid who notices what goes on around him.
He can see that the Christmas present his dad bought him is something his mother didn't approve. He can see that his parents aren't getting along like they used to. He doesn't want to be another kid whose parents aren't together, like his friend Alex. But it looks like that is what is going to happen. So he prays to the sky to help him.
And then the ice storm hits, and it gets worse and worse. We see how it affects his neighbours. Julie, the disaffected stripper to only wants to be loved for something other than her body. Julie's young cat Brutus, whom her other two cats put in his place. Boris, the young Russian mathematician who has been observing and calibrating his fishes behaviour for months, and for whom a power failure is a potential disaster. Simon, a psychoanalyst, and Michel, who works for the weather office, an older gay couple whom everyone thinks are brothers, and who worry about how coming out will affect the way neighbours treat them. Pipo, Simon and Michel's little dog. Alex and his unhappy father Alexis. The residents of the seniors' home just down the street.
So, you might expect a book about this natural disaster, that affected millions of people, would be unhappy one, but it isn't. The storm brought people out of their homes, had them helping neighbours they hadn't even talked to before, opening people's hearts to new friends, unveiling leadership skills that had been buried until now. And so these neighbours get to know each other and find that they like each other and the feeling of good will towards each grows and strengthens and extends to others.
The author experienced a similar community-building phenomenon when he and his wife experience the ice storm shortly after moving to Montreal, and it is this that made then stay in Canada, and inspired this novel.
This is a feel-good novel, that will bring a smile to your face.