Thursday 27 September 2018

Report from the Interior

Finished September 18
Report from the Interior by Paul Auster, read by the author

This memoir takes us from Paul's childhood through to his college days. The beginning was the most interesting to me, the random memories that he still had of those early days of moments caught in time. Memories of school, of friendships, of a love of baseball, realizing how his Jewish ancestry set him apart and his choice to embrace that.
The middle part covered two movies that made a big impression on him: The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Was a Prisoner on a Chain Gang. He describes these movies in detail, speaking of his reactions to them as they unfolded. They were very thorough and you could see the passion he had for these films, but less interesting to me as a reader.
The last part covers his college days and is taken from recently discovered letters he wrote to his first wife, Lydia Davis, which she shared with him. He has none of her letters, having not kept them, so it is very one-sided, and focused more on himself than on anything else. I found it a bit too self-centered to hold my interest.
Definitely not as good as his Winter Journal.

Orhan's Inheritance

Finished September 16
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

This novel is set in 1990, where Orhan is a young man working in his grandfather's rug business in Turkey. Orhan's grandfather Kemal took on the business after his war service in the fight against Russia in the early twentieth century. As the book begins, Kemal has died, with his body found sitting in a vat of dye. Orhan knows that by tradition, his father would inherit, but the will his grandfather wrote left the business to him, and the house to a woman that Orhan has never heard of, Seda Melkonian.
Orhan's grandfather and father have never got along well, and his father has had little to nothing to do with the business. It is Orhan and his Auntie Fatma who deal with the business.
It is a notebook of drawing, one of many his grandfather had, that the lawyer gives Orhan, that has the address of Seda. She is in a nursing home in California.
Orhan is determined to go there and meet her, not only to convince her to sell the house back to them, but also to find out why his grandfather left it to her.
The letter from Orhan preceding his arrival is a reminder of the past for Seda, a past she long ago put behind her. And as she meets with Orhan, the story takes us back to 1915, the year in which Turkey began the deportation and genocide of its Armenian citizens. As we learn Seda's story, we also learn of her connection to Kemal, and to the rug business that he ran. We also learn a lot about this part of history, a difficult and sad history.
Orhan had his own time of exile, when, as a budding young photographer, he was imprisoned for the subjects of his photographs, and eventually freed on condition of exile. Thus he lived in Germany for a few years before returning home and joining the family business. He hasn't picked up a camera in years. As he leaves to go to California, Auntie Fatma gives him his old camera and an album of his photographs, and, during his trip he finds himself slipping back into the old ways of looking again.
This is a tale of discovery, of history resurfacing, and of hope.
The author is herself of Armenian heritage and part of her impetus for writing the story was for her own children to know their history.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Finished September 14
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, translated by Ina Rilke

This short novel is told from the viewpoint of a young man who is one of a pair of young men who are sent to the mountains to be reeducated during China's Cultural Revolution. The narrator and his friend Luo are the only two sent to their remote village, and both are the sons of doctors. Another young man in a nearby village sometimes visits with them, and the two boys discover that he has a hidden suitcase of foreign novels.
There is a tailor in the region that travels from village to village making and mending clothes, who has a daughter that he mostly leaves at home. This young seamstress is friendly to the boys, and Luo begins to court her by reciting stories that he knows. Their village headman also enjoys their stories, and allows them to take time off work to go visit a larger town nearby where they could visit a cinema and return to recite the story of the film to the rest of the villagers. Luo has an extraordinary gift for storytelling, but at the times where illness strikes him, the narrator can also do a fairly good job. The narrator was also lucky enough to bring his violin, and he often played music, to distract them from their life as it was in the mountains.
When the boys are able to borrow one of the books from the boy in the next village, they read the book by Balzac often enough to memorize it, and the young seamstress is particularly enamored of this story.
We see the difficult work the boys must perform, the lonely life in the small mountain village, the release that they long for, and the ways they manipulate those around them to make their lives easier. It is a story of endurance, of hope, and of the power of story.
The author himself spent more than three years undergoing reeducation, and ten years after his release, emigrated to France.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis

Finished September 13
Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

This novel is based on the real life of Joy Davidman and her relationship with C.S. Lewis. Joy was an American woman, a writer and a poet, when she began writing letters to C.S. Lewis.
In 1946, Joy's husband Bill called her late one night as he was going through a mental struggle. She tried to talk reasonably to him, but this time he hung up on her. Their home was in a far-flung suburb in the Hudson Valley, a distance from town. She had two young children. As she struggled against the panic she felt, she found herself on her knees, in tears, praying, even though she was an affirmed atheist. She had an experience that she found hard to describe, but said that she felt loved and known, and at peace. Thus began her journey towards enlightenment. Shortly thereafter, she came across an article about C.S. Lewis. She had already read a couple of his books, but found his history of moving from atheism to a search for enlightenment similar to her own, and thus decided to write a letter from both herself and her husband about their struggle, their questions, and doubts.
Joy was a passionate and insightful woman, who questioned many things, was well educated, and who had her own health issues. As Lewis answered her letters, and the two began a conversation, she was treated by him as a person worthy of consideration, respect, and worth engaging in vigorous debate.
When the struggles of her marriage and her health brought her to the point where her physician recommended that she leave her circumstances for a time, it became possible for her to go to England, get more affordable healthcare, take time to write, and meet Lewis in person. She spent only a small fraction of her time there with him, living in London for the majority of her visit, and staying with friends, acquaintances, and people they referred her to. With the support she gained, she found herself able to return home and begin the dissolution of her marriage. This was not easy at that time, and her marriage being a Catholic one added to the difficulty.
This story is told from her viewpoint, with excerpts from real letters, her poetry, and other historical documents. But much of the story is an imagined one, even though Callahan makes it feel very true. Joy's devotion to her sons, her struggles with faith, and her feelings for Lewis are clear, and this isn't a fairy tale romance.
Joy struggled, as many women still do, between her sense of what was expected of her, and what she felt to be right. She make mistakes, she admitted to faults, but she kept trying to be the woman she felt herself to be, and to claim the life she felt she had earned.
A very interesting story.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

South and West

Finished September 11
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion, read by Kimberly Farr, with a foreword written and read by Nathaniel Rich

This is a never-before-released glimpse into Joan Didion's famous notebooks. The sections on the South are from June 1970 when she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took a road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The include detailed looks at the people she saw around here, the conversations or fragments of conversation that she overheard, the images of small towns and cities that she passed through. She also had a few interviews with people from the south, prominent locally. The topics of race, class, tradition, and history seem to show how little has changed in the nearly fifty years since this trip was made.
She noticed the Confederate flags on everything from towels to clothing, the race divide that did not differentiate between wealth and poverty, and the class divide that did. She noticed how people talked of the past as something they had to hang on to, how people expected their lives to go on unchanged, despite larger change in the world. It was an incredibly engaging piece of writing.
The section on the West is much shorter and deals only with California. It dates from 1976, and the notes were taken for a piece she was to write for Rolling Stone magazine, a piece that was never written. Topics here included Patty Hearst (her trial was on at the time), images of San Francisco, and a visit to Sacramento that brought her back to her own younger days in that city when she was growing up.
Both show her focus, her powers of observation and memory, and her ability to internally stand back and observe even while being involved physically. These are a seldom seen door into the behind-the-scenes life of a writer. In this case, a writer of great skill.

Monday 17 September 2018

The Lonely Witness

Finished September 8
The Lonely Witness by William Boyle

This novel has an interesting protagonist. Amy Falconetti grew up in a New York City borough, but her mother died when she was young and her father had already walked out, so she was raised by her grandparents. She had an interest in observing people, and she saw the next door neighbour kill someone, and did nothing about it. That incident was a defining memory for her.
After her grandparents died, she moved around and developed a unique style. She drank too much, and partied a lot, and when she finally moved to the area she now lives in, it was to be with a girlfriend whose family was from there, and who came back to help her dad.
But her girlfriend left her, and moved out to L.A., and somehow Amy stayed on, but changed. She started dressing more soberly, and going to church regularly, and became a volunteer who delivered communion to parishioners who were unable to come to church. She got a basement apartment at a good rate, and picked up odd jobs for the little cash she needed to get by.
But one day, everything changes. When she is giving communion to an elderly parishioner, Mrs. Epifanio, the woman expresses concern about another woman who usually comes and sits with her in the afternoon for a bit, but whose son has suddenly come instead, and whose behavior makes her uncomfortable. Amy offers to come the next time Mrs. Epifanio's visitor normally comes, and she meets the young man, who indeed behaves in a very suspicious way. Amy decides to follow him, and does so repeatedly, but is horrified when she sees the young man murdered by someone he knows.
Amy involves herself in the situation, but in very unusual ways, giving her access to more information about the young man and his life. As the murder reminds her of the incident she observed years ago, Amy finds herself questioning her own behaviour, her life, and her future.
When her father suddenly reappears in her life, she finds herself overwhelmed and isn't sure what to do. This is a book about a woman faced with an unusual situation that may be a terrible mistake or an opportunity to start fresh. I liked Amy, and was pleased with her starting to take her life back into her own hands.

Oh My Stars

Finished September 5
Oh My Stars by Sally Kilpatrick

This feel good novel is set in small town Tennessee. Ivy Long lives in Ellery with her mother and younger sister, a place she moved back to after the death of her husband from cancer a few years ago. Her mom helped get her a job at the Dollar General, and she's been mostly keeping her head down and trying not to think about the book her contract says she must submit by the end of the year, after many extensions. Her first book was very popular, but she can't seem to focus on the humour and romance that the next book in the series requires. It's an unhappy coincidence that her series was titled the Merry Widows shortly before she became a widow herself.
This year, her mom signed her up for a week posing as Mary in the drive-thru nativity scene just outside the store she works at. But then she meets the man posing as Joseph, Gabriel Ledbetter, a man who lived most of his life in the city, returned to help out his dad at the farm, and to wait out a malpractice case he is fighting. As a pediatrician, he is a bit out of his element on the farm, but finds some compensations in the people around him, and gradually getting to know his dad better, as well as his own history.
The title of the book comes from a phrase often voiced by Ivy's mom, when she is surprised, and Ivy and her sister Holly have a bet on about who can make their mom say it.
When a real live baby is laying in the manger one evening when Ivy reports for her nativity shift, Gabe is enlisted to check her health before the authorities become involved, and Ivy soon finds herself involved in a situation that takes her out of her resigned state of apathy and into a future she never dreamed of.
With characters that have interesting backstories, and a unique setting, this book brought both tears and a smile to my face as I read.

Thursday 6 September 2018

Every Last One

Finished September 2
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

This novel begins with a typical day in Mary Beth Latham's world. She wakes up before anyone else, has a coffee and some time alone before waking her three children and seeing them and her husband off, then going off to her own landscaping business. Her daughter Ruby is in her junior year of high school, and has a unique sense of style and great self-confidence. She loves to write, and is booked into a summer writing class at a college. Her two sons, fraternal twins, Alex and Max are in their last year of middle school. Alex is a star athlete with decent grades and a small group of friends. Max is a loner, with an interest in music and comics. Both boys are booked into summer camps suited to their interest. Mary Beth's husband Glen is an opthamologist with a quiet manner and a strong sense of order. Their marriage has gotten to a comfortable familiar stage where they each do their own thing, and follow a routine.
Ruby is getting ready for prom, and plans to do it in her own way. But she is also looking at changes in her life and one of them is moving on without her current boyfriend. Kiernan lived next door for a few years when the kids were small, then moved away. When his family moved back to town, they lived on a different street, but Kiernan seemed to latch onto their family, and spent a lot of time at their house. He gradually became Ruby's boyfriend, but he seems to be rubbing her the wrong way lately, and a split-up is due soon.
Ruby had an eating disorder a couple of years ago, and Mary Beth still worries about her a bit, but her main worry now is her son Max, who seems to be too much alone, and not very happy. When Max's stay at camp is cut short, she worries more, and does what she can to help.
But when violence and tragedy come into Mary Beth's life, it is from a direction she wasn't looking, and she must find a way to move forward, rebuilding her life.
This is a book of how someone recovers from an unthinkable event, and we see how various characters struggle with their own role, however small, in what happened. As always, I love how Quindlen puts a story together, and I read this in one sitting.

The Glass Lake

Finished August 30
The Glass Lake by Maeve Binchy

This novel follows a mother and daughter over several years. As the book begins, Kit McMahon is twelve years old, and lives with her dad, Martin, a pharmacist; her mom, Helen; and her younger brother Emmet. They live above the pharmacy in the small town of Lough Glass. Helen is not happy, and Kit is aware of that in a sense. She knows her parents having their own bedrooms is not the norm among her schoolmates, but isn't sure what it means. Rita is their live-in maid, who also does most of the cooking.
Kit's best friend is Clio Kelly, whose father is the local doctor. Clio and Kit have spats every so often that split them up for a while, but they always eventually make up. Kit gets along well with Emmet, as he is an easygoing boy. He has a stutter, that makes him less inclined to speak up in public. Clio has a younger sister, Anna, who always wants to join her and Kit, but Clio never wants to include her, and the two sisters don't get on well.
Helen married Martin in a resigned sort of way. He knew that she'd been in love with someone else, but that that man had left her. His love was strong enough that he thought it would work out. Helen is a city girl, and doesn't fit in in their small town, and she hasn't really made an effort. She likes to take solitary walks by the lake.
The small Irish town is typical of many like it. The girls go to a school run by nuns, headed by Mother Bernard, and the boys go to one headed by Brother Healy. A few years back, a solitary nun appeared in town and moved into an empty cottage near the lake. Sister Madeleine lives simply, with the townspeople bringing her what she needs to survive. She listens to their stories, and gives advice when she can. Recently, she began having Emmet visit her to read poetry aloud, which is helping with his stutter.
Also in town is a pub, a dilapidated hotel called the Central Hotel, owned by the O'Briens, the usual assortment of shops, and an auto repair shop. The auto shop is owned by Billy Williams, but he has fallen badly into alcoholism, and and is soon shipped off to a home, while his two sons, Stevie and Michael return to the town, and Stevie begins to run the business.
One evening Helen doesn't return from her walk by the lake, a boat is found overturned and floating free, and winds were high. While the general assumption is that something unexpected happened, Kit worries that her mother's sadness may have led her to do something unthinkable, and she burns the letter left behind.
Meanwhile Helen has been reunited with her first love, and gone to London, and waits for word from Martin that will never come. In her new life, she finds that she has been assumed dead, and she must move on with the life she has chosen.
As we follow her, and Kit through the next few years, we see how their actions lead to challenges for both of them. An interesting story, with some very strong and capable female characters.

Monday 3 September 2018

Clean Sweep

Finished August 22
Clean Sweep by Michael J. Clark

This mystery novel is set in Winnipeg, around Guiding Light Mission, a mission run by a former convict. Pastor Tommy Bosco found his calling in prison after losing his only son in a drive-by shooting. While everyone knows that Tommy runs the mission, very few know that he also runs a way out of town for those sought after by local criminals syndicates. As the book opens, Paul Noonan is looking for a way out, and Tommy offers it to him. Soon after, a well-known prostitute, Claire Hebert, known as Claire Bear, kills Stephanos, the head of a local syndicate in self defense, and things really go crazy in town. As Claire runs for her life, she draws in friends and acquaintances, including her ex, Tommy. The syndicate has a hit out on her, and several local men are looking for her, from Tommy's dad, Ernie Friday, to The Two Pauls, a couple of men named Paul, each crazy in their own special way, who team up to do jobs.
A local reporter, David Worshuk, of the Winnipeg Sentinel, is also on the trail. And of course the cops are looking for Stephanos killer too. One of the local cops, Miles Sawatski, has been getting payoffs for tips from an unknown source, but he's starting to feel a little weird about that.
This story has elements that reach a long way into the past, and that have a more sinister quality than your usual crimes.
The characters are interesting and complex, from Jasmine Starr, former prostitute now running a sex shop called The Other Woman, to a librarian with a sideline in fake IDs. I enjoyed this story and will be interested in more from this author.

Bring Me Back

Finished August 22
Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris, read by Cathleen McCarron and Kevin Hely

This novel is the third by Paris, and I admit that I didn't like it as much as the first two. It begins with a police statement from Finn, a statement that he admits isn't entirely true. Most of the book takes place 12 years later, but the impact of the disappearance of Finn's girlfriend, the reason for the statement, is huge.
Finn had met Layla by chance and taken her in for a few nights as she was unfamiliar with London, having come from the Scottish island of Lewis, where she had lived with her sister and father after the death of her mother a few years earlier. Layla is only 18 and finds it hard to find a job. Finn is possessive and jealous, and has a violent temper. Layla and Finn had gone skiing in France, and were driving home when they stopped at a rest stop. Finn left the car to go to the washroom, and when he returned, Layla was gone. We don't know how much of Finn's statement is true, and how much isn't, so we aren't really sure what happened between the two of them there.
12 years later, Finn has moved away from the cottage he shared with Layla, although he hasn't sold it, merely left it as it was, before the vacation. Finn is now living with Layla's sister Ellen, whom he met a couple of years ago when they had a memorial service for Layla. He and Ellen have recently got engaged, and now suddenly, it seems like Layla is reappearing in his life. It begins with the appearance of small Russian dolls, the innermost of a series of nesting dolls, which Layla carried with her. But it isn't just one doll, and when emails begin as well, Finn doesn't know what to think. He still has feelings for Layla, but he also loves Ellen, and he is torn.
Finn's longtime friend Harry, and the owner of the local pub, Ruby, also have roles to play here. But nothing is really clear until near the end.

Dreaming the Bull

Finished August 20
Dreaming the Bull by Manda Scott

This is the second book in a series, but I haven't read the others. It is a story around the Boudica, a woman warrior who led a long war against the Romans who were settling in Britain. She is the Bringer of Victory and her role is now taken by Breaca, a woman of strong resolve. The Boudica is part of the tribe of Eceni, and this book begins in A.D. 47. The main Roman character is a decurion, an officer in the auxiliary cavalry, named Julius Valerius. He was born an Eceni, but an incident in his youth has hardened his heart against his own people. The Romans are trying to disarm their enemy as a measure of defence, and this means destroying weapons that have been handed down through generations. As the man in charge of this action, Julius is hated by the Eceni. The Governor of Britannia is Scapula, and he is also hated by the tribes.
As the book begins, Julius meets the Roman Longinus Sdapeze, and grows close to him.
The Eceni are based on the holy island of Mona. One of the leading warriors is Caradoc, lover of Breaca, and father to the young boy Cunomar, son of Breaca. Caradoc is also the father of Cygfa, a young woman who is taking her first battle as a warrior. Her mother is Cwmfen, another strong female warrior. Breaca is heavily pregnant as the battle begins, and so is unable to join in. She sends her son Cunomar under the protection of Dubornos and her beloved hound Hail.
The Emperor Claudius is nearing the end of his reign, and is highly superstitious. When the battle goes wrong, and some of the leading warriors become prisoners of Rome, it is this superstitious nature, and the intercession of the royal physician Xenophon, that help to keep them alive.
I enjoyed this tale, and am now interested in reading other books in the series.

A World of Kindness

Finished August 19
A World of Kindness from the Editors and Illustrators of Pajama Press

This book raises funds for Think Kindness and illustrates what kindness looks like. Nine illustrators works are included here, some from other books put out by Pajama Press, and some original to this work. The actions shown here include waiting one's turn, helping others, being gentle, being polite, apologizing, sharing, and comforting.
The pictures are well chosen to convey the actions, and show diversity. A great addition to any collection.