Monday, 28 December 2015

"Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

   Christmas is a good time to read about others who are less fortunate.                                                               
  "Just Mercy" is about the American prison system.
Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School and began working with the Southern Centre for Human Rights, representing death-row inmates throughout the southern United States.
"We make terrible mistakes.  Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed.  Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing.  Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison."

Children have been a particular concern for Bryan.  U.S is the only country that sends children (some as young as twelve) to prison for life.  Often the  child has only known violence and abuse in the home.  And when he is put into adult prison, he experiences abuse there.  The other choice is solitary confinement.  There is a story about a 14-year-old who went to the electric chair.

Bryan started a non-profit organization called "Equal Justice Initiative" to work with prisoners on death row.  He began with no office and one co-worker and now has 48 lawyers working for this human rights group.
When Bryan is unsuccessful in getting the death sentence revoked, the prisoner often asks Bryan to attend the execution.  He tells about the cloud of regret and remorse that seems to envelop everyone.  Quote: "The prison officials had pumped themselves up to carry out the execution with determination and resolve, but even they revealed extreme discomfort and some measure of shame.  Maybe I was imagining it but it seemed that everyone recognized what was taking place was wrong.  Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different."
The book is filled with statistics and individual cases.  I was surprised to discover that, in many states, the judge can overrule the verdict. When that is done, the judge makes the sentence tougher than the jury did, in order to look "tough on crime".

There was more detail of cases than I needed but I certainly learned a lot about the American justice system and how one person can make a difference.

Bryan looks into each case and spends time getting to know each individual.  He sees their 'humanity' and tries to bring justice and mercy.

Friday, 25 December 2015

More Dickens

"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

I have been fascinated by Charles Dickens.  Such a brilliant writer, but also a scoundrel.  But let's leave his personal life for a moment.
"A Christmas Carol" was first published in 1843 and was an instant success.  It had only taken six weeks to write, but the story has lasted all these years and is still popular.
I had the opportunity of listening to a reading at a local church.  I was reminded that Dickens had presented public readings all over Britain, in Paris and in the United States.  He had very receptive audiences of up to three thousand people, who were enthralled.  I have read that he was very 'histrionic' in his readings- overly theatrical and dramatic.  Wouldn't that be fascinating to see?  His first public reading took three hours, but he reduced it to about 80 minutes.  That was about the time frame of the public reading that I attended.

Just think of all the movies and stage productions of this small novel.  The earliest movie that I can find was made in 1908 with Thomas Ricketts as Scrooge.  But perhaps you remember the 1951 version with Alastair Sim- or the 2009 version with Jim Carey?

I'm sure everyone knows the story of Scrooge refusing to donate to charity on Christmas Eve and being generally cranky about everything relating to Christmas.  His dead partner comes as a ghost and shows him, through three spirits- the past, present and future, what will happen if he does not change his ways.
A very simple plot with a profound moral.

The reading that I attended did not have a great attendance, and, of course, those present were mostly older.  But the readers did a great job and I was delighted to see that people are still interested in oral reading.

This book is worth reading every year!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Charley was 21 when his mother was sent away and he was the only child that insisted on moving with her.  Charley's education was paid for by a benefactor.  He tried being a merchant- first in the tea business, then in a paper mill.  Both failed.  He finally went to work with his father on his magazine "All the Year Round".  Also he wrote two books.  Charley eventually inherited the magazine but struggled to keep it going.  He had 7 daughters and one son. The son was disowned because he married a bar maid.  Many of the girls did not marry and ended up appealing to the public for financial help after their father died at age 59.

Mamie was independent and loved to spend time with friends.  She never married and continued to live with her aunt after her father's death but struggled financially.  This is a theme with all the children.  Although it seems that Dickens must have had a lot of money, it had to be divided in many places.  He supported his wife in London and his mistress (who had been a movie star and gave up acting for him), as well as his sister-in-law who ran the Dickens household.  Also, he only lived to be 58 and, although some of his books sold well for the time, he did not amass a fortune.  Mamie got involved with a minister and his wife who were supposedly working for charity, but the public was very wary of them.  Mamie died at 58, on the day that Charley was buried.

Katy had a long life but many problems and many serious illnesses.  She was probably manic with OCD.  She went to art school for five years.  After her father sent her mother away, he was like a madman and Katy couldn't stand living at home, so she married an artist friend whom she did not love.  When he died of cancer after 15 years, she married a man that she did love.  She was happy with him but lost her only child at 7 months.  Her second husband died and she received an annuity and also had an admirer.  However, she continued to have mood swings and feared death, so slept in a chair or wandered the house.  She died at 89.

Walter began to be educated for the military at age 8.  At 16, he sailed for India.  He amassed debts and became sick.  He died in India (aneurism of the aorta) at age 22.

Frank had a stammer.   He was sent to Germany at 14 to prepare to be a doctor.  Soon he returned home and tried many different things.  At 19, he was sent to India with the Bengal Mounted Police.  His brother, living in India,  had died before Frank got there, but news had not reached him.  After 7 years in India, he returned to England for a 6 month leave but never returned.  His father had died and he had an inheritance which he quickly lost.  At 30, he joined the North-West Mounted Police in Canada.  He resigned at 44 and died that year in Moline, Illinois from heart disease.

Alfred  was happy and good tempered.  He was sent to France to perfect his French as most of the boys were.  He failed the entrance exam for the army, but went to Australia at 19 and managed a sheep station.  He married and had a good life, with 2 daughters,  when  his wife died in an accident.  He married a younger woman.  When his business failed, he returned to England at 65, where he gave lectures and readings, then he moved to Boston.  He died in New York at age 67.

Sydney was a breech birth and died of heart disease at 25.  He had been sent to France and then to naval school at age 12.  At age 14, he sailed for the U.S.  He was small and well-liked, but irresponsible with money as the other children were also.  He was buried at sea.

Henry  was the most successful and the happiest.  He was jolly and comical.  At 9, he went to school in France, where his two brothers were living.Then he was sent to Cambridge University where he won a scholarship and achieved a law degree at 23.  He fared better with his money, married at 27,  had 7 children and did well in his career.  He retired at 83 and died the next year.

Dora's birth had been difficult for Catherine, so she went to a famous spa to recuperate.  While she was there, the baby died.  Baby Dora had been left with Charles and a nurse.

Plorn, real name Edward, was shy.  He went to agricultural college and was sent to Australia at 15.  He became the manager of a sheep station and married at 27.  He became involved in politics and was mildly successful.  But he failed as a businessman.  He died childless and in debt at 50.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Charles Dickens

  While attending a book retreat in Banff, the group was discussing "A Tale of Two Cities".  One of the ladies attending the retreat said that she did not read that book because Charles Dickens was not a good man and she would not read his novels.
He does look a little rough here.  
But in his youth, he was quite dashing.
The biography that I am reading states  "his sexual needs were urgent".  
Quote: "As Catherine grew stouter and more exhausted- those dozen or so pregnancies in fifteen years, plus severe post-partum depressions- and to his mind, duller, his flirtations with and attentions to other women grew more active."
   When Dickens was 45, he moved his wife, Catherine, to London and kept the ten children living with him, with Catherine's sister running his house and caring for his children.  Then he set up his mistress, Ellen Turnan, in another location.

I was delighted when I found this book because I had always known that Dickens had many children and I wondered about their life.
Because Dickens was a prolific writer, not only in novels, but also in letters to friends, we know a lot about his relationships.  And his relationship with his children was conflicted.  He played with them when they were young and they adored him.  He always found time for them when they had problems or they were sick.  He would sit with them for hours. And so, he was loving, generous and involved.  But he was also demanding and harsh, especially as they grew older. 
  But let's look at Charles Dickens' childhood. 
  When Charles was 11, his father was in debtors' prison and Charles, at that young age, had to work in a factory to support the family.  He was not successful in keeping the bills paid, and the whole family, except Charles, joined their father in debtors' prison.  Charles wandered the streets and fended for himself.  But he was very successful at improving his life little by little until he became an instant success as a writer.  He became the best known person in England- next to the Queen.
  What a tremendous effect this childhood had on his fathering.  Since he had been able to care for himself and make a success of his life, he had "GREAT EXPECTATIONS'" for his children.  And when they didn't show that drive and ambition that Charles had, he was disappointed and let them know.
Format of the book:
  After an interesting introduction, the author wrote a chapter on each child's life up to the father's death.  I didn't enjoy the way he wrote about the children, mostly using  excerpts from letters.  It seemed disjointed.
  The last section was, once again, a chapter on each child after their father's death.
  Charles Dickens was certainly a strange man.  His children all adored him, even though they realized that he had treated their mother terribly.  The household was filled with interesting activities- play acting, story writing.  But it was difficult to be a child of Charles Dickens!

Monday, 14 December 2015

Requiem (continued)

   Did you know that there were POW camps in Ontario?  Wikipedia tells me that there were 13 POW camps in Ontario.
  After reading "Requiem", I wanted to learn about the camp that was mentioned in that book- Angler, Ontario.  It was not the camp where the protagonist of the novel lived, but it was mentioned with a list of other camps.
   I discovered that Angler is near Neys Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Superior.  In the summer of 1942, there were 650 people of Japanese descent living there, purely because they had Japanese blood.
   The camp was actually built for German prisoners of war.  And my research showed that some of the German POW's planned an escape.
   Actually, this escape was before the Japanese arrived, but I still found it interesting.
  The prisoners dug a tunnel 150 feet long that reached outside the wall, with side tunnels entering some of the barracks.  Because the ground was very sandy, they had to reinforce the tunnels with wood beams.  However, after three days of rain, the tunnel began to fill with water.  By noon on April 18, 1941, the day of the planned  escape, the tunnels had 12 inches of water.  That night, 80 prisoners attempted the escape.  28 made it outside the walls before the guards heard a noise and interrupted the escape.
    Most of the escapees were either shot or arrested, but two made it as far as Medicine Hat, Alberta by hopping on a train, before they were captured and returned to Angler camp.  They were sent back to Germany after the war with the other POW's, but later one of them returned to Canada, where he got a job, settled and raised a family.

Friday, 11 December 2015

"Requiem" by Frances Itani

  Requiem is a form of 'rest' or 'repose' in Latin.  It is the beginning of the mass for the dead- "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord".  The word also means an act of remembrance.
  What an appropriate title.
  Isn't it great when the title really does reflect what is in the novel? 
  And, this cover is fabulous!

   Bin Okuma, an artist, is mourning the death of his wife and decides to drive across Canada with his dog- from Ottawa to British Columbia where he had been in an internment camp from 1941-1946.
  There are two storylines- the building of the camp in 1941, and Bin's cross-country journey in 1997.  Also there are retrospective descriptions of living with his wife, Lena, and raising his son, Greg.

  This author is brilliant and her sentences are well-crafted.  There is much description of nature, especially rivers and mountains.

  I was most interested in the story of the internment.  After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Canadian government moved all people of Japanese descent away from the west coast.  They were considered "enemy aliens".  Bin Okuma, the protagonist of the novel, was about four, with an older sister and brother. The move took several stages, each with terrible conditions.  Eventually, they settled in an internment camp- in fact, they were dropped off in central B.C. where they built simple shacks.  While living there, Bin was given to another man to be his son.  Since Bin's father had two sons, he gave his youngest son to a man who was alone. It was a permanent move, including changing Bin's last name. Bin called this man his Second Father.  Second Father was a very educated and interesting man who was patient and kind to Bin.  But Bin never resolved the anger at being given away by his First Father.
   Second Father had been a musician and without any outlet for his musical passion, he used a piece of wood for a keyboard, painting on the white and black keys.  He played Beethoven by memory and Bin learned the different sonatas even though he only heard taps on a piece of wood. I really enjoyed that part of the novel. 
   The other storyline was Bin's journey west with his dog.  Bin's wife had died and his son was away at college.  He had to face the past and heal the memories.
    He arrived at the land where the internment camp had been and found that all the buildings were gone.  It had been 51 years since the camp closed.  He still had many unresolved emotions.  "I stand still and try to gather memory.  I open a mental map and unfold it carefully, square by square".
  Bin's first father discovered that Bin was headed to the camp and he drove there with his brother.  Bin had not seen his father in all of those 51 years.  But Bin is now ready to face the past and face the father who gave him away. 
  The ending is so perfect: "I move towards him.  Both of his arms pulling me in.  A son, after all.  Again.  A father, a son." 

Frances Itani did a great deal of research to develop this fictional story from actual historic events.
I also enjoyed her novel "Deafening", about a deaf girl in World War One.  Once again, I learned a lot about history in an effective way.
Her book "Remembering the Bones" did not interest me as much, as it was an 80-year-old lady reviewing her life as she laid in a ditch waiting for help after a car accident.
Frances Itani does her best work when she is bringing history to life.

Monday, 7 December 2015

book club choices

old picture
Boy!  Are we organized! Every fall, we choose books for the following year.
Each person pitches one classic and one contemporary novel.
Then we vote on those suggestions.
You would think we would run out of classics after 18 years.  
But we still came up with some great ideas.
new picture
Our choices show how eclectic we are.  Everything from Shakespeare to Grimm's fairy tales.  We plan to learn a lot about the original Grimm fairy tales and see how they have changed to make them more suitable for children.

Here is our classic list for 2016:
Hamlet (Shakespeare)
Rebecca (Du Maurier)
The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
Around the World in 80 Days (Verne)
Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Jungle Book (Kipling)

Our contemporary novels look interesting also:
Girl in Translation (Jean Kwok)
A House in the Sky (Amanda Lindhout)
The Sandcastle Girls (Chris Bohjalian)
The Illegal (Lawrence Hill)
The Room (Emma Donoghue)
Orphan Train (Christina Baker Kline)

Friday, 4 December 2015

Anne of Green Gables

   We have toured P.E.I. and checked out all the Anne of Green Gables tourist locations.
  We also attended the play in Charlottetown.
   So, recently we took the opportunity to see the musical production at the Dunfield theatre.

While reading the program, we discovered what we had not realized before.  It was written by Don Harron!
  Mostly everyone knows and loves the stories of Anne, written by the author Lucy Maud Montgomery, but we were surprised to learn that Don Harron had written the musical.  
  Do you remember Don Harron?  
He was an actor who performed everything from Shakespeare to T.V. shows such as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E".
  We loved him when he did his comedy routines as Charlie Farquharson.  While we were in P.E.I. in 2003, we stopped at the Comedy Barn in Stanley Bridge, where we were very entertained by a show put on by Don Harron and his wife Catherine McKinnon. 
  Actually, he had four wives.  Catherine McKinnon was his second wife.  She was a singer and the show was filled  with great music and fabulous comedy.  The Charlie Farquharson routine was like no other comedy routine that we have seen.  We loved it!
  Don Harron was very talented, writing 17 books and winning many awards- from the order of Canada to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
Don Harron died in January, 2015 at age 90.
Great to remember this talented man!

Monday, 30 November 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

   It took the author ten years to write this book and it may take ten years for me to completely organize it in my head.  I believe it should have a warning: 
"Not for left-brain readers". 

   Last night, I read this quote: "Good order is the foundation of all things" (Edmund Burke 1729-1797, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher).

   This book has no order, at least not one that I can find.  It begins in 1944 and ends in 2014, but here are the section titles: Aug. 7, 1944; 1934; Aug. 8, 1944; June, 1940, August 8, 1944; January, 1941; August 8, 1944; August, 1942; August 9, 1944; May, 1944; August 12, 1944; 1945; 1975; 2014.

   Who does that make sense to? Can right-brain people make sense of this?
   There definitely are people who are able to appreciate this book.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 as well as other prizes.
   I recognize that there are great characters and a fascinating plot, but without any order, I cannot appreciate anything in the book.  Frustration does not make for a good reading experience.

  The author has used two protagonists and the narrative flips back and forth.  The chapters are short- often only one page.

  Putting the story together is much like a puzzle and I love puzzles, so why not join those two pleasures?  Because puzzles are work and when I begin a puzzle, I am in 'work mode'- looking for a challenge.  However, when I read, I relax and  expect that the author has done the work  and I just have to jump in and ride along.
  No pleasure here- only frustration.

   I have not given details of the plot or characters, but my fellow blogger does a good job of that.  You can read Sue's blog here.

   This book was the focus of a recent book club and I asked if the others were comfortable with the time changes.  Of the 20 people attending, 9 were positive about the non-linnear method of storytelling.  We also learned that it can be called a "disruptive" narrative.  
  While discussing the book, I was reminded of the great themes and wonderful characters and it made me more annoyed that the book was not presented in a fashion that could be enjoyed by all.                

Friday, 27 November 2015


I had a really good opportunity to make use of my kobo while I was reading 
"The Count of Monte Cristo".
I admit that I still have mixed feelings.  
I often talk about covers.  I love a good cover!  And the tactile aspect of the actual book cannot be matched by a machine.

But I have to admit that it was much easier to read a long book on the e-reader.
And...of course, it is so much easier to carry to appointments or other places where you need to wait.  So easy to tuck in your purse.
But I would be bereft without that pile of books beside my chair.  Glancing at the pile gives me a wonderful feeling of anticipation- part of the 'joy of reading'.
Isn't it interesting to look at the covers and imagine what the book will contain?
I am anxious to get into "When Books Went to War".  It tells about how outraged the Americans were when the Nazis burned 100 million books during World War II.  And so, the American War Department joined the publishing industry in a program to print small, lightweight paperbacks suitable to be carried in pockets and rucksacks.  There are two lists in the back of this book.  One list contains titles of books that were banned by the Germans and the other is the titles of books that were specially printed for the American armed forces.

"Books are weapons in the war of ideas".

Monday, 23 November 2015

Giller Prize- 2015

   I am always delighted to see literary events televised on mainstream T.V.  So I was looking forward to the Gillers.  But, sadly, I was greatly disappointed.  
   Rick Mercer has taken over hosting the show and I didn't find him at all entertaining.  The interviews with the authors were strange, the whole format did not appeal to me.  The background of the stage was blah and the speeches were almost non-existent.  I wish there had been more panning of the audience to at least remember authors that we love.
  And now to the books!  Well, here is what the Toronto Star had to say:
It’s also a year in which the Giller selections — culled from 168 submissions by five international judges — were not exactly in lockstep with the bestseller list. After all, two short-story collections, two works of philosophical literary fiction and, well, a book about a compulsive sexual deviant do not necessarily coalesce into a bookseller’s dream display.
 Enough said about the books. But I took a walk down memory lane and remembered when the books were more appealing.  
  I have read many of the past winners.  I didn't enjoy all of them but could, at least, see how other readers might consider them winners.

  Here are my favourites:
"A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry
"Mercy Among Children" by David Richard Adams
"Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures" by Vincent Lam
"The Bishop's Man" by Linden MacIntyre
"Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood

P.S. There was one small pleasure in the award show.  Alexander MacLeod was one of the judges.  I enjoyed reading his novel "Light Lifting".  And I adored his father, Alistair MacLeod, who died last year.  Alistair wrote one of my all-time favourite novels, "No Great Mischief".  I also greatly enjoyed listening to Alistair talk.  He was a great author and an interesting man.

Friday, 20 November 2015

long books

book group in 2006  We tackle anything!
  Reading "The Count of Monte Crisco" reminds me of 1998, when I first joined this book group. They were reading "Middlemarch" that month, and the next month read "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth.  There was a stunning quote that I have never forgotten (in "A Suitable Boy").
  "I hate long books, the better, the worse.  If they're bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes.  But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends..  I still bear the scars of "Middlemarch".
  What a coincidence that we read these two books one after another.
  Well, "Middlemarch" was 852 pages, but "A Suitable Boy" was 1400 pages!  Imagine an author who is writing a 1400 page book writing about a character who complains about 852 pages. Is that irony?

And so, back to "The Count of Monte Cristo".  1,272 pages.
I did turn into a social moron!   But, somehow, I was continually drawn into this complex story of revenge.  I found that it really stretched my mind to keep the narrative in focus, while following convoluted digressions from the main narrative.  I found some parts boring and wondered why they were included, but the ending brought everything and everybody together.  

I am reminded of this quote by Henry David Thoreau:
"Reading is a noble intellectual exercise- not that which lulls us, but what he have to stand on tiptoe to read".

Sunday, 15 November 2015

"The Count of Monte Cristo" revisited

  Everyone knows the story of "The Count of Monte Cristo"- perhaps because of the movie.  It is an adventure story beginning with Edmond Dantes, who is sent to prison for relaying a message from Napoleon, living in exile, to his followers in Paris.   
   The three men who conspired to have Dantes imprisoned are then Dantes' targets for revenge.
  At one point, Dantes said, "In return for a slow profound, eternal torture, I would give back the same, were it possible; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."  He was not interested in a quick duel or guillotine.  So his revenge is well- thought out.
  But it is a long, long tale that winds its way along through 1,272 pages.
  My favourite part was the years of imprisonment, where he met a priest who was tunnelling his way to freedom.  The relationship between these two men was fascinating and Dantes' escape was exciting.  However, it was because of the priest's death that he was able to accomplish the complex feats of revenge.

The middle part of the book is filled with the story of two young men "belonging to the first society of Paris."  
The Carnival at Rome is quite spectacular, since it begins with beheadings.  And then:
"From every street and every corner drove carriages filled with clowns, harlequins, dominoes, mummers, pantomimists, Transteverins, knights and peasants, screaming, fighting, gesticulating, throwing eggs filled with flour, confetti, nosegays, attacking, with their sarcasms and their missiles, friends and foes, companions and strangers, indiscriminately, and no one took offence, or did anything but laugh". (Chapter 36)

The shortened version of the story gave me the basic structure of the story, but the actual novel is delicious in showing the long,  well-planned out retribution for each of the four characters who had a part in Dantes imprisonment.
The skill of the plot is really brilliant and I got very enmeshed and addicted to the action.

The climax is stunning when The Count of Monte Cristo is in a box at the opera and is confronted by the son of one of his 'targets for revenge'.  He is challenged to a duel, accepts, and then continues watching the opera- by William Tell!
  I immediately went to my computer and listened to the "William Tell Overture".  Listen to it here.

Alexandre Dumas lived from 1802-1870.
His books have been translated into 100 languages and have been adapted into 200 films.
This novel was written in serial form.
I have read that, although Dumas was married, in the tradition of higher social class, he had numerous affairs (about 40), resulting in a number of children.  One son, named after his father, also became a successful writer.
This is how Dumas has been described: "the most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself."

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Count of Monte Cristo

   Anyone reading my blog knows that I love book clubs.  I have belonged to many over the years.  Some of them don't last very long.

Well, I have belonged to one particular book club for 17 years.  This book club reads a classic novel every other month.  Since we meet 12 times a year, I have read over one hundred classics with this book club.
  Our choice this month: "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas.  This picture shows the library copy- 1,272 pages with no pictures and small print.

But, I am in luck!  I found this edited version with only 140 pages!  Excellent!
It is very easy to read because it is written for those readers who are new to the English language.  The introduction adds: "it will be suitable, in fact, for anyone who finds the original book too long or too difficult".

And so, I read the edited version in very short order.  And I got the gist of the story.  However, I was not satisfied that I had really read the book.  In fact, it whetted my appetite for the real thing.  With 117 chapters, I figured that it would take between 20 and 30 hours to read the original novel.  And so I began.....

And then I remembered that I had a kobo that I hadn't used for years, and it was loaded with 100 classics when I bought it.  Sure enough, it includes "The Count of Monte Cristo"!  Yeah!
So, please don't disturb me.  I am busy reading about Edmond Dantes who was unjustly put in prison for aiding Napoleon Bonapart in 1815.  I am at 11 percent of the book, and Dantes is digging a tunnel in the wall of the prison, meeting with another prisoner.  I love the flavour of the actual writing of Alexandre Dumas, and plan to continue until.....

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Rating novels

  Readers seem to enjoy rating a novel after discussing it.
I have written a blog about Harriet Klausner, an Amazon reviewer, who always gave books four or five stars out of five.
Preston Library Book Club
What do the stars mean?
I found this rating system:
*  awful
**  okay                     
***  good
****  very good
*****  excellent
But my book clubs like to rate on a scale of 1 to 10.  So I would expect that a 'very good' book would get 8 or 9 stars.
I gave "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" a rating of 9.  In fact, I thought it was almost a perfect book.  If a book has everything I require for a good reading experience, I don't hesitate to give it a rating of 10.  But many people don't feel that any book deserves a rating of 10.

I look at the four experiential elements:
           character, plot, language, setting.
   I thought that "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" had very interesting characters, a convoluted plot with some surprises, wonderful language including a little Southern drawl, and a clear sense of place.
   There were great themes in this book, especially friendship and guilt.  I would have rated the book at 10, except that the narrative was not linear.  Perhaps that is a better structure for a mystery story like this, but I don't enjoy constant changes in time and place.  It seems to be very popular but I enjoy the old-fashioned linear storyline where I can jump in and swim along!
My personal thoughts on rating are these:
   When a book has been chosen for a book club, hopefully someone has read and recommended the book.  Therefore, I would expect no ratings to be under 5.  Even though it does not meet every reader's personal requirements, the book must have value.  The purpose of book clubs is to bring to the readers' attention, books that they were unaware of.  However, it is a free country and any rating is fine with me.  One reader hated the snakes in the book.  Snakes were only involved in one scene, but it was a very powerful scene, and it must have revived old personal fears and that reader gave the book a 2 rating.  Actually, I think my husband also gave a book a 2 rating because of the killing of innocent people.  Emotional responses cannot be denied, and play a part in our enjoyment of a novel.

Maybe the point system is too complicated.  Could we simplify the process, to rating by words?
   awful, okay, good, very good, excellent.       What do you think?

Monday, 9 November 2015

"Crooked Letter Crooked Letter" by Tom Franklin

  With 23 people in our book club, we have to share the selected books.  So I had two days to read this book.  I had cleared my calendar so I could spend large amounts of time reading.  What a delight!
  I was intrigued from the opening sentence: "The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house".
   Rural Mississippi, in the 1970's.

The title: "M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I." - the way that southern children are taught to spell Mississippi.

  Rural Mississippi is really important in this novel- the racial tension, the guns, and there are snakes.
  The cover is ominous, showing two boys who love to be together in spite of the differences in their social status- one black, one white.
  It is a story of guilt, loneliness, sacrifice, murder, mystery, intrigue.
  I loved it- more than anyone else in the book club.
I will talk about rating books in my next blog.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Ken McGoogan

Ken McGoogan
I am so pleased that "Third Age Learning" has developed a chapter in Cambridge.  This week, we heard author Ken McGoogan talk about researching the eleven books that he has written.
This book was the focus of his lecture, since it is his most recent book, just published this year.
"Celtic Lightning: how the Scots and the Irish created a Canadian nation".
Ken travels wherever his research leads and one story seems to lead into another story.
  Isn't this a gorgeous cover?

The book that interested me the most was written a few years ago and is a compilation of Canadian biographies.  
"50 Canadians Who Changed the World"
He writes about activists, visionaries, artists, humanitarians, performers, scientists and inventors.  This is the first book that I will be reading.

Ken's wife was looking after book sales and was mentioned often in his talk, since she accompanies him on his research travels.
Sheena Fraser McGoogan is an artist who works from a studio in the Beaches in Toronto.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Book Reviews

Harriet Klausner
   Because I was reading so much in October, I didn't get any time for blogging.  Some people can do both.  My friend Terri, gave me an article about Harriet Klausner.  Actually it was Harriet's death notice.  She had been a self-appointed star Amazon critic who wrote 31,014 reviews.
                 31,014 reviews!!!
   I became interested in learning more about Harriet and found lots of interesting articles. 
   Harriet was born in the Bronx, but lived in Atlanta.  She had a degree in library science and had been a librarian. According to Wikipedia, "ailments kept her home and insomnia kept her up". 
  Harriet claimed to have read 2 or 3 books a day- but her profile in Time magazine reported that she read 4 to 6 books a day.  She gave every book a rating of 4 or 5.

  She was the #1 ranked reviewer on until 2008, when they began a new ranking system, based on feedback from the readers, rather than how prolific the reviewer was.

   BUT, there are interesting thoughts on whether Harriet actually read the books or not, since she wrote so many reviews.  One person called her a 'shill'.  Interesting word. 

  Author John Birmingham wrote a book called "Designated Targets", and deliberately included a character named Harriet Klausner.  She made no mention of this in her review.  Bingo!
  However, her fame brought her boxes of advanced readers copies from editors and publishing houses.  She became part of a move from professional reviews to amateur online reviewing.  There were people who would be thinking, "I wonder what Harriet would think of this book".
  But sometimes she wrote 10 - 20 reviews in one day and a backlash began.  It was called the Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society but it really was mocking her.  People were complaining about being misled by her positive reviews.  They no longer believed that she read the books that she wrote about.
   Perhaps she was a shill.  Hmmm

Saturday, 31 October 2015


  October has been a fabulous month for weather!  I have loved the beautiful colours.
  I have also read 8 books.  And what a variety they have been!
  Some were for book clubs, one was inspirational, and one was a conundrum.  That would be "Stoner", a book that I have already blogged about.  When I was finished reading that book, I had to call my friend Penny because I knew that she had read it.  I begged for a chat over lunch.  I love the experience of chewing over a book and trying to get to the 'meat of it'.  I knew there was a lot more than appeared on the surface.
   I have mentioned that fall is the season for giving out book prizes.  I did a blog on The Man Booker Prize, which gives 50,000 pounds to the best book in the English language.  I was reminded yesterday that the winner has been announced and here it is:

  "A Brief History of Seven Killings" by Marlon James
Neither the title nor the cover invokes a smidgeon of interest in me.
  But apparently it is brilliantly written.  And I expect that is the reason for the choice.  The subject matter is another thing.  It is a fictionalized account of the life of the Jamaican reggae singer/song writer  Bob Marley.  
    To quote an Amazon reviewer: "It is a flaming hot stew of language, Jamaican history, politics, gangs, drug wars, fear and loathing in Kingston ghettos."  Interested?  The chair of the judges said that it was a unanimous decision.  Apparently it is very funny, very human, very exciting, very violent, and full of swearing.  Now does it sound interesting?
  So that is the winner of one of the book awards, now I am waiting for the Giller and, my favourite of all, Canada Reads.
The coloured leaves in the fall remind me of the abundance of reading choices. The variety is spectacular!  The human condition is so complex that there will always be  more variety than we can imagine.
I hope you find some comforting books as we head into November, a more somber month.

Friday, 23 October 2015

"Stoner" by John Williams

This book was recommended by the same English professor that recommended "The Good Soldier".
However, being a linear story, it was much easier to read.

William Stoner is an ordinary man, born into a poor farming family, intending to take some college courses in agricultural studies and return to the farm.  However, he falls in love with literature and begins a life of academia. This life gives him great intellectual highs, but also many personal lows.
It is painful to read about his marriage to a most strange lady.  He stays in the marriage because of his love for his daughter.
His career has some bright points, but also it is filled with challenges and boredom, not to mention the run-ins with the college administration.
He has one romantic fling that has to be cut short because of his fear of losing his job and his daughter.
The novel is short and bleak- life sucks and then you die.  wow!
However, there is such beauty in the telling!
John Williams
I was mesmerized by the emotion of the novel and couldn't put it down.

The novel was written in 1965 and was modestly received by the public.  However, it was reprinted in 2003 and gained more readers.  In 2007, it was called "a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away".  In 2013, it began to take off in sales and was called "the great American novel that you've never heard of".