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