August 28, 2010

Becoming George Sand - Rosalind Brackenbury

As a certified (or certifiable?) Chopin fanatic, I knew of George Sand because of her relationship with Chopin. So I was drawn to this book when I saw it at the bookstore, hoping to be able to read about the composer of the most beautiful piano music ever written.

Unfortunately, the reading of it didn't live up to my expectations. Rather than a novel about a feminist writer ahead of her time, her relationship with one of the great Romantic composers, and life in the rich literary and musical society of Paris in the 1800s; I found myself immersed in Chick Lit of the worst kind. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy well written Chick Lit at times (Bridget Jones anyone?), but this wasn't that.

I guess one of my biggest complaints about this book is that I found all of the characters to be entirely unsympathetic.

The main character, Marie, is researching George Sand in order to write a book about her. There are clumsily incorporated flashbacks to George Sand's life, but the main story focuses on Marie. And Marie's biggest problem in life is that she is trying to balance the security of her 20-year old marriage with the excitement of her younger lover. I'm afraid that I just can sympathize with a woman who complains, "In the twenty-first century, it seems to be necessary to lie to one's children as well as one's husband. What she is doing is simply not what married women, mothers, do. Not in this country, not in this town, not in this century, two hundred years after George's birth. When did this change happen? When did history turn over in the night and decree that adultery was a punishable offense again, punishable not by stoning or imprisonment, but by more subtle means? Being accused of cheating, of immaturity - the new sin - of being unfit to bring up one's children?" Call me old-fashioned (and Marie probably would) for thinking that marriage means something, including forsaking all others for your spouse; but when was adultery socially acceptable?

Marie does get her come-uppance - her husband finds out about her lover and leaves her; and her lover also leaves her to be faithful to his wife and children - but even by the end of the book, Marie shows no signs of acknowledging that her views may be maybe just a wee bit wrong.

And the characters in the flashbacks don't come across any better. George Sand seems to be quite stupid, while Chopin is weak and whiney. And as for the rich artistic community of 19th Century Europe? Lots of name dropping but never fleshed out.

My previously held views of the Chopin/George Sand relationship (and keep in mind that I am a Chopin fan) was of Chopin, the frail but brilliant genius who was bullied to death by the domineering George Sand. This book tries to portray Chopin as weak and selfish, who depended on George Sand to manage and plan and look after him. Who knows what the truth was. Probably somewhere in the middle.

Oh well. I am playing the piano at church tomorrow, and if nothing else, reading this book this week has inspired me to slip some Chopin into the service. Maybe one of the preludes (mentioned in this book) for the offertory...

August 22, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Let me preface this by stating that I am not a fan of zombies. In fact (confession time), I found the zombie scene in Pirates of the Caribbean to be so disturbing that I had to close my eyes and I couldn't watch it.

However, I am a fan of Jane Austen, and when a friend whose taste in books I generally respect (waves to Kirsti if you are reading this!) suggested this as a fun read, I decided to give it a try.

Basically, this book takes the events of Pride and Prejudice (which I'm pretty sure that most people are familiar with, either from the book or one of the many film versions), and sets it in an England that is under attack from zombies. Elizabeth, as well as being intelligent and well read etc, is also a fierce warrior, taking delight in beheading the "unmentionables."

The bare bones of the plot are essentially the same as in the original, with any possibility to include gore and fighting added in.

Was it entertaining? Yes, for the first 50 or so pages, until the novelty of the re-write wore off. I found myself missing the language and the subtlety of the original, as it tended to be over-simplified in this version. Not surprising though, considering the whole premise of zombies!

So I think from now on, I will stick with re-reading the original. And maybe occasionally drooling over Colin Firth in the BBC version!

August 17, 2010

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano

I love prime numbers. To me they symbolize independence - "I don't need any of you divisors to stand strong as my own number!" When Dad was celebrating his 61st birthday a few years ago, he felt as though it was a bit of a let-down after his 60th the year before, until I pointed out that he had to celebrate a prime year, as another one won't come along until he reaches 67.

So it was the title of this book that attracted me. This book tells the story of two societal "misfits" who meet in high school, and stay friends into their adulthood. Alice suffers a skiing accident and ends up with a lame leg (though speaking as a physiotherapist, I don't see how a fractured fibula could result in the degree of disability Alice develops - it isn't part of the knee joint and isn't normally a weight-bearing bone), then subsequently develops a severe eating disorder and withdraws from her family. Mattia is traumatized by the disappearance of his twin sister (by his own fault), and develops self-mutilating behaviours and is possibly somewhere along the autism spectrum disorder, as well as being a mathematical genius. He is the one who considers himself and Alice to be prime numbers, possibly twin primes (two prime numbers separated only by one other number - e.g. 11 and 13, or 17 and 19).

Interesting concept, but unfortunately it didn't live up to my hopes. I found the vagueness to be annoying at times - Alice has an unspecified disability, her mother is dying of an unspecified illness, Mattia moves to an unspecified university. And the book just ends, with no resolution - just people drifting through space and time. I also found the characters to be very two-dimensional (though this was probably compounded by the fact that I started it just after finishing The Diviners with such strong characters) and therefore hard to care about.

It was an easy read, and tugged at my heart at times, but unfortunately not a favourable overall impression.

August 14, 2010

The Diviners - Margaret Laurence

I read my way through the Manawaka books by Margaret Laurence the summer that I was 17, living in Rivière du Loup, Québec, staying with a family and learning French. If I had had easy access to any other books in English, I probably would have given up after The Stone Angel as I detested that book, but fortunately I persevered and each book got better (in my opinion) so by the time I reached The Diviners, I quite enjoyed it.

I have not re-read any of these books in the past 16 years, but The Diviners has been on my "to be re-read" list for a while and I finally picked it up this week. And I am glad that I did! Looking back at my 17-year-old self, I'm sure that lots of this book (and probably the others in the series) went right over my head, but I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read.

How to summarize this book in a paragraph? Now there is a challenge. Morag Gunn is born in small-town Manitoba; loses her parents at a young age; is brought up by the town scavenger (garbage collector) and his dim wife; goes to university in Winnipeg vowing to escape the life she has grown up in; marries her professor; becomes a writer; leaves her husband; has a baby with a childhood friend/lover; raises the baby on her own in Vancouver, London (England), and finally McConnell's Landing (rural southern Ontario). It is her search to find herself - where she has come from and where she wants to go.

I found myself really relating to Morag on this re-reading. Loved in her own family but socially awkward outside of home; moving from place to place in search of "home"; introverted and living inside her head. There is a great scene where Morag learns to cry in front of others - that was also a difficult lesson for me to learn. And a time where her daughter tells her, "You're so goddamn proud and so scared of being rejected," that hit home for me as well.

I went looking for an image of the cover of the edition that I was reading (Banatam, 1975 - Mum must have bought it when it first came out in paperback), but couldn't find it. But along the way, I learned a bit about Margaret Laurence, and discovered that a lot of this book was autobiographical - born in small-town Manitoba; loss of parents when young; early writing career; worked at a newspaper; university in Winnipeg; married then separated from her husband; living in Vancouver, England, Toronto, and rural southern Ontario. There is even an element of the predictive in this book as Jules, Morag's sometimes-lover, commits suicide when he has terminal cancer - Margaret Laurence did the same in 1987.

So a good book, yes; but I don't know if that will inspire me to go back and re-read the rest of the series!

August 8, 2010

Where God Begins to Be - Karen Karper

What a delightful and though-provoking book this is. I first heard about it last May over on Amanda's blog, and immediately went and ordered a copy for myself.

In 1959, at the age of 17, the author entered a Poor Clare monastery and spent 30 years living in community as a nun. During that time, she struggled with a call to give up the community life and the security that it promised, and enter the wilderness to become a hermit and trust in God to provide for her day-to-day needs.

This is her story of growth and learning survival skills (chopping wood, fetching water, killing poisonous snakes etc) as well as her spiritual growth (sharing what little she had and trusting that she would have enough; seeing the beauty and cherishing what she once sought to destroy - wild rosebushes in this case; patience and humility in learning to quilt; being still and hearing the voice of God).

There are several quotes throughout the book that sum it up very well:

"There where clinging to things ends, there God begins to be." (Meister Eckhart)

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, ... and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." (Robert Frost)

"Your heavenly father knows all that you need. Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides." (Matt. 6:32-33, a slightly different translation than the one that I am familiar with)

I enjoyed this book very much, and can relate to a lot of the struggles that she goes through - trusting that God knows what we need more than we do; balancing solitude with relationship; having the confidence to go into myself and evaluate what I truly think and feel. It constantly raised questions in my mind. What am I doing in my life that shows God's kingship over me? Do I trust that God will provide for me, or am I still clinging to self-reliance? Could I live a life in solitude? I think that I will choose to answer these questions in the privacy of my journal rather than here in public!

I had assumed that a hermits life implied total solitude, so I was surprised at how much of the book dealt with building relationships with others (not just God). From the two Franciscan sisters living down the road, to her cat, to other neighbours who always showed up with exactly what was needed, when it was needed. After this book arrived, but before I had a chance to read it, I loaned it to a Very Catholic friend of mine (waves to Sarah if you are reading this!) who said that she enjoyed the book, but that it wasn't what she was expecting. I wonder if it was this aspect that she meant?

This is a book that I think is going to stay with me, and that I will choose to re-read on a regular basis. There were just so many messages in it for me.

August 7, 2010

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass - Drew Hayden Taylor

I loved this book! It had an original plot, it made me laugh out loud, and it was paced so that I couldn't put it down.

The story takes place in Otter Lake, a fictional reserve located (to the best of my reckoning) several hundred kilometers north of Toronto. Things get shaken up when Nanabush, the trickster in Ojibwe mythology, rides into town on a 1953 Indian Chief Motorcycle, disguised as a tall, muscular, White man with long blonde hair and eyes that change from blue to green to hazel to amber, depending on his mood (it is implied that this disguise was based on a Harlequin cover!). He has come to say goodbye to his former love, Lillian who is dying; and then stays around to seduce Maggie, Lillian's daughter and the chief of Otter Lake, and to create mischief in and bring magic to the community. Maggie's son Virgil doesn't trust this stranger, and enlists the help of Wayne, Maggie's recluse brother who lives on an island developing an aboriginal martial art, to fight off the stranger.

Now how's that for a plot summary?! It reads at times as a fairy tale, at times as a morality tale, and at times as a straight novel. I was reminded at times of Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass with the absurdity and delight of pure nonsense.

In the past couple of years, I have read several great books by Canadian First Nations authors (Kiss of the Fur Queen - Thomson Highway; Through Black Spruce - Joseph Boyden; Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden). This one was much lighter in tone than the others, but still touched on some of the same heavier issues - the residential school experience and legacy, abuse, current day conflict and land issues, education. There is a section discussing the difference between Anishnawbe and First Nations, and I did notice that White is always capitalized (and why not - after all, First Nations / Anishnawbe / Indian is always capitalized).

I think that this book will go onto my "to be re-read" list, and it will probably make my "Top Reads of 2010" list at the end of the year. It also counts as a selection for the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

August 1, 2010

The Boy in the Moon - Ian Brown

This book initially grabbed my attention last winter when it was nominated for, and won, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. The topic fascinated me, and as a prize winner, I was pretty sure that it would be well-written.

But the real impetus for picking it up this month was that Ian Brown was going to be at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival in August, and I had signed up to attend his session. Unfortunately, when I got home last week, I had a phone message from the festival telling me that Ian Brown was not going to be able to attend the festival, and I would have to choose a different session. I am disappointed about this (his session was the primary reason that I had signed up to attend the festival), but very glad that I have read this book.

Fourteen years ago, on June 23, 1996, Walker Brown was born with severe physical and intellectual disabilities that were later diagnosed as cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), a very rare genetic condition. This book is his story as told by his father; as well as his father's story of trying to get to know and understand his son.

Walker's father does everything he can; from genetic testing, to meeting with researchers, to an MRI scan, to meeting with parents of other children with CFC; in order to learn about Walker and his abilities and disabilities. But in the end, it is actually his interactions with Walker and the people around him who love and care for him, that teach him about his son.

What really got to me was the poignancy of this story. The joy and the despair (at times) and the love and the sorrow. I had tears running down my face at times; and I laughed out loud at times. And the authors unique voice shone through at all times.

What I didn't like about this book was that I couldn't determine any structure. The chapter divisions seemed almost random; and the story was told neither linearly nor by topic. I don't know if this was deliberate, but I finished the book feeling as though I had been going around in circles and arriving (almost) back at the beginning again. I say almost because along the way, the author does have several insights into himself and his son.

But what I will remember from this book is not the structure, but Walker and the people who love him. I am going to close with a long-ish passage from the end of the book that seemed best to convey the message of Walker and his story.

These days, I have a fantasy of my own. In my fantasy, Walker and people like him live in a L'Arche-like community, with the help of assistants. It's a beautiful place, in a beautiful spot, with a view of the sea or the mountains, because for once, in this place, it isn't just those who can afford them who have access to the best views, but people who might need beauty even more, because they live with so much less. In my fantasy, this village is owned and inhabited by the disabled, on their schedule, at their pace, according to their standards of what is successful - not money or results, but friendship, and fellow feeling, and companionship. In my fantasy, it is the rest of us, the normals, who have to be "integrated" into their society, who have to adapt to their pace and their place. I can leave, I can go back to my more pressing and even more interesting life, but I can also return to live with Walker, as Walker lives - slowly, and without much of an agenda beyond merely being himself.

Because in my fantasy lots of people want to visit and live in Walker's society for extended stretches at a time. Composers, writers, artists, students, MBA types doing their doctorates in business administration, researchers, executives on sabbatical - we too can enjoy the privilege of living in Walker's village for a few weeks or months at a time, in pleasant rooms of our own where we're encouraged to pursue our work, our art and our studies. Our only obligation is to integrate ourselves into the disabled world by eating lunch and dinner with them, and, once a week, by giving one of the residents a bath. The rest of the time we are free to think and write and paint and compose and analyze and calculate. But by then the disabled will have done their work, accomplished their goals, and changed the way we see the world. We will have benefited far more that we have benefited them, but they won't mind. Walker will have made his contribution, by simply being there. As I say, a fantasy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

So I finally succumbed to the hype and decided to pick this book up. I bought it partly because of all of the good reviews; and partly because the paperback version is so think that it is almost a cube and I had a long airplane ride to pass (which actually turned out to be 7 long airplane rides in order to get to the final destination!). Ironically, I barely picked up the book on the plane, maybe reading 10 pages before reaching Zambia. But once there, I made pretty fast progress through it.

It is a basic mystery book, with a twist. Mikael Blomkvist is hired to discover the truth about how Harriet Vanger disappeared forty years ago. He then hires Lisbeth Salander to assist him with digging through historical documents. They do solve the mystery, and in the process discover goings-on that one faction of the Vanger family would prefer to remain secret.

I'm not quite sure why this book has been so hyped. Maybe because the author died before it and the two sequels were published. Maybe because of the rumours that there are another one or two sequels in his computer that are being argued over in the courts. Maybe because it is a very easy read.

I didn't feel particularly compelled by this book. I found the first half of the book to be boring (and with such a thick book, that was several hundred pages). The next third was gripping and hard to put down. But then the ending of the book seemed to drag on forever and I struggled to finish it before getting onto the airplane again, so that I could leave it behind!

The story was pretty conventional, as far as mysteries go. Nothing special here, though the story that was uncovered was very disturbing.

And most of the characters didn't grab me either, with the exception of Lisbeth Salander. She is quite the enigma. Fiercely independent, brilliant, socially inept, and with an unexplained background. I haven't decided yet whether I will read the sequels, but if I do, it will be purely because I want to find out what happens next to Lisbeth, and hopefully discover more about her past.

So definitely a mixed review on this one. It kept me sufficiently occupied while away on holidays, but not much beyond that.