September 30, 2011

The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje

I don't know why, but I always look forward to the publication of a new Micahel Ondaatje book. I loved The English Patient when I first read it back in my university days, enjoyed In the Skin of a Lion almost as much. However with his more recent books (Anil's Ghost and Divisidaro), I have found myself wavering in my loyalty.

I think that I enjoyed The Cat's Table as much as his earlier books, and certainly more than his more recent books, but only time will tell if it is as memorable. I think that is what I didn't enjoy about Anil's Ghost and Divisidero - they were very forgettable. If you were to ask me know, I wouldn't be able to tell you what they were about.

The Cat's Table is different. I found both the plot line, the setting, and the characters to be engaging, and therefore, I hope, memorable. Michael (yes, the author has stated that this book has autobiographical tendencies) is an 11-year old passenger on a ship traveling from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950's. He is assigned to take his meals at the Cat's Table - the table farthest from the captain's table. The story revolves around his interactions with fellow passengers both at his table and from other tables; as well as the happenings at sea as they journey half way around the world.

In the second half of the book, there are some happenings from the time after Michael arrives in England interspersed with the story of the ocean journey. This was not intrusive, and the past and the future link together so that both story lines make more sense.

There is a bit of a mystery on board that Michael didn't understand as an 11 year old, and he is gradually able to piece together as an adult, as he encounters other people who had been on board the ship.

This book has made it to the longlist for the Giller Prize, and I am hoping that it makes it to the shortlist when it is announced next week.

September 19, 2011

Reference and Thank You

It's always humbling to discover that your opinion is valued enough that others will reference it and use it as a source; so I was quite chuffed to find out that a friend of mine quoted an essay that I wrote a few years back in a sermon that she gave yesterday. The full sermon can be found here, and the original essay was published by the CBC and can be found here. Thank you Laura Marie! I feel very honoured.

September 18, 2011

Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It has been a bit of a joke of mine that there is only room in my brain for one language other than English. So when I learned and became fluent in Swahili, I had to delete my French in order to make room. However I have since discovered that the French is still there, just a bit rusty from lack of use.

This summer when I was in Paris, I picked up a copy of Le Petit Prince from a book stall on the left bank of the Seine. This is a book that I read back in high school French class and remembered liking it a lot, though I couldn't remember any of the plot. I also remember that most of the class (probably all of the class - there were only 6 of us!) tracked down English translations and read the book in English rather than French. And I remember that we had to write an essay on the book; though fortunately I don't remember what I wrote about - probably some pompous BS (as are most high school essays) regurgitating something that the teacher had told us.

I've had a very stressful week. Actually, make that a very stressful 6 months that flared up into an acute state of stress a week ago. This was a perfect book for me to be reading this week. Those vague impressions of liking the book back in high school proved to be true.

It is a hard book to describe for those of you who haven't read it as there are so many layers to the story. On the surface, the narrator crashes his plane in the middle of the Sahara desert where he meets a young boy. It turns out that this boy (the Little Prince) has traveled from a tiny astroid far far away, via some other stars, to the earth in search of some friends. He is now trying to get back to his own planet.

Along his journey he encounters a series of people and animals and each encounter is almost a little morality tale unto itself. He encounters a series of people who show to him the ridiculousness of many people - a king with no one to rule over; a drunk who drinks to forget the shame of being a drunk; a businessman who acquires things for the sake of acquiring them; and a geographer too proud to go exploring to have something to write about.

On the earth he meets a fox who teaches him the message that he needs to learn, which the Little Prince then shares with the narrator. That what is truly important is invisible to the eyes and can only be seen with the heart. To the Little Prince, his rose that he left behind on his planet (the rose that he escaped due to her vanity and self-centredness) is important since she depends on him for protection. To the narrator, it is the relationship that he develops with the Little Prince that is important.

I could list so many favourite quotes from this book that I would lose any readers for this posting, so I will try to limit myself to just a few (all translations by me).

"Nous écrivons des choses éternelles." (We write of the eternal things.)

"Mais si tu m'apprivoises, nous aurons besion l'un de l'autre. Tu serais pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde." (The fox to the prince - But if you tame me, we will need each other. You will be unique to me; and I will be unique to you.)

"On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. C'est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité. Mais tu de doeis pas l'oublier." (We don't see except with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes. It is the time that you have spent on your rose that makes your rose so important. Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget.)

"On est seul aussi chez les hommes." (You are also alone when you are with men/humans.)

"Les grandes personnes sont décidément très très bizarres." (Adults are decidedly very, very bizarre."

"Ce sera comme si je t'avais donné, au lieu d'étoiles, des tas de petits grelots qui savent rire..." (It will be like I have given you, in the place of the stars, little bells that know how to laugh..)

Reading this book reminded me of another quote from high school, this time from English class. "No man is an Island, entire of itself; ... because I am involved in mankind." (John Donne - my very favourite English-language poet). Both the Little Prince and the narrator learn that it is relationships that are important to this life.

Another quote that came to mind is, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3) The innocence and child-like curiosity of the Little Prince are highlighted throughout the book; and yet he is the one that learns and teaches true wisdom at the end.

I'm glad that I was reading this book in the original French (with a dictionary at my side to look up the occasional word that i didn't know), since it forced me to read more slowly and take in every word rather than skimming. And I'm glad that I re-read this book this week. All is going to be OK with the world. I have a feeling that this book is going to be on my "to-reread-regularly" list.

September 15, 2011

The Rebel Angels - Robertson Davies

This is my first selection for the Canadian Book Challenge #5 hosted by John at The Book Mine Set. This year, I decided that rather than just reading 13 Canadian books between July 1 and June 30 (too easy - I usually finish the challenge half way through the year), I would re-read and review 13 Canadian books. Books that I have read and loved; books that I have read and disliked; books that I have read and forgotten.

Book: The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

First Read: Maybe 1993 or 1994? I know that by the time that I went off to university in 1995 I had read everything that Robertson Davies had written, then was very sad when he died that year knowing that he would not be writing any more books for me to enjoy. This is a book that I have re-read many times since the first reading. I usually get a craving to read it in September since it is a book inextricably linked with the school year.

Original Impressions: This wasn't my favourite Davies book the first time I read it. It is the first in a trilogy, and I liked it better than the 2nd book (What's Bred in the Bone) but the 3rd book (The Lyre of Orpheus) was by far my favourite, probably because it dealt with music and musicians. The characters in The Rebel Angels are scholars and professors and academics set in place in a university loosely based in the University of Toronto. I did like the character of Maria who, at age 23, was closest in age to my 17-year-old self. She was everything that I wanted to be - intelligent, beautiful, interesting.

Current Impressions: This book grew on me over the years, probably as I went through the university system (though with a science degree, not the arts); and the humour became funnier. Robertson Davies is one of the few authors that remains laugh-out-loud funny to me, every time I re-read his books. Maria doesn't appeal to me as much now, 18 years later. Have I outgrown her? She seems so immature at times, and lacking in wisdom despite her intelligence. Or maybe it is knowing what happens to her through the next 2 books in the trilogy. She becomes boring (in my opinion). But the other characters have developed much more depth to me since my first reading. It is interesting to re-read a book that I loved at a different stage in life - there are some books that have remained favourites (e.g. Anne of Green Gables); others that have grown on me (e.g. The Diviners); and others that I no longer enjoy (e.g. several by Maeve Binchey).

On this re-reading, I was frustrated by Maria's stubbornness, intrigued by Parlabane's background, sympathetic with Darcourt's frustrations, and impatient with Hollier's single mindedness. Overall, it is a book that continues to hold my interest with each re-reading.

Next up for the challenge? I don't know - maybe a re-reading of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a book that I haven't re-read since my first reading.

September 5, 2011

Flash and Bones - Kathy Reichs

Well, it's the end of summer, and time for my annual Kathy Reichs novel review!

Seriously though, despite the author churning out a book a year (as well as some television scripts), this book is very readable. I have mentioned in previous reviews that at one point I was considering giving up on this series, but the writing has definitely improved. I suspect that the author got a new editor a couple of books ago.

It is a typical murder mystery with multiple bodies both old and fresh; multiple red herrings; multiple suspects; and enough clues that I could have been able to figure out the murderer, but I didn't.

For those of you who haven't read any of her books, the main character Tempe Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who splits her time between Montréal and Charlotte (South Carolina), with this book set fully in and around Charlotte. Her family as well as her romantic life to play a role in the books, though not so much in this book.

For fans of a good mystery, this book can easily stand alone from the rest of the series. For fans of the series, this is a good addition. For fans of NASCAR racing, the story is set in and around race weekend in Charlotte.

September 4, 2011

Dead until Dark - Charaine Harris

I have to confess that I approached this book with a significant amount of hesitation. After the whole Twilight fiasco, I have deliberately avoided all vampire books. However when recently visiting my cousin Kim (the same cousin who dared me to read Twilight; but who also usually has very similar taste in books to me), she loaned me a stack of books including this one. She understood my trepidation (which is why I only took the first book in the series), but assured me that this was likely much more my style than Twilight.

For anyone who doesn't know, this is the first book in the Southern Vampire Mystery series featuring Sookie Stackhouse that has recently been made into the TV programme True Blood.

I did enjoy this book, so thank you Kim for convincing me to read it and lending me your copy! I only wish that I had borrowed the rest of the series when you offered (though my co-worker has now offered to lend her copies to me). Really, the only think that this book had in common with Twilight is the fact that one of the romantic leads is a vampire.

First of all, the book doesn't take itself too seriously. There is a definite vein of humour running through it. Secondly, Sookie is a much more like-able and less spineless (sorry for the double negative!) heroine than Bella. I actually found myself relating to her throughout the book!

I heard the author interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q (CBC radio) earlier this summer before I had read this book, and while reading, I could hear her voice throughout with her soft southern accent.

Plot? Sookie is a mind-reader in small town Louisiana who finds herself intrigued by the new man in town, Bill, who also happens to be a vampire. As several bodies turn up, she finds herself drawn into the vampire world. Almost a cross between a murder mystery novel, a romance, and a paranormal fantasy. With a generous dash of humour thrown in.

I think that I may have found my newest guilty pleasure! Watch for reviews of the rest of the series in months to come...