Saturday, December 31, 2005

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

One of the reviews on the inside front page of this book compared it to Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". This didn't seem too promising to me because I thought that book was dull and uninspiring; fortunately, "Life of Pi" didn't have those qualities. The "Author's Note" at the start of the book promised that the story would make me believe in God. Well, I'm not too sure it managed to do that (at least, not any more than any other book has). However, this was an absorbing and interesting read that made my ongoing (and very slow) quest to read all the Booker Prize winners seem more achievable than it did a few months back when I started, and struggled with, and temporarily gave up on "The Blind Assassin". (Watch this space to discover if I ever make it to the end!)

In case you don't already know, this is a story about a young Indian boy, Pi Patel, who is shipwrecked and finds himself living on a lifeboat with only a hungry Bengal tiger for company. His efforts to survive the threats of tiger, elements, hunger and thirst are the main part of the story, but I almost didn't get to that part because it took me over a week of starting and stopping to really get into this book. Nothing much happens during the first 150 pages while we learn details of Pi's childhood and religious conversion. Luckily, these pages are well written and amusing enough to have kept me trying until the action picked up.

Anyway, once the story got going, this book became quite un-put-downable and for that reason I would recommend it. If you've read it, I'd be curious to know if this story made *you* believe in God (or had some other profound effect). Leave a note in the comments!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

It has taken me a while to finish another book... and not, as one might expect, due to the holidays, but instead because my reading time has been sucked up by this golf game Jeff brought home for the PSP.

Anyway, my mum is visiting right now and has become hooked on the golf game, too, which gave me a chance to swipe the book she just finished (tit for tat!). I read this one when it first came out, but hardly remember anything about it, so was happy to read it again.

Rosamunde Pilcher's novels are peopled with beautiful, impeccably dressed characters with outlandish names. Most of them are wealthy, but generous to the less fortunate around them. This story features retired actress Elfrida Phipps, who moves to a small country village after the death of her lover; her friend Oscar, recovering from a shocking tragedy, and an assortment of relatives and hangers-on whose stories all come together in a magically contrived way at Christmas time, resulting in love, happiness, and new beginnings for all.

In spite of my flip comments, I actually really liked this book - stayed up way past my bedtime reading it. There's something engaging in the story, something that makes me want to find out what will happen to the characters, even while I'm shaking my head over the latest unnecessarily detailed description of what they are wearing. There's some entertainment here that goes beyond the curious overuse of the verb "humping" to mean "carrying something awkward or heavy". In fact I was even able to overlook the main flaw in this story, which is the totally pointless and annoying repeating of information that takes place because each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character; at some points, even the dialogue is repeated, word for word. This would be welcome and necessary if I were reading a serialized novel, but I'm not, so it made me wonder what Ms. Pilcher's editor was up to instead of cutting those sections. (Maybe s/he was busy making sure the all-important clothing descriptions were just right?)

I think the thing that was most compelling to read here was the vivid description of the settings that Pilcher has shown her love for in previous books - a bit of Cornwall, and a lot of rural Scotland. I found as I was reading that I was gripped with a very strong desire to go there; the book made me feel like I'd missed out on something very special and important by never having spent a Christmas in a Scottish village, like the people in this book. Sign me up!

Anyway, that's a lukewarm recommendation if I ever read one! But I'm tired and cranky, so there you go.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Vinyl Cafe Diaries by Stuart McLean

I've already aired my opinions about Stuart McLean and his show last week, so suffice it to say that this is more of the same that you'd find in "Vinyl Cafe Unplugged". Cute, touching, occasionally very funny stories about Dave, Morley, et al. The twist in this book is that it's divided into sections that focus on each member of Dave's family. The best stories, in my opinion, are the ones about Dave. He has an amazing capacity for foolishness. In this book, he kidnaps a duck and brings it into his Halifax hotel room, makes a complete idiot of himself when asked to speak to a university class, and manages to make an absolute, hilarious disaster of babysitting three small children.

Other books I've read by this author:

Vinyl Cafe Unplugged

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Walk to New York by Charles Wilkins

This was an interesting travelogue by a man who, upon the end of his marriage, decided the best way to recover was to go for a really long walk. So in April 2002, he left his home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and ended up 90 days later in... guess! New York City.

The author is a journalist, and it shows in the way that his writing is at its best when reporting on the places he passes through on his journey. He offers some interesting history of the towns he stops in and the people who lived there, and his descriptions of the natural beauty and the native wildlife of northern Ontario and upstate New York are evocative. I enjoyed reading about the building of the railroad through northern Ontario, the history of Manitoulin island, and the geology and history of Lake Superior. That said, there were quite a few places where I felt like he tried too hard, resulting in some odd turns of phrase that feel over-written: "And again she pressed out her throaty cavitating laugh", "my tastebuds convalesced from their umpteenth Montmorency orgasm"... etc.

Wilkins also spends an awful lot of time writing the kinds of things that you might expect someone to be thinking about when they spend hours and hours walking over the course of several weeks. Frankly, I think that stuff is probably interesting only to himself.

We don't miss out on any details of the effect that the walking has on his feet, and we hear about every change of socks or footwear. I also got a little annoyed at his unflattering description of the greater Toronto area. He walks on roads that are not designed for pedestrians, then gets annoyed when he's nearly hit by the cars rushing by. He complains that there's no place for a transient walker to go to the bathroom and that the suburbs have no character, that people in Toronto don't look him in the eye as they drive past (has it occurred to him that they are using their eyes to help them drive, ensuring they don't hit him as he walks on the road?) and apparently believes the suburbs have no character and are evidence of the decline of civilization. Well, that may be true, but I don't know about all the people who live there -- I think they're reasonably happy with it.

This kind of complaining extends to his visits to other places. There are a number of towns he walks through that were home to some writer or artist that Wilkins admires, and he gets really annoyed when the few random people he asks have never heard of the person and don't know where s/he lived when alive. He goes to Cooperstown and is disgusted at all the things that aren't in the baseball hall of fame. Etc, etc.

So, a mixed review of an interesting but at times annoying book.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Vinyl Cafe Unplugged by Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean is Canada's Garrison Keillor wannabe. He does this show on CBC Radio One, on weekends, that is suspiciously like A Prairie Home Companion, except it's Canadian. He also reads these stories out to the live audience, just like Garrison Keillor. He even reads them in a Garrison Keillor voice. And then he publishes them, just like Garrison Keillor. But I'm assured that he is not in fact Garrison Keillor. Hmm. I've never seen either of them, so I will have to reserve judgement.

ANYway... these stories. They're really quite fun, and I'm often lucky enough to be in the car (the only place I listen to the radio) with the radio on at the right moment to hear one of them in its entirety. And every now and again, I'll notice one of these books in the library and will happily take it home and gobble it up. The stories are touching and funny, and revolve around the lives of a couple from Toronto called Dave and Morley, their two children, and their friends and neighbours. Some of the stories in this collection are merely cute, some don't quite work for me, but then there'll be a gem like "Galway", where Dave tries to toilet train his sister's cat, that had me laughing till tears were running down my face, and "Susan is Serious", where Morley comes to terms with the fact that she and a longtime friend have drifted too far apart to have anything in common. This book also contains a favourite story that McLean repeats fairly often around this time of year, "Christmas Presents", about the year when Morley convinced everyone in the family to do homemade Christmas gifts for one another. Morley decides to make her ten-year-old son a chair that he can keep forever, and signs up for an evening class to help her do so.

She loved going to her chair class. The only thing that spoiled it was that no one else in her family seemed to have embraced the holiday project. She was alone on this Christmas journey.

She asked Stephanie about it one night.

"You don't understand," said Stephanie. "We're different, Mom. You're into the spirit of Christmas. I like the other stuff."

"The other stuff?" asked Morley.

"The shopping," said Stephanie, "the clothes."

"Shopping and clothes?" said Morley.

"And the TV specials," said Stephanie.

Speaking of Christmas, I'd better quit reading all these books and get to work on this spirit of Christmas stuff I'm supposed to be doing.

The War with Mr Wizzle by Gordon Korman

Although Megan has turned up her nose at many of the children's books I have recommended to her, I'm pleased that she likes Gordon Korman because it means I get to re-read these childhood favourites. Amazingly, though his books seem to lack depth and tend toward the formulaic, I still find them entertaining and funny. (I re-read "No Coins Please" and the "Bugs Potter" books on a regular basis and they still make me laugh every time.)

"The War With Mr Wizzle", which Megan picked up over the weekend during a trip to The Book Man, is part of a series that revolves around the lives and antics of some students of indeterminate age who attend McDonald Hall, a fictional boys' boarding school somewhere on the outskirts of Toronto. This novel (published in 1982) shows its age - its premise is that the school is under seige from a suspicious, nerdy guy with newfangled ideas who introduces (gasp) a *computer* to the school offices. Meanwhile, the girls' boarding school across the street (yes, there's a girls' school across the street from the boys' school - it's even called a "Finishing School" and teaches sewing, baking, and dancing!) has a new ex-military teacher who is determined to introduce some discipline and obedience into the education of the "young ladies" who attend. Not surprisingly, the students manage to get back at these pesky people in clever and amusing ways. This isn't one of the best McDonald Hall books, but it was still a fun re-read.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Evening Class by Maeve Binchy

I think of all Maeve Binchy's books this one probably contains the highest number of improbable plot points... but this is also one of my favourites :-) The premise is that a lonely Latin teacher and an otherworldly woman (who has just spent almost three decades in a little Sicilian village pining with unrequited love for the local hotelier) set up an Italian class for adults in a run-down secondary school in a "tough" part of Dublin. Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different person involved in the class, and the novel wraps up with a trip to Italy. It's lovely (though somewhat implausible, given the size of Dublin) to see the way everyone's story is interwoven with another person's - very similar to another Maeve Binchy book, "The Copper Beech", which seems less improbable since it's set in a sleepy Irish village where you'd expect people to all know each other. Ooh, maybe I'll re-read that one next.

Other books I've read by this author:
Scarlet Feather
Tara Road

Friday, December 09, 2005

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

I finished this last night before going to sleep, but I didn't have a chance to write about it until now... this is a great book, and well worth re-reading. For some reason I tend to overlook it when I'm thinking back over my favourite Maeve Binchy novels, but it's got all the ingredients for a satisfying read. I love the way she captures the whole range of human experiences and the ups and downs of relationships, and this book has all those things in spades - everything from miscarriage to death, from new love to the slow and painful ending of a marriage.

Now I have to go and write an exam, so I can't think of anything else to say about this book. Maybe I'll go and start "Evening Class" to calm my nerves.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Hurrah! Here's confirmation not only that Alexander McCall Smith can write something I like other than the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, but that he can be genuinely funny (which I questioned after encountering his bizarre effort to make fun of German professors in "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" -- a book I found quite UN-funny...)

I thought this book was delightful. It originally started life as a serialized novel published daily in The Scotsman, and apparently Mr McCall Smith is working on a third series at the moment, with the second imminently due for publication so I can look forward to reading that at some point in the future. His writing seems to be at its best when he's writing about "real" people, living in a place he loves -- and he clearly loves Edinburgh and its citizens as much as he loves the Botswanan people and landscape. There are even some fun moments when real life Edinburgh residents - including Ian Rankin, who apparently lives on the same street as Alexander McCall Smith - get to "star" in a chapter or two. The best bits, though, are reserved for the characters dreamed up by the author - among them a "gifted" boy with a pushy, overinvolved mother, a narcissistic property surveyor named Bruce who thinks it's perfectly normal that all women adore him, and Angus Lordie, a very eccentric artist who happens to own a winking dog with a gold tooth.

This was also perfect reading while studying for finals, because the chapters are so short. :-)

Other books I've read by this author:
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

Back when I was reorganizing my books, I decided it was time to re-read some old favourites and my first pick was "Tara Road", mostly because I saw on Maeve Binchy's website a week or two ago that they've made a movie of this book, and a bit of google searching seems to hint that this movie might be coming out in North America sometime early in the new year. Fingers crossed!

This book is typical Binchy fare, which I love. It's about ordinary people living ordinary (though not always happy or emotionally healthy) lives. A bit of drama thrown in, a bit of romance, nothing spectacular plot-wise... but the way she writes about people makes them seem so real, and I get sucked in every time, caring so much about these characters and wanting good things to happen to them. How does she do it?

Tara Road is one of my favourites, featuring Ria, a woman so clueless that you want to shake her as her husband fools around and her friends take advantage of her right left and center while she believes herself to be living a perfect life. Eventually she figures it out (well, some of it) and becomes empowered. During the process, she exchanges homes with a lonely and grief-stricken American woman who finds that she begins to heal while surrounded by Ria's Dublin friends (and she even manages to stop some of them from taking advantage of Ria so much.) That's about it (see, nothing special plot wise), but it's a great read.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Sally, an apparently universally despised unwed mother, is hired as a maid by a slightly dysfunctional family and then found strangled in her bed one morning. Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is called in to unravel the mystery of who killed Sally.

This was just an "OK" book... a good mystery that kept me guessing, but there was a curious detached feeling to the writing and characterization. I didn't really care about or feel for anyone in this book, not even the detective, Adam Dalgliesh. I'm not sure I have much more to say about it! P.D. James is a good enough writer to keep me reading even if the story is not particularly compelling, which this one really wasn't.

Other books I've read by this author:

Shroud for a Nightingale