Monthly Archives: March 2011

‘The Sentimentalists’ by Johanna Skibsrud

This Giller Prize 2010 winner connects the flooding of an Ontario town, the Vietnam War, a trailer in North Dakota, and an unfinished boat in Maine. There are many references to the movie Casablanca and many direct quotes from it including the title of the book. It is about the unreliability of memory and how things which lie just below the surface can affect us.

Reluctantly I must say that this book was a struggle for me to finish, and I never felt like I connected with it much.

The author is a poet and her prose has a style as elusive and vague as the hidden town beneath the water.  Maybe that was her point. Her sentences are run on and her meaning unclear, illustrated in this excerpt:
“I think now that that’s really the most – the best – we can do: answer the questions that pose themselves to us, and describe, if only to ourselves, the things that we have loved, and believed in, and the actions that we have or would have liked to have taken, and will take now, and do take, over and over again, in the quiet parts of our minds.”

A common frustration is how literary novels often have low readability. Out of the five Gillers I’ve read in the last 10 years, I’ve really only enjoyed two of them. Controversy over  literary awards is not a new thing. The Orange Prize (awarded only to women) was begun as a reaction to an all male shortlist for the Man Booker Prize one year. And the Whitbread/Costa award chooses books with high literary merit but also “works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience”. Hear, hear!!

Most of us prefer books that draw us in somehow, either because of characters, plot, setting, eloquence, articulation, or because of a skillful turn of phrase. That is readability. So who is picking the literary award winners? Perhaps others in literary circles who “get” what the author is doing. One cynical reviewer said: the “Giller might say more about the people who made up the jury this year than it does about the book itself.” I want to like award winners, that is probably why I keep reading them. They are important, they make the news, and they have beautiful covers, but often remind me of the cod liver oil my mother used to give me because she thought it was good for me.

‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

This was a Heather’s Pick (chapters.ca). I’ve learned to trust Heather Reisman’s recommendations because I usually like the books on her list.  In preparation for this book I did some reading on Wikipedia about Ernest Hemingway and I went to Paris for a few days. Who said research has to be boring?

‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain is historical fiction, telling the story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife (first of four!). Swept away by her magnetic and intense husband and the bohemian lifestyle they would live with other creative Americans in Paris, Hadley’s story is romantic, fascinating, and heartbreaking. McLain captures the spirit of the era well and explores the relationship that this enigmatic couple had.

The author did an incredible amount of research for this book to get Hadley’s voice right. Her website is excellent, especially the Fact vs. Fiction section, the Video, and the Photo Gallery. Check it out. It is the most comprehensive author website I have ever seen and enriches the book further for me.
The Paris Wife Website

Why is it that so often those with an unusual amount of creative genius are often troubled or dysfunctional in their private lives? We find ourselves compelled and drawn to this question when we think about famous artists like Mozart, Van Gogh, and Hemingway. Paula McLain has done a great job of intriguing and informing with enough emotion and romance thrown in to make the learning effortless! One reviewer called The Paris Wife “literary tourism”. If you enjoy armchair travel, you’ll love this one!

‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin

Eilis (AYE-lish) reluctantly immigrates to New York from a small town in Ireland, leaving all she knows behind. Homesickness is almost crippling until Eilis begins to embrace her new life, making friends and finding work. The author captures the isolation and struggle of the immigrant experience well. When tragedy strikes, she discovers that returning to the old world can be as much of a challenge as adjusting to the new world. There is a sense that when she is in one place, the other has become a sort of fantasy and feels very far removed.

There is an emotionally handicapped quality to Eilis, who can’t seem to take charge of her own life and is swayed too easily by a sense of duty or by what others want of her. Toibin portrays well the fact that life is a collection of choices. Eilis seems to let destiny make most of her choices for her. Emotions are submerged and relationships suffer because of ambiguity and passivity. Perhaps during these 1950s immigration times, that’s just how it was for young women like Eilis. Some have drawn parallels to the character of Isabel Archer in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James with similar themes of freedom, responsibility, betrayal, and sexuality.

This was a book club assignment for me, and since I have often seen this author’s name, I was glad to read one of his books. It was highly readable and interesting to discuss, if not a bestseller. I will definitely read more by this author at some point. The writing is intriguing because it is unadorned and unsentimental, but has depth, layers, and themes to explore.

‘Over Salad and Hot Bread: What an Old Friend Taught Me About Life’ by Mary Jenson

“What do we live for, if it is not to make the world less difficult for each other.” George Eliot

This book is ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ for women. It is about the gift of friendship between two very different women. There is no fluff in this book and lots of everyday wisdom. There are real issues and stories of faith, love, and hope.

What I appreciated most  was a bit of a remedy towards being a worried control freak. Get yourself “out of yourself”, be interested in others, and try to make your first reaction be thankfulness. An attitude change can move from deliberate to automatic over time. “When our minds are filled with ways to be a blessing, we have no time to dwell on our personal problems. It gives God an opportunity to work on them for us.”

Mary Jenson is a friend of a friend in England, so I met her at my house, where we chatted Over Tea and Chocolate. That is how I learned about her book. Thank you Mary! I did enjoy it. In writing it you have allowed Nancy’s mentoring to bless many others.

‘Ape House’ by Sara Gruen

This was a fun read. It raises important issues and is educational about apes who sadly have often been used as nothing more than “hairy test tubes”. Who knew that they could communicate, express their desires, learn language,  and make requests? Who knew that there were different types of great apes, not just chimps? Bonobos are intelligent, sensitive creatures who need to be understood and protected particularly because it is so tempting for humans to exploit them. The story begins in a linguistic center for bonobos, where there is a brutal attack and the bonobos are stolen and put on a reality game show. There are, of course, lots of human/ape parallels, and the book includes a searing commentary on the human obsession with reality game shows.

I love the humour in Ape House. Reviewers have criticized it for being trite and cliche and for not being well written. But I actually loved the lighthearted feel, despite the fact that it deals with some very weighty issues. This book is a pleasure to read.  Because of that it will be promoted and  the cause will be championed. The hilarious opening quote comparison by Britney Spears and a chimp, gets the book started on just the right note.

Sara Gruen is a Canadian born author who is passionate about  research for her novels and widely supports animals and wildlife. In fact, she was one of the few people allowed to visit at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. They have an awesome website.
Great Ape Trust

Her other book ‘Water for Elephants’ was a smashing success, and I would be willing to bet was one of the biggest book club favourites ever. So if you haven’t read that one, you definitely have some catching up to do!

There’s a great little video to watch on Sara’s website, including lots of other reader features. Enjoy!

Sara Gruen\’s Website