Monthly Archives: March 2013

‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’ by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of HattiestarstarstarThis debut novel is a portrait of a mother as seen through the lives of her children. Each chapter is the story of another child, another sad tale of how difficult life can be, and a glimpse of the remarkable woman who raised them. Hattie Shepherd has kept her children alive through sheer will and determination, but lacking in this fierce and tough love is the tenderness they crave. Hattie is a complex character and the author portrays her honestly and unflinchingly. The book is a very enjoyable read despite the sad state of the family and the struggles they must endure.

“From the revivalist tents of Alabama to Vietnam, to the black middle-class enclave in the heart of the city, to a filthy bar in the ghetto, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is an extraordinary, distinctive novel about the guilt, sacrifice, responsibility and heartbreak that are an intrinsic part of ferocious love.”

It is not surprising that this book is a Heather’s Pick on Chapters and also an Oprah Book Club selection. It is the type of book that Oprah does favour, similar to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, yet Mathis has her own distinctive voice.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingstarstarstarstarWinner of the Man Booker prize in 2011, this deceptively small novel is really rather large in impact. Although it is quite readable in a casual style, the themes do build in intensity and at the end it actually begs to be reread. Barnes is a skillful writer, totally deserving of the Booker. Beautifully written and compelling, it’s quite possible to finish it in one or two sittings.

The story is about a man with a mutable past. The book’s first section is about the main character and his friends when they were at school. The second half of the book is much later when Tony is middle aged and he looks back to try to make sense of his life. His memories of events differ from others who were also there.  In many ways it is a meditation on the uncertainty of memory as we age. How reliable are our memories? Do we reconstruct the past to suit the needs of the present? Is our memory selective? A lawyer’s letter and an unusual bequest become the catalyst for Tony to investigate and seek the truth.

If you read this book and don’t quite get the surprise ending, you will not be alone. Some members of our book club didn’t get it either, including myself. It may be necessary to read the ending a couple of times but no matter, it is a short book and if you need help, I’m happy to fill you in. 🙂

Here’s an interesting little youtube on how the cover for the book was designed.

Author Feature: Bill Bryson

Bill BrysonBill Bryson is a travel writer who can educate and inspire but also make you choke on your coffee with bursts of laughter. His kind of humour just tickles my funny bone and I end up annoying people who are around me when I’m reading. So ironically I actually avoid his books when I’m travelling on trains or airplanes, because of the curious looks I get when I snort and snigger. He is also very impressively knowledgeable and an absolute King of Trivia. There is a wealth of information in his books about so many things that you would never have known before and will likely never need to know again…but it’s all so interesting!

Recently I reread two of his travel books because I went to Australia and decided to reread his book “In a Sunburned Country” (‘Down Under’ UK title). Bryson’s travel books are far more enjoyable to read upon your return when you can understand the jokes. When you travel to a place, take along a Frommer, Lonely Planet, or DK guide to show you where to go and what to see. Then enjoy Bryson’s anecdotal account when you get back and you can relive your trip with his entertaining commentary. However, it is a bit of  a toss up because it might be nice to know some of his facts when visiting a place.

When I moved to England in 2010, a friend gave me ‘Notes from a Small Island’ (as well as a teacup and a brolly….smart friend!), which I decided to wait to reread until I had lived here for two years. That was the right thing to do. I was rewarded with the enjoyment of a lengthy couple of chapters on the Windsor/London/Virginia Water area where I live, and could now knowledgeably chuckle along and nod my head about things like sticky toffee pudding, Marmite, zebra crossings and relief roads, and actually know what he was talking about. My biggest hurdle is still the pants/trousers thing. Pants are undergarments here, like knickers, and trousers are what I would call pants. Can’t seem to get the hang of that one yet, but give me another couple of years and I just might.

‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is a science book for non-scientists, for everyman who is interested in the science of the earth, space and time.  Only get this book in its lavishly illustrated edition and let it find its place on your coffee table or in your restroom reading rack. He has  other travel books on America, a book about Shakespeare, and even a biographical account of his childhood years in Iowa called ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’.  At Home is  a great historical account of private life and  how we have gotten ourselves comfortable over the centuries. In it he uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Bryson is American but moved to England because he married a Brit. They have lived in both places. He has two websites, one based in each country.

Bill Bryson US Website
Bill Bryson UK Website

A Walk in the Woods‘A Walk in the Woods’

This is my favourite and in my opinion is the funniest of the travel books. He hikes the Appalachian trail with his fat friend Stephen Katz. They get into all sorts of troubles while backpacking and trying to survive, including running into bears and rednecks.

In a Sunburned Country‘In a Sunburned Country’ (US title)
‘Down Under’ (UK title)

Bryson points out that 80% of all the plants and animals that live in Australia, exist nowhere else on earth. This may be part of the reason it is such a unique and interesting place. The place names in Australia are also amazing, if you could learn to pronounce them. We stayed in a suburb of Sydney called Wooloomooloo – where else can you find a word sporting no less than 8 o’s?!? Incidentally, it is a wharf area within walking distance of Sydney’s main attractions, recently revitalized with trendy restaurants and boutique hotels. It used to be a navy slum with nothing but drunks, sailors, and drunk sailors. Bryson was very afraid of all the poisonous snake and spider species on this island continent – a disproportionately high amount, in his opinion. We did stay in a mountain resort where the guests were advised not to walk barefoot in the grass at night!

Notes from a Small Island‘Notes from a Small Island’

This is an affectionate portrayal of Britain. Since Bryson has lived for many years in the UK, he knows it from the inside out. He clearly loves the place and its people and captures subtle nuance in the British personality. Americans are fascinated by Great Britain because it is both alien and familiar. Many have traced their origins to the place, and because the language is the same, well nearly, it is an easy place to visit and move around in. And there is so much history – the moss and stones practically ooze the ages. One reviewer said this and I think it is true. “Bryson is not entirely uncritical of his adopted nation (and that’s the fun part), but he’s never nasty – and it’s plain that his enthusiasm for England and all things English comes from deep in his heart.”

‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham

A Time to KillstarstarstarstarstarOne of my greatest pleasures living in London, is being invited to attend BBC recordings of interviews with famous authors. BBC World Book Club is the most listened to radio book club in the world. And Harriet Gilbert does a marvellous job of  the interviewing. As members of the audience, we are allowed to ask questions alongside questions which have been emailed and tweeted in from around the globe. It’s always exciting, especially because the author is there in person and we are allowed to participate in  a recording that will soon be broadcast around the world.

Yesterday the recording was an interview with John Grisham on his book ‘A Time to Kill’. The recording took place in the US Embassy but unfortunately Grisham was unable to actually make it to London and was skyped live into the auditorium where the recording took place. We were all disappointed that he wasn’t there in person but he was so charming and well spoken he was soon forgiven for not showing up. 🙂 If you want to hear the interview it will air on April 6.
BBC World Book Club

‘A Time to Kill’ was Grisham’s first novel and is his most dramatic and compelling. It actually didn’t become popular until his next book ‘The Firm’ made it big. The book is about a young black girl who is raped by two white men. The father decides to take matters into his own hands because he suspects that in the deep south the white men will never be fairly tried or punished. In an act of fatherly outrage and retribution, he shoots the men himself and then hopes that lawyer Jake Brigance will be able to defend him in court. Brigance takes on the case, but not without considerable struggle and threats from the KKK.

In the interview, Grisham, a lawyer who practiced himself for 10 years, said the story sprung from a case he himself witnessed where a black girl was raped and the white men got off with very light sentences. He also once saw a young rape victim questioned on the stand in court and seeing her struggle touched him deeply. He admitted that the book is so powerful and graphic, he might not have been able to write it today, after having a daughter of his own. He says he even had trouble watching the movie when it came out.

Grisham also spilled the beans about writing a sequel to this novel which will be coming out in the fall. It won’t be a direct continuation but it does also take place in Ford County, again features the lawyer Jake Brigance, and takes place 3 years after ‘A Time to Kill’. He said the topic of the new book was “a rich and meaty legal dispute” which doesn’t really tell us much since that describes many of his books! Other interesting facts I learned are that he never has had writer’s block. He always has more ideas for stories than he can actually write. And he carefully outlines his books before he writes them, knowing exactly what’s going to happen. He says he wants his readers always to be “turning pages”, and in this, I think it is safe to say, he has succeeded!

‘February’ by Lisa Moore

FebruarystarstarstarstarSurely you have also experienced this, but I love it when seemingly random forces conspire to all point in the same direction. Last year a gracious publisher replaced a book I had purchased which was missing the last 30 pages. For my troubles I was also granted the choice of a free book. I chose ‘February’ by Lisa Moore because the author was unknown to me and I liked the cover and the story line. Recently taking up the challenge to read books already residing on my own shelf (New Year’s Resolution), I threw ‘February’ into my bag for a 2 1/2 week trip to Australia and the South Pacific. While on the trip my sister-in-law wrote that she had just finished the book and was deeply touched by it. At the same time I discovered that it had recently won the Canada Reads competition! So I felt very affirmed in my choice of what to read next!

In 1982, off the coast of Newfoundland, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank, losing 84 souls in a night storm. ‘February’ is the story of Helen O’Mara, one of those left behind when her husband Cal drowns. This fictional account focuses on one woman’s struggle and loss, raising four children on her own. It is beautifully written, raw and heartfelt; so honest and down to earth and never errs on the side of sentimentality. If good literature is meant to get you inside another person’s skin, then this one hits the mark. Though not plot-driven, the book is very human and real, and uplifting even though much of it deals with grief. I liked the skillful way in which Moore beautifully captures small ordinary moments. Highly recommended, a very enjoyable read.

‘Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West’ by Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14starstarstarstarBorn a political prisoner, Shin is one of the few who managed to escape from a brutal prison camp in North Korea and also managed to find his way out of North Korea as well. His story is a remarkable mixture of ingenuity, determination, and luck. He was raised competing for food, even with his own mother. He watched his family being executed and was rewarded for snitching and being loyal to the guards. His upbringing in the camp taught him to lie and steal, oddly giving him some of the skills which actually helped him to escape. Had he had more love and caring in his life, he ironically would not have been tough enough to take the harrowing journey that became his escape. When he was rescued he had to learn to love and trust for the first time in his life. This is the first book I’ve read about North Korea. I am wondering how it compares with others.

The author is a journalist who became interested in Shin’s story and wrote the book using Shin’s own revelations about his life. This was sometimes tricky though, because Shin kept changing his story for various reasons.  Harden did do his homework and corroborated details with other accounts to make his book as true and honest as possible. It is a straightforward telling which is easy to read but may be difficult for some to digest: shocking and chilling – hard to look at, but equally hard to look away. These types of stories do need to find their way out.