Monthly Archives: June 2014

‘The Forever Girl’ by Alexander McCall Smith

The Forever GirlstarstarAlthough I am an avid McCall Smith fan and have so far enjoyed everything he has written, I am sad to say that this one fell flat. It was a disappointing read even though it got off to a good start. You’d think a romantic story set in the Cayman Islands could sizzle and pop, but instead it seemed to get bogged down with the meaning of love. I usually like the author’s exploration of ideas in his novels, but in this one there wasn’t enough happening to sustain the philosophical interludes. There were a couple of hilarious scenes at the beginning and I thought I was in for a good read, but it was not to be. Nothing much happens besides Clover travelling far and wide to satisfy her obsession with James and it got to be downright boring. There were too many times when I was expecting something interesting to happen and it just didn’t, and everything got neatly tied up in the end without any development of characters or proper conflict resolution to back it up.

‘Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel’ by Patrick Smith

Guest Post:  Dirk Booy

Cockpit ConfidentialstarstarstarAre you afraid of flying? Have you ever wondered how an airplane stays in the air? Do you know what it’s really like to be a pilot or a steward? Patrick Smith addresses these questions and more in ‘Cockpit Confidential’. The book is written in a question/answer format and contains reflections from the author who is himself a licensed pilot. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time in airplanes and airports around the world, I found Smith’s book both interesting and informative.

Smith writes in a highly reassuring and factual way that helps readers understand the complex airline industry as well as feel better about boarding their next flight. Turbulence is no more than a bumpy road that pilots try to steer around and airport security an over reaction to 9/11. The sections I enjoyed most were around airline service which has become a lost art. Why is it that we feel more like children on a school bus when flying instead of paying customers who deserve better service? I fully agreed with his analysis on the best and worst airlines in the industry. Interestingly the author shows a definite bias for the company Boeing and especially for the 747 aircraft – as a frequent flyer, I enjoy the upstairs of an A380 most for comfort.

Patrick Smith is passionate about flying and his book reminds us that air travel is still a unique privilege that we can enjoy.

‘Complete Short Stories’ by Elizabeth Taylor

Collected Short Stories by Elizabeth TaylorUsually I post on books I have already read. This time I’m going to post on one I am reading because it may take me some time to finish it (like maybe years) and I want to share these ideas now.

At a recent book conference I attended a session called “In Praise of Short Stories”.  I found the session so inspirational and challenging that I came away with a personal mission to give short stories another chance. And in order to have something to “practice” on, I purchased this delicious brick of a volume (over 600 pages with 60+ stories!) by an author I already like. Elizabeth Taylor writes beautifully and has always been somewhat undervalued, perhaps because of the confusion around her name. When I read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont I realized I wanted to read more of her work.

Once Upon a Time The EndTo be honest I have not been a fan of short story mostly because I got impatient with just getting into the characters and the set-up and then it would all abruptly end. So why spend all that investment on a story just to have to leave it and go on to another?

What I learned at the session, was that the short story experience has to be viewed differently, as with poetry. Short stories are small powerful self-contained nuggets, like a concentrated capsule or a core sample with only the important stuff. The impact is intense, like a bullet. That is not to say however, that there is always closure. As with a novel, a good short story can also leave much unsaid. Sometimes when I read a short story I have the nagging feeling that I’m not quite “getting it” (that happens with poetry too). Perhaps it will take some more reflection than I have been willing to give it in the past.

So, with short stories the main advice is simple – read one a day, no more. To get the most out of it, read it twice. The first time to be introduced to the story and the second time to go deeper and try to appreciate what the author has done; notice the word choice, the themes, the structure, and the development. Apparently short story writers have a purpose for everything and nothing is extra or unnecessary – very lean. In fact diehard short story fans get impatient with novels since there’s too much padding!

Short StorySo my plan is to keep this anthology nearby and read a story every couple of weeks, in between novels. I might pick up a collection by Alice Munro as well. She is probably one of the most celebrated short story authors and one whose stories I have enjoyed in the past. Munro said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Everything the story tells, moves you in such a way that you feel you’re a different person when you finish.” That kind of reading experience is worth the challenge! Actually all reading is that way. Experiences in literature do affect us and change us. That much we know for sure.

What do you think about short stories? Is there a short story author that you would recommend?

‘The Kitchen God’s Wife’ by Amy Tan

The Kitchen God's WifestarstarstarIf it wasn’t for book club, I would never have picked up a book decades old, by an author whose signature novel I had already read years ago (‘The Joy Luck Club’). But it was good, and I while I was reading it I ran across a very similar book that just came out by a Canadian author with so many parallels!

‘The Joy Luck Club’ and ‘The Kitchen God’s Wife’ are about mother-daughter relationship and Chinese-American culture clash. The story flashes back to abuses and secrets in Pearl’s mother’s life back in China. The reader gains empathy for the typical cranky, harsh and ever interfering Chinese mother by revealing her terrible past and how all she every wanted was for her daughter to be happy and healthy. It’s an immigration story really, with life in China being so very different from America in terms of family obligations and the status of women. Tan has written a fiction, but much of what is in her novels she has gleaned from her own family. In the novel ideas of luck, fate, and destiny are constantly juxtaposed against choice, self-determination, and free will.

Elaine Lui is a gossip columnist (LaineyLui) and reporter who has just published a funny memoir called: ‘Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (sort of)’. Although I have not read her book, listening to Shelagh Rogers interview her on The Next Chapter, I was struck by how similar Tan and Lui’s stories are. There is pain and abuse in both their families but also hope and love. Both have stories about how superstitious Chinese people are, how they love to play Mah Jong, and how important honour in their families can be.

Listen to the Squawking ChickenElaine says this: “Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Chinese Squawking Chicken. But once they actually spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.” Lui says that even though her mother’s voice is irritating and her parenting style exasperating, her mother’s voice remains the voice in her head and she is devoted to her. Interesting to me is Lui’s decision to not have any children of her own.

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchstarstarstarstarWinner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, judges describe ‘The Goldfinch’ as a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters. With this I agree completely. Somehow having missed Tartt’s much acclaimed earlier novels,  I picked up ‘The Goldfinch’ tentatively because it has had such mixed reviews. It seems you either really love her books or you really don’t.  Although I am now firmly planted in the first camp, I can understand how this book would not be for everyone. And just because it won a prize, doesn’t mean it will appeal to all. See earlier post. It didn’t win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction which surprised me. I would have thought the winner would be Burial Rites, Americanah, or this one. But as a fellow book blogger so eloquently put it, “they never seem to pick the ones I like!”

Goldfinch Painting by Carel FabritiusThe story is based on a small exquisitely drawn painting of a goldfinch on a perch, by Carel Fabritius who was one of Rembrandt’s most gifted students. What you notice when you look closely, is that the bird is chained to its post, adding pathos to the representation. Who owns it? Why is it chained? The goldfinch is so central to the novel that it becomes like a character in itself.

An interesting historical note about the painter Carel Fabritius: he was killed in the Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 which destroyed a quarter of the city, along with his studio and many of his paintings. It’s not a coincidence that Tartt’s story contains an explosion in a museum where artwork is destroyed or that the novel begins and ends in Holland.

‘The Goldfinch’ tells the story of Theo Decker, a young boy whose life is rocked by a terrible tragedy, an explosion in a museum that kills his mother and creates an encounter with a dying elderly man and the small Fabritius painting. From there the story follows Theo through a host of homes and experiences that lead him ultimately to the very underbelly of crime and art theft. His journey is one that I thoroughly enjoyed, mostly because of Donna Tartt’s writing.

I think the book should have been shorter, because it would then be accessible to more people. Many will not have patience for almost 800 pages when there’s not as much action as there is beautiful writing. Certainly things happen in the novel, even shocking things, but I would not describe it as a page turner, even though I couldn’t put it down and didn’t want it to end. To me it was a work of art in itself and as unforgettable as a famous painting.

The Trouble with Book Awards

Book AwardThe single most important thing about the love of reading, is finding the types of books that YOU like to read. Not what someone else likes and has recommended to you, not what has won an award, not what is prominently displayed in a bookstore, or even what has been on the bestseller lists. This is especially true for children, teens, and reluctant readers of all ages. It is quite simple. For reading to be a pleasure, it must be a book that you enjoy!

The trouble with books that win awards, is that we tend to suddenly think that we should enjoy the book, simply because it has won an award, without first considering if it is the type of book that we would naturally gravitate towards. I think we assume that because a book has won an award and is seen on display everywhere that it is a good book, and it probably is, but the important question that you still need to ask is “Is this book good for me?”

Authors whose books win awards, do sell more copies, and for that reason winners become good for booksellers and publishers to promote. Therefore, they are prominently displayed because it is good for business. It does not mean that you will necessarily like it, just because there have been a million copies sold.

Reader's Bill of Rights 1Readers have rights. You’ve probably seen various versions of them on bookmarks or posters. Here are a couple of examples.

Readers' Bill of Rights 2

Here is my own advice on how to get the most enjoyment out of reading:

1. Find what you like to read, and do not be too much swayed by what others recommend, unless you know from experience that you like the same type of books as someone else. Do not be sucked in by marketing on websites or bookstore displays.

2. Don’t feel like you have to finish a book if you are not enjoying it. By all means, give it 50 pages, but if it has not grabbed you by then, give it up. If you are determined to read it anyway, try it at another time when you might approach it differently, like on a vacation.

3. If you want to challenge yourself to read more widely and step outside of your usual reading box, go ahead and try a different genre or author than you normally read. In that case an award winner might be a good place to start.  Try a biography or a fantasy or a thriller for a change. You may be surprised to be hooked! But if not, apply # 2 and move on. And don’t be afraid to read a teen or children’s book if you are an adult. Some of the best books I’ve read are written for young adults. Classifications are tricky and often a book will fit in more than one genre. Even though we’ve been told not to, we do judge books by their covers, but don’t assume a book is chick lit just because the cover has high heels on it.

4. Use reviews, book lists, articles about books, and blurbs on Amazon and Chapters to help you decide if you might like something. There are even websites like Goodreads that can help with this. Enjoying a book is a curious combination of writing style, story topic, word usage, humour, suspense, and the author’s ability to draw you in. You are unique and so are your choices in reading. You have a right to love it or leave it!