"Hotel Pastis"

Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle

Simon Shaw is a highly successful (i.e.very wealthy) ad executive in London, whose current marriage has dissolved in a cloud of resentment and recriminations. He is tired of his ex's constant grasping for more money and the shallowness of colleagues at his advertising agency; in fact he's tired of the whole spinning money-making machine (though not so much the money) and is ready for a change when he meets a savvy, French woman with an interesting idea.

Simon begins the process of disentangling himself from life in the city and together with Nicole (the French woman, who is conveniently gorgeous and available as well as savvy) and his faithful sidekick, Ernest, opens a hotel in the south of France. While this is all happening a group of locals are making plans for a heist that will thicken the plot and complicate things for Simon et al. 

The most interesting character is Ernest. He started out as Simon's chauffeur and over the past ten years has become his personal assistant, valet and friend. He takes care of Simon's expensive cars, he cooks and he does pretty much whatever else needs attending to, all with common sense and a healthy dose of wry wit. There's a vulnerability written into his character that makes him both likeable and memorable.

The others, Simon and Nicole especially, are not-very-interesting stereotypes who never stand up from the page as real people. I had little to no understanding of Nicole's personality even as I turned the last page of the book, and though I had all kinds of information about Simon's life, he too remained remote as a person. 

The various settings are great, all fancy homes, offices and restaurants in London and New York, both wonderful places to be if you can afford their bright, beautiful sides. Then of course once the story moves to France every scene is inevitably perfect. The sheer "Provence-ness" of it should be enticement enough to read the book.

The plot is (predictably) a little predictable but it makes for a pleasant light reading experience, a fun bit of escapism and sometimes that's exactly what we're looking for. I didn't love it, but it did entertain me and that was all I wanted right now.

"Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader"

Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

The front flap of this book describes Anne Fadiman as "the sort of person who leared about sex from her father's copy of 'Fanny Hill'" and "who once found herself pouring over a 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in her apartment that she had not read at least twice". I was tickled to find someone whose reading obsession looked similar to mine.

I too got some basic education from a copy of Fanny Hill, not my father's but one a friend and I found in her mother's apartment when I was thirteen. A memorable education but not one I'd recommend. And like Fadiman I've found myself reading the most absurd things when nothing else was available. In Doctor's offices I've read business magazines, children's books and pamphlets on illnesses I don't have. I've read manuals for electronics, appliances and cars, odd volumes of encyclopedias and just last week I read through a credit card application brochure because it was the only piece of paper in a cheerless little hospital waiting room. Desperate isn't it?

Fortunately no desperation is required for "Ex Libris". It's a joy to read, a veritable treasure trove of bookishness. Written as a series of essays over a number of years it chronicles the authour's experience with books in conjunction with life events. It's intriguing and yet so natural you wonder how you could ever have looked at the books you've read in any other way.

The stories here include: how she and her husband merged their libraries, what books she relegates to her "odd shelf", her opinion on writing in margins and dog-earring pages, her passion for inscriptions, something she calls "you-are-there" reading, books about food, and a chapter on her literary heritage. Each one is interesting on it's own but together they are something special. The lucky reader is steeped in books. It's very satisfying.

The writing too is something special. The publisher says she writes "with remarkable grace" and I can't think of any better way to say it. Her writing is light and fun but also grounded in solid intellect and education. I do suggest keeping a dictionary handy; I found 34 words to look up. At first I thought she was throwing words around a bit pretentiously, but I've changed my mind. She doesn't seem pretentious at all. I think she's simply using the words she knows. I hope I'm not misreading her.

The bonus with this book is a long list of titles to add to your tbr (unless of course you have read them all, and if you have why aren't you spending your time on something smarter than my poor little blog?). There's a whole section on 'books about books', the Dom PĂ©rignon of genres for those with serious book thirst.

I was quite taken with a line she quoted from Thomas Mcauley (of whom I had never heard): "What a blessing it is to love books as I love them.". He has hit the nail on the head (do people still say that?). I am grateful for the books I have and those I can borrow from libraries and friends, but I have never thought to offer thanks for the way I feel about books and reading. How different would my life have been if I hadn't had Dickens, Austen, Lewis or Cather to lose myself in when I didn't want to be found? How much trouble did I stay out of because in my youth I spent every spare minute with, as my mother used to say, "my head stuck in a book"?  I might have lost myself in other things and had a very different life. My need to read has enriched my life in countless ways and I am indeed grateful.

If you love books, you'll find Ex Libris irresistible. Get a hard cover copy if you can - you'll probably be using it a lot.

Time Was Soft There (A Paris Sojourn At Shakespeare & Co.)

Time Was Soft There - a memoir by Jeremy Mercer

Mr. Mercer was a journalist for the Ottawa Citizen when he got into a sticky situation over a broken promise concerning a name he was not to publish. The injured party was threatening repercussions so Mercer decided it was a good time to get out of the country for awhile. He wound up in Paris, and eventually on the doorstep of "Shakespeare & Co.", an English bookstore on the Left Bank, just across from Notre Dame.

The elderly proprietor of the bookstore, unkempt, unconventional George Whitman, ran his shop as part store, part hostel for down and out writers/artists who needed a place to sleep till they got on their feet. George's motto was "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise". Living conditions were well below basic, so no one stayed there who had anyplace else at all to go. Cockroaches, grime and practically non-existent plumbing would not be appealing to anyone who could afford better.

George was a mentor, in a rough sort of way, to his guests, a complicated curmudgeon who would ride roughshod over a thin skin. But for anyone who would pay attention, he was full of stories about writers whose names you will know, books, life, people. There wasn't much on which he didn't have an opinion. And sometimes he had some pretty good advice.

Mercer says "Watching him live was a daily lesson in parsimony", which could have it's good and bad aspects. Saving money on haircuts by using matches to burn your hair to the desired length seems a little extreme, but if you spit out the bones in his philosophy there's some pretty good meat to chew on:

"'People all tell me they work too much, that they need to make more money.', George told me. 'What's the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family, or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn't make any sense.'"

There's a lot going on in this book and it's a hard one to put down. Still there is a peacefulness about it that comes from Mercer's writing - I do love a book written by a good journalist who knows how to say complex things with simple words - and from the laid back lifestyle he adopted at the shop.

There are friendships, romances, personality clashes, hope, despair, George's reconnection with his estranged daughter, and his tempting views on communism - true communism, not the Russian or Chinese varieties. In George's words: "Communism just means thinking about the community first." Idealistic, but we could all do with a noble ideal or two.

Running through the entire story are the books. Books being read and books being written. Old books and new books. Books being discovered for the first time and long-time favourites being reread. Books, glorious books! Wouldn't you just love to drown in them?

In the event I've been unclear, I love this book. Do read it and let me know what you think. I think it's a treasure.

PS - When I looked up George Whitman online, I was saddened to hear that he passed away just before Christmas this past year, in his nineties. I'm sure he will be greatly missed by the many grateful people who found shelter and breathing room under his roof. George's daughter, Sylvia, now carries on the great tradition of Shakespeare & Co.

"England For All Seasons"

England For All Seasons by Susan Allen Toth

This is Toth's third book about England. I've read only this one but it's plain to see that she is completely in love with the place. She and her husband, James, have spent a lot of vacation time there staying in different areas and immersing themselves in their surroundings, exploring and walking until they really know the area they're in.

They stay in apartments or cottages that put them in the center of their chosen destination, searching out local concerts, bookstores, fairs, theaters and restaurants. They visit whatever churches, museums, country houses and ruins may be in the area and they walk the woods, cliffs and beaches until they feel they know the place. The next time they may choose another section of England or maybe Wales or Scotland.

As travel books go, I liked this but it was missing a key part of what makes a travel book so enjoyable for me: there was very little written about their encounters with local people. It's those stories that make a travel story come alive. I like to read what real people's lives are like in a other places, how they spend their days, what they work at and do for fun, what they cook for breakfast. Toth gives us great descriptions of the various places they stay, but I wanted to rub shoulders with the people too.  

She talks a lot about the gardens they visited, it seems to be one of their favourite things, and a lot too about the castles and ruins. Some of the museums they toured sound amazing and times they spent on the coast, any coast, made me want to be there with them. All of that was wonderful.

There were one or two sections I found boring where I had to push through a section of details about some museum exhibit till I got to another section that would hold my attention. It wasn't a problem with the writing; it's really quite well written and enjoyable to read. I just wasn't interested in some of the things she was. I came out feeling like I knew England better though and over all it was a very good read.


Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

Will Burrows, 14 years old, is a lot like his father. He loves digging for archeological finds and spends all his free time working with his dad in a series of tunnels beneath the city of London. Then strange things begin to happen. Weird looking people are showing up too often wherever Will and his Dad happen to be. An object is found that is unlike anything ever seen before. And one day, Mr. Burrows is simply gone with no explanation. Will and a friend set out to find him and discover a whole world they never new existed, a world where their lives are in constant danger.

The story moves along quickly with lots of action and some surprising turns, one so unexpected my jaw actually dropped. I didn't think any authour could still surprise me like that. This is a page-turner, one that has my granddaughter absolutely hooked and now I see why. Eventually this will be a series of six; she's read four now and is on pins and needles (oh dear, I've dated myself with that expression haven't I?) waiting for the fifth.

I must admit I wasn't expecting such a good book, mainly because my recent experience with books for younger readers has been, let's say, less than satisfying. For one thing so many of them are about vampires. In fact most of what I see online and in stores are paranormal romances. I can take the romance as long as there is more to the plot than just that, but I am heartily sick of vampires. I don't want to watch them, read about them or even hear about them any more. I'm vampired up to here (indicating top of head)!

Another reason I've been avoiding Y.A. novels is the writing style. I don't like it when books are dumbed down for anybody. Young readers are young, not dumb, and too many writers treat them like they can't be trusted to handle intelligent writing. I was glad to find within a page or two that these authours give their readers credit for some intelligence by giving them good writing to read.

As for the plot itself, there are a few too many slimy things, slugs, vomit and foul smells for me, but I'm not young and was always queasy about such things anyway. These writers know their audience and do a great job of telling this story for them.

For those who are considering this book for their kids I should tell you there are a few spots where God's name is used as a curse word. Two or three at most I think. That won't be an issue for everyone, but if it is for you at least you know beforehand.

I probably won't read the rest of the series simply because the story doesn't appeal to me, but that's only if my granddaughter doesn't ask me to. If she wants me to read them so we can talk about them later, I will. There's not much I won't do to get them reading more.  Otherwise it's back to "Old Adult" books for me, but I am open to trying more Y. A. books now. This one was a nice surprise.

"A Room With A View"

A Room With A View by E.M. Forster

This is the second book I've read with dailylit.com, and it was a totally different experience than the first. I read War and Peace in installments because I figured, from having attempted it before, that I wouldn't finish it and I'm happy to say Daily Lit was able to keep me on track and get me through to the end.

A Room With A View was another matter entirely. I loved the story, the writing and the characters but didn't enjoy reading it in installments at all. I always wanted more and was irritated by having to stop at the end of the sections. I longed for pages to turn. It's a delightful book, but delightful books need covers and pages which Daily Lit could not supply.

The story has a young woman and her chaperone visiting Italy, where they become friends with other tourists at their hotel. One young man traveling with his father take liberties with the young woman, but she and her chaperone decide to speak to no one about it and to simply pretend it never happened.

They return to their home in England and life carries on as usual with our heroine becoming engaged to a rather pompous man, and I use the term "man" loosely. He's really quite a jerk. Things get complicated when the other man, the liberty-taking young man from Italy, moves into the neighbourhood. I won't tell you any more except to say that it's very entertaining.

Here are a couple of my favourite lines:

I see you looking down your nose and thinking your mother's a snob. But there is a right sort and a wrong sort, and it's affectation to pretend there isn't."

…in which people who care for one another are painted chatting together about noble things--a theme neither sensual nor sensational, and therefore ignored by the art of to-day.”

I particularly like that last one because it so nicely explains my problem with modern publishing. I don't want every book I read to focus on the sensual or sensational, but that's what sells so that's what gets published. There are exceptions of course, but not many. I guess that's why I end up reading so many older books. But back to the matter at hand...

I saw a fairly recent movie made from this book and liked it, but the book itself is a thousand times better. I have to get a copy soon and read it again when I can hold it in my hands and turn pages all I want. This one is a keeper and I want it on my shelf.

And, I have to re-think my use of Daily Lit. I'll probably just use it for books I might not otherwise make myself pick up. You know the ones - we want to read them but we don't look forward to investing the time or the energy they'll require. One of my goals this year is to get one of "those" books crossed off my tbr, so I'm choosing Middlemarch. I'm hoping it won't be any more of a challenge than War And Peace was. I guess time will tell.

"A Christmas Blizzard"

A Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor

I'm not sure what to say about this one, except that it sure isn't your average Christmas story. It's not sappy or corny or cliche. It's... well let's say it's different.

More than anything it reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm. Odd things happen without any previous hint that things are going to get weird. When I'm in the right mood, or I know it's that kind of book, I find that sort of thing funny, but I wasn't in the right mood till about page 20 so till then I just thought it was a strange story. After that, I enjoyed it.

The story is about James Sparrow, a wealthy man living with his wife in a Chicago highrise. She loves Christmas but is sick with the flu; he wants to avoid Christmas by going to their Hawaiian vacation home. To complicate matters James gets a phone call from his home town saying his Uncle Earl is probably dying.

James wants to head for Hawaii right away because a storm is coming and he doesn't want to be storm-stayed but a sense of family duty has him flying toward North Dakota and Uncle Earl instead. He ends up stranded there and this is when things begin to get weird. A wolf talks to him and there are other unusual things but I don't want to give too much away. Just be ready for anything when you read it.

This is my first book by Garrison Keillor but it's piqued my interest so I'm going to check out some of his other writing. There's quite a list of titles on the "Also by Garrison Keillor" page, a couple of which sound interesting so I expect I'll be posting more about him sometime in the coming year.

Rant No. 1

I've decided this blog is a logical place to record the occasional rants that take place in my head. They usually happen when I feel I've finally heard or seen one too many stupid things. For example, the other night I was watching the News on tv. It was a couple of days after Christmas and the 3 or 4 inches of snow that had given us a white Christmas had disappeared with a couple of rainy days, a situation in no way unusual for our area - our Christmases are about 50-50 white and green/brown. One year I picked the last of the pansies for the Christmas dinner table. Another year the snow was so deep most city streets were impassable. The only time our weather is remarkable is if it stays the same for any length of time.

So I'm watching the news report and the announcer is standing outdoors reporting that the snow is all gone, a fact we all know from looking out our own windows. It seemed to be rather important to her so I kept listening. She spoke for several moments about the wetness of the streets, the patches of green where it had so recently been white and the general  un-Chrismasy-ness of it all. When I thought they were finally moving on to something that might actually be real news, they began showing footage of the outdoor skating oval. In a concerned voice the reporter told us that just a few days ago this oval had been filled with people enjoying the outdoor skating, but now, because of the rain, the ice was wet and could not be used.

Then, and I am not making this up, the camera took us to an indoor skating rink where people were being asked how they felt about having to skate here instead of at the outdoor oval. Were they terribly disappointed that the rain had created this situation? The people looked like they wanted to ask if the reporter was feeling alright, but with the camera aimed at them they gamely tried to answer the question. Eventually the camera returned to the reporter on the wet street where she re-stated everything we had just been told, which was pretty much nothing.

The entire report took at least ten minutes. Ten minutes to tell us rain fell yesterday and then more fell today. It wasn't even an unusual amount. I don't understand how anybody could think that was worthy of a news report (and they made us go through the whole thing again when it was time for the weather report). There are wars and disasters and crimes happening all around the world and we call a bit of rain news? A while back I watched a reporter standing on a quiet beach saying how big the waves were going to get in just a few hours, then at the end of that few hours he was back on the still quiet beach saying the storm hadn't materialized and these calm waters would remain calm. His intensity was laughable. Two news reports on a beach where nothing is happening.

When did ordinary weather become news? Hurricanes, sure. Tornadoes. Heavy snowfalls, ice storms, dangerous road conditions; anything with an actual story. But how is it news when nothing is happening? Are we so lamentably addicted to sensationalism that we have to create drama out of nothing? Aren't journalists embarrassed to talk so earnestly about nothing at all? I get embarrassed for them just watching, it makes them look so sad and desperate.

Please people. News is news. Severe weather is news. An ordinary rainy day on the east coast is not.

End of rant.