Two Solitudes/ Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/ Memoirs of a Geisha

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
If this book had been required reading in high school it might have given my generation a bit of insight into the tension between French and English in our home province, New Brunswick. It wasn't on my radar at all till one of our book club members selected it. I might have missed it entirely.

It follows two families: a French family, the Tallards, and an English family, the Methuens. Living in two different worlds beginning to mesh into one nation, the families fight to preserve their own way of life. It covers two generations of family members fighting, loving, hating, betraying, and grieving. The characters themselves didn't appeal to me that much but the history of the conflict between the two cultures was fascinating for me. If I wasn't Canadian, it probably wouldn't have made such an impression on me, but as a Canadian, I couldn't get enough. It opened my eyes to things I hadn't seen before. 

I'd like to say I'm glad all that conflict is over, but I can't. My province is the only officially bilingual province in the country and a lot gets said publicly about how we all get along, but beneath that cooperative veneer there are strong emotions on both sides of the language divide. After a century and a half of confederation we still haven't figured out how to get students to high school graduation fluent in both English and French or how to make the job market fair for everyone. We all want compromise as long as it's the other guy doing the compromising. I don't know if we'll ever be truly united. I've lived 68 years and at this point I see the gap widening instead of closing, and not just in N.B. but across Canada. I could break into a rant here about the decline of western civilization as we know it....but no. 

The book was good. You should read it. 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
This is Pirsig's journal of a motorcycle trip he and his son, Chris, took across several states. Part of it deals with their relationship (not an easy one) and part with the countryside they're travelling through, but the larger part of the book is philosophy. He thinks (and writes) deeply about what is good, what is quality, and how to live a quality life. He mentions Plato and Socrates, but he mostly talks about a guy called Phaedrus, whose philosophy of life he is studying, or maybe a better word is analyzing. Somewhere in the middle of the book you begin to realize who Phaedrus is and how he is significant, unexpectedly significant, to the story and that moment changes everything for the reader. The reviews all called it inspirational, and it is, but that word alone is too light, too small for this profoundly moving story.   
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
As a 9 year old girl, Chiyo is sold into slavery by her destitute father. She is taken from her small village to a city famous for its geisha, and is placed in a training house to be taught the arts of dance, music and conversation, while also being a maid to famous geisha, Hatsumomo. Mother, the woman who runs the house, is horrible to her, but it's Hatsumomo who wins the prize for mean girl. She's jealous and bitter and takes it all out on this little girl who is more beautiful than she is. I almost quit the book in this section, but then things turned around for Chiyo when another geisha, a kinder one, adopts her as "little sister" and becomes responsible for her training. At a certain age she is given her geisha name, Sayuri, and she enters the world of silk kimonos, intricate hair arrangements and the entertaining of wealthy men. WWII interrupts her career briefly, like a character playing a bit part; it's dismissed so quickly it's almost like it never happened. She goes back to her geisha life until finally moving to the US where she builds a similar if somewhat more independent life.  

Did I like it? Well, it was intriguing and I learned some things about Japan and the geisha life. I think. It's fiction so how much is made up I don't know. I get the feeling I'm supposed to feel nostalgic for this world that is passing away, but that's hard to do when a child is sold like so much meat, her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and everyone is free to slap her around and exercise unlimited power over her. Sure, when she gets older she gets invited to beautiful estates and socializes with the rich and famous, but even then she has no power, no independence. So while I did find it interesting I was also uncomfortable reading it and can't say I truly enjoyed it. Also one plot line is a too-predictable love story that I wasn't buying; I know the world wants a love story in every book, but this was just a cliche, and didn't add much. In the end, Sayuri got her man and was happy, even though that man had a wife and children and all Sayuri got was his spare time. It reads as though it's a victory, a happy ending. I'm not buying that either.  

Inside the O'Briens/The Closer I Get/Their Eyes Were Watching God/The Count of Monte Cristo/My Cousin Rachael

Inside The O'Briens by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova's books give the reader an up close and personal look a number of debilitating diseases: Alzheimers in Still Alice, Autism in Love Anthony, a syndrome called Left Neglect in Left Neglected, and ALS in Every Note Played. This one shows us what it's like to live with Huntington's Disease. 

Officer Joe O'Brien is a soft-hearted cop with a gruff exterior. He has a good marriage and a loving family; life is pretty good. Then the diagnosis comes and he has no idea how to process it or plan for the terrible changes it will bring. Even worse, he has to tell his kids there's a fifty percent chance they would have inherited it from him.

Genova has said that she writes these stories to raise awareness of the diseases and raise money for the cause. That's where these books really shine. In this one, and all of them, we walk through the various stages of the disease with the patient. We see the frustrations, the anger, the confusion and the pain as Joe loses the ability to do his job and look after himself. Seeing his humiliation as he becomes totally dependent on others helps us to understand the devastation this disease brings to people's lives. 

My favourites are Still Alice and Left Neglected, but I've learned a lot even from the books I didn't enjoy as much. And that's why I'll keep reading them.  

The Closer I Get by Paul Burston
This is a disturbing, but gripping story about an author trying to finish his novel while being stalked by an online fan. Evie is obsessed with Tom, but she's not the only one with psychological problems. He gets a restraining order against her but finds he can't let it go at that. He has to find out what she's up to, so he follows her activity online and is drawn into a downward spiral of suspicion and paranoia. The chapters alternate between his narrative and hers, and as the tension builds you begin to question who the real criminal is. It's a relevant story in this day of online relationships, and all the creepier for that. A real page-turner.   

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston  
Excellent. Well written, fascinating characters and lots to ponder. Most of it is written in the dialect of the deep south and I found that slow going in the beginning, but got better at it as I went along. 

Janie, the main character,  is strong and intelligent, and longs to be independent; a goal not easily achieved by a black woman in the 1930's deep south. We follow her through three turbulent marriages and the very different lifestyles they offer her, until she finally finds peace. She has depth and a poetic way of expressing herself that  I found beautiful, and yet she's also down to earth and practical. A memorable character and a very good story. 

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Fourteen hundred and fifty-four pages was a bit daunting but I muddled through. It's the unhappy tale of a man wrongly imprisoned who escapes to seek revenge on those responsible for his misery. It's creative and well thought out, a puzzle  that all fits together surprisingly well in the end. But the end is a long time coming. There are many characters and each one's story is told and told  and told... I don't mean to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did, but there did seem to be more of it than necessary. I watched a movie adaptation made a few years ago that I thought was excellent, so was surprised when I didn't particularly like the Count in the book. He was brilliant, and good to those who were good to him, but passionate about avenging himself and destroying the lives of the people who had wronged him. The time, money, and energy he spent on that goal consumed him. It became his whole life. I'll have to watch the movie again to see why the Count was more likable in that...maybe because the role was played by Jim Caviezel and, as I see it, he can do no wrong. 

My Cousin Rachael by Daphne DuMaurier 

Phillip Ashley is orphaned at a young age and raised by his cousin Ambrose, a man he loves and admires deeply. They are both happily settled  in their all-male household until Ambrose goes to Europe on vacation and subsequently writes home to tell Phillip he has married a woman called Rachael. Soon Ambrose becomes ill and writes Phillip that he suspects Rachael of having a hand in his illness and fears she will eventually kill him. After Ambrose dies, Phillip meets Rachael, and drawn in by her beauty and charm, falls hard. It's a love story and a mystery, a change from the usual in that the woman has all the power in this one. In the end you will have to decide for yourself if Rachael is guilty or innocent. A good gothic mystery.

Listen to the Child, Spin, Galore, Little Lord Fauntleroy

Listen to the Child by Elizabeth Howard
Good reviews convinced me to read this, but I'm afraid I didn't find it well written at all. The characters were one dimensional, it seemed bitterly biased against Christians, and the ending came so suddenly I was sure it was a mistake; it wasn't. It left many of the story lines unfinished, and included at least one that seemed to have no purpose other than to add to the overall sadness and misery. The one thing nobody in this book ever did is "Listen to the Child". It's based on an actual situation, in which desperately poor children were taken from the London slums, usually with the parents permission but not always, and shipped off to Canada where life was supposed to be glorious for all. Most of the kids were put in homes where they were nothing more than unpaid servants to mean, abusive people. They were starved, beaten, and left out in the cold to sleep. Promises to check up on them were not kept. 

It could have been a good "historical fiction" book. The basic plot is there, but the writing just wasn't up to it.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
It's been a long time since I read a science fiction novel, mostly because those I had read left me quite disappointed. I want a good story, believable characters, decent writing, and some interesting science in my science fiction. Something in the write-ups I read made me think I might find at least some of that in Spin, so I gave sci-fi another chance.

And it was amazing, so good I couldn't stop reading because every page left me needing to know what would happen on the next one. I forgot to do laundry and meals were late. I devoured this book. The story gripped me immediately, the characters were believable and well fleshed out, the writing was excellent, and the science, oh the science. It was exciting and terrifying and beautiful. It stretched the imagination but was not so out there as to make you shake your head and dismiss it as too far-fetched. It was just fetched far enough. A scientist might disagree, but I'm a reader, not a scientist, and I was mesmerized. 

It begins with 3 childhood friends who sneak outside after dark just in time to see the stars disappear. They were there, then they weren't, like someone just turned them off.  Thus begins the tale of how these three grow up in a changed and now dangerous world. There's some terra-forming of another planet, a human being who is not from earth, and government secrets galore - no shortage of interesting plot lines.

This was so good I think I'll try another sci-fi. Any recommendations? 

Galore by Michael Crummey
Vivid, gritty, and well written; all the things I love about Michael Crummey's novels. There's a feeling of honesty about them, sometimes painfully so, but that's what pulls me in and holds me there. I loved Sweetland, found River Thieves more brutal than I could handle, and would place Galore somewhere in between.

This story covers several generations of two families in a small area of Newfoundland beginning in the late 18th century and on into the early 20th. All the harsh realities of life on the rock and the ups and downs of a fishing village dependent on nature are described for you here. Described doesn't even say it really. It's more like he breathes it out and you breathe it in. You live there while you're reading the book and it takes a bit of re-acclimatizing when you've finished.

The characters are intensely human, quirky, unpretentious, some downright weird, usually one or two with eerie overtones. There's always something about their stories to give you pause, and maybe make you think about things you had not before considered. There's not much cheer in these books, but I'm fine with that, having been a Thomas Hardy fan for too many years to need happy endings anymore.

Crummey's books are total immersion experiences, which can leave you holding your breath at times and will profoundly engage all your senses as you are absorbed into a time and place not your own. 

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Written for children, this is the sweet story of Cedric, a little boy who lives in happy, if straitened, circumstances with his gentle, adoring mother in America, until it is discovered that he is the sole surviving heir of his cantankerous old grandfather in England. He is to be a Lord and inherit a grand estate, which his grandfather is not happy about but it's the law so he has no choice. He expects to find Cedric dull witted and uncouth, but is in for a surprise and even his hard heart will not be able to resist Cedric's kindness, sincerity, and beauty. He begins to love his grandson, and that brings about a softening of his own heart, to the great relief of all who know him.

It's a lovely story for children, if a bit hard to swallow for older readers. Nobody on earth is as perfect a specimen of humanity as Cedric. He always feels, says and does the right thing. He loves everybody and everybody loves him in return. His mother, too, is without flaw; graceful, beautiful, kind, gentle, etc. In another novel this wouldn't work at all, but this is for children and it sets a good example. And besides, the ending is very satisfying and makes you glad you read it. I think I liked this better than The Secret Garden, though I don't expect that to be a popular opinion.  

And Six More...

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I enjoyed reading this little book, but I'm not as thrilled
with it as everyone else seems to be. I don't know if I
just wasn't in the mood or if I'm too dull to grasp the
deeper meaning, but honestly I found it not all that

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
I enjoyed this while I was reading it, but now I can't
remember anything about it. I may have read it too quickly, or at a time when I was pre-occupied with other things. Lots of people rate it highly, for me it just didn't stick.

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
I'm so glad I read this. It's historical fiction that centers around the 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour when a heavily loaded munitions ship collided with another vessel. The story itself was just so-so, although I liked some of the characters and found myself caring what happened to them. The strength of this novel is in two things: its portrayal of Canada and her people in 1917 and its so-real-you-could-almost-feel-it description of the explosion. I'm a Maritimer, so of course I've seen the anniversary documentaries and read the articles, even read another novel set in the aftermath. But I've never read anything like this. I don't think I had any real idea how massive, how powerful it was or the extent and scope of the damage. The way he sets the stage for what's coming builds the tension until I almost didn't want to know. The first chapter is Sunday, then each day is another chapter. Thursday morning it happens. He's so smart in his telling of it that when you're reading it you hold your breath, you marvel as you watch what happens moment by moment. The earthquake it caused, the brutal air concussion, and the tidal wave were new to me, or at least this level of detail was. The effect those things had on the people, animals, buildings and land was nightmarish. I feel like I watched it in slow motion. If you're curious about what happened that day, read this. Any weak spots in the plot are more than compensated for by the way the author pulls you into this historical reality. It's more than a novel; it's an experience.

The Plague by Albert Camus
I put this off year after year until now just to discover it's really good. It's not the Hollywood style story about plague with all the blood and gore (there is a bit) and dramatic death scenes. Its not so much about the sick people (it is a little) as it is about the rest of the town and how people find different ways to cope with the chaos going on around them. The medical people, town leaders, church and business people, and all the folks who care for sick and dying family members have to find a way to get up every day and carry on. I would never have imagined it would be so engrossing. Well worth the read.  

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
Lisa Genova's books allow us to share the experience of a person suffering a debilitating disease. This time it's ALS and the victim is a world famous pianist at the height of his career. We watch as he loses control of his body, and his life, piece by piece. It's hard to read, but I find her books fascinating for what they teach me. I wasn't terribly keen on the story this time, finding the characters rather flat and the writing not as good as her other work, but I'm glad I read it. I will keep reading them as long as she keeps writing them because I learn so much from them. I think my favourites are still Left Neglected and Still Alice, but I liked Inside the O'Briens as well. Love Anthony and Every Note Played are at the bottom of the list for me. I was interested to read that her purpose for these novels is more to create awareness and generate funding than to entertain. With that goal in mind, I say mission accomplished.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Loved this one. Lily is a young girl growing up on a peach farm in South Carolina with her abusive father and a black woman (the cook) named Rosaleen. Rosaleen is stubborn and feisty and when she insults some of the racist men in town she is beaten and locked up in jail. Lily breaks her out and they set out on a long walk that will lead them to a bee-keepers farm run by three sisters, two/thirds of whom welcome them in. As the connection between Lily's dead mother and the sisters comes to light, Lily and Rosaleen begin to heal, finding acceptance among kindred spirits . That may sound corny, but this book is not. It's well written, poignant, and funny. A strong story with vivid, eccentric characters. I feel like I stepped inside the time and place depicted as soon as I read the first page, and I had a hard time putting it down. Excellent.

A Few More...

Cruel and Usual Punishment by Nonie Darwish

This was hard to read because of the subject matter, but it was on my shelf for a very long time and needed to be either read or discarded, which I didn't feel I could do. I didn't find it particularly well written. It's quite emotional, but anyone living such experiences would be emotional in the telling of their story. There is some good information in here, and it is worth reading. 

Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan

I did not enjoy this much. The book was heavy on Joy Davidman's "finding herself", which included leaving her husband and children in America for months while she had her "me time" in England, even when they were struggling to make ends meet. It doesn't paint a very flattering picture of her. I was disappointed with other things too. When "The Inklings" met at their usual pub, we are frequently told about the wonderful conversations they had, the brilliant exchange of ideas and philosophies, but we are never allowed in. We are told they happened, then it moves on to the next scene. I also question whether Lewis actually gushed over Davidman's work as much as this book implies; it seems odd that such great writing wouldn't be better known. 

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries

A lovely surprise. I'm not sure what I expected but it wasn't this. It's a small, hard cover book that looks like an art or gift book, but each chapter tells a story. The Thames has frozen over 40 times in recorded history and there's a fictional story set in each of those times. They are quite short but every one of them quickly grabs your attention and takes you to that time and place. The characters are vivid and the plots are wonderfully imaginative. Highly recommend.

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

After watching Downton Abbey and reading others in the upstairs/downstairs genre, I found this one a bit flat. It is an actual, true story, which, if I'd read it first, I might have loved. As it is I didn't enjoy the writing and found myself ambivalent about the girl who is telling her story. I'm probably just jaded from all the glitz and glamour and drama - oh the drama - of the fictional stories.   

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Loved it. Every time I read Dickens, I'm struck again by the timelessness of his tales. His books will never finish being relevant because basic human nature doesn't change. His stories are sentimental, but you can't help admiring his "good" characters. They may be too perfect, but they always leave me with some noble virtue to aspire to. His evil characters may be too thoroughly evil, but it's encouraging to see all that vileness bound up in one character and then see him get his comeuppance in the end. I always come away from his books understanding better how kindness can change people, both the giving and the receiving of it, and how selfishness is equally damaging to both the giver and the receiver. And besides all of that, you get a great story and Dickens' unvarnished look at the social problems of his time. But my favourite thing of all is his tone. Call it sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, wry or what you will, I love it and it's what keeps me coming back. 

I apologize for the lack of book cover pictures. I tried to use them, but they simply won't stay where I put them. When I get the post looking just right, I go to preview and see massive white spaces everywhere and the jpegs all over the place. I've never had this much trouble getting it to work before, but it was impossible today so I gave up. Words will have to do. 

An Unexpected Loss, and the First Books of 2019

I began the new year eagerly getting organized and setting new goals, then Jan 26th came, and in that one day my whole world changed. That morning my sister was out visiting; by late that evening, she had left us. Shortness of breath turned into an ambulance ride, that turned into a team of doctors scrambling to find out what was happening to her, and that led to one of them coming to tell us they'd been unable to save her. She'd had a massive blood clot in her lungs and she was gone. Just gone. I'm still trying to get my head around that. I made arrangements, stood beside the urn her ashes were in, helped clean out her apartment, and spent months tying up all the loose ends of her life, and still I can't believe she's gone. I don't know how long the denial stage of grief lasts, but I seem to be stuck in it. It just seems impossible, ludicrous even, to think that she's not here, that she won't be at family get-togethers, that I can't talk with her on fb messenger, that I won't be buying her a birthday gift in September. I feel almost angry when I think how stupid it all is. This can't be true. It cannot really be happening.

Needless to say, I haven't done anything about posting. I couldn't read for a while, couldn't make sense of the words or even remember what I had just read. After a couple of weeks I was able to get back at it a little, but I'm not up to writing much. I'll just list the books I've read so far this year with a line or two about why I liked or didn't like them.

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson
A story about a man who drove a school bus transporting special needs kids for a year. It was inspiring how he learned to relate to each student on their own terms. It was also funny at times, and overall a good read.

Do You Realize? by Kevin H. Kuhn
This was an unusual novel about a man who receives a watch that will let him travel back in time, but only 10 times. It get's complicated when he attempts to fix things in the past. It's part fantasy and part philosophy. It was much better than I'm making it sound. I liked it.

Through the Children's Gate by Adam Gopnik
A memoir about Gopnik and his family experiencing life in New York City. Toward the end it seemed more like a series of essays than a memoir, but it was interesting, and well written.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
Russell and her husband, who works for the Lego company, moved to Denmark where he would work at their head office for a year. I love travel books but this one didn't appeal to me. She interviewed a lot of people about their level of happiness, but I was looking for descriptions of the countryside and more about Danish culture. All I got from it is that I no longer have any desire to go to Denmark.

To be continued...