My mixtape, of sorts

Do you have any books you can read again and again?  When I mention that I often re-read my favourite novels, or even just certain passages, I often get this look.  This bug-eyed, quizzical look similar to one I’d receive if I said I was vegan, or I weigh 110 pounds.  (Note – both are highly false).  I understand – for some people, the mystery is solved!  Why read it again when you already know the outcome, when you’ve already met the characters and know the choices they make throughout?  Some novels, for me, are the soundtrack of my life.  They’ve punctuated an era with every mark possible:  sometimes a period, often an exclamation, too many times a question mark, and, occasionally, an ellipses.

Re-visiting a book can be like looking through a photo album.  There are so many that capture perfectly a stage in my life.  Take, for example, my life before marriage.  I highly enjoyed Melissa Bank; her collections of short stories A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot have both been read, dog-eared, and filled with Post-Its as their ever-changing protagonists bob and weave their way through dating, relationships, and coupledom.  Did I learn anything about the ever-confusing world of partnerships?  Nope.  But it sure felt nice to not be alone.

David Sedaris’ essays have often helped me CTFD (see Urban Dictionary) as life has handed me, hyper rule-follower and general Type-Aist that I am, twists and turns that I was least expecting.  One story in particular, Put a Lid on It from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, chronicles one of Sedaris’ convoluted but ultimately loving relationships and describes so astutely his need to control and “save lives” that it’s hard to not draw parallels in my life and reflect on my own behaviours.

And, I could not write this without mentioning Old Faithful, a hardcover so tattered and stained you’d think it had seen war and back, but it hasn’t.  It has, however, accompanied me across continents, in front of a campfire, and in the bathtub.  It’s cosied up to me in bed, and lain with me in cool spring grass.  Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone is, ironically, my comfort zone.  No one writer has captured the ties that bind – and unravel – family relationships, the utter despair felt during adolescence, and the delicate art of forgiveness quite like he has in this very simple collection.

Behold!  The keeper of all emotion!

Behold! The keeper of all emotion!

Other novels on rotation include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, The KGB Bar Reader, and The Piano Man’s Daughter by Timothy Findley.  These, and so many more, have been read and re-read multiple times, and likely will be again.  Perhaps I like the reassurance of knowing the outcome of the conflicts faced.  Maybe the characters have connected with me in some way I don’t quite recognize.

Or, it could simply be, there are times I like to find a quiet space and catch up with an old friend …

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Karl Ove Knausgaard remembers a lot for someone with a bad memory

deathinthefamily_smallIt is difficult to read anything described as a ‘masterpiece’ with objectivity.  Whether you find yourself re-reading pages for something you missed, or sceptically thinking ‘this is a masterpiece?’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the narrative flow intended by the author has been lost.

I found this to be the case when reading ‘A Death in the Family’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard for this month’s book club.  The book is the first in a series of six autobiographical novels and follows Knausgaard through his teenage years in rural Norway into young adulthood before jumping to the time of his father’s death some years later.  It was this latter section of the book which most resonated with me, as Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, clear up the devastation left behind by their alcoholic father and Karl Ove processes his feelings towards him as they deal with the father’s death.

A widely discussed characteristic of the novel is the level of detail employed by Knausgaard to describe even seemingly banal events.  At times it reminded me of a story told by a friend about being trapped by flight delays at Heathrow airport.  Told over a comically long period of time, it was as if I too was trapped at the airport.  While this tangible sense of time passing was perhaps Knausgaard’s intention, many of the members found it to be more of a challenge than a pleasure.

Cup of tea

Material for 3 pages

Photo by Xavier Snelgrove / CC BY-SA 2.5

The book offers some interesting topics for discussion such as filial responsibility, awareness of others and self, addiction, and the ethics of consent when writing about events people may reasonably expect to be kept private.  While the novel is interspersed with moments of self-reflection, one member found herself frustrated that lessons Knausgaard seems to learn in his youth appear to have little impact on his adult life, drinking excluded.  That the novel is autobiographical makes this additionally frustrating as it speaks to the varying success with which we all apply lessons learned.

Overall members were more exasperated than entranced by A Death in the Family, and I wonder if this is partially because we were reading it with the intention of discussion.  Perhaps it is better to read as a singular endeavour: you and Karl Ove connecting…or not.

–Johanna

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

cellist_fp“It is a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous and that it won’t last forever.” (The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway)

Throughout The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway we are constantly reminded that life always ends. Galloway underscores the perverseness of war and death in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovnia during 1992 to 1996 by telling his fictionalized story through three characters: Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow.

Kenan is a middle-aged man living with his family in Sarajevo, struggling to get water for his family and neighbour every four days. Dragan, an older man whose family left at the beginning of the siege, now risks his life to trade bread for shelter. Through these two characters Galloway highlights that even small tasks, like crossing the street, have become epic challenges due to the ‘men on the hills’ shooting at those in the city. In contrast to these two characters, Arrow is a young, adept sniper who fights according to her own morals, shooting only soldiers, not civilians. In the midst of them is the cellist of Sarajevo: a man who memorializes a bombing which killed 22 people queueing to buy bread by playing his cello in the open one day for each of the dead. We only hear briefly from his character but the cellist is central to the story, prompting the characters to analyze their own actions during the siege. Once the 22 days end so does the story, and the audience is left to contemplate a book that celebrates the good in small but heroic acts, and mourns the depths of human hatred.

There actually is a cellist of Sarajevo – his name is Vedran Smailović and he did play in Sarajevo for 22 days to commemorate the bombing of 22 individuals. Unfortunately, Smailović did not appreciate the book’s attention or Galloway’s fictionalization of his story. As Smailović said:

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day. They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine. I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello. But if I do not get justice now I will burn it back in Sarajevo.”

As you might have guessed, this became one of the subjects of our discussion and we wondered if Galloway’s behaviour was moral. Was basing a creative work off a public act ethical? Is Galloway exploiting someone else’s misery? What about consent from the subject of art? One of our members aptly questioned if this story was similar to attending a graveyard, observing a family deeply in mourning, and then turning around writing a book about it. While it could be done, it feels a distasteful to intrude on someone’s very personal act of grieving. Smailović questions this himself, asking “How can somebody steal your work, my, my sadness, my, my tragedy?”

No matter where you stand on the topic, it’s worth seeing Smailović play Albinoni’s Adagio, the song he played in honour of those 22 dead.

If you would like some background information on the Bosnian war, check out this (graphic) ABC news video from the middle of the conflict.

Lastly, this meeting was shortly before Alicia moved to New York so we presented her with a photobook of our times together – something that made all of us tear up!! I’m sure she knows this, but just in case she ever doubts it: Alicia, all of book club is so proud of you and your accomplishments!

–Kat

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Summertime…and the Reading is Easy…

summer readingSummer reading…is there such a thing? According to many schools and libraries: yes! Summer reading lists are produced each year to ensure that time is occupied, nobody gets into trouble and that kids practice their reading skills attained that school year.

Even as we get older, we still distinguish summer reading as something different. We never exclaim in mid-July, “Well, I’m off to curl up with a good book!” That’s reserved for winter reading- a whole other beast!

I would argue that there is a particular book reserved for a summer setting that I would not dream of reading in any other season. While normally I scour Pulitzer prize winner lists and Man Book long-listed candidates, in the summer my usual requirements involve the words: “Romance” or “Mystery”, or how about this: a romantic mystery!

Perhaps summer reading is meant to be light to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible. Instead of sitting under a tree and philosophizing over deeper meanings of books you can read a simple, mindless story and still hear the birds, feel the sunshine and smell the grass.

So, wherever you are, pop in your summer soundtrack, crack open a cold one, dig your toes into grass or sand and embrace that breezy, perhaps smutty read because autumn is here soon and you can’t be caught with that book!

patio_view_summer_readingabby_summer_readingMy favourite reading views: my patio and our weekly lake spot
(with my favourite 4-legged friend!)

- Kathryn

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The Bluest Eye

bluest eye“Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.” (The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison)

Although I wouldn’t say that there is pressure to pick a “good” book for our meetings, we all aim to select something that is both enjoyable and evokes meaningful discussions. I know for a fact that some of us spends weeks, if not months, researching what book we will choose. And, to make it even harder, some of us have even added the challenge of trying to select a book that no one in the group (ahem – Jill!) has read before! With these challenges in mind, I decided to pick a novel written in 1970 in the hopes of finding something “new” to the group that would lend itself to a good discussion.

I wouldn’t say Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is an enjoyable read. In fact, in her afterword Morrison admits that it is a “terrible story about things one would rather not know anything about”. But this book was amazingly well-written and led to a very passionate and thoughtful discussion at our meeting.

For those who have not heard of it, The Bluest Eye is set in Ohio in the 1940s and tells the story of the life of a young African American girl named Pecola who wishes to have blue eyes. By having blue eyes, she believed that her whole experience of the world would be improved.

Morrison uniquely tells each chapter by sharing the stories of characters who come into contact with Pecola, rather than focusing the narrative solely from Pecola’s perspective. This was impeccably done, and by doing so, Morrison was able to demonstrate the complexity of human beings by making it very difficult for the reader not to have some compassion for characters who commit horrible acts.

The novel raises important issues around rape, incest, poverty, and racism – it makes the reader really think and reevaluate society and our social interactions. This led to interesting and heated discussions on sexism, racism, poverty, censorship, beauty, and psychology. Additionally, since this book was so beautifully written, members throughout the evening would stop to read a specific quote that really stood out to them.

If you haven’t read this one yet, and you are up for a difficult, but thought-provoking, read I would highly recommend The Bluest Eye.

–Alicia

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LitLovers feature!

Just a few weeks ago, our bookclub was featured on LitLovers, an online community for those who enjoy literature and discussing books with others! Very quickly, a few of our members posted the link on Facebook to share with all of our friends who didn’t really know what our bookclub entailed… to be honest, several of our friends and partners just tease us that we are more of a wine club with a reading problem than a bookclub.

Yesterday though, I was chatting with a guy friend of mine and he mentioned that he had read the feature. Apparently, before reading it, despite knowing several of our members closely, he had no idea what our bookclub involved! He said he was surprised to learn how organized and passionate we are for reading and getting together regularly!

So, if you feel so inclined, please head on over and check out our feature. Be sure to explore more of the links on LitLovers – they highlight several other really awesome bookclubs, reading resources, and other interesting things!

-Alicia

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What the hell’s a yachting shoe?

haroldfryI read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce last summer. I loved it. I read a lot last summer but this book really stuck with me though it’s not full of non-stop adventure, or particularly riveting conflicts. The setting, however, becomes a primary character, one that does everything character should do. You care about it. You develop a relationship with it. When it came time for me to choose a novel, I easily selected this one, as I wanted to introduce the setting, the glorious English countryside, to my gals. I also wanted to ply them with summer picnic foods and a potent white wine punch which resulted in some lively conversation later in the evening.

Pilgrimage is about a man’s journey through England (literally from the southern tip to the Scottish border) to visit a dying friend to whom Harold has always felt he owed a great deal, while his wife sat at home, worried by this impromptu trip. While separated, both reflected on their long suffering marriage and sought comfort in helpful strangers (Harold) or their son, David (Maureen). Our discussion focused a lot on the novel’s spoilers, so I’ll keep this brief, if vague.

We concluded that the relationship between Harold and Queenie was strictly platonic, but was something more than friendship. Harold’s heartbreaking feelings that, so long as he walked, Queenie would live, propelled him through beaten-down yachting shoes, body aches and pains, and a period of reflection which he hadn’t really done before. Most notably, Harold considered himself a distant father and unfeeling husband and wondered why he hadn’t fought harder for his family throughout the years. It takes more than one person to destroy a family though; enter Harold’s wife and son. We were frustrated with both partners – How does one simply go through the motions of marriage for years – years – without talking about it?! It reveals a lot about the generation before ours who maybe didn’t talk a lot about feelings, and that sometimes pain can be so great the only way possible to deal with it is by ignoring it.

Rachel Joyce is a tremendous author who beautifully landscaped the country and took secondary characters – the boss. Ew. – and made them come alive. She has an exceptional ability to be descriptive without flowery, to take the saddest or simplest of things and make them beautiful. We did, however, lament the slow start to the novel …but loved the rapid succession through events near the end.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is best described as a tragic tale which makes you want to reach out to loved ones near and far and always keep band-aids in your back pocket.

-Laina.

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