Category Archives: Reading challenges

Paris in July and an entrée

Karen from BookBath and Tamara at Thyme For Tea are hosting Paris in July – celebrating their love of all things French and Parisian. It will run from the 1st – 31st July 2011 and the aim of the month is to celebrate our French experiences through reading, watching, listening to, observing, cooking and eating all things French.

I haven’t joined any challenges so far this year but this is too tempting to resist and it also fits in perfectly with two books I’ve been wanting to read: Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

Recently I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife and their time in Paris in the 1920s. Bellezza then came up with the lovely idea of reading some Ernest Hemingway together and we chose A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s thoughts on Paris. We will post about it on June 30 – as it turns out the perfect entrée for Paris in July reading.

Please join us if you would like to.

Pop over to Bellezza for her invitation and appetite whetting montage of Mr Hemingway.

Lots of fun…

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

Lacuna is loosely translated as a missing piece, a gap, something not revealed. This lacuna plays a significant role, permeating every layer of Barbara Kingsolver’s story, in every sense of the word – physically and metaphorically.

I read The Poisonwood Bible last year and loved it and was delighted to see a brand new copy of The Lacuna at the library last weekend. I have not been feeling the reading love lately, probably obvious by my lack of posts! I think one reason for this is I have been choosing chunky books and great as they have been, they have just seemed a bit long. I seem to have a mental block after about page 400 and really have to push on to finish.

I felt that again with this book, at 507 hardback pages, there were parts that dragged a bit. However, having made the effort and finished it now, I think it was an incredible book and I know I want to eventually read everything Barbara Kingsolver has written. I feel I would be missing out not to. I also feel the same about J.M Coetzee, even though the two books of his I’ve read haven’t been real page turners, what he says just resonates with me in some way – I’m intrigued to learn more.. Actually parts of The Lacuna reminded me of Summertime by Coetzee.

The Lacuna is told mostly in unconventional diary format, written by and chronicling the life of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and American father. From 1920’s Mexico where the unwanted young Harrison survived by making use of his considerable artistic talents, as painter and cook and secretary to the artists Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo and later as secretary and driver to Leon Trotsky. I have to admit this part of the story fascinated me, accepting it is fiction but still imagining that this is how it may have been like. This part of the story is especially sensual with wonderful descriptions of the household, of bread being kneaded, the smell and flavour of lime and coriander, the vivid personality and paintings and mood swings of Frida Kahlo.

The latter part of the story finds Harrison in the US, struggling with issues of identity, finding a success of sorts and also facing the biggest threat of his life.

The Lacuna is a study of history,politics, culture, language, identity, art and much more. The power of words spoken and unspoken, both good and evil. Harrison Shephard is a character I cared about, I felt a mixture of emotions reading his story but throughout it all there was a sense of his personal dignity.

Not the quickest read but worth it and the ending is amazing!

Longlisted for the Orange Prize 2010

2009, 507 pages

Read for the Chunkster, Support Your Local Library, Global 2010, 2010 Bibliophilic challenges

Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay

Late Nights on Air is a beautifully written, gentle and accepting story. It combines fiction with actual historical events; it is a story that flows, allowing the characters to do their thing without judgment, in a stunning yet harsh setting in the far North of Canada.

The story takes place in Yellowknife in the 1970’s, and centers around the employees of the local radio station. It opens with two new arrivals to the station, Dido and Gwen, both seeking time out and drawn to the space of the area, with its surrounding lakes and vast expanses. Also the appeal of creating distance between themselves and the problems they have left behind. The women create a stir with their arrival, the men competing for the attention of Dido with her annonymous, beautiful voice and troubled past.

At this time there is tension brewing in the local community with the proposed construction of a gas pipeline, heavily opposed by many but not all. An enquiry (The Berger enquiry) is set up to examine the effects this gasline would have on the area and is presided over by a local judge. There are people who will lose their land and people who are not prepared to stand by and let that happen.

The seasons are dominant with the long white nights and extremely cold winters and like the seasons the book has a cyclical flowing feel to it – everything simply unfolds.

Later in the book, four of the employees embark on a long, challenging canoe trip into the Artic Barrens, with its impassable ice, accompanied by herds of migrating caribou and the ever present threat of hungry bears. They were inspired by John Hornby an English explorer who had spent most of his life in the region before starving to death with two companions during a misjudged expedition.

None of the characters or events in the book are given extra weight over the other. This is an interesting style which I liked although I do think this is a book that would benefit from being read on its own. I allowed myself to be distracted by more attention grabbing books which disrupted the flow of this one a bit.

Winner of The Giller Prize in 2007

Read for the Themed Reading, 2010 Global and Book Awards challenges

2007, 305 pages

Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

India always changes people and I have been no exception

Heat and Dust is a book I’ve had on my mental could read list for a while. Being a Booker winner, a movie and set in India, I think I was expecting it to be a bit of an epic, something I might need to psych myself up for. Obviously I didn’t know much about it because it is not like that at all – it is a short, easy to read book that I sat down with (well lay down with really from the comfort of my bed!) in the morning, and was finished by lunchtime.

The book is set in Satipur, India and tells the story of two women, half a century apart. Olivia’s story takes place in 1923, during the time of the British Raj. She is in India with her husband Douglas, a junior official in the British Government. Satipur is the capital of Khatm, a province the British are seeking authority over, currently under the governance of a Nawab – a provincial governor, an Indian prince. It is the relationship between the Nawab, the British government officials and Olivia especially, with it’s political and personal tensions that make up this first story. We know at the beginning that Oliva eventually leaves her husband to be with the prince.

In the 1970’s, the granddaughter of Douglas travels to India to retrace Olivia’s footsteps and find out what happened to her. She had never returned to England. The narrator (who is not named) has the intimate letters Olivia had sent to her sister as a starting point. She visits the same places Olivia visited and her experiences although taking place in post colonial India, in many ways mirror those of her grandfather’s first wife.

This was a great book to read as an introduction to life in India under British rule from a British point of view. It didn’t paint the most flattering picture of the whole experience. Olivia as a new arrival felt foreign and out of place even among the fellow wives, who had been there for years and knew everything there was to know about India. When difficulties arose, her options were too limited. There was a certain lack of respect by the British toward the servants, the Nawab and the local customs.

Despite Olivia and the Nawab’s obvious attraction for each other, I didn’t find this to be a great love story. In a different setting it could even have been quite ordinary. Their relationship was a result I thought of the unsatisfactory environment they found themselves in. The combination of setting and story with the behind the scenes maneuvering was what made it enjoyable.

I liked it a lot and look forward to reading more novels set in India. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is high on that list – it appears on so many book award lists, I’m expecting it to be wonderful!

Winner of the Booker Award in 1975

Read for the Global reading, Book Awards 4, Decades, Support Your Local Library and Take Another Chance challenges

1975, 181 pages

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

I picked The Reluctant Fundamentalist up from the library yesterday and read the final chapter this morning. At 184 pages it is a short novel with short chapters and written in a way that encouraged me to keep reading – one of those “I’ll just read one more chapter” type of books. This was one of the things I enjoyed about it, that it was an effortless read.

The story is told as a one way conversation and takes place at a market place cafe in Lahore, Pakistan. The narrator is Changez, a young local man who was educated at Princeton University and ensconsed in the corporate world of New York prior to the events of September 11 2001. His companion is a stranger whom Changez recognises as an American and approaches offering assistance.

Over the next several hours, tea and dinner, Changez tells his life story to this stranger.

He talks of his arrival in America, his schooling and his recruitment by Underwood Samson, an elite firm in the financial world. He talks of the doors that were opened to him, the money he could make, the competitiveness and sense of achievement. During this time he fell in love with Erica, an American girl from a good family. He talked again about the opportunities afforded him from this relationship, he was introduced to an echelon of society that reminded him of the good days in Lahore, prior to its decline. On a business trip to Asia, he even tried to appear more American, seeing the respect his American colleagues were being given.

After the terroist attacks of 9/11 and especially the later threat of war between India and Pakistan, he felt conflicted, becoming disillusioned and angry with his adopted country.

We don’t get to hear from the stranger, his nervousness and occasional questions are relayed back by Changez. It becomes apparent that perhaps their meeting is not a co-incidence or perhaps it is. There is a palpable tension as the story evolves, the market place begins to clear and darkness draws in. The stranger seems to be on the clock, the waiter especially attentive, the narrator insistent on being in control and being able to complete his story.

The book gave me food for thought. Because it is a one way conversation, there are questions I had that were left unanswered, intentionally I think. Having finished the book I’m still unsure of everything that happened. I did enjoy it but I was expecting something different, more meaty. I wasn’t that interested in the romantic side of the story which seemed a bit weak and unnecessary.The book was very well written though so I’m sure there was a point to it being included.

Overall I found this to be very good and I’m pleased to have read it.

Read for the Support Your Local Library and Global challenges. I’m also going to count it towards the South Asian Author challenge which I still need to officially join.

2007, 224 pages

Cutting For Stone – Abraham Verghese

‘The Key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.’

Ghosh –  page 286

It might seem a bit over the top but I feel quite emotional after finishing this book. I feel like taking a breath, stepping back and digesting what I have read. This was a slower read for me. A book that spans continents and decades and coming to the end of it, I feel like I’ve come to the end of a journey of my own.

After an unsure start, I now know that a slow read can still be a great read.

The story takes place mostly in Ethiopia and the sights and smells and backdrop of civil unrest make for a fascinating setting and really brought the story alive.

In 1954, twin boys are born in a small hospital in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. The shock offspring of an Indian nun and English surgeon, Marion and Shiva are identical, very different and very close throughout their childhood. Growing up in Missing, the hospital of their birth, theirs is a life surrounded by doctors, medicine, unconventional yet special family amidst a combination of Ethiopian and Indian culture.

Abraham Verghese is a doctor, as are many of the characters in his novel. This is a story about the heart and soul of medicine, about a life of dedication to healing, and what it means and takes to do that properly. For a lot of people the surgical scenes may be a bit detailed. I thought so initially but they are such an essential part of the story – an illustration of precision and passion, and they balance out over the 500 + pages.

This is the first book I have read about Ethiopia. I didn’t know that much about it beforehand. I didn’t know about the Italian and Indian influences or that it was one of the oldest countries in the world. I knew it was a financially poor country but had never really considered the devastating effect of this lack of resources on the people living there. As well as being a great read, I appreciated the opportunity to learn a little more.

Visit Eva at A Striped Armchair for a lovely list of books about Ethiopia

Read for the Chunkster, Global and Support your local library challenges.

2009, 534 pages

Themed Reading challenge

February 14 – August 14, 2010

Wendy is once again hosting the Themed Reading Challenge for 2010. This is a six month challenge designed to help readers clear books from their to-be-read stacks which center around a common theme or themes.

My goal: Read at least 5 books which share the same theme.

It’s been lots of fun deciding on a theme for this challenge. I was thinking of choosing books in translation or New Zealand authors but in the end, with my TBR list in mind, I have picked authors with the first name of Elizabeth
and will choose from the delights below:

Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford or Wives and Daughters. This will also be the second read for the Elizabeth Gaskell mini challenge

Elizabeth Goudge

Green Dolphin Country –   I have this already. It’s huge so can double up for the chunkster challenge

Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck –  NZ author and a nice read for Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge in the Spring maybe.

Elizabeth Kostova

Either The Swan Thieves (ideally) or The Historian

Elizabeth Taylor

I have heard such good things about this author.  I borrowed Blaming from the library last year but didn’t get to it.  Second time lucky hopefully.

Elizabeth Bowen

Eva Trout if possible which won the James Tait Black prize in 1969 and will fit in nicely with the Book Awards challenge

Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love – This one is earmarked for holiday reading later in the year. All we need to do now is book the holiday!

Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April – published in 1922, this could double up with the Decades challenge.  Elizabeth von Arnim was born in Australia and moved to England when she was three.  I think it would be pushing it a bit to include her for the Aussie Author challenge? Maybe as a bonus read…

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

The Blank Wall is a psychological thriller and a Persephone book. Sounds like an intriguing combination and I am excited to see that Claire at Paperback Reader has the banner up for the next Persephone reading week (3-9 May).

So there they are, the Eliz(s)abeth’s…

The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West

Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was written during the first world war. Perhaps understandably it is not especially cheerful but it is an astute slice of life story. It offers what I thought was a wonderful insight into human behaviour and the effects of war.

The story is narrated by Jenny who shares a home with her cousin Chris and his wife Kitty. It is obvious from the beginning that Jenny is devoted to her cousin. Her purpose in life seems to be to work alongside Kitty to make his life as comfortable and happy as possible. This is a job they both take seriously, the furnishings in the house, even the layout of the garden designed to be comforting and peaceful.

Chris returns early from the war, shellshocked, the past 15 years of his life and the turmoil in the world erased from his memory. He doesn’t remember his wife at all and only remembers his cousin as a young playmate, not the woman she now is. This is something that bothers Jenny. He believes himself to still be in love with Margaret, his girlfriend from that period who is now married herself.

Margaret is central to the story. Kitty and Jenny consider her to be poor, unattractive and badly groomed, to the extent that they are embarrassed for her and to be around her. They don’t consider her a threat at all but soon realise that Chris in his regressed state is besotted with her. She comes to their house to see Chris, to aid in his recovery. Initially hostile, Jenny warms to her, begins to appreciate her genuine and simple character, feels nourished by her company. We don’t learn much about Kitty, she is portrayed as being beautiful and shallow, clothed in silks and struggling to believe that her husband could prefer this undesirable woman over her.

The outer beauty of Kitty contrasted against the inner beauty of Margaret.

The women’s actions will be crucial to the outcome. Especially those of Margaret. Does she follow her heart and in doing so protect her former love – as long as he is “ill”, Chris will be kept away from the front. Or does she do the right thing, honour their respective marriages and help him to recover is memory.

This was one of Rebecca West’s earlier novels, written when she was 24. It is short and I didn’t get to engage with the characters but it introduced all sorts of issues begging to be explored further. Rebecca West sounded like a fascinating woman and I’m looking forward to learning more about her. I would also like to read her non fiction/travel memoir, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia which was written later in her life.

Read for the Decades 2010, Global reading and Support your local library challenges

1918, 112 pages

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

I seem to have fallen into the pattern recently of waiting several days after finishing a book to write about it. I’m not sure how that evolved or if it works or not but I definitely didn’t want to do that with this book. I finished it this afternoon and have been thinking of how to talk about it since, while it is still fresh.

For me, Evie Wyld’s debut novel is clever, flawlessly written and perfectly paced.

Set in Australia, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is about the lives of two men, told in alternate chapters. Frank and Leon’s stories take place over different time periods but deal with similar issues.

The story opens with Frank, escaping the city for some time out and heading for a rural coastal town and the sanctuary of his grandparents deserted shack. The stunning landscape and opportunity for respite balanced against the harshness and hidden dangers of the bush are vividly portrayed.

Leon’s story is one of the effects of war; directly, in Vietnam and through his father in Korea.

Evie Wyld’s gentle writing style may lure the reader into thinking there is not a lot going on but actually the book is full of activity and raises all sorts of issues such as land rights, racism, the rights and wrongs of war and painful relationships. These subjects are effortlessly weaved into the fabric of the story and introduced in a way that invites rather than forces the reader to address them.

My favourite books tend to be those that either have a gripping plot or I find particularly moving. This book didn’t really tick either of those boxes but I still admired and appreciated it and enjoyed it very much.

Read for the Global reading and Support your local library challenges.

This Blinding Absence of Light – Tahar Ben Jelloun

I read once that the actress Winona Ryder carried a copy of Catcher in the Rye around with her for inspiration. I can imagine doing the same thing with this incredible novel, This Blinding Absence of Light.

It is a novel that reads as non fiction and was based on the testimony of an actual inmate of Tazmamart Prison. It is horrific, heartbreaking and humbling.

In 1971, the narrator, a junior soldier was barely involved in a failed coup against King Hassan II of Morocco. He ended up in Tazmamart, a prison that officially didn’t exist, an underground dungeon with no light, no protection against the extreme heat and cold, just enough air to breathe, minimal water and starches to be kept alive. Locked in his pitch black cell 24hrs a day, with scorpions and roaches – able to hear his fellow prisoners but not see or touch them. On top of this his cell was too low to ever stand up straight.

You know, more than anything else, a palace is a place where you feel a sense of well being, where your body and soul are in harmony, where the real treasure is serenity. The rest is just decoration, space furnished according to your personal idea of contentment. Obviously, there’s considerable comfort, but tell yourself one thing: real comfort comes from inner peace

Realising that he can do nothing for his body, he decides to save his mind.  The first thing is to forget the person he was. That person is no longer alive. He must let go of his memories. To remember is to die. He forgets his family; his father who disowned him, his mother, his fiance. He forces himself to let go of the attachment and imagines over and over his fiance with a new husband. Through prayer, meditation and sheer determination he stays positive. He helps to keep morale of the inmates up by reciting verses from the Koran, and remembering stories from his fathers library; Tenesee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire to The Stranger by Albert Camus. And when he can concentrate long enough to null the pain of his rotting body, he imagines he is outside in the light, in his own paradise:

My garden is humble. A few orange trees, one or two lemon trees, a well of cool water in the center, lush grass and a room in which to sleep when it’s cold or rainy. In this room there is nothing, just a mat, a pillow, a blanket. The walls have been limewashed in blue. When the daylight fades, I light two candles and read. In the evening, I eat vegetables from the garden. An old peasant woman who lives in the area brings me bread every day at the same hour. That is my secret, my dream life, the place where I like to go to meditate. To pray and think about those who are no longer here. I do not need anything else. Above all, one must possess nothing, acquire nothing, be light, in good spirits, ready to walk off and leave everything behind wearing only a simple djellaba to cover the body..

I loved this book. It reminded me of what is really important and I wish everybody could have the opportunity to read it.

Winner of the 2004 Impac Award
Translated from the French by by Linda Coverdale

Read for the Book Awards 4, 2010 Global challenge and Support your local library challenge