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…