Sunday, January 18, 2015

Recent Reads

The books I've been reading lately seem to hold recollections of childhood, coming of age, and the quest for meaning and happiness.  I wonder if all books have these elements to some degree?

If there was another thread in these recent reads, it was family.

Three of the six titles were book club selections, and it just happened that they featured  dysfunctional family situations. But then, what's 'normal' these days, anyway? Besides, dysfunctional families make far more interesting reading.

Son of a Certain Woman, Wayne Johnston: The author opened his lecture at the Heliconian by saying his book was about a typical Newfoundland family in St. John's. A lesbian single mom with a disfigured son, who lives with a man called 'Pops' she sleeps with once a month, but whose lover is the sister of the man who is the biological father, who left town before the son was born. Oh yes, and the son lusts after his mother while simultaneously having a call to the priesthood. This is a very funny and irreverent tale. The Globe and Mail called it "expertly discomfiting".

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews: Light reading for the Christmas holidays, this was not. One sister is asking the other to help her end her life. The one seeking relief doesn't have a terminal illness but chronic depression, despite an amazing career as a concert pianist and other life blessings. There are frequent flashbacks to their childhood, growing up as Mennonites in a small, tightly knit rural community, and their fight to invent lives of their own. NYT book review points out the dialogue is realistic and funny, and somehow, almost magically, Toews gets away with having her characters discuss things like books and art and the meaning of life without seeming pretentious or precious; they’re simply smart, decent and confused.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver:  The story revolves around Pandora, the little sister, and her attempt to save her big brother Edison. She sets aside a year to help him lose almost 200 pounds, and in the process puts her marriage on the line. I'm sorry to have missed the book club discussion on this one! The novel does such a great job questioning the social, personal and interpersonal issues around obesity. Such as: Why is the dieting industry the only profitable business in the world with a 98 percent failure rate?; Why do more than 80% of people who lose weight gain it back?; and the crux of the story, How far would you go to save the life of one of your siblings? The author wrote this book after the death of her morbidly obese brother.  She makes a point of saying the 'Big Brother' featured isn't her own, but a composite character. The characters may be fictional but the story certainly rings true, especially as I was reading this while on a diet. NYT Book review here.

Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Not just the families are dysfunctional in this book. The society is a dystopia where books are burned, television plays non-stop, drugs are on-demand, war is imminent, and everyone is happy, so happy. The hero in the story, a fireman who earns his living burning books, begins to question the meaning of his life. He lives with a wife whose ambition is to complete the 4th wall in her parlour to improve the time she spends with "the family" -  not her husband, but the characters on the television screen. The book should make for an interesting discussion at the January BPYC Book Club meeting.

London, Edward Rutherford: Many dysfunctional families through 2,000 years of history comprise the historic coming-of-Ages story Rutherford tells in London. The author makes history entertaining. Just like his other novels, this one is a nice thick read. I preferred Paris more - the book I mean - it was told in a less linear fashion and the characters invited a deeper relationship with me as a reader.  I wonder if any of his novels will become TV episodic dramas? Rutherford certainly has fans and historic dramas seem to be doing well these days...

Knee Deep in Claret, Billy Kay: This is the history of wine in Scotland. The  non-fiction book tells the story of wine through the centuries. At first I thought the book wouldn't fit with the underlying thread of dysfunctional family, but, if you cast countries as siblings and start to ponder how all the wars between England and France impacted Scotland, it tells the story of a dysfunctional family. Man through the ages. No wonder we invented wine!

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