Category Archives: Books

One Book One Burlington (OBOB) 2103

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The Burlington (Ontario) Public Library has chosen Beach Strip written by local–Hamilton resident–author John Lawrence Reynolds for their annual One Book One Burlington event this Fall. This is a crime novel. A series of events and talks have been organized around it, such as meet the author, history of the Beach Strip and Burlington Light House, forensic sciences, crime authors panel and film noir, are taking place this month. Naturally, extra copies of the book has been made available to promote readership. Imagine, one can find a copy of the book on the local transit! I tip my hat to this marketing ploy.

I had read the book and discussed it with a book club earlier. I was there at the kick-off event, Meet the Author John Lawrence Reynolds, two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Mystery, to find out more. There were at least three hundred people at the hall of Port Nelson Church for the talk.

John Lawrence Reynold was forthright and entertaining in his talk. He lived in Burlington and knew the Beach Strip well. He said that it was his wife’s idea to use the Burlington Beach Trail as the setting for his book. He began jokingly by saying that as a male, the word “strip” has another meaning, but with his strict Christian upbringing, he did not feel comfortable placing the dead body of a naked woman on the beach; hence the victim was a man.

He spent a lot of time explaining his use of a woman’s voice. He revealed that his publishing team from agent to editor were women, plus his wife. They were giving him suggestions along the way. Besides, he justified his decision by adapting a Jane Austen quote, and Reynolds said, “A man must realize that he does not know any more about women than women know about men.”

Reynolds mentioned that many of his fictional characters were derived from people in his own experience, like the self-centred, manipulative Tina (Josie’s–the heroine–sister), who flirted with the taxi driver, Josie’s mother who was perceptive, and the shy Glynnis. He built Josie’s character to be the same as his male detectives in giving her persistence, courage and perseverance. He recognized that Josie’s had critics, likely because female and male characters were being judged differently. He believed that he had given her female qualities by her need for relationship and her sexuality.

The same applied to events from his own experience. Josie’s recollection of waiting at the canal for ships to pass came from a person he had known who enjoyed doing the same and waving at the boats that passed.  Josie’s blocking out her father’s death was related to Reynold’s experience of the Defasco (a big Hamilton steel factory) industrial accident many years ago.

Reynolds did not intend to send any message from his book. He just wanted a page-turner; a story well told was his goal. As a writer, he spent time on his characters and put them before his plot. He put them through the scene and trusted that the rest would follow. In this connection, he compared this approach to that of Ray Bradbury, who said that the plot was the foothold for the characters to launch.

There had not been any offers for a TV movie, and Reynolds spoke in a tongue-in-cheek manner that two more sequels may be in the pipeline, and the titles would be Beach Blonde and Beach Balls.

The audience seemed happy with the talk.  For me, it was educational to go into the process of  the creation of a fictional novel and the workings of an author’s mind.

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Book Club Review: Beach Strip, John Lawrence Reynolds

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POSSIBLE SPOILER

I have a chance to read Beach Strip by John Lawrence Reynolds through the book club of my local library branch, which is in support of the One Book One Burlington Event this Fall.  Our discussion surrounds some of the questions prepared by the librarians, with insight from a member who has taken part in the initial shortlisting of the book.

Most of us know where the Beach Strip is as a local landmark in Burlington and some of us have walked along it, including myself. (This is another reason why I read this book, because of the familiarity of the setting.) If you have been following my blog, you may wonder if I have an obsession about this area–the beach walk, the waves and the lift bridge. I tell my group that as I am reading the book, the scenery appears vividly in my mind’s eyes, even though I walk along the strip only in daylight and the crime in the book takes place at night. I figure out roughly where the author refers to as the first crime scene, and know exactly the location of an unexpected twist in the plot in which Josie Marshall walks on the lift bridge, looks at the guard on duty in the tower and throws the ashes of her husband in the canal. After that she walks on to discover a dead body, whose head is missing! I have not gone back to Beach Trail and the Burlington Canal Lift Bridge by myself since reading the gory details. Honestly, I need some company here.

When it comes to the plot, we have a perceptive remark that every ingredient one wants for a crime story is here. There is more than one murder, and the cops play a key role. There is more: Sex, flirtation, violence, a gangster boss, a suspected pervert, filial piety, sibling rivalry, extra-marital relationship and police corruption. Reynolds must be having fun with his canvas of the book, and puts a dab of this character and that character, as well as the various themes, viola! We are wondering whether with all these catchy ingredients the film right of a TV movie may be forthcoming.

The biggest misgiving we all have is the characterization of Josie Marshall, whose husband Gabe, a police detective, is found dead on the Beach Strip outside their house.  Josie does not believe that Gabe has committed suicide, as the police has told her. She takes it upon herself to find the murderer. There are too many inconsistencies. One moment Josie is grieving her loss and crying that she is feeling weak, but the next moment she is charging around talking to people and functioning like a cool and balanced-headed detective. Then she is in Vancouver with her sister, spent after all her experience. Next she is on a flight, calling and emailing all the people she wants to see to expose the murderer. This is all within three weeks of losing her husband. Mind you, she has seen at least two dead bodies in this short time. She appears like Super Woman.

The most upsetting part for us, all being female readers, is the stereotype of a woman’s strength to be her sexual appeal. It is only too superficial to see Josie deliberately wearing a tight top and a short pencil skirt when she visits the gangster boss. Reynolds says that he is experimenting with a female protagonist in this novel and when he tries to get into the head of the Josie Marshall,  it seems that it still comes from a male perspective. Anyhow, Reynolds will be appearing in an event to talk about his book. It will be interesting to see what he has to say.

The book is an interesting read, but likely not Reynold’s best. We think that it is selected for One Book One Burlington more because the setting is a local attraction, and Reynolds is a Burlington resident.  It is also easy to fit in other activities for this “one book one community” event which is gaining popular support in  the province.

Book Club Review: The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes

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It was my turn to host the book club and I had chosen Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of An Ending. When I read the book last year, prior to my decision that it would be my book club pick, I came to the last but two pages, and the ending took me by surprise. I said to myself, “Did I miss something?” and I re-read the book–it was only 150 pages long. I then decided that it would be the book I would share with my friends.

Later I came across a review by Geoff Mak, who commented that “The Sense of An Ending has gained itself a reputation for being the novel you must read twice”, and the director of the 2012 Man Booker Prize did so as well. It was very good to know that I was not alone.

At our book club meeting, I first asked my friends whether they found the ending a surprise and unanimously, nobody expected the twist, although one or two suspected that it might not be a straightforward ending. Our discussion quite naturally moved to  the mystery aspect of the book. We thought that Tony Webster was unreliable as a narrator.  He was forced to re-walk and rewrite his life history with he inheritance of the diary that belonged to his friend Adrian through the mother of his ex-girl friend Veronica. Adrian committed suicide after they finished school and parted ways. Even then, how much could he remember events of forty years ago, let alone recall them accurately? As one book club member opined, our memory was what we wanted to remember.

Not only that, a few of us echoed what Veronica kept commenting about Tony that he “just did not get it”, although we could not figure out what he did not get, because that would solve the puzzle regarding his relationship with Veronica, Adrian and Sarah Ford (Veronica’s mother).  We felt we had to accept the fact that this was Tony Webster, resigned and somewhat unable to understand relationship issues, struggling to remember what happened in his younger days. With our all-female member book club, we even ventured into generalizing that this could be a male perspective. As for Tony, the book gave the impression that he was constantly lost and uncertain about himself. Margaret, Tony’s ex-wife, continued to be his counsel and confidante.  We speculated that his weekend at Veronica’s home was significant, but our interpretations differed. One wondered about the imagery of Sarah flipping the egg and throwing it away, and its implication.  Another person read more into Veronica’s asking her brother Jack whether “this one (Tony) would do”.

The personality of Veronica did not appeal to us. Tony warned Adrian that she was “damaged goods”, but her personal history was sketchy in the book. She was spiteful after she had slept with Tony, and that was also after they had broken up. I wondered what the story would be like if Veronica was writing it.

It seemed that Tony had almost forgotten the vicious letter he wrote to Adrian, after Adrian told Tony about him and Veronica. He wanted to find out why Adrian had committed suicide. Veronica told him that the money bequeathed to him by her mother was “blood money”. However, the ending did not help us, who were trying to play sleuth. After all, Sarah Ford’s letter to Tony mentioned that Adrian died happy.

We were very involved in our discussion, and everybody attempted to create a version of exactly what had happened. This little book spanned Tony Webster’s life time from youth to retirement age, yet what was not written– except that he got married and then divorced– in between did not seem to matter. He was an ordinary fellow trying to make sense of his life.

Julian Barnes adeptly wove the class discussion of history into the theme of his book. It was Adrian who said, ” We need to know the history of the historian I order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” (p.13). With Tony, who seemed uncertain at times about what exactly happened in his life, the irony rang home.

One thing was certain. Several book club members decided to re-read the book. Our discussion actually continued into the next day, when one person sent out an email giving yet another interpretation of what had happened in the plot. I could not be more pleased.

Leslie Shimotakahara Reads “The Reading List”

I1-IMG_1248 heard about Leslie Shimotakahara through six-degree connections, bought and read her book The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, A Memoir. In each chapter of her memoir, she relates herself to the character of a book, as she describes her struggle with her career and her relationships with friends and family members. She has included Thoreau, Wharton and Joyce as well as Faulkner, Woolf and Hemingway in her thirteen chapters. Ondaatje and Atwood also make it into her list, among others. I have also found out from her blog under the same title “The Reading List” that she has many insightful reflections weaved into the over sixty book titles she has posted on her blog.  When I heard that she would be reading from her work in Hamilton, Ontario, I went out, because I wanted to meet her and ask her to autograph  my book.

The reading was organized by Litlive and held at the Homegrown Cafe in Hamilton, Ontario. The venue was situated in the re-vitalized downtown area of the city, where artists and writers had moved to in recent years. It offered a casual but cosy setting for this reading event with about thirty people among the audience to listen to the works of six writers of poetry and prose.

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My interest in meeting Leslie Shimotakahara stems not from the fact that I know a member of her extended family who has told me about the book in the first place. It is more because I am fascinated by her talent. Her writing has demonstrated scholarship and style. I admire her courage and frankness in revealing herself and her family in a memoir, though generally memoirs are written by people much older than she is. Her themes are multi-faceted and she has knitted them together seamlessly in her book.

I can relate to her feelings about academia, having come from academia myself. It would1-DSC02296 indeed be difficult if your goals and inclinations are not there to play the role according to the rules of the game, no matter how interested your are in the subject matter and the topic you are conducting research on. Now that I have met Leslie Shimo (guess it is all right to shorten her name like her great grandfather, Kozo, was referred to in her book). I can also identify with her disadvantage of having a young-looking oriental face. It would be tough to be a professor, a bona fida professor she was, in a small east coast town where the parochial outlook predisposed her students to take her at face value (ah, what a pun).  I wish I could tell her that I had been asked if I were a teaching assistant  by an overseas visitor I met for the first time in a faculty social after I had been a full member on faculty for some years.

Part of the revelation in the book was the Shimotakahara family history during the period of internment of the Japanese in Vancouver during the Second World War, and it was spearheaded by her father who tried to extract as much information as he could from her grandmother before she died. Her family saga could be representative of the hardship of many a Japanese families during those difficulty times. I cannot but marvel at Leslie Shimo’s artistry in blending her personal story against the backdrop of the past and present unrest in her family and in the world. The tension was palpable and she handles it with such ease.

She read an excerpt from the first chapter of her book. There she 1-IMG_1249was, back home to decide on her next move after leaving the ivory tower and after fulfilling her father’s aspiration for her –although it might not be hers– to obtain a doctorate and to become a professor. I am daughter as well as a mother. When I read that part of the book and listened to Shimo read, I  kept wondering: Is this an immigrant psyche, or an oriental psyche? I have to resort to Jung for an explanation of our collective consciousness.

Critics and publicity blurbs describe Shimo as “a recovering academic”. As I watched her friendly smile and how composed and graceful she was on stage, Leslie Shimotakahara was already “a recovered academic”, in my opinion. I congratulate her on winning the Canada Council for the Arts Canada-Japanese Literary Award.  I wish her well in her new relationship and I look forward to reading her next book.

Book Club Review: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

The youngest member of our book club has chosen this book for us, because she wants to challenge us to read a book that is not in our usual genre, and yet this book is a classic, and has won both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, both coveted awards in science fiction. Furthermore, The Ender’s Game has been made into a movie and will be shown later in the year. What’s better than bringing a group of women who are the age of her aunts and mother up-to-date by reading The Ender’s Game? 

We all read the edition with an Introduction by the author written in 1991, six years after the book was published, and we all like it. Our only reservation is how difficult it is to visualize the games that Ender and his school mates are playing.  We remember the time back in the 70’s and early 80’s when computer games only meant Pong (although other games were developed but not widely distributed) and a little later Atari’s Space Invaders. Obviously Orson Scott Card is describing much more sophisticated “games” than those of his time and they are more like the games people are playing today.

We are more familiar with Peter and Val asking their father for his account number to post online using pseudonyms and pretending to be adults. Isn’t it amazing that the author has written about chatroom and blogging when the did not exist forty years ago?

The plot of the book is straightforward. Ender Wiggins, a young boy of six, is selected to join Battle School and later promoted to Command School to be trained to fight the Buggers, some insectoid enemies from space. He leaves his parents, his older brother and sister, who are also gifted but considered unsuitable for the purpose and he is mentored by the person who won the last war against the Buggers to win the ultimate battle.

We discuss the “power” theme of the book. The book is all about Power: from parents being forced to reproduce to fulfill the purpose of the state, to children being removed from their parents, to the winning of “games” which allowed the young people to move up the ranks. When I read the book, I feel I am reading something like Animal Farm or 1984. Then there is Peter, Ender’s brother, who thirsts for power, his sister Valentine, who knows that power also means being influential and Ender, who although peace-loving, becomes the powerful conqueror in the Battle. We are taken by the irony the Ender somehow has to struggle with his conscience that he has killed his school mates and the Buggers, whereas Peter becomes known as the peace maker on Earth.  We can only take comfort in that although lacking parental love (and we wonder whether his parents are holding back from loving him knowing that one day he will be taken away from them), Ender is nurtured by Val and by General Graff–tough love–in a way.

“He’s not a killer. He just wins…thoroughly.” However, the winning is deceived in the form of a game, unknown to Ender. On the one hand, we question the morality of deception–Ender, who does not want to kill, is deceived into playing a game in which to win means killing. One person mentions that she has come across a report on  Prince Harry commenting on his pilot training, the simulation aspect of which is shooting objects on a computer screen to destroy them. Isn’t that what Ender is doing? On the other hand, we also question whether the innocent killer is really innocent, but we did not have time to delve into a discussion on the philosophy of the act and the intent.

It is brought up that Card is a devout Mormon and this sparks the discussion on the implication of his religious practice on his writing. We are speculating, but does calling the enemies “Buggers” implies homophobia or a disrespectful attitude? Another interesting observation is that some Mormon communities are known to send their young male members away to live in a community very much like Ender and his friends. The people in command are all male. This has got us speculating again.

Then someone observes that in the movie, Viola Davis plays the role of General Alexander. Our conversation drifts to the cast and the anticipation of watching the games that Ender plays on the movie screen.

At the end of the book, Ender travels with Valentine, and he finds the cocoon of the Bugger Queen, which he carries with him until he finds a place for it to hatch. He also writes in the name of Speaker of the Dead. One thing is sure, many of us are going to read the sequels of The Ender’s Game.

A Literary Evening with Toronto Authors

AuthorPosterIt is not often that you have a book promotion in which four well-known authors would attend together, but this is what has happened in The Coach Room of Dundurn Castle in Hamilton,  Ontario.

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The Different Drummer, an independent bookstore in Burlington, Ontario presented together with Bryan Prince Bookseller and Random House Canada Toronto authors Don Gillmor, Tanis Rideout, Shyam Selvadurai and Ania Szado to read from their latest work.

Mount PleasantDon Gillmor is  a Toronto-based journalist who has won numerous National Magazine Awards.  His children’s books have been nominated for the Governor’s General Award and he has written a two-volume history of Canada as well as involved in the production of the television series Canada:  A People’s History. This evening he introduced his second novel Mount Pleasant by talking about the 1989  collapse of real estate prices and a life of debt confronted by the main character, Harry Salter, in his book. He read the except in which Harry was being persuaded by his real estate agent to purchase a  property well over its value only to discover afterwards the woes of  termites, lead pipes and leaking foundations.  On top of that he also lost money  by investing in an asbestos company.  Gillmor wrote and read with a sense of dry humour which delighted his audience.

The host introduced Tanis Rideout to be the Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario for her effort in Above All Things By: Tanis Rideoutprotecting the Niagara Escarpment and the lakes. She has won literary award for her poetry, and Above All Things is her first novel.

Rideout then read a poem of hers about the lake before reading from her book. Her prose sounded like poetry and the excerpt she had chosen describing the scene after George Mallory told his wife Ruth that he had been invited to join the Mount Everest expedition team for the first time flew with a lyrical beauty that was both sensual and emotional.  Her second passage was a heart-wrenching piece about Mallory’s last moment on his ill-fated final climb. It was equally poetic, but different in style. It almost brought tears to my eyes at the part when Mallory tore a picture of him and Ruth into halves and put away the part of Ruth in his pocket.

Sri-Lankan born Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lamda Literary Award  for gay male fiction in the U.S.  The Hungry Ghosts, his third novel, is the first time he brings into the scene Toronto besides Sri Lanka. Selvadurai  talked about the Buddhist theme in his novel before he read with delightful animation Shivan’s meeting his grandmother for the first time when his mother took him and his sister home after the death of his father. The passage was colourful and the world seen through the eyes of young Shivan came to life.  Everything felt so real, and this likely was due to the semi-autobiographical nature of the book. Selvadurai is Tamil, and in the passage he read, Shivan joked that if his sister married a Sinhalese, she could change her name forever, with an appealing sarcastic touch.

Ania Szado showed the audience the costudiopy of The Little Prince she had kept since she read it as a child and described the inspiration behind the creation of Studio Saint-Ex to have come from reading the autobiography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and falling in love with him. She wanted to write about him and did extensive research and interviews into his life. She found that many women also fell in to with the author and were willing to do anything for him. This gave her the incentive to create a woman who also wanted something for herself, hence this ambitious designer from Montreal who wanted to climb in the world of haute couture that was burgeoning in New York–Mignonne LaChapelle was the protagonist. This was also the time when Saint Exupéry wrote The Little Prince.

The passage she read was the conversation between Mignonne and Antoine, when he appeared after a period of absence. I was mesmerized by the tension, the intimacy and the unfathomable intent behind the words.

There was a questioning period. The authors were asked how long it had taken them to write the novel. For Rideout, it was seven and Szado said that it took her two to three years and longer time in New York and Montreal interviewing people who knew Saint Exupéry.  It was also two to three years for Gillmor to write Mount Pleasant. It took longer for Selvadurai– 13 years– who added that he found it easier to write about his home country Sri Lanka than the landscape of Toronto. I certainly can relate to what he was saying, because even though I have lived in Toronto for over twenty years, I also find the words and images come about more easily when I think about the places I have lived earlier in my life, such as Hong Kong and England.

Other auhors also talked about the context in which they had created in their novels. Gillmor said that the neighbourhood of Rosedale had not changed and he had a good grasp of the landscape where his character lived. He spoke to long-time residents there about the time he set his novel. He walked a lot in the cemetery at Mount Pleasant. Szado described her experience living in a studio as a fine arts student and that was where she found the context for Mignonne’s studio. Rideout was charmingly honest that she never visited Nepal or came near the Everest–her inspiration of the mountains was drawn from the internet. However, she did not like the cold, and writing about the cold was not a problem for her.

It was a rare and totally enchanting evening in the company of these authors who read from their novels some of the most vivid and dramatic moments. When asked about film rights, all the them said that they had been approached—treated with fine dining and great conversation according to Gillmor– and yet nothing had materialized. This certainly gave some insight into the complexity of making a good book into a movie that will sell, let alone do justice to the original work.

Book Club Review: The White Tiger. Aravind Adiga

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The White Tiger, written by Aravind Adiga, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Our book club host chose it because it is set in India, where she had grown up in but left many years ago to live in the West. She wanted us to take a glimpse into the new India as it was known since the influx of western technology and without doubt, we were fascinated by the India that was depicted in the book.

Balram, the protagonist, was a self-made entrepreneur who ran a taxi company driving employees of call centres  to and from their work in Bangalore. He rose to this position in society from the darkest dumps in India among poverty and dirt, but not without his desire to escape what he was born into in order to climb in society combined with a bit of cleverness and a ruthless criminal mind.

We were all interested in the characterization of Balram Halwai. When the story began, we were reading his letter to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, full of sarcasm and scorn and then came an open slash out on his employer and his home village. As the story unfolded, Balram brought the readers through retrospective narrative following his journey to success in the India we know of today, where there was uncountable riches among some people in big cities like Delhi and Bangalore, and rotten poverty in the smaller villages. Balram was proud that he had made it.

His employer, Mr. Ashok.  joked that he was “half-baked” due to his lack of formal education. We reckoned that as a village boy, he only knew what he had been taught, but there was so much he did not know. However, Balram did not stop educating himself.  He eave-dropped. There was a street-smartness in him which enabled him to watch his surroundings, and picked out cues to please the people who had authority over him. He found his break when he learned how to drive, and got into his chauffeur job by back stabbing the one in service at the back. He had no qualms. He was an opportunist. The only sign of goodness in him was his care for the little boy who joined him to work in the big house.

He was a complicated character, and one whom none of us liked. We however were trying to imagine if we had been in his position, would anyone of us had done something similar. It was one thing to understand what Balram’s development, but another matter to sympathize with what he had done.

Funny though in places, this was a tragic story to most of us. Our Indian host confirmed the rigid class system in which some human beings were treated with contempt by others and   the bullying around the place for survival. It was hard to imagine Balram being sent off by his grandmother to make money, and when he stopped doing so, she threatened to marry him so as to get the bride’s dowry.

We questioned the value of human life as revealed by this novel. The wife of Balram’s boss ran over somebody. They did not care for the victim, and they made Balram signeda paper to admit that he committed the offense. That seemed to be the moment of revelation to Balram, a turning point where he began to set bigger goals. He killed his employer and ran away with the money. He gloated about his achievement, He was blatantly exposing the inequalities in his society, the lack of respect for fellow human beings and the value of life.

We began to wonder the intent of the author in portraying such a character. One member suggested the author was writing from outside of the Indian society from a lens of a western educated journalist. The economic success of the modern Indian did not pass the gauntlet of his critical eyes which searched for social equality. The rich tread down on the poor, and Balram, symbolizing the poor, justified the murder of his employer as an act of vindication.

Personally I was drawn to how Balram address to the Chinese Premier throughout and his irreverent and pointed remarks he made.  I opined that there was a political agenda in the context of the tense Sino-Indian relationship alluded to by the author. There is such irony that the two most populated countries in the world are going through economic development with the unprecedented polarization of the rich and the poor, measured in monetary terms. Do we not know that within both societies, there is bribery and corruption, and in both societies, outsiders and foreigners are treated with greater respect than one’s own people, and human life is never valued? China has always portrayed itself to be a better place than it is. Here comes Adiga, speaking to the Chinese Premier in the face, short of accusing his target as a hypocrite through the voice of the protagonist, Blaram Halwai.

We all liked the book. Adiga’s may not have fulfilled all the requirement of the novelist in giving due treatment to the various characters in the book, but his acumen in perceiving the dilemma of Indian society today (and his clever reference to China’s parallel situation ) is a winner.

At the end of our book club, we felt we should all continue with some Indian flavour by arranging a date for an Indian meal and to visit a temple in Toronto. My dear readers, please  keep an eye out for my post.