Category Archives: Hobbies

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.

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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.

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 Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I was travelling and could not attend my last book club meeting, and so it was with great anticipation that I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for the following  meeting on my return. It was a book I enjoyed reading, particularly because I found out a lot about the German occupation of Guernsey Island during World War II, and it was a page that had been missing in my world history textbook.

Our host began with a more general question: What is your most favourite and least favourite character?   Elizabeth McKenna was the first named, because she was liked by all the characters (except Adelaide Addison) in the book and everyone had something interesting to say about her. Another person our group liked was the heroine Juliet Ashton, who was forthcoming with her feelings and her thoughts. I picked Isola Pribby, because I found her feisty and forthright. There was consensus regarding the least likable characters and it was Mark Reynold, and Adelaide came in close too.

Two book club members were born in Holland and they had much to share regarding what they had heard from their parents and families about the experience of the Dutch under German occupation in World War II. They helped us relate to the hardship and fear the characters in the book had lived through. They said that  rubber tires were removed from bicycles and people cycled on the bare frames. The mother of one person hid cheeses under her clothes, because if they had met a German soldier and he did not like them for whatever reasons, the cheese could have been confiscated. It was also interesting that the family of one member from England had sheltered a children from the city, and again, it made the experience of  Eben Ramsy’s and his grandson more real. It was also brought up that Remy’s story of the concentration camp gave perspective to what the women had gone through in France, since earlier  in the year, we read about concentration camp life in Auschwitz in Man’s Search for Meaning. I never heard of ‘todt’ (the slave in the book, and In German, it means death) until I read this book.

We liked the various surprises in the plot, such as Sydney being gay and the betrayal by Bobbie Gee. By contrast, the ending was too fairy-tale like, and not to everyone’s liking. It was attributed to the fact that probably it was the second author taking over and the onus was on her to give a quick conclusion to the story. Nonetheless, there was fair treatment of the misreading and misunderstanding of feelings among the characters– Dawsey, Juliet, Mark, Sydney and Remy– throughout the book. This helped with character development and adds to the readers’ enjoyment.

Isola made a remark in the book that reading a good book spoiled one’s enjoyment of reading a bad one. This prompted our discussion of what we looked for in a good book. We all had the experience of turning the pages through a formulaic novel. I smiled to myself, “Chick Lit!”  Individual expectations and criteria varied. Some looked for style, some looked for a good story, or interesting characters.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has succeeded in revealing the different personalities of the individual characters who penned the letters. When I compare it with other letter-writing novels I have read, I think it pales standing beside 84 Charing Cross Road and the Griffin and Sabine Trilogy. It does not have the refined subtlety dealing with emotions as in 84 Charing Cross Road, or the intense mystique and power of Griffin and Sabine. Nevertheless, it stands on its own as a good book and an enjoyable read. in fact, I found myself laughing out loud in the beginning reading Juliet’s letters. She is lively and humorous. It is always healthy to read a lighter book in between the viscerally or cerebrally demanding ones.

We digressed into talking how we missed the experience of letter writing and the anticipation of receiving letters now that email had taken over, although some of us still wrote letters and sent them through email. We lamented, “Who would bother about pen-pals when social media on the internet has taken over?” To me,  Writing a letter and addressing it to an individual (and this certainly rule out blogging) is personal and private. It is a unique media to express and share one’s thoughts and feelings.  I certainly hope that letter writing will not become a lost art.

Walking in the Fall

The air felt crispy. The sun was shining. The leaves rustled on the ground as we walked along the Spencer Creek Trail in Dundas, Ontario. In fact we left so early that we saw a sheen of frost still on the ground when we walked up Grove Cemetery.  The place was particularly quiet this morning, except for the sound of our breathing as we walked up the hill. The sun was coming through the branches while the leaves fell onto the ground. Capture the moment: Peace and Serenity.

From the Cemetery, we went through Dundas Driving Park, and we walked among residential neighbourhood. Fall colors greeted us everywhere. We are so blessed in this part of Canada because the colors of our leaves are a mosaic of shades from golden yellow to fiery red. Isn’t this too “Pied Beauty”?

        Glory be to God for dappled things– /For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow/For rose moles all it stipple upon trout that swim /Fresh firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; /Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow, and plough; /And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange; /Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) /With swift  slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; /His fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: /Praise him.

 (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1985)

I never get tired of Fall. I become excited every time when I spot the first leaf turning red at the beginning of the season. Every week on my walks, the colors of the leaves greet me with a new scene, arousing in me a sense of anticipation and gratitude. How I wish I could hang on to Fall! In a couple of weeks, the branches will be bare. Fall will usher in Winter. Gerard Manly Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall–To a Young Child” comes to mind again.

Margaret, are you grieving /Over Goldengrove unleaving? /Leaves, like the things of man, you /With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? /Ah! as the heart grows older /It will come to such sights colder /By and by, nor spare a sign /Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; /And yet you will weep and know why. /Now no matter, child, the name; /Sorrow’s springs are the same. /Nor mouth had,, no nor mind, expressed /What heart heard of, ghost guessed: /It is the blight man was born for, /It is Margaret you mourn for.

(Gerard Manly Hopkins, 1988.)

The saying “there is a time for everything” rings true. But for now, let me enjoy Fall while it lasts.

Book Club Review: Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl

The person hosting our recent book club meeting picked Viktor Fankl’s Man In Search For Meaning, because it caught her attention on the reading list of her child’s Ethics course. I read an earlier edition (1962) of this book many years ago when I was a Psychology Major. It also became a reading I assigned to my students in my psychotherapy course. I have not read it in recent years, but I sometimes mention this title to some of my clients when they ask for a book on the meaning of life.

I looked forward to re-reading the book and the meeting.  In particular, I was interested how the book would be discussed in a book club as different from an academic or a therapy-oriented setting.

I bought the latest edition (1992), which had a new preface by the author in the same year. There was also a Postscript (1984), “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” based on a lecture delivered by the author a year earlier.

I told DH, who picked the book, that she had chosen a little book which was bigger than life.  She agreed and first posed the question about Frankl’s decision not to publish the book anonymously. Everybody preferred to know the author, because the name,provided a sense of reality as well as accountability to the contents.

People started to wonder what kind of a person Frankl was: “nice”, “calm”, “deep”, “complex”, and probably “non-judgmental” as a psychotherapist? These qualities were contrasted with the personality traits of those inmates in the concentration camp who had given up hope and died, and those of the kapos. What would one do to survive? Choosing between survival and integrity must be truly difficult indeed. There were some personal acknowledgement of what the individual would do under trying circumstances, and that was with reference to Frankl’s description of a former kapos whom he met years later and who seemed to have rehabilitated and redeemed himself.

The fact Frankl wrote that he decided to stay with his parents instead of moving to New York also intrigued us. It transpired that Frankl did not mention that he was Jewish in the first part of the book, and little did we know about his upbringing in a Jewish family. How much had the values his parents instilled in him played a role in his decision, when he remembered the commandment to “love thy parents”? Regardless, when he was describing his concentration camp, being Jewish or not did not matter. His account was one human being watching other human beings suffer. Ethnicity was irrelevant there.

Source: Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes; USHMM archives.

It was felt that in order to be able to endure and survive extreme hardship, based on what we had inferred from the book, a person had to have an inner life or spiritual freedom. I opined that we were all capable of attaining an inner life, yet in this world repleted with material cravings, many people were misled into thinking that happiness was an entity to be acquired, as promised by the so-called “ways to happiness” in many “how to” books. There was a comparison between Buddhism and Frankl’s idea that sufferings were inevitable in life. Then it was felt that Frankl proposed a more optimistic outlook which recognized choice, responsibility, love and meaning. The story of Jerry Long provided an inspirational vignettes in the book. What was revealing though was the universal theme of “Man’s Search”, be it the Holy Grail in western culture or the Sacred Book in the Chinese legend of the Monkey King.

The majority of us liked the book. There were many quotable quotes. One of mine was, “…it did not really matter what we expected form life, but rather what life expected from us” (p.85). An observation was that if Man considered himself to be supreme, he would have nothing to anchor himself when he was reduced to bare nakedness. However, either a religious or a spiritual orientation which allowed for a higher explanation for one’s existence might lend meaning to life. Or perhaps, in the apparent nothingness, there could be a sense of “being” which paradoxically enabled one to “be”. Other favorite quotes included “The solution of man is through love and in love” (p.49); “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (Frankl quoting Nietzsche); and “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems…” (p.85).

We had a lively discussion. I enjoyed it  because I could relate to the book from an experiential angle. Years of scientific training, and asking questions about evidence-based methods has led me to be concerned more about the effectiveness of logotherapy, and the logical relationship between its techniques and its conceptual framework in the past.  My re-reading of the book for the book club and the discussion that ensued had given me the opportunity to connect with the book at a different level. I knew there were many levels from which this book could be analyzed.  As for my book club experience, I was pleased that I could ask questions about myself and my life in a non-judgmental way. I also had the openness in the sharing of my book club members to thank for.

Book Club Review: Ru, Kim Thuy

I went to my first book club meeting, and sat down with nine ladies to talk about Ru by Kim Thuy. It was a beautiful book, from the lacy-like cover to the contents inside. We all felt that it was a very feminine book. It also was the winner of the  2010 Governor General’s Award for French language fiction. (Nobody mentioned chick lit here.)

The theme of the book was the memoir of the author, who left Vietnam at a young age during the Vietnamese War and settled down in Montreal to start a new life. It evoked some shared experience among many of us, because there were at least six persons in our group who were either immigrants to Canada or had close family ties overseas. Personally, I had poignant moments reading the book when the author wrote about an altered sense of the past, present and future when she landed in a foreign land. I also related to her need to share with her children the culture and the history of her home that she left behind. As she switched between past and present her vignettes, the emotional journey moved between that of an innocent young 10-year girl to that of a loving mother with two sons to raise. How true is the realization that not until one becomes a mother can one appreciate what maternal love means.

I knew that what she wrote about the hardship leaving Vietnam in a boat, how fellow travellers hid their money, gold and in her case diamonds, and the life in the refugee camp was real. I had professional contacts with Vietnamese immigrants in the camps in Hong Kong and in my work in Canada and they had similar stories to tell. What surprised me though was given this terrible war and  the atrocities that had happened to many refugees that she was aware of, the author was able to treat it in the same dream-like and lyrical style as she did with her other material. Were the details too painful to recall? Or was it that the memory had become distant–like a dream now?

Again, our discussion revolved around personal immigrant experience and sense of identity among our children. Our sentiments ranged from dismay, frustration to resignation. This made me think of Banana Boys, written by Terry Woo. Actually the book was brought to my attention by my children. I was glad to have read the book, and talked about it with them. For lack of a better description, we had a cathartic moment.

In the end, our book club members all agreed on one thing. The best way to be introduce a culture to someone is the food–what could be better than a dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant for all of us down the road.