Category Archives: Reading

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.

A BYOB Book Club: In One Person, John Irving

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If you think that you have to “bring your own bottle” to this book club, sorry, you are off the mark! This was the catchy title of the book club hosted by the Burlington (Ontario) Central Public Library. Essentially this is to say that they do not provide the book, and to attend the book club, you have to at least have read the book and if possible, bring a copy along.

This was the first time I attended a public book club. I signed up simply because I came across the notice soon after I had read John Irving’s In One Person and felt interested in hearing what other people had to say about it. The library seemed well-prepared on their part. They had available for downloading a list of the rules and a dozen or so questions for attendants to ponder ahead of time.

I also invited my friend AK, who had never been to a book club, along. It turned out there were only six people present, plus a librarian who led the discussion. The atmosphere was friendly and open, and everybody got a chance to speak out on the issues. The librarian commented that attendance to this book club was not high, compared to a few that were held in the evening in a pub. I wondered whether this was a reflection of the preference for the time or for the venue.

We went around the group to talk about our overall impression. One member had read many John Irving’s books and noted the similarity with his previous work The World According to Garp (1982) in which a boy grew up with a single mother in the absence of a father figure. My friend opined that she actually gave up after the third chapter, because it was not her genre–she loved mystery and crime stories—-and that the topic was outside of her imagination and interest. I found myself feeling divided throughout the book. It was a gripping book emotionally, but when I put on my analytic hat, I frequently questioned how much the message that the book conveyed about gender orientation running in the family would stand up to scientific scrutiny. A reader who was a student in gender studies agreed. One reader found the book emotionally intriguing and she liked particularly the author’s treatment of how Billy and his family members talked to each other, and what they said suggested the affection they had for one another.

We seemed able to identity several salient themes in the book to examine more closely. At the same time, the majority of us wanted a glossary in the book to explain the sexual behaviour of the LGBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-sexual) and the transvestite communities, and more medical details about the transsexuals.

The story is about Billy’s journey in discovering his sexual identity. He has grown up in a family which seems loving and tolerant enough, and yet he is left to himself to feel like a misfit regarding who he is and why he has all those strange feelings about the opposite sex and his same-sex friends. One of his wakening episodes is his friend Elaine’s bra, to be followed by more sexual experiences in his years abroad. There is tension throughout, because his family apparently knows about the secret of Ms Frost, and yet Billy is being left totally out of it. Richard (his mother’s boyfriend, hence an outsider of his family) takes Billy to the library, and just imagine the irony embedded in his remark, “I just want to read about me.” (Isn’t John Irving a clever writer?) So comes Ms Frost to give him the book. Essentially Ms Frost gives Billy the key to his gender identity.  It is also another outsider, his friend Gerry’s father, who tells Billy that he is a “double whammy”.

So what is the role of Billy’s family in the story (Library Book Club Question #8)? It seems that his mother and his sister are not directly instrumental to Billy’s journey. The family unit is a vehicle to explain Billy’s sexual orientation and therefore gives Billy meaning in identifying himself after the realization that he is bi-sexual; but to the readers, an excuse or reason for who Billy is, depending how one looks at it.

Miss Frost asks, “Goodness me, what makes a man?”  What makes a man or a woman in the book (Library Book Club Question #1)? Billy’s story and those of Ms Frost and the other characters lead to the answer “You are what you think you are”. Yet there is a tragic component in all these characters to be what they are. We read throughout the book how the characters in the book face being ostracized, or suffer from AIDS and death. To the title In One Person, John Irving’s choice of epigraph is from William Shakespeare’s Richard II, “Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented” (Library Book Club Question #4), It is a suggestion how unhappy the characters are, fighting between whom they think or want themselves to be, and trying to fit into society’s expectations.

The theme of play or playing a certain role on stage runs throughout the book. (Book Club Question #9). The characters seem more at ease when they assume a role on stage than being who they are in real life. Is life, particularly the lives of people with a different gender orientation playing the roles of multiple persons in one person? They must be rather lost as to what they are. That they are performing the roles in Shakespeare’s and Ibsen’s plays further echoes the line “life is a stage”.

We attempted to imagine what it would be like for Billy to grow up in a small town in the United States in the 1950’s. It would be a tight community in which everybody knew everybody, and there was no secret to hide. This heightens the tension in the development of the story.

Thus confusion between what is masculine and what is feminine is brought about by the sport wrestling, which is conventionally perceived as a masculine game. It is also a tactile game with body contact that may attract individuals such as Ms Frost and Kittredge. John Irving uses wrestling, a sport he knows very well, to illustrate the contradiction between belief and reality.

A novel of sexual orientation and extreme behaviour cannot steer away from writing about sex (Book Club Question #10). John Irving handles the subject matter brilliantly. Our group agreed about his openness but did not accuse him of poor taste. We may not agree with the morality of the novelty, but his treatment of sex was well written. In fact, Irving is so clever in his craft that he becomes persuasive. He arouses the readers’ sympathy towards his characters even when they look upon GLBT issues in our society differently.

A few book club questions (#14, 15 and 16) ask if the reader is  shocked and what is disturbing about the book, and how it contributes to society’s ongoing debates about sexuality, gender and identity. Some of us find it confusing, some feel uncomfortable, and my friend AK does not enjoy the subject matter. While we can approach the book as fiction, we are disturbed by the morality it represents. Why can’t Ms Frost leave Billy alone? Why the seduction of Billy? When they first met, Billy was only seventeen.  In One Person is undoubtedly a controversial novel, and it is going to play an important part in society’s ongoing debate about gender and sexual orientation and identity. John Irving has an agenda, and his personal agenda is fulfilled in arousing sympathy among the readership irrespective whether they endorse the behaviour of the characters. The caveat, however, is whether the implicit message that individuals are born with or inherit certain gender orientation is the reason or just an scientifically unproven excuse.

Our discussion went on for one and a half hours. There were still topics we could not cover, such as the AIDS era and other characters in the book, such as Tom Atkins, Kittredge, Elaine, etc. Immense interest was shown in our discussion, whether we had enjoyed reading the book or not.

Related Site: The Burlington Public Library Book Club Guide

Book Club Review: The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

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We finally had a book club meeting in which the votes split the group into half, with one group liking it so much that they want to re-read it and one group simply did not like it albeit acknowledging some interesting points the book contained.

Our host jokingly said that the lesson she learned was “not to pick a book for book club until you have read it yourself”. She said that because her mother had raved about the book, and she recommended it for all of us and read it just before the meeting. It did not turn out to be her cup of tea. She led us through the discussion about the life led by the women in the book, the relationship between Dinah and her four mothers (Leah, Rachel, Zilpach, and Bilhah), the relationship between the women and Jacob, and how the novel differed from the Bible version. This book actually had motivated most of us to re-read Genesis Ch. 34 for a comparison.

Since Dinah’s story was written up in the Bible, and was considered some form of history, some of us felt that we were unsure whether we were reading fiction, which the book claimed to be, or non-fiction at times. We trusted that the author was an authority in Jewish culture, having written several on this topic, yet those of us who tried to research more on the red tent, where the women would retreat to monthly and as well for childbirth, could not find references to it anywhere else.

While half of us felt that the book is a celebration of womanhood and sisterhood, the other half felt that life must be rather miserable to be a Jewish woman in those days, perhaps unless one could be a midwife like Rachel, and that was what Dinah had become to make her life respectable and fulfilled. However, we also wondered if the Jewish women were aware of other options and they seemed to be making the best of what they had. Another possibility, of course, is that the book was just the fictional alternative to the Bible if it had been written by women.  We opined about the girl or woman being regarded as a commodity, her value rated in terms of the dowry she was worth. That quite naturally introduced some cross-cultural comparison, since we had members familiar with the South Asian and the Chinese culture. While women in these cultures, as with the Jews, had little status in society, they were even being discriminated against during their menstrual cycles. Unlike Jewish women who could celebrate monthly in the Red Tent, Chinese women and Indian women were segregated traditionally because the period was regarded as  “dirty” and the men did not want ill fortune to be inflicted on them by associating with them.

The book seemed to dwell on the relationship between Dinah and her mothers, it did not say much about her relationship with her son, and we tried to explain it by the sad fact that her son was being taken away from her by her mother-in-law.

One of our members had gone into the trouble of verifying the authenticity of Dinah’s story. She found that the rape of Dinah was added much later and it was done to create tension among the tribes. Even if Dinah had willingly given herself as the book had described, the fact that a woman lost her virginity in those times would have angered her father and her brothers anyway.

The group that liked book felt that it was a celebration of feminism. The group that did not like the book cited reasons such as the slow pace in plot development, uninteresting style of writing and dull subject matter. We had a good discussion and this was a meeting in which everybody had a chance to speak up her mind.

Book Club Review: A Walk Across The Sun, Corban Addison

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A Walk Across the Sun, written by Corban Addison, traced the ordeal of two sisters in their teens after they had lost their family in the tsunami of 2005, which destroyed their coastal town in India. While they were attempting to walk to their convent school, they were abducted by human traffickers. Ahalya, the older girl, was forced into the sex trade. Her younger sister, Sita, was coerced into drug trafficking.

At the onset of our book club meeting, a few members, including myself, opined that we  approached the book initially with some apprehension, as we were aware that the subject matter involved sex and violence. Nonetheless  we all felt that we were spared of the gory details of the horror of sex trade and drugs. We were drawn into the gripping development of the story line and breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the story. Author Corban Addison has a personal interest in international human rights and the abolition of modern slavery or trade in human being, as he has stated in the Afterword, A Walk Across The Sun is a fitting expression of his passion and a wake-up call to the readership of the heinous crime of human trafficking.

Our host prepared well for our meeting. She posed three questions which not only opened up the discussion but guided it to progress to other issues.

We first talked about the thematic significance of the title of the novel, which came from a poem that Thomas Clarke composed for his estranged wife, Priya, near the end of the story. Thomas’s development throughout the novel ran parallel to the journeys of Ahalya and Sita. Thomas was asking for reconciliation with his wife. His own experience in overcoming his despondency to become a crusader to free the girls had awakened his feelings, blunted probably as a result of losing his child. He and Priya grew apart after their loss of their baby as a result of SID. In his travels to help the sisters, he journeyed across a good part of the globe. He achieved personal growth meanwhile, and the sun was a sign of hope. Equally Ahlaya and Sita (especially Sita) was forced into travelling to conduct illicit acitivites. The title also reflected their finding freedom in the end. The Sun, or the bright side, prevailed.

Even so, the story also highlighted the contradictions that existed in society. Another question brought up involved the road trip to Atlanta, and Sita find out the story of Elsie, the runaway from Pittsburgh. Elsie was impressed by Sita’s command of English and Sita replied that the whole world spoke English, to which Elsie exclaimed, “That’s because America is the best country on earth.” Given the circumstances both girls were going through, the remark was indeed an irony to how America (or USA, which symbolizes the so-called civilized western world) really was.

This also opened up our discussion on whether some people willingly compromised their integrity to just be in America. Are there the willing and unwilling drug traffickers? Are there the willing and unwilling prostitutes? Personal observations were shared, including the methods of drug detection at the customs across borders, thanks of a member of our book club who worked as a customs officer.

At this point, the youngest member raised a question that we had to think of a response. She challenged the plot by commenting that to her, it was hard to comprehend why neither Ahlaya nor Sita made any attempt or even contemplated how to escape given their ability to speak English. Was this cultural, in that they came from a reasonably well-to do background and were sheltered by their family when they were growing up? We could only speculate that they were still in shock and lacked the coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma of losing their families and their personal tragedies.

Then comes the questions about the girl’s future. Thomas asked, “Will Sita ever want to marry a man after all that she has seen?” And for Ahalya, will she be accepted by her own culture after her tragedy and exploitation. The story does conclude with a note of hope. The sisters are re-united. Ahalya seems happy and wants to keep her child. The future is again open to speculation, depending on where the sisters will settle down, the availability of love and support and professional counselling. There is mention of a professional support worker involved and we can only hope that fictional as the characters are, they can overcome their adverse experience and move forward. This is what I would like to see, because I do believe in the resilience of the human soul.

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.

Book Club Review: Wild Health, Cindy Engel

I would not normally pick a book of this genre, but thanks to my book club, I had this opportunity to educate myself on a topic outside of my realm of knowledge and awareness.

There was a lot of information in this book and everybody agreed it was a challenge reading through it quickly. Fortunately, the chapters were well-defined, and one could read the chapters in any order one chose. The topics spanned from how animals use poisonous plants to cure themselves of sickness, what they do to keep off mites, to how they deal with births and deaths.

It was apt for the host, who selected this book, to ask everybody what she found most interesting given all the information. The most vote went to the fact that animals eat earth to keep themselves healthy, and then they eat leaves with barbs to get rid of the worms that they have swallowed with the dirt. We were also amused by how animals get high with fermented fruits, that animals cover broken bones with certain leaves to help them mend, and that elephants put leaves over their dead.

I grew up in a culture in which herbal medicine was frequently used. The book revealed to me that the white powder that was put on my wounds after scraping myself when I was a child was discovered, according to a legend, by a farmer who followed a snake to discover what it ate after being wounded. I also related to the comments that even in the animal kingdom, bitterness was a measure of how effective the plants was for healing, and I remembered well the dark and bitter herbal drinks I had when I was young.

Given all the interesting facts, the book has also left us with many questions. The author is a biologist, and biologists are experts in documenting and categorizing factual findings. Engel undoubtedly has consulted many references, scientific or legendary, to write this book. However, after educating the readers with a lot of “what”s, we cannot help questioning the “how”s and the “why”s.

It would be educational to know to what the extent the animal behavior to maintain health is   due to evolution and how much it is a learned behavior, either from growing up with their parents or learning by trial and error. Another unsolved mystery is the author referring to the “minds” of the animals when she discusses how animals react to stress or seek for pleasure. Little do we know about the minds of human beings, let only wild animals. Conceptually, an explanation referring to the “brain” of the animals is more tenable, particularly based on available animal studies in the laboratory about the pleasure centers and biochemical changes in the brain under stress.

We also had a discussion on our reactions to zoos after reading about the richness and diversities out there in the wild for the animals to maintain their health and to heal themselves when they are unwell. There was a consensual feeling that zoos should be designed to reflect the natural habitat of the animals as much as possible. What we now know about health behavior of animals can help us provide a better diet and environment for them, even when they are kept in captivity by  man.

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.