Bob’s Your Uncle

“Books enable you to try on a different life, one very different from your own, that you have no other way of living.”
Pamela Paul (New York Times Book Review Editor)

I was perusing some links this morning and came across one to an interview in The Atlantic with the woman that is the editor of the NYT Book Review. Her name is Pamela Paula and she’s a voracious reader. She’s made a journal of a list of every single book she’s read since she was 17, nearly 30 years. Just a list. No reviews, no ratings. Hand written.  Colour me impressed. I would find it difficult to do without adding a rating or a quick review.

She is still using the same journal, too, which has grown quite ragged around the edges and has written a book about her life in relation to reading and the journal, which she calls “Bob” for “Book of books”.  Many entries in her Book of Books bring back memories of her life at the time she was reading those particular books. This is the basis for her memoir, My Life with Bob. (amazon.ca, Amazon.com here)

This passage from the article will feel familiar to all of us who can’t imagine life without reading:

Paul describes her reading habit like a hunger than can’t be satiated, that grows, instead, with each new morsel she devours. The book seems haunted by this realization, the plain fact that no one can read it all—no matter how many built-in shelves she hammers up, no matter how their shelves sag with weight. As Paul puts it: “The more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing.”

In the interview, she describes the memory of a journey to China when she was reading entry number 351. It’s quite a detailed memory and reading through her journal brings back similar stories which she decided to write about, connecting books she’s read to periods and events in her life.  She also talks a bit about her job as editor of the NYT Book Review and how she always found it difficult to cover all the books that deserved publicity and reviews, only to come to the realization that it just isn’t possible. There are too many good books out there but she can try to bring a good cross section to the readers of the Book Review as a starting point.

I found it interesting to read her ideas on what you should and should not put in a good book review. I write reviews of all or most of the books I read though it’s primarily for my own records. I do try to get across what the book’s about and what I liked or disliked about it but when I read professional reviews, I realize I’m not really that good at it. The New York Times wouldn’t look at my reviews  twice! That’s ok. My reviews aren’t awful, and they’re fine for the average person I hope and for me. Some come out better than others.

My mother, of course, and many friends and family think my reviews and travelogues are good enough to get published. I know better. I read a lot of travel magazines and my travelogues of my journeys are nowhere in that same stratosphere but I write the travelogues, and now the reviews, so that I can revisit both the journey and the book.

Do read the whole of the interview with Pamela Paul. It’s very interesting and as a fellow book addict, I can identify with a lot of what she had to say. I think the book will definitely be added to my ever-growing To Be Read list!

My travel journal on WordPress.

My own website with all my travelogues

Review: Leonard by William Shatner

2017:46
4 of 5 stars
Published February 2016

Whether or not you are a “Trekkie”, a fan of the classic science fiction tv series Star Trek, you will have heard of it and be familiar with some of the characters. The show and characters have become cultural icons and most of the actors will forever be connected with their characters in our collective minds. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner were jobbing actors before taking on the roles of Mr. Spock and Captain James T. Kirk respectively and the two men became very good friends. Leonard Nimoy died a couple of years ago and William Shatner has written a memoir of his and Nimoy’s friendship.

The book covers Shatner’s life as well as Nimoy’s, the two men having quite a lot in common with similar childhoods and similar paths breaking into show business. Shatner’s stories cover it all, the good, the bad and the ugly and he doesn’t let himself off lightly either. The memoir is written with honesty and obvious affection for the man he called one of his best friends.

Nimoy was an actor and director but he was also an artist and photographer, a patron of the arts, a teacher of acting and directing, and an alcoholic though had quit drinking several decades before his death. He and Shatner had a competitive, almost sibling rivalry sort of relationship, a result of actors’ egos, I think, fully acknowleged by Shatner who admits to being jealous of Leonard’s popularity as Spock. He also acknowleges Leonard Nimoy’s superb talent. They were close friends for 50 years though a seemingly small misunderstanding estranged them for the last couple of years, much to Bill Shatner’s sadness and regret. The book is written with a co-author but the voice is definitely Shatner’s.

It’s also an interesting look at actors and the profession of acting in general, particularly in the 1950s and early 60s with the rise in popularity of television and fans of Star Trek will find the background information that Shatner imparts, to quote Mr. Spock, “Fascinating”.

 

Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

2017: 45
4 of 5 stars
Published January 2013

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics and he really knows his business. He’s single, 40,  and does not make friends easily. In fact, he only has two, and one of those is an elderly lady who is now in a senior citizen home. He has decided, however, that it’s time he finds a wife and in order to screen the candidates properly, comes up with a long and detailed questionnaire to filter out all unsuitable candidates.

Enter Rosie. Sent to him by his other friend, Gene, Rosie is most certainly unsuitable but she’s mainly there to ask his help in finding her biological father. The Wife Project is set aside for The Father Project and they spend a lot of time together. Don is not your ordinary man and has challenges. He’s very clearly living with Asperger’s Syndrome though doesn’t realize it in spite of having conducted lectures in the subject on Gene’s behalf. I think Rosie probably picked up on it early because she’s a PHD in psychology and would recognize the symptoms but it’s never raised as an issue. Don is who he is. Don’s methodical methods and expertise are just what Rosie needs.

You can see that he’s starting to find her appealing but since he doesn’t consider her a wife candidate, just a friend, and he doesn’t think he’s capable of the emotion of love, he continually says or does the wrong thing, having no clue about how to read emotions or situations. Love isn’t logical and Don is lost at sea when it comes to things like that and yet, and yet, he seems to be a lot happier around Rosie than without her.  The story is fun and light hearted and it’s a feel-good book. You get exasperated when Don yet again gets it wrong, you wait with anticipation to see if he gets it right. You want to tell them both not to give up. You sigh with satisfaction at the end.

Book Lists

I make lists, especially when I travel. Endless lists. I like lists. I like book lists, too, because I’m always looking for that next great book to read even if I still have a stash of hundreds of ebooks that I haven’t read yet. Seriously. I have a mini library of ebooks I’ve accumulated from various sources over the years and yet, I still want more and often will buy a new book when I could have read one of the older ones for free. Such is temptation.

I blame book lists in part. I look through the book lists and read the summary of the story and add it to my wish list, my TBR (To Be Read) list. Goodreads is great for keeping track of books you want to read or have read. So is 50BookPledge. There are apps for that, and other websites, too. And you can keep a wishlist on Amazon or, in Canada, Indigo,  where you can then purchase the book. Kobo hasn’t caught up to that yet.  I keep a wish list on my local library e-site. I really should use that more often, it would save me a lot of money. More and more, newly published books are getting picked up by libraries which is a good thing.

Most of those sites above will have lists that you can check out for ideas and recommendations. Goodreads even generates a recommendation list based on books you’ve tagged as ones you’ve read or want to read. I’ve discovered some good books that way.

CBC Books, a division of Canada’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s website (Canada’s national radio and television stations) has some good lists too, obviously Canlit based. Here’s the 100 Novels That Make You Proud to be a Canadian. I’ve read just under 30 I think and there are some excellent books on that list. In a related list, they also have 100 YA books. The contents of both lists cover fiction and non fiction and even graphic novels and short stories. While we finish off with CBC, check out their general book lists for quite a few different lists, long and short including best sellers by the week and books mentioned on a couple of their literary radio programs The Next Chapter and Writers and Company, and you can listen to both of them online.

A couple of other lists I’ve seen lately:

50 Amazing New Books You Need To Read This summer  from a blog called Parchment Girl. There are some interesting books on that list, and a wide variety of sources with about 50/50 fiction and non fiction split.

50 Books Written by 50 Canadian Women of Colour on a website called Room Magazine. I applaud putting the focus on authors that don’t always get the mainstream attention. I have read a small number of books on this list but I’ve tagged quite a few more for the TBR list.

Then we get into things like the literary prize long list and short lists, Scotiabank Giller prize, Man Booker, Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction), the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards, American Book Awards, Hugo Awards (Science fiction), and so many more. Wikipedia has quite a good list of literary prizes by country and region which could keep you busy for days, browsing. All of those websites have the current year’s list as well as prior year lists.

That’ll do for now. I plan to keep a list of good sites like this for future posts! Or just, you know, make a note of them somewhere!

Review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

2017: 44
4 of 5 stars
Published April 2017

Paul Stewart writes about food and wine. He’s recently split from his girlfriend and is nursing wounds so his editor sends him to Tuscany to finish his latest book. When he arrives, there’s a major snafu with the rental vehicle. Thank heavens the man he conveniently meets on the plane has connections in high places but even that’s not enough to get him into a rental car on a busy weekend. The only thing available is a bulldozer. Really? Never mind, just go with it! He chunters down the road and up the hills and even saves a maiden in distress.

It’s a book for armchair travelers, putting you right in the heart and hill towns of Tuscany, Italy.  In the book, he describes “Italian hill towns are hill towns with conviction;” and by God that’s no word of a lie. I’ve been in a few Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns perched on top of hills, with the roads snaking up the side of the steep slopes ending just below the walls of the towns where you then get to park any vehicle larger than a Smart Car and trudge up the hill into the town proper. The spectacular views are worth it and we get to see them through the Paul’s eyes.

It’s a book for foodies with mouth watering descriptions of the food and wine of the region. You might want to consider reading this book with a napkin or bib. It’s about a food writer, after all, and the focus on the tastes of Tuscany in ever delicious detail. In both cases, you might find yourself wanting to pack up and  find a little inn in Tuscany though you might prefer a normal car instead of a bulldozer.

And it’s a book for romantics. Paul meets a lovely woman but there are, as always, complications. His heart might be mended but not from the direction he expects.

What I liked in particular about the book is that it’s easy to read and the author doesn’t waste words. Some books have so much extra detail that it’s like wading through sludge trying to get to the actual story. McCall Smith wastes no time getting to the point and into the plot, with enough detail, humour, and dialogue that you know who the characters are and what’s going on. Even when it’s not specifically stated, you can easily read between the lines and get it. Things are wrapped up quickly, tidily and satisfactorily.  His books are enjoyable to read and inevitably will make you smile. He’s probably most famous for his Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series but his other books are equally as good and this is another winner.

Review: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

2017: 43
2.5 of 5 stars
Published January 2011

The Red Garden spans nearly 300 years telling the stories of the inhabitants of a small Massachusetts town, Blackwell. It’s really a series of connecting short stories about the descendants of the founding families, touching base every generation or 2 or 3. I had thought it would be a family saga, and it is, kind of, but on a higher level than I expected. You don’t really get to know the characters all that well because it covers so many of them over the years and it gets a bit more confusing to connect the characters to the original families as they intermarry and the names change.

Through it all is the garden, with red soil and where all the plants end up blooming and producing in various shades of red, including the old apple tree, the Tree of Life, that produced fruit during the year there was no summer, keeping the original inhabitants alive through a long, tough winter. Elsewhere, there is an element of magic, of the spirits, of folklore (Johnny Appleseed, the ghost of a child, a woman that may or may not be a mermaid).

I enjoyed the first story about the families that founded the town and the woman, Hallie, who was instrumental in keeping them all alive by hunting in the winter, and even milking a hibernating female bear. She lied and said she’d found a cow wandering. I wondered why the others didn’t ask her why she didn’t just bring the cow home? But I digress. Hoffman is a lovely writer but I’m afraid the characters and the stories felt more like snapshots. Though I liked a few of them, overall, they didn’t grab me. Perhaps it’s just that it wasn’t what I was expecting. I have read a couple of her books and I really enjoyed them so I think this is just an exception, for me. And only my opinion, of course. You may really like it.

Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

2017:42
3 of 5 stars
Published 1969

This is Margaret Atwood’s first novel, published in 1969 but written in the mid 1960s, I believe. It has aspects where it’s very much ahead of its time and also a product of its time, Toronto in the 1960s, with throwback attitudes to the 50s. This is an era where, when a woman marries, she is expected to quit her job, take care of house and home and have babies. This is not an era where single women decide to have a baby out of wedlock but that’s just what one of the characters decides to do.

The main character is Marian who works for a company that does surveys and has a boyfriend/fiance called Peter, a very conventional man. She’s not a dynamic person, low key and passive, just getting through day by day. She and Peter get engaged and it feels like she does it because that’s just what you do. Women get married and have families even if she looks on her friend Clara’s marriage and family with faint horror. Her roommate Ainsley is full of spark and energy and decides she wants a baby but not a husband and manipulates to get what she wants. Unconventional for the time but can she stick to her guns?

Marian, meanwhile, post-engagement, seems to be having some sort of breakdown. She first loses the desire to eat meat but then, slowly, she stops eating altogether. Maybe Marian feels she has no control over her life and decisions are being made for her though not eating doesn’t seem to be a conscious decision. She get more and more detached from what’s going on around her, going through the expected motions, eating less and less, ignoring the science experiments growing in the refrigerator and kitchen sink. She seems to cling to a new friend, Duncan, as a last grasp to reality. He seems to accept her and respect her whereas her fiance, Peter, is sexist, patronizing and arrogant, even by the standards of the 1960s. Marriage can’t be that scary, but maybe a commitment to Peter is. Duncan might be the opposite of Peter but he’s got a few strange habits and ideas, himself. Not particularly the refuge Marian needs, I think.  Most of the men in this book are very patronizing to the women in various ways.

The idea of women trying to take some control over their own lives and go against what is expected is a feminist perspective, written when this was not a common point of view. The “Women’s Liberation” movement was still in the future when Atwood wrote this. Women were still tied to convention and tradition and seen to have questionable morals if they veer off the beaten path but tides were turning slowly and Atwood could see it. I don’t know what it would have been like to read this book in 1969. It’s painful to read in this day and age yet I remember those days well. My mother was looked on suspiciously when she decided to go back to work when her children were in school full time.

Would I have disapproved of Marian and Ainsley’s actions then? Would I have taken it as a cautionary tale? I certainly do now, as in, don’t marry someone you don’t truly love, don’t marry someone that treats you like an object and don’t do something just because society expects it of you, do it because it’s what you know is right for you. The book starts in first person point of view, Marian’s, then switches to third person when Marian starts to feel the pressure. The end of the book is back to her first person POV when she finds her feet and her own voice  and pulls herself together.