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Entries in summer reading (6)


Dog Days of Summer Turns to the Harvest Moon of  Autumn

In my part of the world, it seems like a curtain is drawn every Labour Day weekend. On one side is the all too short string of summer days, while on the other is the inevitable time of darkness, snow, and cold.
First will come autumn, though, a season which I love. There are fall days where the sky is a breathtaking brilliant blue, especially when juxtaposed against the lacy framework of saffron, ochre, amber, and pumpkin hued leaves. The freshness of the air puts a march into your step, while leaves crunch underfoot, scuttle with a faint scraping sound on the sidewalk, and the wind blows them about overhead like confetti.
Here, the air is very dry; yet fall feels juicy to me. Put your nose up against a plum or a peach at this time of year and you can inhale the scent of ripeness. Fall’s like that: before the withering is the harvest, the abundance, ripeness that matures and mellows. If winter is darkness, then autumn is the evening, a magic time when the light is in-between, not quite one thing or the other. It’s this feeling of the ‘what if?’, or the excitement of the possibilities that stirs and motivates me. (And then, naturally, in winter I hibernate!)
Autumn is full of good, juicy reading like War and Peace, or A Fine Balance, or A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps Middlemarch. It’s the season to introduce hygge and sink into a deep story or two.
I took a little hiatus from blogging in August and enjoyed a few days at the lake. Fires were still burning out of control in the mountains around us, and smoke hung over the valleys, obscuring the distant views of the Kootenay range. I dipped into a memoir, Only In Spain, and then sauntered through Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope, a re-telling of the Jane Austen novel. 
Trollope’s novel is fun, while also being a comment on modern manners and sensibilities (and insensitivities). While I read, I constantly pictured Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson delivering the dialogue, a casualty I guess of my having watched the movie version a million times. And having read the Jane Austen original more times than I can count, you might suppose that the plot would have bored me. But Trollope, a personal long-time favourite author, skillfully draws out the new dimension to the characters. While they are recognizably based on those in the Austen, they live, interact, and react in a modern world. Robert Ferrars, for example, appears overly concerned with fashion and society in Austen’s book; in Trollope’s era, his sexuality isn’t disguised from the reader. In fact, Trollope calls his wife, Lucy, his ‘beard’. And, where in the Austen novel, ‘social media’ was, in fact, all those country dances and balls, in Trollope’s version everyone texts and posts on Facebook. (No need to have your sister tighten  your corset, or have the maid singe your hair with heated tongs: no need to get dressed at all, since no-one can see you sending a message in your jammies and with your bedhead.)
My other beach read was a travel guide to Greece, and it felt like the perfect complement to sun and sand. Of course, I could feel the heat of the sun on my skin, and the cadence of the waves on the shore, so it wasn’t a stretch to look at the luscious photos of Santorini and make the imaginative leap. Beyond the gorgeous scenery, though, it was thoroughly interesting dipping into the text here and there, and learning about the history and the fabric of Greek society.
Inspired, I have picked up Frances Mayes’ A Year In the World for another read. Some books offer up new facets of themselves with every reading, and I think this is one of them. I’m early on, just starting the section on their travels through Andalusia, but reading this book is like opening up a little treasure chest of satisfaction and delight: so beautiful!
With this, I wrap up the Dog Days of Summer Book Club for this year. I hope you will join me again next year to contemplate our summer book selections. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging on my website, so please check my home page for new musings and writing. 
Tell me your recommendations for big, juicy, fall reading, and may you have an inspiring, creative, and colourful fall!

If you don't read that...read  this!

Here's a couple more books about resistance movements - The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and the Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead.

It's quite hot here in central Alberta, and we have a heat warning today. I think I'll finish up The Flanueur sitting in the shade at the beach.

A shady park in Seville, Spain.


In Between the Dark and the  Light

I’m not sure why I’m reading about the holocaust so often this summer. It’s a subject I have always been drawn to, but the reason I keep pulling these books from the shelf at this particular time is kind of baffling. Not exactly what I had in mind for summer reading. But, in my experience, the whole point is to be immersed in the act of reading. Supposedly, timetables and deadlines are somewhat suspended so we can drop deeply into a book without the constrictions of our regular routines.  You know – instead of spending fifteen minutes in the kitchen preparing school/work lunches for the next day, you have an extra quarter hour of blissful reading! 
And if themes of light and dark, good and evil, shadow and light are on the agenda for my subconscious, I’ll go with it…at least for this week, as I finish up The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
In this novel, three widows retreat to the run-down family estate in Germany, at the end of World War Two. 
One of the women, Marianne von Lingenfels, had promised her husband, an accused and executed member of the group who attempted to assassinate Hitler, that she would find and care for the families of the other members of the resistance. 
As she searches for and gathers a small group of women and children around her at the crumbling castle, she finds that keeping her promise is more complicated than she thought, as each of the other women has lived through experiences which alter and shape the future they once took for granted.
Naturally, this book deals with the theme of good versus evil, however, Shattuck explores the nuanced grey area, which is shadowy and unbalanced. 
Just as the protagonist, highly-principled Marianne, initially sees things as black and white, the characters on the dark side believe that their perspective is also justified. 
The discordant view of the townspeople of the community that Nazi-ism is necessary, warranted, and acceptable plays out in unsettling metaphors to illustrate the unfulfilling and unbalanced reality that Marianne resists. In one scene, a cat plays with a raven, breaking its wing yet not killing the bird. Marianne watches the flailing and dying bird, morose that the family pet is also a thoughtless killer.  She feels that at that moment, the bird is a sign that her husband is also dead. 
Marianne reflects on a photo of an infamous concentration camp guard. In the photo, the woman was “a woman who would have been a starlet with her coy smile and stylish hairdo, while the mug shot inside revealed a repellant bully with a look of stupid hardness in her eyes”. We can see the same person two ways, she thinks.
Shattuck examines how life is lived in an ecosystem where horror naturally seems to exist alongside the opposite. The narrator never exonerates the perspective of the townspeople but returns to how the widows' viewpoints as they try to survive the war and its aftermath. Instead, she explores the murky grey area: there's the black and the white, but as Marianne and the other characters discover there's it's not simply 'and/or' but rather 'and/and/'. This is a sort of no-man's land of falling, rising up, falling again, repeat.
This novel explores the ways we are wired to think of ourselves within communities as ‘we versus them’. In this view, there are only winners and losers. How do we define winning? Who gets to choose who is a winner and who is the loser?



If you don't read that...read  this!

Photo courtesy of Pinterest. Website no longer found.

I recently had one of those nice conversations with a friend that started with, "Have you read...", and "Yes! Loved it! Have you read...?"

Here's a few good ones: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

Where we should have sparklingly bright sunshine, sadly our atmosphere is smokey from the forest fires raging to the west of us, creating a strange, hazy, overcast effect (and a red sun). Still, it's good to find time to sit outside and read, and keep our friends in BC close to our hearts.



Reading under an umbrella at a villa on the Cote d'Azure (not  really!)

Turtles basking in the sun in a courtyard at the Madrid train station.

I don’t know why I’m only now discovering author Katherine Pancol. After all, a good portion of my life has been spent joyfully trawling the stacks in many libraries, not to mention the hours spent browsing the shelves in countless bookstores.

Late to the party, as usual! However, what can compare to the thrill and deep satisfaction of discovering a new author? Except learning that she has published not one, but several books? The gratification somewhat makes up for my lifelong dissapointment that Jane Austen published only seven novels (aside from two unfinished works of fiction, as well as poetry and a substantial collection of juvenilia), and that unless a heretofore undiscovered work miraculously appears, I will have to be content re-reading my Jane collection every winter. 

Luckily for me, Pancol has several works to her credit. She has published millions of copies of her books, according to the flyleaf of the Penguin edition I’m currently reading, and is one of France’s best-known writers. Born in Casablanca, raised in France, Pancol was a teacher and then a journalist before moving to New York City to study creative writing and screenwriting.

The Slow Waltz of Turtles is the second book in a trilogy: The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile and The Central Park Squirrels are Sad on Mondays are the titles that complete the set (books one and three, respectively).

As well as winning the 2006 Prix de Maison de la Presse for largest book distribution in France, Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile earned Pancol a Best Author award in 2007, and has been made into a movie.

The Slow Waltz of Turtles stands well on its own, so as I read I’m not subject to confusion or feeling that I need to have read the first book in order to understand a back story.

This novel has everything to make it a quintessential summer read: there’s voodoo, mafia thugs, serial murders, unrequited love, and lots of travel on the fast train between Paris and London.

There’s also a large cast of quirky and unconventional characters, from the protagonist, Joséphine, whose low self-esteem results in extreme people-pleasing behaviour, to her narcissistic and self-absorbed sister, Iris, to a strange baby who seems to be a genius locked in an infant’s body, a group of angsty teenagers, and the eccentric residents of Josephine’s apartment building.

Far from being pathetic, a reader can sympathize with Joséphine because she has suffered losses and betrayals. Yet, she is obviously learning from these struggles, even as she attempts to do the right thing for those she loves without sacrificing her own voice and desires.

As a juxtaposition, her sister, Iris, is a schemer, and an example of the dark side of an individual’s loss of self-worth and respect. As Iris plots behind Joséphine’s back, the narrator reveals the insights going through the characters’ minds as they battle with good and evil intentions.

This battle is waged among all the characters – enter the Mafia villains, the serial killer, the sympathetic best friend, the enraged and out of control mother seeking revenge on her ex-husband, the teenaged daughter experiencing first love, and another daughter driven to succeed on the climb up the rungs of career and fame.

I’m just halfway through the 422 pages in this paperback edition, and as we are enjoying a heat wave in central Alberta this past while, I’ve been pairing my reading with a chilled Masi rosé and fantasizing that I’m absorbed in my book under an umbrella at a villa on the Cote d’Azur. A light, fruity wine is a good match for Pancol’s wry and witty tone. Trés, trés bien!