Wednesday, February 29, 2012

BOOK: No Vulgar Hotel by Judith Martin

No Vulgar Hotel by Judith Martin, 312 pages

Venice in February

This is the perfect book for Venice in February as it was written by a self-described Venotophiliac. Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners and for writing her etiquette books, fell in love with Venice, and now her life seems to revolve around Venice. When she is going, where she will stay, and the history of the place. Venice is known for its tourists, and it has a love/hate relationship, even while most of its residents have moved there because they were bewitched by her. But they aren't the tourists!

Martin writes a little tongue in cheek, and pokes fun at her obsession, but her passion for the place comes through. I guess it's one of those - 'no one can pick on my sister except me' situations. Venice is full of history, and famous visitors, and innovations, and if there is some famous fact about Venice that she missed, I'd be surprised. It's easy to read, full of information, and references just about everything you can imagine about Venice. At times I had to skim some of the facts, and historic events, but if you are a fan of Venice, or would like to visit vicariously, this is the book for you.

Thus ends my grand literary tour of Venice for 2012. I think I read nearly every book I wanted to. I read from a variety of genres and eras, and enjoyed them all. Thanks to Bellezza for hosting.

1. The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich (historic fiction)
2. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (Booker shortlist, literary/thriller)
3. Miss Garnet's Angel by Sally Vickers (contemporary, spiritual awakening)
4. Death and Judgment by Donna Leon (mystery)
5. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (thriller, classic)
6. No Vulgar Hotel by Judith Martin (nonfiction)
7. Don't Look Back by Daphne duMaurier (short story)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BOOK: Extreme Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

Extreme Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean, 295 pages

Canadian Book Challenge 5

I bought this book because it contained the story, "The Waterslide". I caught the end of it on the radio one day, and the image that was conjured in my mind was so hysterical, so much so that I needed to have more of it. I read just "The Waterslide" as soon as I got the book, and laughed. A lot. When I read the whole book recently, I laughed in several parts, but again during "The Waterslide". The slow build, the memories of childhood, and how the rules of childhood are different, but they can be remembered, make it a pretty excellent read. I often like the Sam stories the best.

Until I read a Stephanie, or Morley, or Dave, especially if Mary Turlington shows up. When Mary Turlington appears in "Dave's Funeral", his revenge on her is beautiful. Not really revenge, but an outcome that favors Dave. McLean can do all kinds of stories, from touching, to slapstick, to Three's Company mix-ups, but he always manages to make the people real, and to connect to the reader, evoke emotions through laughter.

There are some really great stories - "Rat-a-Tat-Tat" which has Dave accidentally locking himself in his car trunk on Christmas Eve. "A Trip to Quebec", which every English Canadian child seems to take some during their middle school years, and they are all the same bus ride and hotel stay. "The Lottery Ticket" was a lovely treatise on hope, and dreams. You can't go wrong with a Vinyl Cafe collection of stories.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

BOOK: Miss Garnet's Angel by Sally Vickers

Miss Garnet's Angel by Sally Vickers, 340 pages

Venice in February

Miss Garnet, a British history teacher, is thrown for a loop when her roommate/companion dies. Julia realizes she has never lived, and decides to go to Venice to live for six months. Miss Garnet never noticed the beautiful around her; she was an athiest and Communist. Venice overwhelms her. She meets up with some young British twins who are restoring a cathedral near her apartment.

I liked the timelessness of the book - it was hard to tell when the story was placed, even though it was written in 2002. It had the feel of early 1900s or even 1960s - a spinster going abroad, but it was modern, although before cell phones. This could rightly be called Miss Garnet's coming of age story, even though she was in her 50s. She attempts a romance, makes some friends, and becomes more aware of people around her, and their motives. Intertwined, was a biblical story that related the Angel Tobias. I liked the biblical story, but couldn't completely see how it connected to Julia's story. There were more layers to the story that I'm sure I missed.

The idea of leaving your life and heading to Venice is romantic because of Venice, and if you've ever imagined living there, Miss Garnet's Angel provides that, as well as a multi-layered spititual awakening.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

BOOK: Happenstance by Carol Shields

Happenstance is actually two book: Happenstance, published in 1980, and A Fairly Conventional Woman, published in 1982. They are two versions of the same story, The Husband's Story and the Wife's Story. Now they are published together in the same book, upside-down, so you can start with either story at the 'front' of the book.

Happenstance by Carol Shields, 195 pages

5th Canadian Book Challenge

The Husband's Story 
With his wife, Brenda, away at a convention, the reader spends the week Jack Bowman, forty-something living in the late 1970s. Nothing much happens, typical of Shields writing, and yet the time was well spent. Jack doesn't suffer great existential angst, but he does suffer a loss of faith, in himself. Jack and his friend Bernie meet every Friday for lunch, and is his closest friend, but are they close? Do men even wonder this?  Bernie, has his marriage fall apart, Jack's neighbour has a serious accident, neither of which cause Jack tremendous questioning, and his huge work project appears to be derailed. He has two teenagers - self-explanatory problems!

The Wife's Tale 
Brenda's story relates her trip to Philadelphia for a crafts convention, to display her quilts. This is the first time away from her family on her own, and her thoughts of her husband, her children, her life, and her role in her life lend her trip an unsettled feel. She is also considering an affair and spends much of the trip with a man from Vancouver.

The title drop in each story:
Brenda's story: "[Her father in law] had been 'cheated by time', he said, and she too had been cheated. Jack would call it historical accident, happenstance."
Jack's story:  "Pure happenstance had made him into a man without serious impairment or unspeakable losses."

Overall, I think Brenda seemed more unhappy than Jack. The title drop for each symbolizes for me the difference - Jack's is about a happy thing, his life has been lucky. Brenda's is not happy, and termed from Jack's perspective as well. 

Once again, Carol Shields tells the story of an ordinary person, living an ordinary, but worthwhile life. No big dramatic revelation, no horror tale, just a microscope on the life of a couple over a few days. I always like when a story is told from different perspectives, and this is a great one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

BOOK: Death and Judgment by Donna Leon

Death and Judgment by Donna Leon, 326 pages

February in Venice (book 4 of 20 in the Guido Brunetti series)

This mystery started a little slow, and didn't seem to have anything special about it but I kept going and when Commisario Guido Brunetti, the lead detective, appeared and the story picked up. With this as only the second book I've read in the series, (I read Death in la Fenice last year), I'm not yet familiar with the characters and all the relationships. By the end of the book, having met some of the difficult police officers that Brunetti works with, knowing his wife and daughter better, and ending on a bit of an ongoing personnel development, I'm looking forward to the next book.

my sister on right, me on left in Padua
 I read this for Venice in February, and the setting did not disappoint. Brunetti live in Venice proper, so walks around, grabs gondolas or vaporettas to get to work. He had to travel to Padua to meet with another detective regarding the murder, and I went to Padua at the end of my Mediterranean cruise! To get to our hotel that last night, we took the train from the Venice train station. 

The plot involved powerful men, prostitutes being imported from poor countries, and the red tape and political cover ups that seem to be endemic in Italy. Luckily, Brunetti is a stand up guy, with clear morals, who is trying to do his part to solve crimes in Venice.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

CHALLLENGE: Muriel Spark Reading Week

Simon and Harriet are hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week during April 23 - 29, 2012. I have two little Muriel Spark books that would be perfect to read with a bunch of other people. There are a ton more at the library, but I'll have to try one  or two to see if I like her.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Driver's Seat

I read:
1. Symposium
2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
3. The Driver's Seat

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

BOOK: The Number One Ladies Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith

Tea Time For the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith, 212 pages
The Double Comfort Safari Club, 221 pages

Series Project

Oh dear, the end of this series for me is nearing for me. Only one more published, and maybe another one on its way. Precious Ramotswe is the most wonderful character, and I enjoy my time with her. She's not perfect - she gets annoyed by her assistant Grace, but she understands what Grace has gone through and why she acts like she does. Empathy, it works!

The mysteries in these books are quite slim, but there are problems to be solved. That is about as far as I can go in calling these mysteries. Precious is a detective, but she understands that most of her job involves listening, or simply asking what she wants to find out.

Recurring characters, a pot of red bush tea, Violet Sophotho (Grace's nemesis), waiting for Grace and Phuti to marry, and the apprentices. Same old, same old - in a good way.

Monday, February 13, 2012

BOOK: The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, 127 pages

Venice in February; Man Booker Shortlist 1981

Creepy little slice of Venice. It doesn't appear creepy for quite a while, and the book is only a little over one hundred pages. When it turns though, it turns.

An unmarried English couple are spending an extended vacation Venice. They tour, they eat, they sleep, they bicker a bit - seem to be pretty much in a comfortable rut. On Chesil Beach-like couple (except for the sex part) where every thought or movement is analysed intensely and minutely. The mood does gradually build, and then, although it's not clear exactly what, something happens. It's not clear, and yet it is.

 Colin and Mary have very strange reactions to each other, and to the events around them. That was the weirdest part for me. The atmosphere of Venice was modern, and perfect for the story. Fans of McEwan's later, famous books would enjoy this early glimpse of his writing.

also reviewed: bellezza at dolce bellezza;

Monday, February 6, 2012

BOOK: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich, 321 pages

Venice in February; Random Reading Challenge

I think I expected this book to be more than it actually was; the book it was was a good page-turning read. It was really good historical fiction - lots of facts, and I felt immersed in 1500s Venice, which is a kind of scummy, dirty place. The difference between the rich Christians and the poor Jews was aptly portrayed. It was a story of a couple separated by obstacles (husband Isaac captive on Malta as a slave, Jewish midwife Hannah caught up in a dangerous Christian birth) and their path to getting together. Plus, the plague is arriving! Lots of obstacles. Hannah is plucky!

Things happen fast if slightly unrealistically, but once I turned off the part of my brain that said 'Perhaps little Jewish woman in the Christian home after curfew, you should just get yourself home instead of going to see what that noise was near those angry vengeful brothers,' I had a good time. The Jewish ghetto in Venice must be a very large part of its history, because this is not the first book I've read during this time with this setting and the conflicts. (I think it was In the Company of the Courtesan.) The book flips between Hannah's story and her husband, Isaac, stuck a slave on Malta. But they didn't take their slaves too seriously there - they were slaves just until their ransom arrived. I think there could be another story on Malta, as the two nuns that somewhat save Isaac were quite interesting and developed characters for their minor role. I would read more about them.

I wish I had more time to read another of the historical fiction novels on the Random Reading Challenge, but the books on the list are very popular at the library.
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak,  The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay,  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain,  Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich,  The Salt Road by Jane Johnson, and  Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran. I'm going to save The Paris Wife for Paris in July and I imagine I'll pick up The Winter Palace at the book store and not put it back down before too long. There is still time to read one of these books and review it by the end of February.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

BOOK: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filth by Jane Gardam, 260 pages

Orange January: Shortlist 2005

Edward Feathers, Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) has returned to England in his retirement days. He's a legend in legal circles, a Raj Orphan (born in the East, sent to England for a childhood), and a pretty lonely, sad guy. Gardam tells his life story in a back and forth narrative, explaining how he ended up the way he is.

Filth is so remote and reserved, that is is not until the reader nears the end, as layer upon layer of his life is revealed that the deep sympathy for Filth develops. The miracle is that he survived and thrived based on the abandonment he suffered his whole life.  Gardam writes in a very readable style, and the slow subtle details that are described make the experience a good one. She's not just stating what happened, and it's not from Filth's perspective exactly. We don't spend time in his head, we just follow him around and observe his life. There is a detached view, which is part of Filth's stiff upper lip view of life, British style. 

There is a sequel, with his wife's story, The Man in the Wooden Hat.I just adore the covers of these books, and I think reading Betty's story will be a welcome addition to Old Filth's life.

Also reviewed: Megan at Leafing Through Life;