What I Read – February 2018

2018 has obviously not been a great year for book reviews thus far but I am sneaking in lots of reading time. Here’s what I read in February and the quickest reviews I can manage at this moment:

The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Books, 2010

New Zealand novel. I likely would have abandoned this one partway through if it hadn’t been a gift. Quite frankly, I found this one boring and the characters uninteresting.

Night Film – Marisha Pesl (Random House, 2014)

Definitely creative. Fairly creepy. Character development and voice, etc are fairly limited but the mystery at the heart of the novel will keep you reading.

Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara (Aona Books, 2016)

I hope to find the time to write a more detailed review of this parenting book because it’s been hugely helpful to me. I highly recommend this to parents of toddlers.

What every young child would tell us if they could is to please hold on to them, to not take their actions personally, and to love them despite their immaturity.

  • Deborah MacNamara, Rest Play Grow

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Day Sijie (Anchor Books, 2002) (translated from the French by Ina Rilke)

Easy read. Nothing terrible but nothing amazing here.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial, 1999)

Fascinating read if you’re interested in history and/or language and/or dictionaries.

The Weight of Glory – C.S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 2001)

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

  • C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

Collection of sermons by Lewis. I always enjoy Lewis’ work, whether fiction or non. His perspective and wisdom are endlessly valuable.

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

  • C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Moonglow – Michael Chabon (Harper Collins, 2016)

Pseudo-memoir of the author’s grandparents. Or is it? What’s fact and what’s fiction here? And does it matter when it’s well written and fun to read? 20th century history, World War II, space race, and a giant snake.

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012)

Why did it take me so long to read this book? Beautiful and heartbreaking. Every Canadian should read this book. And if you’re not Canadian you should read it too.

CURRENTLY READING:

The Silmarillion – j.R.R. Tolkien

…there were green things even among the pits and broken rocks before the doors of hell.

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson

 

My current reading habits mean I generally have three books on the go. The first is a classic that needs a decent amount of focus to be read. (Example: The Silmarillion) I read this in the evening after the girls are in bed. The second is something of a thoughtful nature, usually non-fiction, maybe something religious in nature. (Example: essays by Marilynne Robinson) The third is a more compulsive read. Almost always fiction, hopefully paperback. Something that I can read in the middle of the night while struggling to stay awake and feed a baby. (Just finished Indian Horse and will probably start The Night Circus tonight since I got it from the library today.)

What are your reading habits like? How many books do you typically have on the go? How do you decide what to read and when?

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Book Review – Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This is the third novel by Michael Chabon that I’ve read. (Read my reviews of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) Obviously, I enjoy his writing. Telegraph Avenue (HarperCollins, 2012) has Chabon’s usual blend of colourful imagery and quirky characters bumbling about in a finely-realized setting.

Telegraph Avenue revolves around Brokeland Records, owned by best friends Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. Their record store is located on (surprise) Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, California and in a few short months, down the street from them, a chain store called Dogpile Records (think Virgin Music) will open up. As Archy and Nat deal with the fall-out of this new business and its effect on their own lives, we learn about them, their histories, their wives (who also work together), and their children.

Chabon does settings well – whether real, like Telegraph Avenue‘s Oakland and Kavalier and Clay‘s 1940s New York, or fictional, like the Israeli state of Alaska in Yiddish Policemen – Chabon writes settings that are essential. This novel had to be set in Oakland, California. The author captures the streets, the stores, the smells, the culture, that bring a place alive. Perhaps, most crucially, are the racial tensions that simmer throughout the novel and on Telegraph Avenue. Archy is black, the son of a former blaxpoitation film star. Nat is white. This tension is even more evident between their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwifes. Chabon doesn’t go in for stereotypes, as is made clear when describing these four friends. Nat is the high school drop-out. Gwen comes from the wealthiest and most well-educated background and is the one least satisfied with her current condition.

When the novel dipped close to the issues of race relations and African-Americans, I wondered about a white man writing a black character. Does it make it better that Chabon is Jewish? Ultimately, I believe that writing fiction is about delving into someone who is not the author. Male writers write female characters all the time, some better than others. Whether Chabon accurately captured the experience of a middle-aged African-American man, I’m not qualified to say, but I can state that I enjoyed reading about that experience.

This wasn’t my favourite of Chabon’s novels though. If I could sum up my issue with Telegraph Avenue it would be “style over substance”. There is too much of one and not enough of the other. Chabon writes description that, while colourful, becomes so long-winded as to actually distract from the real action. Often, after a long, rambling description of something mundane like how a character holds a baby, I still felt like I’d been told nothing. Frequently, the language used felt like a trying-too-hard attempt to be hip. The novels reads as though Chabon threw in all these details to show how quirky and unique and fascinating his characters are but it ends up feeling false.

Even with those description, it took me pages to figure out the main characters and I never felt like they were that different from each other. Maybe that was the point.

Where I was most impressed with Chabon’s rambling style was a particular chapter made up of a single, very long sentence. Tied together by the flight of an escaped parrot, this chapter/sentence takes us through the neighbourhood and from character to character. It’s impressively crafted and a wonderful example of what Chabon is capable of and why I’ll keep reading him.

Book Review – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Finding a new author that I enjoy reading is a little like visiting a really cool city for the first time. You’re excited, you’re so happy you’ve come, you’re a little overwhelmed by all the exploration you have ahead of you.

You go home or you finish your book and you keep those fond memories. You tell your friends and family. You look over your photographs or you remember the best scenes and characters and you feel thankful for the experience. You start to think about going back. Or about reading another book by that author. But you wonder: Can the second time ever match up to the first?

All that preamble to say, I read a second book by Michael Chabon, who I recently read for the first time and realized why his wife loves him so much. I actually had a copy of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union out of the library before we left Chilliwack but ran out of time to read it. So imagine my delight when I saw a copy in a thrift store in Gibsons. $2 later, it was mine. It didn’t disappoint.

The premise of the novel is best described as kind of bizarre. The story takes place in an alternate universe where the nation of Israel fell apart in 1948 and a district was set up in Alaska for Jews. Now, 60 years later, this District of Sitka is set to revert to American rule and many of the Jews will be forced to relocate from the only home they’ve known. Who thinks up that kind of premise? It’s brilliant. Throughout the novel we are given hints as to other ways this world is different from our own. Those differences include everything from a nuclear bombing of Berlin, to the marriage of JFK and Marilyn Monroe.

I will admit that I’m not overly familiar with Judaism. Most of what I know about this religion comes from the Old Testament and/or Hollywood. While reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union I kept consulting Wikipedia to see if Chabon had just made things up or if they were true. I have a feeling that if you knew Jewish culture there would be some good jokes in this book. I did love the mixture of traditional Judaism (black hats and side curls) with Alaskan stereotypes of plaid shirts and work boots. Picture all that on one person – that’s the District of Sitka. Chabon’s descriptions were vivid and real, easy to imagine even while seeming absurd.

Our main character is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, chess-hating detective who lives in a dingy hotel and whose ex-wife just became his boss. Yep, throw some hard-boiled detective stereotypes in the mix too.

Which isn’t to say that the novel or its characters are stereotypes. Not at all. Landsman’s partner is Berko Shemets, a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit who looks Native American but has embraced his Jewish roots fully. Berko embodies all the tension that exists in the District of Sitka between the Tlingit and the Jewish populations. My personal favourite character was the boundary maven, a man who lives and works in the Orthodox community. Their religious precepts rely on him yet he remains an outsider. He knows every hidden corner and every telephone pole but he doesn’t know what he believes.

Over all of this ticks the countdown of Sitka’s status. Time is running out and everyone is preparing in a different way. Parts of the ending felt too neatly wrapped up. Other parts were a complete surprise, packing all the punch that such events would carry in real life. Chabon creates an ending that seems realistic, even in our world.

I’ll be reading my next Chabon book as soon as I can get my hands on one.

My Week in Review

Let’s recap the last few days…They’ve been goood ones (Yes, so good it deserves an extra ‘o’!)

Wednesday

Farmers Market Day in Roberts Creek. Lots of fresh, local produce. Preserves, honey, baked goods, even goat cheese. Yum.

We came home with fresh kale and beets. We made kale chips for the first time – pretty good but I think I’ll tweak the recipe a bit next time. Anybody out there got a foolproof one? The beets included surprisingly sweet leaves. Don’t you love when things that are good for you also taste delicious?

Thursday

Our first trip out in the boat this summer with Peter’s parents. (My first trip in their boat ever, actually.) The water was surprisingly calm. We buzzed along the shore and out to the White Islands.

Pulling away from the boat launch.

Amazing skies over the White Islands.

And of course, any sunny day includes a swim in the ocean. Picture not included because, well, I was swimming.

Peter’s brother and his wife visited over the weekend and any family get together involves food. We joke amongst ourselves that as a family we are either eating or discussing what we’ll eat next. This weekend was no exception and crab was on the menu.

Thursday afternoon Pete and I rowed out in this little boat to check the crab traps. I grew up with rowboats but on lakes, not the ocean, and I had perhaps an overly romantic expectation of this rowboat trip. Let’s just say Peter + me + this little boat + a bucket of crabs was a little overcrowded.

Friday

Photo Credit: Friendly Stranger

I have to say that I am incredibly thankful that I genuinely like everyone of my in-laws, whether they earned that title through my own marriage or someone else’s. I know I’m blessed to be related to so many awesome people.

Friday we visited the bustling downtown of Sechelt! Along with food, our family really enjoys thrifting. We made some excellent finds (I’ll have to devote a separate blog entry to what I’ve brought home since moving here.) Then a long walk through the park with the dogs and an Amazing (so good it deserves a capital letter) meal of steak and crab. (It’s easy to love in-laws who feed you so well!) Oh, and of course there was swimming in the middle there too, made even better by the re-entry of the raft into the water.

Saturday

Spectacular weather all weekend but Saturday was really the pinnacle, heat-wise. And I love the heat.

Saturday is market day in Sechelt so we started there after breakfast.

There is produce and food at this market but also much more. Pottery, clothing, jewellry, paintings and who knows what else. Every Saturday they shut down part of the main street and its filled with this market.

Then a jaunt to Davis Bay for a stroll along the pier.

Spent most of my afternoon right here:

I’m currently reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m finished but at the moment it’s safe to say I’m enjoying it a lot.

When it got too hot (and when the Lions vs. Roughriders game ended) we went swimming. And in the evening we capped it all off with a hot dog roast on the beach with friends.

An evening swim followed by rhubarb and raspberry pie (picked from my in-laws garden and made by my father-in-law) finished it off.

In case at this point you’re thinking, Isn’t Karissa in Canada? Why is she doing all this swimming in the ocean? Is she crazy? Let me explain. I’m not someone who thrives off of being uncomfortable. I’ve never done a polar bear swim and have no real desire to do such a thing. Like I said, I enjoy the heat. I do really like to swim though and it has been quite hot here. The key here though is that we are swimming in an inlet, not the open ocean. We’re across from Vancouver Island (basically Nanaimo) and the water is generally a few degrees warmer here than other spots. I have swum in the open ocean in Tofino and I wore a wetsuit because it is a lot colder there. Also, I don’t like to back out of things, so if I put my swimsuit on and head down to the beach I am darn well going swimming, no matter what my body thinks when I dip my toes in!

Sunday

The weather dipped a little, temperature-wise, on Sunday and our weekend visitors were heading home so it was a quieter day. In the afternoon we went for a walk past the powerlines and to Chapman Creek.

Makes your skin tingle a bit.

Speaking of cold swimming, I’ve swum in this creek and it is colder than the ocean.

Photo Credit: Mike

And one of me and Peter by Chapman.

Oh, and I almost forgot about this local phenomenon:

That’s a forest car. My husband claims this is a “thing” that people do. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it outside of the Coast here. Apparently people will drive old cars into the forest and leave them there. I guess it’s cheaper than disposing of them properly? This one is slowly being reclaimed by the land.

And that, friends, has been my week! How has yours been?

Perfect Days

We’ve had a couple of pretty amazing days in a row here. The weather has been sunny and warm without being uncomfortably hot and we currently live in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I feel very blessed.

Check this out…it’s a beach just a couple of blocks from where we’re staying.

It reminded me of the beaches in Victoria, near Dallas Road, except we had this one all to ourselves, along with a couple of very excited dogs.

Yesterday, Peter and I hiked Mt. Soames, a hill in Gibsons. A pretty quick trip up a lot of stairs and a spectacular view to reward us.

That’s a view of Gibsons harbour, by the way.

Keats Island on the left and Gibsons on the right.

From Mt. Soames, we headed into town with a stop at a thrift store. Actually, we drove by the store as Peter said to me, “Want to go to that thrift store?” So he pulled a quick turn-around and we visited. Definitely worth it. I snagged a hardcover Michael Chabon book for $2 and an apple peeler/corer for $3. Tried it today and it works perfectly! I think Peter is a little afraid that he’ll come home to find all our apples peeled and cut up in neat little circles.

Our afternoon was spent on the beach in Sechelt and a swim in the ocean. Some sand fortress building and log floating and coffee breaks that last for hours and turn into beer breaks. To crown it all, we barbequed for dinner. (Peter and I have never had a barbeque so this opens up a whole new world of cooking.)

And this wasn’t us, but it will be soon, I hope!

Today was a little quieter but with equal amounts of sunshine, plus this waterfall.

Life is good.

Book Review – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

In the cottage where I spent my summers as a child, there was an old cardboard box under one of the beds. It was a box that, each summer, my brother and I pulled out and looked through as if we’d never seen it before. It was a box full of comic books and each summer we read every single one. The comics had first belonged to my father and his brother and most of them dated back to the early 1960s. There were old Superman comics, there were a few Magnus Robot Fighter comics, and there was a healthy stack of Turok Son of Stone comics. There was even one comic book that detailed the origins of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. These were the only comics I ever read as a child. I watched Spiderman and X-Men cartoons on the weekends and read Watchmen eventually but when I think of comic books, my mind still goes back to that cardboard box under the bed.

Nothing says “Fighting Robot Crime!” like pink, spandex shorts and white boots.

We had a copy of this exact comic! In it, Andar needs rescuing and they shoot honkers with bows and arrows.

So I have a certain nostalgia toward old comic books and those memories were well rewarded in my reading of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I imagine a true comic book buff would enjoy it even more.

I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for so many reasons. For its fantastical sense of adventure, set against the real world action and tragedy of the Jews in Europe during World War Two. I loved the opening chapters of Josef in Prague – a city I spent several months in a few years ago and one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Reading scenes set in Prague and descriptions of places I’ve seen made the story that much more personal for me.

This is a picture I took of Charles Bridge in Prague. A scene at the beginning of the novel takes place near here.

The majority of the story takes place in New York city, a place I haven’t visited, but that comes alive on the pages of Chabon’s book, particularly the iconic Empire State Building.

The friendship and partnership between Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay was interesting, funny, and believable. Chabon creates a real friendship that the reader cares about without slipping into sentimentalism. The story balances between the two main characters with perhaps a bit more emphasis on Joe Kavalier. Which I was okay with because he was the more interesting character to me. He’s talented and conflicted and the novel does a tremendous job of showing how the circumstances of Joe’s life change him from who he really could be or the life he could have had.

Over and over again there were descriptions, scenes set, and moments rendered that drew me further and further into the world of the novel. In the last half there is a scene where a character is so distracted by her shock and excitement that she starts to cook dinner in her underwear, not realizing she hasn’t finished dressing. It’s a funny but really quite sad moment. The fact that she can only calm down by working, by immersing herself in a fictional world of her own creations, tells us everything we need to know about her character.

Considering this is a book about comics and art, I would have loved it if there had been, scattered through the novel, some examples of comics and art. I would never say this with another book – but it actually felt like those touches were missing here. There are a couple of occasions where the novel gives us a descriptor of the comics that Kavalier and Clay write. While stylistically well done and entertaining, it seemed like a missed opportunity to demonstrate the artistic form that the novel is all about. A classic example of being told when I’d rather be shown.

In all though, if this is what Michael Chabon writes like, I am definitely reading more by him.

Favourite quotes:

Sammy had loved the [World’s] Fair, visiting it three times in its first season of 1939, and until the end of his life, he kept one of the little buttons he had been given when he exited General Motors pavilion, which said I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE. He had grown up in an era of great hopelessness, and to him and millions of his fellow city boys, the Fair and the world it foretold had possessed the force of a covenant, a promise of a etter world to come, that he was later attempt to redeem in the potato fields of Long Island.

 

Sitting on Rosa’s moth-littered bed, [Joe] felt a resurgence of all the aches and inspirations of those days when his life had revolved around nothing but Art, when snow fell like the opening piano notes of the Emperor Concerto, and feeling horny reminded him of a passage from Nietzsche, and a thick red-streaked dollop of crimson paint in an otherwise uninteresting Velazquez made him hungry for a piece of rare meat.

 

On life after World War Two:

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he’s out of his mind. You know? I just don’t know if there’s a sane reaction to what he…what happened to his family. Is your reaction, and mine…you get up, you go to work, you have a catch in the yard with the kid on Sunday afternoon. How sane is that? Just to go on planting bulbs and drawing comic books and doing all the same old crap as if none of it had happened.”

 

Less favourite quote:

Poor little librarians of the world, those girls, secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of big black eyeglasses!

Michael Chabon, that just seems mean.

(By the way, Michael Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, who I discussed in this post.)