Friday, March 27, 2015

The Empty Family - short stories by Colm Toibin

Continuing my desire to read Irish literature, I read this collection of short stories by Colm Toibin.  Generally I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but I like his writing so I thought I would try them.  They kept my attention but for the most part I didn't love them.

My favourite was The Colour of Shadows which was about a young man who was raised by an aunt and returns to care for her in her last couple of years.  The relationship between the two - though much of it was unspoken - was very touching.

A few of the stories took place in Barcelona (or elsewhere in Spain) rather than Ireland and many of the stories were about gay relationships.  I didn't quite get the point of The New Spain - about a girl who returns to Spain following years of exile during the Franco era only to find her father has drastically changed the property her grandmother left to her and her sister and really only wants to deal with her now as he needs her permission to make more changes.  I did quite like The Street which dealt with Pakistani immigrants to Barcelona and the narrow lives of servitude they live.  The characters in that one were sympathetic.

If you like short stories these are good ones but if, like me, you prefer more developed material like you get in a novel, you might want to pass.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

I read this because I was out of town and it was available on my iPad.  It was reasonably entertaining but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it unless you really enjoy long descriptive passages about French or Indian food (which I know some people do).

The story starts in Mumbai - it is told from the perspective of Hassan who is born into a poor but rising Muslim family in Mumbai.  Hassan's grandfather started out delivering tiffin lunches, moved on to lunch carts and eventually opened a restaurant on the border between a slum and Mumbai's wealthy Malabar Hill area.  Hassan's father improves upon the restaurant and his wife, sister and brother in law, parents and all five children are involved in the business.  But when tragedy strikes as a result of religious tensions in India, Hassan and his family sell their property to a developer for millions of dollars.  They first emigrate to England and live with relatives in a heavily east Indian neighbourhood near Heathrow.

In London Hassan discovers girls and his father languishes, depressed.  Getting involved with the wrong girl gets Hassan into trouble so the family picks up and leaves.  They wander Europe in an old Mercedes, sampling all the foods Hassan's father wishes to try and finally ending up in a small town near the French alps.  Here the family opens another successful Indian restaurant, much to the chagrin of their neighbour, an elderly classical French chef.

The French chef eventually takes Hassan under her wing and trains him to become a Michelin star worthy French chef in his own right.  The rest of the story follows Hassan's successes in the Paris restaurant business.

There are some interesting characters - Hassan's father, the elderly French woman, another French chef who becomes Hassan's friend and mentor in Paris.  But the real focus of this book is on the food - there are seemingly endless descriptions of shopping, choosing fresh meat, seafood or produce, and of course cooking and serving meals.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Since I've booked a trip to Ireland, I decided to turn my reading efforts to some Irish literature.  I had previously read Toibin's book, Brooklyn, and liked it but it was set in the US.  This was set in Ireland - in particular Enniscorthy with some visits to surrounding areas.

When the story begins, Nora Webster is newly widowed - left with four children.  Her daughters are away at school - one in college, the other boarding school and her two sons live with her.  The older of the two sons has developed a stammer - clearly emotionally related to the loss of his father.  The book follows about 3 years in Nora's life as she learns to come to terms with her widowhood and single parent status.  She has not worked since marriage but is offered a job at the office where she had worked - this is a small town and everybody knows everybody so the company owners clearly offer her work as they know she needs it.  Unfortunately Nora will be working for an angry woman who she had treated poorly when they were peers years earlier.

Nora also sells the cottage where her family had happily summered for years and instead they rent a trailer every year.  This takes time for the children to accept.  And it's hard for Nora to accept the financial help she receives and the emotional help her children receive from her husband's brother and sister as well as her own two sisters.

But eventually Nora discovers (or rediscovers) her own interests and makes new friends - and even comes to terms with parting with her husband's belongings.

All of this is set against a backdrop of the troubles in Northern Ireland which are also interesting to read about from an Irish perspective.  Personally I also took note of the descriptions of scenery - I will remember to look for certain places that sounded beautiful.

Toibin writes and creates interesting characters.  I definitely recommend his work.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

This book was fascinating on so many different levels.  First, it all takes place in very familiar places in Toronto so I could literally picture just about every scene.  Second, it is such an interesting exploration of childhood memories and the tricks they play and havoc they cause in later life.  It also is such a captivating study of the relationships between parents and children, and how certain features replay themselves in subsequent generations.  Finally, I like how MacDonald worked in the fiction within fiction, inserting supposed excerpts from the protagonist's own novels.

The action centres around a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, affectionately known as "Mister".  She is married to the much younger Hilary who is, conveniently from a plot perspective, travelling for most of the week.  She has made a living by writing the first two instalments in a young adult trilogy and is now taking some time to stay at home and mother 4 year old Matthew and 2 year old Maggie.  Maggie's "terrible two" like behaviours trigger latent memories of when Mister was two and her mother was depressed, recovering from the loss of one of several babies she lost (either as miscarriages, stillborns or in this case days after his birth) due to their Rh factor.  The memories manifest themselves first in burning pain in Mister's arm which had been operated upon twice in her childhood due to paediatric bone cysts.  Googling whether the disease can recur in adulthood causes her to reflect on what caused the cysts in the first place and makes her face some ugly truths about both her parents.

As an aside, I liked how the days were counted down by Mister turning on her radio, clearly to Jian Ghomeshi's Q opening of "well hello, happy Tuesday".  In retrospect I wonder if she regrets these references.

I don't want to give away much more of what happens, because I recommend you read this for yourselves, though don't be expecting a lot of action.  This is entirely an exploration of one woman's psyche - the other characters only matter for the impact they have on that.