Sunday 24 December 2017

More children's books... yikes!!

On this wintry “White Christmas-y” morning, I was going to enjoy my steeped chai tea in a festive, seasonal mug, but decided that, in light of the book I’m going to talk about today, I’d dig out my “banned books” mug.

I read (or I should say “inhaled” - it took me just two days!) a new book by Alan Gratz this week, one that I recently purchased for my schools, Ban This Book.  It tells the story of Amy Anne, a grade four student who loves to read.  She is not popular, but has one best friend, Rebecca, and two younger sisters, Alexis and Angelina.  She lives in a crowded house and her mom works alot of overtime, so in order to make some time for herself, she goes to the school library after classes have let out and reads, telling her parents that she is taking part in various clubs after school.  When she goes to find her favourite book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and discovers it is not on the shelf, she turns to Mrs Jones, the librarian, for answers.  What she hears is unbelievable - this book has been withdrawn from the school library because a parent decided it was unsuitable for elementary school students.  And not just this book… a whole stack of them, fiction and non-fiction, have been deemed by this parent to be unsuitable.  This parent is an influential member of the PTA from a fairly wealthy family and supports many school board initiatives.  How is our book-loving heroine going to deal with this?  Shy, meek, never-speaks-up Amy Anne, along with Rebecca, devises a plan to keep these books available for students at her school - she forms the Banned Books Lending Library (B.B.L.L.) which she keeps hidden in her locker.  Soon more students join this fight against censorship as it threatens to grow beyond its bounds.  Can Amy Anne bring the school board around to her way of thinking and save the school library’s collection (and the school librarian!) before everything is ruined beyond repair?  If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that Freedom to Read week is my favourite week of the year.  Scheduled for the week of February 25-March 3, 2018, it is a week I celebrate with my students by putting up a big display of many of their favourite books that have been banned or challenged somewhere, for some reason, in recent history, books like the Harry Potter series, Captain Underpants, Junie B Jones, even some of Shel Silverstein’s poetry collections, and I read a challenged book aloud to my students as well (I think this year it will be The Lorax by Dr Seuss, banned in a California school in 1989 because it portrayed the forestry industry in a negative light and would turn children against forestry.)  Anyway, now you can understand why I had to use my “banned books” mug!  This book was entertaining and humourous, but it also tackled a serious topic in a realistic and positive way, demonstrating that even kids as young as ten can make a difference if they stand up for what they believe in.  It was a fabulous book, a real celebration of all things books and reading, which explains the concept of censorship and freedom to read so well in a way that children can understand and appreciate. It will make a perfect read-aloud selection for my grade fives once I finish The Bad Beginning, and it's perfect timing, too, as I’ll be reading it during Freedom to Read week - how ideal is that?!

That’s all for today.  I hope to have an adult book to tell you about next week, although I’m in the middle of a Young Adult book right now that is well-written and engaging, too.  And also next week, a list of my favourite books from 2017. Merry Christmas!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday 17 December 2017

Children's books on a blustery morning...

At this time of year, I usually try to read a few books for school, especially while I have time off over the Christmas holidays.  Since I’ve just been promoting the Forest of Reading Red Maple nominees with the Intermediate students at my schools, I decided to start with one of those.  

The Winnowing by Canadian author Vikki VanSickle immediately caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  I loved the title. "To winnow" means to blow a current of air through grain to remove the chaff. Such an ordinary word, though not one we come across often, but in the context of this novel, it is very sinister indeed. I loved the dark, brooding, mysterious cover.  I’ve read other books by this author, coming-of-age romantic novels which were very good, but this seemed completely different and I was curious to see how she handled it.  And since I’d just done book-talks for these ten nominees in four classes, many of the books were checked out, but this one was available at one of my schools, so I took advantage of the opportunity and started reading.  This novel is set in Darby, a small town famous for finding the cure for the Infertility Crisis and saving humankind. Marivic is a young woman who is just reaching puberty, which is signalled by the nightmare-ish dreams and extraordinary running ability she has recently begun experiencing.  But these are so much more than just nightmares and sudden physical ability; Marivic is “going ACES” (Adolescent Chronosomniatic Episodes) and has developed imps (Adolescent Physical impairments), something that happens to everyone in town at a certain age.  These are things young people both look forward to and also dread.  Once someone begins “going ACES”, they are sent to a hospital, where they will undergo a procedure called “winnowing”, which will alleviate these nightmares and remove the imps, but it may also affect memory.  Marivic’s best friend, Saren, has just been admitted to the hospital for winnowing, and Marivic is anxious to join her there.  Once admitted, she finds Saren and together they discuss what they expect will happen to them during this procedure.  Saren doesn’t want to be winnowed, which Marivic can’t understand; why wouldn’t she want these horrible ACES to stop and go back to being her normal self?  When they receive a message inviting them to a meeting at the pool in the basement of the hospital in the middle of the night, Marivic agrees to accompany Saren, but only to ensure her safety.  At the meeting, they encounter a young man who suggests that the government is behind the Infertility Crisis, and that the winnowing procedure is designed to keep people from remembering their past and also to thwart their newfound physical abilities, which, he claims, are not, in fact, impairments, but rather natural physical enhancements.  Marivic is ready to dismiss this as nothing more than conspiracy theory, but after she receives tragic news and she has glimpses of something sinister from her past, Marivic must determine how far she is willing to go to find the truth.  I love a well-written dystopian novel, and there are many Young Adult novels in this genre out there, but they are not all appealing to me.  This one, however, grabbed me immediately and kept me riveted until the very last page, which took me just two days to reach (I had a grade 8 student who was waiting for it).  Imagine The Giver (Lois Lowry) meets The Maze Runner (James Dashner) with a dash of X-Files thrown in.  I was struck by how well-written and polished it was, no stumbling around to keep the pace or tone consistent, which I expected, given that this is such a departure from VanSickle’s usual fare.  It explored her usual themes of friendship and coming-of-age, but in a completely new and fascinating terrain.  I was very impressed, and will recommend this to students (and adults!) who enjoy gripping dystopian novels.

That left me with less than a full week to read something else, so I picked up a short Juvenile novel that I had sitting at home for a while.  I’m always on the lookout for an interesting read-aloud that I can share with the grade 4 classes - right now I’m reading The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, the first book in “The Series of Unfortunate Events”.  I’ve read this to classes in the past, and it’s fabulous, but sometimes I like to change it up a bit.  Hide and Seek by Peter Legaris is the second in the “Spy X” series, which I guess I didn’t realize until just now, as  I probably would have started with the first one, The Code, if I had known earlier.  This short, fun, engaging novel follows Andrew and his sister Evie as they relocate to a new home in San Francisco after their mother’s disappearance one year earlier.  They are sure they’ll never see her again, but on their first day at their new school, they begin receiving coded messages, and hope that their mother is alive and will find them is renewed.  But can they decode all the clues and find her before she meets with an unhappy end?  Filled with word puzzles and coded messages that need to be solved, this quick read was an entertaining way to spend a few distraction-filled evenings, and I would recommend this to middle-school students who are interested in reading lighthearted espionage chapter books.  It would not, however, be a good read-aloud, as there are many word puzzles and coded messages that would be difficult to share, but are integral to the story.

And I’m halfway through Black Water Rising by Robert Rayner, another Canadian author.  I received copies of this book from the author himself at the big library conference I went to last year - he even autographed them!  One of the students in a grade 6 class took it out and told me it was pretty good, but another student pointed out that there seemed to be quite a bit of swearing in the book, so I decided that I should read it to determine if it is appropriate for grade 6 students, or any students in my K-8 school.  This novel is set a small town in Newfoundland which sits on the banks of Black River.  The rains have been steady for days, threatening to flood the town if the hydroelectric dam isn’t opened, but the company that owns the dam, TransNational Power, is ordering the local manager, Willis Frame, to keep the dam closed.  Frame knows that flooding will occur in about 36 hours, and that the company sees the funds offered to help the townspeople repair any damage caused by flooding, as well as the environmental and ecological impact of flooding, to be a small price to pay for the extra power they can generate, all in the name of greed.  Frame’s son, seventeen-year-old Stanton, is caught between loyalty to his father, a man he believes is trying his best to do the right thing, and his love for his girlfriend Jessica, a young woman who is passionate about stopping the power company and keeping what remains of the river bank's natural ecology and environment intact.  When she gets involved with a radical eco-group from British Columbia, Stanton must decide what to do to save the town, his father, and his girlfriend, before time runs out.  So far, I’ve decided that the book is suitable for my library, and that the occasional swearing is included to enhance the setting and to portray the spirit of the characters.  I have colour-coded all my Young Adult novels to reflect suitability for different grades, so I think I’ll just change this one from grade 6 to grade 7 - the use of swear words isn’t excessive, just enough to jar the reader, making it effective, but still not a great choice for 11-year-olds.   I’ll finish it today and make a final decision at that time.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 10 December 2017

Tea and treats on a snowy morning...

Big fat flakes are drifting outside the windows this morning as I sip my steaming cup of steeped chai tea and nibble on a delicious Date Bar.  The temperature has dropped significantly this past week or so, and it seems like winter is here to stay… not a bad thing in my opinion, but I know that not everyone would agree with me.  So if you hate winter weather, just think of it as a good excuse to stay inside with a hot beverage and read!!

I read two books for school this past week, one for my student book club and one that everyone is reading because the movie just came out.  My student book club just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  These kids are in grade 8, and I thought it was somewhat mature for their age, but they wanted to read it, and I think they enjoyed it.  I won’t summarize the plot, since I’m fairly sure most people know about this book.  We are a group of three students plus me, and all but one of us enjoyed the second half of the book, around the time of the trial and onward, better than the first half.  But one of the boys said he enjoyed it all, right from the first page, the characters, the setting, the exploits of Jem and Scout, and he especially liked Dill… well, we all really liked Dill, his quirkiness and vulnerability.  Since we have just two weeks before Christmas break, which is not really enough time to start a new book, we’re going to watch the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which only one student has seen before.  One of these students is moving away at the end of December, so we’ll need to recruit new members - we thought that maybe if we called it the Book and Movie Club, others may want to join!  Our next book is going to be A Wrinkle in Time, which we will hopefully finish in time for the release of the movie in March.  (See, we really are a book and movie club!!)

And because everyone has been reading this book for the past four or five years, students and teachers alike, and because the film adaptation was just released in November, I finally read Wonder by RJ Palacio.  This novel tells the story of August Pullman, a fifth-grader who was born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, causing him to have severe facial deformity.  Due to his many surgeries in his early life, he has been homeschooled by his mother, but since his health has stabilized, his parents decide that it’s time for him to enter a local middle school, Beecher Prep.  Of course this is a difficult adjustment for him and for the students at the school, and he suffers significant ostracization and bullying, but he also manages to form some real and lasting friendships, too.  His experiences are equal parts positive and negative, and along with his supportive parents and older sister, he manages to make it through his first year at school, weathering all the ups and downs along the way.  There is much more to the plot, but I’m not going to get into the details.  And I’m not going to write much about my reading experience, either.  I get why teachers love it, I get why kids love it, but I just didn’t love it.  It was a super-quick and easy read, and I’m glad to finally be able to cross this off my list of “books I should read because everyone else has read it”, but… well, that’s all I’ll say about it.

Which leads me to think about why we read books, how we choose what we read.  I was talking about this with my sister-in-law recently, and it also came up yesterday while I was talking to one of my oldest friends.  Both of these people are avid readers too, and through each brief discussion, we determined that there is more to reading than just choosing books we “love”.  I thought about what would happen if I took a year off from all of my books clubs and didn’t read any books for school that I didn’t really want to read, and how that would change my “year of reading”, and I realized that it would be impossible to find enough books that I absolutely loved to keep me reading for a full year, that I would need to find 50+ books, and if I discarded every book I began just because it didn’t grab me and draw me in immediately, I would be left with very little selection, and would have to resort to rereading my favourites much more often than I already do.  And let’s not even consider audiobooks!  So why do we read what we read, and how do we choose, and stick with, books, even if we don’t love them?  There are many reasons to choose a book:  it’s a new one by a favourite author; it’s a book about which you’ve read great reviews; it’s one that everyone is reading; it’s a book you’ve been meaning to read for ages; or it has an interesting cover (yes, I’ll admit it, I really do sometimes judge a book by its cover!).  These are just a few reasons to choose books, but why do we finish books we don’t love (or as my friend says, books that “don’t change my life or my way of thinking”)?  Well, we might think it will get better by the end, that it will be worth the effort; we’ve already invested x amount of time reading it, time that would be wasted if we gave up; we don’t have anything else on hand that we would rather be reading; or we want to understand what all the fuss is about (this for bestsellers).  After considering all of this, I’ve determined that my year of reading would not look much different if I gave up book club and reading for school, so I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 3 December 2017

Book club highlights on a clear, mild morning...

I have a delicious Date Bar from City Café and a steaming cup of steeped chai tea on the table in front of me, and of course a copy of the book we discussed at yesterday’s meeting, Sweetness in the Belly by Canadian author Camilla Gibb.

This bestselling 2007 novel is set in Ethiopia in the 1970s and England in the 1980s and early 1990s, and tells the story of one woman’s attempts to find peace and a sense of belonging.  The main character, Lilly, is British-born, and spent her very early years there, but her nomadic parents uprooted their family and traveled around the world, ending up in Ethiopia.  They pass away while Lilly is still quite young, and she is taken in and raised as a devout Muslim by the Great Abdal, a disciple of a great Islamic saint.  As a young woman, she spends many years in the ancient walled city of Harar, where she immerses herself in Ethiopian culture and Muslim traditions.  It is here that she meets the handsome Dr Aziz and falls in love, but this love calls into question not only her faith, but her entire way of life.  There is also great political unrest within the walled city and within the country as a whole, and everyone must do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and those they love.  Fast-forward  fifteen years, and Lilly is a nurse at one of London’s hospitals, a white Muslim woman who is doing her best to immerse herself in the Ethiopian culture in this British city where refugees struggle to make their way in this new reality while holding onto their traditions and beliefs, and also trying to reconnect with relatives who have disappeared during the revolution.  How will Lilly reconcile her faith with the reality of the conditions she sees all around her?  OK, this was not an easy read, not a Christmas- or winter-themed book, in fact, not at all the type of book I usually choose for us to read at end of the year, and I’m not sure why I put this one on the list.  When I started reading it, I groaned inwardly at the heaviness of the subject matter, sensing that my book club members would not appreciate another long-ish, heavy, probably-depressing book.  But as I read further, I was surprised at how much I anticipated moving forward in Lilly’s story, how beautifully Gibb wrote, and how quickly I read her words.  I felt that I learned so much about Ethiopian culture, Islamic faith, and the experiences and trials refugees face every day.  While this book was written ten years ago, I think it's still worthwhile to read today since we have so many refugees entering our country even now, and while they may be from other countries, I imagine their experiences are much the same.  I was very happy to have read this bestselling novel by Gibb, who based the story on her own personal observations and experiences during the time she spent in Harar as a young woman while conducting research for her thesis.  My book club members did not unanimously enjoy the book - well, “enjoy” isn’t really the right word.  I guess I should say that they were not unanimously as happy to have read it as I was, although they didn’t dislike it either.  One member said she preferred the sections set in Ethiopia more than the ones set in London, that the storyline in the London sections got tiresome after a while.  Interestingly, I really enjoyed reading these London sections because I felt that they seemed more hopeful than the parts set in Harar.  We discussed female circumcision, obviously not an uplifting topic but one that is important to acknowledge and learn about.  We discussed Lilly’s lack of belonging, the difficulties she faced in both countries because she didn’t really fit into either one.  We discussed the sense of family and community that existed in Ethiopia, that everyone takes care of everyone else, and one member commented that this still happens with the refugee communities here, that they see one another as part of a bigger family, and what challenges this may cause as it clashes with our own culture, beliefs and laws.  We also discussed the ways that political unrest can affect everyone and cause significant changes to one's traditions and way of life, something that we just don't think about here in our own insulated country. I think overall it was a successful choice for our group, just maybe not the best time of year, but I would definitely recommend this book for any book club, as it is filled with great discussion mpments.  For me, the best part about this book was the amazing writing.  When she writes about Dr Aziz, she says:  “For all his self-assurance it was such a humble smile, with a hint of sadness around the edges:  it was a smile to cup in one’s hands.”  And later:  “If she knew that I had kissed Aziz.  That I craved being in the dark with this man, that I daydreamed him into the pauses between sentences.” What brilliant expressions...

That’s all for today.  I see the sun is peeking out, so I’m heading out to enjoy the afternoon before I settle in to finish reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my students' book club meeting on Wednesday.  

Bye for now…

Sunday 26 November 2017

Book talk on a chilly Sunday morning...

It’s chilly and overcast right now as I sip my steaming chai tea and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, but the forecast is promising some sun later in the day, which is always a great way to begin a new week.

Last week I had a meeting with my “Friends” Book Group, where we discussed The Woman Upstairs.  Of the seven people who came out, only two had finished it - one of those people was me and the other was our newest member, who was just trying us out.  Of the five others, one skimmed it to the end, two ran out of time, and two just gave up on it.  The consensus was that the book was too self-indulgent, that it moved too slowly, and that it lacked any real plot.  I get that, and I would totally agree, except that the ending made it all so worthwhile that it was a shame some members gave up partway through.  For those of us who finished, we couldn’t really discuss the ending without giving too much away for those who intended to finish reading it when they had time.  But on the way home from the meeting, I got thinking more about the ending, and wondered who really betrayed whom, and why Sirena really did what she did.  I’ve read this book twice, and it wasn’t until I was headed home that I had these insights, and would have loved to discuss them with the others - I did end up having a conversation about this the next day with our newest member, who is a teacher at one of my schools, and we found the author’s treatment of this situation very intriguing and skillful.  If you think you might want to try this book out, please stick with it until the end, and then give some real thought to the questions above regarding betrayal, guilt and blame (that’s all I can say for fear of spoiling it for anyone!).

A book that, in my opinion, you could certainly stop reading before reaching the end is The Lying Game by Ruth Ware.  I really enjoyed her first book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, but did not enjoy her second book, The Woman in Cabin 10, at all, despite the rave reviews.  This one started out more promisingly, and I was quite excited to sit down with it.  This novel focuses on four women, Thea, Fatima, Isa and Kate, who live in and around London.  One night, Isa, Thea and Fatima receive a text from Kate saying “I need you”, and they know something serious has happened.  They all leave their lives and responsibilities and head to Salten Island, where fifteen years earlier these girls attended a boarding school together and where Kate still lives at Tide Mills, her childhood home that, over the years, has been literally sinking into the marsh.  These women have a secret that threatens to become unearthed, and they need to figure out how to handle this.  Fifteen years earlier, Kate’s father disappeared and they covered up any knowledge they had about this disappearance, along with Kate’s step-brother Luc.  Now it seems the truth is about to come to light and these women need to face up to the choices they made so long ago, choices that threaten to destroy their current lives as well as their futures.  It started off really well, with an interesting narrator, Isa, and an intriguing plotline - I always enjoy suspense stories that involve long-hidden secrets and groups of people being drawn together again after many years because of these secrets.  But at some point I found the story to be too farfetched and totally lacking in credibility, particularly since Isa hauls her six-month-old daughter Freya along with her into potentially dangerous situations again and again, fretting over Freya’s safety in one sentence, then endangering her in the next.  I felt that Ware used alot of repetition as padding, possibly to give the book the heft that she may have hoped would pass for depth.  I found the characters to be shallow and the conclusion unsatisfying.  Strangely enough, Kirkus, which criticizes nearly every book and gives negative reviews of just about everything, gave this books a rave review - when reading it, I felt like we were talking about two different novels!  This just demonstrates how reading experiences are so very personal, and reflect individual reading histories, personal histories, and present reading moods or situations.

That’s all for today.  I’m going to get outside and enjoy the brisk fresh air and still-clear sidewalks.

Bye for now…

Sunday 19 November 2017

Reruns on a tired Sunday morning...

On this bright, chilly Sunday morning, I'm feeling rather wiped out.  I ran a Book Fair at one of my schools last week, which is always exhausting.  I've also had a fairly bad migraine the past two days, and am only now beginning to feel better.  So I was going to take a "sick day" from my post today, but thankfully I finished a book for my book club meeting tomorrow that I've not only read before, but one I've written a blog post about!  So this is a rerun of Julie's Reading Corner from December 8, 2013:

"I finished reading The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud last week, and it was fabulous!  Just a quick recap:  Nora Eldridge is an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father.  She is also the favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston.  At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enters her life.  Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart.  She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams.  Of course, this can’t really happen, and since the Shahids do not reciprocate the need Nora feels towards them, they move on and Nora must cope with this loss as best she can, clinging to the memories of her year with them.  I felt that the ending was great, until the very, very end, when I felt the author tried too hard for a big finish that, in my opinion, felt limp.  Having said that, I loved the writing style, and the way Nora expressed herself and her feelings towards others and the life she feels has been (unfairly?) dealt to her.  I also thought that Nora’s feelings at that time in her life (37 and single, no children, no life as an artist, a third-grade teacher, which was never her career goal at any stage in her life) were realistic and true, although raw and sometimes self-indulgent.  But this book was ABOUT HER, so of course it was self-indulgent!  That was one of the criticisms of the book in at least one review I read,  but clearly that book reviewer had never been a 37 year old single woman whose life had not lived up to her expectations.  It is definitely a book whose main character demands that the reader identify with her, in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin did.  Now I’m not saying you have to have had those experiences to appreciate these books, but it helps a lot if you can at least envision what it would be like to have your ambitions thwarted because you made the wrong choices in life, or tried to do the right thing for others which maybe held you back in life.  Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that this book may not be for everyone, but I thought it was great, despite the weak ending.  Read it if you choose, but be warned that it is not a “feel-good” novel."

I think I would agree with everything I wrote nearly four years ago, although I didn't have such a negative reaction to the ending this time.  I would still compare this to We Need to Talk About Kevin and also Zoe Heller's darkly comic, scathing novel What Was She Thinking?  Notes on a Scandal.  I'll write about the highlights of our book club discussion next week - I'm curious to hear what others thought of this novel.

That's all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now...

Sunday 12 November 2017

Tea and audiobooks on a chilly morning...

It’s been unseasonably cold these past few days, but I’m warm and toasty inside with my steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar.  

I have an audiobook to tell you about this week.  I finished listening to By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham last week, and I have to say that it was a real treat for my ears.  You may recall that Cunningham is the author of the award-winning novel The Hours, which was made into an award-nominated film in 2002.  By Nightfall tells the story of Peter Harris, an art dealer in New York who, at age 44, is feeling somewhat let down by life.  He realizes that it’s nearly too late for him to be one of the “great” art dealers, making the discovery of a “great” artistic talent, and that he may never make it up to his adult daughter Beatrice for not loving her more completely or not finding her beautiful enough.  His relationship with his wife, Rebecca, who owns a small magazine (I can’t remember whether it focuses on literature or art), is just OK - after 20 years of marriage, after raising a daughter who arrived too soon, the spark and passion is gone.  Enter Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), Rebecca’s much-younger, much-doted-upon, and very charming brother (Ethan), who comes to stay with them for a while after being away in Japan, ostensibly trying to “find himself”.  After years in and out of rehab, dealing with various addictions, it appears that Mizzy has finally decided to grow up and live life as an adult, maybe doing “something in the arts”.  He tags along with Peter to observe the installation of a sculpture for a very wealthy client, and there propositions him.  Peter, unhappy with the state of his life, is ripe for this type of adventure, this opportunity to shake things up, but, as we the reader know, this can never happen in the way he imagines it.  But just when we think we know how the novel is going to end, we are treated to a compelling twist that may shock us (I was shocked!) and make us question our own lives and how well we really know the people closest to us.  I downloaded this audiobook without knowing much about it, and almost didn’t listen to it, as the opening scene didn’t really grab me.  But because I didn’t have anything else available that I'd rather listen to, I stuck with it, and I’m so glad I did.  This novel is clearly about a man having a mid-life crisis, but it is so much more than that.  Cunningham puts us inside Peter’s head and allows us to see the world from his point of view.  It was so many things for me:  a dramatic monologue, a running commentary on Peter’s life and the lives of those around him (or what he thinks those lives are about);  it brought to mind T S Eliot’s poetry, particularly "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" (although I’m not sure why, as I barely remember this poem);  it reminded this reader of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, perhaps due to the stripped-down language or the fact that it seemed to be about nothing in particular and everything in general, or that it questions the meaning of life and makes us consider what we are really waiting for, and asks us if this is, truly, as good as it gets, and if so, do we settle for this or go out and try to find something better?  We could spend our whole lives searching for the thing that can make us truly happy, only to find that it was right here in our own home all along.  This is a common literary theme, and Cunningham’s setting and characters are not unusual, but the fact that he puts the reader inside the mind of the main character and allows us to experience things through his eyes, and the fact that he uses language so sparsely and succinctly, made this a wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking listening experience for me.  The characters are intriguing:  Peter is at once insightful and comic, Mizzy is alluring and manipulative, and Rebecca seems shallow and naive (the word "fey" comes to mind... not sure why) but proves to have more depth than we are originally led to believe.  These characters are nothing new, but with Cunningham’s treatment, they tell a moving story that will stay with me for some time.  I read a few reviews of this book before I started writing this post, and they were generally unfavourable, mostly criticizing the author’s many, many literary references.  I didn’t understand all of these references, but I got enough of them that it didn’t detract from my overall understanding of the novel.  I also wonder whether I would have enjoyed reading this as a novel rather than listening to it as an audiobook.  The narrator, Hugh Dancy, did an amazing job of reading aloud a novel that was probably very difficult to render faithfully, capturing the essence of Peter’s ever-shifting character and thought processes, his shifting views of people and art and the things that are going on around him.  I’m curious to have a look at the physical book and read a few pages just to compare, but I’m so thankful to have come upon this novel in the audio format, because I may not have appreciated it as much otherwise.

That’s all for today.  Bundle up and get outside before it rains (or snows!).

Bye for now…

Sunday 5 November 2017

Book clubs and book talk on a rainy Sunday morning...

It’s a mild, rainy morning, and so dark inside that I’ve had to turn the light on as I’m writing.  Dreary is the word that comes to mind to describe today… but on the bright side, we got an extra hour - HURRAY!!  (I’ve already used up my hour, and it’s only 11am!!)

My Volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See.  Set during World War II, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book weaves together two stories, one of a young blind French girl, the other of an orphaned German boy, and builds to their unlikely meeting in a small French village near the end of the war.  Marie-Laure is a motherless girl who, at the age of six, lost her sight completely.  Her father, a locksmith working at the National History Museum in Paris, undertakes to protect her and teach her, encouraging her to become independent.  He is helped in this by his colleagues at the museum, as they take her in and make her part of their community.  Werner Pfenning is an orphan boy who, with his younger sister, Jutta, has spent most of his childhood at the Children’s Home in a village in Germany.  The children at the Home seem to have formed a community of their own, each fulfilling a role, helping out with the other children, and educating themselves by pursuing their interests during their free time.  The woman who runs the Home, Frau Elena, is a French nun who is more fond of children than she is of supervision, so she allows the children more freedom than they may otherwise have enjoyed.  On one of his expeditions, Werner finds a broken radio and manages to figure out how to fix it.  Others in the village, recognizing his talents, start coming to him with their own broken radios.  With the start of WWII, Werner’s exceptional capacity for understanding electronics brings him to the attention of a Nazi official, who offers Werner the chance to go to a boarding school to study, but his education teaches him more than he bargained for.  With the threat of a Nazi occupation in Paris, Marie-Laure and her father try to flee the city, but her father is also on a mission - he is entrusted to deliver a rare, possibly-cursed diamond (real or replica, he doesn’t know) to a safehouse before the Nazis can begin looting the museum.  But he is unable to complete this mission, and so carries this diamond with him to Saint Malo, where his eccentric uncle Etienne lives.  They make a home in this village, but the threat of a Nazi invasion is ever-present.  How the lives of these two young people, from different countries and on opposite sides of the war experience, will eventually come together, and what events will result from this, propel the story forward, taking the reader on a gripping journey through this tumultuous time in history.  It was a small group yesterday, but we managed to talk for nearly three hours!  This was definitely the longest meeting we’ve ever had.  As you can imagine, we discussed more than I can possibly put in this post (and more than you’d want to read!), but yesterday’s meeting was a reminder of why I love book clubs - what could be better than spending time discussing a book, and inevitably your personal and shared reading experiences related to this book, with people you like being with?  I feel very fortunate to be part of two great book groups, as well as running a fabulous group with my students (who are graduating at the end of this school year - I am sad already!).  I had a few questions when I finished this book that my group members were gracious enough to discuss.  How would this story have been different if Marie-Laure were not blind?  Answer:  The blindness made her more vulnerable, so if not blind, she wouldn’t have been as “heroic” or “triumphant” a character; she would have been more “ordinary”.  Were traumatic experiences (ie rape, starvation, relocation, bombings, dead bodies in the street) easier to deal with and overcome during wartime?  Answer:  Since it was commonplace and everyone was experiencing these things, people just accepted it and did what they had to do to survive; they also supported each other more, helping others through their experiences, hoping to make things easier.  And if you are surrounded by violence, you would become desensitized to it - in the midst of war, if you let every act of violence eat away at you, you would be unable to survive.  We discussed Doerr’s succinct phrases, the way he was able to perfectly describe things, like the loose flesh and veiny hands of the old women and the feeling Werner had about the first slice of canned peach, that was like a sunrise in his mouth.  We discussed the guilt German people felt (and maybe even still feel today) about their identity and the horrific crimes committed by their countrymen, even if these were crimes committed by others.  We agreed that this book was a struggle to get into, but that it picked up about halfway through.  One member thought this whole book was a love story, most notably between Werner and Marie-Laure and between Marie-Laure and her father.  We discussed the final chapters, and decided we liked the way the author wrapped everything up, that we were able to find out what happened to everyone, although the fates of some characters made us sad and even angry.  We discussed how much we really control our own lives, a theme that ran through this novel.  We agreed that this was a book that evoked a strong emotional response, and delved into a dark period in history.  I apologized to our newest book club member for choosing such a “heavy, depressing, sad” book, but she pointed out that it’s important to explore these things, that we can’t just ignore what happened (thanks for letting me off the hook!!).  We discussed the ways that members of the community fought against the Nazis, particularly the group of women in the village, and applauded them for their creativity and efforts in the face of such adversity, during a time when it would have been easier to just “do as you’re told” and not fight back.  We discussed the changes in communication, that there will never be any “lost letters” in this age of electronic communication, and that while this is supposed to be a time of connectedness, many people, particularly young people, are actually feeling totally disconnected.  WHEW!  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I have to close now and get on with the rest of my day.  I would recommend this as an excellent choice for any book club.  

Since three of the last four books I’ve read have been about 500 pages, I’m planning to start reading a shorter book this afternoon - not sure yet what that will be, but I have a big stack of loans from the library to choose from and can hardly wait to dive in!  

Have a great afternoon, and take advantage of that extra hour to get some extra reading done!

Bye for now…

Sunday 29 October 2017

Books, audiobooks, tea and treats on a brisk fall morning...

I have a steaming cup of chai tea in front of me this morning, but for a change from my usual Date Bar, I have a Long John from Norris Bakery, a delicious cream-filled doughnut that is nearly too big for me to eat (in anticipation of this problem, I ate part of it yesterday to bring it down to a manageable size!).

I’m reluctant to comment on the book I finished last week, First Snow, Last Light by Canadian novelist Wayne Johnston, because he is an amazing writer and I certainly have no right to criticize him, but I must say that this book did not live up to my expectations.  Set in St John's, Newfoundland in the 1930s, this novel focuses on Ned Vatcher, a young man whose parents go missing when he is just fourteen years old.  As an only child, he is alone despite being taken in by his extended family and the family priest, as well as family friend Sheilagh Fielding, and grows up haunted by his parents’ disappearance.  What could have happened to them?  Did they leave voluntarily, or was foul play involved?  And, dead or alive, where are they now?  He spends the next twenty-five years searching for answers to these questions, accruing fortunes and adopting strays along the way.  Johnston is a master storyteller, a true craftsman when it comes to the use of language.  Sentences flow off the page and make his books unputdownable, and this book was no exception.  It started off really promising and I was looking forward to a true literary indulgence.  But around the halfway point, I started to get frustrated, as there seemed to be no other story except the search for Ned’s parents. Oh, and the wallowing of all the characters in their own sorry pasts and self-pity.  I also wondered about the purpose of Sheilagh Fielding in this book.  Her character was first introduced and developed in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, an excellent novel about Joey Smallwood, first premier of Newfoundland, and his struggles to unionize the railway workers.  Johnston’s later novel, Custodian of Paradise features Fielding as the main character, and I believe she makes appearances in other novels as well.  But I’m not sure what purpose she served in this novel.  As a family friend, I get it, but her own part in the novel makes it practically a necessity to have read at least one of Johnston’s previous novels to understand her backstory, so why not just create a whole new character to be the “family friend”?  These are just a few of the reasons I felt let down by this novel; it had such a promising beginning, but was ultimately disappointing. I'll say no more, as I certainly would not want to discourage anyone from reading books by this wonderful author, but if you haven't read anything by him yet, I would recommend that you start with one of his earlier novels.

I finished an audiobook yesterday, though, that far exceeded expectations and was a real treat for my ears.  Set in a small posh village in the Lake District,  Just What Kind of Mother Are You? By Paula Daly begins with harried mother Lisa taking her daughter Sally to school after being off sick, only to discover that Sally’s friend, Lucinda, is missing.  Lucinda’s mother, Kate, is a good friend of Lisa’s, and is the perfect mother, one who does not work, leaving her time to make real, proper breakfasts for her kids and to shop locally for fresh, organic items.  Lisa, on the other hand, can barely keep up with the demands of her job at the local animal rescue charity, as well as those of her husband and children.  When she realizes that, had she followed up on the plan changes for the sleepover the girls were meant to have the night before, the search for Lucinda could have begun a day earlier, she is tormented by guilt, and inserts herself into the investigation to try to make up for her lack of diligence.  DC Joanne Aspinall believes Lucinda’s abduction to be the latest in a series of abductions and rapes of young girls in the area, and the search for the perpetrator escalates.  Told from the alternating points of view of Lisa and Joanne, this novel is more than just a mystery; it is a commentary on motherhood, friendship and family.  And the narrator, Laura Bratton, did an amazing job of bringing all the characters to life.  I’ve had a bit of a struggle lately finding interesting audiobooks, so I was especially thrilled to listen to this fabulous novel.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy this wonderful fall day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 October 2017

Thoughts on a small town setting...

On this gloriously bright, mild fall morning, I’m sitting with a cup of steaming chai tea and a delicious date bar... but I have no books to tell you about.  Between false starts with a couple of uninteresting books, appointments, meetings and get-togethers with friends, I had only two regular reading days last week and so did not get very far in the excellent new book by Wayne Johnston, First Snow, Last Light, which I will tell you about next week.

I was in my hometown yesterday visiting family, which gave me an idea for a post topic that I think most readers can relate to:  the small town.  I grew up in a city of 41 000 people, which is significantly smaller than those cities Ive inhabited as an adult, first Toronto and now Kitchener-Waterloo.  Every time I go back for a visit and have a walk around town, I naturally experience some nostalgic moments as I think about my past, and I’m reminded of the ways a small town setting is often used in novels, both classic and current.  My student book club is reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, set in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, where racial inequality and loss of innocence are the main themes.  My favourite book of all time, The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, is also set in the small East Coast town of New Baytown, and deals with loss of innocence and moral degradation.  These two are classics, but more current works set in small towns include A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling (class struggles and inequality), The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall (sexual abuse) and The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker (love, death and buried secrets).  What is it about small towns that inspire writers to create such poignant works?  Perhaps a small town offers the opportunity to examine a microcosm of society where only a handful of characters need to be presented, allowing for a depth of exploration that is more difficult in a story set in a big city.  Or perhaps it’s the “prevalence of innocence” (I don’t know how else to describe it) that seems to exist in a small town, the appearance that all is exactly what it seems, where crime is rare and everyone keeps track of everyone, yet somehow folks are always able to keep so many secrets hidden for years, sometimes decades, and the opportunity to uncover those secrets is positively irresistible! Whatever the reasons, novels set in small towns seem to be the ones that delve most deeply into the psyche of the main characters, and do the best job at examining the dynamics between these characters and exploring the human condition.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the wonderful weather before it turns cool and possibly rainy next week.

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 October 2017

Book talk on a rainy, windy, warm/cold day...

We’ve had such strange weather lately, and this weekend is no exception.  It’s been cool-ish but humid with intermittent rain both yesterday and today, and it looks like it won’t stop until tomorrow, when the temperatures will drop significantly… brrr!!  But I’m still able to enjoy my steeped chai tea, as it is incredibly windy so there is a breeze to keep the house fresh.  I’m also enjoying freshly baked Date Bread - yum!  

I had a Volunteer book club meeting yesterday, and a new member joined us, a kindergarten teacher from one of my schools.  This was her first book club meeting ever, and she had some difficulty trudging through the book selection, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.  Told from alternating points of view, this novel, set in the seventeenth century in New France, recounts the interactions of some Jesuit missionaries with a tribe of Hurons, the Wendat, as they face many challenges adapting to their changing ways of life.  The novel opens with the capture of Father Christophe and a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, by a band of Wendat led by Bird and his right-hand man, Fox.  Christophe’s mission, of course, is to convert as many “sauvages” as possible to Christianity, and he faces many difficulties along the way.  Snow Falls, Bird has decided, will become his daughter, since his real daughter was recently killed by the Iroquois, along with his wife, whom he mourns soulfully throughout the book.  The Wendat people are a tightly-knit community whose members all work together to keep their village running smoothly.  They decide to use Christophe, “the Crow”, to gain bargaining power with Champlain and the colonists as trading partners.  The tribes face many challenges over the years, attacks by the Iroquois, plagues that threaten to wipe out their villages, and the struggles to stay unified as members of the Wendat join Christophe’s Christian mission, which eventually expands to include two more French priests. For everyone, the road is long and fraught with difficulties, and it is only when they concede defeat or accept that they may be overpowered that they are able to move beyond their situations and either accept their fate or begin again as a vanquished people.  This novel is a fictionalized account of just a chapter in the long, difficult and contentious history between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples of Canada.  I can’t explain it any further because it is such a long, overwhelmingly detailed tome that I had a hard time keeping track of specifics.  This award-nominated novel is not one I would have chosen to read on my own, but my group was interested in reading more books about Indigenous people, which is how it ended up on the list, and I will freely admit that if it wasn’t a book club selection, I would not have finished it.  The challenges I faced were ones other members also experienced:  it was difficult to know who was narrating each chapter; the language was dense and the story slow-moving and detailed; and the story was relentlessly harsh.  But the writing was also so compelling that it sucked us in, and by the halfway point, we found we could not put it down, yet some of the scenes were so horrific we had to put it down.  We all thought that the book was a realistic portrayal of the cultures at that time, both native and non-native.  We were disgusted at the ways the Jesuits manipulated the natives, such as by using the clock as a stand-in for the Voice (of God).  We were fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies described in the novel, particularly the ceremony of mourning, when all the bones of the deceased were recovered and moved to the new village location, and the Death Song, which tribal members sang as they faced their imminent demise - we wondered if they did this to help them focus and give them something to think about to distract them from the pain of their torture.  And torture… oh, the torture! That made up a significant portion of the book, describing torture, torturing captives, facing torture.  We discussed how this torture involved everyone, of all ages, which somehow normalized it.  We thought it was interesting that they referred to the act of torturing someone as “caressing”.  In the whole 485 pages, I had just one sticky note, and it marked a section about torture:  Christophe says,  “I think we don’t just allow torturers but condone them as a way to excise the fear we all have of death.  To torture someone is to take control of death, to be master of it, even for a short time” (p 256).  (One member’s brother referred to this book as “The Horrenda”, which is apt!).  We wondered whether warring was just part of the human condition, and discussed the perseverance, persistence and will to survive demonstrated by just about all the characters in the book.  One member summed up what I believe we were all feeling after reading this:  it wasn’t a book that made you proud to be non-Native, but it also didn’t make you want to be Native.  I’m so glad I read this historical novel by Canadian author Boyden, who may or may not have Indigenous roots.  I was sad and horrified and moved and enlightened all at the same time.  (I promised my teacher friend that the books aren’t all this difficult!!)

So as a respite from the “Lee Valley-est” book I’ve probably ever read, I read one of the most “Canadian Tire-est”, A Stranger in the House , also by a Canadian author, Shari Lapena.  I read her first novel last year, The Couple Next Door, which featured an unreliable narrator and a situation where all is not what it seems.  This novel, too, features an unreliable narrator and all is definitely not what it seems.  The story begins with a woman racing out of a parking lot and careening into a lightpost at top speed.  This parking lot is in a questionable neighbourhood, and the woman is a suburban housewife, so what was she doing there in the first place, and what was she racing to get away from?  Her husband Tom refuses to believe that she did anything unsavoury, but his wife Karen is suffering amnesia and can’t remember anything about the accident or the time just before.  There is also the nosy neighbour across the street, Brigid, but did she see anything incriminating and if so, will she tell?  Then a dead body turns up at the abandoned restaurant near the parking lot, and suddenly things are looking alot more complicated for Karen.  As Tom and the detective on the case, Detective Rasbach, race to uncover details that might shed light on the murder, Karen’s life begins to unravel and secrets are unearthed faster than you can say “arrest her”!  This thriller, like her first book, promises much more than it delivers.  In my opinion, the writing and dialogue are stilted, the text repetitive and tedious, and the storyline pretty farfetched.  I guess if you liked Gone Girl, you would like these wildly popular books, but for me, they lack depth of character and real plot development.  But contrary to The Orenda, when it would take me nearly an hour to read 30 pages, this is a book that you could skim-read in an afternoon.  So if you are in the mood for a quick read, a thrilling page-turner, this might be the book for you.

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and keep reading!

Bye for now…