Thursday, May 23, 2024

Threads: Zlata's Ukrainian Shirt

Threads: Zlata's Ukrainian shirt / Lina Maslo
NY:  FSG, c2024.
40 p.

International Vyshyvanka Day was just last week; it's a celebration of Ukrainian heritage, held on the 3rd Thursday of May. These days wearing the Vyshyvanka (the Ukrainian embroidered shirt) is a response to the effort to wipe out Ukrainian culture with the Russian invasion of the country, so it's really resonant to read this picture book about a time in history where it was similarly evocative. 

Zlata is a young girl in the 30s, when the enforced famine was created by Stalin's policies. Over 1932-33, many Ukrainians were starved to death when Communist Russia took everything from farms and the countryside. This is known as the Holodomor, and seems like a dark topic for a children's book. But Maslo handles it well, focuses on this specific family and the importance of heritage, through Zlata's blouse made by her mother. "Red is for love, and black is for sadness", Zlata's father says, but there are also bright colours on a new blouse years later, representing hope and joy. As a side note, the endpapers of the book are printed with the floral motifs from her blouse, one in black and red and one in full colour. Great touch. 

Zlata must hide her shirt during these years, as any bit of Ukrainian culture or language is being repressed and is dangerous to show. But culture remains, and it comes out again. This is an important book for this moment, giving context and history to current events. And it's well done, telling an important story in way that children will understand. The illustrations are bright and engaging as well - I thought this was a really good read. You can see more from inside the book, and read the author's note on it, at Woozles bookstore. 


Monday, May 20, 2024

The Go-Between

The Go-Between / Jennifer Maruno
Leaside, ON: Red Deer Press, c2024.
184 p.

This middle grade novel, set in British Columbia in 1926, tackles racism, history, and family connections equally well. Sumi is the younger daughter of a Japanese family in Vancouver. She's curious, energetic and wants to be a journalist. Her older sister Yoshi wants to study dressmaking but has also just been asked to take on a summer job as a housemaid in remote Gibson's Landing.

Sumi offers to take the job so that Yoshi is free to study. It's not at all what she expected - she sleeps in a shed in the yard, and has to work hard all day long. But it's not all bad.

She finds a friend in the son of a local Japanese farming family, which helps manage her homesickness. Her personality is strong enough that she is able to withstand difficult moments, and to speak up when she feels she has to. She is helpful to the sickly mistress of the household, and earns respect for her work ethic eventually, even from the crabby housekeeper.

There are moments of crisis and drama -- a hurricane, a strike at the local cannery that she's secretly involved with, accusations of theft -- but as a middle grade novel nothing feels too dangerous, and Sumi comes through safe and sound. The issues of racism and classism were brought up naturally, in a way that younger readers can understand and feel.  

The writing is clear and the setting is vibrantly evoked. Sumi makes a great heroine, as she’s clever and determined. Her relationship with her family was a delight also, showing the strong ties that kept her going through this eventful summer. Based on the true story of Eiko Kitagawa Maruno, the author's mother-in-law, this book reveals an important part of Canadian history, in a very readable way.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Poetry Remedy


The Poetry Remedy / William Sieghart
NY: Viking, c2019.
224 p.

Another choice for poetry month reading! I was intrigued when I saw this book, as it's a form of bibliotherapy, which I have always found engaging. So I had to pick up this collection and check out what the author was prescribing, and for what conditions of life. 

Overall, I liked this a lot. I feel like this is a great concept, and a good introduction to poetry for those who might not often consider it as an option.

Caveats were that the descriptions of a condition were sometimes longer than the poetry itself, and that poetry was sometimes just an excerpt. I'd like to have had a few poems for each suggestion, rather than just one, and would have liked a wider variety of author. The poems are lovely and mostly accessible, but they are traditional and by standard canon authors for the most part. I wasn't convinced by the connection in a couple of cases, but for the majority of the book I did find it helpful and some of them really worked for me. 

Poetry really works for this purpose; Sieghart ties them to life conditions like anxiety (read The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry), existential crisis (Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov), regret (The Ideal by James Fenton), insecurity (Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou) and much, much more. 

What I came away from through reading this book was the sense that poetry makes great bibliotherapy. And it would be a fantastic idea to create your own index of poems that speak to the way you're feeling, as you come across poems that touch you. Then you could flip through your personalized collection anytime, according to your own categories of life experiences and helpful words. 

This book inspires thoughts like this, and introduces you to many new poems. Check out your library this month to see if you can explore more of it too! 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Thread Me A Button for Poetry Month


Thread Me a Button / Jude Aquilina & Joan Fenney
Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, c2012.
73 p.

It's poetry month! So I thought I might share a little bit of poetry today. I discovered this book of poetry in a library collection online, and the adorable cover and title drew me in. It really is a collection of poems all centred on buttons! It's written by two Australian women, and it's surprising how much they can wring from a button. 

The book is set up in 6 sections, each with an average of 9 poems, ranging from haiku length to full page poems. There are some that are straightforward, some quite funny, and a few that are more serious and moving. 

There is a poem about a woman who lost her lover in the war, and for the rest of her life she wore one of his buttons stitched to a petticoat. There are some celebrating beauty, or relationships. In the section "In the Sewing Drawer" I found some of my favourite pieces, lots about the act of sewing. And this section includes what I think was the most memorable poem, for me, called "In the Light"; it's about the closing down of Mrs. Pearl Morris' haberdashery shop, and I found it evocative and bittersweet. 

This was a chance find, and a gem. I enjoyed reading through this accessible collection, which will appeal to anyone fond of buttons as part of sewing history, memorabilia or domesticity. Easy to read a few of these each night before bed to relax and enjoy some whimsical poems! 

Monday, March 18, 2024

Snow Road Station

Snow Road Station / Elizabeth Hay
TO: Knopf Canada, c2023.
230 p.

I haven't been reading as many current Canadian novels as usual, but I did pick this one up recently after someone mentioned how much she liked it. I found it okay, a little bit slow-going but overall a decent read. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I'd read some of Hay's earlier books, as apparently these characters are ones who've reappeared from other stories. 

Actress Lulu Blake is starring in a demanding play in the winter of 2008. But she dried on stage, and as the story opens she is heading through the snow back to her past in Snow Road Station, Ontario. Her brother & his family, as well as her childhood best friend, all still live there, and she's retreating to lick her wounds. Oh, and also to attend a family wedding. And she stays long enough to help with the (thoroughly described) spring maple sugaring process. 

Not much really happens here. Lulu has a traumatic encounter with her friend's ex, a nasty man. She gets fired. But she also rebuilds relationships with her brother, niece and friend, and meets a rugged new man who she falls into an uncomplicated physical relationship with. It's all so nice. 

I'm not really sure what to say about this one. It was okay. A little plodding, a little peaceful, lots of  family stories of the past. It's the kind of book I often enjoy. I didn't dislike this one, but found it a little bland and a bit forgettable. One thing that I did find slightly confusing was that Lulu was 62, but sounded like she was at least a decade older. It was hard to remember how old everyone was supposed to be! Probably best for readers who are already fans of Elizabeth Hay's work. 

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Shubeik Lubeik

Shubeik Lubeik / Deena Mohamed
trans. from the Arabic by the author
New York : Pantheon Books, 2022.
518 p.

What would you wish for, if you knew your wish would come true? This is the question asked by Deena Mohamed in this imaginative graphic novel, set in an alternative Cairo, where wishes are real, regulated, bottled and licensed.

There are three classes of wish: first class, second class and the banned third class wish (due to their malicious unreliability). Wishes can be tricky and deceptive; the wording has to be just right for optimal results.

The story follows three characters as they each decide to use a First Class wish for different reasons, mainly non-material desires, like forgiveness or health. They each struggle with the ethics of wishing, with discussion of the religious or philosophical elements of a wish. How will it be interpreted, and will it actually give them what they need or want? Their stories cover a wide range of human experience, and bring up many aspects of the meaning of life, in a way that is accessible and sometimes humorous as well.

The artwork is a lively mix of colour and black and white, dependent on context. There are some extra nice touches – for example, when a wish bottle is opened, the Wish appears as a bubble of Arabic calligraphy. The translation (done by the author) has also left as much of the original unchanged as possible, with the book reading from right to left, as it does in Arabic.

With the engaging artistic style, and the deep themes that the storyline explores, this might be a great choice for any thoughtful reader interested in family stories, the Egyptian setting, or just the artwork itself. It might also raise philosophical questions about what we want, or need, out of life -- and what the right way is to achieve our desires.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Night Side of the River

Night Side of the River / Jeanette Winterson
NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, c2023.
320 p.

This was an interesting concept for a book -- ghost stories by literary writer Jeanette Winterson, followed by a true story of her own experience with the unknown world after each section. I found one of the true stories more haunting than anything else in the book! 

The stories are varied, with many of them exploring technology and how it interacts with life, death and grief. From immersive ghost tours to a virtual world in which a woman visits the new and improved version of her dead husband, there are elements of tech shaping the experience of loss and the afterworld. But there are also a few more traditional stories, like that of a couple who come across a haunting on their wedding weekend at an old estate, or the creepiest one for me, the title story. In it, a woman ends up on a boat in the Thames, heading toward the Night Side of the river. That felt Ray Bradbury-ish to me, with dark and strange boatmen and a nearly inescapable feeling of doom and entrapment. Shudder! 

I also found the real life stories intriguing. Winterson is a very down to earth person so her matter-of-fact relation of her own experiences with the uncanny have a lot of resonance. She has lived in old places, much older than we could find where I am, so the hauntings seem more understandable there! But these are not just stories of ghosts, they are discussions of life, perception, reality, spiritual existence and more. Thoughtful, engaging, and a great read for anyone with an interest in ghost stories in the literary tradition.