Friday, June 27, 2014

This Post Brought to You by the Letter...

Simon at Stuck in A Book shared a fun meme this week, detailing some of his favourite creative things 'by the letter' -- and encouraged readers to leave a comment if they wanted to play along. I jumped in and was assigned the letter N.

So here are my favourite things... starting with N.

Favourite book...

What else could it be, of course it has to be Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen! As a former history/literature student I love this quote:

But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”
“Yes, I am fond of history.”
“I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.”

Favourite author...
Edith Nesbit

I'm going back to childhood here and saying Edith Nesbit -- 5 Children and It was a repeated reread for me in my younger years -- I even had my wishes all sorted out just in case I ever ran across a psammead!

Favourite song...

Puccini's Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti. Glorious.

Favourite film...

eNchanted April

 (I am cheating a bit but this is my favourite movie, and the only N I could think of!)

Favourite object...

 I can't seem to think of a solid N favourite, but I'll share an N that I enjoy --

Otherwise known as the string of &#@%*#@*!$@*! in comic books :)

Not only does it entertain me that this implied string of swearing has a name, that name makes a perfectly good swear word in itself. Try it, it has the perfect combination of hard sounds and compression of meaning.


Well, N was a tough letter but I enjoyed this exercise! Check out Simon's post for all the others who played along and see their lettered choices too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Landing Gear

Landing Gear / Kate Pullinger
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
286 p.

This was an interesting book, with a great concept. It's set in England, Dubai, and partly in Toronto, in the days immediately following the 2010 explosion of the Iceland volcano which stopped all air traffic over Europe.

It began its life as a virtual project called Flight Paths -- it's great to see an author engage digitally in such a fluid way. This book does carry the flavour of those original short, discrete stories, though they do entwine in a deeper, more detailed way in this book, naturally, as it's much longer. I checked out Flight Paths after I'd finished the book, and do recommend doing both. Rather intriguing! Something else to check out is the publisher's map of locations mentioned in the first 30 pages, for each of the characters. Lots of interactive goodness.

Anyhow, as to the plot... we follow three strands that interweave. Harriet, who works in radio in London, finds that there's a career opportunity when many of her colleagues are stranded in Europe due to this crisis. Her husband Michael is stuck in New York, and travels to Toronto to visit an old flame. Their son Jack, left unsupervised, gets himself into fairly major trouble. Then there's Emily, left an orphan in her 20s when her adoptive father dies -- she's now wondering if she should contact her birth mother, whom she's pretty sure is Harriet. Into this mix falls Yacub, a Pakistani migrant worker who has stowed away in the landing gear of an airplane to get to the US, but only makes it to London.

There are a lot of disconnected bits as the story begins, and you have to have the patience to follow each and wait for the links to show up. I found it easy going, as each of the elements interested me, though the teenage boy drama of Jack's storyline was my least favourite. I liked Pullinger's exploration of Harriet's character, her motivations and longings and self-talk as the story progresses. And Yacub was an interesting development; his back story was relentless but he was always looking forward to the next chance, and his sudden appearance shifts Harriet's family around significantly.

I found this book had a very contemporary, fresh feeling about it. Technology is a major player in the story, from airplanes themselves to Emily's interest in video. The relationships range all over the world, and the impression of global connections is strong. I enjoyed it a lot, and liked the spare structure of it. Just like the cessation of air traffic paused the characters' lives, allowing them to notice the stillness and silence for even just a moment, this book woke up my observational skills and helped me notice details of everyday life after I'd finished it. It was an interesting effect!

There are a few flaws; the disconnections and glossing over of details may not be for everyone. It doesn't delve deeply into the inner experiences and feelings of all the characters, rather it tells us what they are feeling and experiencing -- there is a slight remove from the characters' lives. But I liked that distancing; I thought it fit the contemporary style of the story. It really does work as an online experiment though, and I think it's worth looking into both.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Stamp Collector

The Stamp Collector / Jennifer Lanthier; illus. by François Thisdale
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, c2012.
32 p.

I read a lot of picture books in my work. I've found some excellent favourites and love a lot of my discoveries. But I don't often share them here, as my blog is focused on my personal reading, and not so much on children's lit. But. Sometimes something just meshes with my interests and I have to share! This book is one of those titles. It came to my attention because it just won the 2014 Golden Oak award, an award that is aimed at new readers in adult literacy and ESL programs, letting readers choose the winner. (it's another award in the OLA's Forest of Reading.)

 The book is focused on the power of story, and the power of letters. Here's the summary from the publisher:
A city boy finds a stamp that unlocks his imagination; a country boy is captivated by stories. When they grow up, the two boys take different paths—one becomes a prison guard, the other works in a factory—but their early childhood passions remain. When the country boy's stories of hope land him in prison, the letters and stamps sent to him from faraway places intrigue the prison guard and a unique friendship begins.
This doesn't convey the beauty of the book, though. That prison guard loves stamps, and saves them from all the letters sent to the political prisoner -- even eventually giving the prisoner hope by slipping him a stamp. The two develop a friendship of sorts, and as the prisoner sickens while in captivity, the guard becomes his link to get his new story out into the world. They are together in the end, guard holding the prisoner's hand as he dies.

Yes, that's right, the prisoner dies. And I was weepy! This is a powerful book that would work well with kids 9+ or perhaps Grade 3+. Often we don't think of picture books for older kids but there are so many that are really suited to older readers. This is a great book to read together with someone, and as we can see from its most recent award, it's great adult content in an easier to read format for those learning English, a book that has experience relevant to some newcomers' own.

The illustrations are beautiful, as well, with stamps appearing on nearly every page (in one of my favourites, a stamp appears like a kite). It's done in blues and blacks and greys and browns, very suited to the prison setting, but the stamps are bright jewels among the shades. If you love books about letters, as I do, you will really love this. And if you love books about powerful moral actions and political censorship, you will find this hard-hitting and very moving. An excellent choice to share with other readers.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lobster Kings

The Lobster Kings / Alexi Zentner
Toronto: Knopf, 2014.
335 p.

I recently finished this novel, a great choice for a summer read. Especially around these parts -- it is inspired/influenced by King Lear (although the connections are pretty tenuous, as it goes on).

Woody Kings is the acknowledged "king" of Loosewood Island; his family has been the alpha dog since the legendary Brumfitt Kings came over from Ireland more than three hundred years ago. Brumfitt was a painter, and in his paintings he expressed the menace and the allure of the sea. It's in his art that the magical side of this story is revealed; legends of selkies and curses arise from his images, and are passed down the generations. He also has some uncanny clairvoyant moments.

But this story is situated in the present, where Woody is a long-time lobster fisherman, with the other locals listening to his decisions closely. He's also the father of three daughters, the eldest of whom is named Cordelia. (He was an amateur actor in college, so perhaps this name is not too unbelievable.) The family also contained a young son, Scotty, but his role is soon past. It's a sad moment in the story.

As the book progresses, we see Woody aging, and Cordelia -- also a lobster boat captain -- taking on his role. She faces barriers due to her gender, and to the presence of a larger neighbouring fleet who are aggressively trespassing on their fishing grounds and dealing meth. Of course, she's also having romantic troubles.

Another large element of the story is Cordelia's relationship with her two younger sisters, both very different from her. There is tension between them due to their childhood relationships as well as the direction that their lives have taken. The middle sister has married and still lives on the island, while the youngest lives on the mainland with her girlfriend.

Overall, I did find this fairly enjoyable. But the book was nearly ruined for me by the inclusion of a graphic rape scene, which I thought was unnecessarily detailed. There was too much melodrama, and petty disagreements butted up against serious drama like murder and rape, but they all seem equally disturbing to the characters.

This book reminded me of a couple of novels I've read before -- Carol Goodman's Seduction of Water (for the family issues and Irish folklore) or Hilary Scharper's Perdita (for the paintings and mystery of water) -- but I enjoyed both of those more. I felt like this novel, if written by a woman, would have been published as genre fiction, not literary -- and the cover would have had a beach with sunset and woman in filmy gown facing away from us -- if you read romantic suspense like Goodman, Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt and so forth, you may like this one too. Just don't have huge expectations for literary grandeur, and you'll be fine.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I Love Books, and I Love Tea...

Hello my tea loving friends... Like many of us, my love for books is nearly matched by my love of tea. After all, even the great C.S. Lewis felt this way --

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. -C.S. Lewis

Because of this, I've been working on a project lately which is near to my heart: a tea blend to celebrate the Evergreen Award run by the Ontario Library Association. My local tea shop, Distinctly Tea, is one of my regular hangouts, and the owners are fabulous -- they're certified tea sommeliers who are fantastic at recommending and sharing new teas (even if I usually stick to my regular order!) Dianne Krampien, the community-minded owner, created a new blend, the fully organic Evergreen Blend, in honour of this award, and is giving a portion of the proceeds to my local library (and employer), the Stratford Public Library.

Take a look! 

It's only $10 for a 75 gram tin, and if you're a tea drinker, it's a delicious blend of a sweet, mild green tea with a pinch of lapsang souchong. It has a smoky, campfire scent, which only comes out faintly in the flavour. If you can't get away to the lake this summer, have a cup of this in the backyard and you'll feel like you're ready to start singing Kumbaya ;)

It's available online -- or, it's just another excuse to come visit us here in Stratford!

(all the details can also be found on our library blog)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab

Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab / Shani Mootoo
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2014.
336 p.

This is the first novel I've read by Mootoo, although her titles always fascinate me. This story focuses primarily on two characters: first, Jonathan, a young boy when his second parent Sid leaves their home and from Jonathan's perspective, abandons them. And secondly, and most profoundly, on Siddithi/Sidney, who has a deep reason for leaving both Jonathan and his mother, India, and for finally leaving Canada to return to Trinidad.

It deals with themes of identity and displacement, of love, and what relationships mean -- familial, neighbourly, or romantic relationships. It is told in a subdued manner, even when the content isn't necessarily quiet or smooth. This may be of great appeal to some readers, while others will find it slow going.

Personally, I thought it was an interesting concept, and the twin settings of Toronto and Trinidad were both clearly drawn. The story was certainly full of dramatic events, but the style was a bit bland for me. The story is told through the voice of both Sid and Jonathan, and those two very different characters sound very much the same. At times I had to pause to try to remember who was narrating. Much of the story is also presented as Sid telling the story of the past to Jonathan, and all that passive voice was a bit soporific.

So, not a book I raced through, but one I did want to finish. In the end I liked it but felt it was lacking the punch I'd hoped for. The details about Trinidad and the life of Trinidadians in Canada were great, though, and I did learn a fair amount from this novel. I just wasn't emotionally involved in it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Little Bastards in Springtime

Little Bastards in Springtime / Katja Rudolph
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
400 p.

Oh my goodness, I've just finished this book that has jumped to the top of my favourites for this year. It was a completely serendipitous find, a new book coming across the counter at the library and pointed out to me by a coworker -- I hadn't seen any prepub information on this one, hadn't heard about it at all. But it was SO. GOOD. The design of this book is also perfect; that cover is brilliant, and the internal design is also really suited to the story. That just added to the pleasure of reading it.

It didn't seem to be 'my' kind of book (whatever that is) at first glance, but I'm really focusing on Canadian work lately so decided to try it. It's written by a UK-born Torontonian, and focuses on the experience of a young boy who lives through the Siege of Sarajevo, and then moves to Canada. What effect does living in a war zone have on a child? How does this experience shape him when he moves to a 'safe' location, which seems to be enormously insulated and self-satisfied to him, in comparison to what his family has gone through? What part does PTSD play in the assimilation of new immigrants from war zones?

This novel faces up to the questions of the effects of violence on different people, from young boys and girls to widows and senior citizens. It's split into three parts; first, Jevrem's experience at age 11, at the beginning of the war in 1992, secondly, his new life in Toronto at age 16, and thirdly, what happens when he decides he has to change his life. It's raw, violent (but not unreadably so), sad, thoughtful, and utterly hypnotic.

Reading this book about the war in the former Yugoslavia was eye-opening. I knew as much as most of us do about that war, but this book reveals so much of the inner life of the people experiencing it. It isn't bitter, isn't didactic or full of historical fact or research -- it is absolutely full of energy, of the voice of this thoughtful, traumatized boy Jevrem. Even when he becomes what we might think of as a thug and hoodlum, we still hear the good that is at the heart of him. His grandmother plays a big role in his development, as well as his mother and his younger sister; the women in this story are wonderfully drawn. I was amazed by how concerned I felt about Jevrem's path -- when I had to put this book down to go to work I couldn't stop thinking about it, I wanted to know which direction he was going to choose, how he was going to survive.

It's told with the classic twist, a revelation that Jevrem is writing this document himself. Although sometimes I find that technique unbelievable, in this case, it makes sense, and his presence and voice throughout the first-person narrative doesn't falter. It's a powerful read, a brilliant look at the inner lives of those around us, of their experiences that we might be completely unaware of. Or, even if we are aware of someone's background, we may not have a deep understanding of the effects of living through war or trauma, or how that reveals itself in a person's reactions to the world. This novel is a deeply empathetic reminder.

I loved the first section, was horrified and enthralled by the second, and found the third just slightly less strong. Sarajevo and Toronto are living, breathing characters in the story; when the third section moves into the USA I was just a shade less fascinated, as Jevrem doesn't inhabit that landscape quite as thoroughly. However, I think that this story is a necessary, powerful, fast-paced yet deeply thoughtful read. What is the meaning of survival? How does one carry on after loss and trauma? How does art fit in? Why are we even here? What good is nationalism, anyway? Rudolph raises all these questions, provides various answers for them, and makes the reader struggle with these questions for ourselves.

I'm amazed that this is a first novel. It's an extremely satisfying read, one based on complex characters, amazing settings, a strong plot, and clear skillful writing. I'd highly recommend this to anyone who feels the need to grow in understanding of the internal experience of war upon civilians. Or those who love a fresh voice. Or anyone who wants to be absorbed into a boy's story of survival. This one is a winner.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Cover Designs! #5

And now, a long overdue addition to my Cover Designs series, in which I attempt to match up a book cover with appropriate pattern & fabric to knock it off ;)

This book is slightly different -- we see the front of the dress instead of the back, but this time with nobody in it.

A Vintage Affair, by Isabel Wolff, is also a great choice for this treatment because it is about clothes. The summary says:
 Phoebe Swift, has just opened a vintage dress shop in Blackheath. At the same time she is coping with the recent loss of her best friend, Emma. So Phoebe takes refuge in her work - restoring these wonderful old clothes to their former glory so that they can go on to have new lives. But what of the past lives these clothes have lived she often wonders? What stories would they tell if they could speak?
This dress is a true vintage style, and it was easy for me to pick a matching pattern.

 The first pattern that jumped to mind is the immensely popular (within the sewing community) Simplicity 2444. It has the right darts in the bodice, and a nice gathered skirt.

Of course you'd have to make in a bright pink polished cotton or maybe even a crepe of some sort...

With a cute black bow belt, too! 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Postal Reading Challenge: June

I hope you are all still reading along with the Postal Reading Challenge -- and that you'll share your reading with us by using this link up!