Thursday, February 19, 2015

Year of the Sheep, or Ram

Happy Lunar New Year to you all... it's a few weeks into 2015 now, so if you need a reset, take this New Year as a start-over, and begin all your plans and resolutions anew! 

The Year of the Sheep begins today. What is that all about? There's some hope for us, apparently. 

"Sheep is the symbol of the Arts. It relates to passive and nurturing times. It will help the healing process with regard to past events caused by individuals who have little respect for the human race or life itself. It will be a year of banding together in faith and in belief that good will prevail and win out over the forces that refuse to comply to a peaceful way of life. For those who trust in goodness, happiness and success will follow."

Here are a few sheepish books to read this year!


This philosophical mystery is a tale for adults to enjoy. With acerbic rams and both clever and dim-witted sheep in the herd, there is plenty to entertain you as these sheep try to determine who was responsible for the death of their beloved shepherd.

Blue Mountain

This middle-grade novel relates the adventures of Tuk, a bighorn sheep, and his herd. When their winter feeding grounds are paved over, it falls to Tuk, the strongest of his herd, to lead them to the fabled meadows of Blue Mountain where the grass is thick and plentiful. Adventure and environmental concerns mesh to make up a very readable story.


One of Murakami's early novels, this one uses the search for a mythical mutant sheep with a star on its back as a metaphor for the larger search for meaning in life. Our protagonist is inadvertently involved in the search for a sheep that appears in a photo on a postcard, one that a mad Sheep Professor has been searching for for years -- it's his Holy Grail, or should we say his Golden Fleece?


Babe thinks he's a sheepdog, and becomes even better at herding than the farm dogs...and is entered into the sheepdog trials. King-Smith's sheep are very English, with great intelligence and a wee bit of snarkiness ;)

And now to finish up...a classic picture book that celebrates sheep of all colours, involved in activities of all kinds! This is a wonderful read-aloud, great for encouraging toddler participation in the story. Also, there are many story stretching activities you can find online if you want to make this fun book the centre piece of a storytime. Such as...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Three-Legged Horse

Three-Legged Horse / Ann Hood
New York: Bantam,c1989.
293 p.

I've owned this novel for years. Really, for YEARS. So I finally picked it up and read it last weekend. It was a book I wanted to love.

I'd discovered Hood with her book Places to Stay the Night, which I'd found randomly on a library shelf years ago. I liked it so ended up reading a few of her books after that, and find her enjoyable and light for the most part.

Three-Legged Horse was an early novel, though, and it does show. It's interesting enough, but ultimately forgettable. Not one of her best.

The plot is a bit creaky: free-spirited mother who is in a folk band (named Three-Legged Horse) but who is involved in a troubled relationship with a distant, artist husband who comes and goes, sometimes for years on end. But she just can't give him up. Daughter Hannah deals with the fall-out of these emotional struggles, and with a father she barely knows. Hannah is trying to find her own way as well, now that she's a teenager, and that is causing some issues of her own. Oh yes, don't forget the glamorous New York soap opera actor Grandmother and her own dysfunctional marriage.

Too many threads trying to be woven in here. It's almost after-school special, but not quite. Hood is a good writer, and although much of the story is predictable in the sense of psychological tropes and easy answers, it still has a spark that makes it readable. It really shows the potential that Hood used to better effect in her following works.

This was a good pick to mix in between some heavier classic reads though. It's modern and it really does show some of the social norms and stock characters of the 80's. I could almost see the pastels and big hair in some of the story elements. Fun reading, but if you want to discover Hood, I'd recommend trying some of her later books first so that you can see her working at a more polished level. Her more recent books are really quite wonderful.


Further Reading:

Laura Moriarty's The Centre of Everything focuses on another 12 yr old girl, who faces a life with a mother always on the edge of employment who is having an unsatisfactory affair with a married man. Evelyn's perspective on life and love is formed in this unsettled atmosphere, and like Hannah in Three-Legged Horse, she seems more mature than the adults in the story. However, like any teenager, her tale is told from her viewpoint as the "centre of everything".

Alice Hoffman's Here On Earth tells the story of March Murray, who with her teenage daughter returns to her childhood home. There she comes across her high-school love Hollis...and learns why obsessive love is not always a good thing. (this is inspired by Wuthering Heights, the classic obsession novel)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Phoebe's Way

20578826Phoebe's Way: a heartwarming tale of one dog's gift / Pamela Ditchoff
Toronto: ECW Press, c2104.
89 p.

(my review was first published in shorter form in my local paper, the Stratford Gazette)
January brings thoughts of passing time, of the way the year flies by in sudden jumps, from one month to the next. In Phoebe’s Way, author Pamela Ditchoff tackles the passage of time in two ways. 
The story is written from January to June, following the structure of a year and a half in Phoebe's life. Each brief chapter, set in a particular month, explores Phoebe’s work in a nursing home: she is a St. Johns Ambulance therapy dog. The residents of the nursing home have another sense of time altogether, as their memories mesh with their present existence.
Set in Nova Scotia, the story evokes the long lifetimes of teachers, fishermen, store owners, priests, and more. Phoebe has the uncanny gift of understanding (and relating to the reader) the memories that are arising in each person as they visit with her owner, whom she calls Myother. It's a compelling way to present all the many experiences and memories that have converged in the present person -- the elderly resident: often elders are perceived as 'old dears', are condescended to and undervalued as whole people, but this book puts the lie to that perception.
Some of these residents’ daily actions seem incomprehensible to others, but as the reader, getting a glimpse of the emotions and relationships of the past makes each character into a person to be cherished.
At 87 pages, with short, simple chapters, this is the kind of book that you could skim through very quickly. But you’ll want to slow down and savour each visit Phoebe makes, to read carefully between the lines, especially the opening lines of each chapter. Each begins with the same paragraph, like a poem that sets up Phoebe’s eager visit. But as the book progresses, small changes occur. Phoebe is the narrator, so we are reading from the dog’s point of view, noticing things that only this admittedly very sophisticated dog is sensing. She sees motives and longings that humans in the room miss. If you can adjust to the narrative voice and suspend your disbelief for the journey, you will appreciate what Ditchoff is trying to do with this story.
The only thing I don't like about this book is the cover -- I don't think it says anything at all about the story -- it doesn't mesh. Also, I would've left off the sappy subtitle, but maybe that's just me. I wish the book had more cover appeal, because I feel like it's getting missed by looking so sober and grim, when really it's more melancholy, with hits of  emotional sweetness.
It’s a bittersweet, small novel that will appeal to dog lovers, but also to those who appreciate a vision of life as a whole, of our memories as an inescapable part of our self. It would be a wonderful book to share with those who haven’t yet had a lot of experience with our elders; it illuminates the long history which has brought each person to their current state. It’s a book which encourages caring and connection, in their many and varying forms.


Further Reading

For another tale of a dog who is facing the death of a human, try Paul Auster's Timbuktu. While the style is different, the story is told from the old dog's perspective, and concerns itself with issues of death and what lies beyond. 

If it's the doggish angle that you like, try Every Dog Has A Gift, by Rachel McPherson shares real-life stories of dogs who've been used in therapy programs. It's a heartwarming collection for fans of series like the "Chicken Soup" books