Cross-Canada Reading Challenge

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Canadians will be celebrating it’s 150 birthday on July 1st!

It is a time to celebrate our beautiful country and what better way to acknowledge the greatness, the challenges, the landscape and the history than reading a book set or written by an author of each province and territory.

For book the next 6 weeks, get ready for the sesquicentennial by reading great CanLit.  For suggestions check out the CanadianContent Goodreads group for Authors Across Canada.

Please comment below about your progress and your favourites!

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40. Juliet’s Answer (Glenn Dixon)

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 12.03.17 PMJuliet’s Answer:  One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak is the heartwarming account of Glenn Dixon‘s struggles in relationships and his search for love.  This memoir will be featured at the 2017-18 Grimsby Author Series, in the fall, and I look forward to meeting the author who bravely quit his job and travelled to Verona in search of himself and yearning for love.

Glenn was a highschool teacher.  He had a passion for Romeo and Juliet and was striving to engage a group of unique students to learn from this Shakespearean play.  He created interest and through readings, enactments and even a mock court case as the class discussed the play and the fate of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.  Each of the students gained insight from the class discussions into their own struggles.

Glenn had travelled to Verona the previous summer and volunteered as Juliet’s secretary at the Juliet Club.  Letter writers from around to world write to Juliet hoping for answers about love and relationships.  These epistles come in many languages and a volunteer group of secretaries write back to the if there is a return address.

“The Juliet Club has been handling Juliet’s mail for many years; this unique phenomenon has made Verona the world-wide known “capital of love”. Addressed to “Juliet, Verona” thousands of letters arrive from all over the world and our team of volunteers replies to each and every one of them in the name of the most famous heroine in literature keeping alive this extraordinary epistolary tradition”. (Juliet Club website)

Once Glen realized that he would never have a relationship with the woman he loved he quit his teaching job and headed back to Verona for a fresh start.  In Verona, he learned about himself as he reflected on the content of the letters and the responses he was writing.    He also described Verona in a way that makes the reader want to pack their bags and explore!

Juliet’s Answer is a memoir to enjoy and inspired me to search for more information about the Juliet Club.  According to the club’s website, thousands of letters have been received since the 1930s and each letter is carefully read, translated and a response sent.  The letters are kept in a special archive.  Travellers can volunteer for one day or more, returning letters to those looking for love.

After listening to the audio version of the book, I was disappointed to learn that the narrator was not the author.  It was well told but would have been more authentic if the experiences were shared by Glenn himself.  If readers are looking for more information, Glenn’s website hosts many pictures of Verona including the statue of Juliet.

My daughter will likely be reading Romeo and Juliet in grade 9 and I may have to reread the play as she studies it.  Juliet’s Answer has also inspired me to investigate the offerings at Stratford and Romeo and Juliet will be featured this summer.  I sure hope that my daughter has a teacher who shares Glenn’s enthusiasm for Romeo and Juliet and I am looking forward to meeting the him at he Grimsby Author Series event.

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Jennifer Robson: Author Event

IMG_5034 2It was inspiring to meet Jennifer Robson, in Burlington, on May 2nd.  She spoke of her latest novel, Goodnight from London at an event promoted by A Different Drummer Books as a fundraiser for a local church.  As a fan of historical fiction, I was thrilled to hear that her own grandmother had influenced this latest novel.

On her website, Jennifer Robson describes herself as an “academic by background, a former editor by profession, and a lifelong history geek”.  She has a Phd from Oxford, has worked in both journalism and pubishing and is now a full-time author writing  great historical fiction that highlights strong women during the trauma of war.

It was interesting to learn that Jennifer was pulling together this book but struggling as the “heroine was not presenting herself to me”.  She visited her editor who asked why she was not writing about her beloved grandmother who had recently passed away.  Her grandmother had been a journalist during the second World War and had been a central maternal figure for Jennifer after she lost her mother.

After this conversation, Jennifer returned to her hotel room and was inspired!  Although the character of Ruby is not her grandmother,  it was “through my memories of my wonderful grandmother that drew me to this character of Ruby”.  Her grandmother had started in journalism as a “girl Friday”, progressing to writing the military beat reporting the ships coming in and later leading to an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Her novels portray strong women in a time when those living with war had the  spirit of “getting on with it”  and that “whinging was ok but not whining”.  The war was endured and the women in her stories played an active role during a time when women were often looking after their families at home.

As always, I am interested in the writing process of authors and Jennifer shared that she is a “plotter”.  She gets the history and research out of the way before she begins writing the fiction, “creating a scaffolding for the story”.  She writes a chapter by chapter outline trying to avoid the “rabbit hole of research” distracting her from getting “the novel out of you head and on the page”.

When asked about the most challenging part of writing, Jennifer identified the plot as a “millstone around my neck” as her books are so character driven.  She wants “to write books where you remember the people” and needs to be disciplined in her writing.  As a full-time writer she writes every day and recently joined a 5am writing club finding 2 solid hours of focused writing before her family awakes.

She thinks of setting like another character.  She often writes about places she has been in the modern time acknowledging while she may have walked through the streets, it is not the same as being in the setting during the historical period especially since so much of London was destroyed during the blitz and later rebuilt.  She walked the same route which was described in the scene where Ruby and Bennet ran through the streets and notes that imagination had to help create the scene as so much had changed.

For those of you involved with book clubs, it is interesting to know that Jennifer writers her novels with her own book club in mind.  As she plans and writes she thinks of this group whether “the book I’m creating is something my friends would enjoy and find memorable”.  Her website also offers the opportunity for her to call in or Skype with book clubs which would make for a great book club evening!

I have enjoyed reading and blogging about Jennifer’s other novels including Somewhere in France, After the War is Over and Moonlight in Paris .  I am looking forward to reading Goodnight from London and have added it to my growing ‘to be read pile’.

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39. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 7.42.06 PMThe Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 yet has been making the news in 2017! This dystopic novel has not only become a TV series but has frequently been discussed in relation to the dangerous political situation in the United States.  It is the story of Offred as she reflects on her past and present situations.

The novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, a fictional place in the United States, where women are devalued and stratified into roles such as:

  • Wives – wear blue and are the highest class of women.
  • Handmaid’s – their role is strictly reproduction to procreate with the husbands so that the sterile wives have babies to raise.  They are dressed in a red habit concealing their bodies.
  • Martha’s – their role is to cook and clean for the family.  They are identified by their green clothing.
  • Econowives – they are are married to lower class men.  They take on all of the roles above and dress in stripes.

The narrator of the story is Offred.  She is a Handmaid.  As she struggles with her sedate, lonely life, she reflects on her past missing her daughter and her husband Luke, her time in captivity learning to be a Handmaid and her immediate situation.  She is strictly monitored and no longer allowed to read, watch television or have any independence.  She is forced to participate in the “ceremony” as the commander tries to impregnate her each month.  She only benefits from a brief daily respite of walking to the store for supplies.

” A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze”.

Atwood has done an amazing job telling this story through the thoughts of Offred.  As I was reading it, I marvelled at how much I had forgotten since my first read through this book in highschool.  It was such a treat to revisit the Republic of Gilead and reflect on how privileged I am to live and raise my family in Canada and I am not sure why I waited so long!

In so many ways, Atwood was ahead of her time, commenting on the cashless banking with Compubank which is similar to our debit cards.  The tale blamed Islamic fanatics for violence which is unfortunately still a part of world events.  I even read an article where Atwood was asked if she would change anything about the book and she said that she would add cell phones,  would have predicated that we would all be walking around with phones in our pockets with the power of computers?  This truly is a book that is more relevant today than it was 32 years ago.

I did not have a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale when I met Margaret Atwood at One Book One Milton so was very happy to find that Chapters sells copies online!   Now I have signed copies of a few of  her novels including The Heart Goes Last which was another great dystopic read.  Now that I have finished rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am read to watch the series and welcome any of your thoughts on the book or series below.

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Happy Mother’s Day!!!


In celebration of Mother’s Day 2017, I am updating last year’s comments!

Mother’s Day is a spring day to celebrate and appreciate our mothers and reflect on our own role as a mother.  Mother’s Day, as we know it, was initiated in the 1850s as a way to improve sanitary conditions and decrease infant mortality.  After the Civil War, this led to Mother’s Friendship Day as a way of promoting peace.  The celebration of Mother’s Day has led to the commercial success of this special day.

In considering the history of this day, I reflected on some of the books that I have read recently with strong maternal characters.  On a positive note, here are some novels with strong role models:

Anne of Ingleside (L.M. Montgomery).  As I begin reading Rainbow Valley, (the 7th  book in the Anne of Green Gables series), it makes me reflect on the role of Marilla Cuthbert who loved and cared for Anne as well as Anne’s experience as a mother in her later books.  Anne goes on to raise her own brood of children 5 children on Prince Edward Island.

Little Women (Louisa Alcott), a classic tale of a family coming of age story of a family of 4 girls who are living with their mother while their father is away during the Civil War.  The sisters:  Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy make the best of difficult times supporting each other, helping their mother and making their own fun.

When the Moon is Low (Nadia Hashimi), a coming of age story and example of the strength of mother trying to give her children a better life while escaping Afghanistan.  Not only is this story a great example of the support from mothers but it is impossible not to admire  this author who works to share these stories while balancing her young family of four, her writing and her demanding job as an emergency room paediatrician.

The Bear (Claire Cameron) tells the tale of a family’s worst nightmare during a family camping trip to Algonquin Park when the parents were attacked by a bear.  The father bravely saves Anna and Alex by hiding them safely in “Coleman”, their sturdy cooler and in the morning her catastrophically injured mother instructs Anna to look after her brother by leaving the island in the canoe.

The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman) is the story of 4 resilient women, determined to protect their families during Roman domination over the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem during a 4 year period around 70C.E.  These women blend their strength, intelligence, faith and healing powers to support each other through this violent period of history as they protected their children.

Happy Mother’s Day to my own Mom and to my Aunt Sharon who have been wonderful role models of love, support, strength and resilience!!!  Enjoy the day!

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38. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 7.59.42 AM“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold”

It seems like so long ago that I read The Outsiders.  I was in grade 8 when we read the book an watched the movie!  I have been listening to the story while my daughter (who is now in grade 8) is reading it at school.  I had forgotten so much of the storyline that it was like reading it for the first time… except for the spoilers shared by Erin!

It is the coming of age story of Ponyboy, a teen who is living with his older brothers after the tragic death of their parents.  He is getting good grades at school, a strong member of the track team but involved with rumbles with a rival gang.  His is a “greaser” and when a “soc” (short for social’s who have money) is killed by his friend Johnny, Ponyboy learns many lessons about loss, friendship and family.

The book has serious content:  drinking, fighting and death yet provides an opportunity for discussion.  It is hard not to think about the recent attention by the school boards and media about the book and series, Thirteen Reasons Why.  This may be a staple in classrooms years from now as it too opens the lines of communication about series topics which effect teens!

It was interesting that S.E. Hinton (of course I was curious about the initials and with he power of the internet learned that her name is Susan Eloise) wrote the book when she was 16 years old.  She couldn’t find relevant books dealing with teen issues so she wrote one herself, 1967!  Her biography on her website shares that she was known as “the Voice of the Youth”.  With all the attention, the site says that she had a 3 year writing block which ended when her boyfriend (now her husband) encouraged her to write 2 pages a day leading to That Was Then, This is Now.

Hinton has written 9 books ranging from children’s books to her novels for teens.  I recall reading That Was Then, This is Now, Tex and Rumblefish years ago.  These four books were also made into movies with star studded casts.  It was interesting to review the cast of The Outsiders which was adapted in 1983 by Francis Ford Coppola and included:  Matt Dillon (Dallas), Ralph Machhio (as Johnny although we would later all know him as the Karate Kid), C. Thomas Howell (a name I don’t recognize was Ponyboy), the late Patrick Swayze (Darrel),  Rob Lowe (Sodapop), Emilio Estevez (Two-Bit) and Tom Cruise as Steve.  Hinton herself made a cameo appearance!

These books have been both banned and celebrated!  The Outsiders has been a staple in curriculums which my 3 eldest have each studied.  The book has stood the test of time and generations of teens have read it and discussed it with their peers.  I have enjoyed chatting with Erin about the book and hope that it is part of Brendan’s experience when he gets to grade 8 too!

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37. Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 9.36.43 PMThirteen Reasons Why was published in 2007 but has been in the news since the Netflix series has debuted.  It is the story of  Hannah Baker, a highschool student who committed suicide, leaving a legacy of reasons in a shoebox full of audio tapes.  These tapes were mailed sequentially to those that she held responsible for the rumours, the sadness and the loneliness that she experienced.

My daughter read the book and shared that she felt that it is a great book to start discussions, to make readers think about how their actions impact others and to understand how important it is to be kind.  Despite her very mature outlook on the topic, the Grand Erie School Board recently shared that they have “concern with the series as it may harm students who struggle with mental health challenges” and that it includes the “glamorization of suicidal behaviour and negative portrayals of helping professionals, which may prevent youth from seeking help”.  The board stated that “incidents of self-harm can increase after media portrayals of suicide. We do not want to contribute to this. We know, of course, that some students will watch this series or read the book outside of school” leading me to believe that this book may have been banned from the schools.

Before commenting, I had to read the book myself and wonder how many members of the Grand Erie staff have actually read the book?  I will admit that I have not watched the Netflix series so my comments are strictly related to the book.  It is a devastating story but one that leads to important discussions in relation to rumours, bullying, alcohol, parties, rape and suicide – all issues that are important to address at both home and at school since these are topics impacting students.

My challenge to the Grand Erie District School Board is to embrace this book, to open lines of communication with teens, to promote kindness and support for those that are struggling and develop curriculum based on 13 Ways Students Can Support Each Other.  The topic is serious but suicide can be a sad reality and schools must do their part to create positive learning environments.  I can appreciate that the school board may feel that it may provide “negative portrayals of helping professionals”  yet I can share personal experience of a guidance counsellor telling a depressed student that they need to “just force yourself to get out of bed” showing that there is a lack of education and understanding about depression and proving a need for more education to these role models.

This is a book that all families, all teachers and health professionals need to read.  It is a great conversation starter and can help make a difference to help students like Hannah Baker along with taking bullying and negative behaviours seriously and recognizing the signs when a student needs help and guiding them through the complex system of mental health resources.  Please take the time to read this book – it can be read in a day and the time spent turning pages will cause readers to reflect and be conscious of the impact of their words and actions on others.

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Katherena Vermette (FOLD Festival)

fullsizeoutput_785cThe Break was the one book that I think all Canadians should read (yet unfortunately, the sheer power of this book led it to being voted off first in the 2017 Canada Reads Debates).  It is not only artfully written but it touches on so many important issues – sexual violence, physical violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, possible postpartum depression, racism, spousal abuse, child abuse – and yet balances the story with strength, resilience, love, kindness and caring.  It is a story of strong women looking after and loving each other through good times and through hardship.  It delves into issues that might be difficult but are important for us as Canadians, as individuals, as parents, as siblings, as grandparents, as humans to think about.  It is a call to action to consider how we can support others and understand the impact of our words, our actions and of the racism that still exists in our communities.

Katherena was introduced as Metis author and film maker from treaty 1 in Winnipeg.  She acknowledged that when she visits somewhere new, she researches how the land is being shared and taken care of.  She laughed noting that everywhere is Toronto to her, even though we were sitting in Brampton.  She admitted that she had forgotten her reading copy of The Break and had borrowed the moderator’s copy to read from the beginning of her novel.

When asked if she was worried about the book being received as a dark book, she noted that’s her fear yet “as much as it was talking about gritty things, there is some healing in there”.  While difficult things happen to people, the book expresses the importance of recovering from these things.  She laughed that her book can be treated as a choose your own adventure story (I loved these as a pre-teen) and that for a less gritty version, readers could ignore the parts told by Stella and the last chapter by Emily.  By avoiding these parts, the reader will delve into a family dealing with loss and grief while helping each other.

Katherena said she had fun writing about the casual racism.  She was asked about sharing context of colonization and said that you “can’t give a history lesson when you write a character” but hopes that people will do research on their own.  She added that it is important to learn all the facts but that empathy is a “tool for the resolution”.  The media only provides a tiny glimpse into situations but individuals “need to realize that we are all the same” to gain empathy and understanding.  She writes for other indigenous women and hopes “that they see themselves in what i do” since she writes “messy characters” who have lived with trauma and identity issues.

Her own experience as a bi-racial, Metis woman has led her to thinking a lot about her identity, where she fits and where her daughters fit.  She said that it feels like “you are never enough but you are too much at the same time”.  She explored these feelings through the character of Tommy and shared that “even coloured people buy into the idea that white is better”.  Katherena tries to incorporate her heritage and self-care including smudging and tobacco ties in her home but admits that she does not get out to sweat lodges often and laughed that it is wood tick season.

When speaking about her experience on Canada Reads, she noted that it was great to have two indigenous authors represented but stated that they were “both torn to shreds because we were not Canadian enough”.  As an active participant of Canada Reads, listening each day and attending the final day, I have to disagree with this sentiment.  I felt that The Break should have been the winner but can understand why the strongest competitor was knocked out first in this book debate.  As for The Right to Be Cold, it is the one book that I have not been able to finish.  The great work and her story was lost in the endless details, acronyms and acknowledgement making it very hard for the reader to keep track of all the organizations and people she worked with.

Overall it was a great morning.  Those who also attended will note that I have not commented on the moderation by Hayden King.  I have to say that as a Canadian (I guess he would call me white), I felt unwelcome with his comments at the FOLD Festival (The Festival of Literary Diversity).  I understand that there is a dreadful history with indigenous peoples including residential schools and the horrible attempts at assimilation but I have not been part of this and want to be part of the solution.  I have empathy for the terrible abuses, loss of culture and enduring racism and have learned so much through literature (since unfortunately, my education was lacking even though I live in a community near Six Nations).  I appreciate that his experience has led to these feelings but hope that he can have empathy and openness towards everyone which will be essential in the work towards reconciliation.

If you haven’t read The Break, pick it up, read it and pass it on.  If you live nearby, there is a copy of this book (not my newly signed copy of course) in the Franklin Street Little Free Library.  The book will open conversations, cause reflection and hopefully educate Canadians about the experience of some indigenous families, their strength and their resilience!  I look forward to Katherena Vermette’s next novel!

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36. The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 9.54.04 PM.pngThe Nightingale is a compelling audiobook which is well-narrated and a detailed depiction of a horrendous part of world history.  The story follows the experience of two French sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, fighting to survive during World War II.  Their strength, resilience and bravery is a remarkable tribute to the soldiers and citizens who fought for our freedom.

The sisters were abandoned by their father who suffered from his experience in the Great War and the subsequent loss of his beloved wife.  Vianne married young and started a family.  She struggled to care for her younger sister and Isabelle was enrolled and then kicked out of a series of finishing schools.  Vianne’s husband became a prisoner of war leaving her to care for their young daughter, struggling to find food, keep warm and stay safe from the Nazi soldiers billeted in her home.

Isabelle could not sit back and survive, she needed to fight back and joined the resistance and travelled between France and Spain as the Nazi’s searched for the Nightingale.  As the war advanced, the French police became complicit in the German plan to exterminate the Jewish citizens, sending men, women and children to concentrations camps and to their deaths.

Generally, I restrict my listening to my commutes but I could not wait until the weekend was over to hear the end and I read the last few chapters to learn what happened to the sisters.  This is a terrific book and one that everyone should read.  It tells the devastating history of France during WWII which may not be as well shared in history books.  It certainly makes the reader appreciate the difference that individuals made to save children, soldiers and care for each other during devastation.

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Jamie Tennant: Author Event

IMG_4184 2Different Drummer books in collaboration with East Plains Church, in Burlington, hosted a trio of authors on Tuesday evening.  Many eager readers enjoyed the presentations of three authors with diverse books.  Jamie Tennant, author of The Captain of Kinnoull Hill, presented first.  He is also the program director of the McMaster University Radio and a journalist who is responsible for the program called Get Lit.

It was interesting to learn that this story idea had been gestating within him since he was a pre-teen.  He was inspired by a photograph of Kinnoull Hill,  a beautiful place that had been his father’s home in Scotland.  After his father passed away, he visited his birthplace, climbed the hill and took many pictures.  He knew the setting well and it became real, a central feature of the book.  He started to write blindly but stopped when he only had a vague idea where to go.  Years later, he pulled pieces from this project to write this book.

He described his book as the redemption story of Dennis who was “not the world’s nicest guy” and was in the midst of a divorce.  His one passion was music, leading to many musical references as he discusses music with his friend Paul, a “music nerd” who was interested in very diverse music.  He ends up in Scotland where he takes a job as a watchman on Kinnoull Hill.  While investigating some vandalism he ends up involved with a Red Cap, which is was known as a murderous mythical creature.  This Red Cap was was eating rabbits instead of killing people and led Dennis to having heightened senses as he tries to change himself.

When asked about the hardest thing about writing his novel, he admitted that it was finding the time.  He had started writing this book by taking a half hour, every day, during his lunch hour to write.  He shared that he is in the process of writing a new model which is from the perspective of a female character and laughed that he will be getting some advice from his wife.

Jamie kept the audience interested and I will be downloading the podcasts for his program, Get Lit on CFMU radio.

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