76. Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 8.49.50 AMHomegoing is reminiscent of Roots (Arthur Haley) and The Book of Negroes (Lawrence Hill) and provides a graphic description of the  generational impact of the horrors and violence of slavery.  The novel begins with half-sisters, unknown to each other, living in the Cape Coast castle of Ghana. Effia lived upstairs, in comfort, with her slaver husband and Esi was imprisoned in the dungeon below, suffering in terrible conditions, as she waited to be sold and shipped to America.   Each woman’s family history is described for generations to come – one story-line focusing on the tribal war and British colonization of Ghana an the other story line descending from slavery in America.

The book reads like multiple, linked short stories with generations of characters dealing with issues of war, slavery, arranged marriage, homosexuality, mental illness, the struggles as a freeman, forced hard labour, racism and poverty intertwined with love, loss and resilience.  Each story was raw at times, emotional and very visually described.  Although there was connection back to the two half-sisters, the many characters made it challenging to follow at times and I needed to refer to the family tree often.  One thing that seemed unfinished was a connection with the necklaces that had given to each woman yet passed down only from Effia’s side of the story.  Although Esi’s was buried in the castle, I was looking for closure with this thread.

It was interesting to to learn more about the author after reading in a Time article that Yaa Gyasi was 26 years old when she received a 7 figure advance for this novel.  The author was born in Ghana but raised in Alabama and she shared, in the article, that she was shy and that her closest friends were books.  Gyasi was inspired to write the story after visiting Cape Town Castle.  The castle was originally a fort built by the Swede’s and taken over and upgraded by the British in 1655 to be used in their slavery business.  It is currently a museum (Ghana Museum and Monuments Board website) sharing the sad history of slavery in Ghana.Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 8.35.19 AM

I have read a number of books describing the terrible treatment of humans this year ranging from The Dovekeepers (Roman wars), Black Apple and Indian Horse (Canadian residential schools), Obasan (Canadian internment of the Japanese during WW2) to Night (the holocaust).  It is shocking to think that humans can treat each other so terribly yet atrocities continue across the world.  Through fiction, it is important to gain knowledge of history to share compassion with generations affected by these horrific events and to work towards the world being a better place for all.

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75. Turtle Valley (Gail Anderson-Dargatz)

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 11.13.36 PMGail Anderson-Dargatz is a Canadian author presenting at the fantastic Grimsby Author Series this fall.  Prior to this event which will be promoting her latest book The Spawning Grounds, I am reading previous novels.  I have already enjoyed the A Recipe for Bees which also has a British Columbia setting and have The Cure for Lightening in my to be read pile.

In Turtle Valley, Kat returns home to help her parents pack up their belongings in preparation for evacuation orders to escape a fast-moving forest fire.  As she assists her parents, she reflects on her own past while coming to terms with her parent’s aging and a family secret which has been buried since her infancy.  She learns the real truth about her grandfather’s disappearance and the resilience of both her mother and sister.

Like A Recipe for Bees, this story depicts both illicit love and the dependable love of a marriage past its’ prime.  As the story unfolds, Kat remembers her love affair with the neighbour and struggles with her own marriage to Ezra who is living with the effects of a stroke.  Kat has been a caregiver for both her husband and their young son and is exhausted.

I enjoyed the pace of this book and the pictures that began each chapter gave a little hint as to what would follow.  The intrigue of the past keeps the reader engaged, wanting discover more about the mysterious man and woman that keep appearing and to learn the story of what happened to her damaged grandfather as the family races against the pending fire.  I am definitely looking forward to meeting Anderson-Dargatz in Grimsby and having my books signed.

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National Dog Day Book Suggestions

IMG_5181It is National Dog Day today so in celebration of my beautiful boxer Dixie and faithful canine friends everywhere , I am reposting The Art of Racing in the Rain and a couple of other links to reviews of books with dogs.

The Art of Racing in the Rain as a book was recommended by a friend and was not at all what I expected.  It was told entirely from the perspective of an aging dog, named Enzo. It was very interesting to have the canine perspective from this faithful dog whose devotion and love supported his family through both happy and challenging times.  I really was skeptical about reading it with this narrator but ended up enjoying it.

Enzo was chosen by Denny as a puppy and was part of Denny’s life through his courting, marriage, the birth of his daughter, death and challenging custody battles. As the drama unfolded, Enzo looked out for his family as he slowly aged. Denny was an aspiring race car driver and throughout the story are analogies of living life in terms of car racing.

Enzo loves racing and television.  He feels that he is on earth to learn.  The story gives the reader a different perspective of the faithfulness and what dogs may be thinking as they live alongside their families. Enzo learns, reflects and describes his perspective never once wavering in his support for Denny.

This was a very interesting book. It makes one pause and consider the thoughts of our pets as well as the importance of staying the course through adversity and challenge. I would recommend this book but with a side of tissues (which will be needed towards the end).

“I saw a documentary once. It was about dogs in Mongolia.   It said that the next incarnation for a dog – a dog who is ready to leave his dogness behind – is a man.”

Looking for other books about dogs or with a dog incorporated into the text?  Here are a couple other recommendations:

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Mark Haddon)

A Dog Named Christmas by Greg Kinkaid

 

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74. Night (Elie Wiesel)

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 5.44.36 PMNobel Peace Prize winner, journalist, professor and author of more than 40 works of fiction and non-fiction passed away July 2, 2016.  His acclaimed memoir, Night, has been in my “to be read” pile (affectionately becoming known as Mount To Be Read) for quite a while and it was about time that I read it.  It is a devastating read – full of sadness and horror at the treatment of human beings.

Wiesel and his family lived in Sighet, Romania.  Like many other Jewish families they missed their opportunity to flee while they remained in disbelief about the stories they were hearing.  At the age of 15 years his family (including his parents, 2 older sisters and 1 younger sister), friends and neighbours were rounded up and packed into trains heading for Auschwitz.  On arrival, his mother and sisters were separated and he and his father were sent to a work camp called Buchenwald.  Wiesel became prisoner number A-7713 during almost a year in captivity.

Wiesel and his father did their best to look out for each other and stay together despite horrible conditions, abuse, starvation, freezing temperatures and work.  As the front moved closer, the prisoners were marched through the cold with no food or drink into Germany, many dying along the journey.

Wiesel eventually was reunited with his two older sisters in an orphanage.  He discovered that his mother and younger sister had died.  His father succumbed shortly before the war ended in the camp.  He later studied in France, coming a journalist, before moving to the United States.  He received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986

Night is an important memoir and essential for the world to reflect on.  The graphic description depicts the horror of the holocaust and certainly gives a stronger history of the horrors of WWII than I ever studied in highschool.  It is a serious topic and likely not he best choice for holidays yet it is literature that needs to be shared with new generations.

Posted in Memoir, Non-Fiction | Tagged , | 1 Comment

73. Under An Afghan Sky (Mellissa Fung)

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 1.11.40 PMAs part of the Acrostic August Challenge, I read Under the Afghan Sky which is a memoir detailing the 28 days that CBC reporter, Mellissa Fung spent in captivity in Afghanistan.  This detailed account of being snatched at gunpoint following an interview at a refugee camp and described her captivity in a rudimentary hole underground.  Fung attempted to journalize her experience and her account of getting to know her captors as she prayed for release.

It is hard to imagine being held underground, subsisting on creme sandwich cookies and juice boxes for almost an entire month.  With a bucket for a toilet, no ability to wash and light from a waning lamp she had nothing to do but write in her notebook and converse with her captors as she prayed for release.

Her family had not been pleased that she was travelling back to Afghanistan and this resilient woman worried about how her parents, her partner Paul and her friends would cope with her disappearance.  She wrote letters in her notebook and even detailed which of her belongings she would leave for her loved ones in the event of her death.  Initially her captors stayed with her in the hole promising her release and keeping her company since she was a woman.  When the captor shared that his mother had died, she was chained and kept in the hole alone saying the rosary and praying for release.

As Fung has written her memoir, the reader knows that eventually Fung will be release but it is difficult to imagine her experience.  It must have been challenging to revisit the fear and remember the damp, dank environment she was forced into.  Bravely, Fung not only wrote about her experience but she returned to the refuge camp to finish her story in a Toronto Star article, 7 years later.

This was not an easy story to read.  It was uncomfortable and I am awed by Fung’s resilience, strength and compelling need to return to Afghanistan.  She shared the complete inability of her captors to consider a different point of view, other than the destructive culture of the Taliban, which gives some perspective into the dangers in Afghanistan.  This is another book that makes me proud to be Canadian and happy to raise my children in a free country.  Fung’s memoir is part of the 100 True Stories that Make You Proud to be Canadian list.

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The Paris Lectures: Krista Foss

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Image from The Paris Lectures (Jane&Jury)

I spent an engaging evening at the Paris Lectures hosted by Cassie McDaniel and Mark Staplehurst.  If you have never heard of this initiative, it is time to check it out as it inspires creativity and connection!  It is held locally  in Paris, “the prettiest little town in Ontario”!  This dynamic couple are the creators of the fantastic blog Jane & Jury which combines their beautiful photography and descriptions of design and local living in Paris.  Thanks to Jennifer Budd of Woolscapes (a past lecturer and artist) who recommended the Paris Lectures.

The evening started with Mark sharing his passion for local history in a setting with its’ own unique story.  The evening was held in the Dominion Telegraph Event Centre which was the very location where the first long distance call was made by Alexander Graham Bell (I find this fascinating, especially having spent my teenage years living down the road from the Bell Homestead).  The building has been renovated keeping the existing hardwood floors, exposed brick walls and beautiful view of the Grand River from a balcony at the back.  He shared photos from the Paris Museum and Historical Society of the streetscape following the fire in the 1900s which encourage me to take advantage of a  Paris walking in the future to learn more.

While tonight’s lecture was #11, Mark shared that this lecture series truly started in the early 1900s taking a very long break before being reinvigorated by this couple who had moved to Paris several years ago.  The original lecture series began in the Paris Mechanics Institute which was part library, part lectures and part night school, arranged as an alternative to gambling and drinking.  Historically the lecturers were local and mostly religious leaders while today the topics reflect local creativity.  Now, 165 years later, a group of approximately 80 individuals were gathered together to hear author Krista Foss speak about creativity in settings.

Krista encourage the audience to reflect on the creativity of childhood. She had grown up in 1970s Ancaster, coincidentally right next door to Jerseyville where I grew up, with the freedom to play outside and explore all day.  She was the 5th child in a busy family and spent a lot of time with her sister traversing nature.  She shared a slide with pictures of plants such as Jack in a pulpit, deadly night shade and dog strangling vines which had names which inspired creativity and play.  She focused on the “revulsion mixed with fascination” that children share when exploring nature and bugs – who knew that the giant water bug can exsanguinate a frog?- and encouraged the audience to consider their settings with the curiosity of children.

It was interesting to hear her speak of her novel Smoke River which I am in the midst of Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 7.41.19 AMreading.  While I have been identifying the setting as based in Caledonia, she indicated that “any place closely observed is every place” and that she had used her experience in many First Nations communities, not just Caledonia, in writing her story.  She shared that many “issues have the same pattern and same template” which allows the reader to identify communities that they are familiar with.

The evening ended with information about Krista Foss as writer in residence at the County of Brant Library in Paris.  I have attended her first lecture which was a reflection of Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers and am looking forward to future sessions.  She is also available for mentoring and manuscript reviews by appointment only.

The next Paris Lectures are taking place in September and October and I encourage you to try something different and be inspired!  I will certainly be returning and look forward to an evening of creativity and community!

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72. Year of Yes (Shonda Rhimes)

51+xBlJ2U7L._SL160_One of the benefits of stewarding the Franklin Street Little Free Library is that I also get to enjoy books donated by the community before returning them for borrowing.  This week, a copy of Year of Yes arrived and I took the opportunity to read it first.  It is a bit worse for wear – the cover is missing and it has what I hope are coffee stains towards the back but I have enjoyed this light and humorous read.

Shonda Rhimes is the creator, producer and head writer for the wildly successful Thursday night shows, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.  Because of her experience with her company Shondaland, the text is ripe with references to both programs and a couple others that she was working on.  It is interesting to read bits about characters Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey while learning more about the experience of the author as she experimented with a Year of Yes.

As a single mother of 3 girls, Rhimes was exhausted and working through life from script to script.  She admits that she was not happy and struggling to balance her work and life. Her big sister noticed and challenged her by saying “you never say yes to anything”.  After ruminating on those 6 little words, Rhimes decided that she did need to make a change.  She was missing opportunities and wanted to be happy.  She committed to saying yes for an entire year, beginning with accepting the offer to speak at a convocation.  As she said yes to more speeches, awards dinners and even a cameo acting role she realized that saying yes was changing her life.  She became healthier by deciding to lose weight and spent more time with her girls by saying “yes” when asked to play.

“Volunteer some hours.  Focus on something outside yourself.  Devote a slice of your energies toward making the world suck less every week”

Learning to say yes also meant accepting that it was appropriate to say no.  Being successful led to “friends” trying to take advantage of her.  She gained freedom by discovering the strength to decline and by losing “friends” who were not looking out for her best interests.  She ends the book with a list of positive results from her year of yes including being 127 pounds lighter, several toxic people higher, a better mother and friend, a happier boss, stronger leader, more creative and more honest with herself and others.

If you are looking for a quick read that is positive and shares some of the inside knowledge of Private Practice this is a book for you.  Shonda Rhimes writes in an open, honest and often self-deprecating way that keeps you chuckling as you learn about her struggles and past experiences.  She inspires readers to be open to situations and to reflect on their own propensities to miss opportunities.  She is a strong woman who is sharing her experience to help others.

“Each time I said yes, I gained new friends and new experiences and found myself getting involved with projects that I never would have dreamed I could be part of.  I laughed more.  I was bolder.  I was brazen.  I spoke my mind and spoke it loud.  And as busy as I was, I felt like I had more free time than ever; I realized I’d been wasting a huge amount of time and energy on complaining and feeling sorry for myself, being dark and twisty me.”

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71. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)

51JgdyXvI0L._SL160_Agatha Christie is a well-loved author who wrote 66 novels, selling over a billion copies.  Her website shares that she is the “best -selling novelist of all time”.  Somehow, despite my habit of reading, I had never read an Agatha Christie novel and was inspired after reading The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel, which has a character enthralled by thee mystery novels.  I borrowed an audio version and have enjoyed And Then There Were None during my commutes this week.

The writing keeps the reader guessing until the end.  This book starts with 10 guests being invited to an island by a mysterious host.  None of the guests know each other and when they arrive, the host is curiously absent.  The island is named Soldier Island and each room has a copy of the following childhood poem Ten Little Soldier Boys:

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little soldier boys traveling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 10.29.42 PM

Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little soldier boys going in for law; One got into chancery and then there were Four.

Four little soldier boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One.

One little soldier boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself

And then there were None.

—Frank Green, 1879

A display of 10 soldiers was displayed on the dining table and the remaining guests realize that one ceramic soldier disappears as a guest is killed.  After enjoying this novel, I was curious about the author.  Her website shares a number of interesting facts:

  • Even though her mother did not wish her to learn to read until she was 8, she was bored and taught herself to read.
  • She provided nursing care during WWI
  • During a time of marital problems she disappeared, leaving her car on the side of the road.  When found in a hotel, she did not recognize her husband and later refused to speak of that time.
  • Christie wrote her first book as a challenge from her sister which waited 5 years to be published after being rejected by 6 publishers.
  • She started wrote 2 or 3 books each year.
  • She died peacefully in 1976.
  • Her favorite of her works was The Witness for the Prosecution and coincidentally this movie started filming this week – for a Canadian connection, actress Kim Catrell is a member of the cast.

I enjoyed my first Agatha Christie novel and can’t share much more about the book in an effort to avoid spoilers.  Each time I arrived at my destination, I have to admit that I was not quite ready to turn off the car as I just wanted to keep listening!  Even though mysteries are not my favourite, I will plan on reading more Agatha Christie.

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70. Where the Light Gets In (Kimberly Williams-Paisley)

41o99svtjJL._SL160_“But lately, just when I think I’ve lost her, I find her again in small things and brief moments.  They deepen the mystery, and feel something like miracles”

I loved The Father of the Bride movies starring the hilarious Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Kimberly Williams-Paisley so when I realized that Williams-Paisley had written a book, I was interested.  Where the Light Gets In is a memoir sharing her experience after her mother was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia.  It is a memoir that is heart wrenching yet tender and brutally honest yet helpful to others in similar experiences.  It is a shining example of a loving extended family supporting each other through sickness and health.

Williams-Paisley was acting, raising 2 young boys with husband and country singer Brad Paisley and dealing with a secret.  Adhering to her mom’s wishes, the family kept her progressive illness private as she struggled with her memory, ultimately retiring from her successful fundraising career.  Her mother had a support network of family and close friends but as her illness progressed, her care needs increased and institutional care became necessary.  Early in the disease trajectory the family struggled to deal with practical issues such as discussing the removal of her driver’s license along with awkward social situations.  Later issues progressed to incontinence and aggressive behaviour.

Williams-Pasiley describes losing her mom in moving passages where she shares her frustration and apprehension to visit.  She is honest about her misgivings when her dad started to share his time with a lady friend but how she came to appreciate the support to her dad and her family.  The author talks about her experience coming to terms with her mother ‘as she was’ and trying to form a connection during their visits instead of grieving her mom that was gone.

I enjoyed finding a Canadian connection in the memoir – the title came from the Leonard Cohen song Anthem:  “Ring the bells that can still ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in”.  It really does seem like the perfect title after reading William-Paisley’s experience coming to acceptance and loving her mom as she was.  Working in health care and with seniors for the majority of my career, I appreciate the focus on dementia and the open, honest and realistic portrayal of her mom’s experience.  This book will help others to accept and love their parents.  It is a starting place for individuals to find more information and a number of links are at the back of the book.  It is a quick read that I would recommend.  Information is pending for her visit to Toronto presenting as part of a World Brain Health Event and I would love an opportunity to meet her!

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69. Slammerkin (Emma Donoghue)

51Eu6uE3bEL-1._SL160_In preparation for the 2016-17 Grimsby Author series, I am reading the works of Emma Donoghue.  She is a Canadian author (born in Ireland) best known for the novel (and subsequent movie) Room.  Slammerkin is a complete different style of writing – where Room was written from the perspective of a young boy, trapped in a small room with his abducted mother; Slammerkin is historical fiction sharing the story of a young girl in the late 1700s who becomes involved with prostitution and murder in her quest for beautiful clothing. Slammerkin is Donaghue’s third novel and was written as she completed her PhD in 18th century fiction.  It was a best seller and won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction.

The story has been described as gritty and it certainly is a grim depiction of the options for young girls in that era.  Girls in Mary’s class went into the service (maids, cooks, household labour), did fine work like sewing or dressmaking and got married, often ending up serving their own husbands.  Mary was as tough as nails and thought that she could live a different life.  She dreamed of fineries, beautiful gowns and expensive fabrics that were Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 7.23.45 PMwell above her station in life.  She was immature and her yearning for this unattainable lifestyle led to a sad situation where she was living in poor conditions and visiting many men despite risks of violence and disease.  It was interesting to learn that slammerkin means a loose gown – or a loose woman!

Mary benefited from the benevolence and charity of others – from the experienced prostitute who mentored her, to the members of the home where she lived when she fled from London but the lure of independence lured her back into her less than desirable lifestyle.

If you are looking for a happier story, Slammerkin might not be a suggestion as it was bleak tale of circumstance, poverty and filth yet it keeps the reader’s attention and the fiction is based on a historical crime. While I appreciate the engaging writing and detailed research, I cringed to read about the lifestyle along with the lack of hygiene of this time period.

This novel makes me appreciate the opportunity to grow up in Canada!  I never have to worry about a lack of opportunities for my children and know that women have choice, freedom and independence!  I am looking looking forward to reading Donaghue’s newest book, The Wonder and hearing her share her experience as a writer in Grimsby at the end of September.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , | 2 Comments