books · genre · memoir

Tell Me Your Story – the reading of a memoir

In the past 12 months I have moved into the genre of memoir largely due to the monthly picks from my book club.  This is a category I normally would not seek out yet I am so glad that these books found their way into my life.

The feature photo for this blog post had been on my “to read” list for a very long time.  Although the majority of the members of my book club did not enjoy Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, I found myself incredibly intrigued by her story as parts of it felt surreal.  Unconventional is not even an appropriate word to describe Walls’ up-bringing and the fact that she overcame such incredible obstacles and wrote the tale, is remarkable.  Children truly need rules, boundaries and security.  Yet Walls and her siblings (most of them) managed to grow up “normal” contrary to what the Western world views as a normal childhood and suitable parenting.  I often thought as I read through her memoir that this book would be an excellent read for the sociology class I used to teach.

Further our book club dove into the very Canadian memoir of Farley Mowat’s last book titled Otherwise.  Here Mowat tells the tale of his early childhood through to the mid-1940s after his experience in WWII. Wow did this man ever lead of life of adventure!  Although my Canadian childhood was not as exciting as Mowat’s I could relate to his treks into the wilderness and encounters with insects, snakes and other forest critters as I has the privilege of spending my summers in Long Point, Ontario.  I liked Mowat’s memoir because of not only the adventures that he wrote about but also his true passion to seek justice for isolated indigenous peoples and how he contributed so much to science.  His writing is vivid and he writes this memoir with such clarity and purpose that I could see the other characters and animals as each adventure was told.

During a trek to Hamilton’s Public Library (hpl.ca) I found an intriguing title: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.  Not your typical memoir Doughty discussed working in a crematorium in her twenties.  This memoir was fascinating in both how much I learned about this field, but also how funny it was.  Death is not a subject that is usually associated with humour but Doughty managed to make the anecdotes quite hilarious at times.  I liked this memoir because I learned about a subject that I was very unfamiliar with without feeling the discomfort that the subject of death usually creates in people.  It was truly a fascinating read.

The fourth memoir that found its way into my hands was Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.  I really liked this book.  It was empowering, relatable and very truth driven.  West is a woman who does not mince her words but most definitely gives a voice to topics of feminism, fat-shaming, internet harassment, rape and equality to name a few. This memoir may not appeal to everyone but I thought it was a worthwhile read as she tackled many taboo and controversial subjects (which as an aside is ridiculous that some of those topics are still taboo in the 21st Century!)  I am looking forward to what West publishes next.

The last memoir that I read I finished at the end of June.  I was a hard read but such a necessary book in our culture that is slowly eroding.  Roxane Gay is an author I have come to respect and admire.  Thank you to bookriot.com for featuring her writing across my Facebook feed.   Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body was an ultimate memoir for me.  I could relate to much of what Gay shares in this raw memoir.  Her story breaks my heart yet at the same time I can relate to hiding in the fat — when you are fat no one notices you (ironically) or bothers you sexually.  Her story is about safety and her own recognition of self-destruction. She writes with honesty opening herself up to tell a story that needed to be told.  I feel like her book came at exactly the right time.  It is hard to understand what it means to be fat unless you lived or are living that life and to see it through Gay’s lens is eye-opening.  I would urge people to read this memoir to take a look through that lens, if only to empathize with a fraction of what Gay faces each day.

So there you have it.  Five compelling and uniquely different memoirs that have come my way in the past 12 months.  It is a genre worth discovering because you never know the impact a person’s story can have on your own life.

books · Canadian books · reading

The Great White North: The Importance of Reading your Country’s Authors.

My country recently celebrated 150 years.  Canada Day celebrated on July 1st each year offers Canadians a chance to celebrate their heritage, our flag, our uniqueness and each other, often with the help of a 2-4 (case of beer for you non-Canadians out there).  Like any country that celebrates a birthday we Canadians pulled out all the stops for this big birthday bash.  I happened to be celebrating with my family at our trailer in Ontario.  There was a big fireworks show at dusk; a bike race where the kids and adults could show off their pride with red and white decorations and flags.  Most people were also dressed up in red and white for the day and weekend.  If you were fortunate to be in our nation’s capitol for the festivities (Ottawa) like my cousin was, Canadians were in for one heck of a fireworks show!

Aside from National Pride, Canadians have much to celebrate when it comes to acknowledging our amazing writing talent both past and present.  As a young child I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables by beloved Canadian author L.M. Montgomery.  Anne had red hair like me and she spelled her name with an “e” just like my middle name. Although I was not an orphan, I sometimes believed I was after the horrid tales my sister would tell me about how I fell off a turnip truck or came from outer space.  Anne is a character that any child could relate to.  She got in trouble for silly things, had a crush, turned beet-red after being embarrassed, and had challenges growing up.  I remember a highlight in my twenties was finally going to P.E.I. to Green Gables!  Oh how I loved the idyllic setting and seeing Anne’s house up close along with learning so much about L.M. Montgomery.  Montgomery created other characters aside from Anne Shirley but she will be forever one of my favourite childhood heroines.

In university I was introduced to one of my all-time favourite Canadian authors Alice Munro.   Lives of Girls and Women was part of the syllabus in first year English at the University of Western – Brescia College in London, Ontario.  What an incredible pick from my professor!  This book was love at first read and I went on to read everything Munro has published since.  Munro has a very unique writing voice.  Her characters and plot lines are very relatable yet also uniquely Canadian.  She uses real towns as the backdrop for many of her stories and her incredible use of observation skills adds a richness to her stories.

Like Munro, Carol Shields is also a favourite Canadian author.  As a teen, I first found her through her novel The Stone Diaries.  Shield writes in the raw.  Her stories unfold through the eyes of characters who are faced with sometimes terrible circumstances and tragedy as is the case in her novel Unless.  Shields created characters who are vulnerable when they need to be but also funny and sweet.  She is also the author of short stories which happens to be one of my favourite genres.  I have always liked her writing as she created very memorable stories and characters.

Recently I have consciously tried to read novels and works from Canadian authors when I can.  Elizabeth Hay is a newer favourite as is Stuart McLean, Farley Mowat, Richard Wagamese, Tracey Lindberg and Heather O’Neill.  These authors all write in a very different voices with different stories to tell yet each time I finish one or all of their published books, I leave with something new to think about.  It might be a new perspective on a social issue, a story that has been lost, or just the pure enjoyment of reading.

Most recently I finished The Break by Canadian author Katherena Vermette.  I first came across Vermette’s writing on the shelves of my local library.  Her short story collection North End Love Songs beckoned to me.  As a fan of short stories I was not disappointed. Her stories reminded me of my hometown and the people in it although it takes place in Winnipeg’s North End.  Contrary to the title, these stories were not all sunshine and roses but gritty tales that could be ugly at times.  When I saw that she had published a novel, I had to buy it. I really liked it and I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a difficulty connecting to her one character Stella and her inability to react.   The subject could not have been easy to write about but Vermette told a captivating story by creating different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.  She will be a writer I will continue to seek out and read. 

There is a great benefit in reading the authors that come from your own country.  In this blog post I have only captured a minute snapshot of those Canadians I admire.  Whether you find a writer who tells real tales or fictitious ones, it is worth reading those voices.  It is a great way to “see” and experience the country from varying perspectives.

book club · books · reading

Why I Love My Book Club

My book club is a place where I can seek refuge from the world for an hour once a month to have active and insightful conversations with the women who are part of it.  I like to think that the book club that I belong to is unique as our membership ranges in age from 40 to most recently, 94.  I love these women and what they bring to the club.

This past Saturday I attended the funeral of our leader Dorothy Johns.  She very recently bequeathed the title of leader to me as she became sicker with those things that plague a 94 year old person including poorer eyesight.  I was so humbled by this appointment and took it (and continue to take it) very seriously.  Dorothy was a force to be reckoned with. She was one of the kindest and compassionate people I had the privilege of knowing even if it was for a short time.

One thing we had in common was our passion for reading. Dorothy was a person who took the time to research the books we would be reading through our Hamilton Public Library spending hours researching the reviews of books and the author biographies. She often tried to incorporate best-sellers with Canadian authors into our list for the year.  This gave all of us the opportunity to read books we may have otherwise passed on while browsing the book shelves.

Being part of the this book club means a lot to me, as not only an avid reader, but a person who values the insight of the women who are part of it. Each woman brings a different perspective to the books we read including such first-hand accounts of living through the First World War.  Other women of the group have been incredibly candid discussing stillbirths and miscarriages as we read Call the Midwife.  For the one woman who shared her sorrow with us about her stillborn baby, it was the first time she had ever talked about her child openly.  There were a few tears shed that meeting.

Further the women in the group have worked in various professions including nursing, education and law.  They have lived through not only different decades but different centuries sharing what it was like to live through (and survive) The Great Depression in various parts of Canada and abroad in the 1930s.  They have lived to see segregation and Residential Schools be the norm of a society in the 1960s and beyond.  After reading Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, it sparked an intense and lively conversation around Residential Schools in Canada and how finally, Canadians are speaking about this horrific event in our storied history. One of our members who is incredibly passionate about social justice issues spoke so passionately about the issue and what she remembers seeing and hearing as a child.  I was so moved by her thirst for justice.

Book Club has also been a great place to laugh out loud as we discussed some ridiculous characters from novels recently read or the antics of some of the memoirists  (Farley Mowat in Otherwise).  Book Club is a place where there are no walls.  We laugh freely, can debate fiercely and most of all, share our love of reading.

I hope I can make Dorothy proud by following her example.  I have some big shoes to fill.

books · kids · thrifting · used books

Thrifting and Sifting for Gold

One of my favourite pastimes is to go on a hunt.  Not for the usual suspects like caribou, deer and moose (I’ll leave that to my brother and nephew), but the hunt for odd, rare and unusual books that may have missed my path in a conventional book store.

Today I did go thrifting with the intention of finding a colander (success!) but I also found a treasure trove of books at the St. Vincent De Paul (SSVP) in Cambridge, Ontario.  What I love about this thrift store in particular is the attention to detail in their displays (colour co-ordinated), the cleanliness of the store (no musty smell here!) and the treasures I find there.  The book department that is pictured has much to choose from.  I often gravitate to the children’s section as my boys love to read and be read to.  Because the price of books can be out of reach for many parents’ budget, I look to the thrift store and the local library to fill their desire to read.

Today I found a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson but written for children.  I studied Dickinson in university but also with my students and her poems can be complicated and dark at times.  It was refreshing to find this slim volume on the shelves to introduce some poetry to the boys.  I also found a copy of Cue for Treason which I was so tempted to buy but refrained as I don’t think my oldest would be ready for it.  As I further explored the very full shelves, I found some good books for my little one who is just starting to read and write.  Books about fire trucks, colours, and a moose who takes a bath will keep his interest.

A fan favourite in our house at the moment is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney.  Although my son has read most of them, if not all, I came across a new-to-me copy of the first book.  I couldn’t resist.  I can leave it in the car, bring it to the trailer or even to Grandma’s house for when he gets bored or needs to have a laugh.  Although I walked away with about seven books for the boys I was unsuccessful finding something for me.  I was not disappointed as this is part of the fun trying to find a new author on the shelf or a well-known one.  All in all I paid $22 for my books and other treasures at this gem of a store.

Aside from visiting this thrift store, I also like to visit my local Hamilton Neighbour to Neighbour Book Store when I can.  I discovered more of Ian Rankin here, Canadian fiction on their shelves and many copies of the Geronimo Stilton series.  A few titles for me and a few for the kids.  Again it is the hunt that excites me.  I also enjoy talking to the staff who are made up of volunteers about the different books and they may entice me to try an author I may have passed over.  Lastly as a bonus, the cost of the books is a fraction of what I would pay in a book store.

One of the benefits from thrifting for books is to donate the books when I am through with them (unless I loved it!).  I am sorry to be missing the Church of the Resurrection’s Annual Book Sale the second Saturday in May this year.  Many of my favourites and not so favourite books have made their way to the sale.  I love to see the patrons leaving with their huge bag of books knowing the books have a new home and they only spent $4. Cheap entertainment indeed.

So I will keep on the hunt thrifting and sifting for gold among the well-loved books of people’s past.  Who knows, maybe the next author I discover will be you!

books · crime · mystery

Murder, Mayhem and Mysteries

I accuse Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with the wrench!

Clue is one of my all-time favourite board games that I first discovered in my grandma’s basement as a child.  I would convince (force) my brother and sister to play the game with me each time we visited.  I was always so intrigued with the possibility of a puzzle to solve. So it was just natural that I would eventually become a fan of mystery novels.

A great mystery often starts with the crime in progress or just minutes after it has happened and many writers make use of the prologue to set the scene for events to come.  Whether I am reading fan-favourite Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, John Ball or even a Nancy Drew mystery,  the crime is what sets the story in motion.

My interest in mysteries has always been present as a reader but I did not discover the Queen of Crime until into my thirties.  Agatha Christie is according to her website, “the best-selling novelist in history, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare” (www.agathachristie.com).  What I love about her novels is the attention to detail and the exotic locations that some of the mysteries take place in.  I also have a particular fondness for both her detectives:  Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot along with other characters that represent the iconic detective character.  My first read of Christie was Murder on the Orient Express.  My department was looking for a new novel to read and there was an appeal of studying the mystery genre.  Something about this genre of writing has always fascinated me.  Whether it is the idea of solving a puzzle or following a set of clues; including red-herrings; I am usually intrigued by this type of story.  What I like most about Christie’s stories is her ability to lead the reader off-track suspecting one person when another is the guilty party.  Her novels also include very international and cosmopolitan characters who have traveled extensively and could be embroiled in the secrets and lies resulting in a robbery, murder or kidnapping.

Recently I have discovered Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus at my local used bookstore after reading Knots & Crosses with my book club.  There is something about Rankin’s depiction of Rebus that appeals to me.  He is good at his job; in that there is no doubt but the character is also at times, slovenly, gritty and human.  Although I have a long way to go in reading all of Rebus’ series, I like the history of how Rankin had no intention of keeping Rebus as a character, intending to kill him off in the first draft of Knots & Crosses.  Rankin also is conscious of  Rebus as he completes the new novels.  He is a crime writer I would have missed if not for my book club.

Further John Ball created the iconic detective Virgil Tibbs when he wrote In the Heat of the Night in 1965.  Although the book went on the inspire a movie and television series (which deviate from the plot of the book!), the novel needs to be recognized as a stand-alone intense mystery.  Tibbs is a strong character from the beginning to the end of the book.  Everything about him is professional, competent and detail-oriented.  I always liked to study this novel with my grade 12s because of the themes, the content and the message that some things will never change.  The novel often sparked controversy about that time period and the blatant racism that existed, the classism issues in the novel and how what we think of justice, is not always the case.  Tibbs is a remarkable homicide detective that in spite of the obstacles that are thrown in his way, he still manages to solve the case.

The mystery still remains one very popular genre today with titles like Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) keeping the reader guessing at every turn of the page, to more classic detective stories like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.  Whether it is classified as a mystery, crime novel, psychological thriller or murder-mystery, this genre will have reader’s guessing “whodunnit” until the last page turns.

comics · reading · Snoopy

Hello Snoopy! Why Peanuts continues to be one of my favourite comic strips

For as long as I can remember I have loved my stuffed Snoopy well before I knew who Snoopy was and where this amazing dog came from.  I became an avid reader of the “funny papers” due to my grandfather’s unknowing influence.  He used to say to us grandchildren after we were ready to leave from a visit, “see you in the funny papers.” As a little girl I didn’t really get it until someone pointed out that my grandpa was saying goodbye each time and that the funny papers referred to the comics section in our local newspaper.  Ever the literalist, I started to read them.  Much went over my young head until I discovered Charles Schultz’s iconic Peanuts strip.

What I love about Peanuts is that everything was observed from a child’s point of view. Snoopy was this heroic dog that could be and do anything.  Charlie Brown was a character that generated much sympathy and Lucy was that bossy older sister.  Children and adults can relate to the every day ups and downs of the Peanuts gang, often seeing themselves in the characters that Schultz created.  As Schultz stated, “If you read the strip, you would know me. Everything I am goes into the strip…” (schultzmuseum.org)  Schultz was a dedicated artist who created great stories through his strip.  Another thing I love about Peanuts is the innocence of the writing but there are also take away lessons and it is funny.

By far, Snoopy is my favourite character from the Peanuts gang.  Snoopy could imagine going anywhere and being anything from the Red Baron to a detective to even Santa Claus.  He is loyal to Charlie Brown and observes the children around him through silent thoughts and musings only really sharing with his side-kick Woodstock.  As a child I could relate to Snoopy in a number of ways.  I wanted to go different places and experience the world.  I wanted to grow up to be a detective, a ballerina, a journalist, a doctor and so on.  My imagination was in rapid fire mode as a child.  That being said, I could also see myself in Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and even Charlie Brown.  This social circle of friends experienced many of the same events that I did as a child including similar emotions and obstacles.

As an adult I came to understand and appreciate Schultz’s genius even more when I realized that as he was writing the strip he could comment on world events in the 1950s right through to the end of original publication in January 2000.  His commentary was never malicious or said with ill-intention as he wanted his readers to laugh yet appreciate what he was trying to say during some tumultuous times in society. One could argue that Schultz was ahead of his time by including comic strips that tackled integration in schools, co-ed baseball teams (including dogs), and comments on technology like the Space Race between the Americans and Russians.

Peanuts has stayed with me long after the last strip was written.  My son enjoys Peanuts too laughing along at the mishaps of the gang and the observations and antics of Snoopy often resulting in discussions about the characters at bedtime.  I appreciate that Schultz opened a world of comics to me later encouraging me to look beyond books and explore traditional comic books and graphic novels.  This is why Peanuts continues to be my favourite comic strip of all time.  See you in the funny papers!

kids · reading · Robert Munsch · storytelling

Tell Me A Story – when the art of storytelling promotes reading

Robert Munsch is one of Canada’s best known storytellers.  I had the opportunity to see him live at Hamilton Place when my son was young; too young to appreciate the sheer genius of this person.  As my son grew older his admiration of Munsch grew and he looked forward to snatching his stories off the shelf at our local library.

So much of what Munsch says in a story is how he says it and that resonates with both children and their parents.  He is loud, he is ridiculous and most of all, he is honest in his books.  Children can relate to the characters and the situations that each of Munsch’s protagonist finds his or herself in.  For example in Mortimer this young boy promises to go to sleep but chaos ensues with his love of noise or as some might see it, his singing voice.  Given the right amount of enthusiasm, this can be a hilarious selection for bedtime.  My son loved that song and laughed each time I sang it to him in my loudest singing voice.  Further Munsch’s story Makeup Mess is so absurd that the listener cannot help but laugh at Julie who is just trying to find the right way to express herself.  The story is very clever in the sense that it teaches indirectly about financial literacy or saving your pennies and the importance of believing in and loving oneself.    

If I tell those Munsch stories and others like them in a dramatic, enthusiastic way, I am encouraging my children to read.  They want another story or for me to tell it again!  If you have ever had the chance to visit a really good children’s section of your local public library or observe a JK – Grade 3 class in action during story time it can be captivating seeing all those little bums move closer and closer to the reader, eyes wide and giggling as the story unfolds.  This is a skill that these librarians and teachers have.  They are natural and the flow of the story keeps those children listening.

“Storytelling is the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, often with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and instilling moral values” (Wikipedia, 2017).  When one examines our different cultures there is almost always some sort of history of oral storytelling that reveals who and where we came from. When I was teaching the older grades, we would study the ballad.  This form of writing was genius for its time period.  We studied The Highway Man by Alfred Noyes, The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot and another by Eliot, The Love Son of J. Alfred Prufrock.  These poems, spoken with dramatic flair and feeling made each protagonist come alive.  This was always one of my favourite sections to study as both teacher and student.  The stories would provoke questions and invitations to study that particular writer further thereby promoting more reading.

As both a parent, a teacher and former teacher-librarian, I have the highest regard for master storytellers like Robert Munsch who can captivate a reader with the greatest of ease.  It is a difficult skill to possess and not everyone is a natural storyteller like Munsch. But don’t be discouraged.  Read to your children in your silliest voice, loudest or quietest tone and with your best facial expressions.  Your children will be delighted!