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!