Thursday, August 4, 2016


This is one of those books I made myself read because it is on one of my literary mugs "The Greatest First Lines of Literature".
So one of my reading challenges this year is to read the books that I haven't already on this mug and one other, "The Banned Books" mug.

  And it's been quite a challenge, because some of these books, while being 'great' or 'banned' are a challenge to read.  Either it' s the language, the writing or mostly the content that is hard to digest.

So this summer I decided that I needed to put in a concentrated effort to make myself read some of these books (which I will talk about soon).

It has all been very heady stuff, and Beloved tops the stack at being a very challenging book to read.  I made three first attempts before I finally made it stick.  When I could stick with it I was engaged and anxious to get to the end, because I really couldn't see where the book was headed.  I knew what I had hoped to see but that, of course, is no guarantee that an author will be considerate and take your  own feelings or preferences to account.  It won the Pulitzer Prize so you can almost bank it that this would be a stressful, ugly and painful novel about slaves. And it was.  That's not really a spoiler.

Beloved is not the first book this year that I have read about slaves.  Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was tackled earlier on in February during Black History Month, and I had to make a few tries to start reading that one too.    There are many similarities, but one thing I am extremely grateful for is that the speech is easier to read.  It really bothered me that Stowe had most of her characters sound illiterate and it was so bad you could barely understand what she had them saying...
Beloved, was an easy read, and even when the speech was slang, I didn't have the need to parse what was said.  

Morrison was clever to feed out the horrible parts in bits and pieces throughout the book, which was very kind and humane of her.  It was a story which wound around you like a spell, with each divulgence, and then grasped you at the climax when everything was laid bare and horrible, holding you there until the very end. 

At some point it feels like we as a people have written so much (too much!) about the horrible times in our history, and it feels like we are beating it long after it should have been laid to rest.  I can honestly say that some people are total jerks for writing something this horrible and it has angered me very much.  But I think that has more to do with how the author has treated the subject.  Beloved is different.  Toni Morrison wrote a thoughtful, insightful book about ex-slaves and the ghosts of their pasts which do come back to haunt them as any hard thing in a person's life does.  It was real, honest and a way of writing that makes me think about those times soberly and with sadness, but not with anger.  Like a story about the war,  the Holocaust, or any other terrible event in our history, this too should be remembered all the time, because it happened, and it should never be forgotten, lest it should happen again.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Remains of the Day

I am surprised that I have not already written about this book... but I am glad that I did not because I have a different way of looking at it now with comparison to what I have already read by Ishiguro.
When I first read it, I had already seen the movie with Anthony Hopkins, and Emma Thompson (two of my most favourite actors!), and I already loved it.  This is unfortunate, because the movie predisposed me to see things that aren't too apparent with the book (unless you already know what to look for).
Second time around I began to see a theme with what I have read so far in A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World and Remains of the Day.  They are all retrospective novels, they all look back in to their past (and they are bittersweet).  Also, the protagonist does at some point try to make a change, but really it is too late to do so and learning to live with events and their consequences is inevitable and unusual in each story.  Of course, it is only a stressful situation for the lead character, and once the book concludes you do see that it isn't really as bad as you once thought it was, but I love how you are drawn in to the story and carefully held there until it is over.
Remains is a departure from the first two books, with a culture heavily steeped in a British culture that is almost extinct now (or the book would have you believe so),  it was extremely interesting and absorbing to read about the life of a servant in a large country estate, and the measures he took to be an excellent butler.   I am in awe of how Ishiguro has taken me from Japan in the first two books to England in the third and has managed to steep me in the distinct experience of each country.  I am very excited to see where he will take me next!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Japanese Novels

To my great pleasure I have been able this year to buy all of Kazuo Ishiguro's works.  It is something I have been meaning to do since I read Remains of the Day years ago.  Since May I have had this lovely stack of shiny new books by my reading chair.
I have been slowly rationing out the reading of them over a few months, but I plan on reading the lot this year, and I am alright with that, because these are books that I will come back to again and again.

A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro's first novel, and the first of two books known as his Japanese novels.  I should admit that a few years ago I had read An Artist of the Floating World, and that when I had finished I was embarrassed because I didn't know much about that time (post World War II).  So I have made a point of getting informed about Japan.  I have studied customs, food, history and geography.  I really wanted to understand these novels, get the cultural references etc.  It is still not an easy job to do, and Ishiguro is the first to say that he did not write in the Japanese style (what ever that is), but just about characters in Japan.  I want to understand and to know more about the Japanese art of storytelling, but I have barely begun reading Japanese authors (I have a list of who I would like to read next!)
This time around, I felt I had a better grasp of what Japan is about (but still a very small understanding of such a rich and beautiful culture!).  So reading this book, I was happy to see that I had a better awareness of it's content (there was a lot of "Oh, I know what this is!" instead of "Huh?").
Continuing on to a re-reading of An Artist of the Floating World, I was able to see the theme of both of these novels, and to understand what they were trying to tell me.  They are both retrospects of significant times in the lives of both protagonists with a the humanizing admission that they were not perfect, that they made mistakes and that they could live with that fact in later years.  Ishiguro is a writer who carefully leads you along the same path as the protagonist, he gently supports you through the crisis of each person, and then helps you to see that there is and can be an acceptance of and a resolution to each circumstance,  but not perhaps what you were expecting or hoping for.   Both books are almost delicate in the delivery of their stories.  If this is a Japanese story telling trait, I have no idea, but I hope it could be.  I can't wait to find out!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Newbery 2016

I have made an earnest effort to read a lot of Newbery winners and honors this past school year (more than usual), and it has been my pleasure to be able to read all of the contenders for the past couple of years (it's a lot tougher to find them from years ago, but thankfully, if the local library doesn't have the actual book, their electronic library service more than likely will).  It's nice to be up to date.  I'm not usually a person who reads all of the new stuff just come out, it takes me a couple of years to catch on to something that everyone else has raved about (like four years ago!), because I am so busy reading stuff from a hundred or so years ago  so it's nice to be current or in the now.  Of course, it is much easier to be up to date with children's literature.
Is it a good book? Yes.  Should it have won the Newbery? No.  I'll explain why.  Firstly, it's a picture book and has no business been considered for this award.  Secondly, there were far superior nominees that qualified for a Newbery that ought to have won it instead.
That being said, it's a nice picture book.  I saw lots of teaching opportunities in it for the classroom (and at home too!).  When I read it aloud to a class, I just touched briefly on class awareness, prejudices, community spirit and the clever use of metaphor.  For a teacher I could see a comprehensive unit being taught about this book, language arts, social studies, art, community service, cooking, you name it, you might be able to apply it to this book.
I read this next.  I have only read one other book by Ryan, Esperanza Rising, so this was a bit of a surprise.  It is four stories, the first encapsulating the other three and distinguished in a lovely way with color and illustration.  Have a look... it's just gorgeous!
 This was done just for the fairy tale portions at the beginning and the end.
In no other work has music spoken so loudly to me.  It was a symphony of words, each story was a movement, each section a crescendo of emotion, a part of history full of it's own horror. The characters in each arc had their own part to play in a piece that wasn't revealed until the very end of the book.   At the last section I was in tears, because by that time I saw much more than just four separate sad or scary stories but a symphony that was rich and poignant.
Echo, in my opinion, should have won the award.
This was a very close runner-up.  I listened to this through Library To Go, the book was narrated by Jayne Entwistle.  I am very glad the ebook wasn't available because this was a beautiful audiobook.  This was a great piece of historical fiction, and another honor book that brought me to tears.  It was personal for me because I am very familiar with what it feels like to have a mother like the one in the book.  Having it read to me made it harder to separate, I think, from the protagonist's feelings.
Last, but not least, I was happy to see another graphic novel considered for this award.  More and more, graphic novels are in demand, and I like to see that they are well written, meaningful stories in a format that so many kids are clamoring for these days.


What a treat!  Picked up because it is the 2016 Nebula Award Best Novel recipient, I was pleasantly surprised.  Surprised because lately the award winners I have been reading have been somewhat yucky (yep I think I will stick to that...they were yucky!).  Yucky because these award winners were ugly, corrupt, violent, coarse, and full of bad people.  Uprooted had the same kind of characters and events in it but wasn't yucky.  There was ugliness, corruption, violence and bad people, yet the difference for me, I suppose, is that the coarseness was absent, and of course this isn't realistic fiction in any way.     
Uprooted drew me in immediately, and was an engrossing read all of the way through.  The story was fresh and new (though it was liberally steeped in folklore of the Slavic persuasion).  It was wonderful, exciting and a little romantic (the 'happily ever after' of this new folktale).
I am excited over the resurgence of these kinds of books.   I have students who don't really believe me when I tell a group that the original folktales were not meant for children, and then try to explain why (without traumatizing them with some truly gruesome, or should I say Grimm,  examples).  I love Uprooted, it is like the standard folktale, but with new twists, making what was old, new and fantastic again, giving life to while paying homage to the old... and this time, giving it back to the grown ups!

Saturday, June 18, 2016


It was just yesterday that I was waxing poetic about To Say Nothing of the Dog, and here I am today ready to get 'all lyrical' about Bellwether.   I admit, the write up on the back cover did not encourage me to read this book a few years ago when I started collecting Connie Willis, but after a few more of her books under my belt, I trust her implicitly and will read anything she has ever done.
You don't really need a time-travelling shtick to get in to this book, like everything else I have ever read by Willis, you are drawn in almost instantly. Last night I just decided to indulge myself by reading Bellwether until I couldn't stay awake any longer, and then I picked it up first thing this morning and read on until the finish (it is a habit with me to 'ration' out the good books by only reading small amounts at a time, trying to make them last longer), so not only am I breaking my rules by reading more than one of Willis' book in a year, I am swallowing them whole as well.
It felt like my IQ had gone up a few points when I was done.  The overall theme to this story is chaos theory (and the fascinating way fads originate and apply to it), and I am impressed with how it was used as a story telling device.  I think that when I get back to doing the re-reads on Willis' work, I will confirm that this is used in her other works too.  Chaos theory as plot device.
  An interesting thing to note is that later this morning I was looking at Pinterest for the first time in a few months, and my whole outlook on it has changed drastically after reading Bellwether.  
To conclude, a Connie Willis book will, make you laugh, learn something new, increase your intelligence and change your world views.  Maybe I should make t-shirts!

Friday, June 17, 2016

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Since reading Blackout/All Clear I have been hooked on Connie Willis.  I have collected all of her major works to date and have been jealously hoarding them ever since (only reading one of them a year).  What's really awesome is that she is still that means she might write some more, which is great, but I still find myself stingily doling out the love an an annual basis.  I mention this because I have dared to begin reading a second one by Connie this same calendar year, and it has me panicking a little!  
But today I am talking about To Say Nothing of the Dog.  I read this in February, and it was the last of her books written about her Time Travel series.  I really hope that she will write more, they are just that good!   It won the Hugo and the Locus award.
This book was mainly situated in the Victorian era.  As usual, a couple of things go wrong for the historians visiting there and the protagonist Ned Henry is sent to fix things up.  Unfortunately for Ned, he has been time travelling a lot recently and he is suffering from 'time lag'.  After being shoved in to the time net,  he has forgotten half of his damage control instructions, thus making the mission go 'pear-shaped' in a comically tragic way.
The main things I love about these stories is that I learn a lot of history (and it's all very interesting), there are a lot of literary references (which I love to follow up on... this time I bought the Kindle bundle of Jerome K. Jerome's complete works), and there are lots of unforgettable characters.  When things go wrong it's all very engrossing, exciting, and best of all gets me chuckling throughout the read, greedily gobbling up pages of the story to the very end.
What is also nice, I suppose, is that even though you have finished the book, there are lots of things to look up and read about, so it helps to keep me busy and not think too much about there not being another book in the series.