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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

That Deadman Dance

Admittedly, this one was a toughie.  Tough because I will always feel guilty over the plight of the Australian Aborigines, though I personally have not done anything either way to hurt them or to help them.  There is just no way that I can feel any sort of affinity to them, I just don't know enough about them.  I have more of an understanding of the First Nations that I live and work with here in Canada.
That Deadman Dance helped me to understand a little bit, and I am grateful for that.  The story is told by a Noongar named 'Bobby' Wabalanginy at various stages of his life, and in the style of his people.  The way he weaves in and out of the narrative with his dreamings of what was and what could or should be was magical and mesmerizing.    It was a powerful way to tell this story (which was about first contact between Europeans and the aborigines), and a perfectly simple and creative way to help us see it from the Noongar's point of view.  I will be seeking out the rest of this author's work, I love his way of telling the story.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Macbeth (1948)

Made on a shoestring budget and with 23 days of filming (one of those days budgeted for re-takes), this film didn't do too badly, despite it's many restrictions.  Welles (directing as well as acting) was criticized for his juggling of lines in scenes, removing certain characters and putting in new ones.  An occurrence which is almost commonplace today with book and play adaptations.
Essentially he used the most important lines (often in a different order which was a little confusing at first after just re-reading the play in preparation for viewing the films), but it worked!  All the well-known lines are in there, just not as you might expect them to be used.

When Macbeth rode up with Banquo I got the giggles, I really thought that he looked like Ghenghis Khan (the hat was really surprising!).  
There was plenty of fur, leather and plaid (loads of plaid!), for the cast's wardrobe (I tried not to be too judgmental, considering that I am not familiar with the Scottish costume of that period).  I didn't know at the time that Welles really didn't have the funds to be as authentic as he would have liked to be.  Thankfully the barbarian hat was a no-show in later scenes, but was substituted by even funnier hats... Welles himself said he felt like the Statue of Liberty with this one...
Welles had a very expressive face, and played the part of Macbeth with passion ( I think he even looked a little sexy at one point which is saying a lot because I never thought of him as attractive).  Bagpipes were used in a way I have never seen before, to add a dimension of tension and stress (usually where you would expect the evil-sounding violins to be playing) and was, I think, very effective. 
One of my favourite shots was Macbeth riding quickly up to his castle, jumping off his horse and giving the wife a good snog...  I think they got lucky in getting Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth ( I shudder to think of Vivien Leigh in the role, whom they had originally thought of offering the part to).  They have a little chemistry as you can see.  I think Nolan rocked it as Lady Macbeth!
All of these scenes were played out in cavern-like structures, lots of crags and dark places, which in the black and white makes it look quite barbaric. The camera tricks and angles that Welles became well known for in other films, helped to produce this sense of inevitable insanity, loss of control and destruction.  This just can't go well! This is the look on Macbeth's face when he see's the ghost of Banquo at his table.
 Just one more shot of funny hats...
Everyone spoke with a Scottish burr which was almost as funny as the hats!

One amusing piece of trivia...
This scene (MacDuff's army getting ready to charge) was particularly fierce and had a "vivid urgency" to it because noon break was just announced and everyone was hungry!

After everything is said and done, the key players all mostly dead the movie concludes with this creepy little scene of the witches observing their handiwork and uttering
                                                 "Peace, the Charm's wound up"

...which gave me the shivers!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

This book was a temperamental springboard for me last year when I was hesitant to engage in anything too emotionally evocative.  It certainly was a kick in the pants, after being numb with grief all winter.   Never have I encountered prose that feels so sincere.  What I mean by that is that often when I am reading modern fiction, I have always wondered if it was genuine.  If the characters would really behave in such a manner?  There has often been a sense of the fantastical about some books which has left me feeling doubtful.  Not so with each of these short novellas.  So I conclude from what I have read of Tolstoy so far that he was a passionate man.  A man, I think, who felt everything deeply, and this is clearly shown in each story.  They are not pretty little works... The people in each of these stories represent a facet of Russian culture that I have never known about, but feel that I would have an easier time understanding now.  It is almost a portfolio of people from many walks of life each distinct and special in their own (terrible) way.  I say terrible, because these aren't 'feel good' tales. 
The hazard with his short fiction is that it comes off like a sucker punch when his longer (much much longer!) works gradually build up to the peak before leaving you awash in such feelings that take your breath away.  There is no buffer before the intensity hits you.  It almost has an addictive quality to it, in that you are keen to come back again for more (well... maybe not right away but eventually yes... you come back for more.).  Which is what makes it feel real and true to what humankind actually is and not what some modern day authors perhaps wishes it to be.  It is also the realism that makes these works so unforgettable (not so much in the words but in the emotions associated with them).
I feel a little closer to knowing the man, Tolstoy.

There is a very charming doodle of him on the cover, which makes him look like a very grumpy emu...
...don't you agree?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

All That I Am

I liked this book.  As it is a Miles Franklin winner, I did first view it with caution, because as I stated in Questions of Travel I am tired of the ugliness of humanity and pointless or violent episodes that just make me reluctant to carry on reading this particular book or others that are probably just like it
(I suspect that it might be one of the prerequisites for an award winning novel).

Of course, any book about Germany between the world wars is not going to be a bright sunny, happy-shiny-people-holding-hands kind of story.  I liked this book because it was different  by covering an aspect  of that era I had not read of before.  Not only did I appreciate learning something new in a historically fictional book,  it was nice to know that the author based it off real people and that there is a brilliant bibliography at the back which I plan on using for further reading.  She (Anna Funder) gave these people from the past a voice, which was clear, poignant and respectful.
It was a good story, despite the subject matter, and I am glad that I read it.  I look forward to Anna Funder's next book.

When Marnie Was There (contains a wee spoiler)

I first saw this first as a movie.  I have been slowly collecting Studio Ghibli movies ever since I fell in love with Hayao Miyazaki's Howls Moving Castle.    Like Howl's, this was also taken from a book and directed this time by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  I have actually seen the movie three times now... the first time was with English subtitles which were a little confusing to follow.  I loved it anyway, the film was crystal clear and sparkling which is what I have come to expect from a Studio Ghibli production, and the story was intriguing.   There was such an open, honest sweetness to the characters Anna and Marnie, which gave an endearing quality to such love and friendship between two young girls.
    I next bought the book, which I couldn't wait to get reading (I had questions from watching the movie).  Naturally there are differences (as most movie adaptations have) but again, as with Howl's Moving Castle, the changes did not detract from the story.  I enjoyed reading this English version of what I had only seen yet as a Japanese story.
I then went back and watched the movie again just to compare to the book, while I was waiting for the English version to arrive in the mail.  I truly enjoyed it a second time. Like with any book or movie you see consecutive times, there is always new things to notice and appreciate.
Today I watched the English version.  I cried at the end.  Actually it was sooner than that, but when I began to cry it was at a very heartbreaking scene.  Marnie was begging Anna for forgiveness for leaving her alone at the silo (yeah it's a wee spoiler, but I just wanted you to understand that this is the moment that I truly began to understand the point behind this story), which is that there are many kinds of grief, which shape our lives years after the loss has occurred.  What Joan G. Robinson wrote is actually quite heartwarming, and is more about grief than I first realized.
It think it will become a great comfort book for me.
Grief issues aside, this is a great book and a wonderful movie. I wouldn't hesitate to buy them both.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Questions of Travel

Chosen because it was a Miles Franklin Award winner... you can bloody well bet I would not have picked it up on my own!  It is a challenge for me to read popular or modern fiction unless it has some element that makes it interesting for me (fantasy, etc.).  Not that I can't read it... I actually have two authors that I buy everything of;  Sandra Dallas and Fannie Flagg.  Both author's books have some pretty awful stuff happen in them but you always get something from each story as well as a restoration of faith in human kindness.  Or Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows, it hurt to read that, but I did gain something important from the experience.
  It is just so much easier to read historical fiction because it is a reality far removed from mine, and I'm not crazy about all the sex, sordidness, misery and violence that seem to be so prevalent in some modern books.  I have a big problem with works that have absolutely no point to them.  I can  manage to read some truly awful stories and appreciate the effort put in to write them, like Voss for example, a truly awful human being whom Patrick White wrote quite beautifully about (he does seem to do that really well!).  
This book isn't beautiful and frankly, it was pointless.  I slogged through it, not really caring about these characters, not realizing where the author was taking me, until the very last page.  Obviously I didn't know what was important to this author, so when the finale came I was flabbergasted.  Actually my very first thought was "Well f**k me, I didn't see that coming!"  My next feeling was anger. Anger because of where the author led me, incredulous even that this is what she was working up to.  I've read something like this before when the topic was actually very insensitive and disrespectful of the real people who lived through the original ordeal.  Without giving away anything I can say that I read a real life account of this specific incident  on the last page, and I cried a great deal because the woman who wrote it was raw with pain and grief.
Maybe, at some future time in my life I might appreciate this author, but not right now!