Category Archives: Books

Do Not Become Alarmed!

The title of the novel by Mailie Meloy my book club discussed last night is ironic!  The book is called Do Not Become Alarmed and tells the story of two American families on a holiday cruise in Central America.  During a shore excursion their children are swimming at a secluded beach and are swept away by a strong current.   Although their parents are reassured by police and embassy officials that the kids will be found, the plot thickens at every turn, and along with the parents, the reader becomes very alarmed indeed! 

do not become alarmedEveryone in my book club agreed Do Not Become Alarmed was the kind of novel  they could hardly put down.  Meloy ratchets up the tension at every turn. Just when you think things will be resolved something else happens and you need to keep reading to find out what comes next.  The book played on the fears of all parents- that heart stopping moment when you think you have lost your child in a crowd or when you get a phone call from their school they’ve been hurt. 

Author Meloy juxtapositions the lives of the wealthy first world American families in the novel with the lives of local Central American people and some of the cruise ship staff who come from less developed countries. By doing this she forces us to look at some deeper questions.  

My book club discussed the whole idea of rich North Americans using poverty-ridden countries as their playgrounds for holidays.  Should we be doing that? While our tourist dollars might provide an economic opportunity for poorer countries what does our presence there do to people’s pride, their way of life, their culture, the natural environment? Do local people really benefit from our presence or are they taken advantage of by large corporations from other countries who own cruise ships and resorts? 

Not every one in my book club liked the novel’s ending. It did make us realize that the lives of the families involved and their relationships with one another had been forever changed by their alarming experience and it was alarming to think that what had happened to the families in the book could really happen to anyone.  Perhaps the title of the book should have been Become Very Alarmed!

Other posts about my book club’s books………

The Stranger in the Woods

The Architect’s Apprentice

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Where Do The Crawdads Sing For You?

I heard about the novel Where the Crawdads Sing watching an interview with its author Delia Owens on the show  Sunday Morning on CBS.  The book has spent 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list thanks at least in part to Reese Witherspoon selecting it for her book club. Witherspoon will also be producing a movie based on the book. You need to read it before that happens!

Set in rural Georgia where the author grew up, Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of a girl named Kya who through an unusual set of circumstances ends up living all alone in her family’s dilapidated and secluded cabin in a marsh.  The book has a murder mystery angle, but is also a romance, and a story about how time spent living close to nature can bring a person healing and hope. 

Owens named the book after a phrase her mother used when she urged her daughter to deal with worry or woe by riding off into the woods on her horse and spending some time immersed in the natural world. “Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing,” Delia’s mother would say. Owens has since learned that crawdads can’t really sing but she still thinks her mother was wise to encourage her to find solace in nature. I think one message of the book is that no matter the climate or landscape of where we live, we all need to find a place ‘where the crawdads sing’ for us, where we can experience the nurture of the natural world. It may be by a lake or river, in a forest or a park, or it might even be in our own backyard. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is full of poetry and interesting facts about plants and animals and their habitats, and although set in the past deals with some issues that sadly are still current like domestic abuse and racism. 

The book reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine because both have a lonely young woman with little human connection as their protagonists. 

photo of delia owens

Delia Owens on her ranch in Idaho

This book was inspirational to me because Delia was 70 years old when her first novel was published!  She worked on it for ten years. So there is still hope for me!

Other posts…….

Stranger in the Woods

Educated

Becoming 

Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Home Town

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George

One of the fifth year university education students I supervise is doing a novel study of George by Alex Gino with her grade five and six class. The story centers around a ten year old boy named George who wishes he were a girl.  George auditions for the part of Charlotte, the female spider in the school’s theatrical version of the novel Charlotte’s Web, but the teacher says only a girl can play the role.  That isn’t the only problem George has. George’s mother is clearly upset when she finds George looking at women’s fashion magazines. There are some bullies at school who make fun of what they claim are George’s more feminine character traits. Luckily George has a best friend Kelly who helps hatch a plan to share George’s secret wish to be a girl with family and community. 

I read George to prepare for observing the classes my student teacher will lead about the novel. The book was written in a way upper elementary children could easily read and relate to and when I checked with the guidelines provided by the Canadian Paediatric Society I found out George is exactly the age at which young people who aren’t sure of their gender identity will begin to have stronger feelings about the fact. The guidelines also offer great suggestions for parents of children as they are establishing their gender identity- being supportive and loving their children just as they are and not pressuring them to change- asking gentle questions- being a role model by accepting and interacting with people in the community who are transgender or gender diverse.  

George was lucky to have some understanding supporters- the school principal, George’s brother Scott and of course Kelly a best friend. Although not in an overtly preachy way the novel gives ideas for how teachers  and families and the community can be helpful.  Providing gender neutral washrooms, signs in classrooms that declare them a safe place for all children, allowing children to explore toys and clothes that may not normally be associated with their gender, not addressing groups of children as ‘boys and girls’ but using terms like students or learners or kids and not separating children into groups according to gender.  

I’m glad I read George and I am looking forward to listening in on the discussions about the book my student teacher will have with her class.  I wonder what ideas the kids will have about George. 

Other posts……….

Responding to Changing Attitudes Toward Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Gender Neutral Washrooms

Teaching Kids About Diversity

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Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Home Town

Alexandra Schwartz writes a lengthy feature in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine about author Miriam Toews who was born and raised in Steinbach, Manitoba.    

Toews’ eighth novel Women Talking will be released in the United States this week. Covers for the British, Italian and German editions of Women Talking are featured on Toews’ media sites. Schwartz interviewed Toews both in her current Toronto home and during a trip the two made to Steinbach to explore Toews’ roots, since characters and locations inspired by Steinbach people and places figure prominently in Toews’ novels.a complicated kindnessSchwartz also interviewed Steinbach teacher Andrew Unger who studies Toews’ best selling novel A Complicated Kindness with his high school students. Unger once featured Toews on his popular satirical Daily Bonnet website where he mused about why there wasn’t a giant statue of Toews in her hometown.  Of course Unger was ‘schputting’- a Low German word for making fun of something or being irreverent about it. ‘Schputting’ is explained in The New Yorker article with reference to Toews’ own writing.

Unger wasn’t ‘schputting’ however when he told The New Yorker that Steinbach hasn’t really acknowledged the accomplishments of Toews.  “We’ve done nothing as a community to recognize or honor her.”

Why hasn’t Steinbach recognized a woman The New Yorker calls one of Canada’s best loved and best known writers, a woman who has won international literary prizes and whose work is critically acclaimed?

I think one reason is because Toews’ books fictionalize real events and people. Steinbach residents who have knowledge of those same events and people tend to get upset because Toews didn’t write about them accurately.   

I was connected in several ways to the Toews’ family and have sometimes caught myself saying as I read Miriam’s books, “But that’s not the way it happened.”  I know that Toews is writing fiction but I understand how some people might be unsettled reading her fictionalized version of true events.

Toews’ mother Elvira puts it even more strongly in The New Yorker article when she talks about people who say her daughter “just tells lies.”  Mennonite novelist Dora Dueck confesses on her blog she initially struggled with something similar while reading Women Talking.  Dueck has high praise for the book but says she had to lecture herself that it was a novel and not journalism.

Another reason why Toews may not be lauded in her hometown is because the predominantly Mennonite population is troubled by her honest revelations about the abuse, oppression and hypocrisy particularly directed towards women by the historically entrenched patriarchy in Mennonite churches and the church’s tendency at least in the past, to ignore or silence people with addictions, mental health issues and family dysfunction.  The devastating consequences of these kinds of attitudes are being brought to light every day in every kind of church denomination but Toews’ books focus on the Mennonite church and so some Mennonites might feel they have been singled out for unfair criticism.

To balance Toews’ perceived lack of popularity in her hometown one has to remember she gives voice to many people who know from first hand experience that her accounts of growing up in in a small conservative community, and her characters’ experiences with the church ring true, no matter where they live or what religious affiliation they might have. Toews may not have enough fans in her hometown to be given recognition with her name on a building, or street sign, or piece of public art, but she does have a multitude of fans around the world who appreciate her and love to read her books.  

Other posts

Are Men and Women’s Friendships Different?

Mennonite Nuns

Violence in Christian Families

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Making Peace With the Past- The Canada Reads Nominees

All five Canada Reads nominees this year tell stories that were written at least in part because the authors wanted to make peace with their past.  I’ve already blogged about the first two books Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung, and Brother by David Chariandy. The other three are……..

In his Holocaust memoir By Chance Alone Max Eisen relates his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.  He  was from Czechoslovakia and lost his entire immediate family to the gas chambers.  Eisen had dreams while he was writing his book that helped him remember details about the past which his subconscious had suppressed. He was surprised how cathartic the writing experience was.

In Suzanne author Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette tells the story of her grandmother’s life.  Her grandmother left her husband and children to go to the United States and Europe to carve out an independent future of her own as an artist, writer and political activist.  Lavalette has researched the personal history of this grandmother she never really knew in the hopes that she might be able to understand her grandmother’s choice to abandon her children.

None of the Canada Reads nominees stands out for me. All are incredibly sad.  All are either true stories or were inspired by real life events and experiences. All address multiple issues of importance- racism, war, the role of women, mental illness, immigration, anti – Semitism, single parenting, and poverty. Each ends with a glimmer of hope.

I am only a few chapters in to The Woo Woo, by Lindsay Wong, the fifth nominee but have yet to gain a real appreciation for its kind of humour or feel an affinity for the narrator, although I can certainly relate to some aspects of the Chinese culture it portrays having lived in China for six years.  

Brother is the most well written book in my estimation.  Suzanne was the hardest to read because I couldn’t bring myself to make a connection with the protagonist or feel sympathy for her.  By Chance Alone covers territory I have become familiar with from the many other Holocaust stories I’ve read. Homes has the truest voice. Woo Woo is the strangest. 

An article in the March 20th issue of the Globe and Mail suggests that the Canada Reads books chosen this year emphasize sending a message or teaching a lesson over good imaginative writing and engaging stories. I think I tend to agree. 

Unlike other years when I have the book I’d like to see win Canada Reads clearly chosen ahead of time I really don’t have a favorite this year. I’ll be curious to see what happens when Canada Reads begins today.

Other posts……..

Hero’s Walk

The Illegal

Bone and Bread

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The Stranger in the Woods

A young man named Christopher Knight literally disappears off the map in Maine and for 27 years he lives all alone in the forest without any other human contact. Knight reads voraciously.  He listens to music. He communes with nature. But his life is hard in lots of ways.  Many years he barely makes it through  the cold winter. He survives by stealing from cabins and camps when the owners aren’t around.  By the time he is finally caught he faces some 1000 charges of theft.

Here’s just two of the many things I thought about after reading Christopher Knight’s story in the book Stranger in the Woods by journalist Michael Finkel.

  •  After he was discovered, arrested and tried for his robberies Knight was reunited with his family. His mother and siblings wanted privacy, yet Finkel went ahead and told Knight’s story in a popular book.  Was it right for him to do that?  It is true that while Christopher was in prison for theft he replied to Michael Finkel’s request for an interview and that on a number of subsequent occasions he talked to Finkel about his three decades in the woods.  But should Finkel have written the book when he knew it would draw added attention to a man who was uncomfortable with any kind of attention and when his family expressly requested privacy? 
  •  I know there are people who are introverts. While others need social connections to thrive and learn and recharge…. introverts need to be alone.  We have to be respectful of that but……  Christopher Knight was an educated man, an excellent worker, a creative thinker, an intelligent philospher of sorts, and a keen observer of nature. His choice to live in isolation means no one else benefitted from those gifts including his family.  

The Stranger in the Woods is the March pick for the book club I belong to at the West Kildonan Library.  We meet tonight. I will be curious to find out whether other people had the same thoughts I did and to discover what struck them about this very interesting book. 

Other posts………

Leave No Trace

Loneliness

The Perfect Novel For Me

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Lost on My Kindle

Last year my daughter-in-law borrowed my Kindle to take on a holiday.  When she returned she said one of the books on my Kindle she had enjoyed reading was The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant.  

I couldn’t remember reading it. I looked through the notes in my journal.  No reference to The Boston Girl  there.  I must have downloaded it and then forgotten to read it.  It got lost on my Kindle!

I rectified things on my recent Mexican holiday when I read The Boston Girl .  The story takes you on a walk through history with a young Jewish woman living in one of my favourite American cities.  As you hear Addie Baum’s life story you learn about the Boston tenements where new immigrants lived in deplorable conditions. You come to understand the devastation and grief wrought by the Spanish influenza epidemic and World War I.  You also are witness to the way political and social activists worked to better the lives of women and children in the 1920s.  The main action in the story is centered on the years between 1915-1927.

The Boston Girl did not receive overwhelmingly stellar reviews but I liked it because I could connect with it in three ways.  

  • It tells the story of an immigrant family from Russia.  I am from a Russian immigrant family.
  • It uses the story of a young woman to illustrate a specific historical period.  I am currently working on a series of short stories that chronicle the life of a young woman during the 1960s. 
  • It is written in a straight forward and easy to read style that could almost make it a middle grade or teen historical novel.  I am currently trying to get a middle grade historical novel I have written published. 

I think The Boston Girl is an important book because it shows us what life was like for women before they could use birth control,  before abortions were legal, before there were laws to protect women from domestic violence, before there were no fault divorce laws, before women had equal opportunities in the workplace, before they could vote.  At a time when women are still fighting for justice and equality I think a reminder of how far we’ve come is crucial if we don’t want to return to those dark times for women. 

I am glad my daughter-in-law helped me find The Boston Girl otherwise it might have remained lost on my Kindle and I would have missed a good read. 

Other posts………..

Learning How To Write Historical Fiction

What Makes a Best Seller? 

Brides of New France

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