Category Archives: Books

Grandparents Who Were Readers

annie jantz schmidtI came across these photos of my maternal grandparents Peter and Annie Schmidt recently.  In each photo they are seen reading.  peter schmidtI was fortunate to have four grandparents who all liked to read.  I don’t have photos of my paternal grandmother Margaretha Peters reading but I do remember making regular trips to the bookstore in Steinbach to buy her romance novels in German. I remember how my grandfather Diedrich Peters loved to read National Geographic. 

I had four grandparents who modeled reading as a worthwhile and enjoyable activity.  I was lucky.  I hope I can be that kind of model for my grandchildren too. 

Other posts…….

The Lady With The Book

They Remembered the Books

A Bottomless Vortex of Books

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The Architect’s Apprentice

Tonight my book club at the West Kildonan Library will be discussing The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.   Shafak, a Turkish author,  says her book was inspired by this image of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent which has an elephant in the background. The print created in 1559, during the same time period as the events in the book, is by a German artist Melchior Lorck and is in the British Museum.

Here are four things I found interesting about the novel The Architect’s Apprentice. 

Cristofano dell'Altissimo portrait of Mihrimah Sultan

Mihrimah Sultan is the protagonist’s love interest in the book.  Here she is portrayed by Italian artist Cristofan dell’Altissimo who lived at the same time as Mihrimah did.

Although the protagonist Jahan is a fictional character author Elif Shafak has populated her novel with other characters who are real.  Jahan is an apprentice to Sinan the renowned architect of the Ottoman Empire. Sinan oversaw the building of some 500 structures and nearly 200 of them are still standing. Jahan’s love interest is the Sultan’s daughter Mihrimah. She is a historical figure as well. So are the three sultans who are in power during the time Jahan serves Sinan the Royal Architect. In one section of the book Jahan and another apprentice go to visit Michelangelo in Italy. 

the architect's apprentice book coverThere are many thought provoking reflections in the book.  Here are a three I really appreciated. 

“If you carry a sword, you obey the sword, not the other way round. Nobody can hold a weapon and keep their hands clear of blood at the same time.”

“……Jahan understood his master’s secret resided ……… in his ability to adapt to change and calamity, and to rebuild himself, again and again, out of the ruins. Sinan was made of flowing water. When anything blocked his course, he would flow under, around, above it, however he could; he found his way through the cracks, and kept flowing forward”

“Stones stay still.  A learner never.” 

another edition cover of the architect's apprenticeJahan’s closest relationship in life is with an elephant named Chota. Jahan arrives in Istanbul as Chota’s keeper and immediately sets about saving Chota’s life.  I am not necessarily a big animal lover and will admit that I’ve never understood the deep love some people have for their pets, but I was quite taken with the way Jahan and Chota care for one another, know each other so well, come to one another’s defense, respect each other and provide each other with solace and comfort at crucial times. 

posing at the taj mahalAnd finally at the end of the book Jahan travels to Agra India to help design and build the dome for the Taj Mahal.  I have been to the Taj Mahal and my husband made me pose for this photo where I am appearing to hold up the magnificent structure by the top of the dome. 

Other posts……..

The Taj Mahal At Dawn

Do Buildings Have Souls?

A Story Board in a Painting




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Searching for Political Correctness

Reprehensible treatment of women! Cruelty to animals!  Abuse of children!  I am trying to find an adventure story for children that can inspire the twelve-year-old protagonist in the novel I am writing. Since the novel is set in 1907 I am looking for a book written before that date.  

gullivers travelsI started out with Gulliver’s Travels written in 1725 and was sailing merrily along having my main character identify with Gulliver when I discovered Jonathan Swift’s hero had treated women reprehensibly.  Gulliver implies they aren’t as reasonable as men, are frivolous and lazy and use their sexuality to get men into trouble and is disgusted when he sees a woman breast-feeding. I had to nix Gulliver’s Travels. 

swiss family robinsonNext I tried Swiss Family Robinson written in 1812 by Johann Wyss. Nice family, good values, resourceful after being shipwrecked and kind to one another.  But wait! Not so kind to animals.  They corral ostriches and ride them even though the birds are not built to hold the weight of a human. They slaughter a walrus to use its head as a prow ornament for their boat.  Even though they have plenty of meat they continue to kill for sport.  I had to nix Swiss Family Robinson. 

captain's courageousNext I tried Captains’ Courageous written by Rudyard Kipling in 1897. Great story about a rich spoiled kid named Harvey who falls off a yacht only to be rescued by a fishing schooner.  The fishermen aboard teach him all sorts of important life lessons.  How heartwarming and perfect.  But wait a minute. In the very first scene the captain of the ship hauls off and hits Harvey as a way to discipline him. He hits him hard enough to give him a bloody nose.  I had to nix Captains Courageous.  

Now I am wondering if there will be any novel written before 1907 that doesn’t have some offensive and politically incorrect content.  Any suggestions? 

Other posts………

Reading Aloud to Teens

They Remembered the Books

Why Adults Are Reading Teen Fiction


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The Perfect Novel For Me

madonnas of leningradMy friend Marilyn recommended The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean and it was the perfect novel for me.  I am an art gallery tour guide and so is Marina, the main character in the book.

trucks leave the hermitage in 1941

Trucks filled with artwork leave the Hermitage in 1941

Marina is a docent at the Hermitage Museum.  During the siege of Leningrad in 1941 all the canvases in the galleries are taken down, and shipped away to the Ural Mountains to be hidden from the approaching German army. The Hermitage walls hold only the paintings’ frames. Most of the museum staff have left their homes and taken refuge in the basement of the museum.

hermitage hall during seige

One of the gallery halls during the siege

In order to preserve her sanity Marina begins walking through the galleries and looking at the empty frames.  She remembers the paintings that once hung there and begins to describe them in detail, making the artworks come alive even though they are gone.  

The museum housed many, many paintings of the Madonna and it becomes especially important to Marina to remember how these art pieces look once she realizes she is pregnant. Her fiancée is on the battlefront and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Near the end of the novel she is describing one of these Madonna paintings by Raphael to a group of young boys.  Even though the painting isn’t there she makes it real for them. 

the holy family by raphael hermitage

The Holy Family by Raphael – Hermitage Museum

“This is a wonderous painting because Raphael took these mythical characters, the Virgin Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child and he reimagined them as real people in an actual family. It is a rather melancholy painting. On one side we have Mary. She is beautiful but very distant and unaware. And quite apart from her is Joseph. He is much older than Mary and leans on his walking stick and looks almost frail. Between them standing on the mother’s lap is the Christ Child. He’s a mama’s boy. He is eyeing Joseph fearfully and his arms are reaching out to his mother. Joseph has an expression of resigned disappointment, a father whose child rejects him for the mother. One doesn’t notice the halos at first but they are there fine as piano wires. It’s almost as though Raphael was saying that what sets them apart from any other family is almost invisible. They might be us.” pg. 221 and 222 of The Madonnas of Leningrad.

What an eye and a way with words Marina has!  She is an inspiration to all guides as we try to make art come alive for the people we take on our tours.  

Other posts………….

A Book Takes Me Back to Rome

Thinking About Mothers at the Met

The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

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A Modern Day Charlotte’s Web

the one and only ivan book coverMy great-niece Isabella recommended the book The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate to me. She told me her teacher had read it aloud to her class and she liked it so much she was reading it again on her own during the summer. Last week I finished the Newberry Medal winner published in 2012 and was struck by how much it had in common with Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White published in 1952. charlotte's web book coverBoth tell the story of an animal who needs to be rescued. In The One and Only Ivan it’s Ruby a small baby elephant and in Charlotte’s Web its Wilbur a pig. Wilbur is saved by a spider named Charlotte and Ruby is saved by a silver back gorilla named Ivan. Charlotte the spider uses a message spun in her web to save Wilbur. Ivan uses a message conveyed through his artwork to save Ruby.

julia in the one and only ivan

Julia is the young girl who wants to help Ivan and Ruby.

In both cases there is a young girl who feels a kinship with the animals and tries to help them. In Charlotte’s Web Fern is the daughter of the farmer who owns Wilbur and the barn where he and Charlotte make their home.  In The One and Only Ivan Julia is the daughter of George the janitor who cleans the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade where Ivan and Ruby are kept in cages and are the star attractions. The death of a beloved character occurs in each book.

charlotte spins a web in charlotte's web

In Charlotte’s Web Charlotte dies after using words spun in her web to save Wilbur.

In Charlotte’s Web the spider dies.  In The One and Only Ivan Stella the elephant who cares for Ruby dies.  Delightful illustrations enhance each book.  Garth Williams drew the charming pictures for Charlotte’s Web and Patricia Castelao did the unique artwork in The One and Only Ivan.  

The major way the books are different however is in their voice.  Charlotte’s Web is narrated by a third person omniscient observer while The One and Only Ivan is narrated by Ivan himself.

the one and only ivan illustration by Patricia Patricia Castelao

Ivan narrates his own story.

We get to know the other characters and the events that happen to them solely from Ivan’s point of view.  Katherine Applegate has made Ivan’s voice very unique. She wants his thoughts and observations to be like those a gorilla would have. So the book is written in short sentences in short paragraphs in short chapters with a text that is a kind of poetic prose. That makes it seem less like a traditional novel which would definitely be the way to describe Charlotte’s Web, and more like a collection of short notes in a journal, in fact Ivan’s spare but often very insightful and meaningful observations sometimes reminded me of a Facebook or Twitter post or a blog entry. And perhaps that makes sense for a novel that is so much like Charlotte’s Web but was written sixty years later for an audience of kids raised in a world dominated by social media. 

Other posts………..

Family of Spies

She Persisted

Teaching Kids About Being Homeless

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The Displaced

Sometimes when my parents thought we were sleeping upstairs they would talk in the kitchen about some of the  things that had happened to our family in Ukraine. I could hear their voices through the stove pipe, because it ran from the kitchen up into our bedroom.  The terrible things I heard my parents talking about frightened me.” 

My mother-in-law told me that story once. She was just a little girl when she came to Canada from Ukraine but that didn’t mean she wasn’t affected by her family’s refugee experience.

the enns family

My mother-in-law is the little girl on her mother’s lap in this photo taken just before her family left Ukraine.

I thought of my mother-in-law Anne and her family often as I read the book The Displaced.  It is a series of essays by refugee writers describing their families’ experiences finding a new home in North America. The book was just published in 2018 so it includes references to how Trump’s America is changing the lives of refugees and making them scarier and more difficult. The theme that resonated for me in the essays was how the refugee experience impacted multiple generations of families.  the displacedThe stories in The Displaced are well written, many a riveting read and they are as diverse as the writers who penned them. The refugee writers have come from Chile, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Iran, Ethiopia, Mexico, Hungary and like my mother-in-law Ukraine. They offer an illuminating window into the lives of refugees and make the reader aware of how vital it is for countries to welcome and offer a home to people who find themselves in untenable circumstances due to no fault of their own. 

Other posts…..


I Could Cry I Am So Happy To Be a Canadian 

Cambodia Revisited


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The Lady With A Book

On Monday I was waiting to meet a friend at Assiniboine Park for a walk when I discovered this intriguing statue of a woman sitting on a bench reading a book. She was dressed as someone might have been in the 1950s.lady with a book statue The sign on her park bench said her statue had resided for many years at a home on Wellington Crescent owned by Israel and Babs Asper. Israel or “Izzy” Asper was the founder of Can West Global Communications. He was also the former leader of the Liberal Party of Manitoba and was instrumental in the establishment of the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg.  “Babs” or Ruth was the co-founder and chair of the Asper Foundation which supported philanthropic activities in the areas of health, education, culture and human rights.  Now that both Izzy and Babs have died their statue of a reading lady has been donated to Assiniboine Park in their memory.  It sits just inside the gate to the English Gardens. The quote beside the reading woman is from Cicero. “If you have a library and a garden you have everything you need.”

Other posts……..


Hopeful Families in South Korea

Rubbing Mr. Eaton’s Foot



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Filed under Art, Books, Winnipeg