Category Archives: Books

A Book Takes Me Back To Rome

I was reminded of this photo as I read From Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon. Harmon tells the story of the Nazi occupation of Italy. One of the events described in the book happened on my birthday October 16, just ten years before I was born. Two thousand of the Jews living in Rome were rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. Only a hundred of them would survive the war. We did a Jewish history tour of Rome when we visited in 2010 and Dave took my picture at a sign just outside the Jewish ghetto commemorating the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz.   The positive side of this story was that some four thousand Jews were not taken that October day in 1943 because they were hidden in various Catholic institutions in Rome. That is exactly what happens to Eva the main character in From Sand and Ash who is sheltered in a convent. Many other places we toured were featured in the novel. It was interesting to revisit our ten days in Rome as I read the book. 

Other recent posts about books…….

A Novel So Long It Took Us Through Eight States

Her Worship

No Lesson Required

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A Novel So Long It Took Us Through Eight States

small-great-things-hc-400wDave and I have been listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things on our drive back to Manitoba from Arizona.  It is a loooooooooong book!  Nearly sixteen hours of listening.  Jodi always addresses a social issue in her novels  and presents ethical dilemmas for her readers to consider. The issue in Small Great Things is racism and the ethical dilemma is faced by a black labor and delivery nurse named Ruth. She has been told by her supervisor not to touch the baby of a white supremacist couple Britt and Turk Bauer after they complain about having a black woman care for their baby. But the newborn goes into cardiac arrest when Ruth happens to be the only staff person in the nursery. She must decide whether to try to save the baby’s life or follow the orders she has been given not to touch the child. Due to her decision she is fired and charged with murder in the baby’s death. 

Jodi Picoult is known for her meticulous research and this book helps you learn almost too much about how newborns are cared for in hospitals, how court cases are researched, the incredibly scary world of white supremacists in America, and the effects of racism on communities, society and individuals.  Jodi says in an afterword she did not write this book so much to show the burden African-Americans carry because of the color of their skin, but rather to show white Americans how racist they are, even if they think they aren’t. 

I was concerned about how the book would end because Jodi can sometimes give you a surprise ending that is troubling and unsatisfying.  I kept telling Dave what I was worried would happen. This book did not end the way I predicted and left some of my questions unanswered but I was satisfied with it. 

Jodi’s books always have multiple narrators and this story is told by Ruth the nurse, Turk Bauer the white supremacist and Kennedy McQuarrie Ruth’s lawyer. Perhaps because I was listening to it rather than reading it, I sometimes felt that Jodi repeated too many things in her consecutive narratives instead of always moving the story ahead as quickly as she might have.  I did think the novel could have used a good edit and as I listened kept thinking of parts I would have slashed.  

Still this was a good story that kept us engaged as we drove through eight different states. In fact listening to this story set in America while driving through America added to its appeal and made it even more thought-provoking. 

Note: The title comes from a quote by Martin Luther King

 If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way

Other posts……..

Sing You Home- A Book Set to Music


Fruitvale Station


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Don’t Over Analyze- Just Enjoy

swannnovelSwann was the very first Carol Shields book I ever read and I loved it. I found a copy at my friend Perry’s house this summer when he was giving away books to prepare for a move. I just reread it last week and enjoyed it ever so much once again. The story is told from the viewpoint of four different people and Carol makes sure we know each one intimately before she moves on. The four- a publisher, librarian, biographer and English academic become fascinating characters in Carol’s skillful hands. There is something about each one’s life that is just a little sad. They all think of themselves in some way as experts on the poetry written by an Ontario farm wife named Mary Swann whose writing career is cut short when she is brutally murdered by her husband. In the last section of the book the four meet at a symposium in Toronto where the work of Mary Swann is to be discussed and analyzed by a gathering of literary experts. The book is a cautionary tale about not taking literary analysis too seriously. The New York Times review of the book called it a “gentle satire of English academia.”  It reminded me of a poem by Jean Little that I tried to keep in mind when I was an English teacher. 

After English Class

By Jean Little

I used to like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking–and adding to
–the stillness,
The gentle drift of snow. . . .
But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep–
They all have “hidden meanings.”
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.

Other posts……….

Carol Shields

A Picture Perfect Afternoon

Stopping By Woods- A Children’s Masterpiece

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Great Reading And Great Writing

lucy-bartonBare as bone and clean as a whistle.  Those words by Canadian memoir writer Fredelle Maynard perfectly describe the writing in My Name is Lucy Barton.  I once took a memoir writing workshop with Ms. Maynard and she told us memoir writing is best when it is bare as bone and clean as a whistle.  

Elizabeth Strout’s book My Name is Lucy Barton is not a memoir of a real person.  Elizabeth who is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge makes it clear in an NPR interview that although her new book is about a writer it is not about her.  But it is written like a memoir.  A woman is in the hospital for an extended period of time. Her mother comes to visit her. The two have not been close and their family’s life has been highly dysfunctional. The conversations and interactions during her mother’s five day visit form the heart of My Name is Lucy Barton.

I liked the way Lucy doesn’t whine about the difficulties life sends her way. She is generous and respectful in trying to understand her troubled parents and siblings. When she ends her marriage and her daughters resent her,  she is generous and respectful of both her husband and children as she tries to understand them and realize the positive ways they have contributed to her life.

I liked the way Strout jumped around in time in her novel. We start in the hospital setting and then Lucy takes us forward and backward in time so we learn about her childhood as well as her marriage and career after she leaves the hospital. 

I liked the way several incidents in the book resonated with me personally.  I am sure that will be the case for most readers. 

My Name is Lucy Barton is a simple, straightforward telling of an emotional story.  You are bound to be taken in by its spare and lovely prose.  

Other posts……


A Book That Mirrors A News Story

Lessons From Gray Mountain

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A Book That Mirrors A News Story

Saturday’s Winnipeg Free Press had an article about a man who while suffering from schizophrenia murdered a fellow bus passenger. This happened nine years ago. The man who committed the murder has been receiving treatment ever since and the Criminal Code Review Board has now determined he can live on his own in the community. The comments people have made online about the article display varying attitudes towards mental health issues.  Many Free Press readers find the review board’s decision difficult to understand and are asking lots of questions. 

cageofstars-cvr-227x350If you want to read a book that addresses this very situation I would recommend Cage of Stars by Jacquelyn Mitchard.  Dave and I listened to an audio version of the novel many years ago and its story raised so many good questions that I put Cage of Stars on the list of books I studied with some of my highschool English classes. In Cage of Stars a schizophrenic man murders two young girls and after rehabilitation and medication he also returns to a regular life with his family and in society.

The parents of the murdered girls are devoutly religious and find it in their hearts to forgive the man who killed their daughters but their older sister simply cannot.  The story shows just how deeply everyone involved is effected, and helps the reader process and think through the many questions that can arise from such a situation. I think the book offers lots of alternative perspectives and could be a starting point for some excellent discussion. 

Other books that would be good for discussion……

Being Mortal

The Illegal

The Elegance of the Hedgehog


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Filed under Books, Health

Her Worship

her-worship-coverShe was the recipient of abusive threats and bomb scares. Political cartoons routinely made fun of her physical appearance and a critical newspaper editorial was published about her late arrival at a budget meeting.  She had been at her dying mother’s bedside. Once an effigy of her was burned right outside the window of her office.

Susan Thompson’s autobiography gives you some insight into just how tough a politician’s life can be and when you are the first female mayor of your city, in charge of thirty departments headed almost exclusively by men things can be even tougher.

Susan Thompson

After I finished reading Her Worship I felt respect for Susan Thompson. She believed being the mayor of Winnipeg was her calling and she pursued the office and carried out her duties with dedication.

I learned many things about Susan Thompson from her autobiography I didn’t know. Here are just three.

  1.  She was at the helm of our city during some of its finest as well as darkest hours.  During her two terms in office Winnipeg won the bid to host the Pan Am Games and hosted the International Winter Cities Conference and Showcase.  Susan was also mayor when Winnipeg lost the Jets hockey team and during the flood of 1997. 
  2. Susan left a promising career in Montreal as the principal jewelry buyer for a large department store chain where postings to Hong Kong or Florence waited in the wings for her,  in order to return to Winnipeg and take over her father’s struggling saddlery business when he was diagnosed with cancer. 
  3. As part of her election platform Susan said she would not accept a city pension. Her saddlery business closed down while she was in office.  So Susan continues to work to support herself and to honor her commitment to be of public service.  Since her time as mayor she has had positions as an executive consultant for the Winnipeg Airport Authority, as Canadian Consul General in Minneapolis, chief executive officer of the University of Winnipeg Foundation and in 2014 accepted a contract as fundraising consultant for the new Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. 

You will want to read Susan Thompson’s book yourself to find out even more about our city’s first and to this point only female mayor. Clearly she has many friends and supporters and she is generous in giving them credit both for her political victories, personal achievements and as the sponsors who made the writing of her autobiography possible. 

Other posts…….

A Simple Thank You Makes My Day

Words of Wisdom From Winnipeg Mayor Bill Norrie

Meeting With the Mayor

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Filed under Books, Winnipeg

Learning How To Write Historical Fiction

I just finished reading three novels written for young people. Each one is historical. Since I am writing a novel set in 1907 I was eager to get  insight into how to best craft a story set in the past.

the_gentle_falcon_coverThe Gentle Falcon by Hilda Lewis takes place in the 1300s and tells the story of Isabella Clinton a girl chosen to be a special companion to the French child bride of England’s King Richard II. The book starts off in an interesting way as we meet Isabella and learn about her life and the adventure she is about to begin. However the middle section of the book seems too bent on getting in all the historical details of Richard II’s life. It took the focus off the main character too much. Reading The Gentle Falcon reminded me that story and character development is more important than covering all the historical facts.

when_you_reach_meThe second novel I read was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stein. It is a Newberry Medal winner set in 1979. The book is about a New York girl named Miranda and her life at school, home and in her neighbourhood. She is trying to figure out who is sending mysterious letters to her. From reading this book I learned it is much harder to write a novel set just decades ago than a novel set more than a hundred years ago. Because many things in 1979 were  similar to the present it is harder to establish the unique historical context of the story. I think the author might have included more references to things unique to the 70’s.  It reminded me to check every detail of my manuscript to be sure I don’t have references that are too generic or modern and plenty that are unique to 1907.

tucson-jo-national-book-award-finalistThe third novel I read was Tuscon Jo by Carol Matas. It is set in the 1880s in Arizona and is a fictional account of the family life of one of Tuscon’s first mayors. We really get to know our main character Jo, the mayor’s daughter very well. The real mayor whose life inspired the story was Jewish and Jewish faith and culture is given lots of emphasis in the story. I found out later that the book’s publisher specializes in Judaic literature. I learned you sometimes have to write your story in a way that will bring it to the attention of a certain publisher. In an afterword Carol Matas said she moved some of the events around in time to make the story better. It is important to remember when you write historical fiction that you can do that. 

Other posts……

Lesson Not Required

Winnie the Pooh is from Winnipeg

Book Pilfering


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Filed under Books, Writing