Category Archives: Books

Grandparents and Grandkids

I’ve read two good books recently for middle grade kids that focus on children’s relationships with their grandparents.

The Vegetable Museum by Michelle Mulder introduces us to 13 year old Chloe who has just moved to Victoria, British Columbia. Her Dad has lost his job as a teacher in Montreal and he and Chloe’s Mom have separated. Chloe and her Dad have resettled in Victoria where her Dad has a new job as the superintendent of an apartment building.

The apartment is very near Chloe’s grandfather Uli’s house. Chloe barely knows him because, for a reason that remains a secret till the end of the book, Chloe’s Dad and his father are estranged. The thing that brings Chloe and her Grandpa together and helps them get to know each other is her grandfather’s heirloom vegetable garden. He saves seeds and has a unique garden of heritage plants. Chloe’s Grandpa has had a stroke recently and he needs help with his garden so Chloe pitches in to lend a hand with planting and weeding. Later she will be instrumental in saving her grandfather’s seed collection when its survival is threatened.

The garden becomes a way not only for Chloe to get to know her grandfather better but to make friends and get to know her Victoria neighbourhood better as well. Her grandfather has told Chloe that when she finds a place in the heart of her new community she will really like it. He turns out to be right.

My niece and nephew helping my Dad plant his garden.

One of the reasons I felt a connection with this book is because my Dad was a big time gardener and all his grandkids ended up helping him with various gardening tasks. I think they learned a lot from that experience.

Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field by Angela Ahn is about an eleven year old boy from a Korean family in the Vancouver area. Like Chloe, Peter and his parents and his sister also live close to his grandparents. But unlike Chloe who barely knows her grandfather, Peter’s grandparents are a daily part of his life, and have been since he was a baby.

Peter wants to be a palentologist but he also loves drawing. When he finds out that his grandmother’s strange behaviour means she has dementia he uses both the organizational, research and observation skills he’s learned studying dinosaurs, and the artistic skills he’s been honing and exploring, to come up with a plan to help his grandma remain in her own home rather than move to a senior’s residence quite a distance away where he won’t get to see her nearly as often.

Peter’s dealing with some tough personal stuff too. There’s a braggart and bully in his school class who likes to pick on him and he’s feeling inadequate compared to his sister who is a whiz kid with an IQ off the charts. As he works to help his Grandma some of those issues resolve as well.

My Dad in front of a mural of sunflowers he really likes outside his room in the personal care home where he lives now

One of the reasons I felt a connection with this book is because my Dad is dealing with dementia as well and I have been thinking about how different he will seem to his grandchildren and great grandchildren after the pandemic when they can visit him again.

The relationship between children and their grandparents is often painted as a kind of idealistic one in books for kids, with grandparents coming to the rescue of grandchildren who are going through tough times. But in these two novels it’s the kids who come to the rescue and make life better for their grandparents.

Two other middle grade books about grandparents and grandchildren are……

Coop the Great

Family of Spies

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A Heartfelt Book That Started On Instagram and Sold Two Million Copies

I was introduced to Charlie Mackesy on the CBS Sunday Morning show. Mackesy is an artist with a studio in a quaint old barn in the English countryside. In 2018 he started doing sketches about a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse that were meant to encourage people and give them hope. He posted his daily sketches on his Instagram page.

Mackesy’s Instagram account became a huge hit with hundreds of thousands of followers and then Harper Collins offered him a book deal. The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse has sold 2 million copies, been translated into 17 languages and spent more than 15 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Published in the fall of 2019 the book is targeted at audiences of any age. It is not so much a story as it is a collection of illustrations about a lonely boy who makes his way through the countryside, finding friendship with the mole, fox and horse. He talks with them, sharing his hopes and fears and asking important questions like.…....What do you think success is? What is the bravest thing you ever said? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you think is the biggest waste of time?

The book also contains words of encouragement and hope. Like…………. Everyone is a bit scared, but we are less scared together. Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent. When the big things feel out of control focus on what you love right under your nose.

There is a lot of wisdom in this little book. I have it on my nightstand and like to dip into a page or two before I got to sleep. The very last page in the book is one we would all do well to remember. It says…………

Sometimes all you hear about is the hate, but there is more love in this world than you could possibly imagine.

Other posts………..

And that Led Me

Mending What We Can

I‘m Possible

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Would You Want Your Child To Be A Doctor?

“Would you want one of your children to be a doctor?” That was a question I asked Jillian Horton last night when I attended the Winnipeg Free Press online book club. We were talking about Jillian’s book We Are All Perfectly Fine. It tells the story of Jillian’s medical career and raises serious questions about the demands we make on doctors.

Dr. Jillian Horton author of We Are All Perfectly Fine

In her book we read about how Jillian attended a retreat for doctors in New York, at a point in her career when she was feeling really burned out. Over the course of the retreat, Jillian along with the other doctors in attendance, opened up about the guilt and grief and fear they felt about not always meeting their patients’ needs and not always meeting their own expectations of themselves.

Dr. Horton who is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Manitoba says the current medical system fails doctors. Doctors need to experience compassion just like everyone else and they must take care of themselves if they want to be effective in helping their patients. Being a doctor is an emotional job and doctors need to be able to face those emotions and deal with them. Of course the pandemic has only exacerbated the emotional stress on doctors.

Doctor Jillian Horton at the Free Press online book club yesterday. Ben Sigurdson from the newspaper and Chris Hall from McNally Robinson Book Sellers were moderating the event.

So given all the problems and challenges Jillian sees in the medical profession I wondered if she would want one of her sons to be a doctor.

She told me many doctors discourage their children from entering the profession. She wouldn’t necessarily do that but she would want to be very sure her child was passionate and committed to the field of medicine and she would certainly warn them about the pitfalls and perils of the profession.

My Dad on the phone taking a medical call while we had supper

I grew up the child of a rural family doctor and the demands on my Dad were incredible. He was on call seven days a week. Often we didn’t see him for days. He was off to the hospital to do surgery before we woke up in the morning, frequently missed supper because his office hours ran late and he got up during the night to make house calls. The only place we knew Dad wouldn’t get called away because of a medical emergency was at our cottage at Moose Lake because there wasn’t a phone there.

I think watching how hard my Dad worked and the sacrifices he had to make in regards to our family life in order to fulfill his professional commitments probably influenced his four children in making the decision not to become doctors. I know Dad was highly respected and appreciated as a physician. At least on the surface he seemed to deal with the emotional aspects of the job, but it definitely impacted our family’s life.

I found Dr. Jillian Horton’s book interesting and eye-opening. I think those who read it will come to a greater understanding of the stresses faced by physicians and their families and will gain a greater appreciation for the work they do.

Alan Alda and Dr. Jillian Horton- photo from the University of Manitoba website

Note: Last night Jillian referred to a piece she wrote in the Los Angeles Times about how actor Alan Alda and the series MASH taught her the value of humour in medical practice. It is well worth the read.

Other posts………

Writing As A Healing Art

My Dad’s Medical Bag

Living at the Hospital

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A Rollicking Read and A Rollicking Interview

Rollicking means lively, amusing, exuberant and spirited. It is the word that kept popping into my head on Thursday night when I participated in an online book club for readers interested in the latest novels for middle-grade audiences. The book we were discussing was The Fabulous Zed Watson. Its authors Basil and Kevin Sylvester were our guests. Basil and Kevin are a parent and child writing duo and this is their first book together.  

One of the fascinating things about our time with Basil and Kevin was watching the interaction between the two as they fielded questions about their novel, which features Zed, a non-binary kid who loves monsters and flashy sweaters, and Gabe, a boy who is passionate about botany and favours pants with lots of pockets.

Photo from the CBC article about The Fabulous Zed Watson.

On Thursday night Basil and Kevin were clearly having a rollicking time as they answered queries from the authors, librarians and teachers who’d read their book. They bantered in an amusing way about their love of opera, their favourite kinds of ice-cream, their monsters of choice, a typical supper table at their house, and why they had set their novel in the United States.

Zed and Gabe, the heroes of Basil and Kevin’s book, The Fabulous Zed Watson have an absolutely rollicking time as well as they travel in a car with mechanical difficulties, try out as many kinds of ice-cream as they can, learn to appreciate one another’s music, explore a graveyard and meet the most fascinating people – chefs, pastors, librarians and mechanics.

 While Zed and Gabe are each really unique characters what they have in common is the love of a book called The Monster’s Castle. Four chapters of The Monster’s Castle and a poem about the book have been discovered but the rest of the book is missing. Zed and Gabe, piece together a set of clues they think may lead them to the complete manuscript of The Monster’s Castle and then set off on a road trip across the United States to find the missing chapters. Since they are just kids Gabe’s older sister Sam serves as their driver. 

Both Basil, one of the authors of The Fabulous Zed Watson, and the book’s hero Zed are non-binary and the novel is a good way for readers to learn more about what that means.  Zed’s interactions with the different characters they meet on their travels highlight the way non-binary people navigate the world.  

It was eye-opening for me to learn about, and as I have been describing the book to others in the last couple of days I have realized I still have a ways to go when it comes to using correct pronouns. That being said, I didn’t feel that the fact Zed is non-binary was necessarily critical to the plot. The book is primarily an adventure story about solving a mystery and growing a friendship.  

One thing I loved about The Fabulous Zed Watson is that it is packed with cultural references and I think kids reading it will be intrigued by that and want to find out more about Shakespeare, Winnie the Pooh, Star Wars, The Barber of Seville, Metallica, Mary Poppins, Monster Mash, Lord of the Rings and even the Bible. 

This is the third session of the Middle-Grade Lit Online Book Club I’ve attended. In the previous two, we’ve met author Angela Misri to discuss her book Pickles vs. the Zombies and Arthur Slade to discuss his novel Dragon Assassin. Coming up next month we have a story about a budding palaeontologist- Notes From the Field by Peter Lee

These book club sessions have been a rollicking good time so far. 

Other posts about middle-grade books………..

The Lotteries Plus One

Coop the Great

Family of Spies

Sadia – A Muslim Girl From Winnipeg

The Crazy Man

 

 

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The Queen Who Couldn’t Bake Gingerbread

Have you read the book The Queen Who Couldn’t Bake Gingerbread? It is based on an old German folk tale.

King Pilaf’s political advisors say he needs to get married. He has very specific expectations for his future wife. She must be wise and beautiful and………. she must bake perfect gingerbread. However in the best interests of his country he agrees to marry Princess Calliope who although she has many fine qualities can’t bake gingerbread.

Princess Calliope on the other hand has very specific ideas about what she is looking for in a husband. He must be wise and handsome and play the slide trombone. She agrees to marry King Pilaf who is a ‘good catch’ when it comes to husbands even though he can’t play the trombone.

Both the king and his new queen agree to never mention the words ‘trombone’ or ‘gingerbread’ to each other but of course, one day they forget and a quarrel ensues. The monarchs retreat to opposite ends of the castle to ponder their disagreement.

After a time the delicious smell of gingerbread wafts through the castle and the mellow notes of the trombone are heard. The stage is set for reconciliation.

King Pilaf brings a peace-offering of the gingerbread he has baked and says the next batch should be even better. Queen Calliope plays a simple tune on the trombone telling the king that with additional practice she thinks she could become quite a virtuoso. 

Moral of the story?

You can’t change your partner but you can change yourself.

Don’t expect your partner to make you happy. You are responsible for your own happiness. 

Instead of getting frustrated with your partner because they aren’t doing something, learn to do it yourself. 

Other posts…….

Bucket List for Marriage

Marriage Statistics and Bible Verses

Can Your Marriage Survive Lollygagging?

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German POWs in Manitoba

Did you know during World War II there were 27 prisoners of war camps in Canada?  One such camp was in my home province of Manitoba.  Reading the 2013 Stanford University thesis of Adrian Meyers helped me learn all about it. Meyers carried out an archaeological dig at the former site of the camp on Whitewater Lake. Meyers also interviewed surviving prisoners and waded through a thousand related government documents. His thesis is full of interesting information.

German Prisoner of War Camp- photo from Parks Canada

The 450 German prisoners, most between the ages of 16 and 22, viewed their time at the Manitoba camp as an idyllic interlude in their wartime experience. Many were captured after a battle in North Africa. They worked hard cutting trees for lumber and firewood but were paid 50 cents a day for their labours and allowed to use the money to order things from the Eaton’s catalogue.   Photos of the prisoners show them neatly groomed and dressed smartly.

german pows riding mountain national park

Some of the prisoners at the camp- photo from Parks Canada

The Canadian government tried to re-educate the prisoners teaching them courses in Canadian history and democratic government and carefully selecting the books they read and films they watched. The POWs were under surveillance and were labelled on the basis of a colour-coded system that evaluated their allegiance to Nazism.

POW In canoe- photo from Meyers thesis

The prisoners had an active social life, playing soccer, carving dugout canoes they paddled to an island for picnics, skating on the frozen lake and being allowed to venture into neighbouring communities to attend dances.

bear with german prisoners of war manitoba

Photo from the Riding Mountain National Park collection

Some took in stray dogs as pets, while one man even adopted a juvenile black bear he named Moses.

band.jpg

Photo from the Winnipeg Free Press

They distilled alcohol for personal use and put on stage shows where the men sang, played instruments and some dressed up in women’s clothes. Myers’ thesis includes examples of paintings done by the prisoners and they were provided with a ping- pong table, playing cards, craft supplies and a piano.

Painting of the camp by one of the POWs- photo from the Meyers thesis

Ironically not many years before the POW camp was built in Riding Mountain National Park, the Canadian government had evicted the Ojibwa people who had long inhabited the area.


Photo of Suyoko Tsukamoto by Bill Redekop for the Winnipeg Free Press 

Suyoko Tsukamoto one of the Brandon University anthropology students who helped Meyers with the archaeological dig noted another irony. She could not help but compare the relatively luxurious lifestyle in the German POW camp to the much more trying conditions endured by her father, a full-fledged Canadian citizen who was sent to one of the government detention facilities for people of Japanese descent during the war.

Painting of the camp by a POW – photo from the Meyers thesis

 The Canadian government’s rationale was that they hoped by treating the German prisoners kindly the Germans would reciprocate with similar treatment of captured Canadian soldiers.

 More than 33,000 German soldiers were in prison camps across Canada during the war. The fact nearly 20% of them asked to remain here after the war is perhaps at least partially a testament to the humane way they were treated. All their requests were denied.

To explore Adrian Meyers’ fascinating research for yourself read his thesis entitled The Archaeology of Reform at a German Prisoner of War Camp in a Canadian National Park during the Second World War (1943–1945)

Thanks to my friend and fellow writer Larry Verstraete whose novel Missing in Paradise piqued my interest in this camp and inspired me to learn more about it. 

Other posts about World War II……..

Sleeping With Torpedos

Remembering Hiroshima

Meeting a Holocaust Survivor in Hong Kong

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Between Two Kingdoms

The two kingdoms in the title of Between Two Kingdoms – A Memoir of a Life Interrupted are the kingdoms of the living and the dead. Author Suleika Jaouad continues to walk the fine line between those two kingdoms because at age 22 she was diagnosed with cancer. During her ensuing three years of treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant Suleika contributed a column about her experiences to the New York Times.

Many people wrote to her after reading her column, and once her cancer was in remission she set out on a road trip to visit some of them. She chose people who had dealt with cancer or some other life-altering event and hoped she could glean wisdom from them about how to live her life between the two kingdoms- a place where she feels we all live to some extent, but a place that is particularly difficult to navigate for people who have stared death in the face.

The last eight chapters of the book chronicle Suleika’s road trip and are very engaging. She meets such interesting people. Ned is a poet and English teacher at a posh girl’s boarding school. Erin is a survivalist who is preparing for the end of the world with her family. Katherine is dealing with the grief over her son’s suicide as well as her own cancer diagnosis. JR and Kit live close to the earth and spend their time exploring their talents and passions. Lil’ GQ is an inmate on death row. These people as well as many others Suleika meets, each teach her something about life between the two kingdoms.

While the last third of the book is fascinating the first two-thirds is a heavy read as Suleika chronicles her cancer diagnosis and treatment in agonizing detail and we discover how it impacted her relationships and career and day to day existence. I had to give myself generous breaks while reading.

I saw an interview with author Suleika Jaouad on Sunday Morning on CBS and that’s what got me interested in the book. Suleika’s long time partner is Jon Baptiste, a musician I have enjoyed watching on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Prior to the pandemic, Jon appeared every night on the talk show as the leader of the in-house band Stay Human.

We all walk the line between the kingdom of our present life and the kingdom of our inevitable death. Between Two Kingdoms offers insight into how to do that in the best way we can.

Other books I’ve written about…….

Olive Again

The Tree Of Life

American Dirt

The Pull of the Stars

Did Jesus Have A Wife?

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A Notorious Winnipeg Robber

Many years ago I took an evening course about Winnipeg history with Roland Penner a former Attorney General of Manitoba.  Mr Penner had been involved in a legal case associated with a notorious Winnipeg robbery and he told us all about it.

Kenneth Leishman

On March 3, 1966,  a man named Ken Leishman masterminded the theft of nearly $400,000 in gold bars from the Winnipeg International Airport.  The gold was en route to the mint in Ottawa. Ken posing as an Air Canada driver intercepted the gold and drove away with it.

Harry Backlin, a lawyer was part of the scheme. He was on a planned holiday in California so it would look like he wasn’t involved in the robbery. On his return from the United States Backlin was going to take the gold to Hong Kong and sell it. Ken hid the gold in a snowbank in Harry’s backyard.  

Harry’s plans to go to Hong Kong were thwarted when there was a problem with his passport so Ken decided to go to Hong Kong to sell the gold himself. He sawed off a piece of gold to take to Hong Kong as a sample for potential buyers.

However, Ken needed a smallpox vaccination to go to Hong Kong. Harry arranged one with a friend who was a doctor. There was supposed to be a seven-day waiting period after vaccination before travel, but Ken convinced the doctor to lie and put the wrong date on the vaccination form so he could leave Canada right away.

The doctor feeling guilty confessed what he’d done to a police officer. The officer recognized Ken’s name because of his previous criminal activity.  The RCMP arrested Ken in the Vancouver airport when he arrived there on his way to Hong Kong. He managed to get rid of his sawed-off piece of gold before he was arrested. It has never been found. 

Ken is arrested

While in prison in Vancouver after his arrest Ken made the mistake of explaining the heist in detail to the man sharing his cell. He was an RCMP agent incarcerated with Ken for the purpose of extracting incriminating information. After Ken’s Vancouver jailhouse confession, the gold was dug up from Harry’s backyard and Ken was sent to jail in Headingly, Manitoba till his trial. 

Ken managed to escape from Headingly, was recaptured in Indiana and sent to the Vaughn Street Detention Centre and he escaped from there too. Finally, he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for twelve years. He managed to be released after just eight years for good behaviour.

Ken and his wife Elva

Following his prison release, Ken and his wife Elva and their seven children moved to Red Lake where they opened a store and Ken became a pillar of the community, even serving as president of the Red Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Ken, a former pilot began flying mercy flights taking people from northern communities to hospitals. In 1979 while flying one of these mercy flights his plane went missing. It took almost five months of searching but the remains of the aircraft were eventually found. 

 After learning about Kenneth Leishman from Mr Penner’s course I read a book about him, called The Flying Bandit by Heather Robertson. She writes about Ken’s difficult childhood. His parents were divorced, he was in foster homes and he lived with some strict and unaffectionate grandparents.

I truly admired his wife Elva who stuck with him through everything and raised their seven children. I also learned about the crimes Ken had committed before the gold heist– two bank robberies and a break and enter at a furniture store.

Something interesting I discovered was that when Ken escaped from Headingly Jail in September of 1966 he went to Steinbach, where my family was living at the time, and stole a plane. Ken and three other Headingly escapees flew the plane to Gary Indiana before they were arrested. 

Heather Robertson does a good job of helping us get to know Ken as a person. He truly believed he could get away with his crimes. He was a nice man –polite, friendly, dressed neatly and fashionably, was faithful to his wife, loved his children, wrote poetry but………. secretly revelled in the fame his crimes brought him. 

If you’d like to know more about this notorious Winnipeg robber I’d recommend a great little movie called Ken Leishman- The Flying Bandit. 

Other posts………..

Louis Riel

The House on Beaverbrook Street

Remembering the Holocaust in Winnipeg

 

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Filed under Books, History, Winnipeg

Seuss Is Celebrating All The Way To The Bank

I am following with interest the heated controversy surrounding a recent decision by Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six titles by the famous author Theodore Geisel. Seuss Enterprises is the corporation that owns the rights to the works of the legendary children’s writer. The company was set up by his widow Audrey who turned it into a very profitable venture. Since her death, the corporation has continued to have a successful earning profile raking in rich rewards for its shareholders. According to Forbes Magazine Seuss Enterprises earned some $33 million last year.

The decision by Seuss Enterprises to no longer sell six older books from the author’s canon because they may promote racial discrimination has caused a huge controversy both by those who think the company made the right decision and those who think they didn’t. It’s led to an epic media battle between cancel culture critics and their opponents.

Seuss Enterprises say they are pulling the books because they promote harmful racial stereotypes but the Forbes article suggests those older books weren’t making them a whole lot of money anyway. With a significant sector of the reading public voicing objection to those six books, it seemed financially prudent to stop printing them. Why let the criticism about a few books endanger the millions of dollars Seuss Enterprises was accumulating from lucrative Hollywood and Netflix deals that featured much more popular and less offensive Seuss titles?

The controversy generated by the Seuss Enterprise decision to pull six books has produced a financial windfall for them as the media attention has sent Seuss sales skyrocketing. All the free publicity will be a real boon as well to the travelling Dr Seuss exhibit set to hit the road after the pandemic.

Those protesting that withdrawing Dr Seuss books is an example of cancel culture have only served to make Seuss Enterprises richer. They are after all a business and are perfectly free to make whatever marketing decisions they like.

While various sectors of society continue to engage in cancel culture wars over the work of Theodore Geisel, the shareholders in his multi-million dollar corporation are celebrating all the way to the bank.

Other posts………

Wisdom From Doctor Seuss

Picture Books Have Changed

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Elegant Things

The Pillow Book was written over a thousand years ago by Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting for the Japanese Empress. It’s become famous for the lists it contains. I was intrigued by a list of forty items titled Deeply Irritating Things and one called Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster. But my favourite Sei Shonagon list is Elegant Things. Included on her list are snow on plum blossoms and a perfect duck’s egg.

Sei Shonagon inspired me to make a list of elegant things.

My friend Glenys’elegant table set for an Easter luncheon
My elegant grandparents on their wedding day in 1917
An elegant chandelier in a guest house we stayed in during our visit to Rome
The elegant Florence May Blumenthal as portrayed by artist Giovanni Boldini. I photographed the portrait on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2018
An elegant fern I photographed in Akaka State Park Hawaii
My elegant mother dressed up and ready to go to my Dad’s medical school graduation in 1959
I photographed this elegant woman selling clothing in Bali
Elegant Queen of Hearts Teapot by Michael Sherrill photographed at the art gallery at Arizona State University
An elegant vase I photographed during the Olympus exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery
My grandmother signing a guest book at a wedding in her elegant hat
An elegant necklace photographed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery made by Inuit artist Papiarak Tuqiqi. 

Other posts…………

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Inuit Fashion Show

Teapots

A Walk in Akaka State Park

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Filed under Books, Japan