Category Archives: Books

Who Do Family Stories Belong To?

Fanny is an English major working in a pub in order to pay her staggering college debt. One night a famous author comes into the bar and a star struck Fanny begins a relationship with him.  He’s an alcoholic desperately in need of a story for his next novel.  Fanny gives him hers.  Her sprawling family history marked by infidelities, danger, step sibling craziness, revenge, passion and death becomes the core of a best seller and a subsequent movie.  But how will Fanny’s family react when they discover she has literally given away their family’s story? What will they think?  

commonwealthI just finished reading Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and it left me wondering who actually owns family stories.  Many writers use their own family history to create the characters and events in their novels or to pen memoirs .  Do they have the right to use stories from their family?  

It’s a question being asked more frequently now that so many people share their family stories  online.  I share family stories. Some people in my family have asked me not to write about them or have let me know in various ways  they don’t appreciate it when I write about them. Some people in my family love it when I write about them. Others have questioned my version of events.

Somehow I feel it is okay to write stories about family members who are no longer living. But what if other people in the family don’t agree with what I’ve said about the person who has died.  What if they would rather I had remained silent?  What if they feel I don’t have the right to tell a story about someone from our family’s shared past? 

Commonwealth is an excellent novel and the story it spins intrigues and terrifies and makes you reflect on your own family narrative. Who has the rights to that narrative and who gets to decide how it should or shouldn’t be shared publicly?

A link to family stories I’ve shared in this blog. 

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Getting To Know Emma Donoghue in Person

Emma was interviewed at McNally Robinson Booksellers by Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival Director Charlene Diehl

Emma Donoghue’s latest book is set in a Toronto mansion with thirty- two rooms. The house is inhabited by two sets of gay parents, seven children named after trees, a frightened cat, inquisitive rat, crippled parrot and three-legged dog.

You might know Emma as the author of Room. She also wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay for the movie based on the novel. I had the pleasure of hearing her interviewed at Winnipeg’s McNally Robinson Book Sellers last week.

Emma, the author of several successful adult novels is currently promoting a new project, a book for children called The Lotterys Plus One. Emma wants to show readers just how diverse families can be and The Lotterys Plus One certainly does that. The four parents in the novel come from India, Jamaica, Scotland and the Mohawk Nation. Many of the seven children are adopted. One has attention deficit disorder, another a physical disability, and a third gender identity issues.

Striking illustrations like this one by Caroline Hadilaksono help readers sort out all the characters in The Lotterys Plus One. 

The children are all home schooled and the parents don’t work because long ago they found a winning lottery ticket that left them financially set for life. Things are ticking along as normally as can be expected in this unusual household until a grandfather moves in because he is suffering from dementia. How will the family cope with this cantankerous newcomer?

We learned quite a bit about Emma’s personal and family life from her talk with Charlene Diehl

Author Emma Donoghue grew up in a large Catholic family in Dublin Ireland but now lives in London, Ontario where she parents two children with her partner Chris. Emma told us she used some of her own parenting experiences in The Lotterys Plus One. For example the children in the novel get head lice, something that has happened several times to Emma’s children. Emma says when her children do something funny or interesting she will ask them, “Can I use that for one of my book characters?”

I was curious how Emma had found the switch from writing for adults to writing for children. She says writing for children is much harder. It took her six years to write The Lotterys Plus One. She is a busy woman with as many as ten writing projects on the go at once, short stories, poetry, novels, screenplays and children’s books. She collects ideas for all ten projects in separate files on her phone. She finds inspiration everywhere and making notes in her phone is the handiest way to keep a record of things as soon as she sees or experiences them. Later she transfers these files to her computer.

Emma answers questions from the audience

After Emma’s interview the audience had a chance to ask her questions. One young girl said she wanted her mother to write books too and asked Emma if she could teach her Mom how to write a book. Emma said, “Everyone has a book in them. Your Mom does too. She just needs the time and space to write it.”

Another audience member said she had never seen the movie Room because there was no way it could compare to the book. Emma said she loves the movie version of Room. She thinks the director did a marvelous job with her story.

I asked her what books she had read as a child and she said pretty much anything but did mention Jane Austen, Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis. She said she had loved fairy tales.

My friend Wendy getting her copy The Lotterys Plus One signed by Emma Donoghue

Her new book is a bit of a modern fairy tale and I think Emma knows that, but she also hopes the diverse family in The Lotterys Plus One will help her readers realize it can be enriching and positive to have an open mind about what  we consider to be “ideal” when it comes to family life.

Other posts………

Writing For Children- Not As Easy As I Thought

Writer or Palaeontologist?

Chocogasm Course at McNally Robinson Booksellers

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Filed under Books, Canada, Childhood, Writing

Vintage Maeve

Maeve Bienchy is one of my favorite authors and after she died in 2012 I had to come to terms with the fact that she wouldn’t write another book. That’s why I was delighted to find an anthology of her short stories in an Arizona bookstore. A Few of the Girls is vintage Maeve and is lovely to just pick up and read whenever I have a few minutes. As always Maeve’s narratives are about ordinary people dealing with circumstances and questions that many readers can recognize. Resolving things with a difficult relative, entertaining a demanding houseguest, handling a  child’s friendship with a rebellious peer,  wondering how to make badly needed changes to our personal or work life, going on a diet, or kindly advising a friend who is clearly making bad choices. In her gentle way Maeve helps us see these problems from a new perspective all the while engaging us with her finely drawn characters and good stories.

Other posts……

Mennonite Corner Gas

Jane Austen Overload

The Age of Hope


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Agatha Christie’s First Trip on the Orient Express

Aleppo has figured prominently in the news of late. We are used to seeing pictures of the devastation the war in Syria has caused there. But did you know that Aleppo is also where writer Agatha Christie wrote her famous mystery Murder on the Orient Express?

Agatha christie and husband public domain

Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan at one of their archeological digs.

Agatha and her second husband archeologist Max Mallowan spent a great deal of time in the Middle East. Agatha helped with photographing, data keeping and restoration at her husband’s sites and continued writing her novels while she and Max worked and traveled. She was spending time in an Aleppo hotel while she worked on the manuscript for Murder on the Orient Express. 

woman on the orient expressI just finished the book The Woman on the Orient Express by Lyndsay Jane Ashford. It is a fictionalized account of Agatha Christie’s first trip on the famous railroad in 1928. In the novel she visits an archeological dig where her future husband is at work.

The book should probably have been called Women (plural) on the Orient Express because it is told from the point of view of three British women, Agatha the mystery writer, Kathleen an archeologist, and Nancy a young woman  running away from personal problems. Kathleen and Agatha try to help her.

As we hear Agatha, Nancy and Kathleen’s stories we learn a great deal about what life was like for women in the 1920s. Divorce was scandalous and almost always blamed on the woman. Unmarried pregnant women faced dire social criticism and discrimination and there was absolutely no broad understanding of the science of genetics or gender identity.

I learned so much about social history, Agatha Christie and the way the Middle East has changed from reading this book. I have downloaded Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie on my e-reader. I have never read it but Ashford’s novel has got me interested. 

Other posts………

A Book That Mirrors A News Story

Great Reading and Great Writing

A Novel That Took Us Through Eight States


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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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