Category Archives: Books

The Overstory- I Know It Won a Pulitzer Prize But………….

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but truth be told I wouldn’t have awarded it any kind of  literary prize. The book is about a group of nine characters who all come to care deeply about understanding and saving the world’s trees.  

The book reminded me a bit of The Goldfinch another Pulitzer Prize winner. Both books start out wonderfully by setting up intriguing plot possibilities with interesting characters. I was completely drawn in. Then both descend into a kind of reading black hole where the characters do crazy things that are often completely unrealistic and frankly leave you frustrated when they go on and on and on. In both books I found myself plowing through the middle section. And finally, the conclusion of each book fails to satisfy. After sticking doggedly with your characters through all that trauma and mythical mess surely there will be some sort of happiness or hopefulness for them in the end. Sorry. No such luck.

Certainly, I learned a whole lot of fascinating stuff about trees from reading The Overstory but some of the information was delivered lecture-style when there would have been, in my opinion at least, more interesting ways of giving us the same information.

The book is a bit like Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, another novel about the importance of saving the environment,  where you are also introduced to a group of seemingly disparate characters at the beginning of the book and then you wonder how they will all weave their way into one story. Barbara, however, has only three main characters in Prodigal Summer.  Richard Powers might have stuck to fewer characters as well.  The storylines of three of Richard’s nine main protagonists never really merge with the story of the other six.

I wanted to like this book.  A friend had recommended it. I had heard a glowing review on the radio. It won the Pulitzer Prize. I love trees and that is what this book is all about. 

Hugging a redwood tree in Yalta Ukraine. I love trees but I didn’t love The Overstory a Pulitzer Prize winning book about trees. 

But honestly, I didn’t like The Overstory.  I’d love to hear from other people who have read the book.  What did you think? 

Other posts……..

The Religion of Trees

Up in the Trees With A Man Who Knew it All

Edge of the Trees

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Little Bee- Three Connections

The book Little Bee tells the story of a young woman fleeing Nigeria after her family is murdered.  She seeks out a woman in the United States with whom she has had some previous contact. That woman’s husband has just committed suicide and she is in a crisis situation as she mourns and tries to single parent her little son. 

I’ve written before about making a text whether it is an artwork, a film, a book or a news story meaningful by establishing three connections -personal, another text and the world. Reading the gripping story in Little Bee by Chris Cleave it wasn’t hard to make those connections. The personal one might be that the book was a gift from my friend Meena. Meena was a colleague when I taught in Hong Kong and we were in a book club together for six years. Meena’s son and his family live in Winnipeg so she visits regularly and when we get together our conversations always include sharing our book recommendations. This time Meena brought me a copy of her latest find, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. So while I was reading it I was thinking of Meena and why she might have liked the book so much. What made it even more personal was that Meena’s little granddaughter had done artwork on some of the pages. One of the main characters in the book is a small boy about Meena’s granddaughter’s age so her art added another personal touch. The other text I thought of immediately was The Boat People by Sharon Bala because like Little Bee it tells the story of a new immigrant trying to gain refugee status fearful they will be sent back to their own country where they are sure to face imprisonment or death. I had recommended The Boat People to Meena on a previous visit and her book club had read it and loved it. 

The connection to our world was easy to make even though Little Bee was published over a decade ago.  In fact in 2008 when Little Bee hit the book stores there were only 42 million refugees in the world.  Now there are 66 million.  That makes this story of a young desperate woman seeking asylum even more relevant than it was when the book was written. 

I’d be curious to hear about your three connections if you decide to read the book. 

Other posts……….

Finding the Three Connections

Hong Kong Guests

The Boat People


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A Strange Book But One Worth Reading

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan has been the best selling Canadian book for the last few weeks. I found it action-packed and colorful but also a bit confusing.

First of all the story takes place all over the world.  It starts out on a plantation in Barbados but then the action shifts to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam and finally Morocco.  Having the main characters do so much traveling to different destinations seems somewhat unrealistic especially because the book takes place in the 1830s when global travel was arduous and challenging. As a reader, it’s all a little dizzying because you just find yourself feeling familiar with one setting and then the novel switches to another.

Secondly, the novel can’t quite decide what it wants to be.  Is it a history book?  It is about, among other things, the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.  Is it a science book?  One of the main characters is a man trying to build a flying machine and so we learn about aeronautics. Another main character and her father are studying sea creatures so we learn about all kinds of marine life. Is it an art book?  Washington Black our hero is a talented artist and so we learn how he develops that gift.

esi edugyan wikipedia

Author Esi Edugyyan reads from her novel

Thirdly there are a great many characters in this book and I found myself looking back sometimes to previous chapters to figure out who someone was when I encountered them again in the novel or when Washington Black referred to them again.

Despite being somewhat confusing the story is a fascinating almost magical one and Edugyan is certainly a good writer with powerful imagery and beautiful sections of prose.  There are also plenty of plot twists to keep you engaged. The movie rights to the book have been purchased and I am sure curious to see how filmmakers will handle all the many and varied locations, themes and characters.   

Other posts……..

A Man Affectionately Deplored By His Wife

Giving Slaves A Modern Humanity

The Long Song


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A Book To Make You Feel Insanely Hopeful

I just finished a book that was a gift from my good friend Esther. It is called The Moment of Lift and was authored by Melinda Gates. Melinda administers a foundation she and her husband Bill established with assets of 50 billion dollars.  What’s amazing about Melinda is she takes a personal interest in the projects they fund, traveling the world to learn how best to empower local people to improve their lives. 

Melinda believes giving women full equality with men will make the biggest difference in humanity’s future.  If women around the world obtain equal chances for education, full access to birth control, comparable pay and opportunity in the workplace, co-leadership in the world’s religions and governments and fair legal protection we won’t believe what strides forward humanity will make. Melinda talks about her own life to show how attitudes towards women have changed, and need to continue to change, but she also relates so many great stories about women she has met to illustrate how empowered women can transform their communities.

There are the sex workers in Calcutta who got together at community centers established with Gates Foundation funds and devised a strategy to protect themselves from customers and police officers whose violent actions were preventing them from insisting their clients use condoms. Research shows these women were the key to stopping the spread of AIDS in India.

There’s Rose who works for a Gates Foundation sponsored project called Tupange “Let’s Plan”  in Kenya.  She had the bravado to share openly and publicly what method of birth control she used and talk about how family planning could ease poverty and improve infant mortality rates. This influenced a local pastor to start advocating for birth control from the pulpit which in turn got many men onside with the idea of family planning breaking a long-held cultural stigma attached to family planning.  

There were the women farmers in India who formed cooperatives with the help of Gates Foundation funds and were able to purchase new seeds, plant more successful crops and thus bring in more money to their families.  An unexpected positive result is that these women were treated with new respect by their husbands and in-laws because of their increased financial contributions to the family income and thus and were no longer beaten and abused by relatives. 

That’s just a taste of the many inspiring stories in Melinda’s book. Melinda could be sitting back enjoying her fortune but instead she is dedicated to sharing her family’s wealth in the very best way possible. She’s determined to change the world. If you want a book that makes you feel insanely hopeful The Moment of Lift is for you. 

Other posts………….

Half the Sky

Is The Solution to Ending Terrorism Really This Simple?

Good News

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Do You Believe in Miracles?

Do you believe in miracles?  According to writer Rachel Held Evans, that question isn’t important.  The important thing is whether you ACT like you believe in miracles.  People who act like they believe in miracles feed the hungry, care for the sick, hold the hand of the homeless and offer hope to the addict. Sometimes while they are busy behaving as if miracles can happen they just might!
Rachel’s book  Inspired looks at practical ways to interpret and apply Biblical texts. One chapter focuses on the gospel accounts of Jesus performing miracles, including the story where he walked on water.  Rachel writes if we want to ‘walk on water’  in our personal lives and in our relationships with others the first thing we need to do is get out of the boat.   That first step out of the boat might mean showing up for a counseling session or giving an older relative a phone call, getting some exercise, donating to a charity, taking a break from social media or offering free babysitting to new parents.

Rachel says while the New Testament records Jesus’ miracles it does not provide us with a ‘how to manual’. Jesus doesn’t give us a recipe or blueprint.  We need to figure out how to act like miracle workers on our own. That got me thinking about people I know who are acting like they believe in miracles.

Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco 1570

Jesus healed a blind man.  My friend Esther sorts and packs used eyeglasses for the Lions Club.  The glasses are distributed worldwide to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them or wouldn’t have access to them.  My cousin Steve’s volunteer work prevents diabetes patients in Nicaragua from going blind. 

Jesus provided food for the crowds who came to see him. My parents Paul and Dorothy grew grain on their hobby farm for the Canadian Food Grains Bank. That grain helped feed people around the world. My pastor Kathy coordinates the Winnipeg Harvest branch that operates out of our church providing food to folks in our neighborhood who need it. 

Jesus gave new life to a little girl.  My sister Kaaren volunteers at a school that is trying to provide new beginnings to kids whose families face a variety of challenges. My friend Simone serves on the board of a shelter that provides new hope to the homeless. 

Jesus loosened the tongue of a man who couldn’t speak. My friend Jodi has written and published a book that gives autistic kids a voice. She wants their stories and their strengths to be heard and recognized. My cousin Lynne and her husband Rod act as allies with indigenous community members as they give voice to their wisdom. They believe indigenous insights can help us understand political and social issues in new and important ways. 

Rachel Held Evans

Do you believe the miracle stories in the Bible actually happened?  Rachel Held Evans suggests that’s really an irrelevant question.  The real question is……..Do the miracle stories in the Bible inspire you to attempt miracles?  

Note: I was a devoted follower of Rachel Held Evans’ blog. After she died suddenly at the beginning of May I knew there wouldn’t be any more blog posts so I decided to read or re-read all of her books. Inspired was a great first choice.  

Other posts……..

Mending What We Can

Nuggets of Hope for the Disgruntled

Faithless? Definitely Not!

Heaven Meets Earth

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A Graphic Handmaid’s Tale

I bought a new wallet and while cleaning out my old one discovered a bookstore gift card that hadn’t been used. I decided to splurge on the hardcover graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with art by Renee Nault.

I’ve read the original The Handmaid’s Tale four or five times, seen the movie, have attended a Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance of the story, and have watched the first season of the television series based on the book. That makes it hard to assess whether the graphic novel would have given me a good understanding of the plot if I was reading it for the first time.  I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the graphic novel version nearly as much if I hadn’t recently taken a workshop with David Robertson where I learned about the kinds of details to look for and appreciate in a graphic novel. 

That being said, the graphic novel version of the book was for me a powerful retelling of a familiar story.  The scenes in the present are illustrated primarily in stark black, white, red and grey colors contrasted by soft full-color illustrations of the past. The most violent scenes in the novel are portrayed in full-page spreads without text, the individual panels in slanted frames juxtapositioned erratically and drawn in an edgy way that clearly makes you understand the fast and furious nature of the action. I was pleased that the text consisted of words drawn directly from the novel. Many scenes from the novel are enhanced and have added meaning because of the illustrations. One example is when the commander and Offred are playing Scrabble and you can see every word on the board, each rife with meaning. 

It was interesting to learn that the graphic novel was actually planned for release years ago, but an injury to artist Renee Nault’s hand slowed down the process. This probably worked in favor of the graphic novel’s success because The Handmaid’s Tale has exploded in popularity in the last while thanks to the scary rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. It is exactly such a scenario that Margaret Atwood describes in her novel and is why the red dress and white bonnet the women in The Handmaid’s Tale wear has become an international symbol for the oppression of women. 

Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is coming this fall. It is entitled The Testaments. Reading the graphic novel version was a good way to review the first book’s content in a new, popular and unique format as I  await the story’s next installment. 

Other posts…….

Thoughts on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Performance of The Handmaid’s Tale

I Could Cry I’m So Happy To Be Canadian


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A Graphic Novel with A Powerful Story

 I was enthusiastically telling my sister about attending David Robertson’s workshop on the graphic novel. Turns out my sister had just been at a lecture on memoir writing given by Kathleen Venema.  Kathleen had suggested they read a memoir in the graphic novel form called Tangles.  So I bought it. What a powerful story!  Sarah Leavitt uses simple pictures and words to describe her family’s journey after her mother is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. Some of it isn’t easy to read or view. Sarah’s family was close but now she and her sister and her Dad are forced into an intimate closeness and care for their wife and mother that crosses boundaries they never wanted to cross.  Sarah tells us a great deal about growing up in a vibrant, protective, loving home filled with books. Her Mom was endlessly supportive of her and now she has to support her Mom.  It’s tough. 

Of course, there is conflict and drama and guilt but also beauty in Sarah’s story. There’s a marvelous page in Tangles where Sarah and her Mom Midge and her sister Hannah get caught in a thunderstorm and for just for a moment Alzheimer’s is a gift because their mother’s lack of inhibition and worry provides a freeing and joyful experience for the three of them. 

Sarah’s book takes us all the way to her mother’s death.  There are these incredibly moving scenes where Sarah wraps herself in a special shawl she gave her Mom. It is dark blue like the night sky and dotted with stars.  With the shawl over her head, Sarah says the Kaddish for her mother every day. It is a special Jewish prayer that acknowledges a person had good parents who instilled in them a faith so strong they will be able to overcome their grief. 

If you haven’t tried reading a graphic novel before I hope you won’t let that stop you from reading Tangles because Sarah uses the graphic novel form to good effect to tell a story that will resonate with many families.

Other posts……….

The Things We Keep

Feeding My Mother

A Listening Love


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