Month in Review: February 2015

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It’s been a great reading month. Here’s what I read this month:

Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey
Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
Ru, by Kim Thuy

Not all of these are pictured because some had to go back to the library. I really enjoyed all of these books. I started off the month with Elizabeth is Missing, which had been on my TBR for a while and I really liked the sense of mystery. I was also on a bit of a female comedian kick apparently, reading books by Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling. I liked both for different reasons – Amy’s was more introspective and almost wise, while Mindy’s was laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s the two CanLit titles on this list – Ru and Etta and Otto and Russell and James that really stick out at me as my favourites from the month. Further proof that I love CanLit, I suppose!

How was your February? What were your favourite books that you read?

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Review: Ru, by Kim Thúy

Ru coverAs a story, Ru is disjointed and difficult to follow at times. This is a not a book with a traditional, linear plot. It is like snippets of poetry, jumping around between countries and between different moments in the life of the narrator.

It’s jarring at first, but the form is appropriate, almost mirroring the experience of the narrator herself. Kim Thúy grew up in Vietnam in a time of great upheaval, following the Tet Offensive, and her childhood is ripped from her. Her family flees, first to a Malaysian refugee camp before making it to Quebec, Canada. While Thúy expresses gratitude for her new life in Canada, she also describes what it’s like to feel her Vietnamese identity slipping away. Like the book itself, Thúy seems to live her life in both the past and present; in both Vietnam and Canada.

This conflict was reflected when Thúy describes a man who died when everyone else left the boat after arriving on a beach near Club Med.

“He retraced his steps to fetch the gold taels he’d hidden in the boat’s fuel tank. He never came back. Perhaps the taels made him sink, perhaps they were too heavy to carry. Or else the current swallowed him as punishment for looking back, or to remind us that we must never regret what we’ve left behind.”

Yet Thúy cannot help missing the smells and sounds of her childhood and Ru serves as a fascinating contemplation on what it’s like to be an immigrant. Thúy seems to feel stuck between identities, or perhaps even without an identity. As a child, she does not quite fit in in Canada. At first, her family didn’t understand that people wear different clothes for different seasons, and in winter they layered, like the “homeless.” She describes her teacher thinking she misunderstood the question when she tells her that for breakfast she eats soup, vermicelli, and rice. As an adult, she describes a newspaper article claiming that “the ‘Quebecois nation’ was Caucasian, that my slanting eyes automatically placed me in a separate category…”

Yet, when Thúy goes back to Vietnam as an adult, she does not fit in there either. A waiter thinks she’s too fat to be Vietnamese. She describes the “American dream” as almost a blessing and curse: “Once it’s achieved, though, the American dream never leaves us, like a graft or an excrescence.”

“But the young waiter reminded me that I couldn’t have everything, that I no longer had the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears. And he was right to remind me.”

What’s left is a woman with an identity crisis, who feels like she’s floating, separate from her roots. Yet despite these fascinating themes, the writing is often sparse and direct. Thúy doesn’t sugarcoat the horrific experiences that she went through as a child. She relays them to the reader as they happened.

I picked up Ru because it was part of CBC’s Canada Reads 2015 and it sounded like a very interesting and powerful story. I did find the form a little difficult to get into at first and I feel that to more fully grasp the story, I would need to re-read the book. But the writing is beautiful. The story sheds light on an interesting and often unknown time in Vietnamese history, and the themes of identity, memory, and immigration are beautifully and personally explored. Ru gave me insight into a different Canadian experience than my own, and I believe it achieves the Canada Reads theme of breaking barriers.

Have you read Ru? What were your thoughts? Have you read any other 2015 Canada Reads books?

On Reading: Freedom to Read Week

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“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” ~ Jo Godwin

Some of the most popular titles in literature have been banned or challenged at some point in their history: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien; Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. That’s just a few of many.

February 22 to 28 marks Freedom to Read Week in Canada. It’s a week to raise awareness on issues of intellectual freedom and to celebrate freedom of expression. It’s an important cause, especially for raising awareness, because it seems many people think books aren’t challenged anymore – that this battle is won.

After all, in Canada our freedom to read is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the United States, it’s protected by the First Amendment. However, this doesn’t stop people from trying to take away our right to read. In 2013 alone, 307 challenges were reported in the United States and 85 challenges were reported in libraries in Canada. These challenges may very well have included your favourite titles: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; Looking for Alaska, by John Green; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

One person or group didn’t like what these books had to say, and so they sought to take away your right to interact with the ideas in these books. The people behind these challenges often feel without a doubt that these books should be challenged and that they should not be available. It is often the case that these books contain ideas that are unpopular or offensive.

Certainly not every book is right for every reader. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and readers have the right to not read certain things (and for children, their parents may choose to decide what is appropriate). But one person or group should not be allowed to limit the reading choices of everyone just because a book conflicts with their worldview or they don’t think it’s appropriate for their child. In fact, it is essential that libraries contain books that reflect the experiences and worldview of every reader. The Canadian Library Association’s statement on intellectual freedom reads: “it is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular, or unacceptable.”

For example, I loved Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s powerful, engaging, and tragic. But it’s been challenged and banned because some believe the offensive language, drugs, alcohol, and sexual content is not age-appropriate (it’s a young adult book). Yes, the experiences of teenage protagonist may not resonate with all (especially the more privileged), but there are certainly First Nations teens or teens living in poverty that will see themselves in the protagonist. And those that do not see themselves can learn something about the experiences of their peers. That’s why it’s so important this book be available for those that want to read it.

The third law of library science is “every book its reader” (S. R. Ranganathan). A book may not be important to you, but it could be supremely important to someone else. Readers should have the right to access any book, regardless what others may think of them. That’s why I believe in freedom of expression and that’s what I’ll be contemplating this Freedom to Read Week.

Some of my favourite banned/challenged books:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Thanks for reading my librarian rant. What’s your take on Freedom to Read Week? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Review: The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

2015-02-12 22.04.09There’s something about being a woman. You move through the world, riding the bus or walking out alone, but you’re on alert. You take in each person you see on the street and measure the potential threat. You’re constantly gauging your own feeling of safety. You’re careful.

That’s perhaps even more true for women living in 1993 in Toronto, when the Paul Bernardo murders came to light and murdered young women dominated the news. That serves as the setting for The Devil You Know, Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s debut novel.

Twenty-one-year-old Evie Jones, a novice reporter covering the crime beat, is living in this climate of fear and hyper-vigilance. It doesn’t help that when she was 11 years old, Evie’s best friend Liane was abducted and murdered in a case that remains unsolved, with the suspected killer still on the loose. Now, as Evie investigates the murders of other young girls, she is haunted anew by her friend’s death and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. At the same time, living on her own for the first time, she’s paranoid and filled with terror, convinced that someone is coming after her next.

The Devil You Know is a page-turner. The suspense and the desire to solve the mystery of what’s really going on keeps you reading until the end. I picked up The Devil You Know because, like a lot of people right now, I’m into the nail-biting thrillers like Gone Girl. It delivers as a thriller, with twists and turns that create a tense atmosphere that keeps the reader guessing.

But it is so much more than just an average thriller or typical crime novel. I knew it was set in Toronto, but I didn’t realize that de Mariaffi would address real crimes, like those committed by Paul Bernado. This causes a blur between fiction and reality, which makes the story all the more terrifying – as a reader, you know this is fiction, but you also know that these types of things actually happen in your own country. It’s dark and heavy subject matter that hits closer to home. This is a book about evil, and about how that evil impacts women, society, and ultimately, our culture.

In many ways, The Devil You Know serves as a social commentary on violence against women. De Mariaffi did an excellent job portraying what it feels like to be a woman on alert, living in a climate that breeds fear. It’s equally thrilling as a novel like Gone Girl, but more serious and disturbing. It left me with an uneasy feeling long after I was finished.

Have you read The Devil You Know? What did you think of it? How did it compare to other thrillers and crime stories?

Book Versus Movie: Wild

Book vs. MovieWhenever there’s a movie made about a book, there’s always the question of “which was better?” Did Hollywood change too many things, or did the actors not look at all like what you pictured the characters to be? Books come alive in our heads, and then when somebody else makes a movie of their vision, it doesn’t always line up.

I just finished reading Wild by CherylStrayed, and I saw the movie last Saturday, so I saw the movie before I read the book. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed. After the tragic death of her mother and the end of her marriage, Strayed spirals out of control. She decides to hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to regain her life and become the woman her mother raised.

The book tells a compelling story. While I found Strayed’s prose a little flowery and overdone at times, there was also some beautiful poeticism to some of her words. Beyond that, I enjoyed her story, especially the passages about the relationship between Strayed and her mother. I learned from the book that Cheryl chose the last named “Strayed” for herself after her divorce, and there’s several mentions of her being a literal “stray” after her mother’s death. Strayed loses her mother at the age of 22 and she writes very honestly about the impact of this loss and not getting the chance to appreciate her mother:

“[Her death] had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child.”

I know a lot of people really dislike this book. They think that Strayed is self-absorbed, or that the book isn’t accurate because she wrote it over 10 years after her hike and she romanticizes some of the darker details of her life. For me, even though it’s a memoir, it’s still a story and I think Strayed has the liberty to tell her story how she’d like, so these critiques honestly didn’t bother me. It wasn’t my favourite book, but I also didn’t dislike it. It fell somewhere in between.

Having read the book, I think the movie was well done. It stays true to most of the main stories in the book, which I appreciated. They didn’t add in anything to make it more dramatic for the big screen. I thought Reese Witherspoon did a great job of portraying Strayed and capturing her emotions. It was difficult to understand the vastness of her journey in the movie. Having read the book gives a lot more context to how far Strayed travelled and where she was on her trip.

Overall, if I’m pitting the book versus the movie, I’d choose the book. The extra context makes the story more compelling and the emotional side of the story is portrayed with words in a way that’s difficult on a screen. That said, I’d recommend seeing the movie as well (but maybe read the book first if you can).

Have you read Wild or seen the movie? What did you think of them? Which did you enjoy more?

On Reading: My To Be Read List

On ReadingThere are so many books to read. Of course, I love reading and so this makes me very happy in many ways. I love checking out new and old releases and thinking about what I want to read next. But if I’m being honest, all this choice can also be overwhelming. There are so many books that sound appealing to me. How will I have enough time to read them all? How will I choose? The books just keep coming!

Add to that my tendency to plan what I’m going to read as if I’m scheduling appointments, and it takes the fun out of it. If a new book has to go on the bottom of some list, I take away my own ability to start spontaneously reading something new right now just because it appeals to me. And I don’t want to miss that.

I know I’m not the only one who deals with this. There are plenty of articles and blog posts about TBR guilt and how to avoid it. The bottom line is that reading isn’t a chore – it should be enjoyable! For me, I went through a little exercise at the beginning of January that made me feel like I was starting fresh.

I started from scratch with my TBR list.

I had a monstrous list that had been accumulated over years and years. I took everything off and started from the beginning. I weeded ruthlessly. I looked at all the titles on my list (and looked them up if I had no idea what the book was even about anymore), and I only kept books that I was still genuinely interested in or that really appealed to me.

What really inspired my purge was this article from The Guardian: “Three thousand reasons to choose your reading carefully.” The author estimates she’ll read around 3,000 books in her lifetime: “Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realize that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000.” Some books just aren’t worth it – not necessarily because it’s a “bad” book but because it isn’t a book for you.

So the books that went on the chopping block when I cleaned up my TBR were the ones that weren’t for me – the book that I put on because someone told me it was a “classic,” or the book that I put on just because it’s a bestseller. They’re books that don’t really interest me, although they may be wonderful titles for someone else. Those are all gone. What’s left are books I really want to read. I’m excited by what’s on my list, and that’s the best type of TBR list around!

Right now, my “Next to Read” list contains Ru by Kim Thuy, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. I’m currently reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I’m excited by all of them.

What’s on your TBR list right now? How do you decide what makes the cut?

Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

2015-02-08 21.44.30There is no easy way to capture the essence of Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It is not a typical love story, but it is about relationships and bonds that last a lifetime. It is a pilgrimage story, but it is as much about those left behind as it is about those on the journey. The novel is dreamy, exploring memory, separation, and the mystery of life’s twists and turns.

One morning, 82-year-old Etta Vogel, who is struggling with the beginnings of dementia, leaves her home in Saskatchewan and sets out on foot for the eastern coast of Canada. She wants to see the ocean for the first time, and soon meets a talking coyote names James who accompanies her as she presses onwards. She leaves behind her husband Otto, who is plagued by memories of his own journey east as a young man during World War II. Their neighbour, Russell, starts off after Etta, but eventually ends up going on his own journey.

The novel moves continuously between time and viewpoints, shifting from Etta’s present-day pilgrimage to the coming of age of the characters during the 1930s. Otto, one of 14 children in his family, grew up with Russell, his neighbour and an honourary brother. Etta came to their town in rural Saskatchewan as a school teacher, just as everyone was leaving to fight overseas. When Otto leaves, he and Etta write to each other so she can correct his letters, and their relationship deepens.

Hooper’s depiction of rural Saskatchewan during World War II, a scene of endless dust and abandoned farms, is sharply written. She sets the scene with sparse, powerful writing. At the same time, nothing feels quite real – even in the past. The entire novel is magical realism and requires a suspension of disbelief.

The story explores many themes, one of which is aging and the question of whether it is ever too late for adventure or for forgiveness. It also explores the tension between obligation and desire. Though Etta and Otto and Russell seem to be inextricably linked, even as decades pass, it is easy to see how they could have taken different paths.

Yet for a story about relationships, the characters remain opaque. Because of the shifting of time and the blurring between fantasy and reality, we only see snippets of them. Much of the story is told through letters. While the characters are empathetic, we do not get to fully explore their motivations and relationships, and I found myself wanting to know more and to deepen my understanding.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is beautifully written. The whole thing reads as if it is a dream, and Hooper leaves the reader the space to take what they want from the world she has created. In many ways, the novel is what you make of it.

Have you read Etta and Otto and Russell and James? What were your thoughts about the book? What did you make of it?