12

Never Have I Ever

As someone who thinks and talks and reads about books like 80% of the time, you kind of become defined by what you have read.

But what about those books that you haven’t read?

There are some books or authors that when you admit you haven’t read them, people don’t believe you. They think you’re missing out on some crucial bookish experience, like maybe you aren’t as widely read as they thought you were.

I try my best to read as much and as widely as possible. But there are inevitably going to be some books or authors that I don’t get to in this lifetime. Here’s a list of some of the ones that I haven’t reached yet.

Anything by Margaret Atwood. I know. I somehow managed to get through high school and university without reading any of her work. I actually didn’t know she was read in high schools until the other night. As far as I can tell, most of her work is dystopian? And that’s never really been in my wheelhouse. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale has been talked about a lot recently and I decided that maybe the time had come to read me some Atwood. I have a copy out from the library right now and if I actually read it, I can keep my passport.

 A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. One of those books that’s probably considered compulsory if you want to think of yourself as well-read. Well, too bad. I will probably never read this and it has a lot to do with the fact that anything I’ve ever read about Hemingway makes me not like him as a person. And I’m sure there are some of you out there that think I should separate the man from his art but nah. This is one I will probably never get to.

Books by Joan Didion or Nora Ephron. Am I wrong lumping them in together? They feel like they go together. People are always raving about one or the other and, while I suspect I would probably quite like their work, I haven’t gotten to it yet. I did read a Delia Ephron book recently-ish. Does that count?

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It constantly surprises ME that I still haven’t read this. It’s really hard to find a copy of it. Well, at least, every time it’s popped into my head to look for it, I can’t find it. I can hear you all yelling about online shopping but I prefer my book buying to be an in-store experience for the most part.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Are you yelling? Look, I gave The Hobbit a whirl and I was super bored. I can’t imagine reading three books of the same. I couldn’t even stay awake for the whole first movie. Pass.

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Any books or authors people are surprised you’ve never read?

9

A New Favourite: Three Sisters, Three Queens

A few years ago, I got really excited because one of Philippa Gregory’s new books was billed as her first sister story since The Other Boleyn Girl.

As you may recall, I loved The Other Bolyen Girl – it was my Philippa Gregory gateway drug. But The Kingmaker’s Daughter, although technically about the Neville sisters, was mostly about men making decisions around women.

In short, I didn’t like it.

I’ve tempered my expectations when it comes to Gregory of late. Most of the time, I take her books out from the library.

But, I think she might be hot again. Because The King’s Curse, The Taming of the Queen and now, Three Sisters, Three Queens were all amazing.

I didn’t post about The Taming of the Queen when I read it but know that Gregory’s depiction of Henry VIII’s clever final wife is excellent. Henry VIII as a stinking, cranky, brute of a man is vividly brought to life as poor Katherine Parr is forced into marriage with him and just wants to survive. I loved it – although finishing the book was bittersweet as you leave Katherine momentarily happy but if you are a student of history, you know she’s headed for a sad ending all the same.

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Three Sisters, Three Queens is mainly about Margaret Tudor, but Gregory weaves Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor (the Dowager Queen of France, not Mary I) into the story as well. This is incredibly effective for a couple of reasons: Katherine’s story has already been told and Mary’s wasn’t that interesting and this allows Gregory to play with the sister dynamics that are so fascinating given their statures and the times they lived in.

I had no idea about Margaret Tudor but now I love her. She was married off to the King of Scotland, James IV when she was barley 14. She was sent to live in Scotland, among a completely foreign court, forced to accept her husband’s many illegitimate children. When her husband was killed (on the orders of her sister-in-law, Katherine of Aragon who was acting as regent for Henry VIII), she became regent for their son, James V.

But then she went and married this guy, Archibald (Earl of Angus) and the rest of the Scots were like “right, you forfeited the regency by marrying him so we’re in charge now.” She spent the next 10 years fighting for her right to be regent, fleeing anytime it looked like she was in danger. Her marriage, to a younger man who she had married for love, complicated her ambition as his family was knownto be in the employ of the English, working for personal gain, against Scotland.

Throughout the novel, Margaret and her sisters write each other letters, admonishing each other over matters of state, faith and family, the loss of children, troubles in their marriages, the changing borders. Their sisterhood is complicated by their status as queens, as each fights for her kingdom, her children and her happiness.

When I posted about this book on instagram, I said that it elevated the historical fiction genre. I stand by that. Gregory has written a fast-paced interesting book about women that history pits against each other. Viewed through Gregory’s lens, you see that these women were as much a product of their times as the men they were married to.

PS This one was recently released in paperback!

27

The Most Difficult Book I’ve Ever Read

So far this year, I’ve been drawn to more serious subject matter. I’ve written about it here and here and here.

Today’s another one. The difference this time is that the book in question, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, shredded me. I don’t just mean that this book made me sad.

This book broke me.

I had to take breaks from this book. I was in tears, I was sobbing reading this book.

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This book, by Åsne Seierstad, started when the author was asked to write a piece about the massacre for Newsweek. Seierstad was used to writing about conflict in the Middle East, about war happening in far away places, but her home in Norway was always a peaceful refuge from her work. Now the conflict had bled into her home.

The result is a stunning portrait of what happened: in Anders Breivik’s life, in Norway over the past 40 years, in Oslo and on the island of Utoya on that summer day in 2011.

Seierstad doesn’t just look at the radicalization of Breivik – his wreck of a home life, days as a tagger in the city, and the eventual descent into hatred and delusion that saw him plant a bomb in the centre of Oslo before shooting a bunch of unarmed teenagers on a secluded island.

She also looks at the lives of those lost: Simon Saebo, a teenager from the north of Norway who had  a summer job at the cemetery and started a local youth branch of the Labour Party; Bano Rashid, whose family fled the war in Iraq, who was so intent on becoming a “proper” Norwegian and loved the traditions of her adopted country, and hoped to become a minister one day; Anders Kristiansen, another young man who thought one day he could be Prime Minister, who had asked his mom to weave him a blanket the colour of the summer sky. By the time the book gets to that day in July, you know these kids, their families, their hopes and dreams.

And this is why this book was so difficult to read – possibly the most difficult book I’ve ever read – these children had their whole lives ahead of them. Each of them was hard-working, clever, decent and they all had plans for working towards a better Norway, a better world. And some asshole, blinded by hatred, fueled by delusions of grandeur, took it upon himself to end their promising young lives.

Seierstad tells a complete story. The before, the after, the trial, how the families are coping; but she also includes about 60 some odd pages of the actual shooting. I wasn’t prepared for that. She looks at the response of the Norwegian authorities, how things maybe didn’t go as well as they could have. She is critical but you get the sense that everyone in Norway was just flabbergasted that anything like this could happen there. Altogether, this adds up to one gut-punch of a book.

I’ve thought about those kids often in the days since I read it; about their parents and siblings having to navigate the rest of their lives without them. Seierstad got approval from all the families of those whose children’s last moments are covered in the book – their families don’t want them to be forgotten. Reading this book seems like a good start in honouring their memories.

17

Sophie Kinsella strikes again

When I started reading Sophie Kinsella’s latest, My Not So Perfect Life, I took a second to look through the list of Kinsella’s other books.

I have read every. Single. One. So I guess you could say that Kinsella is one of my favourite authors.

But even though she’s a favourite, I wouldn’t say that I had unnaturally high expectations for this book. I’ve read all of her work, but I haven’t loved it unconditionally across the board. There were some misses in the middle of the Shopaholic series, Wedding Night was pretty terrible actually and I remember being underwhelmed by The Undomestic Goddess.

So when I tell you that I loved My Not So Perfect Life, know that I mean it and it’s totally worth your time!

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Cat Brenner is trying to make a go of her London life. Ever since she can remember, it’s been her dream to live and work in London, despite the fact that it’s kind of breaking her Somerset farmer dad’s heart. So even though she has no money, lives in a terrible flat with heinous roommates, and has a shaky hold on a job at a branding agency that comes with a vile commute, she would never admit that her life isn’t going exactly how she planned. She can’t even remember to answer to her chic new name and constantly introduces herself as Katie.

But then, Katie gets fired and she can’t find another job. She finds herself back home at the family farm, to the delight of her father and stepmother. And they actually have a  great idea – to turn the farm into a glamping vacation destination. Katie decides to help get them up and running while she keeps up the search  – and doesn’t tell them that she lost her job. She’s on a sabbatical!

When her former boss, Demeter, shows up with her family and starts to divulge personal information to Katie, her perspective on everything changes.

If you’re familiar with Kinsella’s work, you should be able to see that it has classic Kinsella elements. There’s also a tall, dark and handsome successful man for Katie to maybe get involved in. But right now, the fact that this book is classic Kinsella, is exactly what I needed. I needed to laugh about crazy roommates, misunderstandings and hi jinx, even some physical comedy.

And in the end, Kinsella rewarded me with a different kind of love story. One where our plucky heroine comes to admire a strong, clever, ambitious woman and finds some of those same elements in herself. A book where the goal is to get a career on track, to fall in love with the work that she’s doing, and to constantly learn from the other brilliant women she works with.

After reading about orphans, backstabbing queens, difficult women and sexual assault, My Not So Perfect Life was just what the bibliotherapist ordered.

(What? That’s a real thing)

11

Another Day in the Death of America

I’ve been working hard on making some of my reading more meaningful. On choosing books that make me feel like I’m educating myself in a way that is necessary right now. So that I can’t just be an ignorant privileged white woman.

Thankfully, there are so very many books that can help me on my way.

Today we’re going to talk about Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives.

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Younge is a British journalist who found himself living in the United States after falling in love while working there short term. He stayed, got married, worked, and had two children in his time in America. Younge is a black man and the longer he stayed, especially once he had black children, the more he became worried about the gun violence in his adopted country. As he got to know more Americans, as he came to consider himself as less of an onlooker and more of a participant in every day American life, gun violence became more personal.

So, in an effort to show how personal the epidemic is, he picked a day, any day, and reported on all the stories of children shot to death on that day.On an average day, seven children will be shot. On the day Younge picked, November 23, 2013, ten children aged nine to nineteen were killed by guns. Younge spent eighteen months travelling around, talking to the people who loved them, those who were there, the mothers, fathers, friends, cousins left shattered in the wake of such unnecessary loss.

The children he profiles were black, white, hispanic. They were students, athletes, little kids who played in the streets until the lights came on. They fell in doorways, at sleepovers, in their own homes, on street corners. Their lives ended in California, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. They all left behind completely devastated families.

Gary Younge profiles these short lives with empathy and compassion. He speaks freely about how occasionally he messed up and didn’t approach grieving relatives with the space they needed to feel comfortable speaking with them. Over the course of the book, you can see Younge getting more and more involved in his subject matter.

This is a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control. Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible.

Another Day in the Death of America is an incredibly researched portrait of an epidemic that does not discriminate against its victims. I read most of it with my mouth open, horrified with the ease with which these young lives were wiped out. And I’m not sure really where it left me. Gary Younge and his family have since moved back to the UK.

One final note: this book has been optioned as a movie with David Oyelowo to star as Gary Younge.

7

Canada Reads 2017: The Break

Two years ago, I tuned into the Canada Reads debate for the first time. I ended up reading two of the books after the fact (one of which, When Everything Feels Like The Movies stays with me still).

Last year, I read two of the books ahead of the debate (progress!). I bought the winner soon after it was over and have yet to read it (because that’s how I roll).

This year I’ve bought two of the books and currently, I’ve read one. I’ll read the other one but I hope The Break wins.

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Katherena Vermette’s debut novel, The Break, centres on a sexual assault that takes place in the middle of the night. Stella, a young Metis mother, hears something outside and, fearing that someone is hurt but unable to leave her house and her children, she calls the police. The book tells the story leading up to that night and it’s aftermath from rotating, multi-generational viewpoints: the sisters, cousins, mothers and aunts that make up one Aboriginal family affected, their friends, and a young Metis police officer assigned to investigate the case.

The Break slowly burns into an inferno of a book. It rightfully comes with a trigger warning due to scenes of sexual and physical violence and those scenes are brutal. But they don’t take away from the beauty of this book.

Vermette weaves a layered tale involving perspectives from mothers, daughters, lost children, of Aboriginal women who have chosen to forge a life in the city away from their ancestral lands and traditions. It is a commentary on the value our country has placed on these women, how easily we dismiss their concerns, the destruction of their young. Vermette’s vivid characters belong to a sisterhood long used to fending for themselves, who worry for their children and how the world will view them.

The whole idea of Canada Reads is that we’re supposed to find that one book that the country needs to read. In the face of all that is wrong in this country when it comes to Aboriginal relations, I think it would benefit the country massively to read The Break. It is a the kind of book that breaks you wide open and lets some much needed light in.

 

14

Library Checkout: February 2017

I’m trying not to be an apologist blogger anymore so I won’t apologize for not putting up blog content. I totally feel bad about it and I’m alive. Just…really terrible at putting up blog content!

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This is why the library checkout, hosted by Charleen @ It’s a Portable Magic, is so great. We all get content and I don’t have to use my brain too too much. (What is wrong with my brain, you guys? It feels mushy)

Although, really, it’s been a shameful month at the library. You’ll see. I just have so many stacks of books at home and I’m starting to feel really terrible about not reading all of them, all the time. It’s a horrible feeling and I’m hoping it goes away if I focus on my own books for a while. I’m really terrible at that, though. I’m the kind of reader that’s like “OH THAT’S SO SHINY AND NEW, LET ME HAVE IT NOW.” I need to get more in the mindset of “These books aren’t going anywhere. I don’t need to have this book in my possession this instant.”

Even though I know it’s true, it feels like a lie.

Anyway, let’s get to the shame of my month at the library.

Read
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (ohhhh I loved this one! Remember when I was super lukewarm about My Brilliant Friend? I take it back. Give me all the Ferrante books!)
Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory (I’m still reading this as I write this. I’m really enjoying it but it’s dense and long and I know someone’s waiting for it so I’m trying to read as fast as I can)

DNF’d
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (I don’t know what happened here – I have loved all of Cleave’s other work. This one felt inauthentic and forced. Since someone was waiting for it, I decided to just send it back)

Returned unread
The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (this is the second time I have returned one of her books to the library unread even though I really enjoyed Eligible!)

Currently out
Hitman Anders and the Meaning Of It All by Jonas Jonasson

On hold
Nothing right now but I’m thinking about putting a hold on the next Elena Ferrante book…maybe Emily Climbs too…