Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?

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Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I first came across Rhoda Janzen when I read her exceptional book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress while on a business trip to New Zealand last October. I was going through a bit of a tough personal time and planning a quiet return to Canada, and a memoir of going home seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? picks up where Mennonite in a Little Black Dress leaves off. Janzen is in a new relationship with a churchgoer and decides to give church a try – not with the Mennonites of her childhood, but with the jazzy, sparkly Pentecostals (where were these guys when I was a kid? Janzen says they have pompoms, which would have made church much more fun). And when she gets a surprise cancer diagnosis, her search for faith and family becomes even more important.

The Amazon blurb describes it like this: “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? is for people who have a problem with organized religion, but can’t quite dismiss the notion of God, and for those who secretly sing hymns in their cars, but prefer a nice mimosa brunch to church.”  That sort of sounds like me, and I loved reading about Janzen’s exploration (and redefinition) of love, faith and family.

It’s a light, introspective read about some fairly heavy stuff, and I’d recommend this excellent little memoir to anyone who has ever wondered if there couldn’t be more than one way to believe in something bigger.  I genuinely enjoyed it even more than the first book. Check out this little blurb here.

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Anne of Avonlea

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Anne of Avonlea (Photo: Sterling Publishing)After I reread Rilla of Ingleside for a Canadian history paper I wrote last month, I dug out my old Anne of Green Gables box set to get reacquainted with one of my oldest literary friends.

I’m not alone in my Anne love. Apparently, the Duchess of Cambridge is also a big fan (I’m a fan of Kate too, and this made me like her even more). The Anne books, along with Gone With the Wind, are among my very favourites – particularly the first four (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars). My mom read at least two of them out loud to me when I was a little kid, and in 1995 when I was 10 years old and my family went on an east coast road trip to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, I made my dad and brother spend a couple hours at Cavendish Figurines, where I got to dress up like Anne (I must have read about this place in some kind of guidebook, because I don’t think we had the internet at our house until at least 1999).

In 1995, this happened.

In 1995, this happened.

Because I recently re-watched the Kevin Sullivan Anne of Green Gables miniseries (which yes, I still have on VHS), I thought I’d skip book one and instead tuck into Anne of Avonlea.

Reading the Anne books as an adult is a much different experience than reading them as a kid, and each time I go back through them, I find something new that resonates with me. Anne of Avonlea picks up when Anne is 17 and largely chronicles her adventures teaching in the Avonlea one-room schoolhouse. Kind of apt for an education student-to-be, hey? Yes, she’s a fictional character and this book was written more than a century ago, but Anne experiences some of the same fears and emotions that I know I will in my own classroom, and in its own way, that’s very comforting.

Actually, comforting is a very good way to describe the whole experience of re-reading any of the Anne books. My friend Dipika in the UK, who I still do some freelance writing work with from time to time, mentioned to me on Facebook not too long ago that she found her recent re-read of Anne of Green Gables to be quite a comfort. I think she’s absolutely right. To me, Anne’s a bit like a bowl of soup on a cold day or a phone call from a long-lost friend. And when you add in a dash of Gilbert Blythe (who, in spite of being a completely fictional character, may have been the first boy I ever really fell in love with), how can you go wrong? I love this book every time I read it.

My Legendary Girlfriend

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My Legendary Girlfriend (Photo: Mikegayle.co.uk)I’m not a Goodreads user generally, but I was so baffled by why anyone would think that My Legendary Girlfriend by Mike Gayle was good that I had a look at some reviews to make sure I wasn’t alone.

Thank goodness I wasn’t. ‘Mags’ described the experience as “like I was being dragged through a very slow and painful death” and recommended it for “people who just came from a break-up and need some promise and sympathy.”

Maybe that’s why I picked it up. I promise that I’m not that sad, but I thought the story of a young British teacher trying to get past a bad breakup might be sort of sweet and a little bit comforting. I spotted it on a display shelf at the library and judging by the cover, it seemed quick and light – perfect for some bedtime reading as I gear up for spring final exams.

However, I agree with most of the reviews online (and maybe this is why I should reconsider my aversion to Goodreads). ‘Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance’ says “Never judge a book by its cover … disappointing waste of good reading time.” I also appreciated this review by ‘Kricket’: “When you read the blurb on the back it could really go either way. It’s just when you get into the story – ugh. If one of my male friends was behaving the way the main character was, I’d have encouraged him to seek psychiatric help rather than dating/marrying him.”

I guess I should have known when I went over to MikeGayle.co.uk where he describes the process of getting this book published. Maybe I’m in a foul mood after not enjoying this story, but I found his descriptions to be nearly as annoying as reading this book. I’m so glad that I didn’t waste a penny on this one. Straight back to the library it goes.

Eleanor & Park

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Guys, did you know that some publishers do little video previews for books? I seriously had no idea, but this is very, very sweet, and a nice way to introduce Eleanor & Park, which was my book club pick for April/May.

I might have mentioned this before, but my book club is a group of two girls who are old friends from high school plus me. We used to put on wizard robes and attend midnight screenings of Harry Potter (yes, really. We were possibly the least rebellious teenagers in the history of ever – or at least in the history of suburban south-west Calgary and its rural surroundings). Now both of them are married, one is a mom of an adorable almost-three-year-old, and we like to read teen fiction from time to time to remind us of the silly 17-year-old girls that we used to be.

Eleanor & Park was my first book club pick for 2013 and I chose it based solely on this New York Times review by John Green, although  I found out afterwards that it’s also a Heather’s Pick at Chapters/Indigo. I also really liked the author’s name ‘Rainbow Rowell’ and I thought about that for a long time when I first started looking into this book (normally I just grab and go with books, but choosing a book club pick requires careful thought, as they are subject to the judgement of my two wonderful friends). Were Rainbow Rowell’s parents hippies? Is it a pen name? Is it a name she chose herself? In the end, I decided it didn’t matter very much. John Green wrote: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” That was good enough for me.

And oh, what a book! This is the kind of teen fiction that I would have devoured at 17, and at 27, I have to admit that I was still completely and utterly captivated by it. The feelings are so strong, the romance is so vivid, and if it’s at all possible, this book has a brilliant, moving, pulsing soundtrack that comes from being set in the ’80s where the main characters listen to a Walkman on the bus out of a shared set of headphones. There’s lots of swearing in it too, which is realistic if you grow up in a poorer area of a big city like Eleanor and Park do (I would have felt vaguely guilty enjoying the swearing so much as a teenager – this is something that you grow into, I guess).

There are unexpected twists and turns, beauty, love, euphoria, sadness and a grand rescue. It’s the stuff teenage dreams are made of, and possibly grown-up dreams too. I thought Eleanor & Park was so fantastic that I stayed up late and read it all in one sitting. I laughed out loud, cried buckets, bought a black eyeliner and spent about $20 on iTunes because of this book. It’s brilliant. I think you should read it too.

Divergent

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Divergent (Photo: HarperCollins)I reconnected with two friends from high school, Courtney and Monique, over dinner a few weeks ago. We all lead such different lives now – Courtney is a married mama with an adorable two-year-old who had me in stitches at the restaurant, Monique has a husband and a great job downtown, and I’m our resident single girl with a part-time writing gig and a bunch of courses to upgrade before everything really kicks off in the fall. Needless to say, none of us have much downtime, so a book club seemed like the perfect solution to ensure we still get together on a regular basis.

Because we all bonded over our love of reading as teenagers, we figured that our first few picks should be teen-themed. Courtney went first and chose Divergent by Veronica Roth, which I had never heard of before. Luckily, my neighbour Elizabeth, who is in grade 12, is a voracious reader (my old boss once described me as a voracious reader, and I thought that was one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received) and had a copy at home.

Divergent tells the story of 16-year-old Tris, who like all 16-year-olds in her society, has to choose which of the five factions (Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation and Amity) she will belong to for the rest of her life. To help them make their decision, everyone – including Tris and her brother, Caleb – have to undergo an aptitude test. Unusually, Tris’s test is inconclusive shows that she has aptitudes for multiple factions. This means that she is a Divergent – a secret that she must guard for fear of her life.

It’s a bit Hunger Games-y in that it has a plucky teenage heroine with plenty of emotional depth, acts of bravery, family loyalty and a lot of adrenaline-pumping action. I’d argue that some of the themes are slightly more adult in Divergent, though. It also reminded me of Lois Lowry’s fabulous book The Giver, especially the Choosing Day scene, which I thought was not unlike the Ceremony of Twelve. The factions are also a little bit like the way Panem is divided into 12 districts in The Hunger Games.

I’m glad Divergent is part of a trilogy (although the third book isn’t out yet), because I definitely want more. It’s pacey and action-packed and I’m really fascinated by the society Roth created for her characters. Fortunately, Elizabeth also has a copy of Insurgent kicking around – another spring read for when my finals are over.

Also: Did you know that Veronica Roth was 22 when Divergent was published? TWENTY TWO. What have I been doing with my life?