All The Light We Cannot See

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All The Light We Cannot See Photo: Simon & SchusterI’ve been tempted by All The Light We Cannot See a few times over the past couple months, and with an upcoming trip to the UK (a pair of nine-hour flights, plus several train trips), I finally caved and loaded it up on my Kindle.

After a couple of months of very sporadic reading (ultraheavy education theory books and ultralight wedding magazines) during my first-ever teaching contract this spring, I felt I was due a good novel, and this striking piece of fiction fit the bill.

It’s truly beautiful storytelling (it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). One day, if I can write something half as good, I’ll be a very happy lady. There are two parallel storylines at play here. A young blind girl and her father, a museum locksmith, flee Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940. Meanwhile, an orphaned German boy develops a fascination with radios, which earns him a place among the Nazi military elite.

The pace of the plot is pretty much perfect, and by the time the two storylines converge, I couldn’t put the book down. Coincidentally, I started the novel as Matt and I travelled through Manchester, where we spent a few hours at the Imperial War Museum North, which has a comprehensive chronological timeline display of the impact of both world wars on everyday people. I finished it right after we arrived in London, the morning of our visit to the Imperial War Museum London, an entirely different experience with its comprehensive, stunning and sobering Holocaust exhibition. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. The whole experience made for very interesting – and very thoughtful – reading.

There’s lots to love about All The Light We Cannot See – lyrical, descriptive writing, achingly sympathetic characters, beautifully-imagined settings and the magic of radio. It stayed with me for days.

Golden Boy

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Golden Boy (Photo: Simon & Schuster)This is a very long-overdue post. August sort of got away from me – I took on some exciting freelance writing assignments (including some for Avenue magazine, a well-regarded local Calgary publication, that I’m quite thrilled about) and unfortunately, one of the downsides of getting paid for my writing (well really, the only downside) is that blogging sort of takes a backseat. Classes started up again this week too, which has meant a few days of chaos and stress. Don’t worry though – I haven’t stopped reading. You can expect reviews for Jane Christmas’s excellent travel book What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim, the beautiful book of poetry by Cynthia Rylant called God Got a Dog and the other books I muddled through in August shortly.

Today though, I want to tell you about Golden Boy, which is one of the most gripping novels I’ve ever read. I can’t believe that Abigail Tartellin is only 26 (or that she was waitressing when she got called by a publisher for the rights to this book). She’s amazing, and she’s only going to get better – and quite frankly, she puts small-time writers like me to shame. She has a real gift and her book is brilliant.

I gave up my bookstore job this fall in favour of a different opportunity with slightly better pay and more sociable hours, but I’m sticking around once a month to run a book club for teenagers there in the fall. So I attended the Fall Gala at Indigo Signal Hill on Saturday night to promote my new venture, and my friend Meg couldn’t recommend Golden Boy highly enough. Convinced by her enthusiasm and glowing review, I had a look and I was intrigued.

Max is the 16-year-old intersex son of a high-profile golden couple in a satellite town of Oxford in Britain. Max is well-adjusted, funny, compassionate and everything a 16-year-old should be, until a shocking betrayal forces him to re-examine everything he thinks he knows about himself.

I won’t give anything else away, except that it’s twisty and brilliant and poignant and sad and very, very well done. I have barely been able to put it down since Sunday, and have been reading it in fits and starts around my ethics and law readings for my education classes. I just finished it ten minutes ago and my face is streaky from mascara and I feel like I need to hold everyone in my world just a little bit tighter.

Please read Golden Boy. I think I may have found my new favourite novel of the year. Thank you again, Meg, for recommending it!

Popular

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Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

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.

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.