Night

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Night

Matt lent me Night back in November when he was teaching it to his grade 12 class. But with a stack of final papers to write in my last couple of weeks of the term, onto the shelf it went until I had more time to read. This one isn’t exactly a light undertaking.

Then, the high school student I tutor mentioned that she might like to write about Night for her final exam in English and wondered if we could go over it together. Presto! Motivation to read, and read quickly. So last night, I came home and read it all in one sitting.

Night isn’t a long book (it’s just over 100 pages), but it’s a very, very powerful first-person account of life in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – in 1944-45 when Elie Wiesel was just 15 years old. I’m glad they teach it in high schools, because it works really well around Remembrance Day time. Like all Holocaust books, it’s by no means an easy read. It’s really tough going, actually, because the prose is so distilled and the events are so horrific that you have to keep reading right until the end. It was probably a mistake to start it at 10:30 PM the night before the first day of a new semester, because I just had to stay up to finish it. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep.

But while it’s not a bedtime read, I think books like Night (which won the Nobel Peace Prize) are really important, especially for young people. It is a story of terror and hopelessness, and also of bravery and perseverance. This story is not comfortable, or happy or safe. But it is true, and I have always believed in the value of truth-telling.  There are important lessons to be learned from the past. And it offers up a much-needed reminder of the way all of us should treat each other in the present – with love, respect, tolerance and kindness.

One Summer: America, 1927

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One Summer (Photo: BillBryson.co.uk)Bill Bryson is probably my favourite contemporary nonfiction writer. I think I have read every single thing he’s written (even his books on spelling and grammar, which I loved). I think he’s brilliant and hilarious – and he’s got that rare ability to write across genres (memoir, travel writing, history, biography, science) without losing any of his charm in the process.

The first Bill Bryson book I ever bought was as an exchange student in the UK in early 2006. I got a gift voucher for 20 pounds at Waterstone’s for participating in a photo shoot at Bournemouth University (you can see me in the 2006-07 prospectus) and spent it on a copy of the 1995 travel book Notes from a Small Island. I think that because I was just discovering Britain for the first time myself, and Bryson’s dry, witty observations so closely mirrored my own, it resonated particularly strongly with me (There’s one part where he has trouble finding the ferry at Calais – I had similar trouble at Calais with the Eurostar and ended up in a farmers’ field.). It kind of felt like it was written for me, and at the age of 20, I was hooked on Bill Bryson.

I actually started One Summer: America, 1927 back in October, but it had to take a backseat to my practicum and a few assignment-heavy weeks at school. I wanted to give Bill Bryson the attention he deserved, so I picked it back up over the winter break. It travelled with me up to Donnelly to visit Matt in mid-December and I finally polished it off the day before Christmas.

One Summer is divided into five sections, each representing a different month in America during the summer of 1927 beginning in May and ending in September. Bryson covers Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight, a spectacular summer of baseball for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a sensational murder trial, Prohibition, the beginning of construction on Mount Rushmore, the lead-up to the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, the advent of talking motion pictures, the premiere of the musical Show Boat (one of my favourites, coincidentally) and a host of other events, both big and small.

What I love most about Bill Bryson is that he never dwells for so long on one thing. He turns history into little entertaining stories (which, in my opinion, is the best way to read history anyway) and his keen observations – especially when it comes to odd or humorous details – make for a great read. Like this review in the New York Times notes, Bryson has a great gift for bringing characters to life.

For example, did you know that US president Calvin Coolidge was presented with a cowboy outfit during the summer of 1927 and sometimes wore it just for fun when his workday was over? Or that the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman “always travelled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so?” And then there’s this sentence, which I just loved. “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Isn’t that great?

(The New York Times review in the link above also claims that some of Bryson’s facts are wild exaggerations. I’m not enough of a 1920s history buff to know one way or another about this, but I will say that One Summer appears to have a very extensive bibliography and reference notes that are broken down by chapter at the end of the book.)

History is almost never a light read, and I did have to wait for a time where my schedule was a little less intense to read One Summer, but it was well worth it. This would be a great gift for history buffs, social studies teachers and my dad, who gets to borrow my copy now that I’m done with it. Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, I loved it.

Canadian Pie

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Canadian Pie (Photo: Penguin)When it comes to sharp, observant essays and travel writing with a heavy dollop of humour, Bill Bryson stands head and shoulders above the pack – but if I had to pick a second place contender, Will Ferguson would definitely be the guy for the job.

I first encountered Ferguson when I was gifted a copy of Beyond Belfast for Christmas a few years ago (thanks Mom!). It’s also worth a read. It’s about hiking the Ulster Way in Northern Ireland and is brilliant and funny – and I was living in the UK at the time, so I especially appreciated it. The Globe & Mail did a great review when it first came out, which you can read here.

While I was knees-deep in Canadiana at the public library researching a pretty major history paper I have to write on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside for one of my courses, I came across this guy. And of course, in the interest of paper procrastination, I just had to read it.

I’m so very glad I did. If you could put The Morningside World of Stuart McLean and whatever the Canadian equivalent of Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Big Country (released in the US as I’m A Stranger Here Myself) into some sort of combination machine and blend them together, the result would probably come close to Canadian Pie. Chatelaine calls it a “laugh-out-loud travel read” and I’d have to agree.

When you go away from a place for awhile, like I did (I lived outside of Canada for over six years), it’s impossible not to return and see it through the lens of an outsider a little bit. Ferguson totally nails this feeling – and the result is a keenly observant, often very funny look at Canadian culture and what makes us tick. He gets stalked by cougars on Vancouver Island, muses on Canadians’ obsession with creating “big-ass objects by the highway” and generally appears to be having a very good time. I had a very good time reading it, too.

The Reader

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The Reader (Photo: Random House)You know those books that everybody talks about but you haven’t read? And then they make a really well-received film about the book and then you feel like you can’t possibly go and see the film without reading the book? And then years pass and everyone has seen the movie or read the book except you and you just sort of smile and nod when people talk about it, because now you have to seek it all out on your own or risk being the person who can’t follow along with important cultural touchstones?

Well, for me, that’s The Reader.

I hadn’t really heard much about this book until the 2008 movie with Kate Winslet, but I didn’t want to see it until I had read it. And even though it won tons of awards and was part of the 2009 Academy Awards hosted by Hugh Jackman (in my opinion, the best Oscars ever – just check out the opening number!), I never got around to seeing it. Or reading it. To tell you the truth, I actually kind of forgot about it.

And then I came across a slightly beat-up copy at the thrift store and thought it was time to bite the bullet. I’m so glad I did. For a slim book, it deals with really weighty subject matter (is there ever a time when the Holocaust is light? I don’t think so). In fact, I learned a brand new word when I was trying to figure out how to describe The Reader – Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It means the struggle to come to terms with the past, and it is often used to describe post-1945 German culture and literature.

It’s the perfect word to describe The Reader, which is moving and confusing and sad – all the emotions that this type of book really ought to be. The Reader presents complicated issues and moral dilemmas in a way that isn’t always satisfying, but is very realistic. I thought about it for a long, long time when I was finished – and isn’t that the mark of very good writing?