‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

“There could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere; a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

It is no small feat for an author to win the Canadian Giller prize twice (only three have ever done so, and one of those was Margaret Atwood) and be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018. Award winners are not always readable, but this one certainly is. An epic tale of a boy on the run, I have never read a slavery story quite like it. And I was so curious to find out why there was an octopus on the cover! This literary page turner is full of beautiful writing, delightful characters, interesting quests, and thoughtful reflections on humanity and the meaning of freedom.

When Washington Black, an eleven year old field slave is falsely implicated in a the murder of someone on the plantation, he must flee. His good fortune is having been recently chosen as a manservant to the owner’s eccentric brother, a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. Together the unlikely pair travel to the Arctic and beyond in search of adventure and invention.

‘I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey’ by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

“If I knew that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss.”

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is one of the many residents of the Middle East who have lost loved ones to the conflict there. This medical doctor’s house was shelled and in one terrible blow, three of his daughters and a niece were killed. He has suffered and has every reason to hate and seek revenge but he doesn’t, believing that will not change anything.

His unique perspective on peace and how to achieve it comes out of his medical profession. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp, people were often surprised or even shocked to learn that for many years he worked in a hospital in Israel, treating Jewish patients, but for him this illustrated his point about peace. In order to keep hate in check, he chose to focus on one person at a time, rather than make sweeping generalizations. If an Israeli checkpoint soldier was rude to him, he would be angry and frustrated at that particular person, not at all border crossing officials. Hate the actions of others, not hate the others.

As a doctor, he was a helper and healer for every person he treated, no matter who they were. People were treated according to their medical condition, not their origin. This bridges a gap. His advice is for people on each side of the divide to get to know one another and gain empathy and respect for the other’s situation. When you get to know the enemy and fear each other less and see individuals, it helps fight tribalism and hatred of the other. Don’t judge people by the frustrations you may have about their government. He says, “not all Americans are arrogant, not all Palestinians are troublemakers, not all Israelis are occupiers.”

Of course the Middle East situation is complex and there are no easy answers. Many have tried and failed to find solutions. But revenge and counter revenge is obviously not working–something must change. He promotes building bridges, not walls and also says empowering women in the peace process would help, suspecting that men are more likely to favour war. Avoid segregation and mix people up so they can get to know each other. This is a simple message of radical love, respect, and equality presented in story, and stories matter. Dr. Abuelaish now lives in Canada and teaches public health at the University of Toronto.

‘The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism’ by Ken Becker

“The answers are in the journey, every step and mis-step. As it happened. No punches pulled.” 

Ken Becker often started stories with a quote, so I thought it fitting to do the same. How did a young man who couldn’t type and couldn’t spell become a journalist? How did a college dropout become a college teacher? Reading this book appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, the title intrigued me because I am married to an international aid worker, and I have also been an expat for most of my adult years (US, UK, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone). Second, the topic was interesting to me because in addition to being a teacher librarian, I am also a writer. I’ve never made much money at it, but I love it. Third, and finally, with full disclosure, Ken is my neighbour and who doesn’t want to know more about their neighbours? When Ken kindly put an offer of Life Story writing in our mailboxes one summer years ago, I kept the paper which included his website and blog link (thebeckerfiles). When I recently went back to check them out, I discovered he’d written a book, which I found out was available at the Mississauga public library (and also on Amazon). I couldn’t resist, and put a hold on it right away.

Becker, a rugged non-conformist New Yorker, pulls no punches as he recounts his rocky road in life and journalism in this readable memoir. I appreciated his honesty, humour, and short snappy writing style. I’ve always found journalists to make good authors, because they know how to be compelling and avoid boggy writing. Becker was indeed, always striving to cut through the  b*llsh*t to get to what really mattered. Unfortunately, with his acerbic wit he may have p*ssed off some people in his life, burned some bridges, perhaps not realizing that his manner could be off putting. Or else he was just being recklessly forthright, in an effort to be true to himself. Either way, he also made a lot of friends, and it is evident from the book, that he is clearly devoted to his craft and to his family. He’s always been a pleasant neighbour, even though our dogs don’t get along.

His craft is writing, and he has written about an impressively wide variety of subjects: crime, travel, sports, politics, entertainment, etc. There are all kinds of interesting stories about famous people he has interviewed and private anecdotes that never made it to press. The inside scoop is why we love memoirs so much. A good memoir should also point to something beyond the individual, and this one does that as well. It gives a veteran’s view of journalism over the last 50 years. Being a journalist requires curiosity, grit, determination, hard work but also vulnerability. Putting your hard won well-crafted words ‘out there’ can be scary. I’ll end with another quote from Ken because it speaks to the value of memoir and passing on our stories. “While most people make arrangements to pass on accumulated riches, whether substantial or meager, many fail to recognize the value and uniqueness of their life stories.” Thanks for your contribution Ken! It’s inspiring.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year readers!! It’s been another great year of conversation around books. Thanks for being with me on the journey!! Since many of you are library users like I am, I wanted to share an idea I’m going to try in the new year to rid myself of what I will call library hold gluttony…a bit like this guy–notice he has one between his knees, one under his arm, and one in each hand…

The problem I have is this: when I hear of a great new title I tend to immediately put it on hold, but then awhile later a whole bunch of books arrive all at once and I go home both thrilled to have so many shiny new books winking at me, but also sad to know that I’ll never be able to read them all before they are due back!! It makes me feel ‘book hoarder shame’ and makes me resent not having enough time to get to them all. Maybe that happens to you too!

So, here’s my plan for putting books on hold at the library from now on. It involves using the suspension function which delays the arrival of holds until whatever date I choose; it’s designed to maintain holds while preventing a costly book pile up while on vacation. What I’ve done is put twelve of my ‘wish list’ books on hold but then suspended them so that they’ll be released just one per month, which should be manageable. I can always un-suspend them earlier if I have more reading time and want them sooner, and since books continue to move up the priority list while suspended, I might just get them right away when I do unlock them. Actually, having books dole out more slowly may have the side benefit of getting to all those titles on my own shelf that I haven’t read yet, in addition to the ones I have on loan from friends–these are also glaring at me, begging to be read. So we’ll see how it goes. Not a New Year’s resolution, but a simple system which I hope will solve my little book hoarder problem.

However, having said all that, the really really important thing  is just to enjoy the love of reading in the new year and let the book FOMO go, especially now when all of the Best Books of 2018 lists are coming out and the TBR list seems overwhelming. It just isn’t possible to do it all. Just be grateful for whatever book holds your bookmark at the moment. Relax, breathe, and enjoy…it’s all for the love of reading! Happy 2019 everyone!

‘The Shadow Sister’ by Lucinda Riley (The Seven Sisters # 3)

Pa Salt leaves his daughter Star a small figurine in the shape of a black panther, as well as a letter directing her to an antiquarian bookshop in London. Star and her sisters were each adopted from various parts of the world and raised on Pa Salt’s magnificent estate on the shores of Lake Geneva. They’ve grown up well, never acting spoiled as a result of their lives of privilege, but each feels lacking in some way, compelled to discover their birth heritage. By leaving them mysterious clues, their adoptive father helps to set them on a journey which not only reveals their past but also charts their future.

Named after a constellation of stars, the first sister Maia goes to Brazil in The Seven Sisters which is also an introduction to the series. The second sister Ally, goes to Norway in The Storm Sister. In this instalment, Star steps out from the shadow of her sister to go to the Lake District and Kent, entering the world of British aristocracy in the Edwardian era.

The historical aspect of this fiction series is definitely its strength and is what intrigues me the most. Even though these books are cosy, romantic sagas to sink into, the amount of research that went into the real people behind the stories,  raises these novels to a higher level with wide appeal.

Though Flora MacNichol is a fictional character, her life as it entwines with Alice Keppel, King Edward the VII, and Beatrix Potter is fascinating. There is also an unrelated but interesting real life connection to Prince Charles and Camilla which I will let you discover on your own. Lucinda Riley’s website provides a great deal of information about the true stories behind the books, for further reading pleasure, here is the link.

 

‘Sea Prayer’ by Khaled Hosseini

From the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, comes a short but powerful picture book for all ages, dedicated to the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecution. Enhanced by the illustrations of Dan Williams, it’s a letter from a father to a son, on the eve of their departure. He knows he is doing everything he can to protect his child, but also realizes that his choice will put them in grave danger.

Impelled to write this story by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families, like Kurdi’s, who have been splintered and forced from home by war and persecution, and he will donate author proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe. Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and moved to the United States in 1980. Here is a short documentary from the author about his own journey in writing this book:

 

‘Still Me’ by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes fans will be happy to hear about this latest instalment featuring Louisa Clark, an unforgettable, hapless, and endearing character, a bit like Bridget Jones. This actually just won the Goodreads Choice Awards and is a decent follow-up to Me Before You and After You.

This time Louisa goes to New York City to start over and sort out her life, once and for all, even if it means maintaining a long distance relationship with Ambulance Sam. Working as a personal assistant to a super rich family, Lou finds herself in another world that is very unfamiliar to her, which lends itself to some very funny scenarios–Moyes is at her best when there is a lot of tension and chaos created for her characters! I must say I found the novel lagged a bit at times, but is certainly worth reading if you have read the others.