Monthly Archives: December 2014

‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children’ by Doris Stickney

Waterbugs and DragonfliesstarstarstarEarlier this year I met a woman who had tragically lost her daughter. We were talking about the impact of death on her family. When I remarked about how hard that must have been, she said a little children’s book had helped a lot with her young grandchildren. ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’ is a beautiful little picture book that relies on the story of a waterbug changing into a dragonfly. The gift edition is graced with lovely watercolour illustrations by Gloria Ortiz Hernandez. There is also a colouring book version by another illustrator which I have not seen, but noticed while browsing on Amazon.

Here is a link to the story, so that you can preview it.
Waterbugs & Dragonflies Text Only

There is an afterword in which the author says, “No one can predict the reaction of children to a story. The world of imagination is more real to them than the visible one. They surprise us with their clear grasp of that which we would make complex. And with unerring honesty they see through our flimsy pretenses. ‘I don’t know’ is an honest admission. But ‘I believe’ gives our children confidence in a future to be anticipated and in a Creator whose plan can be trusted.

‘A Northern Light’ by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern LightstarstarstarstarWinner of the Carnegie Medal, in the UK this book is titled ‘A Gathering Light’. Publishers in UK always give books a different cover (which I love to compare with the US cover) and sometimes, as in this case, even a different title. Same book in every other regard.

‘A Northern Light’ is based on a true story from the Adirondack Mountains where a body of a young woman was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in 1906. The boat she’d been in with her male companion was capsized so it appeared to be an accident, but the other body was never found. The mystery of that night ended up being one of the most sensational murder trials in New York’s history.

Donnelly’s fictional account features Mattie, a young girl working at the tourist hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake. She is given a package of letters by a young woman guest who is obviously distraught. The instructions are to burn the letters, but Mattie never gets a chance until the body of the woman is recovered from the lake. What do those letters contain? Should she be true to the woman’s instructions now or are there clues in the letters that might explain what happened?

There is much more in the story than the murder mystery on the lake. Mattie is growing up in hard times on the farm and is torn between her desire to go to college and her sense of responsibility to stay home and help the family, or even have one of her own. Though not as epic, I found the book similar to The Invention of Wings in style and tone. It’s an engaging and well written novel that was a pleasure to read.

Though classified as a Young Adult novel, Donnelly handles many very adult topics deftly and creatively and is a book that anyone would enjoy. It’s definitely one of those YA cross-over gems. I do love finding those!

Jennifer Donnelly Website

‘Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics’ by Ross Douthat

Bad Religion

“Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.”

starstarstarstarstarAt 35. Ross Douthat (DOW-thut), is the youngest New York Times columnist ever. In ‘Bad Religion’ he gives a historical and cultural account of the decline of institutional Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) in the United States over the past 50 years. There is plenty of religious fervour in the United States but Douthat suggests it has turned away from traditional Christian orthodoxy and has become its own version–a theology of the ‘God within.’ Bad religion refers to modern heretical thinking and practice in the church today, with such things as prosperity preachers, self-help gurus, and an over involvement of religion in politics. It is a world where self-help gurus like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, tell us that God is not a being to be defined but a reality to be experienced, and prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen offer up a Christianity with an emphasis on the financial possibilities of prayer and positivity that suits an age of abundance.

What I enjoyed most about Douthat’s analysis is that he frames an explanation for what I’ve had a sense of all along–that a mix of Christianity, nationalism, and partisan politics can be unhealthy. The United States is a unique nation in that it doesn’t have the historical ties to the Christian church that other places have. That kind of freedom and flexibility, without being rooted in orthodoxy, has allowed for more heresy and has turned into bad religion. No matter where you stand on issues, this is an important book to read.

Although Douthat is a journalist and offers up some articulate and engaging writing, this is a not an easy read because of its incredible scope and insight.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a profound and insightful view into the story of religion in America and what caused and constitutes a ‘nation of heretics.’ This is not just “back to the basics” stuff. It is a surprising, original, and provocative view that many will enjoy, but won’t be for everyone.

Here is a lecture (1 hr) by the author which gives a nice overview of one chapter in the book.

‘Cross Bones’ by Kathy Reichs

Cross BonesstarstarstarEvery year or two I read another Kathy Reichs crime novel. I’m reading them in order so that I can also keep tabs on Temperance Brennan’s personal life. Recently I was excited to be in the audience at a BBC radio interview with the author, and got to ask her a question. She is a forensic anthropologist who divides her time between Canada and the US, sits on various boards, and is often a witness in court cases where an expert is needed to testify. Where does she find the time to write novels as well? I asked her if the topics from her series actually come from her own work, and they do. Not surprising, but still nice to know. I’ve actually never watched the popular TV series Bones, based on Reich’s books, mostly because I don’t want to alter the image of the novels in my own mind.

‘Cross Bones’ has an archaeological focus and takes place mostly in Jerusalem. Masada features briefly as well. Temperance and Ryan actually go on the trip together because there is police business to attend to as well. In addition to the taut drama around solving the case, it is obvious from sidebars in the story and in reading between the lines, that the author was affected by her trip to the Holy Land. It is hard not to be, when you see firsthand how conflict is splitting the region apart.

Reichs writes a story with a smart sassy narrative. And Temperance always finds herself in trouble somewhere along the line. But what I enjoy most about her novels is what I learn about the human anatomy from the authentic examination of the bones in her lab. She sort of honours these dead people with her curiosity about who they were and how they lived. As a result she almost brings them back to life.

When an author cranks out a novel a year, you know that it is going to be slightly formulaic and have some repetitive stylistic qualities. Some readers may become irritated by her ‘end of chapter cliffhangers’ and her tendency to sum everything up in lengthy explanations towards the end of the book. But I still find the series quite enjoyable.

Kathy Reichs Website

‘The Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young

The Heroes' WelcomestarstarstarA story about the aftermath of World War 1, ‘The Heroes’ Welcome’ picks up seamlessly where the first book left off. I would not recommend reading this one without reading ‘My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You’ first. I didn’t like this one as much, so unless you really love Young’s expressive prose, you could just stick with the first book which features the true story of amazing medical work pioneered by the father of plastic surgery, Harold Gillies in Sidcup, UK.

In this second novel the war is over, but the after affects are apparent for those who carry on with physical and emotional scars. Long before PTSD had a name, those who had survived war, would continue to suffer. Riley is the most inspiring character as he copes with returning to a normal life after the miraculous facial reconstruction by Dr. Gillies. However, just as in the children’s book Wonder, people are affected by their looks and it is so hard for someone with a severe disability or disfigurement to get others to see past that.  Young does a good job of exploring all angles of this experience and of this time in history.

P1060935This year marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. There have been many events to commemorate this. The one that touched me the most was the sea of poppies planted around the Tower of London. Not only was it an impressive artistic display in the city and an incredible object lesson, but also so symbolic. From a distance all of the poppies looked exactly the same, as if dressed in uniform (like soldiers). But the poppies were actually all hand crafted ceramic works of art that were all uniquely different from each other.

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’, by Herman Koch

Summer House with Swimming PoolstarHerman Koch’s The Dinner  met with tremendous success worldwide and I still think it has some literary value, but this next one, about a seriously flawed medical doctor and his dysfunctional family and friends, seems to me like a quick cash grab follow up. This is a weak novel with no point.

Though a difficult book to read, The Dinner certainly seemed to have some merit in raising interesting issues and examining middle class morality. But after hearing several interviews with the author and reading another one of his books, I have come to the conclusion that he really just likes writing about disgusting people and there is no further purpose, there are no underlying themes. He simply believes that people, given the chance and the right circumstances, will behave badly. Finish.

I’m not against reading books about awful people if there is a point to it, if there is some character development, if there is some redemption somewhere. Or if the writing is good and shines a light on the reality of darkness in our world and helps us deal with it. Darkness in the hands of a good novelist can be very meaningful. But Koch ticks none of these boxes. I picked it up mostly because it is translated from the Dutch. I kept reading because the author built in a bit of intrigue and I wanted to find out what was going to happen. And I kept expecting it to improve, but it never did.

‘The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café’ by Alexander McCall Smith

The Handome Man's Deluxe CaféstarstarstarWhy do the sequels of some authors fall flat and others produce multiple instalments in series that just go on and on successfully? I was at a Young Adult genre workshop once where it was remarked, “Every child need a series at some point.” Series just encourage reading, for children and for adults. It’s the comfort of not having to “work at” learning the context of the novel and of meeting the characters again, because they have become like old friends.

To a certain extent, writing a series must be a bit taxing for the author since some background must be given in each new book, just in case someone has not read any of the previous ones. McCall Smith handles this seamlessly, slipping in interesting anecdotes and necessary history about a character as he goes along, not necessarily in the tiresome way some do, with lengthy explanations clustered into the opening chapters.

For fans of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, this is the 15th. Someone opens a new cafe in town, someone gets fired, Mma Makutsi’s shoes start talking again,  and the author produces a rather interesting rant towards the end of the book on the importance of matrons. A matron is a senior nurse overseeing a department, often in a hospital. Smith shared with us, when we listened to him speak in London last month, that he thought what is needed in this country is the return of the matron, and many British heads in the audience were bobbing up and down in agreement. Perhaps budget cuts changed all that, but I recently saw an announcement that the British Government was bringing back “modern matrons”, perhaps in response to recent complaints of dirty ineffective hospitals where patients do not receive proper care.

Always a bit philosophical and political, always entertaining, Alexander McCall Smith enjoys writing his characters as much as we enjoy reading them. And always necessary, with the plethora of books he has written, here is a link to his website:
Alexander McCall Smith Website