Irish novelist and playwright Colm Toibin tends to feature strong women characters in his novels, often mothers who are troublesome and prone to passion or rage. In The Testament of Mary, he gives us a striking version of the virgin Mary. To be honest, though intriguing, I found it a bit difficult to read because it is full of raw emotion and anger. Toibin imagines the most difficult and painful parts of the story, as Mary watches her son suffer and die in a politically tumultuous time when it was difficult to know whom to trust. She feared for her own life as well. When we think of Mary, we remember that she bravely took on her role as mother of the Son of God, which was full of mystery and unknown, and displayed an extraordinary faith as she treasured and pondered many things in her heart. But Toibin’s fictional perspective adds another interesting view, capturing the confusion and chaos of the time in an emotional flashback that must also ring true. The book has a subversive feel to it, because it is not the sentimental story of Mary that we are used to.
As a literary piece, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, The Testament of Mary, is a fine bit of writing, from an author who I have a lot of respect for. It has been performed in London as a one woman show on stage by Fiona Shaw. I would have liked to see that, but sadly the show has now closed.
Every spring the CBC has a Children’s Book Panel that recommends books for children’s summer reading. I pay attention to these suggestions because they are usually very good ones. Here are a few that were highlights for me on this year’s list. The first two are for young children, the second two are for Young Adults.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee (Age 5 – 8)
Very funny rhyming picture book with an enterprising dog as the main character. The family underestimates the abilities of this impressive pup who works hard at all kinds of projects. Continually dismissed, “It’s only Stanley,” the Wimbledon family in the end is ‘over the moon’ about Stanley’s final and greatest achievement. A very funny picture book about a beagle who keeps waking up his family with his noisy midnight exploits.
The Mosquito Brothers by Griffin Ondaatje (Age 7 – 9)
In this quirky coming-of-age story, the main characters are a family of mosquitos…all 400 of them! Dinnn always seems to be lonely and left behind. He makes the best of it and adapts as best he can to his situation, bravely facing the many challenges that a mosquito faces in a lifetime. Who knew? Filled with fun facts and humorous fancy, this young child’s chapter book would be a great read aloud since adults will love it too. Heartwarming themes about overcoming fear, being true to yourself, and finding your own unique wings are sure to please. And you may think twice next time you swat!
We are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
(Age 12 and up)
Susin Nielsen got her start feeding the cast and crew on the popular television series Degrassi. They hated her food, but they saw a spark in her writing. Neilsen went on to be a successful and prolific Canadian TV series writer. Nielsen knows her genre. This young adult novel is pitch perfect, funny, and endearing. It handles tough issues like grief and loss, blended families, bullying, and LGBTQ in a sensitive and constructive way. “Thirteen-year-old Stewart is academically brilliant but socially clueless. Fourteen-year-old Ashley is the undisputed “It” girl in her class, but her grades stink. Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9 percent happy about it, but Ashley is 110 percent horrified. She already has to hide the real reason her dad moved out; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder.
The Dogs by Allan Stratton (Age 12 and up)
This is one I haven’t read yet, but I suspect it will be a dark psychological thriller that will be one of those Young Adult cross-over types that keeps adults turning pages as well as kids. I think it deserves its own post after I’ve read it.
This is not the kind of thriller that I usually read or the kind of movie that I ever watch, but the premise intrigued me and when I saw it had very high reviews, I thought it might be nice to have a different sort of “beach read” for the summer. It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie rights have already been sold. The cover seemed sort of cute, until the gun played more of a role than the baby’s foot.
David Sparrow is a stay-at-home Dad. His wife is a District Attorney taking on a mega-criminal and when their lives are threatened, David uses his special-ops army training to help fight off the bad guys. The wife and kids are carefully squirrelled away to safety and the rest of the book has David piling up bodies all over the city. Which was good for the family, but I had imagined a more intriguing plot where the stay-at-home Dad had to daily juggle trouncing the gangsters while simultaneously making grilled cheese for the kids. But alas, it was all violence like the kind of action movie I usually walk away from to go read a novel instead. If you are someone who can stomach the violence, and enjoys a tough gritty novel, it does have some clever plotting and multiple twists and turns.
Disney’s Pocahontas has some pointed lines in the song “Colors of the Wind” about the curious fact that there were people already in place when foreigners sailed from other lands and claimed the Americas for themselves. “You think I’m an ignorant savage, And you’ve been so many places, I guess it must be so, But still I cannot see, If the savage one is me, How can there be so much that you don’t know? You think you own whatever land you land on, The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim, But I know every rock and tree and creature Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”
However, King points out how often Indians/First Nations/Aboriginals/Indigenous people are mis-portrayed in Hollywood versions such as Pocahontas. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian was a contender in Canada Reads 2015 as a book to “break barriers.” Craig Kielburger championed the book saying, “Thomas King is one of Canada’s foremost aboriginal intellects, but as a young boy playing Cowboys and Indians, no one wanted to be the Indian, not even him.” There is an interesting interview King has with Shelagh Rogers on CBC, that is also included as an appendix to the print edition of the book.
Next Chapter Interview with Shelagh Rogers
King demonstrates how almost everything we thought we knew about Native people in North America is wrong and gives a corrected historical account of what happened. With his dry sense of humour (which never descends into snarkiness), and his keen eye for the issues, he provides an overview that is both educational and entertaining. The goal of the new Europeans was always to assimilate and/or exterminate Native peoples and their culture. Residential schools were the most blatant and heinous example of “Kill the Indian, save the man.” The abuse that so many children suffered in those schools silenced not only their language and cultural expression, but also their hope for the future and a positive view of themselves.
The average Canadian and American has too often “looked away” from this issue, because it was inconvenient. King’s account, albeit sad, is buffered by humour and honesty, making it a readable chronicle on a topic that is important for all North Americans. King is a storyteller at heart and he says himself that non-fiction is hard for him to write. He has written a number of novels as well, the latest is The Back of the Turtle which won the Governor General’s award for fiction in 2014.