Monthly Archives: March 2020

‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins

Ok I’ll be honest. Reading hasn’t been all that easy for me lately. You’d think that with being stuck in the house and all, I’d be doing nothing but…but it doesn’t seem to work like that. However, American Dirt was the perfect book for such a time as this and I was lucky to get a ‘Skip the Line’ hold through Libby library app to read it because it’s very high profile right now for both good and bad reasons.

American Dirt is a compelling, easy to read story about migrants, (a crisis of another sort all together) so it’s been therapeutic, in a weird sort of way, to sink into the pages and escape into another reality. At its core this book is about good people in hard times with so many twists and turns that it was totally captivating. Lydia and her son Luca find themselves in an unimaginable nightmare of brutality and constant danger as they flee their home in Acapulco and seek to survive. The opening scene of this novel is unforgettable and their journey is harrowing.

Critics have created controversy in social media around the authenticity of the migrant experience in this book, seemingly making those who really enjoyed the book, rethink their experience of it, which seems a shame. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I stand solidly behind my own recommendation of it. I can’t comment on whether this book reflects truth or is the most definitive migrant story, but I do know that I found it compulsively readable and beautifully written. Again this is simply a story of good people in hard times trying to survive. Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact. Stories matter and gaining empathy for another person’s story brings perspective to our own.

What are you reading during this pandemic?

‘How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss’ edited by Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-Demoor

Guest Post by Miriam Booy

I didn’t know miscarriage was so common until I experienced it, twice within 7 months. I didn’t know infertility was so common until several friends experienced it, and told me their stories. The truth about pain and loss is that we don’t really understand it until we go through it or someone close to us does. Then we start the search for similar stories to us in an attempt to know we are not the only ones or help another person through the same experience.

“How to expect what you’re not expecting” is a collection of personal stories of unexpected loss including miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, premature delivery and giving up children for adoption. The writers are skilled and share their emotional journeys with poetic liberties that strive to capture the experiences they have been through. When I read I tend to ‘skim for the story’ so it was good for me to slow down and appreciate the beautiful descriptive language.

A common theme in each of the stories is that loss never really leaves you. Instead, you learn to live with it as you find new hope and joy. The last sentence of the book seems to capture it well “We hold because we grieve. We grieve because we love. And we wait in the possibility of love without grief. We wait as best we can.”

Thanks to Lisa Martin-Demoor, my cousin, for her skilled writing, editing and vision for this book and my sister for sending it to me. Lisa writes “It is not only the beauty of the world that saves us. If we let it, something else can save us too–our responsibility for this world, for our pain and each other’s.”

‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

“It wasn’t as if the flowers themselves had within them the ability to bring an abstract definition into physical reality. Instead, it seemed that Earl, and then Bethany, walked home with a bouquet of flowers expecting change, and the very belief in the possibility instigated a transformation.”

Who knew that flowers had meanings? I suppose I always knew that roses meant love and trilliums and snowdrops are a sign of spring, but a dictionary of flower language? Some of the meanings are surprising and I wonder how they were determined at all, but apparently it is an ancient art called Floriography and was widely popular in Victorian England.  Click here: Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers

Victoria, the troubled main character in this novel, helps people by making flower arrangements according the meanings of the flowers. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realises she has a gift. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness. Victoria’s story is beautifully and elegantly told but is painfully sad and at times hard to read, albeit real. There is redemption in the end, but it is hard won.

I’m taking my own advice and discovering novels on my shelf that I never read, now that the libraries are closed. This is a book that I’ve had for ages and will now pass on to a neighbour who LOVES flowers and knows a lot about them…but does she know that Lavender signals ‘Mistrust’ and ‘Scarlet Geraniums’ hint at ‘Stupidity?’ 🙂 She’s a friend who is a ‘Constant’ help and solace to many, so it makes sense that she brought me a Hyacinth (which means ‘Constancy’) along with my groceries while I’m in pandemic quarantine!!! Thanks Nel (and Bill)!! Hope you both enjoy the book, and here’s a virtual bouquet of ‘Freesias’ for you as well! 🙂

‘Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle’ by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Top-notch advice from two sisters for women, although I think anyone could benefit from reading this. They explain why women experience stress differently from men. The book is about navigating stress, managing both external stressors as well as the internal effects of stress on the body.

This is a hugely important science-based approach to dealing with stress for women at any age or stage. It gives simple and sensible strategies towards feeling ‘enough’ and finding wellness. I found it refreshing and wise. The sisters even talk about gaslighting which also happens to be a topic in a recently released Dixie Chicks song…(obviously the singers are still not ‘ready to make nice’ but are highlighting and naming another important issue in pop culture. I’d not heard the term before, but encountered it twice in the same week. That’s how these things go.)

What I really liked about this book was the emphasis on the fact that we don’t have to wait for the world to change before we can begin to heal ourselves. And also, needing help and asking for help is normal and necessary, and is NOT a sign of weakness, but of strength.

‘The Giver of Stars’ by Jojo Moyes

“A love letter to the power of books and friendship.”

Escape into the hills of Kentucky and become engrossed in a remarkable story that is rooted in historical fact. From 1935 to 1943 the WPA Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky brought books to more than a hundred thousand rural inhabitants.



Moyes builds a story around a handful of women who braved the beautiful but mostly rugged and poorest of places on horseback, fighting weather, danger, bigotry, and misogyny, to bring education, reading, literacy, and a better quality of life to so many. In this modern classic, Moyes creates unforgettably courageous characters. Unlikely allies at the start, Alice, a newlywed English rose, and Margery, a fiercely independent loner, pair up against the odds to carry out their mission. And you already thought librarians were a tough bunch–buckle in for a wild ride!

There is controversy swirling around this book because it bears striking similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson which was published first. Although I haven’t read the earlier one–my advice–read either one. It’s an amazing piece of history and they both have good reviews.

Bookish Ideas for the Homebound!

As many of us are homebound for awhile and public services are closed, I thought I would pass on some ideas and open up some dialogue around bookish ways to stay reading and active! Here are some ideas I came up with. Have you thought of other ways to enjoy books during this season that you could share in the comments? Happy reading everyone!

  1. Public Library Apps for Ebooks and Audio Books
    With public libraries shut down, if you have a tablet or smart phone, you can download Libby or Overdrive to access ebooks and audio books. All that’s needed is the app on your device and your library card number. It’s a tremendous resource that can keep you reading and listening indefinitely!
  2. New Book Order
    Why not treat the whole family to a brand new shiny book each from Amazon or Indigo. Check with your local independent bookstore as well, because they may have closed for the time being, but would still appreciate your business, and be able to deliver. Often they will have a phone number to call if you have questions about selections. Placing a book order can be a nice family activity and the anticipation of the arrival of the order can feel so hopeful!
  3. Bookshelf Work and Pleasure
    If you feel like reading, pull down one of those books that you bought but never got around to reading–they have been patiently waiting for you! If you feel like a project, go through your collection and do some weeding. Make some room for the new books you just ordered! If there are board games on the bottom shelf, get them out, dust them off and play them, although you may want to pass on Pandemic and Taboo for now (too soon) and stick to Sorry, Scrabble, or Sequence.
  4. Coffee Table Books and Travel Books
    Have a look at those giant books with gorgeous pictures and some writing that you were given as a gift or picked up on a trip but haven’t looked at in ages. Put them back on the coffee table! Page through the Travel books and fondly remember your vacations to those locations.
  5. Reading Aloud
    Peruse your shelf for books that are delightful to read out loud like Picture Books, Children’s chapter books, or series, or anything really, and take turns reading to each other or to the whole family.
  6. Cookbooks
    If you have a bunch of these and haven’t used them to discover new recipes lately, here is your chance. Pick one new recipe from each book you own, and if you can’t find any recipes that excite you in a book, put that one on the weeding pile too!
  7. Crossword Puzzle Books
    Grocery stores and pharmacies (which will still be open) have magazine racks that include puzzle books, and if you don’t enjoy crosswords, there are ‘variety’ versions that have NO crosswords and lots of other puzzles like crypto-quizzes, anacrostics, word searches, etc. It’s a great way to keep your brain exercised while taking a break from a screen!
  8. Scrapbooking
    Do you have boxes of old photos just waiting to be sorted and sifted through? Are there treasures hiding there that deserve to be selected and featured? There are online services that will make a scrapbook for you if you send them an envelope full of photos, or ‘do-it-yourself’ by accessing any of the online photo book apps. You can have hours of fun working on a project with your family, or by yourself, while creating keepsakes for the future!
  9. Craft Books, Knitting Books, Construction Books, Home Decorating Books, Sketching Books, Art Books, Sewing Books, Home Tidying and Organising Books, etc.
    Maybe it’s time to finish those crafty projects you once started or begin new ones while listening to an audio book as you work!
  10. Random or Planned “Reading Hour”
    Whether you randomly ring a bell or plan for a particular hour of the day, why not have everyone drop what they are doing and read uninterrupted for an hour. It might even end up going a bit longer…:)
  11. Write a Book
    Well, maybe not a book, but certainly a paragraph, or a short story, or an illustrated children’s book–throw out an interesting story starter like these, and when finished, share your creations by reading them aloud:
    -What if you could be a household appliance? What would you want to be?
    -What if you could spend twenty-four hours with anyone in the world?
    -What if you could begin one new tradition in your family?
    -Would you rather wear uncomfortable shoes or a hat that’s too tight?
    -Would you rather live a life of luxury or be known for your generosity?
  12. Dictionary Game
    Do you have a dictionary on that bookshelf?  Have one member of the family be the leader and find a word that they don’t know in the dictionary. Have them write the definition on a piece of paper. Have the other players write the word (spell it for them) on a piece of paper, and have them each come up with their own definition for it. The leader then collects all of the papers, mixes them with the real definition, and reads them out in random order. Players choose which definition they think is the correct one, and the leader keeps track of who chose which definition by putting the person’s initials on that piece of paper. Read through the papers twice before voting. The leader gets two points if no one selects the correct definition. The players get two points for each player who chose their made up definition. A player who does choose the correct definition gets three points. Rotate being the leader each round. Have fun!

‘The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street’ by Karina Yan Glaser (#1 in the series)

Age 8 – 12
A charming and cozy debut novel for tweens, this middle grade story starts off with a major dilemma facing the Vanderbeeker family. The landlord, a seemingly gruff recluse of a man, has decided that the rambunctious family of 7 with a dog, a cat, and a house rabbit, will not be able to renew their lease in the Harlem apartment that they love.  And they will have to move.

Everyone is devastated and determined to change the landlord’s mind. This leads to some hilarious adventures as the 5 children (ranging in age from 4- 12) embark on this most important mission. What I liked about the series was its focus on community, good family values, and humour. You can say a lot of things about this biracial family, but what they are not is: Calm, Tidy, Boring, or Predictable.

The author lives in Harlem herself, and was involved in various educational, literacy and community projects before she started writing books. “Now as a mother, one of her proudest achievements is raising two kids who can’t go anywhere without a book.”

This is the first in a series which follows the antics of the Vanderbeeker family. I will go ahead and read the next two right away. The fourth has not yet been released. It will be available later in 2020.

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue

‘Red, White and Royal Blue’ by Casey McQuiston

This over-hyped book jumped to the top of bestseller lists, but if it is a publisher’s dream, then it is also a reader’s nightmare. I feel duped and skeptical about the high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon and feel disappointed by poor trashy writing being passed off as something current and smart. Oh yes, and of course, there is a movie in the works.

To me this book was a sad lost opportunity. The premise is brilliant, I loved the idea of the son of a woman Democratic US President falling in love with a handsome prince of England, especially because they start out as rivals. There are a lot of funny one-liners, some poignant moments around how hard it is to come out, and how hard it is to be a member of a famous family, but although it starts well, the book goes on to be full of stereotypes, trashy juvenile behaviour, confusing politics, and gratuitous explicit sex. Warning to parents–some publishers market this as a YA novel, so beware. And just to be clear, I would warn my kids off of it because it is poorly written, not because it has adult content.

I commend a gay relationship in a mainstream novel and I’m not against a spicy rom-com, but this one is not handled well. A better example in media of a beautiful relationship is David and Patrick on CBC’s TV series Schitt’s Creek. Now there is a sensitive handling of a romance that is honest, authentic and endearing!

‘Canada Reads 2020’

Every year in March, Canada’s “battle of the books” makes me proud to be Canadian. To have a week-long radio debate focus the country on Canadian literature is pretty powerful stuff. Five celebrities each champion a book they have chosen which best fits the theme that year– this year’s theme is “Bringing Canada into Focus.”

My daughter and I get tickets to be in the studio audience for one of the debate days, usually the last. I’ve completed reading all five shortlisted books and will give a brief summary here of each, in no particular order. In order to listen to the debate you can tune in to CBC Radio March 16-19. Just google Canada Reads 2020. There are live streaming options, both video and audio, as well as podcasts. Or just turn on CBC Radio One at 11 am ET on those days.

My favourites to win are in a four-way split: From the Ashes, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, Radicalized, and We Have Always Been Here all deserve to win and are worth reading. Two are memoirs and two are fiction. The one I would not recommend was Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, even though it is going to be the basis for a TV series that is coming out soon and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. Small Game Hunting was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2019.

We Have Always Been Here
by Samra Habib
Defended at Canada Reads 2020 by Amanda Brugel who plays, among other roles, Pastor Nina in Kim’s Convenience.

Samra Habib’s memoir is an exploration of the ways we disguise and minimise ourselves for the sake of survival. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and later, as a refugee in Canada, endured racist bullying and the threat of an arranged marriage. In travelling the world and exploring art and sexuality, Habib searches for the truth of her identity.

Habib writes honestly about her deeply personal journey to finding her authentic self within her family, her faith, and in her community. I especially liked how she circled back to her faith after coming out, because being a Muslim had always been a huge part of her life and she wasn’t willing to give that up.

by Cory Doctorow
Defended at Canada Reads 2020 by Akil Augustine who is a sports host, producer, and storyteller. 

Four novellas explore the quandaries — social, economic and technological — of contemporary America. Cory Doctorow’s characters deal with issues around immigration, corrupt police forces, dark web uprisings, and protection from a pandemic. These approachable dystopian short stories with tongue-in-cheek humour are set in the future, but feel like they are only one step away from present reality and quite frighteningly currently relevant.
Unauthorized Bread
Being poor is expensive. Being a refugee lucky enough to have been granted a set-aside apartment in a Boston high-rise has all kinds of hidden costs. Such as ‘smart’ kitchen appliances programmed to only work with certain manufacturers’ ingredients. It’s great to teach yourself how to hack those systems. Even greater when you can show your fellow refugee neighbours’ teenage kids how to do the same. Not so great when you realise you’ve just exposed yourself and them to the possibility of decades in prison. Now what? This story is about taking control of the power in faceless technologies, rather than by being controlled by them.
Model Minority
Since his arrival on this planet, the American Eagle has fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Now he’s come face-to-face with the fact that cops routinely beat up innocent people, hide the evidence, and lie about it. He’s determined to use his superpowers to defend these victims. He has no idea how corrupt the system is–and how much worse he’s going to make matters. Radicalized
When Joe and Lacey’s insurance company told them it wouldn’t pay for ‘experimental’ treatments and that it was now time for Lacey to go away and die, something changed inside Joe. He spent more and more time on a dark-net forum with others whose loved ones were going through the same thing. A place where more and more people were saying, “If you’re going to do something drastic, don’t let it go to waste.” Then the bombings began. This story puts the focus on ruthless profit hungry drug companies.
The Masque of the Red Death
Martin’s a smart guy. He knows the big collapse is coming. He’s spent years creating his hidden desert retreat, the one stocked with enough food, guns, and antibiotics for Martin and a bunch of his invited friends. These are the men and women–well, Martin hopes some of them will be women–who intend to ride out the coming catastrophe and emerge to pick up the pieces. Because they’re the smart ones. Nothing about their plan could possibly go wrong. It’s interesting, in light of the recent corona virus outbreak, that of all the dangers inherent in the imaginary apocalypse of this story, the most dangerous of all is disease.

From the Ashes
by Jesse Thistle
Defended at Canada Reads 2020 by George Canyon who is one of Canada’s biggest country music stars.

Jesse Thistle is a MĂ©tis-Cree academic specialising in Indigenous homelessness, addiction, and inter-generational trauma. For Thistle, these issues are more than just subjects on the page. After a difficult childhood, Thistle spent much of his early adulthood struggling with addiction while living on the streets of Toronto. His memoir details how his issues with abandonment and addiction led to homelessness, incarceration, and his eventual redemption through higher education. “Society, I figured, cares more about criminals than they do about the homeless.” Once he actually committed a crime and turned himself in so he could be cared for and get medical help with his leg.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Gun Club
by Megan Gail Coles
Defended by Alayna Fender who is is a cat-loving, Canadian, LGBTQ YouTube content creator who brings her frank and funny perspective to a wide range of topics, with wellness and sexuality being her specialties.

This debut novel revolves around a cast of flawed characters all connected to a trendy St. John’s restaurant, The Hazel. Over the course of a snowy February day, they are implicated in each other’s hopes, dreams and pains as they try to survive harsh economic times in the province. They even talk about “storm chips” at one point, a term that I heard from Newfoundlanders on the radio when they talked about their recent mega-snowstorm. The cover makes me think of a deer frozen in the headlights.

This is a #MeToo story. Not too many books I’ve read, come with a warning, “Warning: Contains scenes of sexual, physical and psychological violence.” It also says at the beginning in the dedication, “I wrote this for myself. And the beautiful vicious island that makes and unmakes us.” Then it says on the next page, “This might hurt a little. Be brave.” Although in the beginning I found this novel hard to connect with and a bit overwritten, it actually grew on me as the story progressed and I ended up finding it very powerful. Because it features abuse of two women, parts of it may be difficult and/or triggering for some to read, although none of the violence in the book is gratuitous–it needs to be there because it is crucial to the story and the author does handle it well.

Son of a Trickster
by Eden Robinson
Defended by Kaniehtiio Horn who is a Canadian actor from Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve outside of Montreal.

This is a novel about Jared, a compassionate 16-year-old, maker of famous weed cookies, the caretaker of his elderly neighbours, and the son of an unreliable father and an unhinged mother. As Jared ably cares for those around him (in between getting black-out drunk) he shrugs off the magical and strange happenings that follow him around. It is the first book in a trilogy.

This book is supposed to be funny, earthy, and a coming-of-age story where the kid is more ‘real’ than the grown-ups, but it just didn’t work for me and I couldn’t connect with it. I felt confused, like I was missing some critical information. I wish that the author had helped me to understand. I did have some sympathy for Jared, but it all just got too strange and hard to follow and it put me off.

Local shadow pre-debates are no doubt happening across the country like this Canada Reads 2020 event at Clareview Library in Edmonton, Alberta which was attended by my sister-in-laws!  The books were debated last week by several library staff and local authors and it was an entertaining hour of lively discussion, wit, and hilarity. They voted for which book they thought should win; will their choice match the real Canada Reads 2020 winner?