Book Chatter: Small-town books

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I’ll be the first to admit that cities have their charms, in the form of restaurants, public transit, and festivals. And major sports franchises. And the knowledge that if a major musician or art exhibit is going on tour, you probably won’t have to drive far to see it. Also, not having to explain to people that you’re “from X. You know, near Y. Like if you head south from Z, it’s about two hours away. No, that’s actually Q, but it’s pretty close to X.”

But if you grew up in small towns like I did, there are certain things you just can’t get in cities. Like stars, and the sound of wheat rustling in the breeze, and the way sunlight filters through the walls of an old barn and makes the hay dust dance.

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Pretend you’re here. Now take a deep breath. Nothing else like it, is there?

 

If you’re missing your hometown today, try one of these books set in a small town — and feel free to chime in with other favourites I’ve missed. Let’s feel the small-town love!

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We love the oldies-but-goodies here. If you haven’t read Katherine Paterson’s classic Jacob Have I Loved lately, give it another go — you might be surprised by how much you identify with the protagonist, especially towards the end. If you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat. It’s the story of Sara Louise Bradshaw, the dark older twin of bubbly blonde Caroline. Everyone on tiny Rass Island loves Caroline and predicts great things for her, but they all seem to take Sara for granted. Rambling through the years of WWII and beyond, Jacob Have I Loved examines belonging and identity with a tenderness I’ve yet to see elsewhere.

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If you liked Jacob Have I Loved, try Tiffany Baker’s The Gilly Salt Sisters, with its sharper edges and darker tone. The Gilly women have always run the salt ponds on the outskirts of Prospect, Massachusetts, but at a price: The salt hates men, and does everything it can to drive them off. Some would say that Jo, the elder Gilly sister, has become mostly salt as well, since she’s a gaunt loner (and, some say, a witch). Her bubbly sister Claire thought she escaped the salt years ago when she married wealthy Whit Turner … but then she’s forced back to the failing salt farm with her husband’s pregnant mistress in tow. Together the three women have to decide: Will they let the salt force them farther apart or bind them together in a common cause?

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Lastly, there’s Sarah Dessen’s Keeping the Moon, which follows 15-year-old Colie Sparks’ summer with her aunt while her fitness-guru mother goes on tour. As she hears reports of her mother’s international success, newly thin Colie can’t help but think of the days when the two of them would eat Hostess donuts and pork rinds as they traveled from town to town in search of opportunity. In the broken, cluttered rooms of her aunt’s home, Colie realizes that she’s using each salad as a shield, the same way she once used her spare tire. It takes a job at the local diner, two crazy coworkers, her unruffled aunt, and the bizarre artist downstairs to convince Colie that she can finally put down her shields and embrace a vulnerable life.

What’s your favourite book set in a small town? (And what’s your favourite memory of a small town?)

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Photo credits:

Ferndale photo from tpsdave on Pixabay.

Barn photo from unicorns on Pixabay.

Book covers from Better World Books: Jacob Have I Loved, The Gilly Salt Sisters, and Keeping the Moon.

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Book Chatter: Shakespeare: The World as Stage

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You might know Bill Bryson as the guy who wrote A Walk in the Woods, the tale of his romp along part of the Appalachian Trail (if any part of the AT can be accurately called a romp). You might have run across his alternately fascinating, horrifying, and hilarious collection of notes from Australia, In a Sunburned CountryOr you might know him from a book previously reviewed on this site, the saga of his England-wide trip down memory lane relayed in Notes from a Small Island.

But no matter where you know him from, you know that Bryson’s writing is instantly engaging: sidesplitting in one breath and thought-provoking in the next; well researched; well thought out; and always, always well phrased. As you might expect from books about daunting journeys and bizarre lands, Bryson excels at tackling subjects that tend towards the extraordinary.

Australia: Where you teach your children early that sharks are playthings.

Australia: Where you teach your children early that sharks are playthings.

So it makes sense that sometime before 2007, Bryson decided to take on yet another extraordinary subject: William Shakespeare himself. In Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bryson gives a brief overview of the Bard’s life and times. And I do mean brief: Clocking in at 196 pages (at least in my 2007 paperback edition), Shakespeare: The World as Stage makes for a quick but satisfying read.

There are many things I like about this book, but in the interests of keeping the review shorter than the book, I’ll limit myself to two.

  1. Many biographers try to sell their books through sheer confidence: claiming previously unplumbed sources, new insights, groundbreaking evidence, and so forth. Bryson doesn’t claim any of that. He states straight off that we don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare, and what we do know is often lacking crucial context. He acknowledges many of the big rumours and theories about Shakespeare’s life (for example, “He was secretly Catholic!!!”), but then he calmly lays out the reasons why each theory could and could not be true. It isn’t often that you see this kind of honest uncertainty in a writer, much less in a biographer, and it’s very refreshing — especially with a figure as hyped as Shakespeare.

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    Case in point: Did the theatres of Philip Massinger, Thomas Kyd, or Aphra Behn get resurrected?

  2. As exhibited by the 2011 film Anonymous, there exists a small but vocal collection of critics who protest that “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare”, but was actually Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, William Stanley, or another of nearly fifty candidates, depending on who you ask and which evidence they choose to highlight (and, in turn, which evidence they choose to ignore). Bryson spends the last chapter discussing these various theories, and as a no-nonsense Stratfordian, I appreciated his tone in this section, as well as the polite snarkiness of his conclusion:

In short it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted — to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward. […] One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratford enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, four hundred years after it was perpetrated.

So this Christmas, if you’re looking for a good stocking-stuffer for that drama or literature nut in your life, consider Shakespeare: The World as Stage. That’s how it came into my life, and I’ve always been glad it did.

———

Photo credits: Cover image from Better World Books; shark sculpture from sandid and Globe performance from tpsdave on Pixabay.

How original is that dystopia?

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy a good piece of dystopian fiction. At its best, it challenges people to think about the future and what they think humanity’s biggest priorities will be one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now. Will racism be eradicated by then? What about sexism? Will we have corrected our contributions to climate change? Will we have reached out peacefully to other life forms?

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This forward-thinking citizen is already on it.

But towards the less thoughtful end of the scale, there’s a lot of stories driven mainly by emotion, not by circumstances. I’ve read story after story where the external scenario (a war, an oppressive regime, a natural disaster) consistently fades into the background, and the internal struggle (forbidden/unrequited love, family dynamics, self-discovery) takes center stage. I’m all for internal struggles. I love how they add a third dimension to a story and really make characters pop. But I’ve found those struggles most poignant and engaging when they’re a foil to whatever else is going on — not the other way around.

Earlier this quarter, I picked up a new YA dystopian novel from the library, just for something to read on the bus. On page 199, I came across this line, and I had to stop and grimace — it was such a perfect summation of so many protagonists I’ve come across:

“It’s so frustrating to have logic thrown at me now. It’s making all my plans seem so hopeless.”

That’s it, that’s the state of modern teenage female protagonists in a nutshell. Go away, Hermione Granger. Move over, Sally Lockhart. It’s time for narrators characterized mainly by high emotion and indecision.

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I call this phenomenon the Rise of the Waffling Narrator, and if you’d like to turn that into a comic book, here’s your first character for free.

This latest foray into dystopias started me thinking about the patterns and tropes that many of them include. Below, I present for your amusement a metric for modern YA dystopian fiction.

Instructions: Measure the book against the following questions. For every question you answer in the affirmative, give yourself one point.

  1. Is civilization physically divided into separate groups or clans, with strict injunctions against mixing?
    BONUS POINT: Does the protagonist below to one of the lower-class groups?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist initially in the lowest-class group, but then there turns out to be a hidden group that’s even lower?
  2. Is the protagonist at least half an orphan?
  3. Has the protagonist always felt different and/or misunderstood?
    BONUS POINT: Is this because the protagonist is really from another class but was swapped/smuggled in at birth?
  4. Does the protagonist eventually fall in with a different band of people?
    BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist then dazzled by the food and/or clothing they offer her?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is this new band kind of evil but the protagonist decides to cut them some slack based on said food/clothes?
  5. Is the Internet mysteriously missing from this civilization?
    BONUS POINT: … but does medicine border on the miraculous?

    "All right, I'm willing the tumor away now ... done. I also cleared up your gingivitis. You're good to go."

    “All right, I’m willing the tumor away now … done. I also took care of your earwax and the heartburn you were going to have tomorrow. You’re good to go.”

  6. Is access to books extremely limited?
  7. Does the protagonist encounter some long-lost technology (which is conveniently very well known to us, thus sparing the author from having to come up with something new)?
    BONUS POINT: Does this technology play a role in Saving the Day later on?
  8. Is there a Secret Rebel Alliance that has been operating behind the scenes this whole time?
    BONUS POINT: Do they, for reasons we can’t fathom based on our knowledge of the protagonist, choose to reveal themselves to the protagonist?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Has the protagonist been The Chosen One all along, the rebel alliance’s only hope at pulling this whole rebellion thing together?
    EXTRA BONUS POINT: Is this because of the protagonist’s true parentage, which has been kept from her all along?
    WILDLY EXTRA BONUS POINT: In the end, does the rebel alliance actually turn out to be evil/infiltrated, forcing the protagonist to form a splinter group?
  9. Is there an irritatingly handsome, inexplicably single young man floating around making things difficult for the protagonist?
    BONUS POINT: Does he actually turn out to be a member of the Secret Rebel Alliance, making it A-OK for the protagonist to fall in love with him because Nobody Else Understands?

    "Can we discuss the plans now?" "Not here. The horse can read lips."

    “I’m so glad I found you — rebelling against the status quo can get lonely sometimes.”                                                                  “Ssshh, not here. I think the horse is an enemy plant.”

  10. Does the protagonist save the day by Listening to Her Heart instead of basing a plan on logic or following the advice of older, more seasoned superiors?
  11. Are there two separate moments when the protagonist realizes that Everything She Knows Is a Lie, the first good because it confirms all her suspicions of society, the second terrible because she has to go back to square one and discover what’s really going on?
    BONUS POINT: Is the irritatingly handsome young rebel a major part of this second reveal?
  12. Is the person who guides the protagonist to the truth ultimately killed?

Point guide:

0–8 points: Well done, that’s an original piece of modern YA dystopian fiction you’ve selected. (Shout it out in the comments — I’d love to hear what it is.)

9–16 points: Sounds like you’re getting to know modern YA dystopian tropes pretty well. Would you like to branch out into other plots and devices? Try Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, which scared my socks off and forever changed how I feel about grocery stores.

17–25 points:  So maybe Mark Twain was right:

For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find some new material. Have you considered reading some old-school dystopias that laid the groundwork for today’s works? Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and “The Sound of Thunder” are classics; for something more recent, try Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

What devices are you tired of seeing in books? What device do you keep hoping a writer will use, but you haven’t seen it yet?

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Photo credits: UFO parking sign from MartinStr, massage from Olof, couple and horse from gpalmisanoadm, waffle vector from Nemo on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

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Two weeks ago, a friend and I took a trip to a monastery. It was something we’d been meaning to do for a while, and at the end of the quarter, getting outside the city and into four inches of manure was a much-needed break.

As a general rule, I don’t take many pictures. When I’m enjoying an event or a landscape, I’d rather focus on soaking it in than on trying to capture its aura with my abysmal photography skills.

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Oh yeah. Bring on the Pulitzer.

You will, however, be pleased to know that during my weekend at the monastery, I took eleven pictures. Nine were of a window; two were accidentally of my leg.

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I call this one Fenestra: The Undead Arise.

Anyhow. When staying at a monastery, it’s practically required that you bring along something meaningful to read. For me, that meant Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

You might remember Lamott as the author of one of the best writing books of all time, Bird by Bird. In Plan B, she’s no less of a gently challenging maestro who will make you simultaneously laugh, sigh, and wince. Written during some of Lamott’s more spiritually fraught times (which, not coincidentally, were also during the second Bush Administration), Plan B is a collection of short stories about parenting, church, dogs, forgiveness, politics, weddings, racism, cruise ships, terminal illness, skiing, and more — in short, topics where you’re either bracing yourself for controversy or pursing your lips in preemptive boredom. But despite this broad range of topics — or perhaps because of it — Lamott succeeds in turning out a richly detailed patchwork quilt of a narrative that works very well, as one reviewer put it, as “a spiritual antidote to anxiety and despair in our increasingly fraught times.”

So if the world has been getting you down lately, and you’re exhausted from trying to nudge it towards a better state of being, try sitting down with Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. It might not fix the world, but it might lower your cortisol levels a bit — and really, sometimes that’s all we can expect from a day.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this excellent calming song and this warming post from Amanda Palmer:

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What’s your favorite hope-filled book?

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Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books.

Book Chatter: Ex Libris

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In my grad program, there’s been a lot of discussion about The Future of the Book (ominous capitals very much intended). We discuss reading rates and literacy programs. We discuss what kids are up to these days. And perhaps inevitably, we talk about the rise of ebooks, and the slowing of the rise of ebooks.

We don’t have many extremists on either end of the scale. Most of us acknowledge that while we might have a personal preference, it’s our role as future librarians to provide users with whatever materials they prefer. This will certainly include ebooks, but given both people’s personal preferences and the state of e-readers’ digital divide, physical books will probably be in demand for a while longer.

But once in a while, I’ll hear a classmate say, “Ebooks are the future. That’s inevitable. We can’t change that.”

Whoa there, Pythia. Let’s stop and think. What are the ways in which ebooks could completely take over the reading world under their steam?

Well, paper could be outlawed worldwide for environmental reasons. (The statistics on how much energy is consumed to produce ebooks and charge e-readers would be gently ignored.)

But people are still making the decisions there — ebooks themselves aren’t deciding anything. Hmm.

What if publishers decided that they had to switch to 100% electronic formats to save money (although many people say that we’re vastly overestimating printing costs, and that authors are getting a raw deal in an ebook-heavy industry)?

No, people are still calling the shots there. Inasmuch as any technology can be neutral (which is a big enough debate for its own post series), ebooks seem to be pretty chill.

I should add here that I love ebooks. I also love physical books. I like downloading stories and textbooks in seconds, and I like the heft of 300 paper pages in my hands. Having these different technologies available is super helpful in matching format with function.

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“What’s he training for? A marathon?” “Naah, he’s bringing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix home to his kids on Friday.”

But here’s something germane I read in class this quarter: In the physical sciences, like astronomy and chemistry, false theories won’t change the nature of reality. You can say “The sun orbits the earth” all you want, but it won’t change the truth.

In the social sciences, things work a bit differently — theories are the basis for action, which can change reality. For example, if you say, “Nobody uses the library anymore; they have Amazon and Google,” that theory could be used to justify shortening a library’s hours or even closing it altogether — and then, in accordance with your theory, library usage would indeed decrease.

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Also, if you theorize that your neighbour’s livestock have no right to your land, apparently a fence will make that belief true. Who knew?

So when I hear things like “Ebooks are the inevitable future,” it scares me a little bit. There are all kinds of readers in the world, with all kinds of needs. Ebooks aren’t looming over us with swords, threatening destruction if we don’t adopt them. We still have a choice in how and where and when they’re used. If you prefer ebooks, read and buy ebooks. If you prefer physical books, read and buy those. But a reading culture is healthiest, I believe, when its members acknowledge that diversity (of both genre and format) is a beautiful, strengthening thing.

"All right, Pixabay, show me what you've got for 'strong'."

All right, Pixabay, show me what you’ve got for “strong”. … Really? Interesting.

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader doesn’t address these tensions, per se; she focuses more on celebrating books as physical forms. The narrative centers on her and her husband’s attempts to integrate their two personal libraries. If you’ve ever done this yourself, you know how traumatic it can be. Do you get rid of duplicates? How will you arrange your collective library? Will you be allowed to file your mystery novels by publication date, just like you’ve always done? And will your significant other be persuaded to stop interfiling cookbooks with poetry anthologies?

It’s these small tensions that Fadiman describes in lyrical detail, as well as many other small portraits of her interactions with the printed word. Whether you prefer physical tomes or couldn’t live with your Kindle, Ex Libris will touch the heart of anyone who loves books.

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Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books; weightlifter from tpsdave, fence from DanEvans, and peaches from stux on Pixabay. 

Book Chatter: Bird by Bird

Widely regarded to be one of the best writing books out there, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life has a special role in my life.

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When I first read it, I was in college, involved in a writing group. Now, there are several flavours of writing groups. Some are more about tea and chatting, and then in the last fifteen minutes they might get around to discussing their latest pieces. Others are very focused on Getting Published, and if they don’t have charts tacked to the wall detailing the progress of everyone’s query letters, it’s because their memories are doing the job perfectly well.

And then there are the groups that are all about being honest. These can be tricky. They can be super helpful. They can also completely crush your spirits and make you believe you will never write anything good again, not even a Facebook status or an inter-office memo. Probably even when you buy a new car and try to create a good license plate number, you will crash and burn because your ability to string symbols together is not to be trusted.

"Poor guy --- thought he could play Scrabble."

“Poor guy … thought he could play Scrabble.”

The trick to dealing with these groups is to choose very carefully what piece of writing you bring to them. You can’t bring something you’re too attached to, but you have to care about it enough to value the criticism you get. It’s a delicate balance.

It can also be a little tiring, and several weeks into the group, I was talking with a writing friend who wasn’t in the group. She’d heard about the dynamic and, in sympathy,  told me to read Bird by Bird. It turned out to be exactly what I needed — Lamott knows how to push her readers into writing more, writing better, but she does it so gently that it’s a delight to be challenged. She talks about perspective, about plot, about character development, about writer’s block, and all throughout the book her voice is encouraging, calm, and humorous. Wherever you are in your writing journey, whatever kind of setting you’re writing in, Bird by Bird is a resource that is well worth your time.

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Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books; fire from tpsdave on Pixabay.

 

Book Chatter: Books for tired people

Three years ago, I got a job I really wanted.

It was with people I really enjoyed, in a setting I loved, doing work I adored. It was all set up to be a fantastic complement to my full-time classload.

There was just one small problem: It took place mainly at night.

Every Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., after a full day of classes, I would get the office and open my computer. Every Thursday at 3 or 3:30 or 4 a.m., I would totter home, feeling not at all prepared for another full day of classes.

"Another two blocks? Are you kidding me?"

“Another two blocks? Are you kidding me?”

It was still a great job opportunity. I just ended up with two unexpected legacies.

  1. I learned a lot about the various stages of fatigue, which include giddiness, grumpiness, nausea, vertigo, and tinnitus. (Good times.)
  2. Ever since then, I’ve had trouble staying awake if I sit still for more than twenty minutes. It’s like at some point during that year, my brain realized, “Hang on … we’re sitting. This might be our last chance to catch some Z’s for the next 40 hours. Shut ‘er down.”

This second item has caused some small problems. You know … like in class, especially when I fall into a micro-nap while my hand keeps taking notes. Some real excerpts from my class notes so far this year:

  • “OPACs not common until 1980s; used to have Q-search don’t the occult King fantasia”
  • “physical database design: code entities & attributes for use; don’t get rid of the entraces & exts. it’s Hawaii! — primary keys”
  • “heap: table that has no qimg usun threaten clustered index”

I can only hope my sanity is never officially called into question. My notes might argue against me.

Between these narcoleptic tendencies and my usual classwork, my ability to enjoy personal reading has been severely pinched. I now rely mainly on lighter stories that are easy to read in ten-minute installments on the bus or between classes. Below I’ve highlighted a few of my recent favourites.

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I’m sorry, did I say “lighter”? My mistake. Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang might not be the kind of story you’d read to your kids at bedtime, but it’s definitely a gritty, compelling read that will make a long bus trip fly by in a snap. The story follows five teenage girls as they decide to form their own gang, the Black Roses, and carve out a place for themselves on the streets of Vancouver, B.C. Do they beat the odds and succeed? I’m not telling.

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Sometimes the best reads are old reads, am I right? I picked up my copy of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s year-long introspective odyssey, in a secondhand bookstore several years ago. Since then, it’s been lent out several times and re-read even more often. Sometimes I start at the beginning like a civilized person; sometimes I page through it until I find the story that’s been echoing in my head that day. Either way, Eat Pray Love is the chicken soup of memoirs.

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I’ve always loved William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (especially once I discovered that there was no unabridged edition), so I was delighted when a friend gave me a copy of his book The Silent Gondoliers for college graduation. The story follows Luigi, a man who would be the best gondolier in Venice … if his singing didn’t make people ill. It has all the elements of a classic fairy tale, but with a muted, thoughtful ending that you might not expect.

What’s your favourite book when you’re exhausted?

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Photo credits: Cat from Catkin on Pixabay; book covers via Better World Books and Amazon, linked through the images.

Book Chatter: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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I don’t have enough time to do this book justice, but since that won’t change anytime soon, I’ll just have to share it with y’all in the small space I do have today.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those books that I kept seeing everywhere, and every time I saw it, its title leapt out at me and pestered me with its originality until I finally took the book home out of sheer annoyance.

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Result #2 on Pixabay for “annoy”. Tyrolean cows will have none of your nonsense.

But when I opened it up and began to read, my impatience vanished in an instant. TGLAPPPS is a charming, funny, poignant epistolary novel, a genre I’d never encountered before. The authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, switch narrators often enough to stave off monotony, and in any case, every single narrator is so vivid, so fresh, and so engaging that it’s a delight to listening to whoever’s speaking at the moment.

The story opens in London in 1946, where 33-year-old Juliet Ashton is enjoying modest fame as a new writer in the first days of rebuilding after the war. One day she receives a letter from a man she’s never met, on an island she’s never visited — Guernsey, one of the British-held Channel Islands between Britain and France. The man’s letter is short and professional, asking for Juliet’s help in locating a book, but Juliet is intrigued by the small details he’s revealed about life on Guernsey, which the Germans had occupied during the war. Her correspondence blossoms into a network of acquaintances on the island, until finally Juliet realizes that she must visit Guernsey and meet these people for herself. What she finds there might very well change her life.

Rich with historical detail, TGLAPPPS unfurls its plot in a setting rarely visited. If you’re looking for high-quality historical fiction, light reading for the train, your next book club pick, or just an all-around great story, TGLAPPPS is the book to choose.

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; cows from flyupmike on Pixabay.

 

Book Chatter: Elsewhere

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Classes officially started yesterday.

It was a big wake-up call. Every June, I say to myself, “Sonya, this is it. This is the summer you learn to juggle.”

And then I blink twice and it’s September and I have to switch my attention to papers and group work. It’s like the anti-juggling corporate interests are conspiring against me, I just know it.

This year I defeated them. With the help of one YouTube video, three plums, and twenty minutes, I can now drop small objects in a more coordinated fashion.

Speaking as a juggler, I think this is actually a more faithful representation of levitation than juggling.

Speaking as a new juggler, I think this is actually a more faithful representation of levitation than of juggling.

Besides not juggling, another delightful feature of my summer was reading. I do plenty of that during the school year, but it’s mainly things with titles like Mad Libs where the audience is given the phrase “Implementing [Noun] in the Practice of [Noun] and [Noun] with [Adjective] [Plural noun]”, and they always pick words like “underprivileged” and “initiative”, instead of letting their hair down with choices like “lagniappe” or “depilated” or “cotton candy”. It’s meaty stuff to read — I know I’m getting my money’s worth. But on occasion, it does make me wish for literature with a bit less nomenclature and a few more gnomes.

Even if the gnome mostly complains about his joints and grumbles about the newfangled young gnomes with their weatherproof caps. That's fine.

I’d even read a story where the gnomes spent most of their time grumbling about newfangled young gnomes who always had to have the latest clogs.

So this summer, I read only what I wanted to. I revisited some old favourites and found some new favourites. Some books I started but couldn’t continue, and I think that’s OK. Giving a book a fair shot is important, but so is knowing when to put one book aside and give attention to another. Because what we’re all looking for in a book, I think, is the kind of story that will stick with you and pop into your brain at strange moments to give you a little more insight into your situation.

Like if a defrauded stranger offers you a really, really good deal, maybe you should take a day to consider it.

Like if a defrauded, bitter stranger offers you a really good deal, maybe you should take a day to consider his motives.

Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere is just such a book. At first glance, it might seem like just another YA exploration of mortality, as it follows Liz, a 15-year-old bike accident fatality, to the world beyond death: the amiable land of Elsewhere, where white-pajama’d people arrive via cruise ship and gradually age backwards until they are shipped back to Earth as infants. Between their arrival and departure, the people of Elsewhere can do whatever they like. Some, like Picasso, continue their Earth careers. Others, like Marilyn Monroe, take up a completely different vocation (in her case, psychiatry). And some, like Liz, are completely unready for life after death and will do anything to stay connected to their old lives on Earth.

When I searched for "communicate", this came up. Sometimes I have serious questions for Pixabay.

When I searched for “communicate”, this came up. Sometimes I have serious questions for Pixabay.

Zevin’s storytelling in Elsewhere is richly nuanced, a narrative that turns readers’ assumptions on their heads. We’re used to stories of protagonists battling the inevitable, but usually that inevitability is death; in Elsewhere, it’s life. Many stories are populated by people’s struggles to stay young, but one of Liz’s most poignant struggles lies in accepting that she will never get older. Stories about death almost always focus on the grief and recovery of those left alive; in Elsewhere, it’s the victims’ grief that matters most. In short, Elsewhere is the kind of jarringly inverted story that throws everything into question, tearing down readers’ assumptions of normality and then carefully and beautifully rebuilding them.

You wouldn’t think that a world without the usual risks of injury and death would still house legitimate tensions, but Zevin never lets us doubt for a second that Elsewhere’s special risks are just as serious as Earth’s. Within this surreal world, Zevin is free to freshly explore the themes of purpose, commitment, lives lived well, and what we would do if we had nothing to lose — and she does so with great aplomb.

What’s your favourite book or story about a fictional afterlife? 

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; girl from Hans, gnome from PublicDomainPictures, Pied Piper from WikiImages, swimmers from Hermann, on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Chilling reads for chilly days

With the autumnal equinox coming up fast, you might have noticed some changes happening around you. Leaves are turning orange. Days are getting shorter and colder. Pumpkin spice lattes are taking over social media.

"Forward, men! Avenge our pureed brethren!"

“Forward, men! Our brethren must be avenged!”

With these changes, of course, come renewed reasons to curl up on the couch for a few hours with a good book. And what better book to read during an autumn storm than something spine-tingling?

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First on my recommendation list is Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, which spins the tale of a beautiful, vivacious woman who suddenly goes missing from her small midwestern town. A quarter of the way through, I thought I had an idea of what had happened. Halfway through, I was feeling pretty smug about my hunch.

And then in the space of a couple of pages, Flynn completely pulled the rug out from under me. I didn’t see that plot twist coming at all, and I couldn’t have been more delighted by my shock. Flynn is a maestro in Gone Girl, twitching strings and pulling curtains even more masterfully than even the antagonist. You’ll be thoroughly chilled and winded by the end, I promise.

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Next up is Suzanne Rindell’s excellent first novel, The Other Typist. Rose Baker is a typist at a police station in 1923, measuring out her days in bland meals and lukewarm coffee. Then a new woman joins the typing pool: the unspeakably glamorous Odalie, who decides to take Rose under her wing and show her a whole new side of New York City. For the increasingly devoted Rose, it’s all champagne and silk dresses until a whispered story reaches her ears — a story that hints at Odalie’s involvement in something dark … something that could drag Odalie down, and take Rose right down with her.

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Finally, there’s Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (formerly Ten Little Indians). If you’ve been meaning to put some Agatha Christie on your “completed” shelf but you weren’t sure where to start, And Then There Were None is an excellent entry point. It follows ten strangers who were summoned to a remote island for a weekend. As they begin to share their stories and the reasons they came to the island, it becomes increasingly clear that their mysterious host had only one reason for bringing them all there — and it involves a sinister poem and ten small figurines that are being broken one by one …

Pro tip: Check the weather forecast before doing a solo trip to a creepy island.

Pro tip: Check the weather forecast, take your phone charger, and tell someone when you plan to return from a solo weekend trip to a creepy island.

What spine-tingling reads do you have lined up for the next stormy day?

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Photo credits: Pumpkin horde from beeki and Andreas Achenbach painting via tpsdave on Pixabay; book covers via Better World Books.