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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Life After Life

October 27, 2013

‘What if we had a chance to do it again and again,’ Teddy said, 
‘until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’

‘I think it would probably be exhausting. I would quote Nietsche to you 
but you would probably thump me.’

‘Probably,’ he said amiably.

-- from Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Bond Street Books, c. 2013

What if? What if your life were a succession of do-overs, with only the faintest sense of déjà vu as your guide, a vague awareness that you hadn’t got it quite right, that there might be something even you--little, single, solitary you--could do to change the course of history. 

Well, if it were possible, then the first order of business for one Ursula Todd would be to make it out of infancy. Which she does. Eventually. Babies, being not terribly well-equipped to take on Nazis, bomb blitzes or bad husbands for that matter.

With a deft touch of Mitfordian wit tailored to the times, Kate Atkinson pulls strings this way and that until, at last, her protagonist becomes the heroine she was always meant to be.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

September 8, 2013

When the ground beneath your feet is gone, it's time to take stock of the world around you. AP reporter Jonathan Katz goes from surviving Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake to describing how grandiose aid pronouncements of billion-dollar proportions have built little more than castles in clouds. It's not what we in the donor-world want to hear about the international relief and recovery funding for Haiti, but it is what we need to know about how it all works, or doesn't, as is more case.

The Big Truck is not a big lecture, it's just what Katz observed about people in crises and promises without the backing of accountability. In trying to piece together why desperately needed reconstruction didn't get off Haiti's badly broken ground and pledges of epic amounts haven't come true, Katz has written a bold, myth-buster of a book that shows how the worst kind of aftershocks may well be all of our own doing, and all in the name of aid.

Monday, August 12, 2013

August 12, 2013

'It is a wild time here, is it not?' I said to the man.
'It is wild. I fear it has ruined my character. It has certainly ruined the characters of others.' He nodded, as though answering himself. 'Yes, it has ruined me.'
'How are you ruined?' I asked.
'How am I not?' he wondered.
--from Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers

On the trail to the California Gold Rush, you'd be hard-pressed (and a darn sight unlucky) to meet up with a deadlier pair of gunslingers than the infamous Sisters Brothers. Charlie ("the mean one") and Eli ("the fat one") dole out a mostly dubious frontier justice with aplomb. While their quick draws leave little doubt who will still be standing when the smoke clears, it's their mortal souls worth fearing for. This a mother knows, and it's no surprise that Charlie and Eli's won't let them set foot in the door til the day they've given up the profession for good. Not even Eli--the milder one and a better tooth-brusher than any mother could ever wish for.

But it turns out, these two souls may have a saving grace after all--a soft spot of respect for ingenuity and entrepreneurialism. As the sun goes down on their dark careers, one-half of The Sisters Brothers may long for redemption, the other would be content with a hot bath and a good dinner. While inner peace may only be one last job away, trouble is, both boys know that if they cross that river, there's no turning back. Eli soon learns for certain there is one thing more frightening than a spider in a boot, and that is facing the possibility of a future.

Every witty word in The Sisters Brothers is worthy of the book's 2011 shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize and its win in the 2012 showdown for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

May 9, 2013

If you are the principal of an elementary school, a husband, and a father of four, to describe your days as full would be an almost laughable understatement. It would be all too easy, and perfectly understandable, if you shelved that book project until your retirement or for pursuit when the kids are grown and out on their own.

But some stories can't wait that long. So it was for David Starr, and elementary school principal and (award-winning writer) in Burnaby, British Columbia, when he began to learn more about the lives of some of the students attending his inner-city school. Every student has a story, but it was the refugee children who had come to Canada from some of the world's most dangerous places that needed Starr's voice. Before arriving in Burnaby, some had never been to school, or knew how to hold a pencil. If their parents were professionals in their previous lives, the affluence, comfort and status they once knew was long gone. Over time, Starr listened and learned of the forced marches that lasted for months, years of growing up in refugee camps, orphanhood, starvation, malnutrition and disease, imprisonment, and torture that marred many students early lives, as well as those of their parents.

Starr wrote Bombs to Books from a privileged vantage point. As a school principal, he not only learned his students stories, he also witnessed the work of school staff to teach and support the students and their families. It's this work, and the tireless commitment of those who perform it, that elevates each of the family stories from despair and dead-ends to hope and resilience. Although the book acknowledges the painful truth that some refugees do not escape disillusion and discouragement, and may even slip into menial jobs or crime, violence, drugs... these are the minority. As head teacher Elin Horton wisely observed: "...we can't change where our students are from but we can do an awful lot about where they're going to go."

Monday, May 06, 2013

May 6, 2013

Of all the photos taken at this year's BC Book Prizes at Government House in Victoria, this is one of my favourites. I believe we are all applauding Caroline Adderson in the moment it was announced that her novel, Middle of Nowhere (Groundwood, 2012) won the 2013 Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize. This picture (by David Nunuk, a.k.a Husband) captures the mood of the whole event, how happy we were to be there, and to be happy for each other. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April 18, 2013

It's just a few short days before I fly to Terrace to begin the Northern leg of the BC Book Prizes Author on Tour. In other words, there has been a lot of guilt-baking going on in this house over the past week. Husband and girls have had pie, pudding and cookies galore. I need to get out of the kitchen before none of my pants fit.

So taking Mimi Power on tour is a blessing in more ways than one. I have a huge debt of gratitude to the BC Book Prizes for naming Mimi as a finalist for the Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize and for giving me a spot on the tour.

So it may be that this blog is a bit neglected for a time, as I turn my attention to postings for the On Tour blog. I started tonight. Please join me there for the next week, who knows what's in store?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Shoemaker's Wife

April, 2013

No sooner do they meet than young Enza Ravanelli and Ciro Lazzari are separated across what seems to be an insurmountable distance. It is 1912, and 17-year-old Ciro has been banished from his home in the Italian Alps, not for something he has done, writes Adriana Trigiani, but for something he has seen.

The Shoemaker's Wife, Trigiani's fourteenth book, finds an epic romance in hard work, loyalty and sacrifice. These are the bonds that bring Trigiani's Ciro and Enza together, and keep them close as they build new lives in America. Enza's talents as a seamstress earn her a place in the wardrobe department of the Metropolitan Opera, while Ciro's entrepreneurialism and skills as a shoemaker elevate him from servitude in a humble Italian convent to eventual prosperity in the America.

The Shoemaker's Wife is filled with the scents and flavours of both Italy and America. Hot pretzels from a street vendor in New York City or a shared slice of pie from the vending machine at the Automat contrast with "the scent of fresh vanilla and sweet butter" that fill the convent where Ciro and his brother Eduardo were given a home after their father dies and their mother can no longer care for them. It's in tangible descriptions like these that Enza's longing for the Alps is understood. To return to the mountains of her childhood is not possible for Enza, but her memories and longing give the story its depth and beauty.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

"Cold Snap" by Eileen Spinelli

March 6, 2013

According to the book jacket for Cold Snap,  children's author Eileen Spinelli "wears her favorite fuzzy brown sweater and cooks pots of three-bean chili" during Pennsylvania cold snaps.

She also gets creative.

As the the icicle dangling from the statue of General Toby's nose grows longer, the townsfolk of Toby Mills greet a winter cold snap with cheerful frosty-pink cheeks, snowball fights and new "mittens as big as flapjacks". Not to mention plenty of hot chocolate, lemony tea and steamy soup.  But once the fun wears off and the cold slogs on, what's a town to do?

As might be expected when the temperature dips even lower, a little whining, complaining and persnicketiness ensues. But the townsfolk of Toby Mills also dig in and, like their author, get creative. There are "bring your own blanket" movies in the chilly theatre, sweater-coats for pets, and, for the mayor, toasty pink bunny slippers and a bathrobe to wear at the office. Eventually, the cold helps the townsfolk fire up their imaginations, and soon they are celebrating a well-deserved "Winter Surprise" on a hilltop, under a "moon as silver as sleet".

A warm and cozy read, Marjorie Priceman's swirling illustrations capture all the slipping, sliding, and slogging of a small-town winter with charm and good cheer.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Heart and Soul" by Kadir Nelson

February 24, 2013

As any visitor to those hallowed halls can attest, lining the walls of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. are portraits and sculptures depicting the history of America. Lincoln is there. So is Washington--George, that is, not Booker T. For in fact there is "nary a black face in all of those pretty pictures," says the narrator of Heart And Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.

Kadir Nelson's paintings for Heart and Soul, with their quiet, proud dignity, go as far as any author-illustrator can to right this wrong in a book. Each one of Nelson's powerful pictures is worthy of its own wall in the Capitol's rotunda gallery.

As the voice of Heart and Soul, a nameless "Everywoman" recants some of the worst, and finest moments in the history of African Americans. She recalls their early days as slaves, through their service in the Civil War and two World Wars, alongside their long-enduring struggle for freedom and fairness in their everyday lives. While these broad brushstrokes of history should be familiar, the book's true power lies in a wise balance between dramatic events and the small acts of resistance and resourcefulness by individuals determined to build better lives for themselves and their families. The result is an exceptional portrait-by-portrait account of the contributions of African Americans to the greatness of their nation.

Monday, February 04, 2013

"The End of Your Life Book Club"

February 4, 2013

"No matter how tired I am, I can always read," says Mary Anne Schwalbe to her son while waiting for an appointment with her oncologist in The End of Your Life Book Club. "But maybe that's because of raising three children while working full-time. I think I got used to being tired all the time. If I'd waited until I was well-rested to read. I never would have read anything."

"The Club" of two life-long readers--mother Mary Anne and son Will Schwalbe--meets in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering's outpatient care centre. In the two years of life remaining to Mary Anne (after her persistent jaundice, weight loss and fatigue were finally diagnosed as symptoms of pancreatic cancer) she and her son, a professional editor and author, discover new writers and rediscover favourite stories, reading "promiscuously" books both great and small.

It would be enough if The End were a personal, and finely honed list of must-reads. It is this, but it is more. Schwalbe knows readers, their habits and idiosyncracies. After all, he's one of us. The serendipities and "stumbled upons" that happen in bookstores, the art of dodging from admitting we haven't read the book on everyone else's rave list, the books we read when we cannot sleep, the books we carry with us everywhere, the guilt and anxiety we feel for possibly suggesting the wrong book at the wrong time.

The End is a book of many meanings. As a mother's story, it can't help but contain great wisdom--the simple and profound kind that can only be accumulated by seven-plus decades of life, many of them as a wife, mother, advocate of education and champion of refugee causes. Even though she is well into her seventies and terminally ill, Mary Anne Schwalbe sustains these activities until near the end of her life. But it is only books and family that she is surrounded by at the very end.

"Reading isn't the opposite of doing," writes her son, who has only ever known is mother as a do-er of extraordinary proportions. "It is the opposite of dying." 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

February 16, 2013

"That's one of the things books can do. They help us talk. But they also give us something to talk about when we don't want to talk about ourselves."--Will Schwalbe in The End of Your Life Book Club

A visit to The Lyceum

February 2, 2013

At a recent visit to The Lyceum in Vancouver, one of the Book Bandits asked me, "Is Waby's Bunny Jim real?" Which is a very good question. Especially when it comes to stuffy rabbits of the "Velveteen" variety. Sorting out what's real, and what only happened in my imagination is some of the best fun of sharing Mimi.

Well, to start, Bunny Jim was clearly real enough to another Bandit, Harnoor, who drew the picture above, and just like Marc Mongeau, made him come to life. But truth be told, Bunny Jim (who's name is  play on the Sunny Jim peanut butter we had in our house growing up) is "Teddy", a fine brown bear stuffy, who was waiting in Waby's crib for her to be born, and has only ever accidentally (and briefly, thank heavens!) been parted from her in the eight years since.

Thank you, Harnoor, for the wonderful drawing (above). Looks pretty real to me! :-)

Monday, January 14, 2013

January 14, 2013

It's a fine day, because I'm happy to say, "Ta da!" Now available through fine booksellers nationwide: Mimi Power and the I-don't-know-what

Artist, animal lover and would-be swimming sensation Mimi Power knows what it's like to live under the tyranny of a three-year-old sister. Things have never been the same in the Power house since "The Waby" arrived. Finding creative space in all the chaos is getting harder by the minute for Mimi.

But with the school art show looming and a prize too-good-to-give-up-on at stake, Mimi comes up with a plan that's three-year-old foolproof. Or is it? To know for sure, Mimi will have to tap into her big sister power and find her own little piece of the sky.