Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Country Road, A Tree

Now here we go with coincidences again.   I couldn't have lined it up more perfectly if I had done it on purpose.  As I have written previously, I have just this year read Ulysses by James Joyce, what I haven't talked about yet is that just this March I found a good copy of Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett at the used book store I visited during Spring Break.  This I have also read quite recently.  Now my next coincidence is the book A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker, the next book on my list of James Tait Black nominees to read.
This book was wonderful!  I have been developing a fondness for historical fiction, since I have been reading some very good ones, All That I Am, To Say Nothing of the Dog and The German Girl  just to name a few.  I did read Baker's Longbourn last year, and enjoyed that.    But this one I really enjoyed.
It is a fictional account of Beckett's life just before and during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany.  History can be dry and somewhat uninformative of those things that I am interested in the most (the human side of it, thoughts, feelings and motives), which is why I was enthralled with the television drama To Walk Invisible, and A Country Road, A Tree is just as interesting and exciting.  There is some name dropping throughout the book, including James Joyce who did live in Paris at the time.  Having only read the one play by Beckett, I found myself wanting to read the rest of his works, especially when I reached the part in the novel that was a direct reference to Godot (just imagine what it would have been like if I could have read more of his works before starting this head might have exploded!).

  So, in my usual book-geeky way I will come back to this book again sometime after I have read all of Beckett's works, and a biography or two.  I love it when a book just inspires you to carry on and read some more (of the author's work and of the subject's).

Next on my list: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (and I already have a pretty good idea about the title of that blog entry... something along the lines of What is it with these Irish writers?).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

What Belongs To You

I will be doing a short course later next month called How To Read A Novel, and some of the books that will be referenced are the nominees for the James Tait Black Prize for fiction.   I have not actually heard of this prize, but I understand that it is based out of the University of Edinburgh which is where my course is hosted and that it is being taught in conjunction with the prizes being awarded this summer (which I think is really nifty!).
Fortunately BC Libraries has all four books so I will be able to read them all before the course starts in July.  Starting with this book What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell.  The audio book was the only option available, which I didn't mind.  Sometimes it helps to be given a voice rather than imagining your own.  Since finishing it though, I think I would like to see the words too.  It was an especially stunning work of writing.
It's realistic fiction, which I have often had some struggles with and this one in particular had some explicit mentions of sex (which always makes me uncomfortable).  I was anxious for another reason... my son is gay, so I think I transferred my own motherly concern on to the protagonist and I was unnecessarily worried, perhaps.  I say perhaps because I'm pretty sure I would have been anxious anyway because of the incredibly stupid and dangerous things this character did with sexual partners.  But then, this novel was all about him finding himself and understanding his needs in a relationship with another person, so I guess he had to find out the hard way (which is where the graphic quality of his sexual encounters aids in showing us, the readers, how he got there).  I was cheering by the end of the book (and very relieved!).

I will also use the 'V' word ( I love it when an opportunity comes along for me to use it!) because in this debut novel by Garth Greenwell, both protagonist and author share some similarities, being both American, educators and having worked in Bulgaria. It does add that extra something... verisimilitude!

Coming up next:  A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The German Girl

It's funny how co-incidences evolve in my reading order sometimes.  My connection to this was completely random (a friend recommended I read this last March and it took this long to become available at BC Libraries Cooperative).   As a historical novel about escaping Jewish families from Germany, I liked the format of this one.  There was a lot of to-and-fro-ing from one character to another (Anna in the future, Hannah in the past, Anna being a relative of Hannah's), which I felt helped to ground this story and allowed me to see that this was not going to be another book about Jewish peoples suffering but also about surviving.  Of course, the story about the escape from Germany is vitally important, and the fact that the Cuban Government turned them away was also very significant (as well as the American and Canadian governments also rejecting them).  As well as the premise of this book being about survival, it's a commentary on the inability of the Cuban government to produce aid to those in dire need  Coming as I was, from Poet Slave of Cuba to this story, it struck me how conflicted and hypocritical people can be about the suffering of others.

Before I put politics aside I just want to say that this book could not have come at a better time.  I know that opinion  drastically differs about refugees today, and living in Canada I am extremely proud of the Trudeau Government for their stance.  I think this book would be a great way to show people how to see the importance of helping when those that are suffering need shelter.  I can't help but feel that compassion should always come before commerce, and fear.

Historical events and political machinations aside, this story about Hannah, and her survival of not only one regime, but two is powerful.  Her ability to love and to show love (to Anna) even after all she has lived through, and ultimately at the conclusion to have peace and joy was a potent message.  By the the time I reached the end of Hannah's story I was in tears because this novel, even with all of it's ugliness, fear and cruelty, was evocatively and beautifully sad.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Poet Slave of Cuba

Margarita Engle was named The Poetry Foundation's Young Peoples' Poet Laureate this year and as I am already familiar with her poetry (The Surrender Tree:Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom 2008) and I really liked it, I decided to have a look at her other work.

There is something about a verse novel that is poignant and unforgettable.  I have noted in the past how easy it is to read such novels which are usually about subjects that are really intense, and stressful.  The one's I have read are not about good things.  Which is, I guess, the reason why this verse format is perfect for such material.  They are; easy to read, brief and powerful in a way that prose would be exhausting, and pack a one-two punch that hits the mark, effectively and indelibly.
I love this format and have an immense sense of satisfaction when I can get kids to read some at my work.  I am convinced that I can thwart the causes of mid-school-grade disinterest in chapter books with a couple of good verse novels...

I was very fortunate to find the audio book of The Poet Slave of Cuba at the BC Libraries Cooperative.  This version has a cast of characters (the voice talents of Yesenia Cabrero, Chris Nunez, Ozzie Rodriguez and Robert Santana) and I found the narration to be heartbreaking, emotional and chilling.  I have, since listening to it, ordered the book because I want to see the illustrations and to read the excerpts of Juan Francisco Manzano's poetry at the end.   Both Engel and Manzano are poets to take a closer look at.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Playbook

Today's latest treat by Kwame Alexander.  I listened to The Playbook  (narrated by Ruffin Prentiss) this morning.  What a treat!  I have previously enjoyed reading his verse novels Crossover  

and Booked. 

The Playbook is this brilliantly conceived guide to life with quotes from famous athletes and other celebrities who have worked hard for what they have.  It is a great guide to 12-year-old kids on how you can get what you want if you work hard enough, and there is some pointers on what you could do if at first you don't succeed.  There are very inspirational quotes on how to keep on trying, but also how it's okay to change your path along the way to finding that right 'fit' for yourself.  
It's very interesting because not only do you get some short bios on truly successful athletes but you also get some information about Alexander himself and his own struggles, failures and achievements.  
It's all really constructive and definitely a must for every grade seven classroom.  If I could I would travel around to every school within reach and hand out complete sets of these three books (as well as their audio versions). 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jon Klassen and his Hats

It began with hats.  Klassen won the Caldecott Medal for his book called This Is Not My Hat
When I read it to kids in the library they absolutely loved it.  We discussed the art work and the dark inference at the end of the book ( I especially like the dark inference!).  It was my first encounter with Jon Klassen.  Ever since I have been drawn to his art (and have made sure the library I work in has all of his hat books).  It's a big job, but I have been steadily working at getting the rest of Klassen's work, either his own books or the ones he has illustrated for other authors.
One example is this:

 Sam and Dave Dig a Hole was literally a rip-roaring success as a read-aloud to my grade three kids.  
I have never seen kids so successfully engaged in a story time book which had them roaring with laughter.  
The Dark was deliciously creepy and there was a wonderful discussion afterwards about how Klassen's art work really evoked those dark, scary feelings (but was really cute all at the same time).
While I'm at it, The Nest was the creepiest book I read last year.  Another future purchase for the school library, because, after all kids just can't resist the scary stuff.
My most favourite discovery to date is this wonderful book The Mysterious Howling plus the others in this series named the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.  It had the usual M.O.,   I was drawn to the book by the art.  To my immense pleasure it was a Klassen illustrated book, written by Maryrose Wood.   The art attracted me, the story kept me hooked (more on these later).  


Okay, I will be up front about why I chose this book to read.  It's all about Jon Klassen.  I've had a little crush on him since he won the Caldecott for This Is Not My Hat

I mean, just look at his art!  It's got that groovy, retro Leo Lionni vibe with a modern twist.  I have become so enamored of his art that I recognize it instantly in the book store or the library, and I am automatically drawn to it.  He has not steered me wrong in his choices of books to illustrate (the stories are extraordinary).  I have read many gems because of him.

That being said, I had a bit of a problem with Pax. Really it's more about the subject material that Pennypacker chose to write about as a cause and effect for her tale about a fox and a boy.  I didn't like that part.  I don't think kids need that part.  
Granted, her story is clever.  And the way both boy and fox have parallel life experiences that change them is brilliant.  I get it, her allegory, her social commentary etc.  But really though... that's all just going to go right over most kid's ten-year-old heads, unless an adult points it out to them, which makes this more a teachable issue book rather than a book about love and friendship.  
Also, the vagueness of names, places, some war somewhere... I don't think it's fair to be so opaque about something that should be very clear cut and definable to a child.  Once a kid gets confused about something they lose interest, and expecting them to try and accept an alternate world is usually a challenge without some specifics to ground them with.  
I liked the book, the illustrations were wonderful (naturally!).  The story was devastating... which is usually the norm with this genre.  You know the genre I'm talking about.  That old spiel of kid loves animal, and loses animal with a maximum of misery and angst.  It's a very retro idea, which is perhaps why Jon Klassen was the illustrator with his retro art.  It's a good fit.  
More on Jon later...