15 January 2017

Favourite Books of 2016

I'm a couple of weeks late with my annual post, I know, but better late than never - right?!

In no particular order (well, maybe a vaguely chronological order), here are my favourite books that I read last year.  Same rules as usual - it doesn't matter what year the book was first published, only that I read it for the first time in 2016.  There is some fiction, some non-fiction, some school books, some "fun" books.  If I reviewed the book, I've linked to my review.

I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - This book was loaned to me by one of my professors over the Christmas break last year but I didn't read it until January.  When I read it, my first reaction was, "How have I lived for almost 40 years without discovering this book?"  Seriously - if you haven't read this book, you need to read it now.  I returned the borrowed copy, but next time I was ordering books, I bought myself a copy.  This is one that I want to have in my permanent book collection.

Come, Thou Tortoise (Jessica Grant) - Seriously, who doesn't love a book that is partially narrated by a tortoise, especially when the tortoise is the most reliable narrator in the book?  This was a recommendation from the same professor who loaned me I Capture the Castle, and was another delightful Christmas-break read last year (disclaimer:  I started this book in 2015 but didn't finish it until 2016, so I'm including it in my 2016 list).

God in Creation (Jürgen Moltmann) - This was a textbook last winter for a course I took on the theology of Moltmann.  It was the sort of book that made me want to stop after every sentence and ponder what I had just read; but unfortunately with 75-ish pages to read each week (in addition to the reading I was doing for my other courses), I didn't have the luxury of doing that.  It is one that I want to go back to at some point to read at a more leisurely pace.

When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi) - I heard the author's widow interviewed on CBC radio last January, and this was the first book I read after the end of the winter term.  It is a memoir of life and death, written after the author was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It is beautifully written, and while sad at the end, it left me feeling buoyant.

The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood) - I wasn't sure what I thought about this book when I first read it, but it has stuck with me over the months since - I find myself thinking about it frequently - so I am including it on this list.

The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Sue Goyette) - This narrative told through poetry has also stayed with me since the summer.  It made me think, it broke my heart, and the language delighted me.

Wenjack (Joseph Boyden) - Another story that made me think and broke my heart.  There is no happy ending in this book, but then there is no happy ending that can be found in the death of an 11-year old boy who froze to death trying to find home.

Dust or Fire (Alyda Faber) - A longer review of this book is coming soon.  This is a book of poetry that was published last year by one of my professors (the same one who recommended the first two books on this list).  The poems are short (mostly 1-2 pages), but I found this book to be as un-put-down-able as a good novel.  I read it twice, back-to-back, as bedtime reading, and it was the cause of more than one late night.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (P. D. James) - I was a big fan of mystery writer P. D. James, and was sad when she died a few years ago at age 94, because I knew that there would be no more new books from her.  So I was very excited when I was at a bookstore before Christmas and discovered that 4 short Christmas-themed stories that she had written for publication in the newspaper had been published as a book.  I devoured the stories on Boxing Day - a perfect Christmas present from the "Queen of Crime"!

An eclectic list this year - a mix of fiction and non-fiction, short stories, with a couple of books of poetry thrown in (I think that this is the first year there has been any poetry on my list).  There seem to be a number of melancholy books on the list this year - I'm not sure if that is because I was reading more sad books in 2016, or whether these were the books that caught my attention.

Now over to you.  What was your favourite book that you read in 2016?

26 December 2016

Yiddish for Pirates - Gary Barwin

I picked up this book after seeing some good reviews of it; plus it was one of the Giller shortlisted books this year, and I was looking forward to reading it.  I came away from it with mixed feelings.

I loved the language.  The author plays with words and language in a way that was a delight for a language nerd like me to read.  Some examples:

On the destruction of books during the Inquisition:  "'Libricide, lexicution, biblioclasm.  To save our Catholic Spain,' he'd said, 'we must first destroy heresy.'" (p. 87)

On Hebrew vowels:  "You know they exist, they're just not there.  Like God to the troubled faithful." (p. 145)

On speaking Yiddish on a pirate ship:  "The perfect language for pirates, its words raggletag plundered and refitted from other times and tongues.  As the Pirate Bey says, 'Words belong to those who use them only till someone else steals them.'" (p. 247)

On a life of piracy:  "I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting.  That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body." (p. 303)

I also enjoyed the story - at least for most of the book.  Moishe is a Jewish boy who runs away from home in the late 1400s, during one of the periods of history with intense persecution of Jewish people.  It is the story of his persecution and how he continually escapes it.  The trick or catch in the story is that it is narrated by his parrot, an African Grey.

Unfortunately, both the continual language play and the plot grew tired before the end of the book.  Once Moishe ends up as a pirate in the Caribbean (he sails from Spain with Columbus), I lost track of what boat he was on, and with whom.  I confess that I was skimming the last 50 pages or so, just wanting to get to the conclusion to find out what would happen (not quite what I was predicting, but still a satisfactory conclusion).

(This was book 9/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by the Book Mine Set)

16 December 2016

Angel Catbird - Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain

I was disappointed in this book.  I like Margaret Atwood.  I generally like graphic novels.  But this book didn't live up to my expectations.

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, and the premise behind this book was interesting - a gene-splicing formula spills, combining the DNA of a human, a cat, and an owl.  But beyond that, the plot spilled over into cliches with stilted dialogue.

I can't figure out who the target of this book is intended to be.  Maybe adults with nostalgia for the superhero comics of their childhood?  The plot and execution didn't appeal to my adult self, but the "cat facts" at the bottom of several pages definitely aren't geared towards children.

I did enjoy the artwork for the most part, but again, I found it very cliched.

I won't be reading the rest of the series as it is released.

(book 8/13 in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set)

11 December 2016

Secret Path - Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire

This is another re-telling of the story of Chanie Wenjack.  I was curious about why this album / graphic novel combination was released so close to Joseph Boyden's book telling the same story.  It turns out that it isn't coincidental - Joseph Boyden wrote an article for MacLeans explaining how Gord Downie's brother came across an article about the death of Chanie Wenjack written when he had died, and several artists decided to release works about the story this fall, corresponding with the 50th anniversary of Chanie's death.  They decided that the impact of multiple works released at the same time would be more significant than releasing them individually.

Secret Path, as a book, contains very few words.  Chanie Wenjack's story is outlined in a few short paragraphs on the back of the book, but the book itself contains only the lyrics of the 10 songs on Gord Downie's album of the same name, poignantly illustrated by Jeff Lemire.  The book comes with a code so that the album can be downloaded and listened to along with the book.

The illustrations are beautiful and heart-breaking.  I am a fan of Jeff Lemire's work (see my review of Essex County), and his style of illustration is well-matched to the story being told.  The pictures tell the story - they convey the cold and the loneliness and the longing for home without the need for words beyond the song lyrics.  My one quibble with the illustrations is minor - Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that Chanie attended was run by the Presbyterian Church, yet Chanie is depicted as interacting with nuns.  I know that is minor, and if I hadn't lived in Kenora for a bit, I probably wouldn't have known to notice; and I will grant the illustrator artistic licence, since all of the major denominations did run residential schools in Canada.

I was talking to one of my professors on Friday about the story of Chanie Wenjack, and he mentioned that it is a story about attachment.  That comes across clearly in both this book and in Boyden's Wenjack.  In this book, it is the visual portrayal of Chanie's father appearing throughout the pages, drawing him homeward; while in Wenjack, it is Chanie holding on to his language, and continually recalling his family members.

The endings of the story are different.  In my review of Wenjack, I spoke of the starkness of the ending and the only hope coming from the public inquiry that came out of his death.  This book shows Chanie being re-united with his family after his death, and it came as a bit of a let-down since I read it after Wenjack.  There is nothing beautiful about the death of an 11-year old boy from exposure as he is trying to return home, and I felt a bit betrayed by the attempt to give Chanie a happy ending.  I can see why they chose to do it this way, but the ending of Wenjack was more powerful and thought-provoking.

The two books together, Wenjack and Secret Path, make good companion books.  One story, with two different perspectives.  As I said before, this is a story that Canada needs to know, and the more different ways the story can be told, the better.

I've downloaded the album, and will spend some time over the holidays listening to this third telling of the story.

(Book 7/13 for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set)

8 December 2016

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden

This is a heart-breaking little book.  I started reading it last night and finished it in one sitting (though the fact that I didn't start reading it until after midnight is evidence of my membership in the BadDecisionsBookClub™).  Once I started, I couldn't put it down.

The 97 pages of this book tell the story of Charlie/Chanie Wenjack, an 11-year-old boy who ran away from his residential school to try and walk 600km home through the north-western Ontario bush in 1966.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn't make it very far before he dies from exposure beside the train tracks that he was following.  Two years after he was forcibly taken away from his family, his body was returned to them in a casket.

The story was even more poignant because the school that Chanie was sent to was Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that was located in Kenora.  When I lived in Kenora for 8 months, I used to drive by the site where it was located.  The bush that Chanie was travelling through is the same bush where I would go hiking and canoeing.  As he was struggling along in the cold and wind and sleet and snow, Boyden's word painting combined with my own time spent in that same area led to a harrowing experience for my imagination.

The story of the residential schools in Canada is an important story to be told.  I have been privileged to be entrusted with stories from people who survived these schools in my career as a physiotherapist.  While Boyden doesn't describe the experience directly, Chanie's memories of the school and the abuse that he was subjected to haunt him as he walks along.

The book won't take you long to read, but if you are Canadian (or if you are interested in the history of Canada), this is an important book to read.

This isn't a happy book, and it left me feeling bereft.  In the hours since I finished reading it, I've been trying to think if there is anything redeeming that can come out of the story of this abandoned little boy. The only thing that I can think of comes not in Chanie's story, but in the Author's Note at the end where he writes that Chanie Wenjack's death led to the first public inquiry into the residential school system, and even though it took another 30 years, the system in Canada did finally end.

Next up I'm going to read Jeff Lemire and Gord Downie's take on the same story.

(This is book 6/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.)

18 November 2016


Here's another poem from my recent school assignment - a short one this time.  Apparently this one made my professor laugh out loud. Details of the assignment and the first poem can be found here.


The teacher,
                        answering none of my questions
unfolds for me

a whole new world of questions.

11 November 2016

The Flame

Eight-and-a-half years ago, as I was driving around in my car listening to one of my CDs, I thought to myself, "If there is one person that I would like to see in concert more than any other musician, it is Leonard Cohen.  But that isn't going to happen because he is old and he doesn't tour."  When I got home that day and turned on my computer, a headline popped up that said, "Leonard Cohen Announces World Tour."

I had the opportunity to see him twice in concert - 2008 in Toronto and 2013 in Winnipeg; both memorable evenings.  Then yesterday evening, the news reached the world that Leonard Cohen had died.  I am thankful for everything that I have learned from Leonard Cohen.

This poem wasn't the next one I was planning to share; but in response to the events of the world this week - the US election results, the death of Leonard Cohen, and the death of one of my friends - here is my response.

(Information about the class assignment that this poem comes from can be found here.)

The Flame

Before the beginning, there was darkness
Then God said, “Let there be light.”
            And there was light.
A tiny flame
            flickering in the darkness
            flickering in the chaos
            flickering in the fear.
Shadows dancing.
What is hiding in those shadows?

The bard sings,
            “Magnified, sanctified / Be thy holy name.”
The bard sings,
            “Vilified, crucified / In the human frame.”
The bard sings,
            “We kill the flame.”[1]

Can we kill the flame?
Can our fear
        our chaos
        our darkness
                        overwhelm the light?

The light shines in the darkness
            and the darkness does not overcome it.

[1] Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker,” in You Want it Darker (Sony Music Entertainment, 2016), compact disc.