Going (Book) Clubbing

Do you belong to a book club? They’ve been around a very long time, mostly under the radar but in the past 20 years or so, they’ve become really popular. They have also moved out of people’s homes and into local bookstores, I’ve noticed signs up for them in “my” Chapter’s store and in others. I think some of the libraries provide space for them, too. I’ve never belonged to one.

I know. That seems odd considering how much I read. With Goodreads, I’ve been a participant in online group reads so that’s kind of the same thing. The appeal of “real life” book clubs is the physical interaction, the coffee/tea/wine/treats aspect, the live reaction and discussion. Unless you’re meeting in an online real time chat room to talk about a book, the discussion loses it’s initiative (I think that’s the right word I was looking for) and it’s impact. Whether I could find a book club or join one at the bookstore or library  likely wouldn’t be difficult. The main drawback for me was that I don’t own a vehicle and traipsing around in the evenings by bus does not appeal in the least. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

I attended a book club meeting once, with a friend of mine on a late spring evening. I think there were about 8 or 10 women attending, most on the older side of middle age, all very well educated and most of them quite serious readers, I think. I don’t remember the book they were discussing and I do know I hadn’t read it. The club was also choosing the books for the next year, beginning in September (taking the summer off). My suggestion of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon made the cut for the first book of the new reading  year, a good summer read, it was deemed. I wonder if they read it and  if they ended up enjoying it.

This brings me to a very famous book “club” started some years ago by Oprah Winfrey. She is a reader herself and decided to recommend books to her fans, books that she enjoyed and made a “club” out of it. Everyone would read a book for a month or two. Then she’d have the author on her tv show and they could all talk about/watch the show about the book. Her recommendation would spike sales for that book immensely and generate a lot of interest in that author. She didn’t just pick books off the top seller lists either and that made it interesting. A little later, she started to focus on Classics. I think Oprah did quite a lot to promote literacy not just in children, not just in people who struggled to read, but in ordinary folks that just never took the time to read or appreciate the joy of a well written book.

I never participated in Oprah’s book club but did look at the books she recommended. Many of her choices were written by black writers and/or were about black women and their experiences. That would resonate with her and a lot of her audience and you want a book that you can relate to. I’m not black so sometimes I found it difficult to relate to a book’s message and some of the books she promoted were quite dark. Not all, though. But an Oprah sticker on a book at your bookstore will pretty much guarantee you a good book with an intriguing character or two in it.

The reason I’ve dug into all of this is this month’s newest Oprah book club, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I’m not sure why but the book caught my eye. It’s about an African American couple, Celestial and Roy, who’s world comes crashing down when Roy is jailed for something he didn’t do, and what happens to them both individually and as a couple after that. I thought “Oooh, that sounds good”.  Then I realized I had read one of Ms. Jones’ books before and liked that one, too. It’s called Silver Sparrow and is the story of two families linked by a bigamist husband but told from the point of view of the daughters. (My review) Always a good sign if I’ve already “met” the author and liked one of their books.

It’s now on my wishlist, with the hope that I can get an ecopy from my library. I’ve got too many others on the go at the moment to try to fit that in as well and with Canada Reads  coming soon, that’s going to bump a few more books up the priority list. (looks ruefully at the increasing stack of paper books and magazines stacking up waiting to  be read and loved!)

You can browse through Oprah’s picks here and there’s a downloadable pdf file of them there as well. She’s chosen a good variety of books over the past 20 years including two of my all time favourites, Fall On Your Knees, by Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It’s a good list to peruse if you’re looking for something new.

Q&A with Tayari Jones

So. Do you belong to a book club? Is it “in real life” or online? Is it more about the social aspect than the books? I think once I retire I may look around for one, perhaps one that meets on a Sunday afternoon and near-ish where I live in case taxis are going to be involved.


What Kind of Reader Are You?

From the good folks at 50BookPledge via @SavvyReader

Me, I’m definitely a Polygamist Reader with no fewer than 3 books open at a time. Currently reading:

A Column of Fire  – Ken Follett
Fables of Brunswick Avenue – Katherine Govier (for the Bingo Challenge and the Cross Canada reading challenge as the author is from Alberta)
Precious Cargo: My year of driving the kids on school bus 3077 – Craig Davidson (One of Canada Reads shortlisted books for 2018)
The Girl in the Glass – Susan Meissner (on the bottom of the priority list because Precious Cargo is a library ebook and there are 2 more Canada Reads books I have on hold that I expect to get any day now as well. Library books trump all others due to time constraints)

Iceland Christmas Traditions: Happy Jólabókaflóðið

Apparently, Iceland is a country of writers. Up to 1 in 10 people have published a book which isn’t that strange considering Iceland has a long tradition of storytelling. These traditional stories are called sagas and tell the tales of the original settlers to Iceland. Modern Icelanders are busy writing and publishing books and it makes sense to me. What better way to fill those long, dark, Northern winter nights than writing (unless it’s reading!) The majority of books in Iceland are published this time of year, they call it the Christmas Book Flood (Jólabókaflóðið)  so it’s the best time to find new releases to give as gifts.

There’s an interesting piece on the BBC website here. It’s a few years old now but I have no doubt it’s still relevant. I like the idea of giving books as a special gift, with the subsequent evening snugged up under a warm blanket, hot beverage of choice in hand while savouring that new story!

Halifax Wrecked

“Halifax Wrecked” was the newspaper headline screaming off the page on the morning of December 7, 1917. The day before, at 9:04 a.m., an enormous explosion in the Halifax Harbour wiped out a large section of the North End of the city, killing almost 2000 people and blinding many thousands more. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of that event, an event that has become part of who we Haligonians are.

Two ships trying to navigate the harbour ended up in the same shipping lane and one, The Imo, trying to maneuver, strafed the hull of the other, the SS Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was a floating bomb, loaded with explosives for the war effort but not flying a warning flag because that would only invite a German attack. The ship caught fire and exploded. There’s a pretty good interactive recreation on this site if you want to know a bit more about the details.

The day after the explosion there was a winter storm. The army set up tents to help house the newly homeless. Schools and churches were converted into hospitals and morgues. The City of Boston loaded up a train and sent aid with supplies and medical personal almost as soon as they heard the news. Halifax sends Boston their city’s Christmas tree in thanks and has done since the 1970s.

The event is part of our history and there have been a number of books written about it, as well as novels that use the event as a backdrop.

Pretty much the most definitive of the non-fiction books are:

Janet F. Kitz – Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery – contains many first person accounts of the survivors. (1989)
Laura Macdonald – Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917
Michael J. Bird – The Town the Died (1962)

There are also three new books just released:

Katie Ingram – Breaking Disaster: Newspaper stores of the Halifax Explosion from newspaper coverage point of view which sounds pretty interesting. (Read an article about Katie and the book in the Chronicle Herald here)

Ken Cuthbertson – The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster
John U. Bacon – The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
(Read a review of these books here at the Globe and Mail)

For the novels, I’ve read a few  and can recommend these:

Robert MacNeil – Burden of Desire from 1992. This Goodreads member review is quite good.
Genevieve Graham – Tides of Honour from 2015. I read this last year. Here’s my review.
Hugh MacLennan – Barometer Rising written in 1941 which I read recently. Review here.

An aside: Awhile back I wrote here about Project Bookmark, a project to focus on books written about various areas of Canada, a way you could “Read across Canada”. The 19th bookmark is going to be placed at the Halifax Citadel this afternoon and will honour Mr. MacLennan’s Barometer Rising.

Goodreads has a list of novels with the Explosion as a backdrop here.

A cannon from the SS Mont Blanc, found thrown several miles away from the harbour by the explosion near Albro Lake in Dartmouth

You can probably guess this has been a topic that has always fascinated me. None of my family were living here when it happened though my father grew up in the area that was rebuilt, on a dead end street leading to Fort Needham where the memorial now stands, overlooking the blast site below. I live around the corner from where one of the guns from the Mont Blanc was thrown, about 3 miles from the harbour. It’s mounted and there are a couple of information signs installed. They have a small ceremony there on the 6th every year though the main remembrance ceremony is at the larger memorial at Fort Needham.

To finish, a couple of interesting websites. The Nova Scotia Archives maintains the Book of Remembrance, a list of everyone that died, where they lived and how old they were. Another new site is 100 Years 100 Stories.

It Does Not Compute

My mother arrived at our apartment yesterday and when she came in, she was looking a bit confused. She had just had a conversation wtih someone outside the building and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. When she explained, I understood.

There was a man standing there, one of the building’s tennants, out in the sunshine having a smoke. If he’s the person I think he is, he’s about her age or her generation anyway. He doesn’t smoke in his apartment. In the course of the short conversation, she suggested that it was a good day to settle down with a good book. He replied “I’m tired of reading” in a tone of voice that implied he didn’t read at all anymore, that he was fed up with the hobby. That’s how she took it, not that he had been reading for hours and needed a break. That’s what I might mean had I said it though I can’t imagine saying it. We both agreed, how can you tire of reading in that sense? My reaction reminds me of a “tag line” that one of the characters on the Canadian sitcom, Schitt’s Creek” would often say. He’d get a blank look on his face and utter “I don’t know what that means”.

It does not compute, Will Robinson.

All of my family are lifelong readers and we are unsettled if we don’t have a book to read. Magazines are ok, but not quite as satisfying. They’ll do in a desperate pinch but work much better as a “plug in”, an addition to the reading roster where books are the main event. I always have at least three books on the go at any given time, usually e-books with perhaps a physical book as well and almost always, I have an ebook loaded on my phone. I’ve got all the bases covered, I think. Sometimes I save the physical book for bedtime. The ereader is very convenient for bus commuting. My mom likes the ereader/tablet for reading in bed because it’s lighter than a book.

Tired of reading. That’s still bouncing off my brain. If I have been reading for hours, I might need a break, that’s true enough but if I’m tired of reading, I can also just switch to another book! Problem solved!

“I don’t have time to read.”

Another incomprehensible statement. I thank the reading gods and goddesses that my life is not so horrendously busy that I can’t take 20 or 30 minutes out to read. I read on my commute to and from work, about 20-30 minutes each way. I read at lunch, 40 minutes or so. I read in bed before I turn out the light, 60-90 minutes. Waiting in the doctor or dentist’s office? 10 – 60 minutes depending. (Yes, my doctor is always late!) Sometimes on weekend days or other days off, I might find a quiet hour or two in the middle of the day and read as well. 2.5 – 3 hours each weekday, 3 – 5 hours weekends. I can easily read 15 – 20 hours a week, give or take.

Reading takes me away to interesting places, with interesting people to meet. Some I like, some I don’t. Reading teaches me things, entertains me and relaxes me. If I ever say that I’m tired of reading, someone give me a good shake and sit me down with a book, ok?

It’s Giller Award Season

The Scotiabank Giller literary award is given each year to a book of fiction or short stories in English, or translated to English by a Canadian author. It was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch as a memorial to his late wife, Doris Giller who was a literary journalist with the Montreal Gazette for many years and later with the Toronto Sun. The foundation teamed with Scotiabank in 2005 to ensure the legacy and prize money would endure. The yearly long list and subsequent shortlist are highly anticipated by CanLit fans. The books that are nominated yearly are the best of Canadian Literature. The prize is awarded in November.

The current prize is $100,000 for the winning book, with $10,000 for the other books on the short list. What I really like is that if the book is translated to English, the prizes are split 70/30 with the translator. Translating books into another language and being able to give the book the same feeling and atmosphere, the “page turning” tension, the humour, the sparkling dialogue, and all the other attributes that make a novel great in its original language is a huge talent and a skill with language almost above and beyond and certainly equal to the actual author’s dexterity to the written word.

The jury has to pare down the submissions to a maximum of 12 titles for the long list and then to a maximum of 5 for the short list. What a tough job that has to be! But then again, a jury member gets to read all those great books!

The books are new works published by Canadian authors even if they live outside the country. They don’t accept posthumous submissions, nor are Young Adult, graphic novels or self published novels accepted. The publishers of the long and short list books end up having to put out funding for advertising etc. but they would likely reap rewards with increased sales.

Are you still with me?

This year’s Short List: (click through the link to find out more about the books and authors)

Rachel Cusk – Transit
Ed O’Loughlin – Minds of Winter
Michael Redhill – Bellevue Square
Eden Robinson – Son of a Trickster
Michelle Winters – I Am A Truck

The Long List, chosen out of over 100 books is here.

The great thing about the Giller prize is the list of potentially wonderful books you can find, perhaps find a new author to read as well. Last year I read 3 of the long list nominated books and I’ve bought a 4th but haven’t read it yet. The winner, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien was very good and very worthy of the win. Everyone’s taste in books is different. I look at the lists every year and I know there will always be a lot of the books that won’t appeal to me but there are always a few. I just had a scan through the history of the long and short lists over the years and a number of books I’ve read have turned up on those older lists, though I didn’t read them back during the years they were published/nominated. This year I’ve bought Minds of Winter, Bellevue Square and I Am A Truck and plan to read them over the next month or so, in time for the Giller prize announcement on November 20 if I can.

There are some very talented Canadian writers beyond the names you normally hear. Check out your local library and dip into works by Kathleen Winter, Michael Crummey, Wayne Johnston, Linden McIntyre, Zoe WhittallHeather O’Neill, Richard Wagamese, Elizabeth Hay, Frances Itani and Miriam Toews

Happy Birthday, Canada

Tomorrow is Canada’s 150th birthday as a country. While the Indigenous peoples have been here for millenia, officially, Canada has been settled by the Europeans for over 400 years, originally by the French with settlements near Quebec and in what is now Nova Scotia (Port Royal, 1605). But did you know there was a Viking settlement at the top tip of Newfoundland 1000 years ago? And John Cabot, an Italian explorer (Giovanni Caboto), is believed to have touched down in Newfoundland in the late 15th century.

Canada is one of the world’s best countries, all the polls say so! (but I’m not very objective) I feel privileged to live here where we have such a fantastic mix of cultures, beautiful scenery from mountains to sea to prairie, lakes and rivers, cities and villages. Are we perfect? Of course not. But Canada is respected and I’m proud that we are ahead of the game on issues like LGBTQ rights, gender equality, education and health care. We still have a long way to go in many areas but we’re getting there.

And talent, boy do we have talent. Gold medal winning athletes, some of the funniest comedians in the world, award winning performers from all areas of the arts, and writers…. we have some stupendous writers whose works have had an impact on our own culture as well as world wide fame.

A century ago or more, a woman from rural Prince Edward Island wrote a story about a funny looking, red-headed orphan girl called Anne Shirley (don’t forget the E on her name!) Lucy Maud Montgomery gave young readers and adults alike a character that has earned a place in many hearts. Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels and other books about the Islanders have been best sellers ever since. One culture in particular, the Japanese, have become particularly huge fans of Anne and tourists from Japan flock to Prince Edward Island to visit the recreated Green Gables farm.

From the innocence of Anne to the horror of dystopia, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has chilled us for 30 years. Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most respected writers, giving us poetry, short stories, novels (historic fiction, regular fiction, science fiction and dystopian, is there anything she can’t do?). Followers will know that I’ve written a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale recently with the airing of the new television series that’s just ended. I’ve only read a handful of her works so far but I’m determined to make my way through the novels at the very lease.

I wouldn’t have the time or space to write about the whole history of Canadian writers but there have been published novels here since the mid-19th century when Susanna Moodie wrote Roughing It in the Bush about the hardship of surviving in the wilds of Canada, trying to eke out a living on a farm.  She wrote several books on the same theme.  W. O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen the Wind” has similar themes to Anne of Green Gables, focusing on a young boy on the Prairies. There is a good list of classic Canadian books here from the earliest days to present day. And another list here as well, from the early days to 2010.  I’ve read 10 on that list (so far!) Interestingly, Anne of Green Gables isn’t on that list and I think it should be!

And there have been other contributions to the literary arts. Another person from Canada that has contributed to pop culture in a huge way is Joe Shuster. Joe Shuster was born in Toronto though moved to Cleveland with his family where he grew up and became an artist.  He and a friend got involved with comics and they created a strip featuring a character that has endured ever since the 1933s. Superman! Yep, Superman was created by a Canadian-born lad. Where would the comic superhero world be without Superman? I’m sure lots of kids have learned to read thanks to comics.

Some of the more classic Canadian writers include Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan, Alice Munro, and Timothy Findley. We’re still giving the world amazing new talent. While some of these writers have been producing for quite awhile, these are some I’ve discovered over the past few years: Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Frances Itani, Gil Adamson, Richard Wagamese, Linden McIntyre, Guy Gavriel Kay (scifi), Michael Ondaatje, David Adams Richards, Wayne Johnston, Lesley Crewe, Jane Urquhart, Heather O’Neill, Jocelyn Saucier, Emma Donoghue, Elizabeth Hay, Madeline Ashby, Katherine Vermette, Jo Walton, Donna Morrissey, Madeleine Thien, Ami McKay, Linwood Barclay, Zoe Whittall, Stephen Price, Kathleen Winter…. oh gosh, somebody stop me! You won’t go wrong with these but there are so many more.

I don’t read exclusively Canadian authors but over the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve discovered many of the above and am trying to support Canadian writers more often. I find that my second most popular country for writers is the United Kingdom and then America. I’ve also found that I really like some of the Scandiavian crime writers after I read the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Millenium series, Jo Nesbo in particular.

On the eve of Canada’s birthday, I urge Canadians to read more, try to choose some of our talented writers, poets and graphic artists. There are works from all genres. Support and explore the wonderful Indigenous writers. Read books written in French or translated from French. Read books written by immigrants who made Canada their home, writers we proudly claim as ours now.  Pick up a biography or autobiography about/by some of our stand out citizens (celebrities, politicians, activists, athletes, artists) Try some classic authors and give some brand new talent the chance to entrance you and take you to another place. You’ll be glad you did.