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.

Bob’s Your Uncle

“Books enable you to try on a different life, one very different from your own, that you have no other way of living.”
Pamela Paul (New York Times Book Review Editor)

I was perusing some links this morning and came across one to an interview in The Atlantic with the woman that is the editor of the NYT Book Review. Her name is Pamela Paula and she’s a voracious reader. She’s made a journal of a list of every single book she’s read since she was 17, nearly 30 years. Just a list. No reviews, no ratings. Hand written.  Colour me impressed. I would find it difficult to do without adding a rating or a quick review.

She is still using the same journal, too, which has grown quite ragged around the edges and has written a book about her life in relation to reading and the journal, which she calls “Bob” for “Book of books”.  Many entries in her Book of Books bring back memories of her life at the time she was reading those particular books. This is the basis for her memoir, My Life with Bob. (amazon.ca, Amazon.com here)

This passage from the article will feel familiar to all of us who can’t imagine life without reading:

Paul describes her reading habit like a hunger than can’t be satiated, that grows, instead, with each new morsel she devours. The book seems haunted by this realization, the plain fact that no one can read it all—no matter how many built-in shelves she hammers up, no matter how their shelves sag with weight. As Paul puts it: “The more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing.”

In the interview, she describes the memory of a journey to China when she was reading entry number 351. It’s quite a detailed memory and reading through her journal brings back similar stories which she decided to write about, connecting books she’s read to periods and events in her life.  She also talks a bit about her job as editor of the NYT Book Review and how she always found it difficult to cover all the books that deserved publicity and reviews, only to come to the realization that it just isn’t possible. There are too many good books out there but she can try to bring a good cross section to the readers of the Book Review as a starting point.

I found it interesting to read her ideas on what you should and should not put in a good book review. I write reviews of all or most of the books I read though it’s primarily for my own records. I do try to get across what the book’s about and what I liked or disliked about it but when I read professional reviews, I realize I’m not really that good at it. The New York Times wouldn’t look at my reviews  twice! That’s ok. My reviews aren’t awful, and they’re fine for the average person I hope and for me. Some come out better than others.

My mother, of course, and many friends and family think my reviews and travelogues are good enough to get published. I know better. I read a lot of travel magazines and my travelogues of my journeys are nowhere in that same stratosphere but I write the travelogues, and now the reviews, so that I can revisit both the journey and the book.

Do read the whole of the interview with Pamela Paul. It’s very interesting and as a fellow book addict, I can identify with a lot of what she had to say. I think the book will definitely be added to my ever-growing To Be Read list!

My travel journal on WordPress.

My own website with all my travelogues

Graphic Novels – Yes or No?

I read comic books as a child. I read MAD magazine as a teen. These never translated into an appreciation for the graphic novel as an adult.

Graphic novels have been around a long time, depending on your definition of the term. There have been books collecting strips of cartoons or anthologies and roughly related stories as cartoon strips, often first serialized and  published in newspapers since the late 19th century though, for me, that’s not really a novel or a continuing story. The definition is a bit subjective.  There’s a pretty good overall history of the graphic novel here. 

Graphic versions of classic novels were published in the 1940s, aimed at children. That’s closer to the mark, I’d say. There were a few other full length illustrated stories and books published around that time as well including this gem as described by Wikipedia:

In 1950, St. John Publications produced the digest-sized, adult-oriented “picture novel” It Rhymes with Lust, a film noir-influenced slice of steeltown life starring a scheming, manipulative redhead named Rust. Touted as “an original full-length novel” on its cover, the 128-page digest by pseudonymous writer “Drake Waller” (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), penciler Matt Baker and inker Ray Osrin proved successful enough to lead to an unrelated second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha by pulp novelist Manning Lee Stokes and illustrator Charles Raab.

It Rhymes with Lust.  That’s just all kinds of awesome, a novel about a gutsy, red headed woman. Fantastic! Through the 1960s, there were other publications but it wasn’t a growing industry yet although monthly comic books were highly popular.

Blackmark by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, published in 1971, is the first to be termed a “graphic novel”  in retrospect and is a sci fi/fantasy adventure. The first books to actually call themselves graphic novels, however, happened in the mid 70s and a genre was born. It isn’t just an American phenomenon, either,  though in Europe and other countries, the term was not used as such, not at first. The product was the same or similar, though.  I’ve noticed that they have become hugely popular in the last 10 or 15 years but it’s not a genre I’ve really taken to on the whole.

I have read a handful of them, but it’s only reinforced my view that it’s not really for me, though I can see I may continue to pick one up now and then depending on the author or subject. The first one I read was written by my favourite author, Diana Gabaldon. It was based on the first Outlander book that introduced Jamie and Claire Fraser to the world but was told from Jamie’s point of view and was called The Exile. I own it but for the life of me, I can’t find it anywhere.  I can recommend The Exile for Gabaldon fans as a companion to the Outlander series.

Last year, for a reading Bingo challenge square, I read the autobiography of Stan Lee who was instrumental in founding Marvel comics. It’s called Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. I had bought it for my husband for Christmas a few years ago and decided that would do for the Bingo Square.  I enjoyed The Exile more, I would have to say but reading about his life this way gave me the highlights if not the detail.

I guess that’s the thing about graphic novels that I don’t like. I read a lot and I like to read thick books which generally have lots of detail. Reading a graphic novel is something you might read in one sitting, giving you the bare bones or highlights of a story but not as much depth as I prefer. The Exile was a nice complement to the rest of the big, chunky books that Ms. Gabaldon writes and I knew the detail and story behind it albeit from the point of view of Claire rather than Jamie, so I could fill in the detail myself.  I’ve not been one to read comics as an adult and a graphic novel by its very nature is just a longer comic book. I know people love them for the artwork as much as the story and some of them do have beautiful illustrations which I can appreciate. You can read Ms. Gabaldon’s own version of the history of how she came to write it here on her website.

The most recent graphic novel I read because it was by another of my favourite authors, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. It’s called Angel Catbird and is a fantasy about a scientist whose DNA gets mixed with an owl and a cat and finds that there is a secret group of animal/humans in his world. I believe it’s going to have further volumes though I may not continue the series. I was curious as to what she’d do with it and it was pretty good, I have to say. She found a good artist to go along with her concept.  I can recommend this as well, for Atwood fans and for fantasy fans. It’s quirky and fun with a good introduction by Atwood as well.

There’s apparently a very good Canadian graphic novel called Essex County by Jeff Lemire who is going to be appearing at our local library one night in June. Essex County is a trilogy of books set in semi-rural Ontario and is highly recommended apparently. The trilogy is quite a large book from what I remember seeing in the bookstore. It’s not something I would purchase but perhaps someday I might borrow it from the library.  Although a few of the co-members of one of my Goodreads groups did not rate it highly, seeming to have a similar opinion to mine about the genre in general, it does get very good ratings and was included in a Canada Reads contest . The stories are apparently emotional and somewhat bleak but that might make it more interesting. Lemire is quite prolific, he’s got a number of series of graphic novels out .

Graphic novels have become a popular source for movies and television, too. That has brought a new legitimacy to the genre, I think and given it a little nudge into the mainstream. I have seen several movies based on graphic novels including Sin City, V for Vendetta, 300, Snowpiercer, (I didn’t realize that was based on a graphic novel), Ghost World (great movie!), R.I.P.D. ,  and the dire Cowboys and Aliens  which I wouldn’t recommend. Awful. Let’s not forget The Walking Dead which is based on graphic novels and is one of the most popular tv series out there though not my thing at all. There are dozens of comics that have been adapted and will be adapted for the big and small screens (let’s not even get started on the phenomenon that is Japanese anime!) Personally, I’m waiting for another big screen TinTin adventure!

People that love graphic novels and comics/anime are passionate about them. They’ve come a long way since they were published as collections of daily comic strips. The artwork is a showcase for talented artists and these days, big name non-graphic authors are trying their hand at them. That brings a lot of new readers to the genre even if only to have a taste of their favourite author but some of those readers might branch out and explore a bit more. I don’t think I’ll be one of them as such but I won’t reject the genre out of hand, either.

 

 

 

World Book Day

April 23 is World Book Day. It’s been organized by UNESCO to promote literacy and publishing. The date traces back to Spain in 1923, where they wanted to honour author Miguel Cervantes who died on this date. Also, it’s the birth and death date of William Shakespeare. Wikipedia has an odd trivia fact about these two authors who died on the same date in 1616. Cervantes actually died 10 days earlier because Spain did not use the same calendar that England did (Gregorian Vs Julian). Not every country celebrates it on the same date but many countries do mark a date for it.

So today, read a book to or with your kids. Visit a library. Or why not read a classic book? I’ve got Rockbound by Canadian author Frank Parker Day on the go (stay tuned for review when I’m done). That was written in 1928 and takes place in a small fishing village on a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia, a kind of David vs Goliath story, Goliath being either the antagonist of the story or the force of the sea. Or both. I like to try to read a few classics ever year, either Canadian classics or others.

There is this list from CBC on the 100 Novels that make you proud to be a Canadian. There are a lot of great books on there, both by authors that are Canadian literature royalty and new, exciting authors. My favourites from the list are: Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald which I’m planning to reread this year, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, Galore by Michael Crummey (or anything by him), The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, The Outlander by Gill Adamson, and oh gosh, there really are a lot of good books on that list, and I’ve only read about a third of them.

There really are some great authors producing books of all types and genres. That’s the best thing about reading, there is bound to be something that interests you, be it fiction, non-fiction, graphic novel, audio book, magazines that will cover pretty much every topic under the sun. Reading improves your vocabulary, your imagination, your intelligence. You can learn from any kind of reading and you’ll never be bored if you have something to read.

 

Thoughts on poetry and a Review

Most people have had exposure to poetry though you may not realize it. Children are exposed to it very early. Have you read children’s books? Nursery Rhymes are poems even if you don’t really think of them as such. Little rhyming verses. Of course, it’s a poem! Poems that have words that ricochet off each other and flow like water, rhymes and lines skipping across the page, intent on making a child smile. Oh, come on, who doesn’t chuckle reading anything by Dr. Seuss! He’s awesome!

The next exposure you probably remember is in school, junior or high school. When I was in school, it was all classic poetry, nothing from the 20th century. 18th and 19th century, mainly. We spend weeks on the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge  and at the time,  I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy! But it’s got to be one of the best poems for vivid imagery, too.  Glittering eyes, grey-beard loons, emerald green icebergs, growling ice, and, look, read this out loud and tell me how exquisite it is:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
 
If you want to read the whole, epic missive, it’s here. You’ll feel like you’re reading the plot to a horror movie. It’s long and epic in nature and in spite of me not being a poetry fan in general, this one has stayed with me. Or, parts of it have.
 
Back on track. Even though I can appreciate that for what it is, and others, I still don’t really read poetry nor often can I get my head around it. I think it’s more to do with the modern style of poetry.  From verses and rhyming, it’s turned into a stream of prose, separated up into lines of varying lengths, or even, in the style of e.e. cummings, breaking up words across different lines,  so we’re fooled into thinking it’s poetry. It sounds pretty. It might have lovely images. But it is often vague and metaphoric which leaves me cold.
 
Review: The Circle Game – Margaret Atwood
2017: 25
2 of 5 stars
Published 1964
 
I recently struggled through a short volume of poems by the awesome Margaret Atwood called Circle Game. There’s a lengthy foreword that explains how the theme is in all these poems and how many of them express it. I feel that if someone has to explain the poem, it’s very likely I wouldn’t understand it if I read it on my own. Sure enough, the pretty words haven’t made a lot of sense.
 I would read a poem, sort of understand where it was going and then, wait, what? The next line would be completely off the wall and make no sense and it ruined the rest of it. I don’t get that you can write a pretty sentence, put the words on different lines and it’s now a poem. Apparently, how it’s broken up into lines says something. *shrugs* It’s kind of like modern art. The artist might say it means this but you really can make it mean anything you want.
 
Vague and esoteric, symbolism and metaphor, it doesn’t mix with the way my brain works. I don’t insist that a poem rhyme, but I really prefer it to make sense without someone having to explain it to me. These just confused me for the most part. Why did I read it? Mainly for a Bingo challenge square. I’ve had a couple of other collections recommended to me which I may like better including one by Richard Wagamese. I have really enjoyed his books and writing style so perhaps I’ll give it a go.
 
Back to the topic at hand…
 
Lyrics in songs are also poetry conveying images and emotion. Some do it better than others. Say what you will about Bob Dylan, he might not be able to carry a tune in a bucket but he sure can write the words. The lyrics of John Lennon can move me to tears but mostly I’m one of those annoying people that pays more attention to the music and the guitar solo than the lyrics of a song. At least, that’s the first thing I hear. Eventually, I’ll figure out the lyrics of the songs I like the most. Or not. After 30+ years of hearing the lyrics to the Eagles’ Hotel California, I’m still not sure what they were smoking when they wrote it!
 
I will leave you with a poem that I do quite like.  It rhymes and everything.
 
When You Are Old – William Butler Yeats
 
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
 
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
 
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
 
 

Monday Message

Twitter gem seen this morning:

Even though reading is very subjective as to what you enjoy reading and what you don’t, if you filter your reading material by that broad a category, you’re really missing out.

Audio Books, Yea or Nay?

I love to read. I read quite quickly, too, so I will find myself skimming pages at times which is a shame when it’s a lovely well-written book. I will often make myself go back and reread something to get more detail and enjoy the flow of the words but if I make myself read slowly in the first place, I only end up reading the same paragraph over and over.

Some people really enjoy listening to audio books which have been around quite some time. They’re really an extension of the days when plays and books were read on the radio but audio or “spoken word” or “talking” books have been around since the 1930s. Initially, it was mainly plays and poetry and often only available in schools or in libraries. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and he saw it as a way to bring books to the blind. In fact, the first thing Edison did with his new phonograph was record himself reading “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. But the cylinders and early disks weren’t very practical because they couldn’t hold a lot of recorded time. By the 1930s, record disks could hold more and recorded speaking books started to be produced.

A company in the 1950s, Caedmon Records, decided to start selling recorded books on records to the general public. By now, LP (Long Play) records were on the market making it more feasible even though the first works were still shorter works of fiction, short stories, plays and poetry. Still, it was a start. Over the decades, technology improved and little by little recorded books turned to cassette tapes and then CDs when it really took off in the 1980s like a shot. Big companies like Time Warner and Literary Guild were offering audiobooks as choices in Book of the Month Club. There was no going back, now.

Now, of course, there are downloadable digital audio books and website streaming and they are becoming even more popular. People listen to books as they drive, work at home or relax on the beach or wherever they can find a comfortable spot. Just like eBooks, you can get most of the classics for free or buy audiobooks from various on or offline sellers. You can borrow audio books from the library via an app on your phone or computer or stream them from the library website.

Me? I’ve never really got into audio books but I’m going to try a couple over the next few months. I know from past experience trying to listen to the occasional radio play that my attention wanders, I get distracted, and I miss chunks of the storyline. That’s mainly why I haven’t taken the plunge. I’d probably have the best luck with it if I sat with my adult colouring book and listened. There would be less distraction. For me, when driving, the radio is background noise and I think an audio book would be as well. I wouldn’t get anything out of it even if I was only the passenger.

I did actually try a few chapters a month or so ago with Quantum Nights by Robert J Sawyer, but the male reader of the story would change his voice to sound feminine for the female characters and the way he did it grated on my nerves. I then tried streaming an abridged (condensed) version of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and when that narrator did something similar, it was ok. Many people that love audio books do say that the quality of the reader is very important to your enjoyment of the book.  A few days ago, I went to a couple of sites that have free audio books to download. These are mainly classic books that are in the public domain. I like to try to read a classic or two every year anyway so why not try one in this format?

Terminology to know: Abridged vs Unabridged. Unabridged is the whole book recorded where Abridged is a condensed version without all the detail. The Underground Railroad that I listened to off the BBC Radio website was most definitely abridged and I would have preferred the full meal deal, I think.

If you are interested in trying an audiobook, check out your local library’s digital catalog. You can borrow one for free. If you want to download one, this website has a few options for the best sites to try.  You might also have a look at Open Culture, Librivox and Playster. You can also get free audio books through Amazon and iTunes (iBooks) and Google books.

You can also pay for audio book services like Audible, which seems to be one of the most popular. You pay a monthly fee and get one book for free each month and then can buy loads more at good discounts and listen offline. Audiobooks is a similar service.  Spotify does online streaming of music and books. You can join there for free but there are restrictions and you may have ads in the stream. I think all three do have free books as well, classics and perhaps some self published works.

For me, since I can’t see audiobooks being a major part of my reading world, I will experiment with free books, either by download or through the library using the Overdrive app on my phone and go from there. It’s all about trying new things. At least then I can’t say I’ve never tried it.