PROBE INTO MEMORY: Find Me by Laura van den Berg

Find Me CoverFind Me by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2015

“The sickness” hits the Unites States leaving its victims covered in silvery scabs, bereft of their memories, and fated with an unavoidable death. 19-year-old Joy finds herself swept away to an isolated hospital along with others who have been exposed to the fast-spreading disease. Here, Joy becomes intimate with a widower, endeared by orphaned twin boys, and distracted by the mysterious pilgrims who stand vigil outside the hospital.

Unlike other dystopian novels (i.e. Children of Men, World War Z), this story is not rife with action or a rush to find a cure. In fact, most of the scientific elements fizzle away on a back burner. The protagonist has a lot of time on her hands. She gets lost in the entanglements of her memories and her imaginings. Joy’s fears, doubts, and transient lifestyle make her the ideal, unreliable first-person narrator. You feel as vulnerable and as unknowing as Joy.

Van den Berg uses poetic phrases and gorgeous water imagery that lulls you. Her words leave you aimlessly drifting along and waiting for meaning along with Joy. The story can be summed up by one of Joy’s powerful lines:

“I feel like my life is a tent someone has folded up and carried away.”

Being an orphan, Joy never had a permanent home or family life. She drifted from place to place, always finding herself lost—her future a dark blur. The language sets the mood and helps you delve into the psyche of a lonely woman in an unravelling world.

The second part of the book meanders into a new direction, possibly leaving you confused or unsatisfied. Other characters materialize along the way, but never long enough to leave their imprint on you. Like the memories of the afflicted, the relationships Joy forms with others come and go too quickly. The final scene is fitting, but may leave you with more questions than answers.

I recommend this book for readers who appreciate the intricacies of language, but not to those who want a tight plot and a clear resolution at the end of the novel.

My Life in Books

I’ve enjoyed reading other book bloggers’ posts in The Time and Place Book Tag. Bloggers write vignettes explaining the memories and places associated with reading particular books. In Chelsea’s post, she explains, “My life can be told in books, and it is one of the most special things about them.” So friends, here’s my life in books.

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon StoneGrover

My favorite book as a teeny, bespectacled girl featured Grover from Sesame Street. Although I was quite young, I remember my mother reading the story to me. A growing tension builds as Grover pleads with the reader not to turn the pages. There’s a “scary” monster at the end of the book, after all. My mother would pretend she was terrified of the page-turning, just like Grover, and I would laugh and turn each page defiantly. I still own a worn, cherished copy of the Monster book.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

OwenMeanyCoverThe first book I read by John Irving was A Prayer for Owen Meany. When I was in high school, I went on my first out-of-town day trip with my boyfriend. We left our tiny town, and we drove nearly two hours to reach a “much bigger” town with double-lane roads, a multi-screen cinema, and a chain bookstore. It rained during the ride. We listening to the single cassette of “Wish I Was Your Lover” over and over. I felt grown-up, so clearly I had to buy an “adult” book to mark the occasion. In the clearance bin at the Coles bookstore, I found a book with an armadillo on its cover. The inside flap revealed it was by the guy who also wrote The World According to Garp. I had seen and loved that weird R-Rated movie and figured this book would be just as strange and as adult-themed as Garp. Little did I know that I’d spend the following weekend tucked in my sister Joe’s basement bedroom (she was attending University at the time) and get lost in this story. I remember reading the ending so vividly. I was sprawled on Joe’s bed. I bawled for what felt like forever. I felt both overwhelmed and uplifted. It was the best thing I had read in all my 17 years. (It might still be the best novel I’ve read in all my 40 years. It’s in a tie at the top of my list with Jane Eyre).

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

MeTalkCoverMy husband Brian gave me this collection of essays to read when we flew off to Prague to (secretly) get hitched. He had introduced me to Sedaris (and to This American Life). We listened to podcasts featuring the humourist reading to live audiences. I must admit I was too excited to read when we left Canada. So, I read the whole book during our return flight. I laughed out loud a few times. I cried a bit, too. These stories will forever be associated with Brian smiling at my side, fluffy white clouds, and my left hand sporting a new, sparkling ring.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

HarryPotterPhoenixMy sister, who taught grade 7 for over a decade, introduced me to the Harry Potter series. She lent me the first three books, and I read them over the span of a couple of weeks shortly before the fourth one was published. I couldn’t wait to read the fifth book, but I would have to wait a while for it to get published. Two years later, and a few days before it hit the bookstores, I had a pregnancy scare. I was four months pregnant and was put on strict bedrest for two weeks. This Harry Potter book helped me remain calm and entertained. I remember being thankful it was over 800 pages long. I spent much of my time reading it while sitting on my old plaid couch near the living room picture window. I didn’t lift a finger during this time. I read, read, and read while my baby got stronger. That December, my healthy daughter weighed 8.14 lbs at birth.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

TheWorldBeforeUsCoverI read this gorgeous novel last year. I’d read it early in September during the early morning hours. I was determined to take advantage of the last days of summer by hanging out on the new, cedar deck my husband and father had built together. Reading. Drinking coffee. It was bliss. On one of these mornings, I looked up to see a dozen or more hot air balloons floating above me. I’d forgotten it was The Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival that weekend. The balloons often land all over our neighbourhood in parks and farmland. The sky dance was as TheWorldBeforeUsBalloonspectacular as the book. The World Before Us became one of my two favorite reads of 2014 (the other being Sweetland by Michael Crummey).

If you participated in the Place and Time Tag, please share the link with me. I’d love to read your bookish stories. Happy reading!

On Needing a Teeny Tiny Break

BedroomBookshelf
Sometimes, you just have to keep those little piles of too-read books from accumulating in corners and crooks of your home. Books that were gifted. Books that you bought on a whim. Books you put aside, but desperately want to crack open. Books that were on inter-library-loan waiting lists for months. And months. And months. And are finally here. All. At. Once.

Lately, you need to read with abandon without sticky notes at the ready. Read without writing book reviews. Just because. You need to escape. Go on a reading binge. And binge, binge, binge. Just for a bit. For a couple of weeks.

Then, you’ll have your fill and miss writing reviews. Resurface. Refreshed. And be at the ready for those to-be-published  galleys needing to be reviewed in August. All will be well. But for now, you’ll catch up. Chillax. After all, it’s summer.

Imagine, Imagine, You Can Imagine: THIS IS SADIE by Sara O’Leary

 

ThSadie_Coveris is Sadie by Sara O’Leary
Illustrated by Julie Morstrad
Tundra Books, May 12 2015
Hardcover, 32 pages

“Sadie’s perfect day is spent with friends. Some of them live on her street, and some live in the pages of books.”

How I love this passage showcasing a little girl’s vivid imagination. It sums up the book This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary (author) and Julie Morstad (illustrator) perfectly. When these two ladies team up, they create gorgeous books for young and old alike. I was as charmed by this book as I was by the trio of “Henry Books” they dreamed up in the past.

We meet Sadie in her messy bedroom—a sweet girl among a scattering of toys and clothes. She’s drawn simply, surrounded by a white space full of possibilities.  The story flows from Sadie’s bedroom to the make-believe worlds of the books she inhabits: a deep ocean where she becomes a mermaid or a grassy jungle where she becomes a wild boy. The gorgeous illustrations of the fantasy worlds are painted in lush, muted greens and blues that give the books a vintage feel. The story then ebbs back to the simplicity of her bedroom. Portraying a child’s reality with small, simple illustrations in a negative space, and then contrasting it with busy, full-page illustrations representing her imagination, is not a new technique. We’ve seen it done often since Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are in the sixties. Perhaps too, the writing doesn’t have a clear focus. Still, it’s a beautiful book about the importance of creative play. Children and grown-ups will surely enjoy reading it together during story time.

To learn more about the “Henry Books,” check out Sara’s blog.

Check out Artist Julie Morstad on finding inspiration for her illustrations in Quill & Quire.

If you’re a parent or a teacher and plan to share this book with kids, you must get your hands on this free, online activity kit.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

Green Gables Readalong

This year, Reeder Reads launched the Green Gables Readalong. Participants read a book from the beloved Anne series each month, from January to August. Of course, I could not resist re-reading these books alongside other Anne fans, so I signed up right away.

In November, my daughter and I read Anne of Green Gables together (Okay, I totally cheated this month… Next month, I’ll be reading Anne of Avonlea at the same time as everyone else.) The book brought back many memories and emotions. Here is the blog post I wrote about our reading experience. It originally appeared in SPINE Online Magazine.

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Don’t Call Her Carrots “You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair… People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.” – Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables   Anne_CoverAfter my daughter Teagan and I finished reading Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery —the longest and most challenging novel we ever tackled— we celebrated our literary feat by watching the CBC TV adaptation starring Megan Follows. I remember having watched that production with my mother when it first aired on television in December of 1985. We had sat together stringing beads into Christmas garlands while giggling about Anne’s misadventures, especially those revolving around her “carrot” hair. It should be no surprise that I got emotional watching Anne with my daughter, nearly thirty years later. If my ten-year-old self had known she would one day have a beautiful, red-haired girl who’d be a dead ringer for Anne, she’d have been thrilled. I was curious about Teagan’s reaction to red hair being Anne’s “lifelong sorrow.” “So, Teagan, like Anne Shirley, you’re a redhead. Can you relate to Anne’s trouble accepting her red hair?” “No. I love my red hair. Maybe a hundred years ago, girls with red hair weren’t [considered] lucky. They are today. People are always telling me I’ve got pretty hair.” “Do you think that, maybe, there was something more to Anne not liking her hair?” When Teagan looked at me with a furrowed brow, I explained that Anne’s dislike of her hair is strongest at the start of the novel. It helps reveal her negative self-image. “That makes sense,” Teagan said. “She was rejected by everyone in the beginning. After her parents died, no one wanted her. She felt bad when nobody loved her.” “It must be difficult to love yourself when you don’t feel loved,” I said. Anne needs to find a reason for being cast aside. It’s easy for her to blame her temper and bad behavior on the striking hair that makes her different from other girls. Still, the longer she lives at Green Gables, the more she accepts herself and her red hair. AnneGables1“Why do you think Anne learns to embrace her hair, in the end?” “She finds love. Marilla and Matthew love her like a daughter. Diana Barry becomes her bosom friend.” “Are you saying that by letting others love her, she learns to love herself too?” “Yep.” “It’s a great story about learning to love yourself, isn’t it?” “Yep.” “Remember when Anne tries to dye her hair black? Would you ever dye your hair another colour?” Teagan wrinkled her nose and said, “No way! Three things make me stand out: having red hair, having blue eyes, and being left-handed. I love being special.” Apparently, my daughter has just the right amount of moxie.  Anne Shirley would approve, don’t you think?

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Here is what other #GreenGablesReadalong participants had to say:

– Lindsay at Reeder Reads, the book blogger who spearheaded the readalong –  Naomi at Consumed by Ink, the blogger who shares a gazillion Anne covers with us – Eva at The Paperback Princess, one of many bloggers who read Anne with a new appreciation as an adult

Reading the Classics Challenge in 2015

Old BooksOn top of signing up for the 50 Book Pledge and joining the Green Gables Readalong, I wanted to push myself further when reading this year. So, I am challenging myself to read 12 “classic novels” in 2015.

Why?

Well, I read mostly contemporary literary fiction and tend to put off reading the books that somehow didn’t appear on my university English Literature courses syllabi.

After a shout out for “classics” suggestions last month, many of you gave me great suggestions. Thank you! (Please note: I use the term “classic” loosely. I cheated and included a few books from written in the early 1900s. A couple of book were even written post-WWII.)

I’ll write one “classic” review per month in the form of a Top 5 Highlights list. Here are the “Reading the Classics Challenge” picks I will be reviewing in 2015:

January:         To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
February:       Dracula by Bram Stoker
March:           Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
April:              Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
May:               Frost in May by Antonia White
June:              The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
July:                Villette by Charlotte Brontë
August:          Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
September:   The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
October:       Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
November:    Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
December:    Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I figure if I write it here, for all to see, I cannot back down. Right?

How will you challenge yourself to read more or read differently in 2015? Want to join me in the Reading the Classics Challenge in 2015? Make up your own list of not-yet-read “classics.” Read at your own pace. Let us know how you make out on social media with #ReadingtheClassicsin2015. Good luck!



HAPPY NEW YEAR!

HOW TO ESCAPE A SIBLING’S SHADOW: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa_Cover_One

U.S. Book Cover

Vanessa and Her Sister
by Priya Parmar
Ballantine Books, December 30, 2014.
Doubleday Canada, January 20, 2015.
368 pages, 25.00$ (USA) 29.95$ (Canada)

 

The mythology surrounding Virginia Woolf still possesses us a century after she wrote her first novel. Woolf had a severe nervous breakdown, as a young woman, after the death of her father. For the rest of her life, she had tempestuous moods and couldn’t rid herself of her demons. What was it like for her loved ones to live with such an ingenious, yet tortured, writer? Priya Parmar explores this question in her new novel Vanessa And Her Sister.

The narrative is made up almost exclusively of fictional journal entries by Virginia’s older sister, Vanessa Bell. The entries cover nearly a decade of the Stephen sisters’ lives, from August 1905 to December 1912. It is a time when Virginia and Vanessa come of age, find their artistic voices, and make life-changing choices.

Vanessa’s written words give us glimpses of her awe, worry, and intimidation toward her sister’s talent:

“Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her center holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”

Vanessa_Cover_Canadian

Canadian Book Cover

Over time, Vanessa embraces her own strength and finds confidence as a Post-Impressionist painter. She’s the unwavering sister who tends to the needs of the family, of Virginia in particular. She walks on eggshells around Virginia, who demands her attention and love. Always.

A few letters, telegrams, and postcards from their circle of friends —a close-knit group of artists, writers, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Set— add other perspectives to the sisters’ story. I particularly liked the portrayal of writer Lytton Strachey whose flowery, lively letters to Virginia’s future husband gave us a keener understanding of the lesser-known Stephen sister:

“Vanessa is an ocean of majestic calm even if she does not know it. Virginia envies her sister’s deeply anchored moorings. Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us seem to flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.”

Vanessa_Cover

I read the Kindle edition. Although gorgeous, the font of some of the letters and telegrams were small and more difficult to read.

At times, Vanessa’s narrative becomes overwhelmed with intricate dialogue and historical explanations (like: “unmarried ladies like Irene have their breakfast in the dining room”).  In such instances, we lose the feel of reading an old, intimate journal. When immersed in an epistolary novel, the readers should always feel like they are sneaking glimpses into real documents. I felt pulled out of the story when the journal entries no longer felt authentic.

Overall, I enjoyed Vanessa and Her Sister. The love and conflict felt real, and Parmar brought a past era to life. The reading experience made me even more curious about Vanessa Bell and her art. I now look forward to the three-part BBC series Life in Squares about the two sisters, to air in 2015.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*