Category Archives: Canadian

78. All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

9780345808028After hearing many positive reviews (Globe Books and CBC Books), i thought that I would give this Canadian author another read.  Reading about the challenges growing up in a Mennonite community in A Complicated Kindness was not the most engaging read but with all the positive reviews, i picked up All My Puny Sorrows.  This book was not an uplifting choice to ring out 2014.  Although it is a fictional story, the author is said to have based much of the materials on her own experience of losing both her father and her beloved sister to suicide.  The topic is very serious in a time when mental health is a prime focus in health care.

The story is narrated by Yolanda (Yoli) and shares her experience growing up with her sister Elfrieda (Elf) in a Mennonite town in the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba.  Elf is the elder sibling, a talented pianist who struggled with happiness and was striving to end her suffering by ending her life.  After dealing with multiple hospitalizations and unsuccessful suicide attempts, Yoli took responsibility to try and keep Elf alive – flying back and forth from Toronto to Manitoba and trying to convince Elf that life was worth living.  While she acted as caregiver, Yoli struggled with her own life, leaving two teenage children at home, dealing with her divorce and sleeping with a man in each province.  It seemed that each family member in the story was dealing with their own challenges.

In the end, Elf was successful in her quest and the family had to learn to deal with her decisions and heal.  The book was serious and melancholic but not my best choice to end out the year.  It was a powerful and honest account of mental illness and the struggles that some families deal with but it was not inspiring and was not a book that I struggled to put down.  My heart goes out to the author who has clearly struggled with her own loss and hope that help is available for others going through similar situations.

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Filed under Canadian, CBC 100 Novels that Make You Proud to be Canadian, Fiction

75. Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

StationElevenHCUS2 At a time when influenza and flu shots are rampant in the news, Station Eleven seems like a plausible situation when a flu epidemic drastically changes the world.  It is set in multiple North American cities including Toronto and starts with the death of Arthur, a famous actor playing King Lear, in the Elgin Theatre.  At the same time, the Georgian flu attacks its victims quickly and with deadly consequences, leaving 99% of the population dead.

In a world devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity, cars and air travel, the novel follows the lives of individuals who had been connected to Arthur.   Kirsten, a child actress who had witnessed his death, survived and became a member of the Travelling Symphony.  This group hiked across the countryside playing music and acting out Shakespeare for those that remained, huddled into primitive communities fending for themselves.  Kirsten would scavenge abandoned homes, looking for remnants of Arthur including articles in old magazines.  Clark, an old friend, was part of a community that lived in an airport and started his own Museum of Civilization with artifacts such as iPhones and computers.  Arthur’s ex-wife Elizabeth and their son Tyler also survived and became part of a community.  These characters carried with them the memories of time with Arthur and eventually converged.

The novel makes the reader reflect on the possibilities of life as we know it changing so dramatically in the span of a couple of days. The characters lost many loved ones without a chance to say good bye.  They had to learn to live in a world free of the technology, walking for transportation and hunting for food. It is easy for the reader to picture the abandoned homes decaying as the natural world started to fill in around them.

“It’s surprising how quickly the condition of living out of a carry-on suitcase on a bench by a departure gate can begin to seem normal.”

The novel cuts back and forth between past and present.  As Arthur finally learns what is most important to him, his life is cut short without a chance to see his young son.  After his death, across the world, individuals have to focus on the basics of survival despite loss and dramatic life style changes.  This unique story is a timely one to read at the end of a year and makes one reflect on what is really important as we move into 2015.  Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian having grown up in British Columbia which is where Arthur had also spent his childhood.

“Time had been reset by catastrophe.”

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74. Mãn (Kim Thúy)

man-fall2014-thumb-175x272-377190After enjoying the novel Ru, I was very excited to read the next book by Kim Thúy which was translated from French to English.  The story alternates between Mãn’s early life as a child in Vietnam and her present life, as a wife and mother, in Montreal.  This Canadian author has shared that this is her most personal work to date.

“Mãn, which means “perfectly fulfilled,” or “may there be nothing left to desire,” or “may all wishes be granted.”

During the Vietnam War, Mãn follows her Maman during her work as a spy.  As she ages, she is married to a man and sent to live in Montreal.  Like her name, Mãn, lives a life of satisfaction.  The couple open and run a Vietnamese restaurant together.  This restaurant becomes very popular and patrons enjoy their daily specials which are reminiscent of their homeland.  Mãn enjoys the freedom of her life and cooking in Montreal but is trapped in her “satisfied” life – between her homeland where she would not longer fit in and her new life in Canada where her children are growing up.

The restaurant leads to the development of a cooking school and to a published cookbook.  Through her success, she travels and meets the love of her life in France.  Luc is a married, Vietnamese cook who shares her love of the special dishes of their childhood.  Again, Mãn lives in two words – between the steady life with her husband and children and the passionate love she feels for Luc, who has his own family.  While the relationship is gently shared, the reader wonders if her husband had any idea?

This is a thoughtful story built of short chapters which capture snippets of time and history.  The emotions and feelings are often described through the painstaking traditional dishes that Mãn takes time to make for others.  It is interesting to learn more about Vietnamese culture and food through her novel and although I enjoyed this story, I would recommend that others read Ru first.

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69. Lost in the Barrens (Farley Mowat)

200px-Lost_in_the_barrons_coverEsteemed Canadian author Farley Mowat died this past May, a few days before his 93rd birthday.  Having read Never Cry Wolf in grade 8, it was more than time to read another one of his many tales.   He was a respected environmentalist and was reported to have sold 17 million books, translated into 52 languages.

The book begins with Jamie, an orphaned teen, leaving Toronto to move in with his Uncle Angus who lived in the North.  His parents had been killed in a car accident and Jamie had been “living” in a boarding school before making his trek North.  After joining his uncle, he grew to love the North and became best friends with a Cree teenager named Awasin.

The Cree village has a visit from a Chippewan chief who reports that his tribe is starving.  The boys travel North to the barrens with the tribe and end up on a deer hunt.  During the trip, the boys are left to wait for the main hunting party and their curiosity gets the best of them.  They travel downriver searching for the Great Stone House and their canoe is ruined by rapids which nearly take their lives.  After this disaster, they become separated from the rest of the party and end up stranded in the dangerous barrens and on an adventure of their lives.

The boys are very industrious and prepare for the winter using knowledge that they combine from Jamie’s upbringing in Toronto and from Awasin’s Cree teachings.  They problem solve and learn from trial and error as they build a shelter, prepare food, sew warm clothing from skins which ensures a chance at their safety in the midst of the brutal winter weather.  They struggle against poaching wolverines, fight a bear and befriend two sled dogs who help lead to their rescue.  The boys work together, stay alive and eventually return back to their homes safely.

It is a story of two boys coming of age in the great Canadian North.  They must persevere and collaborate if they are to reach safety.  The text is beautifully written and portrays not only Canadian heritage but the vast land that we must appreciate.  This is a story that would be terrific in high school English  or history classes.

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Best Books for Gifts

Unknown-4As we get closer to Christmas, what are your favourite books that you would buy as a gift?  like for a gift? or have waiting on your nightstand for reading over the holidays?

I will start with my choices:

I would gift:  Girl Runner (Carrie Snyder), Where the Air is Sweet (Tasneem Jamal) or Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden) – these were all fantastic books that I read this year and all are Canadian authors.  I have recommended all these choices for Canada Reads.

I would like:  Boston Girl (Anita Diamont), the second book from the author of the Red Tent which was a book club read in November.

I would like to read:   Lost in the Barrens (Farley Mowat), Trust Inc:  52 Weeks of Activities and Inspirations for Building Workplace Trust (because my good friend Dominique O’Rourke is published in this book filled with inspirations from the “world’s leading experts”)

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Chris Hadfield – Book Signing: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

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After reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (click for review), I was very excited to join my friend Shalom to meet the retired astronaut and get our books signed.  The book (which I now feel a need to reread) is inspiring!  He shares his boyhood goal of walking on the moon and describes his hard work and persistence that helped him become Commander of the Space Station.

It was a long wait for the book signing as Chris got stuck in traffic related to the mudslide on the 403.  He was the passenger and tweeted his progress.  He even had a live chat with the couple across from us and their children were awestruck that they were speaking to an astronaut.  The individuals in the line up were excited, children were dressed in space suits and people were very patient.  Costco handed out chocolates and water to help with the wait.

Finally, Chris arrived at Costco to hundreds of waiting fans.  He was gracious and not only apologized to the crowd but reassured everyone that he would stay and make sure that everyone had their books signed.  The store closed, the lights dimmed and still books were signed.  Chris shook our hands and apologized to everyone individually for the delays.  It was an honour to meet him and I am very happy to have a signed copy of his book!

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60. Girl Runner (Carrie Snyder)

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Reading this book was a treat after meeting the author Carrie Snyder last Thursday, at the Hamilton Author Series event, in Dundas.  Listening to the beautiful prose being read by the author, was an engaging sneak peak into this book.  As I started to read, I could hear the authors gentle voice almost reading the words in my mind.

“All my life I’ve been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer.  In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist.  It is far too late to stop, even if I run in my mind only, out of habit”

The book tells the tale of 104 year old, Aganetha Smart, who reflects back on her experiences including her success as a long distance runner.  She sets out on a journey of remembrance, leaving the institution, escaping her lonely life where she lives wheelchair bound and dependent on others.  An unknown, young couple visits and takes her on an outing.  Despite not being sure who they are, Aganetha does not protest leaving with them.  As they travel in the car,  she remembers a lifetime ago when she was young on the farm, when she was an Olympic Gold Medalist and when she lived in Toronto.  She reflects on the lives that touched hers and were lost as, “my achievement is to have lived long enough to see my life vanish” 

Although fictional, the story was based on actual events.  While the author created the character of Aganetha some the events in the story were based on historical events.  There had been an Olympic 800 metre event.  The distance was later reduced to 200 metres to safeguard against the frailty of women and to ensure no harm to reproductive organs.  It is hard to believe that the 800 metre event was not reinstated until the 1960’s although I do remember being unable to participate in the triple jump in the early 1980’s for fear of reproductive issues!

The story takes place in both rural Ontario and the big city of Toronto.  I always enjoy reading about familiar landmarks as it gives context to the descriptions in the book.  It is easy for the reader to picture the farm, the family graveyard and the field surrounding it while imagining the loss and life of the Smart family.  The dichotomy between the simple, rural lifestyle on the farm and sister’s time working in factories in Toronto added interest when Aganetha moved to Toronto and started running with the track team.

As Aganetha describes her family, the reader begins to understand the complexity of her life.  Although she had accomplished a great feat as an athlete, she had experienced loss, love and heartache as she “… outlived everyone I’ve ever loved, and everyone who ever loved me.”

This was a beautifully written novel, written by a local author.  It is unfortunate that there is not more attention to Canadian authors.  This novel belongs on the CBC 100 Novels that Make You Proud to be a Canadian list along with Where the Air is Sweet  (Tasneem Jamal). I look forward to reading more fiction by Carrie Snyder and hope that she will consider narrating an audio version of her tale.

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42. Making Bombs for Hitler (Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch)

Unknown-7After attending the book launch (see previous blog post), Erin and I were inspired to read a selection of Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s books. We took turns finishing this novel during our holidays. In this companion book, a prequel to Stolen Child (#38), the reader understands what happened to the sister left behind.

Lida was sentenced to a work camp. She lied about her age, avoiding death in a “hospital” only to work long hours first in the laundry and subsequently doing the risky and delicate work of building bombs. Like her other novels, this novel teaches us part of the terrible history of WW2 and is a story of compassion, caring and hope as a group of children look out for each other in order to survive.

It is hard to believe that humans could treat others so terribly. It seems impossible that these actions (and worse) occurred in the last hundred years. This is another story that needed to be told and should be read by students everywhere!

(186 pages)

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40. The Dance of the Banished (Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch)

Dance-of-the-Banished  Following the launch of this terrific book last week (see post below), I devoured it as we relaxed beneath the trees on a campsite at the Pinery. Similar to this author’s previous novels, this story wove together history and a compelling story of injustice, hope and tenacity to survive in terrible conditions. This book also had a Brantford connection, which is a treat to read! 

This novel, Forchuk Skrypuch’s fifth book about the Armenian genocide, alternates between Ali and Zeynep who are writing in journals to each other during their separation. Ali leaves Anatolia to find a better life in Canada, settling in Brantford and working in a foundry. He ends up placed in an internment camp in Northern Ontario after being identified as the very people he was fleeing from. Zeynep remains behind waiting to join him, living with missionaries and helping at the hospital. During this time, the Young Turks were working to extinguish the Christian Armenians by killing the men and forcing the women and children to march through the desert, starving to their deaths. Zeynep continues to write in her journal, writing at the American consulate office, as the  importance of her journal and the documentation of these terrible crimes has been recognized.

Both Ali and Zeynep show incredible bravery and compassion as they help others avoid persecution. The author shared that while the book is fiction, “every single thing in my book happened”. This book is important to read and as Zeynep says,
“what I have witnessed is evidence of a terrible crime and the world must know about it, because, he says, that what we forget, we are bound to repeat”.

(231 pages)

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33. Where the Air is Sweet: A Novel (Tasneem Jamal)

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Where the Air is Sweet is the best book that I have read this summer! It was highly recommended by a friend/colleague who is related to the author.   This amazing story was written by Jamal, a Canadian who lives in Kitchener and emigrated from Uganda in 1975. As an avid reader, it was hard to put this riveting book down. I eagerly started the book after dinner, loving the rough finish of the pages, and was finished by this morning. I hope that this is only the first of a series of novels written by Jamal, as I want to read more about the experience of the family as they make their life in Canada.

The story described, in beautiful and flowing prose, an Indian family who made Uganda their home. The patriarch of the family had moved to the African country as a young man, sending money home to his mother. As he built his business, he grew his family. It was not easy life and as the family grew, the unrest in Uganda became untenable. The novel juxtaposed the violent history of Uganda with the generations of the family, living together and caring for each other.

When the Asian family was forced out of Uganda, their tumultuous path to Canada was anything but smooth and the reader can feel the uncertainty, fear and indecision of the characters as they try and do what is best for their family. It is hard to imagine, parents forced to make such difficult decisions to make a better life for their children but this likely highlights the experience of many who immigrate to Canada.

This is an important book for all Canadians to read and highlights the strength, tenacity and hope of those leaving their home countries to make a life in Canada. This would be an excellent book to add to the high school curriculum. All Canadians should understand the determination and courage it takes to leave your home and start a new life!

(365 pages)

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