Book Snap #72

Title: All Families are Psychotic

Author: Douglas Coupland

Date Read: December 29, 2019

Two snaps.

If you’ve read Coupland’s work before (Generation X, Shampoo Planet, The Gum Thief, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradumus!... ) then you are prepared for the kind of whirlwind adventure Coupland has concocted for the Drummond family. Otherwise, leave your Rockwellian ideals of family reunions aside and take consolation that your family is nowhere near as crazy as you first thought.

The family reunites to mark the important event of their daughter and sister, Sarah Drummond, about to launch in to space. The Drummond family then haphazardly reveal their multitude of psychoses to everyone around them as they count the days to take off at Cape Caneveral.

They stumble through kidnapping, blackmail, gunplay, and black market negotiations; but even as their lives spin wildly off their axis– we also see the tender relationships, the humanity, and kindness of these flawed characters as they mend and repair and build each other up.

The Drummonds are psychotic– but their madness is a foundation for deep love and compassion as they handle the real issues of our time.

Book Snap #71

Title: The Only Story

Author: Julian Barnes

Date Read: December 16, 2019

Two snaps.

What a messy love story.

He, 19. She is married and 43, but a chance coupling on the tennis courts sparks the connection that weaves them inextricably together over decades.

A rambling, stream of consciousness narrative takes us back through the ages, the choices, the thrills of turning heads in a society that whispered and snubbed them– and well ahead in to the future and the regrets, the complications and the misgivings.

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Read about other of Chapters/Indigo’s CEO, Heather Reisman’s picks, or Heather’s Picks!

Book Snap #70

Title: A Spark of Light

Author: Jodi Picoult

Date Read: December 23, 2019

Two snaps.

I dismissed Jodi Picoult out of hand in the past. But by relinquishing whatever pretences I had about Picoult, I have been pleasantly surprised with her work. I wrote about House Rules (here), and Small Great Things (here) and I am equally impressed with this loan, A Spark of Light.

In this novel, she tackles the abortion debate.

Innocently enough, Wren asks her aunt to take her to the clinic to get a prescription for birth control. Unfortunately, it is also the day that a gunman takes aim at the clinic, and everyone inside. Wren is caught in the cross fire, and her dad, Hugh McElroy is the hostage negotiator at the scene.

The narrative unravels in reverse, as we see hour by hour how everyone has found themselves in the clinic– revealing the layered and complicated stories of the women and the doctors and nurses. This cast of characters open the spectrum of choices and views around this debate and unravels the nuances of women’s healthcare, reproductive choices and the laws that keep womens’ bodies in check.

A worthy read.

Book Snap #65

Title: The Testaments

Author: Margaret Atwood

Date Read: October 5, 2019

Two snaps!

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote in a scholarly essay a powerful metaphor for books:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

This metaphor speaks to me so deeply. I often ask my students about the books that they have read and when they have found windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors. These can be fascinating and illuminating conversations.

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was seventeen years old. It was a terrifying plot that offered no hope to a young teen about to head off to university the following fall. I accepted that this book was only a window, even a sliding-glass door, into a world that Atwood had created– absolute fiction, not possible, especially not in my lifetime. (Read this timely essay by Atwood about the novel in the time of Trump.)

I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale last summer, and it suddenly looked much more like a mirror. The book, if you are unfamiliar, is classified as a dystopian novel set in a totalitarian regime called Gilead, and centers around a handmaid named Offred. Her name derives from the possessive form “of Fred”; handmaids are forbidden to use their birth names and must echo the male, or master, whom they serve. The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women attempt to gain individuality and independence.

Many of the central plots of the novel are playing out simultaneously on the news. The book no longer seems fictional.

Women, and their bodies, are the objects of men in the book; likewise, in today’s political climate, rights over women’s bodies are argued over by (primarily) old, white men in government. Gilead came to be because the government instilled a fear of “others” in the masses. The same is now happening in much of the world. Aunt Lydia, the woman tasked with brainwashing the future Handmaids to perform their government-ordained duties, repeats part of a Bible verse to them over and over: “Blessed are the meek.” Offred points out that she never finishes the verse: “…for they shall inherit the earth.” Although not officially government-ordained, much of the opposition to homosexuality that exists in the world today — and especially in America— is supported by certain Bible passages. In Gilead, women are brainwashed to believe that any sexual assault they may have experienced was their own fault; a result of their dressing or acting a certain way. When female survivors of sexual assault attempt to report their attacks, now, in real life, more often than not they are questioned about what they were wearing or how much they drank.

The Testaments picks up fifteen years later in Gilead. One of the key players is Aunt Lydia– who tells the story of how she became a high ranking aunt and what she is prepared to do with that power. We also get the stories of two new young women: Agnes, who has grown up in Gilead and is preparing to be married to the Commander; and Daisy, a young woman who was smuggled out of Gilead and into Canada. It is a thrilling exploration of Gilead from within and outside of its borders, one many readers have long awaited. It is also immensely more hopeful, and in that way, it rests easier to be a mirror of our experiences. If you were left bereft as the van door slammed on Offred, pick up The Testaments and go back to Gilead with Margaret Atwood.

Book Snap #60

Title: The Winemaker’s Wife

Author: Kristin Harmel

Date Read: August 5, 2019

One and a half snaps

This was a lovely surprise, a gift from my dad. I’ll savour a glass of bubbly in a whole new way now!

This unique historical fiction tells the true story of the secrets held in the caves of the Champagne region in France. The winemakers of this region endured immense hardship both to keep the grapes and barrels producing some of the world’s finest champagne while also sending messages to the Allies, protecting Jewish refugees, and storing and supplying guns and munitions to the renegades who worked against the Nazis in World War Two.

This multi-layered story skips back and forth between World War Two and present day to unravel the story of Edith Thiery, and her granddaughter, Olivia. Secrets abound and reveal a beautiful story of trying to do what is right in the face of everything being wrong.

Book Snap #58

Title: Bina

Author: Anakana Schofield

Date Read: July 31, 2019

Oh snap!

I thought the structure of this novel seemed compelling; there was a mixture of what looked like poetry, lists, and prose. It is introduced as a novel written in warnings, scrabbled words on the backs of envelopes from a woman who has had enough. It grew old quickly.

Although true to the character Schofield has imagined, I found Bina’s repetitive ramblings tiresome. There is a good story there– but I felt like it wound around itself over and over and nothing new was ever really revealed.

There are no bad books… only books that haven’t found the right reader. I was not the right reader for Bina.

Book Snap #57

Title: Where The Crawdads Sing

Author: Delia Owens

Date Read: July 19, 2019

Two snaps!

This New York Times Best Seller came highly recommended by friends who had read it, and it did not disappoint!

Owens writes in an elegant prose that transports you to the North Carolina marshlands and surrounds you with the sights and sounds of the southeastern United States. A wildlife scientist herself, Owens layers her tale with precise and deliberate descriptions of nature unfolding through seasons and landscapes.

“And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.”

(Owens, p. 124)

This is a compelling and heart-wrenching coming-of-age story. The central character, Kya, is as complex as she is misunderstood. Kya, or “The Marsh Girl” as she is known by the townspeople who shun, ridicule and exclude her, is hauntingly alone but resolutely determined. She navigates heartbreak, questions how to trust others, and struggles to make sense of how to know and understand love. Interspersed within this beautiful narrative an engrossing murder mystery unravels as we flash back and forward through Kya’s life, wondering at the threads of who might have killed Chase, the town’s handsome quarterback.

This book has it all: a tumultuous family upheaval; a beautiful love story; a fascinating murder mystery, a courtroom drama reminiscent of Atticus Finch, and ethereal prose. An absolute must-read.

Book Snap #52

Title: The Sentence is Death

Author: Anthony Horowitz

Date Read: July 1, 2019

One and a half snaps

I don’t usually go for who-dunnits, but I am trying to explore different genres in my reading in order to better recommend titles to students.

Originally drawn in by the witty grammarian play on words in the title, I actually enjoyed trying to unravel this murder mystery alongside detective Daniel Hawthorne and his crime writing sidekick, Anthony Horowitz (our narrator).

A rich and elite lawyer, Richard Pryce, is found dead in his home, having been bashed over the head with a very expensive bottle of wine. While still on the phone with his partner the evening of his death, he opens the door to a guest and inquires, “it’s kind of late, isn’t it?” Who was the guest? The wine was a gift, but Richard himself didn’t drink. Oh, and the killer wrote 182 in large letters in green paint on his wall– what does it all mean?

There were many possible suspects– and I tried to narrow them down… but a great detective notices much more. A fun little read. See if you can figure out who killed Richard Pryce.

Book Snap #48

Title: Brother

Author: David Chariandy

Date Read: April 19, 2019

One and a half snaps.

Because life got busy, and I didn’t sit to write a reflection on this novel as soon as I should have, perhaps it isn’t getting the best review either. This is a second novel for David Chariandy, and was featured in this years’ selections for CBC’s Canada Reads.

A touching story of a family living in Scarborough in the 1990s. The teens; Michael and Vincent, face prejudice as brown boys in The Park. Vincent is shy, sensitive and over-protective of his mother; while Michael is hardened and resolved. Their over-worked mother does her best to scrape enough together to care for her teenage boys.

It is beautifully written prose and illuminates the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as immigrants.

A tragic shooting changes all of their lives irrevocably and packs the real emotional punch of the novel.

Book Snap #45

Title: Mrs. Fletcher

Author: Tom Perrota

Date read: March 5, 2019.

Two Snaps.

This was a great beach read!

It was light and funny and yet probing and cutting. Newly-divorced and on her own for the first time at 46, Eve is not sure who she is anymore. Her son is off to college and she seeks an identity that might fit her properly now. She gaffs and blunders in trying to make friends and to sort out her own sexuality. Meanwhile her son also struggles with what college sends his way and the kind of man he wants to be.