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 #69

Title: Frankly in Love

Author: David Yoon

Date Read: December 14, 2019

One snap.

It’s a saccharine sweet love story; wildly predictable; and short on captivating writing.

But, it is told from a point of view and about characters that are rarely centrepieces in teen romantic fiction. The main character is a Korean American young man, a Limbo, he calls himself– straddling the customs, traditions and languages of the two cultures he inhabits. His parents would prefer he “date Korean” and this poses the obstacle and underpinning of the story’s plot. From there, it is a sweet boy meets girl story with a calculable twist.

Not my favourite YA novel, but it wins for bringing racial characters and intersecting racial issues to the forefront.

Book Snap #68

Title: How to Make Friends with the Dark

Author: Kathleen Glasgow

Date Read: November 11, 2019

Two snaps!

This is the first of five YA reads in a Book Relay I am participating in. Our Literacy Lead never lets us down when she recommends titles, and this is no exception.

Tiger Tolliver is dealing with grief. A hollowing out, a grief she is totally unprepared for. And now, there is life before it happened; after it happened; and maybe, there will be now— if, she can make friends with the dark.

Glasgow rendered me to tears– for the feelings I have felt and processed in losing people throughout my life; to the promises I make to my own son, like June Tolliver did: [that]”I’ll always be here. I’ll never leave you.”

For kids that need it and are ready for it– Glasgow tries to make sense of the loss she felt in her own life losing her mother, through the character of Tiger. Tiger switches between telling her story in first person, and then on several chapter openings, she switches to a second-person account, telling the reader: “Here are the things you think about when your mother dies.” In this way, Glasgow forces the reader to imagine himself or herself as part of the experience. Tiger’s grief is immense and heavy, you cannot escape; but you may learn to understand, to empathize, to make sense of the raw feeling of this profound loss.

“I feel the way characters do in fantasy books and movies. Like when tremendously powerful forces move through them. Like, giant lightening storms or thunder clouds of electricity or power, or something like that, whips through the person, momentarily paralyzing them, and then when it’s done, they fall to the ground, hollowed out, and usually another character rushes in to find them, and picks them up, and takes care of them, and looks all around, like, What the hay just happened?

That is happening to me.

Glasgow, p.400-401

An excellent read. Definitely put it on a classroom shelf, there very well may be someone who needs this book.

Book Snap #67

Title: Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Author: Trevor Noah

Date Read: October 27, 2019

Two snaps!

I think Trevor Noah is a brilliantly witty and savvy political analyst. I think he does outstanding work as the host of The Daily Show. When I saw his memoir, I knew I wanted to read it– but it was the title that truly caught my eye.

Noah grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He writes: “…which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family. My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black. My father, Robert, is white. Swiss/ German, to be precise, which Swiss/ Germans invariably are. During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime.” (Noah, 21).

Noah’s memoir is written the way you would expect– in a way that helps you make sense of complicated issues, like apartheid; race relations; poverty; domestic abuse– but also with his irreverent sense of humour and masterful wit.

Through his memoir Noah reveals an origin story that is thoughtful, educational, alarming, and wonderfully comedic. His relationship with his mother reveals a complicated and enduring connection between a woman that refused to let racism, apartheid, or rules of any kind guide her life, her love, or her decisions. I fell in love with Trevor’s mother, you will too. It says it all in his dedication: “For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man.”

Here is an excerpt from his opening chapter:

Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.

I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday…

excerpt from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (p.5).

I loved this memoir for the stories and their wit; but mostly for the illuminating education and analysis of apartheid and the entrenched racism of South Africa. Noah writes: “Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time.”

Book Snap #66

Title: People Kill People

Author: Ellen Hopkins

Date Read: October 14, 2019

Two snaps!

Ellen Hopkins does not shy away from tough topics– and she delivers them to a dedicated YA audience that embraces her use of both poetry and prose to tell her stories.

In People Kill People, Hopkins tackles the American gun violence epidemic. Through the stories of six teenagers; readers are invited to walk in the character’s shoes and make sense of the reason as why they might be compelled to pull the trigger. Someone will die, she tells us, but who?

Excerpt from Ellen Hopkins novel, People Kill People

People kill people. Guns just make it easier. Highly recommend this read for YA and beyond.

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 #64

Title: Scythe

Author: Neal Schusterman

Date Read: September 22, 2019

Two snaps!

This is a compelling and riveting YA novel set far in the future. A future in which all disease has been cured, and humans live forever. Except for a few, here and there, who are “gleaned” by a sanctioned group of Scythes who are able to permanently take the lives of people to control earth’s population.

Becoming a Scythe is an arduous process that is closely monitored and governed by a conclave of eternal Scythes who occasionally take on apprentices and welcome them into this elite group of killers.

Neither Citra nor Rowan wanted to become Scythes, but they find themselves as apprentices and then suddenly, pitted against each other in a contest that will prove fatal to one of them.

Shusterman envisions a plausible and complicated future and offers up lots of exciting adventure for his characters! This is a great read, and the first arc in a championed trilogy.

Book Snap #63

Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Date Read: September 7, 2019

One and a half snaps!

I’ll admit, this one took me two tries. The first time I gave up much too easily. I picked it up again with the intention of finishing, and I am glad I did.

Harari gives a whirlwind tour of how we have ended up as the singular species to survive over the last 100,000 years. That’s a lot of ground to cover! Stay with him, he is a reliable and skillful story teller. And our story is fascinating.

Throughout this examination of our battles for dominance and how we moved from foraging clans to defining ourselves as citizens of cities and kingdoms, Harari also questions how it is that we came to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism. And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.” 

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

It will challenge your thinking about what you know about Sapiens and give you much to ponder. A worthwhile read.

Book Snap #62

Title: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

Author: Ben Philippe

Date Read: August 19, 2019

Two snaps!

Norris Caplan is the son of Haitian parents, living in Montreal and loving Canadian things like hockey, specifically the Montreal Canadiens. But now his parents are moving– his dad to Vancouver with his new wife and baby; and he, with his mother, for her new job in Austin, Texas.

Norris feels extremely out of place as a black French Canadian in the heartland of football and high school tropes straight from a teen movie. Spending most of his lunch hours alone, he walks the campus cataloguing the people he observes: jocks, cheerleaders, loners, and even his dream girl. He figures his notebook will be plenty of company until he can finally return to Canada where he belongs. Much to his surprise he actually makes friends, good ones. And he realizes he may have been rash and unfair in the judgements he scrawled in his notebook.

But what happens when someone else sees his notebook?

This book is witty, honest and fun to read. Phillipe’s use of the field guide format is a unique way to open his chapters, I got a kick out of it– I bet you will too!

Here are the openers to the first few chapters: