Book Snap #125

Title: Our Missing Hearts

Author: Celeste Ng

Date Read: January 12, 2023

Two snaps!

Snapshot of the book

Bird is a twelve year old boy living in a new town, in a small apartment, with his father– a clear departure from his childhood home where he remembers his mother tending her gardens and sharing folk stories with him; a happier time when his family was together. Since her mysterious and abrupt departure, he is coached by his father to simply forget her: her belongings removed, traces of her life with them erased, even his memories of her become elusive. The nickname she fought for him to have, Bird, is forbidden in favor of a return to his given name, Noah. So, when a letter arrives addressed to Bird, postmarked from New York, he knows his mother is reaching across her exile to contact him.

We are transported to a world in which neighbours are encouraged to call out the unpatriotic actions of those they interact with under the guise of a policy called PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act). PACT outlaws the promotion of un-American values and behaviour; requires citizens to report potential threats; and protects children from environments espousing harmful views. The racist (veiled as patriotic) throughline of the book is so hauntingly familiar that I had to pause and look up whether PACT was something that had actually been a policy in the United States, it rang as entirely plausible, I wondered at how I could have missed it.

I mean, this is the water we are swimming in: shortly after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act; which, although it does not directly advocate the use of racial profiling and discrimination, legitimizes and creates a surveillance society in which people hold their neighbors under suspicion. Further, while United States immigration law allows people who are fleeing violence and persecution to request asylum at or near the border; under President Trump the United States intentionally separated children from their parents to deter families from exercising this right. Moreover, Trump’s blatant racist views emboldened MAGA followers to act on their own racism in a multitude of forms during his candidacy and presidency. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, during a period of conservative revival in the United States which posed a very real threat to the developments of women’s rights (a torch recently picked up again by Republicans). Atwood has always contended that there was nothing in her fictional Gilead that hadn’t already happened. Likewise, Ng sets up a fictional United States in which Persons of Asian Origin are profiled, surveilled, targeted for racist abuse and mistreatment and deemed unfit to parent their own children.

Our Missing Hearts is a counter-cry to PACT, a snippet conceived by Bird’s mother, Margaret, in a poem she wrote. He finds the words written on slips of paper, spray-painted in graffiti near the subway, and published in the book his friend Sadie procures to convince him his mother is a hero.

Bird is determined to solve the riddle she has sent him, he knows it will lead him back to her– he is her missing heart. While remembering the fairy tales of his youth to make sense of her cryptic message he discovers a rogue group of librarians who pass information through the stacks in an effort to reconnect families. Our Missing Hearts is a gripping and heart-wrenching tale of love, prejudice, bravery, and connection. Ng’s writing is beautiful, worth every minute you spend reading it.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

There are a few ways this book could be positioned in a high school classroom. First, to examine with Ng the racist world she creates, drawing the parallels to our own current culture. As Ng writes in the Author’s Note: “it isn’t exactly our world, but it isn’t not ours, either.” This would be an excellent shared read for the discussions it could provoke.

Second, Ng does not use quotation marks for dialogue in the novel, which opens up a writer’s craft discussion as well. All writers make choices– it is then up to readers to decide to what effect. It bothered me at first, but I came to accept it– the writing was clear and I followed conversations without the help of quotation marks. In an interview, Ng explained her choice like this: “I wanted the novel to feel slightly folkloric, almost dreamlike; for Bird, the events feel a little bit like stepping into a fairytale, one of the stories his mother told him when he was young. When you think of a story being told out loud, the way folktales often are, the voice of the person telling it and the voices of the characters kind of merge, if that makes sense. There’s a blurring between the person narrating, and the words of the story, and the things the characters say. So, removing the quotation marks helped create that effect for the reader. Instead of a clear, formal, writerly quotation mark, neatly marking off what’s dialogue and what’s narration, it blends a little.” (Penn, F. 2022).

Snapshot of the book in my life

The power of the love for your child– that is what resonates. Having children just puts the whole world into perspective. Becoming a mother wasn’t easy for me, but being one is the most wonderful, challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done. My love for him is infinite, intense and affirming. I do not want to know the pain of losing a child, but I am wholly empathetic to the parents who have found themselves broken and empty from their missing hearts. I cannot imagine a worse pain.

Book Snap #120

Title: What We Both Know

Author: Fawn Parker

Date Read: January 6, 2023

One and half snaps.

Snapshot of the book

Books as gifts are always delightful, providing a sort of innocuous blind-date excitement. Took this gem along as a roadtrip companion and I really enjoyed it. I was delighted to discover that Fawn Parker is a Canadian writer who splits her time in homes in both Toronto and my city, Fredericton.

Parker tells the story of Hillary Greene : a thirty-something urbanite who leaves her apartment in Toronto and her job at the university (a job she admits to acquiring through nepotism: they rather wanted her famous father to stay on, but upon his retirement the job dutifully became hers)– to live instead in her childhood home, caring for her father as his dementia requires. Besides boiling eggs to his liking, taking him to the market, or to his childhood home for a peculiar visit; she must also write his memoir. A tell-all he’s promised his publisher but cannot write himself. Hillary must sift through his scrambled notes; revisit her own experiences of her parent’s marriage and divorce; and unravel her sister’s suicide to decode how to tell his story– and whose version of it.

The author begins with the following note to readers: this book includes depections of animal death, child abuse (emotional and sexual), self-harm and suicide.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

I might offer the first paragraph as a Writer’s Notebook passage study, it is such an odd opening, but the explicit detail about how exacting her father is in the tasks she must complete for him is also part of her character building.

The egg is boiled until firm. Rubbery outside and chalky in the middle, a moment before it might form a dark silvery ring around the yolk. The yolk will be removed, a soft almost-sphere, the white disgarded. The egg is boiled on high heat for ten minutes, removed, placed on a paper towel, cooled. A crack is made against the counter, the shell chipped away into the damp paper towel which is bunched then placed in the trash. (p.1)

The passage not only creates a keen sense of sight imagery around the egg; but also is a type of process-writing: a description of steps to follow that could easily be played with in our writer’s notebook. Steps are described, the writer doesn’t offer a numbered list as we are used to, but instead makes clear in prose the order and precise actions of each step. Even the most mundane task can be written about playfully and with skill.

Snapshot of the book in my life

When Hillary has to take a meeting with her father’s publisher to update on his progress on his memoir (which she is in fact writing, not him), she tells him:

“I only worry I will regret what I write,” I say.

“When a person does something they regret it’s because they don’t know who they are,” he says. (p.163).

As I age, I am getting more sure of who I am, what’s truly important to me, and what I value. It is a wonderful gift. Knowing who you are will hugely improve your life.

Book Snap #118

Title: The Winners

Author: Fredrik Backman

Date Read: November 18, 2022

Two Snaps!

I love all of the books by Swedish-author Fredrik Backman, and this one, the third in the Beartown trilogy, is absolutely no exception. (You can see my book snap reviews of the two others in the trilogy: Bear Town and Us Against You in these links.) HBO has also produced a TV series called Beartown based on the novel.

Trigger warning: there are themes of sexual violence that run throughout the trilogy.

Beartown is a tiny town in the woods where hockey reigns supreme. It is the focal point of the rivalry with the neighboring town of Hed and the reason that people with everything in common just can’t get along.

Benji and Kevin were best friends and teammates, but when Kevin rapes Maya Andersson, the Beartown Hockey General Manager’s daughter, it is too much for both Maya and Benji to bear. After two years away, we take up their stories upon their return home.

A terrible storm tears through the forest and puts the residents of Hed and Beartown together in a series of events that will see them test the price of their loyalties, examine their prejudices, and rethink what it all means.

“We will be stuck in the nightmare forever. We are a people who tell stories, who try to use stories to put what we have experienced into some sort of context, to explain what we have been fighting about in the hope that it will excuse what we have done. But stories reveal both the very best of us and the very worst, and can one ever outweigh the other? Are our triumphs greater than our mistakes? What are we responsible for? What are we guilty of? Can we look ourselves in the mirror tomorrow? Can we look each other in the eye?”

Join Fredrik Backman in Beartown. Because truly, it is the same everywhere: almost everyone loves too much, hates too easily, and forgives too little. “But most people want the same: to live in peace, to let your heart beat a little more slowly when night comes, to earn a bit of money to support the ones you love.”

Book Snap #117

Title: Carrie Soto is Back

Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid

Date Read: November 7, 2022

Two Snaps!

A fun inagural read for my book club full of fantastic women with whom I love to read! We had a great discussion about Carrie, tennis, and one of our favorite writers, Taylor Jenkins Reid.

At first, I ignored this book because I didn’t think I knew enough about tennis to enjoy it. But Jenkins Reid gives a fast-paced tutorial on the game, in beautiful passages, which I am familiar with from her previous books which I have enjoyed, like Daisy Jones and The Six (look for the movie adaptation in theatres soon!) and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

Did you know Wimbeldon is a grass court, while the Australian Open in Melbourne is played on clay? Do you know what that means to a tennis player? “Clay surfaces are softer; they absorb more of the power of the ball. Which means everything about them is slower, and the ball bounces higher too, which gives my opponents more time to recat to my shots. Clay cuts into my advantage at almost every juncture.” (Jenkins Reid, 163).

I began to understand the way tennis is scored and played.

“She tosses the ball into the air and serves to the far-right edge of the box. I hit a groundstroke back. We rally for the point, and I take it. Love-15.

Another serve, another rally. My point. Love- 30.

I look up at my father and see a small smile on his lips.

Cortez serves again, this time shorter, tighter. I hit to the baseline. She hits it back soft. I win the point. Love-40. I’m already at break point in the first game. ” (Jenkins Reid, 151).

And, as art often imitates life, the two lead characters: Carrrie and Bowe evoke tennis players that I know only from their celebrity. Carrie is determined, tough and confident– a multiple Grand Slam winner. It would be impossible not to draw parallels to Serena Williams, twenty-three-time Grand Slam title winner coached from an early age by her parents. Likewise, it is Carrie’s father, a former tennis pro who dedicates himself to building a pro out of Carrie. Meanwhile, it was hard not to think of John McEnroe while reading of Carrie’s male tennis partner, Bowe Huntley, who Carrie’s father describes as “a walking tantrum.”

A story telling device employed brilliantly by Jenkins Reid is to intersperse the narrative story with statements made in the press; newspaper articles; and transcripts from sports television commentary. This allows us to hear the public narrative around her comeback to the game, six years post-retirement, to defeat Nikki Chan and reclaim her titles.

Evans: Can the Battle Axe still compete in today’s game?

Wallace: We will see. There’s something else here that I think is important to note.

Evans: And what is that?

Wallace: Soto isn’t just playing an old style– she herself is old. No woman has won a Slam in her late thirties.

Evans: And here is another question: Do we even want her back? She’s not the most… well-liked, is she?

Wallace: Well, they don’t call her the Battle Axe for nothing.”

(from Transcript: Sports News Network, Wild Sports with Bill Evans, October 12, 1994, p. 93).

Carrie Soto is 37 as she comes out of retirement in 1995 to play all four Grand Slam events, television hosts and journalists alike continue to mock Carrie for being too old to play. Interestingly, Martina Navratilova won numerous Grand Slam mixed doubles titles after turning 40. In fact, she collected her final mixed doubles major at the 2006 US Open, just a few weeks before her 50th birthday; Serena Williams won 10 majors after turning 30 and Serena was 36 years old when she returned to the tour after giving birth to her first child, Olympia. So there, it is all possible in real life too!

Carrie doesn’t talk and joke around. She is unflinchingly and singularily focused on being the best.

“The morning of my first match on the Virgina Slims Tour, my father gave me a pep talk before I went in to the locker rooms. “You can talk and joke around with the other players if you have to,” he said, “but remember they are not your friends, they are your…”


“Opponents” he said.

“Same thing,” I said.

Carrie Soto is back: and she is determined to show everyone that she is the best. No apologies: just grit, hardwork and self sacrifice– but also acute vulnerability and heart. Another great read from Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Book Snap #115

Title: Lessons in Chemistry

Author: Bonnie Garmus

Date Read: July 29, 2022

Two Feminist Snaps!

Special thanks to my cousin, Susan, for passing this gem along!

I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the characters in this book, and I learned some more chemistry along the way as well! “That brings us to the third bond,” Elizabeth said, pointing at another set of molecules, “the hydrogen bond-– the most fragile, delicate bond of all. I call this the ‘love at first sight’ bond because both parties are drawn to each other based solely on visual information: you like his smile, he likes your hair. But then you talk and discover he’s a closet Nazi and thinks women complain too much. Poof. Just like that the delicate bond is broken. That’s the hydrogen bond for you, ladies– a chemical reminder that if things seem too good to be true, they probably are.”

Elizabeth Zott is a wonderfully appealing heroine; a talented and intelligent chemist sidelined by the misogynist and patriarchal limits of the 1960s culture in which she resides. As she explains: “…we’re by-products of our upbringings, victims of our lackluster educational systems, and choosers of our behaviors. In short, the reduction of women to something less than men, and the elevation of men to something more than women, is not biological: it’s cultural. And it starts with two words: pink and blue. Everything skyrockets out of control from there.”

But Elizabeth is too unflinchingly self-aware to let others, especially sub-par male chemists, hold her back. After being fired from her research position, she is depressed and desperate– and she unwittingly becomes the host of a television cooking show, Supper at Six.

Elizabeth is a remarkable feminist icon who would likely eschew the title. Transitioning from chemist to cooking show host– she defiantly swaps out the stock kitchen curios of the TV set for a streamlined lab in which to perform the chemistry of cooking. Listen in: “After you’ve rubbed the steak with a halved clove of fresh garlic… sprinkle both sides of the meat with sodium chloride and piperine. Then, when you notice the butter foaming” — she pointed to a hot cast-iron skillet — “place the steak in the pan. Be sure and wait until the butter foams. Foam indicates that the butter’s water content has boiled away. This is critical. Because now the steak can cook in lipids rather than absorb H20.”

In the novel, Zott’s TV cooking show has a powerful effect on her audience. She treats cooking as a chemistry, which of course it is, and gives her viewers instructions like: “combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride.” She is not only teaching women to cook, she is encouraging them to take control of their lives. So before her tag line sign off, “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself!” Zott offers a thirty-minute, five-day-a-week lesson in life. And not in who we are or what we’re made of, but rather, who we’re capable of becoming:

“Whenever you feel afraid, just remember. Courage is the root of change – and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonhole you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what YOU will change. And then get started.”

Grab this one, you’ll love it.