Category Archives: Book Reviews

Poem of the Week: What Happened Here? by Petra Morin (my sister!)

What Happened Here………..?

Windows covered, rotting roof,

Unkempt garden, is this proof

Or maybe not, it’s hard to know

The broken windows…it puzzles me so.

Who once walked the path out back?

Where are the children, what did they lack…

Is it a story of heartbreak and pain…

Somehow it doesn’t look like there was anything to gain.

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Lonely numbers, boarded doors

Was there ever happiness walking across these floors?

I hope that perhaps one lonely soul

Made it out into the world and achieved some unattainable goals……

 

Thanks to Petra for submitting her poem!

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Poem of the Week: Midwest Boys by Betsy Brown via Alison McGhee

Midwest Boys, by Betsy Brown

In Oshkosh, Wisconsin,
we kept it in mind
I-41 went clear down

to Florida. These scoop-necked
midsized midwestern
towns, set up separate originally

on waterways for trading–
first furs, then lumber,
the worker drinkers

voiceless then fierce
for the hell of it, tense
machinery, construction.

As a teenager you noted
mainly the routes out.
Spring, the dead mud,

the bad paint job, drifting jarred
eaves troughs, sullen pickup
sunk to its axles on the lawn.

A boy’s mind turns to the road.
Tract houses, one, one,
all along the frontage road

with tequila and Old Style, pot,
cheap speed; if you’re
a girl you try to remember:

They shoved candlesticks
up Linda. They drew on her
with her Bonne Bell.

If you pass out
they’ll strip you,
you won’t know

and if you’re lucky only
photograph you. These pictures
show up on bulletin boards.

In Eau Claire, 1992, teenage
boys dropped rocks from
an overpass over I-94,

aiming for windshields.
Martin Blommer in his
Winnebago, hit by a 32-

pound rock; his wife alongside
didn’t hear it, the crash,
the RV veered in a second

into the median, staggering
to stop, and he, in silence,
transfixed instantly, forever.

32 pounds. These are
my highways. I remember.
Long-play radio stations,

driving in moonlight
past hours of white
white mute fields.

I never wanted
to go back to Florida.
As a girl I didn’t

have much to compare–
dime bags, shot glasses, lives
that trudged with losses

and butane. I can’t forgive them.
Where could one drunk girl
find an ocean?

In the first forced blink of spring
I hate you.
I remember your names.

My curse on you is this:
May you have daughters
and may you love them.

 

Thank you Alison and Betsy.

For more information about Betsy Brown, please click here.

 

 

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Poem of the Week: Write About a Radish, by Karla Kuskin via Poetry Mistress Alison

Write About a Radish, by Karla Kuskin

Write about a radish
Too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
The stars are small and high
The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
Hills gleam dimly
Distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

 

Thank you Alison.
For more information about Karla Kuskin, please click here.

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Books: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch was another one of my summer reading pleasures. Donna Tartt, creates an almost Dickensian world of loss, friendship, criminality and redemption with the world of  art, and the love of old and well crafted things as its backdrop.

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The story is told from the point of view of Theodore Decker, a thirteen year old boy whose mother dies in a terrorist attack while they’re visiting the art museum. Theodore’s mother has a passion for art which she shares with her son.  Before leaving the ruined museum, he meets “Welty” who gives him a ring and somehow signals to him to take The Goldfinch, a beautiful painting by the 17th century dutch painter Carel Fabritius.   The Goldfinch is a rendering  of a small bird, chained to its perch. The horrifying notion of a beautiful but chained bird becomes a driving metaphor for life throughout the book.

Theodore’s life is destroyed by the loss of his mother and as he tumbles down the rabbit hole of loss and grief, the painting he has taken is the one thing that gives him a reason to live. The calmness he feels when he holds the painting gets him through his worst times.

The book is a study on how we create family when its taken from you. First Theodore lands at the Barbours, a wealthy, deeply eccentric family of his friend Andy. When his less than perfect father and his girlfriend come to claim him, off he goes to Las Vegas where he is left mostly to his own devices while his father and his girlfriend gamble to earn their living.

One of the parts of the book I love the most is when he meets Boris, a young boy his age whose mother is also dead and whose father is a violent, crazy, Ukrainian drunk who works in mines all over the world. The two boys spend their days playing truant, drinking, doing drugs and embarking on a life of petty crime.

Tartt captures the authenticity of adolescent friendship  that feels real and funny and sad at the same time.

The boys eventually separate when Theo heads back to New York but it’s the unlikely ups and downs of this friendship that drives the second half of the book. The painting goes missing and the two re-unite to find it.

In between, of course, there is so much more. Theo finds a home with Hobie, the partner of Welty, and learns the world of antiques. None of the friendship and safety offered by Hobie stops Theo’s descent into addiction and criminal wrong-doing. Ultimately he has to decide if he’s going to live or die and in the end, like the life of the goldfinch, he has to make peace with his lot in life.

I loved he book but thought it was too long in sections. My husband read the book and said the word I fear most “Shantaram” a book he detested for its long-windedness. I would agree that this book could have used a good edit. Still, it was a great world to be a part of and I loved how art was upheld as a necessary outcome and reflection of the human experience.

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Books: I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman was part of my summer reading extravaganza. Nora, amongst many other things, is the screenwriter of Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally and for a brief moment in time she was married to  American journalist Bob Woodward.

Nora is funny. And she writes comfortably about the uncomfortable topic of women and aging. As a woman in that demographic I’m aware of the neck, the midriff and the hair. But the essay that killed me the most and made me feel that perhaps Nora and I, in another lifetime could be comrades in arms, was her piece on handbags. The essay is called “I Hate My Purse”.

We all know who we are when it comes to purses. A long time ago I gave up on the idea that I could fit whatever I needed in a tiny, well maintained, minimalist handbag.

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In fact, I gave up when I asked my husband to buy me the biggest handbag he could possibly find for Christmas. And he did. And it’s huge. I spent 5 minutes thinking “I’ll put this here, that there and this here. Perfect. It will always be so and I’ll always find everything.” Evidently I didn’t know myself very well.

Nora , like myself, has everything in that handbag needed for every possible situation. We’ll begin with earplugs which fell out of the makeup bag which for unknown reasons can never be zipped closed.  The earplugs can be found at the bottom of the bag filled with hair and pencil shavings. The pencil shavings come from the pencil and sharpener I keep on hand at all times in the event I need to write something with a pencil and then subsequently the pencil requires sharpening  which means I need to have the sharpener. I can also find multiple lipsticks mostly without lids, often with pencil shavings in them with hair nicely embedded in the remaining lipstick.

Phone paraphernalia is always in separate compartments. Phone is in one, headset in another and cord in another. I have three hair brushes mostly because I can’t find them and so I keep throwing them in my bag. I have a hair straightener with me at all times because my hair is a shrill mess. I have a wallet that also serves as a small handbag. And of course, I have running shoes because you never know when you need to break out into a gallop (like today when I went to help a dog and its owner in distress). And of course an umbrella and a raincoat because I live in a rainforest. And I always have leftover airplane snack food that’s kept on hand (if I can find it) for emergency snacking, like if there’s an earthquake. Which brings me to the water bottle I also carry with me at all times. Again in multiples of at least two because as I mentioned I often can’t find things.

I haven’t even gotten to my lunch or my sporting gear which requires a whole other bag.

So yes, I liked this book. It made me laugh and at least for that chapter I felt there was a kindred spirit in the world. Nora also lived in New York which for me is a bit of a fantasy city. If only I had gone to New York instead of Vancouver when I left Toronto. Sometimes I like to waste time thinking about what if’s like that. She also likes to cook which is another thing I like about her and which she writes about with a great deal of humour. So ya, ladies, if you’re looking for a light read, this could be the book for you.

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Books: Ru by Kim Thúy

As part of my summer reading spree I read Kim Thuy’s memoir-esque novel Ru. In 1979 Kim escaped Vietnam with her family in a boat, landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually she and her family made their way to Quebec where she still lives today.

One of the things Kim does so well in this slight but beautifully written volume is intertwine her family’s history and journey to the culture and traditions of Vietnam.

Each chapter is short and the language is poetic. It’s almost as though the book is a collection of linked poems that tell the story of the immensely difficult journey her family took leaving Saigon to try and forge a better life in a new ,strange and cold country.

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Her descriptions of life in Vietnam are teeming with that “other life”.  The life of Lotus blossoms, servants, aunties, chefs, tennis courts, jewels and parties.  But with a country recovering from civil war and with the takeover of Saigon by the north, the good life they had known was rapidly coming to an end. Soldiers moved into their home, their possessions were taken, their lives threatened.

I love the descriptions of the large, sprawling families who care for each other through good and also extraordinarily difficult times. The tale of her families opulent life is contrasted with the stories of war, a child shot to death, a mother losing her son, old and young women, through whatever means doing what they must to put food on the table, more often than not doing soul destroying and backbreaking work.

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It’s easy to forget the lives left behind. And when the family comes to Montreal they live in a world difficult to understand and navigate, its newness underscoring everything they had to let go to  start anew. It’s a good reminder of what is left behind and what it takes to integrate and adapt and how that informs who you become.

I liked the book a lot and it’s poetic style offered incredible moments of truth, pain and beauty but it’s ephemeral nature also made it more difficult to attach to the narrator or the characters in the book.

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Books: A Man Called Ove

I did something incredible this summer. For two weeks  of my three week holiday I turned my phone off. Completely off. No news alerts, no texts or email, no facebook or social media. Not only was it the most blissful two weeks of my life but I actually finished reading the book I’d spent months trying to finish (The Goldfinch which is a monstrously large book). I then went on to read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Ru by Kim Thuy, Victorian Parlour Games (unsure but perhaps something like Edmund Beaver, and Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche.

In addition, I spent a great deal of time learning about birds in the Guide to West Coast Birds (owls don’t build nests, who knew?) and I read an entire Vanity Fair cover to cover. It was heaven. Imagine how clever I would be at dinner parties if I could keep up this torrid pace of reading.

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When I started reading A Man Called Ove I had just finished reading The Goldfinch and you really couldn’t have two more different books or writers. The style of writing in Ove feels stark, plain and a bit cold much like I imagine a blustery grey Swedish day might be. Of course, Ove, himself, is no picnic. He’s an old  guy (58 which isn’t old to me but anyways) who is one dour, grumpy unlikable guy.

Written in short, somewhat terse chapters you find out what has happened to Ove, and through a series of rollicking, comical misadventures with the young family who has moved in next door, you find out who Ove really is. It turns out underneath all the cranky bluster is a solid, kindhearted guy!

I really didn’t like this book but it was an easy read so I kept reading it (hey I had all the time in the world!) But in a dramatic turn of events, by the time I finished the book I was sobbing, uncontrollably while  waiting in the car for the ferry. Dave kept looking at me and asking “Are you okay? Are you okay? Did you look at your phone?”  No, I didn’t peek at my phone which tends to send my blood pressure through the roof but in the end A Man Called Ov was a  lighthearted gut wrencher  and I enjoyed it thoroughly for that reason alone.

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