What We’re Reading: February 2015

From Beth-Anne

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Elfrieda and Yolandi, two misfit sisters from an ultra-conservative Mennonite town outside of Winnipeg are at the centre of this critically acclaimed novel by Canadian writer, Miriam Toews.   At 17 years old, Elfrieda travels to Europe to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. A protective, Italian agent that opens a world of opportunity, fame and culture embraces her. She spends decades travelling the world, playing the piano with such affection and magnetism that she ensnares the hearts of men and women alike. Her author-sister Yoli, transplanted to Toronto via two husbands and two children, flies home to Winnipeg to be at her sister’s side after Elf’s latest suicide attempt. Toews explores the complexities of suicide, depression, and relationships and the gamut of emotions that entangle when Elf begs Yoli to help her die. The writing feels anything by contrived, and the widely fluctuating feelings that Yoli expresses cut deep. Toews has been honest that writing this book proved to be cathartic in helping her to heal following the suicides of her father and sister.

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I was ready for some levity following the intensity of All My Puny Sorrows and it came in the form of Professor Don Tillman. Don utilizes his keen scientific prowess to develop a survey to effectively weed-out unsuitable potential wives through a series of charming dating scenarios. Did I mention that he has Asperger’s? Eventually, Don does find his ideal wife in Rosie and together they move to New York (book 2) but all goes predictably haywire when Rosie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The plot is expected and the characters fairly flat but sometimes a laugh and an escape is all you’re after. If that’s the case, these books do the trick nicely.

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I enjoy reading autobiographies and often find myself gleaning inspiration from those who’ve achieved their hard-won accomplishments. After a string of politicians, I have returned to the entertainment industry with Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Sophia Loren is incredibly humble recounting her glamorous life. She begins by describing the atrocities she witnessed as a child growing-up in war-torn Italy and moves on to describe her ascent to fame and fortune as a leading lady of Italian cinema and eventually Hollywood. Throughout her recollections she is quick to acknowledge the team of talented individuals supporting her successful career and handful of loyal, passionate friends and family members who helped her to climb the ranks of the Hollywood elite. Despite opportunities to salaciously gossip about golden age celebrities, Loren chooses to be gracious and kind. Maybe her contemporary “Ms. Lollo” could take a lesson or two.

From Nathalie

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A Double Sorrow by Lavinia Greenlaw

I read this one twice.  A Double Sorrow is Greenlaw’s retelling of Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde.  It’s hauntingly beautiful, and the images from her poems lingered with me long after I had finished it.  Of Criseyde, she writes, “She leads a winter life.”  So stark, so rich in its brevity.  Her Troilus is less in love with Criseyde than he is with the idea of the stories that will be told of his love for her; he’s after fame.

If he ever fears he might not win her

He falls into some inward place of trees

Refusing any path that does not make of itself

The right answer.  Hope will emerge

Like a gentle green creature drawn from green shadows

To steady his gaze.

A fawn, soft in the wild,

Followed only by more of its kind.

After I had read the book, I wanted to read Chaucer’s original.  It was late on a Saturday night, and I asked my husband to stop at the bookstore on our way home from dinner out.  I climbed back into the car and laughed that I never, in all my life, would have expected to be doing a late night run for Chaucer.  He looked at me and said, “Oh, honey.  It’s really not as much of a stretch as you might think.”  Well, I still haven’t finished Chaucer’s telling, having grown very quickly irritated with all of the endless drama of courtly love.  Greenlaw’s telling, though, had me wanting so much more.

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As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust
by Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is one of my all-time favourite characters.  She’s a sleuthing eleven year old, and she solves many of her cases with chemistry, at which she is extremely talented.  Precocious, fearless, grounded and not a little naive, she’s thoroughly endearing.  This installment of her sleuthing adventures brings her to Canada, which added a wonderful touch to these very Anglophilic country house murders.  If you have not yet met Flavia, begin at the beginning (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) and revel in the joy to come!  There are eight books in the series, and I have loved every one.

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The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science

This beautiful book is published by Chronicle, and the idea was to pair an illustrator with a scientific question, and to enrich information with illustration.  I really loved the combination of quick hits of science paired with illustrations that brought out aspects of the topic that the words did not always touch upon, and found myself making note of all kinds of trivia:

  • Humans have more in common with ants than with any other species (division of labour, roles in society, high level of social dependency).
  • The size of a squirrel’s brain increases during caching season.
  • The number of “dees” in a chickadee’s call describes the size of a predator.
  • Scientists recently discovered a spore that was about 250 million years old within a salt crystal; the bacterium was revived.  Immortality is theoretically possible.
  • Fingerprints help us grip wet things, which is why our fingers shrivel and make deeper channels when they are soaked in water.
  • Yawning is only contagious in humans capable of empathy; contagious yawning is not observed in children under five.
  • When we are deprived of sleep, proteins begin to lose their structural integrity, and they unfold, building up in the cells and becoming toxic.  You can die from sleep deprivation because you are essentially being poisoned.  During sleep, special “cleanup molecules” (their imprecise words, not mine!) help to reverse the unfolded protein response.
  • The DNA in our cells does not age.  The human species has maximized its chances to pass on traits, but only as a species, not as individuals.  Individual aging is irrelevant to the continuation of our species.

From Carol 

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I can be a bit of a sucker when it comes to self-help books, but The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyurbomirsky does boast a difference:  this book is written by a research psychologist and professor who takes a scientific approach in analyzing data on what makes people happy.  The result is a research-based understanding of what happiness is, and what practices help us achieve it.  Lyurbomirsky asserts that if happiness were a pie, 50% of it is determined by a genetic set-point (some of us are born perkier than others), 10% is influenced by circumstance (rich or poor, healthy or ill), and a whopping 40% is based on our intentional activities, ie. within our control!.  How so?  Based on her research, she identifies the various ways in which people have increased their happiness – ranging from living in the present, to practicing gratitude and positive thinking, to investing in social relationships, to committing to your goals, and much more.  She also provides readers with guidance on how to choose which of these practices to pursue themselves for the greatest happiness impact.  I recognize myself in some of these practices, and feel inspired by others, and am thoroughly enjoying this read.

What We’re Reading

From Nathalie:

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. 

I could not put this book down.  It’s beautifully written and illustrated by Leanne Shapton, whose stunning Native Trees of Canada was wallpapering my neighbourhood bookstores a few years ago.  She has now published a memoir about her years as a competitive swimmer, and aside from a fascinating view into the life of a competitive athlete, Shapton treats us to beautifully articulated insights into what it means to live for that life of competition.  Here is a sample of her precise prose: “Say I’m swimming with people, in the ocean, a pool, or a lake, and one of them knows about my history as a swimmer, and remarks to the others, ‘Leanne’s an Olympic swimmer.’  I’ll protest: ‘No, no, I only went as far as the Olympic trials—I didn’t go to the Olympics.’  But the boast bobs up like a balloon, bright and curious to some, wistful and exposed to me.”  Her ability to see herself from these multiple angles is, I think, the key to the success of this memoir, and though I am about the farthest you could possibly be from a competitive athlete, I found a lot to identify with in her observations about herself and her place in her world.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley.bradley

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries are, hands down, my all-time favourite mystery series.  Flavia, the narrating detective, is an expert in chemistry (knowledge which always serves her detection efforts), and she is eleven.  Her limits as a narrator, and the wonderful ironic gaps that emerge when a child narrates a murder mystery, only add to the books’ charms.  I don’t know how I managed to miss news of a new book from Bradley; I usually have these things on wishlists months ahead of publication.  Imagine my delight when I opened my weekend Globe and Mail books section, and saw a review.  I kid you not, the minute I read about its publication, I ran out of the house to buy it.  I had read it all by bedtime.  Bradley is Canadian, but he captures life in an English manor house and village with an impeccable ear for dialogue.  If you have not heard of these books, begin at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and delight in the fact that you have four more books ahead of you.  As my gluttonous devouring of this book may indicate, I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.51MZ8248R0L__AA160_

Originally published in 1980, this is a book that calls to be savoured.  I read a book like this and think, “This woman was born to be a writer.”  There is a voice and a vision here so powerful, so her own, that there is no doubt that she has a vocation for it.  This is not the work of a writer’s workshop or of an agent and editor who will take a manuscript and try to make something marketable out of it.  It was a beautiful and devastating read.  The narrator is a girl whose mother has committed suicide, and she and her sister are left to navigate their way through childhood with a series of hapless guardians.  The plot is unhurried, the prose is some of the best I’ve ever had the joy to read:  “The immense water thunked and thudded beneath my head, and I felt that our survival was owed to our slightness, that we danced through ruinous currents as dry leaves do, and were not capsized because the ruin we rode upon was meant for greater things.”

From Beth-Anne:

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Small Wars by Sadie Jones.  We meet Hal Treherne at his graduation from Sandhurst where it is revealed he has aspirations to follow in the footsteps of his decorated father and grandfather.  At this celebration, Hal meets Clara, the sister of a classmate.  Clara and Hal marry and settle into a happy, mundane routine but Hal grows frustrated by his post World War 2 military desk-job and longs to see action and prove his worth to his military family.  Hal readily accepts a transfer to Cyprus and Clara, although hesitant to leave their neatly carved existence with their young twin daughters, agrees and is hopeful that they will find a peaceful life safely ensconced within the confines of the British base and the sun-kissed Cypriot climate.  Shortly after they arrive, Cyprus explodes into a full-fledged revolution and Hal is charged with regaining order of the British colony.  Hal’s eyes are soon opened to the atrocities of war and he quickly learns that not everything is as black and white as his days at Sandhurst.  Sadie Jones writes with such rich description and her characters are achingly real, deeply flawed and stayed with me days after I finished with the book.

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The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele.  Beth and Peachy couldn’t be more different.  Beth lives a self-absorbed, face-paced life in the New York City and Peachy, a stay-at-home mom to two young boys lives a simple existence with her husband and their hippy, hair stylist, draft-dodging father in rural Ontario.  The story is not very believable and is painfully predictable but what separates this story from any run-of-the-mill drugstore paperback is Lisa Gabriele’s writing.   On page 122-123 Peachy gives her sister Beth a complete run-down of what she can expect from her day as a stay-at-home mom.  The passage extends for two pages by the conclusion packs a punch that is illustrative of the spunkiness and complexity of her characters.

“ Get Sam to help you carry things, Beth.  He’s strong enough and he likes to.  Your show’s on tomorrow night, so make sure you tape it for Lou because he plays softball.  He’ll pick up the boys.  They eat hot dogs for dinner there.  Beau meets them after work.  But since you’re staying, make Beau’s supper tonight.  For tomorrow, it’s Chinese, but pick up some iceberg lettuce at Silvano’s next to the Laundromat.  But don’t buy anything else there, it’s too expensive.  Lou likes to make the dressing.  While Beau eats, draw a bath for Jake.  Make sure you get behind his ears.  Sam takes showers.  But if he’s in there more than 15 minutes, knock.  It’s rare for him to seize in there, but you never know.  Don’t let him think you’re checking.  Just pretend you have to go.  They can have dessert before bed.  Nothing chocolate.  And kudos to you if you can find the time to fuck my husband again in between all of that.”

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The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee.  It is not as common to come across stories about World War 2 not set in Europe. Janice Lee transport her readers to 1940’s Hong Kong, a vibrant expat community, living lavish lifestyles and caring little about the impending war until it is much too late.  The story is about a British national who finds himself in an interment camp while his Chinese-Portugese lover remains on the outside facing challenges of her own to ensure her survival.  Lee intertwines two story lines, the second in post-war Hong Kong follows many  of the same nationals who are trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of a mystery that has left several of their own dead and a new comer at the centre of the storm.  I devoured this book while a blizzard blanketed much of the Eastern seaboard and while the snow fell, I was lost on the gritty and sour streets of Hong Kong.

From Carol (whose books appear to be thematically related)


urban homesteadThe Urban Homestead:  Your Guide to Self-Reliant Living in the Heart of the City 
by Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen.  An entertaining, amiable read about how to live more sustainably in urban environments.  Everything from creating systems for water re-use to permaculture to raising (small) livestock in a backyard.  I particularly enjoyed the combination of matter-of-factness and humour of these authors, and their general optimism about their pursuits.


urban homesteadingUrban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living 
by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume.  More of the same, with lovely photos, and some useful five year plans for larger projects.  But the tone was heavy and less engaging that The Urban Homestead – if you’re curious, I’d recommend the light paperback by Coyne and Knutzen over this almost coffee table book.


farm cityFarm City:  The Education of an Urban Farmer 
by Novella Carpenter.  A memoir about a woman who sets up a farm on a vacant lot in a rough neighbourhood in Oakland, California.  Carpenter is a good writer, and the book unfolds easily, both informative with an interesting spike of inspiration here and there.  She also has good material, and recounts the adventures of raising and killing animals, including two pigs (not pygmies) in the inner city.  As a squeamish reader who doesn’t eat meat, I skimmed/skipped the passages that related in detail the demise of these creatures, but still found the book to be a wonderful read.