Cover of 1943 Random Houseedition with woodcut illustrations
Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847, under a pseudonym. Brontë died the following year, at age 30. It was the only book she would ever publish.
How did an isolated young woman, a parson’s daughter from a remote area of Yorkshire, who never married, rarely left home, and hated travel, come to create this story of ferocious passion and violent revenge that would shock her contemporaries, and enthral audiences into its second century?
The existence of Wuthering Heights is one of the great arguments against that wrongheaded advice to writers: “write what (Read more…)
It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.
That’s the first line of Ned Vizzini’s excellent 2006 youth novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story. By the time I read the book this year, the author was already dead. Vizzini committed suicide last December; he was only 32 years old.
Those facts alone are tragic. But now that I’ve read this book, I find Vizzini’s death even sadder. On some level, I chide myself for that: every person’s life is of equal value, and every early death is a loss. But we feel the way we feel, (Read more…)
Allan came home from one of his used-book sale sprees with copies of both Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. I had read so many excerpts from, and reviews of, these books over the years, and their appearance was a reminder to actually read them myself.
You’re probably familiar with the general premise of Freakonomics. Steven D. Levitt is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner is a well-known writer and editor. The two teamed up to write an unusual mix of story, statistics, and surprises for a popular audience, using research and statistics to draw unusual (Read more…)
Flight is a thought-provoking short novel by one of my favourite youth writers, Sherman Alexie.
The main character in Flight, a Native American boy who goes by the derisive nickname Zits, is a troubled soul with a long history of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He seems to be on the brink of a major transition, either going off the deep end or beginning the long climb back.
I don’t know how to write about this book without spoiling it. So if you’re like me, and you don’t like to know anything about a book before you begin, and you (Read more…)
Today I break one of my own rules, and write about a book I didn’t enjoy. Not only that, but I trash the author, too. But perhaps author is the wrong word. Maybe I should call him the factory boss.
I know something about how difficult it is to write a book, and I feel solidarity with all writers. When it comes to blogging about books, I usually employ the old saw, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it”. So when I didn’t like I Am Number Four, I wasn’t going to write about it. (Read more…)
Don’t you love it when everything comes together? It’s Let Them Stay Week 2014, I’m thinking about the US war resisters in Canada, and about war resistance in general. And I’m reading a terrific youth novel, Flight, by Sherman Alexie, both fast-paced and rich with insight and meaning. And I come upon this passage. And if this doesn’t qualify as a Revolutionary Thought of the Day, I don’t know what does. Without stopping, the white soldier reaches down and picks up Bow Boy. Cradles the child in one arm. And the white soldier keeps running. He’s running towards the (Read more…)
Just Kids is a memoir by the artist and musician Patti Smith, about her life and relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is a memoir of both Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s coming of age as artists, and of the path of their relationships, both with each other and with other people who were formative in their young lives. Just Kids is also a memoir of New York City in the 1970s, especially of certain slices of the art and music scenes.
Although Smith met and hung out with many famous musicians, artists, and writers during the time she writes about, (Read more…)
I’ve just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’m sure many of you have read it, but if you have not, please run to your local library or bookstore or website and borrow, purchase, or download a copy immediately. This book is literary nonfiction of the highest order, a melding of social, cultural, and science history, and a a triumph of research and writing.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, a poor tobacco farmer who lived near and in Baltimore. Henrietta died of cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. She left behind five (Read more…)
Revolutionary thought of the day: …something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.
Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
Looking for Alaska, John Green (2005)
Some months back I blogged about The Fault in our Stars, by John Green. I absolutely loved this book. I went in search of everything else the author has written, and with another title down, I have not been disappointed. Green’s 2005 debut novel Looking for Alaska was about as good a youth novel as I’ve ever read.
It’s almost impossible to write about this book without spoiling a major plot reveal. I loved the way the author managed this – it damn near took my breath away – and I don’t (Read more…)
In a New York Times op-ed, I’ve learned that BuzzFeed has announced the hiring of its first book editor, and will start publishing book reviews. But it will not run negative book reviews. Isaac Fitzgerald (formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney’s) said: BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about (Read more…)
If you haven’t read anything by Zadie Smith, I highly recommend finding White Teeth, her debut novel, and diving in. Smith wrote White Teeth while still attending university, and it was published to great acclaim when she was only 25 years old. It’s a wonderfully sprawling novel, by turns wry, satirical, and poignant, crammed full of vibrant characters, multiple themes and threads, and brilliant, surprising language. It deals with the cultural clashes and changes of immigration, generations, and class differences.
If you read White Teeth and didn’t like it, stop right there; you’re not going to like anything else (Read more…)
For Canadians who fear and distrust the steadily growing militarism suffusing the culture of our country, two recent books are indispensable: What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler, and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.
Richler’s book focuses on the re-writing and re-framing the distant past. And as the title (with its homage to Raymond Carver) suggests, Richler focuses on language. He analyzes how Canada’s image of itself, in relation to war-making and the military, has been radically altered, bit by incremental bit.
The book (Read more…)
From Noah Richler’s What We Talk About When We Talk About War: We have a duty to be honest and rigorous, with ourselves and with others, and to be able to brook contradiction and argument in our discussions of past wars and the present one in Afghanistan. But instead, in today’s Canada, we have arrived at a point where the use of any language that is not euphemistic is greeted as an assault on the work of soldiers, on a singular view of our past, and therefore on the character of the nation itself. Ideology thrives. History hardly comes into (Read more…)
[The over-emphasis on Canadian military history] distorts and downplays the significant roles that Canadian politicians, diplomats, jurists and a variety of other civilians (such as artists) have had in shaping not just the domestic Canadian polity but abstract, universal ideas about statehood that have served as examples internationally – in Scottish constitutional development, for instance, and of course in the development of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948.
The nature of this contribution is significant specifically because the truth of Canadian history is that our military’s stake has not been inordinate. Resolution through discussion and compromise, (Read more…)
Over the summer, I wrote about The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a children’s book with a suspenseful, convoluted story, lavishly illustrated with Selznick’s beautiful pencil drawings. (I scanned several of those images into my earlier post.)
I’ve just finished Selznick’s most recent book, Wonderstruck. Wonderstruck is filled with drawings in the same distinctive pencil style, but it is even better than Hugo Cabret.
The central story of Wonderstruck is more linear, so it’s easier to follow. But Selznick employs a brilliant device that adds mystery and suspense to a straightforward story.
The reader follows the story (Read more…)
The children’s library where I work services a huge age-range of young people and their caregivers, from birth up to around age 12. I enjoy the full range – helping parents understand the importance of reading to their children, helping kids find fun books to read, finding material for school projects and reports – all of it. But what I love best is connecting avid young readers – of the age group known as “tweens” – with books they enjoy.
Wikipedia defines the tween demographic as ages 10-12, but tweens may be 9-13, or may even be as young as (Read more…)
There’s a subgenre of youth books in which young people are cast into an alien and dangerous world, where they must struggle to understand their purpose, struggle to survive. If you remember your own adolescence, the metaphor should be obvious.
These books are often characterized as nihilistic or depressing, but I find that’s generally the thoughts of people who haven’t read the book. While a survival book may be frightening and sometimes violent, it usually offers positive messages about what it takes to survive. Young heroes find inner reserves of strength and courage, and learn how to cope with harsh (Read more…)
I’ve just finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning, a classic written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl in 1959, republished with various forewords and epilogues in 1984, 1992, and 2006. It’s a book I had long wanted to read but had forgotten about, until I saw it on the Mississauga Library System’s “Raves and Faves” display, adult nonfiction division.
Frankl, who died in 1997, was a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a therapist. He was also a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in the Nazi death camps. The original German title of Man’s Search for Meaning is (Read more…)
I am in the middle of reading The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, a book almost too painful to read but impossible to put down. It’s achingly funny, profoundly insightful, and utterly heartbreaking, all at the same time. The Fault In Our Stars is supposedly a youth novel, but please don’t let that stop you from reading it. It is simply a wonderful book.
Hazel has cancer, and her life expectancy is short. Augustus is a cancer survivor, and has the prosthetic leg to prove it. Hazel and Augustus, two smart, funny, and otherwise ordinary teenagers, fall in (Read more…)
There is so much truly excellent youth fiction out these days, and it’s not all vampires and zombies. Here are two wonderful teen novels in two totally different veins.
There Is No Dog, Meg Rossoff, 2011
Like many excellent novels, Meg Rosoff’s There Is No Dog defies easy classification. It’s a comedy, but it’s heartbreaking. It’s a fantasy involving gods and goddesses with power over life and fate, but it pokes holes in the peculiar fiction known as religion. It’s about the mysteries of falling in love, and also about the mystery of being alive.
There Is No Dog (Read more…)
In the aftermath of the flood and with our impending move, when I’m not dealing with those events, all I want to do is read and blog. If you enjoy my “what i’m reading” posts, you’ll be happy. If not…
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I’ve long wanted to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Now that Martin Scorsese has adapted it into the movie “Hugo,” I wanted to make sure I read it before seeing the film.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderfully inventive and engaging book. It combines elements of picture books, graphic novels, (Read more…)
The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s first non- Harry Potter book, received almost universally poor reviews, ranging from tepid to savage. Reviewers found the book too long for the subject matter, too slow, poorly paced. They thought the plot was a soap opera. They found the writing cliched, studied, heavy-handed. In a book full of characters, they found few noteworthy. As one reviewer put it: “Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull.”
Backlash? Impossibly (Read more…)