From The Novel Nine: Favourite Children’s Books

Our book group has a name! The Novel Nine. There are nine of us, and although we read non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books as well as fiction, we are uniquely brilliant, wonderful women – novel.

This month we discussed our favourite children’s books: the books that turned us into readers and the ones we loved reading to our own children. Although there were far too many to list, a few of the stand-outs were Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne, Charlotte’s Web by EB White, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Uncle Wiggily by Howard Gars, The Dead Tree by Alvin Tresselt, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence, the Madeleine books by Ludwig Bemelmans, the Doctor Suess books, and The Secret Garden by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We shared nostalgic moments when we remembered how much we enjoyed being read to as children (and as adults), how much we all loved our childhood libraries, and how important those libraries were to our lives and to our children’s lives.

As we became better readers ourselves, we moved into books like Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, the Nancy Drew mysteries, the Hardy Boys’ adventures, the Narnia series by CS Lewis, the Anne of Green Gables novels by LM Montgomery, The Famous Five books by Enid Blyton, and of course, the recent Harry Potter series by JK Rowling and the Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman.

We agreed that there is no better gift to give or to receive than a new book.

From the Nightstand: The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander by Gil Adamson was our book club choice for August. To discuss this novel, we sat around a lovely campfire (even roasted marshmallows) beside Katchewanooka Lake, under a gorgeous, star-filled sky.

Set in the wilderness of western Canada at the turn of the last century, The Outlander is about a young woman widowed by her own hand (perhaps for good reasons), who is trying to escape her dead husband’s vengeful brothers.

Our discussion raised a few questions about plausibility and predictability – and whether the romance was entirely necessary – but in the end we agreed that this was an enjoyable and compelling story with engaging and interesting characters, many of them archtypal and worthy of lengthy discussion. We particularly enjoyed “The widow,” who begins her journey as a nineteen-year-old, incompetent at nearly everything, but who, with help from a few key characters, hones her survival skills along the way. This is a well-crafted novel, written with beautifully  inventive and thought-provoking language by a novelist who is also a poet.

From the Nightstand: New Lakefield Book Group continued . . .

The book group was back in January 2016 to discuss Ru by Kim Thuy, a short novel about life in Vietnam during and following the war and about immigrating to Canada. The book is written in a lovely poetic style; the most common comment at the meeting was that each page should be read slowly and savoured.

February’s book was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a novel set in France and Germany during World War II. A few of us had a bit of difficulty at the beginning with the brevity of the chapters and quick changes in time and place, but that difficulty was quickly overcome, and all of us agreed that the novel was beautifully and imaginatively written, with wonderfully complex characters and a horrifying depiction of war and Nazi Germany.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman was our March book. (We were going for all the light we could get during the long Canadian winter.) The novel, set in Australia in a region between the Pacific and Indian oceans, is a complicated story of loss, longing, and the catastrophic consequences of one impulsive decision. Most of us liked this book as well, but perhaps not quite as much as All the Light We Cannot See.

In April, we discussed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, a quirky novel set in an opulent apartment building in Paris. The characters are intriguing and evolve in interesting ways. The dual narrators’ observations are wise and thought-provoking. We enjoyed this novel and agreed that it deserved another read, just for the wisdom of the observations.

May’s book was The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. This non-fiction book about the Chicago World’s Fair reads like a novel. The characters are compelling. (The psychopath is compelling in a gruesome sort of way.) All of us found the story behind the fair to be fascinating and far more interesting than we had expected.

For June, we decided to discuss a classic: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a novel set in Louisiana. When first published in 1899, the novel shocked and scandalized many readers. For us, it was interesting to discuss why, as well as to consider what has changed for women and what has not. A few of us were frustrated with the passivity of the main character, but most of us enjoyed the novel and came away from the discussion with a deeper appreciation for both the writing and the story.

In July, we met to choose books (and activities) for the upcoming year. Our August book will be The Outlander by Gil Adamson. We’re also hoping we can decide on a name for our little group.

Stay tuned …

From the Nightstand: A New Book Group

I cannot live without books … or book groups. I joined Over-readers Anonymous in northern Wisconsin in 1983, shortly after I completed graduate school. (Does anyone have time to read novels in graduate school?) We read scores of books — far too many to list; some were great, others not so much, but nearly all were worth the read. I remained a member of that wonderful group until 2004 when I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland. There, I found another book group and was a member until I moved to Lakefield, Ontario, in April 2015. One month later, I joined a fabulous group of book women.

Our first meeting was May 19, 2015, at the Canoe & Paddle. We managed to organize ourselves, to discuss what we wanted the group to be, and to choose our first book: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. At our June meeting, we agreed that the book was entertainingly written, which made King’s historical account of the appalling treatment of indigenous people in the US and Canada all the more affecting and shameful. We also agreed that everyone in North America should read this book.

July’s book was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, the story of a good man gone wrong (an oversimplification of a very complex novel). There was a consensus that the book was well written and intelligent, but we held decidedly different opinions about the story and the characters. Some of us loved the novel and all its complexity; others thought the characters were unengaging, unlikeable, and, in some cases, unbelievable, which made for a lengthy and difficult read.

In August, we read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews for our September meeting. AMPS is a deeply affecting novel about suicide, not only the devastating loss, but also the mix of emotions — fear, sorrow, anger, frustration — experienced by family and friends. We loved this book and agreed that it was beautifully and imaginatively written. Well worth a second read.

Our October book was Sweetland by Michael Crummey, a novel about the resettlement of outport communities in Newfoundland and one man’s choice of solitude. For many of us, it was our second time reading the book, and we agreed that we could easily read it again. A multi-layered novel, beautifully written, imaginative and intriguing. We loved this book too.

In November, we discussed The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. The consensus was that this was a disappointing novel, especially for those who’d read The Cellist of Sarajevo and loved it. Our expectations were high, but we found the writing in The Confabulist to be a bit clunky and the characters and story not all that engaging or interesting.

We took a break for Christmas. 2016 books yet to come …

A long time gone . . .

I’ve been away — reading dozens of books, but with no time to blog about them. In Fall 2014, we began planning for our move from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Lakefield, Ontario. In April 2015, we did it — three cats in tow. It’s been an amazing journey.

We rented in Lakefield for nine months, then found a lovely home on the Otonabee River — wonderful scenery and wildlife, and terrific neighbours. In a marvellous bit of serendipity, we learned shortly after we agreed to buy the house, that it had been the home of Joan Johnston, one of Margaret Laurence’s best friends, for almost thirty-five years. Margaret’s 60th birthday party was held at this house in July 1986. I am hoping that her spirit will be an inspiration for my own writing.

Speaking of … I’ve also been busy completing my new novel Weaving Water, which will be published by Killick Press in September.

From the Nightstand: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The novel Life After Life by Kate Atkinson asks the question all of us ask ourselves from time to time: How might my life be different if I had (or had not) …? Ursula Todd is born and dies over and over again. In some of her lives, Ursula has vague “memories” of people and events from her other lives that sometimes shape the decisions she makes. Each of her lives starts out the same, with the same parents and similar starting conditions, but differs in some significant way, e.g., dying shortly after birth; drowning or being saved at age four; contracting Spanish flu from the maid, or not (in one version the maid goes to the event where she contracts flu; in another Ursula pushes her down the stairs so she can’t go); being raped, or not, by her brother’s friend at age sixteen. The different choices and events (some of which seem small at first) have profound repercussions in her life as well as in history (in several lives, Ursula befriends Eva Braun). It’s a beautifully written novel that makes the reader consider the profundities of what may seem like small decisions in the moment, as well as her own possible alternate histories. Highly recommended.

From the Nightstand: The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper never really succeeded in making me consider seriously the notion of demons being active agents for evil in the world. It was a captivating read that I had no trouble finishing, but I was never particularly scared for David Ullman and his daughter and I found Ullman’s quest to rescue his daughter to be too direct and unbelievable. He doesn’t flounder around much for clues as to what he should do. The reader does get to know quite a lot about John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is a plus. The Demonologist can be read as an entertaining, engrossing novel but not as one that elucidates the presence and nature of evil in the world.

From the Nightstand: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Based on the Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey begins as a deceptively simple tale, but becomes more complex and compelling as the novel progresses. Mabel and Jack, homesteaders in the Alaskan wilderness, see a child flitting through the forest. Believing at first that she can’t possibly be real, that what they see is some other forest creature, Mabel and Jack eventually entice her into their cabin and into their lives. The girl is linked to winter, joining Mabel and Jack during the winters, leaving again every spring for the snow-covered mountains … until she becomes tied to their homestead by love. Is she the child of the fairy tale, conjured by Mabel and Jack’s own deep desire for a child and their impulsive and joyous act of building a snow child during the first snowfall – or an orphan left alone to survive in a beautiful but unforgiving wilderness? And what happens when one tries to capture and hold onto what is beautiful but ephemeral? There are no simple answers, even to the end of the novel, which leaves the reader lingering over the ending and contemplating meaning long after you’ve read the last page. A highly readable novel and a compelling one.

From the Nightstand: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The novel The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is the haunting story of a US veteran of the Iraq war. Having returned from the war profoundly damaged emotionally, Private Bartle, who was just twenty-one when he went to Iraq and befriended eighteen-year-old Private Murphy, can refer to the horrors only obliquely at first. As the novel progresses, however, the reader begins to understand just how devastating war is, for everyone, including the families at home. No one escapes undamaged. There is the irony throughout The Yellow Birds that the atrocities and emotional devastation are recounted in gorgeous, lyrical, but fierce, prose. I was reminded of Tim O’Brien’s stories of the Vietnam war — that the only way to survive the war is to be “crazy.” Highly recommended.

From the Nightstand: Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey

Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See is a fascinating novel by Juliann Garey. Greyson Todd, an enormously successful agent in Hollywood, is brilliant but suffers from bipolar disorder. The novel alternates between his episodes of treatment with ECT, which temporarily rob him of his memories, and those memories, which range from his childhood with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, through his successful career, to walking away from that career, as well as his wife and daughter, to spending time in Thailand and Africa, to renting a shabby rent-controlled apartment in New York, to finding himself in a psychiatric unit in a hospital. The memories include both his manic episodes, as well as his periods of profound depression. Todd is fascinating, but often hard to like, both in his manic and his depressed states. It’s not enjoyable to read about his exploits, which is, perhaps, the point: helping readers to understand the frustrating and tragic nature of bipolar disorder and the helplessness of a sufferer in the face of it: there are no good treatment choices. There is only managing. Recommended.