There was no way I wasn’t going to fall in love with James Bowen’s story about being a recovering heroin addict who befriends a stray tomcat in London. I stumbled across a clip of the movie and I was blubbering by the time it was done. Then I tracked down the full movie (Amazon Prime, I believe). There was no question that I was going to read the book A Street Cat Named Bob.
Here’s a little taste of the film.
Bob turns out to be a lifesaver for James who is in a methadone program when he encounters the feline curled up on the mat in front of a neighbour’s apartment door. He makes an attempt to find Bob’s owner, but the truth is in a city the size of London it’s just not possible, and it seems as though Bob has been living rough for a little while, anyway. It costs James his last 30 quid to get Bob the antibiotics he needs.
Soon, Bob is hopping the bus with James to to head to Covent Garden, where he busks daily. Bob turns out to be a real draw and the first day Bob is with him while he busks, James triples the money he normally made.
Despite the gut feeling I had that this cat and I were somehow destined to be together, a large part of me figured that he’d eventually go off and make his own way. It was only logical. He’d wandered into my life and he was going to wander back out again at some point.
But Bob doesn’t wander off. He is a steadfast and loyal companion. Bowen’s book traces his relationship with Bob, and the tremendously positive impact the feline has on his life. Suddenly, James understands what it is to have another living thing that depends on you.
Bob and James soon become a fixture around Covent Garden. Bob often rides on James’s shoulder and the attention is both positive and negative. Eventually he gives up busking and starts selling Big Issue. Again, Bob causes people to stop and pay attention.
Being with Bob had already taught me a lot about responsibility but the Big Issue took that to another level. If I wasn’t responsible and organized I didn’t earn money. And if I didn’t earn money Bob and I didn’t eat.
James makes the decision to wean himself off methadone and soon he feels better than he has in years and “the thought of returning to the dark dependencies of the past made me shiver. I had come too far now to turn back.”
I loved James’s redemption story. He and Bob were constant companions until Bob’s death June 15th at the age of 14. Of his friend’s death Bowen said: “Bob saved my life. It’s as simple as that. He gave me so much more than companionship. With him at my side, I found a direction and purpose that I’d been missing. The success we achieved together through our books and films was miraculous. He’s met thousands of people, touched millions of lives. There’s never been a cat like him. And never will again.”
Marie Kondo says that your possessions should spark joy. She also says that about 30 books is the magic number. She and I would not get along. At all. Books are talismans and touchstones and time machines. I wish that I still had every book I ever owned, but we moved a lot when I was growing up and I’ve moved a lot as an adult and it’s just not possible to save everything. Still, like Stephen King, I believe in the “portable magic”of books.
So do the people in Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick’s beautiful book A Velocity of Being. They’ve gathered letters from a variety of well-known (and less well-known) artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, musicians and philosophers. These letters are addressed to young readers and each letter is accompanied by bookish art. It’s a win-win book for me.
Popova begins the book’s introduction this way
When asked in a famous questionnaire devised by the great French writer Marcel Proust about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simple: “Reading.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have whiled away many wonderful hours with books. My love affair began early. Both my parents were readers and there were always books in my house. My mother read to my brothers and me from the time we were babies and I have very specific memories of her not being able to get through O. Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief” without breaking down in uncontrollable giggles. She loved Uncle Wiggly, too and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse.
When I started reading on my own, I fell in love with the Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon and Cherry Aames. I was really an equal opportunity reader. So reading A Velocity of Being is like being with my tribe. These are people who, like me, understand the particular joys of words words on a page. Their stories and recollections made me smile, laugh, tear up and nod my ahead in agreement.
For example, poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book, which becomes a tutor, a wit, a mind-sharpener, a soulmate, a performer, a sage, a verbal bouquet for a loved one. Books are borrowed minds, and because they capture the soul of a people, they explore and celebrate all it means to be human. Long live their indelible magic.”
Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist, reminds us that although “Nearly every book has the same architecture – cover, spine, pages – […] you open them onto worlds and gifts far beyond what paper and ink are, and on the inside they are every shape and power.”
And Helen Fagin, born in 1918, reminds us that “To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”
All proceeds from the sale of A Velocity of Being will benefit the New York public library system. Really, everyone should have a copy. I can’t wait to share some of these letters with my students in the fall…and perhaps even have them write their own odes to reading.
I have been a longtime fan of Debbie Travis. Here in Canada she was on the leading edge of the decorating show craze beginning with Painted House, a show about faux. She went on to develop several other decorating shows, some she starred in, some she produced with her husband Hans.
Life took a turn for her while she was on vacation in Thailand. On her last day, she decided to have a detoxifying sauna. After only eight minutes, she recalls in Design Your Next Chapter, she was “deathly bored with my own company.” In an effort to distract herself, she started reading a paperback someone had left behind. It was about finding personal happiness.
Travis knew she had many things to be grateful for but “The book had asked one simple question: Was I happy? It rocked me to the core.”
Travis couldn’t stop thinking about the question of personal happiness.
I’d realized what made me truly happy were just three things: being with my children, being with my priceless friends, and being with my beloved husband. On the plane home, I had to admit that I was not spending enough time with these precious people.
Serendipitous perhaps, but Travis was seated next to a monk on the flight home from Thailand. Seeing that she was still visibly upset, he asked if he could help and Travis poured out her confusion and distress.
His advice was simple: “Change your priorities, change your attitude – focus on what makes you happy before you run out of time.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what Travis has done, and is offering to help readers do in Design Your Next Chapter.
A spontaneous meal with a family while on holiday in Italy with Hans, had “lit up in [Travis’s] head like a beacon.” You know the rest of the story, but if you don’t, it’s documented in a six-part series called La Dolce Debbie. Although it didn’t happen overnight, she and Hans eventually found a Tuscan property which they renovated over five years. Now she hosts groups of women (mostly) who are looking for a way to redesign their own lives. Read more about that here.
I read Design Your Next Chapter while sitting on my back deck on a beautiful summer afternoon. Although Travis doesn’t profess to be a self-help expert, she is a woman who has been successful at a great many things. Her advice, and she does offer some, is mostly common sense, but I think the best advice often is. We may know what we need to do to fix what’s broken in our lives, but we sometimes lack the impetus to make the necessary changes. Travis offers practical suggestions for taking meaningful steps towards personal happiness. You really can’t argue with that.
I’ve been to Italy twice with my three dearest girlfriends. It’s a magical place. Many of the examples Travis uses in her book come from the retreats she offers at her villa. In the evening, the women gather with their Prosecco and share their stories. There’s a lot of power in that, I think. Although I like my life and my job, I have hit a few bumps along the way and I know that I am sometimes my own worst enemy. I’d give anything to sit under Travis’ olive tree and listen to people share their own stories. This is a bucket list item for sure.
Design Your Next Chapter is not quite the same as what I imagine the experience of being in Italy with Travis herself might be, but it’s definitely worth the virtual visit. So, pour yourself a cold glass of Prosecco and let your journey towards personal happiness begin.
This is Michelle, me, Sheila and Diane on our first Italian adventure in 2012. We were in Cortona.
I couldn’t resist picking up Paperback Crush, a colourful, sometimes snarky look at the Young Adult fiction published in the 1980s and 90s. Author Gabrielle Moss say that the book is “here to honor the young adult lit published after Judy Blume but before J.K. Rowling.” Those decades produced more YA than the previous decades, but the quality, I suspect, wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from modern YA. And I read a lot of YA.
It’s a hotly debated subject (okay, maybe not hotly): what’s the first YA book?
…experts don’t agree on exactly when [YA] dawned. Books from the original 1930s Nancy Drew stories to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1932 book Little House in the Big Woods to the 1936 novel Sue Barton, Student Nurse by Helen Dore Boylston have all been held up as the first-ever YA novel
I like to think that S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is the first true example of YA, a story written expressly for young people, but according to Young Adult Library Services Association president Michael Cart YA “all started with Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer.” I actually have vague memories of reading that book, but my memories of reading The Outsiders and Hinton’s follow-up That Was Then, This is Now are seared into my adolescent memory.
Moss tracks the trends in YA, everything from first love and love-gone-wrong to sick lit and paranormal romance. She examines teenage jobs (babysitters and camp counselors); friendships (bffs and frenemies); family (siblings and cousins and evil step-parents). She looks at specific books and authors, flagging the more famous titles with passive-aggressive admiration (Wakefield twins!)
I wasn’t reading a lot of YA lit in the 80s and 90s, but I am a reader, so I was at least familiar with 80% of the literature Moss mentioned. I mean, you would have had to be living on another planet not to know Sweet Valley High or The Baby-Sitters Club [sic]. I enjoyed reading about these books, and often found Moss’s commentary laugh-out-loud funny.
Literature from this time period was not without its issues. As Moss points out “a lot of these books centered on the stories of white rich thin heterosexual women with naturally straight hair.” But no matter. For better or worse “They validated girls’ stories by putting them to paper….”
I came of age in the 1970s, but as a teacher I enjoyed Paperback Crush. It is pure nostalgia. Although I am just a bit older than the book’s target demographic, I too remember the joys of the Scholastic flyer, and the thrill of choosing my own books to read. Many of the titles mentioned caused a flood of memories. If books were a part of your life, this one will give you all the feels.
Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger will probably make most readers uncomfortable. It’s the story of her sexual relationship with Peter, a man she met when she was seven and he was – wait for it – fifty-one. In the preface, Fragoso tells readers
I started writing this book the summer after the death of Peter Curran, whom I met when I was seven and had a relationship with for fifteen years, right up until he committed suicide at the age of sixty-six.
Fragoso’s relationship with Peter began at a neighbourhood pool, in Union City, New Jersey. She is the only child of Louie, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, and Cassandra, her mentally ill mother. Life at home is volatile, and Fragoso, despite her youth, longs for a sense of family. When she sees one at the local pool, she is immediately drawn to them.
Their father had bowl-cut sandy-silver hair with sixties bangs like a Beatle. He had full lips, a long, pointy nose that might have looked unattractive on someone else, but not on him, and a strong pert chin. When he looked in my direction, I saw that his eyes were vigorously aquamarine.
It isn’t just Peter that Fragoso is drawn to. There are a couple young boys with him and a woman named Ines. When Peter calls to invite Fragoso and her mother over the visit, it’s the beginning of a time that seems magical at first (Peter’s house is filled with birds and turtles and iguanas), but soon morphs into something else entirely.
It’s hard to read Tiger, Tiger without wanting to scream. Like – where are the adults in this scenario. Even though we understand that Fragoso’s mother is unwell, it is still difficult to comprehend how she so willingly hands over the care of her daughter to a virtual stranger. The other adults in Fragoso’s life seem equally inattentive. Cassandra calls Ines “a dreamer.” Louie is angry most of the time and even when he questions the closeness he sees between Peter and his daughter, he doesn’t really act on it.
Peter is a master manipulator. At first he introduces Fragoso to games like “Danger Tiger”, Mad Scientist and Mad Gardener, but it doesn’t take long before he’s rewarding her with a “quick kiss on the lips” for finding jigsaw puzzle pieces or telling her that she’d make “a perfect wife.” Of course, he’s grooming her, but she doesn’t know it.
One of the fascinating things about Fragoso’s story is that this ‘relationship’ carried on for so long. At some points, it almost seems as though Fragoso is manipulating Peter, until you remember that he has had a hand in creating the person she’s become.
In her prologue, Fragoso writes:
…spending time with pedophile can be like a drug high…and when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off heroin, and for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt
Tiger, Tiger is not an enjoyable read. It is, however, a brave book. I would like to think the experience of writing it was cathartic for Fragoso and that when she was done, she was able to turn a new, fresh page in her life. Somehow, though, I doubt that this is the case.
It probably would have made more sense to talk about Linda Brooks’ beautiful coffee table book Orchestra in My Garden back in the spring, which is when I purchased my copy. But spring is always a busy time at school, and then I went away, and then school started again…you know how it goes. Now that the days are getting darker and colder, I feel like Linda’s book is the perfect antidote. Plus, Orchestra in My Garden would make a fabulous gift for the gardeners, wannabe gardeners and musicians on your list this holiday season.
Linda and I are cousins, although I wouldn’t say that we know each other particularly well. She is the second youngest of five and I am the oldest of four, so on the few occasions when our families would get together, we would have been of little interest to each other. My dad and Linda’s dad are first cousins. I do have childhood memories of going to the farm where Linda grew up. It was always a lot of fun. My parents loved her parents, Jack and Margie, and I remember loving them, too. It was probably a lot of fun for the adults to get together and let the nine of us run wild.
Orchestra in My Garden is a love song, and not just to gardening, although Linda is clearly a talented gardener. (She would say “enthusiast” not “expert”.) Her beautiful Nova Scotia garden, nurtured for over a decade, is simply the backdrop, though, for Linda’s blossoming awareness of a new season in her life. (And look at me, with all these corny gardening metaphors. They just write themselves, people!)
I was between albums with no immediate pressure to produce more content and no outside expectations. Life was throwing some milestones my way. The approach of a 50th birthday coinciding with a first child heading off to university may have encouraged a greater awareness that my life was taking a new turn.
Linda has lead a creative life. Although she has a BA from Mt. Allison and a Bachelor of Law degree from Dalhousie, I always think of her as a musician. She has recorded several albums, two of them in Nashville, and been nominated for ECMAs. The essays included in her book are her way of expressing herself “beyond the lyrics of a song.”
The essays in this book tackle a wide range of topics: the joys of digging deep (literally and metaphorically, I think), marriage and motherhood, family, inspiration. There really is something for everyone in Linda’s essays. The nice thing about them is that they really feel like personal reflections, rather than didactic lessons.
Supporting and nurturing and, perhaps especially, challenging each other to bloom means understanding that no one of us has all the answers and there is not only one perspective. When we learn to respect another’s growth, we accelerate our own. That’s what family, friendships, and my garden keep teaching me.
And what would a book about gardens be without pictures. First time garden photographer Mark Maryanovich has taken some truly beautiful photos for this book. This might be his first time snapping pics of flowers, but he comes with an impressive resume and it shows.
If all this weren’t enough, Linda has included a code which allows you to download 22 original songs inspired by four seasons in her garden.
Orchestra in My Garden would be a lovely book for anyone who loves nature, sure, but also for anyone who might appreciate what it means to come to a crossroad in life and consider the paths that lay ahead. Download Linda’s songs, make a cup of tea and enjoy.
When I was a kid, I had pen pals. Lots of them. I think I started writing letters when I was about seven. We moved away from Winnipeg where we had been living for a couple years. I had to leave my best friend, Lynne, behind and we kept exchanging letters for many years – up until recently when my Christmas card to her was returned ‘address unknown.’
I came of age in the 70s, way before Facebook or email. The only way to maintain a relationship with someone who lived far away was to write a letter. Long distance phone calls were pretty expensive, but stamps were cheap. By the time I was sixteen I had at least two dozen pen pals from all over the world. I loved getting their letters and learning about their lives. I still have one of those pen pals, and although we tend to catch up via the Internet now, we have shared dozens of letters over our 40+ year correspondence.
So I was ready to love I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda (with help from Liz Welch). I’ll spare you the suspense: I LOVED this book. It’s the true story of how Caitlin, a thirteen-year-old from Hatfield, Pennsylvania writes (via a school project) a letter to thirteen-year-old Martin who lives in Mutare, Zimbabwe. That letter – as generic as it must have been – is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Caitlin chose Zimbabwe from a long list of countries because it sounded exotic. She really knew nothing about the country.
My knowledge of Africa consisted of what I had seen in the National Geographic magazines my mother subscribed to for our family. I loved looking at the colorful photos of tribal people who wore face paint, loincloths and beads. I didn’t think my pen pal would dress like that, but I had no idea what kids in Africa wore. Jeans, like me?
Caitlin has no idea of Martin’s circumstances, but the reader does. Martin lives with his parents and siblings in Chisamba Singles “a housing development built in the 1960s as a place for men from the rural areas to stay during the week while they worked in different factories.” Martin and his family share a room with another family, upwards of twelve people crammed into a space designed to hold two.
The story toggles back and forth between Caitlin and Martin. Caitlin’s life is mostly concerned with friends and shopping, while Martin’s life is focused on doing well at school. Education in Zimbabwe is a privilege, not a right. Martin understands that to be successful at school is a (potential) ticket out of abject poverty.
While most of Caitlin’s classmates give up their pen pals after only a couple letters, Caitlin and Martin maintain their correspondence and Caitlin comes to understand the truth of Martin’s circumstances. If only she could have known the anxiety her asking for a photograph caused Martin. Or what he had to give up to send her some cheap earrings. It was truly heartbreaking.
And also amazing. Because once Caitlin and her family are aware of just how dire things are for Martin and his family, they do everything in their power to help. It’s pretty awesome.
In 2015, Caitlin addressed students at a high school. She said “One small act of kindness…You have no idea how powerful that can be, whose lives it can change, including your own.”
I am not going to ‘review’ Ross DeMerchant’s book 26 Letters, so much as tell you about it and perhaps share some of my own memories. The reason is because Ross is my cousin and I likely wouldn’t have ever read this book ( which is part memoir, part self-help, part spiritual) if not for that fact.
My dad, Edgar, was the youngest of four. He had three older sisters: Alice, Dorothy and Barbie. There was eleven years between Barbie, the youngest daughter, and my dad, which meant that most of my cousins were a lot older than my brothers and me. They also didn’t live near us when we were growing up, so unless we went back to my dad’s home town we didn’t really get to see them very much.
My father grew up near a really small town about four hours up the St. John River from where I now live. Ross explains that “On one side of the river was one community called Perth. On the other side of the river was another community called Andover. Obviously, the two communities became joined by a hyphen, making it one town called Perth-Andover.”
I always remember thinking of it as Perth and (wait for it) over. Ha.Ha.
My dad grew up just outside of Perth-Andover on a farm in South Tilley. Although I am not sure of the history of the exchange, the farm came to be in the hands of my Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard and so that is where Ross and his siblings Douglas, Diane, Mark and Paul grew up. Mark kept the farm running until 2013, but it’s a tough business and he just couldn’t do it anymore, so he sold it.
When I was a kid, going to the farm was magical. Back then it was hundreds of acres (they farmed potatoes) and I have very specific memories of visiting. I remember that there was a one room schoolhouse at the end of their driveway and that is where my aunts and father attended school. My cousin Diane had a sweet little playhouse filled with miniature dishes and furniture and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. There was also a sort of attic (although I may be remembering that wrong) filled with books like The Lennon Sisters and Cherry Ames. If we were lucky to go there in the winter, we could go out on the snowmobiles. That was a blast because there were endless fields to ski-doo through. My Aunt Barbie was a great cook. I specifically remember these raspberry squares she used to make.
One of the things I was most looking forward to when I picked up 26 Letters, was Ross’s recollections of growing up on the farm. I was hoping for some stories that I might have remembered, too. I guess I am at the age where I am feeling sort of nostalgic about these special places and people from my childhood.
Sadly, Ross’s stories were mostly unfamiliar to me with one notable exception – the accident his little brother, Paul, had as a toddler.
It was during the potato harvest season when life is incredibly busy exciting on the farm. Potatoes are hauled from the fields and placed in large holding bins within the “potato house.” The in-ground bins were twelve to thirteen feet deep and large enough that trucks would actually drive onto the platform over the bins and unload from there. It was in that setting that Paul wandered unnoticed onto the platform of the bins. Someone noticed that Paul was missing, and the frantic search by the entire crew began.
Paul was found at the bottom of one of the empty bins. He remained unconscious for two weeks, and as Ross tells it “his first word was in response to me standing at the foot of his hospital bed. He looked up and said, “Ross.”” He had to have a metal plate put in his head and I remember that we were all told we had to be careful around him when he was a kid.
Some of Ross’s stories conjured up memories of places in Perth-Andover. Everyone knew York’s for instance. It was world famous for its food, a zillion courses of home cooking. I don’t recall ever once going there as a kid, though. It was too expensive and we never had any money.
I loved his description of how directions work. “In those days,” he says, “mile markers were such things as barns, railway crossings, houses known by the family’s last name and unique places you wouldn’t find listed on any map, like “the gravel pit” or “the four corners.”
That reminded me of a summer many years ago, when my kids were little, and we’d planned a family reunion at the farm. I was confident I could remember the way, but I got us totally lost and we eventually had to stop in a little country store and ask for directions. We weren’t even on the right side of the river and we arrived at the farm at least 45 minutes after everyone else. I was the butt of everyone’s joke that day.
My children loved the farm. They loved Mark’s son, Mitchell, who back then was probably 13 or 14. He was a beautiful kid with white blonde hair and a dark tan that can only come from spending hours working in the sun. He was sweet to my kids, too.
He took them on the atv and the tractor and taught them how to dig potatoes.
26 Letters is Ross’s way of encouraging people to have meaningful conversations with the people who matter in their lives. He’s spent his career working with young people and adults.
“We don’t talk well in our culture. In a world of unparalleled convenience, we struggle more than ever to communicate with each other, ” Ross says.
I don’t disagree. And worse, our shared history is often lost. That’s why I love spending time with family. My cousin Suzanne was home from England a couple summers ago and she, her brother, John, and I went up to Fredericton to visit with our cousins Diane, Brenda and our aunts Dorothy and Barbie. We laughed a lot that afternoon and my aunts shared stories, many of which I had never heard before. At one point, Barbie started to play the piano. John and I looked at each other, stunned.
“Did you know Aunt Barbie could play the piano?”
“Nope. Did you?”
I am fifty-five. John is older than me.
Ross’s motivation for writing 26 Letters was “so that I could leave for my children and grandchildren my understanding of those things that helped shape the person I am.”
I can think of no better legacy than the stories we share with the people we love.
My son gave My Ideal Bookshelf to me for my birthday back in May. It’s one of those books that is both a pleasure to read and a pleasure to look at. The premise was to ask 100 plus people (writers, designers, chefs, artists, photographers) about their ideal bookshelf. In other words:
Select a small shelf of books that represent you – the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favourite favourites. You begin, perhaps, by walking over to your bookshelf and skimming the spines on the top shelf. You pull down a handful that you remember loving; you grab a couple that you read over and over again. Some you know just by the colour of their dust jackets. One is in tatters – it was passed down by your mother – and it’s dog-eared and carefully held together by tape and tenderness. The closer you look, the trickier the task turns out to be.
You got that right. But before I talk about what I did with My Ideal Bookshelf let me just point out how much fun this book was to read. Although I don’t know everyone whose bookshelves were included, it didn’t matter. If you are a book lover, you are naturally drawn to other people’s bookshelves. You know it’s true. If I am in someone’s house, their bookshelves take precedence over anything else. I must snoop. It’s futile to resist the siren call of the books.
I read My Ideal Bookshelf cover-to-cover. Each person’s shelf is artistically recreated by Jane Mount. For example, this is Stephanie Meyer’s shelf:
Each shelf is accompanied by a personal reflection. Meyer offers this insight into her choices:
These books contain threads of what I like to write about: the way people interact, how we relate to one another when life is beautiful and horrible. But these books are greater than anything I could ever aspire to create.
None of the commentaries explain the person’s entire collection, but each offers a glimpse into that person’s reading life. For example, book designer Coralie Bickford-Smith says “The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again.” Interior designer Tom Delavan offers this: “Books are the very best kind of decoration, really. There are two types of books, the ones you read and the ones you have on your coffee table. Both make a space feel like home – you spend time with them, they have meaning for you, and they actually look good, too.” Writer Dave Eggers says “These are the books that crushed me, changed me when I first read them, and to which I have returned many times since, always finding more in them.”
Book lovers always have something to talk about. Always. My Ideal Bookshelf is like a beautiful conversation. With pictures.
I liked the book so much that I thought it would be really cool to ask my students to build their own ideal bookshelves and then write an essay to talk about their reading lives. There’s a handy template at the back of the book (and it’s also available on their blog). As the school year winds down, this is a great way to have students reflect on the books they’re read – not only during their time with me, but for as long as they’ve been reading. We just got started on Friday, but it was so much fun to walk around and see what had made students’ lists. (When I saw that my Turkish exchange student had Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on her list – we both shared a moment of squealing delight.)
I wanted to take up the challenge, too. I’m going to cheat, though, and do a YA bookshelf and another bookshelf – although there may be some cross-over titles. I am no artist, but here’s what I came up with.
It wasn’t easy to come up with these titles…and I left off a dozen more…so I am looking at this like it’s a snapshot of my YA reading life…including both books that I read when I was a teenager and younger (Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, That Was Then, This Is Now and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl all fall into that category. I read them between 35-40 years ago!) and more recent reads. The thing they all have in common is that I loved them and the characters that inhabit the pages have stuck with me.
My Ideal Bookshelf would make an excellent gift for any book lovers on your list.
I can’t say that I was thrilled when 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s true-life account of slavery, was chosen for book club. I haven’t seen the much-lauded film because I’ve heard it’s quite violent and my tolerance for violence seems to be on the decline these days and I didn’t really have any desire to read this book either. I understand its importance but, truthfully, this isn’t a book that I’d ever pick up.
“Having been born a free man,” Northrup writes, and having “been kidnapped and sold into slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”
Northrup intends to offer up “a candid and truthful statement of the facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or severer bondage.”
And factual it is – which I think might be part of the problem.
My first and most powerful experience with the subject of slavery came in 1977. I was in high school and there was a television event known as Roots. This mini-series was really must watch television and it had a profound impact on me. The story, based on the life of author Alex Haley’s grandmother, was shocking and horrific to me – a middle-class white girl from Eastern Canada. My experience with people of African-American descent was really limited; I could count the number of black kids at my school on one hand. I distinctly remember watching Roots and being ashamed of the colour of my skin. I still remember the characters Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. Such is the power of fiction.
Northrup is married with three small children when he is duped by a couple of white men and taken from his life in New York to a plantation in Louisiana. His account of the journey and his time spent as a slave is – I don’t know – instructive. Once in New Orleans he is purchased by a relatively kind man, William Ford. Northrup describes him as “kind, noble, candid, Christian.”
The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master…
Unfortunately, he is sold again to a less charitable master, Mr. Epps, a man whose manners are “repulsive and coarse.” When drinking, Epps’ chief delight was “dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream.” It is with Epps that Northrup spends the bulk of his incarceration.
Perhaps modern readers have been spoiled by today’s memoirs, which often read like fiction. Northrup’s motivation for writing this book was, I believe, to instruct – and while I understand the merits of his tale, I felt it was missing a key ingredient: character. Yes, Northrup was clearly a good, intelligent, brave man, but there was something distancing about the very formal language of this tale. I think in his effort to report the facts, the story loses some of its impact. For example, when Eliza (someone else who has been kidnapped) is separated from her young children Northrup remarks “never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief.” Imagine how that scene might have played out in fiction.
I am not sorry that I read Northrup’s story, but is it great literature? Is it a book I would press into the hands of my friends and say “you’ve got to read this.” No.