Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq – Mark Alan Stamaty

aliaMark Alan Stamaty’s graphic story will resonate with anyone who has ever visited a library. Its simple black and white drawings tell the story of Alia, a woman who lives and works in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Iraq is on the verge of chaos as Britain and the U.S. are planning to invade the country and remove Hussein from power.

Alia is the head librarian at the Basra Central Library. We are told that “ever since she was a little girl, books have been a source of happiness and adventure for her.”  When she reads the story of how the Mongol Invasion destroyed the Baghdad library resulting in the loss of  “irreplaceable treasures” Alia worries that something similar could happen to her beloved library. alia1 When the fighting starts in Iraq, Alia feels compelled to save the books in the library. When she can’t get her own government to help her, she starts moving the books herself.

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq is a simple story, geared for younger readers.  It only took me about ten minutes to read, but don’t let that deter you from checking it out. Alia’s story proves what book lovers already know: books are worth fighting for.

I Am Scout – Charles J. Shields

It’s pretty much a rite of passage that every teenager reads To Kill a Mockingbird at some point during their high school career. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s only book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.  I love the book , but even I can see how today’s teens might struggle with it.

tkamIn case you’ve been living under a rock, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town lawyer. Narrated by Scout, the story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Although the action of the story takes place when Scout and her brother are children, the story is narrated from an adult’s vantage point which is how Scout is able to make some very worldly observations about society, childhood, prejudice and evil – all of which are themes in the book.

It’s an English teacher’s dream book, but it’s not without its problems – especially when you teach a generation of students who mostly read about sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Still, I think it’s worthwhile.

I started reading I Am Scout, Charles J. Shield’s student-friendly autobiography of Harper Lee  ( adapted by Shields from his book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) just before my students and I began our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even though I have probably read To Kill a Mockingbird a half dozen times or more, I’d never read anything about Lee’s life and I was interested.

If you ever wondered why Lee never published another book (and, really, who hasn’t wondered that?) this is the book for you. Shields traces Lee’s childhood, the youngest of four children growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Almost from the beginning, it’s impossible not to see Scout when you read that Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards) Harper Lee:

had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.” Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Eithin minutes, each had landed face down, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”

Almost everything about Scout’s make-believe life is drawn from Lee’s childhood. Lee did call her father by his first name and he was a lawyer. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Lee’s mother was virtually absent from her life owing to issues with mental health. Several other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by people in Lee’s life including Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict and Boo Radley, who is based on Alfred Boleware Jr., a Monroeville native who was rumoured to be  “a captive in his own home, tied to a bed frame by his father.”

Shields also tells how Lee helped Truman Capote research (and some say write) In Cold Blood, easily considered one of the quintessential pieces of true-crime writing of the last century. The relationship between Lee and Capote lasted thoughout their lives, but was not without its trials; Capote was, perhaps, jealous of Lee’s success –  even though he was certainly no slouch.

I am scoutSo, why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another novel?  According to Shields:

She reportedly had every intention of writing many novels, but never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. She became overwhelmed. Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed, she said, and she retreated from the spotlight. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable with too much attention. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved.

I felt after reading Shields’ biography that the reason Lee never wrote another novel was because this was the only story she had to tell. But that’s okay – if you only have one, it may as well be the one that wins the Pulitzer.

Reading, Writing and Leaving Home – Lynn Freed

Although I have never read any of Lynn Freed’s fiction, I was interested in her collection of essays, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page because as a high school writing teacher I am always looking for writing advice to share with my students. You know, something like King’s “If you don’t time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.” While there aren’t necessarily any pithy quotes in this collection, it was an interesting book because Freed herself has had an interesting life.

Born and raised in South Africa, Freed’s parents were actors, and she grew up – the youngest of three girls – surrounded by books.

Most of the books in the house were kept in my parent’s study, a cosy room with leather chairs, teak bookshelves, leaded windows, and piles of scripts stacked around on the floor. It was there that my mother was to be found during the day, either timing scripts or drilling a new actor. And there that I was allowed to read whatever was available – mostly plays, but also opera libretti, the odd history, a few biographies, a selection of popular novels – as long as I didn’t interrupt.

Her writing career began when she wrote “ninety tedious pages” for an AFS scholarship application. The following year, when she actually landed in New York after having won the scholarship, she was told that the organization had put a two-page limit on the essay because of her entry. That story and those characters continued to swirl around in Freed’s head and eventually found their way into her novel. But none of it was easy.

The world I was writing about was the same world I had tackled for AFS, but now  could life it from the restraints of myth and detail and report and do with it anything I pleased. Or, at least, so I thought.

Freed writes about writing as I believe writing is: hard freakin’ work. Frustrating. Painstaking. A labour of love, sure, but it’ll kick your sorry ass.

…I would suggest that one should never overlook two essential elements in the development of the writer: long years of practice and a ruthless determination to succeed. Writers come to their material in different ways, but come they must if they are to succeed.

Even though this sounds like advice, Leaving Home isn’t actually a how-to book. The book chronicles Freed’s journey from girlhood to adulthood and covers everything from her relationship with her sisters to a trip back to the house she’d once called home – and all if it is fodder for her writing. If, as she claims, she has chosen truth over safety in her writing – I suspect her novels would be worth a look. I certainly enjoyed this collection of essays.

 

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I have a friend who is all about the self-help books.  Of course, she also believes in reiki. I don’t know if she’s read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project but I know she’d love it. I’m a skeptic (a hopeful skeptic) and I really liked this book. Perhaps I read it at the perfect time in my life – lots of changes and upheaval and uncertainty, but hope, too. In less capable hands, The Happiness Project might have been a different book. (a la Eat, Pray, Love, a book I didn’t love.) Instead, Gretchen Rubin’s musings on what happiness means and how to achieve it comes across as less how-to manual and more why happiness should be pursued and valued.

Rubin’s personal happiness project was inspired by that moment (which will likely come to us all) when she realized she was “in danger of wasting [her] life.” Okay, truthfully, who hasn’t thought that a time or two? Of course, she knew all the ways her life was pretty damn perfect: great husband, wonderful kids, work she loved, terrific extended family, lived in NYC etc etc…Still.

What I liked the most about Rubin’s happiness journey was that she understood and even poked fun at her personal shortcomings: her need for praise and her short fuse. I also liked that her quest for happiness wasn’t all abstract and metaphysical. She understood the sinple joy of getting rid of junk and splurging once and a while on something you really needed or wanted.  Rubin herself seems incredibly down-to-earth…someone you’d like to sit and have a cup of tea with (I’d say a glass of wine, but she’s mostly given that up!)

 Threaded through the entire book was this notion that “the days are long, but the years are short.” It’s true, isn’t it? When she and her husband take a moment to watch their sleeping children, it is a moment of sheer happiness – if only because that moment will never come again.

 Happiness spreads. I know this is true. I know the power of a smile because I use it every day in the classroom….even when I don’t feel like smiling, it’s amazing how smiling at a surly kid makes them smile, too. I want to be happier. I deserve to be. And so I owe it to myself to make that happen.

If you’re looking for inspiration, for a way to make your life happier, The Happiness Project is a great place to start. You can visit Rubin’s website, The Happiness Project, for lots more info.

Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight has been on my tbr list forever.  It was universally praised and having recently finished Scribbling the Cat I am even more anxious to read it.

Fuller was born in England and moved, with her family, to Rhodesia when she was 3.  Here’s an even more interesting fact: Fuller received her B.A. from Acadia University.  Since I live next door to Nova Scotia –  I feel a certain kinship to her now; she’s an honorary Maritimer!

Scribbling the Cat is Fuller’s story of  ‘K’,  a man she meets on a trip back to Zambia to visit her parents who still live and work there. Fuller has left her husband and two children behind in the States. She does a wonderful job, throughout this book, of juxtaposing those two very different worlds: one of excess and waste and one where nothing is wasted, where potential danger always seems to be lurking.

K  is something of an enigma.  She hears about him before she actually meets him and when she meets him, he takes her breath away.

Even at first glance, K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress.

Of course, I immediately thought that Scribbling the Cat was going to be about a sexual relationship between Fuller and K –  but their relationship turns out to be far more complicated than that. K was a soldier in the Rhodesian war and having grown up there, Fuller is intensely interested in his story. As their friendship develops, she gets the idea that they should journey to the places he had fought. She is, after all, a writer and he is a remarkable subject.

K is an endlessly fascinating subject – he rants, he weeps, he recalls with equal vigor.

Scribbling the Cat is an unflinching look at war – the horrible things people do and how they must find some sort of peace with their actions when the war is over. This is K’s story, to be sure, and it’s a horrific one.  But this is Fuller’s story, too, and it’s a remarkable.

Read for the Memorable Memoir Challenge.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. At first I typed my stories on a little portable Brothers typewriter. I remember that it was blue and that you had to really hit the keys hard. When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me an electric typewriter that weighed at least 50 pounds. At the time it was state-of-the-art, honest.

I have always wanted to be a writer, a published writer and I guess I am. I’ve written and had things published and even been paid for what I’ve written.

Of course the writer’s carrot is the novel and I’ve been slogging away at one – never with the dedication and determination to actually finish it, of course, just enough to say that I’m writing one – for over a decade.

Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird speaks to writers who care more about the craft and less about the imagined glory. This is not a how-to book. It’s not a book filled with prompts and practical advice about how to write pithy dialogue or set the scene. Still, it’s a wonderful book.

The very first thing I tell me new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

Bird by Bird offers  “some instructions on writing and life.” It’s Lamott’s love letter to the written word – and she clearly does love them – the words, I mean.  It  is laugh – out – loud funny and tender, too.  Lamott navigates the writer’s world with a great deal of affection and a healthy dose of tough love. She’s honest about her jealousy when faced with the success of writers she believes to be less talented than she is;  she discusses the pitfalls of the blank page;  she talks about how to negotiate with your characters. But mostly she talks about why we write (and why we read). She says:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.

Writing, says Lamott, is important work. Writers should write, not for the notoriety which they assume comes with publication (and Lamott tells some funny stories about the so-called status of the published author) but because they have to. They want to. They must.

The Art of Meaningful Living by Christopher Brown

meaningful

When I worked at Indigo there was an entire section of the store devoted to Well Being. People looking for help with their relationships, sex lives, food addictions, spirituality, and just about everything else related to their personal lives could be found in this section. Perhaps by some weird fluke though, Christopher F. Brown’s new book The Art of Meaningful Living could have been found over in the Art section and, strangely, it would have been equally at home there, too.

The Art of Meaningful Living is a clever hybrid which marries self-help with art.  Brown offers practical advice on how to live a meaningful life and John Palmer contributes abstract art to the book which makes The Art of Meaningful Living a rare bird indeed: it’s the kind of book you’d actually leave on your coffee people for your friends to see.

Many of us reach a certain age and  start to wonder about our place in the world. I don’t mean to be morose, but let’s face it –  we don’t have infinite time on the planet.  More often than not we push that thought away, planning for an unforeseeable future. Eventually, though, life catches up and many of us need help reorienting our ’ship’, so to speak. Brown offers thoughtful and meaningful advice on how to chart your course and he does it without psychobabble. The book is divided into four sections: Wisdom, Action, Resilience and The Art of Meaningful Lives.  Brown asks us, first of all, to consider our lives and  acknowledge our cast –  that is the people who had a hand in bringing you to the place you are right now. He also encourages us to commit to change and assures us that the book will help the reader “learn to build wisdom, take action, develop resilience… manage your mind, cope with the world around you, define what is valuable to you, and move forward with the life you want.”

Palmer considers Brown’s advice and each page offers his colourful,  (and although I can’t claim to have any expertise in art at all) often very beautiful interpretations of the ideas.

Brown and Palmer began their collaboration after they had each lost a parent. They believe The Art of Meaningful Living “provide[s] hope to move past those dark moments.”

Perhaps it is fate, then, that this book came across my desk when it did. My father died of esophageal cancer as I was about half way through it. As a person who has always struggled to balance my creative instincts with the day-to-day slog, The Art of Meaningful Living gives me the tools to move past the grief I feel and on towards attaining a life worth living.