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Taking action

1 Nov

The first of November has me thinking about putting flannel sheets on the bed. It’s been getting colder and I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but now I feel I can take action.

You know who else took action? Pete Seibert. He’s the subject of this biography in verse, Ski Solder by Louise Borden.

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Publisher’s Summary: Ever since he first strapped on his mother’s wooden skis when he was seven, Pete Seibert always loved to ski. At eighteen, Seibert enlisted in the U.S. Army and joined the 10th Mountain Division, soldiers who fought on skis. In the mountains of Italy, Seibert encountered the mental and physical horrors of war. When he was severely wounded and sent home to recover, Seibert worried that he might never ski again. But with perseverance and the help of other 10th Mountain ski soldiers, he took to the slopes and fulfilled his boyhood dream— founding a ski resort in Vail, Colorado. The book is a dramatic recounting of a World War II experience and includes archival photos, as well as commentary on the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division, and a detailed list of sources.

It is a quick read, but sheds light on a little known slice of history.

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Frankenstein’s Frankenstein

29 Oct

Last week, eavesdropping on book club conversations, I overheard a boy admit to his group that he’d read ahead and finished the book. “It was rainy, so I stayed in my pyjamas all day and just finished it.” My heart soared.

It was another rainy weekend here, perfect for reading knitting and a lot of pyjama time. I finished Catherine Reef’s biography of Mary Shelley,  The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator Mary Shelley.  It is a long title for a slim volume.

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Publisher’s Summary: On the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, comes a riveting biography of its author, Mary Shelley, whose life reads like a dark gothic novel, filled with scandal, death, drama, and one of the strangest love stories in literary history.

The story of Frankenstein’s creator is a strange, romantic, and tragic one, as deeply compelling as the novel itself. Mary ran away to Lake Geneva with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was just sixteen. It was there, during a cold and wet summer, that she first imagined her story about a mad scientist who brought a corpse back to life. Success soon followed for Mary, but also great tragedy and misfortune.

Catherine Reef brings this passionate woman, brilliant writer, and forgotten feminist into crisp focus, detailing a life that was remarkable both before and after the publication of her iconic masterpiece. Includes index.

Mary’s Monster – A biography in verse

18 Apr

There are all different kinds of monsters. Some are real some are imagined. In Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein, Lita Judge tells the story of Mary Shelley’s monsters (personal, familial and societal) and how they led her to write Frankenstein.

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Publisher’s Summary: Pairing free verse with over three hundred pages of black-and-white watercolor illustrations, Mary’s Monster is a unique and stunning biography of Mary Shelley, the pregnant teenage runaway who became one of the greatest authors of all time.

Legend is correct that Mary Shelley began penning Frankenstein in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. What most people don’t know, however, is that the seeds of her novel had been planted long before that night. By age nineteen, she had been disowned by her family, was living in scandal with a married man, and had lost her baby daughter just days after her birth. Mary poured her grief, pain, and passion into the powerful book still revered two hundred years later, and in Mary’s Monster, author/illustrator Lita Judge has poured her own passion into a gorgeous book that pays tribute to the life of this incredible author.

I knew a bit about this story before picking up Mary’s Monster,  but Lita Judge does a marvelous job setting Mary Shelley’s story in its historical context. And Judge’s black and white illustrations beautifully evoke the darkness and difficulties Mary faced.

The book is definitely intended for an older audience and most listings say Gr 7 & up, or ages 13-17. Although many 6th graders don’t read dark poetic biographies, I have one girl in my first period class who I think will love this book.

Frankenstein  was published 200 years ago, in 1818. You can read and/or listen to an interesting CBC commentary on the book  here.

The Never-Ending Present

5 Apr

One of the best things I didn’t get in Denver was a copy of this book, The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay.

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I was pleased to see that the publisher, ECW Press, a small publishing company out of Toronto, had a booth in the exhibit hall. I made my way over and had a nice conversation with Amy, who told me that she had no ARCs, but could send me one. Yeah!

I received the ARC a few weeks later. I came back with a pile of ARCs, finally finished made it to this one. It was worth the wait!

Publisher’s Summary: In the summer of 2016, more than a third of Canadians tuned in to watch what was likely the Tragically Hip’s final performance, broadcast from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Why? Because these five men were always more than just a band. They sold millions of records and defined a generation of Canadian rock music. But they were also a tabula rasa onto which fans could project their own ideas: of performance, of poetry, of history, of Canada itself.

In the first print biography of the Tragically Hip, Michael Barclay talks to dozens of the band’s peers and friends about not just the Hip’s music but about the opening bands, the American albatross, the band’s role in Canadian culture, and Gord Downie’s role in reconciliation with Indigenous people. When Downie announced he had terminal cancer and decided to take the Hip on the road one more time, the tour became another Terry Fox moment; this time, Canadians got to witness an embattled hero reach the finish line.

This is a book not just for fans of the band: it’s for anyone interested in how culture can spark national conversations.

When I first heard about the book, I expected it to be a straightforward band bio. On the page before the Prologue, however,  the author tells readers that the book is a documentary combining a chronological history of the band, thematic reflections on the band’s work and influence, a description of Gord Downie’s work that lead to The Secret Path, and a collection of impressions by friends and fans from The Hip’s early days through the final concert in Kingston. Barclay also tells readers that you can read chapters in isolation or out of order. Although I read the book sequentially, I can see that this is completely possible. It would be a great way to reread the book.

I have to admit that I read much of the book with my computer parked on YouTube, searching up bands and songs from the 80s and 90s. Many names were part of my youth and young adulthood, but I needed reminders of who they were or what songs were on that album. The first half of the book was a wonderful stroll down memory lane.  I am the same age as most of the band members so many of the bands they listened to were ones I heard. And many Canadian artists who began in the music industry at the same time as The Tragically Hip  were on the radio when I was in college and starting my career. For the most part, I loved this. Occasionally, it seemed like there was a lot of name dropping and info about the music business that only real music aficionados would appreciate, but it never lasted long. I could have skipped those chapters ( per the author’s forward) but found something new and interesting, even where I felt the book bogged down for me.

I don’t claim to be a huge fan of The Tragically Hip. I had two cassettes in the 90s (Up to Here and Road Apples) and brought both of them with me when I went to Colombia. Living on the west coast if the US for the last 20 years, I hadn’t paid them much more attention until the news of Downie’s terminal diagnosis became public along with the final tour dates. I watched the concert in Kingston and felt really connected to Canada and Canadian culture.

I found a couple of aspects of the book fascinating. First, although many people connect to the “Canada’s Band” mythos, Barclay brings in many voices that counter that narrative. I actually appreciate that. I grew up in small town Ontario and I know that this is not the experience of many, if not most, Canadians.

Secondly, this wasn’t just an uncritical homage to the band. Barclay, and the people he interviewed for the book (or for articles he’d published previously) are not mere band sycophants. Chapter 15 “A Heart-Warming Moment for Literature”  talks about Gord Downie as a poet. There are voices that argue that Downie is Canada’s greatest poet. There are voices that argue that Downie is no poet at all. It is this sort of discourse, which occurs throughout the book, that gets me so jazzed about the book.

If you are in the GTA, there is a book release party at the Horseshoe Tavern tonight (April 5th) and another in Lindsay on Saturday. Details can be found here.

 

 

Upside down and backwards

19 Feb

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I’ve heard (and used) this quote about Ginger Rogers a number of times. I hadn’t realized it originated in a Frank and Ernest comic!

I got to thinking about it because I just read a new picture book biography of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, self-taught blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter. Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten is written by Portland Musician Laura Veirs and illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

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Because she was left-handed she played the guitar “upside down and backwards”, a refrain that repeats throughout the book and that brought to mind the Ginger Rogers reference.

Libba Cotten was convinced by her pastor to give up the guitar, saying she played “Devil’s music”. Later in life, she became the housekeeper for  Ruth Crawford Seeger and, in a house full of music, she rediscovered her passion. She made her first recording in 1958 at the age of 62.

This picture book biography includes an author’s note that gives more details about Cotten’s life and Veirs’ lifelong connection to her work, as well as a list of sources.

Here she is, playing her most famous song, “Freight Train”.

 

Every breath

19 Jan

I read several books during the snow week we just had, and have written in the past about my Grandmother’s experience in a tuberculosis sanatorium.  Two books I read during my unexpected vacation got me thinking about her again.

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The first, The Secret Horses of Briar Hill,  by Megan Shepherd, was not what i was expecting. I thought it was going to be a war story. It is set during the Second World War, and might even be considered an allegory for it. But the real story focuses on the experiences of a young girl in an isolated hospital (which I suspect was a tuberculosis sanatorium) in the English countryside.

Publisher’s Summary:There are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospitalthe mirrors that reflect the elegant rooms once home to a princess, now filled with sick children. Only Emmaline can see the creatures. It is her secret.

One morning, Emmaline climbs over the wall of the hospital’s abandoned gardens and discovers something incredible: a white horse with a broken wing has left the mirror-world and entered her own.

The horse, named Foxfire, is hiding from a dark and sinister force—a Black Horse who hunts by colorless moonlight. If Emmaline is to keep him from finding her new friend, she must surround Foxfire with treasures of brilliant shades. But where can Emmaline find color in a world of gray?

The second made me weep. If you haven’t read When Breath Becomes Air  by Paul Kalanithi, you must. If you never read nonfiction, you must read this beautiful reflection by a man, a doctor, as he comes to the end of his life.

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Publisher’s Summary: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

Another snowy day

11 Jan

I started kindergarten in 1969. I have few memories about it, but this I have are very clear. One of those memories is encountering Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day.

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The book spoke to introverted little me, who loved making snow angels.

So, here I am, almost 50 years later, sitting at home after a huge snowfall in Portland, enjoying our 6th snow day of the school year. And I read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s  A Poem for Peter,  which tells the  Ezra Jack Keats biography, focusing on how he created The Snowy Day.

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It is a beautiful, poetic tribute to a man and a book. And the perfect thing to read on this snowy day. Pinkney’s poetry fits Portland today:

But when it snowed,

oh, when it snowed!

Nature’s glittery hand

painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.

She connects snow to equality.

Snow made opportunity and equality

seem right around the corner.

Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty

or greedy or nice.

Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.

Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep

over a poor lady’s stoop.

That’s Snow’s magic.

Snow is magical and it is especially so for children. I hope kids of all ages  in Portland get out and enjoy the snow today. Play, throw snowballs, make snow angels.

But be a snow angel in another way, if you can. Four homeless people have died of exposure in Portland in the last 10 days. Think about them, too. Act if you can. Donate if you can’t act. But do something to help the homeless feel that the snow brings Magic to them, too.

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