I’m with the tortoise

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I decided to take my reading out of my home by joining a book club at my local library. I went to my first meeting last month to discuss Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I read it when it first came out in 2012, but went to the meeting anyway as I had enjoyed it and wanted to hear other peoples’ thoughts.

This month, we read Come, Thou Tortoise, the debut novel of Jessica Grant. I thought I would put my reaction to it here first before talking it out in book club.

Uneven. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking back on this book.

There were moments when I couldn’t stop reading and moments when I thought I could put it down and never pick it up again. I reached page 150 before I had a genuinely pleasurable moment. If not for the book club, I may have set it aside.

But I am glad I pushed through. The traits that bothered me grew fewer in number as the plot deepened and the main character came out of herself.

Come, Thou Tortoise tells the story of Audrey “Oddly” Flowers, a young woman with a below-average IQ, dealing with the death of her father and the loss of her Uncle Thoby, who lived with them for most of her life and who abandons her after the funeral.

Her father, Walter, was a scientist trying to find the key to immortality by teaching cells to remember how to be young. Complex ideas like Walter’s work, or Uncle Thoby’s history, or how not to be afraid of airplanes are all presented through the explanation that makes most sense to Oddly. As her capacity to fully understand all that is occurring is diminished, so is the readers.

tortoise, Jessica Grant, CanLit

photo by Peter Pearson (bit.ly/1JLD0tH) License: bit.ly/1jxQJMa

Mixed into this story is the experience of Winnifred the tortoise as told from her perspective as guest of Audrey’s friends (she is left behind when Audrey returns home) and as companion to Audrey and others over her long life. I really enjoyed Winnifred’s sections; her concerns for her own well being and for Audrey or other former housemates blend well with the larger narrative. Winnifred also provides a relief from the oddness of Oddly. Think about that. The narrative of a tortoise is more normal than the thoughts and actions of the human protagonist.

Mostly this is a result of Grant’s use of wordplay. Oddly loves puns and uses them as a way to deal with or deflect from difficult situations – calling her father’s coma a comma, which I misread every time, or using French words in place of English, which worked well. The device is over used at the beginning of the novel, perhaps to help establish Audrey’s personality, but it got old pretty fast and I was glad when the plot made it more difficult to work the puns in organically. At times it is difficult to trust the narrative. Is it true or just wordplay?

I like humour in my books, but often find books that are meant to be funny to be the least funny things I read. Maybe it is the expectation that I should be laughing at every page, but most often they are disappointing. While I laughed at times while reading Grant’s novel, I think it is a disservice to the story to present it as funny book. The heart of the book is the relationship between Audrey and the two men who made up her family.

Walter’s death opens up many questions for Audrey, most of which have nothing to do with what you or I would consider important. A missing hamster. An arch-nemesis. Audrey takes for granted the stability of her family life, until Uncle Thoby’s disappearance forces her to look more closely at the people nearest to her and those she would keep at arms length.

Even with (and perhaps because of) the unanswered questions, the centre of Grant’s story and Oddly’s life holds – a family is made by love:

But my dad had explained this to me. That sometimes there is only one parent. Sometimes there are two. Sometimes there are three. But what it comes down to is who wants to be. And if someone doesn’t want to be, they shouldn’t have to be. And if someone does want to be, like my dad, who really really wanted to be…or like Uncle Thoby, then that person should be allowed to be.

And that kind of love is something you should not say no to.

Book club is tomorrow. I’ll be sure to update you on how other people took Come, Thou Tortoise. For more of my thoughts on this novel, check out my Twitter feed @rereadpages for my live tweets from reading this book under #comethoutortoise. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

BJL

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#tbt book nerd style

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Some books are like warm hugs. You always feel good when you read them no matter how many times you’ve read the same words. When I was younger, that book was Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

Oke is a prolific and beloved author of Christian children’s books. Published in 1979, Love Comes Softly is Oke’s first novel and the first book in a series of eight following the same family. From that one book, Oke launched her career, which now includes over 70 books and several awards.

Set in the 1800s, Love Comes Softly tells the story of Marty and Clark Davis. The two meet under tragic circumstances after Marty’s husband dies in a horse-riding accident. Alone on the frontier, Marty, newly pregnant, has nowhere to turn until Clark, father of a one-year-old daughter, who also recently lost his wife, proposes a marriage of convenience. He even promises that, come spring, if Marty is unhappy, he will pay for her return east if only she brings his daughter with her so she can have a mama.

Christian Children's Books, Janette Oke

Feels like a warm hug

And so begins a year of challenges, frustrations, growth, and, of course, unexpected love.

Love for a little girl, for a new baby, for an unplanned couple and for God.

I grew up in a Christian household, and the rhythms of prayer, reading the Bible, and Sunday rest found in Clark’s home, which are completely foreign to Marty, echoed the atmosphere of my own home.

Over the course of the book, Marty realizes a love for Clark and a love for God. These great loves are the heart of the whole Love Comes Softly series.

Reading Love Comes Softly is like climbing back into the chair in my parents’ living room, when I was small enough to be enveloped in its cushions, feeling secure and sure of the world and my place in it. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Do you have a book that feels like a warm hug?

Trust issues

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I’ve been working on a scene in my book that is a pivotal moment for my main character. I’m not actually that far along in the story yet, but I really wanted to write it so I skipped ahead. The difficulty in writing the scene was the need for Rosaline to decide if she trusts someone or not, and I needed to decide if her decision is the correct one. My choice and hers could bring the story in different directions and I had to weigh the pros and cons of each. An added concern was that the choices revolved around a real life event, so the characters’ actions had to make sense for the real outcome.

On June 14, 1497, after leaving a family dinner at his mother’s home, Juan Borgia was murdered and his body dumped in the Tiber in Rome. The Pope began an investigation, but abruptly called it off after only a few days. As a result, while the family had many enemies, a rumour implicating his brother Cesare began to circulate. Juan’s murder was never solved.

Borgia

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At this point in my story, Rosaline is close to the Borgia family, acting as Lucrezia’s confidante and friend and frequently sparing with Cesare, though they are also friends. It is a dangerous time and Rosaline needs to decide what path she wishes to follow.

While the process was difficult and I struggled to make a final choice for the plot, I really enjoyed writing it and, ultimately, I think I stayed true to Rosaline’s character and her development.

Now I have to go back and tie the sections of my story together. Knowing where the characters are going and what the fall out will be helps me weave details and clues in the previous pages. I have to admit, the hard work of putting together feels really satisfying.

BJL

Tweeting while Reading

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Who says reading has to be a solitary activity? I’ve decided to live tweet my reading of Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. I started reading it last night so follow me on Twitter @rereadpages to catch up and to see updates as I continue reading (#comethoutortoise).

Come Thou Tortoise

And please tweet your thoughts back at me. I’d love to read them!

#tbt book nerd style

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Last week in celebration of International Children’s Book Day, I discussed The Seventh Princess, which is the first book I remember buying for myself, check that post out here. I enjoyed my book nostalgia so much that I’ve decided to make #tbt book nerd style a regular feature on re: read pages.

This week as part of National Poetry Month, I want to bring to your attention the first collection of poems that really made an impact on me. I had read individual poems that made an immediate impact, perhaps by the usual suspects – Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est – but the collection Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke lingered with me in a way I hadn’t previously experienced.

The collection, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2001, addresses the real story of Clarke’s cousins, two black men who were convicted of murder and hanged in New Brunswick in 1949. Just the idea that they were hanged so recently, which seems archaic, stuck with me, but the poems also use the experience of George and Rufus Hamilton to a reflect on the effects of systemic racism and cyclical poverty – issues that still need thoughtful contemplation.

Yesterday, as I reread these poems, one line stood out from the first page and I will leave you with those words:

My black face must preface murder for you.

Things that make you go hmmm

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I feel like I’ve read a series of books in which important plot points defy the laws of coincidence. Meaning that an event occurs or a detail is revealed that makes me say hmmm? It’s too neat or too unlikely and I am incapable of truly accepting the information no matter how great its impact.

Longbourn by Jo Baker is, unfortunately, full of such moments. Subtitled, Pride and Prejudice: The Servants’ Story, the novel tells about the hidden lives of the servants in Jane Austen’s beloved tale.

The details of the work, how the lives of the Bennet girls impact their day, is well done. Notes of tea leaves sprinkled to clean floors, lye burning their hands as they scrub dress hems clean, or recycling washing water to clean the flagstone outside are neatly incorporated. In one passage Sarah, the housemaid at the centre of this novel, feels as though her job has seeped into her very skin:

She lifted her hands to sniff them: grease and onions and kitchen soap. This must be the smell she carried with her wherever she went, whenever it was not something worse.

Sarah is aware of herself and how she is seen or, more accurately,  not seen by her employers. The servants presence and work are both taken for granted and ignored by the Bennet girls, but Baker does a good job of showing how the servants’ fears about their future are as equal to Mrs. Bennet’s and her girls. Baker falters when describing the lives the servants try to make for themselves outside of work, making choices that seem out of touch for the time period and forced for dramatic purposes.

The love life of the characters is the best example. The servants from the various households interact as the Bennet daughters are courted. A footman from the Bingley household is eager to make an impression on Sarah – but Ptolemy is not just a footman with grand ideas for his future (he wants to open a tobacco shop), he is a black footman.

Why Baker felt the need to include this twist is beyond me. Pride and Prejudice is set in the early 1800s, which means the slave trade (but not slavery itself) had only just been outlawed. The likelihood of an upper class, original old-money family having a black footman seems impossible, especially in a position that, if Downton Abbey has taught me anything, requires some training.

But Baker doesn’t stop there. I went from hmmm to whatever when the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, started looking to Ptolemy as a potential husband for Sarah. I know the rules were different for the servant class, but I’m pretty sure mixed-marriage was off the books for a long time coming. And the reason Mrs. Hill was even looking to Ptolemy for Sarah was the sudden absence of the housemaid’s suitor, the sometimes footman and general labourer at Longbourn, James Smith.

The Bennet women forget that James was even a part of their lives. They even forget his name. His importance is secondary to the pursuit of marriage for the Bennett daughters. The strain of his disappearance pulls at the household as Lydia has run off with Wickham.

I admit I enjoyed that his name could be anybody’s. Even today, James Smith would turn up a lot of Google hits. The blandness of his name makes people think he is a nobody, but to Sarah, to Mrs. Hill, to the people who love him – he is irreplaceable.

Smith’s story is also somewhat of a misstep, in my opinion. Baker fills out his back story from a rough sketch of his childhood through the rough years of living as a solider in the Peninsular War to just as he joins the Bennet household. His story is interesting and well told but it also takes you far away from Longbourn. The twist in his history (another thing to make me go hmmm) and his connection to Longbourn don’t really make up for the amount of time spent away from Sarah and the storyline provided by Pride and Prejudice.

The time taken for Smith’s story is especially frustrating after Sarah decides to quit her job with the newly married Elizabeth to find the long absent Smith after she gets an idea of where to find him. Sarah’s journey north, on foot, on her own is completely skipped over and the story picks up when the two lovers are reunited. The story flashes forward again to wrap up with the two of them arriving back home to Longbourn.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Longbourn or that Baker isn’t an accomplished writer, just that I couldn’t lose myself in this story.

#tbt book nerd style

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Today is International Children’s Book Day and it is a (throwback) Thursday, so I thought I would mark the occasion with a post about a book I read as a child.

I bought The Seventh Princess by Nick Sullivan at a Scholastic book fair at my elementary school. Do you remember having book fairs at your school? I loved them. All the books lined up on tables. Getting a little money from my parents to pick out a book for myself. It was so exciting.

The Seventh Princess by Nick Sullivan (1983)

I’ve kept it all these years because of the memory of getting to buy it for myself and for the pleasure of the story. The Seventh Princess tells the story of Jennifer, a young girl who is transported off her school bus to a strange land where everyone thinks she is a princess. But, as Jennifer learns, being a princess in this place is no fairy tale and she will soon be turned into a harpy, doomed to do the bidding of the powerful sorceress Swenhild. With the help of some new friends, Jennifer must break the spell and free the kingdom and the princesses from Swenhild’s grasp.

I was really into fantasy at the time and I loved the cover – I still do, something about the blue of her cloak and the town in the background. So The Seventh Princess still sits on my shelf, waiting for my kids to get old enough to enjoy it.

Do you have any books that you’ve held on to from your childhood?