All I learned in my son’s junior kindergarten

Standard

My oldest son is reaching the end of his first year of school. We knew sending him to junior kindergarten would be a big change. He had never been in daycare and only interacted with kids at a community playtime or when visiting his cousins. I admit, we were a little nervous about what he would bring home, but for the most part, our fears have been unfounded. He has forged friendships, completed inquiries on topics that engaged his mind, and learned more about the world around him. He loves his teachers and regularly tells us how much he loves school. Kindergarten success!

The main downside of his new experiences has been the increasing gender division throughout the year. In September, his most common afterschool playmate was a girl from his class. For Halloween, he dressed as Julie Andrews. But by January, he no longer played with the girls in his class, and we began to hear about girl colours and boy colours, stories for girls and stories for boys.

Whenever the topic comes up, we try to have an age-appropriate conversation and encourage him to think about why he believes some things are for girls and some things are for boys. Trying to argue about every gender stereotype is a losing battle, so giving him the skills to think critically is our real aim. Watching him grow and figure things out for himself is a joy.

giphy (3)

 

But this school year just reminded me to watch my gender expectations as well. As the mother of two boys, I lamented for a while about not having a girl to share with all the things I loved growing up, especially books and stories.

Since the beginning of May, my son and I have read Charlotte’s Web twice. I wasn’t sure he would be interested. I don’t remember my older brothers reading this book, though I loved it, and the main human protagonist is an 8-year-old girl. I promised him that we would read the first chapter and if he wasn’t interested we could set it aside. We read four chapters the first night, and the moment we finished the book, he asked if we could read it again. And, in the wonderful coincidences of life, a spider built a web outside his bedroom window, so he named it Charlotte, after his favourite character.

With the success of reading Charlotte’s Web, I’m beginning to get excited about sharing all the other books I loved as a child, without worrying about if it is a girl book or a boy book. I can’t wait to introduce him to Anne of Green Gables or Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

A good story is just a good story.

Screenshot 2016-05-19 11.25.43

 

Advertisements

A prayer for a good book

Standard

Hurrah!

The first week of my 50 Book Challenge and I finished the book! Is that too many exclamation points to kick off a post? I don’t care because I’m off to a good start with this challenge and I’m feeling pretty excited!

Seriously, every time I have a dry spell in finding a good book, I need to remember that I can always turn to Sarah Dunant. With reading Sacred Hearts I’ve finished all of her historical fiction, so I’ll have to try her earlier work, which is in the thriller genre, unless the follow up to Blood & Beauty comes out (fingers-crossed).

For now, I just enjoyed devouring Sacred Hearts. Published in 2009, Sacred Hearts was shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. The story takes place in the convent of Santa Caterina in 1570 in the city of Ferrara. Serafina, a novice, is entered into the convent against her will and is placed in the care of Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress. While Caterina and Zuana bond as they work side by side in the dispensary, the head of the convent, Madonna Chiara, manoeuvres to fix the novice’s place in the convent while maintaining peace within its walls. Through all this, Serafina is used as a conduit through which convent struggles to find a balance between the warring forces of the counter-reformation and a more well-rounded experience within the strictures of convent life.

Screenshot 2016-01-02 22.43.06At two moments in the book, I really wasn’t sure how the story would unfold and could see the plot spinning off in totally different directions. This is one of Dunant’s great skills – presenting the possible outcomes before pushing the chips in one decisive direction. The first break takes place as Serafina carries out a plan of escape from the convent and is confronted by Zuana. The second is as Suora Umiliana, the sister in charge of the novices, makes moves to unseat Madonna Chiara and change the lives of all who dwell in the convent. The way Dunant is able to unfold both these plot lines feels unforced and true to the world she has created. All at once, you believe the contradictory thoughts that everything is both an inevitable progression as well as the consequence of random decisions and moments.

Dunant’s other great strength is her ability to weave historical detail into the story in a way that doesn’t just provide context but also enhances the characters’ personalities and moves the plot forward. The opening chapter sets the stage and players so clearly, you feel completely immersed in their world very quickly, mostly due to her eye for detail for the lives of the women whose story she is telling. On another day, I’ll do a close read of the opening scene and try to highlight the layers of history and character that Dunant uses to set the scene and lead in the reader.

Having finished this book makes me regret that I only put in one book from each author (excluding David Adams Richards) for my 50 Book Challenge. I count Dunant in my top five favourite authors and I’m really glad that I started this challenge off with such a strong book. I hope it bodes well for the rest of my choices.

One down, 49 to go!

BJL

Going back to the source

Standard

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
(Act II, Scene II, lines 43–44)

I can’t believe it passed so quickly, but December 9 marks the one-year anniversary of
re: read pages. I’ve had a great year with this blog and the books I’ve read and shared with you. The fact that I have 55 followers fills me with a giddy delight.

I thought that after a year together, I should share my name. My name is from a novel and not from the above quoted play, though Romeo and Juliet plays a role. My name is from Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart.

But before we get to that novel, let me introduce myself.

Hello, my name is Bryony.

Pardon, you say. Yes, Bryony.

I love my name. I never get bothered by mispronunciations or repeating it to people the first (or third) time we meet or spelling it out to everyone from government employees to Starbucks baristas.

1480635_10152081888986043_1203849287_n

I can thank my mother for my name. She received Touch Not the Cat from her father. It was 1976, the year it was published, and she was already the mother of two boys with classic names. When she finished reading it, she knew if she ever had a girl that she wanted to name her Bryony. Two years later, she finally got her chance.

One of my favourite stories about my name happened on the day I was born.

My mother delivered me and the doctor announced that I was girl and asked what my name would be, to which my mother responded, “Bryony.” And he said, “It’s a girl you know.” Ha ha ha. Makes me laugh every time.

But getting back to the novel that gave me my name, Touch Not the Cat was a best seller and, while Stewart’s novels are known for a blending of mystery and romance, Touch Not the Cat also has an element of the supernatural. The novel follows Bryony Ashley as she deals with the hit-and-run death of her father and the resulting legal fallout surrounding her childhood home, Ashley Court, a crumbling estate with more sentimental value than actual worth.

Her father left a death bed warning of an unnamed danger that Bryony hopes to uncover with the help of her lover, a person with whom she has had a lifelong telepathic connection but is not sure of his identity. She suspects one of her second cousins – twins, James and Emory, who has inherited the Court as a result of a trust, or their brother Francis – as the telepathy runs through the Ashley line. But as she picks apart the meaning of her father’s last message she is no longer sure of whom to trust, even her lifelong companion.

The mystery of her father’s final words requires Bryony to delve into her family’s history, especially that of Wicked Nick, a relative from the early 1800s with a poor reputation that brought about his untimely death when he was shot by the brothers of his lover. Stewart includes scenes from Nick’s life at the end of each chapter and quotes from Romeo and Juliet at the beginning. It was Nick’s father, William, who was obsessed with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, and who had the key to understanding the mystery Bryony is trying to solve.

Some of the novel falls a little hard on the ears of modern readers. For example, getting past her deep love for someone she calls cousin, no matter the distance, but more importantly her seeming disinterest in how her life will unfold following the upheaval the loss of her father represents. She is unconcerned for herself, beyond identifying her lover, and is focused only on deciphering her father’s message, and not even the danger he refers to but the mystery of “William’s brook.”

Perhaps, besides moving the plot along, Bryony’s focus also reflects Stewart’s stated viewpoint on the actions of her characters. Stewart said she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear….” With this in mind, it is easier to understand Bryony’s choices and rationales.

On a whole, Bryony is no pushover. She knows when to stand her ground and when to yield. She is observant, kind, and perseverant; a quality my mother appreciated when she read the book the first time.

As preparation for this post, I asked my mom for her thoughts on the novel and character from which I gained my name. She still likes (and recommends) Touch Not the Cat – she believes she has read it around six or seven times – and enjoys how the story of Bryony’s ancestors is brought forward into the present. While the character of Bryony didn’t influence her decision to choose it for me, my mom found the name to be romantic and full of an adventurous spirit. I like to think I am both of those things.

And, despite my experience of a lifetime of correcting people, my mom says she never had a problem pronouncing it correctly. Ever the teacher, she says she just followed “the phonetic rules.” For those who want to double check, Bryony is also in the dictionary as it is a poisonous climbing vine native to western Eurasia.

The story of my name is one that I’ve shared many, many times. And I love that I have a copy of the book that bears my name on my bookshelves. This past spring, in May, Mary Stewart died at the age of 97. She wrote 20 novels as well as three children’s books and a book of poetry. To celebrate the gift of her writing, the source of my name, and one year of re: read pages, I am giving away a copy of Touch Not the Cat. Just leave your favourite character name in the comments below and I will do a random draw to select a winner.

A pain that I’m used to

Standard

Lives of Short Duration, Richards’ third novel, is not an easy read, not in story nor in form. Once again Richards places his tale in small-town New Brunswick, this time following the lives of  several generations of the Terri family as well as their extended family and friends.

The novel is unrelenting in several ways. The Terries are a family falling apart and nothing feels solid and dependable, not family bonds or social structure. The narration reflects this undependability as the story is told largely through the blurry perspectives and reminisces of characters that are either drunk or suffering from illness and dementia. As a result, the story spills out in a boundless form, slipping from past to present in a timeless stream of consciousness. The dense, unbroken text continues on and on, only divided up by four section headings and the occasional one-line break. As a result, you feel as caught up and stuck as the characters are in their own circumstances, circumstances that are often appalling, painful and unfortunate.

Lives of Short Duration opens with a party that is starting to sour. The Terries are hosting, though the familial ties are difficult to unknot, even for the Terries. George, the father, is drunk and acting up. His daughter, Lois, a mother of three young children, also at the party, yells at him after he threatens to set a bridge, which connects their property to that of a life-long friend, Lester Murphy, on fire, “Goddamn George, you ruin everything,” Lois shouted. “But ya aren’t ruinin my fun, you hear that—you aren’t ruinin my fun.” Later, you discover that her words are an echo of her mother’s, who moved away from the area after leaving George. Finding fun, at the expense of others and often to their own detriment, is a reoccurring justification for their decisions.

Once the span is on fire, the RMCP arrive to inform George that the body of his father, who had been missing for a year, has been found in the woods, and that Lester Murphy has been struck by a car and died. From this party, the story spins out along the timeline, past and future, of the Terries’ lives and of the region. Midway through the novel, the perspective changes and story restarts from the hours of the opening pages as seen by the doomed Lester Murphy.

The characters that populate this novel are not easy to care for or even like. They are self-absorbed, destructive, violent, cruel, grasping people. While you begin to understand their actions, it is difficult to really sympathize, not that they would want you to, either. The struggle of their lives overwhelms the small breaks of happiness, and they constantly return to a place of frustration, “To wake in the night in the midst of a shuddering hangover when the dismal past threatens you, when faces form in slow motion before you, so every particle of their flesh breathes misery…”. The misery is pushed down and swallowed up by drinking, drugs, and casual sex. These activities cover the growing distance between the characters, between people and their history, and between individuals and themselves.

The only character who elicits any sense of hope is Packet Terri, the eldest child of George and his ex-wife, Elizabeth. The other members of the Terri family seem to yearn for him (though they also resent him for their longing). At the party, George, after burning the bridge and his hands in the process, expresses anger at Packet’s choice to skip the party, and, once the RCMP arrive, Packet’s absence is even more noted, “There was a terrible thing happening. Everyone was saying that they needed Packet there.” Packet is set apart from the other characters both physically and emotionally. He leaves the area to work in the North, earning a decent living, though not escaping the violence of his home, and he moves around, even across the country to Victoria , BC .

He manages to break away from the destructive cycle in which his family is stuck, but he also returns to them. He sees in his family the good that the police, outsiders, and even the reader, would overlook in the face of all their struggles and destructive behaviour. Packet’s understanding and acceptance of his family is seen with his brother Little Simon, who is named after their grandfather, “And he was gone through the dry field in an October afternoon, with his hands in his pockets, his cap over his ears—and Packet would love him entirely, and be sad.” Little Simon is a drug addict and dealer. He is violent and often cruel, though he excuses it as a little fun teasing, and despite his illegal activities manages to elude the police for a long time. Both old Simon and Little Simon die as they lived – Old Simon in the woods where he lived for 60 years, Little Simon in a game of Russian roulette, a bit of fun played too seriously. Between them is Packet, the one who survives.

Reading Lives of Short Duration is a challenge, and I wish I had known what I was getting into before I started reading it. The experiences of the Terries are almost buried in the form, and I feel like I missed a lot by wanting to impose an order and untangle the messiness of their lives. I missed the good in the Terries and, therefore, I believe, one point that Richards is trying to make.

 

On a side note, this past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending of reading of Richards’ newest novel, Crimes Against My Brother. The short passage that Richards shared held all the traits that I love about his writing: controlled pacing, anticipation, the quiet sorrows and joys that life holds. His reading style was matter of fact; there was no need to add emphasis to the meaning built by his words. Afterwards, I stood in line, full of excitement and terror, to get his signature. I even managed to express some sort of appreciation for his work, though I was comically tongue-tied in front of such a great wordsmith.

 

All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Lives of Short Duration. 1981. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.

This is how you do it

Standard

I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.

I am a feminist

Standard

Last night I went to an event featuring the amazing journalist and author Caitlin Moran. A crowd of 500 people, mostly women, plus the spillover crowd listening in the auditorium below, laughed and learned for almost two hours as Moran discussed some of her favourite topics: feminism, masturbation, and cheese on a fork. And it was brilliant.

Moran has long been a writing celebrity in her native UK (she has been writing professionally since she was a teenager and has won numerous awards, including Columnist of the Year in 2010), but started gaining wide attention in North America with the publication of How to Be a Woman (released here in 2012, see a great review here), a memoir structured around Moran’s feminist epiphanies and musings.

She was in Toronto to promote her novel, How to Build a Girl, which is being released today. The novel seems to be a fictionalized twist of Moran’s childhood, as it follows teenager Johanna Morrigan as she reinvents herself from a small-town awkward screw-up to a fast-talking music journalist. Though the novel was brought up, and a small passage about how to deal with an XXL penis when having sex was acted out, the interview felt conversational rather than just a plug. Journalist Johanna Schneller did a great job of staying out of Moran’s way and just letting her talk while still guiding the conversation.

I first heard of Moran last year through a podcast of the Munk Debates discussing if men were obsolete, Moran spoke for the no side, and soon after I was devouring the hilarious How to Be a Woman. Though re: read pages has a focus on fiction, I strongly recommend picking this book up, regardless of your gender, as her perspective is valuable to anyone interested in equality.

I don’t agree with everything Moran believes, but, as she said last night, women don’t need to wait for one woman to lead all us all, but, instead, we can each contribute our piece to the feminist fabric. Moran’s contribution just happens to be as funny as it is important.

  • BJL

Raising a Reader

Standard

My mom was a primary school teacher for over thirty years and teaching children to read was one of her greatest joys. She said that the moment you could sit a kid on your lap was the moment you should start reading to them. So when I started having children, I wanted to instill the same love for reading that my Mom gave to me.

My first son loved books from the start. He would always sit still and listen. And now, at the age of three, he picks out from the library and reads simple board books on his own. He was born a reader, and he needs no encouragement to select reading as an activity.

My second son, who turned one in May, is a completely different person. Since moment he learned how to rollover, he has been on the move. He learned to crawl and climb at an earlier age than his big brother, and once he started walking there was no keeping him in one place. The idea of sitting with him, book in hand, and enjoying a good read was laughable.

Until recently.

In the past month, he has started to pick up books to read rather than to eat. He will clamber up the couch or on to my lap, book in hand, and turn the pages, tapping on pictures that he likes (usually birds). He still doesn’t sit still for all the words, preferring to flip the pages, but he is actively choosing books.

Little Bird's first favourite books

Little Bird’s first favourite books

I was so excited, but I was also relieved.

Which made me wonder – why was I so anxious for him to want to read? Not just to be able to read, general basic literacy, which still a long way off, but to be a reader for pleasure. To be a kid who will read outside of school hours and assigned reading.

What is the value in reading? Why is it important to read?

I want to really look at not just my reasons for wanting my children to be avid readers, but the facts and arguments for encouraging reading to all children. I’m sure I’ll turn up some interesting research, so check back for my follow up, but for now, please let me know inthe comments why you value reading.