Supplementary reading

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I should be reading books from my 50 Book Challenge list. I’m far enough behind already that I shouldn’t even be looking at other book covers let alone cracking the spines. But I couldn’t help myself when I heard about the release of The Name Therapist by Duana Taha.

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Taha is a television screenwriter and a contributor to the gossip site Lainey Gossip, which is how I first came across her work. She writes a column called Duana Names in which she offers, you guessed it, naming advice to expecting parents (and the occasional pet owner). The column is equal parts informing, amusing, and reassuring as she digs into a vast personal bank of names to suggest or, more often than not, tell people they aren’t going too far by picking a name not familiar to most ears. (Although, her column talking a soon-to-be mother of twins out of naming her son Kale is what put her in my must-read pile.)

So I’m sure you can understand why I jumped at the chance to read Taha’s book. With a name like Bryony, I’m often the one holding the “Friend” mug while everyone else has a personalized cup from which to sip their morning coffee, and I’ve written about my name and the novel from which it came before. But, now, I had the chance to read the experiences of another unusually named child.

For those of you familiar with Taha’s column, this book will feel like a deep dive into the topics and issues she only gets to briefly discuss there. For the uninitiated name nerds, you are missing out, as you will learn when you read this book.

The Name Therapist is partly a name memoir, but she uses her own experiences and “name pain” from having an unusual name as a starting point to discuss the stories behind how we name our children; living in a multicultural naming playground; naming trends, influences, stereotypes, and nightmares; and if we are defined by the name we have no say in choosing.

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Just like in her column, Taha’s absolute delight in talking about names is evident. She makes no apologies for her name obsession, more frequently wondering why no one else cares about names with the same intensity. Her writing, while informative and candid, is also light and quickly paced, which may be the only draw back as I wished she could have spent a more time fleshing out some topics such as the white-washing of non-European names or, on the other side, the trendiness of some cultural names to the exclusion of others (especially in light of increasing discussions of cultural appropriation).

Still, I was hooked in Chapter 2, Where Do Duanas Come From? when she names – first and middle – two people, just based on the time they were born, and I know people with those names! I wonder if she is asked to use that skill as a party trick? Come on, Duana, 20 questions and then guess his name. Plus the conversations she has with unevenly named siblings or the bit about Mormon names (I had no idea!) – the section on the name Jennifer alone is worth the read. Taha leads you through all the things you never realized if you have a name easily found on key chains and coffee mugs or has you nodding your head and saying “yes!” if you either carry a unique moniker or have kept a name diary since childhood.

And, while my name never came up, I won’t hold that against her. I’d like to keep Bryony out of the top 100 names anyway.

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Book club report

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The consensus from the book club on Come, Thou Tortoise was that it didn’t live up to the hype on the book jacket. The novel got a solid Okay from the rest of the book club. Some enjoyed all the wordplay. Some, like myself, found it a little too much. But we all said it wasn’t as funny as advertised.

Come, Thou Tortoise

Come, Thou Tortoise

The overall story was well received, even if its telling didn’t impress as much. We all seemed to think that the pay off for the book didn’t come until very late in the story’s telling and that, ultimately, the conclusion was underwhelming. As I said during the meeting, you may enjoy it but if you have a better book as an option you may want to give Come, Thou Tortoise a pass.

My favourite comment from another member posited that all the animals in the book had a human equivalent, not just the bond between Winnifred and Oddly – for example, Uncle Thoby is Wedge the hamster. I had noticed the frequent animal interaction, but didn’t directly overlay them with a person. Thoughts like this are the reason I wanted to join a book club, to get another perspective that I may have overlooked, and I really enjoyed my first real book club experience.

Next month is another Canadian novel: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner.

 

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

Going back to the source

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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.

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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.

Interview: Caitlin Moran on the Working Class, Masturbation, and Writing a Novel

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An interview with the excellent Caitlin Moran about her new novel.

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Jessica Gross | Longreads | Sept. 25, 2014 | 13 minutes (3,300 words)

Caitlin Moran has worked as a journalist, critic, and essayist in the U.K. for over two decades, since she was 16. In her 2011 memoir/manifesto, How to Be a Woman, she argued women should keep their vaginas hairy, said she has no regret over her own abortion, and advocated for the term “strident feminist.” Moran brings the same gallivanting, taboo-crushing spirit to her debut novel, How to Build a Girl, which follows Johanna Morrigan, a working class teenager, as she navigates her way toward adulthood. Morrigan shares a few traits with Moran, from her background and career path to her obsession with music and masturbation.

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As I read How to Build a Girl, I pictured you laughing uproariously to yourself as you were writing it. But in the acknowledgments, you say…

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I am a feminist

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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

Tattoos by the book

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I have often thought of getting a tattoo but never have because I couldn’t find something that I thought I would love for always. But after seeing some of these literary tattoos featured on Buzzfeed, I think maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.

I still would be terrified of having a typo.

What words mean enough to you to permanently add them to your body?