Category Archives: Lying in bed with books

Books books books

(Photo of my desk)

I am an English teacher and a reader. These two facts do not always go hand in hand. Often I am forced to sit and read the very thing I have no desire to delve into, and learn about people and places of which I have little interest. So in my “free reading “time, when I can read whatever I choose I am very picky. Last year I think I only read 5 books outside of my teaching.

At the moment for my work reading I have been lucky as I am reading texts that are either quite wonderful, or books I have always wanted to read but never got round to picking up.

For example: Brave New World by Aldous Huxely. How I managed to do both A level English and a Literature degree and never read this seminal work, I have no idea. I even owned my own copy but had never felt the urge to read it, fearing it might be dull. In fact it is a truly amazing and gripping work and very interesting to teach. I urge you book club people to give it a go and I promise you will be arguing about whether we can actually be happy if we never know misery, and the virtues of a peaceful and bland world that can only exist without truth, knowledge or human connection.

I am also teaching the deeply touching and strong story of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Again, this is a book I actually owned but had never read. This is a great read and all of my students embraced both the book and the characters.

And for another class: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I read this one years ago and I must confess, as much as I liked it, it happens to be one of the only books I know of, where the movie is even better. Normally it is the reverse when it comes to books and their film adaptations. With a second reading I am enjoying it but the students are finding it a tough read. The plot jumps all over the place and for students more accustomed to video games than books, it is proving a challenge.

Next up is The Colour Purple and I must confess that I had never read it. How is this possible, I ask?  Obviously it is a wonderful, though harrowing read and I am wondering how to approach all the sexuality and abusive subject matter with my students.

Earlier this year I taught A Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriella Garcia Marquez, Metamorphosis by Kafka and The Stranger by Camus.

And for fun? I have read and enjoyed the following:

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

The Stranger’s Child by Allen Hollinghurst

So many books… so little time.

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Where my nose has been.

Finally the sun came out today and we decided to catch up on some sunshine poolside. This gave me the chance to finish Brick Lane by Monica Ali and I realized it had been a long while since I have done a book round up. So here it is:

Brick Lane is a book about a Bangladeshi woman who is married off to a man she has never met and moves from her small village to East London. The book traces about 15 years and over the course of the novel we meet a wide array of colourful characters that live in her neighbourhood and on her estate. These are the poor Bengali women who wear saris, walk a few steps behind their men; who drive the mini cabs that zip all over London. Ali writes these characters with such detail and empathy, I ended the book feeling that I had spent real time in their company. It is a good read, I really enjoyed it perhaps because it is predominantly character driven. For some reason it didn’t touch me as much as similar books have, and I’m not really sure why butI do recommend it highly.

Norwegian Wood was the book I finished in Sipi Falls. It is by Murakami and is apparently the most popular book ever in Japan. It is a sad, nostalgic story about one young man and the girls that have come into his life. It really is more about these strong female characters than it is about the main character. The streets of Tokyo feature strongly and I felt such bitter sweet nostalgia for Japan. I liked these people despite their total kookiness and I liked the writing which was sparse and elegant. It was a cold book in some ways, and not richly descriptive or melodramatic but in that sense it was very Japanese. The characters walk a lot, through Tokyo and the mountains of Northern Japan, they have sex a lot and they drink a lot. It is set in the late 60’s and the references to music of that decade pepper the book.

I read an Anita Shreve book called Testimony. She is what I call my rebound author. You know? Like the rebound guy you have a fling with between serious relationships. She is generally the lightest thing I read and what I turn to when I just want a good easy story. The other author in this rebound category is Jodi Piccoult.  I was looking for a rebound book and I was lent two books by friends at school. One was The Memory of Water by Karen White and the other was Testimony. I became extremely impatient with the Water book and found the characters flat and uninteresting so I put it down ( Life is too short to read a book you don’t like so put it down and don’t feel guilty) and picked up Testimony . Testimony was predictable, written by formula, flat and frankly a bit boring. But it was quick and set in the snow and did the job. By the way my favorite Anita Shreve books are The Pilot’s Wife and The Last Time They Met.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B Edwards is a rich and rewarding journey through one man’s life. It is the told in the voice of Ebenezer as he remembers his life on the island of Guernsey. I like this man, his memories, his friends, his island and his brutal honesty. I was sad to have to say goodbye when it came to an end, it was that sort of book. I got it as a birthday present last year from a very good old friend and he said it wasn’t easy to find. It is a rare and unknown book by a man that wrote this one novel in his whole life and died before it was even published by his good friend. It has a definite auto biographical touch to it, I wanted it to be true, in any case.

I adore David Sedaris and I bought his latest book in Heathrow on our way out here. He is my writing idol, in many ways. He writes about his own life and makes it hilarious, interesting and bizarre. The thing I love the most is the way that he sees things. It is called When you are Engulfed in Flames and it was great. I’ve read all his books and he never disappoints.

I love it when lodges and hotels have a book shelf filled with books we are welcome to read. The take one , leave one, idea is great , I, guiltily, do more of the taking than leaving, but anyway. I have had success a few times, I often find something surprising. In Ndali I picked up Rage Against the Meshugenah: Why it Takes Balls to go Nuts by Danny Evans and couldn’t put it down. It is a story about a man who goes into a deep depression and takes two years to come out. You wouldn’t think it possible, but this book is really very funny. I enjoyed it in a sort of voyeuristic way, I was intrigued by his ability to write about something quite mundane and make it readable. A bit American Jewish Trashy but fun, nevertheless.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award winning book by a wonderful Nigerian writer. It is the story of a small family during the Biafra war and it is filled with love, joy, misery, questions of moral responsibility and the wickedness of colonialism. It is “epic” in the way that it constantly forces you to ask big questions and raises complicated issues and subjects. I am not sure if I was as haunted as I should have been, maybe I didn’t like nor care about the characters enough. Often I felt distant from the book even while I was immersed in it. Other times I was totally engrossed and appalled. Something held me back, though, and I think it was the unlikeability, for me, anyway, of the people involved in this fight for nation and home.

I have great books waiting on my bookshelf to read and I now just have to stand there, chin on hand and pick one. Some of my  novel choices are: the underbelly of Montreal, British husbands and wives, a journalist in the Congo, a Cornish Family, Nigerian short stories, Nick Hornby’s world or the myriad that is Granta. I also have 13  new DVDs and a TV series on the same shelf but that is a different story.

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Room for Women

 

 I am re-reading The Woman’s Room by the recently deceased Marilyn French. This book is considered a landmark novel of the feminist era and I think I read it in my early 20s.

I feel a strong kinship for the women in the book, their trials, their entrapment, their sacrifices and their unwitting acceptance of their lot in life. While they fight against the powers of society that grant men more choices and freedoms then they, I am feeling immensely grateful to the women who came before me, who carved out the freedoms that I now enjoy. Feminism in some circles has become a dirty word, but I am still proud to call myself a feminist and grateful that I no longer have the same need for the word that propelled women’s lives beyond dirty dishes and into the workforce. But. And it is a big But. While men’s and women’s roles in the home have meshed and overlapped, other problems have arisen. I think while many men come home from a grueling day at the office and turn to diapers and dishes, they sometimes long for the comfort and clarity of the roles their parents enjoyed. It is a tricky one and as I re read this great tome of groundbreaking feminist literature I wonder if feminism may have swapped one set of confinements for another. Not to suggest that the lives of women are not improved, they are and greatly, but are women really happier? And what of men?

My daughters. whose big brown eyes watch their dad make lunch, dinner, grocery shop and still have energy left to embrace them and make them laugh will become adults with very high expectations of their husbands. I hope those men in the future are ready for what awaits them.

I hope that my daughters will one day read The Women’s Room, find it irrelevant and close the book feeling grateful.

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Passionate flying.

I have just read Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and the advice I have carried away with me is to embrace solitude. We have so few opportunities to be alone, between work, fixing dinner, the telephone, catching up on emails, facebook, blogging, tweeting, shopping, reading and all the other distractions of modern life. Even when most of us are alone, we snatch those rare few moments and duck under a pillow or screen of a laptop. Sometimes some vegetable chopping or laundry folding might take its toll on our fleeting time.
On the other hand, imagine a walk on the beach alone, or a walk around the block, not to quickly walk the pooch and run back to the bubbling soup on the stove, but to be really alone. Imagine being still.
What I love most about photography is the concentrated attention I give to an object or a face. Both writing and photography is an excellent outlet for some fine tuned observation.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”  Writes Marcel Proust.
I think writing and photography go hand in hand, both train the eye to be accurate, to stop and attempt to see the essence of what is in front of you. Real observation requires honesty, quiet and a curious mind.
How often do we notice a flower with the awe of a young child? These lines from Rilke perfectly capture the innocent contemplation of something as ordinary as a garden flower.

“And flowers , as enormous as they are to children, gazed back into it, on and on.”
He closes the poem with a gentle nudge that were we to take the time to embrace the art of seeing the rewards would be plentiful.


“And the rumour that there was someone
Who knew how to look,
Stirred those less
Visible creatures…”

So as Rilke writes:

 “Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breath; perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.”

Listen, look, touch, taste and above all stop. You might be missing something important.

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Bonus

Rarely something happens to make me realize that I must be doing a good job. I know that teaching is the best job in the world, I feel that most days, but teaching doesn’t have a way of monitoring return on investment. Most companies in the corporate world have a means of assessing your worth, sometimes it even leads to a big bonus. So it is rare that I have proof that I am actually teaching these kids something other than the obvious, something a little special that might stay with them for a very long time.

 

Well I got proof, I got my bonus and it is right here.

 

 


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From Maycomb to Kabul and beyond

 At the moment we are reading To Kill a Mocking bird in grade 10 and The Kite Runner in grade 12.

Some observations:

The Kite Runner is one of the first books that most of my high school students have ever enjoyed in school. Normally you watch kids struggle through classics, not inspired by or relating to them. Then a book comes around that was made for their generation, a group of kids raised on video games, Drift Movies, high speed internet , google search and anything that goes really really fast. They are aware of the existence of evil and it is not Darth Vader. This is the post 9.11 group. Our seniors were 9 or 10 when those towers fell and we are now beginning to see a generation of kids bred in fear and cynicism. My students are shocked and disturbed by the details of cruelty in the book and we are reading it alongside pictures, news reports and film footage of Afghanistan. This is a book that tells an important story but it is written in the age of TV, movies and high speed internet and it cannot have escaped the author’s mind that this story would be suitable for Hollywood. He himself has admitted that he was raised on movies, and cannot undermine the influence they have had on his writing.

It certainly stimulates great discussion and we have learnt more about Afghanistan than ever before. We debated not just the US’s role in Afghanistan, but all of NATO especially now that Obama has planned to send in 17,000 more troops. News articles have been mulled over, power points done, freedom of speech debated and lots of interesting chat about plot and character. We have talked about the difference between redemption and atonement, and been touched by the idea of becoming good again.

The Kite Runner is easy digestible and a great story to boot but in terms of a work of literature, I find The Kite Runner to be a complicated one. The writing is average, the story is great but at times the dramatic nature of the events is farfetched to a fault. There are no heady metaphors, hidden symbolism and any recognizable parallels are noticeable a page away. It might not be as well written as To Kill a Mocking bird but it does pull a mean punch

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by the great Harper Lee is still one of the best books ever written. I can’t fathom that Harper Lee never wrote any other books. I suppose she had just the one in her, but what a one to have.  I am really teaching the book in conjunction with some historical references to The South and Racism in the 1930s-1960s. It is very hard for my students to wrap their little heads around the KKK; especially in the months following Obama’s inauguration.  It is also hard for them to identify with children who spend their whole summers playing with no access to TV, radio, video games, Wii, Malls, movies and computers.  I think they may be getting a trifle bored of reading books written before the year 2000. However, I am a strong believer in the classics, so classics they shall read. 

This is a book that most of my Grade 10s love. Of course there are the odd balls that are bored and looking for more action then Maycomb and the Finches can deliver but generally I would say that some fine questions have been raised by this book. This is a book that asks what it is to be human, what is dignity, what is the way to break out of small mindedness and ignorance? It is also a chance to celebrate how far we have come as a society.

The big question in my mind is this. What constitutes a great work of literature? Has the definition changed with the readership? Are those that appreciate 19th French literature, Tolstoy, Faulkner and even Evelyn Waugh now in the minority? Is that a bad thing? Literature is fluid and changeable and is written for and by a changing group of readers.  

What are the ingredients of a great piece of literature? The Inheritance of Loss, in my humble opinion, is a beautifully written book, at times unbelievable in its beauty, but I feel it tumbles down in the story telling department. 

Very few books, really, out of the millions published, accomplish the happy marriage of extraordinary writing and that rare story.

To Kill a Mockingbird, I told my class, is a masterpiece. It is a book that does not simply tell what people do but subtly asks why.

 


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To Kindle or not Kindle, what shall it be?

Margaret Wente, an esteemed and valued institution in Canadian Journalism writes the following in The Globe and Mail.

 

It took 38 years for 150 million people to get a TV. For the cellphone, it took 14 years. For the iPod, it took seven years, and for Facebook, five. “


She is writing about the Kindle and how it has a merry place in the future. In her opinion those with an attachment to ink on paper will be soon be considered as archaic as those who still prefer vinyl to the iPod. Having written and pondered the question of my book collection I was fascinated to read her opinion. Imagine having access to 1500 books with the touch of a finger? Imagine replacing shelves and shelves of dusty books with one slim white device? Imagine carrying tons of books, newspapers and magazines on a plane and they all have a combined weight of 10.2 oz? Imagine in 45 seconds having any book on your wish list downloaded straight from Amazon for $9.99?  The Kindle can connect to 250,000 books and blogs! That means no getting up from your desk and walking to a book store, and no waiting for the Amazon post man to arrive.

 

Ahhh. Sounds so good. Right? And they have even made it ergonomic and easy on the eye. Is this the future? Will my 40 boxes of books, crossing the Atlantic numerous times make me look like a dinosaur?  Can I really part with my lovely books, their smell, their smooth covers, the memories, the shelves filled with words? And what of the bookstores I so love to roam? I can lose myself in a London bookstore for hours, fingering the covers, leafing through the pages, picking up a paperback and flicking it over to read the back.

 

I am inclined to say NO to the Kindle. But I may be wrong. I am not a technophobe; I love my computer as much as the next addict person, but this might be my last holdout, the last great standoff.
What do you think? Could you exchange walls of books, face clean empty space, lose the soft gentle books filled with ink on paper and move towards the Kindle? Could you let it light your fire?

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Thanks Mr. Bryson


I picked up a book in London that was intended for my daughters. It looked to be one of those books that is essential to have in any home that wants people to know how the world was made and what is carbon and why do stars twinkle and things like that.  What I didn’t realize it that this book was made for me! It explains everything in an easy to understand format with pictures and the odd cartoon and best of all, Mr Bryson’s witty and excellent writing style that I have always enjoyed.

 Bill ( we are on a first name basis now ) wrote a book called A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. It is a big blue book that has been on my Must Read list for sometime now. When I found the Perfect for Young People format of the same book I very nearly jumped up and down in the bookstore in London ( where you will find the best book stores in the world, hands down) and jumped up and down a bit more when I saw that it was 50% off!

 So I lugged it home in my heavy suitcase, showed my daughters who raised their eyebrows in that “Not Another Book That Explains The World” way and left it on a table to gather dust or be used as an impromptu tray, which ever came first.

Then I picked it up and I suddenly became a very clever person, and by clever I mean that I now understand nearly everything about the world and how it came to be and how extraordinary and somewhat like a miracle that it is that we are all here at all. 

These are some of the things I have learnt from Mr. Bryson. (Bill).


1.When the Big Bang happened, it involved a single event where in 3 minutes the universe went from nothing, to 98% of everything, resulting from an explosion of energy that came from an infitessimly small squeezed in combination of proton and matter. Too small to imagine and too blinding to comprehend. So it is okay that I don’t completely understand how this all happened.

2.The Moon was created when a huge meteorite hit the earth and a large fragment of our crust was dislodged and became our Moon! Since we have a centre of hot molten lava and the Moon does not, we have all the necessary gasses conducive to life and the Moon does not. However, were it not for the Moon, we would be wobbling like a dying spinning top and we would all be very dizzy or dead, so thank you Moon.

3.There are molecules ALL around us. And it is the rubbing together of those molecules that creates the heat that we need and like, especially in hot countries near the equator where the earth bulges out and is not perfectly round.

 4.1% of the Static on the tv is actually ancient remains of the Big Bang. ( not sure I really get this, but now the static is certainly more interesting.)

5.Pluto is so far away that if we were to go there, the sun would look no bigger than a shining pin head.

6.Pluto, far from being at the edge of our solar system, is actually barely 1/5000th of the way to the end.

7.Space is so huge that were we to visit our nearest neighbour in the cosmos it would take us 25,000 years.

8.It is not how much the earth weighs but how people figured it out that is most interesting.  It took a lot of men, but ultimately we have to thank Mr. Newton.

9.We all came from a muddy, oozing protein soup and we all have to thank bacteria and gravity and the atmosphere and the fact that the earth is just the right distance from the sun, not an inch to close or too far, and that the sun is just the right size and not too big or any smaller and that we have a hot core that were we to sink a well and drop a brick to the centre would take 45 minutes.

10.It is simply a miracle that out of the whole universe we came to exist through a sliver of a chance on a planet that is just perfect for habitation. This, despite the fact that we are lucky enough that there is any land for us to live on since the earth should really be called Water. By the way, we only live on half a % of the planet’s surface.
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(Did you enjoy my easy to understand explanation of how long us humans have been around? Merely one minute and a half.)

And that is only a little bit of what I have learned! Thanks to Mr Bryson, it is all a whole lot clearer now. 

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Help! I am drowning and I love it

 

I have no idea where we will be in 6   5 months, as I have mentioned on a few occasions. When I really feel like being good and stressed I start to think about my books.

 

I have a lot of books. Besides these book shelves which is just a snippet of the picture, I have boxes and boxes of books piled up in a storage room off the garage.

 

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I suppose that altogether I have well over a zillion books. ( I have never counted.) Should I think about selling the books, paying to store them or paying to ship them? What is the point of all these books? Is it time to let go? Has this woman never heard of a library! I am the sort of person who borrows a book from the library, then likes it so much that I have to go out and buy it. 

 

My books are my babies! I have carted them from London to Winnipeg, to Montreal and now to Trinidad. I am working on the “less possessions” is best theme but with my books and make up and shoes and clothes and jewelry and art and photo albums and kids momentos and trinkets and plates and pottery it is really hard.  ( And believe me, I am not a fan of clutter. I have already weeded out the unnecessary.) I think I might be able to part with my furniture. But that’s it.

 


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Put some fiction in that basket

The world is going to hell in a basket and I am hiding in my class room teaching Macbeth. While outside across an ocean or two the stock market is crashing, house prices are plunging and Iceland is trying to stave off bankruptcy I am immersing my students in the perils of a 12th century Scottish King. Strangely I am finding parallels.

In order to reach apodictic change the world needs to come crumbling down before it can start its steady climb back up again. It is part of the cycle of greed and respite. People need to stop buying cars and houses that they can’t afford and borrowing the hell out of banks, making other people rich. Once you jump deep into the well of consumption enough is never enough.

Macbeth who starts out tempted by the idea that being King would be grand ends up on a killing spree that no idea of hell can prevent. His greed infects him to the point that he sinks deeper into sin just to retain what he has gained, lest he think of obtaining more.  While the whole Kingdom seems to be turning against him he must safe guard his crown that was never rightfully his. And if his problems were not enough, his wife keeps telling him that he is not a “real man” and that only weak women worry about scruples and consequences.

Few 16 year old teenagers can think beyond their next algebra test or boyfriend crisis to find a link between Macbeth’s troubles and the present state of the world.  But some can. When it happens it is pure magic.

A great book or a great film can transport one out of the hell basket or drop one into a different one. Parallels can be drawn or life can be escaped but in any case hiding under my duvet with a fabulous book or sitting in a dark theatre before a celluloid screen is my absolute favorite thing to do.

I have seen two films in the last two days. Both these films made me feel like I had been dipped into a deep book. The camera took its time, pausing for long moments on a face, allowing the story to wash over us rather that pull us in and yank us back. Both these films were also desperately sad with stories of lost individuals searching for new lives to cover gently the memories that haunted them. Whether absorbed in these characters’s lives or talking about Macbeth and his choices I am reminded how important it is to turn to a fictional life to remind us that all dilemmas are really universal.

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