What I Read – May 2016

Paper TownsJohn Green (Penguin Books, 2008)

Before I Fall – Noah Hawley (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (Anchor Books, 2010)

Did Not Finish:

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The urban lume makes the urban night only semidark, as in licoricey, a luminescence just under the skin of the dark, and swelling.

Six Walks in a Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv

[Nature] serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture’s fantasies. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.

If you’d like, you can follow me on instagram @karissareadsbooks to see what I’m reading in real time! Doesn’t that sound exciting!

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Poetry Monday: Gerard Manley Hopkins

IMG_6782Despite the fact that I regularly share about what I read here, something you might not know about me is that I also read a fair bit of poetry. In fact, I studied both fiction and poetry in university. (I myself am an unremarkable poet but I occasionally try.) I rarely sit down and read a whole book of poetry (I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to read poetry anyway) but I have several poetry books that I love and delve into, as well as usually having one or more subscriptions to a literary journal. My current subscription is The Fiddlehead, which was a Christmas gift.

All this to say, I like poetry and I want to talk about and share it more. Poetry is notorious for only being read by poets and for most of us, our experience of poetry probably comes from high school English classes and is limited to Shakespeare and Robert Frost (who are both excellent but there’s a lot more out there). So I’ve decided that once a month I’m going to share some poetry from my bookshelves.

One of my very favourite poets is Gerard Manley Hopkins. My first introduction to him was his short poem “Pied Beauty”. This is the second stanza:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                  Praise him.

I love the way Hopkins plays with sound and alliteration. His poems feel good to speak out loud. Hopkins was also a Jesuit priest and his faith comes through in many of his poems. Many of his poems read as prayer and praise and remind me that there are so many beautiful ways to speak to God.

In fact, I love Hopkins’ poetry so much that I chose a poem by him to be read at our wedding. I picked an untitled poem by him that ends with these two beautiful lines:

I have found the dominant of my range and state—
Love, O my God, to call Thee Love and Love.

Hopkins certainly isn’t a new poet (he died in 1889) but his work still reads as surprisingly modern. He shook loose from many of the forms and structures that were associated with poetry in his day and the results are truly beautiful.

Book Review: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

These first sentences of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (aside from being some of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read) contain the whole plot of the story. From here, Robinson slowly unfolds the action and the characters – the lives of Ruth and Lucille as they are passed from caretaker to caretaker, all within the same house that their grandfather built in the town of Fingerbone.

Robinson has a distinct style and it’s in full effect here. The emphasis is on character development, description, natural setting, story unfurling over time. It doesn’t move quickly and there isn’t necessarily much plot. But the writing is beautiful and the reader is immersed in a world both familiar and strange.

We follow Ruth and Lucille through their childhood, to the moments where their lives dramatically diverge. This is a much darker tale than Gilead (read my review of the book here) – filled with ghosts, abandonment, death, and a bit of scandal. The sisters live in the shadow of a nearby lake – the final resting place of more than one family member. There is a continuing idea of visitors – ghostly and otherwise – gazing through windows. This is a story about outsiders. How one becomes an outsider, how one remains as such, and whether change is possible. Once you are outside, can you ever come in again?

As someone who greatly enjoys Robinson’s style, I liked this book a lot. I can imagine that some might find it frustrating and there certainly were sections I had to re-read in order to really visualize. It’s a slow and steady read, but if you take the time to move through it, it is well worthwhile.

 

Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

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Before the Fall – Noah Hawley (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Before the Fall, it might be “Don’t be fabulously rich because people will want to kill you.” Or, at the very least, “Don’t fly on private planes”.

The characters in Noah Hawley’s debut novel (to be released at the end of this month) are rich in a way that’s difficult to fathom. All except Scott Burroughs, a talented by unsuccessful painter who ends up catching a ride on a millionaire’s plane from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. When the plane goes down over the ocean, Scott is one of only two survivors. The other is J.J. – the four-year-old son of said millionaire.

In many ways, this is a mystery story. Why did the plane crash? Was it human error? A mechanical failure? Something more sinister? The search to answer these questions is the both the most interesting part of the book and, ultimately, the most disappointing. (More on that in a minute.)

The story goes back and forth between Scott dealing with the immediate aftermath of the crash – the public largely views him as a hero for saving J.J.’s life but the media wants to know why he was on that plane – and chapters detailing the backstories of individual characters.

There’s a lot to grab the reader’s interest and that central mystery will keep you pushing forward. The problem however is a lack of cohesiveness. Hawley spreads himself too thin. We really don’t need a chapter about the marriage and divorce of one of the official investigating the plane crash and we certainly don’t need to delve into the career of a TV aerobics instructor that Scott saw swim as a little boy, but we get it all for some reason. A tighter focus would have made this a much stronger novel – particularly one on Scott and J.J. and the boy’s family members who take him in, along with his millions of inherited dollars.

There’s also an interesting conversation here about news media and our 24-hour access to it that has potential but falls short. It would have been interesting if Hawley had further developed the plot around the conflict between Scott and newscaster Bill Cunningham but instead Cunningham is a flat character, existing only as the right wing bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

And, just as disappointing, the ending – that central mystery – is concluded in a way that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the novel. Which is certainly how real life often works but is entirely unsatisfying here and left me wondering what the point of this novel was.

 

Spring Cleaning and the Lean-To

Following yesterday’s post, here’s something else I tend to award myself points for: totally mundane household chores. This was a small project I’d intended to work on for a while so I’m feeling good about getting it done.

At some point between 1989 (when our house was built) and now, someone added on a little extra space off the kitchen. We generally refer to it as the lean-to and occasionally the pantry (because we have an extra cupboard full of canned goods out there. You could call it a mudroom, since it has outside access, but we never enter our house this way. It’s really more of a catch-all space for everything we don’t want directly in our house. Like the garbage can (which can’t be outside because of wild animals) and the bottles that we’re totally going to return soon and Pearl’s infant car seat that she doesn’t fit any longer.

Here’s what it looked like last week:

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As you might imagine, this space doesn’t make it into the house tour.

When our church youth group announced they were collecting recyclables to fund a trip, it seemed like a perfect time to tackle the lean-to.

Here’s what it looks like now:

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Also known as the power of turning the light on!

So, no, I’m not winning any awards for style and organization but I’m pleased that we can now at least walk into the area and I don’t need to panic if Pearl walks in behind me. I’ve taken advantage of the shelves (rather than just throwing things in on the floor and backing away), as well as the hooks that were already attached along one wall. Perfect for hanging things like Peter’s snowshoes and extra bags. The boxes on top of the freezer and that garbage bag in the corner are all for donation so will (hopefully) not be there forever.

Parenting Merit Badges

Since around the time Pearl turned one (i.e. hit the toddler stage), I have been awarding myself mental merit badges. Basically, when I do something as a parent that I feel a sense of accomplishment about, I give myself a merit badge to pin on my imaginary parenting sash. (I was never a Girl Guide so I have no idea how this actually works. Everything here is imaginary.) While this makes absolutely no real difference, it makes me feel good about myself. And isn’t that what parenting is all about? (Haha, no.)

Also, give yourself flowers. You've earned it.

Also, give yourself flowers. You’ve earned it.

Here are the merit badges I’ve earned so far:

  • Getting hard-soled, lace-up shoes on a toddler. (The first time Pearl wore these shoes, she lay on the floor, dragging her legs behind her, as if she’d suddenly lost the ability to walk. Which was hilarious and frustrating because it took me a long time to get those shoes on. For the next few weeks I skillfully shirked responsibility and let Peter put her shoes on but I  have now get the hang of it. Which means she’s almost outgrown these particular shoes.)
  • Putting sunscreen on a toddler. Less painful than shoes but still involves a sort of full-body hold using my legs while I smear sunscreen over any and all exposed skin and generally get it on both of our clothes.
Pearl brings me flowers because I'm such a good mom. (Don't worry, she's wearing sunscreen in this picture.)

Pearl brings me flowers because I’m such a good mom. (Don’t worry, she’s wearing sunscreen in this picture.)

  • Washing AND drying Pearl’s favourite Bear without her noticing.
She loves this bear so much.

She loves this bear so much.

  • Wrangling both a dog and a one-year-old out of the house and to the park. (Not my dog so I don’t have to do this all the time but the timing is always tricky. They both get very excited when they realize what’s about to happen.)
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This is Bella’s guilty face because she knows she’s not supposed to be using the couch pillows as her own personal pillows.

  • Successfully strapping Pearl in to back-carry position in the Ergo all by myself. Bonus points because neither of us cried and I didn’t drop her!
  • Shifting (somewhat) painlessly from two naps a day to one nap a day and stretching that nap out past two hours.

What parenting merit badges have you earned? How do you reward yourself for a parenting job done to a mediocre standard?

Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns - John Green (Penguin Books, 2015)

Paper Towns – John Green (Penguin Books, 2015)

I’ve read three books by John Green before this one (see my reviews of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska) so it’s safe to say that I enjoy his writing. Green captures teens well, finding that balance between realism and fiction to keep the story interesting.

Our main character here is Quentin, known as Q, living in Florida, weeks away from graduating high school. Q lives next door to and has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (who he, rather annoyingly, mostly refers to by her complete name) for the majority of his life. They run in very different social circles and so Q’s love burns from afar, flames fanned by the epic tales of Margo’s adventures that circulate the school. And then, one night, Margo shows up at his window and invites Q into an adventure.

Q thinks this is the moment that will change their relationship and his life but, instead, the next morning Margo has vanished. Following a series of clues, Q becomes obsessed with finding Margo and draws his friends – and some of Margo’s – into his search.

This is really a story about how well you can know another person, how much you can expect from another person, and what might happen when you build a regular human being up into something superhuman. It’s about what forms us as people (or at least as teenagers) and how much we can form ourselves.

A long line of cars trailed behind me, and I felt anxious about holding them up; I marvelled at how I could still have room to worry about such petty, ridiculous crap as whether the guy in the SUV behind me thought I was an excessively cautious driver. I wanted Margo’s disappearance to change me; but it hadn’t, not really.

It’s all an interesting idea and the book is an easy, relatively quick read. It’s not as strong as Green’s other novels, however, and some of the sections drag on too long. For a while, Q believes that Margo is hiding somewhere in an unfinished Florida subdivision and for what feels like a large part of the book, he wanders through these “pseudovisions”. While this is initially interesting and makes for a great, visual setting, it’s not something that gets more interesting upon repetition and Green keeps it going for too long. In the same vein, Q and some of his friends take a road trip toward the end of the novel that probably doesn’t need to be tracked hour by hour and yet it is.

The final conclusion to Margo’s mystery is rather clever, with an interesting tidbit of information. It’s an odd combination of tidy wrap-up and unhappy ending that mostly works.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book that’s more because John Green has other and better novels than because Paper Towns is a bad book. For a Green fan, it’s an interesting read in combination with Looking for Alaska (see: Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their repercussions) but if you’re reading Green for the first time or only want to read one book by him, stick with The Fault in Our Stars.

Not a Book Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The Little Red Chairs - Edna O'Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

This isn’t a book review for the simple fact that I didn’t finish reading this book. About halfway through, the main character is the victim of an act of horrific violence and I just couldn’t continue. I’ve never read Edna O’Brien before so I have no idea if this, her first novel in years, is typical of her writing. Up until that point the book was okay, though not without its frustrations, and I was hoping it would redeem itself as it continued. I can’t imagine it gets much more upsetting after this plot turn but I found I couldn’t continue and keep reading more mentions of it.

So here’s what I can comment on.

The initial premise of the novel is an intriguing one. Set in a small Irish town, a mysterious and enigmatic man calling himself a healer arrives and sets up shop. Although the townspeople are somewhat suspicious, they are fascinated by him and many find themselves drawn to him. One of these is Fidelma, a young (I think? Her age was never quite clear to me), married woman who longs to have a child. For no discernible reason, she falls in love with him. O’Brien seems to want us to see Vlad, the healer, as a charismatic man who others are curious about and who Fidelma would fall in love with (even though he really isn’t kind or affectionate to her at all). Honestly, I found him creepy. There was nothing about him that made me understand why anyone would want to be around him. This feeling certainly wasn’t helped by the early reveal that he is a mass murderer, and a war criminal – on the run from international law due to his role in the siege of Sarajevo. The townspeople find this out soon after, along with Fidelma.

The setting of the novel feels like it’s in the early half of the 20th century and it was hard to get a handle on how modern the village was but based on when the siege took place and how much time is supposed to have past, I have to guess it’s supposed to be a modern day setting. If it weren’t for those historical clues though, I don’t think I would have figured that out at all.

Over and over, Fidelma makes terrible, naive decisions that are frustrating to follow along with and when one (or many, depending on how you look at it) of those choices results in something horrible happening to her, it was just too much for me. Reading a few reviews around the internet, it seemed that the second half wouldn’t redeem the first for me and so I gave it up.

Edna O’Brien is, of course, very famous and there are some excellent passages in the parts of the novel I did read. I would simply say that if you do read this one, proceed with caution.

Book Review: Children’s Travel Books by Miroslav Sasek (Reading with Pearl)

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If you’re not familiar with Miroslav Sasek’s travel books for children, you should be. Filled with colourful pictures and facts about cities around the world, the books are beautiful and interesting. And not just for children.

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But children do enjoy them!

A Czech writer and illustrator, Sasek was first inspired to write about Paris, condensing the key sites, history, and interesting tidbits about the city in a format both endearing and easy to read. Thus, travel books for children!

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We currently have four of the series (as pictured above), each from cities we’ve been to and enjoyed. I purchased This is Hong Kong years ago and often displayed it on the coffee table (before Pearl was around/old enough to grab everything off the coffee table).

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Guests often seemed to enjoy flipping through the pages.

Originally published in the 1960s, most of the series has been re-released as of the early 2000s. While the original information and illustrations are all there, the books now include footnotes to tell the reader what’s changed since Sasek first wrote his books.

The series includes several major European cities, as well as a book about Australia and a couple in the United States. Sadly, Sasek never did one for his own city (and my favourite European city) of Prague.

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For now, Pearl enjoys the colourful pictures but I hope that as she gets older, her dad and I will be able to share our own stories of some of the places we’ve been to and spark her interest in seeing the world.

Sticks and Stones

I’m about six years late to the party but I’m on Instagram now! You can find me @karissareadsbooks if you’re into that sort of thing.

The weather around here has been so good! (Have I mentioned that? Are you tired of hearing it?) I feel like I take more photos when the weather is good. Probably because I go outside more and see more interesting things than just the inside of my house. Anyway, my point is…here’s a bunch of photos of what we’ve been up to lately.

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Saturday we did a little off-roading and searched out the Phareline, a new trail out near what used to be called Wormy Lake but is now known as John Phare Lake. John Phare was a local tree faller killed while fighting the forest fire here last summer. The lake has been renamed in his honour. (Actually, it turns out re-naming places takes a long time and a lot of red tape so the name won’t be official for another year or so. Instead, members of the community went out and put up signs and the lake is known by its new name locally, which I think is awesome.)

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The trail winds through where the fire hit last year and everywhere there is evidence of its devastation. Yet, amidst the burned out stumps and the vanished undergrowth, there is also evidence of life and new growth. Brilliant green bracken ferns have popped up everywhere and the juxtaposition of their colour against the landscape of the fire was wonderful to see.

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These two girls love the forest:

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(This is the last hundred metres or so. We didn’t make Pearl walk the whole way.)

This picture makes me laugh. I caught the exact moment after Pearl picked up a big stick along the trail and her she is showing me her find. Sticks make her very happy. We think she learned it from Bella.

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Sunday was Mothers’ Day in this part of the world. Pearl brought me flowers.

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She caught me picking flowers from our garden and now loves to pick any blooms and leaves she can get her little hands on. She then eagerly brings them over to Peter and I (whoever’s closest, really) and I love it. Our flowers may not survive it but I’ll take it!

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Fortunately, she can’t reach all the flowers.

Sunday morning I made my second attempt at leaving Pearl in the church nursery. I think she lasted fifteen minutes. (She likes us too much.)

Sunday afternoon we spent in the best possible manner.

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Not pictured: Pearl’s extreme excitement at all the little rocks available for picking up on the beach. Sticks and stones don’t bother this girl. She also loves laying down on her belly and making sand angels.

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More than she loves posing for photos with her mum.

A sweet and simple weekend.

And Monday morning:

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Pearl fell down in the greenery in our backyard while chasing after the dog. Bella came back to investigate. (Don’t worry, I laughed and took a picture after making sure she wasn’t upset.)