Some Girls – Kristin McCloy

somegirlsWhat’s a reader to do when the author of her favourite book of all time, Velocity, encourages her to read another of her books. Said book, Kristin McCloy’s second novel, Some Girls, has been languishing on my tbr shelf for at least four years and clearly I intended to read it at some point – I wouldn’t have purchased it otherwise. The stakes are higher now, though. Not only have I recently re-read Velocity, but I’ve struck up a sort of email friendship with Ms. McCloy and I was terrified to read this book (I have her third book, Hollywood Savage also waiting to be read) for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is that I LOVE Velocity and nothing could ever be as good as that. Also, what happens if I don’t like this book or the next one. Gah!

Ok, I have my reader-angst out of the way.

Some Girls is the story of twenty-three-year-old Claire Stearn who flees Alamogordo, New Mexico for the bright lights of NYC circa  1989. She leaves behind her divorced and bitter mother, Ginny, her older sister, Paula, and her boyfriend, a rancher called Tommy. In many ways, Claire isn’t different from  any other young person who, desperate to escape the confines of their lives,  makes their way to a big city. Claire is “aware of her spine, the strength of her pelvic bones, the arches of her feet. It was all she needed to support her.” She’s ready to become herself.

New York City is very much a character In Some Girls. The 1989 version depicted in the novel isn’t the NYC of 2015.  As Claire rides into the city from the airport she describes it as “a terror, glossy buildings rising out of a slum, a place of anarchy, crooked and lawless, impenetrable.” I remember that New York because I spent some time in the city in the 1980s. It was a little rough around the edges, but for a small-town girl like me still spectacular.

For that reason, I related to Claire’s assimilation. Those first few days, when Claire had “nothing but the speed with which she walked and her sunglasses to protect her” reminded me of me. I was so desperate to blend in, to not look like I knew nothing.  I’m sure, in the early days,  you could smell my terror from twenty paces. And like, Claire, I was constantly pinching myself and thinking “I’m here, I’m in New York City, a shock each time.”

McCloy captures the frenetic energy, the heat and the smells, the blast of icy cold, the patchwork quilt of humanity that is New York City and I liked revisiting the city through her lens very much.

Claire meets Jade the day she moves into her little downtown apartment. (I sort of imagine it in the area of Soho, but I wasn’t familiar with White Street so I had to look it up on the map.)  Jade is, to Claire’s innocent eyes, “a woman of the city.”  When they finally spend a little time together Claire feels “the crushing sense of anonymity that had dogged her ever since she had arrived suddenly turned to reveal its other face.” There is erotic tension between the two women from the start.

This relationship was a little harder for me to relate to than Ellie’s relationship with Jesse in Velocity. I am worldly enough now to know that sexuality is vastly more fluid than I might have viewed it when I was Claire’s age. I think my unease has more to do with the fact that I didn’t particularly care for Jade. She seemed self-centered and reckless and I never felt as though I knew her well enough to understand Claire’s attraction to her. She was startlingly beautiful, but surely there was more to it than that? That said, I felt as though Claire’s feelings – about Jade, about her life, about what she was leaving behind when she said good-bye to Tommy – were authentic. Complicated and messy, but certainly true.

Some Girls does a fine job of capturing a young adult on the precipice of figuring her life out, making choices that are both difficult and blindingly simple. While I may not have been able to relate to Claire’s relationship with Jade, I did love her journey and ultimately, isn’t that the point?

I also loved the writing in this novel. It was different from Velocity, which demonstrates the depth of McCloy’s talents, but still a pleasure to read.

The Silent Girls – Eric Rickstad

silentgirlsI picked up Eric Rickstad’s novel, The Silent Girls, on a whim. Creepy cover. Compelling blurb. Killer opening. But. (Trust me, you’ll get it in a moment.)

So, Frank Rath is a former cop turned private investigator who lives in Canaan, Vermont. He’s a single dad to daughter, Rachel, who is away for her first semester at college. By his own admission, Rath was a womanizing asshole, until his sister and her husband were brutally murdered in their own home. Now he’s a middle aged ex-cop with a bad back and too much time on his hands.

Then local cop, Harland Grout, calls about a missing girl who happens to be the daughter of his wife’s cousin. He wants Rath’s help. Looking into the case, another cop, Sonja Test (yes, all the names are this weird) discovers that there have been several other missing girls in the area over the last few years. Rath starts poking around, as you do, allowing the reader to meet a strange (and often reprehensible) cast of minor characters complete with the requisite red herrings.

As far as mysteries go, this one is okay. Not fabulous, not horrible. I think part of the issue for me was that there was – perhaps – too much going on. The latest missing girl is one thing. All the other girls another thing. And Rath’s own troubled past also factors in and contributes to a completely implausible denouement. I don’t mean to imply that the plot is convoluted; it’s not hard to keep track of any of this. It’s just that…

I was distracted by the writing. So, instead of staying with Rath the whole time, Rickstad chose a less limited point of view. Okay – fair enough. However, he had this weird writing tick that drove me nuts.

“She sort of seems familiar. But. In that way that reminds you of someone from TV or a dream.”

*

“But. State borders aren’t going to stop a sicko,” Sonja said.

*

But. How did one person, or even two people, choose these girls. And why?

*

“Of course I can read.” Gale sighed. “But. Her handwriting is a first grader’s. I’ll give it my best.”

*

“That was when I thought you were an intruder. I’ve been known to fib, if circumstances warrant. But. He’s harmless.”

I’m sure you get my drift. It would be one thing if one character said “But.”  in this manner. Unfortunately, Rickstad uses it in exposition and every piece of dialogue I’ve quoted above is a different character. Is it a Vermont thing? Drove me bonkers.

Is The Silent Girls a page-turner? After all, that’s why we read books like this, right?  I was intrigued by the book’s opening  – which was uber-creepy and reminiscent of the movie The Strangers. (It took me three tries to watch that thing) but I can’t say that the rest of the book lived up to its promise. I didn’t really care for any of the characters and I hated the ending. I turned the pages, sure, but I wouldn’t turn the book over to someone else.

Meet The Ludic Reader Jr.

If you are regular reader of this blog, then you may remember when my son, Connor, did a guest review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. This week we spent not one, but two days at Indigo because Con was intent on spending $150 worth of gift cards and he couldn’t wait. That got me thinking about Connor’s love of books, and I thought he might make for an interesting interview subject. I sent him the questions and here are his answers, in his own words – with only minor editing for clarity. (He’s a writer, too, my son.)

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Tell me about where your love of reading began.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read (or being read to). I think I owe it to my parents for making me into the reader that I am today. When I was young – too young to pick up a book of my own free will – I was read to almost constantly; I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a night that went by where I didn’t read with some family member. And if my mom was not reading to me, my grandmother was, and this bled into my early childhood and then into my teen years, which makes it very difficult to pinpoint a precise time (think of trying to find a particular grain of sand on a beach). I really do think that a love of reading has a lot to do with genetics and so for the sake of clarity and of this belief, I’ll just say that my love of reading started in the womb. My conception is synonymous with my corruption, really.

Tell me about the first book you remember reading.

CoralineThe first book that I remember choosing and reading on my own is absolutely Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Every singular detail surrounding this book – details that, with any other book, would be vague – I remember in an almost frighteningly visceral way: the store from which I bought the book (Loyalist City Coin, a local second hand shop), the weather on the day in question (bright and hot; the pavement was steaming and the sky was aching blue), and all manner of other smells and sounds and little facets. Even the exact location of the book in relation to the store remains in my memory, with clarity: it was in a dusty plastic bin with other paperbacks right at the front door, practically on the front step, in a golden slant of sunlight. It was a bleak little thing, with a black cover and yellowed pages, a cracked spine, dog-eared pages and the title on the front in looping, blood-red script. I was taken by the cover artwork (by Dave Mckean) and the description on the back terrified me half to death, which I somehow knew meant that the book was good. When one looked at the front cover from a certain angle, blind spot glossed hands, rats, needles and threads jumped to life. I couldn’t refrain from purchasing it.

In my opinion, it’s one of the front runners of children’s fiction. The prose is, even by a middle grade novel’s standards, really quite beautiful. And it is for children –   the back of my copy, which reads Ages 8 up, strikes me as funny because if I were to have read this book as an eight year old, it would have had a much more profound and, perhaps negative effect on my psyche. The book is short (around 40 000 words) and weirdly sophisticated for its audience, with a strong and grim undercurrent of very disturbing themes that sometimes contradict each other (what I got out of reading it was mainly this: sometimes parents aren’t as present as you want them to be, but the real thing is always better than a replica). The plot follows a young girl called Coraline Jones (the running joke being that practically every character mistakenly calls her Caroline) as she enters the microcosm of flat-life. She lives in the flat below a crazy old man who claims to be preparing a mouse circus and above the flat of two (absolutely hysterical) old ladies – ex-actresses – and their bevy of Highland Terriers. To make a long story short, there is a door in Coraline’s flat that, one day, opens on to a brick wall, and then another day, does not. Coraline decides to venture through the door, and what follows is the most insane (albeit unfortunate) acid trip of a novel ever.

I love this book.

Tell me about the book that changed your reading life. let-the-right-one-in

Until about grade six, I was stuck in the endlessly rotating gyres of middle grade literature. I made my leap of faith to adult literature when I was about twelve, with John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire epic Let the Right One In. (The name alone still gives me chills, even though it is a reference to a Morrissey song.) It was an odd book for me to choose – I remember having little faith in it. (I’ve always thought vampire stories were a little bit campy. I’m not sure why I chose it if I didn’t think I would like it). I did end up liking it, however. A lot.

The story takes place in the early 1980s, in bleak and boring Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm. It centers on Oskar. Lonely, morbid, Oskar. He is tormented at school; his father is an alcoholic living a hermit’s life in the countryside; his mother is distant, and he spends a distressingly great deal of his time researching murder. One day, a girl named Eli moves in next door to him. She’s odd. She doesn’t smell very pleasant, she walks around in the snow in her bare feet, and she’s over 200 years old.

Vampirism, really, is only the underpinning to to this novel. Lindqvist uses it as a vehicle to explore any number of hopelessly depressing topics (familial dysfunction, alcoholism, bullying, pedophilia, murder, gender identity, drug use, loneliness). These themes, however,  are used very strategically to underscore some really important lessons throughout the book, the value of friendship (kitschy, I know) and the importance of parenting (do you notice a theme in my literature choices? I’m fascinated by parent/ child relationships and how they are portrayed in novels, what can I say?). The book plays host to a selection of other pleasantries as well: disfigurement by acid, a toothless 12-year-old boy prostitute – I’m sure you get the picture.

This book completely changed my reading trajectory. I’d never before been exposed to something that addressed sexuality and violence in such a stark way. Don’t let my descriptions put you off – Let the Right One In is a really beautiful read, with incredibly complex characters and a heartbreaking plot – I’m just not quite sure if I would ever reread it. It was sooo depressing.

How do you choose your books?

More often than not, I choose my books by their cover. And I know (or at least I think I know) it’s one of the unspoken rules of book-buying, but what purpose does a cover serve if not to influence you to buy it? Judging a book by its cover has served me well, and some of the best books I’ve ever read I’ve ventured with to the checkout without even reading the description.

You recently went on a book buying binge. Tell me about those books.

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I’ll just list my purchases and say a little about why I bought them!

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

I love the cover of this one (see!). It’s designed by my all time favourite graphic designer Peter Mendelsund, whose covers are pure genius. I also fail to understand what stream-of-consciousness writing is, no matter how many times my mom explains it to me, so I feel like the best way to learn will be to read something by the man himself!

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I love the cover of this one. Also, almost every book that I bought was a classic because I never read classics which has suddenly become horrifying and unacceptable to me for some reason; I’m not sure what changed. I also love me a good, depressing novel as you probably now know, and this seems like it will be a good fit!

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A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

This  is the only non-classic on this list. Also, did you know that I love the cover of this one? The writing in this one is weird as hell (really beautiful though) – it’s this confused, fragmented back-of-the-mind-speak. The plot seems hard to describe as well – it seems to just be about a woman, blindly navigating her life. I’m excited about this one.

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Nice cover (it’s the 50th anniversary edition). It’s also one of Donna Tart’s favourite novels which means I’m actually required by law to read it. I’ve actually started reading this book around three times, and I always get about 100 pages in, around which time I forget that I’m reading it. (Not a bad sign for Nabokov, I’m just senile).

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

My copy is a Modern Library Classic (they really hit covers out of the park). I’m not sure why I was so intent on getting this book, it just seems like a very calm and quick read, with just the right amount of miserable undertones. I wanted to buy my own copy of House of Mirth,  but this was the only Wharton the book store had.

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David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I’m pretty sure Charles Dickens is about to become my main man. I’m more than half way through Oliver Twist and it seriously so good. That man can write a beautiful passage about death. David Copperfield seemed like a logical next choice.

You’re on a desert island and are only allowed three books. Which three and why?

Just three? Am I not allowed to bring three bookstores instead? Can I bring The Strand?

If you’re really forcing me to do this (I’ll have you know I’m calling CPS on you for making me do this horrible thing) I think I’d choose Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin (a really odd little semi-autobiographical novella about this really listless and passive guy doing a bunch of drugs), The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (the more I think about it, the closer this one comes to being my favourite. If I had it my way, I’d choose all three of her books but I didn’t think that would be fair), and, to throw a childhood favourite in there, The Ersatz Elevator by the king of opening lines, Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler.

Ok, it must be genetics. Like me, you buy more books than you’ll ever be able to read. What’s up with that?

Hey – I have like10 books to read. You have like 1000.

I know you are a book cover aficionado. Tell me about some of your favourite book covers.

I already mentioned that Peter Mendelsund is my favourite cover designer, next to Chip Kidd. I like Peter more, because he’s so minimal. I love his covers for James Joyce. I love his redesigns for Simone de Beauvoir, Koji Suzuki, Julio Cortázar, Plato. (Except I hate his designs for Dostoyevsky, sorry!) My mom bought me his beautiful coffee table book, Cover.

Recommend one book everyone should read.

secret_historyEveryone should read The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Other than that, everyone should read whatever they want. This is not to say that recommendations cannot/will not be enjoyed by whomever they are recommended to, I just think that venturing into the world of literature without a map is more exciting – and more important – than any recommendation I could give you. Ignore age and gender demographics. Read picture books, read middle grade, read literary fiction, read Harlequins shamelessly, read the most tedious collection of philosophy essays. It doesn’t matter.

As long as you’re reading.

Did I luck out when they were handing out kids, or what?

Velocity – Kristin McCloy

velocityA couple of days ago on Information Morning, I talked about how I wished that I could carve out some time to revisit some of my favourite books. I mentioned three in particular: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Kristin McCloy’s Velocity. All three of these books had a profound impact on me, the first two when I was much younger and McCloy’s book when I first read it as a twenty-something. Of those three, I have actually already re-read Velocity numerous times and I just finished reading it again.

I think I am going to have a difficult time articulating exactly why I continue to find Velocity so compelling, but I do want to honour the book and its place in my personal canon here, especially because I recently had the very good fortune of exchanging a couple emails with the novel’s author, Kristin McCloy. (Insert fangirl squee here.)

When it was first published in 1988, Velocity caused quite a stir and earned copious praise. I am not sure what year I picked up my copy, perhaps 1989, but I definitely purchased it at The Strand in NYC. I devoured the book then for reasons that will surely become apparent a little further on.

So, what’s the book about?

Twenty-five-year-old Ellie Lowell has returned to her backwater North Carolina hometown to scatter her mother’s ashes. Ellie’s an only child and she’s been living in New York City for the past six years, so she’s finding it difficult to connect with her taciturn father, a local cop. They share the family home like two strangers might share a taxi ride to the airport – making small talk, but never really connecting.

Despite the awkwardness, Ellie decides to stay home for the summer, leaving her fledgling career in the film business and her boyfriend, Dec, back in the Big Apple. She gets a job at a local diner and before you can say two eggs over easy, she’s hooked up with Jesse, the half-Cherokee biker who lives down the road. Ellie knows he’s trouble. She says

…it occurs to me, a thousand woman, he’s had a thousand women, and every one of them has fed him everything she had.

Even though Jesse isn’t much for talking, Ellie finds herself pulled into his orbit. The attraction is sexual, of course, and she remarks that his “crazy height and that straight hair down to [his] shoulders, even from the shadows of [his] porch, the way [he] stared at me would’ve burned a hole in a blind woman’s side…”

When she’s with Jesse, she doesn’t think about anything else and that’s a good thing because what Ellie doesn’t want to think about is that her mother is dead. She can’t avoid the knowledge that “Everything crumbles. The walls, the rooftop…every structure will fall. Everything known, all that is so familiar, will vanish. Including myself.” What she can do, however, is push that knowledge away and although she is “aware of [her] grief waiting for [her], patient and thick,…right now it is remote.” Jesse is in its path.

At her age I was doing much the same thing, which is, I suppose, why Velocity struck a chord with me when I first read it all those years ago. I don’t recall what I was running from, but I sure knew what I thought I was running to. My guy, let’s call him S., was crazy tall, mostly silent, beautiful, at least to me, and he’d often disappear for days at a time, throwing me into a frenzy of longing, and then reappearing like an apparition. Like Ellie, I read into the smallest of gestures – a moment of tenderness could sustain me for weeks. S. wasn’t a criminal, but he definitely had his own demons and he was in no position to give me what I so desperately wanted. Our relationship was doomed from the start, but that didn’t prevent me from showing up where I’d know or hope he’d be or using sex as a bargaining chip. Our whole relationship was just fraught. And the weird thing is, 30 years later, I still feel that little electric charge on the rare occasion that I see him around.

When I read this book back in the day it was ALL about Jesse and Ellie’s relationship. I believed that Jesse did, in his own way, care for Ellie. I excused his bad behavior because Ellie excused it. I wasn’t blind to Ellie’s grief, but I hadn’t experienced real grief yet and so, although I could sympathize, I couldn’t personally relate to that part of her story. I knew exactly how she felt with Jesse, though. I knew that “electrical current” and the “pleasure like mercury.”

So, how does the book hold up upon rereading? Um – it’s still freaking fantastic. And here’s why. McCloy is a beautiful writer. That has always mattered to me. From the book’s opening line:

Sometimes in my dreams you rise up as if from a swamp, whole, younger than I remember, dazzling, jagged, and I follow you into smoky rooms, overwhelmed by the sense of being in the presence of an untamed thing, full of light, impossible to control.

…until the final pages, McCloy’s writing is fluid and evocative and painfully honest. But we readers know that beautiful writing only goes so far; we have to care about the characters, too. From this vantage point (on the slippery downward slope), I want to tell Ellie what I’m sure she already knows: he’s not the right guy. But I never wanted to shake her and say “Ellie, you’re acting like an idiot.” Her grief is palpable. I feel it like she feels it “a fist, hard-knuckled and small.”

She is so clearly out of control and there is no one able to ease her pain. Her father is caught in his own. Dec is helpless in New York and when he arrives unexpectedly, his presence just muddies the waters. It’s easy to see why Jesse becomes the center of her universe. He doesn’t ask questions that she can’t answer. He doesn’t ask anything of her at all, he simply “hunted down [his] needs – simple and precise – and in those days, it was me.”

Velocity is a novel about loss. And grief. It just so happens that it also has some incredibly erotic sex scenes; trust me, you’ll feel it in your knees. But here’s something interesting about my reread: this time, for the first time ever, I cried.

Now I understand. Since the last time I read this book – and it’s been a few years – both my parents have passed away, my mom in 2006 and my dad in 2009. I get Ellie’s frantic desire to sublimate her grief. Everything about her journey seemed organic and honest to me. I ached for her. I missed my parents. I also missed, strangely, that feeling of being so crazy in love with someone that you can’t think straight. All those things are lost to me now.

Velocity is a special book. Thanks, Kristin, for writing it.

Off the Shelf – The Great Summer Re-Read

Listen here.

So, summer offers a great long stretch of free time for a lot of people. I do teach summer school, generally, but that still leaves me with lots of sunny afternoons at the beach and rainy days on my couch. Last time I was on Information Morning,  I offered some suggestions of great books to while away your summer afternoons, but here’s another option: re-reading. I never have time for this and I always wish I did because there have been some books in my reading life that deserve another look.

Some people say that life is too short to re-read books, but I disagree. It’s like watching your favourite movie a million times. That never gets old, right? It’s your favourite movie for a reason. It would be embarrassing to tell you how many times I saw Grease in the theatre the summer it came out. (A lot. In the double digits.)

There are lots of benefits to reading a book for the second or even fifth time.

Researchers have suggested that re-reading can benefit your mental health, reigniting emotions and benefitting knowledge. If you’ve ever had the experience of falling in love with a character, then re-reading is one way to re-connect with that character. Books themselves often have the ability to transport us back to a special time. I have very specific memories of some of the books I have purchased

Another benefit of re-reading is that the pressure is essentially off; you already know how it’s going to turn out. The flip side of that is that because you know how the plot will unfold you can concentrate on other aspects of the book, characterization on even just the beauty of the writing.

I purchase a lot of books from bookoutlet.ca and I always stumble upon books I never expected to see again. One of those books was The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.  I LOVED that book when I was twelve; I read it when I was a student at Forest Glen school in Moncton. So – 40 years later I re-read it and I have to say that it did not in any way live up to my memories. Still, I’m so glad to have it on my bookshelf.

For me, re-reading is a real luxury because I have so many tbr books, but as I am reading The Goldfinch this summer, I think re-reading might be a nice companion to that experience.

So here are some books I think I might revisit this summer:

brooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I probably read this book when I was eleven or twelve and it’s a book that I often recommend to my students. It’s one of those classics that I have really fond memories of because it’s evocative of a time a place that was, when I was a kid, so beyond my experience. It’s the story of Francie who grows up in Brooklyn with her younger brother Neely and her parents. They are really poor and I can remember as a kid being fascinated with how they made do with so little. I loved Francie and I would love another chance to spend time with her.

jane eyreJane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

This was, looking back, my first “adult” read. I might have been twelve or thirteen when I read it. I absolutely adored Jane who, despite not being beautiful, was smart and self-reliant. Even at my young age I admired her feisty nature and her determination to be self-sufficient. Plus, she lands the handsome but tortured Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre was ahead of its time, although I probably didn’t appreciate it for those reasons when I read it as a kid. It would be interesting to re-read it now.

velocityVelocity – Kristin McCloy

Okay this book is really special to me for a variety of reasons. I bought it at The Strand in NYC in 1988 or 89. I don’t remember why I even knew about it except that it was kind of a superstar novel when it came out. I have reread this novel numerous times, but not recently. I actually posted a one line review of the book on Goodreads – more as a place holder than anything else, and recently Ms. McCloy herself thanked me for my “review” – which of course it wasn’t. She also provided her email address and we exchanged a few emails back and forth. I am sure I was totally inarticulate about the book. Being able to chat with the author of a book you love is sort of the literary equivalent of meeting Ryan Gosling who is my celebrity boyfriend.

Velocity is the story of 25 year old Ellie who returns to her home in the southern States after the death of her mother. Her dad is a local cop and he’s mostly silent in his grief, but Ellie’s grief manifests itself very differently. She pursues Jesse, the biker dude who lives down the road. He’s totally wrong for her and she totally can’t stay away from him. I was, at the time I read this book, of a similar age in a similar relationship and there wasn’t anything about Ellie I couldn’t relate to – except the dead mom. On top of that, the writing is just so beautiful. Never mind spending good money on E.L. James’ Grey (I mean, seriously, do we actually need to hear that story from another p.o.v.?) track down a copy of Velocity. It’s steamy, yes, but it’s also poignant and just so, so damn good. Since this segment aired, I have finished Velocity and I’ll post a proper review asap.

Paris Letters – Janice MacLeod

parisI was attracted to Janice MacLeod’s memoir, Paris Letters, mostly because of its cover. I don’t often indulge myself  – book buying via aesthetics – although I do admit that I am a sucker for books with creepy houses on the front. Still, Paris Letters is a pretty book and when I read the blurb on the back I thought it sounded familiar. I used to keep track of all the books I want to read in a little notebook which I carted around with me. Then I lost the book and now I am flying solo. It’s kind of freeing, I have to admit, but I still wonder about all those titles I have logged over the past decade and think about the reading experiences I might have had. Oh well.

Paris Letters tells the story of MacLeod’s journey from exhausted copywriter to “someone who could make a great living creating something lovely.” Originally from Ontario, MacLeod lives in Los Angeles when the book opens where she admits to being “thirty-four, single, lonely, feeling unfulfilled by my job and on the brink of burnout.”

MacLeod knows she has to make a change and so, inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way,  she starts to keep a journal. She also created a blog –  a more visible way to make herself accountable. It doesn’t take MacLeod very long to figure out that what she really wants to do is quit her job, which is creatively unfulfilling.

I wrote true junk mail. I mucked up websites with ads, stuffed bills with flyers, and inundated the public with information on products they probably didn’t care about and likely never asked for. That was me. Mailing out perfect forest after perfect forest of perfectly useless messages from Fortune 500 companies. I was directly involved with the noise of daily life.

MacLeod decides that she is going to save enough money to take a year off to travel, an activity that has always given her pleasure in the past. So, with great determination, she pares down her life. She sells unused items, she gives up eating lunch out with her colleagues, she gives up cable and sells her TV. (MacLeod shares 100 things she did to save money at the back of the book.)

MacLeod’s plan was to start in Paris and end in Rome, but what she doesn’t factor into her plans is Krzysztof (Christophe), the cute butcher who “bore a striking resemblance to Daniel Craig.” Turns out, Krzysztof is one of the good ones and their relationship is the reason why Paris Letters isn’t Roman Letters.

Paris Letters isn’t so much of a story as it is a lovely meditation on what it is to live a simpler life. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, too. I mean, MacLeod is in Paris after all. She strolls around the city, visiting famous landmarks, writing in and about her favourite cafes and gardens and when her money starts to dwindle, she thinks about what she can do to supplement her income. That’s where the idea of the Paris letters comes from.

I would create a painted letter, copy it, personalize each copy, and mail them off to people who love fun mail….I listed the product on Etsy as a subscription service. For twelve months, people would receive a painted letter from me.

This is when I realized I had heard of MacLeod and her Paris letters, perhaps in a magazine like Canadian Living or Chatelaine. As a person who loves snail mail, I was intrigued by MacLeod’s concept. It’s cool, right?

Paris Letters is a love letter. To Paris. To Krzysztof. To living the life you want. You could argue that since MacLeod was unencumbered because she had no real ties to L.A. – no children or spouse or property –  leaving it all behind was easy. I still think it was an act of bravery. She didn’t know anyone; she didn’t really speak the language well; she was on her own. There are some days when I imagine shaking my own life up in exactly the same way.

Paris Letters is a quick read and, if nothing else, it will make you want to visit Paris. But for me, it made me consider the possibility of doing something other than.

My ideal bookshelf – the 2015 edition

So last year, I invited my grade ten students to contemplate their reading lives in essays and bookshelves inspired by My Ideal Bookshelf. The project was such a huge success that I decided to do it again this year, and once more the results were terrific.

My colleague, Jenn, and I made a display in the main hall at school.

DSC_0345

I’d like to share some of the art and excerpts from some of the essays my students wrote. Thanks again to Thessaly and Jane for inspiring this project.

Paige A

Paige: My top three novels (Anne of Green Gables, A Monster Calls, Charlotte’s Web) may never have been considered anybody’s favourite, even though two are classics. To me, these books have meaning and memories attached to them. Some memories are happy and some sad. No matter what, though, I would never want to forget these books and certainly don’t regret reading them.

Destiny

Destiny: As my reading expanded, so did my desire for more of a challenge. I would ask around for new books, but the ones my mother suggested didn’t spark any interest and my sister Dominique, three years older than me, scared me away with her grumpiness and nobody else I knew liked reading. I suppose Dominique must have been in a pretty good mood one day to give me her favourite book, Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris and I have always been grateful. This one book that she loved so much was like a glimpse inside the head of a stranger I called my sister. It was then, as I was reading, that I realized maybe we weren’t so different after all.

Adara

Adara: I can remember when I was little, perhaps seven, I used to rush to get ready for bed just because if I did it quickly enough my mom would read to me and my brother. I would get some pjs on, grab my blue, fuzzy penguin blanket and pillow and settle in to hear her read a few chapters of Pawn of Prophecy. I used to get so disappointed when I didn’t get ready in time, but when I did it was some of the best times of my life. My mom has the perfect reading voice and I would get lost in the book and the sound of her voice. Every once and a while I ask my mom to read, just so I can hear that voice again.

Tatum

Tatum: Grade seven was my first taste of reading for enjoyment. Teachers practically shoved sappy novels down my throat: unrequited love, boy meets girl, the whole lot. But I hated the thought of romance; I liked gore and cussing. I thought I could only get that thrill from games played in the dark, but a fellow student taught me better. My first whiff was The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Sure, I’ve read many other books, but only because I was forced. But this time it was legit. I could not put this book down. This was my first taste of what was soon to be have an addiction because, as you know, one book is not enough.

Ben

Ben: The Green Mile was one of the saddest books I have ever read. I never knew Stephen King could write something other than a scary story. I really grew attached to some of the characters and finding out they died not long after the book ends was really heartbreaking. I often get really attached to characters in stories and if they die, it hurts a little.

Pierrette

Pierrette: My bookshelf is a collection of stories that represent who I am. From childhood stories to books I read on repeat like The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, each book means something different to me and represents a unique part of my reading adventure. As someone who dreams of being an author I hope that, even if my writing never reaches these great heights, my work will make someone pick up another book, fall in love with reading, and truly think about things in their lives.

Parker

Parker: A very important book to me is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins because it is the first book I bought with my own money. Everyone told me that it was an amazing series and I knew I had to buy it. That was the first time I wanted a book so badly that I bought it myself and it was worth every penny. After finishing it, I loved it so much that I bought the other two books in the series.

Valerie

Valerie: My mother was my gateway to the world of books. I remember the nights she would arrive home exhausted after working all day and finishing classes in the evenings. Somehow she always managed to read to me and my brother before bedtime. I never questioned this time because I adored it far too much; however I did wonder why those moments were so important to my mother. I no longer ask myself that question as I am fully aware of the gift reading is in and of itself.

Chloie

Chloie: Every year I reread The Art of Racing in the Rain just to remind myself of how impactful reading can be, and to refresh my memory on this more beautiful way of seeing the world. I don’t think I will ever be able to pinpoint exactly why this book is so lovely, but it is the only book on my shelf I love enough to destroy. All my other novels are perfectly kept, no bends or scratches; that’s how I like it. But The Art of Racing in the Rain has pages folded down from my favourite parts, notes written in it and all my favourite quotes highlighted.

Ceilidh

Ceilidh: Teddy Bear Picnic was the first book that came to mind when I thought of an ideal bookshelf. I selected this book because when I was younger it was the one book I picked every time. My mother would use one of my stuffed bears to read it with and I loved listening to her use a fake voice.

Selda

Selda: I actually didn’t like reading books, but my brother loves reading. He gave me a few books when I was nine years old. He said if I read them, he would give me chocolate for each book I finished. That was a good idea. After a while, I loved reading books and he didn’t give me chocolate anymore. All kinds of books should be on my bookshelf: horror, drama, history, liberal education, love, comedy, tragedy. Books are amazing for me because I can live in my own world when I read. They are valuable like gold or silver.

Makenzie

Makenzie: Being a teenager isn’t easy and books have become a great way for me to relieve stress and broaden my perspective and understanding on a lot of things. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time  changed a lot of my views on mental illness and other disabilities. I’ve learned more from this book about happiness and self-worth than I ever would from a therapist. I suppose that is what books are – my therapists. I know no matter what I’m feeling or questioning, there is a book to help me find the answer. Whether it be through some magic time portal, someone’s true-life story or a cheesy young adult novel, I know there is something out there for me.

Off the Shelf – Summer Reading

Listen here.

I read every day, 365 days a year, but I especially look forward to my summertime reading because I can read whatever I want. During the school year I read a lot of YA fiction, whatever my book club is reading and whatever else I can squeeze in from my ridiculous tbr shelves. In the summer- no rules, so I thought I would share some books to rev your summer reading engines.

If you want to read a YA novel…and your son or daughter is heading to university in September

roomiesRoomies – Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

My daughter, Mallory, is graduating from high school on Friday and so this book was extra bittersweet for me. It’s the story of two girls, Elizabeth and Lauren, who live on opposite coasts but who are both off to UC Berkley in the fall. Elizabeth lives in a condo with her mom. Her father is long gone and she doesn’t really have any contact with him. Her mom is sort of a serial dater and the two of them are at odds with each other. She’s an only child so she’s really excited when she gets her accommodations placement and discovers she’s going to be rooming with Lauren. Unfortunately, Lauren is the eldest of five and she really, really wants a single room. Roomies is the back and forth email conversation between the two girls and it’s fantastic. We get to watch the friendship blossom between these girls at a time when they are excited and nervous to break free of their families and lives and sort of reinvent themselves and it’s just a beautiful coming of age story.

If you want to travel to Italy…

ruinsBeautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

Everybody was raving about this book when it came out in 2012, but I just read it last week for my book club – shoutout to the girls! So, so good.

This is the story of Pasquale Tursi who, in 1962, has recently returned from Florence to his home town, Porto Vergogna, a place accessible only by boat. He’s back to run the family business – the only business really, a café and hotel called Adequate View. It’s also the story of Dee Mornay, an American actress who is in Italy to work on Cleopatra – the notorious film starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton – and ends up at the Pasquale’s hotel. And then, flash forward to present day and we meet Michael Deane, this oily Hollywood producer and Claire his disenchanted assistant and this novel beautifully marries past and present and also asks us to consider what is an adequate life? If you haven’t already read this book you really need to move it to the top of your tbr pile.

If you want to travel to Paris

parisParis Letters Janice MacLeod

I just finished this book yesterday – I basically read it in a day. MacLeod is a Canadian who was working for an ad agency in L.A. and she was just tired of it. Basically, she was writing junk mail advertising and, at 34, she just didn’t want to do it anymore. What she wanted to be was an artist and this book is all about how she made that happen for herself. She basically scrimped and saved enough money so that she could take a whole year off and travel – which she loved to do. So Paris Letters is the story of how she rediscovered herself, shed all the crap that doesn’t matter and moved to Paris and not only did she tap into this more authentic version of herself (without all the hokey self-help stuff, honest) she also fell in love with a Polish butcher.

If you are looking for a reading challenge, or people to read with

goldfinchYou should join Karen Vickers’ Facebook book club. Last year she encouraged people to read Eliot’s Middlemarch and this year we’re tackling The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This is Tartt’s third novel, it won the Pulitzer, it’s over 700 pages long…but I can guarantee that it’s going to be awesome because Tartt is amazing. The group is secret on FB, but I will put instructions on how to hook up with us on my blog and I hope you’ll join in the fun.

Visit my Facebook page and leave your name in the comments section of the Goldfinch post and I’ll make sure your name is added to the list.

Still looking for suggestions? Here’s a list of ten of my favourite (not too strenuous) reads:

lanternThe Lantern – Deborah Lawrenson

in the woodsIn the Woods – Tana French

dark-places-book-coverDark Places – Gillian Flynn

pettigreMajor Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

one-dayOne Day – David Nicholls

the_book_of_lost_thingsThe Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

instrumentsInstruments of the Night – Thomas H. Cook

standingStanding Still – Kelly Simmons

heartshapedHeart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

fingerFingersmith – Sarah Waters

Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

ruinsBeautiful Ruins was our last book club read before our summer hiatus. It was also the winner of ‘Best book’ or, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when we vote, ‘book we enjoyed reading most.’ (Thus, ‘worst’ book becomes ‘book we enjoyed reading least.’) It was a close race between Beautiful Ruins and The Children Act, but Walter’s fantastic novel won out in the end.

I think I am going to have a hard time articulating how I feel about this book because it hit a lot of my sweet spots. First of all, part of the novel is set in Italy and anyone who knows me knows that Italy is my dream place. I’ve been twice and often say that some day I will live there…even if it’s just for a few months. The other part of the novel takes place in Hollywood and, okay, I admit it – I love the movie stars. Just ask anyone who was around during the David Boreanaz days…or go further back…the Robby Benson days. Ask my students how often I work Ryan Gosling into the conversation.

Beautiful Ruins follows the fortunes of Pasquale Tursi in Porto Vergogna, a tiny village near the Cinque Terre region of Italy only “it was smaller, more remote and not as picturesque.”

Port Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of a sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.

Pasquale has come back to Porto Vergogna to care for his dying mother and the Hotel Adequate View, and it is there he meets actress Dee Moray, who has come, by mistake, to the Adequate View to rest. She is in Italy to make Cleopatra, the notoriously bad film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

richard and elizabeth

The title’s phony – her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. She tends Michael’s whims. Answers his calls and e-mails, goes for his sandwiches and coffee.

It is not the life she dreamed of when she gave up her doctoral film studies program to make movies. Now she is on the cusp of leaving her job and going to work as a curator for a private film museum.

If you’re wondering how Walter is going to dovetail these two eras, all I can say is “masterfully.” We flip back to 1960’s Italy and recent-day Hollywood and neither story (or character) gets short-shrift. In fact Claire and Pasquale aren’t the only characters who populate this story – even minor characters are fully realized including Pasquale’s elderly aunt Valeria (who provides comic relief), Shane (a screenwriter who comes to Hollywood to pitch the story of cowboy cannibals), Alvis (the failed American writer who comes to Porto Vergogna once a year to work on his novel) and even Daryl, Claire’s hunky porn-addicted boyfriend. Even Michael Deane, slimy as he is, is fun to spend time with.

And what are these Beautiful Ruins? Well, I think that’s probably the reason everyone and their dog was praising this book when it came out in 2012. This is a great story – funny and heartbreaking in equal measure – about big ideas. The people that you meet and the choices that you make are at the very center of this book. But as Alvis says to Dee, “No one gets to tell you what your life means.”

I loved this book so much.

Highly recommended.

Jacob Have I Loved – Katherine Paterson

jacobKatherine Peterson’s novel Jacob Have I Loved was a Newberry Medal winner in 1981. Although this book has been on my radar for many years, I was perhaps just a teensy bit too old for it when it was published in 1980, so I didn’t read it then. It is a pretty famous book though, and I figured I should read it. So I did.

The title of the book comes from the bible, Romans 9:13: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The quote refers to the story of siblings Jacob and Esau and the novel tells the story of siblings Sara Louise and her twin sister, Caroline. The girls live on Rass Island, off the coast of Maryland. Their father is a fisherman; their mother a former school teacher. Their crotchety paternal grandmother also lives with them.

Sara Louise, or Wheeze, is the narrator. She is an adult when the novel opens, returning to Rass Island where her mother still lives. “…it is a pure sorrow to me,” she says, “that, once my mother leaves there will be no one left with the name of Bradshaw. But there were only the two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay.”

The bulk of the story takes place in 1941 and the years that follow. Wheeze, 13, and her best friend, Call, 14, spend their days hunting for crabs. Their little island is isolated and days there are marked by routine – fisherman out on the water early and home late, school and church, the occasional ferry trip to the mainland. Paterson deftly creates a world that will be – for most of its young readers –  a place long ago and far away.

While readers may not recognize the time or place, they will most definitely recognize the friction between Wheeze and her sister, the beautiful and musically talented, Caroline. A sickly baby, Wheeze feels that Caroline has been coddled all her life and that in “the story of my sister’s life…I… was allowed a very minor role.”

There is a rare snapshot of the two of us sitting on the front stoop the summer we were a year and a half old. Caroline is tiny and exquisite, her blonde curls framing a face that is glowing with laughter, her arms outstretched to whoever is taking the picture. I am hunched there like a fat dark shadow, my eyes cut sideways toward Caroline, thumb in my mouth…

Wheeze is resentful and jealous, even though Caroline never really seems to give her any reason to be. It’s one of the lovely things about this book, which is remarkable in its stillness. Wheeze isn’t particularly likable, but you grow to love her just the same.

Jacob Have I Loved is without the bells and whistles that marks much of the YA fiction out there today. I would suggest that this is a book better suited to middle school readers, but I think anyone who has ever shared close quarters with a sibling would enjoy this story.