Monday, September 28, 2009

The Freedom to Read

Today marks the start of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. It's kind of crazy to think that we still have to deal with the banning of books in schools, and if you think it's just an American problem, the Canadian Library Association's list of banned and/or challenged books and magazines is pretty illuminating.

And it isn’t just a problem of the past, either. Just last year a group of parents tried to have Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale banned from a Grade 12 English class at Lawrence Park Collegiate in Toronto. (The parents failed in their challenge and the book remains in the curriculum.)

Other books on both the CLA and ALA lists of banned and/or challenged books include: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange. I have read three of these four books (all in high school) and will be writing about To Kill a Mockingbird at some point in the next little while.

Of the total CLA list of banned/challenged books (which goes back to the 60s), I have read 14 titles (but I included series as one title). Of the titles on the ALA list, I have read only 9 (but the list is only a top-100); another 20 or so have been on my to-read list for a few years, though.

So, do you read banned books? How do you do against the Library Associations’ lists? And, does seeing a book title on the list make you want to read it more?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Owls in the Family

I can't remember if I read Owls in the Family to myself or if it was read to me, but I know that I got to know the story when I was pretty young. And ever since then, every time I see the book cover or hear someone mention the title, I get a really warm nostalgic feeling because Owls in the Family was a book that made me absurdly happy.

That is Farley Mowat's gift, really. He writes beautiful, and often hilarious, books about animals and their interactions with people and after you've read them they become part of how you think about that animal forever. Owls in the Family made me think it was totally possible to have owls as pets when I was a kid, and it made every owl hoot I've heard since seem like a chord in some nighttime symphony.

Owls are amazing in their own right, but Mowat gave them a kind of life and personality in his story that made them so much more accessible to me as a little kid.

A number of Farley Mowat's books are being released and the Globe and Mail is doing a 10-week series featuring excerpts from the different books. This week's is Owls in the Family, which you can check out here (the excerpt is from chapter 7 and it's a wonderful read).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Eucalyptus: when a tree is so much more than a tree

I bought Eucalyptus seven years ago at Word on the Street in Halifax. I bought it, to be perfectly honest, because it was only $5 and had a stunningly beautiful cover. It may not always pay to pick your books this way, but in the case of Eucalyptus it most certainly did.

The story is absolutely captivating. It is at once about trees, and the sort of mysterious elegance they have, and about the people who wander between them. And on top of that, Murray Bail manages to make this a novel about storytelling and the way words and language can carry you away into somewhere you have never been and didn’t even know you wanted to go.

The sort of primary story being told in Eucalyptus is that of Holland, a man who moved to the Outback of New South Wales, bought a large piece of property and spent the next twenty years covering it with every genus of eucalypt he could find. Holland lives on his property with his daughter Ellen, a “speckled beauty” who keeps rather to herself and seems to mostly live in her own imagination. As she gets older though, Holland decides its time she gets married, so he sets up a contest to find her a husband: The first man to correctly identify every species of eucalypt on Holland’s property will marry Ellen.

The contest goes on and on, and Ellen, despite an initial unhappiness about the way her future was being decided, eventually stops paying attention to the men who come to try their luck because to name all the trees is an almost impossible task. That is, at least, until the arrival of Mr. Cave, a man who appears totally unconcerned with the difficulty of the project and leisurely walks his way through over half the trees before either Ellen or Holland start to realize that Mr. Cave might actually win.

But as in any good fairy tale, there is another man, a stranger who Ellen meets one day between the trees. He seems uninterested in the contest, comes and goes as he pleases, and tells Ellen the most unusual and tangential stories.

Without giving away the end I will say that Bail’s skill with language makes this a wonderfully rereadable book. It’s so easy to get caught up in the tree lore Bail weaves around the different species of eucalypt. And the stories the stranger tells are so strange and wonderful that you can’t help but wonder what they mean and where he’s going with them.

The result of all these overlapping stories is that, while I can always remember the ultimate outcome of the book, I can never quite remember how Bail manages to get the story there. So each time I read Eucalyptus I get caught up in the story and the excitement of the ending all over again.

In a novel such as this, there is so much to talk about—the beauty of the imagery, the way the characters are crafted, the effortlessness of the reading—but it’s really the story that brings me back every time. Bail may use some techniques typical of fairy tales, but Eucalyptus is so much more than that. It is a book in which trees are not just trees and people do strange things for the people they love.


by Murray Bail

First published 1998 (cover image from the 1999 Vintage Canada edition)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On rereading

Confession: I have never actually read any of Maya Angelou's novels or autobiographies. I have read some of her poetry and it has always impressed me. But for some reason, I have never managed to get to her longer works. However, she is a formidable figure in contemporary literature, so when I came across this interview she did with George Plimpton (an American journalist, writer and editor) I was interested to see what she had to say about her writing. When I got to the part where she talked about why she reread books and how she hopes her readers reread her books, well, I got a little excited.

Maya Angelou is an excellent speaker, and she is able to articulate the reasons for rereading in much more succinct way than I am. Although I think people reread books for all sorts of reasons, the rewards for doing so are nicely put here, making this a nice addition to the dialogue of why readers reread.
Interviewer: So you don't keep a particular audience in mind when you sit down in that hotel room and begin to compose or write. It's yourself.

Angelou: It's myself ... and my reader. I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool--and I'm not any of those--to say that I don't write for a reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. There's a phrase in West Africa, in Ghana; it's called "deep talk." For instance, there's a saying: "The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the chief's bugle, but where to blow it." Now, on the face of it, one understands that. But when you really think about it, it takes you deeper. In West Africa they call it "deep talk." I'd like to think I write "deep talk." When you read me, you should be able to say "Gosh, that's pretty. That's lovely. That's nice. Maybe there's something else? Better read it again." Years ago I read a man named Machado de Assis who wrote a book called Dom Casmro: Epitaph of a Small Winner. Machado de Assis is a South African writer--black mother, Portuguese father--writing in 1865, say. I thought the book was very nice. Then I went back and read the book and said, "Hmm. I didn't realize all that was in that book." Then I read it again, and again, and I came to the conclusion that what Machado de Assis had done for me was almost a trick: he had beckoned me onto the beach to watch a sunset. And I had watched the sunset with pleasure. When I turned around to come back in I found that the tide had come in over my head. That's when I decided to write. I would write so that the reader says, "That's so nice. Oh boy, that's pretty. Let me read that again." I think that's why Caged Bird is in its twenty-first printing in hardcover and its twenty-ninth printing in paper. All my books are still in print, in hardback as well as paper, because people go back and say, "Let me read that. Did she really say that?"
(Interview excerpt taken from: George Plimpton (ed.), "Maya Angelou," Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews (New York: Viking, 1992) copywrite 1990 by The Paris Review.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

When literature makes the news

Over the last few months, a debate has been raging in the National Post about the values of Canadian literature: What is it? Who writes it well? What do we think of it? etc. This piece by Steven Galloway is the latest article on this topic, and it's a really good read.

It may not exactly be about the books that are worth rereading, but it is about books and the world of literature, so it's at least a little bit relevant. Plus, with juicy lines such as "Novels are not twitter, they are not sitcoms and they are not action movies, and the moment they are, literature ceases to exist," how could you not be drawn into it?

Danny, the Champion of the World (or, a Dahl Day reprise)

Most people have a favourite Roald Dahl book, and I can’t say for sure if Danny, the Champion of the World is mine (I think I lean a little more toward the second half of Dahl's autobiography, Going Solo), but it is the book in his canon I return to most frequently.

Plot-wise, Danny, the Champion of the World is about a boy and his father who set out to outsmart the mean and ugly Mr. Victor Hazel (all of Dahl's villains are ugly,which is why I mention it). Victor Hazel is a wealthy man who owns all the land around the small filling station owned and operated by Danny’s father, which is also where the father and son live in a gypsy caravan underneath an apple tree (Danny’s mother died when he was very young). Victor Hazel is rude to Danny and his father and does a great deal to try and have their filling station shut down.

Naturally, neither Danny nor his father can stomach this, so they set about to revenge themselves on Victor Hazel (who is absolutely a full-name kind of character). Because this is a children’s story, the revenge is not based on violence, but on cunning. After Danny gets over the shock of learning that his beloved father is secretly a pheasant poacher, the two of them decide to poach all the pheasants in Victor Hazel’s wood the night before his annual pheasant hunt. Danny comes up with the poaching method, which involves plumping up raisins in water (all pheasants love raisins) and then filling them with sleeping powder so the pheasants will drop, sound asleep, out of the trees after flying up to roost and then be easy to collect.

The plan, of course, works brilliantly (with some fun, which I won’t give away because that would be cheating) and Danny is hailed as the Champion of the World in poaching.

So, what is it about this book that brings me back to it time and time again? Well, I do love a good caper, and this book certainly delivers on that front. I also very much enjoy the fun Dahl brings to language. But the real reason is that I love the portrayal of Danny and his father. Their relationship is so lovely and Danny’s father is one of the few adult characters Dahl has created that he treats with great respect and admiration.

It sounds silly (and was not something I noticed so much as a kid), but every time I reread Danny, the Champion of the World I get all caught up in the sort of love story that Dahl tells of a father and son. It’s a quick read—so I can get my fix and move on—but it’s one that sort of fills up my heart in a way.

Also, I just love the way the poaching scene looks in my head. I can just hear the pheasants plopping out of the trees and picture Danny scurrying around to scoop them all up. And that is something else that runs throughout Danny, the Champion of the World: the way Dahl wrote this book makes it entirely envisionable, a characteristic that makes you feel like you’re part of the daring escapade, and sometimes like you’re part of those lovely moments between a father and son.

Danny, the Champion of the World
By Roald Dahl
First Published in 1977

For more Dahl:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Roald Dahl Day

Today is Roald Dahl day, and because it's also Sunday that means you (and I) have all day to revel in all things Dahl - from The Twits to Matilda and The BFG to the wonderful (and autobiographical) Going Solo. Most of Dahl's books are totally readable in one afternoon, and rereading books you enjoyed as a younger version of yourself is a lovely way to spend a Sunday.

In that spirit, I will be rereading (and not for the first time) Danny, the Champion of the World, which I will write about on Thursday.

So happy Dahl Day; I hope it's scrumdiddlyumtious.

For more on all things Roald Dahl, check out his official website.

For more Dahl:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (who could improve on a title like that?)

Home to famous lines such as "As you wish" and "My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die," The Princess Bride is an adventure, a love story, and a strangely post-modern novel that I read every year, at least once.

I first read The Princess Bride six years ago when I discovered that the movie I had loved as a kid was actually based on a book. If you’ve seen the movie but not read the book be warned that this reminiscence is probably going to contain a few spoilers.

Its full title is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, which is an insanely unwieldy title for what is ostensibly a children’s book. But then, it isn’t really a children’s book.

Written as an abridgement (although there was no original book to abridge), the story moves between the voice of the abridger William Goldman (also the author, although the back-story he gives here makes it clear he has created a character out of himself for the purposes of the story) and that of Morgenstern’s “original work” (Morgenstern, of course, is another invention). The movement between the Goldman’s “reality” and Morgenstern’s fiction is pretty genius because without Goldman’s injections of modern day concerns and characters the book would be so fantastic it would be ridiculous, to the point of being laughable.

But it isn’t laughable; instead, it’s infectious. The structure invites rereading because, depending on your mindset, you can focus more on the Goldman side of the narrative or on the Morgenstern adventure.

The Goldman narrative tells the abridger’s story of being read the book as a child and then desiring his son to read it. So he hunts up and down for the book, manages to get it to his son, only to have the son read one chapter and hate it. Goldman can’t understand how his son could hate such a wonderful book, that is, until he himself picks it up. That’s when he realizes that his dad skipped all the boring stuff when reading it to him. So, Goldman sets out to write the “good bits” version, a process he chronicles through his interruptions.

A quickie version of the Morgenstern plot is as follows: Buttercup (the most beautiful woman in the world) falls in love with Westley (a farm boy on her parent’s farm); like all good storybook love, this takes time and when Buttercup finally realizes she loves him they have a brief time together before he feels its necessary to leave and make some money so they can be married. He leaves and gets murdered by the Dread Pirate Roberts and Buttercup is sad. But, the local prince wants to marry her, so he swoops in on her parent’s farm and spirits her away to his castle to await the wedding day. Then, one day while out for a ride, Buttercup is kidnapped by Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini and the adventure really gets rolling. (I don’t want to give too much more away because really, it makes such a wonderful read). I will say, though, that the stories of Inigo and Fezzik are wonderfully fleshed out in the book, which is one of the things I love Goldman for; he could have just left them as mysterious and handy side characters, but he didn’t. He gave them lives and histories; an attention to detail that makes The Princess Bride so much more than your average adventure novel.

And oh what a story it is. Like the fictional, child-version of the abridging Goldman, every time I read The Princess Bride I get so caught up in the action and the love story and the hilarity of the interruptions that I can’t put it down. Which is really why I can afford to read it every year—it may be over 300 pages, but it only takes two days to read. And the adventure of those two days is enough to satiate me for another year because the big adventurous scenes get stuck in my head and play over and over, just as if I were a little kid again, enthralled with the movie-version of the sword fight on top of the Cliffs of Insanity (and with names like that, how could you not become enthralled?).

The Princess Bride: Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

By William Goldman

First Published in 1973

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Title Page

Sometimes, for no clear reason, particular books seem to crawl into my everyday life after I read them and stick around long after they've been put back on the shelf. Whether they were childhood stories I asked my parents to read me over and over again, YA novels I continue to read every year, or fiction I read as an adult that changed the way I though about the world (and myself), some books have become a part of my life. And I'm guessing I'm not alone in this. I have a lot of friends (some literary, many not) who quote books they love, or get comfort from rereading familiar novels on a regular basis. Some families (including my own) have entire rituals devoted to reading and rereading certain books-sometimes as a family and sometimes separately. It's books like these, the ones that get a hold of you from the get-go (or even the not-so-get-go) that I want to write about here. Every week I'll write about one such book (endeavouring to post each Thursday). I'll start with the books that I reread on a regular basis or that have become part of my life-vocabulary, and hopefully I'll be able to intersperse these entries with tidbits from readers about the books you can't live without.

So if you have suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments or, preferably, e-mail me at and tell me about a book you just can't do without.
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