Circe : Is It A “Must Read”?

You know how friends get together and participate in those fantasy sports leagues by choosing their favourite players in a particular sport, each person putting in a wager, tracking the statistics throughout a season, and then determining the winner at the end based on who amassed the greatest number of points? I’ve known people to do this for hockey, baseball, and basketball. Even for a period of time the TV show The League was very popular at our house with six Chicago high school friends who ran an incredibly competitive – and completely absurd – fantasy football league.

It’s fun. I get it. I can see how the thrill of trash talking about your favourite sports and players is a blast but it has always left me feeling cold. I watch sports, have played on a few adult rec teams, and certainly drive my kids to arenas and fields all year long but participating in one of these fantasy leagues has just never held any thrill for me.

Until recently when I was thinking that it could be possible to set something similar up for a publishing season. A group of friends could choose 5-10 authors who are publishing books that season and see how their books do in a set period of time with the markers for success being agreed upon ahead of time (as we wouldn’t be able to use the typical scoring stats available through runs, points scored or touchdowns). We could say that a starred review in Publishers Weekly or Kirkus was worth one point and a front page review in the New York Times Book Review with a colour illustration would be worth two points. If the author was interviewed on a major television network they would get three points and if they got a radio interview it would be two and on from there. The wager would be, of course, each person putting a gift certificate from Words Worth Books into the pot. At the end of the season we would tally up how well authors did and the first place winner would get all of the gift certificates. I think it would be so much fun to predict how well a book would do and take a risk on a debut author. Don’t you think?

51eaZ1mO9ML._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_I was musing over this because I recently read a book that I had refused to read – stubbornly – because every reviewer said that I had to read it. It was a ‘must read’ on every possible list. Madeleine Miller’s Circe was lauded by Kirkus, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly with starred reviews and glowing words of praise. NPR, Esquire, Cosmopolitan (!), The Boston Globe, The Millions and Book Riot all said it was on their list of books that you had to read for this year and The Guardian said it was “…unmissable culture for 2018.” I felt that every time I heard or read another thing about this witch’s tale I was more unlikely to read it. I felt like a toddler being led to steamed vegetables. No can do.

And then I heard an interview with author Madeline Miller where she read aloud from her book and shared a moment from the character’s first days as a new mother. She is walking with her infant and says that her son doesn’t like the sun, doesn’t like the wind, is unhappy on his back, is unhappy when placed on his stomach and doesn’t even cease to cry when she carries him but at least when he cries she has the consolation that he is still alive. I’m just remembering the bare bones of the words she used to share these feelings but it was so moving that it took me back to those early days when you have your first child and you hover outside the door after the baby is asleep – relieved that they are asleep but terrified that the silence means that they might have stopped breathing instead. I knew that this Madeleine Miller was someone I wanted to get to know through her writing.

Circe’s story is one you might have heard before as she is the daughter of the Greek sun-god Helios who grows into the powerful witch who can turn passing sailors into pigs. A useful skill. The author has given us a chance to meet Circe as a young girl who is unloved by her parents, shunned by everyone in the golden court and banished to live alone on an island where she starts to develop her skills with herbs and witchcraft. Her determined spirit and uncompromising nature make her a character to love and when she starts to finds her footing on the island you are completely won over. Through the book Circe meets Daedallus, the Minotaur, Athena, Medea, Odysseus, Zeus, turns so many men into pigs, performs an emergency C-section, casts spells, welcomes thieves and worse into her home, finds love and has her own beautiful son.

Sure, it’s a lot to fit into a lifetime, even for a goddess like Circe, but the moments in the book that seemed most beautiful were the ones where she seemed like someone we all know right now. In 2018. A powerful, thoughtful woman who is struggling to do what is right. At the end of the novel it really did seem like she would fit in with other wonderful female characters I’d read lately – as if she were from An American Marriage or That Kind of Mother. Her friends and lovers were just as real and present for me. All of those reviewers were right this time. I’m adding my voice to their chorus. This is the book that you have to read.

So, I’m just letting you know that in the fantasy authors league that I’m thinking of running, Madeleine Miller will be my first draft pick.

— Penny M.

From Horror to Hope

Two books written  about the experiences of North American Indigenous women had the power to shake my assumption, based on a lot of previous reading on the subject, that I understood the kind of pain and suffering that First Nations women and girls have endured since colonialism ripped their worlds asunder.

NotYourPrincess#NotYourPrincess, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, is a stunningly beautiful compilation of short stories and poetry, written as “…a love letter to all young indigenous women trying to find their way, but also to dispel those stereotypes so we can collectively move forward to a brighter future for all”.

Broken down into four sections, the selections take us from horror to hope, from brokenness to healing. The written words are accompanied by rich and powerful artwork and photography and compel the reader to stop and breathe in the message being relayed. The emotional intensity jumps off the page and takes your breath away, not just as an empathetic response but as a celebratory ‘high five’ for the healing that is happening and the strides that are being made.  A mere 109 pages in length, this book doesn’t ask for a huge commitment from the reader but it gives back value a hundred times over.

calling down the skyRosanna Deerchild, a celebrated author and broadcaster, has written Calling Down the Sky, a powerful poetry collection that gives voice to the generational effects of her mother’s experience as a residential school survivor. You can sense the struggle her mother feels when her daughter prods her to share her story. She is overflowing with the emotional impact  of her experience and yet overwhelmed by the telling of it.

One of my first thoughts reading Deerchild’s poems was how she used such small words and yet the message they delivered was like a punch to the gut. I could almost visualize her mother reverting back to the language of a child as she remembered the cruelty and horror inflicted on her and her fellow ‘inmates’. No flowery language required; her voice is as trenchant  as the cruelty bestowed upon them.

Both are stunning and important works of art.

— Nancy C.

The Map of Salt & Stars

According to the United Nations’ website, every single minute 20 people have to leave everything behind to escape war, persecution, or terror. The United Nations Refugee Agency approximates that at least 65.6 million people have been “forcibly displaced” from their homes worldwide. In 2001, the UN established June 20th as World Refugee Day, to “commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees”.

Syria currently remains the world’s largest source of refugees (United Nations). The United Nations Refugee Agency states that there are approximately 13 million people in Syria that are in need, another 6 million internally displaced, and an additional 3 million in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. Over 5.6 million Syrians have found asylum in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt and are registered as refugees.

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar follows the plight of Nour, a young Syrian girl and her family.  Nour’s family was living in New York City but after the death of her father (Baba), Nour’s Mama decides to move the family back to Syria. The family isn’t back in Syria long before they are touched by war. Nour tries to take comfort in the stories her Baba told her of Rawiya, a legendary girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to travel with a mapmaker charting the Mediterranean for the first time.  Nour’s mother also makes maps, and, as her family flees Syria for Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and Ceuta, they end up mirroring the journey of Rawiya.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about this book. I liked the parallels the author drew not only between maps of the past and present, but also the maps we contain within ourselves, as we journey through our lives. There are many instances where you get a real sense of the danger, suffering, and loss that refugees must feel as they try to find food, safety, and someone who will give them a new “home.”

Nour has synesthesia, a condition that allows her to see colours and shapes for smells, sounds and letters. For example, Nour sees her mother’s angry voice as red, almost white; her sister’s laugh as pink-and-purple; and, when oil and fat sizzle in a pan, it pops like yellow and black bursts in her ears. The fact that Nour experiences multiple senses in colours and shapes also reminds me of the colours and shapes on a map.

I also like that there were strong female characters in this book: all of them had to make hard choices and sacrifices. I continue to be amazed about civilization’s ability to be humane and inhumane in times of crises.

However, I found the transitions between the Nour and Rawiya’s stories very confusing. Three asterisks were all that separated one timeline from another within the chapters, and sometimes there was extra spacing between paragraphs making me think the storyline was switching when it wasn’t. I also had to flip back through the book at times to remember where one girl’s story had ended off before it went to the other girl’s story. I feel the poor transitioning prevented me from truly engaging with either storyline, and turned what could have been a great book into just a good book.

— Sandy W.

Eat A Little Better

When a book promises a behind-the-scenes look at something I find it irresistible. If the author is telling me that the secrets they will provide will be about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue then I never miss reading that book. It’s a tempting mix – the White House and secrets. One of my favourite cozy mysteries is top of this list partially due to the way that the author made her series seem authentically set in an atmosphere that is notoriously hard to get any information about. It’s just too good.

The White House Chef series by Julie Hyzy is one of the most enjoyable cozy mysteries on our shelves. Her books are action-packed, funny, with a supporting cast of sous chefs, fussy West Wing staffers, and gruff secret service agents who make the White House feel like a real community you want to return to in each book, despite constant murders and kitchen chaos. Hyzy includes recipes for a “complete Presidential menu” at the end of each book and the details about the high pressure life serving the First Family make this one of my favourite choices to read or recommend.

However, I was truly thrilled when I read that a real White House chef for the Obamas, Sam Kass, was publishing his own cookbook. A chance to really learn about the daily work life of one of the White House chefs? Sign me up!

This cookbook, Eat a Little Better, is more than just recipes – it is inspirational. Sam Kass is gently encouraging us to try and eat better, adjust the way we shop for food, arrange our pantry and think about how this will change our world. And the very best part of his message is that he writes the whole book without using guilt or making it seem like his suggestions are easy to accomplish. I was relieved that Kass acknowledges that very few families can quit eating brownies altogether and that he, as a former advisor to the First Family, couldn’t make that happen. Even Michelle Obama wasn’t able to make her kids listen to her so how can we be expected to make magic happen when people walk into the house after school and work, claiming that they are ‘starving’? Instead Kass suggests that there be a balance between the healthy choices and less healthy choices for everyone and outlines how that can happen in his book. It’s the idea that we can all eat a little better that is so appealing.

t1larg.elmoThe recipes in the book vary in difficulty but there weren’t many that seemed overly daunting. Kass is realistic in his expectations of us. I like Sam Kass. He even spent time with the gang from Sesame Street – you can look this up. He did forget to include a chapter on desserts in Eat a Little Better which I found disappointing. He mentioned that Barack Obama was a fan of pie but neglected to include many stellar recipes for that favoured choice. Do you remember how Barack’s performance in the first presidential debate in 2012 was a little lackluster but in the second he seemed to turn up the heat on Mitt Romney? It seems that it wasn’t the days of reported prep work in Virginia that gave him the extra fire. According to the story in this book, Kass asked Obama what he wanted to eat (and he was ready for anything, having packed a variety of ingredients to take along and cook in a tiny kitchen on Air Force One) and made him exactly the right meal for crushing the competition. He liked it so much that he cooked it for him again on election night making it “lucky pasta”. If there is one recipe you try from this cookbook it has to be this one – not to mention it is chock-a-block full of wonderful stuff – garlic, spinach, basil, pine nuts, chicken – and then it will be your family’s lucky pasta. It also makes a tasty leftover so you can take it to work the next day and impress your friends by saying you are eating President Obama’s favourite pasta.

The real highlight of the recipes for me was the last grouping, where he organized beans and grains into different seasons in an attempt to encourage families to add them into every meal of the year. His inventive suggestions for using up pantry staples will make so many busy weeknight meals (and lunches!) easier. I know that I am going to be checking this practical cookbook out so many times over the next few months and will love it even more when September hits.

Sam Kass began cooking for the Obama family long before they moved into the White House. It’s really hard to say which is a more challenging meal to cook – one for a family with a parent who is the leader of the free world or a meal for one who is working 24-7 trying to get that job. This cookbook is actually an opportunity to learn a bit about how the food that they ate and how they connected over meals was a part of what kept that family strong during challenging times. He started on the journey of being more conscious of the impact of food when he worked as a senior policy advisor for nutrition in the White House and as the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and he includes that journey in this book making it a little bit like an autobiography.

Kass was an important part of the work that Michelle Obama did when she created a kitchen garden on the South Lawn. This was a controversial decision at the time but it allowed them to invite thousands of children and adults into the space and let them see how food is grown instead of seeing it come in glossy packages from the local supermarket. They chose to go even further by using that produce in state dinners, advancing to add honey production to the garden and eventually creating more than one White House beer while they were in office. Since leaving the White House Kass has continued to work on initiatives with Michelle and Barack Obama. If you wanted to fall into an inspiring Internet rabbit hole you could check out what he is up to now – he is hard to keep up with.

We might not all have kitchens with the same accoutrements as Sam Kass, have the opportunity to entertain heads of state (or Elmo) but we can all try some of his recipes, learn from his research, and enjoy reading about the real life of a White House Chef.

— Penny M.

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day has special meaning for me. I have friends in K-W who have recently arrived from Syria. (Actually I don’t think “refugee” is the best word to describe them. They have made K-W their home and are here to stay. I think “newcomer” is a much better word.)

I know it hasn’t been easy for my friends. They left behind a good life in Damascus. They have lost all contact with one sibling, and have no idea where he is or what his fate might be. And their formerly close-knit family is scattered across the globe. Some family members remain in Syria, while others have gone on to Germany and Sweden.

(Just a little background: hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the war in Syria. Countless numbers have been displaced within their own country, and millions more have left their homeland, resulting in the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.)

Here are a couple of recent books that I would recommend for a greater understanding of the Syrian crisis: The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi and We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman. Both tell a similar story, though one is told with a large cast of characters and the other is about one extended family.

In September 2015 a horrifying image flashed around the world: a small boy, lying face downwards on a Turkish beach, drowned, trying to flee with his family from the war in Syria. Canadian Tima Kurdi is the Aunt of that small boy and The Boy on the Beach is her story and that of her close-knit Syrian family.

Author Wendy Pearlman interviewed hundreds of Syrians and We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled is their stories, told exclusively in their own words. They describe the very best of humanity (hope, faith, resilience, courage, altruism) but also horrors that (luckily for us) we cannot even imagine. I think you will be deeply affected, as I was, by the raw and painful words in this book.

So what are we to do on June 20th, World Refugee Day? Maybe pause for a moment and reflect on how fortunate we are to live in Canada. A different roll of the dice and it could have been us, born in some war-ravaged country. And then, who knows, we might be the refugee.

— Penny D.

I Want to Be a Ghibli Heroine!

Forget Being a Disney Princess, I want to be a Ghibli Heroine!

Like many people in North America, I was raised on Disney movies. Snow White, Cinderella, Robin Hood, The Little Mermaid, and so on and so forth. They are good movies, and I still enjoy them to this day – but I wish I had been raised on Studio Ghibli movies too.

Studio Ghibli is the Japanese equivalent of Disney. Founded in 1985, they have been creating animated masterpieces for over 30 years. While Disney movies are starting to have stronger and more independent heroines, they used to mostly be tales about princesses who didn’t have much more going on than being good people who were pretty. Since its inception, Studio Ghibli has made films with strong female protagonists who were leaders and heroes, while also maintaining very real and human flaws and vulnerabilities. The protagonists can make mistakes, and we can develop sympathy for the antagonists. Studio Ghibli movies will also often have quiet moments that show the mundane lives of their protagonists. These moments of ordinary make them seem more like real people, and make for accessible role models. The heroes aren’t in hero mode 100% of the time, they have moments of ‘real life’ too. The stories are also more varied than the boy meets girl, they get married and live happily ever after template.

The first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched was ‘Princess Mononoke’. The protagonist is male, but the movie’s namesake is a close second. She’s a girl who defies all the stereotypes that are associated with the word “princess”. Literally raised by wolves, San operates mostly on instinct, and certainly doesn’t have any of the normal princess mannerisms. She is fighting against civilization to protect the forest that has been her home, and she is fierce and uncompromising as she does it. San is definitely a heroine with courage and the ability to protect what she holds dear.

Some of the other Ghibli heroines don’t have the same kind of epic battles, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as heroic. A great example of this is Satsuki from ‘My Neighbor Totoro’. She is a child whose mother is quite sick. Satsuki, her father, and her younger sister move to be closer to the hospital that is caring for her mother. She stays strong for her family, takes care of her younger sister, and still has cheer and laughter despite her circumstances. It may not be what we are used to describing as a movie hero, but Satsuki is brave and she sets a wonderful example of dealing with life’s difficulties with optimism and grace. There is a wide variety of characters and they are heroes in their own unique ways, showing strength in all its different forms.

Studio Ghibli movies have more going on than just great characters. Their stories are rich and moving, and the animation is beautiful. Each movie of theirs that I have watched has deeply affected me, and made me realize something about myself or world view. They have a way of touching your heart and challenging your mind in ways that are completely different from what we are used to. One of their most unique films is ‘The Red Turtle’ because there is no dialogue. This story of a shipwrecked man uses art and music, and a few vocalizations, to convey they story. I think this movie proves that the people at Studio Ghibli are master storytellers.

Lucky for you, the Waterloo Public Library has many Studio Ghibli movies! While it isn’t technically a Studio Ghibli movie because it was made before the studio’s official founding, you should see ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ because it is amazing. You can visit your closest WPL location to also check out: ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’, ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’, ‘When Marnie Was There’, ‘Ponyo’, ‘Only Yesterday’, ‘The Wind Rises’,  ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’, ‘Spirited Away’, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’.

— Ashley T.

 

Happy Pride!

I look forward to so many things, things that are lovely and happy and serve as distractions from the news and general horribleness. Spring is obviously one of those things, the first few weeks when everything is green and in bloom. So to me things don’t get much better then when the weather is gorgeous and there are Rainbow Pride flags flying outside of my children’s schools.  It is without doubt one of the prettiest flags especially when so much goes along with it – living in a country where it is safe and encouraged to be yourself.

This is a lesson that is so easy to teach and to learn because it really is just about love. Love yourself, your family and your neighbours. Celebrate everyone and what makes us unique.  At WPL we are celebrating PRIDE and our LGBTQ community all month (and always!) with a gorgeous list of books for families to read and talk about.

Spring and reading and rainbows and love! Does it get any better?

– Sarah C.

Ready for summer reading

Oh, I love the ease of summer reading.  A summer read can mean different things for each reader. Some people come into the library asking for an engaging romance, some prefer a good thriller and others are drawn to non-fiction – a book that will help them in starting or finishing a big project like completing a deck or fence.  And let us remember that Lin-Manuel Miranda took Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton on vacation a few years ago and look where that led. If you can’t decide what you want to read over the summer months then staff here at WPL are the absolute experts at helping you to find the right thing.

One of the choices on our Spring 2018 Featured Titles list was Feather Thief: beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century.  I was looking forward to reading this book because I so enjoy any book that involves a heist (I blame this on watching Ocean’s Eleven so many times that I have Rusty’s dialogue, food choices and wardrobe memorized) and the added excitement of the thief stealing from the British Natural History Museum made it almost irresistible.  I wasn’t prepared for the incredible amount of work the author, Kirk W. Johnson, had put into interviewing the detective who solved the crime, the museum curators who obviously suffered when their beloved artifacts were stolen, the friends who felt betrayed by the thief’s horrible actions and the time he spent trying to find out exactly what happened.  The book is just amazing – I couldn’t stop telling people about it.  Obsession is exactly the word to describe this crime because, once you read the fascinating history of how these feathers arrive at the British Natural History Museum, you become as attached to their fate as the author was.  It feels like an affront to even imagine that this man – a young American named Edwin Rist – would steal these treasures for his personal use.  I wanted to reach into the book and give him a good shake.  I’m sure this book would captivate any reader; fans of natural history, anyone who likes a tale of quirky personalities or a good British crime story.  It’s so much more than just feathers.

If you are looking for cooking inspiration we have something absolutely gorgeous here on the shelves.  When this arrived cookbook here in the library it was an instant thrill.  It featured the word peach in the title and the book’s publishers had covered it in a kind of soft flocking as if it was soft like a peach.  We actually picked it up to see if it also smelled like a peach – remember the old days of scratch ‘n’ sniff?  It does not smell like a peach.  I’ll save you the trouble of hoping that it does.  The peach in the title does refer to the idea that sometimes simple and perfect is best, especially during the warmer months.  The author, Diana Henry, suggests that you provide a bowl of these perfect fruits in the centre of the table at the end of the meal so that family or guests can enjoy them together.  She provides simple suggestions like this one in How to Eat a Peach and also some so complicated that I’m not entirely sure we would be able to source the ingredients easily here in town.  In fact, in one recipe she provides a website reference so that you can order the items required to complete a pudding.  Although, the rest of the ingredients were so easy to find and the description so incredible I did think of making note of the site’s address.  This is the kind of cookbook that is perfect for summertime reading.  She writes so beautifully of time spent shopping for ingredients, travelling with friends and having those moments inspire her cooking, and the pleasures of preparing a table that you almost don’t have to cook anything – just reading the book is enough.  And, if you do feel compelled to actually use this cookbook for cooking she has provided at least ten wonderful ice cream recipes and you know they will come in handy as the temperatures rise.

Our collection of landscaping and gardening books are almost as exciting to me as those on the cookbook shelves and exactly the thing to provide guidance if you are working on a project for your home over the summer.  DIY Network’s Sara Bendrick has written a book that allows you to personalize your outdoor spaces using inexpensive materials, her unique suggestions (and clever tips for saving money – the book is a fascinating and useful read) and your own hard work.  There are step-by-step, extremely clear instructions and loads of wonderful photographs that take the fear out of attempting simple weekend ideas like making a dry creek bed or something more involved like building a retaining wall or fire pit.  This book isn’t all about stone and concrete though, she also includes wonderful projects involving wood and soil and has helpful tips for things to consider when purchasing different materials for use outdoors.  It’s a truly useful resource but in such a colourful and entertaining package.  She even includes a worm composting bin – this is a book that has something for everyone.

My Lady’s Choosing is the romance novel that I didn’t know I was waiting for.  It is a choose-your-own-adventure novel for adults and it really works!  Surely you remember choose-your-own-adventure books from your younger days or from 2014 when Neil Patrick Harris tried the format with his autobiography.  In this Regency-style romance written by two women in Chicago you have the chance to choose between storylines that have you finding true love with a Scottish war hero, Captain Angus McTaggart (perfect for fans of Outlander), a baronet named Sir Benedict Granville (a touch Mr. Darcy), and the one man you know that you should never choose – Lord Garraway Craven.  The style will take a few pages to get used to but you are soon invested and will just have to hold on to your seat as you follow along and get swept away by the twists thrown at you by Larissa Zageris and Kitty Curran.  They have packed every single romance cliché into their 352 illustrated pages including being forced to work for a mean dowager, visit gloomy gothic manors, dance in packed ballrooms and then add some you might not expect (or maybe you will if you read a lot of romance novels).  It’s a book that keeps you coming back for more because, you can, just choose another path the next time.  If you don’t feel like you wanted to end up in the Scottish highlands with Captain Angus then turn to another page the next time you read and find romance with Benedict Granville.  Such wonderful summer fun in this book from a team of authors that I will be watching closely.

And if you are interested in something a little Chernow-ish we can also help you there.  We will find you a hefty biography about an early American political figure or another inspiring biography to help you enjoy your summer hours or maybe write an award-winning Broadway musical.  WPL is here for you.

-Penny M.