Becoming

This book was a joy to read. I’ve been a fan of Michelle Obama for quite some time. I’ve always liked her strength, her passion to help others, her positive outlook and her strong devotion to her family and this book just made me appreciate her even more.

WPL has Becoming in three formats: hardcover, large print and recorded book (CD). I listened to the CD and found Michelle Obama to be an engaging narrator who allowed her warmth, humour, compassion and honesty shine through. She is the Michelle Obama you’ve seen in interviews and with Becoming, she brings readers into her personal triumphs, losses, insecurities and struggles from her early days as a young Black girl growing up in the south side area of Chicago, to her love of education and her years at Princeton, to meeting a fellow lawyer with a ‘weird name’ and her eventual role as First Lady of the United States. Readers are privy to the Obama’s early years as a couple, Barack’s increasing involvement in politics, parenting two daughters together, his run for the presidency of the USA and their eight years living in the fish bowl that is the White House.

Michelle Obama has always seemed like a regular kinda gal to me. She’s a mom, wife and daughter who just happens to be living an extraordinary life. As FLOTUS, she has lived under public scrutiny trying to balance family life with the daunting workload that she bore as First Lady. She wanted to give their children a reasonably normal childhood and use her role as First Lady to make positive changes in the country she so clearly loves. She gives readers a bird’s eye look at her life in the White House – the unique experiences made available to her as well as the limitations to her freedom and I appreciate that she doesn’t hold back on her opinions on some of the issues that have plagued and still plague the US.

Throughout the book Michelle Obama is well-spoken, genuine and she comes off as relatable and often inspirational as she shares personal anecdotes that show her fears, loves, struggles and accomplishments. Some of her anecdotes had me grinning, relating to her thoughts as a wife and mother, while several caused me to tear up as I listened to her speak about the devastation and loss her country has faced.

This is a moving, powerful and reflective book that readers, especially women and those who have ever felt unseen and ignored, will appreciate. You don’t have to be a Democrat (or even an American – says this proud Canadian) to enjoy this book. If you weren’t a fan of Michelle Obama’s before, you will be after reading Becoming.

— Laurie P.

The Book of Books

Did you watch the PBS series The Great American Read? It was wonderful. It was a booklover’s delight from beginning to end. The network began promoting it about 6 months before it aired so there was lots of time to get excited about it.

I know that library customers and staff enjoyed the series because I have been a part of some spirited conversations about it. Some of the people I follow online were so passionate about the books that they wished were included that their posts got quite heated. We watched some of it ‘live’ at our house and watched some if it taped but the good news is that all of the episodes are available online and the series’ creators have published a fabulous illustrated book as a companion that we have been flipping through with happiness at our house.

The Book of Books has a page or two dedicated to each of the novels that were featured in the PBS series. Within the entry for each book they include a summary of the book, some text dedicated to the author and interesting tidbits about the publishing history or how the book might have influenced other writing. It’s a meaty little coffee table book with great bonuses like a section of read-alikes and summaries of trends in the reading world. This is a book written for fans of books and authors with each page including something fascinating. On one page they included a photograph of a letter opener that was specially made for Charles Dickens (his book, Great Expectations, was #29 on the final list) out of the paw of his favourite cat “Bob”.

dogThey kicked off the series in May 2018 with a 2-hour special that began in the Library of Congress with host Meredith Vieira encouraging everyone to vote and share their feelings about their favourite books online, perhaps start a book club, maybe even read all 100 books (although she eventually admitted to Diana Gabaldon that she hadn’t read her fabulous series until she started working on this PBS show). I had a lot of fun following the voting and competition online throughout the summer. I loved seeing the shameless things bibliophiles would do to get people to vote for their book. The image above is a plea from someone to request that everyone vote for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (this book was recently defended by a last-minute stand-in at Waterloo Reads : the battle of the books, coincidentally).

The process for The Great American Read began with a national survey of about seven thousand people that narrowed the book choices down to the 100 that PBS used as their final list. The kick-off special featured people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Chelsea Clinton, John Green, and Venus Williams sharing their own favourite books and encouraging people to read their book (or any book really) on the list. George R. R. Martin’s pitch for The Great Gatsby almost made me cry. I think that the next time we have a student in the library who isn’t pleased to have been assigned that F. Scott Fitzgerald classic I’ll call up this video and have them watch Martin speak about how the language in the novel has always moved him.

askfmlThis contest and the show they produced put libraries and literacy front and centre and it really felt wonderful to hear people – young and old – say that libraries meant so much to them. I remember loving my little library branch in Hamilton so much and still think that it was the best thing ever that I was never reprimanded for checking out a favourite book more than once. The freedom of the library shelves is such a perfect thing. The Freeport Memorial Library in Freeport, NY created the coolest social media campaign that I’ve seen in a long time with one of their library staffers taking photographs of coworkers, library visitors, and authors in poses that were inspired by their favourite books, adding quotes from the book, and then manipulating them. You really have to check out these inspirational moments on their twitter feed at @ASKFML They are amazing – this is one that they did for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Although the program was called The Great American Read, the final list of 100 books had only fifty-one books set in the U.S.A. and only sixty-four of the authors were American. Flipping through the gorgeous book that they created is a lovely trip through literature – for kids, adults and teens. You will start thinking about other books you might have wanted to include, you might consider re-reading favourites or picking one up that you haven’t read yet. I think that you will end up with a list – keep your pencil and paper handy.

The team at PBS did not limit their choices to literary classics. They included popular authors like Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook was voted #51), Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code made it to #33), and Stephenie Meyer’s Twlight series came in at respectable #73 beating out James Patterson who only made it to #81 for the Alex Cross series (although I’m quite sure he isn’t worried about his popularity). They have details about the original voting process and how the 100 books were determined on the website but we talked about the final list at our house often and I think they did a pretty good job of including a diverse section of books, authors and genres. I was disappointed to note that Madeleine L’Engle was not included in their choices but I think everyone has a pet author that likely didn’t make the cut and, in her introduction, the author notes that some of her favourites were missing from the final list as well. Culling a list to one hundred must have been painful for that team.

The final episode of the show had Meredith Viera and nominated authors, librarians, celebrities and readers on stage talking about the five semi-finalists and counting down from 100 the list of books that had been featured in the previous shows with a little bit of extra time spent on the ‘big five’. I cheered aloud when I learned that there is a convention for fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, was thrilled to hear that actor Wil Wheaton feels his wife fills the role of Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings in his life and felt that inviting a Harry Potter superfan onto the stage to talk about the series was spot on – fans have always been loyal to J.K. Rowling and the voting showed this.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird received special attention as they were able to invite the cast and playwright for the Broadway adaptation to discuss the themes of the book and how they are using them to inform their performances. The final book in the top five was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which had an accompanying video filled with people holding copies of the novel, some dressed in period costume, and one enthusiastic fan wearing a shirt that read “I ❤ Mr. Darcy”.  I’m going to look into getting one for myself, to wear here at the library, on casual day.

So, which book took away the big prize? I don’t mind typing it here in this post (spoiler alert!) because it was on so many websites the next day that it was impossible to miss – you can go to their website for the final reveal, if you like – but I’m pretty sure that many of you will have a strong guess of which of those top five would make it to number one. The book with the most votes was Harper Lee’s classic novel from 1960. It led the voting from the first day they opened the polls and never dropped below first place. It was a clear winner in the eyes of people who were participating in the PBS contest and is always a favourite book here at WPL.

I don’t know if I could choose. I always find it very difficult to choose one favourite book. We receive boxes and boxes of new ones here at the library each week and I find something wonderful in those shipments almost every week. I have several that I return to almost every year – some by John Irving (his interview in the PBS series was fabulous!). I have re-read The Stand (#24) more times than I can count and Charlotte’s Web (#7) never fails to cheer me, especially when I hear the recorded book in E.B. White’s own voice.

I think the most enjoyable part of this series was learning how books and libraries impacted individual people. Hearing Margaret Atwood read aloud from Anne of Green Gables (#11) and knowing that she was having difficulty with the emotion behind the words that she was saying as she quoted Marilla felt so special. Only a television show about books could bring this kind of magic alive. I encourage you to pick up this wonderful book, go online and click on a few inspiring snippets of video from PBS, and start a conversation about a book that meant something to you – if you need someone to talk to about that book we’ll be here, at the library.

— Penny M.

Have You Met The Durrells?

You know how bookstores have ‘Staff Picks”?  Well I think we should have ‘WPL Customer Picks’.  Or maybe when customers return a popular DVD or book we could keep a tally of who is reporting that it is good/bad/worth the trouble and then post it at the returns desk with a little image of a thumbs up or thumbs down.  The opinions of our neighbours should be more important than the reviews we read in the Globe & Mail or the New York Times, and I would rather watch a DVD that a WPL customer recommends rather than one that gets a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  In fact, I find that material suggested to me by WPL customers is a guaranteed good read or good watch.  Thumbs up!

A favourite customer ‘gifted’ me with the television miniseries The Durrells in Corfu recently and I was as smitten with the series as she so confidently said I would be.  In fact, when I placed my hold on Season One she told me that I should place a hold on season two right away as I would be sure to want to watch Season Two as well.  She was right – it was that good (I have since thanked her for her sage advice, not to worry).  The miniseries originally aired on the British television network ITV and was picked up by PBS as part of their Masterpiece series.  We are fortunate to have both seasons at WPL and when the third season is encased in plastic on our shelves I will be faithfully waiting for it to arrive.  I will have a cup of tea ready to go and might even break out a festive meal in celebration.

The television show is an adaptation of the trilogy of books that Gerald Durrell wrote about the years his family spent on the island of Corfu.  He is at the centre of the books My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods but the screenwriters have chosen to make his mother, Louisa, the focus of their stories.  This was a great decision on their part – it gives the series a bit of snap that might be missing if the stories all centred on a young boy.  I’m sure that it would have been lovely but not quite the masterpiece we now have to enjoy.  It is fabulous.

After struggling to raise four willful children alone on a widow’s pension in gloomy England, Louisa decides to move them to a sunny Greek paradise.  Well, Louisa decides with the enthusiastic prompting of her eldest, Larry, who is determined to be a successful novelist (and becomes one – renowned author Lawrence Durrell ). The reaction of the other three is mixed at best. The chemistry between the family members is just magical.

When Louisa, Larry, next oldest son Leslie, only daughter Margo and young Gerald arrive on the island they are warmly welcomed by a taxi driver named Spiros who becomes their interpreter, protector and negotiator for everything – a villa, furniture, and the release of their funds from the bank.  While the family waits for their money to arrive they must ‘forage’ for something to eat and this is the first of many opportunities to see the different ways that the Durrells cope with adversity.  Larry flat out refuses to help, saying that he is busy writing.  Margo says that she is looking for a job and does so by sitting on their sundrenched patio in a bikini.  Leslie, always keen to help his mother, goes out with one of his many rifles and shoots some of the local wildlife while Gerald hunts for berries but ends up eating many, feeding some to their dog, and letting the remainder spoil while he is distracted by a neighbour who offers him a puppy.  Oh, the glorious little puppies.

Gerald Durrell’s passion for animals started when began keeping local wildlife as pets. They pile up so quickly that I can’t remember them all.  He had many species of birds, several types of mice, a number of insects, plus scorpions (!), turtles, otters, tortoises, snakes. In one lovely episode he wanted a goat so, so much.  The classic W. C. Fields quote about not working with children or animals does not apply in this series because actor Milo Parker, who plays Gerald, is top-notch and the furry and feathery supporting actors are sublime.  Animals and children are everywhere and make the show that much more enjoyable.  If you were to play this series without sound you would enjoy watching it for the visuals alone.

The three older children of the Durrell family also play their parts to perfection.  Larry is an aspiring novelist who spends every day wearing his underclothes and a polka-dotted robe while he types away in his room and when forced to provide encouragement or advice to his siblings he grudgingly does so but there is love behind the snide remarks.  Poor Leslie stomps about trying to find his place in their family, on the island, in the world and says “maybe I’m not the sort who is meant to be happy” but when Larry wonders if it might be time for him to return to England and they have a real brotherly conversation it is as if the two actors have really grown up together.  There is great chemistry there.  And Margo is sublime.  I’m sure that this young actor, Daisy Waterstone, is meant for great things.  She delivers every line – comic or dramatic – with such flair.  When she confesses to a local countess, played by the exquisite Leslie Caron, “I’m a bit dim”, there is really nothing more delightful.  It is so hard to choose a favourite among this cast of wonderful actors.

Each episode finds the family getting to know their new neighbours, the culture of the island, and finding their way to a happiness that they did not have in England.  It’s not an easy journey for them, thankfully, or the series would end and it would seem far too effortless.  It’s because life is a struggle for Louisa and her children that you keep watching, you become invested in their success, whether it be in Leslie’s love life, Margo’s quest for employment, or Larry’s constant pecking away at the typewriter.  And they are doing all of this while the sun is shining, they are wearing the most colourful clothes (well, Larry is usually wearing a dressing gown) and eating glorious meals on their patio which overlooks the Ionian Sea.  What more can you ask of a miniseries?  I read some terrific news online (there are spoilers about Louisa’s romantic prospects in this article so tread carefully) which tells us that ITV has committed to making a fourth season of The Durrells and that many key figures are returning to produce, direct and act in the show.

Besides Season One and Season Two on DVD,  we have many, many books written by Gerald and Lawrence in the collection.  Rosy is My Relative is a fabulous pick if you wanted something to read aloud on a car journey – it is sure to please everyone in your family.   You will find endless information about all of the Durrells on the Internet including wonderful content about Gerald’s conservation efforts and his Wildlife Conservation Trust.

It’s possible that after enjoying this miniseries you might be inspired to cook like Louisa, dress like Margo or plan a trip of your own to Greece.  The Durrells will keep you busy all through the summer with the help of the staff here at WPL.  And, if you are inspired to adopt a goat or a turtle then that’s entirely on Gerald.

— 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.

Ethel & Ernest

Now here’s a real charmer for you. By turns sweet, sad and funny, the animated film Ethel & Ernest will steal your heart.

I looked for this recently-made animated film at the local theatres, but didn’t spot it playing anywhere. So when a fellow library worker mentioned it had just come into WPL, I was thrilled! And I was not disappointed.

PEOPLE-PROD-Ethel-and-ErnestEthel & Ernest is based on the graphic novel of the same name by renowned children’s writer/illustrator Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, and many others) and pays affectionate tribute to Briggs’s real life parents. Ethel and Ernest are working-class Londoners who meet in 1928 and stay together until their deaths in 1971.

The movie consists of little vignettes of daily family life, told against the backdrop of changing times. The days of the Second World War are particularly fraught. The parents argue over whether to evacuate young Raymond to the countryside (“Over my dead body!” wails Ethel. “No, it will be his dead body.” counters Ernest), the family’s house and street are damaged by bombs and Ernest, working as a volunteer fireman, is utterly overcome by the destruction he has witnessed.

Ethel & Ernest packs a lot of emotion, but in an understated, maybe English, kind of way. I was a bit surprised at how involved I became with the characters, something I didn’t expect from an animated film. Watching Ethel & Ernest age and their health decline and then pass away, well, it is moving.

So yes, check out Ethel & Ernest. You might also want to have a look at the graphic novel (published in 1998). It is every bit as lovely as the DVD.

— Penny D.

 

Lightfoot

I’m in the midst of a Gordon Lightfoot love affair. Well, okay, not with him personally, but with his music, life and times.

Awhile back, I placed a hold on the new book Lightfoot by Canadian music journalist Nicholas Jennings, and had to wait a bit as there were a number of people ahead of me. I guess there are lots of Gordon Lightfoot fans are out there! Finally, it was my turn.

Besides reading the book, I’m also listening to his music and watching some of his performances on YouTube. I feel I’m taking part in a Gordon Lightfoot-fest, a feast for the eyes and ears — and mind and heart as well.

In Lightfoot, Jennings traces the unlikely trajectory of a kid from Orillia, Ontario to international super star. It’s clear from reading Lightfoot — just in case you didn’t already know — how enormously talented this Canadian singer-songwriter is.

The book strikes a good balance between Lightfoot’s personal life and his music, though as a songwriter there is obviously considerable overlap between the two. Jennings gives a good, nuanced account of who the singer really is. Despite some personal demons (alcoholic excesses being pretty high up on the list), Lightfoot comes across as a decent guy with a lot of personal and musical integrity.

I have borrowed some CDs (WPL has a good selection) and can honestly say it has been a delight to rediscover his music. It’s so real, so genuine. I think my all-time favourite Gordon Lightfoot song has to be “If You Could Read my Mind.” Other greats are “Early Morning Rain,” “The Last Time I Saw Her,” “I Heard You Talking in Your Sleep” and oh, so many others. I love his rich, melodic voice.

Lightfoot is a great read but might I also suggest you check out some of his timeless music as well. Maybe start (or rediscover) your own love affair with Gordon Lightfoot.

BTW, Gordon Lightfoot is scheduled to appear at the Centre in the Square November 22, 2018. I have my ticket bought. I will be there.

— Penny D.