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.

Shhh…A Quiet Place

We received a movie at WPL this week that has been worth waiting for. I don’t always think this. I place my holds early and often for books but don’t really follow the same plan for movies. I know that a new book is coming months, sometimes years, before it is published and it’s so exciting. With movies, it’s a so-so feeling. Many movies are good, many movies have captivating performances, gorgeous sets, wonderful costumes, sensational soundtracks but very few will actually knock my socks off. Well, this is the one. Socks are off. This is the one you must see. A movie that should rise to the top of every list this year. It’s John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.

Initially it was billed as a horror film and then the tide seemed to swing towards marketing it as a thriller but I would say it is more like a classic suspense film with a few monsters thrown in to spice things up. The monsters are definitely scary. A bird flew past our kitchen window the day after we saw this movie and I was sure it was one of those monsters in our backyard. That feeling has finally worn off now.

This is John Krasinski’s film because he is the director, co-writer and star of this film. You might be thinking to yourself “Hey, isn’t he Jim from the American version of The Office?” when you see his face on screen. Yes, yes, he IS Jim from The Office and he is just as spectacular as a father who is leading his family through a post-apocalyptic world where monsters are hunting them using the sounds that they make as he was when he played Jim. And these monsters, they are hunting for any sounds. This family is so careful about not making noise that they use American Sign Language to communicate, play Monopoly with felt pieces, and spread this wonderful white sand on the walkways of their farm to muffle their footsteps. Now, about that sand. Where did it all come from? I was really not sure about this as we were watching the film but I could not even bring myself to lean over and ask anyone in my family because I was so compelled to stay silent throughout the whole thing. I’m sure that you have heard this from other people who have seen the film or even seen some of the jokes online.

quiet

But after you see the movie you can’t stop talking about every last detail. I think it’s been our top film for post-movie chatting for the whole year. Maybe it was because we felt like we had to stay silent through the whole thing or maybe it was because of the outstanding performances of the cast, the beauty of the landscape and the sheer terror we felt while we were watching. Other than Krasinski the cast is small which works very well and adds to the sense of isolation on screen as you realize that so few people survived the apocalypse. It’s just eerie. Emily Blunt plays his wife in a role that is half earth-mother, half warrior and they have cast some wonderful actors as their children, including a young woman who also had a lead role in 2017’s Wonderstruck.

This is a challenging film for all of the actors as so much of the emotion is conveyed entirely through gestures and facial expression – there is no room for error in their parts and it is done well. You can find some wonderful interviews online with the actors as they describe the work that they did to prepare for these roles and the guidance they received from young Millicent Simmonds with using ASL on film.

And, I know it’s a horror/thriller film, but I did really think it was a beautiful film. It might not make it to any Oscar lists for costumes or set design but there was a distinct look to this movie. They cared. Really, if they hadn’t been facing a constant struggle to stay alive I think it might not have been a bad way to live. The lovely photographs on their walls, the jam jars and quilts. Like Country Living but dingy. I did catch myself thinking that the absolute silence of their home life was appealing. Their kids were playing Monopoly without arguing over who got which piece or who had the next turn. I know, I know, they are living in the constant shadow of an ever present danger that will swoop in and eat them if they even knock a knife off of the table. But the sense of calm and all of the cozy sweater wearing? I could go for that. Monsters – no. More whispering while we play board games after dinner – yes.

The Blu-ray + DVD copies that we have here at the library come with glamorous special features which I am so very excited about. Director John Krasinski will give us a special behind the scenes look in Creating The Quiet and they have also included The Sound of Darkness and something called A Reason For Silence : the art of unforgettable visual effects. I look forward to watching all of these and I am going to watch the entire film one more time. I’m going to watch it again because I know that I am going to love being terrified again, because those children are absolutely amazing, because Emily Blunt gives an incredible performance as the strongest onscreen mother I have ever seen and because this time I’ll be able to eat popcorn while I watch.

— Penny M.

Tis the Season…for Wedding Movies!

The warm weather is here along with the flowers and bells of wedding season. Horse drawn carriages, brides in white gowns, vows of love all sealed with a kiss – weddings are fairytales come to life. The Waterloo Public Library has an extensive collection of movies showcasing all the charms and attractions that weddings have to offer, along with all the over-the-top drama that comes with planning them.

The Royal Wedding
Let’s start off with the biggest wedding of the year – Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle. When there is so much tragedy featured in the media it is refreshing to finally see something happy on the news. This DVD covers the pre-wedding celebrity arrivals, the ceremony and post-wedding farewells from the crowds lining the streets.

The Wedding Plan
An Israeli movie about an Orthodox Jewish woman named Michal on her path to marriage. However, things between Michal and her fiancé crumble one month before the wedding ceremony. Rather than cancel the wedding, she continues her planning with the belief that her faith will guide her to true love in time for the ceremony.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
This is my personal favourite wedding movie. It originally started out as a one-woman play and went on to become one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time. The star of the film, Nia Vardalos, based the story on her own Greek family life and eventual marriage to a non-Greek man.

The Wedding Singer
Adam Sandler plays a disgruntled wedding singer so bitter that he sets out to ruin other people’s weddings. This is until he meets a bubbly waitress played by Drew Barrymore. As time goes on he realizes there may be hope for true love after all.

Four Weddings and Funeral
Although it was originally released in the 90’s, this movie has stood the test of time. Full of British humour and a brilliant performance by Hugh Grant, the film centres on an awkward young man and his romantic life. He becomes love-struck by a young American woman who he keeps meeting at different weddings and of course, a funeral.

The Hangover
This is a wedding movie for guys. The film begins when the groomsmen get together to give the groom-to-be one last hurrah in Las Vegas. They have a wild night that no one can seem to remember. The next day the groom is nowhere to be found and the wedding is just hours away.

Bridesmaids
Comedies aren’t always recognized for Academy Awards, but Bridesmaids received both an Original Screenplay and a Best Supporting Actress (Melissa McCarthy) nomination. Annie, a down-on- her-luck sales clerk is asked to be the Maid of Honour at her best friend’s wedding where she instantly clashes with the other girls serving as bridesmaids. This original film pushes the boundaries when it comes to vulgar humour and female comediennes.

There are many more wedding movies and romantic comedies in our collection. Curl up with a glass of wine and a few tissues and enjoy some great wedding flicks.

— Lesley L.

Weddings: read all about them

Each week the CBC Toronto afternoon drive show does a feature where they pick a topic and request that listeners call in to suggest songs along that theme.  Gill Deacon – the host – reads an email or plays a listener voicemail that introduces the song and it is one of the highlights of my week each day as I drive home from the library.  It’s called “Gill’s Jukebox” and they post complete song lists on Spotify.

Recently the Jukebox theme was “Songs That You Would Play at a Wedding” and it got me thinking about the fabulous weddings I have attended and the endless great books we have at WPL about weddings.  We have so many as they come out every year at this time to take advantage of our passion for the wedding season.  I like to read wedding books throughout the year, just as I will read a Christmas-themed murder mystery on a blazing hot summer afternoon, but if you have a wedding in your future then I have some glorious books to help get you in the mood for a spin around the dance floor.

downloadGrant Ginder’s 2017 novel, The People We Hate at the Wedding, could have been a little bit more like that scene from Steel Magnolias where one character says to the other, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anyone then come sit by me.” but other than that small criticism I loved this book.  It was a solid drama with several members of one family traveling to London to attend the wedding of perfect, elegant, well-educated Eloise in a small town in the southwest of England.  Memories of Four Weddings and a Funeral were flooding into my mind as I read some of the scenes of the pre-wedding preparations.  The actual wedding day is filled with extravagant touches which is so much fun to read about but members of Eloise’s extended family have some longstanding grudges to work out before they can make their way to the celebration.  It’s a bit of an outrageous journey, certainly, but one that works for a book with this title and cover.  You pick up this book expecting some chaos and can’t help but be pleased when things work out.

If you would like your wedding reading to seem like it was lifted directly from a movie you might see on the W Network then you have got to read The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. This book was pure entertainment reading – great for a dock or hammock.  Alexa meets Drew in a hotel elevator when she goes to LA to celebrate her sister’s promotion.  Of course the elevator gets stuck and they are forced into a lengthy conversation while they share snacks from Alexa’s stylish purse.  Naturally they are attracted to each other and Drew (you must suspend disbelief here) asks her to come with him to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend the very next day because he just can’t imagine walking into the room alone.  Their single date turns into a second date and they find themselves carving out time to be together in the following weekends.  He is a pediatric surgeon and she is the chief of staff for the Mayor of Berkley so it isn’t easy to find moments that match up in their busy schedules.  They make it work.  This is a fake romance that turns into something real and it all began in a stalled elevator – an overused romance novel trope but author makes it fresh and believable.

Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements is a wonderful summer read with a wedding at the centre – bonus points.  Right from the start you feel like you are on a vacation because you are traveling to a gorgeous family retreat on a fictional New England island called Waskeke.  You feel the sunshine, smell the breeze, almost want to dip your toes into the water and also feel a tiny bit smug that you aren’t involved in the kind of shenanigans that some of these people are dealing with or considering that they might become involved in.  Family patriarch Winn Van Meter has a good marriage, wonderful children, and a life of privilege. Although he should be enjoying the wedding of one of his daughters, he is obsessed with outward shows of status (like being accepted in a country club) and what people think of him.  His wife – Biddy! – has the wedding weekend planned down to the last minute. Daughters Daphne and Livia don’t really seem like they deserve the kind of devotion their mother shows them.  If the author didn’t have such a way of making the situation funny it might be impossible to like many of the characters in this novel but it is enjoyable to watch them all – talking about their Ivy League educations and wearing their preppy clothes – until this unique celebratory weekend comes to an end.

There are scads of wonderful YA books where weddings are featured so please come to the desk and we will tell you about some of our favourites.  Come to think of it there are a several solid junior titles as well, I can suggest the Penderwicks series and dear Richard Peck’s The Best Man.  Weddings are such an integral part of life that they feature prominently in many novels and are a natural fit for any list of favourite books.  One of my top teen titles, Always and Forever Lara Jean, by the incredible Jenny Han, is actually the third in her series which features three sisters – Margo, Kitty and Lara Jean – and their widowed father.  He has decided that he can start to consider a romantic future with someone again and finds love with their wonderful neighbour Ms. Rothschild.  This book is a window into Lara Jean’s senior year as she makes decisions about where she wants to go to college and what her future will bring but the strength of these books has always been their family unit.  It’s the lure of the sisters and how they relate to their father that sets this series apart from others on the YA bookshelves.  Jenny Han’s first book has just been made into a film for Netflex (you can see all kinds of behind-the-scenes details on Twitter @jennyhan) and I’m excited to see it. I just really hope that they stay true to the wonderful family scenes that Han depicts in her books.  That is part of what made the wedding in this book so meaningful as the sisters have worked hard to be kind to each other, to take care of their father after the death of their mother, and welcoming Ms. Rothschild into their lives is a big step. This YA book is worth a read and includes a sweet wedding that will make you cry.

And finally, if you are in the market for a wedding shower gift then you must have a look at the latest offering from the editors of Martha Stewart Living.  They have pulled together valuable tips and tricks and gorgeously photographed recipes in Martha Stewart’s Newlywed Kitchen and it is a superb resource.  The book is divided into three stellar sections.  The first one helps the new couple get organized by sorting out their pantry, buying supplies, and choosing spiffy new tools.  The second section includes recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for two people, and then the third section is all about entertaining.  That final section is called “Gather Round” and is divided into events that a couple might find themselves hosting, including the dreaded Thanksgiving meal.  Really, this could be considered a welcome resource for any cookbook shelf and not just those recently wed.  You could give it a try first for three weeks – just borrow it from your friendly neighbourhood library.

As for Gill’s Jukebox, I didn’t get a chance to call in and make a request but in case you wondered, the song that I always choose at weddings is Jim Croce’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.  A classic since 1973 – just try not to dance when you hear it.

— Penny M.

 

 

Your Perfect Summer Read

Our WPL Collections Department staff have waded through reviews, catalogues and blogs, searching out the next must-read titles to share with you. You can browse through their selections on the Featured Titles – Summer 2018 list.

We hope you have a summer filled with sunshine, blue skies, and can’t-put-down reads.

Psst! Don’t forget to also check out WPL staff’s picks and pans on our More Books Please blog.

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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.