Winning Chance, by Katherine Koller

Katherine Koller has written a vivid and compelling collection of short stories set in various locations within Alberta. Each of the vignettes, like acts of a play, puts the off-beat characters centre-stage in their complex social struggles, from a mother with a baby who fails to thrive and retired lovers wanting to travel, to a differently abled young man dangerously learning to navigate his precarious life when the most important people in his life cease to be. All of these scenes present sense of place palpably, with rapid dialogue which lives in the boroughs of Edmonton and small town Alberta.

No matter the desperation of each main character’s plight, Koller scripts a second chance for them. The honest realism, which tempts the reader to look away from difficult topics, is offered-up with optimism–a striking combination, like a salty and sweet treat.

In these troubling times, it is a surprising and refreshing read.

Recommended for youth and adults.

A Canadian Read.

 

 

 

 

 

Read more about Katherine Koller and her work on her website by clicking here.

Watch her interview on YouTube by yours truly, funded by a generous grant from the Rozsa Foundation, powered by The Writers’ Guild of Alberta.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gurwig

The latest version of Little Women hit the big screen on Christmas Day 2019. I’d read the book most recently over a decade ago, and watched several other film versions. How does this one rate?

Screen Shot 2019-12-27 at 8.51.10 PM.png

This edition is not only based on the Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the March family, but also on Alcott’s journals; therefore there are a few interesting additions.

Stylistically, the movie has lush deep tones in indoor frames much like the period paintings Gurwig studied. The outdoor scenes are satisfying with period details as well as fresh and delightfully lingering which accounts for the length at 2 hours 15 minutes.

The movie is set in Orchard House and surrounding area, the actual Alcott home (now museum) in Concord, Massachusetts, across the lane from Laurie’s grand mansion, presided over by his grandfather, (Chris Cooper). Father is off to the Civil War, and Marmie (played by Laura Dern) sympathizes with the poor of the town and leads her girls to give away their sparse foodstuffs and care for the sick. Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), is wilder in this version than the others, least likely to succumb to matrimony; her sisters not so much. There are subtle religious overtones as the family prays true to the original book, but more stark are the overt feminist comments not present in the original novel or the previous films, apparently borrowed from a speech in Alcott’s novel Rose in Bloom and elsewhere in Alcott’s later writings, perhaps indicative of Alcott’s growing outspokenness. While women’s social standing is a predicament of the time, the “little women” being so self-aware is doubtful. It smacks of didacticism, aimed at educating the young who may know nothing of women’s former plight and the true work of feminism to win suffrage, property, and parentage rights. Again, not true to the novel, but in retrospect it is a truthful addition in light of Alcott’s values.

The character of Laurie (Chalamet) is rendered in a believable light, immature and a brother-match to Jo, while more suitable as husband for the younger more adoring Amy. His growing love for Jo and her refusal is put forth as the main story-line, but kudos to the director, Gurwig, for also giving us glimpses of Meg’s (Watson) romance with Laurie’s tutor John Brooke (Norton), poignant scenes during Beth’s (Scanlen) illness, and more of Amy (Pugh) in Paris with Aunt March played spectacularly by none other than Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, the role of Marmie March (Dern) was underwhelming, as was that of Father (Odenkirk). However, the comic banter and rich poetic dialogue provides hints of Thoreau’s Walden and other transcendental writers and thinkers of the time. In fact, I quite expected actual appearances by the Alcott’s neighbours, but they appeared only in the script.

Jo’s friendship and ensuing romance with Friedrich (Louis Garrel) is a good fit as he is closer in age to Jo than the version with Wynona Rider, therefore more believable, somewhat reminiscent of the updating of Pride and Prejudice with younger protagonists. More of their relationship would have been interesting. However, the final scene, as sweet as it is, does not at all seem true to the story as it doesn’t lead well into the following novel Jo’s Boys where Friedrich and Jo have a school for boys. Instead, it adhere’s to the comedic form for a gathering of community.

Another stylistic update was the switching back and forth repeatedly in time between the girls’ childhood and their adult lives, unlike the chronological treatment in the Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version with Wynona Rider and Susan Sarandon. I personally loved this treatment, but my movie-friend who hadn’t read the book or viewed previous versions was confused.

I recommend reading Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women first then watching the 1994 Armstrong version before seeing this one in order to truly appreciate the vision which Gurwig brought to screen.

 

Recommended for all ages.

 

Out on the Drink, by Bill Bunn

 

out on the drink

This is Bill Bunn’s latest YA novel. At times, the best way to get an idea about a book is to compare it to others which are better known. In this case, Out on the Drink reminds me of Hatchett, by Gary Paulsen. Both are survival tales with engrossing minute details of a marooned boy trying to stay alive.

Both are well written, although I would say that Hatchett has a choppier feel as it comes from the narration of a less-literate teen-aged boy; Bunn’s protagonist, although similar in age, narrates at a slightly higher literacy level. As a result, there is better narrative flow.

Another novel that comes to mind when reading this novel is The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson; both are “problem” novels. In Hopkin’s novel, the protagonist is in foster care; in Bunn’s novel, Sean is a candidate for foster care due to his family problems. Here is the blurb about Out on the Drink from the Chapter’s site:

Sean Bulger is a 16-year-old alcoholic from Newfoundland. His life revolves around avoiding his abusive stepfather and sneaking booze wherever and whenever he can. One of his party crashes goes wrong when a group of fellow teens dare him to check out a condemned Russian cruise ship.

Stone drunk and obsessed with the promise of more alcohol, Sean scrambles aboard the ship, and  blacks out when the boat is towed from harbour–and soon he’s adrift in a ruined ship, looking for fresh water, food, navigational tools, or anything that will help him survive.

This book is based on an actual ship off the east coast of Canada.

Bill Bunn is one of those writers that someone will discover and then have to read all their back novels. His work is consistently good and smacks of all that is right and wrong with boyhood, without getting into the clumsy “coming of age” stuff.

Whenever possible, Canadian schools should look to replace assigned novels with excellent novels written by Canadian authors, whether they are published in Canada or elsewhere.

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 9.25.33 PM
A Canadian Author

YA age 11+

Happy Reading!

DB

Alice Hoffman, The World That We Knew

I often write about “old” or at least “older” books, but I just read one that is still fairly hot off the press. It’s Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew, released in 2019.

I chose this book because I like some historical and period fiction, as well as war-time stories. The appeal of war-time stories is that this is recent history and should be studied even though it is particularly chilling. The lows are dramatic, gut-wrenching, and at times horrific; the highs may be the simple beauty of something in nature or as triumphant as escaping arrest.

From the front sleeve:

In Berlin in 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive.                                  At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime …

I didn’t look any further, so after I brought the book home and began to read to discover  supernatural/fantastical elements, I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t want to give it away, but a few of the characters see the Angel of Death, other angels, demons, and someone creates a golem. It’s all organic to the story and the story remains anchored in real life war-time struggles, but the elements add tension and surprise.

It’s a well-told story which kept my interest throughout, and the denouement was particularly bittersweet and yet satisfying.

Recommended for 14+.

Happy reading!

DB

Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

C.S. Lewis is the author of the popular Narnia series and other works. My children enjoyed listening to the series as books which I read aloud, as well as audio books during trips.

Additionally, I have read Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, his autobiography Surprised By Joy, and my recent favourite, his Till We Have Faces; A Myth Retold, a reimagining of the Cupid and Psyche story.

Having been initiated into the world of Lewis, I wondered about this previous Oxford Don and long-time bachelor. The novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewisis a worthwhile read on several accounts: first, it has a great bibliography at the end elevating the novel to more of a scholarly investigation; and second, it shows a side of Lewis which is not usually explored by his adoring fans.

The bibliography provides many fun rabbit-trails for the curious to explore, such as books by Davidman’s son, other books by and about Lewis, and books by and about Davidman and Tolkien, Lewis’s friend. As for the enlightening bits, Callahan draws upon letters exchanged between Davidman and Lewis, love sonnets penned by Davidman, as well as other writings and lectures of Lewis. For instance, some suspect that he had an intimate relationship with Mrs. Moore before his conversion; this books tries to paint a realistic picture of the situation and Lewis’s opinion of Mrs. Moore which is not altogether benevolent.

The novel’s dialogue seems stilted at times, but I assume it is because the author did her best to piece together snippets from letters and other discourse. Of interest to me is also how Lewis lived out his Romantic beliefs (sehnsucht) of which he instills in his children’s literature (the music of Elfland– filled with longing for something more), while focused on moral character. The book includes mentions of his literary influences of nordic mythology and George MacDonald and others, as well as his wonderings about faith. I enjoyed the tidbit of how he preferred to attend an early service without the loud music (of the organ) and sit behind a pillar at chapel so the cleric could not see his face in case he disagreed with something in the sermon. The book, much to the publisher’s credit, does not gloss over questioning of faith, his quirks, nor the passion involved in this love story.

The book is a quick and enjoyable read.

Recommended for ages 14+

lewis.jpg

Happy Reading!

DB

The Hobbit

by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

I did say that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. That is true. This is another one of the very few fantasies I like. It is a classic. What more could possibly be said about this volume which hasn’t already been said? It is written by a master of the genre, it holds to all the high fantasy conventions, and it’s a fun read.

I was given this book to read by a ruggedly handsome young man. He liked dark ales, the mountains, unusual (alternative) music with haunting flutes and (other instruments) which seemed to pair mighty well with this story. I don’t know how it was possible, but at that time, I was almost entirely unacquainted with elves, fairies, hobbits, dwarfs, and other such people, before reading this book.

When I was very young, I read many folktales and fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and others. I was well acquainted with wicked witches and trolls under bridges, but those were things I had left behind when I latched onto realistic fiction as an older child. I was certainly far more protective of my young children than my parents had been of me. I shielded mine from the horrors and violence of fairy tales until they were older children. Perhaps my parents were not as careful because the stories seemed tame compared to the real-life horrors of living through their harsher times; or, there were kids to spare in my family. At any rate, I had many vivid dreams populated with monsters and bad people who I had to outrun and outwit. Perhaps giving younger children these hurdles sooner rather than later, through literature, serves them well? As parents, are we shielding our children from literature which could give them clues as to how to persevere through thick and thin?

 

The Hobbit.jpg

As I came to reread this book, I am a little embarrassed to say that I approached the book with a yawn, yet I was pleasantly surprised to find it offered me something new. Apparently Tolkien was not a fan of allegories in literature as were his pal, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald (whose literature he admittedly looked to), and he denied tucking any into this tale. However, I could not help but formulate parallels to other stories while reading it (there is an Elfland and Middle Earth mentioned in Childe Rowland), nor could I keep from my mind impressions, allegorical meanings, which translate into universal truths. This is what good fiction does. Whether or not Tolkien intended this, I believe many readers enjoy his finely woven prose because of his extensive world-building (which took years) and his knowledge of language creation (from his profession as a philologist), creating richness.

As I write this, the ruggedly handsome guy who gave me The Hobbit is now a bit older and cutting the lush green grass at our own Bag End (Yes, I married him). Like Bilbo Baggins, I have come to appreciate the simple life. I do not need much to find contentment, beyond all the good gifts my life already holds; and I have gone through my own perilous journey to get here. Something which I notice now while reading the story is that Bilbo is not really the centre of the story. He is one player in the larger story which began long before he came along, and continued long after he disappeared. Aren’t we all like him in that way? We are all part of a larger narrative. Perhaps that is a truth for us all. We hardly have an idea of what our little part might mean in the greater narrative of our history in (Middle?) Earth. If you read The Hobbit again, you may get something completely different from it.

I had the fun of visiting the Hobbiton movie set several years ago during a trip to New Zealand. Here is an extremely condensed film showing some of it: Hobbiton

Here is the Film Air New Zealand plays as passengers get comfortable for the twelve-hour flight: Air New Zealand Safety Video

This book is suitable as a read-aloud for the whole family. Young children should know that it is okay to kill giant spiders, dragons, and goblins, provided they are bad.

When did you first read The Hobbit?

 

The Tombs of Atuan, Book II of the Earthsea Cycle

The Tombs of Atuan, Book II of the Earthsea Cycle

by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Personally, I have never been a huge fan of fantasy. Although, I recently read that those who are not, have not come across the right book for them. This adage proved true for me, as I enjoyed this story.

The Tombs of Atuan is book two of this series, but I know I would not have been interested in the first book without reading this one. I think this instalment is a good entry point for those who are leery of the fantasy genre. There are some inventive place-names, and people-names, yet not so many that it detracts from the plot which is in turns mesmerizing with its clarity of setting and gripping when the main character discovers an intruder in the tombs.

As a young girl, the main character is taken from her parents to become the next, the always, high priestess of the tombs. She is carried along without having any say whatsoever in her life, until age fifteen, when the visitor comes. In reading the afterword written by the author, it is interesting that Ursula K. Le Guin felt she could not trespass beyond the life experience of most women of the time, when she wrote the story in 1969. Yet, together with her new friend, the main character is empowered to change her life. And he, along with her as his new friend, is able to find freedom from the tombs.

The Tombs of Atuan

It is truly an affecting story about friendship between a male and female, as well as a coming-of-age story for girls with themes about identity.

This is suitable as an independent read for ages 12 and up.

Happy reading!

DB

English Fairy Tales

The book which I mentioned in the last post, The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales, is a compilation of tales from several authors: The Brothers Grimm of Germany, Hans Christian Anderson of Britain, Charles Perrault of France, and a few others who are lesser known. The tales were passed around and adapted by different folks and several variations developed.

For instance, one version of Cinderella has the step-sisters feet chopped off; another has them become statues who can see, hear, and feel in order to suffer while Cinderella receives her rewards for being virtuous. Another example is of The Three Bears: an old English version, thought to be the original, has an old woman sampling the bears’ porridge, chairs, and beds–yet even this version is said to have changed from a beast tale in which the old woman was actually a fox.

This particular book, English Fairy Tales, collected and edited by Joseph Jacobs, (originally published in 1898), contains many true “folk” versions. This means they are not romanticized or made more literary as many of those adapted by Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault. They were, apparently, cleaned-up a bit by Jacobs, as the country folk liked their “bawdy” tales. However, they can still be shocking for children.

English Fairy Tales

 

For parents, I recommend pre-reading the book and choosing age-appropriate fairy tales. However, the book could be handed to a child of age 12 and up. Audio versions and e-books are either incredibly inexpensive or free, however, I am an advocate of unplugging and dragging a paper book around from a sofa, to a beach chair, to a stump in the woods.

Something else which is fun to imagine is that several of these English tales were actually verses (poetry) which were sung. Apparently, the English country folks were a jolly bunch.

Happy reading!

DB

Fairytales

Currently, I am reading fairy stories. It may not surprise you to find out that these were not written for children. They were part of the oral storytelling tradition around the world, mostly performed by those who were illiterate. However, some of the tales were retold, or rather rewritten, with added flair. No doubt, parents would have told some of these to young listeners as cautionary tales because they have a clear sense of right and wrong, and good always triumphs over evil. The well known Disney versions have sanitized most of them, so I recommend going back to these much older versions. Get ready for blood, violence, romance, and retribution!

The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales

fairy stories

This version also has an enlightening Introduction which explains the genre of fairytales.

Happy reading!

DB