From the category archives:

Books

Remember when I found out my photo of Lucas playing hopscotch had been turned into a book cover?

I’ve already told you a little bit about how I found the book and started a casual correspondence with the author, and what a truly kind and interesting person he seems to be. But just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the book is in the reading, and when I cracked the cover of Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse, I so dearly wanted it to be a good book. I wanted it to be good because I liked the author, I wanted it to be good because I was curious about the story, and of course, I wanted it to be good because that’s my Lucas on the cover.

It was not simply a good book. It was a harrowing, heartbreaking, funny, tragic, compelling and utterly unforgettable book. It is, I tell you without bias, a story that will rattle around in your brain and your heart long after you turn the last page. It has been called a “most anticipated book of 2014“, (right there under Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King!), a best book of summer 2014, and listed as a “next great indie read” for June 2014, among many other reviews. Pretty serious buzz, right? And I can tell you without reservation or bias, it is worth the read.

Brando Skyhorse has lived a life that is incomprehensible to me, and his memoir moved me deeply. Brando’s Mexican-born father leaves the family when Brando was a toddler, leaving Brando with no real memories of his father. Shy of neither imagination nor chutzpah, Brando’s Mexican-born mother Maria capriciously decides to reinvent herself as a Native American named Running Deer and tells young Brando that his father is an incarcerated Native activist named Paul Skyhorse – someone neither Maria nor Brando has ever met. This abrupt reinvention and declaration marks the beginning of a pattern that repeats throughout Brando’s young life: a father figure is discovered, declared and brought into the family without question, usually without attention to such details as divorcing the previously instated father figure, not once or twice but five times through Brando’s childhood and adolescence.

Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to cover Brando’s convoluted childhood. His domineering and delusional mythmaker mother seeks new husbands in the personal ads in the backs of magazines, and Brando and his mother become co-conspirators of a sort in this ongoing quest to find a suitable surrogate father figure. Brando describes the pattern in the introduction to the book:

Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them.

Then they left.

“Some boys don’t have any fathers in their life,” my mother would say, bucking me up. “You’ve had five. Plenty for one boy.”

This cavalier obliviousness defines Maria’s relationship with Brando, and the mother in me at more than one point in the book wanted to reach into the pages and throttle Maria for her casual cruelty. One father gets arrested at Disneyland, another steals coins from Brando’s piggy bank. One after another, they fail to live up to even the most meagre expectations of a father figure. Time and again, the circumstances of Brando’s life conspire against him, yanking the metaphysical rug out from under him. And yet, this is neither a maudlin nor a bitter story. Brando’s voice is often dryly witty as he recounts the absurdity of his childhood circumstances. Only toward the end of the book does a sense of defeat and anger begin to outweigh the undercurrent of dark humour, and it was at this point that I found the story hardest to read.

This is truly an unforgettable story, brilliantly told. I held my breath in anticipation at times, cringing and practically reading through fingers splayed across my eyes for fear of what twist might come next at others. Dark comedy melds seamlessly into tragic pathos and back again, and by the middle of the book I was so deeply invested in Brando’s story I wanted to skip ahead to the end to make sure the final twist was a happy ending. Just when I really thought I was going to have to stop reading because I didn’t think I could handle the stress of reading about one more loss in the young man’s life, Brando finds his way through his personal darkness and begins to weave together the frayed ends of his life. As much as a memoir of a living person can’t really have a definitive ending, I can tell you at least (no worries, no spoiler alert here) that you won’t be disappointed with the where the story ends.

This is not just a good book. This is an extraordinary book. So maybe, just this once, it’s okay to judge a book by it’s cover. ;)


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A tale of three books

by DaniGirl on April 26, 2014 · 6 comments

in Books,Photography

Once upon a time, and for quite a long time, I harboured secret dreams of being a writer. When I was in school, I wanted to be a journalist and even applied to the journalism program at Carleton. Over the years, though, I discovered blogging, and developed a little bit more self-awareness, and fell in love with photography. The blog allowed me to write in fits and starts when the mood moved me without committing to the long form of a book (I always saw myself as more of a short story writer anyway) but still scratch the itch that was my need to tell stories. The self-awareness revealed that not only do I have the attention span of a flea, while I love the act of writing, I am not really a writer in my soul. The photography gave me an outlet even more powerful and more intoxicating than writing to tell the stories I wanted to tell.

I hold books to be sacred things. If I were to think of a single thing that has most influenced who I am, what I believe, how I dream and what I love it do, that thing would be books. While I am content with the idea that I will probably never actually write a book, I am deeply and madly honoured to have been associated with not one, not two, but THREE books in the last month or so. You’ll have to pardon the hyperbole. I’m so excited that I’ve even regressed to typing two spaces after my periods.

The first book I want to tell you about is a book of poetry. It’s being published by a small literary press in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the poet is a young New Englander named Brian Simoneau. The publisher found my photo of Watson’s Mill on Flickr and sent me a note asking if they could use it. It’s not represented by Getty, so I negotiated a fair price – including a vanity copy for me and one for the Mill! – and we had a deal. I haven’t seen the final layout yet, but this is the photo they will be using:

Foggy Mill

Neat, eh? The publisher has promised me a mock-up of the cover soon, and the book will be available in September. I’ll share when I have them.

The second book was written by the person who posted the very first ever comment on this blog. Dean Dad, recently linked to his alter-ego Matt Reed, has been blogging just a little bit longer than me but has engaged a huge audience over the years with his blog Confessions of a Community College Dean. We became friends and kept in touch over the years, bonded by a shared appreciation of the wonders of parenting and the absurdities of working in a bureaucratic environment. Or maybe it was the wonders of bureaucracy and the absurdity of parenting?

Regardless, I just found out recently that Matt wrote a book based on his experiences called Confessions of a Community College Administrator. I was delighted for him, and when I congratulated Matt on his accomplishment, he casually mentioned that he had thanked me by name in the acknowledgements. (!) How cool is THIS?

Thanks again Dean Dad – erm, I mean Matt. It’s been fun bumping along this bloggy road with you over the last decade. :)

And last but not least, of course, is the book I first told you about in January. When I found out that my photo of Lucas drawing a hopscotch on the driveway was being used as a book cover, I was so excited I did a little dance around the room. It’s something I have hoped to see for as long as I’ve been licensing my photos through Getty Images. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it might be used on a book that has been touted as one of the “most anticipated books of 2014” or a Publisher’s Weekly starred review.

What I really love about the story of this book, as opposed to the story IN the book, is how I have forged a connection to the author, Brando Skyhorse. As I mentioned back in January, I found the book cover using a Google Image search, and when I found it I tagged the book on Goodreads as ‘to read’ and commented ‘this is the book with my photo on the cover’.

To my surprise and delight, I received an e-mail a few days later from the author himself. He said,

Hi Dani -

I’m Brando Skyhorse, author of Take This Man. I just discovered today via Goodreads (which led me to your blog) your stunning picture graces the finished book jacket.

This book was an incredible challenge for me to write. Often times the only thing that kept me going was trying to visualize what the final jacket (and title) would be. I could never see it, though. When my editor emailed cover samples we had close to a dozen wonderful designs to choose from yet I kept returning to your image. Something about the child – whose name I now know is Lucas – drawing on pavement with chalk felt absolutely right. Maybe you’ll see what I mean if you read the book.

In short: THANK YOU. Your picture is an incredible gift that’s made my book complete.

Isn’t that wonderful? I swear I smile every time I read it. Not only is my book on a jacket cover, but the author is a REALLY NICE GUY. We’ve corresponded through the past few months, me telling him how honoured I am to have my photo on his book and him giving me status updates along the lines of ‘”Our” book got some great news this week!’

So my photo is on the cover, it sounds like it’s going to have a pretty impressive release later this spring, and the author is incredibly kind. What could be better? Oh yes, it’s an absolutely breath-taking book, one I promise you will never forget. I’ve gone a little rambly on this post (quelle surprise!) and I want to do the book justice with my review, so stand by and I’ll get that posted soon(ish) in a separate post.

But seriously, a photo on a book of poetry, name credit in the acknowledgements of another book, and Lucas on what sounds by all accounts to be a barn-burner of a best seller. Who needs to actually WRITE a book with all of that?!?


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Had you told me before I had kids that I’d be reading aloud each night to my kids beyond the age of ten, I’d have laughed. I mean, sure, we’re a bookish family, and reading is sacred – but I would not have imagined that they would still not only enjoy but actively request out-loud reading at the end of every day.

From the Hobbit to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Harry Potter, it’s been fun revisiting some of my favourite books with them. We’ve also checked a few off my own “must read” list, including A Wrinkle in Time and most recently, Anne of Green Gables. (I seriously never could have imagined that two 21st century preteen boys could be so engaged by a 100 year old book about a spunky girl as they have. Truly one of my finer parenting moments!)

They are just getting to an age where they are starting to have more sophisticated tastes in their individual reading. They’ve both read two of the three Hunger Games books, and are racing to finish Mocking Jay before the first movie comes out this fall. With the hype about the new Divergent movie and a recommendation from a camp counsellor, Simon now wants to read that. I waffled – he is only 10, and I don’t know how mature the themes in the book are, even though it is purportedly for a young adult audience. There is a lot of ground between 10 and 17!

At first, I was going to hold him off until I could read the series myself first. At the very least, I thought I would skim the interwebs to see if I could get an idea if there was anything questionable in the books. However, I was nine when I picked up my mom’s copy of Stephen King’s Firestarter and I’ve been reading adult novels just about ever since.

304:365 Antique books

After reflecting on it a bit, I decided that they’re now pretty much okay to read whatever they want. I couldn’t think of anything I wouldn’t want them to read, although I do still want to know what they’re reading so we can talk about it. I think I’d still be careful about what movies we watched together, but there’s something about books and the engagement of your imagination that makes me willing to give them a longer leash.

I tried to think of what would make me restrict a book, and I suppose the violence would be the biggest red flag for me, although they are a little naive for any overt sexuality. Truth be told, if they are smart enough to find that stuff and learn something, more power to them! As if we weren’t all reading everything from Tiger Eyes to Tropic of Capricorn looking for the racy bits back in high school.

What do you think? Are you concerned about what your pre-teen or teen is reading? Do you monitor their reading? Are there some themes that worry you more than others? Are there any books you would forbid outright? (And how long do you think it would be before they found a way to subvert you?)

I’m thinking I may at last soon be able to do something I’ve been waiting years to do: read one of my all-time favourite books out loud to the boys. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, here we come!

(Thanks to Kerry and her family for inspiring this blog post with a random Facebook conversation!)


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I have two blog posts I’ve been noodling away at in stolen moments this week, one on skating lessons and one on Instagram. So it makes perfect sense that I drop everything and write a post about Alice Munro, right?

Well, it does because I just heard the lovely news that she has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is first Canadian-based writer to win the world’s most prestigious literary prize. Remember when I used to blog about books? I’ve been pining for those days lately, and when one of my lifetime idols wins the Nobel freakin’ Prize, that’s defintely worth blogging about!

I’m sure it speaks to my rather scattered sensibilities and curiousities when I tell you that the three most influential authors in my life (so far) have been Alice Munro, Stephen King and Douglas Coupland. I “discovered” Alice Munro way back in my teen angst years, and gobbled up everything she had written to date. I was entranced in large part because many of her novels and stories are set not just in Canada but in the part of the country where I grew up (in London, Ontario). I recognized the sleepy villages, the rolling farms, the verdant fields, even when she didn’t call them by name.

But on a deeper level, she also wrote about the experience of being a woman in terms to which I could strongly relate. Her characters are quirky and thoughtful, leading ordinary lives that occasionally break open to reveal the extraordinariness woven into the fabric of all of us, just below the surface. It was through Alice Munro that I learned to be open to and observe and love the beauty in minutaie.

It was also in reading Alice Munro that I learned about magic realism, a style I have come to love over the years. Once upon a time when I wanted to be a writer (that would be for most of the first three or four decades of my life!), I imagined that if I were to write stories they would be short stories in the style of Alice Munro – spare of superflous words, but with resonating insight into the human experience. And perhaps that’s why it’s best that I have turned in recent years to telling stories more with photographs than words – because perhaps emulating the best in her genre is a goal too lofty even for the pathologically enthusiastic. And I dont’ think I could ever restrain my innate verbosity.

When I went back to school in my mid-20s, I took as many courses in Canadian literature as I could. (Turns out that’s three, if you’re just doing an undergraduate degree.) I wish I still had a copy of what I remember to be my very favourite academic paper ever, an essay I wrote called “Pearls of Existence” and it compared the way Douglas Coupland and Alice Munro reflect the transformative experience of growing up through the lens of minutaie and everyday experiences. I loved writing that paper, and I got a (very rare indeed!) A+ on it.

I absolutely love this quote that the Globe and Mail picked up and included in the article I linked above. I think it captures exactly what I love most about the work of Alice Munro. In the author’s own words:

“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way — what happens to somebody — but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing — not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

Are you a fan of Alice Munro, too? Which stories or novels did you love – or not love?


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Flashback faves: BOB books

by DaniGirl on January 29, 2013 · 0 comments

in Books,Lucas

Almost six years ago, I wrote this sponsored blog post for MotherTalk books, which eventually became Mom Central Canada. Tristan was five and a half at the time, and I still remember how he gobbled up the BOB books for beginning readers. Last week, we dusted them off for a-week-shy-of-five-years-old Lucas, and watched the same delight sparkle in his eyes as he read them to me. (The original blog post was sponsored, but I’m sharing again because you have a little one who knows most of the alphabet and the sounds they make, these books really are terrific!)

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I have a confession to make. I didn’t read a single book in the boxed set I’m supposed to be reviewing today for my stop on MotherTalk’s Bob Books blog tour. In fact, I had them read to me – by Tristan, my five year old son.

(pause for gasps of delight and surprise)

Yep, it’s true. Neither one of us imagined he could read a whole sentence, let alone an entire book, and yet by the end of the first day, HE had read to ME not one, not two, not even four, but FIVE books of the twelve book boxed set. And they say boys tend to have trouble with reading!

BOB booksThe Bob Books are designed for beginning readers. Each book in the set of 12 introduces a few new letters and increasingly complex sentence structures. The letters seem to roughly follow the same introduction schedule as the Jolly Phonics program they’ve been using at Tristan’s school – first M and S and A, then D and B, then G and H, etc. Book one starts with simple constructions like “Mat sat.” By the fifth book, he was sounding out full sentences like, “Dot and Mit sit on a mat.” A little thin on plot, maybe, and they lacked character development. But it was really something to watch Tristan sound out new words and assimilate familiar ones with only a little bit of coaching from me, and the look in his eyes as he realized he was actually reading was truly a great moment in my parenting career. His attention span is a little sketchy sometimes, so I was delighted when we finished one book and then another and he continued to ask me if we could keep reading. It was his idea to continue through the box, not mine, and he was eager to continue reading books to Beloved the next night at bedtime, too.

It was also a good way for me to see where we might have to do a little more work. He was having trouble distinguishing between a lower case “n” and “h” for a bit, and confusing his “b” and “d” (I’ll give it a bit before I start to panic about dyslexia, which does run rather rampant though my family.) Like his mother, he wants to be able to rush ahead without actually reading the letters themselves, and I had to keep reminding him to slow down and read the words and not just guess based on the picture. “Trust the letters,” I told him. “The pictures can be tricky, but the letters will always tell you the truth.” I was really astonished at how quickly he assimilated entire words. By the end of the fifth book, he didn’t have to stop to sound out “the” or “and” or “is”.

I was really impressed by the first set of Bob books, and was pleased to see that there are four additional sets we can work through. (You can read more about them on the official Bob Books website.) Might be a good way for me to invest the $20 Amazon.com gift certificate I’ll be getting for this MotherTalk sponsored review!


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Our favourite kid books of 2012

by DaniGirl on January 2, 2013 · 8 comments

in Books

Before I became a parent myself, I’d have been surprised to know that I’d still be reading aloud to the kids as they enter the double-digit years. The big boys will turn 9 and 11 this winter, and they still insist on nightly reading time. Beloved and I take turns reading to two big or one little boy, and Tristan will often turn on his bedside lamp and read to himself for another half hour or more after that. (Simon, much like his mother, is usually snoring by then.)

I wasn’t quite as diligent in tracking the books we read together on Goodreads.com as I was in tracking my own reading material, but I thought I’d share a quick list of the best books we read in 2012. It’s been fun indoctrinating them with some of my favourites and taking the chance to read some books I managed to miss in my own youth, voracious reader that I was.

The year was definitely dominated by fantasy. Here’s what I read out loud to Tristan and Simon in 2012, in more-or-less chronological order:

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (*must* get to the movie!)
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
A Wind in the Door – Madeleine L’Engle (I liked Wrinkle better, but it was great to finally read these!)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – JK Rowling (we’ve been working our way through the HP series for a couple of years now. Not sure if I’m ready to move on to Order of the Phoenix just yet. The books at the end of the series are so long it takes us months to read!)
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang – Mordechai Richler (the boys knew the cartoon but I thought they should get the original straight from the source. Also, I heart Mordechai Richler.)
When Santa Fell to Earth - Cornelia Funke (Beloved recommended this one and we really enjoyed it! Add it to your Goodreads wanted list for next Christmas.)
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Dinosaur – Mordechai Richler (still reading this – very different from Hooded Fang, with a lot more satire that goes over the boys’ heads, but I’ve been trying to point it out to them and discuss why he uses satire and how.)

When I look at the list it seems kind of short but I suppose it’s only half a year of reading since Beloved and I take turns. One of these days I’ll ask Beloved if he remembers what he read to them, because it was a completely separate list. I know they went through a lot of Rick Riordan.

I love that the boys clamour to go to the library for fresh books on a regular basis. On their own, they read a pretty good spectrum of material. Simon loves those Guiness Book of Records books (don’t all eight year old boys?) and chapter books like the Wimpy Kid and Bad Kitty series. Tristan still reads Pokemon and is much more in to graphic novels and comic books now, but surprised me by asking to read the Hunger Games trilogy. He’s on the second book of that series, but only picks it up now and then. I love that he’s also working his way through Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collections!

124:365 Reading

Here’s my number-one kid book recommendation for you from 2012, but it’s for a much younger audience. It was Beloved who stumbled across a Mr Putter and Tabby book at the library, and we have been reading them to Lucas through the year. It is, without doubt, the sweetest kid book series we have come across, and I could (and did!) read each of them out loud night after night without having them lose their charm. Here’s a full list of all the titles in Cynthia Rylant’s Mr Putter and Tabby books from Amazon.

What were the best kid books consumed at your house last year? We need to populate our 2013 wish list!

I was delighted to see that Julie and Kamerine played along by blogging their bookly habits of 2012, so let me know if you blog your kid book faves and I’ll post a link here, too!


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Books I read in 2012

28 December 2012 Books

Way back in 2005 or so, there was a fun widget for the blog called Library Thing. It helped you keep track of and share your books. I loved it and used it for a couple of years, but lost track of it over time. For the last couple of years, I’ve been using excellent [...]

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100 best kids’ books

19 February 2012 Ah, me boys

I honestly don’t know how I missed it. I mean, I’ve always *meant* to read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, but I just never got around to it. So when I read a reference to it in the Ottawa Citizen earlier this week, it was top-of-mind when I was at the library yesterday and [...]

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Five great books to read aloud to boys

17 November 2011 Ah, me boys

One of the great pleasures of my day is reading out loud to the boys at bedtime. Beloved and I take turns; one night I’ll read to Lucas and he’ll read to Tristan and Simon, and then we’ll switch. Lately, Tristan and Simon and I have taken to sharing some of the reading – they’ll [...]

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Canada Reads 2011

28 October 2010 Books

Back in the day, I used to blog a lot about books. Way way back in the day, I used to consider myself somewhat of a fan, if not an authority, on Canadian Literature. So when I heard that CBC Radio was compiling a list of the Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade, [...]

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