Monday, August 15, 2016

August 2016 "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy again for her monthly Quick Lit linkup, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading. 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. I've read two of Cleave's other novels -- Little Bee and Gold -- and loved them, so I was eager to read his latest. It didn't disappoint. (I run the risk of oversimplifying the plot here, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone.) Set in World War II England, the novel is about a young woman and man who have a fateful meeting near the start of the war but are forced apart by the circumstances of battle and other commitments. Cleave is so good at blending realistic detail with a true love of his characters -- as well as plenty of witty dialogue. The World War II setting has become such a common one for fiction that it risks being overdone, but Cleave gives it a fresh take as he plumbs the significance of small moments of friendship, sacrifice, and courage in the midst of world-changing events.

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. This book by the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenage boys who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, is absolutely riveting. The contrast between Dylan's totally normal, healthy upbringing and the terrible events he perpetrated comes through starkly, showing how the stereotypical answers -- neglected, outcast kids and clueless parents -- don't always apply; sometimes there truly is no rational explanation. An amazing book by a woman whose life (like those of the people Dylan killed and wounded, and their families) was forever altered by her son's actions and who now works to bring attention to issues of depression, suicide, and violence.

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light by Cordelia Strube. Don't let the lyrical title fool you the way it did me. This gritty novel is about Harriet, a precocious, foul-mouthed 11-year-old whose divorced parents are distracted by what she sees as their selfishness and immaturity as well as by her handicapped brother Irwin's needs. She dumpster-dives to find scraps for her art projects and makes money by running errands for the elderly residents of her building. I sympathized with the resourceful but lonely Harriet, but I quickly tired of her unrealistic language (really, what 11-year-old says "Beat it"??) and of the onslaught of interchangeable, eccentric old people with their odd last names (Mr. Shotlander! Mr. Pungartnik!). There are some humorous moments, and there's a somewhat redemptive thread running through the book -- but there's also a shocking plot twist that really disappointed me and made the second half of the book seem like a retread of the first. This novel got some great reviews, but though I was glad I pushed through and finished it, I can't say I recommend it.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Eighteen is excellent

Today is my daughter Allison's 18th birthday. It's hard to believe my little girl has grown up. She has become a kind and funny young woman who has many gifts to share with the world.

Last night we had a family party to celebrate her birthday, and I prepared a Mad Lib story of Allison's life to read aloud. Here is the finished product (words in blanks supplied by Allison's uncle Alan, aunt Genevieve, and cousin Sadie):


Allison was born at 5:41 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4, 1998 in Munich. When she was born, her parents Richard and Jeannie said, “What a beautiful unicorn!” The doctor thought she had a striking resemblance to Beyonce, and the nurses were amazed at the huge tuft of yellow hair on top of her larynx. Allison was a very horrifying baby who liked to ride around in her Porsche. Her favourite toy was her yellow stuffed gorilla named Oink. Allison could read before she was 3.14159 years old. One of her favourite books was Lovely George, about a funny little caterpillar who was always farting into trouble. Allison never got in trouble; she was very slowly-behaved and meanderingly followed the rules. When she went to school, the underwater welders always praised her smiling skills and her ability to laugh details. Allison is now 18 and is still just as curious and indestructible as she was when she was little. She enjoys smudging the Internet and going to the McMurdo Research Station, Antarctica, to take out Cheezies to read. She is kind and always sympathizes when Jonathan makes unhealthy noises. She is very intelligent, too: her average in school this past year was 573, and she passed all her courses with flying Cheetos. Now, on her eighteenth Christmas, we want to let her know that we patrol her with all our follicles, and we hope that she has a very hairy and friendly life.

Monday, July 18, 2016

My teenage fashion fail

Something I read on Twitter last week got me thinking about the clothes that were in fashion when I was a teen.

Lee overalls were a popular item, and I had a pair in navy-blue corduroy. Overalls are kind of impractical when you stop and think about it, but I didn't care about that: I was just extra cautious in the school washroom so that I didn't come back to class with my straps twisted -- or with one strap wet from falling in the toilet!

Levi's were also very much in style: the jeans and cords, of course (I had rust-coloured Levi's corduroys), and those gingham shirts with the all-important tag on the front pocket.

We wore hoodies back then, too, except we called them kangaroo jackets. (Did anyone outside Prince Edward Island call them that, I wonder?) I had a red pullover one that I wore constantly, often under a denim jacket. It strikes me now that many of the clothes that were trendy at that time were quite unisex -- not to mention timeless. I wish I still had all those items. Well, not the overalls, maybe...

And let's not forget Adidas sneakers. Some of them were white-with-blue-stripes, and some were blue-with-white-stripes. I had a pair that looked very much like the ones in this picture; I wore them till they fell apart. Actually, I think I ruined them when I was working as a flagger on a road construction crew and accidentally stepped on hot asphalt.

It might sound like I was always buying the latest styles or begging Mom and Dad to buy them for me, but I think these examples stand out because they were exceptions. A lot of the time, in fact, I wore hand-me-downs from my cousins or other relatives. I didn't mind, though; I thought it was fun to dig into a bag of clothes in the hope of finding some treasures. I still do!

Once when I was around 14, somebody gave us one of those bags of hand-me-downs. In it I found a pretty blue flowered shirt that buttoned up the front and had white trim at the collar and cuffs. It was loose and flowing and very striking. I thought it was beautiful, and I proudly put it on and wore it to school.

The second time I wore it, we had a substitute teacher, and she was wearing the very same shirt, only the flowered print was brown instead of blue. 

This could have been nothing more than a eyebrow-raising coincidence -- except she was pregnant.

It was -- no doubt about it -- a maternity top.

I'm sure the teacher never said a word (though she may have kept an eye on me for signs of morning sickness), and I don't remember if anyone else did either, but I know I endured a day of mortification. After school I came home, stuffed the blue flowered shirt at the bottom of a drawer and never wore it -- or even mentioned it -- again.

It doesn't take much for me to conjure up that teenage feeling of wanting to get it right, look right, be right -- and the shame of thinking I'd gotten it wrong. I didn't have a strong enough sense of self to say "I'll wear what I want and make my own statement, no matter what anybody thinks" -- but I wasn't mature enough to laugh it off and turn it into a funny story at the supper table, either. I guess I was a pretty typical teen in both respects.

If only we could believe, at age 14, that it really, truly doesn't matter what shoes we buy ... or whether we have the "right" tag on our pocket ... or whether we're wearing the "wrong" shirt.
If only we could believe, at age 14, that one day we really, truly will laugh at these moments of humiliation.

Friday, July 01, 2016

A full week: 2 graduations and a prom

This past week has been a huge one for our family! Here's a brief look at the highlights, with a few pictures that -- while they don't do justice to the emotions behind them -- at least give a little glimpse.


On Tuesday Jonathan graduated from Grade 8 at Rideau Public School. Jonathan has attended this outstanding school for nine years. Ever since the first day I walked in the door to ask about registering him for senior kindergarten, we have received continuous support and help to meet his every need. He has had a full-time educational assistant (the amazingly patient, dedicated, and irreplaceable Mr. O'Connor, a.k.a. "Mr. O") to help him achieve his personal learning goals in all areas: academic, social, and physical. His classmates have encouraged and helped him. All staff, from principal to teachers to EA's to custodians, have been his friends.
Jonathan in the graduation processional with 
his friend Theory (the only girl in the graduating class).

Jonathan receiving an award from his music teacher, Mrs. Pixley,
with Mr. O, his educational assistant, helping out.

 Jonathan got a little shy when it was time
to go up for his diploma.

Jonathan displaying his Service Award.  

His graduating class was small: only five students. As a result, the graduation was very personal and informal, and each student had a chance to shine. Each student received an award highlighting his or her specific strengths; Jonathan's was the Service Award, based on his great love of recycling and picking up garbage, as well as helping with breakfast club.

Jonathan, Theory, Jackson, Carlos, and Owen - Class of 2016

Next year Jonathan will attend high school at KCVI (Kingston Collegiate & Vocational Institute); he'll ride the bus every day, a new experience that he's sure to enjoy. There have been many people involved in making this a successful transition for him, and we hope for good things in September. But we will never forget Rideau. It has truly been a home-away-from-home for Jonathan for the past nine years.

 Jonathan and Mr. O, saying goodbye on the last day of school.


On Wednesday was our second of two graduations: Allison's grade 12 graduation from LCVI (Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute). Allison has had a good four years at this excellent school. The staff have been so helpful and resourceful in encouraging Allison to be the best she can be as a student and as a person. Allison was on the honour roll (80% average), was named an Ontario Scholar (80% or more in her best six grade 12 courses), received a French Certificate (for taking French in all four years of high school), and got a subject prize for her Advanced Placement Statistics course.

 Allison before grad....

... and after.

The graduation ceremony was long, in part because a staff comment was read about each student as he or she received a diploma. This is what Allison's said:

"Allison courageously and enthusiastically advocates for the rights of others and the dignity of those facing personal challenges. Although academic excellence comes easy to her, she approaches each new task with enthusiasm, determination, and commitment."

That describes Allison pretty accurately. We are so proud of her.


Allison, dressed up and ready for the prom.
The last big event of the week was Allison's prom. She looked beautiful in her new dress, shoes, and jewelry. Unfortunately, her friend Alex, whom she'd invited as her guest, wasn't able to attend; but Allison went on her own anyway. When I dropped her off at the venue, I was so impressed by the friendliness and kindness of the other girls, who showered her with compliments and drew her in to the group. She enjoyed her evening.


So it's been a full week, and such a blend of emotions: pride and happiness, yes, but sadness too. Here's to the next stages of Allison's and Jonathan's journeys. I know they'll give us many more reasons to be proud.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 2016 "Quick Lit"

As I do on the 15th of most months, I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy's "Quick Lit" linkup, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

All Out by Kevin Newman & Alex Newman (memoir). 
This excellent memoir explores the relationship between a father and son. Kevin Newman's demanding career as a journalist and broadcaster in Canada and the United States not only exhausted him and caused him to doubt who he really was -- but also created distance between himself and his son Alex, who was struggling with his own identity and his sense that he was not the son his father wanted him to be. Alex's coming out as gay was a catalyst to bring the two closer together and allow them to start really knowing and understanding each other. I loved the honesty and authenticity of this book; its unique structure, with the two authors' voices alternating from chapter to chapter, allows us to see many of the same events from both father's and son's perspective, adding to the emotional impact.

This is Not My Life by Diane Schoemperlen (memoir). 
Schoemperlen, a well-known Kingston novelist, was volunteering at a soup kitchen when she met and became romantically involved with another volunteer, Shane, a parolee who had been convicted of murder. In this book, which chronicles their tumultuous six-year relationship, Schoemperlen explores why she fell in love with Shane, why she stayed in the relationship as long as she did, and the truths she had to face about herself in order to move on with her life. Schoemperlen's beautiful, honest writing makes you want to keep reading, even as you sense that the relationship can't possibly have a happy ending. The book also takes a sobering look at the effects of the Canadian prison system on inmates and their loved ones.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (memoir). 
Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgeon with a brilliant future when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 36. In this small but powerful book he discusses the questions about calling and purpose that led to his becoming a doctor; the decisions he and his wife had to make after receiving his diagnosis (could and would he continue to work? would they have a baby?); and the process of facing death while embracing life. His wife Lucy, also a doctor, provides a moving epilogue describing her husband's death and the legacy he left to their family and others. A beautiful exploration of life, death, and meaning.

Positively Powerless: How a Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity by L.L. Martin (nonfiction).  
The "forgotten movement" in question is the positive thinking movement, whose history Martin sketches in the first section of the book -- but as she shows, the ramifications of this philosophy are still present. She explores how the foundation of this movement -- a focus on self-affirmation and optimism -- is largely at odds with Christianity and can be dangerous because it fosters pride, de-emphasizes human brokenness, and wrongly encourages people to expect perfection in this life. I particularly liked her final chapter on facilitating safe, transparent community, as well as her "Appendix of Practical Ideas and Resources for Cultivating Humility and Staying Focused on Christ"; these help show that her purpose is not just to criticize a movement but to encourage readers toward a healthier view of self and God. Martin, whose blog I often read, is a thoughtful, clear, balanced writer.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (fiction). 
My book club did this novel for our latest meeting; this was my first time delving into the popular young-adult trilogy. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. The concept -- highly controlled dystopian world in which two children from each of twelve Districts are forced to compete in a violent death game in which only one can be left standing -- is original and interesting. The narrator, 17-year-old Katniss, is an intriguing character: tough, brave, and reluctant to trust. I found the writing a bit cliched -- "My whole body's shaking like a leaf" [of course it is!] -- but the book raises thought-provoking questions about heroism, sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, and power; and it kept me turning the pages.

What about you: have you read any of these? What have you been reading this past month?