Tag Archives: Literature

Beating Back Cabin Fever

Just before the weekend Toronto received 50 mm of rain in less than 12 hours. On top of all of the snow dumped onto us this winter that has yet to fully melt, this adds up to a lot of water that needs to be absorbed back into the ground in a short amount of time. 

And I’m feeling the frustration of cabin fever. It seems like spring will never arrive.

To amuse myself, I’ve been compiling a list of stories that include missing or erased seasons.

For example, Jadis casts a spell in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe that locks Narnia in an endless winter where Christmas never arrives.

The Giver describes a human civilization so advanced that they’ve learned how to control the weather. There are no longer any seasons in Jonas’ world. In fact, he doesn’t even know what snow is until he begins his special assignment.

Fallen Angels is a science fiction novel on my to-read list that describes what happens to humanity after we successfully reduce our carbon output so much that we effectively end global warming. Unfortunately the greenhouse gases we were emitting were the only thing preventing the earth from plunging into another ice age. Society collapses and our standard of living is dialled back several hundred years when winters become long, snowy, and bitterly cold.

It also made me think of the holodeck on Star Trek. Because the characters spend their entire lives in a season-less, temperature-controlled environment, it makes sense for them to go skiing or spent a humid day at the beach when it’s time to relax. Being uncomfortably warm (or cold) is a new experience to them instead of something that happens regularly whether they want it to or not.

What books or movies have I missed? What do you do to combat cabin fever?

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Less Guilt, More Pleasure


Photo by Lotus Head. Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

I loved the first Backstreet Boys song I heard on the radio. It was catchy and fun to listen to as I rode my bike around our neighbourhood in the summer of 1997. And then I figured out that the Backstreet Boys were a boy band and instantly stopped admitting I liked their CD. I was a serious poet, you see, and could not be seen earnestly bopping along to guilty pleasures like pop ballads.

One of the unexpected surprises of growing up was learning how freeing it is to stop believing in hierarchies. Scrambled eggs and ketchup were made for one another. Jodi Picoult’s body of work and almost every dystopian novel ever written are so much fun to read I’d rather stay up an extra hour to learn how these stories end than feel well-rested tomorrow. Sometimes the best way to wrap up a long day is by dancing to The Hits: Chapter One.

You may or may not agree with my taste in food, books or music. That’s ok. I have an aversion to olives, Inspirational fiction and Bluegrass but that doesn’t make any of these things objectively good or bad. Feeling guilty for liking the “wrong” things is counterproductive and silly.

For example, I absolutely abhorr F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style in The Great Gatsby. I had to read it in high school and it was all I could do to not fling that silly book out the window every time Nick pined over not being married to his snotty, deceitful (second) cousin.

Beowulf has been one of my all-time favourite tales because the poetry was beautiful and I immediately sympathized with Beowulf’s fierce desire to protect his community. Some of my classmates loved The Canterbury Tales but The Wife of Bath was the only character I found particularly amusing in that book.

Classic music or novels become classics in large part because ordinary people find universal truths in their subject matter and continue to seek them out decades after they were originally released. Today’s classics were often yesterday’s bestsellers and may have been considered “lowbrow” entertainment when they first came out.

Does this mean that I’m the final authority on what’s good in life? No, not everything can or should appeal to everyone!

Just keep your stinky olives away from me. 😉

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Why We Need More Books About Forbidden Fruit

CDC_cherimoyaA proposition for 2013: we need more stories about forbidden fruit.

In Love and Other Perishable Items Amelia, 15, and Chris, 21, fall in love while working together at a grocery store. They’re both trapped in unfulfilling lives for different reasons and find kindred spirits in one another. Of course, acting on their feelings is illegal until Amelia reaches the age of consent.

What surprised me the most about this book was how quickly it was labelled controversial. It’s difficult for me to argue against that label without giving away spoilers but this story is pretty tame even under the standards of mainstream teen fiction.

Teenagers falling in love with older people is nothing new. It happened regularly in the small, midwestern town where I lived as an adolescent and young adult. A childhood friend started dating a guy who was in high school when we were in the 7th grade. I lost touch with her after graduation but during our senior year of school they were planning their wedding.

Not everything in life is black and white.

Another story: one of my closest friends in junior high and early high school was a a gifted writer and one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. He also smoked weed. A lot of it. On paper the quiet, obedient, honors student that I was had nothing in commons with this boy and yet he’s the only classmate I miss. Our connection was never romantic but I’d love to see how his life turned out.

No, I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law. But we do teens – everyone, in fact –  a disservice when we assume that their feelings aren’t real or that if we mention “controversial” subjects without sermonizing they’ll take that conversation as a license to do whatever they want.

It’s entirely possible to read a book, listen to a song or watch a movie without emulating the characters.

It’s also possible that nuanced discussions on topic X make people less likely to try it in unsafe ways. I almost always saw through the myths adults told me about sex, alcohol and other hot topics. What they really taught me was that their opinions couldn’t be trusted but factually accurate information is empowering.


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Books You Should Be Reading

Comic by Liz Climo

As I mentioned on Monday blog traffic is quite slow around here this time of year, but I would like to talk about books with those of you who are still around.

Here’s my list of must-reads:

After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. These genres shine in the short story format. As much as I love dystopian fiction sometimes entire novels focusing on the same ideas can be overwhelming. This is even more true for the creepiest stories.   If you only have time to read one of these stories make it “The Segment.” The twist in it was chilling in large part because I can see how easily it could actually happen in our world.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. At first glance Hailsham appears to be a typical English boarding school but as Kathy and her circle of friends grow older they begin to unravel the mystery surrounding the only home they’ve ever known. I figured out what was happening early on but the ethical questions this book raises are chilling and based on how I interpreted the ending are not at all resolved in a typical manner. Online reviews are split as to whether Ishiguro intended to write these characters that way. Some people think he was actually trying to make the opposite statement but didn’t write certain scenes clearly enough. I disagree with this theory.

Stitches by David Small. An autobiographic graphic novel about a teenage boy who is treated for cancer without being told his diagnosis or that he isn’t expected to survive. I’m hoping his mother’s life is the focus of a future book as her experiences haemorrhaged into so much of David’s suffering. Some people respond to horrific trauma by doing everything they can to end the cycle for good. Most folks I’ve known who chose this path were extremely successful at protecting the next generation. Others recreate the terrible circumstances and play the role of the abuser this time. Often they succeed.

Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotypes of the Promiscuous Young Male by Andrew P. Smiler. Abstinence-only sex ed taught me that men can never be trusted completely because they’ll say and do anything to get you in bed. While I don’t agree with all of the assumptions in this book I’m so glad to see more people pushing back against this stereotype. There will always be individuals who take advantage of others but they are not the standard by which entire groups should be measured.

Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger. I first read this story 20 years ago and still lull myself to sleep some nights wondering about these characters. The plot in a nutshell: a lonely infertile couple asks Mother Owl to give them a child. She agrees under the condition that the child be allowed to return home on her 12th birthday. As their daughter grows up her mother binds her wings in order to prevent her flying back to Mother Owl. This works…until it doesn’t. What happens to Gwinna after she discovers her destiny is why this is the best children’s book ever written.

Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser. A book of poetry Sabio Lantz recommended. Ted Kooser’s affinity for the written word shines through his work. This is the kind of poetry that seeps into your bones. A week, a month, a year passes and then one day these words bubble back up again in a quiet moment.

My favourite lines from this collection include:

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise in and out of the calm blue sea – “A Spiral Notebook”


I was that old man you saw sitting in a confetti of yellow light – “That Was I”


What are you reading over the holidays?

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Hobbits and the Nasty Business of Adventures

Last weekend Drew and I watched The Hobbit. I’ll try to review it without sharing spoilers but stop reading now if you don’t know the basic storyline.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Rivendell and The Shire in particular were amazing well done. I felt like I was standing next to the characters as they explored both areas. We didn’t pay extra to see it in 3D so I can’t contrast the two. Just know that the regular screening of it is still lush.

There are a few scenes in The Hobbit where Bilbo talks about how unsuited he is for this quest. He isn’t tall, strong and brave like his companions and his timidity and compassion definitely don’t fit the archetype of a traditional hero.

Someone whose life revolves around books, the food and the company of a few good friends isn’t the first person most of us would pick to take on a dragon. It’s easy to root for a shiny-armoured knight rolling out into battle. Even if few of us can identify with what feels like to swing a sword or walk in full body armour everyone knows knights stand a good chance of surviving fantasy battles.

Nobody expects the same thing from a  short, awkward guy who thinks adventures are too long, sweaty and dangerous. I grok this fellow and suspect he’s so beloved because far more people identify with hobbits than with the elves or dwarves. (Sorry, Thranduil!)

Yes, there were some changes made to the story as the original book does not include enough material to flesh out the plots of three movies. While I think everything could have been compressed into one or two movies I was mostly happy with how the new material was integrated with what I was expecting to see. Honestly, though, it’s better to go into The Hobbit without any intention to compare the movie to to the book. As far as I’m concerned they’re two different stories and deciding which one is better is like asking your parents which child they love the most.

The major concern I had with the new material is that some of it is so dark that The Hobbit is no longer appropriate for children. This movie truly earned its PG-13 rating and I would strongly recommend against ignoring this guideline. Even as an 11 or 12-year-old I would have had nightmares from certain battle scenes.


What did you think of The Hobbit?


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Finding Love in The Art of Racing in the Rain

When I was a little girl I had two hamsters named Cherry and Pretty.  Cherry was given to me by an extended family member shortly before my family moved cross-country when I was seven. He travelled those 2,000 miles with us to our new home out west. I believe my mom made a little nest for him in a tupperware container as I have a vague memory of peeking through some sort of breath-able lid we had on it. We bought Pretty at a pet store in Wyoming as I was convinced that Cherry was lonely.

But as Cherry was a boy and Pretty was a girl they weren’t actually allowed to spend time together. Our family had a strict no-breeding policy for everyone at that point, human and hamster alike.

They each lived a few healthy, happy years and then passed away quietly in their sleep. By the time Pretty, the younger of the two, grew old I was as ready to say goodbye as any kid could be in that situation. I loved her and would miss her but I could tell by her stiff gait she felt more uncomfortable every day.

After Cherry and Pretty died I wondered where they went and if they’d remember me if we met again. As cute as they are hamsters are not the most intelligent creatures. 😉

This unforgettable book reminded me of the bond I shared with my pets growing up.

Enzo and Denny have trudged through some very dark days together.  As Enzo nears the end of his (canine) life and prepares for the next one he does everything he can to study how men behave and take care of his human family. A TV documentary once taught him that when a dog has finished his or her canine lifetimes he or she will be reincarnated as a person and Enzo is ready for it.

Enzo would stay with Denny and Zoe (Denny’s daughter) forever if he could. Because he cannot he vows to do the next best thing – find them again in his next lifetime.

I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain yet. Sufficed to say it left me blinking back tears and thinking about love. Is the emotion we call love the same set of feelings that some animals seem to have for the humans in their lives? I’d like to think it is as I’ve known some incredibly loyal and loving pets in my day.

But it also makes me wonder if my definition of love is the same as yours? While I’m better able to describe what I mean by the term love it’s just as impossible for you to step into my shoes as it would be for you to become a dog or hamster for a day.

What do you think?

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But I Like My Shell!

It’s been a hot, muggy July here in Toronto so far. My lungs aren’t a fan of breathing oven air so I’ve been absorbing this book.

Introverts, I’m sure you know how this conversation goes:

“You’re so quiet!”


“Is everything okay?”


“Don’t you want to come out of your shell?”


*tap, tap, tap*  “What are you doing in there?”


“Don’t you want to share your thoughts?”

“Not at the moment.”

Lather, rinse, repeat.

One of the best points made in this book is that shells aren’t bad, they aren’t a character flaw.  As I was reading I thought about turtles, snails, crabs, and armadillos. Without their shells they’d never survive!

It’s as ok to have one as it is to befriend everyone you meet but too often those of us who live in the west are taught the opposite. As a kid I brushed away the annoyance of other people treating my personality as something that needed to be fixed. There were specific situations in which I wished I was more outgoing, of course, but I couldn’t understand why being talkative and extroverted were valued so much more. If everybody is vying to be the centre of attention  no one will end up there. The life of any party needs at least a few people to pay attention to what he or she is doing.

I wonder what the people who make comments about coming out of your shell would say if we turned the tables on them?

Why do you ask so many questions?

Well, have you ever tried to be quieter?

Why do you have so many opinions?

I’ve been sorely tempted to try this. The only thing stopping me is that I don’t think (most) people realize how grating the come out of your shell! conversation becomes over time.


What do you think?


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5 (More) Books that Changed My Worldview

The first half of the list. 

William Golding, The Inheritors. One of the questions I’ve come back to again and again over the years when I want something interesting to think about is this: what was it like to grow up Neanderthal 30,000 years ago? What were the real differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapians sapians?

Golding’s answer to this question doesn’t agree with current research but the characters he breathes to life are unforgettable.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

This book taught me more about the Great Depression than any history class in public school.

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace.

(Very) loosely based on a real murder trial in the 1840s. The narrator is at time unlikable and unreliable (or maybe she really doesn’t remember what actually happened?) but Atwood’s description of what life was like for a working class Canadian woman is chilling. I suspect even an innocent narrator would have been found guilty by virtue of the horrifically sexist and classist society that tried her.

Susan Goldman Rubin, Emily Good as Gold.

It’s been 15 years since I last read this book but Emily is still one of my favourite characters. I don’t know how accurate the depiction of her developmental disabilities is – I’ll leave that argument up to people with firsthand knowledge of the subject. What I can say is that I remember this being one of those rare young adult books that takes a hard look at sensitive topics like sexual assault and discrimination against people with disabilities without sounding like an after school special.

John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him.

One of the most captivating books about gender, sexuality and how society influences our identities that you’ll ever read. In a nutshell, when John he was an infant a botched circumcision destroyed his penis. The doctor treating him told John’s parents to move to a new town,  change his name and raise their son as a girl.

So they did.

As soon as John could talk, though, he insisted he was a boy like his twin brother. This is the story of what happened next. It’s a powerful argument for the idea that gender identity and sexual orientation are inborn traits, not something that anyone can change.


Do you have a list of unforgettable books?

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5 Books That Changed My Worldview

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. As a white child and teenager living in an overwhelmingly white community I honestly hadn’t thought about racism very much before picking up this book. What surprised me the most about this story is how much Pecola (and other characters) internalized the hate. Without giving away spoilers the last few pages are particularly chilling.

 Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The most memorable scene in this book happens when Francie and her brother play in the dirt before going to a health clinic for vaccinations. Their mother was far too poor to pay for a babysitter while she worked so there was no one around to get them cleaned up before the appointment. The nurse who assists with their check-up is described as someone who came from a similarly disadvantaged background and is ashamed of it.

When the doctor sees how dirty they are he complains to the nurse about neglectful poor parents who obviously don’t care about their kids . She agrees with him, adding that water is free and soap is cheap.

I couldn’t fault the doctor for not knowing what the lives of his patients were actually like but it was a shock to think that someone who grew up in that environment would forget (or pretend to forget?)

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. When I was a Christian this book introduced me to perspectives on hell, redemption and free will that I’d never heard of before. It was eye-opening to learn that not only is there disagreement within that faith over these things but that people were arguing  about it 50 years ago. (And 500, 1000, 2000 years ago!)

Velma Wallis, Two Old Women. This is the first (and so far only) book I’ve ever read in which two old women are heroes instead of people in need of rescue.


John Steinbeck, The Pearl. My freshman English teacher introduced me to this book and I rooted for Kino, Juana and little Coyotito from the beginning, sure that somehow they’d emerge from the climax unscathed. When the story didn’t end up where I thought I should I began rewriting it in my head.It was the first time I realized that the words printed on a page don’t have to be the only future for beloved characters.


What books have changed your worldview?

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Passing Through

Craig Hart and I share remarkably similar backgrounds. We were both preacher’s kids who grew up in conservative homes and churches, home schooled for several years each, and devout Christians who eventually questioned more and more of what we had been taught.

Eventually both of us switched to other beliefs. Agnosticism for me, Energetic Universalism for Craig.

Everyone has a story. One of my favourite things to do is to listen to what it is someone believes, why they believe it, and most importantly what happened in their lives to lead them to those beliefs.

The best way I know to understand where someone is headed or why they believe what they do is to listen to these stories.

Passing Through: An Ex-Fundamentalists Pursuit of Personal Spirituality is divided into four sections. The first, by far my favourite, talks about how Craig’s experiences as a child and young adult shaped what he now believes. The church he grew up in was extremely strict – for example, women wore dresses but were forbidden from wearing makeup or jewelry and no one was allowed to watch movies. At 17 Craig goes off to Bible College at the same time that he seriously begins questioning his faith.

If only this section could have lasted longer. Craig’s bittersweet stories really resonated with me. Too often we only hear from the extremes – people who love everything about their religious tradition or those who deconverted and are still angry.

Part two is a philosophical discussion: what is religion? Why does it have such a powerful hold on people? What are the benefits of struggling with your beliefs? Why do people believe in God?

It’s easier for me to discuss philosophy in person because certain words or phrases can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on your tone of voice and body language at the time. If you read this book keep in mind that Craig doesn’t defines terms like religion and fundamentalism in traditional ways. He uses these words to describe how someone behaves or thinks, not necessarily what they do or believe.

The third section discusses issues like biblical inerrancy and infallibility. (Basically, are there errors in the Bible? Is the Bible actually the word of God? If so, how do we know these things to be true?) To be honest I find these debates boring whether the holy book in question is the Bible, Torah, Koran or some other text.

This section is a good introduction for anyone who has never studied or thought about these questions though. The arguments are easy to follow and the examples used are thought-provoking.

The final part of the book talks about how to live in a society where many others disagree with you and describes what Craig means when he says that he’s an Energetic Universalist. I definitely agree with Craig’s belief that fundamentalism is in no way limited to one particular religion or group – it’s found anywhere that someone settles into or says, “I don’t need to listen to or respect you because I have all of the answers already.”

It was also refreshing to read thoughts on spirituality from someone who genuinely respects non-theists. Too often religious inclusion is really only intended for those who believe in at least one god.

This book would be a good fit for anyone interested in taking a second look at their beliefs, Christian or otherwise.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from Craig to review.

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