Fourth of July! By the book…

1067See what I did there? By the book…it’s a book blog…

Anyway…

So this is my first fourth of July living in these United States. The first thing I will say is it’s definitely a different experience than how Canadians celebrate Canada Day (which was July 1st). I will say that Canadians are better (more enthusiastic) about embracing their nationalism but it’s nothing like it is in America.

However…..on to books…

American history is way more interesting than Canadian history. There, I said it. Is it because it’s more or less interesting? Not particularly. But I do think Americans are better at selling the origin story. There are heroes: George Washington, Paul Revere and more “recently’ Alexander Hamilton. I dare you to name a hero of Canadian confederation? I’ll wait over here…<plays Jeopardy music>

Admittedly I have read more books on US history and presidents than I have about Canada. In my defense, I have read books on Trudeau (Pierre, not Justin), Montcalm and Wolfe….and, well that’s possibly it. I did start one about Sir John A. Macdonald (the first PM of Canada) but I couldn’t finish it. I won’t bother to start a list of American related history books I’ve read, we would be here all day.

The one that comes to mind is 1776 by David McCullough. First off, McCullough is a master storyteller. I have read a few books by him and they are all extremely entertaining. You feel is if you are reading a novel, not a history book. And the story of 1776 is interesting – a bunch of guys who wanted to create a new  country and wanted to vanquish the big bad king. (Or something like that.) It’s a good vs. evil story. You have rogue dudes. A guy riding at midnight on a horse with a lantern. And fancy hats!

In his post, BJ mentioned that his step-father didn’t learn about US history in his British school. But being as I was in Canada and we are next-door neighbours, we definitely learned about US history in school. So it’s more familiar to me.

Anyway…..enjoy the day! Have a hot dog and enjoy some fireworks. Happy Independence Day!

 

 

 

Fourth of July Reading

img_0316Happy 4th of July to everyone.  Or, happy Independence Day, though most people seem to just call it the 4th of July.

A few thoughts about our holiday, from a literary perspective.

First, these books represent only a fraction of the books I’ve read about the American Revolution.  There could be twenty-five more around here somewhere, if we had the energy to look.  (Including Chernow’s Hamilton, McCullough’s Adams…).

And these books represent only a portion of the total number of books that have been published.  Another note.  These are not academic treatises.  These are popular books written to be ready by laypeople or at least lay-adjacent people.

There are just so many.

The reason is that the American Revolution is our origin story and these books are our mythology.  If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you know that the current use of the word mythology to mean “something that isn’t true” is not the full story.  Every society has a primal need to tell origin stories.  We want to understand and shape the idea of where we came from as a way to express who we are.  Ask Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me.

Once you realize this, you see it everywhere.  As a PR practitioner, you realize this is an essential part of storytelling.  There’s Hewlett and Packard in the garage, those Google guys in that woman’s house, Woz and Steve hacking long distance calls…you get the idea.  “For Bobby Entrepreneur, the key moment came when he watched an ice cube fall into a glass of tonic.”

And the American Revolution is our culture’s mythology.  When I say our culture, I mean it in the most literal of ways.  No one else thinks this is a big deal.  My stepfather grew up in England and when he moved here (around the time of the Bicentennial), he told us that they had spent precisely zero seconds studying the American Revolution in school.

You can chalk that up to English arrogance if you want, but their history around that time is far more concerned with their wars with the French, of which the American Revolution (and the War of 1812) are considered extensions.  If the English don’t study it, you can be pretty sure no one else does either.

For my part, the most important part of reading the histories and biographies is to understand that our history was created by men and not Gods.  There is a tendency, particularly among those on the right, to deify our Founders.  To me, that’s a disservice.  When we view historic people with that lens and then our current leaders with a human lens, we end up thinking that we are less than they were.

That’s not the case.  Many of the founders were brilliant.  They had incredible courage and some of them had a true vision for a different way to found a society.  Many of them could also afford to think these great thoughts because slaves were performing all their labor.  They were also often bickering, small-minded, factional, jealous and even wrong.

But what they did was important and meaningful, especially to those of us who live here.  And the story is fascinating and compelling.

If you’re looking for something to start with, McCullough is always the answer.  1776 and the John Adams are both great books to understand how the whole thing unfolded.  Also, a Washington biography is essential.  His military leadership, in which he lost almost all the battles and won by never losing the war, and his unique ability to lead the nascent union are critical.  Had he died before 1789 and Adams, Madison or Jefferson ended up as Chief Executive, its possible things would have turned out differently.

Especially Jefferson.  Don’t get me started.

So enjoy the day.  Have a hot dog.  Watch some baseball.  Read a book.

Canada Day, US Version

IMG_0390Here’s the photo I took last year when Barb and I were in Toronto for the Canada Day celebration.  It was a special one because it was Canada’s 150th Birthday.  The fireworks above are coming out of the CN tower.

Anyway, I thought I would take this opportunity to give a stateside impression.  Today, our Canada Day has consisted of Barb pining for Swiss Chalet sauce and saying that a Tim Horton’s back home would never refer to a sandwich as a “hoagie.”  Apparently, they would call it a “sandwich.”

Also, she didn’t mention that there was a recipe for Roast Antelope in that Canadian cookbook.

Bookwise, I had a couple thoughts as it relates to Canada.  Everyone’s aware of some of the greats.  Alice Munro has a Nobel Prize and Margaret Atwood should have one.  There are others, of course.

For example, I’d point you to Wayne Grady’s Emancipation.  This book, set mostly in Windsor, is a terrific story of people involved in the African-Canadian experience directly across the river from Detroit, where the bloody and violent African-American experience was playing out.  (I also learned that Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949.)  It’s pretty timely for today–and I don’t mean Canada Day only–because it lends some understanding to how Canada is as diverse as it is and has still been immune to the global xenophobia trend, a statement I make even while noting the election of Doug Ford.

When you are in Windsor and you drive down the main drag, you see signs in English and then it transitions effortlessly to Arabic.  It has to mean something.

By the way, Richard Ford’s Canada also ends in Windsor and you might get the idea that Windsor is some kind of underappreciated literary capital, and if you had that idea you’d be wrong.

Another author that I don’t think most people know was Canadian is W.P. Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe and other fictional works related to baseball.  Shoeless Joe is the book that Field of Dreams was based on.  Kinsella (who has since passed) was a brilliant writer.  He wrote like a painter.  He had the ability to describe colors in a way that set your brain on fire with images.  I’d recommend anyone check back on his works, which are really about how people try to find peace in the struggles of everyday life.  Also, he’s a natural-born storyteller, and you know how I value that.

I didn’t realize until now that Patrick DeWitt, the author of the transcendent Sisters Brothers is Canadian.  Also, the decidedly more immanent Yann Martel.

So, Happy Canada Day to all!  Put an antelope on the grill, pop open a cold one and enjoy a great book.

Happy Canada Day eh!

img_0280It’s Canada Day in my homeland. A day where we celebrate all things Canadian: hockey, poutine and apologizing. Actually it’s usually just an excuse to sit outside, or at the dock and drink beer for most of the day until the fireworks start.

BJ and I were trying to think of what to make for dinner today to celebrate. We were researching Canadian food and I remembered that I had a Canadian cookbook. What? Yes, it’s true. There is a picture above.

I borrowed this book from my mom a while ago. I had a hankering for date squares and the ‘good recipe’ was in this book. I did ask if she wanted it back recently but she told me to keep it (honest, you can ask her)!

This is an old book, well it’s older than me! My aunt gave it to my mom as a gift in 1967 (per the inscription on the front page).

As I was flipping through the book the thing that struck me the most was the strong memories some of the recipes had for me. The ones I remember my mom making were mostly cookies at Christmas. There are two – one for shortbread and one for thumbprint cookies.

I remember sitting in the kitchen, when I was little, with my mom as she pressed out the shortbread cookies with a metal press into different shapes: stars, Christmas trees, wreaths, and helping her decorate them with red and green cherries.

I remember being excited to be old enough to help her roll the cookies in walnut pieces for the thumbprint cookies, make the indentation in the cookies and help fill them with jam once they cooled from the oven.

And the date squares. I recall they are one of my dad’s favourites. I don’t LOVE them, but I do have a hankering for them occasionally and they taste like home.

So on this Canada day I am thinking of home and all my friends and family!

Have a beer for me, eh?!

The NY Times Reviews a book I reviewed

optimistic decadeI have kind of been waiting for this to happen.  One of the things with Netgalley is you get the books early and then the grown-up critics weigh in later.  This happened recently with The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel.

First, one of the things about reading a book early is you get the book before any of the validators on board.  It could be a relatively obscure indy….or it could get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.  You’re forced to read it on its merits, and not on whether other people found it important.

The book has been widely reviewed, in fact, in all the big places.   I gave it 3-stars, which is also the most common rating on Goodreads as well.

I had it in the “like but don’t love” category, like most readers on Goodreads.

I thought that the book did a great job of creating a sense of place and had well-done characters (with one exception).  I liked many of the themes, I just didn’t think it came together as a compelling, thrilling read.

So what did the New York Times think?

Their reviewer was Zoe Greenberg, whose day job is in the NYT Opinion section.  Of course, the Times doesn’t give stars, but I’d say their review is more positive than the unwashed Zeitgeist.

I thought the most interesting thing that Greenberg notes, that never occurred to me, is the parallel between the exodus into the camp and the Zionist exodus.

Is this a book about the failure of Zionism, an exploration of the limits of idealism or a literary coming-of-age novel? It’s a bit of all three. Most interestingly, it doesn’t just rehash the story of the Holy Land we already know, but imagines a new, subversive ending. Despite the emphasis on the land — its particular specialness and beauty — the devoted of Llamalo come to a radical conclusion: It’s not about the land at all.

Which is to note that there is a heavy influence of Judaism upon which the book draws.  Greenberg goes on to identify the book’s focus on mitzvah–which are actions (often routine) which develop sacred significance–as the true test of faith, as opposed to occupying a holy place.

I agreed with Greenberg that Abel is highly perceptive as well as the rather jaundiced eye that Abel turns toward the book’s liberal activists, teetering delicately on the line between gross over-drawing and winking sardonically.

Anyway, I guess the New York Times did OK.  HA!

I have a story published!

hopperWe love to write here about what we are reading and what we are up to.  I’m also happy today to let you know that I have had a short story published in The Artists Studios.  It’s called Annabelle’s House Guest, and is the result of a challenge when I asked Barb to pick any piece of art and I would create a story around it.  The piece she picked is on the left.

 

It is difficult to adequately describe what a rush this is.  I’m proud of the story and I hope you enjoy.

Great American Read: PBS

we-can-do-itI had heard about this show on social media (and also from my mother-in-law). It was on PBS Tuesday night and hosted by Meredith Vieira. The premise of this is that there is a list of 100 books and through voting by the public, the top book will be announced in the fall.

I am a fan of anything that gets people reading, talking about books and that encourages literacy. So when I heard about this I was intrigued.

During the show, people (mostly celebrities) talked about their favourite book and pitched why you should vote for it. What struck me the most was that no one spoke about the crispness of the writing or the literary tricks that the author performed. What made people love these books was that while reading it, they felt understood. The stories and the characters connected with the reader on a personal level. Maybe that is super simple and should be obvious. But I had never heard that many people speak about so many different books, yet use the same language and passion to describe them.

Not to sound cliche, but we need books and art now more than ever. Between the world seemingly coming apart at the seams and being barraged with social media, we as humans need to slow down and take a breath. What better way to do that than by sitting down and reading about other characters, worlds and experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes for a while. I think this builds compassion, empathy and helps to renew our faith in humanity. Wait, that sounds pretentious and lofty. So just ignore that last part.

I feel like there is a lot more to unpack about this initiative. And as someone who is always hunting for blog post ideas, I will save those thoughts for another post.

If you haven’t checked it out, I would suggest you take a peek. You can find the website here: The Great American Read.

As an aside, the most shocking thing for me about the show was learning that George R.R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) was not British. He’s from New Jersey. I am forever changed.