Monthly Archives: November 2012

Thank goodness for children’s books

Over the summer my girlfriend and I went on an epic road trip that took us to some fantastic destinations like Vancouver, Victoria, Tofino and Saltspring Island. Before departing from Tofino for Saltspring I started looking up accommodation online.  I don’t know what I entered into google but “Between the Covers Bed and Breakfast” was one of the first links I clicked on and ultimately the place we stayed. What sold me on that particular B&B? The subtext that read “a booklovers B&B.” It was like the universe had preordained it. Little did I know how replete with truth that statement would be.

The B&B is set in an absolutely idyllic location about 5 minutes from downtown Ganges but what made my stay there so serendipitous was the owner Margriet Ruurs, a children’s book author with a fabulous life story. As I was on a journey of inquisition this summer I constantly bombarded her with questions from “why are the chicken’s eggs brown? to “how did you get started as an author?” Margriet was patient, enthusiastic and generous with her answers and wisdom. She even sent me away at the end of our stay with a parting gift! A book, of course.

Since that fateful stay I have a) encouraged Andrew to join the coast guard so we could move to Salt Spring and b) been dreaming about children’s books, furtively scribbling ideas down in a notebook whenever they pop into my head (I have an entire series worth starring Coop dawg the hero and Teddy his silent but trusted companion). So, the theme of a baby shower I recently attended was right up my alley: “Baby’s First Library”.

In preparation for the event, I spent a good hour flipping through children’s books at the bookstore, enjoying anew those published since my childhood and relishing in the wave of nostalgia brought on by those old familiar titles, books so ubiquitous to the average (Canadian?) child’s development they are practically synonymous with childhood – Good Night Moon, Runaway Bunny, I Love You Forever, anything by Dr. Seuss and anything by Robert Munsch. But there were others too, titles that  consume much larger portions of the book repository in my brain – Balloon Tree, Madeline (maybe this is where my adoration of Paris comes from??), The Giving Tree, Are You My Mother, the Berenstein Bears, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Curious George, Judy Blume… and on and on.

As I wandered around the children’s section I started thinking how great it was to see so many kids around and so many children’s books. In a time where all printed media is in danger of being enveloped by the mammoth of electronic media it made me feel that these beautiful, hard bound pieces of artwork were immune to this risk. I know the invention of devices such as Leapfrog have created a new learning niche but can they really replace the tactile stimulation of books for children? Who doesn’t remember flipping open an creature in a pop-up book, or rubbing the fuzzy patch on an animal in a touch-and-feel book or seeing the “eaten” pages of The Hungry Caterpillar or really, even just the feeling of being  the sibling who got to turn the page while mom or dad read the book aloud.

As I looked around though I realized that not all of the shelves in the children’s section were actually occupied by books. A lot of them were filled with Lego, puzzles, games, books of stickers and various toys. Perhaps books aren’t holding the attention of children raised in this digital age; kids who probably have an email address, facebook account, cellphone and itunes account all before junior high. Imagination is a powerful thing and it can overcome the medium, I believe, but in a developing mind, a mind that requires nurturing is there anything better then an illustrated book that can be carted from school to home, from bath to bed, traded and shared, memorized and past on?

I don’t have my own children yet and would hate to consider myself a luddite but I just don’t think a toy or electronic reader can replace a book for a child. So it was both a relief and an honour to be a part of a book-themed baby shower last week. I hope this is more of a trend than I know and that the joy of reading continues to get passed on to those young and old.

And congratulations to the baby’s momma! 😉

~ Kate

I’m gonna call this one a waste of my time

Not since I first read The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford some five or so years ago have I actually enjoyed one of these “see the world in a new way” kind of books. I’ve read a number of them from: Freakonomics to Outliers to 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Fooled by Randomness and I’m almost inclined to say “if you’ve read one, you’re read them all.”

There are interesting and enlightening sections of all of these books for sure but they certainly do not comprise the bulk of the book. In my most recent foray into the “Business” genre, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, there were interesting tidbits – like why Sesame Street was so successful and how NYC cleaned up their subways – but that was all in the first couple of chapters. After that, Gladwell just reinvented the wheel, repeating information he’d already said in a slightly different way or inserting one more case study that sometimes read more like an exercise in name dropping then actual teaching.

I have so little to say about this last read it’s almost pathetic. I feel like these books are less about seeing the world in a new way and increasing your personal/work effectiveness and more about the authors staying employed. Its sort of like Starbucks venturing into selling food, then smoothies, now coffee machines. With a little tweak people might thing it’s an fresh new store but really the crux is the same. But who am I kidding, I’m the one that keeps finding myself in the business section at the bookstore, handling another hot bestselling “sure to make you see things differently” book before slowly walking with it to the register. I believe they call that a suckers maxim.

~kate

I’ve got a thing for Africa

I think it started with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. My obsession with African literature, that is. So, when I saw a tattered copy of Out of Africa at a used book sale this past year I grabbed it without a second thought and tossed it into my already teeming box of books. It wasn’t until much later when I’d unpacked

and was revisiting my purchases that I realized I hadn’t bought Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa but rather Kuki Gallmann’s I Dreamed of Africa. “International Bestseller” was splashed across the cover so I thought, what the hey? When will I learn!

I don’t want to be too harsh in this review since this book still falls within the category that I hold dear but I have very few good things to say about it. It started off well (that’s one) – a young Italian woman is crippled in an accident and finds herself starting a new life in Kenya. Sounds pretty exciting to me, like a story I could live vicariously through. The story never gets going though. It is just a series of events and people strung together in time.

I didn’t feel Kuki’s pain and struggle with her new handicap; she simply tells the reader “it was hard, but then the doctor fixed my leg” (I’m paraphrasing) so the opportunity for the reader to empathize with her is largely lost. The author-reader connection is further hampered by Kuki’s ability to tell her story – her life in Kenya reads more like a book report written by someone in grade school then a memoir. This critique comes from personal experience (not that I’ve tried writing a memoir. Yet). Somewhere in elementary school my teacher told me not to just retell the story, write how it made me feel, what my thoughts were, what I thought the author was trying to say as otherwise I was just writing a report, not a personalized review. This advice could have served Ms. Gallmann well.

Writing a memoir in chronological order is somewhat necessary if not the point. We, the readers, are supposed to grow with the characters and see how they change in accordance with the events of their life. Kuki’s memoir, however, is organized along a timeline so rigid there is no room for deviation. Instead of grouping events together in order to convey a message, significant events were interrupted by unrelated activities like a new neighbour moving in or a plane ride over the Great Rift Valley. Important or significant experiences? Perhaps, but not as isolated events.

As a result, I was unable to build the intended attachment to characters, central or otherwise, and had to rely on the “facts” Kuki offered instead of making my own discoveries. Her son, for example. I understood (ad nauseam) that he loved snakes but I couldn’t really get an idea of who he was because a) her anecdotes were weak and fluffy and b) she used lines like “[Ema] was quiet and independent”; basal descriptions that didn’t serve to provide me with a sense of who the boy was.

I initially thought Kuki’s writing was going to be a strong point in the book (that’s two positive things?) because there are some beautifully descriptive lines early on but by the last third of the book when I encountered lines like “A life, like a concert, is made of high and low notes, of pauses in the elation and of peaks of reverberating, deafening heartbeats” they stood out like a sore thumb. They  were in such stark contrast to the bulk of her writing that instead of “waxing poetic”  her words instead seemed trite and forced.

My opinions of this latest read diverge widely from the popular opinions at the time of publication. Maybe it’s an issue of timeliness – there have been a long line of memoirs out of Africa since the year 2000 – or maybe its just as Oscar Wilde said.  “Everything popular is wrong.”

~ kate

Day Dreaming

I’ve been at my new job three weeks now. It is night and day from my previous one for about a million reasons but in particular because of the fact that I now interact with people all day long. My last job was pretty void of these living, breathing, thinking, loving, fearing, questioning creatures.

A lot of my interactions are in an effort to help people find a job which means I spend a lot of my day asking people what their ideal position would be. Most people tell me their perfect job is whatever position they’re currently in but with: better pay, better work/life balance, a better company etc. These people apparently don’t hear the question the same way I did when I was sitting on the other side of the desk and had someone ask me that very same thing. My answer? The editor of Vanity Fair – claro! Some people do have more exciting answers  and they often start with “well, when I was a kid I wanted to be….” Which got me to thinking… what did I want to be when I was a kid?

At varying points in my life I can remember wanting to be a: doctor (daddy complex), a teacher (crush on my first grade teacher), and the owner of a children’s bookstore (crush on Greenwoods!). The teacher idea was very short lived, the doctor thing persisted all the way until I was in my third year of undergrad and the bookstore owner? Well, that has been a part of my waking and sleeping dreams for as long as I can remember.

There’s just something about the thought of creating a space for kids where they would be excited to visit; where they would throw off their coats and dive into the nearest pile of books – much like I did when I was a kid. The bookstore was a happy place for me from a young age. It was a place where I was allowed to be selfish – after all I was only there to look for books for ME, no one else – and it was a place where I could find words and pictures to nurture my dreams. To this day, many books from my childhood hold a certain kind of nostalgia for me, typically because I remember the feeling I had when I read it or when it was read to me – I felt safe.

With the advent of e-readers and Chapters there are very few children-specific bookstores around anymore (although there is one here in Calgary called MonkeyShines) and I can’t see myself owning or running a retail store but I do go back to this dream often. Perhaps the end goal is no longer applicable but the reasons I had that dream in the first place still speak to me and that is what I try to hold on to. Similarly, when I sat across from my then only soon-to-be boss and said I wanted to be the editor of VF he simply asked, why? The reasons were plentiful and telling. They landed me in a job that, at least for now, is filling my buckets and allowing me to be more the person I’ve been wanting to be which has made me a much happier person. I think the happiest people are those that find a way to live their lives with very little disconnect between their values and their actions. I didn’t come with a cheat sheet so I’ve had to pay close attention to my dreams as a source of my beliefs which has taught me never to ignore them, whatever they are – they’re the gateway to my soul.

Happy Sunday everyone! 🙂

~ Kate