Monday, April 7, 2014

What's Making Me Happy This Month - April

What's making me happy this month? I have to say the abundance of lifelong learning opportunities. There really can be no excuse for failing to find something new and interesting to discover. One organization that feeds my inquisitive nature is fairly close by - The Royal Botanical Gardens. And even though many of the gardens themselves still lay dormant under a blanket of snow, the chance to learn something new is still very much alive.

On a recent trip I learned all about carnivorous plants. I  have to admit that childhood visions of enormous man-eating plants came to mind. Come on, I know you've imagined the same thing! I was very surprised at how small these Venus Flytraps actually are.

I was completely astonished at how quickly their leaves can close when particular hairs are stimulated within a certain time frame. The procedure was only demonstrated once, so as not to force the plant to expend unnecessary energy. Did you know that the venus flytrap's habitat is mainly confined to the American states of North and South Carolina? It sounds as if they are a little finicky to grow as a houseplant in Ontario, but I'm thinking of giving it a try and bringing one into the Library. I can imagine all kinds of curious wonder.

Still not in any hurry to head out to the overcast day, I continued my tour of RBG. I was taken by the striking structure of the agave plants.  I'm not sure I ever gave any thought to the plant that produces the sweetener I use for my tea; not to mention the tequila that goes in my margaritas! They reminded me of an aloe plant - different sizes and varying degrees of blues and greens.

When I saw this tree I couldn't help but think of The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, one of my very favourite picture books.

Cork Tree with a trunk that feels exactly like - a cork.
I have always loved the way Robert Lawson illustrated his cork tree!

Photo courtesy of 

What lifelong learning opportunities do you like to take advantage of?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Must Read in 2014: An Update

At the beginning of the year I joined Carrie from There's a Book For That in the Must Read in 2014 Challenge. I listed 10 books, above and beyond the many, many other books that I would be reading, that I simply had to read this year. Nine of the ten books are Adult Fiction. One is a YA classic that has somehow escaped my reading schedule. And one title is an oldie that was written by an all-time favourite from my university days.

Three months into 2014 and I figured it was about time for an update.

Four of the ten titles on my list were Canada Reads nominees. It was my intent to have these four titles read before the debates began at the beginning of March. I must admit that I only ended up getting through The Orenda. I am currently right in the thick of The Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading program at school, and in an attempt to read as many of the titles as possible, I simply ran out of time. I also spent more time on The Orenda than I had initially thought I would. Still, I enjoyed every minute of the week-long debates. Unlike last year, when I watched the shows live each day, this year I rushed home from school to catch the taped televised version. What a week it was! I am very proud to live in a country where people get so stoked about books that we create a reality show around them. If you missed Canada Reads 2014, or you know nothing about this very cool literary event, there's no need to fear. Highlights may be found at CBC Books.

And now for an update on what I've read so far:

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden.
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Canada), 2013.
490 p.

Chosen by CBC Canada Reads as the one novel that could change Canada, The Orenda is set in 17th century Huronia. It is told in the alternating viewpoint of three very different characters: Bird, a Huron elder and warrior; Snow Falls, an Iroquois girl who Bird kidnaps as payment for the death of his own daughter; and Christophe, a Jesuit priest who has come to evangelize the native population. No one voice is given prominence over another. I began the novel with the assumption that the Christians would be portrayed as single-minded and be blamed for all the evil that befell the aboriginals. Boy, was I wrong! Each character is developed with balance and respect.  I lingered over this book; allowing many of the images and ideas to percolate in my mind. Thanks to a few summers spent as a child on our family sailboat in Georgian Bay; coupled with an amazing school trip to Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, I had no difficulty transporting myself to the novel's setting. I was moved to do further research on the time period - always a good sign.

I highly recommend this one - just prepare yourself for the torture scenes.

Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow, by Jennifer Eremeeva. Small Batch Books, 2014. 285 p.

Time for a little levity after The Orenda. I reviewed Lenin here. This one was light and fun, and just what the doctor ordered. Did I mention funny?

Empress of the Night: a Novel of Catherine the Great, by Eva Stachniak. 
Bantam Books (Random House Canada), 2014. 378p. 
Back to Russia we go.

I received an ARC of this novel from Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Originally thinking it was a sequel to Ms. Stachniak's 2012 novel, The Winter Palace -  which I devoured, I need to point out that Empress is more of a companion piece. The two novels are written in a very different style: the first being told from the point of view of a loyal servant in the Winter Palace. Through Varvara the reader is introduced to Sophie (later taking the name Catherine) as a young girl. I thought this technique of a "fly on the wall" narrating the events as Sophie eventually succeeds to become Empress of Russia was very clever and engaging.

Empress of the Night opens with Catherine on the day of her death. Told through third person flashbacks, the story details the life of the Empress from the time of the coup, until the present state that the reader finds her - alone and dying from an apparent stroke. This is Catherine's story to tell, and although the events are interesting and the language and description really is superb, I found the novel to drag a bit and often had to force myself to read. Even though I wanted to, I just didn't enjoy it as much as its predecessor. Still, it is a very human portrait of a very extraordinary ruler.

One does not need to read The Winter Palace first, but I think it would help - especially for the reader who has little knowledge of the time period. Any additional reading would definitely enhance the reading experience. I must recommend Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. It is an enormous book (almost 700 pages), but gives the reader the required background. And it is extremely well-written.

Pondering all that went on behind these walls of the Winter Palace.
I would love to hear your thoughts on these books. 

And, if you have read any titles from my list, what do you suggest I start on next?