Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

So for my fourth week I decided to read an entertaining, and compelling fiction book. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry. The novel opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her London flat and its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister back in Chicago. These 20-year-old dilettantes, Julie and Valentina, move to London, eager to try on a new experience like one of their obsessively matched outfits. Historic Highgate Cemetery, which borders Elspeth's home, serves as an inspired setting as the twins become entwined in the lives of their neighbors: Elspeth's elusive lover, and scholar of the cemetery, Robert; Martin, an agoraphobic crossword-puzzle creator, who suffers from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and the ethereal Elspeth herself, struggling to adjust to the afterlife. Niffenegger brings these quirky, troubled characters to marvelous life, forcing the reader to relate to, and become compassionate for them.

Not that long ago I was watching TLC program on a Sunday afternoon with my husband. It was essentially about nature versus nurture with sets of twins. They looked at all types of similarities and differences of twins not only that grew up together in the same household, but also twins that were separated and grew up in very different homes, communities, and religions. It was amazing to see how some things like interests and facial expressions, were the same even when a set of twins were raised separately. Other things, such as jobs and children, most often varies within a set of twins. While reading Her Fearful Symmetry, it was interesting to think back to this show, and it gave me more insight and understanding into the relationships between Valentina and Julia, and Edie and Elspeth.

I can’t imagine having a twin, I don’t even have a sister. I guess like most things it’s pretty much impossible to fully imagine and understand something that you have never experienced. But what would it be like to have someone dress the same as you; do the same things you did (or you do the same things they did), always be thought of as one person, inseparable in the eyes of others? Now, obviously many sets of twins have been able to lead happy, healthy lives, separate from each other. The stories of Valentina and Julia, and Edie and Elspeth are a bit extreme and dysfunctional, but it still gets you thinking. I doubt that I would react as extremely as Valentina, but I am not sure I could handle having nothing of my own. Being forced to do something, or not do something, like go to school, start a career, or even have sex, would lead to a great deal of resentment, and a life of full of unhappiness. I don’t blame Valentina for wanting to get away from that, however it makes me sad that she felt unable to stand up for herself. On the other hand, it was frustrating to see how Julia, knew what should and could be done to create a much happier and balanced life for herself and Valentina, but was unwilling to do it. This is a story of human relationships and bonds, taken to the extreme with a cast of twins.

Martin, the twins neighbor who lives upstairs, suffers with severe OCD, and although he was a secondary character, I really loved his story. Niffenegger's rendering of OCD is the most painful and seemingly realistic depiction that I've come across. She provides a little window into the reality of people and families who have suffered from OCD, but she also teaches you to understand and accept it. within the first few chapters, I became curious about Martin, and as the pages turned, I eventually began to yearn for him too succeed.

I pretty much read this book anywhere and everywhere. I couldn't get through the pages fast enough, and therefore read it all over town. I read in the mornings while waiting for my coffee, while on hold with the cable company, at red lights, and even while my husband filled up the car with gas. I always had it in my bag, and even if I didn’t get the chance to read it while out of the house, I didn’t mind lugging around the extra few pounds in my purse. Just knowing that I had it, and could read it if opportunity presented itself, made the extra weight worthwhile.

Her Fearful Symmetry is the kind of book that you need to read with at least one other person. It’s an exciting read and it evokes so many questions and thoughts. Why did that happen? She did what? What was he thinking? I’m so glad he did that, and many more. So my tip is find a friend, or a couple friends that can appreciate a good story and read it together. You will be calling each other at all hours wanting to talk things out, so make sure your phone is charged.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Great Expectations

This week I read my first real classic since Oliver Twist was forced upon my grade six english class. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I honestly didn't really know what to expect diving into the first few chapters, but this book is a classic for a reason. I realize now that Great Expectations is perhaps the most advanced book I have read so far, for it is woven together with complex underlying tones and ideas, symbols and foreshadowing. It was not only a remarkable story, but it was abundant in though provoking ideas, and made me challenge some of my previous ideas about human nature and character.

I like to think of this as the "boy version" of 'My Fair Lady'. Pip is an orphan who is to grow up and become a blacksmith, until he is offered a chance to leave behind his childhood of misery and poverty and become a true gentleman. Great Expectations is filled with transcendent excitement from the moment of Pip's first terrifying encounter with the convict, Magwich in the gloom of a graveyard, to the splendidly morbid set pieces in Miss Havisham's mansion, to the magnificently realized boat chase down Thames. This book is filled with ambition and desires for self improvement, guilt, criminality, and innocence, as well as maturation and the growth from childhood to adulthood, the importance of affection, loyalty, and sympathy over social advancement and class superiority, and the difficulty of maintaining superficial and social categories in a constant changing world. Throughout this book Dickens managed to constantly change the tone of the story from comic and wry, sentimental and foreboding, always kept things invigorating and compelling.

It definitely took a while to get used to reading old english, having not been exposed to it much. I watched the NFL Super Bowl on the weekend and thought....this is just like reading Great Expectations. I have a general idea of what's going on, but I don't understand all the details. However, there were a few key moments that continue to plague my mind.

Dickens writes with such powerful descriptions and symmetries. There were many passages that were so beautiful and eloquent, that he was able to turn a phrase or statement into true poetry. One of my favorite lines was "...heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts....' Another example of his ability to put a picture in your head is the phrase "....You're not in a fit state to come here, if you can't come here without spluttering like a bad pen...." There are so many great books and remarkable and talented authors out there, but there is something to be said about the ability to put such strong images into a mind with only words.

There were so many moments throughout Great Expectations that I realized that people have had the same characteristics over a vast amount of time. One of the first examples I came across was the idea that we have the unattractive ability to become judgmental or embarrassed of the people in our lives. This idea was first introduced after Pip had begun his journey to become a gentleman. Joe had come to visit Pip and was trying to fit into his new social circle. At the end of their time together, Joe says the following to Pip; "....you and me is not to figures to be together in London; not yet anywhere else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain't that I'm proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off the meshes. You wont find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won't find half as much fault in me, supposing as you should ever wish to see me, you come and put your head in at the forge window and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work.....' Why is it that we can know a person for years, share experiences and grow with them, but we can so easily become ashamed of them the second they are "out of their element"? It's a disappointing thought, but I guess the only way to get over it is first to be aware of it.

"....I am ashamed to say it, and yet it is no worse to say it than to think it. You call me a lucky fellow. Of course, I am. I was a blacksmith's boy but yesterday; I am -what shall I say I am today?...... say, a good fellow, if you want a phrase, a good fellow, with impetuosity and hesitation, boldness and difference, action and dreaming, curiosity mixed in him...." In this passage Pip is perhaps suffering from a lack of self confidence, and self worth. He feels a bit lost in his new world. His friend, Herbert then goes on to explain what he sees in Pip. This was quite profound to me actually. It's amazing the difference we see in ourselves and then what others see in us. Any one person cannot be squished into one characteristic category. Honest, compassionate, risk taker, shy, bold........ I think that every person has countless characteristics, and although some come out more than others, it is still impossible to describe someone with one word, and I think that it is also unfair, and is kind of limiting in a way. I think that experiences change people, and will build their different characteristics into something special and personal for them. It's like the tide moving over the beach. Even though every grain of sand is having the same "experience" of the water moving over it, not one inch of sand looks identical to another. So even though we may have the same experiences as someone else, we will be effected in various ways.

Other things that came up in the pages and words of Dickens that show the similarities of people from the 1800's to today, were things like gossip, and "the grass is always greener on the other side". "...I assured him of my keeping the secret, and begged to be favored with further particulars. he has spoken so sensibly and feelingly of my weakness, that I wanted to know something about his strength...." Knowledge makes us feel powerful, as it should, but it's humorous to see that even is Pip's time, he wanted to know the secret detail of an acquaintance. Today there are entire magazines and television shows devoted to gossiping about other peoples lives, and even though we know deep down that most of it is not true, it still gives us this feeling like we know something, and from that we get some sort of power. The fact remains that knowledge does give you power, however knowing things about other people, and spreading the knowledge often leads to people being hurt, and relationships being lost. Grass is always greener....."I used to think that i should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham's face, and had not risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge. Many a time of an evening, when i sat alone looking at the fire, I thought, after all, there was no fire like the forge fie and the kitchen fire at home...." This is probably something that we have all faced, and felt at some point in our life. We look at somebody who has something we don't, perhaps it's money, a big house, or even lots of shoes, and we desire that, if only for the reason that we don't have it. However once we have crossed the fence to the other patch of grass we usually find that what we had before was in fact quite great. As people we are always learning, and even tough friends and acquaintances can try and tell us about different life lessons, we need to experience them for ourselves before we can truly understand them.

Great Expectations has been the most challenging book for me so far. As I said, I am not used to the old english writing style, but in the end it was well worth the effort. I found myself enjoying the words of Dickens the most early in the morning, while I was alone, the house was quite, and when my mind was fresh and awake, and not contaminated with thoughts and problems of the day. While sitting at my kitchen island, with a fresh cup of hot and highly caffeinated coffee, I was able to really become immersed in Pip's story, and his narration began to make more and more sense. I look forward to reading more great and timeless classics, because like most things, the more you are exposed to them the more normal and recognized they become.

My Tip for this book is stay away from the Knopf Publishing Group version. Within the first day it started falling apart, and by the end of the week my book was in about twenty different sections. If you are like me and love having books around to display, re-read, and share with friends, this will just not suffice. When I bought this book, it was a buy two get one free deal compiled with other classic, and perhaps it is because they are such poor quality. I would suggest investing a little bit more money to get a copy that will endure the passing of hand to hand.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Tipping Point

Here we are at week two. A different book, different genre, different author. This week I read The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a non-fiction book about what makes things "tip", and turn into epidemics. When I say the word 'epidemic' I am not only referring to some kind of flu or virus, but using it as a much broader sense of the word, referring to something that spreads rapidly and extensively affecting many individuals at the same time. This could be anything from a fashion trend, to a message, to the suicide epidemic in Micronesia that Gladwell talks about in one of his chapters.

Gladwell looks at why major changes in our society often happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Ideas, behaviour, messages, and products, he argues, often spread like outbreaks of infectious disease. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a few fare-beaters and graffiti artists fuel a subway crime wave, or a satisfied customer fill the empty tables of a new restaurant. These are social epidemics, and the moment when they take off, when they reach their critical mass, is the Tipping Point.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell introduces us to the particular personality types who are natural pollinators of new ideas and trends, the people who create the phenomenon of word of mouth. He analyzes fashion trends, smoking, children's television, direct mail and the early days of the American Revolution for clues about making ideas infectious, and how to start and sustain social epidemics.

The Tipping Point is an intellectual adventure story written with an infectious enthusiasm for the power and joy of new ideas. Most of all, it is a road map to change, with a profoundly hopeful message, that one imaginative person applying a well-placed lever can move the world.

This is the kind of book that you have to read at your local cafe or coffee shop. For years I have been going to this little place called Remedy, near Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. Not only do they serve the best homemade Chai Lattes and great Indian food, but it's near a trendy part of town, whose streets are bustling with people from all different walks of life. I love going there to read and being surrounded by so many types of people. You look up and see students cramming for a test, or families sharing a piece of pie after ballet class, or friends talking animatedly about their struggles and achievements in life. It's amazing going to a place where everyone appears so different, but is sharing in the same great experience. When you are surrounded by many different people, the words and ideas that Gladwell is trying to get across about epidemics really begin to come to life. You are able to look up from your book and physically see what he is talking about.

While walking around my favorite two story Chapters store on Whyte Ave, trying to pick out a book, I noticed 'What The Dog Saw'. I picked it up, first intrigued by the title, and then by it's Content. I was going to purchase it before I realized that it was actually the third book that Gladwell had written. Then began my search. Where was the first book? What would it be about, and would it sound just as intriguing? And then I found it! 'The Tipping Point'. Although Gladwell's three books are not a series, I thought it would be best to read them in order, and follow along with his train of thought over the course of the years he was writing theses splendid books. So my tip is to follow suit, and read first 'The Tipping Point', then 'Outliers', followed finally by 'What The Dog Saw'.

The Book of Negroes

One of my oldest and closest friends, Kira, left to go travel New Zealand and Australia for five months in December, and before she left we deiced to pick five books to read together while she was away. Ever since we were young girls we have always shared the love of reading. We were always passing books between us, sharing our thoughts and excitements about the rise and fall of our favorite hero's and villains, and always anticipating the next story we would be able to share together. Reading the same books while we are separated by land and ocean is a way for us to stay connected through the lives of characters, and the turning of each crisp new page.

The first book we decided to read is The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. This book has been getting noticed by many book clubs, talk shows, and people within my circle of friends and family, so I figured it was worth a read. Going into this book I didn't know exactly what to expect. I knew that all the events and many characters were based on things that actually happened, but like most, I am ignorant to the true history of the African slave trade.

This book is inspired by a fascinating but little know historical document called the Book of Negroes. This book provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the United States for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own

Captured at the tender age of 11 from her village in West Africa, and forced to walk for months to the sea in a slave coffle, Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. Unlike many of the slaves that were seized, she does not give up and let her mind go. Instead she soaks in all the information she can. She learns several new languages, learns to read and write, learns about medicine, and even about numbers, money and book keeping. She is convinced that one day she will return to freedom. Everything that Aminata does over the course of her life as a slave in North America, is bringing her one step closer to freedom, and to returning to her beloved homeland. Finally after serving for the British in the Revolutionary War, she registers her name in the historic Book of Negroes, and embarks on a journey back to Africa. This part of the story is a compelling account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey.

I found Lawrence Hill to be an expert at transforming the neglected corners of history into intense imaginings. Unlike the history books we are forced to read throughout our adolescent education, the Book of Negroes held me captive from page to page. It was a broad story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the swarming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London. I think Aminata is one of the strongest female characters in recent fiction, for she survived a world hostile to her color and her sex.

This is an exert from the beginning of the book. From this paragraph on I knew I would be touched not only by the story of Aminata, but the stories of all the people who were taken from their homes to live as slaves in a world completely unknown to them.

Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. Crossing water never improved my life, always worsened it. If you, Dear Reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water, seize your freedom by any means necessary . . . and cultivate distrust of the color pink. Especially if it’s from the light of the dying sun. Pink is taken as the color of innocence, the color of childhood, but the way that it spills across the water in the late afternoon constitutes nothing short of sleight of hand. . . . What benevolent force would bewitch the human spirit by choosing pink to light the path of a slave vessel?

Every book has a different personality, and I find that I am drawn to a certain reading place, position, and even drink while I am reading a certain book. During my time reading The Book of Negroes, I most often found myself with a cup of hot tea, curled up on my inviting couch, and kept warm beneath a thick blanket. I was able to become totally and completely absorbed in the story of Aminata, and let myself get lost in her world without my own distractions. I love that I can be in sweat pants with no makeup on, yet still be involved in a different world. When I go out to a movie, you would be hard pressed to find me in my pajamas... and that is one of the many glories of reading.

Just a little tip, there is also an illustrated version of this book. It has small diagrams, drawing, pictures and letters. It's really interesting to be able to see what Hill is describing, such as guineas or the head wraps the women wore. In fiction book I love making up my own images of the the characters faces, habits and mannerisms, as well as the scenery, but because this is an historical fiction book, it's great to see the real thing. 

The Beginning of my Journey

Throughout my life I have always loved books. I would spend hours in Chapters as a little girl, and end up with a pile of books from my fingertips to my chin. I always wanted them around me, because just the sight of them made me feel like at any moment I could enter into another world. Perhaps a mystical world filled with dragons and princesses, or an ordinary and dependable world with kids just like me. Over the years my love for books has not faltered, however I have neglected them more than I care to admit. 

I have come up with excuses we have all heard, and made ourselves. 'There is not enough time' or 'I need to do other things first'. But how many of us find ourselves watching at least an hour of t.v at the end of each day? I am not against television, there are many times when I enjoy watching a beloved movie, or a great new series, but if we have time to watch t.v, then we certainly have time to read.

I used to make a goal for myself to read a book a month, and I pretty much stuck with it. Some months I would read more, some a bit less, but it usually averaged out. Then one day in early January I received an e-mail about this lady who decided to read a book a week. At first I thought that sounded a bit ludicrous, but then she broke it down. The books she had decided to read were averaging two hundred to three hundred pages, so that's about forty pages a day. Forty pages! That's it! That's taking only an hour out of your day. It was at that point I realized that this was completely manageable, and I wanted to make this my new goal. Over the next fifty two weeks I plan on challenging myself to read a vast variety of genres and authors, and am hoping to open my mind to new worlds, ideas, and writing styles. I want to learn about new things, fall in love with characters, and expand my own world, with the worlds so gracefully written by authors of all ethnicities.

I am already three weeks, and three books in, but I wanted to start keeping track of the fifty two books I have a head of me this year, and I wanted to share my journey with other books lovers like me.