Category Archives: Penguin Group
by Mark Forsyth
Penguin Books Canada, 2011
Don’t think this is a dry book written by a crusty, judgmental Englishman. English, he is, but crusty and judgmental? Most definitely not.
Mark Forsyth takes us on a highly entertaining circular stroll through the history of our ever-evolving language. He makes surprising connections—the Latin for witness is testis from which we get both testicles and the Old Testament—and he sets aright some unfortunate changes in meaning. Angry protesters spouting angry opposition against an event or activity might feel better if they remember that protest means to bear witness for something.
“Every weakness of human nature comes out in the history of etymology.”
We see our frailties and failings reflected in our language. Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now; our procrastination led to the erosion of that meaning. The Roman word probabilis meant something could be proved by experiment, but people tend to be more certain of things than they should be. As Forsyth points out, “. . . absolutely any sane Roman would tell you that it was probabilis that the Sun went round the Earth.” By the time probably made its way to English, “. . . it was already a poor, exhausted word whose best days were behind it, and only meant likely.”
From protest, soon and probably, we can see that we are complaining procrastinators who obstinately believe in shaky truths.
Forsyth is funny too, in the subtle British way.
“The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.”
He tells us why black can mean white and white can mean black, and why down sometimes means up. He reassures us that being an idiot might not be as bad a thing as we thought. And, he lets us in on the secret of what John the Baptist and The Sound of Music have in common.
If you read the book, you will find out all that, and more. And the next time you enjoy a cappuccino in Starbucks, you can ponder both Moby Dick and barefoot monks, and it will all make sense to you.
Read more at the Inky Fool blog: http://blog.inkyfool.com/
by Emma Healey
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014
Not so long ago, I spent years supporting a family member who progressed through the stages of senile dementia. It was a heartbreaking, fulfilling, patience-testing, rewarding thing to do, and the experience touched me in a deep place. Because of that experience, I hesitated to read Elizabeth Is Missing. Did I really want to go there?
I am glad I did. I flat out admire what Emma Healey does here.
Her main protagonist, Maud, is aging, and her memory loss is progressing. Her short-term memory suffers, but her long-term memories remain mostly intact. Her daughter, Helen, is responsible for her care, with other support workers popping in too.
Healey captures the nuances of aging and memory loss accurately without crossing over into schmaltzy preaching. She moves back and forth between the present (those short-term memory challenges) and the past (the long-term memories) seamlessly. Using clear but subtle clues, she portrays the progression of the memory loss (Maud’s short-term memory issues worsen throughout the book) at exactly the right pace. And always she keeps us reading because we’re wondering, is Elizabeth missing?
We feel such empathy for Maud. We feel equal empathy for Helen, who we know has to be driven mad by the repetitions, the missing pieces, and the wanderings.
Healey pulled at my memories of my experience to just the right extent. I remembered, but I never wanted to turn away from her story.
Now I know you’re wondering: Who is Elizabeth, and is she missing? Right. That’s the other side of this book. It has a mystery, and the solving of it keeps us turning those pages.
by Gabrielle Zevin
Penguin Canada, 2014
My wish would be that all readers would enter this book blissfully unaware of the main plot points, so they could let the story unfold in its beautiful way.
That being my wish, I choose not to give away secrets. A.J. Fikry, owns a book store on a tourist-destination island. As he approaches middle age, he must confront and overcome some quirky character flaws, a few strained relationships and a series of unexpected events. From the twists and turns of his life, he learns some lessons, and he passes those lessons on to those who love him through comparisons to his favourite short stories. Each chapter in the book begins with A.J.’s critique of and reference to one of these stories.
Zevin’s book is intelligent, cozy, surprising and touching. My favourite line? “Someday, you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”
Good advice, right? Enjoy that and other such wonderful nuggets when you read this book.
by Joseph Boyden
Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013
We own a cottage in Huronia (central Ontario, Canada), so for decades I have frolicked in the geographical area where the less-than-frolicsome historical events from which Joseph Boyden drew his inspiration took place. We canoe for pleasure on the same waters where First Nations people and the French engaged in life-saving trade and life-ending battles. We spend touristy afternoons at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a reconstruction of the 17th-Century French Jesuit mission where the peaceful coexistence and treacherous torture took place.
Perhaps familiarity with the area and the history helps me to visualize this novel. Perhaps the life force—the orenda—of the time lives on through the Canadian Shield granite upon which those people walked. Whatever the reason, The Orenda resonates with me.
Joseph Boyden uses three narrators to tell of the first encounters of Jesuit priests with the Wendat people and of the conflict between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Wendat (Huron). The three narrators cover all angles of the story: Snow Falls is an Iroquois teenager who becomes the victim of a revenge kidnapping by the Wendat, Bird is the Huron warrior who kidnapped her, and Christophe is a Jesuit priest who wants to convert these “sauvages.”
Boyden’s story has no “good guys” or “bad guys.” In their pursuit of revenge, conquest or conversion, all his wonderfully complex characters perpetrate acts of kindness and villainy. Thanks to Boyden’s skill at characterization and his instinct to honour the integrity of a story, we understand his characters’ acts of villainy in those circumstances, even if we could not condone them in today’s society.
We all know how the story ends—the big-picture story of First Nations and European relations in North America—and that knowing flows like an unseen undercurrent in the reader’s mind. When Bird questions how the “crows” (the priests in the black wool cassocks) will effect his people, when Wendat warriors struggle with alcohol, and when Samuel de Champlain’s men hand over the first gun, we know. It adds an eerie shadow effect to the reading.
The only concern I have about this book—the only thing that made me stop reading and step outside of the magic of the story for a moment—is the use of present tense by Christophe in certain circumstances. I like present tense stories, and it worked beautifully for Snow Falls and Bird, who we imagine relating their version of events via the ancient oral storytelling traditions of the First Nations. Christophe, however, writes to his superior in France or in a diary. Him we imagine writing, so he needs past tense. When he is pulled under water by the sodden weight of his heavy wool cassock he could not have been scribbling notes at the time, so a first-person, present-tense account doesn’t work.
My stickiness about implausibilities of tenses aside, I admire this novel. Boyden never shies away from gory details, so when you read his books, expect the brutal truth. The Orenda has torture scenes that might alarm and repulse some delicate sensibilities.
But then the true events of history often do.
I recommend any book by Joseph Boyden. Through Black Spruce is my favourite. Three Day Road is harrowing but worthy.
by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, Penguin Canada, 2014
I almost didn’t read this book. I wouldn’t have, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so. I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.
The Invention of Wings is Sue Monk Kidd’s fictional version of the real lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two daughters of a wealthy landowner in 19th Century Charleston.
As young children they rebelled against the cruelty of slavery and the restrictions of their church. As adults they lead an infamous charge to abolish slavery, strive for racial equality and promote women’s rights.
The Invention of Wings is also the story of Handful “Hetty” Grimké, a fictional African-American slave “gifted” to Sarah Grimké on her eleventh birthday.
Monk Kidd alternates between the first-person accounts of Sarah and Handful, and these two perspectives allow the reader a broad view of Charleston life at that time. The two girls inhabit the same world but in two very different ways, and both women are trapped but in different ways. Sarah is trapped in her restricted female role by inflexible societal norms; Handful is trapped in her slave role by poverty, cruelty and oppression. From an early age Handful senses the intractable barrier between her and her white mistress, but the privileged Sarah takes longer to perceive their great divide. Later in life, Handful tells Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”
One of Monk Kidd’s most intriguing characters is Handful’s mother, Charlotte. She lives with the cruelty of slavery that breeds what Monk Kidd calls the “cold fire of hate.” Even though her name is in the landowner’s inventory book as part of the “goods and chattel,”—“right after the water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer and the bushel of flint corn,” Charlotte tells her daughter: “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.” Her strength plants the seed of resilience in Handful, who grows up believing that her body might be “goods and chattel,” but not her mind. “I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me,” she says.
Monk Kidd navigates all the complexities of the world at that time; nothing is straightforward, and nothing is easy in the face of overwhelming societal and economic pressures. Sarah vows to “put feet to her words” and take action to abolish slavery, but in so doing, she sacrifices family connections, friendships and love. Sarah rejects slavery and moves north to join the Quaker movement to abolish slavery. She then discovers that the Quakers might want to abolish slavery, but they still want racial segregation. Even the abolutionists she and Angelina work with urge her to ease off on her feminist cause. She tells them, “Now sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks.”
I almost didn’t read this book because Sue Monk Kidd’s previous two books, while beautifully written, did not stir my soul. I wouldn’t have read this book, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so.
I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.
by Bobby Orr
Penguin Group, 2013
With a Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadians National Hockey League (NHL) playoff round on the horizon, why not read Bobby Orr’s book now? His book offers a fitting backdrop to their fierce rivalry.
I was born at the right time for full Bobby Orr fan appreciation. I was eight years old in 1970 when he scored the goal captured forever in the famous photograph on the cover of his book. In the years that followed I cheered for him and Boston against my least favourite team at the time—those Montreal Canadians.
My memories of that time and the similarities in our small-town Ontario upbringing meant I settled into Orr’s book with a comfortable sense of nostalgia. His recollections of his childhood carried me right back in time to my youth. I smiled thinking about skating—in hand-me-down skates—outside for hours and hours until my toes ached in the cold. I remembered the free-spirited play of children at the time. “In those days,” Orr wrote, “we rarely waited for an adult to organize our social time or sports experiences. We took that upon ourselves. We were the ones who decided which game to play, where to play it, when to assemble, and who would be on whose team.”
“I can remember my absolute joy when I received my very first pair of new skates.” up to that point – hand-me-down or bought second hand. Yes, one of the greatest learned on used skates.”
If you’re looking for shocking new insights, late-life confessions or gossip about former teammates, you won’t find it in this book. Even Alan Eagleson gets a fairer shake than he deserved. I admit that Bobby Orr has a challenge in finding something new from his well-documented life to share with an audience, but I think he could have revealed himself to readers a little more. He writes: “I’m no different than anyone else—there are things I did at certain times during my career that I am not particularly proud of. Some of those things happened on the ice, some off it.” That’s like a friend whispering to you that they have a secret, but then refusing to tell it. What weren’t you proud of, Bobby Orr? We want to know.
So, no skulduggery, just a life story told with charming simplicity. He writes of his family life in Parry Sound and his first jobs: picking dew worms for bait, selling men’s wear and doing custodial work at an elementary school. He describes his early hockey years in Oshawa and his NHL career where he played the game with the puck on his stick as often as possible.
He offers advice to young players contemplating a career in professional hockey: “Any skill or skill set is the result of a combination of a couple of things. First, you must have an ability to do it, and second, you must have a willingness to pay the price to perfect it.”
He counsels the parents of those players to not try to live their lives through the child’s success because it never works: “I was shaped by my own passion.”
He offers his insights into the game, past and present. He remembers a time when coaches “acted like gentlemen as they were leading the team, and they encouraged players to act appropriately, both on and off the ice.”
Orr received some writing support from Vern Stenlund, but Stenlund says: “The words and thoughts in this book are all Bobby’s, from start to finish.” It’s Bobby’s voice all right, and Stenlund drew out stories and memories from him, but in some cases the story telling could have been stronger. Several times Orr describes occasions as “. . . a very special evening indeed” without detail or explanations about what made it special. What made it special, Bobby Orr? We want to know.
Bobby Orr’s shy, humble personality shines through his story and solidifies my respect for him as a person and a player. He is a naturally gifted athlete who believes that “. . . sports are not there for the gifted. They’re there for everyone.” He’s an NHL all-time-great who learned to skate on used skates and played baseball in the summer. He’s a human being who trusted and got burnt and who picked himself up and carried on.
“The important things in life don’t change when your luck turns against you, and those things are no different for celebrities than they are for anyone else. No one is going to succeed without taking their lumps. No one is going to succeed on their own either—what sometimes looks like an individual accomplishment is always the result of a team effort. And when you get knocked down, there really is only one thing to do.”
(For more on Bobby Orr, please read Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt. Or anything by Stephen Brunt, for that matter.)