Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?

Tavis Smiley My Journey with Maya

Little, Brown and Company, 2015

For memoir readers:

  • Remember the works and words of Maya Angelou, via Travis Smiley’s My Journey with Maya

Tavis Smiley met Maya Angelou when she was in her fifties and he in his twenties. He took copious notes during their private conversations and this book relies on those, as well as transcripts of their public conversations and her published works.

“I believe Maya will be remembered as black America’s greatest Renaissance woman – dancer, poet, actor, screenwriter, memoirist, director, lyricist, activist,” he states.

Other than a quick trip across the Detroit border to Windsor, Smiley hadn’t travelled anywhere before accompanying Maya Angelou to Ghana. He packed W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and Maya Angelou’s memoirs to read on the journey.

Her advice had great personal resonance with him. “Since time immemorial wise people have been saying that all comparisons are odious. When we compare, we set up a winner-loser dynamic. If my crisis is greater than yours, then yours is belittled and insignificant. I say that’s nonsense. Each crisis has its own power, its own unique reality, What was the reality of yours, Travis?” She listened attentively to his story about having been taken from his parents and raised by foster parents.

On other occasions, she offered wisdom which he found inspirational whether in personal, professional or spiritual matters.

Sometimes this had a concrete impact, for instance, following his forced departure from BET, when she reminded him that blessings didn’t always present themselves as such; this led to his later work with ABC, CNN and NPR, and he later he understood what she had meant.

Sometimes her words resonated in broader terms. “I know that courage is the core ingredient. Without it there is no creative life, no spiritual life. Without courage, life is bereft of excitement and wonder.”

This slim volume will be of greatest interest to those who have an interest in both Tavis Smiley and Maya Angelou, and it is an uplifting memoir which will inspire Maya Angelou’s readers to return to her writing with renewed enthusiasm.

Graham Tides of Honour

Simon & Schuster, 2015

For romance lovers: 

  • Tour Halifax during the years surrounding the explosion in Genevieve Graham’s Tides of Honour

The novel opens with a brief glimpse of Halifax in the moments preceding the 1917 explosion, backtracks to wartime, then intersects with the community’s efforts to rescue and restore in the wake of the disaster, before moving ahead in time.

The theme of change runs through the novel, on the broader political scene and closer to home.

When Danny Baker returns from the front, he has difficulty adjusting. “Same creaking board on the floor, same rust stain by the window latch, even the same melody humming through his mother’s lips as she worked around the kitchen. He was the only stranger here.”

Audrey Poulin has been irrevocably changed by the war as well.

“Even Audrey’s art had changed. In the past she’d avidly collected petals, leaves, and berries, boiling and smashing them into the shades she desired, mixing them with either egg yolks and water or flour and water, depending on what was more available, then she’d captured the brilliant colours of the world flourishing in the fields and the forests and beyond. Now if she wanted to play with anything other than greys or browns, she had to dig deep into her memory to find a model.”

Ultimately, the changes caused by the romance between Danny and Audrey are the focus of the novel. They meet and marry young, and many difficult experiences await them.

The love story is predictable (which is often a most satisfying element in the genre).

In a good way. “He leaned closer, and she met him halfway. Their lips touched, and Danny forgot everything but Audrey. She was his again. He could breathe.”

And in a not-so-good way. “‘Goodbye, Danny.’ Her eyes were like wells. There was no bottom to the pain in them.”

But the novel’s setting — and the surprising connection with another novel with a similar setting (a brief appearance of Tommy Joyce from Jon Tattrie’s Black Snow) — certainly sets this love story apart.


HarperCollins, 2015

For family saga devotees:

  • Cross the veil with the Alter family in Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts

“In the end, this is a novel, and it’s about an imaginary family,” writes the author in a note following the novel.

In fact, however, Lenz Alter was based on German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber, famed for his Nobel Prize and his work with the gases employed in chemical warfare. And Iris, Richard and Rose Alter were based Fritz Haber’s first wife Clara Immewahr Haber, son Hermann, and Hermann’s eldest daughter Claire.

If you are thinking German-Jewish scientist + gases + world war = Judith Claire Mitchell appreciates irony, then you have already calculated correctly

“Just note the columns, how she tries to keep them perfectly lined up, like prisoners summoned to the yard for roll call.” (This of a character’s diary, which includes lists – pages and pages long – of the people killed by chlorine gas in May 1945.)

This ironic and playful tone makes the work surprisingly pleasurable to read. “Who could deny that our family history was a little soap-opera-ish?”

She has a way of summing up events, even the most tragic events, to provoke a smile, even in the grimmest moments.

“In less than a week the archduke will be assassinated, and the events that will lead to the first world war will be triggered. (Pun intended. Pun always intended.) But for now Lenz is in Berlin….”

A Reunion of Ghosts covers a number of generations and characters but three sisters are at the heart of the story. “So: black-clad, gray-haired, saggy, baggy Lady. Pale-skinned, bald-harded, flat-chested Vee. And little Delph. Three easily distinguishable women. And yet people still mix us up.”

The narrative voice, however, is not straightforward. “But the truth is, I should have been saying ‘I’ for some time now. We – the three of us together – wrote our life stories and the stories of our ancestors with emphasis on Lena and Iris Alter. But only I wrote of this summer.”

This focus on a collective and personal narrative reflects the novel’s preoccupation with the borders between family history and individual experience. A global tragedy contains many stories of personal loss and misery-soaked statistics of wartime casualities obscure individual pain and sorrow.

  “Because isn’t it true that here in this vale of tears, there’s always someone who can out-tragic you? This world, after all, is nothing but a misery bazaar, and each of us just another merchant behind a booth, showing off her wares.
We have a riddle.”

Judith Claire Mitchell states that she lives “in a house in the woods in the Town of Madison (adjacent to the City of Madison), where we’re visited frequently by small herds of deer, gazes of raccoons, passels of possums, flocks of wild turkeys, fluffles of bunnies, and annoyances of Segway explorers. To date no reunions of ghosts have materialized, but the terrier is keeping an eye out.”

I, for one, will be keeping an eye out — not only for ghosts — but for her next novel (as well as her first, The Last Day of the War).

Jennings Connecting Dots

Second Story Press, 2015

For kidlit afficionados: 

  • Sharpen your pencil with Sharon Jennings’ Connecting Dots

Lee (Leanna) Mets meets Cassie (Cassandra) Jovanovich in the 2009 novel Home Free.

Lee is a reader and particularly fond of Anne of Green Gables; she compares characters to Miss Stacy and Josie Pye.

She compares her heartbeat on seeing David to Anne’s seeing Gilbert when she’s half-drowned in the river.

And she imagines breaking a slate over someone’s head (even though, as she points out, it’s the 1960s).

So, of course, when she meets Cassie, Lee hopes she will be a kindred spirit. (Anne was always on the look for those, too.)

But their friendship is not uncomplicated; the girls have had very different life experiences and it’s not immediately obvious whether they are, indeed, kindred spirits.

Lee persists, nonetheless. “Cassandra didn’t know anything about Anne Shirley, but I was pretty sure she knew all about Anne’s depths of despair.”

Home Free is devoted to Lee’s perspective but, in Connecting Dots, Cassie takes centre stage. And Lee is correct: Cassie has had a challenging life.

(Ironically, her life is experience is a little Anne-ish, in some respects, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.)

Reading about the disappointment and devastation that Cassie has endured makes for difficult reading. And, yet, she does endure. She finds comfort and inspiration in the experiences of others who have endured and, through her writing, she regains considerable strength.

Connecting Dots is a companion volume and best enjoyed in the company of Home Free (ideally, following it). At times, it has an overly earnest feel to it, but the subject matter is of grave import, and readers who have not had much experience with these themes might well appreciate the deliberate construction.

Hwang Sokyong Princess Bari

Periscope Books, 2015

For fairy-tale dreamers (and nightmare-ers):

  • Undertake a mythic quest with Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari

Born in Chongjin, North Korea, in 1983, the baby girl is not given a name until she has lived one hundred days.

Her father is dismayed by the appearance of a seventh daughter, for whom he was not prepared. Even in the most basic terms, he has nothing to offer the infant. The first six girls have even claimed all the names: Jin, Sun and Mi (Truth, Goodness and Beauty) and Jung, Sook and Hyun (Grace, Virtue and Wisdom).

Her mother anticipates his anger and despair, and she tosses the baby into the underbrush in the pine trees, covering the infant’s face and leaving her to die. But she is saved, by the family dog, Hindungi, who drags both blanket and infant into her doghouse, where the grandmother is pleased to find her.

And, so, she is named by her grandmother, for the heroine of a story that she was told by her own great-grandmother, the story of Princess Bari (her name meant ‘abandoned’). From the outset, she is a survivor.

“Ever since then, Old Grandmother Bari has lived inside of us. She’s inside me and inside you, too.”

Also from the outset, she endures deprivation and outright cruelty, but this is a good part of what makes Bari such a memorable character. What begins as a coming-of-age story develops into a more complicated tale, as the gir’s unique powers of communication become apparent. Real-world events propel the plot, but mysical events punctuate it.

The strong and intimate relationships that Bari has with particular key figures (beginning with Hindungi and Bari’s grandmother) counter the hardships which she experiences in life, and as she progresses in her quest, these characters become almost as significant as Bari herself.

Sora Kim-Russell’s translation affords English readers a seamless reading experience; she eases all barriers so that readers are unencumbered even if they are unfamiliar with the original tale (which is sometimes described directly by the author for additional clarification, other times alluded to in a broader archetypal sense).

“The snow fell for so many days straight that the whole world was a storm of white both night and day. We stayed cooped up in our dugout but the whole time, like hibernating animals. Snow weighed heavily on the spruce, larch and pine trees until the branches split down the middle or snapped off of the trunks entirely; during a break in the flurries, when we stuck our heads out from behind a straw mat that served as our door, the ice coating the branches glittered radiantly in the sun. But those icy branches looked more deadly than pretty to me.”

Kenzaburō Ōe identifies Hwang Sok-yong as “undoubtedly the most powerful voice of the novel in Asia today”; Periscope’s edition of Princess Bari provides an excellent introduction to his work.

Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?

Every day this week, more items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. Some for stormy days tomorrow!