4 ways to get more from the books you read

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The act of reading is a rewarding experience, but there are ways you can get even more out of any book you read, even after you’ve finished it. Here are a few methods I recommend giving a try.

Take notes

Keep some notes about the books you read in a journal. Write down your general impressions, any questions that were left unanswered, aspects of the book you particularly liked or hated–whatever you feel is worthy. Not into journaling? Underline or write in the margins as you read. Writing down your thoughts about the book can get you to articulate how you feel about it.

Write a review

Here’s your chance to elaborate on some of the notes you took. If you can get something published in an established publication, that’s great! But you can also post it on a blog/website or on a social media site, such as Goodreads. And you don’t have to publish the review if that’s not your thing. You can write it and keep it for yourself and still benefit from forming your thoughts into a review.

Read reviews

Book reviews are great for helping to choose what to read next. But reading reviews can also help you think about a book after you’ve finished it. You may or may not agree with the various comments and interpretations you’ll come across, but considering them can broaden how you think about the book.

Check out some book-industry publications, such as Kirkus Reviews and Quill and Quire, or read the books coverage in newspapers like The Globe and Mail and The Guardian. There are also lots of people posting reviews on social media sites, such as Goodreads and Instagram.

Join or start a book club

A book club doesn’t have to have a lot of members. In fact, a smaller group can lead to more in-depth discussion. Even if you’re just reading a book with one other person–a family member or a friend–it can be beneficial to discuss what you’re reading with another person.

Of course it’s nice when everyone loves the book so that you can gush about it, and it can also be fun when everyone hates the book, so you can all tear it apart. But it’s also great when there are differing opinions. It helps to see other perspectives, and it might make you appreciate that you book you hated a little more (or at least help you understand why someone else would like it).

So the next time you finish a book, don’t be so quick to put it back on the shelf. Think about if you’d like to spend more time with it first, because there are lots of ways you can.

One way to celebrate Freedom to Read Week

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A few challenged books I found on my bookshelves.

Today kicks off Freedom to Read Week, a project of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council. From February 26 to March 4, the council’s Freedom of Expression Committee invites Canadians to reflect on our right to intellectual freedom.

The Freedom to Read website has several great suggestions on ways to get involved, but my favourite is freeing a challenged book.

How to free a challenged book

  1. Browse this list of challenged books for a title that you care about and own.
  2. Tag the book with the Free a Challenged Book label.
  3. Register the book on BookCrossing.com.
  4. Release the book for someone to find.
  5. Follow the book’s journey by heading to BookCrossing.com.

This initiative raises awareness about books that have been challenged in Canadian schools, libraries and bookstores. But freeing one of these titles is also an awesome way to share them with other people. It’s a way to connect with readers you may never meet, and with people who might not have easy access to these books.

I’m going to free a challenged book this week, and I hope you will, too. It can be difficult to part with a book that means a lot to you, but it’s time to release your edition into the world. It will do more good than it will sitting on your bookshelf, and it’s the perfect way to celebrate our freedom to read.

Literary cocktail classes at Toronto’s Famous Last Words

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If you’re a fan of the recommended refreshments section in my book reviews, you will like Famous Last Words, a newish bar in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood.

This book-themed bar is cozy and adorable and has a full menu of cocktails made with a literary twist. It’s the perfect place to read or write. But my recent trip there wasn’t to do either of these things. I was there to take a literary cocktail class.

A couple of friends and I signed up for a class called The Roaring ’20s. We learned how to make cocktails that appear in The Great Gatsby (Gin Rickey, Mint Julep) as well as a couple of others from the era (The Last Word, Between the Sheets).

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A Between the Sheets sitting on the Scrabble-tiled bar.

The class wasn’t all about the cocktails, though. We talked about the connection the drinks have to The Great Gatsby and about the characters in the book. We also talked about prohibition–an interesting discussion about history.

Sometimes the recommended refreshments in my book reviews are simply what I think would create a nice reading experience for a particular book. But, where it’s suitable, I try to connect the refreshments to food or drink that appears in the stories. So I absolutely love that Famous Last Words does this by serving drinks that are featured in books. They aren’t limited to this, though. They also create drinks that are inspired by stories and authors.

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Can you spot the copy of Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words amongst all these bottles?

There are still three classes left in this series of literary cocktail classes. Check out Famous Last Words’ event page to see what’s coming up. And even if you don’t feel like taking a class (but it really is a lot of fun), you can always head over to the bar with a book. You’ll definitely find a refreshment to complement whatever it is you’re reading.

How my parents raised readers

Earlier this week, I went to the Toronto Reference Library to hear Will Schwalbe talk about his new memoir, Books for Living. At one point, he mentioned that his parents gave him and his siblings the greatest gift anyone can give someone: a love of reading.

This comment made me reflect on my own upbringing and how my parents managed to instil a love of reading in both my brother and me. Here are a few ways I think my parents managed to do just that.

They filled the house with books

My brother and I had our own bookshelves in our respective bedrooms, but there were books in the common areas of the house, too. There was a fair-sized bookcase in the living room and several others in the finished basement, all filled with books–everything from the classics to mystery novels to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

As a child, most of these books were above my reading level, but nothing was off limits to us. We could pick up any of the titles as we pleased. Even when I was too young to understand (or have an interest in) Thomas Hardy or Dylan Thomas, I still liked to run my fingers across the spines or flip through the pages of the books.

They read to us

Sometimes we’d sit on the couch together, and my parents would read a book to both me and my brother (Charlotte’s Web comes to mind). Other times, they would read to us in our bedrooms when we were being tucked in. Mom and Dad would take turns reading to each of us. I can’t say for certain, but I believe this happened every night–at least until we were too cool for it and preferred to read on our own.

They took us to the library

Our family visited our local branch of the public library frequently. It was something to do on a weekday evening or a weekend afternoon. Just going to the library and hanging out for a bit was fun, but of course we’d always bring a bundle of books home with us.

They gave us books as gifts

To this day, it’s been a tradition to give books as stocking stuffers in my family. It’s something we still look forward to: We all know we’re getting books; it’s just a question of which ones. Growing up, this small gesture helped ingrain in us the idea that books have a lot of value to offer. And not only did this ritual give us the joy of receiving books, but it taught us the joy of giving books, too.

Books can inform and educate, offer comfort, help us understand others and help us feel understood. So Schwalbe is right. A love of reading is the best gift you can give someone. And it’s something that, no matter what happens in life, no one can take away from them.

Harmless Like You packs a punch

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What I read

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

What it’s about

After the death of his father, Jay travels from Connecticut to Berlin to find Yuki, his mother whom he has not seen since she left when he was a toddler. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Yuki and Jay. Yuki’s story spans her teenage years in the 1960s up to the point of her leaving in the 1980s, and Jay’s story takes place in the present.

Yuki has lived in New York since she was a child, and when her father’s job returns the family to Japan, Yuki decides to stay behind. In the subsequent years, she struggles with her identity and with her dream to become an artist.

Jay is an art dealer married to the love of his life, Mimi. But after the birth of their daughter, he begins to question his relationship with his wife and child.

This novel tells a story of the search for identity and place of belonging while connecting it to the art world. It also looks at what we inherit from each other–the pain, conflict and harm that is passed down in a family.

Why I picked it up

This is another book I read about online, but I can’t remember where (I should keep better track of this). I think it was in a “Best of 2016” list somewhere. Then I read that Becky Toyne recommended this for readers who liked Imagine Me Gone (which I loved), and that increased my desire to read Harmless Like You.

In mid-December, I was shopping for books to give as Christmas gifts, and when I saw the cover of Harmless Like You staring at me, I decided to buy myself a Christmas gift, too.

What I liked about it

It’s not surprising to learn that Buchanan is an artist herself. This is not only because of the book’s art theme (and discussion of colour), but it’s also apparent through the style of the writing. It’s as though Buchanan went in with a big brush to tackle difficult themes and an interesting plot, and then went in with a smaller brush to add in the finer details (the sentences and paragraphs are beautifully crafted).

Yuki’s sections are told in the third person, while Jay’s are in the first. Because of this, it feels like there is a bit of distance created between Yuki and the reader, but, at the same time, this third-person narration almost gives us more insight into what she’s going through.

I also really liked the examination of parenthood in this book. It was smart of Buchanan to include various types of parents, such as Yuki’s parents and Yuki’s high school friend’s single mother. But it was most interesting to read of the struggles experienced by Yuki and then Jay when they each become parents.

You’ll want to read it if…

I agree with Becky Toyne that fans of Imagine Me Gone will like this book. It’s also a great choice if you like literary fiction, art and/or stories about complications within families.

Recommended refreshments

I think the jasmine tea that Yuki drinks (and gets her boyfriend, Lou, drinking, too) suits the book quite well. But American diners also make several appearances, and I found myself craving a slice of the cherry pie that Yuki’s friend Edison often orders after their life-drawing classes. So why not have both?