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.

The Magnificent Six and the 2016 Giller Prize

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Five of the six 2016 Giller Prize finalists (the sixth is behind that man!). From L-R, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Leroux, Zoe Whittall, Madeleine Thien, Mona Awad and the man blocking Gary Barwin.

How normal is it for a reader to get this excited about a literary prize? Because, truthfully, I haven’t really experienced this in the past. But tomorrow the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize will be announced, and I can’t wait to find out who wins.

I’ve read three of the six shortlisted titles (read my reviews of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder and Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People), and all three are incredible books. But the reason I picked up each of these titles wasn’t because they made the shortlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book just because it was nominated for, or won, a prize. But when books are nominated, they obviously get some more publicity, so I’m more likely to hear about it. And no matter how I find out about a book, if it grabs me, I’ll read it.

Today I attended the Giller Prize Between the Pages event at Koerner Hall in Toronto. The six finalists read from their nominated books and discussed their work. After today, I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up the three shortlisted titles I haven’t yet read (Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates, Catherine LeRoux’s The Party Wall and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing). They all sound like great books.

The discussion portion of the event (moderated by actor and director Albert Schultz) was fun and insightful. I love hearing writers talk about writing. When Schultz asked the group if they were nervous, Donoghue answered that it’s easier now that the authors have spent some time together and have gotten to know each other. They approach these things “like a gang.” A gang of authors–what a beautiful idea.

Tomorrow should be a long day for the Giller Prize jury, as that’s when they will choose the winner. I’ve read only half of the shortlisted titles, and it would be difficult for me to pick from those three. I don’t imagine it will be easy for them to decide.

Watch it all go down tomorrow at 9 p.m. on CBC Television or via live stream on CBC Books…and read the books written by this wonderful gang of authors, the Magnificent Six.

Fall in love with books

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One week from today, fall will officially arrive. Cardigans, colourful leaves, butternut squash soup–there is a lot to look forward to. But one of the best things about fall is that with all the festivals and new releases, it’s book season.

If you’re a book lover living in, or visiting, Toronto, here are a few suggestions on how to ensure you have a very bookish autumn.

Attend Word on the Street

September 25, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Harbourfront Centre 

While it’s free to attend Word on the Street, be prepared to spend some money here. Even if you don’t find a good deal, it’s hard to resist making a few purchases with so many publishers and bookstores selling books. And it’s not just books or magazines you’ll be tempted to buy. The festival has had some nice merchandise in previous years (tote bags, pins, mugs and more).

The festival is more than a chance for a shopping spree. It provides an opportunity to learn about some great literacy organizations and writers’ associations, and there is some great programming, with many author readings and industry talks happening throughout the day.

Check out the International Festival of Authors (IFOA)

October 20-30, various times, Harbourfront Centre

Unlike Word on the Street, you’ll have to spend a few bucks to attend the talks and readings happening at the IFOA. But the festival runs for over a week, so there is a lot to choose from. There’s something for everyone, with many writers and genres to explore. Books will also be for sale, and there are opportunities to get your books signed by authors in attendance.

Go to a used-book sale

various locations

There’s something exciting about hunting through piles of books and then finding a little treasure (or a few) that seems to be marked at a price that’s much lower than what it’s worth. Autumn in Toronto offers several opportunities for this experience.

A few book sales to consider are happening at Trinity College, Victoria College and the Toronto Public Library. Bonus: You’ll know that the money you do spend at these sales will contribute to a good cause.

Visit an independent bookstore

various locations

Shopping at your local bookstore is fun no matter what the season. But with so many titles released in the fall in anticipation of the holidays, there will be lots of new books to choose from. And independent bookstores offer more than a place to browse or buy books. Many stores host book launches and other events. Two to check out are Ben McNally Books and Type Books.

Enjoy the weather with a book

anytime, anywhere (or all the time, everywhere)

It’s a pleasure to read a book in any season, whether it’s sitting outside under a tree in the summer, or getting cozy on the couch under a blanket in the winter. But in the fall, you can have weeks when weather conditions are perfect for both of these scenarios. And what’s really nice is when you can combine the best of both worlds: reading outside with a hot beverage in hand.