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.

Exit West: a book worthy of its buzz

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What I read

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

What it’s about

Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love while living in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, in the midst of civil war. The couple are opposites in many ways, with Saeed being more conservative and Nadia being fiercely independent, but their differences complement each other.

As the violence in their country increases, the couple escapes by passing through a magical door. They’ve heard about these doors and know that by going through one, they will end up in another part of the world, but they won’t know where until they’ve reached the other side.

The novel is interspersed with scenes of others who are fleeing conflict via these magical doors, arriving in places unknown to them, where there is no wartime violence.

This is a story of migration, both in a geographical and in an emotional sense, of the search for a place of belonging,  for a home. It’s about how people and places change, how people can change places and how places change people.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard a lot about Exit West before I read it. I saw several reviews and noticed the title popping up on many “best new books” lists.

When books get a lot of attention, I sometimes get wrapped up in the excitement and can be disappointed by a book that couldn’t possibly live up to my unreal expectations. I thought this might happen with Exit West, and so I hesitated to read it right away.

Then I went to see Hamid discuss the book at the Toronto Reference Library. Hearing the author talk about the concepts and themes solidified my interest in reading this book, and a friend kindly lent me her copy.

What I liked about it

Saeed and Nadia are interesting characters. They are clear individuals, with their own distinct personalities and voices, but together their bond makes them a strong unit. I liked that Hamid plays with gender expectations, with Nadia the independent one living on her own, who tries to convince Saeed to have sex with her, while Saeed lives with his parents and wants to wait.

But my favourite part of this book is the way that Hamid writes. The voice of the narrator has such wonderful rhythm and pacing. The prose is filled with long sentences which are punctuated perfectly so that they wind and flow but never lose the reader. And then there are descriptions of a life in a conflict zone, which I am grateful I do not have personal experience with, but the writing here touched me as if I were looking through a window into that world.

You’ll want to read it if…

One of the reasons this book is getting so much attention is because of its timeliness. Hamid didn’t plan this, of course, as the book was written before Trump and Brexit were dominating the headlines. But this well-written story about refugees and globalization makes it a book everyone would benefit from reading right now.

However, this is also a love story. It’s the story of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Readers who enjoy literary fiction about romantic relationships between two characters should read this book.

This is a great novel for a single sitting. If you have an afternoon to dive deep into a book–and perhaps also have the evening available to give the story some thought–Exit West is an excellent choice.

Recommended refreshments

Chinese food, just as Saeed and Nadia shared on their first real date.

Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under: a hypnotic debut novel

20170322_200754What I read

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

What it’s about

Chizuru Akitani is 12 years old, living in Japan with her American mother and her Japanese father. Shortly after the sudden death of her mother, Chizuru stabs a classmate, killing him. The rest of her youth is spent in a detention centre, and it’s while she’s there that she becomes estranged from her father. When Chizuru gets out, she is eager to start over, to begin a new life in a new place. She moves to America and changes her name to Rio.

In America, no one knows about Chizuru–not even Rio’s husband or daughter. But when Rio gets a package in the mail after her father passes away, she returns to Japan, where she has to face her former self and her secrets.

This is a story about identity, about how while we may reinvent ourselves, we can’t run away from the past. It’s about learning how to move forward. It’s also about the journeys we take–physical, mental and emotional–to get to where we need to be.

Why I picked it up

When I first heard about this book, I was drawn in by the premise of a child killer. I was interested in reading about the motivation behind the stabbing but also in how that action taken as a child would affect the life of an adult. I placed a copy of this book on hold from the Toronto Public Library.

What I liked about it

One of my favourite aspects of this book is its structure. There were dips into the past so that motivations and events were slowly revealed. While this structure creates suspense, it also helps to illustrate a protagonist who has been suppressing memories and how she must face them in order to move forward.

You’ll want to read it if…

This book is for fans of literary fiction who enjoy elements of suspense and adventure stories. At the core of the novel is Rio coming to terms with her past, and her return to Japan to find answers makes this a sort of quest narrative as well.

Recommended refreshments

One word: onigiri. This Japanese snack is a rice ball, often wrapped in seaweed, that can contain a variety of fillings (pork, tuna, etc.). Luce’s descriptions of this food had me salivating. I have never been to Japan, but I have eaten onigiri that a Japanese friend made for me, and this book reminded me of how delicious they were.

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.

4 reasons to write in cafés

20160809_190939If you’re a writer, chances are you can write anywhere. You probably have memos saved on your phone and handwritten notes scribbled on the backs of receipts. But we all have our preferred writing locations, the places where we are most productive. Here are some reasons why my favourite place to write is in a café.

There is background noise

I am a quiet person, and I am a person who likes quiet. But if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write, I get distracted. Noises from the fridge or from the neighbours seem louder than they actually are, and I get stuck trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m hearing. And I can’t write while listening to music that I enjoy. If I do, I become immersed in the music instead of in my writing.

Background noise allows me to focus. A loud conversation occurring next to me in a café will annoy me, and if a song by The Smiths comes on, I’ll probably stop writing for a few minutes while the song is playing. But, more often than not, when it comes to noise, the café atmosphere gets the balance just right.

Distractions are limited

Writing at home means easy access to the internet. That can be a good thing–perhaps when a writing project requires a fair amount of research. But most of the time it’s just another distraction. Yes, most cafés offer free WiFi, but the trick is not to log in. Of course it’s easy enough to check your phone from time to time, and I am guilty of that, but it definitely limits those internet distractions.

Writing in a café also means I don’t have to look at my messy apartment and think about how I should be vacuuming  or washing dishes instead of writing.

There are strangers to observe (and write about)

Sometimes I finish writing a scene and I’m not sure where to go next. Instead of staring at a blank page, I find it helps to look around the café. I’ll do a writing exercise where I’ll find a person at another table (or a barista, if the place is empty) and I’ll make up a bit of a story about them. If there’s a group of people or a couple, I might write about the dynamic I imagine them having. This kind of exercise allows me to turn back to my main project with fresh eyes, and it could be inspiration for another project.

All of the refreshments!

When I write (or read, for that matter), I almost always have a cup of tea on hand. To be honest, the tea I have at home is usually better than what I get in cafés. But sometimes I like to switch things up with a hot chocolate or cappuccino, which I never make at home and don’t have the supplies to make. And I haven’t yet mastered how to make an almond croissant or pain au chocolat. Writing in a café keeps the hunger at bay and ensures a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from.

It doesn’t matter where you write; all that matters is that you do keep writing. And while writing in a café might not be the best thing for your bank account, if you’re like me, the payoff is worth it.