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.

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?

The books I read in 2016

20160807_142706There are still a couple of days left in 2016, but before we leap into 2017, I want to reflect on some of the reading I’ve done this year.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (816 pages)

The shortest book I read

Coventry by Helen Humphreys (177 pages)

The book I expected to hate but didn’t

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I’d avoided reading Murakami because I didn’t think his books would be for me (I’m not really into magic realism or fantastical elements). But I went to the library with a friend one day who convinced me to try Kafka on the Shore. While it’s not one of my favourite books ever, I did enjoy it more than I expected to, and I plan to read more of Murakami.

The book I expected to love but didn’t

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I might have approached this one unfairly, expecting too much from it. That’s because I kept hearing so many people say how amazing it was. You can read more details about my feelings in my review, but it just wasn’t the type of book I was looking forward to.

The book that had been on my TBR list for too long

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. I can’t remember where I heard about this book, but I’d been meaning to read it for years, hearing that it was a great coming-of-age story. I did like it, but, again, the years of waiting may have built it up too much for me.

The book that surprised me the most

Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys. I picked this up from the library one day, just because it was the only Humphreys title on the shelf I hadn’t read. Even though I like dogs (who doesn’t?), I didn’t expect this would be a book I’d love as much as I did. That’s partly because it was about much more than dogs and is written with exquisite prose. You can read more details in my review.

The book that kicked off our book club

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. A friend and I didn’t just talk about doing it; we actually started a book club this year. This book was a good choice for a first pick, as it’s multiple perspectives provided for an interesting discussion.

The book with the most interesting structure

The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux. This is a beautiful novel of interconnected stories about siblings and includes several unexpected turns.

The debut novel I loved the most

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. I read a lot of debut novels this year, but I absolutely loved this captivating tale of four brothers growing up in Nigeria, and it deserves a special mention.

The books I couldn’t put down

By the numbers

Books I bought: 41% (bought new: 33%, bought used: 8%)

Books borrowed from the library: 39%

Books received as gifts: 14%

Books won as prizes: 4%

Books borrowed from friends: 2%

Books written by Canadian writers: 35%

Books written by women: 67%

Books written by men: 33%

Books published in 2016: 37%

Fiction: 94%

Non-fiction: 6%

Lessons learned

I really don’t read much non-fiction.

Because of this, I’d like to read more non-fiction in 2017 (even though I suspect I’ll always love fiction more than non-fiction, and I still expect the ratio will be unbalanced).

It can be good to try an author you’ve been avoiding.

It seems silly now that I thought I wouldn’t enjoy Murakami. It’s possible that Kafka on the Shore was a one-off, but I certainly plan to read another of his books.

Books provide awesome therapy.

I knew this before, but it was reinforced this year. 2016 was a roller coaster, and I’m convinced the lows would have been much lower if I didn’t have books and that the highs wouldn’t have been as good either.

It doesn’t matter how many (or how few) books you read.

I’ve always felt this way, but this year I found myself paying more attention to the number of books I read than I’ve done in previous years. It was fun at times, keeping track of books this way. But I also found that, because I was paying attention to it, I’d sometimes feel bad if it took me longer to read something than I felt it should. But some books are supposed to slow you down. Sometimes you can get more out of a book if you read it slowly, and I want to remember that.

Now to start thinking about what books to read in 2017…

Homegoing: an impressive debut

20161111_092100What I read

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

What it’s about

Homegoing opens in Ghana in the mid-18th century and tells the stories of two half-sisters, who never meet, and follows the lineage of each sister up to present day. Each chapter serves as a window into the lives of one of the sisters’ descendants.

The book begins with a chapter for each of the sisters. Effia is forced to marry a British slaver, and Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters alternate between Effia’s and Esi’s family lines and compare and contrast the lives of the characters in Ghana and in America.

Why I picked it up

I suggested this title to my book club, and the group thought it would be a good choice, so we read it. I’m not sure where I first heard of Homegoing. I only know that I read about it online in a few different places before I suggested it to our book club. I liked the premise, of following the lineage of the sisters over time. I happily purchased a copy from my favourite bookstore.

What I liked about it

In general, I liked the structure of this book. I loved the interconnectedness of the stories, and how oftentimes the characters from past chapters would show up as secondary characters in later chapters. I liked following the families through generations, and seeing the connections between characters who never met.

But while I liked the structure, it did leave me with a couple of frustrations. At times it was hard to keep track of how the characters were connected. (A family tree at the front of the book helped with this, and I was flipping back to it quite a bit.) My other frustration was that there were times when I wanted to stay with a character or story a bit more than Gyasi allowed–not because it felt like she had moved on too quickly, but because she did such a good job with them.

The story I was most captivated with while I read the book, and that stands out to me the most now upon reflection, is the story of H., a convict worker in a coal mine in the south. But each chapter is there for a reason, addressing themes of colonization, enslavement, racism and identity, to name a few.

You’ll want to read it if…

You should read Homegoing if you like historical fiction (or history) and/or novels-in-stories. It’s also a good choice if you’re a fan of family sagas.

It’s not really a good choice if you’re looking for something light. I’m not just referring to serious themes that are addressed. There’s some work involved in keeping the characters straight. It’s also maybe not the best choice if you really want to spend time with a single character and watch them develop over time.

Recommended refreshments

Our book club talked about Homegoing with some red wine and cheese on hand. I don’t know if the refreshments had anything to do with how the meeting went, but we did have some interesting conversation. And, really, wine and cheese is often a good idea.

4 ways fiction can help you get through the darkness 

20161120_162817We’ve entered a very dark time of year, and I mean that literally. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but we’ve got another month to endure before it (slowly) starts getting lighter in the evenings again.

Whether or not you are someone whose mood and well-being are affected by seasonal changes, we all experience figurative darkness at some point. I won’t suggest there is an easy fix for emotional and mental troubles, but a good book can help us navigate through difficult times, or provide a bit of comfort.

So even though you might want to hibernate over the next few months, I strongly suggest you first make your way to your local library and/or bookstore and stock up.

Here are a few ways reading fiction can help you through you a rough time.

It provides emotional support

This is like having a good friend to lean on/cry to. The friend in this case just happens to be fictional. Reading about characters who are experiencing an issue or a feeling that you are can help you realize you’re not the only one going through that. Also, it can be helpful to have an author articulate things you are feeling but don’t know how to put into words.

It can offer potential solutions

You might want more than empathy when reading about a character with an experience familiar to your own. You might want to see what you can do to better your situation. This works particularly well if you’re dealing with a practical dilemma. In this case, you read to see how others have handled situations like yours and consider whether that might work for you.

It helps you consider the experiences of others

You might find it useful to take some of the energy you’ve invested in mulling over your own problems and transfer it to over to think about someone else’s. It gives you a bit of a break from your own troubles, and it can feel good to think and care about another person (even if they are fictional).

 It will entertain you

This seems simple and obvious, but we can put a lot of pressure on the fiction we read. With any kind of art, we might expect it to teach us something, show a different viewpoint or even cause us to have some sort of epiphany. But reading fiction is also important for the fact that it’s entertaining. As human beings, we enjoy stories. A good story might make us laugh, or keep us in suspense, or transport us into another world. Good stories are entertaining. They give us joy. And that might be enough of a reason to get cozy with a stack of books that will keep us busy even after we’ve caught a glimpse of the light.