Theme Week: The 4mothers1blog Illustrated Dictionary (By Way of Several Books)

I’ve been on a reading adventure of late: books that take as their subject British landscape and its lore and vocabulary, a trail that led to the idea for this week’s posts.

plot-m_1516470fIt all began with The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre by Madeleine Bunting.  The book is an attempt at a biography of the author’s father, a very difficult man, through a biography of The Plot, his sacred acre of land.  A sculptor, devout Catholic, and Arts and Crafts adherent, John Bunting built a chapel by himself and by hand on a remote acre of land in Yorkshire.  He decorated it with religious sculpture and devoted it to fallen soldiers, but he excluded his wife and children from his obsession.  Madeleine Bunting is full of ambivalence as the biographer of this acre of land, and she approaches The Plot sideways to try to fathom what it was that so absorbed her father.  She comes up with so much more rich detail about this acre of land than he would have known, and it feels often as though she may have done so to subvert his own interests.  It was a fascinating read for its tension between biography (by proxy) and local knowledge.  The sheep that graze on the Yorkshire moors, for example, symbols of England’s pastoral identity, are more expensive to keep than the wool they produce.  It’s illegal to burn or bury wool, though, so there’s a massive glut of wool.  The sheep’s grazing is what is necessary to keep the moors looking like moors, though; otherwise, there’d be shrubs and trees instead of heather, and heather attracts tourists, so sheep are actually more valuable in a tourist economy than an agricultural economy.

91nv6gcfWqLIn one of this year’s surprise hits, A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, James Rebanks makes the same observation.  Rebanks, a shepherd in the Lake District, has, of all things, a hugely popular Twitter following (@herdyshepherd1), and on the strength of that success, he wrote this book about his work on the land.  He also remarks on the unprofitable cost of shearing a sheep, and he is eloquent on the value of the enormous work that goes into the care of the herd.  He is wonderfully acerbic about the disconnect between Romantic literary notions of land and landscape and his own experience of it.  As a teen not quite old enough to leave school to work on his family farm, Rebanks recalls chafing under the requirement of school, but deciding to tune in one day when he realizes that a guest speaker at their school assembly had begun to talk about the Lake District, where his family had farmed for generations.  The subtext of her talk is that to want to leave school in order to farm was to be more or less an idiot:

The idea that we, our fathers and mothers, might be proud, hard-working and intelligent people doing something worthwhile, or even admirable, seemed to be beyond her.  …  I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realized that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land.  But she talked about it, and thought of it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me.  She loved a “wild” landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met.  The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers … people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had “really done something.”  …  I realized then, with some shock, that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as “the Lake District,” had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood.

In large part, his book is a corrective to this teacher’s brand of condescension, and it positively glows with the author’s pride in his work and heritage.  It is uneven–some parts are beautifully crafted, and others needed more polishing–but a very enjoyable read.

91eAbJWoD6LMeadowland: The Private Life of an English Field is a similarly structured book.  Limited, as is Bunting’s book, by a tiny parcel of land, John Lewis-Stempel writes a season-by-season diary of his meadow.  He also takes issue with the Romantic notion of wilderness, but is happy to quote Wordsworth for his epigraph, in which, he says, the poet gets it right:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things

We murder to dissect.

To rationalize the natural world, he says, is pointless, so he offers a detailed and charmingly disjointed journal of his observations of the flora and fauna on Lower Meadow.  One wonderfully self-deprecating observation that he makes is that while the English have a rich and varied lexicon for place names and features of the landscape, their imagination runs dry when it comes to naming the parts of individual farms.  Every farm in England, he says, has a Lower Meadow or a North Field: “hardly ever do they lift themselves above the ultra-prosaic. …  People needed to know field names, which were their places of work.  Children and wives needed to know where to take men their ‘elevenses’ and ‘fourses,’ their cider or tea, their bread and cheese.”

coverAnother surprise hit from the past year is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.  The book is a curious mix of a grief memoir, a hawking history and handbook, and a biography of T.H. White, and these disparate themes are expertly woven together by an author who is in total command of her material.  Winner of many prizes, including the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the Costa Book Award, H is for Hawk is one of those rare reads that does all of its work well.  When the author is blindsided by a crippling grief for her father, she begins to dream of hawks.  As a child she had been an avid student of falconry, and in the midst of her grief she revives that passion and sets out to acquire and train a goshawk that she names Mabel.  It is an admittedly silly and old-fashioned name that comes from the Latin amabilis, meaning loveable or dear.  In hawking circles, the sweeter the name of the hawk, the more fierce it is likely to become; nominative language here works in opposition to its goal.  The name is not meant to signify.

916sVKaIeaL__SL1500_Names do signify in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, however.  This is also something of a genre-bender.  Part essay and part dictionary, the book is a celebration of land and language.  “This is a book about the power of language,” he writes on page one. “It is a field guide to literature I love, and it is a word hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comparison of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.”  A book driven in large part by a desire to defy the inevitable death of language when urbanization makes redundant the rich variety of words for natural things, this book is also a call to get back into the natural world and experience first hand the places and phenomenon now made rare by modern life.  This book does not murder to dissect, but it does attempt to give verbal shape to the beauteous forms of things.  It’s a book to dip in and out of, to use as a resource and as a missal for those devoted to the natural world.

And, finally, Landmarks brought me to Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler.  Tyler’s book is also a dictionary of words that describe places, but his is illustrated with breath-takingly beautiful photographs that illustrate the words he defines.

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This is clitter or clatter depending on whether you are in Devon (clitter) or Cornwall (clatter).  It is a word to describe the piles of granite boulders that litter and clutter the hillsides.  I feel so incredibly tender about that perfectly apt word.  How many people actually use it today?  Well, if we don’t use it, at least we make a few more who know what it means and can conjure this image to define it.

It was the tender desire to protect and the contagious zeal to revel in language that gave me the idea for this week’s posts.  In keeping with photography month, we thought we’d take the opportunity to share with you some words and their definitions that are entirely idiosyncratic to our families.  This week you will see illustrated definitions of words unique to us.  Unless, perhaps, they aren’t!  Will you see any words you use?  See any that you will adopt?  Play along this week and share words unique to your families.

We are thrilled to welcome, once again, Kristina Cerise, who’s own mothering dictionary is a delight and an inspiration.  Defining Motherhood is one of those blogs that makes you grateful for this world wide web of goodness.

What We’re Reading: Kids’ Edition

From Beth-Anne

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Recipe for Adventure Hong Kong by Giada De Laurentiis

Continuing along with this series, my eldest chose this book for his Cereal Box Book Report. The story followed the same pattern of siblings, Alfie and Emilia, being magically transported to another country to learn about its food and culture. I am amazed by how much my son does learn about other cultures from these books, and it’s mostly from the conversations that occur after he’s closed the cover. To honour our ritual we will be dining in an authentic Chinese restaurant. After reading Naples, we indulged with pizza at Libretto, Mother’s Day was extra special by enjoying a fancy schmancy Parisian dinner here and I still owe him a New Orleans dining experience. Any Torontonians, I welcome your suggestions for both New Orleans and Chinese!

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Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate Di Camillo

My middle son thoroughly enjoyed the entire Mercy Watson series and is delighted that the adventures continue with Leroy Ninker’s charming spin-off. Di Camillo is a favourite author in these parts, and judging by the snickers that I hear coming from his room and how excitedly he retells the chapters to me, she doesn’t disappoint with this book either!

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Knuffle Bunny Trilogy by Mo Willems

My youngest has fallen for Knuffle Bunny just as his older brothers before him. Can I just say, I love these books? My youngest has a strong attachment to his “Georgy” and this trilogy from Mo Willems serves as the perfect books to engage his critical thinking. I like to ask him questions that encourage him to make connections to the text (the classic: relate and reflect) and to infer what’s going to happen next.   But put all of that learning aside, these books are just so much fun! The illustrations using a combination of photography and drawing could be great inspiration for a summer writing project for older kids. Now that I think of it . . .

From Nathalie

Like Beth-Anne, we love all of Mo Willems’s books in this house, especially the learn-to-read Elephant and Piggie books.

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I am of the opinion that Mo Willems should rule the world, but children’s author world dominion dreams aside, I am all about imaginary wish fulfillment.

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Enter The Candy Conspiracy by Carrie Snyder, who has been our guest on the blog and whose books for adults we have loved.  Carrie has invented a world made of candy, with lollipop trees and a cupcake castle.  So far, so sweet, but the Juicy Jelly Worm who resides in the castle does not like to share, and all the kids in Candyville can only stand and watch while their monarch gobbles all the goodies himself.  Candy-craving kids get clever (and alliteration gets contagious, apparently!), and candy-flavoured democracy will have its day.

For middle grade readers, Middlest and his friends are loving the Big Nate books by Lincoln Pierce.  Told in comic strip style, they feature hapless and endearing Nate, who finds himself in trouble again and again.  And the boys have read and reread these books again and again.  One added bonus of my son and his best friend reading these books is that they’ve also gone back to the classic Calvin and Hobbes, which does a mother’s heart good to see.

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Finally, for young adults, I recently read Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra.

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The protagonist of this novel is Leonora Summerville, a bright spark, a beauty, an heiress and a thorn in her older sister’s side because Leo may prove difficult to marry off.  A speech disorder causes her to stutter, but it also allows her to imitate other people’s voices with eerie precision, earning her the moniker Mad Miss Mimic.  Set in 19th century London, where opium fever is raging, the book is full of period detail.  Medical and political intrigue abound, as her brother-in-law’s medical use of opium and her suitor’s political ambitions come under threat from the bombing campaign of the mysterious Black Glove Gang, who oppose the government’s proposed ban on the importation of opium.  Add two handsome and charismatic young men who vie for Leo’s attention and affection, and you have the ingredients for a ripping good yarn.  I read it in a single sitting.  Sarah and I were in graduate school at the University of Toronto together, and she is now a professor of English literature at Ryerson University.  Mad Miss Mimic is her first novel, and what an outing it is!

From Carol

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In The King’s Equal by Katherine Paterson, Prince Raphael will inherit the kingdom from his dying father provided he can find a woman equal to him in beauty, intelligence and wealth.  This proves rather tricky, since Raphael is an arrogant and conceited fellow.  The story of how Rosamund overcomes Raphael’s vanity and prejudices is at once magical, clever and lyrical.  Nathalie will be horrified, but I didn’t register the author of the book before reading it, although the writing soon prompted me to check.  Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, had my boys were riveted. We read so many books, and I love the exposures to so many adventures, but I recognized immediately the quality of writing in this book, and my children’s response to it revealed that they did too.

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Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham also made an impression on my boys. When Tashi’s mother becomes too sick to pick tea leaves in the Himalayan mountains with the other workers, Tashi tries to go in her place. Too small for the task, and frightened for her mother’s health, she finds aid from unlikely friends, who gather for her the rarest of teas in the world. The plight of the working poor, heightened by the nasty Overseer, is depicted effectively enough that it’s unsettling that only Tashi and her mother’s dependence on the work of picking tea are alleviated at the story’s end. Beautifully illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.
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One of the things I deeply envy about my husband is a large cardboard box in the basement which holds the best reads from his childhood. He wanders down there when he’s looking for a new novel for the kids, and emerged one night with Witches by Roald Dahl.  Shortly after he read it to my boys, my eldest (who just turned 9) asked me to read it again.
A young boy (the nameless narrator) and his grandmother (his parents die early on) first try to avoid and then are forced into the world of “real witches”, who are cleverly disguised as ordinary women.  After personally and irreversibly experiencing what the witches are planning to unleash on children in England, the narrator must try to stop them.
It was such a fun read, with perfect illustrations by Quentin Blake, and is poignant without sentimentality. I loved the matter-of-fact mutual adoration and interdependence of the narrator and his grandmother. The adventure and fantasy are wonderful, but the understated love between this unlikely pair resonates at least as much.

If you buy any of these books from Indigo, we will get a teeny tiny percentage of the sale.  If you buy any of these or other kids and teen books in-store between June 5-7, you will get 10 times the plum points.

 

 

Theme Week: A History of Our Families, Through Objects

One of my abiding delights of late is to listen to podcasts while I take my long walks.  Beth-Anne has mentioned our obsession with NPR’s wildly popular and record-breaking Serial, and her love of the comic Grownups Read Stuff They Wrote as Kids.  I get my science fix with the Quirks and Quarks podcast from the CBC, and I am so enamoured of interviews with authors that I have exhausted the archives of Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company, as well as all of the archived episodes of the Guardian’s books podcasts and the BBC’s World Book Club.

6204be3e2294b5a28411ddd18717793190c54c20What I love about all of these podcasts is their standard of excellence, and you really cannot do better than Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects for podcast excellence.  (You can download it here.)  In this series, MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, tells a history of the world through 100 of the objects housed there.  I have not only listened to all 100 episodes, I have read the book that accompanies the podcast and gone back to listen to some episodes for a second time.  In each episode, he considers one object, and that object becomes a prism through which to explore past worlds and the men and women who lived in them.  The stories are, truly, mind-bending; I was so often startled by what I learned.  It is so difficult to choose an illustrative example, because I really did love them all, but in the episode on the Gold Cape found in Mold, in north Wales, for instance, my sense of the isolation of the British Isles was thoroughly upturned.  The cape, made in 1900-1600 BC, is a beautifully intricate object made of gold, extremely sophisticated in its execution, and it was buried with amber and bronze objects that point to a web of trade and exchange that reached not only from Wales to Scandinavia, but even as far as the Mediterranean.  Nearly 2000 years before the common era, artisans were making and trading at levels of sophistication I knew nothing about.

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MacGregor’s approach is decidedly not that of the Guns, Germs and Steel variety, in which history is told as a series of conflicts and conquests.  Rather, his approach is to examine the globe’s common history, to look at synchronicity in the history of the world, to examine our commonalities.  In his introduction to the series, MacGregor describes the “necessary poetry of things”:

It is, as we know, the victors who write the history, especially when only the victors know how to write.  Those who are on the losing side, those whose societies are conquered or destroyed, often have only their things to tell their stories.  The Caribbean Taino, the Australian Aboriginals, the African people of Benin and the Incas, all of whom appear in this book, can speak to us now of their past achievements most powerfully through the objects they made: a history told through things gives them back a voice.

Taking in our cue from MacGregor’s poetry of things, this week at 4Mothers, we will be telling a piece of our family history through a single object.  We hope you will enjoy them.

In the mean time, be a podcast addict’s enabler!  What are your favourite podcasts? 

What We’re Reading

From Beth-Anne

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The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The first book I read by Anita Diamant was The Red Tent. I finished it in a few days and spent the next year touting its greatness to everyone who asked for a book a recommendation, and many who did not. When I read on the book blogs that her newest release, Boston Girl, was available I downloaded it to my Kobo to read while on our beach vacation. The Boston Girl is the story of Addie Baum, daughter of Jewish immigrants. Addie’s granddaughter, a Harvard student, interviews her about her life. Addie reflects on her early days set during a tumultuous period of change and rapid development for the United States. Her girlhood stories reveal the inner struggles she experienced while desperately seeking out her American dream but remaining tethered to her traditional, Jewish family. The pages turn quickly on this uplifting tale of feminism, family and history – worth the read this summer!

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Between Gods by Alison Pick

Alison Pick grew up going to church, attending Sunday school and singing “Silent Night” at the Christmas service. She had no idea of her Jewish roots – a carefully guarded family secret. Her paternal grandparents narrowly escaped the Holocaust, and upon arriving in Canada made the decision to live as Christians. When researching for her Man-Booker nominated novel (one of my favourites) Far to Go, she felt an undeniable pull to her Jewish roots. The feeling was so intense that Pick set out to convert – not at all easy despite having a Jewish father. The author is brave. She bares all and doesn’t shy from portraying herself honestly. She’s open about her nagging depression and the conflicting feelings that she has about her faith (faiths?). She wrestles with this overwhelming desire for Judiasm while being deeply committed to her non-Jewish fiancée but understanding how unaccepted interfaith marriages are during the conversion process. This memoir took a while for me to connect with but it did. The way Alison becomes almost obsessive about her family’s history is something I can relate to. Alison agonizes over the final days of her great-grandmother in Auschwitz, and the lives that could have been. I find myself thinking about my own could-haves and while my family’s history is not anything close to this horrific; I can understand her longing to know. Her connection to her ancestors is primal. It’s been a long time since I dreamt about a book, and a few nights ago I awoke drenched with sweat and a racing heart. Her story has stuck.

From Nathalie

You guys, I totally binged on a mystery series this month!  I read and loved SIX of Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway murder mysteries.  Ruth Galloway is a forensic anthropologist and she is one of the detecting protagonists I have loved most in a series.  She is independent, down to earth, imperfect, clever and strong-willed.  While reading the series I realized how much I really had been craving mysteries with strong female characters.  I did something I never do, and I began in the middle of the series.  This was a mistake because it gives away a big part of the plot that develops from book to book.  So begin at the beginning with The Crossing Places, and enjoy the ride!  The best news, the latest in the series is published this month.

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I have a soft spot for the trend in publishing in which a famous author is matched to a classic and updates and rewrites it for the present day.  Val McDermid’s rewriting of Northanger Abbey is especially brilliant.  She updates Jane Austen’s hilarious tale of a young woman too much influenced by gothic fiction, and she makes the heroine a devotee of vampire lit.  I am a sucker (!) for this kind of thing, always hoping to find in fan fiction something that approximates the joy that the original book gives me.  Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen’s novels, not surprisingly, because it is a book about books, and McDermid embraces the metafictional and intertextual aspect of the project wholeheartedly.  The book positively fizzes with it.  It’s hilarious, timely, and pitch-perfect.  (You can read my longer review of it here.)

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My latest foray into Austen re-writes is Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, which was enjoyable but did not knock my socks off.  Emma is, admittedly, a much harder update to pull off.  There is the problem of the governess, for one, and McCall Smith decides to preserve the role in the update.  I don’t know how things are in your neck of the woods, but governesses are not thick on the ground in these parts.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book for its homage to Austen and for its wit.

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From Carol

I’m in the middle of a mindful meditation course and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn is basically the textbook.  Kabat-Zinn is a leader in the field, and this big book covers all aspects of the benefits and processes of mindful meditation.  Told in Kabat-Zinn’s careful, gentle and repetitive way, the narrative voice parallels the practice of meditation itself.

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After reading this review of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, a Japanese de-clutter consultant, I knew I had to read it (the review describes Kondo as a fairy dominatrix in a prim little pink suit).  I’m in the midst of trying to get our house in some real order, and Kondo seemed like the woman to help.  She has committed her life to de-cluttering and organizing and has some basic steadfast rules.  First, you must discard (or recycle) first, before any attempts are made at re-organizing.  Second, you must hold every item you own and ask yourself whether it “sparks joy”.  If the answer is no, or hesitation, the item should go.  (She is ruthless about this, by the way.)  She also advises that tidying and de-cluttering should be done categorically and specifies that order (you start with clothes, which are easiest, and end with mementos, which are hardest).  There are many other suggestions, and I did in fact purge and re-organize my clothing using this method.  Perhaps because I had fewer items to start with, or because I am quite loyal to the things I like over time, I did not purge a third to two-thirds of my things as her clients routinely do.  I did rid myself of three bags of clothing though, and have a clean and spacious closet and dresser (using her upright folding technique to boot).  It’s tidy, and I feel better.  She doesn’t have that much advice for parents, clearly identifying more with the tidy hearts of children who still live with parents, but there’s still good solid value in this fun, internationally best-selling little book.

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Father’s Day Gift Guide

Father’s Day is coming up on June 21 and unlike other sites that run their gift guides a week before, we wanted to give you ample time to suss out the perfect gifts for the dads in your life. Here are some of our favourites:

From Beth-Anne

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This is a luxury item that dads are unlikely to splurge on for themselves but if they are a music lover nothing compares. Whether they are used for intense workouts at the gym, running outdoors or walking to and from the office, these Bluetooth-enabled earphones are unbeatable. Powerbeats™ 2 Wireless earphones are available at Indigo, $219.95.

 

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I saw Dan Buettner featured on a popular news magazine show. He was visiting the Greek island of Ikaria, interviewing inhabitants and experts alike on the secrets to a long, healthy life. While the wisdom may not be surprising, it’s worth giving Dad the blueprints to longevity! The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons For Living Longer from the people who’ve lived the longest and The Blue Zones Solution: Eating And Living Like The World’s Healthiest People by Dan Buettner available at Indigo $12.24 and $21.05.

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I like giving t-shirts. Among my favourites are the ironic ones from places like Drake General Store or the city-scapes I found at the One of a Kind Show. We featured this shirt for the hockey-lover as part of Giving Guide in December and it was a favourite of our readers too. What do you think about this one from ebollo on Etsy? Not sure it would get much wear, but the message is indisputable!

I love the idea of giving experiences. For Mother’s Day, we went for a fancy-schmancy French dinner (no sweaties allowed!) and the boys truly impressed me with their manners (there may have been some threats uttered before we left the house) and the memory will stay with me much longer than anything material ever could. If the dad in your life is completely stressed out, get him a pass to a Restorative yoga class. The pace is gentle, slow and more relaxing than any massage, plus it’s good for him! The Culture Pearl has her finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the city.  Recently she wrote about her experience in a skydiving simulator but if that’s not his thing, a luxury car rental for the day may be!

From Nathalie:

You could have knocked me over with a feather when my brother told me about his date night spent painting a picture.  I had never heard of social painting, but I would have bet money he’d be the last person to do something like that.  He did, and he loved it.  Social painting is a guided lesson in painting in a group setting with cocktails and music and fun.  So, whether the dad in your life is artistic or not, look into a painting party.  Art Tonite has weekly sessions in various locations around Toronto.

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My boys paint ties for their dad every year.  It takes a special kind of man to wear these proudly, and my husband is one of them!  He gets lots of compliments.

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Real Canadian Superstores has some great gear for dads, like a portable bbq, perfect for camping or tailgate parties.  It folds up for easy transportation and storage.

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Parker, Tera Gear™ Two Burner Gas Grill ($199)

And for your back yard cook, a smoker.

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Knox, Tera Gear™ “34 Gas Smoker ($199)

I love the idea of these solar powered Mason jar lanterns for the Green Dad, available from Home Depot.  They look great in the daylight, too, as they are silvered and glitter in the sunlight.

Malibu Outdoor Solar Mason Jar Wingstack lifestyle

From  Carol

A unique and sure-winner for the beer-loving man, give him the gift of home brew!  Brew North is Toronto’s newest and best home brewing supply shop, carrying all the equipment, ingredients, and kits needed to make a really good beer whether you’re a novice or experienced brewer.

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And for more culinary delights, how about a taking a class on cheese tasting?  Enter night school for cheese fans at the Leslieville Cheese Market.  Fun, delicious, and perfect for a special night out.

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What We’re Reading Kids

Here are our recommendations for some great reads over the March Break and beyond.

From Beth-Anne

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Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book by Mo Willems

My middle son received this book as a Christmas gift, and hasn’t put it down since. Every night I hear him giggling in his room reading the latest funnies that this Pigeon is up to, and in the morning he emerges from his bunk-bed fort with a newly completed activity. If you have a Mo Willems fan on your hands, this is a sure-fire best bet. I can’t help but think if you’re about to jet off somewhere this book would make for a welcome addition to the carry-on.

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This is the Greatest Place: The Forbidden City and the World of Small Animals by Brian Tse, Illustrated by Alice Mak, Translated by Ben Wang

This beautifully illustrated book teaches children about ancient Chinese culture and customs. Through a series of adventures, the children learn about how delicate the balance is between humanity, animals and nature. If a trip to China is not anywhere in your near future, this book is the next best thing.

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I Love You Near and Far by Marjorie Blain Parker, Illustrated by Jed Henry

Sometimes, the people we love the most are not an arm’s length away. I often think of friends whose families are separated by an ocean
and I wonder if I would ever have the fortitude to parent my boys while my husband is on a months long military mission, like my good friend. That’s what makes I Love You Near and Far such a special book, it reminds us that cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, grandparents and even moms and dads can love each other regardless of where they call home.

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The Possible Police by Wylde Scott, Illustrations by Hannah K. Shuping

Along the lines of The Little Engine That Could, The Possible Police encourages children to be true to themselves and follow their dreams regardless of the naysayers. The rhyme is catchy and the text flowery but it’s the whimsical illustrations that are simply captivating.

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Recipe for Adventure: Paris! by Giada De Laurentiis

My oldest one is a bit of a reluctant reader when it comes to fiction. Give him a sports magazine or a baseball stats book and he’s set, but ask him to choose a novel to read, and that’s when the excuses start. He had some success with the Canadian Flyer series (a Canadian spin on the popular Magic Treehouse series), Jake Maddox and his sports tales are a favourite and now we can officially add celebrity chef turned children’s author Giada De Laurentiis’s Recipe for Adventure series to the “approved” list. With the first adventure to Naples behind him, he’s moved on to Paris. The stories are engaging and light-hearted without any of the silliness that I loathe to find in books marketed to emerging readers. Emilia and Alfie are in the City of Lights and have discovered pain au chocolat, crepes and escargot. My son is adventurous when it comes to food and I’ve made him a deal to follow up each book with a cooking session (recipes are included) and a date night at an aptly themed restaurant.

From Nathalie

Charlie’s Dirt Day

written by Andrew Larsen

illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli

See You Next Year

written by Andrew Larsen

illustrated by Todd Stewart

Two new picture books from Andrew Larsen should top your March Break reading list: Charlies’s Dirt Day is a perfect springtime read, and if you spend any part of this break planning the summer break, the wonderful See You Next Year will remind you of all that there is to look forward to with a summer escape.

Charlie’s Dirt Day begins with an informal parade, a parade to a massive pile of dirt that the mayor is giving away.  (Do you have a city councillor or local official who does this?  I love our annual neighbourhood dirt days!  Everyone rolls up to fill a bucket or a barrow to nourish their young gardens with free compost from the city.)  Charlie is given his very own seed to grow, and he and his neighbour turn the tomatoes that he grows into a delicious spaghetti sauce.  This is a wonderful read-aloud, as the rhythm of the story carries you along trippety trip tripping with Charlie to the park and then back home to await the magic borne of sun and water and care.  The book ends with a two-page spread of science about dirt and compost, city gardens grown on balconies and community gardens that let city-dwellers grow their own food.  Pair this book with an outing to Canada Blooms, and your littlest gardeners will be raring to go.

See You Next Year is all about the joy of summer holidays and their predictable routines and rituals.  It’s got a lovely lyrical quality to it, and there’s a comforting and wistful tone to the narrator’s recounting of her annual summer holidays at the beach.  Each year, she returns to the same motel by the beach, and she delights in recounting all of the sights and sounds of the summer season.  The illustrations are stunning, and Todd Stewart’s particular gift is with light: the light of a bonfire, of the bandstand, of the setting city sun.  If you are aching for the summer season, this is a great book to bring it just that wee bit closer.

For middle grade readers, Middlest is on his second reading of the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins, who later wrote The Hunger Games.  There are five books in the series that features a boy from New York who discovers an entire civilization deep underground.  The Underlanders, in turn, discover that he is the key to many of the prophesies their founder made, and Gregor finds himself in peril and adventure at every turn.  The action is very fast-paced, and each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, which makes it very hard to put down the book and has kept my boy up way, way past bedtime on many a night.  These books are not for the faint of heart, as there is a fair amount of gore and a lot of suspense.  But if your middle grade reader is looking for a truly addictive read, we recommend these highly.

 

What We’re Reading: February 2015

 

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From Beth-Anne

Elfrieda and Yolandi, two misfit sisters from an ultra-conservative Mennonite town outside of Winnipeg are at the centre of this critically acclaimed novel by Canadian writer, Miriam Toews.   At 17 years old, Elfrieda travels to Europe to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. A protective, Italian agent that opens a world of opportunity, fame and culture embraces her. She spends decades travelling the world, playing the piano with such affection and magnetism that she ensnares the hearts of men and women alike. Her author-sister Yoli, transplanted to Toronto via two husbands and two children, flies home to Winnipeg to be at her sister’s side after Elf’s latest suicide attempt. Toews explores the complexities of suicide, depression, and relationships and the gamut of emotions that entangle when Elf begs Yoli to help her die. The writing feels anything by contrived, and the widely fluctuating feelings that Yoli expresses cut deep. Toews has been honest that writing this book proved to be cathartic in helping her to heal following the suicides of her father and sister.

I was ready for some levity following the intensity of All My Puny Sorrows and it came in the form of Professor Don Tillman. Don utilizes his keen scientific prowess to develop a survey to effectively weed-out unsuitable potential wives through a series of charming dating scenarios. Did I mention that he has Asperger’s? Eventually, Don does find his ideal wife in Rosie and together they move to New York (book 2) but all goes predictably haywire when Rosie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The plot is expected and the characters fairly flat but sometimes a laugh and an escape is all you’re after. If that’s the case, these books do the trick nicely.

I enjoy reading autobiographies and often find myself gleaning inspiration from those who’ve achieved their hard-won accomplishments. After a string of politicians, I have returned to the entertainment industry with Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Sophia Loren is incredibly humble recounting her glamorous life. She begins by describing the atrocities she witnessed as a child growing-up in war-torn Italy and moves on to describe her ascent to fame and fortune as a leading lady of Italian cinema and eventually Hollywood. Throughout her recollections she is quick to acknowledge the team of talented individuals supporting her successful career and handful of loyal, passionate friends and family members who helped her to climb the ranks of the Hollywood elite. Despite opportunities to salaciously gossip about golden age celebrities, Loren chooses to be gracious and kind. Maybe her contemporary “Ms. Lollo” could take a lesson or two.

From Nathalie

doubleA Double Sorrow by Lavinia Greenlaw

I read this one twice.  A Double Sorrow is Greenlaw’s retelling of Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde.  It’s hauntingly beautiful, and the images from her poems lingered with me long after I had finished it.  Of Criseyde, she writes, “She leads a winter life.”  So stark, so rich in its brevity.  Her Troilus is less in love with Criseyde than he is with the idea of the stories that will be told of his love for her; he’s after fame.

If he ever fears he might not win her

He falls into some inward place of trees

Refusing any path that does not make of itself

The right answer.  Hope will emerge

Like a gentle green creature drawn from green shadows

To steady his gaze.

A fawn, soft in the wild,

Followed only by more of its kind.

After I had read the book, I wanted to read Chaucer’s original.  It was late on a Saturday night, and I asked my husband to stop at the bookstore on our way home from dinner out.  I climbed back into the car and laughed that I never, in all my life, would have expected to be doing a late night run for Chaucer.  He looked at me and said, “Oh, honey.  It’s really not as much of a stretch as you might think.”  Well, I still haven’t finished Chaucer’s telling, having grown very quickly irritated with all of the endless drama of courtly love.  Greenlaw’s telling, though, had me wanting so much more.

ChimneySweepers-cvr-thumbAs Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust by Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is one of my all-time favourite characters.  She’s a sleuthing eleven year old, and she solves many of her cases with chemistry, at which she is extremely talented.  Precocious, fearless, grounded and not a little naive, she’s thoroughly endearing.  This installment of her sleuthing adventures brings her to Canada, which added a wonderful touch to these very Anglophilic country house murders.  If you have not yet met Flavia, begin at the beginning (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) and revel in the joy to come!  There are eight books in the series, and I have loved every one.

 

 

The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science

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This beautiful book is published by Chronicle, and the idea was to pair an illustrator with a scientific question, and to enrich information with illustration.  I really loved the combination of quick hits of science paired with illustrations that brought out aspects of the topic that the words did not always touch upon, and found myself making note of all kinds of trivia:

  • Humans have more in common with ants than with any other species (division of labour, roles in society, high level of social dependency).
  • The size of a squirrel’s brain increases during caching season.
  • The number of “dees” in a chickadee’s call describes the size of a predator.
  • Scientists recently discovered a spore that was about 250 million years old within a salt crystal; the bacterium was revived.  Immortality is theoretically possible.
  • Fingerprints help us grip wet things, which is why our fingers shrivel and make deeper channels when they are soaked in water.
  • Yawning is only contagious in humans capable of empathy; contagious yawning is not observed in children under five.
  • When we are deprived of sleep, proteins begin to lose their structural integrity, and they unfold, building up in the cells and becoming toxic.  You can die from sleep deprivation because you are essentially being poisoned.  During sleep, special “cleanup molecules” (their imprecise words, not mine!) help to reverse the unfolded protein response.
  • The DNA in our cells does not age.  The human species has maximized its chances to pass on traits, but only as a species, not as individuals.  Individual aging is irrelevant to the continuation of our species.

From Carol 

how of happinessI can be a bit of a sucker when it comes to self-help books, but The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyurbomirsky does boast a difference:  this book is written by a research psychologist and professor who takes a scientific approach in analyzing data on what makes people happy.  The result is a research-based understanding of what happiness is, and what practices help us achieve it.  Lyurbomirsky asserts that if happiness were a pie, 50% of it is determined by a genetic set-point (some of us are born perkier than others), 10% is influenced by circumstance (rich or poor, healthy or ill), and a whopping 40% is based on our intentional activities, ie. within our control!.  How so?  Based on her research, she identifies the various ways in which people have increased their happiness – ranging from living in the present, to practicing gratitude and positive thinking, to investing in social relationships, to committing to your goals, and much more.  She also provides readers with guidance on how to choose which of these practices to pursue themselves for the greatest happiness impact.  I recognize myself in some of these practices, and feel inspired by others, and am thoroughly enjoying this read.

 

 

The Christmas Book Box

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Books are a big deal around here. It’s no secret that I wish all the boys in my life loved reading as much as I do, but perhaps they wish I loved fart jokes as much as they do. I try to encourage reading on the sly because anytime I stomp my feet and flail my hands in effort to get the boys onside with my desires, I am often met with sullen, uninterested faces or, more likely, a look that says, “she’s crazy!”.

I took the idea of a book box from my teaching days. I made a project out of it and engaged the boys from the beginning. At the grocery store, I casually mentioned that we needed a box. I didn’t give them any further details so when they were sorting through the heaps of discarded boxes that line the front of the store, their curiosity was piqued.

“Uh-uh. Too small! ” I’d say or “Uh-uh. Too big!”

When they landed on the perfect box, we brought it in the house along with the groceries, but I said no more about the box and deferred all questions pertaining to it saying that I wasn’t quite ready to share its use yet.

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A few days later, my middle one was lazing around the house, bored. Read: he was whining and I was quickly becoming irritated. I suggested that he decorate “The Box”. I gave him clues that guided his colour selection and sticker choices. Once the box was completely covered, I asked him to return it to its place on the floor in the dining room.

When the boys were at school, I pulled all of the Christmas and holiday books from our shelves and placed them in the box and then moved the box to a prominent location in our family room. I said nothing about the box, but when the boys came home from school they quickly thumbed through the books and come bedtime took a few upstairs with them only to return them first thing in the morning.

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I didn’t say too much about the book box but it’s now a part of our Christmas tradition, our Christmas narrative if you will. Each year the boys are eager to become reacquainted with some of their favourite stories and discover what new additions have been made.

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Bedtime Stories: Glorious for all of 2 minutes . . .and then the fighting starts.

photo (54)I remember being pregnant with my first son. I was sure of a lot of things. I was sure that I would never let him sleep in my bed, bribe him to be on his best behaviour or lose my cool during a temper tantrum.

I was also steadfast in my belief that I would read to my children every night. I had visions of us curled on the bed, propped up with pillows and covered in a fluffy duvet. The boys would lull off to sleep with visions of Peter, Tinkerbell and Captain Hook as I would sneak out of the room and head downstairs, settle into my favourite chair with a cup of hot chocolate and my novel of the moment.

And since then I have eaten more than my fair share of humble pie while buying another package of Sponge Bob Band-Aids just to escape the drugstore with a few less tears.

I was pregnant with my second son when my first son turned 6 months old. I battled through first trimester exhaustion all while getting up at least once a night to feed. The bedtime ritual was simple: try to stay awake long enough to put the baby down in his crib.

My second son was a screamer. He cried all day long but really turned it on between 7 and 9 in the evening. Every night he would bawl; his face mottled and his voice hoarse. We tried everything that every book, website and expert recommended. Eventually we resorted to laying him in his crib and blasting Andrea Bocelli from a disc player. These were desperate times. As baby #2 grew hysterical, baby #1 was cranky, tired, and pulling at my leg. The bedtime ritual wasn’t so simple: bath, change, bottle and bed all with one hand, and wailing in my ear.

Eventually the crying stopped, I developed a bad case of amnesia and got pregnant for a third time, with my third son.

Baby #1 was now three years old (and still waking up in the night), Baby #2 was 2 years old (and had mercifully reserved his crying periods to other times of the day) and I would start counting down to bedtime around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, compulsively checking the time. By 7:30 the bedtime ritual began: I would push them into bed with a kiss on the cheek, only to collapse onto the couch with a sigh. I had made it through another day.

I know the benefits of reading to children. And I do. But not at bedtime. None of us do well at the end of the day. When I try to read a bedtime story everything is glorious for all of about 2 minutes and then it starts: jockeying for position closest to me, complaints over the story choice, whining over whose turn it is to choose the book, someone’s breathing on someone, someone’s touching someone, someone’s foot is fidgeting. Nerves are shot, tensions are high and the tears start.

Instead we read on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for swimming lessons to start or the doctor to call our name. I keep the novel, currently Stuart Little, in my over-sized purse (also something I was never going to do as mom) to pull out at those ordinary times transforming them into those special, unplanned moments that really make up motherhood.

Remembrance Day Books: For children, youth and you

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. – by John McCrae, 1915

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A Poppy is to Remember by Heather Patterson

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In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield

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On Juno Beach: Canada’s D Day Heroes by Hugh Brewster

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The Kids Book of Canada at War by Elizabeth MacLeod

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Hanna’s Suitcase – Karen Levine

For older children:

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The Bite of the Mango – by Mariatu Kamara with Susan McClelland

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Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis

For more suggestions visit The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, a wonderful resource!

For You:

Some of my favourite war stories told by some of my favourite Canadian authors.

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Far To Go by Alison Pick

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The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

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Hanna’s Diary by Hanna Spencer