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Email: writerone@shaw.ca



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If you don't read that...read  this!

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith: a derelict English castle in the middle of nowhere, a down-in-the-heels family making do in genteel poverty, a young woman trying to overcome the distractions and hurdles to become a writer in this coming-of-age story - what's not to love? Smith is the author of One Hundred and One Dalmations, but this novel isn't necessarily a member of the young adult genre. I think anyone can read it and love it for it's humour and poignancy. In my opinion a  dry, crisp, chilled white wine would suit an afternoon spent on the patio reading with this book. Any recommendations? (Although, some of the scenes in the dank, ramshackle castle might call for a robust red...).


Reading under an umbrella at a villa on the Cote d'Azure (not  really!)

Turtles basking in the sun in a courtyard at the Madrid train station.

I don’t know why I’m only now discovering author Katherine Pancol. After all, a good portion of my life has been spent joyfully trawling the stacks in many libraries, not to mention the hours spent browsing the shelves in countless bookstores.

Late to the party, as usual! However, what can compare to the thrill and deep satisfaction of discovering a new author? Except learning that she has published not one, but several books? The gratification somewhat makes up for my lifelong dissapointment that Jane Austen published only seven novels (aside from two unfinished works of fiction, as well as poetry and a substantial collection of juvenilia), and that unless a heretofore undiscovered work miraculously appears, I will have to be content re-reading my Jane collection every winter. 

Luckily for me, Pancol has several works to her credit. She has published millions of copies of her books, according to the flyleaf of the Penguin edition I’m currently reading, and is one of France’s best-known writers. Born in Casablanca, raised in France, Pancol was a teacher and then a journalist before moving to New York City to study creative writing and screenwriting.

The Slow Waltz of Turtles is the second book in a trilogy: The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile and The Central Park Squirrels are Sad on Mondays are the titles that complete the set (books one and three, respectively).

As well as winning the 2006 Prix de Maison de la Presse for largest book distribution in France, Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile earned Pancol a Best Author award in 2007, and has been made into a movie.

The Slow Waltz of Turtles stands well on its own, so as I read I’m not subject to confusion or feeling that I need to have read the first book in order to understand a back story.

This novel has everything to make it a quintessential summer read: there’s voodoo, mafia thugs, serial murders, unrequited love, and lots of travel on the fast train between Paris and London.

There’s also a large cast of quirky and unconventional characters, from the protagonist, Joséphine, whose low self-esteem results in extreme people-pleasing behaviour, to her narcissistic and self-absorbed sister, Iris, to a strange baby who seems to be a genius locked in an infant’s body, a group of angsty teenagers, and the eccentric residents of Josephine’s apartment building.

Far from being pathetic, a reader can sympathize with Joséphine because she has suffered losses and betrayals. Yet, she is obviously learning from these struggles, even as she attempts to do the right thing for those she loves without sacrificing her own voice and desires.

As a juxtaposition, her sister, Iris, is a schemer, and an example of the dark side of an individual’s loss of self-worth and respect. As Iris plots behind Joséphine’s back, the narrator reveals the insights going through the characters’ minds as they battle with good and evil intentions.

This battle is waged among all the characters – enter the Mafia villains, the serial killer, the sympathetic best friend, the enraged and out of control mother seeking revenge on her ex-husband, the teenaged daughter experiencing first love, and another daughter driven to succeed on the climb up the rungs of career and fame.

I’m just halfway through the 422 pages in this paperback edition, and as we are enjoying a heat wave in central Alberta this past while, I’ve been pairing my reading with a chilled Masi rosé and fantasizing that I’m absorbed in my book under an umbrella at a villa on the Cote d’Azur. A light, fruity wine is a good match for Pancol’s wry and witty tone. Trés, trés bien! 


If you don't read that...read  this!

Recommendations if you're browsing the local bookstore or your library mid-week:

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles. Run, don't walk, to get a copy. Beautiful, exquisite writing. You'll be thinking about this book long after you finish it. 

Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr. Also beautifully written and evocative - you'll be craving a capuccino while savouring Doerr's fine prose.

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. Love this book, and her previous novel,  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.


Reflecting on universal  themes


Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic, “After a certain age, no matter how you’ve been spending your time, you have likely earned a doctorate in living. If you’re still here – if you have survived this long – it is because you know things. We need you to reveal to us what you know, what you have learned, what you have seen and felt.”

“Whether you are young or old, we need your work in order to enrich and inform our own lives.”

When I finished Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah,  I recognized the common thread that runs through the fabric of the last few books I’ve read.

Themes of survival, freedom, prejudice, family, and friendship are stitched throughout Born A Crime, The Zookeeper's Wife, and Lion. Each author brings their own incisive voice to their telling of the human condition.

More than two hundred pages into Trevor Noah’s book, a reader might be tempted to think “I’ve heard all these stories of poverty and racism before; I’ll just skip on to the end of the chapter.“

Yet, I stayed with the reading to the end in part because of Noah’s ability to hold me in suspense, even though throughout the book these stories of the hardships and inhumanity inflicted on non-whites in South Africa inevitably prove his assertion that apartheid was “the most advanced system of racial oppression known to man.” Also, his ability to be candid and honest about his own short-comings gives his narrative an unaffected telling of his story, a story shared by millions of others.

Alongside each example of struggle and hardship, Noah uses anecdotes of how people used resourcefulness, creativity, and humour to survive the harsh restrictions and relentless grinding down by the police state.

Likewise, in The Zookeeper's Wife, the Zabinskis made every attempt to extend compassion and dignity, even beauty in the face of extreme cruelty to the Jews whom they considered guests for the duration that they hid them in their home.

In Lion, Saroo Brierly explains that eventually his terror at being lost thousands of miles from his family was replaced by the need to survive. Despite being a child, he was able to make choices to co-exist with his trauma.

While these books delve into the universal themes of the worst that humanity can inflict on itself, they also hold up the other big truths  - those of resilience, love, and friendship. It’s the aporia; the puzzlement, the seemingly illogical condition, the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy co-existing side by side.

In The Zookeeper's Wife, author Dianne Ackerman writes with a poetic sensibility in depicting this duality. While one paragraph evokes all the senses in describing the blooming of spring in the zoo, the next paragraph stuns with descriptions of the destruction and desolation of the same park as the Nazis raze it to the ground and wantonly kill animals and humans alike.

Likewise, in Lion, Brierly has us stand with him on the bank of a polluted and filthy riverbank, overflowing with sewage and dead animals while also witnessing the kindness of a stranger.

 And in Noah’s book, his mother didn’t simply survive the apartheid regime: she thrived.

The title, Born a Crime, refers to the law forbidding and criminalizing sex between ‘races’. Nevertheless, Patricia Noah chose a Swiss-born white man to father her child.

As a boy, Trevor Noah couldn’t walk beside his father on the street without fear of reprisal and violence from the apartheid regime. He writes, “But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason – because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.”

In Noah’s case, the shit was a lot of rule-breaking and misbehavior, including burning down a house, and ‘borrowing’ a car which culminated in his arrest.

Yet his mother said, “If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

While she was subjected to beatings, and eventually shot by her second husband, throughout Noah’s life his mother focused on providing him with a better education and more opportunities than what had been afforded to her. This is what she knew - they could make a choice, and then find a way to make things better.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert muses on creativity, writing “Most things have already been done- but they have not yet been done by you.”

I think this is why we keep coming back to write and read the same stories time and again; as with the voices of these three books, we circle around our common truth, sometimes landing on a point to share what we have learned and what we know, then spinning off again, going round and round together.


Here come the dog days of summer: bring on the  books!

The amount of light that filters through my blinds at 10:30 at the end of a late June evening tells me that it’s summer, even though the overnight temperatures dip to lows resembling those of autumn.  Enough of that; I say, let’s get on with summer.

And summer reading!

I have a couple of returns to make to the Sylvan Lake Library today. I picked up Denial, by Deborah E. Lipstadt, on a whim. I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy reading about a trial. In fact, as I stood weighing my decision, item in hand, I had visions of myself dozing off to sleep as the book slipped out of my grip and onto the floor beside my bed.

But I was so wrong, once again displacing the adage about not judging a book, etc. Lipstadt’s writing is so present and readable that she held me, every word of the way , to the conclusion. Very detailed, this book is suspenseful, even though the outcome of the events are well-known.

Denial is the account of Lipstadt’s trial when Holocaust-denier David Irving attempted to sue her for libel. A movie of the same name was released a year or so ago, which I couldn’t resist watching when I finished Lipstadt’s riveting book, and I recommend both.

I also recommend Lion, by Saroo Brierley. Made into a movie (which I haven’t watched, yet), this is the author’s own story of how a mishap in his childhood led to miraculous events twenty years later.

Living in poverty with his mother and siblings in India, Brierly became lost one night on a train and ended up hundreds of miles away in Calcutta. When the authorities failed to locate his family, the boy was adopted by an Australian couple, and taken to live, geographically and culturally a world away, in Tasmania.

Lion is hard to put down, and I stayed up late a couple of late nights, unable to resist following his account of how a small child could survive  this nightmare experience against such odds.

Both these books, although there is vindication at the conclusion, illustrate the duality that exists in life: enormous pain and suffering, but also inspiring and surprising triumphs of spirit. I think it’s important that we write and read these stories. As Socrates said, an unexamined life…

And in the spirit of examination, another book I read in June was The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson.  My copy is out on lend, because I can’t help but recommendingit, but I look forward to blogging about the book soon. In the meantime, you can watch Marie Forleo’s interview with Manson on YouTube. (Marie Forleo is another favourite of mind, btw.)

 I’m halfway through The Zookeeper’s Wife by Dianne Ackerman. Based on true events and characters, this book is about Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookkeepers of the Warsaw Zoo who, horrified by Nazi atrocities in Poland and Europe, used their positions and the zoo ground to help Jews and the Polish resistance movement.

I’ll blog more when I finish the book, and I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

I notice that I seem to have a Holocaust theme on my mind in reading Denial, along with Ackerman’s book.  Given the unrest in the world, the racism, and the struggle of refugees around the globe, the theme seems timely. As with the themes in Lion, I guess these are the things on my mind, or as Manson would say  that I give a (fill in the blank) about in these thought-provoking and interesting times.

I love opening up my email to find a message from Parkland Library notifying me that a book I’ve placed on hold has arrived. This time it’s Trevor Noah’s autobiography.

I’m off to the library to pick up Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Hopefully, the sun will warm things up a bit and I can sink back into and finish The Zookkeepers Wife.

I need a good summer fiction read, though. Any suggestions? Tell me what you’re reading this summer. And here’s to the dog days of summer – bring on those long, lazy, hazy summer days, a glass of chilled rosé, and a stack of books!