Rushing to 1-click: Love Nina by Nina Stibbe

I love epistolary memoirs. The first one I read was Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. The minutiae of daily life, the interpersonal exchanges, the casual musings of someone who has a definite worldview – and a sense of humour – this is literary gold. It hardly feels literary, however; it’s just a peek into someone’s life, someone you wish you knew. It’s very close to a diary, although a letter has an audience whereas a diary isn’t supposed to.

Love, Nina is a wonderful example of an epistolary memoir. In the early 80s, Nina Stibbe became nanny to a literary household, with two boys aged around 10 and 11, and a dryly witty writer mother. Various friends, including Alan Bennett, add their two cents to dinnertime conversation, which Nina reports verbatim in her letters to her sister in Leicester.

By page 17 I knew this was going to be one of my favourite books ever, so rushed to 1-click it on Amazon and had it delivered to all my devices, although I also want a hard copy to lend to friends. This book is, like The Rosie Project, one of my big laugh-out-loud favourite books this year. The Rosie Effect, which I am reading on my Kindle app on my phone while I exercise on the treadmill at the gym (it’s ok, everyone else is wearing earphones so they can’t hear me laughing) is another one but as it’s a sequel of The Rosie Project perhaps doesn’t count.

It helps if you can hear an English accent while you read. London/Estuary accent for most of them, and Northern for Nina (I can’t conjure up a Midlands accent, even in my head, so figure Northern is the next best). And sometimes cockney, especially this part:

“The best bit was when we went into an antique shop and Misty picked up a pickle fork with a pretty green jewel on the end.

“How much is this pickle fork?” she asked the antique man.

The man said it wasn’t a pickle fork but a runcible spoon.

Misty: What’s a runcible spoon?

Man: One of them in your hand.

Misty: But what’s it for?

Man: Pickles and such.”

When I read this exchange I heard the voice of Mike, my cockney co-worker at a jewellery store in London. It’s exactly the kind of thing he would say, too, which I suppose is why he was in the basement doing all the shipping/receiving instead of being on the floor selling silver shooter cups to punters like the rest of us.

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s wonderful, I hope you read it.

 

 

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Being Thankful, in Canada

Canadian Thanksgiving is organized so well. It’s the first weekend in October, so it kicks off the season with a big turkey dinner, which we eat happily, knowing we won’t be having turkey again for another two and a half months. In America, Thanksgiving is so close to Christmas that the leftover from the first holiday could almost furnish the next holiday’s meal. My husband doesn’t particularly care for turkey, so he’s thankful for the larger gap we have up north. Actually, we didn’t even have turkey on Thanksgiving. My mother is in Bermuda and she took her turkey dinner know-how with her. We had friends round and had fun snacking on appies, like an apple and goat cheese pizza that turned out better than I’d anticipated. I’m thankful for that!

I’m also thankful my sister’s family survived Hurricane Faye, which hit Bermuda with terrifying force. The home videos were scary, although they would have been scarier if there wasn’t laughter in the background. Their house is situated in a very sheltered location so they were quite sanguine. I’m thankful for that too.

Being thankful is on my mind as I recently watched About Time, which is one of those movies that reminds you to appreciate life. I’m also reading The Orenda by Joseph Boyden and oh my god I’m thankful I live in these times and this place and not the time and place in the novel. And here in the first world we do need to remember our many blessings and stop complaining about all our first world problems. One of our chefs is leaving and tonight he made the most beautiful, seasonal omakase meal for our family. I ate so much I’m going to have heartburn later. See? First world problem.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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After a long hiatus…

I have not abandoned my blog. I’ve just taken a bit of time to…well, to collapse inward a bit and not shout out to the universe. (I’ve been reading everyone else’s blogs instead.) This is just an update, although there is a recipe at the end.

I think one of my last posts was my eulogy for my maternal grandmother, who died on Christmas Eve. In April, my paternal grandmother died also, after a stroke. So it’s been a sad year and I’ve taken some time to think about things and also to switch off and escape into books when I can. I’ve discovered that I’m an introvert – instead of just periodically antisocial – and although it’s a relief to know that this is “normal” I think that the recognition of my personality type has made my introversion stronger. More on that later.

I’m still reading, still cooking, still getting outraged at some of the things that go on in this world and also at some of the things that go on in the restaurants we own. More on that later.

Good things have happened also, such as the May birth of my new nephew in Bermuda. He is a real gift from the universe and we absolutely adore him. I miss having babies and it’s been wonderful to spend time with a baby again. Even the poo! It’s all good. I remember when I lived in Malaysia and I had friends who had babies.  They would be surprised when strangers wanted to touch their baby. We’d be all, Oh my god, but now I get it. Everyone with older children misses babies. No wonder people hanker after grandchildren. Not me, my kids are 8 and 10, but some people. I’m sure I will hanker when my time comes. In 20 years or so! In the meantime I have to visit Bermuda in order to spend time with my enchanting, yummy, tiny bear of a nephew.

And books. Books books books thank you god. When times are rough I escape into the worlds that writers create and bless those writers. I think books have saved me from going completely mental sometimes. I’ve now read too many to review but will try to list my favourites. Also, is it just me, or are some e-books expurgated? I downloaded James Clavell’s Shogun because I just enjoy it so much, but I’m certain there are passages missing. I know because I took Shogun backpacking (in 1992) and re-read it many times and have also reread it periodically ever since, like The Lord of the Rings. I know, my nerd is showing. Anyway, here’s the thing: the downloaded version is definitely missing some passages. Cue gasp. More on books later.

Still playing the piano, although I have trouble finding pieces that fit my criterion. I want pieces I love to hear, that aren’t too easy, that aren’t too hard, and that provide enough emotional energy to  serve as an outlet for all the frustrations and passions of life. Like hockey does for my husband. So, Beethoven is good because I love Beethoven and also there’s lots of crashing about that relieves my pent-up feelings. Debussy, while I love to hear it when someone else plays, I find too soft and mellow for my needs. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue (arranged for piano) has been awesome in that respect although I wish I had an actual organ with which to terrorize the neighbourhood. Big chords, lots of tricky runs that require hard work, and, it’s frequently punctuated with tempestuous double-forte climaxes. Baroque multiple orgasm, who knew?

Food? Still love food although I haven’t posted recipes in ages. I’ve got my hands on the Sobo Cookbook (Sobo is a restaurant in Tofino, BC and the food is memorable) and am about to start cooking some of Lisa Ahier’s remarkable dishes. Will keep you posted on that.

Here’s the recipe and it comes from my husband Justin: dip cucumber chunks in Sriracha chili sauce! I tried this combination cautiously because I can’t take too much spice but it is amazing! Super tasty, salty and spicy and juicy and crunchy and cool. And then spicy again. Sorry, not a major recipe, but I hope it was worth reading through this post.

More later….

 

 

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The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

I’m so far behind on book reviews….for some reason book reviews are really dominating my blog. At some point soon I’ll try to get back to other topics but for now, here’s another book review:

headmasters-cover-US-220wideVincent Lam grabbed everybody’s attention by winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006 with his book Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. I was not actually able to get heavily into this book (my fault, clearly), but when I saw The Headmaster’s Wager at the library I picked it up. I found the premise very intriguing and as soon as I started reading knew I was reading something wonderful that was nevertheless going to devastate me. It takes place in Saigon and Cholon during the Vietnam War, so that’s a rather a giveaway.

In 1994, my husband and I moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for his job. While there I began to read books about the history of the region and became interested in the Chinese Diaspora. There’s a great book called Sons of the Yellow Emperor by Lynn Pan that traces the emigration of millions of Chinese across the globe. I also read about how the Chinese became scapegoats for nationalists in South East Asia in the ’60s. Chinese were victimized wholesale in Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries that were looking for external enemies in their drive for self determination, even though the Chinese had been there for generations and had contributed significantly to those countries’ economies. In Indonesia, Chinese-owned businesses were appropriated, but when the Indonesians had trouble running them, the Chinese were quietly asked back. In Malaysia, the bumiputra laws ensure that every corporation has to have a certain percentage of Malay directors, but when I was there, it was common knowledge that the Malays often sold their seats on the board to Chinese. Racism in Malaysia was institutionalized in the bumiputra laws which were enacted in the 1970s. These laws led to an increase of Malays in the middle class, but marginalized other races such as the Chinese and Indian Malaysians. There was a saying that if you were Malay, you could get into university with a 60% average; if Chinese, you’d need 90%, and if Indian, you’d need to be Einstein. I remember meeting privileged Malay kids at parties and was always disgusted by their attitudes of entitlement, knowing that it was these unfair and unearned advantages that allowed their parents to send them abroad to school and spoil them (not that there aren’t entitled kids everywhere). A lot of Malaysians also had lots of deep-seated insecurities that they masked with arrogance, because at some level they knew what was what. When I was writing for local magazines I got to know the people who were running volunteer organizations and it wasn’t usually the Malays (mind you, there weren’t a lot of Chinese tai tais there either). Most of the volunteers I met were Malaysian Indians who were concerned with social injustice and inequality, and worked hard to alleviate the problems of Malaysian life. Now, I am wildly generalizing here; I also met a brilliant female Malay lawyer who worked for women’s rights. (Now, would she have arrived at that position if she hadn’t had “unfair” advantages? Hmm.) Overall, I found the institutionalized racism detrimental to Malay society and it also lessened my respect for that country’s government. Here in Canada we have laws and programs to give advantages to First Nations communities, but again it’s a racist policy that I’m not sure is achieving its goals. I think these policies infantilize people and unless carefully policed lead to corruption.

Wow, what a rant!

Anyway – in Vincent Lam’s book, it becomes clear that it wasn’t easy to be Chinese in Vietnam in in the 1960s either. The South Vietnamese were becoming nationalistic, and the Viet Cong also targeted “foreigners” on assassination lists. Talk about a rock and a hard place. The issue of half-French children also comes up, as the headmaster, who is quite Chinese-centric and has sent his son to China (not knowing the situation there) to avoid the Vietnamese draft, falls in love with a half-French, half-Vietnamese girl and has a child with her. As it becomes clear that Saigon will fall and as Chinese and foreigners flee the country, the headmaster becomes anxious to send his girlfriend and son out of the country; their foreignness is stamped on their faces. I visited Vietnam in 1997 and remembered reading about the Vietnamese hatred of mixed-race children, so I was mildly worried about showing my half-Japanese self there. I needn’t have; the only remark I had was in the hotel and it was more a compliment than anything else. But after the war, mixed race children were victimized by the Viet Cong. Here in Vancouver, mixed race kids are everywhere and I make a facetious prediction that one day most of the world will look like us. But until very recently, being mixed race, or “Eurasian” was a stigma. Han Suyin, who had a Chinese father and Belgian mother, talks a lot about the difficulty of being half-European and half-Asian in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Her excellent autobiographical series (The Crippled Tree, A Mortal Flower, Birdless Summer, My House Has Two Doors, and Phoenix Harvest) contains many incidents that prove this. Because of colonization, there was always a wrong-side-of-the-sheets association with Eurasian children, and even the word “Eurasian” was considered a dirty word by the British of the Raj. So the headmaster’s story spoke personally to me on many levels.

The writing is the kind where even if nothing happens, the sentences flow so beautifully that it’s a pleasure to read them, but lots happens in this novel. I don’t want to give a lot away; I want you to read it. Be prepared to stay up late a few nights and to require some “digesting” time afterwards. It’s worth it.

(If you are interested in Chinese history, Han Suyin’s autobiographical series is hard to beat. My favorites are Birdless Summer and My House Has Two Doors. She really is one of my heroes; if my husband had allowed it, I would have named one of my daughters Suyin. In the 193os, she responded to the misery she saw around her in China, and studied to become a midwife. She adopted an orphan girl and wound up with her diplomatic husband in London, where she left her husband and, supporting her young daughter, studied to become a doctor. So not just a woman, but also half-Asian, and she braved the racism and misogyny of 1930s London to become a doctor! Her independence and strength of character are inspiring. Her experiences in Hong Kong and her love affair with a British photojournalist resulted in her book Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing which made her a household name, especially after the book was made into a movie.)

I’m going to go back to Bloodletting as I’m sure I didn’t try hard enough there. This sometimes happens, especially when I have a huge stack to get through. It took me 3 tries to get into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. All that stuff about Mikael’s court case, blah. But it was worth it! So I’m going to get Bloodletting and also Lam’s book about the flu pandemic.

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A Eulogy for Grandma

We had a very different Christmas this year and I haven’t been able to post anything, despite having read many books. I’ll try to post on those later. The reason is that my mother’s mother, my Grandma Sugiyama, passed away on Christmas Eve. She had a fall on the 20th of December that fractured her pelvis and back, and she was in hospital. During the night on the 23rd of December she suffered a stroke that left her non-responsive on the 24th, and that afternoon she died. We were all saddened by her departure, yet relieved that she would not suffer. I’ve been in a bit of a shocked state because I think I believed she was eternal, even though she was 94 and getting frailer each time I saw her. She had dementia and wasn’t really enjoying life. She couldn’t read, couldn’t even enjoy a TV show because her short-term memory didn’t allow her to retain a plot line. My grief for her – really for myself – is making me so tired. We held the funeral yesterday and I gave the eulogy. I thought I’d share it here for those friends whom I haven’t managed to tell. I couldn’t tell anyone – not at Christmas. But this is my news, and my eulogy for my Grandma. I’ve edited it a bit because I wrote it to read out:

My grandmother, Susan Sugiyama, was a woman I would like to honor today with my memories of her. I was lucky enough to be the only grandchild with whom she had a close relationship. I was the eldest, born at least 7 years before the next grandchild, so I commanded her attention, plus she was a fairly young grandmother with lots of energy for a young child. By the time my sister Erin and our cousins Christa and Michael came along, she was older and had suffered the loss of my gentle grandfather, Hideo Sugiyama. She looked after me a lot when I was young and my mother was establishing her career; I have very fond memories of the time I spent with her. With me, she was always kind and patient. She had a sense of the ridiculous and was always ready to laugh over anything silly.

A lot of the Japanese culture that I retain, as a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, came from her. She taught me a Japanese children’s song; although I couldn’t understand the words, I loved singing with her. She kept ikura, which is salmon roe, in Imperial margarine tubs and made me special meals. She also boiled shiitake mushrooms which doesn’t smell good to kids and to this day I can’t eat shiitake. (You take the good, you take the bad.) She took me to church with her, to the Japanese United Church on Victoria Drive, where I met other children with similar backgrounds, and ate homemade udon noodles at the church bazaars. On New Year’s Day she would make a special meal for everyone, with futomaki and the inevitable chow mein that is de rigeur at every Japanese Canadian family meal.

When I was 9 our family took a trip to Hawaii and Grandma came along. We shared a hotel room, and as we both got up early, we walked the beach at Waikiki every morning and then Grandma took me to a cafe for breakfast, a different one every day. To this day, coconut syrup and guava juice means Waikiki Breakfast with Grandma.   I was reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time, and Grandma allowed me to chatter to her nonstop about this landmark book which she hadn’t read. She fixed my hair with gentle hands. Even though she was not physically demonstrative, we shared hugs and held hands when we walked around Honolulu. I believe that I enjoyed a tenderness from her that her own daughters perhaps did not get; she was  dedicated to protecting them, and her war experiences made her fierce in her protectiveness.

My grandmother was shaped by her historical context. In 1915, her mother came to Canada as a picture bride. Grandma was born in 1919, in Steveston. She grew up in Deep Bay, on Vancouver Island, where her father was a fisherman, ranging as far as the Alaskan Panhandle on his small boat. There was no high school in Deep Bay, so Grandma finished school at 13 and began to help her family on the fishing boat, in the cannery, and also working berry picking and farming. As a young woman, she came to Vancouver, to attend sewing school.

Then the war. With the outbreak of war with Japan, like others in the Japanese Canadian community she was sent with her father, her mother and her younger brother Sid, to a prison camp for the duration of the war. In Grandma’s case, this was Lillooet. They did manage to avoid the holding pens of the Exhibition grounds where so many were forced to live in horse stalls; on arrival they lost themselves in the crowds and fled to Steveston where they took refuge with their friends the Arakis before the inevitable removal by train to the interior.

Life in internment camp was very hard; the sense of being shamed, set apart and treated unfairly was, I think, almost worse. The blow to Grandma’s sense of self-worth was hard to recover from. After all, she and her community had been unfairly victimized for nothing more than their ethnicity. It’s difficult today to fully comprehend the pain of this experience, and how it affected our community. In many ways the community was destroyed; we dispersed to all parts of Canada, many reluctant to return to the coast where they felt betrayed by their neighbours. Individually, people suffered immensely. My grandmother spent one winter living on potatoes, taking shelter in a tent. Her family was drastically set back by the confiscation of all their property. The Japanese expression “shoganai” means something like “it can’t be helped”; it’s a verbal shrug and is often invoked to describe a traditional resignation and acceptance of fate, an attitude in Japanese culture which allowed them to move on with their lives.

I didn’t hear my grandmother say “shoganai.” She didn’t speak of the internment at all to me. That tells me the depths of her distress about her experience. I think it was a chapter of her life that she wanted to forget and erase as much as possible.

I think that she became a fighter, for herself and for her family. From Lillooet she moved with her family to Kamloops, where she met my grandfather, and they married in 1944. My aunt Judy was born in Kamloops, my mother in Revelstoke, and my aunt Esther in Vernon, and the family made its way back to Vancouver in 1950, when the Canadian government allowed Japanese Canadians back to the coast, four years after the end of the war. They had to start from scratch; my mother remembers a cabin with dirt floors. Grandma and Grandpa set up a corner store in east Vancouver, which they kept open long hours. They worked hard and their daughters had good educations. They stayed in business until 1973, when Grandpa’s health forced his retirement. He died in 1977 of a respiratory disease, shortly after the birth of my sister Erin. After grandpa died, Grandma began to travel and explore the world. She traveled Europe, South East Asia and Japan, and made many trips to the U.S. also.

Grandma was an expert seamstress and sewed clothing for her family. She loved nice shoes and clothes and was always well turned out. She taught her daughters to dress nicely and I think I can attribute some of my dress sense to my put-together grandmother. She cultivated refinement in her surroundings and her person. She was an expert in Japanese flower arranging and traveled with a bolt cutter and hatchet which she used to glean good specimens for her arrangements. I think that it would have been easy to sink into depression after the internment, or to be consumed with resentment and bitterness. But Grandma, who I never heard say shoganai, nevertheless lived shoganai, working hard to move on with her life and to leave the past behind. Her life was not easy and I think to be a mother fighting for your family’s survival is difficult for your immediate relationships;  but even after all that hardship and strife, there was enough softness left inside to give to her granddaughter.

So to me, she was an indulgent and fond grandmother. I never heard a word of bitterness or complaint from her. She showed me much love and kindness. She showed me patience. She taught me how to wash rice for cooking; she told me that every grain lost was a day lost from my life! Well, she lived 94 years so you know Grandma didn’t waste rice.

As Grandma lost her memory these last few years, she often mistook my daughter Mio for me; it took her a while sometimes to connect the adult I am now with the child she used to take care of. These memories of our time together I hope she retained. I certainly will. But if she lost them, then I can only hope that she lost, too, the bitter memories of wartime and the hard years of struggle afterwards.

Our last conversation was about Japan. We visited her in hospital and I showed her pictures of my family’s trip there in October and she reminisced about her last trip. I can’t say for sure what her memory and consciousness were allowing her to experience, but I’d like to think that we made one last connection before she left us. She had developed a tendency to remember and talk in loops of repeating information, but we were kind of on the same track. A few days later, her daughters were with her when she passed; I hope she felt their presence, their love and loyalty to her. I hope we always remember her strength and fortitude, her love of beauty and her keen aesthetic sense, her kindness and love for her family. As a beneficiary of that love and of Grandma’s legacy, I am grateful.

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Christmas looms but there’s still time to read a few more good books

I’ve done all my Christmas shopping so I’m taking a minute to do a quick post, but the books I’ve read lately that I felt were noteworthy had to go back to the library!

(I know authors love to hear that. Not. Honestly, I would love to buy every book I read but a) I can’t afford it and b) there’s no room in my house for more books.)

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Lionel Shriver is a totally fearless writer and in this book she tackles the issue of obesity. The main character’s brother comes for a visit and has put on so much weight he’s unrecognizable. He’s become an obsessive eater, much to the alarm of his sister and her family. He actually breaks handmade furniture with his bulk. Shriver looks at the root causes of this character’s obesity and makes links to depression, the dangers of peaking too early, and self-worth. There were great paragraphs about youthful entitlement that I wanted to quote but I already owed the library major late fees. I actually don’t mind paying money to the library; I figure it’s going to a fantastic public service that I’m happy to support.

The Gates, The Infernals and The Creeps, by John Connolly. This trilogy is actually YA fiction, but I enjoyed it mightily. I’m a Christopher Moore fan, and John Connolly is essentially a British Christopher Moore. Basically, a Hadron collider opens a wormhole between Hell and a small village in England. Mayhem ensues. It’s very fun and witty, and I was reading bits out to my sister that made us laugh out loud and now she’s reading the series.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Book Reviews in brief: The Golem and the Jinni, The Abominable, etc.

I have powered through a pile of library books and some, in fact most, have been absolutely wonderful. I’d like to say I bought them all but I can’t afford my own reading habit. There are some books I will buy for my Reader and then I hoard them for holidays and for reading on the elliptical machine. Right now Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam and Bill Bryson’s One Summer are on the Reader for when we go to Hawaii. Also G.J. Meyer’s history of World War I, A World Undone. Remember him? He wrote about the Borgias and the Tudors and I am a fan. But I thought I’d quickly run through some of the fabulous books that have kept me reading late into the night….

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. GolemI didn’t know what to expect from this book but from the first paragraph I was totally mesmerized and neglected my work and family so I could finish it. I think everybody’s enjoying this book because it took AGES to get from the library. I love stories about magical creatures finding their way in our world and in this novel a golem and a jinni find themselves in New York City circa 1910. I was rhapsodizing about this book to anyone who would listen, forcing my husband to look up from the sports pages, and found that I had to explain what a golem was quite a few times. I guess everyone hasn’t read Marge Piercy’s amazing book He She and It, and if you haven’t you should. Its main point is the immorality of creating a self-aware intelligent being for your own purposes and denying its right to its own life. In Piercy’s story a futuristic self-aware robot is created for the defense of a community, yet it has its own needs and desires. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the golem of Prague, the clay man brought to life by a rabbi who also desires to protect his community. In Wecker’s book, the golem’s master dies within hours of bringing her to life and she arrives in New York masterless. Wecker just takes it from there and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Ms. Wecker, and please get right to work on your next novel. I’ll buy it.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. On the theme of intelligent self-aware beings, this book is about the fallout when a family that has adopted a chimp is forced to give her up. I heard today that there is a lawsuit in the United States being filed on behalf of a male chimp named, I believe, Tommy, which is interesting as it argues Tommy’s rights as a person, so the whole issue of personhood will soon be wrangled in the courts. This book is gripping and made me remember the films from Psych 101 with the signing gorillas and chimps. I didn’t really consider what would happen if one of them threw a grad student into a wall. If you raise an ape with a human family, they believe they are human. To then – even though it’s clearly necessary for everyone’s safety – send them to an ape research facility is incredibly cruel. It’s hard to believe that smart people like psychology professors don’t see the eventuality looming, but there you go. Fowler’s previous book, The Jane Austen Book Club, was a good read but this one blew me away. I needed to take a break after I read it so I could properly process and then I told the whole story to Justin. It’s ok, he wasn’t going to read it anyway. I’d love it if he would read more fiction, but you know. Horse, water, drink.

3. The Abominable by Dan Simmons. I just love books about climbing, even though you would never get me near a mountain. I’m fascinated by the thought processes of people who can’t wait to endanger their own lives and those of others in this totally unnecessary physical feat. Into Thin Air? Awesome, and it got me started on this genre. Abominable The Abominable is a novel about climbers in the 1920s and has a great spy-novel-ish plot. There are lots of minutely detailed descriptions of climbing that made my eyes glaze over a few times, but overall it’s great fun to read. It’s even more fun if you read it with Google Earth by your side so you can look up the Matterhorn and the Eiger and say knowledgeably, “Yeah, that north face does look pretty tough,” from your warm and cozy bed.

4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. I put off reading this book because it was about the Balkans and everything I’ve read about the Balkans has been devastating. Then the due date loomed and I was forced to and I was glad I did. This book is, unsurprisingly, devastating but it’s a very good read nonetheless. It’s one of those “small world” plots in which the main characters’ stories are entangled together but they don’t know it and the reader gets to put it all together. Layers of tragedy and irony. Cue the dolorous minor-key Chopin Nocturne.

5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s books are just pure fun. My seven-year-old watches a good movie with wide eyes and a big smile on her face (it’s hilarious) and that’s what I look like when I read Neil Gaiman. I think I’ve already established myself as a fan in a previous blog post. I love it when characters from our world encounter some alternate reality and are going along with the quest or whatever but their internal thoughts are, essentially, “WTF!” That’s so fun.

6. The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. WeightofWater Another devastating tragedy, but beautifully written and so worth staying up late to finish. You know it’s well written when even though you know where this is going you still read on and on because every word is worth savouring. Then you get to the end and it’s heartbreaking but you knew it was going to be. It’s like watching a car crash. Horrid but it gets your attention. Let me start you off: A couple from Ann Arbor move to India after their 7-year-old son dies of meningitis. That’s just the beginning and it gets even more tragic. And it’s set in India, so cultural misunderstandings just make matters worse. But it’s so good.

OK, it’s bedtime and I have to make sure the kids’ light is off. (They’re allowed to read until 9.)

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