Category Archives: Book Club

“North of Normal”: stranger than fiction

It;s hard to fathom that Cea Sunrise Person’s memoir North of Normal is real life. Her experiences are very real. I couldn’t put the book down because I had no idea what would happen next. What more could happen? How could something else change? What more could be changed? Person writes with clarity, grace, and feeling.]

Cea Sunrise Person grows up during a unique time in American/Canadian history. When I told my Mom and Dad the premise of the memoir, my Dad replied, “Was this in the ’70s?” He knew. Then I remembered…I have inherited my Dad’s Valdy record collection. He knew.

One of the most striking ideas that hit me as I was reading was the resilience, trust, and then determination of Cea. She lived through some intense, painful, wonderful, gut-wrenching, terrifying, beautiful experiences. On her website, Person has a few Q&A videos. She knew as she was living her life that it was extraordinary. Yet she talks about her shame. Shame in being different. Even as a teen, she realized that she had a story to tell that people would want to read. I can’t help but think of the idea that sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. One of the most moving moments in her first video on her website is that she wanted to tell her story for her Mom, who was suffering with caner.

Writing to deal with and overcome the past. That is what she was seeking: trying to understand her own life by exploring her past.


Persons writes a lot about her grandfather, Papa Dick. It was Pap Dick’s idea to move to the wilderness to get off of the grid and to experience the simple life. One of the phrases that stood out to me and stuck with me is what Papa Dick says to Cea: “Welcome this, for life lessons come by experiences and not by chatter” (Pg 120). I realize that in Person’s situation that a lot of what she experienced is abuse. Yet I this phrase stands out: how do we live and learn? By living.

I hope that Person’s life has settled and that she has found peace and forgiveness. I am grateful that she shared her story.


“All My Puny Sorrows”: just listen

I bought All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews with a good friend at the CBC Calgary Reads Book Sale months ago and was happy to have my book club choose this as our Fall book. I missed reading A Complicated Kindness, but now I’m curious because I loved All My Puny Sorrows.



This book follows the life experiences of Yolandi and how she lives with the sorrow of seeing her sister Elfrieda struggle with life. I like the tag line of the review in the Globe and Mail: “a funny novel honouring deep sadness.” That’s exactly it. Honouring deep sadness.

Mental health is something that is part of my everyday life. In the last few years, I’ve had several friends suffer and survive with mental illnesses. It’s so hard to watch the people you love suffer and the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. This is why I needed to read Toew’s novel: I needed to acknowledge the sadness of having my friends no longer in my life in the same way. My heart friends, women who have become part of my soul and life, are unwell and it hurts my heart that they are suffering. Yet, we still have memories of past adventures, current check-ins to talk about the frivolity of cat videos, and the hope for future conversations and adventures.

Throughout the novel, Yolandi, our narrator, helps her concert-pianist older-sister through a bout of dark depression and suicide. While in the hospital, we get flashbacks to the girls growing up. Rebelling against the rules of their strict community upbringing. Spraying graffiti and burning buildings. These two girls shared so many secrets and thoughtful moments. Through her thoughts and hopes, we see the pain of seeing a sibling suffer without being able to reach them. Although Yolandi does what she can to support her sister by being present, by listening, and by caring, we still see the deep sorrow of not being able to fully reach another human, reach to their soul and share the pain with them.



Reading this novel has helped me to better understand my friends and my role in loving them while they fight.

Yet it’s not all darkness and sorrow. Toews’ has a great sense of humour and that is what kept me reading the novel. At one point in the novel, she writse about the trials of shaving one’s legs. In a conversation with one of Yolandi’s lovers, she writes their conversation about body hair:

“He jokes in broken English that he is not quite fully evolved and I tell him that I admire him for not burning it or ripping it all away like North Americans who are terrified of hair and fur in general. Body hair is the final frontier in the fight for the liberation of women” (Pg 62).

Toews writes about a subject that is hard to think about: suicide. How is it that we hold on to people who are ill far longer than they are actually present? How do we support and empathize with those closest to us who are suffering?

The greatest gift of this book is the love in the moment. It’s easy to try to solve someone’s problems and seek solutions, It’s easy to seek help for someone and hire professionals. What is hardest in life is to sit and listen. How do we every really know someone else? How do we every make connections if we want others to live what we believe is the best way to live? Being present and listening. Through the fun and the sorrow.




“Salt to the Sea”: healing through story

I was chatting with some friends recently and we were talking about the idea that after a while, there might be a burn-out of how many WWII novels and movies we can consume. What about the other wars? Or, is it that WWII has left its mark on the world and it’s something we are still trying to fully understand. There are millions of stories that we haven’t heard yet because everyone’s experience was different. During this conversation, I had just started to read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. What a great novel! And I have to say that I found it didn’t just retell the same stories I’ve heard or read before. It was something new. Terrible, yet new.



Salt to the Sea is the story of three young people caught up in the war and all trying to find hope and freedom in the docks. Thousands of people are trying to escape the Germans and Russians and end up getting onto refugee boats seeking safety. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship disaster before, but in fact I feel that I should have. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff caused more loss of life than the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic sunk because of hitting an iceberg, whereas the Wilhelm Gustloff, full of mostly women and children and injured men, was torpedoed by the Russians.

Just looking at images online was heartbreaking.











The novel is told from the point of view of four different characters. Each character has a unique story, yet they all end up seeking safety on this ship. One young man is running from the Nazis because of something he stole from a prominent Officer. One young woman is running because she is trying to be reunited with her family after being given permission to stay in Germany because of her skills as a nurse. Another younger woman is running away from both the Germans and the Russians because of her nationality. And the last young man is a German officer who is desperately trying to prove himself as courageous without actually doing anything that requires sacrifice. This cast of misfits intertwine with each other and use and help each other in order to get onto the boat.

Like all war stories, this one has a tragic ending for all involved, even those who survive the wreck. Those who survive are fortunate, yet have to live with the visions of seeing hundreds of people, fellow passengers and asylum seekers, die in the waters around them.

I can’t help but think about all of these people who survived and how they most likely spent their lives living with post-traumatic stress disorder. And not only that, but this book made me start to think about intergeneration trauma: trauma that is transmitted to next generations.

In an article in Psychology Today by Molly Castelloe, she includes this thought:

Transmission is the giving of a task. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one’s parents. A main task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family heritage and “bring its full, tragic story into social discourse.” (Fromm, xxi)

So perhaps we need stories about WWII because we aren’t finished sharing the trauma and the stories. Perhaps people like my parents, who both had fathers in WWII, need to write and produce art that still tells the stories of their parents. Perhaps a world that is afraid of another war, because Veterans from WWII and the Vietnam, Korean, and Gulf Wars, needs to share and tell stories about WWII in order to carry the trauma into the future in order to find healing. In a world that is in desperate need of healing, perhaps stories are the way to healing.



“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” -Phillip Pullman


“The Book Thief”: more love

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, was the choice of my Jr High book club.  I bought this book seven years ago when I first started teaching and never got around to reading it, so I was grateful for my club of reading fans for picking it as our book to read.  And what a book!!



It was interesting to me that in our first conversation about the book one of the students who had seen the movie adaptation said that she thought God was the narrator, not death.  This opened up a lot of conversations about death and how we talk and think about death. We thought it was interesting how much compassion death had for those he was collecting.  Throughout the novel, death repeated expresses his displeasure and distaste with humanity for the scale of work they create for him.  He reflects on how war is no longer an equal to him, but now a weapon used to destroy others completely.

As we read, the students were truly disturbed by the scenes of the Jewish prisoners being marched into Dachau, yet the approach was new and made them think about Hitler’s Germany in a different way.  They saw from the inside out what it was like for those who tried to resist: jail, concentration camps, sent to the front lines, beaten, whipped, bullied, shunned.

As death describes his work, he shows reverence for humanity and the human spirit.  He shows respect for those who live a full life and die well.  He shows compassion for those who are left behind.  He shows honour in how he perceives the importance of every single soul, even on the nights when he touches thousands of them.



I am happy to say that resilience was a word we were left talking about. Liesel, even after losing her friends and family, is able to continue on.  That ability to cope and live on was inspiring to the students in the book club.  They were devastated by the story Zusak tells and had a hard time moving beyond the cruelty of humans toward other humans.

Yet the worst part was bringing in some Canadian facts: Canadians allowed the cultural genocide of entire Nations and no one seemed to stop that (yet, we all know there are those who spoke for the trees, so to speak).

There are numerous accounts of the Canadian Government conducting experiments on students in Aboriginal residential schools: Psychic experiments, food and nutrition experiments.  Students also died in residential schools without proper records being kept.  Generations of families were broken and separated.  Thousands of children were filled with fear, shame, and guilt.  Culture, language, teachings, and stories were lost and destroyed in order for the Government to get rid of the “Indian Problem” so that they could use the land instead of sharing the land.  We, as Canadians, have a lot to see in our shared history with the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people who we share this land with.



For me The Book Thief was a new way of looking at humanity and the needless suffering we cause by being driven by our fears instead of acting always in love.  The majority of our conversations revolved around the relationships in the book and the connections people had with each out of genuine interest and love.  Walking away from this book I am left with the impression that we need to be reminded of our darkest moments so that we can see how fear and hatred thrive.  In order to live boldly in love, we need to see each other as beautiful humans and honour the beauty in all.

people are beautiful


“What we all want should look a little more like love” (Shad).

“I am haunted by humans” (Death, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).



“The Time In Between”: compelled by Book Club

The Time In Between by David Bergen is another book that I’m not sure about. I read it for my Book Club and we are meeting in a week to talk about the book and I am very interested to hear what others have to say.



I will admit that I didn’t give the book a running chance; I read Age of Hope a while ago and didn’t love Bergen’s writing style.  Although he reminds me of Carol Shields, the humour that Shields uses isn’t there in Bergen’s writing.  The book was so serious and at times felt domineering in it’s descriptions.

Bergen writes about a character suffering with depression, the haunting effects of war on soldiers’ memories, and the influence of these on a family.  There are two stories unfolding throughout the novel: the story of Charles Boatman and his daughter Ada.  The story moves from Canada to Vietnam where Ada is searching for her missing father.

I have to say that if it wasn’t for Book Club, I wouldn’t have finished this novel. That being said, I look forward to our meeting to talk about the book because I know that there will be people who loved it, people who hated it, or people who didn’t finish it. Those are the best conversations and makes people head back into the book to pull out moments of pleasure or disgust!



So on to the next book!


“She [Ada] said that she pictured their father as a mirror giving them back a reflection of themselves, and now that he was gone their reflection had vanished.  ‘And so when Dad died, part of us died too.  Or me.  Part of me died.  I feel that way.'” (Pg 258)

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)



“Half of a Yellow Sun”: unshakeable love

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was fantastic. I think I would not be cliche in calling it an epic saga. Adichie writes about Nigeria in the 1960’s, a time in Nigeria’s history where the country separated into Nigeria and Biafra.

This book was no summer breezy delight. It was more like a large steak meal that had to be savoured for the subtle details and difficult subject matter, chewed thoroughly because it was impossible to binge read, and prolonged because the characters were so real that I didn’t want the book to ever end.


I am grateful for my Book Club because without them I would never have found this novel. I am a lover of history, so this novel was such a wonderful surprise. Over the years I have enjoyed Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massey and Exodus by Leon Uris and Half of a Yellow Sun seemed to be the best of both: it had such minute details about politics and history of Nigeria and it also had such beautifully written characters that I am convinced they actually exist.

The premise of the novel is that two sisters, twins, live through Biafra’s push to be independent of Nigeria and the heartbreaking struggles they endure and the people who surround them. From the start to the surprising end, both women have faith in their ideals and their beliefs and it allows them to survive all kinds of horrors of war. Conscription, starvation, bombings, mass killings, torture, rape.


My favourite character in the novel is Olanna, one of the sisters. She is an educated woman who is not afraid to assert her power or declare her ideas. She creates a community with those around her by loving them and seeing every person as a human being. From the start of the war to the end of the war, Olanna survives and does not become bitter; she continues to love those around her and work for a better future. As we learn more about Olanna, we see that she has a fierce love for her family, even when they hurt her. She especially has a deep love for her twin sister Kainene. In a discussion about reincarnation, Olanna states, “When I come back in my next life, Kainene will be my sister” (pg 541). The strength of her love in the midst of so much hurt and sorrow and pain shows the capacity of humanity to forgive each other and see our faults as part of who we are, not all of who we are.


In the midst of chaos, confusion, and devastation, Olanna remains constant. Constant in her love, but also in her beliefs. She refuses to marry her boyfriend because she does not want to change what they have; she does not want their relationship to slowly drift. In the middle of deciding whether to marry her boyfriend Odenigbo she has a conversation with her Aunty Ifeka and her aunt’s advice is this: “‘You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?’ Aunty Ifeka said. ‘Your life belongs to you and you alone'” (pg 283). This advice strengthens Olanna and allows her to love Odenigbo yet not lose herself in the process. She becomes partners with Odenigbo and they talk and share their ideas as equals.

All this being said, Olanna is capable of doubt and fear, yet she channels that fear into action. Her experiences of unexpected bomb raids force her to see herself in the big picture and her realization motivates and mobilizes her: “The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life” (pg 351). Throughout her time in refugee camps, in cramping housing, and everywhere in between, she strives to make a difference. She shares, she offers advice, she remains faithful in the movement, and she listens to others. Her kindness is never destroyed by the bombs or the bullets. She chooses love over hate.


Adichie’s novel is full of characters who will undoubtedly worm their way into your hearts, to the point where you hold your breath waiting for them to make their way through something horrible. The emotional reaction to this novel is important because it tells the story of so many Igbo people who survived, and who did not survive, the fight for independence from British-influenced Nigeria. Not all stories end happily and the people of Biafra were not successful and were accessioned back into Nigeria after three destructive and deadly years.

As a post-colonial look at Africa, this novel was a fascinating glimpse into the aftereffects of the “Scramble for Africa,” and a history I knew nothing about. I am interested to hear what the other members of my Book Club will have to say.


“I am drawn, as a reader, to detail-drenched stories about human lives affected as much by the internal as by the external, the kind of fiction that Jane Smiley nicely describes as ‘first and foremost about how individuals fit, or don’t fit, into their social worlds.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Biafran Coat of ArmFlag

“We Were Liars”: mind games

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart. What?! If you have read the book, you know. If you have not read the book, according to the jacket cover, “If anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.”

This was another work Book Club book where the students chose it. No one predicted what the outcome would be, but now that I’ve finished reading it, all my questions along the way are finally answered.


Some of my favourite things:
-It included a map and a family tree.
-It included a few twists and turns.
-It was shocking and upsetting.
-It had rewritten Fairy Tales.
-Like any good thriller, it had clues along the way.
-I actually hated some of the characters and was disgusted by their actions.

So, well done E. Lockhart. Even if I wanted to guess and predict what the book was about, there is no way I would have gone where she went. That being said, I can’t wait to get back to work so I can talk with the Book Club about their reactions.

**SPOILER** If you wanted to read the book, stop reading this blog! 🙂

What is it about human nature that has us so fascinated with mystery and the supernatural? I think of myself and my love for the bizarre. Tim Burton movies. The X-Files. Supernatural. The Others. That idea of what happens to us after death is something that at times consumes our thoughts. I know that I believe in ghosts and spirits on earth. I’m not sure I fully understand ghosts or why I believe in them, yet it is just something that intuitively makes sense to me. So, reading We Were Liars poses a great question: are ghosts real or are they things that our minds make up?


Our minds are capable of a lot, including keeping us safe after traumatic experiences. I like to think that if We Were Liars was a movie it would be a beautiful mix between Fight Club and The Others. In the book, the main character Cadence spends an entire summer with her cousins in a beach house on her Grandfather’s East Coast island. At the end of the summer it is revealed that her cousins are dead and have been dead for two years. So, were the cousins ghosts or creations of her mind trying to protect her from the awful truth?

A group did some research on brains and how they can create ‘ghosts’:
“We show that when there is some damage to the brain or some trick played by a robot, a second representation of our body arises in a way that gets perceived by us but not as our body but as the presence of another human being. Physically this presence is already hidden inside our minds.” How bizarre! Our brains are so fascinating and it is amazing what they can do in order to shield and protect us.

That being said, I still like to believe that the spirit world is close by and that in those special thin spaces we are able to connect more closely with those we have loved and lost. And I know I’m not the only one interested in ghosts, because Canada Post has created a whole series of stamps that pay homage to the most famous ghosts of Canada.


“Dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
“Be sad, be sorry-but don’t shoulder it.” (E. Lockhart)