Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Fabulous Mo Willems Strikes Again!

Fans of Mo Willems should be very happy this fall, with three new books being published.
The first is Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, the much-anticipated sequel to the Caldecott Honor-winning book Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale. Trixie is now in Pre-K and is bringing her beloved one-of-a-kind Knuffle Bunny to class to show him off. When she gets there she finds that another girl in her class -Sonja- has THE EXACT SAME BUNNY. Bickering ensues, including a hilarious back and forth between the two girls that finally lays to rest the 'how to pronounce Knuffle' debate. For the record, Trixie pronounces it 'Kuh-nuffle'. The bunnies are confiscated and a mix-up at the end of the day results in a hilarious 2:30 a.m. rendezvous for an 'exchange of the bunnies'.

Next are the two new installments in the 'Elephant and Piggie' series of easy
readers, There is a Bird on Your Head! and I am Invited to a Party! . Poor Gerald! In 'There is a Bird On Your Head', first one bird lands on his head, then another. To make matters worse, the two birds are in love and are soon joined by one nest and three eggs. What to do? In 'I am Invited to a Party', Piggie receives her first party invitation and invites friend Gerald along too. But the invitation doesn't specify what type of party it is, so party expert Gerald and increasingly skeptical Piggie don various outfits so they are ready for any situation!
With large font, simple illustrations, colour-coded text bubbles, word repetition and hilarious situations, these books will be a hit with beginning readers. And of course, Pigeon makes an appearance on the endpapers of each book.

Speaking of the Pigeon, you might have heard that there is a new Pigeon book coming next April. The title so far is simply 'The Pigeon Wants a...'. The object of Pigeon's affection is a secret, which will be revealed to all on April 1st, 2008- Pigeon's birthday.
For those who can't get enough of Mo, check out the website This fun interactive site has a hot dog dress up game, a colouring page-of-the-month, downloadable activity sheets, information on the books and characters, teacher's guides and much more!

A Passion for Baking

A Passion for Baking is a new cookbook from Montreal author Marcy Goldman which I highly recommend. Cookbook fans will recognize from her Julia Child Award-nominated book A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking as well as her popular website, When this book appeared in a catalogue, my immediate response was 'why yes, I do have a passion for baking', followed shortly after by 'I MUST get a copy of this book as soon as possible'. Try as I might to give up carbs, I can't go more than a few weeks without getting itchy to fire up the old oven and cover my kitchen with flour.

Make sure you take the time to read the first section of the book, which is packed with Goldman's advice on ingredients and equipment. Goldman shares her trick of using shredded butter in recipes that call for softened butter, which is perfect for bakers (like me) who always forget to take the butter out of the refrigerator in advance. I've already used her shortcut to room temperature eggs and have a new wish list of baking tools and bakeware.

Next comes the over 200 recipes accompanied by 160 colour photos. There are chapters dedicated to breads, scones, muffins, cookies, squares, cakes, pies, a chapter on cooking with whole grains, and a chapter of baked goods for cooks in a hurry. I started flagging recipes to try and had to stop as I found myself marking every page! I have already tried the Blueberry-Blackberry Honey Butter-Glazed Scones and the Lemon-Yogurt-Poppy Seed Muffin recipes, which both produced excellent results.

My birthday is coming up in the next few weeks, and I've decided to make one of the cakes in this book for my family. The Italian Cream Wedding cake and the Fallen Souffle Chocolate Torte were contenders, but I've decided on 'La Diva Chocolate Cake'. Aside from the name, what convinced me that this would be the perfect cake for a chocolate lover like myself is that the cake is topped with TWO ganaches (milk chocolate & dark chocolate) and leftovers can be frozen for two to three months. Perfect for unexpected dinner guests (or late night chocolate emergencies)!

Other recipes that are on the 'need to make soon' list are 'The Skinny Jeans Cookie' (for after the birthday cake), and the Cheesecake Truffle Bombs (frozen cheesecake tidbits coated in chocolate) which would be perfect for a potluck I'm going to next month. I usually make biscotti as holiday gifts for people in my office, and now I have ten delicious-sounding new recipes to try.
This cookbook make a perfect gift for anyone who loves to bake. I know I'm going to be baking from these recipes for years to come!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Two Haunting Diaries. . .

This blog may be a bit quiet over the next two weeks - I'm heading to Europe for a vacation. First stop is Amsterdam. I've never been and one of the places I'll be heading to is the Anne Frank Museum. In preparation, I recently re-read her diaries which I hadn't looked at since I was a kid (and I'm fairly sure I read the censored version back then). It's an odd but satisfying experience to come back to a work after decades; I was struck anew by the maturity of Anne's voice and her continual optomism and complete conviction that she would be someday be a writer. I'll also be making a literary pilgrimage to 6 Gabriel Metsustraat, to look at the former home of Etty Hillesum. Her diaries and letters were reprinted a few years ago by one of my favourite publishers - Persephone Books - as An Interuupted Life: The Diaries And Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43. Etty was 27 when the diary begins, and she's almost a grown up version of Anne Frank. Reading the two back to back was uncanny at times. They both shared similar dreams of becoming a writer, were preoccupied with exploring their sexuality, the role of women in their societies, and questioning personal ideas of God, and both maintained an unflagging confidence in the essential goodness of humanity, even in the extraordinarily desperate times they were living in. Etty ended up working in Westerbork, the Dutch interim camp where the Jews (including the Frank family) were temporarily kept before being sent to the concentration camps, and her letters describing the conditions are strikingly powerful. She died in Auschwitz in November, 1943. Her writing is mesmerizing and not just as an historical record. This is from the opening entry:

"So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away. " Quite a beginning isn't it?

Later on near the end of her diary, she writes: "I have the feeling that my life is not yet finished, that it is not yet a rounded whole. A book, and what a book, in which I have got stuck half-way. I would so much like to read on." I started crying when I read that sentence.
If you are not familiar with Persephone Books, they are perhaps the most beautifully packaged imprint in the world and I've yet to read one of their titles that I didn't enjoy. All their books are trade paper, with dust jackets in a uniform silvery grey with a small cream coloured label for the title and author. The paper is also a beautiful and weighty creamy white and feels wonderful to touch. But it's really their endpapers that are stunning as they are always a reproduction of a fabric that was either from the period in which the book was written or set in. A bookmark with the design is included with each book. For Etty's diaries, Persephone chose a Bauhaus fabric manufactured by a Dutch company and designed by Otti Berger who also died in Auschwitz. Though it was no doubt created for a very different purpose, its evocation of barbed wire gives me the chills.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Brief Encounter with Coward

Hooray - a new Noel Coward play, written in 1921 and never performed has been found by a pair of scholars looking through a British Library archive. You can read more about it here. Coward is one of my favourite playwrights and I'm even a member of the Noel Coward Society although I don't do much beyond reading the newsletters as alas, most of their events either take place in London or New York. I'm hoping in my lifetime to actually attend a performance of every single one of his plays, which is probably impossible since so many are rarely revived. Still, I'm up to 12 and of course I've seen popular ones like Hay Fever and Private Lives, in many different productions. I never tire of him. This November will see the publication of the The Letters of Noel Coward and I'm already giddy with anticipation. Soulpepper is also mounting a production of Blithe Spirit later this fall, directed by Morris Panych and featuring a terrific cast including Fiona Reid, Brenda Robins and Nancy Palk. Definately catch this if you can.
I was so excited about this "new" Coward play, I spent last night watching one of my favourite movies - Brief Encounter - with its fabulous Rachmaninov score and beautifully restored by Criterion. Train stations have never been the same since. I like a themed double-bill, so I then stuck Humouresque into my DVD player. Joan Crawford falls for a younger man, played by John Garfield who is obsessed with his career as a violinist. A young Isaac Stern did the actual playing of yet another fabulous classical score that includes pieces from Carmen and Tristan and Isolde (you can guess this film doesn't end happily). You could do worse on a Friday night - two films and two concerts in one!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Master Class for Creative Writing

There are endless debates about whether or not good writing can be "taught" and numerous creative writing programmes available where you can plonk down your money and take your chances. Many fine writers have graduated from these courses and gone on to publication and fame. However, a lot of the advice usually boils down to two basic things: read an awful lot and then just get down to the actual work and discipline of writing itself. So, for any aspiring writers out there here's a great and free way to get started.
I have long been a fan of Susan Hill ever since I read her WWI novel, Strange Meeting. Recently she's turned to crime writing and I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment of her Simon Serrailler series, the last of which was Risk of Darkness. This fall, Vintage Classics is also bringing out a new edition of her novel The Woman in Black. But in addition to writing, Hill is also the publisher of the small press Long Barn Books and is married to Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells, so she knows a heck of a lot about the book business in all its various permutations. She used to publish a wonderful little literary journal/magazine called Books and Company, which I used to subscribe to and still miss. It was filled with wonderful articles about writers and the books they loved - many often sadly neglected. Hill has two blogs - one for Long Barn Books (which is wonderfully candid and informative on the realities of publishing, particularly for small presses) and her own writer's blog, where she has recently started an online creative writing course. She will periodically set certain exercises to challenge and improve both the reading and writing mind and a forum for discussion is shortly to be installed. Though the "course" has already started, it hasn't progressed too far yet, so there's plenty of time to either catch up (just read back through her archive for the assignments) or dive in with the most recent task. And unlike the fictional teacher in Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief, I very much doubt that Hill will be asking students to write a description of a piece of toast being buttered - from the toast's point of view. Her blogs are well worth a regular read, even if you aren't interested in participating in the creative writing - she muses often on the beauties of the English countryside around her home and is always recommending interesting books that she's read.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

But who's in charge of the dusting?

Bookninja has linked to this post on a blog called Curious Expeditions. It features dozens of photographs of some of the most beautiful libraries in the world - churches to the sacred religion of bibliomania. Take a look and be prepared to gasp. Or be really envious.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Coupland and Coetzee

I never thought I'd ever couple these two authors in the same sentence but the latest new novels by Douglas Coupland and Nobel prizewinner J.M. Coetzee are oddly complimentary. Thematically, both books feature men looking retrospectively at all the failures in their lives and forming connections with a woman partially through their writing. Structurally both play loose with narrative forms but in ways that are not only clever and entertaining, but also readable.
Coupland's The Gum Thief (out in Canada at the end of the month) features a group of characters who work at a Staples office supplies depot. Roger is a washed-up man in his forties who is also writing a novel called Glove Pond (an updated riff on Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), which he leaves around for Bethany, a depressed Goth-dressed co-worker, to read and comment on. Or does he? Apart from the comic digs at the inanities that accompany mindnumbingly boring retail jobs, this novel also hilariously skewers creative writing courses. One of the assignments is to write a description of a slice of toast being buttered - from the toast's point of view. Don't drink hot tea while reading the various responses to this exercise. It's not a pretty sight when it splutters out of your mouth and all over your white (of course it would be white) t-shirt. Enormous fun!
Coetzee's A Diary of a Bad Year (available in Canada in October) is a more sober reflection on life by a man (who may or may not be Coetzee himself) nicknamed SC (Senior Citizen) by Anya, the young woman he has hired as his typist. The man is a famous writer commissioned by a German publisher to write a series of essays on the state of the world for a collection called Strong Opinions. As Anya types them up, she discusses the wide-ranging topics with her boyfriend Alan, who is suspicious of the novelist's ulterior motives regarding Anya. This is a bit of a two-for-one novel, in that you get all of the essays on the top half of the pages, and then the writer's story below. Later on Anya becomes another narrator and the page is split into three. Thus I found my reading patterns constantly changing throughout the novel which is part of the point. Kudos to the typesetter! I began the first few chapters reading each page fully, encouraged by the fact that each portion of "narrative" always contained complete sentences. Then the sentences started running over to the next page, so I would read the top narrative right through to the end of the chapter and then turn back to the beginning and start the second narrative. And then the sentences ran through into the next chapter. This may sound annoying, but it really did not irritate me; it was quite fun. And of course the narratives intersect and speak to each other. Coetzee is always challenging, but worth the effort. Now if only his protogonists could find women their own age. . .

Thursday, September 6, 2007

2007 Booker shortlist

Just announced, the six books that made it to the final shortlist are:
Darkmans by Nicola Barker
The Gathering by Anne Enright
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

I'm crossing my fingers for Mister Pip although I've read good things about Darkmans and I've previously enjoyed Anne Enright's fiction, so I'll definately pick up The Gathering. I'm surprised to see McEwan on the shortlist and will be rather annoyed if he wins, only because while I enjoyed On Chesil Beach, it's a much slighter effort than either Atonement or Saturday - two books that really did deserve to win the Booker. The winner is announced on October 16th.

A Dance to the Music of Time

Anthony Powell's magnificent series of books known as A Dance to the Music of Time (available in either 12 volumes or in 4 omnibuses under Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter) is one of my all-time favourite works of literature. Chronicling the lives of four schoolboys at the end of the First World War, through the partying and politics of the 1920s and 30s, their participation in WWII and ending in the 1960s, this brilliant work could be characterized almost as a sequel to Proust's similarly ambitious In Search of Lost Time, if Proust had jumped onto a ferry, crossed the Channel and taken up British citizenship. There's even a lovely tribute to Proust in one of the later volumes and how can you resist a series that includes the aptly titled Books Do Furnish a Room? Powell examines and skewers the lives, loves and superficialities of England's ruling classes through the eyes of two outsiders - the detached, observing narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, who like Waugh's Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, is alternatively intrigued and repulsed by what he sees, and Kenneth Widmerpool, the pudgy, awkward misfit, who is constantly the butt of everyone's derision but later gets his revenge. Widmerpool is quite simply one of the most wonderfully complex and original fictional characters ever created. A Dance to the Music of Time is a big time committment but a completely absorbing and rewarding one. However, if you only have eight hours at your disposal, the DVD of the 1997 British mini-series is finally out! This is a very good adaptation with abundant opportunites for some of Britian's greatest actors to play up to their characters' eccentricities with typical aplomb. The cast is fabulous - John Gielgud, Alan Bennett, Miranda Richardson (as a terrific vamp), the very fetching James Purefoy as Nicholas and one of my favourite British actors - Simon Russell Beale - in the role of Widmerpool, a part he does brilliantly. Beautiful costumes, Oxford and stately home scenery and Noel Coward's Twentieth Century Blues - one of my favourite songs - wafting in the background; there's just nothing better than to escape into this world after a stressful day at work.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

School Daze. . .

Ah, the first day back at school. Doesn't it make you want to go out and buy some pencil crayons and a binder? If you are feeling nostalgic for compulsory afternoon naptimes, getting your first high school locker, or sitting under a tree on a beautiful campus with a great book, then the Deweys empathize. Here's a list of our favourite books set in schools.
Eleanor: Kindness is Cooler, Mrs Ruler by Margery Cuyler. I just love this picture book as it takes a typical class situation- classroom management issues – of course! where the kids could be jumping off the walls, or, better yet, put that energy to good use with a surprising great result fostered by a creative teacher!! This is ideal for any day at school – first , 100th, or last! And if you are a teacher , check out for downloadable classroom activities! Another great book for a slightly older crowd would be No Talking by Andrew Clements. This is vintage Clements – reminiscent of Frindle. This book also reflects kindness as a theme but in a grade 5 class, with girls pitted against the boys, to see which team can say the fewest words. I won’t reveal the twist at the end! It's also a great book to listen to as well as read.

Lahring: Mean Boy by Lynn Coady is a darkly funny, pitch-perfect dissection of a dysfunctional university English department (if that’s not redundant), exposing the politics, oversized egos, shifting allegiances and gradual disillusionment of previously starry-eyed undergraduates. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli captures the essence of high school and the fluidity of who and what are in and out and how the mainstream deals with eccentricity without resorting to Mean Girls superficialities. And How to Get Suspended and Influence People by Adam Selzer contains a creative, smart-mouthed kid (more fun to read about than parent) who takes on the school system by producing La Dolce Pubert, a sex education film in the manner of Fellini. Entertaining rather than edifying.

Maylin: When I was a kid, I devoured Enid Blyton's books and in particular, I loved her school series' (Malory Towers and St. Clare) where in each book her characters would move up a grade (or form), a narrative progression that I think is one of the factors in the success of Harry Potter. But my favourite was the Naughtiest Girl in the School series. It made me really want to go to an all-girls boarding school. And then I did (though I didn't board) and there was another illusion shattered. For a great high school read, one of my favourite books is Tobias Wolff's Old School. This is set in a boy's prep school in 1960, where the students compete through essay writing, to meet and spend time with their literary heroes. Robert Frost and Ayn Rand both visit the school, but it's the anticipation of Ernest Hemingway that pushes one boy too far. The writing is beautiful, and how refreshing to read about teenage boys who are passionate about literature. I could blog endlessly (and may well do so) about all the humourous campus novels in which professors endlessly bonk their graduate students, but I'm recommending Stoner by John Williams precisely because it breaks that comic mold. Instead this is a portrait of a quiet, studious man who teaches English Literature in an agarian university and falls prey to faculty politics and an unhappy home life. Okay, he too gets involved with a graduate student, but the love affair is poignant and tragic. This is a terrific novel that really explores the solitude of the academic life.

Susan: my recommendation is Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. My sister is a teacher and I gave her a copy for a birthday present a couple of years ago. She really loved it. It’s a memoir which reflects on McCourt’s teaching experiences in New York high schools and colleges.

Anne: When you feel that crispness in the air and see the subtle change in the colour of the leaves, that going back to school feeling returns once more. Who can forget the smell of pink pearl erasers and new pencils? School also reminds me of a simpler time. When I say simpler, it does not mean that people had easier lives. In some ways they were very hard indeed. I am thinking of the values and the attitudes; my favourite books about school reflect that as well as the fact that I have lived in the Canadian prairies a good portion of my life.
Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy is the story of a young teacher, just eighteen years old, who was sent to a small, poor town on the prairies to teach. The time is the 1930’s and many of the families were struggling immigrants trying to cope with a new country and the strange ways of the community around them. In this rather lonely setting, the passionate, impressionable teacher finds the challenges and attitudes frustrating and she becomes strangely attracted to one of her older male students. It is a wonderfully written book that reflects Roy’s own memories of living on the prairies as a young woman.
Why Shoot the Teacher by Max Braithwaite is also set in an isolated country school in Saskatchewan, during the Depression. The poverty is everywhere and this young teacher has to rely on the charity of the community for his food, heat and lodgings. The kids he taught were rough and tumble and the townsfolk tough and hardened. Because Max is writing from his own experiences, the story he tells is humourous, eye-opening and very entertaining. I felt I was in that drafty classroom smelling the wet wool and chalk.
I used to think the Miss Read books about teaching and living in the fictitious towns of Thrush Green and Fairacre in the Cotswold’s in England in the 40’s and 50’s were for little old ladies. A friend introduced me to these wonderful, warm stories of village life and the single woman, who as the head teacher, was at the center of village activity in these small farming communities. I have read all the 55 plus books that she has written and in fact own them all. They are wonderful books that you can pick up in moments when you just want a quiet read. The action is set around daily living and the personalities of the community and the children in the school house. You feel like they are neighbours once you get hooked. The muddy boots in the cloakroom, school lunches, the first snow flakes, Christmas parties and jumble sales. Treat yourself.

Maureen: Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. I am a sucker for the coming of age novel. This stands out as one of my favourites. Bilgewater (Marigold-you decide which is worse) is a young girl growing up in a boy's private school, facing first love and relying on poor female role models. When I first met my husband-to-be, we traded titles back and forth of our personal best reads. Bilgewater is now on his list. A very sensible man. The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I am still not sure which I like best, the book or the movie. Certainly, once seen in film, Maggie Smith becomes Jean Brodie for the reader. Maggie Smith inhabits the role so completely and perfectly. I find both the novel and the film rather uncomfortable. All of us have had teachers that have formed us in some way. Is Miss Brodie dangerous? Vulnerable? My discomfort is, as yet, undefined. Matilda by Roald Dahl. Dahl knew how to describe a child's reality. Mrs. Trunchbull is a particularly evil principal and her demise is delicious. Remember standing with your hands on top of your head through recess? Perhaps students aren't routinely whirled around a classroom by the roots of their hair. But to a persecuted child in limited control of their environment, that is WHAT SCHOOL FELT LIKE.