Erased History and a Warning for Humanity

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Did you realize that Stalin committed genocide to the scale of millions of innocent people while the Second World War was happening? I didn’t. I mean, I knew he was generally considered to be a pretty bad dude, but he helped the Allies win the war so all’s forgiven right?

This is a piece of historical fiction based on the experiences of survivors of the mass deportations that occurred in Russia before, during and long after WWII. It’s the story of a Lina, a fifteen year old girl who is taken from her home one night, along with her mother and brother and deported to Siberia. What follows is a nightmare that lasted a decade for her. The book, which is a good 300 pages, only documents the first two years of her time in prison, although the epilogue confirms that she did survive another 10  more years in the camp before being freed.

It’s a devastating story. The human suffering described is heartbreaking. The human kindness and compassion from the prisoners, strangers and occasionally guards is just as heartbreaking. My library files it in the young adult section, certainly the subject matter is hard and there is some sexual violence in it, but I really think adults should read it as well, particularly if there are young people in your life who are reading it.

Given the current political climate, I think it’s really important for us to remember what happens that the “them versus us” mentality stripes us all of our humanity. When we fail to recognize the basic humanity in other people, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be human. And history will remember that, no matter who tries to suppress it.

Last movie I watched: Karate Kid.

That’s some serious bullying there guys. Serious.

Last TV show I watched:

The Musketeers. It’s just so much fun.

A brief adventure in adult historical fiction

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Phillipa Gregory

Despite Gregory being a rather prolific writer, and my generally enjoyment of historical fiction, it’s maybe a bit surprising that I haven’t read anything else by Phillipa Gregory, not even the Other Boleyn Girl. But I was in an airport and it was on sale, so there you have it.

I actually really enjoyed it. Many people I talked to said her more recent stuff isn’t as good as the older ones, and who can blame her? She must be running out of Tudor women to give a twist to and write about. But without anything to compare it to, I really liked Three Sisters, Three Queens.

It’s the story of Henry VIII’s older sister Margret, who was married to the King of Scotland as a young teen and acted as regent for her son by him when her husband was killed. The center of the story is the dynamic of Catherine of Aragon, Margret and her younger sister Mary, three Tudor princesses who all marry kings but ultimately lead tragic lives.

What I liked most about the story was Margret’s rather annoying, petty, bratty personality. She saw her whole life as a competition against her sisters. When she is succeeding and they are not, she is smug and filled with false generosity and when they are outdoing her she resents the same behaviour. It sounds like a weird thing to really enjoy about a main character but I really liked the fact that she was filled with personality, even if it was an often dis-likable personality, and not a Mary Sue kind of princess. Also, I was ablw to read her as a very sympathetic character despite this because it seemed to me that someone so young, naive and out of touch with reality should be pitied. She was raised without any real understanding of the world – she was a symbol of Tudor power, but never a person so it’s not surprising that she mishandles every challenge she ever faces. How would she know better?

The most interesting thing about historical fiction of course is never about the history but what interests us know and what that says about who we are. I’m glad I had a bit of a reminder of that.

Last movie I watched:

Valentine’s Day. Not as good as Love Actually.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Musketeers. Such a wonderful, swashbuckling show

The other side of the Second World War

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielson

This is an amazing older children or young adult book about Berlin after the end of the Second World War. Now, previously my history on that subject is a little dicey. As I recall it went something like “And then the Allies won the war and divided up Berlin with a wall, which was eventually torn down but we’ll cover that later in the semester”. We didn’t.

Gerta’s Papa and brother cross the into West Berlin one night to see if there’s a job for Papa there, away from the censorship and depression of East Berlin. That night, the Soviets  put up a fence, cutting Gerta off from half her family. Slowly over the next few years it turns from a fence to a wall to a manned wall and an overbearing state presence that controls every part of her life. One day she sees her father watching from the other side of the wall and he’s trying to tell her something, a way to bring them all back together. But it will mean becoming an enemy of the state and risking not just her life, but her family and friends as well.

This story is an incredibly moving depiction of a young person dreaming in a world that crushes dreams. Obviously the subject matter is a little complicated and if you’re not reading it with your child or your class you should still be prepared to have a talk with your young person about the historical context and the effects of war more broadly. This is a serious story, with only the lightest touch of humour in it  but a really moving and genuine, particularly focusing on the strength of relationships between people in hard times and that keeps it from being totally depressing. Also, the writing is very on point – if you’re not feeling nervous for the whole last half, I’m not sure you’re a human.

I strongly recommend this book (seriously) and I would recommend it even if it didn’t seem quite timely, given the current political climate. In today’s context, I think it’s even more important as a study in empathy, sympathy and for its unwavering conviction that people who do bad things are not always bad people but desperate ones and that people will defend their families no matter what the risk. This power shouldn’t be underestimated.

Last movie I watched: I have no idea. It might have been Home. It might not have been.

Last TV episode I watched: Smallville. I missed the season finale for this season (8 I think). I have to say, it’s very edge of your seat excitementy.

 

 

Tiny Owly

Owly: Tiny Tales by Andy Runton

This is basically a baby chapter book (seriously, I watched a baby try to read it this morning). I’ve previously reviewed Owly and I don’t have a lot more to add to it. Owly is great for earlier readers because it’s basically a graphic novel but instead of text it’s got pictographs of sorts – mostly punctuation and the occasional picture image so it really helps teach early literacy skills to children with very little letter knowledge. There’s lots of opportunity for decoding, literacy skills like page orientation and narrative understanding without getting the frustration of letter knowledge and phonetics. Obviously it’s a stepping stone book, and your kid should grow out of it, but particularly for struggling readers, Owly is a great place to gain confidence and prepare for their future of prolific reading when at present, things are a little challenging.

Last movie I watched: Home I think. Very sweet although apparently no one’s favourite Pixar. I loved it though.

Last TV episode I watched:

Smallville. One of the things I love most about this show is how many women are on it (no tokenism here) and that they are friends with each other, not rivals (or even if they are, they’re still friends), not enemies but friends.

My first ever Korman

On the Run: Chasing the Falconers by Gordon Korman

The On the Run series is the stories of two children who’s parents were arrested for treason and they were sent to a detention farm but they know they have to escape to find a way to prove their parents are innocent. So they’re forced to become fugitives and head out on a quest, without an adult.

It’s a really short, easy read, clearly a step into chapter books kind of story. But it’s fast paced, fun and almost certainly a good choice for kids who like adventure and are looking for the chapter books that will help them move to reading at a higher level.

Lucky for them there are like 800 million Korman books, so if this makes a good impression, your kid is set for reading material until high school.

Last movie I watched:

Might have been Die Hard 2. Also might not have been.

Last TV show I watched:

A bit of the Crown. It’s really slow, but somehow completely captivating.

7 Evil Ex Boyfriends

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is another one that I read months ago. I really liked it and understood how it became such a classic. It probably won’t  be my classic, but that’s okay. I support other people’s classics too.

Also, I feel really sorry for Knives the whole time.

Last movie I watched:

Die Hard 2. Not genius but fun!

Last TV show I watched:

The first episode of the Crown. Love it.

How to start a family

Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family by Natalie D. Meisner

This thin little novel is a rare piece of nonfiction for me. It’s the true story of a lesbian couple in Canada who decide they want to have a baby, and then a baby each and then because their doctors advise them that they’re too old to wait a baby each at the same time. Thus begins their quest to find a sperm donor, successfully inseminate, get through two pregnancies and survive two labours.  It is a love story and a relationship story and an LGBTQ story and parenting story and overall a great read.

Being a true story, Meisner doesn’t hide the dirtier truths about relationships, hurt feelings, miscarriages, grief, broken promises, uncomfortable situations and generally being directionless in your adult life and that makes the book striking and interesting. I also like how comforting it is to read stories about people who are like you – struggling with where they want to be but determined to fulfill their goals, in love but vulnerable and afraid sometimes and facing the unique challenges of being a lesbian couple.

The language is beautiful, particularly Meisner’s description of her wife and their children, both born and unborn.

All around loved it.

Last movie I watched:

The end of Star Trek Beyond. It didn’t get better. I’m disappointed.

Last TV episode I watched:

One of the final ones in Supernatural season 11. So they killed God I guess?