Tag Archives: love

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving 2014

October 14.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

In previous years, Thanksgiving was a time to anticipate a tabletop filled with a traditional feast: turkey as its centrepiece, mashed potato with cranberry sauce, roasted, buttered corn, thick lasagna, a creamy potato salad, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, a little wine, and rich coffee with dessert.

But, the price to pay? A day or two in the kitchen, a potentially aggravating sit-in dinner with a few abrasive, tactless family members who are always compelled to criticize either your job, your spouse, your children, your looks, or your lack of any, and a bloated gut or terrible hangover from a few hours of enjoyable gluttony.

Thankfully, that did not happen this year.

This year, my husband and I, and our two children, rented a car for a few days, packed our bags, and travelled to Kingston, Ontario, to spend our Thanksgiving weekend with my father-in-law and mother-in-law, who we haven’t seen in a long time with our last visit to them over four years ago.

On our way, we stopped at Fairview Mall for an emergency bathroom break and happily discovered a LEGO store for the first time. My eldest son, Michael, a 10-year-old boy passionately obsessed with LEGO had a spaz attack! We spent a good half hour in the store checking out the latest box sets, admiring the coloured LEGO wall at the back, and building our own customized  mini-figures.


Michael with LEGO block at LEGO store, Fairview Mall. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Michael with LEGO block at LEGO store, Fairview Mall. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Together, we built three customized mini-figures for purchase, one meant to be a replica of my son with his medicine pouch and a weapon of choice to battle the “zombies” of the future Zombie Apocalypse; a Fairy Pie Godmother who brings pie to all LEGO-loving children of the world; and Gardenia, an avid reader, writer, and gardener:

The LEGO mini-figurines we customized on our unexpected trip to the LEGO store: Michael, The Pie Fairy Godmother, and Gardenia. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
The LEGO mini-figurines we customized on our unexpected trip to the LEGO store: Michael, The Pie Fairy Godmother, and Gardenia. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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The car ride was loud and enjoyable except for the traffic we were unfortunate enough to get stuck in while on the 401. Still, we gladly took the opportunity to stop at a service station at Trenton to have lunch before arriving to Kingston.

The kids in the car on the way to Kingston. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
The kids in the car on the way to Kingston. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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[caption id="attachment_8859" align="aligncenter" width="660"]The kids making faces in Trenton, at our On Route service station. We had Tim Horton sandwiches and soup for lunch. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved. The kids making faces in Trenton, at our On Route service station. We had Tim Horton sandwiches and soup for lunch. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Once there, it was not only a relief to finally arrive, but to see my in-laws after so many years. There were happy tears, hugs, and a thoughtful dinner waiting for us.

Mamá and Esly talking over dinner. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Mamá and Esly talking over dinner. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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While I was originally nervous about visiting them in respect to not seeing them in a number of years, but also because of the language barrier, once we arrived, their gracious hospitality and love made it so much easier to settle in—and stay.

We stayed for three days and two nights!

Each day was an opportunity for us to relax in our pyjamas, talk—really talk—and laugh, and ultimately spend quality time together as a family, which I found touching and rejuvenating.

Michael with his grandpa, Papá Ramiro—both in pyjamas. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Michael with his grandpa, Papá Ramiro—both in pyjamas. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Hugs for grandpa! Papá Ramiro and Xara after breakfast. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Hugs for grandpa! Papá Ramiro and Xara after breakfast. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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The wonderful gift of my father-in-law and mother-in-law is not only their strong, personal faith, but how their faith is alive and active in their lives. Papá, who is a retired pastor, does more than spend his time preaching empty words without consequence or validation. His advice is not only usually faith-based, but sound because he is a living testament of what he believes in. Mamá, too, lives out her faith by action, not simply words. To have spent time with them even for a little while was to be a part of God’s loving grace.

Mamá. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Mamá. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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It is so refreshing to be a part of such an open and loving family.

On the one hand, Mamá and Papá, have very little financially. They don’t desire a large home, nor a luxury car of which to boast about to friends and family. They travel about once or twice a year to El Salvador, not for a vacation for themselves, but rather an opportunity to give to the poor and needy while there. And they feel no compulsion to own “bigger and better,” worldly things. They live quite simply and are always content with what they have. But, it isn’t because they can’t afford a lavish lifestyle—it’s because their mindset does not focus on the importance of materialism as one of their priorities.

And yet, they have so much of themselves to give emotionally. They are open and direct, but without the need to be condescending, critical, or controlling. While they want what’s best for their son, me, and their grandchildren, they always speak and act with love, kindness, and understanding.

Papá and Esly spending time together talking on the balcony. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Papá and Esly spending time together talking on the balcony. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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We did not have a giant turkey for Thanksgiving or a lavish feast of any kind. Instead, we ate homemade soup with beef and vegetables, pupusas (a Salvadorean dish made of masa flour and mozzarella cheese with cortido, a cabbage, carrot, vinaigrette topping), mashed red bean, Salvadorean cheese, fried plantain with cream, and coffee and tea biscuits for dessert.

I spent some of my time braiding Mamá’s hair while the kids enjoyed running around the small apartment, and my husband helped Papá with the installation of Spanish accent shortcuts onto his computer/keyboard.

We also had the opportunity to see my brother-in-law, Eli, and visit his new home in Kingston. The kids took such a liking to his jokes and playfulness that they want to sleep over at his house next time we visit!

My brother-in-law, Eli, with Esly discussing politics at the dinner table. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
My brother-in-law, Eli, with Esly discussing politics at the dinner table. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Aside from family time, I was also able to visit the artsy core of downtown Kingston. I discovered a nice, little bookstore called, A Novel Idea, where I picked up a Montreal Book Review publication, some Kingston Writers’ promotional cards, a few bookmarks, Kingston Art buttons, and some postcards.

All in all, it was a much-needed getaway from the city, an opportunity to enjoy a long car ride and the autumn sights, to spend some quality time with my husband’s family, and to also get some stationery shopping done, as well as some letter writing to a number of my penpals.

The view overlooking the conservation site from my in-laws’ balcony. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
The view overlooking the conservation site from my in-laws’ balcony. Kingston, Ontario. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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The kids enjoying their long weekend trip to see their grandparents in Kingston. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
The kids enjoying their long weekend trip to see their grandparents in Kingston. October 2014. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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This year, Thanksgiving was so much more than about eating turkey. It was as it’s meant to be, a time for thoughtful reflection and a time for giving sincere thanks for family, friends, good food, great company, and the love and grace of God and His many blessings.

Whatever faith you may have or however differently you may celebrate, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration this past weekend! While I need not worry about a turkey gut, I’ve had my fill of other delicious foods and time well spent.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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How do you usually spend Thanksgiving?

What was most memorable about your Thanksgiving celebration this year?

If you could so something differently for next year, what would you like to do?

What are you most thankful for?

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Book Review: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

06.03.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

ruby

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Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Cynthia Bond

Format: Hardcover, 344 pages

Publisher: Hogarth

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3909-0

Pub Date: April 29, 2014

***

Summary from Publisher:

Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby, “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at,” has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. Ruby quickly winds her way into the ripe center of the city–the darkened piano bars and hidden alleyways of the Village–all the while hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother. When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, thirty-year-old Ruby Bell finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood. With the terrifying realization that she might not be strong enough to fight her way back out again, Ruby struggles to survive her memories of the town’s dark past. Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.

Full of life, exquisitely written, and suffused with the pastoral beauty of the rural South, Ruby is a transcendent novel of passion and courage. This wondrous page-turner rushes through the red dust and gossip of Main Street, to the pit fire where men swill bootleg outside Bloom’s Juke, to Celia Jennings’s kitchen where a cake is being made, yolk by yolk, that Ephram will use to try to begin again with Ruby. Utterly transfixing, with unforgettable characters, riveting suspense, and breathtaking, luminous prose, Ruby offers an unflinching portrait of man’s dark acts and the promise of the redemptive power of love.

– From Chapters Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Ruby by Cynthia Bond is a devastatingly rich, provocative, and beautifully written, haunting novel about the secret darkness that can envelop not only an individual, but infect an entire town in a story centered around two powerful characters: Ephram Jennings and Ruby Bell.

Locked together in the desolation of poverty, a dark and traumatic childhood, and the fervour of malicious gossip, Ephram and Ruby must both battle a litany of demonic forces in their lives in a small southern town called Liberty. But, liberty isn’t what they find in the struggles they come against, their histories a dark and throbbing suffering that affects their thoughts and inhibitions.

The book’s narrative is so strong and true that its testimony to realism gives the reader not only the imagination to hear the characters, but to also see and vividly imagine who they are as if in the narrative itself. The language is as beautiful as it is sharp in its edges, its poetic cadences as pastoral as the land it describes, and its heartache, and suffering as palpable as wounds themselves:

“Them lawman drag her out to that hill past Marion Lake. It musta been then they slide on they white hoods. The moon, is was nearly full and bright. From up there Neva musta been able to see her daddy’s land. All them fresh-harvested acres. Maybe that’s where she fix her eyes while Klux keep her out there for hours—doin’ what God ain’t got the muscle to look at.

Then, when they was done, out there on that hilltop, time stretch itself out like molasses. Crickets slow they crik. Owl drag her ‘hoo’s’ That’s when Sheriff Levy click the safety off that Remington Sport rifle of his—the one he brag on so, its barrel catching a piece of moon. Then each every man take his firearm to his shoulder and aim at that child. What they see through them deluxe ta’get sights they think need shootin’? Only Neva Annetta Bell. Eighteen and a half year old. Knees on the dirt. Her hope broke like water round the edges of her skirt. But them the kind use to firing into gentle things.” – p.68

Bond creates a myriad of powerful characters whose private sufferings not only adds more substance and interest to the novel, but also creates a deeper complexity to the characters themselves where judgement by the reader is not so readily made since the experiences and hardships suffered by these characters cannot entirely justify their failings, but help reiterate a better understanding of them instead.

Characters like Gubber Samuels, a man whose long history with Ephram, affords him a sentimental loyalty, yet an equally soft spine when faced with pressure from the mob of the Liberty township.

The self-taught toughness of Maggie Wilkins, protective friend of young Ruby Bell, whose tomboy haughtiness, hot-tempered anger, and fearless brawling all create and call a protective net over Ruby’s life for a time, but also danger and eventually death for Maggie, herself.

The self-entitlement, ego, and lust of Chauncy Rankin, lead him down the dark path of immorality since he was reared by example to believe that true strength can only stem from violence.

The overbearing manipulation and control of Ephram by his older, unmarried sister, Celia Jennings, whose severe self-righteousness and maternal domesticity stems from the trauma of losing, first, her father to death by the Klu Klux Klan, and then her brother who she raised as a son, to another woman against her wishes.

Reverend Jennings, whose pastoral charisma first charms Otha Daniels into a quick and deceptive marriage, sours into an unimaginable, patriarchal tyrant, a violent leader who paralyzes Otha and Ephram into distrustful subservience, frustrated fear, and further self-deprecatory introversion, only to reveal an even darker past and hypocrisy.

Ruby Bell, in which the novel is named, is Liberty’s isolated and misunderstood beauty, the granddaughter of Papa Bell, a thriving cotton farmer until the demise of his strawberry blonde daughter, Ruby’s aunt, Neva Annetta Bell, whose exceptional beauty unintentionally seduced Peter Leech, not only the Viceroy of the First National Bank, but a white man, whose physical obsession compelled him to want to leave his wife and children—and led Neva onto a hill and her eventual death after unnameable torture by 11 men of the Klu Klux Klan.

Ruby inherited the tragedy of her bloodline, its sexual violence, and corruption seeded from men’s lust for possession and power. Along with that, a maddening gift of sight that opens the door between this and the spiritual world of haints, gris-gris, and the Dybou.

And lastly, Ephram Jennings, a man of gentleness and quiet goodness, whose suffered childhood trauma does not deter him from moral strength and understanding. Though considered having castrated his manhood to the whims of his domineering sister, he is able to finally bring enough courage to walk past the emotional memory associated with the Dearing State Mental Hospital, the social degradation and hopelessness of Bloom’s Juke, to the secrets of Marion Lake and the forest on Bell Land, to finally make it to the Chinaberry Tree outside of Ruby Bell’s house filled with the filthy squalor of neglect from the hallucinatory suffering and anguish of old haunts.

The plot is as powerful as the characters who must navigate through it, with its eloquent hardship, its thoughtful realism and detail, its graphic history, and unsettling surprises and interconnectedness. It’s complexity is as rich as its lyrical narrative, traumatic obstacles, and spiritual drama. Its pacing, too, is perfect—a gradual ease into the lives of these characters, who in time come to reveal the makeup of their sordid pasts and cumulative sufferings that subsequently drive them into the darkness of themselves.

It is an exceedingly creative, abrasive, yet beautiful book, one that renders its light on the wonder and dark of the mystical, the infestation of racial hatred and crime, the audacity of sexual perversion and power, the true identity of evil and madness, and the strength of vulnerability, perseverance, and love. Ruby by Cynthia Bond is truly a magnificent book, one that will move you to contempt—and compassion.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

Language/Narrative: 5 stars

Dialogue: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 2.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

z ring - smallz ring - smallz ring - smallz ring - smallz ring - small

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Hogarth for providing me with a copy of Ruby in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

cynthia bond

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Cynthia Bond has taught writing to homeless and at-risk youth throughout Los Angeles for more than fifteen years. She attended Northwester University’s Medill School of Journalism, then moved to New York and attended the American academy of Dramatic Arts. A PEN/Rosenthal Fellow, Bond founded the Blackbird Writing Collective in 2011. At present, Bond works as a writing consultant and teaches therapeutic writing at Paradigm Malibu Adolescent Treatment Center.  A native of East Texas, she lives in Lose Angeles with her daughter.

-From novel, Ruby

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Links:

Connect with Cynthia through her Official Website.

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What do you think it really means to be righteous?

Have you read the novel, “Ruby?” Who is your favourite, most compelling character and why?

Do you believe in spirits? Why or why not?

Do you believe in mystical, occult practices?

What do you think the “Dybou” is?

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zara cat stamp

Mother’s Day Weekend

05.13.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez

The second Sunday in May is a sentimental celebration for a lot of women—the arrival of spring, the birth of better weather and the bloom of flowers, and a day to recognize and honour the gift of motherhood.

Not everyone is privileged to be a mother, but everyone is certainly born of one.

I’m blessed to be privileged of both.

If you know me personally or if you’re a keen follower of my blog, you’ll know that a key part of my identity and pride is deeply rooted in my two children, Michael and Mercedes.

M&X. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
M&X. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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But, it certainly hasn’t been an easy road to (and sometimes through) motherhood.

While most in my family highly suspected pregnancy as a reason for my “shotgun” wedding to my husband almost 13 years ago, it wasn’t actually easy for me to conceive. We had, if anything, not thought of having children until quite later in life in the plan of first fully enjoying our independence as a newly married couple. And then when my “biological clock” started ticking (and ticking loudly), my desire to have a child was as natural as it was thrilling—and frightening.

Both of my pregnancies were extremely difficult. I was told on both occasions that I had miscarried. And then in my first pregnancy, I  went into pre-term labour at a mere 25 weeks (six months), which brought upon severe complications for my son and exhaustion and hardship for myself and my husband. My little one was in hospital for three months before he could come home.

Because of the nature of my first pregnancy, I was classified as a high-risk patient and had to be under the care and keen supervision of a neonatologist. This meant more appointments, tests, and restrictions than other women throughout each trimester and a cervical suture operation in order to help carry my second baby further along in pregnancy. Even with this surgery, my daughter still came early.

But, the joy of having children far outweighs my negative experiences with having them.

My son, Michael, who is almost 10-years-old is a sensitive, caring, and extremely obedient boy. While he’s known to talk a lot, speak loudly, and be somewhat hyperactive (which can carry its own burdens)—Michael is always the first to notice others’ needs before his own and the most willing to sacrifice for others out of his depth of compassion. He’s also a keen activist for the environment, which surprised me considering his age. And he is thoughtful and extremely loving, traits I am absolutely grateful for and proud of.

(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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My daughter, Mercedes, who is almost 5-years-old is feisty, rambunctious, and self-assured, which is admirable, but can also be weary and a constant test of my patience. She is, however, extremely affectionate and tender when in the right mood and will often give me the sweetest and most thoughtful compliments when most needed. And if anything, the things she often says will just make me laugh!

(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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While mothers never stop being mothers, working hard to not only raise their children well on a daily basis, but to also advocate fiercely on their behalf, and simply loving, and enjoying who they are in the journey of parenthood—Mother’s Day is a wonderful day to focus on the gift of what it is to be a mother and to also have one.

This Mother’s Day weekend, I celebrated with my mom, my sister, and my immediate family with a quiet, but filling lunch—potluck at my parents’ house that included traditional, Filipino, celebratory dishes like rice, Pancit, Pinakbit, Lumpia, spicy chicken, salad, Dulce Neopolitan cake, and Fudge cake.

(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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And of course, Mother’s Day isn’t complete without those thoughtful gifts that you receive from your children! This year, I was really pleased to receive exceptionally creative gifts!

Xara's Mother's Day card. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Xara’s Mother’s Day card. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Xara's Mother's Day card. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Xara’s Mother’s Day card. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Mercedes who is in Junior Kindergarten and just learning to write her alphabet made me a card that says:

My Mom [is] recognizable because she loves me.

I also got a wonderfully creative paperweight from my daughter. She proudly told me:

Mama, you know what I got you for Mother’s Day? A ROCK! I painted it green so it wouldn’t be ugly. I got it outside when I was exploring and I decorated it in Craft. Do you like it? You can use if on your papers.

I love it!

My homemade paperweight from Xara. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
My homemade paperweight from Xara. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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And Michael made me a homemade frame to house a picture of himself and a candle. He also went out of his way to buy me the Jennifer Aniston perfume I liked with his own money.

He told me:

Mama, I bought you this, but Papa paid for the tax!

Yay! Now, I have a beautifully framed picture of my son that I set on my desk to remind me of him, a candle that I can light when I want to make the atmosphere more mellow, and perfume that I love (and makes me smell like Jennifer Aniston!).

Created by Michael. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Created by Michael. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Jennifer Aniston perfume from Michael. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Jennifer Aniston perfume from Michael. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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Overall, it was a quiet Mother’s Day with a trip to one of my favourite hot spots—Kariya Park—where I enjoy the tranquility and beauty of cherry blossom trees and the blessings of being a mother to two, amazing kids!

Me, at Kariya Park on Mother's Day. (c) Photo by Esly R. Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Me, at Kariya Park on Mother’s Day. (c) Photo by Esly R. Alvarez. All rights reserved.

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To all the beautiful and loving mothers out there, hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day filled with gestures to remind you of how much you are loved and appreciated.

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How do you celebrate Mother’s Day?

Are you close to your mother? How did you celebrate who she is and all she has been in your life on her special day?

Are you a mother? What do you love most about being a mom?

What did you receive for Mother’s Day? What special gestures of love did you receive on Mother’s Day?

***

zara cat stamp

Book Review: Moving Foward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo

 

05.05.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

moving forward sideways like a crab

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Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Shani Mootoo

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0-385-67622-9

Pub Date: April 29, 2014

***

Summary from the Publisher:

From the author of Cereus Blooms at Night and Valmiki’s Daughter, both nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, comes a haunting and courageous new novel. Written in vibrant, supple prose that vividly conjures both the tropical landscape of Trinidad and the muted winter cityscape of Toronto, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is a passionate eulogy to a beloved parent, and a nuanced, moving tale about the struggle to embrace the complex realities of love and family ties.

Jonathan Lewis-Adey was nine when his parents, who were raising him in a tree-lined Toronto neighbourhood, separated and his mother, Sid, vanished from his life. It was not until he was a grown man, and a promising writer with two books to his name, that Jonathan finally reconnected with his beloved parent-only to find, to his shock and dismay, that the woman he’d known as “Sid” had morphed into an elegant, courtly man named Sydney. In the decade following this discovery, Jonathan made regular pilgrimages from Toronto to visit Sydney, who now lived quietly in a well-appointed retreat in his native Trinidad. And on each visit, Jonathan struggled to overcome his confusion and anger at the choices Sydney had made, trying with increasing desperation to rediscover the parent he’d once adored inside this familiar stranger. As the novel opens, Jonathan has been summoned urgently to Trinidad where Sydney, now aged and dying, seems at last to offer him the gift he longs for: a winding story that moves forward sideways as it slowly peels away the layers of Sydney’s life. But soon it becomes clear that when and where the story will end is up to Jonathan, and it is he who must decide what to do with Sydney’s haunting legacy of love, loss, and acceptance.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo is a quiet and lucid narrative about a woman named Sidhanni Mahale who yearns to elucidate the truth behind the choice she had to make to abandon Jonathan Lewis-Adey, the son she raised and fostered with her former and long-time partner, India, of 10 years in downtown Toronto before their relationship abruptly came to an end.

In Jonathan’s personal search for the mother he lost as a child, he discovers instead that the mother he knew and remembered as “Sid,” has transformed herself physically into a man who now goes by the name, “Sydney,” and lives in his native birthplace, Trinidad.

Over a nine-year period, and then again, Jonathan returns to Sydney’s side in Trinidad as he lay aged and dying, trying to reconcile the truth of his mother’s original disappearance from not only his life, but also from her own gender from birth into a life-altering decision that ultimately changes and rectifies her sexual identity into a male one.

Much of the narrative is written in personal journal entries or letter correspondence between Sydney and his best friend and long time, secret love, Zain. The letters along with the journal entries reflect the longevity of their friendship and Sydney’s deep affection for Zain, as well as her repressed desire.

While the pacing of the novel in itself is rather slow, the narrative is sentimental and somewhat lyrical, returning often to the storytelling of a life-changing walk towards the clinic where “Sid” eventually began to undergo the process of physically changing into a man.

Much of the novel is dedicated to this journey, its struggle, its tension, its anticipation—its necessity for the main character. And in that explanation, though layered behind the backdrop of growing up and living in two very different cultural environments: Trinidad and Toronto; two opposing genders: female and male; the story which urges to tell itself is one of enduring love for a son that was let go too soon.

In this, Jonathan discovers for himself a “re-discovering” of the woman and the memory of the woman he was so attached to as a child, and the man that woman has become. Jonathan, too, discovers his own liminality, a white man who has grown up most of his life in Toronto, Canada, but whose love for his mother and her native country of Trinidad, has also greatly influenced him and has a special place for him culturally. He is of two places as much as “Sid” and/or “Sydney” is of two genders, once a woman who transitions into man.

While the plot is light with exception to the emotional trauma of Zain’s “unsolved” death by home intrusion for Sydney, much of the book is character-driven told primarily through journal reflections.

There is Sid, whose love and desire for Zain and later other women was only exemplified by what she felt was a betrayal of her own body, one that was born as a woman, but undeniably desired to be a man.

There is Zain, whose love and acceptance of Sid surpassed their geographical and cultural differences, while nurturing a lifelong friendship that perplexed, if also frustrated a number of people in their lives even though Zain herself, proclaimed by her relationships and through her marriage that she was a heterosexual.

There were Sid’s parents who were at most, perplexed by their daughter’s ambiguity, but tolerant and understanding of who she was, up until their own deaths.

There is Gita, Sid’s sister whose intolerance was made evident not only by their emotional distance, but by her inability in the end to attend her sister’s/brother’s funeral.

And also India, Jonathan’s birth mother and Sid’s former partner who had become exasperated with Sid’s slow and gradual change into masculinity and eventually decided to become partners with a man later on in life.

And Jonathan, a sensitive man whose attachment to Sid propels him to travel to Trinidad numerous times over nine years, ends up not only reconciling with Sid as a parent, but becomes the primary witness to the story behind her gender transformation, and later the primary person to perform the last rites for Sydney’s funeral.

It is overall, an introspective novel that spends a lot of time reflecting on the past, focusing on Sydney’s love for Zain and his desire to be a man. In listening to Sydney’s stories, Jonathan learns as much as made possible, the truth of Sydney’s complicated feelings as a person and her/his unrelenting love for him as a son.

***

Characters: 3 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Language/Narrative: 3.5 stars

Dialogue: 3 stars

Pacing: 3 stars

Cover Design: 3 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Doubleday Canada for providing me with a copy of Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

Shani Mootoo. (c) Photo by Martin Schwalbe.
Shani Mootoo. (c) Photo by Martin Schwalbe.

***

Shani Mootoo is the author of the novels Cereus Blooms at Night, which was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the B.C. Book Award for Fiction; He Drown She in the Sea, which was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and most recently, Valmiki’s Daughter, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Mootoo was born in Trinidad and grew up there and in Ireland. She immigrated to Vancouver two decades ago, and lives with her partner near Toronto.

– From book jacket

Links:

To learn more about Shani, you may visit her page on Wikipedia.

***

Do you know and love someone who is part of the LGBT community?

What do you think it feels like to feel “betrayed by one’s own body?”

If you read the book, “Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab” by Shani Mootoo, do you think Sid’s romantic love was reciprocated on some level by her best friend, Zain? Why or why not?

***

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Book Review: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

03.15.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

all our names***

Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

Format: Hardcover, 266 pages

Publisher: Bond Street Books

ISBN: 978-0-385-67977-0

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

***

Summary from Publisher:

 All Our Names is the story of a young man who comes of age during an African revolution, drawn from the hushed halls of his university into the intensifying clamour of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, and the path of revolution leads to almost certain destruction, he leaves behind his country and friends for America. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into the routines of small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.

– From Chapters-Indigo

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is a sombre look at the uprising during an African revolution from the eyes of a nameless and yet, multi-named man.

It is a story of two men whose friendship and love travel through the turmoil of civil unrest until the fight against government becomes so dangerous as to infiltrate their consciousness, blurring the lines between fighting for freedom and the journey toward moral corruption.

While the fight festers on, the two companions, Langston and Isaac, delve deeper and further apart—one into the crux of leadership and the pain of betrayal, the other into the safety of anonymity and the arms of a woman whose ignorance of his past keeps their relationship both at arm’s length.

The point of view interchanges between Helen and Isaac, a world recollected by sparse memory and another world of sanitized unknowing. There is conflict: political, geographical, racial, and a tone that readily maintains the mystery in the book.

While the details of the characters’ lives are not dwelt upon, the characters themselves resonate truth by the natural and revealing nuances of their narrative. The tone of the narrative is coded, bilingual in what is said and what cannot be spoken. And the tension in the novel, as well as its plot, resigns to its deep emotion.

Though the joy in the book seems muted, the story is rich and deep in feeling, even if the feelings resort to violence, deceit, self-preservation. But, the vulnerability in all main characters: Langston, Isaac, and Helen, is what bonds these characters together, as well as the strength of the book.

While its subject matter is rooted in unrest, be it political, social, or simply emotional, the story is as tender as some of its characters are naive. Or perhaps the naivety of its characters is simply a coping mechanism and/or mask to the horrors of political and social injustice, and a way in which characters may not only stay afloat, but begin again and start anew—if not with rigor, but with optimism.

Dinaw Mengestu’s Uganda is torn apart, but honoured in its epitaph of memory and for the main characters in his novel, the resounding grace and resurrection of love. Be it rich, poor, rebel, authoritarian, Ugandan, American, black, white, lover, or friend, it is at its heart a book, not necessarily about all our names—but the names we are given and the ones we choose to take.

Still, in reading this novel, Dinaw Mengestu and his richly evocative characters, by whatever names they are called, are names you will not soon forget.

***

Characters: 4 stars

Pacing: 3.5 stars

Cover Design: 2.5 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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***

A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Bond Street Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Dinaw Mengestu poses for a portrait on Monday, September 17, 2012 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Dinaw Mengestu poses for a portrait on Monday, September 17, 2012 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)

***

Dinaw Mengestu is an award-winning Ethiopian-American novelist and writer. In addition to two novels, he has written forRolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. His writing has also appeared inHarper’sThe Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. He is Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University. Since his first book was published in 2007, he has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012.

– From Wikipedia

***

Have you ever had a friend that while being so different in nature or opinion from you, was still a person who greatly influenced you and inspired you to action?

Do you believe that strong bonds in relationship can surpass time?

Do you feel you need to know someone really well in order to love him/her? Or are secrets from the past best to be left alone?

The immigrant experience can be a daunting one. As an immigrant, or one who can imagine him/herself as being one, what do you think is the most difficult about being an immigrant?

What is/are your name(s)?

If you could be named something else, what name would you choose?

***

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Book Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

03.06.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

the museum of extraordinary things

***

Category: Fiction, Magical Realism

Author: Alice Hoffman

Format: Advanced Reading Copy (ARC), 372 pages

Publisher: Scribner

ISBN: 978-1-4516-9356-0

Pub Date: February 18, 2014

***

Summary from the Publisher:

Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is as extraordinary as the contents of the museum it speaks of. And I don’t mean that as a pun. It’s a legitimate assessment. There’s enough in this book to draw from that will enrich any readers’ experience in reading it.

It is a dual story of Coralie Sardie, gifted swimmer and daughter of The Professor, ex-magician and current curator of the museum that showcases oddities and special wonders; and of (Ezekial) Eddie Cohen, former tailor and later errand boy of the streets, now a professional and passionate photographer.

The plot of the book is as intricate and intriguing as the number of people with gifts who are employed by the museum. While it is primarily a story of Coralie’s eventual rebellion and empowerment beyond the borders of her father’s ambitious and sinister control, as well as Eddie’s reconciliation with his Jewish Orthodox roots, poverty, the dichotomy between the working class and the wealthy, the death of his mother, and his strained relationship with his father—there is an underlining and haunting plot of search and rescue that stems from a fight towards work equality, and the advocacy against political and economical crime and injustice.

The narrative is richly engaging while able to stay real and genuine, even lyrical, which is usually expected with Hoffman’s wonderfully stylistic work. The depth in which Hoffman goes into revealing her characters’ histories and feelings, bridge a real connection, empathy, and likability between readers and the characters themselves. In reading this novel, Coralie and Eddie feel very much like personal friends even though they remain fictional ones.

Coralie Sardie, a young beauty, raised in isolation, is both a natural and gifted swimmer, drawn by circumstance and personal calling to the water, who becomes both by her father’s intentions and her own emotional landscape, almost a mystical creature of the Hudson River. While she has a predisposition to naive innocence, she slowly learns her own emancipation through her own, private rebellion, and the revelation of secrets behind the closed doors of her father’s study and workshop within the museum of extraordinary and sometimes frighteningly absurd things.

Eddie Cohen, an only son to an Orthodox Jewish elder, raised by a single father, to emotional grief and loss, hard labour, and an imbalance of work politics, becomes hardened by disappointment and the dichotomy between rich and poor, right and wrong. His emotional buoy is found in his discovery and fascination with the light and dark of photography. He inherits this vocation through Moses Levy, who becomes his mentor and his father-figure.

As the story unfurls, so does its mysteries: Eddie Cohen takes on an investigative role, a searcher for people and things lost. In doing so, he reveals the mystery of his own personal story, reconciling himself to his past, to his relationships, and to his faith, discovering, too, a chance at redemptive, romantic love.

The characters are as varied in the book as they are, interesting, even dual in nature, often misinterpreted or misunderstood.

The Professor, a shrewd businessman is also an illusionist driven by his compulsion to discover, recreate, and collect strange artifacts and even “stranger” people. His focus on deceiving his public as much as his focus to succeed financially and socially in the entertainment district, drives him to severe controlling tendencies and habits, irrational decisions, even unethical and immoral acts. The spiral in which The Professor travels downward, rapidly engulfs him in atrocious acts and a fervor that decapitates his mental stability, edging him further toward the path of madness.

Maureen, the obedient, but not docile mother-figure unravels a few secrets of her own, in the history of her facial scars to the irreplaceable bond she has with Coralie Sardie.

Mr. Raymond Morris, The Wolfman, while wild in physique, is highly educated in literature and the arts, and a gentleman of decorum and tenderness.

The Liveryman, ex-convict-turned-driver, has but a surprising decency and a natural love and gravitation to the language of birds.

Jacob Van der Beck, an abrasive Dutchman living on the outskirts of the city, a frustrated hermit, an avid fisherman and lover of the water, is wiser and kinder than his city folk counterparts, a witness, and an unexpected friend, able to consider and tame a wild wolf.

Mitts, a happy and loyal Pitbull, eager for friendship, trusting of strangers, and a hearty, good dog.

The theme of duplicity, of appearance demystifying expectations and stereotypes run throughout the novel from the roles the characters are expected to play to the people they really are, and the complexity of those lines, which often become blurred.

This book has not a little of everything, but a lot. While the characters are fully realized, the variety and complexity of who they are and their plight is highly creative and endearing. Though this novel reveals a sinister cruelty in its active and mysterious plot, the story at its heart is filled with drama, reconciliation, spiritual awakening, emancipation, and the conquest of love. Aside from its contextual richness, it really is a beautifully written novel.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is continual proof of Alice Hoffman’s unique gift for magical and complex storytelling.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada on behalf of  Scribner for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

alice hoffman

To find more about Alice, you can read her biography here.

Links:

You can visit Alice’s Official Website.

You can like Alice on Facebook.

You can be a fan of Alice on Goodreads.

***

If you were to be included in a Museum of Extraordinary Things, what kind of special gift do you think you’d like to have?

If you’ve read the book, who is your favourite character and why?

Even though The Professor is a flawed character, do you as a reader, feel any sympathy or empathy towards him? Why or why not?

Have you ever visited a type of “Museum of Extraordinary Things?” What did you think?

Do You Have the Heart for Valentine’s Day?

02.17.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

For a lot of people, Valentine’s can bring about a lot of angst if not sadness. Valentine’s Day for a single person or a recently-made single person can be a brutal reminder of not only singlehood, but of the pressures to be in the epiphany of couplehood and in the throes of a deeply romantic relationship.

This complex had started for me at a very young age. As much as I loved receiving a number of perforated rectangular cards with cupid bows, red hearts, and cute carton bumblebees that said silly things like, Bee Mine—yes, I was only in Junior Kindergarten—it had hurt me very deeply not to receive a Valentine’s Day card from everyone in my class.

Later, Valentine’s Day had taken on a new kind of burden. Feeling as if I was the only one amongst my friends who was not only single, but certainly singled out with a fury of condescending pity for not having a partner—any partner.

While I was relatively successful: a graduate with both a university degree and a sense of accomplishment and optimism for the future, a new job in a prolific investment firm,  and continually active in the writing community, with a number of friends of whom I had a strong relationship—I was, however, eluded by the opportunity of romance.

It was something I later learned how to accept, having dated a number of men I found mutually intelligent, artistic, amicable, even compatible, but could not muster myself to be severely passionate about. The dates seemed more of a time filler for weekend companionship, but a waiting station always for something potentially better.

couple-valentines-day

***

And so, Valentine’s Day, had always remained for me an elusive holiday, a harsh reminder of my social impediment, a missing partner much like a missing limb, something I attributed to either my poor luck or poor looks, reasons that I were later told were actually unreasonable.

But, I braved the holiday all in its red and pink verbosity, its clip-winged cupids, its heart-shaped chocolates, its over-priced flowers, and “I Love You” stuffed toys. I coped by deciding to participate in the fun, rather than be excluded by it, so I consciously wore red, gritted my teeth, bought myself some beautiful lilies, and enjoyed a beautiful meal with matching wine, and gorged on some decadent chocolate. I even went so far as to buy myself a favourite Valentine’s gift—a book of poetry.

I figured even if I wasn’t in a relationship, I could still honour the celebration of love and love for myself. A cliché? Perhaps, but the essence of Valentine’s Day thrives on that very cliché.

This year, while I’ve grown to expect some form of romantic courtship from my husband of 14 years, Valentine’s Day has lost some of its ideological lustre.

I think whether you’re single or in a partnership, the only advice I can give is to have the heart for Valentine’s Day, to take the time to reflect on relationship, your needs, your desires, and to be grateful for love in its many forms—plus to treat yourself to some indulgence even if it doesn’t include wearing red or eating chocolate hearts.

You could even go further by compassionately sharing that love with someone in need by turning the day into one of action. Perhaps that means volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting a nursing home. Perhaps it means paying a visit to a relative you haven’t seen or talked to in a number of months or years. Perhaps it means adopting a pet from an animal shelter or buying a coffee for the person behind you at a café. There are a number of ways in which Valentine’s Day can become more that an exclusive celebration of romance.

(And if Valentine’s Day wasn’t what you desired it to be this time around, you can take comfort in the reminder that February 14 will certainly come again next year!)

***

What’s the best Valentine’s Day you’ve ever had?

What’s the worst Valentine’s Day you’ve ever had?

How do you think you’d like to celebrate it next year?

***

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Writing on Wednesday: #TwitterLoveStory

02.12.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

Yesterday, the publisher Penguin Teen hosted a writing challenge on Twitter and invited tweeters to write a love story up to 140 characters including the hashtag #TwitterLoveStory in celebration of Valentine’s Day, which is coming up in only two days.

And as motivation, Penguin Teen lured tweeters to showcase their creative writing skills in exchange for a chance at winning not one book, but a package of 10!

So, of course, bibliotaphes and writers like myself jumped up to the challenge. Here are some of the Twitter Love Stories I submitted:

book heart

***

Penguin Teen hasn’t yet announced a winner for the Twitter Love Story contest, but I’m crossing my cupid’s bow at a chance for the big prize.

(If I do lose, however, at least I have chocolate.)

Be sure to come back and find out who won for best #TwitterLoveStory!

Until then, keep reading, writing—and loving.

***

What’s your best Twitter Love Story in 140 characters?

What’s the most you’ve done out of love?

***

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Book Review: All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

02.06.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

All the Broken Things

***

Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Format: Trade Paperback, 342 pages

Publisher: Random House of Canada

ISBN: 978-0-345-81352-7

Pub Date: January 14, 2014

***

Summary from Publisher:

September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Thao, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Thao keeps her hidden away, and when Bo’s not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.

One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a street fight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo–but then Gerry’s boss, Max, begins pursuing Thao with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.

 All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet

All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is a devastatingly marvellous book, a story that focuses on the unfortunate sufferings of its main character, 14-year-old Bo, a young refugee from Vietnam who lives with his highly pessimistic mother, Rose, and his violent four-year-old sister who is severely disfigured from the affects of Agent Orange.

While Bo is burdened with school and taking care of his disabled sister, the responsibilities deferred to him by his incompetent and devastated mother, he is also haunted by the defiant memory of the untimely death of his father, and what it means to be a cultural outsider.

Though he does have some people rooting for him, his happiness, and success, in the form of his teacher, Miss Lily, and mature classmate and friend, Emily, the only way he can cope with his turbulent anger and frustration is by fighting with a schoolyard bully named Ernie.

An outlet for his pent-up rage, he fights Ernie on a daily basis until he is discovered and recruited by a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, who not only befriends him, but eventually gives him his own bear cub to raise, who he names, for lack of a better word, Bear.

While he must fend off the interest of carnival owner, Max, from discovering the uniqueness of his sister, Orange, and deter and manage the depression of his mother, Rose, who is unable to hold a job, or look at, or look after the daughter who incites in her the pain of guilt and memory, Bo, takes solace from secretly training and raising Bear in the confines of his small backyard until they both become nomads in the wilderness of High Park.

The magnificent power of the book is in its quality in both plot and characterization. The plot moves readily from scene to scene, revealing the depth of its characters:

Thao Rose suffers a private anguish and shame at birthing a disfigured child, feels helpless and incompetent to care for her, and feels worthless as a refugee who tries to escape the haunt of dark and old memories—the desperate compulsion to flee her home country because of her visions of war and the imposed victimization to the deadly war toxin, Agent Orange.

Orange Blossom suffers a personal and private imprisonment both by the restriction of her physical body, her lack of verbal language, and the constraints imposed on her by her disgusted and ashamed mother who wishes to keep her hidden from the world, to keep her indoors at all times, to keep her a deep and dark secret from outsiders. Orange retaliates through violence, acting out by hitting and pummeling her brother, or throwing herself against walls and doors. She remains muted for most of the novel, a person described as hideous, and yet, most beloved by her brother, Bo.

Bo, the center of the book, is heartachingly good, a young boy who is forced to survive tragedy and left to fend for himself through the confusion of unfortunate and difficult circumstances and events in his life. Though a young boy, he is burdened with responsibility from a place of neglect, a victim of his poverty, as well as his foreignness. Rather than a child who is taken care of, he is a child who must bear the responsibility of money for his family’s livelihood, his mother’s well-being, his sister’s day-to-day needs, and then eventually Bear’s care and training.

While he succumbs to violence to dull his emotional pain, the conflict in the book is thick and raw with misfortune after misfortune, which leads him to a travelling carnival and finally to center ring. He learns quickly how to put his fighting skills into action, unafraid to face Loralei, the fighting bear, an act he also quickly learns to manipulate and manage. While this earns him some money, it also earns him an opportunity to raise his own cub, which becomes a cathartic friendship, bound by trust, as much as it is by contract and elusive tricks.

With a backdrop between a sullen and secretive home, the turbulence and oddity of a freak show in circus, and the dingy freedom of homelessness in High Park, Bo must come to terms with the disappearance of both his mother and his sister as much as the loss of his home, his homeland, and his father, a victim of Agent Orange.

The plot will unravel the cruelty of the world in its ignorance and biases, its opportunistic abuse of those in need, and the surprising outcome of the absurd.

But, the narrative is both realistic as it is personal. The reader will do more than empathize for Bo, Orange, Bear, and their circumstances, but weep for them also. The book is well-paced and will satiate the reader’s interest long enough to have him or her put the book down in order to rest from its emotional intensity.

It cries out injustice as it does education on issues such as the Vietnam war, the production of Agent Orange, and the horrific results of its exposure to victims of war. It also looks at foreignness, oddity, and the fine line between morality and entertainment in spectacle. But, it hones in on the absolute power of love, friendship, and the meaning of family and beauty.

This is an exquisite and tender novel about the need do more than survive, but to be seen and be loved—as Bo, Orange, Thao, Bear, and Gerry are in themselves—imperfect, beautiful, and even broken.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 4.5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

kathryn kuitenbrouwer

***

To learn more about Kathryn, you can visit her bio here.

Links:

You can visit Kathryn on her Official Webpage.

You can follow Kathryn on Twitter.

You can be her fan on Goodreads.

You can like her on Facebook.

***

Have you ever heard of Agent Orange before?

What do you think is the most difficult thing about being a foreigner?

How does society’s view on beauty affect those who are severely disfigured? How can we change this?

Do you agree with carnivals or circuses having “Freak Shows?” Why or why not?

How do you think Bo and Bear are alike?

If you have read, “All Things Are Broken,” what did you enjoy most about the book?

***

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Book Review: The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston

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Book Review: The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston

10.30.2013

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

son of a certain woman

***

Category: Fiction

Author: Wayne Johnston

Format: Hardcover, 444 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Alfred A. Knopf

ISBN: 978-0-345-80789-2

Pub Date: September 17, 2013

***

Summary from the Publisher:

Here comes Percy Joyce.

From one of Canada’s most acclaimed, beloved storytellers: The Son of a Certain Woman is Wayne Johnston’s funniest, sexiest novel yet, controversial in its issues, wise, generous and then some in its depiction of humanity.

Percy Joyce, born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the fifties is an outsider from childhood, set apart by a congenital disfigurement. Taunted and bullied, he is also isolated by his intelligence and wit, and his unique circumstances: an unbaptized boy raised by a single mother in a fiercely Catholic society. Soon on the cusp of teenagehood, Percy is filled with yearning, wild with hormones, and longing for what he can’t have-wanting to be let in…and let out. At the top of his wish list is his disturbingly alluring mother, Penelope, whose sex appeal fairly leaps off the page. Everyone in St. John’s lusts after her-including her sister-in-law, Medina; their paying boarder, the local chemistry teacher, Pops MacDougal; and…Percy.

Percy, Penelope, and Pops live in the Mount, home of the city’s Catholic schools and most of its clerics, none of whom are overly fond of the scandalous Joyces despite the seemingly benign protection of the Archbishop of Newfoundland himself, whose chief goal is to bring “little Percy Joyce” into the bosom of the Church by whatever means necessary. In pursuit of that goal, Brother McHugh, head of Percy’s school, sets out to uncover the truth behind what he senses to be the complicated relationships of the Joyce household. And indeed there are dark secrets to be kept hidden: Pops is in love with Penelope, but Penelope and Medina are also in love-an illegal relationship: if caught, they will be sent to the Mental, and Percy, already an outcast of society, will be left without a family.

The Son of a Certain Woman brilliantly mixes sorrow and laughter as it builds toward an unforgettable ending. Will Pops marry Penelope? Will Penelope and Medina be found out? Will Percy be lured into the Church? It is a reminder of the pain of being an outsider; of the sustaining power of love and the destructive power of hate; and of the human will to triumph.

***

Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

***

The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston, a novel longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, is a subtly shocking story of a child’s journey to young adulthood in the small and isolated town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The son of a certain woman is infamously known as Percy Joyce, the boy with a benign version of the fictional syndrome, “False Someone Syndrome (FSS),” which burdens him with dark “port wine stains” on his face and “local gigantism” where parts of his body are oversized, and in his case, his hands and his feet.

But aside from his physical “disfigurement,” he’s surrounded by two very different groups of people who hold strong, conflicting, and polar beliefs.

There are those who live with him in the privacy of 44 Bonaventure Street: his voluptuous mother, Penelope Joyce, best known for her exaggerated beauty, her hedonistic beliefs, and smart, yet sharp tongue; Medina Joyce, his illiterate, yet street-wise, masculine aunt whose fear to ride in moving cars fails to deter her from a passionate love for his mother; and Mr. MacDougal, affectionately known as “Pops,” his family’s house boarder and introverted chemistry teacher at the all-boys Catholic high school across the street, Brother Rice.

And then there are those, who, under a cloak of religiosity, work hard in influencing and eventually controlling the fate of Percy Joyce’s prodigal return to the Catholic faith from: Archbishop Patrick James Scanlon known to many as “Uncle Paddy,” whose theological guardianship of Percy begins from his use of Percy as an example in his Sermon on the Mount analogy, and continues on with consistent letters of correspondence during the holidays, and discreet instruction to Director McHugh for Percy’s special exemption in punishment and care; to McHugh’s strict and fearless tutelage on the Catechism of the Catholic Church in preparation for Percy’s baptism (“The Big Do at the Big B.”); and the unexpected support from Sister Mary Aggie through prayer cards of “Saint Drogo,” the Patron Saint of Unattractive People, though ostracized and sent to a mental institution known as “The Mental”; and the judgement and scorn from not only the whole of the town, but of Sister Celestine and her cruelty, the principal of the all-girls’ school, Holy Heart.

While the narrative is easy to read, the story’s subject matter is intrusively shocking from all sides of the belief spectrum. Readers are coerced into an emotional adventure, raising strong questions of right and wrong without any clarity due to the complexity of not necessarily the issues themselves, but the complex nature of the story’s characters. But, readers will be exposed to the fiery injustices and sorrows in the book as well as its comedic, almost absurd contexts, which sometimes begs the question of the book’s and its characters’ believability. What is for certain is the intensity in which readers may respond since the plight of Percy Joyce is no ordinary one.

But, pity is not on the menu in this novel as expected, nor is righteousness a natural phenomenon. The judgements in the book are harsh as well as misguided and the moral fibre stretched so thin, almost anything goes—and does. What is most frightening about the context of this novel lies in its extremities and the willingness of its characters to encompass these extremities to meet their desires.

“Give me myth or give me death,” is Percy Joyce’s coping mechanism, survival tactic, his motto, his hyperbolic, personal life theology, which in turn becomes the conflict and the source of the novel itself. The book on a whole is myth as survival and the stories the characters tell themselves are told to justify the choices they make, what they are willing to do, as well as sacrifice to uphold their secrets and their obsessions.

The corporeal judgement of the town towards the Joyce household showcases not only their cruelty, close-mindedness, but guilty lust for beauty, sensuality, and sex. Their judgement of Penelope’s sex appeal is indicative of their impassioned need to repress their own and obvious lust for it.

Yet, the insistent angst against the church on behalf of Penelope Joyce, while not entirely wrong in her right to the freedom of religious and lifestyle choice, does wrongfully insist itself on young Percy with the intention to determine her son’s fate, while disregarding that he may actually have one, a choice or an opinion of whether or not he’d like to become a member of the church.

And the culprits of Brotherhood in Director McHugh and Archbishop “Uncle Paddy,” seem well-bent on rather than defending the meek by reprimanding its community in its consistent ridicule and judgement on Percy and Percy’s mother, seem keen on manipulating his situation to ensure a way to use and control Percy in order to defend or advocate their religious beliefs.

While the novel speaks heavily on the issue of moral innocence and righteousness, there doesn’t seem to be any character in the book free enough to claim their own innocence.

And while the novel speaks to serious subjects and its moral implications, the characters themselves and the comedic absurdity of the plot at times reminds us to not take life all that seriously.

Percy, with his port-stained-face, disfigured lip, and gigantic hands and feet, is town scapegoat, gifted storyteller, harbourer of secrets and hierarchical sin, and religiously incarnated saint. It’s a tall order. But, no one knows this more than him, who has been duly inflicted and blessed with “False Someone Syndrome.” It’s myth or death, after all—and Percy is a survivor.

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Characters:  4stars

Pacing: 4 stars

Cover Design: 4 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada  on behalf of Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.

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About the Author:

wayne johnston
Wayne Johnston

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Wayne Johnston was born and raised in the St. John’s area of Newfoundland. His #1 nationally bestselling novels include The Dive Ryans, A World Elsewhere, The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which will be made into a film. Johnston is also the author of an award-winning and bestselling memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion. He lives in Toronto.

– From book jacket.

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Links:

Wayne Johnston’s Official Website

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Follow Wayne Johnston on Twitter

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Do you think Penelope Joyce is actively to blame for the community’s judgement of her and her obvious sensuality? Why or why not?

Do you think Percy Joyce’s lust for his mother is indicative of his isolation, ridicule growing up as a young boy with FSS? Or a fear that he has no hope of ever successfully seducing a woman in future?

Is “Pops” a weak-minded man who’s influenced by Director McHugh to do his bidding or is he a man willing to do anything (including dismissing Medina and Penelope’s relationship) in order to experience the love and desire he feels for Penelope even if it means unrequited love?

What do you think happened to Percy’s absent, biological father, Jim Joyce? If you could imagine, where do you think he would be and what would he be doing?

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