Tuesday 16 June 2020

The Honey Bus

The Honey Busby Meredith May

I am one of those people who walks through the park in the Spring and Summer and watches the bees amid the blossoms, fascinated by the industrious creatures that make our world work. Meredith May’s The Honey Bus captures this same sense of wonder, narrating a troubled childhood that only begins to fall into place when her world is transformed by her eccentric grandfather and his “honey bus”.

When five-year-old Meredith’s parents split up, her mother, dealing with severe depression, moves with the children to her parents’ house. With her mother unable to care for her, and grasping for ways to cope in her unraveling world, Meredith finds unexpected solace in an old military bus, where her beekeeper grandfather has constructed a honey farm. With time, little Meredith learns to navigate the crumbling world around her by building a new one with the help of her grandfather’s bees, discovering resilience she did not know she possessed.

Now a beekeeper herself, May narrates her childhood with a gentle balance of wit, heartbreak, wonder and journalistic curiosity. The Honey Bus combines May’s extensive knowledge of bees and beekeeping with the story of one little girl who found herself when she felt she had nobody left. This is a must-read for anyone interested in bees and beekeeping or simply anyone who seeks inspiration from an author who was fortunate to find it and to make it her own.

The Henna Artist

The Henna Artistby Alka Joshi

It is 1950’s India, a time when the traditional is merging with the modern, yet the castes are still very much defined. Teen-aged Lakshmi escapes an abusive marriage to the city of Jaipur and becomes a highly sought-after henna artist. She has worked hard to earn the trust of her ladies – the wealthy upper class who share their secrets at their henna sessions, yet Lakshmi’s secrets remain hidden.

Lakshmi has carefully cultivated her reputation through her wise advice and unique henna designs that enhance the women’s lives. She has learned a lot about herbal remedies and her henna is known to have healing properties. Being high in demand has allowed her to scrimp and save enough money to build herself a house, a major step on the road to her independence. As with any life that is built on secrets, whether your own or others, the life is a fragile one that can easily shatter.

One day, Lakshmi’s life is thrown into tumult when her husband tracks her down and brings with him not only his own troubles, but also a younger sister she did not know she had. Despite this new development, Lakshmi takes her sister, Radhi, in and tries to continue to work in the life she has so carefully fostered. With a few hiccups, she manages to hold on until a serious complication threatens to ruin everything she has built.

This is a deeply layered story showing the struggles of one young woman who works to carve out a new independent life for herself at a time when women are still the lower class, and poor women are below that. It is Lakshmi’s strength and determination that help her to carry on and support her family and survive her being cast out by those who once welcomed her.

I highly recommend Joshi’s novel. It gives you a lot to think about and draws a colourful picture of life in India in the transitioning 1950’s.

Over the Top

Over the Topby Jonathan Van Ness

Jonathan Van Ness, beloved grooming expert on Netflix’s Queer Eye series, came out with an eye-opening memoir filled with struggle, hurt, and most importantly, love. The effervescent TV personality comes off as a strong, confident, person with plenty of self-love to go around so it came as quite a surprise to find out this was not always the case. From early childhood, Jonathan experienced terrible trauma that shaped their life in unspeakable ways. Told from a place of brutal honesty, Jonathan delivers the hard truths of his childhood and young adulthood in hopes that this story will allow others to open up about their own trauma, and hopefully begin the healing process.

I was advised to read this as an audiobook by a friend and am very glad to have done so. Read by the author, it was a pleasure to really listen to this story from the totally unique voice of Jonathan Van Ness. Their optimism, honesty, and desire to do better and be better is truly inspirational and translates so well in the telling of this story.

While this book definitely hits on many hard topics from child abuse to drug addiction, prostitution, and HIV, Jonathan manages to bring a positive perspective, thus making a hard conversation, something digestible and meaningful. I am very grateful to have read this story as it opened my eyes to some issues people in communities that differ from my own.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

Is That a Word?

Is That A Word?by David Bukszpan

Scrabble is a fantastic way to spend the time with family.  I remember playing it as a kid on family vacations. I remember playing it with my (nerdy) friends on camping trips.  I know that since it was invented in the 30s and especially when it exploded in popularity in the 50s it’s been a part of life all around the world, especially in countries that use the Latin alphabet.

One of the things I remember best, though, is arguing about whether a word is legitimate or not.  Sure, we can look it up, but can we all even agree on which language to use?  Do we use Oxford? Collins?  Merriam-Webster?  Most of them have the same words, but not all of them have all of the same ones, particularly not those that are short or obscure  


This isn’t a recommendation for a dictionary, though.  I find dictionaries to be fascinating but I recognise they are not exactly compelling reading for everyone.  Is That a Word? by David Bukszpan is the history of the Scrabble lexicon.  What makes a word legal in Scrabble? Why are things like “za” (short for pizza) legal, but not proper names?  Who even decides what is acceptable? 


Is That a Word? is a surprisingly readable history of the game and a fun explanation of why the official word list (the “OWL”) used in tournaments is so odd.  The first few chapters discuss the invention of the game, many of the variants and spinoffs, as well as where the official word list came from. 


The bulk of the book is really just a list of the stranger words allowable in the game broken down into various categories.  Words that seem like they shouldn’t be allowable if you are used to thinking about them in the wrong context.  In theory, you shouldn’t be able to use people’s names such as John or Smith, but john (a toilet) and smith (a person who makes horseshoes) are perfectly acceptable. 


Of course, you could use the Official Scrabble Dictionary to learn all these words.  But that’s just a long list of words and meanings.  Is That a Word? is also a long list of words, but with more context and a lot more humour.  If you want to be able to dominate in Scrabble and be able to back up your boasting, this is a great way to learn. 

Chop Suey Nation

Chop Suey Nationby Ann Hui

I grew up on the prairies and fondly remember the seemingly exotic Chinese diners in little towns like Nanton, Vulcan and Drumheller, Alberta. As a kid, Chop Suey and the gooey orange sauce over the Sweet & Sour Chicken were my favourites. It was surprising to learn Chinese diner dishes have little to do with traditional Chinese Cuisine. In fact, the literal translation of Chop Suey is “Assorted scraps. Bits and pieces. This and that.”

In 2016, Globe and Mail reporter Ann Hui (Vancouver born) hit the road to answer two questions: Why is there a Chinese restaurant in every Canadian small town? And who are the families who run them? Driving from sea to sea, Hui discovers the unlikely history behind classics like Ginger Beef, the hard-to-imagine Chinese Perogies of Alberta, and Newfoundland Chow Mein.

Among the many restaurant owners, Hui also finds the re-occurring themes of perseverance, humility, and love for family. There’s the restaurant owner/small-town mayor, the owner of a restaurant in a Thunder Bay curling rink, and the woman in remote Fogo Island who runs a restaurant alone, 365 days a year. While all of them are Chinese, their stories are universal and remind us of the mammoth challenges faced by many immigrants from around the world. Starting new lives in dusty or rocky little Canadian towns is really, really hard, but there’s no looking back.

Every other chapter also reveals intriguing stories and secrets about Hui’s own family. Her father was a baby when left with relatives and his parents immigrated to Canada. By age 10, his school days ended and he cared for pigs. Later, realities force him to work as a low-end cook. As a young man, he immigrates to Canada and reunites with his parents, but the wounds of abandonment never quite heal. That’s all I will say. The details beg to be read.

Hui fully succeeds in showing Chop Suey Cuisine is quintessentially Canadian.

Chop Suey Nation is well worth adding to your summer reading list. The fortune cookie bonus is its availability in Richmond Public Library’s digital collection and there’s no waiting list for this one!