REVIEW

Want to explore how reading shapes reality? These books are for you

Journalist Ann Walmsley's memoir of her two years helping lead book clubs in two Canadian prisons, The Prison Book Club, and Gregory Maguire's novel, After Alice, are examples of how stories bridge communities.

One offers new perspective on books you may have read, the other shows how books influence childhood

Two new books touch on the way reading shapes our reality.

Journalist Ann Walmsley's memoir of her two years helping lead book clubs in two Canadian prisons is the most straightforward, and moving, examination.

The convicts — killers, drug-traffickers and white-collar criminals — explore themes including freedom, choice and perseverance in the book club. Ultimately, they are exploring their humanity.

The convicts in The Prison Book Club are killers, drug traffickers, and white-collar criminals. They meet once a month to talk about books. But of course, like most good book clubs, the prisoners are doing so much more than talking about theme, motif or character. Ultimately, they are exploring their humanity.

The prisoners discuss books ranging from Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes to The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Walmsley chooses books with themes she hopes will resonate, such as freedom, choice and perseverance.

If you have been in a book club, chances are you've read many of the books on the The Prison Book Club reading list.  And that is part of the joy of this book. You may get some new insights on familiar books from a perspective that is likely NOT part of your regular book club.

The moments where you forget you are reading about inmates, and you realize you are really just connecting with other book lovers, are pretty powerful.

The Prison Book Club is in some ways about those connections. It reinforces what most book club readers know: Books and stories build community.

One of the many threads in Gregory Maguire's latest fairy tale reinvention is also about how books shape our childhood.

Maguire is best known for Wicked, his political take on the world of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of the West.

In After Alice, Maguire takes us to Wonderland with two children who end up there on the same day as the much more famous Alice.

Ada Boyce is Alice's ungainly, unimaginative neighbour.  She is encased in an iron corset to straighten out her posture.  When she falls down the hole after Alice, she is suddenly free her of iron prison, and the limitations of a family and society that has written her off as lumpish and dull.

The second child is an escaped slave from America visiting Alice's family with the legendary Charles Darwin. He unfortunately doesn't end up in Wonderland until closer to the end of the book, which is too bad because seeing the absurd, magical land from his perspective is much more interesting than from poor Ada's.

Maguire's intersperses Ada's journey through Wonderland with the adult world unfolding above ground in Victorian Oxford while the children are missing. 

Alice's 15-year old sister is dealing with the Wonderland we are all much more experienced with: The absurdity of life when you are on the dividing line between childhood and adulthood. Maguire captures perfectly the awkward painfulness of both mourning your childhood, and yearning to grow up.

We first meet Lydia as the sister who, instead of playing, sits and read a book of essays on Shakespeare, a book "with no pictures and no conversation."

In After Alice, Gregory Maguire takes us to Wonderland with two children who end up there on the same day as the much more famous Alice.

Maguire juxtaposes that image with Ada following Alice's trail through Wonderland, meeting most of the characters readers are familiar with from Lewis Carroll's original classic. In a clever twist, Ada meets a widowed and grieving Queen Victoria. She is also mourning her lost childhood where no one read stories to her, just tracts of English history.

"We need something to return our stolen childhood to us," said Queen Victoria said. "We do hope it is not too late for that."

Ada insists it is never too late to read the books you missed in childhood.

"You want something nonsensical," said Ada. "Keep looking. It will come along."