Book Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined - Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined is filled with everything you hope will never happen to your daughter. Although set in the city of Vancouver whose streets and neighbourhoods I recognize, the story seems to exist in some alternate universe where Vancouver is terrible, always dangerous, where nothing good exists, everyone is evil, and you might as well not try to help anyone ever.

The novel begins shortly after Jessica Campbell’s mother Donna has died. Jessica is a burned out social worker (is there any other kind?), striving to live up to her mother, who was a foster parent while Jessica was growing up. Her entire image of Donna is thrown into chaos however when, while sorting through her mother’s home, Jessica and her dad find two bodies in the deep freeze.¬† In 1988 two sisters, Casey and Jamie, were fostered by the Campbells until they eventually ran away. Or so everyone thought.

The story is an unconventional mystery in that the question is why rather than who. Donna has clearly murdered these girls but what was her motivation? What happened? Jessica attempt to figure out who her mother was, stumbling across some long-held family secrets in the process.

The story also takes us back to 1988 to tell about the sisters, their parents and how they ended up in foster care. I wish the novel had given more from Casey and Jamie’s perspective. Although at the centre of the story, we never get to see them as more than victims. Things happen to them and they react but without more knowledge of who they really were, their actions seem strange and unwarranted. Jessica remembers them as aggressive, mean, and violent and, indeed, seems to come to blame them in a way for causing her mother to murder them, even as her investigations stir up some of her own dark memories of her mother. Jessica’s explanations don’t fit what we see of the girls in their pre-foster care story, with their own family though. During Casey and Jamie’s first (real) runaway attempt, something horrific happens to them but the action is so out of the blue and we never see how the girls react and so it ends up feeling false and exploitative.

I might have forgiven the novel all this if it weren’t for the ending. Jessica discovers a secret from her mother’s childhood that is supposed to explain Donna’s life and actions but only led me to believe that Donna was actually a psychopath and always had been. As I said before, The Conjoined seems to exist in some extra dark universe where sometimes good people slip up and commit multiple murders. I don’t buy it and I don’t accept childhood trauma as an excuse for killing children. The fact that Jessica apparently does (along with some personal choices she makes along the way) causes me to wonder if she’s more messed up than the author intended her to be. A little more balance to this novel would have gone a long way.

Book Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Lotto and Mathilde meet at the very end of their final year of university and marry two weeks later. They’re young, broke, and both shocked by the fact of falling in love. Fates and Furies follows them through the next twenty or so years of their marriage, detailing the ups and downs, the secrets that they share and the secrets they keep. The early years are shown through the parties they throw – at first raucous and wild, then mellowing with age. Then, following a surprise career change for Lotto, the action slows and the story becomes more complicated.

The first half of the novel focuses on Lotto, following him from birth (and even before, giving details about his parents and their histories), his childhood and particularly his relationship with his mother, something that is an important factor throughout his life and his marriage. (A man with a mixed-up relationship with his mother seems a little heavy-handed and Freudian even but for the most part Groff keeps Lotto’s mother from being too heavy-handed.) In the second half of the story we learn of Mathilde’ childhood and all the things about her that Lotto never knew.

The key point of the novel is ostensibly that Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage is happy though unconventional and yet there is so much they have hidden from one another. The second half of the novel is primarily comprised of all the ways Mathilde is not who Lotto thought she was but she made him very happy, so does it matter? My problem here is that we never truly see the substance of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage. We never see them do anything together except host parties (which are often being thrown by one of them rather than both) and have sex. There doesn’t seem to be much basis for their relationships or for the reader to believe that they are so happy and in love. Where are their private jokes, their shared memories, the unique and mundane and sacred rituals of people who wake up together every day?

While both Lotto and Mathilde are fascinating characters, they aren’t people I’d want to spend time with in real life, despite being constantly told how charming Lotto is or how intriguing everyone finds Mathilde. The novel generally suffers from a bit too much telling rather than showing, which is especially disappointing because when Groff does show instead of tell, she does it very well. Groff never really makes her readers fall in love and so I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to believe the descriptions that are given to the main characters.

Overall, Fates and Furies has a lot of strong writing, characters with great potential, and some interesting revelations. Yet it falls short of feeling like a complete story and I was left to wonder what comes next.

 

Reading with Pearl: Sandra Boynton

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Sandra Boynton is currently one of Pearl’s favourite authors. Her books are colourful, goofy, and full of animals. While Boynton has many, many books for children, the ones pictured above are the titles we own.

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Pajama Time!

Boynton uses lots of rhyme and song to keep the books entertaining and fun to read. Pearl will ask for the same one over and over again and though nothing holds up well the 20th time in a row, I find Boynton’s books fun to read too. Pajama Time! even helped us get through a period where Pearl hated putting on her pyjamas at bedtime. Reading the book together made the whole process more fun.

Blue Hat, Green Hat

Blue Hat, Green Hat

Pearl loves the animal characters and so we bought her Doggies for Christmas. It’s very simple – full of dogs and counting¬† – just right for her current stage.

Book Review: Such is My Beloved by Morley Callaghan

Such is My Beloved - Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Father Dowling is a young Catholic priest in a city parish. One day he happens to meet two young women, prostitutes, and begins a sort of friendship with them. His love for them is strong – perhaps even Christ-like – but shockingly naive and his increasing single-mindedness and involvement in their lives becomes distorting and distracting in every other aspect of his life. Father Dowling’s love for Ronnie and Midge, though platonic, seems to push out all other considerations and duties until, inevitably, his life and his vocation are affected.

The girls alternate between taking advantage of the young priest and genuinely liking him. Brazen one minute, shy and embarrassed the next, they have no idea how to react to his presence in their lives. The reader doesn’t see far into their minds but we are given a sense of their conflict, as well as some background to explain how they ended up where they are. In this, the 1930s Depression-era setting is crucial. Father Dowling is desperate to get the women off the streets, not realizing how difficult it is to find decent employment.

The story is short on plot, comprising primarily of Father Dowling’s thoughts and feelings, his reflections on this strange love he has developed, interspersed with visits to the girls. These are contrasted with his increasingly brief interactions with the other priests, as well as a rich parishioner who he attempts to engage to help Ronnie and Midge. Father Dowling’s atheist friend, Charlie, acts as a sort of foil for the characters of the other priests and the church parishioners, being the person who Dowling can speak to most openly. Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend (a Catholic woman) also seems to act as a subtle mirror to Father Dowling’s relationship with the young prositutes.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time in and around church ministry, I found this book stressful. Most men I know who work in the church make a great effort to avoid any semblance of sexual misconduct, some going as far as to ensure they are never alone with a woman. And so while Father Dowling’s desire to help is admirable, he puts himself in a position to be misunderstood by others, frequently visiting the girls in the hotel they live in, in the same rooms where they perform their job. As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly convinced of his holy love and even more reckless in his behaviour. This alienates him further from the church and the reader has to wonder if by taking better precautions in the beginning, he might actually have been able to help Ronnie and Midge more.

Father Dowling seems meant to be a Jesus figure (though he’s too naive to quite fit the profile), including his ultimate end with the religious authorities. There’s a fascinating scene near the end of the novel with the Bishop (who might be the Pontius Pilate figure) as he struggle with inner conflict but ultimately washes his hands of the consequences.

Overall, the book feels dated and I’m not sure how much it would interest a modern reader without a religious background. The Catholic church has been through so many scandals since the 1930s that Father Dowling’s actions seem pretty mild. Such is My Beloved is an interesting glimpse at Canada in the 1930s though and so perhaps deserves its spot amongst 20th century Canadian literature.

January…

After the three of us recovered from our extended colds, January turned out to be a pretty good month around here.

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Pearl is now 23 months! Her hair is long enough that it occasionally gets in her eyes, she is currently getting a new tooth, and she is full of energy.

We stayed away from most of our usual toddler groups and drop-ins because we didn’t want to spread our germs around and so we ended up spending a lot of time outdoors, exploring the forest nearby and playing at the local parks.
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When the new year began, I made a list of a few goals for myself and while I haven’t worked out five times a week (probably not a realistic goal anyway), focusing on a few small changes have made a big difference in my attitude. Lots of outdoor time is key for both Pearl and I and makes our days more interesting.

Another of my goals was to spend less time on-line, especially before bed. I always have a book (or three) on the go so it’s a simple switch to close the computer and read inside. As well, I’ve stayed away from Facebook all month and I feel like that’s made a difference too. My Facebook feed is just too full of pregnancies and babies and while I normally love that I felt that I needed to step away for a while. I’ve been surprised at how good it’s felt for my own well-being.

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Pearl and I went on a fun adventure, just the two of us. We took a day trip into Vancouver, walking on the ferry and spending the day downtown. It was rainy and busy but we had a blast and I can’t wait to try it again when the weather’s better. We walked around a lot (her mostly in her stroller), Pearl had her first drink at Starbucks (steamed milk), and we rode the SeaBus just for fun (Pearl’s first time).

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Recently, Pearl had an appointment with the speech therapist. At her 18-month check-up, she wasn’t quite hitting the amount of words they expected her to have at that age (around 20) so we went on a wait list for speech therapy. By the time the therapist contacted me, Pearl had added a lot of words to her vocabulary; Peter and I estimate she has about 50 words now. It didn’t seem like it would do any harm to have her assessed by a professional though and to see if there was anyway we could help her along. I wasn’t sure how it would go since Pearl isn’t always the most outgoing around strangers. The therapist was awesome though, having a tea party with Pearl and bringing out lots of toys to engage her, all while surreptitiously jotting down her observations.

In the end, our suspicions were confirmed – Pearl is totally fine! It’s been apparent that she understands what we’re saying, including multi-step ideas (like, “Go get your boots and put them on”) and she’s adding new words to her speech everyday. She’s simply learning at her own pace and that’s okay! Just this past week or so she’s begun putting two words together to form sentences (“Hi mum!). I’m still glad that I took advantage of the appointment, plus I learned a little more about how to aid her speech development along. I can’t wait to hear what she says next!

What I Read – January 2017

Read:

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

A vocation is a terrible thing. To be called out of nature into the supernatural life is at first (or perhaps not quite at first – the wrench of the parting may be felt later) a costly honour. Even to be called from one natural level to another is loss as well as gain. Man has difficulties and sorrows which the other primates escape.

  • C.S. Lewis

I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

In the light of day, her dreams were drained of their nightmarish quality, and they seemed whimsical and strange, but the taste of loss remained in her mouth.

  • Eowyn Ivey

When She Was ElectricAndrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Let one person tell her she couldn’t have it and she would claw them into submission. Let one more person tell her what she could and could not have, and she would smile, nod, and, without apology, do whatever the hell she wanted.

  • Kevin Wilson

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Even a dream of social betterment usually is a bitter disappointment. We’ve got to accept the disappointment and go on. All of us must be terribly disappointing to God. By any standard of justice God might have abandoned us all long ago and left us to shift for ourselves as those girls are shifting now wherever they are, whatever they are doing.

  • Morley Callaghan

Fates & Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Simply Christian – N.T. Wright

Birdie – Tracey Lindberg

I Made This!

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Don’t get excited – I’m not about to show you anything impressive. I am decidedly un-crafty and not a hands-on kind of person so I’m pleased that I actually made something.

Pictured above is what I started with. Four wooden boxes found for free. When Peter and I spotted them I was sure I could do something with them. At the time, Peter was re-doing our deck and didn’t want to take on anything that involved sanding or painting (fair enough) but I was sure I could figure it out.

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My first step was to sand the boxes. I used a sander! A power tool!

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I bought wood glue at the hardware store and glued the boxes together. I used my heaviest books to weigh them down.

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Then I painted. Above is after one coat of paint. I did two but this was the longest DIY project ever so there was about a month where it sat half-painted in our carport. We had some leftover paint from when we painted our kitchen after we renovated last summer so I just used that. It’s a very, very light green.

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And the finished project! This corner of our living room (where our Christmas tree was a month ago) is now Pearl’s little play corner. I don’t love having all her toys in our living room but we have a small house and this lets her room be a quiet, sleeping place with just her books and stuffed animals. We have one other basket full of Duplo and a wooden box for her trains. And now I’m wondering if Pearl’s toy stash is excessive…At least this keeps them contained and easy to put away and Pearl seemed happy with the finished product.

If anyone needs any woodworking tips, let me know!

Book Review: Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World - Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Izzy has just graduated from high school when she finds herself pregnant, the result of an ongoing affair with her art teacher. Without support or finances to raise her child, she opts to join an experimental unit run by the young genius Dr. Grind. For ten years, ten families will live together as one family, raising their children together, without the children knowing who their true parents are. Dr Grind stresses that this is for science, not a cult, and the Infinite Family Project (as it’s called) is a regimented organism.

The idea is that these ten children will have an unprecedented amount of support and access to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Rather than a traditional family unit, a larger family simply means more love, right?

The concept is so obviously flawed that the reader can’t help wondering how Dr. Grind found ten couples so hopelessly naive as to join. While Izzy’s reasons are fairly well-established, she’s also the only single parent in the group. The others are adults in their twenties and thirties who are in committed relationships. So why on earth are they willing to completely give up control over how they live their lives or raise their child? The idea of my child viewing me as only one of many parents, or of not being able to go to her when she cries in the night because it’s not my turn on the roster is really upsetting and feels fundamentally wrong. I spent a lot of the book feeling profoundly uncomfortable.

Izzy is portrayed as a smart, capable young woman, perhaps unrealistically so. She seems to be good at anything she puts her mind to, be it slow-roasting a pig, joining a communal family, or making art out of wood scraps. Wilson doesn’t touch on the fact that she’s recently been in an abusive relationship or how this affects her decisions and so she feels a little too flawless. Her time in the Infinite Family Project – and the reader follows Izzy for the next ten years – is portrayed as mostly positive. Of course there are issues and the experiment has an unexpected conclusion but Izzy never truly questions her choice, something I didn’t find realistic.

Perfect Little World is an easy read with an interesting concept. It’s hard to tell if Wilson himself is in favour of the Infinite Family Project or not but he does come across as unaware of how unappealing such an idea might to many (most?) readers. More realistic internal conflict for these fictional parents would have made for a deeper and more moving novel. As it is, Perfect Little World works as a quick and easy distraction.

Book Review: When She Was Electric by Andrea MacPherson

When She Was Electric - Andrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

When She Was Electric – Andrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

This is a story strong on description, full of characters with hidden depths and normal secrets. It is a story about a mother-daughter relationship (and not one to aspire to).

The story is primarily told from Ana’s point of view, though we also get glimpses into her mother, Min. We are introduced to Ana as an adult and then taken back to her teenage years and one crucial summer in the small British Columbia town of Merrit. The 1940s, there’s a war going on but it mostly feels far away. Ana and Min, along with Ana’s brother Theo have returned to Min’s mother’s farm where Min grew up and her mother and her sister still live. They are escaping the recent death of Min’s youngest child, a death we learn more about as the novel progresses. Unbeknownst to Ana and Theo, Min has also decided to leave her husband behind.

As Ana works through her own grief over her sister’s death, feeling continually more estranged from her mother, the reader watches her follow in her mother’s footsteps in some unexpected (and some expected) ways. Min is a strange and somewhat ethereal character. A woman who seems to float through life thinking only of herself, brushing against the lives of others without fear or care of how she hurts them. The novel shows two drastically different ways of reacting to this as we watch Ana and Theo struggle to gain Min’s love and attention.

While the novel isn’t heavy on plot or action, it somehow still manages to be a fascinating read. Almost more of a character study than a full-blown novel. At times, it leans toward the overly descriptive and some of the description do start to feel repetitive but many of them are beautiful and often startling. MacPherson has a gift for making the reader look at something familiar in a new way. This gives the whole novel a sense of the otherworldly, as if set in an Earth that is not quite our own.

There is a sort of half-plot of racial tension between the people of Merrit and the indigenous peoples who live on the outskirts of town. There’s a lot of potential there and a decent amount of page time given over to it but it’s never fully developed and so ends up feeling a little tacked-on. There is, however, a reveal that I found surprising and throws parts of the book into a different perspective. I just wish MacPherson had expanded on this aspect of the novel further.

While not a perfect novel, there is plenty to admire in When She Was Electric.

 

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.