Book Review – Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

IMG_5211Alone in the Classroom (Emblem 2011) begins with a murder and the tension grows from there. In fact, the rate of revelation and tension in this novel is infinitely impressive. Our narrator, Anne, begins with the story of the death of a young girl, occurring when her own mother was young. It is also the moment in time when Anne’s mother meets Anne’s aunt, Connie, eventually leading to the meeting of Anne’s parents.

But this story is really about Connie and Anne takes us further back, to Connie at eighteen. 1929, rural Saskatchewan and Connie is a school teacher. She’s young and enthusiastic, passionate in many ways but also unsure of herself in a way painfully familiar to all of us who have been new in a job or, simply, eighteen-years-old.

Connie works under the principal of the tiny school, Parley Burns. Hay succeeds again here in creating the character of Mr. Burns. He’s older, more experienced, sophisticated. In many ways, an admirable character. And yet, Connie feels instinctively uncomfortable around him, as does the reader. Without resorting to stereotypes or offering up a black-and-white type villain, Hay creates a character who is undeniably creepy but not creepy enough to justify real action against. Which is so often the real life scenario people, especially women, find themselves in. Connie feels that his behaviour is wrong but doesn’t know how to react. Partially this is due to the time and the fact that he is an older man but the situation does not seem impossible today.

There’s a particularly chilling scene where Connie is leaving her classroom for the day and Mr. Burns and a young girls are left behind. Connie doesn’t feel right about leaving but she doesn’t know how to say anything and runs out of excuses to stay. It’s a perfectly evoked scene of powerlessness and a young woman who is sure of her gut but unsure how to act on it.

Where the book fell apart for me was in the last section. We move into the present day and follow Anne’s story, one I wasn’t particularly interested in. Hay created such a vivid and fascinating character in Connie that I didn’t want to let her go. The real problem though was the decisions that Anne makes. As her story continues, it seemed to negate, in part, some of what had come before and made me dislike both her and other characters. Characters I had enjoyed in Connie’s story. In the end, the book felt like Hay had multiple ideas for a plot and tried to fit them into one book. It doesn’t quite work, which is unfortunate because, over all, Alone in the Classroom is a terrific read.

Book Review – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A couple of chapters in and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Little, Brown & Co, 2014) began to make me feel like I need to book a dentist appointment. Though probably not with Paul O’Rourke, the main character, narrator, and dentist of the novel.

Paul is outwardly successful – he owns his dental practice, which seems busy enough, in New York City, and he has a certain passion toward his work and regarding oral health, and he seems proud to live in NYC. But it’s clear almost immediately how deeply unhappy Paul is. He’s an insomniac who knows he isn’t taking advantage of New York’s benefits, he finds his work frustrating because people just won’t floss, and his girlfriend who recently dumped him is still his office manager, Connie.

At its heart though, this is a book of faith and religion and I thought those subjects were handled by Ferris both creatively and thoughtfully.

Paul is an ardent atheist. Although, as he explains his past relationships, we see the ways he’s changed himself after falling in love. (And how that inevitably backfires for him.) We see his cringe-worthy behaviour with Connie’s Jewish family – his intense desire to be loved by them is painful and hilarious. Probably because many of us can relate. We see the ways Paul’s past and his own family have shaped him and grown in him this intense need to be accepted. We may not want to identify with Paul in most aspects but in this one, you really can’t help it.

The plot thickens when Paul finds a website set up for his dental practice – something he’s always refused to have. While the site is completely accurate and seems innocuous, it’s a mystery who set it up and why. Strangest of all are the quotes found on his bio page. Although they sound as if they come from the Bible, they have a strange focus on the Amalekites and every Biblical scholar Paul shows them to doesn’t recognize them. Paul finds more evidence of this alter ego on-line, posting in forums, tweeting, Always with reference to these mysterious verses, a slaughter of the Amalekites, a lone survivor, a people sworn to doubting God. As Paul tries to investigate, he becomes more intrigued and more caught up.

Not wanting to reveal too much, I’ll leave it there but I will say the plot gets very interesting and opens up some of the biggest questions in life. What is faith? Can doubt ever be an act of faith? Can it be holy? What do we look for when we join faith communities. What do we want, really want, from our lives?

Paul’s search for answers takes him into a secret history and possibly his own past. Whether or not he can ever find happiness there, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Ferris, thankfully, never talks down to his readers.

The book is very well-written and a worthy entry as one of two of the first American inclusions for the Man Booker Prize. Ferris stirs up these big questions with a light hand, rarely hinting at what his own opinion might be. Best of all, he succeeds with Paul as a narrator, a character who’s awkward and difficult and not particularly likeable and yet you still find yourself hoping for his best.

a space

No help for that

a poem by Charles Bukowski

 

there is a place in the heart that

will never be filled

 

a space

 

and even during the

best moments

and

the greatest times

 

we will know it

 

we will know it

more than

ever

 

there is a place in the heart that

will never be filled

 

and

 

we will wait

and

wait

 

in that

space

 

 

Dear John Grisham

Dear Mr. Grisham,

I’ll be honest, I’ve never read a single one of your novels and I have no plans to. Call me a book snob or disinterested in American law, you’ve just never captured my attention. (Though I did watch The Pelican Brief with Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.)

That said, I’ve worked in the book industry for nearly a decade now and I know how popular you are. I know how people still ask for your old titles and gobble up your new ones. Non-readers know your name. You have power and a certain amount of authority.

You’re not using them wisely. See: this interview in The Telegraph.

Shall I count the problems here?

“We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child.”

Do you really think that’s the problem with the North American legal system? Too many white men in prison? I’m doubtful of this but, hey, you’re the legal expert, right?

But let’s be clear – child pornography harms children. Those aren’t dolls or cartoons; those are real kids. Real children are harmed and abused in the making of child pornography and when you or your friend or anyone views that pornography, they’re supporting an industry that harms children. Those sixty-year-old white men are not innocent simply because they’ve never physically touched a child.

“…probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.”

Again, you’re the legal expert but drinking too much is a pretty piss poor excuse. It doesn’t hold up if I run someone down with my car, if I slip a candy bar in my pocket at the convenience store, if I punch a stranger in the face. And it doesn’t hold up if you’re sexually abusing a child either.

“It was labelled ‘sixteen year old wannabee [sic] hookers or something like that’. And it said ’16-year-old girls’. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff – it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.

Okay, so we’re not actually talking about accidental clicking, are we? Because in this example of your “good buddy”, it sounds like he knew exactly what he was clicking on. A sixteen-year-old is still a child.

But what really makes me sick here is your defense, Mr. Grisham. So what if those girls looked 30? Your buddy didn’t think they were 30 when he clicked on that site. He was looking for children. And you know what probably ages a young girl before her time? Abuse. Prostitution. Sexual slavery. This is nothing but victim blaming.

“It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys.”

Let me be really clear with you, Mr. Grisham. I have no idea if this is an attitude that pervades your writing or your everyday life but here’s a statement you should memorize: Girls are not created to be sexual objects for men. There’s nothing natural or normal about child pornography and it isn’t somehow “better” that, hey, at least your buddy wasn’t looking at boys.

“There’s so many ‘sex offenders’ – that’s what they’re called – that they put them in the same prison. Like they’re a bunch of perverts, or something.”

Mr. Grisham, I’m sorry that you’re friends with a sex offender. I’m sure that’s tough. And while it’s admirable to support your friend, you’re not doing him (or yourself) any favours by pretending that his crime is something other than what it is. Your friend is a pervert. He performed a perverted action and our actions do define us. Those who view child pornography cause harm to children. No, they may not be out there flashing kids on playgrounds or touching children inappropriately but they are putting money into the pockets of those who do. They are saying, “This is okay. This is fun. Keep doing it.” And, unfortunately, Mr. Grisham, so are you.

*all quotes are taking directly from John Grisham’s mouth, as reported by Peter Foster for The Telegraph.

EDITED TO ADD: John Grisham did make an apology the next day (Read more about that here) While I think that’s good and I’m happy that others have spoken out against his statements, I still think his original interview is pretty damning. I would love to see him donate some of his millions to a charity that helps children that have been abused and really show that he means what he says in his apology.

Recently…

This weekend marked twenty weeks for baby and I and so I’ve had this song stuck in my head for days.

Whoa, we’re half way there
Whoa, livin’ on a prayer

Ah, the poet, Bon Jovi.

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My extremely lovely friend Dawn (Hi Dawn!) send us this little gift in the mail. I love that, so far, all we have for our baby are three knit sweaters and books. What more do you need, really?

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On a random Sunday afternoon Peter and I decided to rearrange our living room furniture. I’ve been accused of nesting but this is something we’ve discussed for a long time. Now that I look at it, this picture really doesn’t show the changes we made, but it does show the beautiful red that the ivy outside our door has turned. I love west coast fall.

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Last week we celebrated this guy’s birthday. Or Birthday Week, really. Because days to celebrate your loved ones are good. And I sure do love this one.

Speaking of celebrating, we had a splendid but busy Thanksgiving weekend. A little bit of work, some good family time, and a lot of eating.

I mean, look at how much I ate!

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Yeah, that’s a bathroom selfie. Yeah, I’m embarassed.

The weekend also included:

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An early morning ferry, a rainy Monday, and a beautiful celebration of two people in love. It was wonderful to witness one of my oldest friends (twenty plus years!) marry the guy she loves.

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And despite the fact that I’m the girl who owns as many dresses as there are days in a month, I borrowed this one.

Book Review – A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

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This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time and it did not disappoint. I was familiar with Rachel Held Evans’ writing through her blog – mostly posts circulated by friends. And while I’ve never followed it religiously (pun!) I’ve generally appreciated what I’ve read from Evans.

A Year of Biblical Living (Thomas Nelson, 2013) chronicles Evans’ year spent attempting to live as closely as possible to the Biblical model of womanhood. Or at least, the Biblical model of womanhood as it is perceived today. (Comparisons to A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically are apt but the female perspective is crucial here.) While Evans doesn’t follow everything through for the full year, she does devote each month to a particular facet – from Purity to Obedience to Silence. She calls her husband “Master”. She attempts to cook her way through Martha Stewart in an effort to be a better wife. She remains completely silent in church. At the same time – and the part I enjoyed the most – Evans’ delves into research. She explores the roots of where we get our ideas about Biblical womanhood today. Through interviews with Jewish women, Christian scholars, and the women around her, Evans attempts to pull apart what’s Biblical and what’s cultural. It’s an important distinction and one I was able to learn a lot from.

As an adult, as a woman, and as a Christian, I’ve struggled with many of the concepts that Evans addresses and I appreciated her honesty as much as her investigation and exploration.

“…in our efforts to celebrate and affirm God’s presence in the home, we should be wary of elevating the vocation of homemaking above all others by insinuating that for women, God’s presence is somehow restricted to that sphere.

“If God is the God of all pots and pans, then He is also the God of all shovels and computers and paints and assembly lines and executive offices and classrooms. Peace and joy belong not to the woman who finds the right vocation, but to the woman who finds God in any vocation.”

Right there, Evans articulates a problem I’ve long struggled to identify amongst evangelical, conservative Christians. In an effort to elevate and value the role of a woman who stays home to care for her house and family (something I believe is fully worthy of respect), there are those who seem only able to do so at the expense of the working woman. As if a career is something you only do because you’re not married. Yet. Or you don’t have children. Yet. And not because you’re happy and fulfilled in your job. Or because you feel called to your chosen career. Or even because, at this point in your life, work is the best thing for you and your family.

I’ve been asked a few times recently if I plan to stay home after I have children. My honest answer is, I’m not sure. And I don’t want to answer that yet. Yes, I would love to be at home while my kids are young. I would love to be able to provide that for these kids and for my husband. But I also know myself and I know that in a year or two or less or more, I might miss working. I might miss the stimulation and challenge of a job. I might miss the regular contact with the outside world. I might even realize that I’ll be a better parent when I have a day or more a week away from my home and in a job. And that’s okay. I want to give myself permission now to have that option down the road.

I’ve sat and listened to Christian lecturers tell me that my ultimate role exists as a wife and a mother. That I shouldn’t desire anything more. That my family will suffer if I work outside of the home, if I send my kids to public school, if my husband comes home to a dark house and I rush in from work and make him Kraft Dinner. I believe that’s a lie. I believe that God created me (and every woman) with deep complexity. I believe He instilled in me skills and gifts and desires of all kinds. Some serve me well in my home and benefit my husband and will benefit my children. But others are laid deep within me and are there to benefit society, those in the community around me and maybe the world. I don’t think those desires are wrong; I don’t think they should be hidden away. I sat in a lecture like that next to a dear friend of mine, working on her Masters degree in Public Health, who told me afterward that she was sure being in school was the right choice for her, was what God had planned for her. And I applaud her. I look at so many of my Christian girlfriends who are smart and driven and who are changing the world.

I think of having a daughter of my own one day and what I’ll tell her about her future.

“God has big plans for you,” I’ll say. “God has good plans for you. He might take you anywhere. You might be a wife, a mother, a missionary, a doctor, a chemist, a researcher. You could be an accountant or a proof reader or a grocery store clerk. You can be more than one of those things at once. Don’t let anyone – even in the name of God – tell you to dream smaller.”

“As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ.”

I think my favourite part of the book was when Evans addresses Proverbs 31. If you’ve been a woman in the Christian church for a fair amount of time, this chapter has hovered over your head. While beautiful, it can also be the Biblical equivalent of the magazine covers in the grocery story checkout line. Here’s what you should be. Here are all the ways you fail to match up. I certainly have never bought land or made clothes. And while I hope my husband and children rise up and call me blessed, it’s more likely to be for my chocolate chip cookies and sense of humour than because of my profitable trading.

But Evans goes to the source and examines the Jewish tradition of Proverbs 31.

“I looked into this, and sure enough, in Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husbands commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in song.”

Doesn’t that change everything? Instead of Proverbs 31 being a laundry list of requirements, of ways that we should act and aren’t, it’s a celebration. It’s a blessing. As Evans puts it, something to be given unconditionally, not earned.

“A woman of valour” – that’s what the Proverbs 31 woman is. And she might be a woman who brings by a meal for a friend who’s sick. Or who is up all night with a colicky baby. Or who comes home from a long day of work and kicks off her shoes. It is a woman who does things – any thing – for God.

Ultimately, that’s who this book is for: women striving to worship God. Though it probably be of interest to men and women curious to know what the Bible really has to say about the role of women.

Something New

Aside from my Autumn Reading List, I’m doing some extracurricular reading these days.

A peek at my bedside table (which is actually a bookshelf because I have a book addiction problem) might give you a hint as to a life change we’re expecting around here.

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This newest story is due to make its appearance around March 1, 2015.