What I Read – January 2015

Since weekly book reviews seem to be something I can’t accomplish right now, I thought I’d post mini-reviews of everything I read this past month. January’s been busy but I managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading and finished 9 books.

The Birth House – Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2006)

I did write a more in-depth review of this one but short version: I liked it. A little heavy on the wonders of midwifery (in my hospital-birth-bound opinion) but also very well-written and enjoyable to read. And a good reminder to me that women have been doing this giving birth thing for eons and it mostly goes okay.

The Doc’s Side – Eric Paetkau (Harbour Publishing, 2011)

This is a very local history of a doctor here on the Sunshine Coast. Dr. Paetkau was one of the early medical professionals in our part of the world, back when the hospital was still up in Pender Harbour. He tells a lot of stories of treating the loggers and fishers and local people, as well as how the hospital came to be moved to Sechelt and the expanse of medical care on the Coast. There’s a fair bit of his personal story in there too. Probably a book that is most interesting to locals who will recognize the places (and maybe some of the people!)

 

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (Anchor Books, 2001)

This is a fun, semi-experimental novel. Ella Minnow Pea leaves in a fictional country where language is more important than ever and the man who wrote the sentence The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog is worshiped like an idol. That quickly begins to backfire as letters begin to fall from his monument and the council declares every fallen letter illegal to use. The novel is told in a series of letters, mostly between Ella and her cousin. As the story progresses, the forbidden letters are dropped from the text and the language becomes more complicated. Fortunately, the story ends around the time this becomes truly annoying to read. It’s a nice little fairy tale though, at times, the conceit overcomes the story.

A Million Little Pieces – James Frey (Anchor Books, 2003)

I know I’m about a decade behind on this one but I finally wanted to see what all the controversy was about. Knowing that parts of this memoir were fictional, it seemed to me to highlight the fact that the book is not that great. While it may be a great look at the depths of addiction (something I’m not very familiar with, so I can’t speak to its accuracy or honesty) I didn’t find the book very well-written. It’s quite repetitive and its lack of punctuation makes dialogue difficult to follow. To be completely honest, I read about the first third and then skipped to the last two chapters to see how it ended. I don’t think I missed much.

 

Great Expectations – edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press, 2008)

First off, I hate the name of this story collection. Don’t take the title of a book more famous than yours.

I picked this one off the library shelf, thinking how cheesy collections of pregnancy and birth stories are, but then was impressed by its list of contributors. It includes Caroline Adderson, Joseph Boyden, Lynn Coady, and twenty-one others. Each writer tells of their own experience of becoming a parent. The stories are raw, honest, sometimes terrifying, and often beautiful. I really liked that they included the stories of fathers too. Bill Gaston and Dede Crane (married with four kids in real life) tell their tales back-to-back and I found the similarities and contrasts of their shared experience fascinating. Admittedly, I’m more interested in birth and pregnancy right now than I normally am so this might not be a book for everyone. But for an expectant mother or father who also enjoys some good writing, it’s pretty great.

The Mistress of Nothing – Kate Pullinger (McArthur & Company, 2009)

I was never particularly grabbed by this one but it was big a few years ago so I figured it was time I read it. And I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. Based (sort of) on a true story – based on real people, at least – we follow a lady’s maid from England to Egypt and into a life she never imagined. The setting is wonderfully evoked and both Sally (the maid) and Lady Duff Gordon (her mistress) are fascinating women who are wonderful to read about. Both buck against society’s expectations in very different, very far-reaching ways.

Among the Ten Thousand Things – Julie Pierpont (Random House, 2015)

Honestly, I saw this title on my list and it took me a second to remember what book this was. This was an ARC I got through work; the book comes out this July. I was grabbed by the good reviews and an interesting synopsis and brought it home. The story is easily readable, if slightly predictable. The first chapter – a letter from a mistress to a wife – got my attention right away. As did the second chapter, where that letter is intercepted by the 11-year-old daughter of the wife and the unfaithful husband. Overall, I think the plot portrays a pretty honest fallout of infidelity and divorce. There’s a lot hinted at about the husband and father’s personality – he’s an artist and his most recent exhibition has exploded (literally) – but he isn’t fleshed out as much as he could be. I thought the most impressive part of the novel came in the middle when we get a brief but well-sketched glimpse of what the future could be.

The World Before Us – Aislinn Hunter (Doubleday Canada, 2014)

I’d been wanting to read this one for a while and it didn’t let me down. The story follows Jane, who is about to lose her job at a museum that is going out of business and is experiencing some sort of mental break (perhaps). Less because of her job loss and more because of an encounter with the father of a little girl who disappeared years before, while Jane was babysitting. The story intersects with the disappearance of an unnamed woman from an asylum in the same area years before. The narration is definitely the most unique aspect of this novel; it is told from the perspective of what you might call spirits who follow Jane around, hoping to discover who they are. Or were. While they start the novel as a fairly homogenous “we”, as the story progresses – and as we learn more about both of these disappearances – individual characters and histories begin to emerge. It’s a bold narrative experiment and Hunter does it well. While there are two mysteries at the centre of this story, it isn’t a mystery novel and there are no simple answers here. And that is to the novel’s benefit.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2013)

Timothy Keller is probably my favourite modern day theologian. This was the fourth book from him that I’ve read and I am consistently impressed by both his knowledge and his practicality. I read this book slowly over several months. Not because it’s a difficult read but because there was so much in it that I wanted to slowly absorb. Keller speaks about suffering and sorrow both from a more detached point of view and from a personal one. He examines what suffering means, how our society reacts to it, how the Bible talks about it, and how Christians can deal with it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here. If you’ve experienced suffering (and if you’re human, you probably have) then you could find a great deal of comfort and assurance here.

Amnesia – Peter Carey (Knopf, 2015)

I really like Peter Carey’s books. I’ve read several and he’s a talented writer. He’s won the Booker Prize twice, so I’m certainly not alone in this opinion. I was excited to learn he had a book coming out this year and eagerly took the ARC that came my way. That said, I didn’t love Amnesia. Perhaps it was the unlikeable main character of Felix Moore. Perhaps it was the overabundance of computer/hacker talk. (Admittedly, much of it was over my head since I’m certainly not a computer person, but a lot of it reminded me of hackers in movies in the early 90s when characters could basically do anything and the answer was “hacking”.) Another problem was that most of the action of the novel takes place in the place and Felix is learning about it. Yes, there is some present-time action around Felix but I found it confusing and not particularly tense. I was never worried about Felix’s safety or his ultimate success. I don’t know if that’s because Carey didn’t do enough to build that tension or if it was just because I didn’t care much what happened to Felix.

Currently reading:

Daddy Lenin – Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Join me at the end of February* to read mini reviews of these and whatever else I manage to squeeze into the month.

*May not be precisely at the end of February because I’m due to give birth to a human child on or around March 1st.

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