What I Read – June 2015

Requiem for a Nun – William Faulkner (Penguin, 1961)

Aside from As I Lay Dying, I haven’t read much Faulkner so I can’t say whether or not this book is typical of his style. The format is definitely unique. The action of the story is a play, centred around the death of a child and a murder trial. But each act begins with a long narrative sequence about the history of this fictional location: Jefferson, Mississippi. We learn the history of this place and how it became a town, revolving around the building of the courthouse and jail. Faulkner’s talent shows here in long, winding sentences and excellent use of repetition. He’s given to some grandiose verbiage. Reading some of it aloud, there was a strong rhythm (Pearl seemed to enjoy it) and the repeated phrases add a lot of power to Faulkner’s message. I have no idea how those sections would work in an actual play though.

After finishing the book I learned that it’s a sequel, of sorts, to Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Until close to the end I felt a little lost as to what was going on but it is sufficiently explained without having to have read Sanctuary.

The long narrative sections serve to point the reader’s attention to a broader theme. The fact that Faulkner is telling a bigger story than Temple’s or Nancy’s. My pocketbook from the sixties touted Faulkner as a great voice for African-Americans in the South, which seems strange to me since he was definitely white, but he does offer a detailed look at history and race in the South. And be warned, the book doesn’t shy away from use of the n-word.

The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Last year I read and enjoyed Lawson’s novel Crow Lake and reading¬† The Other Side of the Bridge didn’t disappoint. Set again in a small town in the Canadian Shield, the two novels share some themes. Youthful desire for something bigger, sibling tensions, a story told over years. The book alternates between Arthur’s youth (farm boy molded by the Second World War) and Ian’s (1950s, doctor’s son who wants most of all to live in Toronto). I found both stories equally fascinating, something rare in many books.

My one gripe might be that there was so much death. Obviously, any book dealing with a world war is going to have a lot of death and I thought Lawson did a fine job of expressing the devastation that small towns so often experienced as they lost so many of their young men to war. My problem was that there seemed to be so many other deaths, not related to war and so, by the time we reached the final, climactic death, it didn’t feel as powerful to me. All in all though, an excellent read.

King – John Berger (Pantheon Books, 1999)

I think John Berger is one of those authors people either love or hate. I was first introduced to Berger in a university writing course when we were assigned to read To The Wedding. I adored it and remember telling a classmate so. His response was to hiss at me, using his fingers to make the sign of the cross. So no, Berger’s not for everyone.

King is a strange novel. It seems to be set in a slightly altered version of the real world. Our narrator is a dog. Or maybe a person who is treated like a dog. Or maybe a dog who can talk.¬† It’s a novel about homelessness, disenfranchisement, friendship, love, value. It’s mostly very sad.

Where the novel doesn’t work is in the number of characters. There are too many. The other option would be for the novel to be much longer (it’s quite short) so that more time could be devoted to helping us care about each one of these people. As it is, the climax centres around characters we hardly know. Though, considering the novel is about the homeless, maybe that’s Berger’s point.

The Book of Someday – Dianne Dixon (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013)

This is a terrible book. I picked it up second hand because tucked in the front page was a note from one friend to another saying how enjoyable it was. My mistake for trusting that, I suppose.

The story alternates between three women – Livvi, Micah, and AnnaLee. Livvi and Micah’s stories are set in the modern day while AnnaLee’s is set in the 1980s. There is a mystery that connects these three women and any astute reader will be able to figure it out approximately halfway through. The idea of the novel is interesting enough that I did finish it all the way through (plus it’s not a hard read) but it’s just so poorly written. I almost feel bad saying that but I also feel bad about spending my time reading this terrible book.

The characters are poorly developed – there’s really very little that makes each woman unique, aside from the superficial (and even there they all happen to be stunningly beautiful with gorgeous hair). Livvi, who is the main character, is a spineless victim. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her because she had a sad childhood (though this is not well fleshed out at all) but she’s such a cardboard character who only responds to what’s being done to her. Part of her “character development” (that term feels generous for this novel) is her love for a little girl but the way she gloms onto someone else’s kid after meeting her only once seemed really inappropriate.

The real issue though is simply poor writing. Dixon tries for drama with awkward sentences. Sentence breaks. They can create pause. And drama. They make the reader stop. And think. But when you do it? All the time? It loses its power. And it’s annoying.

Dialogue is rough too. Real people don’t just murmur profound thoughts all the time. Doesn’t happen.

Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books, 2012)

This was a quirky, fairly fun read. A bit of a mystery, a strange sort of romance. It has Ponzi schemes, contract killings, rock stars and ballet. Mix in some cooking and football and you have an eclectic story. It was an easy read and kept me interested until the end. The characters were so over the top as to seem more like caricatures or cartoons than people you might meet in real life but the book doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead seems to be telling a story from some sort of alternate reality.

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque (Fawcett Columbine, 1958)

translated from German by A.W. Wheen

But for peace? Are we suitable? Are we fit now for anything but soldiering?

I initially intended to read The Road Back after a re-read of All Quiet on the Western Front. This book is a sequel to that more famous one and follows Ernst and his troop as they return to Germany after the end of World War One. Turns out I don’t actually own All Quiet and, in the end, I didn’t need to re-read it to follow along. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this is a hard read. It’s bleak and heavy and brutally honest. (Remarque was drafted into the German army during the First World War so it’s easy to believe he speaks from his own harsh experience.) And like its precursor, this book doesn’t shy away from showing the brutalities of war and the horrific ways it affects people. Ernst and his friends were young men, taken out of school so that they could fight someone else’s war. They are still young men when they return to a beaten and demoralized (and largely impoverished) Germany but they have been made old in a way that no one around them understands.

There’s a particularly poignant scene (in a book full of powerful scenes) where Ernst, who has only just returned home and seen his family again, leaves the house in search for the other men in his troop. Although these men are vastly different (and these differences only become stronger when they are taken away from their wartime setting), they are the only people that Ernst can talk to or spend time with now.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this is a sad but important book. Given how a major theme of the story is the impossibility of others being able to understand these young soldiers, the novel feels like Remarque’s attempt at shouting into a void, hoping someone might hear him. The least we can do is listen.

The Brooklyn Follies – Paul Auster (Picador, 2009)

I’ve read one Auster book previously and reading this one made it clear that I started with the wrong novel. I read Travels in the Scriptorium about two years ago and by the time I finished it, I realized it was a book meant for Auster’s fans, filled with references to his other works. The Brooklyn Follies was much more accessible to a first-time reader. There isn’t much plot – it’s more like a collection of stories of events that happen and are all related. But as you learn about our narrator’s own writings and goals this makes sense and fits in as something Nathan Glass would have written. The stories are interesting and the book is easy to read. I did find the ending unsatisfying – Auster concludes the story well but then feels the need to tack on something unrelated and, frankly, rather emotionally manipulative. If the book had ended a chapter or two earlier, I think it would have been much better.

The Effects of Light – Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (Warner Books, 2005)

While not an amazingly well-written book, this novel wasn’t terrible and it was a fairly engaging read. I’ll admit that I skimmed over many of the book’s multiple paragraphs that read like lectures on art and philosophy, masquerading as character dialogue. They made the characters seem a little too impressed with themselves (we’re told over and over again how smart everyone is). It read like the author had a lot of thoughts on these subjects and wanted to expound upon them when she would have been better putting them in a separate essay or thesis paper.

My main problem with this novel is a moral one. The central issue of the story involves two sisters and a family friend who takes their photograph. Starting when the girls are toddlers and continuing into their teen years, this photographer becomes famous capturing images of our main character, Myla, and her younger sister. The issue? The girls are naked in many of these photos, which are then displayed in galleries and sold.

The novel and its main characters really want to convince you that this is art and that preventing these photos from being seen would be censorship. Myla – who is an adult when we meet her – is so adamant that the photos are beautiful that she becomes insanely angry at anyone who might suggest otherwise. It seems highly unrealistic to me that, as an adult, her opinion of these childhood experiences wouldn’t be slightly more complex.

I actually felt very bothered reading this book and when I got to the end and realized I was supposed to feel glad that the pictures existed, I was upset. I can agree that photos of naked children are not necessarily child pornography. (The book stresses that there is nothing sexual about the photos or in the photographer’s desire to take them.) The characters talk continuously of how they capture the children’s innocence. This is the defense of their father, who has allowed these photos to be taken, displayed and sold. Yes, childhood nudity is innocent. Likely all of us have pictures of ourselves as babies and toddlers in the bathtub. I have them of my daughter. But here’s the thing – you will never see those photos on this blog. You will never see them displayed in a public space. And if you ever do, it will be because my daughter is an adult and has made that decision for herself. Childhood nudity is innocent but not all who look at it are innocent. That’s a horrible truth of our world.

The novel tells us over and over again that the girls like the photos, that it’s their choice to be in them and that the adults around them respect that choice. My problem here is that these are children. Children who don’t have the knowledge of the world to understand that there may be people looking at their pictures with sick minds and twisted motives. You don’t leave decisions like this up to children. Ultimately, one of the sisters is murdered. Because she appears in these photographs. And yet, the author still seems to want us to agree that these pictures are a good thing.

I may be getting too worked up about fiction (though really I think that’s a compliment to Beverley-Whittemore) but I think there are some real life issues at play here and I think it’s dangerous for a novel to present child exploitation as art and pretend that it’s okay.

Currently Reading:

Confessions of St. Augustine

“Up, Lord, and do; stir us up, and recall us; kindle and draw us; inflame, grow sweet unto us; let us now love, let us run.”

Ten Thousand Lovers –¬†Edeet Ravel

Check back tomorrow to see what Pearl and I have been reading!

A Dress for June

IMG_5577

Unlike the past two years, I am making no attempt to do my usual 30 Day Dress Challenge. I still own lots of dresses but, to be completely honest, I do not currently own 30 dresses that fit me. (Just because something zips, doesn’t mean it fits!) Plus, in past Junes I’ve been working and had places to go most days where wearing dresses could make sense. This June I’m spending more time in shorts and tank tops than ever before. And I’m perfectly happy with that.

That said, here’s Pearl and I all dressed up for a party last weekend. Pearl’s ballerina-style dress was a gift from a friend and it’s delightfully fancy. (She doesn’t look overly impressed though, does she?) I suppose time will tell if my little girl is also a dress lover.

Pearl’s Dad

IMG_5470This guy.

It’s no surprise that he is an awesome dad to our little girl. Anyone who knows him knows how great he is with little kids. I remember bringing him to meet my brother’s family. My oldest niece was only two and she and Peter played blocks together while I held her baby brother. We’d been there for a while when she suddenly turned to me to ask, “Who is that guy?” Today he is a hugely adored uncle.

IMG_5553

Peter was first to see Pearl, as the pediatricians checked her carefully in the OR. She reached up and grabbed hold of his finger. He was with our girl on the first day of her life when I couldn’t be. There has been so much sorrow and so much more joy on our journey to parenthood over the past year and Peter and I have walked every step together and for that I am thankful every day.

IMG_2226

When Pearl was a couple of weeks old, Peter mentioned that he had never changed a diaper until she was born. But he watched the nurses do it and he learned on the job. We both are learning every day how to be parents and there is no one I would rather do this with.

IMG_5529

Happy Father’s Day.

(And a happy Father’s day to my own dad and to Peter’s dad, who are also pretty great at what they do.)

This Time Last Year

IMG_5544In the centre of our town there is a beautiful open air pavilion, shaded by trees. Every spring, at the beginning of June, our church meets there to hold a Sunday morning service. It’s a normal service in a special location.

A year ago, standing in that pavilion, singing along with the worship band and the rest of the congregation, God spoke to me.

A year ago, I was coming out of a difficult time. I had been praying hard and trying to accept that maybe God’s answer to what I wanted was, “Not yet.” Or “no.” But that morning, in that place, God spoke to me softly and His answer was, “Yes.”

I have had three experiences where I have been sure God was speaking to me and that was one of them. A deep, solid assurance. A promise made. This is what I heard: ” When you return here next year, your baby will be with you.”

It was so powerful it was frightening. I was afraid that it was my wishful thinking, that I was creating false hope for myself. What I didn’t know – what I couldn’t know for another two weeks – was that I was already pregnant.

I repeated that promise many times over the next nine months. In the early weeks when I was so afraid of losing another pregnancy. Through a tearful call to my doctor one night, wanting desperately to know, Is this normal? Through a second trip to the ultrasound department and, this time, a beating heart. And through those final two weeks as we waited for our child and prayed for her organs to keep growing, keep working. Those final two weeks, that unexpected wait in Vancouver. God’s promise was in the forefront of my mind and I knew that this baby, whatever her health or abilities, was the one God had planned for us.

Last Sunday I stood again in that shaded pavilion. I stood and worshipped with Pearl in my arms. She fussed a little and she tested out her voice with coos. She’s getting heavy these days and before the songs were through I passed her over to Peter. She fell asleep, her head against his shoulder.

God keeps His promises.

I don’t know why I’ve been given so much and others have not. It’s humbling and a reminder every day that our God’s mercy so vastly outstrips our worthiness. I’m not worthy. But I believe that God wept with me in sorrow and rejoices with me in gladness. I believe He looks down at my girl and smiles, delighted with His creation.

What I Read – May 2015

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

It’s been a while since I read this one and so I’d forgotten that, well, not much happens in the story. It’s a creative idea – bringing the Pevensie kids hundreds of years forward in Narnian history so that their return is like the return of King Arthur – but it sort of falters on the action front. By the time the kids reach Caspian, the book is almost over and the final “fight” is kind of anti-climactic.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage, 1994)

I knew this was a book about World War One and so as I began to read the first section, I was surprised by its content. Beginning in France in 1910, it obviously doesn’t start with the war but the action is really of an entirely different sort. From there we jump to 1916 into the heart of trench warfare. Faulks does a heartbreakingly good job of showing the horrors of this war and just what a war of attrition looks like. By focusing on a few different characters with different roles, we see the myriad of ways that war affects and scars people.

I disliked the sections where the story jumped forward to 1978 and felt that they added nothing to the plot. I also found it pretty unbelievable that Elizabeth was an educated woman in her thirties, in England, and seemed to know nothing about World War 1. I knew more than her by the time I graduated high school and I would assume the world wars are also taught in English schools. Her ignorance felt false, simply for the sake of the plotline which, as I said, added nothing to the book over all.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

This story is unique in the Chronicles of Narnia as it’s the only story that doesn’t involve a child from our world entering Narnia. Set during Peter’s reign as High King, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy all make an appearance but our main character is Shasta, a young boy growing up in Calormene. Shasta makes his escape with a talking horse called Bree and the two have a few adventures as they travel to Narnia and the North. This one is a straight-up adventure story and a fun one to read aloud (you get to do a horse voice!).

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

My favourite of the Narnia series. I love sea stories and this one has it all – mysterious islands, a sea serpent, merpeople. I love the development of Eustace’s character and the friendship he and the Pevensies have with Caspian. I think Lewis’ imagination shines as he creates multiple adventures for the children. I could re-read this book forever.

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

As a child, this was the scariest Narnia book for me and so I’ve probably read it the fewest times. I think it’s the idea of being trapped underground plus being under a curse for ten years. The giants freaked me out too. It still strikes me as one of the bleaker books. The weather is bad even when Eustace and Jill are above ground and they never seem to experience that magical, beautiful aspect of Narnia like the others do. I did find Puddleglum much more charming than I used to though. And I applaud Lewis for taking the reader to a whole new region of this imaginary land.

Raised from the Ground by Jose Saramago

I have to be honest and say that I didn’t finish this book. That isn’t anything against Saramago (his book Blindness is one of the best I’ve ever read). It’s more about my life right now. Saramago has a very distinct style. He doesn’t use quotation marks and he moves very fluidly between time and characters. Add that to the Portuguese names and the fact that I was trying to read it in ten or fifteen minute chunks and I just didn’t seem to be able to keep up with what was going on and who these people were. It’s a multi-generational tale of Portuguese history and I hope to approach it again when I have the attention span for it.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (Bantam Books, 1964)

This was a re-read. Something simple and quick to read after I gave up on Saramago. Great to read at 4 in the morning when you’re struggling to stay awake.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

I remember not liking The Magician’s Nephew that much as a kid. Maybe because the characters seem more disconnected from the other Narnia stories? I’m not sure now. It’s actually quite a beautiful creation tale. There is a beautiful scene where Digory longs to ask Aslan to save his mother’s life and when he looks in the lion’s face he sees that Aslan is weeping with him.

“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

I think this was the first book I ever read where the heroes lose (uh, do I need to call spoilers on this?). Of course, if you keep reading past that final battle, you’ll see that they’ve really won. But it’s still awful to read about Jill trying to keep her bowstring dry as she weeps over Eustace’s death, or the horrible scene where the horses are all killed. It’s a sad book and it gets sadder until suddenly the reader and the characters get to see the bigger picture, the bigger plan. It’s an unusual way to end a children’s fantasy series but fits in well with the larger, allegorical tale that Lewis is telling.

Though I always did feel really sorry for Susan.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Touchstone, 1995)

(translated by R.H. Fuller)

I started reading this one back in January and have been picking at it slowly over the last few months. Executed in 1945 after imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, Bonhoeffer is certainly an inspirational figure. This version included a short biography of him at the beginning that was very informative and put his writing into a larger perspective. I found the book to be a dense read but with a lot of wonderful thoughts (not always concisely put). I was underlining and jotting down in my journal and folding pages a lot.

I thought the chapter about the visible church and the church body was fascinating, especially in light of Bonhoeffer’s later life and death. (He was only 39 when he was killed.) He writes about respecting the way things are in the world and how, as Christians, it is not necessarily our place to incite revolution or change ruling powers. Obviously, his thoughts on this seem to have altered as he was faced with the growing evil of the Nazi regime, but I think his basic meaning here stayed the same. There’s lots of good stuff here.

Currently reading:

Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner

Confessions by St. Augustine

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl