What I Read – October 2015

The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney (Penguin Canada, 2006)

Read my review here.

The Bone Sharps – Tim Bowling (Gaspereau Press, 2007)

Read my review here.

Remembrance – Alistair MacLeod (McClelland & Stewart, 2012)

The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes (Vintage Canada, 2012)

Beatrice & VirgilYann Martel (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010)

The Talent Thief – Alex Williams (MacMillan Children’s Books, 2007)

Jack MaggsPeter Carey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)

If I Fall, If I Die – Michael Christie (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)

Love Wins – Rob Bell (HarperOne, 2011)

Every Good EndeavorTimothy Keller (Riverhead Books, 2012)

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Grace RiverRebecca Hendry (Brindle & Glass, 2009)

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

Pragmatism – William James (Dover Publications, Inc., 1995)

(An interesting read but I’m so far from qualified to review this so don’t hold your breath!)

The Bishop’s Man – Linden MacIntyre (Vintage Canada, 2009)

Read my review here.

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

Book Review: The Tawny Scrawny Lion by Kathryn Jackson, illus. by Gustaf Tenggren (Reading with Pearl)

Last Christmas my terrific brother-in-law and his lovely wife gave us a collection of Little Golden Books. We all remember Little Golden Books from our childhood, right? They’re awesome. I love reading books from my own kid days with Pearl. However, sometimes re-reading kids books as an adult casts a new light on them.

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(Spoilers ahead!)

What continent does this Lion live on? He’s feasting on bears, kangaroos, and camels all in one place? Is he in a zoo? What kind of zookeeper would allow this behaviour?

My fingers look weird.

My fingers look weird.

The animals don’t like being eaten (fair enough) so they elect the Rabbit to talk to the lion, framing it as a special privilege. The other animals are jerks. The poor little Rabbit is all proud of himself and the animals are telling him how he has to get right up close to the lion.

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Also, why is the rabbit the only one wearing clothes? It bothers me when children’s stories are inconsistent in this fashion. Either no animals should wear clothes or they all should! Otherwise I become uncomfortable with the animal nudity.

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That’s not exactly the face of someone excited to go somewhere. The Lion does seem alarmingly thin though.

Side note: I would be pretty upset if my brother described me to a stranger as “fat”. Do rabbits feel differently about this?

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This picture caused me to google “Do rabbits eat fish?” (It was not one of Google’s suggestions.)

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Onlinerabbitcare.com informs that, unfortunately, they cannot. I love the internet.

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The plot falls apart a bit here when it is never explained why the lion doesn’t simply gobble up all the fat little rabbits and the stew right away.

Please note that all the rabbits are wearing clothes. Is this part of normal forest (do they live in a forest? a jungle? again, what continent is this?) life? Rabbits wear clothes and other animals do not?

The rabbits then proceed to fill up the lion with carrot stew and berries. I can kind of buy that though it seems like they’d have to feed him a lot of stew. Is there enough left over for all the rabbits? Ten rabbits is a lot. (Do they all live together? Where are their parents? How old are these rabbits?)

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This is my favourite picture. A lion in a chair, cuddling with a bunch of rabbits. I have nothing negative to say about that.

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The Lion sleeps on a pile of straw but has a patchwork quilt to cover himself. Did he make this quilt for himself? Why does the image of a lion painstakingly piecing together a quilt and trying to hold a needle with his big lion paws make me feel so sad?

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Now everybody’s wearing clothes! That bear has a top hat and an umbrella – so fancy! Apparently, they are all dressed in their best. So wearing clothes is a special occasion type of thing? But rabbits are always dressed for a special occasion? Is that it?

The Lion remains naked.

Also, he really likes carrot stew. And everyone lived happily ever after. I guess.

Now, children, what have we learned from this story?

Book Review: The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

The Bishop's Man, Vintage Canada, 2009

The Bishop’s Man, Vintage Canada, 2009

I really disliked this book. It surprised me how much I disliked this book. And then it surprised me to remember that this book is a Giller prize winner*, an award that is highly respected within Canada. I’m not surprised that a book I don’t like won the Giller prize because literary enjoyment can be subjective and tastes differ and that’s fine. I’m surprised that this book won the Giller prize because I don’t think it’s well written.

There’s so much potential here in style and content but it never gets anywhere close to what it could and should be. The story jumps between times without warning, from one paragraph to the next, with seemingly no attempt to distinguish when or even where we are. There were multiple times while reading that I had to go back to re-read and try and figure out who was present and whether or not what was happening was occurring in the book’s present timeline or was past. I think jumps through time can be used effectively in novels and I’ve seen it done beautifully. It’s not done well here. Over and over again, these jumps took me out of the story and simply served to frustrate me.

The other big frustration was how little is stated in the novel. There’s subtlety and then there’s keeping secrets from the reader for no purpose. The novel is told in first person narration by Father Duncan and yet so much is withheld from us. If MacIntyre wished to keep the reader in the dark about so many things (everything, really, from Father Duncan’s childhood to his friendships in Honduras to everything currently happening in the novel beyond Father Duncan sitting around and drinking too much), a third person narrator probably would have been better. When a first person narrator continuously alludes to secrets that are crucial to the plot and yet never elaborates on them (even at the very end of the book!) you have to wonder why they’re even telling this story at all. There was so much of that, “in that place that I don’t want to name” or “at that time that I don’t want to talk about with the person I don’t want to remember”. Fine, don’t talk about it, but you were the one who brought it up, Father!

Added to these issues of style and narration, I also had a pretty big problem with the content. The story is set in the mid-1990s, amidst scandals and accusations of abuses in the Catholic church, specifically priests towards young boys. I think fiction can be a really powerful way to address and discuss real life, horrific issues, such as this, and I think this is a horrible part of church history that should be addressed and discussed. Father Duncan is the Bishop’s errand boy, in many ways, sent out over and over again to deal with “wayward” priests. To deal with them silently before the public, and especially the media, catch wind. It’s certainly an interesting plot and the potential for Duncan’s growing inner conflict is obvious. My problem was that there was one major area of inner conflict that MacIntyre never addresses and that is the inner spiritual conflict. It’s a pretty big gap when you consider that the main character is a man who has been a Catholic priest for more than twenty years. Over and over again I found myself thinking, “How on earth can you write a novel about a Catholic priest and never have him consider any spiritual issues?” We never see Father Duncan go to confession or pray or read his Bible. Through all the turmoil he goes through and feels (and has felt in the past), he never even seems to consider turning to God. If his growing distance from God was a part of the story, I could understand that, but it’s never addressed. It’s as if MacIntyre never considered that a priest might spend time considering spiritual matters. Or that a priest without God in his life would be a very lost man indeed. I don’t personally know any Catholic priests but I do know a number of pastors and ministers and people who work in Christian ministry and praying and reading the Bible is pretty much the first step for them in any decision making process and in any difficult time. And if it isn’t, that’s a big deal in their lives too. You can’t write a book about the church and then ignore the actual Church part of it. Or, as MacIntyre demonstrates, you can, but you really shouldn’t.

*The Bishop’s Man won the Giller Prize in 2009 which means it was up against The Golden Mean and The Winter Vault, two books I really enjoyed and now I feel outraged!

Book Review: The Bone Sharps by Tim Bowling

The Bone Sharps, Gaspereau Press, 2007

The Bone Sharps, Gaspereau Press, 2007

There are multiple stories occurring within the scope of this novel. We have Charles Hazelius Sternberg (a real life historical figure), a fossil hunter, creeping closer to the end of his career, possibly losing his mind in the Alberta badlands, in 1916. We have Sternberg’s young assistant, Scott Cameron, in the trenches of World War I in France. We have Sternberg, forty years previously, in 1876, working with his hero and mentor, Edward Drinkwater Cope. We have Sternberg’s assistant and Scott’s love, Lily, years in the future, in 1975, returning to the Alberta badlands on a mysterious task.

There’s a lot of potential in each of these story lines but unfortunately not a lot of payoff. While Bowling may be confined by the real life facts of Sternberg’s life, the novel still falls flat in some of its attempts. Bowling is also a poet and it shows in his writing. (And I mean that as a compliment.) His descriptions of the fossils, of the dry and arid lands where these bones are found, of the smells and sights, are rich, often beautiful, often uncomfortable in exactly the right way. Cope and Sternberg share a single-minded passion for finding these fossils in the “cemeteries of God” and they also share a religious fervour for their work that adds an interesting dynamic both to their relationships and their individual characters. Cope, in particular, seems like a highly nuanced, complicated man and I wished that the book delved deeper into his story.

Instead, we have a lot of time spent in 1916 with Sternberg dwelling on the past. In particular, he is obsessed with the death of his daughter twenty years earlier. I have no idea how such an experience would affect someone but as I read I kept thinking, “Why now?” Why is this section of the book set in 1916? Sternberg’s daughter’s death is years in the past and yet it seems to have come up afresh for him. But the book never explains this trigger and so, instead, Sternberg seems unhinged in a way that I’m not entirely sure we’re supposed to see him. We’re told that Lily’s presence reminds Sternberg of his daughter because she suffered from the same illness but even that event took place two years previous.

My best guess is that the setting is 1916 to create the juxtaposition of Sternberg searching for fossils in the badlands and Scott in the trenches of France. Scott is set up as a sort of version of Sternberg on a different path. Scott shares Sternberg’s enthusiasm and passion for fossil hunting and discovery – and some of his religious passion – but his time at the front is quickly diminishing all other desires other than survival. There’s a dullness to the sections about Scott that, while it doesn’t make for very exciting reading, does a good job of recreating the boredom of war. The reader, like Scott, is waiting for something to happen, knowing that that something might be death and tragedy.

One of the most fascinating things about both Cope and Sternberg, in my mind, is their fervent Christianity. While Bowling does a fine job of emphasizing how important faith is to each man (manifesting itself in somewhat different ways in their respective lives), I felt that there was a missed opportunity in exploring what it meant to be a scientist unearthing ancient fossils and a Christian at the end of the nineteenth century. Cope refers once, disparagingly, to Darwin but this is never explored further.

All in all, there are a lot of times this book almost gets somewhere but it never quite reaches its potential.

(I rarely comment on the actual physical look of a book because of that whole “judging books by their covers” thing, but this is a really beautifully made book. Gaspereau Press undoubtedly does fine work.)

Book Review: Death Benefits by Sarah N. Harvey

Death Benefits, Orca Book Publishers 2010

Death Benefits, Orca Book Publishers 2010

Royce is sixteen and has just moved with his mother across the country, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island. He’s bored, lonely, and biding his time until he can escape back east to his former life. In the meantime, his mother convinces him to take on the job of caring for her 95-year-old father. Arthur is a classically cantankerous old man, a once upon a time famous musician. He loves coffee and CNN, he’s rude to his daughters and flirtatious with every other woman. Royce hates him but the money’s good.

In many ways this young adult novel is exactly what you’d expect. Unlikely relationship blossoms between grandson and grandfather. Grandson learns things about his grandfather’s life that he never knew. All’s well that end’s well. There are definitely some aspects of that but fortunately Harvey does push further. Arthur isn’t likeable and he never becomes likeable. While Royce grows to have a sort of begrudging respect for his grandfather, there isn’t a whole lot that redeems their relationship. There just isn’t enough time and that’s exactly how life works. If you’re 95-years-old, chances are the end is not far off. And if someone’s spent most of those ninety-five years being charming with strangers but distant from his own family, that isn’t something that will change in a few weeks. The story offers a great glimpse at what it’s like to care for an ailing family member and all the mixed emotions that come with it.

In this way, the characterization of the novel is quite good. Arthur has some depth to him and Harvey leaves a lot of the right things unexplained. There are a fair number of unknowns in his grandfather’s life for Royce, just as most of us probably have when it comes to our grandparents. The flip side of this is that Royce’s character doesn’t have a lot of depth. It’s difficult to say what he’s all about. He likes girls and classic cars, he misses his old town and friends and then gradually misses them less. Those are all pretty normal things but the book doesn’t take us much further. Royce could really be anybody. There’s not a lot that makes him unique or shows me who he is. He isn’t forced to make many choices or stand up for anything or do much. Most of what happens in the novel, happens to him, and mostly because of Arthur. In that respect, even Royce’s mother felt like a more fully-rounded character than our protagonist.

Fortunately, the story has enough momentum to bring the reader through easily and I suspect anyone who has spent time with an aging relative, for better or worse, will feel sympathy.

Book Review: Peek-a-Zoo (Reading with Pearl)

Peek-a-Zoo, Scholastic, 2005

Peek-a-Zoo, Scholastic, 2005

We have this terrific early literacy program here on the Coast where each month an age-appropriate book is sent to your home for your child. (It’s done in partnership with Dolly Parton’s reading program.) I love it and Pearl’s already received several fun board books. (I always knew board books were great at this age but they’re even better than I thought. She can go to town gumming them and she can’t rip the pages. Every pretty picture book we own that is not a board book has been moved to the book shelf in her room that she can’t get to.) Peek-a-Zoo was the book we got recently when Pearl and I attended one of the local sessions. (You go once a season to stay on their list and learn some parenting stuff. We went around the room and everyone was asked to share what song their baby likes best. Everyone else was sharing nursery songs so I said Pearl’s favourite song was “Skinni-marinki-doo”, which she does like but I also didn’t want to admit that I never play nursery music for her and the song she gets most excited to hear right now is “No Devil” by San Fermin. Am I a bad mom?)

Pearl loves this book. Which concerns me because, honestly the plot is a mess.

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Page 1. Is this the aftermath of a horrific accident? Is that where the cat’s body went?

I mean, what’s going on here? There’s a baby in a car? Where is an adult, by the way? And then there’s a disembodied cat out of nowhere. Pictured below this is water with fish so is this some kind of water car? Is it going to hit the cat?

The plot doesn’t get better from there. The next page features a giant flower next to a teddy bear wearing a hat. By the end of the book there’s a lion, a baby, an elephant, and a bee in a house (seriously, don’t leave your baby alone with those animals) and the last page is just different textures and colours. Disappointing.

I can only hope that Pearl’s taste becomes more discerning with time.

But what does she really love about this book? There’s a mirror in the middle of it. And Pearl loves nothing more than staring at her own reflection.

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(She also loves finding out “what’s in here?” Spoiler: something bumpy.)

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Pearl likes to put her mouth right on the mouth of the baby in the mirror.

For the discerning reader, I just can’t recommend this book. While the book contains some fascinating concepts, there’s a lot of work to be done before we have a story truly worth following.

If you’re almost eight months old though and get really, really excited when you spot your own reflection? Yeah, this book is for you.

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Pearl Lately

Peter and Pearl on a family hike last weekend.

Peter and Pearl on a family hike last weekend.

Nearly eight months old. Still no teeth. Never stops moving. Wispy hair that just reaches her ear on one side. Tall enough that she’s now wearing some 12 month sized clothes.

Loves her dad. I mean seriously, loves that guy. She loves me and we spend our days together very happily but if he is around, that’s who she wants. From the time he walks in the door in the evenings, he has about twenty seconds to pick her up before she starts to get upset. Of course, now that she’s on the move, she is frantically trying to reach him as soon as she hears his voice.

Speaking of moving…there’s a lot of it. If I leave the room, there’s a little girl crawling after me. She pulls herself up to stand like a pro and will even take a couple of steps to the side while holding on to something. (So much earlier than we expected! We are not ready for this!) It might sound weird but she’s also getting good at falling. Much of the time she can kind of roll with the fall so she doesn’t bonk her head. And she can get back down from standing position by sticking out her bum and dropping down. Life skills.

Has a soother addiction. Seriously. Pearl was giving a soother in the hospital when she was in the NICU and had it a lot in the first month or so of life and then just sort of gave it up. I tried to give it to her a few times when sleeping was difficult but she never took it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, she found one in a box of toys, popped it in her mouth and hasn’t looked back. I like it because if she has a soother in her mouth, it means she can’t put things she finds on the floor in her mouth.

Refuses to nap for longer than thirty minutes at a time. I don’t know what happened but we’ve regressed. We’re working on it…Fortunately, the balance is that she is sleeping for longer stretches at night and that makes me happy.

All my reading to Pearl has finally paid off and she’s making great literature choices, as you can see here:

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That’s Pearl choosing her next book, just a light read from Nobel-prize winning author Jose Saramago. No big deal.

In other news, Pearl has discovered the book shelves in our living room.

(Check back tomorrow for a review of Pearl’s current favourite book. No, it’s not Blindness.)

Book Review: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

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The Tenderness of Wolves, Penguin Canada, 2006

This is a book with a surprisingly tight plot. I say surprisingly because there are a lot of plot lines going on here and yet each one is compelling, thoughtful, and well fleshed-out. There’s a murdered French trapper, a remote Hudson Bay Company fort, a Norwegian religious community, the twenty year disappearance of two young girls, among others.

Our story starts and is centred in the remote communities of Caulfield and Dove River. This is northern Canada in the 1860s. It’s isolated, it’s cold; the people live hard, simple lives where survival takes work. As is true of Canadian history, most characters have come from elsewhere. The exception being, of course, the First Nations peoples with whom the European settlers have varied and tenuous relationships. (Now explain what is meant by “Old Stock Canadians”, if you’ll grant me a political aside!) The body of an independent trapper, Laurent Jammet, is discovered by Mrs. Ross, a local farmer’s wife. While the story switches amongst characters, Mrs. Ross is the only voice given in first person, something I found to be an odd and not really necessary stylistic choice.

Jammet has clearly been murdered and so representatives of the Hudson Bay Company are called in to investigate. Mrs. Ross quickly realizes that her seventeen-year-old son, Francis, has been missing since the time of Jammet’s murder. The story branches out from there with more characters introduced and multiple journeys into the wild. You have characters tracking other characters who are themselves being tracked, all circling around the question of who killed Jammet and why. Does it have to do with a missing shipment of valuable furs? Or a possible link to evidence of a written Aboriginal language? Or is it a crime of a more passionate nature?

Penney does very well at creating a number of diverse and realistic characters who live in this unforgiving place. This isn’t a time or a location that invites a lot of philosophy or introspection and the characters portray this. These are people concerned with surviving each day. Even a man’s murder is more important because of its repercussions than because of the fact of a human death.

For the most part, the way the story splits off into multiple places and characters is done well and makes sense in the context given. The only strand that I thought could have easily been removed was the Norwegian religious colony. As well, there is a story woven in about the disappearance of two sisters years earlier that seemed more sensational than anything else and its conclusion rang slightly false.

Penney excels with description. The cold of Northern Canada, especially, comes across in biting detail and we are continuously reminded of the fine line that keeps these characters from death. And how sometimes a person might survive everything the wild can give them but die at the hands of another.

Next Book Review: Death Benefits by Sarah N. Harvey

there is a place in the heart

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

Book Review: My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith

My Secret Sister, Pan Books 2013

My Secret Sister, Pan Books 2013

Whether or not you agree with Tolstoy that all happy families are the same, it’s generally true that they’re not very interesting to read about.

Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith alternate in telling the stories of their lives. While they grew up near each other in England, they had drastically different childhoods. Jenny was an only child, much adored by her adopted parents, a little lonely but had a happy childhood. And while I’m happy for her, it’s not interesting to read about. (Perhaps if I were a golf fan, I would care more, as she became a professional golfer.)

On the other hand, Helen had a narcissistic mother and a violently abusive father. As she grew up she was continually told that the family’s unhappiness was her fault. Her parents were domineering and manipulative. To be honest, her section wasn’t very fun to read either. I pushed through it faster because I kept hoping to get to the part where Helen escapes. Where she stands up to her father and her mother and begins her independent life. But she never does. Even when she gets married and has children and Helen and her husband have their own home, they continue to allow her parents to live with them. There’s a scene where Helen’s father insists that Helen wash the dinner dishes at six o’clock every night. (Mind, this is in a home belonging to Helen and her husband.) When Helen protests, saying that’s the time when she puts her children to bed, her father insists. It turns out her parents have conspired so that Helen’s mother can put the children to bed every night. And Helen complies. She does the dishes and her husband helps her and her abusive mother puts her children to bed. It was heartbreaking and frustrating to read. Obviously, I struggle to understand it because, non-confrontational as I am, I’m pretty sure my response would be, “Screw that, I’ll wash my dishes when I want and I’ll put my own kids to bed.” It’s hard for me to really fathom how a lifetime of abuse can wear your will down. And since this is a true story, there isn’t really any salvation or justice. The bad guys don’t get punished, they just get older and die and then the heroes are free but they’re pretty tired by then and have already given up or lost too much.

So this was a sad story to me but I think it’s ultimately supposed to be a happy one. As you can see, the front cover gives away the dramatic conclusion. That these two women were twin sisters, one given away to a loving family, one kept and abused. I think the drama of the story would have been greater if the reader wasn’t quite sure of the connection between the two, or of who grew up with their “real” parents, but it’s spelled out on the back of the book and I think that was a poor choice. There are a few twists and turns as Helen and Jenny begin to untangle the lies and secrets that have shaped their lives. There are a lot of unanswered questions and that too is like real life.

Next Book Review: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney