What I Read – January 2016

Daydreams of Angels – Heather O’Neill (Harper Collins, 2015)

Transatlantic – Colum McCann (Harper Perennial, 2013)

The Humans – Matt Haig (Harper Collins, 2013)

Fifteen Dogs – AndrĂ© Alexis (Coach House Books, 2015)

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Thirteen Ways of LookingColum McCann (Harper Collins, 2015)

The Company She Keeps – Mary McCarthy (Penguin Books, 1966)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

(2016’s going to be the year I finish Don Quixote! I’m 99% sure!)

Honour is something that a poor man can have, but not a dissolute one; poverty can cast a cloud over nobility, but cannot hide it altogether; but if virtue gives out a glimmer of light, even if only through the chinks and straits of penury, it will be valued and therefor favoured by lofty and noble spirits.

Miguel de Cervantes

Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis

The great work of art was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to the curve of every wave and the flight of every insect.

C.S. Lewis

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai

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Book Review: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (Reading with Pearl)

IMG_6240I’m Scottish in the way that a lot of Canadians are. Meaning, a couple hundred years ago some people came from Scotland and had children and they had children and on down the line until I was born. And, like most Canadians again, the Scotishness got mixed up with other Europeans and folks from around the world and so by the time you get to me, you have someone not that Scottish at all. That said, my maiden name is a pretty classic Scottish name so it’s one of the more obvious heritages I have and so I like to claim it as my own.

In my mind, there are two Roberts who are important names in Scottish literature – Robbie Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is a classic children’s author – adventure, fantasy, swashbuckling. He is, of course, the writer of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as Kidnapped. Of those three, I had never read this one and so I plucked it off the shelf and started reading it aloud with Pearl. (I had a lot of fun doing terrible Scottish accents.)

Kidnapped is not an entirely accurate title for this book. But Kidnapped and Shipwrecked, Followed By A Lot Of Wandering Around Being Grumpy And Then Visiting A Lawyer is a much less catchy title.

David Balfour is about eighteen when his father dies, leaving him an orphan. He goes off to seek his uncle, Ebenezer, who is a miserly old wretch living in the family’s ancestral home. (Are there any kindly, generous Ebenezer characters in literature?) David begins to suspect that the estate and wealth is rightfully his but before he can discover the truth, his uncle tricks him into boarding the brig Covenant, captained by the devious Hoseason. Here is the kidnapping of the title and it seems that David’s fate is to be sold as a slave in the Carolinas.

The ship is a lawless, dangerous place, full of drink and abuse and, eventually a murder. David finds an unexpected ally though when the brig hits a boat in the fog and takes aboard the lone survivor, Alan Breck. Alan is a Highland rebel, a Jacobite, and although David himself is a Whig, they join forces to fight off Hoseason and his men. During this stand-off, the brig is sunk and David is cast ashore on a small island, alone, in the Highlands. (The island turns out to be a peninsula, which I found super anti-climactic.)

David is reunited with Alan and the rest of the story is the two of them trying to return to the Lowlands, where David can come into his inheritance and Alan, as a Jacobite, can flee to France. Throw in the fact that they are prime suspects in the murder of an important and tyrannical administrator of King George, and David and Alan must sneak through the heather of the Highlands, meeting and hiding with a few other Highland rebels. A basic knowledge of Scottish history comes in very handy here.

There is a lot that could be exciting here and I did find the story of the Highlanders very interesting. Like David himself, I can’t help but find something noble in the stories of these Jacobites with their outlawed plaids and fierce clan loyalty. Unfortunately, so much of the story is devoted to David and Alan creeping through the heather and over the moors and sniping at each other and being cold and hungry and then David gets sick and I’m sure it’s all realistic but it’s kind of boring to read about, chapter after chapter.

Even the conclusion, which should be exciting, mostly takes place in a lawyer’s office – one of the less exciting places in the world. Apparently, Catriona is a sequel to this book and I would be interested to see what further befalls David Balfour, which, I suppose, means Stevenson did something right in his tale.

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006)

Coincidentally, I began reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma around the same time that my daughter began eating solid foods. Food was on my mind. I quickly realized I was being more discerning about what Pearl ate than I ever am about my own diet. Thinking and planning what my girl should eat, and how she should be introduced to various foods, has effected what I eat and when and how.

In this book, Pollan addresses “the omnivore’s dilemma”. Basically, What do you have for dinner when you can eat anything? As omnivores, we have the advantage of being able to eat, digest, and obtain nutrients from an abundance of foods (unlike koalas, for example). So why do we eat certain things and not others? How has the way we eat changed with industrialization and modern farming? Why? Should we care about these changes? (Pollan suggests the answer is yes and he makes a compelling argument.)

Pollan forms the book around meals. A fast food meal from McDonalds. A meal cooked at home from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods. A meal cooked with ingredients from his week spent working on a sustainable form. A meal cooked with ingredients which he hunted, gathered, or foraged himself.

The book starts off with corn. I knew, in a sort of peripheral way, that corn shows up in a lot of our food these days. For example, did you know that many yogurts contain corn in some form? Pollan delves into why this is and how agriculture reached this point. As while as time spent in the corn fields, he follows the life of beef cattle (fed on corn) – the kind that end up in a McDonalds’ burger. Pollan focuses on the American system of agriculture, which made me interested to learn more about how these things work in Canada and whether it’s better, worse, or similar. (I can tell you that I’ve never seen eggs for sale at ninety-seven cents a dozen, a price Pollan refers to more than once.)

Next, Pollan moves to Whole Foods and what he terms “Big Organic”. Organic food has become a major market in recent years and I found this part fascinating as Pollan explores whether this “Big Organic” way of eating is much better, and much different, than the standard forms of agriculture. He looks into what some of the terms associated actually mean (What do the lives of free range chickens look like, for example? Answer: not that much better than the rest, unfortunately) and takes us to the hippie beginnings of organic food in the U.S. and how it’s grown and changed from there.

My favourite section was next, where Pollan spends a week on a sustainable farm, learning about grass, cattle, chickens, and everything in between. In my mind, this farm and the way of eating it presents, is ideal. Pollan presents it with sentimentality though and is up front about the difficulties of eating this way in our modern culture and cities. (Accessibility being prime among them.)

I thought the weakest section (maybe the most self-indulgent, because clearly Pollan included it simply because he enjoyed it) was the final one, where Pollan makes a meal comprised of items he has hunted, foraged, and gathered. While some of it felt more relevant than others (mushroom hunting vs. boar hunting, for example) it didn’t have a lot of practical relevance. Very few of us are going to, or are even capable of, hunting and gathering for our food. If Pollan’s goal was to open his readers’ eyes to where our food comes from and the moral questions that raises, this section doesn’t aid his objective. It read more as an experiment he simply wanted to conduct for himself.

The book is well-written and well-researched and, mostly, seems balanced in its portrayals. It’s raised some interesting conversations about food in our house at least.

Book Review: No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

No Great Mischief - Alistair MacLeod (W.W.Norton & Co, 2000)

No Great Mischief – Alistair MacLeod (W.W.Norton & Co, 2000)

I was surprised to realize that No Great Mischief is Alistair MacLeod’s only novel. He’s a well-known name in Canadian literature but his reputation comes largely from his short stories. In his novel he displays the same careful prose – each word chosen with deliberation and intent.

Like the rest of his writing, No Great Mischief is set in Cape Breton. The novel’s main character is Alexander MacDonald, better known as gille beag ruadh, (Gaelic for “little red-headed boy). He is one of multiple Alexander MacDonalds in his family – the clan of Calum Ruadh. Slowly, as our narrator, he unfolds the story of his family, all the way back to their shared ancestor, Calum Ruadh, who arrived in Canada at the age of fifty-five with his many sons and daughters. It is a complicated web of family, slowly spreading across the country as time and culture changes, but remaining fiercely loyal to the legend of Calum Ruadh and each other. Red-hair and twins run in the family, both of which our narrator has. He is also an orphan, a toddler when his parents were killed in a winter accident. While he and his twin sister were taken in by his grandparents, three older brothers were left on their own. Independent and yet protected within the family, growing up wild and unstoppable, until eventually, inevitably, tragedy strikes.

This all unfolds slowly, methodically. So slowly, in fact, that the story feels like it has very little plot. In the present tense, our narrator is visiting his oldest brother at a run-down apartment in Toronto. A lot of the present action involves him standing in a liquor store, trying to decide what to buy. (That part’s about as interesting as it sounds.) Fortunately, the real action of this tale unfolds in the past. In our narrator’s youth, living and working with his brothers. What family loyalty brings and what it takes.

No Great Mischief offers a snapshot of a family, of Canada (at least, a certain part of it), of immigration and how life changes – both for an individual and on a larger scale.

Book Review: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl - John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

I had never read this short novella by John Steinbeck and, seeing as I have a daughter named Pearl, it seemed like it was time to cross this one off the list.

Set in an unnamed village on the Gulf of Mexico, the story follows Kino, a poor fisherman and pearl diver, who finds what comes to be called The Pearl of the World. A pearl of remarkable size and beauty. This pearl can change Kino’s life. It can allow Kino and his wife, Juana, to be married in the church. It can provide the means for his son, Cuyotito’s education and end the cycle of poverty that Kino, his family, and the other villagers live within.

The story begins just before Kino finds this pearl, when his infant son is stung by a scorpion. The doctor, knowing that Kino is poor, refuses to see the child. Amidst this tension and injustice, Kino finds the perfect jewel from the sea. Kino is right that this pearl will change his life forever but he turns out to be wrong as to how that change will occur.

The story is short and moves along quickly. Steinbeck tells it with a myth-like quality. Most of the characters are unnamed and the villains are faceless, almost shapeless, dark forms that begin to circle around Kino and his family with their unexpected wealth. Kino seems to represent his entire community – the trapped nature of poverty, the potential for something different to change their lives and the dangers that brings. When Kino thinks of his son being educated, it is with the idea that this will allow their whole community to benefit by having someone more privileged on their side.

In one scene, Kino and his brother discuss a local story of a man who tried to change his life:

“I know,” said Kino. “I have heard our father tell of it. It was a good idea, but it was against religion, and the Father made that very clear. The loss of the pearl was a punishment visited on those who tried to leave their station.

There is the pervasive feeling that Kino too will be punished for his desire to change his life, for something better. With this foreshadowing, and knowing Steinbeck, the ending of the tale isn’t necessarily a surprise. This is a brutal and tragic story, forcefully and beautifully told.

Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

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Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

Adam Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set in North Korea. Johnson returns to the subject of North Korea in the title story of this collection, Fortune Smiles, but that story and the others here are very diverse.

Johnson’s slightly cynical style and his frequent focus on pop culture and technology reminded me of Douglas Coupland. (At least, earlier Coupland, not so much the grumpy old man style Coupland seems to be nurturing in recent years.)

There’s a story about a man with a dying wife who creates a sort of hologram of a recently assassinated president that’s subtly packed with all kinds of thoughts and theories on modern life, on memory, on our interactions with technology. There’s a story so clearly based on Johnson’s own wife and family that I took to Google to find out if his wife was still alive because I questioned whether or not anyone would allow such a story to be told. There’s a story told from the perspective of a pedophile that I really struggled to finish and kind of felt awful about afterward and I still can’t quite decide if that’s a sign of how good it was or how terrible. And there’s a story about North Korea – this time about defectors attempting to live their lives in Seoul.

It’s a diverse group of characters and a strong variety of settings. San Francisco, Gangnam district, New Orleans post-Katrina, an East German prison after the Wall came down. These are characters in the hardest situations of their lives. Whether that’s the death of a loved one or trying to raise a son foisted on you by a one-time girlfriend or dealing with the collapse of your marriage because you were once the warden of a Stasi prison. Yeah, like I said, diverse.

Johnson clearly takes his time with the details and he gets his research right. The details add to the stories without being overpowering. Most of the tales are dark but not all are entirely unhappy. Johnson’s voice feels much stronger and more noticeable behind these stories than in The Orphan Master’s Son but I certainly don’t think that’s a bad thing. I look forward to reading his next novel and seeing what new direction he goes in.

All the Many Parts

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Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

This weekend we celebrated Pearl’s dedication at our church. This is the event where Peter and I, as her parents, make a public declaration of our intent to raise Pearl to know the Lord and we acknowledge her life as a gift from God. It’s also a time when our church promises to help us in this endeavour. I have always loved baby dedications and it was so wonderful to celebrate this moment in our girl’s life.

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It can be a daunting thought – to take on the responsibility of another human’s spiritual growth. It is our hope and prayer that as Pearl grows, she will know God in a powerful and meaningful way. And the beautiful thing is that Peter and I are not left to this responsibility alone.

When I think back to the weeks and events leading up to my pregnancy with Pearl, it was a time when I felt God’s presence very closely in my life. A hard and difficult time but there were moments of beauty, when I felt closer to my Saviour than I ever had before.

As I was remembering those moments, I wondered why I haven’t felt that same presence of God in the months since Pearl was born. And then I realized – I have. It just looked a little different. God was in the hands that our church elders laid on Peter and I as we prepared to meet our child, not knowing what her health would be. God was in the voices and prayers of people around the world who prayed with and for us as we waited, who prayed as we were in the hospital, who celebrated when Pearl was born. He was present in the e-mails, the text messages, the phone calls, the cards. God was at work in His body, His church. And His body has fed us and prayed for us, held our baby and showered us with love in the months since. Looking back over the first ten months of parenthood, we have been so blessed by our community and this weekend we were blessed once more as they stood with us, promising to help us raise this little one.

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We were fortunate, too, to have both sides of our family be there with us. Our little house was full of food, games, and mattresses on the floor for the weekend!

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Book Review: The People’s Act of Love by James Meek

IMG_6138This book suffered from what I’ve come to think of as “my 2:30 am problem”. That’s where I start reading a new book in the middle of the night while up nursing. A good book is typically how I stay awake for these sessions (and if a book is really good I’ve been known to keep reading while holding a sleeping baby). It does not, however, work well when I start a book in the middle of the night. Half-asleep, I generally have a hard time getting a grasp on what’s happening and who the characters are. Throw in a bunch of Russian/Czech names and unfamiliar places and a requirement of dredging up my early 20th century historical knowledge and it took me far too long to get into this one.

All that to say, this was really a “it’s not you, it’s me” problem and the book is quite good. Dark, yes, but it’s Siberia in 1920. And while I find the first few chapters confusing, once the storyline settles in the town of Yazyk, it really finds its stride. We have the Czechoslovak Legion, a group of Czech soldiers who have yet to set foot in the newly-created Czechoslovakia. There are the villagers, a strange group who are clearly hiding something. And there’s the enigmatic character of Anna Petrovna, a widow who lives in the village but is not a part of it. Meeks does a great job here, having characters talk mysteriously about Anna, showing us a picture of her, so that by the time we meet her, we’re sitting up and paying attention. (Again, by this point in the novel it was daytime so I was a better reader.)

There’s also a mysterious man called the Mohican and an escaped convict named Samarin who has just arrived in Yazyk with a grizzly story to tell. The plot takes a dark and disturbing turn as Samarin details his escape from a Siberian prison and from there the action really gets moving.

Some knowledge of the Russian Revolution definitely helps with reading this novel but much of what’s interesting in it comes from the characters themselves. It’s about what motivates people, the places you call home and what that means, what love looks like, and how it can be perverted. Perhaps Meeks’ boldest choice is writing a novel that doesn’t truly have a hero. Filled with dynamic characters, each deeply flawed, sometimes in horrifying ways. Yet I wanted to root for almost all of them. In this vein, the conclusion of the novel is surprisingly satisfying. (Except for Anna Petrovna – I didn’t like her final choice but I won’t wreck the surprise for you!)

Book Review: Abroad by Katie Crouch

IMG_6119This is one of those books that dwells in my mind for days after I finished it. So while it might not be the most literary or the most well-written, it certainly succeeds on some level.

The novel is a not-at-all thinly veiled re-telling of the murder of Meredith Kercher. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because the name of Amanda Knox has taken over the story in popular media.

Abroad is the story of Tabitha Deacon, an Irish girl in her early twenties, on a year-long exchange to Italy. She will spend the next year in Grifonia, living in a rundown little cottage with two Italian roommates and another exchange student, an American named Claire. Tabitha, or Taz as her friends call her, is studious, a little shy, but looking forward to a year of new adventures, of being someone different, away from everyone who knows her. Claire is beautiful, vivacious, impulsive, and affectionate. The two girls become friends although their social circles remain largely apart.

Taz’s social circle becomes the B4 – Jenny, Luka, and Anna – three dazzlingly beautiful and wealthy British girls who attract attention and power everywhere they go. When they invite Taz to complete their foursome, she knows she doesn’t quite fit in but she is excited to join their circle. With the B4 she is part of a desired circle, with access to extravagant parties and places. It’s clear from early on that while Taz is part of their group, she isn’t close with any of the girls and they are holding her at arm’s length from the true dynamics of their friendship. Compared to this, Claire offers a friendship that is almost immediately too close.

There’s a key conversation between two of the characters about how they “get to be this happy right now”. It was a great expression of how young adulthood is so often viewed – as if your twenties are the only time you truly have to be free and happy before you are saddled with real responsibilities and life grows more and more depressing. While some of this is true – Taz, for example, is living on her father’s dime and her responsibilities are limited to her schooling (which she doesn’t seem to devote much time or energy too). But as someone fresh out of my twenties, I can’t help but rebel against this fallacy. I loved my early twenties and I loved the freedom and atmosphere of university and the friendships I had there. (Much healthier relationships than Taz has, by the way.) But I’ve also loved the adventures and responsibilities that my late twenties and, now, my thirties have brought. Happiness is not a finite resource. We can have it at different times of our life and part of the tragedy of Taz’s life and death is that she never learns this.

Much of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that the reader knows early on that Taz will be murdered. Taz is the narrator of the story (reminiscent of The Lovely Bones though not, I think, as well-rendered) and refers to her own murder though how it happens and why and by whose hand remains a mystery until the very end. As well, throughout the book are historical stories of “good deaths” and a mysterious society who orchestrates these deaths, always of young women. The novel puts a lot of emphasis on the Etruscan history of Grifonia (a fictional city), including a course that Taz takes. At times this becomes heavy-handed and by the time we see the importance of the “good deaths” in Taz’ own life the connection feels tacked on. I think it’s modern day connection should have been fleshed-out better, if the author wanted to go in that direction but I think, overall, it was an unnecessary addition.

In the end, the novel left me with an uncomfortable feeling of looking too long at something private. It made me wonder, How soon is too soon when it comes to fictional re-tellings of real life events? How would Meredith Kercher’s family feel about such a story? My gut reaction is that the too much of the story’s tension and suspense comes from its connection to the real life death of a person. While there are a lot of additional details and plot lines that Crouch has created, the story, setting, and characters follow real life very closely and I think the book suffers for that.

Book Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

This is a surreal, fantastical tale set in a crumbling prison. It’s about life and death, corruption, and a little bit of love. Our narrator is a prisoner on death row – both his name and his crime are kept from us until the end. We learn that he is a selective mute, a voracious reader, in constant hiding. He paints a picture of the prison as a sort of mystical fortress. A place with things crawling in the walls and golden horses running beneath. There is magic and horror intermingled. He tells us stories he cannot possibly know, conversations he cannot have heard. About a white-haired boy, about a fallen priest, and a lady.

The lady is a death row investigator. She is at work on the case of another death row inmate, York. With a few weeks remaining before it is York’s time to die, she is hired to find out if there’s any way to change his sentence from death to life imprisonment, any extenuating circumstances that have been missed. York is different though because York wants to die. But the lady pushes on into York’s past, the secrets of his childhood. Often disturbing, usually tragic, sometimes with surprising parallels to what we learn of the lady’s own childhood.

This is a strange little book. It’s hard to say what’s real and what’s not, and I’m not sure if we really need to even make that differentiation. When your narrator is an insane criminal, you can’t always trust him. It makes for a tense and sometimes upsetting read. Prison isn’t a kind place, although there are unexpected kindnesses within its walls. And some real horrors too.

Mostly, this is a story about how people deal with tragedy, with abuse, with all the terrible things a life can throw at them. How do we respond and what makes some people turn into monsters while others don’t? Ultimately, it seems that Denfeld (who actually is a death row investigator in real life) is trying to show us that all prison stories are tragic ones. Sometimes the monster comes to the prison and sometimes it grows there.