What I Read – October 2016

The Autumn season is prime book-reading time. The rainy and cold weather means I want to stay inside and read and there seem to be so many books to read. The autumn is when many new books are released (leading up to Christmas) and many of the major literary prize winners (and shortlists) are announced. My To Be Read list is so long that I’ve been sorting books into piles and my bedside table is stacked high. A friend also loaned me the three memoirs in this month’s What I Read list.

Fortunately (maybe?) Pearl is going through a stage where she wants one of us to sit in her room while she falls asleep. When I stopped nursing, my reading time seemed to decrease drastically but it’s bounced back up this month. Most evenings I spend between 30 minutes to an hour in Pearl’s room, curled up in a chair, leaning as close to the nightlight as I can get. There are worse things.

Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

An Invisible ThreadLaura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

Half Broke HorsesJeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)

Waiting for the Cyclone – Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

Re-read: Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage, 2000)

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamourous, war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

Currently Reading:

Prayer – Timothy Keller

By Gaslight – Steven Price

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

And a reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks and see up-to-the-minute photographic evidence of what I’m reading! Whether or not that sounds remotely appealing probably says a lot about you.

Book Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses - Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)

Half Broke Horses – Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)

The Glass Castle exploded onto the scene of the book world – Jeannette Walls’ hugely popular memoir of her unconventional childhood. Many cite Walls as the first in a growing trend of memoirs from “average” people (ie: not celebrities). A huge part of Walls’ memoir (and its appeal) were her parents, especially her mother, Rosemary.

So its no wonder that it’s also appealing to read about Rosemary’s life from the other side. The woman who raised her.

Half Broke Horses is a fictional memoir of Walls’ maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. While based on the true life events of Smith’s life, Walls writes in the Afterword that calling the book a novel was the most honest thing to do because she did have to embellish certain details and fill in gaps.

The story is told in first person, from Lily’s perspective, beginning with her childhood living, literally, in a sort of hole in the ground. Lily is tough and resourceful and used to hard-living. With a delicate mother and a father with a limp and a speech impediment, as the oldest child she is responsible for much around their home and farm and is breaking horses from a young age and getting things done. Early on, she heads out on her own and becomes a teacher, despite never having finished eighth grade. She learns to drive a car and, eventually, pilot an airplane.

Lily is an intriguing character and Walls does a decent job at capturing her voice, though some of it feels overly folksy – every time Lily refers to her first husband, for example, she calls him her “crumb bum first husband”. A few repetitions like that seemed to be Walls trying a little too hard to portray that voice.

I liked Lily a lot more before she became a mother. Once her oldest child, Rosemary (Walls’ mother) is born, the book shifts to portray Lily’s focus on Rosemary. And while this makes sense since Rosemary is who Walls’ previous readers are interested in, it doesn’t ring true if this is indeed supposed to be from Lily’s perspective. Her second child, Jim, seems to be mostly forgotten. Lily as a mother becomes increasingly unlikeable as Rosemary gets older and Lily tries harder and harder to dictate and control her life. It’s painful to think ahead to Rosemary’s life and to see Lily continue to simply not understand why things haven’t worked out the way she planned.

Walls is an engaging writer and the book is an easy read. I can’t help wonder if she has any other relatives who she could write books about.

Book Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty Life - Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

When a friend loaned me a copy of The Dirty Life I wasn’t that excited. I don’t read a lot of memoirs and it’s rare that they appeal to me. My friend also happens to be a little more of a hippy than I am and I wasn’t sure I was interested in reading a farming story. I was pleasantly surprised by Kristin Kimball’s tale of farm life however.

Kimball is a journalist in New York City when she interview Mark, an independent and charismatic farmer. She’s out of place on his farm and surprised to find herself drawn to both Mark and his way of life.

The Dirty Life follows roughly the first year of Kristin and Mark’s relationship, leading up to their wedding, and covering their first year of starting their own farm. Not just an organic farm but one using as traditional methods as possible, including horses rather than tractors and other machinery.

Kimball doesn’t glamourize farm life – it’s here in its grimy detail of early mornings and hard  physical labour – but her clear love for the farm (as unexpected as it may be) gives the story a more appealing edge. Kimball throws herself into both the farm and all it entails and into her relationship with Mark. She doesn’t glamourize that either and I appreciate her honesty about her fears and difficulties when it came to giving up her familiar lifestyle for something so different for a man she hardly knew. While the dynamic of their relationship didn’t appeal to me (and if Kimball were my best friend I probably would have joined in the chorus of people urging her to be cautious) but it seems to work as the couple is still together, ten years and two children later.

The farm has also become successful, reaching its goal of providing a whole diet for approximately a hundred people. The Kimballs provide everything from corn to milk to beef to maple syrup for their subscribers. And while I don’t have an urge to become a farmer, I do wish there was something similar offered in my area.

Autumn Leaves and Gumboots

Please enjoy this picture of my child posing with an apple from which she has taken several tiny bites:

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Also, she chose to wear that romper over top of the clothes I had dressed her in. I did not expect battles over clothing to begin so early in our mother-daughter relationship.

Every September I feel like the only person on the internet who isn’t super excited about fall. I mean, I like fall but my favourite season is definitely summer. Living on the West Coast means that autumn is not about crisp leaves and bright cold days. It’s about rain and more rain. And I’m a Vancouver girl so I actually like the rain but I also know that I’m going to be seeing a lot of it in the next months.

I also have a really take-it-or-leave-it attitude about pumpkins. Phew. Feels good to confess all that.

Pearl, however, loves the autumn leaves. She likes to collect as many as she can and then scatter them all over the playground.

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This time last year, I had a baby who had just started crawling so I could get away with spending a lot more time indoors. However, since last spring, Pearl and I have spent time outside almost every single day and I do want to continue that. Gum boots and toddler rain suits are essential wardrobe items here.

It’s recently been extra stormy around here with wind and weather warnings. We’re fortunate in our part of the world to avoid a lot of extreme weather but for once we were being told we should prepare for power outages and stock up on canned food. In the end, it was a lot of rain and some strong winds.

That stormy Friday, Pearl and I did spend most of the day inside. I made cookies and a second pot of coffee and, aside from a quick run to the mailbox, we didn’t set foot outdoors. Fortunately, the mailbox held Pearl’s latest book from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and that kept her pretty entertained for a while. In the afternoon I got a phone call from the hospital to confirm my 20 week ultrasound and had to phone back to inform them that I was no longer pregnant. Pearl only napped for an hour and a half and I was feeling pretty crummy so I did something we rarely do and let Pearl have some screen time.

I found The Littlest Hobo on Youtube, set Pearl and I up with some snacks and we cuddled together while we watched the dog help a man wrongfully accused of murder. Pearl loved it – she helpfully pointed out whenever the dog was onscreen – and I felt a lot better too.

I’m doing lots of reading, lots of coffee drinking, and lots of toddler cuddling.

Book Review: An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff & Alex Tresniowski

An Invisible Thread - Laura Schroff & Alex Trenniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

An Invisible Thread – Laura Schroff & Alex Tresniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

My initial reaction and concern upon reading the tagline of this book – “The true story of an 11-year-old panhandler, a busy sales executive, and an unlikely meeting with destiny” – was that it would turn out to be a sort of “white saviour” story. Wealthy white women meets young black boy and his life is vastly improved. And while that is sort of the story, the book fortunately avoids leaning to heavily on that aspect.

This true story is told from Laura’s perspective, of the friendship that begins in New York in 1986 when she stops to buy a young panhandler lunch at McDonalds. From there, a relationship develops. Maurice is a young boy, growing up in extreme poverty, surrounded by drug-addicted adults, and living one stop above homelessness. Maurice and Laura begin to meet for dinner every week. While the core of the story is definitely about Maurice and how, through Laura, he begins to be exposed to things he never could have been otherwise – like Thanksgiving dinner with a family around the table or his school lunch in a brown paper bag – Laura’s narrative works hard to emphasize that she also learnt a lot from Maurice.

The book delves into some of Maurice’s family history – the abuse and addiction cycle that so easily traps generations – as well as Laura’s own family and history. She draws a connection between Maurice’s impoverished childhood and her own middle class upbringing with an abusive father. It’s sad and ironic that, in the end, Maurice escapes the cycle of abuse in bringing up his own family while Laura ends up in two different marriages with abusive men.

While the book does lightly focus on some of the concern of Laura’s friends and family about her initial involvement with Maurice, I was surprised that Laura never seemed to consider involving the authorities. If she had thought about it and decided against it, I could maybe understand that but it seems to never cross her mind to call Child Services. Later on, there is a mention that Maurice desperately wanted to stay with his mother but it surprised me that Laura (or any other adult in Maurice’s life, such as his teachers) never considered this might not be the best thing for him.

The book is easy to read and, while not amazingly well-written, engaging. Several of the points felt stretched out or repetitive and the book could easily have been much shorter. In fact, a feature article in a magazine could have told this story just as well. Yet whatever flaws the book has, you have to applaud any one who steps out of their daily life to focus on and help another person.

there is a space

For the past two years on this date I’ve shared the same poem by Charles Bukowski. I’ve never explained why. I’m sharing it again below today.

October 19, 2014 was the due date for my first pregnancy. I had my first ever positive pregnancy test on a cold February day – so cold that the surface of Trout Lake froze and Peter and I stopped to walk on it when we drove by that day.

I don’t remember where I came across this poem by Bukowski and I don’t know what he intended the poem to be about. Probably not miscarriage but it expresses something of what I feel on this day.

By the time we reached October 19th in 2014, I was pregnant with Pearl and that alleviated some of the hurt but it is and will always be a painful day. There will always be a space. This year, that space has been widened and March 10th will join the list of painful days on my calendar.

I know from experience that the wound will not always be this raw. And I know from experience that the space never vanishes.

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: The Trees by Ali Shaw

The Trees - Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

I’m not sure that I would have finished The Trees, except that it was loaned to me by an acquaintance and I didn’t want to seem like someone who doesn’t finish books. (They offered to loan it to me after I commented on how beautiful the cover is. Seriously, that’s a lovely cover, isn’t it?)

In defense of The Trees, the book did get slightly more interesting once I persevered. In my defense, that point was well over two-thirds of the way in. The main problem that I had was that while the concept of the novel is very creative, the execution and the characters themselves are poorly crafted.

The book begins “the night the trees come”. Our main character, Adrien Thomas, a lacklustre former teacher in suburban England, is awakened one night when a forest grows through his house. All through his town (and indeed, it appears, throughout the world) an ancient forest has burst through the human-made world. Suddenly, the world finds itself living in the middle of a forest. Adrien – generally lacking in survival skills or any real motivation – happens to meet up with Hannah and her son Seb and they set off west. First to find Hannah’s brother and then, maybe, to find Adrien’s wife who is on a business trip in Ireland.

Adrien is, I think, supposed to represent the weakness of modern man, softened by our luxurious lifestyle. The problem is that he’s extremely unlikeable and seems to spend most of the book whining and being carried along by the characters/action around him. I honestly didn’t care what happened to him and so it was a struggle to follow him through hundreds of pages. Most of which seemed to be the main characters walking through the forest and seeing strange things. When they finally reach their destination, it felt like too little too late and the ultimate conclusion is, frankly, bizarre. And not bizarre in a way that felt right to the novel but bizarre in a way that seemed to contradict what came before.

For an apocalyptic novel, The Trees lacks tension and excitement. While I didn’t necessarily expect a The Road style intensity, it seems likely there would be more conflict in a world where there is no longer any law or social structure. But aside from two characters, it seems like people are mostly carrying on as best they can and being respectful of others. There’s some mention of looting but even this seems very minimal. Perhaps this is the whole “stiff upper lip” British thing and this is, in fact, how the English would proceed if the world ended.

Book Review: Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Joseph Boyden is easily one of the best Canadian writers currently being published and I’m a big fan. His latest offering is much shorter than his three previous works – I read Wenjack in two sittings over a couple of days – but brings forth all his familiar talent.

What sets this brief story apart from Boyden’s previous work is that it is based on a true story. The story of residential schools and the snatching of First Nations children from their homes is perhaps the sorriest and most horrifying of Canadian history. In recent years, many survivors have come forward to speak about the abuse suffered at these schools. The effects are tragic and far-reaching. Unfortunately, this is hardly even history. Chanie Wenjack died in 1966. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Boyden brings this true story to life, gently and beautifully, in less than a hundred pages. The book alternates perspectives between Chanie and the spirits of the forest who follow him on his journey. The narrative voices are excellent – clearly and simply defined – and, as always, Boyden excels at description.

Obviously in such a short book there is a lot left out – and there’s much we’ll probably never know about Chanie’s life and death. But Wenjack is a powerful glimpse and a place to start for some who may not know much about this aspect of Canadian history.

Thanks In All Things

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

This past weekend was Thanksgiving here in Canada. I have so many things to be thankful for – I wake up each morning in a warm house, in a beautiful little town, with my husband and daughter. I know how fortunate I am.

At the same time, it’s hard to give thanks right now. It’s hard for me to feel thankful in all things. Which, as a Christian, I’m called to do. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be thankful for the loss of a baby – or if that’s even what I’m supposed to strive for.

In the days before Pearl’s birth I remember reading the story of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 and being comforted by the fact that we worship a God who enters the furnace with us. We were saved from that furnace and given a healthy baby. The men in Daniel were also saved; although they were thrown to the fire, they were unharmed.

So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire…They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.

Daniel 3: 26b, 27b

But what do you do when you are not saved from the fire?

I don’t think I’m expected to give thanks for the fire itself. I do believe that my God weeps with me. The Bible never ever chastises the mournful. Jesus himself wept at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11). In Exodus 23, the Promised Land is described as a place where none are barren and there is no miscarriage. Clearly we don’t live there yet. I find it comforting that God’s perfect plan doesn’t involve the loss of my baby. And I find it confusing that an omnipotent God allowed that loss.

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Daniel 3:17-18

In Daniel, the men declare that they believe God will rescue them. But even if He doesn’t, they will not turn from Him. They are thrown into the fire and a fourth figure is seen in the furnace with them. That is the strange and confusing and beautiful part of our faith. We are not always saved from the fire but we are never alone in it.

I will not be burned up by this fire. I will not bow down to the gods of grief and loss. I am here right now but this is not my forever. Slowly, slowly, I will give thanks. God help me.

This weekend we skipped town for a couple of days with some very wonderful friends in Victoria. Pearl’s first trip to the place where Peter and I met and fell in love and spent the first year of our marriage.

Downtown Victoria Harbour

Downtown Victoria Harbour

We were fortunate enough to be able to fly by seaplane from Sechelt, which makes the trip so much faster. Pearl’s first time on a seaplane went very well, though she refused to wear the ear protection they provided for her.

Telling me to catch up on a walk with friends.

Telling me to catch up on a walk with friends.

There was a lot we didn’t get to do in our quick trip but we did get to catch up with some of my favourite people, meet a new-ish baby, visit my old workplace/Canada’s largest bookstore, and walk a little through a lovely city.

Tried to take a picture of these two at the bookstore and Pearl is picking her nose.

Tried to take a picture of these two at the bookstore and Pearl is picking her nose.

Also, Pearl discovered she can put her hands in her pockets so please enjoy one of my favourite pictures ever:

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There is a lot to be thankful for.

Life right now

At the beginning of the summer I woke from a dream in which I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. Being a dream, the pregnancy test involved neon lights and a flashing plus sign. And when I woke and took a test in real life, it was positive too.

All summer I carried that baby within me. Peter and I waited a few weeks before we slowly began to share our news and, for a little while, it was a lovely secret that just the two of us knew. All summer, we thought and planned for our family of four. Our baby would arrive shortly after Pearl’s second birthday and I was so excited about that age gap, though nervous at the same time as to how we would work it all out in our two bedroom house. “We’ll figure it out and we’ll learn,” we said, “Just like we did with Pearl.”

This past week I have packed up the maternity clothes I started to pull out. I have crossed pre-natal vitamins off my grocery list. I have stared at the ultrasound pictures stuck on our fridge a dozen times a day because I can’t bear to take them down. I wake up every morning and it hits me again.

When I miscarried for the first time, early in 2014, we told only a few people close to us. The day after I had an ultrasound to confirm the miscarriage, I went to work. I didn’t know how to talk about it and there didn’t seem to be space to share our loss, no matter how real and awful it felt for us. I thought at the time that I only knew two other women who had miscarried. In the time since then, I’ve learned how horrifically common miscarriage is and how many women are living with the memories of babies they never got to meet.

Experiencing a second trimester miscarriage makes this loss all the more public. There’s been no hiding it, nor do I want to hide it. We made our public announcements – we shared on Facebook, we told our co-workers, I shared about pregnancy here. I don’t regret any of that because our baby was real and we were so happy to be waiting for him. It felt impossible at first to have to come back and tell people that our baby is gone. And it has been very, very hard. I have avoided people in grocery line-ups so that I could just buy milk without having to have that conversation. I have cried at the playground telling a neighbourhood mom I don’t know very well. I have had to respond to heartfelt congratulations with the news of one of the worst things that ever happened to me.

But so often the response has been, “It happened to me too.” From nurses at the hospital to close friends to almost strangers, other parents have shared a little of their own stories. (And I take great comfort in the fact that, for none of them, was miscarriage the end of their story.)

Honestly, I am struggling right now and I think I will be for a long time yet. And I think that’s okay but it’s still so hard. I am trying to pray and I am struggling to pray. God feels very quiet and very far away right now. But Romans 8:26 tells us that the Holy Spirit will intercede for us with “groanings too deep for words” and I take comfort in that too. I am trying, too, to remember that God speaks and moves through His church. That His hand and heart are behind each prayer offered on our behalf, each kind e-mail, text, and message I’ve received. Behind the meals brought, the coffees bought, the hugs given. If you are a praying type, please pray for our family. Please pray for me until I can get some prayers out on my own. The Bible tells us that God is loving and merciful and just and that His ways are not our own. I know this to be true at the core of my being but I’m also angry and heartbroken. This is a hard path to walk.

If you read here occasionally for book reviews and whatnot, that’s okay too and I’m glad you’re here. I’ll still be reading books and sharing about them. I am trying to find things in each day to enjoy and be grateful for. Today that includes my beautiful little girl, my loving husband, our little house, and a good book.