What I Read – November 2016

Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel (Harper Avenue, 2014)

At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness Andrew Peterson (Water Brook Press, 2008)

Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller (House of Anansi Press, 2017)

Prayer – Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2014)

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith (Red Fox, 2001)

A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis (Faber & Faber, 2013)

By Gaslight – Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaAnthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories – Tolstoy

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Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

One of the great powers of fiction is to bring history alive. A good, well-written novel can teach the reader more than ten history books. And may access find readers who would never pick up a history book.

Like many in North America, I know very little about Chechnya. It’s history is long and complicated and even a slight knowledge of Soviet history in general comes in handy. The primary action of the novel takes place in 2004, spanning less than a week and beginning with the arrest of a fingerless man named Dokka. Dokka’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa, is able to escape the Feds who hunt her and their neighbour, Akhmed, takes her to a nearby city, hoping that a doctor he once heard of will protect her. Sonja is a brilliant surgeon struggling to maintain the last hospital almost entirely alone, while constantly wondering what happened to her sister, Natasha, who also disappeared years earlier.

Between these days, the story dips into the near and far history of the characters and of Chechnya. These are stories of tyranny and torture, of bravery and loyalty; tales of deprivation and horror, spanning generations. Marra helpfully includes a timeline at the top of each chapter which works as a simple (if somewhat artless) way to keep track of where we are in the history of Chechnya.

The characters live in a world where friends and neighbours can disappear at any moment – whether as refugees over the mountains or into an ominous prison called The Landfill. There are few answers and questions are dangerous to ask. In less than four hundred pages, Marra covers a lot of ground, detailing lives of many characters. He even dips into the futures of characters we only see in passing and never again and these glimpses seem to offer some hope.

In the end, the characters are more intertwined than seems entirely plausible (though Chechnya is a small country) but this is the only weakness in an otherwise compelling novel. Well worth a read for both the excellent writing and for a look at some very recent history.

Book Review: By Gaslight by Steven Price

By Gaslight - Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

By Gaslight – Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

Steven Price was one of my favourite professors when I was in university. I took a few courses with him, including a grammar class that remains one of the most practical courses I’ve ever studied. All that to say, I was biased to like By Gaslight before I even started it. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy Price’s first novel, Into the Darkness, so hopefully I wasn’t too biased! The good news is that the two books are extremely dissimilar and By Gaslight is well-deserving of the good press it’s received this year.

The book travels through the 19th century, the American Civil War, and Victorian London, even making a stop in South Africa. The central storyline – the “present” – is set in 1885 in London, where two very different Americans have recently arrived.

William Pinkerton, of Pinkerton Detective Agency is in London chasing a shadow, a man named Edward Shade, who he knows almost nothing about except that his father (recently deceased) searched for this man for years. Pinkerton is further than ever from finding Shade when his best lead jumps into the Thames. Adam Foole is a gentleman thief with a fluid, changing background. He’s returned to London, called back by a letter from the woman he loves and hasn’t spoken to in years. And whose body just washed up out of the river. Pinkerton and Foole’s paths quickly cross, including in some very unexpected ways. (And places – there’s a terrifically eery scene set in the sewers below London.)

Prices takes us into each man’s history, particularly their experiences in the American Civil War, and the mystery of Edward Shade is slowly revealed.

Like any 700+ page book, there is content here that could have been left out without greatly harming the plot. The story is heavily detailed and very descriptive, though mostly avoids feeling repetitive. Price is also a poet and it’s evident in his very visceral descriptions. The setting of industrial London is particularly vivid, in all its soot and grit. Price’s prose flows beautifully and when I read parts aloud to Pearl the sentences felt good in my mouth.

While By Gaslight requires an investment of time, I think it proves itself very worthwhile.

Book Review: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

A Grief Observed - C.S. Lewis (Faber & Faber, 2013)

A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis (Faber & Faber, 2013)

I read a review of A Grief Observed recently that suggested this is a book read primarily by the bereaved and I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. This is a book read by those who have experienced loss and who are struggling. I’ve read it once before, more than a decade ago, but it seemed like a book to return to in this time of my life.

A Grief Observed doesn’t have the polish and academic tone of Lewis’ other writings on Christianity. This is Lewis’ journal, his notes and thoughts in the early days and weeks after the death of his wife. It’s raw, it’s painful, and it’s very personal. Lewis doesn’t offer answers for the book’s questions of grief and afterlife and where is God in the suffering. He doesn’t have those answers. He can only ask the questions and try to piece together who God is in spite of the pain.

The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.

Lewis’ pain and grief is evident on every page; the ache with which he misses his life’s companion is hard to read about. He pushes against and questions God and wonders why and yet he returns to God and to the idea of God’s goodness. Not because it seems evident in his life but because it is what he knows best at the core of his being and grief without God is far worse than grief with God.

While this isn’t a reassuring book, it is a comforting one. It is a book that even all these years later tells the grieving, You are not alone. I find comfort in that. In the reminder that grief is a real and valid thing. That a man I greatly respect and whose wisdom I have benefited from experienced something similar. If misery loves company, A Grief Observed provides a little of that company, while still pointing the reader back to the ultimate source of comfort.

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.

Book Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith (Red Fox, 2001)

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith (Red Fox, 2001)

If you like Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice in particular – you will probably enjoy this early twentieth century twist on a familiar story. If, like me, you find Austen rather dull and her characters frustrating, you might want to skip I Capture the Castle.

Set in the 1930s in England, this is the story of Cassandra Mortmain as told through her impossibly detailed journal. Perhaps I have a poorer memory than most but I struggle to believe that anyone can set down what happens to them in such extreme detail (including dialogue!) even if done immediately after.

Cassandra lives in a crumbling castle with her father, her step-mother, her older sister, her younger brother, and a servant boy who is unbelievably handsome and hopelessly in love with her. Her sister, Rose, is stunningly beautiful while her stepmother, Topaz, is artistic and quirky (and also very beautiful). To top it all off, Cassandra’s father is a famous writer who wrote a book, went to jail, and hasn’t written since. He spends his days in the gatehouse, doing who knows what, while the rest of them scrimp and save to put food on the table and keep themselves dressed. They’re impoverished but nobody can get a job except Stephen, who seems to be the one who does the most work around the castle anyway.

The best chance for change in their lives is for Rose and/or Cassandra to marry someone rich. This seems unlikely to happen in their small town until, conveniently, two handsome American brothers inherit the land on which the castle is built and move in nearby. Sure, the older one looks kind of like the devil, but you can fall in love with anybody if only they’re rich enough, right?

Yes, a lot of these issues come from a time and social setting that is foreign to me and I understand that it wasn’t so straightforward for a young girl from an upper class (no matter how poor they are, they’re still pretty posh) family to simply go out and get a job. My problem with Cassandra and I Capture the Castle is that she almost never takes matters into her own hands. Things just happen to her and around her and she reacts. Plus, a good portion of the book is given over to romantic yearnings that, were I too seventeen-years-old, I might have more sympathy for. But from my thirty-year-old perspective, I found myself rolling my eyes and speed-reading ahead, hoping something more interesting would happen. It didn’t.

 

 

Side note: I bought this book at a local thrift shop (hence the $1.00 sticker) and I’ve never heard of Red Fox books before but I have rarely read a published book with so many spelling and grammatical errors. Even for a dollar, I would probably avoid Red Fox in the future since there were so many little interruptions of this kind in my reading

No, this isn’t her hair cut

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Only one person thought she was a boy on this day.

When I’m out and about with Pearl I typically have some form of this conversation with a stranger:

“How old is your little fellow?”

“She’s twenty months.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought…”

“Yeah, she doesn’t have much hair yet.”

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There’s her hair!

It really does not matter what she’s wearing. Wearing a floral-patterned romper, wearing her pink coat (pictured above), doesn’t matter. I actually find it really funny. I never before realized how much people count on hair to signify gender.

I tend to dress Pearl pretty neutrally. Some pink and purple but lots of blues and yellows and greys. She has some things with flower patterns but her girliest articles of clothing have all been gifts and hand-me-downs. She also has several items that were handed down from an older boy cousin and a couple of sweaters that were her dad’s when he was tiny. I don’t really care if strangers can’t instantly identify my toddler’s sex but they’re all very apologetic when they’re wrong.

Pearl and Bella

Pearl and Bella

I want Pearl to grow up celebrating and embracing her femininity but I also don’t want to teach her that being a girl “looks” a certain way. Maybe one day her hair will grow long and she’ll wear it in fancy ways. Maybe she’ll always like to keep it short. Maybe in a year or two she’ll insist on wearing nothing but pink and flowers or maybe she’ll keep mixing it up with colours. I don’t know and it’s pretty far down my list of things I care about when it comes to Pearl’s future.

I don’t really care when strangers refer to Pearl as “he” but I do care when people try and predict her behaviour based on her being a girl. When people talk about how much more energetic and crazy boys are, I just smile but I think of my little girl who runs laps around the house, loves to “crazy dance”, and who is already in a toddler bed because she’s really darned good at climbing. She loves to cuddle and she loves to make her stuffed animals nose nuzzle each other and she laughs like a tiny maniac when I use my stern voice on her. None of these things is because she’s a girl; they’re each a part of Pearl and the unique person she is.

Pearl becomes more of an individual every day, full of her own thoughts and opinions, and as she learns to verbally express herself, I’m learning too. How to support her, how to teach her, how to love her. It’s a big job. And I’m thankful I get to do it.

Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Swimming Lessons - Claire Fuller (House of Anansi Press, 2017)

Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller (House of Anansi Press, 2017)

(Update: I neglected to mention originally that I read this book in an Advanced Reading Copy and the novel will be published in January 2017.)

Swimming Lessons is the story of a family told from opposite directions, a mystery and a disappearance in the middle. In the present day storyline, sisters Nan and Flora return home to care for their elderly father after he has a fall. Gil is a famous novelist who hasn’t written anything or even done much work in years. (Definite shades of I Capture the Castle here.) Nan is the responsible nurse, Flora the wild younger sister.

In alternating chapters, the origin story of their family is told in the form of letters written from the girls’ mother, Ingrid, to Gil. Ingrid details the start of and disintegration of their marriage, hiding the letters inside Gil’s immense book collection before she completely disappears. Ingrid’s disappearance takes place eleven years before the present day timeline and still her daughters and husband don’t know what happened to her.

I generally find the epistolary-style of storytelling to be artificial. Why is Ingrid going into great detail to tell Gil things he already knows, or describing things he’s seen himself? Hiding the letters in the books seems like more of a gimmick than something a real person would do. That said, Gil and Ingrid’s story is far more interesting than Nan and Flora’s. Nan is more of a side character while Flora dips toward the cliche with her unsteady behaviour. Dying Gil seems nothing like the vibrant, charismatic man Ingrid describes but maybe that’s the point.

It’s a sad story, about the things left unsaid in relationships and the power we have to hur those we love most. While I didn’t find anything spectacular here, overall the novel was still an entertaining read and I would be willing to read more from Fuller.

Book Review: At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness - Andrew Peterson

At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson

For young readers looking for a new and fun fantasy series to launch into, Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga might be a perfect fit. Goofy and adventurous, the first book in this quartet, At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, has lots going for it.

Set in the land of Skree, overtaken in recent years by Gnag the Nameless, our main characters are three siblings: Janner, Tink, and Leeli. The narration mostly follows Janner, the eldest brother, who both wants more freedom and revolts against being responsible for his younger brother and sister. It doesn’t take long for the three siblings to run into trouble and begin to discover that there are more secrets in their family and their seemingly quiet town than they thought.

This series seems like a great fit for kids approximately aged 9-12. I think most kids will enjoy the goofy names – the villains are called the Fangs of Dang, for example – and the elaborately created world. I found the book had perhaps too much self-awareness of its own goofiness, as if Peterson kept glancing at the reader to say, “Isn’t this hilarious?” but that’s less likely to be an issue for young readers.

While I can see why some have made comparisons to the Chronicles of Narnia, after reading the first book, I would say the Wingfeather Saga is not quite there. But for kids who have already read Narnia then this could be a great series to move on to. Peterson offers a detailed and engaging world and a decently interesting story.

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (Harper Avenue, 2014)

This post-apocalytic story has several unique features that make it stand out from the usual fare in this increasingly popular genre.

The apocalypse here is brought about by the Georgian Flu, a virus with an insanely quick incubation period and a fatality rate of approximately 99%. The novel follows three intersecting stories and timelines: Before, During, and After.

The most interesting part of the novel takes place in Year 20 after the flu hits worldwide. With only a miniscule population left, those who remain live a Medieval-type existence, surviving among the wreckage of their former civilization. While evidence of what humankind was capable of is everywhere, a generation has grown up who doesn’t remember life before the flu.

This is a hopeful apocalypse. After twenty years, violence is minimal and what looting has occurred has basically stopped. Even the sections of the book that take place during and directly following the flu are surprisingly calm. There’s a fascinating section set among immediate survivors of the flu as they begin to slowly rebuild their lives and to realize what has happened. Aside from one rapist (who’s promptly driven away at gunpoint), there are barely even any disagreements. While I’m not sure how realistic this would be, I kind of enjoyed a less stressful version of the end of the world.

This calm is best evidenced by the fact that in Year 20 we follow the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic group of musicians and actors. Moving from place to place, they perform Shakespeare and believe that “survival is insufficient.” It’s an interesting take on life after the apocalypse and one that places a high value on art. It also encourages those Medieval comparisons and a glimpse of a world perhaps entering its own Renaissance.

The third part of the book follows the life of Arthur Leander, a famous actor in the present day, whose on-stage death starts off the novel. Wealthy, aging, three times divorced, we are told the story of Arthur’s life from his early days and multiple perspectives. Arthur is the link between several of the characters and his life offers a contrast of celebrity culture but while there are some interesting questions raised, overall I felt like Arthur could have been cut from the book entirely without any great loss.

Station Eleven is engaging, very readable, and has enough unique factors and perspectives to more than balance out its weaknesses. I’ll be happy to see more from St. John Mandel in the future.

Monday Thoughts

Lots of puddle weather recently.

Lots of puddle weather recently

Grief is a strange, lurking beast. While I’m prepared for it in many ways, it surprises me at so many other moments. Sometimes I can ready myself, steel my thoughts against it. And sometimes it simply appears.

Pearl and I went to get our flu shots today and I’d forgotten one of the questions they always ask:

“Is there any chance that you’re pregnant?”

Sometimes, I’m completely undone by these moments. By a reference to pregnancy loss in a television show or stumbling across a pregnancy announcement on Facebook. And sometimes I can take a deep breath and carry on with my day.

Fortunately, today was a deep breath kind of day. “No. I’m not pregnant,” I told the woman who was just doing her job. Pearl and I got our shots. Pearl was brave and only cried a little and then enjoyed playing with bubbles and fell in love with the stuffed Panda the nurse gave her. Today was a good day.

This is the box her Duplo came in. She loves to sit in it.

This is the box her Duplo came in. She loves to sit in it.

Pearl is 20 months and a bit and is full of personality. Her vocabulary is slowly increasing (this morning she said cheese!) but even without words she knows how to make herself understood. She is full of energy and affection and laughter.

Big Bear going for a ride in Peter's backpack.

Big Bear going for a ride in Peter’s backpack.

She’s in a swim class this fall and loves it and we have lots of fun. Bath times are full of kicking and splashing now too. She meows whenever she sees a picture of a cat and will set up tea parties for her four best stuffed animal friends. She hates getting dressed most mornings and wants to wear her pyjamas all day. She likes to brush her own teeth. She continues to want to live on a diet of carbs and cheese but will eat almost anything in smoothie form.

Pearl’s most consistent words are “dad” and “mum”. It took a while for her to say “mum” and now that she does it makes me so happy.

She loves this guy a lot.

She loves this guy a lot.

I’m reading a lot of the Psalms lately, working my way through slowly, using those beautiful poems as a jumping off place for my own prayers. I find a lot of comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my sorrows, that God has heard and answered other anguished cries.

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Why are You so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer,
and by night I find no rest.

Yet You are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In You our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and You delivered them.
To You they cried and were rescued;
in You they trusted and were not put to shame.

Psalm 22:1-5

This past weekend, Peter and I got to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of friends. “Only forty-three and a half more years to go!” we told each other. I’m sure you don’t get to 50 years without some ups and downs and some sorrow and lots of laughter. (I can tell you that you don’t get to six years of marriage without those things.) I’m so glad that God brought such a good partner into my life to make this journey.

I just realized that almost all of these photos are Peter and Pearl. That says a lot about what a fantastic dad he is, I think. But just for good measure, here’s one of Pearl and I:

Happy Monday!

Happy Monday!