What I Read – January 2017

Read:

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

A vocation is a terrible thing. To be called out of nature into the supernatural life is at first (or perhaps not quite at first – the wrench of the parting may be felt later) a costly honour. Even to be called from one natural level to another is loss as well as gain. Man has difficulties and sorrows which the other primates escape.

  • C.S. Lewis

I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

In the light of day, her dreams were drained of their nightmarish quality, and they seemed whimsical and strange, but the taste of loss remained in her mouth.

  • Eowyn Ivey

When She Was ElectricAndrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Let one person tell her she couldn’t have it and she would claw them into submission. Let one more person tell her what she could and could not have, and she would smile, nod, and, without apology, do whatever the hell she wanted.

  • Kevin Wilson

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Even a dream of social betterment usually is a bitter disappointment. We’ve got to accept the disappointment and go on. All of us must be terribly disappointing to God. By any standard of justice God might have abandoned us all long ago and left us to shift for ourselves as those girls are shifting now wherever they are, whatever they are doing.

  • Morley Callaghan

Fates & Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Simply Christian – N.T. Wright

Birdie – Tracey Lindberg

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I Made This!

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Don’t get excited – I’m not about to show you anything impressive. I am decidedly un-crafty and not a hands-on kind of person so I’m pleased that I actually made something.

Pictured above is what I started with. Four wooden boxes found for free. When Peter and I spotted them I was sure I could do something with them. At the time, Peter was re-doing our deck and didn’t want to take on anything that involved sanding or painting (fair enough) but I was sure I could figure it out.

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My first step was to sand the boxes. I used a sander! A power tool!

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I bought wood glue at the hardware store and glued the boxes together. I used my heaviest books to weigh them down.

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Then I painted. Above is after one coat of paint. I did two but this was the longest DIY project ever so there was about a month where it sat half-painted in our carport. We had some leftover paint from when we painted our kitchen after we renovated last summer so I just used that. It’s a very, very light green.

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And the finished project! This corner of our living room (where our Christmas tree was a month ago) is now Pearl’s little play corner. I don’t love having all her toys in our living room but we have a small house and this lets her room be a quiet, sleeping place with just her books and stuffed animals. We have one other basket full of Duplo and a wooden box for her trains. And now I’m wondering if Pearl’s toy stash is excessive…At least this keeps them contained and easy to put away and Pearl seemed happy with the finished product.

If anyone needs any woodworking tips, let me know!

Book Review: Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World - Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Izzy has just graduated from high school when she finds herself pregnant, the result of an ongoing affair with her art teacher. Without support or finances to raise her child, she opts to join an experimental unit run by the young genius Dr. Grind. For ten years, ten families will live together as one family, raising their children together, without the children knowing who their true parents are. Dr Grind stresses that this is for science, not a cult, and the Infinite Family Project (as it’s called) is a regimented organism.

The idea is that these ten children will have an unprecedented amount of support and access to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Rather than a traditional family unit, a larger family simply means more love, right?

The concept is so obviously flawed that the reader can’t help wondering how Dr. Grind found ten couples so hopelessly naive as to join. While Izzy’s reasons are fairly well-established, she’s also the only single parent in the group. The others are adults in their twenties and thirties who are in committed relationships. So why on earth are they willing to completely give up control over how they live their lives or raise their child? The idea of my child viewing me as only one of many parents, or of not being able to go to her when she cries in the night because it’s not my turn on the roster is really upsetting and feels fundamentally wrong. I spent a lot of the book feeling profoundly uncomfortable.

Izzy is portrayed as a smart, capable young woman, perhaps unrealistically so. She seems to be good at anything she puts her mind to, be it slow-roasting a pig, joining a communal family, or making art out of wood scraps. Wilson doesn’t touch on the fact that she’s recently been in an abusive relationship or how this affects her decisions and so she feels a little too flawless. Her time in the Infinite Family Project – and the reader follows Izzy for the next ten years – is portrayed as mostly positive. Of course there are issues and the experiment has an unexpected conclusion but Izzy never truly questions her choice, something I didn’t find realistic.

Perfect Little World is an easy read with an interesting concept. It’s hard to tell if Wilson himself is in favour of the Infinite Family Project or not but he does come across as unaware of how unappealing such an idea might to many (most?) readers. More realistic internal conflict for these fictional parents would have made for a deeper and more moving novel. As it is, Perfect Little World works as a quick and easy distraction.

Book Review: When She Was Electric by Andrea MacPherson

When She Was Electric - Andrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

When She Was Electric – Andrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

This is a story strong on description, full of characters with hidden depths and normal secrets. It is a story about a mother-daughter relationship (and not one to aspire to).

The story is primarily told from Ana’s point of view, though we also get glimpses into her mother, Min. We are introduced to Ana as an adult and then taken back to her teenage years and one crucial summer in the small British Columbia town of Merrit. The 1940s, there’s a war going on but it mostly feels far away. Ana and Min, along with Ana’s brother Theo have returned to Min’s mother’s farm where Min grew up and her mother and her sister still live. They are escaping the recent death of Min’s youngest child, a death we learn more about as the novel progresses. Unbeknownst to Ana and Theo, Min has also decided to leave her husband behind.

As Ana works through her own grief over her sister’s death, feeling continually more estranged from her mother, the reader watches her follow in her mother’s footsteps in some unexpected (and some expected) ways. Min is a strange and somewhat ethereal character. A woman who seems to float through life thinking only of herself, brushing against the lives of others without fear or care of how she hurts them. The novel shows two drastically different ways of reacting to this as we watch Ana and Theo struggle to gain Min’s love and attention.

While the novel isn’t heavy on plot or action, it somehow still manages to be a fascinating read. Almost more of a character study than a full-blown novel. At times, it leans toward the overly descriptive and some of the description do start to feel repetitive but many of them are beautiful and often startling. MacPherson has a gift for making the reader look at something familiar in a new way. This gives the whole novel a sense of the otherworldly, as if set in an Earth that is not quite our own.

There is a sort of half-plot of racial tension between the people of Merrit and the indigenous peoples who live on the outskirts of town. There’s a lot of potential there and a decent amount of page time given over to it but it’s never fully developed and so ends up feeling a little tacked-on. There is, however, a reveal that I found surprising and throws parts of the book into a different perspective. I just wish MacPherson had expanded on this aspect of the novel further.

While not a perfect novel, there is plenty to admire in When She Was Electric.

 

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Reading with Pearl: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis

Two by Carson Ellis from Candlewick Press

Two by Carson Ellis from Candlewick Press

I shared my love for Carson Ellis’ picture books back in July (here) but since she has since come out with a new children’s book, I thought I’d talk about her again.

Du Iz Tak is a creative and unique story, beautifully illustrated in Ellis’ distinctive style. What really sets this little story apart though is that it’s written in a made-up language. It’s the tale of a group of insects who find something unexpected growing and how they interact with it.

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The action, as far as it’s seen through the illustrations is fairly simple and easy to follow and the dialogue is fun to read out loud. It’s short and repetitive and the meaning isn’t difficult to figure out but the made-up language means it can really be whatever the reader wants it to be. It’s a unique idea and one that lends itself to endless story-telling possibilities.

Pearl is a little young to understand the concept of a fictional language or to offer many of her own suggestions but she likes looking at the pictures and seems to enjoy the various accents I’ve put on while reading Du Iz Tak to her so far.

Book Review: Beauty Plus Pity by Kevin Chong

Beauty Plus Pity - Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

Kevin Chong writes about a Vancouver I recognize. While the city isn’t necessarily a major player in the novel, it’s an important background and well-evoked with a few simple settings and descriptions. And though this is what drew me to read Beauty Plus Pity I enjoyed the novel greatly for its characters and plotting.

Malcolm Kwan has recently moved back to Vancouver, as well as recently graduating from modelling school, when his father dies. At the same time, his fiancée breaks up with him. Malcolm is struggling to find his footing in a career he’s not sure he wants and support his emotionally unstable mother. He also finds out he has a younger half-sister, the daughter of his father.

Over the next months Malcolm gets to know his sister Hadley, a grade 12 student with a drastically different upbringing. Malcolm is the son of Hong Kong emigrants, artists who have worked hard and been successful. Despite the emotional instability of his childhood, Malcom’s upbringing has been privileged, something he is only truly realizing now. Hadley has grown up with a single mother and a sometimes stepfather on the opposite end of the city (a fact Chong doesn’t embellish on but if you know Vancouver you know this is a crucial difference). Both are a result of their father’s decisions but as they age, Malcolm and Hadley each become responsible for how they respond to this.

We follow Malcolm as he learns more about both his father and his mother and as his relationships with women (in many forms) shift and mature. I appreciate that the characters really seem to change and develop as the novel progresses and that Malcolm, who is kind of unlikeable at the beginning, becomes more sympathetic. It would also have been easy for Hadley to be a one-note character but she is given some decent depth and her own world that Malcolm doesn’t always understand.

The greatest weakness of the novel is probably the ending which leaves a lot of loose ends dangling. While this can be realistic, the story is apparently being told by Malcolm a year later so there’s no real reason why he couldn’t have offered a little more closure. Overall though, this is a strong and enjoyable story.

Book Review: I Carried You Home by Alan Gibney

I Carried You Home - Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

I plucked this novel off the library shelf based solely on the fact that the blurb on the cover was from Esi Edugyan, an author whose work I admire. While the story didn’t quite live up to my expectations it was still an interestingly-told tale.

Our narrator is Ashe, fifteen years old, and the story begins with the death of his brother Will in a car accident. After the funeral, Ashe’s mother Nell locks herself in her bedroom and Ashe, whose father died when he was five, is left with his mother’s boyfriend and his aunt, though largely alone to deal with his own grief on top of his mother’s effectual abandonment. When Nell finally emerges she takes Ashe on a trip to Death Valley to reveal a secret she’s held for twenty years.

The premise is interesting and there are some truly poignant insights in to grief. Unfortunately, the book drags. There isn’t much action, there are a lot of conversations where the characters don’t say much but a lot is implied (or so we are told) through silences and certain looks, and there’s a strange and unnecessary addition or Ashe’s uncomfortable relationship with his sort of girlfriend. That’s not even touching on the strange and incestual relationship Ashe has with his mother’s sister.

A big part of the issue is the narration. We’re right in Ashe’s head but he seems to have insights beyond what is realistic for a fifteen-year-old. His relationships with everyone are confusing – both more insightful and less mature than you’d expect. The plot relies too much on Ashe understanding the things left unsaid and, especially when it comes to his mother’s final secret, this doesn’t ring true. Either for general human nature of Ashe as we’ve come to know him.

There is some strong writing here which makes me hopeful for future work from Gibney, but I Carried You Home is not quite there yet.

 

Book Review: Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms - C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

I started (an attempt at least) to read a Psalm before bed every night in the fall. So it seemed like the perfect time to read this lesser known work of C.S. Lewis.

In typical, self-deprecating Lewis fashion, he begins by explaining why he’s not really qualified but here are some of his thoughts anyway. And also in typical Lewis style, he has some real wisdom to offer.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the Psalms, beginning with the most distasteful and uncomfortable (such as the cursing of enemies or bragging about how blessed you are). Lewis provides insight as to what these songs and poems might have meant to their original audience, separating them from the modern meanings we can’t help but ascribe to them.

One thing that surprised me was that Lewis treats the Psalms largely as Pagan poetry. He makes the crucial distinction of them being written before the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore there are things the psalmists simply could not have known or even guessed at. The modern reader has the benefit of hindsight to see a clearer (and more prophetic) meaning to many of the Psalms.

Which isn’t to say that that meaning is wrong. As Christians we believe that all scripture is influenced and inspired by God. As Lewis beautifully puts it, “No good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.” So while the Psalmists might not have known the entire significance of what they composed, through the Holy Spirit those references certainly are deliberate and important.

But no one now (I fancy) who accepts that spiritual or second sense is denying, or saying anything against, the very plain sense which the writers did intent.

– C.S. Lewis

At the same time, according to Lewis, the writers of the Psalms are human and sinful and some of their own shortcomings find their way into the Psalms. If anything, this should encourage us, that we sinners can also be used to spread the Word of God.

For our “services” both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we are, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster. To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God—drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds.

– C.S. Lewis

Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

I wasn’t familiar with Paul Beatty’s work before this past year when he became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. Once I heard a little more about his style, I was eager to read The Sellout and it happily did not disappoint. The Sellout is satirical, uncomfortable, entertaining, eye-opening, and sometimes confusing. I want to say it’s timely, given the recent and ongoing racial tensions in the USA, but unfortunately those tensions are not exactly new. As Beatty demonstrates.

Our narrator, known by his neighbourhood nickname of Bonbon, of called The Sellout by others, or his last name Me (as in Me vs. The United States of America) is a lifelong resident of Dickens, an agrarian ghetto of Los Angeles with a largely minority population. So crime-ridden an embarrassment is Dickens that the powers that be decide to literally remove it from the map and pretend it no longer exists. In his efforts to bring Dickens back, our narrator gets his own slave and decides to reintroduce segregation. This has both its supporters and detractors.

The Sellout is deeply rooted in a particular black community and culture and is full of references to such. Some I’m familiar with and many were new to me. As I read, I found myself feeling very far from the target audience, as if Beatty’s narrator was speaking to a black reader and I happened to be listening in. And maybe that’s part of the point. This book isn’t for me and it doesn’t need to be. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t enjoy it or even that I shouldn’t read it. It’s important to read literature that is entirely outside of our personal experience.

Beatty’s is one view and he offers this glimpse through both satire and truth so ridiculous it feels like it should be satire. The characters are larger than life, both hilarious and tragic. Beatty uses the n-word a lot, something I definitely found jarring though believable and effective within the context of Dickens and its residents. The last book I read that used the n-word frequently was William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and although Beatty uses the word more frequently his usage felt more honest and less hateful.

The Sellout is the perfect first American pick for the Man Booker prize as a book that shines an uncomfortable but necessary spotlight on one of the major issues in North America right now.