What I Read – April 2017

The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2017)

(translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Silence – Shusaku Endo

The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.

Reading with Pearl: Children’s Bibles

I realize the topic of Bibles for children is pretty specific and perhaps not widely interesting but it’s an important one in our household so I thought I’d share what I’ve found/learned in the past two years.

First, there are lots of bad children’s Bibles out there but I’m not going to focus on that today. While there are many stories in the Bible that are not exactly appropriate for young children, there are also too many versions of the Bible for children that really whitewash what the true story is all about or even present versions with theological inaccuracies. The following Bibles are some of our current favourites. Meaning I approve of them and Pearl enjoys them too!

The Jesus Storybook Bible:

This is maybe the most popular one I’ve seen around the internet and that many people i know have. The illustrations are unique (and I like that Jesus isn’t Blondie McWhiterson) and the story is well told. The whole book definitely focuses on Jesus, bringing each story back to the central tenet of the Christian faith: that God sent His son to die for our sins. Some of the stories take a little bit of liberty in added details but not in a concerning way. While this is definitely an abridged version, it does cover the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, which I appreciate.

I bought this one for Pearl to start reading together at Advent last Christmas. She loved looking at the pictures but would never let us actually read to her from it. So I simply left it out in her room and with her books and she was able to look through it when she liked until she finally allowed us to touch it and read it to her. Just recently at Easter, we used this Bible to read the Easter story to Pearl during Holy Week.

Read-Aloud Bible Stories:

This one was given to Pearl by my brother and his wife (who are both very knowledgeable in the field of children and the church). They started her with volume 3, which has the creation story and later gave her volume 1. I believe there are five volumes in total. These books are great for the stage Pearl is in right now. The stories are very simply told, have the right amount of repetition, and hold her attention well.

Little Fish Books About Jesus:

There are eight little books in this series, all about Jesus or depicting His parables. These are books I had when I was a kid and when my parents were clearing out old boxes, they brought along three of these. I know we had more of them but who knows where they’ve gone to in the last twenty years. While it seems that the books are only available through the UK (we had the Commonwealth edition but they don’t seem to ever have been distributed in Canada), I was able to get used copies in terrific condition quite cheaply through abebooks.com. Pearl likes the small size of these books and I like how well the stories are told. Also, they’re easy to throw in to my purse for going out and about.

If you have any recommendations for children’s Bibles, I’d love to hear them!

Book Review: Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

We Should All be Feminists was the book I had with me in the hospital when I gave birth to my daughter. We didn’t know whether we were having a boy or a girl before Pearl was born and, to be honest, the thought of a girl scared me. Boys seemed straightforward. Girls seemed hard and scary. Two years later, I’d be happy to have nothing but girls but the thought of the teenage years looming ahead of us still make me nervous.

One of the scariest things for me about raising a girl is what I can’t control. I can teach my daughter all the self-defense moves in the world, not to walk alone at night, to watch her drink in a crowded bar, but if parents aren’t teaching their sons not to rape women, my warnings are only words. That’s why books like this are so important. Several reviews I read of Dear Ijeawele treated the book like it’s a book for mothers and their daughters. And while I can understand that – it is after all written as a letter in response to Adichie’s friend with an infant daughter who asked how to raise her daughter feminist – that response is problematic because it assumes only women can be feminists.

The book has great solid advice for raising daughters but I think much of it could be transferable to raising sons too. More than that though it’s about how to teach your children to think of men and women as equals. To teach them that “because you are a girl” is never a reason.

As with We Should All be Feminists, some of Adichie’s advice and experience is more specific to Nigerian culture than to Western culture. Some of her experiences – the pressure to get married, for example – are unfamiliar to me and will hopefully be even more foreign to the next generation. Her thoughts on keeping her surname after marriage were interesting to me and even had me feeling slightly defensive, as a woman who did take her husband’s name. So while not everything had me nodding in agreement, many of Adichie’s thoughts did and this short book (more of a long essay, really) left me feeling inspired as a I continue to raise my own daughter.

Easter 2017

I’ll admit it, this post is nothing more than cute pictures of my kid. While I’m fully aware no one else but her dad cares quite as much as I do, I also think these pictures of Pearl having her annual Easter Hunt in our backyard are pretty adorable so I’m going to show them to you.

Patiently waiting while Peter hides the goodies.

Last year, Easter was even earlier but we had Pearl outside in a springy dress. This year was boots and rain jacket.

Her hunting skills have really improved though.

This was her favourite find. We had lots of chocolate eggs and bunnies for her but since she doesn’t get much chocolate, she didn’t really know what they were. We filled a couple of these eggs full of goldfish crackers and she knew right away what that was.

She did miss some obvious hiding places.

But she got there eventually.


And then got to enjoy her spoils!

I hope you all had an excellent long weekend!

Book Review: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

This book will be available for sale in May 2017. I read an Advanced Readers Copy, provided by the publisher.

I believe I’ve mentioned that at the start of 2017 I decided I wanted to make sure I read more short stories this year than I did in 2016. Since I enjoyed Ferris’ previous novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I was happy to have an opportunity to read his upcoming short story collection.

Ferris combines charm and discomfort masterfully, taking his characters into awkward, sometimes surreal situations. In my opinion, the best short stories have a sort of open-endedness to them rather than trying to tie up all the loose threads like you might expect in a novel. Ferris excels at this here and readers will probably either love it or hate it but I quite loved it.

In the title story, a couple prepare to have friends over for a dinner party. The wife cooks and preps exhaustively while the husband (and narrator) gripes about how he doesn’t even like these people. When their friends don’t show up, he goes to their apartment and finds something entirely unexpected. And while the situation he ends up in isn’t the most realistic, it’s an unrealistic portrayal of a very real situation and emotions.

Probably my favourite story was about a young woman named Sarah who, excited by the spring breeze, calls her boyfriend home early from work to enjoy the day together. The story twists and turns through differing scenarios, exploring the tiny moments and choices that can change a day or a life. Ferris’ understanding of human complexity is spot on and leaves the most unrealistic moments feeling completely honest.

Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This book will be available for sale in July 2017. I read an Advance Uncorrected Proof made available by the publisher.

The Unwomanly Face of War was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985 and translated into English in 1988 but, as far as I can tell, has been out of print in English for some years. This new translation comes from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, probably the best Russian to English translators currently working, and makes this fascinating work available to English readers once more.

From 1978 to 1985, Alexievich travelled through the Soviet Union, collecting stories from women about their experiences in World War Two. She presents these stories with some short introductions, slightly edited, but in the women’s own voices. The stories are often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and genuinely illuminating. Until I started reading, I didn’t realize how large the involvement of women was for the Soviet Union in World War Two. Being used to Canadian and British war tales, I automatically thought I was going to read stories of women who were nurses, or worked in factories, or survived blitzes at home. While there are some of those stories here there are also stories of women who worked as sappers, served in tanks, lead platoons, de-mined fields and abandoned houses. Some of them lead troops of men, most of them worked side by side with male soldiers at the front lines.

Much of this is the result of communism. This is Soviet Russia, Stalin is both political leader and national hero. Love and loyalty to the Motherland has been instilled in these young women their whole lives. Over and over we hear stories of girls insisting they be sent to the front lines, fighting for the opportunity to shoot and fight and defend their nation. Sometimes these women even share stories of their intense loyalty despite having family members arrested and imprisoned by the government. It is a national fervour difficult to understand in our modern Western world

As with stories from the Western Front, these women were often very young when they ended up on the front lines. Freshly graduated from high school, they tell stories of growing three inches before they return home, of needing to have their wisdom teeth out while on retreat. It is the small details that stuck with me as I read the book. The petite girl embarassed by her height, who wore high heels as she evacuated the wounded from a hospital. The way the girls wept when they had to have their braids cut off as they entered the army. How they stole undershirts from the men because the army never thought to issue them items for their menstrual cycles.

There is a huge diversity of stories and locations and histories here, many with common threads that appear again and again for multiple women. As Alexievich suggests in the book’s introduction, women notice things and experience events differently than men. Their experience of war was unique and the Russian experience of World War Two is different than what many of us in the West may know or have learned.

A basic familiarity with Soviet history in the early 20th century is helpful when beginning the book  but I felt that it included the right amount of footnotes to aid in figuring out places, names, and historical events. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation retains the oral syntax of the Russian speakers so that while it occasionally feels awkward to an English reader, it also feels authentic to how someone might speak.

I know this book won’t be for everyone but if you have any interest in Russian or World War Two history, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.

Spring Break 2017: Oregon Coast

Over the past six and a half years of marriage, Peter and I have tried to take advantage of Spring Break as much as we can. In 2012, we were young and broke but wanted to get out of town so we spent a few days in Washington, as cheaply as possible and had a blast.

In 2013, we went to Whistler and in 2014 we visited friends in Victoria. In 2015, Pearl was about two weeks old so we stayed home and slept very little and felt very thankful.

Last year, we fit a few things into our Spring Break.¬† A trip back to Whistler (that was cut down to one night because Pearl slept so terribly), a visit to some good friends in Kimberley (and Pearl’s first plane trip), and some general fun around our own town.

This year we decided to be slightly more ambitious. The baby we lost in the Fall was due right before Spring Break and so very early on I told Peter I didn’t care what we did, I just wanted to get out of town for Spring Break. We decided to take a road trip down to the Oregon Coast, as well as a couple of days in Portland. It was perfect and so great to have something to plan and look forward to as we came closer to that due date.

After our experience driving to and staying in Whistler last year, we weren’t entirely sure how Pearl would do on the road. But, figuring you don’t know until you try, we went ahead and took the plunge. (Spoiler alert: she did great!)

We left early Monday morning (on the first ferry off the Coast) and drove to Olympia, Washington. We basically bundled Pearl out of bed and into the car, feeding her breakfast on the ferry. She got a thrill out of being allowed to stay in her pyjamas all day. She fell asleep again once we were back on the road and basically slept until we arrived in Olympia around noon.

Neither Peter nor I had ever been to Olympia before so we had fun poking around downtown, popping into a few shops. It was pouring rain but it was nice to stretch our legs and see a new place. We stayed that night just outside of the city at a place we found on AirBnB. Our hosts were friendly, the room was a great size and Pearl slept decently well. Before her bedtime, we took a stroll along the boardwalk at the waterfront.

We left after breakfast the next morning and took our time driving down the coast. We opted to avoid the I-5 as much as we could and instead took some back highways where there weren’t many cars but lots of trees and we caught glimpses of small towns along the way. It rained heavily, which also made avoiding heavy traffic nice.

We stopped in Long Beach and got out to run around. It was pouring rain (sensing a pattern?) and windy and poor Pearl got covered in sand.

It was pretty cool to have this huge beach all to ourselves for a little while. We poked around the town a little, buying saltwater taffy and posing with the largest frying pan in the world.

To be honest, I thought it would be bigger.

We drove onwards (in the rain, always in the rain), crossing the Columbia River and entering Astoria.

This is a very long bridge that takes you from Washington to Oregon.

We had lunch in Astoria and then, because the rain had let up, found a playground where Pearl could run around for a bit. She fell asleep in the car when we got back on the road and headed to our next destination: Manzanita.

When we first began planning our trip, we found a super deal for a hotel in the tiny coastal town of Manzanita and then planned the rest of our time around that. We stayed a total of four nights in Manzanita, renting a suite in a hotel across the road from the beach. There’s not a lot in Manzanita itself but we were able to do small trips each day to towns nearby like Cannon Beach, Seaside, and Tillamook. The suite was simple but perfect for our needs. Pearl had her own room (so we all slept very well), we had a small kitchen, a balcony, and a fireplace. It made for a great home base.

Our beach in Manzanita.

On the balcony.

We spent a day in Seaside and took Pearl to the Aquarium there. While not a huge space, Pearl seemed to enjoy looking at the fish and she loved the touch tank. She did touch a starfish but mostly she liked splashing.

We spent time on the beach in Cannon Beach, where Pearl loved digging in the sand with sticks. She got a lot of use out of her rain pants on this trip.

Various beach shots:

On Thursday, the sun came out and so we decided to hike a trail we’d heard about there. Oregon is full of state parks but, unfortunately, due to weather conditions, a lot of them seemed to be closed recently or have parts of their trails closed. We were able to see a little bit of Cape Meares Park that day, including a short walk to a lighthouse. Turns out, Pearl loves lighthouses and insisted that her stuffed cat, Gerald, is a lighthouse keeper. She also enjoyed this “funny tree”.

The Octopus Tree

We had planned to visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory and had really been hyping it to Pearl, telling her she could eat as much cheese as she wanted (which is a lot of cheese), and I was excited to try their macaroni and cheese (my favourite food). Well, it turned out to be a good thing that she had fallen asleep when we pulled up because they were closed! Probably the biggest disappointment of the trip! Hey, we’re a dairy-loving family!

The next day we headed to Ecola State Park where we planned to hike the Indian Beach Head Trail. Unfortunately, due to weather and erosion, part of the trail was closed. The park was beautiful though and had amazing views and we got to enjoy it all the same. (Again, in the rain.)

We ended our trip with two nights in Portland. Peter and I honeymooned there in 2010 but hadn’t been back since. While it was quite a different trip with a two-year-old in tow, we enjoyed seeing the city again.

We ate delicious food, taking full advantage of the food trucks, and I made two excellent visits to Powells Books.

We booked a private room in a hostel, something we’ve done a couple of times before. If you’re okay with sharing a bathroom, it’s a great way to get a cheaper place to stay. This hostel was a converted heritage house and our room ended up being quite large.

We knew from experience that downtown Portland was small enough to walk everywhere and it was nice to park the car for a couple of days and stroll through town (often at the pace of a two-year-old). We got lucky and didn’t have any rain while in Portland. And I finally got my mac and cheese, at Deschutes Brewery, and it was amazing.

All in all, probably our best Spring Break ever.