What I Read – May 2017

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

translated from the Japanese by William Johnston

But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt – this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.

(from Silence)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

They walked east and south to neighbourhoods where our city, in fields of garbage and broken brick, stands, desolate, her windows burnt and blind. Here, Faith said, the people suffer and struggle, their children turn round and round in one place, growing first in beauty, then in rage.

(from “The Expensive Moment” by Grace Paley

Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

The Red Pony – John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics, 2009)

Currently Reading:

Green Mansions – W.H. Hudson

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie

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Book Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall

Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

After reading Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel, The Best Kind of People, I was eager to see what her earlier work was like. I enjoyed Holding Still for as Long as Possible and would even go so far as describing it as more realistic than The Best Kind of People. The description on the front flap, however, I would describe as very poor. The book advertises itself as a sort of snapshot of a generation but it’s really a story about three people in a particular time and community. I know this because I’m only slightly younger than the characters and while the blurb wants you to think this is a novel about what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of 9/11, amidst modern technology, when it’s really a story of relationships and how they change as people change.

The story alternates perspectives between Josh, Amy, and Billy (also known as Hilary). Josh and Amy are in a serious but fading relationship. Billy was once a teenage pop idol but now struggles to make it through the day due to anxiety and panic attacks. They live in the same Montreal neighbourhood and their paths begin to cross in a number of ways.

Josh works as a paramedic and the glimpse into his life and schedule – the things he witnesses and the snapshots of lives that he steps into – are the most fascinating part of the novel. It’s a gruelling job and one that begins to take its toll on most paramedics.

Amy is the privileged child, seemingly lacking in nothing, but Whittall does well by showing us Amy’s perspective, which adds some depth to her character and reveals things that not even Josh is aware of.

Billy’s character I initially found difficult. Anxiety has its fingers in everything she says and does and, as someone largely unfamiliar with panic attacks, I found it a bit much. Which, by the end, is the point, I think. It is a bit much, just as it would be for any anxiety sufferer. The disconnect between how Billy saw herself and how others see her is the largest of any of the characters but this actually made for an interesting and nuanced portrayal of how anxiety plays on someone’s fears. From her own perspective, Billy is barely hanging on, nothing special, and generally a complete mess. But when we see her in the eyes of Josh and Amy she’s someone attractive and enviable.

Whittall captures well the sort of driftlessness that can accompany one’s early twenties. Whether in relationships or jobs or passions, there is often an uncertainty of how long can things last? Am I doing this right? Was that the correct choice? How long should I stick this out? When is it too late?

Book Review: 2 Short Story Collections

It’s a bit unfair to lump these two story collections in together but I read them almost back to back and, a few weeks later, am struggling to differentiate them in my mind.

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

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Collected Stories are collections of a life’s worth of short stories by Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley, respectively. Both women are Americans and wrote primarily in the first half of the 20th centuries.While Paley’s stories are set in New York (almost entirely in Brooklyn), Berlin’s roam around the USA, delving into Mexico. They write about the ordinary lives of women, mostly at home, often surrounding their children and their failed relationships. A Canadian comparison might be the stories of Alice Munro, although Munro’s stories end up feeling almost pastoral compared to the crowded apartments of Berlin and Paley.

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009)

These story collections have two major things in common. The first is that each author leans heavily on their own life experiences. Berlin seems almost to be writing her own autobiography, often naming characters Lucia or delving into stories of her childhood in mining camps and South America. Her characters often have four sons, like Berlin herself did, and are divorced multiple times.

The second characteristic that I found the two collections to have in common was the recurrence of stories. Characters often popped up again and this made both collections have a larger feel, as the reader follows a woman through her life, watches her children grow, her marriage flourish and wilt, her neighbours age and change. It felt like a small challenge to connect the stories together. While they certainly stand as individual tales, the connections definitely add.

Both Berlin and Paley are excellent story tellers and while they’re overall experience of life as women, wives and mothers in the early 20th century doesn’t echo my own in 2017, there are certainly many familiar moments. I would categorize Berlin’s stories as slightly darker – there was one I stopped reading partway through – but I enjoyed each collection and found both of these women an important addition to modern American writing.

Book Review: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing, 1995)

I was familiar with the concept of the Five Love Languages and what they were long before I ever read this book but when I saw Chapman’s book in a thrift store thought it might still be interesting to see what his ideas were in more detail.

Basically, Chapman proposes that humans each have a unique way of loving and being loved – our own “love language” – and if we aren’t loved in our own language as we need to be, we start to feel unloved. Therefore, learning what your partner’s love language is will enable you to make sure they know you love them. The five love languages are: Acts of Service, Quality Time, Gift Giving, Words of Affirmation, and Physical Touch.

Having heard the list of languages before, I had already mostly decided what my own (and my husband’s) was. However, reading about them in more detail actually made me think that my initial guess was wrong and that I might have decided what Peter’s was based more on my own language than on his. While this really doesn’t change anything about our marriage or interactions, it’s still helpful for the bigger picture.

I skimmed through The Five Love Languages in about a day. It’s full of anecdotes and it’s certainly not a difficult read. Chapman does focus almost entirely on marriage but I think there’s lots that could be relevant to anyone in a relationship. He has a chapter at the end on children and love languages that I found interesting, though I think it’s too early to say for Pearl at two years old. Chapman does come at marriage from a Christian perspective and there are Biblical references that may turn some readers off but I wouldn’t describe the book as Christian.

Not life changing but not bad for a quick day’s read.

 

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

Eleanor Oliphant, thirty years old, works in an office, does things exactly how she wants them without worrying what others think. Eleanor Oliphant is perfectly fine on her own, thank you very much, and always has been. She goes to Marks & Spencer every Friday, talks to Mummy on the phone every Wednesday night, and spends her weekends in a fog of vodka. Most other people (the “hoi polloi”) have atrocious manners or uninteresting lives so there’s simply no reason for Eleanor to engage with them more than is absolutely necessary.

Eleanor’s life begins to change though when she ends up at a local concert one night and falls for the musician on stage. Building an elaborate fantasy life, she begins to figure out how she can meet him. After all, as soon as they meet they’ll surely fall in love and live happily ever after. Right?

But Eleanor’s life is also changing due to an inadvertent friendship developing with the IT guy, Raymond. When Eleanor and Raymond help an old man who has fallen in the street, their lives become slowly more intertwined and Eleanor finds herself more and more outside of her usual comfort zone and schedule.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine draws some obvious comparisons to Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project but I found myself more often reminded of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. There is a much darker tone to Eleanor Oliphant than is found in The Rosie Project. It’s clear early on that Eleanor has a heavy past. We learn of the scar on her face, stories of broken arms and black eyes, and there are the weekly, disconcerting phone calls with Mummy.

More than all that though is the fact that I initially found Eleanor very dislikeable. While not outright creepy the way that Eileen is, she doesn’t have much to endear her to the reader. While Don (of The Rosie Project) is more of a charming idiot savant type, someone who mostly gets along with people but has to work very hard at it and doesn’t really understand why, Eleanor seems to actively judge and look down on others. She has little desire to engage with those around her and clearly seems to think of herself as better than them. As her interactions increase and she goes through some major personal development, this does change and Honeyman does a good job of showing how her life and childhood has affected Eleanor.

Overall, the novel is an easy and entertaining read and certainly offers an interesting perspective into the mind of a vastly unique person. Whether Eleanor is on the Autism spectrum or simply the product of her own past is left up to the reader but it is gratifying to watch Eleanor change and develop over the course of the novel. While, of course, remaining uniquely herself.