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

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.

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.