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: The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break – Katherena (Anansi, 2016)

I have to start by saying this book is truly excellent. I’d been waiting for weeks for a copy at our local library and it came available right before we went away for Spring Break. Afraid they wouldn’t hold it for too long, I took it with me and ended up reading it in the first couple of days.

Set in the North End of Winnipeg, The Break follows several women, interconnected in a variety of ways (mostly family), over a few days following a horrifically violent act. The novel opens with Stella, a young wife and mother who has recently moved back into her old neighbourhood. Up late at night with her baby, she witnesses something horrible from her window. From there, we go back a few days to the lead-up of this violent act and the women involved.

I don’t know Winnipeg (beyond what I’ve heard in songs from The Weakerthans, really) but I know neighbourhoods like this one. Immigrant neighbourhoods, ones that slowly change as cost of living increases, ones where violence is not uncommon but neither is a strong sense of community. Vermette does a good job of balancing a sense of danger with a sense of home that each character has for their neighbourhood.

This is a story of Indigenous women in Canada today. And while I hate to describe it as “timely”, it really is, as focus grows surrounding the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country. The book powerfully portrays how these issues and incidences of violence are covered up, ignored, swept away. Of how difficult it is for women in so many communities to avoid violence. After finishing the novel, I really thought it would win this year’s Canada Reads competition and I was shocked to learn it was the first to be eliminated. Honestly, I’m disappointed because it feels like another instance of ignoring such a huge issue. I can only hope that The Break will still be read by many Canadians.

Each chapter focuses on a different character and Vermette does a mostly great job of voice and characterization. The characters range from teenagers to an elderly grandmother, social workers to an escapee from a juvenile detention centre. Vermette gives each story weight and importance and as she slowly reveals more of their history and background, she beautifully creates sympathy for each one. These are women (even the very young ones) who have already started life with many obstacles stacked against them. Some will be more successful than others, but each will be battered by circumstances and will struggle to move forward, to not simply be defined by their personal histories or the violence enacted against them.

The weakest part of the novel, in my opinion, was Stella’s story. Stella is slightly separate from the other characters for most of the book and so it felt like her sections could be easily lifted out without altering the trajectory of the plot or development of the others. She seems to exist to show an alternate lifestyle – a woman who left the community, married a white man, and then returned. But I really didn’t get enough of a sense of her life before the opening chapter, or her relationship with her husband, to say how different life had been for her. Or how similar.

That said, that is a small weakness in an otherwise powerful book and one definitely worth reading.

What I Read – March 2017

I’ve fallen behind in reviewing books but am working to catch up and get some reviews posted next week. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:

EileenOttessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 2015)

The Dark and Other Love Stories Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

She was glad that was done. What a relief. But then again, if she could, she’d do it all over. Everything. Her whole life. She’d live it again, just for the small but real pleasures of a donut and coffee, of holding her daughter in her arms, of making money, of sleeping late, of waking up.

  • Deborah Willis, “The Nap”

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen – Joanna Faber & Julie King (Scribner, 2017)

The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

…and he realizes that this is the way it is, the way it must be: you don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.

  • Hanya Yanagihara

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

The Dinner Party and Other Stories – Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

Book Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2016)

The novel opens with Sadie Woodbury, elementary school student, finding herself face-to-face with a would-be school shooter. Sadie (and, presumably, the entire school or at least the secretary the shooter came to kill) is saved by teacher George Woodbury, also her own father.

This is a rather heavy-handed way of letting the reader know how and why George Woodbury is such a beloved teacher and member of his community. Fortunately, the story improves from here.

Years later, George is still beloved. He wins Teacher of the Year every year. His wife Joan is an ER nurse. His was one of the founding families of their lakeside community and George teaches out of sheer love, rather than any financial need.  Their eldest child, Andrew, lives in New York where he’s a lawyer. Sadie is now a high school senior, smart, beautiful, athletic. The Woodburys and their friends are the definition of WASPs and seem to have it all.

Then George is arrested, accused of sexual misconduct and attempted rape of multiple young girls while on a school ski trip. He swears to his own innocence, claiming someone is out to get him. The school and the town take sides and the Woodbury’s are left in the middle, missing their father and husband with their own doubts ever increasing.

The story moves between the perspectives of Joan, Andrew, and Sadie, focusing mostly on Joan and Sadie, as the two women left to deal with the day-to-day fallout in their community. They each love George and desperately want him to be innocent, while also acknowledging that most rape allegations are true. Joan begins to wonder just how well she knows her husband as other things he’s hidden from her come to light. Sadie falls prey to a local author who wants to write a book about the crime and her whole future seems to crumble as she is ostracized by her friends and peers.

Overall the story is well-balanced and well-told. It’s an emotional tale told without sentimentality. Whittall delicately examines how the Woodbury family is left bereft but without the right to grieve the loss of George (as he’s in prison awaiting trail) because what if he’s guilty. I will say that I thought his family began to doubt him more quickly than seemed realistic. I would call myself a feminist who wants to support victims of sexual assault and believes the system is deeply flawed when these women do come forward to name their attackers. Yet, if a man I loved dearly and felt I know well (my husband, my brother, my father) was accused of a crime like this I just don’t think I would believe it unless confronted with cold, hard evidence. That may not be unfair and hypocritical but I think it’s also human nature and so I was surprised at how quickly doubt crept in for Joan and Sadie. I would have found it more believable for these changes in attitude to come slowly as the novel progressed.

The character of Andrew – the one who hated their community and has happily left it – provided a nice alternate perspective and cast some light on how life amongst the Woodburys might not be so perfect for everybody. There was a side plot about Andrew’s own high school relationship with a teacher that I didn’t feel added much and made Andrew seem pretty ignorant about how the world works.

The ending is sadly realistic and, I thought, particularly well-done. I know some readers have really disliked it but I thought it was truthful both to how the real world can be and to who the characters were.