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.

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.

Book Review: The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

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

I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway (the writing more than the man himself but that’s a topic for another time) and I’ve read most of his writing. While in Washington recently, I spotted a Hemingway book I’d never read in a secondhand bookshop and so brought it home. It turns out that The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986. I’m always wary of books published years after an author’s death. Would the author really have wanted this book made public? Is the story complete? Will it be as good as the rest of the author’s work? (The answer is often no.)

While The Garden of Eden is not Hemingway’s finest novel, it is a fascinating read and the style and setting will be very familiar to his readers. Set between France and Spain it follows David and Catherine Bourne on their honeymoon. Which is, in typical Hemingway style, a months-long holiday through Europe, spent fishing, swimming, and drinking a lot.

David and Catherine are utterly content when we first meet. They seem to have met and married in Paris after a short courtship. They’ve settled into a routine in a small town in the south of France where Catherine causes a small scandal by wearing shorts but they are otherwise accepted. David is a writer whose second novel has recently been published and he is beginning to receive very good reviews. Catherine encourages him to write but hates the sight of his news clippings and seems reluctant to discuss his book.

As the book – and the marriage – progress, Catherine begins to reveal to David her hidden desires. While Hemingway never goes into detail about these desires and the intimate moments between David and Catherine, it isn’t difficult to figure out what he’s alluding to. And, indeed, the book is more explicit than many others in its time and by Hemingway.

Then Catherine begins to involve another woman into their relationship and David and Catherine form attachments to her, both as a couple and individually. Predictably, this creates a lot of complications. David is writing more than ever but instead of writing the story Catherine wants him to, he’s begun to write a series of stories about his father in Africa. Hemingway’s descriptions of writing, his portrayal of David’s struggles and desires over his stories, feels terrifically accurate. Sometimes painfully so. The subtle comparison of David’s focus on his work and his growing focus on another woman, and Catherine’s reaction to both, is well done and fascinating to watch.

The book is sad, as most of Hemingway is, especially when it comes to marriage and romance. Catherine is much more fully developed than many of the women Hemingway wrote, though there are still many blank spots in her character. Some aspects of her past are alluded to but we’re told very little. In the end, I was left to feel that David was supposed to be a victim of her instability when, to my view, he was just as guilty for the destruction of their marriage. Yet, like Hemingway himself, it feels clear that David will never be satisfied in one relationship for long.

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.

Book Review: How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber & Julie King

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

In the world of parenting books, one I had heard frequently recommended was How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk Adele Faber. I figured I would wait until Pearl was older/ more verbal to read it but when I saw a new edition titled How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen out this year, I thought it might be the perfect time.

The book is written by Adele Faber’s daughter and her childhood friend, both experts in early development. (And obviously fans of how they were raised.) It is geared for children ages 2 to 7. With Pearl having just turned two, she is at the young end of this book’s range and there were definitely suggestions that just won’t work with her yet. (Though may be good to keep in mind for the future.)

That said, there is a lot of good information and great ideas in this book and things I have been working to implement in the weeks since I read it. The core of Faber and King’s advice is acknowledging your child’s emotions. Saying, “You are frustrated!” and naming what has frustrated them, or what has made them sad or mad, etc. The idea is that this teaches them how to name and understand their emotions, as well as validating what they’re feeling. For many parents (myself included) our first instinct is to try and apply logic. “You have to sit in your stroller because this will be a long walk.” Turns out, logic doesn’t work that well with two year olds! Faber and King suggest that sometimes the simple act of naming and acknowledging your child’s emotions can be enough to foster more co-operation.

While I haven’t had quite the quick and stunning results that some of the stories in the book portray, I have found it helpful to take a moment and accept that Pearl is feeling whatever she’s feeling, no matter how inappropriate the emotion may seem to me. Part of our job as parents is to help our children learn how to deal with their feelings in an appropriate manner. And I’m certainly getting better results by talking to Pearl and being patient than simply forcing her into a stroller!

The book is full of stories and anecdotes, many from Faber and King’s own parenting experiences and others gleaned from years of workshops run for parents. The stories are easy to read and make the book a quick one to digest.

The parenting style here is one you probably agree with or don’t and there isn’t much that is going to sway you in either direction. Many parents won’t like the lack of punishment (or even consequence) that Faber and King employ. Others, like myself, will realize this was a style of parenting they were already leaning toward. One of my big goals as a parent is to avoid yelling at my kid. This has been pretty easy so far but I sense that the older Pearl gets, the more challenging it may become. It’s helpful to identify and put into practice some techniques to avoid this now. Plus, my hope is that Pearl becomes an adult who feels frustration and anger and sadness and knows how to react and deal with those feelings. I want her to know her feelings are valid but that there are good and bad ways of expressing them.

I can’t speak to how similar or different this book is to Adele Faber’s original but if you have a toddler or pre-schooler, I would recommend spending an afternoon (or naptime) skimming through this book.

Book Review: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

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

A quick disclaimer to say that I know Deborah Willis but only a little bit. We were in the same program at university but she was a couple of years ahead of me and we briefly worked at the same coffee shop and then we worked at rival bookstores. I read her first short story collection, Vanishing, when it first came out because I knew Deb but I was eager to read her new collection because I think she’s an excellent writer.

This new story collection revolves around the theme of love. That love takes a variety of forms. The powerful, platonic love of two best friends at summer camp in the title story. The love of a couple, spanning decades, a whole life time lived in the span of an afternoon nap, told in a trilogy of stories. The relationship between two marijuana dealers when one of them applies to move to Mars. The stories are painfully true to life, with all the small and large discomforts that love brings us, along with its unique pleasures. At least one made me have to close the book for a while because the ending was so unexpectedly sad.

Willis’ characters are believable, likeable, and discomfiting. She nails their human reactions and emotions with a sometimes uncomfortable accuracy. Even in the strangest of situations, the basic realness of these fictional characters remains.

Book Review: Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh

 

Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)

I finished this book in about two days, which gives you a pretty good idea of how compelling a read it is. Yet now, days later, I find myself struggling over what to say about Eileen and even whether or not to say that I liked it.

It’s a compulsive read. While the action itself is pretty limited, Moshfegh does excel at creating tension and build-up and so, even though I had no idea where the story was going, I was eager to get there. When you do reach the major climax twist, it was a very unexpected turn of events.

Eileen Dunlop is in her early twenties, lives with her alcoholic father, and works at the local prison for teenage boys. She has a halfhearted plan to escape the small town she calls X-ville but the reader gets the feeling that Eileen herself will never instigate this plan. She’s an unpleasant person, something she freely admits to and, as our narrator, seems to relish describing her own disgusting habits. We get a lot more information about her bowel movements than is typical for most novels, for example. A lot of her so-called gross habits seemed either not that shocking to me or clearly the result of an emotionally abusive and neglectful childhood. Since Eileen is our narrator, it seems likely to me that in her efforts to shock the reader with her story, she doesn’t realize that she’s actual revealing how damaged she is.

The blurb on the book gave me the impression that this was going to be more along the lines of a thriller or horror story but it really isn’t. It struck me as quite a sad story about a sad, lonely woman who is trapped in a variety of ways. She longs for relationship with others but has no idea how to achieve this and so is alternately manipulative, creepy, or awful with everyone around her. She knows she’s not normal, but she’s also not as deranged as she thinks she is.

What ends up changing Eileen’s life is a friendship (of sorts) with a beautiful young woman named Rebecca. Eileen meets Rebecca through her job at the prison (all kinds of horrible stuff through that) and quickly becomes obsessed with her. In a matter of days, they strike up a friendship and this leads to the ultimate climax and what finally causes Eileen to leave X-ville and change her life.

There’s a lot of detail of Eileen’s daily life – what she eats, what she drinks, what she wears, how she goes to the bathroom – throughout the book and I’m not convinced it’s all necessary, though it does paint a vivid portrait. And, perhaps, that’s really the point of the story. The action is brief. Shocking, but a flash compared to everything else, and the novel is, after all, called Eileen and so exists as a portrayal of an unusual young woman. A woman who you can’t help but wish could have realized that she wasn’t so unusual after all.

Book Review: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

I’d previous read one novel by Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird) so I had some idea of what to expect from her writing. Oyeyemi’s stories exist in a slightly alternate universe of magic, discomfort, and romance. There is something delightfully disorienting about her world. It’s almost like ours but some of the details are just a little bit off.

This is a collection of linked short stories. I normally don’t love linked short stories because the link can end up feeling forced. And while there’s a tinge of that here, I thought the collection overall was very good. The initial link between the stories is that they all involve keys. There are locks and doors and rooms and places better left shut in each story. More interesting though is that as the stories progress we begin to see the connections between place and character. Some characters pop up again, years later. We get to see what happens to the little girl obsessed with an abusive pop star. We catch a glimpse of a teenage puppeteer’s future. The connections aren’t hammered home and Oyeyemi doesn’t go out of our way to draw attention to them – they’re more like glimpses of someone familiar on a bus going the opposite direction to ours – and they left me feeling delighted and clever¬† for spotting them.

The stories themselves are strange but compulsive. Each one had me eagerly reading to the end because I couldn’t imagine where Oyeyemi was going. Like Boy Snow Bird there is a strong element of fairy tale throughout. That blend of magic and darkness that you find when you read the original versions of stories like “The Little Mermaid” or “Cinderella”. While Oyeyemi’s style certainly isn’t for everyone, if you’re able to disengage from reality and accept a world of talking puppets and doors that open by themselves then you’ll find a lot of enjoy in this story collection.