Book Review: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens

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Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)

My brother, who knows the author, gave me a copy of Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist, for my birthday. My big brother and I have similar taste a lot of the time, especially in books and music, and he’s one of the smartest people I know so I’m always happy to receive a new book from him. This memoir from a Vancouver doctor did not disappoint.

Martina Scholtens details her years working as a doctor for refugees in the heart of Vancouver. I grew up in Vancouver, spending most of my childhood and my adolescence in East Vancouver and, in fact, I once lived not far from Scholtens’ clinic. The Vancouver of my childhood was diverse and multicultural and complicated and this is mirrored in Scholtens’ experience. She worked exclusively with refugees in their first year in Canada. These are obviously people with complex backgrounds and traumas both physical and psychological. Scholtens is compassionate and pragmatic and writes beautifully of her struggles to help her patients and the connections she makes along the way.

She uses her relationship with one particular family as a thread that weaves in and out of the book but this is more of a personal reflection than anything else. There are stories of many patients; some are funny, many are heartbreaking. There are personal reflections on Scholtens’ own life and her struggle to find balance as both a doctor and a mother to young children. For part of the book she is recovering from a miscarriage and then is pregnant again and her vulnerability in sharing these parts of her life spoke strongly to me. Comparisons are drawn between her own life and the lives of her patients in subtle ways, and always Scholtens is aware of her own privilege. Of the gentle life she returns to each day in Deep Cove, away from the fears and concerns of her patients.

I finished this book and wanted to recommend it to everyone I saw. (I’ve already loaned out my copy.) Working moms, doctors, therapists, immigrants, human beings. There is something here to speak to the heart of any human who lives among humans. This is a beautiful book.

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What I Read – January 2018

For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.

– The Luminaries

One of my goals for 2017 was to read more classics. As such, I re-read The Power and the Glory, an amazing classic that I read several years ago but so many things in it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I’ve also (finally) begun to tackle The Silmarillion. I think my dad will be proud of me.

And, as always, I want to read more from my own library (Meaning read some of the stacks of books that I already own but have not yet read.) 84, Charing Cross Road, Rules of Civility, The Luminaries, Purple Hibiscus, and The Painted Girls all fit into that category.

I managed a couple of book reviews (titles are linked) but hope to do better in February. Feel free to share your favourite reads of the month in the comments!

Read:

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)
  2. The War that Saved my Life – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Penguin Books, 2015)
  3. Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)
  4. Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)
  5. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)
  6. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1979)
  7. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012)
  8. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan (Harper Collins, 2012

There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.

– The Power and the Glory

Currently Reading:

  1. Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.”

– The Silmarillion

*Friendly reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks if you’re into that sort of thing. Mostly pictures of what I’m reading as I’m reading and my kids.

Book Review: Waiting for the Cyclone by Leesa Dean

Waiting for the Cyclone - Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

Waiting for the Cyclone – Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

I’m not sure why I haven’t read many short story collections this year but that seems to be what happened. I’m happy to make amends with Leesa Dean’s debut collection. For me, the mark of a good short story is one which, when it ends, causes me to pause and look around for a minute or two.

I had read the title story of Waiting for the Cyclone previously, when it was first published in The New Quarterly and I liked it so much that I put Dean’s as-yet-unpublished book on my To Read list. Dean’s stories focus on women – tender, daring, unsure. Women who travel, women who fall in love, women who take chances, women who don’t. Reading the stories in quick succession, the characters did begin to feel like one very unlucky woman. Interesting but not a great decision-maker. Partly, I think, this comes from the settings. Central America is a common one, as is Vancouver and the British Columbia Interior. Dean is clearly familiar with these places but the repetition gives the impression that the stories happen in one world rather than multiple ones.

Dean’s women are the type who mostly go along with what’s happening and so end up in difficult and uncomfortable situations – like going on vacation with your ex-boyfriend or driving your best friend to the dentist directly after he’s told you his wife doesn’t want you to be friends anymore. Yet they’re not weak women and they’re not stupid and somehow Dean makes them sympathetic rather than frustrating. Perhaps they’re women who are always looking for the best in the others, the best outcome. And what’s not to like about that?

What I Read – October 2016

The Autumn season is prime book-reading time. The rainy and cold weather means I want to stay inside and read and there seem to be so many books to read. The autumn is when many new books are released (leading up to Christmas) and many of the major literary prize winners (and shortlists) are announced. My To Be Read list is so long that I’ve been sorting books into piles and my bedside table is stacked high. A friend also loaned me the three memoirs in this month’s What I Read list.

Fortunately (maybe?) Pearl is going through a stage where she wants one of us to sit in her room while she falls asleep. When I stopped nursing, my reading time seemed to decrease drastically but it’s bounced back up this month. Most evenings I spend between 30 minutes to an hour in Pearl’s room, curled up in a chair, leaning as close to the nightlight as I can get. There are worse things.

Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

An Invisible ThreadLaura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

Half Broke HorsesJeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)

Waiting for the Cyclone – Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

Re-read: Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage, 2000)

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamourous, war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

Currently Reading:

Prayer – Timothy Keller

By Gaslight – Steven Price

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

And a reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks and see up-to-the-minute photographic evidence of what I’m reading! Whether or not that sounds remotely appealing probably says a lot about you.

Book Review: Grace River by Rebecca Hendry

IMG_6023Grace River is a slim little novel, told from the alternating perspectives of four residents of a small town in British Columbia called Grace River. It’s a town where most people know each other, where most people grew up nearby, and the main industry is the smelter, Axis.

Our four narrators are Jessie, Daniel, Kali, and Jackson. Jessie and Daniel, husband and wife, grew up together in Grace River. Daniel works at Axis, as do all his friends. He works twelve hour shifts and then goes out to drink with his buddies before heading home to Jessie and their young daughter. Jessie is a waitress at the local diner, has begun to suffer from panic attacks and is beginning to wonder if who Daniel is reflects on who she is.

Jackson, the classic good guy, is still in awe that he ended up with his beautiful wife, Caroline, but also aware that she’s still the hard partying girl she’s always been, despite the fact that they now have two sons.

Kali is the only outsider of the group. Newly-divorced, she has arrived in Grace River with her two daughters and begun to date Mike, another local Axis worker. She’s a classic hippy, working at the health store, growing herbs in her garden, and brewing teas.

The action of the novel is started by the arrival of an American environmentalist. He’s in Grace River to test the waters, to see what damage Axis may be having on its surroundings, what it may be sending downstream, all the way to Washington. His presence is a cause of tension for those who work at Axis, who continue to insist that their work is safe, that Axis is doing things right, even as it begins to appear that the company may be hiding some things.

As these tensions mount, so do the tensions in each of these relationships. These are friendships and marriages largely created by proximity. It’s a classic example of being best friends with people because you’ve always been best friends. The book does a great job at opening up a small town and what life is like for many in such places where there aren’t a lot of other options. The characters are all interesting enough though tend to be a little similar in their descriptions and voices.

The tension surrounding Axis and its potential harm felt tacked on to me from the main plot drama, which is relationship-based. First of all, it seems too obvious that a company named Axis is going to be bad. Has there ever been a good Axis in history? Environmental and health concerns are a real thing in real communities like this but the timing in the novel felt too convenient, particularly when things start to go badly at the smelter. I was surprised too that there was no sense of anxiety among the townspeople that Axis would be shut down. In my experience, that is a very real fear in small towns with one major industry like this. Even if people know something’s might be bad for them – and, by and large, the characters are aware that they’re being exposed to lead and other harmful elements – the need for a job and an industry to keep the town going are much stronger than fear of future health issues. The characters have that lack of concern for the future because the present is okay but the novel never really explains why they’re okay with their lead exposure. It felt like a missed opportunity to further address why and how people get stuck in small towns like this. We get, perhaps, a glimpse in the character of Jessie, who is constantly coming up with plans to change her life, like making wooden chairs or selling jams but she never tells us what her final goal is. Does she want to leave Grace River or does she just want to make some extra cash. The result is that she comes across as flaky, even at the end when she does finally make a push to change her life in a major way.

There’s a lot of potential in this novel, Hendry’s first, and while it misses the mark in some spots, I hope to read more from her.

What I Read – October 2015

The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney (Penguin Canada, 2006)

Read my review here.

The Bone Sharps – Tim Bowling (Gaspereau Press, 2007)

Read my review here.

Remembrance – Alistair MacLeod (McClelland & Stewart, 2012)

The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes (Vintage Canada, 2012)

Beatrice & VirgilYann Martel (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010)

The Talent Thief – Alex Williams (MacMillan Children’s Books, 2007)

Jack MaggsPeter Carey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)

If I Fall, If I Die – Michael Christie (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)

Love Wins – Rob Bell (HarperOne, 2011)

Every Good EndeavorTimothy Keller (Riverhead Books, 2012)

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Grace RiverRebecca Hendry (Brindle & Glass, 2009)

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

Pragmatism – William James (Dover Publications, Inc., 1995)

(An interesting read but I’m so far from qualified to review this so don’t hold your breath!)

The Bishop’s Man – Linden MacIntyre (Vintage Canada, 2009)

Read my review here.

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James