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.

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What I Read – February 2016

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson (HarperCollins, 2015)

(Truth be told, I only read half of this before I had to return it to the library. But I really enjoyed what I read and I hope to borrow it again.)

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

  • Marilynne Robinson

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer – C.S. Lewis (Mariner Books, 2012)

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be a delight. Some day, please God, it will be.

– C.S. Lewis

The High Mountains of Portugal – Knopf Canada, 2016)

Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson (Flatiron Books, 2015)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

A Tale of Three Kings – Gene Edwards (Tyndale House Publishers, 1992)

These were David’s darkest hours. We know them as his pre-king days, but he didn’t.

  • Gene Edwards

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (Viking Canada, 1997)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

(I swear, I’m so close to being finished. Really, you guys. I think March will be the month! I’m already planning how to celebrate.)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

(I quickly discovered that Infinite Jest is too large a book for me to hold one-handed while up in the night for Pearl, so it’s semi on hold while I read smaller novels.)

And this time last year…

What I Read – February 2015

(Is it overly defensive to explain that February and March are combined from last year because I had a baby at the end of February? Well, I’m going to say it anyway.)

Book Review: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons.

I first read this short book a year ago in a hospital room and it’s no coincidence that I decided to re-read it this time of year, just like it’s no coincidence that I’m publishing this review on my daughter’s first birthday.

There is so much I hope to teach my girl about life and there are so many contrary lessons that will be pushing up against her in the years to come. But one of the most important things I hope to teach her is that she is valuable and important and that she should never accept any one treating her as lesser because she is female.

This can manifest itself in many different ways. Sexual harassment, unfair treatment in the workplace. Wolf whistles when you’re just trying to cross the street. The fact that people will refer to a “working mom” (and have opinions on whether or not a mom should work) but people rarely talk about “working dads”. Strangers who tell you to smile.

I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my femaleness.

Adichie covers a lot of ground in this little book and while some of it is more specific to her home country of Nigeria, there is much that bears reading (and re-reading) here and I believe this is an important conversation.

Adichie addresses the idea of “the angry feminist”, beginning with the tale of how she first called herself “a happy feminist”, of how she was told feminists are unhappy women who won’t find husbands. But she lets us follow along on the journey from placating others’ ideas of feminism to allowing herself to be angry about the state of gender today and this misconception of what it is to be a feminist.

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.

Yet one of the things I love about Adichie is that she refuses to allow anyone to stereotype here. Yes, she’s angry, but she isn’t an angry feminist. Yes, she’s a feminist but that doesn’t make her less feminine. She chooses to embrace the things she loves – colourful clothing and make-up, high heels and history – unapologetically and with a beautiful insistence that it has nothing to do with her desire for equality between men and women. Because, quite frankly, it doesn’t and it’s ridiculous that in the 21st century people are still trying to argue that liking lipstick and wanting to get paid the same as a man are mutually exclusive things.

If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.

This is Adichie’s challenge; it is up to us to change the world. How we live our lives, how we stand up for ourselves and others around us will change the world. How we raise our daughters and our sons will change the world.

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

IMG_6025I’m very low-key about my hair. I get it cut maybe twice a year. I don’t colour it and I rarely use product in it. I go to the drug store and I buy whatever shampoo and conditioner is on sale. I’ve never given much thought to the privilege this represents.

There is an eye-opening scene in Americanah where one of the main characters, Ifemelu, is told to straighten her hair for a job interview in the United States. She does so, using relaxers, and soon her hair begins to fall out due to damage. Later on in the book, the regime she uses to keep her hair natural is described. I’d never really thought about why it is that I can go to a drug store and buy cheap shampoo and not think about it. That shampoo is made for hair like mine because it’s targeted to a market that assumes most people have hair like mine. Or if they don’t, that they should aspire to it. (By which I mean, not my hair in particular because I don’t think there’s anything super special about it, but hair that is straight.) In short, the hair of a white person. Ifemelu is African and she has naturally kinky hair. The drugstore is full of products that don’t work for her. From shampoo to foundation to “nude” band-aids that don’t match her skin colour. This is what is meant by racial privilege in America.

Americanah presents a perspective I haven’t read before. But I’m coming to expect that from Adichie, whose writing I’ve been greatly enjoying this year. Ifemelu states that she never felt black until she left Africa, until she moved to the United States where being black suddenly became a part of her identity.

The novel divides between Ifemelu and Obinze, beginning in high school when they meet and fall in love. Obinze is quiet, smart, the son of a professor. Ifemelu is stubborn, a little brash, the daughter of a radically religious mother and a father long unemployed for his refusal to call his boss, “Mummy”. Their connection is powerful and immediate. Like any young people, they make plans for their future together. But they are living in an unsteady climate and country. Their time at university together is continually disrupted by strikes. When Ifemelu has the chance to move to the United States, they decide together that she must take it and Obinze will join her as soon as he can.

For many reasons, not least of all a post-9/11 America, Obinze never gets his visa and they are never reunited in the U.S. We follow Ifemelu’s transition to life in America. Poverty, success, relationships. We follow Obinze’s struggle in Nigeria, his attempt at an undocumented life in England, his later successes.

This is an immensely readable book. While it deals with modern day Nigeria, racial identity, and immigration in Western countries, it really is a book about relationships. Adichie skillfully offers a perspective that many Westerners may not be familiar with and she does it in such a deceptively simple manner that you might think you’re just reading another good novel.

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

What I Read – August 2015

August was a good reading month. Two things helped. 1) Having no internet for the first twenty days and 2) Long periods of wakefulness with a baby for the first half of the month. (The way I get through nighttime feedings is with a soft light and a good book.) Here’s what I read:

Half of a Yellow Sun –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Vintage Canada, 2007)

I really like Adichie’s writing.This is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The rest of her writing is on my List.

I knew very little of the Biafran/Nigerian civil war going into this and I think Adichie does a great job of telling the reader this history through the story. Both of my parents had childhood memories of hearing about Biafra and I was surprised that this was where our idea of “starving Africans” comes from. This is a sad, hard story to read but a wonderful example of the power of storytelling and how important it can be.

The Mysterious Benedict Society – Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown & Company, 2008)

This book series has been a popular one among pre-teen readers for the past few years so I was eager to read it. Reynie Muldoon responds to an ad in the newspaper, takes a few strange tests, and is swept into a secretive world full of mystery and a little bit of espionage. This is a fun book and easy to read (even for its target audience, I think). The characters are likeable and interesting. The illustrations by Carson Ellis add nicely to the story.

Where the book struggles is in background information. Is this story set in our world? Our future? An alternate version of our world? We are told that there is an “Emergency” but we’re never told what this really entails. As a result, stopping the Emergency doesn’t feel that high stakes. You might want the characters to succeed but it doesn’t much feel like it matters.

The Joys of Love – Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2008)

It is my opinion that most books published posthumously were not published by the author for good reasons. Unfortunately, as much as I like so much of L’Engle’s work, this is true of The Joys of Love. (Also, a terrible title.) It’s a book about theatre and young adulthood and first love, set in the late 1940s. It’s a harmless story but it doesn’t make much of a case for its own value.

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001)

The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

Somehow I made it through high school and university without reading this one (is it a short story? a novella?) It had been on my list for a long time; surely, I thought, a story so famous was worthy of reading. I was hugely disappointed and, honestly, disgusted by this one. While I can understand much of its racism has to do with the time in which it was written, that certainly doesn’t excuse its popularity in the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Frankly, I found it hard to read the descriptions of Africa and the African people.

Almost as bad is the fact that the story is mostly narrative and very little action. I never felt like we were given much example of Kurtz’s behaviour but simply told that we should be shocked. There was potential in parts but the long-winded explanations and the heavy-handed racism make this a poor read.

A Very Long Engagement – Sébastien Japrisot (Plume, 1994)

translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

While I might wonder why some books are so famous, I also wonder why others are not more famous. A Very Long Engagement is one of those books. I was hugely impressed with this one. It’s sad and funny and endearing. Beautifully detailed and a story wonderfully told.

Set primarily in the aftermath of World War I in France, Mathilde is searching for the truth of what happened to her fiancé. Official reports say that he was killed in action but as Mathilde traces the last days of his life and meets the men who were there, it turns out that there is much more to the story, and that there are those who don’t want the truth told. The reader is told the truth early on but Japrisot does a magnificent job of unfolding the events as various characters tell their versions and as Mathilde learns the truth.

Japrisot’s characters are really where the book shines. Each one, no matter how minor, is given depth and reality. Some we only meet through letters, some show up steadily throughout the story and Mathilde’s life, but each one feels like a real person.

Rapture Practice – Aaron Hartzler (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

This is a memoir of a young man’s journey from unquestioning faith in a particularly conservative brand of Christianity to what I think turns out to be agnosticism.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home and I went to Christian school for six years of my childhood education. I’m familiar with much of what Hartzler describes and I’m pretty sure I read the same Dr. Dobson book on adolescence and puberty that he does. Overall though, my upbringing was far less conservative and more forgiving than his was. The Christianity he describes is a rule-based one, with very little grace, and it makes me sad when people view that as what Christianity is.

So while I think it’s healthy when young people question the faith (whatever faith that may be) that they grow up in and decide whether or not they want to claim it for their own, it also makes me sad when people think this is what Christianity is.

Honestly, the book stops just as it gets interesting. We don’t get to learn about where Hartzler’s faith is at now or how his adult relationship with his family is. (Mostly, he portrays his parents in a pretty forgiving light. His father is the closest thing the book has to an antagonist but I got the sense that Hartzler stopped short in his re-telling because his parents are alive to read this memoir.)

The book mostly focuses on Hartzler’s teen years and there was a lot of teen boy stuff that I just couldn’t relate to or find all that interesting. Overall, I think this one falls short of what it could have been

Dancer – Colum McCann (Phoenix, 2003)

They built roads through drifts with horses, pitching them forward into the snow until the horses died, and then they ate the horsemeat with great sadness.

I love Colum McCann’s writing (check out that opening line!). He does historical fiction well. In Dancer, he tackles the subject of Rudolf Nureyev, a Russian ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union in the 1960s (and someone I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this novel).

McCann tells the story through other people’s experiences with Nureyev – his parents, his sister, his teacher, his classmates, his servant. Only briefly and as a child do we get into Nureyev’s own head. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story. In general, it’s not one that flatters Nureyev. We read a portrait of a man who is flamboyant, headstrong, stubborn, immensely talented, and rather heartless. Here and there are glimpses of someone softer, someone more sympathetic but we are meeting a man whose fame and childhood hardship stand continously in contrast and keep the rest of the world at bay. It’s a sad story about art, about a country of suffering, about human relationships and how hard they are. It’s beautifully told.

“And I will tell you this, since it is all I want to say: Anna, the sound of your name still opens the windows of this room.”

The Cougar Lady – Rosella Leslie (Caitlin Press, 2014)

This is a very Sechelt book. A memoir of a uniquely Sechelt character, written by a Sechelt author and published by a publishing house based here on the Sunshine Coast. I’d heard of Bergie and her sister Minnie before I ever moved here since my husband remembers seeing them in town occasionally when he was a child. Most locals who were around while the sisters were alive have a story or two.

Bergie lived in a remote area of the Sechelt Inlet, hunting and fishing and mostly following her own rules. Reading about her life and story, I got the impression that she was a person who outlived her time. The Sunshine Coast was a remote, forested village for a long time but Bergie was still alive as it became a town. One with hunting licenses and fishing regulations. It’s hard to say if Bergie would have chosen the life she lived had any other options ever been presented to her. Rosella Leslie offers up the facts of Bergie’s life but they mostly serve as a sad picture of a woman with a rough childhood and who subsequently had difficulty building relationships and adapting to the world as it changed around her.

A Northern Light – Jennifer Donnelly (Harcourt, 2003)

“Lots of things are true. Doesn’t mean you can go around saying them.”

This young adult novel is based on a true crime in the early 20th century (the same crime that An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser is based on). Donnelly creates a fictional young woman, Mattie Gokey, to parallel the real life victim of Grace Brown. It’s an interesting way to demonstrate the narrow options of a young girl in that era. The book is an easy read though it doesn’t always explain itself as well as it could. My biggest question was with Mattie’s relationship with Royal. It’s hard to see why she would ever agree to marry him (and their engagement is an important plot factor) and the story would have had a lot more tension if it ever seemed at all likely that she might actually go through with the marriage.

The Sword in the Stone – T.H. White (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939)

I remember reading this story in elementary school but as I began to re-read it, I found I didn’t remember it at all. This isn’t a historically accurate or factual telling of the Arthur legend (if such a thing can even exist). It’s full of anachronisms and it’s set in entirely the wrong time. White offers up the reasoning of Merlin living backwards through time but he isn’t trying to defend his inaccuracies really. The point is the story and the idea of what Arthur’s (or The Wart as he is known here) childhood might have been like before he pulled that sword out of the stone. I remembered really enjoying this book years ago, which is good because I didn’t much enjoy the re-read. It went on rather long and I kept waiting for more action and adventure. Much of the story reads more like a biology or philosophy lesson.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies – Raziel Reid (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014)

(If you can read that title without getting Iris by the Googoo Dolls stuck in your head, you are a stronger person than I am.)

This short young adult novel won the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award in its category. Shortly thereafter, a petition was started to get the award rescinded and to keep this book out of schools.

Loosely based on the real life and murder of Larry Fobes King, this is the story of Jude. Jude lives in a small, cold, unnamed Canadian town. He is flamboyantly, unashamedly gay and he enjoys wearing make-up and dressing up in his mother’s – who works as a stripper – clothes and shoes. He longs equally to leave his small town and to be famous. He narrates his own life as if he’s the star of his own reality TV show, referring to his classmates as fans or paparazzi. He’s infatuated with Luke, a popular classmate, whose friends bully Jude mercilessly.

Jude is the star of his own show and it’s a sad, sad show to watch. His father makes only sporadic appearances, his mother clearly loves him but is caught up in her own tragedies, his stepfather is abusive and hateful. Jude’s best friend betrays him and the one person willing to be physically intimate with Jude won’t admit it even to himself. Jude relies heavily on drugs to deal with his own life. He’s strong, cocky, often funny; in subtle ways Reid shows us that this is a character who might have been someone if every circumstance in his life was entirely different.

Jude certainly isn’t a character to be admired or to draw inspiration from. He’s a fictional portrayal of the ways real life kids fall through the cracks. And this is a story of learning to deal with emotions, with love, with pain. It’s a sad story.

I’m anti-censorship so I’m glad to see schools and libraries keep this on their shelves. I think it’s important for teenagers to read all kinds of books and I think it’s equally important for the adults in their lives to talk with them about those books. This is definitely a book that should be accompanied by a lot of conversation. Jude isn’t someone I’d want my teenager to be but, sadly, he’s a realistic portrayal of the life many teens live.

Jesus Among Other Gods – Ravi Zacharias (Thomas Nelson, 2000)

…truth cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a pretended tolerance.

This is a controversial statement in our world today. Zacharias, one of my favourite Christian theologians, doesn’t shy away from controversy in this book where he explores what makes Christianity unique among other religions. Raised in India – a land of many gods – Zacharias delves into the other major religions of the world and addresses some of the big issues and questions that people have when comparing Christianity to other belief systems.

I would describe Zacharias’ writing as fairly academic. I don’t find him as readable as someone like Philip Yancey, but his insights are equally valuable and compared to some of his other books, Jesus Among Other Gods is not a difficult read. For anyone interested in comparative religion and Christianity in particular, I think this is a great place to start.

Those who smirk at His walking on water have forgotten the miracle He has already performed in the very composition of water.

The Giver – Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993)

Like so many other people my age, I read this years ago but I don’t remember much. While up late with Pearl one night, I finished the book I was reading and pulled this off our shelf. We meet Jonas who seems to live in some sort of future utopian society. At least, utopian if you consider a society where no one has strong emotions and every aspect of your life – from where you work to who your children are – is dictated by the authorities to be a utopia. Jonas is nearly twelve, the age when his future career will be decided upon by the Elders. He’s nervous and excited but he has no idea what’s in store for him when he is assigned the unique job of Receiver.

On the off chance there are people out there who haven’t read this one, I won’t say anything further because I think the book is better left as a surprise. It’s a great young adult book; it’s full of concepts that raise questions and conversation. If I were judging it from an adult perspective, I think it does fall short in really establishing its own world and how this society can actually work. Some more backstory would probably aid it but it’s an easy and fascinating read just the way it is.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Previous to this novel I’d only read Smith’s novella, The Embassy of Cambodia. I enjoyed that one though so was eager to read On Beauty. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a story of race, of class, of education. The characters are (mostly) well-fleshed out and interesting, though only a few of them are very likeable. It’s the story of two feuding families – the Belseys and the Kipps – and it starts off with the son from one family falling in love with the daughter from the other family. It’s not a Romeo and Juliet story at all though; it’s much more complicated than that.

Set mostly in a university town outside of Boston, the novel focuses heavily on the power and effects of education. The patriarchs of each family are professors and rivals (unfortunately the character of Monty Kipps is never much more than a caricature) and their children’s lives become more and more entwined as time progresses. There are lots of unexpected turns in the plot and Smith handles them well, with realistic characters reacting in ways that feel honest and true.

Currently Reading:

The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton

Art is the signature of man.

Beijing Confidential –  Jan Wong

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey

What I Read – July 2015

Ten Thousand Lovers – Edeet Ravel (Review Books, 2003)

This was a well-written, interesting, and engaging read. The characters are believable and fascinating. It’s easy to imagine that their lives began and continue before and after we meet them in the action of this novel. Set in Israel in the 1970s, Ten Thousand Lovers, tells the story of Lily, a young Canadian Jew studying in Jerusalem as she meets an Israeli man, Ami, and learns to see Israel with new eyes. Ravel does well at building a subtle sort of tension throughout the novel. It’s hard to put your finger on but you know things went end well here. Of course, this is aided by the general and historical tension of Palestine-Israel conflict. This is a story of grey zones, of questionable morality and that ever unanswerable question: Do the ends justify the means?

Many Dimensions – Charles Williams (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970)

If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

It’s fairly well known that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were members of a writer’s group called the Inklings. But I doubt that very many people could name the rest of the group’s members. I certainly can’t although now I at least know three of them. The third is Charles Williams.a

Like Lewis and Tolkien, Williams’ novel delves into the fantastical and the religious. Unlike the other two Inklings, Williams grounds his story in the real world of modern day (for him if not for us currently) England. One of our main characters is Chief Justice. There are questions of international relations and economic trade. All of it surrounding the Crown of Suleiman (more commonly known as Solomon). This crown bears a stone that enables one to travel through space, time, and thought. Many dimensions, indeed. And, crucially, the stone can be divided without any lessening of its power.

Williams skillfully sets up the forces of good, evil, and ignorance (perhaps equally dangerous). This is a story of right and wrong and the grey areas that those inhabit. Parts of it read like it could be an Indiana Jones adventure. Other parts delve into more esoteric ideas. The story is rather old-fashioned but readable. While it’s clear who the good guys are, there are still some big moral questions left unanswered and I think that’s how it should be. The ending is strange and a little unsatisfying (definitely not an Indian Jones-style ending) but fits with this strange novel. If you’re a fan of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy or Tolkien’s Leaf and Tree, I think you’d enjoy this novel too.

A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle (Vintage Canada, 2000)

I looked for a man with lovely eyes on Custom House Quay and found a fat dwarf standing on a chair and shouting out names over the heads of the dockers who waited at the quay wall.

Crude, strong, violent, handsome. This is Henry Star the second or the third, depending on whether or not you count his dead brother. Using his fists, his good looks, and his father’s wooden leg, Henry is fighting his way through early 20th century Dublin. He’s a Fenian, a cop-killer, a soldier of the streets, and an utterly unique character.

He’s also not as charming as he thinks he is. Henry is our narrator and so I started to disbelieve him when he kept reminding me of how good-looking and strong he was. He seems to get away with a lot and women seem to be willing to do a lot and put up with a lot for him. I can’t help but think that Henry Smart is very much a character written by a man.

Mostly though, this is a sad book. About a young man who has always been on his own. Who has lost or will lose every person close to him. A person who knows nothing but poverty and filth and is fighting for a society that will never offer him anything more.

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Knopf, 2009)

As much as I didn’t enjoy Peter Carey’s short story collection, I love his novels. They are colourful, peopled with fascinating characters, full of depth, and a little absurd. The majority of them, as is this one, are historical. Parrot & Olivier begins in France, set during the Revolution. Olivier is a French nobleman, his family caught amid the turmoil of rebellion, their entire way of life changing. He is a bit foppish and very naive. Against his will he is sent to America for his own protection, accompanied by a servant called Parrot. Parrot is about fifty, English by birth but has lived many lives by the time he arrives in America with Olivier. The novel alternates chapters between these two very different characters, with very different voices (which Carey excels at), as they tell their own story and the story of their strange, growing friendship.

It’s an American story, really. About the changing attitudes of society, of nobility and the growing middle class, of a land where any person, at any time, can change the course of their life.

Sointula – Bill Gaston (Raincoast Books, 2005)

Vancouver Island is the farthest west a body can go. Hop a boat from here farther west and somewhere at sea you sail through the looking glass and you are east. So Vancouver Island is it. Where all young men stopped going west, but only because they had to. Everyman’s wanderlust stymied.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I generally enjoy Gaston’s short stories more than his novels. The novel of his that I’ve enjoyed the most was his most recent one, The World. Sointula holds some key factors in common.

We have a befuddled, divorced, middle aged man who sets off on an ill-advised journey, an old friend who is dying, a journey across some part of Canada. Like The World, I found the impulsive decisions that these characters made to be very stressful. Evelyn has flown across country – Oakville, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia – to be with her first love, Claude, as he dies. She’s gone suddenly off her anti-depressant meds and starts living on the beach until she decides she’s going to head up-island and track down the son she hasn’t seen in ten years, Tom. And she’s going to get there by kayak.

I lived in Victoria for seven years. I know the beach that Evelyn camps on and I’ve been to a few spots on Vancouver Island. It’s a big island. She knows that Tom is tracking orca movement in Sointula, on Malcolm Island. It’s really far away from Victoria.

Along her way, Evelyn meets Peter Gore, a British-American trying to write a book about Vancouver Island while fighting a losing battle with his gall bladder and drinking himself into gout. (I found this guy nothing  but annoying and I think he could have been cut out of the novel without much being lost.) They join forces and start kayaking to Sointula, a one-time utopia started by a group of Finns and a charismatic leader. I spent most of their journey wondering how many months it was going to take and thinking about how much faster it would be to drive.

Fortunately, the big is well-written, as everything by Gaston is. The characters aren’t likeable but they do have a lot of depth. The descriptions of place are spot-on and Gaston captures a lot of Vancouver Island and what makes it unique. There’s lots of history and nature tied in that I found interesting.

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books, 2015)

(translated from French by Emily Boyce and Janice Aitken)

This was a sweet and breezy little novel. A bookseller in Paris finds a woman’s purse – abandoned after a mugging – and pieces together the clues inside to discover who this woman is and to find her. There aren’t many surprises her but the descriptions are strong and the characters are likeable. There are some nice references to French authors and literature as well. (I confess I only learnt who Patrick Modiano is when he won the Nobel Prize.)

I had hoped that the story might use its Paris setting more but, aside from an encounter in Luxembourg Garden, the book could really be set in any city in the world. All in all though, an easy weekend read.

Confessions – St. Augustine (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1949)

(translated from Latin by E.B. Pusey)

Press on where truth begins to dawn.

Finally! I read the whole thing! I can’t even remember when I started this book but I’m pretty sure it was before Pearl was born. While I obviously read a translation, I think I might have been able to get through it faster if I had had a more up-to-date version. My copy is a beautiful cloth bound Everyman’s Library edition but the English was quite old-fashioned. Also, this wasn’t a great choice to read while up in the middle of the night and trying to stay awake while nursing. What finally got me through it was reading it out loud. That made me really slow down to understand what I read. I think Pearl enjoyed it too.

And Thou, O Lord, art my comfort, my Father everlasting, but I have been severed amid times, where order I know not, and my thoughts, even the inmost bowls of my soul, are rent and mangled with tumultous varieties, until I flow together into Thee, purified and molten by the fire of Thy love.

Confessions is a classic of the Christian church. It’s one of the earliest personal memoirs and it’s frankly quite amazing to read something written so long ago that still resonates. Augustine’s doubts, fears, and joys are all emotions believers today will recognize.

But let me be united in Thee, O Lord, with those, and delight myself in Thee, with them that feed on Thy truth, in the largeness of charity, and let us approach together unto the words of Thy book, and seek in them for Thy meaning, through the meaning of Thy servant, by whose pen Thou hast dispensed them.

Currently Reading:

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

 

Check back tomorrow for what Pearl and I have been reading together this month. (You know, aside from Confessions.)

What I Read – February and March 2015

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories – Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)

I’ve read one book by Guy Vanderhaeghe (The Englishman’s Boy) and, honestly, remember almost nothing about it. This short story collection focuses mostly on men, usually working class. They are well-crafted stories but I did find them repetitive.

The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Vintage Canada, 2010)

My first by Adichie and I truly enjoyed it. The stories had great variation and interesting settings and characters. I was impressed by Adichie’s skill at moving between male and female narrators and between settings, all well- drawn. This collection had me looking up Nigerian history and politics, which I think is a good thing. I appreciated that she assumed her readers would know  this or would figure it put, rather than talking down to the reader or over-explaining. I’ll definitely read more of Adichie.

What I Want to Tell Goes Like This – Matt Rader (Nightwood Editions, 2014)

This short story collection centres around Vancouver Island (particularly the Comox Valley), both past and present – and sometimes blending the two. The historical stories are interesting and well-researched and it’s especially interesting to see how the stories connect, but I enjoyed the stories set in modern day better. While this may simply be a personal preference, I did feel that the characters in those stories were more fully developed.

The Woefield Poultry Collective – Susan Juby (Harper Collins, 2011)

Like me, you may be familiar with Susan Juby from her young adult books. The Woefield Poultry Collective is for adults but it isn’t necessarily that far off being a young adult book. It’s a fun, easy read and not much more. The story is told by the four main characters as they begin to work together (some more reluctantly than others) to work a long-neglected farm. My main problem was with the character of Prudence, the one who brings all the others together. Frankly, I found her overly perfect. Her “flaws” were of the type to be endearing rather than annoying. If the book has a main character it’s Prudence and so I kept waiting to learn something more about her, something that would make her a real person, but never got it.

The Flying Troutmans – Miriam Toews (Vintage Canada, 2008)

Toews is an excellent writer and The Flying Troutmans demonstrates that. She moves skillfully between comedy and drama, mixing the ridiculous with the tragic. The book shares some themes with Toews’ mostrecent novel, All My Puny Sorrows, but is a little lighter. I did find the character of Thebes, who is a child, was so quirky as to be unbelievable. Her older brother seemed much more realistic to me. With him, Toews really captured the fluctuations of a teenage boy – sweet and playful one moment, angry and distant the next, and he himself doesn’t quite know why.

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

Told you I liked her! This tiny book is an extended essay adapted from a lecture. Adichie explores the concepts and misconceptions of feminism and why we should all call ourselves feminists – without disclaimers or apologies. I especially liked the section where she discusses being feminist while also enjoying being feminine and wearing pretty clothes.

I had this book with me at the hospital. Thinking ahead to my daughter’s future can be scary when I wonder what that future world might be like. I just hope to raise a girl who knows how smart and valuable she is.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial, 2007)

I love Kingsolver’s novels and I probably would have found this interesting as a magazine article. Basically, it went on too long and it got pretty repetitive. Kingsolver has one major thesis and stretches it out over an entire book. By the time I was halfway through I kept thinking, “I get it. Eat local. Do you have anything further to add?” Some of her stories are funny and engaging and fascinating. Some are a little preachy. She has some solid advice and some that just doesn’t apply to the part of the world I live in. And I just don’t know that I’m ready to give up bananas.

Collected Stories – Peter Carey (Vintage Canada, 1999)

To be honest, I didn’t finish this book. I love Peter Carey’s novels but this story collection was grotesque. I felt gross reading it and so stopped about halfway through. Many of the stories have interesting and creative plots and scenarios and settings but each one had something that just made me feel terrible and I wasn’t sure what the point of much of it was. This was a disappointment.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (Penguin, 2013)

Loved this one. I’d been wanting to read it for a long time and had heard many rave reviews so when a friend brought it over (along with dinner!), I was excited. I even stayed up reading it one afternoon when I should have been napping. (Sleep when the baby sleeps quickly became read when the baby sleeps.)

Home – Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2008)

Part two of Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Robinson is a truly gifted writer. More than once I found myself marvelling at the fact that a book with very little action could be so enthralling. But she creates characters so vividly that I really felt like I was peeking into a real family’s life. You don’t need to have read Gilead first but it does offer a more thorough background on who these people are. I also found it interesting to read Home knowing Jack’s secret – something his family doesn’t.