Book Review: 2 Short Story Collections

It’s a bit unfair to lump these two story collections in together but I read them almost back to back and, a few weeks later, am struggling to differentiate them in my mind.

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Collected Stories are collections of a life’s worth of short stories by Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley, respectively. Both women are Americans and wrote primarily in the first half of the 20th centuries.While Paley’s stories are set in New York (almost entirely in Brooklyn), Berlin’s roam around the USA, delving into Mexico. They write about the ordinary lives of women, mostly at home, often surrounding their children and their failed relationships. A Canadian comparison might be the stories of Alice Munro, although Munro’s stories end up feeling almost pastoral compared to the crowded apartments of Berlin and Paley.

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009)

These story collections have two major things in common. The first is that each author leans heavily on their own life experiences. Berlin seems almost to be writing her own autobiography, often naming characters Lucia or delving into stories of her childhood in mining camps and South America. Her characters often have four sons, like Berlin herself did, and are divorced multiple times.

The second characteristic that I found the two collections to have in common was the recurrence of stories. Characters often popped up again and this made both collections have a larger feel, as the reader follows a woman through her life, watches her children grow, her marriage flourish and wilt, her neighbours age and change. It felt like a small challenge to connect the stories together. While they certainly stand as individual tales, the connections definitely add.

Both Berlin and Paley are excellent story tellers and while they’re overall experience of life as women, wives and mothers in the early 20th century doesn’t echo my own in 2017, there are certainly many familiar moments. I would categorize Berlin’s stories as slightly darker – there was one I stopped reading partway through – but I enjoyed each collection and found both of these women an important addition to modern American writing.

What I Read – April 2017

The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2017)

(translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Silence – Shusaku Endo

The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman

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