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


Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.

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.

What I Read – March 2017

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

EileenOttessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 2015)

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

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

  • Deborah Willis, “The Nap”

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

The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

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

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

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

  • Hanya Yanagihara

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

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

Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

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: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel


The High Mountains of Portugal – Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2016)

If you’re familiar with Yann Martel’s work (and you probably are, because he wrote Life of Pi), you know that he does things a little unusually. He writes books with taxidermied animals as the main characters (read my review of Beatrice & Virgil) and he leaves you wondering about the truth of that tiger in the lifeboat. The High Mountains of Portugal fits in exactly with Martel’s established style and that’s a very good thing.

This novel contains three linked stories, each set in or connected to, you guessed it, the high mountains of Portugal. We begin at the turn of the twentieth century with a road trip in an early model Renault. Tomas is searching for a religious artifact he believes exists after reading a long-forgotten priest’s journal. While I found this to be the least enjoyable section (Tomas’ decision-making skills stressed me out), it’s still extremely well-written and Tomas is a strange but likeable character.

From there we move forward about fifty years to the novel’s shortest and most surreal section. Set in a morgue, Martel’s unique style excels here. Here he lies out before the reader the magical, the obscene, the strange, the tragic, and the beautiful. Like Life of Pi, we are left to decide for ourselves between the true and the metaphorical. And, indeed, to wonder if that distinction even matters.

The final section of the novel begins in Canada but takes us back to Portugal in the company of a retired politician and a chimpanzee. While this may send like a strange conclusion, it makes a perfect kind of sense within the novel and by the end I found myself oddly satisfied. Martel respects his readers greatly and a lot is left unanswered but in ways that don’t simply feel frustrating, like so many lesser writers leave their readers.

What draws these stories together – besides a chimpanzee, a location, and a few odd habits and stories – is a sense of loss, a search for love, and a longing for home. These desires are expressed differently by these three men but each feels real and powerful, something most of us can identify with.

Book Review – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews


Some books should come with a warning. Something like, “You’re probably going to cry before this book is through. Even if you think you’re not a crier.”

All My Puny Sorrows (Knopf Canada, 2014) is Miriam Toews’ sixth novel. Like the first five, this novel involves Mennonite characters. Though while being Mennonite is key to our main characters, it isn’t necessarily key to the novel. Our narrator is Yolandi or Yoli. She’s forty-something, twice divorced, two kids with two different fathers. She’s drifting in her career, in her relationships, in her own life. In comparison is Yoli’s older sister, Elfrieda. Elf is six years older, an accomplished international pianist, happily married. Elf has just landed in the hospital after a suicide attempt.

Yoli rushes to Winnipeg to be with her sister and mother, to encourage her beloved older sister to heal. But how do you help someone who doesn’t want to live anymore? Does there come a time when the most helpful thing is to let them die?

The present course of the novel is artfully interrupted with flashes of Elf and Yoli’s childhood, growing up in the small Mennonite community of East Village. A place where Elf learns piano in secret, the elders of the village advising her parents not to let her get fancy ideas about going to university. We see the ways that this family doesn’t fit in and the ways that it slowly begins to detach from the community. At the same time we see the closeness of an extended family – Yoli tells us she has 56 first cousins – who fly across country to be together, who are tough and loving, and get through things, both buoyed and destroyed by their common history of tragedy.

And despite the tears, this book is funny. Yoli is a hilarious, goofy, and loveable narrator. She’s falling apart but working desperately to keep what remains of her family together. I loved the scenes with her teenage daughter – bouncing back and forth between teenage frustration and an endearing closeness.

Toews writes Elf with a lot of sympathy. She would be an easy character to become frustrated with – the sister who, seemingly, has everything she could want, and yet cares about none of it, including the people who love her. And yet Toews makes her pain real and, because, we see her through Yoli’s eyes, we learn to love her a little too. I did find the relationship between Elf and her husband, Nic, poorly fleshed out. It seemed to me that Nic would be suffering just as much, if not more, than Yoli and would perhaps be the one most likely to keep Elf in the land of the living. Instead, he’s only a background character and even takes off for a trip in the midst of Elf’s hospital stay. While it makes sense that the sister relationship is the one central to Yoli, I found Nic’s absence wholly unbelievable.

Toews continues to cement herself as a powerful figure in Canadian literature. I have another book by her on my To Read list and I’m looking forward to it even more now.