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


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.


Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books centred around bookstores. I find they tend to romanticize an experience I’ve known very well in the real, practical world. So I didn’t begin 84, Charing Cross Road with high hopes, despite the fact that it was recommended to me by a bookseller. In the end, it surprised me. This slim book compiles 20 years of letters between Hanff in NYC and Marks & Cohen Books in London. What begins as a search for books evolves into a friendship with friends that never meet.

This is less a book about books or even bookstores and more a book about people and how they can be drawn together despite physical distance and cultural divide. Helene is brash, sometimes funny, occasionally rude, and often big-hearted while her English penpals tend to be much more restrained. As the letters continue and the relationship grows though the individual personalities of the bookstore employees (and their families) come out in charmingly cheeky ways.

The book also offers a peek into life in London following World War Two. Helene begins to send packages to the bookstore for Christmas, giving her long-distance friends treats like tinned ham and fresh eggs, things that are not available in post-war England. The letters she receives in thanks are quite lovely, demonstrating the deep appreciation for her gifts and the beauty of generosity among strangers.


Book Review: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

One of the signs of a compelling book for me is when I want to tell other people all about it. Or when I lay awake after reading it, thinking over various parts. All We Leave Behind did both.

Carol Off is a well-respected CBC journalist with a long career. (For those non-Canadians, that’s the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and it’s generally well regarded.) While reporting in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after 9/11, Off interviewed an Afghan man named Asad who spoke out, on camera, about corruption and particularly against one of the warlords being enabled by US involvement. Because of Asad’s bold statements, made in hopes of change being possible in his country, his life and the lives of his family are eventually in danger and they are forced to flee Afghanistan.

Off begins the novel with an early experience as a reporter in Pakistan, one that taught her, Be careful what you wish for and reminds us that sometimes a journalist’s best story is the worst day of someone else’s life. It’s a strong way of establishing the conflict that many journalists feel. How do you report a story in a neutral manner? How do you stay objective in the face of suffering? And when do you get involved.

When Asad and his family escape Afghanistan and Off realizes that it was her reporting that put them in danger, she becomes involved in bringing them to Canada as refugees, crossing many professional boundaries but believing that it’s the right thing to do.

The book does a superb job of outlining Afghan history, both in a broad sense but also through focusing on Asad’s life and that of his family. We witness the changes the country goes through from the 1970s until present day and the influences of the rest of the world. Off provides the right amount of information so that someone relatively unfamiliar with Afghan history is able to follow along and I never felt lost or bogged down in the historical context. Off doesn’t spare feelings and doesn’t always shy away from naming names. She can be scathing in her denouncements of US involvement but she doesn’t let Canada off the hook either.

The second part of the book focuses on Asad’s struggle to first be recognized as a refugee and then to be accepted into Canada. Off definitely shows her political leanings here, outlining the ways that Harper’s Conservatives failed in a refugee crisis, as she details how Asad and his family struggled through the bureaucracy and redtape, floundering in the system for years while their lives were in danger. I get the sense that Carol Off and I are on similar sides of the political spectrum, so these strong opinions didn’t bother me but I imagine they may turn off some readers. (That said, if you know Off from her work with the CBC, you might not be surprised.)

As a Canadian, it was a harsh reminder that we are not always the peaceful, helpful nation we view ourselves as and that our hands have not remained clean in conflict worldwide. Even if our government tries to tell us we have. The book ends in late 2015 and it’s encouraging to think of how many Syrian refugees have been brought into Canada since then. At the same time, All We Leave Behind is a powerful lesson that many more are languishing in camps, turned back from safe borders, or perishing before they reach safety.

While this book will primarily be of interest to Canadians (and probably Canadians who find their ideals already align with Off’s), I think it would be a great read for anyone wanting to know more about either Middle East conflict or the experience of refugees. It’s well-written and informative and a topic that is only becoming more important in our current political climate worldwide.


Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida


Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

This collection of short essays (plus an interview and a short story) follows Higashida’s previous book translated into English, The Reason I Jump. I haven’t read Higashida before and while The Reason I Jump may provide some helpful context and personal history, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read it first. It also seems that Higashida has quite a bit more writing that hasn’t yet been translated from Japanese to English.

The introduction by David Mitchell (who also does the translation, along with KA Yoshida) provides an excellent background into Higashida’s story, as well as offering Mitchell’s viewpoint as to why this book is so important. Short version: Higashida was considered severely autistic and non-verbal until a new way of communicating through an alphabet chart was figured out. This new communication revealed Higashida to have a complex and emphatic inner life, exactly like any other young man his age.

Higashida is now in his mid-twenties and his writing is deliberate and thoughtful. The segments are not long as communication, both written and spoken, is not a quick process for him. He offers insights into how his own mind works and methods that help him in his interactions with those around him. Higashida doesn’t suggest that these methods would work for everyone with autism and the book is certainly not a how-to guide. That said, I can’t help but think that it would be a helpful and powerful read for anyone who works or lives alongside someone with autism.

While this is admittedly well outside my field of expertise, it does seem that there have been a few highly publicized stories in recent years of so-called severe autistic people who, it turned out, were fully aware of their surroundings and needed only to find a way to communicate with those around them. And, as Mitchell points out in his introduction, these new found ways of communication revealed that the stereotype of a lack of empathy in those on the autistic spectrum is perhaps a false one.

Higashida certainly writes about the world with a lot of interest and empathy. We get a sense of his frustration at his own behaviours and his strong desire for compassion and patience from  those around him. There is some discussion of styles that didn’t work for him and that he wouldn’t recommend but there is not condemnation toward those who haven’t understood him. His writing about his relationship with his mother seems particularly tender.

The book is a slow read, one to be dipped into here and there rather than read in one sitting. I do believe it’s an important one though, especially for teachers and others who may work alongside autistic people.


Book Review: Autobiography by G.K. Chesterton

Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

I’ve previously read Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday (review here), Orthodoxy, and some of his Father Brown mysteries and generally enjoyed Chesterton’s writing. So I thought it might be interesting to read his autobiography, first published in 1936.

Autobiography is, perhaps, a misleading title. What this book really is is a series of essays, loosely formulated around the timeline of Chesterton’s life. While he starts with his childhood and a few details about his life, that’s really not what the book is about. Chesterton does acknowledge this, telling the reader that he’s not one to keep track of dates and that if this is what you’re looking for, this isn’t the book for you. (Granted, this discussion takes place approximately two-thirds of the way through the book so the reader has likely already figured this out.) The book is not very personal – I’m not sure Chesterton even tells us his wife’s name. The closest he gets to personal revelation is when he talks about his brother who was killed in World War One.

What Chesterton tells us a lot about is British parliament and politics in the early 20th century. He mentions a few names I’d heard of before and a lot I hadn’t. While his insights into certain situations may have been fascinating to a contemporary reader – or a modern day reader with a yen for pre-war politics – I’m afraid much of it was lost on this 21st century Canadian. Those chapters dragged on and I came close to giving up on the book. I pushed through, waiting for the literary tales of Chesterton’s fellow authors. These had a cast of characters I was more familiar with.

Chesterton shares some entertaining tales of his close friend Hilaire Beloc, among others, and shares his background in newspapers and essay writing. These stories belie the stereotype of the stodgy Englishman and Chesterton’s writing is best when telling these hilarious tales.

I had hoped for more about his religious conversion and although there are glimmers throughout the book, Chesterton never tells the story in a straightforward manner. Perhaps he felt like he had written about it enough elsewhere. In the end, unless you’re a hardcore fan of Chesterton or immersed in British politics, I think you can give his Autobiography a pass. I do recommend Orthodoxy for readers wanting an introduction to Chesterton and his philosophies, particularly when it comes to Christianity.


Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.


Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co, 2017)

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.


Book Review: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing, 1995)

I was familiar with the concept of the Five Love Languages and what they were long before I ever read this book but when I saw Chapman’s book in a thrift store thought it might still be interesting to see what his ideas were in more detail.

Basically, Chapman proposes that humans each have a unique way of loving and being loved – our own “love language” – and if we aren’t loved in our own language as we need to be, we start to feel unloved. Therefore, learning what your partner’s love language is will enable you to make sure they know you love them. The five love languages are: Acts of Service, Quality Time, Gift Giving, Words of Affirmation, and Physical Touch.

Having heard the list of languages before, I had already mostly decided what my own (and my husband’s) was. However, reading about them in more detail actually made me think that my initial guess was wrong and that I might have decided what Peter’s was based more on my own language than on his. While this really doesn’t change anything about our marriage or interactions, it’s still helpful for the bigger picture.

I skimmed through The Five Love Languages in about a day. It’s full of anecdotes and it’s certainly not a difficult read. Chapman does focus almost entirely on marriage but I think there’s lots that could be relevant to anyone in a relationship. He has a chapter at the end on children and love languages that I found interesting, though I think it’s too early to say for Pearl at two years old. Chapman does come at marriage from a Christian perspective and there are Biblical references that may turn some readers off but I wouldn’t describe the book as Christian.

Not life changing but not bad for a quick day’s read.



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 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.