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.

Book Review: Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms - C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

I started (an attempt at least) to read a Psalm before bed every night in the fall. So it seemed like the perfect time to read this lesser known work of C.S. Lewis.

In typical, self-deprecating Lewis fashion, he begins by explaining why he’s not really qualified but here are some of his thoughts anyway. And also in typical Lewis style, he has some real wisdom to offer.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the Psalms, beginning with the most distasteful and uncomfortable (such as the cursing of enemies or bragging about how blessed you are). Lewis provides insight as to what these songs and poems might have meant to their original audience, separating them from the modern meanings we can’t help but ascribe to them.

One thing that surprised me was that Lewis treats the Psalms largely as Pagan poetry. He makes the crucial distinction of them being written before the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore there are things the psalmists simply could not have known or even guessed at. The modern reader has the benefit of hindsight to see a clearer (and more prophetic) meaning to many of the Psalms.

Which isn’t to say that that meaning is wrong. As Christians we believe that all scripture is influenced and inspired by God. As Lewis beautifully puts it, “No good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.” So while the Psalmists might not have known the entire significance of what they composed, through the Holy Spirit those references certainly are deliberate and important.

But no one now (I fancy) who accepts that spiritual or second sense is denying, or saying anything against, the very plain sense which the writers did intent.

– C.S. Lewis

At the same time, according to Lewis, the writers of the Psalms are human and sinful and some of their own shortcomings find their way into the Psalms. If anything, this should encourage us, that we sinners can also be used to spread the Word of God.

For our “services” both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we are, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster. To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God—drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds.

– C.S. Lewis

Book Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty Life - Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

When a friend loaned me a copy of The Dirty Life I wasn’t that excited. I don’t read a lot of memoirs and it’s rare that they appeal to me. My friend also happens to be a little more of a hippy than I am and I wasn’t sure I was interested in reading a farming story. I was pleasantly surprised by Kristin Kimball’s tale of farm life however.

Kimball is a journalist in New York City when she interview Mark, an independent and charismatic farmer. She’s out of place on his farm and surprised to find herself drawn to both Mark and his way of life.

The Dirty Life follows roughly the first year of Kristin and Mark’s relationship, leading up to their wedding, and covering their first year of starting their own farm. Not just an organic farm but one using as traditional methods as possible, including horses rather than tractors and other machinery.

Kimball doesn’t glamourize farm life – it’s here in its grimy detail of early mornings and hard  physical labour – but her clear love for the farm (as unexpected as it may be) gives the story a more appealing edge. Kimball throws herself into both the farm and all it entails and into her relationship with Mark. She doesn’t glamourize that either and I appreciate her honesty about her fears and difficulties when it came to giving up her familiar lifestyle for something so different for a man she hardly knew. While the dynamic of their relationship didn’t appeal to me (and if Kimball were my best friend I probably would have joined in the chorus of people urging her to be cautious) but it seems to work as the couple is still together, ten years and two children later.

The farm has also become successful, reaching its goal of providing a whole diet for approximately a hundred people. The Kimballs provide everything from corn to milk to beef to maple syrup for their subscribers. And while I don’t have an urge to become a farmer, I do wish there was something similar offered in my area.

Book Review: An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff & Alex Tresniowski

An Invisible Thread - Laura Schroff & Alex Trenniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

An Invisible Thread – Laura Schroff & Alex Tresniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

My initial reaction and concern upon reading the tagline of this book – “The true story of an 11-year-old panhandler, a busy sales executive, and an unlikely meeting with destiny” – was that it would turn out to be a sort of “white saviour” story. Wealthy white women meets young black boy and his life is vastly improved. And while that is sort of the story, the book fortunately avoids leaning to heavily on that aspect.

This true story is told from Laura’s perspective, of the friendship that begins in New York in 1986 when she stops to buy a young panhandler lunch at McDonalds. From there, a relationship develops. Maurice is a young boy, growing up in extreme poverty, surrounded by drug-addicted adults, and living one stop above homelessness. Maurice and Laura begin to meet for dinner every week. While the core of the story is definitely about Maurice and how, through Laura, he begins to be exposed to things he never could have been otherwise – like Thanksgiving dinner with a family around the table or his school lunch in a brown paper bag – Laura’s narrative works hard to emphasize that she also learnt a lot from Maurice.

The book delves into some of Maurice’s family history – the abuse and addiction cycle that so easily traps generations – as well as Laura’s own family and history. She draws a connection between Maurice’s impoverished childhood and her own middle class upbringing with an abusive father. It’s sad and ironic that, in the end, Maurice escapes the cycle of abuse in bringing up his own family while Laura ends up in two different marriages with abusive men.

While the book does lightly focus on some of the concern of Laura’s friends and family about her initial involvement with Maurice, I was surprised that Laura never seemed to consider involving the authorities. If she had thought about it and decided against it, I could maybe understand that but it seems to never cross her mind to call Child Services. Later on, there is a mention that Maurice desperately wanted to stay with his mother but it surprised me that Laura (or any other adult in Maurice’s life, such as his teachers) never considered this might not be the best thing for him.

The book is easy to read and, while not amazingly well-written, engaging. Several of the points felt stretched out or repetitive and the book could easily have been much shorter. In fact, a feature article in a magazine could have told this story just as well. Yet whatever flaws the book has, you have to applaud any one who steps out of their daily life to focus on and help another person.

Book Review: But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

But You Did Not Come Back - Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Penguin Books, 2016)

But You Did Not Come Back – Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Penguin Books, 2016)

How much devastation can you pack into 100 pages? A lot. Even more when every word is true.

In the vein of Night by Elie Wiesel or Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Marceline Loridan-Ivens recounts her years as a slave (her word) in several prisons and concentrations camps. Loridan-Ivens was arrested with her father in France when the Nazis raided their family’s chateau. They were soon separated – him to Auschwitz, her to Birkenau. Although only a few kilometres apart, they saw each other only a handful of times, mostly from a distance. Loridan-Ivens survived; her father did not.

Written as a sort of letter, a plea, a confession to her beloved father, Loridan-Ivens tells him what life was like for her during her imprisonment, a few of the horrors she saw, what it was like to live under the smoke and smell of burning bodies, how quickly hope does and how fragile it is when it begins, slowly, to return. She tells of her release, her return to her family and the years of waiting to know what happened to their husband and father. She details all the ways the concentration camps and his death tore her family apart, even years later.

But there would have been two of us who knew. Maybe we wouldn’t have talked about it often, but the stench, what we saw, the foul smells and the intensity of our emotions would have washed over us like waves, even in silence, and we could have divided our memories in two.

There aren’t really words for me to describe what Loridan-Ivens shares in this slim volume. It’s so outside of my scope of experience and it’s so beyond what any human being should have endured. So all I can say is this is an important and powerful book. Loridan-Ivens, still living in France, now in her eighties, is compelled to share her story in the face of continued and rising anti-Semitism. It may be a cliche but it’s painfully true: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

*This edition was translated from the French by Sandra Smith

Book Review: My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith

My Secret Sister, Pan Books 2013

My Secret Sister, Pan Books 2013

Whether or not you agree with Tolstoy that all happy families are the same, it’s generally true that they’re not very interesting to read about.

Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith alternate in telling the stories of their lives. While they grew up near each other in England, they had drastically different childhoods. Jenny was an only child, much adored by her adopted parents, a little lonely but had a happy childhood. And while I’m happy for her, it’s not interesting to read about. (Perhaps if I were a golf fan, I would care more, as she became a professional golfer.)

On the other hand, Helen had a narcissistic mother and a violently abusive father. As she grew up she was continually told that the family’s unhappiness was her fault. Her parents were domineering and manipulative. To be honest, her section wasn’t very fun to read either. I pushed through it faster because I kept hoping to get to the part where Helen escapes. Where she stands up to her father and her mother and begins her independent life. But she never does. Even when she gets married and has children and Helen and her husband have their own home, they continue to allow her parents to live with them. There’s a scene where Helen’s father insists that Helen wash the dinner dishes at six o’clock every night. (Mind, this is in a home belonging to Helen and her husband.) When Helen protests, saying that’s the time when she puts her children to bed, her father insists. It turns out her parents have conspired so that Helen’s mother can put the children to bed every night. And Helen complies. She does the dishes and her husband helps her and her abusive mother puts her children to bed. It was heartbreaking and frustrating to read. Obviously, I struggle to understand it because, non-confrontational as I am, I’m pretty sure my response would be, “Screw that, I’ll wash my dishes when I want and I’ll put my own kids to bed.” It’s hard for me to really fathom how a lifetime of abuse can wear your will down. And since this is a true story, there isn’t really any salvation or justice. The bad guys don’t get punished, they just get older and die and then the heroes are free but they’re pretty tired by then and have already given up or lost too much.

So this was a sad story to me but I think it’s ultimately supposed to be a happy one. As you can see, the front cover gives away the dramatic conclusion. That these two women were twin sisters, one given away to a loving family, one kept and abused. I think the drama of the story would have been greater if the reader wasn’t quite sure of the connection between the two, or of who grew up with their “real” parents, but it’s spelled out on the back of the book and I think that was a poor choice. There are a few twists and turns as Helen and Jenny begin to untangle the lies and secrets that have shaped their lives. There are a lot of unanswered questions and that too is like real life.

Next Book Review: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Book Review: Beijing Confidential – Jan Wong

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Beijing Confidential, Doubleday Canada, 2007

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost ten years since I last set foot in China. It’s been even longer since I’ve been to Beijing – all the way back to the summer of 2002. Since then, the city has hosted the Olympics and, no doubt, changed drastically.

Jan Wong details many of these changes and more in Beijing Confidential. In it she relates a trip with her family to Beijing gearing up to the 2008 Olympics. Her goal is to find a former classmate she once reported to Communist authorities.

The book offers a good, general overview of Beijing’s history as a city and as a capital. A Canadian of Chinese descent, Wong was a foreign student at Beijing University in the 1970s. Describing herself as a “True Believer”, Wong was fervent in her support of the Cultural Revolution and Marxist ideology. So when an acquaintance expressed a desire to Wong to leave China and visit North America, Wong reported this “counter-revolutionary” thought to her supervisor. Years later, and with a better perspective on China and its politics, Wong came to realize how she may have destroyed this young woman’s life. So with only a name, she returns to Beijing in hopes of finding this woman and apologizing.

As a former Marxist and a Canadian, Wong has a unique view of China and its 20th century history. (She was also the Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent in the late 80s and early 90s.) She writes of the city with love, confusion, impatience, and amusement. The book does a great job of showing how quickly Beijing and its people have changed and how many of those changes are only possible in a country like China. Much of this is shown through Wong’s reunions with former teachers and classmates, as well as scenes with the younger generation of Beijing.

The book is readable and fascinating, whether or not you’ve ever set foot in Beijing. My one beef with it is fairly minor – Wong translates all of the Chinese names into English and it just didn’t work for me. Her own Chinese name translates as “Bright Precious” and so, in the book, that’s what her friends call her. The name, which is probably fine and even lovely in Chinese, becomes ridiculous to an English reader. I’m not sure if she thought readers wouldn’t be able to keep track of the Chinese names but I wish she’d given us more credit. Aside from that, I found Wong to be a strong writer and am interested in reading more of her work.

Next Week’s Review: The Curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat

Book Review – This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

For a book lover, there are few greater things than finding an author you love who is still alive. The thrill of falling in love with a new book is only made greater when you learn that its author is a contemporary who is still writing.

At least, that’s how I always feel about Ann Patchett. Thank goodness that Ann Patchett is alive and still writing.

Needless to say, I was excited to learn that Patchett had a new book coming out and I snatched it up as soon as I saw it in my local bookstore. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a little bit different than the books Patchett is known for. (Primarily she’s known for being the author of Bel Canto.) Novels are what’s made Ann Patchett famous but, as she explains in the introduction, non-fiction was how she made her money for a long time. And so here, she collects for her reader, some of her short, non-fiction pieces.

“My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive.”

In this collection, Patchett delves into the topics of writing, marriage, nuns, dogs, Tennessee, and more. The title essay tells the story of her marriage with her current husband but, really, the title could apply to the melding of these various topics, these various aspects of who Ann Patchett is. Or it could apply to the marriage of non-fiction and fiction, co-existing as they do in this one writer. Or the marriage of the solitary life of writing, mixed in with all the other parts of life that we live.

My favourite piece in this collection was undoubtedly Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. In school and out of it, I’ve read a lot of articles and books about writing. (It’s a great way to procrastinate from actually writing.) Some of them are helpful, many of them are frustrating, several are annoying. It may surprise you to know that my favourite full-lenth book on writing is Stephen King’s, titled On Writing. Patchett doesn’t provide much advice (though the advice she does offer is solid) but instead tells us what she did. And it feels like sitting down with a friend who sheepishly tells you, “Well, this works for me,” while inviting you to share what works for you. One of the points she makes that stood out to me was that writers essentially tell one story. We each have a single story that we want to tell and so we tell it over and over again in a myriad of ways. Upon reflection, Patchett’s novels do indeed share a theme – one story which they each tell. The brilliant bit, is that I never noticed until she pointed it out to me.

Another great essay is The Bookstore Strikes Back, where Patchett details her journey to becoming a part-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville. If you love your local bookstore, or you need a reminder of why you should love your local bookstore, read this one.

“…my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them by how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

 

Book Review – News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is undoubtedly best known for his beautiful “magic realism” prose. In novels like Love in the Time of Cholera or The General in his Labyrinth, Marquez masterfully joins fiction and fancy so that it becomes beautifully impossible to tell what’s based in reality and what is not. Even his personal memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, has this flavour of the supernatural or the surreal as fanciful details from One Hundred Years of Solitude turn out to be based on Marquez’ own childhood.

News of a Kidnapping is distinctly different from any other Marquez work I’ve read. Not just because it’s based on fact – Living to Tell the Tale is also based on fact. News of a Kidnapping is, to use Marquez’ own title, a news story.

It’s not hard to imagine why Marquez might have wanted to tell this factual account of drug cartels and kidnapping in Colombia, the country of his birth. When many people think of Colombia, drug cartels and kidnappings are the first things that come to mind. Marquez doesn’t set out to dispel any myths but simply to tell the reader what occurred and, perhaps, cast a new light on Colombia at the end of the 20th century.

News of a Kidnapping focuses on the kidnapping in the early 90s of several prominent men and women – many of them journalists – in Columbia by a drug cartel, the hands and feet of a shadowy figure called Pablo Escobar.

Due to a North American “war on drugs”, Pablo Escobar and a group of criminals known as “the Extraditables” are doing whatever they think it takes to avoid extradition to the United States. By kidnapping these men and women, they hope to force the hand of the Colombian government and negotiate a safe – and hopefully luxurious – arrest and imprisonment within Colombia.

The story takes us between the various hostages – some alone, some imprisoned with others, some unaware that anyone else has been kidnapped, some already thought to be dead – and their families who work tirelessly (sometimes with the government, sometimes not) to obtain their freedom. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. There are no easy answers and Marquez doesn’t offer an opinion on how things should go or should have been handled. The narrative maintains an air of impartiality. A news report. Each person’s motives are understandable. It’s easy to feel sympathy for the spouses and parents of the kidnapped victims and, yet, it’s also understood how important it is to not give in to all of Escobar’s demands. This is real life and the answers aren’t always easy.

I’ll be honest – I learnt a lot by reading News of a Kidnapping and I saw Colombia in a way I haven’t before. That said, it wasn’t my favourite Marquez work. It lacked, well, magic. Perhaps it was simply that I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The book is well-written and informative. If you want to learn more about Colombia in the early 1990s, this would be a great read. If you love The Autumn of the Patriarch and want to read more by that author, well, this might not be for you.

Being fairly ignorant about Colombia in general, I can’t speak to the complete accuracy of News of a Kidnapping. I did wonder at certain points in the narrative if a more positive perspective was being shown than reality. Particularly, instances of extreme police brutality are alluded to but never really dealt with in the book. That seemed to me like it must have been a bigger issue in reality. Overall, the Colombian government comes across as pretty good – wise and largely effective, if plagued by violence and assassinations. That’s not been my general impression of Colombia so I’m not sure if News of a Kidnapping is telling the truth or if Marquez didn’t want to delve into the real political problems of his country.

(The book I read was translated from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman and published in 1997 by Knopf.)