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.

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