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: 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.

What I Read – June 2016

A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 2005)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – Chris Grabenstein (Yearling, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco

Book Review: Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers - Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

If Modern Lovers was a finer novel, I probably wouldn’t have found its premise as annoying. If it were more thoughtful – offered a greater challenge to its readers, say – I wouldn’t be frustrated by its worldview.

For what it is Modern Lovers is not a bad book. It’s a fluff read – easy and light fare that doesn’t take long to get through. Probably, a lot of people will read it on vacation this summer. It’ll keep you going and it doesn’t ask for too much as you follow along.

Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe and Jane are two couples, living in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood, each with a child almost grown. Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have been friends for years, were once in a band together and wrote a hit song that their fourth band member made famous before her death at age twenty-seven. The others have settled into middle age and parenthood. But there are, of course, tensions under the surface and deeper problems here, several of them brought to the surface as they deal with their maturing children.

The story moves between character perspective’s, including Elizabeth and Andrew’s son, Harry, and Zoe and Jane’s daughter, Ruby. Although Andrew is a bit of a dud and his story line rather ridiculous, the characters are generally engaging, even if the story progresses about how you’d expect, including the ultimate conclusion. (And everything is neatly packaged up by the end; there aren’t a lot of loose threads in this world.)

At the centre of the drama is idea of aging, of change, of choosing one path and sticking to it, whether that’s a career or a marriage. The novel seems to suggest that choices made at a young age will inevitably¬† lead to dissatisfaction, if not outright happiness. And here’s where a stronger story could have provoked questions and thought in the reader. Unfortunately, the characters’ fates seem fairly cut and dry and are presented without much nuance and so I found myself annoyed at the expectation that I must agree in their inevitable unhappiness. When, honestly, it seemed like, with a little more effort from everyone, they all could have been much happier people.

Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

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Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

Adam Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set in North Korea. Johnson returns to the subject of North Korea in the title story of this collection, Fortune Smiles, but that story and the others here are very diverse.

Johnson’s slightly cynical style and his frequent focus on pop culture and technology reminded me of Douglas Coupland. (At least, earlier Coupland, not so much the grumpy old man style Coupland seems to be nurturing in recent years.)

There’s a story about a man with a dying wife who creates a sort of hologram of a recently assassinated president that’s subtly packed with all kinds of thoughts and theories on modern life, on memory, on our interactions with technology. There’s a story so clearly based on Johnson’s own wife and family that I took to Google to find out if his wife was still alive because I questioned whether or not anyone would allow such a story to be told. There’s a story told from the perspective of a pedophile that I really struggled to finish and kind of felt awful about afterward and I still can’t quite decide if that’s a sign of how good it was or how terrible. And there’s a story about North Korea – this time about defectors attempting to live their lives in Seoul.

It’s a diverse group of characters and a strong variety of settings. San Francisco, Gangnam district, New Orleans post-Katrina, an East German prison after the Wall came down. These are characters in the hardest situations of their lives. Whether that’s the death of a loved one or trying to raise a son foisted on you by a one-time girlfriend or dealing with the collapse of your marriage because you were once the warden of a Stasi prison. Yeah, like I said, diverse.

Johnson clearly takes his time with the details and he gets his research right. The details add to the stories without being overpowering. Most of the tales are dark but not all are entirely unhappy. Johnson’s voice feels much stronger and more noticeable behind these stories than in The Orphan Master’s Son but I certainly don’t think that’s a bad thing. I look forward to reading his next novel and seeing what new direction he goes in.

What I Read – November 2015

November has seen a vast improvement on Pearl’s night-time sleep. Which is awesome but has really cut into my reading time. So this month’s list is a little shorter but there have been some good reads.

1. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (Modern Library

2. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013)

3. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins, 2014)

4. AbroadKatie Crouch (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014)

5. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (Harper Perennial, 2005)

6. Immortality – Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991)

(translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi)

7. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 1968)

(translated from the German by Daphne Hardy)

8. Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

9. The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

You could also look at November’s reading list like this:

  1. Young lady taken advantage of in Europe
  2. Death row prisoner in Iceland
  3. Death row prisoner in possibly magic prison
  4. Young lady murdered in Europe
  5. Escaped prisoner and extremist religious sect in Russia
  6. ???
  7. Political prisoner in Russia

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

(Yes, still. I am really enjoying it, as evidenced by how I keep telling Peter facts from what I’ve read. I’m just working away at it slowly. Very slowly.)

No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod

 

What I Read – April 2015

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2008)

I once tried to read a novel by Ali Smith, lost interest part way in and returned it unfinished to the library. I did finish reading this short story collection but now, less than a month later, can’t remember much about it. I wanted to give Smith another try since her latest novel has gotten a lot of buzz but her writing just doesn’t grab me. This short story collection plays around a lot with narration and the art of storytelling but the stories didn’t stick with me or grab me in any meaningful way.

The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji (Knopf, 2007)

It took me a long time to get into this novel. It was probably not until two-thirds into the novel that I felt really excited to know what would happen next. I can’t say if this is a fault of the writing or on my part since I was constantly getting interrupted while reading it. It was different than any other book about India that I’ve read and I did enjoy what it showed of Indian history and religion. The “big reveal” at the end of the novel was disappointing (and pretty obvious) and, I thought, added very little to the story. I liked the back and forth between the 13th century history and the 20th and thought Vassanji wove mythology and history together well.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This was obviously a re-read for me. While Pearl has many board books and I do read them to her, at her young age, the thing she enjoys most is simply hearing my voice and being held. So I figured I’d read her something more enjoyable for me. At least until she’s a little older. So we’ve started in on The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

I greatly enjoyed this book. I’ve read three books by David Mitchell now and each one has been superbly written. The Thousand Autumns plays with format and timelines less than Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. Mitchell does do well with alternating narrators though and through multiple characters tells a compelling story of a time and place in history that I was very unfamiliar with – Dutch trade in Japan during the late 18th century. While Japan was extremely closed off to the rest of the world during this time period, a few foreign traders were allowed onto a small island called Deshima. Mitchell uses this setting to explore ideas of foreignness, home, and imprisonment. I appreciated how he told the story from a Dutch and Japanese perspective, giving weight to both sides and demonstrating both how similar and different humans can be. The story does veer towards the unbearably creepy at one point with a hint of the fantastical that Mitchell uses in his other novels but this one’s definitely a historical novel rather than a fantasy one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage Books Edition, 1989)

I’d read a few of these short stories before – it’s hard to get out of any sort of University literature-related degree without reading the title story from this collection. Carver is one of those writers that I appreciate but when I sit down and read a whole body of his work, I find him very bleak. (I have the same problem with Alice Munro, actually.) These are stories of dying love, relationships ended. Carver’s style is very spare, rather stark. I found myself reminded occasionally of Hemingway, though I think Hemingway does description much better.

Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review, 2004)

This book suffers from a front cover problem. By which I mean the front cover has never appealed to me, to the point of putting me off from reading the novel for years. (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let’s face it, we all do.) Fortunately for me, I finally looked past the boring cover and read the book. The main action of the novel takes place in London, in 1948, amidst the changing norms and social constructs of a post-war nation. There are also substantial flashbacks – before the war in both England and Jamaica, and some scenes set during World War II, both in England and overseas. Levy does an excellent job of maintaining third person narration while moving between characters. Voice is also terrific as she captures the sounds of Jamaican English. (There’s a continuing theme of Jamaican characters not being understood by the English that heartbreakingly captures the struggle of immigrants.) This is a book about race but it’s also about longing, a search for something bigger, and about ignorance – both chosen and accidental.

Currently Reading:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

What I Read – January 2015

Since weekly book reviews seem to be something I can’t accomplish right now, I thought I’d post mini-reviews of everything I read this past month. January’s been busy but I managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading and finished 9 books.

The Birth House – Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2006)

I did write a more in-depth review of this one but short version: I liked it. A little heavy on the wonders of midwifery (in my hospital-birth-bound opinion) but also very well-written and enjoyable to read. And a good reminder to me that women have been doing this giving birth thing for eons and it mostly goes okay.

The Doc’s Side – Eric Paetkau (Harbour Publishing, 2011)

This is a very local history of a doctor here on the Sunshine Coast. Dr. Paetkau was one of the early medical professionals in our part of the world, back when the hospital was still up in Pender Harbour. He tells a lot of stories of treating the loggers and fishers and local people, as well as how the hospital came to be moved to Sechelt and the expanse of medical care on the Coast. There’s a fair bit of his personal story in there too. Probably a book that is most interesting to locals who will recognize the places (and maybe some of the people!)

 

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (Anchor Books, 2001)

This is a fun, semi-experimental novel. Ella Minnow Pea leaves in a fictional country where language is more important than ever and the man who wrote the sentence The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog is worshiped like an idol. That quickly begins to backfire as letters begin to fall from his monument and the council declares every fallen letter illegal to use. The novel is told in a series of letters, mostly between Ella and her cousin. As the story progresses, the forbidden letters are dropped from the text and the language becomes more complicated. Fortunately, the story ends around the time this becomes truly annoying to read. It’s a nice little fairy tale though, at times, the conceit overcomes the story.

A Million Little Pieces – James Frey (Anchor Books, 2003)

I know I’m about a decade behind on this one but I finally wanted to see what all the controversy was about. Knowing that parts of this memoir were fictional, it seemed to me to highlight the fact that the book is not that great. While it may be a great look at the depths of addiction (something I’m not very familiar with, so I can’t speak to its accuracy or honesty) I didn’t find the book very well-written. It’s quite repetitive and its lack of punctuation makes dialogue difficult to follow. To be completely honest, I read about the first third and then skipped to the last two chapters to see how it ended. I don’t think I missed much.

 

Great Expectations – edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press, 2008)

First off, I hate the name of this story collection. Don’t take the title of a book more famous than yours.

I picked this one off the library shelf, thinking how cheesy collections of pregnancy and birth stories are, but then was impressed by its list of contributors. It includes Caroline Adderson, Joseph Boyden, Lynn Coady, and twenty-one others. Each writer tells of their own experience of becoming a parent. The stories are raw, honest, sometimes terrifying, and often beautiful. I really liked that they included the stories of fathers too. Bill Gaston and Dede Crane (married with four kids in real life) tell their tales back-to-back and I found the similarities and contrasts of their shared experience fascinating. Admittedly, I’m more interested in birth and pregnancy right now than I normally am so this might not be a book for everyone. But for an expectant mother or father who also enjoys some good writing, it’s pretty great.

The Mistress of Nothing – Kate Pullinger (McArthur & Company, 2009)

I was never particularly grabbed by this one but it was big a few years ago so I figured it was time I read it. And I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. Based (sort of) on a true story – based on real people, at least – we follow a lady’s maid from England to Egypt and into a life she never imagined. The setting is wonderfully evoked and both Sally (the maid) and Lady Duff Gordon (her mistress) are fascinating women who are wonderful to read about. Both buck against society’s expectations in very different, very far-reaching ways.

Among the Ten Thousand Things – Julie Pierpont (Random House, 2015)

Honestly, I saw this title on my list and it took me a second to remember what book this was. This was an ARC I got through work; the book comes out this July. I was grabbed by the good reviews and an interesting synopsis and brought it home. The story is easily readable, if slightly predictable. The first chapter – a letter from a mistress to a wife – got my attention right away. As did the second chapter, where that letter is intercepted by the 11-year-old daughter of the wife and the unfaithful husband. Overall, I think the plot portrays a pretty honest fallout of infidelity and divorce. There’s a lot hinted at about the husband and father’s personality – he’s an artist and his most recent exhibition has exploded (literally) – but he isn’t fleshed out as much as he could be. I thought the most impressive part of the novel came in the middle when we get a brief but well-sketched glimpse of what the future could be.

The World Before Us – Aislinn Hunter (Doubleday Canada, 2014)

I’d been wanting to read this one for a while and it didn’t let me down. The story follows Jane, who is about to lose her job at a museum that is going out of business and is experiencing some sort of mental break (perhaps). Less because of her job loss and more because of an encounter with the father of a little girl who disappeared years before, while Jane was babysitting. The story intersects with the disappearance of an unnamed woman from an asylum in the same area years before. The narration is definitely the most unique aspect of this novel; it is told from the perspective of what you might call spirits who follow Jane around, hoping to discover who they are. Or were. While they start the novel as a fairly homogenous “we”, as the story progresses – and as we learn more about both of these disappearances – individual characters and histories begin to emerge. It’s a bold narrative experiment and Hunter does it well. While there are two mysteries at the centre of this story, it isn’t a mystery novel and there are no simple answers here. And that is to the novel’s benefit.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2013)

Timothy Keller is probably my favourite modern day theologian. This was the fourth book from him that I’ve read and I am consistently impressed by both his knowledge and his practicality. I read this book slowly over several months. Not because it’s a difficult read but because there was so much in it that I wanted to slowly absorb. Keller speaks about suffering and sorrow both from a more detached point of view and from a personal one. He examines what suffering means, how our society reacts to it, how the Bible talks about it, and how Christians can deal with it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here. If you’ve experienced suffering (and if you’re human, you probably have) then you could find a great deal of comfort and assurance here.

Amnesia – Peter Carey (Knopf, 2015)

I really like Peter Carey’s books. I’ve read several and he’s a talented writer. He’s won the Booker Prize twice, so I’m certainly not alone in this opinion. I was excited to learn he had a book coming out this year and eagerly took the ARC that came my way. That said, I didn’t love Amnesia. Perhaps it was the unlikeable main character of Felix Moore. Perhaps it was the overabundance of computer/hacker talk. (Admittedly, much of it was over my head since I’m certainly not a computer person, but a lot of it reminded me of hackers in movies in the early 90s when characters could basically do anything and the answer was “hacking”.) Another problem was that most of the action of the novel takes place in the place and Felix is learning about it. Yes, there is some present-time action around Felix but I found it confusing and not particularly tense. I was never worried about Felix’s safety or his ultimate success. I don’t know if that’s because Carey didn’t do enough to build that tension or if it was just because I didn’t care much what happened to Felix.

Currently reading:

Daddy Lenin – Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Join me at the end of February* to read mini reviews of these and whatever else I manage to squeeze into the month.

*May not be precisely at the end of February because I’m due to give birth to a human child on or around March 1st.