Tag Archives: women writers

Finished this book: The Invisible Empire: A History of Racism in Canada by Margaret Cannon

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada book cover image

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada book cover image

This book was published back in 1995 and I remember quite liking it then. I was at the tail end of my Women’s Studies degree and quite impressed with my own knowledge and open-mindedness. A book about racism in Canada was right up my alley. Not only would it look impressive when I read it on the bus, but it was also unlikely (I was certain) to challenge me in any real way, given all the recent reading and learning I had done around the intersections among race, class, power, sexuality, and gender.

Rereading this book almost a quarter of a century later has been a sobering experience. I don’t recall exactly what I thought and felt about this book back then; I just had a general feeling of it being an interesting look at the then-current state of race in my country.

Now, however, I am surprised that I would have bought a book by a white woman to learn about racism in Canada. Particularly not a person who is writing from such a place of power and privilege, with access to the media as a journalist, private school for her daughter, etc. It amazes me that I thought this might be a useful perspective.

There was some interesting information and research about such things as how the Heritage Front is constituted and connected to other people and groups (and how these groups exist to basically protect middle-aged white, middle-aged women like the author), some history of  immigration in Toronto, etc. But overall I was pretty disappointed in this book now. To put it in today’s terms, I felt it smelled strongly of #notallwhitepeople.

Things that made me feel this way:

  • lots of pointing out how different ethnic groups also dislike or discriminate against each other (felt like: “they do it too”)
  • lots of “trying to find the truth” between the lived experience of POC and the feelings of white people (felt like: “both sides of the story are equally valid and have to be heard”)
  • a discomfort with naming racism, hatred, and consequences clearly (felt like “try to remain polite”)
  • not enough analysis or placing of events / issues in a context of systemic oppression, but rather more explaining the way things are. Perhaps this descriptive rather than analytical approach comes from the writer’s journalist background. But description by a member of the oppressor’s group is not neutral.
  • too many protestations of the goodness of individual white people (for example, “June Callwood did so much good for the community and is being persecuted for this mistake / misunderstanding”; and, regarding the ROM Into the Heart of Darkness / Africa exhibit: “but the curators did a brilliant job; it’s just that people didn’t understand the cleverness and intellectualism and irony of it all!”; and how opening a new theatre with a production of Showboat was was a more of a lapse of good judgement than actual racism
  • blaming multiculturalism for a lot of these problems (which felt like: “immigrants should just adapt to our ways and there wouldn’t be a problem”

 

While Cannon does seem to be pushing her own comfort zone in this book, especially when venturing out to attend Heritage Front meetings and the like, and does seem to move toward an understanding of the fact that racism extends beyond the confines of actual “hate groups” to include the beliefs and actions of “ordinary people like you and me” (with the definite assumption that “we”—she and her readers— are white people), she does not take her understanding further to embed this in a systemic context.

On the one hand, I understand that this was a fairly new concept for a lot of us white people back in the nineties, but on the other hand, at that time, I certainly owned and worked hard at understanding an expensive pile of textbooks talking about this exact systemic dynamic, textbooks which would certainly have been accessible and parseable by someone with Cannon’s writerly qualifications.

I will put this book in the giveaway pile and wouldn’t recommend it now, but it was very interesting to take this trip backward and see how much my own views and understanding of racism have changed over time. It makes me wonder uncomfortably how much more I have yet to learn, and how another quarter century will (I hope) change my views and deepen my understanding of the toxic webs of systemic oppression and my place in them.

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Very Important Note: None of the phrases in quotation marks are direct quotes from the book.


 

Finished this book (a while ago): Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

 

I’ve been falling behind on posting book reviews lately, but the books themselves are all stacked up waiting for me to blog about them. Problem is, the more I read, the less I remember about each individual book I read last year to be able to review it… But here I go anyway!

My mom gave me Atwood’s book Hag-Seed a year or so ago, and although I was very much looking forward to reading it, it took me a while to get around to it. Around the time I had finally picked it off the shelf and placed it by my bed to read, I started seeing posts on Facebook about how Atwood was defending someone who’d been accused of sexual assault, and rules-lawyering about reasonable doubt and giving men a chance. I was so irritated and disappointed, as it seemed at that time that every time I turned around, another woman whom I had previously thought reasonable was siding against victims and with predators. So I ignored the book for a few more weeks, and once I did start to read it, I was in a frame of mind to be extra critical of it.

And I did indeed find much to criticise. Or at least much to be disappointed in. The only three female characters were 1) a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, 2) a trying-too-hard femme d’un certain âge scorned by the protagonist, and 3) the out-of-work actress he originally wanted as his Miranda twelve years earlier who is willing, available, flexible, and eager to rush in to fill the role. The protagonist himself, Felix, is a narcissistic, vengeful man who feels that his artistic brilliance justified anything he chooses to do. The prison, prison guards, and inmates are portrayed so unrealistically that I have to assume that even people who have never been to or worked in a jail must be unconvinced.

Now maybe, I thought while reading the book, perhaps this was all a brilliant work of irony or satire or theatrics. Maybe the theatrical nature of this—a book which creates a play within a play based on a play outside the book—is actually a fourth play—the book itself—with liberties taken for the sake of the staging and the plot.

But I found the protagonist tiresome and whiny, the two live female characters superficial and unrealistic, and the portrayal of jail guards and inmates condescending.

What I did enjoy was the dive into The Tempest itself, and the different interpretations of the play and its various parts. It’s not a play I’ve ever read or seen; having only picked up some of its pieces bit by bit through references elsewhere, it was interesting and intriguing to have this be my first real introduction to it, and I wonder how much more I might have appreciated this book if I had been familiar with The Tempest beforehand.

And the other thing, a little thing but something that gave me great pleasure, was that when Felix had the inmates working on the play, all regular curse words were forbidden. Instead, they could only use the curse words from the play itself. This playfulness and the way it is taken to heart by the inmate-actors was quite lovely.

After reading this book, I discovered that it is part of the Hogarth Project, which has contemporary authors re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays. That did put the book in a new light for me, seeing that Atwood was writing within certain constraints. It makes me more appreciate that Felix/Prospero is the protagonist not because Atwood decided to write about a self-involved man with little regard for others, but because he is, simply, the obvious protagonist. It also put the inmates in a different position: Atwood is not forcing them awkwardly into the various roles, but showing how the play’s characters are relevant to and reflected in people in all times. So I felt a bit more generous toward both the author and the book after discovering this context.

That said, I am sorely disappointed in the lack of feminism, woman-centredness, or politics beyond the petty (etc.) in this book. My expectations of Atwood were formed by Surfacing and The Edible Woman back when I just hitting puberty. Hag-Seed just doesn’t come close to that style, subtlety, or layering.

I have no interest in re-reading this book, and it will go into my giveaway pile.

Disclaimer: this review is thinner than it could have been, as I read the book quite a while ago…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finished this book: Driving Lessons by Zoe Fishman

Cover of the book "Driving Lessons" by Zoe Fishman

Cover of the book “Driving Lessons” by Zoe Fishman

Every woman in this book wants babies. Even the woman who doesn’t think she wants babies suddenly wants them when she becomes pregnant. The woman who has to get a hysterectomy because she has frikkin CANCER doesn’t worry about metastasis or life expectancy but is only sad because no babies. The woman who already has babies is half-crazy from lack of sleep and how her selfhood is subsumed into motherhood, but she is constantly insisting that it is all worth it because she loves her babies so much. The protagonist is initially scared to become a mother but all it takes is some well-placed words from her husband and her friend with cancer and her nursing sister-in-law to make her see that actually she wants very much to have babies,

There’s nothing wrong with wanting or having babies. I mean, it’s not an urge I have ever understood, personally. But I do understand that it’s a big deal for a lot of people.

However, for there to be not one woman in this book to decide that in the end she is really happier without babies, or for there not to be any woman who says actually having babies is a mixed bag (without immediately blissing out about how it’s always worth it all the damn time because they love their baby so much) just requires too much suspension of my disbelief. I’ve hated my PUPPIES in the middle of the night when they wouldn’t let me sleep, never mind a kid!

The men in this book are basically all generic good-guy husbands / boyfriends. They seemed pretty much interchangeable to me.

This book is solidly embedded in a white, privileged, able-bodied, heteronormative, ciscentric, classist, and patriarchal worldview, right down to the entitlement and condescension of some of the men, and the utter lack of awareness thereof on the part of the women involved with them. The supporting characters were mostly stereotypes (the Beautiful Blonde, the Drawling Southerner, and so forth).

The dialogue was awkward in that it was too “therapy-esque” all the time, with the characters examining their motivations and drives and articulating them in a way that almost seems like they’re all in a joint therapy or mediation session. The dialogue “tells” too much instead of letting the story show the character development.

There was also a weird theme about ladybugs…? It never really developed into anything and it seemed out of place.

The only thing I really appreciated about this book was its insistence that women’s friendships are important, valuable, and sustaining. The existing and developing connections between the female characters was lovely, and this theme is (for me) the redeeming quality of this book.

Also, the theme / metaphor of the driving lessons was effective. And the way in which the driving lessons ended up helping the protagonist find a new career path was underplayed but very nicely done. It is portrayed as work she’ll probably love, so it’s too bad its value was framed more as being work she could do even when she becomes a mother.

If you aren’t bothered by lack of diversity and you’ve got a few hours at the beach to kill, this is an easy read with some nice friendships between women. Don’t expect any drama, depth, or character / plot development, though; this book, like its protagonist, is shallow, simple, and bland.

 

 

 

 

 

Finished this book: The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons

Cover of the book The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons

Cover of the book The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons

 

This story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Jenny, an eleven-year-old girl, and Emma, her seventh mother. Jenny and her dad live a nomadic kind of life as her dad takes seasonal work around the USA. Along with the seasonal work, Jenny’s dad picks up seasonal girlfriends, and although Jenny had grown attached to most of them, she also knows that none of them will stay for long. But Emma, Jenny hopes, is different.

All three of these characters are white, and the treatment of race in this book is handled in a way that is weirdly gentle and unflinching at the same time. This didn’t take up much space in the book but was probably my favourite thread.

Jenny’s dad, Brannon, is a loving and devoted father but he has an angry streak that he shows to others. Emma falls for him and excuses his angry moments (initially they are only moments, of course), forgiving him and explaining it away as proof of his love. Classic red flag stuff and the kind of thing that would have me running for the hills.

As the story progresses, Jenny wants to settle down and go to school, to have a “normal” life with her dad and Emma. Emma wants a “normal” life as well, a husband and children and a house. But Brannon isn’t a Happy Family kind of guy, as Jenny finds out when she stumbles across the real reason why the past mothers / girlfriends who were in her and Brannon’s life are now gone.

Books about dysfunctional families fascinate me, and yet I approach them with trepidation. With this one, I got nervous as soon as I saw Brannon’s temper, and I put the book down for a while because I wasn’t sure I could read about domestic violence. But one thing I really loved about the book was that Jenny’s perceptions and feelings were almost always validated by the people around her. Her dad loved and protected her, her “mothers” were nice to her, Emma loved her, and the parents of her best friend also listened to her and believed her. That part seems to be a bit fairy-tale-ish to me, since it’s not the way I think most young girls are treated in the world, but I did enjoy the fantasy.

Later in the book, there was a bit too much god-talk for me. Like, I get in when characters in a book go to church regularly the same way I understand it if they diet regularly: it’s not part of my life, I don’t understand it viscerally, but I “get” that it’s part of that character’s backstory and lived experience and will influence how they see the world and blah blah blah. But when the plot starts hinging on faith or calorie-counting in a way that assumes I, the reader, will agree that’s a legit basis for life decisions, I start losing interest. Sure, I know that these are very important things to a lot of people, I really do, but for me they are actual disincentives to stay engaged with the book. (And also with real live people who can’t stop talking about their religion or their weight loss regimes.)

Overall, it would have been a fast read if I hadn’t put it down twice for days, once when Brannon started getting mean, and once when people started ascribing events to a god. Jenny is a very sympathetic character, and Emma would be if she wasn’t so naive about Brannon. No, that’s not exactly it: I liked the character of Emma but I felt the path her life was taking was just too predictable from the reader’s perspective.

It makes me kind of sad when a book full of characters doesn’t have GLBTQ* people, or people with disabilities (in this case, one person used a cane, but that was obviously because of her age, which we know because of references to “the old lady”), or characters with some awareness of their class position, and so forth. I guess it’s always a bit disappointing when the characters in a story all seem to strive for a “normal” life, which to them and to the author means the status quo. There are ways to write characters like that while the book itself interrupts that idea of normality, but this book isn’t one of them.

It was a decent book that will now go into my giveaway pile.

 

 

Finished this book: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Cover of "If You Follow Me" by Malena Watrous

Cover of “If You Follow Me” by Malena Watrous

 

Here’s a book I read with enjoyment and very little criticism. It follows a young American couple (Marina and Carolyn) as they move in together for the first time when they move to Japan to teach English. The culture shock and new pressures and expectations are beautifully integrated into the story.

The book incorporates many of the themes I like to see included: race, sexuality, culture, personal growth, relationship challenges, LGBTTQ*, mental illness, weird families, friendship, suicide, and so on—without making a big deal about any of them. Continue reading

Finished this book ages ago: House Broken by Sonya Yourg 

Cover of the book "House Broken" by Sonya Yoerg

Cover of the book “House Broken” by Sonya Yoerg

 

This book had a dog on the cover, alluded to dogs in the title, and has a main character who is a vet. I was sold! Also, the blurb mentioned the vet’s mother’s alcoholism, which was another draw for me. I like stories about dysfunctional families; reading them helps me make sense of my own childhood.

Before I get any further, I should mention that I read this book early last summer ( or late last spring?) and just haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet. So this will be short and vague.

It was disappointing that there wasn’t more dog- and vet-related stuff in the book, and what there was, was not always particularly convincing. I’m thinking specifically of the minor plot line involving an aggressive dog, which was not very credible. It almost felt like the dog and vet stuff was thrown in there to get the punny title.

The writing, as far as I remember, was good and smooth. But I wasn’t entirely convinced by the actions and words of the characters. Your mileage may vary, of course; what you find realistic in a character might differ from what I would believe.

The plot held my attention and I did enjoy the dysfunctional family stuff. Well, “enjoy,” right? But it’s always interesting to me to read someone else’s take on it.

This book is going into the giveaway pile. It was an okay read, but not a fave.

House Broken by Sonya Yoerg. ISBN 978-0-451-47213-7

Finished this book: The Sky Beneath My Feet by Lisa Samson

Cover of "The Sky Beneath My Feet" by Lisa Samson

Cover of “The Sky Beneath My Feet” by Lisa Samson

Spoilers near the end, but there’ll be another warning first.

Only a short way into this book, I realised it was full of religion. There was a moment where I considered putting it aside and starting something else, but I was already nestled into bed with my PJs and my fuzzy socks and my fleece housecoat, with the cats and the Fluffy Dog in their usual positions, so I decided to read on a bit and give the book a chance. Also, the way the writer introduced the faith aspect was kind of funny, and I wondered if it might turn out to be tongue-in-cheek (the protagonist, Beth, was on a riff about the Jesus Fish on her van). Continue reading

Finished this book: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

 

Cover of "How Should a Person Be?" by Sheila Heti

Cover of “How Should a Person Be?” by Sheila Heti

It’s hard for me to decide whether or not I liked this book. I think partly that’s because I don’t know exactly what it is. Is it autobiography or fiction or memoir or fantasy or love letter? I feel as if it is important to know if it is factual or invented, even though “factual” memoirs or autobiographies can easily contain lies or falsifications or dramatic enhancements. But for some reason, it really bothered me to not be able to tell where Heti was telling the true story, and where she made things up or altered them to be true to the story, if that makes sense.

This reads partly like the diary of a shallow young adult, and partly like a love letter from one friend to another Continue reading

Finished this book (ages ago): The Writing Class by Jincy Willett

Cover of "The Writing Class" by Jincy Willett.

Cover of “The Writing Class” by Jincy Willett.

I have already forgotten a lot of this book since I finished it back around the May long weekend and just didn’t get around to writing about it. I did like the main character, Amy, a misanthropist introvert author who hasn’t published anything in ages and who teaches writing classes. Her thoughts and feelings about her students were entertaining, although I admit I do have a preference for this type of sarcastic protagonist. The premise of the book was that weird events and deaths were befalling the class, and Amy was going to try to figure out who the culprit was by analysing the writing of her students. As a premise, it was fascinating, but it’s not how the story actually worked out. (The plot was kind of vague that way.)

Some of the characters were quite interesting while others were flat. I felt the trope of mental illness as an explanation for violent or bizarre behaviour was overused (you don’t have to be crazy to be an asshole or a murderer, and not all crazy people are violent, so chill already with the casual slurs and assumptions). The plot was not particularly believable, There were lots of interesting bits and pieces (Carla’s amazing house, Amy’s hilarious blog, the writing samples), but not enough substance in the story to hold them together in a memorable form. Amy seemed like she’d be a good protagonist for a series, and in fact I think there was another book about her before this one.

I don’t actually feel like I wasted my time reading this book, but it didn’t particularly engage me, and it’s already in my giveaway pile.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett. 2008.

 

 

Finished this book: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (by Emily Croy Barker)

Cover of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker.

Cover of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker.

This book had most of the right elements—the main character being transported from our world to another one, magic, a woman standing up for herself and trying to change her circumstances, the importance of literacy and education—but somehow it didn’t capture me as much as I thought it would.

One of my frequent complaints about books set in other worlds is that these other worlds replicate ours so faithfully in so many of the manifestations of power and oppression. Baker’s alternate world is no exception: in it, women are subordinate to men, the poor are hungry and overworked and ill, and the characters are all presumed white (as becomes obvious when much is made of a Black woman from a land far, far away). I guess I’m just tired and bored of finding myself in the same old feudal society, as if there is something romantic and adventurous about a world where there is so much misery and despair and fixed hierarchy. Continue reading

Finished this book: Stupendous Stitching: How to Make Fun and Fabulous Fiber Art (by Carol Ann Waugh)

Cover of Stupendous Stitching by Carol Ann Waugh

Cover of Stupendous Stitching by Carol Ann Waugh

Back at the beginning of April, I went to a quilt show with my mom. Since her retirement, she’s taken up quilting, and she makes some gorgeous pieces. I’ve resisted having her make a quilt for my king-sized bed, partly because that’s a heavy bunch of quilt for my mom to be working on, and partly because I feel it’s a waste to give me nice bed blankets of any sort, since I share my bed with two fluffy gunky-assed cats and two big dogs. That’s a lot of fur and dirt, frankly, and my bed is always covered with a “dog blanket” anyway, so a gorgeous handmade quilt would be not only endangered but also simply never on display. Continue reading

Finished this book: Animals Make Us Human (by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson)

Cover of Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin

Cover of Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin

Last month, I browsing the sale shelf at McNally Robinson Grant Park, and I was excited to find Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Years ago, I read Animals in Translation by the same authors which—as far as I remember—was somewhat dryer than this book. But I enjoyed that first book very much and was surprised and pleased to see how much work Dr. Grandin has done to improve the lives of factory-farm animals. Continue reading

Finished this book: Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Cover of Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Cover of Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

I picked up this book rather hoping for something fluffy and light. It’s set in LA in the entertainment industry, and I expected it would be a long list of designer names, descriptions of people’s clothing, wheeling and dealing, parties, romantic drama, and a predictable ending where the love interests overcome misunderstandings and barriers to finally declare their undying devotion. Continue reading

Finished this book: Feminist Thought by Rosemarie Tong

Cover of Feminist Thought by Rosemarie Tong (1989 edition).

Cover of Feminist Thought by Rosemarie Tong (1989 edition).

I started re-reading this book on International Women’s Day. It’s an old textbook from my Women’s Studies days at the University of Manitoba, and I don’t think I’ve read it since then. It’s a survey of the different streams of feminist theory, and gives a clear summary of liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism (from two perspectives: reproduction / mothering and gender / sexuality), psychoanalytic feminism, socialist feminism,  existentialist feminism, and postmodern feminism. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Cover of The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Cover of The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

This book was wonderfully-written. It’s the story of a family whose youngest son (a three-year-old boy named Ben) disappears, and the effects of that disappearance. The book is told primarily from the perspective of Ben’s mom, Beth, and partly from the perspective of the oldest son, Vincent. Continue reading

Finished this book: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

Cover of Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos.

Cover of Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos.

This book was so gentle it was bland. Like plain potatoes. Kind of a disappointing chew.

The story was told from the point of view of three characters, Piper, Cornelia, and Dev. Cornelia’s part is told from the first person perspective, and the others from the third person, which is actually a technique I tend to like. De los Santos even manages to write that first-person perspective in a distinctive voice, which is always fun.

But the characters are… well… they are mostly nice people (or turn out to be nice people in the end), but there’s very little portrayal of how their characters develop. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Cover of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Here’s another book I love, and one I’ve read many times. This month I started with some difficult books but finally remembered to reach for the tried-and-true, since February is hard enough without reading emotionally draining books.

I guess this one could be seen as a difficult book, given that it’s a dystopian story  about one woman’s experience in a repressive religious society in which women are severely oppressed based on their gender, while the country is at war on the outside, and controlled by a secret police on the inside.

But Atwood’s writing is so amazingly pure and clear. It is uncluttered, and yet somehow attends meticulously to detail. The way her protagonists view and think about the world around them is so real and recognisable that it is sometimes startling.  There are very few of her books that I do not love (Alias Grace is one of those, though). Continue reading

Finished this book: Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid by Evelyn Lau

runaway

This was a disturbing book. Evelyn Lau writes about her experiences living on the street after running away from home at the age of fourteen to escape her abusive, controlling parents.

Lau had always wanted to be a writer, and had already received some awards and recognition for her writing at a young age, but she was forced to leave home to escape an unendurable situation. She stayed with friends at first, given the network of friends and fellow writers she had already established, but as the pressure from police and child welfare authorities increased, her friends became unable and unwilling to shelter her. Continue reading

Finished this book: Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris (aka My Most Noncommittal and Inconclusive Book Review So Far)

I still can’t decide how much I like this book, although I finished it almost two weeks ago. It is written in an imitation of old-fashioned style, which I normally don’t like, but Harris makes it work really well. There’s a bunch of really stereotypical gender stuff in it, which normally irritates the crap out of me, but it’s not really presented as a war of the sexes; rather, pretty much nobody comes off looking particularly good. There are mystical aspects to the story, presented in a taken-for-granted fashion but still leaving room for doubt. I don’t know what I think of it. Basically, there are a bunch of elements here that would normally lead to a thumbs-down, but Harris manages to weave it all together beautifully.

The protagonist is an artist who marries one of his child models, expecting her to remain as compliant and biddable as she always was throughout her childhood. She grows up, he gets weirder, a ghost gets involved (or maybe not), and almost everyone seems addicted to laudanum or alcohol or chloral. There’s sex and adultery, murder and rape, magic and deception, paedophiles and prostitutes. The traumatic aspects of the story are not written in great detail but I still found some of them hard, so maybe a content warning for child abuse and sexual abuse, depending on what your threshold is. Mine’s pretty low.

I think I liked it, overall. But I didn’t like it enough to be sure that I like it. Weird?

Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris. 1994. ISBN 978-006-078711-0

Finished this book: Incognito Street by Barbara Sjoholm

Cover of Incognito Street by Barbara Sjoholm

Cover of Incognito Street by Barbara Sjoholm

This memoir of the author’s travels through Europe as a young woman is a well-written and pleasant read. The countries in which she describes her travels (primarily France, Spain, and Norway) are mere backgrounds, however, to her inner travels. Sjoholm is struggling to be a writer, to understand what being a writer means, to find the balance between writing and living. She is also coming to terms with her attraction for her friend Laura, and Laura’s attraction to her. Also, at the time she was traveling, there were great political changes happening in her home country (USA) with regard to gender and politics, and the book touches on her growing awareness of and interest in that. Continue reading

Finished this book: Lottery by Patricia Wood

Cover of "Lottery" by Patricia Wood

Cover of “Lottery” by Patricia Wood

Perry L. Crandall is slow, but he’s not retarded. This is very important to him as he struggles against the teasing and impatience of the world around him. Patricia Wood does a fabulous job of telling this story from Perry’s perspective as he wins the lottery and has to navigate a family which is suddenly interested in him again after years of indifference, a world full of scammers and con artists, and his own circle of friends and work colleagues.

Perry was raised by his grandmother, and her wise advice is both touchstone and roadmap for him as he adjusts to life without her and to his new fortune. His best friend is Keith, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD and alcoholism. Perry’s voice is consistent and enjoyable. He is a very compassionate and careful person who thinks deeply—if concretely—about the important people and decisions in his life, like friendship, love, work, money management, family ties, and living with integrity. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Hidden Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Cover of The Hidden Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Cover of The Hidden Lives of Dogs by E. M. Thomas

This book is a reflection about the author’s many years of living with dogs, during which time she eschewed formal training, preferring to let the dogs develop naturally, make their own decisions, and learn from each other. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wanted to figure out what dogs want, and to see how dogs would behave when left primarily to their own devices. Her observations, and her synthesis of all those observations over the years, are quite interesting, but they are so grounded in very particular views not only of dogs and kyno-human relationships, but also very specific ideas about human culture (that is, the one Thomas knows), that some of her conclusions and ruminations seems odd to me. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Cover of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

I’m a big fan of dystopias and (post-)apocalyptic stories. And basically, when Margaret Atwood writes scifi, she is writing for me. I love her understated style, and the way she can write about the most horrible things in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

The Heart Goes Last is set in the USA after part of the country has experienced an utter economic collapse. The story follows a youngish heterosexual couple (Stan and Charmaine) as they make a lifetime commitment to an enclave that promises shelter, employment, and safety. Of course, once they sign up and are committed, they start to find out all kinds of things about the place (and their relationship), and Atwood does her usual morbidly thorough job at imagining the possibilities.

Charmaine is a fairly common type of female protagonist for Atwood. While they are all different, many of them share some basic elements of being concerned for social conventions, but also being almost ruthlessly  pragmatic and practical and sensible no matter what’s going on. There’s often a really delightful dissonance—and a simultaneous, almost inevitable consonance—between the character’s beliefs and actions. In this book, for example, Charmaine is very concerned with doing her job professionally, efficiently, and compassionately, and this leads her to (*major spoilers deleted*).

The last third of the book was… Oh, I hate to say this. It was not really up to Atwood’s usual work. it was as if she was trying to fit too much in, and so she couldn’t pay enough attention to each piece.

I found the ending a little too pat, but upon further reflection, it had something  to say about Charmaine’s ideas about relationships and her capacity for freedom. So while I had a bit of an eyeroll near the end, I have come to appreciate it more with some thought—although again, it was not as strong as I have come to expect of Atwood.

I devoured this book in a couple of days, fitting time for it around other stuff. It made me think of one of those massive holiday meals: so much preparation goes into it and then it gets eaten in no-time-flat. Fortunately, there are no dishes to do—but as with most of Atwood’s books, there’s always an aftermath for me as it takes me a while to get her books out of my head and move on to another.

 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. 2015.

 

Finished this book: If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler

Cover if If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler

Cover if If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler. Usually I try to find the cover image from the actual copy of the book I read, but my copy is so old that I can’t even find the cover art online… So here’s a different version.

Ben Joe Hawkes is the only male in a family of many sisters. He worries about his sisters and mom a lot but they seem to be doing fine without him. This book opens with Ben Joe off at college and kind of depressed as well as anxious about changes in his family; he heads home and the story takes place over a short period of time while he’s staying back at home. We find out a lot about Ben Joe and his dad (who’s no longer around), but the women all stay rather mysterious. It’s a shame, because most of them seem quite intriguing.

This book was written over fifty years ago, and it does have a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it. It is gentle and easy, in a kind of odd way. Maybe because all of the tropes are so familiar, so there’s no challenge. Everyone is white and straight and believes roughly the same things about relationships and manners and how people should move through the world. The one exception ends up getting smoothed down (look: no real spoiler, though!).

I like Tyler’s writing style, especially her dialogue. This is a sad and yet pleasant book. I mean, maybe it’s just me who finds it kind of sad how people are so constrained by all the unspoken societal expectations and norms that pressure them into certain acts, but in this book they seem so inevitable that the sadness is there but in a kind of resigned way, if that makes sense.

I’m always curious as to why a woman writer would choose a male protagonist. But the more I think about this book, the more it feels like Ben Joe is totally steered by the choices the women around him are making. He’s not the kind of person who really puts his foot down much, while the women in the book seem to have more direction (even though that direction is pretty traditional).

If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler. 1964. ISBN 0425098834.

Finished this book: How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

Cover of How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

Cover of How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

Warning: Full of spoilers.

This is an entertaining “beach book”—a quick and undemanding read. It was a fun look at a boy-May / girl-December relationship, although it was somewhat marred for me by the countless times Stella let her defensiveness and insecurities run wild. “Oh god, he didn’t come to the phone right away, well to hell with him, I knew he wasn’t really interested. “Shit, I still don’t have a letter from him, well screw him, I knew this was just a fling for him.” “He’s a few minutes late for our date, well goddammit, I guess he found someone his own age, what would he want with an old lady like me anyway.” And so on and so forth ad nauseam.

On the other hand, it’s nice light reading, and it was a pleasure to read a book where none of the protagonists were white. I liked the pieces about Stella’s relationships with her sisters, and how she parents her son. Stories where the main character has no money worries are always kind of fascinating to me, in a “wow, I wonder if that’s what I would do if I wasn’t always so broke” kind of way. It was good to see how Stella eventually decided to return to making her art, although it would have been interesting to hear more about that and rather less about the detailed lists of items she bought on her shopping sprees.

A nice light book, although it is sad to me that Stella’s groove came back because of the man; I would have liked to see her art be the groove-maker. Although it is entirely possible that I am misunderstanding the concept of groove.

Apparently this book has been made into a movie and I am the last North American who hasn’t seen it yet.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan. 1996. ISBN 9780140259627.

 

Finished this book: Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux

warriorpoet

Biographies aren’t generally my thing, but Audre Lorde—“black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior” (her own words)—is a writer whose writing has had a profound effect on my life and thinking about the world. I had come across her poetry in (I think) the late 80s, and was intrigued. Imagine my surprise when I signed up for a few Women’s Studies courses and discovered that some of Lorde’s essays from Sister Outsider were on the syllabi. Next time I re-read Sister Outsider or her other books, I’ll talk more about that, but for now, let me just say that she’s one of the people whose writing has greatly influenced my thinking about race, gender, social justice, the value of art, and the need to live my politics rather than just talking about them.

So when I came across Warrior Poet by Alexis De Veaux, I was excited to have a chance to learn more about Lorde and how she grew into the icon she became. I have to admit the book sat on my shelf for a very long time, because as I mentioned above, the idea of biographies doesn’t excite me (although when I buckle down and get started, I tend to enjoy them—go figure). Continue reading

Finished this book: Gardens in the Dunes (by Leslie Marmon Silko)

Cover of Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

Cover of Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

This is a lovely, layered, complex book weaving together the stories of many people connected to two sisters of the Sand Lizard tribe, Indigo and Sister Salt, back around the turn of the last century.

There were three themes I really enjoyed. One is the ways in which difference and similarity are interwoven. For example, When Indigo sees some ancient pre-Christian European statues, she immediately recognises Bird Woman and Snake Woman from her own beliefs. These kinds of interconnections are made throughout the book and by multiple characters.

The second theme is that of personal agency. Although Indigo is still a child when her life starts taking unexpected turns, she is always thinking about how she can and should act to survive, to be reunited with her family, and to continue the important work of looking toward the future and the past. Continue reading

Finished this book: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Cover of Irma Voth by Miriam Toews.

Cover of Irma Voth by Miriam Toews.

Irma is a young Mennonite woman whose family has moved from Canada to Mexico to live in a repressive community. Her authoritarian father no longer interacts with her since she married a Mexican without his permission, but she still lives on her father’s land and works for him. This book is about what happens to Irma when her husband disappears and she starts spending time with some filmmakers who set up nearby.

Toews has a wonderfully understated writing style. This book flows along calmly, despite the big events and strong emotions it contains. Toews seems to care very much about all of her characters, and is generous even to the “bad” people.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for you by mentioning anything else, because this is definitely worth reading. The characters have a wonderful internal consistency even when the most unexpected things happen to them.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews. 2011. ISBN 9780307400697.

Finished this book: Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

I am a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, and this is one of the books I have read multiple times. It continues the story of Taylor and Turtle from The Bean Trees, but they’re both standalone books and you won’t miss out on anything if you haven’t read the other book first.

This books gets into more detail about Turtle’s family of origin and her tribe. I like how carefully the characters walk the balance between the good of the individual and the good of the group. People really wrestle with their consciences and ethics to figure out the right course of action, but the way they do so is deftly embedded in the story. In clumsier hands, this would be moralising, but Kingsolver shows how people can struggle to do the right thing and come to understand that there is no one right way to act.

Kingsolver’s writing is so generous, so kind and gentle, and at the same time cuts straight to the heart of people’s interactions and retrospections. I enjoy the flow of her writing, and I relax into her books with the trust that she will not let me down with weak writing or implausible plot developments. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to trust a writer in that way.

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver. 1993. ISBN 9780571171781.

Finished this book: Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

Cover of Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

Cover of Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

Dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories almost always fascinate me. Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby is set in a near-future (at the time of writing) Britain after the Fertility Crisis, in which no one is getting pregnant on that island anymore. That story is juxtaposed with another cast of characters in the nineteenth century whose lives have effects on the people in the modern-day story. One thing I love about this book is Continue reading

Finished this book: The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

Cover of The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

Cover of The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

Another wonderful book! This is the story of two Indian women living in South Africa under apartheid who come to know each other despite their very different life circumstances. Amina is a not-really-out-but-everyone-knows-it lesbian who runs a cafe, while Miriam is living a more traditional life with an authoritarian husband and a few kids. Their story together, and their stories individually, are told with so much compassion and empathy for people whose lives are constricted by law and custom but who nevertheless strive toward wholeness and integrity.

Ever since I had the very good fortune and privilege to spend six weeks in Zimbabwe for school, I have been drawn to books and stories about Africa, preferably with protagonists who are rooted there (as opposed to stories in which Africa and Africans are merely superficial and exotic backdrops to the story of some white tourist, for example). I felt that what I saw and experienced in my short time there, and in only one country, was not even the tip of the iceberg, but just a glimpse of the iceberg in the distance. The more I read, the more I learn, and the more I enjoy it.

This beautiful book is filled not only with fascinating characters, but is firmly grounded in the land, the laws and customs of South Africa and of India, and the particular cruelties of apartheid. A good story, well-told, and definitely re-readable.

 

The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif. 2001. ISBN 978-0-9560316-0-0.

Winner of the Pendleton May First Novel Award and the Betty Trask Award.

Finished this book: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Cover of Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Cover of Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

This wonderful book is about an adolescent girl named Baby whose parents had her when they were fifteen. Her mom died and she is being (kind of ) raised by her dad, who has schizophrenia. So many sad and heartbreaking things happen in this book, but it is so gorgeously written, and Baby is such a convincing protagonist, that it is not as hard as you might expect. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Darwin Awards II by Wendy Northcutt

Cover of The Darwin Awards II: Unnatural Selection

Cover of The Darwin Awards II: Unnatural Selection

A book about how people die stupid and unnecessary deaths makes me feel smart and accomplished just for having survived so far. On the other hand, every time I giggle-snorted at another ridiculously avoidable demise, I was also reminded of the incredibly poor judgement I have sometimes shown in my life, and reminded of just how random luck is, killing some fools and letting others live. I suppose there are more important things to wish for, but I do hope that the manner of my death won’t be a laugh on me. Continue reading

Finished this book: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Cover of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Cover of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

I first read Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within back in the late 80s, and I’ve reread it quite a few times since then. Natalie Goldberg’s writing is clear and uncluttered; it’s a style I enjoy. The book’s contents are divided into very short chapters, some less than two pages. She teaches through little stories and anecdotes, informed by her Zen Buddhism, and full of kindness and generosity. She encourages writers to treat themselves with that same kindness and generosity, and rather than outlining strict rules for writing, she shows how even setbacks or doubts can be approached from another angle and made useful.

I like the book’s easy, intimate, conversational style, and I very much appreciate that Goldberg does not presume to have the One True Path to writing success. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Dubious Hills (by Pamela Dean)

Cover of The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean

Cover of The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean

When you’ve read a gazillion books, it’s rare to be surprised. The pleasure in reading is found in how well the story is told, how believable the characters are, how the writer deals with their variations on the (generally familiar) plot. How’s the dialogue, how’s the worldbuilding, how are the relationships, how’s the show-don’t-tell?

Continue reading

Finished this book: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my most favouritist bestest most fantabulous incrediblest writers ever. She would never, for example, write that sentence. Her writing is so understated and full of the sweet and the painful details of everyday life. Her characters are just so believable and layered; there are no unidimensional villains or angels here. Bad things sometimes happen to good people, and then those good people muddle through and do their best to be good animals (Kingsolver’s the one who inspired my tagline), and to make sense and meaning of the world around them.

Kingsolver’s touch feels so light but really it runs deep and, in my case at least, it is indelible. She treats all the isms with profound delicacy: race and gender and homophobia and disability and class and age and religion and mental illness are all in there, but difference is treated so matter-of-factly that it ceases to seem different and becomes simply the way life is.

I have read this book many times over the years. My ragged copy is over twenty years old. Kingsolver reminds me that even in the face of horrific things, we can be generous, we can be kind, and we can do better next time.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. ISBN 0060915544.

Wait, there’s more! So I was looking for an image of the book to insert into this post and I saw that this book has been banned in some places for sexual scenes and vulgar language. Huh? I do believe I’ve seen far worse on Gilmore Girls. Seriously, I would let any kid read this book. And I recommend it to anyone. Highly. Unreservedly. Insistently!

Finished this book: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Cover of Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Cover of Yes Please by Amy Poehler

This book stood out for me because of Poehler’s amazingly positive outlook on life. Sure, things go wrong or things are hard, but overall the attitude that shines through is one of optimism, hope, belief in hard work, trust in her friends, and an understanding of how fortunate she is to be living the life she is, with work that she loves and children she loves.

It was interesting to read about her career so far. What I found especially fascinating was how she has perspective on the early days of her career, when she was unknown, passed over, broke, and struggling. Continue reading

Finished this book: Room (by Emma Donoghue)

Cover of "Room" by Emma Donoghue.

Cover of “Room” by Emma Donoghue.

This book is amazing and I highly recommend it. The story is told from the perspective of a child, Jack, whose fifth birthday opens the book. One thing I love about this book is that his mother loves him, protects him, and does her best by him. Her best is not always good enough, especially considering the fact that they have been held in captivity for years (since before Jack was born), but the will is there. Another thing I love about this book is that Jack is actually heard. Most of the people around him take him seriously, and he is an agent in his own life. Continue reading

Finished these books: Adrian Mole I & II (by Sue Townsend)

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

TheGrowingPainsOfAdrianMole

The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week I offered to lend the first two Adrian Mole books (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole) to a friend’s kids. I dug them out of the pile of Books I’ve Read and Am Not Ready to Give Away (a bookshelf in my studio). But once I’d laid eyes on them, I just had to re-read them before lending them out.
Continue reading

Finished this book: Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination (by Helen Fielding)

Cover of the book

Cover of the book “Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination” by Helen Fielding.

Spoilers below, with another warning before you get there…

Helen Fielding gives good dialogue! And she has a knack for portraying the little things that make a character—well, perhaps not entirely believable and real, but very engaging and entertaining. I really enjoyed the first two Bridget Jones books despite the fact that Bridget’s massive insecurities and desperation to snag a man were irritatingly off-putting. I enjoyed Cause Celeb somewhat better although at this moment I can’t remember what it was about. Anyway, Olivia Joules is a great character and I liked her much more than I liked Bridget Jones. Joules is interesting, has some fun quirks, and handles her insecurities with more grace than Jones does. The story zips  along nicely, with the expected and the unexpected both given their place.

However. On the themes of gender and race relations (yes, I always think about this, along with class and homophobia and mental health stigma and ability and and and), I have some complaints that involve spoilers. So, on to the spoilers… Continue reading

Finished this book: The Stormchasers (by Jenna Blum)

Cover of The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum.

Cover of The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum.

Spoilers below, but I’ll warn you again before I get there!

I like books about people with mental illness, whether they’re the protagonist or someone else important to the story. In this book, the third-person protagonist (Karena) is a journalist whose twin brother has bipolar affective disorder and who is also fascinated by storms. This story shows the love between the twins and how that love is tested and sometimes seems broken because of the disruption of Charles’s illness. The author manages to avoid a lot of the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness, managing to make Charles a fuller and more well-rounded character than you often get when the “Crazy Person” is only there as a plot device. Continue reading

Finished this book: Glass Voices (by Carol Bruneau)

Cover of the book Glass Voices by Carol Bruneau. I took the image from the author's website.

Cover of the book Glass Voices by Carol Bruneau. I took the image from the author’s website.

This is my first review in a while because I kind of got stuck. The book didn’t really grab me, but I usually feel obligated to finish a book once I’ve started it, unless it is so horribly sexist or racist or violent that I just can’t even.

In some ways, this was a lovely book. It was decently-written, the story was touching, and so forth. But Continue reading

Finished this book: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Cover of the book Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler.

Cover of the book Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler.

J. had a pile of books to give away and I was the first one at her door, hoping to beat the rush so I wouldn’t have to actually elbow her nieces out of the way. It was great! I came away with about fifteen books and the first one I read was Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling. I’ve read books by Butler before; the Xenogenesis trilogy pretty much blew my little mind, although I was less enthused about the Parable books. Fledgling, however, makes up for that. Continue reading

Finished this book: Firefly Summer (by Maeve Binchy)

Picture of the cover of Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy.

Picture of the cover of Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy.

So after reading four Game of Thrones books in a row, I craved something kind. Something gentle. Something that would let me float along the story instead making me flinch. Maeve Binchy is one of my go-to authors when I’m in that mood, so I re-read Firefly Summer over the weekend. One of the things I really appreciate about Binchy is how so many of her characters are basically just regular people trying to live good lives and get along with each other. Continue reading

Finished this book: MaddAddam (by Margaret Atwood)

DSC00327Picked this one up in the Ottawa airport so I’d have something to read on the plane. I know for sure I’ve read the first two books in the trilogy in the past (Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood) but I couldn’t remember if I’d read this one yet. But it’s a pretty recent release, so I spent the cash and hoped it wouldn’t be a repeat.

I do love Margaret Atwood, and this book lived up to my expectations of her writing. I do also love a post-apocalyptic story, the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it followed by how-will-things-get-rearranged-afterward. Continue reading