Monday, December 27, 2010

Review of The Red Tent

I first read The Red Tent ten years ago when it was first published, and remember absolutely loving it. As a Jewish woman who knows very little about Judaism, the Bible, and the history and stories associated with both, I found The Rent Tent extremely educational at the time. So when my book club of smart, beautiful and intelligent women decided to read it for our next book, I was looking forward to seeing whether my perspective would have changed so many years later.

The Red Tent
follows the tribe of Jacob, his four wives, and their many many children, all of whom are sons except for Dinah, the only daughter born to Leah. Dinah is the narrator and tells the story of Jacob through the eyes of a young girl living with him and his family (families) in a camp of sorts in the Israeli desert (long long long before it was Israel, of course). Dinah grows up hearing the stories of her mothers, and sitting with them in the red tent during the 4 days that they're menstruating. Those four days are their days of rest, when they all sit together on straw mats and eat good food and don't have to cook and clean for the men of the camp. Sounds kind of nice, no? As for the plot, well, I'm not going to summarize it beyond this description -- y'all can read the Bible for that (although in fairness, Anita Diamant focused on Dinah and fleshed out her story because in the Bible she is only mentioned briefly, and we never really learn much about her or her life).

I still enjoyed The Red Tent the second time around, and realized that there was much of the plot that I had forgotten. Reading it as a mother in her early 30s compared to a bright-eyed graduate student in her early 20s meant that the parts about childbirth and motherhood resonated much more strongly for me. And it's the perfect book club book for a bunch of 30-something women. Having said that, there was something about it that was kind of annoying, like it was trying too hard to be this perfect feminist novel. I felt like Anita Diamant was writing it as much for her audience as to tell the story.


Review of Cutting for Stone

When I told my aunt that I had just read a really interesting book about Ethiopia, she told me that I HAD to read Cutting for Stone - that it was one of the best novels of the decade. While I definitely enjoyed reading it, I think my aunt was laying on the hyperbole a bit thick.

Cutting for Stone is the story of Marion and Shiva Stone, identical twin brothers born to a nun who dies in childbirth in a Catholic hospital in Addis Ababa, and the doctors and nurses who care for them. The author, Abraham Verghese, is a physician, so the book is chock full of medical references and descriptions of maladies written so that the layperson can understand. The boys' biological father, Thomas Stone, was the head surgeon at the hospital and leaves upon their birth (and the nun's death), never to be seen again until much later in the book.

The book also takes place just prior to and after the deposition of Haile Selassie, and was an interesting counterpoint to Sweetness in the Belly, as the narrator (Marion) is very male and a doctor (whereas Lilly was female and a nurse). Religion has very little presence in this book compared to Sweetness, and the descriptions of medical procedures conducted in the hospital are riveting.

The mystery of the book is how Marion and Shiva's mother conceived them. It is clear that Dr. Stone is their father, but he seems just as surprised when she goes into labor as everyone else in the hospital, none of whom knew she was pregnant. All is revealed by the end, and the bulk of the book is rich and interesting. But it was not close to being the best book of the past decade.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review of Through Black Spruce

I walked into the used bookstore on Commercial Drive and said to the woman behind the counter that I was looking for a book that would hook me immediately. I explained that I had a 4-month old baby and that I couldn't deal with anything too cerebral. She recommended Through Black Spruce. She said it was one of the best books she had read all year, and that the story was engaging from the first page. She wasn't lying.

Through Black Spruce alternates chapters between Annie and Will, two Cree from a small town in northern Ontario. Will is an old bush pilot, and Annie is his niece. Will's narration is from his hospital bed, where he lies in a coma from an accident that the reader does not find the origins to until the end of the book. Annie sits by his bed and talks to him every night, and through her conversation we find out that her younger sister Suzanne is missing, having disappeared in New York City where she had gone to model. Annie went to the city to look for her, and in doing so she is forced to come to terms with her own jealousies and insecurities related to her sister, and in her life generally. Will describes his own battles throughout his life, remembering old family feuds and experiences in residential school that contributed to his alcoholism and tragedies throughout his life. But the story is far from being doom and gloom. Instead, it is actually a very inspiring read. And beautiful - Boyden has a real gift for bringing the reader into the bitter cold of a northern Ontario winter, hearing the crunch of snow underfoot, holding your breath just before the trigger is pulled during a goose hunt.

I really enjoyed this book. It was not like anything I have ever read before from a subject-matter point-of-view, and I was impressed by Boyden's ability to capture both male and female voices in the narration. I also felt that Boyden really nailed the way that First Nations people speak in terms of cadence and timing, even though you can't actually hear them talking. There is a rhythm to the way many First Nations people speak and tell stories, and that really came through. I learned only after I was done that this was the second book in a series. I have since read Three Day Road, and only hope that Boyden continues to write more so that I can have those to look forward to as well.


Review of Half Broke Horses

I was ready for a light-hearted, easy read when I picked up Half Broke Horses on the ferry ride home from Nanaimo in October. And it did not disappoint. Jeannette Walls has a gift for writing memoirs -- The Glass Castle was one of my favorite books of the past decade.

In Half Broke Horses Walls tells the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, in Lily's voice. Lily was one tough cookie from the time she was a little girl. She grew up on a ranch in some of the driest parts of Texas and Arizona. As the oldest of three children she was expected to take care of her siblings and help with the running of the ranch.

Lily lived through a lot - droughts, flash floods, the Depression, WWII, and all sorts of trials and tribulations. They are described in a straightforward, no nonsense and humorous tone that is at times both unbelievable and endearing. This book took me only three days to read, and was the perfect light read.


Review of Sweetness in the Belly

I wasn't too excited about reading this book when I started - it was chosen for my book club and the back cover was not too compelling. But I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found the narrative and how thought-provoking its content was.

Sweetness in the Belly
follows Lilly, an Englishwoman orphaned in Morocco as a little girl and raised by a Muslim Sufi called the Great Abdal. The book switches between the present tense (1980s London where Lilly is a nurse working to reunite displaced Ethiopians) and the past (1960s Ethiopia in the years leading up to Haile Selassie's deposition). Lilly becomes highly educated in the Qu'ran under the tutelage of the Great Abdal, and when she is a teenager he sends her on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia. However, upon arriving in the ancient walled city of Harar she is banished by the head sheikh to live with Nouria, the impoverished sister of one of his wives. While living with Nouria and her two young daughters, Lilly becomes the de facto teacher of the slum, educating both boys and girls in the Qu'ran's teachings. She also witnesses the barbarity of female circumcision, and falls in love with the doctor who treats a little girl dying from a resulting infection.

What I found most interesting about this book was that it opened my eyes to my own ignorance about Islam and how easy it is to stereotype Muslim women. Lilly was as devout as they come and extremely educated in Islam when she lived in Ethiopia, but knew very little of the outside world. She adhered to the role that she was expected to play as a Muslim woman, but because she was English I found myself surprised by her devoutness and passivity. Had she been Ethiopian I don't think I would have had the inherent expectations that I found myself having for her as an Englishwoman, and this realization forced me to accept that I was stereotyping the women in this book based on their origins, regardless of how they had been raised.

Camilla Gibb did a nice job weaving the history of Haile Selassie's reign and deposition, and the takeover by the Dergue into the story in a way that educated the reader but didn't take over. I learned a lot from this novel, and my interest in Ethiopia and its history was piqued.


Review of The Seduction of Silence

I started The Seduction of Silence a week before going into labor, and it was the perfect book to read at the end of my pregnancy and then with a newborn. The story follows four generations of Indian women, the last being the daughter of a midwife, and pregnant herself. Bem Le Hunte does a beautiful job telling the stories of these women through the generations, and her imagery of India is rich and compelling. It would take too long to try and summarize the different stories of each generation here, but suffice it to say that each woman has her own challenges and victories, and loves and losses. The Seduction of Silence was the kind of book you just want to curl up with on a rainy day with a cup of tea, or a sunny day with a warm breeze - it just feels good.


Review of Post Captain

Oh Jesus. I really don't remember much about Post Captain except that I really enjoyed reading it. There's something about reading Patrick O'Brian in July that just works for me. What I do remember is this:

- Jack Aubrey is back in England enjoying the fruits of his prize from the last book when he learns that he's been cheated and is completely broke.
- He is desperate for a commission (or any boat) so that he can earn some money back, but the admiralty has too many captains and not enough boats to go around, so he is stuck on land, sneaking around to avoid his creditors (and jail).
- While on land he falls in love but there are twists and turns that prevent an engagement from going forward until the very end of the book.
- He finally gets a boat to captain that is terrible in the water, but in true Jack Aubrey style he makes it work, and by the end of the book has been promoted to Post Captain.
- And we find out that Stephen Maturin is a spy.

Sorry folks, I know this is lame, but I was 9 months pregnant when I read this and have since lost many brain cells due to sleep deprivation.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review of Stoner

Well, here I am again. It's December and I am so far behind in my book reviews that I'm going to have to dig deep into the recesses of my brain to remember books I read in July before I had our baby. So bear with me if the next few reviews aren't the greatest.

My Dad recommended Stoner to me because he thought it was such an interesting and well written book. It was. But it was also kind of a downer.

William Stoner grew up poor on a farm in the midwest in the early part of the 20th Century. He was an only child and his parents saved everything they earned to send him to college to study agriculture. But instead he falls in love with the classics and studies literature, going on to become a professor at the university he attended.

Stoner is about as repressed as they come, marrying the first woman he is ever attracted to, which of course is a complete disaster (we could have all told him that, right?). His career is stymied by a venal colleague who keeps Stoner from advancing due to a disagreement, and his life is generally depressing (except for a passionate affair he has with a student which ends sadly).

While I appreciated the caliber of John Williams' writing, Stoner was not the light summer read I had been looking for.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Review of The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is a ghost story, and like all good ghost stories, it was perfectly creepy. It was even scary enough at one point that I put the book down for the night and decided to read the rest of the chapter in the light of day. Usually I don't like mysteries or thrillers because I always want to know who dunnit and don't have the patience to read through the whole book to find out. But The Little Stranger isn't your typical mystery. There is no major crime or murder that takes place at the beginning, but instead a slow build of misery and torment that subtly takes over the lives of the main characters.

The story is set in post-war small-town England. Dr. Faraday (we never learn his first name) is a country doctor who has managed to cobble together a small practice that keeps him busy and in business. He is from a poor family, and although he managed to become a doctor, he is still of the 'other' class, not in the same echelon as the Ayers family. The Ayers own Hundreds Hall, a huge estate out in the country that has been in their family since the 1700s. Dr. Faraday's mother was once a servant there, and he has vivid memories of visiting Hundreds as a little boy and marveling at the grandeur and beauty of the mansion, so much so that he once secretly pried a little piece of molding off the wall to keep as his own. But in 1947, Hundreds is on the decline. Mr. Ayers has died, leaving Mrs. Ayers and their two grown children, Roderick and Caroline, to care for the estate. When Dr. Faraday arrives at the house in response to a medical call, he is shocked by its decline and dilapidated state. In many ways, he takes it personally, even though he has no reason to, as his connection to the estate is far removed. In the coming year he establishes a close relationship with the family as their doctor, and it is during this time that strange things start to occur at Hundreds. The events start off small -- changes in behaviors of Hundreds' inhabitants, bizarre sounds and noises, smudges on the walls that weren't there before. But as the year progresses, the house takes a more serious toll on everyone who lives there, with tragic consequences for both the Ayers family and Dr. Faraday.

What I enjoyed most about The Little Stranger was the subtle progression of drama, fear and creepiness that, as a reader, you don't necessarily realize you're in the midst of until you find yourself glued to the pages and getting a little jumpy at sudden noises. Except for a couple of dramatic events (a fire and an inexplicably locked door), nothing in the book is absolutely terrifying, but instead it's the combination of all the little things that make the story scary. Waters also manages to weave in other themes of class and money that were (and are?) so much a part English life, and these play into how the characters deal with the strange events unfolding around them.

The story is told from Dr. Faraday's perspective, and as we get to the end of the book, several things are thrown into question, most notably Dr. Faraday's narration of the story itself. He is the epitome of the 'unreliable narrator', and this made the last chapter quite riveting, because the reveal is not what you expect.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Olive Kitteridge

I had high hopes for Olive Kitteridge when I picked it up. I'd heard about it for a while (although I'm not sure where or from whom), and had this idea that it was going to just blow me away (it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction). It didn't, and there's probably a take-away lesson here about how I should ignore the 'winner' stickers on book covers.

Olive Kitteridge is actually a collection of 13 short stories bound together by the title character, who appears in each one. Olive is a larger-than-life character, with a strong, loud, and pushy personality. Like most abrasive people though, she uses her bravado to mask deep insecurities and repressed emotions. She is not at all sophisticated from either a physical or emotional perspective, and resents those who she doesn't understand or feels threatened by. But she cares deeply for people, and that is her one redeeming characteristic.

I understand why the book was so well-received: Strout is a very good writer who is able to capture the subtleties of emotion in her characters and the complexities of relationships. But there was always something at the end of each story that left me wanting -- perhaps this was Strout's intention -- the stories are all raw (and even bleak) in an attempt to realistically portray life in small-town Maine. But there was rarely any closure, and the emotional frustration or repressed anger was always still lingering when the story was over, which made it difficult for me to actually enjoy the experience of reading the book.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Review of Little Bee

I picked up Little Bee when I was at the airport and looking for a new book. I had no idea what I was buying, and selected it because of its cover (both the artwork and a positive quote from the New York Times Book Review got me (I'm a sucker for those 'winner of this-or-that book award' stickers too)). I figured that it couldn't be a terrible read and would get me through the flight to New York. And I was right.

Little Bee was a totally decent read. Little Bee is the adopted name of a teenage girl who has fled her native Nigeria after witnessing the illegal destruction of her home and the murder of her family by an oil company so they can access vast reserves located under the site of her village. The only reason she is still alive is because of a chance encounter with a British couple who were stupidly vacationing in Nigeria at the time she escaped her village. They are able to bargain for her survival, but at a cost to the couple, both physically and emotionally. Upon their return to the UK, their marriage is falling apart, and the horror of what they witnessed in Nigeria results in the husband's suicide. Little Bee is able to flee to the UK illegally, but is held in a detention center for two years. Upon her release, she contacts the only people she knows (the couple), and the sequence of events that follow are both dramatic and touching.

My brief synopsis is quite linear, but the story is written in flashbacks and from both the perspective of Little Bee and Sarah (the wife of the British couple). And it is very well written - the voices of both characters are genuine and unforced. The story itself has a very nice arc, with a build-up to finding out what the horrible event was that brought Little Bee and Sarah together on the beach in Nigeria, and how Little Bee was able to survive. We don't find out what happened after they parted or how Little Bee made it to the UK until late in the story, after we've already read about the emotional toll that the trauma on the beach took on Sarah and her husband.

In addition to the good writing, the story confronts the larger issues of environmental destruction and immigration, but not in an overwhelming or preachy way. It's the kind of story that would make a great movie. If you're looking for a quick summer read that isn't your typical novel, try this.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Review of the Time Traveler's Wife

I don't even know why I decided to read this book. A friend gave it to me as she was moving from Vancouver, and I knew enough from the movie previews to know that it wasn't going to be a great read. But I picked it up in March as we were in the midst of packing our old apartment and getting ready to move to our new one, and it was the perfect, mindless novel that I needed to keep me distracted from the stress of moving. But it wasn't very good.

The premise is that Henry DeTamble can travel through time, mostly backwards, but forwards too. It comes on suddenly, and he disappears from the present to appear naked in some other time. Where he'll land is purely up to chance, but he happens to land in the field next to Clare Abshire's house in Michigan quite frequently. He meets her when she is quite young, but has traveled from a different time, when they are married and have a family. All of this he has to keep from her until time catches up with them. Similarly, the first time Clare meets Henry (when he has time traveled and landed in her field) he is already in his 30s, therefore, when they meet in 'real time', and both of them are in their 20s, she knows exactly who he is, but he's never met her before. Confused? I was a little bit at times, but decided that it was too much effort to try and ensure that all of the time traveling stuff added up and made sense, so I just went with it.

The problem with this book was that even though it's a love story, and definitely has a twist (the time traveling), it wasn't all that interesting. There was nothing particularly gripping about the characters, and because you know something tragic has to happen in order for it to have an arc or climax, that was the only thing that kept me reading. But, it was an easy read, and fairly mindless, and therefore perfect for the stressful time of packing and moving.


Review of Kafka on the Shore

So this was a crazy book, but also really really great. I've been wanting to read Murakami for a long time, but was always a bit intimidated for some reason. Then last year my Dad asked me to buy him some books before going on a 3 week trip to Europe, so I picked this one for him. He couldn't stop talking about it upon his return, so I suggested it for my book club this past spring. Unfortunately, only three of us read it, so not everyone could participate in the conversation, and there was so much to talk about!

I'm not going to even try to recap the story because it's so full of wackiness, mystical realism, travel into other worlds and slugs falling from the sky that it would a) take too long and b) take away from the story if I tried to explain. And really, what I think this book was about was just the opposite of trying to tell a story in a linear fashion. It was about relationships, and forgiveness, and patience, and finding out who you are, and being ok with not knowing who you are, or where you come from. It was about accepting that we all have parts of ourselves that are good and that are evil, and that sometimes you have to just believe that the universe will lead you in the right direction, even if you don't know exactly where you're going. It was about accepting that sometimes you need to toss your maps and compasses and be willing to get lost in the woods, because you don't know what you will find - it may be scary, but chances are you will learn something from it. And it was about love and death, and how they both open up to new worlds, although they both can cause pain.

This is the kind of book that when you've read the last word on the last page you think, "What I really should do is get a cup of tea and start all over again, because there is likely to be so much that I missed the first time around."


Review of Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre was a book club pick way back in January, and the cold, rainy Vancouver weather provided the perfect backdrop for reading it. I actually read Jane Eyre in 9th grade, but remembered absolutely nothing about it except for the "big reveal" which I will not reveal here lest I spoil it for someone else. But there is so much more to the story than this climax, and as I read it for the second time (20 years later), I realized how much I had missed at 13.

Jane Eyre tells the story of...Jane Eyre, an orphan who is cruelly treated and unloved by a sadistic aunt and sent away to a school for girls which, although harsh and spartan, enables her to form friendships and relationships and grow into an educated woman. After teaching at the school for a few years, she takes a job as a governess at an estate of a single man, Mr. Rochester, and his ward, the young daughter of an old lover (but not his own child). Mysterious things happen in the house, which are ultimately explained by the "big reveal" I mention above, resulting in Jane leaving in a rush and setting out on her own with no money and nowhere to go. She finds herself in the company of generous strangers in a completely different part of the country, and amazing connections are revealed (but again, not by me here -- I don't want to ruin it).

Because I had already read the book and didn't recall liking it very much, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I was engaged by the story and how easy it was to read. It had been a real slog when I was 13, and having read it again now I feel that I was just too young to really appreciate it the first time around. This is the kind of book where you have to have 'lived' a little to really appreciate it -- to have experienced challenges in life, heartbreak, conflicts. And although I'm sure that all 13 year-old's, if questioned, would say they have experienced all of those things, I'm going to be completely condescending and say that...well...they haven't.

My only criticism comes at the end of the story, where things just seem to fall into place a bit too conveniently. I didn't buy some of the major coincidences that enable Jane to come into family and fortune within the span of a few months. But overall, it was a very enjoyable book, and one that I will recommend to my daughter...when she is in her 20s, at least. :)


Review of Shadow Country

I've been remiss in writing my book reviews this year, and while I don't have a great excuse, I'm still going to use the fact that I've been plagued by morning sickness throughout my entire pregnancy as a semi-excuse. Feeling like barfing all the time just hasn't been conducive to writing. But I digress...I'm here now, on maternity leave, finally feeling better (at week 39), so it's now or never to catch up on my reviews before the baby arrives.

I started Shadow Country before U.S. Thanksgiving way back in 2009, but at 892 pages it took me until the end of January to finish. Shadow Country is actually three books combined into one. This was the Peter Matthiessen's original intent when he first wrote the novel, but was forced by his publisher to publish as three separate books. Now that he is an accomplished writer, he received his publisher's blessing to rework the three books into the one he had originally conceived, and it masterful.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which center around the notorious E.J. Watson. Watson was a sugar planter in the Florida Everglades at the turn of the 20th Century, and huge legends surrounded him from the time he moved there, thanks to his somewhat notorious past out west. He was rumored to have killed a prostitute, Belle Starr, in a fit of passion, which he always denied. But this led to several other rumors surrounding murdered acquaintances, most of which became attributed to Watson as his legend grew.

The first book opens with Watson's murder on the first page, so you know at the beginning that he his killed by a mob following a devastating hurricane in the Gulf Coast of Florida. But what you don't know is how it came to be, or why. The next 800 pages contain an incredible story that unravels the how and why, and by the end, you realize that there isn't a clear answer, and that everyone has their own interpretation or rationale or story to help explain.

The first book is told from the perspective of everyone in Watson's life but Watson himself, with alternating chapters and distinct voices and dialects (difficult to read at times). The second book is told from his son Lucious' perspective years after his father's death as he tries to piece together fact vs. fiction and what exactly happened on that fateful day after the hurricane. The final book is told by E.J. Watson himself, and we are let into the infamous man's mind and learn the "truth" about all of the stories and legends that surround him.

Shadow Country was not an easy read, but it was an immensely satisfying one, particularly because Matthiessen is a master at putting the reader smack into the middle of the scene. His descriptions of the Everglades at the turn of the last Century are incredible, and for the first time in my life I have a real interest in visiting that part of the country and exploring the area. If you're looking for an epic summer read, I highly recommend this book.