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.