One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson

onesummerThe summer of 1927 was an eventful one by any account — Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic; Babe Ruth set a home-run record that stood for nearly 50 years. Prohibition was still in force but widely ignored; the economy was booming — for some — but the crash of 1929 was already on the horizon, though few could imagine it. Bill Bryson brings this memorable summer to life with his usual wit and style, making this book a thoroughly enjoyable piece of social history. It’s a chunky book and when I finished reading it halfway through Europe (having taken it as my “paper book” for times when I couldn’t charge my Kobo), I left it on the “drop a book, take a book” of the hotel where we stayed in Copenhagen. I hope some other world traveller picks it up and is entertained while learning about all the records set and broken and the crazy ups and downs of America in the summer of 1927.

 

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Girl at the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther

the-girl-at-the-end-of-the-worldElizabeth Esther grew up in an extremely conservative, narrow, closed-off fundamentalist Christian group started by her grandfather, a group whose doctrines may not have differed greatly from those of many other Protestant evangelicals, but whose methods involved extremely strict control over everything children thought, said and did. Her upbringing, as she paints it in this memoir, was clearly one of religious abuse from which she and her husband managed to break away only after marrying and starting a family of their own. The claustrophobic, controlling atmosphere of the family/church (there’s little distinction between the two, in this story) in which she was raised makes this a difficult read at times, but it’s refreshing to read such a story from someone who came out of it still holding to a strong — though very different — Christian faith. Many readers will find it surprising or ironic that Elizabeth Esther left a controlling and abusive religious organization to find wholeness and freedom in the Roman Catholic church (since that church has also been a source of spiritual abuse for many). For me, the takeaway lesson here was: most churches have pockets of darkness and negativity — after all, I experienced growing up in the Adventist church as a positive place with a great deal of freedom, but for other Adventists I know, the church and home were just as narrow and controlling as the sect Elizabeth Esther’s family belonged to. Within most faith groups there is space to find a place of peace and affirmation, but if your religious group (or sub-group) is focused on controlling behavior to the exclusion of all other values, you need to find the courage to walk out the door. Elizabeth Esther did find that courage, and her story will surely be inspiring for others who are abused in the name of God, no matter what sub-sect of what religion they belong to.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

WillGraysonThis is the last John Green novel I hadn’t yet read, so that now I have nothing to do but wait for him to write a new book (which could take awhile — I mean, not George RR Martin kinda long time, but awhile). And this one is only half by John Green, but the other half is by David Levithan, whose writing I also enjoy, so that’s good. Both my kids recommended this book to me, and I read it one night on a train travelling from Paris to Hamburg.

This novel tells the story of two teenaged boys with the same name (Will Grayson, obviously) whose paths cross in unexpected ways as one Will starts dating the other Will’s best friend. The chapters alternate between the two main characters’ points of view, with one Will’s chapters being written by Levithan and the other by Green. As you’d expect from John Green, there’s a snarky, often hilarious teenage wit; as you’d expect from David Levithan, there’s a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of a gay teenager. And as you’d expect from both, there’s humour, insight and a realistic picture of adolescent life.

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My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead

mylifeinmiddlemarchI’m always interested when writers explore how their favourite books have affected their lives, so I was immediately intrigued by the description of My Life in Middlemarch, which sounded like a memoir combined with literary analysis in which author Mead would explore the role her favourite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, had in her own life. In fact, the memoir aspect is probably the thinnest part of this book — Mead does make references throughout to her reading of Middlemarch at different points in her life and how it connected with what she was thinking or doing at the time, but this is a minor part of the book. The focus is mainly on analysis of Middlemarch and how the book intersects with its author’s life. There’s much more biography of George Eliot here than I expected, but that’s a good thing rather than a bad thing. Rebecca Mead has no qualms about believing (as, let’s face it, we all do, regardless of what critical theories we supposedly subscribe to) that an author’s life informs her writing, and she plumbs the depths of Eliot’s story to find parallels to the subject matter of Middlemarch. While there was nothing particularly earth-shattering here, I found it an enjoyable read, and, perhaps most important, it made me want to re-read Middlemarch.

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American Savage, by Dan Savage

americansavageThe first time I read Dan Savage’s Savage Love column, I put down the newspaper and wished I could immediately wash my hands. That’s how strong was my negative reaction to Savage’s frank and explicit sex-advice column. I am, after all, about as conservative as one can be when it comes to sex: I am a straight, cisgendered, monogamous Christian woman, and some of the advice Savage gives his readers — like the idea that it’s sometimes OK to cheat on your partner, to which he devotes a whole chapter in American Savage — did not sit well with my world view. Plus, he described people doing things that were, well, icky.

About the only positive thing I can say about my initial reaction to Dan Savage was that I didn’t read enough of the column to realize he was gay, so my response was not driven by homophobia — just by an innate distaste for people whose view of sexuality was different from mine.

But the next time Dan Savage floated onto my awareness-screen was as the founder of the It Gets Better project, something I wholeheartedly approved of and supported. And when I began to read interviews and quotes from him that contextualized his experience as a gay man and how he relates to his own Catholic upbringing and to the Christians who oppose LGBT rights in America today, I realized, with some reluctance, that there are a lot of points on which I agree with Dan Savage and a lot of ways in which I admire him.

So I decided to read his latest book. And everything I like as well as everything I don’t like about Dan Savage is fully on display here. Yes, he’s brash and confrontational and explicit and talks about things I’m not comfortable reading about. And I still agree with him about infidelity even though I will admit he makes a very good argument for his view. I love the things he has to say about religion and sexuality, the way in which he still respects (some) people of faith and even, on some level, faith itself, while vehemently disagreeing with those he considers bigots. 

This book is not for everyone, but if can handle bracingly frank language and opinions about sex and want to see how the culture wars around LGBT issues look from the perspective of a gay man who’s been fighting those battles very publicly for much of his adult life, you should read American Savage.

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Dahveed: Yahweh’s Fugitive, by Terri Fivash

dahveed3I‘ve been trying for awhile to get my hands on the third and fourth volumes of Terri Fivash’s Dahveed series, about the life of King David. While the first two books of the series were traditionally published, the later books (there’s a fifth still to come, finishing the saga) are self-published and it’s taken me awhile to get hold of them in a format that works on my e-reader. But now that I have them and have read Book #3, I can say it’s definitely worth the wait.

The only other historical fiction to which I can compare Terri Fivash’s Dahveed books is Nicole Griffith’s Hild, which I read earlier this year. They are the only two historical novels I can think of set in times far more ancient than the medieval European worlds many of us historical-fiction lovers are used to, that genuinely manage to create the feeling of a world where people think very differently than modern people do. (Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent is another, but I read it so long ago that I can’t remember if it was as richly detailed as these two). 

Many times, Dahveed’s world was so strange to me that the book might as well have been a fantasy novel (in fact, far more alien than many fantasy novels manage) although it’s soundly rooted in historical research. So many writers (myself included) struggle to really convey how different the ancient world was to our own, how differently people thought. But Fivash captures it. And yes, this very sense of alien-ness and the meticulous research that has led her to people the book with a huge cast of characters, sometimes makes the story daunting or hard to immerse oneself in, but it is always a rewarding journey.

If I have a quibble with this series, it’s this: now that Fivash is no longer being published by a Christian publisher, I wish the books would include a little more frank (not explicit, but frank) discussion of sexuality. It doesn’t need to be graphic in any way (and after all, it’s still mainly Christian readers who are buying the books, readers who generally don’t want vividly realized sex scenes). But in a novel that so clearly shows us how bonds of family, friendship and marriage were viewed differently in those times — a book that makes it abundantly clear how David’s love for Jonathan could be “passing the love of women” without necessarily being sexual in any way, because of the deep ties of loyalty and honour that bound them — in the context of that aspect of the story, it would be helpful to see where sex, and sexual attraction, fit into it. To give another example than just the David/Jonathan one, David takes Abigail as a second wife even though he’s already married to Ahinoam, and within the cultural context, all the characters accept that as a sensible and even necessary thing to do — but I’d like to have had some sense of where David’s attraction to Abigail (whose beauty is frequently mentioned) fits into the picture. Though people married for reasons quite unrelated to what we think of as love in those days, they did still have strong sexual feelings and act on those feelings (as David’s later adventures show). With any reference to sexuality so heavily veiled in this book, it feels like a story that’s otherwise fully grounded in day-to-day reality of the early Iron Age Middle East, has pulled back from gritty realism just a little, and I think that’s a small loss.

In spite of that one caveat, I found this a very enjoyable and thoroughly well-researched novel, and look forward to the rest of the series.

 

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The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

ghostbrideThis is a good example of a book that turned out to be completely different from what I had expected. The premise intrigued me: Li Lan, a Chinese girl in late nineteenth-century Malaysia, is offered the opportunity to become a “ghost bride.” This custom within the Chinese community involves “marrying” a woman to a dead man, giving her the status of his wife (or widow) within his family’s household. Needless to say, Li Lan has her doubts about marriage to a dead man, especially when she discovers that his handsome, charming and very-much-alive cousin also lives in the household.

Based on this synopsis and the first couple of chapters, I expected a historical novel that explored a young girl’s immersion in this odd cultural practice, perhaps with a love story thrown in. Instead, The Ghost Bride could better be described as a paranormal historical fiction — the concept of becoming a ghost bride is not just belief or tradition in this novel, but a vivid reality, and much of the story takes place in the spirit realm rather than in everyday life. This isn’t a criticism of the book, but rather a notice to readers who, like me, might have been expecting something different. If you think of this less as a historical novel and more as a fantasy, you’ll be intrigued to follow Li Lan on her unexpected journey.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical