Dear Canada: Flame and Ashes, by Janet McNaughton

flameandashesI’ve known and admired Janet McNaughton for years, though I haven’t read all of her recent young-adult novels — she is very prolific! Last week, she and I were invited together to do a panel discussion at the library, as we had both written about the 1892 Great Fire of St. John’s, and we were both nominated for Atlantic Book Awards. (Neither of us won in our respective categories, but all the nominated books were great: go read them!) In preparation for the event I decided I should read her latest novel, part of Scholastic Publishing’s “Dear Canada” series of YA novels about Canadian history.

Flame and Ashes tells the story of eleven-year-old Triffie, the pampered daughter of a wealthy St. John’s merchant whose life changes dramatically when a fire sweeps through the city, destroying downtown homes and businesses. Triffie’s voice is lively and engaging, and the research into the fire and its aftermath is impeccable, with the facts smoothly woven into an interesting narrative that tells an important coming-of-age story for Triffie. I highly recommend this for young readers and older ones who want to immerse themselves in a key moment in Newfoundland history.

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Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr

fallingupwardI started this book a long time ago, having found the excerpts and quotes from Rohr’s work that I read in other people’s writing but never having read a whole book by him. Falling Upward took me a really long time to get into, and I think it was largely because I had trouble relating to his thesis. He seems to be suggesting that most people’s lives follow a typical pattern in which we spend the first half of life building up a strong self-image in the eyes of the world, establishing a reputation, building a career, and then in the second half of life loss, failure or tragedy take apart that strong public image, and we have to embrace a spirituality of brokenness. While I think this pattern is true for some people, it’s hardly normative for the whole human race (particularly given that none of us even knows what is going to turn out to be the half-way point in our lives).

I didn’t feel I could really relate to this template, not least because I haven’t yet experienced any major or shattering loss, and by any account I’m more than halfway through my most ambitious hopes for a lifespan. But later in the book, I did begin to relate a bit, because he talks about how our faith and spirituality changes in later life, and how for many people there is a loss of certainty, but that doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a loss of faith. This, I can relate to, because I was much more certain about everything religious when I was under 30; after that time I began questioning many things it had never occurred to me to question before. I like Rohr’s idea that people of mature faith become more open, more tolerant, more accepting of others’ views and less dogmatic about their own. More comfortable with uncertainty. This is certainly what I am striving towards, what I hope for in my later years.

But even there, I found myself questioning Rohr’s generalizations. I know older people of faith who are deeply rooted in their beliefs and seem to have a rich and genuine relationship with God, yet who have not become more tolerant and open to questions. I simply don’t think it’s automatic that greater spiritual depth and maturity leads inevitably to a more liberal approach to truth — even though I with that were so. But Rohr is a thought-provoking writer even when I don’t fully agree with him.

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Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

searchingforsundayI’m probably always going to love anything Rachel Held Evans writes. It was more or less inevitable that after the incisive questioning of her childhood faith and its values that she chronicled in A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Evolving in MonkeytownHeld Evans would have difficulty remaining in her church home or finding a new one. Searching for Sunday chronicles her struggle with church — leaving a church, leaving church altogether, starting a new church, watching that church fail, church-shopping, seeking and (perhaps) finding a new church home.

While the title falls oddly on my Adventist ears (surely we are all searching for Sabbath, aren’t we?), her struggle resonates. Like many people, I too have seen a lot of changes in my faith throughout the long years of this spiritual journey, and sometimes those changes have made me feel uncomfortable in the church home that birthed and nurtured me. At the same time I’ve been keenly aware, as Held Evans is, of all the ways that church home has nurtured me — how church people, even when you disagree with their theology and their politics, can simply be there for you and your family at times when no-one else would.

All this makes for a messy struggle, and Rachel Held Evans locates her personal struggle on a map of other people going through similar struggles with church, including those who have far more at stake than she does. She talks, for example, about LGBT people who have been rejected and condemned by their churches, yet somehow managed to hold onto some faith. She, too, holds onto a core of faith and to the need for a spiritual community, a need that has led her (as it has led many progressive evangelicals) into the more sacramental and liturgical worship of the Episcopal church.

Rachel Held Evans does something that I usually don’t like, but she does it well, and I’m trying to figure out why. I try not to be that crotchety middle-aged person who says “People under 30 shouldn’t write memoirs!” but I am wary of memoirs that are written in the midst of experience, without allowing the writer time to reflect back. Authors like Deborah Feldman suffer from this, I think — their work would be richer if they allowed more time to elapse so they could better fit their experiences into the framework of their whole lives. But from her first book (and, of course, on her blog) Rachel Held Evans has been writing right out of the middle of her faith journey, as she’s living it — and it works for me. Maybe because she’s honest about the fact that she, and her faith, are works in progress, and that she doesn’t have all the answers. But she’s asking the questions a lot of us are asking, and I think that’s why so many of us are happy to come along for the ride.

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The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

girlwithallthegiftsSo, this book was totally not what I expected. Mostly because I wasn’t expecting a zombie novel. And I never would have picked it up if I’d known it was. But its, even though they don’t call the infected people “zombies.” That’s exactly what they are. Despite that, it was a great read, which proves that it’s sometimes a good idea to read outside your comfort zone.

The Girl with All the Gifts is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian Britain, in which only a few pockets of safety remain for humanity after a deadly plague has wiped out many people and left most of those who survived as mindless, cannibalistic “hungries” (so, basically zombies). Melanie, the titular girl with all the gifts, is a brilliant, curious, compassionate ten-year-old who grows up in a research facility, not fully understanding either who she is or what’s happening to the world around her.

Then all hell breaks loose, the zombies get into the research facility/military base, and a ragtag group of survivors is on the run for their lives, learning against all odds to trust each other. This sounds very cliche but the thoughtful and nuanced characterization lifts it above the cliche. This is a smart, literary novel about real people who just happen to be being pursued by zombies, and who have real and serious choices to make against this backdrop.

Due to my queasiness, I had to skim over some descriptive passages, but the novel and its characters (who alternate points of view, which helps them all become real and fleshed-out people — gee, I’m sorry I said “flesh” in my review of the only zombie novel I’ll ever read) kept my attention riveted to the end.

The end. I’ve had to think a lot about this ending. I’ve just reviewed a book (Belzhar) whose ending made me rethink everything I liked about the story. I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending of The Girl with All the Gifts. It seemed satisfying at the time, in a weird and twisted way, but the more I think about it the less sure I am. I’ve decided not to spoil this one, even below the “read more” cut, but if anyone else has read this, post in the comments and I’ll post my question about the ending there, because I’d really like to discuss the ending with someone else who’s read it. This is an excellent, thought-provoking, and troubling book.

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Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

belzharThis was another young adult novel I picked up recently, in this case by a writer whose adult fiction I had already read. It was interesting to compare Meg Wolitzer’s portrayal of adolescent experience in The Interestings, which starts out with a group of gifted teens at a summer camp, and here in Belzhar, which is set among a group of gifted but emotionally damaged teens at a boarding school. Apart from the fact that The Interestings follows the characters into midlife, its portrayal of the characters and their experience is also subtler and more nuanced, and I don’t think it’s necessary that the emotional landscape of a teen novel has to be flatter or more black-and-white than that of a novel for adults.

That said, there was a lot to like about Belzhar, as the main character, Jam, tries to cope with the grief from a shocking loss that has thrown her into a deep depression. The boarding-school setting is a little contrived (actually, by the end of the book I’d decided it was more contrived than I thought it was, based on the ending, but I’ll get to that later). The school is designed for students who are gifted but “fragile,” and the friends the main character meets at school have suffered a wide range of traumas — but apparently the school does not allow students to be on any medication, nor does any form of psychological counselling or any other sort of therapy seem to be offered. The suggestion seems to be that simply by isolating a bunch of traumatized teens from their families and friends and educating them together in a remote rural setting, they’ll get better without any more specific interventions.

This seems unlikely, as does the school’s ban on cellphones and internet access (question: how would any modern high-school student complete homework without internet?) — but, like the blizzard that keeps Jam from getting home over Thanksgiving break, it’s an obvious contrivance — to make the world of the boarding school a closed system, in which inconvenient relationships and information from the outside world can’t break in to trouble the plot. A kind of bell jar, in fact — the students read Sylvia Plath, and the title is a reference both to her book and to the sealed-off world they find themselves entering (a concept I’ll get to in a moment) — but it also relates to the school itself.

Once you accept these contrivances, the story is pretty good, and kept me engaged. The main conceit of the plot is that a group of students gets hold of something that allows them a kind of limited time-travel — back to the times and people in their lives that triggered their traumatic experiences. Everyone has the opportunity to revisit those experiences, enabling them, ideally, to find the kind of closure that was denied them in real life, and then move forward with their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, though you can see how it would work better with some traumas than others. For someone grieving the loss of a loved one, as Jam is throughout the novel, it’s easy to see how a chance to say goodbye and accept the loss might help. But what about the girl who endlessly relives the day she let her younger brother get off the bus a few stops before home so he could go to a store, only to lose him forever when he’s kidnapped between the bus stop and home? What kind of re-living could ever help a person reconcile themselves to a moment like that? All the time-travel device could do would make you search endlessly for things you could have done differently — and, in fact, this is pretty much what happens.

Despite my doubts about it, I read this book quickly and found it engaging. The ending has a big twist that did a good job of surprising me — but the more I thought about it, the more the twist ending made me reconsider what I thought of the rest of the book.

If this is enough to intrigue you and you think you might read this book sometime, STOP HERE. I’m going to discuss the ending, so SPOILERS BELOW!!!

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Among Others, by Jo Walton

amongothersAmong Others is a lovely fusing of coming-of-age story with magic realism.  The year is 1979 and the main character, Mori, is 15 (I was 14 in 1979, so this story is a natural fit for me, generation-wise). She’s a Welsh girl attending a stuffy English boarding-school; she ran away from her controlling, abusive mother home after the death of her twin sister, and is now under the care of the father she’s never known. At boarding school she has trouble fitting in, is lonely, reads voraciously (mostly science-fiction), and finds her refuge in the books she loves and a sci-fi book group she joins. Moving through her year of grief, Mori discovers that she still wants to live, even without her sister, even with the disability (a bad leg) that’s her inheritance from the accident that killed her sister. She discovers new people to care about, confronts her mother, and makes a kind of peace with her past.

Everything I’ve written above is true about this novel, and would make it a perfectly good coming of age story about a girl who finds herself through the books she reads and loves. But the following synopsis is equally true: Mori is a fifteen-year-old girl who can do magic and talk to fairies. Her mother is a wicked witch, and her beloved twin sister was killed when the girls attempted to defeat their mother in her attempt to take over the world. Now, Mori is receiving mysterious messages from fairies that send her back to Wales to deal with unfinished business that will finally defeat the evil witch-mother and allow the twin sister to rest in peace.

Yup. That’s true too. Or maybe it is. What I think is brilliant about this novel is that you can read it on both levels — as a fantasy story and as a purely realistic story. There are logical explanations for every bit of “magic” that Mori encounters in the book and everything traumatic that has happened to her. Is her mother really an evil witch, or simply a mentally ill woman who abused her daughters? Was Mori’s twin sister killed and Mori injured in an epic battle with dark powers, or in a perfectly normal, though tragic, car accident? You can read it either way, and it’s equally true, and equally interesting either way. And even if (like me) you haven’t read most of the 1970s and earlier sci-fi classics that Mori reads and analyzes, you can appreciate the extent to which immersing herself in fictional worlds helps her cope with the real world (whether or not you believe that real world contains fairies and witches).

Like many books I’ve read recently, I had some issues with the ending of this one, mainly because things happened very quickly at the end of the novel and I was a bit overwhelmed. Also, a lot of hints are dropped about things that happened before the novel starts, that I thought would be further developed but weren’t. So, this wasn’t a perfect book, but it certainly was in intriguing one, and if you enjoy magic realism, I think you might like this book.

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So, Anyway … by John Cleese

soanywayThis memoir by comedian John Cleese focuses on his early years, stopping just about the time he joins the Monty Python troupe that made him famous — though he does flash-forward to the future long enough to tell us a little about the 2014 Python live reunion show. He’s funny, as you would expect, sometimes acerbic, occasionally insightful. I didn’t learn anything startling or revealing here, but it was an enjoyable read with a few laugh-out-loud moments.

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