Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

Years ago, when I was teaching at our Seventh-day Adventist school, I had a student who was not SDA, but belonged to an even more conservative Christian group, who was a huge fan of Elisabeth Elliot’s books. Until I met this girl, I’d never heard of Elisabeth Elliot, her husband Jim Elliot, or the ill-fated mission to an isolated Ecuadoran tribe that led to the violent deaths of Jim Elliot and several other American missionaries in the 1950s. Elisabeth Elliot went on to become a celebrated author and speaker who devoted herself to keeping the memory of her husband, his fellow missionaries, and (what she and many others portrayed as) their martyrdom, alive.

At the time, I was not that interested in the story of how or why Jim Elliot and the others died; I was mostly intrigued that this woman writer, Elisabeth Elliot, was one of those conservative Christian women who saw no irony in writing and speaking widely about her faith while also promoting a traditionalist view of men’s and women’s roles within Christianity and within marriage. This apparent contradiction of women who don’t believe women should lead, but are willing to be leaders themselves (and clearly don’t “keep silent” in church) fascinated me then and now, but I didn’t think much more about it until I picked up Joan Thomas’s Five Wives, the 2019 Governor General’s Award winner for English Canadian fiction.

I found this book utterly engrossing, and I have so much to say about it. First, I’ll point out that the title is misleading, presumably for the sake of making a good title: while the five men who died did indeed leave behind five wives, only three of these wives are major characters in the novel, and several of the major viewpoint characters are not the wives but are people connected in other ways to the tragedy. That’s a nitpick, but one I want to get out of the way up front.

The author makes an interesting choice in fictionalizing a not only real, but relatively recent story. It’s tricky business writing fiction about real people, especially when either they or their children are still alive to read and have opinions about what you’ve written. Thomas keeps the names and identities of all the people involved in the original story intact, though she treats them as fictional characters by freely giving them thoughts and motivations the real people may not have had. But for their children and grandchildren, who are still living, she creates entirely fictional people who are not analogues of the real descendants of the missionaries, which gives her even more freedom to play around with and explore how this tragedy resonated through generations of these families.

Five Wives is one of those books that I’m always looking for and rarely find — a book that writes about a religious subculture, particularly that of evangelical Christianity, from a perspective both within and outside that subculture. That is, the writer’s perspective is much broader than that of her characters: we see what they could not or would not see — that their incursion into the world of the people they called the Auca (actually the Huaroni) was akin to an invasion, and their complicity with American oil companies in “opening up” these indigenous people’s territories was a cultural genocide. But she also portrays, realistically and believably, how completely the missionaries themselves — most of them anyway — believed in the truth of their mission, and believed they were truly called by God.

It’s rare to find a writer who writes about religion in way that so completely “gets” the subculture — this book is easy to compare to The Poisonwood Bible, which is also an excellent and brilliantly written book about missionaries and cultural imperialism, but Kingsolver, I would argue, does not understand evangelical Christianity from the inside the way Thomas obviously does.

I found this a thought-provoking and fascinating novel. If I have one criticism, it’s that so many characters are introduced that some perspectives and storylines don’t have time to be fleshed out as completely as I might have wished. But that’s about what I want as a reader, not what the writer was trying to accomplish. What Joan Thomas set out to do in this novel, she did brilliantly — so this is one of the years in which I agree wholeheartedly with the choice of the GG judges (I’m sure they’re hugely relieved to have my stamp of approval!)

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

Circe, by Madeline Miller

This is a great retelling of the myth of Circe from Greek mythology, most notably from the Odyssey and Odysseus’s stay on her island. It’s hard to write about gods, demigods, titans and mythic monsters in a way that feels relatable, but Miller has probably come closer here than most writers could, and I found myself engaged with Circe’s story.

And let’s just say, as you might guess, she has pretty good reasons for turning men into pigs.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been meaning for years to read some Terry Pratchett. Yes, I read Good Omens earlier this year, but that’s only about half Pratchett, and I wanted to try the Discworld books, because everyone whose literary taste I trust loves them and finds them both hilarious and insightful.

So I picked up Hogfather, because one of my students did it for her independent novel project and it’s sort of Christmas-themed (well, the Discworld version of Christmas), and people do say you can jump into the series at any point. And it’s true; I picked up what was going on quickly and wasn’t confused by the plot. But the humour and whimsicality of it was — well, the sort of thing that makes me say “Oh, that’s funny” rather than making me actually laugh. I wanted to love it more than I actually did, which is too bad. I recognize Pratchett was a great writer and understand why people love him, but I probably won’t be going back to his books.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy

Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney

Another Sally Rooney novel — this one released before Normal People, I think, and although her meticulous examination of the way people think and relate to each other is just as much on display here as in that novel, I didn’t like it as much. I didn’t find either the main character, Francis, a 21-year-old college student, or her friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi, to be particularly interesting people. Unlike Connell and Marianne in Normal People, I just couldn’t get engaged in these characters lives or care deeply about what happened to them. It’s well written, but just didn’t hit the spot for me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

Best of the Year; Best of the Decade

I’m looking back and doing my usual “Top Ten Books of the Year” list … and because everyone else has been doing it, and because I have these top ten lists going back far more than 10 years, I’m also thinking about 10 outstanding books I’d recommend from this whole decade. So here are both lists:

First of all — my Top Ten of 2019. These are in the order I read them, chronologically, not ranked bottom to top or anything. I read around 120 books this year, although there were several rereads (I re-read a couple of much loved series this year, and I obviously don’t consider rereads eligible for best-of lists). I’ve long since given up trying to rank them, and there’s always a level of arbitrariness. Going back through my book Pinterest board for this year, and these reviews, I found thirteen titles that really lingered in my mind long after reading them, and chose ten from those, but I could have easily gone with thirteen or even fifteen.

This year’s list includes four non-fiction (all audiobooks; I’ve decided that is the way to go for me for reading non-fiction) and six novels; there are four male writers and six women; three of my top ten books are by non-white writers (two of whom are indigenous). Those are the stats: here are the books, with links to my reviews:

  1. There There, by Tommy Orange. This book just took my breath away with its scope and brilliance.
  2. The Kingdom of Copper, by S.A. Chakraborty. The second volume of this trilogy was as good as the first, and I can’t wait for the conclusion!
  3. Fools and Mortals, by Bernard Cornwell. This one took me by surprise; I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.
  4. Unshelteredby Barbara Kingsolver. This was the one that was tied with several others for a possible spot on the list, and I think it made the cut finally because something about the emotional tone of the story lingers with me months after reading it.
  5. A Mind Spread Out on the Groundby Alicia Elliott. This is probably the book I’ve recommended to the most people this year.
  6. Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch. This sweeping Russian epic captivated me.
  7. The Differenceby Marina Endicott. I said these aren’t ranked, and they’re not, but if they were this would be #1. My most enjoyable and engrossing reading experience this year.
  8. Son of a Critchby Mark Critch. I knew this would be funny but had no idea how funny. My biggest advice with this one is, if you can, please get the audiobook with Mark reading it himself. It’s priceless.
  9. The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold. Powerful history giving voiceless, forgotten women a story.
  10. Eyes to the Wind, by Ady Barkan. Moving and insightful memoir, beautifully read by Bradley Whitford on the audiobook.

As for a Top Books of the Decade list … that was even harder. I could have just picked one from each year, but there were years I read more great, list-worthy books. And my basic metric for a book making the list is “am I still thinking about it months later?”, so in looking at the whole decade, I tended to favour books from earlier in the 2010s that still linger with me years later, but that tends to disadvantage those that I read more recently. In the end, I threw a couple of this year’s books on the decade list, but only time will tell if they’ve really earned their place there.

Without further ado, I give you:

Ten of Trudy’s Favourite Stand-Alone Novels of the 2010s:

  1. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  2. The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
  3. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
  4. Life After Lifeby Kate Atkinson
  5. Longbourn, by Jo Baker
  6. Frog Musicby Emma Donohue
  7. Turtles All the Way Downby John Green
  8. Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
  9. The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish
  10. The Differenceby Marina Endicott

Just to squeeze in some more books, I’m adding two sub-lists. Here are five of the best book series I read in the 2010s (though one was published much, much earlier and I only just discovered it a few years ago; another series is still not complete but I have faith that the third volume will fulfill the promise of the first two).

  1. The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett
  2. The Lindchester novels by Catherine Fox
  3. The “Small Change” series by Jo Walton
  4. The Harold Fry/Queenie Hennessy duology by Rachel Joyce
  5. The Daevabad Trilogy: City of Brass/Kingdom of Copper/third volume yet to come, by S.A. Chakraborty

Finally, although you know I read mostly fiction, I have read a lot of great non-fiction in the last decade also. Here are five of my best non-fiction reads from the last decade:

  1. Take This Bread, by Sara Miles
  2. Wildby Cheryl Strayed
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed
  4. Hunger, by Roxane Gay
  5. The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

For fans of my podcast (or book podcasts generally), you can listen to a conversation between me and my daughter Emma about some of our best books of 2019 here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s four Cazalet Chronicles – The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off — were great favourites of mine when they came out in the 1990s, and I read them all avidly, the first couple of volumes several times (rereading them as each new one came out and a few more times for good measure). They tell the story of a wealthy English family (but not Downton-Abbey-wealthy: the Cazalets made their money in trade) in the pre-, during and post-WW2 years, from 1937 to 1947. The original tetralogy is practically the definition of “sweeping family epic”: it covers the experiences of three generations of a large extended family, ranging with a wonderful omniscient voice through the perspectives of children, teenagers, the middle-aged and the elderly as their lives are impacted by the war and all the changes it brings.

There are so many things Howard does brilliantly in this series: wonderful characterization, brilliant description, note-perfect analysis of social mores and personal relationships and so much more, that all I can say is, if this sounds like the kind of thing you might like, pick up The Light Years (the first volume) and give it a try.

When I decided to collect a proper matching set of these books instead of the random assortment I had acquired over the years, I was shocked to learn there were, not the four books I’d read and loved many years ago, but five. Eighteen years after publishing Casting Off, and not long before her own death, Howard wrote a fifth volume that jumps ten years ahead of the end of the series (covering the years from 1956-1958) and tells us where the characters are at that point. So, of course I had to read that too.

As you might expect of a one-volume sequel to such a long and complex series, both set and written many years after the original, the fifth volume (All Change) is a mixed success. I did love revisiting the characters, and some of the changes that were coming to the Cazalets by the late 1950s (deaths of older characters, threat to the family business, potential loss of the old family home) are absolutely what might be expected 10 years after the end of the war. A way of life is coming to an end; some characters are able to move forward relatively happily with it, while others find themselves clinging to a time that will never return. All of that was appropriate and well-handled.

Where things go off the rails a bit in All Change is in Howard’s gallant attempt to corral her vast cast of characters. Some of them simply get left out or forgotten about in this last book (only the most glancing of references to Jessica Castle’s entire family, who got chapters and chapters in the original series despite not even being Cazalets). Howard has always written children’s points of view really well, but in this book she spends too much time writing scenes about the under-10 generation of children who were born between Casting Off and All Change (who readers don’t know or care about) at the expense of telling us more about the teenagers and young adults whose childhoods were chronicled in the original series and who we’re anxious to know more about. (A particularly egregious example is when Hugh’s son Wills, barely mentioned throughout the entire book, doesn’t make it for the big family reunion at the end of the book, and someone offhandedly mentions that it’s too bad Wills decided to spend Christmas with his girlfriend’s family — you know darn well Howard simply forgot Wills existed and tossed in that sentence when an editor reminded her of him).

The relationships among the family members would differ of course, in such a large extended family, and not everyone would keep in touch, but some of the distance between characters simply doesn’t make sense. Why would Polly have to introduce her husband to Aunt Rachel when Rachel was at their wedding — and in the nine or ten years since then, while they weren’t likely hanging out much, surely they would have seen each other once or twice? Why would Neville not recognize his own half-sister Juliette, when that branch of the family is not estranged from one another in any way? Yes, a young adult out living on his own might not see whole lot of his teenaged half-sister and might be shocked at how grown-up she now looks, but … not to the extent Neville is, and certainly not with the same results! (Don’t even get me started on the Neville/Juliette subplot — this is something an editor should have taken a firm line on and simply said “You can’t do that; it makes no sense.”) Yes, catching up with the lives of so many different characters was probably near-impossible, but there were so many missed opportunities and so many pages wasted on characters we didn’t care about, that it was sometimes frustrating.

All this sounds like I didn’t enjoy All Change or didn’t think it was a good conclusion to the series, but that’s not really true — I enjoyed visiting this world one more time, and I’m in awe of what Howard accomplished, even if not every character resolution was exactly what I’d have hoped for. It’s a great series and one I’m sure I’ll reread again sometime a few more years down the road. Rereading it made for a wonderful December project.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Queer and Pleasant Danger, by Kate Bornstein

A Queer and Pleasant Danger, apart from its great title and subtitle (“The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today”), has a unique distinction on my virtual bookshelves: when I first started creating my now entirely out-of-hand “want to read” list on Goodreads, the very first book I added to that list was A Queer and Pleasant Danger. Mostly because I liked the title and subtitle, and felt like I needed to understand trans people’s experience better. I couldn’t easily get hold of it when I first heard of it, and I forgot about it for awhile until I realized I could get the audiobook on Audible. So just to cross that first of 339 want-to-read books off my list, I got it.

You know by now that my preference is to listen to memoirs on audio, read by the author. This one is not read by Bornstein, but by a reader whose kind of snarky-sounding delivery pairs well with Bornstein’s kind of snarky-sounding prose, which was both apt and, sometimes, annoying. This was actually a book I wished I had read on paper not on audio, because there are parts I would have liked to skip or skim (in fact, there are parts where the author warns the reader they may want to skip, and boy, did I ever) and that’s harder to do in an audiobook.

Kate Bornstein, a trans woman who maybe identifies as nonbinary or gender fluid (she was in her 60s when she wrote this book and says that she doesn’t fully identify as either male or female though I believe she still uses female pronouns) is a funny, sarcastic writer who has been on quite a personal journey. As is often the case with memoirs, the writer doesn’t always write as much about the thing I happen to be curious about (the spiritual journey from Judaism to Scientology to what seems to be a sort of neo-pagan Goddess-worship at the time she wrote the book) and a lot, in great detail, about graphic details of her personal life that I’d rather skim over. This includes not just her sex life in general or what it’s like to transition via genital surgery — I’m famously squeamish about reading about medical details and prefer the “draw a veil over it” approach to reading sex scenes, but that’s just me. It also — and this was the point where I really started skipping — includes the fact that she is into S&M and had a year-long “master/slave” relationship where she was the consensual “slave” of two other women — something I have a really hard time wrapping my head around. However in the bigger cause of trying to better understand people whose life experience is very, very different from mine, it was certainly an informative read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- memoir