Monthly Archives: February 2013

Most of Me, by Robyn Levy (LentBooks #2)

mostofmeDuring Lent, when I’m reading non-fiction, I like picking up a lot of memoirs, whether or not there’s anything religious about them. Most of Me does not tackle religious questions but it deals with the big issues that religion exists to answer: suffering, pain, death and how to take pleasure in life and relationships with the knowledge that degeneration and death are inevitable.

Robin Levy was a visual artist, writer and broadcaster busy with a career, marriage and a teenage daughter when several years of growing depression led to an unexpected diagnosis: she had Parkinson’s Disease. Only a few months after that diagnosis, while Levy was still adapting to life with a degenerative disease, she was hit with another blow: she also had breast cancer, and ended up needing a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. Dealing with two such severe health problems at once tested every resource Levy had, yet she emerged from the cancer ordeal and faced her Parkinson’s diagnosis with courage and humour — and a lot of support from family and a great team of friends.

Family is important here: Levy deals with a daughter who is going through the angst of the early teen years (oh how well I know it!!!) while her mother is not well enough to parent in the way she’d like to. Levy’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s not long before she was, and her mother also had cancer (I was surprised that after the initial diagnosis, so little attention was given to her mother’s cancer: it seemed quite serious, but was scarcely mentioned again). Friends also feature prominently: anyone going through a serious health crisis should be so lucky as to have friends like Robyn Levy’s.

Many years ago now, I read Anne Lamott’s story of how she wrote her novel Hard Laughter after asking a librarian (when Lamott’s father was diagnosed with a brain tumour) “Where are the funny books about cancer?” and getting an odd look in return. Obviously if she were asking that question today, the librarian would be able to point her to Most of Me, a very funny — and moving — book about cancer … and Parkinson’s … and being human, with all the frailty and fallibility that entails.

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Between, by Kerry Schafer

betweenIt’s always exciting to see a friend’s book in print and for me this has rarely been more true than with Kerry Schafer’s Between. I read two early drafts of this book while Kerry was writing it and apart from being blown away by the amount of revision she was willing to do to get the book to where she needed it to be (the published version is barely recognizable as the same book that I read in early draft form) I am so glad to see this book released by a major publisher so that it will get into lots and lots of hands so more people can read this truly enjoyable story.

Between is a fantasy novel that starts in the world of urban fantasy — Vivian Maylor is an ER doctor whose life seems relatively normal until a patient spontaneously combusts in front of her eyes — and quickly moves into the realm of high fantasy as  Vivian reawakens a long-buried ability to move from the everyday world (“Wakeworld”) into the Dreamworld through a place known as “Between.” Things get complicated when a man she recognizes from her dreams turns up in a local bookstore … but that’s only the beginning. When Vivian moves into the world of Between, she quickly discovers that being a princess in a fairy-tale castle is not all it’s cracked up to. She has a job to do and no idea how to do it … or even how to avoid getting killed by an evil sorceress or possibly the sorceress’s pet dragon. Along the way she uncovers the dark secrets of her own tangled family tree, and has to find her own courage.

I found Vivian’s journey intriguing and hard to put down. Between is the first in a trilogy, so fantasy fans who pick this one up and enjoy it will have plenty to sink their teeth into!

 

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Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (Second-Chance Books #3)

prideandprejudiceThis is sort of a deviation on the second-chance books list, because it’s not a book I disliked or was bored with when I first read it. I came a little late to the Austen party, reading all her novels in a single stretch in my mid-twenties. While I enjoyed them quite a lot, I never became the kind of hardcore Austenophile who rereads the books over and over and can quote passages verbatim. I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed here) some spinoffs, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Death comes to Pemberley, but it wasn’t until I got totally swept up in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a fantastic modern-day adaptation of Pride and Prejudice reimagined as a YouTube vlog, that I felt I really wanted to reread the original.

So far, it’s on track with all my second-chance rereads in that I enjoyed it more on the reread than the first time around (and that’s given that I did like it the first time around, in this case). Having thought so much about how the story translates (and what parts of it don’t translate) to a modern setting while watching Lizzie Bennet, I was reading it with a pretty analytical eye, but I still got caught up in the story and in the characterization, which I think is just so good. My daughter, who’s almost 13, has been reading it too and finding the language bogging her down quite a bit (it’s the first 19th century novel she’s attempted to read), but I find as I get older that the language in older novels is less of a barrier than it used to be. It certainly slows down the reading process, but I’m coming to think that’s not a bad thing, as it enables me to spend more time with the characters and appreciate little witticisms that might fly by in a more fast-paced novel. Pride and Prejudice is wickedly witty. And, like most novels of that era (but especially so because it’s written by a woman) it ought to be read regularly by modern young women who like to proclaim that they’re “not feminists.” While the tone is almost always lighthearted, underlying it is the chilling reality of how completely circumscribed women’s choices were in the nineteenth century, and how for middle and upper-class women, marriage was the only respectable career imaginable, and the social and economic considerations attached to marriage so constricting that the woman’s own happiness was often little more than an afterthought.

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Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I’ve Crossed, by Jay Bakker (LentBooks 2013 #1)

faithdoubtAs I do most years, I’ve laid aside most of my usual fiction reading during Lent to pick up works of theology, Biblical studies, spiritual memoir or otherwise vaguely-religious (or sometimes specifically irreligious) non-fiction. This year, the start of Lent happily coincided with the release of a book I’d been waiting for: Jay Bakker’s Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking With an Unknown God.

There’s a lot of material here that will be quite familiar to anyone who’s read Bakker’s Fall to Gracewhich I read quite recently. Once again, Bakker presents a theology that grows organically out of his own messy life experiences, a theology centred firmly on God’s grace, interpreted in the broadest possible sense. He has a particular emphasis on including gays and lesbians in God’s grace, an emphasis that has made Bakker a bit of a pariah in some conservative evangelical circles where he was formerly celebrated. In this book Bakker challenges other Christians, particularly Christian leaders, who may be secretly affirming of the LGBT community but afraid to come out and say so because of the damage it will do their ministry or the attention it will divert from other important causes they support. To Jay Bakker, this unwillingness to speak out is sin, a sin he is not afraid to call by its right name. That’s the part of this book that will stay with me longest, because it hits closest to home: I am not a religious leader, but I am a member of a conservative Christian denomination and I disagree with my church’s teaching about homosexuality. How great is my responsibility to speak out? How wrong am I when I keep silent?

Beyond this specific focus, the book explores the subjects of faith and doubt more generally, particularly in context of the Bible. Jay Bakker’s own understanding of Biblical criticism has brought him to a point where he can discount difficult passages in Paul’s letters by suggesting that that letter, or that passage, does not originate with Paul but is the work of a later author. This, of course, is mainstream Biblical scholarship among more liberal Christians but is anathema to conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, who believe in the inspiration of all parts of Scripture equally and thus have to expend a great deal of mental energy harmonizing apparently contradictory passages. Viewed in this context, Jay Bakker’s crossing of lines may appear to be a fairly conventional story: a conservative Christian crossing the line into a more liberal approach to faith and sacred texts. What makes his reflections worth reading, to me, is Bakker’s celebration of doubt as an essential element of faith. He’s not afraid to contradict Biblical writer James, who condemns doubt as a bad thing: in Bakker’s view, it’s OK to live in uncertainty. There’s far too much certainty among both conservatives and liberals, and as someone who spends a fair bit of my own spiritual journey wandering between faith and doubt, I find Jay Bakker’s writing invigorating even when I don’t agree with every conclusion he reaches.

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The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin

aviatorswifeAnother solid historical novel from Melanie Benjamin, once again, in the tradition of her books Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, taking a first-person view on the life of a woman best known for her connection to a famous man. As with the two previous books, Benjamin reveals her subject — in this case Anne Morrow Lindbergh, writer, aviator, and wife of Charles Lindbergh — to be a fascinating woman in her own right.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life has all the raw material necessary for a great novel: set in a time of tremendous change and social upheaval (the novel begins in 1920s America and crossing the globe over the next decades, including a stop in Nazi Germany — the Lindberghs, like many of their time, expressed cautious admiration for at least some of Hitler’s goals and accomplishments long before the worst of his crimes were made public), linked to the career of her famous husband, and scarred by a life-altering tragedy, the kidnapping and murder of their twenty-month-old son. The Lindberghs were among the first people to bear the full brunt of being twentieth-century American celebrities, with all the adulation and loss of privacy that implies. The horrific crime of which they were victims is the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of celebrity: allow the public access to your life (albeit unwillingly, as was often the case with the Lindberghs who would clearly have preferred a more private life), and that access may turn into an attack.

Against the backdrop of this huge story — not just a couple but a nation being dragged through a century of change and upheaval — Benjamin sets the intensely personal, introspective story of a shy young woman, uncertain of herself and her own gifts, whose name becomes linked to that of an immensely powerful man long before she has any chance of learning who she is in her own right. Indeed, she lives in a society where, despite the pre-feminist example of her strong-minded mother, nobody expects Anne to forge an independent identity. She is expected to be an extension of her husband, and for a long time that is exactly what she is, even as she struggles both against the expectations of that role and against the contradictions of Charles Lindbergh’s often chilly personality. She finds her husband harder to love as he grows older and more inflexible, and this distance between them grows alongside Anne’s own efforts to establish an independent identity. In the end, with the publication of several books (including her best-known, Gift from the Sea), she does this so successfully that, although she and Charles Lindbergh remained married until his death, they lived essentially separate lives for the last few decades of their marriage.

Once again, Melanie Benjamin has done a skillful job of bringing a real woman to life from the pages of history — and, as a bonus, has made me determined to read Gift from the Sea, a book I’ve never gotten around to reading before.

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Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, translated by Isabel Hapgood (Second-Chance Books #2)

lesmiscoverThe next book I decided to tackle in my quest to reread long-forgotten (or never-finished) classics was Les Miserables. My first exposure to this book was in high school French class, when I was given a very, very condensed and super-abridged version to read for a sort of optional-enrichment novel. We used to have these extra books to take home and try to read in French and then we were supposed to give the French teacher a precis of the plot. Remember, this was in the old days before Google so I couldn’t just look up the plot of Les Miserables online. I was stuck trying to piece together the story with my Grade 10 French which was quite the challenge even though the book was basically a children’s version of Les Mis. Oddly, I remember exactly where in the school I was standing, next to one of those big stand-up metal radiators in the hall, when I gave my French teacher my plot summary. Probably because the misery of the moment was so etched on my brain. “So, there’s this girl, Fantine … and … I think she dies? Or something? And Cosette is … her daughter? I think. Oh, and there’s this guy, Jean Valjean, and he’s in prison or something….”

Suffice it to say that about 10 years later when I got to see the stage musical, I came to it with a pretty fresh and unprejudiced mind, having no real sense of the plot. Of course, as I’ve related elsewhere, I fell completely in love with the musical, which I saw at least twice, possibly three times. Sometime during this same era, in my 20s, I decided to read the novel in English. I’m pretty sure now that what I read then was still an abridged version, but given that the unabridged version is something like 1400 pages, even the abridged version was pretty hefty. I ploughed through it (again, it’s amazing how location-specific my memories attached to this book are, because I vividly remember reading part of it on a Go-Train heading from Oshawa into Toronto). My main impression was that it was boring and confusing, and while I continued to be a huge fan of the musical I didn’t really like the book based upon that first reading.

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Finton Moon, by Gerard Collins

fintonmoonThis one has been on my to-read list for awhile — a lot of people raved about Gerard Collins’s first book, Moonlight Sketches, which won the 2012 Ches Crosbie Barristers Award for Fiction — in other words, it was judged by many smart people to be the best work of fiction published in Newfoundland in 2012. However, Moonlight Sketches was a short-story collection, and I have a well-known history of being unable to appreciate short stories as well as I should, so I decided to wait for Collins’s novel, which was released late last year to great critical acclaim.

Finton Moon is a beautifully-written coming-of-age story set in outport Newfoundland in the 1970s — an in-between era when communities like the fictional town of Darwin in which the story takes place are connected with the modern world by highways and television yet still have a sense of being stuck in the past. That setting, augmented by the brilliance of Collins’s writing, gives the book the sense of being both deeply rooted in the real world yet also set in an otherworldly place. I suppose the book could best be described as “Newfoundland magic realism” since many of the things that happen — primarily Finton’s mysterious ability to heal his own and other people’s wounds and even, perhaps, to raise the dead — are beyond the realm of strict realism. Yet places, people, conversations in the novel are as real and believable as the people, the scene and the snatches of overheard conversation at your own neighbourhood corner store.

The novel follows Finton from childhood, when he first discovers his strange ability to heal, up to young adulthood when he graduates from high school and leaves Darwin behind — forever, he hopes. The novels is richly populated with memorable characters — Finton’s family, his friends and enemies, the girl he loves and the one who loves him, the mysterious old crone who watches him with perhaps eerie interest and her beautiful but unbalanced daughter who gives Finton his sexual initiation. No matter who he interacts with, Finton never feels that he belongs in Darwin: in the end he is driven to leave in hopes of finding a place to belong, yet realizes that he can never fully escape the place and the people he came from.

A familiar enough conclusion for a coming-of-age novel, especially one about a bright and talented kid in a small and insular community. Yet over and above the magic-realism twists, Collins does something special with this material. My only criticism of this book — and I’m not sure whether it is a criticism — is that while I’ve heard others say that they raced through it and couldn’t put it down, I found Finton Moon a slow read, a book to savour rather than one to devour. I could put it down, and did, coming back again and again to dip into the world of Darwin. I think this is probably due to the fact that for me it was a book driven almost entirely by character and setting rather than by plot. While there are mysteries to be solved in Darwin — including a murder that haunts Finton’s family throughout his adolescence — the pleasure, for me, was never in reading to see how things would turn out, but rather to see how Finton himself would turn out — whether he would survive growing up in Darwin, and where life might take him afterwards.

This is a rich, rewarding novel that is well worth the read.

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