Monthly Archives: October 2013

September-October Book Reviews

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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

signatureofallthingsOh, I loved this book so much. It’s right up there Cathy Buchanan’s The Painted Girls and ahead of Amy Bloom’s Away and Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty as one of the best works of historical fiction I’ve read lately. Gilbert’s main character, Alma, is a quiet woman living a quiet life in nineteenth-century America, but it’s by no means a conventional life. Her father, a genuine self-made man, is hugely wealthy and runs a vast botanical/pharmaceutical business. Her mother is a quiet genius who gives Alma the education her father never had. Alma has a ferocious intelligence and becomes a gifted botanist in her own right, but she also wants more than her secure home life offers — love, passion, true companionship. Finally someone comes into her world who seems to offer the possibility of all three — and Alma can’t resist. As a result, her life is turned upside down.

In creating Alma and her world, Gilbert resists all the easy stereotypes writers fall into when writing about smart, strong women in ages past. Alma is brilliant but she is also completely and believably a woman of her time, sharing the assumptions and the cultural baggage of the world in which she has grown up. It takes tremendous courage and effort for her to finally move beyond that world, but she does, and the results are satisfying. Not in a romantic, happily-ever-after sense, but in more of a “the best revenge is living well” kind of sense. Alma does live, and lives well.

The novel covers a huge span of time — it begins in Alma’s father Henry’s childhood and ends when Alma herself is a very old woman — and as a result there are long passages where Gilbert has to tell, rather than show, what happens. For the most part she handles these passages well, using the device of listing a number of vivid things that either Henry or Alma saw, or experienced, or did during those years, giving us tiny vignettes and slices of scenes that flip past like a slideshow as we move from one to another of the novel’s key scenes. By the very end the device wears a little thin, as many readers may feel that the story goes on too long after what is probably its climax, and summarizes too much detail about Alma’s later years. But this was a flaw I was more than ready to forgive in a book that charmed me as utterly as this one did. Great, great historical fiction. I loved it.

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Good in Bed and Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

certaingirlsFor a long time now I’ve been reading great stuff by and about Jennifer Weiner. She has a lot of strong opinions about why women writers get less respect than men, and why writers of commercial fiction get less respect than writers of literary fiction, and where and how we draw those lines, something that kind of fascinates me too. (If you want a flavour of what I like about Weiner, read this). I got the impression from reading about her, and reading articles and things she’d written, that Weiner was a writer of good-quality, highly readable, contemporary commercial fiction, but I figured the best way to find that out would be to read one of her books myself.

So I picked up Good in Bed, Weiner’s first novel about Cannie Shapiro, a single woman in her late 20s who’s horrified when she discovers that her ex-boyfriend has revealed their bedroom secrets (and paid tribute to her plus-sized body) in a national magazine article titled “Loving a Larger Woman.” The horror of that discovery sends Cannie on a roller-coaster journey of self-exploration which does have a happy ending, but not without some detours into dark places. It’s a fun book, certainly, and a funny one, but there’s depth and real heart there too. However, I liked the sequel, Certain Girls, even better, picking up the story as it does several years later while Cannie is trying to raise a teenaged daughter. Since I’m raising teenagers myself now, Certain Girls may have appealed more because I could relate to it more. But I liked both of them (although there were some Very Sad Moments in Certain Girls and you should have a box of Kleenex handy; don’t say I didn’t warn you). And I’d definitely pick up another Jennifer Weiner when I’m in the mood for a well-written but light-hearted read.

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Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

divergentetcI read this series at the urging of my 13-year-old daughter Emma, who really enjoyed the first two books and wanted me to read them so we could experience the third volume together when it came out this month. The Divergent series is a futuristic dystopia with a teenaged female heroine, very much in the Hunger Games mold. The organizing principle in this world is that everyone is organized into communities, or “factions,” based not on race or religion but on a single dominant personality trait. The five factions are Abnegation, Candor, Amity, Erudite and Dauntless (I can’t tell you how much it bugged me that three of those are nouns and two are adjectives!!!) with each valuing, respectively, self-denial, honesty, peace, intelligence and courage above all else. Each faction has a specific role to play in society but there is much dislike and distrust among the factions. Teenagers are raised by their parents in their faction and most continue in the faction they were raised, but at age 16 they have to go through a choosing ceremony and some young people switch loyalties at that point and join a different faction, severing ties to their families and their old faction.

This gives the series a convenient starting point — Beatrice Prior’s Choosing Ceremony, at which both she and her twin brother choose to leave their parents’ Abnegation lifestyle behind. It also provides some interesting discussion with young people reading the books: what characteristics define you? can anyone really be summed up by a single main character train? what happens if you decide to leave behind the cultural values with which you were raised?

I found the series fast-paced and enjoyable, and quite easy to read. There were places where I thought the author’s world-building was a little perfunctory (though some of the apparent shoddiness in the first book, like the fact that the entire story focuses on a single city —  a post-apocalyptic Chicago — without any reference to what’s happening in the rest of the world, turns out to have a good explanation that’s an important plot point later, so I was able to forgive that). Young fans have had a lot to say about the ending of the third book, in which the author makes a risky and unpopular choice in the fate of her main character. Emma said she was OK with it, but I’m not sure I was — not so much because of how I felt about the characters, but because of how I feel about the conventions of the young-adult genre. I do realize authors have the right to play around with genre conventions and I think I understand why Roth felt this ending was the right one, perhaps the only possible ending, for this story. But I’m still not sure I’m OK with it. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.

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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer

impossiblelivesThe description of this one reminded me a lot of another new release this year, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I loved so much. In The Impossible Lives, instead of a woman coming back to relive the same life over and over, Greta Wells gets sent back (via electro-convulsive therapy which she is receiving as treatment for depression) to different versions of her own life. She lives in 1980s New York and has just lost her brother to the AIDS epidemic; she awakes from a shock treatment and finds herself in 1918 New York, with her brother alive and well but a different plague — the Spanish Flu — sweeping the city. Another treatment, and she’s in 1941 New York, on the brink of yet another war. Some things are consistent — she always lives in the same place, though the neighbourhood changes around her; her family members and close friends appear in each version of her life, but though she sees similarities, there are differences too, both in the people Greta loves and how she relates to them.

What makes this particular time-travel tale interesting is that although we see it all from the perspective of 1980s Greta, it becomes clear that 1918 Greta and 1941 Greta (all of whom are receiving ECT) are time-travelling too, spending time in each other’s worlds and trying to change things — often, to “fix” things — while they’re there. This creates a certain amount of confusion (sometimes for the reader too). Ultimately, Greta must decide which version of her life she wants to stay in, and how she can best function there.

This isn’t the best time-travel novel I’ve ever read, but it was intriguing, and well worth reading.

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Living in a Man’s World: Lesson’s I’ve Learned, by Bonita Joyner Shields

livingmanworld_newI’ve known Bonita Joyner Shields for several years within the Adventist publishing world, where I’ve often had dealings with her in a professional capacity. I know her best as an excellent writer and editor: until her book Living in a Man’s World came out I either didn’t know or had forgotten that she began her career in pastoral ministry. Living in a Man’s World offers some insights into her experience as a woman in the male-centric world of Adventist ministry, and shares tips and suggestions from women who are trying to break through the glass ceiling in any traditionally male-dominated profession. Shields writes with gentle and often self-deprecating humour and a very positive tone.

In fact, the tone was so positive throughout that I found myself wondering whether there was an alternate, “secret” version of this book that wouldn’t have gotten published by a church publisher. I’m sure there were more painful stories Shields chose not to tell, stories that would have reflected more negatively on her male co-workers and superiors. While this is an insightful and helpful book, it’s also a careful one. She presents her experience of church employment as having been generally very positive despite some challenging experiences, and while I’m sure this is essentially true, I couldn’t help feeling there was an “untold story” here. But this is not a tell-all memoir; it’s more of a how-to guide based on personal experience, providing guidance for women in similar work situations.

Some feminist readers may be disappointed that Shields’s approach to male-dominated power structures is as conciliatory as it is. For example, while she served as a woman in ministry and clearly supports the ministry of women within the Adventist church, she does not address the ordination issue head-on (it is discussed in an Appendix). The book is not about changing power structures, which may be frustrating for some readers, but again, it’s important to keep the purpose, the publisher, and the audience in mind. This is a book about working with and within existing power structures. Shields’s insights will be helpful not only to women in the ministry but perhaps to women in other traditionally male-dominated work cultures as well.

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Calling Dr. Laura, by Nicole Georges

callingdrlauraNow this is something I almost never review because I almost never read them … graphic novels! Except for Maus of course, which was a huge favourite of mine. But I love memoir, and I gave my cousin, who loves graphic novels, this “graphic memoir” by Nicole Georges for a birthday gift, and asked to borrow and read it after she was done with it.

It’s Georges’ story, told comic-book style, of coming to terms with a dysfunctional family background that includes a series of lies about her father. Essentially she grew up believing her father was dead, only to learn as a young adult that he’d been alive all along. The book is also about coming out, relating to her mother and sister and various girlfriends, and attempting to make peace with her past. I enjoyed the story and loved Georges’ drawing style, but there were times when I found the flow of the narrative jumpy and disjointed, and I don’t know whether that’s due to the graphic novel format or whether I would have found the same thing if she’d written a traditional memoir.

If you like graphic novels that aren’t just about superheroes, and/or if you like dysfunctional family memoirs, definitely check this one out!

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