Monthly Archives: February 2014

Margot, by Jillian Cantor

margotMargot is a simply-written story with a daring premise: what if Anne Frank’s older sister Margot didn’t die with her mother and sister in Bergen-Belsen, but secretly escaped and survived the war to reinvent herself in America. As the book opens, Margot is living in Philadephia under the name Margie Franklin, working as a legal secretary, pretending to be a Gentile and carefully hiding her concentration-camp tattoo. When the award-winning movie based on her sister’s famous diary hits the big screen and everyone around her is talking about it, Margot is finally forced to confront her hidden past.

Margot is interesting as a what-if story, and also as an exploration of the many different ways in which a person can be “in hiding.” Margot is more free in Philadelphia than she was in the Secret Annexe, but she is still not free as long as she has to hide her identity and her past. Given the heaviness of the subject matter, the book is perhaps lighter than a reader might expect — not “light” in the sense of being funny, but “light” in the sense that, as a few reviewers have suggested, the author’s style sometimes seems more suited to young-adult fiction or even romance than to a weighty historical novel reimagining a well-known true story. It was certainly a quick read, and while I didn’t find it by any means flawless, it was certainly an interesting way to explore a familiar story.

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City of God: Faith in the Streets, by Sara Miles

cityofgodI just love Sara Miles. I love her like I love Anne Lamott or Nadia Bolz-Weber — as an unconventional, sassy-mouthed Christian woman writer who models for me how to be a Christian engaged with the contemporary world. Miles’s Christianity won’t be for everyone, especially for the more conservative reader — she’s a lesbian member of an affirming Episcopalian congregation in San Francisco, and her mental image of God’s table is one that is radically inclusive and holds a place for everyone, even for those who don’t necessarily wear the label “Christian.” What I’ve always found moving and inspiring in her work is her engagement with people around her, particularly with the everyday people she encounters in her urban neighbourhood. Her first spiritual memoir, Take This Bread, tells about how almost immediately after her own surprising (mostly to her) conversion, she began a food pantry in her local church that reached out the community. City of God continues that story of urban ministry by telling the story of the people Sara Miles encounters on the streets of the Mission district during one Ash Wednesday, when she and several other church people head out into the public spaces to bring ashes to the people. 

When I read stories like this I get so excited, and I want to commit myself in radical new ways to serving God’s people on the streets of the city. And while there’s always more I can do in that direction, I have to keep reminding myself that I actually already have a day job where I am daily in contact with people from every imaginable walk of life, many of them in very great need, and that I need to be more open to listening, being present and connecting with the people I am blessed to encounter every day — my students. Like Sara Miles, I’m blessed to already be living right where God has called me to minister: my challenge is to apply what I learn from Miles and other Christian writers that inspire me — apply it not to some imaginary idealized ministry I might be involved in some day, but to the work that I’m called to do right here and now.

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Minister Without Portfolio, by Michael Winter

ministerwithoutportfolioMichael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is another of those books — like Alice McDermott’s Someone — that I can’t  help admiring for its literary virtuosity, yet that left me with some reservations. As with Someone and other such novels, I’m left to struggle with whether my reservations have more to do with Winter’s writing or with me as a reader. Certainly the book is very compelling at times; Winter is a master of the small detail, the casual phrase that reveals more than pages of exposition could do. There’s a certain hapless charm to his main character, Henry Hayward, a man in his thirties who seems to be just drifting through his life until an incident in Afghanistan (where Henry is working as a civilian contractor with the Canadian military) costs a friend his life. Henry blames himself (not without some cause) for the death, and begins a slow process of trying to build a life for himself back in Newfoundland that is intentional rather than accidental. Though there were times when the story moved very slowly, that’s not something I mind if it’s well told, and there is a wealth of beautiful detail here.

That said, there were also times when the author’s literary flourishes detracted from the story rather than adding to it, particularly with the use of dialogue that doesn’t sound as if it was ever spoken by any real person, much less the character in whose mouth it’s placed. Henry, as a main character, can be hard to get a handle on, though the small Southern Shore community around him is populated by vividly realized minor characters. I also didn’t understand some of Winter’s choices with point of view — the story sticks almost exclusively to a third-person-limited narration from Henry’s point of view, yet there were a couple of occasions when we were dropped into another character’s perspective for a chapter and then just as quickly taken back out again, for no reason I could discern.

I think the best way I could characterize my experience of reading this book is “uneven” — I certainly enjoyed it greatly at times, and felt distant from the story and characters at other times — a distance that may be intentional, but that tempered my enjoyment of this obviously well-written book.

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Hild, by Nicola Griffith


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Hild is the kind of work of historical fiction that can’t be discussed without using words like “epic.” Several hundred pages long, this weighty tome tells the story of the woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby, seventh-century British abbess. Nicola Griffith sketches Hild’s life and world in such painstaking detail that by the end of the book the main character is probably no more than twenty years old, with much of an eventful life ahead of her — so it’s likely this book will be the first of a trilogy, at least. In terms of its depth and scope as a historical novel I can’t compare this to anything other than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. While I didn’t find Griffith’s writing as compelling or readable as Mantel’s, I think, on reflection, it’s a fair comparison.

In fact I found this a very slow read at first. Griffith brings us into a world most of us, even avid readers of historical fiction, know little about — the world of early medieval Britain. Several hundred years after the Romans and before the Normans, this Britain is a world of multiple kings and chieftains, warring tribes and competing religions. Griffith is the kind of writer who has really done her research and renders this world in rich and minute detail. That level of detail, along with hundreds of Anglo-Saxon names and the political details of which king is allied with which and who is fighting whom, rise up and threaten to overwhelm the reader (this reader, anyway) in the early pages. I struggled to keep straight who was whom, which word meant what, and how I should pronounce people’s names in my head (I made the executive-level decision early on that even if the writer tells us that Gwladus was pronounced something like Oo-we-lad-us, for the sake of my own sanity I would have to think of the character as Gladys if I was ever going to get through the book. One example of many).

So, a very slow start as I got used to the characters, their names and the world in which they lived. But it was worth the time and effort, and by the time I was halfway through the book I was immersed in the challenges Hild faces as the niece of a king, a girl who has been set aside from birth as a seer. She has an important but loosely defined role at her uncle’s court and Hild is really the story of her discovering how to fill that role, which is constantly changing. Her later role, as abbess of a Christian community, is still far in the future as of the end of this book; she has been baptized when her uncle decided to accept Christianity, but the change from worshipping Woden to worshipping Christ is a purely political one for Edwin, who hopes to be “over-king of all the Anglisc.” Hild’s own spirituality finds its root not in the worship of one god over another but in something deeper that she describes as “the pattern,” a pattern she sees in the natural world all around her.

There are so many things Griffith does well in this book that I couldn’t enumerate them all, but I like the fact — despite all the extra work it means for me as a reader — that she manages to create Hild’s world as a world completely other than our own. Not that there’s nothing here we can relate to; the characters are recognizably human and believable, but I was constantly being reminded that these were people who lived in a different world, well over a thousand years ago. This is particularly evident when Hild encounters her first Christian priests: their trick of making symbols on paper that can carry a message to someone far away seems very strange to her, although she is quick to grasp its usefulness. She is also puzzled by their concept of “sin”; she understands oathbreaking, since her world is one in which everything is predicated on loyalty to one’s lord, but the general concept of sin is meaningless to her. Hild is not a quick or easy read, but it’s a rich and vivid journey into an unfamiliar world. I will definitely be reading the sequel.

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The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

roundhouseLike much of Louise Erdrich’s work, The Round House is set on an American Indian reservation, exploring with realism, humour and depth the world of the contemporary Native American. Or, almost contemporary — The Round House is set in the 1980s. The narrator, 13-year-old Joe, is living a comfortable life as the son of a Bazil, a native judge and Geraldine, who is in charge of the tribal records office. When Geraldine is the victim of a brutal rape, she withdraws from her husband, son and community, refusing to talk about the crime. Despite her silence, it’s not long before everyone figures out who raped Geraldine — the more pressing question is whether the man can ever be prosecuted. The Round House points up the prevalence of rapes of Indian women by white men and the difficulty of bringing such cases to justice because of tangly questions of jurisdiction. On a more intimate level, though, it’s the story of a teenage boy coming of age in the context of a close-knit family and community, dealing with the trauma that strikes his family, and figuring out what “justice” looks like — which, in the world of this novel, doesn’t always mean following the letter of the law. I found this a compelling book, well-written as is always the case with Erdrich and, if not exactly enjoyable because of the painful subject matter, certainly powerful.

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Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

fangirlThis was such a fun, page-turning book. I gave Emma Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell’s other novel, for Christmas (I still haven’t read E&P but will review it when I do). Then she wanted to read Fangirl and I read it right after her. Like many of the stories enjoyed by Emma and girls her age (13), this one features characters several years older — the story is about Cath and her sister Wren starting their first year of college. Parents of younger teens should be aware, then, that there will be reference to sex and drinking and all those things young adults do at college, which will provide lots of wonderful opportunities for those heart-to-heart talks your kids just love it when you have with them. From that perspective, Cath is a good heroine for the younger reader, since her nerdiness and social anxiety keep her out of the partying lifestyle that her twin sister enthusiastically embraces. (The negative consequences of Wren’s partying are clearly shown, too, which is a nice touch).

This is a funny, sweet coming-of-age story with a lovely little romance, a complicated and believable family situation, and an interesting exploration of a young girl who is smart and capable academically, but often socially overwhelmed by college life. It’s also interesting as a writer’s coming of age story — Cath is a writer of fanfic (she writes online slash fiction about a series called the Simon Snow books, which are a pretty obvious parody of both the Harry Potter and Twilight books, two series that have spawned obsessive online fandoms and plenty of fanfic). When Cath wins a much-coveted spot in a seminar taught by an acclaimed novelist, she discovers that despite her thousands of online followers who wait with bated breath for the next installment of her story, fanfic gets no respect in college. Her teacher pushes her to try writing something different and Cath resists. It’s also interesting that the great, heart-breaking betrayal Cath has to face in this novel involves not sex but writing.

I highly recommend this book for any reader, with the usual caution to parents of younger teen readers that, while there’s nothing remotely graphic in here, there is “adult subject matter” appropriate to the age of the characters.

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