Monthly Archives: September 2017

Of Mess and Moxie, by Jen Hatmaker


Awhile back I was having a podcast conversation with a couple of very smart, well-read, theologically-aware clergymen of different backgrounds, about books that have inspired us (Seriously, click the link and listen — it’s really good!). While they tossed around Jurgen Motlmann and Richard Rohr, I sustained that the writers whose work most sustained me are women writers — mostly fairly liberal Christian women, not theologians but memoirists and essayists, who are able to bring self-deprecating humour and wry honesty to their discussion of the spiritual life. Anne Lamott, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, Sara Miles — these are my gurus. For a lot of Christian women, Jet Hatmaker would also be on that list. I’ve enjoyed her online presence for awhile, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read.

Hatmaker writes like a nice Southern preacher’s wife who knows she doesn’t quite fit the mold of nice southern preacher’s wife. She writes about faith, family, church, our messy lives and the “moxie” it takes to rise above the mess (or at least live amidst it). For some reason, I like her better as. a speaker than as a writer, but I can understand why her written voice in her books appeals so strongly to say many women readers, especially those who have felt trapped by the mythology of the good Christian wife/mother/woman. In the sometimes cloying air of “women’s ministry,” scented by porpourri and expectations, Hatmaker throws open the windows and lets in a breath of fresh air.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

This boutmosthappinesok took me quite awhile to get through. Not that it’s not brilliantly written — it is. But one of the issues with reading more diverse books from writers of different cultural backgrounds — which is something I am consciously trying to do — is that the introduction of a lot of unfamiliar setting, vocabulary, and background can slow the reader down, and it certainly did for me in this case. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a simple, easy to read novel. It may not be an easy read even for someone who is very familiar with life in contemporary India, the politics of the Punjab, and the roles of transgender people in Indian culture. The writing is dense, the story multilayered with many different points of view and characters whose stories don’t intersect till near the end of the book. It’s the story of Anjum, a transgender woman growing up in Delhi, eventually finding a niche in the community as part of a group of recognized-yet-outcast trans women called hijras. The role of the hijra in Indian society is fascinating and I did a little googling to learn more about it afterwards, but Roy writes (as is, I think, appropriate for a writer immersing a reader in a different culture) as though we already know all this, leaving the reader to piece together the bits of information. Then, just as we’re absorbing Anjum’s character and world, the scene shifts to a different place and time, a whole new cast of characters.

This book is very well done, but it’s also quite a lot of work. at least, it was for me — so readers who are not already very familiar with the world Roy is writing about should be prepared for a total-immersion course.

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Uncategorized

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

lincolnIt’s an interesting reading summer when Lincoln in the Bardo is not the first, but the second, highly experimental, postmodern novel about a famous American president I’ve read (the other one being, of course, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings). Lincoln in the Bardo landed on my to-read list after numerous recommendations from trusted sources. I found it slow to get into, a novel I resisted being drawn in by at first, but ended up loving it and being deeply moved by it.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes places in the hours and days immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. The “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife, not entirely unlike some conceptions of Purgatory in Christian imagining — not a place of either torment or reward, but a kind of limbo, a waiting-room on the way to whatever the afterlife holds. Souls who don’t or can’t or won’t move on to another plane of existence are stranded in this state, hanging around the graveyard in denial about the fact that they’re actually dead, clinging to this life with its passions and hopes instead of moving forward. It’s this chorus of the only-mostly-dead who narrate and comment, in a variety of voices, on the newly arrived Lincoln boy and the intense, stormy grief of the father who comes to visit his son’s body.

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to explain it all, even though in some ways the scope of the story is quite narrow. The part that I struggled with was not the scenes of the dead speaking in their various voices from beyond the grave — I had no trouble accepting that as a narrative device. Rather, I had trouble with the expository chapters sprinkled in between, where another plethora of voices narrates and comments upon what’s happening in the “real world.”

These historical accounts — usually only a sentence or two from each — are drawn from eyewitnesses and later chroniclers, describing Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House, President Lincoln’s response to it, the state of the American Civil War at the time, etc. These snippets of historical voices are placed next to one another, sometimes complementing and often directly contradicting each other, echoing the technique of the graveyard voices and reminding us that eyewitness accounts can disagree with each other even over something as basic as the colour of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes or the phase of the moon on the night Willie died. It’s a wonderful, fascinating technique that makes us call history into question, and Saunders handles it as well as he handles everything else in the book.

But. But. BUT.

There’s a big but. And I understand it and I get why he did but I still struggled with it, and it kept me from fully immersing in the book for quite awhile. These “historical sources” that populate the expository, real-world chapters — most of them actually are historical, drawn from historians’ books as well as various contemporary accounts of the events. But a substantial number — less than half, but more than a quarter, I’d estimate — are wholly made up by Saunders, and there’s no distinction made in the way he credits and cites them — the made-up sources look just as real as the real ones, and I was only able to figure out which was which by googling (which of course I did because, have you met me?).

Again, I 100% understand from a literary point of view what Saunders is doing here. He’s playing around with our perceptions of truth, history, story. He’s telling a “historical” story and turning it into “fiction,” but taking away the sheen of verisimilitude that makes “historical fiction” (including the kind I write) feel like a transparent glimpse into history when in fact it’s not. Saunders forces us to question our definitions of both “history” and “fiction” at every turn. Here’s a historical event, narrated by a chorus of fictional characters who aren’t even “real” within the fictional confines of the story — they’re dead and trapped in a mythological afterlife. Then there are these supposedly reliable expository chapters in between, where we should be able to count on objective, dispassionate voices — but not only do these contradict and argue with one another, but some of them are fictional as well, and we can’t tell which ones! It’s a brilliant and at the same time a frustrating technique. Even as I admired it, I struggled with it.

My copy of Lincoln in the Bardo was a library copy (I read mostly e-books, but the structure of this one seemed better fitted to reading on paper) and I’ll be honest: if I’d been reading a copy I owned myself, I would have gotten little sticky-tab circles and colour-coded the historical snippets to indicate to myself which were fictional and which were real. I know that doing that would have undermined the whole point Saunders was making about the unreliability of history, but I would have done it anyway, but I am just that obsessed with “facts” and correctly citing your sources. We are what we are.

Anyway, all this to say that I both admired and struggled with the writer’s technique for the first half of the book, and then I just gave up and accepted it and allowed myself to fall into it. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief, loss, life and death, and once I let the book be what it was, it almost made me cry. The juxtaposition of Lincoln’s grief over his son’s death, with the grief of an entire country over the deaths of its young men in war — a war that Lincoln knows most people hold him responsible for — is powerful. But just as powerful are the personal vignettes of the struggling graveyard characters — people who, for one reason or another, cannot let go of their regrets, their dreams, the hopes for the lives they were supposed to have lived, and the unfinished business they left behind. Letting go of that vision is essential to their ability to move on, and this is why I guess Saunders chose a Buddhist word to describe this afterlife, since letting go — detachment — is so closely associated with Buddhist thought. (Although I would argue it’s there in some sense in all religions, and maybe all sane systems of thought — certainly it’s there in Christianity, whose founder told us we must lose our lives in order to gain them).

As one ghost after another struggles to let go of the old life and move forward into the unknown beyond, the one living man in their midst — Abraham Lincoln — has to let go of the son he dreamed of raising to adulthood, and move back into his own world of the living, in which he holds the the fate of thousands of other men’s sons in his hands.

This is an incredible, powerful, infuriating, challenging and ultimately fulfilling book. I’m so glad I read it.

Still haven’t completely let go of the idea of those little stickers, though. 

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart

genuinefraudReading Lockhart’s We Were Liars was an amazing, almost overwhelming experience for me a couple of years ago, so I had high expectations for Genuine Fraud and picked it up as soon as it was available.

Genuine Fraud is a thriller, a genre I don’t normally read much because I don’t usually find them, well, all that thrilling. I was drawn into this book not only because I trusted the author, but because I found the main character, Jule, intriguing (though by no means likable — liking her is not the point) and I wanted to know how she got into the situation she was in as the novel opened, and what secrets she was hiding. The novel’s unusual structure — essentially the story is told in reverse chronology, each chapter taking us a little further back into Jule’s story to explain what happened — kept me turning pages through this quick read.

Because of We Were Liars, I expected a big twist at the end and kept trying to guess what it would be (thus making the plot even more complicated in my head than it actually was). But there isn’t one bit surprise reveal; there are a series of gradual reveals along the way that all add up to a genuinely intriguing thriller. 

The two main criticisms I’ve seen of this book are that 1) some of the things Jule gets away with are pretty implausible, which I think is true but also probably true of most mysteries and thrillers, and 2) it is not inspired by, but far too closely modelled on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. As I haven’t read that book, I can’t comment on that, but I will say that if you cite another author’s novel in your afterword as being a major inspiration, you do need to at least make sure there are significant differences between your work and theirs. Otherwise, you might just want to say that your book is a modernized, gender-swapped retelling (told in reverse) of a classic thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re clear that’s what you’re doing.


Filed under Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

The Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

willowfrostI very much enjoyed Jamie Ford’s first novel, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, so I had relatively high expectations for this book. Once again, Asian-American author Ford brings us into a little-known corner of American immigrant history. This time, it’s the Chinese community in 1920s and 30s Seattle, and the involvement of Chinese musicians and actors in the entertainment world — in opera, music halls, and eventually in the nascent film industry, before Hollywood became the centre of the American film world.

Another world we get to glimpse in this novel is that of orphanages in the period. The main character, William, is a 12-year-old Chinese boy grows up in a Roman Catholic orphanage, not knowing for sure whether his parents are dead or have abandoned him. (The fact that most orphans of the time were not in fact orphans, but children whose parents gave them up because they could not afford to raise them, is very well explored here). He comes to believe that the Chinese movie star Willow Frost is actually his mother, and sets out on a quest to find her.

While it’s clear that Ford has done his research and the glimpses of history we get in this novel are fascinating, the book didn’t connect with me emotionally as well as I’d hoped. I certainly found it enjoyable, but something about the way he wrote kept me at an emotional distance from both William and Willow, unable to full feel the terrible experiences that they go through. For this reason I’ll have to mentally file this book under “liked it but didn’t love it,” but I certainly learned things I didn’t know before about the places and time period, which is valuable in and of itself.

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Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

badfeministUnlike a lot of Roxane Gay fans (among whom I would definitely count myself), I came to Bad Feminist after reading her more recent book, Hunger, which I thought was amazing. Bad Feminist is a different kind of book: it’s not really a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir and reveals a lot about Gay’s life. It’s not focused on a single issue as Hunger is; despite the title, Bad Feminist is not solely or even mostly about feminism. Feminist thought, and what it means to be a feminist (and why you might sometimes be thought of as a “bad” one) permeates the book, but so do issues around race, literary criticism, critique of TV, movies and other elements of popular culture, and Gay’s trenchant observations on many quirk and foibles of contemporary American life. She is often funny, very often biting and satirical, always thought-provoking. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays rather than a single, compelling story like Hunger is, and nearly all of them are interesting and worthy of sparking a lively discussion. If you’re interested in the intersections of feminism, racism, and popular culture, you will definitely want to read this book.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir

The Murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King

maryrussellOther than having a deliberately misleading title (Mary Russell’s the hero of the series — she obviously isn’t murdered in this book, but is it about an apparent murder of our Fearless Heroine, or is it about Mary Russell murdering someone else? The ambiguity is not accidental), this is another good addition to King’s series about the intrepid Mary Russell and her May/December marriage to an aging Sherlock Holmes. What the novel really is, regardless of whether Mary apparently gets murdered or murders anyone, is “The Backstory of Mrs. Hudson.”

As in the original Conan Doyle novels, Mrs. Hudson is Holmes’s landlady at Baker Street; in the Russell/Holmes series, she has followed Holmes into retirement in Sussex where she serves as his housekeepeer. She is also something of a maternal figure to Russell, who was taken in by the kindly Mrs. Hudson when she was a teenager, so when a mysterious stranger shows up with a possible threat to Mrs. Hudson several years later, it’s not surprising that Mary swings into action to protect the older woman.

Most of the story unfolds through flashbacks into Clara/Clarissa Hudson’s early life, tying together threads from two Conan Doyle short stories and weaving them into the Holmes/Russell canon. The short stories contain characters named Hudson with no suggestion that they are related or connected to Holmes’s Mrs. Hudson. But in King’s retelling, they are all connected, and the backstory adds layers not only to Mrs. Hudson but to her long relationship with the great detective, explaining why she has stood by him so faithfully for so many years.

Sandwiched in between some heavier books I’ve been reading over the summer, this was a great, light diversion, and a worthy addition to the extra-Doyle Holmes cannon, as are all the Laurie King books.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery