Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson

why-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normal Author Jeannette Winterson was adopted “out of the wrong crib” at six weeks of age. Mrs. Winterson, her adoptive mother, is deeply religious and given to staying up all night so that she doesn’t have to sleep in the same bed as her husband. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is at times a harrowing memoir of how Winterson’s deeply disturbed adoptive mother branded her as an unwanted cast-away — child abuse that left no visible marks but scarred Winterson for life.

After a tumultuous break-up with another woman, Winterson attempts suicide, saved only by one of her cats, clawing her face to wake her after she attempts to kill herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Winterson constructs a ladder of language of prose and poetry and emerges from her pit of despair mentally exhausted but alive. You can’t help but cheer her on as she fights for her own survival.

60 by Ian Brown

60 Author and journalist Ian Brown turned 60 and decided to keep a diary of his 61st year. Given that his anxieties, appetites, petty jealousies, and vanity is on display for all, Brown might not necessarily think he was aging with grace, but this book shows the exact opposite.

You meet a man who rues his decline, yet still has the presence of mind to embrace experience and the joys of the physical body in swimming, skiing, and cycling — albeit somewhat more cautiously than during the more reckless days of his youth. Laugh-out-loud funny at times, this book was a fun read on not just aging, but growing older — emphasis on growth, that is. It’s optimistic proof that with a strong attitude, there’s lots to look forward to.

The Way We Weren’t by Jill Talbot

thewaywewerentjilltalbot Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election was decided, I’ve had trouble committing to books. This happens to me in times of turmoil; after 9/11, I wasn’t able to read fiction for a couple of years. I’m Canadian. I live in Canada. Neither Trump nor the Twin Towers affect(ed) me directly, but as a citizen of the world who works with American friends, you absorb the aftershocks and emotional upheaval of tragedy across the border. You can’t help but be affected, if only by proxy. It’s the times when I need books the most — as an escape, as way to reorient my perspective — that I can’t muster the attention required, it seems.

Nonfiction helps me ease back in and this time around, I turned to Jill Talbot and her memoir of love and leaving, The Way We Weren’t, to return to a reading groove. I was not disappointed; in fact, this slim volume, read in its entirety Sunday, was a lifeline back to the world of reading for pleasure. (Funny that I write about not being able to commit to a book — this is a memoir about two people who cannot commit to one another.)

Talbot excavates the aftermath of her relationship with Kenny, the man who left her and daughter Indie when Indie was four months old. Unmoored for years after the relationship dissolves, Talbot drank heavily, did a stint in rehab, and moved among seven states in fifteen years to find the right fresh start.

This book is far more than memoir-as-therapy. It’s the story of a strong woman who is still learning her own strengths. Talbot has a keen ability to examine her own fictions and actions; she’s a woman who writes to understand her past in order to embrace a better future. She’s the first to admit she doesn’t always get life right. Candour, honesty, and beautiful prose make this book one I’ll be thinking about for some time to come. In searching for her own way, Talbot helped me find mine. That’s the best gift any book can give.

January 15th, 2017

The North Water by Ian McGuire

thenorthwater Ian McGuire’s The North Water is as transfixing and weighty as a looming iceberg; you know carnage is coming but you can’t look away. 

Longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize,* The North Water is filthy with conflict; there’s man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. beast,** but in this excellent novel, it is often difficult to tell the men from the beasts.

Few characters are unsullied by the taint of shame, greed or corruption and that’s one of the things that makes The North Water such a great read. Above all else, this book is about retaining your humanity when all others about you are losing theirs. (Some — one evil brute in particular — never had any in the first place.)

McGuire uses language to paint vivid watercolours inside your brain. So much so — you hear the wind scream, you feel the frigid sea spray sting your face, and you smell the blood. The prose is as rich and as satisfying as a bowl of homemade soup on a cold wet day. Like all the best books, there are sentences you can savour, reading them again and again and yet there is not a wasted word. The narrative reads like riding a runaway horse. You’d better hang on.

I read this book twice back to back. You should too. It’s worth your time.

* Sadly, The North Water did not make the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist. A great shame. 
** Not part of the conflict canon, but The North Water makes a case for man vs. beast as part of an expanded list.

September and October, 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

“Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed.”

–Quotation on the back of Sparrow’s composition for piano and violin, The Sun Shines on the People’s Square.

“It is one thing to suffer, it is another thing to be forgotten.”
“Love is a revolutionary act.”

–Comrade Glass Eye

dnswhnChina’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre form the backdrop for Madeleine Thien’s brilliant and moving novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, longlisted* for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2016 Giller Prize.

In Communist China, the government controls everything. They provide permission to marry and assign your vocation and housing. If you’re denounced as a demon capitalist for possessing counter-revolutionary propaganda (anything other than the writings of the great helmsman, Chairman Mao), you could be beaten or killed in front of your family and community as a human lesson to your comrades about the importance of Party loyalty above all else. If you’re lucky and you survive your denunciation (known as a struggle session) you get sent to the far reaches of the country to endure famine and forced labor as you reform your bourgeois ways in a re-education camp.

Deep, wonderfully human characters populate this incredible novel. There’s Sparrow, the brooding composer, Zhuli the violin prodigy, Jiang Kai the orphan piano virtuoso, brash and beautifully refreshing Big Mother Knife, ethereal Wen the Dreamer, and the endearing Ba Lute, just to name a few.

In addition to the beautiful humans, classical music acts as a character in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, often helping to communicate the range of emotions forbidden to good comrades as passion unbefitting a Party member. Dozens of pieces are mentioned in the book and they are so important to the narrative, I created a playlist of the music to listen to as I formed my interpretations of the novel. You’ll find it at the bottom of this post.

Tiananmen Square is the “zero point” of China. It’s the “location on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are determined.” The zero point concept resonates throughout the book. The massacre is the “zero point” for the government — an atrocity by which the citizenry are related and determined. Each character in the novel experiences their own zero point, that moment by which their future — and their humanity — is determined. It made me consider my own zero points — the moments in my life that have formed who I am. Do Not Say We Have Nothing provokes thought in a way only great fiction can.

Thien’s prose is subtle and poignant in direct contrast to the violent oppression served up by the government and the insidious and vicious acts citizens perpetrate on one another to deflect Party scrutiny. While this is a work of fiction, I’m ashamed to admit how many times Do Not Say We Have Nothing had me Googling dates and key figures in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Bearing witness and memory is a centrally important theme by which the book gets its name. In attempting to move on with his life, composer Sparrow says, “If I forget, what’s left? There’s nothing.” To have nothing is to forget. To forget is to dishonour those who’ve sacrificed their lives as victims of government oppression.

Read this book, educate yourself, and above all remember what happened in Tiananmen Square and to the victims of communist oppression so that you cannot say we have nothing.

–August and September, 2016

* 9/13/16 Update: Do Not Say We Have Nothing made the Man Booker Prize’s 2016 shortlist
* 9/29/16 Update: Do Not Say We Have Nothing made the Giller Prize’s 2016 shortlist
* 10/10/16 Update: Do Not Say We Have Nothing made the 2016 shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.

This Spotify playlist — at 25 hours long — is as complete as I can make it — the one notable exclusion is Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Chorale Preludes. I wasn’t able to find them on Spotify. Enjoy!

 

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

fionavartapestry The Summer Tree
The Wandering Fire
The Darkest Road

Imagine: at a wizard’s request, you leave your life in Toronto to visit Fionavar — the “first of all worlds.” Your mission: to help the populace defeat baddy extraordinaire Rakoth Maugrim, who by threatening Fionavar, plans to propagate his evil across every world. This is the opening premise of The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay’s rip-roaring, epic fantasy series.

A classic tale of good vs. evil, The Fionavar Tapestry is “brightly woven” (as they say in Fionavar). It’s well-paced and meaty, a page-turner that transported me from the wilderness of Canada to a magical place where I lost track of time, fully immersed in Kay’s prose, the complex and introspective characters, and a plot packed with poignancy and intrigue.

I noticed some similarities with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (small band of youthful do-gooder protagonists, a lady sect of priestesses similar to Jordan’s Aes Sedai). But where Jordan’s characters are flat, dull, and often clueless, populating a plot that meanders for hundreds of pages, Kay’s characters feel real — they think deeply and they’re self aware. They gain real insight and grow.

Weighty themes await you in Fionavar. The responsibility and consequences of personal choice and the myriad costs of power — two ideas woven throughout the novels — make for great tension and above all, a very satisfying read. The worst thing about The Fionavar Tapestry is that it ended.

I laughed, I teared up, I cheered, and now I wholeheartedly recommend this brightly woven series to you.

July and August, 2016

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

unspeakableIn addition to parenthood, dating seemingly incompatible men, and lesbianism, Meghan Daum’s fascinations include the Canadian painter and composer Joni Mitchell, who taught Meghan that, if you don’t “write from a place of excruciating candor, you’ve written nothing.”

If candor is a measure of success, then Daum has certainly written something.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion opens with Daum’s life-long irritation with her mother and her ambivalence toward her mother’s untimely death. Daum and her mother repeat a cycle: Daum’s mother detested her own mom and was too, physically repulsed by the woman that gave her life.

Daum examines her thoughts, reactions, beliefs, and inclinations around relationships, family, and stereotypical gender roles. Daum is neither martyr nor saint and her essays are interesting precisely because she’s willing examine herself and her own (sometimes ham-fisted) actions to uncover the truth about herself. The Unspeakable is both harrowing and hilarious.

Harrowing:

For my mother’s entire life, her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body, sharp, rusty debris that threatened to puncture an organ if she turned a certain way.

Hilarious:

To try to explain to a 13-year-old the importance of leaving a callback number is essentially to bathe yourself in sepia tint.

I found myself relating to Daum on more than one level. She connects more easily with dogs than humans, for one, (Hello, sister from another mister.) but I found myself nodding yes as she shared her struggle to be ok with not having children. She, like me, wanted to want to have kids, but eventually realized that not having them was the right choice for her. Our reasons differ, though it’s refreshing to read about how someone else came to a similar realization in a world so obsessed with child-rearing.

June and July, 2016

The Awakened Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin

theawakenedkingdomImagine that you loved N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy and then discover a new-to-you novella written in the same realm featuring a few of your favorite characters? Why, yes, please! Don’t mind if I do.

In a mere few pages, I was reminded of the joy of Jemisin. Imaginative plots that defy prediction and challenge gender stereotypes and privilege, fascinating gods and godlings (each with an individual affinity), and a realm where the women mortals bear arms while the men stay home and raise the children. Jemisin’s work exemplifies what fiction can be at its very best: a fascinating lens through which to examine your own thinking and beliefs and consider other perspectives and possibilities — and have fun doing it.

The Awakened Kingdom takes place after The Kingdom of Gods, book three of The Inheritance Trilogy. Baby godling Lady Shill visits the mortal realm to discover her true nature — her special godling affinity. Lady Yeine, Lord Itempas, and even Nahadoth (as a woman, no less!) make short appearances as young Lady Shill makes mistakes (and baby godlings) learning how to manage in the mortal realm through hilarious trial and error.

This is such a fun read and the only shame about The Awakened Kingdom is that it could have been an entire novel unto itself. As a novella, it’s meaty and delicious — Jemisin leaves you wanting more and the wonderful thing is, with a bunch of new baby godlings running around, there’s plenty of fodder for a new full-length novel set in the Inheritance realm. Yes, please.

June, 2016

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

beingmortalBeing Mortal, by surgeon and New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande, confronts aging and the life well-lived — two of my personal fascinations. I received this book as a gift from one of my coworkers at the start of my sabbatical. (Thank you, as-yet-unguessed friend!)

For all its technical advancements, Gawande posits that medical science struggles to achieve what should be its most important goal: focusing on well-being for the frail, the aging, and the terminally ill, as opposed to attempting to cure often incurable diseases and conditions. (You can’t cure old age, but you can do things to reduce pain, and improve comfort, mobility, and overall quality of life.)

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.

As you age and become unable to manage the tasks of daily existence (cooking food, shopping, using the toilet independently, cleaning, and personal grooming) there are few options for a well-lived life. Assisted living offers some autonomy — but not nearly enough when you’re forced to rise, dress, shower, and eat on a pre-determined schedule meant to create institutional efficiency, not happy, fulfilled, human beings. Gawande’s book challenges the institutional default setting by profiling small-scale, successful assisted living communities that allow elderly and frail people to do the things that bring them happiness on a schedule they choose.

For the terminally ill, the treatments are often much worse than the illness itself, although science’s default setting is try everything, to exhaust all options — even when death is an eventuality. Gawande suggests doctors should seek to understand what’s most important to patients, their fears, and the trade-offs they’re willing to make when considering treatments that can never cure, only extend life.

Well-being is about being able to live the life you want to live and do the activities you want to do, on your terms. It’s about ice-cream in front of the hockey game at home, as opposed to wasting away in a hospital as disease takes over. It’s about maximizing comfort and the quality of the time remaining, as opposed to focusing on mostly useless treatment.

This is a book I’ve seen advertised though I’d bypassed it several times. I’m so glad that I read it. Reading it, I reflected on how difficult it was for Mike’s family when his mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although we really could have benefited from reading this book over 20 years ago, we did what we could to help Joan enjoy the time she had left. There were trips to the lake, lots of chocolate milkshakes, and most importantly, time with friends and loved ones.

Reading this book has also made me think of what I want for myself and my loved ones was we all age and eventually become frail. Being Mortal has equipped me with a set of questions to consider when time is running short, to help reveal fears and hopes and help choose which to live and make decisions by. Not only has it helped me to think about the (hopefully!) long-term future, it’s helped me to re-evaluate how I spend my time in the present.

Each day of my sabbatical is a gift. I get the exquisite luxury of being able to choose precisely how I want to spend my time each day. I’m fortunate to be in good health and the fact that I can run, bike, read, and sit on the deck and listen to bird radio has been a tremendous joy. I’ve been able to think about my life, what I’ve done so far, what’s most important to me, and how I want to spend my time going forward.

Being Mortal is an excellent read and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Highly recommended!

June, 2016

Galore by Michael Crummey

galoremichaelcrummeyThe word galore means “in abundance.” In Michael Crummey’s Galore, the only things in abundance are misery, desire, greed, and a compellingly tenacious will to survive.

Galore roams the lives of the families in Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The landscape offers little respite. It’s bitterly cold, windy, and wet. It’s a fickle mistress given to cycles of plenty and want, imperilling those who try to eke out an existence by fishing, logging, and sealing. Death by starvation and exposure is ever-present. In living each day, we’re all that much closer to our own deaths — especially the hardscrabble residents of Paradise Deep.

…death wasn’t sudden and complete but took a man out of the world piecemeal, a little at a time.

The characters and the beautiful prose carry Galore through what I feel is an uneven narrative. The book follows mostly several generations of the Devine family. You can’t help but love them for the sheer effort they put into survival and the sacrifices they make to help one another along though a harsh world.

Judah Devine (a variation on Jonah) is adopted into the fold after being rescued from the belly of a beached whale by a woman known only as Devine’s Widow. He’s known for his bright white hair, skin, and a pervasive foul odor that he passes on to his offspring. Judah’s origin and past is a mystery — he never utters a word. He becomes a Devine only after Devine’s Widow arranges a hasty marriage to her granddaughter Mary Tryphena Devine, to save “The Great White” from a mob. The Devines are resourceful and stubborn, two qualities that sustain them over the decades.

Galore and its characters are imaginative — Crummey does a great job chronicling everyone’s longings, desires, conflicts, and losses and you become invested as you follow the burgeoning families. This book has a deep and conflicted soul of its own and I loved it for that. The characters are resolute in their beautiful, pervasive, stoic catechism.

They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought.

My primary quibbles with Galore are narrative threads raised and dropped and seemingly random time hopping that accelerates the plot. You care about the characters and it’s irritating when they’re suddenly elderly and you’re not privy as a reader to those missing years. Critical characters like Bride Newman simply die offstage and the revelation feels rushed — an afterthought. I would have loved a longer book that followed fewer characters more closely.

Despite these irritations, Crummey is a writer I plan to explore further. In the words of Callum Devine, “what is it you wants?”

I wants me s’more Newfoundland, b’y.

June, 2016