Friday, March 22, 2019

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This is another book I conquered for my library reading challenge.  One of the topics was to read a book you tried once before but couldn't get through.  That was a bit difficult for me because I rarely allow myself to give up.  In fact, The Red Tent was the only book I could even think of.

So, I made it through this time, but I still don't know what all the fuss is about.  I really can't understand why this book was a runaway bestseller.  While the premise is interesting - retell the story of the Old Testament mothers from the perspective of the women, in particular Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah - I often just found myself bored.  It was also sometimes a bit difficult to keep all the characters straight - I knew their names from the Bible, of course, but I couldn't always remember what Dinah had told us about them which would have been helpful at times.

Given this book is old and well known, I don't feel the need to give a long drawn out review, I just thought I'd share my unpopular view that I just don't get why this book was so popular.

Two Very Different Autobiographies

For my library reading challenge I had to read both a book by an author with a disability as well as a book from a list of books by indigenous authors.  So I chose the following two autobiographies.  I was not a big fan of the first, but quite enjoyed the second.

My Brief History by Stephen Hawking

This is a memoir written by the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking.  He covered his childhood, teenage and college years and early marriage, before he was diagnosed with ALS.  The latter part of the book is after his diagnosis and talks a bit about how his disability impacted his life.

While the details of his life were interesting, he focused a bit too much on the science for my liking.  I realize it was a hugely important part of his life, it just wasn't what I was interested in.  And he got quite technical - so I skimmed over those parts.
I wouldn't really recommend this unless you don't mind a memoir that's heavy on physics.

A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby

I had never heard of Chacaby, but I was intrigued by the book's synopsis.  Chacaby's early life was spent in a very remote Ojibwa community.  Early on she didn't even know her parents - she was raised by a supportive grandmother who taught her many Cree spiritual and cultural traditions.  When her mother appeared on the scene with a step father, he passed on many Ojibwa bush survival skills.  But these were the positive aspects of her childhood - the community was plagued by alcoholism which made her mother abusive and led to her sexual assault by numerous different adults. In her teen years she herself became an alcoholic.  

While she was a teenager Chacaby's mother forced her into a marriage with a much older man.  He was extremely physically abusive so at age 20 she took her two young children and fled to Thunder Bay.  There she was also subjected to abuse and racism, even finding herself homeless for a time.  But eventually she found the support she needed to become sober (though some of her more upsetting stories were the men in AA who preyed upon the women in AA leading to more abuse).

Once sober she trained and worked as an alcoholism counsellor while raising her children and, after a second marriage, came out as a lesbian.  She describes two long term same sex relationships as well as raising foster children in addition to her own.  She also deals with the impact of losing her eyesight.  Her triumph came with being asked to lead the Thunder Bay gay pride parade in 2013.

I found this to be an incredible story of strength and resilience - she overcame nearly impossible odds.  It is also a lesson on how much further Canada still needs to go in reconciliation with our Indigenous population.

The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and my Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad

This book was haunting, but wonderful.  Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman, was only 21 years old when ISIS swept into her rural Iraqi town on a campaign of genocide.

Before this she was just a normal teenager, surrounded by a large and loving family, interested in her friends and make up and planning to marry and become a mother.  Her family was religious but not fanatical in any way.

Everything changed when ISIS came in and rounded up all of the Yazidis - they executed the men, including all of Nadia's brothers that were not fortunate enough to be elsewhere at the time as well as the older women, including Nadia's mother.  The young girls like Nadia were made sex slaves of the ISIS soldiers.  She, and many like her, was repeatedly beaten and raped until she was able to escape and was lucky enough to knock on the door of a Sunni Muslim family who was willing to risk everything to get her out of the country.

The details clearly depict how ISIS wanted to strip these girls of their humanity.  Nadia was terrified to tell her brothers the truth in the event they would turn on her for "no longer being pure."  Fortunately they did not.

Nadia now works as the first UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.  And if her efforts are as powerful as her book, she is no doubt accomplishing a lot.  As an aside, the book was also very educational about the Yazidi people - while I had heard of them, I really didn't know much about the religion or the culture.  So that was also interesting.

While it's not always easy to read, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This book was a little bit strange, but interesting nonetheless.  It is based on a true event when between 2005 and 2009 more than 100 girls and women in a remote Mennonite village were drugged and raped in the middle of the night.  The men of the community made them believe the rapes were committed by ghosts or demons.

In the novel, Toews imagines certain men in the community finally charged with rape and awaiting trial while three generations of women hide in a hayloft to debate whether the women and children of the community should stay or go.  They must hurry as the other men in the community are only away temporarily trying to post bail for the accused.

The book is written from the perspective of a male teacher whose family was excommunicated from the community when he was a teenager.  As a result he has seen more of the world and is better educated.  He is also ridiculed by the other men - seen as a failed farmer, effeminate and an outsider.  As he listens to the women debate what to do, he also tries to figure out his past in the community; as well as his future.

The interesting part of the book, is the dynamic of the women - they come from two different families, but their loyalties shift based on family ties, generation, past friendships and overall outlook.  They are also influenced by how closely they or their loved ones were touched by the rapes. All in all it is a very interesting account of what happens when women gain the strength to see through the lies fed to them by controlling men and try to take control of their own destinies.