Thursday, February 27, 2020

This Month's Books

Once again most of what I read this month was for purposes of the 2020 Reading Challenge, so some were quite different than what I normally read (the point of the challenge after all).

Had it Coming: What's Fair in the Age of #MeToo by Robyn Doolittle
I read this and the next book for the category "two books on the same topic by different authors".  The author, a Globe and Mail investigative reporter, spent years examining how Canadian police forces deal with allegations of sexual assault. She found a shocking number of cases throughout the country were shelved as "unfounded".  In response to her newspaper series, "Unfounded", governments and police forces vowed to do better with reviews of past cases, better police oversight and better training.  In the book, Doolittle looks at the changes that have been made and whether they have begun to have an impact.  The results are mixed and not particularly surprising.

In a nutshell Doolittle believes the laws in Canada are good, but that police forces, Crown prosecutors and even judges are uneven in their application of the laws.  She uses some very high profile cases (e.g. Jian Ghomeshi, Steve Paikin and the judge who was removed for asking a victim why she didn't just keep her legs together) to illustrate the situation.  She also looks at the #MeToo movement and the impact it has had on Canadian cases.

While this book was a bit dry at times, it was well researched and written and dealt rationally and sensitively with a very difficult and polarizing issue.

Know my Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller
This book also dealt with sexual assault laws and the deficiencies in the system - though this time in the US and from a much more personal perspective.  Chanel Miller was the victim in the well known case of a sexual assault on the Stanford campus.  Until she published her victim impact statement on BuzzFeed she was known only as Emily Doe, but she ultimately decided she wanted the world to know her name.

The case was horrific - Miller, a college graduate, went to a fraternity with her younger sister, got drunk and the next thing she knew awakened in a hospital bed with no idea what had happened to her.  She slowly discovered she had been separated from her sister, went outside and was brutally assaulted behind a dumpster while unconscious.  The attack was only stopped when two exchange students who were cycling by saw what was happening and chased then turned in the perpetrator who was a freshman at Stanford.

While the jury did find the perpetrator guilty, the judge used his discretion to shorten the mandatory minimum sentence - sentencing him to only 6 months in jail of which he served 3.  The judge and many others in society seemed far more interested in "not ruining the life" of this promising young man (he was also a competitive swimmer) than acknowledging the seriousness of the crime he committed.  There was also far too much weight placed on Miller's intoxication - as if she had deserved the attack since she didn't control her drinking and passed out.

While the system was despicable, there were some very positive aspects to the story, most importantly Miller's resilience.  After much struggle (as can be expected) she ultimately penned such a strong victim impact statement that it instantly went viral--viewed by almost eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of the US Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.  Even Hillary Clinton quoted from it in one of her books.

There was also a lot of positive in the support Miller received from her parents, sister and boyfriend who stood by her throughout the ordeal despite their own feelings of guilt.  

In the end Miller turned around the story and comes across as a heroine rather than a victim.

The Dinner by Herman Koch
I read this for "a book originally written in a language that's not your first language" as it was translated from Dutch.

Almost the whole book takes place over the course of one dinner between two middle aged brothers and their wives.  It is narrated by the younger brother; the older brother is running for prime minister. At the start the book seems like it's going to be merely about the tension between the brothers.  The younger brother is critical of his older brother's campaigning tactics as well as how he constantly shows off - it starts with his criticism of the fancy restaurant that his brother has gotten them into without the waiting time that more ordinary folks would have.

The narrator's description of the pompous restaurant staff is also very amusing.  However, as dinner progresses you realize that much more dark events are underlying the get together.  Both couples have teenaged sons who have been involved in a rather horrific act and at the dinner they eventually have to face how to deal with it.

Part of the tension is that no one knows how much the others know about what their sons have been up to - so there is a lot of beating around the bush in their discussions.  However, it becomes clear they strongly disagree about how to deal with their sons and will go to great lengths to protect their positions.

Though all of the action takes place over the course of dinner, there are also flashback to earlier times which give the reader insight into the narrator's personality, in particular, but also touch on his relationship with his wife, son and brother.

All in all this is a fascinating look at both individual psyches and the complex interrelationship among flawed family members.  I do warn, however, that at times it can be a little difficult to figure out what's going on though with patience things become much more clear.  I have been deliberately vague here about certain things so as not to give away too much.

At the Wolf's Table by Rosella Postorino
I used this book for the category "a book about something that scares you" since it deals with Hitler and his cold hearted Nazi henchmen.

Rosa is a secretary in Berlin married to her engineer boss.  Her father, a virulent anti-Nazi dies of a heart attack early in the war.  Then her husband is called up as a soldier so she moves in with her widowed mother.  But her mother is killed in a bombing so Rosa moves to a small town in Eastern Germany to live with her in-laws.  There she is forced to join a group of women who are taster's of Hitler's food at his secret headquarters.  There these women risk their lives with every meal to ensure no one is poisoning Hitler's food.

Most of the book deals with the relationship Rosa build with these women - many of whom are suspicious of her because she is not originally from the village.  Some of the women are fanatic Nazis, some are widowed mothers just trying to keep afloat, many have secrets that they need to protect.  Rosa must also deal with the unwelcome attention she receives from the Nazi commanding officer.

The very last chapters of the book take place years after the war where we learn what became of Rosa and her husband.

I thought this was an interesting twist on World War II novels.  It was translated from Italian.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This book fits the category of "a book under 200 pages long".  Translated from the Japanese this was a very gripping short book that delves into the psyche of an unconventional woman.  Keiko, is a 36 year old woman who has always been thought of as "not normal".  She definitely suffered from social anxiety and maybe even psychopathic tendencies - she definitely did not seem to empathize appropriately.

At age 18 she gets a job as a convenience store clerk and she spends the next half of her life working there - even though she sees all her co-workers and managers come and go.  But Keiko feels she is reborn when she takes on the job - if she acts the part of the convenience store clerk, even going so far as to copy the speech patterns of those around her, she finally feels like she fits in.  It even allows her to reconnect with high school acquaintances and form friendships of sorts.

Her carefully constructed existence is threatened when she develops a relationship with Shiraha who himself is let go from the store for his bizarre behaviours.  He tries to fit Keiko into a different box which doesn't suit her at all.

In addition to being a study of one person's character, this book also illustrates the power of societal norms and how difficult it is to survive outside of them.  I quite enjoyed the book and it is an easy read though it is not divided into chapters which was a bit distracting (though there are some section breaks).

Monday, February 10, 2020

Knocked off a few more books for the 2020 Reading Challenge

Tiny Lights for Travellers by Naomi Lewis
I picked this up because someone recommended it, not for the challenge, but I really didn't enjoy it so I decided I had to fit it into a challenge category to make the read worthwhile on some level.  So I think it fits within a "book about history" as it is the author's personal journey in the footsteps of her grandfather, a Jewish Dutch man who fled the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded.

When the author is in her late 30s, her marriage suddenly ends and she stumbles upon a diary kept by her grandfather documenting his escape from Nazi occupied the Netherlands.  She decides to follow in his footsteps taking the same trip about 60 years later.  This trip is a big deal for her as she suffers from extreme disorientation and anxiety making it difficult for her to travel on her own.

But armed with the diary and her phone's GPS she makes the journey from the Netherlands, through Belgium and into the free French zone.

The problem with the book is nothing really happened - the diary was short on details (other than logistical information) and the author really didn't learn anything new.  Instead the writing focused on her anxieties, her marital breakdown and her identity crisis (particularly her relationship with Judaism having had a Jewish grandfather, father and husband, but not technically Jewish).  She is also well aware that her grandfather would not have approved of this trip, or her wanting to be Jewish which he rejected quite strongly, which makes the whole quest even more odd.

It's not that I don't empathize with writers who suffer from anxiety, I have read and enjoyed other books that are written from the same perspective; I just didn't like the writing style of this one or ultimately understand the point of the whole endeavour.  I do hope the author got what she wanted out of the trip.

Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law by Beverley McLachlin
I chose this book for the category "a book written by someone who is more famous for something else" since McLachlin is definitely better known as a judge and the first female chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Some people told me they didn't love the start of this book, but I have to say it grabbed me right away.  I find it remarkable to read about someone who comes from such humble beginnings and see how she accomplished so much in her life.

Her descriptions about how she dealt with gender roles and discrimination throughout her career were fascinating; as were the development of her thoughts on equality, discrimination and Indigenous rights.  She clearly described how the ideas which took root in childhood developed over time to form her analysis while serving on the highest court.  She gave enough detail about court cases to be interesting without getting bogged down in minutia or violating confidentiality.

The descriptions of her personal life were no less engaging.  I cried with her when her first husband died at the all too early age of 47 and was so happy when she guided her young son through the tragedy and found love again.

I really recommend this book by one of Canada's foremost women.

Bone Black by Carol Rose GoldenEagle
I read this book for "a book by an Indigenous author" and must say it was fantastic.  It was so well written that I had trouble putting it down and while the topic was extremely heavy it was still fairly easy to read.

Wren StrongEagle is a newly married young woman whose twin sister Raven vanishes one night while they are out at a bar. While Wren is in the washroom we learn that Raven goes out for a smoke with a man she meets, but that is the last we hear from her.

Wren reports her missing sister to the police and is shocked by how little they do for her.  Her sister becomes one of countless missing Indigenous women whose disappearances are barely registered by the authorities.  Ironically, as a lawyer Raven had been working on just such cases in Calgary and had come home to Saskatchewan to decompress from this difficult work.

Wren decides to take matters into her own hands and tracks down and punishes several men who have suffered no consequences for the abuses they carried out against women (including a man who raped her in college and a priest who had assaulted her great aunt in the residential school system).  Wren basically formulates ways to get the men to her house, kills them, burns them in her pottery kiln and uses the ash (the bone black) the create pottery.  It's all a little fantastical but it works.

There are also parts dealing with Wren's dreams, and her relationships with her husband and her grandmother.  All of it weaves together nicely to give us an in-depth picture of Wren and, at least for me, to helped me understand why she was driven to act in the way she did.

While this is not at all like books I usually read, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Start of my Reading for the 2020 Toronto Public Library Reading Challenge

I have once again challenged myself to complete the Toronto Public Library reading challenge, where the library has created 25 categories of books and I am supposed to find and read a book from each category.  I loved doing this last year because it took me out of my comfort zone to read books in different styles and genres.  I didn't necessarily like all of the books, but I liked that it stretched me.  Here are my first three books (I have actually read four, but already reviewed Mourning has Broken which fits the category of "a book about a real person"):

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
I read this book for the category "a book that celebrates books, reading or libraries".  This book is set in Depression era Kentucky.  Alice Wright, a young English woman, who has always been a bit of an outcast in her family, meets and marries the handsome Bennett Van Cleve.  She moves with him to the US, dreaming of adventures in New York.  Instead she is taken to a very small coal mining town where she lives with Bennett and his overbearing and abusive father.  At the start of her time there she becomes even more of an outcast than she was at home - unable to fit in with the gossiping, tea drinking girls of her age.  She is even ridiculed for her accent - accused of putting on airs.

Everything changes for her when she volunteers to join a team of women to deliver books on horseback as part of Eleanor Roosevelt's travelling library program - intended to bring reading to the masses.  She is taken under the wing of Margery who is strong and independent though comes from a very troubled background, leading to immense disapproval by Bennett and particularly his father.  But Alice thrives with the freedom of delivering books on horseback, communing with nature, and meeting all types of people.  They are joined by three other local women - and while their books are appreciated by many; others work very hard to put a stop to their activities, accusing them of delivering inappropriate materials.

The book essentially follows the story of the women - and the men they love and hate.  They must overcome tremendous hardship - both due to nature and human interference - and they definitely learn who their friends are.  Based on true story, this book definitely celebrates the importance of books, reading and libraries, and the great lengths some women have gone to in order to bring those pleasures to everyone.

At times I found the book a bit slow; at other times a bit too predictable, but overall I enjoyed it.  I thought the characters, particularly Alice and Margery, were very well developed.

Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham
I read this book for the category "an experimental or unusual book".  The topic is classic rom-com, but the style is unconventional.  The entire book is written in a series of texts and e-mails.  They are exchanges between Madeline and Elliot, who meet at a restaurant and enter into a relationship; between Madeline and her best friend, Emily; and between Elliot and his best friend, David.  And of course they also include the forwarding and analyzing of the emails between Madeline and Elliot by the best friends.

Apparently the authors even wrote this book in a very unusual way - they exchanged e-mails in real time; blind to each other's side conversations.

Despite the unconventional style I felt the characters were well developed and that I got to know them (if not especially like them).  And the development of the relationship through emails and texts, and analyzing emails and texts, did seem very realistic.  I'm not sure I would have read this book if not for the challenge, but I'm not sorry I did.  It's one of those stretch reads that was worth it for me - but don't expect great literature or grand themes.

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom
This book fit the category of "a book related to vision".  It's a young adult book about Parker Grant who lost both her mother and her sight in an accident when she was 7 years old.  She's now 16 and her father also just died recently.  So when we meet her she's coping with his death, living with her aunt, uncle and cousins who have moved into her house on her father's death so she doesn't have to navigate a new environment too, starting high school and the reappearance of her middle school boyfriend who broke her heart.

When her boyfriend broke her heart it caused her to develop several rules for keeping her life manageable.  The hardest one turns out to be "no second chances" since she is still tempted to give that boyfriend a chance.

I thought this was a well written book.  It delved into how Parker coped with the many challenges she had to face - and the strong friendships she had which helped in the coping.  It also showed how she grew when faced with new challenges.  I liked the characters and the relationships - they seemed very high school realistic.