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).

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