Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

 This book was the 2019 Booker winner and also came highly recommended. I was skeptical at first, because it took me a while to get into it, but I ended up enjoying it - with some qualifications.

First, it takes some time to get used to the style. It is written almost as a stream of consciousness - with irregular grammar and punctuation. Once I got into it I found the style actually made it easy to read - almost like following a live conversation. It flowed very naturally.

There were also a lot of characters - and at first it seemed more like a collection of short stories as it took time for the interrelationships to be revealed. I found it interesting to see how all the women connected to each other, but unfortunately there were so many characters that by the time some of the later ones revealed their connections to an earlier character I couldn't really remember the back story of the earlier character. And remembering the back story would probably have enriched my appreciation of the connections between the characters. I read this in an e-version and it may have helped to read a hard copy as it's always easier to refer back.

The basic premise of the book is to examine the varying lives of black women, girls (and one non-binary "other") in England. Their ancestry is varied - different African and Caribbean countries - some are first generation, others third or fourth. While men wander in and out of most of the women's lives, for better or for worse, the men are really peripheral characters.

Each of the chapters develops the life of the one character in its title (and their immediate friends and family). Most of the stories begins in the present and move back into the character's past. Some of the characters are more historical so there is no present day action though they are connected to present day characters.

Here are some of the key characters - at least the ones I can remember:

Amma is a lesbian playwright and director who has finally hit the big time with a show at the National Theatre. In some ways I guess you could call her the main character as much of the present day narrative revolves around her opening night and the after-party. Most of the other characters have found their way to the production for one reason or another.

Her daughter, Yazz is a college student. The second chapter explores her life and the lives of several of her friends. We also learn about her father - a gay friend of her mother's who is now a successful and famous lecturer.

The third chapter is about Amma's friend Dominique who has emigrated to the US - following another woman into a terrible relationship but surviving that and staying in the US.

Other characters are Amma's childhood friend, Shirley, who has become a jaded schoolteacher and is derided as boring by Amma's more artsy friends. 

Shirley's former student, Carole, who following a traumatic experience at age 13 is mentored by Shirley, eventually attending Oxford and becoming a successful banker married to a successful white man. Years later Shirley is still resentful that Carole never thanked her.

Carole's mother, Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant has set up her own cleaning business and gets a job cleaning for Shirley's twice married, vaguely racist colleague, Penelope. However, when we get to Penelope's story we learn her prickliness is covering up from immense hurt in her childhood.

Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer - and we learn of her childhood where her mother tried to force her into an uncomfortable feminine mold and of her strong relationship with her great-grandmother, Hattie, who accepts her (and her transgendered partner) and welcomes their help on the family farm which she is determined to keep in the family.  Hattie's past was also full of childhood trauma, a difficult marriage and several miscarriages and infant deaths.

One of the chapters entirely based in the past revolves around Hattie's mother Grace, who never knew her Abyssinian father and was haunted by that throughout her life prompting Hattie to attempt to find out about him.

Despite the reservations I referred to above, the book does a tremendous job of examining the lives of women faced with racial, class and gender discrimination. And whatever the connection between the women, or their differences, what they all show is tremendous strength of character and determination to live the lives that they want to live.

Friday, November 20, 2020

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Tammavongsa

 I almost didn't read this book for two reasons. First, in recent years I have been disappointed in the Giller winner. And, second, it is a collection of short stories and I generally prefer novels. But, I'm very glad I overcame those hesitations and decided to read this one. In my view it is definitely deserving of the Giller.

The short stories are all about immigrants to Canada from Laos, though they certainly describe a universal immigrant experience. They are told from many perspectives - the school aged girl who is teased because her father gave her the wrong pronunciation of knife; a boxer who must quit the sport and finds a job in his sister's nail salon; a young girl who helps her mother pick worms on a farm; another young girl whose mother is infatuated with Randy Travis; an older woman who has an affair with her much younger neighbour; and a school bus driver whose wife is having an affair with her boss.

What all of the characters have in common is their striving to survive in a new world - facing obstacles of language, poverty, and underemployment. But none of them give up despite the difficulties - and they are generally very devoted to at least one person in their family. Their resilience made them very likeable characters and the focus on the small details which make up an immigrant's life made for engaging reading.

I certainly recommend this collection of stories.

A Family Affair by Nadine Bismuth

 I quite enjoyed this book. It is by a French Canadian author and is translated from the original French. It is an excellent translation as it is easy to read and the language does not feel forced at all.

The central character is Magalie, a kitchen designer and mother of a young girl. Magalie discovers her partner, Mathieu, is cheating on her and decides to have an affair, essentially for revenge. She first gets involved with her business partner, Olivier. While they are compatible and there are truly no strings attached it ends when Olivier's wife gets pregnant and Magalie discovers one of their other colleagues knows about them.

She then gets involved with an even more unlikely man, Guillame, the divorced son of her widowed mother's new boyfriend. Guillame is a police officer who shares custody of his teenaged daughter with his ex. He is taken with Magalie, but has absolutely no idea how to go about getting her attention which leads to some humorous scenes.

The relationships between Magalie's mother and her boyfriend and Mathieu and his girlfriend are also explored, making the book a rather in depth look at various couples - how they interact with each other and with others around them.

Overlaying the personal action is a news story about a woman who seemingly vanished from the parking lot of a local shopping mall. This puts all of the women in the book on edge, but Magalie and her colleagues are particularly troubled as their office overlooks the park where the missing woman's boyfriend was apparently playing soccer when she disappeared, thus giving him an alibi.

As the novel progresses, the mystery of the missing woman is resolved, but Magalie's life seems even messier. Which makes the book very realistic.

I quite enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A Few More Titles

After my last post, I promised myself I would not get so far behind on my posting. And, yet again I've left it until I finished a number of books (though not nearly as many this time)!

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger

I picked up this book because the library decided to make it available to whoever wanted to read it with no waiting list. And I'm really glad they did that as I had not otherwise heard of it and I really enjoyed it.

The novel is a little unusual.  It follows three different characters and it took until almost the end for me to figure out how the stories related to one another (and I'm usually quite good at that). Thematically all of the stories had water, swimming and/or drowning as a main component and they were definitely tied together in that way, if not by plot.

The first character was a young woman in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. The book opens with her stepping into the Seine and drowning herself. So it is not a spoiler when I tell you that happened.  Her story then moves back in time where we learn of her difficult childhood in a small French village, her move to Paris to be a lady's maid, her romantic relationship with another young woman and ultimately the events that led to her taking her life.

The second character is Amund, a toymaker in Norway in the 1950s. He is also the father of two small children. His connection to water begins at a young age when he spends time fishing at his grandparents' cabin. He returns to this cabin multiple times throughout his life and reconnects with the sea. Amund at times neglects his family in his quest to develop a plastic that will make lifelike dolls.

The final character is Anouk - she is a Canadian living in the present day and suffering from cystic fibrosis. As a result she is awaiting a lung transplant and is constantly struggling to come up for air. Despite her difficulties she feels most at home in the water - whether the lakes near her Northern Ontario home as a child or Lake Ontario when she moves to Toronto.

All of the stories move back and forth in time a bit - and then the book moves from character to character - so you really do have to pay attention to keep track of the pieces.  But I found it worth it - and while the plot connection was perhaps a bit tenuous, it was real and it was interesting (and in part based on historical facts). The book was well written, particularly all the water related imagery.

I recommend this book.

Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand

I thought it might be interesting to gain some more insight into Harry and Meghan's relationship and their distancing from the Royal family. The authors are journalists who had tremendous access to the royals as part of their jobs - and it does look like they did a lot of research to back up their story. However, in the end I found it a little boring.  It didn't really add a lot to what I've read on Twitter. I don't really recommend this unless your a Harry and Meghan die hard who wants to read everything they can about the couple.

The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

This was a fun escapist novel. Ellen and Unity are two women in their late 30s who have been best friends since childhood. They are living in their home town and each are in a rut for different reasons. Ellen is the single mother to a son who is headed to college soon. She got pregnant with him as a teenager and has not dated or had sex since. She overhears her son say he won't go away for college because he's afraid to leave her alone since he's all she had. This prompts her to prove to him that she has a life outside of him (which she is now going to have to manufacture).

Unity is grieving her husband who died in the military three years earlier. She is living in his childhood bedroom and while she is running her own handyman business, she doesn't take any risks personally or professionally.

So the two women come up with a list of things to do to challenge themselves and each other - like skydiving and getting tattoos and, of course, finding men. So the story deals with their successes and failures in ticking off the things on the list.  None of it is very surprising, the plot is predictable, but the characters are engaging and it's a great escape.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey

I was moved to read this book after watching The Comey Affair mini-series. It is very well written and provides interesting insights into the life of the former FBI director who was fired by Donald Trump. I imagine he is a rather happy man since the election results were announced.

The book does not just deal with his time in the FBI, however. It also talks about his time as a district attorney and prosecutor as well as in private legal practice and as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration.

Interestingly, while he calls himself a Republican, it would appear he has the greatest respect for Obama of all the Presidents he worked under. One of the other very interesting aspects was his time working in New York and prosecuting Mafia leaders. The comparisons of how they govern to how Trump governs are remarkable.

The insights he gives into the Hilary Clinton e-mail scandal are also fascinating - he was clearly in a no win situation when faced with that one. I'm still not sure he should have announced he was reopening the investigation - or maybe he should have announced the investigation into Russian interference in the election at the same time - but I have greater respect for the extremely difficult decision he had to make.

Although some of his "lecturing" about leadership style were of less interest to me, all in all this was a surprisingly easy and engaging read.

Troubles in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand

This is the third book of Hilderbrand's trilogy set on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I would not recommend reading these books out of order - I don't think they'd make much sense. This one ties up a lot of loose ends for Irene, and her sons Baker and Cash, who on the death of their husband/father, Russ, discovered he had a whole other life on St. John, including a girlfriend and a daughter. The book provides more insight into the business that brought Russ to the island as well as his death.

We also see more of Irene's relationship with Huck (ironically the step-father of her husband's deceased girlfriend), as well as Baker's with Ayers (who was the girlfriend's best friend) and Cash's with a woman who surprisingly enough had no prior relationship with Russ or his girlfriend.

At the end of the novel Hilderbrand also brings in a character from her Winter Street series set in Nantucket. It really didn't add much to the plot and seemed more like an update on that family's life to please regular readers.

I enjoy the escapism Hilderbrand brings to her novels and this trilogy was no different. I especially liked how she didn't leave anything hanging at the end of this one so we know the story has come to an end (I guess, at least for now).

His Only Wife by Peace Medie

This was a really interesting novel set in Ghana. Afi is a young girl living in the small town of Ho with her mother and a large extended family following the death of her father. She is learning to be a seamstress and is starting to master those skills. On the death of her father, Afi's uncles were not terribly charitable to her and her mother and they were instead taken under the wing of a local businesswoman, Aunty Ganyo. Aunty Ganyo is not happy with the woman her middle son, Elikem, is involved with and proposes an arranged marriage with Afi. Afi's mother encourages her to proceed with it - and she does.  They are married traditionally (not in Church or a courthouse) and, in fact, Eli is married to her in absentia as he is traveling abroad.

Eli's brothers bring Afi to an apartment in the capital promising Eli will eventually leave the other woman and join his wife. She is happy with the luxurious surroundings and finds a place to learn fashion design, but she longs for her husband to be hers alone.

Eli seems to come and go on a whim - and he is kind and caring when he is with Afi. She also wants for nothing materially. But she is clearly sharing her husband with the other woman and their daughter - even when she gives birth to his son. Though he seems to actually love Eli, he clearly loves the other woman too. It is his family who do not like her (mostly because they can't control her).

This is a very interesting story of how men in certain cultures are free to "collect" women and how women can be psychologically damaged by this arrangement, even when there is no physical abuse. It also shows the tremendous influence family can have on behaviour - both how Aunty Ganyo controls Eli and his brothers and how Afi and her mother are under the control of her paternal uncles.

I really enjoyed this book - it was well written, the characters were interesting and it told important stories without coming across as explicitly moralizing.

Resilience is Futile: the Life and Death and Life of Julie S. Lalonde by Julie Lalonde

I had trouble putting this one down. Julie Lalonde is a well know advocate for women's rights. She works for organizations trying to bring awareness about harassment and inequality. She became very well known for taking on the Canadian military after a terrible experience trying to do sexual assault prevention training at the Royal Military College. The title of the book has roots in her graduate thesis which looked at poverty stricken elderly women. One of her research conclusions was that this group is overlooked and underserved precisely because of their resilience - in other words they don't complain so they don't get help of services.

For ten years - while she is studying and then working and gaining national attention through a multitude of media interviews - she is also hiding that she is a victim of abuse. Her high school boyfriend, who started as a good friend, became very controlling and psychologically, physically and sexually abusive. When she finally left him he stalked her for ten years - her friends who rescued her knew some of the story, as did her family, but nobody knew the extent of his perseverance and her terror. Eventually she raised the issue in therapy and started to gain some insight into her situation, but it was only her stalker's death that brought it to an end.

This is a fascinating look at the extensive toll abuse can take and how even women who appear to be very successful can be struggling to overcome its consequences.