Sunday, July 15, 2018

July 2018 Quick Lit: what I've been reading

Considering I've written only one blog post since my last Quick Lit post on June 15, it would seem that I've been doing a lot more reading than writing -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing! (And I have been doing other writing, just not on my blog.) Anyway, I'm linking up again today with Modern Mrs. Darcy for Quick Lit, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
This is Ng's second novel; her first was the award-winning Everything I Never Told You. Little Fires is centered on the Richardsons, a respectable, successful family whose lives are turned upside-down when single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl move into the Richardsons' rental house.  Boundary lines start blurring when the Richardsons hire Mia as their housecleaner/cook, when Pearl becomes involved in various ways with the Richardsons' teenage kids, and when Mia takes the opposing side in a custody battle that the Richardsons' close friends are waging with their baby's Chinese birth mother. I was completely engrossed by the well-developed characters and the way Ng moves smoothly between their points of view, slowly teasing out their motivations and their many secrets. A very good novel.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is fascinating from start to finish. It shows that the reality behind Wilder's beloved "Little House" series was in many ways quite different from the tale of pioneer triumph and self-sufficiency that Wilder told. In fact, the very first chapter of the book describes in detail how homesteaders, with the help and encouragement of government policy, destroyed or displaced many of the Native American tribes living in the west -- belying the common image of pioneers as brave conquerers of uninhabited territory. We also get a more complex look at Wilder's parents, particularly Charles, whose repeated financial and agricultural failures result not only from "Providence" or government decisions but from poor judgment and even, at times, deceit. Clearly he was, in part, the loving, hard-working, fiddle-playing Pa of the books -- but he also jeopardized his family's well-being many times with his reckless schemes.

The latter half of the book focuses on Wilder's complicated relationship with her only child, Rose Wilder Lane, who grew up to be a talented but often mentally unstable woman. The book describes the two women's strange collaborative process whereby Wilder would write drafts of her books and her daughter would edit and rewrite, often to make the narrative more dramatic.

After reading this book, you will never look at the "Little House" books in quite the same way again -- and I think that's a good thing. It's useful to know the reality behind even our most beloved stories.

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman. 
I enjoyed this 2015 biography of Bronte; however, I honestly didn't find it provided much new information that I hadn't already read a few years back in Margot Peters' Unquiet Soul, published in the 70's. (Even Harman's title seems derivative.) Peters' book completely engrossed me, whereas Harman's book, good as it was, didn't have quite the same emotional intensity. There's lots of interesting detail here, though: if you haven't read any Charlotte Bronte biographies and you want to start with something relatively recent, this would be a good one to go with.

What about you: what have you been reading this past month?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Five Minute Friday: IF

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word: IF.


On Twitter today I read a tweet by a pastor I follow, Rev. Daniel Brereton, which said:

I had actually been thinking along similar lines not long ago, particularly regarding the story in John 11 about the death of Jesus' friend Lazarus. 

Jesus received word that his friend was sick, but he stayed where he was for two more days before going to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, lived. He was aware that Lazarus had died in the meantime, yet he confidently told his disciples that he was going there to "wake him up" and that his doing so would be a means of strengthening their faith.

When he arrived at his friends' home, Mary fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

The passage goes on to tell us that as he approached the tomb, Jesus wept.

Many theologians have speculated about why Jesus cried at this moment. Some say it was sorrow for the loss of a friend; others say it was compassion for the plight of humankind; some say it was sadness about the price he was going to have to pay to redeem humanity. 

Any or all of those may be true. Yet in light of Rev. Daniel's question, I can't help wondering if Jesus cried simply because he was hurt by his friend's words of (however respectful) blame and accusation. Jesus was constantly misunderstood, mistrusted, criticized, blamed, betrayed, and denied -- by his closest friends as well as his staunchest enemies. It must have been so painful for him.  

So perhaps at that moment of sorrow and solemnity the words "If you had been here..." from a dear friend were just too much, and the tears flowed. Maybe we don't need to think of a more complicated reason beyond the fact that Jesus was our Brother, a human being with human feelings.


Friday, June 15, 2018

June 2018 Quick Lit: What I've been reading

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post, where we share brief reviews of what we've been reading. I haven't done a Quick Lit post since March, so I have a decent-sized list of books to share here: one fiction and six nonfiction.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
This novel is about a young couple, Celestial and Roy, who have been married for a year and whose lives are turned upside down when Roy is wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison. (It is really unnerving to realize that this can happen so easily to a black man who has done absolutely nothing wrong.) They try to maintain closeness through the letters they exchange, but as months and then years pass, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to her marriage and relying more and more on her childhood friend Andre. Roy's unexpectedly early release brings the situation to a crisis point. Jones' technique of using alternating first-person chapters and the texts of the characters' letters allows us to understand all of the characters' perspectives and makes us hopeful for a resolution that will somehow satisfy all of them and us as readers. I think she succeeds. I really enjoyed this novel.

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler.
Bowler, a professor who (ironically) studies the prosperity gospel, finds her own beliefs about success and entitlement challenged when she is diagnosed with colon cancer at age 35. This book tells the story of her coming to grips with her diagnosis and the prospect of suffering and death, her Christian faith, what (and who) helps and doesn't help her, and her struggle to refocus her life without reliance on platitudes. Bowler is a real character: funny, endearing, show-offy, and very honest. If you've read and enjoyed books like When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi) or Being Mortal (Atul Gawande), you'll probably like this one. I'd highly recommend it.

People Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home by Amy Dickinson.
Amy Dickinson's "Ask Amy" column is the first thing I read in the newspaper every morning, so I was eager to get my hands on her latest volume of memoir (she has a previous one, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, which I haven't read). I thoroughly enjoyed this book about Dickinson's mid-life move back to her home in rural New York State and her unexpected romance with a local building contractor. Her descriptions of love in mid-life, blended families, and grief over the death of parents are very engaging and moving.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael Wear.
In his twenties, Wear worked on former US President Barack Obama's faith-based initiatives in his first term and on his reelection campaign in 2012. Wear provides a behind-the-scenes look at Obama's reception by American Christianity (it's brutally ironic to read of Franklin Graham challenging Obama's Christian "cred," in light of Graham's current obsequious support of Trump); the faith-based office's work in disaster relief, food distribution, combating human trafficking; and the controversies over abortion and Obama's changed stance on gay marriage. Wear is honest in both his admiration for, and disappointment in, Obama, but he never lapses into cynicism; the last section of the book entreats readers to put politics in its proper perspective -- not to put our hope in politics but to bring our faith to bear on all aspects of public life. 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. 
This book is a great primer for anyone who honestly wants to engage in conversations about race but doesn't know where to start, is afraid of offending or being offended, or just doesn't quite understand the issues. Oluo addresses topics like white privilege, intersectionality, the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, and more. Informative, challenging, and a little uncomfortable.

Ask a Manager by Alison Green.
I enjoy advice columns and occasionally read "Ask a Manager" questions and answers on Twitter -- so when I saw this book at the library I picked it up. It has tons of helpful advice for bosses dealing with staff, suggestions for employees dealing with bosses and co-workers, and tips for interviewing. I enjoyed the down-to-earth advice (applicable to many areas of life, not just the workplace) as well as the oddball stories about the boss who ate his employee's lunch every day, the woman who referred to her partner as "Master" and wanted her co-workers to call him that too, the woman who threatened to put a curse on her colleagues, and more.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson.
Psychologist/professor Peterson has become one of the most sought-after speakers and celebrated intellectuals of our day. All I really knew about him was his highly public refusal to be "compelled" to call students at U of Toronto by their preferred-gender pronouns and his complaint to Camille Paglia in an interview that a man can't have a reasonable conversation with a woman because he's not allowed to hit her. So I got this book out of the library to see what all the fuss was about. 

12 Rules for Life is almost unreadable, frankly. It is nearly 400 pages long, broken up into chapters with bossy titles like "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world" and "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today." These bits of folksy, sort-of-common-sense advice are buried in long (and long-winded) chapters discussing such topics as
* the hierarchy of lobsters (stand up straight like a lobster! be a winner! although why lobsters are chosen as models for humankind is unclear)
* Peterson and his wife force-feeding a child they were babysitting (whose caregiver had been hit by a car) and relishing their victory -- a victory over the child's mother, really -- in a very creepy way
* a lengthy description of a woman he counseled in clinical practice, complete with sarcastic comments about her uncertainty about whether she'd been raped

Peterson comes across as a grandiose, pompous dilettante. I honestly don't know if his discussions of Jung, or Marxism, or even lobsters, are accurate -- and I confess I skimmed many of the chapters just to try to get the gist of what he was saying rather than being bogged down in the prose. The writing is wordy and overblown, as in this passage: "I was speaking recently with a client whose husband had been engaging in a successful battle with cancer for an agonizing period of five years. They had both held up remarkably and courageously over this period. However, he fell prey to the tendency of that dread condition to metastasize and, in consequence, had been given very little time to live." This could be written as "The husband of a client of mine had battled cancer courageously for five years, but the cancer had metastasized and he was given little time to live." Or the laughable "As the infamous father of the Simpson clan puts it"; why not just "As Homer Simpson says"? These may seem like minor criticisms -- but if a 60-word passage could be reduced to 30 words, and a 9-word passage to 4, then why is this book so long? Because Peterson's editor thinks he's a genius or because they're afraid to stand up to him? This book needed a strong editorial hand, someone with the confidence to say "This makes no sense. Rewrite it."

As to the book's subtitle, Peterson states clearly in his introduction ("overture") that order is male and chaos is female. He half-heartedly says that we need both -- yin and yang and all that -- but if female is chaos and we need his rules to provide an antidote to it, then female is clearly bad and inferior. His book may be received as bracing encouragement by disaffected men who are uncomfortable with changes in and challenges to the accepted social structure and who want to believe that a straighter back and a good dose of rugged individualism will transform them from losers to winners -- but for the rest of us, it doesn't seem to have much to offer.


I'd welcome your thoughts in the comments: have you read any of these? What good books have you read in the last while?

Friday, June 01, 2018

Five Minute Friday: RETURN - my last trip to the farm

Almost a year ago today, I returned to our family farm for the last time.

We would be putting it up for sale a few weeks afterward, and I was only in PEI for a week -- so this was my final time to go back and walk through the empty house. My aunt (Mom's sister) came with me; she had not grown up in the house but had been in it thousands of times, and it was in a way another home to her, too. She wanted to dig up a few perennials to have something lasting from the old place.

The spare house key was still hanging inside the back door of what we called the "tractor building" -- the same place it had hung for at least 40 years. I unlocked the door to the house and we wandered through. It was cool and felt both damp and dusty. Some rooms were now unrecognizable, the previous residents having made some renovations -- but others looked almost exactly as they had been when our family lived there. 

I confess that I felt less sadness than I had expected to. Perhaps it was because when the people who made that house home were no longer there, I sensed that the walls and floors and roof were just containers for our lives. I realize not everyone feels that way: for some, the piece of earth and the buildings themselves retain significance of their own beyond that of the people who abided on and in them. But for me, it was not home anymore, and I was almost relieved to go outside again and lock the door behind me.

The yard looked much more like I remembered it than the house did -- except that Dad would never have let it get so overgrown with grass and dandelions.

There used to be a little blue picnic table under that tree; when we would visit in the summertime, Jonathan would sit there and do a jigsaw puzzle or have a snack. There had also been a hammock, where Allison might be found reading. Both were now gone.
I wonder now, how many Sunday afternoons did we spend sitting under that chestnut tree, commenting on  the (few) cars passing on the road, perhaps waiting for company to arrive.

Many people said that our house, with its white shingles and (formerly) green trim, reminded them of the house in Anne of Green Gables

This last picture contains so much: the bare earth near the house where cars would turn around; the old hay wagon in the long grass, its side racks removed; the little stretch of wooden fencing; the blue strip of Northumberland Strait to the south. It was the most beautiful view. At nighttime we could see lights twinkling across the strait in Nova Scotia. 

I'm glad I have these few pictures of the last time I returned home. When I drove away that day, I carried a million memories with me, too -- both sweet and sad. 


This is a Five Minute Friday post - the prompt was RETURN.


photos by Jeannie Prinsen - June 3, 2017

Friday, May 18, 2018

Five Minute Friday: SECRET

Today I'm joining the Five Minute Friday linkup, where we write for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is SECRET.

Last week I watched the movie The Glass Castle, based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, which I'd read a few years earlier. 

Walls' father was a charismatic, alcoholic dreamer with a cruel streak, and her mother was a self-absorbed amateur artist; the family moved ("skedaddled," as the father put it) constantly, often living in deprivation and squalor, until the children were, one by one, able to escape and move to New York City.

The movie was very good. Although it romanticized the father a bit and gave the abusive aspects of both parents less weight than they probably deserved, it showed the lifelong impact of family secrets.

In one scene late in the movie, adult Jeannette, who has established a career as a successful journalist, is at a restaurant with her wealthy husband and a kind older couple with whom the husband hopes to land a work contract. Jeannette has worked to keep her parents and their problems in a secret compartment of her life, and her husband (who calls her parents "insane") supports her in this -- but she is finding it harder and harder to do so. When the older couple ask about her father, Jeannette's husband cuts in, telling the lie the two of them usually tell: that Jeannette's father is "developing a technology to burn low-grade bituminous coal more efficiently." 

Jeannette excuses herself to go the bathroom, and when she returns she tells the older couple the truth: 

"My parents are squatting in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. They were homeless for three years before that, which is pretty much how they raised us. My dad is not developing a technology for bituminous coal, but he could tell you anything that you want to know about it. He is the smartest man that I know. He is also a drunk, never finishes what he starts, and can be extremely cruel. But he dreams bigger than anyone I've ever met. And he never tries to be somebody that he's not. And he never wanted me to, either."

This admission changes the direction of Jeannette's life. She leaves her husband and the wealthy lifestyle she's been accustomed to and embraces a simpler life more in tune with the kind of person she has always been. She takes her secrets out of the compartment she's placed them in, and is then better able to integrate the good and terrible aspects of her past. She is also able to make some kind of peace with her parents, knowing she can't change them.

There's a saying that "we are only as sick as our secrets." I take this to mean that healing and growth can only happen when we are honest and stop hiding the parts of our selves or our past that cause us shame. As another of my favourite quotes (this one from Dr. Henry Cloud) says, "The truth is always your friend."