Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

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Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2018)

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Review #48

A group of five women venture into the bushland outside of Melbourne for a corporate retreat. Three days later, only four of them return. One woman, Alice Russell, has disappeared. But did she leave of her own volition, or did she encounter some danger in the Australian forest? Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is deeply invested in finding Alice, as she has important information regarding an ongoing investigation. However, he finds that each of the other four woman on the retreat have a different story to tell about their time in the wilderness.

I have a strange love/hate relationship with detective novels. Too often they are predictable and filled with cliched characters that operate as cardboard cutouts. Readers can expect a surly detective with a grim past. If his partner happens to be a woman, there’s an unspoken quasi- romantic connection between two of them. All the supporting characters speak from a script that seems designed to throw up red herrings. And yet, there are times when these basic tropes can either be turned on their heads, or given new life through deft writing that can make this somewhat tired and overused genre feel fresh again. Jane Harper’s second novel, Force of Nature, is definitely in the latter category.

I’ll keep this review short and sweet as to avoid any spoilers. Part of the narrative is devoted to Detective Falk and his partner as they join in the search for the missing Alice Russell. Interspersed are chapters from the perspectives of each of the four other women in the wilderness retreat as they go through the events leading up to Alice’s disappearance. I found the chapters from the women’s perspective to be more entertaining; they are all so comically unsuited to the outdoors and so utterly incompatible with one other it almost feels like a reality prank television show. After they venture off course and become increasingly lost and frightened, we can see how their conflicting personalities combined with a survival situation could have resulted in violence.

Novels like these are a guilty pleasure of mine. They do not necessarily enrich the mind in any particular way. I didn’t really learn anything from Force of Nature that caused me ponder its plot or themes in the days after reading it. However, it was a highly enjoyable diversion that kept me guessing from start to finish. Which is exactly what I was looking for at the time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Force of Nature here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

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Review #47

‘Odysseus then you are, o great contender,
of whom the glittering god with the golden wand
spoke to me ever, and foretold
the black swift ship would carry you from Troy.
Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.

Homer’s Odyssey Book 10, lines 371-77

Circe is one of the lesser known goddesses of the Greek pantheon. The daughter of the Titan Helios and a water nymph, she is best known for her part in aiding Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Author Madeline Miller envisions the life of an immortal who has been condemned to a life of banishment and loneliness after daring to defy her father and choosing to live her life free from the demands of divinity.

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, made my list of the favorite books that I read in 2017. There, she took a few small passages from Homer’s Iliad and turned it into a beautifully written novel about love versus honor. With Circe, Madeline returns to the world of ancient Greece and delves into the history and life of a goddess who, in the words of one character “hates her own divinity”.

Circe is born in the hallowed hall of her father, the Titan Helios who draws his golden chariot across the sky to bring the day. She strives to be an obedient daughter in order to win the affection of her self-absorbed father and her vain mother, the sea nymph Perse. Belittled as the least of his many children, Circe eventually discovers a mystical plant which can change the form of others, and uses it with disastrous results. As punishment, she is banished by Zeus to the lonely island of Aiaia (sometimes spelled Aeaea), condemned to live out the rest of her days in isolation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Madeline Miller’s is the way she takes a relatively throwaway character from antiquity and fleshes them out into a three dimensional person with hopes and goals. In the legend of Odysseus, the story of Circe is minimal, with far larger sections devoted to the slaying of the Cyclops and the seductive song of the sirens. Since the reader is already prepared for his arrival, we eagerly await the moment when Odysseus lands on the shores of Circe’s island. The fact that he is depicted here in quite a different manner as in Homer’s great epic is a delight. I for one always felt Odysseus to be a bit too perfect, he lacked the weaknesses of some of his fellow Greek heroes. Here he is shown as a man who has lost his moral center and is now desperate to return to Ithaca no matter what the cost to his crew.

But this is not the story of Odysseus, this is the story of a sorceress. Circe is an empowering heroine because her humanity shines through despite her immortal status. She yearns for love ,and acceptance, and occasionally bestows her affection on those unworthy of her. She finds a purpose in a world that has ostracized her, and seeks out happiness in whatever circumstances she is given.

For thousands of years the Greek pantheon has held a special place in our collective imaginations, in part because it’s denizens are so wonderfully and terribly human. They lie, cheat, steal, and meddle in the affairs of mortals and non-mortals alike. Madeline Miller weaves Circe’s tale together with the stories of the great Greek heroes. Making an appearance are such celebrated characters as the Minotaur, Daedalus, Scylla, and Ariadne. Even Jason (of the Argonauts) makes a cameo. Miller uses all these interesting and ultimately fallible characters to create a solid world behind the familiar myths.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Circe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. If you are not terribly familiar with the convoluted chaos that is the Greek pantheon, it might help to have a flow chart available while you are reading Circe. Most people are reasonably well acquainted with the Olympians, but how many have ever heard of Glaucus?

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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Review #46

 

For nearly three decades, the mysterious region known as Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world. Abandoned by civilization, it has been reclaimed by isolated forms of nature that many scientists are eager to study. Several expeditions have been led into this region, with some reporting back a lush and verdant paradise and others being driven to suicide and murder for unknown reasons. The twelfth expedition, a team comprised of four women from different specialized fields, has just arrived.

This first installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy starts off with an ominous tone and creeping suspense. The four women in the twelfth expedition are identified only by their job descriptions. The surveyor is ex-military and edgy about what they may find in Area X. The anthropologist is fearful and wary of making big decisions. The psychologist is manipulative and well trained in hypnotic suggestions. And the biologist, who narrates the story, is eager to find out what happened to her husband, a member of the eleventh expedition who returned home a completely different man before shortly succumbing to cancer along with every other member of his team.

The four women are working towards conflicting ends, and these different agendas begin to clash when they discover a deep pit descending into the Earth. The other women refer to the pit as a “tunnel”, but the biologist feels compelled to call it a “tower”. While the Tower is nearby the designated campsite used by previous expeditions, it does not appear in any of the maps or field journals recorded by the other scientists. As the members of the twelfth expedition descend into this pit, they uncover a dangerous secret which threatens their sanity and their lives.

The first half of this relatively short novel does a great job of building and maintaining a discomforting sense of dread. Since none of the women are given personal names, the reader feels a kind of detached fascination as they venture into unknown and possibly threatening territory. The biologists interjects the primary narrative with details from her past which show her struggling relationship with her husband and her passion for observing living things. As they descend into the black depths of the Tower, the tension continues to mount as they begin to encounter things that defy the laws of nature.

Unfortunately, this level of suspense proves impossible to maintain. The second half of Annihilation veers into confusion and chaos as the team members begin to distrust and doubt one another. The unease of the initial Tower exploration falls apart and is replaced by twists and turns that serve no purpose and to little to further the plot.

There’s nothing wrong with science fiction novels that take a wild detour into weird. However, a book that is weird solely for the sake of being weird comes off as both pretentious and annoying. It’s as if VanderMeer deliberately made his conclusion as difficult to decipher as possible in order to find out who would “get it”. I, at least, didn’t get it, and trying to puzzle out the last thirty or so pages just left me with a headache.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Annihilation here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

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Review #45

London: 1946. The war is finally over, and Britain is trying to put herself back together after the horrors of the blitz. Journalist Juliet Ashton begins exchanging letters with the residents of Guernsey, who are enjoying communication with the wider world after five years of German occupation. As she learns more about them, she begins to be drawn into their lives. Beginning as a mutual love of books, she soon learns all about their island, their relationships, and the impact that the war has left on each of them.

There are so many historical fiction novels that center on World War II and its aftermath. Most of them focus on the horrors of the time period, and the grimBook Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017) determination of the people who struggled to survive its ravages. Given the scarring that World War II left on the collective consciousness of humanity, this does not come as any surprise. What does surprise is when I stumble across a novel like Guernsey Literary Society, which has the potential to be just another look at the bleak circumstances faced by the residents of the occupied Channel Islands but instead manages to be funny, uplifting, and utterly charming.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s epistolary novel does not shy away from describing in detail the hardships undergone by the people of Guernsey. The constant fear and hunger of German occupation are given full attention, and the reader is never in doubt as to the difficulties that these people have had to overcome during the course of the war. However, Shaffer writes her characters with an irrepressible sense of humor that shines through the pages of the book. Small things, such as discovering how the group chose the highly unusual name for their book club cannot help but bring a chuckle even though the characters are in very real danger at the time.  Shaffer details the small victories, triumphs, and friendships that allowed the residents of Guernsey to survive the presence of the soldiers on their island. In a lesser novel these characters may have been described as “plucky” or “quirky”. But Shaffer fleshes them out and gives them distinct personalities which blend together seamlessly to create the picture of a group of people who banded together during a dark time and are sticking together as they rebuild.

If I had to point out one small flaw in this novel, it would be that Shaffer treats the writing of letters rather like the sending of text messages. I cannot envision that someone would send letters back and forth to friends and colleagues multiple times a day, or that these messages would consist of only one or two sentences. How are these messages winging through London or across the English Channel with such speed?

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

This is a book for book lovers, and as a lifelong book lover I found myself completely delighted and enthralled by The Guernsey Literary Society. The main plot of the story begins as two strangers discuss the works of English poet Charles Lamb. Although I haven’t read any of Lamb’s work, I immediately felt comfortable with the two characters who find themselves drawn to one another in order to discuss their favorite section and passages of a book. I have made lifelong friends in much the same way.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (2018)

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Review #44

Poornima and Savitha have a few things in common. They are both daughters born into families who see them as a burden. They live in a poverty stricken region of India where the ambitions of a daughter can go no further than the marriage altar. And they both resist the life that has been planned for them in hopes of achieving something greater with their lives.

There seems to be a growing number of novels centered around cultures that do not value female children. For this website alone I can think of three examples, set in China and Africa, where daughters are treated as worthless and shameful in the eyes of the parents and/or the larger community. Girls Burn Brighter, similar to The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, surprises because it is not set hundreds of years ago in a less “enlightened” age, but as recently as twenty years in the past. This makes the treatment of these women feel somehow more shocking as it forces the reader to acknowledge that perhaps that humanity is not quite as enlightened as it pretends to be.

By daring to have ambitions outside of being a wife and mother, Poornima and Savitha are forced to confront the fact that they are essentially trapped by their lack of education and their families’ disregard. No one asks these women what they want, it is taken as a matter of course that they will obey the various men in their lives without thought or question. The consequences that these girls reap for rebelling against the rigid patriarchy are both tragic and horrifying. Describing the difficulties of holding onto hope through brutal circumstances supports the first hundred or so pages of Girls Burn Brighter. However, as the narrative progressed and the situation only ever seemed to get worse, I began to wonder what point the author was trying to make. Towards the end, I started feeling that this novel was the literary equivalent of a “torture porn” horror film such as Saw or Hostel. We are exposed to the deepest pits of human suffering, but what are we really meant to take away from the experience? At what point does continuing to detail their misfortunes become masochistic instead of cathartic?

A friend of mine once said something along the lines of, “Never read a book set in India unless you are prepared to be completely and utterly devastated”. In addition to the works of Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy, I would submit this debut novel by author Shobha Rao as yet another installment in that category. Girls Burn Brighter was beautifully written, but left me feeling rather pessimistic towards the human race.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Girls Burn Brighter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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Review #43

In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post to try and express her frustration with the way race and racism are discussed in Britain. The post, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, triggered an immediate and intense response from both white and black voices. In her first book, Eddo-Lodge expands upon her initial idea with a series of essays exploring topics such as white dominance, race in feminism, and the link between race and class.

In her preface, Eddo-Lodge explains that she finds it difficult to converse with white people about race because they tend to become either disinterested, defensive, or deflective. Because race is a topic that largely does not affect white people, the author feels that they instead try to turn the conversation around to focus on things from their perspective, and by doing so they shut out the minority viewpoint. On one hand, I completely agree. I have attempted to have conversations about race with my family and friends and the results have been uncomfortable at best or aggressive at worst.

On the other hand, it is generally difficult for humans  to imagine a viewpoint outside of their own. Sympathy and empathy are developed by asking ourselves that age old question, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” By asking that question it seems only natural that one would need to use their own life experiences as a lens through which to view the question. In order to open a dialogue about race and racism in the modern world, we first have to view the world through our own lens and come to an understanding before we can attempt to view the world through the lens of another. If Reni Eddo-Lodge wants to have a conversation about race and racism, this would be a good place to start. But, in this reader’s opinion, she doesn’t want to open a dialogue. She wants to lecture.

Right away, I hear voices in my head saying that I missed the entire point of the book and that I can never understand because I am white. However, I am simply referring to the preface. I actually found the majority of the book to be thought-provoking and insightful. My initial interest was sparked when I found out that it was focused primarily on race in Britain. When it comes to racially charged controversy, so much of the attention is focused on the United States that one tends to forget that it is alive and thriving in other areas as well. In her first essay, “Histories”, Eddo-Lodge points out that while Great Britain greatly benefited financially from the slave trade, they never had to witness the horrors of slavery at their doorstep, due to most of their “assets” being shipped to the Caribbean islands. So while America continues to deal with the aftershocks of slavery and segregation, Britain has allowed itself a certain level of moral superiority that it certainly hasn’t earned. Eddo-Lodge goes on to detail the difficult and violent history of racial minorities and immigrants in England, particularly when it comes to police violence and mob mentality.

The other essay that I particularly enjoyed was entitled “The Feminism Question”. Here, Eddo-Lodge and I agree very closely. Her argument is that the feminist movement is largely made up of white, middle-class women who have more liberty to expound their feminist views both in the workplace and in society at large. I was strongly reminded of the Women’s March last year, wherein thousands of women around the world took the day off of work to march through the streets. I recall reading about women walking in to restaurants and other stores and disparaging the women who had not taken the day off. What I feel that feminism often forgets to take into account is that not everyone has the support structure to just take a day off work. If you are a salaried employee whose children are in daycare, it’s easy enough to take a vacation day. However, if you are an hourly paid worker who is struggling to make ends meet at forty hours a week, it simply isn’t feasible. And since a disproportionate number of these service and hourly waged jobs are occupied by minority race, that they are often left out of the feminist discussion simply by not being invited to the conversation.

The one section of the book that I had serious issues with was the one entitled, “What is White Privilege”. Now do not get me wrong, I have absolutely benefited from white privilege. I accept this fact without condition. My problem is when Reni Eddo-Lodge equates white privilege with racism. At one point she says:

“White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far-right extremists, because at least you know where you stand with them; the boundaries are clear.”

Really? Would she really prefer to live in a world of active racists rather than a world of people who are trying (and perhaps failing but trying) to understand an outside perspective? The problem is that in Eddo-Lodge’s worldview, she leaves no room for disagreement. Either I accept everything that Eddo-Lodge states or I am somehow complicit in the racist treatment that she has had to endure in her life. There’s no room for conversation here. All white people have benefited from white privilege, there’s no denying that. But I actively disagree with the premise that this makes all white people inherently racist. Which, according to her, makes me a racist? One cannot prove a negative, so how am I meant to convince anyone that I am not a racist? Is it even possible if they already assume that you are?

If Reni Eddo-Lodge wanted to challenge people’s views on race and racism, she definitely succeeded with me. Consider that most of my reviews on this site average around 400 words, and this one is pushing one thousand. While reading this book I found myself constantly pausing and re-reading, going back over her arguments to think about them and how they pertain to the larger conversation of racism in the world. And while I did not agree with everything, this is definitely a book that will continue to stick in my brain for a long time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race here on Amazon and here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!