Book Review: Gods of Howl Mountain (2018)

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Review #86

 

After losing a leg fighting in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns to the isolated mountain of his birth and continues running bootleg whiskey and trying to out-maneuver the federal agents who are determined to crack down on illegal alcohol. His grandmother Maybelline spends her days mixing potions and herbal remedies for the local townspeople. When Rory meets the daughter of a snake-charming preacher, he finds himself falling in love. But Maybelline Docherty is against the match for reasons that she refuses to admit.

Taylor Brown has a wonderfully descriptive writing style that draws his readers into the world of his creation. The isolated people who live in the hills of Appalachia exist in a society that refuses to conform to modernity even today. In the days following the Korean War, many of the mountain people had little to do with outsiders and instead lived, loved, and died without ever venturing into the larger world. Brown describes the wild and untamed nature of the mountains with a deft hand. His use of metaphor and imagery describe a harshly dangerous world that only a strong and hardy few would chose to live in.

Unfortunately, the characters that Brown places into this beautiful and well-defined world have all the intensity and vigor of a brown paper sack. I felt very little towards Rory because his thoughts, dreams, and desires are never clearly defined. We know he is haunted by memories of the Korean War because Brown tells us he is. But I never felt his pain or his fear. We know he becomes entranced by the preacher’s daughter because the words are written, but I never felt that spark of passion that accompanies the first days of love. His rivalry with a fellow bootlegger and his relationship towards his mentally ill mother are equally uneven.

If you asked me to summarize Gods of Howl Mountain, it would take me a few minutes to remember anything significant about the plot. It simply didn’t leave much of an impression. I do remember a feeling of relief when I finally finished the book.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Gods of Howl Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003)

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Review #81

Craig Thompson lives a lonely life in rural Wisconsin. The son of incredibly devout Christians, his early life is defined by love for God combined with the sense of shame that he will never be pure enough to earn God’s love in return. He has an ongoing sibling rivalry with his younger brother Phil and constantly feels both protective and smothered by their relationship. When Craig is in high school he attends a Christian Bible Camp. There he meets Raina, and a budding romance springs up between them which causes Craig to begin questioning his faith.

The early parts of Thompson’s novel deal mostly with his relationship with his little brother. Since Craig is constantly bullied at school because his family is poor and highly religious, he is incredibly lonely. But instead of turning to his brother for friendship, he belittles Phil and tries to make himself seem smarter and more powerful than his sibling. At the same time, Blankets is interspersed with memories of he and his brother as they play together, draw together, and bicker with one another. Sibling relationships are always a strange mixture of love and irritation, and Thompson depicts that dichotomy with humor and humility.

The bulk of Blankets is dedicated to Craig’s relationship with Raina, and the emotional highs and lows that accompany a first love. Thompson portrays their budding romance as a whirlwind of new experiences, new hormones, and new revelations that will test their tenuous bonds. We as readers know how incredibly rare it is for people to end up with their first loves, and yet I found myself hoping against hope that things would somehow work out for the two of them. Thompson shows that he has a poetic soul in these sections, and the way that Craig sets Raina on a a pedestal of perfection is beautifully written. She is highly idealized, and often represented as a goddess or an angel with a halo upon her head. There is also a running undercurrent of fear since Craig does not believe himself to be worthy of anyone’s love, and he lives in a state of anxiety that Raina will one day realize how deficient he is.

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The writing in this novel was poignant and powerfully honest. One of the reasons that memoirs can leave such an indelible impression is that they require the author to bare their soul entirely.  Thompson draws upon that extreme confusion that all teenagers feel at some point. A crisis of faith, a feeling of shame for his own desires, a realization that a love for God does not always have to mean an attachment to organized religion are the cornerstones of Blankets.

The illustrations in this book are wonderfully expressive, and I was continually impressed by the amount of detail that Thompson was able to cram into the small panels of this novel. He draws the harsh winters of Wisconsin with a deft and loving hand that make me eager for the first snowfall of the season.

If I had to make a criticism of Blankets, it would be that there were certain aspects that Thompson left too vague. At one point he suggests that he and his brother were molested by a babysitter. This is given about two pages early in the novel, and revisited with two pages towards the middle. I kept waiting for the author to explain more about what happened with the brothers and the babysitter, but he never touches on it again. This is one example of a plot line that is never followed, and I was frustrated by the fact that Thompson would drop such a bombshell on his readers but never lead it to any conclusion.

This is the second graphic memoir that I’ve read this month, the other being Persepolis. I find myself increasingly drawn to this niche genre because of its stark and beautiful honesty, and the talent by the author to expose their innermost pain and joy to strangers. Reading Blankets was looking straight into the soul of a fellow human, and seeing myself reflected back.

My rating: 4.5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017)

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Review #74

A teenage girl is being brutally beaten during a home invasion when she feels a tingling feeling in her hand and finds herself giving her attacker an electric jolt that brings him to his knees and saves her life. Across an ocean, other young girl uses a similar force to kill her would-be rapist. Soon all around the world teenage women are finding themselves developing a previously unknown ability to conduct electric energy with their palms. This change in the power dynamics between genders begins with women releasing themselves from dangerous and unwanted situations, but it doesn’t stop there. All around the world women begin to claim positions of political and religious power, and their intentions are not always good.

Author Naomi Alderman has envisioned a world where different women from different walks of life suddenly find themselves able to physically dominate the male sex. Spanning a ten year period, Alderman takes these women (and men) through all the upheavals and confusion that would accompany such a sudden and potentially dangerous change in traditional gender roles.

As the women begin to realize their new powers, they explore their new opportunities in different ways. Some, such as Margot Clearly, set their sights on politics by empowering the young women in her community to form a militia. Allie sees the chance to form a new religious movement and becomes a powerful cult leader known as Mother Eve. Roxy Monke seizes the occasion to become the head of an international crime syndicate. The only male character with a prominent voice is the Nigerian journalist Tunde, who travels the world and films the increasingly precarious place of men as global society undergoes a radical shift away from patriarchy.

This book would be a wonderful addition to a university course on sex and gender sociology. Alderman brings up some truly interesting questions with her novel. Are women truly the “gentler” sex, or have they taken on more nurturing roles due mainly to their physically weaker bodies? If women were in charge, would the world truly be a more peaceful place, or would females begin to exact revenge on males for all the real and imagined discrimination they have experienced in their lives? Can one sex have the monopoly on violence without becoming corrupted by their own power?

The Power took some time to get its plot rolling, and there were definitely characters that I wished had been given more focus and others that I found a little bland. However, this is one of those novels that I can already tell is going to stay with me. I would be very interested in finding other people who have read this book so that I could explore and discuss the ideas depicted here.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Power here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)

 

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Review #71

In the winter of 1899 two strange creatures find themselves on the streets of New York City. Chava is a golem fashioned out of clay, alone and without direction following the death of her master. Ahmad is a jinni who finds himself free from his lamp after more than one thousand years of confinement. These two beings attempt to assimilate into the teeming streets of New York, and end up forging an unlikely friendship.

This novel was very different from what I expected. Judging from the title alone, I had thought it would be a story about a creature from Jewish mythology falling in love with one from Muslim legend. And in a way it is, except that the humans who take in the jinn and help him to find his way are Maronite Christians who have fled to America to seek out better fortunes. Also, rather than a love story The Golem and the Jinni is a surprisingly sweet story of two unique individuals who find in each other a kindred spirit.

The friendship that emerges between the Golem and the Jinni is one of opposites. She is a creature formed of clay that was brought to life by a heretical rabbi. He is an ancient spirit of fire that spent his former days riding the winds of the Syrian desert. She is only weeks old at the time of their first encounter, uncertainly navigating the busy streets of New York and living in terror of discovery. He is a thousands of years old, possessing the confidence and arrogance that accompanies a creature of great power. Yet they find themselves united by their otherness and their loneliness.

The story is centered around Chava and Ahmad, but they are surrounded by a wonderfully diverse cast of human characters. Author Helen Wecker captures the immigrant experience through the eyes of the bakers, smiths, and salesmen who populated the various ethnic neighborhoods of New York at the time. The people who came to the United States during this time period were either running from something or running to something, and the spirit and determination of their combined experience shines through this novel.

The Golem and the Jinni is a big overlong and could have used a little trimming around the edges, but ultimately I enjoyed it. I definitely felt transported back to Wecker’s chaotic and diverse depiction of 19th century New York. It’s really interesting to think of Central Park being used as a grazing pasture for sheep.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #60

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

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Review #52

In 1996, the city of Sarajevo is trying to recover after a brutal and devastating siege. Many of the city’s priceless artifacts have been destroyed by the bombings. One special book, however; was smuggled out. The Sarajevo haggadah, an illuminated book used by those of the Jewish faith at Passover, has made its way safely out of harms way. Rare book expert Hanna Heath is summoned from her home in Sydney to analyze and conserve this priceless and beautiful relic. Tucked inside its pages she finds several odd artifacts – an insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain. Author Geraldine Brooks creates a fictionalized history of the book tracing it back to its creation.

I was immensely pleased while I was reading this novel to discover that the Sarajevo haggadah is a genuine artifact that was smuggled out of a museum by its curator during the bombings of the mid-90’s. The book, believed to have been crafted around 1350, is one of the few examples of a Jewish manuscript that contains illuminated pages, since Jewish people at this time had strict laws against the making of “sacred images”. Furthermore, it contains an image of what appears to be an African woman dressed in traditional Jewish clothing, which has baffled historians for centuries.

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An image from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The “African Moor” is in the foreground on the left.

Rare book expert Hanna Heath is thrilled when she is offered the chance to study and restore the Sarajevo Haggadah is preparation for its display in the National Museum. Feeling a stronger connection to books than people, Hanna is immediately intrigued by the rich and unique history of the manuscript. As she finds interesting items tucked into the book’s binding, the reader is then transported to the time and place in history when each particular curiosity was added to the book’s overall mystery. We meet a girl fleeing for her life from the Nazis who ends up finding refuge in a Muslim home. A Catholic priest who saves the book from the fires of the Inquisition. A Jewish family in Barcelona who struggle after being exiled from their home. And a young slave in Seville who is responsible for the book’s stunning illuminations. Each piece of history fits into the overall puzzle of the Sarajevo haggadah to form the picture of a society that is constantly torn apart and brought together by the differences of religion.

This is a fantastic premise for a novel, and I went in to The People of the Book with very high hopes. However, I found myself struggling to truly engage with the characters in Geraldine Brook’s novel. Hanna, as the anti-social and biting protagonist, isn’t given much to do besides marvel over wine-stained pages and lament the destruction of its original bindings. She meets with a variety of people who know more than she does, each of whom are able to further explain the various curiosities found between the pages.

As each mystery is explained, a chapter follows introducing the characters who interacted with the haggadah during that time in history. The difficulty is that each of these chapters are one-offs. We are introduced to these individuals, begin to understand and empathize with their lives, and then are abruptly pulled back to 1996 to hear more of Hanna’s defensive whining. Due to this back-and-forth, The People of the Book is strangely uneven and at times was downright tedious.

There is a pattern apparent in this novel of religion being a driving force for dividing or unifying people throughout the centuries. Too many people believe that the Jews and the Muslims have always been enemies, and forget that they were in fact allies and partners in many advanced civilizations. The Catholic Church persecuted the Jewish community for hundreds of years, and yet there were groups of devout Catholics that risked their lives to shelter and protect those not of their faith. From this perspective, The People of the Book shows that a seven-hundred year old manuscript can still have something to teach us about working together.

This is a book for book lovers. It’s interesting to note that I received my copy from the Toronto Public Library, and it was definitely in a well-loved condition. The spine was pulling away from the bindings, and the pages were dog-eared and stained. While reading this novel I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the history of this copy, where it had been and who had read it before me. Every book has more than one story to tell, after all.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The People of the Book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

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!