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Monday, December 31, 2018

Schatje’s “Best Books Read in 2018”

Since today is the last day of the year, I’m presenting my list of the Best Books Read in 2018.  All the books were published in 2017 or 2018 and received at least 4 Stars in my reviews.

Of the 100 books I read, I’ve chosen my top 25 reads, organizing them into four categories:  Best Canadian Fiction, Best Fiction from the United Kingdom, Best American Fiction, and Best International Fiction. Within each category, the books are not ranked.

Best Canadian Fiction












Best Fiction from the United Kingdom


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman:  https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2018/03/review-of-eleanor-oliphant-is.html









Best American Fiction






Best International Fiction



Sunday, December 30, 2018

Review of THE LITTLE OLD LADY WHO BROKE ALL THE RULES by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

2.5 Stars
I’ve been reading some serious books so decided I needed something more light-hearted.  I picked up this title which I've been seeing everywhere.  It is the first  of a series; I think there are four so far. 

Martha Anderson, 79, lives in Diamond House, a retirement home in Stockholm.  She and four friends are unhappy with the living conditions.  The manager, Nurse Barbara, because she is in love with the owner, enforces his cost-saving measures which include medication to suppress clients’ appetites and make them lethargic.  The five decide that they’d be better off in jail where they believe they will receive better food, more outdoor exercise, and more leisure activities.  They escape the home and register at the luxurious Grand Hotel where they devise a plot to kidnap two masterpieces from the Swedish National Museum and demand ransom, money which they will hide to improve their lifestyles after they’ve served their prison sentences.

The book is advertised as a comic caper, but it is not especially funny.  There is some humourous dialogue but there aren't any laugh-out-loud episodes.  As the novel progresses, more and more silliness occurs which just becomes irritating after a while. 

The plot relies on coincidence too much.  For instance, the League of Pensioners is able to escape because Nurse Barbara is absent.  Then they encounter her on a cruise ship.  The plot also depends on the incompetence of the police.  Again and again, the seniors are able to get away with things because the police are so inept.  The heists are rather simplistic so it is unbelievable that the quintet is able to succeed.

“Old people can do things too” (165) is the theme of the novel.  There is a condemnation of ageism and society’s treatment of the elderly.  Seniors are placed in underfunded retirement facilities where they are treated as if they are totally incapable of doing things and making decisions.  In society, they are almost invisible and so not taken seriously; therefore, the five senior criminals are able to escape detection. 

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking that it would perhaps make a better movie.  The book is too long; it has too much repetition and is slow-paced.  By removing extraneous information and focusing on action, a film version might be more enjoyable.  I won’t be reading the other books in the series because I fear they would be much the same and any charm has already worn off. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Review of THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker

4 Stars
Earlier this year, I read Circe by Madeline Miller which gives voice to one of the lesser-known women in Greek mythology.  I really enjoyed it so decided to read The Silence of the Girls which is a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of a woman.

Briseis is the queen of Lyrnessus, a city allied to Troy, when it is captured by the Greeks led by Achilles.  All the men of the city are killed, but the women are taken as slaves and brought to the Greek camp outside of Troy.  Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a prize but, in essence, she becomes his “bed-girl”.  Later she becomes central to an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon. 

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors and this sentiment is echoed in the novel:  “The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them.”  The novel opens with Briseis mocking the way Achilles is always described as a hero because he is not so regarded by her and the other slaves:  “Great Achilles.  Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.  We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”  Later, Briseis describes Achilles as “Blood, shit and brains – and there he is, the son of Peleus, half beast, half god, driving on to glory.” 

History has also usually been written from the point of view of men.  Women often are heard only as a chorus wailing in grief.  One of the slave women in the novel says, “’I’m supposed to just put up with it and say nothing, and if I do try to talk about it, it’s: “Silence becomes a woman.”’”  For women like Briseis, “Nothing mattered now except youth, beauty and fertility.”  When Achilles insists that Agamemnon return the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests in order to appease the god, Agamemnon demands Briseis be given to him.  Though it is her fate being discussed, she has no voice:  “Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.”  Later, Briseis is seen as the cause of the disagreement between the two men:  “I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel.   Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight.”  Just as Briseis once removes a woman’s gag, the author is trying to give voice to women silenced by power and history.

The book suggests that though the death of men in war is undoubtedly tragic, the fate of surviving women is worse.  All the women of Lyrnessus become slaves and “A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing.  A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.”  Achilles has “no sense of [Briseis] as a person distinct from himself.”  Briseis wants to be seen as “A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over.”  There is a scene that emphasizes the situation in which Briseis and the other women find themselves.  King Priam begs Achilles for the body of his son Hector by saying, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”  But Briseis comments, “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do.  I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”  The fate of another woman is outlined in equally graphic terms:  “Her only child dead, and tonight she was expected to spread her legs for her new owner, a pimply adolescent boy, the son of the man who’d killed her husband.” 

The characterization of Achilles is interesting.  Though Briseis calls him a butcher in her first words, he is shown to be a very complex character.  There is no doubt of his brutality, but another side of him is seen in his treatment of King Priam and his relationship with Patroclus.  He was abandoned by his mother and it is clear he suffers still from that childhood trauma.  At times, the reader will despise Achilles and be horrified by his actions yet at other times will admire him and weep with him. 

In an interview (https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/pat-barker-on-giving-voice-to-the-enslaved-women-of-homer-s-iliad-1.4936874), the author stated that she intentionally inserted anachronisms into the novel in order to encourage the reader to see that what is described in the novel is true to the present.  At the end, Briseis wonders, “What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times?  One thing I do know:  they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.” 

I could only think of Nadia Murad who was one of about 3,000 Yazidi women kidnapped and sold into sex slavery by ISIS.  She and Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon who treats victims of rape, received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.  The Norwegian Nobel Committee commented on Murad’s bravery in refusing to remain silent. 

The novel is sometimes difficult to read because some of its descriptions are graphic, but I think it is a must-read for everyone.  It provides a perspective other than that offered by male-dominated historical narratives.  And though it retells an ancient story, it is as relevant as today’s news.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Review of THE FLYING TROUTMANS by Miriam Toews

3.5 Stars
I’ve enjoyed several of Toews’ novels, especially All My Puny Sorrows and Women Talking.  Somehow I missed The Flying Troutmans which was published ten years ago and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, so I thought I’d check it out. 

Hattie Troutman returns to Manitoba to look after her 15-year-old nephew Logan and 11-year-old niece Thebes when their mother, Hattie’s older sister Min, has a psychotic break and is hospitalized.  Fearing that the children will be placed in foster care, Hattie impulsively sets off with the children on a road trip into the U.S. to find their father Cherkis whom Min chased away several years ago.  As is typical in road trip novels, they meet their share of quirky characters.  Hattie also learns about her two charges and herself, and because of her reminiscences, the reader learns about the relationship between Hattie and Min.

It is Logan and Thebes who steal the show.  Logan is a silent and moody teenager who shoots hoops to relieve stress and carves his thoughts into the dashboard of the van.  Thebes is a non-stop talker with purple hair and fake tattoos.  She never bathes and wears the same clothes every day.  Her obsession is making giant novelty cheques for people.  They are insightful and precocious, having had to grow up quickly because they’ve been the ones to look after their mother during her struggles with mental illness.  Though they are certainly odd, they are also vulnerable.  Though the siblings annoy each other, there is true affection between them, and there is no doubt that they love their mother. 

Hattie is 28 but seems very immature.  She has less insight into herself than the children have into themselves.  Thebes knows that she’s “on thin ice in the social hierarchy department . . . not exactly a popular girl” (37), and Logan acknowledges that he feels very angry at Min’s illness and his father’s abandonment.  Hattie, meanwhile, can’t figure out how she feels about her ex-boyfriend.  She behaves impulsively, the road trip being the best example, and seems to have no idea about how to care for her nephew and niece.  She never encourages Thebes to take a bath, and Thebes has to tell her to talk to Logan and how to approach him:  “You should have a talk with him, said Thebes.  I don’t know what to say, I said.  Well, she said, you could just start out with talking about how you felt when you were fifteen” (123).  Hattie even lets Logan drive, though he doesn’t have a license. 

Hattie’s way of coping has been to run away.  Because she couldn’t deal with Min’s illness, she “moved to Paris, fled Min’s dark planet for the City of Lights” (8).  The road trip is just another way to escape:  “Anyway I didn’t want to be here.  I didn’t know how to talk to the kids.  I loved them, but I didn’t want to live with my sister” (27).  Logan has more sense of responsibility than she does; he feels an obligation to look after his mother and sister.  At one point he asks, “But who would just do that . . . Like, just leave.  You know?  Like, just disappear” (127).  Hattie’s decision at the end does suggest a change.

A central question in the novel is how to help someone who only wants to be helped to die.  Several characters suggest that love is the answer:  “we were always meant to be moving in a love direction, always” (205).  Logan suggests an answer when he discusses how he shoots hoops, always believing the ball will go into the basket, even after several have not:  “I’m always sure the next one will go in” (242). 

This book is not Toews’ best.  The plot is predictable and the humour often seems contrived.  Some suspension of disbelief is required because some of the characters are unrealistic.  The ending also seems too convenient.  Nonetheless, it is worth reading.  I think it foreshadows All My Puny Sorrows which also addresses mental illness and was written after the suicide of Toews’ only sibling.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Review of DEAR EVELYN by Kathy Page

4.5 Stars
This novel, a study of a 70-year marriage, is about ordinary people but is extraordinary in quality.

Harry Miles, a sensitive man with a love of poetry, meets Evelyn Hill and falls in love immediately.  He describes her personality when he first meets her:  “She had an appetite for the better things, quick judgement, a very strong will, a dislike of doubt or ambiguity, and a way of making her words count.  Her opinions and feelings stormed through her.  She warmed to appreciation.”  The two marry during the early years of World War II, and because Harry enlists and is sent to North Africa, their first years are “islands of cohabitation in an ocean of separation.”  After the war, they begin what Harry calls “a new marriage:  real now, an everyday, actual thing instead of a frenzied week trying to make up for lost time and then a slew of letters.” 

After the war, Harry has clear hopes for his life.  He does not want to be a “slug of a man, pale and oblivious, bored, existing, yes, but not much more than that”; instead, “Having survived the war, I hope not to be ground down by the peace.  I want to stay alert.  To love passionately.  To go beyond myself.  Even, still, to write.”  However, Harry loves Evelyn and wants to give her everything she wants:  “He is her agent.  She articulates an aim, he finds the way.”  He takes a job in municipal construction and works hard so they eventually have a beautiful home with room for a large garden.  They raise three children who have opportunities denied their parents.  They should be happy but that is not the case, especially as they age and contend with physical infirmities.

Harry observes that “Marriages were not equal or fair” and it is obvious from the beginning that his marriage to Evelyn will not be either.  Harry loves Evelyn beyond measure and when not with her tries to write about his feelings:  “But despite or because of the intensity of his feelings, it was impossible.  He could barely read.  It was as if he had lost all access to language.”  Evelyn, on the other hand, misses “his attention to her comfort and well-being, the feeling of her own value, a deep acknowledgement of that.  On her part, there was no suffering, no feverishness, no lovesickness.”  Harry wants his wife to be happy and early on decides that he will devote himself to giving her what she wants.  When they move into a new home with a garden he tells her, “’We’d only known each other about half an hour . . . but I knew then that you must have your own house with a garden. . . . I knew I must get it for you.’”  Her response is, “’I just wish the garden would grow faster.’” 

There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness because of how Harry’s love is not returned in kind and his sacrifices are unappreciated.  He takes a job he does not enjoy because it provides financial security and enables him to give Evelyn what she wants and his children what they need.  Unfortunately, he loses himself in the process:  “He would never complete a poem to his satisfaction, much less send one to a little magazine, however much he had once imagined he might do such a thing. . . . And he was no longer the young man coming home to his wife after years of war, vowing not to be ground down by routine, to stay open to the possibility of an ecstatic life.”  His is a diminished, disappointed life devoted to fitting “around someone driven and intransigent.”

Harry believes the words of a favourite sonnet (Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks / But bears it out even to the edge of doom) and the sentiment is true in his case:  “He had loved her all his adult life, long after the gloss of their youth and its illusions had been worn away and left them with the essentials of who they were, along with a collection of sometimes contradictory memories … He had never denied her anything, material or emotional, that he could provide.”  Evelyn’s decisions in their waning years suggests that her feelings have changed; in fact, even during the war years, when Harry is “low and worn out”  and writes about his “dark thoughts,” she is not understanding:  “this Harry was not exactly like the one she remembered.  This man was less practical, less positive, and less affectionate.”   Their daughters tell Harry that “he was too accommodating with Evelyn” but “he didn’t see it just as giving in.  It was doing what he could to make things work.  He could bend, she could not.”  He also fears that if he had stood up to her, “he would have lost her, and that was unthinkable.”  Evelyn, however, interprets his constant accommodations as a sign of weakness and she dislikes “compromise, weakness, vagueness.”

Evelyn is not easy to like.  She is such a self-centred and domineering person who is never satisfied.  At the beginning Harry loves Evelyn’s strong-mindedness:  “one of the things he loved about Evelyn was her fierce pride, her willingness to argue even when the facts were against her, to interrupt, to refuse, to insist-.”  Later, when he is especially frustrated with his job and speaks without thinking, these traits are turned against him and he realizes “How very sensitive Evelyn is to . . . any criticism or lack of respect, whether real or perceived.  How, thinking herself slighted, she will put everything she has into self-defence.  How she can be vicious.”  As she ages, “She had become more intensely herself . . . she understood duty and believed in it, yet in practice found it intolerable … When she wanted something, it drove her.  She experienced her own feelings with great intensity, but often failed to accept those of others, especially if they differed from hers.” 

Despite this negative portrayal, it is possible to have some sympathy for Evelyn.  She enjoyed her work at a law firm but was dismissed once she married.  She is not prepared for her role as a wife; she has to learn how to cook and thinks of the house as something she must put “under control,” so much so that she detests Harry’s collection of books because of “the fussy, old-fashioned effect it gave a room, especially since his book jackets did not match.”  She struggles with motherhood; one of her daughters says, “’She’s just not a natural carer.’”  When she speaks to her doctor about some concerns, he is rather dismissive.  Then there’s a late pregnancy which she didn’t want.  And there is no doubt that her father’s alcoholism had a long-lasting effect on her life; certainly, his behaviour and her mother’s reactions help account for Evelyn’s need to be in control. 

This is a novel of character which is breathtakingly realistic.  I understand why it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.  Page’s other novels have also been nominated for prestigious awards, so I will be checking them out.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of WAITING FOR EDEN by Elliot Ackerman

3.5 Stars
This novel certainly brings to mind Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo which was published 80 years ago.  It is sad that the anti-war message must be repeated.

Eden Malcolm is wounded in an attack in Iraq during his second deployment.  In fact, he is probably “the most wounded man in the history of war.”  He once weighed 220 pounds; now there are only 70 pounds left of him because “they’ve cut all of him off up to the torso.”  He cannot hear and his vision is impaired; even his mental faculties are not totally intact. 

The narrator is Eden’s friend, an unnamed man who died in the same attack three years earlier.  Death has granted the narrator omniscience so he can describe events in Eden’s room in a burn center in San Antonio, but he can also relate events from the past which he didn’t observe when he was alive.  He focuses on relationships, specifically that between Eden and his wife Mary.  We learn about how they met and how things changed when Eden returned from his first deployment.  And then we see how Mary has sat vigil for three years with her husband.  The narrator also has access to both Mary and Eden’s thoughts.

The novel opens in a way that explains it is Mary’s story:  “I want you to understand Mary and what she did.  But I don’t know if you will.  You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you.”  Within a few months of Eden’s arrival in the U.S., his remaining family “decided he should be let go. . . . They said all this to Mary many different times and in many different ways, always asking her to let go of Eden.  Always she said no.  After they asked for the last time, they went home, had a memorial service for their brother and stopped visiting.”  Mary’s reasons for continuing her watch and for refusing to let Eden’s death be expedited are what we come to learn in the course of the book. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t find her motivations convincing.  Because of her actions before Eden’s second deployment, she feels a great deal of guilt.  She also made a promise to herself when he left, but none of these fully explain her decisions, especially at the end when there is little doubt as to Eden’s wishes.  She comes across as a selfish person; certainly, she seems to give little thought to what is best for Eden or for her daughter.  True love, which is unselfish, seems to have little to do with her actions. 

The theme, of course, is the terrible cost of war.  Eden’s injuries are not described in great detail because the author wants to emphasize that it is not just Eden who suffers.  Everyone in the novel suffers.  Wars continue beyond the battlefield, in homes and hospitals.  There is even mention of how medical technology may prolong the suffering of victims and their loved ones.  People like Eden would have died in previous conflicts but medical knowledge has advanced so he can be kept alive.  Gabe, one of Eden’s nurses who was once an army medic, thinks about the problem with medical advancements:  “he’d watched the minutes he bought for his friends turn into sentences of too many hours, days and months.  Soon he learned it wasn’t too little time that was the enemy but too much.  For in the end, it was time that turned all his friends’ fractures to breaks.  And for his friends, the moments from their saving to their ends became a list of torments caused by him.” 

There are some medical details that I didn’t find convincing.  For example, “One of the doctors remarked that emotional trauma to the mother often led to certain recessive genes becoming dominant [in a child].”  Is this true?  Likewise, a nurse explains “how sometimes a stroke can reawaken parts of the brain that might have been traumatized before.”  Is this true?

This is a short but powerful novel.  It is not an easy read but serves as a reminder of the realities of war.  The title has many meanings; one is that until we abolish warfare, we will always be waiting for paradise.