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#LiteraryWives: The War of the Wives

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

If you haven’t already (because I was supposed to post about this on Monday), please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

Just before we get to it, I want to apologize to the other bloggers in this group for dropping the ball so egregiously this time. For some reason it was impossible for me to get a copy of this book (from 2015!) and even though I ordered it from Amazon weeks ago, it didn’t arrive until Monday. And then I got a stomach bug. But I finally finished it last night so let’s do this.

The Book

war or the wives

Selina Busfield looks great for her age. At nearly 50, her skin is smooth (thanks to Botox), her body lean (thanks to yoga at her club), and her home is magazine worthy (thanks to years of buying piece by expensive piece). Her children are nearly grown, and although they aren’t necessarily who or what she would have pictured, they are fine. Her husband, Simon, splits his time between their home and his apartment in Dubai where he works in property development. It’s not ideal but Selina has more than enough to be getting on with, running their home, keeping up with their friends and keeping herself in shape.

And then one night she gets a call from the police. Her husband’s body has been found in the river. Not in Dubai, where he’s supposed to be, but in London. And that’s not even the biggest surprise. At the funeral, a woman shows up and says that she’s Simon’s wife and this is their daughter.

Lottie Busfield has been with Simon for the better part of 20 years. Where Selina is contained, Lottie is a more artistic personality, younger than her husband by 15 years, content to live their life based on what he wants or needs. Two years ago she and their daughter, Sadie, moved back to London while Simon kept working in Dubai.

Now that their husband is gone, both Selina and Lottie have to come to terms with the truth of their marriages, the infidelities and worse, the financial implications of his death.

My Thoughts

This book had actually been on my TBR list for ages, for 4 years! I was drawn to the idea of a melodrama where two women face off after losing a shared husband. But I felt like this book couldn’t decide what it was. For the first two-thirds it was what I expected. Selina and Lottie are both grappling with this new reality, dancing around each other’s families, working through the stages of grief in the midst of the betrayal of the other’s marriage. I liked that the book was split into sections named for the stages of grief, it gave the book a nice flow and allowed Cohen to move the story forward in time pretty seamlessly.

But.

In the end I felt like this book couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Was it a melodrama, a novel of loss and lies? Or was it a thriller? A “the call is coming from inside the house” kind of deal? I could have done without the allusion to possible incest (I choose to read a lot of messed up fiction, but incest storylines are something I just don’t mess with), the creepy son, the shady dealings the husband may or may not have been involved in, and the stalker vibes.

What does the book say about being a wife?

Both Selina and Lottie wrap their identities in the shell of being wives. Although very different from each other, once their wifehood ends (Selina becomes a widow, Lottie learns her marriage was never legal), each unravels. Selina gives up being the image of the perfect wife: she stops going to the gym (can’t afford the monthly club dues anyway), lets her hair grow out, has casual sex with Simon’s financial advisor. Lottie just retreats into her grief. She thinks she sees Simon everywhere, she wants to live in the memories and the dreams of him, she gives in to the chemical peace offered by the sedatives prescribed by her doctor.

Both women got together with Simon when they were relatively young. Selina gave up on her law degree with a year to go and never finished it. She focused on being a wife, and then a mother, making their home a haven, showing her love by cooking and doing everything for her family. When the children are grown (the youngest is 17 when Simon dies) and Simon is gone, she has to figure out what her life looks like as a single adult, something she never thought would happen. She also assumed that she’d be financially looked after, that Simon would always ensure that she wouldn’t have to worry about money. When that security blanket is also ripped away, Selina faces having to make her own way for the first time at 50. Without the protective layer of being Mrs Simon Busfield, Selina is suddenly at the mercy of the world.

Lottie was also a student when she met Simon, who was 15 years older (and had just had a new baby a month earlier). She let Simon take care of her – she took for granted that he would handle their finances, didn’t participate in the decisions around their money or mortgages, was content to sit by the pool and read novel after novel while they lived in Dubai. In London she works in a hotel or spa during the day and works on children’s book illustrations at night but is under no illusion that her work will pay the bills. She’s also been a fairly hands off mother to her teenage daughter, happy to watch how close Simon and Sadie are to each other. Simon’s death basically blows up Lottie’s entire life and she doesn’t have the personality of Selina to weather the storm.

Basically, Tamar Cohen is telling married women to make sure to participate in the finances!

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! My apologies again to my fellow Wives for being late to the party on this one.

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The story of a story

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You know, when Reese Witherspoon first started her book club I may have rolled my eyes a little. But damn it if she doesn’t pick excellent books!

One of her picks was Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, a Cold War spy story about the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Despite not having read Doctor Zhivago myself, I really really enjoyed reading the story of how it came to be.

secrets

The novel follows a number of points of view over the course of a few years – the group of typists in the States who are able to piece together parts of the story, Olga, Boris Pasternak’s mistress who spends years in the Gulag for her refusal to tell anyone about his work, Boris himself, Irina, an American-born Russian girl who goes to work as a typist before engaging in extra-curricular activities, and Sally, a woman who worked in the Secret Service during the war who has come back to help out on specific missions. Prescott uses these different POVs to create a layered multi-dimensional tale that I breezed through in a day.

Despite the many POVs in this novel, or maybe because of it, the story isn’t really about the characters. Oh, you get to know their histories and what happens to them, but they really only matter insofar as they are involved in this mission. I would have liked more information about the Russian side of things, in terms of why this book was deemed so subversive to the State but I guess that’s why nonfiction exists. The Secrets We Kept is the story about getting this one book out of Russia and into the hands of Russians.

I’ve seen mixed reviews of this book and it sounds like that comes down to expectations. Those who came to this novel expecting a straight-forward spy tale seem to be annoyed with the romantic entanglements that are also a part of it. I’m not sure why anyone would be irritated at getting more story but to each their own. Were some of the Russian sections a touch dramatic? Sure, but Russian literature is pretty dramatic! I thought Prescott did an amazing job telling this really crazy spy story while also letting her characters tell their own stories. Plus, how often do you get a lesbian love story in a spy novel? Not often enough!

I didn’t know anything about the publication of Doctor Zhivago and now I keep thinking about what an extraordinary sacrifice was made so that this book could see the light of day. And how I really need to read it ASAP.

The Secrets We Kept is a great book for a vacation read, or a cozy indoor day. It was a book that I read at the exact right time and there’s no better feeling than that.

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#LiteraryWives: The Home-Maker

It’s time for Literary Wives, (for real this time) a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

If you haven’t already (because I was supposed to post about this on Monday), please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

homemaker

Published in 1924, The Home-Maker is quite progressive in it’s story of a woman who is forced to enter the workforce after an accident leaves her husband a paraplegic. Before she goes to work, Evangeline Knapp is a very competent home-maker, whose children are always well turned out, and who the other women in the community look up to as a pinnacle of motherhood. Her husband Lester meanwhile, took a job as an accountant against his more creative, artistic tendencies, who the community views as another burden that Evangeline must shoulder. Both parents are miserable while the two older children suffer from digestive ailments and their younger brother is a known terror whose mother can’t wait to send him to school.

Due to a company restructuring, Lester loses his job. But before he can tell Evangeline, there is a fire at a neighbour’s house and in trying to help, Lester ‘falls’ off a roof and winds up paralyzed. Evangeline, never one to sit back and rely on other people to do for her, goes to the store where Lester worked and asks if she might have a job. It turns out that Evangeline is also excellent at working in a department store and while she goes from strength to strength, Lester begins to work out how to keep the house and feed the children so that his wife doesn’t have to worry about anything but working. And he finds that he loves being home with the kids, that washing dishes and mending socks leaves his mind free to wander. The children improve in every way: the older two recover from their digestive problems and the youngest turns into a sunny, thoughtful, clever little boy.

My Thoughts

So, I loved this book. It gave me a lot to think about, how the pressures of the outside world and the expectations we have for our lives can erase the small joys. I loved reading about Lester discovering his children and what made them happy, the things that they thought about and how he was able to support them in growing to be the people they wanted to be. I also loved reading about the satisfaction that Evangeline got from learning the store business and how thrilled the store owners were with her, how she was exactly the kind of person they were looking for to help them run things.

Apparently when the book was published, Canfield Fisher was keen that people understand that she meant the book to be about the children, that it wasn’t a feminist work. In a lot of ways, the book does circle around the children. How, when their mother is home with them, everything is done and done well but there is no joy in the house. Evangeline is resigned to her life but she takes no pleasure in it, she is doing what society expects her to do. The same is true for Lester, and so their children become victims of those expectations. When they are forced to buck the norms, everything gets better.

What does the book say about being a wife?

For Evangeline, being a wife is a solitary endeavor because being a wife also means being a mother and being at home:

She passed her life in solitary confinement, as home-makers always do, with a man who naturally looked at things from a man’s standpoint […] and with children who could not in the nature of things share a single interest of hers…

Canfield Fisher seems to be saying that life is better for all if everyone, regardless of gender, is allowed to follow their heart’s desires. Lester, it turns out, is much better suited to home-making but he is only allowed to do it while he is physically incapable of going out to work. The neighbours certainly find it strange and odd that a man should want to do house work:

‘Oh Lester, let me do that! The idea of your darning stockings! It’s dreadful enough your having to do the housework!’
‘Eva darned them a good many years,’ he said, with some warmth, ‘and did the housework. Why shouldn’t I?’ He looked at her hard and went on, ‘Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor, mean, cheap job, beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.’

Lester and Evangeline are only able to be good partners to each other when they are allowed to follow their natural inclinations and contribute to the household based on their strengths. When it looks like things might go back to the way they were, because Lester may recover the use of his legs after all, both are devastated at the thought of it. Evangeline had been sacrificing for fourteen years because for her, in her time, being a wife means putting herself last and making sure everyone else is fed and clothed and the house is spotless. The role of wife constricted her and stifled her natural tendencies. Ultimately, Lester makes the biggest sacrifice by remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of his days so that his family can continue to thrive.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! My apologies again to my fellow Wives for being late to the party on this one. Join us in February when we read War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen.

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#LiteraryWives: A Whoops

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield-Fisher!

Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

Except that I ordered the book hoping that five weeks would be enough time to receive and read the book and it only arrived yesterday. I’m only 50 pages in! I like what I’ve read so far though so here’s the plan:

  • You all visit Kay, Lynn and Naomi and read their posts about The Home-Maker;
  • I finish the book this week and post about it so I can join the discussion properly;
  • You all accept my deepest apologies for this oversight, especially Kay, Lynn and Naomi!

See you all back later to discuss?

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Nonfiction November 2019: New to my TBR

nonfictionnovember2019

And just like that, a glorious month of nonfiction reading and connecting with other nonfiction readers is over! It’s been a great nonfiction reading month for me – to date I have finished 9 nonfiction books this month, bringing my nonfiction percentage to 36!

Before we pack it all in, we have one more chance to talk about all the books we’ve discovered this month:

Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 30) – New to My TBR – Rennie What’s Nonfiction: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

In previous years, I have been add-happy over the month which means that I never end up reading any of the books I was so excited about. I only read ONE book from the number I added to my TBR in November last year. So, this year I’ve tried to be more intentional about what I’m adding because I want to READ them at some point!  Still, you all shared some really good books so it’s been hard to show that restraint (I’m looking at you, Rennie).

Here are some of the books that I’ve added thanks to all of you:

  • Mrs Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction). I’m always looking for a new twist on true crime and this one is about a woman investigating crimes against women in 1917.
  • The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan (Tina @ TBR etc). You know how sometimes something keeps coming up in your life and you finally have to give into the Universe’s insistence? That’s me and the Tulsa Race Riot right now. And actually I wanted to read basically everything on the list that Tina put together in Week 2.
  •  Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers (Hopewell’s Library of Life). I actually went and got this one out of the library this week! Partly this post (there’s a lot of overlap on this list with what I naturally gravitate towards so I have a good list to refer to later!) and partly S3 of The Crown, which features Princess Alice for the first time.
  • Victoria’s Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard (Hopewell’s Library of Life). I’ve read about Victoria’s granddaughters and some about her daughters Vicki, Louise and Beatrice but that still leaves Helena and poor Alice. I’d like to fill in some knowledge gaps.
  • Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction) Finding nonfiction books about North Korea is HARD. So when you find one that someone is also telling you you should read, it needs to go on your list at the very least.

Special shout out to Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction for lists like this because I want to read/listen to pretty much everything on this list. Truly, I get so many great nonfiction recommendations because of her.

So that’s a wrap on Nonfiction November 2019 at The Paperback Princess. Massive thank you to all of our amazing hosts again this year: Katie (Doing Dewey), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Leann (Shelf Aware), Julie (JulzReads), and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction). And thanks to all of you who joined in and shared so many great books all month. See you in 2020?

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Daylight reading only: If You Tell

A few weeks ago I was listening to the My Favorite Murder podcast when they were talking about this woman who started a “clinic” to help people with a myriad of health conditions by starving them. She wound up killing a bunch of her patients – the story was horrific. I can’t remember if it was Karen or Georgia doing the telling but she got a lot of the story by reading a book that Gregg Olsen wrote about it.

Weirdly, a few days later someone from Gregg Olsen’s publishing team reached out to see if I would be interested in reading his new book, out December 1st. I didn’t even finish reading the email before I replied YES.

cover - if you tell

I thought the story of the starvation cure was awful but it has nothing on the heinous deeds of Shelly Knopek and her husband, Dave. If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood tells the story of Shelly and Dave Knopek, the Washington State couple who abused, terrorized and murdered three people who had moved in with them, while also inflicting heinous abuse on their three daughters.

I very much appreciated that Olsen began the book by telling readers that the Knopek’s daughters, Nikki, Sami and Tori are today, safe and thriving in their new lives, away from the devastating abuse that was forced upon them for years. As I made my way through their story, I hung onto the fact that the girls, at least, were going to be OK in the end. The things that they saw, the things that were done to them, the way their mother gaslighted them throughout their lives – it is remarkable to me that these women are anywhere near OK today.

This story is one of the worst that I’ve ever read and Olsen does an incredible job of not reveling in the gruesome details. He manages to describe what happened without an ounce of rubbernecking which I for one was grateful for. I got the sense the entire time that he was a friend of the family, someone who had worked to gain the trust of these women who had burdened with horrific family secrets for so long. I’m not trying to be coy by not describing the details – for one thing, I think the reading experience is a bit better by not knowing too much, for another, it truly is a disgusting tale and if true crime isn’t your thing, you don’t need to know the details!

I couldn’t put this book down. I raced through the pages in less than two days, reluctant to leave the family at any point where things were especially bad. Olsen’s writing is spare, to the point, sticking to the facts and refraining from embellishing a story that’s already worse than anything you’ve read recently. It’s the kind of book that I wouldn’t read before bed, for fear that the Knopeks would haunt my dreams. I recommend full daylight when someone else is home for your own reading experience.

If you’re a true crime reader, if you’re a murderino, if you love 48 Hours and Dateline, I know you’re going to want to pick up If You Tell when it’s out next week.

Thanks to Dandelion PR for an ARC of this book. 

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Review: Daughter of Family G

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I should preface this post by saying that I never read books about disease or terminal illness. I hate when it catches me off guard in fiction and I can’t do it in nonfiction. It’s part of my completely irrational belief that reading about those things somehow invites them into my life.

I know.

But when I read the description of Ami McKay’s memoir, Daughter of Family G: A Memoir of Cancer Genes, Love and Fate, I honestly didn’t clock that I’d be reading about the Big C. I’m smart about a lot of things but sometimes I’m a complete idiot.

family G

McKay, author of The Birth House, The Virgin Cure and The Witches of New York, is also a descendant of Family G, the first family to be medically recognized as having a genetic predisposition to certain kinds of fast-moving cancers. Starting in 1895, her great-great aunt Pauline had worked with pathologist Dr Aldred Warthin to map her family tree and the instances of cancers that had killed them one by one. She herself was fearful of dying young because of the same and sadly, she ended up being right.

Eventually a Dr Lynch is able to determine that there is a gene responsible for the higher instances of cancer and creates a test that can find out whether a person has inherited the gene. The idea is that once a person becomes aware of their predisposition, they can begin to schedule annual tests and screenings to catch any issues before they are terminal.

McKay, like her great-great aunt before her, has become the custodian of her family’s history. And when, as a young mother, she discovers that she too has inherited the gene, she has to figure out how to come to terms with her medical reality: maintaining her status as a previvor, staying on top of the tests and screenings she needs, educating some doctors about her status as someone with Lynch Syndrome, and how she feels about the potential that she has passed the gene onto her sons.

Daughter of Family G is an intensely intimate memoir. McKay is literally sharing her medical records and that of her entire family with readers. It is a love letter to the incredible women in her family; her mom Sally, her grandmother Alice, great-grandmother Tillie, and of course, great-great aunt Pauline. In tracing the history of her family’s cancers, of the work of Drs Warthin and Lynch, McKay also tells her own story of finding love, figuring out her destiny, moving to Nova Scotia, becoming a mother.

Not only did I learn so much about hereditary cancers and the power of knowledge when it comes to medicine, but I fell in love with McKay’s family. It’s so easy to see how she is drawn to telling stories about groups of women who make a difference in their community – that’s the kind of family she comes from, it’s what she knows. I’ve loved reading McKay’s fiction for years and now I feel like I have a deeper understanding of her work and where it comes from.

It should maybe also go without saying that this book is beautifully written. McKay weaves a spell with her gorgeous prose which feels like a feat when you stop and think about the fact that this is a book about cancer.

I loved this memoir and am very glad that I let it in my life. It is very much a story about what cancer can do but it is also a memoir of love and understanding, of the power of knowledge. I’m truly sad to leave the women of Family G – it was an honour to have ‘met’ them.