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#LiteraryWives: Happenstance

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 Happenstance by Carol Shields! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

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

The Book

happenstance

This book is two complete novels in one. One novel follows Brenda Bowman as she spends five days in Philadelphia to attend an exhibition as part of the Chicago Craft Guild. Four years earlier, Brenda began making quilts and she’s quite good at it, selling her pieces as art. Having given up her career when she got married to Jack, these days away are the first time she’s traveled for ‘work’ and she spends a lot of time in her own head thinking about her marriage, and what she wants out of her quilting work. She winds up meeting a man at the hotel and flirts with the idea of having a kind of affair while she’s away.

The other novel follows Jack back home over the course of the days that Brenda is away. Suddenly Jack is responsible for feeding and looking after their kids, a daughter who is 12 and a son who is 14ish. Jack’s best friend also shows up at the door after his wife left him, and, after a party they host, the neighbour attempts suicide.

Both novels flit back and forth across time, Jack and Brenda when they met, how they grew up, what the early years of their marriage looked like, what it was like to be married with young children during the 1960s. Jack and Brenda both spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking about their marriage, each other, what their live looks like and what it could look like.

My Thoughts

I read the Brenda novel first. There were a lot of aspects of it that I liked – how it dealt with a woman getting back into a kind of career, Brenda’s ruminations on being a wife and mother, and how she felt about being at home with small children while other women seemed to be changing the world. But I was also bored. It took me DAYS to read Brenda’s section (it only took a day and a half to get through Jack’s). The whole will-she-won’t-she cheat angle also bored me. I’m not a fan of this plot in any case, like the only way to bring some excitement into one’s life is to have an affair [insert eye roll].

But I really liked Jack’s novel! There was a lot going on and Shields’ Jack had unusually high emotional intelligence for a man, definitely for a fictional man. It was interesting to get his take on their life together and how he’d mostly been really content being married to Brenda, that he still found her attractive and liked the life they had together. The dissatisfaction that he’s feeling at 43 stems from his work not being as exciting to him as it once was. As he toys with giving up writing the book he’s spent a few years on, it seems like an immense load is lifted and he looks forward to Brenda’s return. Brenda’s novel ends with her uncertainty about what she wants her life to look like, there’s some dread about going back to how things were.

Ultimately, the fact that Brenda decides not to have an affair is likely very realistic but it meant that the whole catalyst for happenings in her novel came to nothing. It wasn’t very interesting or engaging reading.

What does the book say about being a wife?

This book was published in 1980 and was probably incredibly progressive at the time. It was an interesting look at a woman dipping her toe into work outside of the home. Both Brenda and Jack are struggling with issues relating to their work – Jack with the fact that his work isn’t interesting like it used to be and Brenda with the question of how big her ambition is.

The book seems to be saying that being a wife is no longer enough for a fulfilled life. As Brenda is realizing that she wants more from her life, she realizes that she’s actually quite angry and dissatisfied:

At times she found herself longing for that other self, the Brenda of old, smiling and matter-of-fact. […] Whatever it was that had come into her life during the last year or so had brought frustration with it. A restless anger and a sense of undelivered messages.

The Bowman’s marriage is at a crossroads but only one partner realizes it. Jack believes that all is well, that Brenda’s quilting has filled a void he didn’t realize she had, and looks forward to her return from Philadelphia. But for Brenda, her quilting and time in Philadelphia have only served to underscore for her that she wants more and that her marriage might be holding her back. I’m not sure that the Bowman’s marriage survives to be honest.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! Join us in December when we read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

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A memoir of love

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

Every once in a while you’re lucky enough to read a book that changes the way you see the world. Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family is that kind of book for me.

loveliveshere

Love Lives Here is a kind of family memoir, as Knox recounts the kind of childhood and adolescence she had, of meeting her spouse when she was still a teenager, of the obstacles they faced as a young married couple with a small child. How when their second child was 11, they emailed their parents to tell them that she was a girl and that she hoped they would still love her. How Knox and her spouse went into their daughter’s room and held her and the next day started the work of becoming her champions, learning everything they needed to be effective and respectful. And how a few years after that, her spouse, someone who seemed to live under a perpetual cloud, who would get quiet or snappish or seem distant from the rest of the family, told Amanda that they were also transgender. Which is when Knox had to work through her own feelings about her sexuality and whether she still wanted to be married to a woman.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification of the book. As I was reading it, I realized that I had actually read part of this story before. A couple of years ago, I came across the Buzzfeed story of Amanda’s wife’s first day at work as a trans woman. Zoe had been coming out to family and friends slowly but hadn’t at work yet. On her first day, her co-workers threw her a party to welcome her. It was an uplifting story that showed how small gestures can make a big impact.

Love Lives Here tells so much more of the story. And what I was struck with the most about this book is the love that is on every single page. The first time I started crying reading this book was on page three. PAGE THREE. That really set the tone for the rest of the experience. I cried A LOT while reading this. But almost never were they sad tears. I cried as Knox describes her daughter blossoming, finally happy to be recognized as the young woman she is. I cried as Knox grapples with her perceived shortcomings, realizing that in order to be the most effective advocate for her child, she needed to confront her own prejudices and blind spots. I cried when Knox celebrates her wife, realizing that her attraction to this person has always been about the feminine energy she carries. I cried when she writes about recommitting to her wife, about how beautiful her wife is in everything she puts on because she’s basically a model.

This family, you guys. They are wonderful. So wonderful that they became foster parents to their daughter’s friend and just multiplied the love in their family that much more. I’m so grateful that the Knox family shared their story. I don’t want to make it seem like this was an easy thing for Amanda or Zoe or their children and friends. There were dark days, friends who walked out of their lives, other parents who were not nice to their child (I just want to emphasize that these adults were sh*tty to a CHILD), ideas of what their family looked like that they had to change. All of it took work and educating themselves and probably therapy. But mostly, it was about love. Love of their child, love for each other.

Everyone should read this book. It will change you, it will move you, it will inspire you. It’s one that I’m going to be putting in the hands of others for a very long time.

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#15BooksofSummer Wrap Up

Ah here we are. The end of summer. I mean, not really, summer still has like three weeks in it. But the part that people love, the long relaxed days spent at the beach are pretty well done. It’s great news for people like me who don’t like summer but this year it means that by the time you read this, I will be back at my desk in the office and my tiny girl will be settling into daycare.

LC cry

But we’re hear to talk books. Specifically to do a wrap up on the abysmal failure that was my attempt at participating in the #15BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books!

15

I made a list of 15 books and as of my last update, I had finished eight. Annnnd that’s still the case.

But hey, I did read eight books from my shelves that I probably wouldn’t have looked at twice without the challenge. AND I still have a couple of them to review so it’s not a complete waste.

So here are the last three books I read for this challenge:

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. This was a book about Gilbert’s writing process and how if she let her fear of failure stop her, she never would have had anything published. She talks to other writers and creative people about how they make their creativity work for them. The book makes it seem so manageable to have a creative life alongside the one that maybe pays your bills – it’s OK if your writing/painting/embroidery/whatever is just for you. But if you don’t make space for your creative life (if you want one), you will just be sad.

Essentially.

I really got a lot more out of this book than I thought I would. I appreciated her approach to this book, the people she spoke with, how she makes it sound so easy. I ended up giving this book back to my sister because I think it’s one that she will get a lot of out of as well. So not only did I read a book on my metaphorical shelf, I got rid of a book on my physical shelf as well!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I think I’m probably one of the very last people to read this but just in case: In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at his current residence, the Hotel Metropole in Moscow. For the next few decades, he lives in a small room in the attic, surrounded by those who work at the hotel and become his friends. His time there is made more bearable by the books he reads and the friendship he forms with the daughter of a diplomat, also staying in the hotel.

I’d been told to read this book for a long time and I kept putting it off because a) I don’t like being told what I should read and b) it took ages for this book to come out in paperback (it’s like I’ve never heard of libraries).

I really loved it though. I loved how philosophical the Count was about life and love and politics. How, by limiting himself to one location, Towles gives himself room to create a layered story with a cast of finely drawn characters. It is an intensely atmospheric novel, elegant and surprisingly emotional. It took me some time to get through it (it is DENSE) but I don’t regret the time I spent with it.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. I tried to read this novel about a young woman recently arrived in New York City and working at one of the city’s premier restaurants before. Being old before my time and having never worked in a restaurant, it seemed like maybe I made a mistake in buying this book that everyone was losing their minds over.

I’m still not convinced that I am the target audience but I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. The descriptions of food alone were worth it. It made me think of the late great Anthony Bourdain more than once and that’s never a bad thing. But for me, it veered dangerously into girl-obsessed-with-boy-who-will-never-love-her-back territory. There was just enough soul searching on her part to save it but only just. There’s a weird love triangle thing that feels sinister but never amounts to anything and I was left wondering why it was even a part of the story.

Still, I read it and I didn’t hate it which I’m counting as a win.

So there you have it. My 15 Books of Summer project can’t quite be called a success but it wasn’t a complete failure either. Did you participate? How did you do?

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Great for book clubs: The Farm

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

If you’re in a book club, you know how difficult it can be to find something that people enjoy reading but that also provides a lot to discuss! It’s fine if not everyone enjoyed the book but that can also mean that people don’t have a lot to say about said book.

I feel confident that Joanne Ramos’ The Farm will make for enjoyable reading for most AND provide amazing content to discuss.

From Goodreads:

Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money—more than you’ve ever dreamed of—to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your überwealthy clients.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter’s well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on delivery—or worse.

the farm

I was really excited to read this book based on the premise. Then I read early reviews of this book talking about it being dystopian and I shied away. I don’t like reading dystopian fiction. I think it freaks me out! I’m glad that I didn’t let that keep me from reading The Farm because it’s not dystopian at all as far as I could tell. It actually reads more like a gossipy, soapy read. And I mean that as a compliment! It reminded me of Crazy Rich Asians or Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win or Sarong Party Girls.

Part of what made this book really work for me was that Asian women were the center of their own story. And it was written by an Asian American woman who knows these women, who is these women in some cases. That makes a massive difference.

Jane is a young Filipina woman who is living with her older cousin, trying to find ways to make money to look after her new baby on her own. When she finds The Farm, it seems like a good short term way to make her dreams come true. Mae is the brains behind The Farm, an ambitious Asian-American women planning her wedding while making power moves in her career. She knows she has to find certain kind of women to act as surrogates to be able to attract the kinds of clients she knows will take the business to the next level. And Reagan is the idealistic White woman who is at loose ends in her own life, who doesn’t want to take her father’s money, is struggling with her mom’s dementia diagnosis and wants to do something meaningful with her life.

The juxtaposition of the lives of these three women help to make The Farm a layered and nuanced novel about women. Ramos manages to tackle racism, sexism, the 1%, control over one’s body, female friendship, and family dynamics in an almost casual way. I was blown away by how easy Ramos made it look to write a book this captivating and noteworthy.

I will say that the ending was a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t wild about the redemption offered to one character and how another doesn’t seem to have any meaningful character development. The things that happen in Jane’s life happen TO her as if she is a passive passenger in her own life. But the rest of the novel was so good, so enjoyable to read that it didn’t bother me as much as it could have.

There’s still some time before summer is officially over and I think The Farm would make a great companion for the final days of the season.

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Review: The Rabbit Hunter

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

If you’ve hung out in these parts for a while, you will know that I love Scandinavian crime fiction. There’s something so atmospheric about the books that come out of Norway and Sweden and Denmark. The crimes are heinous but the domesticity of them always seems so cozy. It’s a combination I can’t get enough of.

Lars Kepler is an author that I feel like not a lot of people are aware of in North America just yet. Kepler is actually a pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team and they have created Joona Linna, a Finnish police officer working in Sweden, with a murky past that includes some high-level military training. Think Israeli black forces.

rabbit

The Rabbit Hunter is the 6th book in the series. Linna is in prison (due to things that happened in book five which I can’t remember anyway because it was released here ages ago) but when the Swedish Foreign Minister is murdered at home under suspicious circumstances, the Swedish police are ready to do whatever is necessary to figure out why. The Minister wasn’t a really great guy – when he was murdered he was torturing a sex worker who was trying to escape. When the killer leaves her unharmed, the police realize there is more to this story and that others could be at risk.

I was ready to be thrilled and terrified by The Rabbit Hunter. But for some reason, the violence in this one felt gratuitous, like they were trying to come up with the most gruesome murders just to be gruesome. The mystery was also not hard to pick apart and while I know there are those readers who pride themselves on figuring out the ending before the reveal, I am not one of those readers. I like being caught off guard, I like when the author pulls the rug out from under me!

There was a whole detour about human trafficking and racism that I honestly could have done without. I know that as part of the genre, there are going to be plot twists and things that ultimately have nothing to do with the reveal but this felt like it was an attempt at some kind of social commentary that honestly was just really gross and well, racist.

I think part of what was difficult about this one, for me, is the amount of time between the release of the books in Canada. They are massive bestsellers throughout Europe and I think the release times are quicker there. I don’t think the market has been as hungry for these books over here so translation to English seems to take longer. The Rabbit Hunter was originally published in 2016. That’s when book five was released in English. Book seven (Lazarus) has already been released in Sweden. It’s difficult to keep up with a series over that kind of timeline.

The Rabbit Hunter didn’t have the same pull as some of the earlier books for me but I’m not ready to give up on the series. I know that when Lazarus is finally released in Canada in 2022, I’ll be ready to read it.

 

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Literary Wives: Ties

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 Ties by Domenico Starnone! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

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

The Book

ties

In 1974, Aldo and Vanda have been married for twelve years and have two children. It is also when Aldo walks out and lives with another, younger, woman in Rome, leaving Vanda to care for their children in Naples. Eventually they reconcile and are living together in Rome when they are both in their 70s. But their marriage has never quite recovered from that time – Aldo does whatever Vanda wants so as not to upset her and Vanda is especially mean to him hoping to drive him away again.

After they go on vacation to the beach for a week, they return to find their apartment has been trashed. Nothing has been stolen but their furniture is destroyed, papers pulled out and thrown everywhere, all their secrets thrown around for anyone to see. It is while they attempt to restore order to their home that they think back over the life they have lived, at the decisions that have brought them to this moment.

My Thoughts

I really liked this little book!

I liked the structure of the book – part one is letters that Vanda writes to Aldo, railing at him for leaving their marriage, about the consequences of his leaving on his relationships with their children, how they are trying to build a life without him. The second section is present-day Aldo, being tricked by scammers, sorting through all his papers in his study after the burglary, thinking about his life all those years ago and what made him leave his marriage and ultimately what made him come back.

I liked the way the book ended. How Starnone takes a step back so that the reader is able to see the whole picture instead of just parts of it. I appreciated that nothing was left to inference for a change. I also appreciated that all parties were flawed – Aldo for his infideltiy, Vanda for spending a lifetime punishing her husband in the hopes that he’ll leave again while being completely miserable herself, their kids for the way their memories are warped with time, how they’ve used their parents’ misery as an excuse for their own.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer (and rumoured husband of Elena Ferrante) and Ties was translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (have you read her memoir about learning Italian? I really enjoyed it). In the introduction she talks a lot about the work of translation and how she had read the book many times before she did the translation (at Starnone’s request). I can’t help but think that this book is a different reading experience for someone like me who has been married for just about five years, versus someone married for 20 or 30 or someone who has experience being separated or divorced.

What does the book say about being a wife?

Ties has a fairly traditional view about being a wife – not surprising given when and where it is set. Vanda tells Aldo that she was a good wife:

Two pregnancies had barely altered me. I was an efficient wife and mother.  But evidently being almost identical to the time we’d met and fallen in love wasn’t enough, to the contrary – maybe that was the mistake; what I had to do was reinvent myself, be more than just a good wife and mother. So I tried to look like the one at the camp, and like the girls that no doubt hovered around you in Rome, and I made an effort to participate more in your life outside the house.

But still, Aldo left. So when he returns, she decides that things will be different, the marriage will go ahead on her terms.

You’d shown me in every possible way that you loved Lidia as you’d never loved me. I knew by then that if a man loves another woman he never returns to his wife for love. And so I told myself: Let’s see how long he can stand it before he tuns back to her. But the more I tormented you the more you caved. […] Years, decades have gone by playing this game and we’ve made a habit of it: living in disaster, reveling in disgrace, this was our glue.

Vanda’s identity when she was 22 was very much in becoming a wife. But once her husband betrays their vows, she won’t allow herself to be taken in again. She spends the rest of their years together punishing him and he continues to betray their vows. Despite their decision to stay together, they never move past those years when they were apart.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! Join us in October when we read Happenstance by Carol Shields.

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Peak storytelling: The Nickel Boys

The first thing that struck me about Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, was the beautiful simplicity of the cover. A large red square with a white border and two young Black men standing at the edge of the red – it is ART.

The second thing that struck me about this book was that it was released in July when it’s likely to be a heavy hitter come awards season. It is surprising to me that a book with this much publishing heft behind it wasn’t held for October.

Lucky for us that we get to read this so much sooner.

You have to be ready for this book though. It will destroy you.

The Nickel Boys is based on the real-life reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years, devastating the lives of thousands of children.

the nickel boys

Elwood Curtis is college-bound. Living with his grandmother in the Black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood has big dreams for himself. Listening to the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he takes the idea that he is as good as anyone else to heart. One bad decision, an innocent mistake, and he is sentenced to time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school that will provide the intellectual and moral training their delinquent charges lack.

In reality, the ‘school’ is a chamber of horrors that sexually and physically abuses the children in its care (I cannot stress enough that the students were CHILDREN). Elwood figures if he keeps his head down and ‘does his time’, he can get out of there and move on with his life relatively quickly. But seeing only the good in the world is next to impossible in a place like the Nickel Academy and alongside his friend Turner, Elwood has to make some difficult decisions to survive.

Colson Whitehead is a master storyteller at the peak of his craft. Every page, every paragraph, every word has been chosen to cause maximum damage to his reader. Whitehead spares none of us with this story. The abuse depicted is so casual, you almost miss it! You almost miss heinous descriptions of abuse because Whitehead wants you to understand the everyday reality faced by these kids. It was just a part of their day-to-day! I think that by doing it this way, he makes The Nickel Boys palatable to a wider audience. You can’t dismiss this one as too graphic to read. And this story needs to be read, it’s important.

The Nickel Boys is a marvel of storytelling from beginning to end. When I got to end, when I realized how all the pieces fit together to form a DEVASTATING conclusion, I sobbed. Straight up sobbed. It’s the kind of book that knocked the breath right out of me.

I can see this book as a movie or a mini-series. It has HBO or Oscar-bait written all over it should that happen. It’s the story from a dark chapter in American history, told by one of America’s best story-tellers. If you haven’t read it already, I cannot stress enough that you need to.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for honest reviews.