5

Scratching the non-fiction itch

Like any self-respecting book nerd, I have a physical TBR stack. A cabinet, actually. My little blue cabinet sits in the living room housing all the stories that I’ve collected in the last several years, always meaning to read them until I get distracted by newer, more hyped books.

Some are books that a friend has loaned me, that I haven’t been in the right mood to read. Some are books I pilfered from my sister when she sort of left the country and was selling all of her possessions. A lot are books I’ve bought on sale or as the mood struck and a lot of these are non-fiction.

I have biographies of royals, books about WWII, movie stars, Kennedys, feminist essay collections, social sciences, and writers. More than fiction, I can never not buy the non-fiction I stop and look at. Ever since I passed on a book about Stalin’s daughter and went back only to never be able to find it again, my policy is not to pass up the non-fiction titles.

But so much of the reading I do is fiction. So once I bring these tomes home, they go into the blue cabinet and there they stay.

Except that recently, my reading has been leaning towards non-fiction. And for some reason, I’ve been fighting that. It’s probably a result of having been on maternity leave for nearly a year, feeling like my brain is withering, like I need something to try and stay sharp. I crave learning and my blue cabinet is well supplied with an education.

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So why am I fighting it? Why when I finish a non-fiction title do I feel like the next few have to be fiction? Why am I resisting the back-to-back non-fiction reading if that’s what I feel like right now?

I’ve spent the week with a very-hyped fiction title and I didn’t love it. I felt like I was reading so slowly, that my brain was atrophying, like I wasn’t sharp enough to keep up with the story. Before that, I spent the same amount of time with a non-fiction title (so long strong April reading numbers) and it felt like I’d lived three lifetimes – in a good way!

I’m heading to my in-laws’ again soon and I’m not fighting the urge to bring non-fiction. I’m going to lean into it. Eventually, I’m sure the desire to read fiction will come back. Until then, I have a lot of non-fiction to get through.

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7

Literary Wives: Wait For Me, Jack

t’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 Wait For Me, Jack by Addison Jones! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

 

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Wait For Me, Jack is the story of Jack and Milly’s ‘greatest generation’ marriage. The book starts with the day they meet, it’s Jack’s first day of work and he’s kind of already bored and tries to flirt with Milly (although back then she’s still Billie) and she brushes him off but then at the end of the day she sees him down the street and yells after him to wait up and the rest is history. Or rather, the rest is what makes up the book, told backwards. The next section sees Jack and Milly as seniors in their last days; Jack actually dies in his sleep and Milly is left with his body for days before she tells their children that their father is dead, really casually.

Each section is a different date and year in their lives, never any of the important days that they allude to throughout the book (when their nephews were dropped into their lives to stay, when their baby died etc), just regular days that altogether make up a life. You see their relationship unfurl, from what it is in the end when they really can’t stand each other, to the middle when both of them are kind of at loose ends, to the very beginning when they are trying to build a life together.

My Thoughts

I quite liked the structure of this book – I liked being able to see the regression of the marriage, knowing how it all ended up before seeing how it got that way. It was an interesting way for the characters to develop too, or rather, regress.

Right away I was struck by Jones’ dedication:

To anyone who wonders if they married the wrong person.

It really sets up the novel as both Jack and Milly wonder numerous times what their lives would have been like had they ended up with different people. In Jack’s case he acts on that fantasy with a number of different women, further complicating their lives by bringing an additional child into the mix.

I won’t say that I particularly liked any character in this novel. Oh I’m not the kind of reader that has to like characters in books but when you don’t, it does make it harder to root for them. Jack leans right into being a despicable person with the cheating and the way he looks down on his wife as she ages less gracefully than he perhaps would have preferred. And for her part, I think Milly makes herself into a bit of a martyr, never really standing up for what she wants out of the relationship.

What does the book say about being a wife?

This book felt really Jack-centric to me but we did get a sense of what it was like for Milly at points throughout the novel.

For Milly it seems like a large part of being a wife is putting up with Jack’s shi*t and making him feel like the smarter, more everything partner. She’s not stupid, she knows what he is, what he’s done, where he’s been on some of the important days of their lives. But she’s also a woman of a certain time, a ‘greatest generation’ wife, the people who just got on with it and didn’t complain. What happens to her life, her children, Milly, if she leaves Jack, the breadwinner?

She imagined leaving but couldn’t get past the practical difficulties. Where to go, and with what money?[…] If she left this house, somehow, without money, would Billy come with her? Would the older children still respect her, want to visit her? Would she end up like her sister, Louise? Mentally unstable, impoverished, vulnerable? No real home, a transient? Or like her mother – coping with singleness by being manly, tough, aggressively competent?

It seems like, for Milly, the most important part about being a wife is the home she creates. For most of the novel, Milly is inside their home. Later in life it is because she has become crippled, unwilling and unable to leave their home but earlier on home has always been her focus. Without Jack, without her marriage, that home is no longer possible. Their marriage ends in her home with Jack’s passing and we don’t know what becomes of Milly then. Do her children take her in? Does she move to an assisted living facility? Does she stay in the home alone? It is clear at the end of her life that Milly is in no condition to take care of herself. Whatever his failings, and there are many, in the end Jack does take gruding care of her, even while being annoyed that she can’t remember anything, that she can’t walk, that she smells.

Wait For Me, Jack seems to posit that marriage is just an institution designed to stick you with the one person who will annoy you, plague you and break your heart a million times over. A very uplifting read! 🙂

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! Join us in June when we read A Separation by Katie Kitamura.

0

Into That Fire: A grown up love story

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

I’m lucky enough to get books sent to me by Penguin Random House Canada. But I often forget what I’ve requested and sometimes the books arrive and my excitement levels are fairly low. I look at some books and go “why did I think this would be something I’d want to read?”

I know, I’m a jerk.

That’s kind of how I was feeling when I sat down to start reading M.J. Cates’ Into That Fire. Plus, it’s CanLit which is a genre I still struggle with. I tried to get a sense of what other readers were feeling via goodreads but there was virtually no information about the book there. I was apprehensive to say the least, anticipating a several-days’-long-slog of a read.

I could not have been more wrong about Into That Fire. It was wonderful.

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It is 1916 and Imogen Lang knows she’s about to break Quentin Goodchild’s heart. He is her best friend in medical school but she knows that he wants more than she’s prepared to give. Imogen has plans to go on to Baltimore, to work in a lab and with patients to try and find a cure for madness. When she finally tells Quentin how she feels, she breaks his heart and Quentin determines to join the army and die. He leaves to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force (the States isn’t involved in the Great War at this point) and Imogen leaves for Baltimore to try and further her career. But Imogen wasn’t prepared for the sexism she was going to encounter in pretty well every aspect of her life and when she hears that Quentin has been killed she starts to think about the life she might have had with Quentin.

Into That Fire takes its time. The characters have the space to become fully fleshed out, to live and love, to fail and succeed. I had initially thought of it as a WWI story but it’s so much more than that. It mostly centers around Imogen and her fight to become recognized as a professional in a time when women basically all dropped out of the few careers open to them once they married and had children. There’s a whole psychology thread to the book that I wasn’t sure I would enjoy but I felt like it added so many layers to the book.

I can’t say that this is an emotional book but I did find myself getting ENRAGED by some of the sexism Imogen encounters. She is constantly being undermined, forced to explain herself, and held to infuriating double standards. When the man she marries blames her for the problems in their marriage because she insisted on working once they had children even though he always said that he wanted her to work, supported her dreams, I almost threw the book across the room. I wasn’t swept away but I was definitely invested.

I spent a fair amount of time wondering about the identity of M.J. Cates. It’s a pseudonym for a Canadian writer who has written many novels and won several awards under another name. If you know who this is, please please tell me. I did a casual google and couldn’t find out. I’m leaning towards Cates being a woman but I honestly couldn’t put money on it.

Into That Fire is a full grown love story with layers and three-dimensional characters, littered with truths about the human condition. I’m still thinking about it and need to tell more people about how good it is.

1

The Hiding Place

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

You know how there are certain times of year that have piles and piles of new thrillers ready for you to read? This is definitely one of those times of year as people get ready to escape chillier climes for sunshine and beach reading.

C.J. Tudor’s new book, The Hiding Place, is definitely a great book for reading poolside. This isn’t to be confused with Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place which is about something very, very different.

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Joe Thorne has come home, a place he never thought he’d willingly come back to. Arnhill is a little village in the north of England, marked by the rise and fall of the coal mine. The cottage that Joe rents was the sight of a horrific murder suicide; a teacher at the school killed her son and then herself. Joe isn’t bothered by living in the same place that was so recently the sight of so much horror – he’s here to keep an eye on a friend from the past, to make sure that something that happened years ago isn’t happening again.

If you read Tudor’s previous novel, The Chalk Man, this one might feel familiar. Both feature rather unlikable middle-aged men who were a part of a particular kind of friend group in their youth, trying to piece together what happened years ago and what relevance, if any, they have to what’s going on in the present day.

But The Hiding Place has a creeping element of horror that was unexpected. Horror is not a genre I ever read but I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it, probably because it was done with a light touch. I thought that I knew how the story was going to end and I definitely guessed part of it, but Tudor did a better job than I realized of obfuscating the mystery.

I’m trying to find more to write about this book but I’m struggling. I liked it, I enjoyed reading it, I’ll probably pass it along to friends who I think would enjoy it. But it’s not the kind of book the benefits from a whole lot of dissection. Some books are just meant to be enjoyed on a beach, or a plane, by a pool, or apres ski. The Hiding Place wouldn’t be out of place in any of those spots.

6

A beautifully written letdown

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

You know those authors whose work you read where one book really stood out but other work hasn’t but you keep wanting it to click? I think Diane Setterfield is one of those authors for me. I remember loving The Thirteenth Tale and was really excited about Bellman & Black but it never quite worked for me and the same thing has happened with Once Upon A River.

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Our story begins on the shortest night of the year when regulars gather at The Swan to have a drink and tell stories. On this night a stranger stumbles in with a dead girl in his arms before collapsing in front of them all. They tend to the man’s injuries and put the girl in another room. Later, the little girl comes back to life but she can’t speak and tell them who she is or what happened to her – she isn’t the daughter of the man she came in with.

For the next several months the community tries to figure out who this little girl is and what happened to her.

This book was about 100 pages too long in my estimation. But I can see why it’s this long because the problem with Setterfield is that she writes so well! Once Upon A River was at once incredibly easy to read and way too long and I spent a lot of time thinking about not finishing it. One of the early issues that I had with it was she tried so hard to make the river a character in the story. Pages and pages of description of the river and life by the river and how the river takes people for her own and gives so much to the people at the same time. I’ve never been one for long descriptions of nature (I don’t want to think about what this says about me…) so this was just way too much for me.

The other issue I had, aside from the story taking so long to actually come together, was that it didn’t feel like the reader was in on any of it. In most mysteries, the reader feels like they have an idea of what’s happening and I think it’s one of the reasons the genre is so fun to read. We like to feel like we’re on the inside. Once Upon A River kept introducing new characters, motivations, stories.

And again, it was so beautifully written I wanted to scream:

…And Lily herself haunted these fantasies, an invisible figure who diverted wasps from flowers that Ann bent to smell, who removed thorny brambles from the bushes where the red ball landed, damped the sparks that leapt from the fire on to the hearthrug. She averted all dangers, managed all risks protected from all harm. Nothing could hurt Ann while she lived in the Vaughn’s house and while Lily watched over her from afar; the child’s life was nothing but comfort safety and delight.

When the story did eventually come together I was satisfied but it never quite took the sting out of the rest of the experience for me. I wanted to like this one so much more than I did.

11

Canada Reads: The Woo-Woo

Next month, five different books will be discussed and defended with the ultimate goal of narrowing it down to one book that all Canadians should read. That’s the idea behind Canada Reads, an annual book tournament televised on the CBC. This year’s theme is “one book to move you.”

This year’s contenders and their chosen books are:

Someone I follow on Instagram is actually the literary agent for The Woo-Woo and she mentioned it in her stories so I decided that that would be the first book I’d read.

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The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong is a memoir of growing up in a family struggling with untreated mental illnesses, believing instead that the afflicted person was possessed by ghosts. Lindsay’s mother was terrified of being possessed, taking her children to live in a mall food court for weeks at a time because the ghosts wouldn’t find them there. Her father used work as a solace, using his role as family breadwinner as an excuse for not dealing with any of the madness at home. To this day Lindsay doesn’t speak with her younger sister and her relationship with her younger brother is incredibly damaged. Her aunt once held the Lower Mainland hostage on Canada Day as she threatened to jump from one of the main bridges in the area.

That Wong manage to make it out alive at all is a testament to her strength. That she not only survived but was able to relive it all to write about it is something else entirely. While this memoir could be compared to Educated or The Glass Castle, I hesitate to make the comparison. For one thing, this book didn’t get to me emotionally like those books did. I don’t think that Wong is completely free of this story, I think she probably still lives it, so there’s an emotional distance that was likely necessary to write the book.

Reading about her childhood I felt anger and sadness for this little girl that couldn’t possibly understand how sick her family was. That there was no one at school, no friends, no friends’ parents who stepped in to offer Lindsay any kind of help, a place to go that was clean and safe. I’m still incredibly curious about how she has managed to become a functioning, capable adult from the violent, crass, unwashed teenager she writes about so callously.

The Woo-Woo is dark. I know it’s being billed as darkly humorous but I don’t recall laughing that much. What I felt was anger. Anger at her family, the city she derisively calls Hongcouver, at herself for not understanding sooner how broken her home life was. I had a hard time with some of the language used too. I have no doubt that it was accurate, that her parents absolutely used the word to refer to her but I hate the R word a lot and it was sprinkled liberally throughout. I like to think that it was a tough decision for Wong to include or not include the word but I still found it jarring to encounter it so often.

In the end, this was a horrifying look at the damage untreated mental illness can do, at the superstitions that can hold a culture hostage. But I’m not sure that The Woo-Woo has the emotional heft to win Canada Reads.

 

6

Too many books, too little time

Like everyone else, in January I got sucked into Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up on Netflix. I didn’t finish the series – I got halfway through before I realized that all the show made me want to do was go through all my stuff and throw half of it away.

Well we’re just about halfway through February and I am ashamed to say that I still have that feeling and I’ve done nothing about it. I mean, I’ve talked about it a lot, but all my stuff is still here, waiting to jump out at you from hidden household depths.

I did recently go through all of my books though. I got rid of a lot when we put up some new shelving. But now I have space to spare and I can’t just ignore that can I? Even though I keep telling myself that I will not BUY anymore books (just yesterday I made a vow that I would wait until after my birthday next month to buy any new books), I keep finding myself in line at the bookstore with new books in hand.

My bookshelves might have room to spare but my TBR cupboard does not. I’ve recently added the following to its buckling shelves:

Notes On A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig: I love Matt Haig, have done for years. I think there’s some real power in his words, especially his Reasons to Stay Alive. This is his follow up to that one, about how to find ways to live in the present when the world is asking us to live at warp speed.

The Come Up by Angie Thomas. Remember how much I loved The Hate U Give? Thomas’ second novel, about a girl who dreams of being a rapper when her world just sees her as a hoodlum, sounds like it’s going to be just as good. I’ve been waiting for this to come out for ages.

The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong. This one is one of the picks for the Canada Reads debates next month. I’ve actually already started to read this one and it is bananas. Wong is my age and grew up in the same neck of the woods and yet, our childhoods and families could not be more different. This is a dark one.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. I loved An American Marriage a lot. Before that book blew up, I had never heard of Jones. Imagine my delight to find that she actually has a few other books I get to read! Silver Sparrow is about the daughter of a bigamist, finding out about his other family and what that means for her own life.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory. I really enjoyed Guillory’s The Wedding Date. I thought it was fun, funny, sexy and clever. I’m in the mood for more of that and since the author of the same has something else out, it seemed like the perfect fit. Nikole and her boyfriend have been dating for five months when they end up at a Dodgers game with a bunch of his friends. He proposes on the big screen. Nikole is blindsided and says no…

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. As much as I love reading about aristocracy, I’m also finding myself more and more curious about those people who ran the fancy estates, the castles and the townhouses. This book is so very on brand for me!

The Mistresses of Clivedon: Three Centuries of Scandal, Power, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone. I mean, come on. Scandal, power and intrigue in an English country estate? Centered around women? I didn’t stand a chance trying to resist this one.

I’d like to tell you that after I hit publish on this, I spent naptime reading. But I have to finish this week’s episode of The Bachelor so…you fall behind one week, it becomes really hard to catch up!