All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

18339630All My Puny Sorrows

by Miriam Toews

This is a story about suicide.  It’s about other things, too: family, growing up Mennonite, resilience, grief, and friendship – but mainly, it’s about suicide.

Told in first person, Yolandi, or Yoli for short, tells about growing up in a cloistered Mennonite community in Canada with her parents and her sister, Elfrieda, or Elf as she is known by her loved ones. Elf is a piano prodigy, and at seventeen leaves home to study piano abroad, where she soon becomes a world-renowned classical pianist.  As the years go by, she also becomes more and more tortured.  Numerous suicide attempts ensue, and we find out at some point in the story that Yoli and Elf’s father committed suicide by kneeling in the path of an oncoming train (this incident is taken straight out of the author’s real life; her father actually did commit suicide in that manner, which she wrote about in her memoir, Swing Low: A Life, which I have not read).

Much of the story takes place in the psych ward of the hospital in which Elf ends up after her various suicide attempts.  There, Yoli keeps a devoted vigil over her beloved sister, willing her to want to live.  But alas, Elf is determined to die.  Now in her late forties, she is weary of life.  The story takes a turn when Elf begs Yoli to help her die.  At first, Yoli is predictably horrified by the idea, but gradually she begins to wonder if it wouldn’t in fact be an act of love to help her sister gain the peaceful oblivion she so desperately wants.

While all of this is going on, there are other family dramas taking place.  Yoli is in the middle of a divorce, she’s sleeping around a bit to comfort herself, her teenage daughter is giving her a run for her money, Elf’s husband needs propping up, Elf and Yoli’s aging mother and their aunt are suffering health problems – and, oh yeah, we find out that a cousin also committed suicide a number of years back.

The story is told with a fair amount of humor, but it still feels pretty heavy.  I wanted very much to feel like I could root for Elf’s autonomy and her right to die with dignity, and I applaud Miriam Toews for tackling such a taboo.  However, I couldn’t shake a feeling of anger at Elf’s selfishness.

It’s not that I think suicide is necessarily a selfish act.  I understand that it’s complicated, and that mental illness is often complicated.  I do believe in a person’s right to autonomy over his or her own life and right to die, but what makes this story difficult is the profound pain Elf causes her family by her numerous half-assed – maybe that’s a bit harsh; let’s say unsuccessful – attempts to end her life.  I kept thinking that if someone truly, truly wanted to end their life, they would find a method by which to carry it out that would be quick and effective.  More than that, though, is how Elfrieda drags Yoli into it by imploring her to help her kill herself.  She doesn’t want to die alone, so she places this immense burden on her sister by making her feel tormented by guilt and a sense of duty to end her sister’s suffering.

Toews delivers a well-written story about a difficult topic, but in the end, it’s not a story I cared for.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

28815371The Mothers

by Brit Bennett

This debut novel really got under my skin, and for days I’ve been trying to formulate a review that does it justice, and I’m still not sure I can.

Set in a black community in San Diego, California, the central character is Nadia Turner, who, at the beginning of the story is a seventeen-year-old high school senior whose life has recently been shattered by her mother’s violent suicide – which nobody saw coming.  Nadia’s father, a retired Marine, has retreated into quiet grief, and Nadia, in her own grief, becomes a wild girl who the rest of the parishioners at Upper Room Chapel whisper about.  Nadia enters a brief relationship with the reverend’s son, twenty-one-year old Luke Sheppard, whose ambitions to play pro football were dashed by a serious injury.  An unplanned pregnancy results, and the choice that is made, and how exactly that choice is handled by both Luke and Nadia, reverberates out into their close-knit community, and into their adult lives.  That summer – the summer Nadia quietly has an abortion, the summer before she is set to head off to college in Chicago on an academic scholarship – she finds unexpected solace in her blossoming friendship with Aubrey, a quiet, pious girl her age.  The two girls are opposite in almost every way, but they both throw themselves into a friendship that will bind them for many years.

The book’s title refers to a small group of elderly women, also from the Upper Room Chapel congregation, who collect all the prayer requests and meet regularly to pray together.  These women are the eyes and ears of this little community, and the story is narrated by them.  But more than them, the title refers to mothers who leave, mothers who stay, mothers who choose not to be mothers, and all the ways community members mother one another.

Bennett has created a vivid community, and Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are complex, none of them all good or all bad. I will say that I deeply hope that nobody reads this book and takes it as a cautionary tale about abortion, because I don’t think that’s the intent at all.  It’s neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of abortion, but rather an extremely intelligent and deeply felt story about loss, grief, family ties, community ties, ambition, and how the choices we make when we’re young can follow us in good and bad ways.

I really enjoyed this book; I think I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

 

El Deafo by Cece Bell

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by Cece Bell

I’m not usually a fan of graphic novels, and I didn’t realize that this book is a graphic novel – well, actually, memoir – until after I bought it and cracked it open, at which time I groaned a little because it’s just not a format that generally appeals to me.  However, I couldn’t help but scan the first couple of pages, and I was quickly taken in.

Read my review in its entirety here.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

41qpsissbfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_To the Bright Edge of the World

by Eowyn Ivey

Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, entranced me when I read it a couple of years ago, so when I discovered that she had published a new novel, I was eager to read it.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a multi-layered tale.  The story opens as a man named Josh, the curator of a small museum in Alpine, Alaska receives a letter from an old man named Walt in Montana, along with a collection of old letters and diaries.  The letters and diaries were written by his great uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forester, and great aunt,  Sophie.  In the winter of 1885, Lieutenant Colonel Forester left his young pregnant wife, Sophie, to lead an expedition into the wilds of Alaska to map the area of the Wolverine River Valley and gather information for the U.S. Army about the geography and native people.  Alternating between the contemporary correspondence between Walt and Josh – by means of which a friendship grows between these two very different strangers – and the old diaries and letters of Allen and Sophie, this story of love, grief, adventure, and survival is told.

Alternating between the contemporary correspondence between Walt and Josh – by means of which a friendship grows between these two very different strangers – and the old diaries and letters of Allen and Sophie, this story of love, grief, adventure, and survival is told.  During the months-long Alaskan expedition Lieutenant Colonel Forester and his men are subject to harrowing conditions and bizarre, inexplicable incidents, while back home at Vancouver barracks in Washington territory, Sophie makes her way through her own ordeals, ultimately finding solace in photography.

As in The Snow Child, Ivey demonstrates here a gift for the fantastical, where the lines between what is real, what is not real, and what is possible are indiscernible.

A fine work of fiction.

 

Supporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens with Down Syndrome by David Stein, Psy.D.

51tfcynwrslSupporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens with Down Syndrome

by David Stein, Psy.D.

I came across this book purely by chance when I saw a friend post a photo of it on Instagram. The title struck me, and I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon.

I’ll start by saying that we have dealt with behavior issues with Finn, our 8-year old son with Ds, for a long time.

Read my review in its entirety here.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Sadly, I read fewer books in 2016 than in years past, and I did not meet my Goodreads challenge of 45 books for 2016.  I took up knitting a little over a year ago, and it’s a pastime that has definitely cut into my reading.  However, because of knitting, I listened to more audiobooks (13) this past year than ever before.  Still, I read/listened to a total of 33 books in 2016, which isn’t too shabby.

Here’s a rundown of my faves:

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The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins: a restrained, quietly told story about a college student trying to escape family dysfunction, a dying Vietnam vet convicted of a heinous crime, and an unlikely friendship.  Suspenseful and moving.  Read my review in its entirety here.

 

 

 

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In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick: historical non-fiction that reads like a novel as only Philbrick can deliver it.  This book centers around the whaling industry and way of life for early nineteenth-century Nantucketers, and specifically the destruction of the whaleship Essex and the survival at sea of its crew.  Better than the movie; a stand-out adventure/survival story.  Read my review in its entirety here.

 

 

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Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling): in this latest installment of the Cormoran Strike crime novels, Det. Cormoran Strike’s trusty assistant is mailed a human leg, setting the duo on a harrowing hunt for a killer.  The characters of Robin and Cormoran continue to develop, as does the complicated relationship between them.  Each novel in this ongoing series gets better; I’m eagerly awaiting the next one.  Read my review in its entirety here.

 

 

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The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena: a riveting psychological thriller of the caliber of The Girl On the Train and Gone Girl, this suspenseful novel centers around a young couple who leave their baby unattended and every parent’s worst nightmare becomes a reality: their baby disappears.  Lots of twists and turns that keep the reader on the edge of her seat.  Read my review in its entirety here.

 

 

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Women Beyond Belief by Karen Garst: an anthology of personal essays written by women from all backgrounds and walks of life who have left religion in favor of personal discovery and liberation.  This book is a study of how religion has always, and continues to subjugate and oppress women and girls.  If I could get everyone I know – male and female alike – to read this book, I would.  Read my review in its entirety here.

 

 

For what it’s worth, the worst book 911Xmhn9+rLI read in 2016 was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  As a devoted but late-blooming Harry Potter fan, I despised this book with the heat of a thousand suns.  I reviewed it here.

I’m going to challenge myself to read 35 books in 2017.  Read with me!

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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My Name is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout

Ack.  This is one of those books that I just didn’t get.  Apparently, it’s longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named one of the best books of the year by all sorts of prestigious publications.  I didn’t feel it.

The story is told in the first person.  Lucy Barton, now past her prime, recounts a time many years ago when she was a young mother and became very ill and spent nine weeks in the hospital.  During that time, her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, comes to visit her and stays for five days and nights, sitting at Lucy’s bedside.  During those five days and nights, mother and daughter warily try to heal old wounds, without actually facing them head on.  Lucy also revisits scenes from her childhood, many of which were painful (there is a scene in which she was repeatedly locked in a truck for hours by her parents when she was very small, that was quite unsettling).  Lucy comes to understand her mother perhaps a little better (though her mother is stubbornly enigmatic and closed off), and perhaps herself a little better, but there really is never any resolution, and her mother ends her visit as suddenly as she showed up.

I think what bugged me is that Lucy very much seems like a victim, and she never really rises above that.  She reverts to behaving like a little girl in her mother’s presence and is never able to stand up to her mother.  I’m drawn to stories about fraught mother-daughter relationships because they often resonate with me, but this one fell a little flat.  I finished the story wondering “What was the point of that?”

Elizabeth Strout is a gifted novelist, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

25111119Barkskins

by Annie Proulx

Best known for having written Brokeback Mountain, Proulx has now written an epic novel spanning several hundred years.  In a nutshell, it is about the deforestation of North America (and secondarily, the destruction of forest land in Europe and New Zealand, and of the rain forests of South America).  But of course, it is about more than that.

The novel opens in the seventeenth century with two young and illiterate Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, following a feudal lord through the vast, dense, and seemingly infinite forest of “New France” (Canada).  Sel and Duquet are indentured servants, charged with the hard labor of cutting down trees for their cruel seigneur for three years in exchange for small plots of land they can call their own.  Duquet is wily, however, and soon runs away and becomes a fur trader.  Ever ambitious and determined, he eventually marries well and sets up a timber business.  Meanwhile, Sel is forced by his seigneur to marry an Indian woman, for whom he actually develops a genuine affection.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, the lives of Rene Sel’s and Charles Duquet’s descendants intersect and diverge.  Meanwhile, both families’ lives are dependent in one way or another on the forests, and the forests diminish by degrees until the modern day when the world is in a state of ecological crisis.

Not only is this a story of disappearing trees and the impact on the earth, but it’s also a story of adventure, violence, endurance, greed, family, and cultural annihilation.

It’s a hefty tome, but well worth the read.

 

 

 

Women Beyond Belief by Karen Garst

41tlozs0el-_sx331_bo1204203200_Women Beyond Belief

Edited by Karen Garst

I am so happy that this book has come on the literary scene – particularly the religious and feminist literary scenes.  There are a plethora of books written on the subject of religion, the vast majority of which have been authored by men (which is just another symptom of the patriarchal society we continue to live in).

A collection of essays written by an array of women from different walks of life, these pages tell the deeply personal stories of how religion has impacted the lives of these people, both as individuals and specifically as women.  Since the time that men put pen to parchment claiming that Eve was created for Adam and that she was the source of original sin, religion has been used to repress and subjugate women and girls.  Actually, since even before that time; most religions that existed before Christianity also viewed and treated females as wicked, as the property of men, as less than men.  And because religion is so deeply ingrained in humankind, perceptions, and treatment of women and girls continue to be based on ancient and deeply disturbing beliefs stemming from superstition and a quest for power and control.  These stories also tell how rejecting

These stories also tell how rejecting religion and superstitious beliefs has impacted the lives of these women: in some ways painful, but ultimately liberating.

I related to every story in this book in some way, and a few moved me more than others.  This isn’t a book meant to persuade anyone; rather, it offers empathy to those of us who have walked the path of rejecting religion and supernatural belief, and a sense of perspective to anyone who cares how relgion – both practicing and rejecting – impacts women, and why so many people (women in particular) end up denouncing religious belief.  That said, there are definitely some very well-articulated essays based on obvious exhaustive study contained in this book that should give any believer pause.

I am grateful that there are more and more female atheist voices telling their stories and sharing their views.  I highly recommend this book to non-believers and believers alike.

I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb

unknownI’ll Take You There

by Wally Lamb

When I was asked to read and review Wally Lamb’s latest novel by TLC Book Tours, I eagerly said yes.  I’ve been a fan of Wally Lamb for many years – ever since I read She’s Come Undone, which remains one of my favorite novels. tlc-logo

I’ll Take You There centers around Felix Funicello, an aging but pretty hip film professor who runs a Monday night film club for local film buffs at an old movie theater.  One night while he’s alone at the theater he’s visited by an apparition, which turns out to be the ghost of Lois Weber, a groundbreaking female film director who has been dead for decades.  After a gossipy conversation with Felix (who strangely doesn’t freak out over being visited by a ghost, but pretty much rolls with it), Lois points him to a stack of film reels and instructs him to watch them.  The films are footage from Felix’s life.  Some of them he remains an observer, and some he actually enters and relives.  Through these films, Felix acquires insight into various women who have impacted his life through the years: his mother, his older sisters – one of whose adolescent breakdowns changed the course of the entire family – and his grown daughter.  While Felix repeatedly asks Lois why he’s been chosen for this adventure, she only says that he’s “educable,” leaving the impression that Felix is in need of sensitivity training concerning women.  This was just one unsatisfying aspect of the story, as Felix is clearly already a pretty feminist dude.  It would sort of be like the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future visiting Santa Claus instead of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Revisiting the past in order to understand the present certainly isn’t a unique premise, and neither is time travel or even ghosts.  Wally Lamb has a certain gift for understanding and writing about women, and that does come through in this novel.  However, the underlying themes of feminism and family dysfunction are treated lightly, the characters are rather cliche and one-dimensional, the conflicts too easily resolved, and the plot feels contrived.  I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it.  Nothing earth-moving, but a decent beach read.