30 July 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl - Mona Awad

This is going to be a brief review.

This is a collection of 13 short stories about Elizabeth / Lizzy / Beth, a girl growing up in Mississauga Ontario who struggles with her weight.  She is overweight as a teenager as well as seemingly struggling with depression.  She grows up, gets skinny, gets married, gets divorced, gains some of the weight back.  The end.

Most of the stories are told from Elizabeth's perspective, though a few are told from the perspective of people who know her.  But there is no external narrator to the stories to give a seemingly-objective version of the events.  I think that this technique worked well up to a point, showing that there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint to anything - we are always influenced by our background and experiences, whether we are judging ourselves or others.  But I did get frustrated in that I felt like I never really got to know Elizabeth.

I was also frustrated by the fact that Elizabeth was only ever defined by her weight.  Aside from her weight, as a reader I felt like I knew nothing else about her.  As someone who weighs more than I would like to, I don't let this be the defining factor of who I am.  I kept hoping to get to know Elizabeth outside of her weight, but finished the book without getting to that point.

It was a fast read for me, but it is not a book that I will be re-reading.

Question:  I was reading this book around my family last weekend and they were scandalized by the title.  I don't see anything scandalous about it.  Can anyone enlighten me about what offended them?

(Book 4 of 13 in The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

28 July 2016

The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl - Sue Goyette

I find it challenging to review poetry.  Partly because I normally read books that are character-driven or plot-driven, while poetry tends to be neither; and partly because while I can tell you if I like a certain work of poetry or not, I don't know enough about it to tell you why.

That being said, this is a collection of poems that does include both characters and plot, while employing poetic techniques such as metaphor and word-play and imagery.  (The blurb on the back of the book calls this, "a mythopoetic, sideways use of image and language.")

The book is based on the 2006 death of Rebecca Riley and the court case that followed.  She was a 4-year old girl who died of an overdose of drugs prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and ADHD.  Yes, a 4-year old was diagnosed with bipolar disorder based on the reports of her mother.  Her psychiatrist was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying at the trials of Rebecca's parents, and Rebecca's mother was found guilty of second-degree murder while her father was found guilty of first-degree murder.

By giving the trial of Rebecca's mother a poetic treatment rather than writing it as straight-forward prose, I found that the story became more poignant.  None of the characters are named - they are the doctor, the girl, the mother - that is until the mother is found guilty and the guilty verdict strips her of her title of "the mother" and she becomes simply Carla.

I found the personification of "poverty" to be heartbreaking.  When the doctor is telling the court about how the girl used to assume the identity of different things - from a caterpillar to a witch to a bear, the reader is told that,
"Poverty could have told the courtroom the girl
had been a butterfly until it had plucked off her wings"
And then when the lawyer and the doctor talk about a special relationship that the girl had with her bear (the bear replaced the mother in giving love),
"two of the jurors had to leave the courtroom to catch
their breath, which poverty had feasted on without being noticed."

This book is short, it is heartbreaking, it is beautifully written, and I am glad to have read it.

(As an aside, last winter I was talking with one of my professors about books that are visually and tactilely appealing, and she asked if I was familiar with Gaspereau Press as they are known for producing beautiful books.  So I wasn't surprised to discover that this book is published by Gaspereau.  The cover and the pages of this book are lovely to look at and even more lovely to touch and hold and turn.)

(Book 3 of 13 in the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

17 July 2016

The Illegal - Lawrence Hill

What a timely read this was, given what is going on in our world over the past couple of decades, and especially in the past year.  Reading this book, I heard echoes of Rwanda, of Iraq, of Syria, of the refugee crisis and rickety boats making a dangerous crossing.  I've even heard echoes of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, which is amazing considering that this book was published almost a year ago.

The plot centres around Keita Ali, the son of a journalist who is executed for stirring the political pot in his (fictional) home country of Zantoroland.  In order to avoid execution, Keita flees to neighbouring Freedom State, a country notorious for turning back the boats crossing the ocean from Zantoroland and for deporting illegal immigrants.  Meanwhile, Keita's sister, Charity, who had been studying at Harvard, has been arrested and is in prison, awaiting a $15,000 bribe from Keita.  As an undocumented resident of Freedom State who is unable to work, Keita's only option is to enter marathons, half-marathons, and road races in attempt to raise the ransom money.

At times, this book felt heavy-handed in driving home the political and social message; but in the end it was the story of people.  The characters were what made the story come alive.  I read Hill's previous book, Book of Negroes, back in 2008, and loved it mostly for the characters that seemed to jump off the page at me.  This book did the same.

If I had one complaint about The Illegal, it would be about the pacing.  The first 2/3 of the book seemed to drag - I remember being past the half-way point, wondering when the set-up would be done and the actual plot begin.  Then all of the various plot lines seemed to resolve neatly in the last couple of chapters.  Despite the uneven pacing, I was never tempted to stop reading.  I was too invested in the characters and what would happen to them.

(Book 2 of 13 in the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

3 July 2016

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood

In the days when I used to write a book blog, I participated a couple of times in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set, and I have decided to participate again this year.  The challenge is to read and review 13 Canadian books between July 1 (Canada Day) and June 30.  Given the reality of my schedule, I am going to try to get a head-start over the next couple of months before my final year of my M.Div. begins in September.  Why have I decided to participate again?  I am a bookworm; I love to read; and yet I've found that with full-time studies, I haven't made enough time to read "fun" books, and I need some more CanLit in my life!

I finished The Heart Goes Last this afternoon.  It's Margaret Atwood - what more can I say!  She does a fabulous job of world-building in her books, and that was what grabbed me most in this one.  It is set in a dystopian future, but not a post-apocalyptic world.  Like in her MaddAdam trilogy, the future situation creeps up gradually and there are many connections between the world that Atwood paints and our current world situation.  An Atwood Dystopian Future tends to be creepier than others in the genre, as I can see her world coming to pass.

The plot in this book is a twist on the usual dystopian plot.  The main characters, Charmaine and Stan, are living in a near-future America that has been decimated by market collapse, homelessness, and violence.  They have lost their home and are living in a car, trying to survive from one day to the next (not a spoiler - this is revealed in the first chapter).  They are offered a utopian alternative to their dystopian present and jump at the opportunity; but the so-called utopia gradually reveals itself to be even more dystopian than the dystopia that they had escaped.

As far as the characters go, I'm not yet sure how I feel.  Charmaine and Stan both felt very flat to me as a reader - they had no depth of character and tended to live their lives reactively.  The chapters alternate between their perspectives, and I did get a bit bored by the shallowness of their views.  I was much more taken by the secondary characters - I would love to get into Connor's head (Stan's brother), or especially Jocelyn's head (one of the leaders in the so-called utopia).  I suspect that this was a deliberate device - allowing the reader to to experience the plot unfolding from the perspective of a pair of very passive characters.  While I did enjoy the opportunity to try and guess what was going on ahead of Stan and Charmaine, I did get tired of their passivity.

Overall, it was a good book - I don't think that Margaret Atwood has ever written a book that I didn't enjoy.  It's not my favourite of her books, but that is like saying that Beethoven's 7th Symphony isn't my favourite of his symphonies.  The lesser work of a genius is genius nonetheless!  Will I re-read it at some point?  Maybe - I'm not giving away my copy of this book yet.

(Book 1 of 13 in the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)