bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #70: The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Alice Munro was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, one of just 13 women to receive such an honor. So naturally, I had to read her book. My friend T recommended I start with The Love of a Good Woman, because he really enjoyed the collection. As you can see, I did.

I honestly enjoy short stories, precisely because they leave me wanting *more.* There’s a craft to writing a good, satisfying short story, and Alice Munro is masterful. The first story, “The Love of a Good Woman,” is novella-length, but it builds a fascinating tension in several angles of a story–you wonder how the town’s boys, the dead eye doctor, and a dying young woman are all connected. But by the end (which was slightly inconclusive), I was both thrilled and desirous of more. The other stories in the collection speak of longing, love, family relationships, restlessness, and so many experiences indicative of the human condition. When we think of “the love of a good woman,” we are led to wonder: is she good? Is the love good? Is the love worth it?

I am definitely going to be teaching Munro when I get to teach literature, and I am going to read all her collections. She has a way with her prose that is descriptive without being overdone, concise but not spare. The Love of a Good Woman, while delving into some heavy subject material, is so well-written that it feels like a pleasure-read.

Let me just treat you to this last image of awesomeness (thanks, Tumblr!). Munro is not able to travel to receive her award, so she and Margaret Atwood celebrated with champagne:

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You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

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bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #69: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Full disclosure: as an Evangelical Christian (Seventh-day Adventist, to be precise), I began reading this book with certain expectations and a knowledge of the discourse. I’ve heard all the “good Christian girls keep their knees together” lectures, the “good wife stays at home while her husband earns the money” lectures and the “God’s little princess” rhetoric that makes me sick. My parents, as Conservative as they are, raised me to be independent, well-educated, and resourceful. I grew up believing I would go to college, but not sure if I’d get married–and that was okay. As it turns out, I did marry. I found a man who was a-ok with me keeping my last name, who shared my religion and most of my expressions of that religion, who supports my career goals as I support his, and believes (like I do) that gender is not restricted by highly dependent on the person’s skills, talents, and preference. So, as I read about Rachel Held Evans’ struggle to define herself as a biblical woman amidst contrasting and often harsh conversations and ideals about “biblical womanhood,” I finally felt that I met someone who really understood me–an ardent Christian and an ardent feminist, trapped in the same body.

Ms. Evans has received a lot of media attention for her book, with two equally dissenting voices: Conservative Christians who suspect that she’s making fun of Christianity (she’s not–and if they’d read the book, they’d be fully immersed into her deep love and respect for the Bible); and secular a-religious/atheist individuals who think she’s naively advocating patriarchy (again, she’s not, and her relationship with her husband is one of the clearest indicators). At face value, she seems to be copycatting A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, but she ultimately has a different quest–she wants to question her role as a Christian woman and examine biblical womanhood from a variety of perspectives. She undertakes a study of verses and stories and tackles a facet or concept of biblical womanhood each month of the year (one month, her project is purity, and she sleeps in a tent during her period and carries a cushion with her to avoid making chairs in the house impure, for example) in order to see how womanhood was viewed by God’s people in the Old/New Testaments, and how we interpret it today.

This is not a from-the-old-Hebrew kind of deep analysis you expect from a theologian. And for ordinary readers of the Bible like me, that’s okay. Ms. Evans is a witty, conversational writer who is open about her quirks as a human. Her quest for a better understanding of the Bible, along with her passion for understanding her fellow women was one of the best aspects of the book. There’s a passage where she describes mourning women who were terrorized in the Bible–raped, killed, abused, mistreated at the hands of patriarchy. That’s the sort of discourse that is missing in so many faith communities, and one that she invokes, without being cynical or too flippant.

I think my favorite part of the book, however, is when Ms. Evans reminds us that it’s okay not to have all the answers about the Bible, and it’s okay if some stories or passages trouble us or make us uncomfortable. The Bible is a complex text, and while our faith comforts and sustains us, we can’t–and shouldn’t–explain away some contradictory or troubling things. Because to do so would undermine the complexity of the Bible.

If you, like me, are a Christian and curious about this book, then you must read it. Now. I learned a lot about myself, and I gained perspective from the Bible, and grew to respect it even if I can’t answer every question I might have. If you aren’t a believer, I would still recommend it, but you may not have the same kind of cultural context that I did. But that’s okay; your perspective may be different, and that is informative for someone like me, as well.

You may read this review (or my thoughts on faith) on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #68: Regeneration by Pat Barker

I come and go on historical fiction. Really. There are some aspects that are delicious to imagine, and then ponderous writing or plot-formation that makes me crazy. I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and while I enjoyed both, neither changed my somewhat indifferent attitude towards historical fiction/romance/whatever. But then I read Pat Barker’s first Regeneration Trilogy novel, and maybe changed my mind.

Taking place during World War I, Regeneration is the story of the relationship between poet Siegfried Sassoon and his psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. Rivers is working on nerve regeneration and seeing young men affected by war has given him plenty of food for thought. Sassoon, having written a pamphlet decrying World War I’s continuation, is sent to Craiglockhart after a diagnosis of “shell-shock” is ascribed to his pacifist leanings and writings. Here, we also meet aspiring poet Wilfred Owen in the beginnings of his writing “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (one of his anthologized poems) and other fictional patients within the hospital.

Barker provides meaty, thought-provoking material in her work: masculinity, sexuality, war vs. peace, state-sanctioned violence and its effects on citizens, work/professionalism, and many others. I like the way she interacts with historical figures and weaves a fiction that is both beautiful and horrifying at once. Some of the soldiers’ memories of the war broke my heart and filled me with horror–how could anyone live through that and not be damaged for life? There’s also this incredible line where Rivers observes that the men he observes are at once both old men waiting to die and young schoolboys frozen in time. It’s an extremely apt way to look at victims of combat, and one that haunted me long after I finished reading.

If you’re looking for a cute, fun, fluffy historicized romance, this is not your book. But, if you like literature about literature (the poetic references might be familiar if you took British Literature in high school or college and studied the War Poets), beautiful writing, or World War I subject material, then I think you’ll like this book. It’s a slow read, but simply because I wanted to savor it as I went along.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #67: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve read both of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short-story collections, and I loved her first novel, The Namesake. I’ve been waiting for months for The Lowland to come out. I just finished it last night. While it was different than I expected, I thought the novel brought out Lahiri’s greatest strength: her ability to portray familial relationships in their beauty, ugliness, pettiness, and majesty.

Subhash and Udayan are brothers, only 15 months apart, living in Calcutta. Subhash decides to go to the United States to study oceanography, while Udayan becomes involved in the Naxalite rebellion and secretly marries the beautiful Gauri. Near the beginning of the novel, something happens to shift the trajectory of the story completely, taking me far from where I thought we’d be going. But of course, Lahiri’s familiar themes of isolation, family, and being haunted by memory all play into the novel, up to the very end.

What sets this novel apart from her body of work, for me, is the more universality of the themes. While being Indian in the States has been a huge undercurrent running through her work, this novel touches on something deeper and more global–what is a family relationship like? What defines a marriage? How do we relate to our parents? are all questions that have nothing to do with being Indian-American, and everything to do with being a person. While this may not go down as Ms. Lahiri’s finest work, I’d argue that it’s still important.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #66: If I Ever Get out of Here by Eric Gansworth

I enjoy a well-written YA novel. So I take recommendations from friends, students, professors, you name it. My mentor G had posted this book on her Facebook page, and I was immediately intrigued.

Lewis Blake is a member of the Tuscarora tribe in upstate New York in 1976. He lives with his mom and uncle in a ramshackle home on tribal property and so inhabits a strange space that juxtaposes US law with territorial law. It only gets more confusing at school, as he is mainstreamed with white kids, most of him will not look at him or talk to him by virtue of his being a Native American. Lewis is also a huge fan of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, and Queen. He doesn’t wonder whether he’ll get out–he knows he will stay on, just like his family and friends from his land. And yet, when white kid George Haddonfield makes his acquaintance, Lewis enters a new world of possibility…one that also highlights the dangers of being an “Othered” individual in a seemingly post-racial America.

I like that this novel highlights racial tensions beyond black-white. It’s a new take on acceptance and the crimes committed in the name of freedom, though it can be difficult to read about a kid who is called names, insulted, and bullied, simply because he is not white. I did also very much like that friendship formed the heart of the novel. A lot of YA novels with male characters don’t always do a great job of depicting friendships, but this one felt genuine and organically drawn.

I think my biggest complaint is tied in to the uniqueness of the novel, actually. While I liked the setting and the many mentions of music to place the novel within a period of American history, I don’t know that young adults (except for music aficionados) in 2013 are going to know enough about The Beatles or Wings to get the many clever references or asides that relate to the music. In this sense, the book honestly felt like a young adult novel written for adults. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se…

I do think that it portrays an honest and raw look at bullying, which is one reason I *would* recommend it to a young adult. I’m glad I read it. It was entertaining, sad, enlightening, and hopeful all at once.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #65: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Thanks to my library’s awesome and efficient Inter-Library Loan system, I ended up with a hot-off-the-press copy of the conclusion to Margaret Atwood’s stunning MaddAddam trilogy last week. I just finished reading it today. Oh, my heart.

I won’t summarize Oryx and Crake or the sequel The Year of the Flood here, because I’ve already recapped them in the Cannonball Read. But read them first. Atwood creates a world that is simultaneously a small microcosmic community and a vast universe, one that shrinks and expands rapidly with its colorful array of characters and scenes in a world that has been ravaged by a plague. She builds the plot with each novel, so that threads of one narrative become entangled with its successive sequel and finally come together in the very end. Toby is, rightfully, a major focus of the novel, as she becomes entwined with the mysterious and highly charismatic Zeb. Through the eyes of Toby, we get closer to the human-like Crakers and to Zeb, whose past is colorful, dangerous, and mysteriously linked to Adam One, leader of the God’s Gardeners. Zeb’s relationship to Adam One is the pivotal point of this book, as it forms the backstory for the entire trilogy, and becomes a bedtime story for the Crakers in ways that are inventive and hilarious.

Atwood ties off many loose ends and leaves a conclusion that is ultimately satisfying and bittersweet, incorporating the hope/despair/pain/beauty of life begun anew in the developing post-”Flood” world on earth. It was neither overly sentimental nor cynical, striking the right balance of optimism and realism. I was saddened to leave behind the MaddAddamites/God’s Gardeners/Crakers that became more than just plot points but people in whom I could sink major interest. I’d definitely mark this as my favorite in the trilogy, since it builds on so many plot points, characters, philosophies, and ideas from the others to create something informative, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Atwood has many strengths as a writer: luminous prose, masterful storytelling techniques, and a story that matters. The MaddAddam trilogy matters because it could become our earth. It matters because it’s a great story that longs to be told. It matters because it shows us (like many a great dystopic novel before it) how to be ourselves in a world that is falling apart around us. I won’t say anymore, for risk of making this book seem maudlin. It’s not. Read it. You will not regret it.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #64: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I put in a library request for Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam months ago, thinking I would languish on a waiting list. I did not. I currently have The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam, and Marisha Pessl’s book Night Film in my possession. I did not time this well. Thankfully, I absolutely devoured The Year of the Flood in a weekend. It was that good. Maybe I’ll read all three in the next two weeks…?

I read the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, months ago, so I won’t recap it here. It was good. Really, quite excellent. The Year of the Flood takes place in a similar timeline in the same universe, with many of the same characters…from a completely different point-of-view. This time, we get to know Toby and Ren, both members of God’s Gardener’s a cult-adjacent religion, who try to care for the earth and its creatures in a world choked by corporate greed and consumption. Toby does not consider herself a believer but reluctantly moves up the ranks of the Gardeners to become a spiritual leader of sorts. Ren, who is much younger, finds herself at odds in the world, since her mother had initially left her father to join the Gardeners and take up with one of its members, Zeb. On the day of the pandemic that Crake had unleashed in Oryx and Crake, both Toby and Ren struggle to survive the plague and escape to safety, while becoming observers of a shattered and fallen world.

I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake, but this book is far superior (in my opinion). Toby is an awesome lady, doubtful, honest, flawed, but ultimately determined to do what’s best. Her sense of honor is matched by her will to live and ability to think in a crisis. Ren, while much more fragile, is also an interesting and complex narrator, one who intersects with past characters much more closely to create sharp tensions in the trilogy.

As a feminist and a member of a faith community, I cannot recommend this enough. I was challenged, intrigued, stunned, and most of all captivated by such a beautiful, horrifying, and complex text. The women in this narrative transcend the token “strong woman” trope and actually make meaningful inroads in their community. I realize it’s impossible to be a utopic and dystopic text at once, but could it be that Atwood is trying to make a commentary about finding our inner strength in dystopia?

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.