Arya of Winterfell’s #CBRV Review #23: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

year ofI ordered a book club set of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks from the library and while the rest of the group was deterred by the surprise audio book format (CDs) and ultimately selected In the Garden of Beasts in its traditional book-made-from-paper format, I uploaded Year of Wonders to my phone and I was glad to have hands-free access to this historical fiction title during a month that involved a great deal of travel on foot and on crowded public transit.

While easeful to not have to dig for a book from my bag or bump elbows with strangers to turn pages, the audio book certainly has its other discomforts.  For one, the book is about life in England during the Reformation so life is tough and characters die left, right, and centre.  (This isn’t a spoiler, the CD jacket cover outlines that this is Brooks’ exploration of a particular town’s experience and exposure to the Plague.)  I wasn’t very attached to the characters and I often felt like I wasn’t able to honour them as “real” when one would fall gravely sick and just as I received that news from Geraldine (the author narrates Year of Wonders herself), in my reality I would be returning a smile to a passerby on the street or making faces to a baby across the aisle on the bus.  The most awkward of these situations being during the (infrequent) sex scenes where I’d march past folks quickly on the street, rudely not looking up from the street, not wanting to make eye contact with someone as I would be sure to blush.  (In my opinion, the sex scenes were too silly to cause a blush were I to have just read the text version.)

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Arya of Winterfell’s #CBRV Review #22: Two Is Enough by Laura S. Scott

two isI accessed Laura S. Scott’s best-selling Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice via the library as an e-book and read it through my web-browser.  While this method of consuming a book worked well for me for this title, I doubt I’ll embark on reading like this again.  Well, certainly not for fiction.  Clicking through the stats and the case studies within Two is Enough made it seem more like research and this supported my ability to remain emotionally removed from my explorations into this topic.  I imagine that if I’d been curled up on the sofa reading the case studies in a regular book format the impression that I was reading a Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Couples Exploring the ‘Kids Question’ and I probably would have bawled.  Dry-eyed post-reading I was appreciative at least for the reassurance that is present throughout this book that there are growing numbers of childless by choice couples as well as growing acceptance and understanding of people who say two is enough.

Arya of Winterfell’s #CBRV Review #21: Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti

why haveWhy Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti is an easy-to-read mission to debunk the idea that children = happiness.  As a non-parent this is something I’m interested in exploring – personally and socially.  The themes Valenti (a parent) takes on are similar to Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman in their TED talk, “Let’s Talk Parenting Taboos:

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Arya of Winterfell’s #CBRV Review #20: Pushed by Jennifer Block

Block_97807382116645As a Canadian and non-mother reading this book five years after it was published, not everything is applicable and current, but Pushed was eye-opener that I’m glad to have stumbled across.  I was impressed with the research and Block’s persuasive exposé that includes a few practical suggestions towards solutions that reads to me like effective journalism.  Block takes issue with high Caesarean rates and routine labour inductions in US hospitals and rolls back time to figure out why childbirth and modern maternity care in US hospitals has deteriorated as such.  My use of “deteriorated” here may seem inflammatory, but in the context of the medical system Block exposes as motivated to overuse modern obstetric technology because of fear of litigation versus what is most healthy for mothers (and babies), perhaps this verb isn’t strong enough.

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Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #13: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Rachel Samstat is a chef who’s been on TV, and a bemused but witty heroine/narrator. She finds out that her husband is having an affair…and she happens to be pregnant. From these simple beginnings emerges a frothy but sharp lemon cheesecake of a novel–light and creamy on top, infused with tartness, and grounded in the buttery biscuits of warmth and insight which evoked in me nods, smiles and sighs of recognition.

In Heartburn, divorce doesn’t lead to self-conscious self-discovery and life-changing experiences Eat Pray Love-style, or graphic sexual odyssey à la Fear of Flying. It’s a quieter, more humorous take on the muddles that people get themselves into, and the ways in which they survive heartbreak and separation. The book is set among the upper-middle-class, if such a designation is appropriate for American literature set in artistic New York and the political circles of Washington, but the emotional resonance of the novel, the pain and confusion of adultery and divorce and the split-second moments of clarity, as well as its commentary on the behaviour of the entitled male, is amusing and perhaps, to some extent, universal.

I’d recommend it if you like Julie and Julia (the book or the film), or Sex and the City (the series, not the films *brrr*). It’s a niche sort of book–less saccharine than some of the films she was involved in–the most acerbic bits and crackle from When Harry Met Sally come closest to the tone. Heartburn gains added interest because it was based on her second marriage and the fallout that followed, and it also contains recipes which look rather tasty.


(Note: I read this a while ago, so the details are a bit skimpy – do check out this great review of Heartburn by Loulamac.)

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #12: Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown is at the edge of the “immer”, an outpost of the Bremen empire, and at the border between the Ariekei and the humans on the planet Arieka. It is clearly science fiction, verging towards dystopian science fiction, but it’s also about colonialism, about the alien and the other, and about words and signs and truth and lies and revolutions that change the meaning of all of these. Negotiating between the Ariekei, or Hosts, who are the aliens, and the mostly-human community are the Ambassadors, who we gradually find out are sets of doubled, identical beings who speak “Language” with two voices but one brain, the only form of communication that the aliens, who are alien to the point of not even breathing oxygen–or being physically or mentally capable of lying, of saying that something is not what it is but something else–can understand.

Drifting among the power structures, danger zones and levels of communication in Embassytown, is Avice, a girl who made an unusual contact with the alien race early in her life, and who becomes a Navigator in the “immer,” able to transport vessels in a nebulous, shifting space among the stars and planets that make up the universe. On one planet she finds Scile, a linguist obsessed with the Host alien language and way of communication, and brings him in her wake back to Arieka. Scile’s investigation and idealism happens to coincide with the appearance of an impossible Ambassador from Bremen, and the results are ultimately disturbing and destructive in moral and ethical as well as physical ways.

Embassytown is a trippy read. A lot of it makes more sense if you’re familiar with the sign and signified and other Derridean stuff, or if you’re used to reading or watching science fiction in which obscure or made-up words describe technology, environment and aliens. It takes a while to get into, but I was gripped when I finally did. Although the novel is more about ideas than people, there is some relatable emotion and experience, particularly as events unfold, but I found it hard to get a sense of Avice and the other characters as more than ciphers. I admired it and enjoyed it as an intellectual rather than emotional or escapist read, thinking about its allusions and structures (probably because I read it two days before I had to teach it) and I’m sure I missed a lot of what was going on. It’s a dark, weird, thought-provoking novel about big questions, without any easy answers.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I accidentally left The Corner That Held Them (Virago Modern Classics 2012) on a train, but fortunately only after I’d finished it. And I’m glad I did finish it because it would have been very hard to be cut off from it in the middle – not because so many important things happen, but because so many unimportant things flow so steadily in such a stream of gentle vitality that not reaching the end would be like a river dammed and ruined at its most limpid and beautiful.

Published in 1948, the story begins around 1153 when Brian de Retteville catches his wife Alianor in bed with her lover Giles. Giles is summarily and bloodily killed, as is the old woman who was supposed to stand guard. Alianor lives for another ten years, and when she dies de Retteville, in an excess of grief, founds a convent by the Waxle river, presumably somewhere in the fens and moors of East Anglia. From these beginnings of sex and murder springs the tale of a community of (theoretically) chaste and (theoretically) benevolent ladies, who must manage the lands belonging to their convent, maintain their religious ceremonies, and negotiate with various bishops and businessmen for funds and recognition. Meanwhile, the world between 1349 and 1382, when the bulk of the story takes place, is a dangerous and unstable site of conflicting religious theories, rebellious peasants, fraudulent friars and an occasional anxiety about the apocalypse which must surely loom very near. The nuns themselves reflect this turmoil – their superstition, jealousy, and worldly concerns are not expunged with holy water, and the various power struggles and secrets threaten to upset the entire convent and their relationship with God.

The Corner That Held Them is masterfully written. The narrator displays evenhanded insight – no one nun emerges as a heroine, no one man of God as a complete villain, and the various preoccupations of this community of women ranging from the very old to the barely pubescent are told in realistic detail – there are pustules and plagues as well as heavenly visions and vocations, worry about harvests and decay as well as the aspiration of building a new spire for the glory of God. Curiously for such subject matter God and religion are left shadowy; masses and prayers are such a matter of rote that little special attention is paid to them, which I think enhances the immersion of the reader into the novel – historical novels are often written with big signs pointing to “period detail” instead of it emerging naturally from the narrative. New philosophic and spiritual ideas of man’s place in the world and by extension women’s place in relation to man are woven skilfully into the mundane events of the rural community, and the hostility of peasants and Lollards is also made real. Overall, this is a great book; the nuns themselves become very real the further you read.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also wrote Lolly Willowes, which I reviewed here for CBR IV.