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The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

silentGone Girl by Gillian Flynn was a quick read for me this past spring. I enjoyed it yet, Flynn’s magic lay not in writing a psychological mystery of amazing literary prowess, or even much thoughtfulness, but in making a book that rippled with suspense. Gone Girl was addictive. Gone Girl was a good book, but The Silent Wife is better. A.S.A Harrison wrote The Silent Wife last year but she died before she could see it published.

Jodi and Todd, married for more than twenty years,  have survived because they were willing to see each others’ strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  It is a rattling account of a familiar story, a stalwart woman and a cheating husband living in relative peace until something sets it off.

Todd’s most recent girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. He leaves Jodi, even evicting her out of their condo. Because the two had never married, Jodi, the one with a low-income, finds out she has no claim on her home. Jodi feels threatened, and entitled to more after putting up with Todd and his infidelity for twenty years. Todd’s actions erode Jodi’s sanity, and she falls apart until she murders him.

The book’s strength is sheer interest in the characters. From the get go (first page) the reader knows Jodi will kill Todd, so the reader is interested in the set up, not the how.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jodi, a trained psychotherapist, recounts therapy she has attended in the past.  Attending therapy was for her own professional development, but these flash backs revealed not only Jodi’s family history, but also theory about human behaviour.  It ultimately shows the reader why Jodi, someone so sane and grounded, could murder her ex-husband.  The book is heavy with description, particularly the scenes of Jodi slipping into depression, but the frill of the writing is how the reader becomes a type of therapist to Jodi.

Unfortunately, this will be A.S.A Harrison’s only fiction book as she passed away. You can read about the fascinating story of her life as an artist in Toronto in this article.

A.S.A Harrison
A.S.A Harrison

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

It’s been fun trying to describe the premise of this book to people.

The gist: there is a virus that affects blonde women (mostly) and causes them to become violent and kill people. It grows to epidemic proportions in Canada and the US, making people paranoid and take drastic measures to protect themselves and their families.

The more in depth description is that in The Blondes, Emily Schultz creates a world only a few months in the future. Hazel Hayes, a redhead, is in her late 20s and finishing her PhD in Aesthetology which is (I think) the study of the way we are attracted to beauty and how beauty affects relationships and connections.  Hazel is a Canadian, staying in New York to work with a professor on her thesis. While there, she witnesses a violent and spontaneous attack perpetrated by a blonde woman.

This is the first in an “epidemic” of attacks. Soon, thousands of people have been violently killed, all by women who are blonde. Scientists soon start attributing the attacks to a rabies-like virus called SHR. It is a virus that is more easily carried and caught by people with little melanin in their skin and hair (blond and fair-haired people).

So, Hazel is stuck in New York with all the attacks, but she wants to get back to Canada and can’t get past the border. The issue is timely because before she left for New York, she had a brief affair with Karl, her thesis adviser. She needs to get back to Canada for an abortion.

Hazel is stopped at the border and forced into quarantine (in Hamilton, yeah for literary mentions!) because of her red hair which means she could be a carrier of the virus. Hazel has no money and no communication with the outside world. After two months she is let out, and travels to find Karl at his cottage in Wasaga beach.  Unfortunately, Karl was killed by SHR and the only person at the cottage is Grace, Karl’s blonde and bitter wife.

Eventually, Grace helps Hazel because she feels bad for and for Karl’s future progeny.

There are so many reasons why I enjoyed this book. It was funny, and the premise was outrageous, but still strangely believable. The character of Hazel is memorable and endearing. She is over weight, considers herself frumpy and unattractive. She is also honest with the reader about her motivations for sleeping with Karl, and also for deciding to keep her baby in the end.Cover The Blondes

I thought The Blondes had interesting reflections on beauty and the sorts of things we do for beauty. Women are often motivated to act a certain way because they believe they aren’t beautiful. The need to look a certain way in order to be valuable and desirable is prominent in our society. Schultz brought it out in a relevant and poignant way. Women know that being valued for appearance is shallow, and false, but we still half-believe or half-buy into it.

Blonde people in the novel become murderers because of physical appearance. Life is easier for people who are considered conventionally attractive, and I think that’s what Schultz was bringing out in The Blondes.  This is explored further through the character of Hazel who has, instead an atypical sort of beauty and doesn’t seem to care about appearance in a “normal” and feminine way. Even though she knows her value doesn’t entirely come from affirmation from others, she still has an affair with Karl because she admittedly wanted to be valued as beautiful.

This was a fun but still quite literary novel. You can read more about Emily Schultz here, and also about the literary magazine Joyland that she runs here.

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some of my favorite things in life are eating chocolate, learning about new things, and uninterrupted sleep (preferably through the night). Swamplandia! helped with ONE of those. It was fascinating!

This ambitious novel, written by the twenty-nine year old Karen Russell, was buzzing around on some must read lists for 2012.  Swamplandia! is a theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. It’s an almost fantastical place with gator wrestling, sensational Everglades memorabilia, a quasi-historical museum and an endangered family called the Bigtrees.

Ava is a thirteen year old girl. She has an older brother, Kiwi, and an older sister, Osceola. Her family is normal in a sense that they love each other, they have history and they are alive. But they are also a little strange. They live isolated but fulfilling lives on one of the alleged Ten Thousand Islands (not our Ten Thousand Islands) of the Florida Everglades. The Bigtree family’s connections with the rest of the world are few. One is an old  houseboat that serves as an outdated library for the very scattered community of islanders. The other is the ferry that brings tourists back and forth from the mainland to adventure in Swamplandia!

Hilola Bigtree is the mother of this family and she is also the main gator wrestler!  (exclamation point was not really necessary in this sentence) She’s good; a good showman and a good mother. But she dies quickly of cervical cancer leaving her family fragmented,  and the struggling theme park without its headliner.

Simultaneous to Hilola’s death and Swamplandia!’s fizzle is a mainland theme park opening called The World of Darkness. Tourists stop coming and the family’s way of making a living and surviving in the proud Everglades impossible due disheartening big corporation market push over.

The mourning children deal with their deep loss. Kiwi leaves the island for the mainland with intentions to make money and save Swamplandia! He ends up getting a job at The World of Darkness as a janitor.

Osceola becomes a spiritualist  using an Ouija board to try and contact her dead mother. Unfortunately, her mother is not accessible and she starts dating ghosts of young men.

Ava trains with great diligence, dreaming to be the next Hilola Bigtree, the best gator wrestler in the world. She tends and trains the gators in their pit as hard as her thirteen-year-old self can. 

Their father leaves the island to save the bankrupt island. The children believe he is meeting with investors for a few weeks, but he is actually working on the mainland as well. Kiwi is gone, and Osceola and Ava are left on their own to tend to the gators and the island. Osceola starts to become more and more bizarre. She runs away, deeply in love with a dead dredgeman to elope in The Underworld, which is where dead people go.

Ava wakes up alone with a note explaining the run away, and a promise ringing in her ears to her brother about keeping their whimsical sister grounded. She sets off with a strange, transient man who is known by locals as the Bird Man, a transient middle-aged man who scares away troublesome birds. The Bird Man’s appearance is serendipitous because he tells Ava he knows the way to The Underworld and can help save her sister.

Evil and hardship await the siblings as they follow their own way to save their realities. In the end it seems that people must be adaptable to the way the world changes. Even if it is for the worse.  Because life can always be full of love.

Why?

Swamplandia! is eerie and haunting. Some parts reminded me of The Dead Marshes of Tolkien and even though the Everglades is a real place, the book feels like a fantasy. It’s fabulously alluring and Russell uses amazing imagery to pull it off.  In the scene where Ava and the Bird Man are setting out, one lovely sentence reads like this:

We poled around the scummy crystals of the oyster beds and made a beeline for the mirror-like slough. I watched a line of water creep up his pole as the channel deepened, like the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer, and then we broke into wild sun (page 160).

This movie is Tim Burtonesque, complete with a creepy and unreadable Johnny Depp character. I think people would enjoy the humour and stunning beauty that Ava sees. Russell draws her alive, and gritty, although slightly more mature than thirteen would allow; she is easy to root for and connect to.

Swamplandia! is thick with details. Russell knows the world of the Everglades well, and the history portrayed in the novel about the land and the people who survive there is rich and enthralling. Also, every time that Swamplandia! is printed in this lovely tome, Swamplandia! has an exclamation mark on it. It’s details like that which really won me over. 

This book made me do a lot of online research about the Everglades. I now want to go there someday and I love books that expose me to new and exciting places. Everglades is an amazing place! I read some cool stuff here: Everglades in Wikipedia, and the government website for the national park.

I also enjoyed the theme of old vs new, of history vs progress. Swamplandia! was old-fashioned and a bit out of touch with popular culture. The World of Darkness (Read: World of Disney) represents the large-scale corporations that have all but taken over the States (and Canada). Russell also talks about survival of the fittest.

The tension between these two ideas makes for a thought-provoking read. Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Who?

  • Women
  • Fans of the Midwife of Venice (this is a MUCH better book)
  • Canadian History fans (are there any out there?)

The Book:book cover of bride of new france

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers  is about the “filles du roi” or King’s daughters. In the late 1600 the King of France paid for young women to move to New France to help populate the settlements.  These women were usually orphans from the poor houses of Paris.  The women married the ex-soldiers or officers already settled in New France. Prior to the King’s efforts these men seemed more interested in reproducing half-native half-french children.

Most of the women who came as a Filles du Roi had no experience in farming or sustenance living. It was a lonely life, one that would need a great deal of resolve and bravery to survive. Desrochers imagines this world through the eyes of the young woman Laure. Her spunk get’s her sent from Paris overseas on a six-week journey to the great wilderness of Canada.

Laure shows us the new world in its beauty and strangeness. She marries a man who seems decent enough, but she is left for most months of the year along while he traps animals and gallivants around with the native women.

Laure meets a young Iroquoian man. He is rough and crass, but eventually they fall in love and have a clandestine affair. She becomes pregnant as a result. I will not spoil anymore details, but she learns to comes to term with the life she must live in the new world. Laure is also able to see the opportunities available to her as a woman living in New France.

Read It?

I picked up this book for a few reasons.  I’ve always been a bit of a history buff and this book, set in the late 1600s, was a historical fiction fix.  It’s sometimes difficult to find Canadian historical fiction maybe because of an inferiority complex about our proud past.

I also have a soft spot for début books (which this is), as I enjoy new voices in Canadian Literature.  This fiction started out as a Master Thesis for Desrochers at York University. It is well researched and fully conceivable as Desrochers brings this time in history to life.

But I cannot wholly recommend this one.  I enjoyed the story enough. The plot held my attention because of its setting, but Desrochers’s introspection came through too strongly in the character Laure.  It really felt forced and I kept telling Desrochers (telepathically) the old writers motto “show don’t say.”

Laure is flat, unbelievable and too neutral or reserved to cling to.  However, if you enjoyed the Midwife of Venice, you may enjoy this one and it’s much more historically sound.

Cheers!

 

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Voices from Chernobyl edited by Svetlana Alexievich

Interested in?

  • Russian/Soviet history
  • science “fiction” – this stuff is stranger than fiction

The Book:

April 26, 1986, an incredibly significant event occurred in an otherwise little known part of Russia called Prypiat, Ukraine SSR. The event was the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. A malfunction in the plant caused one of the reactors  to reach a high temperature resulting in a large explosion. The  explosion shot fuel and materials high into the atmosphere. This included dangerous levels of radiation.

The amount of radiation that was released from the explosion was 400 times the amount that occurred in Hiroshima.  High levels of radiation were detected not only in Soviet Russia, but also all over the world and were directly linked to the disaster.  It changed our world.

Voices from Chernobyl is a collection of stories told to and collected by Svetlana Alexievich. The stories give account to the lives that were affected and are still affected by the Chernobyl accident.  The voices were powerful and engaging. I was addicted to the horror and the humanity of the events as described by the people who lived through this.

There is no narration in the story, and yet, maybe because of the collective consciousness of the Soviet people, the stories remain consistent and cohesive. Although interconnected, Alexievich also presents many different perspectives, from the old ladies who refused to leave during the evacuations, to the officials who  made the calls to send people into the plant to put out the fires. The most haunting tale is the memories of a wife whose husband had died from radiation poisoning. The radiation feels like a mysterious evil.

Why?

Alan (my husband) and I were watching The VICE Guide to Travel: Chernobyl, and, of course, nuclear power has been a timely issue since the Fukushiuma nuclear crisis. The show was slightly sensational, but still riveting. I was struck with the idea that there are spaces in the world that have been almost forever changed, as if they were different dimensions now. The movie, and the book are full of images of vacant schools with drawn pictures on the wall, and wild animals living in abandoned houses.

Voices from Chernobyl opened up this world to me. And, if ever I was hesitant about our dependency on nuclear technology, that we don’t understand or have the capacity to totally control, I have definitely been swayed. Not cool.

Another fascinating theme of the book was the patriotism of the people who were ordered by their government to risk their health in order to clean up the disaster and make it better for others. The Russian people knew that they were needed, and that they stood up to the challenge, even when it meant dying of cancer at an early age.  This is crazy stuff!

If you enjoy this sort of thing, then please pick up this book. You will be haunted by it for the rest of your life.

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan

For Readers interested in:

  • historical depictions of early Canadian life, specifically Newfoundland.
  • women’s issues (control over their own bodies, midwifery,etc.)

Sheilagh's BrushThe Book:

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan was a rapid and memorable read, full of depth and perception.  Thankfully, I happened upon this book on the library shelf. It is set in coastal Newfoundland, where life in the 20s and 30s was grueling and unrewarding. Sheilagh is the main character, a young woman belonging to a tight community called Rennie’s Bay. At the very beginning of the novel, Sheilagh has nearly died in childbirth. Hanrahan pulls us into the harsh realities of life on the coast with the first sentence:

“The nurse is certain this baby will not live.”

Sheilagh has delivered her daughter named Leah and is attended by the district nurse, the local midwife, her mother, and her sister Claire. Leah is premature and she spends the first weeks of her life inside a “just-warm” oven, coming out only for feedings. Leah does live, despite the nurse’s concerns.

Life continues for Sheilagh, as she spends her time caring for the needs of her family, or putting up food for the long winters. The depictions are not a simplified, agrarian idealism. This is a book depicting the gritty realism of eating nothing but fish and cabbage day in and day out.  People die regularly of common diseases,  and one looks forward to small things like the Christmas dance all year, because it is the only time to have fun.   The community must rely on each other to survive, for good or ill.

What keeps Sheilagh’s spirit alive and joyful is the love she feels for her daughter Leah. Sheilagh loves her husband Peter, but they often disagree or are disconnected from each other’s realities. She does not wish to go through childbirth again although her husband tells her he would like a son. Sheilagh secretly rejects the authority of her husband over her own body by using birth control.

Claire, Sheilagh’s sister, feels called to greater things than the sustenance scraping of Rennie’s Bay. She tosses aside the love of a handsome young man of her community. Claire gathers her courage and leaves Rennie’s Bay, rejecting the hold of the community.

Through both of these narratives, the reader is also given glimpses of the local midwife and her role of healing in the community. With the same objectivity, we are privy to the thoughts of the district nurse and her sorrow in tending to the physically horrid lives of the people in these remote communities.  The nurse was often broken by people’s readiness to use superstition and prayers, rather then simple medical procedures. One woman dying at fifty,  felt that she had lived a long and good life.

The Point:

This was a powerful book. It is short and wonderful addition to Canadian Literature. I continuously thought of The Birth House, by Ami McKay (click here for my review), because it is a similar setting in time and place. But, all the complaints I had with The Birth House are redeemed in this book. Sheilagh’s Brush covers the same issues realistically, rather than idealistically. Hanrahan reveals the story with elegance, without pushing her own agenda.

The characters were vivid and historically faithful. The novel captured the complexity of a cast of characters that I appreciate so much in a novel.  We feel for Sheilagh’s desire to not have children, but we also feel sorry for Peter, who just wants a son to work with him someday.

The most compelling and intelligent part of the novel, was Hanrahan’s theme of traditional medicine vs modern medicine. In The Birth House, it was very clear readers were meant to feel that modern medicine was the enemy, and had taken away the respectful and traditional ways of women. That view is entirely too simplistic.

Sheilagh’s Brush shows both sides.  The reader sees the midwife’s lifesaving care through keeping premature Leah in a make-shift incubator. But we also see the bizarre superstitions that cause harm, such as putting an axe under the birthing bed to take away pain (rather than giving pain medication in a hard labour). The midwife  insisted on weaning all babies at nine months lest the mother should poison their babies through their milk.  The nurse knows these things are only superstious traditions, and still tries to work within them to bring relief to people.

If you liked The Birth House, and it’s themes, please read this one. It is not lighthearted, but it is stunning and realistic.

ALSO: Go ahead and read my review of The Birth House.