Sunday, 8 July 2018

"O, Canada" post on a sunny summer Sunday...

I know my summer vacation has started when I’m able to read two books in one week, and that is just what happened!  HURRAY! I also finished an audiobook that I will tell you about, so bear with me if this is also a long-ish post.
I read a book that was passed on to me by one of my book club members, The Deserters by Canadian author Pamela Mulloy.  This short novel, her debut, tells the story of Eugenie, a middle-aged woman living on a farm in New Brunswick, Dean, a man who fled the US to evade a call for another tour of duty in Iraq and is hiding out in the woods near the farm, and Eugenie’s husband, (I think his name is Sam), who is away in Spain working as a carpentry apprentice.  Eugenie is trying to restore the farmhouse and the land, which she inherited from her grandmother, but it is almost more than she can manage alone. When Dean offers to help out, she readily accepts, and the two form a bond that only shared hard work and private contemplation can bring about. Eugenie is worried that Sam will not want to come back to Canada, and she fears her marriage is over. Well, she fears it, but may also welcome it.  Sam has his own issues to work out, which the time spent alone in Spain is allowing. And Dean is suffering PTSD after his first tour in Iraq, his sections peppered with flashbacks to his time there as he struggles to piece together his memories from that time. When Eugenie’s sister arrives from Montreal, things get complicated, then Sam returns, and we the readers know that things can’t possibly turn out happily for everyone.  Local author Mulloy did an amazing job with this slim literary novel that feels much longer than its 240 pages. While I could have kept reading and finished it in a day or two, the writing style almost demanded a slow, mindful reading experience that allows the reader to take in every word and consider the mounting complications, the emotional turmoil for the characters, that each shift in their seemingly isolated situation creates. It was a wonderful book, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.  I’m adding it to my book club selection list for next year, and am planning to invite the author to come and speak to our group, our first ever author visit!
And I read another book by Canadian author and former Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman, A Matter of Conscience.  Don’t let appearances deceive you - this is both a short novel and a sampling of the documentation pertaining to and stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada over the past several decades, as well as the “Sixties Scoop”, a time when government officials, along with Children’s Aid Society staff, visited Indian reservations and unceremoniously removed babies and young children from their biological parents and placed them up for adoption by non-Native couples in both Canada and the US, effectively wiping out their language, culture and heritage in one fell swoop.  The novel part of the book tells the story of Brenda, a young Indian girl who was one of the babies scooped from her parents and adopted by a white family in Orillia, Ontario, where she grew up loved and cared for… well, mostly loved (not all seized babies were so lucky). She had no idea about her heritage and suffered feelings of displacement throughout her years growing up. Greg is a young man who, just before he goes off to university, travels to Manitoba to work in the mines to earn his tuition money. There he becomes involved in the murder of a young student from a nearby residential school.  This act and the ensuing guilt shape the rest of his life, and when he meets Brenda, he believes that she will be his ticket to easing his conscience. Their tempestuous tale of love, passion and betrayal make up the first half of this book. The second half is filled with “Background Readings”, mostly government documents pertaining to the Indian Act, stories of Indigenous women who were part of the “Sixties Scoop” , who were abused, or who know an Indigenous woman who is either missing or murdered.  It also provides information on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  I have enjoyed an earlier novel by this author, Exceptional Circumstances, a political thriller set in Quebec in 1970, about the abduction of a foreign diplomat and cabinet minister by separatists, which was so good I bought a copy and paid full price for it!  So I was quite excited to get a copy of this book from the library, as it is so very important for us Canadians to try to understand as much as possible about the situations Indigenous peoples in our country have faced for decades, situations created by our government which formed the root of many systemic problems for which our country will probably spend many more decades atoning.  I didn’t love the novel part of the book. It offered a fairly surface treatment of Greg and Brenda’s relationship, and while it did bring up many of the issues facing Indigenous women today, it was too short to offer much more than a snapshot. In my opinion, Bartleman wrote the fictional part of the book to garner a wider readership, that this was just a vehicle to get people to read the documentation and stories at the back of the book.  And it worked! I would never have checked this book out if I knew it was non-fiction, but when presented as fiction, I was all over it! Then, when I realized that it was only 130 pages long, I felt obligated to at least skim the rest of the book, the “Background Readings”, which were very interesting and informative and quite heart-wrenching. Whether the publisher’s idea or Bartleman’s, it was brilliant packaging these two components together.  I think I can recommend this to anyone who is interested in finding out more about the issues facing Indigenous peoples in Canada today and throughout recent history, and would recommend reading both the fiction and the non-fiction sections of the book. (Note: these two Canadian novels were anything but uplifting, so if you need a light summer read, these are probably not for you!)
And I finished a so-so audiobook yesterday, The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain.  This domestic novel opens with 25-year-old Riley MacPherson going back to her hometown to clean out her childhood home after her father's death a month earlier.  She is on summer holidays from her job as a school counselor, so time is not really an issue for her. She reconnects with her older brother Danny, a recluse living in a trailer in their father’s RV Park, a bitter young man suffering from PTSD who feels that life has treated him poorly.  While going through some photos, Riley comes across a group shot of Danny, herself, and her older sister, Lisa, who killed herself at seventeen, when Riley was only two years old. Unable to stop herself, Riley digs into her family history and uncovers secrets that have been hidden for decades. As revelation follows revelation, Riley becomes more embroiled in the lies and secrets until it seems impossible to sort it all out and discover the truth, a discovery she is determined to make, but at what cost, and to whom?  It sounds like the kind of book I would like, and it was actually a fairly interesting story, but I couldn’t stand the sections narrated by Riley, and most of the book is from her point of view. She was such a self-centred character, seemingly only interested in how all of this affects her, that I nearly stopped listening to this 12+ hour book. I mean, the ending was fairly predictable and I could guess what was likely to happen to everyone. Riley whined and complained throughout, never considering the emotional states of others,  despite the best intentions of those around her, both family and friends. I did not love this audiobook, and was thrilled to finally reach the end yesterday afternoon. Chamberlain is a bestselling author, though, so clearly others enjoy her novels, so don’t be discouraged because of this post. And the narrator did a good job of bringing the story to life, too, so if you are in the mood for a domestic fiction audiobook that has a complex plot involving family secrets, you could probably do worse than this.
That really was a long post.  I’ll close now, as it’s a perfect summer day and I want to get out and enjoy it.   Bye for now…
Julie

PS My book club ladies met yesterday and they LOVED, LOVED, LOVED A Man Called Ove! They loved the characters, they loved the story, which resonated with so many of them, it made them laugh, it made them cry (both tears of happiness and sadness), and they thanked me profusely for choosing this book. That is the kind of response I'm always thrilled to receive!

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