Tuesday, October 23, 2018

My Terrible, Horrible, Not-that-bad, Still-Kind-of-Good Day at Work

So this was a few weeks ago - my third shift, I think. To backtrack a bit, I had gone in to talk to the office administrator after my first shift and she had told me a place I could park where you're technically not supposed to park (by the dumpsters) because I'm out by 2:30. The second week I drove in and saw the spot I thought she meant, but it really looked like you shouldn't park there, so I parked on the street again and DOUBLE-CHECKED with her that it was the spot she meant. So today, I parked there.

I went into the library. Did I mention that the learn-to-play-ukulele club meets in the library at the recess that is just before my shift? So the environment is less-than-serene at the best of times? But today when I went to log in to the computer, it was stuck in an update. This means I can't check books in or out or look up whether anyone has books out. Did I mention that my first classes are all of the autism unit? Where routine is, shall we say, key?

So, okay. I will roll with it. The younger two classes come in and fortunately the teachers have a record of who brought their book back, so I just write down everybody's name and the bar code of the book they take - the autism classes are small, so it's not overwhelming. This all goes swimmingly. Then the older two classes come in. In the middle of the same routine, an announcement goes out that a black SUV is parked in front of the dumpsters and needs to be moved.

That was me. In front of the dumpsters. Where the office manager told me TWICE to park (I thought). So I tell the teachers I'll be right back and go out and the maintenance guy is standing there looking annoyed and I apologize profusely and say that I was told to park by the dumpsters, and he points to the back of the lot and says "she probably meant THOSE dumpsters", and honestly, as my friend Hannah says, how many dumpsters does it take to run a school ANYWAY?

So I rush back to the library, only to discover that the morning librarian has left and locked me out of the back room, where my purse is, with my key. Fortunately I realized I could beg to borrow one of the teachers' keys instead of having to go to the office and further humiliate myself (yes, I did go home and order a lanyard forthwith).

THEN, during the next class, another secretary asked over the speaker if "The Librarian" was there. I gaped for a minute until the teacher said (to me) "she can hear you" and (to her) "yes, she is". The secretary said there was a call for me on line 2. I went to to the phone. There were no buttons with line numbers. I stood there for a minute waiting for further instructions until the secretary came in and told me I had to come take the call in the office.

THEN, during the NEXT class, I have to throw down with some grade 3 chick over Amulet books. The other librarian who has been at the school for twenty years, has a shelf of more mature books and graphic novels that are only accessible to grade four and up. Did I mention that I have one class that's a grade three-four split? I had more or less determined to stick to the policy, but I haven't gotten entirely comfortable with just saying "because I said so". So one grade three girl tells me she's allowed to read Amulet books (graphic novel series) but she only has them at her dad's, so she'd like to borrow one to read at her mom's. So I say yes, like an idiot, partly because I'm wishy-washy and partly because I know what it's like to be a kid who reads above your perceived reading level - my dad used to have to come approve my books at the local library. Then this other grade three girl gets up in my face because if R. gets to take one then she should too. And I argue (again, like an idiot) that her parents have said she's allowed to read them and she has them at home. And the girl says "well if she has them at home, why does she need to borrow one?" (okay, solid point), so I blurt out (like an idiot, probably violating some kind of confidentiality rules), "only at her dad's!" And the girl says "oh, okay" and skips away happily.

Then there was another incident where a boy checked out an Amulet book, flipped through it and then brought it back in high dudgeon and insisted that I check it back in because of the naked blue man. So I said "oh, okay."

The good news is, ten to twenty years ago this would have sent me screaming from the building, never to be heard from again. Now? Meh. A lot of things went wrong and I handled them with varying degrees of skill, the lowest level being Very Low Indeed. Won't be the last time. I made stupid mistakes doing this kind of work for years as a volunteer. This time I made stupid mistakes and got paid.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Inarticulate Grunt of Exasperation

Why do I keep not blogging? Why? I don't want to stop blogging. I don't care that blogging is dead. I think of things to blog about daily. Then I go to bed and remember that I didn't blog. Then I  think that I'll just write a new post without mentioning the hitherto lack of blogging, but I can't seem to help myself there either. Also, as soon as I started writing this I realized the other problem - I have forgotten to upload pictures relevant to things I meant to post about, but if I go upload the pictures now, well we all know what will happen, right?

So I got a tiny little job. A tiny little job that is perfect for me in location, description and mostly duration (I could probably stand a few more hours, but whatever). For the past years while I've been home with the kids (and, increasingly, without them), I marveled at people with depression or difficult life events who said they liked having to go to work because it distracted them from their problems. I thought if I was having a bad stretch that having to go to work would make things worse.

And now I totally get it. Again, the hours I have to work are few, but whether I'm having a bad week or not, I LOVE going to work. I love doing the work. It makes me feel normal and productive and, wonder of wonders, it distracts me from my problems, real-world or head-type. Even the day where absolutely everything - EVERYTHING - went wrong (actually, I'll type that up and schedule it for tomorrow, for your collective amusement), I was glad to have been there.

Angus is settling in amazingly well at college. Well, okay, not amazingly well, but maybe a tiny bit surprisingly well. I thought he might be a little more homesick. I'm really glad he isn't. Matt and Eve and I went down with my parents for Family Week-end, which was on Canadian Thanksgiving, to watch an exhibition scrimmage game which was basically the team split into Freshmen/Sophomores and Upperclassmen. He was obviously on the younger half of the team, and they lost every game but not always by much, and he played really well.

Obviously we hit the bookstore to outfit the squad in team colours. Eve got a sweatshirt and fuzzy Elmira socks with actual little Soaring Eagles on them. She insisted on posing for a picture with her clothes on holding Matt's mug and sending it to Angus because "he will LOVE it, he will feel SO SUPPORTED."

I'm sure this brought a tear to his eye.

The next week-end he had a break so I drove down to get him and bring him home for a few days. We had a nice drive with some conversation and music discussion - we were playing music off my phone, which has every song downloaded by anyone on our family account ever, on shuffle. This means it's entirely possible to hear Billy Joel, Jay-Z, The Wiggles, Hannah Montana and Yo-Yo Ma within any given half hour. We each had veto power over whatever played next, but we could also ask each other to listen if we thought the song was worthwhile. It was fun. I still maintain that The Wiggles are nothing without Greg.
It was nice and a little weird having him home for a few days. Matt's in Asia for most of October, so Eve and I had settled into a nice little girly groove. I had to cook more stuff. There were Angus clothes in the wash. I had to see Venom (it wasn't that bad).

The kids spending quality time together.

They hated this. Hated it.

Then I drove him back. Didn't even get to use my well-rehearsed "no sir, I have never tried marijuana ever" answer, which is, I don't know, maybe a little insulting? I did declare my Red Velvet Oreos. 

There. That wasn't that hard. Why do I keep not doing it? Sigh. It's the Circle of Blog Life. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Short and... Short

I went to bed exhausted and had vivid dreams about the kids being small again (and Matt wearing pink shorts, for some reason), and right now I don't feel like being rational and adult and phlegmatic about the whole thing - I feel like life has played a giant mean prank on me - here, have these tiny people, they're awesome and funny and will make you see whole new worlds, but they're also a giant pain in the ass so you won't be all that sad to see them go. NICE ONE, LIFE.

I've been trying really hard to live in the moment, realize that tomorrow is not promised, embrace the chaos - all your standard clichés. Being at this age where celebrities die and I'm surprised at how old they are and how young they still seem, seeing my parents getting older, feeling more and more mortal - I know how fast things can go if you don't pay attention. The thing is, they go fast even if you DO pay attention. And it's hard to know exactly HOW you're supposed to embrace the moment. I keep looking up from my book, seeing Lucy disappearing into Eve's room and trying to capture that moment - Eve still living here, Lucy still being alive, being halfway through this book instead of through five more - and then what do I do with it? I'm perimenopausal, I can't remember why I walked into this room, how am I going to keep all these moments? And then the moment you've captured the moment, you're into the next moment. It makes me start to feel panicky and weird. And panicky and weird is my default, I don't need to be piling on addition panic and weirdness.

Also, my allergies are turbo-charged and tyrannical right now. Wednesday as I was trying to get ready for my new job, about which I am ecstatic and excited, my right eye was watering so much it was like trying to stick a contact lens on a waterfall. I went through half a box of kleenex before stepping out the door. Is it possible to be mindful and grateful while also being unbelievably snotful? Well, yes - but it's a little less poetic.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Sometimes the Universe is a Dick. Occasionally She is Kind.

So my blog post last year on this day was complaining that I was overwhelmed about starting to look for a job and Angus was getting screwed around by the guidance office at school.

This week Eve is getting screwed around by the guidance office at school but today I had a job interview for a job - a very small job, a microscopic job, like a job that can barely be seen by the naked eye, but still, a job - and by the time I got home and texted by reference they had already called her, and then before lunch they called me and offered it to me.

I told Eve I was sorry if I sucked up all the luck this week.

I was determined not to get my hopes up, not because I thought I wasn't qualified, but because the job is so absurdly, stupidly perfect for me at this point in my life that it just seemed impossible that I would actually get it. (I don't mean by this that it pays a whole lot or anything, you get that, right? I mean it's close by, and a few hours in the middle of the week so I can manage it even when my brain is broken, and at a really lovely school where I love all the people I've met so far). I still don't really believe it.

So Eve's situation is that she got both of her easy electives first semester, making her semesters wildly unbalanced. A few of her friends were in the same situation, so guidance told them to make appointments and then we they got to their appointment they were all told that everything was full and nothing could be done. This was doubly disappointing for Eve because she has cooking with Chef V. this semester, and Chef C., who she had last year and adored, is teaching cooking next semester and said he would make room in his class for her, so she would have had better balance and the preferred teacher. It's frustrating, because obviously it's hard to balance a billion courses between a billion students and have everyone be satisfied, but in our experience the school seems to be exceptionally bad at it.

She's handling it really well, though. She made her own guidance appointment, talked to all the teachers, and when she found out it wasn't possible she started looking for positives in leaving the situation the way it is. Also, Chef V. is the 'mean chef', but by the end of the first day she said they were already 'kind of buddies' because she got 'Angus points'.

Matt and I are in an extremely petty battle of seeing who can hold off from texting Angus for the longest, and making fun of each other when we cave. The first day I said I wasn't going to text him at all he texted me first, which made Matt very bitter. Yesterday I said "did you text him?" and Matt said "yes, but I had to get him to--" and I yelled "IT DOESN'T MATTER, YOU FAIL".

And now I'm experiencing extreme adrenaline withdrawal from an early interview and a celebratory happy hour with my parents, and I might need a nap.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Roller Coaster of Emotions

A couple of weeks ago, two friends and I took our younger kids to Canada's Wonderland. We went down to Toronto on Monday, went to Ripley's Aquarium (it was magical, would go back in a heartbeat), walked around, had dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory, spent the night in a weird hotel in Richmond Hill, and hit CW early on Tuesday. A rainy, rainy Tuesday. Like, the forecast started out rainy and got rainier, with multiple chances for thunderstorms. But we were committed, and, like Eve's friend Rachel said, hey, no lines.

So we marched into the (totally empty) park (every person at every checkpoint kept saying "you know there are no refunds, right?")  got sorted with lockers and rain ponchos, marched up to the Leviathan, filed on immediately (because no lines) and started chugging up the long, long, high hill. This was my thought process: "Hang on. I just got on. I wasn't sure I was going to get on. I'm just here because Eve wanted to come. Do I even like roller coasters? Did I ever like roller coasters? Did I just go on them to impress my boyfriend? Am I just doing this to impress my daughter? Or Collette? Perhaps I could have thought about this BEFORE I SAT DOWN IN THE FRONT ROW OF THE BIGGEST FREAKING ROLLER COASTER IN THE PARK?" Regrets, people. I had so many regrets.

So all summer we were preparing for Angus to move to Elmira New York for college. We washed stuff, we ordered stuff, we packed stuff. We went to all the summer action movies (that new Mission Impossible movie was way better than I expected). We went camping with all our friends and had a really great time. We went out for dinner with my parents. We assembled an assload of paperwork.

Then suddenly, here it was. We packed the van. We drove across the border (fairly smooth process that my husband stressed about for two months. The guy at the next desk with his 'simple assault charge' was having a way worse time). We unpacked and carried a bunch of crap up to the third floor of a residence in incredibly sweaty weather. We bought a bunch of stuff at Target (which has so many more different flavours of Oreos than we do, it's SO not fair).

And then... wait. Now we leave him here? He just lives here now? He doesn't live with us? Am I okay with this? Is this what I agreed to? This is the natural order of things. Right. Fine. It's good. It's right. It sucks a little bit. It's a little bit frightening. It makes your stomach feel a little bit weird. But it's also exciting. And hey, we're on this ride now. Might as well throw our hands in the air and embrace it.

(Metaphorically, I mean. Not on the actual roller coaster. There I was clutching that bar for dear life the entire time. Those things are really, really scary.)

Monday, June 4, 2018

Words and Food and Going Away

Since I started my last post talking about Lynn, why break the streak? I deleted Twitter from my phone on the strong urging of my sweet and wise friend Hannah - she detected that it was both making me angry all the time and giving me another excuse to sit brooding instead of getting off my ass and doing something constructive. It was good - when I felt the need to check Twitter I would remember it wasn`t there, and I would literally force myself to stare into space until I got bored enough to get up and do something. Then Lynn mentioned this game that she saw someone playing on their phone on the bus that involves words and trivia and.... DAMN YOU LYNN.

So I just linked to Lynn`s blog, which naturally led me to read her latest post before coming back here because I am a champion procrastinator, and she mentioned that she made a meal and her family ate all of it. This is a huge deal because she has myriad food allergies and underweight children to deal with, so the exciting thing it reminded me of is much less exciting comparably, but whatever. I don`t have a huge problem feeding my kids - Eve has a texture issue and a lot of things she can`t eat without barfing, and she doesn`t like pork or beef, but she eats many vegetables (some I don`t even like) and you can do a lot with chicken or fish, so it`s cool. But she doesn`t like a lot of casserole type things where everything`s all mixed together, so when I make something in the crock pot I generally do something else for her. Not a big deal. BUT, the other day I made a quiche with spinach and red peppers in it and DUDE - EVERYONE ATE IT. A one-dish meal. With vegetables. Every. Single. Person.

This, of course, reminds me that it would have been good if I`d made this discovery a year ago or more, because there are only three months before all of us don`t live here anymore. Which is a strange feeling. I keep saying that it was always pretty much a given that my sister and I were going to go away for university. Both my parents went far far away from home when they started their schooling. It was a family tradition. I assumed my kids would go away. Then when he was sixteen and only a couple of years from probably going away, I realized how much it sucked.

But I`m okay so far. He was talking to some people from my book club last week and he said he feels ready to be away from home. So that`s good. Of course there are times when I still miss my little boy who ran around in superhero costumes and sat on the stairs fully suited up for three hours before every baseball game and could talk about the dynamics of Pokemon for forty minutes straight (okay, I don`t miss that part so much). But I had that. Now it`s time for this. I`m excited for him. I think.

Okay. None of that was what I meant to blog about today. Maybe that means I`ll blog again tomorrow. ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Still Here, Still a Zombie

I just commented on Lynn's blog, which reminded me that she commented on my last post and made me think I WILL keep posting Lynn, I WILL. And then I didn't.

I'm tired today. This is sort of sucky because I haven't done that much to be tired from. BUT I did go to a play Friday night, a birthday party Saturday night, a dentist appointment Monday morning, a physio appointment Tuesday afternoon and several errand-ish places with Pam yesterday. SO this means I'm tired from doing SOME stuff, whereas for the past several weeks before this one, I was exhausted from doing almost nothing. A tiny, barely-discernible, possibly-invisible-to-the-naked-eye amount of improvement has taken place.

Soooo, what has flitted through my mind recently that I thought I might blog about and then didn't? I worked a little bit. There was a pair of twins in one of the classes at a Glebe school whose names were so wondrously harmonious that I immediately wanted to write a series of books about their madcap adventures. Then the next day I found out that they had an older brother whose name was just as fabulous. I texted Hannah and Nicole, but I probably shouldn't reveal their names in their glorious entirety here, but guys, I REALLY WANT TO.

Matt agreed to give a talk about possible careers in science to some high school teachers on a professional development day. He paced around musing about what level to pitch the talk at, what things to include, and kept saying he felt like he was overthinking it. I said "hon, you sound just like me trying to pick a book for storytime".

I read a French book about octupuses for storytime. Did you know that octupuses have one brain in their head and SMALLER ONES IN EACH ARM? Is this one of those things that everyone knew and I didn't? I would erase it for fear of mockery, but if I can share this with even one person, it will have been worth it.

I revisited my intention to read all the Newbery award winners, realized how few I'd actually gotten to and how very many were left and felt a little discouraged. Then I found three or four on the shelves at one of my schools, borrowed them over the week-end and felt better. Zombie blog - no deadlines. I will review them soon. Probably.

Every few days I go on Twitter and try to go to bat a little for my Twitter friends who are gay or trans and take a lot of shit on social media - not because I really believe I'm going to change anyone's mind, but that whole thing about it being more important for the others who are listening, you know? This invariably results in a few troglodytes calling me unsavoury names. A couple of weeks ago when I objected to someone characterizing trans people as sick and perverted, he retorted "and you are a fat, ugly slob." Isn't that, like... I dunno, almost quaint? I mean, yeah, it's stupid that men especially think that the very worst thing you can call a woman is fat, and the fact that he would think that some Trump-supporting brain-dead red-neck asshole not finding me attractive would be upsetting to me is weird, but I was kind of like, hey, the 1970s called, they want their insult back. What's this weak sauce, man - you can't even bestir yourself to muster up a "bitch" or "cunt"? And then one of my very sweet friends reported him and he got suspended! For fat, ugly slob! I reported someone on Facebook for saying that women soldiers should be used as human shields for male ones and nothing! WHERE IS THE BALANCE?

I finished rereading this book today and it made me cry again. It is a very, very good book.

So. How are you?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Book Review (sort of): Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

So I guess it's true that as my depression goes, so goes my blog. Or maybe it's inversely proportional? Either way, here we are, or are not. In sort-of good news... no, not really, but I guess in sort-of illuminating news that means I won't chuck my antidepressant, my friend Dani (HI DANI) posted something on Facebook that gave me a thundering A-HA moment. Of course, I didn't save it so now I will go hunt-scroll on Facebook for an hour or so to find it. BRB. Oh, here it is.

In short, it talks about peri-menopausal symptoms that aren't widely known, including a pervasive brain fog and memory problems, because "fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone make it hard to concentrate, wreak havoc on your memory, and influence your mood." The thing is, I knew I wasn't concentrating well and my memory was scary bad, and when I read blog posts from a few years ago and compared them to recent ones, they almost seemed to have been written by someone else. I remembered the words flowing faster than I could type them, shaping some small incident into a hilarious anecdote (it's true, read back, I was HILARIOUS), and as I went about my day I was often reworking things into a blog post, not compulsively, not so I would always write it down, but because that was how my brain worked. And now, it wasn't. Working. 

I was worried that this was an effect of my antidepressant, because that seemed the only thing that could have that big an impact on what I thought was my personality. It seemed like changing how my brain worked was too big a price to pay for a stabilized mood, so I dropped my dosage. Then Eve got a mild virus and I stayed awake all night worried she was going to die in her sleep, so clearly that was not a workable solution. So then I just stopped blogging. Then I read this. 

So, it's not a solution, but it means I should keep taking my antidepressant, which is good because my kids don't need me waking them up every two hours every time they get a cold. It means I probably don't have early-onset dementia (probably). It maybe does mean that I should quit blogging, but I don't think I'm quite ready to do that. 

So I've been meaning to read Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere based on nothing sensible - I knew nothing about her or the book, but it kept popping up on lists and I liked the cover, and the title, and her name. But then Nicole (HI NICOLE) recommended Everything I Never Told You, which was also available as an express library e-book, so I read that first instead.

I really, really... thought it was a good book. I didn't exactly love reading it, because it's very, very sad and uncomfortable and sometimes infuriating. It reminded me in many ways of Home by Marilynne Robinson, in the way that it showed that people can love each other very much and try very hard to be kind and do the right things and it can all still go horribly wrong.

Two main things kept gnawing at my brain while reading this book. One was mainly about the book, and one was mainly about me. The one about me was how desperately grateful I should be to have been born now and not fifty or sixty years ago or more. In a world that didn't have antidepressants, machines for treating sleep apnea, orthotics, body positivity... good lord, I would be even more of a weird outcast than I am now. Shit, I don't even know how to say it without joking because it's frankly terrifying to contemplate. Without orthotics I would be in pain every day that I tried to stand or walk. Without my CPAP I would have gained even more weight unrelated to diet or exercise levels. If I had just grown up with my mother who sighed and looked crushed every time I couldn't fit into something she thought I should be able to fit into, and never found groups of people who talked about how that kind of thinking is actually bullshit, I would have felt like a fat failure. Without antidepressants...well, I guess that might have taken care of all of it, honestly. Okay, whew, enough of that, it's creeping me out.

The thing about the book is, Jesus Christ, we talk about communication so much that it's almost become a joke, but if one single person or married couple or sibling pair in this story had had one single honest conversation, how much misery could have been avoided? I'm not saying this judgingly; I understand very well all the reasons that people don't speak up, and it made perfect sense why the characters in this book felt like they couldn't be honest with each other. It's more just a fresh realization that communcation is actually very, very important.

I've been working on this post for weeks, and I feel like I haven't done with it what I wanted to do. But unless I wait for seven to ten years, chances are that's not going to happen, so I'm going to post it as is, because I guess just binge-watching Jessica Jones until my hormones settle the fuck down isn't really an option. If anyone needs me, I'll be here in the fog. Call my name, walk slowly and wave something in front of you.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My Kids Being Funny

I'm in sort of a weird place. I spent a few years raising kids and not worrying about getting a job. Then I spent a few years raising kids and working at a slow and meandering pace towards a diploma that would help me get a job. Then I spent a few months looking for a job. Now I have a job, but I'm not working much. So, like, when I'm not working, what's my job? You know?

It's fine. I've been on a very satisfying decluttering and purging tear, hung out with the kids a little during exams, and I'm keeping an eye out for steadier work. I've made it to the gym three weeks in a row, which all on its own is ample evidence that I'm doing better than I usually am in January. It's just all a little weird.

Eve Being Funny About Biscuits:

I was baking biscuits when Eve got home from school the other day, which made her very happy. She perched on the arm of the couch watching me cut out biscuits and place them on a cookie sheet saying "I'm so excited for biscuits!" and then I opened the oven and took out a sheet and she yelled "OMG, there were some in the oven already? WHAT A PLEASANT SURPRISE!"

Angus Being Funny About Bedrooms:

A few years ago we had the kids switch bedrooms because Angus's was twice the size and Eve spent more time in hers. Angus's small room had a queen loft bed, a single bed and a dresser underneath that, a book case and a little table that he mostly just piled shit on. It was close and cramped, but he really just slept and got dressed there. After a couple of years, he started sleeping in the spare bed downstairs so it was just a closet room. I'd been bugging Matt to get the loft bed out, but you know, life happens, things get put off, we are nothing if not champion procrastinators. Then a couple of weeks ago I found a friend who not only wanted the bed, but her husband wanted to come and take it apart so he would know better how to put it back together. Hello, Awesome! And the room looks SO much better now - we all keep going in and spinning around in circles on the empty floor, and there's so much more light, and Angus can actually stand all the way up and extend his arms while getting dressed.

So then Angus says "the only problem with you cleaning that room up is now I'm spending more time there." And I say "how is that a problem?" And he says "well, I'd committed to the basement before. Now I'm a citizen torn between two countries."

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Books 2017: Five Stars

So here's the thing. I don't typically write a lot about books I give five stars to (which denotes amazingness), because I'm busy being, you know, amazed. Also, I am heartily sick of my own reviewing voice at the moment. See everyone next year?

The Convulsion Factory by Brian Hodge. Synopsis from GoodreadsThematic collection of 12 stories based around the theme of urban decay.

In all honesty, I had another look at this last night and almost decided to leave it off this post. I actually did find it quite amazing, but there's a lot of taboo and fetish-y sex stuff, and I'm not sure exactly who I would wholeheartedly recommend it to. All of the stories are extremely dark, in a way that serves the theme rather than just for shock value; I also found a strong compassion, though, for the disenfranchised and anyone who feels lost, including sympathetic portrayals of the transgender community. There was a tender recognition of the yearning for human connection. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Synopsis from Goodreads: 100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. 
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come? 
In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come? 
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.

"I do not love mankind". That was the first line of a book I loved - The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. Yuval Noah Harari also does not love mankind, which added a really interesting flavour to the history here. Anyone with a high-level knowledge of human history might find this too glib, but for me it was a fascinating survey with some intriguing curve balls. It's fair to assume that this was so amazing to me because it's so far from anything I could ever write. 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Synopsis from Goodreads: In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the "Atlantic" writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people--a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. A timely work, this title will resonate with all teens--those who have experienced racism as well as those who have followed the recent news coverage on violence against people of color.

Not a comfortable read for a privileged person. Should probably be required reading for all of us, though.

This is the poem from which the title is taken:

Between the World and Me 
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
    suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
    oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
    themselves between the world and me....
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
    upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
    finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
    a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
    and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
    butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
    drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
    lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
    surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull....
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
    for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
    icy walls of fear--
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
    grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
    poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
    darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
    into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
    my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
    cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
    upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
    my life be burned....
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
    into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
    black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
    they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
    me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
    my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
    baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
    sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
    yellow surprise at the sun.... 

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Synopsis from Goodreads: Unburdened by the material necessities of the more fortunate, the denizens of Cannery Row discover rewards unknown in more traditional society. Henry the painter sorts through junk lots for pieces of wood to incorporate into the boat he is building, while the girls from Dora Flood’s bordello venture out now and then to enjoy a bit of sunshine. Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist who ministers to sick puppies and unhappy souls, unexpectedly finds true love.
Cannery Row is just a few blocks long, but the story it harbors is suffused with warmth, understanding, and a great fund of human values.
First published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is—both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. John Steinbeck draws on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, and interweaves their stories in this world where only the fittest survive—creating what is at once one of his most humorous and poignant works. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to create another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.

Here is another thing. It's pretty rare for me to be poleaxed and ecstatic about a book that is termed a classic. I read them. I often admire them. But I don't worship them and adore them and reach for them in a crisis the way I do with books I really truly love, which are most often genre fiction. I don't know if that's a lack of sophistication on my part (as Eleanor Shellstrop says in The Good Place, "goodbye modern architecture that I was too trashy to appreciate") but whenever I read one of those pieces where a public figure names their ten favourite books, I always sneakily wonder if they padded it to make themselves sound smarter. There are exceptions, of course - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn springs immediately to mind. I'm pretty comfortable with my possibly low-brow literary appreciation at this point, but I keep reading the classics because even if they don't set my mind on fire, it's worth seeing what other people find worthy. Anyway. I read Cannery Row and was completely, almost shockingly, smitten. What a vivid and visceral sense of place and character. If I had one slight quibble, it might be the sense that poverty and squalor were perhaps ever-so-slightly romanticized, but what the hell do I know? I felt like I was walking down the street, feeling the sun and smelling the smells and hearing the voices of the people. I was helpless with laughter over the frog hunt. The earnestness of the flophouse philosophers planning the party for Doc was heartbreaking. I felt like this completely captured that place in that time. It was wonderful.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Synopsis from Goodreads: Blending literature and memoir, Ann Patchett, author of State of  Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto, examines her deepest commitments—to writing, family, friends, dogs, books, and her husband—creating a resonant portrait of a life in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
As she shares stories of the people, places, ideals, and art to which she has remained indelibly committed, Ann Patchett brings into focus the large experiences and small moments that have shaped her as a daughter, wife, and writer. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage takes us into the very real world of Ann Patchett’s life. Stretching from her childhood to the present day, from a disastrous early marriage to a later happy one, it covers a multitude of topics, including relationships with family and friends, and charts the hard work and joy of writing, and the unexpected thrill of opening a bookstore

I saw this as an ebook from the library so grabbed it because I generally read everything by Ann Patchett that I can get my hands on, and was stupidly halfway through the introduction before I realized that it WAS, in fact, a book of essays. ("Why is she banging on about non-fiction so much? Oh. Wait"). I actually read her non-fiction book Truth and Beauty about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy before I read her fiction, and I liked the non-fiction book but not nearly as much as I adore her fiction, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I never am with her - often I read the plot synopsis and it doesn't sound particularly captivating at all. Because with Ann Patchett, it's never what she's writing, but how she writes about it. It's dreamy without being imprecise. It's exuberant without being saccharine. It's romantic and yet clear-eyed. I loved this book - her wry, intelligent, compassionate voice comes through so clearly in everything. It's wide-ranging in subject and I read it over a few days, finishing it at 3:30 a.m. one insomnia-ridden night. I was sad when it was over. It's important to note, I think, that it contains the phrase "little old nun toes". You're welcome. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. Synopsis from Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

It's almost boring at this point, how predictably, ludicrously wonderful every goddamned John Green book is. Oh, another teenager with an issue, rendered in wholly realistic, compassionate, convincing detail. More heartwarming relationships and a search/quest and coming of age stuff and superlatively witty banter that many people say is unrealistic because 'teenagers don't really talk like that'. Look, haters, I hang out with four fourteen-year-old girls on the regular. They talk like that. 

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.

I never thought I'd be five-starring a graphic novel, but oh, I don't even know how to articulate how much I loved this. I often feel like graphic novels cheat the reader on really fantastic writing - a picture, a few words, some in bold or a bigger font - but that is so emphatically not the case here. This is so funny, twisted, sad, sensitive, insightful, kind, bittersweet, gracious and wonderful. The way she finds resonance between her life and her father's, between literature and her family's circumstances, the way themes and phrases echo and reverberate is completely masterful, and then there's incredibly detailed and wonderful art that echoes it all. I laughed out loud. I cried real tears. I am now going to search out every single thing she has done and devour it. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Books 2017: Four-Star Non-Fiction and Fiction


Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. Synopsis from Goodreads: Dark, painful memories can be put away to be forgotten. Until one day they all flood back in horrible detail.
When television producers approached Alan Cumming to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show, he hoped to solve the mystery of his maternal grandfather's disappearance that had long cast a shadow over his family. But this was not the only mystery laid before Alan.
Alan grew up in the grip of a man who held his family hostage, someone who meted out violence with a frightening ease, who waged a silent war with himself that sometimes spilled over onto everyone around him. That man was Alex Cumming, Alan's father, whom Alan had not seen or spoken to for more than a decade when he reconnected just before filming for Who Do You Think You Are? began. He had a secret he had to share, one that would shock his son to his very core and set into motion a journey that would change Alan's life forever.
With ribald humor, wit, and incredible insight, Alan seamlessly moves back and forth in time, integrating stories from his childhood in Scotland and his experiences today as the celebrated actor of film, television, and stage. At times suspenseful, at times deeply moving, but always incredibly brave and honest, Not My Father's Son is a powerful story of embracing the best aspects of the past and triumphantly pushing the darkness aside.

Lovely and bittersweet. He sounds like a lovely man. I've loved him as an actor, which made me approach this with trepidation, because, you know, safer to never meet your heroes (or read autobiographical writing by them).  No worries - this was written with pathos, suspense and poignant, gracious humour.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Synopsis from Goodreads: Shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize 2014
Smart, clear-eyed, and irreverent, Unspeakable Things is a fresh look at gender and power in the twenty-first century, which asks difficult questions about dissent and desire, money and masculinity, sexual violence, menial work, mental health, queer politics, and the Internet.
Celebrated journalist and activist Laurie Penny draws on a broad history of feminist thought and her own experience in radical subcultures in America and Britain to take on cultural phenomena from the Occupy movement to online dating, give her unique spin on economic justice and freedom of speech, and provide candid personal insight to rally the defensive against eating disorders, sexual assault, and internet trolls. Unspeakable Things is a book that is eye-opening not only in the critique it provides, but also in the revolutionary alternatives it imagines.

Mostly I liked this very much. When she wrote it she was much younger than I am and very angry. The angry I still relate to. There are areas where it feels like she's a bit too much in love with her own fiery rhetoric and piles up a bunch of vivid images and clever turns of phrase until I had kind of lost the point, but that's not the worst thing in the world. A lot of this stuff has already worked its way into the vocabulary of feminism, which is a good thing. Overall - I'm now satisfied that her non-fiction writing is as good as her fiction, which I have loved; reading this as an older feminist made me both admiring of her energy and very, very tired; and I have to do some reading on neoliberalism now.

The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries by Shannon Moffet. Synopsis from Goodreads: The average human brain weighs three pounds—80 percent of which is water—and yet it's capable of outstripping the computational and storage capacities of the most complex computer. But how the mind works remains one of humankind's greatest mysteries.
With boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, Shannon Moffett, a Stanford medical student, takes us down the halls of neuroscience to the front lines of cutting-edge research and medicine to meet some of today's most extraordinary scientists and thinkers, all grappling with provocative questions: Why do we dream? How does memory work? How do we see? What happens when we think?
Each chapter delves into a different aspect of the brain, following the experts as they chart new ground. Moffett takes us to a lab where fMRI scans reveal the multitude of stimuli that our brains unconsciously take in; inside an operating room where a neurosurgeon removes a bullet from a patient's skull; to the lab of Christof Koch, a neuroscientist tracking individual neurons in order to crack the code of consciousness; and to a research lab where scientists are investigating the relationship between dreams and waking life. She also takes us beyond the scientific world—to a Zen monk's zendo, where she explores the effects of meditation on the brain; inside the home of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder; to a conference with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who uses illusions, magic, tricks, and logic to challenge our assumptions about the mind; and to the home of the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of DNA's double-helix structure.
Filled with fascinating case studies and featuring a timeline that tracks the development of the brain from conception to death, The Three Pound Enigma is a remarkable exploration of what it means to be human.

I really liked this, and I felt like I learned a lot, but as with many things at this stage of my life, it's hard to get it to stick. It's such a deep, sprawling subject, and I felt like she did a good job carving out a path through it, and mixing hard science with character studies of people in the field and more easily digestible passages about more popular areas of neuroscience. I find this subject endlessly fascinating - how do you study the brain while using your brain, so you're inside the brain but outside the brain at the same time? I will probably reread this at least once. 

Fiction, But With Superheroes and Fairies and Flying People and Stuff

I'm not sure why I decided to put these here instead of with the other fantasy books. They just seemed a little more on the magical realism side than actual fantasy, although if I'd let myself brood on it more I probably could have moved more title back and forth. So I decided not to overthink it. This might actually be my very favourite kind of novel - realistic, but admitting that sometimes reality has some give to it.

All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. Synopsis from GoodreadsAll Tom's friends really are superheroes.
There's the Ear, the Spooner, the Impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she's sure that Tom has abandoned her.
So she's moving to Vancouver. She'll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom's beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he's visible, or he loses her forever.

I had this on my Kindle forever until a guy at our regular bar night mentioned that he had read it - that seemed coincidental enough that it prompted me to read it. It's a very quiet, melancholy kind of superhero tale. The superheros involved have powers like knowing what the perfect song or bottle of wine for any occasion is, or wandering into people's houses in the middle of the night and cuddling them when they need it. Very sad and lovely. 

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. Synopsis from Goodreads: No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music, hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.
Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless "haint" lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn's darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.
With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds…
The Hum and the Shiver is a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011: Science Fiction & Fantasy title.

In the wrong hands, this could have easily been too Harlequin Romance for my liking, but it bends the tropes enough that it's just a readable story with a brush of the otherworldly. The Tufa lore is so convincing that I actually looked up whether it had any basis in fact. It slightly resembles the fiction of Charles de Lint, who I love. 

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. Synopsis from Goodreads: Louise is a single mom, a secretary, stuck in a modern-day rut. On a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and sparks fly. Though he leaves after they kiss, she’s thrilled she finally connected with someone.
When Louise arrives at work on Monday, she meets her new boss, David. The man from the bar. The very married man from the bar…who says the kiss was a terrible mistake but who still can’t keep his eyes off Louise.
And then Louise bumps into Adele, who’s new to town and in need of a friend, but she also just happens to be married to David. David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife, but then why is David so controlling, and why is Adele so scared of him?

As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong, but Louise can’t guess how wrong―and how far a person might go to protect their marriage’s secrets.

Sarah Pinborough is always interesting to read - you never know exactly what you're getting into. I wavered between three and four stars here, and I don't want to say too much because I think this is a better read if you go in with few expectations.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce. Synopsis from Goodreads: It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phone call from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.
He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she's back, tired, dirty, disheveled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent traveling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.
But her stories don't quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young woman who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter's parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara's one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it's as if she's off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family.

Oh man, I loved this so much. Why did I not five-star it? I should have five-starred it. It has everything I need for a wholly gratifying reading experience. It's just a really great story with a bittersweet flavour of fairy tales. 

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.
More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.
Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.
When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.
But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy–that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as possible.

So grateful to this book, which busted me out of a reading rut. I liked the way this was fairly realistic fiction that played out within a framework of magical realism - and the magical device is a very apt metaphor for Ozzie's mental state. I also admired the frank addressing of adolescent sexuality and sexual diversity. Good writing, great story.


Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters by Pearl S. Buck. Synopsis from Goodreads: On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife. The House of Wu, one of the oldest and most revered in China, is thrown into an uproar by her decision, but Madame Wu will not be dissuaded and arranges for a young country girl to come take her place in bed. Elegant and detached, Madame Wu orchestrates this change as she manages everything in the extended household of more than sixty relatives and servants. Alone in her own quarters, she relishes her freedom and reads books she has never been allowed to touch. When her son begins English lessons, she listens, and is soon learning from the foreigner, a free-thinking priest named Brother Andre, who will change her life. Few books raise so many questions about the nature and roles of men and women, about self-discipline and happiness.

This was my second attempt to read a book by Pearl S. Buck, after being somewhat underwhelmed by The Eternal Wonder. I wondered initially about cultural appropriation, but Buck's parents were missionaries and she spent most of the first half of her life in China, which doesn't erase those concerns, but mitigates them. This was a really interesting read, and the thinking illustrated by the character of Madame Wu is quite startlingly modern and progressive. The sense of place and the illustration of the quotidian customs and atmosphere is also vividly rendered. This one has stuck with me. 

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. Synopsis from Goodreads: If Gabriel García Márquez had chosen to write about Pakistani immigrants in England, he might have produced a novel as beautiful and devastating as Maps for Lost Lovers. 
Jugnu and Chanda have disappeared. Like thousands of people all over England, they were lovers and living together out of wedlock. To Chanda’s family, however, the disgrace was unforgivable. Perhaps enough so as to warrant murder.As he explores the disappearance and its aftermath through the eyes of Jugnu’s worldly older brother, Shamas, and his devout wife, Kaukab, Nadeem Aslam creates a closely observed and affecting portrait of people whose traditions threaten to bury them alive. The result is a tour de force, intimate, affecting, tragic and suspenseful. 

These two titles had no connection in my head until just now, when I realize that the themes are intriguingly similar. I had to process this one for quite a while. I think I bought it as a bargain book years ago, so I'm grateful that the Book Bingo challenge spurred me to read it ("a book by a Muslim author"). A few reviews criticized it as flowery; when I started reading I thought they were exaggerating. A little ways in I realized that hoo boy, the imagery was thick with this one. I started counting similes and it was rare to find only one to a page - often there were four or five, and some were fairly tortured. By halfway through, either I or the author relaxed into the style and it didn't seem so intrusive.
Much of the novel seems like a fairly harsh indictment of Islam, and not just extremism. Kaukab, the wife of the main character, strives to be a virtuous Muslim and to instill the same values in her children, but this ends up hurting them and alienating them from her. Honour killings are a central theme, as well as the constant need for women to be on their guard lest they be considered unchaste, usually unfairly. 
Overall, it's a really sad story, told beautifully for the most part.

Darwin's Wink: A Novel of Nature and Love by Alison Anderson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Alison Anderson's Darwin's Wink is the story of an exquisite romance between two naturalists working to save a rare bird species on an island off the coast of Mauritius. Both are devastated by their pasts: Fran mourns the unexplained death of her Mauritian lover; Christian, a former Red Cross worker, has recently left war-torn Bosnia after the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée. As they slowly teach each other to trust again, the two must also contend with strange attacks on the island that place both their lives and livelihoods in grave danger.

I was noodling around looking for a book for the Bingo prompt 'a book whose author has the same name as you'. As soon as I saw this one, I remembered reading her book Hidden Latitudes, which was a fictional imagining of Amelia Earhart after she crashed her plane on a remote island. She was with a man - I can't remember if he was her engineer and on the plane with her or there for some other reason - and they fall in love. So after reading this book, I sort of feel like Anderson has a thing for unconventional romances that take place on islands, but I still really liked this - some beautiful writing about nature and evolution, trying to preserve fragile things against the onslaught of 'progress', and difficult relationships that would only ever take place in a very specific environment. 

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston. Synopsis from Goodreads: A best seller in France, with over 400,000 copies sold, and currently being translated into eighteen languages, Fault Lines is the new novel from internationally-acclaimed and best-selling author Nancy Huston. Huston's novel is a profound and poetic story that traces four generations of a single family from present-day California to WW II era Germany. Fault Lines begins with Sol, a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness partly because he has a birthmark like his dad, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. When Sol's family makes an unexpected trip to Germany, secrets begin to emerge about their history during World War II. It seems birthmarks are not all that's been passed down through the bloodlines. Closely observed, lyrically told, and epic in scope, Fault Lines is a touching, fearless, and unusual novel about four generations of children and their parents. The story moves from the West Coast of the United States to the East, from Haifa to Toronto to Munich, as secrets unwind back through time until a devastating truth about the family's origins is reached. Huston tells a riveting, vigorous tale in which love, music, and faith rage against the shape of evil.

I've always found Huston to be a really remarkable writer. Her style is striking and affecting while being completely devoid of sentimentality - she seems to see human motivations, flaws and frailties with merciless clarity. This story is told in four parts by four different six-year-olds, going backwards in time. The child's perspective is completely effective and convincing (terrifying, in some cases). I always find reading about children caught in bad circumstances beyond their control heartwrenching to read about, especially when it's done well. This one will be hard to forget.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Synopsis from Goodreads: On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. 
In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”

I've been meaning to read Junot Diaz for a while, so I grabbed this from the library while picking up holds. I guess I can't say it kept me up all night because at the time I read it I was up all night most nights anyway, but it kept me company all night. What an amazing voice - I felt completely submerged in a culture and way of life that was previously completely unknown to me. And I felt sympathy for a character who was in many ways unsympathetic, which requires some really good writing.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Synopsis from Goodreads: From one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, a stunningly insightful, emotionally powerful new novel about an outsider haunted by an inescapable past: a story of loneliness and survival, guilt and loss, and the power of forgiveness.
Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sets off a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. But there is also Jake's past—hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back—a past that threatens to break into the present. 
With exceptional artistry and empathy, All the Birds, Singingreveals an isolated life in all its struggles and stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption.

Spare, unflinching and almost unbearably sad. The sense of place (sheep, wilderness, heat) and small details of setting were uncomfortably sharp. I found the present section moving forward and the past section moving backwards really effective once I got used to it. Jake is an unusual, nontraditional female protagonist which was refreshing. I'm not sure redemption was really in the cards here, and I appreciated that no punches were pulled.

Some Luck (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #1) by Jane Smiley. Synopsis from GoodreadsOn their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force.

I had to read a book with "Some" in the title for a bingo book challenge and the search came up with this. It was the first "this happened, then this happened" book I've read for a while. It took me forever to read, more because of a suddenly-crazed life schedule than any lacking in the book - I always looked forward to resuming. I liked the differences in the personalities of the children and the description of farm life, and how certain personalities are more suited to farm life. I don't know if I'll continue the trilogy, since the ending seemed natural and right to me.

Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock. Synopsis from GoodreadsAmbition, failure, sex, and the service industry 
A dark and comic novel, Congratulations On Everything tracks the struggles, frailties, and cruelly pyrrhic victories of the middle-aged owner of a bar-restaurant and a 30ish lunch-shift waitress.
Jeremy has bought into the teachings of an empowerment and success guru, hook, line, and sinker. A Toronto service industry lifer, he’s risen through the ranks until he finally takes the keys to his destiny and opens his own place, The Ice Shack.
Everyone assumes Ice Shack daytime waitress Charlene is innocent and empathetic, but in reality she’s desperately unhappy and looking for a way out of her marriage to her high-school sweetheart. A drunken encounter sends Charlene and her boss careening. The Ice Shack stops being an oasis of sanity and, as Jeremy struggles to keep his business afloat, he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his successful, good guy self-image.
In an era when the gourmand rules and chefs become superstars, Congratulations On Everything is a hilarious and occasionally uncomfortable dose of anti-foodie reality that reveals what goes on when the customers and Instagrammers aren’t around — and even sometimes when they are.

Really enjoyed this, although finding it sort of difficult to articulate what it's about. Jeremy is a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character - Charlene I had a harder time getting a handle on. Very Canadian flavour. I laughed out loud a few times. Whitlock is a friend of a friend I hang out in a bar with every Tuesday evening and I've been promising him I'd read this for a while.