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Archive for October, 2021

Book Review: Bear by Marian Engel

October 12, 2021 2 comments
Photo of a physical book cover. The word BEAR in neon green font is on top of the coat of a bear with a woman's hand running through the fur.

Summary:
A librarian named Lou is called to a remote Canadian island to inventory the estate of a secretive Colonel whose most surprising secret is a bear who keeps her company–shocking company.

Review:
I don’t recall anymore how I heard about this book, but this is what I heard about it:

There’s this book that’s considered a Canadian classic where a librarian has sex with a bear.

Ok. I was left with questions. First, this sounds like erotica – how is it a classic? Second, as a trained librarian I immediately wondered if the librarian part was essential to the story. Third, does she really have sex with a bear? Then I became even more intrigued when I discovered I couldn’t get this book digitally but only in print AND it’s out of print in the US so it’s far cheaper to purchase it abroad and have it sent here. So, now that I got this book from the UK and read it (in one weekend), let me answer these questions for you.

First, I wouldn’t call this erotica. The point, in spite of the murmurings about it, is absolutely not about sex with a bear, whereas in erotica, the point is the sex. I in all honesty would say this is a book about burnout. Lou is an archivist who is in a rut. When the nameless Institute she works for sends her to this estate that has been left to them to inventory their materials, her time in nature and her experiences with the locals (yes, including Bear), reveals her massive burnout to her.

She wondered by what right she was there, and why she did what she did for a living. And who she was.

(pg 93)

Second, I would definitely say the librarian part is essential to the story. Librarianship is a feminized profession. This book was first published in 1976. It is an exploration of what it means to be a working woman and how the world views working women, even when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye (perhaps especially when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye). I also thought this book does an excellent job of showing how even though librarianship is a feminized profession, those in the positions of greatest power within libraries and archives are men. Lou’s boss is a man, and this is relevant to her negative work experience.

Third, does she actually have sex with a bear? Ok, slight spoiler warning here. There is no penetration. She tricks the bear to go down on her. That’s it. I didn’t find it particularly shocking, but I’m a millennial from the internet generation that grew up with the internet urban legend about the woman with the dog and the peanut butter so. I viewed the transgressive act with Bear as serving two purposes. First, Lou has a tendency toward self-sabotage, self-loathing, and self-punishment. I think transgressing in this way makes her see how she’s transgressing against herself and her own soul in other ways and makes her refind her own sense of self. Second, I think it’s important to note that at the beginning of the book an Indigenous woman named Lucy kind of hands off the caretaking of Bear to Lou. At the end of the book, she hands the caretaking back to Lucy. I view this as an acknowledgement that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean it’s your life calling. There are other interesting takes on this as a commentary on colonialism, which I also think are valid.

So do I see why this is a Canadian classic? Yes, absolutely. The whole story oozes Canada from the juxtaposition of the wilderness with the city to the entwining of European and local history to the acknowledgment of the realness and relevance of local Indigenous peoples. (These peoples are not of the past but are of the present, something I think Canadian literature often does a better job with than US literature).

I thought I was going to read this book and laugh at it, kind of like how folks on book-tok are laughing about the ice planet barbarians right now. Instead, I found a unique story about a woman’s time in the semi-wilderness and how it makes her confront her burnout and how her career is a poor fit for her. How her life setup is causing her to transgress and how that needs to change. A shocking way to get the point across? Perhaps. But an important point nonetheless.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 167 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune

Image of a digital book cover. A four story home built like jenga stands in front of a woods where a shadow of a deer with antlers can be seen. The title of the book is in yellow font.

Summary:
When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead. Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

Review:
I preordered this because of how much I loved another Klune book that I read earlier this year – The House in the Cerulean Sea (review). I just did not want to have to wait through the line at the library for a copy of this one. So maybe my expectations were a bit high for this after that. Maybe I would have liked this better if I hadn’t loved that one so much. But I do feel decidedly ho-hum about it.

Here’s what I did enjoy about it. The main character is a bisexual man. We don’t see that often in literature. And the representation of male bisexuality is well done. The setting and feel of the book is just plain cozy. I loved the tea shop, and how it’s described. I would want to go there for tea for sure. It was soothing to visit, in spite of being populated by ghosts and having a general ambiance of being in touch with the dead. The cover really beautifully represents the tea shop. It was a setting I wanted to soak into.

So what turned me off? I feel a bit awkward talking about this as the author states in the afterword that writing this book was part of his own grief process after losing someone. But I am also a person who has gone through grief for someone close to me, and I just have to say that this vision of the afterlife just didn’t work for me. I found it quite sad, actually. I got the vibe I was supposed to feel at least a little hopeful from it but I didn’t. I don’t like that there’s jobs and management. I didn’t like that the supernatural creature in management asserts there’s no god. (Kind of confusing for a setting that’s entirely about a mystical afterlife?)

My other issue with the book was with the main character Wallace’s character development. He was a jerk in his life and learns to do better in his afterlife. I didn’t find the transformation realistic or believable. It’s like one minute he’s the guy heartlessly firing someone in the first chapter and the next he’s this selfless ghost. What happened that made him change? It just didn’t track for me. And that made it quite difficult for me to care about his storyline. I read about it because I wanted to hang out in the tea shop but not because I cared about Wallace.

So if you’re ok with the depiction of an afterlife that’s managed like a department store and an extremely rapid turnaround of character, you’ll probably really like this book. The cozy setting, and the bisexual male representation are big pluses also.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 373 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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