Archive

Posts Tagged ‘canadian lit’

Book Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

A bowl of fruit on a black background. A purple stripe across the bottom contains the book's title written in white.Summary:
It’s the 1960s in Canada, and Marian McAlpin is working writing and analyzing surveys for a marketing research firm.  She has a feminist roommate she doesn’t quite understand, and hangs out with the three office virgins for lunch.  Her boyfriend is comfortable and familiar. When he proposes to her, the office virgins think she’s hit the jackpot, her roommate questions why she’s following the norm, and her married and very pregnant friend seems hesitant about her fiancee.  None of this really bothers Marian, though.  What does bother her is that, ever since her engagement, there are more and more things she simply can’t eat.  First meat then eggs then even vegetables! She thinks of herself causing them suffering, and she just can’t stomach them.  What will happen to her if there’s eventually nothing left for her to eat?

Review:
I’m a fan of a few Margaret Atwood books, and the concept of this book intrigued me.  Since I run the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, I was also wondering if this might actually be a new take on anorexia.  Unfortunately, Marian is not really anorexic, it’s more of an elaborate, overdone metaphor.  Perhaps the plot is simply dated, but the interesting concept, when fleshed-out, comes out rather ho-hum.

The novel is divided into three parts, with Marian using first-person narration for the first and third parts, with third person narration taking over for the second.  This is meant to demonstrate how Marian is losing herself and not feeling her own identity.  It’s an interesting writing device, and one of the things I enjoyed more in the book.  It certainly is jarring to suddenly go from first to third person when talking about the main character, and it sets the tone quite well.

It’s impossible to read this book and not feel the 1960s in it.  Marian is in a culture where women work but only until marriage, where women attending college is still seen as a waste by some, and where there is a small counter-cultural movement that seems odd to the mainstream characters and feels a bit like a caricature to the modern reader.  However, the fact that Marian feels so trapped in her engagement, which could certainly still be the case in the 1960s, doesn’t ring as true, given the people surrounding Marian.  Her roommate is counter-cultural, her three office friends claim to want a man but clearly aren’t afraid of aging alone and won’t settle.  Her married friend shares household and child rearing with her husband, at least 50/50.  It’s hard to empathize with Marian, when it seems that her trap is all of her own making in her own mind.  She kind of careens around like aimless, violent, driftwood, refusing to take any agency for herself, her situation, or how she lets her fiancee treat her.  It’s all puzzling and difficult to relate to.

The Marian-cannot-eat-plot is definitely not developed as anorexia.  Marian at first stops eating certain meats because she empathizes with the animals the meat came from.  As a vegetarian, I had trouble seeing this as a real problem and fully understood where Marian was coming from.  Eventually, she starts to perceive herself as causing pain when eating a dead plant, bread, etc… The book presents both empathizing with animals and plants as equally pathologic, which is certainly not true.  Marian’s affliction actually reminded me a bit of orthorexia nervosa (becoming unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating, source) but the book itself presents eliminating any food from your diet as pathologic.  Either Marian eats like everyone else or she is going off the deep-end.  There is no moderate in-between.

What the Marian-cannot-eat-plot is actually used for is as a metaphor for how Marian’s fiancee (or her relationship with him) is supposedly consuming her.  The more entwined with her fiancee she becomes in society’s eyes, the closer the wedding comes, the less Marian is able to consume, because she herself is being consumed.  This would be quite eloquent if Marian’s fiancee or her relationship with him was actually harmful or consuming, but it certainly does not come across that way in what we see of it in the book.

Marian presents herself to her boyfriend then fiancee as a mainstream person, and he treats her that way.  He does one thing that’s kind of off-the-rocker (crashes his car into a hedge) but so does she on the same night (runs away in the middle of dinner, across people’s backyards, for no apparent reason and hides under a bed while having drinks with three other people at a friend’s house).  The only thing that he does that could possibly be read as a bit cruel is when she dresses up for a party he states that he wishes she would dress that way more often.  It’s not a partner’s place to tell the other how they should dress, but it’s also ok to express when you like something your partner is wearing.  Personally I thought the fiancee really meant the latter but just struggled with appropriately expressing it, and Marian herself never expresses any wants or desires directly to him on how they interact, what they wear, what they eat, how they decorate, etc…, so how could he possibly know?  In addition to never expressing herself to her fiancee, Marian also cheats on him, so how exactly the fiancee ends up the one being demonized in the conclusion of the book is a bit beyond me.  He’s bad because he wanted to marry her? Okay…… The whole thing reads as a bit heavy-handed second-wave feminism to me, honestly.  Marriage seems to be presented in the book as something that consumes women, no matter if they choose it or are forced into it by society.  It is not presented as a valid choice if a woman is able, within her society and culture, to make her own choices.

In spite of these plot and character issues, the book is still an engaging read with an interesting writing style.  I was caught up in the story, even if I didn’t really like the ideas within it.

Overall, this is a well-written book with some interesting narrative voice choices that did not age well.  It is definitely a work of the 1960s with some second-wave feminism ideas that might not sit well with modern readers.  Recommended to those interested in in a literary take on second-wave feminism’s perception of marriage.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

Buy It

Book Review: A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe

Snout of a gator on a yellow background.Summary:
One day on his way home from work, a homeless man shoves Jasper in front of a subway train.  Waking up months later from a coma with medical leave from his job, his (now ex) girlfriend living in his house with her new boyfriend, religious Donny, Jasper decides to join Donny and his best friend Duane on a trip south from Canada to Florida.  Donny and Duane are going fishing, but Jasper is on a hunt for his brother who disappeared ten years ago at the age of seventeen.  He has a hunch he may have returned to what was previously a happy family vacation spot.

Review:
This is one of those situations where I recognize that the book is well-written, but personally I just didn’t like it.  The combination of the plot and characters struck a sour note for me, although I can see other people enjoying it.

I struggled because I simply did not find a single character to like.  I didn’t like Jasper, his ex Kim, her new boyfriend Donny, the best friend Duane, the long lost Aunt Val, well, you get the picture.  None of them were people I could relate to or sympathize with.  Not a single one!  That is rare in a book for me.  I can relate to characters from all over the world and all over time itself, but here. Yeesh.  I mean, it’s bad when you’re agreeing with the villain (who you also don’t like) that the main character is a pussy.  That’s just generally a bad sign.

I also found myself struggling some with the flow of the plot.  It’s rather unevenly structured with random side stories such as an entire chapter devoted to Duane taking a bar bet to eat 19 pickled eggs.  So much time devoted to this point (that was gross to read about) and it never turned out to be relevant.  It felt at certain points like Crowe was writing just to write, and it’s not that they’re badly done scenes, they’re just not relevant to the book.

Similarly, and consider this your spoiler alert, characters escape alligators just a few too many times.  Having one character who is a gator whisperer is fine, but having other characters repeatedly escaping gators is just insanity and unbelievable.  It left me wondering if Crowe has ever actually watched the Discovery Channel.

Overall, this is a book that left me decidedly lukewarm.  The characters are so average as to be dull, and the way they look on the rest of the world left me feeling a bit sour.  I would recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction that moves at a slow pace, as well as those interested in a Canadian’s view of Florida.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

Buy It

Book Review: I Am Hutterite by Mary Ann Kirkby

July 26, 2011 3 comments

Woman in traditional Hutterite garb in a field.Summary:
Mary Ann Kirkby recounts her unique childhood in her memoir.  She was born into a Hutterite family.  The Hutterites are a religious sect similar to the Amish only they believe that living communally is a mandate for Christians.  Mary Ann recounts her childhood both in the religious sect (her particular group was located in western Canada), as well as the journey and culture shock she went through when her parents left the Hutterites when she was nine years old.

Review:
I actually read this memoir because of the situation in which I first ran into Hutterites and have been fascinated with them ever since.  For a couple of years, my father and brother lived in Montana.  I went to visit them and was shopping in Victoria’s Secret at the mall and rounded the corner to discover traditionally-garbed Hutterite women buying thongs.  I had no idea what a Hutterite was, but instantly hunted down my brother elsewhere in the mall to find out who these people were.  All that the “English” seemed to know about them was that they lived in a commune, dressed kind of like the Amish but different, traveled all together to town in a few big vans, and the Hutterite women were always buying thongs at Victoria’s Secret.  Hutterites are rather quiet about their lifestyle though, so when I stumbled across this on a new releases list, I knew I needed to read it to find out more about the community.

This is a completely fascinating memoir that I devoured in one day.  Mary Ann is able to see both the faults and the beauty of various experiences in her childhood with the clear eye of an adult.  Yet simultaneously she harbors no ill-well toward either the Hutterites or her parents or any of those who made her transition from a Hutterite girl to an “English” woman more difficult.  Kirkby writes with a sympathetic ear to all those she encountered in her life, which is a refreshing change in the memoir genre.

Additionally Kirkby’s writing offers an immersion into the fascinating world of communal living with a religious belief system to hold it all in place.  Kirkby recounts a childhood where no homes were kept locked, everyone was always welcome in everyone else’s home, and most meals of the day were eaten communally with your age-mates.  In fact, one of the biggest changes for Kirkby when her family left the Hutterites was suddenly needing to interact with her siblings on a regular basis instead of her same-age female friends.  She also had trouble understanding the English need for privacy in the home or the relative silence with which meals were eaten.

Another point of interest is that Kirkby’s father was from a Russian family that was persecuted in Europe and had to run to Canada to escape the Nazis.  His father sought refuge and a sense of safety in the community of the Hutterites.  Conversely, her father who grew up in this safety found himself craving more freedom than the strict rules and constructs of the commune would allow for.  The book thus not only recounts a unique girlhood and insight into the Hutterite way of life, but also addresses the age-old question of freedom versus security.

Anyone interested in the Hutterite communities or unique childhoods will absolutely enjoy this memoir.  It is well-written, intriguing, and contains not a trace of bitterness.  I highly recommend it.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It