Saints, Unexpected: Even Hamilton Couldn’t Make it Good

We read Brent van Staalduinen’s Saints, Unexpected for book club, and if it hadn’t been a book club read I likely wouldn’t have finished it. I’m loathe to write a negative review for a book that is so obviously earnest: written by a local author, published by a small press, in every way a book that wears its heart on its cover. So it gives me no pleasure to report that it is… not good.

Following a 15 year old girl in the summer her family business, a second hand store, comes under attack from Big Bad Gentrifiers, the book is ostensibly about how local folks respond to the pressures of gentrification. Set in my hometown of Hamilton, this issue is certainly a pressing one, and not a theme I’ve seen taken up frequently in other novels. Together with this ‘big’ pressure is the pressure within the family of a sick child. I guess it’s trying to be a coming of age story, too, but because the protagonist is so terribly written it’s hard to commit to caring about her development.

Without going into painful detail I’ll just say that I found the characterization weak, particularly the imagining of a young woman’s perspective. The timeline and sequencing was both a relentless ‘ever-present’ (thanks to C. from book club for pointing this out) and yet somehow also inconsistent and baffling in its framing of 20 years later, 20 years before and when is now? The magic realism element of a magical niche that provides objects for the store was a genuinely interesting idea that wasn’t fully realized, integrated or explained. The inclusion of the sick child read as emotionally manipulative, in part because the characterization was so weak that there wasn’t a lot of empathetic connection.  Okay, so turns out that was a bit of painful detail.

I appreciated reading my city and recognizing its themes on the page. So there’s that.


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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved): Send me suggestions about death and dying

I continue to obsess about death. The unanticipated consequence of happiness coupled with atheism means I’m a moth to the flame of books contemplating how it all just… ends. I suppose the current preoccupation has encouraged me to be more mindful, more present, more enthusiastically here (!) for (!) each (!) moment (!). But I’m pretty sure the return to work and increasing size in diapers would do the same with less morbidity. All this to say, I’ve read another book about dying, and in keeping with everything else I’ve read in this (hitherto unknown to me) genre, it was great.

Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved is part elegy, part history, part reflection. Bowler, a religious historian of the prosperity gospel (luck is a sign of God’s love, bad luck is a sign of God’s disapproval – or not luck, actually, but good fortune – think mansions, diamonds and televangelists), is diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Given months to live, she chronicles here her confrontation with her mortality (and reflects, too, on the omnipresent metaphors of battle (e.g. confrontation) accorded to encounters with death and cancer, specifically).

I found the sections of personal reflection, unsurprisingly perhaps, the most affecting. Bowler has a young son, and much of her grief is tied to the recognition that she will not live to see him grow and age. The moments of her reflection on the compression of time, of her experience of the present that will become her son’s past, are moving and poetically written.

Sections describing the intersection of the prosperity gospel and her experience carried, for me, less impact. It may be that my atheist affiliation means that I am not overly concerned by the calculus that goes into discovering how an experience is, or is not, evidence of God, or of God’s benevolence or malevolence or  or or. That said it’s not a preachy book – at all – in fact Bowler’s particular beliefs about or in relation to God skate under the surface. The descriptions and considerations of God here read as an academic reporting with the particular poignancy of a personal experience that lends absolute credence to the thesis of the lecture. So I found the intersection of the religious present/history to be illuminating of her experience, but not as readily identifiable and gripping.

Like Grief Works there is a handy appendix of things *not* to say to those experiencing grief or terminal illness (for instance, ‘everything happens for a reason’) along with a selection of things you *can* do (like bringing presents or offering hugs or being silent).

I don’t think I’ve read enough in this genre (it is a genre then, isn’t it? Books about death and dying?) to know how this one stacks up against others. I just know that for me, I read it quickly, I stopped frequently to stare in the middle distance and have a little waaaa, and I thought I’d like to read a little more. So I turn to you: what are the books about death and dying you’ve found most affecting? most connecting? most useful?


p.s. Thanks to my Guelph book club friends for suggesting this one.

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Bel Canto: I may be tone deaf, but I know good writing.

The only thing I remember from first year English is a lecture that argued that all creative writing (whether poetry or prose) is about the urge by authors to create something which will outlast them. That every poem or story is, in the end, a valiant gesture toward immortality. And that readers should read with an eye to the way the author intentionally and accidentally imbues their work with this impulse; that is, that the discerning reader will always be able to find evidence of the author’s vanity, of their arrogance in thinking their work will endure. At the time I found the argument moving and persuasive. Since then I think back on it more as an example of excellent teaching, it was a well paced lecture with convincing examples and analysis. Which isn’t to say I now thinking writing isn’t about immortality, just that I haven’t had cause to declare an allegiance in the great What is Writing For debate of humanity.  Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Orange Prize

Everyone Brave is Forgiven: I have read a lot of books about the Blitz.

I don’t know why, but I have read a lot of books set during WWII and in England. True I like historical fiction, and true there are a lot of these books written (maybe someone in publishing can explain it to me? Likely because they sell. Because I’ll read them). I bet one of you knows why this particular period and place is so enthralling to this reader. Continue reading

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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction