Monthly Archives: May 2017

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

This is a must-read for Elizabeth Strout fans who have read My Name is Lucy Barton. As with Olive Kitteridge, it is a collection of linked short stories featuring characters from Lucy Barton’s home town. It’s not a sequel per se, more of a companion novel, but nevertheless an amazing back story giving portraits of people living in this fictional small town. I guess she wasn’t quite done with them yet! Because it isn’t a sequel, either book could be read first. Anything is possible when one human makes an authentic connection to another. One reviewer called this book a requiem to small town pain!

“Here, among others, are the ‘Pretty Nicely Girls,’ now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.”

Strout is one of my favourite authors just because her stories are so real and unsentimental yet evoke such feeling and conflict. I’m not thrilled about investing in short stories, so I do expect to be drawn into a story immediately and completely, and in this Strout does not disappoint. If you are an Alice Munro fan, you’ll love Strout. They both have a way of capturing deep nuance and hope in everyday life: love and loss, reconciliation, complicated family bonds, resentments big and small, indignities, disappointments, grace, kindness, etc. and there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after or a definitive ending involved. Strout respects the reader enough to allow them to fill in some of the blanks.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

“In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989.  It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.  Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.”

Winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and nominated for the Man Booker, this is no doubt an important literary novel but I found it hard to get into and kept losing the thread. There are a lot of characters with multiple names and time shifting to add to the confusion. I soldiered on and found the second half better, but I know a lot of people who have given up on this novel before the first 100 pages were finished and that is a shame. Some editing of the first half might have helped and I think I would have benefited from a family tree chart and character list (which are actually available on Wikipedia). Parts of it were beautifully written, and there are interesting aspects, but even though I tried, I found it hard to connect to the characters. What did come through loud and clear in this book, was the controlling feature of Chinese government and politics in this time period. The author did powerfully use music as a passionate and poignant counterpoint to strict cultural and political ideologies. Telling Chinese history is tricky and often dangerous business. Thien courageously tackles this, but the book falls into the unfortunately common trap of being a noteworthy literary novel that is not readable enough for a wide audience.

For a more literary review of this book, please go the Globe and Mail or The Guardian. Both are excellent resources.

‘Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption’ by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

“I am a refugee. My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow to the future.”

This is the incredible personal account of a refugee who fled from certain death and found flourishing life. It is a real-life rescue story, a poignant family drama, and a telling of recent world history. Many North Americans will remember the “boat people” who became thankful recipients of resettlement to a new life in a new land through resilience, determination, and many helping hands along the way. But what was it like for a young boy in a large family, suddenly separated from all he’d ever known, thrust into a different culture? Why was his Dad, who used to be a wealthy manager, now working a menial job? How would he be affected by this survival and redemption? How does a refugee see himself differently from an immigrant who chooses to leave?

Vinh Chung, originally from China, was born in South Vietnam, just eight months after it fell to the communists in 1975. His family was wealthy, controlling a rice-milling empire worth millions; but within months of the communist takeover, the Chungs lost everything and were reduced to abject poverty and forced to leave. They had no choice but to take their chances in a boat on the pirate infested waters of the South China Sea.

Rescued by a World Vision mercy ship, Chung went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate, successful surgeon, and philanthropist. Chung is now a WV US board member.  The book includes some history of the early days of that organization under Stan Mooneyham and operation Seasweep. There’s a wonderful collection of photos included in the back of the book.

‘The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life’ by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.

I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book.  The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.

NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’

‘Perfect World’ by Ian Colford

Tom Brackett has not had the perfect childhood. His mother began acting strangely after the birth of his sister Beverly and his Dad is distant, although not uncaring. One day he is whisked away from his parents without warning or explanation and is sent to live with his grandmother. Eventually we learn that his mother has a serious mental illness and his father is alcohol addicted.

Now Tom has created the perfect world for himself, despite all odds; he has a good job, a supportive wife, two kids, a mini-van, and even a golden retriever. But then, one day, something overcomes him to commit a sudden and terrifying act of violence that changes everything.

This is a compassionate look at the life and mind of someone trying hard to control his own life while struggling with mental illness. It is beautifully rendered and unflinching. Mental illness is handled much better now-a-days than say 50 years ago, but still needs more honest exposure, understanding, and open conversation. This book delivers a glimpse into a personal journey (albeit fictional) that is brutal, but not without hope. In what is  actually more of an extended short story, Colford provides one view into the complexities of mental health, and it is just that. He doesn’t give any advice or definitive answers or happy endings, and for that I applaud him.

In researching this Canadian author, on his blog, I ran across his idea of what a good read should look like, and I wholeheartedly agree:

“…an engaging story told with verve and imagination and a sensitivity to language. I want to be pulled into the lives of characters I care about. I want to turn the pages because I have to find out what happens next. But I don’t want to be comforted or coddled. I want to be surprised, maybe even shocked, and definitely thrown off balance. If the writer can challenge me by shattering my expectations while also bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, so much the better.”