Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver previously wrote the marvellous The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book has two story lines, about people who live in the same house in New Jersey: one family in 1874 and a contemporary family in 2012. Both stories involve dealing with hardships. In 2012, the issue is economic instability and insecurity (making me think of some classic Lionel Shriver books). In 1874, a biology teacher is conflicted by the controversy about Darwin versus traditional religion. The way Kingsolver links the alternating family stories is masterful and her knowledge of biology is exceptional. This is a very interesting worthwhile read.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy - Patricia LockwoodThe author leaves her Mid-Western home at age 19 to be married but after 12 years, financial constraints forces her and her husband to return to the parental home. This gives her the opportunity to remember an unconventional upbringing: a flamboyant and charismatic guitar-playing father usually (un)dressed in only his underwear, who, by the way, is a Catholic Priest with a wife and 5 children (how can that be, you may ask?); and a long-suffering over-protective mother. There are some eye-popping childhood experiences like attending an anti-abortion rally at a very young age. Ms. Lockwood also takes this opportunity for reflection, producing a memoir that is often comic but also poignant. And for a published poet, her writing is wonderful such as this description of a church space: “The ceiling is low and the lights flicker fluorescently and emit an insect whine. The whole place smells like where coffee goes to die”. Highly recommended; thanks to Sarah’s friend Elizabeth for this recommendation.

Suzanne – Anais Barbeau-Lavalette (translated by Rhonda Mullins)

Suzanne - Anais Barbeau-LavaletteCanada Reads contender.This is a beautifully written book, a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother who abandoned her young children to live a separate life. So the book is an attempt by the author to discover the story of her grandmother and in the process, the author achieves some understanding and respect for this mysterious part of her family history, the missing grandmother.  It was a mistake, in my opinion, for some of the CR panel to dwell obsessively on why a young mother would abandon her children in 1952. Rather, the reader should accept that this was her choice for complicated and yes, inexplicable reasons; Suzanne never requested forgiveness yet the author (her granddaughter) does achieve some reconciliation from the reconstruction of Suzanne’s missing history. The writing is poetic, beautifully written in the second person. The story unfolds in non-linear tantalizing episodes, some detailed, some mysterious with gaps. This is a truly evocative read and highly recommended.

Brother – David Chariandy

Brother - David ChariandyCanada Reads contender – previously described in January 2018. This wonderful book should have been the winner but once again, listeners to CR discussions must be mindful that winners are not due to literary merit because of the limitations inherent in the choice of the proponents. Canada Reads is interesting but still a reality TV show. Everyone should read Chariandy’s book.

The Woo Woo – Lindsay Wong

The Woo Woo - Lindsay WongCanada Reads contender. This is an extraordinary memoir about a Chinese-Canadian family in a Vancouver suburb. The Wong family is remarkably dysfunctional; Lindsay regularly received the following comments as a child: “you are fat, lazy and retarded”! She describes her upbringing with candour and does not flinch from castigating her own poor behaviour. Her mother is consumed by fears of demonic possession by malevolent ghosts, the woo-woo. This fear means that mental illness is treated as a woo-woo possession and thus is not treated except with ineffective exorcism attempts. And unfortunately there is a clear family history of untreated mental illness: a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother, a mother and aunt who may be bipolar. When Lindsay is afflicted by a rare medical condition (migraine-associated vestibulopathy), her woo-woo fears reappear. This is a disturbing story with harrowing details of abnormal psychology, interspersed with some splendid examples of comic relief. How does someone overcome such an upbringing? A challenging book, an uncomfortable read but worthwhile.

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible - Curtis SittenfeldThis delightful novel is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett family lives in Cincinnati and Pemberly is an estate near San Francisco. The descriptions of the Bennett family antics are divine, especially Mrs. Bennett and the two youngest sisters, Lydia and Kitty. To underscore the modern context, a reality TV show plays a prominent role in the plot progression. Ms. Sittenfeld is a very fine writer (American Wife); her ability to construct vivid characters reminds me of Lionel Shriver. The shift from acute antipathy to love for Liz and Darcy is described wonderfully; this book is a real joy to read.

The Home for Unwanted Girls – Joanne Goodman

The Home for Unwanted Girls - Joanne GoodmanOne of the things we learned from Heather O’Neill’s very fine The Lonely Hearts Hotel was that Quebec orphanages were tough places. Goodman’s novel reinforces that reality, beginning in 1950. Even worse, the Duplessis Quebec government transferred illegitimate orphans to mental institutions in order to obtain more federal money for institutions. So this is an angst-filled story over 20 years, the mother who was forced to give up her illegitimate daughter and the daughter’s experience in horrible institutions, so be warned.