What We’re Reading

From Beth-Anne


The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s novel follows four women who find themselves on the verge of transition. Having grown-up in the age of feminism with the prevailing message, “I am Woman Hear Me Roar!” they followed the expectations laid out for them: college, career and having it all, but for various reasons they choose to step out of the full-time workforce. Now their children are no longer demanding every second of their time, and a feeling of restlessness has set in. The women are plagued by indecision and feelings of uncertainty. Who am I? Are my skills obsolete? Who would ever want to hire me? I want to be home with my kids but why I do I feel so guilty? Why am I so jealous of my husband’s success?  What do I want to do?

These are just a few of the questions the women ask themselves while parenting through adversity, struggling with infertility, nurturing a marriage and balancing playground politics. The women lean on each other to find their own way and for this I commend the author. Wolitzer gives us a peek into the lives of these women and we see that no one has the answer; there is no “right way”. Perhaps it’s the timing, but I found myself lost in the story and relating to the inner struggles these women experienced. My only criticism is the title. To me, nap implies simply doing nothing or absently going through the motions and that wasn’t the sense that I picked up on from these characters. If anything, the women were actively involved in their family and work lives, but found themselves at a naturally occurring crossroads where they were forced to put themselves first before choosing their next path.


Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia is struggling. She’s a young, unhappily married mother of two young children living a life of poverty in a run-down house on her in-law’s Appalachian farm. Her husband, content with the humdrum existence they’ve carved out for themselves finds odd jobs to supplement his waning farming salary. Her mother-in-law is quick to dole out disapproving comments and her father-in-law plods along with nary a thought of his own. One day Dellarobia witnesses a miracle of nature: the monarch butterflies that have descended on the family’s property are a metaphor for the epic shift that is about to happen in both her life and the environment.

Barbara Kingsolver is never one to shy away from controversy, and Flight Behaviour is no different. Kingsolver calls out the human race for our blatant disregard for the environment and failure to act on preserving our fragile ecosystems. The novel, while fiction, did cause me to look further into the migration patterns of butterflies and the disappearing bee population and the devastating effects both will have on our environment.

While this is not a quick read, I found myself savoring each page. Kingsolver is a gifted writer and crafts such realistic scenes that the imagery she creates is vivid and long lasting.


The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Cathy Marie Buchanan brings the city, the works of Degas and the gruelling world of the Paris ballet to life in her historical novel, The Painted Girls. The van Goethem girls find themselves upended after their father’s death. With only a few coins in their pocket, the girls struggle to make a life for themselves. Antoinette finds work as an extra in a theatre production to supplement her wage as a laundress and soon finds herself entangled in a dangerous love affair. Younger sisters Marie and Charlotte both show promise as petite rats (young ballet dancers) and spend their hours toiling away at the studio, punishing their bodies. Marie is determined to rise above and escape her life of poverty. She begins modelling for Edgar Degas and is forever admired as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

Buchanan’s writing is so real, you can practically feel the grit of the Paris streets. If nothing else, you’ll come away from reading this novel with a greater appreciation for the art of ballet and the athleticism of the dancers.

From Nathalie

The Word Exchange
by Alena Graedon

Oh! This is such a perfect book-lover’s beach read: a thriller about a near-future in which a virus attacks not just our smart phones but our very ability to speak.

In this near future, we drown in words but they all lack meaning, and much of that absence of content can be blamed on our increasing dependence on our devices.  Instead of phones, the ubiquitous device is a Meme, and it serves not only as a means of communication, but also as an extension of self and a substitute consciousness.  When the narrator enters a restaurant at the beginning of the novel, her Meme brings up the menu, but it then overrides her drink order, replacing a tea with a hot toddy, because it knows that she needs a stiff drink.  I marveled at this fictional creation!

Memes can also, crucially, give their owners the words or definitions they need if they have difficulty remembering a word or its meaning.  Five cents a word.  Touch of a button.  This exchange is where the novel plays out: in the space between our use of language and its digital and corporate control.

At first, the struggle seems to be over the ownership of words and their definitions, but when a virus that corrupts spoken as well as digital communication begins to spread, the stakes get suddenly and critically higher.

Lost for Words
by Edward St. Aubyn

This was so good it hurt.  I loved St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.  They were so beautifully crafted, but, because they dealt with child abuse and substance abuse, they were also really rather bleak.  Lost for Words is a departure, a very pointed satire about the book prize industry, the kind of book prize St. Aubyn narrowly missed winning with one of the Melrose novels.  The novel follows members of the jury for the Elysian Prize (none of whom actually read the books in the running) and some of the possible winners of the prize (the psychological disorders run the gamut).  I kept thinking as I read the book how much fun he must have had writing it.  He imitates academic discourse, precious prose and trendy grammarless dialogue with uncanny precision.  Accomplished parody is not an easy thing to pull off, but he gets the tone so perfectly.  And the way St. Aubyn satirizes politicians, academics and the press is sizzlingly good.  For most of the book, there’s really no one to like or to root for, and that can make it feel somewhat rudderless, but the plot has such a powerful engine that it’s not a big missing piece.  I devoured it and wanted more.

by Diana Gabaldon

There is so much hype about this book because Gabaldon has just published the fifth book in the series and it’s about to come out as a Showcase mini-series.  The protagonist Claire Randall travels through time from the 1940s to the 1740s, where she finds herself embroiled in rising tensions between the Scottish clans and the ruling English.  Because she’s a nurse, she’s possessed of miraculous knowledge and saves many a life while risking her own.  I don’t know, you guys.  It was really rapey, to use a phrase whose coining I will attribute to Jenny.  Can a woman not walk five paces in 18th-century Scotland without facing attempted rape?  Also, the bad guy is not only a sociopath, but gay.  I hate that kind of demonization of homosexuality.  I did stay up until 4 am reading it, though, so it’s a definitely a page-turner.  And its billing as a feminist answer to Game of Thrones may not be too far off the mark.  There was a lot of good sex, too.  So I’m giving this a thumbs up as a guilty pleasure, but with some reservations about its characterization of men.


Does Anyone Say Grace Anymore?

Does anyone say grace anymore?  We never did when I was growing up, and I’m guessing my family was typical in this way.  I don’t remember other families saying grace when we visited their homes.

Truthfully, I’m catching myself a little off-guard by my really strong desire to say a blessing at mealtimes.  I don’t come from a strong religious background – born to parents of Hindu, Buddhist, and pagan traditions and then growing up in Canada, my religious bearings were not only faint but also confused.

So I can’t explain the desire through past practice or religious bent.  Trying to work it out for myself, I think it must come from an intention to live more mindfully and, having been graced with love beyond my wildest dreams through motherhood, a growing need to simply express gratitude.

Food seems like a natural place to do it, partly because what we eat has such important personal and political ramifications (good entry points into these issues are The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser).

But the other reason food seems like a natural place to give thanks is because the need to eat is so universal and constant.  I recently picked up A Grateful Heart, edited by M.J. Ryan, which contains this passage in the foreward by William Shore:

“I’ve always viewed mealtime as a humbling moment.  The need to eat not only unites us all but underscores a basic human frailty.  Nature marks time in eons, yet each of us needs to eat every few hours, a fraction of time almost too infinitesimal for nature to even measure.  But the need is true and unrelenting for each and every one of us, no matter how rich or poor, powerful or oppressed, weak or strong – it is an emblem of our humanness.  It’s almost as if nature had created an infallible way to remind us, daily and nearly hourly, that we are bound to and dependent upon every other living thing in this universe, a knowledge that is surely the ultimate blessing.”

Reviewing this book, which is a collection of “blessings” from a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and secular perspectives, just confirmed what I already knew I had to do.  And that’s to create some space in our lives, however ragged and imperfect the circumstances may be, for a moment of connection and gratitude before eating dinner.

This means that most nights, when it’s just me and my 4 and 2 year old sons (my husband works most evenings), we take the time to set the table (it’s surprising how much a 4 year old can assist with this if allowed and encouraged).  When seated together, we hold hands and recite our blessing.

There’s little formality, and I make no reprimands when the children climb into their seats and hungrily start eating before I sit down.  I just gather their attention for a moment when we are ready, smiling and making eye contact, and hope that I am planting some good seeds in fertile soil this way.

There are some beautiful blessings in The Grateful Heart and I’ve taken note of them for future reference.  But for now, for my little guys, I wanted something more accessible and simple, and I found myself making this up on the spot the first night we tried it.  I’m sure it will change, but it suits us well now:

Thank you for the food we eat,

Thank you for the love we keep,

Thank you for the birds that sing,

Thank you, for everything.

The boys have taken to it the way small children take to anything pleasant:  readily and earnestly.  Just a couple of days after we started, my older son asked if were going to say a blessing before I had a chance to propose it myself.

It is such a simple gesture and ritual, and yet it fills me with such pleasure.  It is almost a relief, this release of grateful energy.  How is it that giving thanks to others is a means by which to engender such good feeling in myself?

Stephen Hyde might know the answer to this, if the following excerpt from his article called “Great Man Going” is an indication.  His are the passages that close the introduction to A Grateful Heart:

“When was the last time, if ever, you saw anyone at McDonald’s offer an expression of thanks… for his or her food?  Billions of burgers consumed yet not a solitary act of gratitude, individual or corporate, no festival to honor the bovine being in myth and art and imagination, or to celebrate the annual resurrection of the potato.  How can this be?  What kind of monstrous indifference to the taking of life does this suggest?  What kind of heinous disrespect for the life that sustains human life?  What is the real price we pay for the convenience of fast and plentiful food?  Apathy, neglect, isolation?  Or is it something deeper, the loss of relationship, or wholeness, of soul? …

Once, the rituals of gratitude informed nearly every aspect of human life.  Most of these we have abandoned or forgotten.  Now, try to imagine this:  for every one of those burgers sold, a song raised, a life recalled, a measure of grace restored.”