Women Talking: Book Review

Women Talking by Miriam Toews published in 2018.

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“One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm. While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women—all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in—have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?’

 

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This is a powerful book with an influential message to read at any time, but especially now in our political climate.

Woman Talking takes place over the span of two days in which August Epp, a man that has been expelled from his Mennonite community, comes back to take the minutes of the local woman during an important meeting. After several months of waking up sore and bruised, the women of the Molotschna colony discovered that several men in the community have been drugging and raping them during the night. A group of woman, specifically the two female family members of Greta Loewen and Agata Friesen, gather in secret to discuss their three options in regards to the men’s crimes: stay and fight back against the men, stay and do nothing, or flee the colony. They must decide quickly though because the men will be back in town in two days. One of the women, Ona, requires the help of August to document the minutes of their meeting because none of the women are literate. Throughout the meeting, ideas fly and loyalties are challenged in this short period of time when the most important decision of these women’s life is debated.

Before Toews even begins her narrative, she reveals that this book is very loosely based on a true event. The concept of a story inspiring an author so tremendously that she has creates an entire set of characters and plot in order to honour and share their story is so awe-inspiring, from both a creative and moral standpoint. Like I mentioned in the beginning, today’s political climate with the #MeToo movement, it is so important for there to be dialogue on this topic, at all times, but especially now. If you are not writing about this topic, you should definitely be reading about it in Women Talking.

The characters were strong, yet there were so many of them that it was hard to follow at times. Not to mention that they all had somewhat obscure names (Mariche, Mejal, Autje, Ona, Salome, Neitje) that didn’t help in remembering them. I know that these names are supposed to fit the Mennonite setting, but it made remembering multiple women’s names so much more difficult. I haven’t even brought up the intricate family ties between each woman, like keeping track of who is someone’s daughter/mother gets very confusing very fast. Granted, all the characters had very strong and distinct personalities, yet it still took a considerable amount of time to get them all sorted out in my head.

Another aspect that made things more confusing than necessary was the lack of quotation marks. If you’ve read in some of my past reviews (Tin Man, to be specific) you’ll know that I despise it when authors do not use quotation marks in their dialogue. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; quotation marks were invented for a reason, so can we all just please agree to use them whenever possible. It doesn’t make it trendy or unique when the quotation marks are dismissed, it just makes it annoying and confusing.  

Some parts of the story seem a bit too drawn out for my taste. I feel like there are some points that could have been conveyed through a sentence or so but were rather written in several paragraphs. Perhaps it was supposed to be a commentary on the conversational aspect of women, or maybe the author just wanted a higher word count. Either way, the writing itself was good but the overextension of it just didn’t sit right with me. On the flip side, there were some plot points, such as August’s unrequited love with Ona, that didn’t go as far as I would have liked it too.

This being said, I really liked the ending. Maybe not the direct plot of the ending, but the allegorical meaning of the ending (look at me, using big English major words like allegorical). The ending is a big statement on the relationship between men and woman, and more importantly, the dependency link between the sexes. In a patriarchal society such as Molotschna (and perhaps even modern America) there is often a power imbalance and it is thought that the women depend on the men to live their lives, yet in the end, August’s life was essentially and indirectly saved by these women, which is a beautiful sentiment to end this story with.

Women Talking is a creative approach to address the scary world that all women live in (and when I say all, I mean all―not just privileged white women living in the city). It speaks of toxic masculinity that is damaging both of women and young men. I think Toews elegantly captured the struggle all women have navigating a cruel world while also trying to stay true to their personal morals.

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November’s Poem of the Month

In my 11th grade English class, we had to pick a famous poet and do a biography and a poem analysis on them. Without giving it too much thought, I chose Sylvia Plath because of her tormented past. I ended up falling in love with her poetry and her style of writing. She has a timeless way of writing that gives a classic vibe o her poetry, yet it’s not intimidating or confusing for young people reading it in the 21st century. The poem I’ve chosen to share with everyone is the same one I did my analysis on years ago (don’t worry, I won’t be including that here). I hope you enjoy Plath’s words as much as 16-year-old me did.

Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

“I have done it again.   
One year in every ten   
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot
A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.
Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?——
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?   
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be   
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies
These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Dying
Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:
‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer   
Beware
Beware.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.”
If you’d like to learn more about Sylvia Plath, click here.

October’s Poem of the Month

Like many other young women, I’ve struggled with body image. I know there are many poems and stories out there about people’s journey with body positivity, yet this is one of the first that had struck me so deeply. I first listened to Baird recite this years ago, and it has stayed in my mind ever since. Even though I’ve never had an eating disorder, I related to her words so immensely and thoroughly appreciated the style and delivery of her poem. That being said, this may trigger you if you have/had an eating disorder, so continue with caution. Please enjoy October’s poem of the month!

When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny by Blythe Baird 

“The year of skinny pop and sugar-free jello cups,
we guzzled vitamin water and vodka.
Toasting to high school and survival,
complimenting each other’s thigh gaps.

Trying diets we found on the internet:
menthol cigarettes, eating in front of a mirror, donating blood.
Replacing meals with other practical hobbies
like making flower crowns, or fainting.

Wondering why I hadn’t had my period in months, or why breakfast tastes like giving up.
Or how many more productive ways I could’ve spent my time today besides googling the calories in the glue of a U.S envelope.

Watching Americas Next Topmodel like the gospel,
hunching naked over a bathroom scale shrine,
crying into an empty bowl of cocoa puffs
because I only feel pretty when I’m hungry.

If you are not recovering, you are dying.

By the time I was sixteen, I had already experienced being clinically overweight, underweight and obese.
As a child fat was the first word people used to describe me,
which didn’t offend me, until I found out it was supposed to.

When I lost weight, my dad was so proud, he started carrying my before-and-after photo in his wallet.
So relieved he could stop worrying about me getting diabetes.
He saw a program on the news about the epidemic with obesity, said he’s just so glad to finally see me taking care of myself.
If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital.
If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story.

So when I evaporated, of course everyone congratulated me on getting healthy.
Girls at school who never spoke to me before, stopped me in the hallway to ask how I did it.

I say “I am sick”. They say “No, you’re an inspiration!”
How could I not fall in love with my illness?
With becoming the kind of silhouette people are supposed to fall in love with?
Why would I ever want to stop being hungry, when anorexia was the most interesting thing about me?

So how lucky it is now, to be boring.
The way not going to the hospital is boring.
The way looking at an apple and seeing only an apple, not sixty, or half an hour sit-ups is boring.

My story may not be as exciting as it used to,
but at least there is nothing left to count.
The calculator in my head finally stopped.

I used to love the feeling of drinking water on an empty stomach, waiting for the coolness to slip all the way down and land in the well.
Not obsessed with being empty but afraid of being full.

I used to be proud when I was cold in a warm room.
Now, I am proud. I have stopped seeking revenge on this body.
This was the year of eating when I was hungry without punishing myself and I know it sounds ridiculous, but that shit is hard.”

Watch Baird recite this poem here. If you want to discover more of her work, check out her Facebook, Twitter, or website.

Turtles All the Way Down: Book Review

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green published in 2018.

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“Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis. Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.”

Trigger warning JG

John Green, a 41-year-old man, never fails to perfectly embody a teenage girl and all her possible problems.

This book follows Aza, a high school student suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) while trying to navigate the already challenging life of a teenage girl. Things get more complicated when billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hundred thousand dollar reward for information on his whereabouts is far too tempting to resist. Aza and her best friend Daisy try and get close to Davis, an old childhood friend who happens to be Russell’s son, in an attempt to solve this mystery. Yet when Aza develops a unique relationship with Davis, her motives start to change as her thoughts begin to spiral out of control.

As I mentioned above, the main character has OCD, which Green brilliantly portrays throughout the story. It’s a really good look into mental health for those who don’t understand what’s happening in someone else’s head, and furthermore even better for those who do have these feelings, as they can easily relate to Aza. Such common feelings that are too complicated to express for most are beautifully articulated in this book, which is such a relief for someone who experiences anxiety. I also recently learned that Green has lived with OCD for the majority of his life, and I think that he was successful in integrating his own emotions and thoughts into Aza.

Another note on mental health that I was really impressed that he included: the treatment side of it all. So much of popular culture focuses on the endless suffering of mental health that seemingly has no solution, but Green incorporates different ways someone can get treatment for their distress. The main character goes through therapy and struggles with taking her medication, and in the end, discovers that not all treatment out there suits everyone the same. He also paints a great picture of the healing process; it’s not linear but rather scattered and unpredictable, and how sometimes you’re not really getting better, but just not getting worse.

As much as I really liked Aza, I didn’t have the same feelings towards her friend Daisy. I understand her entire character was supposed to be comic relief with the sort of outlandish and quirky behaviour that Green is known for, but I found her rather annoying. On top of being annoying, she was also kind of rude and insensitive to Aza’s distress. I kept waiting for Aza to turn to her and say “I don’t need this kind of energy in my life, peace out Daisy”, but that never happened. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but as someone with anxiety, Daisy is the last person I’d want to be around.

I did like Davis, and more specifically the relationship that Aza had with him. It was a unique kind of love, a solid mix of puppy love and something deeper that can’t be described. He was sensitive to her issues (unlike some people) but also forced her to step outside her comfort zone. As I’ve said many times in my reviews, I’m not a big fan of romance, but the love that Davis and Aza share is refreshing special.

It took a while for me to just sucked into the story, the first half was kind of lost on me. Though as it approached the climax I entered the realm of not being able to put it down. Green has a very distinct writing style that I do enjoy very much but is not my go-to favourite. So if you’re a John Green fan, you’ll definitely like this book. If you’re not a fan, some aspects of it may go over your head, but it’s overall a charming read.

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The Immortalists: Book Review

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin published in 2018.

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“It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes. The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.”

Immortalists

The only downside of being an English major is I have so much mandatory reading that it’s hard to find time to read in my personal time, which is why it took me almost a month to finish this 343-page novel.

In the time I did find to read on my own, I thoroughly enjoyed The Immortalists, a novel that follows the four Gold siblings, Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya. It opens in 1969, all our main characters still children in New York. After hearing rumours of a fortune teller who has the power of predicting a person’s date of death, the children’s curiosity proved to be too strong to resist. Fast-forward a decade or so and the death of their father tears the siblings apart, and the four Gold children find themselves on different tracks of life, all haunted by the woman’s lethal predictions. So the book is divided into four distinct parts, each one dedicated to the life, and inevitable death, of each sibling.

I really liked all the main characters, and mainly their relationships (or lack thereof) they had with each other. It really captures how easily a once close family can be destroyed by death, whether the death itself torn everyone apart or the fact that the person who died was the only thing holding the family together. It also deals with the characters relationship with God and religion, a struggle most people can relate to the older they get. Although I do wish that there was at least one main character that still felt connected with their religion, since all of the four siblings strayed so far away from God, and it would have been interesting to see the perspective of one character who kept their religion until adulthood.

Like I mentioned earlier, the story is divided into four parts, each part dedicated to the life and death of each of the siblings, more specifically in order of their death (first to die→ last to die). This was a clever and organized way to share each of their stories and transition through the eras without confusion. The only thing that I can complain about is that the first part was easily forgotten by the time I got to the end. It felt like I had read about Simon and Klara a million years ago.

This novel explores the age-old philosophical question; would you want to know the date of your death, and if so, how would it affect the way you live your life? The main characters are plagued with the information of their possible mortality, and in turn, influenced how they live their life. Yet the line between fate and choice is blurred the closer they get to their supposed expiry date. It’s enough to make someone go crazy, as I was losing my mind reading about someone else’s fate. It’s very easy to think about your own life while reading this book, trying to think back to all of the choices you’ve made and wonder if it even had an effect on where you are now, or if fate would have steered you this way no matter what. It’s, for lack of a better word, pretty trippy.

Benjamin’s writing was impressive both factually and literarily. Anyone could tell that she did her fair share of research on certain topics that appeared within her characters personalities, such as ballet dance, street magic, and longevity experimentation. The writing itself flowed really well, yet I wasn’t completely blown off my feet. Although the four parts transitioned well from a timeline perspective, overall it sort of felt like four different stories put together in one book. Even the ending wasn’t really what I was expecting, which threw me for a loop (although maybe that’s a good thing?).

I’ve recently started judging books on whether or not they would leave a lasting impression me in years to come. Now, this being said, if I find that a book I’ve read doesn’t have that effect I don’t immediately dislike it. To me, this stipulation of lasting impressions is just what separates a four-star review from a five-star review. I don’t think this book is going to be one of those, unfortunately. As much as I loved reading it at the moment, and as much as it made me think about my life right now, I don’t think I’ll be reminiscing very much about this book. Now for the question of the hour: would I recommend this book? Sure, why not; if someone is looking for a decent book to get lost within, this would be great for that. Is this book going to forever change your life? Maybe not.

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September’s Poem of the Month

About two years ago I took a Canadian Native studies course in my final year of high school. One of our assignments was to research an Indigenous artist and showcase some of their work. Most people gravitated towards visual artists such as painters, yet of course, I was drawn towards a poet. I had the pleasure of exploring Rebecca Thomas’s work, and even received a lovely reply when I emailed her about it all. As a Mi’kmaq woman, she has much experience with identity, cultural appropriation, and oppression, which is the topic of most of her poetry. Specifically, the one I’ve chosen to share with everyone today focuses on the false image of Pocahontas that Western culture has portrayed for decades. Without further ado, please enjoy September’s Poem of the Month!

Matoax by Rebecca Thomas

“It was all a lie.

I was appropriated as Disney’s racist alibi,

They plucked me as a girl out of history, and without ever mentioning my tribe

They made into a woman whose only worth was to keep John Smith alive,

An event that was completely contrived

It was all a lie.

 

All the while Jamestown and the crown

They converted my kin to cover their sin

They made the world believe in

Pilgrims, patriots and heathens,

And I was left with my whitewashed skin,

Brought back to life to make the leaves spin and

My people were left to paint a future with the bleached out colours of the wind.

 

In order to protect me, my community kept my real name shrouded in secrecy,

In your fairy tale,

I went from preteen, to sixteen, to baptism and Christianity,

All the while my people continued to bleed.

 

Nobody knows that my name is Matoax,

But everyone is familiar with the stories of blankets and small pox,

They love our style, “Native Inspired”, they rock our mocs, using feathers for props, buying Urban Outfitter Smudge kits for fifty dollars a pop.

But there, your interests stops

No one asks about the high way of tears,

The hunger walks,

Racial Integrity Laws? Nobody balks. Because everyone knows,

If you want to be an Indian princess, forget the culture that needs to be sought,

it just takes one drop.

 

Kidnapped and held at a ransom for swords and guns,

I was raped but oral history is so easily undone,

My people were given booze and were racially shunned,

I had a daughter, a life,

I was married to Kocuom!

Something my full length feature film decided was too much of a plot conundrum

So they had him killed off and made no mention of my abduction.

 

My sequel had me ditch Smith for Rolfe in Holy matrimony,

That other husband?

A pop culture memory, just a savage phony.

This marriage counted,

By the grace of God and all his glory,

It is here at least some good came out of my story.

 

I never spoke about my feelings for Rolfe, though they say he loved me so,

Our union brought peace to my people and to his,

Literal boatloads of money from stolen fields of tobacco.

And so,

The spin given in England,

Was that I was the perfectly civilized Indian,

That could hand over your perception of a kingdom,

But behind your back, my jingle dress is jingling.

 

On my way home I died from pneumonia or pox or tuberculosis,

And sadly, my history learned via osmosis,

By frat girls in red face striking Native poses.

The bones of my people are buried in America’s closet, mine is just a bonus.

So many holes

Your lessons are built on history’s osteoporosis.

 

The reality is this:

The English only wanted to flaunt us,

Their history still continues to abuse and haunt us,

You don’t even know my real name.

You only know me as Pocahontas.”

If you wish to read more of Rebecca Thomas’s work, find her on Facebook and Twitter.

A Little Life: Book Review

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara published in 2015.

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“A Little Life follows four college classmates—broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition—as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma. A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.”

Trigger warning (1)

When I asked the store clerk at Lunenburg Bound Books in Nova Scotia for her recommendation, she told me that A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara would change my life. Consider my life changed.

Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude have known each other since freshman year of college, and this novel follows their friendship as they live in New York City. Despite their incredibly varying personalities, they find themselves sticking together through thick and thin. Malcolm is the son of a wealthy family and has a passion for architecture. JB is a shining example of a struggling artist, finding inspirations for his painting within his friendships. Willem is an aspiring actor, doing what most aspiring actor do in New York; working as a waiter. Finally there is Jude, a bashful lawyer who carries the legacy of an incredibly traumatic childhood. The story centres around Willem and Jude’s (mainly Jude) escalating relationship from their college years all the way to their fifties.

Let’s start this the way I usually do: talking about the characters. I fell in love with the majority of the characters, even beyond the main four. They were written to be very distinguishable and noteworthy, and even further the relationships that were formed between all of them were enviable, especially Willem and Jude’s. (Notice how I didn’t say perfect?) Yanagihara managed to flawless capture the comfortable, humdrum relationship that one can only achieve after decades of sacrifices and compassion.

The highs of this book are heart fluttering, and the lows of this book (and when I say lows, I mean depths of hell low) are heartbreaking, yet my favourite is how grounding the mediocrity. The author makes a point of at least mentioning the most mundane aspects of life and relationships, and yet she doesn’t spend precious word count boring the reader. Romance has never been my genre, and even in books that don’t fit in that category, like this one, I tend to gloss over any sort of romance within its pages. But Yanagihara manages to write about something stronger and less tangible than love. She’s grasped at a concept so far out of the box that there isn’t a word in the English language that I can think of to properly describe it. It’s something that’s experienced rather than explained.  

As I mentioned earlier, the lows in this book were devastating. Most of them revolve around Jude and his horrific childhood, as well as his coping (or rather lack of coping) he does as an adult. I found myself looking at Yanagihara as some sort of cruel God overlooking the world she’s created, and thought to myself, “My god, the poor man has suffered enough, have mercy.” Each new disturbing event that Jude had to experience was like a stab to my heart, and I felt the need to physically react (the number of times I paced the room in frustration and heartache are embarrassing).

If I was forced to criticize this novel, the only thing I could say is it may benefit from some mild editing, and I say that for a specific reason. The sheer length of this book (a whopping 814 pages) may be slightly intimidating for a reader. To be perfectly honest, it almost scared me away from the book. By cutting down some of the longer internal monologues and maybe eliminating the intensely graphic self-harm scenes, the page count could be cut significantly without losing the brilliance of the main story.

Another thing I usually discuss in my reviews is the ending, and without spoiling too much, I can say I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. Yanagihara somehow managed to take a stereotypically upsetting ending and made it happy. Somber yet content, because Jude finally got what he wanted in life.

I would recommend this book to everyone who can get their hands on it, yet also warn them to proceed with caution since it covers some jaw-droppingly horrendous topics. It’s well balanced out by the joys one might find in everyday life, yet the very description of someone hurting themselves could make someone pretty queasy. I was somewhat doubtful when the store clerk told me this book would change my life, but I’m delighted to be proven wrong. I’ll never forget Jude and Willem as I navigate my life; Jude when my mind is trying to convince me that I don’t belong, and Willem whenever someone I love reels me back into reality.

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