Beartown


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Read: May 2017

 

I really liked A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie was Here, but Beartown was definitely my favourite Fredrik Backman novel to date! This was quite different then his other work, but it was excellent!

This is how you do large casts. I just read Paula Hawkins’ new book, Into the Water, which had a huge cast of characters, but she did justice for none of them. Beartown has a huge number of characters as well, but it really worked in this book. The characters are slowly introduced throughout the course of the novel and their relationships to one another are clearly indicated, so it wasn’t hard to follow and I was thrilled to see a lot of who I thought would be minor characters have some really interesting stories. Every character was well realized and well developed considering how little focus some of the characters got.

The characters reminded me a little of Melina Marchetta‘s work in that they grew in ways you did not anticipate and that you grew to like characters that you didn’t like initially. This shouldn’t have been a surprise though as Backman does an excellent job at making you love slightly unlikeable characters in all his novels. I loved the way Backman would present characters in different ways depending on whose point of view you were reading and that perspective could totally change your opinion of any character. For example I loved how characters like Bobo flip-flopped throughout the entire novel – you wanted to love him and then he would disappoint you and then you would love him again.

“It doesn’t take long to persuade each other to stop seeing a person as a person. And when enough people are quiet for long enough, a handful of voices can give the impression that everyone is screaming.”

I was totally impressed with the writing in Beartown. I highlighted so many passages throughout reading the book and I was really impressed with how Backman handled the serious topics in the novel as a male writer. I don’t want to give anything away because I think it’s best to go into this book blind, but it was definitely culturally relevant and very moving.  

I found the entire novel to be very insightful into sports culture and rape culture, both of which are often largely entwined, as well as the emotions that cause us to perceive things the way we do. It was a great novel about family, friends, sportsmanship, winning, and community (among many other things). There was so much going on in this book and so many different themes explored alongside the main theme.

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”

Definitely recommend this one for everyone! There was no part of this novel that I disliked and I think anyone can relate to the story.

The Radium Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Read: Nov. 2017

Why do we always forget women’s history? Why do we never even record it?

The Radium Girls inspire me. Thank you Kate Moore for writing this book and reminding us of the struggle these women went through and the impact their fight has had on all those workers to come after them. This book was so well researched and so well written. Sometimes I have trouble with non-fiction, but this read like fiction and Moore infused a lot of emotion into her telling of history.

The Radium Girls tells the story of the thousands of girls who worked as dial painters in radium factories in small american towns beginning in 1917 and continuing into the 1970’s. Radium was still a relatively new discovery at this time and a luminous paint was developed using radium for painting the dials on watch faces and aviation and military equipment throughout the Great War.

The US Radium Corporation set up a factory in Orange, New Jersey and their competitor, Radium Dial, later set up another factory in Ottawa, Illinois. Hundreds of girls in both towns were hired as dial painters at the factories. While the dangers of radium were definitely known at this time, it was more often touted as a ‘wonder’ drug with many health benefits. The girls at the factory were taught to paint the dials using the ‘lip – dip – paint’ method. In order to get the brushes super fine for precision painting, they were taught to use their lips to wet the brush to a fine point. This resulted in them ingesting the radium-laced paint with each ‘lip and dip’ and due to poor cleaning procedures at the plant, they often took radium powder home on their shoes and clothes. They became known as ‘glowing girls’.

As you can imagine, ingesting radium daily on the job is not the best practice and the girls eventually started developing health problems, including fatigue, achy backs, limps and loose teeth. Some girls experienced a very rapid decline in health, while others experienced slower symptoms. However, all of the symptoms resulted in the deterioration of the women’s bodies, often resulting in death. Unfortunately, it can take years for symptoms of radium poisoning to develop and with many women having moved on from their dial painting jobs several years prior, and with little known about radium poisoning at the time, doctors had a really hard time diagnosing their issues.

Moore is unflinching in her storytelling of the events that took place in Orange and Ottawa in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Parts of the book are very difficult to read due to the immense suffering the radium girls went through. Both radium companies tried to deny any wrongdoing and it is shameful and literally evil the lengths they went to distance themselves from the girls and any wrongdoing. The US Radium Corporation were a bunch of snakes, but Radium Dial was downright criminal. Both companies repeatedly lied to the girls and to the courts and it was actually enraging to read about the ordeal they put the radium girls through.

Once a connection was finally made between the girls symptoms and radium poisoning, many of the girls brought legal action against the companies. They went through hell from both the radium poisoning and from the lengths they went to try and secure some kind of justice and compensation for their families.

These girls inspire me because despite suffering some of the worst pain I’ve heard described, they persevered and fought relentlessly for justice – mostly for the radium girls that would come behind them as they were unlikely to live long enough to enjoy any justice they might find for themselves. They literally birthed the laws that now exist surrounding workers rights and likely saved thousands of lives through the development of safety procedures and protocols when working with radium as a result of their case.

I was totally blown away by this book. It is some heavy subject matter, but I was completely enthralled by their story and inhaled this 500 pager in just 2 days. Even though this book takes place in the 20’s and 30’s, it is still hugely relevant today. Women are still routinely ignored and silenced. What frustrated me about this book was that nobody gave a shit about the women and that they were literally losing their lives on the job. In fact, people only even started talking about radium use in the plant when the first male employee died in New Jersey, even though several women had already died at this point.

Because the radium girls in Ottawa began pursuing litigation in the 30’s, when the Great Depression was at its worst, the community shunned them. They saw Radium Dial as a quality employer in a time when jobs were hard to come by and the community tried to silence the women when they came out saying they’d been poisoned and said they made it all up because they didn’t want to lose the plant. When the girls approached their boss after Charlotte Purcell lost her arm to radium poisoning, he literally looked at them and told them he saw nothing wrong with them. Women were second class citizens and the girls were routinely silenced and ignored.

Nevertheless, they persevered. I love that these types of stories about women are finally becoming mainstream. These stories deserve and need to be told. Women’s history is so important and so often forgotten or unrecorded. The post script of this book destroyed me because it proves how easily history is forgotten and repeated. That’s why I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!

The Refugees


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Viet Thanh Nyugen
Genres: Fiction, Short Stories, Historical Fiction
Read: April 2017

 

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this collection of short stories. It didn’t deliver what I was expecting and at times I found it slow moving and pretty boring. However, it did offer a different perspective on the experiences of refugees, that while different from my expectations, was still valuable.

The Refugees featured in Nguyen’s stories were all from Vietnam and had all eventually settled in America. I expected this collection to focus on refugees who were attempting to flee their homeland or trying to build new lives in America. However, most of the stories took place years after the refugees had settled in America and in some ways didn’t even feel like stories about refugees.

I thought that Nguyen’s stories about a wife whose husband is suffering Alzheimer’s, a man who meets his liver donor, and a father who travels to Vietnam to visit his daughter studying abroad weren’t stories that were unique to refugees – they easily could have happened to anyone. During a time when many Americans (and Canadians) are afraid of refugees, I thought Nguyen’s stories were an important reminder that refugees are normal people who build lives, put down roots, and contribute to society in the same way as everyone else. Unfortunately, they are just people who have been forced to flee their home country, often due to horrifying circumstances.

While I didn’t love all the stories, there were some that I enjoyed. I sympathized with Mrs. Khanh, whose husband was slowly forgetting their past together and her horror when he begins to call her by an unknown woman’s name. I felt Phuong’s frustration when her privileged half-sister returned to Vietnam and won her father’s affection but refused to help her create a better life. And I understood the mother who was conflicted at giving her hard earned money to what she believed to be a lost cause, but couldn’t say no to another mother mourning her husband and son.

Overall this was still a decent read, but I would recommend The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui over this one, which I loved! It’s also a refugee story about a family fleeing Vietnam for America, but I felt much more connected to the characters.

Stillhouse Lake


Rating:
 ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Rachel Caine
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
Read: Nov. 2017

 

Oh my goodness, what a roller coaster ride! This book was so intense!

I was really impressed with the first chapter, Stillhouse Lake had such a strong start that it just instantly pulls you into the story and I couldn’t put it down once I started! I often put books on my TBR, forget what they’re about, and then start reading them without re-reading the synopsis, so I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I picked this up and even the first chapter was a shock to me.

The book starts with a drunk driver hitting Gina Royal’s garage, inadvertently revealing the horrors her husband has been hiding in his “workshop”. Gina had no idea the depth of deception of her serial killer husband, Melvin Royal, and is shocked to find a body hanging in their garage. The story then jumps 4 years ahead, Mel having been convicted and put on death row. Gina was tried as his helper, but was acquitted and has changed her identity (Gwen Proctor) and the names of her two children in an effort to escape the internet trolls screaming for her blood.

This was a really interesting premise because it looks at the lives of the family of a convicted serial killer. Psycho- and sociopaths, and abusers, are often very good at hiding their depravity and acting as normal members of society. They can often deceive their friends and co-workers, with their victims being the only ones to ever know their true selves. But it’s hard to believe you could be happily married to a serial killer and have no idea they were secretly torturing and killing women in your garage. This is the problem Gwen faces. Even though she was acquitted, few people believe her innocence and in the age of the internet, trolls make her life, and the lives of her children, hell.

Women are definitely the victims of an obscene amount of vitriol on the internet. It’s hard to come up with any feminist writer that I follow who hasn’t talked about the abuse and death threats they’ve received just for advocating for women’s issues. Even the average woman isn’t safe on social media from unsolicited opinions, anger, and let’s just say, unwanted photos. Most trolls won’t take their threats any further than an internet post, they mostly get off on psychological trauma, but there are the odd psychopaths out there, so I didn’t blame Gwen for taking the threats seriously and for the extreme lengths she went to protect herself and her children.

This is definitely a psychological thriller and I have to say, it really did mess with me. I was really been torn between 3 and 4 stars because I think this is a really good thriller novel, but I personally had to rate it down a little because I found parts of the novel so disturbing (I can’t handle anything that messes with children). Honestly, I kind of think it needs a trigger warning at the front. But it was a really fast paced novel that explored the theme of trust a lot. My heart broke for Gwen, she kept trusting all the wrong people and I can’t imagine how this would mess with your mind and instincts. I think I would have lost it if I was her, but she had to be strong for her children and I really admired her character for it.

I noticed this had a sequel when I was about half way through, which surprised me, but it had the perfect kind of cliffhanger at the end. One that gives you closure to the story, but has the perfect hook to pull you into the next one. I’m not quite sure if I can handle another book as intense and disturbing as this one, but I will probably still read it because I just need to know how it all turns out!!

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body


Rating:
 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Roxane Gay
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction, Feminist
Read: May 2017

 

I read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist a few years ago and really enjoyed her essays, but I definitely think this a stronger book and one that takes a lot of courage to write.

“The Story of my body is not a story of triumph… Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”

This is one of the opening passages in Hunger and why I think Gay is such a brave writer. Her memoir is ultimately about her being gang-raped at the age of 12 and how that has since changed and shaped her entire life. Gay never told anyone about her rape and kept her fear and shame bottled up for most of her life, turning to food as a comfort. Making herself big as a way to feel safe within her body.

This is a truly heartbreaking story because Gay still suffers PTSD along with the added challenges of moving around in a world that is not built for people her size, much less black women of her size. She offers many anecdotes on what it’s like to live in a world where you’re medically classified under the horrible term of “super morbidly obese” (seriously, who decided this was okay?).

I’ve been trying to educate myself on intersectional feminism and Gay’s memoir was helpful in recognizing the ways I benefit from thin privilege. There are many obvious ways in which I benefit from thin privilege, but Gay’s memoir highlighted other ways such as the constant worries she faces about fitting in chairs and whether or not she’ll be able to easily access the stage at events she speaks at. She tells one story of a time she spoke at an event that had a stage about 2 feet off the ground with no stairs and how mortifying it was as she struggled to get onstage and then proceeded to have to crouch over her chair for 2 hours because she felt a small crack when she first started to sit.

One of the most helpful articles for me in understanding white privilege was Peggy MacIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack as well an imitation essay, The Male Privilege Checklist. This essay ends with the ultimate check of male privilege being that “I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.” I was reminded of this while reading Gay’s memoir because it helped me realize some of the ways in which I am unaware of my thin privilege (as well as reinforcing some of the ways I was aware of).

Gay’s honesty is part of what makes this such a strong memoir, but I also really appreciated her insights into what it means to be a woman in our society. How we treat the thousands of girls and women who have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused – how we treat black, fat, disabled, poor, or gay girls and women – and how that affects our body image, self-confidence, and the way we grow up and who we develop into.

Like I said, this is a heartbreaking story, but also a very important one.

“He said/she said is why so many victims don’t come forward. All too often, what “he said” matters more, so we just swallow the truth. We swallow it, and more often than not, that truth turns rancid. It spreads through the body like an infection. It becomes depression or addiction or obsession or some other physical manifestation of the silence of what she would have said, needed to say, couldn’t say.”