Greenwood

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michael Christie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

It’s been just over a month since I finished Greenwood, so I’ll do my best to review. Like a lot of my audiobooks, I didn’t really have any intention of reading this book, but I stumbled across it, liked the sound of the narrator, and thought it seemed interesting enough. The story did get bogged down in places, but overall, I really liked it.

Greenwood tells the story of the Greenwood family over 4 generations and is a mixture of literary fiction, mystery, and dystopia all rolled into one compelling book. The highlight of the storytelling for me was in the structure. The novel starts on Vancouver Island in 2034. In recent years a tree virus has felled the majority of the world’s trees, but there’s still a pristine old growth forest that remains on a small island near Pacific Rim and it’s here that ecologist Jake Greenwood works, taking wealthy vacationers walking along the last remaining giants.

From here, each part of the story takes us back in time, to Liam Greenwood in 2008, a carpenter who renovates homes using reclaimed wood. Then to Willow Greenwood in 1974, a hippy and environmentalist who protests her father’s rich timber company. Then back to Everett Greenwood in 1934, a poor hermit who lives in the woods farming maple syrup, and then finally to 1908 and the events that started everything for the Greenwood Family. Once we reach 1908, the story reverses again as we slowly start to make our way back to 2034. It’s a fascinating structure. I loved going back in time to learn more about the events that preceded each storyline, only to learn new mysteries that I won’t find the answers to until the story reverses itself again.

The majority of the story takes place in 1934 and the actions Everett takes have a lasting impact on the Greenwood Family for generations to come. It’s interesting to see how secrets are hidden and how easily history can be lost over multiple generations. How quickly the cycle of poverty can reverse itself. My favourite timelines were 1934 and 2034, but I think they all offered something unique to the story. I did think the author dragged out the 1934 storyline a little bit too much – it is the critical part of the book, but I don’t really think this book needed all it’s 500+ pages and easily could have been more in the 400-450 range.

I did love how this book takes us all over Canada and parts of America and how it incorporates trees as its central theme. Even though some of the family members use the trees as a resource for profit and others seek to protect the trees, they all make their living from the trees and are impacted by them. It’s interested to see something inanimate like a tree take on such a central role in the novel. As someone who lives in Western Canada and loves the landscape here, I really enjoyed the exploration of the value of trees and was moved by the imagination of a world without them. Our old growth forests are incredibly valuable and I can’t imagine the loss of them, much less the majority of trees on the planet. How they scape our cities, towns, and parks and the number of resources that we pull from them.

So overall I did find the story slowed down in places, but overall I really enjoyed and would recommend to lovers of Canadian lit!

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Heather Morris
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2018 (read Apr. 2020 on Audible)

This was supposed to be my book club pick for March, but then of course our meeting was cancelled and I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a holocaust book during a global pandemic. We’ve rescheduled our book club meeting so I decided to give the audiobook a go since I’ve been struggling with paperbacks recently, but have been doing a lot of jigsaws. This was definitely the way to go and a flew through this short book and my latest jigsaw in a single weekend.

Aside from the whole pandemic thing, I still wasn’t really looking forward to reading this because I’ve read a lot of holocaust books over the years and though there’s many great and emotional books on the topic, after reading so many books about the camps I find not a lot of new content offered anymore, so it’s just easier not to read such upsetting works.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz does offer a point of view I haven’t seen before, that of a Jewish prisoner conscripted to work as the tatowierer who inks all of the prisoners with their number when they enter the camps. It was an interesting story in that is was told from the point of view of someone who received preferential treatment in the camps. Lale was spared from physical labour and given his own room in one of the camp blocks. He didn’t have to report for roll calls and so was able to move about the camp a lot easier than many other prisoners would have been able to. He uses this privilege to build up a bit of an underground trade. The girls who go through the prisoners clothing provide him with jewels, which he trades for extra food. Building up a stockpile which he shares with other prisoners and uses to cash in on favours.

Unfortunately this book made me really uncomfortable, but not in the way you might expect a holocaust story to make one feel uncomfortable. I feel like I might be a bit callous in critiquing a story such as this one, but there were 3 issues I had with the story.

First of all, on Lale’s first night in the camp, he is stunned to see two men shot and killed for sport by the Nazis while using the bathroom. Upon witnessing this act, he vows that he will do whatever it takes to survive the camp. That’s all good and I admire his tenacity, but Morris revisits this theme several times throughout the novel and I felt like I was supposed to believe that Lale survived Auschwitz out of sheer force of character. This was not the case – he relies heavily on the kindness of others, which he takes advantage of to improve his own situation and that of those he cares about. But on more than one occasion his life is saved by other individuals. This in itself isn’t a big deal, but pushing the narrative that Lale’s grit is what enabled his survival is belittling to all the people that didn’t make it out of the camps. Grit and determination have literally nothing to do with surviving the atrocities of a concentration camp. Lale traded on the kindness of others and was incredibly lucky. I don’t find any fault in Lale’s actions, but let’s just call it what it is.

The second issue that bothered me, and what made this an uncomfortable read for me, was the love story between Lale and Gita. I can’t say I’ve ever read a love story set in a holocaust camp. I’ve read so many beautiful holocaust stories in which love is the central theme, but definitely not a ‘meet and fall in love in a camp’ story. Again, the idea of a couple falling in love in a concentration is not that unbelievable – this is based on the true story of real life couple Lale and Gita, so it obviously happened, but the writing about the love story just made me soooo uncomfortable.

Like I said, I believe two individuals could fall in love in a camp. Under unthinkable emotional trauma, it would be natural to seek comfort and reassurance from those around you. To be brought together by your shared experience and build a deep and lasting bond of trust and understanding. I didn’t struggle to believe that Gita would fall in love with Lale, he looked after her most basic needs, found her better work, food, and medication, and provided emotional support through a traumatic experience. But please don’t try and portray this relationship as sexy. Lale and Gita were both victims of their situation and I really think the author grossly romanticized their relationship. I know this is based on a true story, but it’s also based on one man’s 70 year old memories. Maybe this is the way Lale remembered his experience, but this is still “fiction” and the author has a duty to question how those memories may have been manipulated an warped over the years to block out a traumatic experience.

I find it hard to believe that after living several years in a concentration camp, being beaten and starved, that anyone would use a chocolate bar to try and seduce someone. In general I just couldn’t help but cringe at all of the romance scenes. Especially how Lale talked about women – how “all women are beautiful” and you have to take care of women, and what a womanizer he was. It was so eye-rolling, but again, obvious that it was probably lifted straight from her interview with Lale. Of course an old man who grew up in the 1930’s would talk like that, but nothing about it felt genuine or reflective of how Lale actually might have felt in 1942.

But this is just one example of the ways in which I struggled to buy into the story and felt Morris’ should have taken more artistic license in how she told it. Everything about Lale’s experience seemed to be romanticized. How easy it was for him to trade in diamonds and food, how he was able to manipulate almost everyone around him to get what he wanted, how no part of the camp was closed off to him and he could pretty much just do and go where ever he wanted, how easy it was for him to survive an interrogation without breaking down, and then just pick up the pieces of his fabricated life in the camp once he was released again. I don’t disbelieve that this was the account Morris’ received from Lale, but again, it’s where your duty to history and the reader comes in to question the authenticity of those experiences and how your portrayal of a concentration camp might read to those who have lived through similar, though very different experiences. I felt the author failed to portray the horror of the concentration camps, which should really be the easiest part of the story.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz reminded me a lot of another WWII book I read a few years ago, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Both are fascinating stories in themselves, but both books were inspired by late-in-life interviews with their subjects. In both books I think the authors rely too heavily on the source material from their interviewees and somehow fail to connect to their characters on an emotional level.

Which brings me to my final point. This book was poorly written. This is more a flawed chronological account of Lale’s 3 years in the camps than a meaningful piece of historical fiction. Morris relies heavily on dialogue and plot to carry her story, but misses out on any kind of characterization. Somehow an emotional story of 3 terrible years in concentration camps lacks in any real emotional connection. Now obviously this is a personal opinion. I know a lot of people really loved this and connected with Lale, so it makes me feel like a bit of troll saying that I didn’t feel anything from a holocaust story, but I just felt that Morris didn’t give these characters the humanity they deserved. Her writing style is very detached and as such, I always felt detached as well. The story just seemed to be “and then he did this and then he said this and then she did that”. It was just kind of boring.

It was a story with a lot of promise, and like I said, it does show a different experience of life at Auschwitz, but I just wanted more from it. Lale is a flawed individual and I would have loved to see more exploration of how his morality was impacted by his time in the camp. He alludes a few times that he was worried he might be considered a collaborator and I would have liked to see more of that internal struggle. He was a generally selfless person and i felt he likely would also have struggled with the fact that he couldn’t help everyone and the impact having to decide who he would help might also have on him. At 250 pages, there was certainly room to better develop this story, so I was disappointed that the author decided to just retell an interview rather than do the hard emotional reflection on how this experience would impact Lale and those around him.

I think I’ll end it there. I could probably say more, but this is getting long enough. I see there’s a sequel. I am intrigued that it’s about Cilka, she is one of the characters that I probably empathized with the most and it was really upsetting to learn she was convicted as a collaborator. I’m curious if her sequel is fabricated or actually based on a real person. Anyone know? I won’t be reading it either way, but I am intrigued.

Dual Citizens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alix Ohlin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Canadian Lit
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Feb. 2020 on Audible)

Dual Citizens is one of the those weird creations of Canadian literature that I ended up really loving, yet wouldn’t necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bit of an artsy story with a meandering plot, but it’s ultimately about family and sisterhood and that really resonated with me.

Lark and Robin are sisters that grew up in Montreal and received little attention or praise from their young mother. So they instead look to one another for support and long for the day when they can branch out on their own. Lark is shy but very studious and does well in school, earning herself a scholarship for a college in the States. Robin learns to play the piano and has a natural talent for it. She is dismayed when Lark leaves her behind to go to school and within the year she runs away to live with Lark.

Eventually Lark discovers a love for film and Robin is accepted to study piano at Julliard. But the pressure of music school gets to her and as Lark dives further into her film degree, the sisters begin to grow apart. The separation between the two sisters was jarring and upsetting for me. They were all each other had and I felt as set adrift by the separation as Lark did. The sisters are very different and Lark struggles to understand why her sister suddenly distances herself and they begin to grow apart, each caught up in their own struggles and insecurities.

Lark spends a lot of time working in the film industry and is quite successful, but she reads like a character who just moves through life without actually engaging in it. She is passive in every scenario and I really felt like part of her was missing during her estrangement from Robin. I’m not really an artsy person and I don’t care for film, but I really loved the storytelling in this book. I just felt this ache throughout for the relationship that Lark and Robin once had and the strain and impact that the loss of communication had on Lark. The feeling of incompleteness while the two were separated and the tenseness that continued between them even once they were reunited. It’s scary to watch two people that were so close become disconnected to the point that they don’t really know who the other person is anymore.

It really reminded me of the feelings of nostalgia and sadness that you get when you return home and realize that the people you loved and spent so much time with have all changed. The feeling of moving on, but thinking fondly of the experiences you once shared, but the sadness of realizing that some experience meant more to one person than the other.

It’s hard to describe, but Lark’s longing for both motherhood and a renewed relationship with her sister were so authentic. It’s a slow moving story with little driving the plot, but I related so keenly to Lark. I think Ohlin captured a very flawed, but real relationship, and I felt really invested in Lark’s life. I don’t think it’s a story for everyone though and I’m not sure I’d want to read it again because of the emotional toll, but I’m glad to have picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. A great story with a lot of depth!

Dear Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ali Wong
Genres: Memoir, Humour
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

I don’t think I even knew who Ali Wong was a year ago, but suddenly she is everywhere and she is hilarious. I think I first heard of her when I read this buzzfeed article about how awesome her glasses are and how she finds the frames by converting sunglasses into glasses. I was like, this woman sounds cool, so I watched both her comedy specials on Netflix when I was home sick one day and thought they were hilarious. I made my husband watch Always Be My Maybe with me, and while I had some issues with the movie, I still enjoyed Ali’s acting and comedy.

If you’ve seen her comedy specials, then you’ll probably like this book. She recycles some of the same themes, but it just serves in making you feel like she’s actually a friend of yours. It’s like, “oh yeah, I remember her mentioning that before”, but she’ll take it off on a new tangent and you just feel like you’re getting to know her a little better. Dear Girls is funny, but it’s also meaningful. It’s crafted as a series of letters to her two daughters. It still has Ali’s signature brand of crassness, but overall, its less crass then some of her comedy and she talks about a lot of relevant things.

Some of the book is advice for her daughters on funny things that have happened to her, while other advice is really thoughtful points on comedy and what it means to be a visible female minority. I liked that she talked about how frustrating it is to have your success pinned on your race and gender, but also about how annoying it is to also constantly be asked about it. She will never be “just another comic” and will always be defined and asked about what it’s like to be female and Asian and a comic.

I was dying to request a copy of this from Netgalley, but I decided to hold off so that I could listen to the audiobook instead. The fact that it’s narrated by Ali makes it so much better. She does cycle around a lot of the same ideas though, so I was glad she didn’t overdo it by making the book too long. Personally, I thought she hit a great balance and would definitely recommend both her audiobook and Netflix comedy specials!

Educated

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tara Westover
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

Educated was our book club pick for November and I really wanted to listen to it on audiobook, but it took me forever to finish my previous audiobook (The Amber Spyglass), so I was a bit late in starting it and had to really rush through it.

Fortunately it had a good narrator and it was a compelling story, so it wasn’t too hard to listen to and push through. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book since it came out, but I’m not a big non-fiction reader and it sounded a lot like The Glass Castle to me, so I never bothered to pick it up. I was excited to finally read it, but I do have to say that after finishing it, despite some differences, it did still remind me a lot of The Glass Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Glass Castle and I really liked Educated, but it was really hard not to compare the two and at times I definitely got some serious deju-vu from Westover’s story. While Tara Westover and Jeannette Walls did have different stories, there were still a lot of similarities. They both grew up in families with fathers suffering from mental health issues who are very much paranoid about the government and as a result, decide to mostly live off the grid – taking advantage of their families by keeping them isolated and somewhat in the dark to what the outside world is really like.

However, Mormonism plays a very large role in Westover’s story and was one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me. I haven’t had much exposure to the Mormon religion and it was really interesting to learn about Mormon beliefs, how they were interpreted by Tara’s father, and how those beliefs oppressed and impacted Tara throughout her childhood, formative years, and even into adulthood.

Despite the title, Westover’s story was about so much more than just education. In retrospect, her education was probably the part that interested me the least. I like how she examines at the end of the book the role her education played in opening up her eyes and allowing her to escape the cycle of violence in her family, but overall I don’t think most people read this book to learn about her education.

That said, how Tara managed to get into college and obtain a PhD from Cambridge with no formal childhood education is still a mystery to me and something that seemed to be glossed over in the book. I really struggled to believe she would be so successful with so little support (emotional and financial) and I did wonder if we were really getting the full story at times. She says she was bad at math and that she really only ever read the book of Mormon, so its a bit mystifying to me how she managed to get through multiple degrees, much less excel at them. But obviously their family life taught the children something because 3 of the 7 Westover’s went on to earn doctorates.

So while I did like this book and Westover’s writing, I was neither shocked by the content, nor totally convinced of the story. What I do admire though, is that Westover actually wrote and published this account of her family. The entire book really is about her struggle to both emancipate herself from her family, but still be loved and accepted by them. She sacrifices a lot in order to gain an education and even though she recognizes the harmful and destructive tendencies of her family members, she still yearns to be one of them.

It was really interesting to read about the long term impacts that Mormonism had on her life and how long it took her to recognize the ways in which she has been oppressed and ignorant. I say her book is admirable because the very act of committing to paper this story of her family and then sharing it with the world pretty much guarantees her continued exile from her family. The ending is very nebulous because her story really is not over yet and her family story is still unresolved. But I admire her for recognizing the harmful parts of her family’s behaviour and deciding to expose them when her family refused to listen to her or to change. Her father has obvious issues, but her recount of her brother Shawn was much more chilling. Good for her for finally saying, enough is enough, if you won’t change, I will expose you.

I still gave it 4 stars, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as the rest of the world seems to be. It’s well written and thought provoking and it works well as a memoir, I just found it a bit of a challenge to suspend my disbelief when it actually came to her education. That said, Tara was gaslighted by her family for years and as a result her memories have been tampered with and are likely unreliable. But I guess it just makes her story all the more inspirational and like I said, at its heart, I don’t really think this was a book about education. Still a 4 star read for me despite some of these criticisms.