So, it's been tough for me to write about the last few books I've read because, while I don't lack for things to say about them or ways they impacted me, I've been paying much more attention to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in downtown Rochester (and around the country). While I haven't felt comfortable attending the evening protests that have been happening for 12 days straight now, I've been finding other ways to help: Purchasing supplies for the protestors, Doing what I can to amplify their message, Donating money to local organizations like BLMROC and Project AIR, Delivering BLM lawn signs to Rochester residents, and I participated in a smaller, day-time protest at City Hall this past week. I continue to seek out different ways I can help, including to educate myself and others. If you are also looking for ways to help, this is a great resource: Black Lives Matter Resources for Rochester, NY and Beyond.
In the meantime, I continue to isolate, along with my mom, during this unprecedented time of a global pandemic... which means lots of time to read. When I can focus, that is. Which isn't all the time. Anyway, so I thought I would combine my two most recent reads and just do a short review of each of them, because that's kind of all I have the mental space for right now. And maybe you're feeling the same way. Also, the rest of life does not stop being important even if you're acutely focused on one specific issue. It's still really good for me to read authors from all different backgrounds, and different genres of book. Not to get too new-agey, but really, the wider your lens, the easier it is to grasp the immensity of life, and the importance of every single human being.
My book club, the Book Thieves, was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Alison Smith for our meeting on this book (I met her a few years ago through Writers & Books, so was able to reach out to her). We had about a half an hour to chat first, and then she joined us for another half an hour. It was great to have the chance to ask questions, and connect over shared Rochester experiences.
The book is a memoir spanning three years, from the time Alison was 15 years old, when her older brother Roy died in a car accident, to when she turns 18 - Roy's age when he passed away. In it she discusses the profound grief that she and her parents experienced, her first relationship with another girl, and realization that she is gay, her eating disorder that is centered around the loss of her brother, and her struggle with her family's devout Christianity.
This is a really beautiful, poignant, and at times heartbreaking story about the fallout from a tragic death. As Alison writes in the interview at the back of the book, "Sibling grief is overlooked in our culture. When a child dies, we look to the parents. They are center stage in the tragedy. If siblings are noticed at all, it is only as an extension of the parents... It took me quite some time to realize that the sister's story was a very important story as well."
I had a harder time with this one. The initial description absolutely fascinated me. This is a novel based on the true story of a Mennonite community in Bolivia (between about 2005-9), where women were waking each morning to bruises and bleeding, only to be told that they were being attacked by demons as punishment for their sins. Eventually it was discovered that a group of men in the community were using a tranquilizer to knock them out and rape them at night. Toews herself grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, but left the church and now lives in Toronto.
Many years ago, when I was living in Canada, I came across another book by Toews called A Complicated Kindness, also set in a Mennonite community, which I loved. So, I had high hopes for this one. The book is the (fictionalized) story of the women's discussions after this revelation, and their decision-making process on whether to stay in the community, or leave. But in the end it felt much more like a book of philosophical questions. The women go back and forth in the Socratic method, and I felt like I was back in Freshman Seminar at Bard reading Plato's dialogues. I mean, that was fine for an 18 year old at a liberal arts college to be reading with a group of other 18 year olds. Not as interesting to me as an adult, I guess. But, if reading a modern-day version of the Socratic-style argumentative dialogue sounds fun to you, then, ya know... read this. Also an interesting read if you're into learning about the Mennonite religion.
UP NEXT: Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space,
by Amanda Leduc