Ladies on Literature
Hear those sleigh bells ringing; see that snow drifting, delicately decorating our world in winter white. What better time to curl up with a creamy cup of coffee or (better!) a fat glass of rich, red wine, a cozy throw, and a delicious book.
Here’s a look at the latest reads the LOL, a Kelowna book club, has enjoyed. Join us in Okanagan Woman (and online at shannonlinden.ca) for more reviews and recipes from our delectable meetings.
The Best Kind of People
By Zoe Whittall
An award-winning novel by a Canadian author, this book was short-listed for the 2016 Giller prize and was a National Post and Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year. I was impressed by the accolades; drawn to the premise.
George Woodbury wins teacher of the year, every year, at the affluent prep school where he works. He makes science interesting but moreover, he is the town hero who once saved students—and his own daughter—from a gunman intent on a killing rampage. That’s why everyone is in shock when George is arrested for sexual impropriety involving a number of young women.
While George is locked up, awaiting trial, the book tells the story of the fallout for his stunned family. His wife, an ER nurse, skids between denial and furry as townspeople turn their backs on her. His daughter, Sadie, goes from popular over-achiever to social pariah, while his son, Andrew, a lawyer working on his father’s defense, wrestles with his own painful past as a gay teenager coming out in a conservative town.
As Chatelaine magazine said, Nuanced to the end, Whittall’s novel achieves something that’s rare in real-life cases of sexual violence. She gives a voice to the ones we never hear from: those who are collateral damage.
The book starts out with a bang—quite literally—when it flashes back to George confronting the deranged gunman. Brilliantly written, the scene is so intense, I must admit I was convinced I was in for a fast-paced page-turner, but don’t be fooled. Things slow right down, probably in order to honestly unravel the complexity of emotion involved as family members go from shock and denial to the slow realization George may not be the man they thought.
At the heart of the book is that very question: how well do we know the people we love? It brought about some pretty interesting discussion, leading to questions of sociopathic personalities, those charmers who fool us but conduct themselves without empathy.
Personally, I found the characters to be very well constructed and believable, the dialogue superb, the subtext haunting and the slow, spiraling of lives devastating. That said, I didn’t find the main characters particularly appealing and I wished I had felt more empathy for them myself.
Sadie’s descent into drugs and a new group of outcast friends might be believable but her obsession with her boyfriend’s stepfather is conflicting. A washed-up author, he befriends her so he can sell the story. Joan is a hard worker but the only time I felt for her was when she joined a support group of the partners of incarcerated men and was forced to admit, despite her education and privileged lifestyle, she wasn’t any different. I did sympathize with Andrew, yet his ambiguity to the beloved partner who stands by him through the agony, made it harder to feel for Andrew.
Ultimately there is no satisfying resolution. The tough ending proves love and loyalty are complex.
East of Eden
By John Steinbeck
In keeping with her contention that reading a classic is good for us, kind of like cod liver oil, Gail picked this hefty book. Published in 1952, East of Eden spans a period of nearly sixty years, from 1860 to 1918. It tells the story of three generations of the Trask and Hamilton families, focusing on the theme of good versus evil, with references to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
I read the book some thirteen years ago, and while it’s an investment, your time will be well spent. Simply magnificent, it’s far too intricate to detail here, but my friend-in-pen and LOL member, Laura Gosset, had some interesting thoughts.
I made the mistake of reading the reviews of East of Eden when preparing for our LOL meeting. Even though the book skyrocketed to the top of fiction’s bestseller list within two months of its release, the literary establishment was not kind.
It’s ironic the aspects of the novel that aroused the harshest judgment of critics became the very things the public found most engaging. For example, the character of evil Cathy was trashed for being wildly unbelievable. Perhaps, but she was unforgettable.
The Chinese-American houseboy, Lee, was also the target of academic scorn, but readers (including this one) loved his Confucius-like meanderings and the Pidgin English he used and abandoned at will.
Frankly, I refuse to allow not-so-gracious literary commentary to sabotage my enjoyment of this great big, sprawling saga…and it seems I’m not alone. East of Eden continues to sell about 50,000 copies each year and, in 2003 after being named Oprah’s Book Club pick, it once again hit the bestsellers list.
Gail also loved the character of Lee, whom she credits for educating the reader on the importance of knowing the true meaning of a word. All of which brought her to the novel’s central theme of TIMSHEL—Hebrew for “thou mayest.”
Steinbeck uses TIMSHEL to illustrate humans have free will and can choose to triumph over sin or evil.
In the end, Gail said, the simple Hebrew interpretation, actually set Cal free to live his good life.