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  • Writer's pictureJulianne Negri

May Reading Roundup

Well I'm reading the year away. There goes another month!

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

*trigger warning: rape.

While I can acknowledge Toews is a brilliant writer (All My Puny Sorrows is a devastating book), understand her creative choices when tackling this book, admire the language etc, the undeniable truth is that I hated the process of reading this book. Of being in this book.

Okay so the subject matter is traumatic. A group of women in closed religious community where they haven't been allowed to learn to read or write discover that they and their daughters are being repeatedly drugged and raped by a group of men. It reads like a dystopia but is in fact based on a true story from the 2000's which is even more horrifying.

The books is a documentation of the meetings they have to decide what to do: 1. Do nothing. 2. Stay and fight.3. Leave.

The book is written in the voice of the male schoolteacher, August, who is taking the minutes - he has previously left the community and been out in the world and then returned. I found the injection of his story into the meetings a relief. His presence essential because the women are illiterate, his point of view is expansive because he has lived in the outside world. However he is essentially unappealing, weak and sycophantic in his love for one of the characters. Learning about the women's plight through him became for me a barrier to connecting with their plight the text.

The meetings are essentially, as the title say, Women talking.

They go round and round talking through their limitations and their options. They talk philosophy and their deeply held religious beliefs and motherhood and practicality. They talk through their limited options. They can't even speak the language of the country they are in.

So. Much. Talking. The strung out conversation reveals more horrors for the women and more understanding for the complexity of the situation. I found it hard to believe these practical resourceful religious women would even talk this much. It was frustrating and made my blood boil. I also found the tone and injection of religion just really heavy handed attempt to make the reader understand these women. But ultimately, I hated being in this book. I just wanted to shout to them all to get the fuck out.

Earlier in the book I imagined it as an excellent film (like 12 angry men)- purely performance driven with amazing female lead cast. But nothing happens. And I stopped caring.

In terms of creating an understanding for these women, the complexity of their plight when entwine with religious belief and the tyranny of patriarchy and misogyny, Toews does that. And she puts the reader in a terrible frustrating bind of understanding. But I actually think a more compelling heartfelt book rather than an intellectual exercise seen through the voice of a man would have been more effective in making us care. About half way through, an older lady Greta, "sighs with epic weariness" and I'm afraid I did too.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean has written a love letter to public libraries through exploring the devastating LA library fire of 1986. Okay so she is preaching to the converted - I love libraries - but I loved how she captured the community and humanity inherent in a public library through looking at the people who work there, patrons of the libray, the collections in the library and even in those who destroy them. Libraries and what a library is - a space for free life long learning for the community and the magic of that is conjured through personal reminisces, history, analyses and true crime. It's brilliant.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Well this was my antidote to reading Women Talking. I needed something comforting and fun. I listened to the audio book of this hilarious satirical novel with the full BBC cast no less and laughed and laughed.

Bird by Bird some instructions of writing life by Ann Lamott

Even if I didn't write, I would enjoy this book. But as a writer, her perspective and revelations of a writer's life are warts and all, brilliant,funny and oh so recognisable. It validates the self doubt in a writer's head - yes other writers feel these things too. There's practical advice and anecdotes that support them. It's ridiculously readable and laugh out loud funny and searingly honest.

Bird and Sugar Boy by Sofie Laguna

This was recommended to me by my nine year old son.

It's a lyrical tale of friendship. Laguna writes in a young boys voice so beautifully and we are so with Bird as he navigates his long-gone mum, hardworking single dad, the limits of an education system and his heartbreak at his best friend, Sugar boy, moving across the country. With a cast of rural ruffian characters that rang true to my own life, this book is wonderful.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

A brilliant book about grief, long term friendship, writing and the comfort of a dog. What's not to like?

This is a spare book that weaves past and present. An old friend suicides and his wife wants our namesless narrator to take on the huge rescue dog he had. The dog is too big for her apartment, demanding and relentless - just like her grief. The book tells the story of growing to love the dog while grieving the friend, remembering the past and talking about writing. It's kind of perfect.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wollitzer

Speaking of perfect - I think this is pretty close to the perfect middle grade book. Told in email and letters it's a modern day Parent Trap plot. Two girls are thrown together when their single dads get together. They are determined to break their dads up and to not to get along. They are sent on summer camp together while their dads travel by motorbike in China. The girls grow to love each other as sisters - but then their dad's break up - and then they have to get them back together.

So much happens in this book. There is the appearance of a birth mother and a theatrical Texan grandmother, relationship breakups and weddings and theatre. But it is ultimately the story of their unlikely friendship that keeps you turning the pages. It's terrific!

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