Sunday, 29 May 2016

Good To A Fault Book Review

This is my second time reading Good To A Fault.  I rarely reread books, but I remembered enjoying
this one and recommended it to my book club.  I’m so glad I did.  This is definitely a book worth rereading.
Endicott starts her novel in the midst of chaos – a car accident between a single woman, Clara Purdy, and a family living in their car, Clayton, Lorraine, Darlene, Trevor, baby Pearce and their mother-in-law, Mrs. Pell.  Through the guilt of responsibility for the accident, Clara takes on more and more responsibility for the Gage family.  So much so, that she has Clayton, the children and Mrs. Pell move into her home while Lorraine begins cancer treatment.
Clara, after a brief and unsuccessful marriage, has been single most of her life, most recently moving in with her parents to nurse them through their last days.  She comes to find meaning and purpose through taking care of the Gage family, and grows particularly close to the children. 
Having never been a parent before, Endicott describes the searing pain and inexpressible joy of Clara’s new life as a parent with exquisite insight.  A few examples:
“Instead she went into the bedroom and picked up the little baby, the new one, the morning dew.  The baby quieted immediately, holding her hand, his other arm clinging to Clara’s neck, his body conforming to hers, his head warm against Clara’s face. 
Mine, she thought.” P. 31
“It was impossible, being with these children.  After four days of it Clara was exhausted by their clatter and the grime that attended them, and their easy assumption that she would do everything for them.” P. 44
“The headlights were not working properly.  When she parked at the drugstore she saw the car reflected in the glass front: her headlight was burnt out.  The complication of getting the headlight replaced was so overwhelming that she had to lean against the car door for a moment before she could get the children out to come trooping in with her, parkas over their pajamas.”  P. 241
“Her head hurt with the effort of not thinking how stupid she had been to take all these people on, how bad she had proven to be at all this.  But there was no way to get out of it.”  P. 215
The book is set in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where I lived for ten years.  Endicott also lived in Saskatoon and the details in her descriptions of the setting put me right back in the City of Bridges.  Also, I’m pretty sure I met the same curmudgeonly used book store owner she describes on p. 131.  “He thought she was rich because Clary looked after them now.  It made her laugh, secretly, and he saw that, and yelled at her some more:  “You don’t read!  You haven’t read a book in your life.  Bookstores are going out of business all over – you think you can sit and watch TV and that’s all it takes.  You walk around in a bookstore and by osmosis, you’ve read something!”
My favourite chapter was 27, called Wellwater.  Here’s a taste:
“The fresh jug of ice water dewed, pearled, on the rolling table.  The water-women must have been around.
‘May I have a drink of your water?’ Paul asked.
‘How can you, a priest, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’”
So whimsical and yet it so perfectly shows this odd relationship between a woman in a hospital being visited by a priest she never would have known if she hadn’t been sick. 
I try not to buy books.  I use the library as much as possible, but this book is worth buying.  You need to read it more than once.  It’s just incredibly well-written and has so much to say about the complications of trying to be good.
I can't help quoting this summary by Bill Robertson in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix  "As Jane Austen taught readers two hundred years ago, a few families in a small community are just the thing to write about."  

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Taliban Shuffle Book Review
My first career choice after high school was to be a journalist.  Specifically a foreign correspondent.  Looking back, I think this was largely inspired by  The Zion Covenant book series.  John Murphy, one of the main characters, was a foreign correspondent to Europe as the Nazi party rose to party.  I liked his grit and dedication to the story.  I wanted to travel and learn about the bigger world.  But after a year of journalism, I faced the fact that I would never be able to interview people while they were in the grips of grief.  Walking up to a new widow or orphan to demand how they felt about their recent crisis seemed too heartless.  I switched my program to professional writing and then eventually went into teaching.  I think it was the best choice for me, but I still wonder sometimes if I missed out on some adventures.  Reading a book like The Taliban Shuffle confirms that I have missed out on some great things about the journalism field, but also that it wasn't the best fit for me.

Kim Barker tells the story of her own experiences as a journalist in South Asia from 2004 to 2009 with humour and insight.  She does an incredible job of describing a world and culture so different from ours in North America.  Reading news pieces and seeing footage on T.V. or the internet is always out of context of the big picture. Barker spent years in these countries while most other foreign workers spend only six months.  "Many consultants traded places every six months and then promptly repeated all the mistakes of their predecessors." (284)  She has this reflection on conflict in South Asia "At some point, I realized the horrible truth -- the United States and its allies could win every single battle in Afghanistan and blow up every single alleged top militant in Pakistan, but still lose the war." (298)

Despite the serious nature of her subject, Barker offers frequent comic relief.  I think this is probably a necessary antidote to all she saw and experienced.  In fact, Barker frequently refers to her time in Afghanistan as either a love affair or an addiction.  In spite of surviving bombing, corruption and hopelessness, it took some effort to tear herself away from this crumbling country.  I think the relationships she describes explain why.  Here is one of my favourite stories about her friend/driver/translator/fixer, Farouq:  "Leaning against the tape, Farouq interviewed an Afghan, who said he was supporting all the candidates, hedging his bets.  It was a typical Afghan survival strategy, and Farouq started laughing.

"'Why are you laughing?' interrupted a hepped-up, sunglassed Afghan security guard, stepping in front of Farouq.  'I will call someone and have you taken away.'

"Farouq, never one to step down from a confrontation, looked at the man.

"'I'm just doing my job.'

"The Afghan guard swatted my notebook and shoved Farouq.

"'I will kill you,' he said.

"This was how Afghans interpreted DynCorp protocol for dealing with laughing.  The guard told us to go away, but we couldn't move.  Finally Karzai walked out into the bleachers, talking on his cell phone, and everyone grew quiet, even the Afghan security guard.  (In another example of how complicated Afghanistan is, this violent exchange caused Farouq and the security guard to become lifelong friends.)  Karzai urged the crowd not to participate in fraud."  (26-27)

The movie version of this book staring Tina Fey is more overtly funny and, out of necessity, heightens and abbreviates Barker's experience.  Still, I think it's an excellent film.  Just make sure you read the book as well.  It's well worth your time.