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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

February Reads

Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Ashley Audrain, The Push

David A. Robertson, Strangers

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam

As I reflect on my February reading I keep thinking, did I really only read four books? Is that part of why February sucks so bad? Maybe. I started several great titles that are still in progress: George Saunders’s amazing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful Braiding Sweetgrass and Raven Leilani’s riveting Luster. But as for books I finished, indeed there are just the four. Here they are:

Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Glennon Doyle is a darling of the self-help genre. Her first memoir, Carry On Warrior, was published in 2013 and consists largely of writing from her blog Momastery. At the time, as a Christian mother of three in recovery from bulimia and alcohol addiction, Doyle wrote primarily about vulnerability and honesty in motherhood. I think, anyway. I haven’t read that book. Her next book, Love Warrior, (2016, also a memoir) is about her experience repairing her marriage after her husband cheats on her. The thesis of the book is that it is possible, but definitely not easy, for a relationship to recover from such betrayal. I read that book at a time when it felt like many people around me were struggling within their marriages, often as a result of an affair, and frankly I found it an inauthentic representation of the experiences I was witnessing in my friends. It just didn’t feel honest, and that’s not because I disagree with Doyle’s basic thesis. Quite the contrary. I can’t explain it more except to say that reading that book left me unsatisfied, like it was incomplete and as a result, insubstantial. I don’t know if that’s fair criticism, since she’s built a career on complete openness about her life and her experiences. But there it is.

Untamed (2020), her latest blockbuster / memoir, provides an ironic follow up to my Love Warrior reading experience. While a guest at a library conference in 2016, Doyle gazes upon and instantly falls in love with American soccer player Abby Wambach. If, like me, you are a believer in love at first sight, the description of their meeting will captivate you. Doyle catches Wombach’s eye across a hotel conference room table and instantly thinks not, “Oh heyyy”, or “Who’s that cute lady?” but I MUST HAVE THAT. Their connection is instantaneous and remarkable.

Wait a minute, you think. What about all that Love Warrior business? I thought her marriage was all good, back on track?

Doyle doesn’t exactly gloss over the devastation to her life caused by meeting Wambach. She writes it from the perspective of someone who acknowledges that it’s only because of the devastation that she able to live in the world as her true self. She explains that until she met Abby, she had never experienced such authentic love. She didn’t know it was possible. So leaving her husband for Abby felt less like a choice and more like a personal imperative.

Is this book good? In many many ways, yes. I read it in two or three days. It’s extremely digestible, divided into short, anecdotal chapters. She doesn’t attempt to write a chronological story so much as illustrate the ways her life has changed since 2013. Above all other positive character traits she possesses, Doyle is at heart a sensible person. She respects others, honours her own faults, and never makes excuses for her own shortcomings. She has maintained her Christian faith despite being married to a woman, and she details her struggle to maintain her faith even when homophobic Christians are critical of her choices.

I’m not a religious person, so I found the focus on Christianity a bit tedious, to be honest. I didn’t need it explained to me, and I’ve known for a long time that haters are haters regardless of what they call themselves. As with her decision to leave her husband, here Doyle does not dwell on the difficulty she faces in reconciling her faith and her sexuality. And maybe that’s part of what my problem with Love Warrior was - everything feels a bit too pat. Within a page or two she addresses her crisis of faith, talks about coming through it and then reduces the whole experience into a pithy statement (one example: “Life is bruitiful"). LIke, really? That’s it? You’re not still struggling a bit with this one?

Aside from its (refreshing? Or do I mean basic?) philosophical clarity, my real beef with Doyle and her story is its failure to engage politically in issues of queerness and even her own queer identity. She never denies her privilege as a wealthy white American. But what she also never does explicitly (in fact she explicitly does not do this) is call herself a lesbian.

I don’t know why this bugs me so much. I’m not invested in her relationships or sexual identity. But I do believe there is meaning and value in claiming your identity in a marginalized group. Especially when you have the cultural weight of a person like Doyle. It doesn’t feel like she ever questioned the truth of her love for Abby, despite having been exclusively in heterosexual relationships up till that point. Did she always harbour an attraction to women? Is she just a beautiful example of the fluidity of sexuality? I think readers are interested in the answers to these questions, not so they can gossip about her sex life, but because the dialogue around those questions is a part of our world’s understanding of queerness. And understanding queerness is important.

But, maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe the fact that Doyle, a white middle class girl next door, is in love with a woman is a sign that the world has embraced queerness in a way I’ve underestimated. I hope that's true.

Ashley Audrain, The Push

There’s a ton of buzz around this 2020 book because it is written by a first time author and was the subject of intense pursuit by publishing companies around the world. I guess that’s what happens when your manuscript is viewed by those who are going to sell it to the public as pretty much a sure thing.

Audrain worked in publishing - as publicity director for Penguin Books Canada - and began writing The Push while on maternity leave. It is no accident, then, that book’s sharp focus is on main character Blythe and her relationship to motherhood. How anyone does anything besides just stay awake and alive during a mat leave is a mystery to me, but apparently it’s possible to, like, write a bestseller during this time?

Written as a letter from Blythe to her ex-husband Fox after the events of the story have happened, our understanding of these events relies on Blythe’s perspective. The story begins with Fox and Blythe’s courtship and eventual marriage. Blythe is reluctant plan a family. Having been raised by an emotionally neglectful and abusive mother, she worries about her own capability to nurture a new life. Nevertheless, she and Fox eventually agree to have a baby, and Violet, their first, is born.

Immediately after Violet’s birth, Blythe is plagued by a fear that her daughter is somehow not developing in the way that most babies do. Fox fails to see what Blythe describes as a coldness and lack of bonding in Violet. Instead, he thinks Blythe is not trying as hard as she should be to ensure Violet thrives. Blythe believes she is indeed providing emotionally and physically for Violet’s care, but Fox’s doubt causes our faith in the veracity of Blythe’s story to wobble just the slightest bit. Maybe she could be doing more, we think. And anyone who’s ever nurtured an infant knows that each individual moment of a baby’s early life is bafflingly unpredictable. So of course, Blythe doubts herself, and we doubt her too.

Blythe and Fox have a second child, a boy called Sam, and Blythe's relationship with him, stands out in contrast to her previous one with Violet. They bond immediately. Meanwhile, Violet herself is standoffish with Sam, but that makes sense, right? First born child are often jealous or suspicious of a younger sibling’s arrival. Fox, observing the warmth Blythe shows her second child, pointedly takes any opportunity to let her know that Violet also requires such kindness. Violet, for her part, seems wise enough to know to behave ‘normally” when Fox is around to witness it, seeming to manipulate situations to make it appear as though Blythe is not a good mother to her.

We are provided with a lot of reasons to doubt Blythe. She does not hide the horrific behaviour of her own mother and its devastating impact. The people who love her (her husband, her mother-in-law) overtly question her capacity to raise Violet, blaming Blythe for their lack of bonding. Plus, Blythe puts us in a terrible spot. In order to believe her story, we must also believe that it’s possible for a child to simply be born bad. That for some children, no amount of nurturing or care will take away their capacity to do ill to others.

And, well, I think most of us would prefer not to think that.

If you read The Girl on the Train, also narrated by a woman who cannot be relied on to be truthful (in this case because of her alcoholism), you will find The Push similar, in tone and in content. It’s a mystery where the only witness to a crime is someone who cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

The book’s title is an elegant reference to several different ideas: a) the way a child comes into the world, through her mother’s pushing; b) the action that causes the accident central to the story, and c) that we ‘push’ people away when we don’t want them close to us. Blythe’s mother pushed her away because essentially she was unfit to be a parent. Is Blythe subconsciously doing the same to Violet?

It’s certainly a compelling tale. The story’s tension creates a thread of intrigue that truly doesn’t let up until the very end. And while it could be tempting for the author to leave the answer to its central question - Do we even want Blythe to be right in believing her child is a demon seed? - ambiguous, rest assured you will know by the end whether Violet was born bad or just misunderstood. And you will be glad to know.

David Robertson, Strangers

Robertson is an incredibly prolific Indigenous Canadian writer whose oeuvre includes YA Fiction, children’s books and comics. Strangers, the first title in his Reckoner trilogy, is about seventeen-year-old Winnipegger Cole Harper. The story begins when Cole receives a message from a childhood friend begging him to return to Wounded Sky, his former home.

Cole agonizes over making the return. It’s an expensive trip, he’d have to miss some school, and he’s not sure he’ll be greeted warmly on his return. When he was seven, a tragic fire at the local elementary school caused the death of both of his parents, as well as many community members. This is part of why he lives in the city with his kokum (grandmother) and auntie. Eventually we learn that seven year old Cole was able to run into the fiery building and rescue two of his schoolmates. Relatives of those who died in the explosion apparently hold Cole responsible for deaths of the people he didn’t save. Some folks are also suspicious of the extraordinary, or perhaps unnatural strength Cole exhibited in the rescue. It’s his fear of their reaction to seeing him in person that has kept Cole away for the last ten years.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fact that Cole has been away from Wounded Sky for ten years means that when he left he was a child of seven. It simply doesn’t make sense to me that a town would hold any animosity at all towards a seven year old. It just isn’t plausible.

Ultimately he does go home, thanks in large part to encouragement and a wad of cash offered by his kokum. When he arrives, though, he discovers that his childhood friend did not send the message requesting his return at all. It was a talking coyote / trickster named Choch. Worse, shortly after his arrival, several people are murdered, often shortly after having spent time with Cole. Plus, there’s an outbreak of a deadly flu infecting the community.

So, of course Cole worries that all this crazy shit happening in Wounded Sky because he came back.

If that sounds like a lot of plot to keep track of, it is. I’m not sure how it happens with so many things going on, but the book is suuuper slow for the first half, and honestly a bit frustrating. Cole keeps alluding to what happened in the fire but it is not actually explained until at least midway into the book. (I spent lots of time trying to guess at all the possible reasons a whole town would turn against a child.)

Until then, Cole reconnects with his former friends and as we get to know Choch (How are we supposed to say this? Like Chachi? Chalk? Caulk? Ugh! No good options there). As is often true of trickster figures, Choch’s intentions are ambiguous, and even though he appears at first to be the villain of the story and the cause of Wounded Sky’s many tragedies, his relationship with Cole is more complicated.

Overall I feel like the narrative here simply needs to be tighter. What’s it about? A trickster? A pandemic? An evil research facility? Latent superpowers? Grief? Anxiety? Romance? Jealousy? Being gay in a small town?

All of the above, as it turns out, and I humbly suggest that the story has trouble finding a focus in that smorgasbord of topics.

I know from his other work that Robertson is a skilled and astute writer. I also know that many readers quite enjoyed and can recommend Strangers, as well as its two sequels. So go ahead and check it out for yourself. Then let me know how you say the coyote’s name in your head. To me, it rhymes with “cock," and that is very very distracting.

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam

I have a terrible confession to make. Sometimes, i just don’t want to work at all to understand a book. I just want to consume it without thinking. By the last week of February I was ready for an easy read by a skilled writer. Amsterdam is definitely that kind of book.

Published in 1998 (and it shows!) this is the story of three men who become reacquainted at the funeral of former lover Molly Lane. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper reporter, and Clive Linley, a composer, are good friends, who share a dislike for the third man Julian Garmony, right wing Foreign Secretary.

Each man has his struggle. Clive is desperately trying to finish a symphony in time for a celebration designed for its release, and scheduled to be held in Amsterdam. Vernon’s newspaper is in decline, and he is searching for an antidote to reduced readership. Garmony is interested in making a bid for his party’s leadership, but is not aware that Molly’s boudoir photos of him in full drag are about to be published by Vernon’s newspaper. Add in George, Molly’s husband, who I think masterminds the downfall of each of these assholes, and what you’ve got is an absorbing story of people behaving like jerks who ultimately get what they deserve.

It’s a rollicking, well-written tale that I cannot criticize in any way except to say that nobody really needs to get to know these guys.

You know whose story I want to hear? Molly’s! She sounds like a total badass and I have no idea why she’d sleep with such a collection of rich losers.

Just sending a quick email to McEwan with my sequel idea...

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