Book Reviews: 2 about the Jehovah’s Witnesses

I have always had a fascination for whack-a-doodle religions and what makes them tick (hello Scientology and FLDS!!). I didn’t really know TOO much about the Jehovah’s Witnesses other than that they knock on your door on Saturday mornings and want to talk to you about their pal Jesus (my mom’s solution? “Tell them you are Roman Catholic and shut the door in their face!” How Christian of you Mom!).

In reading these two very-different-from-each-other books I figured out that yes, door to door is a big part of this religion– converting non-believers to what they call “The Truth”– but there is also a lot of very intense bible study, an old-fashioned patriarchal structure of society and a huge opposition to governments in general. Their goal is to convert as many of the non-believing and “worldly” masses as they can before Jesus comes to offer his chosen people God’s Kingdom on Earth (reminds me of the 80s comedian Drake Sather’s joke when the Jehovah’s Witness came to his door: “She said, ‘But sir, don’t you want eternal life?’ To which I replied, ‘Yeah, but not with a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses!!!'” HA HA!).

385243The first one was an autobiography called The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses by Joy Castro. We got to know Ms. Castro in our Critical Era on-line Book Club and she is the sweetest woman alive! We are great fans of her crime solving journalist character Nola Céspedes– both Hell or High Water and Nearer Home were awesome Book Club picks and we are looking forward to the third instalment coming soon! We had NO IDEA that sweet Joy came from such a nasty back ground!

From GoodReads:

The personal account of a young girl who endured abuse and the disturbing effects of religious hypocrisy within one of the most enigmatic sects of Christian fundamentalism. Joy Castro is adopted as a baby and raised by a devout Jehovah’s Witness family. As a child, she is constantly told to always tell the truth, no matter the consequences, for she must model herself on Jehovah, and Jehovah does not lie. She dutifully studies the truth book, a supplemental religious text that contains the principles of the faith. When Joy is ten years old, her parents divorce. Earlier, her father had been disfellowshipped, or excommunicated from the congregation, for smoking. When Joy is twelve, her mother marries a respected brother in their church. He has an impeccable public persona, but behind closed doors at home he is a savage brute. Joy and her younger brother Tony are forbidden from seeing their father and are abused mercilessly – to the point they both think they are going to die. Their battered mother does nothing to protect them. Nor does their church, to which Joy voices her appeals. For two years they suffer, until one day Joy reaches out to her father, and together they plan and execute the children’s daring escape. 

Joy tells her story in a matter-of-fact and honest way– offering no flourishes or opinions– just stating the facts. She neither hacks nor praises anything to do with the Jehovah’s Witness religion– she lets the reader see both sides and make their own judgements. The book is hard to read at some points– the creepy step father priming to make his pervy moves, the brutal physical abuse of her and (especially) her rambunctious little brother and the psychological abuse by their mother, both fathers and the elders of the church.

Aside from outlining what she went through in the church and at the hands of her brutal mother and step-father Joy also uses this narration to work through her feelings towards her charismatic father’s suicide some years later. Her journey of acceptance and forgiveness of her father’s actions is as heartbreaking as the abuse. It is a bit awkward in its writing style at some points (flipping back and forward from past to present and back again often within the same paragraph or part) but an over all great read. 3.5 stars for Joy Castro’s brave truth.

walkWatch How We Walk was a very different story. Canadian poet/author Jennifer LoveGrove writes about the JoHos fictionally rather than autobiographically (she was also raised in the JW religion though so knows what it is all about).  It is the tale of Emily Morrow and her struggles dealing with life in and out of the Jehovah’s Witness religion and her beloved sister’s disappearance. From GoodReads:

When Emily was a little girl, all she wanted to be when she grew up was a Full-Time Pioneer; in her Jehovah’s Witness family, the only imaginable future is a life of knocking on doors and handing out Watchtower magazines. But Emily starts to challenge her upbringing. She becomes closer to her closeted uncle, Tyler, as her older sister, Lenora, hangs out with boys, wears makeup, and gets a startling new haircut. After Lenora disappears, everything changes for Emily, and as she deals with her mental devastation she is forced to consider a different future.

Alternating between Emily’s life as a child and her adult life in the city, Watch How We Walk offers a haunting, cutting exploration of “disfellowshipping,” proselytization, and cultural abstinence, as well as the Jehovah’s Witness attitude towards the “worldlings” outside of their faith. Sparse, vivid, suspenseful, and darkly humorous, Jennifer LoveGrove’s debut novel is an emotional and visceral look inside an isolationist religion through the eyes of the unforgettable Emily.

Thanks so much to Sarah at ECW Press for sending us this book! I picked it up one night and found myself reading well into the night to find out what was going to happen next! The narration fluctuated between Emily now and Emily then; Emily before and Emily after Lenora disappeared.

Emily “then” was told in third person. She is still young, living a sheltered life believing in everything she is taught during family bible study and at The Kingdom Hall. She spends her days reading Trixie Beldon mysteries, playing “Hall” with her stuffed animals and working in the school library to avoid the “worldly” kids and bullies. She has a hard time ministering door to door– always worrying about running in to classmates– but she is trying. Why can’t it come easy like it does for perfect Lenora? She dreams of the day she will be baptized and things will become easier.

Emily “now” was narrated in first person. She is doing all kinds of things that are totally against the JW rules– moving away from home before marriage, cutting herself in a ritualistic and pagan way, attending college and working part-time as a funambulist. She struggles with keeping it together, often becoming “possessed” with the spirit of her sister. Has she become disfellowshipped? Who has she become? Is she strong enough to survive?

The blending of the narrations of the “Emilies” unfolds at a perfect pace! You soon learn that Lenora is not so perfect, her father has a deep, dark kept secret that may (or may not) explain his religious obsessiveness, her mother just participates to make her father happy and Uncle Tyler is only pretending to be devout to meet new boyfriends. This was a great mystery that I thought I had all figured out until I didn’t!  Jennifer LoveGrove is a beautiful writer and I look forward to reading more from her! 4 stars!!

Note: if you are a music fan, particularly of the post-punk/new wave movement of the 80s, read this article from The National Post before starting this book. LoveGrove provides her playlist of songs that accompany the novel and (for me) it brought a lot to the table (just ignore the HORRIFYING photo of The Cure’s Robert Smith they used for the article! *shivers* He has NOT aged well!!).

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What Penny is reading now: Bellman & Black

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So, it’s been a long, long number of years awaiting a new Diane Setterfield novel. 7 years to be exact. The Thirteenth Tale was a favoured book for me for certain. Now, thanks once again to Random House Canada, I have been awarded her latest and much anticipated Bellman & Black. Just in time for some hauntingly great reading!

There is a quick, quick book trailer here for you to view which gives only slight insight as to what Bellman & Black is about. The Rook is a featured character (made obvious by this trailer), and her description of them is pure pleasure for the reader’s eyes.

Setterfield is not disappointing me so far as she writes with great beauty and description but none of it over-done or superfluous in any way. For example, Setterfield’s Rook:

“A rook’s feathers can shimmer with dazzling peacock colours yet factually speaking thee is no blue or purple or green pigment in a rook. Satin black on his back and head, on his front and towards his legs his blackness softens and deepens to velvet black….His black feathers are capable of producing an entrancing optical effect….He captures the light, splits it, absorbs some and radiates the rest in a delightful demonstration of optics, showing you the truth about light that your own poor eyes cannot see.”

As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that appears to have unforseen and terrible consequences. The killing of a rook with his catapult is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. And by the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, he seems indeed, to be a man blessed by fortune.

Until tragedy strikes, and the stranger in black comes, and William Bellman starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, he enters into a bargain. A rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born. (dianesetterfield.com)

Audiobook Review: The Aftermath

17412761Rating: 4.5
The Aftermath
A Novel by Rhidian Brook
Audiobook Narrated by Leighton Pugh 2013 /9 hours and 43 minutes

Hamburg, 1946. While thousands wander the rubble, lost and homeless, Colonel Lewis Morgan, charged with overseeing the rebuilding of this devastated city and the de-Nazification of its defeated people, is stationed in a grand house on the River Elbe. But rather than force the owners of the house, a German widower and his rebellious daughter, out onto the streets, Lewis insists that the two families live together.

But The Aftermath is so much more than this, such a short title and such a short description that do not give you the full power of its meaning and scope. Upon finishing I just sat there and pondered how powerful and aptly stated this title is for this novel. The audiobook matched that power with its magnificent narration, range and emotion as spoken by Leighton Pugh.

Originally the ARC was received by Random House Canada with a lovely little note from Lindsey saying she noticed this was on my To Read pile and to enjoy! Now, does that girl not know me and my reading habits or what? But then I saw that it was available in audio and I jumped at that opportunity. I’m really glad I went with the audio version! Pugh breathed such emotion and life in to this story. His ability to speak with an American accent, or a Russian one or a French one left you smiling. But what left you breathless was the voice he gave Ozi, one the feral children fighting for survival and companionship with a gang of other feral children. Ozi’s voice is forever altered by a fire that scorched his throat. So the voice Pugh invented for Ozi was harsh and rough but brilliant. As well, and again another fantastic reason for gushing about audiobook love, is the pronunciation of the German words, places and people. Fantastic. It just lends great authenticity to the story and allows for exquisite flow and complete enjoyment.

So….The Aftermath. How poignant. I’ve read plenty of WWII historical fiction novels. Plenty. But never have I read one that so thoroughly captures “the aftermath”, and in this case, the aftermath for the destroyed and defeated Germany, but for the many, many and varied people involved. Germany and WWII are synonymous, wouldn’t you say? The events during the war are so heavily linked with Germany. But what of the aftermath? Germany has fallen, has lost the war in epic disgrace and exposed acts of the most horrific crimes against humanity as a result of the clenched fist of power by Hitler and the Nazis. As the Time Out in London so superbly captures, The Aftermath will:

“You’ll find yourself seduced by the quiet power of the…prose, the subtlety of [Brook’s] narrative technique, with its onion-skin layers of meaning, sympathy and revelation.”

Absolutely. It’s not a plot-heavy story herein. It’s Brook’s stunning creation of a myriad of characters whom profoundly and powerfully tell their story in a way just as Time Out says, with onion-skin layers of meaning, sympathy and revelation. Each of these characters are peeled back to reveal how the aftermath has affected them.

First we meet Ozi, the leader of a band of feral children. Gangs of these children roam the devastated landscape fighting for survival, begging for food, secretly staking out places to sleep each night. They are also beaten and scorned by the Occupied soldiers. Ozi, and his character in this story rest on the periphery of all those involved, yet he and his plight provide stunning insight to these hundreds of displaced children.

Then we meet the person to be considered the main character, Colonel Lewis Morgan. He is charged with overseeing the rebuilding of the city of Hamburg and the de-Nazification of its people. He is to requisition a home suitable to his role and standing and re-unite his family there. His wife, Rachael and only remaining son, Edmund arrive shortly after this requisition and Lewis’ unconventional decision pertaining to the German owners.

Rachael remains bereft at the loss of her eldest child whom was killed during a bombing back home in London. A bombing and death caused by the Germans. She fully embraces the “non-fraternization” laws and firmly drills this in to Edmund’s head. Poor Edmund is left to fade quietly in to the shadows all to aware of his mother’s crippling grief over his brother, and her considerable and continued unhappiness. Even the reunion with Lewis does little to return her to how she was before her son’s death.

The home Lewis is to requisition is owned by Stefan Lubert. “Herr Lubert” or “Lubert” as he is so often referred to in the book, (never by his first name), has lost his wife Claudia to the war, and lives with his stubborn, yet traumatized daughter, Freda. Lubert was an architect before the war, but until he receives his clearance papers that state he is not a Nazi, he must work in a factory. I found the character of Freda to be very interesting and liked how Brook chose to portray her. We know that every child was indoctrinated and forced to train to be members of the Nazi Youth. But what happened to these children once the Germans were defeated? For Freda, she has not let go of her training and each day performs the rigorous physical exercises that were once required. Even after her father’s admonishment, she continues and also joins in a gang of others that are resentful to the occupation of their country. I thought her character was brilliantly portrayed to show this part of the aftermath.

Lewis is quite different in his opinion and emotion about his role in the de-Nazification of Germany. He shows incredible compassion and understanding for their plight, and because of this encourages Lubert and Freda to remain in the upper level of his home while he, Rachael and Edmund occupy the main part of the house. Lewis is also against this thinking or law against fraternization with the Germans and encourages regular interaction with them. He is disgusted by the attitude that these broken and destroyed people remain “the enemy”.

Now, The Aftermath may take the predictable turn with Lewis leaving for many months to another part of Germany that requires his supervision and Lubert and Rachael left together in Lubert’s home. However, again, Brook provides a wholly sympathetic viewpoint to their affair. It is almost a necessary thing for Rachael. While Lubert feels it has the potential to be a step towards the future and letting go of his wife, for Rachael she experiences it as an awakening and deeper understanding of the love she has for Lewis. It changes her, but for the better for the future of her family. While it ends fairly neatly and without any serious repercussion, the reader is not left annoyed by this but rather is sympathetic to the healing so needed by all.

The Aftermath closes with Ozi in a touching and heart-wrenching moment. Which I think serves as a reminder for what truly is lost for so many in the aftermath.

Brook’s acknowledgement at the end, reveals that his grandfather, Walter Brook, actually requisitioned a home in Hamburg and did allow the German owners to remain in their property. They shared this home for five years following the war, and this is what provided the inspiration for this novel.

The writing is beautiful, the narration is stunning so I truly have to say that whichever format you choose to read The Aftermath in, either will certainly be most rewarding.  4.5 stars.

Thank you again to Lindsey and Random House Canada for the pleasure of reading The Aftermath.

Audiobook Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

bernThis novel was a marvelous surprise!

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a bold and compulsive read. On the surface, the novel smacks of mystery, but this is truly more a character study than anything else.

Bernadette Fox is a curious soul.  She suffers at the hand of her own brilliance, and is left scarred by stifled creativity.  Delving into her past reveals a surprising career as an architect, and a long history of very odd behavior.  Current day, she has a husband who’s a tech guru at Microsoft and a sharp daughter whose survival from a heart defect is a miracle in itself.  They actually live in an old and decrepit school in Seattle (because they can afford it), complete with a sprawling landscape and ridiculous neighbors.  The private school that their daughter Bee attends is peppered with a new breed of helicopter parents who consistently wait for Bernadette’s social mishaps.  (There are many.)  No matter to Bee though, because she completely adores her wacky mom.

You quickly surmise that Bernadette may have more wrong with her than the occasional argument with the neighbor over spreading blackberry bushes when you’re introduced to her virtual assistant, who lives in India.  For what appears to be a small fee, this assistant will do everything from making a dinner reservation to calling in a prescription for motion sickness pills.  This assistant becomes invaluable to Bernadette when plans emerge for the family of three to take a trip to Antarctica; a reward for Bee’s exemplary grades in middle school.  It’s clear from the start that this trip represents a serious problem for Bernadette, who clearly suffers from a debilitating case of agoraphobia.   Her growing inability to interact with anyone outside her home forces her to behave increasingly erratic, albeit some of her antics are downright hilarious.  (All I’m going to say is, “billboard.”)

Her withdrawal from society and penchant to live through her virtual assistant eventually lands her in a heap of hot water, and then, suddenly, she vanishes.

The search for Bernadette is taken up by her grieving daughter, who just knows in her heart that mom is somewhere.  To locate her mother, Bee acquires and pours over email messages, official documents and top-secret correspondence, which culminate into a character study unlike any other.  The format of this novel is in fact the messages themselves, and it takes a moment or two to get accustomed to the back and forth between e-mails and letters.  Once dug in, however, you’ll find that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a delicious read.

My only frustration with this novel was with Bernadette.  I started the story loving her every thought and action, but then found myself disliking her by the book’s close.  Yes, her character was not entirely in her right mind, but her somewhat narcissistic tendencies forced her to neglect her daughter, which I found intensely frustrating.  In other words, her quirky nature was fun for a while, but after being wrapped up in the world of Bee, I wanted more stability for the girl.  I won’t give away the end, but I will say that I had more faith in Bee than any other character in Maria Semple’s world.

This audiobook was read by Kathleen Wilhoite, and I must say that she was excellent.  My first reaction to hearing her voice and seeing her name was curiosity, having only seen her playing supporting roles in television.  She carried the voices beautifully though, and I was pleasantly surprised by her tones and inflection.  Well done!

4 stars for Where’d You Go, Bernadette.