Category Archives: Books

Five Wives

I just finished reading Five Wives by Winnipeg author Joan Thomas. I loved her book Curiosity and this new novel is equally riveting. Like Curiosity which is a mixture of fact and fiction Five Wives is based on the true story of five American missionaries killed by the Waorani people of Ecuador in 1956. The young men were camped on a beach near a Waorani village hoping to make contact with the isolated tribe and convert them to Christianity. Their first interaction was friendly, the second disastrous.

Each of the missionaries killed was married and Thomas’ book profiles the five women left behind when the men died. We are also given a deeply personal look into the daily lives of some of the missionary couples and their families prior to the killings.

Photo page from the January 30, 1956 issue of Life Magazine

Life magazine sent a photographer to Ecuador who was there when the missionaries’ bodies were found. He took haunting portraits of the five young widows and their seven children. That magazine story helped turn the five men who died into international heroes and martyrs especially in evangelical Christian circles.

Reading Joan Thomas’ book makes you realize yet again how dangerous and damaging it is to believe your religious beliefs are so superior to the beliefs of others, that you are willing to die to try to convince someone else to follow your particular spiritual path.

Photos of the five young men who died from a blog post on the Mission Aviation Fellowship website January 8, 2016

The young men who died trying to bring salvation to the Waorani were pilots and law students, philosophy graduates and linguists. One had studied architecture. And they were fathers and marriage partners. What might they have contributed to the world had they lived?

The five men’s deaths brought such notoriety to the Waorani people that it wasn’t long before lasting contact was established with them. We learn from Joan Thomas’ book that as a result of greater contact with the outside world many Waorani died because they were exposed to diseases they were not immune to. Contact eventually led to the Waorani losing most of their traditional lands to developers. Oil companies built roads running right through Waorani villages.

While the missionaries wanted to bring a “better” life to the Waorani they may actually have helped make things worse for them in many ways.

The women and children left behind after their husbands died

The Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer gave Five Wives a glowing recommendation. I would wholeheartedly agree with him. I spent two days doing virtually nothing else but reading Thomas’ beautifully written and intriguing novel.

What was most interesting to me were some of the comments by online readers of the Globe and Mail review. One said they wouldn’t even bother to read the book because it questioned the work of missionaries who in the commentators’ opinion “had done so much good for so many people.” Another said they wouldn’t read the book either because it was clear from the review it painted Christians in a bad light. Quite to the contrary one of the things that drew me to Five Wives was the sympathy Joan Thomas has for her characters. Although I was disappointed to not have been able to attend the launch of Five Wives, someone told me later that when author David Bergen was interviewing Joan about her book he asked her if she hadn’t been too easy on her characters. 

Her book does, however, make it clear there are troubling things to consider about the whole idea of missions.
Joan explains in a Winnipeg Free Press interview. “You see, for example, the evangelical church as a bloc supporting Donald Trump, and all these heinous attitudes towards those coming to the southern border. Yet at the same time, they’re sending missionaries to South America. I really wanted to investigate some of the attitudes that let people live with this kind of doublethink.”

Five Wives by Joan Thomas is one of the nominees for the Governor General’s Literary award to be presented on October 29.

Joan Thomas’ book makes people of faith think deeply about many assumptions they may have made in the past. It raises a whole host of interesting and thought-provoking questions. And besides all that it tells a fascinating and absorbing story!

Other posts……….

Is It Wrong To Die For Your Faith?

Questions After Watching The Movie Silence

Common Threads- Aboriginal Spirituality


Filed under Books, Religion

I Tried Again But……….

I was in the library the other day and saw Louise Penny’s book Kingdom of the Blind on display.  Impulsively I picked it up.  Many years ago I had read Louise’s first book Still Life, but hadn’t read any of the other dozen or so books she has written. 

I LOVE Louise Penny.  I follow her on Facebook because she is such an interesting person ( a former CBC journalist and recovering alcoholic who cared for her husband of twenty years when he developed dementia). She has interesting friends (like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Jean and Aline Chretien) and she travels to all kinds of interesting places (her latest monthly newsletter describes her July stay in London).  Her writing success story is a novel in itself ( rejected by every publisher she tried, she was tussling over a scarf for sale in London with a woman who happened to be a crime fiction book agent- they introduced themselves and now Louise’s books are wildly popular all around the world.)  

Trouble is I am just not a murder mystery fan. And it has nothing to do with not liking popular fiction. I am no literary fiction snob, in fact, I think it is silly to even distinguish between popular fiction and literary fiction. Somehow I just can’t get caught up in the plots of murder mysteries. 

There are things I really liked about Kingdom of the Blind. 

 I LOVED Louise’s mouth-watering descriptions of food.  

I LOVED her many cultural references to literature and art.  

I LOVED her wide-variety of colorful characters.

I LOVED the idyllic setting of Three Pines.  I wish it was a real place so I could visit. 

But sorry murder mystery plots just don’t grab me.  I’ve really tried to like murder mysteries. I was once in a book club where one of the women was a devoted fan of Lillian Jackson Braun who wrote mysteries in which two Siamese cats Koko and Yumyum help their owner solve murder cases.  So I read lots of mysteries during the years our club met. But somehow I just couldn’t get caught up in the passion to find out who the murderer was. The endings in murder mysteries in particular often seem contrived and the characters seem to have to do way too much explaining so you can figure out WHODUNIT.

I really wanted to like Kingdom of the Blind . Many of my friends are avid Louise Penny fans and highly recommended the book.  Louise is a good writer so I finished it to the end.  But I just have to live with the fact that I am not a murder mystery fan. It’s not my genre.   I will continue to follow Louise Penny on social media and read her newsletters because I find her a fascinating woman, but I probably won’t be reading any more of her books. 

Other posts………

I Don’t Like Murder Mysteries But…………

Agatha Christie’s First Trip on the Orient Express

He Just Disappeared


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Three Books Set in Croatia

The Hired Man– Aminatta Forna

This book is set partially in the present when our hero Duro is helping a family from England restore an old home they have purchased in the fictional community of Gost, Croatia. But who lived in the home before?  The book keeps going back to scenes from the time just before, during, and after the war for Croatian independence in the early 1990s. During that period certain members of the fictional community of Gost disappear and Duro finally discovers why. Have some folks in Gost acted as informants or worse? Have some carried out their own type of resistance warfare?

 A review of the book in the Financial Times suggests that perhaps the novel is inspired by what happened in the real community of Gospic during the war. It was the scene of heavy fighting between the Serbian and Croatian armies. According to an article written in 2000 in the New York Times, both Serbs and Croatians continued to live together in the community after the war just like in Aminatta Forna’s novel. I think our travel route in Croatia would allow us to visit the community of Gospic.

Girl at WarGirl at War- Sara Novic

Ana Juric is just ten years old, living in the city of Zagreb, Croatia when her whole world falls apart.  On a return trip from taking her little sister to a medical facility that will evacuate her to the United States for necessary surgery, Ana and her parents encounter Serbian soldiers who will carry out a mass execution. Ana’s parents both die but she survives and becomes a child soldier. Later friends of her parents help her to get to America and she and her sister are adopted.  

Now an adult and a university student Ana decides to travel back to Croatia to make peace with her past. She and a childhood friend drive to the site where her parents’ died. They spend time in the Plitvice Lakes National Park area and this proves to be very healing for Ana. I think our first week of driving up the coastline of Croatia should take us fairly near the park which is a UNESCO heritage site. chasing a croatian girl


Chasing a Croatian Girl- Cody McClain Brown  

The American author of this book falls in love with a Croatian woman. He marries her and they move to Croatia where their daughter is born.  We learn lots about Croatia through the humourous observations of the author. Everything from how to order a coffee in Croatia, the important role mothers-in-law play in Croatian families, the indifference of service workers in Croatian businesses, the stylish way most people in Croatia dress and the love Croatian people have for the sea. 

The other two books I read about Croatia talked about the consequences of war and violence in Croatia.  It was nice to read something a little more light-hearted about the country. 

A good part of the story takes place in Split. We plan to spend several days there during our time in Croatia so I am looking forward to exploring some of the places he mentioned in the book.  

We leave for Croatia in just a little over a week. There are several other books about the country I want to read during our time there, but this trio has given me some good background to help me prepare for our visit.

Other posts……….

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The Dionne Quintuplets

I remember my mother telling me she had played with Dionne quintuplet paper dolls when she was a little girl and so when I saw the book The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood I thought it would be a good way to find out more about the set of famous Canadian quintuplets who were media stars in my mother’s time.

I waited until I had finished reading the novel before I looked online to discover what had eventually happened to the famous Dionne quintuplets. The Quintland Sisters is historical fiction and chronicles the first five years of the little girls’ lives through the eyes of a young midwife’s assistant named Emma.

The Dionne quintuplets with Dr. Dafoe who delivered them

The quintuplets were born in 1934 in rural Ontario and are believed to be the first set complete of quintuplets to ever survive infancy. The girls became wards of the government and were kept in isolation in an institution built especially for them.  Millions of people came to see them through a one-way glass as they played outside each day. They were studied by all kinds of medical experts.  Movie stars and politicians visited them.  They even met the king and queen.

The quintuplets at age 4

A bevy of commercial deals and three Hollywood movies brought in millions of dollars for the Canadian government, the quintuplets’ parents, and Dr. Dafoe, the physician who delivered them and was appointed to supervise their care.  Eventually, their parents won the right to take them back into their own home and join their other eight siblings. The novel suggests that experience was less than ideal.

Reading stories about the surviving quints online one discovers that their parents physically and sexually abused them. They left home at eighteen and broke off all contact with their parents. The five sisters had rather tragic lives. In a CBC documentary, they admit their dysfunctional childhoods did not equip them for adult life and that resulted in unhappy marriages and troubling relationships with their own children. Only two of the five quintuplets still survive. 

The book The Quintland Sisters is fictional but contains many actual newspaper articles about the quintuplets so you can read the historical information on which the book is based.

I really liked Emma, the main character in the novel, who cares for the quintuplets in their early years. You can see how she develops as a person and an artist.  But I wasn’t happy with the ending of the book where the author uses a series of letters to tie up all the loose ends from the plot.  I felt cheated out of hearing the actual story of Emma’s life after she leaves her job caring for the quintuplets.  

The two surviving quintuplets Cecile and Annette

The Quintland Sisters is an interesting read and provides another perspective on the history making story of the Dionne quintuplets. 

Other posts……….

Wushu Twins



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I Wasn’t Planning To Read This Book

I ordered the book Slow Medicine because someone recommended it for our church library and I am the church librarian. Before I put the book on the shelves I leafed through it and found myself stopping to read an intriguing account of how the author of the book Dr. Victoria Sweet saved a man’s life on a trek through Nepal by pulling a stubborn thorn out of his leg.  

I sat down and started the book from the beginning. I was totally drawn in by one interesting story after another about Dr. Sweet’s patients.  Victoria Sweet is a great believer in modern ‘fast medicine’ and appreciates the way new medical technologies and treatments save lives. But she wants to make the point that there is also a place for more measured, holistic, thoughtful, and simpler approaches to medicine. She calls it ‘slow medicine.’ 

Victoria basically walks us through her career as a physician in Slow Medicine and introduces us to the fascinating patients who taught her the importance of slow medicine- the value of listening to patients, observing them carefully, getting to know their families, histories and living situations, and being open to “out of the box” thinking. 

For example, she tells the story of a young boy who kept coming in with one ear infection after another.  It was only when she visited his farm home and realized he was swimming regularly in a stagnant pond containing animal waste that she understood why the ear infections kept recurring.  

Only after meeting a woman’s mother and discovering she had a rare skin disease at a fairly advanced stage was Dr. Sweet able to diagnose the daughter’s similar condition. Dr. Sweet says what made all the difference was the fact she stayed late at the hospital one night and met her patient’s mother who always only came to visit her daughter after finishing work. 

In another story, a man had terrible headaches.  Victoria took many, many hours to read carefully through the man’s mountain of medical records and eventually she found a clue in a previous doctor’s notes, that helped provide a remedy for the headaches.  

When a patient’s asthma seemed uncontrollable Victoria finally asked a respected Chinese healer to see her. Sure enough, the healer’s traditional medicines worked.  

I finished reading Slow Medicine in a park last Thursday. The perfect place to slowly savor its stories.

Slow Medicine makes the point that in a doctor’s haste to diagnose and treat he or she may not take the time to try different approaches, to find out about their patient’s home environment, to carefully go through their medical history and to really ‘see’ their patients and all the factors that might influence their condition.  

Victoria Sweet is an excellent writer and her book is NOTHING like a medical textbook.  It really is very interesting and engaging. I wasn’t planning to read this book but I’m glad I did. 

Other posts……..

Dad’s Medical Bag

Writing as a Healing Art

Being Mortal

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The Overstory- I Know It Won a Pulitzer Prize But………….

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but truth be told I wouldn’t have awarded it any kind of  literary prize. The book is about a group of nine characters who all come to care deeply about understanding and saving the world’s trees.  

The book reminded me a bit of The Goldfinch another Pulitzer Prize winner. Both books start out wonderfully by setting up intriguing plot possibilities with interesting characters. I was completely drawn in. Then both descend into a kind of reading black hole where the characters do crazy things that are often completely unrealistic and frankly leave you frustrated when they go on and on and on. In both books I found myself plowing through the middle section. And finally, the conclusion of each book fails to satisfy. After sticking doggedly with your characters through all that trauma and mythical mess surely there will be some sort of happiness or hopefulness for them in the end. Sorry. No such luck.

Certainly, I learned a whole lot of fascinating stuff about trees from reading The Overstory but some of the information was delivered lecture-style when there would have been, in my opinion at least, more interesting ways of giving us the same information.

The book is a bit like Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, another novel about the importance of saving the environment,  where you are also introduced to a group of seemingly disparate characters at the beginning of the book and then you wonder how they will all weave their way into one story. Barbara, however, has only three main characters in Prodigal Summer.  Richard Powers might have stuck to fewer characters as well.  The storylines of three of Richard’s nine main protagonists never really merge with the story of the other six.

I wanted to like this book.  A friend had recommended it. I had heard a glowing review on the radio. It won the Pulitzer Prize. I love trees and that is what this book is all about. 

Hugging a redwood tree in Yalta Ukraine. I love trees but I didn’t love The Overstory a Pulitzer Prize winning book about trees. 

But honestly, I didn’t like The Overstory.  I’d love to hear from other people who have read the book.  What did you think? 

Other posts……..

The Religion of Trees

Up in the Trees With A Man Who Knew it All

Edge of the Trees

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Filed under Books, Nature

Little Bee- Three Connections

The book Little Bee tells the story of a young woman fleeing Nigeria after her family is murdered.  She seeks out a woman in the United States with whom she has had some previous contact. That woman’s husband has just committed suicide and she is in a crisis situation as she mourns and tries to single parent her little son. 

I’ve written before about making a text whether it is an artwork, a film, a book or a news story meaningful by establishing three connections -personal, another text and the world. Reading the gripping story in Little Bee by Chris Cleave it wasn’t hard to make those connections. The personal one might be that the book was a gift from my friend Meena. Meena was a colleague when I taught in Hong Kong and we were in a book club together for six years. Meena’s son and his family live in Winnipeg so she visits regularly and when we get together our conversations always include sharing our book recommendations. This time Meena brought me a copy of her latest find, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. So while I was reading it I was thinking of Meena and why she might have liked the book so much. What made it even more personal was that Meena’s little granddaughter had done artwork on some of the pages. One of the main characters in the book is a small boy about Meena’s granddaughter’s age so her art added another personal touch. The other text I thought of immediately was The Boat People by Sharon Bala because like Little Bee it tells the story of a new immigrant trying to gain refugee status fearful they will be sent back to their own country where they are sure to face imprisonment or death. I had recommended The Boat People to Meena on a previous visit and her book club had read it and loved it. 

The connection to our world was easy to make even though Little Bee was published over a decade ago.  In fact in 2008 when Little Bee hit the book stores there were only 42 million refugees in the world.  Now there are 66 million.  That makes this story of a young desperate woman seeking asylum even more relevant than it was when the book was written. 

I’d be curious to hear about your three connections if you decide to read the book. 

Other posts……….

Finding the Three Connections

Hong Kong Guests

The Boat People


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