BOOK REVIEW | Exit West by Moshin Hamid

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia share a cup of coffee, and their story begins. It will be a love story but also a story about war and a world in crisis, about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow. Before too long, the time will come for Nadia and Saeed to leave their homeland. When the streets are no longer useable and all options are exhausted, this young couple will join the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .

My thoughts:
Exit West by Moshin Hamid couldn’t have come a better time. This is the sort of book that we need right now, and I am so glad that I took time for this short read. It’s a book about civil war and migration, and how life can suddenly change during times of turmoil. The heart of this book, however, is a love story. It’s the story of two people falling in love, and then falling out of it.

Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. 

Nadia and Saeed meet, and before too long the relationship blossoms. They make a quick connection, and are soon spending their evenings together. Hamid is quick to let the reader know that this is not your average couple – Saeed is set on keeping the relationship chaste, while Nadia is not. She also smokes marijuana, takes psychedelic mushrooms, and rides a motorcycle. When asked why she wears the “all-concealing black robes”, she simply replies “so men don’t fuck with me”.

Hamid’s brilliance comes in the anonymity of the country that Nadia and Saeed flee from. A civil war is breaking out, and the reader must experience the violence and death from a completely unbiased perspective. This is a story about people who are in danger and the sacrifices they make to stay safe – it’s as simple as that. Not naming a specific country allows the humanity of the story to take the lead. Imagine a life in which a window becomes an instrument of death – Hamid reminds us of the reasons people emigrate.

One’s relationship with a window now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire…the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily.

I was not expecting a story rooted in magical realism, but that’s much of what this is. Nadia and Saeed move through doors that transport them to new places as they seek refuge after fleeing their homeland. Through their journey they grow closer, and then apart. Hamid describes them as a couple that is uncoupling, a sentiment many will relate to. Hamid’s prose is fluid and unique – I’ve never read anything like this before. Allow yourself to be swept away by this magical book, it’s a timely and rewarding read.

BOOK REVIEW | Christodora by Tim Murphy

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4.75/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this vivid and compelling novel, Tim Murphy follows a diverse set of characters whose fates intertwine in an iconic building in Manhattan’s East Village, the Christodora. The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions. Their neighbor, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict, becomes connected to Milly and Jared’s lives in ways none of them can anticipate. Meanwhile, Milly and Jared’s adopted son Mateo grows to see the opportunity for both self-realization and oblivion that New York offers. As the junkies and protestors of the 1980s give way to the hipsters of the 2000s and they, in turn, to the wealthy residents of the crowded, glass-towered city of the 2020s, enormous changes rock the personal lives of Milly and Jared and the constellation of people around them. Moving kaleidoscopically from the Tompkins Square Riots and attempts by activists to galvanize a true response to the AIDS epidemic, to the New York City of the future, Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself.

My thoughts:
This book gutted me; it tore me apart. It made me laugh and made me cry. It’s the kind of book that sticks – I know I will be thinking about this story and these characters for a long, long time. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a bold story centered around AIDS activism in New York in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s so much more to it than that, though. There is love, death, and heartbreak. There is loneliness, addiction, and depression. There is beauty, art, and hope.

At the heart of this story is Milly – a talented young artist and daughter of Ava, a pioneer in the fight for AIDS research. In a story spanning 30 decades, we follow Milly from her youth into her middle-age, jumping back and forth in time to paint a clear picture of her life. Ava struggles with her mental health, something that impacted her ability to be a good mother to Milly when she was a child. As Milly gets older she begins experiencing depression and fears that she is following in her mother’s footsteps.

In her early 20’s Milly lives with her sculptor husband, Jared, in the Christodora House, an iconic apartment building in New York’s East side. Hector, their neighbour, was once a prominent AIDS activist, but after a personal tragedy turned to crystal meth. Jared is frustrated by his presence in the building and wants him out. However, Hector and Ava were a part of the early AIDS fight together, and Milly feels conflicted about where her loyalties should fall. Through Ava’s work, Milly and Jared meet a 5 year old boy, Mateo, whose mother died of AIDS when he was a baby. Milly falls for the little boy with the wild hair, and they end up adopting him. Mateo’s life will eventually crash with Hector’s in unimaginable ways.

Going into this book I knew very little about AIDS and the activism that took place during the 80’s and 90’s. For example, I had I no idea that early definitions of AIDS excluded women and that many believed women couldn’t contract the illness. I had no idea that there was a fight for proper medical funding and research, a fight for adequate medication. This book was an education, and I have to thank Tim Murphy for that – it was eye opening. That said, please don’t think of this as an AIDS book, it’s so much more than that.

Murphy has created something truly remarkable with this story, and I didn’t want it to end. Even though they are often selfish and flawed, I can’t recall the last time I felt so deeply invested in the characters of a book. Reading Murphy’s acknowledgements solidified for me how personal this book was for him, and I can only be grateful that he chose to share so much of himself, his experiences, and his losses with the reading world. Fans of A Little Life, this one is for you.

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #4 – The Break by Katherena Vermette

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

My thoughts:
Wow. It’s not enough, but it’s almost all I can say after reading Katherena Vermette’s The Break. This book is heavy and dark, but it’s also so incredibly important. It was necessary for me, as a Canadian, to read a story about my country from a perspective that is different than my own. I love the Canada Reads competition so much, because it brings stories like this to a greater audience. I actually picked this book up ages ago after Margaret Atwood recommend it on Reco, and I am so glad I finally got around to reading it.

The story opens with Stella, shaken and afraid, providing two police officers with the details of a very violent crime that she saw take place through her window in the middle of the night. The officers have different opinions on the information they get from Stella – the older assuming it’s just gang violence, and the younger sensing that something more vicious has taken place. What follows is a perfectly crafted account of not only the crime, but everything that surrounds it. Vermette dives into social issues, gang violence, police apathy, racism, alcoholism, spousal abuse, and what it means to live life in a broken system. It’s gritty, it’s bleak, it’s real.

The book is broken up into four sections, each containing a chapter narrated from the perspective of a different family member, as well as one of the police officers involved in the story. There are many characters to keep track of, but the family tree at the beginning of the book keeps everyone and their lineage clear. This could have become convoluted, but the opposite happened for me – as I discovered the familial connections I began to feel personally intertwined in their lives, almost a part of the family.

The Break should be compulsory reading for Canadians. If anything I mentioned in this review speaks to you, please go and get this book. While the book is  heartbreaking and raw, Vermette keeps the focus on the healing power of family and tradition. An absolutely stunning debut from a writer I will be watching.

Read my review of Fifteen Dogs
Read my review of Nostalgia
Read my review of Company Town

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #3 – Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanji

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the indeterminate future in an unnamed western city, physical impediments to immortality have been overcome. As society approaches the prospect of eternal life, a new problem must be confronted: with the threat of the brain’s storage capacity being overwhelmed, people want to move forward into the future free from redundant, unwanted and interfering memories. Rejuvenated bodies require rejuvenated identities–all traces of a person’s past are erased and new, complete fictions are implanted in their stead. On occasion, though, cracks emerge, and reminders of discarded lives seep through. Those afflicted suffer from Leaked Memory Syndrome, or Nostalgia, whereby thoughts from a previous existence burrow in the conscious mind threatening to pull sufferers into an internal abyss.

Doctor Frank Sina specializes in sealing these memory leaks. He is satisfied in his profession, more or less secure in the life he shares with his much younger lover, content with his own fiction–a happy childhood in the Yukon, an adulthood marked by the influence of a mathematician father and poet mother. But one day, Presley Smith arrives in Frank’s office. Persistent thoughts are torturing Presley, recurring images of another time and place. As he tries to save Presley from the onslaught of memory, Frank finds clues that suggest Presley’s past may be located in war-torn, nuclear-ravaged Maskinia, a territory located in the southern hemisphere, isolated from the north by fiercely guarded borders and policy barriers. Frank’s suspicions are only intensified when the Department of Internal Security takes an interest in Presley. They describe him as one of their own, meaning his new life was one they created for him, and they want him back. Who was Presley before the Department remade him, what secrets are buried in the memories that are encroaching upon him?

As Frank tries to save Presley from both internal and external threats, cracks emerge in his own fiction, and the thoughts that sneak through suggest a connection with the mysterious Presley that goes well beyond a doctor and his patient.

My thoughts:
Another Canada Reads selection complete! 2 more to go!

M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia takes place in a future that doesn’t feel too far off. In his world, human bodies don’t die but, rather, are rejuvenated. Old memories are wiped away and replaced with new, exclusively happy, ones, and the body is refreshed. When life gets difficult and the baggage is too much, you can simply request that your new life begin.

Dr. Frank Sina specializes in Leaked Memory Syndrome (LMS), commonly known as Nostalgia. Sufferers of LMS will describe the emergence of past memories, fragments of their old lives seeping into their new ones; Dr. Sina helps to seal these memory leaks. When Presley Smith seeks Dr. Sina’s care for his LMS, Frank is unusually drawn to him, but is unsure why he feels so strongly about helping Presley recover.

Naturally, not everyone is happy about these advances in human technology. There are a group of protestors who take a stand daily, with the threat of self-emolation, saying that people are meant to die. Further, people on their first lives, BabyGens, are frustrated by the people who have lived many lives, the GNs. How can the BabyGens find jobs and live fully when no one ever dies? Is a future like this really sustainable?

Meanwhile, in a place called Maskinia, residents are suffering through war and nuclear destruction. The border is protected, and immigrants often turn to dangerous methods to try to get across to safety. As Dr. Sina works to seal Presley’s memory leaks, he starts to discover that he may have a connection to Maskinia from his earlier life. What is that connection, and why is Dr. Sina so invested in Presley’s history?

There’s a lot going on with this book, and it does get a bit convoluted at times. However, many of the questions it asks are extremely relevant, making it a thought provoking and compelling read.

Read my review of Fifteen Dogs
Read my review of Company Town

BOOK REVIEW | The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life–why did he leave? what did he learn?–as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

My thoughts:
It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer in exchange for money was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed…What did Knight to for a living? He lived for a living.

This is a story that will speak to the introverts out there (hi, that’s me); the people that need quiet in their days and thrive when alone. If you’ve read the news stories about Christopher Knight, you know the facts around his mysterious disappearance. Knight vanished when he was 20 years old, leaving his family to think him dead. Maine residents knew someone was living in the woods, experiencing frequent, but minor, burglaries. After 27 years, Knight is finally captured and arrested – the hermit had been taken down.

After Knight’s arrest, journalist Michael Finkel couldn’t get the story of the illusive “North Pond Hermit” out of his mind. How did he survive for so long, completely alone, in the woods? What did he do to stay warm in the bitter Main winters?  What was his mental state? Is he autistic? Schizophrenic? Finkel eventually reached out to Christopher in prison, and weaseled his way in to a face to face meeting, determined to discover the man behind the facade of the North Pond Hermit.

This book goes deeper than the news articles, and Finkel draws his thoughts and conclusions from about nine hours of conversation with Knight, as well as conversations with Knight’s family and the police officers who captured him. Christopher Knight, in a split second decision, chose to live differently. He set off into the Maine woods with no plan, determined to to things his way. He survived by stealing from local cabins and camp sites, feeling terrible about it every time. For anyone who struggles with the mundanity of day to day life, Knight’s decision won’t feel so incredible. In fact, this book illustrates so clearly why it may have been the exact right path for him to choose (maybe minus the burglaries!). Not everyone fits perfectly into modern society, and not everyone desires the social interactions and abundance that many thrive on. I particularly enjoyed the sections about the importance of quiet in one’s day. I’m very sound sensitive, and this spoke right to me:

Noise harms your body and boils your brain. The word noise is derived from the Latin word nausea.

If Christopher Knight’s story piqued your interest, you will enjoy this book. He’s a strange man, but the reasons behind his choices are surprisingly relatable. It’s a shame that my city is in the middle of a deep freeze, I’m craving a walk in the woods.

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #2 – Company Town by Madeline Ashby

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Meet Hwa. One of the few in her community to forego bio-engineered enhancements, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig. But she’s an expert in the arts of self-defence, and she’s been charged with training the Family’s youngest, who has been receiving death threats – seemingly from another timeline.

Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability – serial killer? Or something much, much worse…?

My thoughts:
I’m going to be honest – I struggle with science fiction and YA, and this book is rooted in both. If this was not a Canada Reads contender, I don’t think I would have powered through to the finish line. Though I didn’t love the book’s execution, Ashby is a creative talent with some great ideas, and I enjoyed many elements of the book.

Hwa is a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada in a place called New Arcadia, and accompanies the girls to their appointments. Hwa is a a badass – she’s a tough, mixed-race woman, and one of the few fully organic people left in New Arcadia; all other residents have been scientifically “augmented” in some way. Hwa has Sturge-Weber Syndrome, which has left her with a facial birthmark and susceptibility to seizures – she figures since she isn’t beautiful, her parents didn’t bother investing in any augmentations. When New Arcadia is acquired my the Zachariah Lynch, he employs her to train and protect his son, Joel, who has been receiving threats. Coinciding with her change in career, her old friends, all sex-workers, are turning up murdered, and Hwa sets out to find answers.

Hwa is great: she’s a a fierce, a fighter, insecure, bold, flawed, and completely likeable. This maybe a stretch, but I felt like Ashby was making a commentary on Canada’s troubling history of missing and murdered women – I don’t know if this was her intent, but I imagine that it must have crossed her mind when writing a story about the murder of women in the sex-trade.

This book seemed to suffer from an identity crisis, and that is part of my low rating. This felt like a YA book that just happened to be about adult content. All of the dialogue and many of the scenarios read like YA, making it very disconcerting to read about “sex-workers” and murder. It simply lacked a clear direction – I understand and respect the story Ashby wanted to tell, but wasn’t impressed with its execution.

With that, my front-runner for Canada Reads is still Fifteen Dogs!

 

 

BOOK REVIEW | Stoner by John Williams

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known.

And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

My thoughts:
Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

The back of the book describes Stoner as a work of “quiet perfection”, and I can’t think of a better description. This book is perfection. It’s pure and simple, there are no bells or whistles here. It’s the story of one man’s life, and the ebbs and flows that are a part of simply being human.

William Stoner is born into a farming family, and eventually goes off to the University of Columbia to take his degree is agricultural studies. During his requisite English course, he discovers his passion for books. With the encouragement of his Professor and mentor, Archer Sloan, Stoner changes his degree to English studies, drastically changing the course of his life. Stoner grows into the scholarly life, eventually becoming an English professor, while working on his own writing. He is married, thought not happily, and has a child. He develops friendships and feuds, suffers losses and enjoys a great love. These are the mundane parts of life, yet Williams has crafted them so compellingly.

It’s hard to articulate what makes this book so beautiful, but it’s a rich telling of an ordinary man’s life. For a stoic man, Stoner always remains true to himself, often following his heart or morals rather than following the path of expectation. If you’re looking for a shocking work of drama, turn the other way. If you would like to examine the human condition and explore the sum of one man’s simple life, this is for you. Williams asks the fundamental question that we all ponder as we move through life, day by day – what makes a life, a life? I couldn’t put this book down, and I finished knowing I had read something truly special.