BOOK REVIEW | The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

This isn’t a review, it’s just a reminder to read The Fire Next Time if you haven’t. James Baldwin’s brilliance and wisdom had me bookmarking nearly every page. First published in 1963 at the dawn of the civil right’s movement, it’s shocking to realize that everything Baldwin discusses is still relevant today. Below are a few of my favourite quotes.

You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to becomes a truly moral human…must divorce himself of all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, than it is time we got rid of him.

I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.

A short and powerful read that I’ll certainly reach for again in the future.

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BOOK REVIEW | Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

4/5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good dystopian book, and Future Home of the Living God was an entertaining and disturbing foray back to the genre.

It starts with Cedar heading off to meet her Ojibwe birth parents, Sweetie and Eddy. She is initially resistant to their caring, armed with questions about why they weren’t able to keep her. Cedar is pregnant and we know she is nervous to tell her birth parents, but at this point we don’t know why. Though part 1 feels a bit disjointed from the rest of the book, Sweetie and Eddy (along with Cedar’s adopted parents) become pivotal characters later on.

We soon learn that pregnant women are being captured, and Cedar must do her best to keep her growing baby from becoming visible. Cedar’s boyfriend, Glen, helps to keep her hidden but she is ultimately captured.

I loved everything that happened after Cedar is captured – it’s exactly what you’d want out of a dystopian story. However, there is a lack of detail that could have taken this book over the top; we know that evolution has stopped, or is possibly moving backwards and I wanted more from this. There is one scene in which Cedar believes she sees a saber-tooth that is fantastic and a clear indication that the world is moving backwards, but it’s the only moment that is this explicit. The reverse-evolutionary theme never fully pulls through.

While I enjoyed this story, it was very difficult to ignore the clear influence of The Handmaid’s Tale – so much of this book felt all too familiar, especially the ending. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just worth noting. Overall, I really enjoyed this book – Erdrich is a unique storyteller with a passionate voice, and I can feel the significance of this work to her within its pages. In a world in which bodily agency is under attack, can we truly move forward?

BOOK REVIEW | New People by Danzy Senna

4/5 stars

In his blurb on the back of the book, Marlon James states that “New People” reminds us that “the worst kind of hell is always the one we raise”, and I don’t think I can put it any better. This is a book about identity and obsession, perfection and truth.

Maria and her fiancé Khalil are mixed race, mulatta and mulatto, planning their wedding and ready to embark on their life together as “new people”. By their definition, new people are “the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions” in late 60s and early 70s. They are a picturesque couple, though Maria is not content. She is light skinned with straight hair, people often assuming she is Jewish or white, and struggles to find her place among her peers. She becomes infatuated with a black man known only as “the poet”, leaving the reader to contemplate what she’s running from, and what she’s chasing.

It’s the 90’s, and Maria is observing how her generation of mixed people adapt to the world – how Khalil speaks differently around his white friend Ethan than he does around other “new people”. Maria starts to do strange things, and her behavior grows increasingly bizarre, embarrassing, and self-destructive. We’re never witness to the eruption, but you can feel it on the horizon. As an adopted child of a black mother, it’s easy to understand Maria’s sense of lost identity.

I really enjoyed Senna’s style – honest, dry wit that kept me flipping the pages quickly. There’s also a thread throughout this book about Jonestown which I haven’t touched on, but it certainly adds a dynamic layer to the whole story. This book won’t be for everyone, but it hit a surprising chord with me (I’m mixed as well). I’ll be picking up Senna’s book “Caucasia” soon!

BOOK REVIEW: Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 | Canada Reads 2018 Contender #1

4/5 stars

If not for my beloved Canada Reads competition, I would never have picked this up. Call me cynical, but stories that are hopeful and quaint are just not my thing (I’m not sure what this says about me). The reason I love Canada Reads is that it forces me to read books that aren’t in my wheelhouse, and I found myself engrossed in this memoir in spite of my initial resistance. I was surprised when I flipped the book over to see that author Craig Davidson writes horror fiction under a pseudonym that I know very well – Nick Cutter. This immediately piqued my interest!

Years ago, long before Davidson became known (as Cutter) for his horror, he was a struggling writer, down on his luck and hopelessly out of work. A flyer in his mailbox advertised a need for school bus drivers, and he applied on a whim. Before long, he found himself going through orientation and training – this section alone was great. I loved the stories about the other trainees, seasoned drivers, and his driving instructor. It was both humourous and eye opening – it’s when Davidson realized the responsibility of transporting children.

He is assigned a route and discovers he will be driving the “short bus”, or “busette”: the special needs bus. Davidson takes us through each stop as he meets the kids that will soon become his “gang”. What follows is an account of the kids that changed his life over the course of one school year. Gavin, Nadja, Jake, Vincent, and Oliver. These kids are hilarious, full of uniqueness and quirks, and dreams no different than any other kid. One of my favourite moments was Nadja’s rules for the bus: no swear words allowed except for “Hell” and “schizz”. Davidson and Jake “click” when they meet – they become fast friends and I love reading their story.

Of course, there are challenges. Davidson respectfully discusses instances of “tantrums”, the stigma that comes from riding in a busette, and the question of self-worth that arises from being special-needs. He shares a powerful story about a time he and Jake were hanging out, and what happens when a kid in a wheelchair needs to use the bathroom. Davidson points out that we are all imperfect; how a drunk driver or a few seconds of lost oxygen in the womb, can make all the difference in who we will become. This was a fantastic read, and I hope the kids from route 3077 find their way to it.

BOOK REVIEW | Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

4/5 stars

This is a book designed to provoke heated conversations with the hopes of opening eyes and changing perceptions. Kamila Shamsie tells the story of a young man’s search for answers and his unwitting spiral into jihad, forcing the reader to confront discrepancies in media coverage and what it means to be Muslim in this day and age.

Isma has always been caretaker to her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, after their mother’s death. They don’t know much about their father, but it’s thought that he died as a result of jihadist associations. Years go by, and Isma is free – the twins are grown up and she can return to her dream of studying in America. Before long, a chance meeting at a café in Amherst, Massachusetts brings Eamon, the son of a British politician, into her family’s life. This quaint café meeting does not end up the way it seems it should, but a discovery about their respective fathers ensures their narrative remains entwined.

Eamon heads home to London, where he meets Isma’s sister, the beautiful Aneeka, and a romance quickly ensues. Meanwhile, Parvais, in a desperate search to learn who his father was, falls in with a a man who knew his father and finds himself in Pakistan as a part of the jihadist media. Questions about Aneeka’s intent with Eamon quickly arise when Eamon’s father discovers their relationship, leading to an analysis of love, and what one is willing to sacrifice in the name of it.

There are some plot points that disappear, leaving me wanting more. I was initially drawn in to Isma’s story, but it doesn’t take long for her to become a part of the background. I wanted more from her perspective, as an intelligent and practical witness to everything going on with her siblings. She’s a part of the narrative, but far from the forefront. There’s also a lot going on here, and I don’t know that it all felt fleshed out. That said, this story is absorbing and valuable reading in a time that seems to vilify Muslims. It’s a story of politics and family, but ultimately one of love.

BOOK REVIEW | The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan

5/5 stars

Every once in a while a book comes along that feels so personal, that the authour has laid so much bare, the it’s beyond review; that was my experience with this book. In reading The Clothesline Swing, I couldn’t help but feel that I was taking a peek into Ahmad Danny Ramadan’s life in Syria that was never meant to be for me, but that he felt compelled to share. I don’t know how much of this book is true or what was embellished, but it’s clear that these stories were inspired by truths: in his acknowledgements, Ramadan thanks those who have shared their “happiness and sorrow” with him. I highly recommend watching Ramadan’s TED Talk after reading this book – you’ll fall in love with him.

The format is unique: two lovers reminisce over their youth in Syria through fables and memories – there are stories within stories. Death, a surprisingly welcome character, joins the men as Hakawati comforts his aging partner with stories of his childhood. Death lingers on the sidelines, providing occasional commentary, waiting for his final breath.

This book is heavy, both in content and in prose, but also descriptive and beautiful, and so worth the effort. Readers should take this book slowly, absorb every word, and appreciate the education that Ramadan provides. We learn not only about life for gay youth in Damascus and Aleppo, but about the beauty that Syria has to offer. And yes, we learn about the war. For anyone ready to open their minds and enjoy a beautifully told narrative, do yourself a favour a pick this one up.

BOOK REVIEW | Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

4/5 stars

In her heartbreaking debut, Mira T. Lee gets to the heart of mental illness. She examines the impact that mental illness has on both those living with it and those around them. Part immigrant story, part family drama, Lee has crafted a work of tender fiction that will resonate with anyone who has been touched by mental illness, and will serve as starting point for those who want to better understand.

The story centers around two sisters, Miranda and Lucia. Their mother immigrated to the United States from China while Miranda was very young, and she was pregnant with Lucia. The girls are inextricably bound, Miranda often taking on the role of protector to Lucia.

Lucia lives many lives – sister, wife, immigrant, writer. She is married twice, first to Yonah, a Russian-Jew living in the USA, and then to Manny, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. Each of these relationships serves a part of Lucia’s soul – in Yonah she finds unyielding love, and in Manny she finds family. She becomes pregnant with a little girl, and her and Manny eventually decide to move their family to Ecuador.

Miranda is dedicated beyond compare, never unflinching in her attempts to protect and care for Lucia. Lucia is living with mental illness – possibly schizophrenia, possibly bipolar disorder; she is never accurately diagnosed, which is certainly intentional. Over the years she is off and on medications, and in and out of hospitalizations. Both Yonah and Manny will discover parts of Lucia that were controlled with medication when they first met her, Miranda always there as a guide and support throughout their struggles.

The only fault for me in this book is one that I see often in stories with multiple narrators – each narrator often re-tells a scene from their perspective, leading to repetition that feels unnecessary. This is a fantastic debut, full of beauty and pain, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more from Lee.