BOOK REVIEW | You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

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4/5 stars

Let me start by saying that this title is everything. I have curly hair, and people ask to touch it ALL.THE.TIME. As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. Phoebe Robinson is hilarious. I want to hang out with her, and I feel like she’s my new literary best friend. This was a total blast, but a smart one filled with perspective and power. I switched between the audiobook and physical book,  and laughed out loud many times throughout. Nothing is better than listening to a comedian narrate their own book. It’s amazing. She’s a comedian and writer, and her talents come together beautifully in this short book of essays. Phoebe is bold and unapologetic in her takes on race, feminism, sexuality, and more.

I loved, LOVED, Phoebe’s sections on music. I may not love U2 the way she does, but I don’t listen to much music that would be expected for a non-white person. She talks about how people assume she knows what’s new in hip hop, when in reality she’s about to listen to Arcade Fire or Phil Collins. Cultural stereotypes, gotta love them.

Phoebe, you’ll never read this, but I need to talk to you! This book is written as though only people of colour (POC for short) will be reading it. I wanted Phoebe to be a little more inclusive with her audience, to assume that enlightened or curious (or any!) white people may want to read this book! I think she may keep her non POC readers a little at bay with this assumption, but hey, I’m a biracial reader, so maybe I just see both sides of the fence?

Speaking of being biracial, I adored Phoebe’s letters to her infant niece Olivia. She offers solutions for getting through life female and biracial. She even offers her a plethora of biracial celebrities to look to for identity: Lisa Bonet, Prince, Bob Marley, and more!

Don’t let all the fun fool you, Phoebe is on a mission with this book. She dives deep into her personal experiences with sexism and racism with a strength that I truly admire. She puts herself out there, exposing times when she felt weak and used, and made to feel less than. She discusses the young black people killed at the hands of police in America, and injustices that are difficult to swallow.

I loved reading about these topics in a practical, everyday sort of manner. Phoebe, at least for me, is so relatable that it made this book feel like a conversation with a good friend. I really enjoyed this, and will be looking out for whatever Phoebe does next.

BOOK REVIEW | The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

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5/5 Stars

From the Publisher:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about more than that though. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first – Emmett.

I don’t read much YA, but knew I had to pick up The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas is bold, throwing literary punches right out of the gate, and by the end of chapter two I was in tears. Told from the perspective of Starr, who witnesses her friend shot and killed by the police, Thomas provides enlightenment and education about #blacklivesmatter.

The story itself is one we know all too well: a young, unarmed, black person is shot and killed by the police. The aftermath is wrought with pain and injustice, families senselessly torn apart. This book stands out though, not because of the tragedy, but because of Thomas’ strength as a storyteller. She has created a robust cast of characters, each fleshed out and diverse.

Starr is sixteen years old and struggling with her identity as many teens do. Her struggles, however, eventually become a source of her strength. She attends a “white” school that her parents send her to, rather than the school in her neighborhood. She is constantly working out which star she can be in any given situation – prep school Starr, or Starr from the ghetto. When a cop pulls her and her friend, Khalil, over one night, she had no idea she would become witness to tragedy and forced to find her voice against great odds.

We follow star as she moves through her grief, initially fearful, but eventually finding her inner power. Thomas consistently returns to the importance of speaking up and speaking out against injustice – your voice is your most powerful weapon.

Among all of this, we have a YA book with elements that lighten the mood. A romance between Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, (I laughed out loud when “swirling” came up!), complex friendships, and a love for sneakers.

This book is important and timely, and I hope it reaches beyond liberal minded thinkers. I’d love to see this book in classrooms, sparking conversation among today’s youth. I already felt everything this book is seeking to teach, so I can only hope it finds its way into the hands of people who may not understand #blacklivesmatter.

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 #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 | Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in.
Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.

My thoughts:
Americanah is an epic love story that tells the tale of Ifemelu, her immigration to the United States from Nigeria, and her eventual emigration back to Nigeria. This is a book about race in America, and Adichie isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics head on.

When Ifemelu is young, before her immigration to the United States, she falls in love with Obinze. After her departure their relationship fades, and he takes a different path, moving to London where he lives illegally. Though living in different worlds, the two always think of one another, and we spend much of the story wondering if they will become reunited. While in American, Ifemelu dates both a white man and a black American man. Obinze felt like the constant with which these experimental men were measured against – would anyone ever stack up?

Ifemelu is a direct and bold personality, and has no problem with pointing out other people’s faults. I loved her relationship with Curt, the white man; he loved her fully and respected anything she had to say regarding race, loving her natural hair while she was embarrassed by it. Ifemelu, however, always found fault with Curt; she found his racial respect frustrating, as if he could never “get it”. In many ways that is true, as a wealthy white man in American he could never fully understand her experience, but I wanted her to let him in. I found Ifemelu hilarious at times, and incredibly frustrating at others. Maybe that’s because I am the product of an interracial relationship, and I’m in one as well.

The narrative style is unique – we flip between Ifemelu and Obinze, past and present, and my personal favourite: Ifemelus’s blog posts. Ifemelu writes a successful blog about race in America, and choice blog posts are interspersed throughout the book like mini essays. These are essential and poignant, and made much of the book for me. I loved them.

Some of the best moments for me were in the discussion of hair. There is discussion of good hair, nappy hair, conforming through hair, and embracing hair. I’m half black – my mother is Jamaican and my father is Irish/English – and I have curly hair. Not black hair, not wavy hair, but curly. I spent most of my youth hating everything about it, and killing it with flat irons and relaxers (relaxer burn is real!), all the while hoping it wouldn’t rain as to ruin all of my hard work. I eventually decided to stop torturing my hair, grow out the relaxer, and learned to be OK with the stuff that grew out of my head. It was a long journey, but worth it. However, to this day, I feel like my curls don’t look as professional as straight hair does. I long to go swimming without having to consider what frizz reducing and controlling products I’ll have to lug along with me for afterwards. It’s amazing to me how much of a hold hair can have over enjoyment of life, and it was comforting to see this reflected in literature.

It was fascinating to see race through Ifemelu’s eyes – how race only became a prevalent part of her life in America, and when she returned to Nigeria she felt her blackness fade away. I thought about this, and realized that if curly hair were the majority, I likely wouldn’t feel so much frustration towards mine. It’s amazing the impact that culture has on self-worth.

Adichie dives into the election of Obama, which I remember so well. Like the characters in the story, I had similar fears – would someone try to harm him? Could this actually make issues of race worse? It’s fascinating to read this book in the era of Trump, and sad to see that this may have been true. I remember the hope and tears shed when Obama was elected, and appreciate Adichie’s perspective on that moment in history. I’m Canadian, but whatever happens in American always makes its ways over to us in one way or another.

The struggles of immigration are highlighted from two perspectives: Ifemelu’s immigration to America, and Obinze’s illegal immigration to London. They both have struggles and successes, and one particular moment with Infemelu had me in tears. They bother, though in completely different ways, end up returning to Nigeria.

There’s a lot going on with this book, but it was so worth it for me. Adichie is an amazing storyteller, and clearly extremely intelligent. I did take issue with certain sentiments, but will keep the controversy to myself. If you’re interested in the black experience in America, read this book. If you’re not interested in that experience, you must read this book.

BOOK REVIEW | The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

My thoughts:
A girl who didn’t want a baby would find a way to not have one. The good thing to do – the Christian thing – would be to make it a little easier on her. 

In her debut, Brit Bennett brings flawed characters to the page with ease. Her writing is smooth and easy to take in, and I enjoyed so much about this story. Nadia is 17 years old and destined for greatness, but grieving the sudden loss of her mother. In her grief she falls into the arms of Luke, the local pastor’s son. Luke and Nadia engage in a typical teenage fling – it’s passionate yet fleeting, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and a secret that binds them together. This is a coming of age story spanning about 10 years in which we see Nadia and Luke come together and separate many times over. Along the way, Nadia develops a friendship with a girl named Aubrey who untimely becomes deeply intertwined in both Nadia and Luke’s lives.

The narrative is uniquely divided between many of the central characters, as well as a group of older church ladies simply known as “the mothers”. I struggled a bit with the purpose of these women – they observe drama unfolding from the sidelines and gossip about it among themselves. I kept thinking they would inject some wisdom or greater meaning into the story, but this never really happened. There is tons of wisdom in the book, however, and Bennett delivers many profound moments in this work:

Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless, she had tried to tell him. Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.

In a way, subtle racism was worse because it made you feel crazy. You were always left wondering, was that actually racist? Had you just imagined it?

These are just a couple of the passages that I highlighted while reading, and I could easily share many more. My primary disconnect is that I can’t quite figure out this book’s intent – what is the mission here? The book discusses abortion openly and frequently, but doesn’t take a stance on it (though I would say it leans heavily towards pro-life). I realize this book isn’t meant to be a political statement, but I am trying to work out what is it meant to be. It certainly poses the question “what makes a mother?” – is it physically having a child, or does the longing for a child count too?

How small she’d looked next to the size of her wanting.

In the end, this may simply be a book about longing: longing for love (romantic and maternal), family, friendship, longing to find space in the world, and for the truth.