BOOK REVIEW | If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

A beautiful, heartbreaking, and painfully relevant story. A young couple in love and newly pregnant fall victim to racism and a corrupt police force. James Baldwin has a potency to his work that is unlike any other; he’s one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read.

It’s sobering to realize how little has changed in America since it’s publication in 1974. Black people are still routinely framed and even killed by police nearly 50 years later. It’s deeply painful.

This story feels current, not just in content but also in style. Less a bit of 1970’s slang, this book could have been published today. The sweetness of the tender young love story between Fonny and Tish contrasts excruciatingly with the horrors of racism, over-policing, and an unjust prison system.

This is my third Baldwin, and I’m already itching to pick up another. I’ve finished The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room in addition to Beale Street. I’m thinking of trying Another Country next, and then maybe some more of his non-fiction. When I love a writer I try not to binge their work, but Baldwin is the sort of writer your never truly finished with.

BOOK REVIEW | The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

4/5 stars

Colson Whitehead shines a light on the dark recesses of American history with The Nickel Boys. Inspired by the haunting true story of the Arthur G. Dozier reform school for boys, Whitehead’s fictional account is as important as it is disturbing. Operating out of Marianna, a small town in the panhandle, black boys were routinely beaten, raped, and killed by staff. As of 2011, at least 80 bodies were found in a mass gravesite on the school grounds.

The story revolves around Elwood, a young boy, coming of age and beginning to engage with the civil rights movement. He’s a good kid; works at a convenience store, idolizes Martin Luther King Jr., and is starting to find his way in the world. Elwood is planning to go to college when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is ultimately sent to reform school, The Nickel Academy. Elwood quickly discovers the atrocities occurring behind the walls, himself falling victim to brutal beatings.

The story is told in a uniquely non-linear format, which works well with Whitehead’s story. It’s not until the epilogue that everything comes full circle, and the reality of what you’ve read sets in. So often the dark parts of the past are “razed, cleared and neatly erased from history”, and I’m grateful to Whitehead for taking this on and bringing attention to the boys lost and forever changed at Dozier school.

BOOK REVIEW | Find Me by Andre Aciman

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4/5 stars

I approached Find Me with moderate expectations; I’ve read a few books by Aciman so I knew that his writing would be as lush and beautiful as always, but had trepidations as a follow up to Call My By Your Name. As expected, the prose is beautiful and fulfilling, but those looking for a continuation of Elio and Oliver’s story may be left wanting more.

The first and longest section of the book follows Elio’s father, Samuel. A chance meeting with a much younger woman on a train evolves quickly into a passionate romance. I enjoyed following up with Samuel, he’s a critical part of CMBYN, and it’s nice hearing more from his perspective. The older man, younger woman trope is a little tired, but Aciman is such an amazing writer that it’s easy to forgive this stereotype. However, I chuckled during a couple over the top intimate moments; in CMBYN the intensity of young romance allows for ridiculous declarations of love and obsession – it’s not as natural when it comes to an older couple.

Next we catch up with Elio, now living in Paris and working as a pianist. Elio develops a relationship with older man who attended one of his performances. Though their relationship is going well, he’s reminded of the empty space in his life that is Oliver. Oliver’s section reveals a lifetime of regret. He’s lived well, and attempts to fill the void in his life with different partners, but knows he has to find Elio again.

In a fourth, very short, final section we see Elio and Oliver reunited. This epilogue of sorts is lovely, and I think what all fans of the first book waited patiently for. Part of me wishes this was longer, and that Aciman left more space for their story. However, there’s a sense of completeness to it as well: I feel satisfied with how it ended.

I’m a huge fan of CMBYN – it was profoundly moving and I didn’t expect this book to replicate that, as very few books can so affecting. This was a great reading experience in and of itself. If you’ve read Aciman you’ll know that he has an ability to tap into desire like no one else, and Find Me is no exception.

BOOK REVIEW | Correspondents by Tim Murphy

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5/5 stars

When I heard Tim Murphy’s new book would about the war in Iraq and largely set in the Middle East, I had reservations. This is far from my area of expertise, and I was worried that I may not be able to fully engage with the story. I need’t fear though as Murphy is a fantastic storyteller and much like his first book, Christodora, he educates the reader while keeping raw human stories at the forefront. Murphy writes characters you get deeply invested in.

Correspondents spans multiple generations, though much of it surrounds Rita and Nabil. Rita, half Lebanese and half Irish, grows up in a loving home in Boston. She’s bright and ambitious and, after graduating from Harvard, secures a job working as a correspondent for The American Standard. She is soon stationed in Baghdad right after the US led invasion in 2003 and assigned to work with Nabil, an Iraqi translator who will go on assignment with her as she engages with locals.

Rita is so fiercely dedicated to reporting factually and with integrity, she occasionally appears to be desensitized to the evils of war happening right in front of her. In a vulnerable moment she lets down her guard, ultimately putting her career at risk. Nabil, while grateful for the work, is enduring a silent battle of his own. Through their shared experience of war the two develop a deep bond, only to be separated by tragic circumstances. Rita and Nabil will both experience horrific violence, injustice, pain, and suffering.

Murphy tackles many topics in this book: American interference in foreign policy, immigration, mental health, lgbtq+ rights in the Middle East, radicalization, gun violence, racism, and more. Regardless of these where you fall on the political spectrum, this is a valuable read for anyone searching for humanity in an extremely polarizing time.

Another amazing book from Tim Murphy – I can only hope he’s working on #3!

BOOK REVIEW | Starlight by Richard Wagamese

4/5 stars

It’s not in our imagined wholeness that we become art, it’s in the celebration of our cracks.
-Richard Wagamese

Starlight may be the first incomplete, posthumous, story that I’ve read. Richard Wagamese passed away before completing his first draft of Starlight, but with his estate’s blessing, this story came to be published. It’s a follow up to Medicine Walk, a story that is on my bookshelf but I have yet to read.

Franklin Starlight is grieving the loss of the man who raised him, living a quiet life on his farm with his friend and farmhand, Roth. Starlight also happens to be a talented photographer, his respectful approach to wildlife giving him the unique ability to capture animals in intimate moments.

Meanwhile, a story of survival and escape is taking place: Emmy, a woman in an abusive relationship, manages to escape with her daughter and the pair set out on the run. With no money and no plan, the only goal is to create distance between themselves and Emmy’s abuser. When Emmy finds herself in trouble, a unique suggestion from a social worker brings Starlight and Emmy together. As Emmy enters life on the farm, a tender relationship with Starlight develops. Wile the threat of Emmy’s abuser tracking them down looms, the connection between Emmy and Starlight is a powerful force and one can only root for their happiness and safety.

This story reads like a first draft, but that’s exactly what it is: some grammatical cleanup was done, and some very light editing. I enjoyed reading something is such pure form, and can envision what Wagamese’s final vision may have been. I commend the way that the ending of this story was handled – it cuts off abruptly, ending where Wagamese had. I appreciate that no attempt to finish the story was made but found significant value in the insights regarding how the story may have ended, provided by those close to Wagamese. This is ultimately a story of recovery from trauma and the power of human connection.

BOOK REVIEW | Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley

3/5 stars

Look, this book isn’t going to win any awards for its quality of writing, but Find You in the Dark shines in plot. After reading countless thrillers that feel all too similar, it was refreshing to read one that had an entirely unique premise. This was a really fun read!

Martin Reese retired young after his tech company exploded, leaving him with both ample financial resources and plenty of time on his hands. He is a devoted husband and father, who happens to have a bit of a twisted obsession: he seeks out the bodies of murder victims from unsolved cases, uncovering them for the police to find. To carry out his compulsion he tells his wife, Ellen, that he’s going camping and uses his alone time to uncover bodies. Martin’s focus is on the victims of a long captured serial killer, Jason Shurn, and he gets his intel from a cop who sells him case files on the sly.

Before long, a past family tragedy takes centre stage, reaching a breaking point when his daughter disappears. Shurn may not have acted alone, and Martin has enraged someone by uncovering victims from the past. Martin will have to succumb to an internal darkness to save his family and get his daughter back.

I’ve heard this book compared to Dexter, but I have a hard time seeing that. Unlike Dexter Martin isn’t a killer. He’s simply a man who has taken an interest in true crime to the next level, albeit a twisted one. The book is a little long and though it drags a little, I was compelled to keep reading. Side note – Nathan Ripley is a pseudonym for Naben Ruthnum, an Indian writer from Canada. He’s said he used the new monicker because of the expectations that come with having an ethnic sounding name. I must say, I wish he used his real name! Shatter the expectations! OK, back to business – 3 stars, because it was hard to put down.

BOOK REVIEW | There There by Tommy Orange


5/5 stars

We all been through a lot we don’t understand in a world made to either break us or make us so hard we can’t break even when it’s what we need most to do.

If this is Tommy Orange’s debut, I can’t wait to see what he does next. There There is a portrait of the “urban Indian”, and how racism, colonialism, and a painful history have contributed to modern day challenges. I’ve read many books by Aboriginal writers from Canada, but this is my first from the American perspective.

Told through twelve unique voices, There There follows each character as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each has heir own reason for going to the powwow: to connect to their culture, to reunite with family, to create art out of pain, and to bravely debut newfound talents. The stories of Dene, Jacquie, Blue, Opal, Orvil and more will ultimately clash in a violent denouement that is difficult to read. This is a commentary on gun violence in America as well.

We’ve read this sort of narrative before; multiple storylines cumulating in an epic event. However, Orange brings a passion for his culture to the table, making this a powerful read that resonates. His passages about traditional dance are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read, so I’ll leave you with this moment in which Orvil, backstage, dressed in his regalia before his first public dance at the powwow, finds himself in his culture:

Orvil looks around the room, and he see all these men dressed up like him…There’s something like the shaking feathers he felt somewhere between his heart and his stomach…To cry is to waste the feeling. He needs to dance with it.