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 | Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

4/5 stars

I finished Radicalized a few days ago, but have had trouble concentrating long enough to write my review. Like so many others, I’m feeling overwhelmed. This was a great collection though, so hopefully this quick rundown of the stories will do it justice.

“Unauthorized Bread” seems silly initially: Salima, an immigrant, jailbreaks her toaster so she can toast “unauthorized bread”, rather than the manufacturer approved bread for her model. This leads to her eventually jailbreaking her dishwasher, and so on. It seems outlandish, but really, when you think about it, how is this any different than using a propriety cord to charge a device? Or your printer faulting because you purchased aftermarket toner? The story goes deeper, straddling the ways in which the rich can benefit from these constraints while the less privelaged, immigrants in this case, are left to suffer. Salima eventually moves into apartment housing where the appliances are subsidized and monitored, and elevators work on a hierarchy: non immigrant ride first. Naturally, Salima wants to find workarounds. Funny and smart, I loved this story.

“Model Minority” is a superhero story that takes on race, police brutality, systemic oppression, and even the culture of armchair saviors. This was probably my least favourite story of the book, but I appreciate Doctorow’s commentary on these relevant injustices.

“Radicalized” is about health care and one man’s descent into the dark web. As insurance companies systematically deny critically ill patients the care that they need to survive, an online forum provides an outlet for their frustrated loved ones to express their anger. This anger soon evolves into a hotbed of violent ideologies, and it’s not long before someone decides to act on his destructive fantasy.

“The Masque of Red Death” is about a pandemic. I didn’t know that there was a pandemic story in this book, it was just an unfriendly coincidence. This was hard to read given the current state of global emergency. The story follows a survivalist and those with him at his compound. Difficult decisions are made, food and medication must be rationed – I think we all know how this one ends. I would have enjoyed reading this a lot more if it was a different time. I’ve heard some say that they don’t see how this story fits in with the first 3, but the first 3 issues are all, in some way, represented in this final story. Survival, classism, and health.

I really enjoyed these novellas from Cory Doctorow; they’re profound, astute satires about very real social issues. A book that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if not for Canada Reads, which is why I love the competition.

BOOK REVIEW | Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

 

4/5 stars

My first book complete for Canada Reads 2020!

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, a book for the #metoo movement, takes place in St. John’s Newfoundland. Set over the course of one long day with a blizzard setting in, we hear from staff and acquaintances of the resturaunt “The Hazel”.

Narrated by a large cast of characters, Coles seeks to illustrate the ways in which a capitalist society sets you up for either success of failure. When you have a rich dad he can buy you a restaurant to run, nepotism at its finest. When you have drug addicted parents you may find yourself in damaging foster homes, and end up addicted to drugs yourself. This is ultimately about imbalances in power and wealth, and how this impacts the health of a community.

Coles is unrelenting, unafraid to go to the darkest depths of addiction and poverty, but the format of this book kept me at an emotional distance. The narrative style is unique – there’s not a lot of dialogue throughout the story. We mainly hear from the different characters via their inner monologues, often in a sort of stream of consciousness rumination. I felt the most engaged when we see the dynamics between the characters come alive – Iris and John, Calv and Amanda, etc. This book is heavy, depicting some really difficult scenes, but I found myself unaffected. At least not as deeply as with stories where I feel truly connected to the characters.

This is a great book and I can see why it’s doing so well here in Canada. Up for a Giller Prize, and now shortlisted for Canada Reads 2020, it’s a bold look into the some of the dark places that we often try to avoid. It you’re about to start on this book, I recommend keeping a piece of paper nearby to jot down how the characters are connected. Personally, I feel like a second reading would allow for a deeper relationship with the characters and a more impactful experience.

BOOK REVIEW | The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

4/5 stars

I adore this book! If you are looking for an #ownvoices alternative to American Dirt that would be perfect for group discussions or a book club, I highly recommend picking this up.

The story opens with Rivera family crossing the border into the USA where they hope to enroll their daughter in a special school. Maribel suffered an accident at her father’s work site in Mexico, resulting in a brain injury. Her parents, Alma and Arturo, are advised to get her into an American school for the best chances of recovery. Much of this story is about the fierce devotion that parents have for their children, and the sacrifices they make for them.

The Riveras are dropped off at an apartment building, ready to begin their new life in Delaware were Arturo was sponsored to work at a mushroom factory. As the days go by, we meet other residents of the building. They come from all over the Spanish speaking world – Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Panamá, Nicaragua, Paraguay – but are united by the shared experience of immigration. It’s not long before Mayor, the teenage son of a neighbour, takes notice of Maribel. Mayor sees Maribel for who she is, regardless of her brain injury, and the two form a special bond.

There’s so much more I could dig into: the challenges of employment for undocumented migrants, ignorance about how people perceive Spanish speaking immigrants (Panamanians do not eat tacos!), machismo, gun violence, the perils of assuming you know anyone’s truth, judgements that we place on others, etc. But instead I’ll just recommend giving this a read. It gets a bit sentimental at times and is occasionally a little heavy handed. The end moves very quickly and feels rushed, but that doesn’t take away from what a touching story this was. I’ll be thinking about the Rivera family for a while.

BOOK REVIEW | Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

5/5 stars

She leaned forward and peered at the rosebush – why, there was another bud coming right behind that bloom!

Oh, Olive, where to begin? I adored this book from the first page to the last. The quote above is the simplest and most meaningful way of summing up this book – life just goes on. You live, have experiences, create human connections, and you die. And then another bud follows your bloom. This is a book about reflection – the messiness of life, the stuff in the middle.

Olive is back in this follow up to its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Please note that you do not have to have read the first installment to enjoy this book, but it’s a fantastic return to this character if you have. Told in Strout’s signature style, this is a series of short stories about the people and places of the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Each story is about or ultimately connects with Olive – even the stories that she doesn’t appear in reveal connections by the end.

Olive is as cynical as ever, speaking her mind in the most hilarious and inappropriate ways. She says what everyone thinks, but would never dare to say out loud. Time passes as the stories roll on, reflections on life and human connections being the bond that ties them all together. This was a particularly poignant time in my life to read Olive – I have 3 young kids, one of them being a baby. Olive’s reflections on motherhood and her marriage reminded me that the the chaos, busyness, and work that comes with raising 3 boys and maintaining a partnership is, in fact, the stuff of life.

I loved Olive, especially as she became elderly. I loved how she processed her age, her losses, her loneliness, her relationships with her son and late husbands – all with her cantankerous flair. I don’t think we’ll be hearing from Olive again, but this was the perfect way to say goodbye.

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!