BOOK REVIEW | Foe by Ian Reid

 

*I received a digital advanced review copy from Simon and Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 Release date: August 7, 2018

4/5 stars

No writer confounds and surprises like Ian Reid. His books keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat. This book is particularly bizarre, but I read I’m Thinking of Ending Things very recently, so I knew what to expect: philosophical debate disguised by an eerie story in which all is not as it seems.

Junior and Hen have a quiet, rural life together. They work hard, feed the chickens, and enjoy their evenings together. One day, a man named Terrance appears at the farm with a strange announcement – Junior has been long-listed for a potential trip away from Hen via a research project called OuterMore. Terrance leaves, but says he’ll be seeing them again soon. A year or so later, Terrance returns with the news that Junior has been officially selected and will be leaving for the OuterMore project for an unknown amount of time. Terrance moves in with them to prepare and research for the trip. And that’s about all I can say.

Books like this are meant for going in blind -learn as little as you can before diving in, and then enjoy the ride. Reid is asking some big and often contemplated questions here – how well can you truly know another person? How well can you truly know yourself? Where is technology leading us, and is all advancement positive? What is the essence of lasting relationships? What is up with the horned rhinoceros beetle?! Ok, this last one may be one of my lingering questions…

I have to admit that I caught on to the big twist long before it’s reveal, though I wasn’t expecting the second twist right at the end. I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone, but know that Reid not only carefully crafts his words, but makes subtle stylistic choices that can be revealing. This is for those who enjoy thinking about a book long after it ends, and who are comfortable with an artistic storyline. This book doesn’t wrap up nicely at all, in fact the ending is completely open for continuation. My only criticism of this book is that it could have been longer, gone deeper, explored further. I can’t rate this as high as ITOET, as it doesn’t pack quite the gut wrenching, emotional punch that his first novel did. Reid may very well be one of my favorite new (and Canadian!) authors.

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BOOK REVIEW | Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

“Somebody…should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished – and are perishing every hour.”

This book blew me away. A precursor to Call Me By Your Name (which is no secret that I absolutely love), I can see where Aciman was influenced. Baldwin is such a beautiful craftsman of words; his writing is so simple, yet so affecting. This would have a been a bold and brave book during during the time it was published, 1956, and it’s just one way in which Baldwin continues to astound me.

While living in Paris, David, an American, meets a bartender named Giovanni. A spark is there, and through forceful encouragement, he invites Giovanni out with the group. The two connect, and before long they are living together, nearly penniless, in Giovanni’s tiny 1 room apartment. David struggles with his identity – is he bisexual? Gay? It all seems irrelevant when he is with Giovanni. However, David has a fiancé, Hella, and has to make a difficult decision about the life he wants to have.

While living in Giovanni’s small apartment, David refers to it as a closet he is trapped inside of, and I can’t really put it any better than that. This is a story about feeling trapped, choosing to eschew love out of fear, and the painful regret that comes later. David and Giovanni’s lives go down very different paths, and they must each account for the decisions they make and the regrets they have in the face of death. This book is stunningly beautiful at times, violent and tragic at others; it was an emotional journey that had me in tears more than once.

BOOK REVIEW | Harvard Square by André Aciman

4/5 stars

Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I’d lost track of and sloughed off in America. My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my Mr Hyde, my very, very rough draft. Me unmasked, unchained, unleashed, unfinished: me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged. Me without books, without finish, without a green card. 

André Aciman’s flare for writing internal dialogue is alive and well in Harvard Square, as is his focus on meaningful relationships. While romantic relationships are explored in this work, Aciman’s focus here is on the power of male friendship. Told through the lens of the immigrant experience, Aciman explores an unlikely, and occasionally unwelcome, friendship.

In recounting his days as a student at Harvard, our unnamed narrator reflects on his old friend Kalaj (short for Kalashnikov). He meets Kalaj by chance one day at Café Algiers, a local eatery and hangout. Kalaj is everything he is not – loud, opinionated, and unabashedly forward with women. The two bond and develop a sort of love-hate friendship, though they connect deeply on their experiences as immigrants in America. Our narrator is Jewish, from Alexandria, Egypt, while Kalaj is from the Tunisia; they struggle with both money and assimilation, they long for France and the feeling of home.

I adored the ending of this book; it’s subtle, but remind us of the imprint that people have in our lives, even ones that are long forgotten. While our narrator is often frustrated with Kalaj’s big personality, the two shared a unique friendship that leaves a lasting impact. As this is my third Aciman read, I feel like I have a good grasp of his writing. Aciman is well read and highly intelligent, there is no doubt about that. There are moments in this book that drag a little, alienating readers who may not be as well versed in certain topics as he is. Overall, this was another great Aciman book, and I’m looking forward to continuing with his backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Boat People by Sharon Bala| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #4

3/5 stars

In a time when political views are extremely divided, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People portrays a unique set of views regarding the immigrant experience. The vast number refugees coming into Canada are simply seeking a safe life for their families, but how do we separate those who will become contributing citizens from those with other motives? Bala seeks to answer this question, as well as shed light on a process that feels more criminal than hopeful.

Mahindin and his six year old son, Sillian, flee the civil war in Sri Lanka, setting out on a boat with about 500 other people seeking refuge in Canada. When their boat arrives in British Columbia, the refugee’s hope is quickly destroyed. Rather than starting their new lives, they are detained, questioned, and subject to a legal battle that will determine if they can stay or if they will be deported. Mahindan is separated from Sillian during the process, and fears that his past political associations will come to light, destroying their chances for life in Canada.

Inspired by actual events from 2009, Bala is effective in her portrayal of the immigration process from all sides. The story is told not only from Mahindan’s perspective, but also from Priya, a young lawyer appointed to defend Mahindan, and Grace, an adjudicator who will ultimately determine his fate. As pressure mounts, questions arise about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), why Mahindan was in a Tiger controlled area, and whether he has terrorist affiliations. Bala also touches on the smugglers and crime that goes along with moving people in desperate times.

This is such such an important story to tell, especially in our current political climate. The story surrounding Mahindan, Sillian, and their history was a joy to read. However, I was never able to fully invest myself in Priya’s or Grace’s stories – they were interesting, but didn’t feel necessary. Their stories made the book unnecessarily long, leaving me zoned out at times. This was a solid read, and a valuable addition to the Canada Reads contender list.

BOOK REVIEW | Enigma Variations by André Aciman

5/5 stars

I am the most miserable man alive, and more so because no one at this dinner table has the slightest notion of what is tearing me up. And yet, what if each of us at this very table were a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their backs and you can hear each one crash and all their mealy, hardheaded coconuts pelt the ground, and still we’ll keep our spirited good cheer and add a lilting sprint to our gait on the way to the office every morning, because we’re waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and blistered lives and say, Follow me, Brother. Follow me, Sister. 

After obsessing over Call Me By Your Name, I knew I would be picking up another Aciman book soon. Enigma Variations proved to be the perfect quell to the emptiness I felt after finishing CMBYN, offering a similar narration style and themes. Aciman is an absolute master of internal dialogue; the ache and agony of desire jump out of the pages as we follow Paul from adolescence to adulthood through five uniquely connected vignettes.

We first meet Paul at twelve years old, infatuated with the town cabinetmaker. Next comes Claire; Paul is consumed with the idea that she is cheating on him. Then, a tennis partner named Manfred – a love that takes years to come to light. We meet his college girlfriend who he reunites with every four years, but only for a few days each time. Finally, a girl much younger than himself. Through all of these relationships, Paul searches for…something more. Fireworks? Contentment? Partnership? He is passionate in the chase, but seldom relieved by reciprocation.

Aciman’s prose builds tension; the yearning his characters feel is palpable, and he often provides satisfactory release. A touch that finally happens, or the right words at the right time, with the right person ready to receive them. Much of this book takes place in Paul’s head; his thoughts, obsessions, fears, and desires are laid bare. Aciman writes candidly about all facets of love: diffidence is love, fear itself is love, even the scorn you feel is love. Aciman brings a fresh and realistic approach to stories of this nature, resulting in a wholly unique reading experience.

BOOK REVIEW | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

4/5 stars

On the surface, this is a book about injustice, loyalty, and the ways in which we love. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find social commentary on what it means to be black in America. Without giving anything away, a young couple who seems to have it all is forcefully reminded that regardless of hard work and determination, they will not live the American dream.

Celeste and Roy are a young married couple, busy planning their lives and grappling with the decision of when, or if, to have children. Celeste is a successful artist and doll maker, and it’s easy to sense that Roy is on the brink of something great as an entrepreneur. One fateful evening will change the course of their lives for the next five years, leaving Celeste and Roy to untangle a mess and decide if love is enough to keep their marriage intact.

Jones’ writing is conversational and easy to digest; she pulls you into the story and is brutally honest in her message. There are a few strange elements at play here, such as Celeste’s dolls, or poupées, which often happen to resemble Roy in some way. I felt somewhat disconnected from the characters who are all deeply flawed; I often went back and forth with who I felt was right and just given the circumstances. That said, this is an engrossing read and I can certainly understand its popularity. This is the sort of book that plays out visually in your head – in fact, it would make a great movie. I wavered a lot with where to place my rating – sections of this book are five star worthy, but some areas felt like three stars – four seems like a good place to settle.

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?