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?

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 | 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.

BOOK REVIEW | Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez | Canada Reads 2018

4/5 stars

If you’re looking for a book to completely tear you apart, this could be it. Scarborough is an account of the people living in a low-income community, east of Toronto. Through the Ontario Reads Literacy Program, our large cast of characters are connected. These characters, primarily parents and their kids, are subject to poverty, alcoholism, racism, and prejudice. Though they show it in different ways, all of these parents are doing the best they know how, with limited resources, to provide for their kids.

Told from multiple perspectives, Hernandez astutely captures life for those surviving through poverty. Bing, an intellectually gifted Filipino boy coming to terms with his sexuality and his mother, Edna. Bing and Edna have a beautiful relationship – Edna works hard at her nail salon, Bing often helping out. Laura, a Caucasian girl, suffering through abuse from both of her parents, now living with her father, Cory. Cory is an alcoholic and rarely knows where Laura’s next meal is coming from – Laura is the most heartbreaking character in the book. Sylvie, a First Nations girl, living with her loving and dedicated mother, Marie, and three year old brother Johnny. Marie knows something is different about Johnny, bu prejudices in the medical system prevent her from finding help. She rushes across town on busses, pushes strollers through slush and snow, doing anything she can to make his appointments using public transit.

All of these characters are connected through the Ontario Reads Literacy Reads program – a place kids can go before school to have breakfast and play, to be themselves. Hina, who runs the program, is often subject to racism from the parents who drop their kids off at the program, and struggles to run the program in a way that best serves the community. We hear from Hina in her weekly reports to her supervisor.

There are some amazing wins for some of the characters, such as Bing’s school performance, and Marie’s breakthrough with Johnny. This wasn’t a perfect book, but it was darn close for me. Hernandez gripped me from the first page, and I was deeply invested in all of her characters. The final chapter was a little sentimental for my taste, but I understand what Hernandez was going for.

What struck me the most with this book was how familiar it all felt, particularly the racism and prejudice. These are the problems we face here in Canada, and this is part of why I love Canada Reads so much. These are the sort of books that Canadians need to read, much like The Break last year. American authours abound, but it’s so important to read content from our own backyard.

BOOK REVIEW | Brother by David Chariandy | 2018 Canada Reads Longlist

5/5 stars

There is so much packed into this slim book by David Chariandy. Brother explores topics that many would describe as timely, but that he describes as being felt by many for far too long. Chariandy dives into race, masculinity, police violence, community, the immigrant experience, and the power of music with striking precision and depth.

Michael and his older brother, Francis, live in a community called The Park in Scarborough, Ontario. Raised by their hard working Trinidadian mother, the boys are often left alone to take care of each other. Francis takes on the role of leader, guiding and teaching Michael along the way, often making mistakes of his own. With love and respect for their mother the boys stay on a clean path, but after witnessing an instance of violence, Francis is changed.

The story jumps back and forth in time from when the boys are kids to present day. As Michael and Francis struggle to find purpose and identity, the pair are subject to the prejudice that comes from having brown skin and living in an immigrant community; expectations are low. Through a love of hip hop, Francis begins to explore new opportunities, unknowingly sealing his fate. In the aftermath of tragedy, Michael discovers the healing power of his community.

Chariandy did a great job at representing for us children of Caribbean immigrants (my mother is Jamaican), layering in even more for me to love about this book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “ackee” mentioned in a book, or that “pears” are “avocados”, at least to Caribbean folks. Knowing that so many Canadians will read this story through Canada Reads 2018 brings me so much happiness.