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.

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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 | 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 | Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

5/5

There is no one else to tell, Oliver, so I’m afraid it’s going to have to be you . . .

This is the story of Elio, 17 years old, and Oliver, 24 years old, and a summer I won’t soon forget. Oliver is a graduate student who comes to work with Elio’s father and stay at their house in Italy for the summer; he’s intellectual and handsome – the sort of person that everyone is drawn to, including Elio. Elio quickly becomes enamoured with Oliver, and what develops between them is a once in a lifetime love.

I’ve read few books that capture so eloquently the yearning of unrequited love, but, until now, I’ve yet to read anything that so boldly illustrates the intensity that occurs when that love is finally reciprocated. Elio and Oliver couple utterly and completely; there are no secrets, no privacy, nothing too taboo – they become one unified soul. They are electric.

Aciman’s prose lingers before biting, is quiet and loud, soft and aggressive. Narrated from Elio’s perspective many years later, this is both a coming-of-age story and passionate, painful love story. Yes, this book is erotically charged, but with purpose. With Elio, Aciman taps into the ache and agony of desire that often accompanies the teen years. Elio is precocious, over-analyzing each encounter with Oliver, both curious and afraid. This book moved me in a genuinely profound way, more than any book has in a while.

BOOK REVIEW | Christodora by Tim Murphy

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5/5 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.