BOOK REVIEW | The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

This isn’t a review, it’s just a reminder to read The Fire Next Time if you haven’t. James Baldwin’s brilliance and wisdom had me bookmarking nearly every page. First published in 1963 at the dawn of the civil right’s movement, it’s shocking to realize that everything Baldwin discusses is still relevant today. Below are a few of my favourite quotes.

You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to becomes a truly moral human…must divorce himself of all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, than it is time we got rid of him.

I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.

A short and powerful read that I’ll certainly reach for again in the future.

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BOOK REVIEW: Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 | Canada Reads 2018 Contender #1

4/5 stars

If not for my beloved Canada Reads competition, I would never have picked this up. Call me cynical, but stories that are hopeful and quaint are just not my thing (I’m not sure what this says about me). The reason I love Canada Reads is that it forces me to read books that aren’t in my wheelhouse, and I found myself engrossed in this memoir in spite of my initial resistance. I was surprised when I flipped the book over to see that author Craig Davidson writes horror fiction under a pseudonym that I know very well – Nick Cutter. This immediately piqued my interest!

Years ago, long before Davidson became known (as Cutter) for his horror, he was a struggling writer, down on his luck and hopelessly out of work. A flyer in his mailbox advertised a need for school bus drivers, and he applied on a whim. Before long, he found himself going through orientation and training – this section alone was great. I loved the stories about the other trainees, seasoned drivers, and his driving instructor. It was both humourous and eye opening – it’s when Davidson realized the responsibility of transporting children.

He is assigned a route and discovers he will be driving the “short bus”, or “busette”: the special needs bus. Davidson takes us through each stop as he meets the kids that will soon become his “gang”. What follows is an account of the kids that changed his life over the course of one school year. Gavin, Nadja, Jake, Vincent, and Oliver. These kids are hilarious, full of uniqueness and quirks, and dreams no different than any other kid. One of my favourite moments was Nadja’s rules for the bus: no swear words allowed except for “Hell” and “schizz”. Davidson and Jake “click” when they meet – they become fast friends and I love reading their story.

Of course, there are challenges. Davidson respectfully discusses instances of “tantrums”, the stigma that comes from riding in a busette, and the question of self-worth that arises from being special-needs. He shares a powerful story about a time he and Jake were hanging out, and what happens when a kid in a wheelchair needs to use the bathroom. Davidson points out that we are all imperfect; how a drunk driver or a few seconds of lost oxygen in the womb, can make all the difference in who we will become. This was a fantastic read, and I hope the kids from route 3077 find their way to it.

BOOK REVIEW | Live Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

5/5 stars

“Name?” The desk clerk said to me politely… “Age?” She asked…”Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife, she said.

“Husband’s name?” She said…”Occupation?”

“Just put down housewife,” I said.

My first delve into Shirley Jackson’s non-fiction was beyond satisfying. I’ve read her horror, as well as Ruth Ware’s fantastic biography, and now, her humour. Life Among the Savages is a sort of memoir, Jackson reflecting on the mundanity of domestic life as well as raising her children – first two, then three, and by the end of the book, four.

It’s comforting to know that this book, first published in 1953, still rings true today. As a mom to two young boys, I often feel like I’m living among savages! Jackson’s characteristic dry wit turns moments of utter chaos into something many parents will relate to. Parenting is ruthless, absurd, challenging, rewarding, and the hardest work I’ve ever done – but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I only wish Jackson went a little deeper into the challenges of being a working mother, all while fulfilling the expected wifely duties; it’s bubbling there beneath the surface, but she never goes all the way in.

Those without kids can still enjoy this book – Jackson’s storytelling is as perfect here is it is in her fiction. These stories may be true or may be embellished, we’ll never know. Either way, this is a worthy read for any Jackson fan and I can’t wait to dig into Raising Demons, this book’s successor.

BOOK REVIEW | Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.

An honest take on what it means to be a woman who takes up space in the world, Roxane Gay broke my heart. Gay is brutally transparent as she examines the violence she experienced as a child, and how it shaped, and continues to shape, her journey through life. She discusses her parents, and what it means to be the child of Haitian immigrants in America. Expectations for her and her siblings were high, both academically and physically. Though her parent’s always came from a place of love, their focus on Gay’s weight became a point of contention and rebellion during critical, formative years.

This book felt like a release, therapy – she lays so much bare. What struck me the most is that this isn’t your typical memoir that wraps up with a happy ending, or profound lessons learned. Gay lets you know from page one that this is simply her experience. Many readers will identify with Gay’s discomfort with her own skin – I think being comfortable in your own body, regardless of size, is a lifelong process for many. Gay breaks down many of the struggles of being of size – chairs with arms, places to shop, and walks with friends to name a few.

From the first page I knew I was about to read something special, and cannot wait to dig into Gay’s fiction. While this is the story of her body, there is a universality to the memoir that will resonate with readers. I can only thank Gay for bearing her soul and her pain to create something so heartbreaking, honest, perfect.

BOOK REVIEW | You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

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4/5 stars

Let me start by saying that this title is everything. I have curly hair, and people ask to touch it ALL.THE.TIME. As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. Phoebe Robinson is hilarious. I want to hang out with her, and I feel like she’s my new literary best friend. This was a total blast, but a smart one filled with perspective and power. I switched between the audiobook and physical book,  and laughed out loud many times throughout. Nothing is better than listening to a comedian narrate their own book. It’s amazing. She’s a comedian and writer, and her talents come together beautifully in this short book of essays. Phoebe is bold and unapologetic in her takes on race, feminism, sexuality, and more.

I loved, LOVED, Phoebe’s sections on music. I may not love U2 the way she does, but I don’t listen to much music that would be expected for a non-white person. She talks about how people assume she knows what’s new in hip hop, when in reality she’s about to listen to Arcade Fire or Phil Collins. Cultural stereotypes, gotta love them.

Phoebe, you’ll never read this, but I need to talk to you! This book is written as though only people of colour (POC for short) will be reading it. I wanted Phoebe to be a little more inclusive with her audience, to assume that enlightened or curious (or any!) white people may want to read this book! I think she may keep her non POC readers a little at bay with this assumption, but hey, I’m a biracial reader, so maybe I just see both sides of the fence?

Speaking of being biracial, I adored Phoebe’s letters to her infant niece Olivia. She offers solutions for getting through life female and biracial. She even offers her a plethora of biracial celebrities to look to for identity: Lisa Bonet, Prince, Bob Marley, and more!

Don’t let all the fun fool you, Phoebe is on a mission with this book. She dives deep into her personal experiences with sexism and racism with a strength that I truly admire. She puts herself out there, exposing times when she felt weak and used, and made to feel less than. She discusses the young black people killed at the hands of police in America, and injustices that are difficult to swallow.

I loved reading about these topics in a practical, everyday sort of manner. Phoebe, at least for me, is so relatable that it made this book feel like a conversation with a good friend. I really enjoyed this, and will be looking out for whatever Phoebe does next.

BOOK REVIEW | The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life–why did he leave? what did he learn?–as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

My thoughts:
It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer in exchange for money was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed…What did Knight to for a living? He lived for a living.

This is a story that will speak to the introverts out there (hi, that’s me); the people that need quiet in their days and thrive when alone. If you’ve read the news stories about Christopher Knight, you know the facts around his mysterious disappearance. Knight vanished when he was 20 years old, leaving his family to think him dead. Maine residents knew someone was living in the woods, experiencing frequent, but minor, burglaries. After 27 years, Knight is finally captured and arrested – the hermit had been taken down.

After Knight’s arrest, journalist Michael Finkel couldn’t get the story of the illusive “North Pond Hermit” out of his mind. How did he survive for so long, completely alone, in the woods? What did he do to stay warm in the bitter Main winters?  What was his mental state? Is he autistic? Schizophrenic? Finkel eventually reached out to Christopher in prison, and weaseled his way in to a face to face meeting, determined to discover the man behind the facade of the North Pond Hermit.

This book goes deeper than the news articles, and Finkel draws his thoughts and conclusions from about nine hours of conversation with Knight, as well as conversations with Knight’s family and the police officers who captured him. Christopher Knight, in a split second decision, chose to live differently. He set off into the Maine woods with no plan, determined to to things his way. He survived by stealing from local cabins and camp sites, feeling terrible about it every time. For anyone who struggles with the mundanity of day to day life, Knight’s decision won’t feel so incredible. In fact, this book illustrates so clearly why it may have been the exact right path for him to choose (maybe minus the burglaries!). Not everyone fits perfectly into modern society, and not everyone desires the social interactions and abundance that many thrive on. I particularly enjoyed the sections about the importance of quiet in one’s day. I’m very sound sensitive, and this spoke right to me:

Noise harms your body and boils your brain. The word noise is derived from the Latin word nausea.

If Christopher Knight’s story piqued your interest, you will enjoy this book. He’s a strange man, but the reasons behind his choices are surprisingly relatable. It’s a shame that my city is in the middle of a deep freeze, I’m craving a walk in the woods.