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 | From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

5/5 stars.

Jesse Thistle shares his powerful story in his memoir, From the Ashes. From a child struggling to get by with his brothers, to a young man on the streets, it’s amazing that Thistle is here today to tell us about his life. They say you have to hit rock bottom to break free from addiction, and Thislte most certainly did.

Thistle and his brothers are left behind first by their mother, and eventually their father. When a child grows up without parents there’s a piece of their identity, a sense of home, missing. This lack of self becomes the catalyst for many of the decisions Thislte will make in his young life.

Thistle and his brothers are taken in by his paternal grandparents but, as is often the case, he starts to fall into bad habits. Before long, his life has spiraled out of control. Following in his father’s footsteps, Thistle finds himself homeless and trapped in the throes of addiction. It’s heartbreaking to follow Thistle down this road, to see him sink deeper and deeper into his illness, becoming increasingly isolated. Sick and badly injured, it’s unbelievable that he was able to find his way out of his circumstances. It wasn’t luck: he worked incredibly hard to grow further away from his addictions.

There’s much to glean from Thistle’s life, but what was especially profound for me was his journey to self identity. He shares that he grew up ashamed of his Métis heritage, even though he didn’t know much about it. The absence of his parents in his life left a void that took many years and many mistakes to begin to fill. I imagine this is a lifelong process. Much of Thistle’s recovery was supported by his wife, Lucie, who he discusses with so much love. It’s clear that she’s a remarkable woman – not afraid to push him to fulfill his potential.

Thistle’s writing is lush, even when deeply painful, and evocative; reading this was very visual, I could see each moment like a movie. I don’t gravitate towards memoirs, but Thistle’s story was both worth the time, and incredibly inspirational. I’d highly recommend this to readers interested in intergenerational trauma or addiction, or to those who are struggling in life and feel there’s no way out.

BOOK REVIEW | The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

3/5 stars

I’ve finally started on Lars Kepler’s famous Joona Linna series, and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed the first installment. I’d heard terrible things about this book, but it’s my understanding that earlier translations were not well done (Lars Kepler is a pseudonym for a Swedish husband and wife writing team), rendering the story nonsense. I’m happy to report that these new editions read very well.

This plot is complex, but here are the basics. 10 years ago Erik Maria Bark worked as a professional hypnotist, helping people to move through their past traumas. After a patient incident, he has promised never to hypnotize anyone again. Meanwhile, detective Joona Linna is investigating a complex case which leaves nearly an entire family killed. It’s clear that, regardless of his vow never to practice hypnotism again, Erik is required to hypnotize Josef, the teenage survivor and lone witness of this crime, to unlock details that could lead solving the case. The chain of events that follows leaves Erik and his wife Simone in desperate need of Joona’s help as well.

This was an easy story to move through, but it did feel a little disjointed – as though I was reading two separate stories in one. Both of the stories were good, but there was no connection between them. By the end of the book we are in a totally different place than we started. The story really is Erik’s, not Josef’s, as we initially believe.

This would be a great book for someone interested in Nordic Noir. Overall, a very engaging read and I’m looking forward to continuing with the series!

BOOK REVIEW | Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

4/5 stars

Son of a Trickster has been on my radar for a while now, and I’m so grateful to Canada Reads 2020 for selecting it for the shortlist. I loved this book!

Eden Robinson can tell a story – this book and all of its characters are so vivid and alive. Right off of the bat, the language is foul and hilarious: I knew I was in for a wild ride. This is in many ways a coming of age story for Jared, a 16 year old First Nations boy. Jared’s parents are busy dealing with their own addictions to drugs and alcohol, leaving Jared to take care of both them and himself. Jared bakes and sells marijuana cookies to get by, goes to parties, and occasionally helps complete chores for his aging neighbours.

That’s the tip of the iceberg here. Jared’s grandmother spent time in a residential school, and the effects of multi-generational trauma are very much at the centre of the narrative. Along with addiction, Jared has endured abuse and absentee parents. While these are heavy topics, and as dysfunctional as Jared’s life is, Robinson has crafted a story centered around the love and strength of family. Jared’s mother, for all her faults, loves him deeply. Oh, and there’s magic too.

If you’re familiar with Indigenous storytelling, you’re probably familiar with the Trickster. The Trickster can take many forms, but is a mischievous mythical creature present in traditional stories. In this case it’s called the Wee’git, and Jared’s maternal grandmother thinks that he’s it. Jared sometimes notices strange things happening around him, but passes them off as bad drug trips. We dive into the world of magic in the last third of the book, and I wanted to better understand and this section. It was totally entertaining, but I can’t help but feel as though I missed an important detail. The good news is this is the first in a trilogy, so I can continue to enjoy Robinson’s fantastic word.

BOOK REVIEW | We Have Always Been Here – A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

4/5 stars

Book #2 for Canada Reads 2020!

We Have Always Been Here is a powerful story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery and re-inventing her faith after immigrating to Canada from Pakistan, escaping an arraigned marriage, and estrangement from her parents.

Samra Habib spent the early years of her childhood in Pakistan, her family a part of a small sect of Ahmadi Muslims. Under the threat of violence from Islamic extremists, Habib’s family made the decision to flee to Canada. Their arrival in Toronto provided freedom from physical violence, but started a new chapter of pain in Habib’s life. Like many immigrant children, she had to grow up quickly. She was bullied and felt lost among her Canadian peers. Before long, her much older male cousin came to live with her family. She soon discovers she is arranged to be married to him when she is of age.

… despite having grand dreams of becoming a writer and traveling the world, my future consisted of being a good Pakistani wife. I was destined for a life of servitude …

At age 16, Habib becomes a child bride. She begins to discover herself and knows this isn’t the life she is meant to be living. Her journey of self-healing is filled with relationships, books, art, music, fashion, travel, and mentors – each of which brings her closer to her true identity. She begins to identify as queer, a taboo that can be deadly for some in the Muslim faith. In her adult life, she as grown into her queer identity, but is missing the comfort and familiarity that Islam once brought her.

The most beautiful parts of Habib’s story were in her discovery of Unity Mosque. Almost like a secret club, she finds a Mosque that welcomes queer Muslims without judgement and with open arms. Re-discovering her faith was critical to her wholeness as a person, but more significantly was her openness to re-inventing what being Muslim means.

As I sat cross-legged on the prayer mat and started out the window, I could hardly believe I was coming back to my faith in the same neighbourhood where I attended my first drag show…I was meeting myself again in my thirties.

Habib’s passion for connecting with queer Muslims was the drive behind her photography project, Just Me and Allah. Traveling the globe, she meets with queer Muslims to take their portraits and hear their diverse stories. Through these connections they find a community, and a safe space to share their truth.

I hope that more conservative readers won’t pass on this book, and I encourage those readers to find the common ground. We all seek to find acceptance, our voice, and our place in the world. Many of Habib’s influences resonated with mine, and reading this felt like having a coffee with a friend. This book is compulsively easy to read – it’s hard to put down.

 

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.