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 | Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbø

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Olav lives the lonely life of a fixer. When you ‘fix’ people for a living – terminally – it’s hard to get close to anyone. Now he’s finally met the woman of his dreams. But there are two problems. She’s his boss’ wife. And Olav’s just been hired to kill her. From the bestselling author of BAFTA-nominated Headhunters, comes Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow: a short, sharp shock of a thriller.

My thoughts:
This was my second Jo Nesbø read, and I am so enamored with his writing. I loved, and raved about, The Son, and Blood on Snow packs a similar emotional punch. Nesbø writes characters you fall in love with, regardless of their criminal acts.

Olav is a “fixer”, or hitman, for a notorious drug distributor. He doesn’t like what he does but circumstances have led him to this path, and he knows he’s good at his job. When a job goes wrong after Olav strays from his directions, he becomes the target and ends up taking his boss’ wife into hiding with him to protect her. Olav reaches out to his boss’ main competitor, “The Fisherman”, for help and they set out to fix him first.

The storyline is compelling and keeps you flipping the pages, but it’s Olav that makes the book so impactful. He’s a reader and a romantic, spending his time thinking about the love story in Les Miserables and relating it to his own life. As we learn about his childhood he becomes more sympathetic, regardless of the brutal crimes he has committed.

This book is violent with some pretty shocking moments, but it’s impressive how much depth Nesbø delivers in this short story. I’ve been itching to start the Harry Hole series for ages, and with the latest installment coming out soon, it may be time. I’ll also be reading the companion to this book, Midnight Sun, when it arrives in the mail. If you’re looking for an unconventional crime read, be sure to pick this up!

BOOK REVIEW | Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization, and the government is involved in sending secret missions to explore Area X. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

Annihilation opens with the twelfth expedition. The group is composed of four women, including our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all of their observations, scientific and otherwise; and, above all, to avoid succumbing to the unpredictable effects of Area X itself.

What they discover shocks them: first, a massive topographic anomaly that does not appear on any map; and second, life forms beyond anything they’re equipped to understand. But it’s the surprises that came across the border with them that change everything-the secrets of the expedition members themselves, including our narrator. What do they really know about Area X-and each other?

My thoughts:
I completely forgot I had to read this for my book club, so I put my other books aside to read this. I must say I was pleasantly surprised! I’ve heard all of the comparisons to LOST, and I have to agree – this felt very reminiscent of that show. Similarities include, but are not limited to: hog hunting, placebos, a mysterious monster (smoke vs slime), and a mysterious vessel of sorts (a hutch vs a tower). In case you’re wondering, I thoroughly enjoyed both.

We open up with an all female crew venturing into Area X. Our narrator is the biologist and she is traveling with the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. This is the 12th expedition into Area X, which is being studied by a government agency called Southern Reach. Throughout the story we learn more about the 11 expeditions that traversed Area X before them, as well as the motivations behind the biologists involvement in the project.

This is an imaginative, science-fiction read, but I didn’t personally find it to be scary or a work of horror as many call it. For a short book, I didn’t read it as quickly as I thought I would. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, and the majority of the book is made up of the biologists thoughts and observations, which made it feel a bit slower than I expected. This is a fun and escapist book, and I will be continuing with the series and hope to find answers to some of my questions!

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.

BOOK REVIEW | Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in.
Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.

My thoughts:
Americanah is an epic love story that tells the tale of Ifemelu, her immigration to the United States from Nigeria, and her eventual emigration back to Nigeria. This is a book about race in America, and Adichie isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics head on.

When Ifemelu is young, before her immigration to the United States, she falls in love with Obinze. After her departure their relationship fades, and he takes a different path, moving to London where he lives illegally. Though living in different worlds, the two always think of one another, and we spend much of the story wondering if they will become reunited. While in American, Ifemelu dates both a white man and a black American man. Obinze felt like the constant with which these experimental men were measured against – would anyone ever stack up?

Ifemelu is a direct and bold personality, and has no problem with pointing out other people’s faults. I loved her relationship with Curt, the white man; he loved her fully and respected anything she had to say regarding race, loving her natural hair while she was embarrassed by it. Ifemelu, however, always found fault with Curt; she found his racial respect frustrating, as if he could never “get it”. In many ways that is true, as a wealthy white man in American he could never fully understand her experience, but I wanted her to let him in. I found Ifemelu hilarious at times, and incredibly frustrating at others. Maybe that’s because I am the product of an interracial relationship, and I’m in one as well.

The narrative style is unique – we flip between Ifemelu and Obinze, past and present, and my personal favourite: Ifemelus’s blog posts. Ifemelu writes a successful blog about race in America, and choice blog posts are interspersed throughout the book like mini essays. These are essential and poignant, and made much of the book for me. I loved them.

Some of the best moments for me were in the discussion of hair. There is discussion of good hair, nappy hair, conforming through hair, and embracing hair. I’m half black – my mother is Jamaican and my father is Irish/English – and I have curly hair. Not black hair, not wavy hair, but curly. I spent most of my youth hating everything about it, and killing it with flat irons and relaxers (relaxer burn is real!), all the while hoping it wouldn’t rain as to ruin all of my hard work. I eventually decided to stop torturing my hair, grow out the relaxer, and learned to be OK with the stuff that grew out of my head. It was a long journey, but worth it. However, to this day, I feel like my curls don’t look as professional as straight hair does. I long to go swimming without having to consider what frizz reducing and controlling products I’ll have to lug along with me for afterwards. It’s amazing to me how much of a hold hair can have over enjoyment of life, and it was comforting to see this reflected in literature.

It was fascinating to see race through Ifemelu’s eyes – how race only became a prevalent part of her life in America, and when she returned to Nigeria she felt her blackness fade away. I thought about this, and realized that if curly hair were the majority, I likely wouldn’t feel so much frustration towards mine. It’s amazing the impact that culture has on self-worth.

Adichie dives into the election of Obama, which I remember so well. Like the characters in the story, I had similar fears – would someone try to harm him? Could this actually make issues of race worse? It’s fascinating to read this book in the era of Trump, and sad to see that this may have been true. I remember the hope and tears shed when Obama was elected, and appreciate Adichie’s perspective on that moment in history. I’m Canadian, but whatever happens in American always makes its ways over to us in one way or another.

The struggles of immigration are highlighted from two perspectives: Ifemelu’s immigration to America, and Obinze’s illegal immigration to London. They both have struggles and successes, and one particular moment with Infemelu had me in tears. They bother, though in completely different ways, end up returning to Nigeria.

There’s a lot going on with this book, but it was so worth it for me. Adichie is an amazing storyteller, and clearly extremely intelligent. I did take issue with certain sentiments, but will keep the controversy to myself. If you’re interested in the black experience in America, read this book. If you’re not interested in that experience, you must read this book.

BOOK REVIEW | Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Louise is a single mom, a secretary, stuck in a modern-day rut. On a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and sparks fly. Though he leaves after they kiss, she’s thrilled she finally connected with someone.

When Louise arrives at work on Monday, she meets her new boss, David. The man from the bar. The very married man from the bar…who says the kiss was a terrible mistake but who still can’t keep his eyes off Louise

And then Louise bumps into Adele, who’s new to town and in need of a friend, but she also just happens to be married to David. David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife, but then why is David so controlling, and why is Adele so scared of him?

As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong, but Louise can’t guess how wrong―and how far a person might go to protect their marriage’s secrets.

My thoughts:
Secrets, secrets, secrets. People are filled to the brim with them if you look closely.

This book is completely nutty…and I loved every second. Let me start this off by saying that I would not categorize this as a psychological thriller, I feel like that is a little misleading. It’s certainly nothing like any psychological thriller I’ve read before. It is, however, extremely compelling and a blast to read.

Louise is struggling though her mundane life. Shes’s recently been divorced, and is a single mom who works as a secretary for a psychologists’ office. On an evening out, she meets a handsome man named David and they click instantly. They have an amazing time and share a kiss – it feels too perfect…and of course, it is. When she heads into work for her next shift, David walks in and she discovers that he is both her new boss and married. To make matters more interesting, Louise bumps into a woman after dropping her son off at school and they get to chatting and go out for coffee. An exciting new friendship begins and the woman, Adele, just happens to be David’s wife. Are you still with me? See what I mean? Nutty. Louise and David continue with their affair while Louise and Adele continue with their friendship, and Louise does her best to make sure these two relationships never collide. Who wants to look like the crazy woman who becomes secret friends with her lover’s wife?

As the friendship between Louise and Adele grows, strange things are revealed. David seems to keep Adele on a tight leash, not allowing her a cell phone or credit card. Adele has no other friends, and Louise begins to wonder if David, who is a bit of a heavy drinker, is possibly controlling or abusing Adele. At the same time, during their affairs, he seems tender and kind, and she has trouble piecing the David she knows together with the David who is married to Adele. This story is narrated from multiple perspectives and timelines, each skillfully adding an element to the plot. The reader quickly realizes that everything is not as it seems, questioning everything while fearing the truth.

Pinborough brings us along for the ride until we reach the infamous #wtfthatending. Now, it  wasn’t quite as outrageous as I expected it to be, but I loved it and and found myself laughing in the best way possible as it unfolded. I was able to guess some of the events that would occur, but Pinborough keeps the twists coming until the very final pages, and the very last one?? I did NOT see that coming! Go into this book and immerse yourself it in – it’s a thrill ride and and will be best enjoyed if you just go with it. Suspend reality and let the crazy in!

BOOK REVIEW | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the long-awaited new novel– a book that sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan–from the award-winning, internationally best-selling author Haruki Murakami.

Here he gives us the remarkable story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages.

My thoughts:
I have no sense of self. I have no personality, no brilliant color. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there’s nothing inside. 

Haruki Murakami broke my heart with his gorgeous story of Tsukuru Tazaki and his search for what it all means. In his high school days, Tsukuru was a part of a special friendship; a group of five that were truly inseparable. Four of his friends share a unique bond – their last names all represent a color: Aka is red, Ao is blue, Shiro is white, and Kuro is black. Tsukuru, however, feels colorless as his name simply translates as “the builder”.

In his college years, without warning, his four friends reveal that they will no longer speak to him leaving Tsukuru ostracized and alone. Tsukuru has no idea why this occurred, but is convinced that his flaws are what led to this  abandonment. Though painfully suicidal, Tsukuru manages to graduate from college and build a successful career. Tsukuru eventually meets a woman named Sara, and with her encouragement realizes he must face his past and release his pain so that he can move into his future. On the cusp of a great romance, Tsukuru journeys to reconnect with his old friends and put to rest this difficult part of his life. His reunions open old wounds, but also pave the way for new discoveries.

I went into this book knowing little about the plot, and it turned out I was in the perfect mindset for something like this. Murakami examines many complexities of modern life with writing that is clean and straight forward; his insights aren’t muddied by overly colorful prose. The language is clear and direct, and it’s not nessecary to dig into the text for meaning: it’s all laid bare. Many Murakami fans suggest reading this work later, not as your introduction to his writing. I absolutely adored this book, though, and am now excited to dive into the magical realism that he is known for.