BOOK REVIEW | Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

5/5 stars

I knew from the first page that I was going to love this book. It’s heavily stylistic but compulsively readable. Broken down into 4 sections and an epilogue, we follow the lives of 12 primarily black British women. There are mothers and daughters, friends and lovers, wealthy and working class, young and old. The stories range in time from 1905 to present day – Evaristo covers ample ground with ease.

We’re first introduced to the effervescent Amma, a successful feminist playwright. Amma is the axis which many of the other stories spin around. Everyone connects to Amma in one way or another: we learn about her business partner Dominique and daughter Yazz, and later we see certain characters as attendees at Amma’s latest play, connecting solely through her art. The interconnectedness is masterfully crafted and it was a joy to read through each of these stories, slowly piecing together a history of black British womanhood.

I felt more connected to some of the women than others, but laughed, cried, and experienced pain with all of them. I was particularly invested in Dominique, who ends up in a relationship she needs to escape from, LaTisha, who falls for men too easily, Bummi, who finds the love of her life but is fearful of what it means, Carole, who rejects her African roots to embrace a posh lifestyle, and Grace, who loses baby after baby after baby in a time when providing her husband an heir is required.

Evaristo won a Booker award for this work, and is currently a Women’s Prize finalist. The accolades are absolutely deserved! It’s a sweeping, grand, beautifully crafted work. If you’re looking for a book to get lost in, this is it.

BOOK REVIEW | The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

3/5 stars

I’ve struggled to make sense of my thoughts after reading The Discomfort of Evening. I’m not sure how to rate and review a book that is so subversive, so painful, and, yes, so incredibly uncomfortable.

The bones of the story surrounds 10 year old Jas and her family who live and work on a dairy farm in rural Netherlands. Her older brother Matthies tragically passes away in an ice skating incident, leaving behind deeply wounded parents, Jas, and her two siblings Obbe and Hannah.

As time passes, each member of the family handles the grief of loosing Matthies uniquely, but both Jas and her mother seem to endure the most psychological damage. Jas’s mother loses interest in food; she becomes thinner and thinner, and more and more reclusive. Jas, who is keenly insightful, constantly worries about her, sinking deeper into her anxieties.

Jas develops coping mechanisms such as hiding herself in her large red coat and refusing to take it off. She engages in self harm and suffers severe constipation as a result of her anxieties and her desperation to main control of her crumbling family. A physical inability to let go, an internal bloating.

I can’t talk about this book without addressing its many controversial and difficult passages. Jas’ infatuation with Hitler, animal abuse, and children’s sexuality which can be read as both assault and incest in separate instances. Many explicit scenes made my stomach turn, and at one point I considered putting the book down and not finishing it. Why would a talented writer fill their otherwise profound book with such graphic, disturbing imagery? I’m still trying to contend with this. The book would have been as effective as a study of grief if specific passages weren’t included. In fact, this would have been a 5 star read for me.

There is no doubt in my mind though: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is fascinating. Rijneveld is non-binary, grew up and still works on a dairy farm, and I can’t help but wonder what parts of this book might have been borrowed from their childhood. While this book was extremely difficult, in many ways it felt like a new generation in fiction.

BOOK REVIEW | Beloved by Toni Morrison

5/5 stars

What can I say about Beloved that hasn’t been said before? It’s a truly remarkable work.

This is the raw and powerful story of Sethe, a woman who escaped slavery, but not before committing a horrific act as a way of keeping her children from becoming slaves as well. Eighteen years later, Sethe is haunted by her past. Morrison examines both the lasting effects of slavery, as well as the mental health of the enslaved.

Morrison is otherworldly in her prose; poetic, intimate, explicit – I caught my breath more than once while reading certain passages. The first was early on in the book when Sethe tells her lover, Paul D, that she has a tree on her back. Paul looks at her tree post-coitus and instead sees the gnarled scars left behind after a brutal whipping. It’s a sad, graphic moment, and when I first understood the power of Morrison’s craft.

A heavy, dense story that commands your attention, but it’s worth every bit of the effort. A book to be read over and over again.

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!