BOOK REVIEW | Exit West by Moshin Hamid

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia share a cup of coffee, and their story begins. It will be a love story but also a story about war and a world in crisis, about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow. Before too long, the time will come for Nadia and Saeed to leave their homeland. When the streets are no longer useable and all options are exhausted, this young couple will join the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .

My thoughts:
Exit West by Moshin Hamid couldn’t have come a better time. This is the sort of book that we need right now, and I am so glad that I took time for this short read. It’s a book about civil war and migration, and how life can suddenly change during times of turmoil. The heart of this book, however, is a love story. It’s the story of two people falling in love, and then falling out of it.

Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. 

Nadia and Saeed meet, and before too long the relationship blossoms. They make a quick connection, and are soon spending their evenings together. Hamid is quick to let the reader know that this is not your average couple – Saeed is set on keeping the relationship chaste, while Nadia is not. She also smokes marijuana, takes psychedelic mushrooms, and rides a motorcycle. When asked why she wears the “all-concealing black robes”, she simply replies “so men don’t fuck with me”.

Hamid’s brilliance comes in the anonymity of the country that Nadia and Saeed flee from. A civil war is breaking out, and the reader must experience the violence and death from a completely unbiased perspective. This is a story about people who are in danger and the sacrifices they make to stay safe – it’s as simple as that. Not naming a specific country allows the humanity of the story to take the lead. Imagine a life in which a window becomes an instrument of death – Hamid reminds us of the reasons people emigrate.

One’s relationship with a window now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire…the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily.

I was not expecting a story rooted in magical realism, but that’s much of what this is. Nadia and Saeed move through doors that transport them to new places as they seek refuge after fleeing their homeland. Through their journey they grow closer, and then apart. Hamid describes them as a couple that is uncoupling, a sentiment many will relate to. Hamid’s prose is fluid and unique – I’ve never read anything like this before. Allow yourself to be swept away by this magical book, it’s a timely and rewarding read.

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #3 – Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanji

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the indeterminate future in an unnamed western city, physical impediments to immortality have been overcome. As society approaches the prospect of eternal life, a new problem must be confronted: with the threat of the brain’s storage capacity being overwhelmed, people want to move forward into the future free from redundant, unwanted and interfering memories. Rejuvenated bodies require rejuvenated identities–all traces of a person’s past are erased and new, complete fictions are implanted in their stead. On occasion, though, cracks emerge, and reminders of discarded lives seep through. Those afflicted suffer from Leaked Memory Syndrome, or Nostalgia, whereby thoughts from a previous existence burrow in the conscious mind threatening to pull sufferers into an internal abyss.

Doctor Frank Sina specializes in sealing these memory leaks. He is satisfied in his profession, more or less secure in the life he shares with his much younger lover, content with his own fiction–a happy childhood in the Yukon, an adulthood marked by the influence of a mathematician father and poet mother. But one day, Presley Smith arrives in Frank’s office. Persistent thoughts are torturing Presley, recurring images of another time and place. As he tries to save Presley from the onslaught of memory, Frank finds clues that suggest Presley’s past may be located in war-torn, nuclear-ravaged Maskinia, a territory located in the southern hemisphere, isolated from the north by fiercely guarded borders and policy barriers. Frank’s suspicions are only intensified when the Department of Internal Security takes an interest in Presley. They describe him as one of their own, meaning his new life was one they created for him, and they want him back. Who was Presley before the Department remade him, what secrets are buried in the memories that are encroaching upon him?

As Frank tries to save Presley from both internal and external threats, cracks emerge in his own fiction, and the thoughts that sneak through suggest a connection with the mysterious Presley that goes well beyond a doctor and his patient.

My thoughts:
Another Canada Reads selection complete! 2 more to go!

M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia takes place in a future that doesn’t feel too far off. In his world, human bodies don’t die but, rather, are rejuvenated. Old memories are wiped away and replaced with new, exclusively happy, ones, and the body is refreshed. When life gets difficult and the baggage is too much, you can simply request that your new life begin.

Dr. Frank Sina specializes in Leaked Memory Syndrome (LMS), commonly known as Nostalgia. Sufferers of LMS will describe the emergence of past memories, fragments of their old lives seeping into their new ones; Dr. Sina helps to seal these memory leaks. When Presley Smith seeks Dr. Sina’s care for his LMS, Frank is unusually drawn to him, but is unsure why he feels so strongly about helping Presley recover.

Naturally, not everyone is happy about these advances in human technology. There are a group of protestors who take a stand daily, with the threat of self-emolation, saying that people are meant to die. Further, people on their first lives, BabyGens, are frustrated by the people who have lived many lives, the GNs. How can the BabyGens find jobs and live fully when no one ever dies? Is a future like this really sustainable?

Meanwhile, in a place called Maskinia, residents are suffering through war and nuclear destruction. The border is protected, and immigrants often turn to dangerous methods to try to get across to safety. As Dr. Sina works to seal Presley’s memory leaks, he starts to discover that he may have a connection to Maskinia from his earlier life. What is that connection, and why is Dr. Sina so invested in Presley’s history?

There’s a lot going on with this book, and it does get a bit convoluted at times. However, many of the questions it asks are extremely relevant, making it a thought provoking and compelling read.

Read my review of Fifteen Dogs
Read my review of Company Town

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 | All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

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3.5/5 stars

*I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

My thoughts:
Is it possible to think outside of the box of your ideology? Or is ideology the box and you just have to work at opening it?

In Tom Barren’s 2016, all of the technological advances predicted in the 1950’s have come to light. In 1965, a scientist named Lionel Goettreider discoverd a new form of energy, unleashing the power of automation and nano-targeting into the world. Need a haircut, a meal, or a new outfit? The touch of a button gets the job done, and the results are perfectly tailored to your needs. If you’re heading to work, take your flying car. Life is easy with technology at the forefront, but Tom isn’t happy. Tom’s father, a leader in the field of time travel, is openly disappointed in his son but reluctantly brings him aboard his company. Tom was not meant to be the first to test his father’s time machine, but through a mishap, that’s exactly what he becomes. Tom ends up in another 2016 – our 2016 – where a haircut requires a skilled, scissor yielding, professional.

While this book is categorized as sci-fi, I found it surprisingly rooted in humanity. Tom’s struggles are relatable, and I found myself highlighting many poignant passages. Mastai creatively addresses fate and destiny, the power that a single decision can have on the course of one’s life, and finding contentment and human connection in a world overrun with technology. Though I didn’t fully connect with Tom I still wanted the best for him – I wanted him to find his way home, and for him to have peace with wherever that was.

I often struggle with books primarily narrated in the first person, but found that the story was engaging enough that I didn’t notice it here, a testament to Mastai’s writing. He does use the word “like” conversationally quite a bit, and I could have done without that. I understand the intent, people do talk like this, but I found it distracting. Mastai’s insights are meaningful and this story was really fun to read!

BOOK REVIEW | Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance: a former student who has lost the will to live: Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

My thoughts:
These short stories are subtle and tender in their approach – I can only describe them as endearingly human. The stories themselves are varied in nature, though they are all bound by the thread that is Olive Kitteridge. Olive is big, bold, and opinionated; she speaks her mind freely, often to the chagrin of those who know her. Her husband, Henry, loves her with purity and sweetness that seeps from the pages. Olive is not the heroine I was expecting when going into this book, but, wow, she sure had a lot to teach me. I have chills, the good kind, from the final page.