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 | Canada Reads #4 – The Break by Katherena Vermette

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

My thoughts:
Wow. It’s not enough, but it’s almost all I can say after reading Katherena Vermette’s The Break. This book is heavy and dark, but it’s also so incredibly important. It was necessary for me, as a Canadian, to read a story about my country from a perspective that is different than my own. I love the Canada Reads competition so much, because it brings stories like this to a greater audience. I actually picked this book up ages ago after Margaret Atwood recommend it on Reco, and I am so glad I finally got around to reading it.

The story opens with Stella, shaken and afraid, providing two police officers with the details of a very violent crime that she saw take place through her window in the middle of the night. The officers have different opinions on the information they get from Stella – the older assuming it’s just gang violence, and the younger sensing that something more vicious has taken place. What follows is a perfectly crafted account of not only the crime, but everything that surrounds it. Vermette dives into social issues, gang violence, police apathy, racism, alcoholism, spousal abuse, and what it means to live life in a broken system. It’s gritty, it’s bleak, it’s real.

The book is broken up into four sections, each containing a chapter narrated from the perspective of a different family member, as well as one of the police officers involved in the story. There are many characters to keep track of, but the family tree at the beginning of the book keeps everyone and their lineage clear. This could have become convoluted, but the opposite happened for me – as I discovered the familial connections I began to feel personally intertwined in their lives, almost a part of the family.

The Break should be compulsory reading for Canadians. If anything I mentioned in this review speaks to you, please go and get this book. While the book is  heartbreaking and raw, Vermette keeps the focus on the healing power of family and tradition. An absolutely stunning debut from a writer I will be watching.

Read my review of Fifteen Dogs
Read my review of Nostalgia
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 | A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice. Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed.

Awaiting trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have led them to these bleak cells: eighteen-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an “honor killing”; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, a teen runaway who stays because it is safe shelter; twenty-year-old Mezghan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for a court order to force her lover’s hand. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, like them, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment; removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.

Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his homeland have brought him back. With the fate this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like the Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.

My thoughts:
The results of the American election have shaken me deeply left me questioning the world I thought we lived in. I’m a proud Canadian, but have relatives living in the States. I’ve been in a particularly bad reading slump while struggling to come terms with recent events, and am just starting to get back on track. It seems apt, though not planned, that the first read I finished post-election is by a woman with Afghan roots, about modern day women living in Afghanistan.

I think most wives imagine their husbands dying – either out of dread or anticipation. It’s an inevitability. Why not guess at why or how it might happen?

This was my first book by Nadia Hashimi, but it certainly won’t be my last. Her prose is rich and vivid as she explores injustices endured by modern day Afghan women. Zeba, the matriarch of this story, is discovered at the scene of a crime with blood on her hands as her slain husband lays close by. Accusations of her guilt begin to fly as Zeba maintains her silence, unwilling to discuss what happened. She is arrested and sent to jail, where she develops unexpected bonds with the other female prisoners.

Hashimi tackles deeply troubling issues through Zeba’s cell mates as we hear their stories and discover what brought them to the prison. These women are all essentially criminals of morality, jailed for acting in ways that society believes women should not. What is a woman’s place in Afghanistan? What is her value?

A woman was only as good as the drops that fell on her wedding night, the ounces she bled with the turns of the moon, and the small river that she shed giving her husband children.

There are so many layers and so much depth to this story. I also realize that there is a lot of grey area that goes unexplored here as well. This story is not a universal experience for Afghan women, but it is the story Hashimi wanted to tell. At the root, however, this is a murder mystery. Who killed Zeba’s husband? More importantly, why? Hashimi does not disappoint as she reveals the heartbreaking and infuriating events that led to his death and delivers, unexpectedly for stories of this nature, a deeply satisfying ending. I know I will be thinking about this book for a while.

BOOK REVIEW | Wenjack by Josheph Boyden

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School. Too late, he realizes just how far away home is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting, and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.

My thoughts:
Wenjack is the most important book that I have read in 2016. As a Canadian, I’ve heard about the horrors of Residential Schools, but they weren’t in the school curriculum and always felt like something distant. Wenjack helped to open my eyes to the terrible injustices suffered by so many First Nations children from the 19th C to 1996. Canada is known for being peaceful, and it can be hard to fathom the true evil that is a part of it’s history. From physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to eugenics, Canada’s history is wrought with pain.

Boyden takes us on a beautiful journey as he tells us the true story of Chanie, a young boy who ran away from a Residential School only to die in the elements on his journey home. This story is creatively told from the perspective of both Chanie and the creatures of the woods he is walking through. Chanie will stay with me forever – if he were alive to day he would be just a little older than my parents.

Wenjack ties in with Gord Downie’s project, The Secret Path. I watched the film when it aired on CBC, and plan to pick up the graphic novel soon as well. I’m thankful to both Boyden and Downie for bringing this story to light in popular culture. Now, reconciliation.

BOOK REVIEW | The Sellout by Paul Beatty | Man Booker 2016 Shortlist Selection

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

My thoughts:
I sit in a thickly padded chair that, not unlike this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks. 

I hated this book. I mean, I did initially. The entire first chapter was just too much for me: outrageous and over the top, and I couldn’t yet see it’s purpose. Who does Paul Beatty think he is? This book is ridiculous! After all, this is a story about a black man reinstating slavery to save his home town.

I continued reading, however, and then I got angry. When the narrator’s father dies at the hands of the police, I let out the long breath I had been holding. This book is so important and so relevant to what is going in America right now. I’m half black and a very proud Canadian, but I have black relatives living in American that I worry about. Whenever I turn on the news to see a young black man lying dead in the streets I think about my cousin, my uncle. Something must change.

While this book is mean to provoke, to engage, to enrage, it also contains moments of clarity and joy. These two quotes made me laugh out loud:

How come there aren’t any African-American mermaids?  Because black women hate to get their hair wet.

I’m so fucking tied of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!

There isn’t much I can say about this The Sellout that hasn’t already been said, and it’s incredibly difficult to comment on satire, but this book worked for me. Paul Beatty has an MFA in creative writing and a MA in psychology, and I can feel the depth of his education in these pages. The Sellout is both wildly imaginative and incredibly smart.

If you’re struggling to get into this book, try it out on audio! The audio helped me get into it, and I picked up the book shortly after.