BOOK REVIEW | American War by Omar El Akkad| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #2

3/5 stars

I struggled to get through this book – it’s dark and heavy, but something didn’t quite click for me. Omar El Akkad imagines an America of the future; sides are strongly divided and a second civil war breaks out.

Sarat is our central character and force driving the narrative – I wanted to know what would happen with her, so I kept reading. She is six years old in 2074 when the war begins; it’s not long before tragedy strikes her family, leaving them displaced. They end up in a refugee camp where Sarat meets an older man who guides her in unexpected ways . In El Akkad’s future, innocence disappears quickly and people become instruments of war. War crimes are punished through torture, and humanity is lost.

The focus here is on the ways war shapes people. If not for the war, Sarat’s life, and who she ultimately becomes, would be entirely different. It’s heartbreaking to partake in Sarat’s transformation from an innocent child, to a woman of war, to a woman seeking revenge.  El Akkad is making a bold statement and offering a warning with this book – the Red (South) and Blue (North) are deeply divided, mirroring modern America: a country this polarized will eventually break. Something must give. This is a dystopian story, but one that doesn’t feel impossible.

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BOOK REVIEW | Enigma Variations by André Aciman

5/5 stars

I am the most miserable man alive, and more so because no one at this dinner table has the slightest notion of what is tearing me up. And yet, what if each of us at this very table were a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their backs and you can hear each one crash and all their mealy, hardheaded coconuts pelt the ground, and still we’ll keep our spirited good cheer and add a lilting sprint to our gait on the way to the office every morning, because we’re waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and blistered lives and say, Follow me, Brother. Follow me, Sister. 

After obsessing over Call Me By Your Name, I knew I would be picking up another Aciman book soon. Enigma Variations proved to be the perfect quell to the emptiness I felt after finishing CMBYN, offering a similar narration style and themes. Aciman is an absolute master of internal dialogue; the ache and agony of desire jump out of the pages as we follow Paul from adolescence to adulthood through five uniquely connected vignettes.

We first meet Paul at twelve years old, infatuated with the town cabinetmaker. Next comes Claire; Paul is consumed with the idea that she is cheating on him. Then, a tennis partner named Manfred – a love that takes years to come to light. We meet his college girlfriend who he reunites with every four years, but only for a few days each time. Finally, a girl much younger than himself. Through all of these relationships, Paul searches for…something more. Fireworks? Contentment? Partnership? He is passionate in the chase, but seldom relieved by reciprocation.

Aciman’s prose builds tension; the yearning his characters feel is palpable, and he often provides satisfactory release. A touch that finally happens, or the right words at the right time, with the right person ready to receive them. Much of this book takes place in Paul’s head; his thoughts, obsessions, fears, and desires are laid bare. Aciman writes candidly about all facets of love: diffidence is love, fear itself is love, even the scorn you feel is love. Aciman brings a fresh and realistic approach to stories of this nature, resulting in a wholly unique reading experience.

BOOK REVIEW | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

4/5 stars

On the surface, this is a book about injustice, loyalty, and the ways in which we love. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find social commentary on what it means to be black in America. Without giving anything away, a young couple who seems to have it all is forcefully reminded that regardless of hard work and determination, they will not live the American dream.

Celeste and Roy are a young married couple, busy planning their lives and grappling with the decision of when, or if, to have children. Celeste is a successful artist and doll maker, and it’s easy to sense that Roy is on the brink of something great as an entrepreneur. One fateful evening will change the course of their lives for the next five years, leaving Celeste and Roy to untangle a mess and decide if love is enough to keep their marriage intact.

Jones’ writing is conversational and easy to digest; she pulls you into the story and is brutally honest in her message. There are a few strange elements at play here, such as Celeste’s dolls, or poupées, which often happen to resemble Roy in some way. I felt somewhat disconnected from the characters who are all deeply flawed; I often went back and forth with who I felt was right and just given the circumstances. That said, this is an engrossing read and I can certainly understand its popularity. This is the sort of book that plays out visually in your head – in fact, it would make a great movie. I wavered a lot with where to place my rating – sections of this book are five star worthy, but some areas felt like three stars – four seems like a good place to settle.

BOOK REVIEW | The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

This isn’t a review, it’s just a reminder to read The Fire Next Time if you haven’t. James Baldwin’s brilliance and wisdom had me bookmarking nearly every page. First published in 1963 at the dawn of the civil right’s movement, it’s shocking to realize that everything Baldwin discusses is still relevant today. Below are a few of my favourite quotes.

You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to becomes a truly moral human…must divorce himself of all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, than it is time we got rid of him.

I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.

A short and powerful read that I’ll certainly reach for again in the future.

BOOK REVIEW | Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

4/5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good dystopian book, and Future Home of the Living God was an entertaining and disturbing foray back to the genre.

It starts with Cedar heading off to meet her Ojibwe birth parents, Sweetie and Eddy. She is initially resistant to their caring, armed with questions about why they weren’t able to keep her. Cedar is pregnant and we know she is nervous to tell her birth parents, but at this point we don’t know why. Though part 1 feels a bit disjointed from the rest of the book, Sweetie and Eddy (along with Cedar’s adopted parents) become pivotal characters later on.

We soon learn that pregnant women are being captured, and Cedar must do her best to keep her growing baby from becoming visible. Cedar’s boyfriend, Glen, helps to keep her hidden but she is ultimately captured.

I loved everything that happened after Cedar is captured – it’s exactly what you’d want out of a dystopian story. However, there is a lack of detail that could have taken this book over the top; we know that evolution has stopped, or is possibly moving backwards and I wanted more from this. There is one scene in which Cedar believes she sees a saber-tooth that is fantastic and a clear indication that the world is moving backwards, but it’s the only moment that is this explicit. The reverse-evolutionary theme never fully pulls through.

While I enjoyed this story, it was very difficult to ignore the clear influence of The Handmaid’s Tale – so much of this book felt all too familiar, especially the ending. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just worth noting. Overall, I really enjoyed this book – Erdrich is a unique storyteller with a passionate voice, and I can feel the significance of this work to her within its pages. In a world in which bodily agency is under attack, can we truly move forward?

BOOK REVIEW | New People by Danzy Senna

4/5 stars

In his blurb on the back of the book, Marlon James states that “New People” reminds us that “the worst kind of hell is always the one we raise”, and I don’t think I can put it any better. This is a book about identity and obsession, perfection and truth.

Maria and her fiancé Khalil are mixed race, mulatta and mulatto, planning their wedding and ready to embark on their life together as “new people”. By their definition, new people are “the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions” in late 60s and early 70s. They are a picturesque couple, though Maria is not content. She is light skinned with straight hair, people often assuming she is Jewish or white, and struggles to find her place among her peers. She becomes infatuated with a black man known only as “the poet”, leaving the reader to contemplate what she’s running from, and what she’s chasing.

It’s the 90’s, and Maria is observing how her generation of mixed people adapt to the world – how Khalil speaks differently around his white friend Ethan than he does around other “new people”. Maria starts to do strange things, and her behavior grows increasingly bizarre, embarrassing, and self-destructive. We’re never witness to the eruption, but you can feel it on the horizon. As an adopted child of a black mother, it’s easy to understand Maria’s sense of lost identity.

I really enjoyed Senna’s style – honest, dry wit that kept me flipping the pages quickly. There’s also a thread throughout this book about Jonestown which I haven’t touched on, but it certainly adds a dynamic layer to the whole story. This book won’t be for everyone, but it hit a surprising chord with me (I’m mixed as well). I’ll be picking up Senna’s book “Caucasia” soon!

BOOK REVIEW | Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

4/5 stars

This is a book designed to provoke heated conversations with the hopes of opening eyes and changing perceptions. Kamila Shamsie tells the story of a young man’s search for answers and his unwitting spiral into jihad, forcing the reader to confront discrepancies in media coverage and what it means to be Muslim in this day and age.

Isma has always been caretaker to her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, after their mother’s death. They don’t know much about their father, but it’s thought that he died as a result of jihadist associations. Years go by, and Isma is free – the twins are grown up and she can return to her dream of studying in America. Before long, a chance meeting at a café in Amherst, Massachusetts brings Eamon, the son of a British politician, into her family’s life. This quaint café meeting does not end up the way it seems it should, but a discovery about their respective fathers ensures their narrative remains entwined.

Eamon heads home to London, where he meets Isma’s sister, the beautiful Aneeka, and a romance quickly ensues. Meanwhile, Parvais, in a desperate search to learn who his father was, falls in with a a man who knew his father and finds himself in Pakistan as a part of the jihadist media. Questions about Aneeka’s intent with Eamon quickly arise when Eamon’s father discovers their relationship, leading to an analysis of love, and what one is willing to sacrifice in the name of it.

There are some plot points that disappear, leaving me wanting more. I was initially drawn in to Isma’s story, but it doesn’t take long for her to become a part of the background. I wanted more from her perspective, as an intelligent and practical witness to everything going on with her siblings. She’s a part of the narrative, but far from the forefront. There’s also a lot going on here, and I don’t know that it all felt fleshed out. That said, this story is absorbing and valuable reading in a time that seems to vilify Muslims. It’s a story of politics and family, but ultimately one of love.