Book Review: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

One of the signs of a compelling book for me is when I want to tell other people all about it. Or when I lay awake after reading it, thinking over various parts. All We Leave Behind did both.

Carol Off is a well-respected CBC journalist with a long career. (For those non-Canadians, that’s the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and it’s generally well regarded.) While reporting in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after 9/11, Off interviewed an Afghan man named Asad who spoke out, on camera, about corruption and particularly against one of the warlords being enabled by US involvement. Because of Asad’s bold statements, made in hopes of change being possible in his country, his life and the lives of his family are eventually in danger and they are forced to flee Afghanistan.

Off begins the novel with an early experience as a reporter in Pakistan, one that taught her, Be careful what you wish for and reminds us that sometimes a journalist’s best story is the worst day of someone else’s life. It’s a strong way of establishing the conflict that many journalists feel. How do you report a story in a neutral manner? How do you stay objective in the face of suffering? And when do you get involved.

When Asad and his family escape Afghanistan and Off realizes that it was her reporting that put them in danger, she becomes involved in bringing them to Canada as refugees, crossing many professional boundaries but believing that it’s the right thing to do.

The book does a superb job of outlining Afghan history, both in a broad sense but also through focusing on Asad’s life and that of his family. We witness the changes the country goes through from the 1970s until present day and the influences of the rest of the world. Off provides the right amount of information so that someone relatively unfamiliar with Afghan history is able to follow along and I never felt lost or bogged down in the historical context. Off doesn’t spare feelings and doesn’t always shy away from naming names. She can be scathing in her denouncements of US involvement but she doesn’t let Canada off the hook either.

The second part of the book focuses on Asad’s struggle to first be recognized as a refugee and then to be accepted into Canada. Off definitely shows her political leanings here, outlining the ways that Harper’s Conservatives failed in a refugee crisis, as she details how Asad and his family struggled through the bureaucracy and redtape, floundering in the system for years while their lives were in danger. I get the sense that Carol Off and I are on similar sides of the political spectrum, so these strong opinions didn’t bother me but I imagine they may turn off some readers. (That said, if you know Off from her work with the CBC, you might not be surprised.)

As a Canadian, it was a harsh reminder that we are not always the peaceful, helpful nation we view ourselves as and that our hands have not remained clean in conflict worldwide. Even if our government tries to tell us we have. The book ends in late 2015 and it’s encouraging to think of how many Syrian refugees have been brought into Canada since then. At the same time, All We Leave Behind is a powerful lesson that many more are languishing in camps, turned back from safe borders, or perishing before they reach safety.

While this book will primarily be of interest to Canadians (and probably Canadians who find their ideals already align with Off’s), I think it would be a great read for anyone wanting to know more about either Middle East conflict or the experience of refugees. It’s well-written and informative and a topic that is only becoming more important in our current political climate worldwide.

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Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown & Company, 2017)

With her second novel, Hannah Kent confirms that she is a master of historical fiction. As with Burial Rites (read my review here), Kent uses a true historical story to build her novel around. This time the setting is early 19th century Ireland and the tale revolves around “the good people” – the fairies and the belief in them that is slowly being pushed out by modern thought and religion.

The story focuses on three women. The first is Nora, who we meet on the day that she is left widowed by the sudden death of her husband, Martin. This follows less than a year after their daughter’s death and leaves Nóra as the sole guardian of her grandson, Micheál. Four years old, Micheál has come to Nóra without the ability to walk or talk, though she remembers him as a healthy, thriving toddler. Nóra becomes convinced that the child is a changeling and enlists the help of Nance, an outsider in their small community who understands the good people and their ways and promises to restore Nóra’s grandson to her. Mary, a young girl hired to help Nóra care for Micheál is caught between loyalty to her mistress and concern for the child.

As with Burial Rites, Kent’s descriptions of place and character are strong. Rural Ireland in the 1820s is dirt-filled, smoky, and crowded. Starvation is always close by. People live in close quarters, with each other and their animals. Kent’s descriptions of the daily rituals that survival requires – the building of fires, the milking of cows, the collecting of rushes for the dirt floor are fascinating and add well to the atmosphere without become overwhelming or boring. The story is dark both in place and content. We see the superstition that guides every step of these peoples’ lives. These rituals are very interesting to read from a modern perspective and the novel does well at drawing at the growing tension between these traditional beliefs and the modern world.

While the story is based around the facts of a true historical event, I think it was best to know nothing of the facts before reading the story. Without knowing how it ends, the events are even more compelling (and shocking) as Kent reveals them. Either way though, this is an excellent novel and shows Kent’s growing talent.

Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

 

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

This collection of short essays (plus an interview and a short story) follows Higashida’s previous book translated into English, The Reason I Jump. I haven’t read Higashida before and while The Reason I Jump may provide some helpful context and personal history, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read it first. It also seems that Higashida has quite a bit more writing that hasn’t yet been translated from Japanese to English.

The introduction by David Mitchell (who also does the translation, along with KA Yoshida) provides an excellent background into Higashida’s story, as well as offering Mitchell’s viewpoint as to why this book is so important. Short version: Higashida was considered severely autistic and non-verbal until a new way of communicating through an alphabet chart was figured out. This new communication revealed Higashida to have a complex and emphatic inner life, exactly like any other young man his age.

Higashida is now in his mid-twenties and his writing is deliberate and thoughtful. The segments are not long as communication, both written and spoken, is not a quick process for him. He offers insights into how his own mind works and methods that help him in his interactions with those around him. Higashida doesn’t suggest that these methods would work for everyone with autism and the book is certainly not a how-to guide. That said, I can’t help but think that it would be a helpful and powerful read for anyone who works or lives alongside someone with autism.

While this is admittedly well outside my field of expertise, it does seem that there have been a few highly publicized stories in recent years of so-called severe autistic people who, it turned out, were fully aware of their surroundings and needed only to find a way to communicate with those around them. And, as Mitchell points out in his introduction, these new found ways of communication revealed that the stereotype of a lack of empathy in those on the autistic spectrum is perhaps a false one.

Higashida certainly writes about the world with a lot of interest and empathy. We get a sense of his frustration at his own behaviours and his strong desire for compassion and patience from  those around him. There is some discussion of styles that didn’t work for him and that he wouldn’t recommend but there is not condemnation toward those who haven’t understood him. His writing about his relationship with his mother seems particularly tender.

The book is a slow read, one to be dipped into here and there rather than read in one sitting. I do believe it’s an important one though, especially for teachers and others who may work alongside autistic people.

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows the life of Cyril Avery, beginning in the 1940s and jumping ahead every seven years and, in doing so, also outlining the history of Ireland in the 20th century and many of the changes it went through.

We begin with Cyril’s mother, publicly cast out of her church, family, and town due to her pregnancy outside of marriage. A teenage girl alone, she heads to Dublin, makes an unexpected friend and gives birth to her son in violent circumstances.

Cyril is adopted by the eccentric Averys, a brilliant and rather emotionally abusive couple who raise him with a sort of benign neglect, frequently reminding him that he’s not a real Avery after all. Cyril forms a close and confusing friendship with another boy, Julian, and over the years we watch their relationship develop as the world around them changes.

The book is very readable with interesting characters. Cyril is likeable and compelling through all his various life stages, despite his sometimes atrodicous behaivours and poor decisions. He is easy to sympathize with, especially as he struggles against the conservative norms of Ireland in the mid-20th century. The novel does not make Ireland look particularly like a place you’d want to live but by the end of the novel, Boyne does give a sense of just how much this country is changing. It is also quite negative toward the Catholic church, without offering much to balance out the sometimes over-the-top portrayals of religious prejudice.

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel is its many coincidences. I came away with the impression of Dublin being very small, simply because Cyril keeps running into the same people over and over again. Through his whole life, he doesn’t seem to branch out much in his acquaintances. At least not until much later, at which point it feels almost jarring because his life changes so much so quickly.

Any book that attempts to encompass nearly a century of history requires a lot of ambition and, I think, Boyne succeeds overall. He falls into a few tropes but the book is entertaining enough that it was an enjoyable read with interesting characters.

Book Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

 

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel begins with the arrival of Nero Golden and his three sons in New York City, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. These four men have appeared in the city under mysterious circumstances, from an unnamed country, with assumed names. They move into a close knit, wealthy neighbourhood with a shared garden and our narrator, Rene, a young and aspiring filmmaker takes an interest in this unusual family.

Over the next eight years, Rene becomes intimately involved with the Golden family and steadily reveals their secrets, their foibles, and their tragedies. The book lends itself easily to comparisons with The Great Gatsby – the narrator located slightly outside of the main action. A young man both drawn in and repulsed by a lifestyle of fabulous wealth. A very rich and powerful man with a mysterious background. Rene becomes far more entangled with the Goldens than Nick ever became with Gatsby but the comparison is apt and no doubt intentional on Rushdie’s part.

I have to admit, I’ve never been able to get into a Rushdie novel before. I’ve tried twice with Midnight’s Children and quickly lost interest. So I went into this one with low expectation but was quickly engaged. Rene is a strong narrator and the rate of revelation works well. While there are definite secrets withheld, it never feels like information is being kept from the reader simply for the sake of creating false tension. I did find Rene rather unlikeable and for the first maybe third of the book wished that it wouldn’t focus on him and his background so much. However, as the story progresses, we see how entwined he becomes with the Goldens and it makes more sense as one over-arching story.

The Goldens are an interesting assortment of characters. Nero, powerful and terrifying with some surprising (and unsurprising) weaknesses. A character who walks the line of a stereotype dangerously closely but never quite crosses over. Petya, the oldest son, brilliant and deeply troubled. Apu, the middle son, artistic and angry. D, the youngest son of a different mother, struggling to find his place in the family and in his own life. They’re each compelling and their stories are fascinating. As time and the novel progresses, both the family’s tale and the world itself become more of a tragedy.

As the Goldens fall apart, so too does their adopted country. A political leader, known only as The Joker, comes to power and the world around Rene quickly changes. The comparison to Donald Trump and the current state of American politics is obvious. While perhaps heavy-handed (The Joker is literally a cartoon villain after all) it makes for remarkably timely commentary. I was reading The Golden House as events unfolded in Charlottesville and it made it all feel extra eery. It will be interesting to see how the novel reads in five or ten years, in the aftermath of Trump’s America.

For a first-time introduction to Salman Rushdie’s work, the book is terrific. I highly recommend it and I would recommend it even more now in our current political climate.

Book Review: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

If you ever thought that the Scooby Gang probably needed therapy as adults, this book is for you.

Set in the 1990s, the action of Meddling Kids takes place a decade or so after the final case of the Blyton Summer Detective Club. Four kids (and their dog) foil the plans of a grown man in a monster costume, finally lying to rest the persistent rumours of a lake monster. Now adults, the three surviving members (and a new generation of dog) have never returned to Blyton Hills. Andy’s spent time in prison, Nate’s in a mental hospital, and Kerry (the brilliant one) drinks too much. Peter’s been dead for years but Nate still talks to him a lot.

Suspecting there was more to their final case than the man in the monster suit, Andy rounds up the gang and they return to Blyton Hills to confront their demons. Both literal and figurative. Turns out, a lake monster may be the least of their concerns.

I never watched much Scooby Doo so there may be references that I missed out but I don’t think it mattered much. This story is pure entertainment. Over the top with necromancers, monsters from space, immortal beings, and accidental spells. It’s got a few twists and it’s lots of fun. The characters aren’t particularly deep but are interesting enough that I enjoyed their interactions and it was easy to cheer for them. Realistic fiction this is not but if you’re looking for a fun, fantastical, and a little bit nostalgic read, you may enjoy Meddling Kids.

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co, 2017)

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.

Book Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

You know how, as you get older, you begin to realize that your family is maybe not so normal? That all the things they do that you thought were average, might actually be a little crazy? That’s what’s happening to Matty Telemachus.

Sure, Matty’s always known his family is unique. Not many families once travelled the country and performed psychic feats of strength on television. But that’s all years in the past and nobody in the Telemachus family has done anything amazing in years. Until Matty suddenly leaves his body one day and begins to wonder if he might also be an Amazing Telemachus.

Teddy Telemachus is the family patriarch, the driving force behind their once upon a time fame. Teddy met his wife Maureen when participating in a highly secretive government study of psychic powers in relation to the Cold War. Maureen, or Grandma Mo, has been dead for years and her children have largely rejected their own powers. Frankie is something of a low-level con, in debt to the mob and hiding too many secrets from his wife. Irene has just moved back in with her dad, along with her own son, Matty, and struggles to form real relationships because she knows when people are lying to her. And Buddy…well, Buddy might just be the World’s Most Powerful Psychic but he hasn’t spoken much in the last few years and he’s building some kind of weird project in the basement.

This novel is fun and goofy and if you’re willing to suspend belief, it’s a good read. Even aside from the psychic powers, the real world plot is pretty over the top too. The story moves between perspectives of Teddy, Matty, and the three siblings and the sections are pretty balanced in terms of interest and enjoyability. These are strange and flawed people but they’re likeable too and easy to root for. It’s not terribly difficult to see where it’s all going to end up but it’s fun to travel along as Gregory takes us there.

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

Eleanor Oliphant, thirty years old, works in an office, does things exactly how she wants them without worrying what others think. Eleanor Oliphant is perfectly fine on her own, thank you very much, and always has been. She goes to Marks & Spencer every Friday, talks to Mummy on the phone every Wednesday night, and spends her weekends in a fog of vodka. Most other people (the “hoi polloi”) have atrocious manners or uninteresting lives so there’s simply no reason for Eleanor to engage with them more than is absolutely necessary.

Eleanor’s life begins to change though when she ends up at a local concert one night and falls for the musician on stage. Building an elaborate fantasy life, she begins to figure out how she can meet him. After all, as soon as they meet they’ll surely fall in love and live happily ever after. Right?

But Eleanor’s life is also changing due to an inadvertent friendship developing with the IT guy, Raymond. When Eleanor and Raymond help an old man who has fallen in the street, their lives become slowly more intertwined and Eleanor finds herself more and more outside of her usual comfort zone and schedule.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine draws some obvious comparisons to Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project but I found myself more often reminded of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. There is a much darker tone to Eleanor Oliphant than is found in The Rosie Project. It’s clear early on that Eleanor has a heavy past. We learn of the scar on her face, stories of broken arms and black eyes, and there are the weekly, disconcerting phone calls with Mummy.

More than all that though is the fact that I initially found Eleanor very dislikeable. While not outright creepy the way that Eileen is, she doesn’t have much to endear her to the reader. While Don (of The Rosie Project) is more of a charming idiot savant type, someone who mostly gets along with people but has to work very hard at it and doesn’t really understand why, Eleanor seems to actively judge and look down on others. She has little desire to engage with those around her and clearly seems to think of herself as better than them. As her interactions increase and she goes through some major personal development, this does change and Honeyman does a good job of showing how her life and childhood has affected Eleanor.

Overall, the novel is an easy and entertaining read and certainly offers an interesting perspective into the mind of a vastly unique person. Whether Eleanor is on the Autism spectrum or simply the product of her own past is left up to the reader but it is gratifying to watch Eleanor change and develop over the course of the novel. While, of course, remaining uniquely herself.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.