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.

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.

Book Review: Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

We Should All be Feminists was the book I had with me in the hospital when I gave birth to my daughter. We didn’t know whether we were having a boy or a girl before Pearl was born and, to be honest, the thought of a girl scared me. Boys seemed straightforward. Girls seemed hard and scary. Two years later, I’d be happy to have nothing but girls but the thought of the teenage years looming ahead of us still make me nervous.

One of the scariest things for me about raising a girl is what I can’t control. I can teach my daughter all the self-defense moves in the world, not to walk alone at night, to watch her drink in a crowded bar, but if parents aren’t teaching their sons not to rape women, my warnings are only words. That’s why books like this are so important. Several reviews I read of Dear Ijeawele treated the book like it’s a book for mothers and their daughters. And while I can understand that – it is after all written as a letter in response to Adichie’s friend with an infant daughter who asked how to raise her daughter feminist – that response is problematic because it assumes only women can be feminists.

The book has great solid advice for raising daughters but I think much of it could be transferable to raising sons too. More than that though it’s about how to teach your children to think of men and women as equals. To teach them that “because you are a girl” is never a reason.

As with We Should All be Feminists, some of Adichie’s advice and experience is more specific to Nigerian culture than to Western culture. Some of her experiences – the pressure to get married, for example – are unfamiliar to me and will hopefully be even more foreign to the next generation. Her thoughts on keeping her surname after marriage were interesting to me and even had me feeling slightly defensive, as a woman who did take her husband’s name. So while not everything had me nodding in agreement, many of Adichie’s thoughts did and this short book (more of a long essay, really) left me feeling inspired as a I continue to raise my own daughter.

Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This book will be available for sale in July 2017. I read an Advance Uncorrected Proof made available by the publisher.

The Unwomanly Face of War was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985 and translated into English in 1988 but, as far as I can tell, has been out of print in English for some years. This new translation comes from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, probably the best Russian to English translators currently working, and makes this fascinating work available to English readers once more.

From 1978 to 1985, Alexievich travelled through the Soviet Union, collecting stories from women about their experiences in World War Two. She presents these stories with some short introductions, slightly edited, but in the women’s own voices. The stories are often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and genuinely illuminating. Until I started reading, I didn’t realize how large the involvement of women was for the Soviet Union in World War Two. Being used to Canadian and British war tales, I automatically thought I was going to read stories of women who were nurses, or worked in factories, or survived blitzes at home. While there are some of those stories here there are also stories of women who worked as sappers, served in tanks, lead platoons, de-mined fields and abandoned houses. Some of them lead troops of men, most of them worked side by side with male soldiers at the front lines.

Much of this is the result of communism. This is Soviet Russia, Stalin is both political leader and national hero. Love and loyalty to the Motherland has been instilled in these young women their whole lives. Over and over we hear stories of girls insisting they be sent to the front lines, fighting for the opportunity to shoot and fight and defend their nation. Sometimes these women even share stories of their intense loyalty despite having family members arrested and imprisoned by the government. It is a national fervour difficult to understand in our modern Western world

As with stories from the Western Front, these women were often very young when they ended up on the front lines. Freshly graduated from high school, they tell stories of growing three inches before they return home, of needing to have their wisdom teeth out while on retreat. It is the small details that stuck with me as I read the book. The petite girl embarassed by her height, who wore high heels as she evacuated the wounded from a hospital. The way the girls wept when they had to have their braids cut off as they entered the army. How they stole undershirts from the men because the army never thought to issue them items for their menstrual cycles.

There is a huge diversity of stories and locations and histories here, many with common threads that appear again and again for multiple women. As Alexievich suggests in the book’s introduction, women notice things and experience events differently than men. Their experience of war was unique and the Russian experience of World War Two is different than what many of us in the West may know or have learned.

A basic familiarity with Soviet history in the early 20th century is helpful when beginning the book  but I felt that it included the right amount of footnotes to aid in figuring out places, names, and historical events. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation retains the oral syntax of the Russian speakers so that while it occasionally feels awkward to an English reader, it also feels authentic to how someone might speak.

I know this book won’t be for everyone but if you have any interest in Russian or World War Two history, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

The Dark and Other Love Stories – Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

A quick disclaimer to say that I know Deborah Willis but only a little bit. We were in the same program at university but she was a couple of years ahead of me and we briefly worked at the same coffee shop and then we worked at rival bookstores. I read her first short story collection, Vanishing, when it first came out because I knew Deb but I was eager to read her new collection because I think she’s an excellent writer.

This new story collection revolves around the theme of love. That love takes a variety of forms. The powerful, platonic love of two best friends at summer camp in the title story. The love of a couple, spanning decades, a whole life time lived in the span of an afternoon nap, told in a trilogy of stories. The relationship between two marijuana dealers when one of them applies to move to Mars. The stories are painfully true to life, with all the small and large discomforts that love brings us, along with its unique pleasures. At least one made me have to close the book for a while because the ending was so unexpectedly sad.

Willis’ characters are believable, likeable, and discomfiting. She nails their human reactions and emotions with a sometimes uncomfortable accuracy. Even in the strangest of situations, the basic realness of these fictional characters remains.

Book Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2016)

The novel opens with Sadie Woodbury, elementary school student, finding herself face-to-face with a would-be school shooter. Sadie (and, presumably, the entire school or at least the secretary the shooter came to kill) is saved by teacher George Woodbury, also her own father.

This is a rather heavy-handed way of letting the reader know how and why George Woodbury is such a beloved teacher and member of his community. Fortunately, the story improves from here.

Years later, George is still beloved. He wins Teacher of the Year every year. His wife Joan is an ER nurse. His was one of the founding families of their lakeside community and George teaches out of sheer love, rather than any financial need.  Their eldest child, Andrew, lives in New York where he’s a lawyer. Sadie is now a high school senior, smart, beautiful, athletic. The Woodburys and their friends are the definition of WASPs and seem to have it all.

Then George is arrested, accused of sexual misconduct and attempted rape of multiple young girls while on a school ski trip. He swears to his own innocence, claiming someone is out to get him. The school and the town take sides and the Woodbury’s are left in the middle, missing their father and husband with their own doubts ever increasing.

The story moves between the perspectives of Joan, Andrew, and Sadie, focusing mostly on Joan and Sadie, as the two women left to deal with the day-to-day fallout in their community. They each love George and desperately want him to be innocent, while also acknowledging that most rape allegations are true. Joan begins to wonder just how well she knows her husband as other things he’s hidden from her come to light. Sadie falls prey to a local author who wants to write a book about the crime and her whole future seems to crumble as she is ostracized by her friends and peers.

Overall the story is well-balanced and well-told. It’s an emotional tale told without sentimentality. Whittall delicately examines how the Woodbury family is left bereft but without the right to grieve the loss of George (as he’s in prison awaiting trail) because what if he’s guilty. I will say that I thought his family began to doubt him more quickly than seemed realistic. I would call myself a feminist who wants to support victims of sexual assault and believes the system is deeply flawed when these women do come forward to name their attackers. Yet, if a man I loved dearly and felt I know well (my husband, my brother, my father) was accused of a crime like this I just don’t think I would believe it unless confronted with cold, hard evidence. That may not be unfair and hypocritical but I think it’s also human nature and so I was surprised at how quickly doubt crept in for Joan and Sadie. I would have found it more believable for these changes in attitude to come slowly as the novel progressed.

The character of Andrew – the one who hated their community and has happily left it – provided a nice alternate perspective and cast some light on how life amongst the Woodburys might not be so perfect for everybody. There was a side plot about Andrew’s own high school relationship with a teacher that I didn’t feel added much and made Andrew seem pretty ignorant about how the world works.

The ending is sadly realistic and, I thought, particularly well-done. I know some readers have really disliked it but I thought it was truthful both to how the real world can be and to who the characters were.

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Book Review: Beauty Plus Pity by Kevin Chong

Beauty Plus Pity - Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

Kevin Chong writes about a Vancouver I recognize. While the city isn’t necessarily a major player in the novel, it’s an important background and well-evoked with a few simple settings and descriptions. And though this is what drew me to read Beauty Plus Pity I enjoyed the novel greatly for its characters and plotting.

Malcolm Kwan has recently moved back to Vancouver, as well as recently graduating from modelling school, when his father dies. At the same time, his fiancée breaks up with him. Malcolm is struggling to find his footing in a career he’s not sure he wants and support his emotionally unstable mother. He also finds out he has a younger half-sister, the daughter of his father.

Over the next months Malcolm gets to know his sister Hadley, a grade 12 student with a drastically different upbringing. Malcolm is the son of Hong Kong emigrants, artists who have worked hard and been successful. Despite the emotional instability of his childhood, Malcom’s upbringing has been privileged, something he is only truly realizing now. Hadley has grown up with a single mother and a sometimes stepfather on the opposite end of the city (a fact Chong doesn’t embellish on but if you know Vancouver you know this is a crucial difference). Both are a result of their father’s decisions but as they age, Malcolm and Hadley each become responsible for how they respond to this.

We follow Malcolm as he learns more about both his father and his mother and as his relationships with women (in many forms) shift and mature. I appreciate that the characters really seem to change and develop as the novel progresses and that Malcolm, who is kind of unlikeable at the beginning, becomes more sympathetic. It would also have been easy for Hadley to be a one-note character but she is given some decent depth and her own world that Malcolm doesn’t always understand.

The greatest weakness of the novel is probably the ending which leaves a lot of loose ends dangling. While this can be realistic, the story is apparently being told by Malcolm a year later so there’s no real reason why he couldn’t have offered a little more closure. Overall though, this is a strong and enjoyable story.

Book Review: Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms - C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

I started (an attempt at least) to read a Psalm before bed every night in the fall. So it seemed like the perfect time to read this lesser known work of C.S. Lewis.

In typical, self-deprecating Lewis fashion, he begins by explaining why he’s not really qualified but here are some of his thoughts anyway. And also in typical Lewis style, he has some real wisdom to offer.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the Psalms, beginning with the most distasteful and uncomfortable (such as the cursing of enemies or bragging about how blessed you are). Lewis provides insight as to what these songs and poems might have meant to their original audience, separating them from the modern meanings we can’t help but ascribe to them.

One thing that surprised me was that Lewis treats the Psalms largely as Pagan poetry. He makes the crucial distinction of them being written before the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore there are things the psalmists simply could not have known or even guessed at. The modern reader has the benefit of hindsight to see a clearer (and more prophetic) meaning to many of the Psalms.

Which isn’t to say that that meaning is wrong. As Christians we believe that all scripture is influenced and inspired by God. As Lewis beautifully puts it, “No good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.” So while the Psalmists might not have known the entire significance of what they composed, through the Holy Spirit those references certainly are deliberate and important.

But no one now (I fancy) who accepts that spiritual or second sense is denying, or saying anything against, the very plain sense which the writers did intent.

– C.S. Lewis

At the same time, according to Lewis, the writers of the Psalms are human and sinful and some of their own shortcomings find their way into the Psalms. If anything, this should encourage us, that we sinners can also be used to spread the Word of God.

For our “services” both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we are, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster. To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God—drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds.

– C.S. Lewis

Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

I wasn’t familiar with Paul Beatty’s work before this past year when he became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. Once I heard a little more about his style, I was eager to read The Sellout and it happily did not disappoint. The Sellout is satirical, uncomfortable, entertaining, eye-opening, and sometimes confusing. I want to say it’s timely, given the recent and ongoing racial tensions in the USA, but unfortunately those tensions are not exactly new. As Beatty demonstrates.

Our narrator, known by his neighbourhood nickname of Bonbon, of called The Sellout by others, or his last name Me (as in Me vs. The United States of America) is a lifelong resident of Dickens, an agrarian ghetto of Los Angeles with a largely minority population. So crime-ridden an embarrassment is Dickens that the powers that be decide to literally remove it from the map and pretend it no longer exists. In his efforts to bring Dickens back, our narrator gets his own slave and decides to reintroduce segregation. This has both its supporters and detractors.

The Sellout is deeply rooted in a particular black community and culture and is full of references to such. Some I’m familiar with and many were new to me. As I read, I found myself feeling very far from the target audience, as if Beatty’s narrator was speaking to a black reader and I happened to be listening in. And maybe that’s part of the point. This book isn’t for me and it doesn’t need to be. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t enjoy it or even that I shouldn’t read it. It’s important to read literature that is entirely outside of our personal experience.

Beatty’s is one view and he offers this glimpse through both satire and truth so ridiculous it feels like it should be satire. The characters are larger than life, both hilarious and tragic. Beatty uses the n-word a lot, something I definitely found jarring though believable and effective within the context of Dickens and its residents. The last book I read that used the n-word frequently was William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and although Beatty uses the word more frequently his usage felt more honest and less hateful.

The Sellout is the perfect first American pick for the Man Booker prize as a book that shines an uncomfortable but necessary spotlight on one of the major issues in North America right now.