What I Read – June 2017

This felt like kind of a strange reading month for me. I started off by reading Alexie’s memoir and Verghese’ back-to-back, while also working my way through Chesterton’s autobiography. While I enjoyed each one, it also felt like a lot of male experiences and I was itching for some feminine perspective to balance it out. Something that hasn’t really happened to me before. I was eager to read Allende, an author I’ve also heard highly of but haven’t read before. A ferry ride and a night away on my own was the perfect opportunity. Then some Agatha Christie and I was ready to finish tackling Chesterton (reviews to come).

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

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (Harper Collins, 1998)

The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria Paperback, 2015)

Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

Re-Read:

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (Cardinal Editions, 1960)

Didn’t Finish:

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson (Knopf, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

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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 – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Have you ever been in the situation where someone whose taste in books you respect and generally agree with recommends a book that you have seen lots (because you work in a bookstore) and you’ve always thought it looked just “Meh” and then you finally read War Dances which is by the same author and it’s amazing and funny and sad and you think, why didn’t I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, like, three years ago? No? Is that just me?

Well, if you haven’t read Sherman Alexie yet, you very seriously should. I mean right now. Please, go find a book by him and read it and then you can come back and finish reading this. Alexie is that rare talent that combines comedy and tragedy. He writes with so much honesty that I feel as though every story he tells is his own.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story, told in first person of Junior, a Spokane Indian who has lived his whole life on a reservation. At the age of fourteen he decides that he will be the first person from his reservation to go to school in the neighbouring town, a predominantly white, farming community. Alexie cheekily points out that the only other Indian in the school is the mascot. Junior is a cartoonist and his artwork is shared in the novel through the art of Ellen Forney (the copy of the book I read had a really interesting interview with Forney at the very end).The art highlights Junior’s thoughts, fears, and how he really sees those around him.

Check out more of Forney’s work on her website ellenforney.com

Alexie’s short novel takes us through a variety of perspectives on First Nations in America. This quote encapsulates so much of what Junior struggles against:

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The novel is what they call “semi-autobiographical”. (I don’t know who “they” is. Literature profs?) That means that when you go to Sherman Alexie’s wikipedia page and read about his childhood, it sounds like a synopsis of this novel. Alexie grew up on the reservation that Junior describes in the book. If anyone’s able to talk about poverty and alcoholism and Indians on reservation, it is Sherman Alexie. Perhaps because of that (though also because he’s a strong and honest writer) Alexie gets away with saying some fairly brutal things. He strips the American Indian and the reservation of whatever romance the reader may provide it. One of the funniest scenes in the book comes during a funeral when a wealthy, white man shows up. The disparity between what the world wants Junior’s reservation and people to be and what it truly is, is demonstrated with humourous and frustrating clarity. Alexie uses his personal history and his background to say things many writers couldn’t get away with. Yet at the very centre of this novel is a story of a young man who wants to fit in, who wants to know that his life has greater meaning than what he’s been shown so far and that’s a pretty universal story.

So what’s the problem? This is a young adult book that won’t make it into very many high schools. The best case scenario I can envision is a copy in the library; we’re not going to see this book on curriculum anytime soon. The book contains a few racial slurs – terrible things that Junior is called – and some violence, as well as the inner workings of a teenage boy’s mind (ie: sexual thoughts). Not every teenager is going to be mature enough to handle the content here so while I understand why a teacher might not assign this novel to a high school English class, it is one that the smart teenager should read. The smart adult too.

A favourite quote:

Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.

You can do it

Sherman Alexie’s website: fallsapart.com