Book Snap #78

Title: Patron Saints of Nothing

Author: Randy Ribay

Date Read: April 12, 2020

One and a half snaps.

Young Adult authors are exploring more and more topics that expose readers to the uncomfortable truths of our world. Patron Saints of Nothing takes readers to the Philippines, to discover with Jay, the truth of his cousin, Jun’s death.

Rodrigo Duterte is the President of the Philippines, elected in 2016. After his inauguration, Duterte gave a speech urging Filipino citizens to kill drug addicts. The Philippine Daily Inquirer published a “kill list.” Duterte has justified the drug war by claiming that the Philippines was becoming a “narco-state”. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the prevalence of drug use in the country is lower than the global average. Duterte has dismissed human rights concerns by dehumanizing drug users. This is the current political context surrounding this story.

Jay is jolted from his all-American existence when his father tells him that his cousin is dead. He pieces together that he was shot by the police for being a drug pusher. Then he receives a mysterious message telling him that his cousin did not deserve to die. He insists on travelling to Manilla on his own to uncover the real story of the cousin he knew and loved.

This is a lovely story of guilt and coming-of-age, marked by the very real and raw political context of the poverty, abuse, and violence of the Philippines.

A heart-wrenching and powerful read. It was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award, LA Times Book Prize, Edgar Award for YA, and CILIP Carnegie Medal.



Book Snap #77

Title: American Dirt

Author: Jeanine Cummins

Date Read: March 21, 2020

Two snaps.

So, Oprah chose this one for her Book Club– and boy, did it stir up some controversy.

The complaints about the book mix concerns with its execution (including what some have said is Spanish not typical of Mexico), the identity of the author and the belief that a Latino writer telling the same story would not get the same support.

The novel tells the story of Lydia, a mother fleeing Mexico with her son, after a drug cartel kills her husband and family. Cummins has been accused of trafficking in stereotypes while appropriating a culture to which she does not belong.

Well, I am no rookie to controversies surrounding the books that Oprah has chosen for her Book Clubs. In 2005, she declared that James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was revelatory and that James Frey was the man that kept her up at night.

You know what? Both times, Oprah was right. They were really good books. Regardless of the controversy that spins around them. Because, really, what is story telling? Connecting with another person is one of the highest forms of social being for humans, and at the heart of it is good storytelling. When I’m telling you a story, and you’re engaged in it, you match your thinking with mine. Both Cummins and Frey were able to do this– whether they fictionalized parts of their memoir or if “someone slightly browner” should have written it (as Cummins concedes in her Author’s Notes). More importantly, she did spend four years researching and writing the novel, but she also was compelled to write the story because she was frustrated by the discourse surrounding immigration in the United States.

I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago — and it has gotten exponentially worse since then — were characterized within that public discourse. At worse, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamouring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.

(Cummins, p.381)

Cummins drew me in to Lydia’s story. I pained for her incomprehensible loss; I was bereft, as she was, at the impossible choices left for her and her son, Luca. I followed their journey through Mexico to the border with breath caught in my lungs and my heart in my stomach.

This is emotional story telling, balanced with terror. It is Narcos layered with This Is Us. It is about a mother who simply will not give up– because her son moves her to defy all the odds placed at her feet. It is fear and hope, and love and pain all mixed into a riveting page-turner I could not put down. Ignore the controversy. Read it.

Book Snap #76

Title: We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir

Author: Samra Habib

Date Read: March 8, 2020

One and a half snaps.

One of this year’s (indefinitely postponed) Canada Reads Selections.

I liked it, but I am not so sure it meets the criteria as the: “one book to bring Canada in to focus.”

Habib writes honestly and irreverently, and with a distinct and lovely prose, but I didn’t find her story particularly compelling, and I am not sure why I didn’t feel much. It was more factual than tender and more clinical than emotional. Her memoir helps us to understand the racism, bullying, and sexism she faced– as it happened to her both in Pakistan and Canada; illuminating the duplicitous trials of her sexuality, culture and faith. But understanding something is different from feeling it.

In anticipation of what lay beyond the glass doors, I thought back to the lush green landscapes I’d seen in episodes of Little House on the Prairie. That is what I imagined Canada– the entire Western world for that matter– would look like. Miles of green hills dominating the horizon. Rich with abundance. Nothing like Pakistan. In my ten-year-old mind, war and persecution didn’t exist this many oceans from home. Bodies weren’t disposable.

But that is not the Canada I encountered on that ripe July day in 1991. Instead of blooming with potential, Canada felt oddly sterile. Or maybe overly polite, as though it didn’t want to ruffle any feathers with a jolt of personality.

(Habib, p.45)

She did help me pass the time on a few flights… but I will need to read another of the finalists to find the book that brings Canada in to focus.

Book Snap #75

Title: Mrs. Every-thing

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Date Read: March 6, 2020

One and a half snaps.

Finished this great story poolside on vacation this week!

Weiner tells the inter-woven tales of sisters, Jo and Bethie. From their days as young girls living with their parents in Detroit– their paths seem set. Jo is the athletic tomboy and Bethie is the pretty, crinolined little lady her mother was most proud of.

As the girls navigate the societal expectations of women throughout the 1950s and 60s: to be married; have children; be a good wife— Jo simultaneously struggles with her sexuality and not wanting any of the choices offered. She embarks on the trip of a lifetime, only to be called home for a family emergency. That return alters the course of her own, and her sister’s life too.

The traumas and tribulations faced by both Jo and Bethie beg the question: do we change, or does what happens to us change us?

This was a great vacation read that had me constantly wondering how it would all work out for Jo and Bethie. Pack it in your carry on and enjoy the ride!

Book Snap #74

Title: Know My Name: A Memoir

Author: Chanel Miller

Date Read: February 26, 2020

Two snaps.

You probably don’t know who Chanel Miller is. For a long time, she was known as Emily Doe, or more memorably, the rape victim of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer.

The case was internationally publicized for many reasons: Turner was caught in the act of attempting to rape Miller while unconscious behind a dumpster; he was thwarted by two Swedish students who intervened and captured him when he attempted to run from the scene; there was public outrage at the lenient sentence given by a judge who was later recalled; and the internationally disseminated victim impact statement written by Miller resonated with victims of sexual assault the world over. Her statement can be found here.

Although Miller’s case preceded the #MeToo movement, her statement and Turner’s sentence became part of the intense debates around rape, sexism and sexual misconduct over the past years. In addition to the judge’s recall, a bill imposing mandatory minimum sentences in sexual assault cases was also signed. Ms. Miller’s statement was read aloud on CNN and on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Miller is a talented writer and I loved her memoir. She writes for so many women who have similar stories of feeling powerless; for being blamed for unwanted sexual advances; and pinpoints the fear that women carry with them throughout the everyday world. Miller also reveals her ethnic background, thus also shedding new understanding of what she experienced and how she was perceived — as a woman of color, assaulted by a white man, trying to obtain justice in a courtroom presided over by a white male judge. Read about it here.

Throughout the trial, Turner was consistently referred to as the Stanford swimmer and we were repeatedly informed of his impressive swim times. Miller, was paradoxically diminished to what she had drunk, what she wore, and what she could not remember.

There were times now when I felt like crawling into the hole. In bed some nights, I stared up at it hovering above me. Wouldn’t it be easier? I took inventory; I was twenty-three, assaulted, unemployed, my only accomplishment being a nameless body in the local paper. When I thought of my future, I saw nothing. I wanted to stop.

(Miller, p. 148-9)

It is time to know Chanel Miller, and all the nameless victims she writes for. A must read memoir.

You will find society asking you for the happy ending, saying come back when you’re better, when what you say can make us feel good, when you have something more uplifting, affirming. This ugliness was something I never asked for, it was dropped on me, and for a long time I worried it made me ugly too… But when I wrote the ugly and painful parts into a statement, an incredible thing happened. The world did not plug up its ears, it opened itself to me.

#MeToo

Book Snap #73

Title: Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Middle Crisis

Author: Ada Calhoun

Date Read: February 2, 2020

Two snaps.

This book came highly recommended and I scrambled to get it in my Amazon cart. It did not disappoint. All Gen X women: a must read!

The quote that opens the Introduction to her book sums it up pretty succinctly:

You come to this place, midlife. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.

Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost

Today’s middle-aged women belong to Generation X and the end of the Baby Boom. Gen X birth years are identified as those born between 1965 to 1980. For the longest time, Gen Xers have struggled most with what really defined us as a generation. Douglas Coupland popularized the moniker in his book of the same name, but we have been pretty much been the ignored “middle child”– overshadowed by our Baby Boomer parents and the younger Millineials we babysat.

Calhoun writes that: ” Generation X women tend to marry in our late twenties, thirties, forties, or not at all; to have our first children in our thirties or forties, or never. We’re the first women raised from birth hearing the tired cliche “having it all” — then discovered as adults that it is very hard to have even some of it.” (p. 5-6)

Because so many of our generation delayed marriage and children into their thirties and forties– we also find ourselves caring for parents in decline at the same time we are caring for little children; and asking for raises and ‘leaning in’ at work. Fused with this stress is a hormonal tumult and the mood swings of menopause. And in a cruel twist, the symptoms of hormonal fluctuation are exacerbated by stress, while the symptoms in turn raise stress levels! At the same time, we are inundated by breaking news alerts, social media feeds that show us how awesome everyone else’s life is, increased work obligations, phone calls to return, texts to send, and emails to write. “Our lives can begin to feel like the latter seconds of a game of Tetris, where the descending pieces pile up faster and faster.” (Calhoun, 20).

So, yeah– women are facing a midlife crisis. We have it all: marriages, kids, careers, homes… but we are stressed about having it all. We have sky-high expectations for ourselves and as a generation we are also exhausted, terrified about money, and overwhelmed.

Calhoun provides an excellent analysis of this midlife crisis– one in which I know my cohort will see themselves in. As difficult as it was to face some of it, it was also a relief to know that I was not alone– and that many women feel very much the same. It is yet another book that opens up the conversation for women to support one another– to share experiences and to rally around as we push through midlife stronger with a tribe that will reassure us and empower us.

Book Snap #72

Title: All Families are Psychotic

Author: Douglas Coupland

Date Read: December 29, 2019

Two snaps.

If you’ve read Coupland’s work before (Generation X, Shampoo Planet, The Gum Thief, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradumus!... ) then you are prepared for the kind of whirlwind adventure Coupland has concocted for the Drummond family. Otherwise, leave your Rockwellian ideals of family reunions aside and take consolation that your family is nowhere near as crazy as you first thought.

The family reunites to mark the important event of their daughter and sister, Sarah Drummond, about to launch in to space. The Drummond family then haphazardly reveal their multitude of psychoses to everyone around them as they count the days to take off at Cape Caneveral.

They stumble through kidnapping, blackmail, gunplay, and black market negotiations; but even as their lives spin wildly off their axis– we also see the tender relationships, the humanity, and kindness of these flawed characters as they mend and repair and build each other up.

The Drummonds are psychotic– but their madness is a foundation for deep love and compassion as they handle the real issues of our time.

Book Snap #71

Title: The Only Story

Author: Julian Barnes

Date Read: December 16, 2019

Two snaps.

What a messy love story.

He, 19. She is married and 43, but a chance coupling on the tennis courts sparks the connection that weaves them inextricably together over decades.

A rambling, stream of consciousness narrative takes us back through the ages, the choices, the thrills of turning heads in a society that whispered and snubbed them– and well ahead in to the future and the regrets, the complications and the misgivings.

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Read about other of Chapters/Indigo’s CEO, Heather Reisman’s picks, or Heather’s Picks!

Book Snap #70

Title: A Spark of Light

Author: Jodi Picoult

Date Read: December 23, 2019

Two snaps.

I dismissed Jodi Picoult out of hand in the past. But by relinquishing whatever pretences I had about Picoult, I have been pleasantly surprised with her work. I wrote about House Rules (here), and Small Great Things (here) and I am equally impressed with this loan, A Spark of Light.

In this novel, she tackles the abortion debate.

Innocently enough, Wren asks her aunt to take her to the clinic to get a prescription for birth control. Unfortunately, it is also the day that a gunman takes aim at the clinic, and everyone inside. Wren is caught in the cross fire, and her dad, Hugh McElroy is the hostage negotiator at the scene.

The narrative unravels in reverse, as we see hour by hour how everyone has found themselves in the clinic– revealing the layered and complicated stories of the women and the doctors and nurses. This cast of characters open the spectrum of choices and views around this debate and unravels the nuances of women’s healthcare, reproductive choices and the laws that keep womens’ bodies in check.

A worthy read.

Book Snap #69

Title: Frankly in Love

Author: David Yoon

Date Read: December 14, 2019

One snap.

It’s a saccharine sweet love story; wildly predictable; and short on captivating writing.

But, it is told from a point of view and about characters that are rarely centrepieces in teen romantic fiction. The main character is a Korean American young man, a Limbo, he calls himself– straddling the customs, traditions and languages of the two cultures he inhabits. His parents would prefer he “date Korean” and this poses the obstacle and underpinning of the story’s plot. From there, it is a sweet boy meets girl story with a calculable twist.

Not my favourite YA novel, but it wins for bringing racial characters and intersecting racial issues to the forefront.