Monthly Archives: July 2018

Island of the Mad, by Laurie R. King

islandofthemadYes, it’s another installment in the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell saga! King has written 20 books about Holmes’s late-in-life marriage to the brilliant Russell; I’ve read nearly all of them and posted reviews of six, beginning with the very first one which I read and wrote about way back in 2006 at the dawn of this blog. The quality of these stories continues to be good and the characterization intriguing as this latest chapter takes Holmes and Russell to Venice in the mid 1920s and brings them into contact with a dazzling array of Jazz Age characters including the very non-fictional Cole Porter. Ostensibly, they’re there to look for a missing woman, the aunt of Russell’s college friend — but really they’re there to have another adventure in another fascinating locale. This book is as enjoyable as all the rest in this series.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery

The Waiting Room, by Leah Kaminsky

thewaitingroomThis was a book I picked up on impulse — judging it by its back-cover blurb — and while it wasn’t a bad read, the premise promises a little more than it delivers, I think. The main character, Dina, is a doctor in modern-day Israel. She’s from Australia, but married to an Israeli, and she finds life in a country where terrorist threats are a daily reality almost unbearably stressful — especially as she worries about the well-being of her young son and unborn daughter, and her native-born husband sees her fears as a sign of weakness. To top it off, Dina is haunted, almost literally, by memories of her late mother, a Holocaust survivor. Violence past and present casts its shadow over Dina’s life. The story unfolds over a single day with many flashbacks, and I wanted to be really drawn into it, but I found Dina a strangely distant main character, and the pacing of the story was odd and kept throwing me off. However, a lot of that may have just been me as a reader, and if the summary sounds interesting to you, you should definitely pick it up and see what you think. 

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Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga

sevenfeathersAgain, as with my last non-fiction read, this is a book that several people have recommended to me. It’s not an easy read but it is definitely important.

Specifically, it’s an in-depth analysis of the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers over a period of several years in the Ontario town of Thunder Bay. All were high schools students from remote Northern communities; all were boarding in the city, sometimes with family and sometimes with strangers; most of the deaths were drownings; none of them was adequately or promptly investigated by police. The stories of these seven tragedies are compelling in and of themselves but the author also makes very clear that this is not just the story of seven dead young people in Thunder Bay but also the much broader story of Canada’s treatment of its First Nations people — from the generational repercussions of the horror of the residential school system to the substandard living conditions on many First Nations reserves still today. 

As Canadians we like to pride ourselves on our tolerance and inclusivity, but there are many places where this complacent national self-image rubs harshly against reality, and this is never more true than when it comes to the treatment of our indigenous people. Seven Fallen Feathers shines a harsh light on the results of Canadian bigotry towards First Nations people, and challenges us as a nation to do better.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general, Uncategorized

Trans Like Me, by C.N. Lester

translikemeI will readily admit that I am one of those middle-aged, middle-class cisgender people who have always prided myself on being open-minded and accepting towards LGBT people without thinking or knowing too much about the “T” part of that equation. As questions and debates about trans people become more prominent in our culture, I find myself floundering sometimes: although I’ve known a handful of trans people (mostly my students) I often feel like there’s a lot I don’t know or don’t fully understand about the experience of transgender people.

Someone recommended CN Lester’s Trans Like Me as a good place to start, and I second the recommendation. Lester is a British musician and non-binary person who does a great deal of advocacy for trans rights and related issues. The book weaves Lester’s stories of their own experiences with a more general look at some of the broader issues facing trans people, and is a really useful place to begin if, like me, you feel the need to deepen your understanding of the trans people who may be your family, friends, neighbours or co-workers.

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A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

placeforusThe best fiction — or at least the fiction I like best — walks the difficult balance between depicting a sense of place and culture so vividly that the reader feels introduced into a world they’ve never visited before, while also touching chords that are universal so the reader can relate to something, or someone, in the story. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s new novel A Place for Us strikes this balance perfectly for me. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2018.

The novel tells the story of an Muslim family, Layla and Rafiq and their three children Hadia, Huda and Amar. Layla and Rafiq moved to the US from India shortly after their (arranged) marriage; all three of the children are US-born. This is a novel about an immigrant family growing up in American during the post-9/11 era (the children are all in school in 2001, and Amar gets into a fight with some boys at school who say his father looks like a terrorist, while the devout Rafiq tells his daughters to stop wearing hijab to school because it may expose them to greater prejudice). It’s a story about a family navigating the balance between preserving their traditional religion/culture and adapting to the culture of their new country. But most importantly it’s just a very vivid, moving, deeply felt family story, about the ways in which family members love, hurt, help and betray one another.

The world of a Muslim family in California in the early 2000s is obviously a foreign one to me, but the world of a devoutly religious family from a small, tight-knit faith community is, just as obviously, pretty familiar to me, and it was here I found the universality of this book, the parts I related to so deeply. The experience Layla and Rafiq have of trying to raise their three children with their community’s values, their hope that their children will be observant Muslims, their attempt to wrestle with the reality of those kids growing up and making their own choices that don’t always fit within the community they were raised in — well, let’s just say that as a Seventh-day Adventist parent of young adults, these struggles felt very poignant and relatable. The ending, particularly, was heart-wringing for me and it touched me deeply.

Another thing that deeply impressed me with this novel was when I read the author bio at the end and realized how young Fatima Mirza is — not yet thirty. It doesn’t surprise me that she could so effectively depict Hadia, Huda and Amar growing up in their dual world as children of immigrants — but she also explores Layla’s and Rafiq’s points of view with a depth and sensitivity I’d expect from an older author who has already raised children and seen them grow to maturity. For a writer as young as Mirza is to capture the parents’ perspective so vividly speaks of both immense skills as a writer and tremendous empathy and insight as a human being.

I read this book while on a trip to England, and for me, the books I read while travelling often carry echoes of the places where I read them, the trains and subway cars I sat in while turning the (real or virtual) pages. Reading this book reminds me of my first trip to England 30+ years ago, when one of the books I was reading became deeply entangled with my own feelings about someone I’d left behind back home. Reading A Place for Us while travelling around London has been the same kind of experience to me — a book that opens a door into another world, and finding the door contains a mirrored panel that reflects my own world back to me. I won’t forget this book soon, and I look forward to reading whatever Mirza writes next.

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Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, by David Frum

trumpocracyI still remember how shocked I was when I learned that Barbara Frum’s son worked for George W. Bush. I think I had the vaguely unquestioned Canadian assumption that anyone who was a well-known voice on the CBC must be at least a centrist or slightly to the left of centre. The idea that the son of such a CBC icon could be working for what we all thought of then as a dangerously right-wing US administration (oh, those dear innocent days!) seemed wrong, somehow. Though as it turns out Barbara had some right wingish views herself and her daughter Linda is a Conservative member of Canada’s Senate, appointed by Stephen Harper, so clearly the whole family is fairly right-of-centre by Canadian standards.

But David Frum has his limits: he may be a US Republican, but he’s also one of the most prominent and outspoken never-Trumpers, and in his book Trumpocracy, he lays out exactly why he thinks Trump’s record of corruption is dangerous for American democracy. He doesn’t focus on every one of Trump’s abhorrent views (in fact, given his own politics, he probably agrees with a few of them, though he does question a lot) — but instead keeps the reader’s attention clearly on the issue of corruption. This includes Russian meddling in the US election, Trump’s strangely docile attitude to Vladimir Putin, the various ways in which Trump and his businesses are profiting from the presidency, and the efforts to suppress democracy and demonize the free press in the US. I would hope that because Frum has solid conservative credentials, some of Trump’s supporters might listen to these warnings coming from him when they wouldn’t listen to the “libtards” on the left. But the fact is that hardcore Trump supporters are so all-in for the man that anyone who criticizes him, no matter what their credentials or sources, is automatically dismissed. It’s a sad situation.

I found this book very informative and interesting (but then I agree with Frum’s anti-Trump bias, if not with a lot of the elements of his own politics). The only weakness is that no book can keep up with the minute-by-minute craziness of the Trump administration, and many of the points he makes seem almost outdated a few months after the book’s release (others seem sadly prescient). I kept wondering what David Frum would say about the latest Trump outrages — but of course for that, there’s always Twitter.

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The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish

blackunicornThis book was … hard to rate. I think it was probably good for what it was, just not the book for me. I don’t even know much about Tiffany Haddish and her work as a comedian and actor; I just read a profile of her that made her sound both hilarious and insightful, and then I noticed that her memoir was available as an e-book from my library so on a whim I put it on my waitlist. It’s one of the few books this year that I almost gave up on in the middle of reading it, but I did finish it. 

Tiffany Haddish is a very funny woman with a very interesting backstory — hard life, lots of courage and determination to become the success she is today. I don’t always like celebrity memoirs; the best ones, especially of comedians, capture the person’s voice and make you feel like you’re listening to them tell their story. I suspect this one did capture the feel of Haddish’s voice in her stand-up — it’s not well-written by any imaginable literary standard, but if it captures the flavour of the person who’s telling the story that’s OK for a celeb memoir, I think. My main problem was not the writing but … Hmm. How to say this without sounding like a prude? I admire Haddish for the hardships she has overcome, but some of the experiences in her past, especially in relationships with men, were told in a way that made me feel she was trying to get the audience/readers to laugh at experiences that were in no way funny, and including details that were WAY too graphic for me (OK I am a bit of a prude). I get that humour often comes from a dark place and it can be good to make the audience squirm a bit, but the tone of some of her stories felt “off” to me. But maybe it’s just not my style of humour.

I think the bottom line was: this isn’t a bad book; it just wasn’t the right book for me. Or I wasn’t the right reader for it.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir