Heartbreaking, hopeful but also mostly gutting

We Are All That’s Left by Carrie Arcos

This book is really compelling, really heartbreaking and a good story about one of those things I didn’t know a lot about. I really value YA lit that widens my world view. The story is told in two perspectives. The first person narration is a diary entry of a typical American teenager – her strongest relationships are with her friends, she loves photography and she doesn’t get along with her old fashioned Mom. The second story is a third person narration account of her old fashioned mother as a teenager during the Bosnian genocide. Their lives are brought together when a fictional terrorist attack in the USA injures them both and brings them closer as part of their healing process.

Although the writing isn’t particularly outstanding, it’s a good story. It’s always startling to me to learn about history that I was alive during. Sure, I was a little kid at the time, and I was kind of aware of hearing about Bosnia, but I didn’t understand it at the time and as an adult it’s hard to reconcile that terrible things didn’t just happen in my grandparents time – the World Wars, the Depression, etc  but in my parents time and worst of all, in mine. I imagine my kids will have a similar moment when they realize I was a teenager during 9/11. As uncomfortable as it is, I’m glad this book made me look closely at how recently there’s been this kind of violence in the world and remind me how unkindly history looks on people who stay silent during times of great violence.

At it’s core, this story is about trauma and the healing process being about connection and faith. Nadja, the mother, survived the trauma of genocide, rape, outlived her family who were all killed and lived in a city under siege for years where she faced starvation and snipers. And yet she made it to the United States, met a man, got pregnant and found joy in her baby. But she was never able to talk to her children about their grandparents or her past and she remained closed off from the world. Zara saw nothing in her mother but her weird habits, obsessive behaviors and closed off nature. After the terrorist attack Nadja is able to see her daughter learning to cope with the same trauma she is experiencing and understand that keeping her terrifying past away from her children has held her back from them. Zara comes to understand that trauma and violence change a person in very profound way and that her mother is a product of a brutal life, scarred, just like she is now.

I’m an atheist and generally don’t read outright religious texts and maybe that’s why I wasn’t really prepared for the religious element in this book. Although the concept of God is quite loosely defined (Nadja is ethnically Muslim but celebrates both Christmas and Eid during the war and almost never attends mosque and Zara doesn’t have a clear sense of her own faith at the start of the book) through the introduction of Joseph,  a young man Zara meets at the hospital and his quest to at least temporarily practice all the major world religions, Zara moves towards having a relationship with God. In the abstract I didn’t connect with her because of my own bias but it’s probably a good thing for me to consider from time to time, where religion fits into other people’s lives.

The ending had me in tears and that’s all I can say safely, without spoilers. But it really did drive home this feeling the book carries that love is as strong as anything bad in the world.

Last movie I watched:

Moana. Love it!

Last TV show I watched:

The Dragon Prince. Although the animation isn’t great, the story and characters are great! Definitely committed to this show!

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Surprisingly life changing and a bit magical

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

My wife made me read this. I would never, ever have picked this book up ever. And although I didn’t expect to like it, I found it quite readable and not even that painful, like I had anticipated.

I don’t know how to talk about this book, because it’s kind of a self help book and therefore I assume everyone should be getting something different  out of it.

Please note that I a not a clean person, never have been but I recently had a baby and am spending most of my time at home with him and I was finding, for the first time in my life, that the messes around me were actually upsetting. This book came to me at the prefect time. Which is one of the things the author talks about – objects coming to you at the right time in your life.

The things I took away from this book were the idea that your objects and your house itself serve you faithfully and in return you should make sure they are treated respectfully. I’m not going as far as she did (nope, just not folding my socks or emptying my purse every day) but that philosophy kind of resonated with me (yup, I’m lucky I have this beautiful, little house and I should treat it with care and affection). She also discusses how everything has a place, everything has a home and this is also something that brings peace to my brain, going to bed knowing things are in their place. It used to just be people but maybe I could extend it to my objects too.

So I’m not going to systematically go through my whole house, hold each object and ask myself if it brings me joy but I am going to take a bit of that book with me as I move through my life, keep my house and raise my kid(s). I’m not sure I’d recommend it but I’ll say this – if you think you should read it, it might be the right time for you to read it.

But I will never agree with her philosophy on not keeping all your books. Seriously, even bad books bring joy to my life.

Last movie I watched:

The second half of my Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. I liked it. I mean, I loved the first one but I liked this.

Last TV show I watched:

Legend of Korra. Loved it, but Avatar is better

Beautiful and heartbreaking and human

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Abridged) by Khaled Hosseini

I listened this book as an audiobook, which is why it was the abridged. The reader was great, the book was amazing and I’m kind of struggling with an book hangover – I’ve got a new audiobook on the go but can’t get into it because it’s just not as good as this story.

The story is of two women in Afghanistan, spanning forty or fifty years. It is heartbreaking, beautiful and devastating but ultimately hopeful story .  It is about the amazing power of women to overcome unthinkable horrors, particularly when they are motivated by love of their children.

The first part of the book is the story of Miriam, an illegitimate child of a wealthy man and a former housekeeper. She is excluded not just from her father’s family, but society as a whole. Her world changes dramatically when she’s a young teenager which ultimately results in her marriage to an abusive man named Rasheed in Kabul.

The second part of the book introduces Laila, who has lived her whole life down the street from Rasheed and Miriam, some twenty years older than her, without ever knowing it, in a much more liberal household. She too is forced to grow up devastatingly early and she becomes Rasheed’s second wife.

The last part changes point of views, switching between the two women as they move from adversaries to allies to a family in the truest sense.

The personal struggles of the two women take place against the backdrop of Afghanistan troubled history, including regime changes, international conflict with the Soviets and the Americans and the repressive rule of the Taliban. Both women are scarred by the trauma of war, just as their beloved city is. Yet at the end of the books, there’s a glimmer of hope for another generation of women, who may escape the horrors their mothers and grandmother’s survived.

I should mention that this book ends almost in the present, and its worth considering what the book is so subtly and elegantly suggesting about the future in the middle east.

It’s really hard to talk about this book without giving away a lot of details, which I’m struggling with because it was such a great story I don’t want to ruin it for anyone but I feel like I have to talk about mothers in this book, because to me that’s what the story is really about. In all fairness, this could be because I listened to it as I fed my 4 week old son, but I still think it’s worth considering.

Both women, Laila and Miriam had mothers who loved them, but could not make the hard choices to protect their daughters, due mostly to the trauma and pain they had experienced. For Laila’s mother, this was the death of her sons and her hatred for the Soviets as a result which motivated her to stay in Kabul long after it became unsafe for her family, which ultimately resulted in her death, her husband’s death and the forced marriage of her daughter. Miriam’s mother was so unable to move past the betrayal of the man she loved that when Miriam left her, even just for a day, to see her father, she took her own life.

Contrast that with Laila who married and stayed with a man who abused her to protect her children, who at the end of the book is called “mother” by a school full of orphans and is carrying the potential for the next generation of women. Miriam kills and literally dies to protect Laila and her children, the daughter who wasn’t even her own. Both women make enormous sacrifices to ensure the safety of their children, and that provides hope for the future.

This is an incredible story and I think everyone should read it. Everyone because if nothing else it’s a beautiful, moving exercise in empathy, which is of course, how books change the world.

Last movie I watched:

A small piece of the Greatest Showman, with the commentary of a four year old and a six year old over top of it. I think I’ll try it again sometime.

Last TV show I watched:

Avatar: The Last Airbender. So good guys! So, so good.

Very deep, just a little bit scary

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I really like John Green, his online personality as much as his books. So I was pretty excited for this.

As I side note, I listened to it as an audiobook and the reader was pretty good, if anyone’s got a long road trip ahead of them.

This book centers around Aza, a sixteen year old girl who has a great best friend Daisy who convinces her to help look for a missing billionaire in Indianapolis to get the hundred thousand dollar reward. She also has a few pretty serious mental health issues. As she struggles with her sense of herself, Aza and Daisy’s quest changes everything for both of them.

Overall it was a great read. Like most John Green books, it’s pretty philosophic and maybe a little more thought driven then plot driven, but that’s okay. There’s lots (and lots) I could say about it but I will just mention a thought or two and get on with on my day.

One of the things that I could most terrifying and wonderful was Aza’s mental health issues. John Green clearly brings his own personal experience to this book. Aza’s constant search for the perfect metaphor to describe her illness, like if she could just explain it accurately somehow she’d be better. I found (spoilers! just assume there are spoilers from here on out) her late night drinking of hand sanitizer to be a terrifying and traumatic read for me. The writing was perfect. Not only was Aza out of control, but the reader was too. It was scary.

I also really liked that Aza and her love interest, Davis, the son of the missing billionaire, did not end up together.  John Green often subverts expectations about happily ever afters (see Paper Towns) but Davis and Aza really had a connection. It felt tangible and real and built on something that mattered, not the far too common love at first sight coupling that YA so enjoys. But lots of relationships between two people who are really connected don’t work out and YA doesn’t always do a great job of showing that.

And I liked that the core relationship in the story was Aza’s and Daisy’s. Because again, YA novels often put all the focus on the romance, and not the best friend. There’s the odd exception of course, but generally it’s not. This is unfortunate, because I have found in my own experience (not a study or anything) that after high school you’re way more likely to keep in touch with your friends than anyone you dated.

So it’s not The Fault in Our Stars, but it’s a great read and I would be more than happy to recommend it to any young person.

Last movie I watched:

Golden Compass. It was good. Certainly not the movies fault they didn’t make the sequel. I blame the book.

Last TV show I watched:

Galavant. Hilarious.

A whole lots of stuff for one little graphic novel

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

I read this ages ago, and so any intelligent thoughts I had have slipped away, and all I’m left with is intelligent feelings and overall impressions.

This is a pretty mature graphic novel about a 16 year old Japanese- Canadian girl who is struggling her way through high school, her identity, her peers and increasingly her romantic feelings for one of her teachers when a boy at her school dies by suicide, opening up a complex world of grief, mourning and personal struggles.

I loved this book, I thought it was well written, thoughtful, accurate, the illustrations were a little creepy but fit well with the story and it’s a moving book, maybe particularly for adults who can forget how complicated, isolated and dramatic high school can be.

It also has great representation of different cultures, LGBT characters and women, which I think is a good thing.

Last movie I watched :

Part of Moana with a 3 year old. I recommend, the movie and the three year old. She added some great commentary

Last TV show I watched:

Supernatural. I’ll get through it all eventually.

Just so, so, so good

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

I love, love, love this book. There is so much excellence I’m not sure where to start.

It is the story of Pen, short for Penelope, a queer first generation Canadian teenager. At the start of the book Pen is doing her best to slide by unnoticed. She avoids fighting with her parents when she can by hiding in the basement where her older brother lives. Her best friend Colby defends her against anyone who bullies her in exchange for her help picking up girls. But when Colby tries to pick up the girl Pen has a crush on, Pen makes a choice for herself. Soon after events in her life start to spiral out of her control, forcing to her to evaluate the decisions she’d made so far, their consequences and man up.

There’s a lot of really, really good things about this book. The tone is great, Pen’s voice is unique and strong and she’s a great character who’s relatable to anyone who’s every felt like an outsider (every single person ever obviously). It’s also a great story of LGBT+ story in a delightful, un-simplistic way. Pen is a lesbian, 100%. Blake, her girlfriend, has dated boys but also dates a woman, implying she’s bi or possibly pan. Pen is very masculine – she cuts her hair short, she dresses in her brother’s hand-me-downs, she loves TMNT and hates Barbies but she also is very sure she’s not transgender. She really recognizes her identity as a masculine woman. But most of this isn’t really stated, it just is. There are scenes that really touch on these issues – for example Pen tells Blake she wants to be touched like a boy – but they aren’t resolved either and as far as all the characters, or at least the sympathetic ones, are concerned, that’s okay. And I think that’s a really good thing. We don’t need every single person to fit into a box.

This book has a lot of really heavy content. Here there be spoilers. The struggles of first generation Canadians are woven throughout the story – Pen struggles with vastly different expectations she has for her own life versus her parents. Language gaps, extended family, food and cultural expectations are woven throughout the book as challenges and advantages for Pen and her brother.

Finally there is some sexual assault. Pen’s internal dialogue does an amazing job of describing her frozen fear, when Colby makes sexual advances on her. Although she clearly doesn’t want them and is not interested in them but she feels like she has no power in their relationship, she’s afraid to find herself without Colby’s friendship so she has to let it happen. It’s really upsetting to read.

There’s also some pretty serious violence, alcohol, drugs and an abortion, which is handled carefully and complexly but is obviously challenging for readers.

I recommend this book enormously,  for teens and adults. If younger readers would like to take a stab at it, I’d recommend that too but encourage an adult conversation about some of the content. Just read it, enjoy it and embrace the really satisfying but not completely happy ending.

Last movie I watched:

Thor: Ragnorak. Pretty excellent, I have to say.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Red Tent. I’m actually really enjoying it, although I’m sure the book is better.

Beauty after Tragedy

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Hermione Winter heads off to cheer leading camp before her grade twelve year sure that this will be her year. She and her best friend Polly are co-captains of their team, in a school that loves cheer leading. Her teams is the best it’s ever been. Her boyfriend’s on the team. Surely this will be her year. Until she’s drugged and raped by an unknown assailant at camp. Over the next year she looses friends and gains friends as she struggles to get through her own life but also to live free of the identity of a victim.

This book is powerful. Really, truly. The writing has a beautiful rawness to it, particularly painful to read when it relates to physical pain and sensation and flashback. I found it hard not to have a very real reaction myself (okay, so I cried at work through a few parts) just because of the stunning honesty of everything – the words, the sentences, the characters, the places.

The other things that brought me to tears was the wonderful people in Hermione’s life. From her best friend Polly, to her partners bewildered about how to help their child, the other adults in her life – her therapist, coach, guidance councilor, doctor, police – and her friends, people she’d always known and cared about but she’d never realized how they’d step up to protect her, they are all amazing. And of course, this is the most unrealistic element of the story because in real life, survivors of sexual violence often end up feeling isolated alone and betrayed by the people in their life. But here’s the thing about this book – at least for me it was impossible not to want to be that person who steps up for anyone who needs. Characters that good inspire goodness.

Just for the record, this is not a book about looking for the rapist. Of course some of the story is devoted to finding out who he was, to the police investigation and DNA and that kind of CSI stuff. But that’s not what it’s about, not at all.

There’s very little about this book that I didn’t love. Obviously there’s some pretty serious content, so I’d recommend chatting with any teens in your life who happen to be reading it if you’re uncomfortable with themes of sexual assault, abortion or trauma. But I would also recommend everyone reading it.

Last movie I watched:

I still think it’s the Karate Kid.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Musketeers! Apparently the king just kinda died. Weird.