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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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.

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.

The collision of past and future

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

I just finished this book to write Battle of the Books questions for it. It’s also on the OLA’s White Pine list this year and I really recommend it, although it’s not exactly light, escapism if that’s what you’re into.

It takes place in a future when civilization has collapsed through a complicated series of negative events starting with extreme environmental devastation and climate change that triggered massive wars and the collapse of society. In this world, people have lost their ability to dream and it makes them violent and depressed. The solution was found in the bone marrow of Indigenous people. The book opens with Frenchie, a young Metis boy and his brother fleeing after their parents’ disappearances. The book follows Frenchie and his new found family’s journey through northern Ontario and eventually their decision to fight back.

There’s a lot to like about this book (but I’m not going to get into too much of it because spoilers!) but I’ll focus particularly on two things – Indigenous people in north America and the portrayal of LGBTQ people in the book.

This book, while maybe a little didactic, does a great job of drawing on the history of violence and colonialism in the collective Indigenous identity, as well as the generations of trauma that has effected both the individual people and the collective group of people. The dystopian future really draws on historical event and, while it’s extreme and alarming, also feels very real in the context of colonial oppression. No one wants to think about their government rounding up a minority in their own country and trapping them in schools. But it happened in history, and in this book it happens in our future as well. The idea of paying bounties on innocent civilians is distressing, but again, happened in our past and could happen again. Although the current political struggles are not touched on, it contextualizes them.

There is also a fantastic LGTBQ character in this book, and what I loved most about this character is that his sexual orientation was just one part of his overall character. His entire existence is informed by the lose of his husband, but this is treated exactly the same as any other lose in the book, and there are many. The fact that he’s a gay man isn’t even mentioned, its just understood. Also, there’s some serious trope inversion here (Spoiler: Kill All Your Gays) is thwarted in the last few pages in a way that truly warmed my heart.

I think this reads like a first novel (it is) and I’m sure everything Dimaline writes from will improve on what she learned from this great book. It feels a bit like Cormac McCarthey’s The Road  mixed with a curriculum accompaniment (for high school students – there’s violence, including sexual violence and some pg-13 sexuality) but I really enjoyed it and believe it’s a great piece for high school students across Canada to be reading this year.

Last movie I watched:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. When I first read it, I didn’t mind Harry’s … lack of emotional regulation. Then it started to bug me, I think as I stopped being a teenager. But now I don’t mind it so much again because I think he’s got PTSD for most of this book and with that reading, his anger makes a lot of sense.

Last TV episode:

Death Comes to Pemberly although I am literally 5 minutes into the first episode and therefore have no opinion at this time.

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.

Erased History and a Warning for Humanity

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Did you realize that Stalin committed genocide to the scale of millions of innocent people while the Second World War was happening? I didn’t. I mean, I knew he was generally considered to be a pretty bad dude, but he helped the Allies win the war so all’s forgiven right?

This is a piece of historical fiction based on the experiences of survivors of the mass deportations that occurred in Russia before, during and long after WWII. It’s the story of a Lina, a fifteen year old girl who is taken from her home one night, along with her mother and brother and deported to Siberia. What follows is a nightmare that lasted a decade for her. The book, which is a good 300 pages, only documents the first two years of her time in prison, although the epilogue confirms that she did survive another 10  more years in the camp before being freed.

It’s a devastating story. The human suffering described is heartbreaking. The human kindness and compassion from the prisoners, strangers and occasionally guards is just as heartbreaking. My library files it in the young adult section, certainly the subject matter is hard and there is some sexual violence in it, but I really think adults should read it as well, particularly if there are young people in your life who are reading it.

Given the current political climate, I think it’s really important for us to remember what happens that the “them versus us” mentality stripes us all of our humanity. When we fail to recognize the basic humanity in other people, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be human. And history will remember that, no matter who tries to suppress it.

Last movie I watched: Karate Kid.

That’s some serious bullying there guys. Serious.

Last TV show I watched:

The Musketeers. It’s just so much fun.

The other side of the Second World War

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielson

This is an amazing older children or young adult book about Berlin after the end of the Second World War. Now, previously my history on that subject is a little dicey. As I recall it went something like “And then the Allies won the war and divided up Berlin with a wall, which was eventually torn down but we’ll cover that later in the semester”. We didn’t.

Gerta’s Papa and brother cross the into West Berlin one night to see if there’s a job for Papa there, away from the censorship and depression of East Berlin. That night, the Soviets  put up a fence, cutting Gerta off from half her family. Slowly over the next few years it turns from a fence to a wall to a manned wall and an overbearing state presence that controls every part of her life. One day she sees her father watching from the other side of the wall and he’s trying to tell her something, a way to bring them all back together. But it will mean becoming an enemy of the state and risking not just her life, but her family and friends as well.

This story is an incredibly moving depiction of a young person dreaming in a world that crushes dreams. Obviously the subject matter is a little complicated and if you’re not reading it with your child or your class you should still be prepared to have a talk with your young person about the historical context and the effects of war more broadly. This is a serious story, with only the lightest touch of humour in it  but a really moving and genuine, particularly focusing on the strength of relationships between people in hard times and that keeps it from being totally depressing. Also, the writing is very on point – if you’re not feeling nervous for the whole last half, I’m not sure you’re a human.

I strongly recommend this book (seriously) and I would recommend it even if it didn’t seem quite timely, given the current political climate. In today’s context, I think it’s even more important as a study in empathy, sympathy and for its unwavering conviction that people who do bad things are not always bad people but desperate ones and that people will defend their families no matter what the risk. This power shouldn’t be underestimated.

Last movie I watched: I have no idea. It might have been Home. It might not have been.

Last TV episode I watched: Smallville. I missed the season finale for this season (8 I think). I have to say, it’s very edge of your seat excitementy.