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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Biological warfare, ethics and pacifism for the under 13 crowd

Gregor the Overlander: Curse of the Warm Bloods by Suzanne Collins

Fair warning from the start: I am going to spoil this book. Now, in my defense, I did guess the big reveal in the third or forth chapter,so maybe the spoilers aren’t that huge, but you know… just in case.

Gregor is once again summoned to the Underland by his friends there, when a dangerous plague breaks out and starts killing all the warm bloods – humans, rats, bats and mice. However, his mother is unwilling to just let him and Boots, his baby sister, disappear into the darkness again, so she goes with them. Suitably embarrassed to introduce his mother to the people who call him Warrior, Gregor, his Mom and Boots arrive. They learn that Aries, Gregor’s beloved bat was the first known case, that the rats are continuing to suffer in their war against the humans and soon Gregor’s mother comes down with the plague. Guided by a prophecy and a jittery medical doctor, Gregor and Boots lead a quest of all species (human, bat, rat and cockroach) to get the cure – a special flower. But ultimately the quest fails and then they realize – the cure was always with them because the humans had been trying to engineer it the whole time, so they could use the sickness as a biological weapon against the rats. They turn back, and when they arrive home, they learn that the humans have found a cure, Gregor’s mom and Aries will be fine but Gregor’s view of his friends is forever altered. A lot less hopefully then usual, Gregor and Boots go home (their Mom is not well enough to travel), setting up the next book.

Obviously the Hunger Games, Collins much bigger (better) series, has a lot of equally large and grim commentary. This whole series does too, but biological warfare and whether or not it’s ever okay (Gregor votes no, and I think I do too) is a pretty serious concept for a middle school child. Having said that, they probably deserve a story that helps them understand what they’ve seen or likely will see on the news. It also does a good job of breaking down the theory of pacifism through a character who, after being responsible for the death of dozen of rats, including babies, refuses to fight again. Really overall, it’s a good Big Ideas book.

Also Boots, the baby, is well handled and very adorable.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although I didn’t have a problem putting it down and coming back to it later. But it gave me a lot to think about.

Last movie I watched:

Cloud Atlas. I really liked it but I think I missed something

Last TV episode I watched:

Orphan Black!!!!! Everyone needs this show in their life.