“Do Not Say We Have Nothing”: importance of storytelling

I kept seeing Madeline Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing seemingly everywhere I went (well, where I went online), so I felt that I had to read it. It was shortlisted for the Ban Booker Prize, and it won the Governor General’s Literary Award. It has to be good!

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Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-do-not-say-we-have-nothing-cements-madeleine-thien-as-one-of-canadas-most-talented-novelists/article30385361/

This novel is an epic saga. It looks at the lives of generations of a family during the cultural revolution in China. In high school, I did one of my major research projects in one of my History classes on the Chinese revolution and Chairman Mao. It fascinated me that a single idea could change the lives of millions of people in such a short amount of time. Also, that protecting culture and banning the influence of others, especially the West, was carried out. I knew the dates and names of the campaigns and leaders, but Thien’s novel made that time period come alive through the tragic stories of families torn apart, and innocent people’s lives being destroyed by judgmental neighbours. It’s one thing to read a textbook with facts, but it’s another thing to see how those facts influence people.

I read this book on a trip up to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I carried this library book with me to the coffee shops in town, up to the Bush Pilot’s Monument, and to the picnic tables at Frame Lake. I was caught-up in the stories of Thien’s characters. I wanted to know what would happen to them and if they would reunite. I wanted to know if they would survive the re-education camps and the daring protests. At the same time, I was also caught-up in Yellowknife culture. Here is a place where communities and cultures live together and support one another. The Dene community, the Inuit community, the Metis community, the Filipino community, the mining community, the construction community, the crafting community. What a difference in culture! People fighting to stay alive and be seen to tow the party line, and that contrasted with a city that actively tries to bring cultures together to celebrate differences.

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Truthfully, I feel like this book was a little too ambitious. There was a lot going on, yet Thien does well at connecting it all together. But sometimes the details were a bit overwhelming (and exhausting). It’s clear that either Thien is a musician or is interested in music because the characters in her novel love music. Several are composers, music professors, or performers. Like a good Canadian (and fan of Bach), she writes a lot about Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach. In fact, Gould’s name shows up throughout the novel, not just once or twice. I’m curious as to why she chose this eccentric Canadian performer. Bach’s music is so structured, which is why I think Gould loves Bach. One of my cousins loves Gould and often sends me YouTube videos of Gould. These are a few of my favourites:
The Chair
Animals
Piano skills

Overall I enjoyed Thien’s novel. I was on vacation and was able to linger on the story and find time to read it. And the stunning views helped for sure.
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Thien reminds us of the importance of hearing stories. Not just facts, but stories. I think stories are the success behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. And I hope that the stories of families and friends makes the inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls just as healing. We need to listen to each others’ stories in order to find justice, healing, and a way forward. In the novel, the characters find each other through a novel written chapter-by-chapter and through the story in music. There is power in a story. May we have the patience and the heart to hear.

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“Griffin & Sabine”: believe in magic

Remember the joy of pop-up books? The books that were tactile and interactive? What a wonderful way to connect with what you’re reading! This is why I am so glad that one of my good friends recommended that I read Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock. It had envelopes and letters you could actually touch! I loved it.

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Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/381102.Griffin_and_Sabine

Bantock writes and illustrates a creative idea: a woman writes postcards (which she creates) to a man in a completely different country and they begin a beautiful friendship. There is romance. There is mystery. There is despair. There is magic. There is hope.

Griffin and Sabine write letters and postcards back and forth, exploring their extraordinary relationship. As a reader, it’s so lovely to slow down and read mail. You have to actually open the envelopes in the book to read the handwritten (cursive) letters. I found it such a beautiful and intimate experience that let me be a nosy neighbour and eavesdrop on someone else’s conversations. Griffin creates postcards in a shop in London. He is an artist, but didn’t fully agree with the art school’s ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy. In fact, at one point in the book Sabine encourages Griffin to explore his darkness. She almost gives him permission to explore his depression through his art, that he sells on postcards.

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Source: http://www.geocities.ws/kimkronk/SBA1/nickbantockart.htm

Sabine is an interesting character, and she knows it. She lives on the island Katie in the Sicmon Islands in the South Pacific. Yet she doesn’t always exist there. She has a strange and mysterious connection to Griffin: she can see when he draws. She can’t see Griffin, but she sees his art as he creates it. Weird, right?! But so fun!
Sabine is an artist of her own and also creates postcards and stamps.

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Source: http://www.geocities.ws/kimkronk/SBA1/nickbantockart.htm

I am so grateful for the experience that Bantock created in this book. You have mystery, you have magic, you have beautiful art, you have intimacy. Reading the letters and thinking about that ‘what if’ scenario: what if there was someone you had a connection with, but had no way to express that connection or make that connection a reality? What if we are all alone because we aren’t able to accept that life might not be reasonable and might in fact be magical?

The hope for the unexpected is something that is hard at times. We get run down by life and we become emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I think it is during these dark times that we miss the joy and the magic of simple connections. In those moments we are hoping for something big and dramatic to come into our lives (as Sabine enters into Griffin’s life), yet I don’t think it needs to be that dramatic.

What if a life-changing, life-altering, life-affirming moment and expression happens in the smallest way, to nudge us and remind us that life is worth the living. Maybe these small, daily miracles (a butterfly, a great memory, a delicious tasting meat, a smile from a passer-by) are the ones we need to be looking for and appreciating. I suppose that is why depression is so brutal: you can’t take the miracles for miracles because you don’t have the energy or the hope to believe that things will get better or that life is beautiful.

So hold on to those small miracles when you are able to see them for what they are! And hope for magic!

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Source: https://www.behance.net/gallery/24293989/Believe-in-Magic

“The Fate of the Tearling”: love costs

At the end of this novel, I actually said out loud to my empty apartment, “WHAT?!” Erika Johansen did it again. The final novel in this series of three had me playing along the entire time.

fate

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Fate-Tearling-Novel-Queen-Book-ebook/dp/B015CXRP9S

Without spoiling the wild ride, I’ll just say that this book reminded me of what the writers/producers of Star Trek did in the 2009 film: they created a story line where time shifted and therefore they could create a whole new series of adventures and planets. Genius!! Johansen does something similar, which is why at the end I couldn’t help but utter an impassioned and appreciative “What?!” Nicely done. (I know I’ve said it before about her other books, but this woman writes beautifully!)

 

After three long epics, I appreciate that Johansen took a risk. On Goodreads, it seems fans are divided on Johansen’s story decision. Yet again, I am interested in her craft and how she creates twists and causes the reader to join her in several moments where suspension of disbelief is necessary, yet not betrayed. What a fabulous series!

beauty

Source: https://forums.spacebattles.com/threads/agg-rise-3-from-the-end-with-love.507116/page-363

Ok, enjoy gushing about the author’s brilliance. Johansen has some thoughtful commentary on society and how greed and selfishness leads to hatred which leads to harm. “Hatred is wasy, and lazy to boot. It’s love that demands effort, love that exacts a price from each of us. Love costs; this is its value” (Pg 81). Throughout the novel, characters are forced to make hard decisions about life and death. In the end, it is those who love that end up struggling; in the end, it is those who want to do the right thing because of their love for others that end up hurt. Yet, time after time, those who love, even though it is the harder choice, have a richer life. They have relationships, friends, and peace. As with most societies, even today, religion and religious beliefs,  beliefs that were started out of love, end of being sources of jealousy and posturing. Trying to be perfect and trying to look good destroys lives, as we see throughout this novel and in real life. Yet the foundations of religions are love, compassion, peace, and forgiveness. I think that as humans, we forget that these values are hard and require work. It is easier to sit through a sermon that tells you three ways to be a better leader, or three ways to love your neighbours more. Yet when it comes to making life-changing decisions and doing the right thing, it’s easy to draw back out of fear and stay in the bubble of safety, waiting out the upheaval or change. But that is not the way of love.

heart

Source: http://www.facingcancer.ca/blogs/bothsides/love-is-brave

I think one of the reasons that I loved this series so much is that characters make mistakes, giant mistakes that destroy things. Characters also show the strength of compassion and forgiveness. It’s not easy and Johansen shows that the struggle is real: sometimes life isn’t black and white, most of the time it’s grey. So how do we find the courage to love others, even when it means sacrifice and cost? I’m not sure. That’s why this series has left me so happy: it was a pleasure to read, it has unexpected twists and turns, and it challenged me in my own views about life and society.

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Source: http://memes.com/img/184529

“Girl at War”: starting place

I was unsure about Girl at War by Sara Novic. At some points, I couldn’t put the book down. I was so engrossed in the story and in the life of the main character, Ana. Yet some parts of the book left me feeling ‘meh,’ especially the ending. I’m not sure where I wanted this book to go, so I suppose I just went along for the ride.

girl at war

Source: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/05/girl-at-war-sara-novic

Novic writes about a woman who grew up during a civil war and the story of how her country became Croatia and how she became an America. I think that these are stories of war we need to hear more often. A previous boyfriend’s family had a similar experience of fleeing their Eastern-European country and I couldn’t believe that he lived through those experiences. Through Ana, Novic tells the story of a young girl who sees her family, city, friends, and neighbourhood torn apart by racism and hate.

In high school, I remember that Serbs and Croats would often have fights after school. I didn’t understand the fights (because in my high school there were lots of fights), but I also didn’t stop to ask my classmates or my parents why they were fighting. I had no understanding of genocide and the terror of war. I had no way of comprehending that level of generations of hatred and fear.

So again, I believe that books about teen and child experiences are so important because we get a deeper understanding of the legacy of civil war. In the novel, Ana address the UN as a child soldier, yet she doesn’t see herself as a soldier. She sees herself as doing what needed to be done and not doubting her ability to be helpful in conflict. That is devastating that there are enough children being drawn into wars that we have UN special summits about child soldiers. Other European world wars were men fighting men. Civil wars are a completely different matter.

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Source: http://histclo.com/essay/war/swc/20/yug/dy-cw.html

So, thank you to Sara Novic for bringing us this important story. But that being said, I still wasn’t sold on this book. I’m not the only one who wasn’t a fan of the writing style:

But then, if the writing were stronger and less inclined to clunky phrasing, such as “Not wanting to wake Brian, I compelled myself to stillness for a minute or two, tried to match the rise and fall of my chest with his” or “I snuck a peek down at the Converse high-tops I’d pulled on in a last-minute fit of groggy defiance”, one might not be so demanding of clarity. (Eileen Battersby)

I feel that this book is a good starting point for people curious about the civil wars in the 1990s, yet it’s not a book I would recommend to friends to read. It was just ok.

ok

Source: https://makeameme.org/meme/it-was-just-poqrv1

“We Are All Made of Molecules”: surviving with grace and humour

I am a huge Susin Nielsen fan. We Are All Made of Molecules is only the second book I’ve read of hers, but I know this is true love.

molecules

Source: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/we-are-all-made-of/9781770497795-item.html?ref=social:organic:quickview&s_campaign=social:organic:quickview

In this book, Nielsen tackles some heavy teen issues: bullying, homophobia, sexting, popularity, and heartbreak. These are not simple or easy topics. In fact, these are some of the hardest conversations to have with young teens. For teens, life is heard because they are balancing that line between being a kid and being a young adult. They want freedom, yet aren’t always ready to deal with the consequences that come from their choices. Add in peer pressure and the desperate desire to fit in somewhere with people and being a young teen can be a harmful disaster.

The book is told from the perspectives of two characters: Ashley and Stewart. Almost overnight (well, not quite), they become step-siblings. Ashley is a fashionista who is high-up on the social ladder and is trying desperately to be cool and get the hottest guy in school to fall in love with her. Stewart is a nerdy genius who just wants to make friends at his new school and get along with his new sister. So not only do you have two teens the same age trying to survive school, but they are also trying to create a new family.

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Source: https://twitter.com/susinnielsen/status/593819905020985344

One of the most beautiful scenes to me is of Steward sitting under the afghan that his dead mother made and breathing in deeply. When Ashley asks him what he’s doing, he explains that he’s breathing in his mother’s molecules so he can be near her. Although Ashley is grossed out, the ideas sticks with her: we are all connected because we are all breathing in each others’ molecules all the time. The idea comforts Steward and it is a revelation to Ashley that people can be so similar, and race, religion, interests, sexuality, and gender have nothing to do with our connectedness.

interconnected

Source: http://www.spblearningcommons.com/single-post/2015/12/10/SPB-Pick-We-Are-All-Made-of-Molecules

I can see why this book is so popular. It deals with heavy ideas and emotionally charged issues, but Nielsen does so with grace and humour. She tells the story from the experiences of teens and doesn’t get caught up in explaining or dwelling, unlike adults. For teens everything is immediate and Nielsen captures that spirit and it is a beautiful thing.

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Source: https://www.linkedin.com/company/we-are-all-connected

“The Invasion of the Tearling”: all good things

I have to say that reading Erika Johansen’s writing is a pleasure. I love how she uses semicolons and how she structures her sentences. Yes, I loved the story in “The Invasion of the the Tearling” and the development of the characters, but it’s her actual writing that had me savouring this book.

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Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22698568-the-invasion-of-the-tearling

This second book is a bout Kelsea, a young woman who becomes queen of the kingdom The Tearling. Her next door neighbour is an evil, magic queen. As Kelsea learns more about the history of her family and her place in the kingdom, she starts to gain magical abilities as well. Throughout the novel, she struggles with her choices and how to combat evil while retaining her own soul. She grapples with the harsh realities of life and the stark truth that her kingdom is at the mercy of a stronger, more disciplined, more terrified, magic kingdom. Her guards, a rogue priest, and her bookie accountant help to rule with justice and fairness, yet they don’t always approve of her choices.

At the end of the book, Johansen created two things that had me worked up:

  • She created a suddenly realistic setting and plot twist that I did not see coming at all. This twist requires major suspension of disbelief, yet I bought in. But the book ended before the twist was fully developed, so I sat up in bed and realized I had to get the third book, right away! (In fact, as I was in the library yesterday picking up another book, I saw book three sitting on the display shelf. The library knew!!)
  • She had Kelsea, the main character, make a sacrificial decision to confront the evil red queen on her own, without her guards. And while in that meeting, she gives up her magic. What?! Why?? What will happened to her and her kingdom. How did she think it would end for her?

twist

Source: http://ru.memegenerator.net/instance/37170912/what-if-i-told-you-what-if-i-told-you-the-twist-ending-of-the-book-would-you-be-mad

I think one of the reasons I love this series, besides the writing and the lovable characters, is that Johansen includes such a deep sense of social justice and doing the compassionate thing, even when it could mean harmful personal consequences. As Kelsea has her ‘fuges,’ visions, she sees into the life of Lily, a woman who lives in a post-apocalyptic New York, USA. Lily is trapped in an abusive marriage and is monitored all of the time. When an injured stranger falls into Lily’s backyard, she does everything she can to protect this stranger. Through that act, she became part of the underground moment for The Better World. Johansen’s descriptions of the the people living poor and in terrible situations stirred my compassion and that part of me that feels fiery passion for equality and justice. It comes out in the book that Lily had a younger sister, Maddy, who worked with the resistance as a teen and out of fear Lily reported her sister, who then disappeared. So as Lily deals with her guilt for her sister and the plight of the people she drives by in the slums, she inserts herself into the rebellion and as the reader, I can’t help but get swept up in her righteous anger.

I loved this section of the book where Lily remembers Maddy and her passion for others:

There was the crucial difference between the two of them . . .: Maddy cared deeply about things.

“If we could be better people, she would say, “if we could care about each other as much as we do about ourselves, think about it, Lily! Think what the world would be!”

Lily would nod, for this sounded good in theory, but Lily had no such deep drives; anything she cared about was discarded as uninteresting two months later. Maddy’s passions were exhausting. They demanded not only interest but commitment and effort. Sometimes Lily had wished that Maddy would just think about boys and clothes and music, as all of Lily’s friends did, as Lily did herself.

It’s exhausting. I love this insight. Yes, compassion is exhausting. It’s not easy. So it’s interesting that in the book Kelsea, the queen, has almost too much compassion and those around her can’t understand, just as Lily wasn’t able to understand her sister’s passion for justice.

So, I can’t wait to read book three. I have it and I’m so curious how this series will end. What about the twist? Will I still play along? What about the characters? Will they still be lovable? Time to find out!

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Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/479492691554569815/

 

“Lullabies for Little Criminals”: where’s the love?

This is one of those books that you love because the writing is phenomenal, not because of the content. In fact, this was a tough book to read and made me feel uncomfortable for wanting to know what will happen next. I truly enjoyed the skills of Heather O’Neill and I can see why Lullabies for Little Criminals is a Canadian must-read.

lullabies

Source: https://www.amazon.ca/Lullabies-Little-Criminals-Heather-ONeill/dp/0060875070

My thoughts about this book are a bit scattered. It provoked a lot of thought and a lot of questions. Also, self-examination. So, please forgive the jumpiness of this blog as I skip between ideas.

The scene that angered me the most was when she shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Her dad locked her out, she just got into a fight with a friend that she usually crashes over night with, and her only options are to be helped by Xavier’s parents, freeze outside, or return to her pimp. I was so angry and self-righteous when Xavier’s parents shut the door in her face. Couldn’t they see that she needed help? I have a friend who took in and basically adopted her son’s girlfriend because she needed support and family. Even after they broke up, by friend still supported her son’s ex-girlfriend. I also think of the TV show My So-Called Life, where the teacher takes in Ricki because no one else wants to go near him. Where is the risky compassion? Where is the sacrificial help? But then I think to myself, where is my risky compassion? Where is my sacrificial help? It’s easy to watch others and make judgement. It’s not so easy to actively help others.

saint

Source: https://onsizzle.com/i/everybody-is-a-saint-when-they-talk-about-someone-elses-10448484

Baby is an interesting character. She enjoys learning and tries hard at school. She often describes scenes where she is doing her homework in questionable situations and locations. At one point, she ends up in advanced classes and flourishes. Yet her living situation means that she doesn’t have a stable location to put her belongings, she doesn’t have consistent routines and activities, and she doesn’t have a reliable support network. As a teacher, this broke my heart. It’s so hard to see a student who is bright and eager to learn miss out on the challenge of learning because they can’t focus on the learning. baby has to look after her dad, navigate her neighbourhood, deal with the trauma of thinking drugs and prostitution are just a normal part of life. Heartbreaking. As a reader, I wanted to jump in and save Baby because O’Neill did such a brilliant job of narrating Baby’s character. The innocence of her situation and the ignorance of her plight makes her so lovable. She is trying her best in what she believes is a normal situation.

That being said, I couldn’t help but think that the ending was a bit too good, a bit too saviour-like. Baby and her father drive off into the sunset to live with her dad’s family in the country. If only every story of tragedy had this mysterious family help.  I think of Jane Eyre whose long-lost uncle leaves her loads of money and she is set for life. I think of the girl from The Wonder who is whisked away into a new life with new parents. Yes, these characters deserve all good things, yet that’s not the reality for the majority of people in these situations. If you want proof, look at the stats. Over 30,000 Canadian young people were experiencing homelessness at some point last year. Over 30,000 young people. Teens. That number is disturbing and tragic. Not all of those stories end happily. Although to be fair, we don’t know the ending of Baby’s story but we leave with hope.

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Source: http://www.charliesfreewheels.ca/2014/11/25/job-opportunities-essential-alleviate-youth-homelessness/

One thing I truly appreciated about O’Neill’s book is the transition she lets Baby witness. Baby notices a few time that since she started to look less like a kid, she was treated differently. Poor, homeless kid: aw, poor dear. Poor, homeless teen: get a job and grow up. I think that this is true and hard to hear: we judge teens as adults, when really they are still kids. This is one thing I have learned teaching jr high and high school: pre-teens and teens still need adult support, whether they see it that way or not. That’s the saddest part about the book for me, is Baby realizing that she is treated differently and is almost stuck. She hasn’t changed and her situation hasn’t changed, but the perception and judgements of others have. This is why I think that O’Neill’s book is so well written: she taps into something that we know about ourselves, and even though we may not have had similar experiences to Baby, we have all had similar moments of clarity and sadness for the passing of our own childhoods.

So overall, I truly loved this book. It got me thinking and it got me feeling. In the end, that’s why we love reading, isn’t it?