Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Although I knew that U.S. based comedian Trevor Noah was from South Africa, I knew nothing other than that about him. Noah’s 2016 memoir, Born a Crime was named one of the best books of the year by just about everyone including The New York Times, CBC and NPR. The accolades don’t stop there, and nor should they, because Born a Crime is the immensely readable, inspirational and funny story of Noah’s extremely humble beginnings.

Noah was raised mostly by his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. His father, a white man, is of Swiss/German descent. “During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime,” Noah explains. The book’s title refers to Noah’s birth.

…on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.

Noah guides us through the early years of his life, years that were marked by trips to church, “at least four nights a week”, poverty, and his mother’s no-nonsense but loving approach to parenting. From her, Noah learned that language is power (and because of this Noah learned to speak several languages.) “It became a tool that served me my whole life,” he explains. Once, when he was being followed by a group of Zulu guys, he heard them say in their own language that they were going to mug him. He was able to diffuse the situation when he spoke to them in Zulu.

That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

No surprise, then, that Noah goes on to make his living with words.

Noah hustles his way through his adolescence – making money by getting people what they want, everything from treats from the school canteen to bootlegged CDs to DJ services for events. He tells these stories with charming self-deprecation. I can only imagine that the audio book would be so much fun to listen to.

Although this memoir doesn’t tell us how Noah got his big break, I think it’s clear how, out of necessity, determined and resourceful he was. The book is dedicated to his mother, and it’s easy to see why: her faith in her son is unwavering and fierce.

This is a really excellent book.

Here’s a bit of Noah from a stand up show in 2015.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

New-to-me Canadian writer Roz Nay’s debut, Our Little Secret, delivers the goods. I couldn’t put this book down.

Our Little Secret is Angela Petitjean’s story, and it unfurls in an interrogation room at the local police station. Detective Novak is asking questions about a missing woman, Saskia Parker.

That’s the thing: they sound like they’re asking about Saskia, but all roads lead to Mr. Parker and me. The police want to know if I’m in love with him, and they ask it like it’s the simplest explanation rather than the most complicated. My definition is nothing like theirs, though.

Angela meets HP, (the Mr. Parker in question) when they are in Grade 10. This is a new school for Angela and she tells the detective that “Moving when you’re fifteen is terrifying.” Angela is immediately targeted by the mean, cool girls until HP comes to her rescue. That moment forges a bond between the two teens. Over the course of the next two years, Angela (or “Little John” as he calls her) and HP are inseparable, but not romantically linked.

I never understood why HP had chosen me as his friend, or how I’d gotten an all-access pass to him. It was like having a key to the White House. He told me everything he thought and felt and wanted, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the world…

By the end of high school, though, their relationship shifts gears. And then, Angela gets an opportunity to spend a year at Oxford, but HP stays behind. The distance complicates their new status. Enter Saskia, an effusive Australian HP meets while visiting Angela in England..

Our Little Secret garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2017. I find thrillers are hit and miss. They sound good, but they ultimately disappoint. Not this one.

I felt terrific sympathy for Angela, who claims and maintains her innocence after Saskia goes missing. Her friendship and then romantic relationship with HP is believable and complicated. There’s angst here and I love me some angst. It’s only as her story unravels, that we start to see that her version of events might be just a tad unreliable. But we all revise our histories to a certain degree, don’t we?

If you’re looking for an addictive, well-written, smart thriller, look no further.

Highly recommended.

I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is a big deal in Iceland and I Remember You is the winner of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award. It sounded like a book that I would really enjoy and I am always game to try new-to-me authors. The thing that I keep forgetting is that nine times out of ten translations are often disappointing, and this was no exception.

I Remember You is two stories, really. In one, three friends Garðar, his wife Katrín  and their widowed friend, Líf, have decided to travel to Hesteyri, a deserted village “way up north in the middle of nowhere.” The reason for this journey? It’s really Líf’s dead husband Einar’s fault.

He had spun them the story of a village at the end of the world, beauty and peace, and endless hiking trails in an unforgettable setting. Garðar had been inspired – not by the lure of nature, but by the fact that Einar hadn’t been able to rent a room in Hesteyri, since the only guesthouse there had been full. Katrín  couldn’t remember which of them had gone on to suggest they see if any of the other houses there were for sale and transform one into a guesthouse, but it didn’t matter: once the idea had been mooted there was no going back.

So, these three crazy kids head out to this remote place, in the winter, to begin refurbishing the house that is without electricity, running water, heat and, oh, yeah, there’s no one else around for miles. The captain of the boat who takes them to Hesteyri tells them they can return with him, free of charge, but they’re keen on this adventure. Lord knows why.

In the parallel story, Freyr, a psychiatrist, is helping Dagný, a police detective, discover who had broken into a primary school and caused a lot of damage. Freyr still isn’t over the loss of his son, Benni, who disappeared three years ago. His marriage is done, and he has thrown himself into his work. At first it appears that Freyr’s story has nothing to do with what’s happening on Hesteyri, but the more digging Freyr does the more coincidences start to reveal themselves.

I wish I could tell you that all of this is super creepy, but it’s not.  It takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get anywhere until the very end, when things seem to unravel super quickly. And, of course, the dialogue – especially near the end – is as clunky as hell. I understand this is a translation, but I always think it would be better to have someone go over dialogue after the translation is done to try and make people sound more natural. Given the circumstances these people find themselves in, you’d think they’d spend less time explaining and more time reacting.

There were a couple of creepy moments, but overall, it was a lot of fuss and bother for nothing.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

I am not sure I would have ever come to Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing on my own. A former student (now colleague – yes, I am that old) brought it to my classroom a week ago and announced that it was one of the best books she’d ever read and I had to read it. Under normal circumstances, I don’t take books from people because my tbr pile is out of control and I like to read what I want when I want, but how could I say no to that impassioned recommendation?

Homegoing is a sweeping story which begins in the late 1700s with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Born in different villages in Ghana, neither knows the other exists; they are joined only by a black stone pendant.

Effia, the beloved daughter of Cobbe Otcher, is married to James Collins, newly appointed governor of the Cape Coast Castle, a place where many captured Africans are held captive until they can be sold. Despite the business he’s in, James seems to care for Effia, and she comes to care for him, I guess. Esi, on the other hand, meets a worse fate. She is captured and eventually sold to a plantation owner in America, going through the very castle where her half-sister lives a privileged existence.

Gyasi’s novel, however, isn’t content to follow these women through their whole lives though. Instead, each chapter introduces readers to a new character, a descendant of Effia or Esi, tracking the family lines all the way to modern day. It’s a confusing trip, trying to keep track of the names and their relationships (and I somehow missed the handy family tree provided at the beginning of the book until I got about half way through and started grumbling to myself because I didn’t know who these people were.)

These brief glimpses into so many lives lived is both frustrating and illuminating. Personally, I like to spend time with characters in books, take the whole journey with them, but aren’t we all just drops in the big bucket? Maybe we don’t think about it, but we are part of all the women and men, who came before us. Truthfully, I can’t go much further back than my great-grandparents. Their struggles become a part of our destiny and I think I should know a little bit more about them than I do. At my age, I am running out of relatives to ask, too.

One character, Yaw, is a history teacher. In delivering a lesson to his students he says “We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the word of others. Those who were there in the olden days. They told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on.”

We are our stories, and not just the stories we are living, but all the stories that came before. I think we live in a transient world; we care little about the past, and that’s a shame. Gyasi’s novel is elliptical in nature, but the accumulation of all these lives does pack a considerable punch even if, like me, you find the novel’s ending a tad contrived.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning novel Station Eleven, published in 2014, is about as prescient a novel as one might expect to read during these world-wide pandemic times. In her book, the world succumbs to the Georgia Flu in record time, leaving behind a landscape inhabited by only a few hopeless (and hopeful) survivors.

The novel’s main characters, Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor; Jeevan, the man who tries to save Arthur when he collapses onstage in a Toronto theatre; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s friend; Kirsten, a young actress with a troupe of musicians and actors, collectively known as the Symphony, who travel around the post-apocalyptic landscape performing works by Shakespeare, and Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, have, in many respects, a tenuous connection, but their stories intertwine over many years.

Jeevan is the first to learn of the flu’s ferocity. After the incident in the theatre, Jeevan finds himself walking through the Toronto streets and his friend Hau calls him. “You remember the SARS epidemic?” his friend asks?

“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in the hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realized. Hua was afraid.

St. John Mandel’s story skips back and forth in time. We learn about the characters’ backstories, how they survived (or didn’t) and the one person they all have in common: Arthur Leander.

Although, on the surface at least, this might seem like a survival story, Station Eleven is also a story about art, friendship, family, fanaticism and fame. When the end of the world comes, it comes with a vengeance, leaving these people to question their own lives, their pettiness, and their attachment to things.

Station Eleven is our first book for the 2020-21 season of my book club. I am not certain it was the most uplifting choice given that we are still in the clutches of Covid 19.

I live in one of the safest places on the planet, but that doesn’t mean I am immune to the fraught state of the world. Nevertheless, I found this book to be rather beautiful and hopeful. It is possible, the books posits, to be sustained by art and nature and friendship and these, it seems, are worthwhile things to care about. What did I miss when the world shut down back in March? Not shopping. Not dining out. I missed hugging my family and seeing my friends. What will we care about when the end truly comes, as it must for all of us?

The pink magnolias in the backyard of the house in Los Angeles

Outdoor concerts, the way the sound rises up into the sky.

Tyler in the bathtub at two, laughing in a cloud of bubble bath.

Miranda’s eyes, the way she looked at him when she was twenty-five and still loved him.

Any book that requires me to think about my life and its meaning, is worth my time. This book was worth my time.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay – Adib Khorram

It is impossible to count all the accolades Adib Khorram’s debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay accumulated, but let’s just say if there is a “best” list, this YA book is likely on it.

In this compelling coming-of -age story, seventeen-year-old Darius Kellner feels like an outsider. Even in his own family he feels “other”. His mother is from Iran and his father is, as Darius calls him, an “Ubermensch.”

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

His looks aren’t the only thing that sets him apart from the other kids at his school. Darius is a bit of a geek, too. He loves Star Trek – it’s the one thing he and his father have in common and they rewatch an episode together every night – and Tolkien. He’s a tea aficionado. He also has a special relationship with his younger sister, Laleh.

…guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

And, the most damning thing of all: Darius suffers from clinical depression.

When Mrs. Kellner learns that her father back home in Iran is terminally ill, the family decides to visit. She hasn’t been home in seventeen years, and Darius and Laleh haven’t ever seen their grandparents except via a computer screen. It is to be a life-changing trip.

As much of an outsider as Darius is at home, he feels just as much on the outside in Iran. Unlike his sister, he doesn’t speak Farsi. He is a “Fractional Persian” at best, and the customs and culture are almost as alien to him as they might be for someone without any ties to the country. Luckily, he meets Sohrab almost as soon as he arrives, and this new friendship teaches him not only about his heritage, but about himself as a person. Their unfolding friendship is truly a thing of beauty to behold.

There is a real sense of place in Khorram’s novel. What I know about Iran would likely fill a teaspoon, and most of that is likely negative. Not sure why. This novel is full of history and culture and food and family. It is brimming with life, even with the shadow of political and religious unrest simmering beneath the surface. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about finding your place, accepting your perceived flaws, belonging.

Darius is a complex character, a teen you want to hug. As he taps into all the things that make him who he is, his notion of who he might be shifts, too. And that is a joy to behold.

Highly recommended.

Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds

long-way-down_1_origIt’s hard to wrap my head around gun violence as it exists in the U.S. My dad had a couple hunting rifles when I was a kid, but I don’t recall ever seeing them. No one I know has a gun in their bedside drawer…just in case. When I wrote a review for This Is Where It Ends a few months back, I tracked down some  stats about school shootings in Canada versus the U.S. and the disparity between our two countries is staggering.

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds addresses the issue of gun violence in his novel Long Way Down. Written in verse, the novel follows the aftermath of a shooting in which the narrator, 15-year-old Will, struggles to come to terms with the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn.

“The Sadness/is just so hard/to explain,” Will tells us. “Imagine waking up/ and someone,/ a stranger,/ got you strapped down,/ got pliers shoved/ into your mouth,/ gripping a tooth/…and rips it out./ But the worst part,/ the absolute worst part,/ is the constant slipping/ of your tongue/ into the new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.”

Will has clearly grown up in a neighbourhood where gun violence is a way of life. When they hear a gun everyone “Did what we’ve all/ been trained to do.”  And after the shooting, there are yet more rules to follow: 1. No crying. 2. No snitching. 3. Get revenge.

That’s what Will is after and he knows where Shawn keeps his gun. He thinks he knows who shot his brother, too, and he is headed there when something astonishing happens.

“…I’m telling you,/ this story is true./ It happened to me./ Really.”

Will gets onto the elevator in his apartment building, and the elevator stops at every floor on the way down. At each stop,  Will is joined by a ghost, someone connected to him, someone whose life was also ended by a bullet. As the elevator descends, each spirit shares their story, compelling stories of lives cut short, accidental deaths, and the horrific consequences of choices made.

Just because I have no experience with guns, doesn’t mean I am not affected by gun violence. I am about as anti-gun as a person can be, but Reynolds’ novel goes far beyond that. It’s a philosophical book about the deep roots of violence, the tentacles (sorry, I am mixing my metaphors here) of which reach out into the community in ways that are probably impossible for a white middle-aged mom in Canada to understand.  All I know is that when I finished reading Long Way Down  I felt hollowed out.

Complacency is not an option. Reynolds’ novel should be required reading for everyone.

The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani

nannyLeila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny was one of The New York Times  Top 10 books of 2018. Hmmm. It was also the winner of the Goncourt Prize. (Yeah, I’d never heard of that one, either, but apparently it’s “a prize in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Wikipedia) To me, I thought it was going to be a quick little thriller with a pedigree that was perhaps a cut above. Because go into any bookstore these days and there are about a zillion thrillers out there. How are you supposed to know what’s good?

I’ll save you the trouble: not The Perfect Nanny.

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, and Paul, her husband who is a music producer,  need someone to look after their two small children, Mila and Adam. They live in a small apartment in Paris and Myriam has recently decided to go back to work. They interview a few potential nannies, and then they meet Louise.

She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light-filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.

To Myriam, Louise is “a miracle worker.” Not only does she transform their living space, she “sews buttons back on to jackets…hems skirts…washes curtains…changes sheets…she is like Mary Poppins.”

She works her magic with the children, too and “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place.”

But of course, not all is as perfect as it seems and we know that from The Perfect Nanny‘s opening line “The baby is dead.”

Slimani weaves Louise’s backstory throughout the novel, snippets of information about her dead husband, the horrible Jacques, her MIA daughter, Stephanie, other homes and families she has worked with. Simmering just below the surface, Louise is fragile. It seems she has buried all her own needs in service to others. She lives in a shithole; she has no friends; she has no money. Without someone else to look over, Louise is a non-person.

The Perfect Nanny has been compared to  Gone Girl  but I don’t think it’s an apt comparison. This book is a slow-moving, naval-gazing look at motherhood and surrogacy. It’s about how we treat people in subservient positions, about privilege. Yes, that opening line might make you think you’re about to read a thriller, but there’s never any question of whodunit and so all that remains is the why. At the end of the day, I didn’t care about any of these characters, so the why hardly mattered.

 

 

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour’s award-winning YA novel We Are Okay, is a lyrical and moving look at the weareoknature of grief. This is a quiet novel, and so I would caution readers not to expect histrionics or very much action. Instead, LaCour focuses on the protagonist’s interior life, which has been altered by loss.

Eighteen-year-old Marin is attending school on the East Coast, far away from her hometown, San Francisco. It’s Christmas, and everyone has left the dorm except Marin, who has no place to go. Her roommate, Hannah, is clearly worried about her and Marin knows

why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway to weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in – a stunned and feral stranger – and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Marin is anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Mabel.  She knows “Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not.” The idea fills Marin with a sort of dread, even though she knows she should be happy.  She hasn’t communicated with Mabel in months though, and has, in fact, ignored all of Mabel’s attempts to make contact. She thinks she can fool Mabel into thinking that everything is okay but

Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them.

There will be no way to fool her.

Nothing much happens in We Are Okay, but that’s just plot, anyway. The story toggles between Marin’s reunion with Mabel and the story of their friendship back in California. We also learn that Marin has been raised by her grandfather, a fierce but tender man, who has a few secrets of his own. Her grandfather’s death clearly accounts for some of Marin’s sadness, but flashback’s reveal that Mabel is also central to Marin’s story.

There is a lovely, melancholy cadence in LaCour’s book. It’s poetic without being showy and the nature of Marin’s grief is unspooled in a way that will keep readers turning the pages. I guess that’s what prevents We Are Okay from being all doom and gloom. Yes, Marin is sad, but she’s trying to come to terms with her derailed life. She finds small ways to tether herself to the world, a pair of pottery bowls, the “perfect shade of yellow” for instance.

This is a thoughtful, lovely and moving novel and I highly recommend it.