December’s Poem of the Month

This month I’m diving into a poet that I actually wanted to stay away from. The main reason I was hoping to avoid her work for a while is that her work is somewhat controversial for lovers of poetry. Some find her work to be pretentious and too simplistic. Others love it for the latter reason I just mentioned. At least for me, I first heard of her work through the ‘hipster’ side of Tumblr, and I found myself somewhere in between these two sides. I’m not here to give my opinion on this poet’s entire career; I just wanted to share one of her many poems that happened to move me very much. Anyways, enough of my babbling. Please enjoy December’s Poem of the Month.

“In the spirit of intl women’s day” by Rupi Kaur

“i want to apologize to all the women
i have called pretty.
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave.
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of
when your spirit has crushed mountains
from now on i will say things like, you are resilient
or, you are extraordinary.
not because i don’t think you’re pretty.
but because you are so much more than that”

Feel free to check out Kaur on Twitter, Instagram, or her website. This is from her book of poetry titled, “milk and honey.” You can purchase it on Amazon or Indigo.

Bury What We Cannot Take: Book Review

Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen published in 2018.

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“The day nine-year-old San San and her twelve-year-old brother, Ah Liam, discover their grandmother taking a hammer to a framed portrait of Chairman Mao is the day that forever changes their lives. To prove his loyalty to the Party, Ah Liam reports his grandmother to the authorities. But his belief in doing the right thing sets in motion a terrible chain of events. Now they must flee their home on Drum Wave Islet, which sits just a few hundred meters across the channel from mainland China. But when their mother goes to procure visas for safe passage to Hong Kong, the government will only issue them on the condition that she leave behind one of her children as proof of the family’s intention to return.”

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Even though exam season is right around the corner, I’m still staying up until 1 in the morning reading my books.

Bury What We Cannot Take takes place in 1950’s Communist China, following the mother Seok Koon, her two children Ah Liam & San San, and mother-in-law Bee Kim live in Drum Wave Islet, a small island north of Hong Kong. In an emotional and desperate state, Bee Kim takes a hammer to a framed portrait of Chairman Mao, a very serious offence to the Party. Her grandchildren witness this, and Ah Liam, brainwashed to follow the communist leaders, believes the right thing to do is report her. This ruins Seok Koon’s plan to move her family to Hong Kong and be reunited with her husband, since even with extravagant bribes they are only granted 3 exit permits, and she is forced to leave one of her children behind. She chooses to leave San San, unknowing to the fact that it is Ah Liam’s fault they are in this situation. Separated both by distance and ideals, Seok Koon becomes desperate to be reunited with her daughter, while nine-year-old San San attempts to survive on her own while also trying to find a way to Hong Kong.

Chen jumps right into the story wasting no time with mindless details and pointless imagery and immediately introducing the scene of San San and Ah Liam spying on their grandmother committing a crime against the Party. I don’t like it when novels dawdle about at the beginning, so this was well appreciated. I mean, I understand introductions are hard, but I don’t think it’s necessary to spend 20 pages describing a house or a random minor character. Another aspect on the forefront for me is its title, only of the very things that drew me towards this novel in the first place (that and the beautiful cover art). Bury What We Cannot Take has an air of adventure, mystery and danger, causing the reader to wonder who or what they’re running from. Although after reading the story, since we find out that it’s not a matter of what they left behind, but rather who.

As I mentioned earlier, Ah Liam was the one who turned in his grandmother in order to stay loyal to the Party. This is not revealed until they are in Hong Kong when Ah Liam announces it proudly. They are (obviously) angry at him, but this anger is very brief. It’s never really brought up again, and Bee Kim and Seok Koon even still refer fondly to Ah Liam later in the story. I guess this could be to show their unconditional love towards their family, but c’mon, your own grandson ratted you out to communist leaders and basically forced them to abandon little San San. If it were me, even if it were my son/grandson, I think I’d remain quite bitter towards him. Also, the narrative of the novel is quite equally disrupted in the beginning, yet close to the end it focuses more on San San, so we get even less about Ah Liam.

You may also be wondering what’s going on with Seok Koon’s husband in Hong Kong, Ah Zhai, and the reason for this is because he doesn’t really warrant mentioning. They meet up with him, and Seok Koon discovers he has a mistress that he has fallen in love with. Besides this bit of juicy information, there’s really nothing else going on with him; he’s pretty one-dimensional in my eyes and wasn’t really worth more than a few sentences of description.

Based on the plot summary and the cover art, one would think there would be a considerable amount of time on some sort of ship, perhaps being smuggled on the way to Hong Kong. This idea is explored…kind of. Most of San San’s story takes place on a dock waiting for a cargo ship to arrive. When she finally finds a ship, this journey is completely skipped over. We suddenly go from her bribing the cooks to hid her in the storage room, and suddenly she’s arrived in Hong Kong, dishevelled and beaten down. We then get about a paragraph or so summary of her time on the ship and a few pages later, the book is done. Just like that. I would have loved to have followed San San as she stowed away on a cargo ship headed to Hong Kong (I mean, how exciting does that sound?). The book isn’t that long to begin with (286 pages) so it could have afforded another good 150 or so pages documenting San San’s journey. The actual ending, in general, is very abrupt and doesn’t really satisfy a lot of plot holes.

Overall, this book confused me. There are a lot of aspects of it I quite liked, like San San’s character and Chen’s writing style, but upon further thought, there are some technical parts that just don’t sit right with me. I don’t know much about the history of communist China, but it appeared to be accurate to what I do know. If you have the chance to pick up this book, feel free to enjoy some creative historical fiction. I have nothing against this book, it just didn’t wow me.

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Women Talking: Book Review

Women Talking by Miriam Toews published in 2018.

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“One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm. While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women—all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in—have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?’

 

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This is a powerful book with an influential message to read at any time, but especially now in our political climate.

Woman Talking takes place over the span of two days in which August Epp, a man that has been expelled from his Mennonite community, comes back to take the minutes of the local woman during an important meeting. After several months of waking up sore and bruised, the women of the Molotschna colony discovered that several men in the community have been drugging and raping them during the night. A group of woman, specifically the two female family members of Greta Loewen and Agata Friesen, gather in secret to discuss their three options in regards to the men’s crimes: stay and fight back against the men, stay and do nothing, or flee the colony. They must decide quickly though because the men will be back in town in two days. One of the women, Ona, requires the help of August to document the minutes of their meeting because none of the women are literate. Throughout the meeting, ideas fly and loyalties are challenged in this short period of time when the most important decision of these women’s life is debated.

Before Toews even begins her narrative, she reveals that this book is very loosely based on a true event. The concept of a story inspiring an author so tremendously that she has creates an entire set of characters and plot in order to honour and share their story is so awe-inspiring, from both a creative and moral standpoint. Like I mentioned in the beginning, today’s political climate with the #MeToo movement, it is so important for there to be dialogue on this topic, at all times, but especially now. If you are not writing about this topic, you should definitely be reading about it in Women Talking.

The characters were strong, yet there were so many of them that it was hard to follow at times. Not to mention that they all had somewhat obscure names (Mariche, Mejal, Autje, Ona, Salome, Neitje) that didn’t help in remembering them. I know that these names are supposed to fit the Mennonite setting, but it made remembering multiple women’s names so much more difficult. I haven’t even brought up the intricate family ties between each woman, like keeping track of who is someone’s daughter/mother gets very confusing very fast. Granted, all the characters had very strong and distinct personalities, yet it still took a considerable amount of time to get them all sorted out in my head.

Another aspect that made things more confusing than necessary was the lack of quotation marks. If you’ve read in some of my past reviews (Tin Man, to be specific) you’ll know that I despise it when authors do not use quotation marks in their dialogue. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; quotation marks were invented for a reason, so can we all just please agree to use them whenever possible. It doesn’t make it trendy or unique when the quotation marks are dismissed, it just makes it annoying and confusing.  

Some parts of the story seem a bit too drawn out for my taste. I feel like there are some points that could have been conveyed through a sentence or so but were rather written in several paragraphs. Perhaps it was supposed to be a commentary on the conversational aspect of women, or maybe the author just wanted a higher word count. Either way, the writing itself was good but the overextension of it just didn’t sit right with me. On the flip side, there were some plot points, such as August’s unrequited love with Ona, that didn’t go as far as I would have liked it too.

This being said, I really liked the ending. Maybe not the direct plot of the ending, but the allegorical meaning of the ending (look at me, using big English major words like allegorical). The ending is a big statement on the relationship between men and woman, and more importantly, the dependency link between the sexes. In a patriarchal society such as Molotschna (and perhaps even modern America) there is often a power imbalance and it is thought that the women depend on the men to live their lives, yet in the end, August’s life was essentially and indirectly saved by these women, which is a beautiful sentiment to end this story with.

Women Talking is a creative approach to address the scary world that all women live in (and when I say all, I mean all―not just privileged white women living in the city). It speaks of toxic masculinity that is damaging both of women and young men. I think Toews elegantly captured the struggle all women have navigating a cruel world while also trying to stay true to their personal morals.

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November’s Poem of the Month

In my 11th grade English class, we had to pick a famous poet and do a biography and a poem analysis on them. Without giving it too much thought, I chose Sylvia Plath because of her tormented past. I ended up falling in love with her poetry and her style of writing. She has a timeless way of writing that gives a classic vibe o her poetry, yet it’s not intimidating or confusing for young people reading it in the 21st century. The poem I’ve chosen to share with everyone is the same one I did my analysis on years ago (don’t worry, I won’t be including that here). I hope you enjoy Plath’s words as much as 16-year-old me did.

Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

“I have done it again.   
One year in every ten   
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot
A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.
Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?——
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?   
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be   
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies
These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Dying
Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:
‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer   
Beware
Beware.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.”
If you’d like to learn more about Sylvia Plath, click here.

October’s Poem of the Month

Like many other young women, I’ve struggled with body image. I know there are many poems and stories out there about people’s journey with body positivity, yet this is one of the first that had struck me so deeply. I first listened to Baird recite this years ago, and it has stayed in my mind ever since. Even though I’ve never had an eating disorder, I related to her words so immensely and thoroughly appreciated the style and delivery of her poem. That being said, this may trigger you if you have/had an eating disorder, so continue with caution. Please enjoy October’s poem of the month!

When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny by Blythe Baird 

“The year of skinny pop and sugar-free jello cups,
we guzzled vitamin water and vodka.
Toasting to high school and survival,
complimenting each other’s thigh gaps.

Trying diets we found on the internet:
menthol cigarettes, eating in front of a mirror, donating blood.
Replacing meals with other practical hobbies
like making flower crowns, or fainting.

Wondering why I hadn’t had my period in months, or why breakfast tastes like giving up.
Or how many more productive ways I could’ve spent my time today besides googling the calories in the glue of a U.S envelope.

Watching Americas Next Topmodel like the gospel,
hunching naked over a bathroom scale shrine,
crying into an empty bowl of cocoa puffs
because I only feel pretty when I’m hungry.

If you are not recovering, you are dying.

By the time I was sixteen, I had already experienced being clinically overweight, underweight and obese.
As a child fat was the first word people used to describe me,
which didn’t offend me, until I found out it was supposed to.

When I lost weight, my dad was so proud, he started carrying my before-and-after photo in his wallet.
So relieved he could stop worrying about me getting diabetes.
He saw a program on the news about the epidemic with obesity, said he’s just so glad to finally see me taking care of myself.
If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital.
If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story.

So when I evaporated, of course everyone congratulated me on getting healthy.
Girls at school who never spoke to me before, stopped me in the hallway to ask how I did it.

I say “I am sick”. They say “No, you’re an inspiration!”
How could I not fall in love with my illness?
With becoming the kind of silhouette people are supposed to fall in love with?
Why would I ever want to stop being hungry, when anorexia was the most interesting thing about me?

So how lucky it is now, to be boring.
The way not going to the hospital is boring.
The way looking at an apple and seeing only an apple, not sixty, or half an hour sit-ups is boring.

My story may not be as exciting as it used to,
but at least there is nothing left to count.
The calculator in my head finally stopped.

I used to love the feeling of drinking water on an empty stomach, waiting for the coolness to slip all the way down and land in the well.
Not obsessed with being empty but afraid of being full.

I used to be proud when I was cold in a warm room.
Now, I am proud. I have stopped seeking revenge on this body.
This was the year of eating when I was hungry without punishing myself and I know it sounds ridiculous, but that shit is hard.”

Watch Baird recite this poem here. If you want to discover more of her work, check out her Facebook, Twitter, or website.

Turtles All the Way Down: Book Review

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green published in 2018.

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“Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis. Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.”

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John Green, a 41-year-old man, never fails to perfectly embody a teenage girl and all her possible problems.

This book follows Aza, a high school student suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) while trying to navigate the already challenging life of a teenage girl. Things get more complicated when billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hundred thousand dollar reward for information on his whereabouts is far too tempting to resist. Aza and her best friend Daisy try and get close to Davis, an old childhood friend who happens to be Russell’s son, in an attempt to solve this mystery. Yet when Aza develops a unique relationship with Davis, her motives start to change as her thoughts begin to spiral out of control.

As I mentioned above, the main character has OCD, which Green brilliantly portrays throughout the story. It’s a really good look into mental health for those who don’t understand what’s happening in someone else’s head, and furthermore even better for those who do have these feelings, as they can easily relate to Aza. Such common feelings that are too complicated to express for most are beautifully articulated in this book, which is such a relief for someone who experiences anxiety. I also recently learned that Green has lived with OCD for the majority of his life, and I think that he was successful in integrating his own emotions and thoughts into Aza.

Another note on mental health that I was really impressed that he included: the treatment side of it all. So much of popular culture focuses on the endless suffering of mental health that seemingly has no solution, but Green incorporates different ways someone can get treatment for their distress. The main character goes through therapy and struggles with taking her medication, and in the end, discovers that not all treatment out there suits everyone the same. He also paints a great picture of the healing process; it’s not linear but rather scattered and unpredictable, and how sometimes you’re not really getting better, but just not getting worse.

As much as I really liked Aza, I didn’t have the same feelings towards her friend Daisy. I understand her entire character was supposed to be comic relief with the sort of outlandish and quirky behaviour that Green is known for, but I found her rather annoying. On top of being annoying, she was also kind of rude and insensitive to Aza’s distress. I kept waiting for Aza to turn to her and say “I don’t need this kind of energy in my life, peace out Daisy”, but that never happened. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but as someone with anxiety, Daisy is the last person I’d want to be around.

I did like Davis, and more specifically the relationship that Aza had with him. It was a unique kind of love, a solid mix of puppy love and something deeper that can’t be described. He was sensitive to her issues (unlike some people) but also forced her to step outside her comfort zone. As I’ve said many times in my reviews, I’m not a big fan of romance, but the love that Davis and Aza share is refreshing special.

It took a while for me to just sucked into the story, the first half was kind of lost on me. Though as it approached the climax I entered the realm of not being able to put it down. Green has a very distinct writing style that I do enjoy very much but is not my go-to favourite. So if you’re a John Green fan, you’ll definitely like this book. If you’re not a fan, some aspects of it may go over your head, but it’s overall a charming read.

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The Immortalists: Book Review

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin published in 2018.

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“It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes. The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.”

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The only downside of being an English major is I have so much mandatory reading that it’s hard to find time to read in my personal time, which is why it took me almost a month to finish this 343-page novel.

In the time I did find to read on my own, I thoroughly enjoyed The Immortalists, a novel that follows the four Gold siblings, Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya. It opens in 1969, all our main characters still children in New York. After hearing rumours of a fortune teller who has the power of predicting a person’s date of death, the children’s curiosity proved to be too strong to resist. Fast-forward a decade or so and the death of their father tears the siblings apart, and the four Gold children find themselves on different tracks of life, all haunted by the woman’s lethal predictions. So the book is divided into four distinct parts, each one dedicated to the life, and inevitable death, of each sibling.

I really liked all the main characters, and mainly their relationships (or lack thereof) they had with each other. It really captures how easily a once close family can be destroyed by death, whether the death itself torn everyone apart or the fact that the person who died was the only thing holding the family together. It also deals with the characters relationship with God and religion, a struggle most people can relate to the older they get. Although I do wish that there was at least one main character that still felt connected with their religion, since all of the four siblings strayed so far away from God, and it would have been interesting to see the perspective of one character who kept their religion until adulthood.

Like I mentioned earlier, the story is divided into four parts, each part dedicated to the life and death of each of the siblings, more specifically in order of their death (first to die→ last to die). This was a clever and organized way to share each of their stories and transition through the eras without confusion. The only thing that I can complain about is that the first part was easily forgotten by the time I got to the end. It felt like I had read about Simon and Klara a million years ago.

This novel explores the age-old philosophical question; would you want to know the date of your death, and if so, how would it affect the way you live your life? The main characters are plagued with the information of their possible mortality, and in turn, influenced how they live their life. Yet the line between fate and choice is blurred the closer they get to their supposed expiry date. It’s enough to make someone go crazy, as I was losing my mind reading about someone else’s fate. It’s very easy to think about your own life while reading this book, trying to think back to all of the choices you’ve made and wonder if it even had an effect on where you are now, or if fate would have steered you this way no matter what. It’s, for lack of a better word, pretty trippy.

Benjamin’s writing was impressive both factually and literarily. Anyone could tell that she did her fair share of research on certain topics that appeared within her characters personalities, such as ballet dance, street magic, and longevity experimentation. The writing itself flowed really well, yet I wasn’t completely blown off my feet. Although the four parts transitioned well from a timeline perspective, overall it sort of felt like four different stories put together in one book. Even the ending wasn’t really what I was expecting, which threw me for a loop (although maybe that’s a good thing?).

I’ve recently started judging books on whether or not they would leave a lasting impression me in years to come. Now, this being said, if I find that a book I’ve read doesn’t have that effect I don’t immediately dislike it. To me, this stipulation of lasting impressions is just what separates a four-star review from a five-star review. I don’t think this book is going to be one of those, unfortunately. As much as I loved reading it at the moment, and as much as it made me think about my life right now, I don’t think I’ll be reminiscing very much about this book. Now for the question of the hour: would I recommend this book? Sure, why not; if someone is looking for a decent book to get lost within, this would be great for that. Is this book going to forever change your life? Maybe not.

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