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September’s Poem of the Month

About two years ago I took a Canadian Native studies course in my final year of high school. One of our assignments was to research an Indigenous artist and showcase some of their work. Most people gravitated towards visual artists such as painters, yet of course, I was drawn towards a poet. I had the pleasure of exploring Rebecca Thomas’s work, and even received a lovely reply when I emailed her about it all. As a Mi’kmaq woman, she has much experience with identity, cultural appropriation, and oppression, which is the topic of most of her poetry. Specifically, the one I’ve chosen to share with everyone today focuses on the false image of Pocahontas that Western culture has portrayed for decades. Without further ado, please enjoy September’s Poem of the Month!

Matoax by Rebecca Thomas

“It was all a lie.

I was appropriated as Disney’s racist alibi,

They plucked me as a girl out of history, and without ever mentioning my tribe

They made into a woman whose only worth was to keep John Smith alive,

An event that was completely contrived

It was all a lie.

 

All the while Jamestown and the crown

They converted my kin to cover their sin

They made the world believe in

Pilgrims, patriots and heathens,

And I was left with my whitewashed skin,

Brought back to life to make the leaves spin and

My people were left to paint a future with the bleached out colours of the wind.

 

In order to protect me, my community kept my real name shrouded in secrecy,

In your fairy tale,

I went from preteen, to sixteen, to baptism and Christianity,

All the while my people continued to bleed.

 

Nobody knows that my name is Matoax,

But everyone is familiar with the stories of blankets and small pox,

They love our style, “Native Inspired”, they rock our mocs, using feathers for props, buying Urban Outfitter Smudge kits for fifty dollars a pop.

But there, your interests stops

No one asks about the high way of tears,

The hunger walks,

Racial Integrity Laws? Nobody balks. Because everyone knows,

If you want to be an Indian princess, forget the culture that needs to be sought,

it just takes one drop.

 

Kidnapped and held at a ransom for swords and guns,

I was raped but oral history is so easily undone,

My people were given booze and were racially shunned,

I had a daughter, a life,

I was married to Kocuom!

Something my full length feature film decided was too much of a plot conundrum

So they had him killed off and made no mention of my abduction.

 

My sequel had me ditch Smith for Rolfe in Holy matrimony,

That other husband?

A pop culture memory, just a savage phony.

This marriage counted,

By the grace of God and all his glory,

It is here at least some good came out of my story.

 

I never spoke about my feelings for Rolfe, though they say he loved me so,

Our union brought peace to my people and to his,

Literal boatloads of money from stolen fields of tobacco.

And so,

The spin given in England,

Was that I was the perfectly civilized Indian,

That could hand over your perception of a kingdom,

But behind your back, my jingle dress is jingling.

 

On my way home I died from pneumonia or pox or tuberculosis,

And sadly, my history learned via osmosis,

By frat girls in red face striking Native poses.

The bones of my people are buried in America’s closet, mine is just a bonus.

So many holes

Your lessons are built on history’s osteoporosis.

 

The reality is this:

The English only wanted to flaunt us,

Their history still continues to abuse and haunt us,

You don’t even know my real name.

You only know me as Pocahontas.”

If you wish to read more of Rebecca Thomas’s work, find her on Facebook and Twitter.

A Little Life: Book Review

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara published in 2015.

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“A Little Life follows four college classmates—broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition—as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma. A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.”

Trigger warning (1)

When I asked the store clerk at Lunenburg Bound Books in Nova Scotia for her recommendation, she told me that A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara would change my life. Consider my life changed.

Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude have known each other since freshman year of college, and this novel follows their friendship as they live in New York City. Despite their incredibly varying personalities, they find themselves sticking together through thick and thin. Malcolm is the son of a wealthy family and has a passion for architecture. JB is a shining example of a struggling artist, finding inspirations for his painting within his friendships. Willem is an aspiring actor, doing what most aspiring actor do in New York; working as a waiter. Finally there is Jude, a bashful lawyer who carries the legacy of an incredibly traumatic childhood. The story centres around Willem and Jude’s (mainly Jude) escalating relationship from their college years all the way to their fifties.

Let’s start this the way I usually do: talking about the characters. I fell in love with the majority of the characters, even beyond the main four. They were written to be very distinguishable and noteworthy, and even further the relationships that were formed between all of them were enviable, especially Willem and Jude’s. (Notice how I didn’t say perfect?) Yanagihara managed to flawless capture the comfortable, humdrum relationship that one can only achieve after decades of sacrifices and compassion.

The highs of this book are heart fluttering, and the lows of this book (and when I say lows, I mean depths of hell low) are heartbreaking, yet my favourite is how grounding the mediocrity. The author makes a point of at least mentioning the most mundane aspects of life and relationships, and yet she doesn’t spend precious word count boring the reader. Romance has never been my genre, and even in books that don’t fit in that category, like this one, I tend to gloss over any sort of romance within its pages. But Yanagihara manages to write about something stronger and less tangible than love. She’s grasped at a concept so far out of the box that there isn’t a word in the English language that I can think of to properly describe it. It’s something that’s experienced rather than explained.  

As I mentioned earlier, the lows in this book were devastating. Most of them revolve around Jude and his horrific childhood, as well as his coping (or rather lack of coping) he does as an adult. I found myself looking at Yanagihara as some sort of cruel God overlooking the world she’s created, and thought to myself, “My god, the poor man has suffered enough, have mercy.” Each new disturbing event that Jude had to experience was like a stab to my heart, and I felt the need to physically react (the number of times I paced the room in frustration and heartache are embarrassing).

If I was forced to criticize this novel, the only thing I could say is it may benefit from some mild editing, and I say that for a specific reason. The sheer length of this book (a whopping 814 pages) may be slightly intimidating for a reader. To be perfectly honest, it almost scared me away from the book. By cutting down some of the longer internal monologues and maybe eliminating the intensely graphic self-harm scenes, the page count could be cut significantly without losing the brilliance of the main story.

Another thing I usually discuss in my reviews is the ending, and without spoiling too much, I can say I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. Yanagihara somehow managed to take a stereotypically upsetting ending and made it happy. Somber yet content, because Jude finally got what he wanted in life.

I would recommend this book to everyone who can get their hands on it, yet also warn them to proceed with caution since it covers some jaw-droppingly horrendous topics. It’s well balanced out by the joys one might find in everyday life, yet the very description of someone hurting themselves could make someone pretty queasy. I was somewhat doubtful when the store clerk told me this book would change my life, but I’m delighted to be proven wrong. I’ll never forget Jude and Willem as I navigate my life; Jude when my mind is trying to convince me that I don’t belong, and Willem whenever someone I love reels me back into reality.

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Hello! I’m constantly trying to tweak the reviews that I post here so they can be more enjoyable for everyone to read, and if you haven’t noticed yet, I’ve added but another new feature to my book reviews! I will now be including a list of “sensitive subjects” before I dive into my thoughts on the book. They’re similar to a trigger warning, yet I’m not calling them triggers for a reason.

If you don’t know what a trigger is, let me explain. A trigger is any sort of sensation (sight, sound, smell, even taste) that can vividly remind a person of a traumatic event they experienced. Common examples of this are people who have experienced severe sexual assault or physical violence. Triggers should be taken seriously, as they can often lead to violence flashbacks and incredibly negative emotions. All of the warnings I include before the review begins are not that dire; most of them are actually rather just, as it’s included in the title, “sensitive subjects.” These are topics that have the possibility to make anyone uncomfortable, or at the very least, are controversial conversation in our society.

Now comes the part where you come in. If you happen to have read a book that I’m reviewing and notice some discrepancies in my list of “sensitive subjects” (either I’ve missed one or included one that you don’t agree with), do not hesitate to message me here, or comment on the post itself. Also, if you’re curious as to how extensively a specific topic is written about in the book, or if there’s just one particular scene they need to stay away from, again, don’t hesitate to contact me for more information.

Some might consider this catering to the new age of sensitive snowflakes in our politically correct day in age. But I think to fully enjoy a book, you need to be completely comfortable immersing yourself within its plot, and it’s hard to do that if you’re straddled by the uncertainty of possible triggers/sensitive topics. Better safe than sorry when investing your time into a book!

The Book of Essie: Book Review

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir published in 2018.

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“Esther Ann Hicks—Essie—is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Do they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they pass the child off as Celia’s? Or do they try to arrange a marriage—and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie is quietly pairing herself up with Roarke Richards, a senior at her school with a secret of his own to protect. As the newly formed couple attempt to sell their fabricated love story to the media—through exclusive interviews with an infamously conservative reporter named Liberty Bell—Essie finds she has questions of her own: What was the real reason for her older sister leaving home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?”

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The Book of Essie is like a crossover between the Kardashian’s and Little House on the Prairie, and I loved every second of it.

Six for Hicks is a reality show which follows the die-hard religious lifestyle of the Hicks family. All is well in paradise until Essie, the youngest of the many children, gets pregnant. Her overbearing mother and the producers of the show weigh their options to avoid a media disaster: should she put the baby up for adoption? Try and pass it as her mothers’ child? Abortion? Marry Essie off before the kid is born? The last option is deemed the best, so they begin to search for a suitable husband for seventeen-year-old Essie. Roarke Richards is chosen and given a significant amount of money for going along with the very publicized sham wedding. The book is written in the altering perspectives of Essie, Roarke and Liberty, who is a struggling reporter with a dark history of her own. As the story unfolds we learn that all three of our main characters have secrets that they’re not willing to bring to the light just yet. Also, the most pressing question for us readers is: how did Essie get pregnant?

This was such a quick and easy read, I finished it faster than most books I’ve read. It was fast-paced yet I didn’t feel like the story was racing by at a speed I couldn’t handle. This is the type of book that jumps right into the main plot, which I appreciate very much (not a big fan of novels that dawdle with a pointless backstory for a hundred pages). In fact, the first few lines throw us right in the deep end by saying,

“On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none.”

The tone for the rest of the book is set in these two simple lines. Beyond these sentences, the book does not waste time getting down to the action involving the marriage. The only thing that wasn’t addressed right away was the reasoning behind Essie’s pregnancy, and this builds some terrific suspense for when it is revealed.

I really enjoyed most of the presence of the character, and even if I didn’t like them personally, I could appreciate them from a literary point of view. Essie’s mother Celia, for example, while unlikeable, was placed in the story for a specific reason and Weir wrote her well into that role. Another aspect I especially liked was the relationship between Essie and Roarke. They had a comfortable chemistry build on the foundation that they both had secrets they’re desperate to hide, but even more desperate to share with someone else to alleviate the weight on their shoulders. Their relationship was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of a traumatic atmosphere and the friendship they end up creating in enviable for any young person.

I think Weir handled some touché subjects with ease, such as rape, incest, child molestation, and homophobia. In excess, these topics can grow to be unbearable to read about, but here the author sprinkled in little nuggets of hope and human decency that gave me the motivation to read on. It was realistic and yet also theatrical, given the nature of Essie’s life.

The Book of Essie gave an insightful look into the often-time hypocritical world of staunch evangelicals, especially those that advertise their picture perfect lifestyles. How deep down, it’s just a hoax to judge people that don’t fit your personal ideals. While this was portrayed well, I wish there was more detail surrounding the phenomenon that is reality television. For example, why was the American public so fixated on watching the Hicks’ every move? And do they really believe that everything they’re seeing is reality? These would be interesting questions to explore, especially in the age of the Kardashians and Jersey Shore, so the fact that these ideas were only hinted upon slightly disappointed me.

There will be spoilers in the next paragraph, so read on with caution.

The ending was satisfying and concise. It was a happy finale for our protagonists which warmed my heart after rooting for them for so long, and all loose ends were tied together quite nicely. The only thing that was missing for me was the aftermath of Essie telling the public she was raped. As we saw in the novel Beartown (and frankly, as we see all the time in real life), there are repercussions for women who come forward about rape. This impact on Essie wasn’t really discussed, at least not in-depth. Since Essie has such a unique outlook on the world, I would have loved to have seen this experience from her perspective.

The Book of Essie was a cleverly written coming of age book with likeable characters and emotional topics. I had the honour of following Esther Hicks on a one in a million journey through a life that she didn’t necessarily wish for, but made the best of when it came her way. I think most young girls should aspire to be like Essie (maybe not the pregnancy part, but definitely everything else in between).

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A Place for Us: Book Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza published in 2018.

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“A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from. In a narrative that spans decades and sees family life through the eyes of each member, A Place For Us charts the crucial moments in the family’s past, from the bonds that bring them together to the differences that pull them apart. And as siblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar attempt to carve out a life for themselves, they must reconcile their present culture with their parent’s faith, to tread a path between the old world and the new, and learn how the smallest decisions can lead to the deepest of betrayals.”

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This is the first book released under Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, and I don’t think she could have chosen a better debut novel.

This book is divided into four parts. The first part opens up with the wedding of Haida, Layla and Rafiq’s oldest child. Immediately there is tension between the family due to Amar, the youngest in the family, making an appearance after running away three years prior. The second, and by far longest, part takes us back and explains exactly why Amar left, which has a lot to do with his relationship with his strict father. The third part goes back to Haida’s wedding, the reader now having the knowledge of everything that’s happened in the past. Finally, the fourth and in my opinion, the best part, we explore all the past stories that were told in the prior parts of the novel from the fathers perspective. Here, we learn that the hardened exterior that his children witnessed throughout their childhood may have just been a façade for the emotions that he was unsure of how to handle.

The majority of books that I read are very plot centred, and when I say that I mean my main motivation to continue reading is to find out how the plot is going to develop. A Place for Us is a rare exception where I continued reading solely for the characters and how they would continue to develop. I had a genuine interest in all of their lives and really wanted the best for them, almost as if I knew them in real life. Whether you yourself can strongly relate to the characters, each member of the family is portrayed so flawlessly imperfect in such a realistic and authentic manner that you’ll find yourself immensely caring for them.

The novel started off a bit slow for my liking, yet others might view this as a leisurely plot. As I mentioned above part two was the longest, since it covered the better part of the family’s troubles. Yet I felt that some parts dragged on and could have benefited from a bit of light editing. The pace did pick up significantly around part three when family secrets were revealed and past endeavours were exposed. Another small detail that irked me was the transitioning between perspectives so freely. The main point of views switched between Hadia, Amar and Layla, also altering between different periods of their life. Since it was not apparently clear when the POV’s were switching, I was confused and found myself backtracking to figure out whose perspective I was witnessing the story from. These are minor complaints though that can be worked through quite easily.

Mirza, despite being so young, possesses such a unique wisdom and gracefulness about family, religion and culture. Even better, she managed to masterfully weave these together to create the heartbreakingly real narrative of a modern Muslim family living in America. She touches upon the impact of 9/11 as well as the more recent political glutton that is President Trump. The pressures of devoting yourself to religion is what creates the gap between Amar and his father, something I’m sure must be common nowadays. Both the beautiful and cruel aspects of faith are highlighted in this timeless story.

Part four was by far my favourite. Anyone knows that I’m a sucker for the character trope of the strict and hardened authority figure concealing their true emotions, mainly because they don’t know how to express their true emotions. This Rafiq in a nutshell. Throughout the entire novel, the reader saw him through the lens of his children and wife as the uncompromising leader of the family, but part four allows us a glimpse into his mind. Here, we see him struggling to find a balance between his love of Islam and the love of his family, not to mention his almost palpable desperation to connect with his estranged son. It was beautifully written and the perfect way to end this novel.

A Place for Us has the potential to translate so well into a diverse array of cultures and religions. The raw emotions portrayed by Mirza are applicable to each and every one of us. If you’re still unsure about picking up this book, I’ll endorse it for the same reason that I recommended The Hate U Give; if you can’t find something to relate to in this, you’ll definitely find something that you can learn from it.

August’s Poem of the Month

I feel like this poem needs no introduction. You’ve all most likely heard it before and will most definitely recognize the poet. She has inspired generations of writers and paved the way for women, black women specifically, to thrive and grow in the field of poetry. This was one of the first poems I read as a little girl, and I remembered feeling so empowered, both as a writer and a woman. I hope every little girl has the opportunity to read this and feel pride in being female.

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou 

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”
Feel free to check out Caged Bird Legacy, a website created to keep Dr. Maya Angelou’s memory alive.

The Perfect Mother: Book Review

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy published in 2018.

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“They call themselves the May Mothers—a group of new moms whose babies were born in the same month. Twice a week, they get together in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for some much-needed adult time. When the women go out for drinks at a hip neighborhood bar, they’re looking for a fun break from their daily routine. But on this hot Fourth of July night, something goes terrifyingly wrong: one of the babies is taken from his crib. Winnie, a single mom, was reluctant to leave six-week-old Midas with a babysitter, but her fellow May Mothers insisted everything would be fine. What follows is a heart-pounding race to find Midas, during which secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are destroyed.”

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This is both the best and the worst book for a mother to read.

The May Mother’s are a group of women who gave birth to their children in the same month of May. They meet to discuss their new daunting roles of mothers and exchange advice on their newborns. The regular members are Francie, Nell, Colette, Token (given this nickname because he’s the “token male” of the group) and finally, the mysterious and beautiful Winnie Ross. Yet when the group convinces Winnie to go against her better judgement and join them for a night of drinks, her son Midas is taken from his crib. The police are proving to be incompetent in solving this case, and soon the whole country has an opinion about the infant abduction. Was it an act of terrorism? Revenge from an old stalker of Winnie’s? Or maybe Winnie has something to do with this herself? Even besides the detail of who did this, how irresponsible was it of this new mother to leave her newborn at home to go drinking? As the press preoccupies themselves by pointing fingers and placing blame, the police stray further away from finding Midas, so one of the May Mother’s stars to take things into her own hands. Secrets are revealed, people are killed, and tensions are high on the search for baby Midas.

The characterization was definitely not ideal for me. It took a while for all the main characters to gain a sense of individuality and a strong personality. I kept getting all of their jobs, husbands and kids confused. Since they’re all in similar situations (new, nervous mothers), it’s difficult to distinguish between Francie, Nell and Colette. Eventually, I did get them sorted out, but I attribute that mainly to time. If you read about any character for long enough, you’re bound to remember certain things about them, even if they aren’t particularly memorable.

This is labelled as a thriller, but I didn’t really find it that thrilling for the majority of the novel. I felt as if it sort of plateaued for most of it, just an endless search for Midas with very few major twists and turns or any sort of heavy action scenes. I kept waiting for some minor peaks of action to spice up the story, yet the only bit of noteworthy action was the final reveal at the end. Then it was approximately forty pages of intense drama with an abrupt happyish ending.

Speaking of the big twist, I wasn’t too impressed by it. Was I surprised by the reveal of what happened to baby Midas? Somewhat. Was I absolutely blown away by it? Not really. Actually, when I was telling my dad about the general plot of the novel, he guessed part of the ending so you can interpret that any way you’d like. My exact thoughts while taking in the ending was, “Oh, that’s it?” Also, it left some unanswered questions, which is quite annoying, especially in a thriller/mystery novel that dedicates about two hundred pages to creating questions that need answers.

I will say it did have an interesting commentary on modern motherhood that was intriguing to read, even as someone who isn’t a mother. The external pressure to be the perfect mother (hence the title) is presented with a contemporary flair with hints of traditional doubt. It ranges from a parenting website sending daily “mommy advice” of how the perfect baby should be acting, to the underlying disdain of using formula milk versus breast milk. Reading this book is just a constant reminder that trying to keep a little human alive is hard enough without a world of strangers telling you that you’re doing it wrong, so we should appreciate the work that mother’s do.

I heard some people describe this book as “disturbing”, but to me, that’s a bit of an ambitious adjective for The Perfect Mother. Besides the whole plot point of a newborn being kidnapped, there are very few scenes that I would describe as disturbing. Maybe it’s because I’m adventurous when it comes to potentially unsettling books (check out my review for Girls Burn Brighter—that one was a doozy), but this definitely was not the most disturbing book I’ve ever read, if anything I found it rather tame.

Molloy has achieved writing a very average book. All the characters, plot and writing style are just fine to say the most. If you’re looking for a novel to introduce yourself to the thriller genre that has little to arguably no disturbing scenes, this would be a good one to check out. Yet if you have a strong stomach and are searching for something with a bit more bang for your buck, it might be worth skipping this one.

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