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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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.”

Trigger warning JG

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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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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