A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Earth Day: The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and GreedThe Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was not anticipating the range of emotions this book elicited. Anger, disappointment, delight, worry, and awe is a tall order for a book that, at first glance, is about one man, who cuts down one tree. It is when you start reading that you realize this book is so much more. A history of logging on the Northwest coast, a snapshot of white-native relations, both to each other and to the land around them, a gripping mystery and an unexpectedly heartbreaking story of loss, Vaillant’s book is much more than one man’s biography. I very highly recommend it.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – February: Black History, & March: Women’s History: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The perfect book to cap off February and move into March with, Hidden Figures reveals the little known story of the black women mathematicians who worked with NASA to help the United States win the space race and set the first man on the moon. Let me say that again for the people in the back: in the 30’s there were black women mathematicians working for NASA. And Shetterly introduces you to almost all of them. These women are brilliant. Determined. Ambitious. They leave their steady, if drastically underpaid teaching jobs when NASA puts out the call in WWII for more “computers” to hand calculate pages of complex equations about aerodynamics for the engineers and physicists – careers often denied to the black female computers regardless of their qualifications – to fine tune the performance of the new planes NASA – at that time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA – was inventing. Shetterly does a beautiful job integrating the personal lives of these women with the changes in American society, and world history from the 1930s to the end of the space race. Hidden Figures is a science-packed read and a great story.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History Month: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color PurpleThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An incredible book. Walker has crafted a heart-breaking, heart-filling story that captivates you from first page to last. Despite assaults and abuse from parents and husband, Celie stands “bloody, but unbowed” throughout her childhood, unwanted marriage, and finally sees the slow growth of her own heart from a forgotten seed into a magnificent tree. Despite this being a story built around child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and the millions of everyday griefs that filled a black woman’s life in the early 1900’s, Walker has presented us with a work is not just uplifting, but redemptive. If you are in a place where you are able to read books that deal with the content warnings I’ve listed, then I can not recommend The Color Purple strongly enough.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Blood Donation (Vampires): I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend and Other StoriesI Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though the cover gives no indication, this edition actually includes not just the novel I Am Legend, but several short horror stories mostly themed around vampires and other supernatural creatures or events. Traditional African religions form the main plot’s scaffolding of two of the short stories and it’s apparent they are something Matheson was fascinated with, though how accurately he has represented them in his work is a question I am not equipped to answer. One of those two, From Shadowed Places, is as much about prejudice as it is about witchcraft and despite being published in 1960 it is clear Matheson is on the side of equality, problematic as the story’s depiction of its educated, powerful African-American heroine and the resolution of the conflict may be. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I Am Legend is the first novel in this collection so I will start with that. Vaguely similar to the Will Smith movie of the same name, our hero Robert Neville is the last surviving human uninfected by a vampirism plague which can turn the living and the dead. He spends his nights locked in the home he has converted into a fortress, drinking himself to oblivion and his days researching the disease, roaming the dead city, searching for supplies and killing all the vampires he can find. Utterly alone. Until the afternoon he sees a woman out walking in the sunlight. His abduction of her, a near-mindless nostrum for his loneliness, preciptates a series of events that will propel him out of his carefully crafted universe into legend.

The abrupt closure to I Am Legend is followed by Buried Talents, a short story set in a fairground game booth where you win prizes by tossing ping-pong balls into empty fishbowls. Or try; no one wins anything until a tall man in a wrinkled black suit puts his quarter on the counter. He doesn’t care about the prizes, but he doesn’t want to stop playing.

The Near Departed is a scant two pages. A mortician discusses funeral arrangements for the wife of an unnamed man. She is to have the best of everything, as she is young, beautiful, and everyone loves her. Her husband always gave her the best of everything and her funeral is to be no exception.

Prey is the first short story featuring traditional African religions. Amelia has come home from a shopping trip with a “genuine Zuni fetish doll” as a birthday present for her anthropologist boyfriend Arthur, whom she plans to see that evening. But when she calls her narcissistic mother to cancel their regular Friday night plans so she can spend Arthur’s birthday with him, the resulting guilt trip and silent treatment so upset her she cancels with Arthur as well and goes to take a bath, leaving the fetish unboxed and unattended on the living room end table. What she doesn’t know is that these fetishes must be handled very carefully. Her evening does not go as planned.

Witch War Seven pretty little girls are the weapons in this dark twist on traditional World War Two stories. The writing is more experimental and repetitive than the other stories, with Matheson playing up the apparent dichotomy of “pretty little girls” being the agents of destruction.

Dance of the Dead Another post war story, we follow four college students on a double date into the dangerous and alluring city of Saint Louis, to watch the Dance of the Dead.

Dress of White Silk appears to be an excerpt from the diary of a young girl who has been locked in her room, for what she does not know, by her grandmother. She is reminiscing over the events leading to her grounding and attempting to puzzle out, with her childish logic and grasp of grammar, where she has done wrong. But her conclusions and our conclusions are vastly different.

Mad House explores the idea that human emotions can imprint on the items around them, and the horrifying, violent results of their long term exposure to the rage of a man with anger management issues.

The Funeral is a darkly comic supernatural story where the owner of a funeral parlour finds an unexpected niche market giving the undead their dream send offs.

From Shadowed Places was probably my favourite story in this collection. A wealthy young trophy hunter named Peter Lang is gripped by a mysterious malady that is slowly killing him through sheer agony. It has no discernible physical source and modern Western medicine is powerless against it. When it is clear Lang is at death’s door his fiancée, Patricia Jennings, remembers an old school friend who teaches anthropology and spent a couple years in Africa. Dr. Lurice Howell is the powerful heroine I mentioned before, and it is her power and knowledge which will battle death for Peter.

Person to Person tells us of David Millman, plagued by an idiopathic ringing in his head that wakes him up each night at 3 am. No medicine he tries will alleviate it and allow him to sleep undisturbed, until one day the therapist he is seeing suggests David try answering the phone. That definitely sets things in motion, but not in the direction either of them are expecting. And Millman’s struggle for control of this bizarre affliction will close out not just the book, but his life as he knows it.

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The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North AmericaThe Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book should never have been written. There should never have been this story of griefs to record. There should never have been these atrocities against peoples whose only “crime” was being different from the Europeans who moved into their homes. Having happened, it should never have been swept under the proverbial rug by historians, politicians, journalists, activists, and law makers so we as Canadians could sing the praises of our tolerance internationally. It should never have been left out of our social studies classes, glossed over and summarized by one or two broken treaties as though the kindnesses of the white rulers far surpassed any minor betrayals. But here we are. King has written the most emotionally challenging, grief inducing book I have read this year. Also the most important. Ten chapters of complete ignorance of our own past, of horrific racism and destructive social policies and every promise broken almost immediately. Somehow King manages to stave off bitterness and rage over the endless injustices. I’m going to avoid closing my review with nebulous hopes for a better future. After this book, that seems naive and disingenuous. It’s not enough just to hope the future will be better. We (whites) have a lot of work ahead of us to make this right. Let’s hope we are finally ready to learn from our mistakes.

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an incredible piece of writing this book is. Noah has filled Born a Crime with stories which are almost surreal (to a white first-worlder). As if that wasn’t enough, he lards his writing with insightful observations on racism, poverty, classism, sexism, and human nature. As if it wasn’t enough of a miracle that he exists, he rises above the circumstances of his poverty-stricken childhood to become an intelligent, well-known, and (hopefully) wealthy television personality. He stomped that cycle into the ground.

Noah gives credit where credit is due, however. He didn’t achieve all this by his own will. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a powerhouse of a woman who refuses to let anything stop her from achieving what she wants. She molds Trevor into a decent human being out of willpower and…well, beatings. Noah explains and excuses it, and has a wonderful relationship with his mother, but child abuse is a thing in this story. As is spousal abuse, gun violence, sexism, and the consistent abuse of power by the police. Apartheid is so much more horrifying than I could have guessed, and it left a legacy that influenced every person in the country. Noah keeps the book upbeat even while relating stories of being arrested, hustling pirated CDs, and navigating the discriminatory culture he was being raised in. Until the end of the book. The third segment gets progressively darker, chronicling his time in jail and his stepfather’s abuse of Noah’s mother, until it will be a wonder if you are not in tears. There’s a happy ending, but trust me when I say you’ve got to walk across some hot coals to get to it. In my humble opinion, it was worth it. I’m glad I read this book.

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Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

Preparation for the Next LifePreparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Preparation for the Next Life received many five star reviews on Goodreads. People raved about it. Wretched protagonists Zou Lei and Brad Skinner start an unlikely romance – she’s an undocumented immigrant, he’s a traumatised war vet – after meeting in a decrepit basement noodle shop. The writing is sparse, the sentences are simple, and every word is crushingly depressing. Lei and Skinner barely scrape by. The landscape is one of endless garbage and graffiti, rot and refuse. Attempts at progress end in failure, when they’re undertaken at all. Supporting characters exist only to undermine their plans and drag them back down. The whole novel is a bucket full of crabs, except someone has thrown in weapons. Graphic violence proliferates. Sexual coercion, rape, and the threat of rape are frequent themes. Brad’s relationship with Zou Lei verges on abusive, and while he’s presented in a sympathetic light and the problems are shown to stem from the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma he endured in Iraq – and for which the army refuses to treat him – I had a hard time seeing this as an “unsentimental love story” as The New York Times describes it on the cover. I kept thinking of Lolita. It’s constantly described as a romance, but is really a horrifying story of kidnapping and child abuse. The unrelieved despair soaking from every page made the ending almost cathartic; there finally seemed like the smallest chance that luck was changing. When you live right on the margin of society, dull stability is a dream come true. Glorious triumph? Not so much.

Because of the subject matter, violence, and overall heartcrushingness of the plot, I found this to be a very emotionally draining book. It’s definitely well written. The story is unique. But I’m recommending it with heavy caveats. Tread carefully.

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King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper Who Broke the NHL Colour Barrier by Paula Johanson

King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL colour BarrierKing Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL colour Barrier by Paula Johanson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I received this free ebook in exchange for a review.

One minute. That’s how long Larry Kwong was physically on the ice in that earth shattering hockey game all those years ago. Sixty seconds of the third period. Kwong and another teammate, Ronnie Rowe, were called up from the New York Ranger’s farm team – the New York Rovers – to substitute for a couple of regular players who were out with injuries. Rowe played nearly the entire game. By all accounts, Kwong was the better player. He played on many teams throughout his life and consistently led in points scored per game. Such was his sportsmanship that he rarely got a penalty. Kwong spent over a decade in Europe, helping develop the Swiss Hockey League. He taught sports at a Catholic girls’ school in Lausanne, ran a restaurant in Quebec and a grocery chain in Alberta, survived two triple-bypasses and losing both legs to diabetes. Kwong was married twice and outlived both wives. In spite of constant discrimination he forged a career playing hockey professionally. One of the first things he did with the money was to build his mother the house he had always promised her. That’s not even the whole biography! Just some highlights. I can’t believe I had never heard of Larry Kwong before.

As a whole, this biography is pretty straightforward. A few spots where the timeline seemed muddled or jumped too quickly forwards; Kwong goes from being a 66 year old tennis and hockey player to an 80 year old losing his legs to diabetes with hardly a blink. There are a couple of places where the editing leaves something to be desired. Missing letters, erratic punctuation, changing tenses, the lost end of a sentence, that sort of thing. Johanson sets down a good baseline of the political climate in Canada during Kwong’s lifetime. There were some horribly racist laws well into his adulthood that dramatically influenced his hockey career. And many other areas of his life. Again, most people are familiar with some of the laws (the head tax, for one), but there were many more. While this is a wonderful book and an uplifting story, the constant discrimination makes some parts hard to read. I have no idea how Kwong was able to constantly be the bigger person in the face of these attitudes. According to the friends and team mates interviewed throughout this book, he “handled each and every situation with class and dignity.” (61) It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that. Kwong is that kind of person.

“Superstar is not enough to describe Kwong.” – Baz Shaw, The Longest Shot. Truer words may have never been spoken.

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Skin. It features heavily in this book. Things done to it. Things done because of it. The feel of it. This book will get under your skin. There is frequent, graphic violence. But it’s a book set in the mid-1800s as slavery finally starts to stumble, and if you weren’t white, horrific brutality or the threat of it was essentially a daily occurrence. I’m torn between wishing I could forget the images in this book and being grateful that I read it because I believe it’s important to remember that there were people who were treated this way. That while this book is technically historical fiction, it’s based in historical fact.

Aside from etching itself into your brain because of the violence, this book is also impressively done. Morrison has created magnificent characters, complex and powerful. She sets things up so that despite knowing at the beginning that little Beloved has died at her mother’s hands, the ending still comes as a surprise. There’s poetry and prose. Morrison “melds horror and beauty in a story that will disturb the mind forever” – Sunday Times. She’s made the black people the characters, white people the punch cards slid in and out of a machine that generates violence. The handle of a slot machine that may spit out a win, but is more likely to spit out death. It’s an interesting reversal of focus. We see and know everything each black character knows. The white ones are automatons. Mostly unfathomable. They just do what they are going to do and you can’t predict it or prevent it, only react to it. Why even think about them? Think about the people struggling to survive in a world like that. Think about the children.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” – Joseph Conrad

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