5

Seven Fallen Feathers

I’ve struggled with how to write about Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga.

Not only is the subject matter difficult, but what more could I say that Talaga hasn’t already said better?

But shying away from talking about this book, about what happened, is part of the problem. So here we go.

seven fallen feathers

Seven Fallen Feathers tells the stories of Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan. Forty years after recommendations were made to keep Indigenous children safe when they were sent away from home for school, these seven Indigenous youth were left to their own devices and lost their lives. None of the recommendations had ever been put in place. None of their deaths were ever properly investigated.

The choice that Indigenous youth in remote communities face is a difficult one: stay at home and receive nothing more than a Grade 8 education, or leave home and move to a city and attend a secondary school in a strange place without your relatives to keep you safe.

Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan all moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario to attend secondary school. None of them had ever been to a “big” city and things that we take for granted, strip malls and fast food, were all completely new to them. They moved into boarding houses, sometimes with cousins or distant relatives. They made new friends, and experimented with alcohol – like all kids at their age do.

Five of them were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, despite their families claiming they were good swimmers and would never be in the water in the middle of the winter, one died in the hall of her boarding house, and one inexplicably collapsed in his kitchen. Seven years after Jethro, the first boy, was found, an inquest was finally held after the death of Reggie.

Seven Fallen Feathers takes a hard look at Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities. Talaga, a journalist, digs deeply into the families and histories of these forgotten children. A lot of them have family histories with residential schools, a legacy whose pain and suffering is a burden still being carried by new generations.

This book is brutal in that it looks at the completely unnecessary deaths of promising young people. They left the security of their communities for a place that was totally unknown to them, a place that was not welcoming, teeming with racist overtures.

But this book is also completely necessary. It opened my eyes to something that I didn’t want to see. I think Seven Fallen Feathers is a book that all Canadians should read. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wrongs Canada has committed against Indigenous Peoples but it’s a very important start.

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10

Little Fires Everywhere is a marvel

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

When I first read Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, I wasn’t sure that I liked it. But the more I thought about it, the more it affected me, the better I understood it.

When Little Fires Everywhere came out and it started to show up all over my social media feeds, I was feeling left out! So I was thrilled when a copy showed up at my door.

little fires everywhere

In Shaker Heights, a planned community, everything has always been just so. Homes are painted in certain colours to complement their styles, unsightly garbage is collected behind the homes so no one has to see it, and schools are laid out so that children can walk to them without crossing a single street.

Elena Richardson has lived in Shaker Heights for her entire life and embodies it’s spirit. She, her husband, and four children live in a large home, have a housekeeper, and attend the right kinds of functions. When Mia, a free spirited artist, and her daughter, Pearl, rent Elena’s property, no one has any idea how things will end. As Pearl becomes enmeshed in the Richardson family and as the youngest Richardson, Izzy, becomes closer with Mia, all of them are heading for a collision that will rock the foundation of their lives.

And when a Chinese American baby is adopted by the Richardson’s friends after being ‘abandoned’ by her overwhelmed birth mother, everyone picks a side.

You all know that I’ve been struggling with my reading lately. And initially, I didn’t get time for more than a few pages of Little Fires Everywhere. I wasn’t sure that I was going to love this book like everyone else. But then, miracle of miracles, I had an entire day to spend with it. And I finished the whole thing, greedily turning pages, simultaneously racing through them and wanting to slow down and make it last longer.

Celeste Ng is a marvel. How she manages to craft a novel that covers so much, that sees so much humanity in 336 pages, I will never know. It is a portrait of motherhood, of friendships, of the way secrets tug at the fabric of our lives. It is about mothers and daughters, about the way class systems shape our communities, about being an outsider in the kind of community that is held up as a beacon of progress.

Little things about this book bowled me over. The way Elena Richardson is always Mrs Richardson, never Elena. But Mia is always just Mia, despite the fact that they are likely contemporaries. Ng manages to create a sense of distance with just three little letters. The story moves between points of view seamlessly, so that you don’t even notice it’s happening. Each character is given such depth and history in a short amount of time – really, it’s incredible what Ng has managed to capture in this book.

Little Fires Everywhere touches on racism and classism but never in a way that feels heavy handed or over done. Written with the pace of a thriller, this book is a knock out for book club or your more literarily-inclined friends.

I loved this book. I wish I could read it again for the first time.

6

CanLit Win: Someone You Love Is Gone

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Heading into the long weekend, I was planning on reading something easy, a “guilty pleasure” style book. But by the time Monday rolled around, and I still hadn’t finished that particular book (or even really cared to read it at all) I decided that I’d maybe need to admit defeat and move on.

(Remember at the beginning of the year I said I’d be better about not finishing books?)

I looked around the apartment for my next book and settled pretty quickly on Someone You Love Is Gone by Gurjinder Basran. Basran is a local author whose debut novel, Everything Was Goodbye was the winner of the Search for the Great BC Novel contest in 2010 and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Award in 2011. It was also a Chatelaine Book Club pick in 2012.

basran

In Someone You Love Is Gone, Basran explores loss and grief and the coming to terms with a new reality. Simran’s mother has just passed away after a long illness. Simran doesn’t know how to cope with the void in her life; the past couple of years have been spent caring for her mother and suddenly her mother doesn’t exist anymore.

Except she kind of does. As she starts moving forward with her life, Simran’s mother haunts her, sits with her and talks about the past, about her siblings and the need for family in this world. They are just little glimpses of her but they offer Simran some comfort. Especially as she works through her family’s past, decisions that were made and the repercussions that rippled out through the generations.

When Simran was 10, her brother Diwa, always a special boy, believing himself to be reincarnated, is sent away to live with relatives. No explanation is ever given to Simran or Diwa; Diwa is gone and the siblings rarely see each other anymore. Soon a new sibling, Jyoti is born but the age difference means the sisters never become close.

There’s a lot going on in this book; three times are moving forward and while that often irritates me, removing me from one story when I’m just starting to settle into it, in Someone You Love Is Gone, it works. Basran has given each story the time that it needs, she hasn’t weighed it down with extraneous details or complications. Each story fits inside the others, like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

Simran is without a doubt the anchor of the story. Parts of the book are in first person from her perspective and again, normally this would drive me crazy, but here it felt natural and right. You can feel Simran’s sadness, the grief that she’s just coming to terms with, both over the loss of her mother and all the other losses she’s had to deal with over the course of a lifetime. All three of the siblings have grown up kind alone inside this family that just wants to function and get through the days, to not dwell on the bad things that have happened.

I thought it might be heavy novel, dealing with death as it does. I was worried that I’d become mired down in the darkness that I assumed would come with this book. But there is a real freedom in this book, a weightlessness that comes from Basran offering her characters redemption.

Basran has crafted a quiet, thoughtful novel. It is at once incredibly personal, the story of one family, and completely universal as I’m sure readers will be able to see themselves and their own families in it.

Another thumbs up on the CanLit front.

10

Read it: The Hate U Give

If not for my book club, I’m not sure that I would have read The Hate U Give anytime soon.

Oh, it was on my list. But without the book club pressure, the impetus to get it read by a certain date, I’m not sure when I would have got to it.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is BRILLIANT. For real, if there’s one book I would recommend to everyone this summer, this is it.

From Goodreads:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

It’s really hard to overstate the importance of this book. It should probably be required reading in schools. Thomas has given us a gift with her debut novel.

hate you giveI was emotionally invested in this book really quickly. Thomas’ characters are bold, written with heart, they imprint on readers very quickly. Starr is straddling the middle ground between these two worlds – her neighbourhood with childhood friends, complex family dynamics and violence born of a lifestyle that is necessary to survive with just the basics, and her prep school an hour away, a white boyfriend who has never seen where Starr lives, working hard for an education her parents want so badly for her while handling micro aggressions from girls that are supposed to be her friends.

Thomas is able to deftly handle so many different angles in this book – of Starr, caught in the middle of everything; her parents, fearful for her safety should she speak out; the police, including her uncle who needs time to work out what this means for him; Starr’s friend DeVante, shook up by the shooting and wanting to walk away from a lifestyle that seems destined to end in violence; and the activists who want to use Khalil’s death to force change.

All told, it’s a maelstrom of a book. I cried again and again and again. It’s also incredibly funny. Starr’s observations are so spot on that I found myself chuckling in bed late at night, trying not to wake my husband.

By the time I finished this book, I was sad to leave it behind. I miss Starr and her family. I’m so grateful to Angie Thomas for writing this book.

If you haven’t read it, don’t wait. When it becomes a movie, everyone will be talking about it!

23

A cherry on top: Rich People Problems

When I finished reading China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, I immediately began looking forward to book three. So to say that I was anticipating Rich People Problems would be a massive understatement.

From the first page of Crazy Rich Asians, I knew that I had found something special, something new. And it’s been a love affair that I will not shut up about ever since.

With this much expectation, Rich People Problems could have been a massive letdown.

BUT IT WASN’T.

I cackled and screeched and laughed my way through this third book with unconcealed glee.

RPB

When the matriarch of the family, Su Yi Shang becomes ill, the Youngs, Chengs, Leongs and Shangs all come back to Tyersall Park to stake a claim to her massive fortune. The huge 64 acre property in the middle of Singapore becomes the scene of family scheming, backstabbing and hysterics.

Look, if you haven’t read the first two books, the plot of this one won’t mean anything. If you’ve read the first two and have yet to read the third (how I envy you!) know that all your favourite characters are back and in fine form: Kitty Pong and her stepdaughter Colette Bing are embroiled in a stealth battle of status across the globe, Eddie Cheng is up to all the same tricks while collecting watches and forcing his family to dress just like him, and Astrid and Charlie Wu are trying to make things work while their exes are hell-bent on destroying their lives.

(Also, can we talk about this cover? SO CHIC)

I read this over the long weekend, in the sunshine, and it was glorious. I was messaging Catherine @ The Gilmore Guide to Books (who has a review up that you should read even though I haven’t yet because I wanted to write this first) because I knew she had read it. I had to talk to someone about what I was reading. There were moments, I swear to you, I was screaming in the garden because I was delighted by the audacity of this book. Kevin Kwan is a genius.

Among other things, this book includes a completely over the top Bollywood proposal, a kidnapping at an elite private school, a Nigel Barker photo shoot for Tattle magazine, and plastic surgery for a stupidly expensive FISH. I mean, what more do you WANT?

Look, the world is a garbage fire and it seems to get worst every day. Kevin Kwan’s series is one of the only things I know of that guarantees to take you out of this world. His delicious, gorgeous, over-the-top world filled with intrigues big and small, peopled with some of the most memorable characters, will thrill you. It will put a big ol’ smile on your face. And when you’re done, I’m pretty sure you will join me in obsessively reading Crazy Rich Asians casting/production news.

If you haven’t read these books yet, get on it. If you are waiting to read Rich People Problems, don’t.

Rich People Problems was the cherry on top of a very decadent, perfect, wonderful sundae.

Huge thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for making my dreams come true a little earlier with an ARC of this book. 

4

Canada Reads 2017: The Right To Be Cold

When the Canada Reads shortlist was announced this year, it struck me (and many others) as odd that there was a non-fiction selection among them. How can the merits of a non-fiction selection be weighed alongside fiction?

Nonetheless, the non-fiction title (The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, The Arctic and the Whole Planet) was one of only two titles that I even wanted to read. (The other was Katherena Vermette’s The Break and I don’t even want to talk about how that book was treated during the debates. READ IT)

right to be cold

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold is part memoir, part manifesto. The first half of the memoir, about her life growing up in the Arctic and the traditions of her Inuit culture, I loved. Her home, her traditions, her culture, her language, her family – all were written about with such love while pointing out that their way of life was being threatened by the warming of the Earth.

She writes quite plainly:

The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.

We are all accustomed to the dire metaphors used to evoke the havoc of climate change, but in many parts of the Arctic, the metaphors have already become a very literal reality. For a number of reasons, the planet warms several times faster at the poles. While climate experts warn that an increase of two degrees in the global average temperature is the threshold of disaster, in the Arctic we have already seen nearly double that.

Part of the issue, of course, is that those sounding the alarm are not the “right” kind of people. They are those citizens that have been taken advantage of, that have been robbed of their culture, forced into educational institutions that separated them from their families and did their own kind of damage. Although not the focus of the book, Watt-Cloutier does touch on this aspect of it. Those citizens that have been suppressed and abused are now charged with righting the wrongs of the rest of us.

And so, as her people’s way of life became threatened, as new generations were being robbed of the necessary environment to practice essential skills, as the habitats of animals necessary to sustain life in the Arctic became increasingly endangered, Watt-Cloutier saw that she would need to take a stand.

And that leads to the manifesto/memoir overlap of the book that kind of lost me. Undoubtedly her work is so very important and fundamental to the future of her people and the entire planet. But in writing about it, she relies on the retelling of political process, of the meetings she had, speeches she heard and gave, of those she met whose minds she changed.

It was all so dry.

Which is a shame because I do think that this is an important book for people to read, to understand just how precarious our situation is when it comes to climate change. It has already had very real implications for people right now.

I so appreciate Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the work she has done. I just wish that she had been able to leave out the process and focus on what needs to happen. Or spend more time on shocking people into that state of things as they are, and how much damage we have already done.

Canada Reads has come and gone by now and though I still think it was weird to add a non-fiction book to the party, there’s enough in The Right To Be Cold to make it worth your while. We can’t really afford to pretend this isn’t a serious problem.

7

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

I went to the library to pick up my hold (The Handmaid’s Tale) and ended up taking home a couple of other books (because that’s how that works) including Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.

It’s billed as the “Muslim Bridget Jones.” I hope I don’t need to tell you what I think about that comparison (I hate it) but it kind of gives you an idea of what we’re talking about here.

sofia khan.jpg

Sofia Khan is a 31 year old Muslim woman who works in publishing. She lives at home with her parents and her sister, who is getting ready to be married. Sofia has just broken things off with a man she thought she was going to marry. But when he refused to move out of his parents’ home, Sofia knows there isn’t a future for them. So now she’s trying to figure out what her future does look like – does she want to get married? Will she move out on her own?

And then the editors at work decide that she would be the perfect person to write a book about Muslim dating! So now she’s writing a book about something she’s very conflicted about.

Soon she begins mining her friends’ relationship experiences for stories, signs up for online dating (on a Muslim site) and stressing about writing this book that she isn’t really sure she ever wanted to write in the first place.

I liked this book – I was charmed by Sofia and her family; her parents who were the result of an arranged marriage and spend their time bickering about everything; various aunts and uncles who arrive on scene for celebrations; Sofia’s older sister, Maria, who is everything you could ever hope to have in an older sister and is also obsessed with wedding plans. I also loved Sofia’s friends – they were all so involved in each others’ lives – from showing up to support one becoming a second wife, to pretending it was no big deal that one of them was falling in love with a black man.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is written in a kind of modern diary style, complete with text messages and emails. It isn’t really my favourite style, but it worked in this case. However, it could have done with another editing look – there were some amazing oversights (like Pasiktan instead of Pakistan).

But overall, this was a charming, light, quirky book. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy in this kind of “chick lit” book but the fact that Sofia was a devout Muslim (she wears a hijab, can’t see herself not marrying a Muslim, prays five times a day, doesn’t drink etc) made it so much more interesting. The family dynamics and the complications of her faith in a city that doesn’t always smile on it (she’s called a terrorist a couple of times by other commuters) made for a much more compelling read.

If you’re looking for something easy, something to make you giggle, I’d recommend this one. I’ve added the follow up (The Other Half of Happiness) to my list.