January’s Poem of the Month

My first semester of the English program is now behind me, which means endless nights of staying up reading Chaucer and writing until my hand is bruised is over (at least for now, that is…) One of my favourite classes involved reading buckets of poetry and discussing our ideas about them in class—so basically the perfect class for me. I finished it with a final term paper about Lady Lazarus (which also happens to be November’s Poem of the Month) and even though it’s over, it sparked my love for poetry and gave me lots of inspiration for this section of my blog. My textbook is filled to the brim with poems ranging from the 1600s to the early 2000s, so expect lots of material from there. The one that earned its spot as January’s Poem of the Month is one of my favourites. It actually made me chuckle out loud and made me wish as was as clever as its author. It stands out since it’s written in prose, and if you know anything about Shakespeare you’ll appreciate the reference right away.

Dim Lady by Harryette Mullen

“My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I’m aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don’t know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious Twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who’s hyped beyond belief.”

You can listen to Mullen recite this poem here, and read the poem that this is based on here.

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Us Against You Book Review

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman {translated by Neil Smith} published in 2018.

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“After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach. Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute. As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent.”

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I haven’t read many sequels to the books I’ve reviewed, so this is a first.

It’s kind of pointless to provide a summary of this book because it’s almost a direct continuation of Backman’s novel Beartown, so if you’re that curious, go read my review for “Beartown”. It focuses on the same characters with the same problems in the same town, which I liked and disliked at the same time. All of the characters are so interesting and unique that I could probably read another whole novel about them, it’s just trying to pass it as a completely different book/sequel is kind of a stretch. I usually regard sequels as the same set of characters facing a new challenge after a significant change of time, yet this book picks up almost instantly after the end of “Beartown”, as Kevin (the town’s star hockey player and Maya’s rapist) leaves town out of shame. The town is left to pick up the pieces, both as a whole community and each individual that is affected by the rape. It’s almost like Backman wrote an 800 page novel about these characters and this plot, but his publisher advised him to split it up into two different books so it didn’t intimidate readers. Again, the story itself is so interesting and thought-provoking that the continuing storyline is bearable, but I don’t think I’d like this in most sequels.

This review probably won’t be as long as my usual ones, mainly because I don’t want to repeat a lot of the stuff I said in my “Beartown” review since the two books are so similar. The character development is fabulous, both individually and as an entire community. There were many storylines going on at the same time, yet they tied together so nicely that I had a genuine interest in all of them and wasn’t confused. While the majority of the characters were from the original novel “Beartown”, there were also several new characters introduced such as a sly politician, “The Pack”, a local gang that everyone denies and knowledge of, and Leo Andersson, Maya’s younger brother.

I’ve heard some people say that they really don’t like Backman’s style of writing, and I couldn’t disagree more. I noticed he has a habit of using “power statements” (which is a term I made up just now). Either at the beginning or end of a few long paragraphs, he inserts a single sentence (occasionally two sentences, I guess if he’s feeling wild) that basically sums up what you are about to read/what you just read. Yet these are not normal sentences, hence my self-deemed title of “power statements”. Backman has this ability to create such compelling and commanding sentences that never fail to knock the wind out of me and sometimes physically causes me to sit back in my chair and just absorb what just hit me. It’s somehow very matter-of-fact but also metaphorically at the same time. I love writing like this, it makes me think a lot and really evokes a lot of strong emotions.

I don’t have much else to say about this that I didn’t already cover in my review for “Beartown”. This didn’t disappoint in the slightest, and even though it has the possibility to hold up on its own, if you find the desire to read “Us Against You”, try picking up “Beartown” first and enjoy the chaotically frustrating and hopeful community of Beartown.

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Caraval: Book Review

Caraval by Stephanie Garber published in 2017.

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“Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over. But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.”

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When people talk about Christmas magic, I doubt that they’re talking about the same kind of magic found in Caraval.

The main protagonist Scarlett lives on island Trisda with her little sister Donatella and their abusive father, who also happens to be the Governor of this small island. Scarlett has been writing letters to a man by the name of Legend, the leader of a spectacular called Caraval, a game that melds fiction and reality together with a winner that is granted a magical prize. After seven years of writing letters with no response, three invitations to Caraval arrive in the mail, one for each of the sisters and a special guest of their choice. Yet Scarlett is concerned with consequences of disobeying their father and leaving the island, so Donatella enlists the help of a charming sailor, Julian, into forcing her less adventurous sister into seeking the magic of Caraval. When Scarlett arrives with only Julian, she soon discovers that this game centers around finding a kidnapped player, who just happens to be Donatella. Scarlett goes about playing this mysterious game alongside Julian desperately trying to find her sister. The line between what is real and false becomes more blurred as the game continues, and the relationship between Julian and Scarlett grows more complicated.

I have a pretty equal amount of good and bad things to say about this novel, so I might as well get the bad stuff out of the way first and end this review on a good note. The writing style itself was not my favourite and it really affected how I absorbed the story. I kept comparing it to the likes of a fanfiction; granted not a poorly written fanfiction, but a fanfiction nonetheless. It was high on emotions but not as much on substance. Kind of immature at some points and overall simplistic (simplistic writing can sometimes be a good thing, but in this case, I wasn’t feeling it). From the little fantasy books that I’ve read, I know that there’s a lot more imagery involved than contemporary novels. I’m pleased to say that the imagery was handled well, not too overwhelming but really paints a picture in your mind.

Speaking of its fanfic-ish vibe, the budding romance between Scarlett and Julian was a bit too much for me to handle at some points. Granted, the book is much more than their romance, but the parts in which Scarlett is affected by Julian’s “charming good looks and dashing personality” grow very tiring very quickly for me and I found it quite unrealistic. A lot of damsel in distress vibes that I’m not really into. Even the characters individual personalities were not something that was very desirable in the first place. I mean, I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t necessarily love them either.

Now onto the good stuff. I really liked the entire concept of the Caraval, especially the whole idea of blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This is a very smart theme to incorporate into a story and must have taken the author a lot of planning and storyboarding in order for it all to even out and make sense in the end, so props to Garber on that. It made me feel very immersed in the story since as a reader I was just as clueless about the world as Scarlett was. It kept me on my toes and I appreciate that in a book.

The ending tied things up nicely, even though some scenes leading up to it were somewhat confusing. Although by the time I shut the book most of my major questions were answered yet an air of mystery remained around Caraval that leaves you wanting more. It had a solid cliffhanger that leads nicely to another book, which makes sense since it’s the sequel came out about a year and a half later.

I’m planning on expanding my reading repertoire into some more fantasy based novels, and I think this was a decent introduction to the genre. In regards to me reading the sequel and eventually the last novel in this trilogy, I probably will sometime in the future. It’s not high on my list, but I’ll most likely get to it eventually. I mean, who doesn’t love a good ol’ trilogy?

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December’s Poem of the Month

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

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

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

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

Bury What We Cannot Take: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women Talking: Book Review

Women Talking by Miriam Toews published in 2018.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November’s Poem of the Month

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

Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

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