Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien

“But what was music? … Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothes, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her. Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of sections, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations?

“Her father looked at the piano as if it were the only solid thing in the room, as if everything and everyone else, including himself, were no more than an illusion, a dream.”

Madeleine Thein’s novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is responsible for the biggest shift in my opinion of a book that I have ever experienced. I purchased this book in a Boxing Day sale and finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago. At first, I had a hard time getting interested in the story. It took me about 130 pages to really start to enjoy it, but I’m glad I persevered longer than usual. Once I got into it, I couldn’t read the rest of this story fast enough. This book is outstanding.

This novel moves back and forth between two stories: Marie, her mother, and their mysterious houseguest Ai-ming in 1990s Vancouver and China leading up to and during Mao’s Cultural Revolution with the story of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli. Like I mentioned, I had a difficult time getting into Marie and her mother’s story. I found it a bit confusing and slow to start, with the movement back and forth in time adding to my disorientation. Since the novel makes many mentions of the “Book of Records,” I had some trouble deciding whether the sections that were not about Marie’s life were stories of her family’s past or stories from this book. The Chinese names also tangled me up a bit as I found myself forgetting who was who, and how everyone was related to one another. That being said, once I got into the style, I become completely immersed in the story of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli. The writing in these sections is absolutely vivid. I can’t remember the last time I felt “in” the story as much as I did with this novel. It felt like I was right there with the characters, which was enthralling.

One of my favourite aspects of this story is its focus on musicians. This story includes beautiful discussions of music and performance that were very touching to me. I’m not sure if some of the more technical parts would be lost on individuals with little or no musical background, but as someone who has studied music for about 15 years, these sections described music perfectly. I typically do not like books that discuss music this much because it is often over-the-top in its discussions of how much impact music has on the lives of the characters. Here, Thien gets it exactly right. Music is central to these characters’ identities, but she never makes the point of saying this explicitly. In this story, music is the common thread that enables these characters to cope in a difficult time and find beauty in a world that is otherwise falling apart around them. The music is inextricable from the characters and central to the way they see themselves and the world in which they live. Thein expresses this with stunningly poetic writing.

Similar to its focus on music as a means of coping with difficult times, this novel also brings literature to the foreground as a key way the characters are able to communicate throughout the story. The Book of Records was a way several families were able to correspond despite strict censorship and to maintain a link to their lives before the revolution. This struck me as a particularly powerful message.

I also really enjoyed the use of written Chinese characters throughout the book. Thein includes the written characters along with their meanings and the ways they can be combined to mean something completely different. This was completely new to me and I found it fascinating!

You might have noticed that I have said very little about the actual plot of this novel. I went into this story only having read the synopsis flap on my copy, which gives away very little. After reading this novel I agree that seeing this complex, heartbreaking story unfold across generations and continents is the reason this novel is as beautiful as it is. It is safe to say that Madeline Thein will join the list of authors whose sections I visit every time I go into a bookstore, just to see if there is something new.

Story: 9/10

Writing: 10/10

After Dark

After Dark

Haruki Murakami

“Unimpeded by other schemes, this hint of things to come takes time to expand in the new morning light, and we attempt to watch it unobtrusively, with deep concentration. The night has begun to open up at last. There will be time until the next darkness arrives.”

I decided to read this book after seeing it in an independent bookshop that invites its customers to post short reviews (on sticky-notes) on books. This novel had several excellent reviews attached to it and, when I picked it up, I thought the synopsis sounded intriguing because the entire story takes place over the course of one night. Unfortunately, this novel didn’t live up to the expectations set by those cute sticky-note reviews.

In this novel, a girl in her late teens, Mari, is at Denny’s alone in the middle of the night, reading. A boy about her age (Tetsuya) comes in and recognizes her as his friend’s sister. He sits down and the two get to talking. Over the course of the night, their stories entwine and we find Mari tangled up in a complex web of underground music, love motels and criminals.

It took me a long time to get into this book. I think the novel was a bit heavy on surrealism to suit my taste. The plot seemed over the top – excessively fantastic – to me. It wasn’t really believable and, while reading the story, I felt like it was trying a too hard to be exciting. I was expecting more of a calm plot: the experience of being alone in the city at night. This book’s dreamlike style didn’t do it for me.

The sub-plot of Mari’s sister, Eri, was initially intriguing but I got irritated that we never really learn anything more about the situation than what is presented when we first meet her. I won’t say anything to ruin the story, but I will say I lost interest in seeing the same scene again and again without anything new being revealed. Maybe it was supposed to be suspenseful, but it didn’t really come across that way to me.

While this story does only cover the period of one night, I think there could have been a lot more character development throughout in the story. We don’t learn much about Mari even with the questions Tetsuya asks her while their friendship develops over the course of the night. We also don’t learn much about Tetsuya himself, about Kaoru, (who works at the love motel), about the businessman who visits the motel and injures a young woman or, like I mentioned earlier, about Mari’s sister. I think I would have liked this story better if it had been a little less plot driven and more character driven; especially since it takes place at night when everything seems a bit more magical even without any added surrealism.

Overall I really like the idea of this book but I wanted to like the story more than I actually did. This was a great idea that wasn’t executed in the way I was expecting and, for that reason, it did not really speak to me.

Story: 5/10

Writing: 7/10

White Noise

White Noise

Don DeLillo

“That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We’d never before been so attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored . . . watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass advancing of lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.”

How had I never heard of Don DeLillo before coming across this book?! DeLillo’s novel was a breath of fresh air. For me, this was the perfect blend of plot and characters with a complex underlying social commentary. I loved every minute of this deeply funny and profoundly philosophical read.

White Noise follows Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at an elite liberal arts college in the American mid-west, and his family through a modern world of consumerism and technology. When an “airborne toxic event” plagues the town, chaos ensues, allowing DeLillo to carefully criticize the various responses to the disaster and those affected for the first time by a more visible version of the “white noise” hovering above this typical American town.

The writing in this novel is exquisite. The narrative is simple, intentional and effective. There is no fluff here. DeLillo’s ability to write dialogue is showcased in this novel through thrilling and conversations between Jack and the various members of his inner-circle: fellow academic Murray, his fourth wife Babette and his children, especially Heinrich and Denise.

Jack is very much an unreliable narrator – a technique that is very effective in inviting its reader to engage with they story and notice the inconsistencies, contradictions and ironies that make this a deeply witty and satirical novel. To me, Jack was not a likeable character. Thinking about it now, none of the characters were particularly “likeable” in the regular sense. Jack is insecure, terrified of death and ignorant of his sexist ways; Murray is manipulative and exhausting; Heinrich is skeptical to the point of fatigue; the list goes on and on. Despite these traits, I felt deeply connected with each of these characters. It was easy to see little bits of myself in each of these characters doing their best to navigate a complicated, ever-changing world.

This novel criticizes every aspect of modern life, from gender and sexuality, to consumerism, to academia, to technology, to identity, to pharmaceuticals, to gun violence, to family relationships, to media, to race – it’s all here and it is astutely realized. While it might be easy to assume a novel that attempts to comment on each of these aspects in a complex and intelligent way might become tiresome, that was not the case here. Originally published in 1984, the story is a relevant now as it was then. Endlessly appealing with its professor of Hitler studies, its toxic chemical cloud, its adultery, its atheist German nuns and its complex examination of humanity’s fear of death, White Noise should be, in my opinion, required reading.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Tenth of December

Tenth of December

George Saunders

“Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.”

George Saunders’ short story collection, Tenth of December, is an absolute treat. George Saunders is another incredible author of whom I had never heard until I stumbled across this collection on a New York Times book list. I am glad it caught my eye.

Saunders’ collection brings us to worlds that are both recognizable and unfamiliar. They introduce a world like our own but then introduce elements that confuse us. The stories enter an alternate reality – one that is so close to being true that it is unsettling and beautiful at the same time. These alternate worlds, such as those in “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” do not announce their alternate realities outright. Instead, the stories develop in sometimes confusing ways until we realize that what is going on is not something that we would see walking down our own streets. The focus on this type of story, maybe best described as exaggerated realism, is one of my favourite aspects of this collection. The stories draw on elements of science fiction and place us in a new version of our contemporary world that is thought provoking and darkly funny.

George Saunders has a remarkable talent for narration and the development of different perspectives and voices. The voices he chooses allow us into the minds of individuals we might not otherwise relate to or connect with. Despite the extremely questionable decisions and actions of many of the characters in this collection, I found myself empathizing with them and actually really liking them. Many of the stories in this collection look at issues of ethics and morals and, while the rightness or wrongness of a specific action is quite clear, the reader is often invited to make an evaluation about the narrator and what their own choices might be in a similar situation. In this way, the exploration of empathy is also central to this collection.

The stories in this collection touch on dark and difficult issues: sexual assault, parental abuse, human exploitation and medical experimentation, to name a few. While stories involving these types of issues could be very difficult to read, I found that the humorous narrative style and the focus on the human elements of the stories and characters made the stories lighter than I might have otherwise expected. This is not to say that these stories are light – they are complex and provocative in the way they address these issues.

This collection shows a deep interest in the working middle-class American who struggles to keep up appearances and strive for the American Dream that is always just slightly out of reach. We can all relate to this struggle, I think, to some extent. More than anything else in this collection, I found that Saunders crafted a non-judgmental space that does not dismiss the troubles of the “middle” people; those who, despite hard work, cannot attain all that they desire, but who also know they should feel lucky in their position of relative privilege. In Tenth of December, George Saunders highlights the importance of seeing from the perspectives of others, and, while still thinking about them critically, of looking at these positions generously. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and recommend it highly!

Stories: 10/10
Writing: 10/10

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Mona Awad

“’Cute,’ she says. But this means nothing. To Trixie, even the apocalypse is cute. Scorched earth. Galloping black horses foaming at the mouth. The shadow of the scythe-wielding dealer of Fate bearing down on her. All super cute.

But the dress isn’t.”

I am torn about this one. I had heard great things about this book, but when I finally picked it up, I had a really difficult time getting into it. I kept reading thinking I would get invested in the story, but I can’t say that that happened. I will say that Lizzie’s story did grow on me eventually, but, overall it didn’t quite live up to all the hype.

This book follows the life of Lizzie, an overweight girl from Mississauga (affectionately called “Misery Saga”) while she grows up and navigates her complex relationship with food, her mother, her friends and the various men she meets over the course of her life.

This book is somewhere between a novel and a short-story collection that is all based on the same main character. Each of the thirteen chapters focuses on one moment in Lizzie’s life; the book jumps from episode to episode in a fragmented sort of way. At first, I was confused by this style and I actually didn’t know the first few chapters were all about Lizzie – I thought we were switching between several characters. Once I figured out what was happening, it was easier to follow but I found the story pretty disjointed and I wonder if this is one of the reasons I had a hard time really getting interested in this book.

After reflecting on this for a few weeks I think the main reason I had trouble with this book is because it is unflinchingly honest. I think it made me a bit uncomfortable because I didn’t want to believe that Lizzie’s experiences were genuine, but deep down I know that women (and men) experience these things every single day. Lizzie is obsessed with her weight and she constantly compares herself to other women (no matter what her weight is at the time) with envy and anger. After she starts “losing,” she realizes that she isn’t happy at any weight: she either wants to be thinner or larger. A small aside … I thought it was very interesting that Lizzie refers to her weight loss as “losing” rather than “losing weight.” She doesn’t actually specify what she is losing … She also repeatedly bonds with other women over a mutual hatred or jealousy of a different woman. Lizzie has an incredibly complicated relationship with her mother, whose validation (or lack thereof) is very damaging. I think that, to some extent, everyone can relate to one or more of these aspects of Lizzie’s life.

Throughout reading this book I was so irritated by many of the characters that I almost gave up more than once. From Lizzie’s mother, to her friends Mel and China, to Rob and Archibald, I just really didn’t like many of the characters in these stories. The people Lizzie surrounds herself with are just so cruel and annoying and I found this a bit off-putting.

The number of cringe-worthy moments in this book is staggering. The second-hand embarrassment I felt for Lizzie began in the first chapter at that fated McDonalds and did not stop for most of the book. I think Awad does an amazing job of creating this ongoing tension and unease in her readers as they worry about what will happen to this poor girl next. My favourite moments in the entire book are those that take place in dressing rooms. These scenes describe the experience of trying on clothes in a store with incredible accuracy. While visiting a fitting room might not seem like an overly traumatic experience, no matter what size you are I am sure you have had some misfortunate moments in a dressing room. These moments are deeply funny and I have re-read them several times.

At first, I was worried this book was going to be very offensive. I just had this terrible feeling that it would make me feel very uncomfortable. It did, but for reasons that were very different from what I expected. Maybe I am unsettled in my review of this book because Awad got it exactly right. It is uncomfortable to face the truth that body image has a profound impact on everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a size 4 or a size 24, we have all had days we wish we could just curl up in sweatpants and not leave the house. I think that, by tackling these issues head on with humour and uncompromising honesty, Mona Awad gives us the chance to see these issues through a different set of eyes and gives us a way to start a larger conversation about the implications of the stories in her book.

Story: 6/10

Writing: 8/10

Small Admissions

Small Admissions

Amy Poeppel

“’Don’t fall in love with applicants. Just because you love them doesn’t mean we can take them and just because we take them doesn’t mean they’ll come.’
‘I don’t think I’m likely to care all that much.’
‘That would be an asset if it’s true, but we’ll have to wait and see.’
Kate stopped scribbling and looked up at her. ‘I’m going to get fired.’”

Small Admissions was exactly what I needed to get out of a reading slump! After the holidays I started several books but got distracted or bored before I even hit the halfway point. At first, I thought it was the books, but then I realized it was probably my own issue. I had heard about this new novel and decided it might be just the thing to clear my head and put me back in the reading mood. I was right!

This novel follows Kate Pearson, a bright young academic, through a particularly rough period in her life. After being dumped by her French beau, Kate takes to pyjamas and her couch and nothing seems to be able to break her cycle of despair. When Kate’s sister sets her up on an interview for a position as an admissions assistant at an elite New York City private school, everything changes. Despite the embarrassing and completely unprofessional impression Kate makes at the interview, she is given the job. Navigating through the elite boarding school world of rich parents and bratty kids gets Kate back on her feet professionally and romantically in this funny and charming read.

This novel is simple and easy to follow, the characters seem real but not particularly complex and the writing is clear and effective. While this story isn’t one that is likely to stay with me very long after finishing it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked how the dynamics between Kate and her sister, parents and friends changed and evolved in surprising ways over the course of the novel. There were quite a few twists that I was not expecting, which made this quite a fun read. I also really enjoyed the inside look at the rich, entitled parents willing to do just about anything to ensure their child gets a spot in the top schools. My favourite aspect of the novel was the letters and application forms that were included from the various students applying to the private school Kate works for. The letters are charming, bratty and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. They do an excellent job of showing another side of this story.

One thing that initially bothered me while reading Small Admissions was the seemingly stereotypical image of the smart, nerdy girl who falls apart over a man and is unable to pull herself together and move on. Without spoiling too much of the story I can say that this particular quibble was somewhat resolved later on in the book.

I was also bothered by the book’s representation of mental health. While it was pretty clear to me that Kate was troubled by severe mental health issues early on in the novel, many of the characters make comments to the effect of “get over it,” “move on,” “stop moping around” and “just get back on your feet.” While two of the private school parents do receive one form of therapy in this novel, no mention is ever made of Kate seeking professional help or of her friends making a suggestion to this effect. I’m not saying this novel should have been an advertisement for mental health awareness and support, but its treatment of these issues didn’t sit quite right with me.

All in all, this book came to me at the perfect time. I read it in a day and it definitely got me out of my slump. While the story is not perfect, it is charming and interesting in ways I did not expect. This is definitely one to toss into your beach bag for a little light reading in-between your adventures this summer.

Story: 6/10
Writing: 7/10

Light

Light

Souvankham Thammavongsa

“They said the / eyes were the size of ‘dinner plates’ and / could absorb a great amount of light. Why / this was important had something to do with / where it lived, where there was no light at all.”

Thammavongsa’s newest poetry collection, Light, is absolutely beautiful.

Like this collection, my review will be short and sweet. These poems make everyday objects and experiences fresh, beautiful and exciting in ways I never thought possible. Thammavongsa takes topics like parsley, a dung beetle and a straight line and crafts them into complex and moving poems.

It strikes me that this collection is very modest. The poetry is accessible and clean. It is not complicated for the sake of being complicated and it does not sneer at those who, like myself, are not familiar with very much poetry. Reading this poetry feels calm.

This collection is also physically beautiful. It is lovely to hold this book. I have learned that Thammavongsa hand-selects the paper for her collections and I believe she has impeccable taste. The paper is textured and creamy and makes the book feel important and well thought-out.

The poems in Light play with shape and form, and sometimes the empty space on the page is just as beautiful as the ink. As a musician, I have often been told to make the rests beautiful; to make music in silence. Thammavongsa is a master of creating beauty in nothingness.

While this collection can easily be read in one setting, each poem reveals more detail and more intricate insights with each reading. For a collection with so few words, Light offers immensity to its reader.

Rating: 10/10

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz

“If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.”

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it: I didn’t love this novel. There are several reasons why this book wasn’t my cup of tea, but first: a bit about the plot.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows “ghetto nerd” Oscar De León through his, you guessed it, brief and wondrous life. Oscar, whose mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic, grows up in New Jersey with his sister Lola and his mother and tries to navigate the woes of young adulthood as a dorky, overweight lover of all things “nerd.” His main mission in life is to find a girlfriend. Because life isn’t hard enough for Oscar, we also see the effects of the fukú, or the “curse of the New World” on Oscar and his family throughout their lives. This story is narrated by Oscar’s college roommate, Yunior, and features flashbacks to stories from his sister Lola, his mother Beli and his grandfather Aberald, which unfold together revealing a complex story of family, politics, love and violence both in the Dominican Republic and in New Jersey. The text also includes numerous footnotes from Yunior, providing his own commentary on the politics behind the story he is telling.

The main issue I have with this novel is the narrator, Yunior. I know there are some people who love him, some who hate him. I am definitely leaning toward the latter of the two. Yunior is a womanizing narrator whose commentary exhausted me. While I have read opinions that his humour helped lighten up an otherwise dark and intense story, I found his narration to be more of an assault on the story than a relief from it. To me, Yunior’s narration took away from this novel.

Another reason I didn’t really enjoy this book is as simple as this: I found that I didn’t really like any of the characters. I could sympathize with them, they had relatable quirks and some relatable experiences but, for whatever reason, I did not find myself falling for Oscar or his family. I read this book about three months ago and I am still unable to put my finger on exactly why this is the case, but we just didn’t connect.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao includes numerous references to “nerd” pop culture. For me, these references were another reason I found myself tiring of this novel. While I am a self-proclaimed book nerd, I admittedly have not seen Star Wars, Star Trek or the Marvel or DC movies (I haven’t read the comic books, either). There are tons of references to superheroes, comic books and video games that were completely lost on me throughout this book. Early on, I was looking up these references to understand the comparisons they were making, but this got too time-consuming and about a quarter of the way through the book I gave up and started to skim those sections.

Similarly, I found the use of Spanish slang a bit off-putting. I understand why Díaz made the choice to incorporate so much Spanish and Dominican slang in the novel, and I think it was a bold and rewarding choice. Intentionally alienating, I think this technique was a bit excessive for my own personal taste. Clearly, I am not in the majority when I say this feature was off-putting – North American audiences loved this book despite not being able to understand all of the words in it; the novel sold like crazy and won the Pulitzer Prize. For me, I felt like I was missing too much in the sections that are written in Spanish. I don’t know any Spanish, so I used Google Translate hoping that it would illuminate some of the meaning. I found that so much slang is used that most phrases are not translatable with Google. Again, I gave up on trying to uncover the meaning of these sections early on in the narrative.

Despite my many reasons I disliked this novel, there are definitely aspects of it that I liked. I loved the narrative choice of starting with Oscar and working our way backward through his family history and through Dominican Republic history. The novel blended a smaller family’s experience with a nation’s larger experience, giving a face to the political events unfolding in the background. This was very effective.

I also loved the historical detail provided in the novel. In an early footnote (page 3 in my edition), Yunior makes an astute point: “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history . . .” Díaz knows that a large part of his audience will know very little, if anything at all, about the history that underscores his novel. He provides rich detail and commentary about the Trujillo regime and its effects on the Dominican Republic and its citizens both at home and abroad. I found this history fascinating.

Finally, I loved the footnotes. While I mentioned my feelings about Yunior earlier in this post, I will admit that the footnotes are my favourite part of this novel. For whatever reason, I found the irony, satire and humour in the extended footnotes enthralling and I very much enjoyed this aspect of the narrative style.

While this novel didn’t do it for me, I would highly recommend that you give it a fair chance. Despite my grievances, this is an incredibly well written and well-put-together book that tells a story from which we can all learn. Alongside the complex history of the Dominican Republic throughout the twentieth century and beyond, this novel addresses issues of gender, sexuality, body image, mental health, family relationships, romantic relationships, politics, writing, pop culture; the list goes on and on.

If nothing here has piqued your attention, let’s try this: after reading this novel I learned that the audiobook version is narrated by the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway show Hamilton. (Seriously, if you haven’t heard the cast recording of Hamilton, please visit iTunes right now. This review can wait. Everything else can wait.) I am now very tempted to buy the audiobook version of this book to give it another try . . .

Story: 5/10

Writing: 9/10