Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

Title: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Publisher: Harper, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 262 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction/Historical Fiction
Started: February 24, 2019
Finished: March 10, 2019

From the back cover:

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tatowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Late witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism - but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov's experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

I've heard plenty of hype about this novel for a while now, and since I was in the middle of a Judaism and Holocaust unit with one of my classes, I felt in the right mood, so to speak, to tackle reading a Holocaust book.

Lale Sokolov, the namesake tattooist of the book, was actually known by the author for several years before he died. She recorded his story, which later became a novel. There has been some discrepancy over some of the information presented in the book, hence why I listed it as both non-fiction and historical fiction. The author herself says she does not tout the book as an academic piece of non-fiction, and that she has in fact changed certain details for creative license, so just a heads up for those reading it currently or who may read it in the future.

On to what I disliked, just because it's glaringly obvious within the first few pages by anyone who reads it. The author isn't actually a novelist, she's a screenwriter. In fact, the novel was written first as a screenplay and later adapted into a novel. It shows. The writing is very straightforward and relies heavily on dialogue. This makes it more engaging to a wide audience of people, but it also leaves much to be desired by those who expect a bit more from their reading. I feel like this would make for a great film or television series, but as a book, it falls flat.

The plot is engrossing enough to make it through, but I didn't feel very invested in Lale's story. It feels bad to say that, given that it isn't a "story" at all and it really did happen, but it's true. I think that this is just a case of good source material that just should've been put in someone else's hands. The themes of perseverance and having hope in the worst of situations are wonderful and very relevant to today's readers, it's just too bad the overall package wasn't presented as well as it could've been.

A wonderful, yet horrific story that should be read. It's unfortunate that the source material wasn't given the best treatment in book form, but I can hold out hope of a film version.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it better than some other covers floating around, this one depicts a more serious tone.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Girls of Paper and Fire - Natasha Ngan

Title: Girls of Paper and Fire
Author: Natasha Ngan
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson Books (Little, Brown and Company), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 23, 2019
Finished: February 1, 2019

From the inside cover:

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the King. It's the highest honour they could hope for...and the most demeaning. This year, there's a ninth. And instead of paper, she's made of fire.

Lei is of the Paper caste, the lowest class in Ikhara. Even so, rumours of her golden eyes have piqued the King's interest. and so she is ripped from her home and taken to the opulent palace, a gilded prison, her life now beholden to the Demon King's every whim.

But as Lei dreams of escape, the does the unthinkable: she falls in love. Her forbidden romance, enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the King's very reign, will force Lei to decide just how far she's willing to go to fight for her freedom.

Lush, poetic, and utterly unforgettable, Girls of Paper and Fire is an extraordinary tale, reminding us that pure love and passion can transcend even the bleakest of fates.

This novel has such promise to it. A fantasy land inspired by a variety of Asian cultures complete with a female Asian protagonist, class warfare between magical demons and humans, stirrings of rebellion, and an LGBTQ relationship. For the most part I enjoyed the story with the exception of a few (albeit glaring) things.

The story's world building is quite impressive. You have a fantasy realm that is inspired by a melding of several recognizable Asian cultures: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian. That same fantasy realm is inhabited by three castes: human (paper), demon (moon) and human-demon hybrid (steel), ruled over by the demon King. There's hundreds of years of political history and alliances to familiarize yourself with, and at the core you have humans oppressed by the demon upper class.

Lei, our protagonist, is sympathetic enough. With a previously captured (and presumed dead) mother, and an attitude strong enough to resist the injustices put upon her, readers generally want her to succeed and flee the situation she is in before she can be assaulted and raped by the King like the other girls.

I like the variety showcased in the book. The cultural references were fun to pinpoint and identify, all the girls had different, well-developed personalities, and I noticed how they each had an identifiable coping mechanism for their assault and rape. Lei fights back, Aoki tries to placate the King, and Chenna and Wren seem to detach and accept that this is something they just can't escape at the moment.

I also like that the novel is hopeful in that something horrific like assault and rape isn't the end of the story: that it is possible to rise above the horrific circumstances in one's life.

The things I didn't like were small, yet nagging. Lei's attraction to and subsequent relationship with Wren is an affirming example of a healthy lesbian relationship. We need more examples of affirming LGBTQ diversity in YA novels. And yet, the relationship as presented just wasn't really that believable in my opinion. When Lei suddenly admits to herself that she has feelings for Wren, there's no prior interactions with Wren or any other clues to suggest that Lei not only identifies as a lesbian, but that she even thinks of Wren in a romantic way. At that point in the story, an attraction to Aoki would make more sense, her interactions with Wren can be chalked up to curiosity and not much else.  You could read into them as attraction, but it would be a hard sell.

The whole plot thread about trying to assassinate the King starts to make less sense as it progresses. Wren is suddenly removed from the palace, so Lei is recruited to do the deed despite the fact that she's not a trained martial artist. Wren shows up anyway, so it seems like it was facilitated just to have Lei play a part in the assassination.

This book is the first in a trilogy, so I will likely give the subsequent novels a try to see if any of these issues factor in to my opinion of said books.

Not as amazing as it could have been, but worth the read anyway.

Thoughts on the cover:
Just gorgeous. I love how Lei's eyes and hair has metallic accents to really make the fire in the image pop.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Dark Between Stars - Atticus

Title: The Dark Between Stars
Author: Atticus
Publisher: Atria Paperback (Simon & Schuster), 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 228 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Poetry
Started: January 1, 2019
Finished: January 1, 2019

From the back cover:

In his second collection of poems, Atticus turns his attention to the dualities of a lived experiences - the inescapable connections between our highest highs and lowest lows. He captures the infectious energy of starting a relationship, the tumultuous realities of commitment, and the agonizing nostalgia of being alone again. While grappling with the question of how to live with purpose and find meaning in the journey, these poems offer both honest explorations of loneliness and our search for connection, as well as lighthearted, humorous observations. As Atticus writes poignantly about dancing, Paris, jazz clubs, sunsets, sharing a bottle of wine on the river, rainy days, creating, and destroying, he illustrates that we need moments of both beauty and pain - the darkness and the stars - to fully appreciate all that life and love have to offer.

After reading Atticus' first book, I immediately followed up with his second, released just a few months ago. Thankfully my issue with the first book - that it was all sweetness without any darkness - is resolved for the most part here. The poems are still mainly romantic and optimistic, but there's a nice variety with this new instalment.

If you have a choice between the author's first book of collected poems or this second one, I'd definitely go with the second.

Thoughts on the cover:
The photo for the second cover is more aesthetically pleasing (at least in my opinion) than the first cover's.

Love Her Wild - Atticus

Title: Love Her Wild
Author: Atticus
Publisher: Atria Paperback (Simon & Schuster), 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Poetry
Started: January 1, 2019
Finished: January 1, 2019

From the back of the book:

With honesty, poignancy, and romantic flare, Love Her Wild captures what is both raw and relatable about the smallest and the grandest moments in life: the first glimpse of a new love, a late-night drive singing along to a car radio, the irrepressible exuberance of the female spirit, the simple pleasure of a good whiskey. Atticus distills the most exhilarating highs and the heartbreaking lows of life and love into a few short lines, ensuring that his words will become etched in your mind  - and will awaken your sense of adventure.

I've been on a bit of a poetry kick lately; I read and enjoyed Nikita Gill and Rupi Kaur, and figured it was time to read more. After seeing a news feature of Atticus on CBC, I was intrigued and decided to buy his books. The endorsements on the back of the book are from Teen Vogue and Karlie Kloss, so I was a little concerned that his poetry would be a bit juvenile, but I would classify it as more blissfully naive than juvenile.

Atticus' poetry, at least in this first book, mostly revolves around love and romance. The poems read as penned by someone in their 20s who hasn't really experienced deep heartbreak or any kind of devastating loss, or if he has, then he just hasn't included anything about that subject matter in this collection. It's all very endearing and optimistic, and perhaps I'm a bit too old and jaded to really enjoy a whole book full of pure love and optimism without seeing much of the other side of things. I can see why teens and young adults love his stuff though, it's like a literary shot of oxytocin.

This first collection is enjoyable, but I'm not sure if it's one I would re-read. Perhaps the second collection will be a bit more varied in the subject matter.

Thoughts on the cover:
The photography that accompanies the poems is sometimes quite stunning, and the cover is an example of what you'll see throughout the book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Give a Boy a Gun - Todd Strasser

Title: Give a Boy a Gun
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR (Paperback), 2012 (originally published in 2000)
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 10, 2018
Finished: December 11, 2018

From the back cover:

For as long as they can remember, Brendan and Gary have been mercilessly teased and harassed by the jocks who rule Middletown High. But not anymore. Stealing a small arsenal of guns from a neighbour, they take their classmates hostage at a school dance. In the panic of this desperate situation, it soon becomes clear that only one thing matters to Brendan and Gary: revenge.

I hadn't known that this book was actually published shortly after the Columbine shooting while I was still in high school. I think it would've been beneficial for me to have read it back then to help me make sense of things at the time.

As a teacher, every time we practice lock down drills I always explain to my classes about Columbine (it happened before any of them were ever born), and how that is the reason we now do these drills. Kids today are unfortunately so used to hearing about shootings, they're often surprised when I tell them that it wasn't long ago that they were relatively rare, and that being a teenager when Columbine occurred was a defining moment for my generation.

You can tell that this book is heavily influenced by Columbine: it takes place around the same time, the high school and town's name is very close to the name of the Colorado town where the shooting occurred, and the characters in the book even reference the Columbine shooters by name.

I appreciate that the author delves into multiple perspectives on the same incident by including statements from parents, teachers, classmates, counsellors, neighbours, etc. You see that kids can indeed fall through the cracks: there are details missed by one party that another picks up on, but there's no recourse or system to keep track of things like this and it goes by the wayside. It definitely strikes a chord with me as a teacher when we hit a wall with something related to a kid and can't help beyond a certain point because we've done all we're legally allowed to do.

The only part of this novel that I think hasn't aged well is the technology aspect. When this book was first published in 2000, smartphones didn't exist. We had cellphones back then, but they were basic Nokia-type bricks, not mini-computers that you could text message, record video, take photos, and search the internet. The widespread use of smartphones has definitely changed the landscape of today,  especially the invention of social media, and this novel's absence of it really does reinforce how things have changed in the past 10-15 years.

This is a heavy story, but an important one. There are other books about school shootings that are more reflective of recent years, but I'd argue that this one is still important because it's indicative of the time in which it occurred.

Thoughts on the cover:
Seemingly benign until you notice the red dots on the figures.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Fed Up - Gemma Hartley

Title: Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward
Author: Gemma Hartley
Publisher: HarperOne, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 252 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction, Parenting
Started: December 3, 2018
Finished: December 10, 2018

From Gemma Hartley, the journalist who ignited a national conversation on emotional labour, comes Fed Up, a bold dive into the unpaid, invisible work women have shouldered for too long - and an impassioned vision for creating a better future for us all.

Day in, day out, women anticipate and manage the needs of others. In relationships, we initiate the hard conversations. At home, we shoulder the mental load required to keep our households running. At work, we moderate our tone, explaining patiently and speaking softly. In the world, we step gingerly to keep ourselves safe. We do this largely invisible, draining work whether we want to or not - and we never clock out. No wonder women everywhere are overtaxed, exhausted, and simply fed up.

In her ultra-viral article "Women Aren't Nags - We're Just Fed Up," shared by millions of readers, Gemma Hartley gave much-needed voice to the frustration and anger experienced by countless women. Now, in Fed Up, Hartley expands outward from the everyday frustrations of performing thankless emotional labour to illuminate how the expectation to do this work in all arenas - private and public - fuels gender inequality, limits our opportunities, steals out time, and adversely affects the quality of our lives.

More than just name the problem, though, Hartley teases apart the cultural messaging that had led us here and asks how we can shift the load. Rejecting easy solutions that don't ultimately move the needle, Hartley offers a nuanced insightful guide to striking true balance, for true partnership in every aspect of our lives. Reframing emotional labour not as a problem to be overcome, but as a genderless virtue men and women can all learn to channel in our quest to make a better, more egalitarian world, Fed Up is surprising, intelligent, and empathetic essential reading for every woman who has had enough with feeling fed up.

I remember when this author's aforementioned viral article released. I eagerly shared it, amazed that there was actually a name for this nagging frustration I experienced as a woman, something that every woman I know has experienced but we often pass it off as "just the way things are."

I remember asking my mom as a teenager why we (the women in the family) always had the job of zipping around the kitchen fetching items for guests at our home on holidays (normally thought of as being good hosts) while my father wasn't expected to do the same. I can't even remember the exact answer she gave me, but I know it didn't satisfy my teenaged self. Now, my father has improved over the years, but there are still so many aspects of emotional labour that my mother is expected to perform on behalf of both of them (especially in our Italian family), and that I am expected to perform as mother to my child that isn't expected of her father.

Emotional labour as a term is confusing to those that haven't heard it before, but all I have to do is describe the ever-present, "Why am I the only person in this house who notices the toilet paper roll/garbage/random bag needs to be changed/taken out/brought upstairs?!" scenario for women to nod their heads in instant understanding. I did this, in fact, in my workroom with my colleagues the other day when they asked about the book I was reading. This led to an entire conversation about emotional labour, which we as a room of female educators (as well as wives and mothers) are intimately familiar.

The author does a great job of describing emotional labour to her readers, with anecdotes that will have many women nodding their heads in sympathy. She also has chapters entailing how we got to this current state (not-so sarcastic hint: patriarchy and misogyny) and how to better achieve balance between the sexes and emotional labour at home and in the workforce. It's true that some men, like many single fathers, do the bulk of or all of the emotional labour in their families because they've been forced to through circumstance; but in order for change to occur for the majority of men, it's the expectation of men not just "helping" but actually "sharing" the work of emotional labour that will help fuel the change in people's relationships.

This is a must-read (as well as the article linked above), if for nothing else than having a wonderfully cathartic experience. In my case, though, it was a bit rage-inducing when I empathized with nearly all the examples put forth in this book to the point where I wanted to chuck the book against the wall....but it's fine, really, it's fine, I'm fine, totally fine.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's very utilitarian, but it gets the job done.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Hey, Kiddo - Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Title: Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction
Author: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel; Nonfiction
Started: November 20, 2018
Finished: November 21, 2018

From the back cover:

In preschool, Jarrett Krosoczka's teacher asked him to draw his family with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett's family was much, much more complicated than that. His mom was an addict, in and out of rehab and in and out of Jarrett's life. His father was a mystery - Jarrett didn't know where to find him, or even what his name was. Jarrett was living with his grandparents - two very brash, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children...until Jarrett came along.

Now Jarrett's a teenager. He's gone through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through art despite the fact that he's grown up in a house where many things remain unsaid. It's only when he's old enough to to have his driver's license that Jarrett can begin to piece together the truth of his family - reckoning with his mother, tracking down his father, and finding his own identity.

Hey, Kiddo is a profoundly important memoir about growing up in a family as it grapples with addiction, finding the people who help you get through, and the art that helps you survive.

When I read the write-up for this months ago, I knew I had to read it. This is one of those really touching stories about a kid overcoming some immensely adverse circumstances, and the fact that this is a memoir just makes it all the more remarkable.

Jarrett begins the book by outlining the history of his mother's family, starting with his grandparents' first meeting in high school. As he progresses through the decades, he outlines his mother's early troubled history, his own birth and early childhood, and the factors that lead to him living with his grandparents.

The author does a wonderful job of conveying exactly how his mother's addiction affected him growing up. Though he admits as an adult he came to understand her limitations and that she did in fact love him, it doesn't necessarily lessen the impact of that trauma during his formative years. I also appreciate how he mentions in the afterword that therapy helped him tremendously as an adult and how it would have been beneficial during his youth, but therapy just wasn't as accepted or commonplace during the 80s and early 90s like it is now.

I also like how he subtly works in how his grandmother's drinking affected the family, beyond the fact that addiction tends to run in families. Even though his grandmother loved him too, that addiction impacted his life in different ways than his mother's, his grandmother being more emotionally or verbally abusive rather than neglectful like his mother. It showcases that addiction can still persist in what appears to be stable, loving fixtures.

You can tell this piece was cathartic for the author to create, it has this sense of synthesizing this lived experience as an adult and trying to package it in a way that could help kids today that he wished he had as a child. The little details like the letters, photos, and drawings all help reinforce the reality of the experience (not to mention the fact that the author managed a ton of stuff from his childhood years).

This memoir is truly heartfelt and can be a story of hope for so many who are in similar circumstances. This is a volume that should be in every high school library.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover's much brighter in terms of colour than the artwork inside (the author has a nice note at the end explaining the reasons behind that), but the orange tones work well against the bright blue pineapple wallpaper behind Jarrett (there's a note about the symbolism of that as well).