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My Bookshelf 10: The Last Half Dozen - Here's Some Quality Reading!

Winter has seemed to drag on here on the prairies but that just means extra reading time before the joys of summer. I was pleasantly surprised by my last six picks. There's some quality reading here. There's no humour this time around, but if you are in a thoughtful mood and wondering why the universe is like it is, there is definitely a book here for you.

In the order they were read:

Our Missing Hearts - This is a novel by well-known author Celeste Ng. Twelve year old Bird lives with his father in a small dorm apartment on the campus of Cambridge University. His father is a quiet, bookish library worker who was previously a linguistics instructor. Bird wonders about the absence of his mother, Margaret, an Asian American poet, who left mysteriously and suddenly a couple of years prior. His father won't speak of her and tells Bird to keep his head down, so to speak. When he receives a cryptic message, Bird sets out to find his mother. In New York City, they re-unite, and he learns who she is and what she has been doing, out of love for him. He engages with her in her quest to find children who have been extricated from their families by the government. Our Missing Hearts is about government interference and rules meant to control those who dissent. It's a real warning about prejudice for anyone or anything that is different from us or that we simply do not like and that history will repeat itself if we do not fight for democracy and equality. The book is well-written, and the style is pleasing - including story-telling and no quotation marks. But it is too dystopian and gloomy for me and I think the meaning is lessened by exaggeration, but that is only my perspective. Rating: 3.5/5

The House of Eve - I love everything about this book – the themes, the writing, the style, and even the cover. Ruby and Eleanor are both people of colour in 1950’s America, living in very different universes. Ruby is a 15 year old born into poverty but who has big dreams and hopes to be the first in her family to go to college. Eleanour was born in a small rural town, and her parents scrimped and saved to allow her to attend Howard University, a school for people of colour. Ruby, who already understands prejudice, is placed in a program called ‘We Rise’ where 12 students of colour compete for full scholarships to college but almost derails her hopes and dreams by becoming involved with a white Jewish boy and becoming pregnant. Eleanour is surprised to learn, at university, that there is prejudice amongst people of colour dependent on the tone of their skin colour and how much money and status they have. She becomes pregnant by an extremely handsome, high class, fair-skinned doctor-to-be student and hopes the baby will help her fit into his upper-class world. Ruby looks for ways to 'deal with' her pregnancy while Eleanour is unable to carry her pregnancy. They both make decisions that will affect their future, and their opposing universes cross paths. As I always say, read to the very last word of the epilogue. There are so many themes in this book - prejudice, status, misogyny, pregnancy out of wedlock in the 1950's, and religion used for the wrong means. Highly recommend. Rating: 5/5

A Country You Can Leave - Wow! Two '5's' in a row! I absolutely loved this book, but some people do not share my enthusiasm. It is gritty, harsh, sexual, painful, and it's not a fun read. Lara is a 16 year old girl born to a White Russian immigrant mother and a black Cuban immigrant (absentee) father. Her mother, Yevgenia, begrudgingly acknowledges that she lacks mothering skills and appears to get her personal identity from her numerous sexual encounters. Yevgenia is bigger than life, wears sexually explicit clothes, speaks loudly about the shortcomings of America, and is a constant source of embarrassment to Lara. Yevgenia and Lara find themselves living in the Oasis Estates Mobile Home Park in the Calfiornia desert, trying to eke out a life. Lara is dark-skinned like her father and is well aware of the discrimination of race and poverty. Her mother tries to impart unorthodox knowledge about sexual relations and finding the 'right' man. Lara becomes an equal or even a parent figure to Yevgenia and eventually begins to understand herself, her life, and the dependent relationship with her mother, but it takes some crises to bring about this insight. This book is so eloquently written, you can imagine a life of poverty and discrimination in Oasis Estates and is full of themes of racism, class divide, abuse, addictions, neglect, grief, and injustice. Most of all, it's about the cycle of intergenerational trauma. It should be mandatory reading for any social work or sociology student. I loved it. Rating: 5/5

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv - This story is told in alternating chapters. In 2004 Ilinois, Cassie, who has recently lost her husband to a car accident and is single-parenting her young daughter, goes to live with her "Bobby", or grandma, who is ailing. Cassie, although knowing she is of Ukranian descent, knowns nothing of her lineage and hopes to find answers from her aging grandmother who refuses to talk about the subject. Cassie searches for answers in grandma's notes and journals, scrawled in Ukrainian. Meantime, she meets Nick who just happens to live down the street, is a handsome firefighter, and is also of Ukraine descent. In 1930’s Ukraine, the rural populace is under the grip of the Russian leader Joseph Stalin who is pushing for a collective (or communism) over capitalistic farming. Here we meet two teenage sisters (Katya and Alina) and their relatives, as well as local farm families (especially two young brothers, Pavlo and Kolya). The farm families struggle under the Russian rule, enduring starvation and cruelty, being forced to make very difficult moral decisions simply to preserve life itself, and eventually being decimated by lack of food, death, and hopelessness. Resisters were taken away, killed, or brutally assaulted. The writing of this novel seems rather simplistic and the storyline quite predictable, but the value lies in the fact that we learn something of the Holodomor in the 1930’s. I really encourage a quick internet search for historical research and factual information, and it puts into perspective the latest Russian-Ukrainian conflict. I’ll give a warning – there’s death, a lot of death, and hardship in this book. If we don’t make changes and if we don’t teach history to younger generations, history will repeat itself. Rating: 4/5

On The Ravine - This is a timely Canadian novel. Dr. Chen is a medical doctor with an interest in treating addictions and is also a researcher for new addictions treatment modalities. Claire is a professional violinist with a gift for making each musical composition her own. However, her expertise and musical flow become hindered by her opioid use, and she approaches Dr. Chen’s clinic for a quick cure. This book is graphic in how it details the lifestyle of the addict – how their stability gradually gives way to desperation and destitution. There is a fine line, or dilemma, for doctors between helping and enabling addicted patients. The book touches on the role of pharmaceutical companies and the extent they will go to get their latest trial medication on the market. The story is told in chapters alternating between Dr. Chen and Claire, and occasionally interspersed with personal letters Dr. Chen has written to his former medical student. The writing is smart, but the book is easy to read and engaging. This is a serious read. There's invaluable information here about addictions and the difficulty of treatment. But, take note, it is also very graphic in the use of drugs which might be painful or triggers for some. In the end, what really works in treating drug addiction? It’s a difficult, and timely, topic. Rating: 5/5

The Night Travelers - Finishing off with another well-researched historical novel: The Night Travelers jumps back and forth between Berlin, Germany and Havana, Cuba, with a brief stop in New York, covering a time period from 1929 to 2015. The story focuses on four women from different generations of a family. Ally was born in Germany and gives birth to biracial Lilith just as Germany is being dictated by Nazi rule. In order to preserve Lilith’s life in the age of German eugenics, Ally makes the difficult decision to place her with a Jewish family who will seek refuge in Cuba. Lilith eventually gives birth to Nadine just as Cuba is undergoing a change to a communist regime. In order to save her life or to grant her a better life, Lilith makes the difficult decision to have Nadine adopted by a family who lives in New York City. As a teenager, Nadine travels with her adoptive father to Germany. She becomes educated and dedicates herself to preserving memories of those annihilated by the Nazi regime. She gives birth to Luna who takes on the task of deciphering the family’s difficult and sometimes sordid history. There are many twists and turns and surprises along the way. The main plot is four very strong women sharing a bloodline, all having to figure out where and how they belong and coming to grips with decisions of their elders - and of themselves. It’s about circumstances beyond our control such as wars and corrupt leaders that dictate our lives. It’s about racism, tough decisions, family and those who act as family, guilt, grief, and sorrow. And it’s about love, bravery, resilience, sacrifice, hope, family bonds, understanding, and forgiveness. This might be in your 'to read' file if you like historical fiction. Rating: 5/5

So there you have it - that's some heavy reading. In my order of preference, even though the first four are pretty close: A Country You Can Leave, On The Ravine, The Night Travelers, The House of Eve, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, and Our Missing Hearts.

Have a Happy Easter!

"You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax, all you need is a book". Dr. Seuss


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