The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Christy Lefteri
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Jul. 2020 on Audible)

I read The Beekeeper of Aleppo for my July book club meeting. I was super excited when I first heard about this book because it sounded really compelling. It’s about the war in Syria and focuses on the journey of one couple as they decide to leave Syria and flee through Europe to the UK.

Nuri is a beekeeper with his cousin Mustafa and his wife, Afra, is an artist. They are happy in Syria and want to stay, but when war breaks out it becomes unsafe to do so and Afra becomes blind. So they finally decide to leave and try to make it to the UK, where Mustafa, who left earlier, is also trying to go. The book follows their journey across Turkey and Greece and eventually England. They face many struggles along the road, but the real struggle comes when they finally stop moving and are forced to come to terms with everything that happened to them before and along the journey.

I really wanted to love this. There were parts that I really liked and it was an interesting enough story, but I felt like it maybe could have benefited from a stronger author. The story had a lot of potential, but it was just lacking, both in writing style and intrigue. The story moved extremely slowly, which can work in a book like this, but it just didn’t have the writing to carry it through. The author has Greek/Cypriot parents and volunteered with a refugee NGO in Greece, which is what inspired her to write this story. I felt that the author had a story to tell, but unfortunately she just didn’t really have the prowess or the skills to tell it. I feel bad saying that because I’m sure her intentions were good, but the writing just didn’t work for me. I really wanted more from the story.

She does create some interesting characters, but they kind of all fell flat to me, like no one lived up to their potential. For example, why the obsession with bees? Like I get it, but what did the beekeeper story really add to this book? It was overdone with limited meaning. I also found the deeper themes to be lacking. I get what Lefteri was going for with Muhammed and Nuri, but it felt too forced to be natural or cathartic. I felt like she was trying to force an emotional reaction rather than one that would naturally occur from good storytelling and lived experience. Likewise with the symbolism of Afra being blind – it just felt kind of basic to me and I’m not totally sure what it added to the story. Like I get it – I just wish there was more to it.

Which raises the age old question of whether Lefteri was the right person to tell this story. I really do believe that people can and should tell stories that they haven’t been directly impacted by, but in 2020, it is starting to get a bit old reading so many modern day stories not told by own-voices authors. Jeanine Cummins got all kinds of flak for writing American Dirt – I’m not saying it wasn’t justified – but I don’t see how Beekeeper is any different. It just hasn’t been as big a seller I guess and so it hasn’t drawn the same backlash. Personally though, of the two, I thought American Dirt was the better story. But there’s no denying both books could have been written by different authors.

It’s really a hard question about where the line is. Lefteri got published where another Syrian author likely didn’t. I’m sure there are other authors writing these stories and I would love to see them in the mainstream. But honestly – that’s on me as a reader too. As a co-chair to my Book Club it’s something I need to reflect on more and take more ownership over. We are 10 individuals committing to read a book, it’s important that we pick the right ones, even if they’re not always bestsellers…yet. I will try to do better.

Rick Mercer Final Report

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Rick Mercer
Genres: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Jun. 2020)

The second audiobook that I read by Newfoundland authors in June. While by a Newfoundlander, this one isn’t focused on Newfoundland, but instead features a collection of rants from the Rick Mercer Report, which ended its 15 season run in 2018. The Rick Mercer Report is a pretty beloved Canadian news show that features comedic segments filmed all over the country where Rick visits community events, or groups, or landmarks, or just has fun hanging out with Jan Arden. But every show ends with a rant from Rick about the latest scandal or event plaguing the nation.

Rick Mercer Final Report features a number of Rick’s rants, including his most popular rants over the years, as well as some unpublished rants and an update from Rick at the end of the book. I always loved watching Rick Mercer’s segments and his rants definitely galvanized some of my own political activism in University. I expected to like this book more than Mark Critch’s, Son of a Critch, and while I did still enjoy this, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. Or maybe I just have to acknowledge that with the way society has changed in the past decade, some of his older rants just don’t have quite the same effect. In theory it’s great to have a compilation of all Rick’s best rants, but they are of course dated, and fortunately I’m just not really interested in listening to Rick rant about Stephen Harper any more.

Rick does include some stories about the show in the book, and that’s where I thought the book really shined. Rick’s gotten into so many shenanigans over the years, I loved hearing some reflective storytelling about those experiences. I think if the book had been more focused on storytelling it would have had a little more meaning and would stand the test of time better later. But that’s okay – this book is a celebration of the show and Rick’s rants and it’s nice to have this compilation to memorialize the show. He’s been inspired by Canadians and in turn we’ve been inspired by him – I was definitely sad to see the show end.

Son of a Critch

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Mark Critch
Genres: Memoir, Humour
Pub. date: Oct. 2018 (read Jun. 2018 on Audible)

I went on a little bit of a Newfoundland binge back in June, listening to both Son of Critch and Rick Mercer Final Report back to back on Audible. For my blog readers, Newfoundland is an island located on the far east coast of Canada. It was the last province to join Canada and its influence from the English and Irish have left the island with a very distinct sense of culture and place. I grew up in Newfoundland and so it has a huge place in my heart.

Mark Critch is a Canadian and Newfoundland comedian well known from the Canadian comedy show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. I consider him a bit of a Newfoundland icon and always get a kick out of his comedy. I was drawn to the audiobook because it’s narrated by Mark and I was looking for something light to read during the pandemic.

If you’re looking for an account of how Mark got into comedy, you won’t find it here, likewise if you’re looking for a highly accurate memoir of his childhood, I don’t really think this is it. But if you’re looking to have a laugh at some truly wonderful storytelling, then you’ve found what you’re looking for. As the name suggests, “a childish Newfoundland memoir”, the book is heavily focused on Mark’s childhood. He talks a lot about growing up on Kenmount Road before it was the booming metropolis that we know today and the struggles he had with always getting into mischief at Catholic school and with his highly Catholic (and nosey) mother.

St. John’s did away with it’s heavily religious school system when I was in the third grade, so I couldn’t really relate, but I definitely think it captured a lot of what it was like growing up in St. John’s at that time and a lot of what it’s quintessentially like growing up in Newfoundland in general. I questioned the authenticity of a lot of Mark’s stories because he was so young in many of them that I doubted he could actually recall very much from that time, but every story made me laugh out loud, so I was able to overlook it.

I suspect there’s a bit more in this book for Newfoundlanders to enjoy than your average reader, but there’s so much hilarity packed in here that I do think anyone can enjoy! I would still love to read another memoir about how Mark got into comedy and all the cool people he’s worked with over the years, but I can wait. Definitely recommend this if you want a laugh.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Delia Owens
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2018 (read Apr. 2020)

Where the Crawdads Sing is another book I wish I’d written a review for back when I actually read it. This book has been on my TBR forever. It’s gotten consistently high reviews and was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2018. I can see that at the time I gave it 4 stars on goodreads, but this sticks out in my memory now as more of a 3 star read. I think this book had a strong sense of setting and I would say that the author did this very well, but as far as a compelling read, I was bored for a lot of the book.

Where the Crawdads Sing is about “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark. Kya had a very sad childhood growing up in the coastal wetlands of North Carolina in the 1960’s. She was the youngest of several children and her mother left when she was only a child. Her father was abusive and so the rest of her siblings quickly cleared out after that and she is eventually left home alone with her father. He is away a lot and eventually stops coming home at all, so Kya is forced to learn to take care of herself. She makes a living fishing along inland rivers of the marsh and becomes an expert at the flora and fauna that can be found in the marsh, a place that was little explored, or valued, at the time.

Kya’s mystique as the “marsh girl” draws the attention and intrigue of some of the local townspeople and when Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya finds herself at the centre of a murder trial. Can Kya overcome the prejudices of the townspeople in 1969? Will she ever find love and happiness? Or is she destined to be forever alone on the marsh.

The book passes back and forth between the present (1969) and the past (from the day her mother left to 1969). She does have interactions with several other characters and becomes successful in her own way, but she always feels a keen sense of loneliness at having no one to share her home on the marsh with. I can see why people like the book, the writing is thoughtful and the plot has all the makings of an enthralling whodunnit, complete with the righteous indignation that comes with watching someone who has been beaten down by life be wrongly accused.

The story felt kind of like 2 separate parts for me. Kya’s history, though SLOW, was compelling. It was interesting to watch how she made a life for herself in the marsh, and like I said, the author does a really good job of capturing the setting. But eventually the story descends into the murder trial, which in many ways felt to me like reading another book. I felt the tone didn’t fit in with everything that came before, and I’m sad to say it, but I just felt like it was a story I’d read many times before. The wrongfully accused individual who can’t overcome the prejudice of their time. Something about it just didn’t work for me. The setting and writing were pretty enough, but mostly I was just bored.

So overall I was left feeling a little bit disappointed with this book. It may be a problem of over-hype and ultimately it just didn’t live up to it. If you loved this book, I’m happy for you and really mean no offense, I guess it just wasn’t for me.

The Dutch House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Apr. 2020)

I read The Dutch House way back in April and I really wish I had reviewed it back when I read it. But it was in the middle of Covid back then and I wasn’t feeling much motivation to do anything, so I let it slide, which is a shame because I really loved this book. I’m going to do my best to review it now, but I apologize if some of the details are now a little foggy.

I read The Dutch House as an audiobook, which was a real treat because it is narrated by Tom Hanks! I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s touted as a family drama that spans 50 years, so I was definitely intrigued. The story is about brother and sister Danny and Maeve – from their childhood right up to their late adulthood. At the center of the story is the Dutch House, an old and extravagant manor that was purchased by their father when they were children. Through a serious of events and misunderstandings, Danny and Maeve find themselves kicked out of the Dutch House, and though it’s decades before they ever cross the threshold again, the house and the fall out from the house still dominates their lives for many years to come.

It’s really a fascinating concept for a story. You don’t think of a house as being a protagonist to a story, but I also read Melina Marchetta’s, The Place on Dalhousie, last year and it’s interesting how much value we’ve learned to place on our childhood homes and how those spaces can influence us far into our adult years. Houses are after all so much more than just buildings, they are homes and the memories and feelings we attach to them are powerful driving forces.

At it’s heart I think this is really a novel about the influence our parents have on us and how powerful family bonds can be. Danny grew up tagging along after his father, Cyril, who was a self made business man who finds wealth in owning and renting real estate. Cyril thought he had finally escaped the cycle of poverty for his family, so it comes as a shock to Danny when he finds himself at the bottom and forced with making his own way in the world. At the same time, Maeve’s childhood is defined by the disappearance of her mother. Her mother never loved the extravagance of the Dutch House and leaves to volunteer in India. Danny and Maeve are always told about their mother’s goodness, but all they can see is the woman who was never there.

Both struggle from abandonment in different ways and the eventual falling out with their stepmother Andrea over the ownership of the Dutch House casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. Maeve is discontented at being cut out of the Dutch House and puts all her effort into helping Danny become as successful as possible, despite how miserable it makes him. Each character’s greed over the Dutch House ultimately consumes their lives, with each thinking that wealth will make them happy, when really it’s only the family that lived in the Dutch House that could do that.

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love and reminds me that I really should read more family dramas. Each character is enormously flawed and nuanced. To the outsider it’s so obvious that Maeve needs to let go of the Dutch House and Danny to start pursuing his own happiness, but each continues down their own path of destruction, completely blinded by their feelings of injustice. Every character is complex, as are their relationships with one another. I suppose some people might find the plot lacking in drive, but these characters and their relationships with one another were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.

Tom Hanks narration is excellent and I think this is one book that time has improved for me. The characters were definitely frustrating at times, but looking back on it, the whole song and dance and obsession over the Dutch House was just so enthralling. Families can pick you up, but they can also let you down, and I loved watching how Danny and Maeve both grew and were stunted by their emancipation from the Dutch House. Would definitely recommend this book!