Transcendent Kingdom

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.

Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.

Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.

I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.

That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom. 

But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place. 

But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.

Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.

Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing. 

One by One

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Sep. 2020 on Audible)

If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Ruth Ware fan. The best phrase I can think of to describe her books, and I say it all the time, is ‘compulsively readable’. It seems like this book has just been getting mediocre reviews, but for the most part, I actually really liked it. 

I think one of the reasons I really liked this was setting. One by One is set on a french ski resort up in the alps. There’s a number of chalets located at the top of one of the gondolas and on this particular week, the chalet has been rented out by the employees of the company Snoop. Snoop is a popular social media app that can be used to listen to music and snoop on what other people, from friends to celebrities, are listening to at the same time. However, like any tech start-up company, there’s a lot of drama going on behind the scenes. 

The chalet is full of the Snoop staff and two employees when an avalanche hits, snowing them in and cutting everyone off from escape. Tensions mount and when several people start to show up dead, the whole chalet descends into chaos. Who can you trust when you’re snowed in with a killer?
The narration alternates back at forth between two of the individuals snowed in at the chalet and it has the old school closed door mystery vibe. Something about being snowed in and knowing the killer is among you is just enthralling. Plus I did get into all of the Snoop company politics and drama and I thought it added to the story. 

I flew through the book in just 2 days, but I have the same criticism I have with most of Ware’s book – the book climax is just too early. For some reason she always reveals the killer at like the 75% mark of the book and devotes the last part of the book to the “thrill” I suppose. But it never really works for me. Of course you need some kind of thrill to accompany your big reveal, but Ware always drags it on too long. Plus I was a little bit disappointed with who the killer turned out to be, but I didn’t guess it until close to the end, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

Overall I still really enjoyed this book. I’d give the setting an A. It’s not my favourite Ruth Ware (I think that may be Turn of the Key), but I definitely enjoyed the reading experience.

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.