The World and All That It Holds, Aleksandar Hemon (2023)
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo, an event which triggered the First World War and the rest of twentieth-century history. The World and All That It Holds tells this history through the tragic life of a young Bosnian Jewish pharmacist, Rafael Pinto. Raised in the cafes and with the values of a multicultural and polyglot empire, Pinto is thrust into war, and subsequently into life as a refugee, as every global crisis, from the Russian Revolution, through the Japanese invasion of China, to the rise of Communism in China, takes him further from home, and from the arms of the man he loves, a charismatic Muslim named Osman.
There are a lot of words I can use to describe this book: poignant, eerily resonant, tragic, beautiful, and depressing are a few that come to mind. This is a hard read and a difficult story: of war, displacement, dispossession, loss, and addiction. As a bit of a sensitive reader, I found the hopelessness of Pinto’s situation impacted my mood in unhelpful ways; but at the same time, I recognize that it is a true story of the world and its forgotten peoples. And while it is unquestionably dystopian (the real world is often the most effective dystopia), there is a strong thread of love that runs through it, that kept it from being just a long list of tragedies that destroy this man’s life.
Overall, it was well-written and very effective. If you’re at all annoyed by postmodern autofiction, I’d strongly encourage you to skip the (highly unnecessary) epilogue — you won’t miss anything and you’ll save yourself a few minutes of frustration.
An interesting read-alike could be Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing, which follows a Vietnamese family torn part in multiple ways by the Vietnam War.
Read this if you’re interested in:
- Twentieth Century History
- Austro-Hungarian Empire
- Found Family
- Refugee Life
My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 9, Plot 9, Intrigue 8, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 9, Enjoyment 5, Lasting Impact 10: TOTAL 90
Ander and Santi Were Here, Jonny Garza Villa (NEW RELEASE, May 2, 2023), 82. Ander is a nonbinary teenager living in San Antonio who is taking a year to work on community art projects before attending the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But the plan goes sideways when they fall for Santi, a young man who works at their family’s taqueria, but who has a secret that could change everything. There’s a lot to appreciate here, especially when it comes to issues of representation on several fronts. Unfortunately, I didn’t resonate at all with Ander (I’m not sure how a character dealing with so much marginalization could be so entitled…), so the book didn’t entirely work for me, but if you’re at all interested in queer YA romance, Latinx stories, and the complicated relationship between immigrant people and self-appointed gatekeepers of American identity and culture, please do give this a read. (YA, Romance, LGBTQ2S+, Latinx Stories, Art, Immigration)
Nora Goes Off Script, Annabel Monaghan (2022), 86: Nora is a screenwriter on the verge of making the leap from cheesy holiday romances to award-worthy Hollywood cinema with her new, strongly autobiographical script, about the departure of her good-for-nothing ex. But the lines of professional and personal start to blur when the film’s charming leading man Leo inserts himself into her suburban family life, and her heart. This is a delightful contemporary romance with great leads and kids who are realistic — neither the terrors nor the offputtingly-precocious fare we often get in light fiction. I enjoyed this a lot. (Romance, Families, Movies, Parenthood)
Ghost Forest, Pik-Shuen Fung (2021), 78: Following the death of her father, a young Canadian woman whose family immigrated from Hong Kong begins to ask questions that had long lain dormant. She learns the stories of her grandmother and mother and how they shed light on her life and her relationship with her father. I find there’s a strange phenomenon with a lot of fiction detailing the experience of immigrants, in that they are both very particular to a specific culture and also very universal. So, in a lot of ways, this story of the specific experience of those who left Hong Kong in the lead up to its return to Chinese authority in the late ‘90s is a quintessential Canadian story: a story of disruption, dislocation, of sacrifice, and the tension between identity and fitting in. (Hong Kong, Chinese Diaspora, Immigration, Parents and Children)
If Cats Disappeared from the World, Genki Kawamura (2012, trans. 2018), 74: After receiving a terminal diagnosis, a young man gets an offer from the devil: An extra day of life for every thing he chooses to remove from the world forever. This was a little disappointing to me. The premise was interesting enough, but the payoff didn’t really fulfill its promise. It struck me as a little heavy handed and not nearly as insightful as it thinks it is. I don’t regret reading it but I’m not likely to recommend it to anyone either. (Magical Realism, Offers-you-can’t-refuse, Humanity, Meaning)
Sing Anyway (Moonlighters 1), Anita Kelly (2021), 76: Sam is a middle-aged professor who is just beginning to unpack their non-binary identity; thankfully they have a great group of friends who gather regularly for karaoke at their favorite dive. But when they all bail on them one night, Sam is left to fend for themself — and to face their crush on Lily, one of the regulars at the bar. Lily is taken by Sam, but burned by too many experiences of being either rejected or fetishized for being, in her words, “fat.” Sparks fly, but can they get out of their heads enough to make a go of things? There’s a lot to like here: the two main characters are well-developed and have lives outside their connection. And, while this book deals very intentionally with a lot of representation, it was nice to read a romance involving average people living average lives, who have average (satisfying, but average) sex. It was a nice antidote to so much hyper-idealized Romance fare. But despite these strengths, on the whole this didn’t really work for me. The plot felt a bit clunky and weirdly paced, and it did a lot of ‘telling’ with respect to its representation. (Kelly’s 2023 release Something Wild and Wonderful was much improved on these counts.) (LGBTQ2S+, Romance, Karaoke, Non-binary, Fat Representation)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume (1970), 93: In this classic middle grade novel, a sixth-grade girl in suburban New York adjusts to a new school and navigates the onset of puberty. This is a really fantastic novel, definitely worthy of its iconic status. Even though, as a boy, I had a different set of experiences from Margaret, this book captures the feeling of that time of life to absolute perfection. The frankness of the discussions of sexuality, puberty, and religion is also refreshing. (Middle Grade, Classics, Suburbia, Puberty, Adolescence, Religion)
Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell (1960), 75: A young Indigenous woman is left stranded on and island after her people are taken away by missionaries, and has to fend for herself against a series of animal and environmental threats. This middle grade classic was one of the first popular works of American children’s fiction that attempted to show Indigenous experience in a sympathetic light; as such, it has a very important legacy and should be honoured for its efforts to shift the narrative surrounding White settlement and Indigenous cultures, even as we recognize that it is problematic by today’s standards (re: appropriation of voice, perpetuation of the ‘vanishing Indian’ narrative, etc.). This remains a valuable book, but probably mostly as a historical artifact. There are more accurate, more appropriate, and, to be frank, simply better books covering these important themes now. (Children’s Literature, Classics, Colonization, Survival)
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