Review: You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

You Will Not Have My HateAuthor: Antoine Leiris (trans. Sam Taylor)
Title: You Will Not Have My Hate
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: October 2016
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 129 pages
Genre: Memoir
Why I Read: Read an excerpt
Rating: ★★★★
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In November 2015, Antoine Leiris’s wife Hélène was killed in the attack on the Bataclan Theatre. Their son Melvil was 17 months old at the time. You Will Not Have My Hate, a slim volume of Leiris’s reflections on the time immediately following the shooting (particularly the impact on Melvil, not yet old enough to understand), is a devastating yet hopeful read. I first read an excerpt of this book in the October 2016 issue of Vogue. I immediately knew I had to read the rest. The title stems from an open letter Leiris wrote to the terrorists who perpetrated the attack. This memoir contextualizes that letter.

If you have read the letter, you will know that Leiris’s book is not really about terrorism or the attack. His letter says all he needs to about that. The book digs deeper into grief and how to keep going, especially when a little one needs you. Leiris’s beautiful writing might break your heart. (Sam Taylor translated the book from French; I assume he’s done an excellent job.) I nearly forgot it wasn’t fiction (because how can this be real, how can someone have to experience this, how can they translate it into words?). I could have selected any passage from the book to demonstrate this. Here’s a bit about viewing Hélène in the mortuary:

“I cry, I talk to her. I would to stay another hour, at least a day, perhaps a lifetime. But I must leave her. The moon must set. Today, November 16, the sun rises on our new ‘once upon a time.’ The story of a father and a son who go on living alone, without the aid of the star to whom they swore allegiance.” (40-41)

The book clocks in at just 129 pages. I estimate nearly half to be blank space, though this blank space is certainly not wasted space. This needs to be a small story, a contained story, otherwise it is too overwhelming. The blank space allows for breathing room. That little bit of space you need to pause and reflect and process. A photo at the end – of Hélène standing outdoors, looking lovely, holding Melvil snuggled against her breast – made me gasp. What a punch that photo packs after reading Antoine’s tale.

The Bottom Line:

A short yet devastating read, Antoine Leiris’s You Will Not Have My Hate gives the reader a glimpse into what it’s like to tragically and unexpectedly lose someone.

Further Reading:

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Family Reads: Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On being black and white in Canada

Black Berry, Sweet Juice - Family ReadsWe had tried reading two novels about Ireland for this month’s Family Reads. Unfortunately, we found both novels to be incredibly dull. I asked Mom if there were any books by authors she liked that she hadn’t yet read. That’s how we ended up on Lawrence Hill’s author page. Mom has read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, The Illegal and Blood. I knew virtually nothing about growing up biracial in Canada. Thus, we chose Black Berry, Sweet Juice for our January Family Read.

In BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE, Hill movingly reveals his struggle to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb, he is imbued with lingering memories and offers a unique perspective. In a satirical yet serious tone, Hill describes the ambiguity involved in searching for his identity – an especially complex and difficult journey in a country that prefers to see him as neither black nor white.

Interspersed with slices of his personal experiences, fascinating family history and the experiences of thirty-six other Canadians of mixed race interviewed for this book, BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE also examines contemporary racial issues in Canadian society.

Our Discussion

Hill explores how one’s personal identity can differ from the external identity thrust upon them by those looking at them from the outside. Hill writes about how people are judged by their skin colour as to what their identity is. But that, of course, is a dangerous and often wrong assumption to make. A person’s internal understanding of their identity might not have anything to do with their skin colour.

Hill’s book was an eye opener for Mom and I. We are White in every direction I can see on the family tree. We’ve never had to think about the possible discord between our identities and our skin colours. We’ve never had to think, “Oh, I’m White, I need to make a concentrated effort to connect with the White community, learn about my cultural identity, etc”. We are just that way, we are just White and we don’t have to do anything in particular to confirm that. In contrast, Hill and the people he interviews have all had to give conscious consideration, in one way or another, to their racial/cultural identity.

Hill writes about a “brewing interest in my racial identity” (64). This quote stuck out to me, as I’ve never had to ‘brew an interest’ in my racial identity. Mom and I can’t fathom what it must be like to have to actively learn about racial identity, cultural history, etc. Mom pointed out that she has never considered herself ‘German-Canadian’ (her father came to Canada when he was 19 years old). She has never had to assert that aspect of her identity or consider it in the way that biracial Canadians do. She and I have never had to ‘choose’ to be White, i.e. choose to fit in with that community – that’s the White privilege we have.

The Question

Towards the end of the book, Hill presents an imaginary dialogue of the ‘race’ question, an infamously pervasive question in Canada (and similar countries, I imagine):

STRANGER: “Do you mind my asking where you are from?” [This is code for “What is your race?”]

ME: “Canada.” [This is code for “Screw off.”]

STRANGER: “Yes, but you know, where are you really from?” [This is code for “You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?”]

ME: “I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth. [Code for “I’m not letting you off the4 hook, buster.”]

STRANGER: “But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?” [Code for “I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question.”]

Mom and I discussed how that question, “Where are you from?”, takes on a completely different tone depending on who it is presented to. If someone asks us (my White Mom or I) where are you from, we generally know they mean it literally. If they want to know our family background, they ask directly. It’s not a challenge; usually it’s just polite conversation. Rarely is that question asked of a person of colour for the sake of polite conversation. As Hill notes, it becomes a challenge to a person’s Canadian identity (177). Part of our White privilege is never having people challenge our Canadian identities.

Many Experiences

Hill’s stories about growing up biracial added another dimension to his exploration of race, as we had not considered the identity struggles a biracial child may experience. Mom told me about a friend with a biracial daughter. Mom had never considered that that child may have difficult time growing up because of the different racial identities of her parents.

We appreciated that Hill includes interviews with a number of other Black-White biracial Canadians. Sharing various points of views shows that everyone’s situation can be different. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of how to manage a biracial identity. Black Berry, Sweet Juice really hits home that a single voice cannot an entire community represent. Nearly all interviewees, however, understand they will almost always struggle with being defined against Whiteness. Because White people do not consider biracial people to be White, they cannot find acceptance in those communities like they may find acceptance in Black communities.

For many people with one black and one white parent, it appears to hurt more when we are rejected by the black community than when we are discriminated against in the wider community for being black (106).

“When white people look at you, they’re never going to see white. They’re always going to see black. Therefore you’re black.” (110)

Final Thoughts

Mom and I both learned a lot from this book. We highly recommend it, especially to White people who, like us, had never really considered how the experiences of biracial people may differ from those who are ‘all Black’ or ‘all White’.
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Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

6 Books on Dying in Modern Times

This is a topic that has been cropping up in my life in unexpected areas. Physician-assisted suicide has been recently legalized in Canada, I taught about assisted suicide when I completed my ESL practicum last fall, and now I’ve unintentionally read three books on aging and dying that complement each other. I also remember being fascinated by this article (‘Why Doctors Die Differently’; I think it’s behind a paywall now) when it first appeared in 2012. I think the concept of how we die, or how we should die, in today’s day and age, captivates me because it’s something that affects literally everyone. Everyone goes through this eventually. Here are my thoughts on three books I’ve read and recommend, and suggestions of three more books I haven’t read yet.

Note the similar cover designs of these six books…

3 Books I’ve Read

 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Of the six books featured in this post, Doughty’s explores what happens at the very end of the road, after a person has died. She took on a job in a crematorium when she was 23 years old, motivated by a somewhat morbid interest in death. She describes her work and all it entails, including some gruesome details you might rather not know about. Doughty goes beyond just sharing her experiences at the crematorium, however. She explores how we have developed an unhealthy and even unnatural relationship with death. We try to avoid it. We don’t know how to behave around a body, we don’t know our options for what to do with the body, we don’t know how to accept mortality. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two from Doughty, and hopefully come away with an improved (read: more positive) opinion about death.

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
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Working a step backward from Doughty, we have Gawande’s book about how we live out our final days as we age. Gawande’s work as a surgeon and relationship with his dying father qualify his writing on the topic. He highlights the problems with widely spread and accepted systems of health care (such as depressing nursing homes and futile medical procedures), and explores alternatives to these systems. A great read that had me thinking a lot about how I’ll treat my parents when they are elderly.

Good Medicine: The Art of Ethical Care in Canada by Philip Hébert
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Good Medicine caught my eye because of the Canadian perspective. Similar to Gawande, Hebert makes his case through anecdotes about his own patients, commentary on publicly known cases, and his own experience with Parkinson’s. Hebert takes a more general approach than Gawande, focusing not only death in old age but general medical practices. (He writes about a different subject in each chapters – focuses include elderly care and physician-assisted suicide). Hébert emphasizes the importance and life-changing significance of doctors asking tough questions and of patients making their explicit wishes known before finding themselves in a tragic situation. This is a valuable book I hope more people read.

How much better it would be if we knew there were certain states in which each patient would not want to be kept alive, if hospitals asked patients, especially patients facing major surgery, clear and pointed questions in advance: If you were in a non-responsive or minimally responsive state, how would you want to be treated? If you also had only the remotest prospect of even partial recovery, would you wish to be kept going by expensive and prolonged measures? And what if, on account of that care, others were deprived of truly effective care? Would you still want to be kept alive? (107)

3 Books I Want to Read

 When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
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At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air […] chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Moments by Sandra Martin
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We can’t avoid death, but the prospect is a lot less terrifying since the Supreme Court of Canada legalized physician-assisted death. Competent adults, suffering grievously from intolerable medical conditions, will have the right to ask for a doctor’s help in ending their lives. That much is clear. The challenge now is to pass legislation that reflects this landmark decision and develop regulations that reconcile the Charter rights of both doctors and patients. If we get the balance right between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility, we can set an example for the world. A Good Death is timely, engaging and inspiring. In taking on our ultimate human right, award-winning journalist Sandra Martin charts the history of the right to die movement here and abroad through the personal stories of brave campaigners like Sue Rodriguez, Brittany Maynard and Gloria Taylor. Martin weighs the evidence from permissive jurisdictions such as the Netherlands, Oregon, California, Switzerland and Quebec and portrays her own intellectual and emotional journey through the tangled legal, medical, religious and political documentation concerning terminal sedation, slippery slopes, and the sanctity of life.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler
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Katy Butler was living thousands of miles from her vigorous and self-reliant parents when the call came: a crippling stroke had left her proud seventy-nine-year-old father unable to fasten a belt or complete a sentence. Tragedy at first drew the family closer: her mother devoted herself to caregiving, and Butler joined the twenty-four million Americans helping shepherd parents through their final declines. Then doctors outfitted her father with a pacemaker, keeping his heart going but doing nothing to prevent his six-year slide into dementia, near-blindness, and misery. When he told his exhausted wife, “I’m living too long,” mother and daughter were forced to confront a series of wrenching moral questions. When does death stop being a curse and become a blessing? […] When doctors refused to disable the pacemaker, condemning her father to a prolonged and agonizing death, Butler set out to understand why. Her quest had barely begun when her mother took another path. Faced with her own grave illness, she rebelled against her doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and met death head-on. With a reporter’s skill and a daughter’s love, Butler explores what happens when our terror of death collides with the technological imperatives of medicine. Her provocative thesis is that modern medicine, in its pursuit of maximum longevity, often creates more suffering than it prevents.

Have you read any of these books? Is this a morbid topic or does it interest you?

Review: 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin

Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2015
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 269 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing subject matter
Read If You: Like stories about people who overcome the impossible
Rating★★★★
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

Since reading In the Heart of the Sea, I’ve been interested in reading more stories about 19th century sea exploration and survival tales. 438 Days describes one man’s survival lost at sea for over a year. This story, however, differs from the historical stories in which I might find interest. The lost seaman is an El Salvadorian living in Mexico. Salvador Alvarenga became lost after a storm in November 2013. I’m astonished that, in spite of all our technological advances, the world remains so vast that we can still lose entire planes (let alone one man in a little boat) and never find them.

My heart broke for Ezequiel Córdoba, a young man who accompanies Alvarenga at the last minute. He has little experience on the expansive ocean, which causes him a great more suffering than Alvarenga initially experiences. An anecdote from their third week at sea demonstrates the relationship between the two:

Day 23: Córdoba was in worse shape. He pleaded with Alvarenga, “Oranges, bring me oranges.” Alvarenga stood above the prone man and assured him food was close. “Okay, I am going to the store, I will see if it is open, to bring you some food,” he said with conviction as he pointed to the horizon. “I will get tamales, oranges and shrimp.” Alvarenga strode with confidence for the few seconds it took to cross the boat. After waiting for five minutes in silence, he strode back with bad news. “The store is closed, but don’t worry, they open in an hour and they have fresh tortillas.” To his surprise, the scheme worked. Córdoba stopped moaning and fell asleep. The game of visiting the store bought Alvarenga a few hours of respite from t he cloud of fear that had seize Córdoba’s mind and rarely loosened its grip on the despairing young fisherman. (92-93)

This anecdote also illustrates an aspect of the book I appreciated. Franklin interviewed experts on various subjects related to Alvarenga’s journey. After relaying the story shared above, Franklin quotes Dr. John Leach, a “senior research fellow in survival psychology”. Leach explains why the shop exercise was beneficial to both Córdoba and Alvarenga’s mental health. Córdoba has something to look forward to and Alvarenga has “an automatic task […] a job that gives meaning to your existence” (94) to complete. There are numerous places where Alvarenga’s journey is explained and supplemented by experts in relevant fields, or by those who interact with Alvarenga.

Alvarenga’s survival techniques impressed me. Likely few other men would have been able to survive in his position, without his knowledge. What most surprised me was how he could survive on raw foods, eating creatures like fish and birds whole and drinking turtle blood. I got really stressed on those rare occasions when he would spot a boat. Like, it’s only day 126, you know he’s not going to be rescued (131)!

Because of In the Heart of the Sea, my mind did wander a bit towards the concept of cannibalism, but it was not something I really wanted to dwell, especially given the modern context of this story. The word is mentioned once in the book (about the media frenzy as Alvarenga’s story emerges). Alvarenga makes peace with Córdoba’s mother, but Córdoba’s brothers are unimpressed with Alvarenga’s explanation (253). I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in their position. I discovered while looking for news updates that Córdoba’s family filed legal action against Alvarenga, suing for $1 million, shortly after the book was published.

Towards the end of the book, I began to feel a little seasick myself. I wasn’t feeling so great and reading this book just made my head spin more! It’s a bit like trying to fathom the size of the universe – trying to imagine how Alvarenga survived 438 days lost in a tiny boat, 320 of those days alone. I don’t suppose I would survive a week. Franklin does a good job of illustrating how Alvarenga managed his time and what kind of headspace he strove for (and sometimes lost).

A cynic might say otherwise, but I’m impressed that Alvarenga chose to tell his story with a journalist who could share that story with the world. I did ponder the connection was between Alvarenga and Franklin (who is the sole author credited for the book). In the author’s afterword, Franklin asks the question I wondered all along – “What else [aside from financial benefits] motivated him to spend hour after hour with me, telling all the details of his story?” Franklin quotes Alvarenga’s answer at length, but here is the gist of it:

I suffered so much and for so long. Maybe if people read this they will realize that if I can make it, they can make it. Many people suffer only because of what happens in their head; I was also physically being tortured. I had no food. No water. If I can make it so can you. If one depressed person avoids committing suicide then the book is a success. (261) 

The Bottom Line: A fascinating tale of survival and resilience, unlike any other. Recommended for fans of narrative non-fiction.

Further Reading:

Brief Thoughts: The Education of Augie Merasty by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

This memoir offers a courageous and intimate chronicle of life in a residential school. Now a retired fisherman and trapper, the author was one of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children who were taken from their families and sent to government- funded, church-run schools, where they were subjected to a policy of “aggressive assimilation.” As Augie Merasty recounts, these schools did more than attempt to mold children in the ways of white society. They were taught to be ashamed of their native heritage and, as he experienced, often suffered physical and sexual abuse. But, even as he looks back on this painful part of his childhood, Merasty’s sense of humour and warm voice shine through.

★★★★ | GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

  • Over 1/3 of this slim volume consists of modern-day explaining and exploring by David Carpenter, an author Merasty was eventually put in contact with after writing to the “dean of the University of Saskatchewan”, inquiring about a co-writer to help him with his memoir. Carpenter’s writings allow Merasty’s story to become a fuller story by showing the long-term impact of residential schools. The afterword is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the book, to learn that Merasty did not have the support to pull out of his downward spiral even after he worked so hard on creating his own life and recording his story. 
  • Merasty narrates in first person. Although Carpenter has tidied up and smoothed out Merasty’s words, his distinct voice remains. I felt as though I could be reading a transcript of a friend telling me his experiences. Merasty originally started writing as part of his testimony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His work is more a primary document than a literary memoir. Merasty’s real and raw perspective provides a valuable contribution to body of residential school memoirs. 
  • Merasty understands that he doesn’t need to write a detailed tell all in order to have his readers understand the horrors experienced by residential school attendees. His memoir never strays toward the graphic. There are times when reading a vivid account of a person’s experiences can be valuable, and all people have a right to share their experiences as they wish. There are times, however, when an account like Merasty’s – that explores and condemns the horrors but doesn’t require you to imagine them too closely – can be beneficial. You don’t necessarily need to have a clear full account to be moved someone’s story. Merasty’s memoir, therefore, is suitable for the faint-hearted or those new to the topic.
  • I found it somewhat comforting (not sure if that’s the right word given the subject) to read about the good people in the schools he remembers. In the first chapter, he describes all the people “who showed kindness and genuine care for us kids”, briefly mentioning ominous figures but dismissing them for the time being. Merasty encounters nasty beings, but his first chapter reminds you that there are some decent people in the world. 
  • The Education of Augie Merasty is a residential school memoir suitable for those new to the topic or those looking to read a first-hand account.

    “I have many more stories about all that transpired […]. But I sincerely hope that what I have related here will have some impact, so all that has happened in our school, and other schools in all parts of Canada – the abuse and terror in the lives of Indian children – does not occur ever again.” (86%)