Review: The Girl Who Beat ISIS by Farida Khalaf

The Girl Who Beat ISISAuthor: Farida Khalaf with Andrea C. Hoffman (trans. from German by Jamie Bulloch)
Title: The Girl Who Beat ISIS (The Girl Who Escaped ISIS in the US)
Format/Source: Paperback/Library
Published: July 2016
Publisher: Square Peg
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Memoir
Why I Read: Spotted in ‘new and noted’ at the library
Rating: ★★★★
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I read The Girl Who Beat ISIS in one sitting. Farida Khalaf (not her real name, nor is she the girl depicted on the cover) has an unfathomable story to share. For me, her story is unfathomable because I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be enslaved as she was, torn from family, knowing her fathers and brothers had been murdered and the rest of her family likely lost to her. Khalaf, 18 at the time of her enslavement, manages to eventually escape her captors, rescuing with her five younger girls. She beats ISIS by defying their grasp, but not before suffering what so many other Yazidi women have suffered. While reading Khalaf’s story, I desperately hoped that girl who fought who so stubbornly and held to her values would escape the sexual assault that she is rightly terrified of. Though her tale ends on a positive note, she endures atrocious torment at the hands of her captors. Khalaf has a difficult story to share. A note from Khalaf’s co-author at the end of the book details how they came to document her story, and how painful it was for Khalaf. I applaud Khalaf for finding the strength to share her story.

I became familiar with the plight of the Yazidis primarily through Khalaf’s story. I had heard the word and I knew they were a minority group, but I didn’t know much about the horrors they experienced. A very brief introduction for those like me: The Yazidis are an ethnically Kurdish religious group living primarily in Iraq, where they are a minority. ISIS has been committing genocide against the Yazidis since 2014. (See below for links to more information.) Shortly after finishing the book, I learnt about the Canadian government’s commitment to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees this year. Recently, I have read reporting from the CBC that describes the journeys and hopes of some of those refugees, including a nine-member family that arrived in my city. Khalaf’s book illuminates the plight of her people. I can read her story and think about the Yazidis who have come so far to escape the horror Khalaf experienced, and hopefully find a better life as my neighbour. It’s difficult and painful to realize that the genocidal atrocities which ISIS inflicts on the Yazidis are occurring right now. In sharing her story, Khalaf gives us a valuable window into her world.

The Bottom Line:

The Girl Who Beat ISIS offers a gut-wrenching look into the experiences of a young Yazidi woman enslaved by ISIS. Khalaf’s first person narration gives the reader a personal, human connection to the Yazidi genocide.

Further Reading:

  • UN human rights panel concludes ISIL is committing genoicde agains the Yazidis (2016 new release from the UN)
  • ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (2015 article by The New York Times)
  • Canada to bring in 1,200 primarily Yazidi refugees by year end (2017 article by The Star)
  • Read the first chapter
  • Review @ The Guardian

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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

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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Review: Better Now by Danielle Martin

Better Now by Danielle MartinAuthor: Danielle Martin
Title: Better Now: Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for All Canadians
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 10 January 2017
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley; topic I’m interested in
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

DR. DANIELLE MARTIN see the challenges in our health care system every day. As a family doctor and a hospital vice president, she observes how those deficiencies adversely affect patients. And as a health policy expert, she knows how to close those gaps. A passionate believer in the value of fairness that underpins the Canadian health care system, Dr. Martin is on a mission to improve medicare. In Better Now, she shows how bold fixes are both achievable and affordable. Her patients stories and her own family s experiences illustrate the evidence she presents about what works best to improve health care for all. Better Now outlines Six Big Ideas to bolster Canada s health care system. Each one is centred on a typical Canadian patient, making it clear how close to home these issues strike.

A few days ago, I came across an expose by the CBC’s The Fifth Estate on “The High Cost of Pharmaceuticals: Canada’s Big Drug Problem.” A lot of what that investigation discussed sounded familiar. I had just read all about it in this book, Better Now. I had originally decided to read this book because I thought it would a good supplement to the books I had read last year – books by life and death professionals (ex. family doctor, crematorium technician) about their work and how to improve their field through anecdotal stories about their patients and their own personal lives (is that specific enough? haha).  As described above, Better Now, written by a family doctor who believes ‘in the value of fairness that underpins the Canadian health care system’, presents the following ‘Six Big Ideas’ to improve the system:

  1. Ensure relationship-based primary health care for every Canadian
  2. Bring prescription drugs under Medicare
  3. Reduce unnecessary tests and interventions
  4. Reorganize health care delivery to reduce wait times and improve quality
  5. Implement a basic income guarantee
  6. Scale up successful solutions across the country.

This book turned out to be even more personally relevant than I expected. I am currently searching for a new family doctor, as I found my old one unsatisfactory. I couldn’t pintpoint exactly why, but after reading about these ideas and some of the issues with our system, I see my relationship with my previous doctor reflected in them.  Idea #5 surprised me in a good way. I appreciated how Dr. Martin considers the bigger picture and explores social factors, especially in ideas #5 and #6. Her proposals are indeed ‘big ideas’. She acknowledges the potential difficulties in implementing them, but also presents them as actionable realities. She strikes an appropriate balance between support for the current healthcare system and addressing its shortcomings, which can be improved upon. One area she doesn’t explicitly address is the education of medical professionals, which is an area I imagine could use some changes.

Better Now is written in an accessible style, with straightforward prose. These are complex ideas, but there isn’t too much technical jargon or infodump – just enough so the reader can understand the ideas being presented. This is a short book and therefore largely a starting point. If one concept intrigues you, Martin provides many resources for further reading at the end of the book.

The Bottom Line:

Is it too trite of me to say ‘I recommend this book to any Canadian’? I could say, ‘I recommend this book to any Canadian with a stake in our healthcare system’ – well, isn’t that the same thing? But seriously, if you have any interest or care for your healthcare, check out this book.

Further Reading:

  • Author’s Twitter
  • Book website
  • “The doctor on a mission to heal medicare” @ The Star
  • “Toronto doctor who gave U.S. Senator a lesson on healthcare outlines her ‘6 big ideas’ for Canada” @ CTV News Health

Review: The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

Cover of The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

Author: Jennifer Niven
Title: The Ice Master
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2000
Publisher: Hachette Books
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Creative/narrative non-fiction
Why I Read: Interested in the Karluk‘s journey
Rating: ★★★★
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My introduction to the Karluk voyage came via Eric Walter’s Trapped in Ice. Walter’s book is one of the earliest chapter books I remember reading, perhaps in grade three. Earlier this year, I read Captain Bartlett’s official journals of the event in The Karluk’s Last Voyage. Both of these books indulge in some sugar coating and neither of them explore what happened to those left on the ice after Bartlett departed. The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven (author of All the Bright Places) fills in those gaps, offering a detailed account of how the Karluk‘s final voyage went so wrong. The fate of the Karluk provides an excellent exploration of how one terrible choice after another can lead to disastrous outcomes.

I enjoyed how Niven constructed the narrative. She attempts to allow “the people of the Karluk […] to speak on these pages in their own distinctive and passionate voices” (ix). This results in a tale that is less a factual account and more an adventure novel, though it still has that non-fiction vibe to it. She describes small yet poignant moments, such as when Mamen’s pocket watch suddenly starts working again during a dull day (78). However, Niven’s narrative makes it almost too easy to root for the good guys and boo at the bad guys. It’s harder to keep in mind that these were real people Niven didn’t know. The personalities of and interactions between the men may have been more complex than Niven portrays. Still, I enjoyed rallying behind Mamen and nodding in agreement with his judgment of certain characters.

The time the men spent on the island was a lot darker than I imagined. (The other two accounts I read of the Karluk were poor influences on my expectations.) Some nasty characters inhabited the Karluk, even if they weren’t in actuality as awful as Niven portrays them. I can’t help but wonder if any of it was inspiration for The North Water. Of course, that book is on a whole nother level; it’s a bit of a stretch to link the two…but I can see how one might get some seedlings of ideas from the Karluk’s situation.

The ice was misleading. It was easy to feel safe when the ice was still and settled and the men were tucked safely inside the ship. Their frozen home gave them a false sense of security. The scenery, too, was unspeakably beautiful, and it was hard to believe that something so lovely could at the same time be so deadly. The sky was bright as a mirror at times, and there was only ice and snow “and a few openings and small water channels that shine and glitter” as far as the eye could see, observed Mamen. (64)

Niven’s prose itself isn’t exceptional, but it doesn’t need to be. The subject matter impresses on its own. A handful of moments (I would have appreciated more of them) made me pause as I imagined what it would have been like to truly experience the Arctic ice, snow, and darkness.

There were two degrees of frost on McKinlay’s bunk, and everything that was freezable in the Cabin DeLuxe was frozen and frozen hard. When the men awakened, the room looked like a glittering ice palace. It covered everything, and long, jagged icicles shone from the ceiling. (87)

The Bottom Line:

A well-researched and well-written (and at times emotional) account of a lesser-known disastrous Arctic journey.

Further Reading:

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