As You Were by David Tromblay

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 251 pages.
Read from October 14, 2020 to October 19, 2020.

A big thank you to Dzanc Books who offered me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When the author learns that his father is dying he decides to write a memoir of sorts, a testament to the brutality that was inflicted on him as a child and as a young man. Tromblay is part Native American, on his father’s side, and after being abandoned by his mother, his grandmother raises him the only way she knew how. Tromblay’s grandmother lived through the reservation boarding schools that Native Americans were forced into, meaning that anything she knew about punishment came in the form of fear and physical abuse. To make matters worse, Tromblay’s father lived with them as well and not only is he an alcoholic but he suffers brain damage from a previous car accident making him extremely volatile and aggressive. Tromblay’s father always said to him, that the day that he could “take him” was the day he had no place under his roof. Tromblay eventually escapes his tormenters and finds himself in the Armed Forces as a young man. While his capacities for violence were put to good use, his experiences inevitably led to further trauma. 

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking. The book moves back and forth in time to parts of Tromblay’s childhood to pieces of his adult life and his time in the Armed Forces, often half a world away. Tromblay’s story is a unique coming of age story that discloses so much pain and humiliation and yet it is still an engaging read as the book’s tone is not one of pity. You get the idea that the author has accepted that this is just the way things are, just like a straight-faced soldier who has compartmentalizes his pain.  The story is written in the second person, as the author addresses himself giving the story a poetic and poignant feel, despite its raw content. As a reader you’re drawn to Tromblay’s torment through its honest and direct structure as well as the poetic style that comforts you, as you somehow already surmise the strength behind the author’s words, anticipating a positive outcome. 

“He does die, but it takes you another half-dozen drafts to say what you need to say. With his last breath, the last bit of angst drips out of your pen.”

p.250

Tromblay’s story is less about pain and more about overcoming it by confronting it head-on. It’s about a grieving process unique to those who have experienced traumas by people who were supposed to care for them as well as those affected by war and death. While there are many graphic details in the story that some might find triggering or disturbing, it was all part of a necessary process for Tromblay. His father’s death is an opportunity to release, maybe not forgive, but to let go and move on. 

With his father’s death, Tromblay finds some healing from his past and a future in writing to look forward to. After a decade in the Army, Tromblay went on to pursue his MA in Creative Writing having since published two books, of which this is his second. This book covers so many dynamic themes that it is an approachable story for those that are willing to follow in the author’s disturbing past and hopeful future. I would highly recommend it.

This novel is expected to be available for purchase in February 2021. 

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

Grown-ups, who are supposed to protect their children, are limited by what “best” has felt like to them, based on the circumstances they grew in and the privilege they did or did not have. The lines between grown-up and child were often blurred between me and my mom. Her “best” did not look like mine; in fact, it looked like danger. It felt like surrender.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 190 pages.
Read from January 29, 2020 to February 1, 2020.

Whoop whoop! First book into the Canada Reads 2020 and its started out with a bang. This year Canada Reads brings one collection of novellas, two memoirs, and two pieces of fiction. I started with We Have Always Been Here which is one of the two memoirs heading into the debates. We Have Always Been Here will be defended by Amanda Brugel during the debates taking place from March 16-19th.

Samra spent her childhood years growing up in Pakistan in fear of religious persecution as well as the threat of a highly patriarchal society that stifled her and her family. After being sexually assaulted by a family friend her life became even more restricted. From a young age Samra had a fire in her that couldn’t be put out no matter what was thrown at her. When violence started to escalate her family was thankfully able to pack up and flee to Canada to safety. Samra and her family found themselves in a new home where they were not as affluent as they were in Pakistan. Samra struggled as a new immigrant at school and even more so with her identity as she struggled between her conservative family values and a country with a new way of life that she found immensely appealing. Samra is married and divorced, twice, before the age of 25 and goes on an exploratory journey with her own sexuality as she realises her own queerness. Still, Samra is drawn to her religion and needs to find a new way to connect with her church and her family as she blooms into her true self.

How do you find yourself when the world tells you that you don’t exist?

Samra Habib

Samra is now an advocate for the queer Muslim community with her writing and photography to help highlight and bring light to queer Muslims who have been in her situation. Samra’s writing is frank and engaging as she details the story of her life without asking for sympathy. Her journey is an empowering one and one that I didn’t want to put down. Samra embraces her queerness, femininity, and religion with grace and strength and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her memoir.

Is this the one book to bring Canada into focus? While this is an immensely important topic we will have to wait and see what the other books bring to the table to the debates.

 

A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

4/5 stars.
ebook,  334 pages.
Read from November 26, 2019 to December 4, 2019.

This is the second book I decided to read on grief, not really for myself but with the aims that I would recommend it to a loved one dealing with their own grief. This book has been touted as one of the best books on grief, specifically about spousal grief, of which I hope I never have to experience soon. The first book I picked up on spousal grief was Loon Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2019. While I didn’t read either of these books for me, they both gave me something invaluable and have helped, even if a little, with my own grief.

Joan and her husband John are experiencing a very difficult time. It’s shortly after Christmas and their only daughter Quintana has fallen deathly ill, from what at first appeared to be the common flu but later turned into septic shock. No one is certain if she is going to make it. After a long day at the hospital, the couple comes home. Joan starts a fire and begins to cook them a meal. John gets up from the couch and, just like that, in an instant, he collapses and dies from a massive coronary thrombosis.

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

Joan walks us through her all the disbelief and disillusions she has in trying to cope with the sudden and traumatic passing of her husband in a way that will be all too familiar if you are or have ever dealt with death herself. She calls it the year of magical thinking because it truly took her a year to fully comprehend that her husband was never coming back. Grief is strange and it seems that you’re only able to feel so much at a time for a while because it’s too overwhelming. You logically know that person has passed but you cling to things that don’t make sense anyway. Joan does extensive research about death and grieving to get an idea of what to expect. The information she finds is highly analytical and is an attempt to help make sense of the tragedy she has experienced. This book is not a self-help book that will explain what your feeling or the five stages of grief, but rather a personal story that validates grief along with some analytical research to back it up.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

There were however, some aspects I didn’t connect with while reading this book. Joan and her husband were both writers, successful ones at that too, so there are a variety of specific generational and academic references that I didn’t connect with, so I ended up skimming past them. There is also usually large financial stress that often comes with the passing of a spouse that can compound grief further that either wasn’t discussed in this story or wasn’t an issue for Joan and her family. Perhaps it was a topic that didn’t suit the overall tone of this story.

I took a lot from Joan’s story and I appreciate the efforts she took to explain and detail her grief so that others in her position can feel a little less alone. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone grieving, no matter what the loss.