Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neil

We were just acting out the strangest, tragic little roles, pretending to be criminals in order to get by. We gave very convincing performances.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages.
Read from June 4, 2018 to June 14, 2018.

This book has been heralded with awards and accolades for its unique and outspoken story about Baby, a twelve-year-old girl just trying to make sense of the world and how she fits into it.

Baby is her name. Her real name, not some cute nickname. Baby’s parents were very young when they had her with her mother exiting from her life at an early age. Jules, Baby’s father, loves her but unfortunately, he seems to love heroin more. Jules does the best he can but often finds himself in less than ideal situations for raising a child. While Baby is on the cusp of leaving her childhood behind her, she tells her story with the frankness that can only come from that of a child yet she is slowly becoming more aware of how abnormal her life is with her father as she ages. While there are many pervasive aspects to this novel involving sexuality, drugs and prostitution, the quirky and honest way that Baby delivers her story makes for an enthralling combination of awe, shock and amusement.

“Suddenly I realized that I wanted everything to be as it was when I was younger. When you’re young enough, you don’t know that you live in a cheap lousy apartment. A cracked chair is nothing other than a chair. A dandelion growing out of a crack in the side walk outside your front door is a garden. You could believe that a song your partner was singing in the evening was the most tragic opera in the world. It never occurs to you when you are very young to need something other than what your parents have to offer you.”

The success of this book comes with how the author has delivered it in combination with some beautiful, and at times, poignant writing. Baby’s understanding and sense of the world is appropriate for her age yet reflective and insightful enough to engage any reader. Even if you had the idea of a normal childhood, the delivery of Baby’s story will still appeal to you because of how she approaches childhood and the insights she has on it. Childhood, in many ways, is horrible and magnificent time, which is reflective of the tone of this book. It is a portion of our lives that we can truly never ever relive or experience again for better and for worse.

“As a kid, you have nothing to do with the way the world is run; you just have to hurry to catch up with it.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Baby’s story and found the book to be highly readable and engaging. I think most fiction lovers will appreciate this quirky, awkward and honest rendition of a peculiar and traumatizing childhood.

No One Writes to the Colonel Anymore by Gabriel García Márquez

“The only thing that comes for sure is death, colonel”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 170 pages.
Read from January 16, 2018 to January 19, 2018.

Márquez has been on my TBR list for way too long. This novel was a gift and a perfect way to start reading this phenomenal author. Márquez won the Nobel prize for literature in 1982 and has been praised as one of “the most significant authors of the 20th century“.

An elderly and unnamed colonel and his wife live in a small village in Columbia during the 1970s. Columbia is in the midst of a civil war that spans nearly a decade and is called the “La Violencia Era” and the country is being governed by martial law as result. The novel opens with the colonel attending the funeral of an older man who has died of natural causes, an event that has not happened in a while, making the funeral a somewhat happier and noteworthy event. The colonel spends his days waiting for his pension that he earned during his service in the military. Each day he checks with the postman to see if it has arrived but to no avail, with the country in upheaval, pensions are not a top priority.

Unfortunately, as he and his wife are elderly, they need that money in order to survive as their funds are slowly dwindling. His wife begins to sell their prized possessions to make ends meet and to make matters worse for the couple, their son is believed to be dead as a result of the current war. The colonel has been taking care of his son’s fighting rooster as there is a fight scheduled in the near future. The wife wants the colonel to sell the rooster but the colonel cannot part with it. He claims it is because there is a lot of people who have bet money on the upcoming fight and that they might make some money if the rooster wins but, in reality, the colonel has not given up hope that his son will return.

The story of the colonel is a mix of tragedy and the awful realities of war but ultimately it is about hope. The colonel has lost his purpose in life but has not given up hope that things will turn around. He has to, as hope is all he has left.  The rooster becomes the colonel’s metaphor and symbol of his hope. Even at the end when he and wife have next to nothing he still insists on feeding and caring for the rooster, much to his wife’s dismay.

Márquez has a distinct, brusque and masculine style of writing that lends itself well to the emotional subtleties of his characters and the bitterness of a setting stricken with the pains of war and poverty. Indeed, Márquez’s prose is gorgeous, even in translation.  If you are not paying attention to this carefully worded story, however, you may misplace or not understand the colonel’s attachment to the rooster and thereby not see or enjoy the beautiful pinnacle of this story.

This book is a quick read and seems like a good place to start if you have not read anything by Márquez, as some of his works, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, are quite lengthy.  One Hundred Years of Solitude will be my next read by Márquez as this short novel has given me a desire to read more of Márquez’s outstanding writing style.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

3/5 stars.
ebook, 320 pages.
Read from April 01 to 19, 2014.

I am making my way through the Canada-Reads of 2014; Cockroach is the second book out of the five that were nominated that I’ve tackled so far.  Cockroach is a very interesting novel and as a reader you either like it or you don’t. That is, if you can tolerate the extremely depressing tone and existential theme. What I enjoyed most about this novel is that it provides the reader with insight into the life of a immigrant struggling in Canada, with a dash of mental illness and some descriptive philosophical ideas about our purpose in life. This review does contain some spoilers but I will mark them appropriately.

The plot is shaped by existential questions that are asked by an unnamed narrator who struggles with poverty, drugs, mental illness and suicide. This story opens with the main character, who is unnamed, sitting in a psychiatrists office somewhere in Montreal, Canada. What you learn as a reader is that the narrator is an unstable man, who enjoys beautiful women, steals and breaks into people’s homes to sit on their couches and eat their food and quite literally thinks of himself as a cockroach. He is obsessed with questions about his own existence and his own purpose. He has been mandated by the state to take therapy sessions as he recently failed at an attempt to hang himself. The psychiatrist is a beautiful blonde woman named Genevieve. It’s obvious from her interactions with the main protagonist that she does not understand him or the world that he lives in.

The protagonist has come to Canada from some unnamed country and the people he associates with are also immigrates to Canada. You meet Reza, who is a sketchy Persian sitar player who is obsessed with his self-worth and luring women into his bed by seducing them with his foreignness and lies. The protagonist isn’t particularly fond of Reza but he does hangout with him and do drugs after Reza finally pays him the forty dollars that he owed him. Through Reza, he meets: Faroud, a gay Persian man who speaks of the persecution and torture he suffered before he came to Canada. “The Professor”, which is what the protagonist calls the man because of his profession, one which, he is no longer doing in Canada. The Professor is a hypocritical man who doesn’t want to admit that he is poor. The protagonist hates this about him so he steals some love-letters from him that detail a weak long-term affair that The Professor has been having. Lastly, he meets Shohreh, a beautiful young woman who you learn **start spoiler** near the end has been raped by Islamists in Tehran **end spoiler**. With these character’s stories, the reader is shown each of their struggles in coming to terms what has happened to them as well as trying to live in a new country and the ultimate solitude that it creates. Violence and sex are a constant.

Through the protagonist’s therapy sessions, he is encouraged to get a job. He finds one in a Persian restaurant that Reza plays at occasionally. He works three days a week and becomes friendly with the owners daughter, Sehar. She is young and flirtatious and at one point, the protagonist catches her masturbating. Sehar represents a younger generation of immigrants trying to become the definition of what it is to be “Canadian” and step away from her heritage.

What brings the protagonist’s story into the stories of the people that he meets all together is, through his therapy sessions, you learn that he had a sister once. She married a despicable man who used to beat her ferociously. He admits to conspiring to kill her husband during that time but does not end up following through with it. **start spoiler** The result of him not being able to kill his sister’s husband unintentionally causes her death. Her husband kills her. After which, you can assume that his inability to deal with this scenario is what instigated him to hang himself in the first place. While developing a romantic relationship with Shohreh, the protagonist learns about her rape and abortion and finds that one of her perpetrators is a customer that comes into the restaurant that he works in. Determined to resolve the situation for Shohreh and the mistakes he made with his sister, the two of them conspire to kill Shohreh’s rapist when he comes to the restaurant one night **end spoiler**.

The ultimate comment the book is trying to achieve is to show the ineffectiveness of immigrant assimilation and how little the receiving country understands the struggles of a new immigrant. The protagonist thinks of himself as a cockroach because he is living in a world that doesn’t understand him or his needs as a human, so he lives like a cockroach, in filth.

Overall, I would recommend this book for anyone looking for something thought-provoking and well written and is alright with tolerating a bleak tone.