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BOOK REVIEWS &
RECOMMENDATIONS
 
with Abby Kernya IG @abbigalekernya

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Crush

by Richard Siken (2005)

Genre: Poetry, Queer Lit

Recommended Age: 14+ readers

Rating Scale

Educational value: ​​ 3/5

Positive message: 2/5

Positive role models: 2/5

Violence: 4/5

Sex: 5/5

Language: 3/5

Drinking, drugs, smoking: 5/5

Consumerism:​ 2/5

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“I take off my hands and I give them to you but you don't want them, so I take them back and put them on the wrong way, the wrong wrists.”

— Richard Siken, Crush

I have been going through a very weird time in my life. From attempting to navigate friendship, romance, and that weird, unspoken tether between them—the past months have been a time of great transformation.

 

I am not the first person to say that love is a tricky thing and I certainly am not the first person to grieve in the most romantic of ways. Famously, however, I am perhaps the biggest yearner I have ever met and I have never gotten over anything ever. I am, at the end of the day, a melancholic drama queen who will linger in melodrama as long as I can to fuel my “creative process”

 

This said creative process is brought on by my set rotation of books that bounce me back into the lesson of heartbreak, loneliness, fear, and everything in between.

 

Richard Siken is on my rotation twice.

 

The first being his sophomore poetry collection titled War of the Foxes which I’m sure will make an appearance on this page sooner than later if not tattooed on myself first. Yet, nothing compares to my first exposure to Siken which remains stapled to my brain even a year later.

 

Crush is Siken’s arguably most famous poetry collection—winning the 2004 Yale Younger Poets Prize and having made rounds on social media for its beautifully articulated poems detailing the crawl from obsession, to love, back to obsession again. 

 

Though I have read this book multiple times over and marked up nearly every page in pen, it gained a new meaning for me recently as I became harrowingly aware of how intimate Siken’s writing is.

 

At the beginning of my current relationship, my partner asked to borrow Crush to better understand me and get a sense of the literature I love. When I lent him my copy, I immediately felt its absence on my shelf, and realized how much of myself Siken managed to touch with his words, and just how frightening that kind of intimacy really is.

 

Siken’s short poems manage to uncover the anxiety of falling in love; he argues that love is survival, if nothing else. This survival is the endurance to give yourself wholly to another with the knowledge that you will never entirely get yourself back—at least not in a way you remember.

 

Crush is heartbreaking and encouraging and utterly devastating. Love has no answer, but it does have a universal understanding of this fact that there is no right way to navigate it. One can only give in to it, or let oneself be destroyed by its gnashing teeth. Siken writes about love as a young queer adult trying to find himself in the bodies of others—biting his bloodied tongue over and over when a crush threatens to overthrow him; when love turns sour.

 

Crush is one of those books that I turn to in different stages of my life to see how I’ve grown, but also to see how it speaks to me in a new, intimate way. I read Crush in the middle of heartbreak, loneliness, and now again in a loving relationship. 

 

It is one of those books that holds infinite meaning—one that no matter where your life takes you and who you spend it with, that feeling of isolation and confusion that haunts your twenties will always find its way back to you; not always in a bad way, however. 


In Crush, Siken makes a place for remembrance. A place to be as horrified by love as much as it excited you.

Upstream: Selected Essays

by Mary Oliver (2016)

Genre: Poery, Nonfiction, Memoir

Recommended Age: 14+ readers

Rating Scale

Educational value: ​​ 4/5

Positive message: 2/5

Positive role models: 2/5

Violence: 4/5

Sex: 3/5

Language: 1/5

Drinking, drugs, smoking: 5/5

Consumerism:​ 1/5

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“Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?”

— Mary Oliver, Upstream

The end of January where I live in Canada has broken out of the harsh grips of winter to an unexpectedly warm and kind spring. It seems only fitting, then, that I should introduce Mary Oliver for this book review. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite writers that I count myself fortunate enough to have come across. Her writing is whimsical, calming, nurturing, and above all else -- simple. There is a time and place for overdramatic and grandiose writing, and believe me I don't favour one over the other, but the beauty of Mary Oliver is the simplistic beauty she so passionately conveys in her work.

 

Upstream is a collection of essays that details Oliver's childhood living in rural Ohio surrounded by nature. Though Oliver's religion is a guiding factor in her personal life, Upstream is a devotional collection that favours the divine beauty of nature and human's special place among it. During this particular warm pocket of early February, I have found myself picking back up this collection and describing to friends the "self-devotional" message I found loud in this work. Oliver is one of those writers whose works are tied to their religious background, but can be read and enjoyed by everyone. Upstream explores the glorious gift of life weaving in and out of the material and natural world in a breathtaking display of the divine connection between humans and this earth we walk on. 

Oliver's description alone of animals and the forest behind her childhood home is enough to cast this collection of essays on your radar for the upcoming spring. As February leans heavily on the topic of relationships, Oliver uses her adoration of the natural world to better recognize her relationship with herself in a devotional understanding of self-love and acceptance.

Mary Oliver remains one of my favourite poets and never fails to push my introverted self out in nature to walk around the beautiful world she spent her life worshipping. From an atheist, agnostic, religious or spiritual perspective, Oliver depicts life as a delicate gift to be celebrated through kindness and appreciation. Upstream follows a young child experiencing the world for the first time to a young adult carrying within her the curious child who once wandered into the woods and, as Oliver explains, never fully returned.

If you are in the mood to read glorious depictions of nature, find yourself among the trees and flowers, or are curious about living a softer life, then I cannot recommend this collection of essays enough.

 

 

“And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”

A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews (2004)

Genre: Canadian Lit, Literary Fiction

Recommended Age: 16+ readers

Rating Scale

Educational value: ​​ 4/5

Positive message: 2/5

Positive role models: 2/5

Violence: 4/5

Sex: 3/5

Language: 1/5

Drinking, drugs, smoking: 5/5

Consumerism:​ 1/5

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...and I put on "All My Love" and watched the sun rise yet again and thought thank you Robert Plant for all your love but do you have anymore?

— Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness

Life has been weird lately. It has been weird in the sense that sometimes I wake up and forget where I am. For a second each morning, I panic and try to find something familiar in the dark of my room to prove that I am here, and not somewhere else very far away. Growing up in a very small and isolated town, this feeling of displacement makes me who I am. I start to feel homesick when I find peace somewhere bigger than that town. From watching my friends grow up and go sideways, it’s sad to understand that when you’ve outgrown your community, there is nowhere else to turn but inside yourself. 

 

With this quick glimpse into my current mindset, it should come as no surprise that Miriam Toews is making a double feature in reviews. Last issue, I reviewed Toews’ A Complicated Kindness which was my first introduction to this phenomenal Canadian author, and I was fortunate enough to study Towes’ A Complicated Kindness for a Canadian Literature class in university. 

 

This novel follows Nomi and her father Ray—two remaining members of their family in a rural mennonite community after Nomi’s sister, Tash left the community, followed by her eccentric mother Trudie. Nomi, like her sister and mother, hates this town. She hates her uncle “The Mouth”, the town’s pastor who relishes on punishing and exploiting shame, she hates that her older sister left and that her mother didn’t take her secret passport with her when she left too. But, Nomi loves her father, who loves this town as much as he loves Nomi. When Nomi starts rebelling against her community—drinking, drugs, an older boyfriend, her place in this tiny mennonite community is put at risk.

 

A Complicated Kindness is a story that isn’t defined by one theme or the other. Rather, this novel is raw and vulnerable and proves Toews’ master of her craft. It rips up the boundaries of familial love and stitches it back together again and again and again. It highlights the suffocation of rural Canadian towns and in all of the pain and internal grief that exist alongside familial isolation, Towes writes a complicated sort of love that exists within it all. 

 

I will never tire of Toews’ work. A part of me will always be in my hometown, and a part of me will always be in the characters Toews’ creates. 

 

“Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life?”

 

Love and attention exist on the same scale. You love what you mention, and as someone who, despite my teenage angst and rebellion against an environment I could not control, always finds a way to mention where I came from. For anyone who feels bigger than their hometown or anyone who struggles to find kindness even in the darkest of moments, please do yourself a favour and pick this book up. 

 

“When she looked at me she saw a child surrounded by flames, screaming. And that must have been hard for her.”

All My Puny Sorrows

by Miriam Toews (2014)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Psychological Fiction, Canadian Lit

Recommended Age: 16+ readers

Rating Scale

Educational value: ​​ 4/5

Positive message: 2/5

Positive role models: 2/5

Violence: 5/5

Sex: 3/5

Language: 2/5

Drinking, drugs, smoking: 4/5

Consumerism:​ 1/5

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“It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

— Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

 

It’s been a really long time since I have had such a visceral reaction to a book. Around a month or so ago, a good friend of mine recommended Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows after realizing we shared the same love of books that hold the capacity to destroy their reader. 

 

Lately, I’ve been going through a lot of changes in my life—some good, some bad, all equally as frightening. Reading All My Puny Sorrows found me when everything felt so uncertain and self-doubt continuously plagued my psyche in a never-ending spiral of change. The book follows two sisters Elfreida and Yolandi as Yolandi narrates their sheltered religious upbringing in relation to her elder sister’s rebellious grit and desire to find life outside of their community. 

 

I should stop my review now to warn readers that this book is not for the faint of heart, and not for those looking for a happy time. 

 

Elfreida—in all her lust for life and worldwide success as a pianist—wants to die. In the most simplest of ways, Yolandi’s sister doesn’t want to stay alive. Through the book’s narration of Yoli’s perspective, to watch the person she idolizes more than life itself rot in a hospital bed after a failed attempt and balance her role as a sister and friend to the shell of a human once resembling her sister all while dealing with two children and a divorce, All My Puny Sorrows tests the limitations of love; asking just how far will one go to honour those they love even if it kills them, even if it doesn’t.

 

Through motherhood, sisterhood, and childhood, how does one escape genetic sadness? What do you do when the one person on this planet you love more than anything wants to leave it? In a delicate analysis of human suffering, Toews bends the limit of humanity and explores grief as a crash course for unaltering love, and how far family can go to save each other. 

 

There was a moment that caught my breath when I first read it. When Elfreida lies in a hospital bed, she tells her sister there is a glass piano inside her and she’s terrified it will break. I won’t get into my interpretation of this imagery, for that I invite you to pick up a copy and decide for yourself what it means.


I remember approaching the climax of this novel and leaving my house in search of a calmer place to finish. With tear-stained cheeks and a hollow hole in my chest, I closed this novel and sat in silence on the couch in my office. All My Puny Sorrows has left a stain on my soul—one that I cannot thank my friend enough for, and one I cannot recommend enough.

Carmilla

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)

Genre: Horror Fiction, Gothic Horror, Sapphic Fiction

Recommended Age: 14+ readers

Rating Scale

Educational value: ​​ 2/5

Positive message: 1/5

Positive role models: 2/5

Violence: 5/5

Sex: 3.5/5

Language: 2/5

Drinking, drugs, smoking: 1/5

Consumerism:​ 0/5

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“'I have been in love with no one, and never shall,' she whispered, 'unless it should be with you.' How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

— Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla

 

Dear reader, 

 

If there is one thing you must know about me before continuing on with your regular scheduled programming, it’s that I love a good aesthetic. Gothic castles, chilly weather, dark skies, wind blowing through bare trees, a haunting apparition at the end of your bed, a mysterious sickness—what more could a girl want!

 

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu scratches my gothic itch as I patiently twiddle my thumbs in anticipation of fall. This short novella, published before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, follows the friendship of Laura and a mysterious damsel in distress known as Carmilla. As Carmilla is graciously taken in by Laura and her father after a tragic accident, her allure becomes a bloody sight to behold.

 

Carmilla, regardless of the debates behind Le Fanu's initial intentions of publishing a sensual female relationship as ‘monstrous’, undoubtedly is one of the greatest sapphic stories in the Gothic genre. The relationship between Laura and Carmilla blurs several lines of its time, and has instead become a romance that still proves magnetic today.

 

It is a relatively short read, coming in around 100 pages. Read in an afternoon, Carmilla marked the end of a very long and frustrating reading slump—I thought, what better way to get back in the groove than to read about lesbian vampires? Truly, I made the right choice. 


Carmilla is a beautifully written story about attraction, yearning, youthful ignorance, and blinding hatred. If you are looking for a read that not only sets the perfect ambiance for a gothic romance, but also one that strays away from the traditional hetero-vampiric storyline (Carmilla, having predated Dracula, truly is a trailblazer!) then I cannot recommend this enthralling novella enough.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds

by Ocean Vuong (2016)

Genre: Poetry

Recommended Age: 14+ readers

Rating Scale

Educational value: ​​ 3/5

Positive message: 4/5

Positive role models: 2/5

Violence: 5/5

Sex: 4/5

Language: 4/5

Drinking, drugs, smoking: 5/5

Consumerism:​ 2/5

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“it's june after all & you're young

until september

 he looks different

from his picture but it doesn't matter”

— Ocean Vuong, “Because It’s Summer”

 

If any of you have been long-time readers of my bi-monthly book reviews, then it comes as no surprise that I’m once again talking about Ocean Vuong. 

 

Since June is Pride Month, I wanted to choose a queer author and naturally, my mind drifted to Vuong's poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an award-winning contemporary collection of poems that details Vuong’s experience as a queer Vietnamese immigrant living in America. In a coming-of-age fashion, Vuong writes about the grief of war, the fragility of violence, his identity as an immigrant, his identity as a gay man, and explores the poetic limits of gender and expression that sets the standard for modern poets. 

 

When it comes to my relationship with Vuong’s work, it is impossible to pick favourites without discounting the entirety of my affliction with everything he writes. I would, in all seriousness, pay to read his grocery lists. That being said, in no particular order, I want to highlight a few poems that have constantly stuck with me since receiving this collection as a gift on a quiet covid Christmas morning. 

 

First, “Immigrant Haibun” is the first poem I remember vigorously annotating and obsessing over when I first read the collection. “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” stands out as an unforgettable letter to Vuong’s future self, and “Thanksgiving 2006” is a cold isolating poem that found its way embedded into my mind as I myself was cold and isolated away from everyone during those years in lockdown. 

 

Of course, you cannot gain the full scope of the Vuong experience with just those poems, and I cannot recommend his work enough. I promise, your perspective on contemporary poets will forever be changed—I know mine certainly did.


His command of the page with such elegant prose and cadence is truly unforgettable. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a collection that demands to be read slowly, then read again, then again and again.

"I pull into the field & cut the engine.

It's simple: I just don't know

how to love a man

gently. Tenderness

a thing to be beaten

into. Fireflies strung

through sapphired air.

You're so quiet you're almost

tomorrow."

- Ocean Vuong, "Into The Breach"

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Reccomendations
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MORE RECOMMENDED READS

Babel

by R.F Kuang 

Mrs. Dalloway

by Virginia Woolf

This Wound Is A World

by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Beautiful World,

Where Are You

by Sally Rooney

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous 

by Ocean Vuong

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