Tag: Saleema Nawaz

Songs for the End of the World

Cover image for Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawazby Saleema Nawaz

ISBN 9780771072574

“He should have known better. How quickly he’d forgotten a fundamental truth: the closer you get to the heart of calamity, the more resilience there was to be found.”

In the summer of 2020, New York City police officer Elliot Howe finds himself in quarantine after he learns that he was exposed to a novel coronavirus brought to the United States by a visiting teacher at his martial arts gym. As Elliot watches from his window, New York is gripped by ARAMIS—Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome—and the hunt for ARAMIS Girl, a young Asian woman falsely believed to be patient zero for the outbreak. Songs for the End of the World also follows Owen Grant, a writer who is reluctantly drawn into the spotlight because he wrote a novel that seemed to predict the ARAMIS outbreak, and Emma Aslet, a singer-songwriter who is planning an ARAMIS relief fundraiser while she is expecting her first child. Weaving back and forth in time, and following a cast of loosely connected characters, Songs for the End of the World explores family and human connection in pandemic times.

Canadian novelist Saleema Nawaz wrote and then revised this book, her second novel, between 2013 and 2019. Looking to the past, she based her research on SARS, MERS, Ebola, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Originally scheduled for publication in August 2020—the same month the events of the novel begin—it was published digital-first in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the globe. The print edition was released as scheduled on August 25, 2020 in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. As of this writing, the novel does not have an American publisher or US publication date.

The novel is set mainly over a five month period from August to December 2020, but with flashbacks to periods between 1999 and 2016. Most of the flashbacks happen in the first half of the book, delaying the sense of settling into the pandemic with interludes of normalcy. In the flashbacks, we see Owen beginning to write his pandemic novel just as his marriage starts to fall apart, follow Stu Jenkins beginning his career as a musician, and accompany the Aslet family as they circumnavigate the globe on their sailboat while Y2K draws closer, and join Elliot’s sister Sarah as she reveals to their parents that she has chosen to have a baby by herself.

Songs for the End of the World is a pandemic novel, but not a post-apocalyptic one. Certain parallels can definitely be drawn to the work of fellow Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel; Station Eleven came out in 2014 and was a pandemic novel that also featured a large cast of characters and employed a complex timeline. However, Songs for the End of the World does not destroy our society before offering the hope of rebuilding, but instead considers resilience in place. In this novel, it is those who try the hardest to isolate and escape who pay the heaviest price, while those families that turn towards one another find the capacity to heal old wounds and build new bonds as they grapple with the strange new world they suddenly find themselves living in.

As omniscient as Songs for the End of the World seems, it does differ from our current circumstances in important ways. Family is a key theme of the novel, one that Nawaz strikes at by having children be extremely susceptible to ARAMIS, and at the greatest risk of dying from the new disease. Elliot’s sister Sarah is desperate to protect her young son Noah—so desperate that she agrees to join Owen on his recently purchased sailboat to ride out the pandemic in isolation. Emma gives birth to her first child in the midst of the pandemic, as does Elliot’s ex-wife’s new partner, Julia. Another character faces the fact that the child she chose to have by herself would be alone if something happened to her during the pandemic, and another discovers offspring he was previously unaware of. Each in their way faces the question of what it means to bring new life into this world, with all its flaws and dangers.

Although Nawaz wrote this novel in a world where COVID-19 was not a reality, none of us will ever be able to read the book from that perspective. For better or for worse, my reading of this story is inevitably coloured by the reality of living through a real pandemic while reading about a fictional one. Although I’ve read a number of non-fiction pandemic books this year, Songs for the End of the World marks my first foray into fictional pandemics since COVID-19 began. As such, I was struck by the accuracy of Nawaz’s research, and the myriad ways that her ARAMIS outbreak mirrors our current circumstances down to the very smallest details of social distancing and public reaction and controversy. At times the meta-ness of the book was almost too much to bear—a fault of the world, not the writer. Like Owen, Nawaz has unexpectedly found herself the author of a pandemic novel that has suddenly come true. But unlike Owen, Nawaz sees connection and hope. “We may need to isolate at home, but it is not a time for isolationism,” she warns in the interview included at the ended of the book; “we need to come together in solidarity.”

You might also like Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Diverse Books Tag

The-DiverseBooks-Tag Naz over at Read Diverse Books has been doing killer work with his #DiverseBookBloggers tag. Check it out for great conversations about diversity in the book blogging community, and find lots of great new people to follow! Now he has also started a meme to get bloggers to promote their diverse reads, or challenge themselves to add books that fit certain criteria to their TBR. I’ll let Naz explain:

The Diverse Books Tag is a bit like a scavenger hunt. I will task you to find a book that fits a specific criteria and you will have to show us a book you have read or want to read.

If you can’t think of a book that fits the specific category, then I encourage you to go look for one. A quick Google search will provide you with many books that will fit the bill. (Also, Goodreads lists are your friends.) Find one you are genuinely interested in reading and move on to the next category.

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.”

In most cases I had a ton of books to choose from. When in doubt, I tried to err on the side of #ownvoices authors and their books. But as you will see, I also found a gap in my reading the size of a continent. If I’ve already read the book, you can click the title for a link to the full review.

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Find a book starring a lesbian character

Cover image for Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara FarizanTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

Leila Azadi is a lesbian, but she has done a pretty good job of keeping this fact a secret from her friends and classmates at Armstead Academy. Everyone thinks her best friend Greg is her boyfriend, and this allows her to fly under the radar. If only Greg didn’t want to actually be her boyfriend, everything would be perfect. But with the arrival of Saskia, a beautiful and sophisticated student from Europe, Leila finds herself with a crush on a classmate for the first time. he harder she falls for wild and independent Saskia, the more difficult it is to keep her secret, not just from her classmates and teachers, but from her traditional Iranian parents, and her perfect older sister, Nahal. Confused by Saskia’s mixed signals, Leila begins to reach out to friends and family, but as the truth starts to spread, Leila finds herself losing control of her coming out process.

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist

Cover image for Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Seventeen-year-old Naila is the model daughter of two very traditional Pakistani immigrants in Florida. She makes perfect grades in school, and has been accepted to a selective six-year medical program for university. She doesn’t complain about not being able to attend soccer games, or birthday parties, or even her senior prom. But Naila has a secret; for the last year she has been dating Saif, a fellow Pakistani-American from a family that has been shunned by the community because his parents allowed their daughter to marry an American. When Naila’s parents inevitably discover her relationship, they decide a month in Pakistan will help her reconnect with her roots and forget about Saif. But it eventually becomes clear that her parents have another purpose for the trip; they are looking for a husband for Naila, and they want her to be married immediately, regardless of her wishes.

Find a book set in Latin America

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra Well, I think we just found a big gap in my reading. While I could find books on my blog with Latin American characters, I couldn’t find one actually set in Latin America. So then I dug through my embarrassingly large pile of unread books. I found a couple titles by Latin American authors, but again, none set there. Ditto my Kindle. As far as my bookshelves are concerned, Latin America is a giant gaping hole. I wracked my brain to think of books I read before I blogged, and came up with State of Wonder by Anne Patchett and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even finish that last one because the audiobook expired before could get through the whole thing.  So I have requested a copy of Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra from the library. It is set in Chile, and includes an author-narrator, which is what grabbed my interest.

Find a book about a person with a disability

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell El Deafo by CeCe Bell

When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. The next year she starts kindergarten at a special school for deaf kids where she learns lip reading. But when first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Trying to fit in at a new school is challenging enough, but Cece also has to wear the phonic ear, a large, two-part hearing aid that allows her to hear her teacher so that she doesn’t have to lip read all the time. Cece desperately wants to be taken for normal, but the phonic ear constantly draws attention to her deafness, and makes friendship complicated. Trying to make sense of her difference, Cece conjures up the character of El Deafo, who turns her disability into a superpower. Then Cece’s dream becomes a reality when her classmates realize that Cece can hear their teacher wherever she is in the school thanks to the microphone component of the phonic ear.

Find a Science-Fiction or Fantasy book with a POC protagonist

Cover image for Binti Nnedi Okorafor Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Sixteen-year-old Binti is Himba, from the indigenous peoples of northern Namibia. She is a brilliant mathematician and master harmonizer, destined to take over her father’s astrolabe shop thanks to her masterful manipulation of math current, and her ability to tree. But Binti has been accepted to Oomza University, the top school in the entire Milky Way galaxy. Only five percent of the population is human, and no Himba as ever gone. Binti is prepared to defy tradition, destroy her prospects of marriage, and venture out on her own for the first time in order to fulfill her dream of attending. But the trip to Oomza Uni is dangerous, taking the spaceship within the territory of the Meduse, ancient enemies of the Khoush people of Earth.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa

Cover image for Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

After fifteen years in the United States training to become a psychiatrist, the nameless narrator returns home to Lagos, Nigeria to visit his relatives and reconnect with the city where he grew up. Resisting his family’s efforts to shelter and protect him as if he was truly a foreigner rather than a returnee, he ventures out on foot and by public transportation to commune with the place he once called home and debates about one day calling home again. Teju Cole’s narrator seeks the Lagos he remembers from his youth, and has longed for in moments of homesickness, amidst the corruption that has taken deep root in his absence. Though he has heard about it, there is nothing quite like seeing the change for himself.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author

Cover image for Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight has spent his life on a farm in British Columbia’s remote interior with the old man, who raised him and taught him to hunt and fish, and get by in the backwoods. He has never known his mother, and his father Eldon is an alcoholic who left him with the old man when he was a baby. His father has only ever hurt and disappointed him, but when he receives word that Eldon is dying and wants him to visit, duty still compels him to answer the call. In a tiny, mouldering mill town, he finds his father wracked by liver failure. His dying wish is to be buried on a ridge a three day ride from anywhere, and Frank is the only person who can get him there. Frank has never been able to rely on Eldon for anything, but now it is Eldon who must count on his estranged son in his final days.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.)

the-heros-walk The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

Sripathi Rao and his family live in the once-grand Big House, on Brahmin Street in the seaside Indian town of Toturpuram. His mother Ammayya, his wife Nirmala, and his unmarried sister Putti all reside under his roof, along with his unemployed adult son, Arun. Absent, but never spoken of, is his daughter, Maya, who went away to school in North America, and then defied her family by breaking off her traditional engagement to marry a white man. It has been nine years since Maya’s exile, but still her father stubbornly refuses to take her calls or allow her to visit. But everything changes when a phone call from Canada brings the news that Maya and her husband are dead, leaving their daughter Nandana orphaned. With no other family in Canada to care for her, Sripathi must fly to Vancouver and bring her home to Toturpuram, unaware of how much one small girl, stricken mute by grief, will disrupt the status quo at Big House.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist

Cover image for Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Orphaned as teenagers, Beena and Sadhana lose their mother just when they need her most. Their mother has no living relatives, and they are largely estranged from their father’s Indian family, who disapproved of his marriage to a white woman. Nevertheless, their uncle, who they have previously known mostly as the proprietor of the bakery formerly run by their father, becomes their guardian. He proves to be an awkward surrogate parent, a first generation immigrant stymied by the strangeness of his mixed race, Canadian-born nieces. As the girls vent their grief and push back against their uncle’s traditional views about gender roles, they make choices that will have irrevocable consequences for the rest of their lives.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues

Cover image for George by Alex Gino George by Alex Gino

George loves Charlotte’s Web, so when her school decides to put it on as a play, George immediately knows that she wants to play the part of the wise and beneficent Charlotte. And maybe if she can play Charlotte on stage, everyone—from her mother to her teachers to her friends—will finally be able to understand that George is a girl, not a boy. But her teacher refuses to let George try out for the part because she says she can’t give the role of Charlotte to a boy. So George and her best friend Kelly come up with a plan to help everyone finally see George for who she really is.

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If you think this sounds like fun, or want to find the gaps in your own reading history, consider yourself tagged!

Canada Reads Along: Bone and Bread

Cover image for Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawazby Saleema Nawaz

ISBN 978-1-77089-009-1

“I spent so many years watching her disappear, little by little, that it is impossible for me to believe that there could be any of her left over.”

Orphaned as teenagers, Beena and Sadhana lose their mother just when they need her most. Their mother has no living relatives, and they are largely estranged from their father’s Indian family, who disapproved of his marriage to a white woman. Nevertheless, their uncle, who they have previously known mostly as the proprietor of the bakery formerly run by their father, becomes their guardian. He proves to be an awkward surrogate parent, a first generation immigrant stymied by the strangeness of his mixed race, Canadian-born nieces. As the girls vent their grief and push back against their uncle’s traditional views about gender roles, they make choices that will have irrevocable consequences for the rest of their lives.

We meet Beena at a time of major change in her life; her son, who has been the centre of her world for seventeen years, is grown and about to go away to university. And, six months earlier, her younger sister was found dead of a heart attack in her Montreal apartment at only thirty two years of age. Beena is struggling to come to terms with the fact that she and her sister had been fighting at the time of her death, leading her to wonder if, in her anger, she had missed the signs of her sister having a relapse. Sadhana long struggled with an eating disorder, and Beena often had to put her own life on hold to assume a caretaker role.

The strong centre-piece of this novel is the way Saleema Nawaz beautifully evinces the complicated nature of the relationship between the sisters, both their closeness, and also their desire to differentiate themselves from one another. As Beena reluctantly sorts through Sadhana’s effects, she realizes how little she knew her sister in some respects. Though she was aware of her sister’s volunteer work, it is not until she is looking at her computer that Beena realizes how deeply she was involved in advocating for an Algerian refugee family on the verge of being deported. She also feels guilty about the fact that her sister’s body was not found for a week, despite her many friends in the city. If they had not been fighting, she might have noticed her absence sooner. Her sister’s diary is also nowhere to be found, depriving Beena of much-needed reassurance that she was not relapsing at the time of her death.

The two sisters are fully fledged and extremely well-realized characters, flawed and entirely, believably human. The complexity of the relationship between them can hardly be understated. After losing both their parents, they are responsible for one another in a way their uncle can never be.  At the same time, in the absence of his father, they are in many senses co-parents to Quinn, even after Beena takes her son away with her to live in Ottawa, leaving Sadhana in Montreal.

Nawaz shifts smoothly back and forth through time, neatly weaving the two timelines together as we come to know the sisters. Their unusual childhood is counterpointed against the quiet, steady existence Beena has carved out for herself and her son in Ottawa. Yet despite this stability, she needs to make peace with her past in order to enter the next stage of her life. This means coping with the loss of her sister, and also finally owning up to the consequences of her long refusal to tell Quinn anything about his father.

Today on Canada Reads, each of the remaining four books was put on the hot seat, with a question about a perceived weakness. The Illegal came under fire for being set in an imaginary world, the significance of The Hero’s Walk being set in a another country was interrogated, the accessibility of Birdie as a path to reconciliation came into question, and the length and amount of detail in Bone and Bread was examined. Unfortunately, as the last question on the table, Bone and Bread got only five minutes of debate. Clara Hughes expressed that she found the length and amount of detail tedious, while Bruce Poon Tip observed that it felt like several novels rolled into one. Hughes wanted to see more of Sadhana, while Adam Copeland was interested in Quinn. Farah Mohamed defended, arguing that this is Beena’s story, and that the book takes the pages it needs to explore the complicated relationship between the sisters. Vinay Virmani didn’t have a chance to weigh in before time was up, but he still cast the first vote against Bone and Bread. With the exception of defender Farah Mohamed, who voted against Birdie, it was a unanimous vote against Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel.

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canada-reads-along-2016-day2 Check out the many ways to tune in to the Canada Reads debates on CBC!