UNDER THE UDALA TREES

CHINELO OKPARANTA

Udala is set in 1968, one year into the Biafran conflict, and Ijeoma’s world is overcome by “the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.” Things grow worse. Her father, “a man who liked to wallow in his thoughts”, becomes so consumed by sorrow for his dying people that he refuses to seek refuge during an air raid over their town of Ojoto. When Ijeoma and her mother Adaora emerge from a nearby bunker, they discover his blood-soaked body. In shock Adaora sends Ijeoma to be a house girl for a school teacher in another town. “In a warped, war-induced sort of way, it made sense that she should find ways to shed us all: the soldiers, me, and the house. To shed, if she could have, all memories of the war. To shed, and shed, and shed. Like an animal casting off old hair or skin.” There she meets Amina, a Muslim Hausa. What begins as a friendship, turns into passion. “This was the beginning, our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh … Tingly and good and like everything perfect in the world.” Caught in an intimate moment the two are forced apart. Ijeoma’s mother assaults her with biblical verses to ward off creeping lesbianism. “I went down the aisle to the front of the church, as I had done the time before. I knelt down before God. I would have prayed, but somehow I could not find the words to do so … Not a single word to express myself, not a single one to explain or to defend myself, not one single word to apologize and beg forgiveness for my sins.”

It is a compelling juxaposition: horrific war and true love in a same sex relationship in a deeply conservative society.

THE PISCES

MELISSA BRODER

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Lucy knew she had made a mistake. She wanted the words, ‘Maybe we should just break up,” to jump back into her mouth where they belonged. Especially when Jamie replied, “I think you maybe right.” Lucy packed up and moved to Venice Beach to lick her wounds and recover. She joined a support group for sex and love addiction where one of the more sane members convinced her to try Tinder. That didn’t work out so well. But she found a pleasant surprise on the rocks by the waters edge. The Pisces is a treaties on love and life that sparkles with magic and eroticism.

VI

KIM THUY

My first name, Bảo Vi, showed my parents’ determination to “protect the smallest one.” In a literal translation, I am “Tiny precious microscopic.” As is often the case in Vietnam, I did not match the image of my own name.Vi is about what Thúy calls “the invisible strength” of women, especially Vietnamese women. “I didn’t see the invisibility of their power until I went back as an adult, and saw the difference between my cousins and me.” Fleeing from the war Vi left Vietnam for Canada with her mother and siblings. Her mother worked hard to provide for the family without the support of her husband who stayed. As with so many immigrant families the offspring get educated and do well in their new world. Vi travels the world and returns to Vietnam with a different outlook than those who stayed in Vietnam.

Well-written Vi is a gem.

Blinded by the gentle, intermittent movement of the dress’s wings, [grandfather] declared to his colleague that he would not leave Cai Bè without [his future wife.] He had to humiliate another young girl who had been promised to him and alienate the elders in his family before he could touch my grandmother’s hands. Some believed that he was in love with her long-lashed almond eyes, others, with her fleshy lips, while still others were convinced that he’d been seduced by her full hips. No one had noticed the slender fingers holding a notebook against her bosom except my grandfather, who kept describing them for decades. He continued to evoke them long after age had transformed those smooth, tapering fingers into a fabulous myth or, at the very most, a lovers’ tale.

HEART BERRIES

THERESE MARIE MAIHOT

In a slender volume, Maihot’s poetic memoir explodes with power.  “How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?”  Her life is heaped with poverty, addiction, abuse and shame. Mailhot’s grandmother went to a brutal residential school. So many children starved to death there, the nuns ran out of places to bury them so their bones were hidden in the walls of a new boarding school under construction. Her affectionate but absent mother brought home men who preyed upon her children. She had a child, and lost custody of him as she was giving birth to another. “I wasn’t stable, but men don’t usually care about that.”  About her husband she writes,  “I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said. You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large.” 

“In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution.”  “I wanted as much of the world as I could take and I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.”

It’s great to see a new voice in indigenous literature open with a powerful work.

THE IMMORTALISTS

CHLOE BENJAMIN

Would you want to know the date of your death?  In the late 1960s, when all four Gold children: Varya, Daniel, Kara and Simon, bored from too much time during their summer vacation — decide to visit a fortuneteller famous for predicting when people will die. Only Varya is told she will live to old age. Knowing he will die young, Simon leaps into the late 1970s San Francisco gay scene “like a dog into water.” He love the promiscuous lifestyle of sex and drugs. But it is through ballet he finds romantic love. He succumbs to the “gay cancer,” which claims him barely out of his teens and before the disease is named. Had he not known he was to die young he would have stayed home and run the family business. Each sibling is followed in order of their deaths. Do they die on the augured date because it is their destiny, or because the prediction draws them into an altered pattern of life choices? Provocative question.

JONNY APPLESEED

JOSHUA WHITEHEAD

Jonny is a wild ride through reserve life and city life through the eyes of a “two-spirited, indigiqueer, NDN glitter princess.” Jonny knew early on that he was different from most boys. He liked dressing up in his mother’s clothes and putting on her makeup. When his step-father beat him to made him a man he had a loving kokum to run to for comfort, support and affirmation. She knew he was “2S” and told him stories of the old ways before colonization. Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. His best friend and sometimes lover Tias is a huge support for Jonny in the city. They grew up together and know each other like an open book. Jonny’s step-father has died and Jonny needs to make arrangements to get back to the reserve. Memories flood his consciousness and make up most of the book. Memories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition and the heartwarming recollection of his beloved kokum.

A powerful book.

“Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like, ‘I’m in pain with you.'”

“I figured that I was gay when I was eight. I stayed up late after everyone went to bed and watched Queer as Folk on my kokum’s TV. She had a satellite and all the channels, pirated of course. At the time, my mom and I were living with my kokum because my dad had left us thinking he was Dolly Parton or Garth Brooks or something. Queer as Folk aired at midnight on Showcase; I muted the channel, added subtitles, and watched as four gay men lived their lives in Pittsburgh. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to have lofts and go to gay bars and dance with cute boys and blow and get blown in a Philly gloryhole. I wanted to work in comic shops and universities, be sexy and rich. I wanted that.”

“If you say the word ‘queerness’ now, it always signals this idea of whiteness, especially of white cis males, shirtless, dancing at Pride festivals that are so heavily vested in corporations,” he says. “For me, it was important to remove Indigenous queerness.”

LOOK WHO’S BACK

TIMUR VERMES

Hitler wakes up in a back alley in Berlin in 2011; he can’t figure out what is going on. It is too quiet: no shelling, no shooting, no sirens. The people he meets believe he is a method actor always in part. Soon he is on TV and the people love his rants. One review is headlined: “Loony YouTube Hitler/Fans Go Wild for His Tirades!/The Nation Is Stumped: Is This Humor?”

Hitler misunderstands everything about progress. He attributes as much of it as he can to Aryan brilliance. What is this thing called Vikipedia? Clearly it’s Germanic, with the first part of the name a homage to Viking heritage. What about YouTube? At first he thinks it must be U-Tube, as in the U-boats that served Germany so well in wartime.“I realized at once that I held [a cell phone] in my hands a masterpiece of Aryan creative genius, and all it took was a few swipes of the finger to discover that — of course — the superlative Siemens company had been responsible for the technology that brought this miracle to pass.”

If you enjoy satire this is a book for you.

LIFE ON THE GROUND FLOOR: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine

James Maskalyk

Those who work in the ER burn out faster than any other type of physician. I’m not sure if it’s the shifts or the long, steady glimpse of humans on their worst day. In this memoir Maskalyk takes us from Toronto’s St. Mike’s Hospital to a teaching hospital in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, to his original home, a cabin in northern Alberta, where his grandfather is preparing to die. All add depth to his ruminations on caring for others, life and love. “Medicine is life caring for itself, to me, it’s the greatest story.” 

It is easy to ignore your own worries when there is a never-ending list of worse ones placed in front of you,” he writes wistfully. “My relationship failed. Friends fell away. Beauty too. I felt fine.

Most of the work here is in minor. ERs are open all hours, and since the service is free, people often come in early, instead of an hour too late. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with their bodies at all. There are so many measures in place to keep people well, or to catch them before they get too sick, I can go weeks without intubating someone. Worried minds, though, latch onto subtle sensations that magnify with attention, and lacking context, they line up to be reassured. The two populations, the sick and the worried, mix together, and separating them keeps us up all night.

Suffering souls, though, there is no shortage of them. They circle this place. Some sleep right outside, on sidewalk grates, wrapped in blankets, waiting. One is splayed in the clothes he lives in, face pressed against the metal grille in a deep, drunk sleep. Every few minutes, a subway passes below the grates, and a rush of warm air flutters his shirt like a flag.

THE SHOE ON THE ROOF

WILL FERGUSON

The Shoe of the Roof is a thought-provoking novel about faith and the thin line between madness and reality. Thomas Rosanoff is a brain-research grad student. His father, Dr Rosanoff, is a famous psychiatrist who gained his notoriety by studying his son’s life in great detail and publishing in “The Boy in a Box.” Having a famous father is a double-edged sword for Thomas: he gets away with a lot at the university, but he has to put up with a lot of ribbing.  Using his father’s name, Thomas kidnaps three patients from the mental hospital, who think they are Jesus. He wants to experiment with them to prove that bringing them together will cure them.  He believes that they will sort out among themselves that three Jesuses can’t exist all at once, and so at least two of them will have to cure themselves of their delusion.

You need to read Shoe to find out what the title means. Also, read Ferguson’s 419; it won a well deserved Giller Prize. There was an excellent Peter O’Toole movie of a similar theme from 1972, The Ruling Class. O’Toole was a British lord who believed he was Jesus. I may be available online.

DYING: A Memoir

CORY TAYLOR

Taylor was 60 when she was told that what had started off as a melanoma was now incurable cancer. She had already witnessed difficult deaths: both her parents died in nursing homes after long and humiliating dementia. The last time Taylor saw her mother, she watched as a nurse changed her diaper. “The look in my mother’s eyes as she turned and saw me reminded me of an animal in unspeakable torment.” Taylor’s one comforting thought when she received her own terminal diagnosis was that she wouldn’t have to go like that: she had the time, and the mental capacity, to find her way towards a better death. Interested in assisted dying, she ordered a euthanasia drug from China. It gave her peace of mind to know she had a way out if needed. “It surprises me that I have any qualms at all [about euthanasia], “since I have never thought of myself as a person of particularly high moral standards.”  

Taylor examines the experiences that shaped her into who she is. Each vignette glimmers like her description of the light in Fiji, where she lived briefly as a child: “so pure that it infused every object with an extra intensity, so that a flower was not just red, or a blade of grass just green.” “The moments that stand out for me are the ones when I felt most alive.” 

“When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.”  “The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me.”

THE WORLD’S MOST TRAVELED MAN: A Twenty-three Year Odyssey in and Through Every Country on the Panet

Mike Spencer Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An amazing book for travellers. This guy has done it all, the most wild, the most extreme, the most bizarre. All done with the same backpack. One thing though, I don’t understand how he financed his travels. At times he speaks of loading his pack with stacks of cash. But he never writes about working for a few months to get the cash for the air flights. Yet he keeps returning to Canada to keep up with his family and friends. Now he did hitchhike and stay in hostels in areas most people wouldn’t go at all. Brown spent time in each of the countries he visited, getting to know the local people and customs, exploring cities and backwaters until his curiosity was sated, vagabond style; no luxury hotels or guided tours for him. He hung with witch doctors, hunted with Pygmies, sipped wine during a Taliban gunfight, inspected active volcanoes, mingled with penguins in Antarctica, been detained by the CIA in Pakistan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“For me, travel was compulsory, for intellectual reasons. ” “There are so many generous and friendly people around the world, in every country. If you are patient and friendly yourself, good karma will come to you.”

 

“When I was hitchhiking north from Baghdad during “Operation Iron Grip” of the second gulf war, the guy who picked me up was a keen fan of Saddam Hussein. When we were passing the town of Tikrit, he pulled over, saying, “Let’s have some food in the president’s hometown.” Soon we were eating chicken and rice in a big open-air restaurant with a hundred or more of Saddam’s tribesmen around me. Here I was talking English with this guy, everyone giving me the evil eye. I wondered if they’d come over and cut off my head like they did to the Japanese backpacker who tried Iraq at the same time as me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The book would have been better with more photos, like these. It’s a great read even if only to show you which countries you don’t want to explore.

ADVOCATE

DARREN GREER

Jacob lives with his mother, aunt and austere grandmother Millicent. “The grandmother of complaint and derision.” His estranged uncle returns home because he is sick. His sisters are overjoyed. His mother is full of criticism and reproach. As he gets sicker and sicker the reader realizes that he has AIDS and in fact, he is the first AIDs victim in Nova Scotia. As rumour is spreading in the community Jacob loses the one friend he had because his friend’s mother has condemned their relationship. Eventually, in the panic about his uncle’s disease, Jacob is barred from school and most other places in town, and his family become pariahs just when they need community the most. Advocate is a well-written book about a sad time.

RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A PORTRAIT OF JONI MITCHELL

DAVID YAFFE

Joni Mitchell fans this book is for you. It is less about her life and more about her music. She once said she paints her joy and sings her sorrow. The book has tons of fasinating facts about the her lyrics. “You said you were as constant as the northern star. I said constantly in the dark, where’s that at?” was written about Leonard Cohen. I read the book with my computer at hand, so I could plays songs on You Tube that I wasn’t familiar with. The defining act of her life was making an adoption plan for her child when she was an unknown singer-songwriter in Toronto. It is refered to in song through out her writing career. It brought back memories of seeing Joni in concert and of loving her music. Fans will not want to miss this.

HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

BIANCA MARAIS

Set in Johannesburg, HUM centres on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Robin’s liberal aunt is an airline hostess so hires Beauty, an educated Xhosa, as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. This is a difficult transition for Robin who is used to staff having a separate living unit, not using family plates and utensils and certainly not being treated as part of the family. As she bonds with comes to love Beauty, Robin withholds information about her daughter, Nomsa for fear of losing Beauty. The only criticism I have is that Robin’s narration does not ring true for a nine-year-old girl.

I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right colour, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people: a world where hatred was the common language and bricks the only words.”

“She speaks Zulu, but I am able to understand her. All our languages overlay one another like blankets of mist on a mountaintop.”

“a river of blood in the streets and the children are floating in it… they are human debris swept along in a flood of destruction.” 

“Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room…. Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend.’ “

INTO THE WATER

PAULA HAWKINS

“Seriously: how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.” 

The death of Nel Abbott in the Drowning Pool opens this overly complicated novel.  Her teenage daughter Lena believes her mom committed suicide, but Nel’s estranged sister Jules, returned reluctantly back to Beckford to care for Lena, believes it was something else. As Jules looks for answers, in her own past and among the locals, she finds that Nel has made a number of enemies while writing a book about the Beckford drownings, and that Lena’s best friend, Katie, died a few months earlier in the same place. “Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women,” Nel wrote.

Once the cases are closed, the people of Beckford debate who is and is not a “good person.” They apply the label forgivingly to men with excuses for their misdeeds but withhold it from the women who end up tangled in the weeds of the drowning pool.

It takes careful reading to follow all the twists and turns, and follow all the characters and clues, but in the end, it is worth the effort. This is Hawkins first book since she wrote The Girl on the Train.

“Yes, it is. It’s, like, when someone has an affair, why does the wife always hate the other woman? Why doesn’t she hate her husband? He’s the one who’s betrayed her, he’s the one who swore to love her and keep her and whatever forever and ever. Why isn’t he the one who gets shoved off a fucking cliff?” 

“Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.” 

 

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

JUDITH NEWMAN

Parents, educators and those who work with people with special needs will love this book. It is laugh aloud funny, especially the chapter that gave its name to the book. Gus, the son with autism, is a twin. His brother Henry, neuro-normative is funny too. It is touching how Henry takes care of his twin. Newman has a flare for descriptive writing, notably her humour.

“Just how bad a mother am I? I wondered as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in conversation with Siri. Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his BFF. Obsessed with weather formations, Gus had spent the hour parsing the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms — an hour in which, thank God, I didn’t have to discuss them. After a while I heard this:

Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”

Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”

Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”

Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”

Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”

Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”

Siri: “See you later!”

That Siri. She doesn’t let my communications-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us wanted an imaginary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary.”

And this one: “Last night, as he was going to bed, there was this matter-of-fact exchange:

Gus: “Siri, will you marry me?”

Siri: “I’m not the marrying kind.”

Gus: “I mean, not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.”

Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”

Gus: “Oh, O.K.”

Gus didn’t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have, and for me too, since it was the first time I knew that he actually thought about marriage. He turned over to go to sleep:

Gus: “Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?”

Siri: “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.””

If you like kids and you like to laugh, this is your book.

THE BEST PEOPLE

ZOE WHITTALL

Everyone loved George Woodbury. Ten years earlier he became a hero, tackling a gunman in the prep school where he taught. Year after year he won the Teacher of the Year award voted on by the students. He sat on many boards and committees in the town. Until he was arrest for sexual misconduct and attempted rape that was said to have happened when he was supervising on a girl’s volleyball away trip. Five girls have come forward and made complaints. At this point, Whittall chooses to leave the perpetrator and the victims and follow the innocent bystanders: Joan, his wife and a well-respected nurse, Sadie, his daughter, an overachieving high school senior, and Andrew, his son, a lawyer who lives in New York with his boyfriend Jared. They become pariah, nobody wants to talk to them or be seen with them. They gossip about the mother, “How could she not have known?” Sadie refuses to visit her Dad and moves in with her boyfriend, Jimmy’s family.

People is a page turner with a great ending.

GIRLS LIKE US

GAIL GILES

When two special education students graduate from High School, social services finds them jobs and and a place to live. Quincy is alway angry. She became brain damaged when one of her mother’s boy friends hit her on the side of the head with a brick. Biddy hides behind a heavy overcoat and layers of fat. She was raised by her grandmother, who didn’t want her when she was abandoned by her mother. Quincy’s job is in a bakery which suits her because a foster father taught her how to be an excellent cook. Biddy, who is less functional – unable to read at all, is to cook and care for the elderly woman who owns the house where they have a suit over the garage. Soon they realize that they need to compromise, Quincy will do the cooking for all three and Biddy will do all the cleaning, which she loves doing. And we sit back and watch them grow.

Even though terrible things happen it is a feel good novel.  Easily read in a day or two, it will warm your heart.

THE SPARROW

MARY DORIA RUSSEL

This is one of my favourite books of all time. You must read it and it’s follow up Children of God.

In the year 2019, an observatory discovers radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), known for its missionary, linguistic and scientific activities. Only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is destroyed physically and psychologically. What did happen to his hands?  The story is told with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Father Sandoz’s interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest, organized in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz’ return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations, but also because the mission ended disastrously.

Sandoz initially believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Sandoz tells how they travelled by asteroid to the planet Rakhat, and how the crew tried to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village, inhabited by a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, the Runa, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Welcomed as ‘foreigners’, the Earthlings settle among the natives and begin to learn their language, Ruanja, and culture. They transmit all their findings via computer uplink to the asteroid-ship in orbit.

When the Earthlings meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions, he is a different species from the rural natives, a Jana’ata. An ambitious merchant named Supaari VaGayjur sees in the visitors a possibility to improve his status. The crew begins to grow their own food, introducing the concept of agriculture to the villagers. These seemingly innocent actions and accompanying cultural misunderstandings precipitate events which lead to a slaughter.

Russel handles themes of first contact with new species (races, cultures), communication (Sandoz is a linguist) crises of faith( Sandoz strong faith is completely shattered when he returns) and spirituality. It all makes for a powerful read.

“See that’s where it falls apart for me!” Anne cried. “What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy. Either God’s in charge or he’s not…” 

“Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.” 

“That is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances…is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.” 

“[John] watched the flames for a while. “I would have to say that I find God in serving His children. ‘When I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stanger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you came to me.'”
The words lingered in the air as the fire popped and hissed softly. Sondoz had stopped pacing and stood motionless in a far corner of the room, his face in shadows, firelight glittering on the metallic exoskeleton of his hands. “Don’t hope for more than that, John,” he said. “God will break your heart.”