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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.” 

 

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.

THE INCEST DIARY

ANONYMOUS

A horrifying and harrowing memoir of a daughter and her father. “We never kissed. …we didn’t kiss when I was a teenager, we didn’t kiss when I was eleven or ten or nine or eight or six or five or three.”As a young girl, the sex would make her bleed copiously in the bathtub. Her father tied her to a chair and put her in the closet.“He said he couldn’t help it. He told me it was my fault. It must have been my fault. He said that he couldn’t help it because I was so beautiful and it felt so good. He said he was a sick man. A weak victim of his desire. And I, too, felt desire; I felt my wildness.”

“From the time I was very young, my father told me that we were one person, that I was just a part of him. I grew up with that inside me. I grew up with him inside me.” My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret. But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I wanted it, and sometimes I seduced him.”This prolonged sexual abuse continued throughout her childhood until she began to crave it. An important part of the book is how it affects her adult life and adult sexuality.

THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL

 

HEATHER O’NEILL

Two abandoned babies are dropped off at the orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Rose develops a gift for humour and movement; Pierrot for music. When they were young adolescents they were sent to rich people’s homes to entertain for generous donations to the orphanage. Escape seems possible, happiness imminent. They dream of creating their own circus together for fame and fortune. As the mother superior knows, though, happiness always leads to tragedy. Rose and Pierrot are farmed out as teens to separate homes, with no idea where the other has gone. And the Sisters make sure they never find each other. A good portion of the book is the two yearning for each other and almost crossing paths, so it is a delight when they find each other as adults.

Hotel reminded me of The Night Circus which was full of magic realism. O’Neill is a wonderful writer so Hotel is a page turner.

“Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand themselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.
You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.”

All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the
inalienable right to be free.” 

A GOOD COUNTRY

LALEH KHADIVI

Laguna Beach, California, 2010. Reza Courdee, a fourteen-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In that instant, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza–now Rez–feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily. His girlfiend Fatima describes it as “all that American-white-boy shit”.

When the Boston marathon bombs and things begin to change for Rez. He falls out with the bad boy surfers and in with a group of kids more awake to the world around them, who share his background, and whose ideas fill him with a very different sense of purpose. Fatima attends a mosque out of curiosity and afterwards decides to wear a headscarf. Rez is given a post-graduation surfing holiday in Bali by his father, and while he is there he stumbles into a modest neighbourhood mosque and muses: so this is Islam. Within a year, Reza and Fatima are naively making their way to Syria to be part of a Muslim nation rising from the ashes of the civil war. The novel charts the journey to radicalisation. A Good Country is expertly shaped, and persuasively investigates an important phenomenon of our times.

 

A TWO-SPIRIT JOURNEY: An Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojbiwa-Cree Elder

MA-NEE CHACABY

 No one should have to endure the shocking amount of sexual and physical violence this woman endured from childhood. As a child she had the support and guidance of her grandmother who saw the two spirits in her and knew she would have a difficult life. Her step-father taught her how to hunt, trap and survive in the wilds, yet ended up sexually assaulting her. Her abusive mother sent her to marry a man who would torture her for years. It is no wonder that she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. When she finally embraces her two-spirit orientation, she discovers that despite two-spirit teachings being a long-standing indigenous tradition, a new kind of abuse — virulent homophobia — soon comes her way, both from the aboriginal reserve community and from the white community residing nearby in Thunder Bay.

That all this sorrow and pain happened in this country is a national shame. The solution she puts forward, by the example of her exemplary life, is for our government and her own community to support the myriad of programs and teachings Ma-Nee Chacaby and women like her have introduced over decades. From groundbreaking and controversial AIDS awareness programs in the 1990s to the work she continues to do today, both with her own family and her extended reserve family, her life and this memoir ultimately serve as handbook of hope.

THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE

LISA SEE

East meets west as the world impinges on the Akha hill tribe in Hunnun province in China. One of the most interesting themes is the exploration of the Akha culture. Young teens are encouraged to explore their sexuality but if a baby is born out of marriage it must be killed. Twins are considered to bring bad spirits so they must be killed as well.Elaborate cleansing ceremonies help protect the individuals, the families and the village. Li-yan falls in love with San-pa but San-pa is born on Tiger Day, while she is born on Pig Day, so their parents see them as an incompatible match. But their love overpowers tradition and taboo, resulting in Li-yan’s pregnancy.  Tradition is broken and the child is not killed. Li-yan is allowed to take her baby to an orphanage. When foreigners arrive from Hong Kong in search of a renowned, aged tea called Pu’er, Li-Yan is the only one who can translate. Girl is over melodramatic, the worst of the worst and the best of the best happen to Li-yan but the story of tea binds the narrative together and makes an interesting read.

THE END OF EDDY

EDOUARD LOUIS

EDDY is an autobiographical novel of violence and brutality, racism, misogyny and homophobia. It is set in a small manufacturing town in northern France but it could have been in a mining town in Great Brittin or in the southern USA. Into this mileu of active and passive hate grew an unusual boy, Eddy Bellegueule (pretty-face) the birth name of the author, effeminate with a high pitched voice. He instinctively loathes the food, sexuality and clothes of his peers. In consequence, he is beaten, abused and terrorised. As a “faggot” or “homo” he is the lowest of the low; lower than women, lower than even an Arab, Jew or Algerian. He makes repeated attempts to assume the proper masculine role that his culture requires of him, but despite his brother’s teachings, every time he fails, he assumes the fault is entirely his. He lives and breathes unqualified self-loathing. He describes his mother, “She was often angry. She’d take any occasion to voice her indignation, railing day in, day out, against the politicians, against new regulations reducing welfare payments, against the powers that be, which she hated from the deepest fibres of her being. And yet she would not hesitate to invoke those same powers she otherwise so hated when she felt ruthlessness was called for: ruthlessness in dealing with Arabs, with alcohol, with drugs, with any kind of sexual behaviour she didn’t approve of. She would often remark that ‘what we need is some law and order in this country.’ ” His father took pride in the fact that he didn’t beat his wife but the walls were full of holes where he had punched the walls in rage. His older brothers didn’t treat their girlfriends so kindly. “I would see my father, after one of our cats had a litter, take the newborn kittens and slip them into a plastic grocery bag and swing it against some cement edge until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased. I had seen him butcher pigs in the yard, and drink the still-warm blood he was collecting in order to make blood sausage (blood on his lips, his chin, his T-shirt). ‘It’s the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies.’ ”

EDDY is well written but not an easy read.

HELPLESS

BARBARA GOWDY

Rachel is an usually beautiful nine-year old girl, dark skinned with “miraculous chromium yellow” hair. Celia is a single mother, working hard at two jobs to make ends meet. Luckily they have Mika in their lives. He is their landlord who gives them a great deal on their apartment but is also a friend and almost an uncle to Rachel.  Ron is a nerdy appliance repairman who drives around town looking at young girls. One day he spots Rachel. “Yes, he said to himself, something happened. I fell in love. Only as he thought it did he realise it was true. A ripple of terror went through him … he began to see himself for what he was: a man gearing up for suffering.” He began stalking Rachel. He created a back story for Rachel that her life at home was terrible, full of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. He convinced himself that she would be better off with him. Ron begins to convert the basement of his home into a girl’s bedroom, awaits his chance while promising his baby-hungry girlfriend that they will adopt a child.  The night of a blackout he gets his chance and steals her away. He convinces his girlfriend to help him care for Rachel.

I don’t want to reveal more of the plot but Gowdy is an excellent writer. All the main characters are helpless in their own way. It’s a great read.

THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

SHYAM SELVADURAI

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much” When his father died,six-year-old Shivan’s mother and sister moved with him into his maternal grandmother’s house. Daya was an angry and demanding woman who refused to talk to her daughter. Shivan, the grandson, became the golden boy, the reason she would take the family in. While he soaked up his grandmother’s recounting of ancient Buddhist tales about ghosts who haunt their future selves until past wrongs are redeemed, Shivan also chafed against her hold on him as he aged. He persuaded his mother to move the family to Canada, as much to get away from Daya as to flee the escalating conflict in Sri Lanka. Not that he could really escape—neither his grandmother nor his troubled country were anywhere near finished wreaking havoc in Shivan’s life. On an extended visit back to Sri Lanka, Shivan was taking over his grandmother real estate business until his grandmother had his lover killed.

Ghosts is a well written book. But when Shiven’s affair with Michael goes south I wanted to tell the young men to grow up. It could have used some paring down.

ALBERTO’S LOST BIRTHDAY

DIANA ROSIE

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday. As a child, Alberto lost his birthday in the Spanish civil war when he spent most of his childhood in an overcrowded orphanage. Now an old man living a simple life, he rarely thinks about his disappeared past. But when his grandson discovers his Apu has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, and never received a single card or present, he’s determined to do something about it. Since Alberto’s father is recovering from a horrible accident his mother gives permission for him to do a road trip with his Apu. As the two set off to find Alberto’s birthday, they have no idea it will be a journey that takes them through Spain’s troubled past, to places – and people – that Alberto once knew. But in a country that has vowed to move forward, looking back can be difficult. But finding old friends is its own reward.

Birthday is a heart-warming story all will enjoy.

BECOMING NICOLE: The Transformation of an American Family

Amy Ellis Nutt

At almost 3 years old, when Nicole was still known as Wyatt, he declared to his father, “I hate my penis.”  She alway knew she was a girl despite having an identical twin brother. Nicole’s mother, Kelly, supported Wyatt as he presented himself — a girl mistakenly incarnated as a boy. His father, Wayne, a man’s man: both hunter and ex-military, had trouble that his son was a girl. Eventually he came around and became a spokesman for transgender rights. “The world where he was a father and husband in an ordinary, hardworking, middle-class family had just blown up. He stood there stunned, unable to hear whatever was going on around him, as if deafened by the psychological explosion.” Nicole was bullied in school and the administration refused to protect her. The family sued the School Division for barring her from using the girls’ bathroom.

The author not only tells Nicole’s and her family’s story but also the medical and legal stories of transgender people. It is well research and well written.

“Lesson number one: “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with,” he told Spack. “Gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

“other words, our genitals and our gender identity are not the same. Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born. Both are functions of genes as well as hormones, and while sexual anatomy and gender identity usually match, there are dozens of biological events that can affect the outcome of the latter”

“When it comes to that physical self, for a transgender person every waking moment, every conscious breath, is a denial of who they truly are.”

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

JAY ASHER

Having thoroughly enjoyed the show on TV I wanted to read the book and I wasn’t disappointed. In many ways the book is more coherent than the show which gets caught up in too many time changes and flashbacks. Hanna Baker is a high school student who commits suicide. She leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes, each directed at one person, each giving a reason she had for killing herself. She talks about the rumours and the betrayals she suffered at the hands of people she longed to call her friends. She mails the tapes to Tony who supervises that they get sent on to the next person. Each chaper of the book is the contents of the tape with minimal backup from Clay the boy who tried but failed to befriend her.

The book is as gripping as the tv show. Maybe more so.