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 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.” 

ETTA and OTTO and RUSSELL and JAMES

EMMA HOOPER

ETTA, 83 years young, sets off to walk to the ocean, the long way from her farm in Saskatchewan. “I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there, I’ll try to remember to come back.” reads the note she left her husband Otto. In the wild, Etta meets James, a coyote who talks and sings cowboy songs when no one else is around. Otto chooses to wait for her return. He keeps busy building a papier-mache menagerie of all kinds of animals. The reader does have to suspend belief that a woman suffering from dementia can walk over 3,200 kilometres and never sleep indoors or have to deal with winter. This story is balanced with the story of their youth when Etta was a teacher and Otto was her pupil for a short time before he went off to war. While he was fighting in Europe the two correspond with a multitude of letters. She corrects his mistakes and improves his literacy. They have a brief but intense relationship when he comes home on leave, but when he departs Etta is left with Russell, with whom she has a more traditional courtship.

Etta is a fun, light read reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

BLOOD, BONES AND BUTTER: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

GABRIELLE HAMILTON

Even if you are not into food and cooking, read this memoir for the writing. The prose sings it’s so fine. Hamilton writes vivid and precise descriptions of anything from a maggot-infested rat to a plate of beautiful ravioli. “You could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough, like a woman behind a shower curtain.”  She starts with her childhood when her French mother spent her days at the stove cooking marvellous meals. “The lambs roasted so slowly and patiently that their blood dripped down into the coals with a hypnotic and rhythmic hiss, which sounded like the hot tip of a just-blown-out match dropped into a cup of water.”  After her parents divorced, when Hamilton was 11, she essentially went out into the world on her own, a precocious adolescent with a badass attitude. She began washing dishes in a hometown restaurant at 13, moved on to waitressing in Manhattan, and has worked, off and on, in professional kitchens ever since. In 1999, Hamilton has owned Prune, a 30-seat East Village bistro. The driving impulse behind her desire to open a restaurant, she explains, was to “harness a hundred pivotal experiences relating to food — including hunger and worry — and translate those experiences into actual plates of food,” to reproduce the sort of hospitality she’d experienced travelling “from Brussels to Burma.” The chapter on leaving her lesbian lover for the man who becomes her husband and fathers her children is priceless. When visiting her mother-in-law in Italy, cooking becomes the language of their communication. I only hope she continues writing.

NEXT YEAR FOR SURE

ZORY LEIGH PETERSON

Their friends all agreed that Chris and Katheryn had the perfect relationship. He called her, “Katheryn the Awesome.” Their relationship is a mutual admiration society. Petterson explores what Chris and Kathryn actually need from others – friends and lovers both. “What she secretly wanted,” Kathryn thinks of a couple she and Chris are old friends with, “was for the four of them to be married somehow.… [Not] where you’re in each other’s beds, but the promise, that explicit understanding, that [they] were bound to each other, the four of them, for life.”

 When Chris starts to harbour feelings for his friend Emily, Kathryn encourages him to act. I think I have a crush on Emily, he tells Kathryn in the shower. This is where they confide crushes. A heart crush or a boner crush? Kathryn says. He doesn’t know how to choose. It’s not particularly sexual, his crush. He hasn’t thought about Emily that way. And Chris would never say boner. But it’s not just his heart, either. It’s his molecules. So he tells Kathryn about his molecules. How the first time he met Emily, it felt like his DNA had been re-sequenced. How he felt an instant kinship and a tenderness that was somehow painful. How, whenever he talks to her, he comes away feeling hollowed out and nauseous like after swimming too long in a chlorinated pool. And how – this, sheepishly – he has spent days arranging and rearranging their bookshelves and postcards and takeout menus, to make the apartment not only as welcoming as possible but as informative. As compelling. You’re awesome, Kathryn says.

Chris’ crush is a young free spirit named Emily who works odd jobs and lives in a communal house full of interesting characters. Chris does approach Emily, the two begin going out, and Chris’s formerly “perfect” life with Kathryn rapidly starts to change. Rapidly and lots. This is polyandry at its tamest. Chris prefers cuddling to sex.

Petterson’s excellent storytelling stills make it an excellent read.

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS

LAURIE FRANKEL

Penn and Rosie have four rowdy, rambunctious boys who they teach they can be anything they want to be. They want to have a girl but of course, they end up with another boy. But Claude is different. Claude is quieter and calmer than the other boys ever were. At three Claude starts wearing a dress and saying he wants to be a girl when he grows up. The family motto is you can be anything you want to be, so the parents take this in stride. For pre-school Claude wore pants to school then changed into his dress when he returned home. When Claude starts kindergarten he starts wearing dresses and skirts to school and adopts the name Poppy. After a playdate gone horribly wrong with a gun-toting homophobe father the family flees to Seattle for greater acceptance. There they tell no one that Poppy is both a girl and a boy. But secrets have a way of getting out.

Terribly well written, THIS IS a page-turner. It’s the best book I’ve read for some time.

SERIAL MONOGAMY

KATE TAYLOR

SM tells the stories of two relationships where the men fall out of monogamy with much younger accolades. The story is narrated by Sharon Soleymani, a writer of popular novels. She and her husband, Al, a professor who is a decade older than she is, have young twin daughters and an easy life until their marriage is shaken first by his admission of an affair with a research assistant and then by her diagnosis of breast cancer. When Al first hears of the cancer, he heroically returns home to look after Sharon and his children. Ironicly Sharon married Al only after his first marriage was destroyed by his affair with her. When her treatment finished, Sharon begins to write a serialized novel about Charles Dickens’s affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, which began when Nelly was 18 and Dickens a married 45-year-old father of nine. Taylor balances the two stories well, alternating chapters. It is based on historic fact.

ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS

ELAN MASTAI

Tom Barren lives in 2016, in a utopia. In 1965 a generator of clean of unlimited energy was invented. It generates energy based on the earth’s movement. The earth spins on its axis as it revolves around the sun, as it turns in the milky way galaxy, as it flies through the universe in the ever expanding universe. With all that energy the world created a reality that was predicted by futurists of the 50’s and 60’s: flying cars, robot maids, peace. Tom’s father is a genius who is building a time machine. His idea is to return to the past to witness origins of the generator that allowed such a utopia to be created. But when Tom goes back in time he disturbs the timeline to return to 2016 as we know it. How can he restore the world to the utopian future it could and should be?

What a great concept! Great speculative fiction. All the way through the book I thought this would make a great movie, then I read that the author was a screenwriter as well as a novelist.

TOMBOY SURVIVAL GUIDE

IVAN COYOTE imgres

Tomboy Survival Guide, by the Canadian writer, performer and musician Ivan Coyote, is of well-told tales about the author’s experiences growing up as a transgender person in the Yukon. Adapted from Coyote’s successful stage show of the same name, these stories are entertaining but also impart serious messages and offer the reader a window into the experiences of a transgender person who became a successful writer and performer. Like many transgendered people, Coyote prefers the pronouns they and them. Coyote describes grandmother Flo, a devout Catholic, as “not a cuddly woman” and as someone who was “far more likely to cuff the back of your head than she was to pat the top of it.” Yet Flo was perhaps the first person to reassure Coyote that, while they might not be just like everyone else, they was just fine the way they was. As Coyote remembers it, Flo said that “Some of us have hard roads, but the Lord never gives anyone a burden without also giving them a gift. Your job is to find out what that gift is and use it, y’hear me? God doesn’t make mistakes. Never forget that. You are exactly who God meant you to be.”Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to

Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to dismiss me, plus an angry someone who looks like a man in the ladies’ change room? Then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it is even more all my fault.

coyote-tomboy-survival-guide-s650But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. A am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in sa world that  makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battleground where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I live in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going  to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

YOU GOTTA GET BIGGER DREAMS: My Life in Stories and Pictures

29093006ALLEN CUMMING

CUMMING has given us another delightful memoir. DREAMS is a series of vignettes from his wild, fascinating and star filled life. Most of them delightful and hilarious. Many of them illustrated with photos. He is the king, or should that be queen of selfies. As well as day to day fun, he loves to write about meeting the big names like Elizabeth Taylor. He was nervous meeting Liz at Carrie Fisher’s birthday party and couldn’t think of anything to say. Carrie told him, “Do you know how many gay men wish they had your problem right now!” as she sent him back to converse with the star. So Cumming sits beside Liz on the bench in Carrie Fisher’s hallway. She tells him how she injured herself by falling in her dining room and hitting the floor, hard.  “‘Alan,’ she growled like the Cat on the Hot Tin Roof she still was. ‘You have never seen such a black ass.’ “My mouth gaped open in an involuntary gasp. I waited just a beat longer, then with the most saucy twinkle in my eye I had ever mustered, threw down my slam dunk. ‘Oh, Elizabeth,’ I said. ‘I bet I have!’  “Suddenly her hand unlocked from mine and slapped me across the chest. She cackled like a trucker who’d just heard a good fart joke.”

Cumming’s friend Eddie’s dream was to meet Oprah so when Allen got tickets to a dinner where she would be he took Eddie as his plus one. Only their table was far from centre near the bathrooms. But save the day Oprah is human after all and needed to pee. “Seizing the screen_shot_2016-09-13_at_4-42-30_pmmoment, Eddie says, “in a very endearing and choirboy-like voice, ‘Oprah! May I have a picture with you? It would be my dream.” “You gotta get bigger dreams,” Oprah opines as Cummin snaps the photo saving the words for the title of his book.

Dreams is a quick fun read.

HAG-SEED

hag-seedMARGARET ATWOOD

A play within a play has become a cliche but our beloved Margaret has switched it to a play within a novel to present us with this wonderfully playful book based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Felix is untimely thrust from his position as artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival by a rival just at the moment when he was about to unleash his greatest creation upon the world – an ambitious production of The Tempest. He retires from public life to a cave-like dwelling to plan retribution and redemption. Meanwhile he accepts a job teaching literacy in a correctional facility where he has the prisoners stage the Bard’s plays, and literacy rates do go up. All regular swearing is banned during rehearsals. They may only use the curse words Shakespeare has used in that play. “Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr’ed slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up…” Margaret must have had great fun write this nove.

imgresDon’t miss this delightful gem.

DARLING DAYS

imgres-1iO TILLETT WRIGHT

At age 6, Wright declared: “My name is Ricky. And I’m not your daughter anymore. I’m your son.” Days is iO’s exploration of his tumultuous upbringing and struggles with identity and sexuality. Wright grew up in a chaotic downtown Manhattan apartment, a place that “stood out for the refinement of its violence, for its kaleidoscopic intensity.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “Sleep doesn’t happen much in the house, what with the plays and things late at night, plus Ma is in a real bad way. It’s like she has a night personality and a day personality.” As time passes her Mother’s mental illness worsens. The building they live in is crazy too. “Our building repels ‘normal’ people. They’d have to love cockroaches, scalding radiators and thin walls . . . they would have to establish their own niche in the zoo and defend it.”

Darling Days is one wild ride. “I don’t want to wear my tragedies on my skin, in my teeth, in my walk. I want something different than what I’m inheriting, but I’m going to have to make that happen for myself.”

TRUE LIES

MARIKO TAMAKImariko-tamaki_14

This slim volume of vignettes, stories and essays are both hilarious and outrageous. In the introduction, Tamaki confesses, “I have no problem admitting that I am a liar at heart. It’s true. I am.”  She compares “lies to pearls: they look better strung together in a set.”  Of course, the reader knows not which is fiction and which is truth. Some stories are written from the time before she came out as a lesbian, such as, “Reasons to Give a Blow Job,” and after, “The Epil-Lady vs. The Hairy Asian.” An epil pen is used to pull body hair out by its roots.

If you appreciate the ludicrous and aren’t squeamish about sex, you will enjoy this book.

YUGE!: 10 Years of Doonesbury on Trump

G B TRUDEAUtrudeau-yuge-s650

I am so sick of Trump! I can’t stand seeing his ugly mug, hearing his voice or reading about him. But when I read of this compilation of Gary Trudeau’s Trump cartoons, I knew I had to check it out. And it is worth the time. Trudeau’s cutting sense of humour is a perfect foil for the Donald. It starts in the fall of 1987, can you imagine, when Trump was first starting to talk about running for President. One of the funniest pages comes at the end with Donald asking kids, “Hey Kids, tired of getting killed on insults in the cafeteria? Then start fighting back with my quality TRUMP Brand Insults. Choose from over 500 TREMENDOUS insults I’ve tweeted since last June including…” Then there are two pages of insults. Most presidential.

It all ends of course with the election that is ongoing this fall. Hopefully come Nov. 8 we will be laughing not crying.

BE FRANK WITH ME

frankJULIA CLAIRBORNE JOHNSON

One hit wonder, recluse author M M Banning is broke, “swindled of her fortune by a crooked investment adviser.” She contracts to write a second novel, after 20 years, if her publisher provides a healthy advance and an assistant “bankrolled by the publisher.” When Alice arrives, her only duty is to take care of the nine-year-old, eccentric son, Frank.  Frank’s daily attire includes tailcoats, yacht wear, cufflinks, a top hat, and a fez.  He can neither be touched nor can he stand having his possessions touched. Either could cause a complete breakdown. He speaks in encyclopedia entries and makes observations far beyond his years, “as if he were  reading off a teleprompter in the middle distance.” He constantly reminds people that his IQ is higher than 97.9% of other people. Alice tries her best with Frank but she had assumed that she would be transcribing the author’s work onto the computer to send to the publishing firm not babysitting an eccentric child.

Frank is a lot of fun but like so many books has a weak ending. It is still an enjoyable ride.

 

 

 

 

 

WE ARE ALL MADE OF MOLECULES

moleculesSUSAN NIELSEN

Molecules is a light, young adult book that is laugh aloud funny yet still able to deal with some challenging issues. The story is told from two points of view: Ashley and Stewart. Stewart is a genius, gifted academically but stunted and awkward socially. Ashley is the complete opposite: she is the queen bee of her grade, doling out social blessings on those she deems acceptable. But her grades are all D’s and C’s. Their families meld because Steward’s Mom died a year earlier and Ashley’s Dad moved into the garage because he’s gay. Ashley is horrified of the thought that people at school might find out her dad is gay. In many ways the story is unrealistic but it is still fun. So when you are in the mood for something light….

12 ROSE STREET: A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery

GAIL BOWENGail_Bowen_12_Rose_Street

Joanne’s paraplegic husband, Zach, is running for mayor of Regina. Joanna is running his campaign. She has been involved in politics her entire life, trying to make the world a better place. The current mayor  who is backed by shady, wealthy developers, seems to be a the city favorite. Joanne stumbles when faced with blackmail about the betrayal of a trusted friend.  Zack hoped to expose some of the corrupt dealings on the civic scene. Before he knows it, however, the race is marred by threats, violence, attack ads, and of course murder. Then there is this mysterious property in North Central, 12 Rose Street.

This is Bowen’s 15th novel in the series and likely her best.

CBC interview with Bowen.  I had the pleasure of hearing Gail do a reading and talk about her work. She is a wonderful speaker. Go see her if you get a chance.

ME BEFORE YOU

meJOJO MOYES

Louisa Clark is a relatively normal British girl, living with her family, waitressing with no great plans for her life. Her boyfriend is more interested in training for marathons than in her.  Will Traynor was an uber-athlete, high intensity, wealthy businessman until an accident left him an angry quadriplegic.  Their paths cross when Lou is hired to be Will’s caregiver. Will’s mother informs her that the contract is for six months because unless Will’s attitude changes at the end of that time he will go to Switzerland to end his life. Lou has alway been a ray of light but this is quite a challenge. Is she up to it? How does she feel about Will?

Laugh out loud funny and weepingly sad. Me Before You is a great read.

“I want to tell him that I don’t know what I feel. I want him but I’m frightened to want him. I don;t want my happiness to be entirely dependent on somebody else’s to be a hostage to fortunes I cannot control.”

“No journey out of grief was straightforward. There would be good days and bad days. Today was just a bad day, a kink in the road, to be traversed and survived.”

THE BLUE BETWEEN SKY AND WATER

bluebetween_192_290SUSAN ABULHAWA

BLUE tells another important story: the story of the Palestinians. It traces the Baraka family as they are forced off their land and out of their ancestral village of Beit Daras during the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland when Israel was created in 1948. They relocate to the Gaza Strip. It tells the story of Israeli colonialism, when victim becomes victimizer. But much more it describes the Palistinian culture. When they celebrate with feast and dancing: “We find our own way to freedom. Zionist sons of Satan cannot imprison our joy, can they?” The women’s culture of cooking and gossiping is beautiful. Nazmiyeh is the matriarch, the center of a household of sisters, daughters, granddaughters, whose lives threaten to spin out of control with every personal crisis, military attack, or political landmine.

“Stories matter. We are composed of our stories. The human heart is made of the words we put in it. If someone ever says mean things to you, don’t let those words go into your heart, and be careful not to put mean words in other people’s hearts.”

“But I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

While reading this novel I frequently thought of the song My Personal Revenge. Jackson Browne singing a Jorge Caleron Poem.

My Personal Revenge

My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic
My personal revenge will be to show you
The kindness in the eyes of my people
Who have always fought relentlessly in battle
And been generous and firm in victory
My personal revenge will be to tell you good morning
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you
And when you who have applied your hands in torture
Are unable to look up at what surrounds you
My personal revenge will be to give you
These hands that once you so mistreated
But have failed to take away their tenderness
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
And underneath the skin of this town today
Red and black, it’s heart’s been scarred
Forevermore
You can listen to it on you tube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4NwJLHeYeM

DON’T LET HIM KNOW

SANDIP ROYdon't

Don’t Let Him Know is a novel told in linked short stories but reads as a coherent novel. It tells the story of a family blinded by its secrets, some small, a grandma hiding sweet chutney in her bedroom for a treat at night, some huge, a husband hiding the truth about his relationship with a man.  As the book begins, Romola, now a widow, is visiting her son Amit in Northern California, where he lives with his American wife and young son. One evening, he gives her a letter he has found in an old address book, sent many years before from a former lover named Sumit.

“Romola sat there in Amit’s armchair slightly stunned,” Roy writes. “After all these years how could she have been so careless? She knew she had saved the letter, unable to destroy it the way she should have years ago. She remembered reading it and rereading it, each word striking her like a sledgehammer, cracking her open over again and again.”

All the characters are bound by traditions, time and secrets. They hold a mirror to our own secrets and misgivings.

A good read.