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.
MARY DORIA RUSSEL
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 moment, 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.
Shelby survived the accident relatively unscarred but her best friend and bad-ass-in-arms, Helene’s brain was without oxygen for over six minutes. She was left in a coma, needing a breathing machine, being kept alive in her childhood bed. Hoards of strangers came to pray, hoping for a miracle. Shelby always blamed herself and thought she should have been the one who had been damaged. After a suicide attempt and a nervous breakdown, Shelby moved to Manhattan with her drug dealer who would be studying pharmacy. She found a job at a pet shop and eventually began to take in rescue dogs. Her best friend has three beautiful kids that Shelby comes to adore almost as much as her dogs. As unlikeable as Shelby is it is hard not to love her.
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.
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.
“Guapa” encompasses a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during the turbulence of the Arab Spring. His path winds from his family’s upper-middle-class home, where his family is on the verge of discovering his secret relationship with another young man, to the city’s poverty-stricken suburbs, where the embers of revolution are catching fire, to the police stations where regime thugs brutalize and intimidate dissidents, to a lavish wedding in the city’s most exclusive hotel. Along the way, he is forced to reckon with the hidden forces that have driven both him and his country to a fever pitch of despair and frustration.
Told with simple elegance and wry humour, “Guapa” is both a universal story of the perils of adulthood and a deeply personal examination of culture and identity. Haddad writes like an Arab Tennessee Williams, fueled equally by rage and compassion as he explores the social, sexual and economic chasms that divide his characters from each other, and themselves.
Harry Steen’s life is shadowed by two events that happened when he was younger. The first was a brief but passionate affair with an intriguing beauty in the uplands of Scotland where he was about to begin his career. She jilted him for her fiance and he left with a broken heart he believed would never heal. The second was a few years later when he was a Canadian mining executive, on a business trip to Mexico, he discovered a rare 18th century tome. The Obsidian Cloud is an account of an unexplained, true phenomenon: a black cloud with uncannily reflective properties that stalled before dispersing itself in a rain of black hail over Scotland. But it’s less this bizarre event that captures Harry’s attention than the fact that it supposedly occurred in the obscure town where, at age 21, he met his one true and unrequited love. Back at home he send the book to a rare books curator in Glasgow to see what scholars can tell him about this unusual book. The novel tells his life story: working on boats to escape Scotland and the past, chance meetings with remarkable people, being groomed for a position in a mining company and the family as well. Cloud is well written but has a weak ending.
Round House begins the brutal beating, rape and attempted murder of Joe Coutts’ mother. They live on a remote Indian reservation deep in rural North Dakota with Joe’s father, a tribal judge. Joe looses his mother at 13 years old to a deep depression. The rapist is identified but tribal courts cannot try white people and the justice system off reserve has little interest in an Indian woman who has been raped. As Joe comes to the realisation that his father, a tribal judge, can do nothing – “All you catch are drunks and hot dog thieves” – he resolves to track down the perpetrator himself. The relationship Joe has with his childhood friends is a highlight of the story as well as the background culture of the Chippewa people.
“To be hurt, yet forgive. To do wrong, but forgive yourself. To depart from this world leaving only love. This is the reason you walk.” Deeply spiritual,
walk is a combination of biography of Kinew’s father and memoir of his own spiritual journey. Much healing takes place in this history. It is a must read for anyone interested in First Nations issues. Kinew’s description of the Sun Dance ceremonies is particularly powerful. “I could feel the peg push through [ my pectoral muscles] and spun. I felt the blood dripping down. I sensed the air in the cuts; I could taste it. The elders say that when you are cut you are fresh and open to everything around you, vulnerable to the spirit world.”
Reconciliation on an individual level and the national level is an important theme. “Reconciliation is not something realized on a grand level, something that happens when a prime minister and a national chief shake hands. It takes place at a much more individual level. Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them and that what is different between them needs to be respected.”
“More than any inheritance, more than any sacred item, more than any title, the legacy [my father] left behind is this: as on that day in the sundance circle when he lifted me from the depths, he taught us that our time on earth we ought to love one another, and that when our hearts are broken, we ought to work hard to make them whole again. This is at the centre of sacred ceremonies practised by Indigenous people. This is what so many of us seek, no matter where we begin life. This is the reason you walk.”
Read this book!
Enders has penned an engaging look at our digestive tract: mouth to end and all parts in between. Gut is readable and at times funny. “Have my new girlfriend/boyfriend and I been together long enough for farting in front of each other to be okay—and if so, is it down to me to break the ice and go first?” She has scientist’s drive to uncover the worlds hidden beneath what’s visible to the naked eye. The vast legion of microorganisms populating our guts are “the weirdest of creatures” inhabiting “the most amazing giant forest ever.” The gut’s nervous system, food intolerances, allergies, gut bacteria and even the science of bad breath are discussed. She suggests the body’s “most underrated organ” plays a greater role in our overall well being than we might have otherwise thought.” Medical diagrams show the small intestine as a sausage thing chaotically going through our belly. But it is an extraordinary work of architecture that moves so harmonically when you see it during surgery. It’s clean and smooth, like soft fabric.”
Sweetland is an ode to the dying Newfoundland way of small town or harbour life and the intrepid souls who lived there. In 2012, the government has offered the citizen of Sweetland $1oo,ooo each to resettle else where. The condition is all must comply. Moses Sweetland, is one of two holdouts refusing to take up the government’s seemingly generous offer. He is determined to stay, no matter the cost. His obstinacy prevents his friends and neighbours from collecting the government’s money, tearing apart the tight-knit community as a result. Sweetland is an old curmudgeon. The book’s cast of characters is delightful. The challenges to survival on the sea and on the coast are chilling.
“They never lost their way or seemed even momentarily uncertain of their location. They traveled narrow paths cut through tuckamore and bog or took shortcuts along the shoreline, chancing the unpredictable sea ice. Every hill and pond and stand of trees, every meadow and droke for miles was named and catalogued in their heads. At night they navigated by the moon and stars or by counting outcrops and valleys or by the smell of spruce and salt water and wood smoke. It seemed to Newman they had an additional sense lost to modern men for lack of use.”
As a prepubescent boy of eleven Spinelli was repeatedly sexually assaulted by his boy scout master, a decorated police officer. Bill was a ruthlessly seductive man who lured several youth into his bedroom for “boy bonding.” When he just could not handle one more camping trip or a private session at Scout Master Bill’s house, he told his family. But his family didn’t know how to support him and the psycological effects lasted well into his adult life. He developed paruresis, pee-shyness, a social-anxiety phobia rendering one unable to urinate in the (real or perceived) presence of others. He was unable to maintain physical intimacy with others. Eventually he became a doctor and authored a book about gay men’s health issues. His mother had told him the scout master had died of AIDS but later Spinelli found that Bill had written a memoir about saving a youth and adopting him. He was horrified that this paedophile continued to have access to under aged boys. He made it his mission to stop Bill from harming more children.
Peter is a Chinese-Canadian boy with a secret: he is truly a girl. He calls his penis the thing. He tells his sisters, “I want to be pretty like you.” All three girls sense their brother’s secret, but it is the eldest Helen who brings reality to it. “You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee.” The father is overjoyed to finally have a son and does all he can to make him into a true male. He complains that Peter cries more than his sisters. Mother is not much of a presence in the household, so dominated by her husband she is. When Peter offers to help with supper clean up father stops him, “It’s women’s work.”
When he moves to Montreal as a young adult he is more able to explore who he is. When he meets some young friends he surmises, “What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?”
Fu has written an excellent and challenging first novel. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.