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.

TESTIMONY

ANITA SHREVE

A sex scandal at a New England private school comes to light. There is a tape of three senior basketball players with a girl in a drunken bacchanalia. The trouble is the girl is only 14. The headmaster tries to deal with the matter internally but it escalates beyond his control: the police are called.  The ramifications ripple into the community and beyond.The national press gets wind of the story. We become aware of other incidences that precipitated this assault. There is a death. Careers are ruined. Marriages end.

Shreve is a master of timeline manipulation, slowly painting the narrative as we read.

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 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.

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.

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.

THE PARCEL

ANOSH IRANI

“I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers.” Madhu is a eunuch, a hijra, a third sex living in a community of hijras. Once she was the crown jewel of the brothel.  Her “arsehole,” she recalls, “was a cash crop.” Now at 40 she begs on the street. One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a “parcel” has arrived – a young girl from Nepal, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt -“And the truth was a ten year old girl had been sold into slavery.” And Madhu must prepare her for her future of prostitution. Madhu took pride of opening the parcel gently much differently than the pimps would do, though the parcel was still kept in a cage.

“Born and bred to mortify,” Madhu is a breathtaking figure, admirable despite that fact that the “very things that made one human – love, hope, health – had been ripped from her calmly and precisely, the way a syringe extracted blood.”  The Parcel is not an easy read but it does grip you by the heart and squeeze.

 

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.

BECOMING UNBECOMING

UNAurl

Una uses her own experiences with sexual assault and the background of the Yorkshire Ripper, in the 70’s to examine rape culture where women are made to feel guilty for being a victim. Through image and text Becoming, Unbecoming explores what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned. Una explores her experience, wonders if anything has really changed and challenges a global culture that demands that the victims of violence pay its cost. The police tried to justify the Ripper’s horrific crimes by publicly questioning why the women were out of their homes in the first place. Rather than following up on explicit physical descriptions and leads provided by one of the Ripper’s surviving victims, police instead chose to focus on gathering evidence that the murdered women were prostitutes or otherwise had “loose morals.”

This is a book all men and women should read.

THE ILLEGAL

arts_books1-1-72464fd7f6b3c94d                                                                                                         LAWRENCE HILL

THE ILLEGAL seems even more timely today, with the election of Trump and his executive order to start construction of the wall on the border of Mexico, than when it was first published. Illegal follows the story of Keita Ali and his family in the fictional country of Zantoroland. It’s populated by people whose ancestors, a century and a half ago, were the slaves whose labour built the third wealthiest economy on the planet, the nearby fictional country of Freedom State.  Keita Ali is running a marathon in Freedom State against a vicious opponent who is tormenting him with racial slurs. “Go Home N—–.” Keita is not just running a race, he’s on the run from the authorities who want to deport him. With his tormentor at his heels, the unflappable hero calmly ticks his pace up a notch and begins to sing as he surges up the hill: “Want to shatter your opponent’s confidence? Just when he starts to hurt, you sing.” Keita’s sister is captured by the Zantoroland’s military government and held for ransom so Keita must run and win every race so he can buy her freedom. Hill creates a trove of fascinating characters: a violent sports agent, a woman who runs a brothel and AfricTown (the black shantytown), a prime minister who is evil incarnate, and a schoolboy who films everything by hiding in various closets.

Hill is an excellent writer. The Illegal is not to be missed.

 

 

 

SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR: Saigon 1961-63

MARCELINO TRUONG978-1-55152-647-8_suchalovelylittlewar-1

Both a memoir and a history, War is an informative window to what we call the Vietnam War; in Vietnam it is called the American War. Truong’s father was a Vietnamese diplomat in Washington, his mother a French woman with bipolar disease.During his early childhood in Washington, DC, the Truongs enjoyed a peaceful life in “a quiet middle-class suburb, something Norman Rockwell might imagine.” Truong describes this period as nothing short of idyllic: jazz on the car stereo, picnics by the water, white Christmases. When the father was called home, he became interpreter to Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. His mother had not wanted to leave the US and was unsettled in her new home. In Saigon, the children live a sheltered existence, punctuated by the war. When the Americans escalate the conflict by sending more weapons and troops, the Truong boys become increasingly more enthralled by the grandiose machines of destruction. They are disturbed more by their mother’s emotional outbursts and irrationalities than the war in the background. We also have the unique perspective of his father who had extraordinary access to the inner workings of power thanks to his role as President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s interpreter.

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.”

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN

JENNIFER CLEMENT18007563

“My name is Ladydi Garcia Martinez,and I have brown skin, brown eyes and brown frizzy hair, and look like everyone else I know. As a child my mother used to dress me up as a boy and call me Boy. I told everyone a boy was born, she said. If I were a girl then I would be stolen. All the drug traffickers had to do was hear there was a pretty girl around and they’d sweep onto our lands in black Escalades and carry the girl off.” Stolen is the story of a young Mexican girl, Ladydi, who grows up in a rural mountain community in the Pacific state of Guerrero — “a land of red insects and women” — not far from Acapulco. Although named after Diana, Princess of Wales — the “saint for betrayed women” — Ladydi is called “Boy” by her mother, Rita. Turning girls into boys — or at least making them ugly — is a matter of survival on the mountain. Though not stolen Ladydi does get mixed up with the narcos.

Well written, Stolen is a powerful book. Violence against women in the drug wars in Mexico is a huge problem.

 

MISCHLING

AFFINITY KONAR28664920

Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz physician who not only sent countless men, women and children to the gas chambers, but also performed grotesque experiments on selected prisoners — especially twins, whom he eagerly sought out upon arrival. Konar makes the emotional lives of her two spirited, twin narrators piercingly real, as they recount, in alternating chapters, the story of their efforts to survive: Pearl, once the more outgoing of the sisters, becomes more methodical, more focused on memories to get through each day; while Stasha grows feistier and more cunning — “a creature capable of tricking her enemies and rescuing her loved ones.”

Once inseparable, the twins are broken in different ways by Mengele’s repulsive experiments, which damage Stasha’s hearing and sight; and leave Pearl in an isolated cage, her ankles snapped and her feet smashed.

Mischling is a dark book but light radiates in the girls’ strength and will to survive. It’s a great read.

Forgiveness “did not remove my pain or blunt my nightmares. It was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgment of the fact that I still lived; it was proof that their experiments, their numbers, their samples, was all for naught — I remained, a tribute to their underestimations of what a girl can endure. In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.”

Mischling (“mixed-blood” in German) was the German legal term used in Nazi Germany to denote persons deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry.