Over the past couple of months, I’ve been alternating my reading between children’s literature and ‘grown-up’ reads. The following TEN thought-provoking titles are some that I recently enjoyed (mostly).
I WAS A CHILD OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS by Bernice Eisenstein (Nonfiction)
This moving memoir provides images and stories of the author’s childhood growing up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Toronto’s Kensington Market areas in the early 1950’s. Though both parents were Holocaust survivors who met in Auschwitz and married after liberation, their experiences of war were ever-present but rarely spoken about. The recollections, along with the spot drawings, portraits and full page images created by the author, provide poetic, narrative detail to Einstein’s self-discovery and contemplation of her connection to the Holocaust.
THIS IS PLEASURE by Mary Gaitskill
This novella (81 pages) came highly recommended to me and this was my virgin read of Mary Gaitskill’s (Bad Behaviour, The Mare, Two Girls Fat and Thin). No doubt that this was a though provoking reading experiencing that invites readers to contemplate and figure out the complexities of the #MeToo movement. The story is told in alternative voices, Quinn (Q) and Margot (M). Quinn a smart, talented editor is dismissed from his job because of inappropriate/naughty/rude behaviour. He’s not the most likeable fictional character you’d come across. But Quinn just wants to enter and better understand into the minds of the women he encounters (he never sleeps with them). Margot, a faithful friend understands where he is coming from. Sort of. Q is infuriating, but what harm did he really do and should his life be destroyed because of his own rude/ but honest words and actions? Get into groups and discuss. The story is available online (see New Yorker magazine).
THIS IS NOT ME by Janice Galloway (memoir)
The setting: Scotland, late 1950’s through 1960’s. This is the story of the Scottish author’s childhood with “a boozy father, a staunch mother, and a domineering older sister’. To survive the circumstances, young Galloway took a rather silent stance to the abuse and poverty and dominance that she faced. She astutely observes the people in her community, her teachers, her sister’s wildness, television, music As a preteen, shes trives to find a voice for herself. I am always intrigued by stories of young people who must deal with what life deals them, however troublesome and unfortunate those things might be. “Your life and your luck were the self-same thing, and they carried on regardless, irrespective of your hopes, wishes and desires. All you had to do was last through whatever came towards you, good or bad. All you had to do was hold on tight.” (page 281). Janice Galloway’s e story continues in a sequel entitled All Made Up.
SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Tomasz Jedrowski
This novel by gay Polish author Jedrowski, surveys the life of Ludwig, who is at first disillusioned by his homosexual desires and then enamoured and enthralled when he meets up with Janusz, a fellow university student, at an agricultural camp. Life back in Warsaw challenges the two men from deepening their relationship when political views and choices divide them. The book’s voice varies from second to first person; the time varies from present to past. An elegant story of love and loss with the Polish setting providing history, culture and atmosphere to the storytelling.
I KNOW YOU KNOW WHO I AM by Peter Kispert
Each character is gay. Each character lies or deceives. One hires an actor to pretend that he is an old boyfriend, Troy says he was an avid hunter, Gavin told his boyfriend he was a professional diver (he’s not). Who are these people and what do they say about those in the gay community? An anthology of 21 short stories (some only two or three pages) and when reading such a collection, I was expecting to find some (one?) more appealing than others but this wasn’t the case. I read the stories chronologically (skipped over a few) and was unwowed when I reached the end of the tales.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
Sometimes I just like to dig into a bestselling title. Sometimes I like to read a novel before seeing the movie or watching the TV series. Little Fires Everywhere has been at the top of the booksellers list for 70 weeks or so. The story is set in a ‘reputable’ upper class suburban neighbourhood in Cleveland. The four teenage Richardson children each have their issues with relationships, family and/or otherwise. The family hires a maid to help with the household but she has hidden secrets about her artistic past, her pregnancy and her relationship with her daughter. Another significant plot event is the appearance of an Asian woman who once abandoned her infant who is about to be adopted by well-to-do parents. (What makes someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?). OK, I’ll say it, this is a ‘woman’s novel’. It is a story about class, race, secrets, community etc. Ng’s writing is crisp as she challenges readers to be sympathetic to different characters. Now I can watch the TV series with Reese Witherspoon and Kerri Washington, who’s images as I had in mind when I read the book. Comment: The racial identity of two central characters is rather a mystery. The choice to leave this ‘open-ended’ bothered me some because I think knowing the race of these characters would add some depth to their narrative. With the TV series we know that Mia and Pearl are black. For some reason, this was totally eft vague in the novel but I had the television commercials to help me understand who these characters were. Just sayin’!
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
This book has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years (actually I have two copies). Saunders won the Booker Prize for this novel and it seems, from online reviews that it’s either a love-it or hate-it reading venture. I gave up after 150 pages (length 344 pages). I was not enjoying it. I wasn’t getting it. And I didn’t want to spend another day being in this supernatural cemetery with characters I just couldn’t care about. Some sympathy did go to the plight of the spirit President Lincoln’s 11 year old son. The style and form certainly intrigues which is why I picked up the book in the first place. The majority of the book is presented as snippets of conversation with real and historical sources woven into the fictional narration. Very clever. Very inventive. Very not for me. I will gladly pass on both copies of this book to anyone who is a ‘smarter’ reader than I am.
CREATING COMPASSIONATE KIDS: Essential conversations to have with young children by Shauna Tominey (Professional Resource)
The author guides parents, caregivers and educators through conversations with young children about a range of topics (e.g., Race, Sex and gender, Peer Pressure, Kindness). The goal of this book is to have adults talk to children about topics through conversations that help children recongize how they feel and how they fit in with the word. Sample conversations provided throughout.
APARTMENT by Teddy Wayne
This story, set in New York in 1995, 1996, didn’t seem to go anywhere but in the end I’d say it inspired readers to think about masculinity, class, loyalty and the pursuit of one’s dreams. The narrator is lucky enough to live illegally in a rent-controlled apartment (courtesy of his aunt. He is also lucky to live off his father’s expenses. He meets the talented Billy in the MFA writing program they both attend. and invites him to live rent-free in the rapport. The two guys have different upbringings, the same goals of getting their work published and but somewhat different expectations of what friendship means. Apartment is both the central setting and I’d say a metaphor for being connected with others (or not).
APEIROGON by Colum McCann
I bought this book after reading a knockout review in the New York Times. It is certain to be on my favourites list by year’s end, if for nothing more than it’s unique style. 1001 Chapters (I’d say ‘episodes’ (recalling One Thousand And One Knights). Some chapters are only one sentence long. The book is a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction drawn from the true story of Bassam a Palestinian and Rami, an Israeli who bond after the terrible loss of their daughters. Fact and imagination, narrative and information are woven together brilliantly. For some, the originality of the format (is it really a novel?), and the meandering of past and present would be off-putting for some. However, I was fascinated how McCann dug deep into the grief and healing of the two families, shone a light on the politics of Israel, inspect the world of birds and flight, and dipped into figures from history (Philipe Petit, Einstein, Christ) to illuminate the central story. I’ve had the author’s Let the Great World Spin sitting on my shelf for a couple of years and I now look forward to reading it.