Book by book, I’m getting through my pile of books for grown-ups. There’s rather a wide range of content in these titles that include a memoir about the Muslim experience in contemporary U.S., a book about the Asian identity experience in contemporary U.S., a memoir about growing up Black in the U.S., a novel about growing up Black in the U.S., a story about an android. a novel translated from the French about an aging prostitute, a book about a queer NDN, a boozy church Deacon, and a collection of stories about LOVE. Most titles were published within the last few couple of years. One is a 2021 publication. Each and every one provides insights into unique identities.
HOMELAND ELEGIES: A NOVEL by Ayad Akhtar
This is a lot of book. Fiction, Memoir, Essay in which the author, a Muslim, digs deep into the place of the immigrant in America. The story finds a centre in the relationship between Akhtar’s father, a heart specialist who once treated Donald Trump. Or did he? Akhtar takes his narrative from his own personal experiences, but the front cover displays the word “NOVEL” in a large a font as the title of the book. Is this a novel? Is it autobiography? The central character is named Ayad Akhtar, a playwright who once won the Pulitzer Prize for the play Disgraced. (true). But did the author once have syphilis? encounter Islamophobia while waiting for his car to be repaired in Scranton, Pennsylvania? experience that wild night of sex? give a speech at a university? make a bundle of money with a hedge-fund scheme? I accept it all as truth but that word ‘novel’ looms large. Most of all, Akhtar digs deep into otherness – his, his family and the friends and citizens he encounters. Much writing goes into unravelling political views, which for me was like attending a university lecture and not readily grasping what was being said. The first 80 pages or so were slow reading and I was going to put the book aside. I decided to persevere and was rewarded with a staggering, sprawling document of our times, a time when Trump’s ‘”particular genius was. need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.” I often felt that I wasn’t smart enough for the author’s views of religion, academia, and finance. I have many questions, but essentially am curious whether Ayad Akhtar will win another Pulitzer Prize? Deserved.
THE VANISHING HALF Britt Bennett
Two identical twin sisters, Stella and Desiree, are born light-skinned Black and come t0 choose as adults, to lead different lives; one in the urban white world; one in the rural black community. Each of the sisters has a daughter and for much of the book we see the world through their eyes: Kennedy who knows nothing about her mother who has chosen to pass for white and dark-skinned Jude who The way this novel is written is like holding a remote control in your hand. Bennett switches time and character and returns to them, chapter by chapter, and especially within the chapter narratives. The story and the storytelling was like watching a soap opera as we meet characters, learn about their relationships, their yearnings, their loves and their remembrances. That’s not to say, that the writing was ‘schlocky’ (Are soap opera’s shlocky?). The storytelling is efficient, intertwining stories, generations, and race. It is a book about past informing the present, denial and secrets, and family separation and bonding.
THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In this memoir, Ta-Nehesi Coats brilliantly and poetically chronicles his coming-ofage story. At the centre of his life is his father,, Paul Coates A Vietnam vet, a Black Panther, a radical publisher and strict disciplinarian to seven children. Ta-Nehisi, surrounded by his chaotic Baltimore environment and a rather misguided outlook at education. But the author grows into becoming the profound writer of The Water Dancer; We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me. I should have finished this 221 page book in a few days, but I found myself reading many sentences over more than once. I was making a lot of inferences, throughout, because of the way the author is ‘talking black’. The language, lingo and cultural contexts often slowed me down but who am I argue with Ta-Nehisi Coates powerful use language and narrative style of this important cultural, social and political writer.
THE LIFE BEFORE US (Madame Rosa) by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar)
This book was written in 1975 and has been translated from the French La Vie Devant Soi. Recently, my friends Robbie and Marco highly recommend that I read this novel. I loved it! I had remembered seeing the terrific movie Madame Rosa with Simone Signoret. The film is being re-released on Blu-ray I decided to order the DVD (I haven’t ordered a DVD in sometime). There is an updated version of the story which was recently featured on Netflix, The Life Ahead with Sophia Loren (it was satisfactory). I love books told from the point of view of young people and readers will fall in love with the MOMO as much as Madame Rosa did. Madame Rosa was a Holocaust survivor who now resides in a Paris suburb where she takes charge of children who had been dropped off by whores who have gone on their way, one of those being the orphaned Arab boy, Momo. The cast of characters includes pimps, witchdoctors, a transvestite, a Jewish doctor, and an umbrella. As the health of Madame Rosa tragically fades, Momo will do anything to support her in any way he can. This is a story of Devotion, with a capital D. Very funny. Very moving. Thank you Robbie and Marco for the recommendation.
SHOUT OUT! THE HILL WE CLIMB by Amanda Gorman (poem)
This slim volume is the in-print version of Amanda Gorman’s poem presented on January 20, 2021, the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Activist and poet, Gorman, age 22, was the youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at an inauguration and in the preface to this publication, Oprah Winfrey writes, ‘they don’t come very often, these moments of incandescence where the welter of pain and suffering gives way to hope. Maybe even joy.”
Excerpt (page 29)
When day comes, we step out of the shade
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
IF only we’re brave enough to be it.
KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)
This is either a love-it (raves) or hate it (what’s it all about?) reading experience. I tend to avoid any books about dystopian futures. In fact, I generally steer away from Science Fiction, but Ishiguro’s novel intrigued me because I do like stories told from the point of view of young people. In fact this one ‘almost’ seemed like a YA novel. Klara is an. AF (Artificial Friend) who. was chosen by Josie, a young teenager who lives alone with her mother. Josie is ailing, and Klara becomes her loyal companion determined that no harm will come to her ‘friend’. Klara’s wisdom, exceptional observational skills. The blurb on the back cover cites the following passage, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?” At the heart of the book, Ishiguro asks us to consider “what does it mean to love?”, a question for all times that will continue to be asked in the future. I didn’t love this book, I didn’t hate this book. I know I read it ‘differently’, – with much inferring – than I do other fiction.
TINY LOVE STORIES edited by Daniel Jones and Miya Lee
Tiny Love Stories is part of the Modern Love column in The New York Stories. All 175 stories, 100 words of less, have been submitted by readers, young and old, gay or straight, parent or child, single, married or divorced. This was a fine little book to cozy up to on a winter afternoon while being stuck inside. There are stories of humour and tenderness and sadness. I enjoyed reading the anecdotes about Fate that brought people together (Woman on a subway: Will you please help me, I think I’m going to sneeze. The guy puts his hand under her nose to catch the sneeze. She just wanted him to hold her coffee so she wouldn’t spill it. That sneeze led to a marriage; a meeting in a tenement kitchen in Glasgow on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.). Especially touching are stories of saying good-bye to loved one’s who are dying. Especially heartwarming are stories of parent and child. A little gem of a collection, ideal for sharing with anyone you love.
SHELTER IN PLACE by David Leavitt
It is 2016 and Donald Trump has been elected president, much to the fear of a group of Manhattanites, especially Eva. a control freak who decides that owning and decorating a new home in Venice will provide a great escape. Leavitt emerges readers in conversations )often quite funny) about politics, decorating, romantic relationships (gay and straight), fidelity, cooking and dogs. The book had a gossipy flavour to it but in the end, I’m not sure how place provided a place of comfort, belonging, and shelter. (I wonder how this group would react to Mr. Trump in 2021).
DEACON KING KONG by James McBride
James McBride packs a wallop in every, often-lengthy. sentences. Syntax, images, lingo and description are vividly original in this story set in 1969 Brooklyn. Sportcoat is the deacon in the old neighbourhood church (what does a deacon do anyway?) On the opening page we read that Deacon pulls the trigger on a 19 year old drug dealer. From that pistol shot, the narrative rolls and rolls on as we learn about the secrets and stories and connections amongst the Black, Latinx and write citizens of the area as well as the cops, mobsters and drug dealers who play a part in the survival of all the people affected by the shooting. Shootings, police chases, drug deals, a a mysterious Christmas Club box, a valuable hidden treasure and the ghost of a beloved wife intermingle in this somewhat convoluted, boozy (very boozy) – and yes, funny – tale. A friend recommended this title to me, saying it was absolutely the best book he read in 2020. I’m not as enthused about this book as my friend is. I was wowed by the writing, but this book took me longer to read than it should have and I often had trouble keeping track of the characters (Sister Gee, Sister Paul, Soup, Elefante, Pudgy, Bum-bum, Hot Sausage) and the many stories within stories.
INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu
This book (winner of the National Book award 2020 for fiction) follows the life of ‘Generic Asian Man’ (Willis Wu) who dreams of becoming Kung Fu Guy, more than just a background bit player in television and movies ,where if truth be told, most Asian characters have been relegated to. The novel is written in Courier font and in the form of a screenplay of a cops and robber cop show. The unique combination of prose and script, the fiction within fiction narrative, and Willis Wu’s determination to beat the system, and his quest to ‘be more’, help to make this a knockout (and funny) and certainly timely document of immigration, stereotyping, and Anti-Asian racism.
JONNY APPLESEED by Joshua Whitehead
This book received recognition by being declared the winner of CBC Canada Reads 2021. Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Creee, Two-spirit Indigequeer member of Peguis First Nation. Whitehead tells the story of Jonny Appleseed who after leaving the rez, struggles to live, love and survive in the big city (Winnipeg). In 54 rather short chapters, we learn about Jonny’s lustful adventures, dreams of belonging, desires to be loved. (“Funny how NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.'” The narrative premise is the that Jonny has 7 days to return to his home to attend the funeral of his stepfather. Episodes from Jonny’s life meander throughout the 223 pages but it is the powerful stories of family strong connections (mother and beloved kokum) that poignancy and heart to Jonny’s outlook on life, Jonny’s hopes and dreams. A compelling, poetic, gritty, and funny, queer Indigenous Canada read!