While healing from broken toes on both feet (too much exuberance; don't ask me more) and repetitive strain in both arms (too much blogging of reviews as a Giller shadow juror), I've had plenty of time to read in October. I've been fussy, too, abandoning a couple of books that weren't holding my interest. Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom was one; no doubt it was just the wrong book for me at the time, since I loved her first, Homegoing.
What follows are a dozen brief reviews and selected quotes from some reading (and audiobook listening) highlights this month:
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
A story of two sisters in today‘s Japan. One is asexual. They grew up in poverty & don‘t have much money as adults. Not much happens, yet I found the characters fascinating; getting to know them from the inside is the treat of this immersive novel. Serious issues are tackled, including parenthood, gender roles in society, cosmetic surgery, and choosing to live one‘s life against the grain.
Beauty meant you were good. And being good meant being happy. Happiness can be defined in all kinds of ways, but human beings, consciously or unconsciously, are always pulling for their own version of happiness. Happiness is the base unit of consciousness, our single greatest motivator. Saying “I just want to be happy” trumps any other explanation.
I unlocked the door and entered the familiar assortment of shadows. It was uncomfortably cool, almost like winter. The carpeting felt damp. It actually smelled like winter. Which was funny, since I hadn‘t noticed it outside. Does that mean the smell was inside my apartment? When the temperature and intensity of the sunlight and the quality of night all met certain criteria, did that smell issue from the books and clothes and curtains and the other nooks and crannies all at once? Remembering something.
Once I was reclined there in the darkness with my eyes closed, I felt like my brain was being broken down and packed away. I couldn‘t fall asleep.
Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine is amazing, not only for her intellectual rigour in these essays about the racist structure of American society, but also for her open-minded engagement in conversation with white people—friends and strangers—on this topic. Her desire to understand racist viewpoints strikes me as a useful step in dismantling them, and then moving on to the next step: creating a better future.
My own interracial marriage exists inside a racist America whose ways make life more difficult. Many times driving in NYC and NJ, we were pulled over by police and asked how we knew each other; there are all the places my husband walks into while I‘m stopped at the door; and there are the white women who understand our relationship to be anything but a marriage as they step between us to flirt.
A friend insists that attaching blondness to whiteness and white supremacy is ridiculous. It just looks better on most women, she claims. I am not white, so I try to inhabit her form of certainty. My friend‘s unwillingness to interrogate why “better” and “blond” are married interests me.
The idea that one can stand apart is a nice fantasy but we can‘t afford fantasies.
A white friend tells me she has to defend me all the time to her white friends who think I‘m a radical. Why? For calling white people white? For not wanting black people to be gunned down in our streets or black girls to be flung across classrooms & thrown to the ground by officers? What does that even mean? I ask her. Don‘t defend me. Not for being human. Not for wanting us to simply be able to live.
Projections edited by Rebecca Romney
Speculative fiction from the past -- published between 1836-1998 -- have been selected by Rebecca Romney for the way these stories reflect on contemporary reality. It's a literal box of delights: the dozen attractive, individually-bound booklets in this anthology come packaged in a gorgeous container. It's published by Hingston and Olsen, the same talented duo that has been creating Short Story Advent Calendars.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Audiobook [13 hr] read by Stacey Glemboski
It‘s fitting that Emily St John is the author chosen for the cover blurb on this compelling and unsettling near-future survivalist tale, since both authors explore group dynamics under extenuating conditions. The mother-daughter relationship at the core of Cook‘s novel is practically visceral in its depiction. I was completely swept up.
There used to be a cultural belief, in an era before she was born, that having close ties to nature made one a better person. And when they first arrived in the Wilderness, they imagined that living there might make them more sympathetic, better, more attuned people. But they came to understand there'd been a great misunderstanding about what better meant. It's possible it simply meant better at being human, and left the definition of the word human up for interpretation.
What made it one of the most popular magazines in circulation were the vintage spreads it printed every month. Scenes from the archives of the old days: old estates, sprawling penthouses, rustic sheep farms, front porches, lawns, and even sky blue pools. Views of landscapes that were nice to look at, of attics, of homes in all sorts of weather. These were astonishing to look at now.
Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O'Farrell
Audiobook [11 hr] read by Daisy Donovan
Another audiobook that totally swept me away. The impact of a child‘s death is exquisitely portrayed, with all of the deeper resonances that accrue from choosing to place the family in the path of a (bubonic) plague and for the male head of that family to be a 16th-century English playwright whose name is recognized worldwide today, even though it is never mentioned in the novel. But why did the Canadian publisher change the title? (In the UK it's simply Hamnet.)
She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Audiobook [4 hr] read by Joel de la Fuente
This novel about anti-Asian racism in the USA is playfully inventive... and also heartbreaking.
“I have to talk with an accent because no one can process what the hell to do with me. I‘ve got the consciousness of a contemporary American and the face of a Chinese farmer of 5,000 years ago. Asian man. It‘s a fact. Look it up. No one likes us.”
“Falling in love is a story.” She says that telling a love story is something that one person does. Being in love takes both of them. Putting her on a pedestal is just a different way of being alone.
She brings incense and a shrine to her ancestors and a smaller one for a particular minor deity, the god of immigration and prosperity and real estate transactions, which started out a long time ago as the greater spirit of irrigation and good fortune and agriculture. This is the deity who understands, above all, location, location, location.
You hold your daughter in your arms. She looks at you and you know that she came from somewhere else. Somewhere beyond your comprehension, the little tiny interior space you‘ve been living in, inside your own dumb head. You know that she is an alien from another planet here to save you, a being from some far away land. She takes one look at you, and you know that she knows things about you, and you know things about yourself you didn‘t before. You‘ve been a father for approximately 10 seconds and you know for certain that you will never be the same.
Azadi: Freedom. Facism. Fiction by Arundhati Roy
The crystalline essays in this collection are mostly adapted from lectures given between June 2018 and April 2020. Azadi—Freedom—is a rallying cry for social justice in the Indian subcontinent. May the humane, intelligent voice of Arundhati Roy challenge the murk of fascism and shine a light towards a better future.
As India embraces majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is a polite term for fascism, many liberals and even communists continue to be squeamish about using that term. This, notwithstanding the fact that RSS ideologues are openly worshipful of Hitler and Mussolini, and that Hitler has found his way onto the cover of an Indian school textbook about great world leaders, alongside Ghandi and Modi.
Is fascism a kind of feeling—in the way anger, fear and love are feelings—that manifests itself in recognizable ways across cultures? Does a country fall into fascism the way a person falls in love? Or, more accurately, in hate? Has India fallen in hate?
The principles of equality are anathema to the caste system. It‘s not hard to see how the idea that some human beings are inherently superior or inferior to others by divine mandate slides easily into the fascist idea of a “master race.” To escape the tyranny of Brahminism over the centuries, millions of Dalits and people from other subjugated castes converted to Islam, Sikhism or Christianity. So, the politics of Hindu nationalism and its persecution of minorities is also intricately intertwined with the question of caste.
Today, 13 February 2020, marks the 193rd day of the Indian government‘s shutdown of the internet in Kashmir. After months of having no access to mobile data or broadband, now 7 million Kashmiris, who live under the densest military occupation in the world, have been allowed to view what is known as a white list—a handful of government-approved websites. […] It‘s the equivalent of giving a thirsty person water from an eyedropper.
Reporters Without Borders say that India is the fifth most dangerous place for journalists in the world, ranked just above Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Mexico.A Burning by Megha Majumdar
There‘s no art besides fiction that lets you live inside the consciousness of other people. In this novel set in Mumbai, India, rotating viewpoints of three main characters bring to heart the prejudice, injustice & inequality that's embedded in Indian society. My heart broke for Jivan, wrongfully accused of being a terrorist. Lovely, a hijra, is appealing in her irrepressible ambition. Even PT Sir‘s ignoble actions are understandable.
A History of My Brief Body by Billy Ray Belcourt
Audiobook [4 hr] read by author
In emotionally intense vignettes, Belcourt documents his first 25 years as a gay Nêhiyaw man, reaching for the poetic possibilities in life. These erudite essays focus on his self-reinvention after leaving his northern Alberta reserve to attend university and subsequently earn a PhD in English. Belcourt writes about finding joy, connections and purpose, despite the racism in Canadian society.
The creative drive, the artistic impulse, is above all a thunderous yes to life.
How Not to Spill by Jessica Johns
Like Billy Ray Belcourt, Jessica Johns is queer and Nêhiyaw from northern Alberta. Her first poetry collection is only 40 pages, so it didn‘t take long for me to read through it twice. And I will read through it again, because I can't get enough. “My ceremony is facetiming my nieces & nephew every sunday.” From badass grandmothers to dreams about MySpace, love letters, warnings and doorways: these are poems about holding on to beauty no matter what.
if i were
a tornado i‘d make sure to drop
something nice off at your house:
a dairy cow, a bouquet of wheat
from alberta, a time machine.
I FELL IN LOVE ON TWITTER
which if you didn‘t know
is the worst place to fall
in love or lust
to be earnest
& every other
The World Is Round by Nikky Finney
I picked this collection up to revisit Nikky Finney‘s poetry while waiting for her newest work. Her fierce, joyous, loving celebration of ordinary people—especially black women—lifts my heart. From an unborn child, to a beloved grandmother, to an adult lesbian daughter, to the “sun‘s womb,” these poems encompass the personal, the political, and more. The World Is Round, first published in 2003, stands up firmly against the test of time.
I cast out among the learned and teach
to alter sleeping states. I stand before the
university pond and fish for the living who
send air bubbles up to the learned who know
real life bestows no terminal degrees.
“Ain‘t Too Proud to Beg”
—The Temptations, 1966
Ho Chi Minh
and my father
all their lives.
I am my father‘s
His little red book
begging him to stop.
The Good German by Dennis Bock
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Adam Verner
What if Hitler had been assassinated, and then Germany signed a treaty with the US and won WWII after dropping an atomic bomb on London? From the 1940s — 60s, we follow the lives of several people of German ancestry in Canada, where they are persecuted simply for being German. Meanwhile, across the US border, antisemitism grows. A thoughtful alternate history. Is guilt a form of madness? Who is responsible for the suffering and tragedy in our lives?
“Don‘t ever think in absolutes, okay?” he said. “There‘s always something hopeful out there, something to strive for.”
Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada
The author‘s true story of her political activism in South Korea, in 1983 when she was a first-year university student. The well-drawn cast of characters tugged at my heartstrings and their fervour in the face of oppression is inspiring. The final chapter, set in 2016, shows all of them gathered to protest another corrupt government but also aware of the gains that their efforts realized over the years. Black and white comics format.
Hyun Sook: Did they take you in for questioning?
Yuni: That‘s what THEY called it.
Hyun Sook: Was it as violent as what happened to Hoon and Jihoo?
Yuni: When it comes to women, they inflict a different KIND of violence. The kind that doesn‘t heal. The kind you can‘t wear like a badge of honour. The kind I hope you never have to experience.