Monthly Archives: August 2017

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

homefireHome Fire is the rare book that retells a classic story for the modern era in a way that, to me at least, never feels at all forced. With a book like Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, even though I enjoyed it, I felt some elements of the plot, some things the characters did, were shoehorned in there only because they paralleled plot points in The Taming of the Shrew. In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie retells Sophocles’s Antigone in the setting of a family of Pakistani immigrants to the U.K. Isma, Aneeka, Parvaiz, Eamonn and Karamat are parallels to Ismene, Antigone, Polynices, Haemon and Creon, but they are also real, flesh-and-blood people, living out their lives against the backdrop of a country torn by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim suspicion. The opening scene, with Isma going through a rigorous security screening at Heathrow Airport and missing her flight to her graduate program in the US, sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

The parallels to the classic Greek tragedy are not heavy-handed, though they do get more direct in the later sections of the story. (You don’t have to have read or remember Antigone to appreciate the novel; it works perfectly well as a story on its own, but for those who know the play the parallels add a great deal of richness and interest). Instead of a father who killed his own father and accidentally married his mother, Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz suffer a different kind of “family curse” — a jihadi father who abandoned his father in the UK to go fight with Islamic militants.

Like the curse of the gods on Oedipus’s family, the absent father’s choice shadows the lives of all three of his children. The role of the overbearing Creon, King of Thebes, in the play, is filled here by Karamat Lone, Home Secretary in Britain’s Conservative government. He, too, is of Pakistani Muslim origin, but in order to rise to power he has recreated himself, marrying a white American woman, ceasing to be an observant Muslim, and lecturing other Muslims on the importance of assimilating to white British culture and not standing out.

When Karamat’s son Eamonn encounters first Isma and later her sister Aneeka, it’s inevitable there will be conflict between the two families. How shattering that conflict will be is clearly foreshadowed by the fact that the novel is based on a Greek tragedy.

Point of view throughout this novel moves from one character to the next, with sections told from the perspective of each of the major characters. At first I found it jarring that we did not return to the point of view of a character we’d already met and grown close to, but I found each of the characters so compelling, believable and intriguing that the book never ceased to engage me. I knew this story was going to break my heart — again, Greek tragedy set against the background of modern racism and terrorism wasn’t likely to turn out any other way — but I could not put the book down until I found out exactly how. 

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Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

justmercyJust Mercy is a powerful book that I’ve wanted to read ever since hearing the author interviewed on CBC Radio some time ago. Bryan Stevenson is an African-American lawyer who founded an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to representing clients who are not well served by the justice system. EJI’s clients are mostly people of colour, almost all poor, and they include people on death row, people wrongly accused, and people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. The story of Stevenson’s own development as a lawyer and a fearless advocate for justice is woven throughout the stories of his clients.

Stevenson focuses on one major story that threads throughout the whole book: that of Walter MacMillian, a black man accused of murdering a young white woman. There was no evidence that MacMillian committed the crime and plenty that he didn’t (dozens of people saw him elsewhere at the time the murder took place). Stevenson’s conclusion was that police, anxious to solve a horrific crime that upset the community, pinned the crime on MacMillian who was accused, in the flimsiest possible way, by his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (more or less … it was complicated, but that was what it boiled down to). Despite the lack of evidence to support his conviction and plenty of evidence for his innocence, MacMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The Walter MacMillian case was especially poignant because it took place in Monroeville, Alabama, famous as the home of Harper Lee and the template for her fictional town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. As he began to investigate the case and work for MacMillian’s conviction to be overturned, Bryan Stevenson discovered that while white people in Maycomb were very proud of the fictional story of a white lawyer who defended an unjustly accused black man, they were not nearly so interested in helping a real-life black lawyer defend an unjustly accused black man.

In between the chapters in which Walter MacMillian’s story unfolds, Stevenson tells his own story, the stories of other clients, and the larger story of race, class, and (in)justice in America. The book, and the stories it tells, are damning, eye-opening, and also inspiring — inspiring because of people like Bryan Stevenson, who are willing to give their lives and careers to making things better.

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We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby

wearenevermeetingMany readers probably picked up this book because they’re familiar with Samantha Irby’s blog, but I just saw the description of the book and thought it sounded interesting and funny, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Irby is indeed a very funny writer, of the “my life is actually objectively terrible but I’m writing about it in a funny way” school of humour. She writes about an impoverished and abusive childhood, the death of her parents, chronic illness, and a string of failed relationships — as well as her adoption (and subsequently the death) of an antisocial cat who, like Irby herself, is plagued with medical problems. Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? This could just as easily have been a heart-rending memoir (and sometimes it is) but in a humourist’s hands, it’s easy to laugh at the funny side of a life pockmarked by misfortune and failure. (Some things have clearly gone well for her, like a wildly popular blog, a book deal, and the one relationship that didn’t end in disaster, so there’s that, too).

Irby’s humour is sometimes a little too raw and graphic for me in dealing with sex, bodily functions and illness — but I am a noted prude and squeamish-person, so that reflects more on me than on her (but is a warning worth noting for other squeamish prudes). Still, despite a few cringes I found this an enjoyable read.

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this memoir (or collection of essays — it doesn’t unroll in the continuous flow you’d expect from a memoir) to Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I also read recently. There are definite similarities between the two writers: both African-American women who write about body image, food, sexuality (including bisexuality), physical and mental illness and disability. Gay is a very serious writer who can at times be quite funny; Irby is a humour writer who brings a sardonic eye and voice to very serious topics. (Apparently Gay and Irby are friends in real life, and this article about Irby begins with a funny anecdote about a reader confusing the two, so it’s clearly not just a case of lily-white me thinking All Big Black Women Who Write About Their Bodies Look Alike).

What is the mysterious alchemy that makes one book an acclaimed literary soon-to-be-classic, and another a fun, commercial read? I’ve always struggled with this question in reading fiction, as I read both popular and literary fiction, and I still can’t pinpoint the difference. It’s there in non-fiction too — I can see that Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby are doing different things with quite similar material, but I can’t quite explain what the difference is, apart from the fact that Irby plays her experience for laughs. But as with popular and literary fiction, both are great reads, as long as you know what you’re getting. If you’re not too squeamish about sex, swearing, and (especially) poop, you’ll enjoy We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

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Filed under Humour, Nonfiction -- memoir

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

swingtimeZadie Smith is one of those writers I have been meaning to read forever but never getting around to, probably because her work comes with so much literary acclaim I was afraid it was going to be impenetrable and a little boring (because let’s be honest, some — by no means all, but some — books that win a lot of literary awards are less than fun to read). I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I finally picked up Swing Tim(because of the happy coincidence of it appearing both on the Booker Prize longlist and my library’s list of available e-books this summer), I was immediately drawn in to a believable character with a compelling voice and a richly drawn world that I found hard to put down. I will definitely be reading more of Zadie Smith.

The first-person narrator of Swing Time (who never reveals her name, though it took me more than halfway through the book to realize this) is a young girl of mixed race (black mother, white father) growing up on a North London council estate in the 1980s. She takes dance lessons as a young girl, and though she shows no remarkable talent, she develops a passionate interest in dance and the history of dance, immersing herself in old Fred Astaire movies on TV and VHS, and devouring the biographies of dancers as her recreational reading. In young adulthood, she is suddenly catapulted from her entry level job in television to an entirely different and more glamorous life when she gets hired as a personal assistant to a major pop star, and plunges into the world of the rich and famous.

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Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

halfbloodbluesIt’s always great when a bok is able to take you to a place you have never been, geographically or historically or both. Half Blood Blues does this through the voice of jazz musician Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player who lived in Berlin as a young man in the 1930s. All was going well for Sid and his bandmates — a collection of African-Americans and Germans, with the German members including Jews and one mixed-race German — until the Nazis came to power. Decrying jazz as a degenerate influence, the new regime began shutting down jazz was played and arresting musicians who didn’t fit the “Aryan” mold. 

Though Sid narrates the story in a quirky, memorable voice filled with old-time jazzy slang, and most of his time in the novel is spent with his lifelong frenemy, the drummer Chip, the real focus of the story is on another character. Hieronymus Falk is the one mixed-race German member of the band — the child of a white German mother and an African father, an outsider everywhere, an abomination to Nazi theories of racial purity. Hiero, the youngest member of the group and the most vulnerable, is also the most talented, a phenomenal trumpeter who wins the attention of Louis Armstrong. When those of the band members who haven’t yet been arrested are forced to flee Berlin for Paris, personal tensions and jealousies among the band members come to a head as that city falls to the invading German army.

The story is being narrated in flashbacks from the perspective of 1992, when Sid and Chip are guests at the premier of a documentary about Hiero’s life and music. The opportunity to revisit the past reveals long-hidden secrets and lies. While there were a few plot points in this novel that didn’t entirely hold together for me story-wise, it was an beautifully-drawn glimpse into a place and time rarely visited in fiction.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O’Connor

jeffersonSally Hemings, the enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who was also his sister-in-law and probably the mother of four of his children, is a fascinating historical character. She fascinates me because she is a woman about whom very little is known, who lived out her life in close proximity and almost certainly in a sexual relationship with a man about whom we know a great deal — and that relationship colours and changes everything we know, or think we know, about Jefferson. Jefferson’s stance on slavery –he was theoretically opposed to it, yet owned hundreds of slaves and freed almost none of them within his lifetime (almost all those he did free were members of the Hemings family, including Sally’s children) — already makes him a complicated historical figure. The personal aspect of his relationship with Sally (who is sometimes referred to as his “slave mistress,” a problematic term as it suggests a relationship that is at once both consensual and non-consensual) only makes for more fertile ground for a novelist who can go in imagination where historians are not able to tread.

I read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s 1979 novel Sally Hemings many years ago, and of course was intrigued by Stephen O’Connor’s recent re-imagining of the story when it appeared last year. O’Connor’s novel is weighty, ingenious, beautifully written and, like the historical relationship it depicts, problematic and controversial. I loved it, but I’m also well aware of its limitations.

The structure of the novel itself is interesting. The bulk of it is made up of very short chapters depicting scenes from Jefferson’s and Hemings’ lives told in a fairly straightforward historical-fiction style, in the third person omniscient voice. In between these scenes are excerpts from an imagined first-person narrative by Hemings in which she tells her own version of the story and relates her feelings in her own words. There are also short segments from actual historical narratives of the time, including a memoir by one of the Hemings’ (and likely Jefferson’s) sons, Madison Hemings, short expository pieces in the author’s voice giving additional historical background, and weirder, more postmodern vignettes in which the author imagines various afterlives for Jefferson and Hemings. In one, Thomas Jefferson glimpses Sally Hemings on a subway; in another, he’s being tortured in a particularly grim version of Hell by a sadistic prison guard; in yet another, Jefferson (who died a century before the earliest modern feature films) watches a movie about his own life; in yet another, Jefferson and Hemings together visit a museum exhibit that explores their relationship. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others; there were places where I found myself wondering what they added to the overall story, but some are insightful and beautifully crafted. I can see why the author wanted to include them.

The core historical narrative — the story that unfolds through the third-person narrator interspersed with the imagined first-person voice of Hemings herself — presents two complex individuals in a complicated relationship. In this portrayal, Hemings does develop some tender feelings towards Jefferson over the years of their sexual relationship, but her feelings are never free of resentment and always overshadowed by the overwhelming fact of her (and her family’s) enslavement. It’s clear from the beginning of the relationship, when Hemings is sixteen and Jefferson is her forty-six-year-old owner, that there is nothing remotely consensual about this relationship. But it is also not straightforwardly depicted as rape. O’Connor’s Jefferson has romantic feelings about Hemings and almost courts her, while at the same time never imagining her as his equal in any real way. Sally Hemings, meanwhile, is both repelled and attracted by Jefferson. She believes she “could have said no,” yet questions that belief from various angles over the years as their relationship continues, and leads the reader to question it too.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical