Monthly Archives: September 2018

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green

remarkableYou all know I’m a big fan of YA author John Green, so when his younger brother Hank, better known till now as a YouTube science educator and singer of mostly-novelty songs, wrote a book, I was naturally interested to read it as well. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is quite unlike one of John Green’s books — for one thing, it’s adult, not YA, although I guess if you have an overwhelming urge to cut the literary market up into smaller and smaller segments you could call in New Adult as the main characters are all in their early 20s. Also, it’s probably best classed as sci-fi, although it takes place in a very real and present-day America not in a galaxy far, far away. Hank’s book is not like one of John’s books: it is its own absolutely remarkable thing.

The novel’s first-person narrator, art-school graduate and graphic designer April May, starts out being just a little too cute and quirky for comfort (I mean, she is named April May) but quickly develops from the “quirky artsy girl” stereotype into something much more complex and multilayered. The action of the novel gets going almost immediately when April discovers what she thinks is an enormous piece of street art — a statue of a robot in the middle of a New York sidewalk — and calls her YouTuber friend Andy to come make a video about it in the middle of the night. When April wakes up the next morning to discover that dozens of identical statues have appeared in cities all over the globe and her video has gone viral.

As the mystery of the “Carls” (April called the original statue Carl in her video and the name catches on) grows more complex, so does April’s online fame and her increasingly strained relationship with her public self. This book does a lot of things well, including one thing Hank Green is extremely well-qualified to do: examine the pressures and expectations that are brought to bear on a human being who suddenly becomes larger than life. Sudden fame turns April from a woman into a brand, a symbol, and, eventually, a target for people driven by hate and fear. But April herself is far from a flawless innocent — she is impulsive, shows terrible judgement at times, and finds herself doing frankly cruel things in pursuit of what she increasingly comes to see as a cause.

A meditation on fame in the internet age, an exploration of how humanity might react as a group if faced with something outside our collective experience, a coming of age story, a parable about polarization in today’s political climate — An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is all those things, but mostly it’s a strong, fast-paced story that left me hurrying to finish it and eager for the sequel. The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger exactly — many threads are resolved, but enough are left open to invite the reader into the next chapter of April’s (and, I guess, Carl’s) story.

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Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin & Pride, by Ibi Zoboi

ayesha pride

I’m reviewing these two books together because I read them in the space of a couple of weeks and they have a lot in common. Both are loosely-inspired modern retellings of Pride and Prejudice, written by women of colour and set in communities that we don’t normally think of as “Austenesque.” But both retellings work really well, for reasons that are rooted in the communities in which they are set.

Ayesha tells the story of Ayesha Shamsi, a hijab-wearing Muslim girl from an Indian-Canadian family in Toronto. Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet of this story, dreams of being a poet and performs at open-mic poetry slams, but has laid aside dreams of writing as a full-time career in favour of a substitute teaching job she doesn’t think she’s well suited for. She’s skeptical about the idea of arranged marriage, though her pretty younger cousin, Hafsa, from the wealthier branch of the family, is excited about the many offers of marriage she’s receiving and generously offers Ayesha the chance to interview some of her rejects. When Ayesha meets bearded, robe-clad IT guy Khalid, she’s immediately put off by his fundamentalist attire and superior attitude. Khalid believes in arranged marriage as devoutly as he believes in his Muslim faith, and trusts his domineering mother to find the right girl for him. This being a P&P remix, we know from the beginning that Ayesha and Khalid are each going to find out there’s more to the other than appears on the surface, but as always, the fun is in how they get there. Along the way we get a picture not only of some very engaging and lovable characters but a vivid and believable immigrant community.

Pride is set in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with a heroine who, oddly enough, is also a spoken-word poet who performs at open-mic events (interesting that two very different writers would imagine a 21st century Lizzie Bennet as a slam poet). Zuri Benitez is entering her last year of high school (the few years’ age difference between Ayesha and Zuri is literally the only reason I can see why one book is marketed for adults and the other for teens, and the similarities between the two books really point up some of the silliness in the bookshelf division between adult and YA — I can’t imagine a reader who would relate to one of these books and not the other, at least not because of age).

Zuri loves her big, noisy Haitian-Dominican family and their diverse low-income neighbourhood, but she worries about how that neighbourhood is changing under the influence of gentrification, especially when a formerly abandoned building across the street is turned into a mini-mansion by a wealthy black family. When the new family moves in, their two sons, friendly Ainsley and stuck-up Darius, don’t fit in well at all with the neighbourhood teens. But they quickly attract the interest of Zuri and her sweet older sister Janae and … well, with some more twists and turns, you know the rest of the story.

The pleasure with a story that retells a familiar tale is in the route the author takes to the expected destination, and in the ways in which she brings in elements from the original story as well as what she adds that’s new. (A fun game to play with any modern P&P retelling is “spot which one of these dudes is going to turn out to be George Wickham”). My favourite modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice is always going to be the Lizzie Bennett Diaries from 2013, because I loved the actors and enjoyed what the use of vlogging and other social media added to the story. But one thing that video series demonstrated is that there were elements of the original story that don’t translate well to the lives of “average” white, middle-class North American women in the 21st century.

The Bennet family’s obsession with marrying off their daughters — the twin assumptions that young women need husbands, and that finding husbands is an affair that involves the whole family — feel out of place in many parts of modern North American society, but they fit in perfectly with an immigrant South Asian community like the one Uzma Jalaluddin writes about. Here, young people debate the wisdom of arranged marriages versus love matches, but everyone accepts that marriage is not only a worthy goal but an affair that will involve two extended families and a whole community. Class differences are also vital to Austen’s original story, and that also doesn’t translate well in every modern retelling — even if Darcy has more money than a modern-day Elizabeth, that doesn’t necessarily convey the same feeling of difference as it did in early 19th century England. But in Ibi Zoboi’s vividly realized Brooklyn neighbourhood, class matters, because class and money are threatening to irrevocably change the community. The gap between Zuri’s working-class immigrant clan and Darius’s “bougie” family is about more than just social awkwardness, and a character as keenly aware of those important differences as Zuri is brings that class division into sharp focus.

If there’s a flaw with both these novels, it’s a shared one as well: although both stories was lively and the characters engaging, I found the writing in both books a little too “explainy” for me — I like it better when authors leave more to the reader to conclude rather than spelling out for us what a character is feeling in a given moment. But although this irritated me mildly for about the first quarter of each book, I quickly got drawn in because the characters were so easy to care about. As well as glimpses into richly detailed and developed cultural worlds (with great descriptions of food as a bonus — I actually had to go out and get Indian food while reading Ayesha), these writers give us two great heroines — truly diverse Lizzie Bennets for the 21st century.

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The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

longsongOne of my favourite things about historical fiction is the opportunity to learn about another place and time in a way that completely immerses me in a person’s story. That was the case with The Long Song, a novel set during the final years of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation.

Of course, I knew that the use of enslaved African people had its start on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, long before it came to the cotton fields of the American South. I also knew that slavery ended three decades earlier in the British Empire than it did in the US — that was the context for Canada being the ultimate destination for enslaved people fleeing the US via the Underground Railroad. What I didn’t know was any detail about how the institution of slavery ended in the Caribbean — the six-year period of “apprenticeship” workers were required to serve after supposedly being freed, the reactions of both enslaved people and slave owners to the change in status, the ways in which slave owners attempted to cripple their former chattels’ attempts to be independent and self-sufficient so that they would continue to have a source of cheap labour. 

This brutal story is told through the eyes of the elderly July, who grew up in slavery, was taken from her mother in childhood to become a personal maid to the plantation owner’s sister Caroline, and made the uneasy transition to freedom on a plantation ruled by Caroline and her overseer Robert Goodwin, a man who arrives in Jamaica from England full of noble ideas about justice and freedom for enslaved people, but quickly changes his views when confronted with the realities of plantation life. Through horrific treatment and injustice July emerges as a strong-willed, wry, witty commentator on the society changing so rapidly around her. Her voice and its dialect rhythms carries the reader into her world with vivid and convincing detail.

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Ecstasy, by Mary Sharratt

ecstasyThis was an interesting novel about the early life of Alma Schindler, a young Viennese composer of the late 19th/early 20th century, who is best known for her turbulent marriage to Gustav Mahler (and two subsequent marriages, after his death, to two other famous men). It was a fascinating glimpse not only into her life but into the intellectual and cultural life of pre-WW1 Vienna, a world at once so brilliant and sophisticated, and yet a world where it was completely plausible that a gifted musician could ask his young wife to give up her own musical career when the married, and where the same gifted composer could be virtually hounded out of public life because of anti-Semitism.

It was only when the book was finished and I was thinking, “What a shame it concentrates so totally on Alma’s early life, when so many more interesting things happened to her later” that I realized I had read another book by Mary Sharratt a few years ago, about Hildegard of Bingen, and had the exact same complaint — so much focus on a fascinating woman’s early life, with not enough attention paid to her later years.  Despite that complaint, this was an intriguing book about yet another gifted woman who we only know about it because of her connection to a famous man.

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They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson

theyleftuseverythingThey Left Us Everything is a quirky little memoir about a quirky family. It’s about a lot of things — about Plum Johnson’s parents and siblings, about the house she grew up in, about caring for her aging mother, about trying to care for and sell their historic old home after her mother’s death, about grief and a family moving on after the parents have died. It’s warm-hearted, funny, sad, and a bit disorganized — very much, it seems, like its author as she presents herself in these pages.

I had a huge “a-ha” moment in the middle of this book. I had been reading along, noticing but not thinking too much about the fact that the family home at the centre of the story was in Oakville, ON, where my aunt and cousin live. Then Plum Johnson revealed that her family’s house had a fake-historic plaque the kids put up as a joke on their father, designating it as the home of a famous “slave-driver,” with a notation that the plaque was placed by the “Oakville Hysterical Society.” I’ve seen that plaque! More than once! I’ve often laughed at it when walking around Oakville on visits to my relatives there, and suddenly, as I realized how often I’d seen the very house this book was written about, the world seemed a whole lot smaller.

But then, this is Canada.

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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

A Gracious Heresy, by Connie L. Tuttle

graciousheresyAt a writing retreat I attended several years ago, I met Connie Tuttle, a soft-spoken, generous-spirited Southern woman who was working on a memoir. It’s been a long journey since then but Connie’s memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet is now out in the world, and I read it with great interest and pleasure.

Connie’s story begins with her childhood, living the peripatetic life of a US “Army brat” which took her family to postings around the US and Europe. Her love for her family, especially her father, despite the difference in their opinions and lifestyle, shines through here — it’s a rare pleasure to read a memoir about a happy childhood. Throughout her early life, a constant theme is Connie’s sense of God’s love and a divine calling, despite her lack of involvement in traditional religious communities.

It’s that sense that her relationship with God (or Godde, as she sometimes writes) was a direct contact with divinity rather than a church-mediated experience, that adds to one of the most unique aspects of Connie’s story. As she grows to maturity, her sense that Godde loves her and is calling her to ministry develops along with her awareness of her attraction to other women. After a short-lived early marriage to a young man left her with a daughter to raise, Connie explored relationships with women and eventually identified as a lesbian. Perhaps because her spiritual life did not develop within the confines of a traditional church setting, Connie’s spiritual autobiography is amazingly free from the struggle and internalized self-hatred that characterizes the lives of so many LGBT Christians. At no point does she even entertain the idea that the Godde she worships might disapprove of her loving women. She believes in a Divine Parent who accepts all of her, just as she is — that is simply never in question.

Roadblocks do appear in the story when Connie begins pursuing her call to ministry through the church she selects as best for her: the Presbyterian Church. While she is able to go to seminary and finds mentors who support her call, she finds that the church as an institution is not ready to ordain an out lesbian who makes no effort to hide her orientation as other gay and lesbian clergy do. The entire memoir is structured around her decision to attend a church meeting at which the ordination of LGBT people to the ministry is being discussed, and to stand silently in protest throughout the debate even though she does not have official standing that will give her a voice in the meeting — a vivid illustration of how marginalized people, including LGBT people, are so often talked about rather than listened to in our church settings.

 Connie Tuttle’s decision to live her life as an “unlikely prophet” — to live out her calling as a queer woman who believes in the boundless love of God and wants to share it with others — may indeed be a heresy to some. But she names it a “gracious heresy,” and as you read her memoir it will be clear that she is a gracious woman, committed to sharing the grace of God.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir