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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Canada Reads 2018 - Finalists

The finalists for Canada Reads 2018 have been announced.  The five titles are as follows:

The Boat People by Sharon Bala
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war behind them and begin new lives. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist militia. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson
One morning in 2008, desperate and impoverished while trying unsuccessfully to write, Davidson plucked a flyer out of his mailbox that read, "Bus Drivers Wanted." That was the first step towards an unlikely new career: driving a school bus full of special-needs kids for a year. Armed only with a sense of humour akin to that of his charges, a creative approach to the challenge of driving a large, awkward vehicle while corralling a rowdy gang of kids, and unexpected reserves of empathy, Davidson takes us along for the ride. He shows us how his evolving relationship with the kids on that bus, each of them struggling physically as well as emotionally and socially, slowly but surely changed his life along with the lives of the "precious cargo" in his care.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks.
The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands.

American War by Omar El Akkad
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, finally, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during war as one of the Miraculous Generation and now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past -- his family's role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto
When the Second World War broke out, Ralph MacLean traded his quiet yet troubled life on the Magdalen Islands in eastern Canada for the ravages of war overseas. On the other side of the country, Mitsue Sakamoto and her family felt their pleasant life in Vancouver starting to fade away after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

This year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes.  The debates take place March 26-29, 2018.

Review of THE NIGHT CHILD by Anna Quinn (New Release)

2.5 Stars 
Nora, a high school English teacher, starts having visions of a small child.  After the figure speaks to her, she decides to go for therapy and ends up uncovering memories of traumatic childhood experiences. 

The plot is very predictable.  With the introduction of dissociative identity disorder, the reader knows what Nora will learn since the disorder most often forms after certain kinds of trauma.  There have been any number of novels and films which have followed the same narrative line.  The plotting is clunky; characters are introduced only to be useful to Nora in uncovering her lost memories.  Elizabeth, Nora’s student, is a prime example, as is John, the school principal.  Both are mentioned only at specific times and, otherwise, are totally absent. 

Characterization is a definite weakness.  For some reason, I found it very difficult to connect with Nora.  Having been a high school English teacher myself, I was initially interested in Nora’s teaching but her career is soon put on hold.  Nora’s relationships which one would expect to be developed aren’t.  Specifically, her relationship with her husband is only touched on.  We are told that Paul is pre-occupied with his career, but then there are outbursts like, “’God, this place is a shit hole!’” and “’Christ, you look terrible.’”  His behaviour during Nora’s hospitalization is not realistic.

There are other relationships too that need development.  From flashbacks, we learn that Nora had a difficult relationship with her mother.  Her mother is physically abusive since Nora refers to bruises, but there are puzzling comments like, “Her mother never uses the Lord’s name in vain when her father plays with James [Nora’s brother].”  Is this supposed to indicate that Nora’s mother knows or suspects something and reacts by being harsher with her daughter?  Does she become an alcoholic because of her suspicions? 

Characters remain two-dimensional.  No one is really fully developed.  David, the therapist, is just too good to be true.  He spends entire days at her bedside?  The psychiatrist never visits her again?  John appears only to be a contrast to Paul.  In the end, I will not remember any of the characters; none are memorable.

There are some things that had me puzzled.  When Nora is in the hospital, she is told she had a concussion.  A concussion is treated with morphine?  Not being able to talk “’happens sometimes after a concussion’”?    Chapter 22 is set on “the afternoon of February 6” yet the nurse “brings her breakfast” and encourages her to enjoy her “morning coffee”?  A person who has dementia in February, living “in a nursing home with locked doors” and who “can barely leave his chair” was capable of a complicated Christmas surprise weeks earlier?  It seems that Nora has an eating disorder (bulimia) but that is never addressed by the therapist? 

I can only describe this novel as mediocre.  It really needs more revision and editing.  It is not a long book so characters and relationships could be developed further.  As is, the book succeeds only in being unremarkable and forgettable. 

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Readings for Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman
This is the true story about the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

Katerina - Aharon Appelfeld
This is the story of Katerina, a Polish housekeeper who works for a succession of Jewish families in the years before WW II.  Raised in a culture permeated with virulent anti-Semitism, she must constantly try to overcome the prejudice instilled by her bitter mother, who beat her, and her callous father, who attempted to rape her.

A Time to Choose  - Martha Attema
Sixteen-year-old Johannes van der Meer’s homeland of Holland has been occupied by the Nazis for four years.  While enduring food shortages and nightly air raids, the people of the Netherlands wait patiently for liberation, but for Johannes the struggle to endure is full of bitterness.  The fact that his father is a Nazi collaborator has made outcasts of the entire family.

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust - Edith Hahn Beer
Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman in Vienna when the Gestapo forced her into a slave labour camp. When she returned home months later, she went underground and then emerged in Munich as Grete Denner. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love with her and married her though he knew she was Jewish. Edith recalls a life of constant fear.  She created a remarkable record of survival, saving every document, as well as photographs she took inside labour camps - now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Seamstress - Sara Tuval Bernstein
She was born into a large family in rural Romania and grew up feisty and willing to fight back physically against anti-Semitism from other schoolchildren. She defied her father' s orders to turn down a scholarship that took her to Bucharest, and got herself expelled from that school when she responded to a priest/teacher' s vicious diatribe against the Jews by hurling a bottle of ink at him.  After a series of incidents that ranged from dramatic escapes to a year in a forced labor detachment, Sara ended up in Ravensbruck, a women' s concentration camp.

The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie ten Boom was a leader in the Dutch Underground during WWII. With the aid of her family, she hid scores of Jews from the Nazi invaders. She was arrested along with every member of her family, spending the remaining war years in concentration camps.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen - Tadeusz Borowski
Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories were based on his own experiences surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. He describes a world where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup, an extra blanket or the luxury of a pair of shoes with thick soles; and where the line between normality and abnormality vanishes.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - John Boyne
Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy whose family moves to Out-With where everyone calls his father Commandant.  Bruno hates his new home which is near a high-wired compound inhabited by sad looking people in striped pajamas.

Daniel Half Human - David Chotjewitz
At the dawn of Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, Daniel and Armin swear eternal brotherhood by slitting their wrists and mingling their blood.  Then, with the scar on his wrist still healing, Daniel receives some life-altering news: he is half-Jewish and, as such, half-hated by a growing number of neighbours, teachers, and friends. Quickly, he decides to keep his identity a secret, conspiring with Armin to join the Hitler Youth.

The German Girl - Armando Lucas Correa
This book visits historical events including the sailing of the SS St. Louis with its refugees who were denied entry into several countries and died as a result.

The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
This is the diary of Dutch Jewish teenager, Anne Frank, written in an Amsterdam warehouse where for two years she hid from the Nazis with her family and friends.

Rena's Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz - Rena Kornreich Gelissen
Sent to Auschwitz on the first Jewish transport, Rena Kornreich survived the Nazi death camps for over three years. While there she was reunited with her sister Danka. Each day became a struggle to fulfill the promise Rena made to her mother when the family was forced to split apart, a promise to take care of her sister.

Prisoner B-3087 - Alan Gratz
Yanek Gruener, a Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, is at the mercy of the Nazis who have taken over. Everything he has and everyone he loves have been snatched brutally from him.  And then Yanek himself is taken prisoner and forced from one concentration camp to another, as World War II rages all around him. He encounters evil he could have never imagined.

Holocaust - Gerald Green
This book tells the story of the experience of two German families whose lives intersect at certain points. The Dorfs are "good" Germans, loyal to the new Nazi regime. The Weiss family is Jewish, also seemingly "good" Germans, but doomed under the new regime and its determination to exterminate the Jewish population.

Stones from the River - Ursula Hegi
The protagonist is a woman named Trudi Montag who has dwarfism. The book chronicles her life in a village in Germany in the years before, during, and after World War II.

Mischling – Affinity Konar
Two sisters, identical twins, try to survive Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz. 

Schindler’s List - Thomas Keneally
This novel is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1000 Jews from the Nazis at enormous financial and emotional expense.

The Thought of High Windows - Lynne Kositsky
Young, Jewish and on the run from the Nazis, Esther is one of a group of children who manage to flee Germany for Belgium and then France at the beginning of World War II. Since she is from a more traditionally Jewish family, Esther is an outcast among the youngsters in her group, many of whom consider themselves to be "modern Jews." They also tease her about being overweight.

Child of the Holocaust - Jack Kuper
This childhood memoir of the Holocaust follows the travels of eight-year-old Jacob Kuperblum, who comes home one day to find his family and friends gone, rounded up by the Germans only hours earlier

The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell
The book is narrated by its fictional protagonist Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer of French and German ancestry who helped to carry out the Holocaust and was present during several major events of World War II.

Number the Stars - Lois Lowry
Set in Denmark in 1939, this novel gives an account of the fears and anxieties of the Danish people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, during the German occupation.

Daniel’s Story - Carol Matas
Daniel, 14 in 1941, describes his family's sense of belonging in Germany and their refusal to flee their country despite the initial instances of anti-Semitism they experience.

We are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust - Patricia McKissack
Diary entries written by five Holocaust victims document the ordeals suffered in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, Hungary, Belgium, and Holland.

Friedrich - Hans Peter Richter
This is the story of a Jewish boy in Germany during the 1930s.  The book tells about the Holocaust in Germany and the racism against the Jewish people.

Sarah’s Key - Tatiana de Rosnay
In Paris in July of 1942, Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Mottele - Gertrude Samuels
This true-life story tells of Ukrainian-born Mottele-Mordechai Shlayan--who at age 12 left his childhood behind when his family was murdered by German soldiers. The young violinist joined the Jewish partisans--resistance fighters-- to take revenge on their enemies.

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink
In postwar Germany, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes the lover of Hanna, a woman twice his age. Then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.

Maus  - Art Spiegelman
This graphic novel tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus, by portraying the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, approaches the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust.

Sophie’s Choice - William Styron
This book concerns the relationships among three people sharing a boarding house in Brooklyn:  Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the South who befriends the Jewish Nathan Landau and his lover Sophie, a Polish, Catholic survivor of the German Nazi concentration camps.  The plot ultimately centers on a tragic decision that Sophie was forced to make on her entry, with her children, into Auschwitz

The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman
On September 23, 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor live on the radio as shells exploded outside.  It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw: That day, a German bomb hit the station, and Polish Radio went off the air. Though he lost his entire family, Szpilman survived in hiding. In the end, his life was saved by a German officer who heard him play the same Chopin Nocturne on a piano found among the rubble.

Night - Elie Wiesel
This is Wiesel's best-selling memoir/novel of his year spent in four concentration camps as a 15-year-old during the Holocaust.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
It is 1939 in Nazi Germany.  Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbours during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review of THE LIGHTLESS SKY by Gulwali Passarlay

3.5 Stars
In 2006, an Afghani widow decided to send her two oldest sons to the West, paying $8,000 to get them to Italy.  Since the Taliban was trying to recruit them as freedom fighters and the U.S. army was trying to convince them to become spies, she felt they would be safe only if out of the country.  This book tells the story of 12-year-old Gulwali Passarlay’s 12-month journey to England.

The book sheds light on the plight of refugees, especially unaccompanied minors.  Gulwali’s trek was certainly harrowing; it was physically and emotionally traumatic.  He was at the mercy of smugglers who see refugees only as their income generators.  He mentions that one very frustrating aspect of his travels was not knowing where he was or what the next stage of the trip would entail:  “One thing was clear, this was a highly organized infrastructure.  . . . I felt constantly vulnerable but where I felt most unsafe was in the hands of the different drivers, most of whom I guessed had been recruited locally and didn’t know who they were working for, or at the handover points when we had no idea who we would be passed on to next” (185).

What is also emphasized is how powerless refugees are:  “One of the strangest things about this journey was how whenever a smuggler or driver gave us an instruction, we simply followed it. . . . Without questioning or really even thinking, we put our lives into the hands of strangers, time and again.  We had no choice.  When they said come, we little lost sheep had to follow” (167).  Gulwali made friends who helped him, but he realized that “On this journey everyone was out for themselves; in part that was because they were so helpless and powerless” (187).  One passage that really struck me mentions the true cost of the journey:  “the truth was that were all so desperate that we quickly came to resent anybody who had something we did not – the extra mouthful of water, a tiny bit more floor space, a filthy pillow, or a few grains of rice.  Our humanity was slipping away – being stolen away.  Perhaps that was the real price of this journey” (90).  The stay in the Jungle in Calais was one of the most traumatic for Gulwali:  “In their own countries, many of these people had power, even the respect of their communities.  Here in the Jungle we were barely human.  We were the beasts that gave this place its name” (294). 

Gulwali was occasionally helped by people he encountered.  After being treated nicely by a poor Kurdish family, Gulwali realized that some people harboured refugees because they needed money:  “They certainly weren’t getting rich from it.  They were poor people who needed work and money.  Were they really so different from us? . . . Yes, there were some bad people – criminals and kidnappers, but most people were decent” (175).  Later, he concluded, “I was beginning to realize that there were kind people around who were truly moved by the plight of refugees” (266).  Unfortunately, those good people were certainly outnumbered. 

The treatment of the French police seems especially callous:  “Whenever we got caught, the police would just let us loose again – providing we were a long way from the Jungle.  If not, they took a vicious pleasure in driving us to a remote location and dumping us at the side of the road. . . . During the day, the police loved to raid the Jungle, probably because they knew we were likely to be resting.  It was common to have my charity-donated blanket pulled from me, a screaming police officer shouting in French in my face.  They would move us on, beating any guys who resisted.  We would then be forced to stand shivering in the cold while they questioned us about things we knew they didn’t want to hear answers to” (292 – 293). 

What is also noteworthy is that once a refugee is physically safe, the suffering is not over.  The trauma of their experiences leaves emotional scars.  Gulwali’s depression and suicide attempts attest to the long-term effects refugees suffer.  Gulwali discusses being “consumed with guilt, confusion, and frustration at the alien nation I was struggling so hard to live in” and feeling “dislocated and full of loss” (343).  He warns that extremist radical groups “prey on the vulnerable and lonely.  They offer friendship and brotherhood and are masters at seizing on and manipulating a person’s traumas or unresolved issues” (343 – 344).  He advocates for “solid connections” to a community and  opportunities “to be heard” to help refugees from “being drawn into destructive groups that only promote hatred” (344). 

The book is written in simple prose but sometimes Gulwali’s voice sounds too mature and worldly.  He makes references to things a 12-year-old boy who grew up as he did would not know.  Sometimes his behaviour does not seem realistic:  “But, because I was calm following our prayers, a sense of purpose came over me.  Just as in the prison yard in Maku, when I had felt it my duty to negotiate our way out and take people without money with me, I believed the three of us – Mehran, Jawad, and I – had come here for a reason:  to rescue these men and take them with us. . . . I felt that by acting as a group we could make it through somehow.  If we showed the old man a united front instead of everyone shouting, crying, and pleading, we might get out of there” (187).

I really enjoyed the first section of the novel where Gulwali describes his life in Afghanistan.  Reading about Pashtun culture was interesting.  Learning about Pashtunwali, the strict rules of social etiquette, such as how to treat a guest, to which every Pashtun abides, put some historic events in perspective:  “The United States had threatened to attack if [the Taliban] didn’t hand [bin Laden] over, but the Taliban refused because, under the rules of Pashtunwali, he was our guest, and a guest is under the protection of the host” (30). 

Some parts of the book I found rather tedious.  It was also difficult to keep track of Gulwali’s various friends because they are not really developed except as they help him, and one stop along his journey was often so much like the next.  Of course I feel guilty describing the book as tedious because my feelings are nothing when compared to the tedium Gulwali sometimes endured as he waited for the next leg of his journey. 

The book is one everyone should read.  It definitely made me realize that I won a lottery when I was born in Canada.  Readers will have a better understanding of why refugees choose to leave their home countries (often having few options) and what they endure.  If a reader does not come away with more sympathy for them (and the families they might leave behind), I despair. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of THE GOOD PEOPLE by Hannah Kent

4.5 Stars
Having really enjoyed Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, I was excited to read her second novel.  I was not disappointed.

The setting is an isolated village in southwest Ireland in the mid-1820s.  Nóra Leahy’s husband dies suddenly leaving her the sole caregiver of their 4-year-old disabled grandson Micheál.  The boy neither speaks nor walks; he is described as not having “the full of his mind” and being “forever awake and screaming” and looking like “a little bag of bones fit for a pauper’s coffin.”  Nóra hires Mary Clifford, a young girl from a large, impoverished family, to help her with Micheál’s care.  Desperate to get help for him, Nóra also goes to see Nance Roche, a local healer who has experience with herbal remedies and who also knows how to mitigate the mischief of the Good People, the fairies.  Nance diagnoses Micheál as a changeling, a fairy child, so she and Nóra set out to banish the changeling and recover the human child. 

The three women (Nóra, Nance and Mary) are clearly delineated.  The reader is given access to the thoughts and feelings so their torment and confusion are obvious and their motivations are clearly understood.  Though they are guilty of administering extremely harsh “remedies,” they are not totally evil.  Grieving, lonely, and exhausted, Nóra agrees to increasingly abusive treatments in the honest belief that her grandson who could once talk and walk has been kidnapped by the fairies.  Good-hearted Mary bonds with the child and becomes protective of him but she has no influence over Nóra who could dismiss her from a job which Mary needs to help her destitute family.  Nance who has always lived on the margins has become more ostracized because of the local priest’s sermonizing against paganism; if she is able to recover Micheál, she believes she will be able to dispel people’s doubts and suspicions and restore people’s faith in her:  “If I can restore Micheál to Nóra then they will see that there is no word of a lie in my dealings with them . . . they will all return to me.”  The title of the novel may refer to the fairies but it can also be interpreted to refer to the women who are good people driven by circumstances to take extreme measures.

Some sympathy is felt for each of these women.  They are trapped in lives shaped by superstition.  Poverty and ignorance are major factors in their lives, and geography isolates them from the wider world.  There is also an underlying misogyny; women are often blamed for misfortune.  Calamity is not seen as random bad luck but an indication that proper rituals were not followed.  A woman who gives birth to a stillborn child is blamed for not seeing the blacksmith “to blow the bellows” and for being present at a funeral wake; Nóra is not the only one to wonder what she did or didn’t do to deserve being made a widow.  Women who challenge expectations are viewed with suspicion; they “are forced to the edges by their difference.”  Nance lists the ways in which she is different:  “her ability in her loneliness, in the absence of a husband, her crooked hands, her habit of smoking, of drinking like a man.”  A neighbour points out that in the view of some people, Nance is guilty of a “great crime”:  “’She lives by the woods on her own.  That’s enough to set tongues going.’” 

The novel shows a conflict between different belief systems, specifically Christianity and paganism.  Folkloric beliefs are not shown in a positive light but organized religion is also shown as flawed.  Father Healy, the local priest, lacks compassion.  He seems to have no understanding of the daily struggles and needs of ordinary people.  He is described as “slack-jawed and slumped with the spine of a scholar” and when Nóra asks him for help with her grandson, he doesn’t even agree to pray for him and tells her callously, “’I think perhaps that it is your duty to care for this child and do the best you can.’”  (Even a doctor offers no aid:  “’The boy is a cretin.  There is nothing I can do.’”)

I found the book emotionally draining.  I felt sympathy for each of the women though at times I was also very angry at them.  The actions of the priest and the gossips in the village are upsetting.  It was disturbing to read how certain beliefs focus on assigning shame and blame.  I was also left feeling immensely grateful for not living in such abject poverty and for not being as powerless as these women.  I think the novel will haunt me for a while.

Though the book is not an easy read, I highly recommend it.  It will not leave a reader untouched. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

In Honour of Martin Luther King Day - Novels about Racism

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S.  This holiday inspired me to take a look through Schatje’s Shelves for books dealing with racism.  I found 56 novels:
Sounder by William Armstrong traces the sorrow and abiding faith of a poor African-American boy in the 19th century in the South.
In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – A murder pits black, big-city homicide expert Virgil Tibbs against the bigoted police department in a small Southern town when they are forced to join forces to solve the crime.
Stones by William Bell - Garnet Havelock, who knows what it’s like to be on the outside and not one of the crowd, becomes caught up in a mystery centred in his community.  As he and a friend draw closer to the truth, they uncover a horrifying chapter in the town’s history, and learn how deep-seated prejudices and persecution from the past can still reverberate in the present.
Philida by André Brink - The year is 1832 and South Africa is rife with rumours about the liberation of slaves. Philida, the mother of four children by the son of her master, is sold but, unwilling to accept this fate, Philida tests the limits of her freedom by setting off on a journey determined to survive and be free.
Your Blues Ain't Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell recalls the racially motivated murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. 
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier -  The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970's suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – An English Quaker is stranded in Ohio in 1850 and forced to rely on strangers.  She becomes drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad.
More by Austin Clarke - Idora Morrison reflects on her life as a black immigrant to Toronto.
The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke is set on the post-colonial West Indian island of Bimshire in 1952.  The novel unravels over the course of 24 hours but spans the lifetime of one woman and the collective experience of a society informed by slavery.
The House Girl by Tara Conklin tells the story of two women:  a seventeen-year-old slave planning her escape from a plantation in 1853 Virginia and a young lawyer in 2004 New York looking for a good plaintiff for a class action suit seeking reparation for the descendants of American slaves.
Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - Nineteen-year-old Mikey and his parents, Silas and Lydia Ali, are members of the black middle class in post-apartheid South Africa.  Mikey discovers that he may be the product of his mother's rape by a white police lieutenant and sets out to explore his familial roots.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison chronicles the travels of a young, nameless black man as he moves through the hellish levels of American intolerance and cultural blindness.
Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner - An aging black who has long refused to adopt the black's traditionally servile attitude is wrongfully accused of murdering a white woman.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg - Told in anecdote format, including short articles in the local newspaper by Dot Weems, this story focuses on Mrs. Threadgoode, an old lady in a nursing home, looking back on her life in Whistle Stop, Alabama. The book deals with a number of themes including racism.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines is a novel in the guise of the tape-recorded recollections of a black woman who has lived 110 years, who has been both a slave and a witness to the black militancy of the 1960's.
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines - Set on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation in the 1970s, this is a depiction of racial tensions arising over the death of a Cajun farmer at the hands of a black man.
Catherine Carmier by Ernest J. Gaines is a love story set in Louisiana, where African-Americans, Cajuns, and whites maintain an uneasy co-existence.
Of Love and Dust by Ernest J. Gaines introduces us to Marcus, a young African-American man who refuses to kowtow to the racist customs that defined life in the South in the 1940s. Marcus is awaiting trial for murder.
Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady is about a black Canadian who has spent his life trying to pass as white.
A Time to Kill by John Grisham - Life becomes complicated in the backwoods town of Clanton, Mississippi, when a black worker is brought to trial for the murder of the two whites who raped and tortured his young daughter.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi -  Each chapter in the novel follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, separated by circumstance: Effia marries James Collins, the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle, while her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below. Subsequent chapters follow their children and following generations.
Mama Flora’s Family by Alex Haley tells the story of Flora, a black girl born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi who later moves to Memphis, Tennessee, where her husband, Booker, is killed by white landowners. 
Roots by Alex Haley re-captures his family's history in this drama of eighteenth-century slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in West Africa in 1745 and kidnapped at the age of 11 by slavers.
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson is about an emancipated and very educated slave who stows away on a ship bound for Africa.
A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata tells the story of a blind white girl and a black man who find love together.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is the coming-of-age story of Lily Owen set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd - Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the wealthy Grimke household where she serves as the handmaid of Sarah Grimke.  What follows is their journeys over the next thirty-five years as they dramatically shape each other’s destinies.
Places in the Heart by Thomas Kinkade - Edna Spalding is a woman recently widowed who suddenly has to figure out how to support herself and two children during Depression times.  She is assisted by a Black man and a blind boarder who understand the bigotries and harshness of life in the 1930s.
To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – In the first novel, Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in 1930s Alabama defends a black man accused of rape; the second is about a visit Scout makes to her father Atticus twenty years later.
Small Island by Andrea Levy examines class, race, and prejudice in London in 1948, when a new multiracial England began to form.
Missing Isaac by Valerie Fraser Luesse -  It is 1965 when black field hand Isaac Reynolds goes missing from a small town in Alabama. The townspeople's reactions range from concern to indifference, but one boy will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his unlikely friend.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis begins with Hattie leaving the Jim Crow South for a better life in Philadelphia.  Spanning the years 1925 to 1980, the book follows Hattie’s children as they strive to find a place for themselves in the world.
Beloved by Toni Morrison tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who is still shackled by memories of her murdered child.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison  - A young African American girl named Pecola grows up in Ohio during the years following the Great Depression. Pecola's dark skin colour means she is constantly called "ugly".  As a result, she develops an inferiority complex, which fuels her desire for the blue eyes she equates with "whiteness".
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley – A 91-year-old black man re-visits his life and the events that shaped it.  Racial issues are addressed since he and his family were not always treated fairly.
The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch gives a glimpse into South Africa in the early to mid-1900’s, when Apartheid is becoming more of a threat and danger to all who live there: black, white and coloured are all affected by the rules and dangers of breaking those rules.
The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks shows the life a black boy named Newton Winger who, at a young age, learns how to deal with racism and prejudice.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is about a black South African, Absalom Kumalo, who murders a white man.
Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton tells the story of Pieter, a white policeman in South Africa, who has an affair with a native girl. He is betrayed and reported, and thus brings shame on himself and his family. 
The Street by Ann Petry is about a young black woman and her struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the later 1940s.
A Taste of Reality by Kimberla Lawson Roby - When Anise, a black woman, applies for a promotion to manager of human resources, she's impeded by a management team that wants an all-white male staff. As Anise fights racism, job discrimination, and sexual harassment, she also finds herself in the midst of a divorce from her light-skinned husband, who wants a white wife.
Caucasia by Danzy Senna - Growing up in a biracial family in 1970s Boston, Birdie has seen her family disintegrate due to the increasing racial tensions. Her father and older sister move to Brazil, where they hope to find true racial equality, while Birdie and her mother drift through the country, eventually adopting new identities and settling in a small New Hampshire town
Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange - This novel about a black family living in St. Louis in 1957 centers on Betsey, 13, who is restless, wants to "be somebody" and is being bused to a white school. Her mother and grandmother oppose and her father supports integration. When the father plans to take Betsey and her siblings to demonstrate against a racist hotel, the mother leaves home.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett - in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi,  as white socialite and a black maid join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe tells the trials of an old slave.  Published in 1852, this book won support for the anti-slavery cause in the U.S.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron is an accounting, from Nat Turner's point of view, of the events that led to the only long-term revolt in the history of American slavery.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is the story of a boy and a runaway slave Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft.
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker takes place in the South and spans thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman.  Alice Walker portrays the life of an innocent girl who is put through physical and emotional abuse.       
Meridian by Alice Walker takes a complicated look at black-on-white and black-on-black relations.  A large section of the novel deals with a marriage between a white woman and a black man.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker - Black tenant farmer Grange Copeland leaves his wife and son in Georgia to head North.  After meeting an equally humiliating existence there, he returns to Georgia, years later, to find his son, Brownfield, imprisoned for the murder of his wife.  As the guardian of the couple's youngest daughter, Grange Copeland is looking at his third -- and final -- chance to free himself from spiritual and social enslavement.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - Through a portrait of a family,, the book examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead - The novel tells the story of Cora and Caesar, two slaves in the southeastern United States during the 1800s who make a bid for freedom from their Georgia plantations by following the Underground Railroad, which in the novel is an actual subway as opposed to a series of safe houses and secret routes.
Native Son by Richard Wright explores the race relations in Chicago in the 1940s. A black twenty-year old named Bigger Thomas accidentally kills a prominent white woman and then tries to cover it up.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review of THE CHILD FINDER by Rene Denfeld

3 Stars
Naomi devotes her life to finding missing children.  Her latest case involves Madison Culver who went missing three years earlier.  Naomi’s search is focused on the Skookum National Forest in Oregon where 5-year-old Madison wandered away from her family during a Christmas tree hunt.  Naomi is not just searching for a lost girl; she is also looking for her past.  She herself was an abducted child though she has no memories from before her escape. 

There is not much suspense because we are given Madison’s point of view.  She is being held by a man whom she just calls Mr. B.  She reinvents herself as the Snow Girl from a favourite fairy tale.  When Naomi thinks about abducted children, she reflects that “the ones who did the best in the long run made a safe place inside their very own minds.  Sometimes they even pretended they were someone else.  Naomi didn’t believe in resilience.  She believed in imagination.”  It does not take a genius to figure out Madison’s fate.  It is also very obvious who Mr. B actually is.  There is a final scene where danger is used to create suspense, but, again, the outcome is predictable.

The author can be commended for not treating child victimization and abuse as entertainment.  References to Madison’s treatment are indirect; there is no graphic, gratuitous violence.  Instead, we have oblique but telling statements:  “Mr. B’s hands were gentle – when he was setting the traps” and “He was wise and kind when he wasn’t angry with her.”  Denfeld also manages to show compassion for Mr. B.  As details of his past are revealed, the reader cannot but feel some sympathy and understanding for a damaged person.  Mr. B is not to be seen as totally evil:  “Madison didn’t understand that people can be good and bad. . . . She didn’t know that when you have that kind of bad inside you, it is not like your goodness is hiding it.  It is more like the badness and the goodness are all mixed together.”

I did not find Naomi a character with whom I could connect though her tenacity is admirable.  She is relentless in her investigations, but her obsession means that she has few friends and remains distant with her foster family.  She doesn’t even spend time with her foster mother when she is dying; Naomi just leaves her foster brother to look after the woman who adopted her!  She is even warned, “’We all need a sense of purpose . . . Be careful the purpose doesn’t destroy you.’”  Naomi is close to very few people, but all three men in her life fall in love with her?!

There are touches of sentimentality that detract from the quality of the writing.  One of Naomi’s male admirers feels rejected “But he wasn’t about to give up.  His heart told him so.”  There are statements like, “Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see – and in escape she ran straight into life. ”  And Naomi is seen as “the wind traveling over the field, always searching, never stopping, and never knowing that true piece is when you curl around one little piece of something.  One little fern.  One little frond.  One person to love.”

The message is one of hope.  Though we live in a fragmented world where “People had a way of appearing and disappearing in one another’s lives” and though “America was an iceberg shattered into a billion fragments, and on each stood a person, rotating like an ice floe in a storm,” there is hope because “No matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found.”

I can’t believe the number of 5-star reviews this book has received.  In my view, it is just average.