Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 award-winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is the kind of book you can’t really put down once you pick it up. Partly it’s because the real action takes place over a very short amount of time and is so nerve-wracking I just couldn’t bear to stop reading, and partly it’s because the narrators in the book, Jojo and his mother, Leonie, and Richie, a boy who died years before the action of the story, are just too compelling to turn away from.

Jojo lives with his mother, his little sister, Kayla, and his maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, in rural Mississippi. It’s Jojo’s thirteenth birthday when the novel begins, and Jojo’s first task of the day is to help his grandfather slaughter a goat for his birthday barbecue. Jojo says “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” Oh, he’ll be looking at it straight, all right, and so will the reader. Ward doesn’t shy away of any of the details and so you’ll know pretty much from that opening scene that violence is part of the deal in this book.

This family has its share of troubles. Mam is currently bedridden, ravaged by cancer; Leonie is addicted to drugs; Michael, Jojo’s white father is currently in prison. Jojo depends on himself and his grandfather, who is loving albeit taciturn. Pop demonstrates his affection for Jojo by telling him stories, stories about his childhood and stories about his own incarceration.

Sometimes he’ll tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he’s reached out to me, like he’s rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I’ll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure.

Jojo’s main concern is Kayla, who is only three. He no longer depends on his mother and, in fact, thinks of her as Leonie. “It was a new thing, to look at her rubbing hands and her crooked teeth in her chattering mouth and not hear Mama in my head….”

When Michael is due to be released from prison, Leonie decides that she should make the journey to the prison to pick him up. She also thinks it would be a great idea to bring Jojo and Kayla, and her co-worker, a white woman named Misty whose boyfriend, Bishop, is also serving time. It’s hot, Kayla is almost immediately car sick, and the whole journey just seems fraught with danger.

Both Leonie and Jojo see ghosts. Literally. Leonie sees the ghost of her brother, Given, who was killed in a hunting accident fifteen years ago. Given was, by all accounts, destined for greatness: a talented athlete, popular and well-liked. Jojo sees Richie, a young boy who was incarcerated with Pop. In some ways Richie and Given are a manifestation of the guilt carried by those still living, but at the very least they are indicative of the way we are shaped by our pasts. Can we blame Leonie’s vices on the loss of her brother? Can we, at least, empathize with her? I’m not sure I did, she was just so negligent, but I was wholly invested in Jojo and found it impossible not to worry about him the entire time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing tackles the prickly topic of racism, too. Michael’s parents are make-no-bones-about-it racists. Leonie has talked to them exactly four times and is well aware that Michael’s father, Big Joseph (after whom Jojo is named) would rather “hang up in my face […] than speak to me, the nigger his son had babies with.” When a white cop pulls them over, my heart was in my throat the whole time. This is a story that carries the weight of hundreds of years of racism on its shoulders. My white privilege, I know, makes me blind to it.

This is a must-read book.

The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

Will Schwalbe’s memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, is about the last couple of years before his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer and it is a beautiful tribute to family, faith, hope and books. Always books. This book has been languishing on my tbr shelf for ages and it’s one of those books that when I finished, with a satisfied sigh and perhaps a tear or two, I thought I wish I’d picked you up sooner. I guess Schwalbe and his mom, Mary Anne, might say that the book found me at the right time.

I imagine Schwalbe’s family as sort of East Coast aristocracy, without the snobbish bits. His parents both worked in academia, and then his father got into concert management. Schwalbe describes his mother as “the hub” of the family.

Mom didn’t confine herself to coordinating our lives. She was also helping to coordinate, almost always at their request, the lives of hundreds of others: at her church at The Woman’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (she’d been the founding director), at the International Rescue Committee (she’d been board staff liaison and founded the IRC’s UK branch), and at all the other myriad organizations where she’d worked or served on boards.

Mary Anne is clearly a force to be reckoned with and her cancer diagnosis is a setback not a death sentence. She’s diagnosed in 2007, first with hepatitis, and then eventually with pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne’s oncologist calls her cancer “treatable but not curable”, and these words offer Mary Anne and her family (her husband, and Schwalbe’s brother and sister) hope.

The Schwalbe family have always been readers and soon Will and his mother have formed a book club of two, reading and discussing a variety of books over the long hours at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NYC, where Mary Anne gets her hope by way of chemotherapy.

Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: What are you reading?

Beginning with Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety, a book which I read many years ago, the mother and son read their way through classics, non-fiction, popular fiction and do what any book lovers do – debate, deconstruct and discuss. They don’t always agree, but they appreciate each other’s choices, and as any reader knows many a great discussion can be had even if you didn’t necessarily love the book. These discussions also allow them to share their lives with each other in a meaningful way. Schwalbe is hyper aware that he knows his mother as ‘mom’, the person who kept his world on its axis, but perhaps he doesn’t know her quite so well as Mary Anne, the woman. This is his opportunity.

Mary Anne’s faith is the constant in her journey, and although Schwalbe doesn’t share her certainty about God and the afterlife, he is buoyed by hers. Mary Anne constantly sees the upside. When hearing of a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis she says “I feel so lucky […] I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to know the people I love, or to read, or to remember books I’ve read or to visit my favorite places and remember everything that happened there, all the wonderful times. “

The End of Your Life Book Club is not as maudlin as it might sound. It’s a beautiful book that reminds us of the value and irreplaceable nature of family, and reminds us how important it is to cultivate relations with the people in our lives. Mary Anne struck me as the kind of woman who looked you in the eye when she talked to you. As Schwalbe reminds us “we’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be our last, each conversation the final one.”

Highly recommended.

The Lesser Dead – Christopher Buehlman

I think vampire stories are difficult to do well. Do you mess with the tropes? Do you make them evil or angsty? Should they sparkle? Have a conscience? Be sexy? Ruthless killers? Earlier this year I re-read Nancy Baker’s The Night Inside and it didn’t quite hold up to my memories of it. Christopher Buehlman’s 2014 book The Lesser Dead is, on the other hand, a fabulous book about vampires, if bloodsuckers are a thing you enjoy.

Joey Peacock was just fourteen when he was turned in 1933. Now it’s 1978 and Joey lives with an ad hoc family of vamps in the unused subway tunnels of New York City. His first person narrative is both funny and kind of heartbreaking.

If you’re looking for a story about nice people doing nice things, this isn’t for you. You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.

Still with me?

Too bad for you.

I can’t wait to break your heart

Joey tells us a tale of monsters and warns readers that “if you like those stories, it means you’re bad.” He spends the early part of his story explaining how he and the others live, their hierarchy and how they hunt. He tells us the story of how he came to be a vampire and it’s a life he likes just fine. Then, one night, he sees something peculiar on the subway.

It was a kid. A little girl. Long black hair like an Oriental, but she was Anglo. Pale skin. Pretty but haunted. She was sitting two seats closer than she had been, though I never saw her move, holding a Raggedy Ann doll she didn’t seem interested in. She was looking at briefcase-hooker-notepad guy.

He looked back at her. And stared. It was all wrong.

This won’t be the only time Joey encounters this little girl, and the other children she hangs with. Their arrival in NYC starts a chain of events that is gory, horrifying and a lot of fun to read.

It’s interesting to read a vampire story that respects the lore, but isn’t afraid to tweak it a little. These vampires can eat and drink, but it’s only for show; food of the non-blood variety upsets their tummies. Sunlight. Not good. Thrall – totally a thing. Decapitation – end of the road for a vampire in this world. I loved all these little details.

I also loved the other vampires who shared Joey’s life: Margaret, their leader; Cvetko, Old Boy, Ruth, Billy and Luna are among the fourteen vampires in Joey’s immediate circle. Of them, he’s closest to Cvetko, who was turned around 1890. He’s the scholar in the group and acts, in some ways, as Joey’s mentor. Television, he tells Joey, will rot his brain. Joey describes Cvetko as a “charming but endearing calamity.”

The Lesser Dead is a great book and Joey is a fantastic narrator. I loved the time I spent with him trolling the tunnels of NYC and trying to do the right thing. Turns out, some vampires do care a great deal for humanity, even if their reasons are somewhat selfish.

Highly recommended.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Although I knew that U.S. based comedian Trevor Noah was from South Africa, I knew nothing other than that about him. Noah’s 2016 memoir, Born a Crime was named one of the best books of the year by just about everyone including The New York Times, CBC and NPR. The accolades don’t stop there, and nor should they, because Born a Crime is the immensely readable, inspirational and funny story of Noah’s extremely humble beginnings.

Noah was raised mostly by his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. His father, a white man, is of Swiss/German descent. “During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime,” Noah explains. The book’s title refers to Noah’s birth.

…on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.

Noah guides us through the early years of his life, years that were marked by trips to church, “at least four nights a week”, poverty, and his mother’s no-nonsense but loving approach to parenting. From her, Noah learned that language is power (and because of this Noah learned to speak several languages.) “It became a tool that served me my whole life,” he explains. Once, when he was being followed by a group of Zulu guys, he heard them say in their own language that they were going to mug him. He was able to diffuse the situation when he spoke to them in Zulu.

That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

No surprise, then, that Noah goes on to make his living with words.

Noah hustles his way through his adolescence – making money by getting people what they want, everything from treats from the school canteen to bootlegged CDs to DJ services for events. He tells these stories with charming self-deprecation. I can only imagine that the audio book would be so much fun to listen to.

Although this memoir doesn’t tell us how Noah got his big break, I think it’s clear how, out of necessity, determined and resourceful he was. The book is dedicated to his mother, and it’s easy to see why: her faith in her son is unwavering and fierce.

This is a really excellent book.

Here’s a bit of Noah from a stand up show in 2015.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

New-to-me Canadian writer Roz Nay’s debut, Our Little Secret, delivers the goods. I couldn’t put this book down.

Our Little Secret is Angela Petitjean’s story, and it unfurls in an interrogation room at the local police station. Detective Novak is asking questions about a missing woman, Saskia Parker.

That’s the thing: they sound like they’re asking about Saskia, but all roads lead to Mr. Parker and me. The police want to know if I’m in love with him, and they ask it like it’s the simplest explanation rather than the most complicated. My definition is nothing like theirs, though.

Angela meets HP, (the Mr. Parker in question) when they are in Grade 10. This is a new school for Angela and she tells the detective that “Moving when you’re fifteen is terrifying.” Angela is immediately targeted by the mean, cool girls until HP comes to her rescue. That moment forges a bond between the two teens. Over the course of the next two years, Angela (or “Little John” as he calls her) and HP are inseparable, but not romantically linked.

I never understood why HP had chosen me as his friend, or how I’d gotten an all-access pass to him. It was like having a key to the White House. He told me everything he thought and felt and wanted, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the world…

By the end of high school, though, their relationship shifts gears. And then, Angela gets an opportunity to spend a year at Oxford, but HP stays behind. The distance complicates their new status. Enter Saskia, an effusive Australian HP meets while visiting Angela in England..

Our Little Secret garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2017. I find thrillers are hit and miss. They sound good, but they ultimately disappoint. Not this one.

I felt terrific sympathy for Angela, who claims and maintains her innocence after Saskia goes missing. Her friendship and then romantic relationship with HP is believable and complicated. There’s angst here and I love me some angst. It’s only as her story unravels, that we start to see that her version of events might be just a tad unreliable. But we all revise our histories to a certain degree, don’t we?

If you’re looking for an addictive, well-written, smart thriller, look no further.

Highly recommended.

I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is a big deal in Iceland and I Remember You is the winner of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award. It sounded like a book that I would really enjoy and I am always game to try new-to-me authors. The thing that I keep forgetting is that nine times out of ten translations are often disappointing, and this was no exception.

I Remember You is two stories, really. In one, three friends Garðar, his wife Katrín  and their widowed friend, Líf, have decided to travel to Hesteyri, a deserted village “way up north in the middle of nowhere.” The reason for this journey? It’s really Líf’s dead husband Einar’s fault.

He had spun them the story of a village at the end of the world, beauty and peace, and endless hiking trails in an unforgettable setting. Garðar had been inspired – not by the lure of nature, but by the fact that Einar hadn’t been able to rent a room in Hesteyri, since the only guesthouse there had been full. Katrín  couldn’t remember which of them had gone on to suggest they see if any of the other houses there were for sale and transform one into a guesthouse, but it didn’t matter: once the idea had been mooted there was no going back.

So, these three crazy kids head out to this remote place, in the winter, to begin refurbishing the house that is without electricity, running water, heat and, oh, yeah, there’s no one else around for miles. The captain of the boat who takes them to Hesteyri tells them they can return with him, free of charge, but they’re keen on this adventure. Lord knows why.

In the parallel story, Freyr, a psychiatrist, is helping Dagný, a police detective, discover who had broken into a primary school and caused a lot of damage. Freyr still isn’t over the loss of his son, Benni, who disappeared three years ago. His marriage is done, and he has thrown himself into his work. At first it appears that Freyr’s story has nothing to do with what’s happening on Hesteyri, but the more digging Freyr does the more coincidences start to reveal themselves.

I wish I could tell you that all of this is super creepy, but it’s not.  It takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get anywhere until the very end, when things seem to unravel super quickly. And, of course, the dialogue – especially near the end – is as clunky as hell. I understand this is a translation, but I always think it would be better to have someone go over dialogue after the translation is done to try and make people sound more natural. Given the circumstances these people find themselves in, you’d think they’d spend less time explaining and more time reacting.

There were a couple of creepy moments, but overall, it was a lot of fuss and bother for nothing.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

I am not sure I would have ever come to Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing on my own. A former student (now colleague – yes, I am that old) brought it to my classroom a week ago and announced that it was one of the best books she’d ever read and I had to read it. Under normal circumstances, I don’t take books from people because my tbr pile is out of control and I like to read what I want when I want, but how could I say no to that impassioned recommendation?

Homegoing is a sweeping story which begins in the late 1700s with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Born in different villages in Ghana, neither knows the other exists; they are joined only by a black stone pendant.

Effia, the beloved daughter of Cobbe Otcher, is married to James Collins, newly appointed governor of the Cape Coast Castle, a place where many captured Africans are held captive until they can be sold. Despite the business he’s in, James seems to care for Effia, and she comes to care for him, I guess. Esi, on the other hand, meets a worse fate. She is captured and eventually sold to a plantation owner in America, going through the very castle where her half-sister lives a privileged existence.

Gyasi’s novel, however, isn’t content to follow these women through their whole lives though. Instead, each chapter introduces readers to a new character, a descendant of Effia or Esi, tracking the family lines all the way to modern day. It’s a confusing trip, trying to keep track of the names and their relationships (and I somehow missed the handy family tree provided at the beginning of the book until I got about half way through and started grumbling to myself because I didn’t know who these people were.)

These brief glimpses into so many lives lived is both frustrating and illuminating. Personally, I like to spend time with characters in books, take the whole journey with them, but aren’t we all just drops in the big bucket? Maybe we don’t think about it, but we are part of all the women and men, who came before us. Truthfully, I can’t go much further back than my great-grandparents. Their struggles become a part of our destiny and I think I should know a little bit more about them than I do. At my age, I am running out of relatives to ask, too.

One character, Yaw, is a history teacher. In delivering a lesson to his students he says “We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the word of others. Those who were there in the olden days. They told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on.”

We are our stories, and not just the stories we are living, but all the stories that came before. I think we live in a transient world; we care little about the past, and that’s a shame. Gyasi’s novel is elliptical in nature, but the accumulation of all these lives does pack a considerable punch even if, like me, you find the novel’s ending a tad contrived.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning novel Station Eleven, published in 2014, is about as prescient a novel as one might expect to read during these world-wide pandemic times. In her book, the world succumbs to the Georgia Flu in record time, leaving behind a landscape inhabited by only a few hopeless (and hopeful) survivors.

The novel’s main characters, Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor; Jeevan, the man who tries to save Arthur when he collapses onstage in a Toronto theatre; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s friend; Kirsten, a young actress with a troupe of musicians and actors, collectively known as the Symphony, who travel around the post-apocalyptic landscape performing works by Shakespeare, and Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, have, in many respects, a tenuous connection, but their stories intertwine over many years.

Jeevan is the first to learn of the flu’s ferocity. After the incident in the theatre, Jeevan finds himself walking through the Toronto streets and his friend Hau calls him. “You remember the SARS epidemic?” his friend asks?

“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in the hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realized. Hua was afraid.

St. John Mandel’s story skips back and forth in time. We learn about the characters’ backstories, how they survived (or didn’t) and the one person they all have in common: Arthur Leander.

Although, on the surface at least, this might seem like a survival story, Station Eleven is also a story about art, friendship, family, fanaticism and fame. When the end of the world comes, it comes with a vengeance, leaving these people to question their own lives, their pettiness, and their attachment to things.

Station Eleven is our first book for the 2020-21 season of my book club. I am not certain it was the most uplifting choice given that we are still in the clutches of Covid 19.

I live in one of the safest places on the planet, but that doesn’t mean I am immune to the fraught state of the world. Nevertheless, I found this book to be rather beautiful and hopeful. It is possible, the books posits, to be sustained by art and nature and friendship and these, it seems, are worthwhile things to care about. What did I miss when the world shut down back in March? Not shopping. Not dining out. I missed hugging my family and seeing my friends. What will we care about when the end truly comes, as it must for all of us?

The pink magnolias in the backyard of the house in Los Angeles

Outdoor concerts, the way the sound rises up into the sky.

Tyler in the bathtub at two, laughing in a cloud of bubble bath.

Miranda’s eyes, the way she looked at him when she was twenty-five and still loved him.

Any book that requires me to think about my life and its meaning, is worth my time. This book was worth my time.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay – Adib Khorram

It is impossible to count all the accolades Adib Khorram’s debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay accumulated, but let’s just say if there is a “best” list, this YA book is likely on it.

In this compelling coming-of -age story, seventeen-year-old Darius Kellner feels like an outsider. Even in his own family he feels “other”. His mother is from Iran and his father is, as Darius calls him, an “Ubermensch.”

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

His looks aren’t the only thing that sets him apart from the other kids at his school. Darius is a bit of a geek, too. He loves Star Trek – it’s the one thing he and his father have in common and they rewatch an episode together every night – and Tolkien. He’s a tea aficionado. He also has a special relationship with his younger sister, Laleh.

…guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

And, the most damning thing of all: Darius suffers from clinical depression.

When Mrs. Kellner learns that her father back home in Iran is terminally ill, the family decides to visit. She hasn’t been home in seventeen years, and Darius and Laleh haven’t ever seen their grandparents except via a computer screen. It is to be a life-changing trip.

As much of an outsider as Darius is at home, he feels just as much on the outside in Iran. Unlike his sister, he doesn’t speak Farsi. He is a “Fractional Persian” at best, and the customs and culture are almost as alien to him as they might be for someone without any ties to the country. Luckily, he meets Sohrab almost as soon as he arrives, and this new friendship teaches him not only about his heritage, but about himself as a person. Their unfolding friendship is truly a thing of beauty to behold.

There is a real sense of place in Khorram’s novel. What I know about Iran would likely fill a teaspoon, and most of that is likely negative. Not sure why. This novel is full of history and culture and food and family. It is brimming with life, even with the shadow of political and religious unrest simmering beneath the surface. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about finding your place, accepting your perceived flaws, belonging.

Darius is a complex character, a teen you want to hug. As he taps into all the things that make him who he is, his notion of who he might be shifts, too. And that is a joy to behold.

Highly recommended.