Monthly Archives: July 2020

‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

Three days, three women, one impossible task: the Great Flu.

Set in a hospital Maternity/Fever ward during the 1918 pandemic, in poverty stricken war torn Ireland, right after the devastation of the First World War, this story is not surprisingly quite dark and dismal, and yet is also full of life, light, and hope. Nurse Julia Powers works in a small three bed ward of patients who are both pregnant and fighting the flu. She is helped by a a spunky volunteer named Bridie Sweeney who becomes both a valuable assistant and a special friend as together they minister to those in need without much supply or support. Emma Donoghue has once again created a compulsively readable novel set with only a few characters who are trapped together in a very small space, as she did with Room and The Wonder and Akin.

It is a happy coincidence that this, her latest book, was published exactly during another pandemic, and I was almost reluctant at first to read it because of that. But reading a book on a pandemic during a pandemic was not nearly as difficult as it might seem, given Donoghue’s deft writing skills, and was actually interesting to compare. There was a lot of commonality with challenging public health leadership and health care workers being both at risk and short-staffed. “The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate at least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life…a creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself, much like our own.”

‘How to be an Anti-Racist’ by Ibram X. Kendi and ‘White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin DiAngelo

It’s been a time for reflection and reading about racism. I would like to highlight these two books which I’ve found helpful, one written by a black man and the other by a white woman. Both books support some of the same issues but from different angles. Both underline the idea that anti-racism is the correct term because no one can claim to be non-racist or colour blind.

The most helpful thing I’ve learned recently from Ibram Kendi is that the opposite of racist is not not racist, but antiracist. “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.” Everyone has racial bias and prejudice, it’s not just ‘those other bad people’ who are the problem. “To claim non-racism is to be wearing a mask for racism, everyone is racist, it is not a pejorative slur, it is descriptive, and we have to work against it to identify, describe, and dismantle it.” In the same way that we are products of systems and social constructs that have embedded racism into them, we now need to contribute to the formation of a truly just and equitable society. We can’t leave this up to anyone else, it starts with you and me: these books have helped me think about how to embrace the awkwardness and find the courage to strive to actively interrupt racism and humbly learn how to be an antiracist.

Kendi’s  concept of antiracism reenergises and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in American and points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. He asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it. In this book, Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism.

 

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo explains why white people have a hard time thinking of themselves as racist or even prejudiced and why they get super defensive about it. DiAngelo illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility, an expression she coined in 2011. This term refers to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially. It is characterised by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviours including argumentation and silence. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. Even though this book has had mixed critical reviews, I found it helpful to know how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, how people put up barriers and use avoidance without even realising it, and what we can do to engage more constructively with the issues and with each other.

‘The Book of Longings’ by Sue Monk Kidd

This is the story of Ana, wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. There is a long silent period of time in the Biblical account of the life of Jesus. What if Jesus had been married during that time? What would that have been like? What would his wife have been like? This is the fiction of this novel, and it is handled artfully and respectfully, seamlessly weaving in what is known and what the author has imagined. The premise of this novel in the hands of a less than excellent author, might have been a disaster, instead it is masterful and I found it enriching. Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings, among others, has taken a potentially tricky and controversial fictional idea and made it into a beautiful story.

There is not much I can say about this book without spoiling it, because for me part of the intrigue was wondering how it would be handled and how the story would be told. I was a little afraid of what it might do to my own imagining of Jesus’ life on earth and his humanity, and I have to say that I felt completely comfortable with it and it actually enhanced my own understanding.

Really though, the book is more about Ana. At the beginning I found it a bit slow, but the background is essential and the convergence of events in the end was brilliant. This is one of those books that makes Bible times come alive. There are extensive Author’s Notes at the end which are instructive and fascinating. She spent a year researching and almost 5 years writing this novel, and the effort shows. This would be an excellent choice for a book club read. Penguin Random House has a thoughtful Reading Guide which includes a conversation with Sue Monk Kidd and some questions to facilitate further discussion: click here. I must end with the flyleaf description that captures the book so well:

“Grounded in meticulous research and written with a reverential approach to Jesus’s life that focuses on his humanity, The Book of Longings is an inspiring, unforgettable account of one woman’s bold struggle to realise the passion. and potential inside her, while living in a time, place, and culture devised to silence her. It is a triumph of storytelling both timely and timeless, from a masterful writer at the height of her powers.”

‘Boundary Waters’ by William Kent Krueger (Cork O’Connor # 2)

Set in the wilderness of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border, this was the perfect book to read while camping in northern Ontario. The rocky shore lakes, loons, and fir forests were the perfect backdrop to a gripping good mystery out in the wild. This one reminded me of Peter Heller’s The River. It is the second in a mystery series by the gifted author of Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land.

Cork O’Connor is a very flawed but likeable character and if I wasn’t completely hooked with the first instalment in the series, I sure am now! It’s probably a good idea to read them in order, to see how things develop with the recurring characters. The first in the series is called Iron Lake and there are seventeen in all. Yikes, I have some serious catching up to do but I’m looking forward to it! Krueger is such a good story teller. He had me on the edge of my campfire chair the whole way! 🙂

‘Nightingale Point’ by Luan Goldie

“One ordinary day. One extraordinary event. Their lives changed forever.”

The people living in the Nightingale Point block of flats began the day in a very ordinary way. By the time the sun set, there had been a terrible tragedy and their lives would never be the same again.

Some authors are masters at creating characters who are described so well that you feel you would recognise them if you met them on the street, yet without using a lot of cumbersome description. Long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, Luan Goldie’s debut novel, like many on the WPF list, is a very readable page turner which touches on themes of race, community, and mental health. The narrative is well crafted and flows easily, drawing the reader in. The people in this novel are low income and marginalised even before their lives are turned upside down, but now they must dig deep to rebound and survive. The author make you feel like you are rooting for them all! Based on real events in the UK (Grenfell Tower) and the Netherlands (Bijlmer).

‘Bolder: Making the Most of our Longer Lives’ by Carl HonorĂ©

“Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan

Upbeat, encouraging, and sensible, Carl HonorĂ©, the author of In Praise of Slow, explores the advantages and disadvantages of growing older. And with a few caveats (like good health and opportunity), the tick marks on the positive side are clearly in the majority. HonorĂ© quickly debunks prevalent myths about aging and warns that agism is really the problem. Criticising ‘age silos’, the author argues in favour of mingling with other age groups as much as possible and realising that although age and poorer health may detract from quality of life, older people also often experience a boost of creativity and vigour in their later years. Experience and perspective can actually be as useful as youthful stamina.

The important thing is a good attitude and of course maintaining all of the things that keep us all looking and feeling better–exercise for body and brain, sense of humour, stress avoidance, healthy food and drink, socialising with friends and family, etc. If you are over sixty, when you look in the mirror don’t hope to see someone who looks younger, hope to see someone who looks heathy and at their best. As Anne Lamott said, “we contain all the ages we have ever been.”  Own those wrinkles–each one tells a story and shows where the smiles have been!

Here is the author in a TED talk on this topic. It’s worth a view if you want a 12 minute summary of the main points of the book:

‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vignes sisters, light skinned black twins, will always be identical but their lives take very different turns because of the choices they make. They live in a small southern black community until at a young age, and after a devastating trauma,  the sisters run away together to New Orleans.

Ten years later, one sister, Desiree, lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape, and the other, Stella,  secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. She also has a daughter. With the next generation, the cousins–one black, one white–look nothing alike, yet are inextricably linked.

This story is an exploration of racism and the American history of ‘passing’ which I must admit I knew very little about. The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. A unique story of family, relationships, and identity, this would be a great book club read. Not surprisingly, there is an HBO series in the works.

I struggled with my feelings while reading this book. Was the story breaking any kind of anti-racist ground or was it just reinforcing stereotypes? I was reading it right after all of the anti-racist protesting worldwide and watching the series Little Fires Everywhere (performances by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington enhance the reading of Celeste Ng’s novel). As I was researching, I ran across this enlightening piece by Lila Shapiro. It was profoundly helpful and I found that it articulated exactly what I was feeling conflicted about. For the full article click here:

“In the most famous stories about passing, Bennett points out, the protagonists ultimately face society’s reckoning. But Stella is never found out. Instead, she suffers from something more subtle and enduring — the hollowing out of the self. Bennett was interested in passing because of how it both exposes and strengthens the artifice of race. “On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?” she asks. ‘On the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.'”