Review: Who Are We – and Should it Matter in the Twenty-First Century? by Gary Younge

>>Published: June 2010 (UK)

>>June 2011 (North America)

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

I would later realize that the notion that identity is a refuge for the poor and dispossessed—a means of guarding the special interests of those who cannot support themselves—is sorely misguided. Those most wedded to preserving their identity—indeed, handcuffed to it—are often powerful. When all is said and done, they have the most to lose. They just don’t refer to it as identity. They call it tradition, heritage or, simply, history.

***

Guardian columnist Gary Younge’s new book Who Are We attempts to analyze what lies at the core of identity politics, and how such things have changed in recent years. From the proliferation of increasingly diverse media—and through media, diversity among personalities and the imparting of varied ideologies—to the recent election of Barack Obama in the United States; through cultural and religious gatekeepers and their increased or wavering strength, depending on one’s location in the world; and by way of the challenges and questions levied at individuals, political organizations, communities, and religious groups in an era where everything is visible, and the global village is more a reality than ever before.

Younge’s own perceptions of identity and the transitory meanings thereof are outlined through a personal introductory chapter that charts his own growth and experiences with identity—both in the perception of others and how he has come to view himself and his position within the world, both current and as a reflection of his past. The concept of identity, the author argues, has evolved from simple historical divisions to something that an individual can choose or lay claim to. Whether such claims are recognized by certain figures or cultural/political/religious offices (the gatekeepers) factors into the legitimacy and legality of the claims, but the fact remains that, as argued in the chapter “The Chronicles of Cablinasia” an individual has a right to identify themselves with a particular cultural or social sect, regardless of how that sect or another may view said choice. Younge uses the example of Tiger Woods and his description of himself as “Cablinasian”—a combination of African-American, Chinese, Native American, Thai, and Dutch descent. Woods’ decision to classify himself as neither here nor there in our society’s rigidly defined classification system of Black, White, Asian, etc., certainly raised a few hackles, the decision to do so was not to exclude one or the other, but to refrain from positioning himself within a single historical and cultural sect that would carry with it certain weight that may or may not.

In a cultural melting pot such as ours, where everyone watches everyone else and celebrity remains the golden chalice through which so many rush to identify with (or live through gratuitously), the decision of one member of this “elite” class to align himself or herself with one sect or another becomes a victory in the ever-present desire to one-up one another—and perhaps more importantly for some, a loss to whatever sect did not win the identity of the individual in question.

There is an arms race outlined in Younge’s book—not of weapons or destructive capabilities, but of influence. Influence is a numbers game that relies on presence, commitment, heritage, and authenticity—it’s how various social sects and classes remain relevant on the world’s stage. In the chapter “Blessed Are the Gatekeepers” the importance, and some might say clout, of certain religious groups is brought to light. The ability to have one’s religious identity stripped clean—and through that, the recognition of a marriage—is a potentially devastating blow to an individual’s identity, and the identities of their family. But this right remains in certain Jewish Orthodox practices, where one’s lifestyle, right down to interests and passions held, could compromise a person’s right to consider themselves a part of the faith. This is not limited to faith and religious practices, but can be attributed to race and the colour of one’s skin as well. Regardless of how one is brought up, there are, in many parts of the world, obstacles and gatekeepers in place to force definitions where they see fit, and to extract them where they feel threatened, whether such actions are necessary or not.

Younge dissects each of these elements with a critical eye that, while objective, never loses the subjectivity he displays in the opening chapter. His experiences and interactions with others have given him a strong vocabulary, which he uses to pull apart the various levels of societal substructures—from the political to the religious and all points in between—and expose the still bitter pill: while we may have more ways by which to define ourselves and each other, our limitations—personal affectations and fears, and our reliance on existing legacy offices and ideologies—our ability to embrace all methods of personal and social definition remains trapped in the grip of the question of what it means to belong, and does it still matter.

Review: Lemon, by Cordelia Strube

>>Published: October 2009

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

‘Why should you care?’ I ask.

‘Unlike you, Lemon, I like to meet guys.’

‘Do you actually want their dicks up in your snatch, Ross?’ I ask. ‘Do you get some kind of power surge when they grab your tits or do you just want to be loved?’

‘You should talk. Everybody says you’re a dyke.’

‘That’ll keep ‘em off me.’

We used to talk about other things than sex and guys. We used to have confidence. We spun cartwheels and handstands. We got A’s in math.

‘Lemon’s saving herself for the ghost of Cary Grant,’ Tora says.

***

From the back of the book: “The numbers are against Lemon: three mothers, one deadbeat dad, one cancer-ridden protégé, two friends, one tree-hugging stepbrother and a 60 percent average.” In short, Lemon is quirk personified in book form—a collection of offbeat, sometimes random, often antagonizing, vacant, or difficult to crack individuals who pass in and out of Lemon’s life to varying degrees of dissatisfaction, destruction, and death.

Cordelia Strube’s writing is tight and unapologetic. Lemon has the pacing of a theatre piece with a noticeable Whedon-esque level of comic snark drizzled throughout the dialogue. The emotionally distant but information-overloaded personality she affects through Lemon is interesting in concept, but in execution invokes a terse, ADD-like quality that hampers the flow of the narrative. It could be argued that this is deliberate, that Strube is constructing the narrative in part through short, seemingly random interludes of useless and often disturbing information as a means of building a defensive shell around Lemon, who narrates the book from the first person, but in practice it made it difficult to want to invest myself in the main character’s emotional resolution—if any is to be had in the first place, based on the sense of hope-long-in-coming that reveals itself with only the very last sentence of the novel.

I’m torn. I want to love Lemon, but Lemon doesn’t want to give me the opportunity. For every quick spark of brilliance and lyrical trickery employed, Strube delights in pushing the reader out the door again just as we’re about to squeeze our foot through the crack.

Well written and an exquisitely crafted physical product, as is the case with most Coach House titles, Lemon is as peculiar a read as the protagonist herself. Her defensive posture is based on the false sense of reason and maturity a teenager has—especially one who feels as if the world has wronged them in more ways than any one person can deal with. In that sense, Strube has succeeded on all fronts, imbuing Lemon with the cynicism and gravitas of someone three times her age and half her capacity for growth and understanding. At the end of the novel, she feels primed for change—for a new direction to ground her existence. The payoff brings the potential for light; the question is whether or not one can hold onto the sympathetic core of Lemon long enough to witness as hope replaces acquiescence.

Review: What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz

>>Published: March 2011

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

And then her own eyes, in a close, tight focus and a slow, painful pullback, trying not to blink. But it had been worth it, her face frozen in the stupor of cruel death, the close-up of her eye. A spiral, a circling. The slow dance in the tub repeating. Such brutality meant erasure, a cold, unblinking eye, a woman lying in a pool of her blood, which was draining away, vanishing. The bathroom in near silence, save the flow of the water, as the camera glided over to a newspaper concealing the stolen money.

The Actress watched the rest of the film in disbelief, terrified at the shock, but strangely satisfied at her last, unblinking appearance, her face registering—for the first time she could remember in a film—that a death meant something. An absence. There was something unsettlingly gorgeous about the slow spiral of her eye, the movement gradually coming to a finish, the way a dance ends.

***

Manuel Muñoz’s first novel following his collection of short stories The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue is an abstraction of a murder set against the filming of an American classic. Bakersfield, California, 1959: a legendary, once-innovative Director and his leading Actress descend on the small town to film a small production that will forever ingrain itself in the cultural milieu. Their presence, however, does not disrupt the small town the way the very real murder of a young woman at the hands of the town’s most eligible bachelor does.

A tapestry of love gone wrong in a small community and juxtaposed with the carefully fictionalized filming of Psycho, Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark is a compelling exercise in muted horror somewhat akin to deliberately constructed psychological duress. In-depth characterization is sacrificed to the density in which Muñoz paints his setting with lyrical, almost ethereal descriptions that do more for the development of the narrative’s mood than they do for the understanding of why Dan Watson murdered delicate young Teresa. The reasons for his actions, implied or otherwise construed, are the MacGuffin the story requires to touch upon the Actress (Janet Leigh), the Director (Alfred Hitchcock), the film they seek to create, and its affect on the atmosphere and psychology of the small town of Bakersfield and its citizens.

As previously mentioned, Muñoz has an artist’s touch. While the plot may want for closure, the soft, sad trumpet of malaise that the author blankets each chapter with grows more expressive and unsettling with each shift in perspective, as the atmospheric image of the town slowly comes to life. Bakersfield is a wounded animal, quietly moaning to itself as it does what it can to hide its blood from predators. The production of the film, though not integral to the town’s continued existence, is the spotlight through which its darker secrets are revealed.

What You See in the Dark isn’t for everyone. It’s a pensive, introspective book that warrants an inquisitive pace. For those willing to luxuriate over the finer parallels between the lives of the towns folk and the interjection of the film and its cast and crew, it is certainly a worthwhile read.

Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

>>Published: May 2011

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

“But please, when you see an opportunity…” He presses his hand to my cheek, cold and strong, and tilts my head up so I have to look at him. His eyes glint. They look almost predatory. “Ruin them.”

I laugh shakily. “You’re a little scary, Four.”

“Do me a favor,” he says, “and don’t call me that.”

“What should I call you, then?”

“Nothing.” He takes his hand from my face. “Yet.”

***

At age sixteen, Beatrice Prior has to choose: to remain with her family, or to follow the unknown pull her heart has towards another life—one constructed through the guise of risk as being courageous. Strong. Unbeatable. Though this choice will come to define her future home—her friends, allies, even loved ones—it will not define her future self. This is because Beatrice, or Tris as she renames herself, is something few others are: she is Divergent. She is neither here nor there, a child born to question the five regimented factions her dystopian world has been divided into: Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, Candor, and Dauntless. Each of these factions represent a binary mode of existence for the people of Tris’ world—you’re truthful or you’re nothing; you’re selfless or you’re nothing; you’re brave or you’re nothing. Peace comes from the simplistic stratifying of individuals into strict categories, ideals that they will learn to devote their lives to—because straying from the path, asking questions, thinking for one’s self is what leads to social disruption, corruption, and dismemberment.

Veronica Roth’s debut novel, Divergent, doesn’t stray too far from the dystopian aesthetic that’s become so popular in young adult fiction as of late. What separates Divergent then from other titles carved from a similar hide is quality and unpredictability. Not just quality of writing, but of plotting, characterization, and intent. Tris, her family and the mysteries that surround them, her relationship with Four, all of it has a grounding that seems to be lacking in similar books, such as Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. The division between the factions might seem trite and simple upon first glance, but the purity-of-thought conceit twists nicely into a divide-and-conquer story that uses these basic concepts that families and legions have devoted themselves to and turns them against their defenders. One imagines that the overarching theme to the Divergent trilogy (because it’s a new YA book, which automatically means trilogy these days) will be less of government- or faction-based control, and more about the need to dismantle their basic untrusting, racist/classist tendencies towards one another. There are certainly strong critical undertones to the rather simplistic black-or-white, good-versus-evil dichotomies that plague our grey area-free world as of late

Roth’s writing is straightforward and mechanical, with little in the way of style or flourish. However, she has a confident hold on pacing and seldom resorts to Dan Brown-esque cliffhangers. The pages fly by because the characters and narrative stand out. They are more than what we’ve come to expect from the “me too” rush to flood the YA market, and Roth’s simple concept of a world of pure ideological division and limitation has the makings of a superstructure begging to be toppled in grand fashion.

If I were to lob a genuine complaint at the book, it would be its setting. As much as I love a good dystopian tale, it seems as of late to be overused to the point of market saturation. What I’d truly love to see is the ellipsis on either side—what are the actions that cause the dramatic social change needed to exact such extremes? What would it take to pick up the pieces after the fall of a dystopian world order and rebuild anew? The before and after are what I’d love to see explored next—the wastelands of the soon-to-be have become the easy option, but to make believable the decision to warp a world in such a way… that would be truly compelling. This desire in no way hurts Divergent, but the path less taken grows more intriguing by the day.

Review: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

>>Published: June 2010

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

Then the dream came back to me, every detail. I jumped up on shaky legs. I was halfway down the hallway when I stopped. I went right back to my room and stood at the mirror, staring at the angry bruises on my neck. I sat on the floor and held my head in my hands. The red oval eye belonged to a rapist, my biological father. And he’d just tried to throttle me in my sleep.

***

Onyesonwu is an Ewu—a child of rape, her skin and hair the colour of sand. Others like her are recognized from sight alone, their reputations prone to the same violence and disregard that marks their conception. What makes Onyesonwu different than her kin is that she is a sorceress, one prophesized to end the suffering of the Okeke people—her mother’s people—by the vicious, war-mongering hands of the Nuru tribe.

Who Fears Death is an interesting hybrid of high fantasy concepts set in a post-apocalyptic Africa where, amongst the wreckage of a once-prominent technological civilization, rape and genocide are still the weapons of choice. The Nuru, guided by “the Great Book”, seek to eliminate the Okeke. Onyesonwu, a product of Nuru violence, intends to use her abilities as a sorceress to not only free the Okeke people, but to also rewrite the Great Book and change the future for the remaining Okeke people—regardless of the threat to her well being should the prophesy be fulfilled.

Okorafor has an assured style that, at times, has a perfunctory feel to it that is common in a lot of young adult-focussed literature. However, the concepts and details within are very adult, and not for the weak-hearted. She does not shy away from issues as large as the systematic rape, enslavement and genocide of an entire populace, or as individual as the choice for a young woman to undergo painful and unnecessary circumcision—and the pain associated with that choice as a woman falls in love and is restricted by the damage done to her body.

Structurally, Who Fears Death situates itself in an uncommon position. It manages to evoke a sense of the old world that has never died, and of the recent past that has crumbled into partial obscurity, save for a few artefacts of the supposedly advanced technological culture. The line it walks between science fiction and fantasy is a narrow one, but Okorafor pulls it off with precision of language and a fascinating marriage of cultural conceits—the oppression from and the rewriting of the Great Book being of such prominence.

A strong vein of darkness runs throughout Who Fears Death. At times it can be distressing, but the resulting catharsis legitimizes Onyesonwu’s journey and the lives taken along the way.

Review: The Life of Hunger, by Amélie Nothomb

>>Published (in French): 2004

>>Published (in English): 2006

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

Hunger is want. It’s a broader desire than desire. It isn’t the will, which is strength. Neither is it a weakness, for hunger doesn’t know passivity. He who hungers searches.

… In hunger, there is a dynamic that forbids us to accept its state. It is an intolerable want.

***

Placed chronologically between The Character of Rain and Fear and Trembling, The Life of Hunger is a bridge in a loose series of fictionalized autobiographies. Nothomb uses the end of her deified existence in The Character of Rain as a jumping off point, outlining the somewhat tumultuous, often dramatic and continuously experimental years of her childhood and teenage adolescence, as she was plagued with a hunger she could never satiate. Not just a hunger for food and sweets, as she describes in the books opening chapters, but for water, alcohol, love, admiration, devotion, and in the end, as she turns hunger from an element of lust into a tool for control, acute anorexia.

Travelling the world from Tokyo to Peking, Paris, New York, Laos, and back to Tokyo (with her job as a translator at the end of the book presumably segueing into the novel Fear and Trembling), Nothomb and her sister explore their desires for the many different experiences the world has to offer them. Whether it is the dangerous and enthralling amounts of alcohol consumed on their farewell-New-York bender or the literature Nothomb devours to keep her mind from atrophying while her anorexic body slowly dies, the language of hunger is ever-present in the diction used and the attachments forged.

Nothomb writes with a lust for embellishment in every action, however subtle it may appear to be. Her representative in the text—one suspects, a slightly skewed version of herself—exists as an awkward observer to the world and its rules. She never seems to fit into whatever mould she is presented with. However, instead of approaching this detachment with dour sentiments or revulsion towards others, she becomes an otherworldly curiosity seeker—as if an alien had been infected with human desires and not a trace of control or consequence. The result, which is present in much of Nothomb’s work, is a lyrical playfulness that stretches reality past its limits without devolving into brash caricature or unnecessary comedy.

Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was an examination of an extreme personality without a conscience. It was both a study of depravity and of genius unfettered by restraints. Her later biographical works, though written through filters of extremes, tackle similar subjects in more personal ways. Murderous intent aside, there is a great deal of Nothomb’s personality in her first villain, Hygiene and the Assassin’s Prétextat Tach—details which she reveals through her close relationship with her sister, her almost unfathomable desire for sugar and alcohol, and the isolated, not quite developed sense of entitlement she associates with love.

In much of Nothomb’s work, the potentially unreliable narrators become the salient narrative strength; through their childish, occasionally ridiculous mannerisms and ways of seeing the world around them, Nothomb is able to cast a delicate mask over larger issues such as sexual abuse and violence, loneliness and isolation. Together such elements create an amusing, surreal and touching portrait of a young woman with a world of experience far beyond her years.

Review: Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr

>>Published: April 2011

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

Because you are evil, you continue to live. Because funny that evil is a noun spelled forward and a verb spelled backwards. Because what you did to your son was the word evil as a verb, a verb that means to ignore someone to death, that locket winding around your boy’s neck, lurid neon signs, a verb that means to stand by, place your hands over your eyes while someone dies in front of you. The verb of not putting out your hand to save. That verb. That human-chandelier verb. That verb-an-unnatural-colour-of-blue verb. That gold, heart-shaped-letter-he-wrote-to-you-and-only-you verb. You evilled. Your chest heaves, scratching in and out your breath.

***

Patrick Furey is dead. He is remembered and forgotten, as he was both hated and loved. But worst of all, most damning to his future, he was ignored. His feelings, his attentions and desires thrust back at him with a terrifying coda—a threat to his privacy, his happiness and his life. Because the slang u r a fag scrawled across a locker is a phonetic condemnation that will ripple through an entire school. Because “it gets better” has a necessary umbrella of objectivity—objectivity that, when faced with the hormonal and emotional gravity of the high school experience, is readily sacrificed to the altar of fear.

Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros is Patrick’s story, told in reflection through a select group of individuals—students, teachers, school administrators, parents, family, friends that never had the chance to be, and Ginger, the dead boy’s secret love. Through Patrick’s suicide by hanging in the opening chapter, the threads of fate that surrounded him begin to unravel, and each character—be it Ginger, whose rejection of Patrick was more piercing than any knife; Petra, Ginger’s hate-filled girlfriend who is in denial about his latent homosexuality and blames Patrick for compromising their relationship; or Faraday, a unicorn-obsessed girl who loved Patrick in her own way, through a simple act of kindness that, for her, defined his entire personality—is forced to examine his or her placement within both the school and the social hierarchy, and how those perceived barriers and their failures to act have not only cost a young boy his life, but have also limited the breadth oftheir own individual existences.

Max and Walter—the Principal and the head guidance counsellor. Lovers for seventeen years, unable to have a simple dinner together in public for fear that a parent or teacher or student might see them and blow the whistle on their romance, exiling them from their careers within the Catholic school system—and possibly the public school system as well, given current levels of trepidation and animosity unfairly targeting gay and lesbian teachers. Their story is perhaps the strongest reflection of Patrick’s, and it is their fear at being exposed for who they are that presents the most obvious and terrible mirror to the bullying and harassment Patrick has faced. Their inaction as Patrick is slowly torn apart by the fear and hatred of others is as damaging as any other form of hurt experienced by the boy.

However, it was not Walter and Max’s unwillingness to act, nor was it Petra’s bullying that caused Patrick to take his life—it was Ginger’s rejection and willingness to lead a false existence with a girl who could never reflect his innermost lust.

The essential relationships—parent/child, husband/wife, lovers secretly entwined—are challenged in such a way that, as the weeks following Patrick’s death tick by, the conceit of time becomes both restorative and deconstructive. Through his actions and the resounding effect his death has had on those around him—those who loved him, and those who didn’t realize how much a part of their lives were in Patrick and vice versa—Patrick Furey, in death, is personified as an instigator of change. As the weeks pass and graduation approaches—and beyond that, a life that, had Patrick had the strength and support to see the clearing beyond the trees, still carried promise and hope and the opportunity to find oneself—their journeys are immortalized in headstone chapters. The implications for change, now and in the future, such as with Petra, who remains in denial about her role in Patrick’s death, are deafening.

Monoceros is a loving, intricately written book. Mayr’s language is clean, spare, and overflowing with imagery—so much so that the magical realism of the book’s conclusion does not feel forced or out of place. Its cleansing wrath is earned—a gift to the memory of Patrick Furey.

***

In grade 12, I had the misfortune of experiencing a similar event. I was a teacher’s assistant for a grade 10 art class. In the spring of 1999, sick of being ridiculed as a fag and a retard and every other spiteful tag favoured by his classmates, a young man in grade 10 took his life. He hanged himself from the second-floor banister of the family home, where he remained until his parents returned home later that evening. Whether he was gay or not, no one knew. It didn’t matter—the message was hate, all the same, and like Patrick, obscured by the sense of isolation still so prevalent in high school, this boy saw no other alternative than to end his suffering by any means necessary. I didn’t know him personally, though I knew his older sister through others in my year. It was in the teachers, however, where I saw the greatest impact. The gravity of a child taking their own life was not lost on them. This memory was at the front of my mind as I read Monoceros. This sensation—the loss felt by the teachers, as if they could see the failings in every facet of the world they’d devoted their lives to—has been captured both beautifully and horrifically by Mayr. I would hope that Monoceros finds a home within schools across Canada. It is an essential read.