Tag Archives: masculinity

An American Marriage: Terrific.

Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is great. It follows Celestial and Roy and the dissolution of their marriage after Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. They’ve been married for a year at the point, and the book explores what the obligations are for each individual in marriage/committed relationships when the circumstances of the initial arrangement change. To what do we owe one another in perpetuity? When do we get to change our minds? What must we sacrifice for the institution, or for the other person, and when do we get to privilege our own happiness? What rights do we have (to be selfish) (to expect steadfast commitment)?

Celestial and Roy’s marriage is constrasted with that of their respective parents. Each set of parents offering up a different vision of the same questions of commitment. I was moved by the scene of Roy’s father (name escapes me) burying his mother and wondered at that kind of grief.

As much as it is a book about the institution of marriage, it is also about manhood. If both (marriage and manhood) are imagined in our current moment to be under threat, or flailing, or failing, this book harkens back to a vision of each that is, if not idealized, than at least coherent. Roy puts forward visions and versions of what it means to be a man, as if to test the hypothesis or to have them rejected. In so doing the reader can also examine whether there is any value to be had in a constellations of qualities we might call ‘manhood,’ or whether this institution, too, has served its function and can be dispensed with like so many fast divorces.

It’s also a book about race and the state. Much of Celestial’s concern about how to respond to Roy’s experience of incarceration is to know that he is a black man in America and that his experience of the criminal justice system is visited upon him and his family in ways that are at once extrordinary in their injustice and perfectly ordinary in their frequency. Celestial must weigh whether she has particular obligations, in addition to those of being a wife, because she is the wife of a black man falsely accused and imprisoned.

Taken together the book explores resonant questions and does so with beautiful, captivating writing. It’s well worth a read before the end of the summer.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller

Brother: You don’t win prizes for bad writing. (Most of the time)

David Chariandry’s Brother follows two brothers – Michael and Francis – and their experiences growing up in Toronto as young, black men. The story weaves two time lines: the present in which Michael and his mother grieve the death of Francis, and the years and then weeks leading up to his death. The effect of the woven time is to have the reader at once certain of the outcome and effect, and unsure about the cause. That’s not true. The cause of Francis’s death is as much about context and systematic racism (through education, housing, transit and policing) as it is about the single act that kills him. The reader feels certain – well before knowing what exactly killed him – that if Francis was born white he wouldn’t have died.

It’s an exquisitely written novel. Quotidian scenes speak for whole years; individual examples gesture to shared experiences. With precise language and sharp detail, the writing evokes setting and atmosphere without straying into distracting description or belabored scene-setting.

While it is a novel principally interested in masculinity, in its characterization of their mother the story proves capacious in its exploration of the intersection of gender and class and race.

I’ve made it sound like a bleak read. And in some ways it is, and that’s a good reason to read it, too. But through the distress and grief and anger there are also scenes and moments of connection, community and great care. And other alliterative ‘c’ words. Not that a story needs to balance sadness with hope. Just that this novel does. And I hope you read it.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

Fierce Kingdom: So… Being a Mom Makes You a Better Human? What?

Gin Phillip’s “literary” thriller (the claim to ‘literary-ness’ is a dubious one. I’ll accept if the only criteria for being ‘literary’ is to describe child’s breath as ‘warm’ and ‘milky’ 15 000 times in the span of a 300 page novel) Fierce Kingdom follows Joan and Lincoln (mother and son) as they try to escape shooters in the zoo. This plot takes several things for granted that are worthy of pause:

1. Joan needs to have an exhaustive understanding of zoo layout. No flimsy paper maps for her. So in a stroke of good fortune we find she and Lincoln visit the zoo almost daily and so she knows all the ins and outs of zoo topography. Phew. Makes sense. Because what else is a woman to do with a four year old except not-work so she can take the kid to the zoo every. day.

2. Joan needs to not have a cellphone. Yes. Those pesky devices that keep us tethered to the world and make hostage plots so… lacking in suspense. So Joan *throw it away*. Because that’s exactly what you would do when held hostage and hiding. You would throw your phone away. Literally throw it away. Well thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted to be able to communicate with the outside world either.

3. Joan needs to have absolute moral clarity on the purpose of her life: Keep Lincoln Safe. And she needs to encounter a classic ethical dilemna (baby crying while Bad Men With Guns approach) in order to test and be sure about her Purpose. And to stand firm. And then she needs to abnegate that Purpose within 20 pages without any rationale, reflection or consideration. Because this book is full of ethical quandries that are not to be taken lightly. Noted.

4. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing for how little it ruffled this reader: we need to accept and expect that mass shootings occur with enough frequency as to not be particularly noteworthy. To instead be a plot premise from which other questions and issues might be considered.

So with those stipulations noted there are other… troubling aspects of the book.

The reader needs to care about Joan and Lincoln in order to make any of the suspenseful elements of the book work. We need to be worried about whether and how and when they will escape. Except this reader found Joan to be… irritating. The sort of put-together perfect-mom that you see in tampon commercials: making her own yogurt while sorting laundry and doing yoga stretches while she teachers her baby Mandarin and plays lullabies on her harp. Like she just happens to think every. little. thing. Lincoln does is precious and perfect and evidence of his sensitivity and genius. And not once during the three hours they are held hostage at gunpoint does she think ‘Gosh I wish I had someone here to help me,’ or ‘Why won’t this kid stop whinging about being hungry?’ She is, in other words, not entirely believable as a character. I only know some mums, but the mums I know are excellent people and often-to-most-of-the-time excellent mums. And part of what makes them excellent is that they are also their own person. They have ideas, and needs, and wants, and thoughts that are often about their kids, but often about other things, too. And it might just be me (hey, it really might just be me) but I’m more interested in reading about a mom character who is a character and also a mom, than a character who is only known or considered by way of being a mom. It’s just really, really hard to care about an archetype without a personality, history or future attached to it. And maybe the most troubling part, but Joan seems to think – and the reader seems to be expected to reflexively think, too – that being a mom is the highest calling and the most sacred duty. Which isn’t for me to say it is, or it isn’t. Just that the novel presents this as an Unassailable Truth. Like OF COURSE being a mom makes you a better and more worthy human and full of Purpose. Other non-parent-people are nice and good, too, and probably shouldn’t be shot by mass shooters, but… is it so bad? I mean… what are they really living for anyway? So… troubling.

And then there’s the quality of the writing which is at once polished and predictable. It reads smoothly, which is nice because it allows the reader to focus on plot! Some exceptions: the descriptions of the setting are muddy and confusing, I had a hard time picturing where they were or how they were navigating particular enclosures or forests. It feels like maybe Phillips was writing this to be optioned for a movie and so could ‘see’ her scene playing out this way and just trusted the reader would go see the adaptation? The other exception is in descriptions of Lincoln. This poor kid has no character development (except he likes to tell stories about super heroes. Oh wait. That didn’t conjur a complex character for you? Wait, I’ll add that he likes to be snuggled.) and endless descriptions of warm breath. Yawn. Oh and the tired and repeat analogy to ‘animal instincts’. I get it. I get it. You’re a mother protecting her cub and you’re in a zoo. Please. Spell it out for me.

So many complaints! But you’ll still read this one. I know you will. Because it’s the sort of book that can’t be resisted. The Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (that these women are called ‘girls’ in the title ought to be warning enough) except now… she has a baby to protect. So once you’re finished let me know if I’m just grumpy.

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Worst Books

Cataract City: On liking gratuitous violence

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I can’t decide whether I liked Cataract City. I admire it. I think it’s well written, with particular skill and grace in high-action descriptions. I enjoyed reading parts of it because I cared about the characters (enough) and wondered about their well being. But I don’t think I liked it. Continue reading

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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner