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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

August Reads 2020

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Howard Cruse, Stuck Rubber Baby

Coco Moodysson, Never Goodnight

Megan Gail Coles, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes

Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be Antiracist

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, All American Boys

Samra Habib, We Have Always Been Here

Howard Cruse, Stuck Rubber Baby

As often happens in my search for new reading material, I came to this title by reading something else:  In this case Alison Bechdel's introduction to the 25th edition of Stuck Rubber Baby published on My love of Alison Bechdel means I will take any suggestion she offers, but this book in particular had long been on my to-read list.

I have an abiding love for graphic novels yet I had been putting off reading this one because of its horrible title (no less horrible when you discover its origin, which refers to a condom failure that leads to pregnancy) and Cruse's style, which is dense and dark.  My spouse, who frequently remarks on how quickly I can read a book, gave me some light ribbing for how long I was taking to get through this one. 

The art is dark, but so is the story, which follows Toland Polk's coming of age in 1960s Alabama. It is a turbulent time and like many White folks before and since, Polk is just trying to stay out of the politics and live peacefully. His life is further complicated by the fact that he is gay but deeply hoping not to be.

Polk lives with his older sister, Melanie, and her husband Orley in the fictional town of Clayfield. His awakening to the civil unrest that surrounds him is facilitated by Ginger Raines, a young woman he is dating.  Melanie and Ginger are two of the strongest characters in the story, and I love how wise and strident they are.  Both are patient with Polk as he works through his understanding of himself and the times, but they never allow him to shirk responsibility for his own thoughts and actions.  Polk is in love with Ginger, and really wants to create a traditional heterosexual family with her, but she refuses even after becoming pregnant, knowing how unhappy they will both be if he continues to deny who he really is.  I found myself wondering how many families were actually created through similar scenarios where there was no Ginger to offer the voice of reason.  It could not have been easy, in the early 1960s south, to be twenty and pregnant and still refuse the choice that society would present as "easiest".  Without Ginger and Melanie I doubt that Toland would have been able to grow in his understanding of himself as much as he does. 

What the story does incredibly well is allow Polk's individual turmoil to run parallel to the chaos of the civil rights movement.  Ginger introduces Toland to her social circle, which is pretty much exclusively queer and Black.  Ironically, his commitment to Ginger and his vision of them as a family is also what exposes him to a queer community and makes it possible for him to imagine life as an out gay man.   It's not possible for him to be with her and avoid participating in the violent struggle for rights that she is a part of.

While the story is fictional, it is clearly drawn from some of Cruse's actual life experiences.  One of the realer aspects of its telling is the occasional integration into the story of the much older Polk (depicted in the frame above) reflecting on the events being described. I found knowing that a young Toland Polk ultimately grows up, partners with a man, and basically turns out okay to be very reassuring.  And, while it is true that the world doesn't necessarily need to spend more time on the voice of white men in the struggle for BIPOC liberation, Cruse is careful to give honest voice to supporting characters, particularly drag queen "Esmereldus" and preacher's son Lester Pepper, Anna Dellyne Pepper, Lester's mom, and Marge and Effie, the owners of the after hours club Alleysax, who speak with the frankness of a couple of tough as nails dykes who may genuinely have seen it all.  The true heroes in the story though, are the women who support and challenge Polk, never letting him sink into apathy.

Coco Moodysson, Never Goodnight

And...if you're looking for something completely different, please pick up this graphic novel about an all-female, pre-teen punk rock band in early 1980s Sweden.  These girls are awesome. 

You may have seen this story as the movie it became: 2013's We Are the Best directed by author Coco's husband, Luke Moodysson. The book was published in English in 2015 after the film's release. I picked it up from The Dragon's table at the Friends of the Guelph Public Library Book Sale maybe two years and, like a fool, neglected it until just now.

Lifelong friends Coco, Klara and Mathilda are pre-teens whose anarchist ideals and love of punk rock set them apart from other kids their age.  Ninety percent inspired, as most great things are, by boredom, they put together a band, despite having no instruments or musical training.  Here is the punk rock philosophy at its purest.  Lots of well meaning fellows attempt to teach the girls how to play, and the manager of the local community centre, where they practice with borrowed instruments, somehow manages to get them a gig but, in true anarchist style, they don't want to learn how to play, they just want to get onstage and fuck shit up. It's glorious to watch these girls fight for their right to the practice space and also for their right to do music in whatever way they want, shutting down every single mansplainer they meet along the way.

The rest of the story, which explores their friendships and loyalties, is equally charming.  Despite the challenges presented, mainly in the guise of cute boys coming between them, the girls ultimately choose loyalty to each other and their punk philosophy over the ‘real world’ and its attendant practicalities.  In the end, they are depicted together in Klara's bedroom, listening to The Cure’s Pornography, and as readers we get a tiny glimpse of their futures, which might still include making music.

Megan Gail Coles, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

I picked up this book because I caught a bit of George Canyon on Canada Reads talking about how he did not enjoy this book and struggled to read it. He had to keep going back over passages to re-capture the story’s thread. Things got a little heated in his conversations with this book's defender, Alayna Fender, and I became intrigued.  Perhaps you know this about me, but I like a hard book. Canyon was the only (can I say 'token'?) white guy on the panel and he was defending Jesse Thistle's memoir From The Ashes, which is a harrowing and worthwhile read. I wondered, What was it about Coles' book that he had trouble with?

So I read it, as if Canyon himself had thrown a gauntlet down or said, "Hey book nerd! I bet you won't like this book!".  

In a nutshell, this is an amazing book that is not difficult to read or in any way structurally challenging.  It's the story of a number of characters whose lives are connected to a St. John's Newfoundland restaurant called The Hazel.  All the action takes place on a single snow-stormy Valentine’s day in February, which IMHO is about as bad as winter gets.  The December snowstorm may be a novelty, bringing with it visions of hot chocolate and Christmas movie marathons, but the February snowstorm is a kick received when you are already down.  It is the reminder that winter might never end.  To say the snowstorm is as much a part of the story as the characters is not an exaggeration, nor is it  a metaphor.

Hard things are happening to characters in this book. Iris, our first narrator, is the hostess of The Hazel and also having an affair with its chef John.  Her good friend and possible relative Olive, also originally from Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, appears at the restaurant wearing woefully-inadequate ballet shoes and looking for a warm place to be.  John, the charismatic and philandering chef is married to George (short for Georgina) whose family’s money makes the restaurant's existence possible, but who is not well-liked by staff.  George suspects that John is having an affair, but prefers not to acknowledge it, focussing instead on her infertility and trying to create a plan to build a family with the ever-absent John.

Male characters are equally troubled, ranging from confused and apathetic to dangerously violent and misogynistic.  Coles' story clearly shows that the bystander is never innocent, and those who witness crimes against women without speaking up are almost as guilty than those who perpetrate them. 

Is this a hard book to read? Well, yeah, in that it does not in any way sugar coat the reality of being poor, female, or gay in this world.  The restaurant is an ideal backdrop for the story, since restaurants so effectively tend to build a hierarchy into their operations; the chef holds all the power while those who work under him find their level of respect and pay declines to the very lowest worker, in this case Omi, the Nigerian dishwasher.  But is it also compelling, artful and true?  For sure.  And that's why you should give it a go.  Even you, George Canyon.

Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf  

When you work as a former English teacher, current teacher-librarian, part of every reading experience includes considering whether your current book would be suitable or, even better, beneficial as a classroom text.  I can't speak for all teachers in the world, but personally, I can say that I frequently find myself talking about how we can diversify core curriculum and include BIPOC voices. And the conclusion I often come to is this: It is hard to pick a book for someone else to read!  Who do we think we are?  Still, there are no excuses for continuing to teach outdated, racist texts (I’m looking at you To Kill a Mockingbird).

This book, which is actually a script of a stage play, has frequently been listed as the kind of influential book by a writer of colour that I'm always looking for.  Originally performed in 1974, the play (or choreopoem, as Shange called it) tells the stories of seven Black women who suffer racist and sexist oppression in their day-to-day lives.  The women are identified by the colour they wear, and when they are all ltogether on stage they create the rainbow of the title.

These are stories of abandonment, rape, and domestic violence, but the voices are very much rooted in the time they were created.  Even though the edition I read had been updated to include content about HIV status and the Iraq War, the text was still confusing, partly because it was meant to be performed rather than read, and partly because it is a bit dated.  For this reason it'd be a tough choice for a classroom study, but an easy choice for personal reading and anti-racist learning.

Samra Habib, We Have Always Been Here

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, All American Boys

Speaking of possible classroom titles, here are two great contenders!  Samra Habib’s memoir was so engaging I read it in a single day, a thing I never do.

First of all, Habib is a woman, a Muslim, a person of colour, and a member of the queer community, identities all woefully-underrepresented in English curricula. Second, the story is compelling and artfully written, set both in the present and recent past.  No need to “contextualize” any content or events here.  Man, what a treat!

Habib’s experiences are extraordinary.  Her family is poor, struggling to make ends meet as new Canadians in a country where the adults can’t speak the language and so rely on their children to translate. She tries to fit in at school, but is the victim of racist abuse from her classmates. I could particularly relate to her descriptions of never being dressed in the trendy or stylish clothes her peers preferred because her family simply could not afford it. 

As a young teen, Habib does make friends and begins to find her place in the world, but each time she eases into a newfound comfort, something gets in the way.  Despite being able to integrate more and more into her secular Canadian school life, astonishingly, at the age of 16, Habib is wed to her cousin through an arranged marriage.  She feels betrayed by her faith, but more significantly, by her beloved mother who supports the marriage.  

Habib keeps the marriage a secret from everyone outside of her family.  The burden of the secret is immense, and she experiences years of dissonance as she continues going to school and hanging out with her friends, never acknowledging the reality of her family life.  Habib and her husband do not live together or consummate the marriage, the assumption being that this will happen when Habib is older.

Ultimately Habib is able to break free from the marriage, but in order to do it she must move out of her house and for many years she does not see or speak to her parents.  Only once she’s done this can she begin to know herself and build her identity.  In the end, as an out queer woman, she is able to mend her relationship with her mother and also Islam, finding a congregation that welcomes her on her own terms.

Reynolds’ and Kiely’s All American Boys tells two stories: that of Rashad, a Black teenager who is subdued and beaten by a police officer on a false charge of shoplifting, and that of Quinn, a White teenager who witnesses the attack but at first refuses to admit what he’s seen.  The video of Rashad’s arrest quickly spreads and while he recovers in hospital, his school community rallies to have the White police officer brought to justice. Check out a great NPR interview with the authors on the origin of the book here.

At first I wasn’t so thrilled to have Quinn receive the same amount of airtime as Rashad.  I’m always very skeptical of any text presenting as anti-racist that still centres the voices of White people.  In this case, though, Quinn’s experience of witnessing Rashad’s beating is transformative, and his eventual willingness to tell the truth about what he’s seen reflects a hope that many of us rely on:  Ultimately, people can stop being racist.

This would be a great story to teach.  Even though both protagonists are male, they each benefit from the wisdom and kindness of women in their lives.  Rashad, recuperating in the hospital, prefers not to be the centre of attention, and is embarrassed by his community’s call to action.  His older brother’s more radical voice provides Rashad (and readers) a framework for understanding and responding to the event.

Like We Will Always Be Here, All American Boys provides a reasonably hopeful ending without shying away from exposing the profound and lasting damage of racist systems.  Through Quinn’s interrogation of his own beliefs, White folks are given an example of how thinking and behaviour can change.  Rashad must also come to terms with his reluctance to engage in a broader struggle for justice.  Both characters are required to evaluate their understanding of the role policing plays in upholding racist systems.

Now, do I enjoy reading dialogue that is essentially teenage guys talking shit to each other?  No, I do not.  And this book has a ton of that, especially at the beginning.  But overall, the authors have sneakily made it look like a story of regular teenaged life while also addressing really heavy, really important issues of social justice, including the patriarchy and its reliance on toxic masculinity. 

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

What can I tell you about Brene Brown that you don’t already know?  She is my hero of qualitative research.  For years she has collected data on very difficult to measure things: human relationships; emotions; self-confidence; shame, and fear, to name a few.  Forgive me for simplifying her extensive body of work, but what she wants human beings to do is face their most challenging personal fears and inhibitions and learn how to embrace and learn from the resulting discomfort.  It’s incredibly readable, and Brown shares many compelling anecdotes in support of her key ideas. 

The Gifts of Imperfection (first published in 2010) is a classic guide to becoming a humbler, kinder, saner human being by embracing your whole self, including all those imperfections you’d like to ignore. I recommend it.

Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes

Haruki Murakami’s writing often drives me crazy, but I just can’t quit it.  I don’t know what to tell you.  His narrators are routinely listless dudes with no ambition, trying to get with women who have no names but very lovely and carefully described earlobes.  Often they go on a journey without meaning to, ending up in some kind of bizarre parallel universe that exists just on the other side of a portal only they see and have access to.  They drink beer, listen to jazz records and make spaghetti.  They try to figure out why their wives left them.  Except for the beer and jazz and spaghetti, none of that is up my alley.

And yet, there is something madly compelling about his stories.  This collection begins with the story that became The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which itself begins with the tale of a cat gone missing, and ends with a story about an elephant and his zookeeper vanishing without a trace, the narrator having been the last person to see them. As a collection, it is uneven.  Highlights include “Barn Burning” which was adapted into an equally good film, “The Second Bakery Attack” and “On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”. There’s a weird one called “Slow Boat to China” where the narrator recounts his many interactions with Chinese people. Why? I can’t tell you and I wouldn’t say the story does a good job of doing so either. “TV People” is about tiny creatures who essentially invade the narrator’s life by living in and occasionally stepping out of his actual television.  

Despite my itemized list of complaints (above) I will say that diving into one of Murakami’s books rarely disappoints in a big picture sense.  In the midst of their seemingly permanent confusion, his characters are able to articulate clearly the challenge of living in a situation that suddenly and without warning becomes foreign and unprecedented.  And just like the rest of us, they find their way, but you know, it doesn’t always go smoothly.  

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