Monthly Archives: March 2013

Style No. 82: Definitional

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A male human in the early years of life expelled air into his small high-pitched wind instrument producing a single note while profoundly occupied by an act of cogitation. Another person with whom he was on extremely convivial terms and with whom he had a close relationship (whose upper limb endowed with a hand at its end was placed in such a fashion as to encircle him) looked at the assembly of people located far away. Literally, the mother of a mother or, figuratively, an old woman, who was experiencing anxiety, moved close by and then beyond with a discreet physical thing whose nature was withheld from others obscured under a light piece of cloth used to warm the shoulders or head or as a fashion accessory, which was located atop the part of the body above the neck. At the same time, posterior to them a male human exhibiting a grave attitude oriented his eyes in the opposite direction with an air of perspicacity.

A fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus pushing up through the forest floor near Tofino.

A fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus pushing up through the forest floor near Tofino.

 

 

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Style No. 81: Mathematical

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1. One orange boy (A) passes air through a whistle (B) at a velocity of 2 metres per second (C). Factoring in the curvature of his friend’s arm (D) and the angle at which his eyes glance at the distant crowd (E), determine the hue of their shirts (Hint: somewhere between red and yellow). Show all work.

2. When grandmother (M) moves along the Y axis at a constant speed (S) with a polynomial (P) hidden beneath her headshawl (H), at what point will her nervousness (N) approach its limit, given the gravity (G) of the peculiar man whose knowingly look (K) transects her path from behind? Half-marks will be awarded for proper graphs.

If the man's bag (B) weighs 5 kilos and he's already hungry, which is why he's on his way to Nizamuddin (N) for lunch, calculate how many grams of beef korma (K) he will need to ingest in order to be pleasantly sated.

If the man’s bag (B) weighs 5 kilos and he’s already hungry, which is why he’s on his way to Nizamuddin (N) for lunch, calculate how many grams of beef korma (K) he will need to ingest in order to be pleasantly sated.

Review: Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

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Saleema Nawaz. 'Bone and Bread'. House of Anansi Press, 2013. $22.95. 448 pp.

Saleema Nawaz. ‘Bone and Bread.’ House of Anansi Press, 2013. $22.95. 448 pp.

Bone and Bread is a novel about the bonds between family members, the tragic consequences to which these can lead, and the struggle of one woman to free herself from their burdens without abandoning those she loves. Following the life of Beena Singh and her sister Sadhana as they grapple with growing up amid successive tragedies, Nawaz’s debut novel asks what it means to come of age in Canada, to be different, and to be a woman in all its meanings: a daughter, a friend, a sister, a lover, a mother, and a working professional. It’s a thoughtful work that heralds the blossoming of a new literary talent.

The novel opens with Sadhana’s sudden death at 32 from complications related to anorexia. Then we are brought back to the girls’ early years to watch as the traumas leading to a life of disease (and, for Beena, of caregiving) pile up. First, their Indian father drops dead in his bagel shop when they are just a few years old. The sisters are then lovingly raised into their teens by their freethinking, hippie, American-Irish-Canadian mother. But when she chokes on a bone in a chicken dinner the girls have prepared, Beena and Sadhana are cast into a life of emotional free fall that each handles in her own way — with serious consequences for both.

Beena looks for love from the bagel boys working in the shop now run by their surly uncle, only to find herself pregnant and abandoned. Sadhana, meanwhile, stops eating. These two events will relegate Beena to a life of looking after others, and the novel’s main focus is on her efforts to cope with a sick sister and a young son (Quinn).

Indeed, the narrative is recounted entirely from Beena’s perspective, and so when the sisters grow and inevitably develop independent lives, the novel transforms from a tale of two young girls joined at the hip to one centred on Beena’s efforts to guard herself against the emotional pain her sister often inflicts (both verbally and through her brushes with starvation) while at the same time trying to maintain the bond they developed as children. With a son in tow and no outside support, this is a herculean task that Beena approaches with an honest mix of courage and timidity. She is a well-drawn, sympathetic character who seems like she has walked onto the page from real life. This, however, occasionally works against Nawaz when her protagonist shies time and again from life’s thorny problems — like her son’s wish to meet his father — and in so doing saps some of the plot’s energetic potential.

Nonetheless, with Beena at the helm of the narrative, we are offered a sensitive window on the extraordinary challenges of growing up orphaned, being a teen mother, and supporting a sibling who frequently flirts with death. Beena also faces the universal trials of being a not-too-pretty, not-too-sporty, not-too-brilliant teenager trying to find a place for herself in an often cruel and blithe world. Nawaz’s exploration of Beena’s journey to adulthood is a treat that’s bound to resonate with a wide audience. This intimate, first-person account of her experiences means, however, that readers have no access to the inner lives of the other characters. This sometimes leaves Sadhana and Quinn’s emotional lives frustratingly off limits.

Set largely in an apartment above a Montreal bagel shop — the novel is domestically focused, and most scenes take place in the girls’ home — the world of the Singh girls is beautifully rendered and instantly familiar to those who’ve walked the streets of Quebec’s great city. Although the narrative is firmly anchored in Beena’s inner life, Nawaz succeeds in capturing something of  the Montreal soul, which is a pleasure to read. The same goes for Ottawa, although the story only moves there belatedly when Beena distances herself from Sadhana’s illness and buys a bungalow west of Centretown.

Nawaz is a talented prose stylist with a fluid voice. Barring the rare awkward adjective or simile, her sentences are precise, vivid, and warm. And like the writing itself, the story has the charm to keep readers turning pages. Even if it meanders occasionally, Bone and Bread always returns to the core question of how Beena struggles to find love and define responsibility in very challenging circumstances. It’s a question well worth reading about.

(Read Saleema’s response to my review here.)

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Thanks to House of Anansi Press for a review copy of this title.

Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

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Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi - Review

Hamish Hamilton, 2013. $30. 318 pp.

The title of Taiye Selasi‘s virtuosic debut novel, Ghana Must Go, reveals several layers of meaning. It connotes a cheap plastic travel bag used by Africans and others on the move, and so suggests dynamism and possibility. Yet it also stands for something tragic — the forced deportation of over a million Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983. And so this alliterative phrase speaks to the book’s core theme: the flourishing and fragmentation of a family on the move.

Ghana Must Go is the tale of Kweku Sai, a surgeon of poor Ghanain extraction working in the US, and his family. His wife, Folasadé Savage, is a Nigerian refugee who forwent a promising law career to support her husband and their four children. Their triumphant story of immigrant achievement — buying a good suburban home, sending the children to fine schools — is shattered when Kweku, afflicted with shame, abruptly leaves his family. Having been wrongfully dismissed from his hospital post because a wealthy patron died on his operating table in a risky procedure, he embarks on a secret court battle against his employer only to squander the family’s savings and ultimately be found out by his son. Unable to face this defeat, he simply drives away and doesn’t come back.

Like a bomb, this unexpected loss breaks the family apart, and the children are variously sent off by their mother to college and the homes of relatives, leaving only the youngest in her devastated hands. In this way each member is set on a lonely, difficult path that comes to yoke them all with emotional burdens and a deficit in family ties.

But when Kweku, now living in Accra, drops dead in middle age, Folasadé and the four children must go to Ghana and bury him. This leads each on a poignant emotional journey through memories of a shattered family, and ultimately forces them to address the fraught relations they have developed with each other over the years.

This work is compelling from all angles. Ghana Must Go was much-anticipated, and it doesn’t disappoint. Selasi introduces readers to a little-known world — that of elite African migrants who move seamlessly between Lagos and London, Boston and Delhi, and so forge identities that transcend easy categorization — but the inner lives of its inhabitants are instantly recognizable. The novel has the emotional force of a freight train, and is liable to have readers teary eyed before reaching the final page, even those not of rheumy stock. And not only is it highly readable — turning the page is never an effort — it’s also penned in edgy, breathtaking prose that will have even seasoned novelists green with envy.

While readers may stumble on the rare opaque sentence, this doesn’t detracts from a voice that will put Selasi on the map as a dazzling stylist. Indeed, lover of fragments and parentheses, Selasi uses these devices to great effect. In a book that is a portrait of a fragmented family and the tempestuous inner world of its members, these forms resonate so well with the subject matter that the pages vibrate in your hand. One can’t help feelings as though involved in a brilliant and merciful experiment, as if Don DeLillo were a highly sensitive Afropolitan woman (her term). The result is a novel that will gratify lovers of literary fiction’s leading edge to seekers of emotional insight — Ghana Must Go has wide appeal.

The action in this story of betrayal and forgiveness — father abandons family, family scatters and struggles, father dies, family is reunited — is compelling in its own right. But where Ghana Must Go really shines is in its treatment of perception and feeling. This is first and foremost a psychological novel, and one that provides an extraordinary window on the human heart. And so, while it will be of particular interest to those interested in Africa, the narrative is universal. It’s about the complex web of relationships between family members — siblings with siblings, children with parents, and vice versa. And even though the Sais lead unusual lives in foreign cities like Accra and Lagos, one can’t help feeling their predicament is the same faced by all. Immigrant or not, every reader will find something to identify with in this deft exploration of all the thing left unsaid between brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

Indeed, Things Left Unsaid would be an equally suitable title for this book, as page after page it hones in on the difficult silences that haunt us through the years and complicate our relationships with loved ones. This is where Selasi shines. She has a knack for not saying things, for avoiding the obvious path and so demonstrating precisely how people are — often afraid to say what matters, to risk vulnerability. Here she walks the fine line between analytical observance and emotional indulgence, managing revelation without schmaltz, and dissection without detachment. It’s a fine balance, and she strikes it well. And in the end, when the tension is just right, her characters step up to the plate and put their hearts on the line in ways that will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the last page.

Ghana Must Go is one of the rare debuts that has it all — edge, heart, pace, and style. Whether you’re interested in gorgeous writing, impassioned storytelling, or Africa and the diaspora, Selasi is a revelation on all counts. Certain to be one of 2013’s stand-out titles, Ghana Must Go is a must read.

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Thank to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this title.

Style No. 80: Latinisms

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The juvenile progeny of a mysterious plebeian exhales into his instrument while engaging in profound reflection. His excellent companion, his extremity enclosing his comrade, observes the congregation in the distance. A nervous materfamilias passes by, a secret object concealed inferior to her cranial costume. Concurrently, posterior to them a serious individual scrutinizes the opposite direction with cognizance.

Imago stupendum.

Imago stupendum.

 

Style No. 79: Ode

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O donkey in thine glory! As you scour the dust for hearty snacks, a frisson of happiness quivers through my very soul.

O donkey in thine glory! As you scour the dust for hearty snacks, a frisson of happiness quivers through my very soul.

O orange miracle!

In your majesty,

You’ve placed a near spherical

Whistle in the hands of he

Who is a young boy.

And he bloweth sounds

of fine joy,

and profound

thoughts charm

his unbound

mind as an arm

wrapped around

him connects to a look

at the distant crowd.

O friendship in thine splendour!

O nervous ladies with their secrets!

Let us watch them glide

past and not forget

The delicate way their shawls hide

Concealed objects.

And to strange men behind,

Let us genuflect

And revere their knowing minds

And how our hearts shook

With life to see that opposite look.

 

Style No. 78: Permutations

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Young a dressed boy orange in his blow deep, whistle thought in. Arm his friend, best the eyes wrapped him, around the in crowd distance. Object a nervous secret passes, by a head on her grandmother a meanwhile shawl man beneath. Knowingly the hidden serious other looks way behind them.

Goats a clicked in this 2012 village Malian.

Goats a clicked in this 2012 village Malian.