Martin John by Anakana Schofield

“It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions.
That was the time it was.”

This book will take you to another place: one you don’t often go to or may never have been. Prepare yourself: check out the Index on the first page.

Index

1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the Chair.

Think about the index. What mistakes has Martin John made? What kind of a card does he carry? Is the rain significant? In what way? To Whom was harm done? What is “it”? What happened in the Chair and how did “it” put someone in the Chair?

Wait a few minutes or longer then read the next page and think about the illustration and the words. “What they don’t know: Flashing is a very angry act.”

Then read the flip side of the page:Martin John

“Rain will fall.
Check my card.
I never tasted bread like the bread in Beirut.
I don’t read the fucken Daily Telegraph.”

You can keep going slowly if you aren’t sure that you want to continue. At this point I was completely hooked: I wanted the details. I wanted the answers to all my questions.

The next section with the same illustration and the text “What they know” with a flip side and this text: “Martin John has not been to Beirut. He has only been to London and to visit his Aunty Noanie.” Then, on the next page: “The dentist’s waiting room shaped Martin John’s life. A simple room, nothing to suggest it contained the almighty power it did.”

Why has the author chosen to arrange the text this way? She introduces us to Martin John in bits and pieces you might say. Is his mind full of bits and pieces? Is he perhaps as confused as we are? Is he able to connect the bits and pieces or are they a mystery to him as they are to us so far?

The illustration is a simple diagram representing different railway stations and is directly related to the circuits Martin John refers to …he makes circuits…and he has a particular station that he favours…Euston Station.

There is another voice you will read mostly from Martin John’s perspective:
“Once, early on, in London, Martin John was vague about the time he went to sleep. Mam told him straight: Get a job at night.
Get a job at night or else I’ll come for ya.”

“He has the bike.
She doesn’t want him on public transport.
Don’t go near the buses, they might see you on the buses and don’t go down on the Tube for you could go into a tunnel and never come out.
D’ya hear me Martin John
?”

Thirty or so pages into the book, there is additional information about Martin John’s Mam:
“…she recognizes that there are many mothers out there trying puzzling things out. She will have to be a mother who puzzles. Except she is not the type who puzzles. She prefers to head, bang, to a conclusion. In this case: I was not that mother. I am not that mother. I didn’t raise my son to rob a post office. So what did she raise him to?”,

and a further explanation of the Index:  “The Index tells us there will be five refrains (listed in opening above)…there are also subsidiary refrains…We will do as the Index tells us this time…When will she tell us exactly what they mean? She may not, since the mother may not ever know why he did what he did, or why it was her son and not the woman up the road’s son. There are simply going to be things we won’t know. It’s how it is. As it is in life must it be unto the page. There’s the known and the unknown. In the middle is where we wander and wonder.”

Besides Mam’s directions, “the newspapers will always matter to Martin John.
He won’t be a day without it and it won’t be a day without him.
It mattered before “the difficult time” and it matters today. The stability of it, the regularity, the newspaper women sustain him.

It’s why he calls into Euston on his way to work. Or, first thing every morning, if he’s not working, he’ll cross to the newsagents on Tower Bridge Road…there are photos and headlines and certain words that worry Martin John and he will not buy what worries him…he never buys a newspaper if he notices a headline has petrol in it. Or pervert. He’s not keen on P words.” The first thing he checks is whether any of his letters got through and then he checks the crossword clues…if they’re terrible – determined by reading 3 across and only 2 of the down…then he chooses a different paper. The newspaper determines many things in Martin John’s daily life.”

Every Wednesday at 2:30 pm he catches the train to Hatfield to visit Aunty Noanie : …”he checks the weather before he departs very, very carefully and examines the sky, to help him predict whether rain may fall or if he might need to cancel the visit.”

A difficult book that reads very quickly.  It will not always be easy to understand but then, there is so much we don’t understand. Every word is worth the effort. Highly recommended to those who want to better understand their world.

My favourite quote from the book:

“Martin John would find that suspicious. A man having an erection on the verb to be, and at a question too. He would find that suspicious. He wouldn’t appreciate it in a crossword clue. So you should know that. You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on with this. If not – well, hang up now, as the operator would say.
That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.”

Also by this author: Malarky (published in 2012)

Note: Martin John has been shortlisted for the Giller award to be announced in November. Read what the author had to say recently about the writing of Martin John.

 

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“I was used to people looking at her. It had happened often in Pátzcuaro. Maribel had the kind of beauty that reduced people to simpletons. Once upon a time grown men would break into smiles as she walked past. The boys in her school would come to the house, shoving each other awkwardly when I opened the door, asking if she was home. Of course, that was before the accident. She looked the same now as she always had, but people knew – almost everyone in our town knew – that she had changed. They seemed to believe she was no longer worthy of their attention or maybe that it was wrong to look at her now, that there was something perverse about it, and they averted their gaze.
But this boy looked. He looked because he didn’t know. And the way he looked made me uncomfortable.”

Arturo exits the store. Maribel’s mother signals the presence of the boy to Arturo who tells her to just walk as he clasps Maribel’s hand and steps out.

The setting is Delaware. The boy’s name is Mayor. Maribel’s family has just Book of Unknown Americansarrived from Mexico.The boy’s parents have learned from another tenant in the same building that their last name is Rivera and they are legal (all of them have visas). The landlord’s name is Fito. The Riveras are being sponsored by the mushroom farm where Arturo Rivera will be employed.

Mayor (Toro) gets bullied all the time at school. He s in his second year. His brother Enrique was very popular and had been awarded a full-ride soccer scholarship to Maryland. Two weeks into practice the coach told Mayor to “just sit it out for awhile”. He “felt like a loser”.

Mayor’s dad was born in Los Santos in Panamá. His father had a bad temper and he modelled himself upon his dad. His wife Celia helped him change and then Panamá was invaded and life changed and they decided to leave.  When asked where his home is now he proudly says los Estados Unidos. He and Celia miss Panamá but only the Panamá of the past. “Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.”

The job at the mushroom farm was the only one with the a company that was near Maribel’s school that had been willing to sponsor their visas. Arturo had to stand in a warehouse for ten hours and pick mushrooms out of the dirt in the dark without water or food. There were quotas to be met. He had to take three buses to get to the job which was over the state line in Pennsylvania. In Mexico Arturo had owned a construction business.

They had to wait to hear from the school so that Maribel could start. The school they had understood that she would attend was the Evers School but Alma learns that Maribel does not have an Individualized Education Plan so she must first go to another school where it will be determined whether she is eligible for special education services.  This will take as long as two months. The doctor in Mexico had provided a letter and they had understood that entrance to Evers was a sure thing.

And so begins a new set of challenges for each member  of the family. “We had to push past trepidation and believe that by sending her off we were doing the right thing. What other choice did we have?”

Alma tried to learn English by studying people’s mouths as they spoke English. They had picked up an old television put out to the road for junk. She found the people spoke too fast and she couldn’t tell if she was “mouthing individual words or bunches of them strung together like grapes.” When she went out for food she thought she was being followed by a boy and she feared for her daughter but the landlord was able to reassure her that the boy need not be a source of worry.

The boy was Mayor and eventually he is introduced to Alma and Maribel by his mother Celia when they are shopping at the Dollar Tree. After the introductions, Mayor thinks:

“Maribel, I said to myself.  Forget about how she was dressed – white canvas sneakers straight out of another decade and a huge yellow sweater over leggings – and forget about the fact that her black hair was mussed up like she’d just woken up and the fact that she wasn’t wearing anything else that most of the girls in my school liked to pile on. Forget about all of that.  She was fucking gorgeous.
My heart was jackhammering so hard I thought people from the next aisle were going to start complaining about the noise.”

When Mayor learns that Maribel was supposed to go to the Evers School both he and his mom are surprised.

“I looked at the girl again. Evers? That was the school for retards. We all called it the Turtle School.” That’s when Mayor realized “There was something wrong with her. I never would have guessed it. I mean, to look at her…it didn’t seem possible.”

Interspersed between the ongoing story of the Riveras and the Toros are stories of other immigrants to Delaware such as Benny Quinto from Nicaragua and Gustavo Milhojas from Guatemala and Quisqueya Solis from Venezuela who lives in the same building as Alma and Arturo. And there is also the story of the landlord, Adolfo “Fito” Angelina who wanted to be a boxer but ended up as a building manager and who explains how that came about.

A love story between a boy and a girl and a love story between new citizens and their new home. You will enjoy meeting these people and you will be drawn into their stories and have a new respect for the challenges they have all faced in their lives.

 

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

“One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy.”
__ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS, “For Today I Am A Boy”For Today I Am A Boy

The above is the epigraph for this book. Here are some words from the first chapter (entitled “Boy”):

“…in the first grade, we did all of our assignments in a slim composition book to be collected at the end of the year. I couldn’t imagine consequences that far away. Maybe I’d be dead by then, or living on the moon.

One of our assignments was What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. Our teacher had written several suggestions on the board : doctor, astronaut, policeman, scientist, businessman, and Mommy. Mommy was the only one with a capital letter.

Working in studious silence, I drew myself as a Mommy.

…Two days later, I found my notebook lying open on my bed. That page was ripped out. I asked Bonnie, my younger sister…The evidence didn’t point to Bonnie: she could hardly have ripped so neatly, right from the staples, making it seem as though the page had never been there to begin with. There was no one else in the family I was willing to confront.”

“The year I became friends with Roger, we were asked again. I said fireman. A picture was optional. I worked furiously on mine. The fireman had an ax in one hand and a woman in the other, and his muscles were as bulbous as snow peas. Flames danced all around. I could imagine only being the woman…I left my notebook open on the coffee table when I went to bed.”

When his father came in to to say goodnight…”He patted me on the foot through the blanket. The door clicked shut. I stayed awake for  a long time afterward, wiggling my warm toes.”

The boy’s name is Peter. The setting is Fort Michel, a town of 30,000 people in the province of Ontario. Peter has three sisters, – Adele and Helen who are older and Bonnie who is younger. His father waited eight years for a son and wanted to have a dozen boys but Bonnie was the last child. He had wanted to name Peter  Juan Chaun which meant “Powerful King” in Cantonese but Peter’s mother objected saying there were “too many harsh sounds, too severe for a newborn”.

In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, author Kim Fu said that Peter’s father’s journey as an immigrant could be compared to Peter’s journey as a transgendered person. Peter’s journey is, of course, the more complicated one because he must contend with his father’s challenges as they effect him and with his own challenges erected by a world not yet entirely ready to accept who Peter is or will eventually choose to be.

The parents are nicely severed from the story by giving them only “Father” and “Mother” designations and, in some ways, this enables readers to see more clearly how they influence Peter’s search for self. His sisters play more significant roles and their individual issues as well as their relationships and/or interactions with Peter remind us that Peter’s confusion does not exist in isolation. Each of his three sisters experiences difficult coming-of-age journeys. It might have been helpful to Peter to be able to see more of his sisters’ confusion but that would have been a different story so it must suffice that we see them as supportive examples for Peter.

In a discussion with Adele and Helen for instance Adele tells Peter that she doesn’t think Father likes him spending so much time with his sisters because he wants Peter to be like him. Peter, in turn, is able to state that he wants to be like Adele, to have hair like her and be pretty like her etc. When Helen reminds him that he is a boy, he rebels and Adele counters by saying that sometimes she wishes she were a boy. Such exchanges helped to bring forward issues for both Peter and the reader and kept the mood lighter than it might have been.

Each sister played important roles for Peter and one another. Adele took Peter and Bonnie to see black-and-white films and let them wear her clothes. Peter thought that when she left “all beauty would pass from the world”. Helen and Peter had a common bond: neither had any friends. Helen helped Peter throw Adele’s things in the river so that she would not go away. Peter and Bonnie were only fourteen months apart and were more like twins than brother and sister.

This is a remarkable and informative book about issues best understood by a receptive reader who truly wants to understand and/or needs to share similar experiences. I think it could be immensely helpful to young people experiencing confusion regarding gender identity or trying to understand such confusion in a friend as well as parents, teachers, counsellors etc. Aside from all that it is just a well told  story reflecting a major issue in our society.

Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz

BoneAndBread_interim.indd“Walking home from the soccer field, I dragged my feet and looked at my family. Though my skin was lighter than Sadhana’s and grew even paler in the winter, Mama said I was my father’s daughter, since I had Papa’s full lips and cheeks, his large brown eyes, his propensity for sweets, and a love of bread.

My sister was darker, smaller, bird-boned, her face angular where mine was round. We both showed signs of inheriting Mama’s strong nose, but when it came to comparing ourselves to the girls at school, Sadhana never wavered in her conviction that we were as pretty as anyone else.  Of the two of us, Sadhana was the best at managing to take the world in and judging it.”

And there you have the title, “bone” representing Sadhana and “bread” representing Beena.

From the first sentence (“If you listen, you can almost hear the sound of my son’s heart breaking.”), this was a novel I didn’t find easy to put down for any reason. I think I might have been willing to skip meals were I living on my own. It had the characteristics of big, family sagas but was, simultaneously, intimate and cozy, peopled by folks you could have tea with and could talk to about anything and everything.

Yet, nothing is hidden and loss and intense grief are present on the first page when we learn that Sadhana has died and at the end of the first chapter Papa whom we have barely met has gone down to the bagel shop and died. Life and all its happenings just seem to roll on and on as the pages turn and there is no time to stop because you will miss something for sure!

The story is set in Montreal mainly but at a certain point Beena and Quinn do move to Ottawa which is a very big step for Beena and the first real break between herself and Sadhana. Quinn maintains the family link by deciding to go to school in Montreal. Papa, by the way, is Indian and Mama was born in Galway.

There is a richness and a fullness and perhaps that is what makes the loss and grief almost bearable. This richness is in things like Mama’s description of Papa’s laugh: “a sneeze full of tulips mixed with a river of swans”. Imagine that! And this description of her uncle: “Uncle was as strange to us as a new kind of tree, a fir in a grove of maples, and he might have felt the same way about us, since he had always been a bachelor.”

There are some very serious issues imbedded in the book in addition to the loss of family members and mother-daughter relationships but everything fits smoothly into the overall narrative. One of those issues centers upon refugees: a refugee family claims sanctuary in a church basement. The mother is Somali and the father is Algerian. Their son is one year old and was born in Canada. The father lost his appeal to stay in Canada and the authorities are trying to make an example of him because he is an activist and was trying to help other Algerians. Sadhana knew the family and as readers we get to go inside the situation with her.

And there is the prickly matter of who Quinn’s father is. Quinn is Beena’s son and his father abandoned her when she was pregnant and Beena has raised him with Sadhana’s and her uncle’s help. (Her uncle took over the bagel shop when Papa died.) Quinn becomes curious about his father when he gets older and he turns to his aunt Sadhana for help in this matter. As readers we know about Quinn’s birth and his father so we are totally involved by the time he becomes interested in finding out more. And Nawaz tucks the story of Quinn’s father neatly into the refugee situation to keep our interest at a high level.

Another of the serious issues is anorexia and the long term role it has in the lives of those who experience it as well as those close to the person afflicted.

A book about real life and how hard it is and how full of fun it is too. And how does it all add up in the end? …….”That I am here in a kitchen with my son, and we are eating together and we are alive. And the work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life.”

 

My Journey by Olivia Chow Plus Political Footnotes

 

My JourneyMy Journey: A Memoir, was, for me, the most inspiring non-fiction work that I have read in many months. It is not that I demand inspiration from my reading but, when it comes as part of the package, it is a rare gift. This book provided that many times over. It is way beyond “political”: it addresses grief, philosophy, relational wisdom, immigration issues, community, effective government, poverty etc. etc. etc.

For Canadians, as stated in the Prologue, it poses the question: “how can we come together to form a government that reflects our values? How can we persuade government to invest in children and public transit and to help generate good jobs so that no one is left behind?”

Because the book is a memoir, it includes Olivia Chow’s meeting, marriage and political partnership with Jack Layton and it includes his death and the devastating effect it had upon this woman whose life was so entwined with that of her soul mate. It is a thoughtful and reflective memoir in this regard and provides much hope and help for anyone open to hearing its message.

The Prologue closes with the following: “My first language is Cantonese, and in Chinese languages there is no past or future tense, just a sort of infinite tense. Jack (Layton) is now part of that infinite tense. But I live in the present tense, and the stories in this book are my stories. Stories from the journey that has brought me here today. My journey, so far.”

In the first chapter one learns about Olivia’s childhood: her first home was in” Hong Kong, on Blue Pool Road in the community of Happy Valley” which name she likens to something magical out of a children’s book. Her father was a highly respected school superintendent and her mother was an elementary school teacher. They lived comfortably and had a live-in housekeeper. Olivia’s mother’s history is particularly interesting and would fill a book itself. Families are always much more complicated than they appear on the surface.Olivia says she was “naughty, spoiled, rebellious and lazy…a terrible student. I actually managed to fail Grade 3.” It was then that she was sent to Convent School in the community she then lived in but her troubles continued there and she became “the hellion of the school.” Upheavals and bombings in Hong Kong in 1967 resulted in an exodus from Hong Kong and the Chow family came to Canada at that time.

They arrived in 1970 when Olivia was 13. They chose to come to Canada and Toronto because of the large numbers of Chinese located there. They lived first in the Annex on the third floor of a converted Victorian home. Not too long after the family moved to St. James Town south of Rosedale where nineteen high-rise apartment buildings had been constructed on 32 acres. Both of Olivia’s parents “suffered a perilous decline in both income and status.” Her mother became a seamstress and then a maid and a laundry worker in a hotel near city hall. Her mother’s experience taught Olivia the importance of a good pension in later years. Her father never did find fulfilling work, doing stints of delivery and taxi driving and manual labour.

Olivia is forthright about the details of her schooling and her family life which was sometimes painful. She explains her acceptance of her experiences this way: “It took me that long (until she was in her late thirties early forties) to forgive him (her father). It took me that long to discover what state of grace is – it’s achieving the peace and freedom of living in the moment, and not allowing past wrongs to colour the present.”

When she was sixteen, she went north as a junior forest ranger. She journeyed eleven hours by bus to Wawa at the end of Lake Superior and then inland to a wilderness camp. She says this experience was a turning point in her life and it saddened her that the forest ranger program started in 1944 was closed down in 2013. She attended other camps in later summers and these experiences provided an enduring connection “with the divine” and gave her “a sense of Canada – of being a Canadian.” There is more about her high school experiences and much about her reading background which I particularly enjoyed and more about her university experiences as well. Then her sculpting Honours BA from the University of Guelph.

This is an inspirational memoir which reads more like a shared conversation with a friend one hasn’t seen in a long time and who is filling you in on what has happened to her and for her. And I haven’t even touched on her political life. If you have an interest in survivors who have accomplished impressive things and done it very quietly and co-operatively, you will find this well worth your time.

I have been watching some of the current “debates” between the mayoral candidates in the city of Toronto this fall(2014). You may know that Olivia Chow is one of those candidates. Her resume is most impressive! Having read it and listened to what several of the other candidates have had to say, I would have no trouble deciding which candidate would be best for that city and for Torontonians. I do hope some of them have looked into this excellent resource.

If you live in the Toronto area and/or have access to the Toronto Star newspaper, you might want to check the Wednesday, October 8th edition for the article on page A17 by author andTransforming Power feminist activist, Judy Rebick. The article is titled “John Tory not an option for feminist voters”. I would wish it might have been put on the front page. The article closes as follows: “Olivia Chow has a platform and a track record on fighting inequality. She keeps her word and knows how to work with people and to make decisions.

Why would we settle for less? Don’t vote cynically (reference to voting for Tory because he is not Doug Ford), vote passionately.” Judy Rebick is the author of Imagining Democracy and Transforming Power and other titles.

Shopping for VotesAnother book which I have just become aware of is Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt who points out that after “twenty years  covering federal politics in Canada” she had “run out of ways to tell readers how political life resembled the world outside the Ottawa “bubble”.” She had begun to “recognize the creep of shopping language into the political marketplace” and wanted to “see what price we were paying for mixing consumerism with democracy.”

Do you understand what is motivating you as a voter? Are you able to separate the consumer life style from your responsibilities as a citizen? Are you a Tim Hortons voter? Delacourt lists some “sobering statistics” that support the claim that “over the past fifty years or so, Canadians have checked out of the political process.”

 

And last, but not least, speaking of Canadian women who are speaking out and who deserve your time and attention as readers and as citizens, I have just begun to delve into Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. This book will inform you about what you need to know to be a responsible citizen at a very challenging time in our history and in the history of the world/planet. Highly recommended but not for sissies!This Changes Everything