Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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After graduating from Harvard with an education degree, Michelle Kuo decided she wanted to make a difference in the world, … to do … straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people. As a result, she joined an organisation called Teach for America, and was sent to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of America, where there was a dire shortage of teachers.

Helena
The town of Helena

In this moving memoir, Kuo reflects the time she spent in a town called Helena, where she taught English to African-American teenagers, a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids. But, as Kuo puts it in the introduction of the book: Books had changed me … And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unashamedly romantic. I was twenty-two.

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Michelle Kuo

Her initial idealism was rudely smashed when she started teaching at the incongruously named ‘Stars’ school where the students swore at her (fuck you, Chinese bitch), got into fights, and arrived at school with bruises and welts on their bodies. Kuo was shocked by all of it, but she was more shocked by how she reacted: I yelled. I got mean, and she wondered what she was doing wrong. In a last ditch attempt to engage her students, she chose to teach them a play called A Raisin in the Sun. The reading level was not too difficult and the story centered on on a black family – and there it was, the students responded.

It was after this breakthrough that Kuo’s creative teaching skills shone through and, as a reader and sometime teacher, I found it a joy to read how the students responded to her and how they slowly opened up, writing about their dreams that extended beyond the Delta, and beyond the reputations that clung to them. She introduced the concept of free writing to them, writing that would not be graded or judged in any way, and in fact, would not have to be shown to anyone if they didn’t want. The students questioned her, disbelieving, but then:

… every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy dark sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of the pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.

One of Kuo’s students was a fifteen-year-old boy called Patrick Browning; a quiet boy who Kuo, by her second year of teaching, could see was a child who would respond to even a little adult interest: he wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Discovering that the main reason he was sent to Stars was for failing to attend school, she went to find him at his home in the area of town called a ‘ghetto in a ghetto’. Patrick promised he would come to school more, and responded with passion to her teaching, reading more and writing voraciously and surprising even himself by winning the Most Improved Student award.

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Patrick and Michelle

However, when Kuo got accepted into Harvard Law School, she left the Delta and immersed herself into university and work life. Three years later, however, she received a phone call to tell her that Patrick was in prison for having killed a man. She felt she had failed him, and a voice inside her said, If you hadn’t left, Patrick might not have ended up in prison. You owe him something, and, despite the fact she was to start a new job in three weeks time, Kuo chose to return to Helena to carry on teaching Patrick poetry, literature and history in prison.

This book isn’t a love story, nor is it a Hollywood-ised account of a teacher changing a person’s life, but it is an incredible reflection of how a person can flourish under another’s attention and how educational guidance can waken a person’s mind. The first bit of writing that Patrick gives Kuo when she meets up with him again is infantile and badly spelled: It was a shock. The writing looked crazed…I did not recognize his handwriting at all. Yet she perseveres, giving him homework and reading study to do after every visit, and loaning him books ranging from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ to haiku poetry to ‘The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass’. She never is condescending; she challenges him; she gives him Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman and gets him to imitate poems in his own words. The beauty of some of what Patrick wrote is striking.

Towards the end of the book, Kuo writes:

He had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterwards was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books, and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.

Her comment made me reflect how this is applicable to so many children around the world, particularly in South Africa where the education system is abysmal. There must be so many Patricks who, with regular access to books, some teachers’ attention and regular instruction, would flourish.

This review merely reflects the story of Michelle Kuo and her interactions with Patrick, but there is more depth to the memoir than this, in that Kuo writes, too, about the failure of the educational and justice systems in America, and about the legacy of slavery as well.

To end, a poem of Patrick’s, written in April 2010 while he was in prison (as of now, he is no longer in jail):

I taught myself to feel free and alive/to wake up thankful to be here/and to know everything is a blessing/from my food, my family and visits./When the old man moans in his room/and the white guys tell sad stories,/I insist I’m fine./I have  perfect health and happiness./I instantly realise the peaceful insects/flying across the room noiseless/and the bright light bulb/that shine like the sun for me every day/inside the county jail downtown/Only to a newcomer is it all startling./If you ask me I’m not here/Just in my own world.

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The Nix by Nathan Hill

This book was an assault on the senses, a whirlwind tour of modern-day America, warts and all – social media, social narcissism, radical politics, political correctness, gaming addiction, friendship, loneliness, childhood grief, mother-issues, absent fathers, all thrown together in one huge debut novel. It was a roller-coaster of a read, switching rapidly between characters and time periods, at once serious and then very funny, and it is very, very worth reading.

the nix cover

Samuel Andreson-Anderson is a literature professor in his mid-30s, stressed by his life and work, obsessed with online gaming (in particular, a game called ‘World of Elfquest’) and unaware of the viral sensation of the moment: a middle-aged woman pelting a presidential-candidate politician (Governor Packer) with stones. When he receives a call from her lawyer, he finds out that the “Packer-Attacker’ is none other than his mother. The lawyer is phoning to ask Samuel to write a letter attesting to her good character – a problem for Samuel in that his mother walked out when he was 11 and he hasn’t seen her since.

Samuel had been a one-book wonder in his early 20s, had been given a handsome advance by his publishers and had never produced another word. In lieu of having to pay back the advance, Samuel suggests he write an expose on his mother instead, and this is how Samuel reunites with his mother and learns the story of her life, particularly her student protest days. In learning about her, we also learn about Samuel growing up, his friendships and first love, so well captured by Hill.

Yet … this small synopsis reveals very little about the depth and breadth of this book. A chaos of other characters exists within it, all vying for attention, some capturing it more than others. I liked Pwnage, the online gamer who games himself nearly to death, playing a plethora of different avatars in World of Elfquest; I loathed but had to laugh at Laura, Samuel’s student who was caught plagiarising a paper and mounts a defence full of buzzwords – Samuel’s accusation, for example, triggered negative feelings of stress and vulnerability in her, and she hints at sexual abuse. As is symptomatic of so many politically-correct administrations now,  Laura ends up graduating cum laude and Samuel gets fired.

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This book is a vast, Big Novel and a biting satire of life in America. Yes, it’s long and perhaps it should have been tightened up, but I enjoyed it and hope there’s more to come from Hill. Seeing that he looks young enough to be my son and, with the success of this, his first novel, I’m sure there will be.

 

 

 

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

I never thought I would like a book about army life, about brutal battles and vivid descriptions of the atrocities of war, but this book was one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Please don’t be put off by my first sentence; this book is worth reading for the quality of Barry’s writing alone, as well as the extraordinary story that he tells, that of two gay men in the US army in the 1850s and into the American Civil War.

Days without end

The book is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who fled to America aged 13 after his family had literally starved to death in Ireland. Thomas talks to us throughout this novel in the conversational tone of one without much education, but with a wisdom of having lived a hard life. He is matter-of-fact, without self-pity. He said that when he arrived in America with others on a ship, “The point is, we were nothing … We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Thomas left the horrors of a starving Ireland but came to the New World to encounter a harsh reality of expansionism in which indigenous people were being slaughtered.

Existing on virtually no food and living in rags, Thomas met a boy called John Cole, who was equally hungry and ragged. A friendship starts and almost right away, Thomas “felt like a human being again“. The boys searched for work and ended up in a mining town, working as dancers dressed up in women’s clothing to entertain the miners. There is nothing sexual about this; they danced for the miners:

Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved. Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could of met myself.”

But the boys grew into men and could no longer pass for pretty dancing girls, and so at 17 joined the army, a hard life but one that gave them food, clothes and a horse each. Most of the fighting was against Native Americans (Indians), a horrific ethnic cleansing with brutal, physical battles, but Thomas plainly explains his and John’s behaviour:

“…. I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.

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Much of the novel is about the army, the horrendous hardships the soldiers go through, not only with the fighting but also the hostile countryside and weather conditions. On reading about this life, I wondered how on earth anyone ever survived it, but Thomas and John did, and throughout the novel, the story of their love is woven, a beautifully quiet and tender love story that seems at odds with the setting.

Barry’s handling of this gay relationship is so masterfully accomplished that it moves through the story without appearing fantastical, for it is almost unreal – two men in love in an overtly masculine military context where lives don’t count for anything. I didn’t cotton on to the gay aspect of the relationship until, early on in the book, in between descriptions of the army and base camp, Barry throws in the sentence:

And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

Barry challenges the readers with questions of identity as these men are gay, yet they remain loyal to their army compatriots. They are tender with each other, yet they kill when necessary. Barry stretches us even further when John and Thomas marry secretly and, when John leaves the army and Thomas runs away, Thomas lives for a while as Thomasina, finally dressing in women’s clothing as he had always wished to. He is feminine, yet remains masculine in his attitude to war and the army to which he has to return. And more for the reader to ingest – John adopts a Sioux girl after a raid on an Indian camp in which all the adults were slaughtered, and so the three of them live as a family for a while, happily. It all sounds strange, but Barry makes it come alive and treats the subject in a delicate and open-hearted manner.

This book was inspired in part by Barry’s son, Toby, who came out a couple of years before the book was written. In an interview with The Guardian, Barry said: From that moment on we (his son and Barry) entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life.” 

Barry listened and absorbed everything his son told him about gay love, cross-dressing and wove it into his novel:

“I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.” 

This novel can be read on many levels – a story about war, a description of life in the US army in the mid-19th century, a love story. It is a book about identity, patriotism, and friendship; fear and fervour, ugliness and strange beauty; it is bitter-sweet. It is a book written with such beautiful sentences that a dreamlike quality is evoked even in the most awful scenes; I found myself going back and re-reading battle scenes, because of the imagery that Barry uses; I found myself reading too quickly, compelled to find out what happens to Thomas and John, and I found myself almost unbearably moved by the love they had for each other.

I thought Barry’s books were good before this one, but now I believe him to be a truly great writer. I will read this book again and read it more slowly next time.

Barry

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell must have the most curious narrator I’ve come across in many years: a nine-month old foetus, pompous and opinionated, yet strangely beguiling. And surely a unique opening sentence:

So here I am, lying upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

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Told from his point of view in the first person, the story line pivots around the foetus being privy to a forbidden relationship and a dastardly plan the couple has devised.

I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, I make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

A few pages into the book, I wondered how McEwan was going to get away with writing about a foetus who is so knowledgeable about the world and its affairs, but he rather glibly pulls it off by having the unborn baby listen when his mother tunes into the radio, or when she listens to podcasts and audio books, or plays classical music. He learns about good wine when his mother drinks (which she does fairly often) and pontificates in a snobby way about the merits of a good burgundy or Sancerre. He knows contemporary politics, and surmises things he has not seen, such as colours and lightning.

Thus the foetus talks to us in an adult voice, as a reluctant observer to the plot that is unfolding within earshot and about which he can do nothing to prevent.

The plot is a familiar one to those who know Hamlet, and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet that gives the novel its title. The mother, Trudy, has kicked her husband, John, a gormless poet, out of the house (John’s family home), even though she is pregnant with his child. She is now  in a relationship with Claude, John’s banal brother, described by the narrator as thus:

This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. 

The narrator listens to Trudy and Claude plot against his father, for whom he has developed a tenderness, and whom he is unable to warn. John still visits Trudy at his house, trying to woo her back in a meek manner, oblivious to the plan being devised against him. The narrator, in his distress, mentally pens a letter to his father, finishing it with:

Don’t come down the stairs. Call a carefree goodbye and go. Or if you must come down, decline the fruit drink, stay only long enough to say your farewells. I’ll explain later. Until then, I remain your obedient son … 

The book ends with the narrator being born at home, Trudy crying, Claude panicking in disgust, too late to call an ambulance. The birth is described fantastically,  the narrator describing his agonising journey into the world:

I travel a section where I know a portion of my uncle has passed too often the other way. I’m not troubled. What was in his day a vagina, is now proudly a birth canal, my Panama … not casual cock can compete. For a stretch, I’m deaf, dumb and blind, it hurts everywhere. But it pains my screaming mother more as she renders the sacrifice all mothers make for their big-headed, loud-mouthed infants.

What I enjoy about McEwan is that no book he writes is like another; the story lines differ and so each new book of his is a new adventure. I had a sense throughout this book that McEwan had fun writing it and enjoyed creating this unusual, sometimes irritating, often endearing, narrator. His prose is as smooth as ever and he has retold a classic tale in the most masterful, imaginative manner.

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Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir,  A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.

book-of-memory

Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:

The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.

Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.

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Petina Gappah

It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book –  the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition,  with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.


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A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of  escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.

Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.

 

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Amanda Lindhout

 

In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.

Somalia

Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.

They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:

“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”  

This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I had been warned that this book was terribly gruesome and harrowing and that made me hesitate to read it. I should remember not to be put off by other people’s warnings and only make my judgement once I have started reading a book – this is an incredible novel. It won the Man Booker Prize last year and the chair of the judges, AC Grayling, said: “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”Cover 1

Yes, it is hugely harrowing and people who lived through World War Two, or those who cannot face brutality, may well not want to read it, being about Australian prisoners of war who worked on the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At times I had to take breaks from reading about the abuse suffered at the hands of the Japanese; it is told in horrifyingly graphic detail with no description spared, yet I feel it is important to know all this to understand the depth of the novel and, if nothing else, for the reader to know the realities of what went on in that part of the war.

Simply put, this is a novel about war and love, yet it’s also about good and evil, about power and submission, and about cowardice and bravery. The protagonist of the book is a man called Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who enlists at the beginning of WWII and whose unit surrenders to the Japanese in Java. As a colonel and a surgeon, Dorrigo becomes the leader of the prisoners and is hailed after the war for his bravery, becoming a famous war hero. He tries as best he can in the camps to look after his men, often intervening with the Japanese generals.

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Dorrigo is a flawed hero; a reluctant leader, he often feels he has no place to be the one to have been put in that position in the camp, and he is a man deeply in love with his uncle’s wife, with whom he had an affair before the outbreak of the war. His love affair with Amy haunts him constantly. Dorrigo marries after the war, knowing he does not love Ella, and spends the rest of his life in a suspended state of reality, unable to feel anything at a meaningful depth.

Flanagan shows us the lives of those soldiers who survived the war, the hopelessness that pervades their lives and the effects of what would now be called post-traumatic stress. He also takes us into the minds of the Japanese generals after the war and we see the justifications made by them for their behaviour, believing what they did was simply in service of the Emperor and the greatness of Japan, although they fear reprisals.

Flanagan skilfully takes the reader backwards and forwards in the book, from the war camp to Dorrigo’s childhood, to the camps and back to his love affair, from his marriage to his post-war empty life – it kept my mind sharp but never confused me. His writing is beautiful, even when he writes about the utter horrors of the war camp, and I spent most the book feeling haunted by his words; still do, in fact.

I feel I have barely touched the surface of this novel, it’s one I need to go back to and read again to appreciate Flanagan’s expert handling of the story. I have also barely touch the surface here in this review; there is so much more complexity to the novel, such as the poetry taken from a 17th-century Japanese poet called Basho (the title comes from one of his haikus).

Flanagan

I would warn anyone wanting to read it that this is a book of brutally graphic descriptions of cruelty and suffering, yet that they would miss out on a masterpiece if they don’t.

The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied by Melanie Verwoerd

I knew nothing about Melanie Verwoerd before I had read this book other than that she was married to Wilhelm Verwoerd and that he had voted for the ANC in the first free elections in South Africa. It turns out she’s far more interesting than I ever knew and is a woman who was strong enough to stand up against one of the most powerful Afrikaans families in history and work hard to defend her beliefs. 

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This autobiography of hers covers two important areas of her life – her marriage to Wilhelm, her divorce, and after that her relationship with Gerry Ryan, an Irish celebrity broadcaster. When she and Wilhelm were students in Stellenbosch in the early 1990s, they joined the recently unbanned ANC – of course they were ostracised by the community and disowned by family and friends, yet they were undeterred by this. Melanie became a parliamentarian working under Mandela, with whom she developed a close relationship. On her and Wilhelm’s first meeting Mandela, Wilhelm tried to apologise for what his family had done to Mandela.

“No,” Mandela said, ‘you only need to remember that with the surname you both carry, you have a voice. People will listen to you.”

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Melanie remembered those words and used them in Parliament. Her accounts of the first non-racial government are fascinating and often surprisingly funny.  She went on to become the South African ambassador to Ireland, where she met Gerry Ryan and started a relationship with him. I didn’t find the part about Ireland so interesting, I’m sure because I don’t know Ireland like I know South Africa, but I found Gerry Ryan to be a bit of an irritating naff and wasn’t quite sure why she fell so inutterably in love with him. Image

 

This book is not about politics, it is Melanie’s story about her life and her beliefs and I ended up admiring her for being a strong woman who stands up for herself.