Book Review: Brother by David Chariandy

I’ve had David Chariandy’s Brother on my To Read list since it made the Canada Reads list but when FictionFan reviewed it I knew I needed to bump it up the list. (FictionFan’s review here.)

Brother is set in Scarborough, in the 1980s/early 90s. Scarborough was incorporated into Greater Toronto in 1999 but at this time it was its own area and was a magnet for new immigrants to Canada. I know Scarborough a little because my grandmother lived there and we visited many summers. My impression of her Scaroborough neighbourhood as compared to that depicted by Chariandy is pretty different though. Chariandy’s novel takes place in an area known as The Park. Apartments crammed with life and families, many of them new immigrants to Canada. To me, this is a very Canadian scene – people of all ethnicities and backgrounds living in a close, confused mix.

Our narrator is Michael, a first generation Trinidadian. He and his brother Francis living in the Park, raised by their mother, their father having quit the scene years ago. The main action of the story takes place when Michael and Francis are teenagers. They are close brothers, close in age, but also with an emotional barrier between them. Francis is cool, daring, a little unsteady but largely compassionate. Michael is the tag-along younger brother, far more unsure of himself. They are decent teenage boys with a mother who works overtime constantly and spends hours of her day travelling by bus to and from work. And so they are left alone much of the time, as are their peers in the Park. This is the first Canadian generation, their parents working impossibly hard in hopes that these children will have something more, something better.

The other part of the story – the book moves back and forth between these parts – takes place ten years later. Francis is gone and we aren’t told where or why until close to the end. Michael and his mother still live in the same apartment. Michael is now the hard-working adult, caring for his increasingly unresponsive and confused mother. The return of an old friend to the Park forces Michael to think back about the last summer he and his brother shared.

Chariandy does a terrific job of portraying the sibling relationship between Michael and Francis. The closeness engendered by sharing a home, sharing a bloodline, sharing day to day life. Combined with the distance that can grow between two very different young men with very different desires out of life and reactions to the circumstances that they find themselves in.

This is also a powerful story of the first generation and immigrant experience. While it’s not my own, I grew up in a multicultural Canadian city and many of my peers were first generation Canadians. Many of my neighbours and classmates were immigrants. My neighbourhood was different than the Park but we were surrounded by a multitude of languages and cultures. In my opinion, this is one of the best qualities about Canada and one to be embraced. Chariandy balances this against some of the real and heart-breaking issues that immigrants to Canada face, especially ones from developing nations. He doesn’t shy away from the hard issues. I’m glad that this book was a part of the Canada Reads longlist because I really think it’s one every Canadian should read. And if you’re not Canadian, I think you’ll still be swept up in Chariandy’s strong writing and memorable characters.

 

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Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

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Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller (Anansi, 2015)

I read Claire Fuller’s most recent novel, Swimming Lessons, (review here) last year and was intrigued enough by her writing to seek out her previous book at the local library. I’m glad I did because I actually liked Our Endless Numbered Days quite a bit more than I liked Swimming Lessons. A book part of that is the style of this story – I tend to not enjoy letter-style novels such as Swimming Lessons. At the same time, I simply found the story of Our Endless Numbered Days more fascinating.

Peggy is eight years old when her survivalist father tells her that the world has ended. He takes her deep into the forest, to an abandoned hut, where they begin their new life. She believes his stories of the destruction of the rest of the world, of the death of her mother. Being a child, she has little recourse but to trust him and rely on him, even as he demonstrates himself to be increasingly unstable.

The story is mostly about Peggy’s time with her father, James, but interspersed chapters show her as a seventeen-year-old, returned to the world and her mother. In these chapters we witness Peggy struggle to adjust to normal life and we are unsure how she returned and where James is.

Fuller does a great job of not romanticizing what is essentially a kidnapping story. This is no idyllic back-to-nature tale. James is ill-equipped to survive and the two are constantly on the brink of starvation. Without going overboard, Fuller shows us the dirt and discomfort such a life would entail. Knowing that Peggy does eventually escape kept me wanting to read more, wanting to find out how and when. The “twist” that comes at the end seemed obvious to me and a little heavy-handed but I can see what Fuller was going for and, overall, it doesn’t weaken the novel.

What I Read – March 2018

Read:

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday Canada, 2011)

More style than substance though I enjoyed it while I was reading it. A month (or less) later, I can’t remember much but it entertained me at the time.

And No Birds Sang – Farley Mowat (McClelland & Stewart, 1979)

Mowat is a Canadian classic and I’ve read a few of his books now, all ranging broadly in subject. This is his memoir of his time serving during World War Two. It was recommended to me by a friend who has served in the Canadian armed forces. It’s an honest and brutal book.

(I reviewed a young adult novel by Mowat, The Curse of the Viking Grave, here.)

Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger (Bantam Books, 1986)

A re-read. Sometimes you just need some quick, interesting short stories, you know?

A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage – Bill Gaston (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017)

I wrote a review for this one! Read it here.

The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Tales/Doubleday, 2005)

And another review! Read it here. Maybe I’ll actually start writing real reviews again.

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller (Anansi, 2015)

Still hoping to write a real review for this book. Stay tuned…

Didn’t Finish:

The Gift of Rain – Tan Twang Eng

(After hearing multiple recommendations of this book I was really disappointed. I just could not get into it and found the beginning dragged on and on until I gave up. What clinched its abandonment for me was also the repeated negative portrayals of all things Chinese. As far as I could see, it wasn’t necessary and added nothing to the story other than making me dislike the narrator.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson

Funny Once: Stories – Antonya Nelson

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh

What March Looked Like

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Does this picture sum up how Pearl feels about her baby sister?

Actually, Pearl is a great big sister and is often (not always) eager to help. She likes to get me diapers and blankets and choose clothes for Rose. She likes to bring Rose toys when Rose fusses and will gleefully tell me when she is being gentle with her little sister. Rose has some of her biggest smiles when she sees her big sister. Other times (sometimes in the same day or hour) are not so sweet and there have been whacks and scratches but I truly love watching these two interact.

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Lots of outdoor time. Lots of time in the “forest” at the end of our street. Lots of bike riding. The beginning of days on the beach. Exploring, climbing, rain or sun.

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The beginning of days in the backyard. Blanket spread in the grass for Rose (just as I did for Pearl at this age) while Pearl runs around. I bought that plant guide in an effort to answer Pearl’s endless questions about what is that and why is it there as we explore our world together.

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Wild St. Patrick’s Day.

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Painting and crafting and drawing. Always a hit as we wait out these rainy spring days.

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And a trip to Whistler at the beginning of spring break. Just a few days away but it was great to get out of town and have some fun together. We went sledding, had an afternoon at the pool and visited some family.

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Check out my post about our last visit to Whistler in 2016 to see pictures of baby Pearl in front of this same mirror! (We also went in 2013.)

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This is Pearl “reading” to Rose. She can completely recite “Big Dog, Little Dog” now and is pretty proud of herself. Rose is impressed.

Book Review: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

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The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday Books, 2005)

I’ve read one novel (Boy, Snow, Bird) and a short story collection (What is not Yours is not Yours reviewed here)  from Helen Oyeyei and it was interesting to go back and read her first novel. Icarus Girl is a strange, surreal, sometimes confusing novel. None of that is surprising, having read Oyeyemi previously, especially her most recent story collection but Icarus Girl seems to exist on a slightly different, stranger plane. My gut reaction to the novel is that it is more Nigerian. I’m not sure if this is entirely true (since my knowledge of Nigeria is mostly limited to the books of other authors) but Nigeria is much more central to this story than I’ve noticed in Oyeyemi’s other work.

Jessamy Harrison is eight-years-old, the daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father. Her family lives in England but head to Nigeria to visit her mother’s family for the first time in years. It is clear from the beginning that Jess is smart and troubled. She’s lonely, friendless, and prone to heavy anxiety and screaming fits. Each member of her little family seems to move in its own lonely orbit, occasionally bumping up against one another. It was hard to get a read on her parents’ relationship and what had drawn them together (and kept them together).

While visiting Nigeria, Jess befriends TillyTilly, a mysterious little girl who then shows up in England as well. At first Jess is delighted to have a friend but TillyTilly becomes increasingly strange and her powers and her knowledge are shown to be dark. TillyTilly begins to reveal secrets about Jess’ family and begins to act out some of Jess’ own darkest fantasies.

The book is creepy and strange. How much of what Jess experiences is real? Is it supernatural? Is it in her mind? How real is TillyTilly? How much control does Jess have over herself? What is captured brilliantly in The Icarus Girl though is the danger and isolation of childhood. I appreciate when I read a book that shows the loneliness and sadness of children because I remember childhood as a lonely and scary time. Not always and, hopefully, for most children these are brief periods, but childhood is not the idyllic period that so much media would have us believe. Children are often overwhelmed by the world. They don’t know what is true, what is real, who to trust. Jessamy’s tumble into madness? possession? demonstrates this vividly. The watery characters of the adults around her seems to reflect the growing knowledge of children who realize that the adults in their lives can’t always protect her.

There are many ways in which it’s evident that Oyeyemi’s talent has grown since she wrote this book as a student but her strange and powerful style is already evident.

Book Review: A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage by Bill Gaston

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A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage – Bill Gaston (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017)

My disclaimer: I know Bill Gaston in real life. He was one of my profs in university and taught one of my favourite workshops. He was a great prof and an all-round good guy. When he was a featured writer at our local Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago I was asked to introduce him before he spoke. I also know the team at D&M that published this book. So basically, I have a lot of reasons to praise this book. Fortunately, one of those reasons is that it’s quite a good short story collection.

Bill’s work has been nominated for and won many major literary awards in Canada and he is quietly at the forefront of the Canadian lit scene. As I’ve said before (I reviewed Bill’s last short story collection here and his most recent novel here.), I prefer his short stories to his novels and this latest collection shows off his strengths. His stories are familiar and approachable and yet each contain a dark and disconcerting undertone. A missing teenager, a plan for suicide, a secret about a sister’s dead wife – there is always something not quite right. Made even more disturbing by its very ordinariness.

This collection seems to have a theme of aging. Of bodies getting older and less reliable, of the loss of those who have surrounded us for so long. One character muses that, at fifty, middle age is past, since most of us won’t live to be a hundred.

As is Gaston’s tendency, many of these stories seem to end on the cusp of something. Some readers will dislike the feeling of being left wanting more, at the very edge of something tantalizing. I’ve come to expect it from Bill’s work and appreciate the way he takes the reader around the subject, slowly opening up the story, and allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

 

 

Pearl is 3!

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Last weekend we celebrated three years of Pearl. Three years of fun and laughter and tears and growth.

Pearl chose “raccoons” as the theme for her birthday party.

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Those are her raccoon friends, Douglas and Bandit. (And her baby sister.)

We had a nice, simple party with family and friends and cupcakes.

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Pearl is not always the most social kid, preferring small groups and staying at home. But she is beginning to blossom in this area and especially enjoys interacting with “big kids”. A visit for her birthday from her big cousins was a definite highlight for Pearl. We also have some wonderful friends locally who have older kids who are kind and gracious when it comes to playing with Pearl.

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It’s amazing how much Pearl has grown and developed this year. She is a real little person now, speaking in full sentences, learning to describe her feelings and asking questions about the world around her. We are entering into the “why” stage which, while  occasionally frustrating, also offers a wonderful opportunity to teach Pearl about the world and to see how she views things. Pearl loves to be outside, loves to run and climb and ride her balance bike.

Pearl has definite opinions now and no shyness in expressing them. She loves to wear pyjamas all day and would live off cheesy noodles if we let her. She loves to play with her stuffed animal friends, loves Duplo and building blocks and has a great imagination. She is often eager to help and especially loves to bake together. She enjoys books and is starting to enjoy longer stories – chapters from Winnie the Pooh and the Brambly Hedge stories are some favourites right now. It is so amazing to watch her develop and to see her mind form.

My sister-in-law made a scrapbook for Pearl with 20 questions for her to answer each year so I thought I’d share Pearl’s answers, to give a small flavour of our girl. Pearl insisted that I ask her the questions two days in a row so I’ve done a little picking and choosing in order to best represent who she is.

  1. What is your favourite thing to eat for breakfast? “Butter toast when my tummy hurts.”
  2. What is your favourite animal? “Bill. Owls. And Percy and Sarah and them Owl Mother.” (If you’re familiar with the book Owl Babies you might know where she got this answer from.)
  3. What is your favourite toy? “Roly-Poly”
  4. Who is your best friend? “Roly-Poly, Douglas, and Bandit”
  5. What is your favourite holiday? Halloween (first answer), Chinese New Year (second answer)
  6. What is your favourite drink? Chinese New Year drink (AKA chocolate-flavoured Vita Soy)
  7. What is your favourite book? Elephant & Piggie (first answer); Cock-a-Doodle Dudley (second answer)
  8. What is your favourite thing to do outside? Bike
  9. What is your favourite thing to eat for lunch? Cheesy noodles
  10. What do you want to be when you grow up? “I want to be an animal. I want to be a lady pig.”
  11. What is your favourite plant or flower? “My plant’s name purple. And green.”
  12. What do you want to eat for dessert on your birthday? “Sprinkle cake”
  13. What is your favourite colour? Purple
  14. What is your favourite song? “Come on Fountain” (AKA Come Thou Fount)
  15. What clothes do you like to wear? “These clothes”
  16. What is your favourite thing to eat for dinner? Pizza (first answer); cheesy noodles (second answer)
  17. What is your favourite place to visit? Beach
  18. What is your favourite fruit? Apples and oranges
  19. What is your favourite weather? “Hot weather”

What I Read – February 2018

2018 has obviously not been a great year for book reviews thus far but I am sneaking in lots of reading time. Here’s what I read in February and the quickest reviews I can manage at this moment:

The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Books, 2010

New Zealand novel. I likely would have abandoned this one partway through if it hadn’t been a gift. Quite frankly, I found this one boring and the characters uninteresting.

Night Film – Marisha Pesl (Random House, 2014)

Definitely creative. Fairly creepy. Character development and voice, etc are fairly limited but the mystery at the heart of the novel will keep you reading.

Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara (Aona Books, 2016)

I hope to find the time to write a more detailed review of this parenting book because it’s been hugely helpful to me. I highly recommend this to parents of toddlers.

What every young child would tell us if they could is to please hold on to them, to not take their actions personally, and to love them despite their immaturity.

  • Deborah MacNamara, Rest Play Grow

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Day Sijie (Anchor Books, 2002) (translated from the French by Ina Rilke)

Easy read. Nothing terrible but nothing amazing here.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial, 1999)

Fascinating read if you’re interested in history and/or language and/or dictionaries.

The Weight of Glory – C.S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 2001)

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

  • C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

Collection of sermons by Lewis. I always enjoy Lewis’ work, whether fiction or non. His perspective and wisdom are endlessly valuable.

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

  • C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Moonglow – Michael Chabon (Harper Collins, 2016)

Pseudo-memoir of the author’s grandparents. Or is it? What’s fact and what’s fiction here? And does it matter when it’s well written and fun to read? 20th century history, World War II, space race, and a giant snake.

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012)

Why did it take me so long to read this book? Beautiful and heartbreaking. Every Canadian should read this book. And if you’re not Canadian you should read it too.

CURRENTLY READING:

The Silmarillion – j.R.R. Tolkien

…there were green things even among the pits and broken rocks before the doors of hell.

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson

 

My current reading habits mean I generally have three books on the go. The first is a classic that needs a decent amount of focus to be read. (Example: The Silmarillion) I read this in the evening after the girls are in bed. The second is something of a thoughtful nature, usually non-fiction, maybe something religious in nature. (Example: essays by Marilynne Robinson) The third is a more compulsive read. Almost always fiction, hopefully paperback. Something that I can read in the middle of the night while struggling to stay awake and feed a baby. (Just finished Indian Horse and will probably start The Night Circus tonight since I got it from the library today.)

What are your reading habits like? How many books do you typically have on the go? How do you decide what to read and when?

Book Review: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens

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Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)

My brother, who knows the author, gave me a copy of Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist, for my birthday. My big brother and I have similar taste a lot of the time, especially in books and music, and he’s one of the smartest people I know so I’m always happy to receive a new book from him. This memoir from a Vancouver doctor did not disappoint.

Martina Scholtens details her years working as a doctor for refugees in the heart of Vancouver. I grew up in Vancouver, spending most of my childhood and my adolescence in East Vancouver and, in fact, I once lived not far from Scholtens’ clinic. The Vancouver of my childhood was diverse and multicultural and complicated and this is mirrored in Scholtens’ experience. She worked exclusively with refugees in their first year in Canada. These are obviously people with complex backgrounds and traumas both physical and psychological. Scholtens is compassionate and pragmatic and writes beautifully of her struggles to help her patients and the connections she makes along the way.

She uses her relationship with one particular family as a thread that weaves in and out of the book but this is more of a personal reflection than anything else. There are stories of many patients; some are funny, many are heartbreaking. There are personal reflections on Scholtens’ own life and her struggle to find balance as both a doctor and a mother to young children. For part of the book she is recovering from a miscarriage and then is pregnant again and her vulnerability in sharing these parts of her life spoke strongly to me. Comparisons are drawn between her own life and the lives of her patients in subtle ways, and always Scholtens is aware of her own privilege. Of the gentle life she returns to each day in Deep Cove, away from the fears and concerns of her patients.

I finished this book and wanted to recommend it to everyone I saw. (I’ve already loaned out my copy.) Working moms, doctors, therapists, immigrants, human beings. There is something here to speak to the heart of any human who lives among humans. This is a beautiful book.

What I Read – January 2018

For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.

– The Luminaries

One of my goals for 2017 was to read more classics. As such, I re-read The Power and the Glory, an amazing classic that I read several years ago but so many things in it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I’ve also (finally) begun to tackle The Silmarillion. I think my dad will be proud of me.

And, as always, I want to read more from my own library (Meaning read some of the stacks of books that I already own but have not yet read.) 84, Charing Cross Road, Rules of Civility, The Luminaries, Purple Hibiscus, and The Painted Girls all fit into that category.

I managed a couple of book reviews (titles are linked) but hope to do better in February. Feel free to share your favourite reads of the month in the comments!

Read:

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)
  2. The War that Saved my Life – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Penguin Books, 2015)
  3. Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)
  4. Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)
  5. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)
  6. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1979)
  7. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012)
  8. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan (Harper Collins, 2012

There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.

– The Power and the Glory

Currently Reading:

  1. Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.”

– The Silmarillion

*Friendly reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks if you’re into that sort of thing. Mostly pictures of what I’m reading as I’m reading and my kids.