Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.

Book Review: Everything Was Good-Bye by Gurjinder Basran

Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

For most of high school, I lived within walking distance of a Sikh temple in East Vancouver. A lot of my friends were Punjabi and so while there’s still a lot I don’t know about Sikh culture, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with it over all. So I was excited to read Basran’s novel of a young Sikh girl growing up in Delta (a suburb of Vancouver).

Meena is the youngest of six daughters, raised by their widowed mother, and growing up in the often restrictive confines of traditional Sikh culture. While one sister has bucked tradition and run away, Meena’s older sisters have each ended up in arranged marriages and while Meena doesn’t particularly want this, she feels trapped by the expectations of her family. She’s isolated in her school as a minority and befriends Liam, a white boy who is an outcast for other reasons. Their relationship is awkward, halting, and very believable, with all the uncomfortableness and confusion of teenage romance.

I don’t Delta very well but I do know that outside of India, the Vancouver area has the largest Sikh population in the world. So I did find Meena’s isolation a little false. I find it hard to believe that she would be the only Punjabi girl in her school and wouldn’t at least be able to make friends within her own cultural community. It ends up feeling like the author is trying to force her friendship with Liam a little too hard but unnecessarily isolating Meena.

I did really enjoy the first section of the book, while Meena is still in school, trying to figure out how she feels about Liam, what her future will be, and watching the last of her sisters move into marriage. The novel then hops forward in time by several years to Meena in her early twenties. She’s finished university (which we didn’t get to see at all and I think was a missed opportunity), working but still very isolated as she lives with her mother, and being pushed toward her own arranged marriage.

There’s one more jump in time and Meena’s life changes drastically. This change felt realistic, following on what we know about Meena and what she’s narrated to us, as well as what’s come before. The ending, however, felt emotionally manipulative. Aside from being pretty unrealistic, it felt like the author keeping a happy ending from Meena for the sake of avoiding a happy ending.

The setting is great and familiar to readers who know Vancouver and its surroundings and the cultural details are authentic and interesting. Basran doesn’t drown us with them but throws them in as needed and they add to a world that feels genuine and fascinating. Some of it felt familiar to me and others were things I learned for the first time. I haven’t come across a lot of Indo-Canadian writing so I look forward to seeing more from Basran.

Book Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

I’ll start off by saying that I almost gave up on this book halfway through. I’m glad I didn’t but it isn’t a long novel and it took me most of it to feel truly engaged.

The story is divided between two characters and times. Yuki is a teenager in New York in the 1970s. Her family is Japanese, living a fairly isolated life in America due to her father’s job. Yuki is shy and lonely but just before her family is supposed to return to Japan, she makes her first friend. Somehow (and somewhat unbelievably) she convinced her parents to let her stay in Japan, living with her friend Odile and her inattentive mother. We follow Yuki over the next years of her life, as she struggles with her desire to be an artist, drops out of school, and falls into a sort of love.

The other section is narrated by Jay, whose father has just died. Jay and his wife have recently had a baby and Jay hates it. Both the lifestyle of parenthood and, seemingly, the baby itself. This is where the book lost me. I recognize that not everyone enjoys parenthood, that the early months are especially hard and that transition doesn’t always come easily. My problem with Jay is that he’s so completely unlikeable in his dislike of his daughter. He tells the reader that he loves his wife but his thoughts (and actions) surrounding her are so negative and unforgiving. His attitude seems to be one of having no idea how he ended up with a baby, as if he were tricked into the entire endeavour. He really doesn’t have a single redeeming characters and I didn’t care a bit what happened to him.

It’s clear from early on that Yuki is Jay’s mother, the mother who ran off from Jay and his father when Jay was very young. This brings me to my other problem with the novel. The author apparently cannot conceive that anyone would ever enjoy having children. The book is populated only with characters who are happy to be separated from their offspring. It’s pretty depressing.

Yuki, at least, is imbued with greater depth than Jay and while her reasons for abandonment are never entirely clear, she is portrayed as at least loving him. Something Jay seems unable to feel for his child.

For a first time writer, Buchanan has some strong work here. While occasionally guilty of over-writing and using four words where one would do, there are also glimmers of real talent and story-telling here. My main problem overall is really that the author feels very young to me and I can’t help but wonder if this story would be different coming from someone with more life experience. Only time can tell.

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co, 2017)

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.

Book Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

You know how, as you get older, you begin to realize that your family is maybe not so normal? That all the things they do that you thought were average, might actually be a little crazy? That’s what’s happening to Matty Telemachus.

Sure, Matty’s always known his family is unique. Not many families once travelled the country and performed psychic feats of strength on television. But that’s all years in the past and nobody in the Telemachus family has done anything amazing in years. Until Matty suddenly leaves his body one day and begins to wonder if he might also be an Amazing Telemachus.

Teddy Telemachus is the family patriarch, the driving force behind their once upon a time fame. Teddy met his wife Maureen when participating in a highly secretive government study of psychic powers in relation to the Cold War. Maureen, or Grandma Mo, has been dead for years and her children have largely rejected their own powers. Frankie is something of a low-level con, in debt to the mob and hiding too many secrets from his wife. Irene has just moved back in with her dad, along with her own son, Matty, and struggles to form real relationships because she knows when people are lying to her. And Buddy…well, Buddy might just be the World’s Most Powerful Psychic but he hasn’t spoken much in the last few years and he’s building some kind of weird project in the basement.

This novel is fun and goofy and if you’re willing to suspend belief, it’s a good read. Even aside from the psychic powers, the real world plot is pretty over the top too. The story moves between perspectives of Teddy, Matty, and the three siblings and the sections are pretty balanced in terms of interest and enjoyability. These are strange and flawed people but they’re likeable too and easy to root for. It’s not terribly difficult to see where it’s all going to end up but it’s fun to travel along as Gregory takes us there.

Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

In the realm of Christian literature, Japan does not loom large. Yet for years, I’ve seen Silence listed amongst the classics. Having finally read it, I find myself both wishing I’d read it years ago and glad that I read it now, in my thirties, with a few years of experience behind me.

The novel begins in the 16th century after Japan leadership has declared Christianity punishable by death and torture. The country is closed to missionaries, leaving those European priests and missionaries already in country stranded and endangered. Quickly realizing that putting Christians to death only creates martyrs for others to follow, the ruling powers work to force Christians to apostatize. They do so by torturing them until they will reject Jesus Christ and stomp on an image of him. (The book deals with Catholic Christianity, meaning that imagery is much more powerful and important to these believers than it may be to a modern Protestant.

The protagonist is a young Jesuit priest, who sneaks into Japan in search of his former mentor, rumoured to have betrayed the faith. We see the story almost entirely from his perspective, from his initial arrival with another priest, hiding in the mountains, to their eventual separation and his arrest. The story is intimate, horrifying, and heartbreaking.

This is a story about the silence of God. I can’t speak to how it might come across to a non-Christian but for me it was moving and, even five hundred years later, painfully familiar. While I have never been persecuted or tortured due to my faith, like most Christians, I have faced a silent God. Based on this book, I suspect Shusaku Endo has faced Him too. This is the question of Silence – what do you do in the midst of suffering when God seems to have turned His back?

The setting of medieval Japan is well-evoked; the peasants living in extreme feudal poverty, the samurais and warlords who rule over them. Endo evokes the extreme differences in these parties, from their power to their dwelling places to what they eat. On the other hand, characterization is slightly thinner. While we are deep inside our central characters mind and spiritual thought, there is almost nothing else known about him. He doesn’t seem to have ever existed before the story began. Likewise, the rest of the characters are shown briefly. Important while on page but hard to imagine otherwise.

For Christians who enjoy literature or readers wanting a fictional glimpse into a Christian experience, I highly recommend Silence.

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of an epic tantrum, I picked Pearl up and carried her outside. Sometimes a simple change of scenery can help calm her down and give us a fresh start so I held her, thrashing and screaming, against my body and walked to the end of the driveway. Turns out, a crew of men were arriving to work on our neighbours’ roof and so as Pearl wept and I paced back and forth, speaking to her softly, I had an audience. Most of them were young men who watched me with surprise and a hint of laughter but one fellow, a little older than the others, gave me a knowing nod. I can only assume that at some point, he too has done this walk.

Posing with flowers from our backyard.

Pearl is two. Tantrums are part of our lives right now. She has intense desires and a growing sense of independence. She wants to do so many things by herself and so many of those things are still hard or impossible for her to do. Sometimes she just can’t do them (like reaching the light switch in her room) and sometimes I can’t let her do them (like buckling herself into her car seat). Her vocabulary is constantly expanding but we often run into moments where she has trouble expressing herself or I have trouble understanding her. Sometimes I’m impatient, sometimes she’s tired. We might go days without a tantrum or we might have three in one afternoon.

A rainy day at the park.

More and more these days, when strangers ask how old Pearl is and I tell them, the reply is, “You have your hands full.” Sure, but not really. Pearl is smart and fun and imaginative and delightful. She’s two, she’s not a rabid wolf. She’s learning a lot – about herself and the world – and it’s my job to help her figure it out.

New gear for the summer.

I do believe that some ideas can be become self-perpetuating and so I make a concerted effort to avoid the idea of “the terrible twos”. Why should I approach an entire year of my daughter’s life with the idea that it is or will be terrible? Can I honestly expect that when she turns three, everything will magically be easy? I can miss the docility of a newborn and look forward to the independence and real conversation of a five-year-old and still embrace and enjoy where we are right now.

Stories with Bella.

Two. It’s playing games that she’s made up all by herself. It’s waiting a painfully long time for her to climb into the tub “her own self”. It’s the morning cry of “Hi Mum!”. It’s the sharing of lip gloss, it’s pulling toy cars out of my washing machine because she fills her pockets with them. It’s rushing out of the shower because I can’t hear her anymore, only to find her quietly looking at books in her room. It’s learning who is this little person that I helped bring into the world but is suddenly so much herself.

Observing what Pearl refers to as a “pillar-cat”

The tantrums are hard and frustrating, I won’t gloss over that. The reasons for them vary and are often minor and I regularly find myself wondering if I should have just given in right away but of course I can’t give in now or I’ll teach her that tantrums work. So we walk to the edge of the front yard or we rock together in a chair or we read stories and look at birds and it usually ends with a cuddle. Two also means there is always another chance, always a time for cuddles.

I pray a lot. The last three years of pregnancy and parenting have brought me more joy and sorrow than I ever knew before. They have stripped me of many of my illusions and brought me continually to my knees, praying for the Lord’s guidance. I have a feeling that won’t change any time soon. They have also filled me with a greater and larger and better thankfulness than I have ever before experienced. Two is good. I am thankful for my two year old.

Book Review: Trust No One by Paul Cleave

Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

You may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of mysteries. The very simple reason behind that is that I find them too scary. Overactive imagination + gory tale is not a good combination for me in the middle of the night. However, when my sister-in-law was in New Zealand just before Christmas, she brought me back a selection of fiction and candy unique to NZ and this was one of them. (Books and candy – kind of the perfect gift, right?)

The premise of Trust No One is quite good I thought. Jerry Grey is a successful crime writer, known under the pseudonym of Henry Cutter. He’s made a good living as a writer, has a beautiful wife and an adult daughter. And he’s just been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers.

The book moves through time quite smoothly, returning to Jerry’s early diagnosis and his quick spiral into dementia. This is balanced with scenes of him in the present, living in a nursing home where we know his wife never comes to see him and his daughter no longer refers to him as “dad”. Something has gone horribly wrong and it isn’t just the Alzheimers. Jerry, it turns out, has begun to confess to terrible murders, though many of them sound familiar to fans of Henry Cutter’s novels. And yet, there are some new bodies showing up and Jerry’s become quite good at escaping from the nursing home.

The sections of the novel set in the present were the most interesting. Here Jerry moves between almost total lucidity and a sort of dazed and confused fog. He usually knows who he is but not where he is or what has happened to him in the last year. These sections are interrupted with Jerry’s “Madness Journal”, a record he begins to keep when he is first diagnosed. These sections were largely annoying. First, they’re written in second person which is a ridiculous way to keep a journal and second, they are sometimes written from the perspective of Henry Cutter. And Henry Cutter is a bad writer. Since the entire novel is not poorly written, I have to assume this is a deliberate choice on Cleave’s part. But to what end, I’m not entirely sure. Is he trying to demonstrate that Jerry (and by extension Henry) is not actually a great writer? That his readers only enjoy the violence and fear of his stories? Is Jerry actually a good writer but his dementia has stolen this ability from him? As the story progresses, Henry Cutter becomes almost an alternate identity for Jerry, perhaps one that is taking over his real life and his mind. While an interesting premise, that isn’t quite how Alzheimers works and so clouds the plot as to what is really happening to Jerry.

The story is still entertaining and none of this made me want to give up on it. It’s suspenseful and intriguing enough that I made it through to the end quickly. It’s the ending that drove me crazy. So I’ll warn you that I’m about to give away a spoiler because I need to rant a little.

Spoiler ahead:

Turns out Jerry is being framed. Okay, fine, that makes sense. Where it gets ridiculous though is that Jerry is being framed by two separate and unrelated murderers. That’s right. Two people close enough to Jerry to use him in this way also want to rape and murder women (all of whom match the same generic description). While one of these characters is well established enough that this solution makes sense (and was something I was beginning to suspect), adding in the second murderer is completely ridiculous and discredits the whole plot.

Spoiler over.

So while I didn’t mind the story overall (especially when I skimmed over the parts with Jerry’s journal) the ending completely ruined it for me. There was a lot of potential here for a unique mystery and, in many ways, Cleave succeeds, but overall he hasn’t convinced me to start reading more mysteries.