Book Review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

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I almost didn’t finish this book. It is well-written, well-researched, and compelling. It was shortlisted for the most recent Canada Reads competition. I’d read several very positive reviews. (Anne’s over at ivereadthis.com forced me to move the book up my To Read list.)  I did finish The Boat People and I’m glad I did but it was such a hard, frustrating read.

This is a book about refugees. Specifically, a boatload of approximately 500 Tamil refugees who arrive in Canada, fleeing violence in Sri Lanka. While the book is fiction, it is inspired by real life situations and, of course, the real history of Sri Lanka. This book was yet another reminder of how flawed the governmental process of accepting refugees is in Canada. (See: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off). A reminder of the horrors that refugees go through to enter Canada and how their struggles don’t magically end when they arrive. (See: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens. It’s a reminder that people don’t leave everything they’ve ever known – their homes, their families, their jobs, their language – and get on a crammed and filthy boat to enter a country they don’t know unless they are truly, truly desperate.

The Boat People is ambitious in its scope, covering multiple aspects of this refugee crisis. Mahindan and his son Sellian show the perspective of the refugees, complete with flashbacks to their lives in Sri Lanka. Upon arrival, the refugees are “housed” in a prison while they await hearing after hearing, a process that drags out for months. Because Sellian is only six-years-old, he is housed with the women, separated from his father. This is a heartbreaking scene and, as a parent, one that was especially hard to read. My instinct was that no one could have convinced me to give up my child but Bala does a good job of showing Mahindan’s thoughts and his desire to do whatever is best for his son. This is further shown in the scenes in Sri Lanka, as we are shown their former life and the increasing dangers the Tamils faced.

Priya is a young law student, a first generation Sri Lankan, who wants to pursue corporate law but is pulled into the refugee hearings. At first it is only because of her own Tamil background but as she becomes more and more involved in the lives of the refugees she also learns more of her own family history and gains a greater understanding of the complexities of refugee experience.

Grace is one of the adjudicators who presides over the hearings. She is newly appointed and quite black-and-white in her thinking. Her sections infuriated me the most given how close-minded she was. I understand that here Bala wished to show the other side – the fear and misunderstanding that many Canadians do feel toward refugees, especially when they arrive in mass numbers. I felt though that she swung too far in the other direction and Grace became something of a caricature. Grace herself is of Japanese descent, third generation, the granddaughter of Japanese-Canadians who were interred during World War Two. Grace’s twin daughters and her mother become interested in their family history and what was stolen from them by the government but Grace continually discourages them. At one point, one of her teenage daughters is surprised that Japanese names are written in reverse (last name first). This seems like such basic knowledge of Japanese culture that it paints Grace in a really negative light. Why has she kept almost all Japanese knowledge from her children?

One of the things I love about Canada is that we are a multicultural country, full of immigrants and refugees. It can be all to easy to think of ourselves as more worthy of being Canadian than a newer arrival but the vast majority of Canadians come from elsewhere.  I think we are our best version when we remember this and embrace it.

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Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

This was the fourth book I’ve read by David Mitchell and his work surprises me each time. If you’ve read Cloud Atlas then you may know Mitchell as an author who isn’t afraid to play with form. But what really impresses me about Mitchell’s novels is how entirely different they are from one another.

Black Swan Green is thirteen chapters containing thirteen stories in a year of the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor. We begin in January and end in January of the following year and watch Jason’s life unfold in the village of Black Swan Green in the early 1980s.

Jason lives a fairly ordinary, middle class life with his family. His middle-management dad, housewife mom, and his older sister. Each chapter shines a light on a crucial moment or experience in Jason’s life. Sometimes this occurs over a few weeks, sometimes only a few hours.

Having never been a teenage boy in England in the 1980s, I can’t speak to the authenticity of Jason as a character but can only say that Jason’s voice as narrator feels very real. There is cadence, slang, and rhythm that feel very authentic and honest and how a boy of Jason’s age, time, and locale would speak. Jason has a stammer which Mitchell uses to show character development in a subtle manner. While the stammer doesn’t define Jason, it clearly dominates his life in some unexpected ways. Mitchell does a great job at showing how it blocks Jason’s speech and effects his interactions, particularly in school, and how it creates a distance between Jason and those around him, keeping him from sharing his true thoughts. Jason refers to his stammer as “the Hangman”. I haven’t seen a speech impediment used in fiction much before and found this fascinating.

Black Swan Green – both the book and the village – is peopled with a variety of characters. Funny, affectionate, morbid, mysterious. We get to see the same characters pop up throughout Jason’s year and as the book (and year) continues, we see some behind the scenes developments. Some of these are a part of Jason’s story while others are simply hinted at. This gives the novel a strong feeling of existing in a real world, filled with individuals who have their own lives and tales.

All together, I loved the novel. Jason is a strong character. He feels very human but with enough traits to make him an interesting one to follow for a year. And Mitchell certainly captures how truly awful being thirteen can be!

What I Read – April 2018

READ:

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

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I went to school with Suko and so was familiar with her unique style and had an idea of where her interests lie. This historical novel set in Vietnam lined up with my expectations and I love her short stories (Her collection Floating Like the Dead is great) but I struggled with this one a bit. It came together in the end for me but took me a while to get oriented.

Funny Once – Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury, 2014)

These short stories were great but it took me so long to read them that I think a lot of the impact was lost on me. The fault was my own – I borrowed this as an online resource from the library and so read it on my laptop. And reading books electronically just does not work for me. Turns out I’m kind of old-fashioned when it comes to books.

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson (Picador, 2012)

Overall, I enjoyed this essay collection. I really like Robinson’s writing and I agree with her on a lot of theological and political questions. However, some of these essays felt really American and so I had trouble staying interested. They also felt overly optimistic about America, which made me realize how much the world has changed since 2012.

The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seems a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine.

  • Marilynne Robinson, “Wondrous Love”

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel (HarpeCollins Publisher, 2014)

I found myself much more engaged by this collection of short stories. This was my first read by Mantel and although I enjoyed it I still don’t feel the need to read any of her novels. The title story of this collection did force me to do some reading up on Margaret Thatcher though, since I knew shockingly little.

Brother – David Chariandy (McClelland & Stewart, 2017)

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Loved this book. Read my full review here.

All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies.

  • David Chariandy, Brother

Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

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I reviewed this one too! Maybe I’m on a roll! Check back on Wednesday for the review.

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”

  • David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Didn’t Finish:

White Cat – Holly Black

Someone raved about this book to me once and so I’ve long had it on my list and finally got a copy of it. As soon as I picked it up at the library I knew it wasn’t my normal fare. I don’t read a lot fantasy but wanted to give it a fair go. I think I got about halfway through. I can see why a fantasy reader would love it but it’s not for me. (I also, in general, hate book series and that biased me against it further.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Redress of Poetry – Seamus Heaney

[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.

  • Seamus Heaney, “The Redress of Poetry”

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The Boat People – Sharon Bala

 

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.

 

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

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.

 

 

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.