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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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 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.

Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)

My main problem with The Luminaries was that it was too big. Not too long – I definitely could have read more from Catton. The book is over 800 pages and in hardcover it was just too large for me to hold with one hand. And since I do much of my reading these days while holding a baby, I wasn’t able to get through the novel as fast as I wanted to.

Seriously though, I enjoyed this book a lot. As with any book of this size there are definitely parts that could be edited down or reduced. However this is a well and thoughtfully-crafted novel. Catton fits a lot in and the form and pace of the novel is superbly done.

Set in the mid-19th century in a gold mining town in New Zealand (Who knew New Zealand had a gold rush? Not me and not anyone I mentioned it to.) the story opens on the day Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika. He unwittingly stumbles across a council of twelve unlikely men, meeting in secret to discuss recent events. A hermit has been found dead, his house filled with stashed gold. The town’s richest man has disappeared. A prostitute has apparently attempted suicide in the road. All in one day.

The twelve men lay out their tales to Moody, who has his own strange experience en route to Hokitika to add to the mystery. The first section of the novel outlines how these twelve came to meet together and steadily unfolds all the strange elements of this story and how a hermit, a rich man, and a prostitute might be connected. From there we move forward in time in the next couple of sections and then back to the previous year.

The story is complex and sometimes confusing. There is a hoard of gold that changes hands so many times through so many various means that I really had to concentrate to make sure I understand the plot. However, the characters are clear and unique, well-drawn and fascinating. Catton does well at introducing them in the first section and letting the reader see their various biases and influences. Each man is connected and implicated somehow and while this adds to the complexity it also makes the story all the more fascinating and the tension greater.

Some of the most interesting stories belong to two Chinese characters, Ah Quee and Ah Sook. While life in Hokitika and New Zealand at this time is hard and dirty and often degrading, this is most seen for these two men. Their stories are truly heart-breaking and a harsh reminder of racist attitudes held around the world in history. By contrast, the female characters are weaker. There are only two (and fair enough, this would not have been a welcoming place for most women) and they each fall into stereotypes in their own way, despite both being very important characters and each at the crux of the mystery.

The part of the novel that missed the mark for me was the astrological structure of it. Granted, I know nothing of astrology so the outlines and references to charts and signs was meaningless but it also never seemed to be explained within the context of the story. Towards the end, there is some suggestion of a more powerful and spiritual answer to some of the unanswered questions. There are tantalizing hints given that greater forces may be at work but this feels like something the author tiptoes to the edge of. By neither staying completely in the realm of realism or diving fully into the realm of the mystical, Catton weakens the solution she does provide and ended up frustrating this reader.

All in all though, a truly excellent novel.

Book Review: Such is My Beloved by Morley Callaghan

Such is My Beloved - Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Father Dowling is a young Catholic priest in a city parish. One day he happens to meet two young women, prostitutes, and begins a sort of friendship with them. His love for them is strong – perhaps even Christ-like – but shockingly naive and his increasing single-mindedness and involvement in their lives becomes distorting and distracting in every other aspect of his life. Father Dowling’s love for Ronnie and Midge, though platonic, seems to push out all other considerations and duties until, inevitably, his life and his vocation are affected.

The girls alternate between taking advantage of the young priest and genuinely liking him. Brazen one minute, shy and embarrassed the next, they have no idea how to react to his presence in their lives. The reader doesn’t see far into their minds but we are given a sense of their conflict, as well as some background to explain how they ended up where they are. In this, the 1930s Depression-era setting is crucial. Father Dowling is desperate to get the women off the streets, not realizing how difficult it is to find decent employment.

The story is short on plot, comprising primarily of Father Dowling’s thoughts and feelings, his reflections on this strange love he has developed, interspersed with visits to the girls. These are contrasted with his increasingly brief interactions with the other priests, as well as a rich parishioner who he attempts to engage to help Ronnie and Midge. Father Dowling’s atheist friend, Charlie, acts as a sort of foil for the characters of the other priests and the church parishioners, being the person who Dowling can speak to most openly. Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend (a Catholic woman) also seems to act as a subtle mirror to Father Dowling’s relationship with the young prositutes.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time in and around church ministry, I found this book stressful. Most men I know who work in the church make a great effort to avoid any semblance of sexual misconduct, some going as far as to ensure they are never alone with a woman. And so while Father Dowling’s desire to help is admirable, he puts himself in a position to be misunderstood by others, frequently visiting the girls in the hotel they live in, in the same rooms where they perform their job. As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly convinced of his holy love and even more reckless in his behaviour. This alienates him further from the church and the reader has to wonder if by taking better precautions in the beginning, he might actually have been able to help Ronnie and Midge more.

Father Dowling seems meant to be a Jesus figure (though he’s too naive to quite fit the profile), including his ultimate end with the religious authorities. There’s a fascinating scene near the end of the novel with the Bishop (who might be the Pontius Pilate figure) as he struggle with inner conflict but ultimately washes his hands of the consequences.

Overall, the book feels dated and I’m not sure how much it would interest a modern reader without a religious background. The Catholic church has been through so many scandals since the 1930s that Father Dowling’s actions seem pretty mild. Such is My Beloved is an interesting glimpse at Canada in the 1930s though and so perhaps deserves its spot amongst 20th century Canadian literature.

What I Read – January 2017

Read:

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

A vocation is a terrible thing. To be called out of nature into the supernatural life is at first (or perhaps not quite at first – the wrench of the parting may be felt later) a costly honour. Even to be called from one natural level to another is loss as well as gain. Man has difficulties and sorrows which the other primates escape.

  • C.S. Lewis

I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

In the light of day, her dreams were drained of their nightmarish quality, and they seemed whimsical and strange, but the taste of loss remained in her mouth.

  • Eowyn Ivey

When She Was ElectricAndrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Let one person tell her she couldn’t have it and she would claw them into submission. Let one more person tell her what she could and could not have, and she would smile, nod, and, without apology, do whatever the hell she wanted.

  • Kevin Wilson

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Even a dream of social betterment usually is a bitter disappointment. We’ve got to accept the disappointment and go on. All of us must be terribly disappointing to God. By any standard of justice God might have abandoned us all long ago and left us to shift for ourselves as those girls are shifting now wherever they are, whatever they are doing.

  • Morley Callaghan

Fates & Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Simply Christian – N.T. Wright

Birdie – Tracey Lindberg

What I Read – November 2016

Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel (Harper Avenue, 2014)

At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness Andrew Peterson (Water Brook Press, 2008)

Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller (House of Anansi Press, 2017)

Prayer – Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2014)

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith (Red Fox, 2001)

A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis (Faber & Faber, 2013)

By Gaslight – Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaAnthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories – Tolstoy

Book Review: By Gaslight by Steven Price

By Gaslight - Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

By Gaslight – Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

Steven Price was one of my favourite professors when I was in university. I took a few courses with him, including a grammar class that remains one of the most practical courses I’ve ever studied. All that to say, I was biased to like By Gaslight before I even started it. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy Price’s first novel, Into the Darkness, so hopefully I wasn’t too biased! The good news is that the two books are extremely dissimilar and By Gaslight is well-deserving of the good press it’s received this year.

The book travels through the 19th century, the American Civil War, and Victorian London, even making a stop in South Africa. The central storyline – the “present” – is set in 1885 in London, where two very different Americans have recently arrived.

William Pinkerton, of Pinkerton Detective Agency is in London chasing a shadow, a man named Edward Shade, who he knows almost nothing about except that his father (recently deceased) searched for this man for years. Pinkerton is further than ever from finding Shade when his best lead jumps into the Thames. Adam Foole is a gentleman thief with a fluid, changing background. He’s returned to London, called back by a letter from the woman he loves and hasn’t spoken to in years. And whose body just washed up out of the river. Pinkerton and Foole’s paths quickly cross, including in some very unexpected ways. (And places – there’s a terrifically eery scene set in the sewers below London.)

Prices takes us into each man’s history, particularly their experiences in the American Civil War, and the mystery of Edward Shade is slowly revealed.

Like any 700+ page book, there is content here that could have been left out without greatly harming the plot. The story is heavily detailed and very descriptive, though mostly avoids feeling repetitive. Price is also a poet and it’s evident in his very visceral descriptions. The setting of industrial London is particularly vivid, in all its soot and grit. Price’s prose flows beautifully and when I read parts aloud to Pearl the sentences felt good in my mouth.

While By Gaslight requires an investment of time, I think it proves itself very worthwhile.

What I Read – June 2016

A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 2005)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – Chris Grabenstein (Yearling, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco

Poetry Monday: Lorna Crozier

IMG_7221If you are a Canadian reader of poetry chances are good that you know and admire Lorna Crozier. If you are everybody else in the world, you’ve probably never heard of her.

Lorna Crozier is one of the best living poets today. She’s written more than twenty books, mostly poetry. Her poems are lyrical and thoughtful, full of story and beauty, sometimes hints of violence. Take this stanza from her poem “Younger Sister: What’s in the Blood” (from What the Living Won’t Let Go):

Our mother said the war made her father
strange. In the middle of the night
he’d wake up screaming. Someone had slid
a cadaver’s leg between the bedclothes.
A gruesome thing, white and cold,
he’d throw it from the mattress,
him landing with it on the floor.

The way Crozier breaks her lines is nothing short of brilliant, adding all sorts of extra meaning and strength to her poems. The story-telling nature of her poetry makes it more accessible to the casual (or new) reader of poetry. You can enjoy Crozier at face value, although there is much more there.

The natural world is also a hugely important aspect of Crozier’s writing. Her latest book, with the photographer Ian MacAllister is actually all about this. From the poem “Noah’s Wife” (found in Everything Arrives at the Light):

The salamanders, too, with their grace.
Their fingers seemed to stroke green
music from the air.

Crozier makes up one half of the Canadian Poetry Power Couple (if there can be such a thing!), together with her husband, Patrick Lane. Personally, I prefer Crozier’s work but it can be fun to read the two poets in tandem. One of the books pictured above is a series of poems that Lane and Crozier (under the name Lorna Uher) wrote together in 1979 – no longer two people.

I was fortunate enough to have Lorna Crozier as a professor for two terms at the University of Victoria. I learned a lot from her then and I continue to learn from her when I read her poetry. If you’re new to the Canadian poetry scene, Crozier is a great place to start.

Previous Poetry Mondays:

Gerard Manley Hopkins