THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

SHYAM SELVADURAI

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much” When his father died,six-year-old Shivan’s mother and sister moved with him into his maternal grandmother’s house. Daya was an angry and demanding woman who refused to talk to her daughter. Shivan, the grandson, became the golden boy, the reason she would take the family in. While he soaked up his grandmother’s recounting of ancient Buddhist tales about ghosts who haunt their future selves until past wrongs are redeemed, Shivan also chafed against her hold on him as he aged. He persuaded his mother to move the family to Canada, as much to get away from Daya as to flee the escalating conflict in Sri Lanka. Not that he could really escape—neither his grandmother nor his troubled country were anywhere near finished wreaking havoc in Shivan’s life. On an extended visit back to Sri Lanka, Shivan was taking over his grandmother real estate business until his grandmother had his lover killed.

Ghosts is a well written book. But when Shiven’s affair with Michael goes south I wanted to tell the young men to grow up. It could have used some paring down.

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS

LAURIE FRANKEL

Penn and Rosie have four rowdy, rambunctious boys who they teach they can be anything they want to be. They want to have a girl but of course, they end up with another boy. But Claude is different. Claude is quieter and calmer than the other boys ever were. At three Claude starts wearing a dress and saying he wants to be a girl when he grows up. The family motto is you can be anything you want to be, so the parents take this in stride. For pre-school Claude wore pants to school then changed into his dress when he returned home. When Claude starts kindergarten he starts wearing dresses and skirts to school and adopts the name Poppy. After a playdate gone horribly wrong with a gun-toting homophobe father the family flees to Seattle for greater acceptance. There they tell no one that Poppy is both a girl and a boy. But secrets have a way of getting out.

Terribly well written, THIS IS a page-turner. It’s the best book I’ve read for some time.

THE PARCEL

ANOSH IRANI

“I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers.” Madhu is a eunuch, a hijra, a third sex living in a community of hijras. Once she was the crown jewel of the brothel.  Her “arsehole,” she recalls, “was a cash crop.” Now at 40 she begs on the street. One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a “parcel” has arrived – a young girl from Nepal, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt -“And the truth was a ten year old girl had been sold into slavery.” And Madhu must prepare her for her future of prostitution. Madhu took pride of opening the parcel gently much differently than the pimps would do, though the parcel was still kept in a cage.

“Born and bred to mortify,” Madhu is a breathtaking figure, admirable despite that fact that the “very things that made one human – love, hope, health – had been ripped from her calmly and precisely, the way a syringe extracted blood.”  The Parcel is not an easy read but it does grip you by the heart and squeeze.

 

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir

41z-wdxbkul-_sx325_bo1204203200_MALIK SAJAD

When India was divided into India and Pakistan, most of Kashmir went to India even though its population is mostly Muslim whereas India is mostly Hindu. Kashmir was occupied by the Indian army and became a hotspot for trouble between India and Pakistan. The Kashmiri want independence, their own country. Munnu grew up in this intense environment, never knowing when the government would raid the house, arrest his father or older brother and steal something valuable. His father was an artist who worked in wood block prints. As a child Munnu would help his father with his art. The illustrations in this graphic memoir look like wood block prints. The Kashmir are portrayed ashangul deer (the Kashmir stag) which are now endangered, since their habitat is being destroyed by the Indian  army. Other people are portrayed as humans. At the age of 15, Munnu starts a career as a political cartoonist.  Later a westerner introduces Sajad to the works of Joe Saacco, who has written many political graphic non-fiction books, and encourages Sajad to write one about Kashmir.

I enjoy reading graphic non-fiction books about hotspots around the world. They can give a good overview of the situation. This one on Kashmir is well done.munnu-sig

SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR: Saigon 1961-63

MARCELINO TRUONG978-1-55152-647-8_suchalovelylittlewar-1

Both a memoir and a history, War is an informative window to what we call the Vietnam War; in Vietnam it is called the American War. Truong’s father was a Vietnamese diplomat in Washington, his mother a French woman with bipolar disease.During his early childhood in Washington, DC, the Truongs enjoyed a peaceful life in “a quiet middle-class suburb, something Norman Rockwell might imagine.” Truong describes this period as nothing short of idyllic: jazz on the car stereo, picnics by the water, white Christmases. When the father was called home, he became interpreter to Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. His mother had not wanted to leave the US and was unsettled in her new home. In Saigon, the children live a sheltered existence, punctuated by the war. When the Americans escalate the conflict by sending more weapons and troops, the Truong boys become increasingly more enthralled by the grandiose machines of destruction. They are disturbed more by their mother’s emotional outbursts and irrationalities than the war in the background. We also have the unique perspective of his father who had extraordinary access to the inner workings of power thanks to his role as President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s interpreter.

OLEANDER GIRL

CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNIgirl

Girl tells the story of clashes of classes, ages and sexes. Korobi has been raised in a happy home, in Kolkata, by her grandparents because her mother died in childbirth and her father died in a tragic car accident. Her fiancée Rajat comes from a wealthy business family. But he is conflicted. Is he ready to leave his bad boy bachelor ways behind him and settle down to work and commit to one woman? When Korobi finds a love letter from her mother to her father that was never sent she sets out on a mission to find her father in America where her mother studied as a young woman. Will Rajat and his family still have her when they find out the truth about her father?

CLOUD

ERICK McCORMACK

cloud Harry Steen’s life is shadowed by two events that happened when he was younger. The first was a brief but passionate affair with an intriguing beauty in the uplands of Scotland where he was about to begin his career. She jilted him for her fiance and he left with a broken heart he believed would never heal.  The second was a few years later when he was a Canadian mining executive, on a business trip to Mexico, he discovered a rare 18th century tome. The Obsidian Cloud is an account of an unexplained, true phenomenon: a black cloud with uncannily reflective properties that stalled before dispersing itself in a rain of black hail over Scotland. But it’s less this bizarre event that captures Harry’s attention than the fact that it supposedly occurred in the obscure town where, at age 21, he met his one true and unrequited love. Back at home he send the book to a rare books curator in Glasgow to see what scholars can tell him about this unusual book. The novel tells his life story: working on boats to escape Scotland and the past, chance meetings with remarkable people, being groomed for a pomccormack-180sition in a mining company and the family as well. Cloud is well written but has a weak ending.

 

DON’T LET HIM KNOW

SANDIP ROYdon't

Don’t Let Him Know is a novel told in linked short stories but reads as a coherent novel. It tells the story of a family blinded by its secrets, some small, a grandma hiding sweet chutney in her bedroom for a treat at night, some huge, a husband hiding the truth about his relationship with a man.  As the book begins, Romola, now a widow, is visiting her son Amit in Northern California, where he lives with his American wife and young son. One evening, he gives her a letter he has found in an old address book, sent many years before from a former lover named Sumit.

“Romola sat there in Amit’s armchair slightly stunned,” Roy writes. “After all these years how could she have been so careless? She knew she had saved the letter, unable to destroy it the way she should have years ago. She remembered reading it and rereading it, each word striking her like a sledgehammer, cracking her open over again and again.”

All the characters are bound by traditions, time and secrets. They hold a mirror to our own secrets and misgivings.

A good read.

SAD PENINSULA

MARK SAMPSON

The sad peninsula is Korea. Invaded and colonized by Japan in 1910, Koreans were forced to become Japanese in language and custom. One of the worst atrocities was the imprisonment and rape of young girls as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers. Eun-young was a Korean comfort woman sent to China. She was repeatedly raped and tortured as many as 35 times a day.The narrative relies less on sex and more on her emotions, what she thought about, day-to-day events, her relationship with her close friend and their struggle for survival.  Sad is a difficult read but it is important that these stories are told. Eun-young’s story is balanced by the story of Michael, a Canadian man teaching English in present day Korea. He meets and falls in love with the niece of Eun-young.

This was published the day I finished the novel. Check out some of the links. And read the book.

Reparations for the “comfort women”

Yong Soo Lee, a Korean woman forced into sexual slavery by Japanese forces, in Virginia to raise awareness on behalf of fellow survivorsSarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

  • Japan has reached an agreement with South Korea to apologize and provide restitution for the widespread, systematic kidnapping and rape of so-called “comfort women” by the Japanese Army during World War II. [The Diplomat / Yuki Tatsumi]
  • If you aren’t familiar with the stories of the “comfort women,” these testimonies from a UN report, compiled by NPR’s Elise Hu, are a horrifying, but necessary, place to start. [NPR via Tumblr / Elise Hu]
  • As Vox’s Max Fisher explains, the horrific treatment of the “comfort women” was easily swept under the rug after the war: by Japan, by the Allies, and by Korea itself (women were often blamed for their own rapes). [Vox / Max Fisher]
  • It took until 1993 for Japan to issue a formal apology to South Korea — and that apology ended up prolonging the controversy, as Japanese conservatives pushed back against it and claimed that South Korean women were volunteers. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan]
  • Japanese nationalism is, if anything, more prominent now than it was then. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been relatively unapologetic for Japan’s behavior during the war, and has rolled back many of the isolationist policies that were designed to protect Japan from returning to the imperialism of its past. [Washington Post / Max Fisher]

NOT MY FATHER’S SON

ALAN CUMMINGalan

Cumming’s memoir begins on the Panmure estate in Carnoustie, Scotland – not a council estate but the leftovers of a country house where his dad runs a saw mill: “It was all very feudal and a bit Downton Abbey, minus the abbey… Looking back on it, it was a beautiful place to grow up, but at the time all I wanted was to get away as far as possible.” His father was brutal, taking all his pain and anger out on his youngest son Alan. “Soon, my head was propelled forward by his hand, the other one wielding a rusty pair of clippers that he used on the sheep…They were blunt and dirty and they cut my skin, but my father shaved my head with them, holding me down like an animal.” He made up a story about cutting his own hair for the teachers and students at school the next morning. Scariest of all are the calms between the storms: “That was the worst bit, the waiting… I never knew exactly when it would come, and that, I know, was his favourite part.”

“Our family had always been one of secrets, of silences, of holding things in.”  And Alan keeps secret his father’s many affairs. “Memory is so subjective. We all remember, in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.” It is through a British reality TV show that Cumming learns the truth of his maternal grandfather who avoided the family when WWII ended and eventually died in Malaysia. Also Alan’s father told Alan’s brother that Alan is not his son. He claims Alan’s mother had an affair before he was born.

It is memoir of mysteries. Well written. Well worth the read.

RU

KIM THUYru

Ru, in French, denotes a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or anything else; in Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby. Ru is a story of a life turned from magic into horror, followed by a new beginning in Canada. When the Communists eventually conquer Saigon, diamonds and gold are sewn into cuffs and collars, and all the children are put into different boats to escape to ensure that at least some will survive. The refugee camp build for 200 hold 2000 in unimaginable conditions. When they arrive in Canada the mother must take work cleaning houses even though she has never touched a broom in her life. They live their lives by the Vietnamese motto,  “Life is a struggle in which sorrow leads to defeat.” 

Beautifully written Ru is a must read. This concise novel is in the running for Canada Reads.

“I moved forward in the trace of their footsteps as in a waking dream where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume but a blossoming: where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.” 

“That American dream had given me confidence to my voice, determination to my actions, precision to my desires, speed to my gait and strength to my gaze. That American dream made me believe I could have everything, that I could go around in a chauffeur-driven car while estimating the weight of the squash being carried on a rusty bicycle by a woman with eyes blurred by sweat; that I could dance to the same rhythm as the girls who swayed their hips at the bar to dazzle men whose thick billfolds were swollen with American dollars; that I could live in the grand villa of an expatriate and accompany barefoot children to their school that sat right on the sidewalk where two streets intersected.” 

US CONDUCTORS

us conSEAN MICHAELS

Us Conductors , is a fictionalized account of the mid-section of Termen’s life. Dubbed the “Russian Edison” for his brilliant, wide-ranging innovations with electricity, Léon Termen née Lev Sergeyvich (1896-1993) invented the electronic instrument known as the theremin by chance while working on an early motion sensor prototype. Beginning and ending in the Soviet Union, the novel’s prime focus is the decade Termen spent enjoying the fruits of capitalism in Depression-era New York, where his invention made him, for a time, the toast of the town. Termen lived at the Plaza Hotel, hobnobbed with Einstein and Glen Miller, and — in Michaels’ telling at least — danced and drank till dawn at the speakeasies that flourished during Prohibition. That Michaels has Termen narrate much of the novel from the hold of a Russia-bound cargo ship on which he’s held captive on the eve of the Second World War offers a nudge that the good times didn’t last.

The cornerstone of Michaels’ story is Termen’s unreciprocated love for fellow Russian émigré Clara Rockmore, the theremin’s beautiful foremost virtuoso. (All that’s really known of their relationship is that Termen proposed to her, and was turned down.) Michaels sometimes overplays the geek card here: “It was you I felt in my electromagnetic field,” he moons.

There’s no mistaking the pride in Michaels’ Author’s Note declaration that Us Conductors is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.” Most readers, however, won’t know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin.

Termen’s biography abounds with enough improbable elements that it hardly requires fictional enhancements. In 1938, he was reportedly abducted from his New York studio by Soviet agents and sent — unbeknownst to his friends and wife, the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams — to perform hard labour in a Siberian gulag as an enemy of the state (which he wasn’t). Later, he was moved to a science prison, where he helped develop espionage technology, including the bugging device known as “The Thing”: a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that hung conveniently inside the American Embassy after it was presented to the ambassador by Russian schoolchildren.

Us conductors won the Giller Prize. It is a must read.

I borrowed much of this review from the Toronto Star.

ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS

nayomi-munaweer_1368278394NAUOMI MUNAWEERA

When a dark cloud of racism descends on a country you know only pain suffering will follow. Island tells the story of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the majority Buddhists against the minority Hindus Tamils. “They are taking our land. They are taking our jobs. They are darker than us. They should go back where they came from.” Similar words to other racists situations. Yasodhara Rajasinghe; her sister, Lanka; and their best friend, Shiva, grow up in the same house in Colombo — the Sinhala (Buddhist) girls downstairs and the Tamil boy upstairs, in a partition that matches their island’s. When the Tamil family first occupy the top floor their is much strife but as time passes the families grow to love each other. Of course the children see no difference between the two households. When the violence that has stayed latent finally explodes, the residents of the house are thrown to the wind, navigating difficult, self-consciously new lives in the United States.  But the reader is taken back to Sri Lanka where Saraswathi, a Tamil teenager is brutally attacked by Sinhala soldiers. Damaged goods, no man would marry her, she would only bring shame to her family. Her parents take her to become a soldier of the Tamil Tigers. The two stories are brought together in an explosive ending.

I enjoyed learning about the civil war in Sri Lanka. Well written, Island is a good read.

 

 

LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE

narqaZARQA NAWAZ

Laughing is a hilarious memoir by the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie which was a hit tv show that ran for six seasons. It chronicles Nawaz’s own misadventures inside her community. When an Iman from Saudi Arabia came to her local mosque he insisted there be a barrier between the men and the women who were praying. A shower curtain was quickly hung but Zarqa and a few other women refused to be treated like second class muslims and would go in front of the curtain to pray with the men.  Wanting to be helpful Zarqa joined the DBWC — the Dead Body Washing Committee — at her Regina mosque. Attempting to heave a deceased woman onto her side so she could wash her back, Zarqa exclaimed, “Now we know where the term ‘dead weight’ comes from.” “Jokes will not be tolerated at this time,” responded Auntie Nadia. “I wasn’t joking, I was just commenting about how heavy the body is.” “We don’t comment about the body. Ever.” “Perhaps the DBWC isn’t the best place for you.” “But why?” “Because you say very inappropriate things during a very solemn occasion.” “I just have a bad habit of blurting out stuff that I’m thinking.” “And that’s exactly the kind of person we don’t need.”

Another riotous episode is when Zarqa is explaining to the construction worker why she needs to reach the sink from the toilet. She needs to be able to fill a teapot for washing. After the toilet paper comes washing.

When she first heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, she thought, “Please don’t let it be us.” But, of course, it was, and that evening she told her husband, “Life as we know it is over.” Other muslims had this same reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jian Gomeshi recounted that his father had the same reaction, “Please don’t let it be muslims.” This book helps us see muslims in a much different light. In Asia they have a saying, “Same, same but different.”

Read Laughing. You’ll laugh out loud.

WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by JULIE OTSUKA and THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by TAN TWAN ENG

emperorThe synchronisity of books. Divine is about the internment of Japanese-America citizens during world war two. I enjoyed the simplicity of the writing. It starts with a woman seeing a sign in a window as she was returning a book to the library. When she got home she started packing. At first the reader does not know what is happening or why. The father, who has always been a dapper man, is taken at night. Not allowed to dress he is forced to leave in his pajamas. They don’t see her husband or their father again until after the war, over three years. At first the family is housed in a converted stable in San Francisco. Later they are taken to a camp in the desert where it is hot, dry and dusty all the time. The boy, only 7 when his family is forced from its home. He passes his days in the camp playing marbles and Chinese checkers — or ”cops and robbers and war. ‘ Kill the Nazis! Kill the Japs!'” Otsuka isn’t shy about showing how the children become caught up in the anti-Japanese hysteria. She’s frank as well about the family members’ efforts to erase all trace of Japanese character or culture as they succumb to the complex shame of being falsely accused.  Before they left the mother prepared her family for departure: burying the family silver, destroying all Japanese memorabilia (kimonos, tea sets, opera records, letters from relatives in Japan), disposing of the family pets. Divine is a good book but there are several Canadian books on the same subject that are much better, for instance Obasan by Joy Kogawa.

garden-of-evening-mistsThen I picked up Evening Mists, which is about a British-Malasian woman Yun Ling Teoh who’s family was incarcerated during WWII by the Japanese. Her sister was immediately selected to be a “comfort woman”; what a horrible euphemism for a condition of repeated forced rape. One of the officers said that she was one of the lucky ones. That the comfort women in larger centres had to service many times more men. The main character worked in the kitchen and would steal left overs from officers plates. When she was caught the officer cut off two fingers from her dominant hand. Many men and women died in the camp and more came to replace them. They were digging mines. The women were carting stones away by hand to dump them. When the war ended, the guards forced all the prisoners into the mines and blew them up. Ling escaped because she had become a translator for the camp officials. After the war she set out to acutalize her sister’s dream of creating a Japanese garden. She went to the Malaysian highlands to request Aritomo, who had been the emperor’s gardener to help her build a garden for her sister. He refuses but told her he will teacher her by having her work for him in his garden. The garden called Evening Mists is where she learned about the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral” to the garden itself. Evening Mists was the masterpiece of Aritomo, who eventually helps heal the trauma of her imprisonment. She goes on to study law and becomes the second female judge in Malaysia. Evening Mists is a book I highly recommend.

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING

Ruth2

RUTH OZEKI

“Forget the clock. It has no power over time, but words do.”

This is a book everyone will love. Ozeki is am amazing writer, juggling themes of time, metaphysics, suicide, history, time travel, zen Buddhism,  Japanese history, computer science, 2011 earthquake and tsunami as well as others. TIME also has an interesting structure. The author is a character in the novel though she is always referred to as Ruth, never as I.

Ruth lives on an island on the west coast of British Columbia. Out for a walk on the beach she discovers a Miss Kitty lunch box. Inside wrapped up in plastic to keep it safe is the diary of a sixteen year old Japanese girl, Nao,  an antique wristwatch and what turns out to be the diary, written in French, of her uncle, who died as a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War. Ruth and her husband Oliver begin to read the girls diary. She Ruthhad been born in Japan but moved to Silicon Valley for many years as her dad was a computer programer. When the dot com bubble burst they went back to Japan in poverty and shame. When Nao starts school in Japan, she is regarded as a foreigner is and is mercilessly bullied. Her only solace is writing about her grandmother, Jiko, a 104-year-old “anarchist feminist Zen Buddhist novelist nun,” with a long history of lovers, both male and female. Jiko helps Nao understand that  “time beings” are beings who understand that “everything in the universe is forever changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.”

“I have a pretty good memory, but memories are time beings too, like cherry blossoms or ginkgo leaves for a while they are beautiful, and they they fade and die.”

Run out right now and get this book!

CHE: A Graphic Biography

cheSPAIN RODREGUEZ

Everyone is familiar with the iconic photo of Che (Esterno Guevara). It is on t-shirts, posters, movie marquees and the list goes on. It is known all over the world. But while most people recognize his picture they don’t understand his background and why he is famous. Most don’t really understand what his picture represents because it means different concepts to different people. Rodreques graphic bio is a great way to fill in those blanks.

Che wasn’t Cuban thought it was in Cuba that he was a revolutionary leader and later a government leader in health and education. He was born in August, 1928 in the Argentine city of Rosario to an educated and middle class family. In medical school he took special interest in leprosy and allergies, the later because he was asthmatic. When he was dumped by a woman from a wealthy family he took a much celebrated motorcycle trip through much of South America where he learned much about racial and class inequality. He published a book che4

Che is an easy read and good history. Well worth the time to catch up on some of the history of South America and the U S involvement.

THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN

blind1

NADEEM ASLAM

In Nadeem Aslam’s memorable 2008 novel The Wasted Vigil, set in Afghanistan, beauty and pain were intimately entwined, impossible to keep apart. The various incompatibles in his new book The Blind Man’s Garden don’t surrender their separateness so magically. There are awkward gaps and residues despite the author’s great gifts of imagination.

The novel starts in late 2001 and takes place largely in Pakistan, though some sections are again set in Afghanistan, newly invaded. Elderly Rohan, eventually the blind man of the title, his vision gradually dimming, founded an Islamic school called Ardent Spirit with his wife Sofia. After her death he was forced out as the school became intolerant, a virtual nursery of jihad, but continues to live in the house that he built on the same site.

The main characters of The Wasted Vigil were non-natives, a Briton, an American and a Russian (partial roll call of the nationalities that have meddled in Afghanistan). There are no such mediating figures in the new novel, and they are missed. No doubt imperialistic reading habits die hard, the easy expectation of having otherness served up on a plate, but it’s not just that. For Nadeem Aslam to communicate the richness and depth of his characters’ culture, he must keep touching in the background they take for granted, in passages that float free of their points of view. He informs us for instance that orphaned children are likely to be sought out and asked to say prayers, since they belong to a category of being whose requests Allah never ignores, and that the Angel of Death is said to have no ears, to prevent him from hearing anyone’s pleas. When there’s a reference to mountains near Peshawar being “higher than the Alps placed onto the Pyrenees”, the European frame of reference is jarring.

Before the main characters are properly introduced a minor figure administers a distracting overdose of symbolism. A “bird pardoner” sets up snares in the trees of Rohan’s garden, trapping the birds in nooses of steel wire. He plans to sell them in the town, since freed birds say prayers on behalf of those who buy their freedom. He doesn’t come back, though, at the promised time, and the trees are full of suffering birds.

Another minor character is a mendicant who goes around wrapped in hundreds of chains. The idea is that each link represents a prayer, and disappears as Allah grants it. The book also contains a ruby that appears without explanation, just in time to ransom a prisoner from a warlord, though the warlord, taking offence at a lack of respect during the ransoming process, pulverises the jewel and uses it as an instrument of torture instead.

For most of the book Aslam’s command of detail is absolute, but there are some strange failures early on. A page-long description of dozens of horses bursting out of the ground (they had been buried alive by Rohan’s great-grandfather to prevent them being taken by rebels during the Indian Mutiny) is visually incoherent, and even some modern details seem very unreal – such as streams with dozens of beards floating in them, shaved off by fleeing al-Qaida militants.

All of this seems to suggest the winsome irrationality of magical realism. In time, magical realism may be seen as a self-imposed variant of orientalism, complicit in the exotic expectations of outsiders. We are given to understand that when it comes to certain countries, certain cultures, the truth is incredible and, conversely, the unbelievable must be true. This isn’t at all what Nadeem Aslam wants to do, which is (at a guess) to dissolve the false opposition between reason and wonder, and the presence of these elements is all the more puzzling.

The book has a plot that converges a number of times on the action-adventure thriller, though containing more pain than the genre allows. Unprotected by the gorgeousness ofblind2 Aslam’s language, the story is potentially novelettish or TV movie-like: two foster brothers (Rohan’s son and a boy raised with him) in love with the same woman run away to war. The details here are infinitely more convincing – though I don’t know for a fact that a .22 bullet, used to replace the fuse in a van’s headlights, will overheat and be fired into the driver’s leg after about 15 miles.

The balance between these grim adventures and the life of the family waiting in anguish just about holds, though Rohan’s daughter Yasmin is an oddly sketchy presence, introduced late and never emerging as a character in her own right. This is unfortunate since the marginalisation of women, as demonstrated by “a framed family tree that displays only the names of the males”, is a theme of this novel as well as its predecessor.

Though Rohan represents devout but enlightened Islam, there are contradictions in him that the book skips over. Sofia told him she had lost her belief before she died, and he is supposed to have withheld her medication so as to force her to reconsider, such was his fear of her damnation. Students from Ardent Spirit patrol the graveyard, preventing women from visiting their dead relatives (something they have decided is forbidden), but we’re not given Rohan’s reaction to this as he exercises his own uncontested visiting rights. In the quarrel over the school he had been promised that there would be no militant teaching, but that was because he was regarded as an infidel and therefore someone to whom promises could be broken. It isn’t clear whether he objects to this principle or just to being classified as an infidel. At moments like these The Blind Man’s Garden seems not so much to embrace pain, as The Wasted Vigil did so powerfully, as to shy away from discomfort.

I borrowed this review from  Adam Mars-Jones  in The Observer.

Blind Man’s Garden is a good read but Aslam’s previous novel Wasted Vigil is a great novel. Read them both.

LONG LEGS BOY

boyBENJAMIN MADISON

When Modou’s parents are both dead from AIDS and his entire village is decimated he seeks help from an African  holy man, Alhaji, who takes care of boys who have no parents. Of course there are chores for all the orphans but there are also lessons to teach them the Koran. Reba Brecken, country director for Rights for Kids Coalition comes to their compound to check that the boys are being well taken care of. She believes the children should not have to work, and that they should be with their families. Unfortunately she is blind to the reality of life in Africa. News of another man who helps boys in need that his compound had been shut down and the boys sent off to various villages, Alhaji decides to move the boys to the capital. In the city the boys have no work so they must go beg to help support themselves. But the government doesn’t like street kids and rounds them up and dumps them at various villages after beating them. Most of them slowly and painfully make their way back to the capital. Modou has the gift of speed. He whizzes through the market earning money by quickly delivering messages and packages. He is also so fast that he can avoid the police who look foolish being unable to catch him. He earns the name Toofas (Toofast) and becomes a creature of myth and legend.

The part of the story where Modou becomes a rallying figure for rebel forces is overdone and unbelievable. But the rest of the novel is great. It highlights how the best meaning aid worker can create an even bigger problem by not comprehending the whole picture. A cautionary tale.

A must read.

THE HEADMASTER’S WAGER

 lam2 lam3VINCENT LAM

Percival Chen (Chen Pie Sou) is the headmaster of the  Chen Academy of English in Cholon, just outside of Saigon. It is a most successful business, especially after the school gets American accreditation.  A Chinese expatriate from Shantou, Percival has done well, first in his father’s rice trade, then in the business of English lessons. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage. When his son, Dai Jai, becomes involved with one of the school’s female students, Percival warns Dai Jai of the deceitful nature of such Annamese women. He reminds Dai Jai that the two of them are wa kiu, overseas Chinese, who, no matter where they go in the world, must remain Chinese. He must marry a Chinese woman. Foolishly Dai Jai proclaims his Chinese patriotism in school refusing to take state mandated Vietnamese language lessons. Percival cannot both keep the boy in Vietnam and keep him safe. Believing it is for the best, Dai Jai is sent away to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Chen’s gambling addiction is revived with out his son. In a game of majong he wins the most beautiful prostitute Jacqueline. A mixed race Vietnamese her exotic beauty entrances Chen. He tries to stay on the political sidelines but inevitable is pulled into American War. When he finds out the truth about his young lover, his world falls apart.

An engaging look at the lives of Chinese people living in Vietnam and the culture of Vietnam in a time of devestating upheaval.