ETTA and OTTO and RUSSELL and JAMES

EMMA HOOPER

ETTA, 83 years young, sets off to walk to the ocean, the long way from her farm in Saskatchewan. “I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there, I’ll try to remember to come back.” reads the note she left her husband Otto. In the wild, Etta meets James, a coyote who talks and sings cowboy songs when no one else is around. Otto chooses to wait for her return. He keeps busy building a papier-mache menagerie of all kinds of animals. The reader does have to suspend belief that a woman suffering from dementia can walk over 3,200 kilometres and never sleep indoors or have to deal with winter. This story is balanced with the story of their youth when Etta was a teacher and Otto was her pupil for a short time before he went off to war. While he was fighting in Europe the two correspond with a multitude of letters. She corrects his mistakes and improves his literacy. They have a brief but intense relationship when he comes home on leave, but when he departs Etta is left with Russell, with whom she has a more traditional courtship.

Etta is a fun, light read reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

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.

ALBERTO’S LOST BIRTHDAY

DIANA ROSIE

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday. As a child, Alberto lost his birthday in the Spanish civil war when he spent most of his childhood in an overcrowded orphanage. Now an old man living a simple life, he rarely thinks about his disappeared past. But when his grandson discovers his Apu has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, and never received a single card or present, he’s determined to do something about it. Since Alberto’s father is recovering from a horrible accident his mother gives permission for him to do a road trip with his Apu. As the two set off to find Alberto’s birthday, they have no idea it will be a journey that takes them through Spain’s troubled past, to places – and people – that Alberto once knew. But in a country that has vowed to move forward, looking back can be difficult. But finding old friends is its own reward.

Birthday is a heart-warming story all will enjoy.

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.

COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS

DOMNICA azRADULESCA

Azaleas takes place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), when Serbian soldiers practiced systematic genocide and raped an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women in “rape camps.” In spite of the violence, Lara and Marija — a Serb and a Bosnian, respectively — remain closer than sisters, even in the face of separation and tragedy. The two meet when both are schoolgirls in Belgrade and become inseprable. As college students, they spend hours in cafés discussing politics and philosophy. When war breaks out, Lara leaves for the United States with her new American husband, Mark, while Marija returns to Sarajevo to become a war reporter behind Bosnian lines. Mark tries to help Lara adapt to American life. Some of the most amusing parts of an otherwise unsettling novel are Lara’s attempts to understand concepts such as stay-at-home mom and take-out food. After having a baby, Lara begins a doctorate at the university and throws herself into her studies. At a conference in Paris, Lara meets a handsome, North African named Karim, with whom she has an affair, leading to a devastating divorce. When Marija surfaces in California, Lara races to join her, but finds her vastly changed. Still gorgeous, wild, and irreverent, Marija now has a glass eye and a reconstructed face. Furthermore, she suffers moments of deep dejection and fits of sobbing. Marija presses Lara to help her find her child born from violent rape.

“When I looked at her,” says Lara, “I saw the full horror of that day in July 1995 displayed glaringly on her face. The gushing of blood, the obscene panting, the muffled screams, flesh, organs, guns, screams begging for death, sighing for death, screaming the sharpest scream across the black earth. It all passed for one second on Marija’s face like an apocalyptic cloud. The next second it was gone.”

Despite some horrific scenes, Country of Red Azaleas is an uplifting and optimistic novel. The strength and determination of both protagonists, their love for one another, and their yearning to create a better future for themselves and their children surpass the traumas they have suffered.

 

THE DESERTER’S TALE: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq

JOSHUA KEY as told to LAWRENCE HILLdeserter's

Key thought joining the U.S. military was a way to escape the poverty of his youth and get a decent-paying, secure job, perhaps even an education, to support his growing family. In many ways, Key was an ideal recruit: he had a childhood fascination with guns, he was a bit of a fighter but still followed orders, and he was good with his hands. He even enjoyed boot camp where they were taught all Iraqis were terrorist, even the babies. In Iraq, Key took part in acts of cruel and vindictive violence. His squad’s nightly tasks become a routine of violence and the abuse of power: raiding civilian homes, brutalizing the inhabitants, destroying the contents, stealing the valuables and taking the men and boy five feet tall away, never to be seen again. Key does not know where these men, who were not arrested for any crime, were sent: perhaps to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. joshua keyThey never found any terrorists, caches of weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were ordered to do the same thing night after night. At first there was no resistance. Then gradually resistance began to build. Key commented that if a foreign power landed in the US and terrorized the citizens the same way there would be hell to pay.

“We claimed to be bringing democracy and good order to the people of Iraq, but all we brought were hate and destruction. The only thing gave to the people of Iraq was a reason to despise us–for generations to come.”

When home for a two week break Key realized he could not return. He was already suffering from PTSD. Eventually, he made it to Canada where he applied for asylum.

“I will never apologize for deserting the American army. I deserted an injustice and leaving was the only right thing to do. I owe one apology and one apology only and that is to the people of Iraq.”

lawrence-hill_584During the 60’s and 70’s Canada’s door were open to anti-war protestors. I hope that will happen again with our recent change of government. Canada benefited from the creative and entrepreneurial spirit those immigrants brought. One name that comes to mind is the Canadian author Robert Munsch.

THE UNQUIET DEAD

unquietAUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN

An unusual death.   A man fell off a cliff. But was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder. Who was Christopher Drayton? A wealthy patron of the arts, supporting the new museum of Andalucia, the Spanish state with most Moorish influence. But could he be Drazen Krstic, the driving force behind theSrebrenica massacre of 1995, in the genocidal war that followed the break up of Yugoslavia. Esa Khattak, head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, and Rachel Getty, his sergeant, handle minority sensitive cases, are tasked to find a solution to this case.

This a great mystery. Don’t miss it. I want to read more of her books. Her next is the Language of Secrets.

This is a LINK to a Bosnian woman’s victim’s statement to a UN’s inquest. Khan had an extensive author’s note at the end of the novel.

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]

NIGHT

nightELIE WIESEL

Night is considered a masterpiece of holocaust literature. It was published in 1960, a first of its kind. Published as a novel it is more of a memoir. The jews in the small town of Sighet, Transylvania believed that the war would never reach them. When they heard stories of mass killings of their people they thought those things couldn’t happen in such an enlightened age. But when the Germans arrived they were all loaded into cattle cars and sent to Buchenwald. “Night” recounts daily life in the camps — the never-ending hunger, the sadistic doctors who pulled gold teeth, the Kapos who beat fellow Jews. On his first day in the camps, Wiesel was separated forever from his mother and sister. At Auschwitz, he watched his father slowly succumb to dysentery before the SS beat him to within an inch of his life. Wiesel writes honestly about his guilty relief at his father’s death. In the camps, the formerly observant boy underwent a profound crisis of faith; “Night” was one of the first books to raise the question: where was God at Auschwitz?

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The Nobel committee called Wiesel “a messenger to mankind,” teaching “peace, atonement and human dignity.”

“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”

“My faceless neighbor spoke up: “Don’t be deluded. Hitler has made it clear that he will annihilate all Jews before the clock strikes twelve.” I exploded: “What do you care what he said? Would you want us to consider him a prophet?
His cold eyes stared at me. At last he said, wearily: “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because he kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

FATHERLAND

fatherlandNINA BUNJEVAC

As the title suggests Fatherland is more of a history of the Serbs and Croats, and of the author’s family than a memoir. The beautiful artwork in this graphic history is done in a photorealistic style that adds credence to her writing. She uses her writing to come to terms with her father’s shadowy, violent past, the national schisms that shaped him, and the scars that both fatherhood and fatherland leave on her family, and they are many. When she was just 2 years old, her mother, Sally, fled her father, taking Nina and her sister from their adopted home of Ontario, Canada, back to their grandparents in the former Yugoslavia. Sally Bunjevac was driven in part by Peter Bunjevac’s emotional abuse and alcoholism, but there was more: She’d become aware that he was involved in a Serbian nationalist terrorist group, one that was manufacturing bombs. Every night Sally barricaded the windows with tall furniture, afraid someone would throw a bomb in and blow them up in their beds.

Fatherland is a quick read. Recommended for anyone interested in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

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.” 

THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN: A Curious Account of Native People In North America

THOMAS KING

The story of Canada is the story of her relationship with native people. Despite the clamouring of history to pull us into the full sweep of accepted history – the one that starts with “discovery” segues into brave “explorers” and into the notion of “two founding nations” – the real history of Canada begins with native people. Similarly, the story of North America. In 1492, native people discovered Columbus. That’s the plain truth of it. Ever since that moment, the history of the continent has been interpreted and articulated through settler eyes. That there are gross inaccuracies and outright omissions is all too evident in the relative mainstream ignorance of all things indigenous circa 2012.

The truth, as it were, lies somewhere between what is taught and what is endured by indigenous people themselves. So it is that Cherokee/Greek author Thomas King offers us The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People In North America. Though it is built on a foundation of historical fact, King insists that the book is an “account,” resting more on storytelling technique than a true historian’s acumen.

We’re glad that it is. Because this accounting dredges up little-known facts that illuminate the lack of comprehension about the role of indigenous people on the national consciousness of both Canada and the United States. Then it lays them out in frequently hilarious, sagacious, down-to-earth language that anyone can understand. Reading it, you can hear minds being blown everywhere.

“Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. It’s the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.

“Which, of course, it isn’t.”

From there, King leads us through accounts of the massacres of settlers that never happened to massacres of Indians that did, the true nature and intent of treaties and government apologies, the whole issue of land and a rollicking, gut-busting portrayal of Dead Indians, Live Indians and Legal Indians that perfectly outlines the whole issue of misperception.

It’s all couched in a plainspoken forthrightness that shocks as often as it demystifies. In an examination of treaties, and the perception of Canada and U.S. governments as benevolent and generous, King declares, “The idea that either country gave first nations something for free” is malarkey.

Later, in an examination of what Indians want, when King refocuses the question on what white people want, he lays it out without question: “Whites want land.

“The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was theraison d’être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, is the issue of land. The issue has always been land.”

With that understanding firmly stated, the whole nature and mechanics of history as inflicted on Indians in North America can be understood. It’s not an easy acceptance. It takes some grit and desire.

But the book is ultimately about healing. As much as he uncovers the dirt of history, King shines a light on what is possible in the advancement of Indians to an equal place in both countries. It is essential reading for everyone who cares about Canada and who seeks to understand native people, their issues and their dreams. We come to understand that Indians are inconvenient because, despite everything, we have not disappeared.

Thomas King is beyond being a great writer and storyteller, a lauded academic and educator. He is a towering intellectual. For native people in Canada, he is our Twain; wise, hilarious, incorrigible, with a keen eye for the inconsistencies that make us and our society flawed, enigmatic, but ultimately powerful symbols of freedom.

The Inconvenient Indian is less an indictment than a reassurance that we can create equality and harmony. A powerful, important book.

I borrowed this review from Richard Wagamese whose writing I admire.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

CUTTING FOR STONE

cutting-for-stone220ABRAHAM VERGHESE

Marion and Shiva Stone are born one sultry day in 1954 in Addis Ababa, the same day their mother — a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise — dies of complications from her hidden pregnancy. The boys are conjoined at the skull, separated at birth, still they feel an amazing connection. The twins are raised by Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, a strong willed woman known as Hema, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, both immigrants from Madras and both doctors at the hospital where the boys’ natural parents also worked. Missing Hospital, it’s called: “Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like ‘Missing.’ ” They grow up amid the political turmoil of Ethiopia. They both learn medicine beside their parents, Marion along side his surgeon father, Shiva with his gynecologyst mother. In 1979 Marion flees, first to Nairobi and finally to New York, where he qualifies as a surgeon. Shiva, too, goes into medicine, specializing in treating vaginal fistula, for which work he is acclaimed. In New York Marion finds his long lost father the famous transplant surgeon Thomas Stone, who fled at their birth and the death of his lover Sister Mary Joseph Praise.

“How beautiful and horrible life is, Hema thought; too horrible to simply call tragic. Life is worse than tragic.”

“My father, for whose skills as a surgeon I have the deepest respect, says, “The operation with the best outcome is the one you decide not to do.” Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for the assistance of a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

Stone is a great read. You learn a lot about Ethiopia and medicine.

MADDADDAM

maddMAGARET ATWOOD

Maddaddam is a story of myth making as Toby explains the past to the Crakers the bio-engenireered creatures created by Crake before he killed everything else in the first book of the trilogy Oryx and Crake. Thanks you to Atwood for providing a synopsis of the first two volumes. I found it a great way to start Maddaddam with a refresher course. Toby tells the story of Zeb and his harsh upbringing by the Rev of the Church of PetrOleum and his eventual escape into a life on the run, first to San Francisco’s “pleeblands,” then to a job as a magician’s assistant, to survival in the Canadian wilderness after a “Bearlift” mission goes wrong, to New New York (on the Jersey Shore) and at last into work at a HelthWyzer laboratory compound, where he meets characters familiar to us as members of an underground movement. Toby’s telling of Zeb’s story is interspersed with the present-day defense of the compound and the unusual partnership they develop for mutual protection. Toby teaches the Crakers to read, write and to tell their own stories.atwood

Maddaddam is a book of hope and healing and renewal.

Read this book but do read the trilogy in order. It is terrific.

 

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.

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.

THE IMPOSTER BRIDE

bride

NANCY RICHLER

Nancy Richler’s third novel is a family drama set in postwar Montreal, where Polish Jew Lily Azerov has come via Palestine to marry a man she has never met. When her fiance sees her his snap decision is that she isn’t for him. When his brother, Nathan, goes to apologize he proposes and soon they are married. The book is narrated by by Ruth, Sol and Elka’s daughter. The couple meet at Nathan and Ruth’s wedding that Elka and her mother Bella crash because back home Bella had a cousin named Lily Azerov. But at the wedding she realized that the bride was not her relation.

When Ruth is 3 months old, her mother Lilly went out for milk and never returned. When they checked the fridge there were many bottles of formula and a bottle of milk. The family gathered around Nathan to help raise Ruth. Elka became a surrogate mother. When she was 6 her mother sent her a chunk of quartz along with a note, written in Lily’s hand, detailing when and where the rock was found. This is the trigger that starts her wondering about where her mother could be and what had happened.  More packages arrive over the years and Ruth’s curiosity about Lily grows.

Imposter Bride is an engaging novel. A good read.