Sunday, November 30, 2014

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

The CBC recently published its list of the top 100 Canadian novels of all time so I've started to work my way through ones on the list that appealed to me (and that I had not already read).  This is the first that came up on the library waiting list.

It's similar to The Vacationers in some ways as the point of view is constantly shifting - though tends to do so only as the chapters change rather than midstream.  Here the characters were all young people of colour in the city of Toronto.  All of them felt like misfits for various reasons and all of them were also dealing with family drama, yet this book was very different from The Vacationers in that the troubles here seemed more severe (and many were brought on by forces of history and social politics rather than mere human frailty).  I also loved how Toronto itself was almost another character in the book - there were so many familiar neighbourhoods I could easily visualize where a lot of the action was taking place.

The action takes place in the summer of 2002 during the World Cup.  We first meet Tuyen.  She is an aspiring artist who, against her family's wishes, lives in an apartment downtown where she barely gets by.  Though Tuyen and one of her brothers were born in Toronto, the rest of her family immigrated from Vietnam and suffered tragedy along the way.  Their oldest son, Quy, was lost as they made their way from the country by boat - he followed legs that he thought were those of his father but were not.  Quy is the only character whose life we follow outside of Toronto - as we hear what happened to him after he got on the wrong boat and how he eventually makes his way to Toronto.  We also see the terrible impact this event had on Tuyen's parents and, by extension, Tuyen and her Canadian born brother who must both "take the place of" the lost brother and act as their parents' interpreters of a strange world.

Tuyen is very much in love with her neighbour Carla.  Carla is the most steadily employed of the main characters - she works as a bicycle courier and a lot of the narrative from her perspective takes place as she bikes through Toronto's streets.  Carla's early life was also marred by tragedy.  She was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian woman who was disowned by her family when she became involved with a black man.  Carla spends much of her early years at her mother's side staring at her father's home.  He fathers another son with Carla's mother and when he is just a baby Carla's mother hands her the baby, asks her to look after him and walks off their balcony.  At the urging of the Italian family, and his wife who seems to be quite decent, Carla's father takes the children in.  But they never quite get it together and Carla's brother is in jail, again, begging for Carla to bail him out.  She does not have the means and has to face her father for help.

Tuyen and Carla are also friends with Oku, whose family are Jamaican immigrants who work hard and are trying to create a better life for him.  But he is disillusioned with university, has all but dropped out (though not told his father who he fears) and spends much time in Kensington market with the homeless and writing poetry.  He is also desperately in love with Jackie.  Jackie's parents are black Nova Scotians who came to Toronto in the 70s to get ahead - and really never have.  If the other three were not particularly well of as children, Jackie was really poor.  And trying to escape her past she will only date white men, much to Oku's dismay.

The book follows these characters and others in their lives over the course of a few weeks.  At the end their is a disturbing scene where their family's worlds collide.  We are left unsure of the outcome, but it doesn't really seem positive.  A bit of a difficult book to read, but worth it nonetheless.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was an easy read, but a very interesting insight into a family which is struggling to deal with all kinds of different problems as family members move into different life stages.  One of my favourite parts of this book was how the point of view shifted seamlessly among all of the characters such that you could see several points of view in the course of one chapter.  At times it would even take reading a few sentences before you realized the perspective had changed - but rather than being confusing it worked well.

The story centres around the Post family.  Franny and Jim are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary as well as their daughter, Sylvia's, imminent departure for college with a family trip to Mallorca.  Joining them on the trip are their son Bobby, who is ten years older than Sylvia and has not lived in their Manhattan home since leaving for college in Florida.  Bobby brings along his live in girlfriend Carmen, who is 10 years older than Bobby and a personal trainer which Bobby's parents look down upon.  They, or at least Franny, says it is because she wants to be a grandmother and Carmen is too old, but even Franny admits deep down that she looks down on Carmen for her Cuban roots, he lack of education and her "profession".  For reasons that are never really fully explained the family is joined by Franny's best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence.  The other few characters that enter the story are Joan, Sylvia's very handsome Spanish tutor who ends up teaching her a lot more than language, Terry, a biker gang paediatrician who befriends Jim, an aging Spanish tennis pro who Sylvia had a crush on when she was young and Gemma, the owner of the house they have rented (though it is never really clear why she shows up at the end - that part was kind of unnecessary in my view).

Everybody at the house is harbouring secrets and the narrative really deals with how the secrets unravel and the impact it has on the various relationships.  Jim has recently "retired" from his job - in fact he was asked to leave after an unfortunate liaison with an intern not much older than his daughter.  His wife knows and is, not surprisingly, angry and deciding what to do.  Sylvia knows some of the story - but not everything.  And in any event is dealing with being dumped by a guy she was involved with for her best friend and the Facebook aftermath of a drunken high school graduation party where she hooked up with several boys and pictures were posted for all to see.  Bobby, who has not been at home, knows nothing of his parents' issues and is dealing with his own - spiralling debt and uncertainty about his future with Carmen.  Meanwhile Charles and Lawrence await news about whether they've been chosen by a birth mother to adopt her baby - and Charles harbours doubts about whether this is what he wants, particularly because he is hiding his own infidelity story.

The narrative is quick, clever, and realistic - I really felt like I got to know and like all the characters, despite their obvious flaws.  I really recommend this book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

This book took a while to grow on me; though I did really enjoy it once I got into it.  I think the beginning could have been condensed quite a bit without losing much that was vital to the narrative.

Eileen Leary is born in 1941 in Queens.  She lives with her parents in a small apartment.  Both parents go through periods of drunkenness so she becomes their caretaker from a very early age.  She also dreams of a much better life - an education, a career and a house all her own.  She also wants to escape the Irish immigrant image she's grown up with.

At a young age she trains to be a nurse and meets Ed Leary and decides to marry him despite his Irish sounding name, because he is a research scientist and very different from the "blue collar" men in her life.  They first move into one floor of a triplex, but even though Eileen is finally in a house in the neighbourhood she coveted, she is not happy.  She pushes Ed to accept higher positions though he's very satisfied with his research and teaching position at a local community college.  Even when the Leary's buy the triplex from its owners who fall upon hard times and revert to being tenants, Eileen becomes disenchanted with the neighbourhood as new immigrant populations move in and dreams of a large home in a suburb filled with "people like her".

Eileen and Ed have one son, Connell, and he becomes the next focus of all of Eileen's ambitions.  Eventually Eileen convinces Ed that they should move to a "fixer upper" in the suburbs.  But around that time, Ed develops bizarre behaviours.  It becomes obvious to the reader, and eventually Eileen, that there is something wrong with his mental faculties.  When he is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's the book becomes far more interesting.  Sorry if I ruined the suspense for you, but I felt it worth explaining why you should stick with the book.

Eileen's lifetime caregiving skills kick into play and she becomes far more sympathetic as she struggles to care for Ed, all the while supporting her family and dealing with her crumbling home.  Here, her strength of character shines through though we still get ample exposure to her flaws as well as Connell's.  The real beauty of this story is seeing how a family deals (and at times, doesn't) with a devastating disease that slowly robs Ed of everything.

If you have the time to work through the early stages of the book, it's definitely worth it in the end.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Betrayers by David Besmozgis

I think this was my favourite Bezmozgis book yet.  His language is so tight yet descriptive that even though there is not a lot of action I was hooked right away.  I felt like I was in the Crimea with the characters even though it's a part of the world I know very little about.

The whole novel takes place over the course of 24 hours.  And even though the characters remember the past, Bezmozgis does not even make use of flashbacks which, personally, I think are sometimes overused.  The narrative centres on Baruch Kotler.  He was a Soviet era Jewish "refusenik" who eventually made his way to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He was famous for never giving up, never betraying others and having a wife who emigrated early in his imprisonment to Israel, but never left his side and was extremely vocal, keeping his cause in the news.

Once in Israel, Kotler becomes active in Israeli politics.  However, at this juncture he does not support the government's decision to forcibly evacuate several settlements.  Someone, who he thinks is an agent of the Prime Minister, threatens to reveal an affair he's been having if he does not retract his position.  He refuses to budge and the affair is revealed.

So the next day Baruch and his mistress, Leora, also a Russian immigrant but much younger and with few memories of the Soviet era, travel to the Crimea in an effort to escape detection.  Baruch has fond memories of one summer spent in Yalta as a boy.

By chance, Baruch encounters the Jewish KGB spy who betrayed him all those years ago.  And as the title suggests, this book addresses how Baruch handled this betrayal now that he is finally able to face it.  As well as the impact it has on his betrayal of his wife and children.

I strongly recommend this book.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I don't remember who recommended this book - it may just have been the New York Times - but it wasn't really the type of book I normally read.  If I had known more about the story I probably would not have read it, but the story would be significantly worse if I had known it in advance so I will also not give away much of the plot.

Though the book is not my normal type, I was sucked into the narrative and stuck with it for the almost 600 pages it took to tell the story (though it could have been told in about half that number).  The style is formal, old fashioned English - that is part of what I did not really like about it.  The plot was in fact quite racy - and I'm sure would have been considered much more so in 1922 when the story is told.  So the formal language didn't quite fit - though I suppose that juxtaposition may have been part of the author's point.  Sort of - "see what's hidden behind all those upper crust manners".

Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances have come upon hard times.  Both of Frances' brothers were killed in World War I and her father dies shortly after, leaving them with a crumbling though fashionable home and a burden of debts.  During the war we learn that Frances lived in town rather than the suburbs and dreamed of a very different life.  However she abandons all of that to take care of her mother and her home (much to her mother's shame they cannot afford servants and Frances must do the housework on her own though she tries to conceal this from her friends as best she can).  In order to supplement their income, the Wrays take in borders - though this is also a humiliation for Mrs. Wray so they refer to them as "paying guests".  Frances shudders the first time she must suffer the embarrassment of taking payment.

The borders are a young married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Barber.  They are from the "clerk class" and introduce music, laughter and "bordello like" decor into the home.  To Frances they also appear to be very unhappy.  She gets closer to the couple than her mother would like - and that is where the story gets mysterious.  As I said, I do not want to give anything away, suffice it to say she develops a very complicated (and somewhat unexpected) relationship with the couple, they get themselves into some trouble and the remaining hundreds of pages deal with how that trouble resolves itself.