Saturday, January 31, 2015

For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu

This is a really interesting novel about Peter Huang, the only son of Chinese immigrant parents living in small town Ontario.  As the third of four children, Peter is revered by his father merely for being a boy.  But from a young age Peter relates more to his sisters and wants to be one of them.  They periodically indulge his desire to dress in their clothes, and his father, who suspects he is "soft" tries to strengthen him and mocks him for crying more than his sisters.  Peter's father is a philandering tyrant who tries to control his whole family.  One by one his children abandon the home - and only one following the path he decreed for them.  The eldest, Adele, escapes to Europe where she works as a nanny, the second daughter, Helen, studies hard then gets into law school in California where she follows the path expected of her (with the help of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications).  Peter becomes a chef and the youngest, Bonnie, turns a life of partying into a job as a stripper.

Peter's sisters and even his parents, guess at his secret, but it is not openly discussed until, in Montreal, as an adult, he meets other LGBT people and realizes he is not totally alone.  This allows him to explore how he really wants to live.

Though there is not a lot of action, this is a moving portrayal of a troubled boy who is totally uncomfortable with the identity foisted upon his at birth.  His internal struggles as well as those with his family and friends make for a fascinating read.  The author approaches the topic with sensitivity and powerful descriptive language.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Intolerable, A Memoir of Extremes

This is a fascinating memoir by Kamal Al-Solaylee, a professor of journalism at Ryerson in Toronto and a former theatre critic for the Globe and Mail.

Al-Solaylee was the eleventh and last child to be born (in 1964) into a well to do family in Aden, Yemen.  His mother was an illiterate child bride, the daughter of a shepherdess; his father a property developer who was partially educated in Britain and maintained close relations with the British colonial officers in Yemen.  The family was modern, concerned with fashion, immersed in the arts, and enamoured with British and American culture.

Everything started to change in the late 1960s when Yemen shrugged off the colonial powers and nationalized all of the property owned by Al-Solaylee's father.  His father relocated the large family to Beirut in what was supposed to be a temporary move until the situation in Aden stabilized.  The author was still a young child and has few memories of the time in Beirut though he does remember they lived above their means and were surrounded by the country's cultural elite.   They spent a lot of time watching Egyptian movies and listening to Egyptian and other pop music.  However, when Beirut became less safe due to the sectarian tensions, the family again relocated to Egypt.

Here the family remained very modern for years, spending beach vacations in Alexandria in bikinis.  The author, now a teenager, also realized he was gay.  Again the family lived beyond their means as their father was never able to re-establish his business and relied on savings he had squirrelled away in the UK.  Slowly the family turned more religious - first the eldest brother and then other brothers turned to the Quran and tried to restrict the movements and dress of the family's many daughters.  Of course, Kamal kept his sexual preferences to himself.

In the 1980s the family was again forced to move as sentiments in Egypt turned against Yemeni immigrants and the family members could not get permits necessary to work.  With no other options they returned to Sana'a, Yemen.  There the family became more and more religious as Kamal yearned to escape.  Which he did, eventually to study in England and then to become a permanent resident and finally citizen of Canada.  In the west he could live as a gay man though he never formally advised his family (he was sure his sisters and maybe even his mother had figured it out).  As Kamal becomes more and more free, his family, especially the women, become more and more trapped by a religious and isolated country.  The gap between them creates tension for Kamal which leads to depression.

In whole this is a fascinating story of how the events of history can have a major impact on a family and even markedly different impacts on different family members.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I read this book years ago and needed to read it again for book club but was somewhat hesitant since I had read it before, discussed it in another book club and seen the author speak about it.  But my hesitation vanished as soon as I began to read again.  Brooks writes so well - it's no wonder she's a Pulitzer Prize winner.

In some ways, the style reminds me of The Great House by Nicole Krauss, in that it revolves around the story of an object (in that case a desk; in this case the famous illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah) and jumps back and forth in time to explore the history of the object.  But this is just so much better written which makes the jumping back and forth far less confusing.

The novel starts in Sarajevo in 1996 - the UN has invited Hanna, an expert at restoring ancient texts, to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah which will be the centrepiece of a new museum display intending to show how people of different faiths could peacefully coexist and even influence each other's art (despite evidence to the contrary in the recent war).  There she meets the head of the Sarajevo library, Ozren, a Muslim who risked his life to save the manuscript during the war.

As she restores the Haggadah, Hanna comes across several clues embedded in it - the wings of an insect, evidence that it was once held together by clips which are now missing, wine stains, saltwater stains and a white hair.  In different chapters she uses forensics to trace where these items came from.  And in alternating chapters we are taken backwards in time to see where the Haggadah came from - the mountains of Yugoslavia during World War II, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragona in 1492 and Seville in 1480.  In each of these chapters Brooks weaves a fascinating and realistic narrative with well developed characters who we get to really know though we see them for a very short time.

There are also side stories of Hanna's relationship with her mother, the father she never knew, her mentors in the book restoration trade and Ozren.  While not as compelling as the story of the Haggadah, I also found myself drawn into these stories and anxious to see them through to a conclusion.

I highly recommend reading this book - even if it's not your first time.

Monday, January 19, 2015

An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma

I read this book because I really liked Sharma's more recent novel, Family Life.  While I liked this, I was a bit disappointed as it was not of the same calibre.  First of all, the main character, Ram Karan, was quite distasteful.  Not only was his "profession" collecting bribes on behalf of a government department, he was also a pedophile and engaged in incest.  His deceased wife was also not great since she knew of the incest and, while she put a stop to it, she did not report him or even seek help for her daughter.  As a result, the daughter, Anita has grown into a bitter, angry and therefore vindictive woman.  Ram's granddaughter, Asha, is a sweet kid at the start but even she turns out to be a difficult adolescent.  In sum, it was hard to truly like any of the characters, though you could sympathize with those who were Ram's victims.

The story follows the fallout of Ram's incestuous actions, 20 years after they took place.  His wife has died and Anita and Asha are forced to move in with him when her husband dies suddenly and she is left with no money.  Their living together, and Anita's fear that Asha will become the next victim, lead to very strained relations and Anita eventually going public with what occurred.  However, due to the sexist environment they live in, her confession not only affects Ram's life, but also hers and Asha's.

This is all set against the backdrop of the election campaign between BJP and Rajiv Gandhi and the eventual assassination of Gandhi.  We see Ram and his colleagues scramble to figure out which party to support with the bribe monies they collect - in some cases with very disastrous results.  It's pathetic that oftentimes Ram seems more troubled by his work activities than the rape of his daughter.

Though it his hard to rally behind the characters, they are believable, particularly in the context of the environment they live in.  And the description of Delhi at that time are vivid - I could particularly relate to the description of the pollution making it feel like living inside a coal miner's lungs.

I recommend this book but you have to be prepared for the serious topic and the distasteful characters.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

I don't want to give away too much of the plot of this book as it unfolds a bit like a mystery (though, of course, parts are predictable from very early on).

The prologue in a nursing home when Aganetha (Aggie) Smart is 104 years old.  She is wheelchair bound and thought to be deaf but in fact seems quite in touch with her surroundings.  Her main worry seems to be who will be left to write her obituary (we later learn writing obituaries was one of her careers).

Chapter one jumps far back in time to when Aggie is a young child following her older half sister, Fannie, into the graveyard on the family farm.  We immediately learn that this family has been touched by tragedy with several infant deaths and the death of Fannie's mother.  Her father remarries and Aggie and two other sisters are born.

The book jumps back and forth this way with elderly Aggie being seemingly kidnapped by two teenagers who take her back to the family farm, ostensibly to film a movie about her.  The story of Aggie's past which slowly unravels eventually explains the connection the two teenagers have to her.

The highlight of Aggie's career was winning gold for the 800 metre race in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.  One factual aspect of this book is that women were permitted to run the 800 metre in 1928 but then prohibited until 1960 as the Olympic organizers felt the race was too hard on a woman's more delicate constitution.

Aggie returns to Toronto after the race and suffers through the Depression, an ill-fated romance with Johnny, an equally ill-fated friendship with Glad and more tragedy striking her siblings and parents.  Through it all she remains strong, if somewhat of a loner.  She often escapes through running.

The story is really well told and I like how it moved back and forth in time, leaving me curious but not confused.  I definitely recommend this book.