Monday, February 29, 2016

The Lightless Sky by Gunwale Passarlay with Nadine Ghouri

Given today's refugee crisis, this is a very timely personal account of a young boy's escape from Afghanistan to the west.

Gulwali Passarlay was born in 1994 in a small Pashtu community in Afghanistan.  As a very young boy he lived a shepherd's life in the mountains with his grandparents.  Later he helped his uncle's in a market tailoring shop.  Gulwali's father was a well-respected doctor; his uncle a Taliban officer and his mother and other female relatives traditional women who generally stayed at home, but wore the full body blue burqa when they did venture out.  Gulwali himself was taught to be deeply religious and to fight for the honour of his family and the superiority of the men in the community.  He did not support educating his younger sisters.

When Gulwali was 12, and the Taliban had been chased from power by coalition forces, both the Taliban resistance and the invading armies tried to recruit him and his older brother.  Instead his parents sent him away to live with his maternal grandparents in another Afghan village.  While he was there both his father and grandfather were executed for collaboration with the Taliban.  Because this book is written from Gulwali's perspective, as a child, we never really know the extent of their involvement with the Taliban.  My personal view is they were just poor, traditional tribal villagers who were trying to survive however they could.

Gulwali's mother decides it is no longer safe for her oldest sons so she pays human smugglers to take them to freedom in Europe (we later find out she has paid $8000 each to get them as far as Greece).  She accompanies them as far as Peshawar, Pakistan then instructs them to hold each other's hands the whole way and "no matter how hard it gets, never come back".  These words haunt Gulwali throughout his lengthy escape.  First, because he is separated from his brother by the smugglers in the  Peshawar airport and must make the escape entirely on his own.  Second, it gets really hard and he desperately longs for the comfort of his mother and grandmother.

Most of the book gives us insight into just how difficult escape is, and how organized a machine human smuggling has become.  Gulwali travels from Pakistan to Iran, through Iran, on foot to Turkey, by train to Bulgaria - where he is jailed and returned to Turkey, where he is jailed and returned to Iran.  Then from Iran back to Turkey, by leaky boat to Greece, then to Italy, Calais, France and finally England.  Along the way he meets the worst of the smugglers who prey upon people's desperation.  But he does meet up with some kindness - in other, slightly older, refugees boys who take him under their wing, some of the lowly hosts of refugees who are doing this just to make a living and take pity on a small boy doing this on his own (he is particularly favoured by some of the wives and mothers who feel for him and do what they can, whether it is giving him a bit extra food or slightly better sleeping conditions).

Some of the most vivid descriptions are of makeshift refugee camps in Europe - particularly "the jungle" in Calais.  It's eye opening to see what is happening in these supposedly developed countries. In the end Gulwali makes it to the UK alive - but he is permanently scarred both physically (from an aborted attempt to smuggle him across the channel in a truck filled with some sort of chemical powder) and emotionally (he suffers from severe depression, and even attempts suicide at least twice).  But he is obviously extremely bright and makes the most of his educational opportunities in the UK.  He says he dreams of returning the Afghanistan and one day perhaps becoming its president.  Given his remarkable survival skills, I for one believe he probably could become president of Afghanistan one day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

After You by Jojo Moyes

This is a sequel to the popular book, Me Before You.  It was a bit trashy but an entertaining weekend escape.

In the first book, Louisa Clark gets a job taking care of a bitter quadriplegic, Will, and ends up falling in love with him - only to have to grant his wish to let him commit doctor assisted suicide at a Swiss clinic.

In this book we see how Louisa is coping about two years later.  We hear she spent some time in Paris - as Will had requested she do in a letter delivered after his death.  She is now living in an apartment in London which his money purchased for her and is working in a dead end airport bar job.  She clearly has not fully recovered from his death when she falls off her rooftop patio and is forced to go home to her family's small town to recover.

There at least she reconnects with her parents who she had not spoken to in some time (frankly I don't remember if this was covered in the last book...).  When she returns to London her father encourages her to join a grief support group.  There she meets Sam, the paramedic who helped her after her fall.  After a series of misunderstandings, and some confusion created by Will's daughter that he didn't even know he had, Louisa starts to get her life back on track - with a better job, hope of a relationship with Sam, new friends from her support group and a strengthened relationship with her parents and sister as well as Will's parents.

So a classic happy ending after some tears and laughter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

Someone recommended this to me, but I couldn't even get through it.  Though the premise was interesting, as was the writing structure, I was too bored and none of the characters really grabbed me.  What I did like was the constantly changing perspectives - from the Hungarian photographer, to the French baroness, the American writer and the biographer of the lesbian race car driver/athlete/war traitor.  But it just moved too slowly.  In fact, I just jumped ahead from where I left off (just before the half way mark) to read the last chapter to see if it would interest me in reading what happened in between - and it didn't.

Sitting Practice by Caroline Adderson

This book is over 10 years old, but it was recommended by CBC Books as a Canadian title that should not be missed so I thought I would give it a try.

While I wouldn't say it was fantastic, it was fairly interesting.  The novel centres around Ross and Iliana Alexander.  Three weeks after their wedding they are in a car accident which leaves Iliana paralyzed.  Ross, who was driving and had asked Iliana to retrieve a tennis ball that was rolling around causing her to temporarily remove her seatbelt, is unhurt and wracked with guilt.

The start of the book is in the few months following the accident while the couple still lives in a Vancouver apartment.  There we meet many of their elderly neighbours as well as Ross's twin sister and nephew (she's a single mother) who are very dependant on him.  There are also flashbacks to the wedding as well as one visit to Iliana's parents, who are strict fundamentalist Christians.  Through these flashbacks as well as stories told by the neighbours we learn a bit about the couple's past.  Ross had a happy childhood, was very close with his parents and sisters and dotes on his nephew.  Before he met Iliana, he was also a womanizer.  Iliana on the other hand had a strict and sheltered upbringing and was a virgin when she met Ross.  Her parents do not approve of Ross and refused to even attend the wedding.

The second part of the book takes place two years later.  Ross and Iliana have moved to a small town on Vancouver Island and are operating a restaurant.  While Iliana seems to have adjusted to her new wheelchair bound life, Ross is still struggling with his guilt.  More damaging to their marriage, however, is how he finds himself repulsed by certain aspects of Iliana's routine (such as a catheter).  As such, the physical component of their marriage has not resumed.

So much of the narrative is seeing how the couple copes with each other, Ross's sister who decides to move to the island (or is encouraged to do so by Ross) and Iliana's decision to have an affair.  It is an interesting  study in how a couple can learn to cope with a physical challenge early on in their relationship, particularly when one partner feels responsible for what has happened.

At times the narrative drags a bit, but in all this is an interesting book.

Monday, February 1, 2016

All Out by Kevin Newman and Alex Newman

Well known Canadian and American anchor, Kevin Newman, and his son Alex wrote alternating chapters of this book which provides their insights into Alex's childhood and, in particular, his coming out to his family.

The best feature of this book is that the two authors independently wrote their chapters, relying on a third party to weave them together.  They did not read each other's work until the entire project was complete.  As a result we get a fabulous glimpse at how personal history is in the eye of the beholder. Father and son describe many of the same events from vastly different perspectives - and I think this book could only have helped them gain tremendous insight into each other and their relationship as it cleared up misunderstandings that arose from these different perspectives.

Kevin describes an unhappy childhood - he was poor in sports, unpopular and interested only in the news.  His parents divorced and his father was never terribly demonstrative leading him to believe that he never met his father's expectations.  When Alex was born he wanted to give him everything he did not have - so enrolled him in sports activities and scouts in an effort to make him athletic and popular.  But Alex was also a loner, more interested in lego than sports, and was bullied by the more popular boys in school.  So he also grew up feeling he could never live up to his father's expectations - and that his father was trying to turn him into a different kind of boy.

We also got to closely follow the ups and downs of Kevin's career - gaining particular insight into his failed attempt to anchor Good Morning America.  We also see his struggle to be a good father - and how he is torn by the feeling he needed to be a good provider, but also wanted to be closer to his children.  While he clearly loves and admires his wife, you could also see how he envied the seemingly easy relationship she had with the children.  His struggle was interesting to me as it gave a male perspective on the challenge of "work - life balance", which is so often depicted as a woman's problem.

The final few chapters deal with Alex's coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, his coming out and how his father deals with it.  It is a struggle for both of them and it is again interesting to see how they both misinterpret the other's needs and intentions.

In all this is a well written account of two lives, and more importantly the strengths and weaknesses of a father son relationship.