Monday, January 23, 2017

The Elephants in my Backyard by Rajiv Surendra

This wasn't a fantastic memoir but it definitely had it's interesting moments.  Surendra's claim to fame was as the rapping athlete, Kevin G, in the Mean Girls movie with Lindsay Lohan, Rachel MacAdam and Tina Fey.  He was a first year University of Toronto student at the time.  While on the set, a cameraman suggested he read Life of Pi, saying "you are Pi".  The superficial resemblances were immediately obvious - Surendra was also South Asian and, while he did not live at the zoo, he grew up right next to Toronto's zoo and could hear all of the animal noises that Pi describes in the book.

Surendra started reading the book the next day, beginning his six year quest to become Pi so he could get the starring role in the movie adaptation.  He was tired of being offered roles only as terrorists or call centre employees, the stock roles for South Asian young men at the time.  First he visited the Toronto zoo to get closer to the tigers.  His quest then led him to begin a lengthy e-mail correspondence with the book's author, Yann Martel.  Several of the e-mails are replicated between chapters of the book.  He also took a break from school and travelled to Pondicherry, India where he spent several weeks at the real school that the fictional Pi attended.  There he befriends several teenage boys who accompany him to the sites described in the book as well as model their accents for him.  He overcomes a tremendous fear of the water to learn how to swim.  He reads every biography he can find of people who survived shipwrecks and even befriends one survivor from Maine.  Finally he visits the casting director in New York and even gives up the chance of a regular TV role in order to push his dream.  Unfortunately he is ultimately unsuccessful (this is not a spoiler since it is easy enough to Google the actual cast of Life of Pi).

To me some of the more interesting parts of the book were those outside his quest - his troubled relationship with his alcoholic and abusive father; his summer jobs at Pioneer Village and the friendships he makes there; and how he adapts his life, becoming a rather unconventional artist, after he loses the role.  My personal favourite scene was when he visited his dermatologist - since she is also my dermatologist and his description of her and her office is perfect.

I don't highly recommend the book but it is an easy read and interesting enough if you are looking for something...

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Kay's Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y.K Choi

What a fantastic book this was - I read it in an afternoon!  The story is told from the perspective of teenaged Mary whose family immigrated to Toronto from South Korea when she was a child.  Her parents work tirelessly operating a downtown corner store in order to provide Mary and her brother Josh with better lives.

The author beautifully illustrates the struggle immigrant children, and particularly girls, face when trying to reconcile the hopes, dreams and values of their parents, with their own which are shaped by the Canadian society around them.

Mary very much wants to be a writer, but her parents want her to study something more practical - law or education.  They also want her to marry a nice Korean boy and go to great lengths to arrange a match for her.  Instead she has a terrible crush on her white, older English teacher.  When she graduates from high school she is faced with choosing between these two men as well as deciding what to pursue in university.

In addition to Mary's family there are a host of other interesting supporting characters - Korean friends and family, Mary's diverse group of high school friends, the old Irish woman who lives near the store, and the taxi driver, homeless man and prostitutes who frequent the store...

Unfortunately it takes a tragic event (which I won't give away) for Mary to begin to sort out who she is and how she wants her future to unfold.

I especially enjoyed the book because of all the familiar Toronto places but I think anyone who is interested in a coming of age story, coupled with that of the immigrant experience, would enjoy this book.  It's very well written and easy to read.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Winter Vacation Reading List

News from the Red Desert by Kevin Patterson

This was a really interesting twist on the typical "war in Afghanistan" novel.  Most of the action takes place on the Kandahar military base.  The war is seen from the perspective of several US and Canadian soldiers, a female journalist embedded with the army (and also a former lover of one of the generals), several Pakistani nationals who run a coffee shop on the base and even a Thai woman who works as a "masseuse" on the base.  Initially we see the soldiers in 2001 when they believe they have finished off the Taliban and won one of the fastest wars in history.  But most of the action takes place in 2007 when it becomes clear the war is far from over.

There are definitely many gruesome scenes as one would expect in a war story, but because the story jumps so rapidly between characters,  I didn't feel myself getting attached to anyone in particular.  It was interesting to imagine how the war would look not only to Westerners, but to Pakistanis who are torn as they make their living off the foreign soldiers but feel kinship with the Afghans.

I really enjoyed how the chapters were short and broken into even shorter subsections so we constantly saw situations from more than one angle.  There was also no clear statement on whether the war made sense - really from anyone's perspective.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to get a different, if fictional, view of the Afghan war.

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close

This book was a fairly humours account of political life in Washington.  Matt is a young lawyer who has always dreamed of running for office.  He joins to Obama political campaign and, after inauguration is offered a job in the counsel's office so he and his wife move to DC from New York.  Beth, who is a writer and not involved in politics at all, struggles with the lifestyle.  Everyone is obsessed with their position in the government - even making cocktail party discussion revolve around their respective security clearances.  She is miserable until they meet Jimmy and Ashleigh, a young couple from Texas.  Jimmy is also a behind the scenes politician and when he starts to advance more quickly than Matt we see the tension this brings to all involved.

I wouldn't say this is a deep or even terribly fascinating book but it was compelling enough to keep me interested on vacation.

Julia's Daughters by Colleen Faulkner

The premise of this book was really dark and difficult - Julia's oldest daughter, Haley, runs a stop sign and her sister Caitlin who is in the car dies.  The book deals with how Julia, her husband and her youngest daughter try to accept the situation as an accident without laying too much blame on Haley. And, of course it deals with Haley's guilt and consequential rebellious behaviour - particularly as she hides several truths about that night from everyone around her.  In a bold move Julia decides to drive Haley across the country hoping she will have to open up if they are in the car for days on end.  The drive itself and the resulting insights all of the family members take away from it are a very interesting read.

That being said, it was a bit too hard for me to read about a family dealing with this type of nightmare scenario.  Not relaxing holiday reading.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

All I can say about this book is persevere.  I really struggled with the first half which was written from the perspective of Lotto.  Lotto and Mathilde marry when they are 22.  We follow the ups and downs of their marriage as he is disinherited for marrying her and constantly worries that she will leave him.  We also see his struggle to survive as an actor and then playwright.  Frankly I did not find him terribly sympathetic and I found parts of the book downright weird (like when they include an opera Lotto wrote).

But they I got to the second half which is told from Mathilde's perspective.  Here we see all kinds of secrets that were kept by many parties involved - and everything looks completely different.  I don't want to give anything away so I won't get into the details.  But I really was glad I persevered when I almost put the book down before I got halfway there.