Friday, July 6, 2018

A dozen books all at once!

So I get most books by putting my name on the waiting list at the library which means I sometimes go for a few weeks without getting anything.  But then when it rains, it really pours!  I got 12 books in the span of a month.  I made my way through them before I had to return them, but I must admit they became a bit of a blur.  So I'll just give a brief review of each one based on the best of my recollection (in no particular order).

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
I quite enjoyed this book about the experiences of undocumented immigrants to the US.  The story centres around Deming Guo.  When he is eleven, his mother who is an undocumented immigrant from China goes to her job at a nail salon and never returns.  He is left with his mother's boyfriend, his sister and her son (who is also his best friend).  The sister decides she is unable to care for him so puts him in foster care where he is eventually taken in and adopted by a white couple, professors from a small town in upstate New York.  They change his name to something more American sounding and though they pay lip service to his Chinese heritage, they try to turn him into a child more like his white, small town peers.

The story moves back and forth to tell us about how Deming's mother came to the US, her pregnancy and child birth, Deming's early childhood with his grandfather back in China, Deming's return to the US and life in the Bronx and eventually what happened to Deming's mother.  Though Deming loses touch with everyone in the Bronx he is eventually reconnected with the boy who was his childhood friend and who puts him in touch with his mother and uncle.  Through them, while floundering at college and a music career, he returns to China and tracks down his mother.  The story explores the impact this has on both his birth mother and his adoptive parents.

I recommend this book for a good read about the immigrant experience.  It's also a timely exploration of the impact that enforcing laws against undocumented immigrants has on their American born children.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
This is a non-fiction Holocaust story and though I have read many of them, this one was different enough to really hold my attention.  It is written by a granddaughter of a survivor about her family.  The Kurc family live in Radom Poland at the breakout of World War II.  The parents and their five adult children along with several in laws and one granddaughter are very well off for Polish Jews which helps to a point, but they must still figure out how to survive the Nazis.  And they were lucky as they did all survive in various ways - and though they survived separately for the most part they are somewhat miraculously reunited following the War.  We get an inside look at life in ghettos, in Russian work camps, in the Polish underground and army, in hiding disguised as non-Jews, in a friendly convent, in Palestine, Poland, France, Italy, Portugal and even Brazil.  What the family members all have in common is a strong will to survive and to be reunited.  This is a fascinating and very well written account.

Forgiveness a Gift from my Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto
This is another autobiographical account of World War II, but from a very different perspective.  Mark Sakamoto's paternal grandparents were Japanese Canadians living in Vancouver at the time of the war.  Like all of their community they were swept up by the anti-Japanese government actions of the time.  They were not sent to internment camps, instead opting to be slave labour on sugar beet farms in Alberta so that the large extended family could stay near each other.  Sakamoto's grandmother was an incredibly strong woman who gave birth to two children while working as a a labourer.  After the war the family had nothing but the $25 compensation they were paid by the government (the community centre which housed the belongings of the community had burned to the ground).  They were also no longer welcome in BC so moved to small town Alberta where they started again.

Sakamoto's maternal grandfather was from a tiny community in the Magdalen Islands.  In part to escape an abusive childhood he enlisted in the army and was shipped overseas.  In December 1941 he was captured by the Japanese and taken as a prisoner of war.  He spent the rest of the war living in hellish conditions - tortured, starved, and watching his fellow soldiers and friends die one by one.  At the end of the war he was broken but not defeated.  He returned to Canada where he married, moved to Alberta and started a family.

When Sakamoto's parents met and later wed they were terrified about how their respective parents would react, given their wartime histories.  But remarkably they not only tolerated each other, but his paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather became friends.  And his grandparents proved to be very important to Sakamoto when his mother's mental illness and alcoholism tore the marriage apart and took a toll on the children, particularly the author who was the eldest.

I recommend this book for an interesting look at the impacts of war, racism, alcoholism and mental health on a family - and how forgiveness can still be had in these dire circumstances.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I've been told this will be the book of the year for book clubs and it is immediately obvious why.  It is a frank look at racism in the Southern US - and how even the most established of families could not escape its horrific reach.  Roy and Celestial are newlyweds living in Atlanta.  Roy is a successful business executive who has overcome an impoverished though happy childhood to go to university and establish a career.  Celestial comes from a more middle class background and is an emerging artist.  A year into their marriage they return to Roy's home town for a visit and while staying at a hotel Roy is wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison.  The beginning of the book deals with Roy's life in prison - where he meets an unlikely person from his past - and Celestial's attempts to cope on her own but eventual turn to her childhood neighbour and friend, Andre.  When Roy is released from prison earlier than expected the three must figure out how to go forward.  This truly is a story of a marriage and how parties struggle to make it work against terrible odds.  But as I said above it is also an examination of issues of race and class and the failures of the judicial system.

The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman
A duplex in Brooklyn in the 1940s is shared by two brothers, their wives and their families.  The family upstairs has only sons while the family downstairs has only daughters.  The wives, sisters by marriage only, are also best of friends.  On the night of a terrible blizzard in 1947 the women give birth to new babies on the same night - at home and attended by a midwife since they could not get to the hospital and the doctor could not get to their home.  On that night the women make a decision that has repercussions for the rest of their lives - and results in the eventual fracturing of their relationship.  Written in alternating chapters from the perspective of several different characters (husbands, wives and children) this book is an interesting look at years of family dynamics.

An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope
Like many of Trollope's novels this one deals with older adults.  Here, Rose, a 64 year old divorced grandmother (whose husband left him for a younger woman after a lengthy affair) finds love again with a boy she knew as a teenager.  Tyler had been living in California for many years and was now a widower.  Relatively shortly into their relationship Tyler proposes and Rose accepts, though we sense she is not as enthusiastic as he is.  Her grown children are even less enthusiastic and try desperately to talk her out of it - even enlisting Tyler's children to support the cause.  Many somewhat humorous events ensue before we learn what Rose ultimately decides to do.  While the focus is on the older couple, there are also interesting side stories about the children and their varied relationships.

All We Leave Behind: a Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others by Carol Off
The main problem I had with this book is somewhat superficial.  Because Off is a well-known Canadian radio personality I could hear her voice in my head as I read the book - and I'm not really a huge fan of her voice.  That being said, I otherwise enjoyed the story.  Off was embedded with Canadian soldiers reporting in Afghanistan in 2002.  There she met a local man with a story to tell - his story formed the basis for her documentary about powerful Afghan warlords.  Unbeknownst to Off this was a dangerous move for her source who was hounded by one warlord, eventually needing to flee to Pakistan.  Off worked hard to bring him and his family who she became close to to Canada as refugees.  The bureaucratic process she encountered was far more difficult than she ever imagined.  In addition to hearing about the refugee process I was very intrigued by the story of Afghan women - her source's wife and daughters.  They spent years becoming educated despite terrible oppression against women by the Taliban (and even earlier by conservative family members).  If you don't have the voice problem I recommend you read this book.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
First I have to say that the descriptive passages about life in Alaska were mesmerizing.  While they did not make me want to move to small town Alaska in the winter, I could practically feel the cold and see the beauty through Hannah's prose.

Lenora is 13 when her father, a troubled Vietnam vet, is given a piece of property in Kaneq, Alaska by his war buddy who didn't make it.  The family packs up and moves to literally the middle of nowhere.  It is summer but all the townspeople immediately descend upon them to start preparing for the harsh winter when the town is entirely self-sufficient depending on food they have harvested and preserved for winter, wood they have chopped for light and heat, etc.  Lenora constantly catalogues the ways a person can die in Alaska.

Unfortunately the family is ill prepared despite the efforts of their neighbours and, more troubling, Lenora's father's symptoms of PTSD - nightmares, paranoia and violence are exacerbated by the long hours of winter darkness.  Notwithstanding this, for several years they manage to limp along - Lenora is particularly helped by her close relationship with Matthew, the only other boy her age in the one-room school.  Together they make plans to go to University.  Unfortunately Matthew is the son of one of her father's perceived enemies (since he has money and is trying to bring modernizing improvements to the town).  This leads to disastrous circumstances for Matthew, Lenora and her mother.  The latter two must eventually return to Seattle and stay away for several years.

It is only at the end that Lenora returns to her beloved Alaska and we see how her life unfolds there.

I am Nobody by Greg Gilhooly
I don't usually like to write reviews of books when I know the author (and I went to law school with Gilhooly), but I really think this book deserves public praise.  Gilhooly was a victim of sexual abuse by a hockey coach, Graham James, for a period of years when he was a teenager.  He hid the information from everyone for decades while he struggled to "get on with his life".  He eventually came forward, but James has never admitted his crimes against Gilhooly nor been tried or convicted for them (though he has served time for his crimes against several other hockey players).

Gilhooly's book is an incredibly well written and raw account of the abuse, but even more chilling, the horrific impact those years of abuse had, and continue to have on his life.  Though he went to Princeton and U of T law school and had a seemingly successful legal career he describes years of self-sabotage through alcohol abuse, excessive eating and purposely failing in important exams or work requirements when he felt he didn't deserve the success.

What Gilhooly's tremendous success "despite himself" shows is how intelligent and strong he must be to achieve as much as he did while carrying this burden.  In addition to giving us insight into what that was like his perspective on the criminal justice system as both lawyer and victim is unique and insightful.

Congratulations to the author on writing a book that must have been very difficult to do on a personal level but which is an important story for others to hear.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes
This is the third book in the series that started with Me Before You and was continued in After You.  In this book, which is entertaining enough but nothing special, Louisa Clark moves to New York to take on a job as personal assistant to the younger second wife of a wealthy Upper East Side businessman.  While her employer pretends to be her friend, when trouble hits she is less supportive than Louisa expects (though frankly that's just her naiveté getting in the way).  We also hear more about her relationship with Sam, the paramedic she falls for in the second book, and the difficulties that ensue from their long distance relationship.  This book could be read as a standalone but it helped to know the pasts of the other characters that wander in and out of the story.  If you've read the other two books you might want to catch up on this one, otherwise it's probably not worth it.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala
Given the ongoing refugee crisis in the world, this novel, based on real events is very timely.  And, like Forgiveness described above, it shows that Canadians should not be smug about how we treat newcomers to this country.  The story centres around Mahindan, who with his six year old son lands on the shores of Vancouver Island in a rusty cargo ship carrying 500 refugees from war torn Sri Lanka.  The refugees are met at the ship and immediately incarcerated, awaiting a seemingly endless number of refugee hearings.  Mahindan is sent to a men's facility and separated from his son who is sent to stay with a woman refugee claimant who he barely knows (sound familiar?).

The story then alternates between telling us what happens to Mahindan and his son in Canada as well as the events in Sri Lanka that led to Mahindan being on that ship at all.  We also get two other perspectives.  The first is that of Priya who is a second generation Sri Lankan Canadian and an articling student.  She thinks she wants to be a corporate lawyer, but get dragged into this case by the firm's immigration lawyer.  The more she gets to know Mahindan, the more she learns about her father's past and the tension between him and his brother and how it has its roots in the Sri Lankan civil war.  She also becomes rather hooked on immigration law.  The second other perspective is that of Grace, a third generation Japanese-Canadian who is a politically appointed immigration adjudicator hearing some of these claims.  She is appointed by a national security conscious Minister who thinks she will be hard nosed and ensure no terrorists get into the country.  She struggles with that view as well as the view of her mother who, as she slips into dementia, spends more time dwelling on her family's past during World War II (a similar story to that described in Forgiveness).

I really enjoyed this book and, though it is fiction, I think it is very educational about how Canada treats refugee claimants.

All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
I actually enjoyed this book more than I expected.  Nina Browning came from humble beginnings but is married to a wealthy, Nashville establishment businessman, Kirk.  Nina spends her time on charity events that her husband approves of and with other high society women.  But her marriage is not as happy lately.  Their son Finch excels in his fancy private school and has just been accepted at Princeton.  I really wanted to like Finch, but Giffin does a good job at keeping you guessing whether he is truly a good person like his mother or just a good con artist like his father.

Tom is the single father of Lyla.  He's a carpenter who lives "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Nashville, but Lyla has earned a scholarship to the same fancy private school that Finch attends.  One night Lyla, who has a crush on Finch, gets drunk and passes out.  While passed out she has her picture taken in a compromising position and Finch sends it to his friends.  Word gets out and Finch must face a disciplinary hearing at school which puts his Princeton acceptance at risk.

The remainder of the book is told from the perspectives of Nina, Tom and Lyla.  We eventually find out what actually happened the night of the party and who really is to blame for the compromising photo.  We also see Nina's marriage crumble further as well as gain insights into her past which explain why she is so concerned about Finch's behaviour and so sympathetic to Lyla.  We also see Tom deal with his failed marriage and the chip on his shoulder that he has carried around since working at a fancy golf club as a teenager.  And we see Nina and Tom bond over the experience and Lyla really grow from it.

I recommend this easy to read book that deals with some timely and difficult subjects.

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