Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill

This book was a pleasant surprise that I stumbled upon at the bookstore.  It is an early book by Lawrence Hill (1997).  Like his other books it deals with blacks in North America and, in particular, slavery.

This book tells the story of 5 generations of Langston Cane's.  While it travels back and forth in time, it is really told from the perspective of Langston Cane V who is an out of work writer that decides to delve into his family's history.  The search takes him from his home in Oakville Ontario to Baltimore where both his grandfather and great grandfather served as pastors in a local church.  There he meets up with his aunt Mill who has been estranged from his father for decades.  She provides him with boxes of documents that help him in his search.

In particular we learn of his great great grandfather's escape from slavery into Canada, his building a family in Oakville, his need to leave in a hurry and his joining John Brown in his attack on Harper's Ferry.

We also learn about his great grandfather's return to Baltimore and how he becomes a minister as well as his grandfather's courtship, wartime experiences, marriage and return to Oakville.  Finally we learn about his father's study to become a doctor and experiences with racism in Canada.

Most of the narrative is revealed in reverse chronological order which from my perspective made it all the more interesting to piece together.

I enjoyed both the story and the characters that the author developed so well.  I really recommend this  book.

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan

I had nothing else to read so I decided to dig into this trilogy.  While it is light and at times funny, the books are not as easy to breeze through as I expected.  First, they are longer and denser than most rom coms.  Second, there are just so many characters to keep straight!  The first and third books have a family tree at the beginning, but not all of the characters are family members so it's harder to keep track of them.  I found it most frustrating in the first book - then I figured out it doesn't really matter who some of the characters are.  For example, Nick's mother, Eleanor has a whole host of friends and it's not really that important to keep track of them.

There are several key players - Nick, a Singapore heir to his family's huge fortune, and his girlfriend, Rachel, who was brought to the US from China by her single mother when she was an infant, are the central couple.  In the first book Nick brings Rachel to Singapore to meet his family - unfortunately he doesn't prepare her at all for the family's extreme wealth and, more importantly, their expectations for him (which do not include marrying a "nobody").

Nick's parents and his three cousins, Alastair, Astrid and Eddie also have key storylines - all of which carry through to the subsequent books.  While Alastair and Astrid are somewhat spoiled, at heart they were likeable.  Eddie was awful - so much so that perhaps the author took his caricature to an extreme.

The other unfortunate factor is that I liked the third book the best.  But you really couldn't understand it well if you didn't make your way through the first two.  So it's a package deal to get to the best one.

I enjoyed these books, but they aren't great literature and they probably take more effort than stories of these nature really warrant.  But there were some very funny lines - my favourite is when Eleanor is asking Nick very personal questions and he objects to the intrusion - she says "Why are you being shy, I watched your nanny change your diapers!"

If you have the time and the interest these books are okay, but it's easier to just watch the movie.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage

Like Immigrant, Montana, this book was also a bit weird but I enjoyed it much more.  Pavlov is a 20 something son of a Christian undertaker in Beirut during the civil war in the 70s.  He has grown up assisting his father and his two uncles with funerals and even lives in an apartment that overlooks a busy funeral route so he is familiar with death.

When his father dies he is approached to carry on work his father did - cremating deceased outcasts of society - homosexuals, athiests and other outcasts.  Through his involvement in these activities we get a clear view of the impact of civil war on Beirut society - and in particular the Christians.  The descriptions of war were very detailed and compelling.  I could often feel Pavlov's fear.  It was also interesting to see war through his eyes - he knew how bad things were by the age of the people being buried.

Now Pavlov was odd - his relationship with dogs was stronger than his relationship with his family members.  And his grief over their demise seemed more impactful than his grief over losing his parents.  But despite being odd, he was interesting and I recommend reading this one.

Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

I can't describe this book in any other way that to say it was really strange.  I persevered because I was curious about what would happen, but I wouldn't say I really liked the book.

It tells the story of Kailash, an immigrant from India who is a graduate student in New York City.  He is trying desperately to fit in and, in particular, to find a girlfriend.  So we learn a lot about his sexual desires and exploits as well as his success, and lack thereof, with various women.  In some ways he seems naive, in others just a bit obsessive.

There is also a bit of information about his past and his family in India as well as one of his professors and his political leanings.  You can tell Kailash is trying hard to adhere to the political views of others in order to fit in, but I never really got a sense of what he believed in.  He seemed very wishy-washy in his efforts to be accepted.

In all I wouldn't really recommend this book although it did get good reviews so others apparently liked it.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I had been wanting to read this for a while, but the waiting list at the library was really long.  It ended up being worth the wait.  The book is well written and Obama has a really interesting life.  She comes from very humble beginnings and it was fascinating to read what it was like to grow up on the south side of Chicago in the 60s and 70s.  Her hard work, perseverance and positive attitude - allowing her to get to Princeton, Harvard and stellar employment opportunities were impressive to read about.  Her admiration for her parents and her older brother, as well as her grandparents, also shone through.

From a personal perspective, Obama is exactly my age and followed the undergrad, law school, big law firm path that I did.  She was smart enough to figure out it wasn't for her in fewer years than it took me to come to the same realization!

Her descriptions of meeting and marrying her husband, having children, her husband's political career (and her hesitation about it) as well as her time in the White House were equally interesting.  I also couldn't help being impressed by the causes she took up when she had the platform of First Lady.

All in all this was a fascinating and well written autobiography.  If you like that kind of book, it's certainly worth it.