Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.

 

 

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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson (20 Books of Summer #16/Classics Club #7)

The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to download (1)be human and how trauma can affect the mind.

Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.

Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:

…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.

Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”

If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.

Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”

“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”

“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.

(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (Classics Club Spin #18)

81yAt9aNOELI feel almost guilty not liking Beryl Markham’s West With The Night more. Almost all of the Goodreads reviews on the first page are glowing 4 and 5-star reviews and many blogger friends recommended it highly. I had high hopes for this memoir published in 1942, but it took me a week to get only halfway through its 300 pages. I then had to put it down for another week and read something else that held my attention more (a mystery novel – are you surprised?) When I picked it up again I felt refreshed and I was able to finish it in a day. I guess this is what you’d call a real mixed bag?

What I Liked:

The writing. Mostly. The middle section about horse racing nearly killed me. But everything else was good. The writing has a very cinematic, romantic quality to it.

As the (impala/zebra/wildebeest) herd moved it became a carpet of rust-brown and grey and dull red. It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lives and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.

Markham led a most unconventional life especially for the time. She was born in England but raised by her father in Kenya (her mother left the family when Markham was little.) Markham hunted and tracked and camped and essentially was given the run of the place. There’s a riveting story of helping birth a foal when she was a teenager. She was a licensed racehorse trainer at the age of 18. She then learned to fly an airplane and in 1936 became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean non-stop, solo, from east to west. beryl-markham

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own  hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the belief, faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind – such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

What I Didn’t Like:

I wanted more. I wanted to know Ms. Markham better – I felt there was a cool reserve coming off of her, as if there was a barrier between she and I. As polished as the writing was it felt distant. I knew her feelings about maps and planes and horses and the Kenyan men who worked for her father and treated her with the utmost respect but I didn’t get her feelings about her father or any of her lovers or what it felt like not to have a mother growing up. I didn’t get any hint of what it was like as a woman in a society made almost totally of men. This memoir contained many stories about her adventures and not much about her inner life at all.

Also, Book Three, about the racehorses…I just wish I had skipped that section. I’d read one or two pages and fall asleep. It took me a week to drum up the desire to pick the book back up. And I’m glad I did, because it got better. Although the elephant hunting chapters were tough to read from a modern-day perspective. And then there’s that whole colonizer’s perspective of the different ethnic groups of Kenyans. On the whole she is more respectful than not, but some of her thoughts on the inherent characteristics of certain tribes made me uncomfortable. I realize this was written a long time ago, so I take that into account.

23995231Still, I am glad that I read this. I certainly would like to know more about Ms. Markham and would possibly read a biography on her in the future. I also want to read the historical fiction version of her life by Paula McLain called Circling the Sun. As Markham was involved in a love triangle with Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) I would like to read Out of Africa. There is a lot here still to discover and this memoir only made me more curious.

Rebecca (Bookish Beck) was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to do a buddy read for this book, and I discovered that it’s a tricky thing to do. People read at different paces and you don’t want to spoil anything. Plus I’m so darn moody with my reading. But I thank her for reading this with me – we checked in on Twitter and it was neat to know that someone across the ocean was also reading this classic memoir. I would still recommend this book if you are the sort of reader who enjoys stories of adventure or if you’re interested in early 20th century Kenya. Markham’s descriptions of the natural world and flying are especially compelling and well drawn. Just don’t expect too much personal reflection or emotion.

(This is the 6th book I’ve read from my Classics Club list.)

Library Checkout – August 2018

Library Checkout is a fun meme celebrating library usage coordinated by Bookish Beck – check out her blog! This month, as usual, I’ve been checking things out and putting things on hold like a boss. My library system (the one at which I work) just recently upped the checkout limit to 50 items! In addition to the books listed below, I’ve been checking out mad quantities of books for my kiddo, since he has to read at least 20 minutes a day for school. And I’ve also been trying to watch all the Marvel superhero movies (I basically missed everything after Iron Man and before Black Panther, LOL) so I’ve also been getting those from the library. Yay, libraries!

library-checkout-feature-image

BOOKS READ:

SKIMMED: None

CURRENTLY READING:36672820

  • Brother – David Chariandy
  • Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation – Donald Altman

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ:

  • The House at Sea’s End – Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway #3)
  • The Lying Game – Ruth Ware
  • The First Bad Man – Miranda July
  • The Art of Living – Thich Nhat Hahn
  • The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell
  • Smitten Kitchen Every Day – Deb Perelman
  • Perfect Plates in 5 Ingredients – John Whaite

IN THE HOLDS QUEUE:

  • Barracoon – Zora Neale Hurston (this is waiting for me at the library now!)
  • There There – Tommy Orange
  • Yes We (Still) Can – Dan Pfeiffer
  • The Sun Does Shine – Anthony Ray Hinton
  • The Word is Murder – Anthony Horowitz
  • The Death of Mrs. Westaway – Ruth Ware
  • Dear Mrs. Bird – A.J. Pearce
  • Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World – Maryanne Wolf
  • Transcription – Kate Atkinson (although I will almost certainly buy this one before I get it from the library. I should just take myself off the holds list.)
  • On The Other Side of Freedom: The Case For Hope – Deray McKesson
  • Our House – Louise Candlish
  • French Exit – Patrick deWitt

RETURNED UNFINISHED/UNREAD:

  • The Cooking Gene – Michael Twitty (This is still on my TBR list; it had a hold on it.)
  • Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper #2) – Daniel José Older (I intend to get this again – I just wasn’t in the mood.)

So once again I have a gazillion things checked out and on hold and realistically I don’t think I’ll get them all read but even if I don’t it STILL benefits my library to check them out! Circulation is key. Did you make use of your public library is August? Have you read any of these titles?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R.I.P. XIII – It’s almost time!

twitter-avatar-2Since it’s almost September, it’s time to post about my sign-up for the annual R.I.P. Challenge! This will be my third time participating in this VERY low-pressure “challenge.” You all know me, I don’t do so well with challenges that have very strict rules! So I encourage you, if you enjoy reading books or stories (or watching movies) that are creepy, thrilling, mysterious, supernatural, suspenseful, spooky, Gothic, or anything resembling those words, to sign up for the challenge!

You can find the details here.

The challenge starts Sept. 1 and runs through October 31.

There are different levels of participation. I’ll be choosing Peril the Second (Read two books of any length that fits within the R.I.P. definition.)

I’m not 100% sure what I’ll be reading yet, but strong contenders are a reread of Jane Eyre, which I’ve been meaning to read again for years now, and a short story collection by Shirley Jackson – either Dark Tales or The Lottery and Other Stories, both of which I own. But something else might catch my eye in the next few weeks.

Will you participate in the R.I.P. Challenge? 

 

Mini-Reviews – The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

My book group’s pick for July was Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir.  It was an excellent choice both for reading and discussion. Bui recounts her parents’ personal histories growing up in Vietnam before the war as well as the story of their harrowing escape (she was a toddler and her mother was heavily pregnant) from the country after the fall of Saigon and eventual resettlement in America. She weaves in her own story of becoming a mother for the first time, all the anxiety and doubt about being responsible for a new life and wondering if her family’s tragic history will be a burden to her son. It is a marvelous exploration of trying to relate to one’s parents, trying to understand their own pain while trying to forgive them for the mistakes they made along the way as parents. Plus, it’s an excellent chronicle of the lead-up to the Vietnam War, the complexities of the situation and what it was like to live there. I feel like I learned a lot reading this and it certainly moved my heart. The artwork is amazing, only shades of white, black, and an orange-brown color that contains multitudes.

I highly recommend this if you are interested in graphic memoirs, Vietnam history, or moving stories of family dynamics and immigration. (4 Stars.)

(This is the 14th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal was a pleasant surprise for me. It had 23398625been on my Goodreads TBR list for quite some time, mainly because I had read good things about it. Filling one of my “reader’s choice” slots for 20 Books of Summer, this book was the perfect choice for pleasurable summer reading. It’s essentially a book of linked short stories, all orbiting around the character of Eva Thorvald is some way, from her birth and childhood to her adulthood as a famous chef in Minnesota. Foodies will certainly find a lot to love here, with enticing food writing, but for me the real pull was the way Stradal wrote about people and relationships, with gentle humor and heartfelt insight. This was a book that I didn’t want to put down. I grabbed it at every spare moment, and some moments that weren’t spare at all, ignoring my family in order to read a few more pages. For pure enjoyment of reading I rated it 5 Stars.

(This is the 15th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)