Recent Reading: July/August

Last weekend Sage, me, Lakshmi and Elizabeth met for my “kinda monthly” book discussion circle. I say “kinda” because I haven’t been as responsible as I should be, and instead schedule them when I think “Oh man! I haven’t scheduled one of these in a while!” The format is really simple – we all chat a bit in the beginning about whatever while we wait to see who is going to show up and then go around the “room” to talk about what all we’d read in the past month or so and what we’re currently reading. We usually get people from at least 3-4 countries joining in with really diverse literary tastes so it’s always interesting to see what comes up. I often find things I’m interested in reading myself.

OK before I go further – you (YES YOU) are invited too. Contact me and I can get you the details. The next one is on September 13 at 10:00 AM Eastern time (7:30 PM India time). It’s a little early in the morning for west coast North America and a little late in the evening for Australia and Singapore but you’re welcome – and if there’s interest I can shuffle the time around a bit in different months). So please feel free to join in!

As for this month, here is info you missed about the books I read since mid-July:

Brother by David Chariandy is fiction that takes place in the early 90’s in Scarborough, a part of Toronto near the eastern edge. It is one of the most diverse parts of the city with people from all around the world. Unfortunately some parts of it also have a reputation for being dangerous with gang violence happening from time to time. There’s also quite a large spread between the haves and have-nots here with beautiful suburban homes in one area and not far from there government housing projects.

The author talks about life in one of the lower income neighbourhoods – something that’s going on all around me in the city and yet I have no idea about. Lately after reading a few books like this, I’m noticing that my reaction to one aspect is surprise – there are lots of difficult things happening and yet there is also warmth, kindness, closeness and many happy moments. It exposes some of the preconceptions I have about a less privileged life and now that I’ve noticed it it gives me pause.

Every once in a while I find a book that is so good, so compelling that I find myself reading it in every free minute. While I’m waiting for my eggs to be ready to flip, read a few pages, while I’m in the elevator to switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer, read a few more, while eating dinner, read more, read and read before bed until you are so tired you read the same paragraph six times before finally having to admit, one hour after you normally are asleep, you really can’t possibly read any more. A book of this length often takes a week or more for me and this was done in two days. In the end I was sad because it was over and I’ll never read it for the first time again and these characters I love will be gone. I’ll miss them.

I’ve been to this part of Scarborough several times, sometimes going to visit the library in the area on a project to visit all of Toronto’s libraries. Other times I cycled through the Rouge valley myself. So of course I had a lot of mental images as I read. And now when I ride through there on my bike again part of me will be looking for folks, wondering how they’re all doing.

American War by Omar El Akkad was a fascinating, albeit really dark read. It takes place in the latter part of this century during and after a second civil war in the US – this one brought on by climate change and the south’s desire to continue using (and making) fossil fuels while the rest of the US moved on.

Rather than being a book about battles and ideology (though there was some of the latter), it explored something I found interesting: parallels to other situations around the world. The south is now poor. Many are living in refugee camps. The north has committed atrocities that have demoralized many people in the south. And now aid organizations are helping in the south – and at the same time, there are many militias, sometimes skirmishing among themselves for power while terrorist groups search for members in villages and refugee camps. Other countries are overtly supplying aid and covertly supporting various factions with money and weapons.

The author does an excellent job of presenting all of this – things that most of us in North America talk about in the abstract when it happens elsewhere – as believable and understandable. You still don’t think of it as right, but when it is happening in more familiar surroundings you can see much easier how fanaticism and division in to warring factions can happen.

Great book but quite a tough read – especially as I see how divided my former home is lately.

Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung was really interesting to me. After reading a fictionalized account of how my own country might end up in civil war, I read about another country actually there.

While I have worked with a number of Syrian refugees here in Toronto, we didn’t talk about the situation much at all. It was never brought up on their part and I didn’t want to bring up something painful. This book, a true story with names changed was written by the author with the help of one of his high school teachers and does a fantastic job of immersing you in the situation.

What struck me most was how quickly things that seem awful are accepted as “the new normal”. Car bombs and snipers became things you just dealt with. They were no less traumatic but they were also just something you dealt with – another aspect of daily life. In some ways it reminds me of the pandemic. When it first started it was shocking and terrible. Now it is just terrible and we’re learning ways to make our individual survival more likely.

Sage handed me The End we Start From by Megan Hunter after I finished the last book saying, simply, “You have to read this next. It’s beautiful.”

And it was – at only 160 pages it’s a quick read – and in fact for the first time in about 6 years I sat down on the couch and started reading, getting up when it was done.

The story is another really dark one. It starts with a catastrophic flood in London – possibly climate change-related, possibly not. Things escalate quickly, though, and before long our protagonist is leaving the city with her family, off to what we find are one of several refugee camps.

The interesting thing about this book is that we are hearing only about the day to day life of the people immediately around us. There’s no exposition about what’s happening in the world that got us here. There are hints of perhaps what might be the cause. But unlike American War, it doesn’t give specifics – history, details of outside influence, etc. We just know what the protagonist’s challenges are in the here and now. And in some ways that is not very different from our own lives. Yes, our lives are all operating in a global, national, and regional context but day to day what is happening isn’t always tied to that or necessary to be. We’re doing what we can to survive. You don’t need to know the history of the pandemic, where it came from or how it’s going in other countries to understand what my own day to day life is. I go to the store, I put a mask on before I go in, I pick up books from the library but can’t browse, I step off the sidewalk and in to the road to give space when someone is walking without a mask. So from a literary standpoint it was a really interesting and compelling exercise.

In 1992 I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – a story that starts with a coup in the US that replaces the existing government with an extremist Christian Patriarchal Dystopia. Women lose all of their rights – no more jobs, driving, travel without your husband’s (or nearest male relative’s) permission and accompaniment. Women aren’t even permitted to carry money. It’s no longer theirs.

The scary thing about this book is that while most of it is fiction, it’s just pulling ideas from existing patriarchal societies, sometimes exaggerating, sometimes not.

When I was browsing the e-books at my library’s site I saw that The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was, surprisingly, available. (It was in very high demand before). I checked it out immediately and started reading it.

This book goes a bit deeper in to the society and even how Gilead (the former United States) is interacting with Canada. They are sending missionaries in pairs to encourage people to immigrate there as their population is dwindling. Many people are now unable to have babies and like in the first book, have employed “Handmaids” – surrogates whose duty is to have a baby with the patriarch of the family if his partner cannot. Being a patriarchy, they don’t even have their own names. They are simply “Of-Whoever” – so the handmaid that is having a baby for Kyle’s family is “OfKyle” – until she goes to another family to have a different baby when she gets a new name. And of course, placement in this “job” is not consensual.

It’s a fascinating and horrifying read. Like American War, it’s mostly fiction but both authors know enough about the culture to make you see how if things played out in a particularly bad way either of these dystopias could be possible in the US – and in fact, are already happening elsewhere.

The Handmaid’s Tale has a scene very early on in the book (and movie) where a family is trying to flee to Canada just after the coup and the closure of the border. They’re caught by the Gilead border patrol and the woman is captured and her husband killed. When Sage and I talked about this in the early 1990’s we were both horrified by this idea. What if the country got more conservative and ended up being a dystopia? When we were watching Pat Buchanan’s speech in the Republican National Convention we were so horrified we literally said “If the Republicans get any worse we’re moving to Canada.” And then for the next ten years joked about it. Until one day, not long after the Iraq war started when a friend of ours heard us joking about it and said with zero humour: “What’s stopping you?” Realizing that nothing was stopping us I started looking for work in Canada that night and four months later we left forever.

And now? A pandemic is raging there, an insane person is the head of state and the border is closed. I feel like we got out just in time though now there’s a new “half-joking” conversation happening which sounds like this: “Is Canada far enough away?”

Let’s see what the next month holds – I know one thing for sure, though. There will be some more cheerful books on my reading list.

9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: July/August

  1. The only book I have read from your list is The Handmaid’s Tale. I would like to read “Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung”. I will check with the local library.

  2. I was trying to figure out where I’d heard about both Brother and The End We Start From, and of course it was this post for both books. I adored The End We Start From — I found it so spare and elegant and yet emotional. And Brother hit me right in the chest — my last teaching placement was in the are it’s set in, and I was so familiar with these characters. The book just broke my heart.

    1. Wow – I didn’t know you taught there. That must be so interesting (but heartbreaking) to see familiar people. You’ve read Catherine Hernandez’ Scarborough, right? If not, that should be on your list. Maybe after reading something light, though!

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