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Books: Ru by Kim Thúy

As part of my summer reading spree I read Kim Thuy’s memoir-esque novel Ru. In 1979 Kim escaped Vietnam with her family in a boat, landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually she and her family made their way to Quebec where she still lives today.

One of the things Kim does so well in this slight but beautifully written volume is intertwine her family’s history and journey to the culture and traditions of Vietnam.

Each chapter is short and the language is poetic. It’s almost as though the book is a collection of linked poems that tell the story of the immensely difficult journey her family took leaving Saigon to try and forge a better life in a new ,strange and cold country.

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Her descriptions of life in Vietnam are teeming with that “other life”.  The life of Lotus blossoms, servants, aunties, chefs, tennis courts, jewels and parties.  But with a country recovering from civil war and with the takeover of Saigon by the north, the good life they had known was rapidly coming to an end. Soldiers moved into their home, their possessions were taken, their lives threatened.

I love the descriptions of the large, sprawling families who care for each other through good and also extraordinarily difficult times. The tale of her families opulent life is contrasted with the stories of war, a child shot to death, a mother losing her son, old and young women, through whatever means doing what they must to put food on the table, more often than not doing soul destroying and backbreaking work.

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It’s easy to forget the lives left behind. And when the family comes to Montreal they live in a world difficult to understand and navigate, its newness underscoring everything they had to let go to  start anew. It’s a good reminder of what is left behind and what it takes to integrate and adapt and how that informs who you become.

I liked the book a lot and it’s poetic style offered incredible moments of truth, pain and beauty but it’s ephemeral nature also made it more difficult to attach to the narrator or the characters in the book.

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Books: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

9780349004365Why mince words I loved this book. From the opening page you’re drawn into this lovely world of 1920’s London and the lives of a mother and grown daughter whose circumstances are forever changed by the Great War.

To make ends meet they rent out rooms in their their grand old house to a young couple or ‘paying guests’ . Although awkward at first, a relationship quickly develops and before you know it the old house comes to life again with a steamy, illicit, passionate love affair.

Of course, illicit affairs are the stuff of real life and fiction. I think what makes this one unique is that it explores illicit love amidst the backdrop of changing moral fabric. The old world where women played prescriptive roles was changing. The Edwardian sensibility was fading against the rise of the middle class and the collapse of the old social genteel order. When the Barbers, a rough and tumble young couple (he’s an insurance broker, she a stay-at-home wife of questionable class) move in, their relationship with Frances and her mother becomes a microcosm of the new social order that is emerging.

This all sounds very academic but what this book is, is an extraordinary romp that’s well executed on multiple levels.  Without giving too much away I would say that the book is also a study in the slippery slope of moral indiscretion where one act begets another and before you know it,your characters are far away from who they thought they were or hoped to be. Another great read! I loved it and look forward to reading other books by the talented Ms. Waters!

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Books: The Girl on the Train

The_Girl_on_the_TrainThe jacket copy on The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins says you won’t be able to put this book down and I didn’t. Not once. I read it straight through even though the characters are almost all horrible non-likable people. But there is something incredibly readable about this book that keeps you turning page after page. That’s a good story teller at the very least.

Rachel, the main character, is a bit of a blubbering drunk who has lost control of her life and lives it vicariously through others. Every day she commutes to London and she passes a series of houses which she has become quite familiar with. So familiar, in fact, that she feels she has come to know one couple in particular. Then one day she witnesses something disturbing and she goes to the police and becomes inextricably entangled in the disappearance of a woman.

And voila you have the makings of a classic murder mystery plot! What I find interesting about this book is the exploration of memory loss as a result of drunken black-outs. Our main protagonist’s memory is unreliable because she’s a drunk and has difficulty recounting the details of an event, and often can’t remember the event itself. So part of the book deals with her struggle to piece together details of the incident and as well as of her own life.

The other theme that runs through this book is the issue of domestic violence and the politics of power in male female relationships.  It doesn’t paint a pretty picture and certainly some of the issues she touches on would be familiar to most of us which brings relationship politics uncomfortably close to home. Last but not least at the centre of a good murder mystery is the fact that people aren’t all that they portray themselves to be. In The Girl on the Train nobody really is what they portray themselves to be. How well can you ever know know someone? This book explores this theme and the result is CREEPY. This a great quick read. I found myself going back after I finished reading it trying to pick up clues that the writer left as crumbs in each chapter. Good read!

 

 

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

UnknownI have a soft spot for books and stories set in either of the world war periods of the twentieth century. It’s close enough in time to feel familiar and far enough away to enable those standing on the other side to reflect on the horror and the beauty of people inextricably entrenched in global and local conflict. How in god’s name do we survive these things?

All the Light We Cannot See is the story of Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl of 10 and her father a keeper of keys and the maker of miniature cities who flee to St. Malo France, during the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. The other main character Werner, is a German boy the same age as Marie and a technical radio wizard who escapes the poverty of his orphaned family life through conscription to a brutal elite German military school that serves the Third Reich.

As we follow Werner’s story it is his talent with radio technology that makes him particularly adept at tracking resistance fighters…and ultimately this is what leads him across eastern Europe to St. Malo where Marie and her father live with an eccentric great uncle….a resistance fighter.

A part of this story is also about highly prized gem..one that has supposed dark powers and which is eagerly sought by the Nazis. This part of the story doesn’t particularly interest me too much.

But what I found magical about this book are the stories of “the things we cannot see”….the worlds that are created for us by art, technology, imagination and the greatness of the human heart. Marie’s father builds miniature cities for her, exact replicas of where she lives so she can ‘see’ where she is going…so she can explore her world.

As for Marie, her world is also made bigger by the books her father buys her and her uncle shares with her. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea weaves its way throughout the story. Werner and his sister Jutta’s worlds are made vast and beautiful by the French science lessons they secretly listen to through Werner’s radio…a moment that ties two French brothers love of the world and technology to two lonely children in Germany.

The convergence of Marie-Laure’s world and her love of books meets Werner’s when she reads Twenty Thousand Leagues using the radio and unwittingly broadcasts ‘art’ to the world and to Werner in his moment of darkness.

Wow, it is these moments that I live for and it is handled beautifully in this grand tale.  Go buy this book. Read it. Enjoy it and then pass it on. Art is what makes humans beautiful.

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