Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen by Kate Taylor

proust-kosher-kitchenMadame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is a re-read for me, after many long years. It came out in way back in 2003, i think, and that’s about when I originally read it. Kate Taylor, at the time, was a Globe and Mail personality, if such a thing exits. I remember reading it and loving it so much. I just wanted to talk to everyone about it. And I was also about mid-stride in my love affair with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Continue reading

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Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

Girl Runner by Carrie SnyderI picked up Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder because I was looking for some running inspiration. I’m not sure if it did the trick – I spent most of the afternoon on the couch reading! I assumed Girl Runner was going to be an inspirational running story. I was wrong. It is so much more than that. Continue reading

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelI am probably the last person to have read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. Even my mom read it before me. But read it I have, and you may be shocked to find out that I was disappointed by it. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but it failed to live up to the hype. Continue reading

Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor

mount-pleasantEvery once in a while I get a hankering for Toronto. Not the Toronto I actually lived in, which was Etobicoke, but the Toronto I dream about – Rosedale, old quaint houses, you know, the areas I can’t afford to live in. As it turns out Harry, the very WASP protagonist of Don Gillmor‘s new novel Mount Pleasant can’t afford to live there either. Continue reading

Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman

born weirdWhen I lived in India my friend and I believed that you either liked Rohinton Mistry (me) or Salman Rushdie (him). It was just another way of saying either you liked magic realism or you didn’t. I did not. That is why I have never read Andrew Kaufman before. I’ve heard him speak at various functions and gatherings and found him engaging and witty, but I couldn’t ever temporarily suspend my disbelief to give one of his novels a try … until now. Born Weird is wonderful, but you likely know that already because I have not seen one bad or even lukewarm review of it.

Born Weird is a simple story, a family saga. Angie is summoned to her grandmother’s deathbed to gather her siblings together for the grandmother’s death. You see, the grandmother, at each child’s birth, endowed them with a ‘blurse’ (a blessing/ curse). At the time of her death she wishes to relieve them all of their burden. It has been eight years since the siblings last saw one another, but Angie travels the country picking each one up along the way. Unusual happenings plague her journey. Some might call them coincidences, but not a Weird. Early on in the novel Grandma Weird declares,

Until you realize that coincidences don’t exist, your life will be filled with them … Everywhere you look there coincidences will be. Coincidence! Coincidence! Coincidence! But the moment you accept that there is not such thing, they will disappear forever and you will never encounter another.

I thoroughly enjoyed Born Weird in spite of the tidbits of magic realism (or coincidences?) that enter the story here and there. They are consistent with the over all tone and purpose of the story and do not overshadow the plot or characters in any way. RandomHouse has done a particularly good job in packaging the book. Each chapter is headed with a small illustration of a crown, shark, camera or some such thing as on the cover shown above. It’s a small thing, but it ties the work together.

Who would like this book? Born Weird is a quick, fun and entertaining read. It was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2013, so that lets you know the caliber of the writing and the level of the wit. It is also a truly Canadian novel, as the Weirds journey the breadth of Canada from the east coast to the west. From that point of view, it would be well suited to read during a great Canadian car trip. The focus on family could put it in a position to be compared to The Family Fang, though Born Weird isn’t nearly so dark. Overall, I would highly recommend Born Weird for a nice, quick summertime read (ideally read while lazing in a hammock with drink in hand).

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

hungry ghostsI had very mixed feeling while reading Shyam Selvadurai‘s newly released novel, The Hungry Ghosts. It is a gripping and captivating novel, but perhaps more crucially it is a brave and important novel. The story focuses on Shivan, the ‘chosen one’ in his family. It traces his uncomfortable childhood in Columbo as his grandmother’s favorite child, then shifts to Toronto where Shivan’s family immigrates to following the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s. For me the story really takes off when Shivan returns to Sri Lanka to help his ailing grandmother and gets involved in a relationship with an old classmate. The story concludes in Vancouver, years later, with Shivan still haunted by his time in Sri Lanka. Yes, it is a rather epic tale.

In The Hungry Ghosts Selvadurai does what I was hoping Michael Ondaatje would do with Anil’s Ghost: that is write a political novel revealing the atrocities of ethnic violence and human rights violations in Sri Lanka over the past 30 years. Selvadurai jumps into the quagmire of Sri Lankan politics with aplomb and bravery. His protagonist, Shivan, is a homosexual born into a privileged class parented by a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. At times the interplay of these aspects of his background are subtle and nuanced, while at other times the pain they bring are at the forefront of the story.

The political angle of the story does not stop in Sri Lanka. It also continues in the Canadian part of the novel. Here Selvadurai deals with the tensions of being an immigrant in Canada in the 1980’s. Is it better to ‘assimilate’ or ghettoize yourself by associating only with other immigrants. Added to this, of course, is the sometimes explicit imperialism of being a gay minority. I think that in both the Sri Lankan portions and Canadian portions Selvadurai reveals aspects of the two cultures that at times would rather be swept under a rug.

The mixed feeling I had about the novel had nothing to do with the above aspects. The macrocosm of the story is subsumed with familial tension. This tension is so well drawn that I felt uncomfortable as I read. Ultimately, it was this tension that gave me mixed feelings about the book. Members of the family are so awful to one another that it prevented me from enjoying the book. Everyone is alienated from one another. I needed for there to be some love and affection some where, but when it did occur it was fleeting. However, this one weakness in the book may reveal more about me than about Selvadurai: I flee from tension, particularly of the familial variety.

Who would like this book? Selvadurai is a Sri Lankan Canadian writer who is not as well known as Michael Ondaatje. That could change with this novel. Both are literary writers of great talent, but Selvadurai represents a younger generation. I hate to say that this makes Selvadurai more relevant, but he does deal with touchy issues in a way that Odaatje hasn’t in recent years. Overall, The Hungry Ghosts would appeal to anyone wanting a good yarn that will also teach you about another place and another way of life.

I should also add that if you have not read Funny Boy or the Cinnamon Garden by Selvadurai, they are delightful.