Julia’s Book Club

by julia.hanigsberg | April 30th, 2013

It’s been about six months since my last installment of Julia’s Book Club and I was delighted when Ryerson Folio asked for another installment. I’ve been very busy reading my way through the growing digital books on my nightstand (Kindle!) and in this blog post I want to share with you two of the extraordinary novels I’ve recently read, as well as two unconventional and thought-provoking “how-to” tomes that seriously opened my eyes.

Two gripping family sagas

One of my favorite literary genres is the sweeping family story that takes the reader through multiple generations, interesting places and pivotal moments in history. Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast therefore suited me to a T. Written by the chair of Ryerson’s English Department, Beggar’s Feast is a glorious ride through the not-so-sweet life of Sam Kandy, born in colonial Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). From a boyhood indentured to a Buddhist monastery, Sam reinvents himself through his own courage and ingenuity – and with the help of a series of mentors and business partners.

Sam is such a wonderful protagonist: equal parts cunning con man, savvy businessman, vengeful schemer and all the while naïve in unexpected ways. His story takes a winding path through history and leaps across continents, propelled by Boyagoda’s technicolour language and vivid depictions. Where are the good men in this novel?  Who are the women?  Are we ultimately to pity, fear or like Sam? Does it even matter if we like him? What are we to make of his choices and where they ultimately take him?

The frigid coat of Newfoundland couldn’t be less like Ceylon. Yet, in his novel Galore, Michael Crummey is equally able to transport us back through history and lyrically depict a generational saga that begins with portents that may be magical.

If Sam Kandy’s life wouldn’t have been the same but for a charging elephant, then Crummey’s beached whale and the mysterious birth of a stranger from the whale’s belly is equally significant. Thus starts a mystical tale of fairies and ghosts, bullies and witches, changelings and mistakes, and fear and loathing of Irish and English settlers brought across the ocean. Love’s tragic errors repeat through Galore’s generations, and families are unable to shake off the ancestral burdens that cling to them. Laced with real figures from Newfoundland history, Crummey’s tale has the complexity of a Russian novel – but on fast forward.

Two “how to” books that are nothing like the “For Dummies” series

I read these next two books back to back. How is that for some concentrated self-improvement?

While employing distinct voices and approaches, both Caitlan Moran and Baratunde Thurston use the form of the “how to” book as memoir and call to action.  In How to be a Woman, Moran, a British entertainment journalist, uses her life as a lab to investigate what it means to be a woman and a feminist in the 2000s. Whether addressing high heels (she likes them sometimes) or thongs (hates them always), motherhood, childbirth, marriage, career or sexual harassment, Moran has illuminating experiences and perspectives to share.

Moran is perhaps most provocative when she describes the abortion she had with her third pregnancy. It’s a choice that some will judge negatively, but her courage in telling the story and describing the experience is undeniable. How to be a Woman is often laugh-out-loud funny, and is very much written in the spirit of girlfriends sharing a few drinks and telling each other their best stories and closest kept secrets.

Thurston, for his part, is a terrific and often hilarious writer with a stereotype-defying life story that he uses in order to open a fresh dialogue about race. The son of a single mom whose dad was a drug addict who suffered a violent death, Thurston is also private high school- and Ivy League college-educated, the product of a mom who was an African nationalist and tofu lover. A digital innovator, former management consultant, political activist and comedian, in How to be Black he brings all these experiences to bear in depicting the types and stereotypes of African-American culture – including descriptions (in blisteringly funny terms) of how to be an “angry black man” among other archetypes. Reading this book produced the satisfying and even titillating effect of feeling like a voyeur – and ending up much smarter for it.

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