BOOK REVIEW | Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez | Canada Reads 2018

4/5 stars

If you’re looking for a book to completely tear you apart, this could be it. Scarborough is an account of the people living in a low-income community, east of Toronto. Through the Ontario Reads Literacy Program, our large cast of characters are connected. These characters, primarily parents and their kids, are subject to poverty, alcoholism, racism, and prejudice. Though they show it in different ways, all of these parents are doing the best they know how, with limited resources, to provide for their kids.

Told from multiple perspectives, Hernandez astutely captures life for those surviving through poverty. Bing, an intellectually gifted Filipino boy coming to terms with his sexuality and his mother, Edna. Bing and Edna have a beautiful relationship – Edna works hard at her nail salon, Bing often helping out. Laura, a Caucasian girl, suffering through abuse from both of her parents, now living with her father, Cory. Cory is an alcoholic and rarely knows where Laura’s next meal is coming from – Laura is the most heartbreaking character in the book. Sylvie, a First Nations girl, living with her loving and dedicated mother, Marie, and three year old brother Johnny. Marie knows something is different about Johnny, bu prejudices in the medical system prevent her from finding help. She rushes across town on busses, pushes strollers through slush and snow, doing anything she can to make his appointments using public transit.

All of these characters are connected through the Ontario Reads Literacy Reads program – a place kids can go before school to have breakfast and play, to be themselves. Hina, who runs the program, is often subject to racism from the parents who drop their kids off at the program, and struggles to run the program in a way that best serves the community. We hear from Hina in her weekly reports to her supervisor.

There are some amazing wins for some of the characters, such as Bing’s school performance, and Marie’s breakthrough with Johnny. This wasn’t a perfect book, but it was darn close for me. Hernandez gripped me from the first page, and I was deeply invested in all of her characters. The final chapter was a little sentimental for my taste, but I understand what Hernandez was going for.

What struck me the most with this book was how familiar it all felt, particularly the racism and prejudice. These are the problems we face here in Canada, and this is part of why I love Canada Reads so much. These are the sort of books that Canadians need to read, much like The Break last year. American authours abound, but it’s so important to read content from our own backyard.

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BOOK REVIEW | Brother by David Chariandy | 2018 Canada Reads Longlist

5/5 stars

There is so much packed into this slim book by David Chariandy. Brother explores topics that many would describe as timely, but that he describes as being felt by many for far too long. Chariandy dives into race, masculinity, police violence, community, the immigrant experience, and the power of music with striking precision and depth.

Michael and his older brother, Francis, live in a community called The Park in Scarborough, Ontario. Raised by their hard working Trinidadian mother, the boys are often left alone to take care of each other. Francis takes on the role of leader, guiding and teaching Michael along the way, often making mistakes of his own. With love and respect for their mother the boys stay on a clean path, but after witnessing an instance of violence, Francis is changed.

The story jumps back and forth in time from when the boys are kids to present day. As Michael and Francis struggle to find purpose and identity, the pair are subject to the prejudice that comes from having brown skin and living in an immigrant community; expectations are low. Through a love of hip hop, Francis begins to explore new opportunities, unknowingly sealing his fate. In the aftermath of tragedy, Michael discovers the healing power of his community.

Chariandy did a great job at representing for us children of Caribbean immigrants (my mother is Jamaican), layering in even more for me to love about this book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “ackee” mentioned in a book, or that “pears” are “avocados”, at least to Caribbean folks. Knowing that so many Canadians will read this story through Canada Reads 2018 brings me so much happiness.

BOOK REVIEW | Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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4/5 stars

Release Date: September 5, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

My thoughts:
Sing, Unburied, Sing presents a way of life that will be unfamiliar to many of its readers. A life in which addiction rules and heartbreak abounds. Jesmyn Ward presents themes and ideas, however, that are as relevant today as they ever have been; racism, injustices in the prison system, police treatment of minorities, and how the past shapes the present. This is the story of a family living in poverty along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

Through multiple perspectives, Ward tells us the story of Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla who are being raised by their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Jojo’s mother, Leoni, is often absent and frequently high. When Leoni gets a call that Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father, is going to be released from prison, she packs the kids up and head’s out onto the road to pick him up on his release day. Jojo, who has just turned 13, is less than excited to be reacquainted with the stranger that is his father.

Leoni is haunted by visions of her deceased brother, and Jojo is haunted by a young boy Pop knew in his youth during his time in prison. Ward carries these figures elegantly throughout the story, and they become central to Leoni and Jojo’s fates. Ward doesn’t hold back in her depiction of prison as slavery, and this storyline comes to a truly heart wrenching and tragic end. This book is wrought with pain and sadness, and I know I will be thinking about Jojo for a while.

This was my first time reading Jesmyn Ward, and I certainly understand her success. She has keen insights and a strong voice, and I am looking forward to reading her backlist.