The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

“A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others.”

4/5 stars.
ebook
Read from January 23, 2018 to February 4, 2018.

A Canadian classic; there are not many books that embody a French-Canadian setting and receive as much praise and success as this one did, especially with a protagonist as despicable as Duddy.

Saying that Duddy Kravitz is ambitious is an understatement.  After taking to heart what his grandfather said about a man owning land, Duddy is determined to rise above the Jewish ghetto in Montreal he has grown up in.

“A man without land is a nobody.”

As you follow Duddy’s life from a young age, you see that Duddy is as smart as he is cunning and his extensive risk taking is starting to pay off. The problem being, Duddy is a shithead con-artist who does not care about anyone but himself. A trouble-maker from a young age, Duddy wants to prove everyone wrong no matter what the cost. Before he has even turned 18, Duddy is trying to increase reputation and his finances to get that perfect plot of land. duddysmposter04 Despite Duddy’s extensive faults, there is an admirable and likeable quality to him that almost has your rooting for him even as he uses and abuses people in his ambitious pursuits. You feel as if, maybe Duddy isn’t as terrible as his ambitions make him and deep down he is a good person. From his obnoxious and hilarious youth to the hard working days of his early adulthood, Duddy befriends and makes enemies with a variety of characters that contribute to his overall success at the end of the novel. However, the success has come at a steep price, one that even Duddy has to question in the end.  I know that even I was a bit bothered, on both ends, when his relationships and friendships fell apart. One part of me wanted things to work out for Duddy and the other part of me wanted to scream at his friends to GTFO.

Richler does magic work with Duddy’s character in getting you, as a reader, to love and hate him. So that even when Duddy does something horribly selfish, you are not surprised and still keep reading to see if Duddy’s ridiculously ambitious and often crude plans come to fruition. The book balances the themes of greed and ambition perfectly, as well as encompassing a snapshot history of Montreal in the 1940s and 1950s. Richler also details some of the current views held on Jewish people during this time as well as some of the political stances of the local French-Canadians. The plot is mixed with humour, cigars, alcohol, and a little bit of violence here and there, making the book not only interesting but somewhat exciting as well.

I can’t say this book would be for everyone but if you enjoy a little of debauchery and can tolerate a less than likeable protagonist out of the sake of your own ambitious curiosity than this book might be for you.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

“Tomorrow. The word hangs in the air for a moment, both a promise and a threat. Then it floats away like a paper boat, taken from her by the water licking at her ankles.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 321 pages.
Read from January 18, 2018 to January 19, 2018.

I need to listen to my friend’s book recommendations more often as I would never have found and devoured this book otherwise. I sometimes struggle with stories set around traditional Indian families because so many of them are filled with intense sorrow in being so heavily committed to family at all costs, even if it means sacrificing your own personal happiness (for example, The Hero’s Walk). tumblr_mlvuppSgUV1rtxj3eo1_500This massive commitment is a foreign concept for me as I grew up in a Western society, neither of which is good or bad, just different. This book, however, I did not struggle with as the characters are so well depicted and the story showcases both the good and the bad of being committed to your family.

This story centres around two women of very different classes in India. Sera is a Parsi housewife who has employed Bhima for many years as a housekeeper. Bhima is extremely poor yet the two women are close friends, practically family. However, the massive class difference between the two of them is a constant reminder that they are very different and each holds different resentments and a fierce loyalty to their own family no matter what.  Bhima has done everything she can for her one and only granddaughter, Maya, whom she was happily able to send to college with Sera’s assistance, but something has happened. Maya has returned to the shabby home of her grandmother and has abandoned her studies, locking herself away. Bhima soon learns that Maya is pregnant. Bhima is furious but Maya refuses to give her grandmother any details as to how it happened.  The cause of Maya’s condition has a tragic origin that when unfurled will devastate the two women and their families forever.

Bhima, poor Bhima, her strength and suffering are so intense. The author has a magical way with words and is truly gifted.

“She is tired of it all—tired of this endless cycle of death and birth, tired of investing any hope in the next generation, tired and frightened of finding more human beings to love, knowing full well that every person she loves will someday wound her, hurt her, break her heart with their deceit, their treachery, their fallibility, their sheer humanity.”

The ending is heart-breaking, yet tranquil and gives you some hope that things will get better fro Bhima and Maya. The author depicts Sera so well that you can even appreciate her own individual struggles without resentment as she too, suffers intensely. Sera may not be poor but she is trapped in the tradition of a high-end Parsi family and it has created its own form of suffering. Both Bhima and Sera suffer, yet that space between them keeps them separate and unable to come together.  The book broaches a wide array of distressing themes such as poverty, rape, abortion and domestic violence and how these affect the lives of women regardless of class.  I did not want to put this book down. I was so involved and committed to the characters and plot that I thought about Bhima for a week and felt intense empathetic feelings for a person that doesn’t even exist, though I imagine there are many women out there in similar situations.

I would recommend this book to any woman as think some of the conflicts presented in the story are unique to women. That is not to say that men won’t enjoy this novel too as it represents a lot of different family dynamics that they would also appreciate. If anything, read this book for the gorgeous prose!

Human Acts by Han Kang

A historical-fiction on a vicious event in South Korean history.

4/5 stars.
Read from December 27, 2017 to December 31, 2017.
ebook, 171 pages.

After loving The Vegetarian by the same author, I was excited to read this book, especially after learning of its historical significance.

 “I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there.”

In 1979 South Korea’s dictator, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated. Park’s successor, Choi Kyu-hah, and major general, Chun Doo-hwan, noting that the country was now unstable, seized power through a military coup d’état on December 12, 1979, and enforced martial law. After years of suppression under Park’s regime, this shift in power allowed for a revival in the democratic movement.  The Gwangju Uprising took place between May 18-27th, 1980.  On the morning of May 18th, around 200 students gathered in protest at the Chonnam National University in protest of its closing under martial law. By that afternoon the uprising and conflict broadened to 2000 participants where they were met with a staggering military force. Soldiers were reported to have beaten protestors and eventually opened fire on them, initiating a week-long bloody battle. On May 27th, the military regained control.

A paratrooper clubs a man arrested during anti-government demonstrations in Gwangju on 20 May 1980.
A para-trooper beating a man, 1980. From The Korean Times – May 19, 2015

An estimated 606 people died in the clashings but there is no generally accepted number or statistic on the exact amount.  While the movement failed in making an immediate change over South Korea’s oppressive regime at the time it, the event has been contributed as a major factor in South Korea’s move to democracy in June 1987.

150365591321_20170826
Photo from Hankyoreh – Aug 25, 2017.

This book follows a cast of revolving characters that are in Gwangju during this tumultuous time. Opening with a boy searching for the body of his lost friend through the mass of dead bodies from the recent student uprising. Rows upon rows of bodies in makeshift coffins line a school gymnasium. The bodies are rotting as they have not yet been claimed by family members.  Another character is a dead soul looking for its body and unravelling the moments that led up to its death.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”

The story is shocking and visceral, carrying the same haunting tone as The Vegetarian. This story, however, is less personal as it aims to embody the struggle of not just one person but of an entire nation trying to reshape its identity.  I enjoyed the majority of the characters and the encompassing stories and have since done some research to fully appreciate the scale of this incident. However, this book did not grab me and haunt me the same way The Vegetarian did. Thankfully, the writing is still exquisite, delicate but also brutal, and the story is of paramount importance to South Korean history. Additionally, the translation is exceptional and makes you feel like nothing is emotionally remiss or lost in translation.

The author, Han Kang, was born in Gwangju (both parents are writers as well) and she was 9 years old when, with a stroke of luck, her family left Gwangju for Seoul just 4 months before the uprising. This story is her testament to the event and the place where she grew up.

“That fact became a kind of survivor’s guilt, and troubled my family for a long time. I was twelve when I first saw a photo book produced and circulated in secret to bear witness to the massacre. ” – Han Kang, The White Review, March 2016

If you like historical fiction, fabulous writing, deep characters with a rich story, then you need read this book.