Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 20, 2018 to February 27, 2018.

This was the one book in the 2018 Canada Reads that I was most excited for. While the book started slow I was absolutely captivated by the brutal history of this family and was soon not able to put it down.

Sakamoto’s family has a rich, tragic and courageous history. His grandfather on his mother’s side, a white-Canadian from the east coast, joined the war efforts in WWII where he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. He lived and suffered intensely for four years in POW camp. His grandmother, on his father’s side, is a Japanese-born Canadian. Sakamoto details the horrifying things that the Canadian government did to his grandmother’s family and the Japanese living in Canada during WWII, especially after the Pearl Harbour bombing. This is a part of history that most Canadians know little about or the brutality of what we did to our own people. I know I sure didn’t and it really opened my eyes. Canada is often viewed as an untainted and tolerant place to live but our own history is just as stained as others. Additionally, I imagine very few Canadians know of the regiments that served out in Hong Kong and the losing battle that they had to endure.

The book continues through Sakamoto’s family saga and the remarkable ability for his grandparents to forgive was a constant foundation in his life. Can you imagine when Sakamoto’s parents wanted to marry how that might have felt to their own parents? Each had suffered so much from each other’s different ethnicities and tet their powerful understanding, shared suffering, and ability to move forward is nothing short of courageous. Sakamoto also details the difficult upbringing he had with his alcoholic mother and how that shaped his future ambitions and responsibilities.

Mitsue Sakamoto, the author’s grandmother, Phyllis MacLean the author’s mother, Ralph MacLean, the author’s grandfather and Stan Sakamoto the author’s father in Medicine Hat Alberta in 1968. Source: The Daily Mail

Sakamoto’s story is highly emotional and I would be lying if I did not say I welled up in few parts.  The suffering and tenacity of his grandparents and even the death of his mother were hard to bear as a reader. Sakamoto really drew into some great emotional depth with his story-telling. The added pictures in the book were also a great touch as it really felt like you knew his family.

While I ended up loving this book, I did not start off feeling that way. The book had a slow start for me as I was initially unsure as to where this story or memoir was going. I found some of the initial story transitions to be a bit clunky, though once his grandfather set off for the war things smoothed out and the main theme of the story was starting to finally come together.  While I enjoyed the story of his upbringing and the suffering endured by him and his mother with her alcoholism it was a massive shift in the direction of the book. The book was now reading more like an autobiography. This disjointing and lack of connection from his grandparent’s story to his own story was not as successful as the rest of the emotionally enticing parts about his grandparents. While his own story is moving in its own right, the novel just did not feel like a complete whole on the theme of forgiveness.  Even with that,  I decided on a 4-star review instead of 3 for this book because of how the book made me feel and for how intently I could not stop reading certain portions.

As I currently live in Hong Kong, I found the parts of his grandfather’s time there especially interesting.  However, Sakamoto mentioned that Kowloon is part of the New Territories and part of mainland China, which isn’t correct. Kowloon is a part of Hong Kong and is its own district.  Since 1997, China has since reclaimed Hong Kong but it is technically still its own country and many locals would not be happy being referred to as mainland China! It was wonderful envisioning these areas that I know well and what they would have been like during the war.  As a Canadian, it was also intriguing to read about a battle that took place during WWII that I imagine many Canadians don’t know about. There are some historical museums and treks in Hong Kong that I am now anxious to partake in.

So far, I have read 3 out of the 5 books in the 2018 Canada Reads. Compared to The Marrow Thieves and Precious Cargo, this novel is definitely one to “open your eyes” as the horrors of the Canadian government during WWII and the part that those Canadian regiments played out in Hong Kong are remarkable and need to be known. The content of this novel is truly jaw-dropping and extremely relevant in the context of today’s racial issues and learning from our own past. As it stands, this novel best meets the criteria for the debate in my opinion but what will the final two books hold? We will soon find out…

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson

Nothing beats a good feel-good novel.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 11, 2018 to February 19, 2018.

You know what? Nothing beats a good feel-good novel. Especially one that knows how to make you laugh, smile and cry at the time.

Craig Davidson had hit rock bottom with his writing career. His efforts and a once promising start had fizzled away into nothing. With the bills racking up Craig was looking for anything to help him get by which, is hard to do when you have jumped around with small jobs here and there while pursuing writing, that is until he stumbled upon a school bus driving position. No experience required. Perfect. Little did Craig know that this job was going to offer him so much more than just a paycheque. Craig’s first gig is driving a short bus for special needs children, a position that many drivers often turned away. Dealing with kids can be trying at the best of times but having to work with kids who have needs that are harder to understand or deal with is often a whole other story and requires a special and attentive sort of care. Craig wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into but he was willing to try. With his unique brand of humour, Craig quickly charms the kids on his bus, learns their routines and personalities, and quickly falls in love with the job and his unique bunch of rowdy kids. It would be a year that would shape his life and perspectives going forward.

giphy (2)Craig has the gift of humour and has finessed his writing style well. The book is entertaining, highly readable and massively relatable for anyone who has pursued writing or who just has your average-Joe type persona, which is most of us! Craig is intimate making you feel like you really get to know him and each of the kids on his bus. The book also offers valuable insights into the difficult lives that many people with special needs and their families have to deal with and the courage that it comes with. Craig learned that his own failures were nothing compared to what these kids had overcome and with how able they were at dealing with difficulties that he could never have even dreamed of.

While I enjoyed the true story portion of this book I did not enjoy the random chapters of Craig’s unpublished YA dystopian novel in which the characters were inspired by the kids on his bus.  It’s a nice sentiment but I found it very jarring and when it first came up I had no idea what I was reading or how it pertained to Craig’s main story at first.  If I were an editor I would have eliminated those portions completely and then maybe made a reference to it at the end.

Now does this book “open your eyes“? To an extent, yes. It is an important reflection on how disabled people are treated in our current society and just how challenging it can be. Do I think that this theme was the main attraction of this book? No. Did I love reading it? Oh yes. This is a great read and I have already recommended it to a few of my friends. Does it deserve to win Canada Reads? My current opinion is no but we will see what the other contenders bring to the table. Onward!

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

There are parts of this story that hard to believe. How much, if any, was embellished?

“I told myself, ‘All I want is a normal life’. But was that true? I wasn’t so sure.

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 315 pages.
Read from October 9, 2017 to October 12, 2017.

As a species, we have always been curious about tragedy, in that when something bad happens we can’t look away, like a terrible car wreck. This book is the terrible car wreck of Augusten’s childhood and as readers, we are utterly absorbed and shocked at the wreck and mess that follows. I know this book is supposed to be somewhat humorous as that is one way the author has found a way to deal with the failings in his upbringing but I, for one, found nothing about this to be humorous.

Actual footage of me reading this book.

Augusten’s young life started off dysfunctional but still somewhat normal. His mother was always dramatic and his father reclusive but they were a family.

“My mother began to go crazy. Not in a ‘Let’s paint the kitchen red!’ sort of way. But crazy in a ‘gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God’ sort of way.”

Shortly thereafter his father abandons him and so Augusten is left with his spiralling mentally ill mother. Augusten starts off as a very neat and tidy boy with a flair for fashion and often finds his mother’s antics and resulting behaviours distressing, even at such a young age.  Deidre, Augusten’s mother, has a love for poetry, feminism and the dramatic and when it is compounded with whatever illness she is battling makes for a troubling situation for Augusten. Deidre begins to see Doctor Finch as a form of therapy for herself. While the doctor is legitimate his methods are not and Augusten soon finds himself apart of these strange therapy sessions and even begins to know the doctor and his family on a personal level. Then, a few years into the sessions, Deidre, after reclaiming her sexuality as a gay woman, decides that the best decision for the two of them is if Augusten is adopted and forced to live with the doctor and his messy and peculiar family. From this point in the story onwards, you are going to count your blessings for your own dysfunctional family.

From find the word of God within bowel movements to underage gay sex with a paedophile and having the free reign to do whatever he pleases Augusten’s time with this family is beyond quirky. There are parts of this story that hard to believe.  I mean the author’s real name is actually Chris Robison and the truth of this novel came into question after its publication and immediate popularity.  How much did Chris elaborate and how much did his memory fail in regards to his time with the Finches? There was a call to remove the non-fiction and memoir tag from the book but at the time it was already too wildly popular to change.

From depictions of his mother to the doctor and his family have been called into question with the depictions that Chris lays out in his book. His mother even wrote her own book so that she could tell her own story in response this book. The real name of the Finch family is the Turcottes and the children of the family have since sued the author for the false allegations that this book made about them.  Theresa, or Natalie as she is referred to in the book, remembers Chris’ obsession with fame when he was younger and was shocked with the “categorically false” and “wildly embellished” story that he put together. Chris has stood by his story and his memories:

“This is my story. It’s not my mother’s story and it’s not the family’s story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me.”

I am thankful that I did not know about these allegations before reading the book as it allowed me to read the novel without prejudice. I enjoyed the quirky story, even if it isn’t true or strongly embellished but deep down a part of my hopes that it isn’t true because the events in this story are truly shocking.

I will stick with my 4-star rating on this book because I did still enjoy it despite just recently reading about the controversy surrounding it. Overall the novel is an easy read with mediocre writing but with a story that makes you unable to look away, like a car wreck, and won’t let go. I would encourage readers to approach the book with a grain of salt and just enjoy the insanity of the plot. I think that the those who enjoy memoirs and quirky and dark stories with a dash of humour will enjoy this novel.