Brother and Unstoppable: My Life So Far

It’s been quite a week, has it not? In addition to all the crazy news out there, it seems the weather around North America has sort of flip-flopped. Some of the South saw snow and the temps in western Canada have been balmy and spring-like, with most of the snow being gone here. I was even able to bike around this week, which is hard to believe. Biking in December? Unheard of. I might even rake up leaves today in the yard.

Yet all the news of fires and wind in Southern California has been alarming. We are heading there for the holidays (not close to any of the fire zones), though it seems the whole area could use a big rain dance right about now. So sorry to those whose homes are threatened and the lands that are being charred. Not too Christmas-y. Still we hope to do our Christmas shopping once we get there. How are you enjoying the holiday season so far? Hope all is well where you are. Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished last week.

Oh this is a beautifully written and moving story. It’s one of those novels you can sense within the first three pages it’s going to be good because of how it’s written — just how good surprised me quite a bit because I didn’t know anything about Canadian author David Chariandy or what his novel “Brother” was about. But it’s one of those shorter novels (just under 200 pages) that packs a quiet wallop to the heart. How it didn’t win this year’s Giller Prize, or get shortlisted for it, I don’t know. Just being on the longlist didn’t do it justice. But luckily it just won the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Award in Canada so I was pleased to see that.

It’s a novel about two brothers, sons of Trinidadian immigrants, who are coming of age in the simmering summer of 1991 and raised by a single mother in a housing complex along a busy street. Their neighborhood is one of concrete towers and strip malls in the disparaged outskirts of sprawling Toronto.

Michael is the younger one who tells the story and looks up to his older brother Francis and they both dote on their hard-working mother who commutes by bus to cleaning jobs around the city. Early on, you learn something has happened to Francis but you don’t know what until the end. The story jumps back and forth in time — from the present while Michael takes care of his grieving mother — to the past where Michael and Francis are kids navigating their surroundings filled with gangs, bullies, and prejudice.

They often escape to the one hidden green area — the Rouge Valley — that runs under a bridge through their neighborhood, where they feel free to imagine better lives. Francis dreams of a future in hip-hop music, while Michael dreams of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school, who seeks a future elsewhere. But in the end a tragic act of violence thwarts their hopes and changes their family forever.

It’s quite a powerful story. I liked it because the writing wields so much feeling within it. Right away you know the closeness of the two brothers, and their mother, and the marginalized community that they’re living in. It’s a story about kinship and family ties — and a portrait of the author’s own hometown. I found it quite moving and one of my favorites for 2017.  It’s funny how I seem to come across these strong novels right in the last month of the year. Sometime in 2018 I’ll have to look for David Chariandy’s first novel called “Soucouyant” from 2007, which apparently is also a coming-of-age novel that explores similar themes of family ties and race. He apparently wanted to explore his themes further with this book. Surely he’s a writer to watch and one to read.

Next up I finished the audiobook of pro tennis player Maria Sharapova’s memoir “Unstoppable: My Life So Far.” You didn’t think I was going to miss this, did you? I’m a tennis junkie: I play the game, I follow it … like the lines on a yellow ball. It wasn’t that I’m particularly a Sharapova fan, I’m not really, just a fan of the game. I know what you’re thinking: athlete stories, like celebrity stories, are flimsy, lightweight things not worth serious consideration. But they’re not all like that. I actually didn’t expect much from this one, but then was pleasantly captivated by Sharapova’s life story, which she reads for the audio. (Okay, she’s only age 30 now, but somehow she seems much older. She was born the year I graduated college, ouch.)

It’s quite a rags-to-riches story that hooked me from the beginning. Her parents fled the city of Gomel, which is now Belarus, shortly before Maria was born due to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. She was born instead in Siberia where her grandparents lived, and later the family moved to the resort town of Sochi, Russia, where she began to hit a tennis ball at age 4 on gray clay. Her father saw a determination in her to play for hours and got her lessons early on. Thereafter she briefly met Martina Navratilova at a tennis camp in Moscow who told Maria’s father she could play and to get her out of the country to the U.S. where she could develop her game. Incredibly, after interviewing for it, they were granted three year visas to come to the U.S., which were almost never given.

It’s tidbits like these that make the story compelling — all these chance encounters and lucky breaks that happened that made it possible for Maria to pursue tennis; they multiply as things go on. Stuff I didn’t know too — like Maria’s real name is actually Masha, but she changed it when she came to the U.S. because she didn’t want to be “Marcia.” She had to leave her mother behind (for a couple years), boarding a plane at age 6 with her father, arriving in Miami with $700 left and unable to speak the language.

But they were determined to get coaching in Florida, and follow their dreams. Ultimately it paid off when Maria beat Serena Williams at age 17 and won Wimbledon in 2004. Thereafter it changed her life and she went on in the years later to win four more Grand Slam titles, despite having a layoff due to shoulder surgery in 2008, which forever changed her serve. For quite awhile she’s been one of the most recognizable and richest female athletes in the world.

All of that I already knew, but what I liked about the book was hearing about the journey — all the details of how she made it, which coaches she worked with, what it’s like on the pro tour, and the rivalries, especially with Serena Williams, who has a 19-2 record over Maria. Maria is quite complimentary of her chief opponent but says they aren’t friends, nor does she really have friends on the tour because she says her job is to play them as opponents and she wants to beat them all.

Surely her competitiveness shines through in the book as well as her single-mindedness to win tennis matches and her ability to paste the ball, but what I liked was how she told her story seemingly honestly and quite openly; she’s not afraid to speak her mind. She’s a bright girl and a fine storyteller, much better than you’d imagine of a world class athlete. Her book is an engaging listen.

Though some might find her controversial (she’s not exactly popular among other female players) and she was suspended from the tour in 2016 for 15 months for using a banned substance. She owns up to this mistake, but argues that it wasn’t a malevolent intentional act and that the drug (often used for heart conditions) had always been legal before 2016 — she just didn’t know it wasn’t any longer. I guess from what I’ve read the drug doesn’t seem to be a steroid and she admitted right away to using it and served a suspension for it so I’m not one to ultimately condemn her forever, but many on the tour vehemently did. Oh my, you would’ve thought she was another Lance Armstrong, but that doesn’t seem actually to be the case. For those who liked Andre Agassi’s autobiography “Open,” I’d think you’d find Maria’s book interesting too.

Lastly, I just want to quickly say we saw the movie “Only the Brave” last night at the $5 theater in town. It’s based on the true story about the 19 Arizona elite firefighters who lost their lives fighting a wildfire near the town of Yarnell, Arizona in June 2013. It’s reenacted quite well in the movie by a large cast with Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges and Miles Teller among others.

The story goes into who the firefighters were, their outfit, the fires they fought (some of the action is quite hair-raising), and what happened on that last and very tragic day though it remains a bit of a mystery too — why the unit’s members left their safe zone and moved to where they did in a canyon. The fast-moving shifting winds spread the fire right towards them and cut off their escape.

Gosh, it’s just a crushing story. The film captures the essence of who these men were, how they fought fires, and the families they left behind. It shows the real photos of them at the end. It’s a tough and somber reckoning that sticks with you — have some Kleenex ready.

What about you have you read any of these books, or seen this movie — if so what did you think?

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24 Responses to Brother and Unstoppable: My Life So Far

  1. You got me all excited to read Brother (I love reading shorter novels in December) but neither the FL library or the one in NY has it. Finally I realized it won’t be publisher here until next summer – darn! Something to look forward to, right?

    We will be heading back north for the holidays, but I plan to finish up my shopping here this week. Hope you get those leaves raked today… such crazy weather!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn, safe travels back north. I wonder if you’ll have snow. It’s been very mild here – was able to rake half the yard yesterday. I hope you check out Brother once it comes out there — I didn’t realize it wasn’t available. Hmm.

  2. Carmen says:

    Both books sound outstanding. I’m not sure that Sharapova’s doping was as innocent as she wants to portray it considering that Russia’s entire Olympic team was suspended for the same reason. It seems that their will to win leads them to doping. How is that different from Lance Armstrong? In any case, she has paid her dues and hopefully she’ll learn to stay in the straight and narrow path.

    I have Only the Brave in my wishlist already. I’m glad to know that you liked it.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen. Russia’s entire Olympic team was banned for using & trying to hide a “cocktail of three anabolic steroids” in a long-run state-sponsored drug & cheating scheme. Maria was caught the very month that a drug (not a steroid) that had once been legal no longer was. She admitted it right away & paid her dues. Lance Armstrong was using EPO and steroids for a decade in a mass-coverup scheme and lied for years. I think all these cases vary. I’m against whatever edge athletes try for with drugs & rely on the governing bodies to ban them; some are over-the-counter medication that have become banned over time for one reason or another.
      ps. I hope you like Only the Brave. I’m still thinking about it.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    It looks like you found some winners! Pun intended. Due to what we have been through with fires this year, I am going to look for that movie. The LA Fire Department are our heroes right now and I have a friend who works for them, though not as a firefighter. Today is our last day of the wind advisory and many of the fires are under control now. But yeah, this weird weather. I guess it will become the normal as the years go by. Some rain here would be the best! I hope it is all good when you get to CA.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Judy, yes I think it’s a good idea to see this fire movie. It gives a bit of an insight into what goes into fighting the fires & the life. I’m still watching the Calif. fire news closely and hoping for the best. It makes me sad & scared to see all these flames & horses killed & damages etc. I will send a rain dance your way.

  4. We got snow here before quite of few of our northern friends. I’m not happy because they’d predicted a warm winter and so far it’s been just the opposite.

    Both books sound really good!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Wow Kathy, snow in S.C.? You probably have more snow than we do in Western Canada. Isn’t it crazy?! Enjoy the busy holiday season.

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    Brother sounds so very good. It seems that there are more more narratives coming out about recent immigrants to America. This is a good trend. It is timely it obviously effects a reality for many people and it is a great thing that stories are being told.

    It has finally turned cold here in New York. We hot our first snow yesterday but it was only an inch.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Brian, an inch of snow, eh? Well that’s more than we have. You must have had quite a fall this year. Brother is a good book, putting into perspective marginalized lives & connections within families. Enjoy your week.

  6. Oh, I love the sound of Brother…the setting reminds me of some of the places I visited during my social work days, and some of the family situations.

    I can certainly relate to those who find escape in places where they can dream their dreams…and hope their lives change.

    Only the Brave looks like a good movie, too. Thanks for sharing…and for visiting my blog.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Laurel, Brother is a great novel — much because of how it’s told, which is a bit hard to explain. It feels a bit charged with emotion and real. The fire movie is quite moving and scary too.

  7. All the climate change is alarming! Brother sounds appealing. Sharapova’s drug use would concern me. I have so much admiration for fire fighters.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Sarah, thanks for stopping by. Yes I agree with all you say here. Sharapova’s drug use did concern me quite a bit — i think it’s obvious she was trying to get some kind of edge using it — but then the ITF banned the substance in Jan. 2016. Their communication of that ban to others wasn’t great.

  8. Unfortunately, I have to wait a while until Brother will be available. In the meantime, I’m sorely tempted by Soucouyant. Let’s see whether my budget allows me one last little splurge before the year is over. 🙂
    My friend in CA showed me pictures of two mountain lions in his backyard that were fleeing the fire. He and his neighbors had put water out for the animals. His pictures were quite impressive, but heartbreaking at the same time.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi TJ. Really sad about the mountain lions & wildlife fleeing the fires. Ugh. it is heartbreaking. I hope they can survive. When I reviewed Brother, I didn’t realize it was unavailable in the U.S. Yikes what was I thinking. I hope you can find his first one. I’m looking forward to reading it in 2018. Happy holidays.

  9. Naomi says:

    Ack! That movie about the firefighters must be so sad! Especially with all the wildfire news this fall and summer.

    I’m glad you loved Brother. It’s really powerful, isn’t it? I’m hoping I’ll get to his first novel sooner rather than later!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Naomi, yeah I was quite blown away by Brother because I didn’t know much about it and didn’t expect it. I thought it should have made the Giller’s shortlist at least. I like Chariandy’s writing, and I too will look for his first novel. I just hope his next novel won’t take 10 years to write. 🙂 ps. that firefighter movie is a tearjerker. I got so wrapped up in it.

  10. Only the Brave looks interesting. I’m usually up on all the new movies, but this one seems to have slipped past me. I’m always interested in films based on true stories.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kate: there seem to be a lot of films coming out these days based on “true stories.” Whether its the Boston bombers, Deepwater Horizon, or this one — quite a few of them are pretty well done. Only the Brave is an agonizing tragedy but a thought-provoking tribute too.

  11. Hi Susan, my two-wheeled best friend Calvin says ‘hello’ to your bike. The change in climate and the wildfire are alarming, but I so hope that it would get better. In Hindu mythology, Varuna is the rain-God. I hope he would bless California.

    I so want to read ‘Brother’. It sounds beautiful and I love short books too.

    Of course, I knew you would have read/listened to Sharapova’s memoir. What a beautiful title ‘Unstoppable’ is!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deepika, I hope the rain God will come our way while in Calif. We fly there on Tuesday. I’m hoping it will be fun. The (bad) wildfires are north of L.A. so we should be ok but I hope they can be put out soon. Send rain! I think you would really like the novel Brother quite a lot. It’s a potent, touching book. Enjoy your week.

  12. Ti says:

    Yesterday is was close to 90 degrees on my walk to lunch. I was dying. The fires by me are out but I can see the plume of the Carpinteria/Ventura fires from my house. It is unrelenting! The winds really played a destructive role. No rain in sight.

    My shopping is not done and I’m not sure I will finish it even though I will have some time to do so. I am over it. The situation with my BIL and SIL has put a damper on the season for us.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti, so sorry about your BIL and SIL this season; I will continue to check your site to follow what is going on & hope for a recovery. I hope you will still have some good times with your family together around Christmas. Although the heat wave there, sounds a bit much. Ouch 90? That Thomas fire there sounds unstoppable — it just grows and grows. It’s a sad & scary situation. Will you ever get rain? We will get to SoCal on Tues. and are looking forward to our break.

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