Thursday, December 29, 2011

My reads over the last month

I've been saving these up for a while until I designed this blog so here's a long list of what I've been reading (some good, some not so good).

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Chick lit!  Somewhere (I don’t remember where) I read a review that said this was intelligent and humorous chick lit so worth the read – the review was wrong.  It was boring – too many unsympathetic characters to relate to any of them.  The only good thing was it only took a few hours to read so didn’t waste much of my time.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Another memoir by Joan Didion, sort of a companion piece to The Year of Magical Thinking in which she writes about the year following the sudden death of her husband.  This book addresses the death of her daughter but is more focused on her acceptance of the aging process.  More uplifting than I expected it to be given the topic.  Didion is clearly a very quirky woman and many of the ideas in the book, and the phrases she uses, are just odd.  But overall it’s not a difficult read and contains relevant insights into getting old.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

A description of the “civilization” of the Ibo people of the lower Niger by an early African writer in English.  Written in 1958 this tells the sad story of the arrival of the English to the traditional lands of the Ibo tribe through the eyes of a village “strong man", Okonkwo.  Unfortunately the main character was not terribly likable so it was harder to sympathize with the hardship brought upon him by the English, especially given how he mistreated the son who abandoned him to Christianity.

A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston

The story of a Newfoundland son of a sealer who befriends a rich but troubled American youth when he goes to Princeton.  He returns to Newfoundland to be disowned by his father and adopt a young orphan.  Living in poverty they take the desperate step of going to the secluded palace his college friend built in the American south.  The story starts a bit slowly but picks up when the arrive at Vanderland (the castle that its owner treats as a prison for his guests).

They Shoot Doctors Don’t They by Jack Fainman and Roland Penner

The memoir of Jack Fainman, a Winnipeg ob-gyn who was shot by a sniper while sitting in his living room because he performed abortions as part of his practice.  The shot destroyed his shoulder and ended his career.  The book is not terribly well written and full of distracting typos but the story is somewhat interesting.  The parts about growing up Jewish in Winnipeg are particularly interesting.  Roland Penner, a University of Manitoba law professor and former Manitoba attorney general, adds interesting appendices about the legal aspects of the case against the sniper as well as the history of Canadian abortion laws.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

This book is set in 70 CE from the destruction of the second temple to the siege of Massada – so further back than books I usually like.   But it was well researched and well written.  Told the story of Massada from the perspective of 4 women, based in part on the historical account that 2 women and 5 children survived the siege and suicide pact.  However, the details were entirely a work of fiction.  Some of the concepts were a bit mystical/religious and, not surprisingly, there was a lot of violence but I still enjoyed reading it.  The descriptions of the desert, Jerusalem, etc. were well done so you could picture the sights as they are today.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

A well written sometimes disturbing story of the life of a Chinese girl, Lilly, growing up in the mid to late 1800’s.  The second daughter of a poor farming family, her fortunes turn when her bound feet attract the attention of a matchmaker from a nearby, more prosperous village.  The matchmaker finds her not only a landowner husband but also a girl who contracts to become her lifelong friend.  Unfortunately a secret kept by the other girl eventually destroys the relationship when Lilly does not have the emotional maturity to deal with it.  Written from Lilly’s perspective in old age the book contains fascinating descriptions of Chinese customs such as foot binding, women’s quarters, arranged marriages and a secret written language developed by Chinese women to communicate away from the probing eyes of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons.

The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton

The title to the book has a sort of unusual meaning.  There is only one reference to an Oriental Wife – when the protagonist, a Jewish young woman from pre-Nazi Germany, heads to boarding school in Switzerland she meets a young woman from Japan who explains that she doesn’t want to marry an English man who will expect a subservient oriental wife.  The book’s protagonist is far from subservient – she leaves boarding school to chase a rich young English boy who is clearly not serious about her, plans to marry another English man in the hopes it will enable her to rescue her parents from Nazi Germany then dumps him when on a trip to the US to get married she finally realizes he’s an abusive drunk.  Instead she marries a man who had been her neighbour as a child.  They’re happy at first, able to rescue her parents and his mother from Germany, but she becomes disabled by an unfortunate medical mistake shortly after their daughter is born.    Following the disability the book speeds up in terms of the number of years it covers but slows down in the quality of the writing and the interest of the story.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

A beach book that I’ve been really been meaning to get to since the summer but only now got around to.  Though light, this is a well written story which examines a big, messy Irish Catholic family from Boston who summers in Maine at a cottage the patriarch won in a bet shortly after World War II.  The story’s told from the perspective of four women – Alice, the matriarch, an 83 year old controlling drunk struggling with her guilt over the tragic death of her sister during the war; Kathleen, her eldest daughter, a divorced, recovering alcoholic who was her father’s favourite and took his inheritance to move to California with an aging hippy and run a worm farm much to the dismay of her mother and siblings; Ann Marie, Alice’s only daughter-in-law who has spent her whole life pandering to her mother-in-law and husband but finally cracks under pressure caused by her mother-in-law’s cruelty as well as her realization her children are not as perfect as she’d hoped (and tells the world); and Maggie, Kathleen’s unmarried daughter who finds herself pregnant, dumped by her loser boyfriend and struggling to figure out how to cope without bending to her mother’s pressure to move to California with her.

The characters and their interactions with each other and other members of the family, as well as their flashbacks to events of the past that influence their behaviour today makes for an interesting and easy read.

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay

A new novel by the author of Sarah’s Key, has some similarities though the story is very different.  Two siblings from a “proper” upper class Parisian family return to the vacation spot they went to as children before their mother died at a young age.  The brother, who surprises his sister with the trip for her 40th birthday, has been divorced about a year though is still in love with the wife who left him for another, younger, man and has an increasingly distant relationship with his three teenage children.  The sister has never married and is still recovering from the break up of a long term relationship.  While on vacation the sister remembers a dark secret about her mother (she was six at the time of the occurrence so her memories are not clear).  She’s about to reveal it to her brother on the trip back but is so agitated she drives off the road winding up in a small town hospital where the brother starts an unusual relationship with the local mortician.

The book examines the brother as he slowly works out the secret about his mother as well as works toward improving his relationship with his father, grandmother, ex-wife and children.

The story does not have the power of Sarah’s Key but the secret is interesting (and surprised me when it was revealed) as are the characters.  The descriptions of Paris, and particularly upper class Parisians, are also entertaining.

The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman

Just finished reading this book for my book club.  I’m looking forward to the discussion because I can’t figure out if I didn’t understand the book or simply didn’t like it.  The story’s written from the perspective of a young boy (at the start of the book he’s twelve, by its end he’s fourteen and a half).  His friends start to go through puberty while he doesn’t grow or change at all throughout the book.  He’s obsessed with watching for physical changes in his classmates and even seems to feed his best friend Valium in an effort to prevent him from growing.  Prior to this he’d been the ringleader of the friends who are leaving him behind so he withdraws entirely until he finds himself infatuated by a girl but misses the signs that she’s more interested in his best friend.  When he sees this truth he reverts to his solitary (and very weird) inner self.

There are side stories relating to the start of the Six Day War (and his sister accelerating her call up so she can participate), a crazy neighbour who hires his father to knock down all the walls in her apartment (and may or may not have an affair with the father) and a grandmother who is first thought to have dementia then gets surgery to alleviate the actual symptoms but suffers a stroke so always lapses in and out of lucidity.

I’m not sure I’d have made it through the whole book if I hadn’t needed to for book club.  In addition to the multiple unusual story lines the language was very complex and the structure was hard to follow.  Some of the paragraphs went on for pages…

The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla

This is written by a Vancouver based ER doctor and is apparently loosely based on his father’s World War II experiences.  It follows an upper class, assimilated Jewish, Viennese surgeon who’s forced to leave Austria when the Nazis invade.  He leaves with his young daughter (his wife, who was not Jewish, had died in childbirth), his sister-in-law (his brother was hanged by the Nazis at the start of the book) and a gay artist who is not Jewish but fears persecution for his sexual orientation and his controversial art.  Despite his wealth and connections he is unable to find any country to take them in, but through a sympathetic old travel agent secures steamship passage to Shanghai which, as an internationally ruled city, does not have visa requirement.  There he meets a young nurse who is also an outsider as she’s half Chinese, half American.  Her mother also died and she lives with her father who’s a respected physician.

The book deals with several obstacles for the immigrants – the Japanese invasion, in particular following Japan’s alignment with Germany, the political tension between the well established, Shanghainese Jewish community and the new German and Austrian refugees, and the doctor’s efforts at establishing a new life for himself and his daughter in this very foreign environment, including his love for the Chinese-American nurse.

The book is not necessarily the best written but the description of this relatively unknown community of Holocaust survivors makes for a very interesting read.

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