Monday, December 31, 2012

My Winter Vacation Reads

For some reason this winter break I've read more non-fiction than fiction - but most of it was very enjoyable.  Here's a taste...

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I avoided this book when it first came out because I thought it would be too depressing, but I'm glad I relented as in fact, though sad, it was generally uplifting and certainly interesting.  It also gave me ideas for a bunch of future reads. The book is the author's tale of a "book club" of two which he shares with his mother from her diagnosis with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer until her death almost 2 years later.  Schwalbe and his mother share books and discuss them in doctors' waiting rooms, while his mother receives chemotherapy and, later in her home when she's on palliative care and too sick to leave her home.  Though they always had a close relationship, the books bring them together and provide a basis for talking about the tough issues (like facing death and life for the family following the death of a loved one).  Through the themes they explore in various books, they are able to face their personal situations - and not just the mother's illness but also the son's dissatisfaction with his job and other more "trivial" issues.  The books they read are an eclectic mix of old classics, new popular fiction and self-help or spiritual guides.  Schwalbe's mother was also a fascinating woman and the book tells us a lot about her life.  She was really ahead of her time in fighting for women's rights throughout the world and continued to do so until her death.  I really recommend this book for anyone who loves reading and/or is interested in family dynamics during a difficult period.

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

This is another memoir but with an interesting twist.  The author inherits a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese art sculptures, from a great uncle living in Japan and decides to trace their family history.  It starts with their acquisition by his great grandfather's cousin who is living in Paris in the late 1800s.  The family is a Jewish banking dynasty that began as grain traders in Odessa and spread the family business into Vienna and Paris.  Charles, who first acquires the netsuke, is the third son in his branch of the family and therefore is "an extra", spared from playing a role in the Bank and able to pursue his passion for art.  He gives the netsuke to a cousin in Vienna (the author's great grandfather) as a wedding present.  There the netsuke survive the family's financial ruin during World War I and are saved by a loyal former servant when the family is forced to flee Vienna during World War II.  When the author's grandmother returns to Vienna following the War, the maid gives her the netsuke in a suitcase and she takes them to her new home in England where they stay until she gives them to her younger brother who has a business opportunity in Japan and decides to return them to where they came from.  On his death they are passed on to the author who is by now an Anglican raised by his father who was an Anglican minister following the conversion of his grandmother to Christianity.  Though sometimes the book gets a bit too bogged down in the details, it is fascinating to read the history of what was obviously a very prominent Jewish banking family (one cousin married a Rothschild and they were considered peers) destroyed by two wars, scattered throughout the world and, in some cases, completely removed from their Jewish roots.

Paris:  A Love Story by Kati Marton

This is a short autobiography by the journalist and author, Kati Marton.  She writes it in the year following the sudden death of her husband, the diplomat, Richard Holbrooke.  The title is derived from the strong role Paris has played in Marton's life - first as a young student, then through two of her marriages (her second husband, and the father of her grown children, was ABC anchor Peter Jennings), and finally following Holbrooke's death.  She lead an interesting life.  Her parents were political prisoners in Hungary (for a year she and her sister were placed with strangers while her parents were in prison). They then escaped through the American embassy.  She only learns as an adult that she's Jewish as her parents raised her a Catholic and even when she found out her father was reluctant to speak about it.  The book is well written, in  journalistic style, and paints a picture of Marton's relationships with both Jennings and Holbrooke, her parents, her children and many of her famous friends and acquaintances.

Schlepping Through the Alps by Sam Apple

A very odd book that was on my book club list or I'd never have found it, let alone read it.  Sam Apple is a New York based journalist who discovers a Jewish wandering shepherd from Austria who sings Yiddish songs for his sheep and presents slide shows of his sheep accompanied by Yiddish folk songs to audiences in small, historically anti-semitic towns.  Yes, this was non-fiction...At times Apple's observations and hypochondria are very humorous as he follows the shepherd in an effort to gain insights into anti-semitism and neo-Nazism in Austria.  But mostly it's just a very strange story which results in a very strange book.

No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel

The only fiction book I read this vacation was another one on my book club list.  I actually enjoyed it more than I expected to based on the description.  The story is about a very isolated town in Hungary during World War II.  The action begins when a victim of a Nazi slaughter in another community washes up from the river on their shores.  In an effort to escape the horror the people in the town decide to imagine the world is beginning anew - including one spouse swap, one child (the narrator) changing parents and cutting off all ties to the rest of the world.  They sustain themselves working off the land and using a complicated barter system.  But, unfortunately they can only hold off the outside world using their imaginations for so long and the village is invaded.  The narrator's husband is dragged away and taken hostage so his wife and two children wander into the countryside in order to avoid further troubles.  We follow the hostage, the wife and children, and the other people in the town through the end of the war - where there are rather obvious horrors and a few surprise results.  Sometimes this book is a little strange too but overall it's not a bad read.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Out of the Blue

This is Jan Wong's very personal account of how workplace stress pushed her into a severe depressive episode that took two years of therapy and anti-depressants to run its course.  Most interestingly perhaps was the fact that she had to self-publish even though she was an oft-published author and award winning journalist.  Apparently Canada's publishing industry is so small no one was willing to take on the Globe together with Wong.

Wong's episode was triggered by her coverage of the Dawson CEGEP shooting in Montreal.  Certain comments she made, which were approved by her editors, led to hate mail and death threats.  The Globe refused to back her - in fact publishing an editorial critical of the piece.  Neither her employer nor the provider of disability insurance believed she was ill despite diagnoses from her family doctor, her psychiatrist and even the independent medical doctor the employer sent her to.  She was denied disability payments and eventually dismissed.  Of course, this is only her side of the story so is undoubtedly somewhat biased but if it's even half true what she had to endure was awful.  And she did eventually get a settlement from the Globe so she must have had a case (especially since they eventually relented on their demand for a gag order - so she was able to tell the story).

A really interesting read - great insights into workplace politics and stress and the toll it can have on a very successful, strong woman and her family.

Rainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas

Garbage.  I was in a hurry to find something and didn't pay enough attention to the book's description.  It would have been a below average romance but then the author made it even worse with the magic powers the main characters had - one could turn glass into bugs and butterflies (or bats when she wanted to get rid of a pesky ex), the other could communicate with plants.  Don't bother.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This first novel by Towles who is a principal in a Manhattan investment firm is not great, but it's interesting enough to warrant a read.  The book starts with a prologue set in 1966.  A woman and her husband are at a photography show featuring pictures snapped on public transit during the Depression.  The woman is struck by two photos of Tinker Grey, a man she knew in the late 30s.  Her husband believes the pictures tell a tale of rags to riches but she points out the opposite is true - the picture of the well-dressed banker pre-dates the picture of the downtrodden man.

The remainder of the book is the woman, Katey Kontent, looking back at the period when she knew Tinker - from the last day of 1937 to the last day of 1940.  When the story begins, Katey lives in a boardinghouse for women, with a roommate, Eve, a transplant from Indiana trying to make it big in the city.  Katey's a secretary in the pool at a large New York law firm.  The two women try to make a few dollars last through New Year's Eve by listening to a jazz band in a "hole in the wall" bar when Tinker enters their lives.  He's waiting for his brother who never shows up and he befriends the two women.  It's clear from the start that there's more chemistry between Tinker and Katey but Eve sets her sights on him and when an accident occurs the two end up together, much to Katey's disappointment.

But Katey doesn't let it stop her, she has relationships with two other men, quits her job and finds one as an assistant at a magazine and slowly climbs her way up the social ladder.  Along the way we find out her unlikely patron is a woman in an unusual relationship with Tinker.  When Eve rejects Tinker's marriage proposal, he and Katey get together briefly but she discovers how he's accumulated his wealth and cannot cope with it.  Neither can he and he turns his back on the wealth and disappears into New York's working classes.

I also found myself wondering throughout the book, who Katey ends up marrying - and I was surprised to discover that he was a bit player she encountered in the late 30s but did not reconnect with for several years.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

Although the premise of this novel seems a little far fetched, in the afterword the author indicates it is based on a true story which she overheard someone tell at the hairdresser.  The action opens at the wedding of two young people.  The grandfather of the groom discovers that the grandmother of the bride is his first wife from pre-World War II Prague.  Both lived their lives under the impression that the other had not survived the war.

The story is beautifully told in flashbacks by both of the characters - to their happy and upper class childhoods in Prague, their meeting, falling in love and hasty marriage in an effort to escape Nazi Germany, the separation during the war and their separate experiences as he escapes to the US and she survives Terezin and eventually Auschwitz.  As with any Holocaust story, it is filled with sadness and tragedy but the focus is really on their enduring love for each other despite over 60 years of separation and their ability to rebuild their lives despite all their losses.  Their meeting in the end is brief but leaves us with hope that they'll be able to spend their last years together (and that their grandchildren will be able to live the lives that they were denied).

The story is well-written and engaging which makes the book hard to put down even though the end is actually revealed in the first few pages.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Short stories are not really my favourite but it's hard to be critical of the master of the genre.  Munro can develop characters better in 10 pages than some author's do in a 500 page novel.  These stories are no different than her older collections - she explores the inner world of her characters, usually women, though in this case a couple of stories are from the male perspective.  Her characters are quirky, often troubled outsiders, but have inner strength.  Unusually for Munro, the last four stories are semi-autobiographical in nature and we see where she got some of the fodder for her writing.  She grew up in poverty in small town Ontario, her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at a young age and she was often bullied in school.  But she persevered to graduate high school, which was not that common for women in her day, and go on to University.  And she had an eclectic collection of family, friends and neighbours whose features undoubtedly make their way into her fiction.  While I wasn't drawn into the collection to the point that I couldn't put it down (as is often the case with a well written novel), I'm not sorry I read this collection if for no other reason than to marvel at how she does it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

I had to read J.K. Rowling's first adult novel out of curiosity.  I'd read a couple of the early Harry Potter books, before my kids were old enough to read them to themselves, so I knew she wrote well even though Harry Potter was not exactly my favourite genre.  The Casual Vacancy did not disappoint.  It wasn't great literature that will be studied in English classes forever but it was an entertaining read and did deal with some heavy issues - drug addiction, self-mutilation, class distinctions, OCD, marital discord, the serious repercussions of small town gossip and teenage angst, to name a few.

I was confused at the start.  There are many characters and it was hard to keep them straight.  The action starts with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a banker and a Pagford town councillor.  We then examine how this death causes the unravelling of the many people he touched - his wife Mary and their four children, Miles and Samantha Mollison who saw him collapse in the parking lot of the golf club and accompanied him and his wife to the hospital, Miles' parents, Howard and Shirley.  Howard is  an obese deli owner and the head town councillor (the community is too small for him to warrant the term mayor) and was at odds with Barry before his death about the future of a subsidized housing project which the town wants to offload on a neighbouring borough and a drug rehab centre which occupies a town building.  He now wants to put his son Miles on the council to fill the "casual vacancy" so he can get his way.  But others want to run for the seat - Colin "Cubby" Wall who was Barry's friend and wants to carry on his legacy but suffers from severe OCD (he's a school principal who constantly imagines he's touched the children and is about to be exposed) and Simon Price, a small town criminal and abusive husband and father who figures it's a way to get rich quick by taking kickbacks.  These are far from the only characters.  We also glimpse Maureen, Miles' scrawny old partner in the deli with whom he's accused of having an affair, Parminder Jawanda, a family doctor and town councillor who was on Barry's side of the town debates (and perhaps secretly in love with him), Gavin, Miles' law partner who falls in love with Barry's widow, Kay, the girlfriend who has followed Gavin to Pagford in the mistaken belief they'll have a lasting relationship and is working as a social worker in the housing project so becomes a vocal proponent of it and the drug rehab centre, and Terri Weedon a heroin addict who finances her addiction through prostitution.  Finally we meet the town's teenagers who play a central role in the action, Stuart "Fats" Wall, Andrew "Arf" Price, Sukhvinder Jawanda, Krystal Weedon and Kay's daughter Gaia.  They are all involved in various types of rebellion against their parents and use their far superior computer skills to hack the town council's website (as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother) setting in motion terrible consequences for their parents and ultimately themselves.

The stories of all the characters, and their complicated pasts, are woven together well and come to a perhaps inevitable but no less tragic end for many of the players.  I don't want to give away the end because it's worth working through the initial confusion to see the story through to its conclusion.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

Like in her prior novels, Genova, a neuroscientist with a PhD from Harvard, focuses on trying to get inside the mind of someone whose brain works differently.  In this case it's Anthony, a boy with autism.  The story is told from the perspective of two women on Nantucket, Olivia, whose autistic son Anthony died at age 10 from a brain injury incurred in the course of a seizure.  Olivia has separated from her husband when their marriage could not survive the tragedy and has moved to Nantucket to escape the memories.  The other woman is Beth, who is enduring her own marital difficulties and returns to writing to cope.  She coincidentally writes the tale of an autistic boy named Anthony, from Anthony's perspective.  When she's finished she shares the manuscript with Olivia who is certain Beth has channeled her son since the story is too close to his to be a coincidence.  She encourages Beth to rework the ending to answer the question that's haunting her - what purpose did Anthony's short life serve.  And somehow the revised ending to the novel brings welcome closure for both Beth and Olivia.  I have no idea how accurate the portrayal of autism is, but the book is an interesting read.  It has it's sad parts but, for me, was not as frightening as Still Alice's exploration of Alzheimer's disease.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami

I think this may be the first novel I've ever read that was translated from Japanese.  The style is interesting - very lyrical prose, with a lot of the magical realism that is more common in Eastern and South American literature.  While I found the book interesting and was anxious to read to the end to find out what happened, I'm still not sure I know what happened.

Kei is a woman in her mid-forties whose husband disappeared twelve years before the novel takes place, leaving her alone with their 3 year old daughter.  She moves in with her mother, carries on an affair with a married man for about ten years, works as a writer and watches her laughing daughter grow into a moody teenager.  But she doesn't really come to terms with her husband's disappearance.

One day she finds herself in Manazuru, a beachside town and there her memories of the last days with her husband seem to come to life.  But they come to life in the form of various imaginary figures and events who follow her around.  So sometimes it's hard to distinguish the real from the surreal.  Because of the memories the town evokes, she returns several times, once with her daughter, once with her lover and again alone.  Each time more comes back to her - an apparent affair her husband was having, an abortion she had a couple of months after her disappearance and an episode of choking him.  But I can never figure out if she killed her husband or just dreamed of it when she found out about the affair - causing him to bolt.

By the end she does make peace with his disappearance, even visiting with his father and sister who she has not seen in years.  And she seems to move on a bit in her life by ending the affair (actually, ironically it is he, the married man, who ends it because he's jealous of her fixation with her missing husband), writing a novel and learning to appreciate her mother and daughter more.  I was really drawn into the book because of the beautiful writing style and the mysterious storyline, but it was a bit frustrating to put it down without having more answers.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Bohjalian is a prolific writer but this is the first of his novels that I've read - and it was very interesting.  It's actually written as a novel within a novel.  The modern story is an American writer, Laura, who is looking into the lives of her "Armenian grandparents".  I put the Armenian in quotes as in fact her grandfather, Armen, was Armenian but her grandmother, Elizabeth, was a Boston WASP who went to Aleppo during World War I and the Armenian genocide in an effort to chronicle what was happening for the benefit of the American group, The Friends of Armenia.  She accompanies her father, a banker, who has arranged aid and a medical team to assist.  They are hosted by the American consul in Aleppo.

Early in her visit Elizabeth meets Armen, an engineer who is assisting the Germans in building the Ottoman empire's railroads.  She quickly falls in love with the man who is still grieving the loss of his wife and infant daughter who he believes perished in the forced march across the desert which so many Armenian women and children were forced to endure after their husbands were slaughtered.  He is seeking revenge so leaves Aleppo to make his way to Egypt so he can enlist in the British army and fight against the Turks who are decimating his people.

The book is interesting as we follow it from many perspectives - that of Laura, both her grandparents, the American consul, the German engineers, a widowed Armenian woman and the orphan girl she takes under her wing who are both "adopted" by Elizabeth and thus saved the fate of resettlement camps and orphanages, as well as a young Turkish soldier who is ordered to destroy photographs taken by the German engineers to chronicle the carnage but who can't bear to do so.

Looking at the role of the Germans with the benefit of history's hindsight is another interesting aspect of the story.  The German engineers are critical of their ally's genocide and wish to share what is happening with the world.  The criticize the very techniques their countrymen will perfect a generation later.

In the end Laura learns of secrets that her grandparents took to their graves.  And though the secrets are horrific she's pleased to have brought to light an aspect of history which has received less publicity than it deserves.  Though fiction, Bohjalian's book does the same thing - it's a very enlightening though disturbing read.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Until the Dawn's Light by Aharon Appelfeld

This is the next book in my book club and the best we've read so far this year, though it was quite depressing.  The story is about Blanca, a very successful Jewish high school student in a small town in Austria in the early 1900s, who has plans of attending university and becoming a mathematician (a dream which her father was not able to fulfil for financial reasons and because he seems never quite able to lift himself out of his dreams and into action).  Her life takes a disastrous turn when she becomes infatuated with Adolf, a fellow high school student from a family of peasant labourers who is barely scraping by.  Blanca is asked to tutor Adolf and the two fall in love despite Adolf's blatant anti-semitic views.  So, she abandons her plans for university, converts to Christianity and marries Adolf.

One interesting aspect of the book is her parents' reaction - assimilated Jews themselves they readily accept her conversion (though are less happy about her abandoning school).  Only her grandmother, Carole, who is clearly the town eccentric, opposes the conversion and cuts Blanca out of her life.  Carole, however, is a lone wolf - she spends every day on the steps of the shuttered synagogue mourning the loss of Judaism as more and more of the young people convert.

From the beginning Blanca's marriage is a disaster - Adolf is physically and mentally abusive and spews anti-semitic vitriol at every opportunity.  Blanca's mother dies and he barely lets her grieve let alone support her father who falls slowly into madness when he loses the love of his life and the sole supporter of his dreams (not to mention his house as his debts catch up with him).  Instead Adolf forces her to put her father in an old age home (though he is in his fifties).  There Blanca witnesses many elderly Jewish people who have been abandoned by their now Christian children.  But she does befriend the cook, Theresa, who is also a victim of spousal abuse and encourages her to get a job at a better nursing home in a nearby town.  Eventually, after giving birth to Otto, Blanca decides she has no choice but to do so.  However, working hard, for a tyrannical nursing home manager, and leaving her infant to the care of a peasant woman who neglects him though does meet Adolf's "needs", as well as the disappearance of her father, causes Blanca to eventually sink into depression with terrible consequences.  Theresa, as well as a kind old Jewish doctor, try desperately to help her but to no avail.

She takes surprising actions as she sinks to Adolf's level (which I won't reveal in case you read the book) and grabs Otto and runs.  The book actually starts with Blanca on the run as she writes her memoirs for Otto's benefit.  The earlier action is seen by way of flashback.  The book comes to a sad but perhaps inevitable end for someone with so much promise who is beaten down (both literally and figuratively).  This book is a really interesting psychological study of the effects of abuse and quite different than what I was expecting from reading the description of a Jew converting to Christianity and then living on the run.  I was sure this was a more typical pogrom or Holocaust tale and was very pleasantly surprised by the different turn it took.  Not uplifting, but a great read.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Magic of Saida

It's no wonder author M.G. Vassanji has won two Giller prizes.  This is the first book I've read in a long time that really made me think about it (as I continue to do).  The book centres around Kamal Punja, a doctor in Edmonton who was born in the Eastern African coastal town of Kliwa (which is in present-day Tanzania).  He was the product of a Swahili mother and an Indian doctor who abandoned them when he was very young.  All he has of his father is one posed family portrait.  He lives his early childhood with his mother and neighbours as an "African".  In particular he develops a special relationship with Saida.  Two years his junior, she is the daughter of his mother's good friend and the granddaughter of a local poet who records his people's history through his poems.  But when Kamal is a young teenager his mother abruptly decides he must "become Indian" and sends him off to live with his father's cousin and his family in Dar es Salaam.  Though difficult at first, he adjusts to his new life and eventually attends medical school in Uganda, marries another Tanzanian medical student and immigrates to Canada to begin his life as a doctor.  When the book begins his children are grown, he is separated from his wife and has returned to Tanzania to find Saida.  Remarkably he is less inclined to find out what happened to his mother, who he never heard from after his departure to Dar.

But this book is more than the story of Kamal and Saida.  It covers a piece of Tanzania's history, from the arrival of Kamal's Indian great grandfather in the late 1800s, through colonization by Germans then British, to ultimate independence (and Communism).  We see this history both through the eyes of Kamal and his predecessors and through the eyes of Saida's poet grandfather who is eventually destroyed by the secrets he carries from his past (and, in particular, his apparent collaboration with the Germans).  We also see the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda and his expulsion of all Indians from that country.

It's not easy for Kamal to find Saida, her remaining family is clearly withholding vital information from him, and other local players interfere with drugs that wreak havoc on his mind, though he is assisted by a local book publisher who remembers him from school in Dar.  Eventually Saida's story unfolds and Kamal is left to live with the implications of his having left her and broken his promise to return until it was far too late.

Sometimes I found this book a little confusing (I occasionally lost track of minor characters) and it was heavy so I had to put it down now and then, but overall it was a fantastic read.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

This is the self-described, creative non-fiction memoir of a year in the life of Q broadcaster and musician, Jian Ghomeshi.  Apparently due to the "creative" portion of the memoir some of the characters are composites and many of the conversations are to the best of the author's recollection of those that happened 30 years ago.

That being said, he tells a reasonably interesting story though I found the style a bit annoying.  He writes like he speaks - and while he speaks very well, it comes out a little too "folksy" for my taste when he puts it on paper.  In addition there's some repetition - probably deliberate since his 14 year old self was a bit obsessive, but it got a little boring.  He also indulges in his fascination with lists and breaks the text every few pages to make a list illustrating some point he's making.  I'd have got the point without the lists.  Finally, because he's a musician, and was obsessed with musicians in addition to girls at age 14 he goes into endless detail about singers and bands.  Not being as big a music fan as he is I skimmed over those parts (which meant the book moved fast between skimming the lists and the musical interludes).

Despite these reservations he effectively illustrates the confusion of adolescence, particularly for a non-white immigrant living in a predominantly white Toronto suburb in the early 80s.  His relationship with his dream girl Wendy ranges from humorous to sweet to sad.  His boyhood friendships are genuine and his mixed feelings of admiration for and embarrassment about his parents are relatable.

I'm going to hear him speak about the book in a few days and I have a feeling I'll enjoy that even more - his story is interesting but he's much more adept at the spoken word.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Else Emerson is a young girl from small town Wisconsin who's never traveled further than Chicago but is happy working behind the scenes in her father's small summer theatre until tragedy strikes the family. So Else marries the first guy with dreams who comes along and travels with him by bus to Hollywood to break into the movies.  Instead she gives birth to two daughters in rapid succession and stays at home with them while her husband plays bit parts for a large studio.  Attending a studio event with her husband she's discovered by the studio head who encourages her to change her name to Laura Lamont.  In time he makes her into a successful leading lady and becomes the love of her life after she divorces her first husband.  The Oscar that highlights her career is marred by her mother's negative reaction to her fame and, more importantly, her Jewish husband.  Life's not easy for Laura/Else as she must deal with the death of loved ones, mental illness, addiction, the loss of her career and poverty.  But she's strong and muddles through.  Not a terribly deep book but well written and interesting enough.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Where We Belong

This "chick lit" by Emily Giffin was just the antidote I needed to the last difficult, boring book I read.  Giffin writes intelligent though mindless fiction and this one was no exception.  It deals with Marian, who gave a baby up for adoption when she was 18, telling no one of her pregnancy other than her mother.  Eighteen years later, Kirby, shows up on her doorstep, as she feels she doesn't belong with her adoptive family.  After getting over the shock, together they track down Kirby's biological father and bond with her adoptive parents.  There is of course the side story of Marian's current relationship with the CEO of the television station where she works and her unresolved feelings for her high school sweetheart.  Of course everyone figures out where they belong in the end.

The Jewish War by Tova Reich

I actually hated this book.  If it wasn't on my book club list, I would have put it down early on but I struggled through so I can talk about it in our session.  The premise is that several fanatical American Jews move to Israel during the Six Day War to fight for its survival.  It spans several years until in the 1990s, disillusioned with the Israeli Government the fanatics secede from Israel to form an independent Judea and Samaria.  They hole themselves up in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, creating a sort of modern day Massada scenario.  Frankly I found the humour obnoxious (with the odd funny exception), the characters cartoon like and the story not terribly interesting.  Even the weird names chosen by the author bugged me (like Yom Tov Freud) an opposing party, a religious anti-Zionist fanatic who kidnaps Zionist children to "reprogram" them.  Not an enjoyable read at all.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Under the Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi

I think the back story behind this book is more interesting than the book itself.  It first appeared on the author's website in 2007 when it became an immediate sensation in China.  The media attention increased with the release of a film version by one of China's premier directors in 2010.  The story is set during the Cultural Revolution and has sold millions of copies which is particularly surprising given that the author, who writes under a pseudonym, makes it available for free on her blog.

The story is that of Jingqiu, a naive young woman from a poor and politically questionable family in the city.  She is chosen as one of a small group of students to be sent to the countryside to work on a textbook about the local peasants in an effort to further the Cultural Revolution.  There she fall is love with the son of an army general.  The story revolves around her fear of being found out - though she is so naive she's not even sure what she's supposed to be avoiding.  Eventually she realizes she has done nothing wrong but at that point it's too late for their relationship to develop.

There are other scenes of the difficult temporary work she must endure to help her family make ends meet, her interaction with other boys in her life, and her relationship with her mother as well as a caring doctor who she admires.  Though the language is lyrical, the action moves too slowly and it was only in the last 15 or 20 pages when I really felt hooked.  That being said, this book does give unusual insight into what occurred during China's Cultural Revolution.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

This novel by Carol Rifka Blunt is fascinating on many levels.  It did take a while to get into but it was well worth the effort.  The entire book is written from the perspective of the 14 year old protagonist, June.  At first I thought she sounded too young and immature for 14, but as the story progressed I realized that one of its best features was watching June mature from a childlike 14 year old to a more jaded but wiser teenager.  The book takes place in the late 80s, when everyone is still trying to figure out what AIDS is all about.  June is very close with her uncle and godfather, a renowned painter, Finn, who is dying of AIDS.  In fact, June considers him her best friend and, after his death, when she's approached by his lover, Toby, she learns there were many complexities in his life that he hid from her including his relationship with Toby and how he really contracted AIDS.  Everyone in her family blames Toby, calling him a murderer and refusing to see him but she's drawn to him and in secret meetings over many months learns the truth about him.  The relationships between June and Finn, June and Toby, and her perception of the relationship between Finn and Toby are also beautifully described and fascinating to watch.  Another interesting theme is the relationship between siblings - June and her sister Greta, and June's mother and brother, Finn.  Finn and June's mother were very close as children and have grown apart due in large part to her reaction to Toby and her fear of AIDS.  Finn sees June and Greta growing apart as they mature and has them sit for a portrait which is his final painting in an effort to immortalize their closeness and thus hoping to preserve it.  There are some funny aspects to the story - like when Toby, June,  their mother and Finn all deface the portrait before learning it might be worth a lot of money.

This is a great book for insights into the maturing of a young girl and interpersonal relationships.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

This book, which read like an in-depth newspaper or magazine article, is written by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden.  It is based on extensive interviews with Shin Dong-Hyuk who, as far as the author knows, is the only person to have been born and raised in a North Korean prison camp who successfully escaped to first China then South Korea.  The book is very well researched and includes supporting details from other scholarly works about North Korea and even links to google earth images which illustrate the camp which Shin escaped but which, together with other brutal prisons, are denied by the North Korean regime.  Shin's parents were placed in this prison for alleged crimes of their families.  Shin's father had two older brothers who defected; he never learned what his mother's "crimes" were.  His parents were matched up by the prison administration and permitted to breed - leading to Shin and an older brother being born in the camp and raised as prison labourers.  He never understood the concepts of love, family, honesty, freedom and, primary to him at a young age, having enough to eat.  We hear the story of Shin's childhood including his betrayal of his mother and brother, his torture in an underground prison within the prison, his near death from starvation and bullying after his return to school and his rare glimpses at human kindness from a fellow prisoner who nursed the wounds of his torture, a teacher who fed him extra food, and a new prisoner in the camp who had seen the outside world (including China) and gave him the information he needed to dream of escape.  We then follow his difficult escape, his travels from the camp through the North Korean countryside and his crossing into China as well as the troubles he has adjusting to China, South Korea and eventually the US.  The only good the author seems to find in his being raised in this way is that he was not brainwashed like other North Korean youth as these prisoners were not even thought worthy of this sort of education.  A very fascinating and powerful glimpse at a part of the world that is too often ignored.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Everything Was Good-Bye

This novel by Gurjinder Basran is about the fifth I've read this summer about Indo-Americans.  The difference is this one is by a Canadian and set in Vancouver.  It is similar in that it explores the difficulties young women have caught between the traditional values of their parents and the independence of their peers.

Meena is 18 when the novel starts, the sixth daughter of a mother who was widowed more than 10 years earlier but is still deep in mourning.  The three oldest sisters entered into arranged marriages and stick with them despite evidence of abuse in one of them.  One sister disappeared in her late teens to escape the restrictive lifestyle and has been disowned by her mother but Meena is always curious about her fate.  Both Meena and the last sister enter into arranged marriages before the book's end.

Meena is a smart girl who dreams of becoming a writer and falls for a "white trash" boy in her class.  He leaves after high school and begs her to come with but she can't break free of her family obligations.  Instead she earns a degree, gets a communications job with a PR firm and meets the various men her family deems suitable, eventually marrying one who she doesn't love and admits he doesn't love her.  She gets absorbed into his overbearing family (though does genuinely like her gentle and educated father in law).  When her husband and in-laws leave for a summer in India she unexpectedly meets her high school sweetheart.  This meeting leads to both happy and heartbreaking consequences for Meena but the most positive result is she manages to assert herself without permanently damaging her relationship with her mother.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham

This book is more of a mystery than I normally read but I enjoyed it as it also was an interesting study in personality and relationships.  Cathy is orphaned as a 12 year old and must move from her home in California to live with her grandmother (who she has only met once) in a small town in the Texas Panhandle.  At the request of Cathy's grandmother and her best friend, Mabel, Cathy is taken under the wing of the two most popular boys in the sixth grade, Trey Don (or TD) and John.  TD has been abandoned by both his parents and is cared for by his Aunt Mabel while John mostly fends for himself as his mother has died and her husband (who is not really his father) is an abusive alcoholic.  So the three youngsters bond with each other, creating their own little family.  It works well until they are about 16 when the boys are involved in an ugly incident they vow to cover up for their whole lives and Cathy and TD become a couple despite John's love for her (and frankly more stable personality).  The book follows the next 22 years in their lives as TD leaves Texas to ply both college and professional football and Cathy and John are left to pick up the pieces of their lives.  The final third of the book deals with TD's eventual return to Texas to reveal two major secrets and once again throw Cathy and John's now settled lives into turmoil.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

More Novels by Shobhan Bantwal

After reading her latest book, The Reluctant Matchmaker, I decided to go back and read more of Shobhan Bantwal's works.  The first I read is The Unexpected Son.  There are similarities - the protagonist is a woman of Indian descent living and working in New Jersey and torn between the patriarchal rules of her homeland and the more liberal American society.  However, in this case she's an older married woman who married and came to America to escape a shameful past.  As a teenager she fell in love with the wrong man (a rich womanizer on the other side of an cultural divide in her town), became pregnant, was dumped by the man and gave birth to a stillborn baby, or at least that's what she was told by her parents and brother.  When she meets the man who becomes her husband she doesn't tell him of her past as she really likes him and she fears it will scare him away.  Thirty years later the past comes back to haunt her in a very unexpected way and she must reveal everything to her husband. She then returns to India, not knowing whether her husband will forgive her, and must deal with her brother, mother (her father is no longer alive) and the mess of her past.  As with the other novel, this one comes to an expected and happy end after many twists and turns.  But Bantwal writes well and gives insight into her culture which makes the stories a pleasure to read.  I have a couple more of her books lined up so I'll see how they go.

I didn't enjoy The Full Moon Bride as much as the other two books I read by this author.  I think it was because I felt no sympathy for Soorya, the main character.  She was a successful junior environmental lawyer but had no experience with dating and felt ready to get married so she agreed to meet several men through traditional "bride viewings" arranged by her parents.  All the men reject her until she meets Roger who expresses interest in her.  However, Soorya is painfully insecure about her looks and thus believes he is only interested in her father's money.  So she strings him along and is so nasty it's hard to understand why he persists.  At the same time she also strings along Lou, a government lawyer who she meets through work.  He's a vulnerable widower and she, wittingly or not, takes advantage of that.  So, again it's hard to understand what he sees in her as she strings him along too.  For a woman inexperienced with men she manages to manipulate them until she finally gets them to say all the things her fragile ego needs to hear.  In typical Bantwal fashion this book has a happy ending but I can't say I was dying for Soorya to have one.

I liked The Sari Shop Widow though I think I'll take a break from Bantwal for now - her books are all starting to seem the same.  In this book Anjali is a thirty seven year old woman who has been widowed for 10 years when the story begins.  She's devoted the intervening years to transforming her parents' dusty sari shop into a fashionable boutique.  However, the store is now on the brink of bankruptcy due to competition and her father brings in his oldest brother from India to help out.  He's a dictatorial but successful businessman that puts Anjali and her mother on edge with his demands for home cooking, a clean home and other domestic service.  He also brings along his business partner, Rishi, an Anglo-Indian.  As usual the story revolves around the developing relationship between Anjali and Rishi - there are some bumps along the way but of course it all works out in the end.

The Dowry Bride is Bantwal's first novel and the only one I have read which is set entirely in India.  It deals with the touchy and still current issue of brides who are mistreated and killed when their families are not able to fulfill their dowry obligations.  Megha is a young girl whose family has fallen on difficult times so her parents marry her off to the first man who shows an interest and whose family does not demand an exorbitant dowry.  Once married she learns her mother in law, an obese, ugly tyrant of a woman, bribed the astrologer who arranged the marriage to lie about her husband's job, salary and the wealth of his family.  Moreover her mother in law is jealous of her good looks (though she originally made the match to improve the likelihood of having good looking grandchildren) and treats her worse than a servant.  She's verbally abusive and degrades her at every opportunity.  When, after a year, her parents have not yet paid her dowry and she has not conceived a grandchild, her overbearing mother in law and her weak and slimy husband plot to kill her.  She finds out about the plot and runs away with nothing but the clothes on her back.  She cannot return to her family who will bring her back to her husband and does not want to endanger her best friend so she finds shelter with her husband's cousin who has always been kind to her.  She soon learns he's been kind as he's been in love with her since the day they met.  Of course that attraction only makes things more dangerous.  However, in typical Bantwal fashion, after several dramatic twists and turns, including another murder attempt by her mother in law, Megha ends up with the man she loves and they're sure to live happily ever after.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

One of the better fiction books I've read coming out of the Wall Street meltdown.  This is the first novel for Alger who went to Harvard and has worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and as a lawyer at Wilmer, Cutler so that probably helps her get a lot of the details down (for example her descriptions of Upper East Side ladies who list "philanthropist" as their occupation, corrupt lawyers and greasy analysts).  The story starts with the apparent suicide of Morty who ran a successful investment fund which turns out to be a Ponzi scheme.  Then Alger carefully weaves together the fallout from the perspective of participants in the fraud, their family members, unwitting accomplices, those fingered to take the fall, and even the SEC investigators assigned to the case.  There are many characters which occasionally gets confusing but it's worth working through the confusion (sometimes you have to go back and re-read a bit to remember who someone was) to reach the resolution.  It's predictable in a way but the twists and turns made me question whether my guesses about some of the outcomes were accurate or not.  I won't say much more so I don't give a way the end...

Friday, August 10, 2012

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

This is an interesting study of a family dealing with the death of their youngest son, a journalist kidnapped and killed in Iraq.  A year after his death the family gathers at their summer home in the Berkshires for a memorial.  The parents, David and Marilyn, are on the verge of separation, unable to cope with Leo's death.  The eldest sister, Clarissa, and her husband Nathaniel are coping with both the death and her inability to conceive.  Despite these troubles their relationship is one of the stronger ones. The next sister, Lily, is angry at the world and her family and pushes her long term boyfriend, Malcolm, away by insisting she needs to deal with the memorial on her own.  The youngest sister, Noelle, who was a promiscuous delinquent in high school and college has found her Jewish religion, together with her husband who was the fat troublemaking kid in Lily's highschool class.  They now live in Jerusalem with their four sons and return for the memorial full of religious superiority and refusing to eat anything prepared at the home though David and Marilyn have not only purchased kosher food but an entire kitchen's worth of new utensils and dishes.  Also joining the "party" are Leo's widow, Thisbe, and their three year old son.  She thinks only Lily knows about her new relationship and she's struggling to figure out how to share it with the others, especially her mother-in-law who she fears.  Not a lot really happens in the book but the interactions between these characters, their history with Leo, and their relationship with their grandmother, Gretchen, who's very wealthy and doles out money to those who she currently favours (which is constantly in flux) are fascinating to watch.  The characters are so realistic you almost feel like you're eavesdropping on conversations at the beach or on the subway.  I recommend this book if you're interested in people and family relationships but not if you're expecting a lot of action.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Last Rain by Edeet Ravel

I actually hated this book.  In fact I only finished it because I kept hoping it would get better.  The style was choppy - mostly written from the perspective of a 6 year old girl living on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s - but interspersed with descriptions of the founding of the kibbutz by her parents and others in the 1940s, fictional entries in a baby book kept by her mother when she was born, a diary of a kibbutznik in the 1920s and other random newspaper accounts and musings.  On top of that there were extensive footnotes (some of the footnotes had footnotes).  It made it difficult to read, and even harder to follow the story but that may be just because for all the storylines nothing really happened.  It was also a sad, if realistic, commentary on life in a socialist commune - children raised by others (some of them not so kind to say the least), the Lord of the Flies result when children are housed together and have limited access to their parents, endless meetings about trivial matters which are never resolved since by definition no one can be in charge, etc.  Maybe that would have made an interesting short magazine piece but I wouldn't bother reading this book.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

The first book of my new book club season was enjoyable though a little unusual.  First of all, it's a self described novel but I think it's better described as a series of inter-related short stories.  In fact, I found it less frustrating once I started viewing it this way as I no longer felt the need to turn back and remind myself who every character mentioned was.  It didn't usually matter.
The book is about a fictional housing community in Ahmedabad, India.  It is based on actual anti-Muslim riots which occurred in that city in 2002, following which many Jews left the old city where they'd lived for generations around the synagogue for fear of being confused with Muslims (apparently the Hindus used circumcision to identify their Muslim foes).  In the novel, many move to the Shalom India Housing Society which was intended to house only Jews but when only enough Jews could be found to fill Building A, Building B units were sold to other minorities like Christians and Parsis.
The book starts with a mythical (and somewhat humorous) chapter where Elijah the Prophet descends to earth on the eve of Passover and checks what each member of the Housing Society has left for him in the wine glass they've set aside for his visit.  This is our first introduction to the numerous characters. Apparently Elijah plays a special role in the Judaism of the Bene Israel Jews of India - unlike other Jews, they pray to him for special protection and blessings.
Each subsequent chapter delves further into the lives of someone in the building and is written from their perspective.  The characters face many issues - barrenness and unwanted pregnancy, intermarriage with both Hindus and Muslims, extra-marital affairs, interfering in-laws and the pull of the land of Israel.
The author provides insight into a lesser known Jewish community and creates interesting, sympathetic characters.  Unfortunately there are far too many of them which sometimes gets confusing and a little tedious.  But nonetheless I found it worth working my way through.  As an aside, there is an interesting afterward by an Indian Jew of Baghdadi origin which provides historical context about the handful of Jewish communities in India.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Reluctant Matchmaker by Shobhan Bantwal

I just stumbled upon this book when I was browsing and I'm glad I did.  It was a really fun and easy read.  In the acknowledgments the author says her goal is to write books that read like a Bollywood film, and I think she's accomplished this goal nicely.
This one tells the story of Meena, the 31 year old daughter of immigrants to New Jersey from India whose somewhat conservative parents and aunts think she's running out of time to marry.  She is working in a relatively new job as a PR person for a software company owned by two Indian men and where about 80 percent of the workforce is also from India (many of them young men on temporary work visas who express interest in Meena but she has no interest in marrying someone to provide him with a green card).
About 8 months into her job she first meets one of the co-owners, Prajay, who is usually based out of Virginia.  And she meets him in grand style - as the barely five foot, 85 pound Meena quickly exits an elevator, she's literally bowled over by the 6 foot 8 Prajay resulting in a severely sprained ankle.  His care for her after the accident makes her fall in love with him.  But just as she thinks something might happen, he hires her as a personal consultant - to help him find a tall bride through personal adds.  That doesn't mean her family and co-workers don't suspect something else is going on.
Most of the book deals with Meena's unreturned love, Prajay's ignorance of her feelings and Meena's disastrous efforts to find other men instead.  But, in true Bollywood style, the story reaches a predictable yet happy ending.
Bantwal's writing is fluid, humorous and engaging.   I'm definitely going to seek out her other books.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Colour of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe

This book is as tastefully written as the French macarons so central to the story.  Grace Miller is an English woman married to an Australian who has moved to Macau for a job in the casino construction business.  Grace never went to college and has worked as a waitress in Australia and London but finds herself at loose ends in Macau out of work and having just received the news she will likely never conceive a baby.  After pulling herself out of a depressive fog she sets out to open a cafe where she serves tea, coffee and homemade macarons modelled on those she remembers savouring as a child in Paris.  Through the cafe she makes friends - with another lost expat, a Philippino woman who works for her and an old local woman and her rebellious, and pregnant, young granddaughter.  She also finds herself, and in the process finds her way back to her husband and comes to terms with her abandonment of her mother.  Each chapter is named after a macaron and you can just taste them every time they are described.  A really pleasing book to read.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beach and Pool Reads

On lazy, hot summer days, my taste in reading gets rather lazy too so I'll keep adding to this post with the string of "beach reads" that I've got lined up for the next few weeks.

Beach Season
This book is actually a collection of four novellas by fairly well known romance authors, Lisa Jackson, Cathy Lamb, Holly Chamberlin and Rosalind Noonan.  Three stories follow the same arc - a lonely single woman escapes to a seaside location, meets a man, falls in love, tries to fight the love, then the couple ends up together and lives happily ever after. The fourth is somewhat different - on the eve of her wedding, a woman's fiancĂ© gets into a serious car accident and emerges with amnesia so he does not remember her.  She fights to regain his memory and his love.  And, since this is a book of happy endings, she does.

At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks
I'd run out of books on a Sunday so picked this off my daughter's shelves.  Sparks really only tells one story - couple meets, falls in love, runs into troubles and just when you think they're going to be happy someone dies.  But by the end the survivors are on the mend again.  Predictable and sappy but passes the time away.

Burnt Mountain by Anne Rivers Siddons
It's been years since I read anything by Siddons - and I'm not sure why I've waited so long.  She writes easy to read but interesting stories that delve into the secrets of families.  In this book the main character is Thayer, a young Southern woman whose father dies when she's a child.  After his death she struggles with her mother who has always had aspirations of moving out of her small town near Atlanta and becoming part of Buckhead society.  Instead her mother-in-law moves in with her and, until her death, provides Thayer the only source of stable love.  Thayer's first love is at 17, but unfortunately the Jewish boy she falls for doesn't meet her mother's social standards and she does horrible things to keep them apart, which only come to light years later.  Instead she marries an Irish man whose obsession with Celtic lore eventually slides into madness.  It's fascinating to follow Thayer as she deals with betrayal by all those closest to her.

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri
This book was actually a bit boring.  And frankly confusing - I couldn't tell is some of the characters were real or mythological beings concocted by troubled and lonely characters looking for support.  I read to the end hoping for resolution but never got any - so I still don't know who really existed and who didn't.  Now that I've told you there's nothing to be gained by sticking with it until the end, I'm not sure I'd bother reading it at all.

Bond Girl by Erin Duffy
Now this was an easy and fun read.  The author is actually very funny - she seems to be very familiar with the inner workings of Wall Street (I think she actually worked on the street prior to being a writer).  Her imagery and metaphors - though clearly based in the sad truth - are extremely humorous.  The novel tells the story of Alex, the daughter of an investment banker who dreams of her own career on Wall Street.  Straight out of college she joins an established firm as an analyst in the Government Bond department.  She's treated like garbage - not even given a desk, just a fold up chair that she uses to shadow bond salesmen (the emphasis on men), on the back of which someone has scrawled "Girlie" which becomes her moniker.  The only other woman in the department (excluding the secretaries, naturally) has grown bitter and jaded and manages to "outasshole" all the male assholes.  But with a tough personality and great sense of humour - Alex perseveres, to be promoted and treated like a younger sister by most of the guys (excluding one who she "dates" - his ugly true colours hinted at throughout but only revealed toward the end, and a married, older, fat client who pursues her relentlessly).  When the 2008 downturn hits - the workplace becomes even more unbearable and Alex must decide whether her dream is really worth it.  Though this book reveals the sad truth of the sexism that I'm sure still exists on Wall Street, the humour and Alex's likeability made this a really enjoyable book for me.

Summer Breeze
Nancy Thayer's summer books are always pleasant, breezy reading; enjoyable without being the least bit taxing.  This one is slightly different than most of her others which are set on Nantucket in that it's set inland near Amherst, Massachusetts.  The primary characters are three 30ish women who end up living next door to each other on a small lake.  It's a typical story of friendship and love, with some jealousy thrown in.  The characters are flawed but likeable.  A relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon by the pool.

Off Season by Anne Rivers Siddons
Somehow this is the third book I've read in about two weeks that's filled with Irish mythology and magical realism - I've had enough of it.  It just bores and confounds me.  This story deals with Lilly, a recently widowed woman who returns to her family cottage in Maine to mourn her husband and remember her childhood.  The early parts, which deal with her first childhood love, the loss of her mother and her growing dependence on her father are interesting.  Once she meets and marries her rather weird husband I found my interest waning.  I've read better by this author.

Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah
Not as sad as some of her books though it does have its "tear jerker" moments.  Hannah tells the story of two half sisters who have little in common but a lousy childhood with an even lousier mother.  As a teenager the desperate older sister locates the younger sisters father and leaves her with him to pursue university and a career.  The father's a good guy, so that's not the problem, but the sisters have trouble getting over the feelings of abandoning and abandonment.  Years later, faced with the younger sister's wedding and health crisis, the sisters recreate the closeness they had as children and both find love as well.  It's sappy and predictable but a good summer read.

Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer
Another one of Thayer's steamy Nantucket based romances.  Carley's husband dies suddenly leaving her a 32 year old widow with two daughters and, to her surprise, no money.  Her in-laws want her to move in with them.  To their dismay she not only resists but decides to turn the family home she lives in into a B&B in order to make ends meet.  At the same time the husband of one of her best friends leaves her for their other best friend.  Her dead husband's law partner, swoops into rescue her and, after her initial resistance for fear of her reputation, and a few other twists, they all live happily ever after.  An easy beach read - no concentration necessary but the story's fun anyway.

Living Single by Holly Chamberlin
I've not read anything by this author but picked up a couple of her books at the grocery store because they looked like mindless summer reading.  She's not the best writer but the story was entertaining enough.  It follows a year in the life of Erin, a 35 year old single woman who has a great career but wants to be married and have children.  Instead she enters into a disastrous clearly dead end affair with a married man.  In the end she learns from it but at times you want to shake her for being so gullible.

The Summer of Us by Holly Chamberlin
I liked this one a lot more than Living Single though it's written in the same informal, first person voice (in this case, switching between the perspectives of the three main characters in different chapters).  Three twenty nine year old strangers living in Boston decide to rent a summer cottage in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard.  They all arrive late to the event that matches people with cottages so they end up with an old dump.  At first they seem very different - a mouthy, abrasive, workaholic who's trying desperately to leave her impoverished small town New Hampshire roots behind her; a spoiled, rich Jewish girl from Long Island who's looking for a husband (using a highly developed rating system); and an uptight WASP from Michigan who's ambivalent about her engagement to her long time boyfriend who she now sees for the ass that he is.  Over the course of the summer the girls move in and out of relationships with varying degrees of success but end up becoming close friends.  At times humorous, it makes for an fun summer read.

Summer Friends by Holly Chamberlin
The last of the trio of books I picked up by this author, and by far my favourite.  First of all this one is not written in the somewhat annoying first person voice of the other two but a more standard third person perspective.  It deals with childhood friends who meet up again at almost 50 after nearly 30 years of estrangement.  The girls had met as children when the wealthier, worldlier of the two, Maggie, summered in Delphine's native Maine home town.  They are inseparable each summer and anxiously write each other letters during their winters apart.  Maggie convinces Delphine to attend college with her in Boston and they room together seemingly happy for four years, Delphine even becoming engaged to a journalist with a promising future.  But, for reasons she never explains she breaks off the engagement, and ends her friendship with Maggie, returning to help her family run their farm and diner back in Maine.  She never marries or has children though she becomes devoted to her nieces and nephews.  Maggie gets an MBA, marries a powerful lawyer, has two children who move to California for college, and, feeling restless, decides to return to Maine for a summer vacation and to reconnect with Delphine.  But she's not made to feel welcome and has to work to regain Delphine's trust and find out why she left all those years before.  It's this rebuilding of the relationship, interspersed with a few chapters set in their past, that makes for an interesting read.

Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand
This book reminds me that not all beach reads are created equally - Hilderbrand is a much more skilled writer than Holly Chamberlin.  Like most of her books, this book takes place on the island of Nantucket and is written from the perspective of year round residents rather than summer visitors.  In fact, the idea behind the book's name is to counter the supposition that Nantucket is merely "summer land" and to show that people live real lives on the island.  On the night of the high school graduation there is a terrible car crash involving four juniors that leaves the driver, Penny, dead and her twin brother Hobby, a star athlete, in a coma with 16 broken bones.  Penny's boyfriend, Jake, and a family friend, Demeter, walk away with only emotional scars.  The book tells the story of these four teenagers as the survivors deal with the aftermath of the crash as well as their parents, Zoe, the mother of the twins whose husband died of a massive heart attack while she was pregnant with them, Jake's parents, Jordan and Ava, and Demeter's parents, Al and Lynne.  Each of the teenagers feels responsible for the crash in some way or another and they all deal with it in different ways.  Their parents try to help but, despite being close to their kids on the surface, are clueless about certain important secrets, and Jordan and Zoe have their own secrets that may have played a role.  Hobby turns out to be my favourite character - he's insightful, caring and wise beyond his years.  Yet again Hilderbrand has turned out a very entertaining book with characters you can really understand.

The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe
I really enjoyed this straightforward and predictable book - because it was well written and explored the relationships between mothers and children and men and women in the south.  Cara (actually Caretta - named after the loggerhead turtles her mother has always adored) loses her hot shot job at an ad agency in Chicago just when her mother invites her back to her beach house in South Carolina to "sort out their things".  Cara left in anger twenty years earlier and has only returned once, for her father's funeral.  She finds her mother ill and being cared for by an 18 year old pregnant girl who is escaping an abusive relationship with the baby's father.  Reluctantly Cara follows her mother and becomes a "turtle lady" - one of a group of women who guard loggerhead nests on South Carolina's beaches in an effort to save as many of the babies as they can.  Through this process she learns the truth about her mother's marriage, past and feelings for her.  She also meets and falls for Brett, someone she'd worshiped from afar in high school but never spoken to.  As the summer progresses and the baby loggerheads make their way to the sea, Cara discovers what's really important to her and how to pursue her dreams.

The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner
All of Jennifer Weiner's books follow roughly the same formula - an insecure woman (usually about their weight, this time about scars sustained from a car accident that killed her parents) is fairly successful in her career but unlucky in love until she finds the right man for her and after a few misunderstandings they live happily ever after.  What makes the books readable though is Weiner's humour - her observations on human nature and her turns of phrase are funny enough to make me laugh out loud.  In this book, Ruth Saunders moves from the Boston area to LA with her 70 something grandmother who has raised her since her parents died.  It wouldn't be a Jennifer Weiner story without a brash but loving Jewish grandmother thrown in.  Ruth tries to make it as a comedy writer while her grandmother works as an extra and becomes engaged.  Ruth works as an assistant - first with one company where she's used and tossed away by a fellow writer (well arguably she makes a fool of herself on her own).  Then she works for "The Two Daves" production company and falls for one of the Daves who has supported her in her quest to write a comedy show which is eventually picked up by a studio and a network.  The more difficult it becomes to see her TV show butchered by the studio, the network and the lame actors they insist upon, the closer she gets to Dave.  And, as always, it works out well in the end.

Calico Joe by John Grisham
I haven't read a Grisham novel in years but decided to try this one since it's not his typical lawyer story but about baseball.  "Calico Joe" is a rookie called up by the Cubs in the 1970s who has a record breaking start.  The book is narrated by the son of the not so great Mets pitcher (and even worse husband and father) who ended Calico Joe's career with a pitch to his head.  Many years later he endeavours to bring the two back together for the first time so his father will finally publicly admit what happened.  It's a short, well written tale.  Not great but entertaining enough to help pass an afternoon.  I wouldn't read it if you can't stand baseball - some of the scenes go into tremendous detail about the games.

Beach House Memories by Mary Alice Monroe
This book is a prequel to Monroe's, The Beach House, which was first published about 10 years ago then re-released this year in conjunction with this book.  I didn't enjoy it quite as much but that may be just because I read both books so close together and I got a bit tired of the story.  In this book we hear more about a year in the life of Lovey, the mother of the main character in The Beach House.  In the mid-1970s Lovey is struggling with her role as repressed, Southern wife and mother.  And, in particular, the difficulty of living with her husband who abuses her both emotionally and physically.  This particular summer she escapes to her beloved beach house on one of the South Carolina barrier islands and finds love with a naturalist come to study the islands loggerhead turtles.  They are both married and try to resist the relationship but cannot deny their attraction nor can Lovey resist the self-esteem boost she gets from being with someone who values her knowledge of, and devotion to, the turtles.  They contemplate facing the scandal divorce would cause for themselves and their family and we learn why Lovey makes the choices she does.  The end is not a surprise if you've read The Beach House but it's interesting enough to fill in the blanks after the fact.

Swimming Lessons by Mary Alice Monroe
A sequel to The Beach House, this book takes place 5 years later and the protagonist is Toy, the formerly unwed, pregnant, homeless teenager who was taken under the wing of Lovey and her daughter Cara.  Toy is now a mother to 5 year old, Little Lovey, college graduate and turtle expert at the Charleston aquarium.  The story focuses on her relationship with her co-worker, Ethan, the troubles caused by the sudden reappearance of Little Lovey's father, and her development of a turtle hospital at the aquarium.  There are side stories dealing with Cara and her husband's futile efforts to conceive, the aftermath of their friend Emmi's divorce, and the impact of aging on their irascible neighbour, Flo.  But the best part of the book is following Toy maturation as she comes to terms with her horrible past and the success she's made of her life.  A nice easy afternoon's read.

Ocean Beach by Wendy Wax
One last beach read for the Labour Day weekend.  This one wasn't bad though it seemed a bit like a sequel (I haven't checked whether it is or not) - I felt like I should have known about some of the events  from the past that the characters discussed.  Five women arrive to renovate the dilapidated home of a 90 year old comedian, Max, who promised his wife on her deathbed that he'd repair the house for their son who'd been abducted as a toddler and never found.  The women think they've signed up to renovate the house and show its progress on a television show only to discover instead they're starring in a reality show that follows every minute of not only the renovations but their private lives.  The women are all too strapped for cash to back out.  This leads to clashes between the women, the camera crew assigned to them, the network executives and various other characters who wander in and out of their lives, including their families, boyfriends, and workmen.  In the end the house is transformed, the women's lives are getting back on track and they solved the mystery of Max's son.  Not great but not terrible.

Beach Colors by Shelley Noble
Okay this was really my last read of the summer since I finished it a couple of days after Labour Day.  But it was a perfect ending - a light fluffy romance with a happy ending.  Margaux is a NY fashion designer whose husband stole all her money, mortgaged their home and her business then disappeared so she was left to deal with the foreclosure and the empty bank accounts.  She has little money and nowhere to go while her lawyer and the police try to track him down so she returns to the home in Connecticut where she spent her summers as a child.  There she reconnects with her mother, her two best friends and Nick, a "townie" who had a crush on her from afar all those years ago and is now the chief of police.  While building (or rebuilding) her relationships with them, and Connor, Nick's orphaned nephew who he's raising together with his mother, she manages to design clothing, find seamstresses to sew the collection (including Nick's mother which is very handy) and open a boutique.  Her collection is such a success several fashion houses try to lure her back to her old life and she has to decide which of her dreams is most important.  I'm sure based on this information alone, you can guess what she chooses.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

This is a brave novel written by a woman who was raised as in France as a member of the Satmar Hassidic sect.  She broke from the fold at 19 to avoid an arranged marriage and went on to study science, architecture and romance studies at Columbia, Harvard and Cornell, respectively.  Her tale of the dangers of uncompromising, and unquestioning belief is undoubtedly based on real life experiences and observations.  The story starts during World War II where 2 Satmar orphans are eventually saved by another Satmar family living in Paris.  The boy is sent to be raised by members of the sect in Williamsburg, New York while the girl is raised as part of the Parisian family where her best friend is their eldest daughter.  As the orphan girl's faith grows, her friend's wanes to the point that she abandons her family and becomes dead to them (or at least to her father).  The orphan girl marries within the faith and we see the terrible toll it takes on her, her husband, and ultimately future generations, when she fails to get pregnant.  I don't know how much truth there is to the side story of the Satmar Rebbe having been spared death in the Holocaust due to a deal he cut with certain Zionists to save himself and his family at the expense of other Jews.  But if there's any truth to it, it's despicable given the anti-Zionist teachings of the Satmars.  Though the writing style is occasionally disjointed, the story makes the book worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chick Lit Long Weekend

It was a long, hot, lazy weekend so my taste in reading was rather lazy too.  First I read Letter from a Stranger by New York Times bestselling author Barbara Taylor Bradford.  Unless her other books are markedly better, it's mind boggling to me that she could be on any best seller list.  Though the premise of this story was somewhat interesting (a young woman receives a letter from someone telling her the grandmother she believed to be dead needs her - but gives no return address so she must track her down and learns secrets about herself in the process) the writing style is so awful and trite that it was difficult to force myself to finish.

Next I read On Mystic Lake by Kristin Hannah - it was her usual tearjerker story with a happy ending.  But at least she writes reasonably well.  This book dealt with a woman who has spent her adult life as the wife of a successful lawyer in LA.  When he asks for a divorce out of the blue, she returns to her small home town in rural Washington State.  There she meets her first love who is recently widowed and struggling to raise his traumatized child.  No need to explain what happens...

Finally, I read Second Honeymoon, by Joanna Trollope, the British master of chick lit.  Her books are well written though predictable.  This deals with the all too common scenario of a couple on the verge of becoming empty nesters when all of their grown children return home.

I like the excuse of summer to read light books and have a long list of beach reads to work my way through.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Two Books set in Africa

I seem to have moved from books about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to those set in Africa.  The first is The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah which takes place in 1944/45 in Mauritius.  An old man looks back on the war years when he was a young child totally oblivious to what was going on in the world around him.  He is born and spends his first seven years with his parents and two brothers in a small community surrounding a sugar cane plantation.  When tragedy strikes he and his parents move to a home in the forest and his father takes on a job as a prison guard.  When the boy delivers lunch to his father he discovers that the prison does not contain the criminals his father spoke of but Jewish refugees from Europe who have been diverted here by the British who were preventing their entry into Palestine.  After a severe beating by his father puts him in the prison hospital, the boy befriends and young Jewish boy eventually trying to free him from the prison with unhappy results.  As an old man he looks back with regret on this short-lived friendship that he never forgot and realizes how it opened his eyes to the wider world.  A very interesting read and, if based on fact, an angle on the Holocaust of which I was not aware.

The next book I read was Chai Tea Sunday by Heather Clark.  An admirable first novel by a marketing professional this book takes place in a small village in Kenya.  Nicky, the protagonist, separates from her husband after a tragedy they deal with in very different ways.  She heads to Kenya to work as a teacher's assistant in an orphanage and finds herself living with a wise local woman who dispenses advice over chai following Sunday services.  Nicky falls in love with the orphans who are happy with so little - just being loved transforms them.  In improving the lives of these children Nicky finds herself and eventually learns how to move on with her life.  This is a very well written easy read which I highly recommend.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Home by Toni Morrison

Suddenly I'm reading all kinds of books about PTSD in war veterans (I didn't bother posting about Nicholas Sparks' The Lucky One but I just read that too - chick lit in his typical formulaic manner).  The protagonist of Nobel Prize winner Morrison's latest novel is Frank, a southern black veteran of the Korean War whose two "home boy" best friends did not make it back.  It spans a few days as he travels from the north back home to small town Georgia when he receives a letter indicating his younger sister who has always depended on him is in danger.  Morrison's prose is so easy to read, almost poetic.  In scant words and pages you really feel the impact the war had on Frank and the surprising relief he feels at returning to the home he'd been so desperate to escape.  Ultimately it allows him to open up and admit to a horrific act he committed during the War.  His sister is no less sympathetic - picked on from birth by a step-grandmother, she has developed a pattern of allowing herself to be used by unsavoury characters and by the end realizes she must learn to rely on her own strength.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

Chick lit about a mother/soldier deployed to Iraq.  Too sad - not worth it.  Though it didn't take much longer to read than it took to write this post.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

This book tells the life story of 80+ year old Edward Feathers, or Old Filth (an acronym for Failed in London try Hong Kong).  For most of his adult life Feathers was a hard working lawyer and judge in the Far Eastern nations of the British Empire.  He and his wife retire to rural England and once he is widowed he reflects back on his troubling childhood and youth.  Born in what is now Malaysia, his mother dies in childbirth and at age 4, like other "children of the Raj" he is shipped back to a foster home and then private schools in England.  His foster mother in Wales is cruel and the memories of that time which have been suppressed for years ultimately emerge.  Feathers is a strange though likeable old man and it was interesting to escape into his mind.  His life also spanned the heyday and fall of the British Empire as well as the Second World War so the book addresses a great deal of history (at least through the eyes of the protagonist).  Sometimes the language was a bit old fashioned, and though it suited the character, it made it hard to read at times.  But all in all a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why Men Lie by Linden MacIntyre

This book is loosely a sequel to MacIntyre's Giller award winning book, The Bishop's Man, and not nearly as good.  The earlier book's central character was a priest, this book focuses on his sister Effie.  It helped to have the context from the earlier book but it's not strictly necessary to read them in order.  Though if you're only going to read one, I'd opt for Bishop's Man.  Effie is a divorcee originally from Cape Breton who now lives in Toronto.  She's a self-sufficient professor who has had bad experiences with men, including her father, two ex-husbands, and one deceased but serious boyfriend (not to mention a string of unidentified others).  She thinks she's happy without men until a chance encounter with JC Campbell, a man from her past who she thinks is different.  The book explores their very bizarre relationship which ends badly and shows Effie that all men lie.  Her ex-husband drafts a manuscript entitled Why Men Lie which apparently reveals many secrets about their pasts in an effort to answer this question.  Though Effie may ultimately decide she understands why men lie, the author didn't clearly explain to me his theories behind it.  In the acknowledgments MacIntyre addresses the concern that he's written a book like this entirely from the perspective of a woman, and says he felt able to due to the strong women in his life.  But I think he did a far better job writing the prior book from the male perspective.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The House I Loved

This is the latest novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, the author of Sarah's Key.  Like her second novel, A Secret Kept, it is not nearly as good as Sarah's Key, but still isn't bad.  The entire book is written from the point of view of Rose, a sixty year old widow in Paris in the late 1860s.  She lives in the home that had been in her deceased husband's family for centuries and is now slated for demolition to accommodate the grand modernization schemes of Napoleon and Haussman.  Rose refuses to leave her home despite evacuation orders and is holed up in the cellar with only her memories and a homeless man who brings her food, water and coal on a daily basis.  Most of the book is written as a letter by Rose to her dead husband - she brings him up to date on life in the 10 years since his passing and eventually reveals a horrible secret that she harboured throughout the last years of their marriage.  This is interspersed with occasional letters to Rose which is the only time the book reveals any one else's point of view.  While sometimes I found Rose's voice got a bit tedious, it's interesting to imagine all the buildings and lives that were destroyed in order to create Paris as we know it today.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Hunger Games, etc. by Suzanne Collins

Okay, I spent the weekend reading The Hunger Games trilogy and I have to admit I couldn't put them down (not even for long enough to publish separate posts).  They're intended audience may be young adults but they impressed this more than young adult reader.  They're well written, gripping adventure stories, horrifying at times but a complex love story too.  I'm not even a big science fiction fan but this glimpse at a post-war future was close enough to our world at times I almost forgot it wasn't.  The basic premise is that North America has deteriorated into 13 districts and the Capitol following a rebellion by the districts that are being punished by the Capitol so they're not tempted to rebel again.  The punishment is an annual culling of two teenagers (one boy, one girl) from each district who are put in a televised arena to literally fight each other to death until there's only one survivor.  All for the entertainment of the privileged folk in the Capitol while their relatives in the districts are forced to watch (when they're not toiling away to produce goods for the survival of the Capitol).

The main character is Katniss, a 17 year old girl from District 12, who steps in to replace her younger sister whose name is picked for the annual Hunger Games.  It's great to see such a strong female character - she's torn between the love of two boys but really only relies on herself.  Her relationships with her family, the boys, the other "tributes" (as the teenagers in the Games are referred to) and the various adults who surround her during the Games and at home are fascinating to watch.  The sick satire on reality television is also interesting.

I recommend these books for anyone looking for an easy reading escape - even if you don't think they're really your kind of book.  I didn't.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Now this was a fun book!  Especially after struggling through The Tiger's Wife.  It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Franzen, without the pompous monologues, and a bit of Tom Wolfe.  The novel focuses on 5 characters - Henry, a college baseball phenomenon destined for the big leagues until a bad throw shakes his confidence, his gay roommate, Owen, who gets involved with the wrong guy, Mike Schwartz, a big brute of an athlete who puts coaching Henry ahead of his own success, Guert Affenlight, the 60 some odd college president who falls in love with the wrong person at the wrong time, and Guert's daughter, Pella, who returns to her father's home after a failed marriage and interacts in an interesting way with all of the others.  Now I like baseball, but I think even non-fans would get caught up in the baseball team's transformation from perennial loser to champion - with both Henry and Owen playing a big role, both under Mike's tutelage.  But just as interesting are the relationships - Guert and Pella, Pella and Mike, Pella and Henry, and especially, Mike and Henry.  I highly recommend this book for an easy baseball season read.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Maybe by admitting I didn't really like (or understand the point of) this book I'll reveal myself as a shallow reader of allegory.  But I do like other writers of magical realism (e.g. Allende) and somehow this book didn't hold my attention.  I only finished it because I hoped to find some point to the two loosely related allegories (those of the "deathless man" and the "tiger's wife").  The straightforward part of the story is about a young female doctor and her friend from the "City" - probably the author's native Belgrade - who travel across the new border following the Balkan war to inoculate orphans.  En route her grandmother calls to say her beloved grandfather has died alone in an unknown village to which he's travelled when he said he was planning to meet up with his granddaughter.  The granddaughter is the only one in the family who knows he was dying of cancer but she did not know he was planning to meet her (and does not believe he really was).  She finds out that he died not far from where she is and sets out to retreat his belongings.  While inoculating the orphans she also encounters a strange group of "diggers" who are digging up a vineyard to find the remains of a dead relative who was abandoned there during the war as they think he is cursing their children with illness.  This story, strange enough on its own, is interwoven with tales of her grandfather's encounters with the nephew of death who has been "condemned" to eternal life for saving a lover from death.  Her grandfather had shared these stories with her over the years.  In addition there is the story of the tiger's wife in the village in which her grandfather was raised which she pieces together on her own, in part to explain his obsession with tigers in the zoo and carrying around the Jungle Book in his coat pocket for his whole life (which book is no longer with his belongings after his death).

Maybe one day I'll hear about this at a book club and understand it better but for now I'm left shaking my head and trying to figure out what I've just read.  Feel free to explain if you got it...

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I'm not sure I loved this book but I guess the fact I read all 400+ pages in less than 2 days means I was intrigued by it.  It certainly wasn't as good as his Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex.  The story starts on graduation day at Brown.  It focuses on three graduates, Madeleine, an upper class English student whose father was President of a small college in New Jersey and the two guys in her life, Leonard an intense, brilliant but troubled lower class boy from a troubled family in Portland and Mitchell, a half Greek, half Irish boy from Detroit who's been friends with Madeleine but wants more.  It follows Madeleine and Leonard's move to Cape Cod where Leonard has a biology fellowship and Madeleine tries to provide support as she also deals with her family who don't like Leonard and tries to get into graduate school.  At the same time Mitchell travels to Europe and India seeking out religion and trying to get Madeleine out of his head.  Some of the exploration of various religious and literary theories, by Mitchell and Madeleine, respectively, gets a little tedious but the relationship between the three main characters (and some minor characters around them) is fascinating enough to keep the book moving beyond these slower parts.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Weekend Reading

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Actually I started this before the weekend, but I'll count it as a weekend read since I finished it today.  The narrator is a twelve year old destitute child, Moth, who lives in Manhattan in the 1870s.  Her father abandoned her and her gypsy mother when she was a toddler.  Her mother scrapes together a living telling fortunes, selling her meagre goods and trading herself for rent.  She shows little affection for her daughter and drowns her sorrows in drink.  When Moth is 12 she sells her to a cruel woman as a lady's maid and then disappears herself.  With the help of a kind, though self interested, butler she escapes.  To avoid a life of begging for pennies on the street she joins a brothel which specializes in selling virgins to men willing to pay a suitable price.  At first she's taken in by the soft bed, regular meals and false friendship of the madam and the other girls.  During her training period she's happy and taken under the wing of a woman doctor who looks out for the girls.  But soon she sees the cruelty of the other girls, the dangers of rape and syphilis (including the myth of the "Virgin Cure" - the belief sex with a virgin could cure a man of syphilis) and the horror of her first experience with a man - though through this experience she does exact a measure of revenge against the cruel woman who'd employed her as a maid.  In the end she turns to the doctor for redemption.

The author based this story on her great-great grandmother who was one of the first graduates of the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.  Originally intending to write the novel from the doctor's perspective, she claims that the voice of Moth came to her as she wandered the streets of the Lower East Side.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


A short rather unusual book but intriguing enough to read in an afternoon.  It's written from the perspective of a divorced man in his 60s looking back on his high school friends and his first college girlfriend.  He feels used by and inferior to the girl and her brother and father though has a strange bond with her mother in their only meeting.  After they break up the girl hooks up with one of his high school gang with unfortunate results that the narrator only pieces together in his old age.  I won't give away the ending that completely surprised me but it's worth the read to piece it all together even though at times the writing gets too philosophical and long winded for my taste.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The book is long so it was a bit daunting at first, and frankly hard to get into.  But it really picked up when it reached Jobs' return to Apple in the 90s, his rebuild of the company from the brink of bankruptcy and his ultimate fight with cancer.  At times it was hard to take as he really wasn't a nice person - at least if this portrayal is accurate.  His (and Apple's) success came at the expense of cruel honesty toward co-workers and others who did not meet his perfectionist expectations.  He also was not a great father to any of his three daughters though he did seem to have a respectable relationship with his only son.  No question he left an amazing legacy - all of the successful (and unsuccessful) Apple products bear his personal stamp and taste (minimalism, simplicity, the intersection of art and engineering...)  The biography itself is well researched (the author lists dozens of people he interviewed over a two year period) and written.  Worth the read if you're at all interested in the history of Apple.

Monday, April 30, 2012

A Pigeon and A Boy

This is the second time I've read this novel by Meir Shalev (I had to read it again for book club) and I think I enjoyed it even more the second time.  The end is very surprising (so I won't reveal it here) but because I knew what was going to happen this time I could better appreciate all the clever foreshadowing and other nuances.  The novel is set in Israel both at the present time and in flashbacks to the War of Independence.  The book is primarily narrated by Yair Mendelsohn, a middle aged tour guide who specializes in bird watching trips.  It tells the story of his relationship with his parents and younger brother, his marriage to Liora, a wealthy businesswoman who has immigrated from the US to run her family's business in Israel, and his affair with Tirzah, a childhood friend with whom he reconnects and who builds a house for him with monies secretly given to him by his mother on her deathbed.  However, the more interesting story is that of his mother who raised pigeons who carried messages during the War of Independence, her relationship with "Baby", another pigeon handler, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding Yair's birth.  There are also some fascinating periphery characters, including Tirzah's father, Meshulam, who is a close friend of Yair's father and goes to great lengths to bring Yair and Tirzah together, and Dr. Laufer, a veterinarian and pigeon handler who speaks only in the feminine first person plural (i.e. "we ladies think...") and, much like Meshulam, facilitates the relationship between Yair's mother and Baby.  The books is obviously really well translated too as the lyrical language doesn't suffer at all in the translation.  I highly recommend this book.