Monday, January 30, 2012

The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

The last couple of books I've read have been long and heavy so it was a pleasure to pick up this book which has an easy to read journalistic style.  This book is a companion to Lucette Lagnado's biography of her father, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.  This is the story of her mother and herself, some of it is repetitive but most is altered by the change in perspective.  Not deep or meaningful but for a relatively young woman she's had an eventful life that makes for an interesting read.  I particularly enjoyed the end where she revisited people she had not seen since childhood (or some she had never met but who knew her mother - or were descendants of those who did).  Together with the acknowledgments this gave good insight into how she did her research.  A worthwhile read that doesn't require a big investment of time or energy.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

A really difficult book to read and even hard to describe my feelings about it.  This is the story of the Lodz ghetto and, in particular, its Jewish leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski.  At first the book seems to strike a tone that is not quite serious enough given the subject matter.  But as I got into it I realized that's because it's written from the perspective of the ghetto inhabitants who, early on, cannot fathom the gravity of their situation.  The book struggles with the question of whether Rumkowsi was an opportunist collaborator driven by a lust for power or merely a practical collaborator who did what he had to in order to save as many Jews as possible.  I came away concluding it was the former - he was portrayed as a despicable man, particularly in his treatment of the children under his care at an orphanage and the son he ultimately adopts.  Though the title of the book refers to Rumkowski, the perspectives of many other ghetto inhabitants are explored which results in a vivid portrayal of events between 1942 and the Russian liberation of the ghetto in 1945.  Occasionally the changing perspectives make the book a bit confusing as it results in a departure from strict chronological order.  The book is well researched and contains actual excerpts from journals and ghetto publications, though in an afterword the author explains that even the ghetto publications were prepared under Rumkowski's scrutiny and were undoubtedly sanitized.  I also had trouble following the occasional German or Yiddish phrases which were not translated and whose meaning was not obvious (at least to me) from the context. Although the end was not a surprise, it was nonetheless horrific to read.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Wow, this is the first novel I've read by Stephen King and it was a long one (849 pages).  I've never read King because he isn't really my favourite genre but something caught my eye about this one so I decided to give it a try.  It really was gripping - he writes very well, not at all what I expected.  This is the story of an English teacher in Maine who travels back in time in an effort to stop the Kennedy assassination.  However, he discovers how dangerous it can be to mess with history when he returns to 2011.  The characters are interesting and well developed, the picture of the late 50s and 60s is very detailed and obviously meticulously researched and the action is at times frightening (I literally had nightmares a couple of nights).  Definitely worth the read - if you can find the time!

Monday, January 16, 2012

An Exclusive Love

This is a memoir by Johanna Adorjan describing the double suicide of her grandparents - I suppose not surprisingly it's very depressing.  The author's grandparents were Hungarian Holocaust survivors who fled to Denmark during the Hungarian revolution in the 1950s.  The couple rarely spoke of their wartime experiences or their escape to Denmark and the author interviews friends and family members to try to piece together what happened.  She also envisions her grandparents' last day based on notes and gifts left behind, discussions with the few people who knew or suspected they were contemplating suicide (including a physician) and the police report.  For me the most depressing part is that the author must come to terms with the selfishness of her grandparents' suicide (planned because her grandfather was terminally ill though her grandmother was physically healthy).  They gave very limited thought to the impact it would have on their children and grandchildren.  The title really describes the couple well - an "exclusive love" as her grandmother felt she was loved only by her husband and did not want to go on without him which overpowered any feelings she had for her descendants.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Free World

Just finished reading David Bezmozgis' newest novel - actually for the second time.  I read it several months ago but it's on the agenda for my book club this weekend so I wanted to refresh my memory.  It was equally engaging the second time through.  The book is set in the late 1970s and explores the limbo an extended family of Soviet Jewish emigres endures in Italy while trying to gain admission to Canada.  The story is told from several perspectives - that of the younger son, his new wife and his father.  The father is the most interesting character - he's reluctantly left the Soviet Union where he was a respected member of the Communist Party and a war hero.  His memories of the time before and during the Russian revolution capture the interesting perspective of the Jews who survived pogroms during the Czar's regime and thus welcomed the "freedoms" they gained under Communist rule.  I had less sympathy for his two sons, one a petty criminal, the other a philanderer with little direction.  The book is also replete with other former Soviet citizens who wander in and out of the main characters' lives and explores tensions between religious and secular, Zionists and those who fear the violence in Israel even as they follow the developing peace agreement between Sadat and Begin, and those who appear to have an honest desire to leave the Soviet Union and create better lives for themselves as opposed to career criminals which it seems the Soviet Union may have been glad to offload on the west.  I really like Bezmozgis' writing style - it's clear and concise, but far from simplistic.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My Vacation Reads

Here's what I read while we were vacationing in the Bahamas last week.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

This is a great fictional account of the life of Joe Smallwood who became Newfoundland's first Premier upon its joining Canada.  The story of his poverty stricken childhood and youth, his early forays into politics (including a bitter betrayal by a Liberal leader he worked hard to support) as well as his relationship with a newspaper reporter and childhood friend, Sheilagh Fielding, is fascinating.  The secret regarding her childhood that Sheilagh reveals toward the end of the book was as much a surprise to me as it was to Joe Smallwood which I enjoyed since often I find endings rather predictable.  I'm not sure how accurate the account of Newfoundland's history is intended to be but it was also interesting to learn what this province was like before joining Confederation and the mixed feelings its citizens had about doing so.  Sometimes the book drags a bit and therefore could be a bit shorter but all in all I enjoyed it.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I always try to read the Giller prize winner and it can be disappointing (as was the case with last year's selection), but this year's winner was very deserving.  This is the tale of black jazz musicians in Nazi occupied Germany and France.  It's told from the perspective of one of the American musicians in his old age as he looks back on that time when returning to Europe for the first time since the War.  It took a while to get into the language as it is very colloquial and the author uses a lot of period slang but once I got used to it I found it really flowed nicely (it was almost musical in its tone).  Hitler's treatment of blacks (and jazz musicians in general) is something I was not that familiar with and I found this telling of the story really interesting.

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London society when she leaves her husband and children to relocate to Egypt in an effort to find relief from tuberculosis.  The only person she brings with her is her lady's maid, Sally, a 30 year old spinster who has been in her employ since her own childhood.  When they settle in Egypt Sally develops a relationship with the Egyptian manservant hired to manage the household which angers Lady Duff Gordon.  Based on the above historical facts, the author provides a fictional account of their time in Egypt from Sally's perspective, including the repercussions of her relationship which she never would have imagined given her loyalty and devotion to her employer.  A really easy read about the cruelty embodied in Victorian England's strict class system.