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.