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.