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.