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.