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.