Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Best Place on Earth

This is a collection of short stories by an Israeli/Canadian writer.  I wouldn't say the stories are the best I've ever read, but they were reasonably entertaining.  They all focus on Israelis of Middle Eastern descent (rather than Eastern European).  Some are set in Israel, others in Canada and one in India; most deal with young people on their way into the army, in the army or just finished the army.  They give perspective on war, poverty, love, and family issues.  The title story comes from a saying found on one version of the British Columbia license plate - though it is clearly used with irony by this author, and her characters, who are strongly tied to Israel.

Like with most short stories, the characters are not as well developed as I would like, and the plots are unidimensional.  But this is an easy read and I was entertained by it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Though it sounds like it will be dark, this book had me laughing out loud.  It was the funniest writing I've read in a long time.  The story is told from the perspective of Judd Foxman whose father has just died and is told that his father's dying wish was to have his wife and four children sit shiva together for the whole 7 days.  So Judd returns home to be with his mother, sister, two brothers and their assorted partners and children.  But he returns home humiliated as his wife has just left him after he's found her in bed with his radio-shock-jock boss.  Apparently they've been having an affair for over a year but he's failed to see the signs.  And to top it all off, as he's packing his car to go to the shiva, his ex, Jen, stuns him with the news that she is pregnant.

We follow Judd to his childhood home where he meets up with his mother - a psychiatrist who has written a best selling book about child rearing, that mentions her children by name, to their humiliation as children and now; his sister Wendy, her three children and her self-absorbed hedge fund husband; his brother Paul who is now married to Judd's first girlfriend and the baby in the family, Phillip who has been a free spirited drug dealer and shows up with a woman 20 years older than him who used to be his life coach.

The interactions between family members who have spent little time together in recent years are funny and sad, but so realistic.  The bit players who wander through the shiva are equally entertaining.  I don't want to give away any of the surprises because this book is really worth reading on your own.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Guts

I always have mixed feelings about Roddy Doyle's books, and this one was no exception.  He can be very funny but his topics are really dark.  It also takes a little while to get into the rhythm of the Irish accent, but once you do the language flows effortlessly.  This book was a sequel to one of his earliest novels, The Commitments, which I had not read.  It could still understand the book, but I can't say whether I would have enjoyed it more if I'd been more familiar with the characters.

The book centred on Jimmy Rabbitte, a 47 year old married man with 4 children who is diagnosed with bowel cancer and thinks he may be dying.  He had been the member of a band in his youth (the Commitments, of the earlier book) and now he works at finding old bands then finding the people who used to love them and getting them to buy their resurrected songs.  His business had been successful for a time but is dwindling.  So he has his son's band pretend to be an old band and create a "long lost" song recording.  The band then, mistaken for a Bulgarian band on youtube does a cover of the song that "sounds remarkably like the original".

So the book swings between the humour of the fake band making fake music and the depressing scenes about Jimmy's surgery and chemotherapy - and the debilitating side effects.  In chemo he meets up with a former band member who is even worse off; feeling vulnerable he also has an affair with the former lead singer of his band.  The book ends at a Woodstock like music festival where Jimmy camps out with his long lost brother, the band member dying of cancer and another loser middle aged man who is teaching him to play the trumpet.  They all watch Jimmy's son perform - and Jimmy can't help but reveal the truth about what he is.

The various relationships Jimmy has - with his wife, his children, his father, his boss and his old friends are really what holds the book together.  It's a good read, but not a fantastic one.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This book was far too weird for my liking.  I kept at it because I thought the main storyline was interesting but it was interspersed with Zen practices and beliefs which I found distracting though I was able to skim over them for the most part.  There was also some magical realism which I just didn't buy, or maybe didn't get - pages disappearing then reappearing and strange things like that.

The basic story was about Ruth, who lives on a small island off Vancouver Island.  She is a writer suffering from writer's block who has moved there from Manhattan to follow the man she loves who is also quite weird.  I was never quite sure if he was an environmental activist or what he was - he also suffered from some undefined illness that I never really understood.  Walking along the beach Ruth finds a freezer bag filled with a diary written mostly in English, a notebook which appears to be another diary written in French, some Japanese letters and a man's watch engraved in Japanese.  She, and others on the island, speculate this is something swept away by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that travelled the ocean and ended up here.  Though they are never quite sure the timing is right.

The English diary is that of Nao, a teenaged girl who was born in the US but moved back to Tokyo with her parents when her father's job in Silicone Valley disappears, together with his savings, after the dot.com bubble bursts.  Nao is bullied at school, must face the repeated suicide attempts of her father and is generally miserable living in relative poverty after a very middle class life in the US.  When her mother gets a job and her father is trying to get help for his depression she is sent to spend the summer with her 104 year old great grandmother who is a buddhist nun living in a small, secluded community.  Her great grandmother senses her misery and tries to give her coping mechanisms which she calls super powers.  After leaving her summer feeling stronger, though not strong enough to return to school, she spends her days trying to tell the story of her great grandmother's life though it is really more her own story.  There are also several asides that are quite interesting about her great uncle who was a kamikaze fighter who lost his life in WWII.  The French diary, Japanese letter and watch belonged to him.

Ruth tries hard to find Nao and her family and discover first whether they really existed and then what happened to them in the wake of the tsunami.  She enlists others to help translate the Japanese and French (though she is Japanese herself, her command of formal language is not perfect) so we meet some local characters too.

There were also distracting segments about the fate of her cat and a crow that appeared to be from Japan.

All in all, though there were some interesting stories and characters, the book was just a bit too hard to figure out for me to find it enjoyable.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cinnamon Gardens by Shaym Selvadurai

Enchanted by Selvadurai's latest move, I decided to pick up one of his older titles and was not disappointed.  This book is entirely set in British Ceylon and provides a good introduction to the historical roots of the conflicts in present-day Sri Lanka.  The characters are primarily upper class Ceylonese who are negotiating with the British - some want full independence, some partial.  Most tend to agree that universal franchise would not be appropriate though Annalukshmi, a young female teacher who bristles at her family's expectation that she will give up teaching to marry, does feel enfranchisement of educated women is appropriate.

We follow Annalukshmi through two unsuccessful matchmaking attempts and an equally unsuccessful match which she finds on her own.  The book also tells the story of her more traditional younger sister, through whom we see the pros and cons of agreeing to an arranged marriage.

The other central character in the book is Annalukshmi's uncle Balendran, a closeted gay who gave up a happy relationship with a British man once his father found out about it.  He has since married and had a son and we see the havoc that prevails when his former lover visits Sri Lanka.  We also learn of his brother Arul who was banished to India for marrying a lower caste woman.  Though on a visit to India, Balendran learns of his father's secrets which causes him to question his obedience to him.

All in all this is an interesting read filled with colourful characters.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tomorrow There Will be Apricots by Jessica Soffer

Overall I didn't really enjoy this book.   There were times when I really wanted to know what would happen next but most of the time I was bored.  The book tells the story of two lonely people - Victoria whose husband has just passed away and Lorca, a young teenager who self mutilates, in my mind justifiably given how cruel and uncaring her mother is.

Lorca, always trying without success to please her mother, seeks out Victoria as the chef at restaurant where her mother claims to have had her favourite meal ever.  Victoria offers cooking classes at the behest of her odd neighbour (though aptly named) Dotty.  Lorca is the only one to show up.  And the two women bond - briefly believing their connection is even greater.  At the end they are there for each other - but first there are some twists and turns.

The book also revolves around recipes and food - all of Lorca's metaphors are food related.  At first I thought it was interesting - then it seemed too forced.

In all I don't really recommend this book unless you are very interested in Iraqi recipes or lonely people.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I loved previous novels by Lahiri and this one did not disappoint.  I found it particularly interesting as it was primarily written from the perspective of men though it also told the story of several women.

Most of the book is written from the perspective of Subhash, at the start a young boy in Calcutta, who has no memories of life before the birth of his brother and constant companion, Udayan.  The boys are born during World War II and have vague recollections of the day Indian independence was declared - mostly of the fever they both suffered from at the time.  Despite Indian independence they are subjected to the remains of colonialism when they are beaten by a policeman for sneaking into a club that serves the British and other foreigners.

The boys attend school, then college and Udayan becomes enamoured with the Communist movement known as the Naxalites (for the town where it was born).  Subhash follows a more traditional path and accepts a position at a small college in Rhode Island.  Some of my favourite descriptive passages were those that contrasted the noise and crowds of Calcutta to the peaceful, emptiness in small town Rhode Island.

Subhash studies, becomes involved with an American woman who is separated from her husband, bonds with his roommate, a Vietnam war activist, and is alarmed to read a letter from Udayan informing him of his marriage to a girl he's been involved with since before Subhash left India.  Though Udayan's letters following his marriage no longer refer to his political affairs, Subhash eventually receives a telegram advising him of Udayan's sudden death.  He returns to India to face his parents who are broken and will not speak of what happened as well as Udayan's widow who has just discovered she is pregnant.

Udayan impulsively decides to marry her and bring her to the United States and to raise her child as his own.  The remainder of the book gives us the perspectives of Subhash, his wife and their daughter as they adjust to life together, and eventually apart, in the US.  We also slowly learn more about Udayan's political involvement and the events that led to his death.  By the end Subhash is an elderly man, who has earned his close relationship with his daughter and granddaughter.  The scenes between Subhash and his daughter are also wonderful to read.

I definitely recommend this book.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Mother's Secret by J.L. Witterick

This book is regrettably far more simplistic than the reviews let on.  I think it would be a great introductory read for a young teenager to learn something about the Holocaust, and particular those who risked their lives to help others.  But, as an adult I found both the story and the character development lacking.

The book is written from four perspectives:  Helena, who together with her mother Franciszka, hid two Jewish families and a defecting German soldier in their small home in Poland following the German invasion in World War II; Bronek, a Jewish labourer whose family is hidden by Helena and Franciszka in the rafters of their pig sty; Mikolaj, a prominent Jewish doctor whose hidden along with his wife and son under the floor of Helena's kitchen and Vilheim, a German soldier who cannot bear the role and is hidden in a small crawl space in Helena's attic.

We learn a little about everyone's very normal life before the war, then a bit more about the atrocities they are faced with during the war.  Even Helena is not spared as her brother is killed taking food to Jewish partisans.  And then we see how the simple Polish women juggle the three groups who are hiding, each unaware of the other, and manage to provide them with food and shelter until liberation.

This is based on a true story, and does illustrate how goodness can prevail in the face of unspeakable evil.  And how help is found in the least likely places - each of the Jewish families was turned down by people they new far better than Franciszka but who were afraid to help.  I just wish it could have delved a little deeper into everyone's story.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz

This is a well written novel about complicated family dynamics and the lasting impact of childhood trauma and guilt.

Beena and Sadhana are teenagers living above their family bagel shop in Montreal.  There's is an unusual childhood from the start.  Their father a Sikh baker whose family has never approved of his career choice or his wife, a white woman who converted to Sikhism but is really more of a spiritualist.  Their father dies of a heart attack when they are too young to really remember him, and their mother of an unfortunate accident for which they blame themselves, when they are young teenagers.  The girls are left in the care of their formal, and rigid paternal uncle who is a bachelor that also has taken over running the bagel shop.

The girls rebel in different ways.  Beena becomes involved with one of the "bagel boys" who works at the shop but disappears after impregnating her at 15.  Sadhana begins a life long struggle with anorexia.  Beena is left to raise both her sister and her son, never really developing her own personality until she and her son move to Ottawa in an effort to live independently.  But the sister continue to rely on each other - travelling back and forth to care for each other and for Beena's son, Quinn.

The book begins in the present, when Sadhana has died of a heart attack at 32 and Beena and Quinn are both feeling responsible as when they'd last seen her they'd fought over Sadhana agreeing to help Quinn find his father, against Beena's wishes.  The book then moves back and forth until we learn the details of their childhoods and young adulthood.  We learn of the secrets they kept from each other, and other's in their lives.  And we see what happens when both Beena and Quinn finally agree to meet with his father.

There are numerous other interesting characters, including Beena and Sadhana's yoga teaching, mystical mother and her equally eccentric friends, Ravi, Quinn's father, who grows into an anti-immigrant political candidate, Libby, Sadhana's lover who Beena only learns of following her death and who carries her own guilty secrets surrounding the death, and Evan, Beena's young police officer boyfriend whose upbringing in a stable family on a Saskatchewan farm could not be more different than Beena's.  But what really kept me going was trying to find some resolution to the complicated relationships between the self-described unconventional family of Beena, Sadhana and Quinn.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

This is the first book I've read by Selvadurai but I will definitely look into others.  If this book is any indication, he has an engaging descriptive style and excels at developing complex and fascinating characters.  The novel centres on Shivan, a Canadian immigrant from Sri Lanka who is now in his early thirties.  He is preparing to return to his place of birth to visit his grandmother who is dying.  The book seamlessly moves from past to present as we learn about Shivan's difficult childhood, particularly after he and his sister and widowed mother move into his grandmother's home.  His Sinhalese mother had been estranged from her mother since marrying a Tamil man.  The grandmother takes the family in, but only at Shivan's expense.  His grandmother took a liking to him and begins grooming him to take over her property management business.  From a young age he is exposed to her crooked dealings, her main "thug" and her aggressive and stingy nature.

But we also eventually learn of the hard past that led to his grandmother's behaviour.  She is oddly both manipulative and cruel, and pathetic or even sympathetic.  Just after high school Shivan's family leaves the grandmother behind and immigrates to Canada.  There they are faced with poverty, his mother's depression and Shivan's coming to terms with being gay.  After a few years of struggling to fit in he returns for a short visit to Sri Lanka - which is lengthened when he falls in love with an old school friend.  But when his grandmother finds out he is gay she sets in motion a terrible sequence of events from which Shivan has yet to recover though he returns to Canada, sets out on his own to Vancouver, finds a respectable job and falls in love again.

We are left hoping, but not confident, that his next visit to his grandmother will bring the closure he needs to allow him to move on.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam

Out of respect and passion for Atwood, I've read all three of her speculative fiction trilogy despite this really not being my favoured genre.  And I was disappointed with this last book.  It seemed forced to me - like she really wanted to wrap up the story but didn't have a lot to say.  It lacked the imaginative language created in the other two books, particularly the religion and even hymns found in the The Year of the flood.  Maybe if I'd read the other two books more recently, I'd have had more interest in the characters as I'd have remembered their pasts more clearly.  But, even with the brief summaries of the other two books at the start of this one, I felt a bit lost and disconnected from the characters.

That being said, Atwood's writing is, as usual, intelligent and engaging.  But her political messages were less cleverly disguised than usual and, in my view, detracted from the story somewhat.  This book takes place months after the Waterless Flood pandemic that wiped out most of humanity.  We follow the lives of some survivors as well as a the Crakers, a quasi-human species engineered by the deceased Crake, as they gear up for battle, allied with pig like creatures, against some of the less desirable survivors.  And, despite, the downsides, I was drawn into the story and really did want to see how it ended.

So the master again wrote a great book, but I wouldn't say it's one of her best.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

I think this was my favourite of Sullivan's novels.  The book alternates between five different stories and a lot of the fun is trying to figure out how they will fit together in the end.  I guessed some, but not others.

The book starts with Frances Gerety, who we first encounter in 1947.  Frances was an actual copywriter with the advertising firm, Ayer and Son.  She is credited with coining the slogan "A Diamond is Forever" which, in 1999, was named by Advertising Age magazine as the the slogan of the century.  This is a fictionalized account of her personal life spanning from 1947 until 1988 but is based upon factual accounts gathered through interviews, annual reports, advertising campaigns and personal correspondence.  Some of the other characters Frances interacts with at Ayer were also real people.  It appears that Ayer, on behalf of its client De Beers, is largely responsible for engagement rings becoming an everyday phenomenon.

The remainder of the stories deal with diamonds, engagements and marriage.  We next meet Evelyn and her husband Gerald in 1972.  They have been married for forty years and Evelyn is fretting over the failure of her son's marriage to a daughter in law she adores.  As Evelyn worries about her son she reveals some of her marital history, including her earlier marriage to Gerald's Harvard roommate, Nathaniel.  A key character is, of course, the diamond ring Gerald gives her when they become engaged - an expensive two diamond platinum ring that had belonged to his mother.

Jumping forward to 1987, we encounter James, an EMS with a temper who has never lived up to his potential.  Despite this he is married to his highschool sweetheart, Sheila and they have two little boys.  It is Christmas time and Sheila has just been mugged, losing everything in her possession, including the engagement ring with the tiny diamond that James had made for her when they got engaged.  The couple is struggling financially and much of James' time is spent figuring out how to replace that ring.

In 2003 we are introduced to Delphine.  She is a forty year old woman who abandoned a stable, if unexciting, marriage and business in Paris to follow a 23 year old violinist who proposes to her on a whim.  We learn about their happiness after it has occurred as she has now discovered the worst of him and is exacting revenge on his apartment and his life.  She does have good intentions of returning the engagement ring to his mother (as it had been hers) but loses it.  We only learn much later what happened to the ring, though Delphine never does.

Finally, in 2012 we meet Kate.  She is in a stable relationship with Dan and they have a 3 year old daughter but she is politically opposed to marriage and refuses to enter into it despite pressure from her mother and sister.  She is busy preparing for the upcoming marriage of her cousin Jeffrey to his long time partner Toby now that gay marriage has been legalized in New York.  One of her jobs is picking up the rings at the jeweller and bringing them to the wedding.  She finds the diamond rings tacky and obsesses over whether they might be blood diamonds.  When one goes missing she wonders if she was subconsciously responsible for its disappearance.

In the end all of the stories do tie together.  And along the way, Sullivan creates likeable and interesting characters that I came to care about.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

I don't want to say too much about this book, because a lot of my enjoyment came from the surprises.  Set in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, it centres on the life of Percival Chan, the headmaster of a respected English school in Saigon.  Ethnic Chinese, he moved to Vietnam as a young man to be reunited with his father following the death of his mother.  He discovers his father is indeed wealthy but addicted to opium and living under the control of his second wife, a Vietnamese woman, which prejudices Percival against Vietnamese women for much of his life.

With the Japanese occupation, Percival is no longer able to continue his father's rice import/export business so instead starts the school with the help of his neighbour and friend, Mak.  Percival is extremely naive, a gambler and a womanizer, but is forced to see some of reality when his son gets into trouble and must be rescued and eventually smuggled back to China.  Lonely following this (and his divorce) he turns to a Vietnamese/French woman, Jacqueline, and, despite his hesitations, falls in love with her and their son born shortly after.

But as civil war rages on in Saigon, and eventually the Americans evacuate, nothing comes easy to Percival, Jacqueline or their son.  The novel is a troubling story of war, desperation, betrayal and the difficulties of love.  It took a while to get into it, but by the end I had trouble putting it down.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Lawgiver by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk certainly deserves the praise he's received over the years - calling him a legendary author is no exaggeration.  This is particularly true when you take into account that his latest novel was penned at age 97 - and it all takes the form of e-mails, text messages, meeting and Skype transcripts, letters and diary entries.

Apparently Wouk has wanted to write about Moses for more than 50 years - and he picks a really interesting way to tackle it.  The story centres on an elderly, wealthy, Australian Jew, Mr. Gluck, who jets around the world on his private plane following his investments.  One of his investment partners, Hezzie Jacobs, is about to lose a fortune unless the movie studio he has invested in, WarshaWorks, can be saved.  Gluck agrees to save it only if the studio produces a movie about Moses - and the script must be approved by Herman Wouk, who, together with his wife Betty Sarah, are characters in the novel.

The studio turns to a relatively unknown writer-director, Margo Solvei, to write the script, subject to Wouk's approval.  Margo is the daughter of a Hassidic Rabbi, estranged from her father since she left her religious life.  The main thread of the story is about Margo.  We follow her writing efforts as she struggles with her mentor, Wouk and the studio; her attempts to enlist an unknown Australian sheep farmer turned part-time actor to portray Moses; her budding pen pal relationship with a woman she's never met in person but with whom she shares intimate details of her life; her letters to her brother and former classmates and, especially, her renewed love life with her former boyfriend Josh.

There are admittedly parts of the book which I didn't think needed to be there - a lot of correspondence relating to a legal dispute between geneticists about the patent for turning algae into fuel.  As far as I could tell they were only there to facilitate Margo and Josh being in Australia at the same time - if they added more, I missed it.

But generally Wouk's insights into people and his character development are fantastic.  His use of Yiddish expressions and biblical references are fabulous.  It's really a shame his wife did not live to see this book published - his love and respect for her are evident in every passage she's in.

The characters in this book frequently wish each other the Yiddish blessing of living until 120.  If Wouk does, he's got at least a few more good writing years ahead of him!

Saturday, September 21, 2013


This is another fantastic novel by the Nigerian-American author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  She follows the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, from the time they fall in love as teenagers, through to their difficult reunion as adults.

Ifemelu grows up relatively poor, the daughter of an educated man who speaks formal English but gets laid off for refusing to call his boss, "Mummy" and a fanatically religious mother.  Obinze is slightly better off, being raised by his widowed mother who is a professor.  Obinze obsesses about immigrating to the United States but it is Ifemelu who moves there for University - joining her aunt and cousin who are also fascinating characters.  Obinze hopes to follow but post-911 restrictions mean he is unable to obtain a visa so instead moves to London where he lives and works illegally until he is deported moments before entering into a sham marriage.

Ifemelu nearly starves trying to put herself through college and unable to get a job.  In desperation she accepts money in exchange for sexual favours, once.  She is so humiliated she cuts off all contact with Obinze - who is hurt and puzzled but never angry.

Ifemelu's life turns around when she gets a job as a babysitter for a white family, falls for one of their relatives who helps her get a job and a green card.  She lives happily for some time but then, disaffected she sabotages the relationship and quits her job.  But finds success as an anonymous blogger making insightful observations as a non-American black on being black in America.  She then enters a relationship with a black Yale professor but never quite fits in with his left leaning academic crowd (though they do bond over Obama's election campaign).

After this she decides to give up her blog and her relationship to return to Nigeria.  There she is reunited with Obinze who is married with a young child and must figure out what to do now that the love of his life has returned.  We are left in doubt, but with hope, about how things will work out.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

I had read this book a few years ago, but picked it up again because it's on my book club reading list.  Though I remembered some of the story, it was interesting enough to keep my attention a second time around.  This is the first novel by a former lawyer and she writes very well.  She tells the story of Hannah, a midwife in sixteenth century Venice who gets herself into trouble when she is beckoned to save the life of a non-Jewish noble woman who is suffering from a difficult labour.  She manages to bring the child into the world safely, but this puts her in danger of the jealous brothers of the baby's father who stand to lose a significant portion of their inheritance with the arrival of a new male heir.  We see the former "ghetto mouse" fight off the brothers, the plague and other dangers - sometimes with the assistance of her sister, a courtesan who has converted to Christianity.

At the same time we are told the parallel story of Hannah's husband Isaac who was captured at sea and sold into slavery in Malta.  He survives by his wits alone - and Hannah delivers the baby to earn the money for his ransom.

Some of the encounters are rather fantastical, as is the happy ending, but this is still a well written, entertaining story.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Vacation Reads

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand

I always like to read one of Hilderbrand's books on summer vacation.  This wasn't really one of her best in my view.  The book deals with the wedding of Jenna - she plans it all based on a notebook left by her deceased mother who wrote out plans for the wedding when she realized she would not live to see the day.
We learn about the wedding from many perspectives, Jenna, her sister Margot, her father Doug and his new wife, her fiance Stuart and his parents as well as various friends.  There are the usual liaisons and relationships, misunderstandings and reconciliations.  All of it is frankly a bit morbid as it alternates with excerpts from the dead mother's notebook.  But the book was, as always, an easy vacation read.

Under the Afghan Sky by Mellissa Fung

This is a memoir by the Canadian journalist who was kidnapped by thugs in Afghanistan and held in a hole for about a month.  The story includes various letters she wrote to friends and family while in captivity as well as letters written to her by her journalist boyfriend.  The story is horrifying but Fung's courage, faith and even humour carried her through.  It was interesting to hear how she developed a sort of friendship with one of her captors - to the point where he suggested exchanging e-mail addresses to keep in touch.  This read more like a long magazine article than a book but it was well written and I recommend it.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

This is a very interesting story of a Polish couple and their child who were separated during World War II when the husband went off to fight the war, lost his division before he even trained then escaped through the underground network to France and eventually England where he fought with the RAF.  Meanwhile, his wife was forced to flee her apartment when a Nazi officer took advantage of her and survived with her son in the forest until she was found by her husband in a displaced person's camp.  They reunite in England and you can tell early on that both husband and wife harbour terrible secrets from their time apart.  The past is slowly revealed as the chapters alternate between present day England and the War.  Once the secrets come to light the family is finally given the chance to properly heal.  This is not the best written book but it is an interesting story and an easy read despite the difficult subject matter.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

This book by Jonas Jonasson and translated from the original Swedish is oftentimes silly and clearly intended to be fantastical, but extremely funny.

The title character, Allan Karlsson, does just as the title suggests in the book's first chapter.  Immediately prior to the hundredth birthday party planned for him at his nursing home, he decides he's had enough of the place's strict rules (particularly the one prohibiting vodka), climbs out the window and runs away.  The remainder of the book alternates between telling the story of the 6 weeks following his escape and his earlier life adventures.  Both parts are equally entertaining.

When he first escapes he shuffles to the bus station and buys a ticket on the first bus out - he didn't care where it was going.  Before he leaves he manages to steal a suitcase full of cash from a petty drug dealer which leads to endless comical encounters with that dealer and his accomplices as they try to recover the cash.  And no matter what happens Allan comes out ahead.

This is after a life of globe trotting meeting world leaders from Truman, Johnson and Nixon to Franco, Stalin, Mao, Kim Jung Il and de Gaulle.  Though he spends time in an asylum in Sweden, a prison in Iran, the Gulag and traversing the Himalayas by foot, he's always happy if he's offered a good meal and plenty of vodka.  Fervently disinterested in politics he manages to get on the inside of almost all major political events of his lifetime - and to provide his explosives expertise to whichever side offers him the best meals and drinks at the time.

It's really worth suspending your disbelief for the sheer entertainment value of this book.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

This novel by the young writer, Anthony Marra, is an incredibly beautifully written story about a part of the world I knew little about.  Set in a small village in Chechnya, the story revolves around eight year old Havaa who, following the death of her mother, watches her father get abducted by Russian soldiers who accuse him of aiding Chechen rebels.  She is found by Akhmed, a friend of her father's who lives across the street with his invalid wife.  Akhmed takes her to a nearby town and leaves her with Sonja, the only remaining doctor at an abandoned hospital.  Akhmed, who is the self-professed worst doctor in Chechnya, has heard of her work from refugees passing through his village.

The story moves back and forth from the present day (2004) to the first Chechen war approximately 10 years before and many points in between.  We learn the sad tale of Sonja who was a medical student in London but returns following the first war to help her sister Natasha.  Natasha tried to reach London but was abducted by a prostitution ring and controlled by heroin until she manages to escape and return home to Sonja.  She looks like she will rebound until further tragedy strikes and she disappears.  But not before she delivers Havaa, forever joining her to Havaa's family, which Sonja eventually learns from an elderly neighbour, Khassan, who is fighting his own demons, primarily in the form of his son who is an informant for the Russian army responsible for turning in his neighbours, including Havaa's father and eventually Akhmed.

I liked the little device of starting every chapter with a timeline so we always knew whether we were reading about past or current events.  The descriptions of the complex history of Chechnya are fascinating.  And the characters are so well developed I could sympathize with all of them at one point or another - I could even understand the horrible events that lead the informant to turn against his friends.

I definitely recommend this book - though you have to be in the right frame of mind.  Though the flow of the language is amazing, emotionally it's not an easy read.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon

The first adult novel by Gideon was light and entertaining.  Parts were very funny, the ending was a surprise and the characters were really likeable.  "Wife 22" is a middle aged mother of two who is about to turn 45 - a turning point for her as it is the age her mother was when she died.  She finds herself no longer connected to her husband of 20 years - she feels they're more like roommates.  She's barely tolerated by her teenaged daughter and feels she's losing her 12 year old son too.  So she joins a survey studying marriages and uses her long ago abandoned writing skills to answer questions about her relationship, present and past.  She finds herself strangely attracted to the researcher posing the questions and reading her answers - and for the first time contemplates cheating on her husband.  But as she delves into her marriage she remembers why she married in the first place which brings her closer to her husband - particularly when the truth behind the researcher is revealed.  I recommend this for a relaxing day by the pool or at the beach.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Lost Daughter by Mary Williams

This is a memoir by a middle aged woman from a troubled family in Oakland who, as a teenager, was taken in by Jane Fonda and her family.  The story was interesting, and Jane Fonda and Ted Turner came off looking surprisingly down to earth, but the problem was, hard as I tried, I couldn't like Williams.  I know she had a terrible start in life - she was born into a broken, abusive, neglectful, dirt poor family.  Her father was in prison for Black Panther activities, her mother tried hard to keep things afloat working as a welder but after a knee injury loses her job and turns to alcohol to numb the pain.  One older sister is a crack addicted prostitute, another is a teenage mother who disappears just as Mary is starting to bond with the child.  She also discovers her father has more than the 5 children with her mother - but a string of them with other women - many of the boys bearing the same name.
As a teenager she gets sent to a summer camp run by Jane Fonda and her  then husband.  She bonds with the other, richer, campers, the staff and Fonda herself.  But at summer's end she must return to Oakland.  Until one year, she is brutally attacked and only admits to what happens to her counsellor and Fonda when she returns to camp.  There Fonda agrees to take her in if she first returns home and improves her grades and tells her family.  She does tell her family - an uncle is sympathetic, her mother barely listens - and they let her go live with Fonda.
We then hear of her life in LA, her college years, her wanderlust as she cannot stick to any job, relationship or plan.  Eventually she reconnects with her birth family and it looks like things may improve but given her track record it was hard to be sure.
I sympathize with Mary, and her story is fascinating, I'm just not sure I really like her.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

I hesitated to start this book as I wasn't sure a book about a rowing team in the 1930s would hold my attention.  But I should never have hesitated - I was so mesmerized by the descriptions of rowing races that I now look forward to watching the sport in the next Olympics.  Brown tells the story primarily from the perspective of Joe Rantz, one of the 9 members of the US rowing team that won Olympic gold in Berlin in 1936.  Joe had a hard childhood - his mother died when he was about 5, then he was shipped around between an aunt in the East, his brother near Seattle and finally, when his father remarried, his father and step mother in small town Washington State.  It was during the Depression and Rantz's family was dirt poor.  His father worked hard, never at the same job for long, and his step-mother gave birth to four children and was perpetually disappointed at her lot in life, which she took out on Joe.  Eventually, when he was 15, the family abandoned him in a half built house in Sequim Washington.  He not only continued to excel at school, but he earned enough money to go to University in Seattle.  He spent his last year of high school living with his brother in Seattle, where he was spotted by the coach of Washington's rowing crew and encouraged to try out.  He did so and made the Freshman team.  But he still struggled, he had little money; others made fun of him as he wore the same sweater every day and ate ferociously whenever given a free meal.  But eventually he made the varsity rowing team - and learned that to succeed he had to trust the others in the boat, and focus only on the boat during a race.
The book goes on to describe races in great detail - it sounds like it could get boring but Brown's writing style makes it suspenseful even when you know the outcome.  His interspersed story of what's going on in Hitler's Germany at the same time is also fascinating.  You get a really good picture of the propaganda machine at work during the Olympics - and the disappointment Hitler must have felt when this US crew won Gold even after being handicapped by the worst lane in the race (the best ones being reserved for Germany and Italy).
The epilogue briefly describing where the "boys in the boat" ended up after leaving school is also interesting.  A fabulous description of a small part of history.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Dark is definitely an apt adjective to describe this book.  Though fascinating, it was terribly depressing, particularly if this fictional tale is even remotely based upon fact.  Meili, is a young Chinese peasant, married to Kongzi, a distant descendant of Confucius.  Meili and Kongzi have a 2 1/2 year old daughter but Kongzi is obsessed with producing the next generation male heir to Confucius so gets his wife pregnant without waiting for official permission.  When family planning officers crack down on their village, forcibly aborting, sterilizing and inserting IUD's, Meili, Kongzi and their daughter go on the run.  They escape on the Yangtze and wander for years - living in boats, on islands, and in decrepit shacks that have been abandoned either to make room for the Three Gorges Dam project or due to overwhelming pollution from the thriving electronic waste business.  Despite his best efforts, Kongzi and Meili are unable to produce a living son and it is Meili who truly suffers for it.  She's subjected to abortions, forced imprisonment and labour, forced prostitution, extreme poverty and poor health.  Despite all the exploitation, and very little education, Meili is resilient and creative when it comes to providing for herself and her small family.  She always finds work, even opening and operating small shops, while her dreaming and often drunk husband is far less capable.  Yet, even with all her persistence, her dreams of becoming an educated, well dressed, urban working woman seem out of reach.

A worthwhile read but you have to be in the right frame of mind as it is really depressing.  I also must take the time to praise the translator - I have read books translated from the Chinese before which have been hard to follow.  This one flows beautifully in English.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

This is an easy read novel about two teenaged sisters who learn to fend for themselves, and each other, from a very young age.  Written from the perspective of the younger sister, Bean who is twelve, we learn that her fifteen year old sister Liz has often been her primary caregiver when her mother, a bipolar dreamer, takes off to chase her music and acting dreams.  They live on chicken pot pies and always manage until her mother takes off for longer than usual and the shopkeeper who sells the pies alerts child services.  Not wanting to be put in foster care, Liz and Bean escape by bus from California to Virginia to show up on the doorstep of her mother's childhood home, now occupied by their widowed, reclusive uncle.  Her mother had fled when Bean was an infant, abandoned by Liz's father and unwilling to marry Bean's, who later dies in mysterious circumstances.

In Virginia, Bean learns about her father and is warmly embraced by his family - labourers in the local mill which Bean's ancestors founded and later owned.  Even the town's main street bears Bean's last name.  Bean's strong personality eventually even wins over her uncle who has been worn down by a series of tragedies.  But Liz has a harder time fitting in - she does not like to conform and conformity is the norm in small town Virginia.  And when the girls do odd jobs for a foreman at the mill Liz finds herself in trouble that pushes her further into herself and prompts Bean to take public action.

Mostly this is a great story of the strength two young girls find in themselves and each other when they think there is no one else out there for them.  And how they eventually use that strength to find a larger community.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The main characters in this book definitely lived up to the name - the Interestings.  This is the name 6 teenagers adopted for themselves while spending the summer at an arts based camp in the Berkshires.  Though we hear the story of all 6 kids, arguably the main characters is Jules, an awkward and shy girl from Long Island who has just lost her father to cancer and who is suddenly adopted by a more sophisticated crowd from Manhattan.  There is Ash, the beautiful sensitive girl who becomes her life long friend, Ash's brother Goodman handsome but already showing the signs of the troubled life he'll live, Ethan, at 15 already a gifted animator who loves Jules but accepts her friendship when she tells him the attraction is not mutual, Jonah a gay musician, the son of a famous folk singer who is hiding a troubled past, and Cathy an aspiring dancer who lacks a dancer's body.  Cathy is the least developed character but an incident between her and Goodman in their late teens changes the course of all 6 lives.

The book follows the characters from the three years they spend at summer camp through to middle age.  Ethan and Ash marry, he becomes wildly successful and extremely rich.  She also remains in the arts, directing plays with a feminist bent.  Jules abandons her dreams of becoming a comic actress and instead becomes a mildly successful therapist - she marries an ultrasound technician with a history of depression and spends her life envying her best friends.  Jonah comes out of the closet but is unable to sustain meaningful relationships until he deals with the incidents in his past - that he eventually describes to Ethan but no one else.  I will leave Goodman and Cathy's futures undescribed so as not to remove the suspense.

Each of the characters, though severely flawed, is oddly sympathetic, perhaps because Wolitzer develops them as "real", believable people.  Their lives are not particularly charmed though not unusually tragic either - they are just human.

Sometimes the book seems a bit long but overall it's a great read - I kept turning the pages as I really cared about what happened to these people.

The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank

This book was okay, not great, for an easy reading distraction.  It is about the title middle aged woman who is the last original wife remaining in her husband's group of friends.  All of the others have been replaced by newer, younger models.  The book alternates between the perspectives of the wife, Les, and her husband, Des.  Les is not impressed with the bimbos her husband's friends have married and Des wants her to spend more and more of her leisure time with them.  Dissatisfied with this, and the general laziness of her two grown children, Les leaves her Atlanta home to spend time in her home town of Charleston, living with her gay brother who Des never approved of.  There she finds a life she prefers - though she does return home to nurse Des through an illness.  All of the characters were a bit too self-absorbed for my liking - I never really sympathized with any of them.  There were, however, some extremely funny scenes like when two of the bimbos, now abandoned by their older husbands, get drunk and crash the society wedding of one of their ex-husbands and moon the crowd with misspelled messages on their behinds.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Caught by Lisa Moore

This was the winner of the CBC Canada Reads contest.  And while I found it reasonably engaging I wouldn't go so far as to say it is a must read book.  It deals with David Slaney's escape from prison after being incarcerated for drug trafficking.  We follow his cross country trek and his trip to Colombia to try again.  As he travels we learn about his past, his misplaced trust in certain people and why his life went so pathetically wrong.  I kept reading because I wanted to see whether he'd get caught again (I won't spoil the surprise here) but I didn't really find Slaney particularly interesting or sympathetic so I didn't love the book.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

This was an interesting and ambitious book.  The author carefully wove together 3 seemingly unrelated stories:  it starts with the story of a pilot and navigator in Newfoundland shortly after World War I.  They are both injured veterans who love flying and want to erase the bad memories of war by successfully flying across the Atlantic.  The second story is of an escaped African American slave who travels to Ireland to raise awareness and funds for his cause.  The third is the story of George Mitchell's travels to Northern Ireland in the early 2000s to broker a peace deal.  It would spoil the story if I explain how the stories fit together but by the end it all becomes clear.  And though it starts with these four men, I would say the story is really one of four generations of strong women and how they cope with the Irish famine, immigration to the US, the civil war, personal tragedy, the return to Ireland and the "Troubles" there.  McCann's style is easy to read despite some lengthy descriptive passages.  And the characters he introduces are very engaging.  A really good read.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

I LOVED this book.  I hesitated to start it at first because I thought it might be too difficult to read, but once I picked it up I couldn't put it down.  Maya is a 20 year old American girl who gets sent to a remote island in Southern Chile to escape her past.  She was abandoned at birth by her mother to her paternal grandmother, Nini, and step grandfather, Popo.  Her father, a pilot, constantly flew in and out of her life and really had little influence on her childhood.  Nini raised her with a loving but firm hand - instilling social activism and a love of the mystical beliefs of her native Chile.  But Maya adored Popo, a large, African American astronomer who doted on her from the moment her mother abandoned her to his large hands.  Despite the early abandonment, Maya's childhood with her grandparents is happy - they constantly travel and seek out other adventures - and they always make room for her between them in bed when she suffers from insomnia.  Maya's life turns at 16 when Popo dies of cancer.  In her grief she turns to drugs, alcohol, truancy and petty crime.  Her sordid life is revealed when she is hit by a car while cycling drunk and her father cuts a deal with the court so she is put into a juvenile rehabilitation centre instead of prison.  But when her time is just about up she escapes - in part to punish her father for leaving her there.  After a harrowing experience hitchhiking she ends up in Las Vegas where she takes up with drug dealers and criminals and becomes a full fledged addict running from both the mob and the authorities.  We learn all of this through Maya's notebook which she keeps after narrowly escaping her life in Las Vegas and being sent by her grandmother to stay with an old friend in Chile.  She is taken in without question and cared for by both the friend Manuel and all of the locals.  There she gets the peace to come to terms with her past and learn more about her grandmother and Manuel's pasts during the Chilean Pinochet years.

I was completely engrossed in Maya's life - both the present and the past which were presented in alternating passages.  She meets some horrible people but many equally kind and caring ones.  And with time and distance from home she properly grieves Popo and learns what was perhaps his best lesson to her - to love herself as much as he loved her.

I was sorry the book ended - I could have spent many more hours with Maya.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

My Long Weekend Read

Island Girls by Nancy Thayer

It really feels like summer has arrived when I read my first Nantucket set beach novel by Thayer or Elin Hilderbrand.  This was not Thayer's best but it was a fun easy read.  It dealt with the death of Rory Randall who, in his will, insisted his three daughters from different women spend the summer together in his Nantucket cottage if they wished to inherit a piece of it.  So we spend the summer with Arden, a television host who has sacrificed everything for the job that's now it jeopardy, Meg, a straight laced college professor who is being pursued by a younger colleague but avoids it for fear of getting hurt, and Jenny, Rory's only adopted daughter whose mother got the other girls banished from the cottage when they were teenagers and who is still paying the price for her suspected involvement in the matter.  We watch as they slowly learn to trust each other, survive visits from their mothers (and a surprise other woman in Rory's life) and, of course, since this is a Nancy Thayer book, struggle with romance.

The Smart One by Jennifer Close

Weezy's parents always said she was the smart one while her sister was the pretty one who would marry well (we meet her mother Babs, in her old age, and she has not grown any more charming).  Instead Weezy's sister is divorced while Weezy married well and has three grown children.  Unfortunately the children are still finding their way and end up living back home with Weezy and her husband.  The eldest, Martha, is a 30 year old socially awkward former nurse who now works and J. Crew.  She decides to get back into nursing and find her own apartment but it takes her a long time to figure out how to put the plan into action - especially since she spends so much time contemplating the next disaster that lurks around the corner.  Claire, is living in New York but when she breaks off her engagement she maxes out her credit cards and has to return home broke.  She finds a temporary job and picks up with a loser she pined after in high school while she tries to earn enough money to get back on track.  The youngest, Max, is still in college but he gets his girlfriend pregnant in senior year and they both move into his house to have the baby.  So Weezy, who has been accused of babying her children, must learn to live with them as adults again.  It leads to some humorous and some pathetic scenes.  In all the book is a decent way to pass some warm summer hours by the pool.

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

This is the first book of substance I've read in a while and I really enjoyed it.  The book is written from the perspective of Saba Hafezi, the daughter of Muslims who converted to Christianity in pre-Revolutionary Iran and must figure out how to go forward following the revolution.  It starts when Saba is 11 years old - we see her recovering from illness and on the way to the airport in Tehran to leave Iran with her mother and her twin sister.  Saba tells us she sees her mother and sister board the plane without her but others (in interspersed chapters) tell us her sister drowned before ever going to the airport and her mother has disappeared.  So Saba spends her teenaged years with her wealthy father, pretending to cater to the Mullahs, raised by old village women as surrogate mothers and dreaming of the life her mother and sister must be living in the US.  We follow Saba through two ill fated marriages, the deaths of several characters and her coming to terms with what really happened on that day when she was 11 years old.  The prose is fantastic - I was drawn into Saba's world right from the start and could not wait to find out the truth.  The weaving in of Persian village traditional story telling was also fascinating.  I highly recommend this book.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My Weekend Reads

For the first really hot weekend of summer I chose three easy reading books.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani tells the story of Thea, a teenaged girl from Florida during the Great Depression.  She disgraces her family (a typical story of boy trouble with a couple of atypical twists that are revealed over time) and is shipped off from the only home she's ever known to a South Carolina boarding school for rich Southern girls.  Before boarding school, Thea was home schooled and lived far from any neighbours.  The only children she had any contact with were her twin brother and a cousin a couple of years older.  Here she must navigate the tricky rules of rich girls - they all look down on each other for one reason or another.  She also thinks she finds love - in the wrong place and does make one good friend, eventually taking a fall for her and getting sent home (though for financial reasons, and others, home is no longer the same).  An interesting coming of age story though at times a little slow.

Starting Now by Debbie Macomber tells the story of Libby, a workaholic lawyer who gave up everything - friends, family, husband, any sense of life - in her pursuit of partnership.  On the day she thinks she will be made partner she is instead let go.  She is devastated and her self esteem and mood tumble even further when she can't find another job.  So instead she tries to find a life - reconnecting with an old friend, taking up knitting which she hasn't done since her mother died when she was 13, volunteering at a hospital rocking newborns, mentoring a troubled teenaged girl and even falling in love.  After a terrible crisis she is offered her old job back and she takes it - falling back into the trap of working all the time and almost losing everything she fought so hard to achieve.

Fly Away by Kristin Hannah is the sequel to Firefly Lane, a book I read several years ago.  This one picks up where the other left off - after the death of Kate, one of two lifelong friends.  Here we see how her husband, children, parents and especially her best friend, Tully, dealt with Kate's death.  Though the book starts several years later, through flashbacks from the perspective of several different characters the tragic story of a family torn apart by grief emerges.  A bit of a contrived tearjerker at times, the book still entertains.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Maggie & Me

This memoir by Scottish born, Brighton based, journalist Damian Barr is a fascinating read.  Barr grew up in a small town in Scotland not far from Glasgow during the Thatcher years.  One of his earliest memories is when his mother moved him and his younger sister from their father's house to the home of her new, scary boyfriend.  It coincided with the day Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed from a bombing in a Brighton hotel.  He is mesmerized by her sphinx-like rise from the ashes and her practical comment that one must simply carry on.  And, despite the hatred for her in his working class town as she eliminates milk from schools, smashes unions and ultimately closes the steel works that have always employed his father, he can't help but admire her attitude.  And he adopts it - studying and working hard to escape his impoverished beginnings.  His young life is marred by terrible poverty, abuse at the hands of his mother's boyfriend, his mother's near death from a brain haemorrhage, their moving into the house of an uncle who makes his living from petty theft and his mother's descent into alcoholism and partying with yet another abusive boyfriend.  Perhaps hardest of all, is his effort to come to terms with being gay - which he realizes at a young age but has a hard time integrating into his otherwise Catholic beliefs.  He is mocked all through school for preferring books to sports, called "Gaymian" and worse.  He befriends another boy who is popular and athletic but also gay and they explore together - fearing they must have AIDS when news of the disease spreads - though they have never had intercourse.  In high school to protect his reputation he is shunned by this boy but befriends an equally studious and clumsy girl who pretends to be his girlfriend to help him avoid accusations of being gay and to help her avoid the equally embarrassing claims that she's a virgin.  With this girl he studies hard, and develops the confidence to eventually explore the gay scene in Glasgow (with a man he meets through a personal ad) and come out to his teachers and parents.  Ultimately he feels he's proof that Thatcher was right - hard work is all it takes to get ahead.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Natural Order by Brian Francis

This was an unexpectedly good read.  I can't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm glad I did.  The whole book is written from the perspective of Joyce Sparks, an elderly woman now living in a nursing home.  The book moves seamlessly back and forth in time from her teenage years, to her years as a young wife and mother, to the time of her son's death when he's 31, to the time when she's a widow of 70 or so and learns the truth about her first love and back again to the present day.  Joyce's first love turns out to be gay - after their only kiss he takes off to New York and Hollywood and later she hears he's committed suicide by jumping off a boat in Alaska.  It is only when she's 70 she discovers, with horror, the truth of his fate.  Which forces her to deal with her relationship with her son - and how it suffered because she tried to ignore his sexual orientation rather than help him deal with the abuse he took from the outside world as a result.  She didn't even share her concerns with her husband who, she learns long after, would have accepted their son no matter what.  Joyce has many regrets but in some ways she still worries more about what others think than about the people she loves.  The book is well written, often sad, and totally engrossing.  It really captures the consequences of small mindedness for both those who suffer from it and those who suffer because of it.

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner

This is an at times humorous memoir by the Israeli novelist, Meir Shalev.  While he tells the story of his childhood, and some tales about his parents and aunts and uncles, the focus is on his eccentric Russian grandmother, Tonia.  She immigrated to Palestine prior to the creation of the State of Israel where, as a young girl, she married the husband of her deceased half sister, becoming a terrible mother to his young sons and bearing four children of her own, including the author's mother.  She never has a great marriage and her husband periodically takes off only to have her chase after him and drag him home.  But her biggest enemy is dirt - she spends her life cleaning, pulls her daughters out of school on a regular basis so they can help her clean, never lets anyone in the front door, makes her children and grandchildren, and their house guests "shower" at a trough in the cow shed and even encourages them to pee outside by a tree so they don't dirty the bathroom.  And keeping out the dust in a primitive farming community is a life long challenge.  The vacuum cleaner of the title, is sent to Tonia by her husband's brother, the "double traitor" who chose to immigrate to Los Angeles and became a successful businessman - forsaking both Zionism and Socialism.  When his brother sends back all the US dollars he sends in an effort to help, the American brother plots the ultimate revenge and sends a modern GE vacuum cleaner which he figures his sister-in-law will not be able to resist.  And at first she doesn't - using her "sveeperr"to suck up every speck of dust.  But then she obsesses over where the dirt goes and when she has her brother disassemble the machine she sees all the dirt inside and panics.  She cannot worry about keeping the innards of this machine clean, and cannot be convinced that it's meant to be dirty, so she packs it up in its original box, covers it with a sheet and locks it in an unused bathroom.  The author himself only sees it once in the middle of the night when he brings home an American girl he's met by chance whose father owns a GE dealership in LA.  Tonia barges into their room (in one of the funnier scenes) and asks whether the father can provide a seal that her brother warned her would one day wear out (this is 40 years after the machine was initially taken apart and she received the warning).  Instead the girl tries to buy the machine for her father's show room but Tonia won't part with it and back into the bathroom it goes.

At times the story was a bit boring but at other times it was fun to peek into the life of such an unusual woman and to see the impact she had on subsequent generations.  It also made clear where Shalev got his inspiration for certain characters in The Blue Mountain.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Roost by Ali Bryan

It's been a long time since a book has made me laugh out loud - but this one really did.  Not that there weren't serious themes explored too.  The book focuses on Claudia, a single, working mother with two children, whose life is in chaos even before her mother passes away suddenly.  Then Claudia must deal with her usually perfect brother who is unable to cope especially after his super organized wife falls into post-partum depression and temporarily leaves him to care for three children, including the newborn, and her father who is not even capable of living daily life without his wife (Claudia has to cut his toenails and phone him to tell him to go to sleep).  But some of the scenes with the children are hilarious including a particularly humorous business trip to Calgary where she inadvertently switches luggage with a young pregnant woman and wears her maternity clothes to a conference and for a disastrous one night stand rather than trying to sort it out with the airline.  As she falls further apart she also must observe her ex-husband pull himself together with a successful art show and a new partner.  In the end you can't help but feel Claudia will muddle through everything successfully as only someone strong and capable can deal with the curve balls life throws with such incredible good humour.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

This was an interesting story, though I found the end somewhat disappointing.  At the centre is Helen Armstead, a wife and mother living in relative comfort in suburban New York City until her husband, apparently depressed although maybe just a jerk, has a weird affair with a young intern at his law firm, is beat up by her boyfriend, drives away drunk, and gets caught, sued, arrested and loses everything.  Helen must strike out on her own, after more than 10 years out of the work force, in order to support herself and her daughter.  Through somewhat contrived circumstances, she gets a job in a PR firm and apparently has a talent for crisis management.  So she and her teenaged daughter move to a one bedroom apartment in the City.  Seeing Helen cope with the working world that she's not really equipped for, as well as a resentful daughter, is interesting.  The book takes a bit of a turn for the worse when she meets up with a childhood friend who is now a Hollywood movie star (and doesn't remember her).  When he is in crisis he calls her and the last part of the books addresses how she manages his crisis, with the help of her ex-husband and daughter.  That story seems a bit far fetched and is less interesting, but overall the book is not a bad read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Inside by Alix Ohlin

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time - as a finalist for the Giller Prize, it was much better than some of the winners I've read.  The book is structured in an interesting way.  The chapters are written primarily from the point of view of three different characters and take place in three different years - though they all intersect at some point.  The first character is Grace, a therapist in Montreal in 1996.  She is skiing on the mountain and comes across the victim of a failed suicide attempt, Tug.  She calls 911, saves his life and eventually they enter into a relationship though he is never completely healed.  Only one chapter is from Tug's perspective - in Rwanda in 1994 - allowing us to gain insight into his psychological pain.

The second major character is Anne.  We meet her as a troubled teenager in 1996 when she is Grace's patient.  However her chapters take place primarily in 2002 in NY and LA.  She is a struggling actress constantly on the run from the pain in her past (which brought her to Grace in the first place).  Her life is strange - she takes in two homeless runaways, flirts with lesbianism, succeeds then fails in television and we never find out for sure if she reconnects with her family.

The third character is Grace's ex-husband, Mitch.  His chapters are the most current - they take place in Iqaluit and Montreal in 2006.  He is also a therapist who has been in a dissatisfying relationship with a woman and her autistic son so travels to Iqaluit to escape.  While there, his girlfriend finds someone else and he is haunted by a patient who he is unable to reach.  He returns to Montreal and happens upon Grace who has just been in a car accident and we discover now has a 10 year old daughter.  He works his way into their lives by helping her with household chores as she recovers from her accident.  The state of their relationship at the very end is not really resolved - which feels very realistic.

I loved the writing of this book - though the jumping back and forth in time and perspective could be confusing, it flows masterfully.  It also keeps you interested, you are both anxious to see how some early matters resolve and curious about how present circumstances arose so happy to go back in time to have the blanks filled in.  It's a pleasure to spend time with such well developed and very human characters.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I found the first person point of view a bit tedious at times - though perhaps that was by design.  Nora, "The Woman Upstairs" describes herself as the unmarried, childless, 40 something school teacher who everybody likes but nobody really notices.  As a young woman she dreamed of being an artist but based in part on her mother's advice never to become dependent she takes the more practical route of becoming a third grade teacher.  She first goes to art school, become engaged but breaks the engagement and nurses her mother through Lou Gehrig's disease.  Now she lives on her own, teaches school, visits her aging father and spinster aunt and has occasional meetings with her lesbian best friend and her family.  That is until she meets the Shahids - her student Reza, his mother, Sirena and his father Skandar.  They are in Boston temporarily as Skandar is lecturing at Harvard.  Nora befriends and eventually worships Sirena who is of Italian extraction but worked in the Paris art world until her posting to Boston.  Together they rent a studio and Sirena tries to draw Nora back into art while getting her assistance on her own project - the creation of a life size Wonderland (of Alice fame).  Nora falls in love with Sirena - so babysits for Reza, does her menial labour and hangs on her every bit of praise.  She is also envious of her as she falls for both Reza and Skandar too even having a brief physical encounter with Skandar.  Nora always questions whether she means as much to the Shahids as they do to her, especially after they leave Boston and only have infrequent e-mail conversations (though Nora does get Google alerts of their every move).  Five years later she visits them in Paris only to discover that Sirena used her in her art installation in a very personal and humiliating way - thus realizing that she meant very little to the family after all.  So Nora returns to being the woman upstairs.

I didn't love the book, parts were slow and Nora's naiveté was frustrating - but it wasn't terrible either.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Long Weekend Reads

The Best of Us by Sarah Pekkanen

I was drawn to this book as the author was described as similar in style to Jennifer Weiner.  While I enjoyed the book, as far as easy weekend read go, I would not say the author's intelligent humour or character development was on par with Weiner's.  In this book 4 old friends from college travel to Jamaica to celebrate one of their birthdays.  The "birthday boy" was clearly the loveable nerd in college who had befriended the three women.  His wife plans the elaborate party to show off his wealth (and hers) but her party is almost ruined for her by the illness of her severely handicapped sister, whose handicap she has minimized for her husband.  The three women are interesting - one is the overwrought  mother of four young children who is accompanied by her caveman of a husband who she is still in love with despite her extreme stress.  The second is struggling with recently learning she may have inherited a fatal disease from her birth father (she's adopted).  She keeps it secret except from the birthday boy who reveals he was in love with her in college - bringing them closer together, but when she is almost swept away by a hurricane she realizes how much her easy going husband does care about her.  The last member of the group is about to be divorced from her doctor husband who left her for the proverbial younger nurse.  She is there to prove she is still young enough to attract even younger men - when her husband phones begging for another chance.  She sets what she believes is an impossible demand for him to come to Jamaica the next day - which he does.  Thus the four couples end up weathering a hurricane in a boarded up house on the coast - and learning about themselves and each other in the process.

Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg

This easy to read novel centres on Cecilia (or Cece) who is a single, motivational speaker dissatisfied with her own life after her best friend dies of cancer.  At the urging of her widowed mother, who is embarking on a new relationship of her own, she sells her house and moves into a rental home with three other women - Lise, the home's owner who is a divorced doctor constantly at odds with her 20 year old daughter; Joni, a sous chef who struggles under the thumb of a mean-spirited boss and Renie, a lesbian who admits (early on but still a spoiler alert) that she gave up a baby as a teenager.  The four women quickly bond and decide to go on a road trip to confront their pasts - Cece to reunite with an old flame who has been living in the south Pacific; Lise to meet up with her ex-husband to try to figure out what to do about their daughter; and Renie to find the baby (now young woman) who she gave up for adoption.  (Joni and the big dog are just along for the ride).  While not a lot happens, it's interesting to see how the women bond and how much Cece learns about her life once she takes a break from giving everybody else advice.

Family Pictures by Jane Green

Sylvie lives in California with her daughter and her second husband (her first died) to whom she seems happily married though her husband travels to New York for half of every month.  Maggie lives in Connecticut on the outskirts of New York City with her three children and her handsome, and rich husband, who spends half his time travelling.  Sylvie was raised by an abusive French mother who has been injured in a car accident which makes her even less pleasant.  She plants seeds of doubt in Sylvie about the state of her marriage - which Sylvie works hard to ignore.  She is unable, however, to ignore the mounting evidence of her daughter's eating disorder (which may also have been fuelled by her grandmother's insensitive comments about her weight).  In an effort to please her daughter, Sylvie allows her to travel to New York with a friend, without telling her stepfather who would not approve.  There she befriends Maggie's daughter and when she visits her house in Connecticut a terrible secret is revealed.  I won't spoil the book by telling the secret here though it is fairly easy to guess early on.  The remainder of the book deals with the fallout for Sylvie, Maggie and their families.  I read this in one day - it's by no means great literature but it's an entertaining read.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The latest novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout was an interesting read.  What I particularly liked was how it kept switching points of view - from the two Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, to Jim's wife, Bob's ex-wife, the Burgess sister...

The Burgess's were a small town Vermont family.  Jim and Bob both became lawyers and "escaped" to New York though Jim was a high profile criminal trial lawyer while Bob did appeal work for the underprivileged.  Jim made a name for himself successfully defending a famous musician (who was likely guilty) and married a wealthy Connecticut woman.  They had three children who have now moved on to college.  Bob could not take the stress of trial work so moved to appeals and was unable to make his marriage or subsequent relationships work so lives on his own in an apartment his brother refers to as a dormitory.  Both brothers are forced back to their home town when their nephew, the only child of their divorced sister, is accused of tossing a pig's head into a local mosque.

The story focuses on how the brothers deal with their return home, and their relationship with their sister.  But it's really overshadowed by the story of their father's death when they were young children.  Bob has always blamed himself for what happened but Jim makes a startling confession which makes him question how he's viewed himself for his whole life.  By the end, the brothers appear to have switched roles in the family - Bob is now the more stable, in control brother.

I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the Burgess family dynamic.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

The style of this book was a little different, but once I got started I couldn't put it down.  Bernadette is a former architect from LA who is now a wife and mother living in Seattle.  She hates Seattle and its natives so much that she has become virtually housebound - hiring a virtual assistant in India to carry out the most mundane tasks.  She becomes overwhelmed when she agrees to take a trip to Antarctica with her family to celebrate her daughter's perfect grades.  Planning the trip through her virtual assistant, as well as a dispute with a neighbour over her decrepit house's impact on the adjoining property, causes her to flee, leaving her 14 year old daughter to piece together where she's gone.  She does this based on an envelope, sent to her anonymously, containing e-mails and other correspondence between her parents, the virtual assistant, the neighbour and others.  Through these materials she also learns pieces of her mother's history that had not previously been shared with her - such as why the family left LA.  Much of the book consists of this correspondence - together with Bee's (the daughter) commentary on them and events surrounding them.  I was sucked in quickly and as anxious as Bee to figure it all out.  An easy and engaging read.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

419 by Will Ferguson

Yet another book deserving of the Giller Prize, in my opinion.  Ferguson expertly brings together several seemingly unrelated stories to illustrate the dangers of fraudulent internet scams and the havoc they can bring to both the victims and the minor players in the schemes.

The four main stories at the start are about Laura Curtis, a Calgary based editor whose father has died in a horrific car crash.  With the intervention of the police and the life insurance company, she slowly accepts that her father committed suicide after falling victim to a Nigerian internet fraud.  The title, 419, is the short form for these frauds, apparently based on the section of the Nigerian criminal legislation that prohibits them (with little effect).  Laura launches her own plan to find the perpetrators of the fraud and exact revenge - becoming quite ruthless in her own right.

We also hear the story of Winston, the original perpetrator of the fraud.  He's a small time petty thief, desperate to earn sufficient money to escape Nigeria.  But his life is complicated when he becomes successful at his swindling and is "taken under the wing" of a sickly, but deadly, organized crime boss.

Throughout the book, the narrative returns to two other stories in Nigeria; that of a pregnant Muslim woman who is walking through the desert to escape something (we never discover exactly what but likely the consequences that would befall her as a result of her pregnancy) and that of Nnamdi, a boy/young man from a small Delta fishing village whose livelihood is destroyed by the rapid growth of Nigeria's fledgling oil industry.  He starts out as a naive boy who learns from the foreign oil workers but becomes disillusioned as he sees his traditional way of life destroyed and he tries to re-invent himself as a mechanic.  But it his concern for the pregnant Muslim woman who crosses his path that is his ultimate undoing.

The book is clearly well researched - addressing the complexities of Nigeria's clans, colonial past, religious differences and abject poverty despite its rich natural resources.  It also paints a chilling picture of the Nigerian internet scheme that we've all sort of heard about but do not know a lot about.  At times it reads as a real thriller and it's hard to put down as you try to figure out how the different stories will intersect and ultimately be resolved.

The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev

This was an incredibly dense book which makes it very hard for me to review - I reserve the right to add to this post once I've partaken in my book club discussion about it.  I did enjoy the book - I just found I could only read it in small doses since it was so heavy - it took me much longer to finish than books this size normally do.

The story is set in a small rural village prior to the creation of the State of Israel.  The community consists of eastern European immigrants intent on farming the harsh land.  It is told from the perspective of Baruch, the grandson of one of the original settlers.  Baruch himself is an odd man.  Orphaned as a child, he is raised by his grandfather and his best friends are the old men who surround his grandfather. After his grandfather's death, in accordance with his dying wishes, he buries him in his own farmland thus starting a lucrative cemetery reserved for immigrants of the same era as his grandfather (even if they later abandoned the land for "greener pastures" in the US and only return on death - for a large fee).  Baruch slowly tells us the story of his grandparents, their friends, his parents, aunts and uncles as well as other descendants of the original settlers who comprise the village.  The tales are woven so complexly that it took me many chapters to figure out one of the characters was a mule not a person - I'm not sure if this was a deliberate creation of the author or I just missed something.

Through the lives of these few settlers, Shalev clearly demonstrates the optimism of Eastern European immigrants to what is now Israel, their disillusionment in the face of enormous obstacles and the changes to Israel that have resulted.

I recommend this book but warn that it requires enormous concentration.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Continental Drift by Russell Banks

A gripping read, but terribly depressing!  It's really a tale of the "American Dream" gone horribly awry.  Set in the late 70s-early 80s, Bob Dubois is a working class man in small town New Hampshire.  He lives in the town he was raised, has only been away while in the service, married to his first girlfriend, has two young daughters, a girlfriend on the side, and barely scrapes by fixing heaters for a living.  One Christmas, when he can't afford new skates for his daughter, he has a breakdown as he decides his life is going nowhere.  So the family sells everything and he follows his fast talking brother, Eddie, to Florida on the promise of getting a cut of his brother's growing liquor store business.  But Eddie is, not surprisingly, big on promises but short on delivery.  Bob is not given a partnership, lives in a trailer with his family and slaves away as his brother's employee.  He gets himself in trouble when he falls for and has an affair with a black woman (the first he's ever really talked to given his sheltered upbringing), shoots at two men robbing the store and his wife gives birth to a son.  He can't cope with the aftermath of the shooting (particularly the changes it has brought about in his personality) so he quits his job and follows another dreamer, his old friend Ave, down to the Florida Keys.  Here he's promised a cut of a fishing charter business.  So he sells his trailer to buy into the fishing boat and the family rents a ramshackle smaller trailer.  The fishing business turns out to be a front for Ave's drug smuggling business.

Interwoven with this story is the story of poor Haitians trying to make their way to the US and the troubles they face when first dumped in Turks and Caicos and then the Bahamas.  It takes until nearly the end of the book to see how the two stories tragically join up.

I won't give away the end except to say Eddie's debts catch up with him, Ave's drug smuggling ends no better, the Haitians don't really find the lives they are seeking and it all breaks Bob's spirits - and worse.

Really a good book but not a light vacation read.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Shlepping the Exile by Michael Wex

Another book I only finished because it was on my book club reading list.  We chose it because we all enjoyed his other novel, Frumkiss Family Business, which was light and funny but an easy read.  This book had some of the same humour so parts were entertaining, but it was much harder to follow.  First of all, a lot of it consisted of Yiddish expressions and dialogue - some of it was explained either within the text or in a glossary but not all of it.  So I couldn't understand all of the language - and even when it was translated, it broke up the flow to have to read the Yiddish and then the translation.  A Yiddish speaker may enjoy the book better.  But even once I got past the language barrier, I found the book confusing - it jumped around a lot and it was often hard to follow the author's train of thought.  The premise was a good one - it's written from the perspective of the only Orthodox Jewish boy living in a small town in Alberta shortly after the Second World War.  We see his views of his parents - his father a devout man but otherwise a bit of a loser, his mother seemingly lost in her own world - his friends, another Jewish boy a little older than him who introduces him to girls and porn and the son of the Chinese restaurant owner, one of the other few minorities in the largely Ukrainian town, and the other members of the town's Jewish and non-Jewish communities.  His observations are witty and his mixed feelings on the sudden death of his father are sympathetic, but overall I found the book too confusing to be a good entertaining read.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

I went into this book a bit skeptical because Oprah has spent so much time touting it.  But I really enjoyed it.  The book is a collection of interrelated stories about Hattie, a relatively poor young Southern black girl who has moved to Philadelphia with her mother and two sisters.  She gets pregnant at 17 by August, the first "respectable" boy who shows an interest in her.  The first pregnancy results in twins who die from pneumonia as infants, but Hattie and August go on to have 9 other children.  Each story revolves around the life of one of the children.  It is clear from the lives of all the surviving children that Hattie never fully recovered from the deaths of her first borns and it plays out in the relationship she has with them.  She's fiercely protective and will do anything to ensure their survival - even suffering the indignities of welfare payments while August wastes away their money on booze and loose women.  But she is unable to show them any real affection, especially after they are infants.  August, for all his wandering ways, is far more loving.  But the directions her children take are interesting - Floyd, a jazz musician and closet homosexual, leaves home at a young age to chase his musical dreams; Six, who is scarred both physically and mentally from a childhood accident leaves home at 15 to return to the South and be a preacher; Ruthie, who is probably not August's child but who he treats as well as his own when he realizes he can't really cope without Hattie; Ella, the youngest, who Hattie reluctantly gives to her wealthy but barren younger sister, for the child's own good; Alice, who marries a wealthy doctor in order to protect her brother Billups who was abused as a child while she was locked in the next room, and Billups who does not want her protection and takes up with her maid; Franklin who fights in Vietnam; Bell, who betrays her mother and becomes estranged for decades - only to be reunited when Bell is at her lowest point; and finally Cassie and her daughter Sala.  Cassie suffers from mental illness and, in an effort to save her, Hattie and August have her committed and are left to care for the next generation, this time wiser and more committed to each other.

The book is well written and the characters, though very flawed, are likeable.  A worthwhile read (even if it means I'm agreeing with Oprah).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Two Quick Weekend Reads

My last few books have been quite dense so for the weekend I thought I'd take on two easy reads.  The first was Those We Love Most by Lee Woodruff.  It's sad in part but mostly the story of family relationships and how they deal with tragedy and can be ultimately strengthened by it.  The main characters are 65 year old Roger and his wife of many years, Margaret, and their eldest daughter, Maura, and her husband, Pete.  Both couples are restless, Roger is a long time philanderer, and Maura, who has always been most like her father, seems destined to follow in his shoes.  But tragedy hits one of Maura's children and though grief threatens to tear her further apart from her husband (it doesn't help that he turns to drinking to dull the pain) eventually guilt and the memory of why she got married in the first place brings her back to him.  The tragedy also causes Roger to reconsider his choices, though not before an ill-timed health problem brings his secrets crashing down around him.  Not a fantastic book but a reasonably interesting look at relationships.

The second book was How I Came to Sparkle Again by Kaya McLaren.  This is pretty standard chick lit.  Sparkle is a small ski town in Colorado.  Jill Anthony grew up there with her eccentric Uncle Howard who rescued her from her sermonizing Mormon parents.  When her marriage blows up in her face she returns there to heal - and of course finds love, with both a widowed man and his daughter - the child she thought she'd never have.  While there she reconnects with her best friend, Lisa, who has treated her body like the "Holiday Inn" and wakes up disgusted one morning and decides she wants more.  She of course finds it with the unlikely ski bum who lives next door and has been interested in her since high school though seems to have slept with every other girl in town first.  Again, not a fantastic book but it's a fast read so not a big time investment - and it's nice to have a happy (though predictable) ending every now and then.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Though the story is horrifying, this is one of the best books I've read in a long time.  The author was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in her native Cambodia.  Though she and her mother survived, most of her immediate and extended family did not.  Because her memory of events over the next 4 years was imperfect, she decided to tell her family's story in the form of a novel.  Apparently she took liberty with the timing of some events, and joined many family members into composites for purposes of the novel, but otherwise stayed true to her recollection of what happened.

The novel is told from the perspective of seven year old Raami, a survivor of polio who walks with a limp and looks enviously at her mother and toddler sister, with their perfect bodies.  Before the war breaks out, Raami is the descendent of royalty, calling her grandmother, "Grandmother Queen".  She lives in a large villa, surrounded by gardens, decorated with murals, and kept running by a small army of servants.  She is doted upon by her father, a renowned poet and worships her more elusive mother, who was a "commoner" before marrying into the family.

Everything changes abruptly when the Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh and order the family, as well as all other city dwellers to leave their homes.  The family, and an aunt, grabs what it can, says farewell to its beloved servants, and sets out in the family car to their country house where they meet up with an uncle and his family as well as Grandmother Queen.  Eventually they are driven from there, forced to abandon their car and take to the forests, being driven further and further into the wilderness.

The first stop is an abandoned Buddhist monastery, where at least the family is together, though they are beginning to suffer from hunger.  The rebels seek constantly to remove the elite from the group and Raami's father, because he is widely recognized, gives himself up in an effort to save the rest of the family.  He lies and says the others are all his wife's family, the descendants of farmers.  He's taken away in an ox cart and Raami never sees him again - but not before he tells her he's doing what he does to give her wings and that she'll always be able to see him on the face of the moon.  These promises as well as the words of the poems and stories he's always told her, carry her through the traumas of the next few years, though her father's departure almost destroys her mother.

The next stop is being "reeducated" in the home of peasants (after Raami, her mother and sister are separated from the others).  Though poor the elderly, childless peasants are loving and kind.  The husband teaches Raami many survival skills that help her later.  But tragedy strikes Raami's sister, further diminishing her mother before they are again driven away.  In a forest again with other people being forced to keep moving, they meet up with Raami's uncle and grandmother - the only members of the extended family they ever see again.  They are driven to a new community which is run by a more moderate member of the Khmer Rouge and settle into somewhat of a routine, the adults working and Raami attending a form of school.  But just when things seem bearable a new guard takes over creating more stringent rules, breaking up the family further and nearly starving everyone to death.

Eventually the Vietnamese army drives away the Khmer Rouge and Raami and her mother escape to Thailand (following a map left by her father prior to his departure) and are swept to safety in a UN helicopter.

A very powerful and beautifully written novel - Ratner's language is so vivid you can see Cambodia crumble right before your eyes, all the time marvelling at the inner strength and love that sustain Raami.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Marjorie Morningstar

This is an old novel (1955) by Herman Wouk.  I picked it up as it was recommended in The End of Your Life Book Club - as one of their all time favourite novels.  It was long which was a bit daunting but it's definitely withstood the test of time.  It tells the story of five years in the life of Marjorie Morgenstern (stage name, Morningstar) starting from when she was 17; though the last chapter tells us where she is at 15 years later.
Marjorie was the daughter of immigrant Jewish parents living in New York who are trying desperately to create a glamourous life for their daughter notwithstanding the depression.  For a short time she lives on Central Park West but her father's business cannot maintain that lifestyle when times get really tough and the family must move further into the West Side.  Her parents also want her to be educated but cannot afford an Ivy League college so she is a day student and Hunter College for women.  But she aspires for more and hangs out first with Columbia students and eventually an arsty crowd as she's sure she's destined for a career on Broadway.
Her parents are protective of her but an eccentric friends gets her a job as a drama counsellor at a summer camp where she sneaks across the lake to an adult resort and meets the man who becomes the love of her life, Noel Airman.  Noel, really Saul Ehrmann, is more than 10 years older than her, a drifter and probably bipolar, the black sheep of his high class German Jewish family.  He wants to be a songwriter, and stage a Broadway musical, and Marjorie believes in him.  But he doesn't really have as much talent as he thinks and he certainly doesn't have the drive to stick with a job though given opportunities both in the movie business and the advertising business.
The book essentially follows Marjorie and Noel's on-again, off-again romance over the next five years - as she subconsciously hopes to "tame" him and make him her husband and he fights falling into that convention, abandoning her more than once when he thinks he's close to capitulating.  In the end she follows him to Paris - and succeeds in extracting a proposal but responds in a surprising way.
There are also interesting side stories showing Marjorie's relationship with her parents, her large extended family (the Uncle, Samson-Aaron, was one of my favourite characters), her sometimes supportive, other times lying and scheming friend, Marsha Zelenko, Noel's young assistant, Wally, who moons over her for years, if not decades, and another somewhat crazy man she befriends crossing the ocean to Paris, Michael Eden, who is working undercover to rescue Jews from Nazi Germany and whose fate is never revealed).
Though there is not a lot of action, the character development make this book a fascinating, though lengthy, read.  I recommend it for those with the time and the patience.