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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

From the description I thought this book sounded fascinating, in fact the long-winded, descriptive prose left me bored.  It's written by a creative writing grad who served with the US army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and is a fictional account of the experiences of Private Bartle, a young soldier serving in Iraq at that time.  In training, at the request of his superior, Sterling, he takes a teenaged soldier, Private Murphy, under his wing and promises Murphy's mother he'll bring him home safely.  As Sterling wisely tells him, he made a mistake as there are no promises in war.  The book moves back and forth between what happened in training and then Iraq and the consequences for Bartle after the war.  It certainly is very colourful in its description of the horrors of war - even for the so-called lucky survivors.  But I just found the descriptions of place and mood went on for too long.  The story would have had more impact if it moved more quickly.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


A beautifully written novel by the Irish author, Colm Toibin.  His writing flows so smoothly it's a pleasure to read - and sucks you into the lives of his characters.  This book focuses on Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in small town Ireland in the early 1950s.  She's unable to find work at home except for a Sunday job with an elderly shopkeeper who mistreats and underpays her.  So she and her widowed mother rely on the salary of her sister, Rose who works in an office and the small amounts her three brothers are able to send from England where they've gone to seek work.  One day Eilis' luck changes when an Irish Priest now living in Brooklyn arranges for her to immigrate to the US - he finds her work in a shop and an Irish boarding house to live in.
Eilis has a difficult crossing and suffers from terrible homesickness but eventually succeeds at the shop and begins night school courses in bookkeeping.  She also falls in love with Tony, the son of Italian immigrants, and is welcomed into his warm, though different family.  When everything seems to finally be going well for Eilis she must return home due to a family tragedy.  At first she feels out of place and longs to return to Brooklyn and Tony.  But soon her relationship with her mother improves, she gets back together with old friends, finds temporary bookkeeping work and is pursued by a local boy who'd snubbed her before she left.  At the end she's left with deciding where to pursue her future.  I won't give it away - but I think she makes the right choice.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

In Other Rooms Other Wonders

This is a collection of interrelated short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin.  Set in Pakistan (except for one where the characters visit Paris), the stories all deal with an old wealthy landowner, his family members and their various servants.  We get insight into the relationships between the monied and the poor, the old and the young, men and women.  What they all have in common is terrible unhappiness.  While the language is vivid, describing both the characters and their surroundings, not a single story has an uplifting ending - though maybe that's more realistic.  I enjoyed reading this but it left me feeling down.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Bite of the Mango

This book, a memoir by Mariatu Kamara with an assist by the Canadian journalist, Susan McClelland, was one featured in The End of Your Life Book Club.  It tells the story of Kamara's childhood in Sierra Leone which was rudely interrupted by a rape by a local man then an attack by rebels who cut off her hands so she could not vote for the President (ironically, at the time she did not even know what a president was).  She somehow escaped alive and walked her way to a clinic days away on foot and then was transported to a hospital in the capital Freetown where she was operated on then nursed to health by extended family and a friend she made on the transport bus to the hospital - even though those people had nothing either.  She lived with the family (including 3 cousins who'd also had there hands cut off) in a refugee camp for amputees and their families surviving on the pittance she and her cousins earned by begging in town.  Her baby was born healthy but died of malnutrition at 10 months leading to her depression and guilt as she felt the baby was taken from her as she did not love him enough. She gets her spirit back when she joins a theatre troupe in the refugee camp and performs in plays about local issues (including the civil war and HIV/AIDS which thankfully she escaped).  Her story is reported on by a Canadian journalist causing a Toronto family to take interest in her and eventually bring her to Toronto where she joins another extended family from Sierra Leone, learns English and goes to high school.  She gets the idea of writing a book from McClelland who introduces her to Ishmael Beah, the former child soldier from Sierra Leone whose memoir became a best seller.  After visiting her country again with UNICEF representatives, and seeing the horrifying conditions her family still lives in, she decided the best way to help them is to make money and raise awareness by telling her story.  She even meets with the President - now that she knows what a President is.  An interesting story by a remarkably strong young girl.