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.