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.