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.