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.