Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Lawgiver by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk certainly deserves the praise he's received over the years - calling him a legendary author is no exaggeration.  This is particularly true when you take into account that his latest novel was penned at age 97 - and it all takes the form of e-mails, text messages, meeting and Skype transcripts, letters and diary entries.

Apparently Wouk has wanted to write about Moses for more than 50 years - and he picks a really interesting way to tackle it.  The story centres on an elderly, wealthy, Australian Jew, Mr. Gluck, who jets around the world on his private plane following his investments.  One of his investment partners, Hezzie Jacobs, is about to lose a fortune unless the movie studio he has invested in, WarshaWorks, can be saved.  Gluck agrees to save it only if the studio produces a movie about Moses - and the script must be approved by Herman Wouk, who, together with his wife Betty Sarah, are characters in the novel.

The studio turns to a relatively unknown writer-director, Margo Solvei, to write the script, subject to Wouk's approval.  Margo is the daughter of a Hassidic Rabbi, estranged from her father since she left her religious life.  The main thread of the story is about Margo.  We follow her writing efforts as she struggles with her mentor, Wouk and the studio; her attempts to enlist an unknown Australian sheep farmer turned part-time actor to portray Moses; her budding pen pal relationship with a woman she's never met in person but with whom she shares intimate details of her life; her letters to her brother and former classmates and, especially, her renewed love life with her former boyfriend Josh.

There are admittedly parts of the book which I didn't think needed to be there - a lot of correspondence relating to a legal dispute between geneticists about the patent for turning algae into fuel.  As far as I could tell they were only there to facilitate Margo and Josh being in Australia at the same time - if they added more, I missed it.

But generally Wouk's insights into people and his character development are fantastic.  His use of Yiddish expressions and biblical references are fabulous.  It's really a shame his wife did not live to see this book published - his love and respect for her are evident in every passage she's in.

The characters in this book frequently wish each other the Yiddish blessing of living until 120.  If Wouk does, he's got at least a few more good writing years ahead of him!

Saturday, September 21, 2013


This is another fantastic novel by the Nigerian-American author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  She follows the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, from the time they fall in love as teenagers, through to their difficult reunion as adults.

Ifemelu grows up relatively poor, the daughter of an educated man who speaks formal English but gets laid off for refusing to call his boss, "Mummy" and a fanatically religious mother.  Obinze is slightly better off, being raised by his widowed mother who is a professor.  Obinze obsesses about immigrating to the United States but it is Ifemelu who moves there for University - joining her aunt and cousin who are also fascinating characters.  Obinze hopes to follow but post-911 restrictions mean he is unable to obtain a visa so instead moves to London where he lives and works illegally until he is deported moments before entering into a sham marriage.

Ifemelu nearly starves trying to put herself through college and unable to get a job.  In desperation she accepts money in exchange for sexual favours, once.  She is so humiliated she cuts off all contact with Obinze - who is hurt and puzzled but never angry.

Ifemelu's life turns around when she gets a job as a babysitter for a white family, falls for one of their relatives who helps her get a job and a green card.  She lives happily for some time but then, disaffected she sabotages the relationship and quits her job.  But finds success as an anonymous blogger making insightful observations as a non-American black on being black in America.  She then enters a relationship with a black Yale professor but never quite fits in with his left leaning academic crowd (though they do bond over Obama's election campaign).

After this she decides to give up her blog and her relationship to return to Nigeria.  There she is reunited with Obinze who is married with a young child and must figure out what to do now that the love of his life has returned.  We are left in doubt, but with hope, about how things will work out.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

I had read this book a few years ago, but picked it up again because it's on my book club reading list.  Though I remembered some of the story, it was interesting enough to keep my attention a second time around.  This is the first novel by a former lawyer and she writes very well.  She tells the story of Hannah, a midwife in sixteenth century Venice who gets herself into trouble when she is beckoned to save the life of a non-Jewish noble woman who is suffering from a difficult labour.  She manages to bring the child into the world safely, but this puts her in danger of the jealous brothers of the baby's father who stand to lose a significant portion of their inheritance with the arrival of a new male heir.  We see the former "ghetto mouse" fight off the brothers, the plague and other dangers - sometimes with the assistance of her sister, a courtesan who has converted to Christianity.

At the same time we are told the parallel story of Hannah's husband Isaac who was captured at sea and sold into slavery in Malta.  He survives by his wits alone - and Hannah delivers the baby to earn the money for his ransom.

Some of the encounters are rather fantastical, as is the happy ending, but this is still a well written, entertaining story.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Vacation Reads

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand

I always like to read one of Hilderbrand's books on summer vacation.  This wasn't really one of her best in my view.  The book deals with the wedding of Jenna - she plans it all based on a notebook left by her deceased mother who wrote out plans for the wedding when she realized she would not live to see the day.
We learn about the wedding from many perspectives, Jenna, her sister Margot, her father Doug and his new wife, her fiance Stuart and his parents as well as various friends.  There are the usual liaisons and relationships, misunderstandings and reconciliations.  All of it is frankly a bit morbid as it alternates with excerpts from the dead mother's notebook.  But the book was, as always, an easy vacation read.

Under the Afghan Sky by Mellissa Fung

This is a memoir by the Canadian journalist who was kidnapped by thugs in Afghanistan and held in a hole for about a month.  The story includes various letters she wrote to friends and family while in captivity as well as letters written to her by her journalist boyfriend.  The story is horrifying but Fung's courage, faith and even humour carried her through.  It was interesting to hear how she developed a sort of friendship with one of her captors - to the point where he suggested exchanging e-mail addresses to keep in touch.  This read more like a long magazine article than a book but it was well written and I recommend it.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

This is a very interesting story of a Polish couple and their child who were separated during World War II when the husband went off to fight the war, lost his division before he even trained then escaped through the underground network to France and eventually England where he fought with the RAF.  Meanwhile, his wife was forced to flee her apartment when a Nazi officer took advantage of her and survived with her son in the forest until she was found by her husband in a displaced person's camp.  They reunite in England and you can tell early on that both husband and wife harbour terrible secrets from their time apart.  The past is slowly revealed as the chapters alternate between present day England and the War.  Once the secrets come to light the family is finally given the chance to properly heal.  This is not the best written book but it is an interesting story and an easy read despite the difficult subject matter.