Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Best Place on Earth

This is a collection of short stories by an Israeli/Canadian writer.  I wouldn't say the stories are the best I've ever read, but they were reasonably entertaining.  They all focus on Israelis of Middle Eastern descent (rather than Eastern European).  Some are set in Israel, others in Canada and one in India; most deal with young people on their way into the army, in the army or just finished the army.  They give perspective on war, poverty, love, and family issues.  The title story comes from a saying found on one version of the British Columbia license plate - though it is clearly used with irony by this author, and her characters, who are strongly tied to Israel.

Like with most short stories, the characters are not as well developed as I would like, and the plots are unidimensional.  But this is an easy read and I was entertained by it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Though it sounds like it will be dark, this book had me laughing out loud.  It was the funniest writing I've read in a long time.  The story is told from the perspective of Judd Foxman whose father has just died and is told that his father's dying wish was to have his wife and four children sit shiva together for the whole 7 days.  So Judd returns home to be with his mother, sister, two brothers and their assorted partners and children.  But he returns home humiliated as his wife has just left him after he's found her in bed with his radio-shock-jock boss.  Apparently they've been having an affair for over a year but he's failed to see the signs.  And to top it all off, as he's packing his car to go to the shiva, his ex, Jen, stuns him with the news that she is pregnant.

We follow Judd to his childhood home where he meets up with his mother - a psychiatrist who has written a best selling book about child rearing, that mentions her children by name, to their humiliation as children and now; his sister Wendy, her three children and her self-absorbed hedge fund husband; his brother Paul who is now married to Judd's first girlfriend and the baby in the family, Phillip who has been a free spirited drug dealer and shows up with a woman 20 years older than him who used to be his life coach.

The interactions between family members who have spent little time together in recent years are funny and sad, but so realistic.  The bit players who wander through the shiva are equally entertaining.  I don't want to give away any of the surprises because this book is really worth reading on your own.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Guts

I always have mixed feelings about Roddy Doyle's books, and this one was no exception.  He can be very funny but his topics are really dark.  It also takes a little while to get into the rhythm of the Irish accent, but once you do the language flows effortlessly.  This book was a sequel to one of his earliest novels, The Commitments, which I had not read.  It could still understand the book, but I can't say whether I would have enjoyed it more if I'd been more familiar with the characters.

The book centred on Jimmy Rabbitte, a 47 year old married man with 4 children who is diagnosed with bowel cancer and thinks he may be dying.  He had been the member of a band in his youth (the Commitments, of the earlier book) and now he works at finding old bands then finding the people who used to love them and getting them to buy their resurrected songs.  His business had been successful for a time but is dwindling.  So he has his son's band pretend to be an old band and create a "long lost" song recording.  The band then, mistaken for a Bulgarian band on youtube does a cover of the song that "sounds remarkably like the original".

So the book swings between the humour of the fake band making fake music and the depressing scenes about Jimmy's surgery and chemotherapy - and the debilitating side effects.  In chemo he meets up with a former band member who is even worse off; feeling vulnerable he also has an affair with the former lead singer of his band.  The book ends at a Woodstock like music festival where Jimmy camps out with his long lost brother, the band member dying of cancer and another loser middle aged man who is teaching him to play the trumpet.  They all watch Jimmy's son perform - and Jimmy can't help but reveal the truth about what he is.

The various relationships Jimmy has - with his wife, his children, his father, his boss and his old friends are really what holds the book together.  It's a good read, but not a fantastic one.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This book was far too weird for my liking.  I kept at it because I thought the main storyline was interesting but it was interspersed with Zen practices and beliefs which I found distracting though I was able to skim over them for the most part.  There was also some magical realism which I just didn't buy, or maybe didn't get - pages disappearing then reappearing and strange things like that.

The basic story was about Ruth, who lives on a small island off Vancouver Island.  She is a writer suffering from writer's block who has moved there from Manhattan to follow the man she loves who is also quite weird.  I was never quite sure if he was an environmental activist or what he was - he also suffered from some undefined illness that I never really understood.  Walking along the beach Ruth finds a freezer bag filled with a diary written mostly in English, a notebook which appears to be another diary written in French, some Japanese letters and a man's watch engraved in Japanese.  She, and others on the island, speculate this is something swept away by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that travelled the ocean and ended up here.  Though they are never quite sure the timing is right.

The English diary is that of Nao, a teenaged girl who was born in the US but moved back to Tokyo with her parents when her father's job in Silicone Valley disappears, together with his savings, after the dot.com bubble bursts.  Nao is bullied at school, must face the repeated suicide attempts of her father and is generally miserable living in relative poverty after a very middle class life in the US.  When her mother gets a job and her father is trying to get help for his depression she is sent to spend the summer with her 104 year old great grandmother who is a buddhist nun living in a small, secluded community.  Her great grandmother senses her misery and tries to give her coping mechanisms which she calls super powers.  After leaving her summer feeling stronger, though not strong enough to return to school, she spends her days trying to tell the story of her great grandmother's life though it is really more her own story.  There are also several asides that are quite interesting about her great uncle who was a kamikaze fighter who lost his life in WWII.  The French diary, Japanese letter and watch belonged to him.

Ruth tries hard to find Nao and her family and discover first whether they really existed and then what happened to them in the wake of the tsunami.  She enlists others to help translate the Japanese and French (though she is Japanese herself, her command of formal language is not perfect) so we meet some local characters too.

There were also distracting segments about the fate of her cat and a crow that appeared to be from Japan.

All in all, though there were some interesting stories and characters, the book was just a bit too hard to figure out for me to find it enjoyable.