Monday, May 26, 2014

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

I suppose it's not surprising that a book about depression and suicide is a depressing read.  But, as usual, Toews writes well so I wanted to read to the end despite the topic.

The book is written from the perspective of Yoli, the younger sister of an unconventional Mennonite family from small town Manitoba.  As an adult, Yoli is trying desperately to keep her older sister, Elf, from killing herself after several unsuccessful suicide attempts.  Superficially, Elf appears to be the better adjusted - she is a world renowned pianist, involved in a stable relationship with a supportive man.  Yoli has been divorced twice and has one child from each of the men.  She is also a semi-successful writer of teen rodeo novels who is struggling to finish her first "serious" book.

The girls both struggled in the confines of their restrictive Mennonite community and were often condemned by the town elders.  Their father also suffered and eventually took his own life.  My favourite character was the girls' mother.  She is strong and adaptable despite losing her husband and many siblings and having to face her daughter's mental illness.

This is in the end a story of struggling through life, and mental illness, and trying to figure out how to move on after tragedy.  It's also a study in the influence of family relationships and history on one's own life.  It's equal parts uplifting and depressing, but in all I really enjoyed it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Two very different books...

The last two books I read were polar opposites - but each enjoyable in its own way.

In Paradise by Peter Matthiesen

This novel is about Clements Olin, an American professor of Polish descent who specializes in Holocaust studies.  He joins a diverse group of people for a one week retreat at Auschwitz Birkenau which is intended to "bear witness".  Initially he is unsure what he can offer to the group, but he is interested in exploring the mysterious past of his mother who was left behind in Poland while he was taken by his father and aristocratic grandparents to a new life in America.

The group at Auschwitz, led by a Buddhist is diverse - it includes survivors, descendants of survivors, Germans and Poles who are trying to understand how their people could have been part of such horrors, Christians and Jews, young and old.  There is a great deal of tension between the various factions and even amongst them.  Some are very angry - others have made an uneasy peace with what has happened.

Professor Olin is haunted by ghosts - including one of his mother, grandmother and aunt - who his family refused to talk about, ostensibly to save his father from the pain of losing her.  But as Olin digs into it he discovers his grandparents and even his father may not have been so innocent and almost certainly were aware of the fate they left her to when they took him away.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the strange relationship Olin develops with a novice nun.  One gets the impression he is afraid to bond with a woman who can actually commit to him.

Though grave, the books is not depressing and moves at a manageable pace.  I quite enjoyed it.

Boston Cream by Howard Shrier

This is a crime novel which is a genre I rarely read but it's on my book club list as the author is coming to speak to us.  Part of a series, the protagonist is Jonah Geller, a somewhat bumbling Jewish private investigator who is a disappointment to his high achieving parents.  In this case he is asked by an Orthodox Jewish man to locate his son, a promising doctor in Boston, who has mysteriously disappeared.  Geller heads off to Boston with his attractive, lesbian partner, and they are on the case together until she is also abducted.  Geller then brings in the "big guns", a recovering contract killer, to help solve the mystery of the doctor and get his partner released.

The story is entertaining, and not entirely predictable as some mysteries are.  The characters are amusing and likeable.  The book won't stay with me for long but it was a pleasant enough way to pass away an afternoon.