Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

I picked up this book at the grocery store because the beautiful jacaranda tree on the cover caught my eye - in this case you could judge the book by the cover as the story was also beautifully written.  The author herself was born in Iran's Evin prison while her mother was imprisoned there in 1983.  She tells a fictional, but personally based, story of several children born to imprisoned mothers - as well as the stories of their parents, grandparents and adult selves.  Fortunately there is a guide to the characters at the start of the book as I had to refer to it constantly to remind myself of the relationships between the various players.

The action starts in 1983 in Evin Prison.  Azar is in labour, blindfolded, in the back of a prison van en route to a hospital to give birth.  Despite cruel treatment she eventually gives birth in a hospital with the help of a sympathetic doctor who is unable to convince the prison guards to let her internal tearing heal in the hospital.  So she is given her baby, Neda, and returned to the prison.  The new baby draws together the ragtag group of women, many of whom did not previously get along as they take turns holding the baby and making her clothing from their discarded head coverings.  After several weeks the baby is torn from Azar's arms and sent to be raised by her parents.

We next meet Leila in 1987.  She is raising three children belonging to her two sisters who are imprisoned in Evin.  One, Omid, was left sitting at the kitchen table while his parents were arrested.  The younger two girls were both born days apart, in separate cells, in the prison.  Leila and her parents have put their whole lives on hold to raise these children even though Leila would rather follow her first love and emigrate.  It is interesting to read how these and other children we meet get very attached to their grandmothers and aunts and are very traumatized when their mothers return to claim them.  And these are the lucky ones whose parents return.

We later meet Amir who is imprisoned in Evin from 1983-1988.  While there his wife, who is free, gives birth to Sheida.  He is given two opportunities to see the baby - once shortly after her birth and once when she is three years old - before he is hung as part of a huge prison purge near the end of the Iran-Iraq war.  The second time he has fashioned a bracelet of date pits for his daughter which he sneaks into her clothes.  However, Sheida is not told her father's true story until she reaches adulthood and only then does she see the bracelet that for many months kept her father's hopes alive.

Most of the rest of the book takes place in the 2000s where we see how life has treated these children of prisoners.  Some have emigrated, others are active in the more current Iranian demonstrations, but all are scarred.  The stories are so interesting to read, and the strength of character of all the different generations, is clear.

I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

I am hesitant to review this book as I finished it feeling maybe I didn't really understand it. For example, I just don't understand what symbolism lay behind the many strange cats that the first person narrator actually sees or maybe imagines (I was never really sure which though the narrator, Nouschka Tremblay was definitely one of the more sane characters). Her descriptive similes were clever but I couldn't figure out why they were there. I saw one review of the book which suggested these and other clever turns of phrase felt like the author trying too hard to show off her clever literary devices and I'd have to agree unless someone can explain a higher purpose.

O'Neill does tell an interesting story of a very dysfunctional family. Nineteen year old twins Nicolas and Nouschka are inseparable (they often still sleep in the same bed). It's not surprising since they were abandoned at birth by their teenaged mother. She had been seduced by their father a Québécois folk singer and her parents who were ashamed of this happening in their small town made her drop the babies off with their maternal grandparents. Their grandmother dies when they are five and they are left to be raised by their well meaning but bumbling grandfather Loulou. Their father, Etienne, uses them as cute children to boost his career and his separatist politics and they never really escape the shadow of this early fame even though they do not benefit from it since Etienne drinks away his money drifting from jail to halfway houses now.
Nicolas is obsessed with tracking down their mother and eventually does so but Nouschka is hurt by the tricky way in which he does so and tries to separate herself from her twin shortly after. She enrols in school to finish high school and marries a neighbour who is clearly schizophrenic and has also served time. Her efforts to escape are foiled when tragedy hits and she once again ends up in the arms of her family.
In all the story is interesting, paints a great picture of lower class French Canadians struggling in Montreal against the backdrop of separatism and of the harmful effects of early fame, teenaged pregnancy, petty crime and mental illness. But the literary devices are so obvious yet opaque that they actually detract from the narrative.

Monday, August 18, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I loved this book.  It is a World War II book, but with a completely different angle.  The book flips back and forth from 1934 to 1944 - with a few chapters at the end years later (which was very satisfying I might add - to see what happened in the long term).  It also changes perspectives, from that of Marie-Laure, a blind girl living with her father in an apartment in Paris, to Werner, an orphaned boy in a small coal mining town in Germany.

Marie-Laure's father is the master of thousands of locks at Paris' Museum of Natural History.  When his daughter loses her sight, he builds her a scale model of their neighbourhood in Paris, complete with every building, storm drain, and lamp post, so that she may learn her way around.  She also learns her way around the Museum and becomes very comfortable amongst its artifacts.  When the Nazis are about to invade Paris, Marie-Laure's father is entrusted with what may be a very valuable diamond from the museum's collection and he is asked to leave the city and keep it safe.  It only might be the diamond as the original and three replicas are spread throughout France and no one is told which is the real one.  They flee to live with Marie-Laure's great uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo in Brittany.  Etienne has not left the house in years as he is suffering from PTSD from the first world war, which also killed Marie-Laure's grandfather.

Meanwhile, Werner is a young dreamer who wants nothing more to escape the fate of all the boys in his town - to work in the mines that killed his father as soon as he turns 15.  He finds an old radio and takes it apart so he can put it back together again.  When it works he and his sister pull in broadcasts from all over the continent including science lessons intended for children that fascinate him.  Werner becomes well known for his skills in repairing radios, eventually repairing one for the town's most senior Nazi official who helps him get placed at a Nazi training school for boys.  Werner survives the experience by immersing himself in the science lab where he must design radio tracking devices for the war effort.  However, he is emotionally scarred and disillusioned, especially when his weaker bunkmate is beaten by the brutal children.  At 16 he is forced to join the war effort to track partisans, eventually finding himself in Saint Melo where he crosses paths with Marie-Laure and discovers the source of the radio broadcasts he so enjoyed in childhood.

I don't want to give too much away but we learn the fates of both Werner and Marie-Laure, as well as her father, his sister, Etienne and many friends and colleagues they meet along the way.  The humanity which survives in such inhumane times is fascinating.

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts

After slogging through the Goldfinch, I needed something easier to read, though not necessarily lighter.  This young adult novel was exactly the right remedy.

Zac and Mia are both 17 year old cancer patients, stuck for treatment on a an adult ward in Perth, Australia.  Outside the hospital they are total opposites - Zac is from a farm, happy in the outdoors and playing football.  Mia is a sociable, popular girl with cool friends and a boyfriend.  But in the hospital they come to depend on each other.

And once they get out they discover they need each other even more as they no longer feel normal or as if they belong.  They take turns pulling each other out of despair and we are left with a feeling of hope for their futures, even though, as Zac constantly points out, the odds are against them

I recommend this for a serious but easy read.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This was apparently one of the big books of the year for book clubs.  I really don't know what all the fuss was about.  I found it boring - it was too long, the main character was not likeable (as hard as I tried to sympathize with his tragic childhood), and though there was supposedly a lot of drama I didn't really feel I cared how it ended one way or the other.

When Theo Decker is 13 his mother is killed in a tragic explosion in a museum that he survives.  Before he gets out of the building he holds the hand of a dying elderly man who gives him a signet ring and tells him about a painting.  Theo makes off with both the painting and the ring.  He eventually returns the ring to its owner, Hobie, who turns out to be one of the best people in his life.

Because Theo's father cannot be found immediately he is taken in by the wealthy family of a friend, the Barbours.  Though the family is cold and somewhat dysfunctional, they are good to Theo until his father shows up and whisks him away to Las Vegas.  He wastes his teenage years in Las Vegas, befriending a shady Russian kid and numbing himself with alcohol and drugs.  Eventually he returns to New York where he lives with Hobie, learning his craft of antique restoration.  All this time he holds on to the valuable painting he stole, certain he will eventually be found.

In New York he gets into more trouble, gets involved with more shady characters and reconnects with the Barbours only to discover tragedy has also befallen them.  The rest of the book deals with the convoluted way in which the painting finally makes its way into the hands of its rightful owners and how Theo's life continues to spiral out of control.

I really don't recommend this unless you feel you have to keep up with what's on the best seller lists just for the sake of doing so.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

I can't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm so glad I did.  It really was a "delicious" read.   This is the first novel for the former cookbook author, food critic and editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the narrative revolved around food and the descriptions of recipes, meals and food shops were fabulous.

The novel starts with Billie Breslin who has just dropped out of university and moved to New York from her native Santa Barbara to take a job as an administrative assistant for the editor of the food magazine, Delicious.  Her real dream is to make it through her trial period and become a food writer.  We learn early on that Billie has a talent for identifying obscure flavours, creating recipes and cooking, but for reasons that are slowly revealed she has given up on cooking.

At first Billie is lonely and her main interaction is through e-mails to her sister, Genie.  There is clearly a rift between the sisters now but the reason for that is also only revealed over time.  Eventually Genie befriends others at the magazine, especially the cook Diana and the eccentric travel writer, Sammy.  She also impresses a local cheese merchant, Sal, so much that he hires her to work on weekends - the first person outside his family who has been given that honour.  There she becomes an honorary member of his family and meets the "Complainer", a frequent shopper who she also gets to know better as the book progresses.

When Billie is finally feeling settled, the magazine is closed by its parent for financial reasons and everyone is let go, except Billie who is retained to continue to honour the magazine's guarantee to its readers.  It has always refunded the cost of ingredients to anyone who is dissatisfied with its recipes and wants to maintain the guarantee for the reputation of the magazine empire.  In this lonely job Billie befriends the lonely, Mrs. Cloverly whose complaints get more and more bizarre each day.  But more importantly she discovers a secret room in the magazine's mansion offices which contain letters written during World War II by a 12 year old girl in Ohio to the magazine's most famous chef at the time, James Beard.  Slowly Billie and Sammy piece together the history of this girl, with help from the clues left by the magazine's former librarian, and realize she may be alive so set on a quest to find her and see how her story ended.

This is well written, intriguing and a pleasure to read!