Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Vacation Reads

The first three books I read were novels by other former Winnipeg residents.  They were recommended to me by the editor of the Jewish newspaper there who reviewed my book (and compared it to the first of those listed below in his review).

Ravenscraig by Sandi Krawchenko Altner

While I do see some similarities with my book (takes place in Winnipeg, deals with Jewish immigrants to the city, describes familiar locales, includes actual historical events...) there are also significant differences.  First and foremost this book takes place entirely in the more distant past (1895 to 1914) whereas mine takes place largely in the 1990s.  The descriptions of Winnipeg as a booming city for trade, transportation, and immigration were quite interesting as a result.

Secondly, my book was described as having mostly nice characters.  And I can see why when compared to Rupert Willows in this book.  He is a thoroughly unlikeable con artist who takes advantage of everyone around him (including his wife and children) for his own material and status gains.  Remarkably, despite this he does raise children who have strong values and social consciences.

Essentially the story revolves around Rupert, who bought Ravenscraig, a large though ugly mansion in Winnipeg's finest neighbourhood at the time in order to buy his way into Winnipeg society.  He eventually serves on city council, joins the Board of Trade and all the best social clubs and becomes a respected businessman.  At least until his tawdry past and conniving ways catch up with him.

The other main story revolves around Zev Zigman, a Russian Jew who sacrifices everything to bring his family to Winnipeg in order to escape anti-semitism and resultant pogroms.  The last family member to arrive is his niece Malka, who disguises herself as Maisie and comes to work as a maid at Ravenscraig (the anti-semitic Willows would never have hired a Jewish maid).  In this way the two stories and families intersect.

The penultimate chapters take place on the Titanic and Altner did a nice job of mixing her fictional characters with actual passengers on the ship.

Overall this was a nice historical fiction though frankly a little long for my taste.  But of interest to anyone who has any interest in Winnipeg in its glory days.

The Briss and The Shiva by Michael Tregebov

It's easiest to describe these two related books together as they are very similar in style and involve some of the same characters.  I preferred the second book although neither was really my style.  While some parts were humorous, in general I found the Winnipeg based Mordecai Richler/Woody Allen style satire somewhat grating.

The first book revolves around the Ostrove family.  Sammy and Anna are horrified when they discover their son, who they sent to Israel on a Birthright style trip to escape the scandal arising from his affair with a lesbian rabbi's wife, has become a human shield for the Palestinians and has fallen in love with and impregnated a Palestinian princess.  But Sammy gets into a physical fight one night at his club when he overhears another member badmouthing his daughter (using lurid details of her apparent sexual liaison with his son).  An assault charge and community shunning follow.  The narrative mostly consists of one or the other of Sammy or Anna falling into a funk, whining, complaining and fighting with their children.  All is resolved when the son and his Palestinian fiancĂ©  arrive to spend time with the rest of the family at their Winnipeg Beach cottage (which sounds as awful as the Winnipeg Beach cottages I remember from my childhood).  The book closes with the whole community attending the baby's briss.

In The Shiva, the action actually begins with another briss.  An acquaintance of Sammy and Anna, Mooney, has just been released from the psychiatric ward following a bout with depression.  Mooney's brother, the grandfather of the baby in question, sits Mooney at the kids' table where he provokes a fight and earns his brother's wrath.  Despite this, their mother tries to bring them together and gets the brother to lend Mooney $50,000 which he invests in a short-selling scheme promoted by an Indian seer who predicts the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  Fighting, whining and complaining prevail when Mooney earns then loses millions on the scheme.  Some of Mooney's elderly friends are entertaining which was basically the book's only saving grace.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

After three books set in Winnipeg, it was nice to move on to something completely different.  This book is short and really easy to read but very powerfully written.  In 1978 we meet the Mishra family in Delhi.  The whole story is told from the perspective of the younger brother Ajay who is 8 at the start.  He, his mother and his older brother Birju are awaiting tickets to America to be sent by their father who has immigrated ahead of them.

Eventually the tickets arrive and the family settles in Queens where they are amazed by simple luxuries like elevators, flushing toilets and automatic doors.  Birju excels in school and is accepted at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science.  But when the boys are spending the summer with an aunt in Virginia, Birju has an accident and is left severely brain damaged.  His parents struggle to take care of him with limited resources and a small negligence settlement.  His father turns to alcohol and his mother is basically seen as a goddess who can bring good fortune on Indian visitors - some who they know and some who they don't.  So Ajay is often left to fend for himself and to find his way in the strange world of an American middle school then high school.

A very powerful story of the devastation that 3 minutes can bring to the dreams of a whole family but how the family still sticks together to achieve what best they can in the circumstances.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

This is a young adult novel which uses a lot of the gimmicks popular in such books, such as transcripts of text messages and Facebook posts.  But it was still a good story about bullying and a mystery with sufficient complexity that it kept me guessing until almost the end.

Kate, a single mother and partner in a law firm, is shocked one day when she receives a call from her daughter Amelia's private school saying Amelia has been suspended.  But she is more shocked when she gets there and finds out that Amelia has fallen from the school's roof and died.  A very perfunctory investigation by the police rules it a suicide, which does not sit well with Kate, especially when she gets an anonymous text stating Amelia didn't jump.  With the help of her boss, Kate convinces the police to reopen the investigation and that is when Amelia's last few days are reconstructed.

The narrative switches from Kate to Amelia's perspective (in flashback, of course) as we consider various suspects - the school bullies (members of the exclusive girls' group, the Magpies which had tapped Amelia), Amelia's best friend Sylvia, a texting friend who is only known as Ben, and members' of the school's staff and PTA.  There is also the side mystery of who Amelia's father was which gets revealed toward the end as well.

An easy and compelling read.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

I only picked this up because I was in an airport and needed something to read and this book was on sale.  But I'm glad I got it - it was better than I expected.  The main complaint I had is that the end was so predictable I wondered why the characters were not smart enough to figure it out earlier (particularly Leo who is supposed to be an experienced Nazi hunter).

Sage Singer is a lonely baker who is still mourning the death of her mother three years before the  narrative starts (and blaming herself).  In her grief support group she befriends the elderly Josef Weber who eventually confesses that he is a former Nazi who has been hiding in plain sight as a pillar of the small New Hampshire community they live in.  He wants Amelia, a Jew by birth if not practice, to forgive him then help him kill himself.

Struggling with this request Sage reaches out to the US DOJ and meets Leo, a Nazi hunter.  He guides her in how to figure out if Josef is really who he says he is and therefore should be extradited and charged in Europe.

This story is interwoven with a story within a story about a vampire like monster who falls in love with a human girl.  We learn about mid-way through that this story was written by Sage's grandmother both before and during the Holocaust.  In fact, she was in part able to survive Auschwitz by recounting the story to a German administrator there who took an interest in hearing the end.  The early story moves between the perspectives of Sage and Leo to the story within a story.  But the middle is all from the perspective of Sage's grandmother as she recounts how she survived the horrors of war despite losing all of her family and friends.  There are also small sections written from Josef's perspective where we hear how he got involved in the Nazi machine.

As I said earlier, the end was rather predictable but the story was still well written and interesting.  I found the changing perspectives and time periods made it even more compelling.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor

This book was really a find.  It was published in 2011 but I had not heard of it until it made CBC's list of the top 100 Canadian books.  And I think it really deserved its place on the list.

The story centres on Ismail Boxwala, a Canadian of South Asian descent.  Twenty years before the novel begins, Ismail tragically, and accidentally, left his 18 month old daughter asleep in her car seat when he went to work.  He only remembers he did not drop her off at daycare when a policeman shows up at his office advising him that she has died.  Of course, following this he is investigated by the police (though never charged as it was found to be an accident), shunned by his neighbours and friends and eventually divorced as his marriage could not survive this.  He has also clearly not forgiven himself - living in the same home, his daughter's room a closed up shrine and drinking heavily.   He has never had a serious relationship since his divorce and is mostly a loner but for obligatory visits to his brother's family in the suburbs and the "merry pinters", the name he has given the women he hooks up with at his local bar.

Things change when two new people enter Ismail's life.  First, Celia, a widow who moves in with her daughter's family across the street from Ismail.  Celia is dealing with her own troubles - her husband died of a heart attack leaving her with virtually nothing but gambling debts and, three weeks later, her mother dies.  She is unhappy in her daughter's den, she gave her mother the spare bedroom and feels she deserves the same, but doesn't really have any choices.  She spends the early part of the book peering at Ismail through the curtains.  Eventually they meet and develop a really nice relationship despite their very different backgrounds (Celia is Portuguese) and thus the disapproval of both their families.

Around the same time Ismail also meets Fatima, a 20 year old Muslim girl who has been kicked out of her family home for being an openly gay activist.  Ismail clearly directs all his pent up fatherly feelings at this girl who is just a year younger than his daughter would have been.  Of course, because the Toronto South Asian community is small, Fatima's parents have heard about Ismail's past and use him as further reason to distance themselves from their daughter.  But with Celia's support, Ismail is able to help Fatima get back on track.

The main characters in this book are interesting and rather charming.  The relationship that develops among the unlikely companions is fascinating.  It really shows how sometimes you have to move outside your comfort zone to get the support you need to move ahead.  As an aside, I loved reading about local streets and TTC routes in Little Portugal.  I thoroughly recommend this book.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ru by Kim Thuy

I'm not sure I understood all of this book, but I still enjoyed it.  It read a bit more like poetry than prose - the chapters were very short, some only a few lines and the language was tight though cryptic at times.  I think praise is owing to the translator (the original was French) - it could not have been easy to translate such unusual writing and retain the author's voice.

Ru is about a woman who, as a young girl, immigrated to Quebec from Vietnam - one of the boat people.  The book jumps around between her life as a pampered very young child, prior to troubles hitting Saigon, to the family's escape, with their valuables sewn into their clothes, teeth and plastic jewellery, on a crowded boat where everyone was seasick and feared pirates or other disasters, to her first year or so in Granby, Quebec to the present where she is the mother of two sons, one autistic.

We only get little snippets of each part of the characters life, but enough to feel how the family was destroyed and built itself up again in a new country.  At times I was a bit confused about what was happening and who all the characters were as the language was so condensed.  I could have used a bit more explanation of the family tree.  But all in all this did not take a long time to read and I was captivated by the language which kept me going even when I wasn't sure who I was reading about.  I don't strongly recommend this book, but wouldn't avoid it either.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

This is the next book on my list of the top 100 Canadian novels, and it deserves to be there in my view.  The style of the book is unusual - it is entirely a series of e-mails written by Gordon Rankin (who calls himself Rank) to a university friend, Adam.  Despite this single perspective, Coady manages to sustain my interest.

Rank is a very large child who was adopted by two parents small in stature somewhere "on the coast".  Early on his father, who he describes as small and angry, casts him in the role of enforcer at his Icy Dreams ice cream franchise.  Because of his size he is even pigeon holed as a goon by local police when in fact he has pulled his father off one of the local punks.  Things go terribly wrong one night when he is enforcing order in the parking lot.  We find out fairly early on what has gone wrong and then we find out Rank's mother has died but we only learn the circumstances of her death toward the very end which was a great use of suspense by the author.

Rank has only confessed his past to Adam, a nerdy boy who he befriends in first year university.  We learn early on that he fled university under mysterious circumstances after his first term.  Again we do not learn the reason until much later.  He has drifted for much of the 20 intervening years though we get the sense he is now settled (and again his current situation is slowly revealed to us).  After 20 years he discovers Adam has written a book that has drawn largely on the description of Rank's early life which he had shared with him one drunken night.

Rank is angry about the book - he feels Adam both invaded his privacy and missed the point.  In other words he told secrets but he also lied.  So he tracks down Adam and sends him this book full of e-mails.  We never see a response from Adam though we are told he only replied to the first few - we never even know if he read the rest.  Through the e-mails Rank reveals his history, his relationship with his father (both past and present) and how he managed to cope with being cast as the enforcer which suited his size but not necessarily his personality.

Well written, the suspense is built in just the right way, the characters are believable and very flawed but still likeable.  I really enjoyed this book.