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 fianc√©  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.

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