Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens

This is not the type of book I usually read but it got good reviews so I thought I would give it a try.  I'm not sorry I did - though it's hardly deep and meaningful, it was a good, suspenseful story with quirky but likeable characters.  And it was well written.

The tagline for the book is Five days.  Four lost hikers. Three survivors.  And that really is what it is all about - and I was unable to definitively guess who would not survive until it actually happened.  The book is written in the form of a letter from Wolf to his college aged son, telling him the story of what happened those five days in the mountain when he was 18 years old.  So I was pretty sure Wolf survived - though at times I did even wonder whether the book would take an unexpected turn that this was a dream or something and it was Wolf who didn't survive.

Wolf is an 18 year old misfit - his mother died when he was young (we learn the tragic circumstances well into the book); his father is in prison for killing two people while driving drunk (this part is revealed early on); he lives in a trailer park with his father's sister and various of her children and grandchildren; and his best/only friend has been in an accident (again we only learn the details later in the book).  So Wolf ascends the cable car in a mountain outside Palm Springs to kill himself.  Instead, he meets up with Nola, Bridget and Vonn Devine (grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter).  Bridget panics when attacked by a swarm of bees and runs off - the others at her heels.  And they all fall down and cliff and get lost.  Most of the book details how they survive (or not in one case that I will not reveal) the five days lost on a desert mountain.

But, there are flashbacks into Wolf's life which are also very interesting.  We learn less about the past of the Devines though we do get some colour about them too.

In all this was an easy and entertaining read - somewhat disturbing at times but a good suspense story with some character development thrown in for good measure.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

I loved this book.  I wanted to read it because of my upcoming trip to Ireland - I'm reading as much as I can that is set there.  But what I really loved was the character development.

Odran Yates is a priest - he became one when his mother had a revelation of his calling while watching the Late Late Show one evening after she has become fervently religious following the tragic deaths of her husband and youngest son.  Odran never questions his mother and, when he arrives at the seminary, feels as if he has indeed landed where he belongs.  His "cellmate" is Tom Cardle, the tenth child of an abusive father who has forced him to become a priest.  He is not suited to it and eventually that becomes his downfall as he is implicated in numerous crimes.

Odran, meanwhile, suffers abuse and guilt in his later years just for being a priest and being tarnished by the reprehensible behaviour of other priests like Cardle and the blatant cover up of the scandal by the Church that the author clearly states runs all the way up the chain to the Pope.  I came away mostly feeling sorry for Odran - I don't think he purposely covered up the pedophelia, I think he was just hopelessly naive and believed others were as good as him, and as good at suppressing their natural urges (which he does but for a few lapses).  This is despite the direct impact of these crimes on both him as a boy and on other members of his family.

The book wanders seamlessly back and forth through time - from the present day, to his childhood, to his time at the seminary in Ireland and later in Rome, from the job he liked best hidden away in a Catholic school library to his time working in a parish.  We see his relationships with his parents, sister, nephews and Tom Cardle as well as how he is at times manipulated by people with power within the Church.

In sum, this is a fantastic character study and a great narrative about an explosive topic for the Catholic church.  I found it particularly gratifying to read it the weekend the population of Ireland voted in favour of permitting gay marriage.  How far the country has come from the time when Odran was a new priest and people on a train were fighting over who should give up their seat for him.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

This is a non-fiction book about life in a Mumbai slum which reads like a well written novel.  It was fascinating to get insight into the lives of the incredibly poor members of Mumbai society and to watch their day to day struggle to survive against poverty, corruption, discrimination, religious tensions and the tremendous wealth which they only get to glimpse from afar.  Kudos to the author who spent months with these people who are so busy struggling to survive they do not really have time to sit around and open up about their lives to a complete stranger.  But nonetheless, open up they eventually did.

The narrative takes place primarily in the Mumbai slum known as Annawadi.  It lies right on the outskirts of Mumbai's international airport and the story begins in 2008 when India has been booming so the airport and related hotels have been growing and the threat of the airport overtaking the slum looms large. I love the title because the "beautiful forevers" is taken from a billboard on the side of the highway leading from the airport into the city.  We get to see what actually happens behind the beautiful forevers.

The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdul.  He lives in a makeshift home with his parents and several siblings.  He earns money for the family buying garbage from scavengers, sorting it and reselling it to recyclers.  Unfortunately he, together with his father and older sister, are accused of causing a neighbour woman to commit suicide by setting herself on fire.  Though he is charged as a juvenile which improves his fate, his little business never really recovers.  It is also not helped by the global recession which lowers the price recyclers are willing to pay or the terrorist attacks in Mumbai which reduce tourism and thus the amount of garbage that the airport district generates.

Besides Abdul's colourful family, we meet Asha, a local woman who is trying to capitalize on the abundant corruption of local officials to become the slum overseer.  She in fact gets ahead by sleeping with whoever can give her what she wants in return - government officials, police, etc.  One of the most heartbreaking characters is Asha's daughter - she is trying desperately to graduate from a third rate college to become a teacher, in fact teaching slum children at a school which her mother  established to obtain government and charitable funds (though her mother would be happy just to collect the money and not bother with the teaching).  Instead, being a dutiful daughter, she is dragged into her mothers schemes.

We also meet several scavengers, thieves and others - many of whom fund the only ways out are sniffing wite-out or drinking rat poison.

The book ends with the trial of Abdul and his family members.  While that eventually turns out okay, one can't help but wonder whether it really changes their fate.

A fascinating read but very depressing - though on a positive note it does clearly illustrate human resilience in the most dire of circumstances.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This is a true story of Amanda Lindhout's abduction and 460 day imprisonment by Somali rebels when she makes an ill fated trip to that country.  I found it very well written, though quite graphic at times, and seemed to be a quite honest account of what happened.  Lindhout did not shy away from her guilt about going into the war torn country in the first place and the difficulties it caused for her family as well as her travelling companion, former lover and fellow captive, Nigel Brennan.  Apparently Brennan's book about the ordeal is not quite so sympathetic to Lindhout.

The book starts with Amanda's childhood in Sylvan Lake, Alberta.  She lives in a home with her mother, two brothers and her mother's abusive boyfriend.  Her father has recently come out and lives in a comparatively stable home in Red Deer with his partner.  To escape the troubles at home, Amanda hordes National Geographic magazines and dreams of escape.

She moves to Calgary at 19 with a boyfriend and makes money as a cocktail waitress which funds their first trip - backpacking through South America.  Eventually this relationship ends and she falls into a pattern of working several months to finance her travels and then traveling - to Asia, Central America and beyond.

As she becomes more experienced she travels alone and to more and more dangerous locations, especially for an unaccompanied woman.  She goes to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.  The tales of her travels are fascinating and at times humorous.  I was particularly amused by her description of the difficulties of renting a hotel room in Bangladesh when you are a woman without her husband or father.  On her travels she meets both journalists and photo journalists and becomes enamoured with the idea of being able to finance her travels in this way.  She even works for a time as the Baghdad reporter for an Iranian state television station.  She is not particularly successful in this line of work and feels that she needs to get to less competitive places to really make her mark.

So she decides to try her luck in Somalia.  She invites Nigel, who she had previously been involved with (he was married at the time which she did not know) but they had drifted apart.  She half expects him to say no but he comes along.

On their third day in the country they are abducted.  The remainder of the book details her experience - which is horrific.  She is starved, beaten, raped, humiliated, sick, separated from Nigel for the most part.  She receives far worse treatment just for being a woman.  She also gives a terrific account of their one unsuccessful attempt at escape - for which she is disproportionately blamed.  However, she also gives us glimpses of humanity - a neighbour who helps her escape, a woman at a mosque who risks her life in an effort to keep the kidnappers from recapturing her, and even some of the young captors.

There are also some details about the efforts by both the government and her family to obtain her release; complicated by the fact that Canada does not pay ransoms and her family has no money.  She only learns later of all the people who helped contribute to her rescue.

Definitely a worthwhile read, but not for the faint of heart - some of the descriptions of Amanda's rape and torture are very graphic.

The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart

I struggled to get through this books at times, but there were parts I liked enough to keep on going and I'm not sorry I read it though it would not be the first book I recommend you pick up.  Essentially the book tells three stories - and moves back and forth between them.

We start with Tam, an English woman who has been living in Ireland since just after World War II and is now fleeing an affair she had there.  She is flying from Dublin to New York and, after stopping in Gander to refuel, is grounded by fog.  As she sits in the waiting room she reflects on her past - a privileged childhood, a hasty marriage at a young age, flying planes during the War, another relationship with a childhood friend (and servant's son) which takes her to Ireland, and then finally the ill-fated extra marital affair with Niall.

As she reminisces she also studies a large mural that covers the walls in the airport lounge.  The second story we hear is that of the artist.  He reflects on his past and we learn how the various characters in the mural came into being.  Frankly, I was bored by this part of the book and didn't really think it added much to the main narrative.  Though maybe I just missed some deeper meaning.

Finally we learn about Niall's childhood and in particular his difficult relationship with his younger brother Kieran who he has lost touch with and has been searching for.  The story of Niall's, and especially Kieran's, childhood was for me the most interesting part of the book.  They grew up in a small town in Ireland.  When their mother dies tragically, Kieran is taken in by a widowed countrywoman and lives a very different life from his brother.  Unbeknownst to each other they both train for a rigorous bicycle race and become fierce competitors - for the title and the same woman.  The book ends with us finding out what caused the rift between the brothers.

As I said, parts of this were very slow and in my view unnecessary, but other parts were quite exciting.  I was very drawn into the bike race and the sibling rivalry it unleashed.  Because I have a trip planned to Ireland, I also enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the Irish countryside.