Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

This is not a new book, but it was recently recommended to me and it was really interesting.  First, it was translated from the German and it still reads beautifully, almost like poetry, which I often find is hard to do in a translation - so kudos both to the author and the translator.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot as the whole premise of the book is watching the past unfold together with the main character.  But here's what I can say:  Julia Win's father disappears on the morning after her graduation from law school without explanation which is totally out of character for him.  He does wake her to tell her he was headed to Boston for a business trip (he was a NY lawyer), and he does go to the airport but he does not fly to Boston.  Instead he is eventually traced to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Bangkok when the trail goes cold.  His passport was found near the Bangkok airport and investigators speculate he may have been murdered or in some sort of accident while trying to leave Bangkok.

Four years later (with little explanation for why four years pass), Julia's mother gives her some of her father's personal effects and in them Julia finds an unsent letter to a woman named Mi Mi in her father's native Burma.  Julia's mother admits she knows nothing about her husband's first 20 years in Burma, despite desperate pleas for information.  The letter appears to be to an old lover and Julia decides to track her down in an effort to find her father.

And this is where the mystery begins.  She travels to Burma, marvelling in and suffering from its primitive state, and at a somewhat dirty tea shop is approached by U Ba, an older man who claims he knows her father and his story.  Though she is skeptical that he is a scam artist who had been fed information by her hotel she decides to listen to him.  Over a few days he paints the picture of her father's past - and the reader is transported 50 years earlier to colonial Burma to learn what happened to him, who Mi Mi was, how Julia's father ended up in the US and what eventually happened to him. I don't want to give any of that away as the careful telling of that story is what makes this book so interesting.  I wouldn't say it's the most suspenseful story I've ever read but it certainly takes some interesting twists and turns.

I definitely recommend this book.  It is different and, as I said before, beautifully written.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon

This is a fascinating memoir of a young Jewish girl who survived World War II by going underground in the heart of Berlin.  It is based on the tapes she made for her son while in her seventies, describing her childhood before the war and then the war years based solely on her memories.  The book reads much like a transcript which occasionally makes it hard to follow - I found it particularly difficult to keep track of the many people who came and went.  Sometimes I just gave up on trying to remember how a person Marie spoke about had previously played a role in her life - and sometimes she later reminded the reader and sometimes she didn't.  Despite that, I recommend reading the book as it is a first hand account of the war years from a perspective you don't often see (since many of her fellow hidden Jews did not survive).

Marie was born into an upper middle class Jewish family in Berlin.  She was educated and received her high school diploma just as the war was beginning.  Her mother died before the war and her father in 1942.  After that she was on her own, working in forced labour for Siemens, and one day decided merely to remove her Jewish star and hide out - but this was not hiding in the sense of Anne Frank, she moved from place to place and carried on from day to day using a false identity given to her by a family friend.  So in some ways she was hidden in plain view.  It is hard to determine whether she survived due to her naiveté or her wile; luck or good planning, or some combination of all of these traits.

She was certainly helped by a number of non-Jews:  the aforementioned woman who gave her the identity card.  Marie had a complicated relationship with this woman who made her feel beholden to her, but clearly did provide both refuge and food.  Marie also resented the woman, believing she had merely taken over her family's holiday home - it was only in 1994, after the other woman's death, that she discovered it had in fact been sold to her by Marie's father.  A Chinese man who offered to marry her in an effort to get her safely to Shanghai; a Bulgarian man who also did so and, for a time, was able to protect her in Bulgaria but she eventually was returned to Berlin; a Dutch foreign worker in Berlin who lived with her for many years as a tenant of an old woman who had Nazi sympathies but nonetheless put up with Marie; a family of circus artists who took her in for a time as well as their Communist friends; the superintendent of the building where she lived with the Dutch man; and others.

After the war, Marie stayed in Berlin - she still considered Germany her home and never judged people merely for being German since so many had helped her survive.  This is the story as she told it to her son after 50 years of silence.  It is definitely worth reading to see a whole new perspective on this terrible time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Crime Seen by Kate Lines

This is not my usual type of book but I heard the author interviewed on the radio and I thought it sounded interesting.  For the most part it was, though as a police officer, the author said in the acknowledgments she had trouble writing more than "just the facts" and at times it was a littler dry as a result.  But, I was able to skim over those parts and still enjoy the book.

Kate Lines was an early member of the Ontario Provincial Police - when she was first interviewed for the job she met officers who said women had no business being on the force, but nonetheless she was hired and moved through the ranks.

She started in traffic patrol, then moved to undercover, but her career really took off when she was selected to be only the second police officer in Canada to be trained by the FBI in criminal profiling (the first was an RCMP officer with whom she worked closely throughout her career).  She details her very interesting training session in the US as part of a group of international students.  Her instructors were fascinating FBI agents, many of whom she stayed in touch with after and consulted on difficult cases.

Armed with these profiling skills she consulted on some of Canada's most notorious crimes, including the Paul Bernardo case.  Not wanting to make the book about glorifying criminals she focuses on the victims and their families and does a nice job of making them very human.  She was clearly respected by them as must have received a lot of cooperation in writing the book.

She glosses over it, but does mention a struggle with post traumatic stress syndrome which caused her to step back from profiling at one time.  Eventually she retired from the force and now is a licensed private investigator and consults with business, police forces and even TV shows.

A fairly easy read about a woman's success in a historically non-traditional role for women - hopefully she will continue to inspire more to follow in her footsteps.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cold Sea Stories by Pawet Huelle

I'm not sure where to start on reviewing this book, because I'm still not sure I understood all of the stories.  I chose this book because I will be visiting Poland later in the year and I wanted to read something by a contemporary Polish author.  This short story collection was well reviewed and is by an award winning Polish author who has been translated into many languages.

There were parts of the stories I loved - taking place largely in Gdansk and the surrounding countryside, they provided insight into what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain, and in Poland during the break from Communism.  In an afterward there is an interview with the author who explains that the story The Bicycle Express was largely autobiographical - it details a few days in the life of a teenager who delivers leaflets by bicycle from the Gdansk shipyard where an uprising is taking place to other factories around the city.  Perhaps my favourite story was Franz Carl Weber - it tells of a grown man's first visit to Zurich after travel restrictions are lifted.  His father, part of the intelligentsia who was tortured during the Communist regime, had traveled to Zurich and brought the narrator and his brother a train set from the Swiss store Franz Carl Weber.  Playing with this train set, and studying the store's catalogue, were some of the narrator's happiest memories.  In Zurich he is delighted to visit the store but because times have changed is disappointed to find few train sets.

The stories Mimesis and First Summer also taught me a bit about the Mennonite Community from around Gdansk which was all but wiped out by the Nazis due to its pacifism - and what remained was destroyed by the Communists.

The problem I had with the stories is that whenever I was finally getting interested in the characters and their stories, the narrative turned to magical realism.  For example, in Franz Carl Weber the author details how as a child at night he went into the fields and rode imaginary trains.  These flights of fancy are just not my style and, while I'm sure they were symbolic in ways that escaped me, I would have preferred the narrative stripped of the fantasy.

Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the stories and am glad to have read a bit about Polish culture past and present.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Another weekend, another two books

I read these books quickly, and there were some similarities between the books.  Both are set in the past:  Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry in 1890s New York City; and At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen in 1940s Scotland.  Both revolve around trouble women:  Odile Church, a performer in a Coney Island sideshow whose mother has just died in a fire and who is search for her sister, Belle, who has fled to Manhattan; and Madeleine Hyde, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage and forced by her husband to travel the ocean during war time to search for the Loch Ness monster.  Both have an overbearing mother-in-law who did not want their sons to marry the wives they did marry, Alphie's in Church of Marvels and Madeleine's in At the Water's Edge.  And both deal with issues of sexual preference and identity - I will not reveal the details of this in either book as that aspect is part of the suspense that needs to unfold naturally.  And both are well written and easy to read - though with more characters and changing perspectives I found Church of Marvels a bit harder to follow.

Church of Marvels really deals with three separate stories - and the fun is figuring out how they all come together.  I discussed Odile and her sister Belle above.  There is also Sylvan, a night-soiler who cleans out Manhattan privies.  One night when doing so he finds a baby - and his mystery is finding out who the baby belongs to and why she was discarded.  Finally there is Alphie, who wakes up in an asylum and, having been hit on the head, cannot remember why or how she got there.  Her mystery is figuring that out and, more importantly, how to escape.  I really do not want to reveal much more about the stories as there were a lot of surprises - many completely unexpected and I'm usually pretty good at figuring out the clues.  But this was a good read and an interesting insight into the lower classes in 1890s New York.

In At the Water's Edge, Maddie's husband, Ellis, is unable to enlist due to colour blindness - for this and his drunken rants against his father, he has alienated his parents.  In order to regain their favour he and his best friend convince Maddie they must go to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, a task which Ellis' father had failed to accomplish despite desperate efforts.  Maddie is uncomfortable crossing the ocean in wartime, but a traditional wife, with no independent means, she has no choice but to follow her husband.  When she arrives in Scotland, at first she tries to assist in the monster hunt, but eventually Ellis and his friend exclude her more and more often.  So she befriends the staff at the inn where they are staying (which angers her husband who does not think she should fraternize with the help).  Through these friendships she learns more about herself and her marriage - and figures out where the monsters truly reside.  As usual Gruen has written a well-researched but easily accessible historical fiction.

I recommend both of these books, though if you only have time for one, I would choose At the Water's Edge; it is better written.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I enjoyed this book but somehow I still found it a bit unimaginative.  The story of a southern white woman who takes up the abolitionist cause, as well as her personal slave who she struggles to free, just seemed like one that I had read before - though I hadn't already read this particular book.  Of course, until I read the author's notes at the end, I did not know how much of this story was based in fact - which in retrospect made the story more interesting.

The story is based upon the life of Sarah Grimke, a woman born into a slave owning family in Charleston who, together with her younger sister, Angelina, forsake the life they are born into and move north to become the first women to speak out in favour of abolition.  Because of the constraints put on her life, Sarah, who had wanted first to become a lawyer then a Quaker minister, becomes a vocal feminist as well.  This causes some rift within the mainstream abolitionist movement who feel it detracts from their main goal.  While Kidd includes these factual aspects of the Grimke sisters' lives, she flushes out the details, in particular, giving voice to one of the Grimke slaves, Handful.

The story starts on Sarah's eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful to be her personal maid (Handful is even "wrapped" in purple bows for the occasion).  Uncomfortable with this from the start, she uses a book written by her father, a judge, to draft a document granting Handful her freedom, but it is ripped up by her parents who say she must respect their way of life.  Despite that she vows to Handful's mother to find a way to grant Handful her freedom - and starts by secretly teaching her how to read.

The book alternates chapters between Sarah and Handful and carries us into their adult lives.  Along the way we witness discrimination against women - Sarah's father and brothers mock her desire to be a lawyer and her mother pushes her to find a husband though she proves very unlucky with men.  But we witness even greater cruelty to slaves and even free blacks like the boyfriend of Handful's mother who tries to organize and insurrection (and is also based on an actual person).

And throughout we witness Sarah's struggle to find a way to keep her vow to free Handful - but she must work against her parents and later her sister and it is not easy to accomplish even when she has the money to "buy" her back from her mother just so she can set her free.

In the end we are given some glimmer of hope that slavery will come to an end, but see why discrimination will continue for decades - as even the staunch abolitionists do not have equality as a goal.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The only word that jumps to mind to describe this book is haunting.  The characters were so real, and at times so sad, that I cannot get them out of my head.

The book jacket describes it as a story of four college roommates who move from Boston to New York and their lives as adults.  There is Malcolm - a wealthy, eventually very successful architect who is kind and generous but seemingly indecisive and unable to live up to his parents' expectations.  JB is an artist - he is black, gay and very angry which can lead him to be mean - and though successful, at times he is dragged down by addiction and falling in with the wrong crowd.  Willem is an actor who becomes an international success despite a hard upbringing as the son of a ranch hand and his wife who have lost two children before he is born and thus have trouble bonding with Willem and his older brother who has cerebral palsy.  But the story is really about Jude - he is handsome but disabled and scarred.  Over the course of the book we, and his friends to a certain extent, learn about the horrifying childhood which lead to both these physical scars and, more devastatingly, emotional scars that he is ultimately unable to live with.

Though Jude finds love from his friends, and especially from Harold and Julia, a law professor and his wife who literally adopt him, he never feels like he deserves it.  And despite desperate pleas from those who love him, he is unable to seek help because he thinks his physical and mental afflictions are his due because of the life he lived as a child.

While Jude is the centre - Willem and Harold were probably my favourite characters.  They tried so hard and so desperately to get Jude to see himself as they saw him - smart, a talented litigator, funny, loving and deserving of love.  Their devotion, sincerity and loyalty in the face of tremendous opposition were incredible.

There are other minor characters who were notable too - Andy, an orthopedist who first meets Jude when he is a resident and who becomes his primary and only doctor, as well as his friend, and is one of the only people who has seen Jude's physical scars (and learned a bit about them).  Richard, another artist, who sells Jude an apartment but uses living in the same building as an excuse to unobtrusively watch over him.  And Lucien a crusty lawyer in private practice who woos Jude from his government job and helps him become a major success as a litigator in a top notch firm.

The book occasionally changes perspectives - from Jude, to Willem and Harold primarily, although at times to others such as JB.  It sometimes took a page or two to re-orient but I thought that just made the book more interesting.  The writing was fluid and there were parts which took me completely by surprise.  It made reading a book of over 700 pages easy and enjoyable.  I highly recommend this though warn you it might be hard to get Jude, Harold and Willem out of your head.