Monday, August 24, 2015

Three Minutes in Poland by Glenn Kurtz

Someone lent me this book and I'm so glad they did because it was fascinating and I had not otherwise heard of it.

This is a true story - in 2009 while searching through old movies in his parents' den, Kurtz came across a home movie shot by his grandfather while touring Europe in the summer of 1938.  His grandparents were fairly well off immigrant Jews now living in Brooklyn and they sailed to Europe for a vacation with three friends.  They visited London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Switzerland, but what really caught Kurtz's eye was three minutes of film from a visit to a town in their native Poland.  Since this was taken just a year before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he realizes this is probably one of the very few surviving records of a lost community.  So he sets out to try and locate where the film was taken and whether any of the many people who wander through the frames can be identified and have survived.  His grandparents have both passed away and his father cannot help so he has little to go on - though his aunt finds several postcards and letters sent to her at summer camp that year which help him build the itinerary.

He first seeks the help of the US Holocaust Museum to restore and then catalogue the film.  He hits many dead ends in identifying the film (in fact, he first believes it's his grandmother's home town then discover it was in fact his grandfather's).  His first big breakthrough is when a woman sees the film on the Holocaust Museum website and recognizes her grandfather, as a boy of 13, jumping in front of the camera.  Now 86 and living in Florida, Maurice Chandler and his family reach out to Kurtz and together they piece together fragments of the lost history.

Maurice recognizes some of the faces, puts Kurtz in touch with a handful of other survivors from the town, or their descendants and shares both memories of his happy childhood and the horrors of surviving the war (and being the sole survivor from his family).  Kurtz travels throughout the US, Canada, Israel, England and Poland to meet with other survivors and build as comprehensive list as possible of the people in the movie and their fates.

Parts of the book can be a bit dry - details on the film is restored; some of the lists he reads and creates.  And at times it can be hard to keep track of all the players (it might have been helpful if he'd appended his lists at the back of the book as a reference).   There are the many people in the movie (some of whom survived and anglicized their names so are referred to in more than one way) as well as their descendants, the Polish and American researchers who assist Kurtz and his many friends and family members.

But overall this is really fascinating and a tremendous tribute to a community that was virtually eliminated.  It's no wonder this three minutes of film now runs in a continuous loop at the Auschwitz museum documenting pre-World War II Jewish life in Poland.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Two Quick Reads

Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner

After last year's disappointing release, this was back to the Jennifer Weiner that I know and love.  Her books aren't deep or full or meaningful symbolism, but they are easy to read, funny and always contain great characters.

This book centres on Rachel and Andy.  They first meet when eight year old Rachel, who has a congenital heart disorder, is hospitalized yet again and while recovering wanders into the emergency room where she meets Andy, also eight, alone and suffering from a broken arm.  The two cannot be more different - Rachel is Jewish, upper middle class and doted upon by her parents who fear for her health.  She is also close to her Nana (Weiner almost always has a wonderfully strong grandmother figure).  Andy is the son of a single white mother whose father was black.  He is often neglected by his mother, he never knew his father, and his mother cut her off from her parents.  He does have a wonderful role model, Mr. Sills, a local handyman who takes him under his wing and keeps him out of trouble in his rough neighbourhood.  The two children bond as Rachel tells Andy a story and gives him one of her many stuffed animals.

About 8 years later the two meet again while working on a Habitat for Humanity style building project.  They both remember each other well (Andy admits having saved the stuffed animal) and, despite obstacles, they fall in love.  They maintain a long distance relationship until graduating high school when they meet again briefly (aided by Rachel's nana).  In college their differences cause them to part.

The rest of the book deals with their separate lives - Rachel becomes a social worker while Andy is an olympic runner.  And with their long lasting feelings for each other that just don't seem to survive in the real world.  And though they each have other relationships, you know that eventually they'll find their way back to each other.

A thoroughly enjoyable summer escape.

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova

This is essentially the Huntington's Disease version of Still Alice.  Joe O'Brien is a Boston police officer in his early forties when he is diagnosed with Huntington's Disease.  The book deals with the impact of this terrible disease on him and on his four adult children who struggle with whether or not to get tested for the gene and the implications of that decision.

The book is primarily written from the points of view of Joe and his youngest daughter, Katie, who is a yoga instructor and involved in a very new relationship.  We see her struggle with whether she even wants to get tested.

This is an eye opening description of a terrible disease.  But it is not all dark.  Genova also illustrates the power of family bonds and how the family members can help each other through the tough times. There are even some humorous parts - like where Katie speculates that her Irish Catholic father may get over the fact that her boyfriend is a black Baptist but will struggle mightily with his affinity for the Yankees.

I found the book a little depressing though not quite as bad a Still Alice.  It's not a bad read though not so great that I would run out and get unless you're just looking for something easy to read.

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith

This is an interesting story of two English twins who were separated at birth and find each other about 50 years later.

One daughter, Jenny, is given up for adoption at about 6 weeks old; the other, Helen, is kept by her birth mother.  The early chapters alternate between the sisters as they tell the story of their childhood and growing up.  While Jenny is adopted by a loving family who dote on her, Helen's childhood with her neglectful, narcissistic mother and abusive father is horrific.  Not that Jenny doesn't suffer, her beloved adoptive father dies when she is young and she only finds out she is adopted when an angry cousin blurts it out.  Her mother refuses to talk about it even after she hears.

This is nothing, however, compared to Helen's life.  She is never touched unless she is being beaten, she is treated like a servant by her parents and though she has many friends and does well in school whenever she gets too comfortable she is uprooted by her parents.  She does have a loving grandmother and extended family but she is taken away from them too - and in the end learns they have been complicit in covering up the true story of her birth.

What is fascinating is the many coincidences in the girls' lives - they both suffer from fainting spells as teenagers, they both have many childhood illnesses and they both long for a sibling.  They probably cross paths at least twice too - once as children when Helen is playing on the beach near Jenny's summer cottage; another time as adults when Jenny has back surgery and Helen is the nurse to her surgeon.  They also share a remarkable strength of character.

Later in the book we learn how Jenny searched for her sister and eventually found her - Helen had absolutely no idea she had a sister.  We then see how they piece together their shared past from discussions with cousins who remember a little from childhood (by then the adults who knew the truth were all dead), DNA tests and countless searches through medical and adoption records.

While not necessarily a literary masterpiece this is certainly an entertaining weekend's read.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I can't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm certainly glad I discovered it.  The book is a fascinating study of family relationships and particularly how the past of the parents shape their dreams for their children.  It also shows how we often really know very little about the people we think we know best.

The story starts with the disappearance of 16 year old Lydia.  She is the middle child of a Chinese-American father and a southern white woman - and she is clearly their favourite.  The father is a professor at a small college in Ohio and the family is one of very few non-white families in this small town in the 1970s.  When Lydia's body is found at the bottom of a lake, the family struggles to figure out what happened.

The narrative shifts perspective and time fairly frequently.  We see the years and days leading up to Lydia's disappearance through her eyes, those of her parents, her older brother, Nathan, and her younger sister, Hannah.  Though the children clearly saw the pressure the parents put on Lydia - her mother wanted her to be a doctor, thus fulfilling her childhood dreams which were abandoned when she fell in love and had children; while her father wanted her to be popular and to fit in, something he was never able to accomplish as the only non-white, working class child at an exclusive private school.

Lydia tried very hard to please her parents and eventually struggled under the weight of that burden though it was an encounter with her friend Jack, the neighbourhood bad boy, that leads her to try to conquer her fears and choose her own future which ends badly in the local lake.  Nathan suspects Jack is involved in Lydia's death and in the end we see that Jack is harbouring secrets, though very different ones than Nathan suspects.  Through most of the book I felt very sad for this family - everyone trying so hard but not quite getting it - but in the very last chapter I felt maybe the parents had learned from what happened and might be able to redeem both their relationship and that with their remaining children.

I really recommend this book if you like to look at family relationships, parental pressure, how the past influences present behaviour and even racism in the US in the 1950s through 1970s.