Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

Despite the odd sounding name and subject matter, this book was actually quite funny.  It's written from the perspective of Sasha, the son of a famous mathematician, Rachaela, who passes away.  It is rumoured that she solved a major math problem on her death bed and dozens of mathematicians gather at the shiva to try to find her solution (or recreate it).  The interactions between Sasha, his father, uncle, cousin, adoptive sister and the eccentric mathematicians are very humorous.

Interspersed with the description of the shiva, are excerpts from Rachaela's memoirs which tell of her difficult childhood in Siberia then her defection to the USA.  We also hear how Sasha and his father were able to escape the Soviet Union several years later and how Rachaela was reunited with her brother who had been separated from the family as an infant and survived World War II by climbing out of a pit where many Jews had been shot.

The novel is written by Sasha years following the death and we also get to see how he really blossomed emotionally following the death of his overbearing mother.  Though they were close, she really defined his life and he was able to move on once she was out of the picture.

Not the most fantastic book ever, but an entertaining read.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Although I had been putting it off, I decided to finally read last year's Giller Prize winner because I was invited to see the author speak last weekend.  First, let me tell you, if you have an opportunity to see Michaels speak, you should jump on it.  He was an extremely entertaining story teller - more interesting in person than his book.

I had been avoiding reading the book at first when I found out it was about the inventor of the theremin because I didn't even know what a theremin was (for some reason I assumed it was some sort of obscure element - I have no idea why since elements aren't really invented).  In fact, the theremin is a very early form of electronic instrument which is played by moving your hands through electrical fields that surround it.  There was a demonstration of the theremin at the talk - it sounded rather squeaky and awful (more like a special effects machine than a musical instrument).  However I understand in the hands of certain masters it can sound quite wonderful.

The book itself is about the inventor, Lev Termen, and his unrequited love of one of these master players, Clara.  It is a fictional account interspersed with factual aspects.  The narrator, Termen is a Russian scientist who experiments with gadgets, especially vacuum tubes, from a very young age.  He happens upon the theremin which brings him notoriety in his own country (even meeting Lenin at one point).  The Russian government decides to send him around Europe and eventually to the US to show off and sell his theremin but also to spy for the Soviets.

The book is written as a letter from Termen to Clara when he is on the boat returning to the Soviet Union and in the years following that.  But it looks back on his early years in Russia, his time in the US and forward to his return to the Soviet Union.  In the US Termen is first given a hero's welcome - he lives at the Plaza Hotel and performs for all of the financial elite.  He invents further gadgets (like a security system for Alcatraz) and uses the relationships he builds to obtain information for the Soviet government.  He also meets Clara - a violinist many years younger than him who becomes one of the best theremin players of all time.  As we only hear Termen's point of view it is hard to tell whether his strong feelings for her are ever reciprocated but it seemed not to me.

With the arrival of the Depression Termen falls on hard financial times - he owes all sorts of money and is unable to sell his inventions.  Alcatraz even asks for a return of its advance as they are not happy with his system.  He also runs into visa issues and his handlers recommend marriage.  When Clara will not marry him, he marries another woman but ends up leaving her in the middle of the night just as he abandoned his first wife (it is a little unclear whether he actually divorced anyone before he married others).  When he hits rock bottom, he is "kidnapped" and returns to the Soviet Union.  Again because we only have the narrator's perspective it is unclear how unhappy he is about this (he doesn't seem that troubled about leaving his second wife though he clearly pines after Clara).

In the Soviet Union, things only get worse.  He becomes entrapped in Stalin's gulag spending time in Siberia then years in a prison for scientists where he is forced to invent gadgets that further the Soviet agenda.

I liked this book but I didn't love it.  I have read several first person narrated books lately and I'm growing a bit tired of the rather narrow perspective this affords.  Especially after hearing Michaels speak about it, I understand why he chose to tell this story from the perspective of one rather unreliable narrator (Termen was both naive at times and a liar).  However, I might have preferred to get a broader view of what was happening in Termen's life.  That being said, I still think the book is worth reading.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

One book I recommend and one I really do not

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I really found this book strange and though I struggled through it because I was sucked in (sort of like watching a traffic accident), in the end I was sorry I bothered.  First of all, though a description of the book I saw today tells you the narrator Rosemary's "sister" was a chimpanzee I did not know that until about 1/3 of the way into the book.  On the jacket the book is described as Rosemary's "coming of age" story and the impact on it of the disappearance of her sister and brother.

The book is written in the first person from Rosemary's perspective as an adult - and while I did not figure out the secret of her sister, I was confused about her from the start (for example, I could not tell if she was older or younger than Rosemary).  When it is finally revealed I think I was supposed to have figured it out - but the author was not good enough to make it clear through hints.  When I finally was hit over the head with the sister's nature I understood just how strange everyone in Rosemary's family really was - her father the psychologist who instituted the experiment and as an adult was basically a drunk, her mother who fell into severe depression after her "daughter" was given over to a lab and her brother who left home as a teenager and lived on the run from the FBI for conducting terrorist acts against animal researchers.  We also see how the experiment completely screwed up Rosemary's ability to make friends with humans as she had learned to many animal behaviours.

I also did not really understand what role the new crazy friend Rosemary makes as an adult played though she was constantly resurfacing in the present day narrative.  And by the end the book was really just a shameless rant about animal welfare.  Which is fine if that's what you set out to read, but not really entertaining as a novel.

Overall I really do not recommend this book.  There are far better coming of age tales out there and if you want to read about animal welfare, just do that.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

After reading the above book, it was such a relief to move on to this very entertaining story.  This is a historical fiction loosely based on the life of the French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, and his parents.  It is particularly focused on his fascinating mother, Rachel.

The story starts in 1807 on the then Dutch island of St. Thomas (now a U.S. Virgin Island).  Rachel is born to relatively wealthy merchants on the island.  Her father escaped Santo Domingo when there was unrest there, much like his namesake Moses, in a wicker basket carried by a servant.  Moses and his wife lost a son and Rachel felt she never received the love she should have from her very proper mother.  On the other hand her father doted on her, teaching her skills reserved only for boys at the time.  This helped her but also made her too headstrong for her own good at times.  Rachel is devoted to their made Adele and her daughter Jestine though her mother does not think she should be friends with black natives of the island.  We later learn there is far more behind her mother's feelings toward Adele and Jestine.

When he falls upon hard times, to save his business, Moses arranges for Rachel to wed an older widower, Isaac, and she becomes the mother of his three children.  She also enters into a life long friendship with their servant, Rosalie.  Rachel gives birth to 6 more children then Isaac dies as a young man.  His much younger nephew comes to the island from Paris to take over the business.  Frederic becomes the love of Rachel's life though because he is much younger and considered a relative they are shunned for years by the Island's small Jewish community.

Rachel and Frederic have several more children, including Camille.  Once Camille is older several of the chapters are written from his perspective rather than Rachel's as he struggles with his desire to become a painter when his parents want him to adopt a more conservative, commercial lifestyle.  Then the narrative takes us to Paris where Camille and his parents end up at times.

This is a fascinating look at the struggles between parent and child, between individual and community, rich and poor, master and servant, black and white.  It also examines internal struggles, particularly of Rachel and Camille.  While I liked Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, this was shorter and more manageable.  I really recommend this one.