Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This was a long and complicated book, but very engaging.  The main character was Samuel, a thirty something English professor at a lesser known junior college outside Chicago.  Samuel is also a once promising author who published one story, got a book deal and never wrote the book.  Mostly he plays video games, never having recovered from his mother abandoning him when he was 11 and losing the girl he loved from that same age.

The book moves back and forth in time - the anchor is 2011 as Samuel explores his past.  We then move into his childhood where we see the months leading up to his mother's departure.  At the time he is obsessed with twins, Bishop and Bethany (the girl he loves his whole life).  There are several chapters that explore their lives.  Bishop was abused as a child (which Samuel regrets only figuring out years later) then eventually ends up in the army.  Bethany is a child prodigy on the violin and becomes a famous musician - her relationship with Samuel is off and on.

The book then spends many chapters on the 1968 when Samuel's mother Faye is in college and unwittingly gets caught up in the student protests at the time of the Democratic convention.  Samuel finally discovers the story of why her mother never told him that she even went to college or what transpired there.  We meet her radical friends Alice and Sebastian and see why a police officer with the unlikely name of Charlie Brown held a life long grudge against her.

Eventually we even travel to Norway to see the secrets Samuel's grandfather had buried there and which haunted him and by extension Faye.  In fact the Nix is a Norwegian spirit that Faye learns of as a child and actually seems to provoke panic attacks.

There are also interesting side chapters about Pwange, a video game addict who plays the online games with Samuel.  They show the severe effects on his health which are probably a metaphor for something but really just end up being interesting diversions.

At the end Samuel discovers things about his mother as well as his past that certainly caught me by surprise, yet were believable.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book - but give yourself time to read it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

While incredibly gripping, this book literally gave me nightmares.  In fact, after the first rough night I considered quitting, but I was just too curious to see how it ended.

Grace is a single woman in her late 30s who has a good job (a fruit buyer for Harrod's) and has been involved in a couple of long time relationships.  But all of the relationships have come to an end because she is responsible for Millie, her 17 year old sister with Down's syndrome.  That is until she meets Jack.  He sweeps her off her feet with his good looks, charm and promises to buy her a perfect home and allow Millie to live with them once she turns 18 and is no longer eligible for the residential school where she currently resides.  He even wins over Grace's parents by jointly taking legal responsibility for Millie so they can fulfil a life long dream of moving to New Zealand.  Within 6 months Grace and Jack marry.

On her wedding night, Jack disappears, but promises to explain everything on their honeymoon in Bangkok.  There she learns he is actually a psychopath who feeds on the fear of others - he takes total control of her life; locking her in the house and never giving her an opportunity to be alone with anyone who could potentially help her escape.  What's worse is she discovers his true intentions toward Millie - it is really her that he wishes to imprison and terrorize.

The book flips back and forth between this start of the relationship and the present - where Grace is living a lie.  To her neighbours and friends she and Jack have a perfect relationship.  However, she is desperately working on a plan to escape.  I was really rooting for Grace and Millie - Jack was just so smug in his belief that he would always be able to outsmart them.  I don't really want to say anything more as it could take away from the suspense.

I did enjoy the book, but only take it on if you think you can cope with reading about extreme emotional abuse.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer with Susan Dworkin

I'm not sure how I ended up with so many Holocaust books on my reading list right now, but hopefully this is the last for a while (it gets a bit too heavy).  This was a memoir of Edith Hahn who survived the war as a "U-Boat" - a Jewish woman hidden in plain sight in Berlin, living life as the housewife of a Nazi officer.

Edith was born to a well-to-do, very assimilated Jewish family in Vienna.  Her father was a shop owner and her mother was a very talented seamstress.  Before the Nazi invasion of Austria Edith studied law and was active in the Communist movement.  She saw the writing on the wall, but did not leave Austria as she was madly in love with Pepi, a half Jewish man who would not abandon his Christian mother.  Edith's father died before the war and her two sisters managed to escape, one to Palestine the other to Britain.

When the Nazis took over Edith was first forced into the ghetto with her mother then sent to a slave labour camp.  There she suffered immense hardship through starvation and overwork but did manage to survive and even make some friends.  However, shortly after her mother was deported to Poland (until after the war Edith strongly believed it was just for resettlement) Edith was also ordered back to Vienna to report for resettlement.  Instead she took off her yellow star while on the train and immediately became a fugitive.  The reception she received from Pepi and her remaining cousin was far less welcoming than she'd hoped and instead, with the help of kind non-Jewish friends she was given a new identity as Grete Denner and moved to Berlin to work as a nurse with the Red Cross (because they did not demand national identity papers).

While in Berlin at an art gallery she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi party member who fell in love with her and offered to marry her.  Despite her protests and eventual confession of her true identity he still married her and protected her throughout the war.  Werner was a bit of an enigma - he did seem to love her though he feared their baby as he believe the Nazi propaganda that "Jewish blood" would prevail.  He was also a pathological liar and may have somewhat enjoyed the "game" of hiding a Jew.  Due to blindness in one eye he spent most of the war supervising a Nazi paint factory, but at the end was sent to the front and injured and captured by the Russians.  Edith who survived the war and revealed her true identity afterward got a job as a judge in post-war East Berlin and worked tirelessly to obtain his freedom.  When Werner did return he abandoned her and their daughter for his first wife.

A couple of years after the war Edith was asked to spy for the East German government - not wanting to do so she escaped to Britain and lived the rest of her life there and in Israel.  She told her daughter very little about the war years until much later in life when she learned Pepi had kept all her letters which diarized life in the labour camps as well as living underground.  These papers were all donated to the Holocaust museum in Washington.  In addition, the Christian woman whose identity she assumed is recognized as a righteous gentile at Yad Vashem.  Edith did not stay in touch with Werner but did maintain contact with his daughter from his first marriage who had spent time with her as a child during the war.

In all this was an interesting story though I would not say the book was the best written - it was a bit disjointed in style and therefore it was sometimes hard to keep the character references straight.  But it does tell of life of a Jewish person during the war from an entirely different perspective.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Miscalling by Affinity Konar

This was an amazing, though very difficult, story to read.  Konar tells the fictional story of twin sisters who found themselves in Auschwitz and the victims of Mengele's cruel experiments.

Pearl and Stasha are12 years old when they are rounded up in the Lodz Ghetto together with their mother and paternal grandfather, a former respected biology professor.  Their father, a doctor, had disappeared in the ghetto's early days when he went off to treat a sick child and never returned.  The official story was he committed suicide.  After days of suffering in a box car, while their grandfather amused them with biology games, they arrive at Auschwitz.  Spying Mengele's interest in a set of triplets, the girls' mother asks a guard whether it is a good thing to be a multiple.  He affirms that it is and the girls are dragged from beneath their grandfather's coat and handed over to Mengele.

From here we see the horrors of Mengele's experiments from the eyes of his victims as he tortures not only twins, but albinos, little people, and even Jews who he felt looked strangely Aryan and he needed to figure out why.  While we see his cruelty and that of others such as "the Ox" who was in charge of the girls' barracks, Mengele's nurse, Elma and the guard, Taube, we also see those who try to offer small kindnesses in the face of horrors such as the Jewish Dr. Miri who was forced to engage in terrible acts of cruelty and "Twins' father" who was in charge of the boys' barracks and made a point of cataloguing every child that moved in and out of there in an effort to preserve their identities in some small way.  The girls were also able to make some alliances, with Bruna an albino petty criminal who taught them how to steal provisions, Peter, a Mengele favourite who was able to move freely about the camp in his capacity as messenger and "Patient", later known as Feliks who loses his twin early on and becomes both broken and bent on revenge.

When the camp is liberated Stasha and Feliks set out together to avenge the disappearance of their twins.  In their weakened states they believe they can track down and kill Mengele.  And so we follow them as they discover the destruction of Poland following the war and we see how the strength of their spirit allows them to survive even though they cannot achieve their impossible goal.

The book was well written - I loved how it alternated between the perspectives of Pearl and Stasha.  It painted a vivid, though horrific, picture of what happened in Mengele's world as well as the long lasting effects of his torture on his victims who were lucky enough to survive (and at many times I'm sure did not consider themselves the lucky ones).

I highly recommend this book, though be prepared for some lingering horrific pictures in your head.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

This is not the type of book I normally read, but it was recommended so I thought I would give it a try.  It was quite interesting except that I found the ending to be a disappointment (I will not reveal it here so as not to spoil the mystery).

A small private plane carrying 11 passengers and crew members takes off from Martha's Vineyard airport for the short flight to Teeterboro, New Jersey.  About 15 minutes after take off the plane mysteriously plunges into the ocean and there are only 2 survivors - Scott Burroughs, an unsuccessful painter who was invited on the plane at the last minute, and TJ, a four year old boy.  Having been a swimmer in high school, Scott carries the boy on his back and miraculously swims them to safety, landing on the coast of Long Island.

After reading about the harrowing rescue, the rest of the book focuses on piecing together why the crash happened.  The framework is the investigation by the authorities:  the NTSB, the FBI (fearing it may have been terrorism), and the Office of Foreign Asset Control (since one passenger was on the eve of being arrested for money laundering).  A more tabloid style investigation is being conducted by Bill Cunningham, the controversial anchor of the new channel operated by the executive whose plane went down (TJ's father).  Bill is trying to suggest Scott is no hero but was having an affair with his boss' wife (which is why he was invited on the plane) and is now after TJ's money.

The chapters all delve into the pasts of the passengers and crew of the plane, searching for causes and motives.  Eventually the black box is recovered and all is revealed, but the answer is somewhat anti-climactic for me.  I think perhaps the most interesting part of the book was how both journalists and law enforcement officials could twist what few facts they had available to suit their interests - and how that's the news that people want to watch.

Monday, November 7, 2016

We're All in this Together by Amy Jones

This novel by a a Canadian author who was unfamiliar to me was an extremely pleasant surprise.  I had a hard time putting the book down.

The story begins when the matriarch of the family, Kate, goes over a waterfall in the Thunder Bay area in a barrel.  She lives, but ends up in a coma and an internet sensation.  Subsequent chapters are written from the perspective of her many family members as they struggle to figure out why Kate did what she did and whether they should have been able to predict and then stop it.

First we meet Finn.  She is the "prodigal" daughter who escaped Thunder Bay to pursue her dreams in Toronto.  At least that's how it looks on the surface.  In fact she works from home, writing warning labels for a myriad of products and has little social life to speak of.  She has not had a relationship since she left Thunder Bay in a huff several years earlier in part because her twin sister Nicki had an affair with her long term boyfriend Dallas and ended up bearing him a son.

Nicki is a hairdresser living with her parents and working out of their garage.  She has four children by three different fathers including, sixteen year old London whose perspective is often shared in the book too.  Nicki is married to Hamish (who is not the father of any of the children), a bootlegger who unknowingly provided Kate's barrel for her trip over the falls.

Shawn was a homeless boy who Kate adopted when he was a teenager and ended up in her yard after riding the rails for several years.  At first he expected to spend a few weeks with the family, steal what he could and set out on his own.  But he came to love the family and they came to love him so he stayed and he is perhaps now the most devoted of Kate's children.  All is not well with him though as his marriage with his high school sweetheart, Katriina, is in disarray.  She keeps miscarrying (though they have two sons) and has started cutting herself to cope with the pressure of always being perfect in Shawn's eyes.  Several chapters are also seen from Katriina's perspective.

Walter, Kate's husband, has been in love with her since childhood when they lived on neighbouring farms.  Dubbed "waiting Walter" by Kate he seems to have spent his life enduring her mysterious disappearances and then being her rock when she resurfaces.  He has his flaws though - fiercely in love with Lake Superior, he spends months at a time giving tours or servicing ice fishing camps.  He has known for years that something is not quite right with Kate, but he has tried his best to ignore it and to keep it from the children.

London, Kate's granddaughter has become obsessed with sharks and enters into an internet relationship with a celebrity marine biologist - at least she thinks so.  She thus becomes focused on chasing him down when he is making an appearance in Duluth, not far from Thunder Bay.  Much of the climax of the book takes place when London finally convinces an unlikely family member to accompany her to Duluth.  She's devastated when her marine biologist has no idea who she is - and turns out to be a bit of a fraud.  However, the secrets she learns about her family and how much they all mean to each other are far more valuable.

Ultimately this is a story of the bonds of family, the secrets between family members and the harm they can cause and how, in moments of crisis, it is often only our crazy family members that we can turn to.  The book is well written, all of the characters are flawed but endearing and the story is well paced.  All in all it makes for a great read.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Carry Me by Peter Behrens

It's a bit hard for me to summarize my feelings about this book.  Overall I was really intrigued by the story, but at times it was hard slogging.

The novel is narrated by Billy Lange who is looking back on his life at some indeterminate time (probably about the 1970s).  Billy was born in 1909 on the Isle of Wight.  His father was the skipper of the racing yacht belonging to a wealthy German-Jewish baron, von Weinbrenner, who, with his wife and daughter, spend one month a year on the island.  The rest of the year Billy and his family live in the home and take care of it for the baron.

Billy is born one year after von Weinbrenner's daughter Karin and is instantly drawn to her - she seems so adventurous and sophisticated to the younger boy, who is after all the child of her family's employees.

Billy's father is German, though really only in name having been born to a German sailor and his Irish wife miles off the coast of Acapulco and registered as a German upon hitting land.  Had he been born days later he would have been a US citizen which would have changed the course of his life and that of his family.  Upon the outbreak of World War I Billy's father is arrested and accused of being a German spy (primarily because part of his job was tracking sailing boats with a pair of binoculars).  As the von Weinbrenners are no longer welcome in the UK, Billy and his mother struggle to survive, eventually returning to his mother's home in Ireland where Billy also makes his first friend (Mick who appears on and off later in his life) and meets his paternal grandmother.

When the war is over Billy's father is released, but deported back to Germany.  The von Weinbrenners take them in and give Billy's father a job running their newly formed horse racing operation.

From there we follow Billy and Karin's lives in the interwar years - watching the horror of the rise of Naziism.

The novel, though narrated from a later date, alternates between the early story and 1938 when Billy and Karin are planning to escape Germany.  Along the way he paints a terrible picture of the rise of anti-semitism and its impact on Karin's once powerful family.  He sort of off handedly tells us how the Jews he met along the way fared during the war; somewhat downplaying the horror of most of their experiences.

What Billy and Karin share from childhood is an interest in the American west - in particular, El Llano Estacado which they read about in German language children's novels.  Eventually they fulfil their wish to travel there but it is not the idyllic escape that Billy expects.

In the end, I think I recommend this book, but you have to be prepared to give it some time to warm up and some patience for the less engaging sections.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This book got a lot of hype, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't like it as much as many of its reviewers.  The premise was interesting - the story followed 7 or 8 generations in two branches of an African family (originating on the Gold Coast in what is present day Ghana).  Two half sisters had vastly different lives - one, Effia, started out with an unhappy relationship with her mother, only to discover the woman she thought was her mother was not.  In fact, her father had a relationship with a housemaid who started a fire in their home on the day of Effia's birth abandoning her in the care of her father and step mother; leaving only a stone necklace.  The second, Esi, is later born to Effia's mother with her husband and has a very happy childhood.

The girls' paths then take very different turns.  Effia is married off to the British governor at the time and lives life in a castle.  Esi is stolen from her home and sold into slavery; passing through the castle's dungeon on her way to America.

Subsequent chapters alternate in telling the stories of Effia and Esi's descendants.  Effia's descendants live in Africa for the most part where they live through the impacts of tribal warfare, colonization and ultimately revolution and independence.  It is only her great, great, great grandson who eventually emigrates to America; of course as a free man.  Esi's descendants live in slavery, escape from slavery only to be imprisoned in the south (it seems for the "crime" of being black), and then live in poverty in Harlem.  It is only the last generation who escapes the cycle of poverty with a university education.  Of course the final generations ultimately meet up without knowing the connections (which was very predictable so I'm not giving anything away).

There were a couple of problems I had with the book.  First, to me it read more like a collection of interconnected short stories.  I would have liked to see better development of the relationships between the different generations.  And while I understood why the author alternated chapters between the two different branches of the family in order to tell both stories chronologically, I found myself often forgetting what happened in the previous generation by the time I got to the next instalment on that branch.  I had to rely heavily on the family tree at the front of the book, but even that left me with questions that could only be answered by rereading.  The chapters somehow needed to better tie in the previous ones.  Also, I couldn't help but feel this type of story had been done before, for example in The Book of Negroes.  While the author clearly did a lot of research and had an interesting premise, it just didn't feel that original to me.

All in all, I'm not sorry I read the book, but I was a bit disappointed after the hype it received.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

By Chance Alone by Max Eisen

This memoir of a holocaust survivor should be required reading for all high school students (and anyone else who has graduated high school and has never received a proper holocaust education).  Max Eisen is now in his eighties and living in Toronto.  He has devoted his post retirement years to holocaust education in schools, with police organizations and through the March of the Living.  The last time he saw his father, when they were separated at Auschwitz, his father blessed him then asked him to tell the world their story if he survived.  No doubt Mr. Eisen's father is immensely proud of the work his son has carried out in his memory and in the memory of all other victims.

Max was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia, near the Hungarian border.  He lived with his extended family of parents, paternal grandparents, aunts, uncle and siblings.  He was mischievous, not happy in school, but adored working the orchards with his grandfather.  He had a wide group of friends and by all accounts a normal, happy childhood.  He spent idyllic summers with his mother's extended family in a nearby town.

This all changed in 1944 when his town, which by then had been handed over to Fascist Hungary, liquidated its Jews and sent them by cattle car to Auschwitz.  Prior to this his mother's family had been sent to Madhausen where they were exterminated - though first sent the propaganda postcard about how happy they were farming in the East.  So until arrival at Auschwitz Max was quite naive about what was happening though it was relatively late in the war.  At selection, his mother, younger siblings, aunt and grandparents were immediately sent to the gas chambers.  His father and uncle became his "guardian angels" as he navigated the brutal work and living conditions, though eventually they too were taken from him.

By chance, as the title suggests, a severe beating on his head likely saved his life.  He was sent by an under Kapo to the camp hospital and there a Polish political prisoner doctor first nursed him to help then put him to work in the hospital - saving him from certain death.  They were together until separated on the death march in 1945.

Somehow Max managed to survive the unspeakable horrors of the death march and was eventually liberated by an American army unit from Ebensee at the end of the war.  He dragged his ill body back to his home town only to find his home had been taken over by neighbours who wanted to have nothing to do with him - except for one kindly woman who was now the mayor's wife.  She recognized how ill he was and arranged to have him hospitalized.  He then spent a couple of years at a school for orphans set up by the American Joint Distribution.  However when the communists took over Czechoslovakia he was caught trying to escape and imprisoned again.  By further chance a connection of his was able to get him released from prison and he made his way to a DP camp in Austria and eventually to Canada.

Max was fortunate enough to find employment and a wife whose family took him in and helped him rebuild his life.  It was years before he could fulfil his promise to his father and speak about his experiences, but now that he has started he tells a mesmerizing tale.  I also loved how he maintained his connections with his past - two cousins who were the only other survivors of his extended family, the family of the doctor who saved his life in Auschwitz and even one of the American soldiers who liberated him.  And most importantly he defied the Nazis by having children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The book is well written and hard to put down.  And a must read since there are so few with first hand knowledge left to tell their stories.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Another strange book recommended by the New York Times book review, but interesting enough that I made my way through it.

The book begins in 1976 on Martha's Vineyard.  Fern and Edgar are spending their summer at their vacation home with their three children, nine year old Cricket and six year old twins, James and Will when they are advised that all the family money they had been living off of was gone.  Fern becomes very concerned and wants Edgar to take over the helm of his father's steel business in Chicago.  But Edgar has never wanted that life - though he has happily lived off his family's money, he is embarrassed by it and is in the process of completing the publication of a book which delves into the horrors of making your money off the backs of poor miners and other workers.  This leads him to find solace in the arms of another woman, Gloria.

When the family returns to Boston, Edgar tries to set up a bizarre dinner where he will again hook up with Gloria but will hand over his wife to her husband.  Not surprisingly Fern is horrified and kicks Edgar out of their home.

Every second chapter the books goes back in time and we learn how the families made their money (Fern's is old plantation money earned off the backs of slaves; Edgar's parents are self made and very ostentatious in their lifestyle and spending habits).  We also learn how Fern and Edgar met; about Fern's twin brother who was mentally unstable (and how she blames her parents for his fate); about Edgar's time in the army (coddled as a result of his father's connections) and about the birth of the children.

When we return to the present Edgar has decided to escape on a sailing adventure with Gloria while Fern embarks on a completely odd cross country drive with a giant of a man who she has just met.  Neither knows the other is gone so the three children are left to fend for themselves.  Cricket seems to be the most capable of anyone in the family and actually manages to not only keep her siblings alive but to get them to school looking normal so that no one suspects the children are on their own.

The remainder of the book fills in more about the past - and the love/hate relationship with money.  And we follow the week long adventure of both parents and children as they all try to sort out how they should deal with their future now that they can no longer live off of Fern's family money.  There is some sort of resolution in the end, but it is no more sensible than the lives of the family members ever were.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

After reading a heavy book about cancer treatments, this was a nice light escape.  It's a modern day telling of Pride and Prejudice, but much easier to digest.

We follow the lives of the Cincinnati Bennet family.  The two oldest daughters, Jane and Liz, return from New York following their father's bypass surgery.  Jane is a yoga instructor, Liz a magazine writer.  The girls discover their family home in disarray - their father is incapacitated due to the surgery; their mother has a shopping addiction and is otherwise solely focused on the lunch she is organizing at the country club.  Middle sister Mary is working on her third online degree and hardly ever leaves her room while the two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, do little other than cross training.  Liz also quickly discovers that her father has nearly bankrupted them.

In addition to the family drama, like in the original work, Jane quickly falls in love with a doctor, Chip Bingley though the relationship is obviously plagued with misunderstanding.  Liz is smitten with the unlikely Fitzwilliam Darcy - who on first glance is rude and judgmental.  The youngest Lydia falls for a transgendered man and Kitty for a black man, much to this dismay of their racist and homophobic mother.

The drama comes to an end on the reality show, Eligible (think The Bachelor) where Chip was a contestant prior to meeting Jane.  If you have read the original the happy endings are no surprise, but the book is fun to read nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

This book was interesting, but very depressing - all the more so because it is based on the real life experiences of the author's late wife.

When baby Doe is just a few months old her mother, Alice, takes ill and is diagnosed with fairly advanced cancer.  Most of the book deals with Alice's fight to survive - multiple hospitalizations, radiation, chemotherapy and eventually bone marrow transplants.  In addition to feeling her enormous physical pain, we see the emotional pain she endures; particularly protracted separations from her infant daughter as her immune system is not strong enough to withstand catching any germs a baby is likely to carry.  Apparently many of the hospital and treatment scenes are based on journal's kept by the author's wife as she underwent cancer treatment.

Certain chapters are written from the perspective of Alice's husband, Oliver.  We see how he struggles trying to be the primary caretaker for his wife and child while at the same time juggling the financial strain of Alice's treatments.  He expends much energy trying to ensure proper insurance coverage.  There are also weird interludes where Oliver visits with prostitutes - I suppose illustrating his desperate need for escape and companionship of some sort.

One of the nice aspects of the book is the support Alice and Oliver receive from Alice's mother and their various friends.  Alice's mother takes on care of the her granddaughter while her friends rotate shifts by her bedside to ensure her comfort and, at times, safety when nurses cannot constantly assist her in her weakened state.  Oliver's friends try to help keep his business afloat thus ensuring continuity of insurance coverage - however, by the end we feel they have not been as supportive as Alice's friends.

My biggest problem with the work is that it was somewhat weird in its writing style - it jumped around a lot and there were certain scenes that either didn't work for me or I simply didn't understand what they were getting at.

The final chapter is from the perspective of Doe many years later when she is a teenager.  It is in this way that we learn the outcome of the story - both what happened with respect to Alice's health and how Oliver and Doe came through it all.

In all it was an interesting book, but very depressing so make sure you are in the mood for that kind of story.  You also need to be prepared to ignore or skim over the weirder parts.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

Finally a book I loved and had a hard time putting down - it's been a long while since that happened.  Whittall is very deserving of being long listed for the Giller.

The Woodbury's are the third generation of a wealthy WASPy family living in the large family home on a small lake in New England.  The father, George, has been teacher of the year every year for at least a decade at the prestigious prep school his 17 year old daughter, Sadie, also attends.  His wife, Joan, is a trauma room nurse who married into the wealth and does not live the life of leisure that others expect of her.  Their older son, Andrew, is now in his thirties and working as a lawyer in New York while living with his partner Jared.  The other main characters are Joan's prickly but practical sister, Clara, Sadie's boyfriend, Jimmy, his mother Elaine and her boyfriend, Kevin.

On the day of Sadie's 17th birthday the police barge into her home and take her father away in handcuffs - he has been accused by several teenage girls of inappropriate sexual advances and attempted rape while chaperoning a school ski trip.  His family is totally surprised by the charges against him - which he vigorously denies - and the book really focuses on how each of them deal with it in their own way.

At first Joan is certain her husband is being framed.  But as she looks into her finances in an effort to raise bail she discovers money missing and becomes more suspicious about what George could be hiding.  At the start she visits him in prison and tries to get the truth until one day he explodes and tells her to stop asking questions.  Then she takes a break from the visits.  Being practical she tries to work through the surprise of suddenly being on her own - she attends a support group for partners of men in prison for sexually related crimes, she goes back to work, she leans on her sister and she tries desperately to parent her children.

Sadie cannot take the constant scrutiny of press in her home or the nasty voice mail messages, eggs thrown at the windows and the fact that she's suddenly become a social pariah when previously she had been her grade's highest performer, president of student council, a track start and very popular.  She leans on her boyfriend Jimmy who remains very loyal and in love with her and moves into his family home.  There Kevin, who is a writer with one bestseller in his past and a severe case of writer's block, exploits her story to write his next bestseller.  Sadie misinterprets his interest in her which causes a strain on her relationship with Jimmy while his book puts a strain on Kevin's relationship with Elaine.  Elaine is mortified that he would use Sadie in this way.

Andrew's partner Jared tries to be very patient in his support, but Andrew continuously pushes him away as he struggles to deal with his fervent wish his father was innocent but his inability to make a legal case for it.  This is heightened when someone from Andrew's past brings him a new and more shocking revelation.

Another interesting side story is how George's case is taken up by a fervent group of anti-feminists who say charges of this nature are all a plot against men by slutty women who regret their actions in the morning.  Both Joan and Sadie are tempted to accept their support but are horrified to be associated with these fanatics who are so against their regular ideals.

As the book unfolds the reader is left to decide whether George is guilty or has been framed and whether the reactions of his family make sense.  To me all of the varied reactions seemed very realistic and I sympathized with everyone (except perhaps Kevin and the anti-feminists) at some point in the book.  It ends with the trial and a brief epilogue of what happened a year or so out in the future.

I highly recommend this book!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Secret Child by Gordon Lewis and Andrew Crofts

This is not a great book, but it's a reasonably interesting memoir of Gordon Lewis who was born and spent his early childhood in a home for unwed mothers in 1950's Dublin.  At the time, his mother was determined to keep him but unable to tell any of her friends of family that she had a child so they lived in relative isolation from the outside world.

The author paints a great picture of his mother - strong, determined, and self-sufficient she makes the best life she can for her son under the circumstances.  However, Gordon who does not do well in school (years later he is diagnosed with dyslexia) begins to get in trouble by running about town with the other "unfortunates" and causing general mischief.  When he is brought home by the police for the second time his mother decides she must get him away from the bad influences and turns to an old boyfriend who she had been unable to marry as his Protestant and her Catholic families were so vehemently opposed to the relationship.  He proposes and promises to take care of mother and son, bringing them to London where he now lives.

Gordon learns early that Bill is full of promises and short on delivery, but nonetheless he sees Bill and his mother are in love and figures out the best way he can how to make a new life for himself in London.  His mother even prohibits him from ever talking about his past life - which is hard for him as he misses both his friends and Bridie, the woman who was like a second mother to him while his mother worked.  Though still struggling in school, Gordon inherits his mother's entrepreneurial spirit and finds creative ways to make money even as a young boy.

The book begins with Gordon returning to Dublin to seek out his father and ends with us learning the identity of his father and the details of why his mother was left on her own.  Though that story is somewhat sad, you can't help but feel Gordon was lucky to be raised by such a determined single mother in a time and place when that was nearly unheard of.

Monday, August 22, 2016

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

This was a fascinating memoir by a man who was raised in an Ultra Orthodox Hassidic community but left the community after losing his faith.  It provides us with a glimpse at a world which is generally closed to outsiders' eyes.

Shulem was raised by relatively open minded parents who had turned to religion later in life and thus still maintained some connections with the "outside world".  His father taught religion to secular Jews which was frowned upon by the more dogmatic members of his community.  His father also suffered from some sort of mental illness which led to an eating disorder.  He eventually died when Shulem was about twelve.

Although Shulem had always attended Orthodox yeshiva, following his father's death he became much more observant and embedded in the small Skverer Hassidic community.  The Skverers live predominantly in a small shtetl just north of New York City known as New Square.  There they live in relative isolation from the rest of the world and are governed by their own religious rules.  While some work outside the community, most do not.  The children are barely educated in English or other secular subjects and are ill prepared to live outside the community (presumably the point - it keeps people in).

At 18 Shulem was married off to a girl he had met for five minutes and in not too long they had five children.  While Shulem was never sure about his marriage, he was devoted to his children and worked very hard to try to support the family.  At first Shulem worked as a Hebrew teacher, but he became increasingly disillusioned with his life a he realized no one had ever taught him how to support the family he was expected to have.

As he became more disillusioned he explored computers, radio and eventually television - much to the horror of his wife.  He also became a self taught computer programmer and managed to secure a job in New York (working for an Israeli diamond broker).  He also started to lose interest in God and religion.

The final straw for Shulem's community was when he encouraged a young doubter in the community to apply to college.  As a result Shulem and his family were thrown out of the community.  They moved to a somewhat more open Hassidic neighbourhood and for a time were able to make the marriage and family work.  But eventually his wife could not abide his increasingly secular ways and the couple divorced.  He had generous visitation rights with his children at first but as the girls got older (and presumably more and more influenced by the religious extremists) they refused to see him and his ex-wife was able to leverage the secular court system to limit his access rights.  I found this perhaps the most disturbing - the community pooled its money to fight him in court until he was eventually worn down.  The severing of his ties with his children was quite heartbreaking.

In the end Shulem lived a relatively secular life amongst others who had backgrounds similar to his.  He was more at peace but not necessarily happy due to his lost relationships with his children.

I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in the inner workings of a very secretive segment of society.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

This book is a few years old, but I decided to read it since part takes place in Italy where I recently travelled (though only a few small scenes in Rome, the rest in Northern Italy which I have not visited).

An interesting historical fiction, and love story, the novel certainly kept me interested.  It starts when Enza and Ciro are children.  Enza is growing up in a small mountain village - the eldest of six children and a happy helpmate for both her mother and father.  They are poor but get by based on the resourcefulness of all the family members.

Ciro, is less lucky.  His father had immigrated to work in the US mines to make money for his family, but dies in a fire at the mine - his body is never located.  Ciro's mother becomes depressed and can no longer care for Ciro and his brother, Eduardo, so she leaves them in the care of nuns at a local convent.  She promises to return for them but never does.  Eduardo is the studious brother and eventually is sent to seminary to be a priest.  Ciro is good with his hands and does all the physical chores the convent demands - though longing for a real family, the nuns, their handyman and his brother provide him with tremendous support.

When Ciro and Enza are teenagers, he is sent to her village and they meet and kiss.  He promises to stay in touch but shortly after witnesses the local priest in a compromising position and is sent by the nuns to America to escape the work house the priest wishes upon him.  He is sponsored by the uncle of one of the nuns who wants an apprentice in his shoe making business.

Not long after Enza and her father also immigrate to America in an effort to make money for the family so they can build their own house and no longer be at the mercy of landlords.  Enza almost dies from a severe case of seasickness.  While in the hospital she meets Ciro again but mistakenly believes he is in love with another woman and they go their separate ways.  Her father heads to the mines and Enza is left with distant relatives of her mother who mistreat her as their maid.  After several years working as a seamstress at night and maid by day, she makes a good friend, Laura, who teaches her English and together they find a nice rooming house and jobs sewing for the Metropolitan Opera.

At this point Enza and Ciro meet again but Ciro is headed to war and Enza is involved with a wealthy  employee of the opera.  However, when Ciro survives the war, and "loses" his brother to his ordination as a priest, he sets out to win Enza back.  Together they move to Minnesota to carve out a life selling shoes and sewing for miners.  The remainder of the book looks at the ups and downs of their lives together and ends with a glimpse at the future of their adult son.

This is not the greatest book I have ever read by any stretch but it was entertaining and the glimpses of life in New York and Minnesota in the early 1900s was interesting.

Friday, August 12, 2016

My Father Would have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair

One day Jennifer Teege picked up a book in the library called "I Have to Love my Father, Don't I?"  The small photo of the author on the cover looks somewhat familiar to her and, when she reads the subtitle of the book, she discovers it is written by her biological mother.  Born out of wedlock to a German woman and her Nigerian boyfriend, she was handed over to an orphanage when she was an infant, put in foster care and eventually adopted.  While she had some contact with her mother and her maternal grandmother prior to the adoption, she never saw her grandmother again and had only seen her mother once when she was about 20 (a reunion organized by her half sister, the daughter of her mother's first marriage).

Jennifer knew absolutely nothing of her maternal grandfather - who turned out to be Amon Goeth, the vicious commandant of Plaszow concentration camp who is depicted by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler's List.  Her grandmother had been Goeth's mistress in the concentration camp and stuck by him even after he was executed for war crimes in 1945 (shortly after Teege's mother was born).  The remainder of the book deals with how Teege reconciles herself to this past she knew nothing about.

She is particularly troubled because as a young child she adored her grandmother - she was the only one who showed her affection.  How could her beloved grandmother have turned a blind eye to what her monster of a lover was doing?  Apparently not without consequences as Teege discovers she had killed herself.  Teege also revisits the feelings of abandonment she felt from her mother - and while she is not able to re-establish a relationship with her, she does gain insight into the terrible feelings of guilt her mother has always lived with.  She also questions her adoptive father a bit more - he had always been obsessed with the facts a figures surrounding the Holocaust and now she thinks he was trying to reconcile them with his parents who were Nazi sympathizers.  Finally, having spent four years studying in Israel, and developed strong friendships there, she has to build up the nerve to reveal this secret to her Israeli friends so she can continue the friendships despite her past.

Teege's narrative is interspersed with that of Nikola Sellmair, a journalist who writes about her own interviews with Teege's family and friends during Teege's exploration of her past, and provides certain historical context to Teege's personal story.

An unusual book, this is a very interesting perspective, that is the descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust rather than the descendants of survivors.  And it shows how the guilt and confusion can survive for generations - even among those who were not actually raised by the perpetrators and did not know of their past until they were adults.

A Few of my Vacation Choices

First Comes Love by Emily Giffin

Written by the best selling author of Something Borrowed and Something Blue, this book was a little bit darker, though it did deal with the meaning of friendships and relationships in the same way.  Until the end I enjoyed it, but I found the end very unsatisfying - it just seemed to stop randomly without really wrapping up loose ends (maybe she's already saving things for a sequel?)

The book opens 15 years before the main action when Daniel, the older and much admired brother of Meredith and Josie dies in a car accident.  Fast forward 15 years and Meredith, who dreamed of being an actress, is a married lawyer with a daughter.  She chose the safe path so as not to put her parents through more trauma (they already divorced following Daniel's death).  Meredith is somewhat unhappily married to Daniel's high school best friend - having bonded over their grief.

Josie, always a little wilder than Meredith, is a teacher.  She has not settled down and is decidedly unsettled when a former boyfriend's daughter is placed in her classroom.  She also really wants to have a child and has decided to give up on finding a man and going the sperm donor route.  She thinks she wants an anonymous donor until she gets two offers - one from the last man she decides to meet before getting pregnant, who ends up being a good match, and her long time best friend and male roommate.  At the end she chooses the roommate's sperm with the approval of the boyfriend but we can't help feeling that will lead to no end of problems (which never get discussed when the book abruptly ends).  Josie must also deal with her guilt over the role she thinks she played in the death of her brother - and must resolve that with her now brother in law who also feels the guilt.

Mysteriously Meredith and her mother also long to meet the woman they thought Daniel would have married if he hadn't died.  Eventually the sisters meet him and that does lead to one somewhat uncomfortable though comical scene.

Not the greatest book ever, or even this author's best, but an amusing enough read for a lazy summer day.

As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner

Coincidentally this book also deals with a family who must cope with the death of a brother in a car accident.  However, I liked this one much better - the characters were far better developed and therefore more interesting.  The book is primarily set in Connecticut in 1948 - at "Bagel Beach" where the Jewish immigrants have cottages.  It is here that Davy is killed by the ice cream truck.  The story is told through the eyes of his older sister, 12-year old Molly.  It jumps back and forth in time to the relevant summer, the present day and anywhere in between.  Molly paints a fascinating picture of the the summers at the beach with her mother, Ada, aunts Vivie and Bec, brothers Davy and Howard, and cousin Nina.  They are joined on the weekends by Molly's father and Vivie's husband, Leo.  Molly even paints a vivid picture of her father's bachelor brother, Nelson, Bec's non-Jewish and married lover and even the driver of the ice cream truck, Sal.

In the present day we learn early on that Molly has inherited Bec's house following her death, and that many of the other characters have also died, but it is only over time that we find out how everyone carried on after that fateful summer.

While there was not a lot of surprise action - we learn about Davy's death, though not the precise play by play, very early.  However, I found myself wanting to continue reading to see what happened to all the characters and how they dealt with the roles they perceived themselves playing in Davy's death.

In addition to an interesting character study it is a great look at Jewish Americans in the immediate post-war period - there are still essentially segregated beaches, they work in traditional jobs like the garment industry, they are very traditional, attending synagogue regularly, and they are just coming to grips with the news of the atrocities in Europe.  They are also suspicious of their Italian, Irish, and other neighbours.

I really recommend this book if you want to dive into the inner workings of a large and complicated family.

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Given the hype this book received, I set myself up to be disappointed (a la The Goldfinch), however, it turned out that I was pleasantly surprised.  Though none of the characters was nearly as likeable as those described in the previous book, they were no less fascinating.

The premise of the story is that when Mr. Plumb senior died he set up a trust fund for his 4 children, Leo, Melody, Beatrice and Jack to be received when the youngest (Melody) turns thirty.  The kids took to calling it the "nest" - and though it was never intended to make them rich, with wise investment it had grown and each of the siblings had plans for the money.  However, months before they are to receive it, Leo, the eldest, drives while under the influence and causes an accident which severely injures a young waitress.  The kids' mother, who has discretion over the nest, uses it to silence the girl, wanting to avoid scandal for herself and her new husband.

Thus, we get to watch how the siblings deal with not getting access to the money - and the impact it has on their relationships.  We also see Leo try to squirm out of paying them back though each correctly suspects he has money squirrelled away somewhere.  And we see them turn their anger on their rather distant mother for spending their money.

Again not much happens - this is really just a study in family relationships and the impact that money (both found and lost) can have on them.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

This is a new novel by the Australian author who quite cleverly mixes together some romance, family drama and mystery.  In this book we learn very early on that something went terribly wrong when Erika and Oliver, and their friends, Clementine and Sam, go to a barbecue at the home of Erika's neighbours, Vid and Tiffany.  However, I could not guess what exactly had happened (not for lack of trying) and it wasn't revealed until quite late in the book - which meant it was hard to put it down.

In addition to trying to figure out this main story line, there were several others - the strange relationship between Erika and Clementine; Erika's relationship with her mother the hoarder, and with Erika's mother who was a social worker that forced the friendship when the girls were children; Erika and Oliver's difficulty in having children; Clementine's nerves about auditioning for a regular role in the Sydney symphony; the strain whatever happened at the barbecue had on Clementine and Sam's marriage and their relationships with their two children; the fate of the grumpy neighbour who lives on the other side of Vid and Tiffany; the secrets about her past that Tiffany is keeping from Vid and that may come out given current circumstances; and the impact whatever happened at the barbecue had on Vid and Tiffany's 10 year old daughter.

I don't want to reveal much more as it will ruin the suspense.  But, while this is by no means high brow literature, it is well written and definitely kept me interested.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Having enjoyed a Moriarty book last week, I picked this one up at the library.  The style is similar - a bit of a mystery wrapped into a typical family/relationship drama.

In this case, the mystery, not surprisingly is what the husband's secret is.  Cecilia discovers a letter written by her husband to be read only in the event of his death.  She is general rule abiding but when he reacts rather oddly to her announcement that she has found it, she becomes more intent on opening it.  She begins to really imagine the worst when her youngest daughter, Polly, remarks that her father looks oddly at her oldest daughter, Isabel; and her middle daughter, Esther, says she caught her father crying in the shower.  About halfway through the book we find out what the husband's secret was - it was not what either Cecilia nor I was expecting.  Through the remainder of the book we see how the family and others in the community deal with the revelations in the letter.

The other key characters are Rachel, an elderly woman whose only daughter was strangled as a teenager and whose death remains an unresolved crime.   She has finally found some peace with the birth of her grandson, but when her son announces he is moving to the US with this grandson, all her loneliness and anger comes back.  Rachel is the secretary at the Catholic school where Cecilia is president of the parents' association and where her three daughters attend.  So their lives intersect.

The third group of people are Tess and her husband who has just announced he has fallen in love with her cousin and best friend.  As a result Tess returns to Sydney with her son and enrols him at the same school.  She also begins an elicit affair with a former  boyfriend who is the PE teacher there.  So her life also intersects with the others - though frankly this story is somewhat less central to the overriding story of the secret.

In all this is an easy read with mostly likeable characters.  We see the action from many different perspectives, male and female, young and old, etc.  And we see how one secret can impact a whole community of lives.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

This book has received a lot of hype this summer - and while I'm not sure it deserved it, the story did keep me entertained.

The whole novel takes place essentially over a few months in Brooklyn, NY, though there are both flash backs and a sort of epilogue that takes us out several years in the future (in the form of newspaper articles which was sort of interesting).

The main characters are Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe who were bandmates in college and have lived no more than several houses apart ever since.  Elizabeth and Andrew are married and have one teenaged son, Harry.  Zoe is now married to Jane and they have one teenaged daughter, Ruby, who is the object of Harry's affection.

Elizabeth is now a successful real estate agent, though she could have been a successful songwriter.  Andrew is the son of wealthy Upper East Siders who has contempt for his parents' wealth though he seems to live off of that and his wife's earnings as he drifts from one unsuccessful endeavour to another.  He is rather annoyingly naive as he gets sucked into investing with a former actor turned into the owner of a yoga/meditation/health food studio, only to be "saved" by his wife who enlists Harry and Ruby to spy on him.

Zoe and Jane own a successful restaurant - Zoe is the chef while Jane is in charge of everything else.  Zoe is rather dreamy and artsy while Jane is organized and efficient.  They are having marital difficulties in part due to Zoe's continuing co-dependant relationship with Elizabeth.

The relationship between Harry and Ruby is interesting.  Harry has always been the "good boy"; while Ruby has been involved with skateboarding high school dropouts and has not been able to get into college.  While Harry is clearly smitten, Ruby seems to like him but really be enjoying teaching him the "ways of the world".

The final main character in the book, Lydia, actually died several years before the action takes place.  She was the other band member in college who bought the rights to a song written by Elizabeth and makes it famous.  Part of the story revolves around a film being made about Lydia - the producers are seeking the rights to the song and to the three remaining band members' lives - Andrew is very reluctant as it will reveal long held secrets.

As summer wears on we see the relationships and the characters themselves evolve.  There is not a lot of action, but the people make the book worth reading.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Three Summer Reads

It's that time of year when I don't have the energy to read anything heavy.  So here are the last three books I read - don't expect great literature but they are an entertaining enough read for on the beach or by the pool.

Here's to Us by Elin Hilderbrand

Hilderbrand has come out with her annual Nantucket based book.  I certainly enjoyed this one more than last year's.  In this novel, Deacon Thorpe, a celebrity chef has passed away suddenly.  In accordance with his wishes, his lawyer and best friend gathers his two ex-wives, his current estranged wife and his three children (one from each wife) at his favourite place in the world - his rustic Nantucket cottage.

Though the three wives shared a love for Deacon, they could not have been more different.  Laurel is his high school sweetheart - they married at a young age when she became pregnant with his first son.  She is now a social worker who has never found love again after Deacon left her for his second wife. Belinda was a famous actress who made a play for Deacon and took him away from Laurel.  They shared a damaged past and together adopted a baby girl, Deacon's second child and the one who ended up being his successor in the restaurant business.  In a cliche move, Deacon left Belinda for their young nanny, a Southern debutante, many years his junior.  She bore him one daughter who is now just a child.

Deacon struggled with drugs and, unbeknownst to his wives or children, money problems.  So his lawyer must tell the women that not only are they left with nothing, but a one third share in the Nantucket cottage, but they will have to give up the cottage if the multiple mortgages cannot be paid. Belinda is the only wife with the money to do that - but she is unwilling to help the nanny who stole her husband and Deacon's first wife is unwilling to accept her help.

The women are not the only ones with problems - Deacon's son is suffering from a heroin addiction and his older daughter has just been dumped after carrying on with a married man.

The book deals with what happened when these characters join together in Nantucket to spread Deacon's ashes interspersed with flashbacks into his past with each of his wives.  Again, not great literature but a decent read with lots of interesting characters.

The Island House by Nancy Thayer

Thayer also comes out with about a book a year set in Nantucket - hers also deal with complicated families and their love and money troubles.  In this book Susanna Vickerey, a mother of four is celebrating her sixtieth birthday and her natural children as well as her "island children" gather to celebrate.  Each of the four children has brought at least one friend to the cottage since they were children and they have been "adopted" into the Vickerey family for the summers.  This summer, daughter Robin's friend Courtney is also headed to the island to explore whether she has a chance at a relationship with son James or should accept the marriage proposal received from her childhood friend in Kansas City.  She has kept her feelings for James a secret from everyone until now.

The oldest son Henry is dealing with the impact of bipolar disorder on both his medical career and his relationship with his long term girlfriend.  James seems to be in love with a family friend - a quirky artistic girl.  Courtney is carrying on a clandestine affair with a person who she thinks her family will disapprove of and Iris the youngest has just graduated from college, no longer has a lot in common with her wealthy New York "island sister" and is looking for some direction.

The story shows us what happens when all these characters gather on the island.  The relationship outcomes are fairly predictable but nonetheless entertaining.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

This was my first book by the New York Times best-selling Australian author and I liked it enough to pick up another one.  While this is mainly another story of relationships, it is also a bit of a mystery.  The action opens with the scene of a primary school fundraising trivia night where, through the eyes of an elderly woman who lives near the school, we learn that a person has died, or perhaps been killed.  The narrative then jumps back in time by six months and we meet the main characters, all of whom become the potential victim and suspect.  Each chapter ends with snippets of police interviews with various attendees at the trivia night which we need to try to piece together what happened.

Madeline is a strong, outspoken woman married to her second husband, Ed.  Her first husband Nathan, and father of her oldest daughter, Abigail, has remarried a younger woman.  His second wife, Bonnie is a health conscious, socially responsible yogi who Abigail is enamoured with, much to Madeline's dismay.  To make matters worse, Nathan and Bonnie's daughter Skye will be in kindergarten with Madeline and Ed's youngest daughter, Chloe.

Madeline befriends the beautiful Celeste who seems to lead a charmed life with her husband Perry and twin sons.  But beneath the charm there is an abusive relationship.

Both women take the young single mother Jane under their wings.  Jane's son Ziggy is accused of bullying and Jane worries he may have inherited a violent streak from his biological father with whom Jane had a violent one night stand.

There are many other minor characters involved in tense situations around the school relating the the alleged bullying and other power issues.  Everyone of the main characters seems potentially able to snap and hurt another (with cause or at least perceived reason).  I can't say I actually guessed what happened though it seemed believable once I got there.  So it kept me intrigued trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman

This is a very interesting angle on the typical Holocaust story.  It is told entirely from the perspective of Christine, who is a young German Christian maid who falls in love with the wealthy, half Jewish son of her employers in the months immediately prior to World War II.  Initially she and her family are worried that the class differences will make a relationship between her and Isaac impossible, but with the rise of Hitler this becomes the least of their worries.

The book covers the entire war period.  We see how at first the laws prohibit Christine from working for Isaac's family, then prohibit any relationship between them.  Despite that they continue meeting secretly until even that becomes too risky.  And, of course, eventually Isaac's family is deported to Dachau.

Because of the perspective of this book we also see the impact of Nazism on ordinary German country people.  Christine's father is drafted into the army and sent to the Russian front - they hear from him only sporadically.  The family has barely enough food, and her mother nearly starves while trying to give what their is to her four children.  The family must spend many nights in a bomb shelter when Allied air strikes begin - and her grandfather does not survive one fire bombing.  Eventually her sister is also sent to the Russian front to assist soldiers and is severely damaged by the Russian "liberation".

Throughout it all Christine remains loyal to Isaac, eventually ending up in Dachau herself for her efforts to assist him.  And after the war she refuses to remain silent about what she witnessed and goes to the Americans to do her best to see the perpetrators punished.

The book is well written and easy to read despite its heavy subject matter.  I think it's a worthwhile book to read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

This book is subtitled - "nine lives in the world's largest refugee camp" - which clearly describes both the number of people the author followed for a period of several years; and the "nine lives" everyone in the camp seems to need to survive.

Rawlence, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa, made multiple visits over a span of years to Dadaab refugee camp in the northern Kenyan desert.  He must have spent countless hours interviewing and observing residents to put together this detailed and fascinating account of life in the camp.

Most of the residents of Dadaab are Somalis who have been fleeing both drought (and the attendant famine) and civil war since the early 90s.  However, there are also Sudanese, Ethiopians and those from a handful of other African countries who have escaped hardship there.  The camp was supposed to be a temporary solution but has grown into one of the largest "cities" in Kenya - those who leave to return home or for better lives in Nairobi, Europe, Australia or North America cannot make up for the birth rate or the constant influx of new refugees.

It is illuminating to see the ingenuity of the residents who have no official status in Kenya yet have developed a sophisticated black market economy, have been educated by the Kenyans and the UN in some cases and, against impossible odds, many remain hopeful.  Of course many do not and return to danger at home or in Nairobi or turn to suicide.

The book also manages to educate on the state of the Kenyan government - and the level of corruption involved in it as well as its tense relationship with Somalia even before al-Shabaab terrorists became an issue.

This is not an easy read but it is well written and the author manages to personalize the story through following several residents which makes it easier to digest a complicated tale of war, history and politics.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This book was just plain weird.  It was about a writer and one of the lessons she had been taught by a fictional writer/teacher is that "you only have one story".  Maybe Strout's one story was the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, because there sure wasn't much story in this one.

The basic premise is the narrator reflecting on several weeks she spent in the hospital as a young mother, when her mother, with whom she had very little contact as an adult, comes to spend 5 days at her bedside.  Their interactions are awkward with the unspoken reminisces of a poverty stricken and abuse filled childhood.  But we never really hear the extent of the abuse, or even whether it was just at the hands of her father or the mother was also involved.  We also hear a little about her adult siblings, including a brother who still lives at home and is likely gay but was shamed for it as a child so has not come out.

We also learn a little of the narrator's troubled marriage (which ends a few years after the hospital stay) and the strain her separation places on her relationship with her daughters.

I guess we are meant to learn about the nature of troubled human relationships and how the shape adulthood, but mostly I was bored and kept reading on to see if eventually anything would happen.  It didn't.

Monday, May 2, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This is the second autobiography that I've read in a row and this one was completely different in some ways - here terminal illness was the enemy rather than an autocratic state.  Yet, it was similar in that it showed the absolute strength of the human spirit when it is most severely challenged.

Paul Kalanithi, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2015, was a brilliant neurosurgeon/neuroscientist who was just about to complete his specialty when he was struck by the cancer.  Prior to medical school he had studied English literature and the history and philosophy of science and medicine so had also dreamed of eventually writing a book.  He was originally moved to study the brain in order to understand how something as complex and language and communication could be physically explained.  With his patients he was always fascinated by the process of dying and how the patient and the families came to terms with it.

So, when faced with his own mortality he set out to write a book that would document his dying process and serve as a guide for others facing the same circumstances (which he recognized is everyone at some point - they just don't always know when).  Personally, not being that philosophical, I found myself skimming some of the more esoteric sections, but I was fascinated by Kalanithi's personal story.  I also enjoyed how he wove in applicable passages from literature.  The epilogue by Kalanithi's wife, which outlines his last few days and his literal deathbed request that his family see his book through to publication, was also extremely moving.

At times depressing, at other times hopeful, this was a very interesting read by someone with a perspective that we don't often get to share.  This is not an easy read and I don't recommend it for mere entertainment, but it does contain some insights that are helpful, if not pleasant, to share.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Until We are Free - My Fight for Human Rights in Iran by Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi is a human rights activist from Iran - and the first Muslim female to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  This book is the story of her life of fighting for the rights of women, political activists, Bahai and other oppressed minorities in Iran.

Prior to the Iranian revolution, Ebadi was a judge.  When the Shah was overthrown the new Islamic regime stripped all women of their judgeships, feeling women were too emotional to make legal decisions.  Ebadi didn't let this deter her - she took up the cause of human rights law, working through the courts and political channels to try to uphold the rights of the oppressed.  She went about it in a very intelligent and systematic way, even using Islam to her advantage in arguing her cases.  Because she would never back down, she became a regular target of the Islamic regime - they tried everything to intimidate her.  Her situation worsened with the "election" of Ahmadinejad - she was stopped from appearing in court, holding events, speaking her mind and even spent some time in Evin prison.  However, the government stopped short of killing her or permanently imprisoning her - likely because it feared the international backlash of treating a Nobel prize winner in this way.

On the eve of Ahmadinejad's second term, Ebadi was traveling outside the country (she would not be intimidated into abandoning speaking on the world stage - even when her daughter was used as a pawn).  She has not been able to return to Iran due to threats against her and she continues her work from the UK and the US (she has one daughter living in each country).  After she left the country and continued to speak out against the regime, the government used her husband to try to silence her, eventually wearing him down and breaking up what was a very solid marriage.  She does hold out some hope of improvement under Rouhani, but it sounds like there is still a long way to go.

The book is well written, easy to read and highly educational.  While I was aware of the oppressive regime in Iran, it was still eye opening to hear it from the perspective of someone who has lived through it.  Some of the stories she tells are unimaginable.  I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in international human rights.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Age of Reinvention by Karine Tuil

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  I found the story itself really interesting.  Sam Tahar is a very successful New York litigator who seems to have it all - great job, rich wife with connections into all aspects of society, plenty of affairs...  The only problem is it is all based on a lie.  Sam is really Samir Tahar - raised a poor Muslim in a Paris slum.  He works hard and does well in law school but when he is unable to get a job, he changes the name on his resume to Sam and is immediately hired by a Jewish lawyer in Paris who assumes he is also Jewish.

Sam lets the assumption continue and, when he is asked to move to New York and open an office there, he carries it further.  He adopts the past of a law school friend, Samuel Baron, who really is Jewish and manages to marry into one of New York's elite Jewish families.

The only thing Samir was unable to take from Samuel was the woman he most wanted, Nina.  Samir and Nina have a brief affair during law school (while Samuel is off burying his parents which tells you a lot about Samir's empathy).  When Samuel returns he is devastated and attempts suicide so Nina chooses him over Samir.  At the start of the book they are barely getting by.  Everything changes when they read about Samir and realize what he has done.  They decide to contact him - Samuel wants to test Nina's resolve.  This ends up having disastrous consequences for all three.  But, surprisingly, though Samir lets his guard down in order to be with Nina, she is not the ultimate cause of his downfall - but I don't want to give the book away so I will not describe the events that lead to his life unravelling (and Samuel's simultaneous rise in fortunes).

What I didn't like about the book was the writing style.  I found it very pompous - one of my pet peeves is footnotes in fiction and these were used liberally.  There were also many passages where alternate thoughts were expressed with back slashes.  I just found it annoying - like the author was attempting to show off her wide vocabulary.  I will give credit to the translator - if the author's annoying pomposity could come through in translation, I think the translator must be top notch.  I don't remember, but I must have heard about this book in the New York Times as it is exactly the kind of writing style the Times always praises; like the book editors must show how smart they are by relating to this "high brow" writing.

In the end I don't strongly recommend this book.  I made it through because I wanted to see how Tahar's life unravelled but I wouldn't say I truly enjoyed the read.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew

This was a difficult but important book to read - I think every Canadian should read it to gain greater understanding of our Aboriginal population.  Kinew is the son of a residential school survivor.  His book is really the story of his father, the survivor.  While it covers the period of his father's childhood, adulthood and beyond, the focus is on the relationship the men develop in the year leading up to his father's death from cancer.

Kinew's father, Tobasonakwut or Ndede (Ojibwe for my father), was plucked from his parent's home at the age of five.  He was forced into a residential school where he was emotionally, physically and sexually abused by both nuns and priests.  The leaders of the school took seriously their goal of beating the Indian out of these children.  Ndede told horrific stories of a friend who was beaten to death while the priests looked on, or being beaten for not kneeling at his father's grave (the Ojibwe tradition is to stand rather than kneel).  Miraculously, after a bout with drinking and fighting, Ndede stayed away from alcohol and focused on his education.  He also had three children from a first failed relationship.  Unfortunately his anger and inability to show love continued - and one of these children committed suicide.  A second was killed young in a car accident.

While in Toronto, Ndede met the woman who would become Kinew's mother, an upper middle class white woman whose open minded family accepted him better than most might have.  She moved to a reserve and then Winnipeg with him and together they had two children, Kinew and his sister, Shawon.  He did stray one more time and had another daughter, but remained married to Kinew's mother until his death.

Kinew himself struggled with alcoholism and fighting in his twenties but pulled himself together for his sons - and became a very successful journalist.  But his honest account of his family life showed how the residential schools have a lasting effect on generations of families.  Children taken from their homes do not have role models for parenting, and are angry and have been abused.  They thus have difficulties showing love and raising their own children - who then, sadly, can carry that experience to the next generation.

Kinew describes incredible native traditions (especially the sundance) which he shares in with his father and other family members.  He also captures the paradox of his father's continuing interest in the Catholic traditions - there are amazing scenes of his father giving the Pope two Eagle feathers - which the Pope accepted and Ndede took as a sign of reconciliation; and a ceremony where he adopts the Archbishop of Winnipeg as his brother.  Though the most poignant scene was his forgiveness of the Archbishop on his death bed.

One of my favourite stories was a legacy Kinew has left for all Canadians - when he was a young journalist at CBC Winnipeg, the ethics committee sent a memo saying residential school survivors should not be called survivors as they did not fit the definition.  Instead they should be called "former students".  Kinew sent a memo reasoning with the ethics committee - saying in fact they did fit the definition and, moreover, it would do a disservice to merely call them students which in future generations would convey the wrong message.  He was initially rejected and threatened to quit his position over it, but ultimately with the support of more senior reporters successfully changed the CBC's official position on the use of the word survivor.

While occasionally the writing style was hard to follow - I sometimes forgot who various players were and there were a lot of Ojibwe expressions which are explained but are difficult words to parse for non-Ojibwe speakers - this did not detract from the readability of the book and, as I said above, I think this is a really important book to read too.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Niko by Dimitri Nasrallah

Though I had ordered this book from the library some time ago, I almost didn't read it since I have read so many refugee stories lately and I wasn't sure I felt like another one.  But I'm glad I decided to go through with it.  The story was written in a very different style than the others.  Firstly, it was written from several points of view - Niko, his father, his aunt and uncle...  Moreover, when the book begins Niko is only about 6 years old so we see the action (particularly the Lebanese civil war and the death of his mother) from the perspective of a child.

After Niko's mother is killed by a car bomb and his father's store is also destroyed, Niko and his father flee Lebanon.  Unfortunately they don't have a very well developed plan and literally drift from Cyprus, to a Greek island to Athens.  When his money begins to run out and the father is unable to renew his passport (it is never totally clear whether this is because of the turmoil in Lebanon or because he is a Palestinian refugee rather than a Lebanese citizen), he sends Niko to Montreal to live with an aunt and uncle who he has never met.  The aunt is his mother's estranged sister, married to a much older man who was her father's employer.

The narrative continues for the next decade or so as Niko is  unable to fit in with his new family and peers in Canada as he holds back a bit in the hopes this is temporary and he will be reunited with his family.  We also see his father struggle to make something of himself before he can get to Niko - he works odd jobs on ships from Marseilles and Libya and eventually ends up in Chile.  But fate intervenes and he is unable to connect with his son for years.

I think this was so interesting as it shows the lengths a father will go to in order to improve his son's life, but how his efforts are at least part in vain because his son feels abandoned by the one person he has come to count on.  It also shows yet again how hard it is to establish oneself in a new country when the comfortable life you used to know is shattered by war.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The One Hundred Year Walk - An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

I loved this book - and it was so enlightening.  I knew a little bit about the Armenian genocide, but this book really brought it to life - in all its horror.

First of all I can't say enough about how well the format of the book worked.  The author, a journalist, is encouraged by her mother to tell her grandfather's story.  While she vaguely remembers her grandfather, and grew up hearing her mother's stories about his survival of the genocide, she is not convinced to take on the project until she finds her grandfather's journals.  At first she is missing the most crucial years of the genocide, but after much searching they are found in her uncle's garage.  She then works with her mother and her mother's friends and relatives to translate them from Armenian to English.  She also studies everything she can find about the genocide (which is less than she would have hoped).  Armed with this historical information, she retraces the route her grandfather was forced to walk when the Turks led the Armenians on a death march during World War I.  The chapters of the book alternate between Dawn's quest and that of her grandfather.  And she had enough information to convincingly write her grandfather's chapters in the first person from his perspective.

Dawn's grandfather, Stepan, was a courier in Adabazar, a town in the Ottoman Empire not far from Constantinople.  The town had a large, vibrant Armenian population prior to its being swept up in a mass government deportation.  Stepan himself is drafted into an army work gang which is first overworked and underfed clearing roads and railway lines.  Eventually they are just led on a long march through the desert - and Stepan gradually comes to the realization that they are being led to their deaths.  At the same time his family is deported to a refugee camp in a place called Chai and are miraculously able to stick together and stay there until the end of the war.

Stepan survives through a combination of incredible will and ingenuity, bonds with fellow residents of Adabazar who he meets along the way and, at times, just plain luck.  He escapes more than once, only to be returned to his doomed march though makes his final escape with the assistance of an Arab sheik in what is present-day Syria.  He works as his assistant under the sheik's protection until it is relatively safe for him to return to Anatolia to reunite with his family.

Dawn realizes her grandfather's strength when she is unable to cope with the walks he used to take as a courier and has trouble crossing the desert in a car with provisions.  She is able to locate the descendants of the sheik who saved her grandfather's life and is greeted by 300 of them - where she is able to convey her family's thanks.

The description of the tortuous conditions the Armenians suffered are powerful; made more so by the fact that the current Turkish government still does not acknowledge the "Armenian issue" as an act of genocide.  In fact, Dawn felt compelled to hide the true purpose of her visit to Turkey for fear of agitating the authorities.  To this day the US has also feared calling the event a genocide - even though Dawn quotes from communiques from the US Ambassador at the time pleading with his government to intervene (he eventually resigns from his post as he finds it too hard to deal with).  There are also interesting reports from German soldiers which make their way to the rest of the world but result in limited action - interesting because Germany was an ally of Turkey at the time and because similar reports coming out of Germany would be similarly ignored only a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to gain insight into an ugly era in human history - but told from a very human perspective.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Lightless Sky by Gunwale Passarlay with Nadine Ghouri

Given today's refugee crisis, this is a very timely personal account of a young boy's escape from Afghanistan to the west.

Gulwali Passarlay was born in 1994 in a small Pashtu community in Afghanistan.  As a very young boy he lived a shepherd's life in the mountains with his grandparents.  Later he helped his uncle's in a market tailoring shop.  Gulwali's father was a well-respected doctor; his uncle a Taliban officer and his mother and other female relatives traditional women who generally stayed at home, but wore the full body blue burqa when they did venture out.  Gulwali himself was taught to be deeply religious and to fight for the honour of his family and the superiority of the men in the community.  He did not support educating his younger sisters.

When Gulwali was 12, and the Taliban had been chased from power by coalition forces, both the Taliban resistance and the invading armies tried to recruit him and his older brother.  Instead his parents sent him away to live with his maternal grandparents in another Afghan village.  While he was there both his father and grandfather were executed for collaboration with the Taliban.  Because this book is written from Gulwali's perspective, as a child, we never really know the extent of their involvement with the Taliban.  My personal view is they were just poor, traditional tribal villagers who were trying to survive however they could.

Gulwali's mother decides it is no longer safe for her oldest sons so she pays human smugglers to take them to freedom in Europe (we later find out she has paid $8000 each to get them as far as Greece).  She accompanies them as far as Peshawar, Pakistan then instructs them to hold each other's hands the whole way and "no matter how hard it gets, never come back".  These words haunt Gulwali throughout his lengthy escape.  First, because he is separated from his brother by the smugglers in the  Peshawar airport and must make the escape entirely on his own.  Second, it gets really hard and he desperately longs for the comfort of his mother and grandmother.

Most of the book gives us insight into just how difficult escape is, and how organized a machine human smuggling has become.  Gulwali travels from Pakistan to Iran, through Iran, on foot to Turkey, by train to Bulgaria - where he is jailed and returned to Turkey, where he is jailed and returned to Iran.  Then from Iran back to Turkey, by leaky boat to Greece, then to Italy, Calais, France and finally England.  Along the way he meets the worst of the smugglers who prey upon people's desperation.  But he does meet up with some kindness - in other, slightly older, refugees boys who take him under their wing, some of the lowly hosts of refugees who are doing this just to make a living and take pity on a small boy doing this on his own (he is particularly favoured by some of the wives and mothers who feel for him and do what they can, whether it is giving him a bit extra food or slightly better sleeping conditions).

Some of the most vivid descriptions are of makeshift refugee camps in Europe - particularly "the jungle" in Calais.  It's eye opening to see what is happening in these supposedly developed countries. In the end Gulwali makes it to the UK alive - but he is permanently scarred both physically (from an aborted attempt to smuggle him across the channel in a truck filled with some sort of chemical powder) and emotionally (he suffers from severe depression, and even attempts suicide at least twice).  But he is obviously extremely bright and makes the most of his educational opportunities in the UK.  He says he dreams of returning the Afghanistan and one day perhaps becoming its president.  Given his remarkable survival skills, I for one believe he probably could become president of Afghanistan one day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

After You by Jojo Moyes

This is a sequel to the popular book, Me Before You.  It was a bit trashy but an entertaining weekend escape.

In the first book, Louisa Clark gets a job taking care of a bitter quadriplegic, Will, and ends up falling in love with him - only to have to grant his wish to let him commit doctor assisted suicide at a Swiss clinic.

In this book we see how Louisa is coping about two years later.  We hear she spent some time in Paris - as Will had requested she do in a letter delivered after his death.  She is now living in an apartment in London which his money purchased for her and is working in a dead end airport bar job.  She clearly has not fully recovered from his death when she falls off her rooftop patio and is forced to go home to her family's small town to recover.

There at least she reconnects with her parents who she had not spoken to in some time (frankly I don't remember if this was covered in the last book...).  When she returns to London her father encourages her to join a grief support group.  There she meets Sam, the paramedic who helped her after her fall.  After a series of misunderstandings, and some confusion created by Will's daughter that he didn't even know he had, Louisa starts to get her life back on track - with a better job, hope of a relationship with Sam, new friends from her support group and a strengthened relationship with her parents and sister as well as Will's parents.

So a classic happy ending after some tears and laughter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

Someone recommended this to me, but I couldn't even get through it.  Though the premise was interesting, as was the writing structure, I was too bored and none of the characters really grabbed me.  What I did like was the constantly changing perspectives - from the Hungarian photographer, to the French baroness, the American writer and the biographer of the lesbian race car driver/athlete/war traitor.  But it just moved too slowly.  In fact, I just jumped ahead from where I left off (just before the half way mark) to read the last chapter to see if it would interest me in reading what happened in between - and it didn't.

Sitting Practice by Caroline Adderson

This book is over 10 years old, but it was recommended by CBC Books as a Canadian title that should not be missed so I thought I would give it a try.

While I wouldn't say it was fantastic, it was fairly interesting.  The novel centres around Ross and Iliana Alexander.  Three weeks after their wedding they are in a car accident which leaves Iliana paralyzed.  Ross, who was driving and had asked Iliana to retrieve a tennis ball that was rolling around causing her to temporarily remove her seatbelt, is unhurt and wracked with guilt.

The start of the book is in the few months following the accident while the couple still lives in a Vancouver apartment.  There we meet many of their elderly neighbours as well as Ross's twin sister and nephew (she's a single mother) who are very dependant on him.  There are also flashbacks to the wedding as well as one visit to Iliana's parents, who are strict fundamentalist Christians.  Through these flashbacks as well as stories told by the neighbours we learn a bit about the couple's past.  Ross had a happy childhood, was very close with his parents and sisters and dotes on his nephew.  Before he met Iliana, he was also a womanizer.  Iliana on the other hand had a strict and sheltered upbringing and was a virgin when she met Ross.  Her parents do not approve of Ross and refused to even attend the wedding.

The second part of the book takes place two years later.  Ross and Iliana have moved to a small town on Vancouver Island and are operating a restaurant.  While Iliana seems to have adjusted to her new wheelchair bound life, Ross is still struggling with his guilt.  More damaging to their marriage, however, is how he finds himself repulsed by certain aspects of Iliana's routine (such as a catheter).  As such, the physical component of their marriage has not resumed.

So much of the narrative is seeing how the couple copes with each other, Ross's sister who decides to move to the island (or is encouraged to do so by Ross) and Iliana's decision to have an affair.  It is an interesting  study in how a couple can learn to cope with a physical challenge early on in their relationship, particularly when one partner feels responsible for what has happened.

At times the narrative drags a bit, but in all this is an interesting book.

Monday, February 1, 2016

All Out by Kevin Newman and Alex Newman

Well known Canadian and American anchor, Kevin Newman, and his son Alex wrote alternating chapters of this book which provides their insights into Alex's childhood and, in particular, his coming out to his family.

The best feature of this book is that the two authors independently wrote their chapters, relying on a third party to weave them together.  They did not read each other's work until the entire project was complete.  As a result we get a fabulous glimpse at how personal history is in the eye of the beholder. Father and son describe many of the same events from vastly different perspectives - and I think this book could only have helped them gain tremendous insight into each other and their relationship as it cleared up misunderstandings that arose from these different perspectives.

Kevin describes an unhappy childhood - he was poor in sports, unpopular and interested only in the news.  His parents divorced and his father was never terribly demonstrative leading him to believe that he never met his father's expectations.  When Alex was born he wanted to give him everything he did not have - so enrolled him in sports activities and scouts in an effort to make him athletic and popular.  But Alex was also a loner, more interested in lego than sports, and was bullied by the more popular boys in school.  So he also grew up feeling he could never live up to his father's expectations - and that his father was trying to turn him into a different kind of boy.

We also got to closely follow the ups and downs of Kevin's career - gaining particular insight into his failed attempt to anchor Good Morning America.  We also see his struggle to be a good father - and how he is torn by the feeling he needed to be a good provider, but also wanted to be closer to his children.  While he clearly loves and admires his wife, you could also see how he envied the seemingly easy relationship she had with the children.  His struggle was interesting to me as it gave a male perspective on the challenge of "work - life balance", which is so often depicted as a woman's problem.

The final few chapters deal with Alex's coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, his coming out and how his father deals with it.  It is a struggle for both of them and it is again interesting to see how they both misinterpret the other's needs and intentions.

In all this is a well written account of two lives, and more importantly the strengths and weaknesses of a father son relationship.