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.