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.