Monday, April 17, 2017

Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

I loved this book - especially because it put such a human face on the history I learned on a recent trip to Berlin.

The author's mother, Hanna, escaped the repressive regime in East Germany when she was 20 years old.  In doing so she left behind her parents, grandparents and 8 siblings.  Following the reunification of Germany, the author painstakingly researched her family history to learn about what life was like from the end of World War II until the families were reunited in the late 1980s.  Herself a retired army intelligence officer with an expertise in the former Soviet Union, Willner adeptly weaves historical context into the family's story.

While this is obviously a story of the terrible effects of living in a totalitarian dictatorship, it also shows the incredible strength of family which all members draw upon to survive.  The author's grandmother drilled into her children that they must always stick together; that the family needed its own wall to keep spies and suspicions out and to create a safe space for airing ones real views.  The bonds she created were so strong that Hanna's youngest sister Heidi, who was born after her escape and only met her once when at age five she and her mother were granted a pass to visit Hanna in West Germany, looked up to Hanna and tried to emulate her courage until they were able to meet again.  This was even true when Heidi's daughter was selected to represent East Germany in sports and Heidi was forced to cut off all direct communication with Hanna in order to protect her daughter's position.

While Heidi's grandmother's strength of character held the family together, I also empathized with her grandfather who tried so hard to get along within the Communist regime but at times could not help himself from expressing his true feelings (he was a well educated teacher and headmaster), much to his personal disadvantage.

One interesting story that stuck out for me was when the author's brother was backpacking across Europe during college and, with a friend who held a diplomatic passport, was able to wander into East Germany and contact the family.  The large extended family gathered together immediately and welcomed him into their midst for two days.  Unfortunately his grandmother had passed away only months before.  Interestingly, before she died she predicted that Heidi and Hanna would one day be reunited.  When they finally were, they both felt her presence with them.

All in all this was a great story of one family, but also an important lesson in broader history.  I learned a lot about the East German regime that was unfamiliar to me.  And it made me appreciate even more the immense task it was to reunify the country.  I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and/or family.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake

Overall I liked this book, but at times it was a bit slow.  The novel was set in post-War Tokyo when General MacArthur and the US occupation forces were attempting to bring order and democracy to Japan.

The stories of several people are intertwined.  The main characters include Aya and her father, Japanese Canadians who elected to return to Japan following internment in the interior of BC, rather than starting over again east of the Rockies.  Aya is sent to middle school where she is mocked for her unfamiliar past and strangely accented Japanese.  Aya is told to sit next to Fumi, a tough talking girl who initially only makes fun of her.  We quickly learn that Fumi is hiding her own pain - her sister, Sumi, has disappeared into Tokyo's red light district and Fumi wants to get her back.  Fumi enlists Aya to write an English letter to General MacArthur begging his assistance in bringing her sister home.

The letter is intercepted by Matt, a Japanese American working as a translator for the occupation forces.  He and his colleagues translate the hundreds of letters sent by ordinary Japanese citizens to MacArthur - asking for assistance or merely sending their good wishes for the holidays or his birthday.  Matt feels badly for Fumi and, rather than delivering the letter, tries to find Sumi, at times with the assistance of Nancy, a Japanese American typist who works with him and who was stranded in Japan during the war as she had returned to care for an ailing relative.

The other person involved in translations is Fumi and Aya's teacher, Kondo.  To make extra money he translates letters in "Love Letter Alley" where Japanese women try to send letters to their GI boyfriends or to understand the letters they have received.  At one point Sumi comes to him for a translation of her own, but only later does Kondo learn the connection with his student.

I found the premise of the book as well as the glimpse of post-War Tokyo interesting and original.  At times the narrative dragged a bit so it's not like I was always dying to see what would happen next, but overall the book was well written and reasonably interesting.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood

I really enjoyed this book - it was part mystery, part character study and part book club.  The premise of the book and the reason for the title is that the main character, Ava, joins a new book club.  She has just split from her husband who left her for another woman and has only half paid attention to the instructions for the book club chaired by her good friend.  Thus when she arrives to the first meeting, really hoping to make some friends and fill her time, she is surprised to discover she must provide her book suggestion for the group.  And the theme is the book that has mattered most to you in your life.  Not at all prepared for the question, Ava blurts out the name of a book that helped her during a difficult year of her childhood (her younger sister died falling out of a tree and a year later her mother committed suicide).

The problem is that as members of the book club search for the book they have trouble finding it.  So Ava blurts out that the author has agreed to speak to the club.  The only problem is that both the author and the book's publisher seem to have disappeared.  Ava's search for them leads to her further examining that horrible year in her childhood - including interacting with the now retired police officer who investigated the case.

Interwoven with this story is that of the story of Ava's daughter, Maggie.  Maggie is a twenty year old who has been in trouble with drugs, alcohol and boys since she was a young teenager.  Her parents think she is better and have sent her to Florence for an art history program.  Shortly after starting the program she follows a boy to Paris and gets in deeper with the wrong man and drug addiction.  All this time she hides where she is from her parents by posting on social media about her fabricated adventures in art school.  Ava is worried but it takes a considerable amount of time before she learns where Maggie really is.

Ava eventually decides to travel to Paris where she finds answers to Maggie's whereabouts as well as further clarification about her past.  I felt I should have guessed the ending a little earlier than I did, but I didn't so I won't share it here.  Suffice it to say I found it fascinating the way loose ends were tied together.