Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff

I decided to pick this up since I had enjoyed The Orphan's Tale, and I was not disappointed.  Again Jenoff tells a somewhat different Holocaust story which was inspired by real events.

Here we follow 18 year old identical twins, Helena and Ruth, who are caring for their 3 younger siblings after the death of their father and the institutionalization of their mother who is suffering from both cancer and some form of dementia.  Helena and Ruth are doing their best to keep the family together in a small town outside of Krakow during the Second World War.  At the start of the book the war has not really reached their town (though the food shortages have), but slowly their lives are more and more impacted by it.

Helena finds an American paratrooper who is stranded outside their village and as she nurses him back to health she falls in love with him.  She is also the "brave" sister who ventures to Krakow to visit their mother (and learns long buried secrets about her), witnessing the black market, the Polish underground and the liquidation of Krakow's Jewish quarter while she is there.  Ruth has always been the "pretty" and "maternal" sister so when she eventually discovers Helena has a man in her life she becomes very jealous.

This jealousy leads to a rift between the sisters which ultimately has catastrophic consequences for the family and the American soldier.  The book is ultimately interesting because of the relationships between Helena and Ruth, Helena and the soldier and both twins and the younger siblings.  It also shows how different personality traits become strengths in times of war.

While this was not the best book I've ever read, it was enjoyable and suspenseful such that I really wanted to finish it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Demi-Gods by Eliza Robertson

This was a really weird book though not that long so I stuck it out until the end.  It starts in the 1950s when Willa's mother's new boyfriend brings his two sons to their Salt Spring Island summer home.  Actually the boyfriend is not so new - Willa's mother had an affair with him while her father was away at war.  They started to spend more time together once Willa's father left.

Willa's older sister Joan falls for the older son, Kenneth, which leaves nine year old Willa to pair off with eleven year old Patrick.  Patrick is a sociopath - he starts with burning moth wings under a magnifying glass, then beheads rabbits.  As they age, Patrick and Willa's encounters become more and more sexually charged, but always very bizarre.

While Willa actually only encounters Patrick about 6 times over the course of their lives, you can tell it impacts her relationships forever.  What is more odd is based on what you can tell, Patrick lived a fairly normal life when he was not with Willa.  It seemed they brought out the worst in each other.

The book moves over time through their encounters on Salt Spring Island and in San Diego where the boys reside with their mother most of the time.  Their last encounter is on a sailboat excursion which ends tragically (I won't reveal how).  While it is a typically weird encounter, at least Willa found her strength that time and had the upper hand.

All in all I wouldn't really recommend this book - it left me feeling a bit disgusted by human behaviour.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

This book is based on an interesting premise and, in the author's note at the end of the book I see she took certain aspects from historical facts.

In 1994 Noa is a 16 year old Dutch girl who gets pregnant following a brief relationship with an occupying Nazi soldier.  When her shame is discovered her father sends her away.  On a train she meets a German woman who suggests, with her "Aryan" features she would be welcomed at a home for unwed mothers in Germany.  She goes there to give birth to a "child of the Reich".  But, when the baby is born, he has dark features and Not falls in love with him instantly.  However, the doctor and nurse in charge tear him from her arms and she never sees him again.  When she has nowhere to go she ends up working as a cleaner in a railway station nearby.

One evening Noa hears unusual sounds coming from a railroad car waiting on the tracks.  She sneaks over and finds a car full of Jewish babies who have been separated from their families, many are already dead from the cold and the others are obviously headed to concentration camps.  Without much thought she grabs one of the babies and runs away from him.  According to the author, this boxcar of "unknown children" really existed.

While running away Noa and the baby who she names Theo collapse in the snow and are rescued by the clown from a nearby circus and taken back to the circus.  The kindly head of the circus takes them in.  There Noa meets and eventually befriends Astrid, a Jewish woman who is hiding in plain sight at the circus.  She grew up the only daughter of a multi-generational Jewish circus family where she performed as an aerialist from a young age.  As a young woman she married a German man and moved with him to Berlin.  However as he rose in the Nazi party he was pressured into denouncing her and the marriage.

Cast out she returned to her home to find her family and all traces of the circus gone.  So she turns to a rival non-Jewish circus that wintered across from her family's winter grounds.  This kindly circus leader also takes her in, gives her a new name and a job and works hard to protect her from the Nazi regime.  According to the author, there were many multi-generational Jewish circuses in Europe prior to the war which were for the most part eliminated by the Nazis.  It is also the case that certain non-Jewish circuses were willing hide Jews.

The novel follows the story of Noa and Astrid who start out as bitter rivals and end up friends.  There are many twists and turns surrounding Astrid's relationship with a Russian clown, Noa's with the son of a local Nazi sympathizing mayor in France, and close calls and ultimate tragedies involving the Nazis.

The epilogue gives us an idea of where most of the characters ended up - some fates surprising and others unhappy but realistic.

While this is not high brow literature it was an interesting read and a new take on Holocaust literature.  I recommend it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

This is a somewhat rambling first person narrative about Andrea, a woman in her late thirties to early forties.  She is dissatisfied with her job, unsuccessful in finding love and disconnected from her family who is dealing with the tragedy of her terminally ill niece.

While she was a bit of a mess, the sections looking back in her past helped explain her - her father died of a heroin overdose when she was a teenager, after that her mother struggled financially, at one point hosting dinners to raise money where middle aged drug addicts came over to eat and pawed teenaged Andrea at the same time.  She dropped out of art school because she didn't think she could handle the constant rejection, but doesn't enjoy working in advertising.

At times the book was confusing as it moved back and forth in time and it sometimes took reading a few pages of a new chapter to figure out when it was set.  Characters also came and went in her life and I couldn't always tell what time period she was referring to.

All in all it wasn't a great book but it was an easy enough read about a screwed up life.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

This is a short little book that was interesting and easy to read.  Originally written in 2013 in the Southern Indian language Kannada, it was only translated into English this year.  While this author has written eight works of fiction, this is the first that was translated.

Ghachar Ghochar is a nonsense word invented by the narrator's wife's family to mean something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can't be untied.  And it is an apt descriptor of the narrator's family (as an aside, we never learn his name as he describes the other members of his family in detail).

The narrator, his mother, father, sister and uncle lived in a lower class neighbourhood in Bangalore.  His father sold coffee and tea, working long days and barely making ends meet.  Despite this he managed to put his brother and both children through school.  When he loses his job because his company decides to reorganize he invests his retirement payment in his brother's business venture, a spice wholesaler.  The business takes off and the family moves from their tight quarters (the narrator's description of them is very vivid; I could really see the home, ants and all as he describes his mother's war against them).  In their new home there is a bedroom for everyone and more furniture than necessary.

Upon graduating from school the narrator is given a job with the family business - he gets a hefty salary every month, but there is nothing for him to do so he spends his time drinking coffee and reading newspapers.  When he eventually marries his wife is disappointed to learn his money is not really his own.

The narrator's father is also disillusioned with his brother's less than honest business dealings (there is a great scene when his company goons attend at the home of the sister's estranged husband to recover her jewelry).  The family walks on eggshells with the father, fearful he will write a will giving away his half of the family business to charity.

All in all this is a well written, at times humorous, always believable portrait of a family and, in particular, the impact sudden wealth can have on the family members.