Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

Someone recommended I read this book because it is set in South Korea and I am traveling there in a few months.  The book definitely provided some historical context in the first section - in particular about the ruling monarchs in the 18th century.  And it provided some modern day information about Seoul in the second part which may prove helpful.  But overall the book was very strange.

The first half was written from the perspective of the "Red Queen" - however at the time she narrates she has been dead for 2000 years.  In this way the author reconstructs portions of her actual diaries through a modern lens.  I guess it's sort of an interesting idea, but to me it just comes off as weird.  The Red Queen is five years old when she is chosen as the wife of the Crown Prince who is the same age.  As children they are friends, but by age 15 or so they must consummate the marriage and things go downhill from there.  They lose their first son and neither wholly recovers.  In fact, the Crown Prince is quite mad - the long dead queen believes in the modern era he would have been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.  He has many mistresses, becomes quite violent, struggles against his father and eventually dies an early, violent death.

Their second son survives and the Queen devotes her remaining years to ensuring his legacy - fighting with many relatives of her dead husband in order to do so.  She does live a long life (and apparently even longer after life).

The second part of the book is written from the perspective of spirits who overlook the modern day scientist who the Red Queen has chosen to carry on her legacy.  Before she travels to Seoul for a conference she mysteriously receives the Queen's diaries which suck her in and cause her to search out the palaces and other places she wrote about.  The story also covers two relationships she makes along the way - with a Korean ex-pat who she meets when there is a mix up with their luggage and with a famous Dutch scientist who she has a 3 day affair with.  While I enjoyed reading about her sightseeing in Seoul, on the whole the story was a little bit too odd.

In the final section the author writes herself into the story - she meets the scientist who passes on the Red Queen's story for her to share with the world.

Unless you have a particular interest in Korean history (or stories written from the perspective of spirits), I don't recommend this book.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

I don't normally read a lot of non-fiction, but the premise of this one caught my eye.  It is the previously untold story of a group of Jewish boys who escaped Nazi Germany in the mid to late 1930s and became interrogators for the US army during World War II.  They were referred to as the "Ritchie Boys" for the name of the camp where they did their training.

Though there were close to 2000 of them, the book primarily followed the stories of 6, beginning with their pre-Nazi family lives, through the Nazi rise to power and Kristallnacht then their eventual escapes to the US.  Some came alone, sponsored by relatives already living in the US or as part of orphan rescue missions.  Others were lucky enough to have escaped with their families.  All of them felt the call to do what they could to eradicate Nazism after seeing the terrible toll it took on their country.  Though most were initially turned down by the army as "enemy aliens", eventually they were able to prove their loyalty to their adopted country and were fast tracked to citizenship.  Moreover their command of the language and understanding of the German way of life and psyche made them ideal intelligence officers.

Statistics suggest that 36% of all combat intelligence gathered by the US army in the European theatre came from German-language interrogations conducted by the Ritchie Boys.  The book goes on to illustrate many of the ways in which they participated in the war, at great danger to themselves, especially if the Germans found out they were Jews.  At least two of the Ritchie Boys were executed by a German officer who found out they were Jews.

After the Germans were defeated many of the Ritchie Boys looked for family members that they'd left behind - some were lucky to find relatives who had survived the concentration camps or in hiding; most were not so lucky.

My main criticism with the book was that it was sometimes hard to follow.  It jumped from story to story without elegant transitions.  I also often forgot the back story when I got to a new section about one or the other of the main characters.  It might have been easier if I were reading a physical book rather than an e-book as I could have more easily flipped back and forth.  The book was obviously very well researched and sometimes read like a textbook which made parts dry.  That being said, overall I enjoyed reading about an angle of the war of which I had no prior knowledge.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Everybody's Son by Thrity Umrigar

In 1991 nine year old Anton, who is mixed race, was left in his sweltering apartment in the "projects" for a week while his mother went out seeking crack.  She intended to return but was raped and imprisoned by her dealer in payment of her debts.  Eventually, after subsisting on whatever crumbs he could find in the apartment Anton throws a chair at a window and escapes from the broken window.  He cuts his leg and the trail of blood leads a local policeman to find him and turn him over to child services.

David Coleman, a prominent lawyer and son of a retired state senator, and his wife Delores have lost their only son who was killed in a car accident on the night of his prom.  David hopes to restore some of the light to Delores' eyes by fostering a child and Anton is placed with them.

David is so happy to have a bright young boy to nurture that he takes advantage of his position and connections to get a longer sentence for Anton's mother than she would normally have received.  In the two and a half years that she is in prison David works to educate Anton - both academically and on how to behave given his new station in life.  Though Anton is treated well and comfortable with the Colemans he counts the days until he can return to his mother - and he refuses to call David and Delores Mom and Dad though they want him to.

When Anton's mother's prison term is nearing an end David is unwilling to return Anton to his former life and again manipulates everyone around him so that Anton's mother gives up her parental rights allowing the Coleman's to adopt him.  While he has the help of his best friend in this endeavour, neither Delores nor Anton have any idea what he has done.

The book then skips ahead 10 years to 9/11 when Anton is in college and falls in love with a radical black woman.  At one point in anger she tells him she can't tell if he's the blackest white man she's ever met or the whitest black man.  This dilemma haunts Anton throughout the book as he is thrust by David into a life at Harvard (as a legacy), Harvard law, as a lawyer and attorney general and eventually running to replace David as governor.

During the run for governor Anton is finally contacted again by his birth mother and the secrets of his past are revealed.  The last chapters address how Anton, his birth mother and his adoptive parents all struggle with this.

I have left out a lot of the detail of the middle of the book dealing with Anton's life (there are sections in 2001, 2012 and 2016), but it all is interesting in leading us to the man Anton grew to become both because of and despite his adoption.

I enjoyed this book - and many of the themes are very topical.