Friday, July 27, 2018

And another five books down...

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander

I had read a previous book by Englander and didn't really like it so was not going to bother with this one until it was recommended by a friend.  And I did enjoy this one even though political novels are not my favourite.  Despite the heavy topic it was well written and fast paced which made it easy to read.  It did not have the same density of prose that often turns me off this kind of book.

The book follows several characters and goes back and forth in time so reads a bit like a mystery.  As such I will try not to give too much away here.  One of the first characters we meet is a nameless prisoner stuck in a cell in southern Israel.  He fears the only one who knows he's even there is the "General", the controversial leader of Israel who is clearly meant to be Ariel Sharon though I do not think he is ever called by his name.  Unbeknownst to the prisoner the General is in an irreversible coma, so the prisoner still writes regular letters to the General pleading his release.  The letters are delivered by the young guard assigned to watch the prisoner - his mother was the General's personal secretary and he is a bit of a screw up so she gets him this job in order to put his life on track.

Other characters we meet are a young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a Canadian businessman as well as an American waitress in Paris of Italian descent who enters into a romantic relationship with one of her customers.  However some of my favourite chapters are from the perspective of the General as he lies in a coma and "reminisces" about his past which was central to the history of the state of Israel.

You really need to read the book to find out how these characters relate to each other and to see who has the titular dinner at the centre of the earth.  In doing so you learn not only about the characters but a lot about the history of Israel and, in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

This is another easy read but enjoyable book by Jamie Brenner.  While there is no depth and complexity to her writing, she develops likeable characters who have interesting secrets to reveal.  This book centres around Marin Bishop, a woman about to turn thirty who is engaged to a well-liked wealthy man and is working her dream job at a high profile Manhattan law firm.  She is an only child who has always strived to earn her lawyer father's praise and admiration.  But one day she makes a personal choice that leaves her without a job or her fiancé.  As she is trying to sort that out she is contacted by a younger woman who claims to be her half sister.  On a whim she travels with this supposed half sister to Provincetown to meet her supposed paternal grandmother.  While there she learns of the secrets that have impacted her life.

In addition to Marin the book has a lot of interesting characters including her parents, her half-sister and her hippy mother, her grandmother and her same sex wife as well various Cape Cod neighbours and friends.  This was basically a "feel good" book that left you liking everyone despite their flaws and believing all could be well enough in the end, even if there was some tragedy along the way.

Love and Other Words and Roomies by Christina Lauren

As an interesting aside, Christina Lauren is actually the pen name of two women who write quasi romance novels as a team.  In Love and Other Words Macy, a medical resident, is settling into an easy not terribly passionate relationship with an older man when she runs into her first love, Elliot.  Elliot had been her neighbour at her weekend home when she was a child.  They first bonded over their love of reading (and words) and then, as teenagers, fell in love.  All fell apart when they were 17 and in chapters which alternate past and present we learn why.  We also find out whether they can make a go of it 11 years later.

In Roomies, Holland Bakker has spent six months essentially stalking a musician who plays in the subway.  On the night she finally learns his name is Cal, he rescues her from a subway attacker but disappears before speaking to her when she is whisked away in an ambulance.  When she discovers he fled because he was in the US illegally she uses family connections to get him a job on a hot Broadway musical.  But in order for him to stay in the US she also offers to marry him.  And, not surprisingly, while living this marriage of convenience they discover they have actual feelings for each other.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

It took me a little while to get into this book, but when I did I really enjoyed it.  In addition to telling the stories of the characters it gave really good insight into the development of the feminist movement over the decades.

When the book starts Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman at her last choice college.  She is angry with her less than interested parents who messed up her financial aid application denying her the place she earned at Princeton.  She is also in love with her high school boyfriend, Cory, who did make his way to Princeton.  They were originally thrown together as the best readers in their grade, but eventually a real relationship developed.

An early defining moment for Greer is when she is sexually assaulted by a college boy who goes on to assault others.  When he is brought up for disciplinary action he is given a slap on the wrist and allowed to stay at school.  Shortly after she attends a speech by Faith Frank, a 63 year old pillar in the fight for women's rights.  Frank gives her advice about how to deal with the assault situation and gives Greer her card.  After graduation while searching for meaningful work in New York Greer contacts Frank and is given a job working at her foundation.

The book follows Greer's rise through the organization and beyond - and explores her continuing relationships with Frank, her co-workers, Cory, her parents and her college best friend.  In some chapters we see action from the perspective of Frank, Cory, the roommate and even Frank's mysterious financial backer.  And as the action moves through the decades (and sometimes into the past) we see how the feminist movement shifted over time.

I highly recommend this book.

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