Friday, August 17, 2018

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

Summer always brings the latest  Nantucket based Hilderbrand beach read and this one did not disappoint - of course you have to know not to expect a deep literary experience but an engaging, fun escape.

In this book a family has gathered at their summer home, Summerland, for the wedding of their younger son Benji to his fiancee Celeste.  The wedding has been carefully orchestrated by Benji's mother, Greer, as though she generally respects tradition she knows she has far greater resources than the bride's family.  Celeste's father sells suits at the King of Prussia Mall and her mother works in the gift shop of the Crayola factory.  The wedding has been expedited because Celeste's mother is suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer.

On the morning of the wedding, however, Celeste wakes up to a tragedy when she finds the body of her maid of honour, Merritt, floating in the ocean just in front of Summerland.  Nantucket Chief of Police, Ed Kapenash (who we've met in other Hilderbrand books) and Massachusetts state police officer, Nick "the Greek" are brought in to investigate.

Through the course of interviews as well as flashbacks we find out that everyone except the fine upstanding groom is harbouring some sort of secret.  This makes the investigation a bit tricky - the officers must decide if any of those with a secret is also covering up a murder.  There are some twists and turns but it is fairly easy to predict what happened.  However that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the book.

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible became Possible...on Schindler's List by Leon Leyson

While this memoir was written in a somewhat amateur style, the story was very compelling.  Leon Leyson who died in 2013 was one of the youngest people who survived the Holocaust by being on "Schindler's List".  His father who had worked in Schindler's factory from early in the war managed to save his wife and three of their children, including Leon, by asking Schindler to give them work and put them on his list.

But this was not before harrowing experiences in the Krakow Ghetto and the Plazcow concentration camp, including the separation from two other brothers who were not so lucky.

Leon apparently buried his memories for many years after immigrating to America and studying to become a successful school teacher despite having had his education interrupted by the Nazis at age 10.  Eventually he felt the need to speak and educate about his experiences and told his story, without notes, to countless groups in schools, community centres and elsewhere.  The book is essentially this story written down.

It was fascinating to read about Schindler from another angle and to see the enormous difference that one person with courage could make.  I also found Leyson's account of how he was haunted by the death of his older brothers for a lifetime particularly moving.

While some might view this as just another Holocaust memoir, I still believe it was worth the read as the story was told in such a personal and detailed fashion by someone who was just a child when the war began.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood by Pauline Daikin

This is a fascinating memoir by CBC reporter Pauline Daikin.  As a child Daikin's parents were divorced.  She, her younger brother, Ted and her mother repeatedly moved (from Vancouver, to Winnipeg, to St. John) suddenly and without telling their family and friends.  They always went to the same place as a family friend, a minister named Stan.  Daikin was alienated from her father and the subject of a bitter custody dispute.  Though Pauline and Ted knew their family was different, whenever they asked their mother why she told them she would explain when they were older.

When Pauline was 23, her mother and Stan explained to her that all this time they had been on the run from organized crime.  They advised that her father had been heavily involved and that Stan and her mother were thought to be informants and thus at risk.  They also warn her against getting close to her father and various other former friends who had mob connections.  Finally they tell her she is under constant surveillance by a group trying to protect her from the mob.  She is warned not to share the story with anyone as it could put her and her mother at risk.

With a keen reporter's eye and research skills Pauline works to sort out her past, the present and what to do with her future given these revelations.  She must closely examine her relationship with her mother and Stan (who has been a father figure) in order to move forward.

I couldn't wait to get to the end to sort out the mystery with the author and I was not disappointed with her account of how the story unfolded.  She has proven herself to be not only a skilled researcher and writer, but also a resilient person.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Two more books

I'm not sure if these two books really weren't great or if I'm just suffering from fatigue because all my library books seem to have come in at once...

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade
I ordered this book because I had enjoyed Bachelor Girl by the same author.  While there were many similarities, I didn't like this one quite as much.  This book is also set in the New York area and is based on historical facts.  Like in the other book there is also a focus on "working women" ahead of their time and gay people who are forced to hide their true selves (here it was women rather than men).

When the book begins Rachel Rabinowitz is a 4 year old "handful" living in the Lower East Side with her parents and older brother Sam.  Tragedy befalls the family and Sam and Rachel are put into an orphanage.  Because she is younger she must go to the Jewish Infants House.  There she has the misfortune of connecting with Dr. Mildred Solomon who conducts experiments using radiation on Rachel and some of the other children.

Years later Rachel is working as a nurse in a Jewish seniors home and Dr. Solomon, who is dying of cancer, is tasked with caring for her.  This causes long repressed memories to resurface - and pushes Rachel to research exactly what happened to her as a child.

The book then goes back and forth as we slowly learn about Rachel's time in the Infants House, her eventual move to the orphanage for older children where she is reunited with Sam, her unsuccessful attempt to reconnect with her father as well as some more fortunate breaks along the way which lead to her becoming a nurse.  We also gain insight into her relationship with another woman whose identity is kept a surprise for most of the book (though it wasn't that hard to figure it out).

While the story was reasonably interesting, it wasn't fantastic.  If you like historical fiction set in New York, or have an interest in early medical research, you might quite like this book.

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
This is another historical fiction - it gives us a behind the scenes glimpse at some of the people involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II.  June Walker, an 18 year old girl from a small town in Tennessee is being bused to a job in a city that doesn't officially exist, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She is somewhat aware of the project as her drunken grandfather was evicted from his farm in order to make room for the development - but she has no idea of the scope of it until she follows her sister to get a job.

After passing extensive security reviews June is given a job like hundreds of other girls - watching certain dials and making sure the needle stays at the right place.  None of the girls know that they are essentially operating a small piece of a spectrometer being used to try to enrich uranium for the nuclear bomb.

In addition to June we meet Sam Cantor, a Jewish physicist originally from New York and now a professor at Berkeley who was brought into consult on the project.  He knows all too well what is going on at Oak Ridge, and against security protocols, shares some of this information with June when they begin an affair.  Sam has grave doubts about what is being done.

We also meet June's roommate Cici who is there to find a rich husband and escape her sharecropper routes.  And she doesn't care who she destroys in the process - eventually even turning against June.

Finally we are introduced to Joe, an African American construction worker who is there to try to earn more money to support his family back in Alabama.  Through Joe we see how segregation and discrimination are alive and well despite the enormous contributions of the African Americans.

With the eventual bombing of Hiroshima everyone in Oak Ridge learns what they've been doing - and react to it in all kinds of ways.

The book was an interesting look at history though not fantastic.  I did enjoy the chapters at the end which briefly summarize where everyone ended up years later.