Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

While this book is styled as a novel, in fact it is based on the war time experiences of Holocaust survivor, Lale Sokolov.  The author met him by chance in Australia and the two developed a friendship through which Morris learned his story and turned it into first a screenplay then a novel.

Lale was a teenaged boy in Slovakia when he was shipped to Auschwitz.  From the start we see he is very resourceful, but even he is no match for typhus.  Early in his stay he is left for dead but fished out of the dead body cart by the other boys he has befriended in his bunk.  This is his first stroke of luck.  He is then taken under the wing of an older French man who teaches him his trade of tattooing incoming prisoners.  This, and his command of multiple languages, allows him both a vocation and access to a private room (which was unheard of for a Jewish prisoner) and greater rations.

One day he meets Gita whose arm he must tattoo.  On that first meeting he falls for her and vows to survive the camp and marry her.  With this goal in mind he protects her, first by taking up a smuggling trade with non-prisoner workers in the camp which gets him access to food and vital medicines which save Gita, among others, from typhus.  He then uses his connections to get her a safer indoor job.

Over time he manages to win her heart and we see a great love story develop in unbearable and unlikely circumstances.  Just before the camp is liberated Gita is marched away with other women prisoners - it is only then she shouts her last name to Lale.  Prior to that she had refused to share any details of her prior life.

When the Russians eventually liberate Auschwitz Lale escapes and, using the wile he has continuously displayed, he manages to find Gita and the two are eventually married as planned.  After some time in Russian occupied Slovakia they eventually emigrate to the west and end up in Australia.

Lale and Gita kept their story secret for decades - in part because they feared they would be branded as collaborators.  It was only after Gita's death that Lale opened up to the author.

In addition to an afterward by the author which tells of her relationship with Lale, there is another by Lale and Gita's son which is also interesting.

The book is not long and, despite its heavy topic, is fairly easy to read.  I recommend it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Captain's Daughter by Meg Mitchell Moore

Because I enjoyed Moore's The Admissions, I decided to go back and read some of her older work.  The first one I tried was The Captain's Daughter which I found very enjoyable.  Like The Admissions it primarily deals with family relationships as well as what happens when past secrets come to life.

Eliza Barnes is now wealthy, country club woman living in suburban Boston with her husband and two daughters.  However, before she "married up" she was the daughter of a widowed lobsterman in small town Maine.  When her father is injured on his lobster skiff she travels to Maine to check on him and discovers he's more ill than she thought - causing her to spend more of her summer with her father.

While in Maine she also reconnects with her first love - who has remained in Maine and now works as a lobsterman too.  Through their discussions we learn of past secrets that Eliza has been hiding.  Meanwhile, Eliza's husband is struggling on his own - having left his architecture firm to go out on his own he's trying desperately to impress one of his mother's wealthy friends with the design of her massive holiday home.  And she is very difficult to please.  With his wife away he turns to his mother for help which has some humorous moments since she's a bit of a drunk.  We also learn Eliza's husband has a couple of secrets of his own.

In Maine Eliza also meets up with a pregnant teenager, Mary, who is in an abusive relationship and struggling with what to do.  As Eliza attempts to help her she also questions whether she did the right thing all those years ago when she fled Maine.

I don't want to give away more of the story - but we learn a lot about what happened in Eliza's past, including her relationship with her parents and her first love.  Eliza also learns her parents' marriage may not have been quite as sound as she thought.  And we see how Eliza's husband is also struggling with the relationship he had with his absent father and how that is impacting his relationships now.  There is also an interesting dynamic between Eliza and her mother-in-law which resolves in a somewhat unexpected way.

All in all I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read about family relationships.  It's well written, believable and develops a handful of very interesting characters.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

True Compass by Edward M Kennedy

I picked this up for nothing at a used book sale and ended up really enjoying it.  It's written by Kennedy shortly after he is diagnosed with the brain cancer that ultimately kills him.  The disease causes him to reflect on his family, his career in politics and life in general.

Kennedy thanks several people for helping him write so I have no idea how much he actually wrote, but I will say it's extremely well written.  I expected to have to skim over the more mundane political aspects, but even those were written in an accessible way that kept me interested.

Of course the most interesting parts to me were his stories of his family - particularly his older brothers John and Bobby and his parents.  Kennedy was 14 years younger than John, who was also his godfather, and clearly idolized him.  However when John was assassinated Teddy held it together for his parents and for Bobby who became very depressed.  It was only after Bobby was also assassinated that Teddy completely fell apart.  He doesn't go into detail but hints at alcoholism and his first marriage fell apart.

He was clearly revived by his second wife who really was the love of his life.  He also seems to have thrived on being a father, step-father and uncle, taking an active role in the lives of John and Bobby's children as well as those of his sisters.

His biggest personal life story was that of the accident in Chappaquiddick - he doesn't gloss over it but he doesn't provide a lot of insight either.  Only that the was depressed, drunk and exhausted - as well as injured after the accident - which he uses to explain if not excuse his behaviour.  He vehemently denies having been in a relationship with the young woman who was killed.

Portions of the book really resonate in today's political climate.  He talks about he judicial appointment process which, in his view, was not politicized until Nixon's times.  It's probably best for him that he didn't live to see what it has become today.  He also campaigned and governed with more grace than one sees today.

All in all an interesting book about one of the most influential political families of our times.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A whole fall's worth of books...

I've been really busy lately so haven't had time to blog about everything I've read in the past couple of months.  Of course I always have time to read so I've read a lot, but you'll have to bear with me if my reviews are somewhat more brief than usual - I want to get something down before I completely forget the books, but the details are not as clear as they once were...

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
I often find Tyler's books a little odd, but I have to say this one was even weirder than usual.  The story follows the life of Willa Drake, who in her old age is a bit strange herself.  As a child Willa survived the disappearance of her mentally unstable and abusive mother mostly because of her calm father who she described as Gandhi.  She marries her college sweetheart before graduation (to follow him to California so he can pursue his dreams) and raises two sons before she returns to college.  Her first husband is killed in a road rage accident when the boys are teenagers and she eventually remarries and moves to Arizona where she is bored as her husband spends most of his waking hours on the golf course.

When she receives a call that her son's ex-girlfriend has been accidentally shot she relocates to Baltimore to look after the girlfriend and her young daughter, Cheryl.  Her son left them in the lurch and she really has no relationship to them, but she happily becomes the grandmother Cheryl seems to crave.  Despite her son's incredulous objections, and her husband's regular queries, she stays with them for weeks, becoming a fixture amongst the quirky blue collar neighbours.  Spending time with the neighbourhood elderly doctor, various hooligans and Denise and Cheryl causes her to revisit her relationship with her actual family.

Though the characters were kind of interesting I just couldn't get past the weirdness of why Willa answered the call to go to Baltimore in the first place and then why she got sucked into staying with a "fake family".

The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore
Unlike Clock Dance, I really did enjoy this book and it should be a must read for anybody whose child is partaking in the stressful college admissions process.  The Hawthorne family seems to have it all.  Father Gabe is a successful executive in an advertising company, and his wife Nora is a successful realtor.  They are raising three daughters - 17 year old Angela who has great grades and significant extra-curricular involvement, but is under pressure to follow in her father's footsteps and attend Harvard; Cecily the easy going 10 year old who is passionate about Irish dancing, but also feels the pressure of a pending competition; and the pampered baby Maya who despite her mother's hovering has not yet learned to read.

Although everything looks great on the surface we learn early on that Gabe and Nora are keeping significant secrets about their pasts from each other.  And Gabe's secret in particular also has serious implications for Angela's college application.  I don't want to give much away because the nature of the secrets isn't revealed until toward the end, but it is really worth reading through to find out (I was able to guess in part, but not wholly).

All in all this is a great tale of family dynamics and how things can fall apart at the seams when everyone is under pressure to succeed in the modern world.

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
I also really enjoyed this book about the intertwined lives of three American born women living in Hong Kong's expatriate community.

Margaret is married to a high powered business man and is the mother of three children.  Hillary is married to a successful young lawyer and desperately wants children but has been unable to conceive so is spending time with a boy from an orphanage apparently "on a trial basis".  Both Margaret and Hillary's husbands spend more time working than with their families.  Mercy is a young, single childless graduate of Columbia who has been unable to find a satisfying job in the US so essentially moves to Hong Kong to find herself.

The women's lives all intersect when Margaret hires Mercy to look after her children and she accompanies the family on a trip to Seoul where tragedy strikes.  Both Margaret and Mercy have a hard time coping with the fallout.  Coincidentally one of the people Mercy turns to is Hillary's husband (who is an acquaintance of Margaret and her husband).  Oddly, when Mercy is impregnated by Hillary's husband it somehow brings all three women closer together and bonds Mercy with her mother who arrives from New York.

Though this is set in modern times the women are somewhat old fashioned in their identities being tied up in their husbands and children, but nonetheless this is an interesting story of friendship, family and loss.

Vi by Kim Thuy
Like Thuy's prior books, Vi, is a relatively short tale of refugees.  When Vi is a young girl, her mother brings her and her 3 brothers by boat from Saigon to escape civil war.  They leave behind Vi's spoiled "man child" of a father to fend for himself when he is unable to tear himself away from his past.  The family eventually makes its way to Quebec where they must re-establish themselves.  Against her family's wishes Vi moves to Montreal to study translation and law.

Later she returns to Vietnam as part of a Canadian delegation advising on legal reform.  There Vi revisits people from her past and becomes a bit of an adventurer after years of trying to be the dutiful daughter.

Despite the somewhat heavy subject matter, this is a fairly easy and interesting read.  Though in translation from the original French, the language flows beautifully and is almost poetic in style.

After the Fire by Lauren Belfer
This was another enjoyable book that was a Holocaust book with a twist.  I've read so much Holocaust literature that I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find something that tackles it a different way.

At the end of World War II, an American soldier, Henry Sachs, takes a souvenir from a seemingly deserted mansion in Germany - an old music manuscript.  He mistakenly kills a young girl who tries to stop him which haunts him for the rest of his life.  Though he had big dreams before the war he instead moves to Buffalo with one of his fellow soldiers to work in the family's shoe business.  There he has a large house where he eventually lives with his sister and niece, Susanna.

In 2010, Susanna has been the victim of a violent attack in New York City which eventually leads to the end of her marriage.  Shortly after Henry dies and Susanna finds the manuscript amongst her uncle's belongings.  She realizes it may have value and takes it to be appraised by two experts - a devout Christian widower with a young daughter from small town USA and a brash Jewish man in NYC.  Both men are fascinated by Susanna as well as the manuscript.

The story of Susanna's quest to uncover the origins and value of the manuscript is interwoven with that of Sara.  In 1783, in Berlin, Sara is the daughter of wealthy Jewish aristocrats who studies music with Bach's son.  The much older man is somewhat infatuated with Sara and gives her a manuscript of his father's as a wedding present.  Sara and her husband are mortified by the manuscript as it spews anti-Semitic hatred.  Over the years, Sara who is childless carefully guards the manuscript to prevent it becoming public and eventually passes it on to a cherished niece for safekeeping.  Through the chapters focusing on Sara and her family we eventually learn how the manuscript ended up in the mansion where Henry finds it.

Throughout Susanna learns not only about the manuscript, but about herself.  I really enjoyed this book - the characters were well developed, the historical information was fascinating and it was well written and easy to read.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
AS a companion piece to her first novel, The Paris Wife, this novel tells the fictionalized story of Ernest Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn. (The Paris Wife told the story of his first wife).

Gellhorn was a reporter who in 1937 defied expectations and travelled to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War. In reality she became one of the most respected war correspondents of the 20th century.  In Madrid Gellhorn meets and becomes infatuated with Hemingway who at the time is married to his second wife.  Eventually they get together and make Cuba their home.

While in Cuba Hemingway's career completely takes off with the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite her love for him Gellhorn struggles with living in his shadow and frequently runs off to cover conflicts in other countries, leaving him to his writing and his struggles with alcohol and depression.  Their relationship is passionate but volatile.  Gellhorn also becomes close with Hemingway's three sons - the first from his first marriage and two from his second.  She is particularly concerned when his eldest son goes to war during the second world war.

Eventually Gellhorn decides she can no longer live the volatile life and must pursue her own career.  By then Hemingway has already identified wife number 4 though Gellhorn becomes the only of his wives who leaves him.

I didn't enjoy this as much as The Paris Wife, perhaps because the style and story were a bit repetitive of it.  But, it's not a bad work if you're interested in Hemingway, Gellhorn or the lives of writers.

The Girl who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya
This is the true story of Rwandan refugee Clementine Wamariya and her family.  Clementine was a young girl when civil war broke out in Rwanda.  One day, to the sound of gunfire and rioting, 7 year old Clementine and her 15 year old sister, Claire are pushed out the door by their grandmother and told to run.

Thus begins their lives as refugees where they wander from camp to camp eventually living in 7 African countries trying to seek safety.  Their lives are difficult though there are good moments interspersed.  Claire falls in love with and marries one of the aid workers.  Though the marriage falls apart due to his abuse, she first has three children and Clementine dotes on them - particularly the eldest born when they were on the run and almost completely cared for by the younger sister.  Clementine also has brief moments of happiness with her brother-in-law's extended family before their lives are also shattered by war.

At age 12, Clementine and Claire are given asylum in the US and move to the Chicago area.  During the week Clementine lives with a suburban white family who live in complete luxury compared to what she's used to.  But she's adaptable and begins to fit in despite her unfamiliar surroundings.  Clementine and Claire have no idea if anyone else in their family is alive.  But in 2006 the girls are featured on Oprah who has orchestrated a surprise reunion with their family - everyone but a brother has survived.  However, Clementine's parents and younger siblings are strangers to her now and she has to adapt to that as well as her new surroundings.

This is a fascinating story of the far reaching, long lasting effects of the Rwandan civil war as well as the unrest in other African nations.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Of all the books I'm reviewing today this was probably the most difficult to slog through - but I was curious enough to see what happens to do the work.  Overall the book was a bit weird and I'm not sure it was worth the effort in the end.

Just after World War II Nathan who is 14 and his 16 year old sister, Rachel are left in war damaged London when their parents say they are going abroad for their father's job.  They are left in the care of a mysterious man named Moth, who Nathan suspects is a criminal.  They are shuffled off to boarding school but when that doesn't really work out for Nathan he ends up living in his family home with Moth.

The house is visited by many people who also seem to be involved in nefarious activities.  In particular, Nathan becomes involved in making mysterious deliveries on the Thames with a former boxer known as the Darter.  The Darter also brings a string of different women into the house who intrigue Nathan.

Nathan also becomes sexually involved with a girl through illicit trysts in empty houses which they access through the girl's real estate agent brother.

About a dozen years later Nathan's mother reappears, without his father, and there is some suggestion she may have been part of the British Intelligence together with Moth and the Darter.  She moves to a small town where Nathan visits her and befriends and older farmer.  As an adult Nathan buys the cottage owned by this farmer's widowed wife and works to piece together his childhood.  It culminates in a revealing visit to the Darter.

I won't say anymore - as I said, the end was interesting but it was hard work to get there.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
This was another book that revolved around a bunch of strange characters.  In the early 1960s 19 year old Paul is home from college for the summer and is urged by his mother to join a tennis club.  There he plays doubles with Susan, a married woman twice his age who has two grown daughters.  Susan and Paul have an affair and Paul spends countless hours in Susan's home - even when her alcoholic husband is there.  Paul's parents and other members of the community strongly disapprove - Paul and Susan are even kicked out of the tennis club.

Paul also has at least one violent encounter with Susan's husband who doesn't quite buy into the ruse that Paul is just a family friend.  However, when Paul sees evidence of the abuse Susan is suffering at the hands of her husband, he convinces her to leave and they move to an apartment in London.  There he studies law and tells others she is his landlady - though it puts a damper on his having a relationship with any more appropriate women.

Faced with the financial realities of living on their own, as well as social isolation, Susan falls into alcoholism.  Paul eventually needs to share the burden of her care with her daughters.  Much of the rest of the book describes how their once promising, if unconventional, relationship unravels.

When We Found Home by Susan Mallery
This was a much lighter read than any of the books previously described, but I found it fun and enjoyable.  Alberto Carlesso, an old widower whose womanizing son left three children from different mothers tries to bring them all together to form a family.  He has already raised Malcolm, who is about 30, since he was twelve years old and his dying mother introduced him to his father and grandfather.  While his father wanted nothing to do with him, his grandfather embraced him and gave him increasing responsibility in the family business.

Next Alberto tracks down 12 year old Keira who is living in foster care after her mother died of a drug overdose.  While she is materially pampered she is deathly afraid of being abandoned again - Alberto tries but is too old to really provide comfort and Malcolm who has no experience with children comes off as gruff.

Finally, 26 year old Callie is found.  She's been lying low after being released from prison due to a robbery committed when she fell in with the wrong guy as a teenager.  She is skeptical and afraid she will be rejected when Malcolm and Alberto, as well as their business partners, find out the truth.  But she quickly bonds with Keira.

Side stories involve Malcolm's fledgling relationship with Delaney and Callie's with Malcolm's business partner and friend.

It's fluff but it was good fluff.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
While this book got great reviews, I wouldn't bother.  I kept thinking more would happen and it really didn't.  Frances is a university student in Dublin who is trying to pursue a career in writing on the side.  Her best friend and former lover is Bobbi, who Frances regards as both more beautiful and more poised.  When doing a poetry performance they catch the eye of Melissa who is an older successful photographer who decides she wants to do a piece on the girls.

She welcomes them into her home where they also meet her husband Nick, an actor.  Quite predictably Frances embarks on an extra-marital affair with Nick.  This obviously ruins her relationship with Melissa and strains her relationship with Bobbi as well.

The rest of the book just deals with these intertwined relationships as well as Frances' relationship with her mother and her deadbeat father.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua
This book was kind of interesting and has just become more topical with talk in the US about eliminating the right to citizenship for babies born in the US to non-citizen parents.

Scarlett Chen was a factory worker in China when she began an affair with her married boss Yeung.  When she becomes pregnant and an ultrasound suggests the baby is a boy, Yeung, who only has daughters, spirits her off to the US to have the baby.  There she is essentially kept prisoner in a home for Chinese mothers who have come to the US for the same reason.

In the US she finds out the baby is actually a girl, but Yeung doesn't know that and she fears he will try to steal the baby.  When she gets the chance she steals a van and escapes.  Daisy, a teenaged pregnant mother who also was being kept against her will, joins her.  They move to Chinatown in San Francisco in an effort to hide.  There they have their babies and form a rather unconventional family.

We learn about their efforts to survive, Daisy's struggle to find her boyfriend, Scarlett's struggle to avoid hers and how all the characters eventually come together in the end.