Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Overall I enjoyed this book, though at times I felt it got a bit preachy about the lives of ordinary Cubans.  It's not that I don't respect, and even agree with, the positions set forth by the author through the novelist, it's just that I thought sometimes the character's speeches were a bit too long a drawn out for a novel.  It made some of the dialogue seem less realistic.

Marisol, a 30 something young woman, born in Miami but of Cuban heritage was essentially raised by her paternal grandmother, Elisa, after the divorce of her parents.  When Elisa dies suddenly in her sleep, her will tasks Marisol with taking her ashes to Cuba to be scattered somewhere meaningful.

With only this bit of guidance, and some suggestions by her two living great aunts, Marisol sets out to Havana.  Fortunately she is also a journalist and travels under the guise of writing a tourism piece about Cuba, now that US-Cuban relations are softening.  There she stays with her grandmother's childhood friend, Ana, and is taken under the wing of Ana's grandson, Luis.  Some of the chapters of the book take place in the present as Marisol tours Cuba trying to choose the meaningful place to scatter the ashes.  As she does so she learns more about her grandmother's history in Cuba, including some surprising details.

Other chapters take place when Elisa is 19 living as one of the pampered daughters of a sugar baron prior to the Cuban revolution.  We see the effects of the revolution from her perspective and all that exiled Cubans had to leave behind when they fled the country.  From Ana and Luis's current day perspective we see the equally damaging effects of the revolution on the Cubans who stayed behind.

I learned a lot about the history as well as the current day circumstances of Cuba, with which I was only tangentially familiar.  I also found the family stories engaging and the characters interesting.  I understand there will be a sequel next year which deals with the perspective of one of Elisa's older sisters and I enjoyed this enough to give it a try.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Educated by Tara Westover

I resisted reading this memoir for a while because it sounded a bit like other memoirs I've read by people who came from dire beginnings to make a success of themselves.  But I'm glad I eventually decided to read this one.  It really does tell a unique and remarkable tale.

Tara Westover was raised in rural Idaho, extremely isolated from mainstream society.  In fact she was so isolated no one noticed when her parents pulled her and her six siblings out of school and decided to home school them.  While 3 of the older brothers got some time in school and a bit of actual home schooling, the younger 4, including Tara, really got no education at all.

Instead she worked helping her mother who was an herbalist and midwife and in her father's junkyard.  Unfortunately, her father was also bipolar (not that she knew that term until much later) so the family was subject to his deep depressions and manic episodes where he tried to prepare for the end of the world.  Tara and her brothers' work in the scrap yard was often dangerous - which was exacerbated by the fact that her family was paranoid of traditional medicine and treated serious injuries with herbal remedies.  One brother became particularly violent after an untreated head injury (though he was violent before, the injury seemed to make it worse) and Tara was thus also subjected to terrible physical abuse which her parents ignored.

At about age 17 Tara decided she needed to get out and that the way out was through education - one of her older brothers had escaped to Brigham Young University and helped her self teach herself and get admitted.  So she walked into a classroom for the first time at University and at age 17.  There her eyes were opened to how one could still be Mormon and lead a much more mainstream and "good" life.  She also learned about historical facts that she knew nothing about (such as the Holocaust and the civil rights movement).

While she had originally gone with the goal of studying music to become a local choir director, she developed an interest in history.  A local professor saw her raw talent beneath her poor educational background and arranged for her to get a fellowship to Cambridge.  There she was further encouraged by another professor - eventually managing to earn a PhD in history from Cambridge.

Tara definitely recognized that her education and escape came at the cost of her relationship with her parents and several of her siblings.  She did manage to maintain a good relationship with three of her brothers (not surprisingly, they were the ones who also left the mountain to be educated) and credits them with helping her piece together the memoir.

This is a really interesting personal account of resilience and drive as well as the power of education.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson

I'm on a roll - I really liked this book too.  It was part mystery, part family drama, part love story...

When Miranda Brooks is a child she idolizes her uncle Billy who owns a quirky bookshop in LA called Prospero Books.  He takes her there often where he creates literary scavenger hunts for her amusement.  But, when Miranda is 12 Billy and her mother have a terrible fight, for reasons her mother won't share with her, and Billy disappears from her life.

The next time she hears from him is 16 years later - Miranda is a high school history teacher and has just moved in with her colleague and boyfriend, Jay.  As summer break is just beginning, Miranda learns that Billy has passed away.  She decides to travel to LA for the funeral and there finds out that Billy has left the near bankrupt bookstore to her and has created one last scavenger hunt.  She ends up spending the summer following the clues and trying to figure out how to save the store.

The scavenger hunt, which is all done through various literary works, leads Miranda to people from Billy's past who fill in the blanks about his history.  Ultimately she learns secrets about her family that her parents have been keeping from here for her whole life, including what caused the bitter quarrel when she was 12.

While I did figure out the secret fairly early on, I still enjoyed following the clever clues with Miranda and seeing how her relationship with her parents changed, how her relationship with the people in Billy's past grew and ultimately what she learned about herself as a person.

I definitely recommend this one.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

It took me a while to get into this book, but then I really ended up enjoying it.  It moves back and forth in time - in the earliest periods Ellis and Michael are 12 year old boys who are best of friends.  They bonded over their shared difficult family lives.  Ellis is an aspiring artist whose dreams of university are quashed when his father pulls him out of school to work in a local auto plant "like his father and his father before him".  Michael has been abandoned by his parents and is living with his aunt Mabel who becomes a champion for both boys.  Over time their platonic friendship grows.

However, in the chapters set in the later years we learn that Ellis has married Annie and while all three of them were originally close friends, in recent years Michael has disappeared from their lives.  Throughout the book we see what happened in the intervening years to cause the rift.  Told from the perspectives of both Michael and Ellis, we see a beautiful picture of friendship and unrequited love.

The book also examines in a very emotional way changing societal views on homosexuality as well as the early AIDs crisis.  Some of the descriptions of palliative care for those with AIDs are heartbreaking.

I have a feeling I missed some of the underlying themes of this book (like, for example, the meaning behind the title), but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Might be worth another read at some time in the future to see if I can get even more out of it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

This book was a very unexpected surprise!  I really enjoyed it.  Described as a modern, Muslim Pride and Prejudice, it tracks the relationship of Ayesha and Khalid.  Both are Muslim immigrants to Canada from India.  While they come from similar backgrounds and now live in the same Toronto suburb, in some ways they are also worlds apart.

Ayesha is an aspiring poet who gives up her art to work as a teacher so she can repay the debt for her education to her wealthy uncle.  She has work as a substitute teacher but is not finding it fulfilling.  She is also frustrated by her younger, prettier cousin who is in the process of rejecting 100 arranged marriage proposals while she has only received a few undesirable ones - and in fact does not really believe in arranged marriages.  She lives with her overworked mother, her younger brother and her doting and rather modern grandparents.  Her father died in mysterious circumstances when she was a child, prompting the family to move to Canada to join her wealthy uncle and his family.

Khalid also lives only with his mother; his father having recently died of a heart attack.  His mother is meddling and controlling and he especially resents her for forcing his older sister into an arranged marriage in India.  He is secretly in contact with her and sends her money, but worries about her constantly and is ashamed of any role he may have played in her banishment.  Despite his resentment, Khalid is very devout - he wears traditional clothing, prays 5 times a day, will not touch a woman even in the business context and expects his mother to pick a wife for him and that love will follow marriage.  Khalid also works as an IT professional and is struggling with a new boss with anti-Muslim prejudices.  Some of the funniest scenes are when the boss tries to punish him by making him design a website for a company that sells lingerie for plus size women - it turns out these women also despise his skinny boss, like Khalid and work well with him.

The HR professional at Khalid's firm is also Ayesha's best friend.  She thinks the two would make a good couple and pushes them together.  They also meet on a committee organizing a conference for Muslim youth though at the time she is impersonating her cousin Hafsa so he doesn't really know who she is.

The narrative deals with how Ayesha and Khalid overcome their differences, and embrace their similarities, to come together.

Monday, January 7, 2019

My winter break reading list

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

After reading Abbi Waxman's other novel, Other People's Houses, I decided to try her first book and am extremely glad I did.  It was really funny - I rarely laugh out loud while reading a novel, but I did reading this one - often.

The premise doesn't sound funny - 34 year old Lilian has been a widow since her husband was killed in a car accident three years ago.  She is also the mother to two young daughters - the youngest was a baby when her father died and does not even remember him.

We quickly learn that after her husband's death Lilian had a breakdown and was temporarily hospitalized leaving her quirky mother and younger sister in charge of the girls.  Now she is functioning, but not really living.

As an illustrator, Lilian is instructed to take a gardening course to get better knowledge for a book she may be hired to illustrate.  She decides to take her daughters and sister along for the course.  There they meet an eclectic group of people including the Dutch instructor who shows her she may be able to love again, a lesbian couple who are retired teachers, an older man who has a much younger wife, a single mother and her young son and a young surfer dude who hides some greater depth.

The interactions between all these people are humorous but realistic.  The scenes with Lilian's daughters, especially the younger one, are particularly entertaining.

Not a deep book though it does touch on important human relationships and how we deal with grief and eventually moving on.  I really recommend it for an entertaining read.

Winter in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand

My perennial favourite Nantucket writer has changed venues - to the U.S. Virgin island of St. John.  Irene Steele, a magazine editor who lives a seemingly idyllic life in Iowa City has her life thrown into disarray when her husband dies in a helicopter crash in the waters off St. John.  She and their grown sons, Baker and Cash, travel to St. John to recover his body and find out what happened.  There they discover their father lived a secret life, including owning a huge mansion they knew nothing about.  So they try to piece it together - including by meeting with the father and best friend of a young woman, Rosie Small, who also died in the crash.  In fact, Irene starts to fall for Rosie's father and both sons fall for her best friend, Ayers.

I don't want to say much more so you can work through the mystery with Irene, Baker and Cash.  I will say that since Hilderbrand's plans a trilogy, this book ends with more of a cliffhanger than her usual work.

Again, not great literature but an easy vacation read.

The Life Lucy Knew  by Karma Brown

The premise of this book is interesting - Lucy Sparks slips on the ice and suffers a head injury.  When she wakes up she's told the man she thought she was in love with, and remembers marrying, is actually her ex-boyfriend and she hasn't seen him in years.  Instead she is with the devoted, Matt who she remembers only as a colleague and friend.  Her psychologist describes her memory disorder as "honest lying" because she remembers things that didn't happen (including a wedding) in precise detail and really believes them to be true.

The story follows Lucy as she works with Matt and her family to try to put back the pieces of her life - either by remembering what actually happened or creating new memories.  I was really pulling for a happy ending and was glad the author didn't disappoint.

The Hour of the Fox by Kurt Palka

I actually found this book a bit slow for my liking though it wasn't terrible.  The book takes place in the 1970's.  We meet Margaret who has been fighting to establish herself as a lawyer in a male dominated world for decades.  Her husband, Jack, is a geologist and has always been supportive of her non-traditional goals.  However, their marriage is suffering as their only son, Andrew, a military pilot, has been killed in action.

As Margaret and Jack drift apart she decides to travel to Sweetbury, a small town on the Atlantic, where she spent her childhood.  She sets up a temporary office in the house she inherited from her grandmother and reconnects with her friend Aileen.  And when Aileen's son Danny is questioned by the police in death of two children, Margaret jumps into action to act as his lawyer.

The story takes place in Sweetbury as Margaret and Aileen struggle with what has happened to Danny and Margaret is personally impacted by the deaths of two young people as she has not fully come to terms with her son's death.  But there are chapters interspersed where we learn a bit of Margaret's backstory including her giving birth to an illegitimate baby as a teenager.

Finally we see how Margaret learns from this experience to try to repair her marriage.

All Things Consoled: a Daughter's Story by Elizabeth Hay

This is a memoir by the Giller Prize winning novelist, Elizabeth Hay.  When her mother develops dementia and her father starts to decline physically, Hay transforms from being daughter to being caregiver and she gives an honest detailed account of her experience.

In addition to exploring the indignities of the aging process, Hay recounts her always difficult relationship with her very volatile father and the impact that has on her ability to care for him in old age.  She also delves into the rivalries with her one sister and two brothers as well as the strain on their relationship which develops due to her taking the primary caregiving role, but expecting (and receiving) support from them.  Hay also benefits from an extremely supportive husband.

The book doesn't paint a pretty picture of aging, but it certainly gets you thinking about what lies ahead.

The Light we Lost by Jill Santopolo

I honestly couldn't put this book down.  It's well written, suspenseful and contains very engaging characters.  Lucy and Gabe meet as college seniors at Columbia on 9/11.  That day they decide they want to live meaningful lives - and though obviously attracted to each other, Gabe is in a relationship and they part ways and do not see each other again until graduation.

However, throughout their lives their connection remains - sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker but never out of existence even when they are physically apart.

I don't want to say too much as it will give away the ending, but the book is written entirely from Lucy's perspective as she recounts their relationship as well as other aspects of her life such as marriage and motherhood.  We are left wondering from the start when she is recounting the story and where Gabe is at the time and though she drops hint, we really have to wait until the last chapters to find out.

And in my view it was really worth getting to the end...