Thursday, April 16, 2020

Quarantine Reads

You would think with being stuck at home and social distancing I would have time to update this blog, but somehow the days just run away from me.  That doesn't mean I haven't been reading though - here are the books I've read over the last 6 weeks or so.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
While I enjoyed this book, I found it extremely disturbing so if graphic child physical and sexual abuse is too disturbing for you to read about I would skip this one.

This is the story of a 14 year old girl who her father calls Turtle.  She lives alone with her father and he has been raping her for years.  He has also convinced her she is worthless and she has internalized that.  For much of her life her only friend has been her grandfather.  A kind teacher suspects she is being abused and tries to intervene but Turtle feels she doesn't deserve the help and also fears what her father would say if he finds out she sought help so she ignores the teacher.

One thing Turtle has learned from her father is how to survive in the wilderness.  While out wandering one day she meets two boys who need her help finding their way back to civilization.  One of them, and his mother, knew her mother and they try to talk to her father to get her help, but he of course refuses to let them in.  The other, Jacob, becomes enamoured with Turtle and they start to spend time together.  When Turtle's father finds out Jacob wants to take her to a dance he beats her badly.  Fearing he will come after Jacob next, Turtle refuses to see him anymore.

Then, Turtle's grandfather dies, causing her father to disappear for months allowing Turtle to reconnect with Jacob and live a relatively peaceful life.  But when her father returns, with a young girl he picked up along the way and is now abusing, it sets in motion a chain of events where Turtle has to use her survival skills to save herself and the other girl - regardless of the cost.

Turtle was an amazing and resilient character, but as I said above, the violence was a bit too graphic for me at times.

Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
The library recommended this book of essays to fulfil the reading challenge - "a book that made me laugh".  And this book really did that.  Ellis grew up in the US South and was hardwired to behave with southern gentility and decorum.  But, she was astute enough to realize that bringing this behaviour to her life in Manhattan led to numerous hilarious situations.

In short essays she describes how she used her manners to fend off a potential kidnapper, respond to a sewer rat wandering the street, stay happily married and be the perfect guest.

The book is well written, easy to read and fun when you need to boost your mood.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones 
This is an earlier novel by the author of the bestseller An American Marriage, and I enjoyed this one just as much.

The novel is set in Atlanta in the 1980s.  Dana Yarbaro grows up knowing her father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist.  While already married to another woman, James marries Dana's mother, Gwendolyn, when she becomes pregnant with Dana.  Shortly after his first wife gives birth to another daughter, Chaurisse.

While Gwendolyn, and by extension Dana, are aware of, and obsessed with, James' wife and other daughter, Chaurisse and her mother know nothing about James's other family.  With the help of a lifelong friend, who is also in love with Gwendolyn, James works hard at keeping his two families apart. But, Dana finds away to befriend Chaurisse, and meet her mother, without their knowing who she really is.  Much of the story focuses on the lives of these two girls - and how James tries to balance his love for two women - and what happens to everyone when the truth comes out.

This is an interesting narrative - you would think James would be despicable, but he comes off as sympathetic though obviously very misguided.  The two daughters and the two mothers are equally sympathetic and well developed characters.

The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith
At first I thought this would be yet another Holocaust story with little to add to the literature.  But in fact it had an interesting twist.  The story was told from the perspective of three characters - the first is Marijke, a Dutch woman who is sent to a concentration camp for her participation in the Dutch resistance.

In hopes of saving her life, and thus reuniting with her husband, Marijke agrees to work in the camp brothel.  There she is patronized by a high ranking Nazi, Karl.  Though married, Karl becomes attached to Marijke and at least once saves her from cruel punishment in the camp.  However, the relationship is sort of disturbing given he needs Marijke to act like she is in love with him and undermines her efforts to reunite with her husband.  By the end the reader does learn the fates of Marijke, her husband and Karl.

The interesting twist is the third perspective - alternating chapters explore the life of Luciano in Buenos Aires in 1977.  He is arrested and tortured for his sexual orientation and his political activities.  This story is actually a bit more interesting than the more unbelievable concentration camp narrative, but though the relationship between the stories is revealed by the end, it still was a bit disjointed.

I think the idea of this story was strong, but the execution wasn't great.  It was hard to believe the concentration camp narrative which just seemed too contrived.  And the relationship to the Argentina story was just sort of dropped in at the end when there was opportunity for better foreshadowing and more detail.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
I avoided this book for a while because it was hyped by sources I usually don't agree with (e.g. NYT Book Review), but in the end I tried it and, while I didn't love it, I'm not sorry I gave it a chance.

The first half of the book is written from the perspective of a doctor, Toby Fleishman.  He has separated from his wife and is enjoying a life of no strings attached sex with women he meets through "dating" apps.  In the middle of the night his soon to be ex-wife drops off his two children and disappears.  Toby is left scrambling to take care of his kids on a day to day basis and to figure out where his ex-wife has gone and what happened in his marriage.

So in this part we see everything from Toby's perspective, except sometimes the narrative changes, with little warning, to be from the perspective of a friend Toby knew in his youth.  It sometimes takes a while to figure out we are seeing Toby through her eyes rather than his own, but it works.

Toby definitely comes off as narcissistic though, through his own eyes, is clearly the victim of this ex-wife who thinks he was a loser for just being a doctor and not making the fortune she is in business.  He also believes he was always by far the more attentive parent - while maintaining a prestigious position at a NY hospital.

The second half is written from the perspective of Toby's ex-wife, Rachel (again with interruptions from Toby's old friend).  This part of the book turns everything we thought we knew on its head.  We realize things in the marriage may not have been as Toby perceived them to be.

I thought this was well written and I enjoyed it more than I expected to - the characters were all equally likeable (or not).  I was also forced to really think about what was reality when I saw it through the eyes of people with polar opposite perspectives.  I thought the weaving in of a third perspective was done in a very creative way - again ensuring that I had to read carefully.  I found this wasn't the kind of book where you could skim over parts or you would never figure out what was going on.  I'd say the biggest disappointment was the ending - but I won't reveal that.

The Lost Sister by Andrea Gunraj
This was a really interesting local novel.  Sisters Alisha and Diana are the daughters of immigrant parents from the Caribbean living in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood.  Their father works hard to provide for the family and their mother, and her sister and best friend, dote on the girls.  Diana dreams of going to medical school - and is a star student and athlete who is popular and strains against the social restrictions placed on her by her doting parents.  Alisha looks up to Diana and wants to be just like her - she even pretends she wants to be a lawyer in an effort to attract her parents' attention.

One day Diana disappears and Alisha has information about the events leading up to her disappearance that she keeps from her parents and the police.  This weighs on her and is noticed by Paula, a woman who volunteers at her school.  The two develop an unlikely friendship which is partly explained by the guilt Paula feels over her relationship with her estranged sister.

In alternating sections of the book we learn more about Paula's childhood.  She lived in Nova Scotia and she and her sister were taken from her unwed, prostitute mother and placed in the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children.  There she is abused and neglected and kept separate from her sister.  This harsh upbringing has a significant impact on Paula's current life and helps her to relate to Alisha's difficulties.

This was a well written account of the difficulties faced by immigrants to Canada, as well as the tension between immigrant parents and their Canadian born and raised children.  While the Nova Scotia portion was partially based on true events, I found it was less well developed than the current day sections.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This is a long family saga - while overall I liked it, I thought it could have been a bit shorter.  It was also one of those stories where bad things kept happening and I often found myself wondering when this family could finally catch a break.  I realize it may be realistic in times of occupation, war, etc., but sometimes it was just a bit much.

The story starts in the early 1900s in Korea, on a small island near Busan.  There, the disabled fisherman, Hoonie and his wife Yangjin have only one child who survives infancy, Sunja.  Sunja is doted upon by her parents, but works hard helping her father sell his fish and her mother run a boarding house.  When Hoonie dies of TB while Sunja is a teenager, the two women are left to keep things running.

They do a good job until Sunja gets pregnant by a man she has fallen for, who happens to already have a wife and family in Japan.  While he offers to support her and the baby, as long as she remains his mistress, that's not the life she wants for herself so she refuses.  Instead she agrees to marry a boarding house guest, a sickly Christian minister who is going to Japan to join his older brother and lead a congregation.

The minister knows of Sunja's pregnancy and agrees to treat the baby as his own, which he does.  So Sunja and her husband travel to Japan.  The book then covers the story of their lives, the lives of his brother and sister-in-law, the son Sunja has from her first relationship as well as a son the couple have together and, eventually, their grandson.

There is great detail about the lives of both Koreans and Christians in Japan - and the terrible conditions they live in.  Even generations in they must repeatedly make the case for their right to live and work in Japan and are treated with contempt by many Japanese people.  They are also unable to return to Korea due to the political uncertainty there.

The title, Pachinko, is the name of a popular gambling game - certain members of Sunja's family eventually make their fortunes in Pachinko.  Since it is reputed to be tied to organized crime, it is one place Koreans are allowed to freely work.

Again, it took perseverance to get through the whole book, but I think was worth it.  Just make sure you have time and patience going into it - this is not a light holiday read.

Rue des Rosiers by Rhea Tregebov
I picked up this book because it is written by a Winnipeg Jewish author and covers themes I find of interest.  It was an easy read, but a bit disappointing.  I found the writing style a bit simplistic and amateurish though the story was compelling.

Sarah is the youngest of the three Levine sisters.  She was born and raised in Winnipeg but is living in Toronto now.  She is "wasting her life" according to others in it as she dropped out of university one course shy of graduating is working for a landscaping company.  She is also involved with a successful lawyer but is having trouble committing to him (she's reticent to spend a whole night with him).  She is oddly superstitious, keeping a penny given to her years before by a Holocaust survivor she met in a Holocaust course at university - she turns to the penny to make her decisions.

Sarah's middle sister also lives in Toronto.  She is a lesbian and ardent feminist who is always trying to loop Sarah into her causes.  They fight over Sarah's future and have a very strained relationship.

Sarah's oldest sister still lives in Winnipeg and is suffering from depression following a miscarriage.  When she ends up hospitalized Sarah goes to check on her and loses her job in the process.  With no job she decides to join her boyfriend in Paris where he is headed to work on a deal.  In Paris she sees anti-semitism up front which brings back memories of the Holocaust course and the survivor who gave her the penny.

She wanders the gardens of Paris trying to figure out her future and then is a victim of a terrorist attack which helps her gain some perspective on her future.  These things all happen a bit too quickly and conveniently for my liking, but it does make the book shorter I suppose.

Not a terrible book, but not great.  If you're interested in the subject matter it's probably still worth it. It's also good to support local authors.

Grand Union by Zadie Smith
This is a collection of short stories, which is not my favourite genre, but I read this to fit the category in the library reading challenge.  While I liked a few of the stories, a lot of them went over my head.  I don't know if I'm not the target audience, or I'm just not astute enough, but I would finish some and really have little idea about what I'd just read.

That being said, there were a few stories I liked - one about an aging transgendered woman in New York trying to buy a corset, another about Brexit era Brits on the lazy river ride at a Spanish resort.  Smith certainly knows how to address issues of race, class and gender in a literary fashion.  She just might be a bit too literary for me.

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