Monday, February 8, 2021

A New Year - A New Reading Challenge

 As in the past two years I am challenging myself to complete the Toronto Public Library Reading Challenge, so many of the books that I will review over the next few months fit into one of the categories in the challenge.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

I selected this book for the category "a book about someone unlike yourself" as it tells the story of four men who emigrated from Germany in the 20th century. (I figure they're different on many counts - I'm a woman, they're all older than I am and they've all emigrated while I have lived my life in one country).

To be honest I didn't love this book - I found the stories a bit hard to follow and generally quite depressing. The book is structured as four separate stories - three of the emigrants are Jews who fled to England or Switzerland long before WWII, but are still significantly impacted by the Holocaust and ultimately die by suicide. The fourth story is about the narrator's great uncle who is not Jewish but emigrated to the US around the turn of the century and led and adventurous life there. But he too dies a terrible death.

The book contains pictures and is written more in the style of a diary or biography - narrated by the author (who is a German emigre to England). So the style is sort of unusual, but I just couldn't get past the depressing content.

The Last Days of John Lennon by James Patterson

I used this book for the category of "narrative non-fiction" which is an atypical genre for Patterson who usually writes fiction. Unlike the prior book, I really enjoyed this one. The narrative alternates between Lennon's life story (unlike what the title suggests we really get a full life biography of Lennon) and the story of his killer, Mark David Chapman, in the days leading up to his murder. Probably because Patterson typically writes thrillers, the chapters analyzing Chapman's motives and preparation are particularly well written.

I can't say Lennon (or Yoko Ono) came across as terribly likeable a lot of the time, but his history, and that of the Beatles, is nonetheless very interesting. While I knew their story on a high level, the detail provided gave me a more complete picture of their fame, their relationships with each other and others and the ultimate breaking up of the band.

I recommend this book if you have an interest in the Beatles - and maybe even if you don't but just like a well written dramatic tale.

Seven by Farzana Doctor

I used this book to satisfy the requirement for "a book with a one word title". I really enjoyed this one - even though at times the content was quite disturbing.

Sharifa and her husband, Murtaza, are immigrants to the US from India with a seven year old daughter, Zee. They are having trouble in their marriage, particularly sexually and, in an effort to improve things, Sharifa agrees to join Murtaza on a sabbatical in India. Sharifa, who is a teacher, decides that while she is there she will research her great-great grandfather, Abdoolally.  While his rags to riches tale and his philanthropy have become family legends, little is known about his four wives, other than the first two that died in childbirth. In particular, there is rumour his third marriage ended in divorce, but nobody knows for certain and, if it did, nobody knows why.

Sharifa's visit and her research lead her to be involved in the cause of female genital cutting which is prevalent in Sharifa's religious sect, though as a modern American woman she believes it has never touched her. As she learns more about the support the ritual has amongst her Indian relatives she becomes particularly concerned about Zee's wellbeing since she is seven, the exact age at which the cutting is supposed to occur.

The writing was excellent - I couldn't wait to find out more about Sharifa's ancestors, and her relationships with Murtaza, Zee and her mother, as well as her aunts and cousins in India. While some of the narrative about genital cutting and its long lasting physical and emotional effects on women was disturbing, that only enhanced the story Doctor was trying to tell.

I definitely recommend this book.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

I read this book for the category "a book of speculative fiction by a BIPOC author" and frankly I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it because speculative fiction is not usually my thing. But I ended up really enjoying it. It was extremely well written and there was enough "realism" to keep a speculative fiction sceptic happy.

The book takes place far in the future in a world ravaged by global warming where people have lost the ability to dream. Losing the ability to dream has led to widespread madness. The only people who are still able to dream are North American Indigenous people. The only cure for dreamlessness for others is the marrow of these Indigenous people.

This leads to an illicit trade for Recruiters in capturing Indigenous young people and extracting their marrow. The story is told from the perspective of Frances Frenchie Dusome, who is a teenaged Metis boy on the run from the recruiters. He joins up with a group of others, men and women, elders and children, and together they try to survive the harsh elements while escaping capture. The fictional account is of course reminiscent of the historical capture of Indigenous children for imprisonment in residential schools - a fate which some of the characters or their parents had suffered.

The author wove a fascinating story and developed complex, engaging characters. Being a young adult novel, it was also easy to read, but in no way simplistic. A very pleasant surprise.

Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

I enjoyed The Marrow Thieves so thoroughly that I decided to read one of her other books for the category "a book by an Indigenous woman or Two-Spirit Indigenous person". This one is not speculative fiction but does incorporate the traditional Metis story of the Rogarou - a werewolf like creature that haunts Metis communities.

Joan, who is heartbroken, has spent the last year searching for her husband Victor for a year. He went missing right after they had their first serious argument. One morning she is hungover and finds herself in a Walmart parking lot where she spots a revival tent which Metis people have been attending to hear a charismatic preacher, Eugene Wolff. When she wanders into the tent the service is over but she hears a familiar voice. When she turns around she sees Victor, however, he believes he is Eugene Wolf and he does not seem to recognize her.

As she digs into this mystery, with the help of an elder, Ajean, and her 12 year old nephew, Zeus, she is constantly obstructed by those surrounding Reverend Wolff who have an interest in him never remembering his past. The novel tells the story of Joan's quest to get her husband back, as well as the sinister underpinning to the revivalists who have enlisted the man she believes to be her husband.

While sometimes the mythical aspect is a bit hard to follow for someone like me who is uneducated in Indigenous legends, that doesn't detract from the quality of the story. While I preferred The Marrow Thieves, I would recommend this book too.

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

This book fit into the category as "a book about fame" as it told the story of the making of the actress Hedy Lamarr. In the early 1930s, Lamarr (then Hedy Keisler) was a young stage actress in Vienna when she caught the eye of a powerful arm's dealer, Friedrich Mandl. Lamarr is also Jewish and her father desperately fears the rise of Naziism in Austria. As such, he encourages her to marry Mandl, who at the time was allied with Italy in his desire to keep the Germans out of Austria, hoping he will be able to save Austria, and her family.

However, after marriage, Mandl turns out to be cruel and controlling - making her stop acting and essentially keeping her prisoner in her own homes (they have many opulent residences). She is required to entertain Mandl's many guests which does give her insight into the developing politics in Austria, and in particular, her husband's change of heart in his attitude to Germany.

Fearing her husband, and Austria's future, she manages to flee Germany for England, where she takes up acting again and engineers a meeting with Louis Mayer of MGM fame. She negotiates a contract with him and moves to Los Angeles, the only place she feels is safe for Jewish entertainers. In addition to acting she takes a strong interest in inventing, creating a laser system that she tries to sell to the US navy. However, she is severely restricted by her gender and her obligations to MGM.

From the afterward to this book, it appears that much of it was based on Lamarr's actual history - which means she lived and interesting and admirable life. She was far more than the "pretty face" she was known for in Hollywood.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

This book was very long (567 pages) and complex, but for me worth the effort. Reading it was almost like figuring out a puzzle.

The novel brought together two stories in alternating sections. The modern day portion dealt with Helen, an elderly London based history professor with a particular interest in Jewish history who is called by a former student when he finds a collection of Jewish books and papers in his wife's ancestral home. She enlists the assistance of an American doctoral student, Aaron Levy, to visit the house and see what the collection was all about. They discover a large collection of letters which were written on behalf of a blind rabbi in the seventeenth century.

Careful review of the papers suggests the scribe was female, which would have been highly unusual at the time and that both she and the rabbi were of Portuguese descent having escaped the Inquisition to settle in Amsterdam and then London.

The other chapters tell us the story of the rabbi and, in particular, his scribe, Esther. As Helen and Aaron piece together the story, we are given the inside track by hearing it directly from Esther. In her words we hear a great deal about the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam, the efforts to reestablish the Jewish community in London after years of exile, the restrictions put on women at the time, and even the impact of the plague.

In addition to solving this mystery, we learn about Helen's past and, in particular, why a WASPy woman has such a deep interest in Jewish history. And we learn a bit about Aaron's upbringing, difficulties with relationships and his doctoral thesis and why he is drawn to these papers.

I don't want to give more than that away because I really recommend you read this one for yourselves.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

I really enjoyed Gyasi's prior novel, Homegoing, so I had high expectations for this one. Probably too high, because I was disappointed in the end. I fit this book into the category "a book about STEM" because the protagonist, Gifty, is a neuroscientist at Stanford who is studying reward-seeking behaviour in mice brains in an effort to explain addiction and depression. She has personal experience with both as her older brother, who she idolized as a child, was an addict, and her mother suffered (and still suffers) from severe depression.

While there is a fair bit of time spent on Gifty's present life and research, the vast majority of the book deals with the immigrant experience the US south. Her parents and her brother immigrated from Ghana before she was born. Her mother worked multiple jobs as a personal support worker and her father gets jobs as a janitor but ultimately can't take it and returns to Ghana. Gifty's mother struggles to support her children, but stumbles when her son becomes addicted to Oxytocin following a sports related knee injury.

While I found the story interesting, and well-written, I thought the scientific research and Gifty's current life could have been fleshed out a bit better. While I liked the book, I didn't love it.

Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie

This was a funny, easy to read novel translated from French. While I couldn't fit it into any of the reading challenge categories, I'm glad I read it anyway. 

The book opens when 48 year old Diane's husband admits he is having an affair and leaves her "because he is bored". Of course he leaves her for a much younger woman. The book deals with the fallout of this - how Diane copes using her work, her friends, therapy and some disastrous steps into dating.

This is written almost like a diary and Diane's stories are both funny and touching. It also provides social commentary on the meaning of marriage - and the impact it has on the lives of girls and women.

I recommend this for a fun, distracting and clever read.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John

While I enjoyed this book, I didn't think it lived up to its hype. I did find the style engaging - the chapters were told from the perspective of a multitude of characters and I was invested in getting to the end to see how they all fit together.

The main characters were arguably Vincent, a young woman from a remote island off Vancouver Island who is working at a high class hotel there when she catches the eye of the wealthy hotel owner, Jonathan Alkaitis. They enter into an arrangement whereby she pretends to be his wife - in exchange she is whisked away to the high class world of the super wealthy in New York City. The only problem - Alkaitis is in fact running a Ponzi scheme and living on borrowed time.

Some chapters are from Vincent's perspectives, others from Alkaitis'. But there are also chapters from the perspective of Vincent's half brother, Paul (in fact the book starts with him and I assumed he'd play a greater role), several of Alkaitis's investors, the night manager at the BC hotel, and some of Alkaitis' employees.

In addition to following the fallout of the Ponzi scheme, we learn a lot about his past, that of Vincent, Paul and the other characters and deal with the mystery of a couple of people who disappear into the ocean.

As I said, the book was entertaining, and well written, but not fantastic.