Saturday, 18 October 2014

Made That Way

Finished October 16
Made That Way by Susan Ketchen

This teen novel is a sequel to a book that I haven't yet read called Born That Way. The main character in both books is Sylvia.
Sylvia is 14 and as the book begins is awaiting the delivery of her own horse, sent to her by her grandfather in Saskatchewan. The stable owner where Sylvia has been doing her riding is a woman named Kansas and Kansas has some particular ideas about horses and their behaviour that Sylvia's new horse doesn't always meet.
Sylvia has Turner Syndrome and her health issues related to this are a big part of the story.
Sylvia is also obsessed with unicorns, dreaming of one, and associating her new horse and sometimes even herself with a unicorn.
Sylvia's mother is sometimes a bit intense, and her father controlling, but overall they seem to pay attention to her concerns. She feels a bit of an outcast at school and looks for ways to find a niche for herself there. Her cousins Taylor and Stephanie are both older than her, and Taylor and Sylvia end up getting hurt in an accident.that changes Taylor's life significantly.
Lots going on here. This book will appeal to those girls interested in horses, but also give insight into a different outlook due to Sylvia's condition.

Just Send Me Word

Finished October 11
Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag by Orlando Figes

This book is based on a collection of letters between Svetlana Ivanova and Lev Mishchenko over many years and interviews with them and others. The couple donated their private archives to Memorial, a human rights research charity in Moscow, and Figes became aware of it shortly thereafter. The letters span the time from July 12, 1946 to November 23, 1954. There are 647 letters from Lev and 599 from Svetlana. Most of these letters were not sent through official channels and so were not written with censors in mind, although they did use some code in case the letters fell into unfriendly hands.
The two met in September 1935 in the Physics faculty at Moscow University where both were students. Svetlana's father Aleksandr Alekseevich was also a physicist and graduate of the University, then working as deputy director of the Resin Research Institute. Her mother Anastasia Erofeevna was a Russian-language teacher at the Moscow Institute of the Economy.
Lev's mother Valentina Aleekseevna was a teacher and his father Gleb Fedorovich Mishchenko studied physics at Moscow University and then studied to be an engineer at the Railway Institute. He was a professor at Kiev University. Lev's parents moved to Beryozovo, Siberia to escape the Bolshevik revolution, but it found them both there and they died there after imprisonment and torture. Lev was raised by his grandmother, his Aunt Katya, and his mother's aunt Elizaveta Konstantinovna. He was also supported by his father's close friends and later by his Aunt Olga.
In June 1941, Lev had just passed his final exams and was readying himself to go on to study cosmic rays, when the war started. He was put in charge of a supply unit, but found that the front lines were in chaos and was captured by the Germans on October 3rd. Taken to a prisoner of war camp, Lev refused to spy for the Germans when pressured although he did work as a translator. He attempted to escape once and was recaptured, but during the final days of the war, when on a death march, he managed to escape with a fellow prisoner. The two were discovered by US troops and he was asked to emigrate given his physics education, but refused, wanting to go back to Moscow and hopefully Svetlana.
It is at this point that things got much worse for him. The Soviets treated all returning POWs as prisoners and collaborators, holding them in bad conditions, questioning them repeatedly trying to force confessions, and eventually tricked Lev into signing something they only read part of to him that had him admitting his guilt. On November 19, 1945, he was sentenced to death, which was commuted to ten years in labour camps.
He arrived in Pechora in March 1946, and was assigned to the Pechora wood combine, where he was able to get assigned to a drying unit, then a sawmill, and finally the power station, mostly due to his engineering and science knowledge. Svetlana, meanwhile, was working on rubber, in a job that had her with access to state secrets. This made her relationship with Lev very risky to her.
However the two not only wrote each other continuously, but Svetlana travelled to Pechora and made secret visits into the camp to see Lev. Their loyalty to each other was strong and enduring and they confided their feelings to each other without reservation.
Even after Lev was freed, they didn't marry at first due to his status as a freed prisoner. He even found job prospects difficult. But on September 17, 1955, there was an amnesty for Soviet servicemen who had collaborated with the Germans, which meant they could finally be together and lead a more normal life.
This is a moving story and also illustrative of both live in the labour camps and the general restrictions of life in Moscow as well. Figes has done a good job of pulling information together from the letters, interviews and other sources to make this narrative coherent.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Tomorrow City

Finished October 9
Tomorrow City by Kirk Kjeldsen

This novel follows the young man Brendan as he is caught up in a crime that he made the bad choice to be involved in when he was desperate for money for his fledgling business, a bakery. Things go horribly wrong and more than one man is left dead. Brendan feels hunted and desperate, and sells his business and flees.
Years later he is running a successful small bakery in Shanghai under another identity, John Davis, has a wife Li and small daughter Xiaodan and enjoys a quiet simple life. Then his fellow criminals reappear in his life forcing him to take part in another desperate crime, and threatening his family if he doesn't go along with them.
The resulting chaos will change his life again and his choices will save his life but also haunt him forever.
An interesting plot.

The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms

Finished October 7
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms: How One Man Scorched the Twentieth Century but Didn't Mean To by Ian Thornton

This epic tale follows the life of Johan Thoms, as told by the son of a man that he told it to years later. Johan was born in the village of Argona, near Sarajevo. He was injured as a child and afterward taken on as a protege by Count Kaunitz, the man whose estate he was injured on. Johan developed a love for chess during his time recovering and showed an ability to converse with those from all backgrounds. He went on to study at the University of Sarajevo and here developed a close relationship with the Count, a strong friendship with the son of the American Ambassador, as well as a deep love affair with a visiting American woman, Lorelei Ribeiro. The Count was able to arrange for his to get  work, and he ends up through a series of circumstances being assigned as the chauffeur for Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they visit the city. Distracted by thoughts of Lorelei, Johan takes a wrong turn, and Franz Ferdinand and his wife are killed. Johan feels the weight of immense guilt and flees blindly, gradually heading west.
It is Johan's deep belief that he is responsible for all the destruction of World War I and the subsequent historical deaths that followed. It is this deep belief that drives his life and separates him from his love.
Johan finds a travelling companion in a young boy, Cicero, that he befriends in a hospital and the two of them travel on to Italy, and then further, staying for a long time in a small seaside village in Portugal and starting a chess club for youngsters called the Young Hooligans. Later their travels take them to Cadiz, and then to England, and eventually back to Argona.
Throughout the story, Johan finds himself looked after kindly by nurses many times and he sees them as angels in his life.
This story is complex and often sad, but also moving and startling at times. The writing is wonderful. Here is an example from when young Johan tells his father that he has determined that he is an atheist and his father describes his view of religion. "It's like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn't there, but still finding the thing."
Well worth reading.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Andrew's Brain

Finished October 4
Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow

This novel is written in a series of therapy sessions. In these sessions, Andrew tells his story, sometimes referring to himself in third person and sometimes in first person. The story is told of Andrew's marriages, and how each ended. We see his troubled relationship with his young daughter Willa and his radical solution to dealing with it. We see him accused of being a walking disaster to those nearest to him and then we see why he might be seen in this way.
This novel reveals Andrew's story gradually and we see the sadness of his life.This is a complex novel that made me want to turn back as I learned things about him and reread some previous sections of the book.
Andrew's situation is one that is only partially of his own making, but we see a sense of righteousness in him that is often his downfall.
As always, Doctorow's writing is amazing and this book is one that will stay with you.

The Weird Sisters

Finished October 3
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

This novel follows the three Andreas sisters: Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy). Their father is a Shakespearean scholar and professor at the college in Branwell, Ohio. The women are all in their late twenties or early thirties and they are all at turning points in their life. Rose has been the daughter who did what was expected of her. She got her Ph.D. and became a professor of mathematics at a college close to home. She has recently become engaged and is in the planning stages of her wedding. Her fiance Jonathan is doing a visiting professorship at Oxford and is urging her to join him, but she feels the need to be home and support the rest of her family, particularly her mother who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Bianca always had her eyes on the big city and making it there, and she made a beeline for New York. She's been working there as an office manager, but has recently lost her job and has financial issues that have caused her to question her life, and go home to regroup. Cordy has been a wanderer, moving around the country, picking up odd jobs and doing what she feels she has to to find a meal and a bed when she needs them. She has just realized that she is pregnant and doesn't know what she wants to do about it, but realizes that the life she is living is not sustainable for her anymore.
Rose keeps trying to take charge and organize everyone else, but she is scared to take risks and go beyond her comfort zone in her own life, and this summer will push her to stop being the tender of her family and make a life for herself. Bean is forced to find a job and evaluate her own motivations as she deals with her financial responsibilities and the bad decisions she has made. Cordy also must find a job to support herself, and look inward to find her own strengths instead of running from life.
This is a coming of age story for these sisters, but also made me think about fears, motivations, and taking chances in life. I really liked the way the whole family used quotations from Shakespeare as a kind of language with each other to question, comfort, and challenge each other as they found a new way of relating to each other.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Occidentalism

Finished September 30
Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Iam Buruma and Avishai Margalit

This book's purpose is not to demonize the enemies of the west or assist in the "war on terrorism", but to understand what drives Occidentalism, and to show that the suicide bombers of today have their roots in history that includes the west itself. Understanding doesn't provide excuses, but just additional knowledge in dealing with those who demonize the west.
The book looks at occidentalism from a variety of viewpoints. One is the idea of war against the west, one is the idea of the city as an occidental evil that with an urban reality destroys the local culture. Another looks at the idea of the hero versus the merchant, where the pursuit of economic wellbeing works against the true way things should be. Yet another looks at the philosophy of the mental model of the west as seen by its enemies and how they interpret the west's intent. We then get to religion and the various ways the west is seen as idolatrous, including the way that women are treated. The last is the seeds that bring revolution, looking at various examples and showing how some current situations mirror these historical ones, and theorizing what that means for the world going forward.
Well-researched and insightful, this analysis goes back more than two centuries to trace the roots of anti-Western ideas and sentiments, and places modern terrorists within this historical continuum.