Monday, 27 April 2015

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Finished April 27
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, read by Grace Blewer

This novel is told by a young woman looking back at her recent past, Emily Shepard is a homeless teenager struggling to survive after her life has fallen apart. A nuclear powerplant in Vermont had a reactor go into meltdown and a large area of the state had to be evacuated, with many people losing their homes, their jobs, and many plant workers dying. Emily tells her story in fits and starts, jumping from the June that the meltdown occurred to the next spring when things completely fall apart for her. Part of Emily's situation is that her father was the chief engineer at the plant, and her mother was the communications representative. She feels that she must hide her identity as people are angry with her when they find out who her parents were.
Long before the meltdown, Emily was fascinated with her poet namesake Emily Dickinson, knowing many of her poems by heart, and writing her own poetry. Emily was a bit of a rebellious teenager, not doing as well in school as she could have, engaging in some risky behaviour and criticizing her parents for their own weaknesses. But she was still not fully an adult and her innocence shows even as she loses it. Among her many losses is that of her beloved dog Maggie, who was left in the house during the sudden evacuation, and whose unknown fate haunts Emily.
When she comes across Cameron, a young boy fleeing from a series of bad foster homes, she takes him under her wing, trying to convince him to get more help than she can offer, but also protecting him as much as she is able. In some ways, his presence also keeps her alive.
Emily struggles with many of the issues homeless teens struggling with self-hatred, depression, and general anxiety struggle with. She engages in far riskier behaviour than she would ever have thought herself capable of, but also finds herself reaching out to others as she tries to survive any way she can.
Emily is strong, but also overwhelmed by her circumstances. As she leads us through her story, referring back to events in her life before the meltdown, we see her loneliness, her dreams, and her regrets.
The interview with the author and narrator included here added another element to the story. Grace is Chris's daughter and the inspiration for some of the characteristics of Emily, as well as the source for some of the language particular to teens.

Neverhome

Finished April 26
Neverhome by Laird Hunt

This historical novel is full of surprises. The narrator is Ash Thompson. Ash's real name is Constance, and she has taken time to learn to move like a man and feel comfortable in men's clothing so that she can go and fight for the Union in the U.S. Civil War. Ash is more assertive, more robust, and more skilled at many tasks than her husband Bartholomew and she feels that one of them should go to represent their family. Her motives are more complex in reality and as the novel unfolds we begin to realize that Ash is not always telling us everything.
Ash makes a name for herself early by coming to the aid of a women in an immodest situation, earning herself the nickname of Gallant Ash. She is recognized for her shooting skills, and her strong work ethic. She recognizes others like herself along the way, and they recognize her in return, but all keep the secret. When she is placed in difficult situations, Ash is not above using her female identity to gain advantage, nor is she unwilling to switch back to male if that will further her own ends.
Besides the story itself, this book has underlying meanings, beginning with Ash's real name of Constance. Constance is the one thing she is not, but also the one thing she is.
She survives capture, accusations of treason and spying, imprisonment, being labelled a madwoman, being tortured, and being betrayed. She does not find war what she thought, but neither is home what she expects either.
The story has an element of reflection, as she looks back on her experience and tries to find meaning in it.

Red Gold

Finished April 26
Red Gold by Alan Furst

Another wonderful World War II thriller by a master. This novel takes place over just a few months, from the fall of 1941 to April 1942. The majority of the action takes place in Paris, but not all. The lead character here is Jean Casson, a film producer. In the summer of 1941, Jean had been questioned by the Gestapo and had escaped custody. He is now living under the name Jean Marin, and is running out of money. He connects with a previous colleague from the film industry and does some black market work that gives him a little to go in, but is subsequently picked up. Instead of being questioned though, he is given an opportunity. He is asked to be an intermediary between the resistance and the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), the clandestine action group of the French Communist Party. His contact on the resistance side is a man named Degrave, someone Casson worked with years earlier on a propaganda piece. Degrave worked in government intelligence then, and still does. The first measure of cooperation is to supply the FTP with guns, something they badly need. As the plot progresses there are triumphs and setbacks. Casson is forced to approach both previous colleagues as well as old friends in order to keep himself funded, and make a dent in the German war machine.
Casson is an interesting man, one who let himself be turned by love, and yet even in the disappointment of that affair, move forward with open eyes. He cares about people, from Degrave to the woman and undocumented Jew, Helene, he meets that works in a travel agency and fears discovery and its repercussions, to his estranged wife Marie-Claire.
We see portions of the story from the view of some of the players on the communist side as well, again both triumphs and failures.
Furst is so good because he does his research and bases his plot on the reality of history.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

World War Z

Finished April 21
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, performed by an all-star cast: F. Murray Abraham, Alan Alda, Rene Auberjonois, Becky Ann Baker, Dennis Boutsikaris, Bruce Boxleitner, Max Brooks, Nicki Clyne, Common, Denise Crosby, Frank Darabont, Dean Edwards, Mark Hamill, Nathan Fillion, Maz Jobrani, Frank Kamai, Michelle Kholos, John McElroy, Ade M'Cormack, Alfred Molina, Parminder Nagra, Ajay Naidu, Masi Oka, Steve Park, Kal Penn, Simon Pegg, Jurgen Prochnow, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Henry Rollins, Jeri Ryan, Jay O. Sanders, Martin Scorsese, Paul Sorvino, David Ogden Stiers, Brian tee, John Turturro, Eamonn Walker, Ric Young, and Waleed Zuaiter.

This was like listening to a movie. The structure takes us around the world several times, workings its way from the first outbreak, through the spread of the disease, to the first public announcements, the ways that various countries or regions dealt with the outbreaks, the refugees, the fights against the zombies in various regions, what worked and what didn't, the emotional, physical, and mental effects on people. We see the heroes, the terrible mistakes, the losses, the struggles to survive. We see big battles and one-on-one fights to survive. We gradually understand the way that people began to understand what they were up against and how they had to adapt their defences and attacks to meet an enemy that wasn't what they'd see historically.
We see how even when they'd established areas of safety, they felt they had to move into infested areas and take back those areas, fighting to the last zombie they could find. We see how different environments made fighting more difficult and how small mistakes could have large effects on the way things turned out.
The casting was well done, and the actors really brought it all to life for me.
One of our pages at work recommended this to me, and I'm glad to have taken it up and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Wonder

Finished April 21
Wonder by Dominique Fortier, translated by Sheila Fischman

This gem of a novel has three sections. The main characters in the first two sections are real historical figures, but Fortier has given them different experiences beyond their real lives.
The first is set in the early twentieth century in Martinique and begins just a few days before the devastating eruption of Mount Pelée. The entire city of Saint Pierre was destroyed and only one man survived. It is this man, known here by the name of Baptiste Cyparis. Like the real man, Cyparis is approached by a representative of Barnum & Bailey's circus and tours with them as one of the sideshow attractions. Here, Cyparis is known as The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday, and he befriends a young boy looking after some of the animals, and in turn begins a relationship with the boy's mother. This section gives a feel for both the loneliness and notoriety of the circus people, and the hierarchy within their community.
The second is set in a wider section of time during the same era. In England, we see the development from childhood of the mathematician Edward Love, a man famous for using math to explain earth's inner workings. Edward falls in love with a woman who is also one fascinated by earth and it's inner workings, but for her, they translate into music. Their natural affinity leads them to explore further and bring each other epiphanies as their own insights lead to breakthroughs for the other. The travel to Italy and visit the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii, some of the happiest days of their lives. The real Edward Love discovered Love numbers which are used to measure the elastic response of the Earth to the influence of tides, and Love waves which are still used to study the Earth's crust and earthquakes.
The third section of the book is set in Montreal, mostly on Mont Royal itself. Rose is a young woman who walks dogs every day, taking them up the path to the summit, near the cemetery. Through a series of gradual events she comes to know a young man who works in the cemetery, and the two of them grow close.
This is a novel of language, of ideas, of the subtle interactions between people. The original French edition was a finalist for the Prix littéraire des collégiens.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Afterlife of Stars

Finished April 18
The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes

This novel is told from the point of view of a young boy, aged, as he says, 9.8, Robert Beck is a Hungarian Jew, one of the many saved by Raoul Wallenberg. The year is 1956, and the Russians have moved in on Budapest. Robert's family's apartment is taken over by Russians,and his father insists that now is the time to leave. They idea is to visit Robert's grandmother's sister Hermina in Paris, and then go on to Canada, where Robert's father's cousin Peter lives. So Roberts parents, Lili and Simon, his grandmother Klari, his older brother Attila, aged 13.7, his father's cousin Andras and his wife Judit, heavily pregnant, all pack up what they can carry and take the train as far west towards Austria as they can.
Attila is a high energy boy, full of questions, insistent with them, and also easily angered. He is constantly getting ideas and dragging Robert along with him. Robert is a calm boy, observant, interested, and as his Hermina says, born wise. He thinks a lot and does worry about things, but doesn't burst out with them as Attila does.
The book takes us as far as Paris and the ship to Canada. The writing is full of imagery, with Attila's questions insistent, startling, and sometimes violent. Robert's inward thoughts are also full of imagery, but a dreamier version, thoughtful and deeper. This is a story of a hidden past, a difficult past to come to terms with, and an uncertain future. This is a story of lives in motion, of a close family in a trying situation. This is a story of children, aching for knowledge, but not always able to deal with that knowledge.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Jury of Her Peers

Finished April 13
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter

This overview of American women writers covers the entire history of the topic from the beginnings of the country to the end of the twentieth century. Showalter includes more than 250 women writers in her commentary from poets to dramatists to short story writers and novelists. She touches on not only the obvious issues of gender, but also race, class, and politics.
The book is arranged chronologically with authors reappearing in different chapters as their writing carries over multiple time frames. As the book gets closer to the present, the time frames shorten to decades. Showalter looks at the writing in its context, examining the personal lives of the writers, how their experiences shaped their writing and their lives, and how outside forces reacted to their writing. Some drew support from male writers of their time, while others did not. Some flourished economically but not critically. Some did well at the time of writing and grew less significant in following years, others didn't do well during their lives, but became more valued later. Some had to sacrifice their preferences in the type of writing they wanted to do due to the pressures of economics, family situations, or prejudice.
There were a lot of writers I had never heard of, but also many that I've heard of but never read (some of them I've even got the books on my shelves!) And of course ones I've read and loved, or read and not loved. This book will help to guide some of my future reading.
Showalter gives us a history but also includes some criticism here, occasionally making clear her own views on the writers' works, and the reasoning behind those views.
The title is taken from a short story that was adapted from a play. The author, Susan Glaspell was a journalist who covered a murder case where a woman was accused of murdering her husband, and then was so fascinated by the case that she developed it into both a play and a short story. When the county attorney and sheriff go to the house to gather information, their wives accompany them and looking through a woman's eyes make their own discoveries and decisions about her actions. Of course, real juries at the time of the case, 1917, didn't include women and the link is made in this book from legal juries to literary juries. Glaspell won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 and yet didn't rate inclusion in literary overviews even at her death nearly 20 years later. Questions are raised by the question of "peer" and what that means both legally and in a literary sense.What judgments have been made about the subject matter women chose to address in their writing at various times is discussed as is the change over time to the situation today where a woman writer can, without judgment choose any subject she wishes to write about.
A work leading to reflection, more reading, and thoughtful response.