Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem / Sarit Yishai-Levi; translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris.
New York: Thomas Dunne, c2016.
374 p.

Amongst all my Canadian reads lately, I'm still reading some stories of other places. I'd heard this one talked about a bit online, and then it came in at my library and looked like just the thing for me. 

Somehow, I'd missed everything about it except that it was about a family of women in Jerusalem. And that turned out to be a great thing, because the story was a real surprise for me. I began reading about the Ermosa family; the matriarch Mercada, her favourite son Gabriel who falls out of favour by falling in love with an Ashkenazi, his punishment of a quick marriage to the lowly Rosa (an orphan and house cleaner) and then the succeeding lives of their children and grandchildren. It's a big, long, interwoven, historical, dramatic family saga which strongly reminds me of Latin American literature. 

When I began reading, I didn't twig to the family's name right away. On the first page, they use Spanish phrases (actually Ladino, which I comprehended shortly) and eating Spanish food and I was very confused. Then it became clear; this is a Sephardic family, who had come to Palestine from Spain long before the Mandate, and lived through all the upheaval that brought Israel into statehood. 

I knew next to nothing about either of these things, except for the basic history that is generally taught. So I found this book very illuminating about the state of life in Palestine and Israel. I found that there was a great deal of conflict between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, which I hadn't realized before. It made me sad; even in a state being created for the Jewish people there were still divisions about who was the better Jew. But it seems like this happens everywhere, to every country. 

Anyhow, the book was a bit of a lengthy read as there are many characters. It follows four generations of this family, with the lynch-pin being Rosa and Gabriel's oldest daughter, Luna. She outshines her sisters by her force of personality (though her sisters are much nicer people), and she is the centre of the world to the narrator, her daughter Gabriela, despite their rocky relationship. As we learn about her in the title drop:

   Luna talked about clothes as if they were precious objects, each dress a diamond, every skirt a pearl. Her love for clothes infected everyone who came in to the shop, and there wasn't a customer who left empty-handed. 
   The shop employed several seamstresses who made the clothes according to patterns that appeared in Burda magazine, and Luna would devour the magazine voraciously, studying it for hours on end. She spent all her wages on clothes, she purchased from the shop, and was always dressed at the height of fashion, accessorized to the most minute detail. The polish on her fingernails matched that on her toenails, which matched her lipstick, which in turn matched her dress, shoes and handbag. As she dressed, she blossomed.
   Luna grew more beautiful from day to day, and her beauty was renowned throughout Jerusalem. "The beauty queen," they called her, "the beauty queen of Jerusalem." And she , who was aware of her beauty and understood the looks of the men who were unable to tear their eyes from her, shamelessly exploited it. It accorded her an advantage and power, and she felt she could conquer the world. 

I love this excerpt because it captures both Luna's self-absorbed character, and her status in the community. And because I, like Luna, have also spent hours poring over my own Burda magazines. 

I found this a fascinating read for all it had to teach me about a culture I knew little about. And because the connection of the women around Luna was compelling. Luna herself was prickly, unlikeable, but had her own secrets. Her daughter was also not a favourite character for me, having many of the same characteristics. But Luna's sisters and mother all really caught me. The story follows their female relationships as well as their disparate romances, and reveals their opinions, whether active or dismissive, on politics.

There are some flaws with this novel; the first written by a journalist, it does have its share of dry reportage moments. And it can feel a bit melodramatic from time to time. But if you are prepared for a family saga which highlights life in Jerusalem via a Latin American feel, with some flashes of magical realism along with some gritty realism as well, you might find that you also really enjoy it. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Evening Chorus

Evening Chorus / Helen Humpreys
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2015.
304 p.

Now this is quite a different kind of war story. It's quieter, slower-paced, and more about three people's lives and how the war creates a 'before & after' for them, how it changes the trajectory of their lives. 

James is an English soldier, who is in a German POW camp. He survives the tedium and control, and random acts of violence, over five years by watching a family of Redstarts (birds) just outside the camp. His interest in birds and in logging his findings draws the attention of the Kommandant, who has a similar interest. Humphreys was inspired by the story of John Buxton, a birder with a similar war experience, but James is a clearly fictional character. She also used real life anecdotes a couple of more times in the book, in both of the women's stories.

The women: James' young wife Rose, who married him in a rush as he was heading off to war. She is now drawn into an affair with another RAF officer, as she really has no strong feeling for James. This will shape the rest of her life. And Enid, James' sister -- a tough and independent Londoner who loses her home, job, and lover in a bomb raid, and comes to live with Rose. The two women clash both in their approach to life in general, and in their attachment to James. But they eventually come to a livable compromise and even form a bit of an unexpected friendship. 

And then James comes home. How do the three re-engage in everyday life after such a momentous experience? That is the key to this book. Humphreys doesn't examine the daily horrors of war so much as the effects on its survivors. 

It's a very quiet and still book despite the context of war. The writing is finely polished, with every phrase considered. The emotion in the story is often described rather than shown; the British habit of reserve is reflected in this choice.  And the quiet sense of storytelling reaches into the conclusion, as well; I didn't feel that there was a big resolution, nobody suddenly solved everything and became proactive. Rather, they all just kept drifting along in the direction their actions had shifted them in. Even when those are relatively positive, ie: James writes a seminal book on Redstart behaviour, the characters don't seem all that excited by life anymore.

I thought it was beautifully written, with nature's strength and beauty highlighted. But I did find that the bird metaphors sometimes leaned toward being a little bit obvious. And in the end, the quiet and measured pace of the book felt a bit dry to me. I wanted a little more of something, anything, to happen. 

So while I admire Humphreys' skill at taking a WWII story in a much different direction than found usually in this genre, I still prefer her earlier Coventry, for its more active protagonist and sense of immersion in the war years. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Bird's Eye View

Bird's Eye View / Elinor Florence
Toronto: Dundurn, c2014.
384 p.

This is an unusual war novel: it features Rose Joliffe, a young Canadian girl from Saskatchewan who goes to England to join the war effort, before Canadian women could join our own country's armed forces.

She ends up working for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter -- she examines photographs of the landscape of Europe taken by pilots, aiming to notice anything unusual. Of course she discovers that she's really good at interpreting the sometimes mystifying images that her group of women receive, but I guess that's why she's the heroine ;)

Rose has gumption; she goes to England, she faces the devastation and daily fear of war in a way that those in Saskatchewan were not -- even if there was also an air base in her hometown, at which English pilots were trained. So perhaps her family was closer to war than some others. 

I thought this book was well-researched, giving a new perspective on wartime and women's roles. Rose was a good protagonist; interesting, involved, determined. She does get a little lonely in England, though, and falls into an affair with a married man who is clearly (to the reader) a complete cad. I didn't feel the affair subplot added much to the story, other than length. Rose's journey to find her role in wartime was plenty of plot, and was powerful. 

If you're looking for a straightforward historical novel, one which provides a new vantage point on the ways that women were involved in WWII, try out this read. I particularly liked the descriptions of Saskatchewan and of Rose's homesickness -- I thought that these were captured very well and added a new angle to stories of war. Rose's actual job as an aerial photographic interpreter is also really fascinating, and fits in with her background and experiences. I enjoyed learning details about this occupation and how it was used during wartime. 

The feel of the story reminds me of a tv show I'm watching now, the rather soap opera-ish "The Halcyon" on BBC -- mostly for the young woman who is a main character in that show, also set in the early years of WWII, who joins the women's voluntary service. She also resembles the cover model of this book, strangely enough!

I enjoyed this novel, learning new elements of war work that I hadn't known of previously, and also discovering a great new character who was daring and inquisitive. It's nice to see another side of women's work in these years.


Further Reading:

For another tale of Canadian women in wartime, also connected with flying (but told in a saucier tone) try Jeanette Lynes' The Factory Voice. Set entirely in Ontario, this read about factory workers building planes in Northern Ontario is snappy and strongly female-oriented as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Black Apple

Black Apple / Joan Crate
Toronto: Simon &; Schuster, c2016.
336 p.

This novel, set in the 40s & 50s, is written with good intent: to shine a light on the residential school system in Canadian history. It features a young Cree girl being torn from her family and placed in a school run by nuns, with the kinds of terrible things happening that we've all heard about now.

I thought it was an okay read -- certainly one with strong and timely content. However, I found the writing to be a little bit surface oriented, where there was great opportunity to go a little deeper and show the inner life of these characters fully.

Sinopaki aka Rose Marie is taken to residential school at a young age, and feels bereft of her family, who are so far away that she can't see them often, even for holidays. She begins to form an attachment to Mother Grace, and finds that she has a skill for academics. Despite the fact that Mother Grace manipulates her family and Rose Marie's own opportunities according to what she sees as "best", Rose Marie still has a strong connection to Grace even after leaving the convent. This saintly nun doing her best in the face of corruption among priests and church managment seems a little facile; she seems excused from any residential school wrongdoing altogether. I'm not sure I could believe that Grace's long service and exhaustion are a reason for her not to be responsible for what happens at the school she's running.

After Rose Marie's long years at the residential school she feels assimilated into the white culture around her; she get a job in a nearby town rather than return to her family. However, even here she faces racism and violence. But this last section of the book really comes off as a bit hokey and romance novelish, as she meets a nice man at the boarding house who protects her from other not-nice men even as he introduces her to her first sexual experience. And then Rose Marie has an awakening and realizes she must return to her family to understand herself. 

The story seemed a bit YAish, with limited complexity or examination of really dark themes. And the romance thread just didn't work for me. I thought the writing was capable, though both stark and overdone simultaneously in a few instances. I think that Lise, a reviewer on Goodreads, captured my feeling about this book when she says " I love Joan Crate's poetry, but find her fiction very thin. She wrote with an agenda, and therefore her heart doesn't speak."

I wanted to love this book; I ended up liking it but having quite a few hesitancies about the way the story turned out. And the title, while referring to the town that the school is in, has unpleasant connotations for me as well. So not a hit for this reader. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Cover Designs! #10

It's been almost a year since my last Cover Designs post. But when I saw the dress on the cover of The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel, I knew I had to post about it! What is Cover Designs? It's when I see a dress on the cover of a book and try to match up a pattern and fabric to recreate that dress in real life.

This is a classic fit & flare dress, and there were many close possibilities to choose from. But after much pondering, I've selected New Look 6143.

Made from a red crepe or even a fine boucle, this dress would match the cover nicely, with View B's mid-length sleeve, but no overlay. The skirt on the cover dress looks pleated, rather than gathered, and that is reflected in this pattern also.

Maybe it could be made with this japanese cotton:

Or this viyella (cotton-wool blend):

And accessorized with these rugged mountain-friendly brogues

 and this green bangle

And of course this rugged suitcase to carry it all with you.

Tell me, would you wear this on your next mountain escape? 


I wore something slightly similar on my own last trip to Canmore, the inspiration for the town of Gateway in this novel. But the pattern wasn't quite right, with a gathered skirt instead of pleats, and my sleeves weren't quite long enough. Also, it wasn't red ;)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel

The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel / Katherine Govier
Toronto: HarperAvenue, c2016
475 p.

This is a lengthy family saga full of great Canadiana -- the Rocky Mountains, American fossil hunters, generations of families descended from wilderness guides and such, the history of the Canadian Parks System, Ottawa bureaucrats, winter storms that people are lost in -- what else might be added?

If you love family stories over three generations, if you love books in which the setting becomes a character, if you have the strange predilection that I do for books featuring three sisters, then I suggest you give this one a try.

It begins in Gateway, Alberta, in 1911 (and Gateway is strangely reminiscent of Canmore, as a mountain town with a view of the Three Sisters, iconic mountain peaks that I've seen myself).

Gateway is a town that's rough and rules itself, and the government's meddling while turning the landscape into a national park isn't much appreciated by the independent souls who live there. This set of characters eventually interacts with the story of two civil servants charged with the paperwork to kick off the Parks System. The two threads don't mesh all that well, though; jumping back to dreary office life in Ottawa feels a bit dull after reading about mountain exploration, blizzards and disappearances in Alberta.

Actually, the book is structured in four parts, focusing on past -- Herbie's story, and a section focused on the Ottawa parks people (which could have been condensed significantly, I think) -- and present, in which Herbie's 3 granddaughters are called back to Gateway by their elderly parents after said parents decided it was a brilliant idea to buy the old hotel and restore it with their daughters' help. 

I loved the setting and the scientific element of the fossil expedition, in particular; I love sciencey content in my fiction!  Many of the characters of that era were really engaging. I felt less fond of the current day story, as redoing an old building with your parents and adult siblings just isn't as wildly fascinating as riding off into the uncharted mountains and facing down nature. I also thought the segments about the Parks staff were interesting (the long-suffering secretary was wonderful) but could have made another whole novel instead of being too much with us in this one.

But if you'd like to read a book about the wilds of Alberta in 1911 and onward, this is a great choice. Lots of history and research in this story, and a setting that is evocative and beautiful.  

**If you're interested, you can listen to a brief interview about this book which Katherine Govier gave on The Next Chapter a year ago.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ellen in Pieces & The Opening Sky

And now for a quick review of a duo of novels that I didn't quite love as much as others have -- even if both of their covers are gorgeous. Both feature strong women at midlife and the messiness of mother-child dynamics, friendships, lust/love and much more.

Ellen in Pieces / Caroline Adderson
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
304 p.

Ellen McGinty is the mother of two grown daughters, and is at the point in her life where she is ready to do whatever she wants. This story takes a brash, opinionated, mature woman who has no more f*ks left to give, and follows her through her relationships - with her children, her father, her new young lover, her long-standing female friends - until she receives a grim diagnosis. You don't often see this kind of woman in fiction, and I appreciated Adderson's skill at character development. The exposure of the faults & fissures of adult friendships was another strong point. I also really loved her style and her writing itself.

However, I didn't really warm to Ellen and while I thought this was a clever and fresh novel, I also felt a bit distanced from it. It feels a little like a novel in stories, which isn't always my own favourite style, and so my final sense of it was that I liked it but I probably won't read it again. Unlike other readers, such as Kerry Clare, who rave about it very eloquently. You'll have to judge for yourself! 

(ps - I really loved Adderson's earlier novel, The Sky is Falling, much more)
The Opening Sky / Joan Thomas
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2014.
368 p.

This is a beautiful cover for a book with a premise that promised much. But it really didn't work for me; a little too long, and a little too uneventful.

It's set in Winnipeg, in a fairly privileged family; a self-satisfied middle-aged couple with the usual middle-aged marriage complaints, a daughter full of promise & just beginning her life as a university student...and her unexpected pregnancy.

This throws the family into turmoil both because it is rather shameful for her therapist father & Sex Ed Resource Centre manager mother, and because Sylvie & her boyfriend are both eco-warriors who had planned never to reproduce. 

There are lots of questions to ponder in this book, but the lecture-y feel of some of the ecological themes was a bit distracting, as was the frequent insertion of the meaning of words/ideas etc. that the characters are thinking about. Also, the parents of both Sylvie & her boyfriend are unbearably smug despite the secrets and history they have together. (It's those secrets from the past that were the most interesting part of the story). So while objectively this is an intriguing idea for a book, it was just not the one for me.