March Reading List

The German Girl
Armando Lucas Correa
Fascinating topic, but the execution is clunky. Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, the ocean liner full of Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 that arrived in Cuba only to be turned back, with a mere 28 passengers (out of more than 900) permitted to disembark. Correa works to create many correlations between modern-day Anna and her great-aunt Hannah in 1939, but writing both parts in the first person voice offers little differentiation between the two character’s voices. Timelines feel off but work out as the plot progresses however there’s no clear answer to the main plot point of the story, which is why did Hannah’s mother, and Hannah herself after her mother’s death, remain in a country they hated, especially when they had the money to go to America after the end of WW2 and at the onset of the Cuban revolution? With better editing (again, this work is clunky, often slow, and long-winded) this could have been a great YA novel. Geared to adults, it’s less engaging, although, again the topic itself is both fascinating and horrible, so kudos to Correa for giving it light after so many decades.

Sweet Expectations
Mary Ellen Taylor
A food-themed romance/chick-lit/mystery/ghost story that had a reasonable plot (even with the ghosts), but which was short on continuity and spell-checking. Seriously, this was published by Penguin, but was littered with misspellings that any version of spellcheck should have caught. Characters’ ages change from one chapter to the next. Most of it felt like an awkward first draft. I was ready to forgive the clumsiness until I discovered that this was the second in a series, and the synopsis for the first book sounds almost the same as the second, complete with a found object and a ghost who needs the heroine to unravel their mystery.

Dear. Mr Knightly
Katherine Reay
This is an updated version of the 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs in which an anonymous (male) benefactor funds the education of a young woman and surreptitiously inserts himself into her life where she falls in love with him. The premise doesn’t get any less creepy when it’s updated by a hundred years and embellished with characters quoting bits of Jane Austen stories. Also weirdly creepy is that the the last third of the book it suddenly got really, really religious, to the point where some reviewers on Goodreads have it tagged as “Christian fiction”, something that would have been nice to know before investing the time to read it. Generally clunky, with characters that were either annoying or under-developed. And did I mention creepy?

Rhapsody In Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It
Michael Wex
One of the highlights of my food writing career was judging a gefilte fish contest, and while most of my Jewish friends think my love of the stuff is bizarre, I’ve been a fan of Yiddish food (the food of Eastern-European Askenazi Jews) since I first moved to Toronto and found comfort in the many Jewish delis that used to dot my neighbourhood. Wex points out that everything comes back to religion, and the rules about Kosher foods, which can get a bit confusing/tedious if you’re not actually Jewish. But his exploration of different foodstuffs (some of which, like cheesecake, aren’t even “Jewish” at all) is enlightening. I’ll never eat another store-bought bagel (Ha! As if I ever did!), after Wex’s thorough explanation of the differences between bagels from Montreal vs New York, and handmade versus those from a commercial bakery. Super-informative and sharply witty.

The Other Typist
Suzanne Rindell
The premise of this is great; a con woman/bootlegger in 1920s New York scores a job in the typing pool at a police precinct in order to make charges for her staff go away. However the twist, which tries to turn the story into some sort of psychological thriller, falls apart on closer examination. Great setting and plot but full of factual/historical errors which the reader is not sure whether to attribute to poor writing and fact checking or the premise of the “unreliable narrator”.

The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels
Edward St. Aubyn
I’m counting this as one entry because I didn’t read all four books, having watched the miniseries that is almost exactly based on the books. I mostly just wanted to see how St. Aubyn dealt with the very shocking material from an omniscient point of view and his decision to be in literally every character’s head at the same time is an excellent one (although it was probably really difficult to write). Sharp, witty and painful, takes full aim at the British aristocracy.

Goodbye Things: The New Japanese Minimalism
Fumio Sasaki
When minimalism is to the max: The epub version of this book was 47mb compared to 2mb for an average novel.
When minimalism is just gross: owning a single towel to dry everything, including your dishes and yourself.
When minimalism is really fucking elitist: not owning enough dishes to have a dinner party so suggesting your friends meet you at a restaurant.
When minimalism is sizeist: apparently all minimalists are “slim”. Because when you get rid of your stuff you lose weight. No, really.
Takes the premise of a minimalist lifestyle to a hypocritical extreme (if you get rid of all your books and CDS to replace them with digital versions, are you really living a minimal lifestyle??).

A Fist Around the Heart
Heather Chisvin
The premise of this work is great (two Jewish Russian sisters emigrate to Winnipeg in the late 1800s, growing up to live very divergent lives), but journalist Chisvin buries the lede in her first work of fiction. Not only does the plot meander a bit with flashbacks inside other flashbacks, but instances of depth of feeling are so rare that the characters feel very flat. And the whole point of the story — why did Esther, returning from a visit in New York with her sister Anna,  jump in front of a train at the Winnipeg train station (she enters the station on “If Day” — a real event where the City of Winnipeg simulated a Nazi invasion — but doesn’t realize it’s fake) — is revealed at the end, but its concealment doesn’t work with what the various characters should have been doing/asking throughout the story.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Aging Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo grants the story of her life to Monique, an aspiring writer, explaining her life in Hollywood from the 1950s to present day. Hugo is egocentric and manipulative but reveals that her ruthless persona is partially a put-on and was mostly created to protect herself and the people she loves. This is a really well-crafted story that touches on race, misogyny, LGBT issues, domestic abuse, alcoholism, gossip, media manipulation, aging, and right-to-die choices. There’s an excellent twist at the end that reveals why Evelyn chose Monique to tell her story to, and both characters are complex and intense. Loved this one.

Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories From Canada’s Chinese Restaurants
Ann Hui
The Globe and Mail journalist travels across Canada in search of chop suey restaurants, like the one her parents ran when they first came to this country. She intertwines her father’s life story with meetings and interviews with families and individuals who run local Chinese restaurants from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Fogo Island in Newfoundland. Across the way, she finds people willing to give up their lives, often working 18 hour days, to make a better life for the rest of their family, much as her parents did for her. A very interesting, heart-felt read that will probably make you crave chow mein and chicken balls in that neon red sauce.