Tuesday, June 21, 2022

I Hate Borsch!

 

I Hate Borsch! / Yevgenia Nayberg
Grand Rapids, Michigan : Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2022.
56 p.


This deceptively simple picture book is a great read. It's not much of a narrative arc -- the main character hates borsch as a child. From the beets to the slimy tomatoes, it's all an ICK from her. None of the babas anywhere in Kyiv can convince her it's good. 

But then she immigrates to the US and finds that she misses borsch and all it means to her. And she comes to like it after all, as do her own children later on. 



There are really lovely illustrations in this book, fun and quirky. (the author both wrote and illustrated the book). I felt quite connected to this little story, as when I was a child I also hated Borsch! I didn't like beets at all. Now of course, there's nothing better :) She includes a recipe for quick borsch at the end, and also says not to tell her that it's not the way YOUR grannie made it...there are hundreds of different ways to make borsch, depending on who's doing it. I found that quite funny.

The book is quite sweet but there is also more to it than just talking about food. It's about food as a cultural identifier, about the connection to the past and to the larger cultural identity. It's only when she's left Ukraine that she realizes how much it means and why their family would make and eat it so often. There's room for discussion with children after reading this quiet little book together, and it made this adult reader thoughtful as well as amused. A great mix. 

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Making Bombs For Hitler

  

Making Bombs for Hitler / Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
TO: Scholastic, c2012
186 p.


This middle grade novel is a companion to Skrypuch's earlier novel, Stolen Child. This one follows the elder sister of this Ukrainian family that is broken up when Nazis kidnap children in WWII. Lida pretends she's 13, even she is small, knowing that if the Nazi work camp doesn't find her useful for work she'll have a worse fate ahead. Thanks to her cleverness in speaking up about a loose button on an officer's jacket, she is assigned to the laundry, where she performs back-breaking washing and ironing, and is then put to work mending sheets and clothing. Her sewing skills are eventually praised by the head laundress, and her sewing keeps her safe for quite a while. 

However, her quick seamstress hands lead her to a new role alongside a few other girls; they are reassigned to work in a munitions factory, assembling bombs. The descriptions of their daily life and routine are horrifying but well-known to anyone who has read WWII fiction or non-fiction. Lida and her fellow bomb makers decide that they will sabotage the bombs, ruining the gunpowder so that the bombs won't explode on use -- even though they could easily be caught doing this and that would be their death sentence. These scenes draw from the true story of Jewish slave labourers in Czechoslovakia,  who removed the charges from Nazi ammunition and left a note instead, found when a British plane was shot at but wasn't destroyed.

Eventually their munitions factory comes under fire itself, and Lida is sent to another work assignment on a farm where they are starved and cold; but then they are freed by the American forces. During all this time, Lida can't stop wondering about her younger sister Larissa (of The Stolen Child) and what might have happened to her.

This is well written, thoroughly researched, and emotionally compelling, while also pitched just right for the juvenile audience. Skrypuch is really good at these kinds of stories, and this one caught my eye because of the role of sewing in keeping Lida alive. But it's also a powerful story of war and survival, pinning both the Nazis and the Soviets down for their horrific actions. It's timely again, sadly enough. 


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Stars & Poppy Seeds

 

Stars & Poppy Seeds / Romana Romanyshyn & Andriy Lesiv
trans. from the Ukrainian by Oksana Lushchevska
London: Tate, 2019, c2014.
32 p.

This gorgeous picture book got me excited about sharing my reading again! I've been reading quite a lot but haven't had the oomph to sit down and write about things. This lovely little book is worth sharing, though. I picked it up because I saw it mentioned in a discussion of Ukrainian books, something I've been spending a lot of my reading time on lately. And fortunately my library system bought a copy! 

It's the story of Flora, a young girl who loves to count. She counts the stars in the sky, the grains of sand in the beach, poppy seeds, polka dots and pearls. She counts everything. The book is a joyous celebration of numbers, counting and astronomy, all together. And the illustrations are so beautiful. The authors are also the founders of Art Studio Agrafka where they've done some gorgeous book work.

The book has a collage style, with a vintage feel. There are many details in the images that I spent time examining. This is the kind of book I would have loved as a child myself - magical, detailed and about stars. And featuring a wonderful female main character. 

There is one page when Flora plays hopscotch with the moon on a string, and she's wearing a dress that is quite similar to a dress I've made myself


And another of my favourite images is when Flora finds herself by a lake and starts wondering about how many drops of water there are in the world -- the text states that she is walking home through a labyrinth of streets, and the illustration feels like a manuscript, showing a classical labyrinth that is properly drawn and 'walkable' with your finger. So wonderful! 

image via Art Studio Agrafka

This book is pretty much perfect for me; it includes math, stars, creative illustrations, Ukrainian writers, and a labyrinth. As you can tell, I was enchanted by it. Recommended if you also love these things!

Friday, April 22, 2022

Fraulein Schmidt & Mr. Anstruther

 

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther / Elizabeth von Arnim
London: Virago, 2006, c1907.
392 p.

Now this is an epistolary novel that really works! It is absolutely dependent on the fact that it is a set of letters, and in this case, one sided letters. We only see the missives to Mr. Anstruther from Fraulein Schmidt - we are left to guess the other bits from her responses. I found it very successful. 

It begins with Rose-Marie writing an ecstatic letter to Roger -- he was boarding with her teacher father for a year to study in Germany, and told her of his feelings for her just before going back to England. The letters are charming and funny and romantic, but get shorter and a little less expansive as she waits to hear back. 

Her letters cool down slowly, especially when Roger, now Mr. Anstruther, writes to let her know that he is going to become engaged to a British girl -- not his choice of course but he must follow the requests of his father and his career prospects. But they can remain friends and correspondents. 

Rose-Marie manages this admirably, changing her position to one of "older sister", as she tells him, someone concerned with his well-being but able to criticize and advise as well. And we see through her letters that she grows, and becomes more able to state things clearly, and to be realistic about her life and prospects. Until Mr. Anstruther desires to become Roger once more, and puts Fraulein Schmidt into an awkward position...

Elizabeth von Arnim's writing is sharp and clear, and in this novel particularly I thought she had the voice of a practical young woman down. As in most of her work, the conflict between being German and English is part of the story, and she's able to point out some of the absurdities in both cultures. I recently read an academic study of comedy in her novels, and it surmised that the humour is such that it requires a sympathetic reader, one who can sense the irony and situational wryness -- I think many bookish women readers will be the right ones for this story, and will 'get it'. 

I loved Rose-Marie's voice and her independence. She's a clever letter writer - I'd love for her to write to me. I'm not sure what I think of the ending, it could mean a couple of different things if you extrapolate and imagine. Von Arnim's intent and direction of the narrative probably mean one thing but I wondered if the story could possibly play out another way past the final pages. I couldn't help hoping that Rose-Marie would get everything that she wanted. This was an amusing book, but with emotional heft, and a wonderful main character. One of my favourite Von Arnim books. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Violeta

 

Violeta / Isabel Allende
trans. from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
NY: Ballantine, c2022
336 p.

This new book by Allende came into my library shortly after I'd finished reading Dora, Doralina, a novel of Brazil. This is similar in many ways, roving over the long life of Violeta, born in Chile and experiencing financial ups and downs as well as passionate relationships with violent men. I couldn't help but compare Dora and Violeta, even though the eras they lived in only overlapped slightly.

Violeta is born into a fairly wealthy family; the book opens with her birth in 1920. She the youngest, the only girl in a family of boys. And her life is affected by world events from the beginning - the Spanish Flu epidemic rips through Chile just as she's born. (Honestly, reading about this was a bit stressful in light of our own recent experiences with pandemic). Her family makes it through that, only to lose everything in the Crash. They have to leave their city dwellings and find a home in a rural area with relatives of a friend - Violeta, her mother and aunts all find a new home there, while her brothers fan out to make a living. 

It's one of those books where the main character is involved in a lot of things that allow for a country's bigger story to be told. There is a great deal about Chilean politics -- upheaval almost constantly. Class, money, misogyny, world events; they are all here. 

Viioleta grows up and then there is, just like with Dora's story, an incompatible marriage at a young age, only to be superseded by a relationship with a tempestuous, philandering man who operates on the edge of legality. While there is no official marriage for Violeta, she still deals with all the harrassment of a partnership with a man like this. However, she is clever, and still has a hand in running a housing business with her brother, so ends up being financially secure on her own. This gives her many more options once her romance with this bullying man changes. 

The story is theoretically being told as a letter from Violeta to her grandson, although this conceit only partially works. Sometimes the narrative kind of forgets it is a letter - I don't think that the epistolary form is necessary to this book. The ending, especially, doesn't make sense in a letter format, but we'll forgive that, since the narrative is flowing and engaging. Violeta is a great character who finds her own route through life despite obstacles and terrible events. She has a handful of close relationships, including a moving connection to her governess early on, and is indefatigable. It's an interesting look at a Chilean woman's experiences, although perhaps the last years of her life are glossed over pretty quickly. Still, really interesting and a great accidental companion read to Dora, Doralina for a look at South American women's lives over the last century. 




Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Dora, Doralina

Dora, Doralina / Rachel de Queiroz
trans. from the Portuguese by Dorothy Scott Loos
NY: Avon, c1984
281 p.


I picked up this book from a secondhand bookshop many years ago, not realizing that the author is a Brazilian literary lion. I finally read it this year, and was absorbed in the messy life of Dora/Doralina. 

Dora is born to a family of landowners in rural Brazil; her father is not in the picture, and she is raised by her mother at their fazenda (estate). She has a difficult relationship with her mother, who she calls Senhora, never Mother. She is constrained by her rural, isolated life, with little money and a social structure that limits what she can do; she's also emotionally limited, with only a couple of the servants to care for her as a person. 

So she's ripe for being married off to a dashing young man that her mother selects for her. The marriage isn't happy though, with some pretty nasty revelations occurring early on. But it doesn't last, and the first section of the book ends with the marriage's end. 

Dora has had enough and runs away to the city, where she finds work in a travelling theatre. This small group travels around the country to regional theatres, which is an awfully good way for a novel to show conditions across a country. There is a lot of detail about the theatre and her coworkers - anyone who has ever acted or is interested in theatre might find all this very relatable. 

And the third part of the book comes out of these travels; Dora catches the eye of a riverboat captain who is older than her and quite a dashing scoundrel. They marry, and have a tumultuous life together. He is passionate and unpredictable, involved in many illegal activities and has a temper. But Dora says of him, "Yes, for me he was a god: he came as a god, lived like a god, and would die a god; and when he left it was the end of the world for me.” This willingness of hers to live under his thumb is a bit jarring for modern readers but it is the way their relationship works. And through this, and commentary on other marriages and women, we can get a glimpse of the social norms at that time. 

Dora comes full circle to return to the fazenda after both her mother, then her husband, die. She finds her life ending where it began, although the book itself ends rather abruptly. Dora's exciting life in the outside world ends, and so does this story. 

I found this novel a little slow moving at the start, but got into it as the story progressed. The portrait of this woman bucking expectations and living her own way was a compelling one. As noted, I did find the conclusion choppy and abrupt, but overall this was a memorable story. 




Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Mad Women's Ball

The Mad Women's Ball / Victoria Mas
trans. from the French by Frank Wynne
NY: Abrams, 2021, c2019.
224 p.


The system of asylums that took care of the problem of women who didn't want to fit into their family expectations existed in France as well as England and other countries too. Victoria Mas has created a novel full of dread and powerlessness and also the voices of the dead. 

Genevieve is a nurse at the Salpetriere Asylum in Paris, 1885. After her sister Blandine died young, she gave up religious beliefs and turned to science. She's a no-nonense nurse and guardian to the mad women in the asylum. 

However, as usual in this era, many of the women at the asylum are simply poor, unwanted, or troublesome wives or daughters who are being conveniently disposed of. One of these is Eugenie, a 19 year old daughter of the bourgeoisie who has been committed after telling her family that she can communicate with spirits. The fact is, however, that she can. 

Eugenie begins to pass messages on to Genevieve from Blandine, shaking Genevieve's worldview. And slowly she is won over to Eugenie's plans to escape the asylum, and agrees to help her. 

The book is told in a dreamy fashion, highlighting the era and the varied women in the asylum. My impression of the book is of a dusty, sunlight room full of women imprisoned and dispirited. The big moment of the year is the titular Mad Women's Ball, at which society attends a large party and views all the mad women decked out in finery for one night of the year. The fuss this causes seems like the perfect moment to plan an escape. But is the crowd a help or hindrance in this plan? 

This novel has a quiet air, a historical aura that makes it feel like a sliver of the past. It reminds me of a few French Canadian novels that I've read in tone and pacing -- particularly those of Dominique Fortier.  It's a fascinating premise and I think works well. The style is sparse, not overly packed with detail, so you have space to imagine and make your own decisions about spirits and asylums and who is acting in good faith or not. 

There's also been a movie made from this book, although I think it's only available via Amazon Prime so if you have access to that you'll have to tell me how good it was ;) 

I liked this one -- picked it up only because it came across the desk at work and that cover caught my eye. But recommended if you're in the mood for a slower paced historical novel examining women's lives in 19th century Paris.