The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Christy Lefteri
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Jul. 2020 on Audible)

I read The Beekeeper of Aleppo for my July book club meeting. I was super excited when I first heard about this book because it sounded really compelling. It’s about the war in Syria and focuses on the journey of one couple as they decide to leave Syria and flee through Europe to the UK.

Nuri is a beekeeper with his cousin Mustafa and his wife, Afra, is an artist. They are happy in Syria and want to stay, but when war breaks out it becomes unsafe to do so and Afra becomes blind. So they finally decide to leave and try to make it to the UK, where Mustafa, who left earlier, is also trying to go. The book follows their journey across Turkey and Greece and eventually England. They face many struggles along the road, but the real struggle comes when they finally stop moving and are forced to come to terms with everything that happened to them before and along the journey.

I really wanted to love this. There were parts that I really liked and it was an interesting enough story, but I felt like it maybe could have benefited from a stronger author. The story had a lot of potential, but it was just lacking, both in writing style and intrigue. The story moved extremely slowly, which can work in a book like this, but it just didn’t have the writing to carry it through. The author has Greek/Cypriot parents and volunteered with a refugee NGO in Greece, which is what inspired her to write this story. I felt that the author had a story to tell, but unfortunately she just didn’t really have the prowess or the skills to tell it. I feel bad saying that because I’m sure her intentions were good, but the writing just didn’t work for me. I really wanted more from the story.

She does create some interesting characters, but they kind of all fell flat to me, like no one lived up to their potential. For example, why the obsession with bees? Like I get it, but what did the beekeeper story really add to this book? It was overdone with limited meaning. I also found the deeper themes to be lacking. I get what Lefteri was going for with Muhammed and Nuri, but it felt too forced to be natural or cathartic. I felt like she was trying to force an emotional reaction rather than one that would naturally occur from good storytelling and lived experience. Likewise with the symbolism of Afra being blind – it just felt kind of basic to me and I’m not totally sure what it added to the story. Like I get it – I just wish there was more to it.

Which raises the age old question of whether Lefteri was the right person to tell this story. I really do believe that people can and should tell stories that they haven’t been directly impacted by, but in 2020, it is starting to get a bit old reading so many modern day stories not told by own-voices authors. Jeanine Cummins got all kinds of flak for writing American Dirt – I’m not saying it wasn’t justified – but I don’t see how Beekeeper is any different. It just hasn’t been as big a seller I guess and so it hasn’t drawn the same backlash. Personally though, of the two, I thought American Dirt was the better story. But there’s no denying both books could have been written by different authors.

It’s really a hard question about where the line is. Lefteri got published where another Syrian author likely didn’t. I’m sure there are other authors writing these stories and I would love to see them in the mainstream. But honestly – that’s on me as a reader too. As a co-chair to my Book Club it’s something I need to reflect on more and take more ownership over. We are 10 individuals committing to read a book, it’s important that we pick the right ones, even if they’re not always bestsellers…yet. I will try to do better.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Heather Morris
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2018 (read Apr. 2020 on Audible)

This was supposed to be my book club pick for March, but then of course our meeting was cancelled and I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a holocaust book during a global pandemic. We’ve rescheduled our book club meeting so I decided to give the audiobook a go since I’ve been struggling with paperbacks recently, but have been doing a lot of jigsaws. This was definitely the way to go and a flew through this short book and my latest jigsaw in a single weekend.

Aside from the whole pandemic thing, I still wasn’t really looking forward to reading this because I’ve read a lot of holocaust books over the years and though there’s many great and emotional books on the topic, after reading so many books about the camps I find not a lot of new content offered anymore, so it’s just easier not to read such upsetting works.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz does offer a point of view I haven’t seen before, that of a Jewish prisoner conscripted to work as the tatowierer who inks all of the prisoners with their number when they enter the camps. It was an interesting story in that is was told from the point of view of someone who received preferential treatment in the camps. Lale was spared from physical labour and given his own room in one of the camp blocks. He didn’t have to report for roll calls and so was able to move about the camp a lot easier than many other prisoners would have been able to. He uses this privilege to build up a bit of an underground trade. The girls who go through the prisoners clothing provide him with jewels, which he trades for extra food. Building up a stockpile which he shares with other prisoners and uses to cash in on favours.

Unfortunately this book made me really uncomfortable, but not in the way you might expect a holocaust story to make one feel uncomfortable. I feel like I might be a bit callous in critiquing a story such as this one, but there were 3 issues I had with the story.

First of all, on Lale’s first night in the camp, he is stunned to see two men shot and killed for sport by the Nazis while using the bathroom. Upon witnessing this act, he vows that he will do whatever it takes to survive the camp. That’s all good and I admire his tenacity, but Morris revisits this theme several times throughout the novel and I felt like I was supposed to believe that Lale survived Auschwitz out of sheer force of character. This was not the case – he relies heavily on the kindness of others, which he takes advantage of to improve his own situation and that of those he cares about. But on more than one occasion his life is saved by other individuals. This in itself isn’t a big deal, but pushing the narrative that Lale’s grit is what enabled his survival is belittling to all the people that didn’t make it out of the camps. Grit and determination have literally nothing to do with surviving the atrocities of a concentration camp. Lale traded on the kindness of others and was incredibly lucky. I don’t find any fault in Lale’s actions, but let’s just call it what it is.

The second issue that bothered me, and what made this an uncomfortable read for me, was the love story between Lale and Gita. I can’t say I’ve ever read a love story set in a holocaust camp. I’ve read so many beautiful holocaust stories in which love is the central theme, but definitely not a ‘meet and fall in love in a camp’ story. Again, the idea of a couple falling in love in a concentration is not that unbelievable – this is based on the true story of real life couple Lale and Gita, so it obviously happened, but the writing about the love story just made me soooo uncomfortable.

Like I said, I believe two individuals could fall in love in a camp. Under unthinkable emotional trauma, it would be natural to seek comfort and reassurance from those around you. To be brought together by your shared experience and build a deep and lasting bond of trust and understanding. I didn’t struggle to believe that Gita would fall in love with Lale, he looked after her most basic needs, found her better work, food, and medication, and provided emotional support through a traumatic experience. But please don’t try and portray this relationship as sexy. Lale and Gita were both victims of their situation and I really think the author grossly romanticized their relationship. I know this is based on a true story, but it’s also based on one man’s 70 year old memories. Maybe this is the way Lale remembered his experience, but this is still “fiction” and the author has a duty to question how those memories may have been manipulated an warped over the years to block out a traumatic experience.

I find it hard to believe that after living several years in a concentration camp, being beaten and starved, that anyone would use a chocolate bar to try and seduce someone. In general I just couldn’t help but cringe at all of the romance scenes. Especially how Lale talked about women – how “all women are beautiful” and you have to take care of women, and what a womanizer he was. It was so eye-rolling, but again, obvious that it was probably lifted straight from her interview with Lale. Of course an old man who grew up in the 1930’s would talk like that, but nothing about it felt genuine or reflective of how Lale actually might have felt in 1942.

But this is just one example of the ways in which I struggled to buy into the story and felt Morris’ should have taken more artistic license in how she told it. Everything about Lale’s experience seemed to be romanticized. How easy it was for him to trade in diamonds and food, how he was able to manipulate almost everyone around him to get what he wanted, how no part of the camp was closed off to him and he could pretty much just do and go where ever he wanted, how easy it was for him to survive an interrogation without breaking down, and then just pick up the pieces of his fabricated life in the camp once he was released again. I don’t disbelieve that this was the account Morris’ received from Lale, but again, it’s where your duty to history and the reader comes in to question the authenticity of those experiences and how your portrayal of a concentration camp might read to those who have lived through similar, though very different experiences. I felt the author failed to portray the horror of the concentration camps, which should really be the easiest part of the story.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz reminded me a lot of another WWII book I read a few years ago, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Both are fascinating stories in themselves, but both books were inspired by late-in-life interviews with their subjects. In both books I think the authors rely too heavily on the source material from their interviewees and somehow fail to connect to their characters on an emotional level.

Which brings me to my final point. This book was poorly written. This is more a flawed chronological account of Lale’s 3 years in the camps than a meaningful piece of historical fiction. Morris relies heavily on dialogue and plot to carry her story, but misses out on any kind of characterization. Somehow an emotional story of 3 terrible years in concentration camps lacks in any real emotional connection. Now obviously this is a personal opinion. I know a lot of people really loved this and connected with Lale, so it makes me feel like a bit of troll saying that I didn’t feel anything from a holocaust story, but I just felt that Morris didn’t give these characters the humanity they deserved. Her writing style is very detached and as such, I always felt detached as well. The story just seemed to be “and then he did this and then he said this and then she did that”. It was just kind of boring.

It was a story with a lot of promise, and like I said, it does show a different experience of life at Auschwitz, but I just wanted more from it. Lale is a flawed individual and I would have loved to see more exploration of how his morality was impacted by his time in the camp. He alludes a few times that he was worried he might be considered a collaborator and I would have liked to see more of that internal struggle. He was a generally selfless person and i felt he likely would also have struggled with the fact that he couldn’t help everyone and the impact having to decide who he would help might also have on him. At 250 pages, there was certainly room to better develop this story, so I was disappointed that the author decided to just retell an interview rather than do the hard emotional reflection on how this experience would impact Lale and those around him.

I think I’ll end it there. I could probably say more, but this is getting long enough. I see there’s a sequel. I am intrigued that it’s about Cilka, she is one of the characters that I probably empathized with the most and it was really upsetting to learn she was convicted as a collaborator. I’m curious if her sequel is fabricated or actually based on a real person. Anyone know? I won’t be reading it either way, but I am intrigued.

The Giver of Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Jojo Moyes
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)

Gah, the disappointment! I am definitely the minority, but only 2.5 stars from me.

My book club voted for The Giver of Stars as our February pick and it came highly recommended. I was a bit weary of it because I didn’t love Moyes most popular book, Me Before You, but the content of this book couldn’t be more different, so I was optimistic that as a lover of historical fiction, I would enjoy it.

I didn’t not enjoy the book. It’s a fine piece of work that creates an interesting enough fictional narrative about a real piece of history (the pack horse library). I’ve since learned that this is the second fictional book about the subject though, so please note that there is another book called, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, which is also about the pack horse library. I liked the story well enough, but it was just so damn slow and I can’t deny I find Moyes writing a bit amateur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Giver of Stars is about two women, Alice Van Cleve, a newly married Englishwoman who moves to rural Kentucky with her new husband Bennett, and Margery O’Hare, a free spirit who refuses to be defined by her father’s poor reputation or be forced into the narrow confines of what it means to be a woman in 1930’s Kentucky.

The women are recruited to be part of the Pack Horse Library, to deliver books to rural families in hopes of increasing education and literacy among the population. Despite initial suspicion of the library, the people are won over, finally getting access to information on everything from recipes, to their rights, and even clandestine info on the joys of “married love”. As you can imagine, the more conservative of the townspeople feel threatened by the women and tensions rise.

What I liked about the book was learning about the Pack Horse Library. It’s an initiative that was started by then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was incredibly successful. The writing of the early days of the library itself was somewhat dull, but It was interesting to learn about the conditions the women worked in, the amount of hostility they received, and how books eventually won the hearts of their readers. I found Margery’s character a bit more interesting than Alice’s, but they both had their own strengths.

But I do have to admit there was a lot I didn’t like about the book too. My biggest complaint is that I thought the author fell victim to the age old trap of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. I really wanted to see the relationships between characters grow on their own, but I felt that almost every relationship in the book was dictated to me. Moyes tells me that Bennett was a caring and attentive suitor in England and I feel like it’s supposed to be a shock when he does a 180 when they arrive back in America, but as Alice provides no recollections of how the two fell in love, I wasn’t very torn up about the Van Cleve’s turning out to be assholes and thought they were just another sexist Southern family like many others during that era.

Likewise, there’s very little interaction between any of the women in the Pack Horse library to actually cement their friendships. I thought it was obvious the women would eventually become friends because women are generally pretty sociable and supportive of one another and have been finding great value in female friendships LITERALLY FOREVER. It’s sad that suddenly having female friends seemed to be a great revelation to almost every character except maybe Margery, but I didn’t believe it. No way none of these women wouldn’t have built any other meaningful relationships before this point. Although regardless, we weren’t given a lot of anecdotes about how these friendships developed, except for Kathleen, whose story arc I really liked. I guess they eventually all bond with Alice over their dislike of Bennett, but like, friendships are generally born out of mutual interest and respect rather than pity.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead, there’s really too much I want to discuss to keep it all spoiler free.
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The same went for the romantic relationship. Supposedly Fred loves Alice from the moment he sees her, but can anyone give me some interactions that led to their mutual interest in one another? I thought they had no chemistry and even though it was obvious Moyes was going to put them together, it was only because she told me they were constantly aware of the other and sneaking peeks at each other rather than any meaningful interactions that would cause two people to be attracted to one another. Maybe I’m a grump, but I wasn’t feeling it and thought the whole thing stank of Instalove.

On a similar note, I wasn’t impressed with how the author handled Bennett’s character. We never find out what his deal is. Is he gay? asexual? repressed from the era’s opinions on sex and therefore just uncomfortable with it? I’m fine with any of these reasons and think any of them are understandable. Personally, I would have loved to see a thoughtful look at how the church’s views on purity and abstinence impact both men and women and create unhealthy perceptions about sex, but I really don’t think that’s what Moyes was going for in this book. Mostly it seemed he just didn’t have any actual information on what sex is? When he marries Peggy at the end I thought “Oh, I guess he was just in love with someone else”. But when Peggy comes looking for the Married Love book I just felt bad for everyone involved and mad at the author and her characters for finding the whole thing funny, which I did not. Like goodness, you think they’d feel some compassion for unsuspecting Peggy who was essentially in the same position Alice had been months prior. It’s not like Peggy stole Alice’s husband – they had no reason to mock or resent her.

So I didn’t love it. It’s a good book in that it raises a lot of questions and I think it’ll be fun to debate at book club, but overall disappointing. I thought my biggest complaint was just going to be that I found it boring, but evidently I had a bit more beef with some of the characters. I was planning to give it 3 stars, but I might have to bump it down to 2.5 (I really don’t think it’s a 2 star book though). I felt it just didn’t measure up to its potential.

There were a lot of side narratives happening that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The birth of the travelling library was interesting, but it did beg the question, what is the story leading up to? We start to get a glimpse into the poor conditions in the mine and how the mining company was essentially tricking people out of their land. When this happened, I was like, “okay cool, I see where this is going now, the librarians are disseminating information on land rights that will start some kind class war between wealthy mine owner (Van Cleve) and the poor”, but that’s never really where the story went. It all seemed to just be ammunition for why we shouldn’t like Van Cleve (as if we needed any more) and to serve his feud against Margery.

Then there was the side story with the flood and the slurry dam. I was like, “OMG the mining company destroyed all this land with a toxic tailings pond that of course disproportionately impacts black people, this is going to start another class war that gets us thinking about how wealthy people get away with murder because the injustice is always perpetrated against poor people and minorities.” But then that storyline went absolutely no where too, so I can only assume it was just another anecdote to make us dislike Van Cleve even more and provide an opportunity for the women to shine by saving everyone from the flood. But honestly, the whole flood scene ended up seeming like it was just drama for drama’s sake, which I have very little interest in.

Overall there were just too many loose ends and undelivered plot lines. I couldn’t believe that with all these other great themes, Moyes decided to focus the climax of her book on a single random incident with a character (McCullough) who doesn’t feature in any other part of the novel! It felt so unrelated to the rest of what was happening. I would have much rather read about the women using their influence as librarians to lead a charge against Van Cleve and his poor mining practices. I know that never actually happened historically, but from what I understand Margery’s whole trial was fabricated anyways, so what’s the point in any of it.

That said, one thing Moyes got right was the righteous anger at how women are treated. Van Cleve was a bit too classically evil for my tastes, but he did serve the purpose of highlighting how rich white men can get away with whatever they want. Margery being thrown in jail and then FORCED TO GIVE BIRTH THERE was enraging and definitely upped the ante, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure what the point was? What theme was the author really trying to make? The only impact that the outcome of the trial has is that Margery gets to return to her family. There’s no ultimate consequence for Van Cleve. Nobody in the town really changes, they just eventually go back to business-as-usual with no lessons learned. Am I supposed to be impressed that Bennett is pushing for a concrete wall on the next slurry dam? Because I’m sure that idea will be steamrolled by his father in 2 seconds because neither of them ever sees any consequence to their actions.

The only message I’m left with is that women are resilient? Not really groundbreaking stuff. I felt like the whole narrative was just manipulative and trying to force an emotional response that I just didn’t feel. I felt like Moyes was constantly trying to tell me how to feel when her characters and writing should just speak for themselves.

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Steven Galloway
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2009 (read Dec. 2019)

It took me ages to read the Cellist of Sarajevo, but it had nothing to do with the book itself. I made the mistake of starting it right before the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and promptly got distracted by all the awesome books that were nominated. But I made it a priority to finish before my trip to New Zealand and I ended up really liking it.

I knew the premise of the story, but I didn’t realize that the plot was split between 4 (really 3) main characters. I immediately liked the writing, but I was a little unsure of what to expect from the plot. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The people who were able to get out of the city are long gone and we are left with the civilians who never had the means to get out and haven’t been called to the front to fight. The city is under siege by the men in the hills, who regularly shell the city and set snipers at many of the major intersections. With so many of the city’s services destroyed, it makes daily life very difficult for the people trapped in the city. The safest place to be is indoors, but everyone is forced to venture into the city in search of food and water.

The Cellist, who is based on a real individual, is at the centre of the story, without the story actually being about him. After 22 people were killed lining up for bread, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days to honour each of the lives lost.

This book is the kind of subtle literary fiction that I love. There’s nothing really propelling the story – it is just average people trying to survive their every day life in a city beset by war – yet I can’t deny the impact of the storytelling. It’s not the plot that drives the story, but the resilience and tenacity of the individuals. At times it’s hard to discern the timeline of the story, but it never really matters because this book is really only a character study about the kind of choices we make during challenging times. I admire the author for his writing and exploration of the human psyche as someone who was neither in Bosnia during the siege or who has lived through a war. The plot is so simple, yet the characters inner monologues have such depth.

It’s hard to articulate the impact of the writing, but I particularly admired how Galloway wrote both Dragon and Kenan’s characters. Neither are heroes and they struggle with seemingly mundane things, but it rings so true of the long term impact of violence and how it can both make you hopeful and make you question your integrity. Dragon dreams of an escape from the city, while simultaneously acknowledging the gravitas of being where he is right now. Kenan struggles with the exhaustion of taking care of so many people and is tempted to abandon his obligations just to look after himself. War brings people down to their base instincts and needs and I really liked this study of what really matters when it comes down to it. Wonderful writing.

The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.