This was New York’s third monthly silent-reading party. … Partiers bring whatever books they like, stay as long as they want, and aren’t allowed to speak to the other people in the room.
(From The New Yorker Page-Turner Blog, May 24, 2014)
The story sounded like it would be interesting, but the book just didn’t deliver. I thought I would be reading about a real person, not a character “inspired by” a real person. And I didn’t really expect the heavy focus on the main character’s childhood. It just didn’t really keep my interest, and parts of it felt superfluous, like the whole orphan train episode. (Would they really have sent a kid out West and then just let them go back to New York?)
The writing style also got in the way quite often. Not only did it feel a bit stilted at times, but the use of dashes instead of proper quotations for dialogue, as well as the asterisks on certain words, kept slowing me down and pulling me out of the story.
The book started off pretty well, and the idea of seeing Typhoid Mary’s everyday life, beyond just being able to spread disease, sounded interesting. Unfortunately, the book didn’t really live up to my expectations, though I really tried to give it a chance.
I think the biggest problem was that it didn’t feel like Mary’s character was very well-developed, with certain details about her coming out well after she’d been established. Not just the flashbacks, but details tacked on well after it seemed like the right time. I also kept questioning how realistic some of it was, like making Mary seem like a modern chef with the ability to whip up all sorts of fancy dishes, despite having lived with very limited means.
I also felt like the author was trying very hard to make the reader like Mary, but instead I felt like I liked her less and less, along with all the other characters in the book. Eventually, the whole thing felt like a soap opera, and not a very good one at that, so I just quit. I can’t believe I got as far as I did!
I was trying to find something vaguely similar to my favorite book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and happened across Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín in my searches. It’s certainly not quite the same, but it sounded interesting, focusing on a young Irish woman emigrating to the United States — to Brooklyn, in particular — in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, the book turned out to be very disappointing. I kept debating whether or not to keep reading, because it felt like nothing was happening, and the characters felt so flat. Eventually, some things do happen, but it didn’t make it much better. It also didn’t feel like it actually took place in the 1950s, and I didn’t feel like I cared for any of the characters.
I was browsing the shelf of new fiction books at my local library, when I came across Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz. I think I’d heard about it somewhere before, but it sounded interesting from the cover description, so I checked it out.
The book starts just as World War II has ended, following several people who have survived the concentration camp at Belsen. Despite the horrific things they have experienced, they are still alive and initially are being supported by the Allied forces, collecting rations and trying to get by.
As the main characters regain their strength and try to move on, they work hard to start new lives, and the book follows them over the years, as the various people leave Europe for Israel and the US. Although they leave Europe behind, their memories and experiences still follow them as they grow older and start their own families.
Initially, I was really struck by the writing style of the book, for how clean and concise it was. It also has a steady measure to it that forces you to slow down a bit and notice the smaller things, without getting too caught up in flourishes and details. However, the plot was not as strong, and sort of waned later on.
The first half of the book was fairly strong, and really kept my interest. I wanted to see and understand what the characters were going through, and how they coped and tried to return to a more normal life. But, after awhile, the plot wasn’t as strong, perhaps because there seemed to be less conflict, less drama in some ways.
I think I can understand what Schwarz was trying to do, to follow a group of people — who seemed almost impossibly interconnected — who had experienced something so horrific, were able to build their own lives, and yet were still affected by their experiences. I just don’t know that the latter half of the book was quite as interesting to read, and I had to push on at a few points, just to finish the book.