Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

Title: Eleven Hours
Author: Pamela Erens
Publisher: Tin House
Publication date: May 2, 2016
Rating: ★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):
Lore arrives at the hospital alone—no husband, no partner, no friends. Her birth plan is explicit: she wants no fetal monitor, no IV, no epidural. Franckline, a nurse in the maternity ward—herself on the verge of showing—is patient with the young woman. She knows what it’s like to worry that something might go wrong, and she understands the pain when it does. She knows as well as anyone the severe challenge of childbirth, what it does to the mind and the body.

Eleven Hours is the story of two soon-to-be mothers who, in the midst of a difficult labor, are forced to reckon with their pasts and re-create their futures. Lore must disentangle herself from a love triangle; Franckline must move beyond past traumas to accept the life that’s waiting for her. Pamela Erens moves seamlessly between their begrudging friendship and the memories evoked by so intense an experience. At turns urgent and lyrical, Erens’s novel is a visceral portrait of childbirth, and a vivid rendering of the way we approach motherhood—with fear and joy, anguish and awe.

Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This book is SO "literary." It feels like a grad school writing prompt gone wild. But in a good way. (Really, what else would you expect from a publisher like Tin House?)

I requested Eleven Hours on NetGalley because I recognized the author, Pamela Erens. (Someone had recommended her previous book, The Virgins, as a better (less racist? - my words, not theirs) version of Eleanor & Park.) I haven't yet read The Virgins, but suffice it to say I was interested in her work.

The story is told from a third person perspective, following two characters - Lore Tannenbaum and her midwife Franckline. For me, Lore is the more compelling of the two, so I will focus on her here.

At the onset, Lore is not the most likable character. She is demanding and cool - perhaps too outwardly emotionless and independent for her own good. It's not easy to empathize with her, and the story's slightly detached point of view doesn't make it any easier. As the book progresses, we find out more about her relationships and the emotional pain she has experienced - all of the things that have led her to where she is at that moment - and though it doesn't exactly make us like her any better, it feels like we slowly come to understand her.

On a personal level, I found myself fiercely rooting for her. I understood her - I understood her compulsion to push people away in order to protect herself. I understood her need for control. I understood her seemingly cold nature and unwillingness to let herself get attached. It was fascinating to experience her journey through pregnancy, as well as her shifting attitudes toward this child that she carried.

My investment in Lore's wellbeing surprised even myself - I am not one for books about motherhood. I can barely stomach mommy blogs. A story about a woman giving birth? The miracle of life? Ummm. Thanks but no thanks. And yet I found Eleven Hours to be a surprisingly gripping read - there's just enough suspense to keep you turning the pages. For those of you who think books about birth are boring, THINK AGAIN. Birth is freaking terrifying and gory. It's like voluntarily turning your life into a horror film. Women are badass.

But I digress.

The book goes back and forth between past and present, shifting from a focus on Lore's life to Franckline's. The story seems to wander leisurely, the tension slowly building as Lore gets closer and closer to birth.

The writing really is something. Ideas are expressed so articulately - you'll read something and think, "Yes, exactly. That's exactly what it feels like." In some ways, I feel the writing is much stronger than the story. And in fact, Eleven Hours feels like less of a "story" and more like an exercise in empathy - it's like the author wanted to take a not-particularly-likable character and make the reader want to fight for her by the end of the story, whether or not you've experienced motherhood or pregnancy yourself. Whatever the intention, it worked for me. I am much more conscious and simultaneously in a state of awe and fear of pregnancy after reading this book. Lore Tannenbaum is certainly not someone I'll forget in a jiffy.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Kitchen Table Talk: How Do I Be A Normal Human Being?

Trying out this YouTube thing... because sometimes it's nice to see a face with the blog. And because sometimes you want something that feels a little more like conversation.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

Title: Fever at Dawn
Author: Péter Gárdos, Elizabeth Szász (translation)
Publisher: Anansi International
Publication date: April 30, 2016
Rating: ★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Twenty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor Miklós is being shipped from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Gotland, Sweden, to receive treatment at the Larbro Hospital. Here he is sentenced to death again: he is diagnosed with tuberculosis and his doctors inform him that he has six months to live. But Miklós decides to wage war on his own fate: he writes 117 letters to 117 Hungarian girls, all of whom are being treated in the Swedish camps, with the aim of eventually choosing a wife from among them.

Two hundred kilometres away, in another Swedish rehabilitation camp, nineteen-year-old Lili receives Miklós’s letter. Since she is bedridden for three weeks due to a serious kidney problem, out of boredom — and curiosity — she decides to write back.

The slightly formal exchange of letters becomes increasingly intimate. When the two finally manage to meet, they fall in love and are determined to marry, despite the odds that are against them.

Based on the original letters written by Miklós and Lili (ninety-six altogether), Fever at Dawn is a tale of passion, striving, and betrayal; true and false friendships; doubt and faith; and the redeeming power of love.

Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The synopsis of Fever at Dawn is far more compelling than the book itself. My problem is this: the storyline meanders on and on, with far too many loose ends left behind. By the time you reach the end of the book, you're left wondering why you even bothered to read the thing you just read.

Fever at Dawn is based on the real life story of the Jewish-Hungarian author/director Péter Gárdos's parents, which perhaps makes the story more interesting than it would be otherwise, but it also makes me wonder if the author just took bits and pieces of real life, added in a weak backstory, and called it a day. There were moments that stood out to me, but there was not enough "plot" or momentum to really hold everything together. In some ways, it felt like I was reading a fictionalized account of someone's daily journal - some things were interesting, but on the whole, it was missing a roadmap. If you were to ask me, I don't think I could even tell you what the real point of the story was - the plot structure was unclear and really lacking.

Like I said, the description of Fever at Dawn oversells the book for me - the themes mentioned (betrayal, friendship, striving, love...) are all there, but they feel like afterthoughts - somehow disjointed from the essence of the story. But I do have to say that the writing is lovely and well-translated by Eliabeth Szász. The characters are also interesting - particularly Miklós, the optimistic and quirky and ever-hopeful protagonist. I only wish the storyline itself had been more carefully thought through.