Recent Wintry-December Reading

The school term came to a close with exams and a tradition of “winter games”. I was assigned to supervise a vigorous round of musical chairs to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” which I like well enough, until I hear it for the umpteenth time to accompanying squeals of adolescent enthusiasm. Still, it was nice to see young people off their phones and having some “old-fashioned fun.” As old-fashioned as reading, I guess.

I read three books in an attempt, quite successful I might add, to avoid grading essays. Hurrah. (If ChatGPT is going to end the “essay,” I say bring it on…maybe English class can be reading books. What could be better?)

I desultorily read three books. December is a low-energy month: winter is settling in, I have endless anxiety about what my commute will be like on any given day (snow, sleet, freezing rain, or arctic temps alone or in combination). The books were good, none enthralling; weather, appalling. I’ll have to let these titles settle before any final verdicts, but, for now, here are initial impressions of:

Menachem Kaiser’s Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure

Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last

Robert Harris’s Enigma

Since reading Philippe Sands’s masterful memoir-history East West Street, any treatment of the same, or near-same will see me read it. Hence, Kaiser’s memoir, Plunder, which recounts his attempt to re-gain ownership of a family property in Poland, previously pursued by his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. I found Kaiser’s account original and compelling: he doesn’t hesitate to make survivors’ unknowable. Not every story is known, or told, a recurring theme in Sands as well.  Kaiser’s quest is unsentimental; he is conflicted about his motives and makes his quest an on-again-off-again relationship with the vagaries of the Polish government’s maze-like reclamation bureaucracy. I liked that Kaiser’s account isn’t one of single-minded mission; he’s often uncertain, bored even, and questioning: “Should he do this? Why is he doing this?” His is not a focussed search for justice, but one of stubborn curiosity, with only the certainty the Holocaust’s evil tentacles permeate every aspect of European history to this day.

I found his account’s first half disjointed; though the blurb and countless quoted reviewers found his discovery of his grand-father’s cousin’s slave-labour interment in a Nazi tunnel complex fascinating, I thought it the least interesting (the tunnel part, not the survivor). The weird conglomeration of characters he meets who seek Nazi treasure in the tunnels, largely on the basis of his grand-father’s cousin’s miraculous, given the conditions under which he wrote it, account of labouring in them, distasteful. The part of Kaiser’s narrative to make me get up and notice? When he discovers the ancestral cousin’s story: a fascinating, tragic account, a miracle of survival and the sheer, sad ordinariness of the life he led afterwards.

In the end, one line in Kaiser’s account makes his book memorable: “What matters here is less the name on a deed than trying and failing but trying still to understand what it means…to assume the role of protagonist in a story that isn’t yours and that you can never understand.” It has stayed with me and I often think about how we, I, do this. It’s a humble, thoughtful line.

Then I read Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last. I needed a change of pace and mood, missed reading romance, didn’t want on-page sex. So, a good choice. And a fun one. Jalaluddin is a witty writer and she knows her Austen and Shakespeare, which run throughout her rom-com Pride and Prejudice-retelling, refreshingly set in Toronto’s Muslim community. Ayesha is a hijab-wearing slam poet who’s given up her writing dreams to teach high school and Khalid, an uber-conservative Muslim techie who sports long robes, an even longer beard, and waits for love to arrive after a marriage arranged by his mother.

Ayesha and Khalid have good banter and their judgy-antagonism is fun; there’s not much pride in either one, a refreshing take on Austen’s novel. Jalaluddin tackles a lot: Islamophobia and second-generation Canadians’ tug-of-war between tradition and change. However, Jalaluddin’s romance also drags in places: as if she was unwilling to give up any scene, any theme, any character, to the point where this reader was impatient and bored. On the other hand, Ayesha’s Shakespeare-quoting grand-father made every scene sparkle and I wouldn’t give up a second spent with him. A fun read, needed some pruning, but I’ll happily read Hana Khan Carries On.

My most recent read was Robert Harris’s Enigma. Since I heard a podcast praising Harris’s historical thrillers? mysteries? I’m not sure how to categorize them, I’ve wanted to read him. Enigma tells the story of Britain’s Bletchley Park’s cryptanalysts, centring on fictional Tom Jericho. When the novel opens, Jericho has suffered what one would have called a “nervous collapse” and been sent to “recover” at his alma mater, Cambridge. He is physically weak, demoralized, and heart-broken, dumped by girlfriend Claire Romily. But Claire is more than one of the “girls” doing the secretarial work that women do (Harris rightly points to this injustice). Jericho is pulled back into the labyrinthine Bletchley world of code-breakers and spies, idiots and geniuses (Turing’s portrayal is terrific, wish there’d been more of it), the ambitious and service-minded, opportunists and innocents, and, inevitably, traitors and victims. Claire has disappeared and Tom is caught up in finding whether she was traitor or loyal Allied “soldier”. Harris writes beautifully and his dialogue is pithy and evocative of the best of black-and-white British war films, but he’s in love with his research and no note-card is neglected in describing the minutiae of cryptanalysis: frankly, I skimmed the technical bits and enjoyed the descriptions of WWII Britain, the bad food and nasty landladies, the weather, GREAT weather descriptions, dialogue and characterization. I’ll be reading more Harris.

14 thoughts on “Recent Wintry-December Reading

  1. I agree that December is a good time for desultory reading – and in the end these seem to have been good choices. ‘Ayesha at Last’ piques my interest. I haven’t had much luck with recent romances for a while and as a result have been doing more re-reading of reliable old favorites. I’m excited about Kate Clayborn’s new one, which I’ve preordered.

    There wasn’t much good about lockdown and teaching (and working) all online, except for the relief of never having to worry about the weather. We’ve been lucky so far but our real winter tends to settle in in January, and next term I will have to get to campus for my morning class.

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    1. I think you’d enjoy Ayesha: Jalaluddin is a good writer, she crafts her scenes and sentences. I’m hoping Hana Khan shows some pruning though. I’m definitely putting Ayesha on my Romance Fiction course: I think, representation-wise and Canadian content, it’s a winner! But it’s also a good rom-com. My main problem with a lot of romance: how poorly written it is. I am excited about the new Clayborn! Have it on pre-order too, great minds and all that.

      That is so true! Teaching online and never worrying about the weather: this was equally so in Montreal, which always has a miserably difficult winter. Our greatest snow months are December and March, so January settles into frigid temps, which, if you have a good car, makes the drive all right, if not ideal. The worst is the freezing rain. Ah, the morning class, what I never look forward to in the winter and I’m a morning person, but it’s the worst commute in bad weathr.

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  2. I enjoyed both of Jalaluddin’s books. Hana Khan is a cute take on You’ve Got Mail(or to go back to the original, The Shop Around the Corner). So far I’ve heard of 3 authors writing romances with Muslim main characters set in Canada, yet none in the U.S.

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    1. Oh, that’s very interesting to know. There are large Muslim communities, especially Toronto’s, and Sikh, all over Canada. Maybe the racism isn’t as fraught as the US…though I assume Jalaluddin must have readers in the States as well. I’m looking forward to Hana Khan and I LOVE The Shop Around the Corner!

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      1. Yes, I’m sure there are political and sociological reasons for the differences between the Muslim communities here and in Canada. And as a percentage of population, Canada has more immigrants.

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  3. “(If ChatGPT is going to end the “essay,” I say bring it on…maybe English class can be reading books. What could be better?)”

    I’ve never taught, but as a student, I’m right there with you!

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  4. I share your sentiments about reading student essays. I have been giving ChatGPT a try and am somewhat impressed with the results. Lots of fake information, but the structure is there, as well as a possible argument. Not sure where this is headed in the future as ChatGPT gets better and better.

    I’ve been a fan of Bletchley Park novels and will certainly read Enigma given your review.

    Enjoy the semester break!

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    1. I have been thinking about the ChatGPT should we call it an “issue”, it’s certainly one for writing teachers to consider. I do see the value, for students, in my AP Composition class to have to think in a timed, circumscribed prompt situation. I can see, as I evaluate one essay attempt after another, that they improve and are able somehow to get “looser” and more confident in what they’re doing. But the long-form, long-thing kind of “honours essay”, not so sure…maybe something multi-media is where we might be headed. I’m not sure: certainly the last five or so years of my career will be interesting ones. But education is slow to change, so we’ll see.

      And I’d rec Kate Quinn too, as another commentator pointed out!

      Happy winter break to you too!

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  5. I loved Ayesha at Last, but I must admit that I DNFed Hana Khan (when she explained to the reader, in great detail, what biryani poutine was, and then explained what biryani was, and then explained what poutine was, my brain was broken and I had to give up). I did think that Ayesha would have been stronger if Jalaluddin hadn’t been so focused on hitting every single beat in P&P, but that’s a criticism I have of most Austen retellings.

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    1. Ugh, too bad about Hana Khan: maybe it suffers from Second Book Syndrome, which goes wonky for many writers? I’ll give it a try, but I don’t hesitate to DNF these days.

      Whether Austen related or not, I wish more romances were pruned to category length…but this just doesn’t happen. And The “Golden Age of Category” has been over for a long, long time. It’s sad.

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