Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Portrait of an Artist

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale


To try to describe the plot of Patrick Gale's novel "Notes on an Exhibition" is as difficult a task as to try to explain a piece of abstract art. In fact, this novel is less of a story than it is a portrait of a personality and the life around her. The action of this book revolves around Rachel Kelly, an artist who came from Canada and lived most of her life in Cornwall. What's more, Rachel is bipolar (manic-depressive), and this affects not only her own outlook on life, but also all those around her as well as her art. With nothing is truly obvious from the outset of this book, the full story is only revealed once you've finished reading the last page.

What's more, Gale sets up this book in a fascinating way. To begin with, Gale prefaces each chapter with background notes for the different pieces in the posthumous exhibition of Kelly's artwork. Of course, this is where Gale gets the title of his novel. These notes are essentially tiny insights into Kelly's artistic world. Within these chapters, we get snapshots in time, or vignettes from the various other characters in the book. While Rachel is still the central person here - her life and work is the thread of continuity throughout all these stories, allowing us to see everyone else in her life, and each one on their own. This concisely done without any long descriptive passages, but rather pieces of Rachel's life, through both her eyes and through those of the people that lived with her. Even more fascinating is to see what parts of their lives each of the characters focus upon, as their own personalities and problems color what they tell us.

Gale's choice of third person narrative might have made the dialogue seem less realistic. However, Gale's true artistry comes through by proving he knows his characters so well that each one of them has their own voice. To do this linearly would have been the easy choice. Instead, Gale makes huge jumps in time from one chapter to another. This means that there were a few times when I wasn't completely sure whose story we were looking into, but this fell away very quickly within a paragraph or two. Again, this might sound disconcerting, but Gale carefully chooses his prose to make it feel very natural.

One reviewer likened this book to a kaleidoscope, with different colors and shapes weaving into different patterns to form a whole. This is a very good analogy for this book, although I'd prefer to stick with the metaphor of an art exhibition. Each painting (or, in this case chapter) tells its own story with insights into the artist. Once we've finished viewing all the individual pieces, we suddenly feel that we know more about the artist than any straightforward biography could possibly achieve. Since we also have the points of view of all the people in her life, we also understand how her mental instability affected each of them, personally. This shifting of voices throughout the book is also a bit of an analogy for Rachel's disease - since the behavior of someone who is bipolar is often very erratic. In fact, Gale mixes chapters that feel very calm and quiet with others that seem very bright and vibrant. Finally, the last element comes from Rachel's husband Antony, who is a Quaker - and Quakers practice their religion in the quietest, most simplified way as possible, with their meetings in almost absolute silence. This is juxtaposed against the wild and windy landscapes of Cornwall and the turbulent elements in all the characters' lives. If this isn't a symbol for a person with bipolar disorder, I don't know what is.

With this book, Gale gives us honest and approachable language, believable characters and the interesting story, that you'll want to savor from beginning to end, contemplate what you're reading and think about what makes you the person you are - both internally and externally. There's nothing "in your face" here and like a clever optical illusion where closer inspection shows that we're only looking at a bunch of disconnected lines, when we pull back we find our eyes and brains have filled in what is missing and has forced us to make sense of the whole. All this means is that Patrick Gale is a master storyteller who gives us not just something to think about, but to feel as well. In fact, this may well be one of those rare books you want to read more than just once. That is about as high praise as I can give any book, and I can't impress upon my readers enough just how marvelous this book really is, and deserves a full five stars. Get this book and read it soon - you won't be disappointed, I promise you.

You can buy this book for your Kindle from Amazon, in other eReader formats from Kobo, as an audio book from iTunes, or in paperback from The Book Depository.

(This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

When Souls Collide

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss


Alma Singer is almost 15 years old. She was named after every girl in a book called "The History of Love." Alma believes that she can find the real Alma from the book. She doesn't know is who Leo Gursky is, that he was the real author of this book, that he's in New York or that he's never stopped loving Alma Mereminski, the woman he wrote about 60 years before. Leo Gursky is a survivor - he survived the Holocaust, Alma leaving for America and even finding out that the woman he loves is married to another. What Leo doesn't know is that his book, "The History of Love" also survived the trip from Poland to South America without him, was translated from Yiddish into Spanish, and although very few people read it, is now being translated into English by Alma Singer's mother.

I apologize if this plot summary is confusing, but "The History of Love" is not your conventional novel, and if I could sum this book up in one phrase, I'd call it multi-faceted. First, it is a book of parallels. Leo's adoration for Alma Mereminsky parallels Alma Singer's parents' love. Leo and Alma's separation parallels the death of Alma Singer's father. The manuscript Gursky wrote, and how it came to be published and translated without his knowledge, parallels Gursky's own life. As Alma looks for the Alma in the book, her experiences take place in parallel to Gursky's present life in New York.

This is also a book about searching. Alma Singer is searching for the real Alma Mereminski. Alma's mother is searching for the right words to translate a beloved book into English, and in the process, a way out of her depression. Alma's brother is searching for his destiny, although he's only 12 years old. Leo is searching through his memories and fantasies, while waiting for death. Finally, "The History of Love" is, of course, a book about history. We find out the history of the manuscript, the history of Leo's friend Zvi Litvinoff, who published Leo's book, the history of Alma Singer, her parents and her brother, the history of Leo Gursky's life, and even the history of Alma Mereminski in America, as well as her sons.

How Krauss achieves all this in a mere 253 pages is what makes this book so amazing. Krauss employs a first person point of view, so that we are in the minds of her characters as events are retold and unfold. Since Alma is only 14, her immature voice and wanderings of a young girl's mind, mix with her determination for her quest. Since Leo is an old man, his voice has the wisdom of age, mixed with a longing for the past and a need to be both noticed and invisible. We also get Alma's brother's voice as well, which adds another dimension in that this minor character plays an important role in the story.

With Krauss's concise style, it only takes a few strokes of the pen for us to feel immediately familiar with these characters. We know so much about their lives that we could actually become friends with them, converse with them on subjects of mutual interest. Krauss proves throughout this book that you don't need to give a blow-by-blow of a person's life, personality and looks to make your readers empathize with the characters. This combined with a narrative that sings from the page with its evocativeness, is what truly brings this book into the realm of genius. And then, with purely innocent prose she brings the story to its conclusion with such simplicity and humanity that I found myself with tears in my eyes.

As you can see, I loved this book, but admittedly, it might not appeal to everyone. Firstly, it takes a bit of getting into (about 50 pages or so), but if it interests you, please be patient, it will come. Then there is an overwhelming Jewish flavor to the story that non-Jewish people might be put off by, especially since there are terms and references they might not understand. But if you can ignore this (or revel in it, like I did), then you'll find a fascinating book that is beautifully written, marvelously modest, elegantly intelligent but never pretentious. Highly recommended to buy, beg, borrow or steal, and a full five stars out of five!

You can buy this book for your Kindle from Amazon, for your Nook from Barnes & Nobel, as an audio book from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a slightly revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Plowing Through the Family Problems

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka


Nicolai is an 86-year-old immigrant from the Ukraine, living in Peterborough, England, who has been a widower for about two years. The loss of his wife was a blow to him, but he has begun coping. One way is by writing his book - A Short History of Tractors. He's writing it in Ukrainian, of course, but he's also translating it into English. In fact, everything seemed to be going fine until he told his two daughters, Nadezhada and Vera, that he was getting married to a woman more than half his age and hardly knows, who is on her way back to England with her young son. This isn't a crime, especially with life so difficult in the Ukraine and if her son really is the genius his mother makes him out to be, a superior education in England is something any mother would want. Finally, having someone around to care for an aging parent can't be so horrid. It seems there should have been few objections from his daughters. Everything will be fine, right? Well, not with a woman like Valentina, it won't!

This is how the book "A Short History of the Tractor in Ukrainian" begins and I can assure you, from there on in, reading this book will be nothing short of a bumpy ride, but one you will enjoy from start to finish. As you can already see from the above, despite the title, this book isn't a dry, boring, non-fiction account of the history of tractors (although some of that is included). It's more like the history of a family for which some plowing up of the surface is required in order to get to the rich, fertile truths beneath. This also isn't a plodding family epic that spans generations. It is an account of a short period in one family's life that allows its youngest member to look into their hidden past. We all know that when things don't go the way we expect them to, we often look to the past to see if it holds insights or answers to today's problems.

Nor should you judge this book by its cover, with quotes on both sides saying how funny this book is. Yes, there are some humorous parts, and many that will make you giggle and guffaw. However, this isn't your usual light, quick read; you'll want to concentrate on the complex family relationships and creative scheming of Valentina. This is in its favor, not to its detriment, because the conflict and weight helps make the funnier parts all that more enjoyable.

Lewycka gives us this by using a journal/diary style narrated by the daughter Nadezhada (sometimes referred to as Nadia). This gives it a comedic autobiographical feel, perhaps of something that happened to Lewycka herself, or something she witnessed during her previous work in the field of social welfare - a profession she shares with Nadia. Lewycka is therefore able to give her book a more analytical and historical feel to it than your usual self-centered diary. Nadia is looking for a solution to the problem with her father, hoping to find out why her relationship with her big sister is so problematic relationship, and gain some insight into the family's history she was too young to understand, or not yet around to witness.

Because of this personal connection, the characters here are vividly drawn and we find ourselves relating to them in a very real way. The people in this book are very much like those people we know in real life - no one is perfect, nothing is simply black or white, things are subtle even when they're being obvious. This is probably why I believe Lewycka drew from her own experience, since very few budding novelists can evoke such complexity of emotion with their characters. Of course, she could just be a literary genius who has been hiding under her non-fiction works for all these years, but that is doubtful. This is the book that had me waiting in the wings for her subsequent novels, and that is as a high recommendation as the full five stars I've given it.

You can buy this book for your Kindle from Amazon, for your Nook from Barnes & Nobel, as an audio book from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository or via an IndieBound store near you. 

(This is a revised version of the review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stories that reveal much but say little

White Tiger on Snow Mountain by David Gordon


I've always believed that short stories are far too under-appreciated. However, I continue to live in hope that since Alice Munro received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature for her career of writing only short stories, more people will become interested in and have respect for this format. I'm pleased to say that David Gordon's book reminded me just how fascinating the art of short stories can be.

To begin with, Gordon's stories are somewhat linked, which makes them feel that together they almost become a novel. For instance, in one story, he talks about the protagonist deciding to quit smoking, then in the next story one of the characters is an ex-smoker about to light up, only to toss it after one puff in disgust. This happens also with his protagonists being not always successful recovering alcoholics. Furthermore, almost all of his narrators are struggling writers, with failing or recently failed relationships and all of them happen to be Jewish. Ironically, Gordon's seemingly casual relationship to his own religion of birth (apparent through a tiny mistake) comes into play the most with the story "I, Gentile."

The exceptions to this rule are the three stories with a younger protagonist. Gordon conveniently places these one after the other, and in chronological order of the protagonist's age, so we feel the connections in these stories. They also differ in their writing style from the other stories in the book. While most of Gordon's stories range from blunt to acerbic, here he begins with a type of softness to his language. Interestingly, as the boy in these tales gets older, Gordon's gentler touch becomes increasingly harsh. This works so well that if this book had been a novel, these stories would have been the flashback section.

But this isn't a novel, and despite the many interconnections, Gordon obviously doesn't want you to think of them as one cohesive work. What he does want you to do is look at these worlds through lenses tinted with no small amount of wit for extra clarity, in order to see just how unflattering it really is. This isn't to say that these stories are funny, although they will garner a guffaw from time to time. In fact, overall, they're gritty, somewhat grim and in places border on being pornographic. However, the humor Gordon injected into them was able to smooth over most of the roughness and keep them from being too depressing or ugly. Even so, I would have appreciated a bit more mockery of some of the situations, if only to lighten up the darker parts.

If I had to sum this collection of short stories up in one sentence, I'd use this quote from Ingmar Bergman's 1961 Oscar winning film "Through a Glass Darkly" when the character Karin says: "It's so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it." Except that with these stories, Gordon tries to see both the terrible and the funny sides of his confusion, and doesn't always succeed in understanding it all. That, of course, is the beauty of the short story. It takes you on this short ride and drops you off somewhere that you're unfamiliar with, and the author doesn't give you instructions on how to get home. Gordon gets this, and even makes the reader feel that despite any inconclusiveness, each story is complete. For all this, I have to warmly recommend this collection and give it four out of five stars. 



"White Tiger on Snow Mountain" by David Gordon is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book for review via NetGalley. (A version of this review originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Masters of Misogyny

The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation by Elana Maryles Sztokman


When I began reading this book, I was truly hoping that I wouldn't be learning anything new. I thought I was fully aware of how the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties manipulated the governments they've sat in coalitions with. I thought I already grasped the significance of their dealings and wielding of their disproportionate power, which crept into almost every area our lives. After all, I've lived here for over 35 years, and I don't shy away from the news. In fact, I did know quite a lot, mostly because I've been involved with some of the organizations and people fighting to overcome these inequities. However, Sztokman's book made me realize that even I had some gaps in my knowledge of just how dire the situation has become.

For those who don't live in Israel, much, if not all of what Sztokman describes here seems practically unbelievable. The whole world knows how egalitarian Israel is, right? Sure they do! They must be; the evidence is overwhelming. Israel elected one of the world's first female heads of state, its army has been co-ed since it was established, and even its Declaration of Independence guarantees gender equality. However, the difference between all that and the constant depredation of women's rights at the hands of the Haredim tells another story altogether. What's more, if it weren't so sad because it's all too true, some of it would be almost comical.

However, this is no laughing matter, particularly because one of Sztokman's most important points with this book is that it isn't happening only in Israel. This phenomenon is on the rise across the world. It is happening wherever fundamentalists are using their "faith" to oppress any sector of their population. That's no surprise when you look at radically Islamic countries where beating and killing "disobedient" women is a matter of course. Of course, Christians aren't like that - or are they? Sorry to burst your bubble here, but Putin's Russian Orthodoxy that outlaws homosexuality is no better or different from some of the Tea Partiers' version of a Christian America, who are already attempting to chip away at the Constitution's bothersome first amendment that keeps the Church separate from the State. The point is, religious radicalism is everywhere, and its greatest proponent is our silence in the face of its tyranny. Left unchecked, it could turn back the clock for women's rights the world over, and to the detriment of civil society as a whole.

Sztokman has done an outstanding job of uncovering and compiling the evidence of this horrific trend in Israel, and has written it with the most compelling language possible, making it feel more like a fictional thriller or emotional drama than a work of non-fiction. Moreover, that an Orthodox woman would be the one to write such a book is nothing short of heroic, as I'm sure this will raise ire among many (which is a good thing, if you ask me). Thankfully, Sztokman also includes the positive side of this situation in Israel, and how the Haredim are beginning to lose their grip since the last Knesset elections, which forced them to move to the opposition. This brings me to the only problem with this book, which is unfortunately inherent in non-fiction of this kind. That is, that because the situation continues to be a volatile one, some of the information is already out of date. However, that isn't going to make me rate it any less than a full five out of five stars.

I can only conclude that this is a book that should be required reading for anyone - male or female, in every country across the globe. I say this because despite the many frustrating and even depressing examples that Sztokman describes here, it is also a wake-up call to action. This brought to mind the poem "Bread and Roses," written by James Oppenheim, which was put to music by Sister Mimi Fariña, and recorded by Judy Collins and Joan Baez, among others. The poem's last stanza has the following words of hope:
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Amen!

"The War on Women in Israel" by Elana Maryles Sztokman from Sourcebooks Landmark, is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. A version of this review originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Take the Time to Travel with This Book!


The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


This is such a well-known book it is almost redundant to bother summarizing the plot - especially since they made a movie out of it (which I refused to watch). However, for the uninformed, this is the story of Claire and Henry. Claire is an ordinary girl but Henry has a genetic condition. No, he isn't dying, he just sometimes disappears, only to show up at another time and place in his own life - either his past or his future. When Claire first meets Henry, he is 36 and she is six, and this is their love story.
 
With this premise, it seems that what we have is here "chick-lit" mixed with magical realism. However, with the induction of the latter, we have enough quirky science fiction here to get men interested, and enough odd circumstances to keep the romantic side from becoming overpowering. Of course, this still won't appeal to every man out there, but those who have experienced a special love and/or totally off-the-wall situations might get a great deal out of this. What brings this out of the classic "chick-lit" genre is certainly the implausible idea that a genetic fluke could make someone's "biological clock" reset itself to another place and time of their own existence. How this affects Henry's life as well as everyone around him, and especially Claire is part of Niffenegger's creative genius and possibly one of the most novel ideas I've come across in a long while.
 
Of course, there are certainly some comic possibilities to this scenario and Niffenegger doesn't shy away from them, but rather than turn this into a comic tale, she has endeavored to find the reality within an unrealistic set-up, and make it believable rather than supernaturally funny. This "high road" is one that probably no other author has attempted, and we must all give kudos to Niffenegger for such "out of the box" thinking when she wrote this story - which can't have been easy.
 
Niffenegger's approach to telling this story isn't unusual with Claire and Henry telling their stories in first person. This is done in an almost diary style, with each section introduced with the respective ages of the two characters for the story of upcoming chapter. While this is a common literary mechanism, sometimes this type of prose will sound sterile and stiff. Here Niffenegger really shines since she makes us feel totally part of these people's lives, and brings them to us with such honesty and truthfulness that we fully believe that this could almost be a true story. Through this tool, their very strong voices come out, and we can almost hear them as they recount their experiences. I found this particularly strong since it gave me an even better picture of Claire and Henry than third person would have done.
 
What's more, there's nothing bombastic here, or overly flowery, and yet you don't feel like anything is too simplistically told. Niffenegger perfectly rides a fine line that makes this novel approachable to the readers, while transporting us to a place we've never been, which also feels strangely familiar. At the same time, Niffenegger combines real human emotions and conflicts while still making us believe in the unbelievable. Moreover, Niffenegger concludes this book so artistically and with such clarity and credibility that one can only say "ah, yes" at the last page, and then possibly (as I did) want to start reading it all over again.
 
This means there is almost nothing I can find fault with here. The premise of this story is totally unique and yet builds on familiar ground of personal relationships. The writing is completely spot-on and approachable. The characters are fascinating and develop perfectly before our eyes, and even the settings feel touchable to us. While I can't say that this is the absolute best book I've ever read, but it deserves to be in any list of favorites - mostly due to the consistency throughout, capped off with a beautiful ending. I'm sure you can tell by now that I have to give this a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it to anyone - guys and gals alike.

BREAKING NEWS: Audrey Niffenegger recently announced that this book is the first in a trilogy, and she's working on her second book now. Who will have a hard time waiting for it?

(This is a vastly revised review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username there, TheChocolateLady.)

You can buy this book from Amazon, Barnes& Nobel, The Book Depository, as an AudioBook from iTunes or from an IndieBound store near you.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cauliflower Gratin vs. Trout Amandine

The Author and Me by Eric Chevillard


This is more of a dialog between the author and his protagonist than a straightforward story. In the story part, we have a man speaking to a woman, telling his tale of woe because someone brought him a cauliflower gratin instead of the trout amandine that he asked for. Inserted into the text, as asides to the story, the author adds footnotes to help the reader compare the author to his protagonist.

In my never-ending search for something new and fresh in literature, I came across this book, which sounded like I had found something very unusual. In fact, I have to admit that what I got was far more quirky than what I was bargaining for. The blurb that drew me to this book was this:
Eric Chevillard here seeks to clear up a persistent and pernicious literary misunderstanding: the belief that a novel’s narrator must necessarily be a mouthpiece for his or her writer’s own opinions.

Chevillard does this by having his protagonist sit down next to a young woman in a café for the sole reason to "importune" her. This he does, with a scathing monologue about receiving cauliflower gratin instead of trout amandine. The extensive lengths that this man goes to in describing the horrific and disgusting qualities of cauliflower gratin, is nothing short of genius. In fact, in its ghastliness, it practically takes on a personality in and of itself. This man is so adversely revolted by this dish; he has become paranoid that it will kill him - either virtually or literally. His abhorrence for cauliflower gratin is only equal to his adoration for trout amandine. Oh, and by the way, he's also just killed someone because of this.

Punctuating the character's tirade, are the author's many footnotes, meant to show how the two of these men are nothing alike. Therein lays the irony of this novel, because the more we read about the two of them, the more we see the lines between them blur. Moreover, since the author refers to himself as having the same name as the character - Blaise - we become more and more convinced that these footnotes are actually a ruse to tell an even more amazing story within an already improbable story.

I'm not one to shout that the emperor has no clothes, but to tell the truth, I'm not sure I really "got" this book. However, I also couldn't stop reading it, even as it frustrated and sometimes infuriated me. Seriously, just how much can you read about someone disparaging one innocuous dish? (I have to admit, I actually like what we call "cauliflower cheese.") Furthermore, some of the footnotes were so long and complex that I had a hard time reading them from start to finish, without losing my place in the rest of the text. (Since I read it on my Nook, I had to flip back and forth several times, so I must note here that this will be easier for those who read the print version of this book.)

However, despite everything, what kept me reading and enthralled through to the very end was the beautiful writing. Yes, this is a translation from the French, but the English by Jordan Stump is tremendously luscious (or when needed, intensely revolting). The descriptions are elaborately phrased, and the language is evocative to the utmost. In addition, the humor he throws in here, hits you with its absurdity when you least expect it. Mind you, some of the sentences can go on for pages, which I'm sure, was how Chevillard wanted them. Because of this, you may need to reread some passage to get what the author is trying to say - and even then, there may still be some confusion.

After saying all this, to tell the truth, I'm not completely convinced that I liked this book; I loved certain aspects but hated others. Then it occurred to me - maybe that is what the author was trying to do all along. He has served us a meal where the only two dishes placed in front of us are cauliflower gratin and trout amandine. With this menu, he challenges you find something to loathe and something to cherish, but you can do both. As for recommending it, I'm sure that this premise will fascinate some people, just as it will turn others off completely. For this I'll give it three out of five stars and let you decide if I'm recommending it or not.


"The Author and Me" by Eric Chevillard (translated by Jordan Stump), is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader copy of this book via NetGalley for this review, which originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.