Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Choices We Make


Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin


Take one impressionable, young, and ambitious woman interested in politics, and mix it with one much older, handsome and dynamic (but married) Congressman and you'll have a possibly explosive mixture. Unfortunately, when the blast comes, often the fallout hits the young woman (and her family) far harder than it does the public official. In Gabrielle Zevin's latest novel, she looks at the dilemmas and hurdles that being in the wake of such scandals pose from various different sides of the story, none of which includes the elected official himself. These include Rachel, the mother Aviva Grossman who had the affair with the Congressman; Jane Young the woman in Maine who may or may not have once been Aviva; Ruby, Jane's daughter, and; Embeth, the wife of the cheating Congressman.

The more I think about this book, the more I realize how ingeniously Zevin constructed it. First, each section has a different narrating character, telling one part of the story from their perspective. Like other books that use this mechanic, the sum of all these sections brings us the full story. What is different in this book is that each character tells their story in a very different way. For example, Ruby tells her story through her emails to her pen pal. Later, Jane tells her own story in a retrospective voice, which she frames as if it is one of those R. L. Stine "Goosebumps" create-your-own-adventure books. (They're the ones where at a certain part of the story the reader has to decide between one of two options on how to proceed, and with that choice moves to the particular relevant next page. The idea was that you could read them repeatedly, making different choices each time, and thereby get a different story each time.) The other sections are the usual types of narratives, but these two were exceptional in their distinctive construction. What Zevin achieves with all of this is to give each of her characters a very singular voice.

Much like with Zevin's previous novel (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry), readers will find this book filled with heavy doses of humor, both light and wryly dry. What surprised me somewhat was how authentically Jewish these characters all were. I understand that her father is Jewish, and I'm sure she drew much from his female family members for these portraits. Even so, that's not always a terribly accurate research source, and yet I couldn't find anything that sounded even a little out of place here, and since inaccuracies regarding anything Jewish is a pet peeve of mine, Brava to Zevin for that. However, it isn't all fun and games particularly because the central event here is a sex scandal, the ramifications of which can be extremely serious. It seems that Zevin was thinking about a type of smaller-scale Monica Lewinsky situation when she wrote this, and tried to imagine how difficult it would be to rebuild a life after having become so notorious. Deeper still, with this book Zevin is essentially exploring the ramifications of the choices we make, both good and bad. This is why the "Goosebumps" section of this book is so effective - because it allows us to look at this on a lighter plane, without diminishing the lesson in the process.

I'll end by saying that I felt that Zevin's conclusion of this book was very nearly masterful, but not quite. In general, I often prefer books that make readers think about them afterwards and with this book, Zevin doesn't give away too much regarding the future of these characters after the last page. However, in this case, though, I'm of two minds regarding the biggest question (of which I can't say more, as that would be a huge spoiler). On the one hand, I really wanted to know the answer, but on the other hand, I'm not sure that Zevin would have given me the outcome I would have preferred. More importantly, I can't really tell if including either result might have ruined the book for me or not, although I'm positive she could have pulled off either conclusion. I admit that this frustrated me just enough to knock off half a star, so despite my overall enjoyment of this novel, I can only give it four and a half stars (which is still a very good rating, just half a star less than I gave Fikry).




Algonquin Books will release "Young Jane Young" by Gabrielle Zevin on August 22, 2017. You can buy this book from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase supports libraries and literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Glitter and Tarnish

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie


To preface this review, I have to begin by somewhat taking umbrage with the following parts of the publisher's synopsis of this book (which appeared just like this in the "Read it Forward" newsletter):

"On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from foreign shores takes up residence in the architectural jewel of “the Gardens,” a cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village. The neighborhood is a bubble within a bubble, and the residents are immediately intrigued by the eccentric newcomer and his family. Along with his improbable name, untraceable accent, and unmistakable whiff of danger, Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya, a brilliant recluse with a tortured mind; Apu, the flamboyant artist, sexually and spiritually omnivorous, famous on twenty blocks; and D, at twenty-two the baby of the family, harboring an explosive secret even from himself. There is no mother, no wife; at least not until Vasilisa, a sleek Russian expat, snags the septuagenarian Nero, becoming the queen to his king—a queen in want of an heir." … "Meanwhile, like a bad joke, a certain comic-book villain embarks upon a crass presidential run that turns New York upside-down."

What bothers me here is the emphasis on the political aspect of this book, which I found to be merely a blip on the radar. True, at first glance, people might think that Nero Golden is Rushdie's attempt to build a somewhat convoluted version of today's POTUS. However, although there are some striking parallels, I don't believe that this was Rushdie's intention, particularly because there are hardly any references to the 2016 elections and its results. What he does do is quite amusing, in that Rushdie nicknames the two final candidates as Bat Woman and The Joker (green hair and all), and uses these images as elements in campaign cartoons developed by René and his girlfriend. In fact, other than this, the book almost totally avoids political commentary.

On the other hand, if you ask me, I think this book is more about the narrator René, and I must agree with the publisher fully when they say, "Our guide to the Goldens’ world is their neighbor René, an ambitious young filmmaker. Researching a movie about the Goldens, he ingratiates himself into their household. Seduced by their mystique, he is inevitably implicated in their quarrels, their infidelities, and, indeed, their crimes." In fact, if I could boil it down even further, I would say that this is practically a coming-of-age novel. In other words, René's idea for this film is the vehicle for him to pass through numerous trials and tribulations - including some he experiences only second hand - in order to reach his true self.

However, there's another aspect here, in that this is also a cautionary tale of wealth and power, particularly those who achieve this through corruption. The book delves into how powerful they can get, as well as how all that money cannot stop time, nor avoid the same types of tragedies and difficulties that can befall everyone, from the greatest to the lowliest among us. Even so, this is still René's story, and through it, I think Rushdie is trying to say that when it comes to evil or corruption, there really is no such thing as a truly innocent bystander, because inaction has no fewer consequences than getting involved, unless your only action is to resist and fight. Although René initially denies his involvement in the Golden family, there is something about them, their secrets and their quirks that seem to draw him into their lives. Aside from this, René's own life situation changes, forcing him to become almost dependent on the Golden family, which thereby draws him further into their world, despite his constant attempts to pull away.

This is only the second novel by Rushdie that I've read, and I can see now why he's gained such popularity and acclaim, but I like this Rushdie better than the other one. Don't get me wrong, it isn't as if I didn't enjoy his previous novel, but it was very fantasy oriented and speculative, which can turn some people off. This book, however, is firmly based in reality, with all of the elements noted above, that are particularly relevant to today. More importantly, even though all this sounds like it could be extremely heavy, Rushdie brings to this narrative enough lightness and humor to keep it from depressing his readers, while keeping it strictly in the genre of drama. Even when Rushdie's prose seems to meander somewhat, I truly felt that this book was much more focused than his previous novel. This is probably because of the lack of fantastical elements in this book, but this didn't stop Rushdie from including some very thought provoking passages, some of which boarded on the poetic. For example, there's one part where one of the Golden sons is discussing if he should or shouldn't have sex reassignment surgery that struck me as spectacularly insightful regarding personal identity. This is just one way in which Rushdie reveals his brilliance together with how amazingly widely read he is, without every sounding patronizing or superior. All of this is just to say that I think that I enjoyed this book even more than "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," and I believe it deserves a full five out of five stars.




"Golden House" by Salman Rushdie published by Random House, release date September 2, 2017 is/will be available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Now You're an Immigrant!


Chutzpah & High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land by Jessica Fishman

 
In this memoir, Jessica Fishman details the trials and tribulations of making what we call "Aliyah" - literally meaning to "go up" to Israel. This reminds me of an old, old joke, which goes something like this (which is my rough translation from the Hebrew):

One day an angel comes to visit an elderly Jew. The angel tells the man that because he led a life of purity and righteousness, God decided to reward him by showing him both Heaven and Hell while he was still alive. The angel takes the man down to Hell first. There he sees people wildly running about, naked, drinking, and having orgies. The man looks at this and says, "Yes, this is truly Hell." The angel then takes him to Heaven. There he sees vast rooms filled with rows upon rows of desks where hundreds of thousands of men are fervently praying and seriously studying Holy Scriptures. The man looks at this and says, "Yes, this is truly Heaven." After this, the angel puts the man back on earth and disappears. Several years later, the man dies and the first thing he sees is the angel that had visited him. The angel says, "rabbi, since you know what heaven and hell are like, you now have the privilege of choosing where you wish to spend eternity." The man thinks a bit and then tells the angel, "Well, to tell the truth, heaven looks just like my life on earth, so maybe I should go to hell." The angel immediately transports the man to a burning inferno of a place where people are suffering and screaming and in horrible pain. "Wait," says the man, "this isn't anything like what I saw the first time I was here." To this the angel replies, "Yes, of course. You were a tourist that time; now you're a new immigrant!"

Yes, making Aliyah is nothing like coming to Israel as a tourist, and every new immigrant learns this very quickly. That said, everyone has different experiences, and the types of difficulties that Jessica had to face in her first 10 years of living in Israel will be quite a revelation, but only for readers who don't know Israel that well. Most importantly, the biggest revelation will be that Israel is the only country in the world purports to have freedom of religion, but in truth, discriminates terribly against many of its Jews - in particular, against anyone who doesn't practice Orthodox Judaism. I'm sure that exposing what we in Israel already know to the world was one point of Jessica writing this book. The other was obviously to go through a cathartic healing process, which must have worked since she was able to return to live in Israel again.

Regarding the quality of this book, I have to begin by saying that Fishman writes beautifully, with large dollops of humor interspersed throughout the easy flowing narrative, which will endear her to her readers. Mind you, some of the things I thought were funny might not make much sense to people who don't know Israel, but I'm equally sure there is plenty here that will succeed in evoking at least a smile or giggle in anyone. This is relatively rare, especially when it comes to non-fiction that is so very personal, and even more so when you're talking about a book that will probably have a very specific audience. Niche book or not, I certainly appreciated the writing here, and kudos to Fishman for that.

However, I did find some problems with the book. Despite the engaging style Fishman employed here, I was hoping for this to feel more like a work of fiction than a memoir. This is my personal yardstick for non-fiction books, and while that might seem unfair at one level, I think it is a valid measure. This is because a good work of fiction lays the story out in such a way that entices the reader, making them compelled to read on and find out what happens next. If a work of non-fiction can do the same thing, the subject of the book doesn't really matter. In my opinion, there were a few things kept this book from achieving this.

The first was an inconsistent timeline. For example, there were pieces of past information that Fishman put early on in the book that would have been more effective if she had placed them closer to the events where they were relevant. I also felt that after the introduction, Fishman went too far into her past in the US and stayed there longer than needed. I really wanted to get to the Aliyah experience itself much quicker than Fishman gave it to us.

Another problem was an overuse of translations within the text. I would have preferred the use of italics on Hebrew transliterated phrases with a complete glossary at the end of the book. This would have contributed to a better flow of the text. An alternative to that would have been reserving the page footnotes for the language explanations, and then consolidating the rest of the footnotes as endnotes in the appendix. I may be overreacting to this, but the prose felt so smooth otherwise, it seemed a shame to trip it up with all those little speed bumps.

Finally, there were a few loose ends that Fishman didn't clear up, that left me wondering what was going on with the people involved. Mind you, I've been living in Israel for nearly 40 years, and I know that sometimes Israelis simply do very incomprehensible things for no good reason whatsoever. Still, I personally would have tried to make some sense out of their actions, even if it was only conjecture and projection on my own part.

Despite these problems, I must repeat that I did enjoy this book overall. I believe Fishman is a very talented writer, and after reading this, I'm hoping that she'll venture into fiction in the future, since her writing style would lend nicely to a humorous book about an ex-pat living in Israel. For all this, I think I'll recommend it, with just a few reservations, and give it three and a half stars out of five.



"Chutzpah & High Heels" by Jessica Fishman is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Finding Direction


Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler


At only the age of 61, Liam is suddenly unemployed, but that's not worrying him. He didn't really love the job, anyway. It was just something he fell into; there there aren't many positions for someone with a degree in philosophy. No, he won't miss teaching history to fifth graders, and retirement actually sounds appealing. Yes, he has to downsize and be more frugal to manage with his reduced income, but that's okay too. Unfortunately, on his first night in his new apartment, someone broke in and attacked him, and after he woke up from his concussion, he couldn't remember anything after falling asleep. To recover this small loss of memory, Liam ends up searching for more than a few hours of time, and in places he never thought he'd go.

Reading this book published in 2010 comes under the heading of "novels by favorite authors I never got around to reading." My first introduction to Anne Tyler was with her book The Accidental Tourist in 1985, which struck me as particularly intriguing, mostly because the characters were so quirky in their ordinariness. That was what made me an automatic fan. Regrettably, the "so many books, so little time" syndrome forced me to overlook many of Tyler's previous and subsequent works. While this isn't a mission to read everything written by Tyler (although that might not be a bad idea), my motivation was to at least partially fill this void by reading a lesser-known novel.

What I found was is a very typical Tyler novel. Her ultimately loveable, yet sometimes annoying characters are simple people, who are often solitary in their habits even when they're not alone in their lives. Liam is exactly like this. Once widowed, once divorced, he seems to have floated through life, which his three (mostly) grown daughters all noticed. Their worries about him, particularly after the break-in and subsequent concussion, increase, but while they're afraid for his safety, he's more worried about those missing hours. All of this sounds perfectly par for the course for a man getting on in age, who not only finds himself prematurely retired, but who just experienced a trauma. To shake this up, into this mix Tyler brings Eunice. Eunice is a young assistant to Mr. Cope, an old man who is apparently one of the wealthiest business owners in town. The essence of her job with Cope is to remind him of his obligations and duties - or if you will, to be his memory. This is what first attracts Liam to Eunice, and under the guise of his looking for a job, they begin meeting. What happens between them, together with the attempts of his daughters to help Liam is the meat and bones of this story.

I have to admit that as I was reading this novel, I wondered about the title, particularly regarding who Noah was. However, I eventually realized that the title here was actually a metaphor for Liam, and that the name here refers to the person in the bible story, and not one of Tyler's characters. In other words, this story is about how Liam navigates himself into this new chapter in his life. Again, this sounds somewhat mundane, but the warmth and humor that Tyler builds into her characters, combined with some somewhat unusual behavior is what draws her readers in, forcing us to empathize and fall in love with practically every one of them. Of course, Tyler's deceptively simple, third person POV prose mingles beautifully with the natural sounding dialog in a perfect fictional package that feels almost like a memoir. However, despite this praise, I do understand why this is a lesser-known Tyler work. I think what I was slightly lacking here was one of those "oh wow" moments where everything just slips into place until the conclusion. There are a few "aah" moments, however, although they didn't quite satisfy my desire for a real bang-up of a climax. All this means that although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can recommend it warmly, I'm going to give it four and a half stars out of five.




The 2009 novel "Noah's Compass" by Anne Tyler is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase goes to support world literacy and libraries) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Two Paths that Never Converge

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss


In Nicole Krauss' newest novel, she presents us with two people in parallel stories, both of whom travel to Israel from York, but these two never meet. There is Jules Epstein, a wealthy man attempting to divest himself of his money before he dies, with the aim to use it, at least partially, with a project in memory of his parents. The other character is Nicole, a novelist with writer's block (who isn't Krauss, but rather a semi-fictionalized version of herself), attempting to jump-start her novel about the Tel Aviv Hilton through this trip. Nicole also seems to have the need to escape from her life including her rut of a marriage.

One thing that stands out as mutual between these characters is their motivations in finding something that seems just beyond their reach, but which could bring them solutions. To achieve this, Krauss sends each of them off to Israel, and then places obstacles into their paths. With Epstein, this is a chance encounter with Menachem Klausner, a rabbi who is positive that Epstein is descended directly from the biblical King David. This rabbi seems to interrupt Epstein's search for how to spend his vast fortune, while at the same time, inadvertently gives him the perfect project. To waylay Nicole's writing of her book, Krauss has Nicole's cousin introduce her to Eliezer Friedman, a seemingly retired professor of literature (who might have once been in the Mossad or both). Friedman has a theory about the untold story of Franz Kafka's death (or in this case, his life after he faked his death in 1924), which he needs Nicole to write. Together with these, Krauss connects the two characters with the Tel Aviv Hilton, where both characters stay during parts of their trips.

Aside from these parallel types of story-lines, the major method that Krauss uses to distinguish between these two characters is in their voices. By this, I mean that Krauss gives Epstein's story a third-person narrator, while Nicole tells her own tale in first person. This unusual combination of voices has an impact on the reader, in that we feel a more personal connection with Nicole, but have the ability to observe things about Epstein, which he may not even know about himself. Furthermore, with Epstein, we get more of his personal history, but with Nicole, the focus is more on this particular set of events, with minimal back-story. In my other review of this book, I likened this to having the wide-angle lens on Epstein's life, with the close-up shots reserved for Nicole. Finally, both stories include some fantastical, yet realistic passages describing experiences that range from philosophical to humorous to spiritual to even existential. I'd say more, but that would necessitate including plot spoilers.

Although this may not seem obvious from what I've written above, I think I finally understand the reason why I love Nicole Krauss' books. As personal as this is, I think they make me feel like all the choices I've made in my life - particularly the bad ones - impact me in a positive way. In other words, I'm not a failure, even when things don't work out the way I might have wanted. What makes me feel this way is how Krauss presents her readers with characters who do unexpected things, and get both expected and surprising results. Of course, it helps that I'm precisely the type of reading public for this book. I'm Jewish; I have more than a passing acquaintance with Israel, and; I'm not afraid to read works that challenge me intellectually, or that border on the speculative. That said I'm well aware that I'm in the minority here, and this book (much like her previous novel, Great House) might not appeal to many general fiction readers. Personally, that doesn't bother me, because Krauss writes so beautifully, and her stories are so engrossing, and I love how they make me emotionally attached to her characters, so I have to give it a full five stars, and I might even go as far as to say this book is a true masterpiece.




"Forest Dark" by Nicole Krauss, published by Harper Collins, release date August 24, 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Art of Becoming Real

The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber


The author of the classic, bestselling children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit was Margery Williams Bianco. Pamela Bianco was her daughter, and she was an artist, recognized for her talent when only a child, with her first showing at a gallery in Turin Italy, at the age of 11. If you haven't heard her name, that's no surprise. Child prodigies grow up, and many fade from the limelight as adults. Sometimes, that's because their uniqueness as children seems mundane for adults. Other times, their early fame was more than they could handle. Laurel Davis Huber's novel investigates the relationship between these two women, with her own theories why Pamela and her work is relatively unknown today.

First, a confession: Of course, I've heard of the book The Velveteen Rabbit but I never actually read it as a child. As sacrilegious as that may sound, Huber was generous enough to add the text of the story into this book, so if nothing else, at least that's one less hole in my literary education. While that might sound like a "filler" tactic, I can assure you that this novel about far more than just this classic children's story. In fact, it is hardly a more than blip on Huber's radar. Instead, what Huber investigates here is the relationship between Pamela and Margery, while at the same time, having these protagonists give us their own views of their lives, through their own first-person accounts. In this way, we are able to assume the relationship, rather than witness it.
Moreover, it occurred to me that Huber might have used Margery's famous work as a metaphor for Pamla's life, which is impressive, particularly for a debut novel.
 
Huber achieves this using a prose style that is gently conversational, yet subtly injected with poetic passages whenever the story needs an infusion of emotion. With this, Huber chose to let these two women tell their stories with a somewhat fluid chronology that allows the reader to understand the timeline of events, with some backwards and forwards passages to fill in certain blanks. Of course, most of the flashbacks come from Margery to times before Pamela was born or was very young. To begin with, I found this method made the first couple of chapters a bit confusing to me, which I partially attribute to the fact that I had no prior knowledge of either of these two women. Nonetheless, this feeling passed very quickly, and I soon was engrossed in both these women's lives. Thankfully, this transition happened just as Huber started bringing in a slew of other characters, many of which were actual parts of the lives of this family. These included the artist Pablo Picasso (considered a child prodigy himself), and playwright, Eugene O'Neil, who was married to Margery's cousin. Most significant of these minor characters is Richard Hughes, the Welsh writer who preferred that his friends call him Diccon.

Diccon ends up being a central character in Pamela's story, due to her having fallen in love with him when she was still a young girl. In fact, Huber seems to posit that this unrequited relationship, coming precisely as Pamela was going through puberty, was one of the more significant triggers for Pamela's many bouts of depression. Other causes that Huber points to are such things as genetics (via her father), as well as the family's financial dependence on Pamela continuing to be a commercially viable artist. Of course, depression is a highly complex mental illness, and while Huber cannot give us a comprehensive diagnosis, her assumptions seem mostly reasonable. Moreover, as we watch Margery dealing with both her husband's and her daughter's problems, and witness Pamela's description of her condition, this novel then also becomes a portrait of this disease, almost even more than a depiction of the connections between a mother and daughter, together with the study of these women's lives. 


While this may sound like it might make for a depressing work in itself, Huber succeeds in instilling no small amount of hope into this novel in an attempt to sidestep giving the work an overall gloomy atmosphere. Mind you, at times the book did feel a bit sullen, and I feel that Huber could have added a few more lighter passages for the sake of greater variety of mood. This, combined with some passages that I felt was superfluous to the essence of the story (in particular, regarding the troubled marriage of O'Neil and Margery's cousin Agnes), which disrupted the flow of this book for me, are the reasons why I'm not giving this book a full five stars. Aside from those niggles, I truly enjoyed reading this novel, and will recommend it warmly (especially if you're curious about the lives of children's fiction authors and/or child prodigy artists) with a solid four out of five stars.




"The Velveteen Daughter" by Laurel Davis Huber published by She Writes Press, released July 11 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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