Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Profiles Through Ages

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

Barnaby Johnson couldn't prevent his young parishioner Lenny from killing himself because the poison he took worked too quickly. Instead, all Barnaby could do was pray and sit by as he died, as that was all that was left to do, and it was the right thing. And that's what Barnaby was known for by all people in his life - or at least that's how it seemed on the surface. Upon closer scrutiny, things aren't all that perfect and not everyone has always been good. This is "A Perfectly Good Man" by Patrick Gale.

There's one thing that readers can always count on with books by Patrick Gale, and that is characters whose faults catch you off balance and then reel you in because of them. In other words, Gale's ability to make these people empathetic to his readers is the key to his talent. With this work, he focuses so strongly on these characters, that each chapter is named after one of them, along with the age that person was when the action you are about to read takes place. What's more, he flips back and forth along the timelines of these characters, handing us a puzzle that slowly allows the full picture to emerge.

The mechanic of one chapter devoted to one character and one specific time in that character's life is nothing new. In fact lots of writers have used it with varying levels of success. What makes this book's format unusual is how large the jumps in time are, and how they are so totally non-chronological.  As an example, the first chapter of this book is Lenny at 20, and the last one is Barnaby at 8! The reason why this works so effectively is because Gale never falters in being totally committed to telling his story in this way. There is never a misstep where we get a hint of foreshadowing or fall back into a memory from the past. Basically, what it feels like Gale did was to write each his characters' histories in pure "real time", and then throw all the chapters up in the air only to be randomly reassembled.

This doesn't mean that the book is confusing, because it really isn't at all. And I truly doubt there was any randomness in how Gale decided to place each chapter. In fact, the seemingly casual way in which these chapters are assembled is what makes the book so striking.  What's more, because the reader gets only a taste of the various characters, as each chapter ends, they'll already be hungry for more.

What's more, Gale also plays on the ambiguity of the title here. In this I mean that a man being "perfectly good" could mean that his being good is something he does faultlessly. However, there's always that niggling feeling that behind the phrase "perfectly good" is a touch of irony. Almost as if the word "enough" was missing from the title. And this is something that most readers will feel as they read this book.

Of course, these subtle and surprising aspects make reviewing such a book all the more difficult. Yes, I could go into each of the characters, but telling you much about them would certainly lead to spoilers. Being adamantly opposed to that, perhaps it is best to say that if you're looking for a book that is a compelling read and beautifully written with characters you can understand and empathize with, then go out and get yourself a copy of Patrick Gale's "A Perfectly Good Man" right now! For all this, I cannot give it less than a full five out of five stars and highly recommend it. 

"A Perfectly Good Man" by Patrick Gale published by the Fourth Estate, London on March 15, 2012, is available from Amazon US, 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 Better World Books.

Monday, April 14, 2014

An Intimate Look at the World of London's Ultra-Orthodox

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

If Chani Kaufman doesn't find a husband soon, it may be too late. Although she's only 19, that is a fact of life in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community! But so far, no one thinks she's suitable, mostly because of her outspoken curiosity, which has landed her in trouble many a time. Then Baruch Levy saw her, and was immediately smitten and determined to meet her. When he does, he is undaunted by her spunk, her lack of money or any objections from his family. But as Chani prepares to take the plunge into adulthood and married life, she can't get straight answers out of her mother, and the training from her Rebbitzen (rabbi's wife) isn't any more enlightening. What is in store for Chani and what secrets lay beneath the forced order of the Golder's Green Jewish community? This is "The Marrying of Chani Kaufman" by Eve Harris.

This novel might seem a bit daunting to those readers who are unfamiliar with the ultra-orthodox Jewish world. In fact, some modern Jews might not understand many of the colloquialisms included here, either. Thankfully, the end of the book has a good glossary to help those who will feel almost immediately clueless. (This will be a huge disadvantage for those reading this novel on an eReader, as it will be very inconvenient to flip back and forth.) But if you can get past all that, what Harris has given us a peek into a world that is so closed off and isolated, you wonder how these people can even exist in this century. Yet exist they do, despite how terribly clueless they all seem to be about so many things, because in some areas they're very adept at surviving and even thriving. You could think of it as the Jewish version of the Amish, and you wouldn't be all that far from the truth.

But beneath all the tradition, special dress, prayers and strict rules for just about everything, lies a community that lives and dies, eats and sleeps, works and rests, loves and hates almost just like any other. And this is what Harris has attempted to portray through her characters. Aside from Chani with her large and struggling family (of eight daughters) and Chani's fiancé Baruch with his wealthy and snobby one, we also get two other major characters. These are Avromi, the son of the rabbi, and his wife, known as the Rebbitzin. Avromi's story is that he's been allowed to go to a real university to read Law, and he falls in love with a non-Jewish girl and has an affair with her. That's something beyond the pale for anyone in the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) world. What he doesn't know is that his parents have an almost equally scandalous past. Although both are Jews, they were from secular homes. They met in Israel where they fell in love and together, they slowly became more and more religious.

So in reality, we have several stories this going on in the book, and you might wonder if there isn't a little too much. This was my first problem with this novel. What I was expecting was the major focus to be on Chani and her getting married. In fact, the focus veered away from Chani through large portions of the story, and at one point I wondered if a better title for this novel would have been "Chani and the Rebbitzen." Not that all that all this isn't interesting, because it actually is - I was just a touch disappointed that so many of these other elements kept upstaging Chani and her story.

One of the other things that bothered me was that, most "born again" Jews aren't usually looked upon too favorably within the Haredi community. But this can be somewhat overlooked, if we take into account that these two spent many years in Israel before returning. This is the only way that they could have kept their pasts a secret. The other thing that didn't sit completely right with me were a few instances where Harris included things that were particularly Sephardic (meaning, from the Spanish/North African Jewish culture) in what seemed to be a generally an Ashkenazi (meaning European Jewish culture) community.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy this book. I actually found almost all of the characters to be sympathetic. Despite so many of them being central to the story they were mostly well fleshed-out and realistic. Furthermore, Harris writes in a very engaging style that feels personal, even with the third-person point of view. However, there were some sub-plots and minor characters that could have been eliminated or at least played down. All told, if you've ever wondered about the ultra-orthodox community of London, this is certainly a novel I can recommend as a primer for that world. I think that Harris has made a very good first effort here, and she deserves just a bit more than three out of five stars.
"The Marrying of Chani Kaufman" by Eve Harris published by Grove Press, Black Cat (a division of Grove Atlantic) on April 1, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This review originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network and on my Times of Israel Blog. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Flying into the Clouds of Her History

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fanny Flagg

Mrs. Earl Poole Jr., better known as Sookie, is almost 60 and still can't get out from under her overpowering, and mentally unstable mother, Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Lenore's rich Simmons background and standing in the community is in a league of its own, and not one that Sookie ever felt comfortable in. But apparently, much of her family history was fiction. When Sookie finds out the truth as it applies to her in particular, it puts her into a tailspin, and takes her back to events in American history she never knew existed in a journey of discovery of both her own life and her heritage.

Far few authors can make their readers laugh and cry at the same time. It is even rarer that the author can do this with just the right amount of wit and charm that grabs the reader's attention from the first lines and pulls them in with characters that come alive, right off of the page. Fanny Flagg is certainly one of these exceptional authors, and with this new novel, she's brought us that same amazing combination that we recall from "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café." Here she brings in some of the characters she introduced to us in "Welcome to the World, Baby Girl" but this time instead of the ambitious television personality, Dena Nordstrom, we investigate one of Dena's college friends, the quiet housewife, Mrs. Earl Poole Jr., better known as Sookie.

Those familiar with Flagg's work will know that "Welcome" was the first in her 'Elmwood Springs' novels. But this story takes place in two other locations - Point Clear Alabama in the 21st century, and Pulaski, Wisconsin in the middle of the 20th century. The story here builds across these eras, by giving us few chapters in each of the timeframes, while at the same time, it moves towards a definite meeting point. Interestingly enough, just when we've thought that the two tales have finally come together, Flagg throws in some extra twists. Yes, I did say "twists" in the plural, which would usually make me cringe in thinking that it was all just a bit much. But Flagg knows just how to do this so it fully mirrors real-life.

The place where Flagg truly casts her spell over her readers is by making all of her stories so perfectly character-driven. Flagg's people seem so alive and lively, even when they're feeling down and sad or upset, that they're almost touchable. Even when you think that the cleverness of the plot might edge them out, you're drawn back to them with something odd or quirky that they do or say, and you suddenly realize you'd just adore the chance to give them hug and/or a good talking to! The phrase "wit and charm" comes to mind, and as always, is an understatement for how Flagg develops her characters.

Of course, some readers might not care for how Flagg continues with her story after the big climax. I personally dislike novels that tie things up too nicely at the end, and lengthy epilogues tend to do this, partially because most authors to pack in far too much extraneous information and time into the closing rundown. Not so, with Flagg. Instead, she uses her concluding chapters to heap on extra passages that point up both the humor and poignancy of these people and their lives. Yes, there were a couple of pieces of that final puzzle that might have been left out, but those were only a few lines here and there among the last 30 or so pages. With that being such a little bit of superfluous prose, I can't say it detracted much from the whole novel.

In short, I cannot describe this book without the word "delightful" coming to mind, even for the parts when things don't go well with the characters or the story. With the way that Flagg writes, and despite a tiny slow spot in the early part of the present-day story, the moment the big secret comes out you'll be reading this full-speed ahead and not want to stop until you've found out everything. With something this much fun, where I even enjoyed the bits that made me cry, I can't give it less than a full five out of five stars, and highly recommend it.

"The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion" by Fanny Flagg, published by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing and released March 13, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my Curious Book Fans review, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Friday, April 4, 2014

On Passion and Disappointment

Tatiana's Wedding by Cynthia A. Robinson

Laura was killed by her husband Cezar, leaving their two young children, Delfina and Stephan, in the care of Cezar's parents. But that was long ago. Now Nani, Delfina's grandmother is dying, and all the Aunts are there to see her through the end. Throughout her life, Delfina has wondered about her mother and raged against her grandmother. But Nani has been hiding something which she pushed deep inside ever since she was the young and pretty Tatiana, marrying the man she adored. This is "Tatiana's Wedding" by Cynthia A. Robinson.

Stories about families with dark secrets are nothing new. Stories about passion and love both requited and rejected are also far from innovative. Even the combination of the two isn't anything all that special. And these are the basic themes of "Tatiana's Wedding". But before you start yawning and turn away to see what else there is to read, I'd ask you to give this one a second look. The reason for this is primarily because of the unique quality that Robinson brings to this tale. Robinson wraps her readers into the lives of these people in silky folds and layers. Her writing style is smooth and gentle as she observes and allows us to watch how these people have fallen into such harsh and darkened places in their lives. It is precisely the contrast of how she uses language to the stark and rough realities of her character's lives is something that many authors strive for but few accomplish. For this alone, Robinson's debut novel is worth a look.

Of course, style without content would be useless. Robinson gives us a plot that moves at a pace which emphasizes the softness of her prose. She never gives away too much, while at the same time she builds her characters very carefully. This is done with quite a bit of flashbacks, but with a precision that will surprise you in how nicely they all come together. She also gives us a peek into the Polish-American community that we've probably never seen before. All of this is done in a mere 144 pages, which comes to an end at just the right point in the story, and almost immediately after the climax. Some people might feel that this finishes too quickly. I prefer a book that gives me a snapshot I can think about afterwards, to one that ties everything up too neatly at the end.

The other thing that impressed me here was how Robinson used parallels in this book. On the one hand we have Nani - the dying and stalwart grandmother whose unrequited passion for her husband has worn away into bitterness. On the other hand we have Delfina, a girl as singular as her own name who cannot come to grips with her mother being taken away from her at so young an age. Because of that loss, and the subsequent coldness from her grandmother, she seems incapable of letter herself be consoled. For her it is as if passion is something unobtainable. More significantly, while Nani's life of being stuck with such disappointment is finally ending, we witness Delfina's growing understanding of the past, which could lead to her to learn how to stop being a disappointment to both her and others.

With this type of praise I have to add that the work isn't perfect. There were times early on in the book that I felt confused regarding the characters, and got them mixed up on more than one occasion. One of the reasons for this is because two of the characters had the same name - Stephan the brother of Delfina, and Stephan their grandfather. But as I continued reading, all of the characters straightened themselves out, and by about half way through the book, this was no longer a problem. I was also a bit perplexed by a few of the timelines, where some things seemed to happen slightly out of sync with reality. While these didn't get resolved, at a certain point, they seemed far less important to the story and I was able to ignore them.

All told, this is a remarkably beautiful debut novel that takes complex and uncomfortable situations and puts them into a prose that warms and entices. Robinson brings us into the world of people who are absolutely ordinary, but have qualities and experiences that bubble just below the surface, and make them ultimately fascinating. For all this, I'm giving "Tatiana's Wedding" by Cynthia A. Robinson a rating of four and a half stars out of five.

"Tatiana's Wedding" by Cynthia A. Robinson was published on April 1, 2014 by Publerati and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia) and iTunes. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

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