Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

CoverThe Finkler Question, this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, is an unusual book in that it uses fiction to tackle the large questions of Israel, Jewish identity, and anti-Semitism.

The novel's main character is Julian Treslove, a melancholy fellow with a string of unsuccessful relationships behind him. His idea of love is based on opera. Treslove is a lost soul whose experience with a mugger is transformed into a spiritual awakening: he now believes he is Jewish.

There are two other principle characters: Sam Finkler, an arrogant philosopher and author of The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life, and Libor Sevcik, a Czech Jew, Zionist, and former teacher of Finkler and Treslove. The debates between Sam and Libor are spirited and represent polar opposites of the "Jewish (Finkler) question"--namely, the moral responsibilities of the Jews in the modern world.

Although they do not agree politically, Sam and Libor are united in grief: each has lost his wife to death. Sam's feelings toward his converted and practicing Jewish wife are complicated; Libor's love and loss is total and without reservations.

Another main character is Hephzibah, Libor's great-niece and Treslove's current love interest. She is a stereotype of the zaftig, maternal, emotional, and erotic Jewish woman. She tries to fill the emotional vacuum that Treslove inhabits, and is probably the most likable character in the book.

Finker's Question is a satire--a tongue-in-cheek polemic on how Jews see themselves in the world at large. Jacobson tackles other questions aside from the political/social ones. He portrays the many sides of friendship deftly. He also depicts the loneliness of aging and the depth of grieving a long-time marriage. The characters, although serving the author's purpose, are complex and flawed.

If you enjoy the books of Philip Roth, you may also like this novel.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

The Wolves of Andover

Kathleen Kent has written a new book that is the prequel to her novel The Heretic's Daughter. The Wolves of Andover takes place in the American colonies just after the British Civil war - around the mid 1600's. The wolves referred to in the title are not just of the animal variety.

Martha Allen, a strong willed woman bordering on spinsterhood is sent to live with her cousin, Patience, working as her housekeeper. While at Daniel's and Patience's farm Martha falls in love with one of their workmen a man named Thomas Carrier.

Rumor has it that Thomas Carrier is really Thomas Morgan - the man who murdered Charles I at the urging of Cromwell. Carrier is the largest man Martha has ever seen. He works with a quiet solidarity that has her intrigued. When he rescues her from a wolf attack and then kills the wolves, she is well and truly smitten.

The villagers are whispering about bounty hunters coming from England to catch the last of the regicide outlaws. But is Thomas really a murderer and an outlaw? Is Daniel protecting him or will he throw Thomas to the other wolves - the bounty hunters?

Well written, the book is more than just historical fiction. It is part love story and part suspense novel as well. The story moves along at a good pace and ends with Martha's note to her daughter Sarah, the title character in the Heretic's Daughter. Old world corruption meets new world ideals in this novel. Readers should realize that you do not have to read the books in chronological order, both stories stand alone just fine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom, the long-awaited book by Jonathan Franzen, has met great critical acclaim. It is, at once, a portrait of an unhappy and dysfunctional family, as well as a commentary of our times.

Patty and Walter Berglund married young, moved into an (as-yet) "unyuppyish" neighborhood in St. Paul, and proceeded to have a family. Patty was an all-star athlete, whose career was benched by a knee injury. Her family, upper-class and artistic, was critical of her athletic interests. Her mother never attended any of her basketball games, and was emotionally remote and disapproving. Patty, in turn, becomes a competitive and needy parent and mother, showering her son, Joey, with the love she does not feel for her husband. Meanwhile, Jessica, her bright and responsible daughter, is ignored.

By contrast, Walter is the son of an alcoholic father and a frail, dependent mother. All the dreams of the mother are centered on her bright son. Walter, a nice guy who initially works for an environmental organization, is full of repressed anger. In college, he becomes a close friend and competitor to the musically gifted, rebellious, and misogynistic Richard. Richard feels like a brother to the straight-laced Walter. He even refuses a relationship with Patty to protect his friend from hurt.

Physically attracted to Richard, Patty marries Walter only because it is practical. By contrast, Walter is very much in love with her. Bring forth two children, the boy completely spoiled and the girl overlooked, give the marriage 15 years, and the stage is set for unhappiness, adultery, and strife.

Freedom is a difficult book to read. References to Tolstoy's War and Peace are made repeatedly. As Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times writes: "...there is some sort of parallel between the Walter-Richard-Patty triangle and the Pierre-Andrei-Natasha triangle in Tolstoy's great classic...(Franzen) does an agile job of tracing the constantly evolving relationships among his three main characters, as well (as) the dynamics between Walter and Patty, and their two children, Joey and Jessica." (August 15, 2010)

Jonathan Franzen tackles equally huge themes in this book. The unrest in this family reflects the lack of values in contemporary society. "Mr. Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary urges." (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times Book Review, August 15, 2010)

Freedom is a difficult book. The characters are unlikable, and it is difficult to sympathize with them. This was Franzen's intention. Thus the reader remains an observer, seeing the characters as a reflection of the society around them.

Jonathan Franzen has been compared to David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and other post-modernists. He has also been praised by Oprah and recently been on the cover of Time (August 12, 2010). Freedom has been extolled by some critics as one of the great American novels. If for no more than the above claims, this book should be on your reading list. Love it or hate it, it is a great book club book, and promises a lively discussion.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Elizabeth's Women

I love Elizabeth I. She was a woman who ruled one of the largest kingdoms on earth during her day. And she did it alone. No husband, no prince consort. What she did have was a contingent of women who surrounded her: some as maids, some as confidantes, some who wanted her dead. Some of them were with her from almost birth. Others were women who were with her mother.

Most biographies of Elizabeth concentrate on the political aspects of her life and reign. How can they not? Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth grew up under circumstances that should have led to her death not her ascension to the throne of England. Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman takes a different approach to the life of Elizabeth by concentrating on her personal relationships with women.

The book is not a stuffy history. In fact it reads like fiction. The chapters are divided into groups of women starting with her mother, Anne Boleyn. There are some overlaps between the chapters but then several women remained with her throughout her life and moved between groups as Elizabeth's life progressed. What is interesting about the story line is that there is almost no political discussion about her reign at all. And I thought that was the best part of the book.

This is a well written, information biography about a fascinating historical figure and those who help shaped who she became. I highly recommend this book.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand

George Armstrong Custer is one of those Americans whose name has become legend, and as a big fan of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower I was eager to see the author take on Custer's myth in The Last Stand.  The Last Stand tells the story of Custer, Sitting Bull and Little Bighorn, and I found it to be a refreshing take on what would prove to be the last great battle of the American frontier.

Custer's behavior on the battlefield could be rash and impulsive and he had been court-martialed in the past, but thanks to what he called "Custer Luck" he had won some impressive victories and gained a reputation as a premier Indian fighter.  Despite this reputation, on a previous campaign he had chosen to negotiate with Indians rather than fight.  Sitting Bull also had no real desire to fight, instead preferring for his people to be left alone.  But on a campaign to gain access for gold miners to the Black Hills, Custer was given a blank check on how to approach any Indians that he came across, and he chose the bloody path.

The massacre of Custer's troops was by no means inevitable.  The "last stand" term that is often used to describe this event feels inappropriate, in that it was actually a botched offensive maneuver.  So what happened at Little Bighorn that caused Custer's troops to be massacred, with only one four-legged survivor hobbling out? There were more Indians that they had expected, due to a confluence of events.  Soldiers were unprepared for this type of battle, and many of them could barely control a horse.  Custer divided the troops when a single massive attack may have been more appropriate.  Commanders performed poorly due to panic and drunkenness.

Since there were no white survivors much of the actual Battle of the Little Bighorn is conjectured or taken from later oral histories from Native American survivors.  Much time is spent on the near-massacre that happened when Custer divided his troops and sent in another unit to attack the Indian camp from the South.  In this case, the Indians were taken by surprise, but due to fear and inexperience the troops were unable to act upon this advantage.  The panic and desperation that Philbrick captures is impressive, as nearly half of this regiment was wiped out.

While this book may not have had the expansive feel of Mayflower, one of the things that both books do really well is explore politics between Indian tribes and between the Indian and non-Indian.  Another interesting subtext in the book has to do with Custer's relationship with fellow officers.  While generally loved by his men, past conflicts meant that many of the officers felt distrust and jealousy towards Custer, who admittedly felt the same way towards them. Philbrick speculates on how the interrelationship between these men might have affected their conduct on the battlefield.  The book feels big but reads brisk, and with over 100 pages of appendices and endnotes you know that Philbrick has done his research!

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, by Nicholas Drayson

Set in modern-day Kenya, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a sweet novel, comparable to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Mr. Malik, an avid birder, has been in love with a Scottish widow, Rose Mbikwa, for many years. He attends her Tuesday morning bird walks faithfully. But he does not have the courage to ask her out on a date. Finally, he decides to ask her to his country club's ball. Unfortunately, his childhood nemesis, Harry Khan, moves back. He, too, falls for Mrs. Mbikwa.

The competition to take Rose Mbikwa to the Hunt Club Ball takes the form of a bird identification contest around Kenya. Here, the reader is treated to wonderful descriptions of the surrounding wildlife. Myriad adventures ensue.

The writing in A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a bit choppy. Still, its characters are endearing and the descriptions of small town life are quaint. If you enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, as well as Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (Helen Simonson), you will find this book a quick and entertaining read.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Set in Japan in the late 1700's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet follows the life, trials and troubles of Jacob DeZoet, a Dutch clerk. DeZoet travels to Japan as a financial clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company at the request of his fiance's father. What DeZoet believes to be a five year commitment that will provide him with financial security in actuality becomes a much longer stay.

The story line tells of DeZoet's problems with disaffected workers, thieving supervisors and a Japanese culture as far different from his Dutch upbringing as could possibly be.

Well written, the story meanders through DeZoet's trials with the company and his forbidden love for a Japanese woman. What I couldn't understand was the middle third of the book. DeZoet falls in love with a Japanese woman, a mid-wife, who is studying with the Dutch colony's doctor. Before he can take any action on his feelings she is sent to a nunnery attached to a local lord's monastery as payment for her father's debts. The nuns are all physically disfigured in some way.

At this point the book veers off into the secret world of the monastery. The nuns are there to serve the monks who "engift" them with children. The infants are removed from the mothers and apparently adopted out to families with whom the children will have a better life. When an initiate at the monastery runs away with a copy of the 13 rules for the monks, everything changes for DeZoet. Jacob winds up with a copy of the scroll and the reality of what the monks are doing becomes readily apparent. At this point, the story line veers again.

A disgraced former Dutch worker appears with a British frigate in an attempt to takeover the Dutch trading post and humiliate DeZoet. British war with Japan seems likely, but no. After firing on the Dutch settlement and the surrounding Japanese area the British ship suddenly leaves.

The last 30 pages of the book rush through approximately the last 15 years of DeZoet's life. While all the story lines are tied off, some more completely than others, I couldn't help feeling that I missed something in the book. Some parts of the book are beautifully written. You can see the mists rising on the mountains or feel the heat of the ship's hold. But the story line lurched at the end.

That said the book is worth the read. It lays out European-Japanese trade at the time and is a good study of of traditional Japanese customs and practices.

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