Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander, places him, once again, among the finest Jewish-American writers of our time. Like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Epstein, he captures the essence of living as a secular Jew under the shadow of the Holocaust. And he does so using allegory, magic realism in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the comic elements found in the films of Woody Allen.

The title story is a case in point. In it, two couples--one of whom is Hasidic--play "the Righteous Gentile Game." The object of the game is to analyze personal relationships and guess which people would save us should another Shoah occur.

To better understand the rationale for this story, it is helpful to refer to an NPR interview with Englander. In it, the author indicates that his orthodox, fifth-generation American family actually played this game. So poisonous was such a mind game that he reflects on it even today.

"We really were raised with the idea of a looming second Holocaust, and we would play this game wondering who would hide us," he says. "I remember my sister saying about a couple we knew, 'He would hide us, and she would turn us in.' And it struck me so deeply, and I just couldn't shake that thought for all these years, because it's true." (NPR, Fresh Air, February 15, 2012)

Not surprisingly, Nathan Englander tackles moral issues in each of the eight stories that comprise this collection. But a theme that repeats over and over is that ethical choices are not always clear-cut--that extreme situations damage people and render them inhumane. Two very powerful stories that explore this are "Camp Sundown" and "Free Fruit for Young Widows."

In "Camp Sundown," evil is unleashed when a group of seniors at a summer camp suspects a Nazi is hiding in their midst. Similarly, in "Free Fruit for Young Widows," a concentration camp survivor (Private Tendler) begins a new life in Israel, only to kill four Egyptians in cold blood. This is a haunting story, told in pieces by an Israeli father to his son. Although it deals with the 1956 Sinai Campaign (England, France and Israel vs. Egypt to regain free access of the Suez Canal), the issues are universal.

Englander speaks through the voice of the narrator--Shimmy,the father--to shed light on Tendler's seemingly heartless actions. This was not the first time Tendler seemed to be without a moral compass; during the same war, he had become enraged and beaten Shimmy senseless. Shimmy explains to his son the reasons for his unwavering forgiveness of his friend.

It is hard to know what a person would and wouldn't do in any specific instance. And you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite. Maybe the fault for those deaths lies in a system designed for the killing of Tendlers that failed to do its job. An error, a slip that allowed a Tendler, no longer fit, back loose in the world. pp. 205-206

"Free Fruit for Widows" is the concluding story in Nathan Englander's book. The issues it deals with--familial love, kindness, empathy-- are poignantly contrasted with the horrors of war and their impact on individuals. It raises very pertinent questions that go far beyond the echoes of the Holocaust.

This is a stunning short story collection that successfully grapples with issues of morality and free will. Some stories will have the reader laughing aloud; others will bring tears. The writing is beautiful and sincere. Most important, the book asks philosophical questions that give pause, and ultimately, remain unanswered.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

The Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye is an interesting story set in an interesting time. Set in New York in the mid 1840's when the Irish potato famine resulted in a massive influx of Irish immigrants that coincided with a horrific fire in New York City. Timothy Wilde is an Irish bartender who is in love with Mercy Underhill, a local Protestant minister's daughter. Mercy spends her days caring for the poor and sick Irish children of the city. Timothy and his brother Val were orphaned when their parents were killed in a fire. Val raised Timothy with help from the Reverend Underhill.

Timothy has been in love with Mercy for years but he loves her from a distance. He is about ready to tell her of his love when the devastating fire of 1845 intervenes. Timothy is severely injured, but survives with scarring from burns to his face. Val, a local firefighter rescued Timothy from under a pile of burning debris. Timothy hasn't seen Mercy since the fire.

Val is older then Timothy, physically larger, apparently smarter and definitely more politically savvy. He is on the move up the New York Irish political ladder. Val secures a job for the now homeless and penniless Timothy in the newly developed police force called the "Copper Stars." Tim is assigned to the worst section of the city - the filthy and crime ridden 6th ward. He dutifully walks his beat everyday from 4 am until 8 pm. Val meanwhile has been appointed a captain on the same force.

One night on his beat Timothy literally runs into a little girl in a blood soaked nightgown. She is mumbling about someone who is going to be torn to pieces, not making any sense. Timothy should take her to the police station but takes her home to his landlady instead. Birdy is 10 years old and experienced in worldly way a no ten year should be. Birdy is a member of a whore house and sold out to men every night. She tells Timothy many lies about what happened to her. Then the body of a male child is found and it does look as if he was torn to pieces. Timothy looks to Mercy to help identify the dead child and to Birdy for an explanation of what happened.

The book is set in an interesting time and Faye makes the most of it. The story line moves rapidly. From the politics of the Irish, to the formation of the unwanted and hated Copper Stars, to the mystery of just who is murdering these young children. Timothy's character speaks in the vernacular for the most part. It would be distracting but for 2 things: 1. the lexicon in the front of the book provides translations and (2) it is just his character. The story is based on the notion of child prostitutes, an unfortunate fact of life. The children's characters are made of stern stuff however and Timothy and Mercy are there for them.

It took me a bit to get into the flow of this book. But the story is captivating. The situation of the children, the religious clashes in New York City, the crime ridden portions of Manhattan and the political issues of the time made for a great read.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, by Deborah Moggach, is a delightful book, perfect for summer reading.  At the start of the novel, we are introduced to Norman Purse, a 70-something rogue who has been thrown out of his retirement home for "inappropriate sexual behavior."  This is not the first incident of its kind.  Once again, Norman comes to live with his daughter, Pauline, and son-in-law, Dr. Ravi Kapoor.

Norman is quite a character.  He tells lewd jokes, talks about bodily functions, smokes in Ravi's home office, downloads pornographic sites to his computer, and lacks all sense of privacy.  Ravi, who comes home exhausted as an emergency room physician, feels he has no place to rest.  Ravi is pushed to a breaking point when a patient, the elderly Muriel Donnelly, is left untreated in the emergency room for 2 days after being robbed.  The media learn of this and make Ravi's hospital and the NHS a lead story.  The truth, however, is that Muriel would not allow "a darkie" to touch her.

After Norman carelessly leaves his soiled handkerchiefs boiling in Ravi's favorite curry pot, nearly burning down the house, Ravi is determined to take action.  In a providential meeting with his cousin, Sonny, a plan is hatched.  Sonny proposes they purchase a rundown hotel in Bangalore (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) that dates back to 1865.

Moggach gives loving detail to the hotel, allowing it to become yet another character in the novel. The Marigold was originally a large bungalow built by boxwallah Henry Fowler.  After India's independence and the departure of the British, it was turned into a guest house.  In the 1960s, an annex, some air conditioning, and "temperamental plumbing" were added.  As Bangalore became a high-tech oasis, neighboring bungalows were demolished and new hotels and office buildings sprang up.  The Marigold began to languish from neglect and financial difficulties.  Its owner, Minoo, kept it for sentimental reasons.

Once Sonny is able to convince Minoo to sell The Marigold and hire him as its manager, he and Ravi set out to get residents.  Norman is convinced into coming by the allure of Indian women.  Others, including Muriel, are forced by frailty and dwindling pensions to leave the homes of their birth and venture forward.

Moggach has written a fast-paced comedy with engaging and sympathetic characters.  She highlights the indignities of growing old in a society where nuclear families do not exist.  She delves into the complexities of marriage and children, filial duty vs. self-realization.  And she does so in a zany romp through the streets of Bangalore, giving the reader a good look at the squalor amidst the glamorous hotels and new service industries.

This book is now a major motion picture starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Dev Patel.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Taft 2012

Historical fiction? Political fiction? Time travel? However you categorize this short book about the return of William Howard Taft to politics, it is timely.

Former, and perhaps future, President William Howard Taft emerges from beneath the White House lawn in the fall of 2011, nearly 100 years after he has disappeared following the end of his term as president and the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. "You've been missing and presumed dead - one of America's great mysteries - for a very long time," the current president tells him.

Taft has a great deal to catch up on. "'What manner of witch is this Hostess?' he mumbled, putting down the plastic wrapper and peering at the creamy end of one of the half-eaten pastries." Taft has not lost his appetite for food. Neither has he lost his desire to serve the country he loves. He was "so honest a politician, he ended up infuriating every single interest group that had ever supported him." according to his biographer and one of his greatest fans, Susan Weschler.

After a brief re-orientation to the country he left 100 years ago, including a short road trip, Taft is drafted to run for president in 2012 by a new political movement, the Taft Party. His great- granddaughter Congresswoman Rachel Taft is to be on the ticket as vice president.

The reader meets such interesting characters as talk show hostess of Raw Talk, Pauline Craig, secret service agent and loyal friend to Taft, Ira Kowalczyk, and Irene O'Malley Kaye, 105 years old, the only person alive from Taft's lifetime, a fan who, at the age of 6, wrote Taft a letter which he treasured. The reader also meets Augustus Fulsom, the very rich owner of Fulsom Foods. As Taft's great-great- granddaughter Abby explains about the Fulsom TurkEase that makes the entire family sick at Thanksgiving, "They showed us a video in school.They make this stuff with smushed turkey. The bones and everything.. They make pink toothpaste out of turkey and then color it with turkey color." Congresswoman Rachel Taft is a leading advocate in Congress for laws to safeguard and protect the food supply of the American people, a cause William Howard Taft had supported along with his former mentor, President Theodore Roosevelt, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Will William Howard Taft be president again? Will he ever be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, serving the country in the way he would most prefer and for which he feels most qualified. Read Taft 2012 by Jason Heller to find out. You can also follow his presidential campaign on Facebook, if you wish: https://www.facebook.com/Taft2012

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gideon's Corpse

After finishing his job for the mysterious Glinn, Gideon Crew hoped that he'd never see the man again and that he could spend his few remaining months fishing at his cabin. His hopes and wishes were not to be. Before releasing him, Glinn had one more request - please go visit Reid Chalker, a man Gideon used to work with at Los Alamos. Gideon has a PhD in physics. When Gideon worked with him, Chalker was a mild mannered scientist who had converted to Islam. Now he was holding 4 people hostage and claiming that someone had exposed his brain to harmful waves. As if this isn't enough for Gideon, he has to cooperate with the FBI in dealing with Chalker. With less than a year to live, Gideon would rather go fishing.

Stone Fordyce is the epitome of an FBI man, ramrod straight, suit and tie and no sense of humor. He is not happy to work with Gideon and feels that Gideon is holding back the truth about Chalker. Chalker converted to Islam after some hard times. He has apparently had a psychotic break which is a bad thing for someone who knows how to build nuclear weapons from scratch. Chalker is raving about conspiracy theories and threatening to shoot the hostages. Gideon is not dealing with the situation very well as his father was killed in a standoff with the FBI. Gideon is afraid the same might happen to Chalker.

Then Chalker just dies. His body registers high doses of radiation - could his ravings be the truth? Gideon thinks Chalker had gamma radiation poisoning which would result in all the symptoms Chalker was displaying. But where and when would he ahve been exposed to the radiation? An even more bizarre discovery is found on Chalker's laptop - ties to a radical Islamic group. Is there a dirty bomb on the way to Washington, D.C? Is the cult in the southwestern US in on the threat?

The plot in this book just moves right along - terrorists, conspiracies, double crosses and double agents all abound. Preston and Child write thrillers and Gideon Crew is a new character for them. Not the typical lone wolf, ex-special forces guy, this is a PhD wielding physicist who has other skills that are worth paying a lot of money to get access to. Yes, Gideon comes with some skeletons in his closet, but they give him the reasons and skills to fight another day. This is a fast paced thriller with an interesting main character.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Following Atticus

Following Atticus (2011) is the story of the author's feat of hiking New Hampshire's forty eight four-thousand foot peaks in winter with his 20 pound schnauzer. What makes this book unique among its genre is that it is so much more than a tale of a man and his dog.

We first meet Tom Ryan as editor of his newspaper, The Undertoad. The paper's purpose was to expose political corruption in the small city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where Ryan lived. As he writes:

Depending on where you stood in town, whom you were related to or friends with, I was either a muckraker or a reformer. I took on the good old boys, refused to worship the long-existing sacred cows that the Daily News protected, and was helped in part because I didn't know the first thing about journalism...
(p. 8)

As the town's conscience, Tom made very close friends and equally dear enemies. He received death threats and had his tires slashed so often that the local garage kept a new set ready for him. He went to bed late and got up early. In essence, he lived a stressful and solitary life.

As fate would have it, Tom's busy life was interrupted by the "seemingly harmless" email from a member of the city's Zoning Board of Appeals. It was a request to find a home for an older schnauzer named Max. Without thinking it through, Tom said he would take the dog. The few pages devoted to Max are funny and heartwarming.

Max's stay with Tom was brief--he died a year and a half later. But his impact on the tough-as-nails editor was long-lasting. He soon set about getting another schnauzer--Atticus Maxwell Finch.

The author's descriptions of raising a puppy are humorous and touching. It soon becomes apparent that he hopes to give Atticus what he himself did not receive as a child--love, encouragement, and the chance to achieve his full potential, whatever that might be. In describing his early relationship with Atticus, Ryan reveals the conflicted relationship he has with his own father. He was the youngest of nine children, and had lost his mother when he was only seven. His father is a harsh and punishing man who never recovered from losing his wife. The only positive memories he had of family life were the camping trips they used to take each summer. Now, he rarely spoke to his father (other than in "Letter Home" which appeared in every issue of the paper). He had little to do with his many brothers and sisters, as none of them could bear to be together more than a few hours. There were too many bad memories for all of them.

Yet in trying to give Atticus a better life, Tom creates one for himself. For the first time in seven years, he takes a vacation from his paper and retreats briefly to an old farmhouse in Vermont. Here he and Atticus enjoy the calming effects of the being outdoors. He returns there over the next two years. The restorative qualities of his surroundings elicit changes in the reclusive author. Soon he reunites with some of his brothers, and they decide to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These mountains are important to the brothers: they were the site of their family camping trips. These trips were the only times they remember their father at peace and consequently, the only time they were happy as a family.

Thereafter, Tom and Atticus return on their own, hiking up the beautiful peaks as Tom recalls happier memories of his childhood. Within a couple of years, Tom resolves to hike the White Mountains during winter, hiking for various causes. Often hiking at night, he faces his darkest thoughts and feelings. Although his longing for a happy childhood follows him, he no longer is obsessed with the world's seamier side. Instead, he sees it beauty. Each mountain was ...an emotional experience, he reflects. There were nights in the middle of that summer when I had mythic dreams about (my father) joining Atticus and me on a hike. But it wasn't the father I knew, the one who was jaded and worn down by life. Instead he was my age and we shared the forest together." (p. 63)

Tom Ryan's evocative prose truly captures the grandeur of the mountains and the fierceness of the elements. The book cites such writers as Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, Tennyson, Wordsworth, and C.S. Lewis and weaves their writings into his adventure. Ryan's story resonates with the quest motif--that of a hero who leaves his home in search of a treasure. As he discovers, making peace with the past is worth much more than gold.

Follow the further adventures of Tom and Atticus on their blog,

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Half-Blood Blues and The Last Nude

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, is a complicated, fascinating story about a group of Jazz men struggling to perform and record in Berlin and Paris just as the second World War breaks out.  "The Hot Time Swingers" have been forbidden to play live in Berlin in 1939, as jazz and blues have been deemed subversive by the government.

A contemporary story line, set in 1992 sets up the suspense.  The group's talented trumpeter, Heironomous Thomas Falk, who Louis Armstrong called "Little Louis" is being honored at an international festival to which other members of The Hot Time Swingers have been invited.  The honoree, Falk is presumed to be dead.

The author returns back to 1939, where we meet Delilah, a mysterious young woman with connections to Louis Armstrong who helps The Swingers escape to Paris in hopes of playing with the great Armstrong.  After meeting the music legend, the goup's bassist, Sid, is unwillingly replaced, and the group struggles to record with Louis amid blackouts, violence, and his failing health.

It took a little while for me to get into the book, as the author uses a great deal of slang.  Each group member speaks different languages, which is reflected in their dialogue.  I'm really glad that I stuck with it though, as character and story lines are very well done, and set against an interesting time in history.

The book was a finalist for The Man Booker Prize in 2011.

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The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery, is a captivating blend of literary historic fiction and romance. I was sorry when this book was over.

The setting is 1920's Paris, the jazz age, a time of art and artists, revolution and love. Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka meets Rafaela Fano, a 17 year old Jewish girl who has escaped her overly strict New York family and made her way to Paris. Rafaela would become the model for six of Lempicka's most famous paintings; notably "Beautiful Rafaela", called one of the 20th century's most famous paintings.

The story, seen through Rafaela's eyes (except for the last chapter) moves quickly as Tamara and Rafaela evolve from artist and model to lovers.  Other historical figures appear in the story, lending a historic resonance to the book. Politics, love, drama, intrigue, art and music, this book has it all. 

I would recommend this to lovers of historic fiction and art.  Set in the same era as The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer and the very popular The Paris Wife, fans of those books and those who enjoy literary fiction should enjoy The Last Nude.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Death in the City of Light

H.H. Holmes has nothing on Dr. Marcel Petiot. Petoit was a doctor in Nazi occupied Paris. Depending on who you asked, he either was a Nazi sympathizer or an extraordinary do gooder of the French Resistance. Petiot had a chaotic life as a child. His mother died when he was young and he and his brother were raised by their aunt. He enlisted in the Army during World Way I, served in some battles and when he was discharged he was declared mentally ill. Despite serving time in mental institutions, he still completed the schooling to receive a medical degree. He was a licensed doctor, married with no children.

Petiot's abattoir was discovered when neighbors complained about a horrible smell and strange smoke that was pouring from the chimney of his house. Petiot owned several properties around Paris, this one was close to a somewhat unsavory area. Police arrived, tried to find a key and finally broke in finding the source of both the smell and the smoke - a dismembered body in the furnace. The police missed the fact that the non-descript man on the bicycle who stopped to ask questions was actually Petiot.

Petiot's reputation was one of benevolence. He provided free medical care to patients who could not afford to pay for treatment and he instituted a protocol for weening drug addicts. He was also rumored to be "Dr. Eugene" a man who helped people escape Paris. He was also ultimately charged with 27 murders.

The story line jumps around - from the work of Massu, the chief investigator, to the narration of Petiot's past to the general political climate of Paris at the time. Paris was under Nazi occupation at the time. People suddenly disappearing, while not common, was not unheard of. With the Germans taking prisoners and people fleeing to unoccupied countries, a person could be missing for quite awhile before anyone would become concerned. Some of the victims were attempting to flee Paris. They had paid money to Dr. Eugene who would arrange transport out of Paris to an unoccupied country, most often in South America. These people were never directly heard from again. Some relatives received postcards purportedly from the missing people but it couldn't be verified they actually were from the missing person. What could be verified were the personal items discovered in trunks and suitcases in Petoit's attic and the attic of his brother. And these did belong to the missing people. Petiot had a large amount of cash and his wife had fine jewelry in a time when most people had neither.

The Gestapo suspected that Petiot was Dr. Eugene and involved with the escapes. At one point they actually arrested him, tortured him and interrogated him but then released him without explanation. It was for this reason some people thought he might be working for the Nazi's.

The book is packed with information on some of the characters Petiot dealt with - Nazi sympathizers, French resistance workers, French mobsters, black marketeers. The French mobsters are given placement in the book, even though they were on the periphery of Petiot's life. Almost like asides, they add color to the story line, each person adding another layer to Petiot's mystery. The book has volumes of information on occupied Paris, a subject of which I knew nothing. But it added nothing to the story about Petiot.

If you are looking for a book like Larson's Devil in the White City, this is probably not your book. But, if you are looking for an interesting story set in an equally interesting time period, you've found it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


In her most recent novel, How It All Began, Penelope Lively highlighted the life of retired teacher Charlotte Rainsforth--an endearing character creatively coping with both retirement and a broken hip. In Spiderweb, published in 1998, we are introduced to another strong woman--this time, a retired anthropologist.

Stella Brentwood, now 65, reluctantly gives up her career to retire in a West Country village. There, she buys a cottage sight unseen, adopts a dog, and attempts domesticity for the first time in her life. Like foreign correspondent Claudia Hampton of the Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger, Stella has had an unusual career at a time when women had little place in the work world. The two women are similar in that they prefer the excitement of new places and new lovers to the comforts afforded by marriage. But comparisons end here. Claudia is a cold woman who never shows her daughter any sort of love. Stella is kind and empathetic; she is merely an adventurer who prefers to study linage and kinship as an observer rather than as a participant. In fact, she sets about her new life in this sleepy hamlet as a kind of social experiment.

She was sixty-five, apparently. This totemic number had landed her here. Having spent much time noting and interpreting complex rites of passage in alien societies, she now found herself subject to one of the implacable rules of her own: stop working, get old.

She had plans. There were articles that she intended to write for the journals of her trade. She would keep her hand in professionally. But she would branch out, also...

And I will get a dog...A dog is appropriate, in a place like this, it would serve as a credential. I live here now--this is the end of the line, the last stop.
(p. 15)

But is it? The novel goes back and forth, from past to present, unveiling Stella's former life while depicting her present one. We see Stella as a caring observer as she visits primitive cultures and carefully records their relationships. We also see how people from her former life have now returned and are part of the landscape. Have they changed, or is Stella less skilled at observing life that comes too close to her?

Into this sleepy hollow, Lively has placed a wolf. It comes in the guise of a dysfunctional family. The reader comes to know them, not from Stella's voice, but from the ominous thoughts of the adolescent sons. They provide narrative tension that builds as the novel comes to its surprising conclusion.

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