Another thief book set during World War II, this was a terrific counterpoint to City of Thieves. The protagonist is another teenaged thief, but she is...moreAnother thief book set during World War II, this was a terrific counterpoint to City of Thieves. The protagonist is another teenaged thief, but she is German, she’s a younger, more accomplished thief, and she is a girl. This is a children’s book narrated by Death. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Death has a catchy narration style! The Book Thief is in a class of transcendent books that excel at every level. It’s a wonderfully engaging children’s book, an historically significant view of the war as experienced by German civilians, and a superbly worded treatment on the power of words and books. Zusak’s Death comes across like a member of Fall Out Boy: “I am an arms dealer/Fitting you with weapons in the form of words.” He doesn’t care which side wins, it’s just the business he’s in. This story empties your heart, fills it up again, then smashes it flat as a bombed building. Like the souls carried away by Death, young readers are in good hands with Zusak.(less)
I need to see Tennessee. Not as much as I need to visit Virginia, but Memphis is definitely a destination. The Tennessee Titans (my favorite NFL team)...moreI need to see Tennessee. Not as much as I need to visit Virginia, but Memphis is definitely a destination. The Tennessee Titans (my favorite NFL team) play in Nashville, so I would want to get over to the Music City as well (preferably in the fall), but there is something going on in Memphis. At least that’s the impression I get from reading The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern, who is from Memphis and now teaches in upstate New York. A (very) good amount of the back story takes place in New York City as well as the traditional Jewish settlements in the Russian Pale and Eretz Israel, but the real action is in modern Memphis.
That’s where fifteen year old Bernie Karp discovers his family’s peculiar secret in the basement freezer. The Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr was in a state of transcendent meditation when his body was submerged and frozen by a freak storm. The only heirloom of the Karp family to survive the upheaval from Poland to America, the former Boibiczer Prodigy emerges from his suspended trance in new surroundings that are equal parts Gan Eydn and Gehenna. The tzaddik’s passage through time is remarkable, although the frozen rabbi serves primarily as a device for propagating the mystical transformations of a long line of Karps, including Bernie.
References to prominent Jewish texts and Yiddish terms abound, but Stern wields them with such fluency that they never become recondite. For a multiple award winning author (National Jewish Book Award) with multiple books published (The Angel of Forgetfulness), Stern is underappreciated (The Frozen Rabbi ought to have been an Indie Next pick for May). His writing has been compared to Michael Chabon’s, and it’s an apt comparison. There are elements reminiscent not only of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as promised, but of Gentlemen of the Road as well. Phoebe Gaston, a book rep and friend who knows I have a weak spot for Chabon and writing that won’t tolerate a weak constitution, made that very comparison when she pitched The Frozen Rabbi to me. She knows her books and her audience! This is not a book for the faint of heart; credit Steve Stern for writing the book he wanted to write, and credit Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill for publishing it.
In June I will be in North Carolina, home of Algonquin. To be in such close proximity to both Tennessee and Virginia without the time to go to either state will be excruciating. If only I could learn to send my soul aloft, as Bernie and the Rabbi do, I could cover more states, mental and physical!(less)
Isaac Bashevis Singer had so many identities it is difficult to contain all of them in a single biography. A Pole who emigrated to America, he is all...moreIsaac Bashevis Singer had so many identities it is difficult to contain all of them in a single biography. A Pole who emigrated to America, he is all but dismissed in his homeland. Descended from seven generations of rabbis, he embraced a secular lifestyle. A champion of the Yiddish language, he was rejected by the traditional Yiddish community. Singer wrote his stories in Yiddish then rewrote them in English, creating two distinct works rather than a set of translations. It would seem appropriate to write his biography in two volumes in order to capture the duality of his nature. This book is a single volume, and a slender one at that, but there is a disjointed feeling to it. That may be attributed to Noiville or Catherine Temerson, who translated the book from French, or it may be the paradoxical legacy of Singer himself. This is not a concise analysis of Singer's life and writing; readers interested in such critical writing should read Jonathan Rosen's article in the June 7, 2004 issue of The New Yorker instead. This is a book for the reader who is interested in another perspective on an author so unique that no comprehensive interpretation of his life can be written by mortal hands!(less)
This book provides a fine counterpoint to the better-known tragic history of the Jewish population in Europe. In Kurdistan the Jewish population lived...moreThis book provides a fine counterpoint to the better-known tragic history of the Jewish population in Europe. In Kurdistan the Jewish population lived peacefully among Muslims and Christians for thousands of years, but that peace ended abruptly with the division of Palestine and Israel. Yona Sabar had his bar mitzvah and became a man at the same time that he signed away his Iraqi citizenship, an act that was required of the Jews who uprooted their families and moved to Israel. The Sabar family was treated better by their Muslim neighbors in Zakho than they were by their new Jewish neighbors in Jerusalem, however. Kurdish Jews landed at the bottom of the heirarchy in Jerusalem, and Yona’s father and grandfather struggled to adapt to their new surroundings. Yona worked during the day and attended high school at night, eventually earning entrance to Hebrew University. His knowledge of Aramaic garnered the attention of his professors and allowed him to attend Yale University on a scholarship. The study of Aramaic, hitherto only a spoken language, was such a new field that Yona was subsequently hired as a professor in a new department at UCLA. A clash of cultures was inevitable between Yona, the last Jew to have his bar mitzvah in Zakho, and his son Ariel, a product of 1980’s Los Angeles. This book is part of the attempt at reconciliation that it chronicles, a meshing of personal and political histories written with the deft skill of a professional journalist. It is a compelling work that brings to the forefront an overshadowed dimension of history and current events.(less)
It was interesting to read this immediately following Telegraph Avenue. Both deal with men struggling to come to grips with marriage, pregnancy, and f...moreIt was interesting to read this immediately following Telegraph Avenue. Both deal with men struggling to come to grips with marriage, pregnancy, and foundering careers. Each one contains Mormon references, which makes me wonder if Chabon is curious about Mormons or if he view Mormons as a curiosity? Likely the latter, considering the quirks of the other characters. There is one substantial difference in the two books, and that is the author's stylistic syntax. He hadn't developed it when he wrote Wonder Boys, which made it a quick weekend read. When I set down Telegraph Avenue it was with a pang; with Wonder Boys it was a chuckle.(less)
The latest book from the desk of Nicole Krauss entitled Great House goes on sale today. It’s about an enormous desk more so than a great house (the ti...moreThe latest book from the desk of Nicole Krauss entitled Great House goes on sale today. It’s about an enormous desk more so than a great house (the title is explained late in the book), but Enormous Desk doesn’t captivate a reader’s attention in the same manner the desk captivates its owners. The desk, unlike the book, never goes on sale, but changes hands freely. Its worth is so great that it can only be given from one writer to another.
Krauss chronicles the lives of a few of the writers who have received and relinquished the desk, possessed by it as much as it was in their possession. Although their lives intersect at the point of exchange, each one is compartmentalized in long chapters as if stored in one of the desk’s numerous oddly sized drawers.
In reading The History of Love I was astonished by her ability to evoke the voice of an elderly male Polish immigrant. In Great House Krauss inhabits a full cast of characters, male and female, of various ages and nationalities. Each account is told in the first person with a unique voice. Only one is told by one of the writers; the rest are told by someone close to them.
As Leon Uris wrote, “Writing is unfair. It takes from everyone – the writer, the wife, the children. Everyone’s blood ends up in the pages.” Or on the desk, which becomes a sacrificial altar. Its hulking presence is symbolic of the disaffected relationships of the writers who practice their craft upon it.(less)
I was a fan of the tv show Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane was a psychiatrist and the type of refined aesthete who would discuss his blend of bath salts on...moreI was a fan of the tv show Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane was a psychiatrist and the type of refined aesthete who would discuss his blend of bath salts on his radio show with the quip “Love does enter through the nose.” This naturally leads to his being lampooned by other radio hosts, but as it turns out he was not the first psychiatric proponent of such a theory.
Dr. Wilhelm Fliess, a German otolaryngologist, devised a theory of reflex nasal neuroses, which drew a direct link between the nose and the genitals. His friend and confidant Dr. Sigmund Freud espoused this radical thinking. Freud recommended that his patient Emma Eckstein undergo a procedure that Fliess concocted with disastrous results for the young woman’s face.
Peering through the curtains at the side of this historical stage is Dr. Jakov Sammelsohn, an oculist and errant Jew who chases Fraulein Eckstein into Freud’s orbit. Sammelsohn entreats Freud to introduce him to the hysterical young woman, and Freud only relents in the interest of analysis. Eckstein’s condition has manifested an interest in Sammelsohn, and Freud employs him to draw it out. Is it Eckstein’s condition, or can it be Ita, Sammelson’s spurned wife, returning as a dybbuk to possess Eckstein’s body? Was it the dybbuk’s departure or the doctor’s delusion that dealt the damage? Old World disbeliefs vie with “modern medicine” in this new interpretation of a famous case by Joseph Skibell.
Sammelsohn’s second encounter with a great thinker is also female-driven. He doesn’t take to his fellow oculist Dr. Zamenhof’s linguistic aspirations until he meets Loë Bernfeld, an ardent supporter of the universal language Esperanto. A language intended to cross all cultural barriers becomes the language of their courtship, proving that it can change the heart of one man if not all mankind. Esperanto’s embrace is directly related to Loë’s embrace of Yakov, as its rejection.
Later in life he travels to Warsaw with the ill-conceived notion of taking one of Zamenhof’s daughters as his wife. History moves about him once more and he is enclosed within the Warsaw ghetto. This third section held the most appeal for me – Mila 18 by Leon Uris is a sentimental favorite – although it was the least satisfying. It’s not without its otherworldly charm, but it has the feel of a tacked-on dénouement rather than a full third of the book. That was my impression from reading the advance reader’s copy (furnished by the fabulous Phoebe Gaston) at any rate; the finished product is likely another first-rate publication from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.(less)
Riveting? Yes, and more. Devastating? Yes, and more. Profound.
Reading this book made me question my faith in the nature of book requirements and recom...moreRiveting? Yes, and more. Devastating? Yes, and more. Profound.
Reading this book made me question my faith in the nature of book requirements and recommendations (why hadn't I encountered it before?), but it also reconciled my doubts, as I was led to it precisely when it would have the greatest impact on me. Truly a monumental read, which I will be contemplating for quite some time.(less)
Helene Wecker's debut novel held immense appeal for me. I admired the book's design, with its midnight blue edge painting, and the book's premise, wit...moreHelene Wecker's debut novel held immense appeal for me. I admired the book's design, with its midnight blue edge painting, and the book's premise, with two old world wonders meeting in the new world. I'm enthralled by supernatural thralls such as golems and jinn. I was somewhat disappointed by their Data-like desire to pass as human in this story. The golem is created to look human and react to human desires, and had no presence of mind until her master awakened her. Whereas the jinni is trapped in human form, but had an expansive existence prior to his enslavement. Wecker writes wonderful human characters, like Ice Cream Saleh, and I'd be content to read more about their experiences as immigrants in New York in 1899. Her supernatural creatures, the jinni especially, exhibited more human nature than I anticipated. (less)