The risk inherent in writing about the Holocaust is that today's readers have a hard time believing it. Those of us who did not experience the horrors
The risk inherent in writing about the Holocaust is that today's readers have a hard time believing it. Those of us who did not experience the horrors of living in a Nazi death camp cannot begin to understand what it was like. Battered women and severely abused children living today, trapped in circumstances they cannot escape, may come close.
But most of us have no frame of reference. Nothing in our experience even remotely compares.
This "I can't believe it" mentality was also common among non-Jewish civilians who lived in Germany during the Third Reich--when Adolf Hitler was in power (1933-1945).
Even as "night" descended on Wiesel's little town--Sighet, Transylvania (Hungary)--the Jewish people could not believe what was happening. Moishe the Beadle was "deported" by the Hungarian police, crammed into a cattle car and taken to a forest in Poland to be executed with other Jews. Incredibly, Moishe escaped and returned to Sighet with his story:
"The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. . . ."
Moishe's escape was a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead. In Sighet, he went from house to house, telling his story, but the people refused to listen. Even the young Elie Wiesel did not believe him.
The denial continued. In Jewish families about to be transported to Auschwitz, "the women were boiling eggs, roasting meat, preparing cakes, sewing backpacks."
Wiesel does not challenge us to comprehend the gas chamber deaths of his mother and little sister Tzipora. Instead, he writes what we can grasp: "Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn't know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever."
Wiesel describes with remarkable restraint a vicious beating he receives from a Kapo:
I felt the sweat running down my back.
I stepped forward.
"A crate!" he ordered.
They brought a crate.
"Lie down on it! On your belly!"
I no longer felt anything except the lashes of the whip.
"One!. . . Two!. . ." he was counting.
He took his time between lashes. Only the first really hurt. I heard him count.
"Ten. . .eleven!. . ."
His voice was calm and reached me as through a thick wall.
"Twenty-three. . ."
Two more, I thought, half unconscious.
The Kapo was waiting.
"Twenty-four. . .twenty five!"
It was over. . . .
"Listen to me, you son of a swine!" said Idek coldly. "So much for your curiosity. You shall receive five times more if you dare tell anyone what you saw! Understood?"
I nodded, once, ten times, endlessly. As if my head had decided to say yes for all eternity.
Elie Wiesel's magnificent NIGHT bridges that enormous gulf between "I can't believe it" and the mind-numbing, horrific sinking in of the realization of "Oh, dear God, this really happened." His account is straightforward, almost matter-of-fact, with a minimum of frenzy, inordinate dwelling on flames of infernos, prolonged death throes, or metaphysical discourses about evil.
He does talk about his relationship with God throughout the ordeal. And of course about his father, who was with him in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Why did Wiesel write this book? He tells us:
"There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don't know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. . . .
"In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer--or my life, period--would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory. . . ."
I am grateful for this book and for Marion Wiesel's excellent and sensitive translation of her husband's memoir. Some great literature has come out of the Holocaust. In my opinion, Elie Wiesel's NIGHT is the best book, and certainly one of the most deeply moving among these works.
A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS is composed entirely of letters Elizabeth Steed Garner wrote to her family and friends. Replies to the letters, left to y A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS is composed entirely of letters Elizabeth Steed Garner wrote to her family and friends. Replies to the letters, left to your imagination (I bet you will write, in your mind, every single reply), are not included.
All letters. No dialogue in this book. Still game? I hope you are, because the book is a fantastic read, and I was absolutely riveted to it from beginning to end.
Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's writing is superb, the crafting of characters -- even from the "distance" of seeing them only in the letters Bess Garner writes -- amazing, the attention to minute detail in an epic span (almost the entire life of the protagonist), the creation of Bess herself, and the exciting re-creation of historical events she witnessed, impressive literary achievements. Hence my five stars.
And now I'll part ways with most reviewers and state that never having actually despised any other character in literary fiction, Bess Garner -- whose sweetness, kindheartedness, and impeccable manners sugarcoat the surface of what I see as a nearly demonic nature -- is the most despicable woman I have met in any book, ever.
A rich woman, armed with a bit of formal education, a mind full of money and pop philosophy, and a fountain pen with the destructive power of a freshly sharpened machete, Bess Garner records an entire lifetime devoted almost exclusively to the ironclad control of her loved ones.
A pretty woman, men were attracted to her, and she used them to her advantage. In fact, this arch manipulator used almost everyone she could. Her technique often masqueraded as the use of money for what seemed like touching generosity -- with strings attached, of course. Bess provided for her elderly and ailing Cousin Josie, for example, assuming the cost of moving her to a comfortable retirement home and paying for her care -- then coldly hijacked Josie’s extensive collection of priceless antique furniture, including a posthumous right to her cousin’s most cherished possession, the valuable four-poster bed in which the old woman hoped to die.
And Bess was a woman with a pedigree: "Once I had established my credentials as a descendant of Louisa May Alcott. . ." [Help me out here -- this is a pedigree?]
Throughout the letters, pop philosophy ("Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves. We lose as much to life as we do to death.") passes for deep thinking in a shallow woman, but in contexts where these pronouncements appear, serves as one of many sources of humor in the book.
Bess's manipulation of her daughter Eleanor was particularly outrageous. Walter, the man Eleanor had decided to marry, was not quite acceptable to Bess, but when she saw the futility of opposing her daughter, she made plans for the wedding. Then, she was dismayed to learn that the young man was stalling, possibly having second thoughts, and that he had told Eleanor his financial position "would not support a proposal at this time."
Bess sharpened her machete. In one of the most bizarre letters, she begins with a vicious stab at his lack of aristocratic upbringing, and then makes an offer he cannot refuse:
This letter is a formal apology for confronting you with an artichoke at dinner last night. No one should have to encounter his first artichoke in public and I am truly sorry for any embarrassment the experience may have caused you. However, I admired you for admitting so openly that you did not know what to do with it. . . ."
[Translation: Sir, you are not a gentleman. You failed the artichoke test.]
[Note: Knowing exactly what his background was, she cruelly served artichokes the first time he came to dinner at her home, knowing full well that he probably wouldn't know the proper way to eat them.]
But then, she goes on to say:
"I hope you and Eleanor will make an official announcement of your engagement soon and set a date for the wedding. Frankly, only a definite date in the immediate future can keep Eleanor at home. She has already written an art school in Vienna to inquire about their fall schedule. I have hidden her passport but she is threatening to apply for a replacement. Though I have twice brought her home from Europe, I might not be so successful the third time.
"I would like to give you a corner lot I own on Mockingbird Lane as an engagement present and my wedding present will be the house we decide to build on it."
[The house WE decide to build?]
A feminist ahead of her time (this was in 1922!), when Bess married her second husband, she wrote a prenuptial agreement -- covering house, money, furniture, and specifying exactly what he would be financially responsible for -- and made him sign it. In a subsequent letter to a friend, she reported that the poor man signed the contract and then "said in a voice so devoid of emotion it sounded as if it had been recorded on another planet, 'I never want to see that damn thing again as long as I live.'"
Bess Garner was a real piece of work.
Is there anything at all to admire about her? Well, yes. She was strong and courageous. She was a feminist way ahead of her time. (I know this is supposed to be a good thing, whether I think it is or not.) She was smart about money. She did not allow men to take advantage of her. She traveled extensively and claimed to love and appreciate other countries and cultures (though I am suspicious of this). With nothing to gain financially from her father, she stayed by his side and took care of him through the long final illness he suffered, and she was with him when he died. She made sure her children were well-educated. She wrote her own obituary.
And a sudden surprise! When I learned that this woman, with whom I hope to have little in common, had written for her epitaph exactly the same thing I wrote, years ago, for my own epitaph: "To be continued."
"Holocaust deniers" ("Holocaust revisionists") are people who either deny that the Holocaust ever happened, or try to minimize the extent and horror o
"Holocaust deniers" ("Holocaust revisionists") are people who either deny that the Holocaust ever happened, or try to minimize the extent and horror of it. In my opinion, calling a writer, a historian, a politician, or anyone at all a "Holocaust denier" is almost certain to damage his reputation.
Mr. Irving agrees. That's why he took legal action. In his opening statement at the trial, David Irving vs. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah E. Lipstadt, Mr. Irving said, "[`Holocaust denier'] has become one of the most potent phrases in the arsenal of insult, replacing the N-word, the F-word, and a whole alphabet of other slurs. If an American politician. . .is branded, even briefly as a Holocaust denier, his career can well be said to be in ruins. If a writer, no matter how well reviewed and received until then, has that phrase stuck to him, then he, too, can regard his career as rumbling off the edge of a precipice."
Dr. Evans demonstrated to the satisfaction of the High Court in London the "falsification and manipulation of historical records" aspect of some of Mr. Irving's writing about history. At the trial, Mr. Irving described the "damage to the reputation" effect of Ms. Lipstadt's book.
I do not read German and cannot comment on Dr. Evans's contention that Mr. Irving played fast and loose with the truth in his writing based on historical documents in German archives. The statement that no document, signed by Hitler, has been found ordering the execution of Jewish people in death camps (order clearly stated, rather than implied) may be true--I don't know. But some statements don't need backing up with archives. The idea, for example, that Hitler didn't know about the Holocaust is absurd.
In my opinion, Mr. Irving is a talented writer. His books are lively, fascinating. His writing reveals a fine sense of humor, too. And he has a right, at least here in the United States, to express biases and opinions that deeply offend me.
Dr. Evans has written an interesting book, and I recommend that you read his Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial--and see what you think.
My impression is that Mr. Irving does not deny that the tragedy took place. In his opening statement at the trial, Mr. Irving said, ". . .no person in full command of his mental faculties, and with even the slightest understanding of what happened in World War Two, can deny that the tragedy actually happened, however much we dissident historians may wish to quibble about the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae."
Mr. Irving does deny or revise information about the Holocaust (regarding locations, numbers of people who suffered, numbers of people who suffered and died, scale, blame, who knew what, etc.) that most people believe to be true.
Mr. Irving also said, "[The term `Holocaust denier'] is a poison to which there is virtually no antidote, less lethal than a hypodermic with nerve gas jabbed in the neck, but deadly all the same: for the chosen victim, it is like being called a wife beater or a pædophile. It is enough for the label to be attached, for the attachee to find himself designated as a pariah, an outcast from normal society. It is a verbal Yellow Star." He further noted that, "In many countries now where it was considered that the mere verbal labelling was not enough, governments have been prevailed upon to pass the most questionable laws, including some which can only be considered a total infringement of the normal human rights of free speech, free opinion and freedom of assembly."
I agree. Let them speak. Who are we, any of us, to say that other people may not speak?
Holocaust denial is a silly idea. Denying the Holocaust is like saying that World War II never happened, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never bombed, men never landed on the moon, and the Titanic never sank. No one in his right mind, no one who has even a smattering of knowledge about World War II, can deny that the tragedy we call the Holocaust did, in fact, take place. Evidence of the Holocaust is overwhelming--testimonies of death camp survivors and Nazi perpetrators, material evidence, as well as documents created and records kept by the Nazis themselves. Many survivors of the camps bore, and continue to bear, witness to the reality of this dark period of 20th century history that Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel calls Night. Photographs taken in the death camps and published shortly after the end of World War II are, and have been since that time, available for everyone to see.
Rational, educated people all over the world know that the Holocaust happened. Precise statistics can never be known--historians love to quibble about these--but it is known that people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who died in the Holocaust number in the millions.
People who publicly deny the Holocaust also know that the Holocaust did, in fact, happen. And they know how extensive and horrible it was. Holocaust deniers may have their own agendas: some are simply anti-Semitic and like to rail against the Jews; others seek to share the "limelight" with Jewish people who suffered in the Holocaust; and some, by erasing the memory of the Holocaust, hope to clear the way for a repeat performance.
But as an American who values freedom of thought and speech, I view with dismay the legislation some countries have enacted to prevent people from making statements which deny the extent, or even the reality, of the Holocaust.
I don't believe in shutting people up.
I share the view of the late historian Dr. Räul Hilberg, who said, "I do not agree with legislation that makes it illegal to utter pronouncements claiming that there was no Holocaust. I do not want to muzzle any of this because it is a sign of weakness, not of strength, when you try to shut somebody up. Yes, there is always a risk. Nothing in life is without risk, but you have to make rational decisions about everything."
"Revisionists" do bring attention to the Holocaust--a tragedy in history which the world must not forget. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
If you can think of anything more graceful, more passionate than that wild, exotic dance called the rumba—tell me, quickly, what it is. That Eduardo S
If you can think of anything more graceful, more passionate than that wild, exotic dance called the rumba—tell me, quickly, what it is. That Eduardo Santiago was drawn to that dance is no surprise. His writing is graceful, sensuous and passionate, like the rumba itself. In an interview, when asked how he writes, Santiago replied, “. . .basically I just cut open a vein and I write until I'm out of blood.”
MIDNIGHT RUMBA must have taken a lot of “blood” to create. In my opinion, the writing in this novel is even stronger than it was in his magnificent TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS. Perhaps this is because the artist is more mature, more confident. Or maybe it’s because the subject—the violent upheaval in Cuba when Fidel Castro and his rebels overthrew the Batista regime in the 1950s—simply demanded a certain degree of artistic brutality in order to tell the story.
The tropical island of Cuba—“emerald alligator asleep in a sapphire sea”—is the real protagonist of this novel, with its explosive chapter of history mirroring the lives of a beautiful young woman, Estelita de la Cruz, her father, her friends, and the man she loves.
One of Santiago’s greatest strengths as a writer is his remarkable understanding of women and his ability to create deep, complex and finely nuanced female characters. Many women writers understand women: consider the emotional richness and complexity of Scarlett O’Hara, Jane Eyre, Rachel Sangaletti, Celie Johnson, Shug Avery, Jo March, Catherine Earnshaw, and the second Mrs. de Winter, and on and on—the list is endless.
But in my opinion, the list of male writers who truly understand women is short. Eduardo Santiago (Estelita de la Cruz, Aspirrina Cerrogordo), Gabriel García Márquez (Fermina Daza), Michael Ondaatje (Katharine Clifton), and D. H. Lawrence (Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen) are surely on that list. (But if you are going to include Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne on a list of literary characters crafted true to the heart and soul of a woman, then you and I have had it.)
Evoking human feelings is Santiago’s great gift, and we see it throughout everything he writes. We know how Estelita felt as she “looked at her face before applying fresh makeup and wondered if there was anything new in the mirror. Did she seem different? She peered closely into her eyes, and she saw it. Yes, way in the back, in a place no one could see, was a woman who’d just made love for the first time.”
We empathize with Delfino as he pleads with his wealthy father to help rescue a friend arrested by Batista’s men:
“‘Son,’ [Delfino’s father] said, standing up, ‘there’s nothing anyone can do. Your friend is dead.’
“Delfino stood up to leave but something was missing. He felt as if everything beneath his neck was gone. He knew he had a face, because he was looking at his father, who was moving quickly about the room. And he knew he had legs, because he was still standing. But where his heart should be, his guts, his lungs, all of that was missing.”
Violence erupts across Cuba, where “Bodies of men hung from trees. Groups of women gathered around them, wailing and shrieking with escalating abandon, as if their very souls had been set afire.”
And in Estelita’s beloved Havana, “Squares of light streamed from vacant windows, embroidering the streets with luminous geometric patterns that followed one another, stretching on and on into infinite darkness. Soft shadows borne of the dim streetlamps extended along the cracked pavement, folding and dipping, molding themselves onto the terrain, wrapping around trees, creeping through gutters and dipping into watery, quivering potholes, elongating into the distance, pointing the way, offering vain direction like enormous, cautioning fingers.”
The description of torture that awaited Cubans captured by Ventura Novo, “the killer from Havana’s Fifth Precinct, as famous for his massacres as for his stylish suits,” was too horrifying for me to read. I had to skip that part.
Eduardo Santiago is a kind and generous man. His love and compassion for Cuba and the wonderfully drawn characters who inhabit his novels is evident throughout his work. Santiago is a visual artist—to read the book is to see the film. Except that in the film, the rumba, the actual dance, will surely be featured much more prominently than it is in the book. The rumba is visually so compelling that it would simply have to be. However, it’s nearly impossible to capture dance in prose, and except for short passages describing dances by Aspirrina, Santiago, wisely, did not attempt it. (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the rumba, may I respectfully suggest that you go to Bing or YouTube and catch some videos of professionals or contest competitors performing this remarkable dance.)
In my review of TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS, I said that Eduardo Santiago, in my opinion, eventually will win the Pulitzer prize for distinguished fiction by an American author. After reading MIDNIGHT RUMBA, I’m more convinced of that than ever.
If you enjoy the work of Márquez and Hijuelos, you will surely welcome Santiago’s novels. For those of us who have little understanding of Cuban culture, after reading the work of Eduardo Santiago, we will have so much more.
That is one of Santiago’s great gifts to his readers, and I am deeply grateful for it.
I see THE TALL TALE OF TOMMY TWICE as a hilarious, delightfully engaging story about the creation of an artist. In this case, a bizarre, peripatetic u
I see THE TALL TALE OF TOMMY TWICE as a hilarious, delightfully engaging story about the creation of an artist. In this case, a bizarre, peripatetic upbringing that develops in this child a unique way of seeing and reacting to the world that sets him apart from other children—real children, who grow up with parents, hugs, hot lunches, earmuffs, baseballs, bikes, kites, and a Labrador Retriever.
Real children don’t play chess and drink tequila at the age of five. Real children know how old they are and when their birthday is. Real children’s cousins don’t have names like Hose and Stump. Real children don’t grow up, look back, and say, “I grew up frightened. Ready for the worst to happen. . . . I grew up feeling like one of those parasite-eating birds in a symbiotic relationship with a hippo.”
As in the sad childhoods of many foster children, little Tommy was knocked around from home to home, and in nearly every move to the next place, he was summarily dumped:
“I suddenly felt like someone had scraped my insides out with a spoon. I didn’t know this at the time, but in retrospect I’m sure I was exhausted by the upheaval. I was living with one relative or another when I should have been living with my mother and father—wherever they were. . .whoever they were. I just wanted to be a kid. Instead, I had to function as a little adult. All I wanted to do was eat dinner and sleep. I missed Aunt Tess already. I missed her mountain of red hair, helping with the chickens, picking corn. Even her rotten sons.”
TOMMY TWICE is a tragic tale, uproariously funny in the telling. The treatment of this child was, of course, outrageous—his entire upbringing a hotbed of child abuse. That Tommy survived and actually made it to adulthood seems like a miracle. But couldn’t you, at times in your reading, say the same thing about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?
Leslie’s bold caricature and sharp satire are, above all, Rabelaisian—humor that is exaggerated, bizarre, and way, way larger than life:
“I saw the woman I knew for sure to be Aunt Tess: the wild nest of red hair. . . . I could see that her hair was a mountain, and that within this mountain things shifted and moved. I could see small wheels and food and animals scurrying in her hair. I could see handles and sacks and string. Pens. A broom handle. Bits of ribbon. A knife. . . .”
From Tommy’s Cousin Mickey, a traveling salesman, we have this:
“There was this one woman I met down south. . . . She was a wild one. She was tall and thin as a sapling. Her neck was the size of my arm, and her head was just as long. At any rate, when I met her the first words out of her mouth were, ‘I’m somebody special.’ That’s what she said. . . .
“She wore this purple dress that hugged her curves. The dress was affixed with some kind of gold trim. It looked like it was made out of real gold. And she wore enough jewelry to break a horse’s neck. . . .
“She had a face that looked like a combination of a turtle and a snake, if that makes any sense. At any rate, we became friends, if you know what I mean. She said maybe I could help her. Well, who knows what her real story was. You can’t trust a woman who wears a purple dress, can you?”
“And I met this man down there, just a few towns away. For a living he spent time in traffic. Isn’t that a way to earn a buck? Anyway, I went with him once. He would sit in traffic and take notes. I wasn’t sure how those notes translated into money, but it did for him. Everyone hates traffic. Traffic wears you down. It breaks your spirit. Well, this guy loved traffic. ‘What I like,’ he said, ‘is watching people suffer. . . .’”
The humor may be Rabelaisian, but the added deadpan and delayed reaction timing in the homespun comedy of Twain, Keaton, and Chaplin also come to mind.
Leslie’s writing is mesmerizing everywhere I’ve seen it. Tommy wanders through the city:
“I walked from the leafy streets to the shops where an old man swept the sidewalks with a push broom and where fat women with maroon moles on their cheeks sold dingy orange flowers in the middle of the street.”
I can’t compare Nathan Leslie to any other writer. He's simply not like anyone else I know of. I think Leslie is as good as Steinbeck (I’m thinking right now of CANNERY ROW), but he doesn’t write like Steinbeck. Leslie’s writing is unique, and even his own books are dissimilar. In my opinion, this is because Nathan Leslie is writing out of one of the deepest and broadest emotional ranges of any contemporary author. That the inner life he has to draw from is deep and rich is everywhere apparent in his work, no matter what the story is, or how he chooses to tell it.
THE TALL TALE OF TOMMY TWICE was a pleasure to read. I loved it!
STONE HOTEL is a collection of poems by a man who was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The first poem details the crime. Nowhere in the book did I f
STONE HOTEL is a collection of poems by a man who was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The first poem details the crime. Nowhere in the book did I find any attempt to excuse, minimize, or deny the crime. The poems simply tell us what happened, how he was apprehended--by dogs, "their nostrils full of my fear"--and what followed as he served his time:
I am surrounded by men who live in cages
and blink in the sun like psychotic moles
connoisseurs of hatred
disguised as racial pride
the tattooed husbands of battered wives
who think love is a clenched fist
Disclaimer: As one who reads and writes fiction almost exclusively, I am not a sophisticated reader of poetry. I am a visual person who reacts to poetry in a way that unsophisticated listeners respond to music. That is, the words in poetry, or the notes in a musical composition, bring to mind a scene or a series of events that I can hear or see.
Certain passages in T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," for example, summon vast, empty stretches of desert sweeping out to the horizon. Poe's "The Bells" tinkle silvery in a little Christmas shop I visited as a child. Wagner's "Tannhauser" is background music for elephants slowly marching in to perform in a circus.
The following are among the images that came to mind as I read the poems in Raegan Butcher's STONE HOTEL:
1. Attack scenes in JAWS 2. The plane crash in Nelson DeMille's MAYDAY 3. The chase in the opening scene of the James Bond film "Casino Royale" 4. WWII documentary film footage of the bombing of Hiroshima 5. "The Scream," a painting by Edvard Munch, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway
In STONE HOTEL, the poetry is understated. The scream lies beneath the words as the author finds himself "strangled by the hands of a clock" in a cage where "privacy is a thing of the past," and "even fear has gone stale with time."
In a poem titled "96 months" there is a rape scene, five lines long. One of the lines is only one word. The rape is described almost casually, a calm report slotted in among mundane images of rapists of another sort:
- a lawyer "bored and preoccupied/not even working for his money"
- a prosecutor "thundering doom/and calling for the max"
- and a judge "pinch-eyed and displeased/working on getting re-elected"
And then the rape--the real one--itself deceptively mundane. (You have to close your eyes to hear the scream. The scream lies below the words.)
Butcher tells us about the snitch, and how he was found:
hanging from the light fixture
a bedsheet around his neck
eyes filled with blood like bright red eggs
STONE HOTEL is not for the faint of heart. Raegan Butcher's writing is brilliant, raw and powerful. And as he writes, Butcher does my favorite thing for an artist to do--he never looks away. He confronts his subject with hard, cold objectivity and conveys it to us in the simplest way imaginable. This isn't poetry to make you smile or warm your soul. It isn't meant to entertain you--but then, neither is a plane crash or Edvard Munch's picture of a scream.
NEVER. . .have I had a reading experience like this one.
Completely unprepared for this, Sullivan's book took me by surprise. One does not expect a me
NEVER. . .have I had a reading experience like this one.
Completely unprepared for this, Sullivan's book took me by surprise. One does not expect a memoir be thrilling, terrifying, cliff-hanging -- I mean the way Tom Clancy's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER is.
Reading THE SKY ISN'T VISIBLE FROM HERE is like riding on a runaway train. The journey begins:
"In the spring of 1997, a few weeks before my college graduation my mother disappeared. Over the years, I had grown used to her leaving: a four-day cocaine binge; a wedding at City Hall to which I was not invited; the months she locked herself behind her bedroom door and emerged only to buy cigarettes. I'd spent the greater part of my life feeling abandoned by my mother. Yet she'd always return -- blazing into the kitchen to cook up a holiday feast for ten. . .back from her drug dealer on Brooklyn's Ninth Avenue.
"On the morning of my graduation, though, dressed in a black gown, I walked up the promenade to receive my diploma. . . . My mother's face didn't appear among the proud, applauding parents. I knew then that I'd never see her again. . . ."
Well, then. Issues with the mother. This I can deal with. This I can top, actually. And it all takes place in New York (Brooklyn, Manhattan), where everything is ridiculously scattered and fast. New Yorkers scream and zoom about under the ground like crazed Formicidae, eating things I cannot pronounce -- while I am languidly, safely ensconced in the South, sipping lemonade on a porch. I've seen Sullivan on Internet videos -- a beautiful, brilliant young woman speaking four times faster than I do.
But then the train speeds up. And now the sudden horror when you realize the train is out of control, zinging faster down the rails, my God.
In the railroad car you're riding in, there is, figuratively, a camera. Sullivan eases you behind the camera, which records every single thing -- now and in the past. The camera is outfitted with x-ray vision into Sullivan's heart and soul, as the train plunges down the track. . . .
"Turning to Ursula, I hesitated. 'We're taking a bath. . .together?'
Inside the cramped bathroom, steam ribboned, clouding the mirrors and windows. Ursula's mother was dousing the water with blue crystals, humming as she poured.
Ursula removed her socks, unbuckled her belt, and slid her jeans to the floor. . . .
'I don't think my mother would like this,' I said, uneasy."
We are led into delicatessens and diners, where Sullivan's mother, frequently high on cocaine, works as a waitress:
"When we arrived at the deli one Saturday morning, I said, 'We're home.'
My mother threw open the metal gate. 'Not home Lisa,' she said, puzzled. 'This is work. . . .'
I bolted inside. . .and marveled over the pristine linoleum floors, at the revolving display of potato chips, pork rinds, and Cracker Jack suspended from metal clips near the door. Boxes of Nerds, stacks of watermelon gum on the racks in front of the register boxes of pasta and tissues perfectly arranged on the shelves. Cans of Coke, Tab, and Pepsi in gleaming rows behind the clear refrigerator doors at the back of the store.
'We could live here,' I said.
'This isn't our home,' [my mother:] said."
Her mother would subject her to severe mental cruelty, and then rush to protect her. Felicia was emotionally abused, but she was not, at least not always, a neglected child. She was loved, to the extent that her mother was capable of loving a child, but the love was doled out in scraps and shards. Thus at Coney Island, age nine:
"'Take me on the rides,' I said.
All the rides in Coney Island have a height requirement, and a flat palm halted us at each ticket booth. But with a quick glare from my mother, we were ushered past the chain ropes and we hopped on the pirate ship shaped like a giant canoe. She buckled me in, yanked on the strap, hard. . .we clutched each other's hands as the boat began to swing faster. I loved this thrill -- the stomach drop, the quick, stolen breaths, the momentary fear that the ride would never stop, we could fall, and the ground would give way. We were wild-eyed; raising our arms, we screamed. . . .
Coming off the ship, my legs wobbled. . . . Massaging my neck, she asked if I was okay, if I wanted to go home.
'I want to be here,' I said."
They were poor and moved constantly. Sullivan and her mother reversed roles, with Sullivan, not yet a teenager, taking charge when her mother passed out. There was a stream of boyfriends (men in her mother's life); blessedly, one of the good ones became almost a real father to her. Sullivan's mother called her a thief and then forced her to help steal money:
"'We have to go,' [her mother:] said. 'Put on your clothes.'
'Go where? It's the middle of the night.' I was scared that she had lost it, that she finally had gone crazy. Because she looked crazy. . . .
When I didn't say anything didn't move, my mother stripped the blankets off my bed. 'I need you to keep watch for us. We need this money. Don't you understand how much I owe?'
'Not me,' I said in a small voice.
'Who else if not you?'
I slid to the floor an drew my knees up close, allowing what she'd said to sink in."
I imagine many readers will think that Sullivan is not going to make it as an adult. I don't see how a person can grow up like this and even dream of being a normal adult or anywhere near it:
"I tell Merritt that tomorrow I have an appointment, a consultation to sell my eggs. To cover credit-card debt, rent for the apartment in Little Italy I say, but my friend knows better. Merritt knows how much cocaine eight thousand dollars could buy. . .
'They'll test you.'
'I don't plan on failing,' I say. . . .
'When does your trip back to sobriety begin?'
'Tomorrow,' I say.
Cocaine was Sullivan's nemesis and savior:
"'So what was it [cocaine:] like?' Emily asks. . . .
We hear jackhammers and power drills outside, shaking bodies handling great machines, cracking the pavement, spilling hot tar.
'It's like Broadway up my nose,' I say."
Your past informs the present time of your life, and vice versa, with the present shaping all of your memories. So I like the way the book is organized -- a natural segueing back and forth between the now and then of a life recalled.
Read this stunning memoir. Sullivan's writing is lively, all grace and grit, and you will not find many more accomplished wordsmiths writing today.
In my opinion, Robbie is among the most brilliantly — and lovingly — created characters in fi I know Robbie Feaver.
Maybe you do, too — if you’re lucky.
In my opinion, Robbie is among the most brilliantly — and lovingly — created characters in fiction.
Robbie is a lawyer, a nice Jewish boy, handsome, sexy, funny, and a complex human being.
“You could never count on him for honesty, assuming he even knew what it was. He was unruly and incorrigible. But if she stumbled, he’d come running. She couldn’t even say for sure she’d be able to reach out when he extended a hand. But he’d be there. she wasn’t going to forgive him, really. But she had to stop pretending with herself. Nine hundred people had just turned out, all there to buoy Robbie Feaver in his grief, nearly every one a friend who’d experienced his openness and the soothing warmth of his care. And she was one, too. You couldn’t fight facts.”
There have been at least two Robbie Feavers in my life, and as much as I love men, I loved these two most of all. It was an extraordinary delight to find such a beloved character in a novel.
Robbie shows us what love truly is — unconditional love, the kind of love you would be both blessed and unlikely to find in your lifetime. The man is deeply flawed: dishonest, irresponsible, undependable. Unfaithful, yet faithful: he strays, but always comes back to you.
In PERSONAL INJURIES, Mr. Turow tests Robbie Feaver (pronounce it “favor”) beyond all limits of physical and emotional endurance. Robbie’s wife has a fatal illness. She is slowly dying throughout the novel. The course of her illness is graphic and heartbreaking. The strength of courage of this woman and her husband are beyond the meaning of courage and strength.
In PERSONAL INJURIES, Mr. Turow explores love in all its forms: Robbie and his wife, Robbie and a lesbian woman, Robbie and his law partner and lifelong friend, Mort Dinnerstein.
“There is deep feeling between these men,” one of the lawyers says, though Robbie and Mort are not homosexual.
In PERSONAL INJURIES, love transcends sex.
Scott Turow is a brilliant writer. He unfailingly delivers a great story, a roller coaster ride, and a page-turning cliffhanger. Sometimes the writing bogs down just a little bit. Forget and forgive that. The book is superb.
And don’t pigeonhole this author as a “genre writer” of law thrillers. He is far, far better than that and getting better all the time. PRESUMED INNOCENT is a great read, and in the opinion of many reviewers, his best book. But I think his skill with characterization—making his characters real and complex and exciting for us—is, in PERSONAL INJURIES, superior to his other works.