Friday, May 26, 2017

Here I Am, An Understatement by Jonathan Safran Foer

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It's been a year this week since I picked up my free copy of "Here I Am" by Jonathan Safran Foer in Chicago at Book Expo. I've been lugging it back and forth from Maryland to Florida and back again and I may not have gotten to it at all if I hadn't just reviewed "Forest Dark," the much awaited new novel by Nicole Krauss who just happens to be Foer's former wife.

I was surprised and a bit disappointed that Krauss felt she had to address her failed relationship with Foer in her new work - a work of fiction, I might add. So imagine my shock when I dipped into Foer's novel and discovered that he had mined the same territory but on steroids!

I had a love/hate relationship with this book. I have a tendency to believe that the generation behind mine is just too damn open for their own good. Yes, yes, common wisdom says you should write what you know, but really? If you want your readers to get that deep inside your marriage then pen a memoir, but don't couch your story in a novel and pass it off as fiction. It's as if both Foer and Krauss were analyzing their failures and expecting the readers to act as psychologists. Too much work!

Nevertheless, the writing itself is brilliant, insightful, and though painfully personal, spot on. Foer is not afraid to say out loud what most of us probably think but would never utter. The action takes place over just four weeks in the household of the Blochs, Julia, Jacob, and their three delightfully precocious boys. In fact, spending time with Sam, Max, and Benji is the height of reading pleasure.

The Blochs are planning Sam's bar mitzvah, a ceremony that they feel is  important for their families even though Sam is vocally against it and appears to have no deep feeling for his Jewish heritage. This is a boy who keeps his emotions closely guarded and is more himself when hiding behind an avatar in the computer world of Second Life.

A tech savvy nerd, Sam has discovered that his dad keeps a second cell phone, one that Sam easily breaks into, only to find that his father is in a sexting relationship with a woman from work. Sam decides to make sure that his mom finds the phone and sets in motion the dissolution of a marriage in which the parties have only been going through the motions for a long time.

As Jacob works through his sense of loss and guilt, he reflects on his life as a son, grandson, father, husband, and Jew. How, he wonders, can allegiances be spread so thin? How does a man pursue his own career while juggling life's enormous responsibilities and tentacles? Of course, this is the existential question. Some of us just buck up and do it. We don't have the luxury of time or money that's required to delve too deeply into unanswerable questions.

With Tamir, a cousin visiting from Israel, Jacob has long, endless, discussions about the hypocrisy of American Jews who talk fondly of the homeland they've never visited, sending money for a tree to be planted in memoriam, but afraid of getting too close. There's much truth and ironic humor in these chapters but some readers may decide that they go on for just a little too long.

This is a novel that one senses was written in despair, laden with angst, and bogged down in selfishness. But ultimately it works as an exercise in catharsis for the writer. For the reader it is a deep dark look into the workings of an author's mind as he tries to move forward by looking back.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Revisiting The Handmaid's Tale

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It's stunning to think that Margaret Atwood published her most famous piece of dystopian literature, "The Handmaid's Tale," over thirty years ago. I don't remember how old I was or what was happening in my life when I first read this book. I do remember how it made me feel, creeped out, frightened, but eventually, dismissive. I knew in my heart that the horrific happenings in the fictional world of Gilead could not happen here. Now? In 2017? I'm not so confident.

The Christian Right holds more sway than ever before in politics. An avowed racist is the Attorney General of the United States. Roe v. Wade is under assault, and women's healthcare issues were the first to fall in the new Republican proposed healthcare bill. In fact, the thirteen member committee formed by congress to address women's healthcare issues consists of thirteen old, white men. Nary a woman in the bunch. If this doesn't worry you, you are not paying attention.

At the very least you should reread or read for the first time, Ms. Atwood's prescient tale. While you're at it, stream the amazingly well executed video that is currently being shown in installments at www.hulu.com

The basic premise, for any of you who swim completely under the radar, is that we humans have made a real cock up of our stewardship of the earth. Radiation and pollution have poisoned our world. Many men are sterile and reproduction is on the wane. An unknown organization, purported to be middle eastern naturally, has overthrown the government and divided up the country into areas for living and for dying.

Women past child bearing years, look out ladies, who refuse to become matrons in the new world of Gilead, are sent to the outer reaches where they toil at toxic waste dumps as the environmental cleanup brigade. Of course, they and we know that it's basically a death sentence. The elite, the commanders and their wives, live in empty, lonely opulence, where they promote rigorous moral codes and host bible readings for their staff. The "marthas" are the lower class of kitchen worker, cooks, servants basically, and the "handmaids," are the fortunate few, chosen for their fertility. As long as they can reproduce they are safe.

In this world sex has been reduced to its cold basics. Procreation is the only goal, pleasure is prohibited, and if you manage to find it outside of the monthly ceremony in which the commander rapes the handmaid, the "eyes" are watching and they will know. Punishment runs the gamut from public shaming to castration to hanging.

But more sinister than the physical violence for transgressions (cattle prods play a prominent role in re-education), is the idea of mind control. Memories are erased through deprivation. Books, magazines, video, telephones are all verboten. Conversation among handmaids is not allowed for fear of subversive influences. There is a memorable scene where the commander tries to tempt his handmaid, Offred, with a contraband magazine. Even as she recalls browsing through this kind of flotsam, think "Glamour," in a doctor's office and breezily throwing it aside, Offred now salivates at the small chance of regaining normalcy if only for a few stolen minutes.

What's most terrifying though is how easily human beings seem to adapt to a new reality. What once was unthinkable, with the slow progression of time and the steady drumbeat of fake news, becomes status quo. The "go along to get along" mentality is inherent in our natures. People say, "why resist? Put your energy to better use. It will only be for a few years." But Margaret Atwood obviously disagrees and so must we.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Waking Lions Will Keep You Awake


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I can't remember if it was the arresting cover or Maureen Corrigan's review on NPR last month that initially drew me to this novel by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen but between the excellent translation from the Hebrew and the storyline, "Waking Lions" did keep me reading half the night. Gundar-Goshen, in an interview in "The Guardian," admits to her left leaning politics and disgust with the current Israeli leadership. She is also a psychologist who marries her politics and her profession beautifully in this thrilling exploration of Israel's refugee crisis, one you may not be familiar with.

Dr. Eitan Green is still chafing after having been transferred to the barren, dusty city of Beersheba from his sparkling clean neurosurgery suite in a Tel Aviv hospital after having fallen out with his supervisor. Frustrated by the lack of supplies, the long hours, and his feelings of being an inadequate provider for his wife and two boys, Eitan takes off one night in his SUV, music blaring, tires speeding and spinning in an orgy of childishness. The sudden thunk barely registers at first but the full moon cannot hide the fact that Eitan has run down another human being. In scarcely an instant the doctor examines the faceless Eritrean immigrant, concludes that he cannot survive his injuries, and heads home deciding that no one will look for the killer of one more Bedouin immigrant. 

How he could think that the hit and run would not have consequences (his wife, Liat, is a well-respected police investigator) is beyond us as readers. Or, is it? Of course, that is the question that we must ask ourselves. Yes, this plot device has been used before in literature to excellent effect, I'm thinking of Boyle's "Tortilla Curtain," or Lawrence Osborne's "The Forgiven." Gundar-Goshen adds nuance and ambiguity to our reading by painting Eitan as an arrogant physician who often doesn't "see" his patients and Liat as an officer known for being an astute observer.

It's not until the African woman arrives at his door with his wallet in her hand that Eitan realizes he will not easily be let off the hook. Sirkit is the hit and run victim's wife and she wants something that only Eitan has, not his money but medicine and his ability to treat the hundreds of Eritrean immigrants who live in camps outside the city in squalor. He dares not refuse her.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Oh Shakespeare, how well you understand our humanity! As Eitan struggles to do the bidding of his blackmailer, keep up rounds and surgery at the hospital, and avoid awkward questions from Liat who is now investigating the Eritrean's death, he becomes mired in debilitating guilt and shame. Yet he also faces a chance at redemption. Working side by side with Sirkit, once just another anonymous black face but now a person with a life, a past, feelings, losses, grit, Eitan may find a way to become a better, more generous human being. Will he?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Nothing Gentlemanly Happens in Greg Rucka's A Gentleman's Game

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Readers who have been following me for a long time know that I have a penchant for spy thrillers that probably stems from hours of watching those wonderful old cold war TV shows of the sixties like Mission Impossible or my favorite, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Then there was John LeCarre. After that I discovered the British TV show MI-5 and became addicted. So when my friend Don, a graphic novel aficionado, told me about Greg Rucka's Queen and Country series, I had to give it a try.
 
Originally developed as a comic, three books resulted in this series, one of several that Mr. Rucka, who must write 24/7 to keep all the balls in the air, has penned over the past fifteen years. http://www.gregrucka.com/wp/ His versatility and output is phenomenal. But what both Don and I appreciate about him is his ability to craft formidable, believable female characters with guts and heart.
 
Tara Chace, a brainiac with a knack for languages, was chosen directly out of college to work for Her Majesty's Secret Service. But there was no way she was going to be satisfied stuck behind a desk interpreting code. She wanted the hand to hand combat training, excelled at rifle and pistol work, and begged to be placed in "special services." Think James Bond without the swagger.
 
By virtue of the job description, trained assassins seldom stay on the job for long, and within eighteen months Tara is the head "minder" of three, people whose lives are expendable to the top brass, who keep a "go bag" with a change of clothes on hand at all times, and who are stealthily parachuted into war zones knowing that if they're caught they will may be acknowledged by their mother country.
 
So it is that after London's underground was attacked by terrorists Chace is called in to get vengeance. The problem is that professionals, especially women, make easy enemies along the way and she has raised the ire of a competing organization. When more than one country is involved in negotiations - in this case the CIA and Israel's Mossad - things get even dicier.
 
It's no surprise that Rucka writes for TV and film as well. His narrative style is rapidly paced. You can read this book in a sit down or two and visualize it all on the big screen at the same time. He attends to every detail with precision and if his characters seem a little jaded, well you get it. You can be pretty sure that all the machinations taking place behind the scenes, the not so secret meetings between various factions of the secret services, the handlers and the government, are all too true.
 
"A Gentleman's Game" is the first of the three Tara Chace novels and I guarantee I'll be squeezing the other two in, between assignments from "Library Journal." It's smart, sexy, and timely, addressing the scourge of jihad without damning Islam.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Book of American Martyrs

Where have I been you might ask (in case you check in every week to see what I'm reading). Insert smiley face emoji here. Well, I have been locked in the head of Joyce Carol Oates, a place that, if you are familiar with her fiction, can be most uncomfortable. "A Book of American Martyrs" comes in at an astounding 755 pages and yet, if you can convince your book group members to buckle down and dig in, this saga would lend itself to a deep discussion.

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I've read many blurbs and reviews of this novel and they all seem to propound that the focus of Oates' book is abortion. That is really a gross oversimplification of a work that has deeply nuanced things to say about pro-choice/pro-life stances, the death penalty, equality in marriage, responsibility in parenting, forgiveness, and oh yes, boxing. Those of us who have met Ms. Oates at various conferences will remember that she has an inordinate interest in the sport of boxing and manages to display her knowledge very credibly in the final third of the book.

It's no secret that the two men at the heart of this novel are deeply devoted to their beliefs. Dr. Gus Voorhees is a surgeon who performs abortions at women's clinics in the poorest parts of the mid-west, Michigan and Ohio, going where he is most needed to help women who are faced with the most gut-wrenching decision they will likely ever have to make. Gus is a husband and a father of three.

Luther Dunphy is a born again Christian, a member of the Army of God, an organization that pickets women's clinics hoping to inhibit the slaughter of innocent babies. He believes that God has personally called to him. Voorhees is the name of a doctor on a hit list. Dunphy has a shotgun. He too is a husband and a father of four.

On November 2, 1999, the two men's paths will cross but the ripples of that fateful meeting will span another decade and a half as Oates pivots between the two families as they cope (or not) with the violence that has upended their lives. To illustrate just how complicated the abortion issue can be, Oates introduces readers to a mother who chose against abortion but ten years later physically abandoned her son. Another mother in China gave her daughter up for adoption. That girl is adopted by the Voorhees family. The widows disappear from their children emotionally, finding solace in work or in religion. The siblings become estranged as they try to distance themselves from their past. There is a ferocious amount of loss in this thought-provoking, weighty tome.

Reading the chapters that address the workings of the death penalty, the stays, the re-trials, the solitary confinement before the final sentence, hammered home for me the reasons why I could never condone capital punishment. Ms. Oates writes as if she'd been on death row herself and one doesn't doubt for a second the authenticity of the thoughts running through the heads of the guards or their prisoners. As I mentioned, there's lots to discuss here.

But ultimately I came to the conclusion that this book is about forgiveness and growth. There were so many times during my reading when I wondered "where is she going with this?" When the "ah ha" moment arrived I was so relieved that I wanted to cry. So, yes, I do think the book could have been whittled down a bit but hey, does anyone get to edit a writer of Oates' reputation? Probably not. And do we really want to excise one word from a writer so capable of taking you along on such a roller coaster ride? Probably not.