Monday, September 29, 2008

An Epic Tale of Turkey

Louis De Bernieres is best known as the author of Correlli's Mandolin. He has also written another interesting epic, Birds Without Wings, about the tortured and tumultuous history of Turkey. Seen through the experiences of the people populating one small village, from the turn of the century through the 1930's, we learn about the heartbreaking changes that occur, altering all of their lives. The tale begins when the Turks, Armenians and Greeks live cooperatively, and moves forward to repeated conflicts and wars that create a sad diaspora as the residents scatter or are forced out. We meet families and witness horrific choices they must make, stories they must hide, people they must protect or destroy. There is a love story of a Christian girl and Muslim boy that is destined for tragedy, and a Greek harlot must hide her identity from the lonely and powerful Turkish village leader who takes her home. The portrait of Ataturk, the great hero who modernized and westernized the country, is particularly compelling as he develops from a very cunning manipulator into a genuine war hero with impressive tenacity and skills.

The author crafted this book like Correlli's Mandolin, by skillfully describing a particular village and the impact of wars over time on a cast of well developed characters living in the village. Reading this book requires some time and effort, but for anyone with a particular interest in Turkey, it is a compelling and powerful reading experience. I found it very helpful as I attempted to understand the complex experiences, ethnic conflicts and complicated history of Turkey.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New York, New York

There’s nothing like a good “gangsta” story to pass the hours when one is sick. I was lucky to have North River by Pete Hamill on hand when I was waylaid recently by an infection. Actually, while the mob element of the story is significant (more on that later), the central portrait of this novel is that of a family doctor practicing his craft in depression-era (1934) New York City. It’s a picture of medicine that, if it still exists at all, certainly has long ago left NYC. The doctor has his office in his home and rides off on his bicycle in the afternoon to make house calls.

The doctor James Delaney is living alone in Greenwich Village when his 3-year-old grandson is unexpectedly left on his doorstep while the child’s mother, Delaney’s daughter, goes off in search of her run-away husband. So it is in introducing the boy to life in NYC that the doctor/author also paints for the reader a deeply affecting portrait of New York life at that time including the Metropolitan Museum, the Polo Grounds, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the local Italian bakery and shoe repair, hot dogs, the subway, Tammany Hall, the bruised wives and the inevitable lines of the homeless. The sketches are rich in detail and seamlessly woven into the story.

There is the predictable gang war between two mob families and Dr. Delaney finds himself almost literally in the crossfire. He has a loyalty to one side that goes back to his days in World War I; and he has his physician’s loyalty to a patient on the other. When provided by a mobster with a substantial amount of (much-needed) cash for services rendered, the doctor has to resolve his own moral dilemma: when you know that the money came from unlawful sources but you can use the money to do good (however that may be defined), are you justified in taking it? Does it make a difference if you will donate it to feed the homeless or if you will use it to buy clothes for your grandson?

I think you would enjoy this book – even if you aren’t sick.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Death of Innocence

Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote “Night” in 1958 the first of forty works of literature he has written to date. “Night” is Elie Wiesel’s personal memoir of the incredible, horrific journey he and his family made in 1944 from the small town of Sighet,in Transylvania, to Birkenau, the German concentration camp and ending in April of 1945, with the American liberation of the concentration camp prisoners at Buchenwald.

The Wiesel family are first forced into a tiny Jewish ghetto in Sighet. Soon after they are packed into cattle trains and taken to Birkenau. It is there on the first “night” of horror that Elie sees his mother and sister for the last time. He and his father manage to stay together as they are starved, and forced to work in the labor camp. Those who were able to survive are marched to Auschwitz, the main extermination campsite. At Auschwitz they endure beatings, excruciating labor, and starvation.

A teenager who spent all of his time studying the Talmud and praying in the synagogue, Elie Wiesel is now a 15 year old trying only to survive and not abandon his father. He felt his faith in God slowly slipping away. The Germans had stripped him of his family, his strength, his hope, his childhood, and his faith in God.

At the end of 1944 the Russians were advancing on Auschwitz, so the Germans forced the prisoners to march and run in snow, ice and wind, without food, for fifty miles to Gleiwitz the nearest camp. They arrived at Gleiwitz in January 1945. At Gleiwitz there were now one hundred remaining prisoners who were loaded onto one train headed for Buchenwald. Only 12 prisoners, including Elie and his father, survived the excruciating trip. They reached Buchenwald where within weeks Elie’s father died of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Elie survived, barely, living in a children’s block, until April 10, 1945 when the Americans liberated the camp.

Elie Wiesel has written, that having survived the holocaust he needed to give meaning to his survival. He wrote the powerful, gripping story, “Night”, as a witness who believes that he has a moral obligation to prevent this horror from ever being allowed to happen again. By the late 1990’s “Night’ was a standard high school and college text, selling 400,000 copies a year.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Corner Store

For those of us who live in major cities in the US, the corner store is a neighborhood fixture. For some of us, it may be the source of life’s daily necessities; for others it may be a quick snack or a newspaper while waiting for the next bus. Such a store is the setting of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. In truth, the store is almost a character in its own right.

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia in the late ‘70s and immigrated to the US at the age of 2. He graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. So it is not surprising that the central character of this novel, Sepha Stephanos, emigrated from Ethiopia (albeit at the age of 16) and, now in his mid 30s, is settled in Washington DC and the owner of a failing corner store in a poor area of that city.

Stephanos, Joseph (from the Congo) and Kenneth (from Kenya) became friends when they all were new immigrants working as valets in a Washington hotel. Joseph is now an engineer and Kenneth a waiter in an upscale DC restaurant frequented by the politicians. The three friends meet at the store after hours to drink, converse and support each other in their efforts to forge their identities in their new country. Mengestu received a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a 5 under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation – and deservedly so to judge by his writing in this book. (This book itself was a NY Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year.) He fills us in on the events in Ethiopia which drove Stephanos to leave his mother and brother behind in that country. The descriptions of Stephanos and his relationship with his father are extremely touching. If you have ever spent any time in Washington DC you will recognize how accurately Mengetsu captures the detail and feel of that city. As gentrification comes to the neighborhood so, too, does racial tension.

A frequent visitor to the store is Naomi, age 11. Despite the difference in their ages and across a significant cultural divide, a friendship develops between Stephanos and Naomi born of their mutual love of books and reading. Watching them spend the slow hours in the store reading The Brothers Karamazov together confirms again where the true treasures in life are to be found.

This book may not have the endurance of The Brothers K but it also portrays a struggle – in this case of the immigrant experience at a particular time and place in our history. The next time that I am in that corner store, it will be a different experience for me, too.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Living and Dying

Philip Roth is arguably one of our best contemporary writers. He has written twenty seven books. Some of his latest books, “American Pastoral” and “The Plot Against America” are wonderful novels for which Mr. Roth has won numerous awards. So it was with great anticipation that I began reading “Everyman”, which was published in 2006. It is a short book, only 182 pages. As I read it I kept thinking, it will get better, something surprising or redeeming will happen. But it didn’t.

“Everyman” is the story of “everyman” and our protagonist is never named. Our “hero” grows up in Elizabeth, New Jersey the son of a successful and very reliable jeweler. He grows up and leads a very ordinary life. But extraordinary in that he has numerous health problems that plague him from the time he is nine years old until the day he dies. He is a successful commercial advertising artist, he marries young and has two sons. Not satisfied with this life he leaves his wife and sons for the love of his life and has a daughter. When he strays with a model he meets on an advertising shoot, he loses wife number two and ends up in sad marriage with a beautiful but self involved ninny. Our everyman learns that all this effort has led him to a life of isolation.

Along this path to loneliness and isolation our hero encounters health problems and intricate operations. The reader is treated to play by play descriptions of the numerous procedures as we watch our hero slowly disintegrate. After the 9/11 attacks he escapes to a “retirement village” at the Jersey Shore. He begins to paint in earnest and to give painting lessons to other seniors, but alas his health problems siege him : “The year after the insertion of the renal stent, he had surgery in his left carotid artery…….” Philip Roth portrays old age as a “total massacre”.

There are redeeming moments in this story when our hero expresses his love for his daughter by his second wife and laments the terrible relationship he has with his sons from his first marriage. He also helps a elderly woman in his painting class who is suffering from debilitating pain. The reader can almost like our hero as he visits the graveyard of his parents contemplating his own death with pathos. But the author pulls us back to reality as our hero undergoes yet another surgery that chronicles the end. Mr. Roth seems to be telling us the real meaning of life is that is has to end, and it may not be pleasant along the way.

We do know that Philip Roth knows how to write, but I’m not sure his philosophy of life and death constitute great reading material.

Friday, September 12, 2008


The title of Jhumpa Lahiri's latest story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Custom House. In describing how human nature needs to be transplanted in order to flourish Hawthorne says: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth”. The Indian characters in all eight of these stories have been transplanted. But do they always flourish?

In the title story, unaccustomed earth refers not only to transplanted lives, but quite literally to the earth itself, as Ruma, newly settled in Seattle, is visited by her father. He plants a garden for her, and establishes a loving connection with his grandson, but father and daughter are never quite able to share their secrets. In the exquisite “Hell-Heaven”, a daughter's view of her mother changes as she moves from childhood to adulthood. The last three stories, grouped under the title “Hema and Kaishuk”, trace the lives of these two transplants from the Cambridge of their childhood to their chance encounter in Rome as adults.

In one sense the characters are quite specific – first and second generation Bengalis transplanted to the United States. But Lahiri is so talented at describing the bonds that both connect and constrain her characters – husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers – that their appeal is universal. Not all the stories are equally successful. I thought that “Going Ashore”, the final story in the “Hema and Kaishuk” section, was somewhat contrived. But the first and second stories in that section more than make up for that, especially “Year's End”, where Kaishuk, then a college student, struggles to deal with the loss of his mother and the new life his father has built. Lahiri's prose seems effortless. I never see her pulling the strings but I am drawn into her stories, wanting to follow her characters. Her stories are often sad, sometimes even heartbreaking, but always compelling.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Running Writer

On occasion I have read a book review that was so thoroughly negative that I wondered “What is the point of publishing such a negative review?” Why, when there are so many books from which to choose and so many good ones, waste paper, ink, space and time with a negative one? I’m reading reviews to find books that I want to read, not books that I don’t want to read. So now I find myself on the other side of the table. I have read a book about which I was planning to write for this blog. But I have been so disappointed in the book. Should I still write the blog? Do readers want a negative opinion? Years from now, will it be a candidate for my own “Oops!” list? (See NY Times 10.06.1996 for a sampling of reviews that history has judged differently.) But I did read it and I do have an opinion - so here goes.

I am a runner. I have run two marathons and hope to do a third next month. With luck, a good physical therapist and some discipline, I look forward to running for a long time. So What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir by Haruki Murakami, was an irresistible choice. Murakami describes himself as a running writer. He has completed many marathons, triathlons and an ultra-marathon, many of which he describes in this book. He has published more than ten novels (including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), many short stories and a non-fiction account of the Tokyo gas attack in 1995. From the book jacket one learns that he has won many prizes for his writing.

It’s not that his life is not interesting. He describes owning and running a bar. He runs the original marathon course in Greece – in reverse! The unifying thread of the book is his preparation for running the New York City marathon in 2005. Much of the preparation takes place in Hawaii and Japan and Murakami includes some informative descriptions of the various locales. He has the best description of a sixteen-year-old that I ever expect to read: “Sixteen is an intensely troublesome age. You worry about little things, can’t pinpoint where you are in any objective way, become really proficient at strange, pointless skills, and are held in thrall by inexplicable complexes.” (I’m reading this five years too late.)

But overall I was sorely disappointed in the writing itself. I want to ask: could it be the translation? The very best writing (I thought) was a reprint that he includes in the middle of the book of a previously published article describing the Athens-Marathon run. Having spent time in Cambridge, MA, I felt an emotional connection with his description of running along the Charles River – but would it have been the same if I hadn’t been there?

If nothing else, I took away a valuable mantra, not just for running but for life: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” With that in the book’s Foreward, it is then surprising that Murakami spends a lot of time and ink bemoaning his advancing age and the natural physical deterioration that comes with it. While he describes this as a memoir, it is really his training journal filled in with some reminiscences. It felt to me as if he were writing to exorcise his own demons and to recapture his previous love of running.

If you’re not a runner, this book is not likely to inspire you to want to become one. And if you are a reader, this book is not likely to inspire you to want to read more by this author except possibly to find out if there is a different quality to his fiction writing.

So what do you think about negative reviews: do they have a place here or elsewhere?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Young and The Old

Literary scholars, Olivier Pilipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt were commissioned to write a biography of Irene Nemirovsky, author of the highly acclaimed novel, “Suite Françoise”. When they began their research they discovered the missing pages of Irene Nemirovsky’s unfinished novel, “Fire in the Blood”, possibly written in 1940 or 1941 shortly before she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died.

“Fire in the Blood” is a beautifully written, compact novella. It is the story of, Silvio, the narrator, short for Sylvestre which means “creature of the woods”. Silvio had grown up in a small French village, but wanted only to leave and travel the world. He returned to the village where he was born---the prodigal son, having had many adventures but having spent his inheritance. He now lived “holed up in a farmer’s hovel, in the middle of the woods” remembering his youth.

The secrets of Silvio’s family and the villagers are slowly revealed. The story is set in the beautiful French countryside amid the villagers who live in their own homes, own their land, hoard their money, distrust their neighbors and covet their land.

When Silvio’s niece, Colette, marries, Silvio begins to relive the past. Did he live his life the right way? His cousin, Helene and her husband Francois seem to have the perfect marriage. But when Colette’s husband is murdered Silvio begins to remember “the fire in the blood” that seems to plague the young. In his youth Silvio loved Helene but questions whether it was the fire or the heart that led him . The author shows how the “fire in the blood” plagued her all characters, Silvio, Helene, Colette, her lover, Marc, and Bridget. The author reveals her characters as they agonize over the repercussions of “the fire”. Silvio questions whether the fire is only sexual love or could it be love in the heart, “It devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done.”

The reader questions whether Silvio is regretting his life. He thinks Helen’s marriage to Francois is “too perfect” but it is Silvio who is alone. He regretted that Helene left him and that he was old, “I want my youth back”. Silvio did not seem to regret where the “fire” led him when he was young. But, he does know that “the fire in the blood” and the secrets it held, led himself and the others to scandal, death, deceit and sadness.

We are very fortunate that Irene Nemirovsky's biographers found and published this book. It was a joy to read this short, passionate story set in a time and a place, before a war changed everything.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lively Language

I've never read a book quite like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I'm having a hard time figuring out how to describe it. So I'll start with the title character Oscar. He lives in New Jersey, and he's the antithesis of the stereotypical Dominican. Instead of being a smooth-talking sharp-dressing ladies man, he's an overweight nerd who loves action comics, role play games and Lord of the Rings. He longs for a girlfriend but he is socially inept, and speaks in a combination of SAT vocabulary words, elvish and Spanglish. A lot of time I read this book sitting at my computer, so I could use Google Translate. I now know the names for virtually all female body parts in Spanish.

But after author Junot Diaz opens his book with Oscar's story he expands it, moving forward and backward in time, to include Oscar's runaway sister Lola and his mother, the fierce and beautiful Belicia. The novel is not just about Oscar but about fukú, a curse that hangs over his family and follows them from Santo Domingo to Patterson, New Jersey and back again. This expansion allows Diaz to weave in a lot of history of the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo and his successor Joaquin Balaguer. Actually 'weave' is probably not the right word, since much of this historical information is given in the factual but irreverent footnotes sprinkled through the book. The brutality of the Trujillo regime strikes the lives of Belicia's parents and her sisters, and Beli herself is forced to escape for New York when she is only sixteen.

Diaz has an amazing gift for language. He writes touchingly about Oscar's longing to find a girlfriend, or even just to be kissed, but at the same time so much of what he writes is so funny. It's slangy, energetic, street smart, full of references to everything from J.R. Tolkien to Mario Vargas Llosa, riffing about women, love, and fukú. It can sometimes be hard work understanding his polyglot prose, but I found it well worth the effort.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What is a Potato Peel Pie?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows deserves every moment that it will spend on the NY Times bestseller list - and then some. It is creative, entertaining and informative. It will warm the hearts of every book lover and book club member. You will laugh, you will cry, you will shudder, you will sigh. Need I say more? I don't know what it would be.

The back story of how this novel came to be written and published is also interesting - and more so for those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area as these are two local authors. The novel was 30 years in the making by Marin resident Mary Ann Shaffer. After the book was picked up at auction by The Dial Press in 2006, Ms. Shaffer became too ill to complete the revisions. So Ms. Shaffer asked her niece, Berkeley resident Annie Barrows (herself a published author) to take on the task. Barrows completed the revisions in December 2007 and was able to show the completed manuscript to her aunt before Shaffer died in February 2008 at age 73. You can read more of the background in the profile published in the SF Chronicle on August 27, 2008.

The entire book is a series of letters written in 1946 to and from Juliet Ashton, a successful London writer looking for her next book project. Her correspondents include her best friend from high school, her publisher, a wealthy suitor and an increasing roster of survivors of the German occupation of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. It is these latter correspondents who are the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The letters are full of history and humor and enough literary references for many more months (or years) of reading. Once again we see and feel the transformative power of books and reading.

So go do something that you have been dreading or putting off (cleaning, taxes, organizing...) and then reward yourself with this book. You won't be disappointed!

Author reading: Saturday Sept. 6, 7:30 pm, San Anselmo Library

Book website:

Monday, September 1, 2008

Survival and Friendship

Kate Furnivall, an English writer, discovered as an adult that her very English mother was not English at all. Her mother had fled Russia, as a child, with her parents and emigrated first, to China and then to England. Having learned of her new heritage Ms. Furnivall vowed to learn everything she could about her newly discovered ancestors and their ravished country. She then wrote two novels about Russian women who survived the Bolshevik revolution. Her first novel “The Russian Concubine” was published in 2007.

Kate Furnivall’s second novel “The Red Scarf” is an historical fictionalized novel that begins in the Davinsky labor camp in Siberia, Russia in 1933. Two young Russian women are struggling to survive the cruel treatment, harsh labor and sub zero temperatures in this compound known as “The Zone”. The author’s stark descriptions of the hardship of the camp, the extreme cold, the lack of food, and the inhumane cruelty of the guards, give the reader a vivid sense of the horror that took place at this time in history.

Sofia Morozova, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, is sentenced to ten years in the compound. There she meets, Anna Fedorina, the daughter of a Russian aristocrat who was killed in Petrograd during the revolution. In the camp Anna saves Sofia’s life when her hand is seriously injured and an subsequent infection threatens her life. As the young women struggle daily to survive, they begin to tell each other stories of their lives before the camp. Anna’s stories of her wonderful childhood in Petrograd and her love for her childhood friend, Vasily, enchant Sofia. When Anna develops a violent cough that will not go away, Sofia vows to escape from the camp and bring help to Anna.

Sofia’s brave escape and difficult journey through the forests of Siberia bring her to the village of Tivil, where she believes she will find Vasily, who will rescue Anna. The story meanders as Sofia is taken in by a family of gypsies and she finds love in the village. But, the heroine cannot forget the reason she in Tivil. She must find Vasily and convince him to return to the labor camp and rescue Anna. In the village there are many characters, and events that interact to tell this story of life under Stalin, in Pre World War II Russia. It is very interesting to read and learn about this dark period in history for the people of Russia.

The last part of the story is steeped with drama and the ending seems too contrived. But, Kate Furnivall has written a captivating historical novel with strong, likable characters that is interesting and intriguing to read.