Wednesday, September 20, 2017

HERE I AM by Jonathan Safran Foer

Both father and son, Jacob and Sam, are in trouble because of words they’ve written.  Jacob, a TV writer, has been sexting a colleague from work.  When Jacob’s wife Julia discovers the texts on his phone, divorce seems imminent, and Julia becomes involved in a flirtation of her own.  Unfortunately, the couple has three sons, all too smart for their own good, of which Sam is the oldest.  Sam has been accused of writing dirty words during Hebrew school, and his bar mitzvah won’t take place unless he apologizes.  Sam, however, steadfastly declares his innocence.  Jacob believes him, but Julia does not.  The family’s problems are amplified when an earthquake in Israel has catastrophic consequences.  The novel also deals with two ailing characters, the family dog Argus and Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a Holocaust survivor.  Both are well-loved, and their suffering is heartbreaking and problematic.  One of Jacob’s most upsetting memories is that of his father disposing of a dead squirrel.  This incident has implications for Jacob’s decision regarding Argus, who may or may not be ready for euthanasia.  Isaac’s quality of life is on the decline also, and many of us have grappled with how best to make a loved one’s final years comfortable.  As is the case with Foer’s previous novels, this one is very introspective and also fairly long, so it’s not for everybody.   Jacob, though, demonstrates his power with words in some very snappy and often hilarious dialog.  He is the focal point of this novel—a mostly good man but definitely not heroic.  In other words, he’s very human.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore

As historical fiction goes, this feels more historical than fictional, but apparently the author has taken a few liberties with the truth.  In any case, it’s the story of a legal battle between Westinghouse and Edison, and heading Westinghouse’s team is a young, inexperienced attorney named Paul Cravath.  This is largely Paul’s story, with an assortment of better-known characters, including Thomas Edison, who serves as, not just an opponent, but an all-out villain.  Cravath is an obvious underdog to Edison’s Goliath, but he enlists the help of some unlikely accomplices, such as an opera singer and J.P. Morgan.  The battle is for the patent of the light bulb, but a more important issue is the question of whether AC or DC is more desirable.  Edison paints alternating current as dangerous and even pushes for the use of an electric chair using AC as an execution device.  Nikola Tesla is the brains behind a number of inventions of the era and comes across here as someone on the autism spectrum.  This is an educational and entertaining read, never too technical, and not unlike one of Erik Larson’s books of nonfiction.  There’s something here for everybody:  romance, intrigue, suspense, reconciliation—you name it.  I guarantee, though, that you will never think of Thomas Edison in the same way again.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Steve Kluger

While WWII is raging in Europe, Joey Margolis is a 12-year-old Jewish kid in NY whose father is no longer a factor in his life.  Joey begins a letter-writing campaign with Giants third baseman and all-around tough guy Charlie Banks, lobbying for Charlie to hit a home run for him.  Joey feigns an assortment of illnesses, but Charlie sees through his fictional complaints.  Nevertheless, the two find something in each other that inspires them to continue their correspondence.  Joey navigates his way through bullying, adolescent romance, his best friend’s internment, and his bar mitzvah, with badly-spelled guidance from Charlie.  For his part, Joey offers a chance for Charlie to demonstrate what a good man he really is, not only to Joey but also to Hazel MacKay, a Hollywood starlet whom Charlie adores.  Joey is resourceful as he investigates Charlie’s past and uses his ingenuity to get what he wants from almost everybody.  This is the third epistolary novel I’ve read (Vanessa and Her Sister, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), and I’ve enjoyed all of them.  This one does tail off eventually into sentimentality, but most of the novel is hysterically funny, particularly when Joey and Charlie are discussing politics.  Several other letter-writers get in their two cents, but one of the funniest Joey’s Aunt Carrie.  She’s not a fan of Charlie’s, and neither is Joey’s rabbi, but both of them soften as the novel progresses.  And you’ll never think of Ethel Merman in quite the same way after reading this delightful novel.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

THE AGE OF REINVENTION by Karine Tuil

The beginning of this novel is a little confusing because the two main characters’ names are similar—Samir and Samuel.  There’s a reason for this.  Samir, a Muslim, adopts some of Samuel’s history as his own and even succeeds in passing himself off as a Jew, in order to further his career.  The two men were friends in law school in France, along with Nina, who is adored by both men.  She stays with Samuel, a struggling author, who threatens to kill himself otherwise, while Samir, now known simply as Sam, launches a lucrative law career and marries a very wealthy woman.  Years later, Nina and Samuel reconnect with Samir, who persuades Nina to return to the States with him and become his mistress.  The wild card in all this is Samir’s real family, especially his half-brother Francois, kept secret from his wife, her family, and his colleagues.  Samir has to tread carefully to avoid exposure of his real roots, but nothing in the book prepared me for what happens in the second half.  In fact, the storyline fairly gallops to its conclusion, and I would have given this book five stars if the first half were nearly as riveting.  One other minor quibble I have with this book is that, although the author is a woman, the female characters—Samir’s wife, Samir’s mother, and especially Nina—are given short shrift.  This is basically a story of two men in a rollercoaster of role reversals and rivalry on several levels.  Samir is not the only one who reinvents himself; the same can be said for Francois and Samuel as well.  I’m quite surprised that this novel hasn’t received more attention, particularly given the timeliness of the plot, which loses nothing in the translation.  As for the footnotes, I would recommend that readers ignore them.  I found them to be an attempt at humor by supplying a brief backstory for insignificant characters that really isn’t necessary, given the irony that is already at work here.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck

Marianne is a woman of high integrity who expects the same from everyone else in Nazi Germany.  Her husband and Marianne’s longtime friend Connie (a man) are resisters who die in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Marianne tracks down Benita, Connie’s wife, and their son Martin and brings them to her family’s castle to wait out the aftermath of the war.  Then Ania and her two boys join the household, where Ania brings much-need cooking skills and a practical nature.  Over the course of the next few years, the women grow closer, but Ania and Benita’s secrets that eventually come to light appall the judgmental Marianne, causing rifts that may never be mended.  Benita is beautiful, but we never fully understand, nor does Marianne, what else, if anything, Connie saw in her, because she comes across as shallow.  She is also resentful that Connie died in a plot she was unaware of and didn’t necessarily support.  As for Ania, Marianne would never have taken her in had she known the truth about her past.  The author takes a stab at explaining why Germans were so enthralled with Hitler, particularly before he began systematically exterminating Jews.  As with so many books of this sort, the ending entails a reunion of sorts.  I’ve seen reviews that likened this book to Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, and, although I was not overly impressed by either book, at least the writing here is much better.  The sentences are not so stubby, but the characters don’t really come to life.  Marianne and Benita are one-dimensional.  Ania is a more complicated character, but her role in the novel trails off at the end.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We meet our first-person unnamed narrator, half French and half Vietnamese, educated in the U.S., as he and the South Vietnamese general he works for are preparing to exit Saigon at the last possible moment after the war.  Their hair-raising escape is the first of several tragic adventures in this novel.  Our narrator is a double-agent, providing information to his communist contact in the North.  We follow the narrator to southern California, where a number of Vietnamese refugees settle into low-paying jobs.  He then travels to the Philippines as a consultant for a movie about the war, which has some similarities to Apocalypse Now.  I found this to be the least compelling section of the book, not to mention a little unnecessary, except to reinforce how clueless we Americans were about the people we were supposedly fighting for.  When other reviewers have found this book “darkly comic,” perhaps they are referring to this section, but nothing about his book struck me as funny in the least.  Finally, the narrator becomes part of a group who is training for a return to Vietnam to resume the fight against the Communist regime, while he is still an undercover agent.  I did not love this book, but I did admire it.  The perspective is fresh, but the plot is very, very dark, in some ways like the novel Unbroken.  The narrator is a blend of nationalities and divided loyalties where the divided country that is Vietnam is concerned.  As a child he swore allegiance to two friends who happen to be on opposite sides of the conflict.  Some of the things that the narrator has to do to maintain his cover in the USA are horrifying and made me think of the TV show “The Americans.”  These acts haunt the narrator, but they have the desired effect in that he ultimately gets what he wants in return.  The price, though, is staggering.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

The bulk of this novel is actually the text of a prison inmate’s writing assignment.  The novel within a novel is the story of Danny, a ne’er-do-well who travels to Europe to work for his cousin Howie.  The trip has redemptive purposes on several levels.  When Danny and Howie were kids, Danny and another boy abandoned Howie in a cave.  Howie, now Howard as an adult, has purchased a medieval castle that he plans to renovate into a sort of Zen hotel.  Danny, ever on edge for fear that Howie will seek some kind of payback, explores the castle grounds, including “the keep,” which is home to an elderly baroness.  He gets into a few scrapes but gains favor with Howie when he frequently turns up with useful intel.  Danny’s story is creepy and maybe a borderline fantasy, but it’s certainly no worse than our prisoner’s cellmate’s radio for contacting the dead.  The prisoner, author of Danny’s story, is Ray, who has a crush on the writing teacher, Holly.   Honestly, this book didn’t hold my attention very well, until Ray’s connection to his writing assignment is revealed.  We also finally get Holly’s backstory as well, and the plot steamrolls to a very satisfying ending.  This book is not something I would generally recommend, because it’s a bit weird, but Jennifer Egan’s work is often a little strange, and yet it feels very current.  This book came out in 2006, but one of Danny’s hangups is that being without his cellphone is highly unpleasant and launches him into a panic.  Eleven years later his technology addiction doesn’t sound weird at all.