In which I recount traveling between DC public libraries in search of NaNo swag, and about how I acquired some surprising swag while leaving the theatre for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”! You never know from where new books will enter your life.
November 23, 2015
November 15, 2015
I wrote fiction! A brief amount at the local library write-in, before my computer battery started giving me trouble. :/ Luckily, should all be sorted.
I read my “The Corners” Silver Spring Novelists meetup synopsis, and then an excerpt from a short story I wrote in my 1995 summer writing workshop. Hopefully my style has changed…the themes that intrigue me as a writer, not so much. :P
November 9, 2015
Still haven’t gotten to any fiction, and that slightly bums me out. :/ May have to make that a priority soon. And yet I’m finally plugging away at other projects, so yay.
I talk about my social life calendar this week that did NOT have to do with actual writing (although I did partake in my writing critique group. :P) Also showed off my cool NaNo donations; you can donate to the nonprofit here!
November 1, 2015
Tags: Fiction, GoodReads, Jewish fiction, Newsletter, Young adult fiction
Hello and welcome! Getting a late start on the newsletter this month. My big literary exploits of October center around the Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival—I attended Replacement Lives: David Bezmozgis, Boris Fishman and Lara Vapnyar in Conversation, and Intrepid Time Travelers: New Fiction by Mary Morris, Jami Attenberg and Jessamyn Hope. You can my recap of these events here.
In other news, I’m officially introducing a new segment to this newsletter! It’s been on my mind for a long time, and I’ve finally had the gumption to sit down and put it together. :P I won’t be doing this every month, but hopefully you’ll now be getting sporadic book videos from me. I hope you enjoy.
Decided to go inspirational/promotional with this library book truck find from Reading is Fundamental. Yay and mazel tov to all bookish nonprofits; thanks for everything that you do!
Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!
Got through one less book this time than last. Was sprinting to my end-of-month cutoff with Jacob’s Folly, too! (First book I’ve checked out of the DC public library, teehee.) Safekeeping took me two weeks to complete (oy,) but it turned into my favorite book of October, so. :P Also got through The Middlesteins in under two days. :O Ah, lazy, bookish three-day weekends; how I love you. Helps that it was a short novel (304 pages, compared to my usual 350-400-plus) as well, hee.
I did enjoy the story, though it took awhile for me to get the names straight. I think I may have been distracted by outside forces, though. There’s a lot of character POVs that deal directly, indirectly and then unrelated to the plane crashes in Elizabeth in the ’50s. The crashes themselves were horrific, and I felt ashamed, that when putting this book on my TBR, I did not give the loss of life much thought; I thought of the crashes in ridiculously clinical terms. Blume has us right on the ground, with the loss and terror happening short term on the planes and long term in the town. Some of her POVs only existed briefly to chronicle one crash. I may have removed them and focused more concretely on the main families and their company–the Ammermans, Osners, McKittricks–but they certainly packed a punch either way.
Some of the unrelated drama revolved around what it meant to be Jewish, or Greek, in an assimilating society, but this didn’t really feel like a cultural book on the whole. Still, maybe I appreciated this even more, the way Judaism plays into the lives of characters that I wouldn’t classify as being part of a Jewish novel. It reminded me a bit of “Are You There, Gd? It’s Me, Margaret,” of course.
In retrospect, it seems only natural to imagine the mythical golem, created to my an unquestioningly obedient servant, as some sort of metaphor for stereotypical femininity. I have even less right to speculate on ancient Arabian folklore than I do with Yiddish ones, but going by the jinni in this book, with his reckless self-regard and sexual prowess, he’s sort of the metaphor for stereotypical masculinity. The wandering nights between the golem and the jinni dragged a little, but I found them fascinating, in their fantastical way of dissecting desires, impulses, internal nature and isolation.
On the surface these two mythological creatures might be seen as one-dimensional, but I found that to be more true of the main antagonist, to gleam over the spoilers details, and all of his generations of evilness. This story arc, ultimately, was dull and merely plot serving, though I liked the “ancient” (more ancient than the late-19th century New York cast, at least,) Bedouins on the sidelines. I also generally liked the other side characters from New Syria and the Jewish Lower East Side. They weren’t necessarily drawn with much complexity either, but they evoked ethnic realities of a time and place. I also have to give Wecker some kudos for making a distinctive, past New York geography come alive without making it feel like reading a text book.
The narrative was a little less structured than I anticipated. Nonlinear and somewhat unfocused chapter by chapter, we only get Edie’s POV, and she’s arguably the main character, in flashbacks, and then we jump around to various, always a bit self-absorbed accounts from her (ex)-husband, kids and others. Attenberg doesn’t really share the “why” about Edie’s weight jumping so rapidly in the last ten years, though I assumed the horrible Italy trip and generally her kids moving on with their lives had something to do with it. But I respect that it’s not that simple, either–certainly isn’t in real life–when you’ve had weight problems and food addiction since you were a child. Attenberg does a fantastic job of describing the allure of food–not only for Edie, but for many of the characters. Edie is just writ large–no pun intended–because her addiction is out of control.
Attenberg provides no answers on who is to blame for what’s happened–it comes down to personal opinion, really, whether a person should buck up on their own, or if family and friends should step in. The obvious antagonism was between Edie and her ex-husband, Richard; I appreciated the subtlety that Attenberg gave them; neither was an implicitly good or bad person. Both struggled with what was happening–maybe Richard more than Edie; I kind of wish she got a POV in the present. Neither came up with clear answers. The friends, narrated in the “we” form at the twins’ b’nai mitzvah, abdicated the most responsibility and felt the least guilty about it; wasn’t their place to interfere. I was mostly struck by the fact that they only seemed “close” to the Middlesteins in a conventional sense, and that until Kenneth, perhaps (with his own flawed judgement about her condition) no one really knew Edie as an individual. I appreciate that Attenberg gave more to her personality than just her weight, although perhaps not much more. It can become suffocating, overwhelming, especially when the whole world just sees you for one thing.
Thematically, the novel chronicles the lifespan of a 700-year-old brooch. Divided into three parts, the first two contain “epilogues” that flash back to earlier times in modern day Germany–the first, when the Jewish creator of the brooch gave it, and his grandson, to a Christian servant to save during a pogrom, and then, in the eerily similar 1945, when Franz, presumably a descendant and a main character of this novel who escapes from a ghetto and into Palestine, first stops by his old home, now occupied by Aryans, to swipe the brooch from his mother’s hiding place. Finally, 20 years after the events of the main story on an Israeli kibbutz in 1994, it becomes part of a museum exhibit.
The main story is sort of the warped image of the three epilogues, which chronicle vicious antisemitism. In the summer of 1994, most of Israel hopes it will find lasting peace in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Even after a main character, Ofir, is injured in a bus bombing, Hope’s narrative is infused with a sense of…hope. :p. But the narrators inhabit a far more specific Israeli world as well, the dying one of the pioneering kibbutzniks. The main setting of the novel, Kibbutz Sadot Hadar, is in the midst of campaigning (and later voting) for or against wage inequalities based on job, the privatization of money and basically the end of the ideology from which this community was forged.
There wasn’t a whole lot of schmaltzy resolution for these characters, save perhaps for Ziva and her son, Eyal. And I can forgive that, really, given the death’s door thing. Claudette and Ofir were pretty touching, bittersweet, perhaps, but other storylines didn’t tie up so neatly. Kind of like real life. I also really appreciate the moral complexity of these characters.
With time, I grew to appreciate how, with this magical realist conceit, Wolitzer explored how depression feels, what it does to you, and how to move on (or not) with your life. In a realistic setting, I might be eyebrow archy over the fact that Mrs. Quenell’s special class was never fully realized for what it was by the administration–or at least why didn’t any of her former students whom she helped so much come to her retirement party? But mostly, how is it that only Sierra chose the specific path that she did? I found that less believable than the ultimate resolution of her story in the outside world, even though that’s a bit unusual as well.
Granted, the shocking twist for Jam’s story near the end held my attention greatly and gave me new perspectives on her troubles and her ultimate growth. It really was a beautiful story in describing depression AND the power of literature, though maybe Wolitzer was a bit too preachy with that. There wasn’t really much of a narrative arc with Sylvia Plath’s poetry or novel (obvious title inspiration for this one) per se, though we did get to experience one of her pieces through Jam’s perspective. That’s something.
Jacob, as the “fly on the wall” conscience, plays Puck with these peoples’ lives, likely influenced by events from his own human life and break from Judaism, which we see as stemming from an antisemitic “My Fair Lady” scenario. Our protagonist’s ultimate realization that causing harm never feels as good as anticipated makes enough sense in story, though his “return to religion,” as it were, is a little too Hallmark for me. I suppose I’d better back off of the metaphors now. :P
I always enjoy Jewish historical novels for giving a glance into different points in history–I’ve mentioned Jacob’s provenance, and unsurprisingly we take a small dip into a Holocaust story. It was a little disjointed between the past and present, but I liked the parallels between Jacob and Masha’s stories, what it meant to be religious, and what it meant to be part of their respective secular societies. Maybe I’m being too hard on Jacob’s ultimate realization, because I spent much of his backstory lamenting how easy it was to dismiss Jewish peoplehood.
Wider variety this month, or perhaps I thought about some of them more than usual. I’ll explain below!
- To Amazon wish list: The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel; mysticism in a Montreal Jewish family. Since adding it, I’ve seen it promoted a bit on my Facebook. I suppose that’s not a shocker. :P Down Under by Sonia Taitz; billed as “Romeo and Juliet” between Jewish and Catholic teenagers. I’m mostly hopeful that the secondary characters might be fleshed out and give this story a broader dimension. Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife by Rebecca Kanner; fleshing out this biblical woman. Kanner’s more recent book, Esther, was being promoted on the Jewish Book Council, but I was more intrigued about a “midrash” on a biblical woman with almost no story, vs Esther who gets decent attention around Purim. :P
- Been Here a Thousand Years by Mariolina Venezia. After #FerranteFever, I was eager to sink my teeth into more Italian novelists. Venezia came up in this BookRiot article.
- Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. My mom figured I’d enjoy this book, so I thought I’d best add it to the TBR so it doesn’t get too lost in the shuffle. :P It’s a literary novel about the lives, loves and aspirations of two couples.
- The People Are Forever Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu. Coming-of-age story for three Israeli friends who go through high school together, and then separate for army service. Made the survey for Jewish Book Club reads, but not the final cut.
- From Amazon wish list: Lola Bensky by Lily Brett. The daughter of Holocaust survivors in Australia becomes a rock journalist. Supposed to be a mix of 1960s culture and psychological development. The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor. Chronicling the Rosenberg trial from the perspective of a neighbor. I had another of Cantor’s novels, Margot, on my wishlist for awhile, but I was less interested in reading a fictional account of Margot Frank, had she survived the Holocaust. Apparently I’m more into fiction in my (historical) fiction of late. :P
Welcome to my new segment! I’m hoping to use my YouTube channel to occasionally add supplementary content about Jewish literature. I have in mind that I can review authors with whom I’m familiar and perhaps compare finalists/winners of the Sami Rohr prize. Today, I’m starting with a brief accounting of Allegra Goodman. Hope you enjoy!
I debated when I should do this particular meme, but considering that the film will be out in theatres before my next newsletter, I figured it should be now. Next (this) month is NaNoWriMo, meaning my reading schedule will be heavily truncated (thank goodness for multitasking with audiobooks. :P) I’ll likely do a meme along those lines. But for now, please enjoy my HUNGER GAMES tag. :D (I’ll link to my three reviews up here–The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Enjoy!) And happy reading!
October 21, 2015
Fresh from a new-to-me meetup group (when filming, if not when ultimately posting), the Silver Spring Novelists, I herald in my twelfth NaNoWriMo.
I talk about changes, personal and literary, between last year and this year, and explain why I’m embarking upon being a “NaNo rebel.”
Check back on this blog throughout November for weekly updates on my progress. See my writing profile here. Happy writing!
September 30, 2015
Tags: Fiction, GoodReads, Jewish fiction, Newsletter, Science fiction, Young adult fiction
Hello and welcome! Been kind of a crazy month for me. I started off by going to the National Book Festival, where I did not get anything for myself :O (I was eyeing Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer) but I did get a signed copy of Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet for my niece from THE Buzz Aldrin. :D
But alas, amidst sad feelings, I skipped out on the Baltimore Book Fest entirely this past weekend. One of the reasons being that I wanted to make major headway in book four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I made myself this goal, see, tied into the hashtag #FerranteFever, that I wanted to finish the series in September.
So, it’s not often that I can go all fangirl-squealy over a literary fiction author (much less an anonymous one from Italy) but I do so happen to have a “Ferrante story.” I found her translated novel, The Lost Daughter, years ago while browsing Borders clearance sales. I loved it, and I could swear that I lent my mother my copy, and then I bought my sister another Ferrante backlist book for her birthday. Neither has any recollection of this (my book, sadly, is lost somewhere,) but some months ago my mother came across the first Neapolitan book in a bookshop. After learning that I had books two and three she snatched them from me, and then gave all three to my sister to read. I was waiting to start the series when the fourth book came out, but meanwhile my mother and sister were devouring those previous. Once I pre-ordered the final, they snatched it out of my hands. :P They read all the books before me! But I was the one who got them hooked on #FerranteFever!
Figured I couldn’t mention Buzz Aldrin without showing a picture of him signing books. :P Plus, it breaks up the monotony of my usual tome-closeup spotlight pics, hee.
Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!
So, as I mentioned above, I meant to make this my Ferrante reading month, but in the first week of September I was distracted by the Kashua book, which had been recently bequeathed to me from my library hold list. So I kinda/sorta re-dubbed this the month of reading translated fiction…and then I listened to some audiobooks. :P But hey, in a way, doesn’t that count, too? Was my first time counting audiobooks as part of my new literature intake, yup yup.
I’m also struck by the inadequacy of the rating system this month. I gave everything a four, but I feel quite differently about all of it; the written reviews are much more pertinent. I was probably too stringent with the Neapolitan novels anyway; they’re still fantastic, and the main characters are uniquely memorable. More below!
Kashua showed us a world where individual Jews and Arabs got along well, though when talking about each other in general, the claws often came out. Perhaps the most implicitly damning, or maybe this is my own biases again, were the shallow stereotypes that the leftist Jewish-Israeli students dealt in–like yeah, the occupation is bad, but Arabs only care about a primitive sense of honor and only respond to force, yadda yadda. As ridiculous as these attitudes sounded within the narrative, I couldn’t help but realize that one of the driving plots of the story revolved around the lawyer finding flimsy evidence that his wife might be having an affair, and immediately fantasizing about killing her or stripping her of everything in a Sharia court. Though to be fair, there’s a difference between thoughts and actions. And I think this has less to do with Arab culture than with any patriarchal culture. Still, the lawyer was certainly my least favorite character.
I’ll end with what were probably the most harrowing lines for me, concerning Amir talking about his Jewish classmates–“I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. Like them. Like those who started to fill the dance floor with the knowledge that it was theirs, they who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity. Like them. Those who never looked for suspicious glances, whose loyalty was never questioned, whose acceptance was always taken for granted. Today I want to be like them without feeling like I’m committing a crime. I want to drink with them, dance with them, without feeling as though I’m trespassing in a foreign culture. To feel like I belong, without feeling guilty or disloyal. And what exactly was I being disloyal to?”
The first person, “looking back” style allows Ferrante to be very vague about specifics, even when so much of the story involves the rigorous pursuit/competition with academics. The first few chapters of the story, when Elena and Lila were in elementary school, were definitely the weakest. I hate being dismissive of children, but it certainly took until adolescence for their personalities to emerge, and for the amorphous issues of their world to start to form.
I have high hopes for this massive literary tome that seems to be taking a Joycean look at female lives and female friendships. On the surface, the competition between Elena and Lila could seem shallow and one dimensional, but the characters are too well developed for that. Lila’s righteousness to self-righteousness often sits up sharply in Elena’s mind, and Elena herself struggles between worlds, often trapping herself or lying to others as she tries to make sense of where she ought to be.
The end of this novel is surely the end of “childhood”–as Lila, savant that she is, shirks off education and engagements so that she feels that no one owns her, realizes that the choices she’s made still demean her in some ways (Oy, that final image was brilliant). Elena, meanwhile, finds through Nino an even broader understanding of being educated, and the differences between where she wants to go, and the toxically vicious world of her family.
Lila really moved me with her reading to actually gain understanding (occasionally–both in her worldly opinions and her everyday life–she was a bit hotheaded, but no one can be perfect). Speaking of a lack of perfection, Nino seemed to grow into someone who really just liked the sound of his own voice, and grew thin-skinned when he couldn’t dominate conversations. I was kind of falling out of love with him as the girls were falling more in love. The summer in Ischia felt long and never ending when I was in the middle of reading it, but I realize now what an important time it was for both girls, insisting out not only their relationships to men, Nino in particular, but also each other. I couldn’t ever view this as a shallow love triangle story, because Lila’s academic reawakening and Elena’s self-secret keeping made them so three-dimensional. I probably identified a little too much with Elena’s loneliness, too. :p
Things got a little stickier when Elena went to university–not only for the characters, but with the narration as well. Since Elena was no longer in the neighborhood, we often switched to what was almost third person (presumably Elena recounting what she heard about in hindsight) but it was a little jarring. I really liked the language in the final chapter, when Elena talked of “restoring the clear outlines” to her life after checking in with Lila, who is in a much different place now than at the beginning of the novel. It hearkens to book one, when Lila started losing outlines, everything dissolving, (One could say that this novel traced the entirety of one of her relationships–the one the book is named for. Anywho).
At the moment, Elena seems to be up and Lila seems to be down. But no one is so down, perhaps, as Pinuccia, Rino’s resigned and battered wife. She doesn’t have Lila’s resilience or even forethought to want something better, it seems, and this society, including our main characters, are familiar with and generally unquestioning of this abusive patriarchy. As more of the outside world starts to enter the story in tangible ways, I’m curious about how broader issues might affect the lives of our characters in Naples.
I was hoping that science fiction might lend itself a bit to an engaging plot, for multitasking purposes, but this one was quite meandering and gothic. Probably should have expected that more. I do feel like maybe Rice was examining through her vampires what it meant to be human–all of the passionate existential questions; the vivacity of the physical world (New Orleans was practically a character unto itself); the exuberant sensuality, both in regards to relationships to other vampires and to humans during the kill; even the fatalism at the end. Claudia was like a dark, struggling spirit–the child who could not die, who had neither the human foundation to form her character or be totally self-sufficient as a vampire. Louis, as Armand said, was the voice of his generation (I suppose it’s ok to grant him a century or so, seeing how different time is to vampires. :P)
Lestat didn’t really feel to me like the decadent “brat prince” from the movie until after he, Louis and Claudia moved into the city proper. Yes, I’ve seen the movie, and I might even go so far as to say that it’s my favorite of Tom Cruise’s and Brad Pitt’s work, and possibly Kirsten Dunst’s as well. The narrative could get a bit rambly after awhile (though part of that is just the style,) and although I don’t think “vampire worldbuilding” was the aim of this novel, there were some strange inconsistencies with the fellows in Eastern Europe, particularly with the well-persevered corpse in the undisturbed grave.
Lila truly is a remarkable character. So many people would be resigned to the grueling life she led at the beginning–and she certainly paid that piper–.but she ultimately got herself out, too, in part because of her innovation, and the mathematical games she encouraged in Enzo. Her fierce genuineness is something that leaps off the page, from rebuffing the newly vicious Bruno to taking the rich socialists to task for wanting to help the workers but not being able to imagine the dangerous complications of stirring shit up. That certainly seemed to have an effect on Naida, later in the story. Though, like Elena, I’m not sure I trust Lila’s most recent job as the story ends, and even the change in her personality. The Solaras continue to become more powerful in Naples as a whole, though I’m a little eyebrow archy over Michele’s obsession with Lila. I suppose he’s built her up as his manic pixie dream girl of sorts. :p
Elena’s grueling school regimen has ended, and the next stage of her life is more stagnant than she might like. I was taken with how ardently critics and academics wanted to twist Elena’s book into a political statement, or over-dramatize the sexual scenes in the novel. Made me think anew of the reasons why Ferrante might prefer anonymity. :p. The Neapolitan novels, in moving away from Naples, show us that all men can be pigs, no matter the location or upbringing–from Adele’s colleague making lewd passes at Elena, to Pietro himself, who is less than supportive when it comes to his wife’s feminist readings. Though I kind of feel bad for Pietro at the end. Elena, like Lila, is far from perfect, and both marriages are rocky. But there’s no denying that Pietro is less of a douche than Stefano–maybe he’s too rigid, or removed from the world around him, but he means well.
The politics certainly ratchet up in this segment, though most of the story takes place in the insular world of home. Violence has always run rampant, but now there’s a political component in fascists vs communists, and a slew of murders–the first really notable deaths since Don Achille in the first volume. The narrative touches briefly, in segments, on Vietnam and other world issues, in the flowing style that makes it secondary to Elena’s concerns as she reviews her life (we also jump to the future a few more times here, particularly with Gigliola).
Unlike the last two books, this one was named for an event that happened two thirds of the way through, rather than near the beginning. It’s also a very jarring event. So much else of the plot felt natural–relationships starting and breaking down, jobs, homes, sometimes political alliances and beliefs changing with time. As middle aged people, Elena and Lila felt more secure in the foundation of their beliefs (except, perhaps with each other) and less desperate to build up their education with books (Lila, in fact, got turned off even more by some book learning and how it doesn’t necessarily improve the characters of learned people). But the actual disappearance lay somewhere between a freak accident and an ultimate inevitability, if we look at the girl more as an extension of her mother than as a person in her own right,p. The text somewhat supports this outlook. There was a lot of violence and a lot of death in this book, leading up to the event and after it, but the lost child was definitely the axis on which the book turned.
The ending, with the dolls, was perhaps a little too conveniently cyclical. But then again, with so many other open ends, with so many other disappointing acceptances of Genarro’s lack of education or drive, or the chasms in the relationships between Elena and her three girls, this was perhaps soothing. Elena was desperate to find some fortified boundaries for her friend and Lila, ultimately, gave her one, so I’m led to believe.
Elena and Lila will definitely stick with me. Not that I think the point of these books was to create kinship with the reader, but I feel like I have both of their urges inside of me–the urge to be known for fiction writing and the urge to completely and utterly disappear. I feel some sympathy for Lila’s pessimism about the world, and basically want to be left alone. But, like Elena, I also want some proof that I’m worth something–of course that definition of worth and legacy shifts through the years. Maybe all any of us need is a brilliant friend to challenge us–even if we will never fully “succeed,” at least to strive.
There were only a few details in the fandom part that really made me eyebrow archy. First off, there was a mention of “Harry Potter”–undoubtedly the inspiration for Simon Snow–so it seemed a bit anachronistic, to imagine this world where Simon had taken Harry’s place in infamy, and Harry was just some forgettable character. But more importantly, why didn’t Cath have any real friends through the fandom? Her backstory referenced that she started out writing stories for pals in a forum, and now she still had a beta reader other than Wren…surely something more would have come from these relationships. I know a fair few people involved in online fandoms (and I’ve met some good friends through there myself); it seems inauthentic that she could dedicate so many serious years to this existence and have so little to show for it on a personal level. (Relatedly, why couldn’t she reach out to Simon Snow nerds on campus? Maybe because the university setting is so huge…she only ran into that one random fan in the library. Meanwhile I have specific memories of teaming up with the creative writing crew at my small college, and most of us were at least slightly Potter-obsessed. :P)
Not to discount that she’s basically a “BNF,” a big name fan, with a more celebrity following with her fanfic. This led to some intriguing distinctions between writing fanfic for a large, eager audience vs an original story just for her professor (oh, and the fight between genre vs literary fiction continues. :P) I was actually kind of wary about how keen the professor was on Cath–add onto this that she’s apparently a perfect student who can even miss exam days and ace everything–but in Rowell’s defense, Cath is obviously meant to have a way with words. Alas, maybe if my fanfic weren’t so crappy back in the day, I could have been a college star. :P Though I do remember getting a poem published in the literary magazine my freshman year. :D
Added lots of Jewish fic lately, perhaps to even out how little I read of it this month. ;)
- To Amazon wish list: Days of Awe by Lauren Fox; a woman trying to put her life back together after tragedies and drama. The Debt of Tamar by Nicole Dweck; far-reaching historical novel about a connection that goes back centuries.
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I love the movie adaptation, and finally felt it was time to bite the bullet and be a good book reader.
- The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer. Suggested by my book club; Iranian Jewish family comes under fire in the aftermath of the revolution.
- From Amazon wish list: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Weckler, about to read this for book club; The Middlesteinsby Jami Attenberg, 20th century Jewish American family struggling with food addiction and betrayal; No One Is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona Ausubel, a fantastical tale about surviving the Holocaust; and Good Enough to Eat by Stacy Ballis, another one about food addiction and betrayal.
There’s probably no getting around it now; the seasons are changing and summer is over. Time for the autumn book tag! Thanks for sticking with me through this narrative-heavy newsletter. Happy reading!
September 12, 2015
Day didn’t start out as planned. I’d hoped to make it to the Silver Spring Writer’s Meetup, but thanks to some unusual scheduling at the library and a certain someone (ahem) being a smidge late, I wasn’t able to connect with the group. :/ Alas.
After lunch, however, I returned to the library and worked semi-steadily on my latest draft of “Quarter Life.” Which you may think hearkens this post to be included under the “editing” tab, but aside from a small exchange, which I transcribed as the library was closing, all of this was new material.
Yup, I’m thinking that a small fraction of the 102-page manuscript I wrote for NaNoWriMo a few years back will actually make it into this new draft. :P This makes me feel like more of a bonafide writer/reviser.
My latest draft focuses much more on the 2010 storyline than the 2006 backstory. For months I’ve struggled, suffered and outright hid from recreating the bones of my narrative, but today I sat down and slowly began to put scenes together. As I explained to my family, I feel like the quality of my prose is at “eh?” (optimistic up-slant) level rather than complete shit, so VICTORRRRY. Here’s to completing this damn piece before my niece enters her own quarter life.
Final stats: story now stands at 5 single-spaced pages and 2,149 words, most of which I wrote today. :)
September 1, 2015
Tags: GoodReads, Jewish fiction, Newsletter, Science fiction
Hello and welcome! Lots of interesting things going on in this month of personal reading. I just wrote recently about my experience with a local book club. I also attended two used book sales this month—at the DC public library system and the local Jewish community center—picking up Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, The Little Bride by Anna Solomon, The Empire of the Senses by Alexis Landau and After Abel and Other Stories by Michal Lemberger. Slowly knocking things off my tbr…in a manner of speaking. :P
I’ve also been playing around a bit with my librarian status on GoodReads, editing records information as I find errors. It’s time consuming but also a bit of fun…kind of reminds me of my real-life job doing quality control on actual library records, teehee. Other than that, I read six books this month, one less than last month, but still over my self-imposed quota of one a week! Booyah.
Here’s a weird twist on a classic fairytale (also one that I reviewed a few years back.) Probably a little too freaky for my tastes, especially with the white rabbit holding up a bloody knife. Oy.
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I went again with some artful, thematic reading; I used science fiction to bookend the month, and read Jewish fiction in the middle. Of all the books I read Station Eleven was undoubtedly the top; I now consider it to be my second favorite thus far of this year. I also really enjoyed Washing the Dead, and the rest were pretty good as well. :P Read about them below!
The chapters were relatively fast paced and I loved the foray into 1960s New York. Perhaps I’m biased by my voyeuristic desire to see behind the scenes of “Dark Shadows”–er, I mean Passages–but the focus on the acting culture and generally what it’s like to be a young girl in that setting could entice anyone interested in a period romance of sorts.
It’s the paranormal aspects that felt out of place. Leigh Scott’s idea of a vampire falls into the “Twilight” camp–gorgeous, strong, indestructible, even impervious to normal vampiric weaknesses–the only plus is that these skills were ultimately in service of building up protagonist Margaret’s power and self-esteem. But the vampire stuff was so tangential to most of the story that half the time I forgot it was even an issue. Especially with the Bunnies, this could have just been a decent story about a young, Midwestern girl making her way in New York. But suddenly she was pregnant and we were led to believe that this could affect her appearance-heavy jobs, even though she could turn into mist or sound waves if she wanted.
I think Brafman’s biggest triumph was in how she handled Barbara’s relationships, from her lifelong idealization/devotion to Tzippy, to the ups and downs with her much more unquestioning, take-life-as-it-comes husband, to the way she establishes herself as the caretaker to many of Lili’s friends and their moms, complete with minor idiosyncrasies, and that’s not even counting most of the main cast.
When we were in the beginning flashbacks in the ’70s, I was remembering Tova Mirvis’s words in “The Outside World” about a time when the Orthodox and the Ultra-Orthodox mingled more freely, but specifically Brafman painted the rebbetzin with a sympathetic brush. She certainly had her convictions, but her genuine caring for June and Barbara shone through. She was a very human figure, and her counseling sessions didn’t feel too schmaltzy.
If I were to raise that complaint for one part of the story, I might go with the Coxes, specifically Barbara’s dramatic conclusion with them. I just get a little eyebrow archy whenever a character has two distinctly personal but highly unrelated tragedies happen to them at the same time. But other than that, the Coxes were a fun and intriguing way for Barbara to have a rebellious phase. I particularly liked that I couldn’t just blame her mom for her bad behavior; I could see how Barbara was engaging in running away and self-denial, too.
This is a novel built on abandonment and false narratives–from Eva’s mother abandoning her with her trickster literary father to Iris’s failed same-sex relationships. The crux of the story, I think, is between the sisters, because we start getting Iris’s plaintive letters from the future near the beginning. They ultimately come full circle and end on a redemptive note–though I can’t fault Bloom for too much schmaltz, because all she does in that department is write a few telegrams and describe a picture. :p
But I think this is an example of how historical fiction doesn’t always work for me. The history sometimes feels more visceral than the characters; it’s not so internally driven. There’s a lot of drama that ratchets up, probably too much, and I didn’t particularly feel for anyone. I appreciated the wildly diverse canvas, but I feel like I only skimmed the surface of these characters. It left me lukewarm.
I think a lot of what worked for me better here was that the plot was a bit more taut. (Also no see sawing between first and third persons; one tense is best, IMHO). Like with Bloom’s other novel we meet a wide set of characters, but in the long run Lillian never strays from her mission to find her daughter. The beginning part, before she knows that Sophie survived the pogrom, she’s dealing with the trauma of witnessing the murder of her entire family, and even though she goes through the motions and gains a pretty stable foothold in her relations as an American immigrant, she’s more dead than alive. Ironic enough that when she faced far more physical danger on her journey to the Bering Strait, she was mentally more focused and determined. I appreciated how in the narrative her nightmares about her family slowly dissipated, without comment.
Near the end of the novel I started thinking of things on thematic scales–like how we can be so close but so far from the people we are searching for, a mere strip of land between North America and Siberia, but so many different cultures, histories and futures. I thought about how so many relationships in your life depend on time and place, and despite Bloom’s foretelling, we can be pretty clueless about the grand scopes of our own lives. I thought about the vastly different experiences that Lillian had based on geography, from poor, persecuted Jew in a Russian shtetl, to pampered Jewish mistress on the Lower East Side, to a woman on the frontier, basically, who had to use what she had on hand at the moment to survive. I do think that sometimes Bloom got a little too carried away with her historical descriptions, but not quite so distractingly in this book.
What I really wish is that the story had a little more build up. We pretty much started immediately at the fall, and then I had to just go with the fact that Rachel’s life was shattered, even though we only saw the good times, like with her grandmother, her friend Alexis and the rabbi, in minor flashbacks. I also don’t really buy that the rabbi was her God figure; maybe her parents, who then were in the middle of a marriage crisis. Either way, it would have helped to get more of an establishing shot.
I thought the two boys, Adam and Jake, were drawn with layers of complexity, but I was a little less impressed with the girls. Even Rachel kind of did the pendulum swing from being all good to all bad for a little bit. Alexis really frustrated me. I really think we needed more of the good side of their friendship, a more complicated picture of who they used to be before life tore them apart. Again, it’s likely my own bias, to a degree, my own issues with former friends. And I get that we really couldn’t get too deep into Alexis’s head while being stuck in Rachel’s first person. I appreciate that some people develop cold and bitchy personalities, particularly after a familial schism. But I think it would have added more to the story to have that relationship be more explored.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this story was how microcosms and macrocosms fit together. I think this is something relatively unique to literary speculative fiction–that you can focus on the lives of small characters, and on the large scale issues about the meaning of humanity and this world of ours. I remember how the curtain dropped in the first chapter, turning the play into a real life catastrophe for a small group of people; later, the mirror image is the traveling symphony performing Shakespeare as the most “real” part of survival (Mandel has far better language for all of this in chapter 11) in a world that is largely devoid of art.
Arthur Leander, the actor who dies of unrelated causes during the outbreak of the globally pandemic Georgia Flu, thinks back to his childhood spent on a distant and largely unknown island; 20 years later, the people who grew up in our world of electricity, cars, modern medicine and etc now live on a re-made frontier and imagine this as a dream. Mandel has mentioned wanting to set her “dystopia” a distance enough away from the “catastrophe” that the majority of the survivors are no longer in a state of chaos, but I also admire the strange transience of a landscape where able bodied people still remember the old world. It touches them in different ways, largely based on age and personality. Not to be too spoilery, but there’s a fair bit of talk about archives and libraries here, which makes my heart sing.
Finally, Miranda creates the graphic novel series from which the actual novel takes its name, a futuristic story about the attempted survival of a smattering of Earthlings thrown onto a strange, new world; I think you can see the parallels already. :p. Said graphic novels weave their way into a few stories, replete with wonderful imagery that makes Miranda’s life in particular so vivid. She often seems to be a favorite character, and I can see why, because she has a multifaceted arc.
Switcheroo’ed lots of my books from my Amazon tbr to my GoodReads one, which made me happy. Also added a couple of new books to both lists, so hopefully that says something about a fair bit of variety.
- Added to the Amazon wish list: The Sound of Our Steps by Ronit Matalon; chronicling an Egyptian-Jewish immigrant family in Israel. A Remarkable Kindness by Diana Bletter; about four women in Israel participating in religious burial rituals.
- Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Not to be morbid, but death does make the legacy of certain authors more apparent. This one presumably has a lot to do with Yiddish culture.
- In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hasib. A recent debut novel that the literary world, or at least BookRiot, has been raving about. Concerning an Egyptian immigrant family in America; sensing a bit of a theme here. :P
- From my Amazon wish list: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomon about a Jewish woman in religious mid-century London looking for some autonomy; A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn, juxtaposing modern-day aps with an ancient Egyptian genizah (aka where Jews dumped/stored religious and other papers); and Odette’s Secrets by Maryann Macdonald, a young adult novel about a French survivor of the Holocaust who has to hide her Jewish identity.
Ending on a light note; no direct book recommendations here, since I put a few more at the top of this post. Nope, this is the “how I read” tag. Hope you enjoy. Thanks for perusing this newsletter, and happy reading!
August 31, 2015
I admit, I’ve been wary of reading groups in the past. I basically view settling down with a tome as “me time,” and the last thing I need is more novels to add to my ever-expanding list. But after awhile, I dunno, my book-consumption has been way up this year, and I listen to so many podcasts and watch so many “booktube” vids that maybe I felt it time to join the conversation. I’d been lurking in the local Jewish Community Center book group for a little while; a few weeks ago I saw an author I’d been meaning to try crop up, and I attended my first meeting this evening.
The book in question was Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom. From the off, I detected it was a good thing that my feelings about this novel were only so so. If I absolutely loved or hated the book I might find it more difficult to get into a casual conversation, but I’ll work up to that! :P
The tone of this group of ten people was really in line with my hopes. I was rather nervous that “book club” was just an excuse to get together and ramble about other things. But nope, we stayed on track in a very organic way. The conversation flowed smoothly and freely, without awkward pauses or cue cards or what have you. We were informal, almost gossipy about the strange world that these characters inhabited, but a few people brought up some bigger themes (in this book, one might be concerning the families we make for ourselves), so that added a little depth to the conversation as well. Yours truly even made a remark from time to time.
We introduced ourselves by telling our names and a recent good book we’d read. We ended with some planning about the next meeting (sidenote: another awesome thing about a Jewish book club, beyond the fact that I’m obsessed with Jewish fiction, is that everyone takes the High Holidays into account with their scheduling. :P) While packing up, we about the upcoming JCC literary festival and next weekend’s national book event. :D I’m not sure if I’ll feel the need to chronicle the events here often, but I’m looking forward to my next meeting!
July 31, 2015
Tags: Fiction, GoodReads, Jewish fiction, Newsletter, Science fiction, Young adult fiction
Crazy month in the world of reading! In big literary news, Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, hit the shelves. In big personal news, I turned 32. :P And in big, personal literary news, I read the most books in a month than I ever have since starting this newsletter! :D So we have lots to cover; let’s get down to business.
Another highlight of July; I spent a weekend at Rehoboth Beach, DE. It’s been a few years, but I used to go there all the time as a youngster. I’m embarrassed to report that never once, before this trip, did I go out of my way to peruse Browseabout Books. It’s a really cool indie bookstore right on the boardwalk; I mean, look at the design on their outer wall! Heaven.
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So I meant to read five books this month, bookending with male authors, and a special, binge read of Go Set a Watchman. But thanks to the beach, and the general awesomeness to Anne Tyler, I ended up with seven. :O Not sure if and when I’ll attempt this pole vault again, or this wide diversity of genres. I covered science fiction, Jewish fiction, general fiction and YA! Not too shabby if I do say so myself.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One aspect I really liked about the book that the movie wouldn’t have been able to support was the international focus. It’s interesting, the subtle differences between Sagan’s imagined late-90s vs the real one when the film was ultimately made. The film couldn’t make the story so wholly international because movies are on a budget and demand a tighter focus; easier to repurpose all of the issues brought up by the international crowd, and make it more about the U.S.’s political climate, and the press filling in all of the gaps. Surely the climate also changed in reality because there was no longer a Soviet Union with whom we were in direct competition, though Sagan’s hope for a project that could unite the world and bolster the economy were definitely aspirational. As was his imagined female US president. :p
I’m a little less thrilled with how Sagan approaches religion, though to be fair, many religious people see it like he does, this whole “one truth” business and everyone else being wrong in their faith. Maybe some Orthodox Jews, and surely others from the Abrahamic faiths, see the bible as a literal story handed down from Gd, but I find that to be way too limiting. I’m not going to waste my life arguing against the scientific fact that Moses couldn’t have parted the Red Sea. It doesn’t need to have physically happened for the story to have meaning for countless generations, and to stand as a metaphor for a complex and evolving reality. I was taught to believe that there is no “one truth,” but just as there is a diversity of people in the world there is a diversity of truths. This fits in well, in fact, with Sagan’s understanding of the cosmos–that we are just one small part of it, not the center of the universe, but we are still significant. The ending pages assure the reader of a more definitive answer, within the confines of mathematics, about the meaning of the universe, but religion, and “Gd,” or however you understand the totality of meaning, to my mind, speaks to what can’t be quantified. Science, it seems to me, is very much about the quantifiable, physical world, so I guess I’m still baffled by why so many of us consider these two disciplines to be locked in an eternal struggle. The universe, as we grow to understand it in the book, is a big place.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The general plot was a Bait and switch–Soffer put in some physical clues about the supposed relationship between Lorca and Victoria, only to snatch the rug out from under us in the third act. It felt a little contrived to me–sudden Intel that the real parties in question were dead. I think I was more on board for the tension between Lorca and her mother than for Victoria and her ghosts, but even there, it’s a bit convenient that the girl can only get the desired reaction from her mother by hurting herself in exactly the same way. As for Victoria finding out about Lorca’s self-harm, it would have been something, perhaps, for her to discover it organically through the cooking lessons, rather than have Blot spill the beans to her.
I liked the attention given to the Iraqi Jewish backstory; it would have been a good avenue to expand upon for more worldly texture, though Soffer’s use of food suffices to a degree. I was hoping this book might be like the Jewish version of Diana Abu-Jaber’s “Crescent,” but while the love of culinary was there, I feel like the heart of the characters was not.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The hubbub around the “new” and not so improved Atticus has perhaps overtaken the previous drama concerning whether Harper Lee wanted this book published in the first place. Sometimes it seems to come down to opinion–if you like the de-deified Atticus of this novel, then it’s merely natural character progression. If you don’t like him, he’s the product of an iffy first draft of Mockingbird, never meant to be published.
And I’m struggling with Atticus. I buy a lot of it. The fact that he felt compelled to give an honest defense to an obviously wronged client like Tom Robinson doesn’t mean he’d be in favor of desegregation 25 years later. One is about individuals and the other is about changing the institution of governance. Plenty of people, even William Faulkner, known for writing about the decay of southern society, were against the federal government imposing this sanction on the states. One thing Watchman asks us–and Jean Louise–to do is recognize there’s a wide variety of people against Brown vs the Board of Education–from the violent, fear-mongering racists like Willoughby to those like Atticus who want to keep the status quo because it’s the business of individuals, not some “machine” government. (The chat between Jean Louise and her uncle on state’s rights arguments seems particularly applicable to understanding the modern day).
But coming back to the novel, and character continuity…Jean Louise claims Atticus sees blacks as less then human, which in Watchman certainly seems to be true. He speaks of them as a collective; not yet mature enough to take part in government or even desegregated schooling without dragging the whole system down. But in Mockingbird he talks about how, at least in some cases, you can’t judge people as a collective; not all blacks, or whites, or etc, are rapists or thieves or etc. I can see Atticus joining the Klan to attend one meeting and see what these people are about, “stepping into their shoes,” but to buy into those reactionary, pseudo-science pamphlets about how blacks are biologically inferior? Surely the earlier character was too educated, and too temperate and thoughtful for that nonsense. I do wish there was a way to whittle off those edges of the Watchman rendition.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I appreciate the recurring theme of having to find ways to define yourself separately from your mother, and yet the only “present” time in the story seemed to revolve around these multigenerational stories in Detroit. I found it telling that Ginger herself didn’t reminisce over the fact that she was closest to her cousin Theresa in childhood–Helen did–and we learned almost nothing about the Phoenix family branch’s memories in that place until Amy went to Thailand. I think that’s what frustrated me, and made the world building less real.
It was also intriguing to learn a little more about Polish immigrants. I’m used to stories where “the old country” remains permanent through relatives that still live there and occasional trips back, but here it was all about memories and food. I appreciated, too, how these ties obviously became more lax with each generation, but Pietrzyk always found subtle, believable ways to tie them back to their heritage.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I like the idea, but I think it was a bit too on the nose. It’s also John Green’s style, it seems, to have teenagers talk as though they’re on an episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” I certainly don’t doubt that they’d be thinking about these things, especially with the advent of college on the horizon, but Margo’s disappearance made confronting these issues a bit convenient.
I also almost wish that the story were told from Lacey’s point of view, because she had more of an actual relationship with Margo, but I do get that the point was that Q and Margo had long idealized each other, and were tied together by the discovery of the body when they were kids. Still, if we were in Lacey’s head, maybe I, too, would see Margo as more of a person and less of an idea. I think the ironic trap that this books falls into is that although we are supposed to realize that Margo is a person rather than a stereotype, we don’t really find out that much about her true motivations, triggers and history in the narrative. I almost felt bad for her parents–I mean who should have to deal with their kid running off all the time–but the rest of the characters seemed to dismiss them as narcissistic. If we saw more of Margo’s life with them, then maybe I could get on board with that, but I think it stands to reason that she’s being a bit selfish. To be fair, her friends do call her out on that.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Junior and Denny in particular could be a bit contemptuous, though of course the narrative fleshed out their stories so they and their relationships weren’t quite one dimensional. Jeanine and Amanda had an intriguing sisterly relationship in the midst of their parents’ troubles of growing old. Stem’s origin story could have skewed into the melodramatic but it didn’t, and it ended with a nice, understated coming to terms with his brother, Denny. I also liked the relationship between Abby and her daughter-in-law Nora; that it was frustrating for the matriarch but that she also struggled with that, and although Nora was religious and slightly eccentric in her ways, she wasn’t an evangelizer. Though her in-laws were also annoyed by her magnanimous graciousness.
The house itself was as much a member of the family as anything, and the two main story arcs revolved around Junior and Linnie Mae moving in, and then their son, Red, ultimately moving out in old age. Tyler’s descriptions really shone here, and she wove a nice tapestry of the house as a stand-in for the Whitshank’s desires of upward mobility, success and comfort (or in Denny’s case, entrapment, perhaps). It also was a stand in for residential and commercial life in Baltimore–at least for white people, because Tyler touched correctly on the deep segregation between Baltimore neighborhoods. The novel did a good job of making a time and place come to life behind a fully realized cast of characters. Maybe there could have been something more universally transcendent, if the story had had a tighter focus, but overall it was a thoughtfully engaging read.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
More broadly, we have the theme of families and their general mystery–no one member thinks and feels the same about their relationships and history as any other. I can see why this book in particular is so beloved–supposedly Tyler’s favorite, the last time she was asked. It handles these issues most succinctly, in ten chapters that really read more like connected short stories, given the years that pass by and the third person narrators who change. They even have subheadings. I’m particularly taken with “This Really Happened,” from the POV of Cody’s then-14-year-old son. It could have–and perhaps does, slightly–graze into over emphasizing the theme in bright, street sign letters (about the stories people tell and how they belt a more complicated reality), but overall I found it enjoyable.
Each chapter/story was relatively self-contained, and yet the main characters continued with a lifelong progression. In “Dr. Tull Is Not A Toy,” Jenny reflects on ridding herself of a childhood seriousness, but now she seems flippant and amused when confronting her stepson’s problems. It was some deft work by Tyler with dialogue and characterization. But I suppose the character who had me the most baffled was Pearl. Perhaps I need to read the beginning of the book again, as narrated by her, before we get a more abusive account from two of her children. Ezra, too, is so mild-mannered that it can be difficult to get where he’s coming from, even when he’s the POV. The title, and his Restaurant, surely convey his character’s motivations with the most subtlety and grace. Tyler’s work with the overall family structure, and in describing details of a shifting Baltimore setting, are masterful as well.
Basically I held even this month, adding a book to my Goodreads TBR for everyone I subtracted. Sometimes they came from my amazon wishlist, and sometimes they came from my mood at the moment. There is just. Too much. To read. Should be my catch phrase here. :P
- Added from the Amazon wish list: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman; little Jewish immigrant girl surviving the early 20th century Lower East Side. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman; chronicles the life of a young adult male character in the early 21st century. Believe by Sarah Aronson; young adult novel dealing with the aftermath of a girl whose family was killed in a suicide bombing.
- My Father Is An Angry Storm Cloud: Collected Stories by Melissa Reddish. Keeping tabs on the fiction pursuits of talented folks from my alma mater! Added to my TBR several months ago; Mother Box and Other Tales by Sarah Blackman.
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Been hearing this book getting buzzed about, and I couldn’t take it any longer! Multi-ethnic family and tragic drama? I’m so there. :P
- Added to the amazon wish list: The Jewish Book Council posted a summer list of published books; I added three. They include Shelter Us by Laura Nicole Diamond about a female friendship; Orphan #8by Kim van Alkemade, an early 20th century immigrant story but with a dark twist; and The Girl From The Garden by Parnaz Foroutan, concerning a Persian Jewish family in the early 20th century.
As today is the boy wizard’s birthday, there’s only one meme I can include here. :P To that end, here are my reviews of the books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Thanks so much for reading my lengthened newsletter here. :P To end on a reading-appropriate quote from Albus Dumbledore: Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?