Reviews

Friday Reads: May 2017

For May’s Friday Reads, we tapped a few Issue 13 contributors to find out what they’re reading. Their recommendations are diverse and complicated, dealing with hefty subjects—from mourning and the fear of death to geological history. If you haven’t read their works in Issue 13, it’s time to get started.

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo, recommended by Zak Breckenridge (Issue 13 Nonfiction Contributor)

Riven with cross-talk, radio interruptions, non-sequitors, White Noise is a distracting and distracted book. It is a book in which the radio chirps the words, “Convulsions, coma, miscarriage,” and accompanies an escape from a toxic cloud with, “It’s the rainbow hologram that gives this credit card a marketing intrigue.” The long, looping conversations that are the main body of this novel do not quite add up to a conventional story. Bouncing from deep to stupid, they take place in the antiseptic environs of late-capitalist suburbia—the car, the mall, the kitchen, the supermarket—and range from advertising to vermin to Hitler studies. It features a toxic cloud that induces deja vu, a drug-addled biochemist unable to distinguish between words and things, and nuns who do not believe but pretend to believe so that nonbelievers can believe that someone believes.

I felt that White Noise was still teaching me how to read it up until the last paragraph. It is bizarre, veering so precipitously between the profound and the idiotic, dangling promises of plot and theme at the same time that it withdraws them. I am not sure I enjoyed it, but it has opened up a curiosity in me that would be hard to sate.

Assembling california

Assembling California by John McPhee, recommended by Max Ross (Issue 13 Fiction Contributor)

I just moved to San Francisco and, evidently wanting to learn about the area’s geological history, picked up a copy of John McPhee’s Assembling California. It ranks among the most compelling books I’ve read on the topic of plate tectonics along North America’s fortieth parallel.

McPhee’s aim, he notes early on, was to describe “not only the rock…but the geologists themselves…and a picture of the science.” Those familiar with the author will recognize his mode: Assembling California is an assemblage of history, field notes, travel diaries, character profiles, and usually satisfying puns.

The story begins only one hundred million years ago or so (“Bear in mind how young all this is,” McPhee notes), when pieces of the ocean floor began to rise up and attach to the western margin of what is now North America. It ends with a discussion of a 1989 earthquake in Loma Prieta that left dozens dead and thousands injured and serves as a symbol of California’s inevitable disassembling—call it a cliffhanger.

Guesswork

Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss by Martha Cooley, recommended by Judith Baumel (Issue 13 Poetry Contributor)

Open Letter to Martha Cooley,

You know that I’ve read and loved the pieces you have written for The Common and elsewhere about your life in Castiglione del Terziere in Tuscany. And having visited you there, I know firsthand some of the protagonists of your book—the castellana Raffaella and her sheepdog Mia, your rescue cats Tristana and Big Boy, the contractor Daniel.

You and I have talked, as close friends do, about the subjects of this new and wonderful memoir—your mother’s blindness and decline; your father’s decline; the deaths of your friends (some of them our friends); about the catastrophe of the Costa Concordia shipwreck off your beloved island of Giglio; about Antonio and your great love affair.

None of my familiarity with the material in Guesswork prepared me for the pleasure of reading this intensely moving and uncanny work. I was touched by the depth of feeling and excited by your restraint, a restraint which seems a kind of homage to your mother and her imagined interior. Among many things, your book is a meditation on the nature of sight. What is seeing and being seen, what is insight, outer gaze, knowledge, perspective, point of view? With elegantly recurring images, each chapter sets these questions before us and examines, picks apart our assumptions, reframes its own reporting.

You cover so much interesting material and never show the tension with which you have strung the guy wires that sustain your fascinating digressions. How did you manage to talk about Walt Whitman, your grandmother reciting T. S. Eliot, varieties of suicide, about the old man in your father’s assisted living facility who breaks into apartments to drink other people’s liquor, the Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovich, and make them all necessary? Following your words throughout this book, I get a sense of that light, knowing touch you describe between you and your mother. Guesswork is beautifully paced, and it is intentional, as the Buddhist part of you might say.

Early in the book you describe “two large black birds on an overhanging branch, beak to beak.” You and Antonio wonder if they are fighting or wrestling, kissing or dancing, feeding each other or arguing over food. Antonio suggests they are negotiating. Together you two conclude you don’t know what you are looking at. It’s guesswork. This is Cooley wisdom and wit and wonder in a nutshell. Life consists of negotiations and guessing; so you have placed negotiations and guessing at the heart of every page.

Guesswork is not a book about grimly going on after loss. It is not a book about mastering any stage of grief on the way to closure or uplift. It is, happily, a book about telling the truth straightforwardly enough to remind us of the mysteries which compose our lives.

Emily EverettFriday Reads: May 2017
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Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

 

Book by GEORGE SAUNDERS

Reviewed by SUSAN TACENT

On February 20, 1862, Abraham and Mary Lincoln lost their eleven-year-old son Willie to what was probably typhoid fever. Some twenty years ago, George Saunders learned about a rumor that had circulated at the time—that Lincoln several times visited the crypt where Willie was temporarily interred, removed the body from its coffin and, in his great grief, cradled his dead child in his arms.

Julia PikeReview: Lincoln in the Bardo
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Friday Reads: April 2017

Our Friday Reads for April travel the world—from cricket practice in a Mumbai slum to a flower stall in New York City, and from the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia to Algiers after the war of independence. Meet the men and women who bring these places to life through their struggles, aspirations, and survival.

Recommended: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Diebar, and Heritage of Smoke by Josip Novakovich

Julia PikeFriday Reads: April 2017
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Review: “When Memory Comes” and “Where Memory Leads”

 

Books By Saul Friedländer
Reviewed by JENNIFER EPSTEIN

2 covers

Memory is non-linear. As is memoir, more often than not. Personal history may take us on a leisurely, even meandering journey, but at its most powerful, it can drive home complex truths about our world and ourselves more forcefully than narratives (history or fiction) that have more distinct plot points.
Saul Friedländer’s dual memoirs released by Other Press, When Memory Comes(reissued) and Where Memory Leads (new) offer respectively a linear, historical and a more contemplative, impressionistic look at the impact of the Holocaust over the eight decades of his life.
Friedländer, a Holocaust survivor and historian whose book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews earned him a 2008 Pulitzer for general nonfiction, penned his first memoir in 1977 in French while living in Israel. Titled from a line in Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel The Golem, When Memory Comescontemplates a childhood that, by Friedländer’s own account, rendered him speechless for many years:
“It took me a long, long time to find the way back to my own past,” he writes. “I could not banish the memory of events themselves, but if I tried to speak of them or pick up a pen to describe them, I immediately found myself in the grip of a strange paralysis.”

He goes on to note that “since I could not forget the facts, I made up my mind to view everything with indifference: every sort of resonance within me was stifled.” That coping  strategy clearly informs the narrative tone of both books: matter-of-fact and distant even in moments of intense emotion.
Distance works to very different effect in each book. In When Memory Comes, that hawk’s eye remove casts the scope and horror of the author’s memories in stark relief. The son of German-speaking Jews, Pavel (subsequently Paul, then Paul-Henri, then Shaul, and finally Saul, each name representing a new leg of his journey) was born in Prague four months before Hitler came to power. In his family, “Judaism as a religion had completely disappeared”—so completely that as a child he only learned he was Jewish on being expelled from catechism study in his classroom and sent to study with a rabbi. His affluent and cosmopolitan parents saw no reason to leave Czechoslovakia until it was almost too late.

They relocated to Paris, retreating into the countryside as France became increasingly dangerous for Jews.  After a miserable stint in a Jewish orphanage (where he was beaten by other orphans for being too goyishe), the author was moved to a Catholic boarding school in Montluçon, which his parents presciently deemed safer than a Jewish institution. Baptized with their permission, he remained in hiding for four years. His parents never found asylum. After a failed attempt to cross the border into Switzerland, they were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Friedländer’s reflections on this period are the most powerful passages of both work, and his evocations of place can be transporting. He portrays one night where he and other children at the Jewish home were hidden overnight in a forest near La Souterraine, a town in the center of France, to avoid deportation:

We left by twos. The march took place without mishap; I heard no sound save the crunching of pebbles and the occasional snifflings of my little comrade…I didn’t sleep. I had no feeling of danger, quite the contrary: the warm breeze, the rustling of the trees, the wispy clouds that from time to time drifted across the stars filled me with a sense of well-being.

Shortly after this incident, Friedländer’s parents decided to move him to the Catholic institution, where, he recalls,

Everything…. stifled me: the austere discipline, the continual prayers of which I didn’t understand a word, the dreariness of our dark building, and, finally, the food which seemed revolting to me. I don’t know why, but I imagined that the rubbery meat that was served us on the day after my arrival was cat meat.

Particularly heart-rending is a scene in which he describes running away from the school to find the hospital where his father was being treated for ulcers. He was quickly sent back, but not before recognizing the severity of the situation when his exceptionally reserved father kissed him for the first and last time.
Even more haunting are the increasingly desperate letters his parents wrote to the headmistress of the seminary during their panicked final days. Denied immigration visas to other countries, they found solace “for the moment at least, in saving our boy,” wrote his mother in one. “We can no longer exist legally… I beg you to excuse the appearance of this letter. My hands no longer obey me.” Their final correspondence, thrown from the train to Germany and passed to the seminary by Quakers, contained 6,000 francs, a charm bracelet, and the invocation, “May God repay you and bless you and your whole family.”

“What God was meant?” Friedländer muses.

Ignorant of his parents’ fate at first, Friedländer set his sights on Catholic priesthood, and upon sharing this goal with a mentor, he learned the truth. Standing before a painting of Christ on the cross, the priest told him of “the trains, the gas chambers, the crematory ovens, the millions of dead.” The revelation had profound implications for Friedländer personally and professionally: “For the first time I felt myself to be Jewish—no longer despite myself or secretly, but through a sensation of absolute loyalty.” He left Church for the right-wing Zionist youth group Betar, eventually setting sail for his new life in Israel. From that setting, in the lengthening shadow of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he finally was able to confront his past and commit it to paper.

When Memory Comes was lauded on first publication for the sparse elegance of its prose and unflinching depiction of the unthinkable and duly ushered into the canon of Holocaust literature. Written some thirty years later, Where Memory Leads, as the verb in the title suggests, is a very different kind of book. If the first Memory is a meditation on childhood events, the second is in large part a meditation on remembering itself—something that Friedländer, now in his eighties, admits to struggling with increasingly:

Over the past few months I have noticed that the disappearance of words and mainly names of people I know well is worsening. How come, however, that these words and names reappear, sometimes days later, after a relentless quest or just so, on their own?

Significantly longer than its precursor, Where Memory Leads picks up where When Memory Comes leaves off, using the traumatic experiences of the former as a kind of lens through which to consider his later years in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Geneva, and Los Angeles. In this volume, we are left with a stronger awareness of his detachment. While much of the narrative traces Friedländer’s academic and political evolution, these threads are also interwoven with his musings on the capricious nature of recollection. At points, he seems to be writing mainly to put everything down before he forgets (“I realize I have said very little about the music I love,” he frets on the book’s penultimate page). And though this makes Where Memory Leads less taut and emotionally resonant than its predecessor, it also rounds out and gives texture to some of the latter’s observations. Among the more interesting examples are Friedländer’s explorations of the fallout from his childhood ordeal, which the first volume leaves mostly untouched. As he notes, “[w]e Jews erect walls around our most harrowing memories, and our most anxious thoughts of the future. Even a story complete to the last detail sometimes turns into an exercise in hiding things from ourselves.”

In Where Memory Leads, we learn that he has struggled against agoraphobia, claustrophobia, a profound fear of flying, and myriad psychosomatic ailments that “no physician, psychiatrist or analyst seemed capable of curing.” Friedländer experiences bleeding ulcers, the same ailment that put his father in the hospital in France. He tries psychotherapy (at one point almost daily), and one of his therapists not only recommends institutionalization but urges his wife, Hagith, to move out. Friedländer also discloses an addiction to tranquilizers, drinking himself “senseless” on international flights and all the medications he has tried, which have affected his memory and other bodily functions.

The remove with which Friedländer recounts these later struggles is perhaps surprising, considering that these after-effects are many decades more recent than the trauma itself. But one suspects that it’s this distancingthat has allowed him to examine a phenomenon as personally fraught as the Holocaust as a historian. He discusses the evolution of his work as historian and scholar, as well as various conflicts and concerns over the representation of Holocaust history both in and outside the academic world in the same dispassionate way. In the 1970’s, for instance, he cites “a strange sort of countermemory of the Third Reich” found in films like Hans-Jergen’s Syberber’s Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland and Liliana Cavani’sThe Night Porter,which consciously glamorize and even fetishize Holocaust history. Friedländer sees in these:

the very use of some of the components that so effectively ensured Nazism’s hold on millions of Germans and other Europeans: syrupy sentimentality (kitsch) mixed with the exaltation triggered by total destruction and mass death.

He relates having had the opportunity to confront Syberberg directly with this observation at a dinner party. It is one the latter clearly doesn’t share, given the breathtaking anti-Semitism of his retort: “What I am presenting is art, while the Jews are making money with Auschwitz!” As Friedländer wryly notes, the filmmaker was likely alluding to the pivotal (if artistically dubious) NBC miniseries Holocaust. But, he observes, “‘the Jews are making money’ rang a familiar bell.”

The author recounts another academic debate with similar (if subtler) anti-Semitic underpinnings in his discussion of the Historikerstreit (commonly translated as “Historians’ Dispute”) of the 1980’s, which pitted right- and left-scholars against one another on the historical framing of the Holocaust. Friedländer’s detachment renders these already-esoteric arguments about ‘functionalism’ (the view that the Holocaust evolved gradually and somewhat haphazardly into mass genocide) and ‘intentionalism’ (that it was the result of a deliberate and intentional ‘master plan’ from the beginning) that much harder to follow. This is a shame, since so much of what Where Memory Leads has to offer is its author’s immensely nuanced understanding of not just the history of the Holocaust but the lessons to be learned from it. They are lessons that, especially at this moment, seem all the more essential to heed.

However, any literary dissonance between the two volumes is outweighed by the strength and depth of their combined narrative. Taken together, When Memory Comesand Where Memory Leads form a powerful testament to the Holocaust’s reality and its legacy, one that is at once scholarly and profoundly personal. They also offer a thought-provoking study of the psychological impact of trauma; the ways in which we alternately hide and seek the truth, and the incremental and often painful path to acceptance, and perhaps even peace.

 

Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of the historical novels The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and The Painter From Shanghai. An adjunct professor at Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program, she is currently working on a novel set in 1930’s Berlin.

Sarah WhelanReview: “When Memory Comes” and “Where Memory Leads”
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Friday Reads: February 2017

This February, we’re busily reading new novels by three award-winning authors who will be visiting us next month for LitFest at Amherst College. If there’s a common thread for this month’s Friday Reads, it’s memory: commemorating events, friendships, departures, and failures. But it could just as easily be their outstanding quality, as we contribute to the already effusive praise these books have earned. Get reading, and then join us March 2-4 for LitFest!

Recommended:

Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.

Sarah WhelanFriday Reads: February 2017
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Review: The Senility of Vladimir Putin

By MICHAEL HONIG
Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG

The senility of vladimir p

Nikolai Sheremetev, the protagonist of British novelist’s Michael Honig’s second book, is a Moscow nurse. For six years, he’s been looking after a private patient suffering from dementia. The patient’s condition is deteriorating. Prior to his illness, Vladimir P. had been a president of Russia. After his confusion grew and he could no longer hold his own in public, he was quietly replaced by a member of his team and sent into retirement to a private estate near Moscow. As Vladimir’s mental acuity deteriorated, Sheremetev became the single point of contact between him and the outside world. Sheremetev manages his daily schedule, his medications, his rare outings.

Julia PikeReview: The Senility of Vladimir Putin
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Friday Reads: December 2016

By EMILY EVERETT, ALICIA LOPEZ, MEGAN TUCKER ORRINGER and SARAH WHELAN
 

To round out 2016, we’re reading novels new and old for December’s Friday Reads. Explore the social dynamics of male friendships, the black experience through generations and continents, the loneliness of a haunted orphan, and the self-consciousness (or self-destructiveness?) of the writer. After all, the dark days of winter are perfect for tackling big questions, and these towering works of fiction are perfect for raising them.

Recommended:

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder, and Despair by Vladimir Nabokov.

Isabel MeyersFriday Reads: December 2016
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Review: Home Field

Book by HANNAH GERSEN
Reviewed by KELLY FORDON

The publisher of Hannah Gersen’s first novel, Home Field, is marketing the book as a cross between two TV shows about teens, Friday Night Lights and My So-Called Life.  My So-Called Life, an angst-ridden and artsy TV show about teenagers in the 90s, is a better comparison than Friday Night Lights,  which is about a high school football-crazy small town. But the teen-pop culture comparisons don’t do justice to this empathic literary novel’s reach into emotional depths that will resonate with seasoned readers, who appreciate how complicated even an ordinary life can get.

Yes, Home Field is set in an isolated town, Willowboro in western Maryland,  that’s reminiscent of FNL’s Dillon, Texas. And yes, Dean, the main character of Gersen’s novel is a football coach, but he quits coaching football in the fourth chapter because his wife, Nicole, has committed suicide, and his family is unraveling. Gersen chips away at her characters’ façades like a miner removing layers of rock. The novel alternates between Dean’s perspective and that of his stepdaughter, Stephanie, but also follows Dean’s two young son’s Robbie, eleven, and Bry, eight, as they attempt to understand what happened to their mother.

Olivia ZhengReview: Home Field
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Review: Fale Aitu | Spirit House

Book by TUSIATA AVAI; ANNE KENNEDY
Reviewed by
TERESE SVOBODA

 

I first encountered Tusiata Avia’s work at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia just after she published her first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Her mocking voice, sometimes full of mimicry, sometimes searingly sarcastic, often aims at neocolonialism and globalization. Samoan/Palagi, Avia’s mother is descended from the Europeans who first colonized New Zealand and her father, a stunt man, was among the first wave of Samoan immigrants to New Zealand in the 1950s. For seven years before Avia’s second book arrived—Bloodclot, about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, who leaves the underworld to wander the earth as a half-caste girl—she traveled from Siberia to Sudan and read or performed her work in places like Moscow, Jerusalem and Vienna. Last year Avia was poet-in-residence with Simon Armitage at the International Poetry Studies Institute in Australia. This year Wild Dogs Under My Skin was adapted as a theater event for six women and received rave reviews. The recipient of a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency, the Ursula Bethel Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury, a residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies in Christchurch, she won the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Truly an international poet with an indigenous Pacifika frame of reference, in Fale Aitu | Spirit House, Avia writes with a visceral, political, spare and passionate authority of someone who has seen the world.

Olivia ZhengReview: Fale Aitu | Spirit House
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