Book Reviews, Literature

Memento Park – Mark Sarvas

Memento ParkMark Sarvas’ acclaimed novel Memento Park centers around the mystery of ownership – a painting, a family, and a past.

Readers meet the protagonist, Matt Santos, who has just learned that he *might* be the rightful heir of a valuable painting that disappeared during the Holocaust. Hesitant but intrigued by the possibility that the painting did belong to his family, Matt follows the threads of his father’s stories back to his native Hungary, and the family and secrets left behind.

More than recounting the now familiar story of stolen European art, Sarvas focuses on the intimate questions of how Matt Santos understands his family’s history and how this understanding frames his actions, and ultimately his future. Santos’ family story is not a particularly heroic one. His relationship with his father has always been strained, with hurt and frustration long-standing pillars on both sides. Santos approaches his father and everything to do with the painting as he would taking off a band-aid – however he does it, it’s going to hurt. But Santos is an actor, and brings a constant tension to the narrative as readers untangle how much of his actions are sincere, and which elements might be performative.

Happily, Sarvas’ excellent writing saves Santos from being an angry, nebbishy, caricature of the suffering son. Sarvas gives Santos and his other characters enough flaws to to be human, but not so many as to be truly disagreeable. His clear and uncluttered writing style is an especially good match for the voices of Santos and his father, while keeping the narrative going at a solid pace.

A basic knowledge of 20th century Hungarian history and a quick glance at the country’s map are more than enough to be able to follow along with the action. Sarvas ably steers readers through the events and settings that underpin the story, as well as any necessary Hungarian language.

Memento Park is most likely to appeal to those who appreciate well-written fiction, especially with some globe-trotting and historical twists. An interest in the post-war American immigrant experience and the Hungarian community is a strong bonus. This book will be best enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee and fresh strudel.

Book Reviews, Literature

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig

Miss Burma by Charmaine CraigCharmaine Craig’s semi-biographical novel “Miss Burma” could hardly be more timely. With ethnic violence in Myanmar making headlines again, Craig’s story, which begins in the 1930s, traces one family’s experience of the country’s political upheaval and racial divisions.

Craig’s book gives readers a rare, and all too brief, glimpse of South East Asian Jewish communities at the end of the British colonial period. Benny, the titular character’s father, was born to a Jewish family in India. The death of his parents, his years in Catholic schools, and his marriage to a woman from the Karen minority sever his relationship to the Jewish community. He aligns himself with the cause of the Karen people, his Jewish identity all but disappearing into the shadows of the past. Following the second world war and independence, the Jewish community in Myanmar all but disappears, with most Jews emigrating to other parts of the Commonwealth. The idea of peoplehood – that an individual can be connected to a larger community with shared values – is one of the central themes of the novel. Craig’s brush with Benny’s Jewish roots encourages readers to explore the history and structure of the Myanmar Jewish community, but will leave others wondering why Craig chose to include this connection in a n already busy narrative.

And “Miss Burma” is a busy book. Spanning several decades and the breadth and width of the country, I’m surely not the only reader who could have really used a map. Craig’s description of the country’s intricate political history is informative, but there is a real tension between providing the necessary background and driving the story forward. It is a slow read, but the setting will draw readers back in every time. Readers who enjoy a meandering family saga will appreciate the character’s diversity and development over the years. “Miss Burma” brings a new perspective to questions of Jewish identity and experience, but readers must be willing to dig through the many other elements in the book to find it.

Book Reviews, Literature

Enchanted Islands – Allison Amend

Enchanted Islands Amend

The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.

Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.

Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.

Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.

Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Kislev "Nes Gadol Haya Sham", Literature, Poetry, Words of Wisdom

Search for Reality – Paul Celan

11-23 PCelan

Jewish poet Paul Celan was responsible for some of the most striking German-language writing about the Holocaust. His experiences as a survivor led him to compose such heart-wrenching works as “Todesfugue” (“Death Fugue”).

This quote brought to mind the idea that believing in miracles may require a break from “reality”. That we can only find miracles where we search for them, or that miracles can happen for those who can immerse themselves in the unknown, illogical, even chaos.

There is such grief and darkness in Celan’s writing that the journey towards the hope of victory seems infinite. And yet if reality can be won, can it be the reality that we yearn for?

Celan’s poem “Todesfugue” is available on-line in English here: https://www.celan-projekt.de/todesfuge-englisch.html

 

Book Reviews, Literature

The Soul of a Thief – Steven Hartov

The Soul of a Thief HartovSteven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief offers readers an intentionally sparse and unsatisfying story of a young Jewish officer conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. Set in France in the winter of 1944, Stephan Brandt’s commander Colonel Erich Himmel has realized that the Germans are going to lose the war and enlists Shtefan’s help to carry out the plan that will allow him to escape the victor’s justice when the war ends.

Hartov moves the action along at a quick pace, deftly maneuvering between battle scenes, describing the mundane routine of army camp life, and unfolding the love triangle that threatens to undo his hero. Hartov relies on simple language, and it adds a necessary crispness to the narrative. While it may strike some readers as impersonal, in general it helps the reader to understand the objectivity with which Shtefan is trying to tell his story. Shtefan’s role in the army, indeed his whole character, requires that both he and the reader maintain an emotional distance from the events as they unfold. This tension between being willing to acknowledge the depth of feeling and hiding this truth even from yourself ultimately provides the backbone to Hartov’s novel.

While Shtefan’s abstraction keeps readers at arms length, his love interest, the Jewish French woman Gabrielle, grabs the limelight and emerges as the story’s true protagonist. The Soul of a Thief offers readers a portrait of gender and sexual politics that Holocaust and World War Two literature often glosses over. Gabrielle’s connection to her identity and her ability to act with clear intention provides a strong foil to Shtefan’s detachment. I can’t help but wish that Hartov will return to tell us the same story from Gabrielle’s perspective.

This book will most likely appeal more to those who enjoy a good spy thriller than richly detailed historical fiction. The people and their ruses, not lengthy descriptions of the French countryside under occupation, that drive Hartov’s book. Readers hoping for a thoughtful and suspenseful account of one person’s experience will most appreciate The Soul of a Thief.

 

BooksandBlintzes received an electronic copy of this title from NetGalley.com for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions presented belong only the post’s author.

 

Kislev "Nes Gadol Haya Sham", Words of Wisdom

Miracles are Waiting

Singer Miracles and Treasures

Words of wisdom from nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. Born November 21st, 1902 in Warsaw, Poland.

Are the miracles and treasures the ones we take the time to see?

Book Reviews, Literature

The Weight of Ink – Rachel Kadish

The Weight of InkFeaturing rich history, beautiful prose, magnetic characters, gender politics, and healthy doses of heresy and mystery, Rachel Kadish’s latest novel The Weight of Ink has it all. Even at 550 pages long the book can barely contain all that Kadish has packed into it, and yet the result is a mesmerizing work of fiction. Personally, it was love at first sight of the cover.

Every aspect of Kadish’s book is artistically nuanced. She maintains an impressive linguistic and cultural authenticity as her narrative moves from England in the 1660s, to the early years of the State of Israel, and 21st century British academia. The most remarkable example of this is the letters that her characters write to one another in the 1660s, and the contrast with the academic papers and emails they write in the 2000s. Kadish nimbly maneuvers between writing styles, adding depth to her storytelling, making the book a pleasure to read.

Although the book is long and complex, it is never boring. To Kadish’s great credit, she portrays each of the characters and settings clearly enough that they remain distinct and easy to follow. The real challenge of this book is following the theological and philosophical arguments that flow across borders and centuries. A minimal background in the history of the English, Dutch, and Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities is tremendously helpful. A minimal background in the theology of Baruch Spinoza, Shabbetai Tzvi’s messianic movement, and academic libraries also makes it easier for the reader. Kadish explains these elements with clarity and concision, and the precision of her historical research is worth celebrating all on its own. The amount of detail in this book makes it necessary to read it very slowly, have the luxury of reading it in several very long stretches, or simply the willingness to read it more than once. I’m happy to be in the last category, although the next time I’m on a long flight this is the book I’m bringing.

On a final note, The Weight of Ink provided the most dynamic conversation of any of my book club’s selections in at least 5 years.  There is so much to talk about in this book, readers would be well advised to make sure they have someone with whom to have these conversations. Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is simply a book you will want to read and share with everyone you know.