Mission to Paris

8/10/12 The other day someone was telling me about how when she finds an author she really likes, she’ll read everything that author has written. I’m the same way (although I have not read everything by Trollope or Dickens), and when a neighbor told me about Alan Furst four years ago, I read his most current book and then went back and read all the others. For those of you not familiar with Furst, his “spy” novels take place in pre- and early-WWII Europe (although one does bring two characters to the end of the war). Minor characters turn up in several books, and a major character in one book sometimes makes a cameo in another. Indeed, that’s true of Furst’s latest, A Mission to Paris – one of my favorites, the mysterious Count Polyani shows up to render some much needed assistance. And that’s one of Furst’s strengths, his characters. They may be troubled and are not always completely sympathetic, but they’re real enough. Furst’s plots, for the most part, may be directed by the rules of cloak and dagger, but the books are historical novels as much as they are spy novels. Baby Boomers love them because our fathers fought in WWII, and the world he conjures up is that of the movies we so admired, like Casa Blanca. But now the not-so-good news. This novel, like the two that preceded it, is a bit of a dud. It’s predictable, though atmospheric, a bit rushed, too. I’m sure Furst’s mind is full of back story, which is why and how he can keep referencing one book to another while telling a completely different tale. But he hasn’t come up with anything as truly moving as The Polish Officer or as detailed and involving as Red Gold in a few years. If you haven’t read any Furst, and if you find WWII intriguing, he’s your guy, even if you don’t think you love spy novels. Try one out. But don’t begin with A Mission to Paris. Read it, yes, but after you’ve finished the others. (Clicking on the cover will bring you to the Barnes & Noble website.)

The Far Side of the Sky

8/3/12 Although Daniel Kalla’s captivating novel concerns the Jewish community who escaped to Shanghai when Jews could still get  out of Nazi-occupied territories, I think it’s important to note that there has been a Jewish presence in China for nearly two millennia. At every point in Jewish history, there have consistently been more Jews living in the “diaspora” than in the lands to which Moses led them, and one area where they settled intermittently is China. As early as the 7th or 8th centuries, as Jewish traders set off along the silk routes, and stayed put, at least for a bit, in the far east. Some have asserted that Jews in China were part of the 10 Lost Tribes – no proof of that. But Marco Polo mentions meeting Jews on his travels. They were certainly a presence. In the late 19th century, some Sephardic Jews settled in Shanghai and made fortunes; another influx, Ashkenazai this time, took place after the Russian Revolution. It wasn’t until Mao Zedong kicked out all foreigners in 1949 that the Jews left for good. Kalla imagines well the tensions between the older communities who saw the new immigrants as interlopers, and those who managed to flee there from Nazi-occupied countries. What’s remarkable and historically accurate is that the Japanese more or less left the Jewish population alone after they occupied Shanghai, even though they were Nazi allies. Life in Shanghai was precarious, especially for the newest wave who often arrived penniless, but the Jews managed to survive, and, in general, had fewer problems than the native Chinese. Kalla’s plot follows a Jewish doctor, his young daughter and his sister-in-law, whose husband was murdered on Kristallnacht. Thrown in for plot purposes is a gay artist friend, who is being similarly persecuted by the Nazis and escapes with them. Once they get to Shanghai, an American/Chinese nurse joins the crew, along with a “typical” Jewish American who leads the group to the Jewish hospital around which the plot revolves. There is even a prostitute with a heart of gold. Yes, some of these characters are a bit stereotypical and flat. Still, Kalla spins a great adventure story and portrays harrowing experiences well – the account of Kristallnacht, the horror of trying to leave Vienna, the discomfort of the native Shanghaiese, the poverty of the Jewish immigrants are done well. The Far Side of the Sky is perfect for book groups: it’s long enough to be involving (about 450 pages), and there’s much to be discussed — character’s motives, plot twists, even the narrator’s voice, which is consistent and appropriate throughout. I finished this novel still caring about the characters and even wondering what would happen to them after the final page. They have made it through one more crisis, but the war is not over. And eventually Franz Adler, his half-Chinese wife Sunny, his daughter, sister-in-law – and even the gay artist who seems to be in hiding with the “rebels” (i.e., Mao’s forces) will have to pack their bags and become exiles again. (Clicking on the cover photo will take you to the Amazon website where you can purchase the novel.)

The Weird Sisters

3/4/12 On days when my older brother buried my favorite doll in the backyard (this happened more than once; your dad was a typical big brother, dearest Laura), I remember strongly wishing that I had two sisters instead of a brother and a sister. The three female protagonists of this new-to-paperback novel by Eleanor Brown re-kindled my fascination with all-girl families. Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia — we meet them as adults — return to their parents’ home in a college town near Columbus, Ohio because of their mother’s struggle with breast cancer. None of them wants to be there — even the oldest who thinks she does. Over the course of the novel, the characters all learn more about themselves and each other. The potential for closeness, we find out in a wonderful surprise flashback toward the end of the book, has always been there. But they are different in their outlooks, passions and even lack thereof. Brown fills out each character with believable detail. Remarkably, she uses the first person plural, “we,” for much of the book. The “we” generally includes only two of the sisters watching the progress or mistakes of a third. However, as those who make up the “voice” shift, the voice is fluid, and somehow the “we” becomes a kind of “close third” person narrator — not the up close and personal of a first person singular “I,” but also not an inclusive, single but plural point of view. Brown’s narrative technique is original and surprising and works so well in a story where the siblings have always been, but not fully recognized that they are, part of a unit. Even when bonds unit them, they remain individuals.

As part of the promotion for the book — which has worked out really well seeing that today The Weird Sisters made it to the New York Times trade fiction best seller list, not to say it didn’t deserve that on its own merits — Penguin Books USA (twitter handle @PenguinUSA) began a Twitter book club, with the hashtag #readpeguin that has met at random, but announced, times during the past few weeks. I have been able to be there for a few of the discussions, as has Eleanor Brown (twitter handle: @EleanorWrites). Since people participating have been supposedly reading only a few chapters at a time, there has been much speculation about future action: “Maybe the father has a secret too,” someone wondered. Interesting to me, though, have been discussions about the family. No real spoilers here, but when the distant father, able to communicate only through quotes from Shakespeare’s plays (even the Sonnets don’t count), to the point that his letters are pages taken from the plays with lines highlighted and commented upon, shows his love for the girls, people said, “oh, he’s a loving father.” No, he’s a horribly distant father who loves his children. He is an emotional cripple. His relationship with his spacey wife, also loving but not quite there for her daughters, excludes the girls and, I believe, induces the problems the young women all have with relationships. Twitter readers also fixated on sibling birth order. These women embody some stereotypes about the oldest, middle and youngest siblings in a family. That’s OK. Society has an impact on who we are. But believe me, the stereotypes can be turned on their heads. After my brother’s death from a rare blood disorder 20 years ago, I became the oldest child, even though I was, technically, the youngest. Brown’s siblings, interestingly, also step out of their stereotypical birth order roles when circumstances demand new behaviors.

Personally, I find the academic, book-loving family interesting. A couple of years ago my son and daughter were in the back seat making up a conversation, complete with fake accents, between Nietzsche and Freud. “You know, other families don’t do things like this,” my son’s girlfriend piped up from the middle seat. My kids have grown up in a highly intellectualized atmosphere with a philosophy professor for a dad and an English Ph.D. for a mom. Yeah, there’s a lot of sports watched on TV, and my daughter and I were pretty faithful to Project Runway. I mean, unlike the Andreas household in Weird Sisters, we don’t just live in books. Still, there’s a warning here to all parents who don’t get down to the nitty gritty of their children’s worlds: Pay attention to your children, when they’re little, when they’re teens, when they’re adults. Everything they say and do is important, so don’t miss it the way pater and mater Adreas have in this book.

I had a few quibbles with the plot, but they’re minor. In one scene two of the sister smoke pot together and lose their inhibitions. I felt it was a little contrived. I’m also not convinced that in the end everything seems romantically on the right path for all the sisters. For one of the women (no spoilers), considering where she’s living, what’s she’s done and the path she’s chosen, a love life does not seem to me to be a definite. I think Brown could have done better here. Otherwise, though, the book is nearly perfect. It will be loved by book clubs that have not yet discovered it because there is so much to talk about. Women especially will be drawn to its pages. But — yoohoo, men out there: open the covers. Great characters and a compelling plot will greet you. (Click on the cover picture to get to the Barnes & Noble website.)

Earwig and the Witch

2/29/12 My favorite parts of the newest (and perhaps last) book from the late Diana Wynne Jones are the illustrations by Caldecott Medal winner Paul O. Zelinsky, who also happens to be my husband’s first-cousin-once-removed as well as our good friend. (I do not mention this to be “transparent.” Rather, I brag.) I love the electricity of the lines, especially the ones that capture Earwig’s pigtails. I love the expressions of the face made so vivid but a small mark or shading. Yes, Paul really did it up again here. So, OK, now to the story. Everyone who knows children’s books loves Diana Wynne Jones, and Earwig and the Witch is charming, funny and even a little scary. Just a little. Just the right amount for a eight- or nine-year-old reading a chapter book on his own, or the six-year-old who is making friends with the mysterious heroine in nightly installments. Earwig is terrific: smart, resourceful, cheerful, loyal, loving, and she appreciates good food. She’s also wily enough to get those around her to do what she wants and the mean old witch and warlock turn out to be not so horrible after all. I am truly sorry there won’t be many sequels. But my great nieces and nephew can be assured that copies of this wonderful tale for middle readers (and even younger kids) will be winging their way to them soon. (A click on the cover picture will take you to the Barnes & Noble website.)

The Book Thief

2/18/12 It took me five years to get to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. The first time someone mentioned it to me, I was surprised I didn’t know about it, but then not so surprised because it is classified as a “children’s book.” The next person who mentioned the book to me had just read a short story of mine that has a two paragraph coda describing the Nazis shooting the Jewish denizens of a small town in Byelorussia. My thought then was that this person wasn’t very well read — one story that involves the Nazis reminded her of another. A few other people tried to describe the book to me, but gave up. Now I know why. The Book Thief is transcends a simple summary. And it is no more a children’s book than is The Diary of Anne Frank. Zusak’s narrator is Death (with a capital D), who had much to do during World War II. The story he tells is his own, but also that of a girl, Leisel, an orphan who is left by her mother in the hands of a foster family, a child at first unable to deal with the abandonment by her birth parents and the death of her younger brother. At the hurried burial in a random cemetery, Leisel snatches a book, a guide to gravedigging. This strange manual becomes her “horn book” as her foster father, barely literate himself, slowly teaches Leisel to read. Leisel goes on to steal more books — from someone who knows she is doing so, in fact, which help her and her neighbors through the eventual allied raids. Another character, a Jew in hiding, hides behind the pages of Mein Kampf, which he eventually paints over and uses as a new canvass for tales written for Leisel. Death, too, is a book thief, and instead of snatching the young girls life tells the reader her story. The layers of plot and meaning are ingenious, and Zusak’s style is original — leading off chapters with summaries, bold-facing and block-quoting significant words. Maybe because his targeted audience is children, Zusak does provide a somewhat happy ending between the bombed out ruins and the walking-dead Jews. But that’s OK for the adult audience too. Zusak is not heavy handed, and, considering the subject, his achievement is remarkable. I downloaded this to my iPad, but it would be a good gift for any teens in your life who think literature isn’t just about dystopias or vampires. Or if that is what they think books are, this could be a game changer. For adults — don’t be silly like I was. The book was published in 2007. I’m glad I finally opened (so to speak) its pages. (A click on the cover picture will take you to the Barnes & Noble site.)