A Wedding in Great Neck

11/5/12 I’m not sure if I finished reading A Wedding in Great Neck by Yona McDonough in one night because I had insomnia, or if I had insomnia because I wanted to finish the book — because once I started I couldn’t put it down. McDonough uses a wonderful technique where the story unfolds from several points of view – the grandmother, the mother, the sister and her estranged husband and others. Only the bride’s thoughts are a mystery as the hustle and bustle of the wedding day unfold. The comedic episodes entangle with serious issues. And always there is drama because the characters all manage to be divas in one way or another before they pull themselves together into a portrait of sensitivity and sensibility. McDonough paints a true-to-life portrait of a family with many issues and clashing personalities who discover that for all of them, it’s the bride and her happiness that matter. I also think McDonough has an uncanny ear for speech and a terrific gift of story-telling. I don’t want to say more or give away the plot – but I will add that the grandmother with the bra-shop, I want to go have her fit mine. Each page is delicious. Enjoy.

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 Midwife of Venice

6/21/12 Please don’t ask me to explain why I haven’t reviewed a book in three months. It’s not as if I haven’t been reading. And it’s not as if I haven’t be talking about books to people on the Internet and face-to-face (F2F, since everyone has decided that online is IRL, that is, In Real Life). But I did get a tweet from Carolyn Burns Bass, who runs a Twitter chat about books every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 4-5 ET (I’ll be explaining Twitter chats in an article soon) saying that on Friday Roberta Rich will be her guest, talking about her novel The Midwife of Venice, and I’m, like, “oh, wow, I meant to write about that months ago. It’s in my pile.” True story. I even have the press release on my desk. And I meant to write about it last week, too, because a friend asked me for a good summer read, and I suggested this book. Why a summer read? Because it’s summer. Right now it’s 93 degrees outside my air conditioned study. But this would be a good read any time because it’s a really good story. Rich’s central character, Hannah Levi, a renowned midwife in the Jewish ghetto in Venice (the original ghetto), is called  by a wealthy family to the bedside of a wealthy woman whose labor is problematic — and whose husband’s inheritance depends on his producing a male heir. This is the 16th century, people. Jews aren’t supposed to mix with Christians — which is basically the way it has been everywhere for all time, but more on that when my novel manages to get finished and falls into your hands. So there’s a dilemma. Second problem: well, it’s actually a blessing. Hannah, like many real-life midwives of that time, has worked out that if she uses a device that is essentially two large spoons to scoop out a baby (not too different from forceps), she can aid many a laboring mother. However, if she’s caught with her marvelous invention, she could be accused of witchcraft. Interspersed with Hannah’s story is that of her husband, Isaac, who has been captured at sea and is now barely surviving on the island of Malta. Hannah reasons that the fee she asks from the noble Christian family will pay for her beloved’s ransom. Sound like a lot of plot? There’s much more, involving treacherous servants, an estranged sibling now a courtesan, the plague, a kidnapping, a murder, nuns, silkworms — yes, lots of stuff. The book is engaging; the heroine is strong and believable, though I must admit that I liked some of the Isaac episodes better than the Hannah ones. Those of you who read my book reviews and know how I feel about fiction, well, you won’t be surprised that I think there’s a little too much coincidence here. Rich also doesn’t get some of the historical detail quite right. Right now, however, I recall any examples, but I can relate the whole plot — which proves something. In the end, it’s the story that matters, and this one is involving and might keep you reading past your bedtime. (Click on the book cover photo, and you’ll get to the Barnes & Noble site, where you can download a copy for your Nook or purchase a paper-bound copy that includes what I miss most in ebooks, a colophon.)