Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist That Tried to Kill Your Wife

How can we Americans, who sit and watch the news on our televisions or listen to it on NPR, even begin to comprehend what the limbs and blood and screams and other sounds are like in a terrorist explosion, unless we've actually lived it? In Israel, however, these sorts of conflicts and explosions are a matter of daily life that the occupants must endure. It is in tis sort of life that David Harris-Gershorn writes his first book - a memoir of sorts.

He gives an interesting perspective on this daily life in Israel with its constant threats. While he's not a primary victim of a terrorist bombing, his wife was, making him a secondary victim of sorts. In 2002, Harris-Gershorn and his wife were living in Israel, studying and attending Hebrew university. Harris-Gershorn's wife was a student there. On one fateful date, she was sitting in the cafeteria when a bomb went off literally next to her while she and some of their friends were eating lunch. While eating pasta in the apartment that he shared with his wife, the author got a phone call and learned that his wife had been in the bombing and had been severely burned. Additionally, a piece of shrapnel had embedded itself in her intestines, requiring immediate surgery.

A year later, the family is back in America and trying to recover psychologically speaking from the bomb, even though there has been a physical recovery. The experience left the author very much paralyzed and prompted him to begin a quest to understand the motivation of the attacker in committing such horrendous acts. He ultimately decides that he must meet the bomber himself. For most of the book, we wait patiently for the moment in which the two people meet. While the book itself is beautifully written, it is unfilling to some extent. Perhaps that is ultimately the purpose of the book - to convey the frustration that the author must feel, to tell us that we must not expect answers to all of our questions and that it might be often about the quest as opposed to the answers. This was a wonderful first effort and I look forward to future efforts.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I, like everyone else, read Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in high school but haven't read it again since and when I moved to New Hampshire, I learned that there was the additional connection between Granite Staters and Salinger. He lived in Cornish as a near recluse in the State - maybe he knew what everyone else in NH knew - people here seem to respect a person's desire to keep to themselves as long as they're not causing any problems. So, when I heard a story on NPR about how Rakoff wrote a book about working for the literary agency that represented Salinger, my interest was piqued.

This book takes place in 1996 and is best classified as a memoir; however it really feels like she could be talking about the female office workers in the Mad Men era. These are tastefully dressed women who live in Brooklyn and can barely make their rent, let alone purchase a deli sandwich. Most of Rakoff's friends are, like her, the underpaid assistants to the agents in the big literary houses. There are many motivations for taking these jobs but they inevitably boil down to a love of books or the desire to become a writer or both; I think that these women think that taking these jobs will give them a foot in the door. Rakoff was hired to work at "The Agency" and was assigned to the big boss, who was notoriously blunt and brusque. The president and Agency had represented JD Salinger for approximately 6 years before Rakoff was hired. The Agency was so old school that they didn't have computers, a fax machine or a wordprocessory until the middle of Rakoff's tenure there. They did everything on typewriters (what's THAT!?). Salinger fascinated Rakoff, as he did and does everyone else. She's told on her first day NEVER to give out a phone number or address for him, regardless of why the person is calling. They would be directed to the boss who would then handle it. Part of Rakoff's job was answering Salinger's voluminous fan mail. She is also give a form letter to send, but opts instead to personally answer as many of the letters as possible. The letters came from all sorts of people from all walks of life: teenagers, veterans, housewives, you name it. Someone was assigned to read the snail mail sent to Salinger since Lennon was shot by someone who has just read/was reading Catcher. After that, the mail was going right to the trash bin. Rakoff wa that person.

Ironically Rakoff hadn't read anything written by Salinger - she considered herself to be a literary snob, limiting herself to authors like Faulkner. She spent one weekend devouring Salinger books and was hooked. This memoir doesn't require that you be hooked on Salinger in order to enjoy it. A lot of the memoir focuses on the culture of the literary agency career at the time. A good portion also focused on a coming of age story to some degree - during this year, Rakoff learns that she has to grow up and act like the adult that she is. The writing is phenomenal - she has a really great voice that is easy to appreciate and like and which hooks you almost immediately. A must read.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Euphoria by Lily King

When people hear the name of Margaret Mead,I don't think they necessarily think of the torrid, sexuality of her work and how big a splash it made because of it. It did make that splash though and this novel draws loosely on the 1933 expedition that Mead went on with her then husband and the man that would become her third husband. She then blended those facts into a story of her own creations. I really enjoyed reading this novel in major part because it was a well researched nod to Mead, a woman that the author clearly admired for the work that she engaged in. The love triangle that ensues and the ego competition add layers upon layers to an already lovely story. The tension is palpable from the get go when Nell Stone, the protagonist and author of a book that caused a splash is leaving an aggressive tribe with her Aussie husband (Fen) who is already jealous of Nell. The tribe that they are leaving lobs items at them as they leave, one of which Nell believes is a stillborn baby. Nell's glasses are broken - impliedly at the hand of her husband - as is her ankle. Both are dirty, malnourished and malarial as well as being down in the dumps emotionally and mentally. They encounter Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist, who they eventually hook up with even though he is down in the dumps too. Bankson has lost both of his brothers and is considered to be a failure by his mother.

The way that King writes about the people, makes it almost as if you're in the bush with them. You can feel the thickness of the air and smell the dankness of unwashed bodies. You can feel the tension that is created when Bankson falls hard for both Nell's body and her sharp mind. I as the reader got uncanny access to the minds of Bankson and Nell Stone through journal entries that Nell writes as well as the narration by Bankson. The introspection is perhaps unparalleled than many other novels. It was a magnificent work that should be read by all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Wonder by RJ Palacio

Wow, I've nearly let this blog die and I'm so sorry for that. I'm restarting. I promise not to let it go so long again. And I'm starting with a book that I've heard so much about and have really wanted to read it.

I've heard so much about Wonder. August (aka Augie) Pullman was born with a congenital facial deformity call Treacher-Collins Syndrome. As a result of this congenital deformity, Augie has been home schooled. The deformity has led to Augie having a number of operations and hospitalizations. However, at 10, his parents have decided that he should be enrolled in a somewhat prestigious prep school in New York City. Aside from his face, which is extremely distinct, Auggie is a normal kid, albeit a smart and perceptive one. His mental capacity is above average. This book examines his struggles to overcome his deformity, go to school and challenge people's perceptions about a person's outward appearance.

Even though this book is classified as young adult, realistic fiction, its story and message will appeal to teachers, parents and other adults as well as its target audience. It is an engaging read and wholesome as well - you won't find any sort of foul language (although there is a bit of bullying in it). Interestingly, the book is told from the perspective of eight different characters, including August and his sister and a few classmates. Each is able to provide their own unique perspective on August and their experiences with him, in their own unique voice (which is quite an amazing talent to have as a writer). There are many themes in this book ranging from empathy and courage to bullying and compassion. It demonstrates the impact that mainstreaming a child with August's deformity can have on all members of a community and a family. It's a book about doing the right thing and acting gracefully under pressure. This book contains great material for kids - it presents many topics for parents to discuss with their children - acceptance and bravery and how the easiest thing isn't always the right thing to do. It is also full of material for book groups. Definitely a must read for everyone out there.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...