Thursday, April 28, 2011

Goon Squad Wins Again!

While I was away on vacation (excuse the break in posting), the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced -- the winner was Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad.  It is now available in softcover (click here).  I picked this as one of my favorite books for 2010.  The NYT's picked it as one of the five best fiction works of the year.  If you have not read this book, I would highly recommend it.

Egan talks about winning the Pulitzer Prize below.

If you want to see the technically interesting PowerPoint chapter Egan created as a chapter in the book, Amazon has a cool presentation of it here, including musical interludes.

The finalists for the fiction prize were:

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, a contemporary, wide ranging tale about an elite Manhattan family, moral bankruptcy and the long reach of wealth.

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee, a haunting and often heartbreaking epic whose characters explore the deep reverberations of love, devotion and war.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht, a 25 year old, first time novelist, is one of the most anticipated books of 2011.  Ms. Obreht was included as one of the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 last spring without having published any novels or short story collections.  (Seems a bit like President Obama winning the Novel Peace Prize shortly after being elected to office.)  Talk about pressure. 

The Tiger's Wife justifies the pre-release attention Obreht garnered.  The novel is a stunning debut and is the launching point of a career to watch.  While the book is not perfect (I'm not sure of one that is), it is a sensuous read and worthy of staying up to read.

The story revolves around Natlia and her grandfather both before and after the disintegration of Yugoslavia (although the country is unnamed in the book).  Natlia's grandfather passes away far from home while Natlia, a doctor, is on a humanitarian mission to provide services to orphans.  Natlia tries to find answers about her grandfather's death while keeping secrets from her grandmother about what she knew and when she knew it. 

In parallel, Obreht takes us back to the grandfather's childhood in the 1940s.  During the war, a tiger escapes from the zoo and seemingly develops a relationship with a deaf-mute woman, who has abused by her butcher-husband.  During the grandfather's life, he meets the "deathless man," a symbol for death, who crosses paths with the grandfather and Natalia over the years.  The tiger's wife and the deathless man are fables that intersect with life and test the characters.

The first pages of the novel lulled me into thinking this would be a literary book that develops slowly.  Suddenly, Obreht throws in rapid action; and the novel unfolds.  My critiques, minor as they are: the book has multiple plot lines that have to be tracked carefully.  After the dramatic opening, the novel slows down a bit and takes a while for it to pick up again. 

Obreht's writing is rich and breathtaking. She juxtaposes beauty with devastation and companionship with loss. Obreht draws on her formative years in Belgrade and uses the novel to cope with her loss of her grandfather.  It is a magnificent work.

Read Obreht.  She deserves the accolades.  I would be surprised if this is not the winner of a prize or two this year.  The reviews have been deservedly glowing.

Other reviews: NYT, The Magic Lasso, The Devourer of Books (they all loved it).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt

There have been two significant judicial trials related to the Holocaust -- the trial of Adolf Eichmann for crimes against humanity and, just a few years ago, the trial of historian Deborah Lipstadt for her "libel" of Holocaust denier, David Irving.  Who better than Profeesor Lipstadt to write a popular and approachable book about the first and foremost trial of the Holocaust.  The Eichmann Trial is worth reading.

After World War II, Adolf Eichmann, the chief operating officer of the destruction of millions of Jews, fled to Argentina where he hid for several years.  In the late 1950s, the Israeli security forces became aware of his  whereabouts but did not act on the information. Before the capture was authorized, Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, made a critical decision: rather than simply killing Eichmann in Argentina and leaving him in a ditch, he was brought to Israel and put on trial.  In 1960, the Israelis captured Eichmann and transported him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes.  Ben-Gurion walked into the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) and announced, "Eichmann bi'yadenu," Eichmann is in our hands.  It was a dramatic and powerful moment.

Immediately, the Israelis were questioned by the world, including by American Jews: how could a state that did not exist during the Holocaust try Eichmann?  Could the Israelis conduct a fair trial?  Wasn't Eichmann illegally abducted?  Would the victims and survivors have a voice in the trial (they had none at Nuremberg)?  Where would the trial be held (no court house at the time was equipped for such a trial)?  Who would defend Eichmann?

To fully appreciate the magnitude of the trial, Lipstadt reminds us that in the 1950s and 1960s, there were no Holocaust memorials and while the fact of the Holocaust was known, people were still focused on returning to  life and fighting the Cold War.  Also, Israel was still in its relative infancy.  Although it miraculously defended itself in two wars, it had not as powerful as it would become in 1967.  Without this context, it is hard to fully appreciate the importance of this trial.  Lipstadt expertly sets the context  and walks through the critical decisions (and mistakes) made in conducting the trial.  Having sat through a highly publicized trial herself, Lipstadt adds an extra dimension to her recounting of the tale.

The Jewish Encounters series, of which this is the most recent addition, is intended to present Jewish subjects "in a lively, intelligent and popular manner."  The Eichmann Trail  is not an academic piece, yet, it is written by a woman with impeccable credentials on the subject.  Lipstadt masterly narrates the story.  But, the story does not end with the trial.  After the trial, the New Yorker ran a series of articles by Hannah Ardent, a Jew who fled Germany.  She argued that the trial was unfairly conducted and that Eichmann essentially followed orders and was not an anti-Semite.  Who better than Lipstadt to examine this?

The only thing that I did not love about the book was the author's interruption of the narrative with references to her own trial.  The comparison of Eichmann's trial and Lipstadt's trial should have been in an epilogue.  That distraction is easily overcome.

The book is short (200 pages) and reads like a well written New Yorker or New York Times Magazine piece.  It is easily accessible and requires no background.  In reading this book, you will understand how this trial became precedent for how many future trials would be conducted.

Hear Lipstadt talk about her book here:

Deborah Lipstadt on The Eichmann Trial from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Many books have been written about the immigrant experience: the need to leave a land, the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture and the challenge of preserving identity.  David Bezmogis, a New Yorker 20 Under 40, uses his new and first novel, The Free World, to tackle the story of the Soviet Jews. 

The Soviet Jews that were released in the 1960s and 1970s could not travel directly to Israel or the US.  Often, they stopped over in Vienna or Rome en route to the free world.  The stop over could take days, weeks and even months.  (For a fantastic non-fiction book on Soviet Jewry, click here.) 

Bezmozgis' story opens in 1978 with the arrival of the Krasnansky family in Rome.  The familial patriarch, Samuil, is an old Communist and Red Army veteran, who reluctantly leaves his home and life.  His wife, Emma, reconnected with her spiritual heritage in the Soviet Union.  Although she is only a supporting character, she displays a sharp understanding of her family and their problems.  Their eldest and pragmatic son, Karl, arrives with his wife and two boys.  His muscled physique and opportunistic outlook lead him into the underworld of Rome.  The younger son, Alec, a bon vivant and womanizer, arrives in Rome, with his new, scandalously acquired bride, Polina.

The family tries to find its way through the maddening bureaucratic maze of Rome, while struggling to survive and understand why they left.  On the way, they find other former Soviet Jews and develop interesting connections.  Throughout the novel, Bezmozgis takes us back into the characters' colorful histories, developing who they are and why they left. 

Bezmozgis was born in Latvia. Like Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story and Absuridstan), Bezmozgis's writing is biting and sharp witted.  His use of the English language is shaped by the rhythm of the English as it translates into Russian.  As he said in an interview:

I usually thought about what the conversation would be like in Russian and then would translate it into English. If there was something ungainly about it, then I’d try to correct for it. There are certain words where, if I had a choice between that and some other English synonym, I’d consciously use the one that’s more Russian. My belief is that it will be transparent enough for an English speaker, but if you’re a Russian–speaking reader and you can translate backwards, there are certain nuances that will come through.  Full Paris Review interview here.

The novel has a great rhythm and pace to it.  Bezmogis intersperses humor and tragedy through the book, while meaningfully and thoughtfully exploring his characters.  It is a beautifully written book.  My only critique is that he drops in several dialogues in Italian, which are distracting.  Otherwise, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  If you liked Shteyngart, you should read Bezmozgis.  Both deserved their New Yorker 20 Under 40 status.

Other reviews: Largehearted Boy, NYT and The Millions.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review -- When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

In 1987, I travelled with about 250,000 others to Washington DC for the rally to demand that Gorbachev release the Jews held in the Soviet Union, the Refuseniks.  For decades, Jews in the USSR were not permitted to practice their religion or to leave the country.  The process of obtaining an exit visa was expensive, oppressive and often a dead end.  Instead, when Jews asked for the right to leave, they often lost their jobs immediately and cut off from society.  Within the Soviet Union, they formed an underground community of Refuseniks, protesting their oppression.

In the 1980s, my brother, like many Jewish kids at the time, had a "twin" for his bar mitzvah, a Refusenik who became part of the ceremony that day.  Many of us wore metal bands on our wrists with the name of a Refusenik.  It was all an effort to raise awareness about these prisoners of conscience.

Until I read Gal Beckerman's new book, When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone, I had no idea about the depth of the history of this important movement.  The Soviet Jewry movement was in many ways a response by American Jews to their failure to act in the face of the German atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s.  It was the embodiment of "Never Again."  Starting in the 1960s, a small group of activists in Cleveland began raising awareness about the plight of the Soviet Jews.  It was the first time American Jews flexed their political muscle in the United States.  And, it was a very difficult issue because it was intertwined with the foreign policy issue of the day -- the Soviet Union, the United State's opponent in the Cold War.  Different forces within the Jewish community fought to find a way -- quiet diplomacy, peaceful protests, attacks on Soviet targets.  Beckerman's study addresses many of the key moments and players in the history of the movement, from Rabbi Meir Kahane to Natan Sharansky to Senator Jackson.  The efforts of the Jewish community ultimately found key supporters in the US governement and for the first time in US foreign policy history, the Cold War politics of detente bent to address a question of human rights.

Gal Beckerman, a writer for the Forward, has written a carefully researched, detail laden book, which is beautifully narrated and highly readable.  For his efforts, Beckerman won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award.  This is an important study and well worth reading.

Radio interview with Beckerman here.

Tournament of Books - Goon Squad Wins!

In a very close final match up, Goon Squad upset Freedom in a 9-8 decision to win this year's Tournament of Books' crown.  As those of you that have followed the tournament, in an earlier match up, these two titans faced off and Franzen's Freedom won.  Congratulations, Jennifer Egan!

These were the two titans of the tournament and, in my opinion, two of the very best books of 2010.  Both Egan and Franzen have produced memorable and worthwhile books.  If you haven't read them, I highly recommend both.

The Tournament restarts in March 2012.  Meanwhile, find a great book and enjoy it.