Friday, August 7, 2020

Exile Music

Music to my ears!  This is a beautiful symphonic novel written by Jennifer Steil, taking the reader through the lives a family who escapes the Holocaust to Bolivia in South America.  Again we are exposed to another piece of history that has not been exposed before. 

Divided into the movements in musical work of art, this novel follows the Zingel family from Vienna as Hitler is coming to power and then taking over Austria, in the slow moving first movement at a largo pace.   Told from the point of view of Orly the youngest member of the Zingel family,  born into a musical family in Vienna, living in a building owned by her grandparents, she from birth, is best friends with the upstairs neighbor, Annalise.  Though the parents are not close they all share the building and watching over the two girls.   But the differences become more apparent as the Nazi party comes into power and eventually the Night of Broken Glass changes everything.  

As Orly's parents, her father a violist with the Symphony and her mother, a treasured opera singer, realize that their music and popularity will not save them, they prepare to take their family out of Austria.  Leaving behind her older brother, Willi who will escape through the underground, they finally book passage to Bolivia, as Steil takes us into a crescendo building up to the boat passage out of Austria and their introduction to life in Bolivia.  Life was hard for the displaced Jews who were able to escape there during the war.  So the next section of the musical piece is more of an agitated pace, quickly changing direction as they jump from a full life of connection to a life of confusion, loss of language, loss of familiar foods and traditions.  

Orly has an easier time of adjusting than her parents and she embraces the new language and lifestyle. We follow her life as the years go by and she grows from a ten year old child to an adult woman.  So many incredible encounters and hardships happen to this family.  They all have to deal with the hard lifestyle of the mountains of Bolivia, foreign language, altitude sickness, different culture and finally the Nazis they were trying to escape.  All these experiences are representative of what really happened to people who went to South America.  Steil spent years interviewing the remaining survivors and their descendants to share their real life stories in this novel.   So this is a great book to read, to learn about a different perspective about a time and place in history.  

So now we have come to the conclusion of this powerful piece of literature and our musical concert. The tempo reaches its ending with a mezzo-forte, moderately loud passage, though it is still restrained in style.  Because exile can mean so many things.  Exile from your home, exile from your culture, exile from your friends.  Orly works to triumph over the tragedies of being exiled in so many ways.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Mystery of the Three Quarters

Sophie Hannah has taken over writing the Hercule Poirot  mystery series from the legendary Agatha Christie.  This book is the third in the collection.  Another entertaining storyline that you cannot predict until the very end, when Poirot gathers all the suspects in a room and lays out the clues in order to lead you to the obvious explanation.

This time Poirot is drawn into the plot by four, it seems, random people who have received letters accusing them of murder.  The letters were allegedly written by Poirot, so each person comes to yell at Poirot for accusing them unjustly.  Inspector Crabtree is brought onto the case to assist Poirot to appease an important judge, whose son is one of the accused.  Each person has been told that they have been found out for the murder of Barnabas Pandy.  Hercules Poirot does not know who Pandy was and if he was murdered.  he does not know any of the letter recipients.  He can let this lie.  He must investigate who wrote the letters and if Pandy is dead, was it murder.  

Crabtree is now recounting the story to us, and explaining all the facts and clues that happened and giving us all the information as they learned it.  You, the reader, are piecing together all the facts and discarding all the superfluous information that is designed to throw you off target.  

But in the end after meeting so many characters and trying to digest so much, that when Poirot pulls out the piece of Church window cake one last time and divides into 4 squares and explains how the individual quarters are connected or not, you finally see the connections.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Yellow Bird Sings

Beautifully written, this novel by Jennifer Rosner is another very moving story of the survival of Jews during the Holocaust.  The stories of people who survived that horrible time period in our collective history need to be recorded for the future generations.  This is a wonderful way to preserve the horror of the age, with the beauty of love and each person's experience written as a novel that makes the atrocities more bearable to read about.

The Yellow Bird Sings is the story that so many survivors tell from both  the mother and the child's perspective.  This story though a creation of the author's imagination combines some of these tales into a story from both the child's perspective and the parents's experience.  The camps and the crimes committed there are alluded to as the backdrop for this plot but in this novel we focus on a mother and her five year old daughter who have escaped as their family was killed in their small Polish town.
Now they are hiding in a barn for the night hoping that this man who had shopped in their family store will be kind to them when he finds them there.

Hidden in the hayloft days and nights turn into a year, as Roza and Shira stay hidden and silent. Communicating in whispers and made up sign language they spend their time together eating potatoes and other food scraps brought to them by the farmer, Henryk.  A few times when the rest of the family is away the wife, Krystyna, will take Shira out into the sunshine to see the chickens and the cow.  She will share some milk and an egg with her, but not for Roza.  

Shira has a secret pet bird who stays with her when she is happy and when she is scared.  "Shira's bird stays with her when Krystyna takes her out of the barn, and when the warning footsteps of the soldiers prompt Shira and her mother to bury themselves completely under the hay. When Shira is happy,..... he perches in the rafters or on a mound of hay nearby.  But when she is upset....he flies straight into her cupped hands."

When it becomes too dangerous to stay any longer, Krystyna offers to help get Shira to an orphanage. Roza fearing that she and her daughter cannot survive in the woods together through a cold harsh winter agrees.

Shira is taken without understanding what is happening to her to a catholic orphanage where the nuns rename her Zosia.  Her hair is dyed blond and she is taught her catechism.  But she is also introduced to the violin and her music ability is discovered.  though she is well treated by the nuns, as well fed as can be during a war and warm and dry, she misses her mother and is worried about forgetting her past.   But the music from her childhood comes through and reminds her of her Jewish background and family Shabbats.  these musical moments will be what saves her.

Roza, on the other hand, is out in the woods, surviving the elements, surviving on mushrooms and thistles that she cooks into soup, until she meets up with some other Jewish partisans hiding.  Life for her is hard and she misses Shira, and is always searching for her.  She is always conflicted with the question, did she do the correct thing sending her to the orphanage.  The rest of her life will be in search of her daughter.

This is a touching at times heartbreaking story from both sides.  There was good and evil but this story and so many others show, that in the end though, there are not always perfect endings there can be happiness, kindness and love.  People did help others, some more altruistically than others.  Each story is unique and incredible.  

Thursday, July 23, 2020

South Pole Station

This novel written by Ashley Shelby caught my eye on the bookshelf because I do love reading books that take me places I have never been.  I have been fascinated with the idea of traveling to the South Pole forever.  My elementary school was named for Admiral Richard E Byrd, the famous explorer who is credited with discovering Mount Sidney on Antarctic.  So even as a child I was curious about the Poles.  I also spent some time studying the South Pole and was interested in the idea that so many countries can do research there and working cooperatively.  I wanted to go there and film a documentary about the tiny fish called krill that are specific to the Antarctic waters. Just a few reasons this book caught my eye and had to come home with me.

I just keep wondering if this is really what it would be like to live at the South Pole Scientific station... would I be able to survive it?  Probably not darn cold and you are so bundled up, but it sounds beautiful in this interesting novel about a twin who loses her brother, who as children they played fantasy games about being South Pole explorers.. so she want to go to the place he loved to sort of mourn his death.  She discovers her artistic talent and who she really is as she struggles to become a part of the scientists, Beakers, and the Nailheads, workers at the Science station.

Cooper Gosling is applying for a grant for the Science Foundation's Antarctica  Artists and Writers grant to go unfreeze her drawing career on the South Pole.  She has been stuck since her brother's death.  She grew up with a father who was obsessed with the Pole and its explorers and she and her brother grew up pretending they were famous explorers.  She is really very prepared for this journey.

At the psychological test they are not quite sure but Tucker the leader of the mission recognized  something in her that he saw in himself and gives her the chance.  Tucker tells her, "It's not running from something. It's turning aside.  Or looking askance.  Looking askance at civilization.  IF you apply to go to the Pole because it seems 'cool' or because you are looking for 'adventure', then you'll crack up when you  realize it's not a frat party.  If you don't fit in anywhere else, you will work your ass off for us. .."

But of course after going through some hard times, trials and tribulations, Cooper becomes a member of the team.  She is ready to winter over, and is on the way to healing herself and recovering her artistic talent.  Also this is not just a fluffy warm story, there is a climate change denier who raises his ugly head and challenges the scientists who are studying weather at the South Pole.  This creates tension and drama at the International Station and between the characters in the book.  This takes place in 2003 - 4 and things have developed since then but it gives the reader pause.

This was a great novel with an entertaining plot and may even change or at least question my views on climate change...

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Forgers

Written by Bradford Morrow, I finally read The Forgers.  This is the story of a forger of signatures and famous authors from our past.  Writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne whose first edition writings are worth a tidy sum.  Buying these books, altering them with signatures and dedications that are not original and reselling them for even more money.  It is a dangerous way to make a living.

This plot follows the murder of Adam Diehl who was found with his hands cut off and dies later in the hospital without being able to tell anyone what happened.  His house has been vandalized and valuable inscribed books and original manuscripts are destroyed.  

His sister, Meghan, who owns a book shop has fallen in love with a forger, Will and together as we listen to the story unfolds from Will's point of view.   We learn how Will, after being caught forging, has given up the career he actually loved and is going on the straight and narrow.  He marries Meg and they move to Ireland.

But sometimes you have to be careful because the greed and the need to be the best can get out of hand.
When one forger falls in love with a book store owner and needs to give up his trade, it can be difficult to really put away your calligraphy pen and inks.

With a few good plot twists and turns you see just as life seems to be perfect,  Will begins receiving threatening handwritten letters, seemingly penned by long-dead authors, but really from someone who knows secrets about Adam's death and Will's past.  

With Meg now pregnant he understands his own life is also on the line-just as he is attempting to forge a new beginning for himself and Meg.  And now surprisingly there is a new follow up to this book.  
So I will be reading about The Forger's Daughter next,

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Imperfects. by Amy Meyerson

What an entertaining book.  When you are sitting home during a pandemic and little annoyances get you and the other members in your household snapping at each other, this is a good book to be reading.
This novel will remind you that all families have some level of dysfunctional behavior happening in them.  If you are lucky you will feel like your family is not really all that bad.  Or maybe you will just be able to relate to the frustrating behavior of these siblings and their mother.

The plot of this novel centers around three siblings and their mostly absent mother.  She was never around when they were growing up and they were left with their grandmother, Helen Auerbach.  Now they are all grown and living in different parts of the country pursing different lives, not speaking to each other.  They have not seen their mother in a few years, since an unpleasant get together which ending in fight.

The first plot twist is that now their grandmother has died and in her will she brings them all back to the  last family home where they lived with Helen. One of the last requests she specifies that they should all sit shiva together.   At the end of the week when the will is read, the house has been left to Deborah, Helen's daughter and the kids mother.  The assets are to be divided between the three children, Ashley, the eldest, married with two children, Jake the middle son, unemployed movie writer, and Beck, the youngest, a paralegal.  Each of these adult children are in some form of financial trouble and personal disgrace.
Their personal lives are in turmoil.  

Beck gets one more special gift from her grandmother, the Florence diamond.  The diamond is set in an old style brooch.  But it turns out to be worth a fortune.  Can the three siblings work together with their mother to find out how Helen came to be in possession of this heirloom and if they really have a claim to own it.  

We follow each of these characters progressing toward the truth about how Helen escaped the Holocaust and what happened to her family.  Researching the valuable diamond and how it came into Helen's possession.  Along the way they each learn something about themselves and are growing up as they move closer to the truth about their grandmother.

This book is fast paced, intriguing and brings together the collapse of the Austrian government government with the Holocaust.  Just touching on the history to give the reader something new to learn and keeping the story light and easy to follow with a good twist at the end.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Make It Concrete

I listened to author Miyram Sivan talk about her newest release the novel, Make It Concrete, and I developed a great appreciation for the story.  I think discussing this with a group would also be a wonderful way to really bring out all the nuances and deeper meaning of the plot, the title and connect readers to the characters.  I have long been consumed with an appreciation and interest in reading Holocaust fiction and memoirs.  Though I have not found myself feeling oppressed by these stories, I can see where it could eventually take a toll emotionally on an author or even a reader.

This is a novel with many layers to uncover. To read it on the surface is to miss the complexity involved.  On the surface this is the story of a woman searching for happiness and meaning in her life.  She is a divorced mother of three children living in Israel.  Isabel Toledo is a descendant of Spanish Jewry.  Even though she makes Aliyah, moving to Israel to marry her Israeli husband and raise her children there, she would not give up her name and connection to her past.  Her father's family can trace its lineage back to the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  Her mother, Suri, is a Polish Holocaust survivor who does not want to talk about her experience during the war.

Though Isabel asks her mother questions about her past, Suri always puts off the discussion, which has left Isabel frustrated and unfulfilled for years. "Isabel, sweetheart, life is beautiful, live it, and leave the dead alone. Suri took a delicate sip of wine.  Her eyes looked up from the rim of her wine glass and met Isabel's. They told her flat out to mind her own business. The same message she had been receiving for the past thirty years."  These pent up, confusing feelings have led her to leave the United States to live in Israel and work with Holocaust survivors, preserving their stories.

Now living with her youngest child, a seven year old son and her oldest daughter home from the army, she is struggling still with feeling like an outsider in Israel, never a true Sabra always an American ex-pat.  Her middle daughter, serving in the Army now, tells her mother she is being transferred. When Isabel expresses her concern the girls laugh. Isabel realizes she will never fit in.  "Times like these reminded Isabel of how little she knew of this country.  And its army.  Even after all these years she got it wrong.  Even after all these years she was an American outsider."

Telling the stories of Holocaust survivors, Isabel as the ghostwriter, telling other peoples stories, one after the other for a demanding publisher in NY.  She has written many books for him but this current book is becoming hard to finish. Isabel tells Emanuel, "Jaim Benjamins's book is just hard.  Feels like iron chains are attached to the sentences." The survivor, Jaim Benjamin is a Greek Jew of Sephardic heritage like her father and it is disconcerting to her.   This story seems to be more personal than the others, reminding her that her own mother has never told her story.  It becomes harder and harder for Isabel to finish this manuscript.  Taking on the burden of listening and sharing the Holocaust memoirs is getting more and more difficult.  She is starting to see demons wherever she looks.

To try and find some peace, Isabel has multiple relationships.  There is the serious boyfriend, who is pushing to make the relationship more permanent.  But Isabel cannot commit yet because she also  has a young lover who she visits at construction sites and another man, on the side, she visits when in Prague.  This was the one area of the book I found a bit unrealistic, at least based on my own feelings and relationships.  I found it hard to  believe a woman would be so sexually active, without commitment.  Isabel is looking for a way to avoid the demons in her head, but even with these affairs she cannot get rid of them.

Isabel loves to watch the concrete pours at construction sites.  "Isabel purred with excitement.  The masonry crew stepped forward to meet the mixers.  After twenty minutes of prep, concrete began to flow from the drums.  A metal pipe held high by a brontosaurus-like crane swallowed it and channeled it to a thick rubber hose. Isabel rocked with anticipation. The head of the crew seized the hose and used all the weight and force of his body to control the heavy surge of grey lava that rushed out of the bucking black hose."

Each of her relationships is similar to concrete, it starts off as a liquid and pours into a foundation that then becomes either strong and permanent or the cracks and defects appear and start to break it apart. There is even a sensuality to the descriptions of the concrete pours and how concrete is described in the book.   Isabel is afraid to commit to Emanuel, who wants to marry her and offers permanence and stability.  She is unsure about her young construction worker, because he is younger than she is and deserves to find true love and start his own family.  She also picks up men while traveling for one night stands.  But the cracks are developing and the weakness of the concrete is starting to show.

The reader will enjoy Sivan's wonderful prose and descriptions of Israeli locations as they follow the characters and encourage the ones you have become attached to to succeed.