Measure of a Man, Martin Greenfield

513MPZVXCLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In light of the horrific events that struck Sydney this week, it seems apt that I have just finished reading this wonderful story of Martin Greenfield’s triumph over evil.

Having read many Holocaust stories of miraculous survival, I had a certain sense of what to expect in this memoir. What surprised me though was the joie de vivre with which Greenfield tells his story. The cover of this books clearly captures its essence: a smiling Greenfield, a man who makes the most of every moment, living life to its fullest. That’s not to say that Greenfield’s story wasn’t horrific and sad and confronting and terrifying. However, Greenfield’s passion for life is inspired by his father’s parting words in Auschwitz:

“Together we will never survive, because working together we will suffer one for the other. We will suffer double. We must separate… On your own you will survive … If you survive by yourself, you must honour us by living, by not feeling sorry for us. That is what you must do.”

It is this that carries Greenfield through, infusing him with an austerity and conviction which lead him to survive.

There is no doubt in my mind that Greenfield was destined for greatness, whether because of divine intervention or a cosmic coincidence, I will leave to your imagination. But no one can question the magic of his encounters – he stands on line in Buchenwald next to Elie Wiesel, he socialises with Frank Sinatra and then works with Donna Karen, Calvin Klein and other top designers, dressing presidents and fitting out actors in block buster films. The incongruency of these liaisons against the background of Greenfield’s life experience is dazzling.

The magical essence of Greenfield’s character is displayed when, upon liberation, he confronts Rabbi Herschel Schacter with the question: “Where was G-d?”  Schacter’s response is chilling: “There are no answers to certain questions … That is a question to which their is no answer.” However, for me, the goose bump moment in this very simple but honest memoir, occurs when Greenfield is invited to the ground breaking ceremony for the U.S Holocaust Museum. It’s worth quoting the entire section:

“During the ceremony, an old rabbi got up to make some remarks. His face looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

“I know that rabbi from somewhere,” I whispered … The rabbi continued speaking. He explained that he had witnessed the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust firsthand as a chaplain in the U.S. Third Army, which liberated Buchenwald. No way, I thought. It can’t be him. And then, as if God Himself were winking down at me, the rabbi told a story that I knew well. After the liberation, he recounted, a young boy had asked him a question he could not answer: “Where was God?”

“It’s him!” I said excitedly to Arlene. After the ceremony, I found the rabbi. “Rabbi Schacter, my name is Martin Greenfield. I was at Buchenwald. I was the little boy who asked you the question.”

Such is the story of Martin Greenfield’s life.

All The Light We Cannot See: A Novel, Anthony Doerr

All the lightI think it’s safe to say that I drowned in this book. From the very first words I was submerged in Doerr’s magnificent, momentous and terrifying world of Zero: 7 August 1944.

There was nothing that I did not simply love about this book: the characters, the non-linearity of the narrative, the various settings, even the encroaching war which hovers, always, intrudes and then retreats only to re-appear like a spectre in the darkness. Mostly, I think, what drew me into this book was its sensoriness – one of the protagonists is a blind girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. She loses her sight slowly, over time and in her blindness, she leads up to appreciate the magnitude of other senses:

“To really touch something, she is learning – the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop – is to love it.”

On this journey with Marie-Laure, we learn that “(t)o shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”

Marie-Laure’s father assumes the role of hero-figure. He constructs a miniature, hand carved replica of the town in which they live so she can learn her way around. Eventually, without realising it, she can navigate her way from her house to the museum, the park and beyond. “Her fingers walk the tightropes of sentences; in her imagination, she walks the decks of the speedy two-funneled frigate called the Abraham Lincoln. She watches New york city recede; the forts of New Jersey salute her departure with cannons; channel markers bob in the swells. A light ship with twin beacons glides past as America recedes; ahead wait the great glittering prairies of the Atlantic.”

and

“She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets.”

Marie-Laure lives in Paris and far away, in Germany, lives her counterpart, our other protagonist, Werner. Unlike LeBlanc, Werner is an orphan. He lives with the lovely and loving Frau Elena who nurtures him and his sister, Jutta, with an unlikely tenderness. In this environment, Werner grows, becoming adept at mathematics and a range of engineering capabilities:

“He dismantles the machine, stares into its circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed.”

For Marie-Laure, the world is reduced to touch and sound. She uses her hands to navigate her way through her physical space, and they always flutter before her. For Werner, it is all about the “Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.” He lies at night, hidden from the eyes of the growing Reich, listening to broadcasts from far-away places about science and the world and the way things work. He takes his sister on this journey with him and together they delight in the world that opens for them over the radio-waves.

But, life happens and “(t)he war drops its question mark” for both Marie-Laure and Werner. What unfolds is simply a marvellous tale of two young people whose lives run parallel, intersect only briefly and then diverge. Beneath the story of these amazing personalities are moral questions which Doerr raises in a subversive way. Questions like: “‘Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'” Thus, Werner yearns to belong – “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded. Never has he felt such a hunger to belong.” – but at the same time, he is keenly aware that although “(h)e is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good… every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.”

To tell you more about this book would be to spoil the story so I will leave off here. I will only add that as soon as I read the last line of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, I had this irresistible urge to return to the first page and to revisit the whole book. This rarely happens to me and is a testimony to the power of this tome.

Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Bookclub

13414676I have to confess, I highlighted huge chunks of this book and for reasons that are too numerous to list here. Simply put, I loved this book. I loved everything about it: it’s honesty, the characters, the emotion that runs through every word, the empathy and the wisdom. All of it appealed to the very essence of my humanity. Most of all, I loved that this book explored the relationship between mother and son through books and reading:

Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favourite books without thinking of her – and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

I can’t begin to imagine a woman like Mary Ann Schwalbe. The way her son describes her, she was larger than life, a powerhouse in a small package, a legacy on legs. She clearly lived her life with intense clarity and commitment and passed that on to all who knew her.
But mostly, this book muses about books and about death. As Schwalbe uses books to explore his reaction to death in general and his mother’s dying in particular:

“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Schwalbe has other interesting insights:

I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They may make me feel, but I can’t feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can’t whack you upside it.

I found myself thinking deeply about these statements. Did I agree? I’m not convinced. I like an electronic book. I like the feeling of a small device which holds a library. It gives me a sense of climbing Everest without moving. What I do, profoundly agree with is the notion that: “That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.” For Schwalbe’s mother, reading was often “like praying” and I want to ask Schwalbe more about this notion … sometimes reading is selfish, a form of escapism … how is that like praying? What kind of prayer does he mean or did his mother mean? So many questions left unanswered.

But on of the things that I loved most about this book was the book-list that it has given me.

The Lizard Cage, The Uncommon Reader, The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch (I’ve seen Pausch speak and I can’t recommend the videos enough), Continental Drift, The Painted Veil, Joan Didion’s autobiography, Olive Kitteridge, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, The Bolter, The Magic Mountain,

And even more, I enjoyed the journey back through books which I had read and loved: People of the Book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Suite FRancaise, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn and Too Much Happiness.

In short, a wonderful read. So sad to have finished it.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

The_Sense_of_an_EndingThis was my first foray into the world of Julian Barnes. Not for any particular reason; he’s just not an author I have rushed to read before. It took me a while to read this book, again, not for any specific reason, just because of life – it happens sometimes! Anyway, I finally finished the book last night and found myself quite perplexed by its ending and again, I’m not sure why.

I appreciate Barnes’ literary skill – he can certainly write like a master and his prose is oftentimes brilliant and captivating and intense and profound. But while I appreciated the WAY he wrote, this book just didn’t grab me in the way that I wanted it to … I know it sounds weak and I don’t think I can pin point exactly what it was that left me wanting – was it the fact that I didn’t relate to the protagonist, was it the plot, the setting … all of the above … I still can’t quite figure it out.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely. Barnes is well worth the reading. Will I read more? I’m not sure…

John Irving, Until I Find You

until I find youThis is not my first John Irving book and it definitely won’t be my last! I am in awe of Irving’s ability to weave these complex narratives with characters whose depth simply overflows the pages of the text. This book was no exception.

Meet Jack Burns. Jack is raised by his mother, Alice, a tattoo artist. Jack’s recollections of his childhood are filled with a glowing appreciation of his mother and her quirkiness. What he doesn’t realise until later is that she has facilitated a lie and everything Jack thinks he knows about his absent father is false.

This is the root of the story which unfolds. However, what is most appealing about this book is characters and their neuroses – Jack, Alice, Jack’s friend Emma, Alice’s partner and all the other people who participate in the telling of this tale.

It wasn’t a quick read but it’s one that I am glad I completed.

Persian Brides, Dorit Rabinyan

our-weddings-rabinyan-dorit-paperback-cover-artThe experience of reading this book was like taking a swim in a divine pool of rich and vivid images that glossed over one’s imagination like fine bolts of high quality silk. I literally drowned in the magnificence of the 1001 Nights atmosphere of Our Weddings. I had to read it slowly. Very slowly because it had this strange effect of leaving me feeling as though I had consumed too much alcohol. Not something I’ve ever experienced in a book before!

I’ve never read anything by Rabinyan before but her Sephardi heritage is so evident in her books that her words ring with the clang of jewellery and bedecked women. I could almost hear the cat fights and the screeching from roof tops as women haggled about small details, about village life, about each other.

It was this that most fascinated me about the book: the focus on women in this particular small-village setting. I think it was this element that gave this book its richness, leaving readers feeling as though they are drowning in an oestrogen festival.

This book isn’t for everyone. I expect that many will find it self-indulgent and too voluptuous; but I loved it.

The Replacement Wife, Eileen Goudge

the-replacement-wife-194x300This was one of those unusual books that one stumbles across and then swallows whole. A woman recovers from cancer and thinks she is living the perfect wife when the cancer returns and she is told there is no hope. She decides to find the replacement wife for her husband as she is a professional match maker and who else, but her, could find the right woman?

The story itself is quite simply told and I didn’t find any of the characterisation particularly mind blowing. In fact, the thing that struck me most about this book was the plot and for me that is rather unusual. I am still troubled by the events which unfolded in The Replacement Wife and the deep ripples of tremors that they sent through the people involved in them. I found the insight into hope and despair intriguing and the question that has lingered with me over the last few months since I read this book is: “What is real love?”

This book didn’t cause me to leap off a bridge but it certainly raised some valid questions and concerns which left me thinking. The characters haven’t stayed with me but the implications of their actions and decisions certainly have and probably will for quite some time to come.

The First Third, Will Kostakis

9780143568179It has been quite some time since I have read a book that I felt was worth writing about. This says more about me and my state of mind that it does about the world of books and I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw this reviewed. I know it was during the last week … perhaps in a newspaper? But I do remember that when I read about it, I was impressed by the fact that here was a book written for boys – boys the same age as my boy … boys who are often not considered when it comes to young adult fiction which tends to so overwhelmingly appeal to a female audience. So I bought the book. Hard copy. Thinking that my boy would thoroughly enjoy the read… it sounded so … I’m not sure what the adjective is … so … tweenish?

Since I am a diligent parent I decided to read the book myself before handing it over. I wanted to be sure that there was no inappropriateness in it, no teenage fantasies about girls that I can’t yet imagine my son having. Not that he’s a saint. Just that he’s only 11 and only just and I’d like him to enjoy his youth for just the shortest little while.

Anyway, so I picked up the book last night and started reading and before I could blink I was immersed in the most wonderful true to life story filled with multi-dimensional characters who all resonated otherness in different ways. I loved the ordinariness of this Greek family and the ordinariness of their concerns. And I loved the way they cared for one another, often without showing it, but nonetheless it was there, hidden in dark corners.

This book grabbed me and shook me and kept shaking until I finally put it down, a mere 10 pages from the end just to hold on to the feelings, to savour the specialness and to wait. I let it percolate overnight and then, today, I sat quietly and finished it. And then I breathed.

Will Kostakis is a genius. A writer of the most intense calibre and I have no doubt that if he continues to produce work of this nature, he will shortly be a type of hero for young boys the world over.

I will be giving this book to my son to read and I will be hoping that he has friends like Lucas (or Sticks as he likes to be known) and that even when he and his siblings fight, they always know that family is forever if you want it to be. His grandmothers are never going to impart the beauty of making moussaka, but they will always be there to make him smile and nothing is more important.

I loved this book and I will treasure the story and the way it was told for a very long time and I will be first in line to buy Kostakis’ next book.

The Mermaid Chair, Sue Monk Kidd

I don’t know what it was with this book, but I think I hated it. And I hate that I am writing this. The front cover brags: “The Number One New York Times Bestseller” and I couldn’t read it. I mean, I read it, almost reached the final page and then realised that I’d already wasted so much time with this book and my care factor was zero… negative, if that’s possible. So, with ten pages left to go, I quit. I just tossed the book aside and surrendered myself to the fact that I really didn’t mind what these characters did with their lives, whether the protagonist ever returned to her estranged husband, Hugh; whether Brother Thomas remained a Brother or whether he returned to the world with a fresh perspective. I still can’t quite believe that I was not at all invested in any part of the reading of this novel. How can this happen?

I consider myself an extremely patient reader. I love reading for such a wide range of reasons that it’s incredibly unlikely that I will ever NOT finish a book… and I’m usually very trusting of writers, I give myself over to them and allow them to lead me on all sorts of journeys into all sorts of situations and I love it. Well, usually I love it. This time, not so much.

So, my question now is: Do I read The Secret Life of Bees or do I just decide that Sue Monk Kidd and I are never going to be best buddies?

The Full Ridiculous, Mark Lamprell

19547813Gosh I love my local library – Librarians Rule!! I picked this one up on a recent visit because it was displayed on the “We Really Liked This One” stand. I figured I had nothing to lose and I wasn’t disappointed!

The cover of this book sums it all up: “Sometimes you can’t pull yourself together until you’ve completely fallen apart” and fall apart Michael O’Dell manages to do with great finesse and wit.

The book opens with a scene setting pop: Michael O’Dell is out for his constitutional, having “yet another premonition that (he’s) hit by a car” when he is, indeed, hit by a car. It doesn’t sound like the most uplifting tale. But the car accident is merely the catalyst for a long saga of other issues which are clearly lurking in the ever-present background of O’Dell’s life but have been successfully ignored because, well, life happens and it keeps happening and most of us never really take the time to deal with the important things.

I loved the way Lamprell tread the fine balance between pain and humour in this novel. His ability to do this allowed him to cleverly navigate his way through some incredibly confronting issues – a daughter who punches out a classmate, a son with a stash of drugs in his room, and a general sense of personal dissatisfaction.

O’Dell doesn’t die. On the contrary, the car accident teaches him how to live again and although it takes some time, he does eventually find his way.

“You are an unremarkable man living an unremarkable life except for this single thing: you love and are splendidly loved. You will never paint a masterpiece or engineer a great bridge or leave any lasting monument to yourself. But you have been swept into the river of love and you know how to swim there and you are teaching your children how to swim as your parents taught you and your teach will teach theirs and on it will go.

This is your legacy, your luck, your glory and your magnificence.”