Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Submission, Amy Waldman


I found this in my draft folder – who knew there was a draft folder? And I can’t for the life of me recall why I left it there … unfinished. So here it is, much overdue: The Submission. Amy Waldman. What can I say? Where can I begin?  What can I say? This is just one of those books that consumes you. I can’t think of a single adjective to describe it. It is too much, too big to be contained by words alone.

I love the website for this novel. It so captures the book: a slab of images, The Architect, The Widow, The Chairman, The Journalist, each image spread across a chess board interspersed with titles – I think it appeals because the Sydney Opera House is there buried in these images and on the surface this book has nothing to do with Sydney’s icon!

I’ve read a few post 9/11 works of fiction. Delillo’s Falling Man has possibly the greatest opening chapter I have ever encountered, but book fizzled from there for me. Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a poignant exploration of the impact of 9/11 on the innocent families, told through the lens of an autistic child. It brilliantly captures the immediate tone of New York City in the aftermath of this unimaginable disaster and the depth of this tragedy is tenderly contrasted by the quirky narrative voice which somehow makes telling this tale more bearable.

What I have not read, is a book which clearly elucidates the deep rift which 9/11 created, specifically impacting the lives of those non-fanatical Muslims who are caught up in the fray of the chaos which followed with the finger-pointing and angst that one can only expect to come in the wake of this enormous tragedy. Waldman’s book does exactly this.

There is so much greatness in this book that it is difficult to quantify. What I think made it so engaging was the dialogue. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s opening:

“The names,” Claire said. “What about the names?”

“They’re a record, not a gesture,” the sculptor replied.

It is so simple. The names … what about the names? They are discussing a competition for a memorial, trying to come to grips with what could actually appropriately commemorate an event like 9/11, provide a suitable resting place for those whose bodies were never find while also act as a salve for a city which has been changed forever. They are trying to set parameters. Do we require the names? The person asking is Claire. For her, it matters – “They will for me” she says tightly.

5000 entries have been reviewed and the committee is down to the final two, trying to make a decision. Ultimately it is a decision which is fraught with complexity for a whole host of reasons, none of which I could adequately cover in this space.

In short, this book is brilliant. Truly and honestly, one of those books that brings tears to your eyes while at the same time forces you to reconsider all of your assumptions, to reassess your values and the very way that you move in the world. Reviewing it now, more than a year after I read it, I think it requires rereading. It’s just that kind of book.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

51sM5xQaE4LOk, new favourite author #love. What a beautiful book. Epic and breath-taking and stellar and poignant. Filled with simple imagery and impossible emotions. A truly special read.

Meet Edward Tulane. He is a rabbit made almost entirely of china who thinks “to be an exceptional specimen.” He belongs to a little girl called Abilene who loves him dearly. And although Edward quite enjoys Abilene’s attentions, he finds he somewhat boring and not nearly as exceptional as himself.

The tale unfolds as Edward is lost at sea – both literally and figuratively – and forced to become accustomed to various recreations at the hands of new owners who all teach him the value of love and belonging. Through this journey that lasts years, Edward comes to find his heart – “For the first time, his heart called out to him” – and with it, a deep pain that leaves him shattered.

I have highlighted great chunks of this story – “Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.” And these feelings leave Edward feeling bereft:

“How many times, Edward wondered, would he have to leave without getting the chance to say goodbye? A lone cricket started up a song. Edward listened. Something deep inside him ached. He wished that he could cry.”

Edward’s notion of love and loving evolves in this short story. It gains dimensions as he travels until it leaves him feeling depleted – “I am done with hope, thought Edward Tulane.” Only to realise that “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”

This is a book that you will swallow whole. Read to your children, your grandchildren and then carry it with you in your heart. DiCamillo is a master storyteller. We should all be so lucky to find an Edward Tulane.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

download (1)Kill me now. This book blew my mind. Quite literally one of the very best thrillers I think I have ever read.

Publishers Weekly calls this book a “pyschologically astute debut” and I can’t think of a better description. I had the same reaction to S.J. Watson’s book Before I Go To Sleep.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this review – how much do I reveal about the plot, about the narrative structure? I really don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience because this is that book that you really have to read and for so many reasons …

Hawkins has crafted something quite magnificent in this book. Her characters are so complex and layered and wonderfully intricate that I couldn’t stop reading. I literally couldn’t put this book down. I went to work and sat there thinking about what was going to happen next. This book hovered in my mind constantly and still, after having finished it quite some time ago, I am plagued by fragments of it.

What I found most intriguing about this book was the way Rachel, the protagonist, whose life has come apart due in part to her alcoholism and in part to a range of other events, has constructed an imaginary world for herself and indeed for some of the people around her. Every day she boards a train. It is the same train she would board if she were going to work. But she isn’t going to work because she was fired for her drunken behaviour. Instead, she is pretending that her life is fine. That everything is rosy, She is pretending even though to everyone – including the reader – it is plain that things are not fine. Not even close.

In telling Rachel’s story, Hawkins has constructed a clever narrative which splits between the voices of three women: Rachel, Anna and Megan. These women are intertwined in so many ways, both real and imagined and the novel details the unravelling of these connections.

I found myself particularly drawn to the segments of the narrative where Rachel was on the train. Her musings, her stream of consciousness and the way that she is so detached from herself and from reality itself, were captivating and provided the story with a perfect rhythm to balance the action which unfolds.

So far, this is my book of 2015. It’s a must read. At least once. For everyone.

The Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Hella Winston

51n2j79drXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I love a book with a good subheading and this one certainly didn’t disappoint – “The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels”. It’s a tantalising prospect … that there are rebels in this sect who retain their Hasidic identity but in the privacy of their homes or behind closed doors, they engage in activities which would certainly have them excommunicated.

I quite like the way this book was structured; a series of interviews cobbled together with the invested narrator guiding the drama, involved in its outcome, hovering always on the edge. We came to understand these ‘rebels’ and to watch them voyeuristically from a distance, feel their distress but never quite ‘know’ them … if that makes sense. I think this is a consequence of Winston’s style – the book started off as a doctoral thesis and then evolved into this act of expressive witnessing.

What Winston does extremely well in this book is provide us with these varied insights into the challenges of living in a strictly limited and perhaps limiting society where one so desperately wants to belong but can’t fit into the mould. Winston’s characters are all tortured and tormented by this struggle and there is a constant sadness that underlies their journeys. I quite like the empathy that Winston shows for these individuals that she meets, despite the fact that she comes from such a different background to them and that she really can’t appreciate most of the obstacles that they are facing. I think that this lends the book an element of honesty which seals it as a valuable book to read for anyone interested in Jewish identity, Jewish culture or Jewish society.

It’s certainly not the best book that I have read on this topic, although perhaps I am grossly influenced by having just read Joseph Berger’s stellar tome called The Pious Ones. But I am glad that I read it and it has contributed enormously to my perception of Hasidic Jews and the way that they live.

This is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper

imagesIt is a very rare thing for me to see the movie before I read the book. Very rare indeed. This is partially because the book is ALWAYS superior to the film and partially because, well, I just don’t watch many movies.

Not only did I watch this film first, without realising that it was actually a book, but I enjoyed it. Laugh out loud kind of enjoyment in an ironic, sort of macabre way.

So, of course, when I realised that it was a novel, I had to read it … even though I knew what was coming. And now I’m stuck because truthfully, the book was as good as the film and the film as good as the book and this is something that I’ve never really experienced, nor heard about … is it even possible? In fact, I’m not even sure if I can review this book without, in part, kind of reviewing the film … Dare I say it, having watched the film actually might have made the reading better … But I’ll leave you to ponder that quietly to yourselves.

Granted, I didn’t read the book straight after watching the film. Rather, months passed and it was only by accident and boredom that I picked up the ebook and started reading. Out of interest really, to see whether the book could be better than the film … And now I’m not quite sure whether I was disappointed or pleasantly surprised … So you’ll forgive the absurdity of this review. This has never really happened to me before!

Meet the most wonderfully dysfunctional family. So dysfuncational that your family, at its most absurd and painful, will seem quite wonderful and brilliant and even calm! The book is told from the perspective of Judd, one of a team of siblings, who, early on, when trying to surprise his wife for her birthday, walks in on her in an extremely intimate exchange with his boss. I won’t spoil it by telling you where the cake lands up, but I’m sure if you use your imagination you will create a reasonable image!

The story unfolds around the death of Judd’s father, Mort, in the wake of the death of his marriage and the loss of his job and his rapid decline into oblivion. Mort’s death brings the family together and leads to a whole gamit of entertaining revelations, none of which I can reveal without destroying the fun for those who intend to read this entertaining novel.

While nothing even vaguely like this ever happens in my family – or in the families of other, real, people that i know – it was nonetheless incredibly entertaining and sad and poignant and beautiful to read about it happening to someone fictitious. If people like this do indeed exist along with families like this, then I am forever grateful for my mundane existence and that of those close to me.

I’m still not sure which I prefered – the book or the film. I might just have to watch and read them both again!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

Ok. I’m saying it. Yup, I’m doing it now … something I hardly ever, very rarely, kind of never ever ever say … I hated this book. I really truly didn’t get it. I’m not sure what there was to get … if anything … whatever it was, it flew well over my head, not bothering to land and enlighten me in the slightest.

In fact, quite the contrary, I was frustrated when the big “oohh ahh” was revealed – SPOILER – that Fern, the protagonist’s sister so lovingly described for SO many pages and clearly the centre of not just the protagonist’s universe but her apparent family too, was a chimpanzee. Frustrated, surprised, flummoxed. Pick an adjective. They all work.

After that it was just downhill. I finished the book because I hate to leave a book unfinished, just in case there is something stellar in the closing pages, something hidden and marvellous to savour. But it was too late for me and this book. Our marriage was not to be. We were doomed and I suffered through the telling, irritated by Rosemary and her brother and her parents and the whole social experiment of pairing chimpanzees with humans.

So there. I said it. Boo.

The Pious Ones, Joseph Berger

20705652Joseph Berger is a one of a kind. As an accomplished journalist at the New York Times he has covered religion, education, New York’s ethnic diversity, the Middle East and all things Jewish. For almost 30 years, he made a defining contribution to the face of American journalism.

However, his prowess goes beyond just the newsprint and I will always love his writing most for the tender and revealing way he paid tribute to his inspirational parents and their journey through the Holocaust, refugee camps and into the land of the brave and free. In his book, Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust, Berger clearly defines himself as an exemplary story teller, a master of the rarest kind.

What I didn’t know about Joseph Berger was his incredible and passionate commitment to detailed research and it was this that I discovered in his latest book, The Pious Ones.

I’m not always a fan of the well researched non-fiction. Often I find these types of books hard going, laborious reading filled with meaningless statistics and mindless interviews and so I was somewhat apprehensive when I picked this book up and started reading. I was only marginally placated by the fact that my husband couldn’t move for 2 days while he read The Pious Ones – marginally because he has more reading stamina than I do when it comes to this type of non-fiction.

There was not one page in Berger’s latest book that disappointed me. I flagged pages so that I could revisit them. I reread whole paragraphs to myself repeatedly so that I could drown in the intense detail. I fell in love with Yitta Schwartz, a survivor who when she died at age 93 left behind over 2000 relatives. I carried her with me throughout my reading, thinking about her often and wondering at the tenacity that allowed her to live through such tragedy and survive, smiling, creating a whole new world and legacy. I marvelled at the way that Berger infiltrated these closed communities – Satmar, Bobover, Vizhnitz. His greatness is partially revealed in the very fact that such respected Rabbis allowed him to pray with them in their synagogues, gave him access to the private details of this world and embraced him with what seems like true friendship.

Mostly, what I appreciated about this book was the balanced way that Berger depicted these austere Chassidic communities. He acknowledges them as closed, as often antiquated and rigid. He interviews people who have left these communities because of these strictures. But despite his honesty and objectivity (Berger is not a Chassid himself), he paints Chassidim as quite magical and despite their shades of black (I am being quite literal here), I found myself wanting to dive into these worlds just to taste some of the wonder that clearly lies there.

This is a book that everyone should read. Not just because I loved it and my husband loved it. But because it allows us such a tremendous insight into the workings of a community which functions as a separate world inside American society, which has its own laws, which is powerful and influential and yet totally closed to outside influences. Most importantly, this book teaches us that we should never judge others just because they look or act a particular way.

You might enjoy watching and listening to Joseph Berger lecture about his book.

The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant

boston-girl-9781471128592_hrConfession: I couldn’t read Diamant’s The Red Tent. I am the only person I know who has not been able to read this book. I tried. I really did, but something about the first page bothered me … particularly this underlying sense that women needed to take over a patriarchal grand narrative in order to prove some point which I guess I just didn’t think needed to be proved. Call me an ‘un-feminist’ if you want, but it grated against me and I stopped reading at the end of page one.

It didn’t stop me from perservering with Diamant and I thoroughly enjoyed Day After Night for its haunting tone and the originality of its context – Atlit, Israel, 1945. What’s not to love?

When I noticed Diamant’s latest book on the shelf I was thrilled. I sat down and read it all in almost one sitting, reading until I needed those proverbial match-sticks to hold open my eyelids.

There’s something great about a book that you can’t put down! And The Boston Girl was just this kind of book.

And this is what is so strange … I really did plough straight through this book. I found the plot very engaging and the context quite interesting, particularly the shifts in the role of women in the home and the workforce. So it is troubling that I actually didn’t ‘love’ this book … I think I was troubled by the simplicity – of the characters, of the narrative structure, of the style. The way that Diamant portrays the story of her narrator and protagonist, Addie Baum, I expected her voice to be grander, more powerful, more layered, more detailed. Instead, what I read was a relatively one dimensional account of what was clearly a wonderful life. It just didn’t feel real to me and ironically, there was so much of this book that was real – stellar moments in cemeteries, tingling sexual awakenings and just the hint of artistic fervour. I loved these glimpses of greatness. But they were just that. Glimpses and I needed more.

I’ll keep reading Diamant, because sometimes you just need to sit and drown in a good story. If you need just that then I recommend The Boston Girl to you. If you need more then perhaps now is not the time for this book.