Category Archives: Fiction

Review: A Changed Man

A Changed Man, by Francine Prose, is a well-written novel with seemingly opposing characters.

From a self-claimed Neo-Nazi to a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the male characters do not seem to dramatically change, in my opinion, although they do reach a form of acceptance with each other.

On one hand, we have Vincent Nolan (a Timothy McVeigh look-alike), who professes to be using the “World Brotherhood Watch” organization to help “save guys from becoming guys like me”.  He literally uses the premise of the organization to help him survive…they feed him, clothe him, etc.  He is in need of a place to live, has no funds to find a place, and decides on a plan, whereby he convinces Maslow that he is trying to do good.  He in turn gives Meyer Maslow (the founder and head of the organization, and a Holocaust survivor) the boost that is needed to help promote the organization, and to promote his latest book (which is not selling well).  Nolan becomes the poster boy for Maslow’s foundation.

Maslow convinces Maslow’s assistant, Bonnie, to take Nolan in and give him a roof over his head. Bonnie has two children, and her family is rather dysfunctional.  Maslow, himself, contorts the fact that he convinced Bonnie to take Nolan in, by stating to himself (over and over again), and to others, that Bonnie volunteered to take him in.

Maslow uses the organization to help those in need, but he also uses any opportunity to promote his own image…that of being a man of honor, trust and a man who is trying to save the world, a person at a time.  He even questions his own motives for doing what he does, wondering if it is for the right reason.  At one point he claims that material things do not matter to him, because he has experienced the worst of life without them, yet he is married, lives in a mansion, and dresses in Aramani suits (proudly).  Nothing but the best for him.  Often those who have done without, and have lived on the edge of death exhibit this form of behavior.

For me, A Changed Man could have exhibited characters with a bit more depth, but then again, emotional and traumatic pain is often camouflaged by what appears to be a cold and rigid exterior.  Survival of the fittest tactics are often subconsciously used, while inside the person is going through their own turmoil, their own emotional and hellacious Holocaust.  I think that is what Francine Prose was aiming for.  If so, she did an excellent job, and A Changed Man is a must read book, in my opinion.

This was my second reading of the book, reading it again for a book club.  I initially read it about six years ago.

 

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Review: The Marriage of Opposites

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, is a historical novel, rooted in the social and cultural mores and importance of the time period.

Those standards begin with Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzaro, the mother of Camille Pissarro (Pissarro was one of the forefathers of French Impressionism). She was born in 1795, on the island of St. Thomas.

Rachel’s ancestors fled France due to antisemitism.  They eventually emigrated to St. Thomas.  Jews were permitted to practice their religion in St. Thomas, without fear of repercussions, and they could become citizens.

The reader is given much insight into the social standards through the voices within the novel, including Rachel’s, Camille’s, and Rachel’s second husband, to name three.

The characters are realized. They are varied, as far as religion, lifestyle, superstitions, and ancestral traditions. Yet, within that structure, every facet of life is determined by the laws of the land, so to speak. Certain societal rules can never be crossed or expanded. This is where the ‘opposite’ definition comes into play.

Jews could not mingle with maids, servants, slaves, or mingle with Blacks. Even when slavery was outlawed, the rule applied. There was a tier, a standard of living within each culture, and the boundary could not be crossed.

Those boundaries were crossed, a few times, by characters within the story. There were secrets kept by individuals who, in essence, turned their noses up on others wishing to lead a happy life. Their admonishment caused hardship and chaos within familial and romantic frameworks.

I enjoyed reading about the childhood of Camille Pissarro. His passion, from the moment of his birth, was an innateness within him. He could not function without his painting tools being carried with him wherever he went. His mind was always on nature, on his surroundings, and he saw life through color, meaning each object had its own aura surrounding it. The same went for individuals, in his mind’s view, each person had a color which was a part of their being.

Sketching was as much a part of his hourly and daily life as breathing was. Sometimes more so. He knew his “calling”, and even when family members tried to stifle his artistic passion, he persevered in fulfilling his potential.

His paintings speak to me on many levels.

In my opinion, the story line illuminated existentialism, in the sense that we are individuals responsible for our own development, and responsible for achieving our authenticity. We are all human, and within that concept, we are responsible for each other in the end, no matter a person’s background, religious, cultural, or otherwise.

Alice Hoffman’s prose was often poetic and breathtaking. I highly recommend The Marriage of Opposites, to everyone.

I apologize for the update-I had to correct a misspelling.

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Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author of several books that have been translated into English. I have read most of them. I am a huge fan of her work. She is an author who has kept her true identity hidden, and retained her not only her identity, but also her sense of Self and her sense of freedom to write what she wants without her identity being thrown into the limelight.

I use the gender ‘she’ when defining her, but in actuality she could be a man. Who knows for sure, only her publisher.

Here is a list of some of her books that I have read:

My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those who Stay
The Days of Abandonment
The Lost Daughter
Troubling Love

I gravitate to her stories of life in Italy, specifically, life in Naples. I become mesmerized with her depictions of the harsh realities of the characters within the framework of poverty, hardship and striving to somehow move forward.

Men compete for attention within each other, the same with the women. But, the men and their insecurities seem to rule the moments, quite often, and their lack of esteem outweighs the women and their own longings and lack of confidence. Women grapple with child-rearing and domesticity, while the men strut and swagger as if they owned the women. Women reign in their own goals for careers, while men often flounder in theirs, yet interact as if they were superior. The Italian, male mindset is a force that is difficult to break down. Women are often left beholden to their mate, even if the relationship is lackluster.

The need to move forward is often stifled due to love interests and also due to emotional borders. Yet, within the stifled lives, there is a sense of motivation that crops up when least expected.

Ferrante’s writing is bold, illuminatingly harsh at times, and brilliant on so many levels. She leaves nothing left unsaid, nothing left to the imagination. She uses prose as if the words were an attack on life, with anger spewing forth, and also uses them with quietude and softness. The comparisons within situations is compelling and defining.

Her novels speak volumes (pun intended), as to the history of the social aspects in Naples, as well as the history of the city, itself. Social dysfunctiuns, familial dysfunctions, and familial dysfunctions are treated brashly, realistically, and with a compelling foundation.

Elena Ferrante’s books help me understand the barriers presented by familial bonds, friendship bonds, and the bonds of love and loss, within the social strata of the Italian environment. Her books speak to me, possibly due to my Italian heritage, but also due to the human condition exhibited within the pages. Humanity is explored in depth within the pages of her books.

Her novel, The Story of a Lost Child, will be published in September. I will definitely purchase it.

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Review: Safekeeping: A Novel

Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope, is a book that blends a Medieval sapphire brooch with the lives of those living on a kibbutz in Israel, and those who have come to volunteer there. I was engrossed from the first page to the last page.

The story line explores how the old timers, the founders of the kibbutz and their adult children, intermingle with those who are volunteers. The dynamics between the sides are depicted in depth.

The staunch socialistic attitude of Ziva, one of the original founders, is compared to her own son. Ziva believes everyone on the kibbutz is equal and everyone deserves the same status and pay scale, “all for one, and one for all”, so to speak. Possessions are a part of the whole, and no one person owns anything. All items are pooled for the communal good.

Whereas, her son who is a first-generation offspring, has a tendency to lean towards the more modern ideals, and towards privatizing the kibbutz. He believes that salaries should equate with education and experience, and should be offered as such to individuals who fit the criteria.

Therein lies a kibbutz conflict. The conflict is between hard-liners and the newer generations.

As far as the volunteers are concerned, there is Adam. He has traveled from New York in order to give the brooch to a woman named Dagmar. His grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor and who lived on the kibbutz for a while, wanted her to have it. The brooch has been in their family, passed down through generations. Adam is trying to redeem himself from alcohol and drugs, and of a crime of his choosing. He feels that if he is able to resolve this one issue regarding the brooch,, he will be free of the demons that have imprisoned him.

Claudette, a French Canadian, is another volunteer. She has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and has been imprisoned by it her entire life, through her repetitive actions. Her relationship with a teenaged boy named Ofir is central to her self-esteem and her ability to grow, emotionally and mentally.

Ulya, a Russian beauty, is in a relationship with Farid, a Palestinian farmhand. He is head-over-heels in love with her. She manipulates situations to suit her needs, including her secretive meetings with Farid.

The quick description of these individuals seems simplistic, but within the pages the author infuses a definitive personality of each person. She illuminates their strengths, weaknesses, fears and manipulations. Love and loss are themes, presented to the reader. The story line is filled with the humanness of people struggling to create a life for themselves. Their goals are examined, and their fortitude is put to the test.

The volunteers are there for different reasons, and their ambitions and backgrounds are different. Yet, within those differences there is a commonality of the humanistic side of their needs and hopes.

Then, there is that brooch, that brooch and how it affects specific individuals, who think their lives will change, be diminished or be enhanced by possessing it. The original creator of the brooch had no idea to what extremes the brooch would affect the lives of those who live centuries later. A thing of beauty becomes a catalyst.

To the kibbutz founders the brooch takes on a different meaning and depth than it does to the volunteers. That is one of the unique aspects of the story, and one I enjoyed reading about. The dimensions and layers within the pages are brilliant, like the brooch, itself.

I found the story to be a deep depiction of emotional and mental capacities within the framework of kibbutz life, and those who choose to remain in an environment of socialism and extremes, compared to those who choose to move forward and bring a new definition to the kibbutz and community within it. Whether it be fifty years or one hundred years or more, most of life is not continually static. Some people remain in a static state, yet life goes on around them, changes occur, and nothing remains the same within the entire scheme of things.

Safekeeping is an extremely compelling and intense read, leaving one to ponder questions of identity, change, old time attitudes, socialism, autonomy, and materialistic items within the realm of individual possession, or as part of the whole.

The story line is complex, and handled masterfully through Jessamyn Hope’s writing. I applaud her dedication to historical fact, and to the humanness of her characters.

I want to thank Fig Tree Books, and want to thank Erika Dreifus for the Advanced Review Copy. I feel privileged to have been given the book-which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Italian Immigrants

Having Italian ancestry in my family, books regarding New York City and Italian immigrants are quite popular in my reading genres. I enjoy both the historical fiction books and the nonfiction books.

I finished reading a novel called Elizabeth Street, by Laurie Fabiano. The story line takes place during the first decade of the 20th century. The book depicts based on the author’s own Italian immigrant family. The pages are filled with the essence of the hardships of daily living and survival during a harsh time period. Fortitude, desire, and the will to assimilate and conquer the living conditions, crime and social inequalities forced upon Italian immigrants seem to be the basis for the book, along with prejudice of the Italians. I am fascinated with what I have read, so far.

I have read other books regarding Italian immigration, and New York City immigrants, in general. Each book has given me new snippets to ponder.

How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, is an extremely compelling book.

Vita: A Novel, by Melania G. Mazzucco, is another compelling read regarding the Italian immigrant experience.

Openwork: A Novel, by Adria Bernardi depicts three generations of Italian families, and their journey from Italy to New York City.

I also recommend The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani

I watched a show on PBS entitled The Italian Americans. It is a two-part four-hour series. It ended last night-February 24th. You can watch episodes online.

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Review: Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood, by Irene Nemirovsky, translated from the French by Sandra Smith, is an illuminating work in many aspects, in my opinion.

“It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth.” So begins the second sentence of the first page, setting the languid tone for the rest of the book. The novel doesn’t have a sense of extreme urgency, and I attribute this to the fact that Nemirovsky was mindful and extremely aware, in her writing about country life. The book vividly evokes the preoccupation that the narrator, Silvio, has with the memories of his past.

Silvio, in his middle age, likes nothing more than to sit at home in the evening by the fire, sipping wine and daydreaming of days gone by. He has a passion (his own unique “fire“) for writing in his journal about the past and the lives of others, a passion born through his youthful travels and romances. He seems content, until circumstances cause a spark, and his “fire” begins to flare up.

What is apparent to Silvio, is not necessarily apparent to those who reside in the seemingly idyllic countryside. The cold and often frigid personalities, are seemingly uncaring, wrapped up in their own lives, yet vividly aware of every happening within the confines of their world, each incident passed down through the generations. Silvio is almost like a bystander, as if he is watching the lives of three women from behind a curtain. Nemirovsky brings us a story line with three distinct women seeking peace, happiness and love. How their lives intertwine, and how their love and betrayals interweave is told brilliantly by Nemirovsky, through word imagery that heightens our senses, bringing us flashes of country scents, food for the soul, time and place, in the countryside of France.

The old cliche that “blood is thicker than water“, holds true regarding the adult children in this novel. They display the same “fire in the blood“, the same passion as their mother did. The “fire” has been passed down from one generation to the next, ignited and blazing full force, slowly turning into burning embers on a pyre, in the flicker of time, until the last remnants of ash turn to darkness.

One must read this in order to fully comprehend my review. I can not give away too many details, without divulging essential parts of the story.

Nemirovsky was extremely cognizant of the culture and mores of the era pre-World War I. Her novel is a brilliantly told story, and a sentient reflection on country life, the light and eventual darkness, the fire and the eventual defusing of the embers.

“Until recently only a partial text of Fire in the Blood was thought to exist, typed up by Irene Nemirovsky’s husband, Michel Epstein, to whom she often passed her manuscripts for this purpose. Two additional pages were found to have been in the suitcase that Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise Epstein, carried with her.” More pages were later found, and you can read about that in the “Note on the Text“, in the front of the book. You will also want to read the “Preface to the French Addition” in the back of the book.

Irene Nemirovsky died at Auschwitz, and her death is listed as Typhus, but recent documents suggest otherwise.

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