Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

“You saw him at a distance: the gravedigger Schwart.

Like a troll he appeared. Somewhat hunched, head lowered.”

In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Jacob Schwart, a Jew, moves his family from Nazi Germany to rural upstate New York. They end up in a small town, where Schwart finds a job as a gravedigger and caretaker of a cemetery. He was a high school teacher in Germany, so the job of gravedigger is very demeaning to him, especially seeing how the residents of the community react to him and his family. He manages to eke out a living, barely making enough for him and his family to survive on, living in a small cottage in the cemetery, at the edge of town. The family lives on the fringes of town, not only in poverty, but the fringes of Jacob’s moods and alchoholism. Jacob becomes disillusioned with his situation and with life.

As time goes by, Schwart’s emotional capacity becomes overloaded, and abusive acts occur, and one final and unspeakable act leads to an incomprehensible tragedy. You will have to read it in order to understand, as I don’t want to give too much story line away.

This is the beginning of a new life for Schwart’s daughter, Rebecca. She eventually falls in love, marries and has a son. She ends up in an abusive situation, herself, and runs away with her son, in order to start a new life, under an assumed name. She literally leaves her past behind her. Her strength and stamina get her through some extreme situations.
<p>One line repeated throughout The Gravedigger’s Daughter is, “The weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca.”Her father would say this to her in order to impress upon her that she needed to stay strong.</p>

Rebecca reinvents herself and her son, and they are constantly moving from place to place in order to avoid being found. Her son is a child prodigy, and she encourages him in playing piano, almost to an extreme. She lives through him. August takes his anger at her and his anger at his father out through his music, with its resounding and strong crescendos peaking strongly and wildly.

Oates brings us a strong Rebecca, a woman of determination and strength, a woman of independence and a fierce devotion to her son. She is a woman who has held her emotions in, in order to move forward. She has learned to manipulate the situations she finds herself in. This is both positive and negative.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a book about immigration, identity, assimlation, expectations, and family relationships. It is a multi-generational story, and is a long book, not a fast read, which has nothing to do with the 582 page length, but has everything to do the involved story line.

Social history is strong throughout the novel, and Oates deftly defines America during the after-effects of both pre and post World War II. With extreme clarity, she defines the assimilation and the European Jewish Survivor experience, along with their expectations. Oates writes with insight, sensitivity and prose that jumps out from the pages, revealing the dark side of post-World War II America. She is a masterful story teller, and is able to combine both the ugly with the beauty of life. I highly recommend The Gravedigger’s Daughter, not only for its story, its historical factors regarding upstate New York, but also for the perspective of the Jewish immigrant experience and its lasting effects on generations to come.

For me, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a metaphor for the Jewish immigrant experience in all its fullness, from familial struggles and harshness, ugliness and loss, to strength, assimilation and identity.

As an aside: The Gravedigger’s Daughter is dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates’ grandmother, and much of the novel is based on her grandmother’s actual life.

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Avner Gold New Release

If you are a fan of Avner Gold, then you will be delighted to learn that “the long awaited continuation” of his historical novel series “Rauch Ami”, “The Long Road to Freedom“, has been published. As in previous books of the series, “The Long Road to Freedom” is a novel whose journey brings into focus the plight of European Jews during 17th century.

You can read an excerpt of “The Long Road to Freedom“, here. It is the “immediate sequel to “The Marrano Prince“, which was the eighth book in the “Rauch Ami” series.

The table of contents to “The Long Road to Freedom“” can be seen here.

The new release has been a long time in coming, and is an exciting event.

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Infidelities, by Josip Novakovich

Infidelities, by Josip Novakovich, encompasses a collection of short stories, taking place within Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, etc., stories that make us question exactly what the word infidelity actually means. Josip’s stories also make us question the rewards and/or resulting repercussions of our choices.

Are we involved in infidelity if our thoughts are with another person, instead of on our spouse? Are we then demonstrating infidelity towards our personal faith, if we think of another religion which might bring us a sense of peace and solace, during a difficult situation, during war, during life events? What would you do in order to keep your child out of the army, during time of war? What is ethical and not ethical, in the medical field, when a man who is a draft dodger awaits a new heart, only to lose it to deceptive tactics, so a military general can receive it?

These, and many more questions arise when reading this compelling collection of life situations. The stories in Infidelities make us think of our own life situation/s, and how we might handle them, given the same set of circumstances. Would we do as the characters in Infidelities did?

Some characters choose to be humane, some choose to be lacking in goodness, others are fleeing genocide, and we see individuals of varying backgrounds and religious beliefs banding together in a state of togetherness. Most of the characters in the book are trying to escape emotional pain, trying to find some happiness within survival in landscapes of devastation and tragedy. Due to the fact that the book is a collection of stories, I can’t go into detail any further. You will just have to read the book yourself to understand the stories, characters, situations, etc., that are woven throughout Infidelities.

Josip Novakovich is brilliant in his insight and masterful in his story telling. He weaves through situations, events and family dynamics, often brutal in his clarity and assessment of humanity within adverse situations that humankind face. Each story is intense, thought-provoking, and a testament to a master author. Infidelities is no less than an exceptional and extraordinary masterpiece. Bravo to Josip Novakovich!

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Messengers of God, by Elie Wiesel

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends“, by Elie Wiesel, is a book that is filled with fantastic word-images and descriptions told from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor. The book deals with various characters of the Bible: Adam, Cain, Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Job, and how they obtain spiritual growth and move forward under harsh conditions.

Wiesel manages to infuse these Biblical individuals with traits and characteristics, giving them a sense of substance, whether it be superficial or sincere. He brings emotion and life into them, and a sense of spirituality. We see how the successive generations gain logic, insight and knowledge…both emotional and spiritual.

As the generations continue on from Adam and Eve, Wiesel gives the individuals emotional qualities, qualities he feels didn’t truly exist within Adam and Eve. He feels that they (Adam and Eve) didn’t have the history or the references in which to understand the immense responsibility they had, not only for their children, but for future generations. They did not, or would not trust entirely in God. They lacked in familial background and human role models, and we see the succeeding generations of individuals begin to develop more human-like emotional qualities, and the ability to reason within their daily setting.

We watch the characters grow, some gain weakness, and others gain strength. We see them learn right and wrong, and develop chaos and a sense of peace in their lives. Mainly, we see how the Biblical characters and their lives can be placed in a modern-day setting, through Wiesel’s brilliant writing, and his use of midrash, parables and sayings at the end of each chapter. We ponder their stories from Wiesel’s perspective.

Life holds many challenges and struggles for all of us, And Wiesel has shown us how some of our favorite Biblical individuals might have gained a sense of their humanity, and might have felt and thought about issues relevant to them and their world, trying to resolve them, whether rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly. We are witness as the story teller blends death and annihilation into the lives of the characters, and leaves them to ascertain how to begin again. The Holocaust is underlying, and ever present within the stories, including sacrificial aspects. Lessons are learned, and spirituality is gained, as each person’s humanness is exposed. Their lives live on, in the present, in order to teach us, to bring insight into the human condition and atrocities that continue to occur.

Elie Wiesel’s brilliant story telling in “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends“, in my opinion, is a metaphor for right and wrong, good and evil, within a Holocaust type of situation, and how to begin life anew from such an adverse event.
~~~~~~

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The Counterlife, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth has long been one of my favorite male authors, and in his novel, The Counterlife, I am reminded of his ability to blend the bizarre twists and turns that life throws us into a work of art that resounds with his full range and depth of literary intensity.

Nathan and Henry Zuckerman are estranged brothers, so very different, yet unaware how much alike they actually are. Nathan is an author, Henry is a dentist. For one of them, the reason for living borders on being able to be sexually active. In this respect, he decides to undergo surgery in order to counteract that problem. Even though the surgery could kill him, he elects to take that chance, all in the name of sexual identity. It is his counter life, to fit a desired outcome, a longing for what many of us want, a home, a family, marriage, and the “idealized” life.

Nathan, has long been estranged from Henry, and as an author, seems to live through his brother, writing novels whose characters include Henry. He has a counterlife through his stories, his fantasies and fiction, and his identity is one that is alive due to Henry. Although he is a prolific author in his own right, his works are derived from Henry’s life.

Therein lies the clue in this well written novel. The issue of identity, and what it means to us, is at the core of the story line. What one will do, in order to preserve identity, to create the life we long for, and what we view as our Self, our essence, is the soul of the book. The characters each invent a counter life, a life invented, a life created, in order to transfer their current life, into one they believe is better. The reader is exposed to the characters fears and how they choose to rewrite their own histories.

From travels to Israel, and connecting with one’s Jewish spirituality, to funeral attendance, and delivering a eulogy, from the streets of the U.S, to France, and England, we are confronted with issues of identity, including spirtiual, emotional, sexual, and all the levels and tiers in between. We are confronted with our own questions of identity, who we are, what we believe, and, finally the question of whether the end result is our own creation of ourselves?

Roth writes with humor, with seriousness, and with a profound and intense insight into the humanity, the insecurities, the deep fears, and the identity crises that exists within all of us. Roth’s strong words and strong theme, shows us how a counter life is not always productive, but could produce undesirable effects, in the end. We might not always receive what we wish for, but then again, we might receive it, but it could turn out that our counter life is actually counter-productive. Philip Roth’s The Counterlife is excellent, and his writing is masterful and brilliant, encapsulating the full range of emotions, and writing down to the bare bones, as only he knows how.

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Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels is more than a novel based on the Holocaust, it is a poetically-rendered geological metaphor for the power of loss and love, memory and place. Human history is woven within the bogs and peat of the past and present, as both are intertwined within the beautifully written stories.

Yes, stories. Fugitive Pieces has two narrators…one for the first two-thirds of the book, one for the last third. The transition from one narrator (Jakob) to the next (Ben) might seem awkward for some, but I found it to be a brilliant method of bringing two men from two different generations together within the whole of the novel. The layers of their lives read like an archaeological dig, through the muck and mire of the Holocaust.

Our first narrator, Jakob, witnessed the horror of war at a young age, listening from within a cupboard, as his parents were being murdered and his sister being taken away by the Nazis. “The burst door.  Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts.  Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth.  Then silence.“  In order to survive, he becomes a fugitive of sorts, and he hides himself in the bogs and peat of the forest, burying himself underground, burying pieces of his past with him. He is like an organism, living for a day here, a day there within the bog, surviving as an organism or parasite, living off of the peat. Along comes Athos, a Greek geologist, who finds Jakob barely able to breathe, and brings Jakob to live with him in Greece. Athos is like a father to Jakob, and raises him like he is his own son.

Yet, all the fatherly affection and love can’t bring Jakob peace from the emotional past he is fleeing. He is like a piece of wood loosened from a desk, separated from the entirety. He dreams of his sister, Bella, in order to survive. He must have some hope, and she is his inspiration. Jakob physically matures into a young man. He becomes a poet, a writer, a translator, trying to find his way in a world of loss and sadness. He is stuck in that layer of time that has yet to be dug out.

Meanwhile, Ben looks to Jakob as a mentor. He too is a survivor. A survivor of his parents (Holocaust Survivors) and their daily nightmares, fears and eccentricities.

Michaels writes with flair and frankness, beauty and poignancy, and weaves the novel with brilliance.  Her naming each chapter is a definite foreshadowing of events and illuminations to follow.  I find her title to the book to be very revealing, if taken literally.  The transitory factor is ephemral, as parts of the whole are often short-lived, and characters, like Bella,  Jakob and Ben are fugacious and unable to blossom to their full potential. Jakob is much like an organism in the geological scheme of things, in the sense he can’t let go of the past. Ben is in the same emotional situation within his family unit. Both of them have trouble with relationships, each relationship a small piece of the stepping stone to fulfillment and contentment.
Fugitive Pieces is an important story, not for historical fact, not for Holocaust history, but for its layers of humanity, humaneness, and the bogs of emotional pain and dust that are eventually swept away through time and love.

~~Book Diva

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