Tag Archives: fiction

First Desire, by Nancy Reisman

the-first-desire1 In First Desire by Nancy Reisman, we are given a set of characters who appear to be constantly yearning for acceptance and love, within the confines of the familial structure.

The Cohen family is composed of a tyrannical widower, Abe Cohen, and his five adult children, who seem to be stuck in a time warp, lost within the familial folds. The family unit is composed of four daughters (Jo, Sadie, Celia and Goldie) and one son (Irving). They are seemingly lifeless and unmotivated individuals, overpowered by loss, and by a dictatorial father.

All of them are still in mourning for their mother, and they are lost in a cycle of escaping the painful aspects of life. Their father, seems to be uncaring, and is a demanding and authoritarian individual, especially with his daughters. He escapes into a relationship with a women named Lillian Schumacher. Goldie can’t cope with the demands of her father, and the loss of her mother, and escapes by fleeing the house, leaving those behind to wonder about her, for years (not knowing whether she is dead or alive). Sadie questions her own sanity and the relationship with her husband, who only seems to want her company during times of sexual relations, and watches him become almost as tyrannical as her father. Jo is lost within her protective, obnoxious attitude, which is her form of escape. Celia escapes within her mind, which is sometimes coherent, but more often, not. Irving escapes into alcohol and gambling.

First Desire is adeptly written, and Nancy Reisman’s characters give us insight into depression, patriarchal pressures, and family interactions and dynamics, during the turbulent years that range from the late 1920s to 1950. They are believable individuals, and the climate of the decades is believable.

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Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth is seemingly the last novel in the Nathan Zuckerman series, but who knows for certain. What I do know is that Roth has woven a story-within-a-story with brilliance as only he can succeed in, capturing our emotions on many levels.

Roth brings us characters we relate to, beginning with Nathan Zuckerman, a physically impotent, incontinent, diaper-wearing man in his seventies, who has led a reclusive life for eleven years in the Berkshires, due to a series of threats he received on his life. He leaves his protective cocoon and is brought back into Manhattan in order to have surgery that might possibly help his incontinence. While there, his old existence stirs up memories, emotions and thoughts he had long put to rest.

Zuckerman’s thoughts begin to take hold regarding his mentor and author hero, E.I. Lonoff, and he encounters Amy Bellette who was Lonoff’s lover two characters from the book Ghost Writer . His thoughts wander back to his early twenties, when his life revolved around his ambitions, and his aggressive behavior in order to reach his goals. He remembers his fleeting interest in Bellette, and how she is presently suffering from brain surgery and a recurring brain tumor, but still astute enough to want to protect Lonoff’s literary image from a would-be biographer, who means to destroy Lonoff’s reputation. The city grips him, and he is caught up in rash judgements and events, making decisions based on emotion, not rational thought.

While in Manhattan he meets a married couple through a newspaper ad (Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan Davidoff), who he impulsively agrees to swap houses with…he will remain in their small apartment in the city, they will live in his secluded house in the Berkshires, miles from the nearest town. She wants solitude due to her fears from September 11th. He begins to let his mind wander (his physical body may not be responsive, but he still has the capacity to think and fantasize about sex). Therein lies the basis for Zuckerman’s new novel…a “he said, she said, series of imagined conversations.

Roth also writes about the current administration, current technology, and current medical advances within the story line. We are given characters that are all seeking solitude and protection in one form or another, whether it be from emotional pain, physical pain, medical issues, aging, or otherwise. Roth has done it once more, and captivates his audience with excellent word imagery, insightful emotional content…often heart-wrenching, and with masterful writing. We will all come to the autumn season, eventually, and Roth demonstrates the ability of the mind and heart to blend together, in order to manage to live (as best we can with our limitations) through the fragile and delicate autumn of our lives.

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Everyman, by Philip Roth

Everyman, by Philip Roth is a book leaving the reader much to ponder. Though short in pages, this book is long on intensity, its pages resound with insight, intensity and emotion, as we view one man’s life and his body’s decline due to physical breakdown and aging.

Everyman begins with the funeral of the protagonist, and travels backwards, through his life. The human essence of the man through the aging process (heart problems, etc.), his fears, his loss of physical capability and sexual prowess, his obsessive behavior, his awareness of his rudeness and negative attitude (and his inability to knowingly redeem himself for his behaviors), are all encompassed in one exceptionally articulated novel. His mind never fails him, but his body is a constant reminder to him, that his wants and desires can not be fulfilled.

We do manage to feel empathy for him, even with all of the negativeness that make up the man, and his very essence. And, that is no small feat, given the circumstances we find him in. Therein lies the brilliance of Roth, that he could bring us full circle, through the gamut of emotions and ugly behavior, only to empathize, in the end.

Roth’s insight into the human perception of the body’s deterioration, not only, physically, but emotionally, gives us material to consider, such as who we are, what we are? What is the meaning of life? What does life mean not only to ourselves, but also to those in our lives? Is our life a sum of our sexuality, or does it hold more within its physical anatomy? What makes up a person’s soul, character, illumination? Everyman offers lessons to those dealing with those very issue.

Everyman is an amazing and excellent psychological and character study on inner struggles, aging, self-identity, and what it means to Be. Roth, masterfully cuts to the core in describing the aging process and the role it plays on our emotions. Philip Roth is vividly descriptive with his imagery. We are left to ponder age, and how it affects, not only our minds and emotions, but also our physical and sexual being. We might feel younger than our bodies tell us we are, and we might be extremely cognizant on day-to-day issues, but in the end, our bodies can deceive us. Our mind can wander and play tricks on us, leading us to believe we can accomplish more than we can. Philip Roth brilliantly emphasizes very concisely how growing older impacts our abilities to perform and live dignified, on a daily basis. Who said it would be easy?!

I personally own and have read this book.
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2008 National Book Award Fiction Finalists

The National Book Foundation has announced the finalists for the National Book Award. The authors in the fiction category are:

Aleksandar Hemon for his book, The Lazarus Project. It is a book I have on my stack of “to-read” books.

Rachel Kushner has been nominated for her book, Telex From Cuba.

Peter Matthiessen for his book, Shadow Country.

Marilynne Robinson for her book, Home.

Salvatore Scibona
for his book, The End.

If you want to see a listing of all of the nominees, in the four categories of fiction non-fiction, poetry and Young People’s Literature, visit the National Book Foundation’s website.

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A Tranquil Star by Primo Levi

A Tranquil Star – Unpublished Stories, by Primo Levi is quite the collection of seventeen short stories within a 164 page count. Levi is well-known for his Holocaust memoirs, but in this book of short stories, he goes beyond the Holocaust, into the world of the his deep imagination, bringing us parables of the metaphysical order.

Levi
has written in not so subtle words the reality of our world. We might initially not understand this collection of often horrid, bizarre and violent stories, but if we stop to think about what we are reading, it becomes clear that Levi is giving us issues to ponder. In the realm and reality of things, our world is filled with casual murders, robberies, bombings, people who look at death as entertainment, people with lack of esteem, individuals with huge egos unable to cope in a new land, and the acts and repercussions of war. Levi clearly, and with insight, has written about the humanity of our world, or, appropriately, the lack of humanity in some cases. The positives and negatives are entwined, in The Tranquil Star, to point of negativity often overcoming the positive.

If you take away nothing else from The Tranquil Star, you will see the inhumanity of individuals, the uncaring attitudes and unwillingness to bend towards being humane individuals. Levi’s insight is intense, his word images often much too descriptive (in the sense of his bringing horror to our minds), and his prose strong and vivid. Don’t get me wrong, there is lightness and humor in some of the stories, but the majority are a commentary on the universal flow.  He wraps up the world, within short stories (some only six pages long), in a concise and descriptive manner, filling our eyes and minds with overwhelming visuals. The stories are a strong assessment of the fragility of our lives and world.  Levi infuses the preciousness of humanity within the pages, even when the negative is strong. In my opinion that is Levi’s message…life is precious and fragile. Primo Levi was a masterful story teller, blending fantasy into the reality of our world, as we know it. The Tranquil Star is evidence of that.

~~BookDiva

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A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua

“A Late Divorce”, by A.B. Yehoshua, is a novel that was translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin.  The story line revolves around Yehuda and his wife Naomi.

Yehuda has traveled back to Israel from America, in order to obtain a divorce from his wife, Naomi.  Here is where the tour-de-force begins.  “A Late Divorce”, in my opinion, has a dual purpose, and is a true tour-de-force novel with its story lines regarding family dynamics, within the tapestry of the State of Israel, a country whose own threads encompass its own state of being, culturally, emotionally, physically and geographically.  Obtaining the divorce requires strength, and is no easy feat for Yehuda, and his determination has thrown his family members into a state of emotional turmoil.

The book takes place over a period of nine days that lead up to the Passover celebration. Each day (a chapter in the book) is devoted to one family member’s perspective, not only on the divorce, but family life in general, and how they remember Yehuda’s time spent with them.  Yehosua is masterful in his ability to get inside the human mind, and see life through nine family members, each bringing a different analysis to the current familial situation.

For some, the situation is unbearable, and for others, daily verbal assaults and torture is a way of life, thinly disguised as joking.  We have the character of Gaddi on Sunday, a seven-year old, and grandson of Yehuda.  We are privvy to his thoughts within his racing mind, and Yehoshua is ingenious in the way he presents Gaddi, unarticulated, fast talking, thoughts running from one subject to the next.  Yet, within his immaturity, we also see a Gaddi who seems persceptive, and a child who exhibits emotions turned inward.

Monday brings us Yisra’el Kedmi, Yehuda’s son-in-law, married to Ya’el.  He is called Kedmi, as he feels one Israel is enough.  Kedmi is more of an “out-law” than an in-law.  He is the “jokester”, the one who demonstrates passive-aggressive behavior through his obnoxious and snide remarks.  Yet, he might just be the sanest of the bunch.

Tuesday is Dina’s day.  She is Asi’s wife, and Asi is the son of Yehuda.  She is an only child of Hungarian parents, who are Hasidic Jews, who are constantly at her for not having children, yet.  Dina is an aspiring writer.  Her writing is her family, each page is like one of her children.

Wednesday is Asi’s voice, one that is told in an environment of sadness.  Asi has a passion for 19th century terrorists, and he lectures at the university.  He has a compulsion that is harmful to him, and it began when he was a child.  Asi acts superior to his wife, Dina, and treats her as if she is a child.  He has yet to fulfill his marriage bed.

Thursday we hear a one-sided conversation that Refa’el Calderon has with Tsvi.  Tsvi is Yehuda’s son, and Refa’el is Tsvi’s current lover.  Not only is the conversation one-sided, but so is the relationship, as Tsvi treats Refa’el with extreme disrespect.  Refa’el is of Sephardic Jewish heritage.

Friday is the day that Tsvi meets with is therapist, right before Shabbat evening prayer service begins.  He is an extremely manipulative person, and is always looking for an easy and quick way to make money, even if it is at another’s expense.   He lives in Tel Aviv.

Saturday is not only the Sabbath, but is a day that takes place three years into the future.  We are seeing the day through Ya’el’s mind and eyes, as she tries to focus on the past and remember what events occurred.  What tragic incident happened that has caused her to block her memory of the day.  Ya’el has been the quiet force in the family, always trying to please.  Also, in this chapter we are introduced to Connie, who was Yehuda’s bride-to-be, and their son.  In this chapter we realize what the ending to the story will be.

Sunday is the day of the Passover Seder, and we meet Naomi, Yehuda’s wife.  She has been confined to a mental hospital ever since she stabbed Yehuda.  She has been labeled as crazy, although I am not so sure that she is.  She has many coherent and cognizant moments, more than other family members.

Monday is Yehuda’s story, his memories and perspectives.  We begin to see the overall picture in this chapter more clearly.  And, we realize who is manipulative, and who is trying to drive the other to madness.  The greed and guilt combine, bringing out emotions that were harbored and festered to a crescendo of an ending.

The stories within the chapters of “A Late Divorce” are a metaphor for dysfunctional family relationships and interactions, and a metaphor for the daily lives and dynamics that make up the fabric of Israel’s very core.  We see the comparison through Yehoshua’s characters.   “A Late Divorce” is a story of sadness and humor, both, yet the sadness is dominant, as each family member tries to heal the family as a unit, as a whole, and put it back together, failing in their endeavors.  There is never peace, in any situation, and each family member is constantly on guard, often on guard for the unknown and unseen, as if awaiting disaster.  Each voice is a thread in the fabric of the whole, the complete tapestry is told with the incomparable voice and brilliance of A.B. Yehoshua.  He is masterful in his word visuals, and brings incredible insight into the human mind and emotions, blending both in a concise and astute vision of both family and the State of Israel.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~Book Diva

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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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