Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888)

Attention all archivists and historians: you should read this book! It gets 27 thumbs up from me.

Henry James' The Aspern Papers (1888) is a tightly constructed and satisfying novella that explores the ethical implications of biographical research through a pointed character study. In the book, our protagonist is a literary critic and historian who specializes in the life and work of Jeffrey Aspern, a prominent American poet. He learns that Aspern's lover, Juliana, is living in a dilapidated mansion in Venice with her spinster niece. Juliana is now an old woman, but the narrator is sure that she has some precious letters and other material relating to the great Aspern.

After his colleague inquires about the letters and is quickly dismissed, the narrator decides to take a different track -- approaching the two women as a fellow American interested in renting some rooms in their large house so that he can have access to their garden. They are in need of money and quickly take him up on his offer, and he attempts to ingratiate himself to Juliana and woo the niece to gain access to the precious documents.

The three main characters in this book are very nicely drawn, and the narrator is deliciously unreliable and self-serving. The implications of the narrator's actions and the awareness (or naivety) of the two women shift through the story and continue to change in your mind after you read it. The "at all costs" attitude of the narrator as well as the ending of the book (which I won't reveal here) remind me quite a bit of Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot. In format and style the books are very different, but the themes and characters are sometimes interchangable.

An excellent read -- one of Henry James' best.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately -- I went up north for the holidays, and forgot to put a note up here. Never fear: I read plenty of books while I was keeping out of the winter weather.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Doubleback by Libby Fischer Hellmann (2009)

I got a copy of Doubleback (2009), the second of Libby Fischer Hellmann's mystery/suspense books staring Chicago PI Georgia Davis (and the sixth featuring videographer Ellie Foreman) as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I am generally pretty forgiving of mystery novels, and it is possible that Hellman's books need to be read as a series instead of plucking one out of the middle, but this book really did not work for me at all.

The plot is... confusing. Here are the basics: The neighbor of Ellie's friend's little girl Molly is kidnapped. She doesn't want to call the police, because the kidnappers threatened her daughter's life, so she goes to Ellie's friend who calls Ellie for some reason. In a previous book it seems the Ellie and Georgia solved some kind of mystery together, so Ellie calls Georgia. Georgia doesn't want to get involved but (as is repeated multiple times), she has a tender spot in her heart for little children, even though she is emotionally distant from everyone else. Still, she suggests that they go to the police, and then, oddly enough, the little girl is dropped off outside of her house three days later and no one will say what happened. Then the boss of Chris Messenger (the mother) at the bank (did I mention she is the IT director at a bank?) dies in a mysterious car accident and it appears his brake lines were cut. Then the same thing happens to Chris. Chris's ex-husband hires Georgia to figure this all out, which eventually leads to complicated discussions of bank transaction protocols, Blackwater-esque security firms, and drug trafficking on the Arizona/Mexico border. Throw in a couple weird side plots where Georgia gets all dolled up to investigate a high-end dating service that is potentially stealing people's identities and a preachy video-shooting excursion to an ethanol plant in Wisconsin and you have one seriously not-that-great mystery.

Surprisingly, in the midst of all the crappy characters and unbelievable action, there was one character that I really liked, and about 25 pages in the last third of the book that started to get exciting. Then that character died and everything got stupid again.

I appreciate the charms of a series, where characters build in complexity over a series of books, but I think (especially in the mystery genre) the books should be able to stand on their own. Doubleback doesn't.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Yeshiva: Volume 1 by Chaim Grade (1967)

When I bought this copy of The Yeshiva by Chaim Grade (1967), which I'm reading because it is on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, I knew that it was a two volume work, and I was pretty sure that the copy I bought had both volumes bound together. Not so. So, after Christmas I will work on getting the (out of print, rather expensive) Yeshiva, Volume 2: Masters and Disciples. Until then, you and I will have to make do with just one half of this epic Yiddish novel.

The Yeshiva draws on some of Chaim Grade's own experiences growing up in Lithuania and Poland between the wars in a story that crosses religious torment with vingettes of everyday life. The main character is Tsemakh Atlas, a scholar who fanatically follows the teachings of the Mussar movement (a Jewish ethical movement that focuses on removing all traces of sin from your thoughts and actions, rejecting comfort and pleasure, and [apparently] telling the truth to everyone even if they don't want to hear it). The problem, however, is that Tsemakh secretly doubts the existence of God and openly belittles close studying of the Torah, which is what pretty much everyone else thinks a good scholar should work on.

Tsemakh fights with his home yeshiva (a yeshiva is kind of an academy for studying the Torah -- as a side note, I am very thankful this book came with a glossary), and finds himself agreeing to an engagement with a pious unmarried woman in a far-off town. But, because Tsemakh is fiesty and often acts without thinking, he sours on the idea, breaks his engagement, and moves on, only to lustily fall for a freethinking, beautiful and wealthy woman from a merchant family. Slava is on the market because everyone knows she has been having an affair with a married man in the big city, but Tsemakh falls head-first into his passions and ignores all the reasons why he and Slava are not a good match. He shaves off his ear-locks and beard and attempts to be a shop-keeper with his brothers-in-law.

It naturally does not take Tsemakh long to work himself into a guilty fury for ignoring his Mussar teachings and falling for a non-observant beauty. After hurling himself back into his faith, he decides to take another scholar from the village and move somewhere else to start up his own yeshiva. He brings a few students from Slava's town with him, including Chaikl, who soon takes over the focus of the book as he walks a parallel path between piousness and temptation.

Grade paints a realistic and engrossing picture of Jewish life between the wars in the period where freethinking and secular movements were threatening the traditional way of life. In Tsemakh we have a man with horribly ordinary passions and doubts who takes pleasure in tormenting himself and generally alienates those around him. He is balanced by a whole host of scholars, villagers, families, and shopkeepers who spend their time just living their lives. This is only the second Yiddish novel I've read, but I liked it even better than the first (although, to be fair, they are pretty different) and I am very interested to read Volume II and see what kind of fervor Tsemakh works himself into next.

[Anyone know how to pronounce Tsemakh? (Professor Romance?) It has been driving me crazy to not be able to pronounce it in my head....]