Friday, January 29, 2010

The Yeshiva, Volume II: Masters and Disciples by Chaim Grade (1968)

As I mentioned in my review of the preceding volume to Chaim Grade's The Yeshiva, Volume II: Masters and Disciples (1968), both volumes are out of print, rather expensive, and a bit hard to find the second volume particularly so. But good old Harold Bloom decided to put them on his western canon list, and I have vowed to purchase all those books, so it was worth the sacrifice.

The second volume of this epic Yiddish novel finds Tsemakh Atlas still the nominal head of his yeshiva, although he is increasingly isolating himself from the school and his students at the same time that the students and the different factions of the town are getting in more and more frequent conflicts. Chaikl, Tsemakh's former student (and the character who is most closely based on Grade himself), is now studying privately with a renowned Jewish scholar, but the more he tries to focus on studying the Torah, the more enraptured he becomes with the natural world.

After an unforgivable clash between Tsemakh and the town, he is asked to leave. His thoughts have turned back to his first fiancé, the one with whom he broke off his engagement before meeting and marrying his beautiful (and secular) merchant wife, Slava. After learning of his first fiancé's fate, he humbles himself before the town and becomes a wanderer, seeking repentance.

The second half of the book finds both Tsemakh and Chaikl back at Tsemakh's home yeshiva several years later. Although the outward fire seems to have left Tsemakh, his internal turmoil doesn't seem to have calmed down at all. Both Tsemakh and Chaikl struggle to make their separate, but parallel, life decisions from under the rubble of their theological upbringing.

In my summary I focus on Tsemakh and Chaikl since they are the core of the book, but Volume 2, much more so than Volume 1, spends lots of time on other members of the two yeshivas and the towns through which the story passes. There is not nearly as much Slava (or other women) in this volume as the first, which I found a little disappointing. The vignettes of other characters are well done, but not as engrossing as the tragic saga of Tsemakh Atlas.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1916)

Agatha Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916) was my latest read on, and a tight mystery novel like this really lends itself to the serialized format.

So much of what Agatha Christie writes has become the standard for detective fiction, and it is hard to imagine that her cast of scheming relatives and family friends (who all have something to gain from a murder), the location of a large English manor house in the countryside, and the mysterious poisoning of the matriarch of the family was a rather fresh set-up at the time. Even today, after almost a century of similar mysteries, Christie's clues and characters, and particularly her beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and his friend and "Watson," Hastings, are fresh and engaging.

I always thought that Agatha Christie novels would be stuffy and old fashioned, but even as far back as 1916 she was writing clever, suspenseful, and often funny crime fiction that still entertains.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! by Annette Curtis Klause (2006)

A copy of Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! by Annette Curtis Klause (2006) fell into my hands after Dr. M got it as a door prize in one of his teaching classes, and it makes for an entertaining and unique young adult novel.

Our hero, Abel Dandy, is a 17 year old boy. It is 1899 and Abel has lived all his life in Faeryland, an amusement park / carnival type place where visitors are entertained by bearded ladies, midgets, Siamese twins and other "freaks." Abel's mom has no arms and his dad has no legs, so Faeryland was one of the only places they could make a living. Abel has good friends there, but increasingly feels out of place since he doesn't have any physical oddities. He gets pretty good at throwing knives, but no one will give him an act. After receiving an exotic ring as a going away present from one of the Siamese twins, Abel decides to run away from home and seek his fortune.

Almost immediately he begins having detailed dreams about a beautiful Egyptian dancer who promises him adventure. He dismisses the dreams as the product of a fortuneteller predicting that he would go off and fall in love with an older foreign woman. After joining another circus as the assistant to a knife thrower, Abel discovers that his young friend from Faeryland, Apollo the Dog-faced Boy has followed him and is hiding out in the elephant's train car. With the added responsibility of taking care of Apollo (and rescuing him from the circus owners who think all "freaks" should be in an institution), Abel breaks away from the circus and hooks up with a small traveling show featuring a midget bearded lady, an alligator-skinned woman, a worm man, a man with two heads, a real Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of cute little freaky-children, as well as one mean skeleton-man manager and his creepy henchmen. As Abel works to return Apollo to his parents and meet his dream woman, he has to fight his way through some pretty dark situations and learn more than a few things about himself and the way the world works.

This book was a really fulfilling adventure and coming of age novel -- I think older junior high or high school students (as well as adults!) would really like it. There is some sexual business (Abel is 17 after all) and some violence in it, but it isn't too explicit and fits nicely with the action of the story. Klause's characters, her descriptions of circus life, and the view of late-19th century America are all strong points of the book. There is a "twist" that I could spot right away, but I think younger readers will be surprised, and even though I figured out what was going on more quickly than it was revealed, the plot ultimately moved beyond the twist and kept me entertained and excited.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (1990)

My latest look at the random book generator brought up The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (1990), which Dr. M bought and read for an African American Literature class a couple of years ago.

The Piano Lesson takes place in 1930s Pittsburgh (and is actually the fourth play in Wilson's series The Pittsburgh Cycle) at the home of Doaker, his widowed niece Berniece, and her daughter Maretha. Berniece's brother Boy Willie is in need of some money so he and his friend Lymon come up from the south to sell a truckload of watermelons and negotiate the sale of a family heirloom, an intricately carved piano. Boy Willie has a chance to buy the land that their family had worked as slaves, if he can just get enough money together. But the piano has a history that makes it un-sellable in Berniece's eyes. The conflict between the brother and sister and the ghosts of the past and the present give this play a tension and presence that you can feel through the pages. It is pretty easy to see why The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama...

Of course, reading a play and seeing a play are two very different (although often equally enjoyable) things. I'd love to see The Piano Lesson someday, but for now I'll have to make do with the trailer from the 1995 film of the play, featuring most of the Broadway cast.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Then Came the Evening by Brian Hart (2009)

My latest read from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Brian Hart's debut novel, Then Came the Evening (2009), a tragic story of a family in small-town Idaho.

Then Came the Evening starts off strong, setting into motion the inevitable trajectories of three interesting characters. Bandy is a young man who has just come back from Vietnam and is living in a cabin on his parent's property with his girlfriend Iona. Bandy wakes up one morning to find himself in a crashed car on the ranch, still drunk, with the police and his father waiting for him outside. The cabin that he and Iona shared has burned to the ground, and everyone assumes Iona went with it. Bandy becomes violent and ends up shooting one of the officers and going to jail. Iona didn't die in the fire, though. She was fed up with Bandy's drinking and affairs and left him for another man and moved away. Eighteen years later, still in prison, Bandy gets a brief letter from Iona. She was pregnant when she left him, and his son, Tracy, wants to meet him.

First Tracy, then Iona, then Bandy end up back at Bandy's parents house on the family ranch. Bandy's parents died years ago, and the man Iona left Bandy for has also died. All three of them are raw and flawed and filled with their own resentments and regrets. Is being family enough to bring them redemption?

While the book started out strong (the prison scenes are particularly well written), the last half of the book falls apart a bit with some mis-steps in pacing and some dialogue and action that doesn't seem to fit with the characters as they were revealed to us at the start of the book. I feel like I'm being a little nit-picky with the flaws of Then Came the Evening but that is only because it could have been a great book and it ended up only being good. Hart has a real talent for describing the rural and small-town Idaho landscape, and for crafting his characters -- I really look forward to reading his next book.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Savage Scalpel by Alain Rothstein (1968)

Perhaps an ordinary person would take a look at the goofy cover of Alain Rothstein's 1968 novel The Savage Scalpel and say: "That looks pretty bad. I'm not going to read it." I, on the other hand, said "That looks pretty bad! I'm going to read it!" Sometimes when I say that, the books end up being pretty good. Sometimes they are at least funny. This one was honestly one of the most poorly written books I have ever read. There was some entertainment in that, but that is about as far as it went. Here are some unconnected thoughts on the book:

1. The back of the book promises: "A brand-new dimension in reading experience -- for those who are willing to risk treading to the edge of appalling sensation!" I fear that might have been over-selling it...

2. Plot description: Frank Young, a big-shot psychiatrist, and his best friend Mel, a former attendant at the institution where Frank worked, band together to solve the murder of Frank's half-sister. She was brutally tortured by the mob and found murdered in her New York apartment after Frank and Mel returned from a two-year trip overseas to help Frank forget about the death of his fiance, who was killed in a car accident by two mobsters fleeing a robbery. These mob events are not related, except to highlight that Rothstein does not like the mob. In the end, Frank and Mel decide to take matters into their own hands and torture members of the mob to find out what happened to Frank's sister.

3. This will give you a sense of Rothstein's smooth exposition, when Frank first meets Mel: "I thank you my friend," he said. "And I admire your nonconformity. Do you know, I went to the University of Pennsylvania for four years for my M.D., after my undergraduate years. Then there were two years as an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York. After that, two years as a resident in neuropsychiatry at the state mental hospital, followed by a chief residency in neurology at the best university hospital in Manhattan. Now I'm a fellow in neuropsychiatry here at the Retreat. But in all those years, nobody on the staff of any of those institutions -- but nobody -- ever called me 'Doc' before."

4. This will give you a sense of the uncomfortable sex scenes: They made love then, without bothering to remove all their clothes. Easily, almost lazily, at first, they embraced, exploring each other's body with caressing fingers and lips, then began the rhythm of the dance of life. Okay, reading this book was totally worth it for the phrase "the rhythm of the dance of life."

5. There are about 20 pages in the middle of the book that were definitely written for another purpose and possibly written by another author (Frank gets a call from a former lover who reads about his sister in the paper, then he reminisces about their affair in a coherent and decently-written fashion before returning to the incoherent and poorly written story).

6. The "Brutal, violent, slashing!" torture climax is.... boring. Frank tortures two of the mobsters by using his medical knowledge to dissect them in front of some other mobsters. That is admittedly pretty brutal, but instead of creating any tension or gore, Rothstein actually has Frank give us an anatomy lesson and basically just types a few paragraphs from a medical text book with the occasional groan thrown in.

I could go on and on (which, I suppose, is one reason to read the book), but overall this was an uncomfortable read with inconsistent characters and clunky writing. I guess you can't win them all....

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Microthrills by Wendy Spero (2006)

Once again the lovely St. Murse loaned me a book that he didn't like. To be fair, he wasn't really sure I would like it either, but he knew I would give it a shot: and he was right on both counts!

Wendy Spero's Microthrills: True Stories from a Life of Small Highs is a book of essays based on the stand-up comic's one woman show about her life. The back of the book compares Spero to David Sedaris -- to be honest, I like Sedaris but have never really gotten why people are so super excited about him -- Sedaris does, however, actually make me laugh. Spero, not really so much.

Not that this is a bad book. Actually it was a pretty good book to read in spurts over the holidays while I took refuge from the negative twenty degree windchill on my mother-in-law's couch. The stories of Spero growing up in Manhattan, her journeys through her first jobs, her neuroses, her mother's neuroses, and all the rest are all very nice and not poorly written. And yet, despite all that, they didn't really make me laugh or think or anything at all. Although Spero and I are about the same age, I didn't feel like I related to her or her problems or worries at all -- there just wasn't any connection there.

I am pretty sure that Wendy Spero is a fine stand-up comic, and that her one-woman show is pretty entertaining. But for me, at least, that entertainment just didn't come through in the print version of her memoir.