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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question
Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury, 2010

Julian Treslove, a radio producer, and Samuel Finkler, a Jewish philosopher, have been friends since childhood and, as they enter middle age, they reminisce over their struggles with self-identity, anti-Semitism, women, love, and the past.

Julian is a rather boring self-indulgent middle age man who does a lot of philosophical questioning that I tired of rather quickly. He probably would deny this, but there’s a part of him that wishes he were Jewish like his good friend Finkler, even though the reader may wonder how Julian could consider him a friend while sleeping with his wife, but I digress. Julian is not happy, and it’s easy to see why. He is not close to his sons or his sons’ mothers. He spends a lot of time wishing things were different with his relationships, his job, his family and his self-esteem. In fact, a crisis of sorts occurs when a woman attacks him and says something he doesn’t understand but which he persuades himself is anti-Semitic in nature. His obsession with this attack becomes so severe that he decides to investigate what it would be like to be Jewish, to be more like Finkler, hence the “Finkler Question.”

You should know that this won the Mann Booker Prize and was given starred reviews by review journals. Which means, of course, that I hated it. I’ve decided that I really don’t like books in which self-absorbed men obsess and worry about things so much that the whole book features their philosophical musings and mental what-ifs. Who cares? As my good friend Debbie would say, “blah, blah, woof, woof.” I wanted to smack Julian and tell him to stop contemplating his own navel for one minute and actually do something! I couldn’t finish the book. Ugh.

Other books by this author:
The Making of Henry (2004)
Kalooki Nights (2006)
The Act of Love (2008)

Other books you may enjoy:
The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2007)
A tale told from the parallel perspectives of two possible timelines considers the life of American expatriate Irena McGovern, who in one reality stays faithful to her disciplined American intellectual partner, and in the other runs off with an exuberant British long-time friend.

Therapy by David Lodge (1995)
Faced with a mid-life crisis, a successful, overweight television writer embarks on a quest for the answer to his spiritual anxiety and encounters therapists, the police, Soren Kierkegaard, and strange new bedfellows.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
Moving into the attic room in the Notting Hill home of the wealthy, politically connected Fedden family in 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest becomes caught up in the rising fortunes of this glamorous family and finds his own life forever altered by his association during the boom years of the 1980s. div> >

Friday, March 25, 2011

House of Tomorrow

House of Tomorrow
Peter Bognanni
Putnam, 2010

Sebastian Prendergast is sixteen and has lived with his grandmother in a geodesic dome ever since his parents were killed in a car accident when he was five years old. Sebastian is homeschooled by his grandmother, mostly using the philosophy of futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. This means that Sebastian has great gaps in his education, since he has not been exposed to television and his computer use is severely limited to searching for articles related geodesic dome living. He and his grandmother have minimal needs because the dome is mostly self sufficient; any income is generated through periodic tours provided to tourists passing through town.

Sebastian doesn’t miss what he doesn’t know until his grandmother has a stroke, just as they are preparing to offer a tour to a snotty chain-smoking teen and his mother. After accompanying them to the hospital, the twerp’s mother offers Sebastian a place to stay while his grandmother recuperates. Not knowing what else to do, Sebastian agrees, in spite of or perhaps because of Jared, the small boy who says he’s also sixteen years old but acts much younger.

Thus begins Sebastian’s education. Jared has recently had a heart transplant, which explains so much to Sebastian about the strange dynamic between him and his mother. It also explains why Jared is so small and acts so tough and pretends to be mean to Sebastian, like when he catches Sebastian spying on his sister. As Sebastian tries to catch up on all the things he should know, according to Jared, he becomes part of this odd family – at least until Granny comes back home and snatches him back to seclusion at the dome.

I don’t want to give away too much to this coming of age story that will reel you in at the first sentence and not let you go until it’s finished. Sebastian is a smart, na├»ve and totally likeable kid who would love to do the right thing if he could just figure out what it is. Jared is a scared and pampered boy who talks tough but who is really lonely and just wants a normal friend. When the two try to form a punk band, the result is a funny, heroic and sometimes sad picture of kids realizing the truth about their families and themselves.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

In Revere, in Those Days by Roland Merullo (2002)
Anthony Benedetto, a young boy in a large extended Italian-American family, describes growing up in the working-class community of Revere, Massachusetts, but his youth is changed forever by the tragic deaths of his parents.

How High the Moon by Sandra Kring (2010)
In small-town Wisconsin in 1955, 10-year-old Teaspoon struggles at school while missing her mother, who left her with a boyfriend while she “chased dreams” in Hollywood. Her concerned teacher enrolls her in Sunshine Sisters, a girls’ mentoring program, and Teaspoon finds herself teamed up with the “Sweetheart of Mill Town,” 18-year-old Brenda Bloom, whose mother owns the Starlight cinema, Teaspoon’s favorite avenue of escape.

The Washington Story: a novel in five spheres by Adam Langer(2005)
Chicago high-school sweethearts Jill and Muley share triumphs and despair over the course of five years that are marked by such events as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the return of Halley's comet.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tragic Bells

The Bells
Richard Harvell
Shaye Areheart, 2010

Born in an eighteenth-century Swiss Alps community where his deaf mother was the keeper of the church bells, illegitimate child Moses Froben is cast out by his self-serving father and is rescued by two monks, who take him back to the historic Abbey of St. Gall, where he discovers his purpose in life through his singing.

Moses doesn’t even know his name when he is rescued by the two monks; one of them christens him such when they come upon him all alone in the wilderness, just like Moses of the Bible. Moses is allowed to stay at the Abbey only because his voice is the most beautiful ever heard, but life is not so good for him there. Not only does his beautiful voice end up causing him the most pain and grief of his life, he ends up leaving the abbey under tragic circumstances after falling in love with a nobleman’s daughter. Not knowing what else to do, he goes to Venice and apprentices himself to a great opera singer who is not as good as Moses, but he is only using the apprenticeship to continue to search for his lost love, who has been married to another.

Indeed, Moses’ whole life is grand and tragic in true operatic style. Much happens to him in this long and involved novel – but then again, some of it is of his own making. I’m still trying to figure out if I liked this book or not. The early sections about Moses’ boyhood at the Abbey were the best parts; I think I was losing interest when he began to secretly meet with the girl even though it would not be good for either of them if they were caught, which they are. Yet, it’s hard to deny the powerful pull of the music: Moses’ exemplary singing voice is both his triumph and his downfall. I think I kept reading because I was hoping he could eventually gather enough remnants of some kind of life to be happy. But you will have to read for yourself to see if that happens.

This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Adam Runaway by Peter Prince (2005)
Coming of age in eighteenth-century Lisbon, Adam Hanaway lives with his uncle after the death of his father but finds his extended family's cool reception and his own penchant for fleeing from threatening situations compromising his happiness.

The Black Violin by Maxence Fermine (2003)
Wounded while fighting with Napoleon's army in the Italian campaign, violin prodigy Johannes Karelsky arrives in Venice, where he is rescued by a mysterious woman and boards with Erasmus, an aged violin maker who has created the legendary "Black Violin."

Antonio’s Wife by Jacqueline DeJohn (2004)
Opera diva Francesca Frascatti journeys to New York to search for her daughter, the product of a love affair, joining forces with Dante, a handsome detective, and Mina DiGianni, an Italian seamstress with an abusive husband.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Magic Garden

The Red Garden
Alice Hoffman
2011, Crown

A young wounded civil war solider is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet falls in love with a blind man, and a mysterious traveler comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone's life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Interconnected stories link the pioneers who first made Blackwell their home to their descendants who still struggled with some of the same issues many years later.

The premise of the magical red garden weaves its way around the generations of Blackwell residents, most of whom are not happy in this small town. They spend most of their youth wishing they were somewhere else and most of their adulthood searching for something they missed out on when they were young. Some residents are new to the town and puzzled by its legends; other residents just accept their history for what it is – their town was started by pioneers who were snowed in and couldn’t travel any farther. Not much of a heritage, but that’s where the red garden comes in. The red garden is a place where things died and were born again to be something different, which is like the town and its inhabitants. Most of them didn’t really want to be there. In fact, some of the characters yearned to leave, but they always came back when a relative was dying or had died, and then they discovered something in the town that offered them a second chance.

There’s a bit of magic in this book, but it’s not as extreme as some of the author’s other books. She has a lyrical voice that weaves a connection between each story and each character together in ways the reader won’t fully realize until the end. I enjoyed this novel more than some of Hoffman’s more recent books, but not as much as her early works. The reading is not demanding, but it is thought-provoking and lasting. Fans of quiet, character-driven novels with a strong sense of place will particularly like this title.


Other titles you may enjoy:
In Case we’re Separated by Alice Mattison (2005)
A collection of thirteen connected short tales traces the multi-generational experiences of the women in the family of Bobbie Kaplowitz of 1950s Brooklyn, in a volume that explores such themes as identity, infidelity, and the inspiring or tormenting qualities of missed opportunities.

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (2007)
Having left her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, fifteen years ago under troubling circumstances, Towner Whitney reluctantly returns after her eighty-five-year-old great-aunt Eva suddenly disappears.

After This by Alice McDermott (2006)
A portrait of an American family during the middle decades of the twentieth century evokes the social, spiritual, and political turmoil of the era as seen through the experiences of a middle-class couple and their children.