Between Friends by Amos Oz

Between FriendsWhen compared to past years, my consumption of books dealing with the Middle East is definitely down this year. Back when Helen was hosting the Middle East Reading Challenge I was dialed in. Even last year when I was doing a so-so job hosting the challenge it still seemed like every week or so I was posting a review of some book about the Middle East or novel by a Middle Eastern author. But sadly, not anymore. While I’ve reviewed a few of those books here and there, for whatever reason I’ve kinda moved on to feature other kinds of material. Too bad because I think I miss reading books about the Middle East.

Well, fear no more ’cause the subject of this post is a piece of fiction straight out of the Middle East. Amos Oz is a well-known Israeli author I discovered a number of years ago thanks to a piece of his that appeared in The New Yorker. Two years I reviewed his short novel 1997 Panther in the Basement which I liked so much it ended up making my Favorite Fiction List of 2012. This time around I’m featuring a more recent work of his, specifically his Between Friends. Published in 2013, it’s a collection of eight interconnected short stories all set during the late 1950s on a fictitious Israeli Kibbutz. While I didn’t like it as much as Panther in the Basement, I still enjoyed it.

Judging by the eight stories, Kibbutz life is a bit of a contradiction. An egalitarian community founded on socialist and Zionist principles, one would expect the Kibbutz depicted in Between Friends would be a blissful place. Ironically, it seems anything but utopian. It’s a place where children bully each other, marriages disintegrate and middle-aged men philander. It’s also a place where individualism is frowned upon since children are raised communally, permission is needed to visit an invalid father in another town and the opportunity to study abroad is subject to collective approval.

Looking back on Between Friends, what sticks with me the most is probably every one of the eight stories deals in some way with people trying to resolve their personal problems. Perhaps in keeping with the communal nature of the Kibbutz, every one of these problems is relational. While these challenges might get talked about, brought to light or even debated, in the end nothing is ever fully resolved. In that respect, Oz’s Kibbutz’s with all its frustrations, moral ambiguities and disappointments is certainly a reflection of the larger world around it.

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Filed under Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Books About Books: The Constantine Codex by Paul L. Meier

The Constantine CodexIf you’re like me, every so often you end up enjoying a book way more than you should have. For some folks that book could be a predictable mystery. For others, a cheesy romance. Some readers can’t resist cheap, shoot ‘em up bang-bang detective thrillers. For others, it’s those mass-marketed pieces of science fiction or fantasy that draws them in like moths to a flame. Let’s be honest; we all have our guilty pleasures.

That’s how I’m feeling right now about ‘s 2011 novel The Constantine Codex. It’s not everyday I read something published by Tyndale House, which is known for its long line of evangelical Christian books. The novel’s author Paul L. Maier is currently Third Vice President of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, after serving as the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University.

The hero of Maier’s story is Jonathan Weber: Harvard Professor of New Testament Studies, devout Lutheran and Christian apologist. After his archeologist wife Sharon finds evidence pointing to the existence of a long-lost Biblical manuscript, the intrepid couple soon find themselves flipping through dust-covered ancient texts as they hop from one Old World monastic library to another. Just to make things interesting, there’s powerful forces secretly working in the background trying to throttle their mission. As an international thriller blending elements of mystery, ancient history, church politics and geopolitical intrigue, The Constantine Codex comes across like The Da Vinci Code for the orthodox Christian set.

Crazy thing is I found myself enjoying it.

What makes the sought after codex so special is, besides being older than any Biblical manuscript in existence, it contains two ancient pieces of scripture that would reaffirm, and in essence re-energize the traditionalists’ view of Christianity: a lost ending for the Book of Mark that describes in detail the resurrection and the great commission and a Second Book of Acts that chronicles St. Paul’s life beginning where the previous Book of Acts abruptly ends. The Da Vinci Code is about the secrets that could destroy Christianity. The Constantine Codex is the race to confirm it.

I found it chaste, but not stupid. While written for a Christian – at the very least fairly sympathetic – audience, I never found my intelligence insulted. (But then again, when should that be anyone’s chief concern!) There’s not a lot of depth to the characters, but they do have their charm. Like any decent story there’s a bit of humor thrown in as well. There’s also a side story involving a progressive Muslim cleric which at first seems to detract from the main story. However, without revealing too much let’s just say his role ends up being far from insignificant.

After having a surprisingly good time with ‘s The Constantine Codex, I’m tempted to read a few of his other novels. His More than a Skeleton and A Skeleton in God’s Closet both look promising. It’s also inspired me to read two other books dealing with long-lost ancient texts. Matt Friedman’s The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books would make a fun follow-up to The Constantine Codex, as might ‘s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Thanks to Maier it looks like I have some reading ahead of me.

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Filed under Arab World, Christianity, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Pan-European Lives: Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe: A NovelLet’s face it, Europe in 1938 was no picnic. With totalitarian regimes ascendant in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union it must have looked like democracy or anything even close to it was about done for. After annexing Austria, Hitler’s Germany looked to be on the march, with Czechoslovakia and Poland as its next victims. With generous support from Italy and Germany, the Fascist dream of a Spanish dictatorship with each passing day was becoming more and more a reality. On the far side of Europe, deadly purges, famines and mass incarcerations ravaged Stalin’s USSR. For close to 10 years a world-wide economic depression haunted the land. Confronted with this grim landscape, by 1938 I’m sure many Europeans feared another horrible war was about to be unleashed on the Continent. Perhaps it was only a matter of time.

This is the setting for Alan Furst’s novel Midnight in Europe. Published in June of this year, it follows the adventures of Cristián Ferrar, a Paris-based Catalan lawyer turned international arms smuggler. Pressed into service by Spain’s left-leaning Republican government, he and his shadowy associates crisscross Europe in search of munitions to resupply the Republic’s dwindling armory. Caught up in this clandestine web of international intrigue is a blackmailed industrialist, a Macedonian thug, a Jewish arms merchant and a cut-throat team of Russian gangsters. And just to make things even more interesting there’s a beautiful and beguiling Marquesa.

Even though Furst is a prolific writer, this is the first novel of his I’ve read. And it wont be the last because I enjoyed the heck out of it. (I have no idea where to begin, but Dark Voyage, The Spies of Warsaw and Spies of the Balkans all look particularly promising.) It’s one of those light and fast-paced novels that still manages to hold ones interest. Even though there might not be a lot of depth to the characters, they’re nevertheless still interesting. There’s no shortage of exotic locales either. From the battlefields of Spain to the nightspots of Paris to the taverns of the old Free City of Danzig, Furst uses the breadth of pre-war Continental Europe to tell his tale. In short, the perfect sweeping and entertaining novel for my Pan-European Lives series.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, International Crime, Turkey

You Deserve Nothing: A Novel by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing: A NovelTake the 1989 film Dead Poets Society and add the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”. Throw in a load of Lolita and The Stranger. Season with a dash of Sartre and the biblical book of Job. Mix thoroughly with almost equal parts of teen angst, youthful optimism and adult cynicism. Add sexual desire and all its complications. Set the whole thing in Paris on the eve of the last Gulf War at an international high school for the privileged sons and daughters of the global elite. When done mixing let the concoction simmer against the sensual background of the City of Light.

What you have when you’re finished cooking is ‘s debut novel You Deserve Nothing. Published in 2011 by Europa Editions, it’s one of four books that currently make up its Tonga Books imprint. According to Europa’s website, The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold has been tasked with selecting and editing books for Tonga. From what I can gather, it looks like Sebold has a  potentially challenging road ahead of her, since the publisher’s expectations of the new imprint Tonga look pretty high.

Tonga Books is characterized by strong narrative voice and story, and solid, well-written prose. Tonga is unafraid of darker material, uninterested in cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and passionate about depth of character. Among other things, Tonga hopes to cultivate the sort of cutting edge voices that go overlooked by larger publishing houses.

As for my expectations of You Deserve Nothing, I’m happy to report they were pleasantly exceeded. The novel is told from the perspective of three characters. One is William Silver, a gifted and passionate teacher who implores his students to look at the world through enlightened eyes as they tackle great pieces of Western literature. The other two are students, who find themselves drawn to Silver for quite different reasons, but each reason perhaps no less passionate than the other. There’s also a host of supporting characters, with my favorite being a young Irish bad boy blessed with a crude yet nevertheless accurate understanding of the world, putting him in a category of individuals light years ahead of his classmates. And probably most of his teachers.

About a week after I grabbed this novel from the library, on my lunch hour I passed a young woman who happened to have a copy of You Deserve Nothing under her shoulder. While trying not to look too forward, I asked her if she was enjoying it. She said yes, adding that she’d read over a third of it in just one sitting. I thanked her and told her I’d start reading my copy later that night. Thank goodness I took her advice.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Europe, Fiction

Memoirs of Faith: Incognito by Andrea Raynor

ncognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity SchoolI know it sounds crazy, but years ago I entertained the notion of attending divinity school. Crazier still, the one school I found myself wanting to attend was none other than Harvard Divinity. You see, I had a couple of friends who also happened to be Harvard Div. grads. One of them, a part-time university chaplain, thought Harvard would be the perfect place for me. Did she not know I was lucky to make it through public high school – only a year later to be kicked out of community college?  Yes, I did learn from my mistakes and go on to graduate from a state university but holy cow, it was by the skin of my teeth. Don’t ask me why, but in her eyes I was Harvard Divinity School material. Poor woman, what was she thinking?

I never made it to divinity school – let alone Harvard. The closest I got was one afternoon when I, along with a few young undergrads from the local university, met for an hour with an admissions officer from Harvard Div. After the meeting I seriously thought about busting a move to Cambridge, Mass. But then not long after that, things seem to change. The idea of spending three years and a ton of money to get an advanced degree in theology or comparative religion when I hadn’t set foot in a church in years (other than the occasional weddings and funerals) no longer seemed appealing. Also around the same time, I received a promotion at work and for the first time I felt I had a career instead of merely a job. So no Harvard Div. for me.

So you can only imagine how I must have felt when I came across a copy of Andrea Raynor’s 2014 memoir Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School during one of public library visits. Of course, how I could not resist grabbing it? Had I attended Harvard like Raynor, this could have been me. Well, maybe.

True to her memoir’s subtitle, in Incognito Raynor recalls her experiences attending Harvard Divinity School, as well the period immediately following graduation. Judging by the historical and cultural references, I’m guessing she attended Harvard in early to mid 1980s. This puts it roughly seven to eight years after the events depicted in André Aciman’s semi-autobiographical novel Harvard Square. It begins with her arrival at Harvard as slightly sheltered, and as a result somewhat naive Midwesterner. (But true to Midwestern stereotypes she’s also comes across as wholesome, giving and unpretentious.) A recent graduate of Dennison University, she’s chosen Harvard not just as a place to obtain a world-class education, but also the launching pad for God’s higher purpose for her life. Starting out anyway, she has no idea what that higher purpose might be. But graduation is a few years away, and in her heart she’s confident it will all be figured out by then.

Along the way she meets a cavalcade of memorable individuals including a young Jewish lesbian intent on being a rabbi, an ex-con from South America who’s turned around his life, left-leaning church workers, homeless shelter denizens and snooty academics. The tales of her love life I found kinda amusing, since her love interests included a Colombian cellist, a medical student and her on and off Dennison boyfriend. As luck would have it, she also gets to take a class from the great Catholic luminary Henri Nouwen. She also gets arrested after taking part in a political protest. And in the end, without revealing too much, she finds her sense of purpose.

I found her memoir incredibly charming. While I wished she would have shared at least a few more details about what she was studying, I also realize that kind of stuff doesn’t always make for the most fascinating and exciting reading, especially for general audiences. My only knock on Raynor’s memoir is it kinda loses focus and energy after she finally graduates from Harvard. But like I said, it’s a charming read. It did not disappoint me.

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Filed under Christianity, Memoir

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Prayers for the StolenAs we pass the mid-year mark, I can honestly say holy cow, I’ve read some great fiction. Something tells me come December, when I post my traditional year-end lists, it’s going to be very hard for me to limit my list of favorite English language works of fiction to just ten books. Harder still it will be deciding which book will earn my nod for overall best. But as things stand right now, one novel that could very well be on that year-end list is Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen. This is yet another novel I found while rummaging through the International Authors shelf of my public library’s New Books section. I took a chance on Clement’s novel and was not disappointed.

Published in February of this year, Prayers for the Stolen is the story of Ladydi Garcia Martínez, who hails from a dirt poor village in the hills of Guerrero, Mexico. Life in her village is no picnic. Since almost all the men have fled to the United States in search of employment, it’s a village of women. It’s also a village where mothers hide their teen daughters or make them look ugly in order to keep them away from the drug gangs who periodically come raiding in search of young beauties to enslave and traffic. Impoverished and virtually forgotten by the central government in Mexico City, Laydi’s village is merely a spot on the map with human beings as its only export. It is these lack of opportunities that compel our heroine to seek greener pastures elsewhere, where she finds employment in Acapulco as a live-in maid for a wealthy family. Then, after a series of twists and turns things get interesting.

This is a somewhat slender yet nevertheless enjoyable novel. While reading it not once was I not entertained. Even though it’s a work of fiction, I thought the author did a darn good job touching on issues important to today’s Mexico such as poverty, corruption, gender inequality, emigration and the drug trade. Therefore, don’t be surprised if Prayers for the Stolen makes one of my year-end best of lists.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Fiction, International Crime, Latin America/Caribbean

Marshlands: A Novel by Matthew Olshan

The Marshlands: A NovelUpon entering the Central Branch of my public library, one of the first things a visitor sees is a rather extensive looking display of new books. Until just recently, this display boasted a shelf of newly published fiction entitled “Librarians Choice.” For years I ignored this shelf, probably because I preferred to read nonfiction, as opposed to fiction. But a few months ago, I decided to explore the Librarian’s Choice shelf.  So far, my gamble has paid off. It’s led me to both books I thoroughly enjoyed namely Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square and Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything. It looks like this gamble was a good one, since the latest book I discovered on the Librarian’s Choice shelf, Marshlands by Matthew Olshan I quite enjoyed.

Published in February of 2014, Olshan’s novel is told in reverse chronological order. It begins with the release of a mysterious political prisoner who’s been held for decades, presumably in solitary confinement. He’s been released into a world he barely recognizes and left impoverished and broken – both physically and emotionally. His spends his empty days sitting on a park bench, getting robbed and generally living like a homeless person. After being injured in a riot, a local museum curator rescues him and gets him medical attention. Later, she takes him to a dentist who repairs the damage 20 years’ of imprisonment and brutal, physical torture can do to a prisoner’s mouth. The dentist soon recognizes him as “that man”, produces an old photograph from the pages of an almanac and makes a big stink, forcing the man and his new benefactor to leave.

But who is this man? Through two sets of flashbacks, we learn he was a battlefield surgeon with a talent for languages who the served in some unnamed Western military that spent a number of years occupying the country where, 20 years later he now resides. Just like in ‘s Waiting for the Barbarians, this country is never named. Some readers think it’s really Iraq, since much of the action in the two flashbacks takes place in the Marshlands. In addition, based on country’s terrain and culture the novel feels like it’s set somewhere in the Middle East. Decades ago, this surgeon did something presumably treasonous that got him thrown in some hellish prison. But what was it?

I enjoyed Marshlands and thought the writing was superb. I was impressed to learn that it’s Olshan’s first adult novel. (According to the jacket blurb up to this point he’s been a children’s writer.) Looks like this novel was a Librarian’s Choice for some pretty good reasons. I’m glad I found it.

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