Category Archives: Fiction

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Once again, my well-read friend did not lead my astray when it comes to book recommendations. Last summer, in one his emails he sang the praises of Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, even though he was only half-way through the book. Since sending that email, I couldn’t help but notice the tons of accolades and awards Hawley’s 2016 novel has earned. This told me once again, my friend knows a good book when he sees one. So, with all that in mind it’s no surprise when I found a copy at my public library I grabbed it, despite having several other library books I was trying to get read before their respective due dates. Fear not, my decision to put everything else aside was the right one because my goodness, Before the Fall is fantastic page-turning and worth every ounce of hype it’s generated.

The premise is a simple one but like that of many great stories as things unfold one learns that nothing about Before the Fall is quite that simple. One evening a private plane with 11 passengers and crew takes off from Martha’s Vineyard for what should be a fairly short and uneventful trip to New York City. 16 minutes later the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are a four-year old boy and a middle-aged painter. Fortunately for the two of them, the painter swam competitively both in high school and college and recently started hitting the pool again. Once they make it to shore, the man, thanks to his heroic efforts becomes the 24 news cycle’s latest hero of the week, much to his dissatisfaction. His inability to remember details of the crash not only frustrates government investigators but also fuels speculations that somehow, no matter how unlikely it seems was somehow responsible.

It’s no coincidence the novel is called Before the Fall since the heart and soul of this novel is its backstory, specifically the lives of the 11 characters leading up to the moment they boarded the doomed aircraft. Among the victims is the CEO of a thinly disguised Fox News Network; (whose star broadcast personality, an equally thinly disguised Bill O’Reilly sees the crash as part of some liberal government conspiracy or act of terrorism); a Wall Street heavy-hitter under indictment for laundering cash from rogue nations like North Korea and Iran; a former Israeli special forces badass turned private security specialist; and lastly a beautiful, young and slightly wise beyond her years flight attendant.

Before the Fall is an outstanding work of fiction and easily exceeded my expectations, which is no small feat considering all the hype surrounding this novel. Not only should you consider Before the Fall highly recommended, there’s also a strong likelihood you’ll see it included on my year-end Best Fiction list.

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About Time I Read It: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

It’s been my experience whenever a well-read friend recommends a book, it’s best to read it. Not long ago a buddy told me about a quirky novel with the odd title of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. According to him, I simply had to read it. So, following his advice I went searching through my public library’s catalog and lo and behold, there was an available copy. Hoping his recommendation was a sound one, I checked out that copy and later that evening began reading it. Yes, I’m happy to report my buddy did not lead me down the wrong path. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, just like he said is quirky. But more importantly it’s bold, original and entertaining as hell.

Published in 2006, Pessl’s debut novel is told from the perspective of Blue, a precocious 16-year-old girl. The daughter of an itinerant college professor, she’s intelligent well beyond her years and not only well-read, but in all likelihood better read than most adults twice or even three times her age. After spending years crisscrossing the country as her father drifted from one teaching position after another other (almost always at some third tier college in a podunk town), the two of them spend a year or so in Stockton, North Carolina where Blue enrolls at the prestigious Saint Gallway School.

Not long after starting at this private academy Hannah Schneider, a Bohemian film instructor introduces Blue (after a chance encounter at the supermarket where she makes small talk with Blue’s professor father) to a clique of the school’s cool kids, called the Blue Bloods. Of the Blue Bloods, my favorite is probably Jade. The daughter of a onetime model with the odd first name of  Jefferson, who spends her time conspicuously absent from her daughter’s life (usually in places like Vale in the arms of handsome ski instructor), Jade is a vain, celebutante in training and one of the ringleaders of the Blue Bloods. Needless to say, the intellectual Blue and the shallow hedonist Jade make an unlikely and therefore entertaining pair.

Without revealing too much, just when you think this is just another coming of age novel (albeit a clever and edgy one) the author throws up some major twists and we’ll just leave it at that. Special Topics in Calamity Physics lived up to all my friend’s hype. I’m glad I took his advice.

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Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese

Besides inspiring me to read books dealing with all kinds of European countries, Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has also got me reading more fiction. Probably because I’m a fan of history, most the fiction I’ve been reading over the last few years has been of the historical variety.

The latest piece of history fiction to catch my eye is Laurie Zico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty. Noticing the 2017 novel is set in Austria, I grabbed a copy from my public library knowing I could apply towards the Rose City Reader’s challenge. Making my decision easier was knowing Stolen Beauty is historical fiction and jumps back and forth between two different but equally pivotal periods in Austria’s history.

Stolen Beauty is the story of two different yet nevertheless related women, in this case aunt and niece. Our story begins with Maria, a young newlywed living in Vienna on the eve of the Anschluss or German annexation of Austria. Being Jewish, naturally she’s terrified of what the Nazis have in store for her and her family. As tension builds the story then shifts backwards a generation or so to the same city and we see Maria’s niece Adele as a young woman who comes of age during the city’s fin de siècle period of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and antisemitic populist mayor Karl Luger. It’s during this portion of the novel Vienna becomes a complex character of its own. With its lively salons, avant-garde art scene and Mitteleuropa sophistication, it rivaled Paris as another City of Light. However, beneath that veneer one could see portends brewing of different kind of Europe, one of ethically based nation states and dark, murderous antisemitism.

Stolen Beauty held my interest and entertained me. Not only did the novel appeal to my inner historian but I enjoyed seeing the two female protagonists evolve as they matured and faced new challenges. If you follow my lead and end up reading Stolen Beauty, I would encourage you to also read Death and the Maiden, one of the Max Liebermann mysteries by Frank Tallis set in turn of the century Vienna. Stolen Beauty is an enjoyable novel and I’m glad I stumbled across a copy.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.

Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)

I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Soviet Spotlight: The Yid by Paul Goldberg

I’d read all kinds of cool things about Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid, but seeing Portland Silent Reading Party co-host Karen reading a copy was the only recommendation I needed. Even though I easily found an available copy through my public library it seemed like it took forever to finally start reading it. However, when I did get around to cracking it open I burned through The Yid in nothing flat.

The inspiration for Goldberg’s darkly funny and intelligent novel is the little known period of 20th century history that occurred during the twilight years of Stalin’s reign called the Doctors’ Plot. During this period Soviet media was awash with stories of Jewish doctors, acting on orders from America, Great Britain and Israel were engaged in a nefarious conspiracy to murder high-ranking government officials and poison good Soviet citizens.  Fortunately, before Stalin and his inner circle could begin mass arrests and deportations of the USSR’s Jewish citizens the Soviet dictator died. (I first learned of forgotten period years ago when I read Vladimir Pozner’s memoir Parting with Illusions.)

The craziness begins late one night in 1953 when a trio of Soviet secret police arrive to arrest Solomon Levinson. A retired actor from the now defunct State Jewish Theater who also spent time fighting for the Reds in the Russian Civil War, let’s just say Levinson knows how to handle a sword and handles it well. After swiftly dispatching the three government agents he teams up with a quirky band misfits who include surgeon Aleksandr Kogan; African-American émigré Frederick Lewis (whom in addition to English can speak Russian, Esperanto and Yiddish) and Kima Petrova a woman of modest means but powerful political connections. Taking inspiration from the Shakespearean theme of murdering a crazed monarch, Levinson and his band set out to rid the Soviet Union of Stalin before Stalin can enact his evil plans.

The Yid is a clever page turner. Who knows, maybe one of the reasons Goldberg is able to write such a wonderful novel is because he himself is a Jew who escaped the Soviet Union and came to America at the tender age of 12. Don’t be surprised if Goldberg’s excellent debut novel end up on my year-end list of best fiction.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

Conclave by Robert Harris

I love Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Since the rules state “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country” intrepid participants are inspired to read books representing the breadth of Europe. Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before on my blog, it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. (Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill.) Nothing against papal biographies, but I wondered if there were other books about or set in Vatican City that I could read for the European Reading Challenge.

As luck would have it, I found a solution. Thanks to my public library I learned British novelist Robert Harris has a new novel out and it’s set in of all places the Vatican. Excited the author of the outstanding alternate history novel Fatherland had turned his literary attention to the world of high-stakes Vatican politics excited me. So I grabbed a copy of Conclave and began reading it. After weathering a few distractions I eagerly ripped through it. I’m happy to say Conclave did not disappoint me. Ian Samson writing for the Guardian called the novel “unputdownable” and I’m tempted to agree because it’s one hell of a page turner.

Named after an assembly of cardinals who meet under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, Conclave begins with the somewhat mysterious death of a revered reformist pope and moves quickly to the quest to elect his successor. Sequestered from the outside world, the Conclave is rife with high drama and intrigue. Like any sizable voting assembly there are factions. Not only is there a rivalry  between conservative elements (called “Trads” for their traditionalist or Pre-Vatican II views) and progressives (some from Continental Europe and America sharing liberal outlooks with a few Liberation Theologians from Latin Americans) but there’s also blocks of cardinals representing Italian, Latin American, African and Anglophone interests. Just to make things even more interesting, a mysterious Cardinal arrives in Rome just in time for the Conclave. A Filipino with a long but unpublicized history of humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East, thanks to his secret elevation to Cardinal by the late Pope he too can vote in the Conclave.

Like any good page-turner, the story moves quickly and there’s no shortage of twists and turns. Conclave is one of those light, fast-paced pieces of contemporary fiction that’s entertaining as hell and a pleasure to read. So naturally, I have no problem recommending this wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction

Old Books Reading Project: Love in the Time of Cholera

When one of my book clubs chose to read the modern classic Love in the Time of Cholera I was pleased as punch. For well over a decade, a copy has sat ignored in my personal library taunting me to read it. Now that my book club would be reading García Márquez’s grand work of fiction no longer would this book of mine remain unread. A few nights after meeting with my book club I grabbed it from the shelf began reading it.

So, after such a long wait how did I enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera? And how did it fare with my book club? While some members liked it more than others, I think overall the general consensus was pretty much in line with my opinion of the novel. We liked it, but we enjoyed the second half of the novel more than the first part. But few, if any of my fellow readers were left disappointed.

Love in the Time of Cholera, as its title would lead us to believe is a novel of love. It’s about youthful love and all its innocence and idealism as we see young lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza defy rigid societal expectations in hopes of being together. It’s also about marriage and everything good, bad and otherwise that comes with it. It’s also about careless and carefree lovemaking as well as its consequences. It’s also a novel of how love is understood by older adults, when love matures and acceptance is the norm.

Whatever shortcomings this novel might possibly possess, it has some great things going for it. For one, García Márquez’s vocabulary is rich as hell and kudos to his translator for expertly putting those wonderful words into English. Secondly, while love at times can be sad, sometimes unbearably sad, like anything in life there are humorous moments and Love in the Time of Cholera has its share. (My favorite was the time Florentino and one his lovers spend a session so absorbed in their lovemaking they neglect to notice the house around them being burglarized. Their passion spent and relishing the afterglow, they look up to see an empty bedroom with a note declaring “this is what you get for fucking around.”) Lastly, thanks to García Márquez’s skillful writing I felt transported to an unnamed Colombian town somewhere on the nation’s Caribbean coast as events unfolded and characters developed over half a century spanning the 1880s to 1930s.

García Márquez was a prolific writer and authored a number of works, fiction and nonfiction before his death in 2014. I think before it’s all said and done, I’d like to read more of his stuff. Naturally, should I do so, you’ll read all about it on my blog.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Latin America/Caribbean