Friday, January 29, 2016

Covenant: Shylock Is My Name a novel by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is My Name is a novel that describes people who covenant at many levels, deep and shallow. As in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish character who is complex, a contemporary term for a man capable of maintaining multiple often contradictory ideas. Strulovich, a Jewish contemporary of Shylock, is more of a purist, absolute about his covenant of religion. Shylock, the reformer in Howard Jacobson’s novel, attempts to influence the thinking of Strulovich about the exclusivity of the traditionalist’s theology. For Shylock, it does not seem to be a matter of accumulated tradition and strictly observed custom that can make the Jewish people resilient and capable of a strong cultural identity. This commitment has caused the purists to incite rebellion against parents by the younger generation, thin-skinned sensitivity to the thousand little daily insults of the older generation, and poorly defined acts of revenge by the survivors of outsider anti-Semitic atrocities. Shylock points out to Strulovich indirectly and directly the consequences of his rigidity of beliefs. The Jew has to maintain a morality in the present age that is more flexible, forgiving, and intelligent or subtle and violent conflicts will be perpetuated against the people’s all-encompassing covenant.

The drama plays out in the novel in a story similar to that of one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. The structure of the action reminds me of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in respect to the interaction of Shylock and Strulovich. It is similar in many ways, in my mind, to the lengthy discussions in Mann’s novel between the secular humanist Lodovico Settembrini and the former purist Jew (now Jesuit) Leo Naphta. I imagined sitting out on a balcony of a hotel in the Alps wrapped in a warm blanket contemplating both novels, oddly wishing I belonged to group with an ideology that is all-encompassing at both mundane and devine levels, enjoying the harmony and dissonance.

I enjoyed reading Howard Jacobson’s novel as much as I did reading an earlier novel by the author, The Finkler Question. I give it my highest rating.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Short Supply: Time of Useful Consciousness a novel by Jennifer Ott

Time of Useful Consciousness by Jennifer Ott is an exciting novel of post-World War II Germany. The title is an interesting term in aviation that provides a powerful metaphor for describing the very difficult social/economic conditions of the time period in Deutschland. Louisa Unger is a pilot, rare in a man’s specialty area. Successful in her flight training, Louisa becomes involved inadvertently in an airborne smuggling operation and is arrested and confined to an American Military prison. Louisa is interrogated, and she tells the story of Germans trying to reconstruct their country and deal with the guilt of the War-time atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Louisa’s account of the year preceding her capture involves descriptions of flying, personal relationships, post-War hardships, and difficult conflict resolutions. Time of Useful Consciousness (TUC) is the amount of time an individual is able to perform flying duties efficiently in an environment of inadequate oxygen supply. The aftermath of war waged within a country is a shortage of adequate resources to rebuild its culture on a grand scale. There is also a decreased supply of personal resilience to reconnect with family and develop new loving relationships in an atmosphere low on moral identity. Some of Ott’s characters, like Louisa, react positively in the TUC physical/social environment and others negatively making for an exciting narrative. I give the novel 4 stars for its unique and interesting historical perspective.

I was given a copy of the novel by the author for an honest review.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Distant Photographs: The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

The Photographer’s Wife is an interesting story of characters living in tumultuous times in Jerusalem between the two World Wars. The story begins in 1920 in Jerusalem as an architect Charles Ashton develops odd plans to partly redesign the Holy City by creating English style parks. A na├»ve but keen observer of the interaction of the characters is Ashton’s daughter, 11 year old Prudence, who takes her own photographs and writes her impressions (in codes) of events. She observes the relationship of Lieutenant William Harrington, a pilot hired by her father to take aerial photos of Jerusalem and Eleanora Rasul wife of an eminent photographer Khaled Rasul. Complicated personal relationships develop mirroring the volatile social/political situation in the Holy City.

Jerusalem is similar to Alexandria at the time, with a rich fusion of British, Eastern, and European characters all striving to meet their personal needs and to influence the future of the region according to their own political motivations. Similar to the situation in Alexandria depicted in the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, Joinson describes growing resentment of Colonial British activities by competing factions in Jerusalem.

Jumping from 1920 to 1937, “Prue” is an artist and single mother living quitely in Shoreham by the Sea, Sussex. She and her son have escaped the pressures of the London art world in the aftermath of the Surrealist impact on exhibitions, and Prue is recovering from a tumultuous marriage breakup. Lieutenant Harrington comes back into Prue’s life causing her to review her early life in Jerusalem considering secrets important in her personal life and the political history of the Middle East region between Wars.

Joinson’s style of writing in The Photographer’s Wife keeps the reader at a distance from the characters. Readers may find it difficult to identify with the characters living in Jerusalem or even care much about them in the beginning. British colonials, exiled Armenians, and Greek, Arab, and Jewish officials all vie for personal gain and political power. This is also true of Durrell’s four volume work in which readers are held at bay relying on the narration of characters living in Alexandria who are caught up in contemporary circumstances and unconscious life choices in a city with a long and complicated history. A large part of the international crisis in the Middle East today may be due to the impossibility of understanding all of the chaotic personal and political interactions that make up the history of the region. Up until now, there has been a failure of Western/European world leaders to see the negative consequences of being kept at a distance from the inherent intrigue of the area.

Of course, Joinson does not attempt to match the scope, insightful character development, and intense style of Lawrence Durrell. But, the novel will be interesting and engaging for many readers.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Breaking Solitude: The Never-Open Desert Diner a novel by James Anderson

The Never-Open Desert Diner is a good first novel by James Anderson. I like stories of characters conscious of their solitude and thinking about it without running away. Ben Jones is a truck driver in Utah, driving a route that is a day’s journey out and back in a sparsely inhabited stretch of desert. State Road 117 has some turnouts, byways, and an end point with relatively little traffic. He is not fully committed to his solitude as are many OTR truck drivers, but he spends much of every day in solitude. Ben’s past is kept in the background with interesting hints of a much more social and personally risky life left behind.

Time elapses slowly as Ben delivers goods to individuals and small businesses in the vast desert along 117. Ben has relationships with his isolated customers bound by individual rules of privacy learned over time. One of the toughest set of rules is enforced by a 79 year old customer Walt Butterfield, owner of the Desert Diner on US 191. Walt keeps the diner in perfect condition inside and out but does not discuss with Ben why it is never open for business.

This is a great start for a novel, and I looked forward to each chapter. Then, everything changes when Ben’s schedule is interrupted by unexpected events that break the rules of solitude. Changes are the life blood of a novel of character solitude, and nothing lasts forever but the peaceful/violent desert in this novel.

The problem with Anderson’s novel is the relationship and dialogue between Ben and a character new to the desert. It is interesting at the first encounter, but become far too fast-paced, artificially intimate, and symbolic to be believable or consistent with the theme of solitude. Ben and the new resident of the desert off State Road 117 begin to converse in code revealing that they are sudden soul mates existing in a higher plane of empathetic consciousness. After this break in the flow of the novel, there were interesting exciting scenes and good character development, but my keen interest in the story waned. I recommend the novel with my reservations noted.