Saturday, July 27, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander

This collection of short stories is varied in style and point of view but all represent Englander’s perception of his Jewish faith. One story tells of his investigation into his own family history. Others approach the Jewish holocaust experience. Others let us into the lives of those who experience prejudice. And there are insights into just what it is to be a “good Jew”.

There is some wit or humor in each, though in some cases it is hidden. And not a little irony. As a whole, the collection informed and entertained me. My favorite is the title story. In this story, two Jewish couples get together for dinner. One couple is Hassidic and is visiting from Israel. They have taken new names and do not touch each other in public. The other is of a more relaxed faith. The two had known each other before the first turned Hassidic, and the narrator (the man of the second couple) refuses to think of them in their new names.

Discussion turns on a “non-game” that the wife of the second couple has played in her mind since childhood. If you were non-Jewish and your Jewish friends were threatened, would you risk your life by providing shelter for them?

I liked the idea of this “non-game” as well as the ultimate end of the story, and the insights into the couples it offers. Of course it gives me something to think about myself, about how I would react depending on who the persons are who need help, what they represent to me. Would I be able to ignore what they are to me?

The second story is a bit of a fable, about a woman who is part of one of two families who settled Israel many a year ago, and how through the years fate did not shine kindly on her. In this one we discover some of the basis of the belief in the God-given Jewish state, the unwritten promise. And we can make of it what we will.

“Camp Sundown” I found to be hilarious, if edgy hilarious. The camp has two parts: for elderly folks and for young folks. At times the twain do meet. The conflict that throws it off kilter happens when one elderly couple accuses an elderly man of having been a Nazi in WWII. The camp director, Josh, can’t believe it, as the old man seems to come alive only when playing bridge. Josh takes great pleasure in seeing the man’s eyes light up.

It’s a voyage of discovery, in a way, this collection. Entertaining and biting at the same time. Revealing and confessional. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

I found this book, at times, difficult to read. But ultimately highly rewarding.

The story features fifteen-year-old Esch, living with her family in New Orleans, who discovers that she is pregnant. Her father, who drinks too much, doesn't have a lot to offer the family, other than the land held by his family over generations. Her older brother Randall is hoping for a career in basketball, hoping that he will be chosen to go to basketball camp this summer. He is a solid family member, helping with the younger members as needed. Junior is the youngest and mostly hangs around hitching rides on others' backs or riding a bicycle without a seat. The other primary character is Skeeter, a year younger than Esch, who has a dog, China.

Skeet enters China in dog fights. This is where the novel became difficult for me. I worried about the dog, who is pregnant at the beginning of the book, and I worried about the place dog fighting has in the story. I found a different kind of view of these dogs than the one we often hear about, the Michael Vick type story. We find that Skeet loves China, perhaps more than any other creature. This love is not inconsistent with the fighting that she does: pitbulls are known for their desire to please, which may be even stronger than that of other dogs. This is the real reason they make good fighters.

Of course I found it difficult, still, to think of these dogs facing horrible injuries and of the owners having few resources for helping them with their wounds. Skeet does an admirable job in this regard. But I could imagine there would be many instances when his skills would not be up to the task.

We follow this family through the days leading up to the day Hurricane Katrina hits. By the time it does its worst we know them. We understand why they did not leave their home. We understand why it would be so difficult to understand what a category 5 hurricane, particularly this one, would be so different from the hurricanes they have experienced in the past.

I found the book enlightening both in the way that it describes how a very poor southern family sees the world and in the details of living through Katrina. In all the coverage I read and saw of that hurricane I never before heard it described as it is here.