Sunday, 30 June 2013

Finding that elusive title....

I've been laid low with a chronic illness going berserk, so it's been work, couch and sleep for the last few weeks. Today, The Valkyrie came and took me out for an airing. Bit of browsing in antique shops, bit of lunch, bit of vital grocery shopping - DB's away, so the extra set of hands was invaluable.

However, reason for this post... You know that lovely moment when you're browsing a bookcase in a secondhand shop or antique market, not really expecting to find anything, it's a dry spell in the stuff you like to collect? And then...a spine catches your eye, and you think to yourself (as I did), 'NO way!' - but, it really is... Bonus...with a dust jacket, and in good nick, and a fourth edition of a series of small print runs...

Remember this post:  ?

One of my very favourite reads, a feel-good little gem by Paul Gallico that I finally re-read in January after finding a new paperback edition, because my original hardcover had gone AWOL (I am still hoping it's mistakenly in storage). Today, for the princely sum of $4.00...I found one:
Happy dance in the Sydney Antique Market - which brought The Valkyrie running to see what all the excitement was. She gets it, although, books aren't her thing in the same way they are mine.

What was your last unexpected treasure find?

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Chosen & The Promise - Chaim Potok

I am a HUGE Chaim Potok fan. I've been reading and re-reading his books since I was in high school, and all the times I've had part of my collection in storage, my Potoks are the first to go on the NOT TO GO IN STORAGE pile!! I thought I had managed to collect them all. However, in a recent Sunday afternoon wander in one of our favourite inner city haunts, DB and I were prowling a second hand bookstore and to my quite incoherent - albeit, noisy - excitement, I found a Potok I didn't even realise existed - The Promise - sequel to The Chosen, which is one of my most favourites of his books. This meant a re-read of The Chosen prior to the first reading of The Promise, so this will be a necessarily succinct reflection on them both together.
The Chosen is set in Brooklyn, home to numerous different Jewish groups of differing levels of religious observance. The different groups eye each other with some suspicion, each sure of their own heritage as true followers of Torah, and seeing commonality only in their united suspicion of those 'non-Torah Jews', who by adopting more contemporary styles of dress, and having regular contact with people outside their immediate communities are viewed as contravening the commandments as they understand them.

Danny Saunders is the eldest son of the rebbe (leader) of his particular Chassidic sect. Such groups are usually dynastic, so it is his destiny to inherit the leadership of his community when his father dies. Danny wears the payot (long side curls), black suits and visible tzitzit (ritual fringes) of the ultra-Orthodox observant Jew. Reuven Malter is the only son of a modern Orthodox rabbi, who works as a teacher in a religious school, and is known for his publications that are commentaries on the Talmud - the books of Jewish Law. The two boys would not ordinarily have even met, let alone become friends, had it not been for an inter-school baseball tournament. They both play for their schools, and in a game heavily laced with sectarian enmity, Reuven is injured when he is hit in the eye by a ball Danny pitches. The injury is serious, landing him in hospital with the possibility that he may lose his sight. Reuven's father counsels him to not hold a grudge against Danny, and when Danny visits Reuven in hospital, the seeds of a friendship are sown.

Due to the strict observances of his Judaism, Danny never eats with the Malters, but Reuven is invited to Danny's house - mainly so that Reb Saunders can inspect him, this odd, different new friend. This is when Reuven discovers that Danny has a very different relationship with his father, compared to his own. When he goes home it is Reuven's father who explains the very old Chassidic method of parenting with silence - the only open interaction Danny has with his father is via Talmud lessons. Reuven finds this inexplicable, all the more so when he unwittingly finds himself being used as a channel of communication between Danny and his father. Because, Danny has a secret. Brilliant Talmud scholar though he is, and strongly committed to his life as an observant Jew, he doesn't want to follow his father into the leadership of their community. Unbeknown to anyone - except Reuven's father who had discovered him in the public library long before the baseball accident that brought the boys together - Danny dreams of studying Freud and Jung, and becoming a psychologist. This can only bring him into conflict with his father, and indeed, with his entire community, particularly since such study would require him to be educated in public universities, amongst non-Jews, and therefore becoming exposed to a world that their enclosed community attempt to shut out.

Reb Malter encourages the friendship, sensing that Danny, and his father too, need the mediating influence that Reuven brings to the family dynamic. Reuven, tutored by his father, is also a brilliant Talmud scholar, so Reb Saunders, while initially cautious of the friendship, comes to realise that far from being a bad influence, Reuven has the potential to keep Danny close to his roots. However, Danny is not to be swayed, and realising that he can't go against his true inclinations, he faces his father with his great dream and, loving his son, Reb Saunders eventually has to concede that Danny must make his own way, while at the same time, extracting from him the promise that he won't abandon his observant practice.

The Promise picks up a few years later when both boys are well into their respective studies. Danny, always academically gifted, is excelling in his psychology studies, while Reuven is doing well in his studies towards rabbinic ordination. Reuven has met a girl, Rachel, daughter of a man known for his highly contentious books on Judaism and interpretation of halachah (Jewish Law). He thinks she may be the one, and is keen to continue exploring their relationship. While holidaying with his father and Rachel's family for the summer, he comes into contact with Rachel's young cousin, Michael, a troubled youngster who has what becomes evident as deep seated psychological issues. Failure to connect with any therapists to date means that little or no progress has been made to get to the root of the issues, and a number of events occur during the summer that indicate that the problem is becoming serious. Hearing of Danny's work for his post graduate research, the family ask if he might be able to see Michael.

Danny agrees, and proposes, after a few sessions with Michael, and the agreed supervision of his academic mentor, to take Michael into a residential program to see if they can make some headway via more intensive work. Meanwhile, Rachel and Danny meet, and to Reuven's initial dismay, it is clear that an instant and strong bond is formed - which, given the difference in their religious backgrounds, could prove explosive. 

When Michael fails to make progress, and in fact becomes more violent and unpredictable, Danny proposes a radical experimental therapy, feeling it may be the only option to break through the boy's defences. Based on the methods Danny's father used to parent him, Danny proposes to isolate Michael completely in order to eventually break down Michael's self-imposed isolation by using actual isolation from people n order to push him to WANT to talk, and open up to what is troubling him. It is risky, Michael's parents are, justifiably concerned. They enlist Reuven's input, based on his long friendship with Danny, and with great misgivings, the therapy is commenced. With the complexities of that to manage, Danny is also courting Rachel - with both being extremely circumspect about publicising the relationship. Reuven has graciously given way, realising that Rachel never loved him as she does Danny, all the while, wondering what will become of them.

I positively gobbled The Promise - I really couldn't put it down. I have read The Chosen at least annually for decades now, and I always wondered what became of Reuven and Danny, and whether their boyhood friendship could withstand the pressures of adult life and their respective differences. The Promise held a number of surprises - there's no way I could have predicted the various outcomes for each of the storylines contained in this quite complex novel, but like all of Potok's books, it was ultimately, an entirely satisfying read. Given how many years it took me to discover the book even existed, I'd assume it never really had the popularity of the first book, so it might be a bit harder to locate, but if you're a Potok fan, do go and hunt it down. If you've never read Potok, The Chosen is a good first book to start with...and then you can hunt down the sequel!!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Covenant - Naomi Ragen

I'm working backwards on the backlog - eventually, I'll have to start re-reading because they won't be fresh enough in my mind, but this book has seared itself into my head and emotions. Partly, it's that Jewish settlements in the occupied zones of Israel are still making headline news. Only today, in a Jewish online news site I subscribe to, there was a story about an Israeli government block to more settlements in one particular area. And then of course, there are the headlines slamming the settlers. This book was published in 2004, and this is an ongoing issue. Also, the way Ragen tackles the complex nature of contemporary Israeli society head on, owning that there are positive relationships between Jews and Arabs, that there is infrastructure that is available to all comers, regardless of origin, and that there is suffering on each side, created such a strong impression on me in the face of so much anti-Israeli press that I read on a daily basis.
The Covenant tells the story of a young couple, both olim (immigrants) from America, making their lives in East Jerusalem. Jon is a doctor at Hadassah Hospital, caring for cancer patients. Elise is confined to bed rest in her third trimester of a difficult pregnancy. They have a four year old daughter, Ilana. In their small village of Jewish settlers - most of whom moved there because they could build houses and have space that would have extended them beyond their means elsewhere in Jerusalem - they live a peaceful, quiet life. They don't consider themselves 'settlers' in the way the media describes so many of them - i.e. religious fanatics. They get on well with their Arab neighbours. Jon treats people they know in the hospital. They exchange garden produce and care for each other's children.

But this is the time of the Intifada. It's not being in their village that's the riskiest part of their lives - it's the commute between the village and West Jerusalem. One day, Elise's worst fears are realised when the last call she receives from Jon, on his way home with Ilana from the child's ballet concert, means he's only ten minutes from home...but they don't arrive. When the local security official and the village rabbi arrive at her house, all they can tell her is that they have found the car, riddled with bullets and bloodstained, but there are no bodies. Elise is rushed to hospital, her precarious pregnancy now even more at risk.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Elise's grandmother, Leah, an Auschwitz Survivor, in New York. While Elise knows something of Leah's story, she is totally unprepared for what she unleashes when she calls Leah with the news from the hospital. Leah, after the initial shock, calls on The Covenant - her group of Survivor friends; three others with whom she survived the camps - Esther, Ariana and Polish Maria, the latter sent to the camps having been discovered hiding Jewish children. To survive, they made a solemn vow, a covenant, that they will forever protect each other, regardless of the cost, extending it to their families of the future, again, regardless of the cost. Esther is now the queen of a highly successful cosmetics empire and Ariana runs a successful nightclub in Paris, the haunt of a select rich, famous and influential clientele. Maria sends, in advance of her own arrival in Jerusalem, her film-maker grandson, Milos, with a brief to infiltrate the media circles and try to get close to the clandestine information exchange that is rife in the Middle East.

Milos gets lucky, chancing on a British-based international press group whose latest recruit, Julia Greenberg - Jewish but disengaged from her heritage and determinedly non-partisan - brazens her way past the cautious protocols employed by her more seasoned colleagues to get her hands on the first video released by the perpetrators, which contains the first footage of Jon and Ilana, still alive but captive in a secret location and clearly to be used as hostages against the release of Palestinian activists held in Israeli prisons.

The existence of the video is kept secret from Elise, the doctors fearing that she isn't strong enough to deal with it. Leah unwittingly lets the secret out, and as feared, the shock sends Elise into premature labour. We are left guessing what happens as the narrative shifts to the other members of the covenant, who swing into action, calling on all their contacts - including Esther's grandaughter , who not only 'married out', but converted to Islam to marry a Saudi Prince. The prince, Whally, turns out, by the time all the threads are drawn together through The Covenant's networks, to be key to accessing the Hamas leader who can deliver the order that will enable an operation to potentially free Jon and Ilana.

There is no neat and tidy end to this complex and difficult story. Apart from anything else, it would have been a gross injustice to all the victims of the Intifadas to contrive a 'happily ever after' ending. A second video released by the kidnappers shows Jon with clear evidence that he's been severely beaten and Ilana equally clearly dressed up for the purpose of the video, and mystifyingly, suddenly giving a radiant smile at the end... Elise is convinced the child has seen someone she knows out of camera range - a claim that is dismissed by everyone.

As the members of The Covenant touch down at Ben Gurion Airport, news comes to Milos, who has taken Leah there to meet the others, that there has been yet another suicide bomb blast in Jerusalem, and one of the victims in Julia Greenberg - the English journalist with whom he has become involved, and who has betrayed he and Elise by compiling a compromising story that includes an emotional plea from Elise to the kidnappers.

The rescue operation is launched and, acting on the information that has been carefully sourced and confirmed, and with the assistance of a double agent who is disenchanted with his Hamas compatriots, they arrive at the safe house - where the beginning of everything going wrong starts to happen. Like falling dominos, the ripple effect continues, and in the end, at another house - that of one of the kidnappers - to which Jon has been moved, shots are fired, and many lives are lost. At the end of it all, there is still a mystery - where is Ilana?

I do recommend this book, while offering a caution that it is a difficult and emotional read. Nothwithstanding that, I couldn't put it down... I have more Ragen books to catch up with on the blog, so there are more reviews to come, but one thing I can say at this point is that she is remarkably consistent for the tone of authenticity in her writing. As I know people who were caught up in both Intifadas - some of whom lost loved ones - I have their stories with which to compare, and they are eerily similar. Possibly one of the most challenging aspects for readers only familiar with Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict via mainstream Western media will be Ragen's focus on the normal, every day, functional, often close, relationships between Jews and Arabs who live and work in close proximity with each other.

One thing that has haunted me long after finishing the book was Ragen's paragraph that is part of Jon's internal musings towards the end of the novel, when he is considering his life, potentially his death, and how it is that things have developed the way they have in the land that he truly loves. It is one of the most obvious, yet often unsaid and/or unwritten statements about the genesis of a terrorist that I've come across and I'll end this review with it:
A child did not become a hate-filled fanatic, a terrorist, without entire, elaborate structures of educational institutions, training camps, expensive weapons and the backing of legitimate national support. It was a gargantuan beast, and it had spread its tentacles throughout the world. Like the ancient Caananite cult of Molech, which sacrificed children to a Satanic god in beastly rituals, this new beast demanded the lives of its children, forcing them to kill and convincing them it was a good thing to die.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Puppet Boy of Warsaw - Eva Weaver

It has, to mis-quote a fellow blogger, been a highly pressured period of time lately, and I've not not been reading...I've just not been writing about what I've been reading, because that would have meant more screen time, and more tapping away at a keyboard, and that's been part of the pressure... However, a long weekend, and a bit of headspace granted, here I am with the latest completed read. The backlog is huge, and I am undecided on quite how to tackle the stack of books that is getting rather too large to comfortably fit in my TBRreviewed pile! So, to break the ice, I'll start with this one and then try to figure out what comes next.

The Puppet Boy of Warsaw isn't for the faint-hearted. If Holocaust fiction is not your thing, steer clear of this one, because Weaver doesn't pull her punches. Drawing on numerous histories and fragments from Survivor stories, she has pieced together a highly engaging story that presents both sides of one story - that of a teenaged boy in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Wehrmacht soldier who was stationed there. Some real life historical figures pop up in the narrative, and other characters are based on actual people, or partially so. There is an interesting spin on this towards the end with a story within the story that is part of the redemptive aspect of this particular book.
The novel is constructed in sections, so we start in New York in 2009 with Mika Hernsteyn and his thirteen year old grandson, Daniel, heading out into the snow to a museum. A poster advertising a puppet play, The Puppet Boy of Warsaw, triggers memories he's never shared with his family. When Daniel gets him back to his apartment, he brings out a dusty, carefully sealed box, out of which he brings an old, old overcoat with many pockets, and begins to tell Daniel his story.

Mika was herded into the Warsaw Ghetto with his mother and grandfather, and later joined by his aunt and two cousins, Paul and Ellie. His grandfather had had the coat made in celebration of a promotion just before he was, like all Jewish professionals in Poland, sacked from his university job. In the ghetto, Mika's grandfather's status gets them a slightly larger apartment than many, including a tiny room, in which the grandfather secrets himself away for hours at a time. The only thing he does share with Mika is the construction of multiple pockets on the inside of the coat - pockets within pockets of all shapes and sizes, that form a veritable labyrinth of secret hiding places. An outspoken man, and one who cannot abide injustice, Mika's grandfather is shot by a German soldier in the ghetto when he defends a woman who the soldier is harassing. When soldiers try to take the coat, Mika's mother risks her life creating a diversion so that neighbours can help Mika remove it from the body and get it safely away. After the funeral, Mika remembers the secret room, and searching through the coat, finds a pocket with the key, which opens the door into a fantasy wonderland - he is greeted by many, many tiny faces; traditional hand-puppets that his grandfather has been making from scraps of anything and everything. Slowly, he begins to get to know them, spending hours himself completing those unfinished and making more, and learning that they have personalities.

Life in the ghetto gets progressively worse. Paul dies. Another family moves into the apartment with twin daughters. At their birthday, there is no possibility of presents, so Paul and Ellie - who has discovered his secret - mount their first puppet play. Together, they begin to venture out into the ghetto, playing to children, people in queues, at the hospital and in the orphanage in the small ghetto where Mika meets Janusz Korczak, who eventually goes to his death with the orphanage children, rather than be separated from them.

And then, Mika finds himself defending a woman being harassed by a soldier - without realising it, he has brought The Doctor out, one of the puppets, to engage the soldier who, distracted, allows the woman to flee. Amused, the soldier, Max Meierhauser, carts Mika outside the ghetto to the barracks, forcing him to perform for the soldiers, telling him that if he does well, he will receive food. And so, Mika's hidden life begins. Arriving home drunk from the beer forced down his throat by soldiers, he is beaten by his frantic mother, who eyes the huge loaf of bread he has with him with suspicion, but he refuses to tell where he's been. Ellie, meanwhile, gets it out of him, and more, goes to the matron of the hospital, who comes up with the audacious plan of having Mika smuggle tiny children out of the ghetto on his performing nights to be handed to people who will hide them.

When the deportations begin, Max intervenes and saves Mika's mother and Aunt. He and Ellie continue their activities with increasing risk, and are both out when eventually his mother and aunt are discovered and taken away. With only each other to care for, they join the group preparing for the uprising of the ghetto in 1943...

Max, of course, is caught up in the uprising too, as part of the troops sent in to quash the rebellion. He survives, although the death toll of German soldiers is high. But he is later captured when Warsaw falls to Russian hands, and he - with superb irony - is loaded into cattle trucks with the other captured soldiers and is sent to Siberia as a POW. With him is a small companion, The Prince, Mika's favourite puppet, given to him by Mika in thanks for saving his mother the first time. He has no idea whether Mika has survived or not, and has no idea now whether he will survive himself. He endures the journey and arrival in the camp deep in Siberia. He forms friendships, avoiding those soldiers who were also stationed at the ghetto. Together, with even less resources than Mika and his grandfather had, he and his friends craft the rest of the puppet troup to accompany Mika's Prince and begin to put on puppet shows to cheer each other. But, eventually, Max decides he must try and escape, even though the odds are heavily stacked against him. With two others, he plans how and when to go, and they succeed in getting free and evading pursuit. The others don't last long, dying within days of each other, but Max, driven to return to his wife and son, with The Prince for company, pushes himself beyond endurance, finally collapsing in the first shelter he finds - a broken down shed on the periphery of a village of nomadic people forced there by Stalin's regime. They care for him, get him well, and give him supplies to continue his journey.

Three years later, walking most of the way, he returns to Nuremberg to his wife and, now, grown son. Thirteen years altogether have passed, his wife has endured horrors she doesn't share. Karl is now a grown man and is deeply uncomfortable with his father. Family life can't just pick up as it was... Karl marries and produces a child, Mara, and for the first time, there is someone with whom Max can unbend, who can reach through years of defences and survival mechanisms. When Karl's wife is killed in a road accident, he comes home with Mara, and Max spends increasing time with the little girl, who is a solitary and imaginative child, weighed down by her mother's death. He introduces her to The Prince, making up stories to make her laugh, and Mara slowly starts to heal. Every year, for her birthday, he makes her a new puppet.

But Max is haunted by his war experiences. Haunted by not knowing what happened to Mika. Some of his stories include tiny snipperts of his story, but he never tells her everything. When he is finally diagnosed with incurable cancer, Karl realises that he has no time if he is to come to grips with the father who came back, as opposed to the father who left, and eventually Max tells him everything, including the story of Mika, begging him to try and find him, to see if he survived, and most importantly, to return the prince to him. Karl, humouring him, says he will, but in his efforts to screen Mara from the story, hides The Prince away - but Mara needs The Prince, and finds him. Eventually, Karl tells her everything, and gives her answers to questions no one, including her teachers at school in post-Holocaust Germany, has so far been willing to give. She becomes a nurse when she grows up but continues to create puppet plays, taking them to the children in the hospital. But she realises that, really, she wants to be a puppeteer full time, and sets up a troupe, creating a play based on the fragments of Mika's story that she has. Surprisingly, it takes off. Tours start all over Europe at puppet festivals. And then comes the all important phone call, inviting her troupe to perform at a puppet festival in New York.

She knows there is a Mikail Hernsteyn who left Europe for the United states and she has found a Mika Hernstein (different spelling) in New York, but she doesn't know if it is him. All she can do is make the call and hope...

When I worked at the Sydney Jewish Museum, my boss was writing a PhD thesis on Holocaust memorials, looking at the theology of the memorials. There were those that she said were redemptive, in that they were intended both to mark the Holocaust and offer solace to those who visited. To my mind, this can be said of some Holocaust literature, and this book would fall into that category. It is one of the few books that looks at both sides at a personal level, because we have Max's story as well as Mika's. Nothing can undo what has been done, and nothing can possibly compensate for the destruction of Mika's world, but through the medium of The Prince, it is possible to see lines of communication that traverse the huge distances, physical and emotional, between the many generations of protagonists in this story. We also get a glimpse of ordinary life in Germany after the war, which is something rarely included in this literature. Max's return to Nuremberg is not to the city he remembers - it is to one that was flattened by allied bombing, so what he sees is the rebuilt city. In his mind, he makes the direct link with the destruction of the ghetto, the rebuilding that can't be done there and his part in it.

As I said at the beginning, this novel really isn't for the faint hearted. There is detail in the descriptions of the ghetto that make for difficult reading, as are the conditions Max endures as a prisoner in Siberia. It is very well researched and beautifully written, and I do recommend it, both as a general read, and as a teaching tool for those involved in Holocaust education.