Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Not Me by Michael Lavigne

     Tweet:  A powerful story of family secrets, repentance, and the possibility of forgiveness.  Rings true from beginning to end.

     Michael Rosenheim is visiting his father, Heshel, in a Florida nursing home.  Heshel, a German Holocaust survivor who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, hands Michael an old boxful of journals and tells him to read them.  The journals contain a novel that may indicate Heshel was in fact a Nazi who, in order to escape arrest, stole the identity of one of his victims.  Heshel either will not or cannot explain the meaning of  the journals, so Michael sets out to reveal his father's true identity.

     At his father's home, Michael sifts through the artifacts of his parents' lives as he searches for clues.  Some provide false leads; others stir up murky memories that Michael had long buried.  A glass candy bowl reminds him of his mother; a hospital bracelet conjures his dead sister.  He covers the living room wall with articles and certificates and post-it notes, connecting them like a spider's web, hoping to uncover his father's true story.  What begins as a search for his father's identity turns to a discovery of Michael's own true self as well.  After all, if our parents are not who they say they are, what does that mean for our own identities?

     Lavigne's descriptions of Florida and the nursing home are poignant and spot on.  The novel within the journal could stand alone as a powerful survival story at the end of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel.  What touched me most, though, were the parallels between Michael's story and my own.  My father too survived the Holocaust although I am quite certain that he was not a Nazi.  Thankfully he is healthy, but he is in the process of selling  the home he has lived in for the past fifty years to move to a retirement community in Florida.  Soon I will have to pack up this house of memories, and I too will be looking for clues about who my parents really were.  As Lavigne observes, every family has its secrets; every person makes mistakes.  Ultimately what matters is what we do when faced with those mistakes.

     Not Me ends at Yom Kippur, the day that Jews atone for their sins.  When young Michael asks his father why they must atone every year, Heshel explains:

          "In Hebrew," he said, "[repentance] means turning.  Better, it means returning.
          It means to come back, Mikey, to come back to your true self."....

          "So why do we have to do it every year?" I asked him.

          "Because, my dear little one, there is no one true self.  And that is why repentance
          can never end."

Like our own lives, the novel  leaves many questions unanswered.  Searching for our true selves is a lifelong pursuit, and when we find clues, we must be prepared to face them with honesty, repent with open hearts, and try to forgive our parents' mistakes as we hope our children will be able to forgive our own.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Tweet:  An extraordinary, multi-layered novel of observations, misperceptions and long-buried truths.  This is storytelling at its best.

     Tigers in Red Weather is a haunting tale of desire and disappointments, observations and misperceptions, and the painful acknowledging of long buried truths.  Told from five distinct perspectives over the course of two decades, Liza Klaussmann unpacks the multilayered story of two cousins and their families as they navigate marriage, raise children, and come to terms with an horrific murder on Martha's Vineyard, the site of their shared summer home.  Ms. Klaussmann writes with exceptional skill and depth, as each character adds his or her recollections of a common set of events.  By the end of the novel, when the final layering is complete, we truly appreciate her extraordinary gift of storytelling.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Tweet: The second episode of Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q. Detective Carl Morck and his enigmatic assistant Assad ferret out creepy psychopaths in this quick page-turner.

Last year Danish crime fiction writer Jussi Adler-Olsen brought his Department Q series to English speaking readers in The Keeper of Lost Causes. That book introduced us to homicide detective Carl Morck, brusque and sarcastic, who was "promoted" to run a cold case division known as Department Q in the basement of Copenhagen police headquarters. Although Morck is the only detective in the division, he is given an administrative assistant, Assad, who is as mysterious as he is astute. Together they delve into a high profile case that had remained unsolved for years. The Keeper of Lost Causes was an immensely satisfying thriller which left me looking forward to Adler-Olson's next installment.

     The Absent One again finds the Department Q members on the hunt for clues in a series of unsolved brutal murders. Although Morck and Assad are still interesting as they further define their burgeoning friendship, most of the "bad guys" are exceptionally one dimensional, even for psychopaths, which left me feeling vaguely disappointed with this quick page turner.
     In 2010, however, Adler-Olsen won the Glass Key award, given annually to a Scandinavian crime writer, for his third installment of the Department Q series. With that award, he joined Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo in the upper echelons of Nordic crime writing. With that endorsement, I will look forward to the next Department Q English translation even though The Absent One  did not live up to my expectations.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Tweet:  A beautiful and gracefully written story about knowing what one should do in the face of moral uncertainty.  Can't stop thinking about what I would have done. 

     What happens when an inexplicable event falls outside of our moral signposts?  Without a universal compass, how does one decide what is the right thing to do? These are the questions M.L. Stedman examines in her achingly beautiful, gracefully written novel The Light Between Oceans.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Breed by Chase Novak

Tweet:  A frightening, funny, fantastic page turner.  Won't look at skate park kids the same way again!

In my younger days, I gobbled up Stephen King novels like popcorn.  Carrie, The Stand, Cujo, Pet Sematary…I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  Forget any deeper meanings or morals; I just want the nip of a scare, the familiar tingle of a good fright.  I flipped page after page propelled along by King’s tight stories and wicked characters.  That is, until I read It.  That damned clown Pennywise sucked the joy out of horror novels and left me with months of dark nightmares.  He not only haunted my dreams, he took up permanent residence under my bed, inside the dark closet, in the basement’s deepest corners.    I vowed never to read another horror novel again; but as any horror aficionado can tell you, “never” really means “until it gets you later.”

     Last week, when I left BookExpo America, I packed up mounds of galleys to ship home, grabbing the top copy for plane reading.  Once crammed into my seat, I took the book out of my bag.  In my hand was Breed by Chase Novak (aka Scott Spencer) and boldly emblazoned on the cover was this accolade by Stephen King:  BREED is the best horror novel I’ve read since Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY.”  Faced with a choice between a gummed up old magazine in the seat pocket in front of me and a pristine yet-unpublished  horror novel from a well-known author, I sucked it up and chose the latter.  When we landed two hours later, I didn’t want to put it down.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Tweet:  Maggie Shipstead has delivered a wickedly witty, urbane, laugh-out-loud delicious read.

The Van Meter family has gathered at their home on Waskeke (think Nantucket) to celebrate the wedding of daughter Daphne, seven months pregnant.   Harvard educated patriarch Winn Van Meter , who organizes his life through club memberships and social niceties, finds himself unexpectedly lusting after bridesmaid Agnes.  Daughter Livia is recovering from a romance gone sour, and Winn’s wife Biddy stoically propels the weekend forward while keeping her own fomenting emotions in check.

Together with a wonderful cast of characters, the Van Meters struggle to understand their relationships both within and outside of their family.  Ms. Shipstead wryly explores the polarity of belonging and being an outcast, and how each character must maneuver between the two.   Seating Arrangements is intelligent and wonderfully written, a thinking person’s guilty pleasure.