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.