Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Tweet:  A taut and compelling novel about family and betrayal during the Holocaust.  An important story for young adult and mature readers alike.

     Once We Were Brothers opens with Ben Solomon, an 83 year old Holocaust survivor, stuffing a Lugar into his tuxedo cummerbund and heading to the Chicago Lyric Opera opening night gala.  Once there, Ben seeks out Elliot Rosenzweig, a wealthy scion of Chicago business and philanthropy, points the gun at him and publicly accuses him of being a Nazi named Otto Piatek.  Elliot, also a Holocaust survivor, refuses to press criminal charges although he adamantly denies being a Nazi.  However Ben, firm in his conviction, retains attorney Catherine Lockhart to sue Rosenzweig for stealing his family's property during the war. 

     The rest of the novel alternates between Ben's narrative of growing up with Otto Piatek in Poland and Catherine's legal maneuverings to pursue Ben's claim.  Ben's story of his family before and during the Nazi occupation is a compelling page turner.  Because Catherine seems to have little knowledge of the Holocaust, Ben carefully tells of his family's actions and motivations.  He explains why they initially chose not to leave Poland, and sensitively describes the war's increasing horrors in a manner more harrowing than graphic.  At the heart of the story is Ben's relationship with Otto, who was raised by Ben's family but ultimately betrays them.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What to Read Next: BEA Speed Dating

     I've just returned from BookExpo America, the largest annual trade show where publishers showcase their new titles for booksellers, librarians, media members and book industry professionals.  I saw plenty of celebrities (Jim Carrey, Snookie and Grumpy Cat, to name a few), met famous authors (like Elizabeth Gilbert and Scott Turow) and schmoozed with some of publishings' biggest bigwigs.  I also attended several seminars and panel discussions.  One of my favorites was the Book Group Speed Dating sponsored by

     For the session, I sat at a round table with other sellers, librarians and  book group leaders.  Every nine minutes a different publisher representative rotated to our table to preview upcoming titles.  Each presenter's enthusiasm was contagious, and although I know I won't get to all of them, here are some of the books I'm especially looking forward to reading:

Monday, May 6, 2013

Blue Monday by Nicci French

Tweet:  A psychoanalyst who breaks her own rules.  A detective haunted by an unsolved crime.  An excellent, complex British mystery. 

     Dr. Frieda Klein, a London psychoanalyst, lives an ordered and private life.  She keeps her practice small so she can properly absorb and think about her patient's issues.  She follows therapy protocols exactly, meeting her patients only in her office, a designated "safe" space, and never lets them enter her own protected space.  As Frieda explains, "[y]ou can't change your patient's life.  You just have to change the patient's attitude toward life."  But when a new patient reveals a detailed fantasy that echos a child kidnapping case in the news, Frieda feels compelled to act and bring her concerns to Detective Malcolm Karlsson.  Together they try to unwind a complex psychological puzzle with roots more than twenty years old.

    As a protagonist, Frieda Klein is ascerbic and complicated and quietly brilliant.  Author Nicci French deftly avoids gimmicky plot twists, instead maintaining taut suspense throughout the novel that keeps one fascinated until the end.  French (the pseudonym of writing partners Nicci Gerrard and Sean French), has created multi-layered and complex characters that I look forward to seeing again.  Fortunately, I won't have to wait:  the next Frieda Klein novel, Tuesday's Gone, is in bookstores now.



Thursday, April 18, 2013

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Tweet:  Nothing brings a family together like death and dysfunction.  A very funny and poignant novel, expertly crafted and delightful to read.

    Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You  is at once hysterical and sad, the story of  a dysfunctional family who has gathered to mourn their father's death.  At his request, the family will sit shiva together for seven days.  Judd Foxman, the narrator and the third of four siblings, arrives at his childhood home with a marriage that has combusted.  (His wife who is in the midst of an affair with his boss has just announced that she is pregnant.)  The siblings have for years avoided being in each other's company for any length of time.  As Judd observes,

               "Sometimes it's heartbreaking to see your siblings as the person they've
                become.  Maybe that's why we all stay away from each other as a matter
                of course."

As the week goes on, the family unpacks old resentments and misunderstandings, forcing Judd to reassess his role in contributing to the family dynamic as well as the demise of his marriage.

     While the family renews their relationships with each other, Tropper perfectly captures the staccato and bravado of sibling banter.  I both cringed and laughed out loud at the barbs they lobbed at each other, some in-your-face and others quietly nuanced, designed to substitute for the Foxmans' "patented inability to express emotion during watershed events."  Added to the mix is the brashly delivered wit and wisdom of their mother, ironically a psychologist and child rearing expert who harbors secrets of her own.

     In addition to the siblings and their mother, Tropper orchestrates a fabulous group of ancillary characters who bring humor and pathos to the struggling family.  Each sibling is joined by a spouse or significant other who adds another level of chaos to the mix.  For seven days, a menagerie of friends and relatives visit in a steady stream, providing diversion and comic relief as old wounds surface.

     By the end, most issues are resolved, but never flippantly.  The Foxmans will continue to poke each others' bruises as only siblings who love each other can do.  And while Judd does become more self-aware, he still has room to grow.  Tropper clearly cares about Judd and this family, and I can only hope that he will write about them in a future novel.  They deserve to be visited again.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Reading Alphabetically

     A few weeks ago, Ida, a customer 92 years old and still going strong, asked me to recommend a book.  She had just finished The Sense of an Ending  by Julian Barnes and wanted some more “serious” reading.  After further discussion, I recommended Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

   “Let me see it first,” she demanded.  I brought her the 544 page book.  Without even opening it she shook her head and said, “No, that won’t do.”  When I asked why she rejected it off the bat, she told me it was just too long. "I want to be sure I’ll be around to finish it,” she explained.
   That interaction got me thinking about how people choose the books they read from the myriad titles available.  Clearly Ida knew what she wanted:  serious books under 200 pages.  But what criteria do other people use? 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Tweet:  Reading this book was like unwrapping a beautiful package only to be surprised by a ticking time bomb hidden inside.  A terrific, albeit disconcerting, read.

     Peering through the window of a posh Amsterdam restaurant, you see two well heeled couples enjoying an evening out together.  Slowly you begin to realize that there is much more to this dinner than merely a shared meal.  You develop a persistent, vague discomfort that something extremely nasty lays beneath this well mannered vignette, and before you know it the civility unravels completely to reveal a disturbingly fascinating story.  This is The Dinner by Herman Koch, and it is a wonderfully crafted novel.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Living With Reader's Block

     I have been absent from this blog for months.  Although I have not been ill in the traditional sense, I have been suffering from the painful malady I call Reader’s Block.  You may call it by a different name, but if you’ve had it, your symptoms are probably like mine: 
Inability to read a complete sentence;
Inability to focus on a page;
Inability to process or remember what you think you have read;
Opening the book on your nightstand and immediately falling asleep;
Giving up opening books at all;
Deciding books make pretty good coasters; and finally
Avoiding print material altogether.

     Concurrently, I noticed I was having increased difficulty with word and concept retrieval.  When I actually could form an idea, I couldn’t find the words to describe it.  Not only were there no new ideas coming in to my head, but there seemed to be nothing coming out of it either.

     I thought reading on my iPad might help.  Instead, the symptoms became worse.  When I couldn’t follow a sentence, I would too easily skip to web surfing and video games.  My score on Bubble Mania became inversely proportional to the number of books I attempted to read. 

     My father, an octogenarian and still avid reader, is convinced our nation is suffering from a collective lack of focus caused entirely by our use of electronics.  Nothing requires sustained attention anymore.  We flip among channels and coast through web pages, spending only the seconds required to gather a general idea of content without exploring depth.  Even our communication has been reduced to one lined tweets and instant messages.  It’s no wonder, he explained, that reading has become difficult.  We have forgotten how to concentrate, to analyze, even to think.

     And so, determined to cure myself of this malady, I deleted all of the time wasting games from my iPad. In fact, I decided not to read on the iPad at all, restricting myself to hard copies or my Nook simple touch (which does not allow web access).   I set the kitchen timer each day for a proscribed reading period, beginning with five minutes, hoping that the time would naturally increase.  When I found something difficult to read, I made myself annotate and connect ideas (remember high school English?) to force myself to focus.   I refused to turn immediately to Google when I couldn’t pull up a fact, instead forcing my brain cells to try and remember things on their own.   Finally, I selected three specific books designed to pull me from the reading doldrums.  (You can read about them above.)

     Thankfully, my prescription worked.   I finally can read again without the timer.  Sometimes I gloss over a paragraph without processing the words, but I can usually make myself go back to focus on the words and meaning.  That paragraph leads to the next paragraph and the next, and before I know it I have finished a chapter.   As far as the word retrieval issue, that’s still pretty dicey at times.    I suppose it could be age related, but I prefer to believe my reading regimen will help bring the words back to me.