Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book Review Times Two

Over Shabbos, instead of napping, I opted to read a few books and allow Tuvia to destroy me at various games, including Othello. (Note: I kicked his tush at Bananagrams and Trivial Pursuit). You see, we were leaving on Sunday morning at 7 a.m. in order to begin the Great Roadtrip of 2011 to Nebraska to pick up some historic relics of my childhood (i.e., yearbooks, binders full of notes, and more) from my parents house as they attempt to downsize, so I decided -- at Tuvia’s suggestion -- not to do the usual Shabbat shluff thing. I amazed myself by staying away all day Saturday, and then angered myself at 2 o’clock in the morning when I was still awake. Let this be a lesson to all: Always, I repeat always, take a Shabbos nap.

The two books I spent my Shabbos reading were The Sonderberg Case by Elie Wiesel, the famed Nobel laureate and author of Night, and The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton, which actually doesn’t come out until July 19 (mad props to the folks at Other Press for sending me a review copy). Both books connected in some way to the Holocaust, it was a pretty dismal Shabbos.

Wiesel’s book details the experience of a theater-lover turned theater-critic who is forced into covering a trial because, well, if modern trials prove anything, it’s that they’re quite theatrical in their nature. The book takes place during the 1950s or 1960s during a time rife with trials bringing former Nazis to justice (think: the Eichmann Trial of 1961), but unlike what you might expect, the trial doesn’t put a former Nazi on the stand. Rather, the defendant is accused of killing his German “uncle” on U.S. soil. The book is far less about the trial itself than it is about the reporter, Yedidyah, and his inner dialogue with his supposed grandfather and the people he thinks are his relatives who perished in the Holocaust. His inner dialogue ends up revealing some fascinating tidbits about the life he’s led and what he thought he knew, and so as to not spoil it, I won’t spoil it. The book ends with an awkward dialogue between Yedidyah and the accused many years after the trial takes place, and the accused comes clean about what really happened. It’s not exactly what you would have suspected, or maybe it was more predictable than Wiesel would have wanted.

The book was difficult to point down, if only because you want to know exactly who Yedidyah really is and what exactly happened between the accused and his German “uncle,” but the book often loses itself by switching back and forth between first and third person, which I found quite bothersome. Likewise, the inner dialogues that Yedidyah has are beyond what I would call stream-of-consciousness. In fact, they dabble in the completely random and out-of-nowhere stream of thought. He quotes French thinkers and great rabbis and the Talmud and the works of great authors long dead, and sometimes, it feels forced and confusing. However, perhaps that’s just part of who Yedidyah is -- confused, profound, and brilliant. The book was translated from the original French, which makes me wonder whether something was lost in translation. Overall, it was an excellent read, if you can get past the jumps in the storyline, the out-of-the-blue quotes, and random thought narratives.

The Oriental Wife, on the other hand, didn’t quite have the nice ribbon-and-bow ending that Wiesel’s seemed to give the reader. In fact, after reading this book I put it down and said to Tuvia, “Well, that was depressing.” I’ll admit that I only spent about two hours reading the 304-page book -- it’s that quick of a read, thanks to a well-written (for the most part) narrative that is fluid and functional. But I have a few major gripes. The story focuses on three assimilated Jewish kids in Nuremberg in the pre-war years. The back cover of the book says it focuses on two of the kids, but in reality, Rolf, Otto, and Louisa are the main focus of the narrative. Louisa goes off to school, falls in love with a British fellow, moves to England, becomes broke, falls in love with another British fellow, ends up in the U.S., and ends up at the doorstep of Rolf and Otto, both who had moved to the U.S. several years prior. All of their family members are stuck in Europe, and they work effortlessly to bring them to the U.S. Rolf and Louisa fall in love, have a baby, and in the process something horrible happens to Louisa (the "freakish accident" that the book jacket mentions? I think not; more like medical woe). Rolf proves to be a jerk, too, Louisa leaves, and their daughter Emma grows up -- really fast, as the book skips about 20 years of their lives for the sake of what, I’m not sure. Rolf becomes ill, and everyone pretty much lives a miserable, confusing end to their life. Did I give away too much?

The way that Louisa is presented after she becomes brushed with English charm seems trite and forced, and later in the book it’s almost as if she’s a completely different person. Yes, she goes through a bevy of shocking and life-altering changes, but the character shouldn’t stray that much from who she begins the book as. It put me off, unfortunately, and I felt no sympathy for the character as the book went on, despite what I can only assume was the author’s point of having the reader see a variety of tragedies -- those before, during, and after the Holocaust, many that were completely unrelated to the Holocaust. I was left wondering whether the author was trying to minimize suffering of the Holocaust, as if to say, “There are many modes of suffering for the Jews, the Holocaust was just one drop in a bucket.” Similarly, I grew annoyed with Otto, Louisa’s and Rolf’s good-natured friend, and Rolf was, to me, the most cold and inconsiderate of characters, despite his work to bring refugees to the U.S. The characters in The Oriental Wife seemed an anomoly to me -- I just don’t get them. Even the daughter, Emma, confused me. Her character development was weak and her relations with a Cambodian seemed almost unnecessary and forced (as I’m sure me mentioning it now feels to you). Only Sophie, the doctor's kind and considerate wife seemed remotely normal.

Oh! And I must mention that the emphasis on "assimilated" seems beyond forced on many occasions, as if the author insists that we understand these aren't your typical Jews. No, they're from Germany, and they go out for BLTs and stir cream into their coffee (violation times two!) on page 194. On another occasion, the live-in nanny insists on making bacon for Rolf for breakfast, that he must it it! Ugh. We get it, okay?

Should you read The Oriental Wife? Yes and no. If you believe in the importance of character development and consistency, the book might drive you nuts. If you’re up for a fairly fluid narrative that has you wondering what will befall the storyline next, then perhaps it’s worth your time. As for the title? Well, it's a dead giveaway in the beginning of the book -- don't worry, you won't be led on.

Stay tuned for more book reviews and video blogs and a Sabra giveaway. I know, I know ... I put you guys on hold on so many things, but I'm on the road! Need anything from Nebraska? Let me know.