Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Dora Bruder’ by Patrick Modiano – In Search of Dora Bruder

‘Dora Bruder’ by Patrick Modiano  (1997) – 119 pages   Translated by Joanna Kilmartin


If ‘Dora Bruder’ were a film, it would be a documentary.

In ‘Dora Bruder’, Patrick Modiano traces the life of an actual young Jewish victim of the Nazi concentration camps, a fifteen year-old girl.  By documenting as much information in detail as he could find, Modiano makes the story of what happened to Dora Bruder more real and even more horrible.

Modiano describes several photographs that were taken of Dora Bruder and her family in Paris. The version of the book I read reprinted two of the photographs, and these photographs serve to give a personality to Dora Bruder and her family.

The language in ‘Dora Bruder’ is clipped and laconic with no extraneous words of description, because it is important for Modiano not to go beyond the limited factual information he has.  Nothing here is invented.

Many key documents relating to Dora Bruder are missing, probably destroyed by officials trying to cover up their crimes.  In these cases Modiano relies on actual documents which are similar but relate to other individuals.

Most of the German officials as well as some of the French officials overseeing the deportations in Paris were shot in 1945 during the liberation of Paris.

There is one case mentioned in this book of a suspected Jew being fired at in Paris for not wearing the required Jewish insignia, a yellow star, which the Nazis had required.  This is only another brutal example of these outlaw Nazis.

As literature, there is just not enough known about Dora Bruder to write a compelling story about her life.  This Modiano does not attempt to do.  All we have left of Dora are a few documents with her name on it and a few pictures.

At one point Dora Bruder ran away from school.  There is just not enough factual information to determine why she ran away, where she lived during that time, or how she survived.  Modiano states some of his conjectures about this time.

I think Patrick Modiano is doing something of the utmost importance here, securing the documentation of these atrocities in a somewhat permanent form.  Otherwise the entire world will forget, and we will be subject to lies about those involved and about what really happened.


‘Dead Wake’ by Erik Larson – The Sinking of the Lusitania

‘Dead Wake’ by Erik Larson (2015) – 359 pages      Grade: B



The sinking of the Lusitania was no accident. The giant passenger cruise ship was torpedoed by a German submarine U-boat on May 7, 1915 during World War I leaving 1198 passengers and crew dead. Germany had just issued an advisory against ship travel through the war zone, but the warning was paid little attention.

“The idea that Germany would dare attempt to sink a fully loaded civilian passenger ship seemed beyond rational consideration.”

At that point there were still rules about not killing civilians in wars, but those rules were rapidly disappearing. The United States consul in Queenstown, Ireland said, “The reference to the Lusitania was obvious enough, but personally it never entered my mind for a moment that the Germans would perpetrate an attack upon her. The culpability of such an act seemed too blatant and raw for an intelligent people to take upon themselves.”

However the German U-boat commander had no misgivings about torpedoing a liner full of civilians. His performance was measured in the amount of ship tonnage he sank.

The non-fiction ‘Dead Wake’ covers the sinking of the Lusitania in a very traditional fashion. The ship name ‘Lusitania’ was the country name that the ancient Romans had given to Portugal. We get the stories of a number of the passengers on the boat and all the details about what was on the boat, its route, and what happened on deck. After the ship was torpedoed, it listed so badly that only 6 of the 22 lifeboats could be launched, and soon the ship tipped over completely and sank. Some of the passengers mistakenly thought that they would be safer on the huge ship than on the tiny lifeboats.

A mass wail rose from all it engulfed.  “All the despair, terror and anguish of hundreds of souls passing into eternity composed that awful cry.”

There is some speculation that England did not adequately guard the huge cruise ship through dangerous waters because there were many Americans on board, and England wanted to force the United States into World War I. 128 Americans were among the dead. There were also war munitions on board the Lusitania.

The only other Erik Larson I read was ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ which was about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in the years leading up to World War II. This was new and highly compelling material, a story I did not know before about this entire American family dealing with the Nazis. I may be different from most of Larson’s audience, but this ship disaster did not hold my interest to that extent. Tragedies happen nearly every day, and each one has its compelling details which we get in the newspapers. Reading the Wikipedia article about the Lusitania probably would have been sufficient for me. I really don’t want or need all the minutia about the Lusitania’s final voyage. With his talent for exposition, Erik Larson should be finding more original striking story lines.

‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro – Forgetting and Remembering Our Atrocities

‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro    (2015)   –  317 pages    Grade: B+


c18419c39e1c3e8306b8c6577c3bfeec‘The Buried Giant’ has all the trappings of Old English romantic fantasy: knights in armor, dragons, Sir Gawain who was King Arthur’s nephew, ogres, and pixies.  It takes place sometime after King Arthur supposedly died which would place it early in the 6th century.  The Romans are long gone; many Saxons from Germany have moved in.  There is an uneasy tension between the native Britons and the Saxons, but currently they are at peace.

Kazuo Ishiguro has much bigger fish to fry than a knighthood idyll.  He raises the eternal questions of how two distinct groups of people, in this case the Britons and the Saxons, get along or not.  He may be writing about the post-Roman Britain, but you know he is talking directly to us modern people who have our own problems getting along with the different groups of people we encounter.

I finally found the key to Kazuo Ishiguro, and it is the late great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago.  Both of these writers use allegory to take us deeper into understanding the human condition.

For example Jose Saramago used ‘Blindness’ as an allegory to depict the state of  people on earth.  In ‘The Buried Giant’ Kazuo Ishiguro uses forgetting and remembering as necessary skills for surviving.  Sometimes we must forget our chaotic pasts in order to continue forward.  What kind of things do we forget?  For soldiers, it may be inhumane acts committed during battles. In times of peace we forget the hatred and atrocities that caused us to murder and destroy in war. In ‘The Buried Giant’, it is the slaughter of innocent children.  For others it may be youthful flings or other indiscretions that would upset a marriage.  Forgetting things may be just as important a survival skill as remembering things.

“I know my god looks uneasily on our deeds of that day.  Yet it’s long past and the bones lie sheltered beneath a pleasant green carpet.  The young know nothing of them.”

Some reviewers have taken Ishiguro to task for not fulfilling the requirements of fantasy fiction.  Those who criticize ‘The Buried Giant’ as not being very good fantasy are totally missing the point. Fantasy fiction is an escapist form of fiction, and Ishiguro’s intention is the exact opposite of escape.  His goal is that we confront our reality more directly.   You might even say that he is subverting the fantasy genre in ‘The Buried Giant’.

Kazuo Ishiguro, in all his novels, has dealt with people repressing memories or suppressing the larger implications as we go about the details of our daily lives.  Thus the butler Stevens in ‘The Remains of the Day’ can run the manor to perfection while he knows his boss is plotting with the Nazis for a German takeover of England.   This same theme of our intentional obliviousness to the overwhelming truth suffuses all of Ishiguro’s novels.

There are many lively and exciting novels that stay on the surface of things.  However, if you want to go deeper and have a more profound experience, read Jose Saramago and Kazuo Ishiguro.

‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey’ by Rachel Joyce

‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey’ by Rachel Joyce   (2015) – 362 pages Grade: A


“And so I set out to write a book about dying that was full of life.” – Rachel Joyce


Like Rachel Joyce’s first novel ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, her new one ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ will make even a grown man cry.  Readers will be moved, but some may feel that they are being manipulated into strong emotion.

We begin at the hospice where Queenie is staying until she dies.  There are a varied group of patients there all in the same sad boat.  Of course there are helpful nuns there to care for the patients.  There is a lot of conversation, much of it black humor.  The nuns try to lift the patients’ spirits as much as possible, but one of the patients is a grumpy old man named Mr. Henderson who says things which are guaranteed to deflate everyone.

Queenie writes her letter to her old friend Harold Fry, and he begins his long walk from the south of England to the north of England to see Queenie.  He sends regular updates to Queenie, and soon the entire hospice is following his progress.  It is almost like that instead of waiting for death, they are now awaiting the arrival of Harold Fry.

Occasionally throughout the novel the undertaker’s van shows up, and there is one less patient in the sitting room of the hospice.  But new patients arrive.

Most of ‘Queenie’ is taken up with the back story of how Queenie met Harold Fry on the job.  They worked in the same brewery, she as an accountant, and he as a sales manager.   She is drawn to Harold, but he is married and has a son.   The attraction between Queenie and Harold is always implicit, never explicit.  That makes it a more powerful force.

“People are rarely the straightforward thing we think they are.” 

The great talent of Rachel Joyce is in framing scenes which must come from her experience as a writer of radio plays.  With a few lines of dialogue she can capture the life-affirming emotion being played out in any scene.  Just as in Charles Dickens, here you sometimes realize you are being manipulated into strong feeling but you can’t help but feel it anyway.  Reading ‘Queenie’ is a bit like reading ‘The Christmas Carol’.  You know you are being used mercilessly, but you fall for it every time.


My Favorite African-American Fiction Writers

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  This is just a list of my own personal favorites from reading over the years.


PHO-09Nov10-187067Edward P. Jones – First he had the two magnificent short story collections ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘All Aunt Hagar’s Children’.  Then followed his novel about slavery from a black slaveowner’s perspective, ‘The Known World’.  Jones hasn’t missed yet.




Toni Morrison –  Here is our Nobel Literature Prize winner, so many wonderful novels:  ‘Song of Solomon’, ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Sula’, and don’t forget ‘The Bluest Eye’.  She has a new one ‘God Bless the Child’ coming out soon.



RichardWightStamp61_02$_35Richard Wright – ‘Native Son’ is considered his controversial classic, but you have got to read ‘Black Boy’ as well.  He told the intense story of what was really happening in black neighborhoods.



nellaNella Larsen – She showed up for the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the two fine short novels ‘Passing’ and ‘Quicksand’, quit writing, and went back to being a nurse.




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Paul Beatty – Here is the new star.  His new novel ‘The Sellout’ is an instant humor classic.  I’m in the midst of this uproarious tale now and will discuss it more in depth in a future article.  Beatty was also the inspiration for me to come up with this list.



ZORAZora Neale Hurston –  Alice Walker rescued Zora Neale Hurston from obscurity, and now Hurston is considered one of the greats, I think deservedly.  ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is a gripping story.



AVT_John-Edgar-Wideman_1999John Edgar Wideman  –  I went through a spell when I read Wideman novels continuously.  Two fine ones are ‘Philadelphia Fire’ and ‘Sent for You Yesterday’.





188px-Colson_Whitehead_BBF_2011_ShankboneColson Whitehead –  He wrote a quirky unforgettable novel about elevator inspectors called ‘The Intuitionist’, also ‘John Henry Days’.  He is one to watch going forward.





download (4) Alice Walker –  She is most famous for ‘The Color Purple’ but I liked ‘Meridian’ even better.  She has been an activist for human rights her entire adult life.





84b95ea295c3bfd7be6bb48b6e83e269GoTellItOnTheMountainJames Baldwin – I’ve only read ‘Go Tell It to the Mountain’ of Baldwin’s works, but that was enough for him to make my favorite list.





So many others. Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, newbie Heidi R. Durrow,  David Bradley who wrote the prize-winning story “You Remember the Pinmill” in 2014 which I loved, Charles Johnson.

I would like to find out about your favorites too.


‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo – The Impossible Housekeeper

‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo   (1987)   262 pages     Translated by Len Rix     Grade: A-


I wish we had a housekeeper for our house like Emerence in ‘The Door’.  Cleaning houses, sweeping the streets, even shoveling all the snow in the neighborhood when there’s a snowstorm, Emerence does the work of five people.

“The old woman worked like a robot.  She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself.  There was something superhuman, almost alarming in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on.  Emerence obviously reveled in her work.  She loved it.” 

The unnamed young woman who tells this story and who employs Emerence to clean her house is totally different from Emerence.  She is the modern woman, spends all day on her computer, and is a globe-trotting author who wins literary awards.   She and her husband who is also a writer have no time for all the details such as cleaning the house.

This modern woman and Emerence are a study in contrasts, and they get into epic fights.  However these two opposites soon develop a close relationship.  Emerence soon becomes a highly critical mother figure to this young woman.

Emerence is a peasant from rural Hungary, and she lived through World War II.  She’s had a hard life.  She is illiterate and abrasive and stubborn, prone to bitter outbursts. All of her truths have been hard won, and she wastes no time setting this spoiled modern young woman straight.  Emerence says to the young woman,

“You think there always will be someone to cook and clean for you, a plate full of food, paper to scribble on, the master to love you; and everyone will live for eternity, like a fairy tale; and the only problem you might encounter is bad things written about you in the papers, which I’m sure is a terrible disgrace, but then why did you choose such a low trade, where any bandit can pour shit over you?”

There is a dog, Viola, in this story.  The young couple buy the dog, but of course the new dog is immediately enamored with old Emerence to the point where it is almost her dog.

The ultimate hate-love relationship exists between this young modern woman and her old housekeeper.  I say ‘hate-love’ because at first these two opposites are disgusted and furious with each other, and it is only later that they recognize that there is a deep closeness between them.  It is fascinating to watch the war and the devotion between these two played out to the extremes in ‘The Door’.


‘White Dog’ by Romain Gary – A Racist Dog

‘White Dog’ by Romain Gary (1970) – 279 pages    Grade: A-


9780226284309_p0_v1_s260x420With this story about a dog, Romain Gary has found a near ideal way to express his views of which there are many. First let me tell you about the dog.

One day the Gary family’s pet dog Sandy is followed home by another stray dog, a German Shepherd. All the Garys are quickly smitten by this new dog which is friendly to the entire family. However soon they realize that the dog has a problem. This dog was originally a police dog from the South in the United States and had been trained to ferociously attack any black person in sight. This racist dog would never suit Romain Gary and his actress wife Jean Seberg since they frequently host meetings of the Black Panthers and other social and racial justice groups at their home. So they take the dog to a kennel which employs a skilled dog trainer named Keys in order to change the dog’s offensive behavior. Keys happens to be black himself.

This all occurs in 1968, and ‘White Dog’ captures all of the wildness and radicalism of that time. Romain Gary brings an intellectual’s insight to the story, but he is no ordinary intellectual. He was one of the few original World War II aviators to survive the war and is a war hero. In France in the 1960s, Gary was considered an establishment rightist due to his high position as a diplomat in the DeGaulle government and his vehement anti-Communism. However in the United States he was considered a radical leftist for his belief in black-and-white racial justice. He had the good sense to understand that there isn’t much difference between Communist authorities imprisoning millions of their own Russian citizens and those United States ‘law and order’ politicians who work to imprison millions of their own black citizens.

Gary’s wife Jean Seberg was one of the top actresses in Hollywood and heavily involved in radical politics. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under J. Edgar Hoover did everything possible to discredit her, even getting major gossip columnists to spread the false rumor that she was impregnated by a black man. When she miscarried, she had the premature baby buried in an open casket in her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa so everyone could see that it was white.

Both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated during the spring of 1968. In particular the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King was the murder of hope in the United States. ‘White Dog’ is an insider’s view of the radical movement in the United States at that time. Much of the book is taken up with his own skepticism and analysis about many of the radical ideas that were floating around at that time. Many of his views are sensible and quite brilliant. Here are just a few of Romain Gary’s insights in ‘White Dog’.

“If evil things were only done by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.”

“There are worse traps than trusting people.”

“I have a profound dislike for majorities. They always become crushing. A majority may sound like a democratic force, but there is usually more force than democracy.”

“Half the things that happen aren’t possible.”

Romain Gary and Jean Seberg

Romain Gary and Jean Seberg

Some of the views expressed in ‘White Dog’ were au courant at that time and now hopelessly out-of-date. Even when Romain Gary is wrong-headed in his opinions and views, he is nothing less than fascinating.

‘White Dog’ is fundamentally different from most writing today. It is filled with challenging and in some cases infuriating ideas. Today much is written to attract the most readers. It is well-written, tasteful, and guaranteed to please most everyone, but it doesn’t really hit you where it hurts. Not many books today are annoying and invigorating at the same time like ‘White Dog’.

For more, read Emma’s review of ‘White Dog’ at Books Around the Corner. She is the one who recommended I read this fine book.


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