Sunday 29 January 2017

At Twilight They Return by Zyranna Zateli

Zyranna Zateli’s ambitious, multigenerational saga is the story of Christoforos, who first weds Petroula, and then Evtha, followed, after her death, by Persa; of his sexually promiscuous son Hesychios and the many bastard children left on the doorstep following the untimely demise of so many would-be daughters-in-law; and of the sisters, brothers, children, and grandchildren who inhabit a household and a history expanding to near-bursting. 
 Goodreads description

This is a complex family story in which personal tales are imbued with magic, classical legend, Greek folklore and wider history. The comparison with One Hundred Years of Solitude is obvious and deserved. 

Narratively it is more demanding than Marquez's masterpiece, being told through ten tales, which move backwards and forwards chronologically and which focus on different characters in the story. The tales are interrelated, although it is not always clear how at first.  Moreover, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is a long book - it took me two weeks to read. 

The style is fascinating. The narrator's voice is sometimes brought to the fore, addressing us, the readers, directly and with familiarity. It is as if these tales are being told by elderly family members years after the event to Christoforos' descendents, which would justify how the non-sequitur nature of the ten tales. Sometimes I was reminded of the function of the classical Greek chorus, commenting on the central characters' actions directly to the audience. 

This novel is set at an interesting time in the history of Greece, when the centuries-old culture is beginning to be overtaken by a more modern world. That old culture was supported by an oral tradition, which in turn is reflected by the book's narration.

I was often reminded of vernacular folktales with their roots in classical Greek legends. For example: there is the story of Hesychios, a man so handsome that young women are bewitched by him and, having conceived his child, all die in childbirth. And yet his and the other tales are very much based in reality. Indeed the magic is barely visible. It is less overt that Marquez's. It is as if it is somewhere off to the side of your vision and when you try to look for it, you are not sure it was ever there. There is a psychological robustness about the actions and thoughts of the characters that is very modern. 

As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this book and found it a fascinating read. Just as not of all of you are enamoured with Marquez's seminal work, not of all of you will like this book. But there will be many that do. 

I received this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Thursday 19 January 2017

The Tremble of Love by Ani Tuzman

A novel inspired by the legendary spiritual master, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezar, known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Good Master of the Name, who beckoned forth love from the hearts of rag pickers, ruby merchants, midwives, and murderers.

Poor orphan. Simpleton. Harder to tame than the wind.

He hears what they call him.

But he listens to the presence his father promised would never leave him.

Yisroel finds his way to those who nurture his healing gifts and rare compassion—until he embraces a destiny he cannot yet fathom nor deny any longer.

Honoring women, children, and the poor as his teachers. Celebrating life’s simplest deeds as worship. Praying with joyous abandon. Loving without condition. Yisroel’s “irreverent” practices threaten the established authorities—among them an embittered rabbinic leader with a mission of his own: to destroy the irrepressible master known as the Baal Shem Tov and his growing community of followers.

Goodreads description 

I find myself at a disadvantage in reviewing this novel. The subject matter of the novel is the life of great Jewish religious thinker and founder of the Hasidic Judaism. I am not Jewish, nor do I have much knowledge of Jewish thought. The Tremble of Love A Novel of the Baal Shem Tov is a long book (over 500 pages on my kindle) and one that should be read slowly, allowing for meditation. In some ways it is itself a mystical experience. Unfortunately reviewing one book a week is not conducive to such an approach. I therefore am sure I missed much and this review is not as complete as it could be. That said I still got a great deal out of novel, as Ani Tuzman's fictional account of the great man's life is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction.

One of the issues facing the author must have been the absence of historical data about the rabbi's life. Some of the evidence is closer to legend than historical fact. But we do have the legacy of his teaching and that combined with folk memories allows this book's account to feel authentic to his spirit. In any case this is a novel not a historical biography and this liberates the author to develop certain themes that may or may not be substantiated historically. The most obvious of these is the active role of women in the rabbi's life and teaching. The central character is often seen through the eyes of women, who find liberation in the rabbi's teachings and attitudes. Important in contributing to the book's authenticity is the portrayal of the society, buildings and everyday life in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 1700s. There are lots of small details which all come together to give the reader a sense of being there.

One of the highlights of last year's reading for me was the book Laurus. This was another long fictional historical biography of a holy man. It is perhaps unfair of me to compare the two books, but it is instructional. In Laurus we see inside the central character's head, understanding so far as it is possible the emotional turmoil and trauma that lead his pursuit of God. We do not get the same insight in this book, instead we see the central character from the viewpoint of others, and we see the transformative impact he has on them. Of the two approaches I preferred the former as I think it allowed for more drama, but then the character in Laurus is entirely fictional and perhaps Ani Tuzman did not feel she could take such a liberty with a real holy man. In other ways the two books have much in common – the theme of course, but also the sense of time and place.

Having read this novel, I want to find out more about the historical Yisroel ben Eliezar and his teachings.

I received this book free from the author in return for a fair review.

Monday 16 January 2017

Froelich's Ladder by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon

Uncle Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his perch atop a giant ladder. When he’s discovered missing, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked trek across a nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs. 
 Goodreads description

This is a tall tale, literally in the case of the fourth highest ladder the world has ever seen. And it is in the tradition of American tall tales - Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, etc - a story form suited to the bravura of the frontier world in which Froelich's Ladder is placed.

After his brother takes the girl he fancies, Froelich climbs up the ladder in a huff and stays there, growing food between the rungs and communicating with his brother and then his two nephews by a sort of morse code. Then one day the knocking from on high stops: Froelich is missing and one of his nephews sets out to find him while the other props up the ladder.

The hunt for Froelich takes the central character and the reader into a wild west where the fanciful and the real exist alongside each other. Parents be warned: the story turns from picaresque folklore to the threat of sexual and/or physical violence at times.

One of the best things about this book is that it features two strong-willed independent female characters more than succeeding in a man's world. Something I always like to see. 

Whilst the final resolution(s) seemed a bit rushed to me, this is an entertaining undemanding read.

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.