Review: The Book of Esther

the book of esther

The Book of EstherEmily Barton. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Summary: An alternative historical fiction in which a Jewish daughter of the Kagan of Khazaria breaks with her father and convention to lead her people in battle against the invading German army in 1942.

This is not the biblical story of Esther. But, like the biblical story, a young woman of influence breaks with convention to save her people from a threat that could destroy the Jewish people of her land. It is 1942. The Germanii are sweeping across Eastern Europe and Khazaria. Esther’s homeland stands in the way of oil fields, and Russia beyond. The people have known of this threat as Jewish refugee camps have sprung around Atil, filled with those fleeing the pogroms. Esther secretly has been visiting the camps to bring food, and has heard the reports and knows that if the Germanii succeed, it will spell the end of the Kaganate of Khazaria and her people.

Khazaria? Where is that? You won’t find that country on any modern map, and this is the “alternate history” aspect of this novel. Khazaria did at one time exist where it is located in the novel, between 600 and 950 AD. The people were a semi-nomadic Turkic people with a significant Jewish population. Located astride the Silk Road northeast of Turkey, southeast of Ukraine and between the Black and Caspian seas and separating Europe and western Asia, it was a strategic location, and hence its people warrior-like in its defense. Today Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and part of Russia make up the territory once encompassing Khazaria.

No one has a fiercer warrior heart in this story than Esther, though she is not yet sixteen, the daughter of the Kagan, and betrothed to a rabbi’s son. Fearing the German threat and knowing the inadequacy of her country’s forces, she becomes convinced that Adonai is calling her to act to save her people. With her slave brother Itakh, she steals her father’s mechanical horse, Seleme, and sets off to a distant village of kabbalists. Why? As a girl, she believes the only way she can lead her people is as a male, and hopes the kabbalists have the power to change her into one. Along the way, she both stares down the war lords controlling the oil to secure fuel for mechanical horse, and kills a werewolf. She is what we might call one “badass” woman, while yet trying to be a devout Jew!

The kabbalists welcome her, recognizing something of the destiny upon her. They do not have it in their power, or perhaps will, to change her gender, believing it to be set by God. Yet one of them, Amit tells a different tale. He once was a girl, but through a prayer while cleansing in the mikvah, was transformed. Esther tries this, but remains unchanged. It seems her desire is more to be able to lead her people into battle than to be a man and that is what she is granted. But the kabbalists, who are served by golemim, creatures of the clay of the earth supposedly without souls who have a human form, do help her by giving Esther all their golemim and by making more.

She returns to Atil, after recruiting troops and supplies from the oil lords, and more people from the villages, along with more mechanical and golem horses and aerocycles. (Many reviewers note this work has a steampunk flavor to it). How will her father treat her when she returns? Will she be allowed, as a Jewish Joan of Arc, to lead this rag tag force? And will it make a difference? All I will say is that Barton leaves room for a sequel.

The book explores Esther’s awakening sexuality and gender identity. There is her quest to be changed into a man, though this seems less shaped by her sense of gender identity than by cultural necessity.  Yet there is Amit, with whom she develops an attraction, only to subsequently humiliate him for being a kind of trans male. Why is she drawn to him, is it to the man, or to the woman he once was, or some combination?

More significant to the plot is the question of gender roles. How can Esther join in the fight for her people when war was what men did, and women suffered? What if this violates what seems to be a sacred ordering of the world and one is devout, as is Esther? What if it truly seems that Adonai is calling her to this, even though it seems to violate her religious teaching?

Most of all is the more fundamental question of the promises of Adonai and the struggle for existence, and yet survival of the Jews that has been their history. This story brings us face to face with that perilous history.

If you don’t mind alternate history, and a mix of fable and mechanical wizardry, you might like this work. All in all, the questions this books explored made for a work at once thought-provoking and riveting as Esther confronts challenge after challenge in her mission to save her people. If there is a sequel, I’ll be very tempted to read it!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Sense of an Ending

The sense of an ending

The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes. New York: Vintage International, 2011.

Summary: A bequest that includes a letter and a diary forces a man in his sixties to examine the way he has remembered and conceived of his life.

One of the dangers of reaching one’s sixties is that you begin the process of remembering your life. What is often not considered is that the way we remember it, and tell it may be of our “best self” but not necessarily of our true self. We may not even be aware of it, but there are episodes that are edited out, things done and said that we shove in a mental drawer, or hide in a closet. This novel, a Man Booker prize winner by the author of the more recent fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (reviewed here) is a finely written psychological exploration of our constructed memories that shield us from knowing our true selves.

Tony Weber is a retired, divorced late middle aged man living in London. The first part of his book is a remembering of his life. He begins with his adolescence in a boys school, and the heady mix of ideas and awakening sexuality that is part of this period. We meet his friends, Alex and Colin, and the fourth who joins this group, the philosophical Adrian. The boys part but stay in touch during college years. Tony reads history at Bristol while Adrian goes to Cambridge. Much of the story here involves Tony’s relationship with Veronica, his encounter with her “posh” family, and the mother who tries to warn him off her while making him eggs for breakfast. Tony and Veronica have a sexually frustrating relationship and only have intercourse after she breaks off with him. This leads to an even more messy conversation where she tries to get him to be real to her, real to himself. Eventually Veronica gets into a relationship with Adrian, who writes him asking leave for them to see each other. Adrian sends a reply that he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about, and then gets on with his life, going to America and traveling around with a girl for a few months and then parting. When he arrives home he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony and his friends puzzle over this, move on and separate. Tony marries, has a daughter with whom he has a decent relationship, divorces Margaret, his wife, lives a reasonably successful life, and enjoys a quiet retirement of trips and volunteer work. Until…

He receives word one day that Veronica’s mother had died and left him a bequest of five hundred pounds, a letter, and a diary. The money he receives easily enough. The letter and diary are in the possession of Veronica, who will not yield them up, at first. The second half of the book describes a number of encounters, often ending with the refrain from Veronica, “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did and you never will.” First she sends a cryptic page from the diary. Then she gives him the letter, which turns out to be a brutally cruel letter, the letter he had written in response to Adrian’s letter, a letter he had white-washed in his mind.

He begins to see that the memory he has constructed of his life doesn’t fit the reality. Yet he is troubled by what he doesn’t get, and this takes him deeper, into his choice of “peaceableness,” of an unwillingness to feel pain or to take a risk to really live and be responsible for his life. I will not give away the secret why Veronica’s mother gave him the bequest or came to have the letter and diary. What it brings him to is a sobering alternative narrative of his life that he summarizes with these words:

“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”

This is a book that holds up a mirror to show us the false selves that we construct with our “best self” memories and the danger of a life lived embracing that false self. It seems to me that facing up to the false selves, the constructed memories, as painful as these are, may be better than living cluelessly. If nothing else, it makes us keenly aware of our need for redemption.

Review: The Comedians

the-comedians

The ComediansGraham Greene. New York: Penguin, 2005 (my edition 1976).

Summary: Three men, Brown, Smith, and Jones meet on a ship bound for Haiti during the reign of terror of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. They are the “comedians” who must confront not only the tragedy of Haiti, but themselves.

One of the darkest periods of Haiti’s troubled history was the rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957 until 1971. It was a reign of terror enforced by a secret police, the Tontons Macoute who killed between 30 and 60,000 while many others fled the country.

This is the Haiti to which the three main characters in the book are traveling aboard the Medea. Brown is a hotelier, who inherited the Hotel Trianon from his mother, and is returning, having been unable to sell the property, and drawn by a love affair with the wife of an ambassador. Smith is a former presidential candidate, of the Vegetarian Party, which got 10,000 votes in its election race. He hopes to establish a center for vegetarianism on the island.  Jones is a confidence man, who consistently stays just one step of the law, on his tails even aboard ship. He styles himself a major, boasts of battle experience in Burma, Japan, and the Congo, and hopes to secure the rights to establish a golf club for Duvalier and his cronies.

Each faces the shattering of their “comedic” dreams in the face of the brutal realities of Papa Doc and the sinister Tonton Macoute epitomized by Captain Concasseur. From the moment Smith arrives, he must deal with the fleeing minister, Philipot, who commits suicide by his pool, and the later absurdity of his casket being carted away in the back of one of the Tontons vehicles, half sticking out the trunk. This was the same Philipot that Smith and his wife hoped to meet to pursue their vegetarian dream, only to discover that any dream of this sort must be accompanied by bribes and graft. Subsequently, Smith, in his rectitude stands up to the powers and takes his money across the border to the Dominican Republic, shedding his naive ideas about Haiti, but not his principles.

Jones is perhaps the most interesting, going from being held in prison as the law catches up with him at last, to becoming a crony, only to be found out as even shadier than the crooks in the regime. He hides out in the embassy where Brown’s lover, Martha lives and Smith, in his jealousy, traps Jones in his own lies and lures him to lead a band in a quixotic revolt against Duvalier. In doing so, Smith comes face to face with both his longing for and inability to believe in enduring love.

Like other Graham Green works, Brown in particular struggles between faith and doubt, between the Catholicism in which he was raised, and a world seemingly desolate of goodness, of purpose, and of love. It was interesting to me that Dr. Magiot, a Marxist, is the one true believer (other than Smith with his vegetarian-utopian dreams), whose life, and sacrifice is motivated by the long view of the fulfillment of a Communist vision of the future. Greene helps us understand the appeal of Communism for principled people faced with corrupt regimes and a subservient church. More than this, Greene uses the backdrop of the absurd comedic horror of Duvalier’s Haiti to strip the central characters of their comedic illusions and face them with who they were and what ultimately mattered to them.

Review: Certain Women

certain-women

Certain WomenMadeleine L’Engle. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.

Summary: As actor David Wheaton dies of cancer, his daughter joins him on the Portia and as they re-read the unfinished script of Emma’s estranged husband Nik on King David, they consider the parallels with their own lives, and struggle to come to terms with life in its brokenness, and its joys.

Madeleine L’Engle was best know for her Young Adult fiction work, A Wrinkle in Time, and the sequels to that work. For a time she was married to a successful actor, who she lost to cancer, and wrote about in several works, and I suspect draws upon in writing this. It was my familiarity with her other work that led me to pick up this book when I spotted it in a second hand store (I don’t believe it is in print at present).

The story is that of the last summer of actor, David Wheaton, dying of cancer, diagnosed as he finished one of the ultimate roles of his life, playing King Lear, in which his daughter Emma also had a role. Now Emma, estranged from playwright husband Nik, is with him on the Portia, along with David’s ninth wife (!) Alice, a physician, cruising the waters of the Pacific Northwest, David’s favorite place to be when not in New York.

As David muses and tries to sum up his life, he keeps turning to an unfinished play Nik was writing, on the life and wives of King David. Nik had envisioned Wheaton in the title role, and as David reads sections of the unfinished script, he considers the parallels between King David and his wives, and his own nine marriages, the children from those marriages, and both the wondrous moments, and the brokenness such an unusual family inevitably brings.

It is not only David who is attempting to come to peace with and work out the relationships and mistakes of his life. Emma, relatively fresh from separating from Nik, also is wrestling with what had come between them, and the loves and losses she experienced in this family as well, again with parallels to the family of David. Yet oddly, although her parallel is Tamar, it is Abigail, David’s second wife to whom she is drawn, as well as to David Wheaton’s second wife who comes to visit, also an Abigail, who share with her the experience of losing children.

Eventually, a number of the surviving family arrive, along with Nik. Key in this narrative is the question is how do we come to terms with brokenness and failure, and the paradox of both a love of life, and the darkness of our flawed beings and that we often bring down upon ourselves and others? And with that is the question of what it means to choose life, and love while being these kind of people. Perhaps this is captured most succinctly in a question described by a wise Native American woman, Norma, who spoke of being at a crossroads in her own life and having to choose between a funeral, and a wedding.

Much of this is a story of the wives, and the daughter, Emma, that loved David Wheaton, and much of the conversation, remembered or present occurs between these women, particularly between Emma, Alice, and Abby. The dialogue between these women is perhaps what makes this book stand out, as they listen, choose to uncover pain, explore, wonder and tenderly share whatever wisdom is to be had at the time. At one point, they talk about “friendships of the heart,” in contrast to romantic relationships, particularly between those of the same gender. There is a kind of understanding, of care in the relationships in this book that indeed characterize such friendship of the heart, that is far too rare, and wonderful to behold in this work.

If indeed this work is out of print, I hope it will not always be so. There is a quality of writing here to be savored, even as it wrestles with both life and death, and the dynamics of human relationships, particularly within families and between men and women. One senses in this a writer who wrote out of her own rich experiences of love, loss, brokenness, and yet joy in life, in which every word of dialogue seems to ring true.

Review: Bel Canto

Bel CantoBel Canto, Ann Patchett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Summary: An international group gathered in a South American country for a dinner party to celebrate a Japanese industrialist’s birthday are taken hostage in a failed attempt by a revolutionary group to seize the country’s president. When months pass without a resolution a strange, an oddly wonderful community develops among hostages, and captors, one strangely forgetful of the inevitabilities of a hostage situation.

Roxane Coss is a world-renowned opera soprano from America who agrees to fly into a South American country to sing at the birthday of Japanese industrialist Mr. Hosokawa, who has loved her voice from the moment he first heard it. He is joined by his ever-diligent translator Gen Watanabe and celebrated by an illustrious cast of dignitaries at the home of the country’s Vice-President. President Masuda is also expected to be present in this ill-disguised attempt to persuade Hosokawa to locate a factory in the country. But President Masuda, stays home at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera.

On that last minute petty decision turns the whole plot. What was meant to be a kidnapping of a president by a revolutionary militia becomes a protracted hostage siege. Joachim Messner, a Red Cross negotiator visiting the country steps in, with the help of Gen the translator. Ultimately 19 revolutionaries hold 39 men and one woman, Roxane Cass.

At first the threat of death hangs over the hostages, who saw the Vice President brutally pistol whipped and Roxane’s accompanist die in what they too late learned was a diabetic coma. As time drags on and only demands for food and necessities are met, the phenomenon know as the “Stockholm syndrome” develops as bonds form between hostages and captors, even various kinds of love between Roxane Coss and Hosokawa, between the efficient and retiring Gen, and the girl soldier Carmen, between boy soldier Ishmael and the Vice President, and Cesar, another boy, with a tremendous voice who Roxane dreams of turning into a great singer.

All of this is narrated by Patchett in her voice of measured wonder. She describes the unfolding of a world where captives and captors nearly and sometimes do forget the reality of a hostage siege which must end in surrender or bloodshed. It is a world that at least some do not want to end. Perhaps only the negotiator and Father Arguedas, the poor parish priest who volunteered to stay, knowing a priest would be needed, see clearly the alternatives.

Even here, she finds a way to end a book in a surprising implausibility that one didn’t see coming, and to this reader just didn’t seem quite right. It is true that she is not predictable, but the very best do unpredictable in a way that is satisfying, where one might say, “I didn’t see that coming, but it fits, it works.”

Of all of Patchett’s novels, I think this the best. The characters she draws, the measured progress of the plot, moving at the speed of developing relationships and situations, and the strange wonder of the world she creates all draw one in and forward.  I will likely read another Patchett book because of the quality of the writing and the stories she develops, and I’ll keep hoping for that fitting ending.