ANNE FRANK: HER LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES

Anne Frank is one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust, thanks to the diary she kept while she lived in hiding in Amsterdam for more than two years during World War II. Her diary, which survived the war and was published by her father in 1947, has sold over 30 million copies (and is on our mother-daughter book club schedule for the spring).

51bueiext-l-_sx258_bo1204203200_Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures, is a companion piece to Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl. It provides background on the whole family, much of it provided by her father, as well as photos of the family, the Jewish experience in Amsterdam before and during the war, and the Annex where the Frank family hid before being discovered by the police and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures makes the family human and relatable, rather than abstractions. We learn about their personalities, passions and conflicts, and their aspirations before their lives were so cruelly diverted. The book also intersperses commentary from other witnesses – friends of the family, people who worked in the building where the Franks hid, even survivors who knew Anne and her sister in the concentration camps – which extends Anne’s story beyond the day when the family was arrested and she was unable to write in her diary again.

Needless to say, this is a painful and difficult book in many ways. I, of course, dreaded the day when the family was removed from the Annex, and the section on the concentration camps is unfathomably awful. But, as always, it is so important to understand and be reminded of what happened to the Jews during World War II, so that we may address the roots of genocide and ensure that it never happens again, to anyone.

Anne’s message, in hiding, was one of hope:

“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty, too, will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals! Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”

If only Anne’s life, like the millions of others who perished in the Holocaust, could have turned out differently. What a world we would be living in.

I recommend Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures to anyone with even a passing interest in Anne Frank and the experience of Jews in the Holocaust. While it’s a good format for young adult readers, with pictures that make it more real than a chapter in a history book or a discussion in a Hebrew school class, it’s also quite upsetting and should be introduced with care and discussed with a parent or teacher.

 

CAROUSEL COURT by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Carousel Court is one amazingly bleak book.

The novel, carousel-court-9781476791272_hrby Joe McGinniss Jr., is about a couple – Phoebe and Nick – who move from Boston to Southern California in search of a better life. In Boston, Phoebe was a pharmaceutical sales rep and Nick a documentary filmmaker. They lived in a cramped apartment with their toddler, Jackson. Lured by the promise of sunny weather, an easier pace of life, and the untold riches that would come from flipping a suburban LA house, they make plans to leave it all and head west. Just before they are scheduled to leave, Nick learns that the job he has been promised in California has fallen through. So by the time they arrive in LA, they are already stressed and under the gun.

LA is nothing like what they hoped it would be. The real estate crash has left the economy decimated, with no jobs and suburbs full of empty, bank-owned houses. Phoebe, who had hoped to take a few months off to be with Jackson, just resumes her pharma job on the west coast. Nick, unemployed and increasingly desperate, takes on work cleaning out abandoned houses so that the banks can take them over. He works during the night, filling dumpsters with furniture and trying to avoid roving bands of pillagers who break into empty homes and pillage them during those same dark hours.

Bleak, huh? Well, the real bleakness of Carousel Court comes from Phoebe and Nick themselves. Phoebe, furious at her husband for his failure to provide for them, increasingly relies on anti-anxiety meds, sleeping pills and alcohol to get her through her long days of driving on LA freeways, calling on doctors’ offices to push her company’s medicine. She belittles her husband and carries on a sexually charged long distance text relationship with her former boss (and flame), a finance guy in Boston who toys with her, promising to swoop in and save her with a new job, a new house. Relations between Nick and Phoebe grow increasingly more hostile as he suspects her affair and has to compensate for her inability to parent Jackson or be supportive in any way.

The stress level of the book is ratcheted even higher by the constant threat of violence that surrounds this fractured family – from looters, from coyotes, from wildfires, from the next door neighbor who is staked in a tent with a gun on his front lawn all night long.

Plus there’s the fact that both Phoebe and Nick are both pretty hateful people.

And all of the bleakness. Is. Unrelenting. It’s not cyclical, because it never ebbs. It just flows, constantly.

If you want to learn more about the real estate crisis, watch The Big Short, which is just as illuminating but more enjoyable. Carousel Court was too long, too bleak, too tense.

I listened to Carousel Court on audio, and I would get out of my car in the morning in a tense, unfulfilled mood because of the book. The narrators were fine – Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill – but they did not offset the bleakness of this book. In fact, like the book, they were sort of relentless – relaying the parade of horribleness with a staccato precision that made the experience even less relaxing.

I’m moving on.

THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT by Jenn Marie Thorne

51tzzsl0zgl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Our October Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was the very topical The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne. The book is about Kate, a sixteen year-old girl who discovers that her father, whom she never knew about, is a Republican senator from Massachusetts who is running for president. This news comes to light (via a leak to The New York Times) a year after Kate’s mother died in a car accident and five months before Election Day.

Kate has a decision to make: keep living with her aunt and uncle in South Carolina, or move to the Senator’s house in Maryland with his wife and twins and live a life in the spotlight while she travels with the family on the campaign. She moves to Maryland, and what follows is a whirlwind of campaign stops, photo opportunities, interviews and events, with some time squeezed in to get to know her new family.

The Wrong Side of Right is about a young woman figuring out who she is and what she stands for, without much help from the people around her. She finds an unexpected ally in her stepmother, but is repeatedly disappointed by her father’s remote disinterest despite her attempts to get to know him. The plot of the novel is implausible in many ways – the secrecy of her paternity and the convenient timing of its reveal, for example – but the depiction of the modern campaign definitely rings true. (If only our current campaign were as tame as the one in the book!). Cell phones abound, and there’s even a love story thrown in to keep teen readers interested. (With the president’s son, no less!) Kate is a relatable, imperfect main character whose situation might be highly unusual but whose feelings are not.

The Wrong Side of Right was enjoyable and compelling, and I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen. Our book club had a good discussion about the reality of living through a presidential campaign and the ethics of the Senator’s behavior throughout the book. Not everyone finished the book, as it’s pretty long, but those who did seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. And it was perfect timing, with the current election three weeks away.

THE NEW NEIGHBOR by Leah Stewart

download-2Another book that I was glad to finish, and don’t want to spend a lot of time reviewing…

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart is (presumably) a psychological thriller about two women living in a small Tennessee town who are each hiding secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4 year-old son Milo move into a small rental house on a pond, where Jennifer wants to hide away from the world after the death of her husband. Her neighbor across the pond, 90 year-old Margaret Riley, becomes intensely interested in Jennifer and devotes her time to finding ways to get to know her.

Margaret, too, is mysterious – she never married, and is carrying some long buried secrets from her years as a nurse on the battlefield in World War II. She is intensely lonely, yet also equally unlikable, which makes it very hard for others to get close to her.

Margaret and Jennifer’s worlds intersect when Margaret hires Jennifer as a massage therapist as a way to get her into house on a regular basis. This develops into Jennifer helping write down Margaret’s memoir, a plot device that allows Margaret to tell her stories and Jennifer to react in ways that reveal more about herself. Meanwhile, Jennifer tries to make friends and build a life for herself and Milo without revealing anything about the circumstances of her husband’s death.

The Suspenseful Questions We Are Supposed To Want Answers To:

  1. Was Jennifer responsible for her husband’s death?
  2. What happened to her daughter?
  3. Is Margaret gay, and was she in love with her best friend (a fellow nurse)?
  4. Was Margaret responsible for her best friend’s death?
  5. Will Margaret tell anyone about Jennifer’s past?

In the end: a big meh from me. I invested way too much time into this book and ultimately didn’t really care about the characters or what happened. Stewart is a good writer, and I particularly liked her use of details and observations throughout. But there was just too much of both, and not enough suspense. I look back on 288 slow pages and think to myself, “What was the point?” No major bombshells, and a very unsatisfying ending that made me dislike both women more.

I’d skip this one.

 

Q&A with Michelle Brafman, author of BERTRAND COURT

I was fortunate enough to be one of the many people who crammed into Politics and Prose last month to hear Michelle Brafman talk about her new book, Bertrand Court. (Yesterday was the EDIWTB online book club for Bertrand Court.) Here’s what Brafman had to say.

  1. Bertrand Court is a book defined by “random assignments”. Life is “one long cul de sac”, like Bertrand Court, and the characters of the book are connected in random ways like on this street. (She calls this “cul de sac lit”).
  2. She wanted to show a different side of DC, one made up of the people who work for the famous people.
  3. Bertrand Court is named for Bertrand Farkas, an Emmy award winning producer who had a distinctive style that conveyed a sense of eavesdropping. He was very good at establishing time and place.
  4. The book doesn’t necessarily have a plot, but it has an arc. It covers from babies to death.
  5. She wanted to explore “the glorious messiness of connectivity”, with stories told by characters who are in the hot seat, behaving badly.
  6. She found it fascinating to write the same thing from different perspectives. She kept writing stories she had from different points of view, revealing where the characters were based on their perspective.
  7. The characters in Bertrand Court are messy and inconsistent from story to story. It’s a book about connection but also about how hard it is to accept the cul-de-sac-ing in other people.

Q&A:

download-1Did you picture the book graphically?

Yes, I did. But I didn’t end up doing it on paper.

Jewish themes are big in your books. Do they play a big role here?

Yes, there are a lot of Jewish people here – not all. Some are interfaith. The first story is based on a Jewish folk tale. But this is not like Washing The Dead – this is more of a secular book.

Were some characters easier to write than others?

Not really, because I was always so compelled to write the next story. The men were so easy to write, as they were so far from my experience.

This book was written over the course of 15 years. Why so long?

I did a lot of backstitching, weaving back into the book.

When did you know it was done? Did you have an end in mind?

I always knew the last story would go at the end. I fudged around with the order of the other pieces.

Which was the last story you wrote?

“Two Truths and a Lie”.

Did you know the stories would be linked?

I wrote them in triptychs – groups of three. I wanted to tell the conflict from three perspectives, but have it all belong to the same world.

How you know when a sentence is done?

Never.

You’ve written a novel and novelistic stories. Which do you feel more comfortable with?

I prefer writing a novel. When I wrote these, I felt like I was working toward the novel.

Would you like to revisit these characters 10 years later?

I hadn’t thought of that, but it would be fun.

 

 

BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman

download-1The most recent EDIWTB online book club pick was Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman, a collection of linked stories set in Washington, DC. Seventeen chapters explore moments in the lives of a range of characters, most of whom are related by blood or marriage and/or live on the same cul-de-sac in suburban Washington.

Brafman’s stories deal with relatively small moments – a child’s birthday party seen through the eyes of her mother and grandmother, a pregnant woman’s anxiety about miscarriage, a visit to a boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin. They are vignettes in the characters’ lives, mere blips on the overall arc of their relationships. But Brafman manages to find the profound in these small moments, teasing out the conflicts, passions and tenderness at the heart of these friends, spouses, partners and parents.

I love Brafman’s writing. She focuses on small details that seem insignificant but help paint such an immediate, realistic picture of what is happening. There’s also a nice feeling of tension that propels the stories- you know they are building up to something, and it’s fun finding out what it is. I think I grew to appreciate the book more and more as I read it and saw how Brafman really got to the core of these characters and relationships in 20 pages or so.

I had expected Bertrand Court to feel particularly Washingtonian, as it is billed as a book about “politicos, filmmakers and housewives”, but to be honest, I didn’t really find it all that resonant of my hometown. This could have taken place in any suburb where smart, engaged people live. (It *does* have a lot of Jewish people in it – that is true. And they felt pretty familiar to me.)

My favorite chapters were “You’re Next”, “Minocqua Bats” and “Would You Rather”.

At times it can be hard to keep everybody straight (though Brafman does include a list of the characters and their relationships in the beginning), but ultimately, I decided it didn’t matter if I couldn’t remember how everyone related to each other, each time. The stories worked on their own.

Bertrand Court is a big-hearted book to savor and to nod at in wistful recognition.

OK, EDITWB book club readers, what did you think? Please leave me your thoughts below.

 

THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS by Jane Hamilton

b99706513z-1_20160422123210_000_gcmfb5tk-1-0I don’t want to spend any more minutes of my life than necessary on Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards, so this will be short.

I did not like The Excellent Lombards. It’s about Mary Francis, a girl growing up on an apple orchard in Wisconsin with her family. Her dad shares the farm with his brother, so there are issues about who gets what, who makes the decisions, and who will work the orchard in the next generation. Her mean great aunt and various cousins come and go, as does a middle school teacher she develops a crush on. The book ends with the question, will Francis go to college or stay on the farm?

Honestly, The Excellent Lombards was so boring I can’t even summarize it. I didn’t care at all about any of the characters, especially Mary Francis, who was selfish and self-absorbed and didn’t expand her worldview at all during the book. It was a chore to get through it. I could barely follow the characters or the anemic plot, and I just wanted to get the book over with so that I could move on to something better.

I’ve enjoyed others of Hamilton’s novels – A Map of the World, The Book of Ruth – and I can’t believe this was written by the same person.

I listened to The Excellent Lombards on audio. The narration was fine, but honestly the book was so boring and meandering that it didn’t keep my attention. I finished it off in print today and there was no improvement.

There are a lot of glowing reviews of this book on Goodreads. It just wasn’t for me.