Saturday, February 28, 2009
Secret Son by Laila Lalami
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / 1-565-12494-4 / 978-1-565-12494-3 / April 2009 / 304 pages / hardcover / $23.95 / $16.29 Amazon)
Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM
Youssef and his mother Rachida live in a one-room house with no windows and a tin roof held in place by stones in a Casablanca slum. When it rains, the roof leaks. When it’s not raining, they live in the yard beneath a sky as spacious as Youssef’s dreams.
When it rains, they carry their life back inside the whitewashed house: the divan, the food bowls, the clean clothes off the line, and the black and white photograph of his father that hangs in the yard above the divan. The young man who forever smiles out of that old photograph was in his 20s, not so many rears older than Youssef is now as he prepares to enter college in Casablanca.
He thinks often about the man in the picture who died in an accident, his mother told him, when Youssef was two; he was a well-respected man, a dedicated school teacher and, as Youssef learns a few pages into Laila Lalami’s powerful debut novel, an invention.
As Rachida’s secrets unravel, the following facts emerge: Youssef is the product of his mother’s affair with a married man, a man who is not only very much alive, but a wealthy and influential Casablanca businessman. While his doting mother is content to play the role of the grieving widow, as Youssef sees it, and to eke out a living in a slum, he is now free to escape from all that’s been denied him into a life of achievable dreams.
Against his mother’s wishes, he leaves the windowless house to discover his true identity. While she prays her son will make something of himself by staying in college, he has set his sights on greater things. He leaves Rachida’s whitewashed house with food for thought. When the rains came, a volatile Islamic fundamentalist group called “The Party” brought aid to the flooded slum while the state handed out promises it would not keep.
Readers of Lalami’s collection of short stories released in 2006 may reflect on the title of that highly acclaimed volume, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, as Youssef makes his way through a labyrinth populated by corrupt commercial interests, inept government employees, “The Party,” and news media with a spider web of conflicting agendas.
Lalami’s prose and plot in Secret Son are devoid of moralizing and sentimentality, and therein lies the power of her story. The story is not unkind; it’s ardently realistic. While the conclusion of Youssef’s essentially illegitimate journey into the treacherous world outside his claustrophobic station is by no means predictable, it’s as inevitable as Icarus’ fall from the spacious sky.
See Also: Lala Lalami's website
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Voices Under Berlin:
The Tale of a Monterey Mary
by T. H. E. Hill
(CreateSpace / 1-434-83973-7 / 978-1-434-83973-2 / January 2008 / 312 pages / $14.95)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM
Voices Under Berlin is a wry and deadpan account of a very particular place at a very particular time – Berlin under allied occupation in the mid 1950s, when the Cold War was coming up to a steady, simmering boil – and the city was divided into four different sectors: American, British, French and Russian. The Berlin Wall had not yet been built, large chunks of Berlin were still in ruins from WWII, American GIs were technically forbidden to fraternize with German women, and the various intelligence organizations were playing all kinds of deadly serious games against each other, with varying degrees of success.
One of those operations involved a tunnel dug from a specially constructed warehouse with an unusually deep cellar, in order to install a tap on landlines used by the Russians. For better than a year, telephone calls were listened to and recorded, transcribed, and carefully sifted for essential bits of information. Subtitled “The Tale of a Monterey Mary”, this is about the group of military members at the sharp and pointy end of that particular spear over the course of their tour in Berlin. These are, for the most part, those who listened to the tapes, translated and transcribed, or those whose task it was to keep them all pointed more or less in the same direction. Other characters, who emerge through the transcriptions of their telephone conversations, are various Russian officers - the voices under Berlin. For purely civilian readers and at this date, some five decades later, it is just as well that this novel starts with an extensive glossary. Most terms, other than those specific to that location at that specific time, are familiar to anyone who has been in the military, but the purely civilian reader would most likely otherwise be at sea.
The plot, such as it is, hangs on a pair of strands; first, the existence of the tunnel itself – can it be kept secret, and for how long, in a place where the Russians are constantly probing for information, seeking out willing traitors and testing the other allies’ intelligence services. The other continuing plot strand is: which one of the handful of American characters has been targeted by the Russians, the object of a ‘honey-pot’ scheme, wherein his German girlfriend is actually a Russian agent tapping him for information? Small clues as to the activities and whereabouts of the woman involved dropped throughout, in transcribed conversations. Is it the talkative student Gabbie, who is actually having a sweet and traditional romance with Kevin, the brilliant Russian-language expert, who is so adept at transcribing the tapes and so familiar with some of the voices on them that he has begun to think of them as personal friends? What about Blackie, whose nickname might come from his penchant for black-marketing, or for a practical joke involving rubbing sheets of used carbon paper onto the earpieces of his headset? He has a German girlfriend and so does the unspeakable Lt. Sherlock, the military martinet with no perceivable talents save for that of being able to walk away unscathed from the disasters large and small that he himself has caused. The potential security breach probably isn’t Fast Eddie, the married sergeant whose wife works at the PX Theater, or the crusty career soldier Master-Sergeant Laufflaecker, he of the parade-ground command voice and limitless ability to scrounge the when it is absolutely, positively necessary. And it most definitely not is the irascible and experienced Chief of Base, with his penchant for appearing in disguise and his dictate that whosoever acquires a German girlfriend will be reassigned so fast they will have whiplash injuries.
The narrative follows the course of a year, enlivened with many seemingly vintage photos of places, objects and people relevant to the story, as well as accounts of a staggeringly varied number of practical jokes. Never underestimate the creative lengths to which extremely intelligent and bored military personnel will go to amuse themselves, especially when confined to spending hours and hours on duty, in the main just watching for something to happen; elaborate charades to divert (or scare the pants off of) the bored East German military, watching the site from a tall guard tower, the briefing book cooked up for a totally imaginary Russian unit supposedly stationed just across the way, or even just loosening an essential screw in someone else’s headset. Some of these japes are ancient, yet ever renewed by a fresh generation, sent off post-haste on their first day for a fifty-foot length of flight line and a bucket of prop-wash. Voices Under Berlin is well worth the time, to a veteran and non-veteran alike, for a glimpse into another world, another war, half a century ago. My copy came with a companion book, a collection of Army information booklets passed out to American troops assigned to Berlin around the time that Voices was set. It is the sort of material usually termed ‘ephemera’ – a revealing slice of a long-gone milieu, which will seem purely incredible to those who only know the present reunified and independent Berlin.
See Also: Celia's BNN Review
The Author's Website
Review of T.H.E. Hill's Reunification
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Faust: My Soul be Damned for the World (Volumes I & II)
by E. A. Bucchianeri
(AuthorHouse / Large format paperback with notes, appendices, and bibliography. Volume I: 1-434-39060-8 / 978-1-434-39060-8 / September 2008 / 436 pages / $65.00. Volume II: 1-434-39061-6 – 978-1-434-39061-5 – September 2008 / 704 pages - $95.00)
Reviewed by Malcolm Campbell for PODBRAM
E. A. Bucchianeri describes her two-volume work on the back cover as “a comprehensive exploration of Dr. Faust, the man who sold his soul to the devil, and those who lived to tell his tale.”
“Comprehensive” is almost an understatement, for the scope and scholarship of this two-volume, large-format Faust – My Soul be Damned for the World is astonishing. Bucchianeri traces the evolution of the Faust legends and literature from the historical individual who called himself Faustus (c1466 – c1538) through early folktales and Christopher Marlowe’s drama The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) to Goethe’s closet drama Faust: The Tragedy Part One (1829) and Faust: The Tragedy Part Two (1832).
Clearly, the Faustian literature evolved with the times, and at each stage, Bucchianeri shows how the influences of the church, state, society and the education, upbringing and life experiences of the of the principal authors and commentators changed the intent and flavor of the legend. The Faust story, as Joseph L. Henderson notes in Man and his Symbols (Carl Jung, Ed.) dramatizes man’s battle with the dark or negative side of his personality, the “‘shadow’ figure that Goethe describes as ‘part of that power which, willing evil, finds the good.’” One of the greatest strengths of Buchianeri’s work is in its heavily documented presentation of the vast symbolism found throughout the multiple versions of the legend.
The historical Dr. Faustus, Faust books and folk tales, Marlowe’s drama with its “A and B texts,” the puppet plays, and Lessing’s unfinished drama comprise Volume I. At the outset, Bucchianeri writes, “Faust, the notorious reprobate who willingly forfeited his immortal soul to the devil in exchange of the fleeting illusory pleasures of the world as recounted in famous works of drama, literature, and music did not originate as the imaginary brainchild of a literary genius.A historical figure named ‘Faust’ did exist.”
Separating the historical personage from the folklore that quickly arose in letters, pamphlets and that individual’s own circulated exaggerations of his “powers” requires careful research. “Faustus” was the title/pseudonym used by Georg Helmstetter who was born in or near Heidelberg, Germany, in the mid-1400s. He was an educated man and, according to reports, an accurate astrologer. His self-aggrandizing claims of dark-side occult powers and an association with the Devil gave rise to the initial folklore and popular Faust books.
Bucchianeri brings order to the documented facts about Christopher Marlowe’s contribution to the Faust legend during Elizabethan times. She writes that the poet and dramatist “recognized in the character of Faustus his personal cynicism in regard to the subject of religion and his ardent desire to accomplish great deeds in the world.”
Here, as with the Goethe material, the author ostensibly presents readers with a miniature biography of the dramatist as a means of demonstrating important themes in the resulting play. Marlowe’s difficult route to a college degree and his rebellious views and lifestyle play into his version of “Faust.”
Goethe worked on “Faust” throughout his lifetime. Like Marlowe, Goethe had deep and basic questions about religion. He brought to “Faust” his youthful, manic-depressive mood swings and a wealth of study into subjects including the greater and lesser mysteries, alchemy and freemasons as Bucchianeri shows in Volume II.
Written in an academic style, Faust – My Soul be Damned for the World, will be of especial interest to scholars as well as serious students of the Faust legends, Marlowe, and Goethe. The scope of work and impeccable research may, in fact, be definitive insofar as the development of the literary Faust is concerned.
Some readers will find the biographical detail about Marlowe and Goethe to be too lengthy, far exceeding that which is required to illustrate how their personalities and their lives and studies influenced their Faust dramas.
If a second edition of Faust – My Soul be Damned for the World is released, the work will be greatly strengthened by the addition of an introduction that explains how this work differs from earlier Faust literature, concise chapter summaries and additional subheads and sidebars to break up the ponderous sections of straight text, a biography showing the author’s credentials for writing the book, and a comprehensive index.
That said, this work is a labor of love that greatly adds to our understanding of the literary Faust as he grew with the changing times.
See Also: The March of Books Review
The Faust Wikipedia Page
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
A Novel of Ancient Egypt
by Brian Trent
(iUniverse / 0-595-34252-3 / 978-0-595-34252-5 / February 2005 / 292 pages / $16.95 / $15.25 Amazon)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM
Imagine a great city that is a peaceful melting pot of mankind, brimming over with a variety of race and religions. In a world where bearded barbarians wreak senseless violence on faraway cities, this place is a bastion of civilization and tolerance, and rational people find refuge here from senseless violence. But still, the danger of religious fanaticism is growing, and a woman scientist and teacher will soon find herself in mortal danger, partly because her free-thinking ways threaten the power of certain theological leaders, but mostly because she is a woman who dares to stand out among men. Can you name the city? Possibly not, because this city was in its glory two millennia ago, and the events described here are straight out of ancient history.
Remembering Hypatia is a story of Egypt in 414 A.D. The great city is Alexandria; the terrorists are Visigoths; and the fundamentalist fanatics are early Christians, plying their growing strength against the science and philosophies of intellectuals. First the Alexandrians lose their freedom to worship as they wish; now their freedom to think as they wish is threatened. Hypatia, a woman of remarkable brilliance and charisma, pays the ultimate price for her intelligence, her unorthodox beliefs, and her gender. Although this story happened nearly two thousand years ago, modern Americans can shiver with apprehension. The issues may be different – pagan temples and astronomy instead of same-sex marriage and stem cell research, but the parallels are undeniable. And when religion overcame reason in Alexandria in the 5th Century, an age of darkness descended which lasted a thousand years.
“If nothing else, Hypatia thought, history is like a planet continually traversing the same path around a sun. Just when you think something’s over, it comes looming back from the gloom on yet another pass.”
Readers should be prepared for scenes of graphic and tragic violence taken, sadly enough, from truth. Although you know from the beginning of the book how it will end, this does not make it any less shocking or poignant. Brian Trent brings the 5th Century world of Alexandria to life with vivid imagery and resurrects a great woman and a terrible injustice in this worthy and highly researched historical fiction novel.
See Also: The High Spirits Review
Dianne's B&N Review
Brian Trent's website
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
In Her Name
by Michael R. Hicks
(Imperial Guard Publishing / 0-615-20853-3 / 978-0-615-20853-4 / April 2008 / 684 pages / $21.95 / $19.75 Amazon / $7.19 Kindle)
Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM
One of my good friends, a literate, book-reading friend, says he likes his movies tightly edited and concise, but he prefers his books by the pound. If that friend enjoys the occasional science fiction/fantasy adventure as well, then do I have a book for him! Michael R. Hicks' In Her Name is a monster of a paperback and an absolute steal for the price. (It's also available in Amazon's Kindle edition at a budget price.) I estimate In Her Name to be at least two pounds of solid entertainment.
For those who might be a little shaky on genre distinctions, science fiction involves devices like faster-than-light travel, exotic weaponry, alien species, and all the sorts of Star Wars features that most of us are familiar with. Fantasy adds the elements of spiritualism, magic, mysterious powers, and suchlike.
In Her Name features a galaxy-wide war of vast dimensions between humans and a race of reptilian warrior bipeds who are ferocious and merciless fighters. (Think of Whorf, the Klingon, or the samurai warriors of Japan.) One of these warriors notices a human child survivor during the aftermath of a battle that human forces lose. For whatever reason, the warrior remembers this child, and it is later kidnapped from an orphanage and enrolled in warrior training on the alien world (to see if it has a soul, actually). The child thrives after a difficult start, becoming completely acculturated to the alien society. Eventually, however, the child, Reza Gard, cannot stay with the alien race and must return to human society, where he likewise thrives... up to a point. After all, who would trust a person who has gone over to an enemy no one understands? The galactic war builds to a final conclusion, where Reza finds his fate is to be the culmination of the fate of his people – but which people?
I won't spoil the tale with further details, and in a book this size there are many. The basic outline is not a new one. Anyone at all familiar with Joseph Campbell's seminal study of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, will recognize the story of the person who sacrifices himself to save his people. (Indeed, even Christianity embodies this pattern.) In Her Name adds the notion of two peoples, however, one being non-human, and does it with meticulous and convincing veracity.
That was what I liked best about the book: the author's complete and convincing rendering of a non-human culture, to the point that the reader comes to understand and respect it, honor it, and even root for it! That is no mean feat of imagination, and it makes what could have been a purple-prose space opera into a delightful recreation.
Another feature that makes the book a great read is the style in which it is written: it is clear, elegant, and serves the story. When one is describing, let's say, the code of an alien warrior race or the feelings of attraction of a human for one of the Saurians, it would be easy for the prose to become an overwrought, Technicolor mishmash of hyperbole. But Mr. Hicks has a sure hand with this. Even when describing something totally fantastic, it is done so smoothly and gracefully that one accepts it at face value. The willing suspension of disbelief is alive and well in this novel.
A third positive feature that absolutely needs to be mentioned is the immaculate editing. The text reads as cleanly as any you will find, better, in fact, than most traditionally published efforts.
The bottom line is that In Her Name is highly recommended to those who love the sci-fi/fantasy genres, or are even tempted to try them. There is little profanity, but some gore, so perhaps the very young might hold off (though the movies they see are far, far worse). The most difficult thing a young reader is likely to find with this book would be holding it off the ground.
See Also: The B&N page
The author's website
Interview with Michael R. Hicks
Review of Michael R. Hicks' Publish Your Book on the Amazon Kindle
Sunday, February 08, 2009
by Stephanie Silberstein
(Narrow Path Publishing / 0-981-64590-9 / 978-0-981-64590-2 / June 2008 / 130 pages / $12.50)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM
On the first day of Chanukah, first grader Emily Horowitz arrives home with a note from her teacher pinned to her coat, complaining that Emily refused to sing Christmas songs with the rest of the class. She needs to get it signed, but her parents don’t have time to look at it. Her baby brother has just been diagnosed with autism, and the family is reeling with the repercussions.
In this slim novel, author Stephanie Silberstein explores the issues faced by one small child who happens to be the only Jewish student in her school. If a menorah is displayed alongside the Christmas tree, does that justify the demand that Jewish children sing Christian songs? If a Jewish child is visiting a Christian household, should she be forced into helping decorate the Christmas tree, because “ornaments don’t bite”? Harassed by an anti-Semitic principal and ignored by parents distraught about their other child, six-year-old Emily is confused and alone with her dilemma.
Ms. Silberstein’s theme is poignant and personal. I believe that she has experienced the prejudice that Emily faces in this novel. However I wish that she had chosen an older narrator who could have brought more depth to this story. Six-year-old Emily is too young to understand autism or her Jewish faith, and her parents are extremely uncommunicative. As a reader, I could not empathize with the parents’ plight and anguish; I was too taken aback by the way they criticize Emily, talk over her head, and at times disregard her own safety. The dialogue conveys too little information, and even the most sympathetic character, Emily’s young uncle Max, never manages to talk to her about her problem. Half-heard conversations and uncompleted statements assure that the reader never really understands the adults’ actions.
I was not surprised that the book ends without a resolution to Emily’s problem, since her problem could not easily be solved. However, there also seems to be no growth in any of the characters. I kept waiting for a climax, and when it came, I felt left out of the information loop. Emily’s mother can’t complete more than a few words without crying, and her father rarely finishes his sentences.
Distracting errors in editing and layout appear sporadically throughout the book, but these things could be updated and fixed in a later edition. I was more concerned by the book’s lack of a focused audience. Adults will find the dialogue and plot too thin, but the inclusion of an adult-themed preview for the author’s other book at the back of this one makes it problematic for child audiences.
See Also: Stephanie's Website
Saturday, February 07, 2009
Life Against All Odds
by Alfred Cave
(Outskirts Press / 1-432-72912-8 / 978-1-432-72912-7 / November 2008 / 240 pages / $15.95)
Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM
Life Against All Odds is an autobiography about one man surviving in a cruel world instead of allowing himself to be destroyed by that cruelty. In my opinion, Alfred Cave's story is about real success. The reason I'm saying this is because many times during Cave's youth he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time but makes the right choices regardless of the hardships and challenges that keep getting in the way. Every time he falls down, he picks himself up and keeps going—an example others should copy.
I started reading Life Against All Odds on a flight from Oakland, California to Phoenix, Arizona. By the time I landed in Phoenix, I was halfway through the story. I had to talk to someone about the book, so I picked a captured audience, the driver for the shuttle bus from the airport to the car rental agency. During our brief conversation, he told me he knew all about discrimination. I said he should read this book and tell others about it. I said it was a history that should not be hidden or forgotten.
As I was reading Alfred Cave's autobiography, I wondered if he attempted contacting literary agents and traditional publishers first. If so, I felt this incredible story was one example of what is wrong with the traditional publishing industry and why the print media is in so much financial trouble. I know for a fact that most agents only read the first page and if they don't get excited, they reject. That is understandable since there are so many manuscripts to consider. However, it is my opinion that something else might have kept this book from being published by a traditional publisher and getting the kind of attention it deserves.
I finished reading Life Against All Odds on the flight back with more than an hour of flying time left. It would have been nice to have another fifty pages about Cave's life to fill that hour. I wouldn't be surprised if this book wasn't published by a traditional publisher because it stumbled in that swamp called Political Correctness in some way. Cave is blunt at times with his opinions. In fact, he's like many of us working stiffs that weren't born with a privileged life and gold spoons in our mouths. He's too honest, and Political Correctness sometimes requires one to be a skilled liar so people hear or read only filtered history.
Alfred Cave's story starts in Jacksonville, Florida, when he is born in 1930. It doesn't take long before his father Earl and his mother Sarah are gone. Alfred was a few years old when he was orphaned and separated from his older brother and sister and sent to live with his step-grandmother. Imagine being beat with a plank of wood that had small nails in it so your body has puncture wounds that bleed and stain the bed sheets with your blood leading to more punishment.
Alfred Cave survived that episode and tried to run away. He was caught and brought back to a possible worse fate leading to another, but this time, successful, attempt to run away to avoid an even worse form of abuse that managed to catch him later while surviving on New York's tough streets. Most kids that experience abuse like Cave end up taking drugs or getting in trouble with the law. Not Cave. He was smart and made the right decisions. With some help from a few good people, he survives, but it is never easy.
The fact that Cave survives growing up without being turned into a basket case is evidence that he is a resourceful individual. What he goes through is enough to break most people. Eventually, Cave joins the army starting as a private and more than twenty years later retires as a major. He did all this on a GED. Ending racial segregation in America started in the military and that is another aspect of Cave's autobiography—the history behind those changes. Cave was part of that military history and that is the most powerful story in his autobiography.
Cave is a fast learner. He doesn't hide his flaws either. He puts it all out there—his mistakes are on display, too. In other words, he is made of flesh and blood. We learn from Cave's autobiography that there are damaged people but at the same time we also see good people. It doesn't matter what skin color a person has. Evil comes in all colors; so does good. This story shows us that Cave is one of the good guys. If you want to read a powerful story about how one man survived discrimination, this autobiography does the job.
See Also: Books of Soul
A True Journey Through Fire
Sunday, February 01, 2009
Kosher by Design Lightens Up:
Fabulous Food for a Healthier Lifestyle
by Susie Fishbein
(Mesorah Publications, Ltd. / 1-578-19117-3 / 978-1-578-19117-8 / November 2008 / 336 pages / $35.99 hardcover / $28.79 B&N / $23.75 Amazon)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM
I will plead guilty of having more cookbooks than any normal person needs: cookbooks for French food, for Cajun, for Italian food, and practically every cookbook ever generated by Sunset Magazine, and about fifteen shelves of others, to which Susie Fishbein’s Kosher By Design Lightens Up is cheerfully added. It goes onto the shelf with my admittedly limited collection of cookbooks by celebrity cooks like Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, and Ina Garton from the Barefoot Contessa, all of which have at least one thing in common: the recipes are fantastic. In the case of this book and Contessa, the pictures and presentation of the finished dish are to drool over – and the dishes are not terribly complicated in preparation. This is no small consideration for someone who prefers cooking from scratch, but doesn’t have all bloody evening to do it.
Being strictly kosher and relatively low-calorie has obviously set some challenges and limitations in setting up the recipes, but to an artist of any sort – even a culinary one – a limitation is nothing but a challenge to shine. The recipes from which we have tried are absolutely splendid, bursting with flavor. The Roasted Pepper Pesto over whole-grain pasta (p.232) was especially savory. The dishes are a nice assortment, taken from many different culinary traditions – Mexican, Chinese, Moroccan, as well as traditional American and Eastern European dishes, slimmed down, calorie-wise. There is a particularly tasty-looking version of ‘fried chicken’ – but instead of being battered and fried, the chicken pieces are crusted with crushed cornflakes and baked in the oven. I assume using artificial sour cream to coat the chicken underneath was necessary to meet the kosher requirement, for otherwise this collection refreshingly minimizes low-calorie fake food elements, like sugar substitutes and soy cheeses. Some recipes are more than a little creative. There is one for salmon steaks crusted with crushed wasabi peas and then baked – which does sound and look a bit strange. There are helpful hints for cooking – such as, baking the look-alike for fried chicken on a baking rack set over a pan in the oven, in order to ensure the very maximum of crispiness, and interesting suggestions and information on various ingredients – oils, whole-grains, sweetening agents and the like – but calorie information per serving is oddly omitted. Perhaps the intention is to take away the onus of being a ‘diet’ cookbook, and to concentrate on the luscious taste and appearance of the dishes as being lighter and healthier versions of well-known favorites. Overall, the recipes prove that it is not necessary to sacrifice taste in the interests of eating ‘light’.
See Also: Celia's BNN Review
Susie Fishbein's Website