In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another. A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers. In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength. Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous. So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human. They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions. They chafe at being immigrants in a new city. They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves. The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.
Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I. Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience. Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning. They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night. Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health. The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets. In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.
Suki Kim spent six months teaching English to the sons of elite North Koreans enrolled at Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), an evangelical college in the world’s most secretive nation. Kim is neither a teacher nor a practicing Christian and yet maintained her cover despite being entrapped on the campus — there is no free travel in North Korea — and watched round the clock by North Korean minders. What strikes Kim as most frightening is the total dependence of North Koreans on their Dear Leader who provides for jobs, food, beliefs about their past, their relations to others, and their future. Free will has been utterly squashed. Until she attends a Sunday morning prayer session with the Christians who run PUST and recognizes that entreaties of administrators and missionaries are virtually the same as what is broadcast on North Korean television. She needs only to exchange the names of Kim Jong Il and Jesus. She laments the inability of her college students to access the Internet, convinced that if only they could understand how much knowledge there is in the world each one of them would be free. She wrote the book just two years before American Evangelicals, Fake News and post-truth politics cherry-picked from the Internet by his supporters led to the election of Donald Trump.
Patty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders. Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality. A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions. The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.
Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise. Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth. He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head. Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy. Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer. Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania. One of us. This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.
In the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt did not yet have presidential ambitions. As a young man he was trying to sweep corruption from the halls of New York City’s police department. To sidestep detectives he doesn’t trust, Roosevelt turns to a reporter from the New York Times, Moore, and a psychoanalyst called Kreizler to solve a series of gruesome murders of young male prostitutes. The descriptions of turn of the century New York are colorful, informative, and a loud reminder of the breadth of inequality suffered by immigrants living in hovels on the lower east side. The only problem is that after 200 pages the first clues are only beginning to be assembled. After 400 pages the killer has been identified and yet there are still a hundred pages to go. It’s not a good sign for what is supposed to be a suspense-filled mystery when the reader is keeping such careful track of the page numbers.
The plot entails a battle in city council, in Britain called Parish Council, over whether the poorer neighborhood of Yarvil should be cut free from the upper crust, up-the-hill village of Pagford. The real story, however, is about the members of the community themselves. Everyone, as is often so true in a small town, has a carefully manicured exterior and a story to hide. One wife thinks she might really be in love with another’s husband; a second is bored with her marriage and fantasizes about muscled rock stars; a lawyer is afraid to commit to a divorced girlfriend who has moved to town with her teenage daughter on his account; the high school disciplinarian is dogged by OCD; one husband abuses his wife; and a poor drug addict of a mother has more of a history than meets the eye. Captured most accurately by Rowling are the teenagers of Pagford who wrestle with love, sex, alcohol, cigarettes, acceptance, rejection, and the agony of adolescence. Like her Harry Potter series, which inevitably lingers about this book, Rowling’s insight into what we are all really thinking versus what we wish we projected is spot on. The major flaw is that she follows too many characters. I needed to draw up a scorecard to keep them straight.
Lionel Esrog, along with three friends, is plucked from a Brooklyn orphanage by Frank Minna, a self-made detective and small time Brooklyn nogoodnik. Early in the book, Minna walks into a trap leaving his four offspring to solve the mystery of what happened to their boss. Lionel lets you know in the opening lines that he has Tourette’s Syndrome. He obsesses on numbers and patterns, word tensions explode in his mind and burst from his lips: EAT ME, BAILY! As he works to solve the mystery, Lionel becomes a full human being, far deeper, funnier, and more intelligent than we, or anyone around him, gives him credit for. His fellow Brooklynites refer to him as FreakShow, and we do, too, until slowly we recognize how automatically we have categorized Lionel because of his ticks and squirms. The supporting cast, including the entire borough, are superbly rendered. Every voice retaining its original Italian, Jewish, or out-of-city origins with precise adjustments for the age of the speaker. The mystery is fun and funny enough, but Motherless Brooklyn is a must-read because its characters and sense of place lodge in your head like one of Lionel’s numerical obsessions, a friendly itcth that cannot be ignored.
Half a dozen fully realized characters intertwine as the Russian empire disintegrates in the early 2000s and the Republic of Chechnya is obliterated by two wars. Each person trying to survive in a small Chechnyan village must make his or her own decisions with respect to survival and morality as nearby buildings are destroyed and friends are disappeared. Too often those decisions are at odds. “Do I save myself or protect my neighbors and family?” In the end, we learn that a person cannot choose his family. Sometimes family members engage in despicable acts; other times we care and love for those not fully related to us as if they were. I suppose its interesting that in trying to recount this book, a narrative rich in plot, that it isn’t the action that has stayed with me, but rather issues of morality. The added benefit is that the deep research incorporated into the book offers a history lesson about a little-known part of the world without ever feeling like a treatise. I want to learn more about Chechnya. Do not be put off by the grim subject matter. Embrace this book for the great novel that it is.
A graphic, graphic-novel of the author’s descent, ascent, descent, and ascent through bipolar disorder. Her story is told with exceptional clarity, honesty, more than a little humor, and wisdom. It speaks to anyone that has ever suffered from a high, a low, or something worse, which I believe probably includes everyone. Her images and text are partnered perfectly and together prove to be remarkably informative. Her story opens with a discovery chapter, followed by denial, a highly educational center wherein author and psychiatrist spend considerable amount of time engaging in therapy and searching for the right cocktail of medications, and a satisfying conclusion.