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review 2016-09-21 20:07
The Gifts of the Jews (Hinges of History #2)
The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels - Thomas Cahill

The moment, or hinge, in history that a changed occurred to allow Western civilization possible is the primary focus of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews.  Over the course of less than 304 pages and the scope of two millennia of Jewish history from its birth with Abraham to their return from exile, Cahill examines the evolving birth of a new worldview that was entirely different from what had been thought before.


The focus of Cahill’s book is the beginning of Western civilization, which to him is a change in mindset on how to view the world and the reason was the Jews.  Before getting to Abraham however, Cahill looked to what had come before, the “cyclical” worldview and culture of Sumer in which he went out of.  With this in mind, Cahill emphasizes how big a step Abraham’s journey at God’s direction was.  Then throughout the course of the book, Cahill examines step-by-step the development of the “processive” worldview that the Jews were exhibiting for the first time from successive revelations of God and the development of individuality in language and philosophy, but most importantly the role of justice in society.


Cahill’s argument is very compelling, as was his discussions on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the various Biblical individuals and their actions.  Yet the problem I have with this book is with some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis.  For example some of the evidence Cahill uses to date the Exodus is erroneous by misinterpretation of both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, yet that is only of several examples I could have given.


Yet while Cahill’s interpretations aren’t the best part of this book, his argument that the Jews brought forth a new worldview that would lead to Western civilization is compelling.  Because of that, The Gifts of the Jews is worth a close read as it describes the first and most significant hinge of historical change.

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review 2015-10-13 19:19
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

This is an exceptional story that explores the history of an ancient illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. When the novel opened with a scene in 1996 Sarajevo, I wondered if it was going to be a good choice for me, but that was just the beginning of an amazing journey through centuries of struggle, war, and fate that brought this unique book into the hands of modern book restoration specialist Hanna Heath.


Heath is the central character, connecting to the others by the evidence she finds in the Haggadah. As she investigates a stain or researches the source of an insect wing, the story of another lifetime is revealed. The travels of the book demonstrate how amazing it is that it still exists while documenting the trials and suffering that humankind has caused each other to suffer.


Each person who has contact with the Haggadah is impacted by it and has a part in ensuring its future. People of diverse faiths and backgrounds are eloquently brought together in heartbreaking stories that far too many people lived through. Examples of slavery, inquisition, torture, disinheritance, and, of course, the Holocaust.....one finishes this book wondering how we could keep doing this to one another.


Another hit from Brooks. She does not disappoint.


I have to mention that I listened to this as an audio book. That was probably not the best format to choose with the multitude of characters, locations, and timelines. However, the narrator did an impressive job of using different accents for the wide variety of nationalities represented. I learned that Americans (I include myself) have the least musical speech patterns in the world. It almost hurt my ears to hear the American characters after the others, including the main character's Australian accent.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-12-23 15:16
Rutu Modan’s The Property (2013): translated by Jessica Cohen
The Property - Rutu Modan,Jessica Cohen

“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina. You came to tell me that our son is dead.”


This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Ruth Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property. I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel. It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers. Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII. This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances. Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now).


Once in Poland, Regina tries to steal away to meet Roman, her forgotten lover, while Mica decides to find the property herself. During her travels she meets Tomasz, a Ukranian artist/tour guide who conducts her through the city and becomes attracted to her—or perhaps her grandmother’s history.   Mica soon learns that Tomasz is sketching a comic of every story and character from Mica’s life, details she finds unbearably private. Rejecting him, she goes off on her own, mistakenly believing that the “property” is actually the current site of the Warsaw Hilton, which will make her family rich. Her search is complicated by the presence of Avram, her aunt’s fiance, who fears that Mica will get her hands on the property first. By dogging her steps throughout every frame of the comic, he learns of the true property and the man who owns it, and bribes him not to speak to Mica or her grandmother. Roman, meanwhile, is slowly piecing things together himself, and realizes that Regina bore him a son in Palestine, a boy he never met, who recently died of cancer. This, and not the property, is what finally prompted her to come to Poland and confront her past.


The novel ends with the Polish festival of Zaduski, the so-called day of the dead, where the entire city flocks to cemeteries to light candles and pay respects to the departed. Amidst the light and shadow of the festival (beautifully rendered by Modan’s artwork), Regina and Roman reconcile and share memories, Mica learns to trust Tomasz’s motives, and even Avram learns the truth about the property: that Regina’s parents sold it to Roman before the war to save it from Nazi possession. In the final pages, Mica learns that Roman is her grandfather, and her grandmother’s past wasn’t quite as buried as either of them thought. In short, the book lights its own candle for the past, showing the healing process which often takes decades and is sometimes attempted too late.

Of course, any summary of the story is flawed without appreciation of Modan’s artwork, which is the true voice of the narrative. The colors are light yet crisp, reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century Russian artist Bilibin, who sumptuously illustrated so many Russian fairytales. This gives the characters an almost cartoon-like characterization, which is belied by how realistically they move, express themselves, and interact with each other. According to the back of the book, each character had an “actor,” suggesting that she closely modeled the poses and expressions on real life. This shows in the book, which for all its stylization, gives us a “fly on the wall” approach—one of utter intimacy, almost like a documentary. Also, unlike some graphic novels, for which the setting is a mere hazy outline, place really matters: Warsaw emerges clearly in these pages, giving us a sense of its sights, sounds, and even smells. The cemetery scene, as discussed earlier, is most vividly evoked, as the characters piece together the past surrounded by a halo of red,

orange, and blue lights.


The Property is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in some time, and deserves mention with other family narratives such as Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets. Check out of my review of her other novel, Exit Wounds, on my comics website: http://grassocomics.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-comic-response-template-modans-exit.html

Source: hblackbeard.blogspot.com
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review 2014-10-04 23:00
The Luck of the Weissensteiners - Christoph Fischer

Christoph Fischer has written an important historical rendition of wartime Eastern Europe that will continue to haunt you for a long time after you finish reading it. The Luck of the Weissensteiners presents the spirit and horrific social conditions of Bratislava and the neighbouring countries during the Holocaust. The actual political figures of that era are embedded in the story but the slew of other characters are all strong fictional creations that give life and credibility to the historical backdrop.
It is a touching story of courage, love and heroic endurance in a time of abject cruelty and terror. War has the knack of bringing out either the best or the worse of the human psyche--both extremes are equally depicted in the novel. 
The players in this drama are far from being two-dimensional; even the cold, unfeeling characters will at times show a glimmer of warmth. Greta and her Jewish family remain loyal to their compassionate and trusting nature throughout their terrifying ordeal. Her fate is sealed when she falls in love with Wilhelm, a charming German bookseller whose true colours as a calculating anti-Semite are revealed when the going gets tough.
Be prepared for emotional upheaval while reading this-- you cannot remain untouched.

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review 2014-05-18 20:48
A Messy, Riveting Read
Away - Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom's AWAY is as big, complicated, beautiful, awful, funny, despairing and messy as life itself.


From the back of the book:


Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia. All of the qualities readers love in Amy Bloom’s work–her humor and wit, her elegant and irreverent language, her unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart–come together in the embrace of this brilliant novel, which is at once heartbreaking, romantic, and completely unforgettable.


This is the second of Bloom's books I've read.  The first was her collection of short stories, WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT, and I'm happy to report she is as good a novelist as she is a short story writer.


Bloom is a psychotherapist, and her knowledge of how the human mind and psyche work serve her well as a writer.   Actions here feel credible, even in extraordinary circumstances.  The author's understanding of what motives people is put to excellent use.  


Then too, the landscape and historical period is well-depicted, and she, like her heroine covers a lot of ground -- from Russia to New York to Dawson, from Jewish immigrants to Tlingits living in a B.C. cabin.  


I am impressed by Bloom's use of the third person omniscient, which is a point of view easy to get wrong.  There is perhaps one misstep, when she veers a little farther off-track than is necessary with the story of a woman named "Chinky Chang".  It's interesting and moving, but in the end made me anxious to get back to Lillian.  For the most part, however, she manages it admirably, and it gives the book not only a depth that mirrors the vast geographical territory it covers, but also the spiritual and psychological landscape.


On top of that, it was a riveting read that had me turning pages quickly.  Enjoy.  

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