Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Elizabeth Kostova, THE SWAN THIEVES

I enjoyed this one. At the heart of it is an event that happened back in 1879; I always like the novels that have a solid backstory and good research on a topic (here, it's art and a bit on the turmoil in France in the 1870s after the Prussian war); and I didn't mind that it's sort of a "baggy monster" like a Victorian novel. It's four stories, braided together: a manic-depressive but magnetic painter who comes to a psychiatrist for help after he slashes at a painting in the National Gallery; the psychiatrist/sleuth who is interviewing the painter's wife, his ex, etc., to figure out why because the painter isn't speaking; a romance, told in letters, between two painters in 1878; the psychiatrist's own romance. You'd think it would be a lot to juggle, but it all works; and while the "troubled patient who's not speaking" as motive for sleuthing has been done before, it doesn't seem contrived. Kostova has some lovely phrases: "the inevitability of [his desire] catches tightly in her rib cage"; "she senses something out of place in Gilbert Thomas, something loose and hard that rattles around inside him"; "the roadsides became crowded with evergreens, which pressed in on either side like armies of giants." I'll definitely give her others a try.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


I started this book about ten years ago and--for some reason--set it aside. After reading Chabon's *Moonglow* last month, I thought, hm, maybe I'll give it another try. I have NO IDEA what I didn't see the first time around. This book is big-hearted, beautifully written, by turns playful (without being writerly "clever") and poignant without being cloying. Six hundred pages of type that is so small I had to use cheaters, but I couldn't put it down. After the second day of reading, I started dreaming about it.

Young Sammy Klayman lives in Brooklyn in the late 1930s; his cousin Josef Kavalier barely escapes from Czechoslovakia as the borders close under the Nazis, and makes his way to Brooklyn. Together the boys become a comic book-writing team, evolve as artists, and survive WWII and heartbreaking loss. But this synopsis doesn't do the book justice. Think magic (Houdini, not Harry Potter), comic books, censorship, friendship, war, love, loss, homosexuality, anti-Semitism, forgiveness, secrets. 

A don't miss.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


I'm so lame about late-night pop culture that I didn't even know Trevor Noah was the replacement for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show until I read the reviews. (I go to sleep too early, apparently.) 

This book is about a boy growing up mixed-race in apartheid South Africa and as the country transitions out of apartheid. Other comments mention that we should listen to this book because Noah has such an engaging voice. It comes across on the page as well; I felt as if I were sitting next to him, and he was telling me his story. And it's a shocking one that both shows the raw particularity of his own experience and (without preaching at all) illuminates Western (US) frames of reference by contrasts. While his mother makes some mistakes in judgment, she is the book's heroine; she loves her son fiercely; she also understands the nature of the place where they live. When she is beaten by her husband Abel (a true villain), she tries to file a report with the police; they refuse, again and again to accept it. (I felt my frustration growing each time.) The police wave her away, expressing sympathy for Abel, agreeing how irritating women can be. When Abel finally attempts to murder her (and nearly succeeds), shooting her with a gun twice, he walks free because he has no priors. Early on, she explains to Trevor, after he was taken to jail for (not) stealing a car: "Everything I have ever done, I've done from a place of love. If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you. If the police get you, the police don't love you. When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you." Another example of a Western frame of reference that doesn't hold up in SA: Noah makes the point that every culture has its villain--the person they'd like to go back in time and erase. For the Congo, it's King Leopold of Belgium whose exploitation of the Congo for ivory and rubber led to the death of 10 million Congolese. For South Africa, it's Cecil Rhodes. Hitler isn't the villain we (in the West) know so well; he is "not the worst thing a black South African can imagine." There's a boy named Hitler who's a fabulous dancer, who accompanies Noah to the parties where Noah DJs with his pirated CDs. Noah makes the point also that because he fit in nowhere (being of mixed race), he had to find ways to fit in everywhere. He does that through (as you'd expect) humor, but also salesmanship, entrepreneurship, and language--because there are nearly a dozen "official" languages of South Africa, and the fact that Noah knows Tsonga from his stepfather may have saved his life in prison. He quotes Nelson Mandela in a passage I liked: 

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, "I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being." 

Another passage I read several times over:

People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." That's the part of the analogy that's missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, "Okay, here's what you need, and here's how it works." Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, "Oh, that's a handout." No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don't stand a chance without it.

The threads of empathy and understanding run through this book. It's a quick, thoroughly enjoyable read; I would say, don't miss it.