Friday, November 5, 2010

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck

As I've mentioned, I teach a book discussion class called “A Sneak Peek at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” in which we read books in galley form pre-publication. Lots of fun, great discussions, and always fun to try to anticipate what the reviewers will say and then see if we’re right. We have a good track record. In previous sessions of this class we read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and loved it. It went on to be a New York Times bestseller. We read Lark + Termite by Jayne Ann Phillips and thought it was genius. The reviewers concurred. We’ve read Margaret Atwood, Lev Grossman, Ann Packer, David Leavitt, David Ebershoff, Ron Rash, Pete Dexter, Pat Conroy, Valerie Martin, and more!

In this current session of Sneak Peek, we started with The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck (published by Grove Press). I chose this book because it was the winner of the German Book Prize and an international bestseller, and I thought it would be good for us to read a book from abroad and a book for which we were reading a translation. I also thought, since the book deals with World War II, it would be interesting to read a German writer’s perspective.

We were not disappointed. The book spans a time frame starting during World War I and ending after World War II, so we did indeed get some insight into how some Germans experienced the war. What was most stunning was how, in the parts that took place during WWII, there seemed to have been little awareness of or attention paid to the plight of the Jews. Why don’t you go to Mr. So-and-So’s button shop? one character asks. Oh, he’s not there anymore, goes the reply – he moved away. Well, obviously he didn’t move away. Obviously this man with a Jewish name was forcibly removed. Does the fact that all the Jewish shops are closed, that all the Jewish residents are no longer there, mean anything to you, the reader wonders? Are you able to convince yourself that they all just coincidentally decided to move?

Several weeks after our class met, the book was reviewed favorably in The New York Times. The reviewer seemed to downplay the part of the book we all found most shocking and disturbing. The book begins with a Prologue in which a character named Alice, who is a nurse, lives with her young son Peter (he’s about 8) in a war-torn city which they are trying to escape. Life there clearly entails much hardship and trauma, such as when the boy is walking along with a friend and bombs begin to drop, and shortly he finds himself holding his friend’s hand—-only his hand, for that is all that is left of his friend. At another point Alice is visited by, and raped by, enemy soldiers.

Finally Alice and Peter make their escape when a train comes to town. They make their way aboard the crowded train on to the next major station, where they disembark. Alice sits Peter down on a bench, explains to him she is going to find tickets for the next stage of their journey, and tells him to stay put until she returns. And then she walks away, never to return.

It is stunning to read of a mother abandoning her child this way, and stunned we were.

The book then moves to a period just before and during World War I, in a family in another town with two young daughters. Eventually we learn that one of these daughters, although her name is Helene at the time, is the girl who will become Alice the nurse. We are taken through her life and her experience in war-torn Germany, until we are finally brought back around to the moment where she will leave her son, supposedly, at this point, with a greater understanding of the characters, the situation, and their motivation.

The book touches on so many issues: Germany at war and how this shaped its people, German culture and important writers, artists, and thinkers, love and coming of age. And yet for us, the central question was the question of how can a mother abandon her child? As we learned more about Julia Franck’s background, we learned that her father had in fact been abandoned during the war by his own mother, hence we can imagine that this significant item in her family history has for the author, as well, long been a burning and perplexing question.

It’s a thoughtful, well-written and interesting book, although I find that it’s written in a rather emotionally dry tone, keeping one at some remove from the strength of its characters’ feeling. The Times reviewer calls it “remorseless” – a good word for it.

NY Times review:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

By Fire, By Water

Last month I had a great experience working with a local organization called Jewish Outreach Project that sponsors a One Book, One Jewish Community event in the Philadelphia area. The project is similar to the One Book, One City event that many cities sponsor, but with a book with some sort of Jewish theme and a Jewish author. This year the book selected is called By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan. For the kick-off event for the program, they wanted someone to do an on-stage interview with the author, and I got the gig – quite fun!

The book is historical fiction (although the author doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed into that category, it’s the simplest way to explain it) and takes place in Spain, during the Inquisition in the years leading up to Columbus’s voyage and the expulsion of the Jews. It hinges around two characters, a converso (someone whose family converted from Judaism, usually to save their skins) named, and a Jewish woman who lives in Southern Spain, an area ruled by Muslims who are tolerant of the Jews and allow them to observe their faith.

My job was to read the book and prepare some hopefully interesting and original questions for the author. Once I got Monty Python (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) and Mel Brooks ("The Inquisition! The Inquisition!" – and by the way, you can watch this excerpt from “History of the World, Part I" on Youtube and it’s hilarious!) out of my head, I managed to come up with some good questions. And while Mitchell, the author, told me he’d heard some of my questions before, he said I hit on a few that were new and that he found quite interesting! (I recall Nicole Krauss telling me once before she did a local reading I had arranged that she pretty much got different versions of the same questions every time she did an event. I saw her again recently at the Free Library of Philadelphia [line] and as she listened to questions from the audience, I watched her and, at a certain point in each question, she would nod her head once and I thought – ah, that’s the moment where she’s thinking: ok, I know which question this is, and I have my answer ready.)
Here's a link to the Free Library website. They don't the podcast up yet of her visit but they will soon:

So are you wondering what my interesting questions were? Well, I asked him to tell us about advice he got from his writing mentor, who happened to have been William Styron. Styron told him that the most important thing is to convince your readers of the reality of your story.

Among many other questions, I asked Kaplan about something that happened near the beginning of the book, where participant in a secret study group says to the rabbi leading the group: “I came here to get answers, and all I’m getting are more questions.” The rabbi replies: “If you want answers, don’t look to Judaism. The entire edifice, beautiful and convoluted as it is, is built not of answers, but of questions.” I connected this to something in the end of the book after the Jews are gone from Spain and Ysabel and Fernando have achieved what they call Unification with all Spain under one rule. Kaplan writes: “Unification meant no doubt, no dissent, no debate. . . It also meant that the class of people who posed questions—scholars, astronomers, cartographers, secret agnostics—would not return. The advance of knowledge, especially of knowledge antithetical to the teachings of the Church, had ground to a halt.” I asked Kaplan about the idea of Judaism being a religion that encompasses the asking of questions, and how this was perhaps distinct from how other religions operated, as well as the suggestion that doubt and questioning lead to progress. He really liked that I put these two parts of the book together and said he hadn’t seen that connection before.

Mitchell Kaplan and Jewish Outreach Partnership and I also did something interesting – we made a video introduction for the event about the author. You can view it here:
(It’s on the right side partway down.)