Archives for posts with tag: Jewish experience

Norwegian by NightSheldon Horowitz is 82 years old and has just moved to Norway with his granddaughter, Rhea, and her husband, Lars. His wife died recently, his family think he has dementia, and he’s haunted by the death of his son, Saul, years earlier in the Vietnam War. Sheldon blames himself for Saul’s death having spent Saul’s childhood touting the honour of fighting for your country. One morning Sheldon witnesses his neighbour’s murder and manages to save her young son from her killer. The boy and Sheldon go on the run together through the Norwegian countryside in an attempt to protect the boy from the murderer and his Balkan gang. Meanwhile, the Oslo police, and Rhea and Lars are trying to find Sheldon before he gets himself killed.

Against this crime backdrop Derek B. Miller has woven in scenes from Sheldon’s past, often scenes of war – Korea and Vietnam. Sheldon missed out on fighting in World War I, he was too young, but he thinks of it often. He feels guilty, as a Jew, that he couldn’t go and fight the Nazis. As atonement he later fought in Korea, telling his wife he was a supply clerk and didn’t see action. But years later Sheldon changed his story – he was a Marine sniper, but he kept quiet about it to spare his family worrying. But by then nobody believed him. His wife was convinced he had dementia or it was a fantasy brought on by the loss of Saul. Then there are imagined scenes of Saul in Vietnam – Sheldon’s attempt to relive the moment of Saul’s death despite never having been there.

Norwegian by Night is another story of Jewish experience, read right after May We Be Forgiven. But where May We Be Forgiven was confronting and brash, Norwegian by Night is wonderfully poignant. Sheldon is a great central character – resourceful, smart and fiercely loyal yet kind of racist (he is convinced Koreans are hunting him down because of what happened in the war) and antagonistic (he insists on using his Penthouse coffee mug from the 1970s despite Rhea’s protests). And his sanity and memory are constantly called into question. But Sheldon’s not really an unlikely hero, he’s just old. And he’s struggling to find the dignity in old age. In his youth he was a vital man. He was adventurous – he spent time after the war travelling the world taking photos of unwilling subjects, which he became quite famous for – and he was patriotic enough to go to war without being blind to America’s problems. After an incident where Sheldon was refused access to a country club in the 1960s for being Jewish, he told Saul,

This country is what you make it…It isn’t good and it isn’t bad…That means you don’t make excuses for America’s bullshit. That’s what the Nazis and Commies do. The fatherland. The motherland. America isn’t your parent. It’s your kid. And today, I made America a place where you get your nose broken for telling a Jew he can’t play a round of golf. The only one allowed to tell me I can’t play golf is the ball.

The scenes of Sheldon bonding with the little boy, Paul, are funny and beautiful. Paul doesn’t speak English so Sheldon has a great time talking to him about things too complex for a boy to understand. Sheldon’s musings on God, Noah and morality, in particular, demonstrate depth and grace. He asks is it impossible for God to make amends,

how does he know when he’s done wrong? After all, does being all-knowing include self-knowledge? As He is the source of everything, can he possibly deny His own actions and condemn them? Against what? What’s the yardstick other than himself?

Sheldon comes to the conclusion that there is a morality separate from God, an inherent human morality that governs us.

It must be difficult writing a novel about a place that you live but are not native to, as is the case with Derek B. Miller. Norwegian by Night was written in English but was first published in Norwegian. It affects the way you describe the place, you know what will seem odd to an outsider because you were one yourself. Norwegian by Night is littered with the differences that must have struck Miller on arrival but that a Norwegian probably wouldn’t give a second thought to, like that Oslo isn’t equipped to fuel stoves with natural gas. It’s a bit like being taken on a tour of the city instead of being completely immersed in a new culture. That approach doesn’t always work but here it’s exactly what’s needed. It allows Miller to really get into the minds of his many immigrant characters.

At its most basic level Norwegian by Night reminded me of another crime novel with a foreigner in a strange land scenario, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops. Norwegian by Night is far superior. Derek B. Miller packs a hell of a lot into a relatively simple story – Jewish experience, dementia and ageing, Norwegian history and identity, conflict between Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and cultural integration. And he balances it all brilliantly by finding, in Sheldon, the perfect character to bring everything together.

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May We Be ForgivenHarry and George Silver are brothers. George is a very successful TV executive with a lovely wife and two children. Harry, the older of the two, is a history professor and Richard Nixon expert, who never reached his potential. His unfinished Nixon book haunts him. One night George gets into a car accident, killing a man and a woman, and leaving a young boy orphaned. George appears to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown, exposing a murderous temper. He then escapes from a hospital psych ward, comes home to find his wife, Jane, in bed with his brother and proceeds to bludgeon Jane to death. On discovering the adultery, Harry’s wife leaves him, he moves into George’s house, and takes custody of his kids – a son, Nate, and a daughter, Ashley. And it’s a black comedy, in case you didn’t get that from the plot.

All this happens in less than thirty pages. It’s startling. The rest of the book is, in a sense, about Harry adjusting to his new responsibilities, dealing with his guilt about Jane’s death, and creating a new family out of the wreckage of George’s crimes.

More specifically, the remainder of May We Be Forgiven is largely a series of incidents stemming from George’s breakdown, rather than a linear plot. Harry has sex with bored housewives he meets on the internet. Harry’s elderly mother gets married. He hosts Nate’s bar mitzvah in a South African village Nate helped build called Nateville. The episodic nature of the plot was particularly evident in the middle section, where an Israeli arms dealer subplot had me thinking, what the hell’s going on?

As Harry settles into his new life his routine is broken up by truly bizarre encounters with people. There’s his married nymphomaniac mistress/best friend, and the young woman Harry meets at an A&P supermarket who follows him home, has sex with him, but refuses to tell him her name, just for starters. Those two characters, in particular, are disconcertingly, unusually candid. Really all the conversations in May We Be Forgiven are strangely devoid of pretence. Everyone (including Harry) seems to just say exactly what’s on their mind. In one scene Harry is selling kittens that George’s cat had – a lady considering buying one has this encounter with Harry. She sends a text to check with her husband if she should buy the kitten, she gets back the reply ‘Use your best judgment.’

‘I think it’s an automated response’…‘He’s got a smartphone – you can program auto-responses to anything. Watch’, she says, texting back. ‘Do you want chicken or steak for dinner?’ And again, ‘Use your best judgment.’…‘He’s probably having an affair.’

Who shares that much with a complete stranger? And that’s the least of it. At times it makes for a ballsy, challenging book but sometimes it’s just ridiculous.

May We Be Forgiven is a dark book. The kind where shit just keeps happening. Each time I thought things were getting better for Harry and his motley gang of children, pets and elderly relatives something would go spectacularly wrong. But for all that goes wrong I wasn’t upset. In part because it is an amusing book but also, I didn’t connect with anyone. Every human interaction was surreal and absurd. Nothing was real. Harry blames himself for Jane’s murder, to the point where he says he’s as responsible as George. I can’t imagine what the appropriate emotional response is when your brother kills his wife in a psychotic rage in front of you but the guilt seemed forced and extreme. And Harry never even seems to really blame George, he’s barely angry with him. Satire allows for an exaggerated, outrageous version of reality, but the sense of distance Homes created meant I wasn’t terribly invested in the characters.

May We Be Forgiven is one of those books that describe all those awkward human processes – sex, diarrhoea, vomiting, eating, illness, farting, burping – in grotesque detail. It borders on scatology. Nate gets violently sick during a trip to Williamsburg, Ashley tries to remove a tampon she put in the wrong hole. I’m really not squeamish but I think Homes relied too heavily on these details. And to what end? I don’t get the point of being informed every time a character farts.

A.M. Homes is a talented writer, and an accomplished dark humorist. But often I either felt overwhelmed by the ruin George plunges his family into or stuck amongst extraneous details and strange set pieces going nowhere. That being said, May We Be Forgiven is an intriguing and ambitious novel, perhaps worth reading for Homes’s unique take on tragedy.

Super Sad True Love StoryAgeing, ugly, earnest, lover of books Lenny Abramov falls in love with young, beautiful, damaged, naive Eunice Park. Super Sad True Love Story is the story of their sweet, messy love affair. The point of difference here is that it’s set in a dystopian near-future. The world Lenny and Eunice live in is very familiar, a heightened, over-the-top version of now, and it’s scarily real. The obsession with eternal youth, having to have the latest technology, using text language and acronyms in speech, wearing revealing clothes, America’s financial collapse – all of this is happening right now. Gary Shteyngart has mined these present trends and problems for absurdity.

Facelifts and Botox aren’t enough, in Shteyngart’s future High Net Worth Individuals reverse the ageing process using nanotechnology. Instead of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter there are äppäräts; devices for communication and online shopping, everything we use phones and computers for now except more invasive. They constantly monitor their wearers’ health, Credit ranking, mood, hotness, personality, everything you can think of. Instead of people saying LOL and OMG as if they’re real words, in the future of Super Sad True Love Story you’ll have to contend with TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit) and calling each other slut, playa and duder, as well as rampant illiteracy. Instead of midriff tops and short shorts there are nipple revealing bras worn in public and transparent Onionskin jeans worn without underwear.

Obsession with eternal life is all through the novel. Lenny works in Indefinite Life Extension and is continually plagued by thoughts of his own mortality. Everyone acts like stereotypical teenagers in a bid to recapture their youth and remain relevant. Lenny’s middle-aged to elderly (no one actually knows how old he really is) boss Joshie is the worst example of this. The middle-aged clinging to their youth is nothing new but Super Sad True Love Story really captures the dangers and horrors of a nation that never matures.

Super Sad True Love Story is a more playful 1984, not only is the government keeping tabs on everyone but through their äppäräts everyone watches each other. It’s just as terrifying as it is farcical (just the idea of everyone’s äppäräts ranking hotness whenever you go to a bar would make me want to become a hermit). I’d call Shteyngart prescient but so much of what he describes is beginning now. It made me think, is this really what the future holds? It sounds like hell to me. And that’s only the social and cultural issues.

Shteyngart has taken every problem the United States is currently having and has turned the volume up, including political and economic instability. This part isn’t so funny. America is poor, powerless, and on its way to being a military state. The government is always watching for signs of disloyalty. But Shteyngart’s sense of the absurd still comes through. The American government uses a cartoon otter in all its propaganda. There’s the otter in a sombrero trying to jump into a dinghy with the tagline ‘The Boat Is Full, Amigo’. The otter reappears, only this time he’s Americanised, a symbol of the government, unassuming and friendly yet passive-aggressively menacing. He’s a recurring motif, an embodiment of Larry’s paranoia that the government is after him.

Lenny Abramov is a relic from a dead world. He feels at home in Italy, a place steeped in history, decay and rebirth, more so than in America, the land of Retail and Media. In a culture where everyone amounts to nothing more than a collection of data Lenny wants a real human connection. Yet, he too has become caught up in the youth mania. This internal conflict draws him to Eunice, also conflicted about her place in the world but very much a product of her time. She’s bought into the obsession with extreme consumerism and the importance of youth.

Lenny is pathetic and cringe-worthy, even a little bit creepy, and his relationship with Eunice is incredibly awkward. So much so that I thought to myself, can I endure an entire book of this? But compared to everyone else Lenny is a symbol of truth and humanity. I learned to understand and appreciate him. Super Sad True Love Story is Eunice’s story as well. She’s not just Lenny’s shallow love interest, she’s still hard to love though. Eunice toys with Lenny but then she really loves him, she wants to get a shallow Retail job but then she wants to help homeless people living in Central Park. She’s pushy, dismissive and bratty but she’s also compassionate.

Super Sad True Love Story is funny, shocking and sad. It’s relevant and topical, a book you’ll feel compelled to tell people about. The observations Shteyngart makes about life and where the world is heading feel so spot-on. I just hope that he’s wrong.