December Readers’ Report
Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947
By Norman Lebrecht
“In a hundred-year period, a handful of men and women changed the way we see the world. Many of them are well-known — Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka. Others have vanished from collective memory despite their enduring importance in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusions or major surgery. Without Paul Erlich, no chemotherapy. Without Seigfried Marcus, no motor car. Without Rosalind Franklin, genetic science would look very different. Without Fritz Haber, there would not be enough food to sustain life on earth.”
“What do these visionaries have in common? They all had a gift for thinking in wholly original, even earth-shattering ways. In 1847 the Jewish people made up less than 0.25 percent of the world’s population, and yet they saw what others could not. How? Why?”
The above two paragraphs were taken from the book’s cover flap; the answers given were not really that difficult to deduce, or to even question. The fact that they were all Jewish, in some way, explains the “how” and “why”. So much hardship, so much suffering, and so many needless deaths. A history of anti-Semitism, pogroms, forced migrations, and the Holocaust, of course, will help make you see yourself as an outsider, no matter how nationalistic you may try to be. Converting to Christianity, being an atheist, a capitalist, or a communist didn’t matter. Others would still see you as a “Jew.” We know it’s not racial. It’s not in your DNA. What then? You are always the outsider, and as such, you become free to observe, and think, and create in ever new ways. And over this 100-year period we observe so many wonderfully bold creators.
This author, Norman Lebrecht, is proud to be a Jew. It doesn’t matter to him if you are practicing, or not. In fact, most of his favorite Jews are non-believers. What makes this book such a worthwhile read was the author’s breathless enthusiasm in telling fascinating stories about people who really changed the way we live, think, and love.
Lebrecht is a British author, commentator and journalist best known for his books on the history of classical music, but he has also written novels. His chapters on Jewish composers from Mendelsohn, Alkan and Mahler in the 19th century to Gershwin, Schoenberg and Bernstein in the 20th, are among his most detailed. Although he admires most of his subjects, he does not whitewash them, and he has little good to say about some, including Freud.
The Readers had quite a good discussion about the many stories we didn’t know. Those of us who finished the book gave it a five out of five. Those who read half, or less, gave it a four, but said they were now looking forward to finishing it after listening to what we said was still to come.
Our next book is A Blaze of Glory (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater #1) by James Shaara.
Join us for a Zoom meeting on January 19, 2021. Call Dave Morrow for an invitation.
October Readers’ Report
The Topeka School
by Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner considers himself first and foremost a poet. He has published three volumes of poetry since 2004, but he has also published three novels, including The Topeka School in 2019. Both his poetry and novels have received critical acclaim. The Topeka School won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was one of The New York Times top ten books of the year. Lerner has received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, and numerous other prizes, including as a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Bingham Award, and others.
The Topeka School was acclaimed in The New York Times Book Review as “a high-water mark in recent American fiction” and called “the best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation” in The New York Times Magazine.
Like Adam Gordon, the protagonist in his novel, Lerner was born and raised in Topeka, Kansas and was a national champion in high school debate. Both of his parents were psychotherapists, his mother wrote a bestseller and appeared on Oprah, and his father made films and worked with troubled youth. Like Lerner, Adam writes poetry and becomes a college professor with two daughters. This sharing of biographical information between the author and the narrator is sometimes called “autofiction”, and by making the novel autobiographical attempts to make it true rather than invented. In addition to chapters narrated in the first person by Adam, there are chapters narrated by his father and mother that flesh out the family dynamic. But there are also italicized chapters narrated by Adam’s outcast classmate Darren. These chapters build toward a violent outburst that seems inevitable but also gives the novel some structure.
Lerner plays with time in his novel. He jumps from Adam’s senior year of high school in the 1990’s back to his youth and forward to the present, with stops to cover his parents and their history. In one of his mother’s chapters where she is telling Adam stories from his childhood, she says to him, “I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” before he does.
The book is short on dialogue but full of information on subjects from art to history, politics, psychology, debate, and more. This made it tough going for some of our Readers who questioned whether it was worth the effort. Others felt the rewards of the humor and the insights provided made up for the choppy narrative and the lack of a conventional plot. As a result, we rated this volume 3 out of 5 stars.
Our November meeting of the Readers is on the 17th at 5 pm when we will discuss Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 by Norman Lebrecht.
Before then, on November 3rd at 5 pm, we will meet to choose our books for next year.
If you would like to attend either meeting but have not gotten an email Zoom invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
September Readers’ Report
Night Boat to Tangier
by Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry is an Irish writer born in Limerick in 1969. He has published three collections of short stories and three novels. He was the winner of the 2013 International Dublin Literary Award, the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize and was one of seven books by Irish authors nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s most valuable annual literary fiction prize for books published in English. His 2019 novel Night Boat to Tangier was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year. The New York Times Book Review named it as one of the 10 Best Books of 2019, and other critics, including NPR, The Washington Post, PBS, and The New Yorker praised Barry’s writing. The Booker Prize Judges wrote “A rogue gem of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier is a work of crime fiction not quite like any other. The seedy underbelly of a Spanish port and a stony Irish town are the backdrop for a story of misdeeds, madness and loss that swells with poetry and pathos.”
The book opens in the ferry terminal of the Spanish port city of Algeciras, where boats leave to and from Tangier. Two aging Irish criminals, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, are waiting for Maurice’s daughter Dilly, who has been missing for three years. They have heard rumors that she will be passing through the terminal, but as the night goes on, the reader has the feeling that he is in the middle of Waiting for Godot. Maurice and Charlie pass out flyers and interrogate passers-by who look like they might know Dilly, and their questions sometimes become threats reinforced by the men’s seedy appearance. The author then moves the action through numerous flashbacks, filling in the backstory of the two men, who began selling pot to their young school mates in western Ireland and moved up from there. Ireland, London, and various cities in Spain are the settings for their drug deals, their romances, and their violent encounters as they make and lose a fortune.
As with many Irish writers that came before him, Barry’s lyrical prose can soar, but it can quickly go from the dreamlike to the hilarious. As the New York Times Book Review stated, “Maurice and Charlie aren’t just career criminals; they’re comedians, philosophers, poets, and social critics. Their conversation has rhythm and snap; it’s funny, lyrical, obscene, metaphysical, unflaggingly alive. . .”
The Readers were divided in our opinion of this volume. Although most admired Barry’s writing, some were less impressed with the slow pace of the book and the absence of character development or a cohesive plot. Some were irritated by the obscure Irish vocabulary and idioms and the pervasive profanity, and some found it difficult to sympathize with these amoral characters or care about their suffering. Most of us enjoyed the tense scene set in the Judas Iscariot All-Night Drinking Club in Cork when Maurice confronts Charlie about possible infidelity with his wife Cynthia. On average, we rated Night Boat to Tangier at just over 3 out of 5 stars.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on October 20th at 5 pm when we will discuss The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and one of the New York Times Top 10 Books of the Year. We will probably be meeting online using Zoom. If you would like to attend but you have not gotten an email invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
August Readers’ Report
The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett
The readers group met via zoom on August 17 to discuss the August , The Dutch House, a work of fiction written by Ann Patchett.
Beautifully drawn characters and how they influenced their lives make the story hum (servants in the mansion, random people that took an interest in them and provided them direction in the absence of parents, a not-so-nice stepmother who cuts them off financially and unceremoniously threw them out of the threw them out of the mansion in their late adolescence).
The readers found the book easy to read and engaging. All were enthusiastic and rated the book 4.5 or 5.0 (on a scale of 1 to 5).
The next meeting of the readers will be on Tuesday September 15 at 5:00 using the Zoom app. The book for September is Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry.
If you wish to join the group for scintillating discussion, request the zoom link from Dave Morrow: email@example.com.
by Stephen Mack Jones
Stephen Mack Jones is a Michigan poet and playwright, and August Snow is his first novel. Jones, originally from Lansing, currently lives in Farmington Hills. Jones is a recipient of the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship as well as the Hammett Prize and the Nero Award. August Snow was well received by critics and readers, and a second book in the series, Lives Laid Away, was published in 2019. August Snow got the attention of Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to make it into a TV series, but we all know what happened to Harvey.
August Snow grew up in Detroit’s Mexicantown as the son of a Mexican mother and an African American father. Like his father, Snow became a Detroit cop, but not until he had served as a Marine sniper in Afghanistan. Snow was wrongfully discharged for investigating a corrupt Detroit mayor and police officers. After being awarded $12 million in his lawsuit against the City, Snow travelled overseas before returning to his family home in Detroit, finding it empty after the loss of both of his parents. He gets a call from a wealthy Grosse Pointe heiress whose husband’s murder had been investigated by him. She wants him to investigate her suspicions about her Detroit wealth-management firm, but the day after Snow declines the job, she is found dead in her mansion from an apparent suicide. Snow is persona non grata at the Detroit Police Department, so when they and GP police refuse to investigate the suspicious suicide, Snow decides to poke around himself. He is quickly in the middle of an international conspiracy involving money-laundering, murder and extortion.
The author depicts the decline and beginning rebirth of Mexicantown and other Detroit neighborhoods, and his hero emphasizes the importance of community. His description of well- known restaurants, Mexican dishes and soul food could be a problem for hungry readers. August Snow also knows his weapons, his martial arts, and his liquors, but his generosity and willingness to help the down-and-out makes him a strong force for good in his community.
The small gathering of Readers (less than 10) that gathered on St Patrick’s Day to discuss August Snow generally liked the book, giving it a 3.5 out of 5-star rating. We enjoyed the snappy dialogue, the pop culture references, the Detroit and Northern Michigan locales, and the interesting supporting characters August calls on for help. Some thought the Hollywood-like shootouts and action scenes were overdone, and others questioned the credibility of the plot, but we would recommend it to those that appreciate police procedurals or thrillers.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on April 21st at 5 pm when we will discuss Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger, winner of the 2014 Edgar Award for best novel. We will meet online via Zoom. If you would like to join our meeting and you have not gotten an invitation, contact David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
The Survivor: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Survivor
by Marcel Moring
Our February book, The Survivor: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Survivor by Marcel Moring, tells the story of Dr. Felix Zandman (1928-2011), who lived in Grodno in north-eastern Poland at the beginning of World War II. Grodno had a population of about 50,000, of which about half were Jewish. The Nazi’s herded them into two ghettos, but in late 1942, they liquidated the ghettos and sent all the Jews to concentration camps. A few escaped the roundup, including Zandman, then 14, his uncle and a couple who were friends of his uncle. They fled into the woods, reaching a summer cabin owned by his Felix’s grandmother but occupied by her former maid and her family. She took them in, first in an external potato cellar and then helping them dig a shallow pit below a bedroom. The pit was only wide enough for the four of them to lay side by side in the dark. A tube was led outside to provide some air, and the floorboards above were covered by some blankets and the bed. Once a day, the maid brought some bread, water and sometimes a potato, removed the slop bucket, and replaced the floorboards. Amazingly, they were able to survive for 17 months before the Russians drove the Germans out of the area in 1944. Felix eventually emigrated to France, graduated from university and obtained a PhD in physics from the Sorbonne. He worked as an electronics researcher for several companies in France and the US before founding his own company in the US in 1962. Today, Vishay Intertechnology has more than 22,000 workers around the world and a market capitalization of $3 billion.
The book is written in a series of short chapters, alternating between Felix’s life before the escape and his life after the war. The time in the pit is grim, but the occupants talk quietly, change positions every two hours, and try not to be overwhelmed by despair. Felix’s time after the war, in contrast, is a story of business success and prosperity, but accompanied by nightmares and an unwillingness to talk about the war. He kept in touch with the maid, her husband and the five children who lived in the cabin while four Jews hid in the pit, knowing that if the Germans ever found them both the Jews and the Catholic family that sheltered them would be shot or hung immediately. Felix had to deal with his desire to avenge the other 40 members of his extended family that were exterminated, but eventually he chose love and forgiveness. Late in his life, he nominated the maid and her husband for a place on Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations list of non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
The Readers found the book easy to read and of enough interest to continue reading to the end. The book was so simply written that several of us thought it was a Young Adult volume. We rated it 3 stars out of five, and might recommend it to those readers, especially younger readers, with an interest in the Holocaust.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on March 17th at 5 pm when we will discuss August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones, a recipient of the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship. This crime novel is set in Detroit and Grosse Pointe and was called by the Wall Street Journal “[A] witty, mayhem-packed first novel.” We will meet at the home of Joe Schneider, 76 Lochmoor Blvd, Grosse Pointe Shores. RSVP to Joe at (313) 882-6156. .
The January Readers’ Report
by Don Winslow
New York Times bestselling author Don Winslow has written twenty-one novels since 1991, including The Border, The Force, The Kings of Cool, Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine and the highly acclaimed epics The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. His novels have attracted the attention of filmmakers and actors such as Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Twentieth Century Fox has optioned The Force as well as The Cartel and The Power of the Dog. Two earlier books were also made into films. Winslow majored in African history at the University of Nebraska and earned a master’s degree in Military History. He has also written a non-fiction book and numerous stories and essays. Winslow is the recipient of the Raymond Chandler Award (Italy), the LA Times Book Prize, the Ian Fleming Silver Dagger (UK), The RBA Literary Prize (Spain) and many other prestigious awards.
Denny Malone, the main character in The Force, wants is to be a good cop. He is the “King of Manhattan North,” a highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant and the real leader of “Da Force.” Malone and his crew are the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, and the baddest–an elite special unit given carte blanche to fight gangs, drugs, and guns. He’s done whatever it takes to serve and protect in a city built by ambition and corruption, where no one is clean. What only a few know is that Denny Malone himself is dirty: he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash in the wake of the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history. Now Malone is caught in a trap and being squeezed by the feds, and he must walk the thin line between betraying his brothers and partners, the Job, his family, and the woman he loves, trying to survive, body and soul, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all. Critics called it the great cop novel of our time, a haunting story of greed and violence, inequality and race, crime and injustice, retribution and redemption, a story that reveals the seemingly insurmountable tensions between the police and the diverse citizens they serve. Because of its sprawling descriptions of the various forces fighting over the New York City streets, some called it a “Godfather with cops” or “Game of Thrones with cops.” The New York Times says, “He paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners and loyalty to what they call the Job.” PBS and Publishers Weekly put it on their Best of 2017 lists.
Although The Readers admired Winslow’s writing—the fast-paced style, sharp, realistic dialogue, and the use of Malone’s inner thoughts as narration, we were less impressed than the critics. We gave the book an average rating of 3 out of 5 stars. We felt that the book was too long (479 pages) and depicted a world with widespread corruption, violence, drug use, and betrayal that was too depressing to immerse ourselves in. We found it made us uncomfortable to contemplate that this is really what it takes to be an elite police officer in a major city.
Our next meeting of the Readers on February 18th at 5 pm we will discuss The Survivor: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Survivor by Marcel Moring. We will meet at the home of Jack Cobau, 830 Fairford Rd, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to Jack at (313) 881-1467.