Tag Archives: Paris

“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories,” by Blume Lempel

Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.  Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.

These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.

oedipus-coverDoes it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.

Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.

A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.

Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.  2-lempel_blume-older

Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.

It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”

In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.

Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Latest Stone Barrington novel purrs like a well-tuned dream machine

Foreign Affairs, by Stuart Woods. Putnam. 320 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

One reason you will turn these pages quickly is because of the high excitement level. Another is because the chapters are short and the spacing between lines is large. It’s easy on the eyes, just like the female characters that Mr. Wood conjures up. The 35th title in his Stone Barrington series, this outing shows the comfortable craft and audience knowledge of a pro who has published over 60 novels. ForeignAffairs_high-res

Unexpectedly, Stone is called to meet his business partners in Rome. While boarding the flight, he finds a beautiful young traveling companion who before long is a serious flirtation. Hedy Kiesler turns out to be the stepdaughter of a wealthy man with whom Stone does business. The flirtation continues until Hedy is kidnapped either for ransom or for leverage against Stone and his associates.

Italian mafia types do not want Stone’s people to put up a new luxury hotel without paying and paying and paying. Planned accidents and other threats and mishaps meant to interfere with the hotel construction lead to a nasty battle of wits and weapons. The major interference is a fire that practically destroys the building that Stone and his associates mean to remodel into the luxury hotel.

The plot is fashioned to exploit how and where the wealthy and fashionable travel and have fun. With and without Hedy, Stone’s situation takes him to Paris and to the Amalfi coast area. Lavish estates, gorgeous hotels, desirable automobiles, and sumptuous meals are normal in the circles in which Stone moves. He even has an exquisite private jet that he pilots himself. That sure helps out when you’re in a hurry.

What also helps, when things get sticky, is to be part owner of a premier security firm. Amazing how armed manpower and high tech gadgetry can open doors, assure safety, and get things done for you.

Woods

Woods

Mr. Woods creates a world in which such things are the Stone Barrington norm, though it’s hard for readers to be envious when they are taken on such an attractive trip. How does this work? By making Stone seem like a regular guy – which in many ways he is.

And yet, who else can travel and vacation with New York City’s police commissioner? Who else has buddies in the highest ranks of government? Even a president who will do him personal favors? Who else would or could encounter a Catholic Cardinal who wholeheartedly and with great force joins his fight against the highest echelons of Italian mobsters?

Who else would be able to get the meaningful cooperation of Italian law enforcement, so often susceptible to being bought out by the criminal overlords? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 2, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 3 Naples, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Woods

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An impassioned debut novel about the Nazi campaign against “degenerate art”

Fugitive Colors, by Lisa Barr. GIRLilla Warfare Press. 398 pages. $12.95 trade paperback.

Mixing romance and horror, history and imagination, high art and double-dealing artifice, Lisa Barr has fashioned a dynamic page-turner of young artists caught up in the Nazis rise to power and their leaders attempted control over the definition, sanctioning, and purposes of art.

We first meet Yakov Klein as a young child, then as a rebellious teenager in an Orthodox Chicago family. Chaffing at the restraints that surround him, Yakov feels compelled to replace his traditional Judaism with the religion of art. Learning about art and becoming an artist drive him to abandon his roots and strike out on his own, first in New York, and later in Paris. FugitiveColors_FRONTCover

As Julian Klein, he sets aside his opportunity to attend a reputable Paris art school to team up with his new, adventurous friends and learn from their master teacher. The bonds between Felix, Rene, Julian grow powerful, as they spur each other on to finding their true styles and subjects. Their degree of mutual support is frequently compromised by their extreme competitiveness. And they compete not only for artistic supremacy but for the beautiful young women, fellow artist Adrienne and unscrupulous model Charlotte, who are part of their circle.

The competition is primarily between the enormously talented Rene and the ambitious but mediocre Felix. Rene’s success embitters Felix, though he keeps up the semblance of friendship. Julian tends to be the peacemaker, a satellite figure who needs more time to find his own direction.

Their personal stories, romances, and dizzying artistic enterprise become more and more folded into the story of Hitler’s rise and its effects on the world of European art. Just as Nazi policy will include an ethnic cleansing of non-Aryan populations, most notably Jews, it will also include a cultural cleansing of what it considers depraved art. Guess what? It considers all of the revolutionary schools of art developed in the early 20th century to be decadent and thus a threat to the Uber Race.  lisa_Barr-headshot

Julian, Rene, and other fight to save the art, the artists, and the gallery owners (Rene’s father prominent among them) who create or foster the iconoclastic modern and contemporary masters. Felix, by now, has returned to his German roots and taken on a major role in the Nazi project.

The Nazi plan is to steal or otherwise confiscate the decadent artworks and sell them at top prices to help fill the Nazi coffers. Julian becomes involved as a sort of spy, and both he and Rene end up severely beaten and imprisoned in Dachau for their attempts to thwart the Nazi plan. It seems almost incidental that Julian, Rene, and Adrienne are Jewish, for Ms. Barr’s emphasis suggests that the art issue is looming much larger than the ethnic issue at this time (early and mid 1930s).

Lisa Barr’s own literary brushstrokes carry all the colors of passion. As she builds her characters, sets her scenes, and considers the power of art and artistic genius, she paints a very rich canvas. Her descriptions of artworks and of artists at work are dazzling, evoking the longings, fears, manias, and even the hatreds released in the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. There is a lushness of descriptive imagery that is intoxicating, though it is sometimes overdone.

Fugitive Colors is, in part, a celebration of youth, self-discovery, loyalty, and infatuation. Julian is over and over again acting against his best interest in his subordination to Rene’s needs, enthusiasm, and plans of action. As an intermediary between Rene and Felix, he walks a careful and dangerous line. His relationships with Adrienne and Charlotte are part of a complex puzzle of shifting erotic patterns.

It is ironic that a novel so concerned with celebrating the joy of art and artistic sensibility is also a novel that explores the murderous ends of ambition and jealousy, both on the individual and the collective scale. Extreme passion seems to obey no laws but its own.

Fugitive Colors has a cinematic feel. I can’t keep from trying to cast the parts for a blockbuster film based on this novel. Such qualities have already been recognized: the manuscript won first prize at the Hollywood Film Festival for “Best Unpublished Manuscript.” Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

This review appears in the January 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier Count, FL), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Julie Orringer’s Bridge of Words

This review appears in the January 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties).

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer.  Knopf. 624 pages. $26.95 [e-book and paperback available]

Though some critics have felt that the plot of this remarkable novel is overly contrived, I was willing to give it a break. Given its romantic elements and its concern with human destiny, the coincidences that drive the plot did not seem out of bounds. Besides, the book has so many strengths that a bit of contrivance can be forgiven. 

In dealing with Hungarian Jews living in France and then back in Hungary during WWII, and in taking us through the foreshadowing, onset, and full madness of The Holocaust in those settings and several others, Orringer does an exceptional job on many levels. She manages a wide scope of events and characters, keeping our attention on the smaller story of the key players and families while suggesting and often elaborating the larger story – the enormity of the forces that at once surround them and permeate them. Orringer’s ability to perform meticulous historical research and then refashion it into action and emotion is astounding. Her portraits of places are always richly detailed and authentic; more than merely giving us the sensory realm her characters move through, Julie Orringer reaches for and conjures the intangible, atmospherics of a place – its very spirit and soul.

The love affair between a naïve architecture student, Andras, and a somewhat older and more worldly dance instructor, Klara, is told with boldness and nuance. The young man, against all odds, has somehow been able to leave Hungary and enter a respected institute in Paris. The thirtyish woman, with a daughter old enough to be the student’s girl friend, is also Hungarian. She has been living in Parisian exile for reasons that have to do with her past. Orringer manages the ways in which their relationship builds, ebbs, and flows with great mastery of the processes of the heart.

Eventually, both must return to Hungary – just when Hungary is increasingly subject to Hitler’s sway. The young man is impressed into a Jewish forced labor unit that supports the Hungarian army. The woman and her family struggle through the extreme deprivations of a city under siege, while the man is literally enslaved. Orringer’s descriptions of the physical tortures that the youth endures through frozen, virtually foodless months are harrowing. Andras is reduced to being a beast of burden, and then reduced to less than that. Klara’s anguish is physically less severe, but the psychological torment of both is profoundly agonizing.

Orringer is at her best in showing how each of the two major characters, the lovers, is measured against the other. In lives so beaten down, in situations so desperate, can there be a spark that allows a relationship to flourish on any level? When you are numb, exhausted, bewildered, dehumanized – can you still care and still give? The author weaves these questions through scenes of despair and hope.

The Invisible Bridge, a book of epic scope and power, redeems its horrifying subject matter with astonishing compassion and literary grace. For obvious reasons, including its length, it is sometimes a difficult book to keep reading. However, stay with it. The arduous journey has many rewards.

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