Saturday, July 22, 2017

Two Paths that Never Converge

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss


In Nicole Krauss' newest novel, she presents us with two people in parallel stories, both of whom travel to Israel from York, but these two never meet. There is Jules Epstein, a wealthy man attempting to divest himself of his money before he dies, with the aim to use it, at least partially, with a project in memory of his parents. The other character is Nicole, a novelist with writer's block (who isn't Krauss, but rather a semi-fictionalized version of herself), attempting to jump-start her novel about the Tel Aviv Hilton through this trip. Nicole also seems to have the need to escape from her life including her rut of a marriage.

One thing that stands out as mutual between these characters is their motivations in finding something that seems just beyond their reach, but which could bring them solutions. To achieve this, Krauss sends each of them off to Israel, and then places obstacles into their paths. With Epstein, this is a chance encounter with Menachem Klausner, a rabbi who is positive that Epstein is descended directly from the biblical King David. This rabbi seems to interrupt Epstein's search for how to spend his vast fortune, while at the same time, inadvertently gives him the perfect project. To waylay Nicole's writing of her book, Krauss has Nicole's cousin introduce her to Eliezer Friedman, a seemingly retired professor of literature (who might have once been in the Mossad or both). Friedman has a theory about the untold story of Franz Kafka's death (or in this case, his life after he faked his death in 1924), which he needs Nicole to write. Together with these, Krauss connects the two characters with the Tel Aviv Hilton, where both characters stay during parts of their trips.

Aside from these parallel types of story-lines, the major method that Krauss uses to distinguish between these two characters is in their voices. By this, I mean that Krauss gives Epstein's story a third-person narrator, while Nicole tells her own tale in first person. This unusual combination of voices has an impact on the reader, in that we feel a more personal connection with Nicole, but have the ability to observe things about Epstein, which he may not even know about himself. Furthermore, with Epstein, we get more of his personal history, but with Nicole, the focus is more on this particular set of events, with minimal back-story. In my other review of this book, I likened this to having the wide-angle lens on Epstein's life, with the close-up shots reserved for Nicole. Finally, both stories include some fantastical, yet realistic passages describing experiences that range from philosophical to humorous to spiritual to even existential. I'd say more, but that would necessitate including plot spoilers.

Although this may not seem obvious from what I've written above, I think I finally understand the reason why I love Nicole Krauss' books. As personal as this is, I think they make me feel like all the choices I've made in my life - particularly the bad ones - impact me in a positive way. In other words, I'm not a failure, even when things don't work out the way I might have wanted. What makes me feel this way is how Krauss presents her readers with characters who do unexpected things, and get both expected and surprising results. Of course, it helps that I'm precisely the type of reading public for this book. I'm Jewish; I have more than a passing acquaintance with Israel, and; I'm not afraid to read works that challenge me intellectually, or that border on the speculative. That said I'm well aware that I'm in the minority here, and this book (much like her previous novel, Great House) might not appeal to many general fiction readers. Personally, that doesn't bother me, because Krauss writes so beautifully, and her stories are so engrossing, and I love how they make me emotionally attached to her characters, so I have to give it a full five stars, and I might even go as far as to say this book is a true masterpiece.



"Forest Dark" by Nicole Krauss, published by Harper Collins, release date August 24, 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Art of Becoming Real

The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber


The author of the classic, bestselling children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit was Margery Williams Bianco. Pamela Bianco was her daughter, and she was an artist, recognized for her talent when only a child, with her first showing at a gallery in Turin Italy, at the age of 11. If you haven't heard her name, that's no surprise. Child prodigies grow up, and many fade from the limelight as adults. Sometimes, that's because their uniqueness as children seems mundane for adults. Other times, their early fame was more than they could handle. Laurel Davis Huber's novel investigates the relationship between these two women, with her own theories why Pamela and her work is relatively unknown today.

First, a confession: Of course, I've heard of the book The Velveteen Rabbit but I never actually read it as a child. As sacrilegious as that may sound, Huber was generous enough to add the text of the story into this book, so if nothing else, at least that's one less hole in my literary education. While that might sound like a "filler" tactic, I can assure you that this novel about far more than just this classic children's story. In fact, it is hardly a more than blip on Huber's radar. Instead, what Huber investigates here is the relationship between Pamela and Margery, while at the same time, having these protagonists give us their own views of their lives, through their own first-person accounts. In this way, we are able to assume the relationship, rather than witness it.
Moreover, it occurred to me that Huber might have used Margery's famous work as a metaphor for Pamla's life, which is impressive, particularly for a debut novel.
 
Huber achieves this using a prose style that is gently conversational, yet subtly injected with poetic passages whenever the story needs an infusion of emotion. With this, Huber chose to let these two women tell their stories with a somewhat fluid chronology that allows the reader to understand the timeline of events, with some backwards and forwards passages to fill in certain blanks. Of course, most of the flashbacks come from Margery to times before Pamela was born or was very young. To begin with, I found this method made the first couple of chapters a bit confusing to me, which I partially attribute to the fact that I had no prior knowledge of either of these two women. Nonetheless, this feeling passed very quickly, and I soon was engrossed in both these women's lives. Thankfully, this transition happened just as Huber started bringing in a slew of other characters, many of which were actual parts of the lives of this family. These included the artist Pablo Picasso (considered a child prodigy himself), and playwright, Eugene O'Neil, who was married to Margery's cousin. Most significant of these minor characters is Richard Hughes, the Welsh writer who preferred that his friends call him Diccon.

Diccon ends up being a central character in Pamela's story, due to her having fallen in love with him when she was still a young girl. In fact, Huber seems to posit that this unrequited relationship, coming precisely as Pamela was going through puberty, was one of the more significant triggers for Pamela's many bouts of depression. Other causes that Huber points to are such things as genetics (via her father), as well as the family's financial dependence on Pamela continuing to be a commercially viable artist. Of course, depression is a highly complex mental illness, and while Huber cannot give us a comprehensive diagnosis, her assumptions seem mostly reasonable. Moreover, as we watch Margery dealing with both her husband's and her daughter's problems, and witness Pamela's description of her condition, this novel then also becomes a portrait of this disease, almost even more than a depiction of the connections between a mother and daughter, together with the study of these women's lives. 


While this may sound like it might make for a depressing work in itself, Huber succeeds in instilling no small amount of hope into this novel in an attempt to sidestep giving the work an overall gloomy atmosphere. Mind you, at times the book did feel a bit sullen, and I feel that Huber could have added a few more lighter passages for the sake of greater variety of mood. This, combined with some passages that I felt was superfluous to the essence of the story (in particular, regarding the troubled marriage of O'Neil and Margery's cousin Agnes), which disrupted the flow of this book for me, are the reasons why I'm not giving this book a full five stars. Aside from those niggles, I truly enjoyed reading this novel, and will recommend it warmly (especially if you're curious about the lives of children's fiction authors and/or child prodigy artists) with a solid four out of five stars.




"The Velveteen Daughter" by Laurel Davis Huber published by She Writes Press, released July 11 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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