Monthly Archives: November 2016

New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2016

New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2016

The year’s notable fiction, poetry and nonfiction, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. This list represents books reviewed since Dec. 6, 2015, when we published our previous Notables list.

Fiction & Poetry

ALL THAT MAN IS. By David Szalay. (Graywolf, $26.) Szalay writes with voluptuous authority about masculinity under duress in this novel in stories.

ANOTHER BROOKLYN. By Jacqueline Woodson. (Amistad/HarperCollins, $22.99.) Girlhood and the half-life of its memory are the subjects of this intense, moving novel, Woodson’s first for adults (she is a Newbery Honor winner) in years.

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS. By Karan Mahajan. (Viking, $26.) Mahajan’s smart, devastating novel traces the fallout over time of a terrorist attack at a market in Delhi.

BARKSKINS. By Annie Proulx. (Scribner, $32.) Tracing two families and their part in the destruction of the world’s forests, Proulx’s latest novel is a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed.

BEFORE THE FALL. By Noah Hawley. (Grand Central, $26.) A private-jet crash leads to a media firestorm in Hawley’s readable thrill ride of a novel.

BEHOLD THE DREAMERS. By Imbolo Mbue. (Random House, $28.) In Mbue’s bighearted debut, set against the backdrop of the American financial crisis, a Cameroonian family makes a new life in Harlem.

BLACK WATER. By Louise Doughty. (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Expecting to be assassinated, the hero of this excellent novel grapples with guilt over his actions in Indonesia.

CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD. By Alexander Weinstein. (Picador, paper, $16.) The terror that technology may rob us of authentic experience — that it may annihilate our very sense of self — is central to this debut collection of short stories.

COLLECTED POEMS 1950-2012. By Adrienne Rich. (Norton, $50.) Work from seven decades displays Rich’s evolution from careful neo-classicism to free verse, and her embrace of lesbian feminism and radical politics.

COMMONWEALTH. By Ann Patchett. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) An engaging family portrait, tracing the lives of six stepsiblings over half a century.

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING. By Madeleine Thien. (Norton, $26.95.) A Chinese-Canadian professor probes the mystery of her father’s life amid upheavals in China in this ambitious novel.

DON’T LET MY BABY DO RODEO. By Boris Fishman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) A family from the former Soviet Union embarks on an American road trip in a novel that is a joy to read.

END OF WATCH. By Stephen King. (Scribner, $30.) The gloriously fitting final installment of King’s trilogy featuring the retired police detective Bill Hodges is a big genre-busting romp.

EVERYBODY’S FOOL. By Richard Russo. (Knopf, $27.95.) This sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” set 10 years later in the same upstate New York town, presents engaging characters and benign humor.

THE FORTUNES. By Peter Ho Davies. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27.) This novel, a meditation on 150 years of the Chinese-American experience, asks what it means to be a Chinese-American.

A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A backgammon hustler with telepathic powers returns to Berkeley, Calif., for surgery in Lethem’s inventive 10th novel, the theme of which is remaining open to possibilities.

THE GLOAMING. By Melanie Finn. (Two Dollar Radio, paper, $16.99.) A woman tries to remake her life in Africa in Finn’s intricately plotted novel.

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS. By Max Porter. (Graywolf, paper, $14.) A father and his sons struggle with a death in this luminous novel.

HERE COMES THE SUN. By Nicole Dennis-Benn. (Liveright, $26.95.) Dennis-Benn’s tale of life in the impoverished neighborhoods of Montego Bay, Jamaica, sheds light on the island’s disenfranchised.

HERE I AM. By Jonathan Safran Foer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Private and public crises converge for four generations of a Jewish family in this ambitious, often brilliant novel, Foer’s third.

HOMEGOING. By Yaa Gyasi. (Knopf, $26.95.) This wonderful debut by a Ghanaian-American novelist follows the shifting fortunes of the progeny of two half sisters, unknown to each other, in West Africa and America. Gyasi was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees in 2016.

HOT MILK. By Deborah Levy. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In Levy’s evocative novel, dense with symbolism, a woman struggles against her hypochondriacal mother to achieve her own identity.

HOUSE OF LORDS AND COMMONS. By Ishion Hutchinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) Exuberant work from a young Jamaican-born poet who looks to the island’s teeming life and fractured past.

I MUST BE LIVING TWICE: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2014. By Eileen Myles. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Charming and confounding poems from a provocative voice.

IZA’S BALLAD. By Magda Szabo. Translated by George Szirtes. (New York Review, paper, $16.95.) A meditative Hungarian novel about grief and history by the author of “The Door.”

LAROSE. By Louise Erdrich. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) A man who accidentally killed his best friend’s son gives the man his own child in this powerful story about justice and forgiveness, set in and near a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.

THE LIFE-WRITER. By David Constantine. (Biblioasis, paper, $14.95.) A widow immerses herself in the letters her late husband received from an earlier lover in Constantine’s lyrical novel.

THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS. By Edna O’Brien. (Little, Brown, $27.) In her harrowing, boldly imagined novel, O’Brien both explores Irish provincial life and offers an unsettling fabulist vision.

LOOK: Poems. By Solmaz Sharif. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) Sharif’s skillful debut collection draws on a Defense Department lexicon of military terms.

THE MIRROR THIEF. By Martin Seay. (Melville House, $27.95.) Linked narratives and various Venices reflect one another in this clever first novel.

MISCHLING. By Affinity Konar. (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown, $27.) Konar uses the unsettling and grievous history of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments on children, particularly twins, to riveting effect in her debut novel.

MISTER MONKEY. By Francine Prose. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) The dreadful revival of a musical based on a children’s novel about an orphaned chimp is observed through various points of view in this fresh, Chekhovian novel.

MOONGLOW. By Michael Chabon. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) In this beautifully written hybrid, a San Francisco writer named Mike presents a memoir about his grandparents, a World War II soldier and a Holocaust survivor.

THE MORTIFICATIONS. By Derek Palacio. (Tim Duggan, $27.) This sweeping debut novel limns the exile and return of a Cuban-American family.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. By Elizabeth Strout. (Random House, $26.) A writer and her estranged mother attempt to reconnect during a brief visit in a Pulitzer Prize winner’s exquisite novel of careful words and vibrating silences.

NINETY-NINE STORIES OF GOD. By Joy Williams. (Tin House, $19.95.) This collection of micro-fictions is a treasure trove of tiny wry masterpieces.

THE NIX. By Nathan Hill. (Knopf, $27.95.) In this entertaining debut novel, full of postmodern digressions, a young professor tries to write a biography of his political activist mother.

THE NORTH WATER. By Ian McGuire. (Holt, $27.) In McGuire’s darkly brilliant novel, the crew of a doomed whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle must reckon with fierce weather, pure evil, and the shadows of Melville and Conrad.

NUTSHELL. By Ian McEwan. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24.95.) An unborn baby overhears his mother and her lover plotting to murder his father in McEwan’s compact, captivating novel.

REPUTATIONS. By Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Translated by Anne McLean. (Riverhead, $25.) A slender but impactful Colombian novel about a political cartoonist who re-examines his accusations against a politician.

THE SPORT OF KINGS. By C. E. Morgan. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Three Kentucky dynasties — black, white and equine — converge in this vitally written if melodramatic novel.

STILL HERE. By Lara Vapnyar. (Hogarth, $26.) In this razor-funny novel, four Russian friends try to make their way in New York.

SWING TIME. By Zadie Smith. (Penguin Press, $27.) Two multiracial girls in North London dream of becoming dancers (one has talent, the other doesn’t) in Smith’s exuberant new novel about friendship, music, race and global politics.

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT. By Maria Semple. (Little, Brown, $27.) In this brainy, seriously funny novel by the author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a Seattle woman confronts private school parents, a husband’s secret life and more.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. By Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday, $26.95.) Whitehead’s well-built, stunningly daring novel turns the historical freedom network from metaphor to reality, complete with tracks, locomotives and platforms. The winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction.

VALIANT GENTLEMEN. By Sabina Murray. (Grove, $27.) An audacious historical novel about the Irish revolutionary martyr Roger Casement.

THE VEGETARIAN. By Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith. (Hogarth, $21.) This novella in three parts is both thriller and parable. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

WAR AND TURPENTINE. By Stefan Hertmans. Translated by David McKay. (Pantheon, $26.95.) A masterly novel about memory, art, love and war, based on the author’s grandfather’s notebooks.

WEATHERING. By Lucy Wood. (Bloomsbury, $26.) This poetic debut novel, set in a damp house near a roaring river, explores the relationship between mothers and daughters.

ZERO K. By Don DeLillo. (Scribner, $27.) In the post-postcolonial future of DeLillo’s moving, mysterious 16th novel, a man joins his billionaire father at a desert compound where people can be preserved forever.

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Roman Muradov

Nonfiction

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. By Rebecca Traister. (Simon & Schuster, $27.) A deeply researched and thought-provoking examination of the role of single women throughout history.

Journalism that matters.

More essential than ever.

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AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. By Jeffrey Toobin. (Doubleday, $28.95.) In this riveting account, even the S.L.A. is shown some compassion.

AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. By Sarah Bakewell. (Other Press, $25.) A lucid joint portrait of the writers and philosophers who embodied existentialism.

BLOOD AT THE ROOT: A Racial Cleansing in America. By Patrick Phillips. (Norton, $26.95.) How a Georgia county drove out its black citizens in 1912 and remained all-white for 80 years: a well-written, timely and important account.

BLOOD IN THE WATER: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. By Heather Ann Thompson. (Pantheon, $35.) A masterly — and heartbreaking — history, based in part on new materials about the Attica prison uprising and its terrible aftermath.

BORN TO RUN. By Bruce Springsteen. (Simon & Schuster, $32.50.) Springsteen’s autobiography, explaining how he rose from Freehold, N.J., to international fame is both plain-spoken and eloquent.

CITY OF DREAMS: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. By Tyler Anbinder. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35.) A richly textured guide to the past of the nation’s chief immigrant city.

DARK MONEY: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. By Jane Mayer. (Doubleday, $29.95.) A formidable account of how the Koch brothers and their allies have bought their way to political power.

THE DEFENDER: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama. By Ethan Michaeli. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $32.) A powerful, elegant history of the influential paper.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: The War Years and After. Volume Three: 1939-1962. By Blanche Wiesen Cook. (Viking, $40.) The long-awaited conclusion of a monumental and inspirational biography.

THE ENGLISH AND THEIR HISTORY. By Robert Tombs. (Knopf, $45.) A Cambridge historian’s clearsighted retelling of English history also analyzes how the English themselves have viewed their past.

EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City. By Matthew Desmond. (Crown, $28.) A sociologist shows what the lack of affordable housing means as he portrays the desperate lives of people who spend most of their incomes in rent.

THE FACE OF BRITAIN: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits. By Simon Schama. (Oxford University, $39.95.) A splendid book to accompany a BBC series hosted by the eminently readable historian and art critic.

FAR AND AWAY. REPORTING FROM THE BRINK OF CHANGE: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years. By Andrew Solomon. (Scribner, $30.) Some 30 travel pieces, in prose sparkling with insight, describe “places in the throes of transformation.”

FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON CRIME: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. By Elizabeth Hinton. (Harvard University, $29.95.) A well-researched study of the bipartisan embrace of punishment after the 1960s.

THE GENE: An Intimate History. By Siddhartha Mukherjee. (Scribner, $32.) With scope and grandeur, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies” presents the history of the science of genetics and examines the philosophical questions it raises.

GHETTO: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. By Mitchell Duneier. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Duneier offers a stunningly detailed, timely survey of scholarly work on the topic.

HERO OF THE EMPIRE: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. By Candice Millard. (Doubleday, $30.) Imperialism and courage are on display as Churchill fights the Boer War in Millard’s readable, enjoyable book.

HIS FINAL BATTLE: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. By Joseph Lelyveld. (Knopf, $30.) A gripping, deeply human account of Roosevelt’s last 16 months in office, when the president fought to create lasting global peace — despite having received a diagnosis of acute congestive heart failure.

HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939. By Volker Ullrich. Translated by Jefferson Chase. (Knopf, $40.) The first volume of a timely new biography focuses on Hitler the man, seeing him as a consummate tactician and an actor aware of his audience.

HOW EVERYTHING BECAME WAR AND THE MILITARY BECAME EVERYTHING: Tales From the Pentagon. By Rosa Brooks. (Simon & Schuster, $29.95.) A disturbing exploration of the erosion of boundaries between war and peace.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. By David France. (Knopf, $30.) A remarkable account of how activists and patients won the funding that led to AIDS treatment from a reluctant government.

I CONTAIN MULTITUDES: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. By Ed Yong. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.99.) A science journalist’s first book is an excellent, vivid introduction to the all-enveloping realm of our secret sharers.

IN THE DARKROOM. By Susan Faludi. (Metropolitan/Holt, $32.) Faludi offers a rich and ultimately generous investigation of her long-estranged father, who suddenly contacted her from his home in Hungary after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery at the age of 76.

IN GRATITUDE. By Jenny Diski. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In her final memoir before her death, Diski, who was quasi-adopted by Doris Lessing, examines the origin, and the close, of her life as a writer.

AN IRON WIND: Europe Under Hitler. By Peter Fritzsche. (Basic, $29.99.) A deep reflection about World War II’s moral challenges for civilians.

LAB GIRL. By Hope Jahren. (Knopf, $26.95.) A geobiologist with a literary bent makes her science both accessible and lyrical, and offers a gratifying and moving chronicle of the scientist’s life.

THE LIMOUSINE LIBERAL: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America. By Steve Fraser. (Basic Books, $27.50.) An incisive history of a right-wing metaphor and its effects.

THE MAN WHO KNEW: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan. By Sebastian Mallaby. (Penguin Press, $40.) This thorough account of the former Fed chairman’s rise depicts him as political to a fault.

NEW ENGLAND BOUND: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. By Wendy Warren. (Liveright, $29.95.) Warren enlivens her study of Northern slavery with new research and a fresh approach.

ORSON WELLES. Volume 3: One-Man Band. By Simon Callow. (Viking, $40.) Expertly and convincingly, Callow rejects the common disdain for Welles’s post-1948 career.

THE PEOPLE AND THE BOOKS: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. By Adam Kirsch. (Norton, $28.95.) Detailed and lucid accounts of seminal texts highlight the variety of Jewish experience.

PLAYING TO THE EDGE: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. By Michael V. Hayden. (Penguin Press, $30.) The former C.I.A. director makes the case for Bush-era security measures.

PRETENTIOUSNESS: Why It Matters. By Dan Fox. (Coffee House, paper, $15.95.) A nimble case for pretentiousness as a willingness to take risks.

PUMPKINFLOWERS: A Soldier’s Story. By Matti Friedman. (Algonquin, $25.95.) Friedman has written a striking memoir about his stint in the Israeli Army in southern Lebanon in the 1990s.

A RAGE FOR ORDER: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS. By Robert F. Worth. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) The story of the 2011 Arab Spring and its slide into autocracy and civil war, beautifully told by a veteran correspondent.

THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. By Hisham Matar. (Random House, $26.) In this extraordinary memoir-cum-family history, Matar describes his search for his father, who disappeared into a Libyan prison in 1990.

THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. By Robert J. Gordon. (Princeton University, $39.95.) An economic historian’s magisterial assessment of the past and future of American living standards.

SECONDHAND TIME: The Last of the Soviets. By Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Bela Shayevich. (Random House, $30.) The Nobel winner offers a powerful oral history of Russia, post-1991.

SHIRLEY JACKSON: A Rather Haunted Life. By Ruth Franklin. (Liveright, $35.) This thorough biography traces Jackson’s evolution as an artist and makes a case for her importance.

SING FOR YOUR LIFE: A Story of Race, Music, and Family. By Daniel Bergner. (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown, $28.) A portrait of Ryan Speedo Green, an African-American opera singer who overcame terrible childhood poverty and abuse. This season he has a lead role in the Metropolitan Opera’s “La Bohème.”

STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. By Arlie Russell Hochschild. (New Press, $27.95.) A Berkeley sociologist takes a generous but disconcerting look at Tea Party backers in Louisiana to explain the way many people in this country live now, often to the astonishment of everyone else.

TRUEVINE. Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South. By Beth Macy. (Little, Brown, $28.) A riveting account of two albino African-American brothers who were exhibited in a circus.

UNFORBIDDEN PLEASURES. By Adam Phillips. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) Linked essays examine the idea that forbidden pleasures have a tendency to obscure the meaningfulness to our lives of the unforbidden ones.

WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. By Cathy O’Neil. (Crown, $26.) A frightening look at the risks of the algorithms that regulate our lives, by a former hedge fund “quant” (she got her Ph.D. in math at Harvard) who became an Occupy Wall Street activist.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR. By Paul Kalanithi. (Random House, $25.) A brilliant young neurosurgeon reckons with the meaning of life and death when he learns he has advanced lung cancer; a moving and courageous account.

WHEN IN FRENCH: Love in a Second Language. By Lauren Collins. (Penguin Press, $27.) Collins, a New Yorker staff writer married to a Frenchman, writes a very personal memoir about love and language, shrewdly assessing how language affects our lives.

WHITE RAGE: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. By Carol Anderson. (Bloomsbury, $26.) A timely and urgent call to confront the forces opposed to black progress since the Civil War.

WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. By Nancy Isenberg. (Viking, $28.) A masterly and ambitious cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority.

YOU’LL GROW OUT OF IT. By Jessi Klein. (Grand Central, $26.) Humorous riffs on being a woman by Amy Schumer’s head writer.

“Where Memory Leads: My Life” by Saul Friedlander— Finally Published

where-memory-leads

Friedlander, Saul. “Where Memory Leads: My Life”, Other Press, 2016.

Finally Published

Amos Lassen

Saul Friedlander’s “Where Memory Leads: My Life” is the sequel to his classic “When Memory Comes” and continues that earlier work. It has taken forty years for Friedlander to write this memoir and bridges the gap between the ordeals of his childhood and his present-day reputation as a scholar in the field of Holocaust studies. Now after having abandoned his abandoning his youthful conversion to Catholicism, Friedlander, rediscovers his Jewish roots as a teenager and builds a new life in Israeli politics.

We read that his loyalty to Israel with its establishment as a nation brought about Friedlander’s fascination with Jewish life and history. He struggles in trying to understand European anti-Semitism while at the same time, tries to find a measured approach to the Zionism that surrounds him. During his adult life, he has spent time on three continents and in three countries— between Israel, Europe, and the United States. In his early years in Israel, he meets with the builders of the nation as well as with some of the brilliant minds that were there— Gershom Scholem and Carlo Ginzburg, among others.

Friedlander also looks back at the terrible years that caused him to write “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945” for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Freidlander writes with grace and elegance as he depends on his memory to take him back to what he had once lived through. Memory often takes its own path and so it often pops up with no advance warning and we realize that his past influences his present in many different ways. We can all be glad that we have not had the kind of past that he deals with. We get the impression that, as a historian, Friedlander feels the need to bring back the Holocaust with its “massive, state-sponsored crimes” while at the same time “making a place for the voices of those mercilessly persecuted”. “When Memory Comes”, his earlier memoir was written totally from memory and filled with emotions. “Where Memory Leads” is written to show that the only lesson we can draw from the Holocaust is the imperative for us to “stand against injustice.” This is exactly what Friedlander has done here.

“When Memory Comes” was written in 1977 in Israel, where Friedländer went first to fight and later to teach and he gives us his observations on the Jewish state and relations with the Palestinians. He found himself part of the debate around that very issue. “Where Memory Leads” not only is about a personally painful war story but we learn about Friedlander’s career as a professor and historian.

It follows Friedlander’s professional success particularly regarding his two-volume history of the Nazis and the Jews from 1933 to 1945. It is here that Friedlander gives an account of Nazi policies that include records of the daily life of Germans and testimony from victims.

This volume is written with a moral imperative that includes his opposition to the Palestinian occupation and he demands accountability from Israeli leaders for their support of West Bank settlements. He states that the use of the Holocaust as “a pretext for mistreatment of Palestinians and wrong and inhuman.” 

The book’s primary focus is on Friedlander’s intellectual and political development and his relationship, both politically and as a citizen, with Israel. He shares with us that “memory doesn’t always work the way we want it to”. Friedländer has evolved into both an apologist for Israeli policies and a critic of its racism toward the Palestinians.

“Where Memory Leads” is a meditation, one that is both intellectual as well as personal. As a result, we think about the way we feel about the collective damage of history.

“When Memory Comes” by Saul Friedlander— A Classic of Holocaust Literature

when-memory-comes

Friedlander, Saul. “When Memory Comes”, Other Press Reprint, 2016.

A Classic of Holocaust Literature

Amos Lassen

Saul Friedlander was born in Prague four months before Hitler came to power. His parents were middle-class Jews who, in 1939, were forced to flee to France where they lived through the German occupation before trying to get to Switzerland.

They were able to hide their son in a Roman Catholic seminary before being sent to Auschwitz where they were killed. Saul was forced into converting to Christianity and actually began to study for the priesthood but with the birth of Israel as an independent nation brought him back to Judaism as he rediscovered his Jewish past and his true identity.

Friedlander takes us back to the years leading up to World War II, from the period of his childhood to his contribution to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. We are with him on his journey back in time as he struggles with the memories of his past to his rediscovery of who he is as a Jewish young man. We see his past leads him present. 

Friedlander leaves nothing out as he explores the ways in which the loss of his parents, his conversion to Catholicism, and his deep-seated Jewish roots came together to make him into the man he is today. Friedländer’s journey is one of grief and self-discovery and it provides readers with a memoir of feeling with intellectual backbone and his story is tender, honest and insightful. He describes his experiences elegantly and with grace. This is a book that will never be dated because of the author’s unique style in writing about the darkest period in human history. He shares his coming of age childhood in World War II-ravaged Europe and his memories of childhood and familial losses hint at his hard-earned triumphs (survival–and professional success) in the years that have followed.

The book is a classic of Holocaust literature that has now been reissued with a new introduction by Claire Messud. This is a story of recovery and meaningfulness that came out of unbearable trauma and it is likely to leave you shaken.

“Lessons from Zachary: Turning Disability into Possibility” by Sandy Scott— Coping

lessons-from-zachary

Scott, Sandy. “Lessons from Zachary: Turning Disability into Possibility”, Sandy Scott, 2016.

Coping

Amos Lassen

Sandy Scott was a very lucky lady. She lived in a: a beautiful country home with a successful husband who loved her and she was free to be a stay-at-home mom.  No one could have expected what happened next. Sandy’s infant son Zachary was diagnosed with severe brain damage and the doctors felt that he probably wouldn’t live past his first birthday. 

First Sandy was in a state of denial but that moved into despair and grief, thinking that she might never know happiness again. Strangely enough, however, the challenges that she and Zachary faced allowed her to discover her own resources   and a new kind of compassion Zachary brought her into the disability community but Sandy made it her home away from home. She became a life coach and spends her life helping others deal with disability. Now in “Lessons from Zachary”, Sandy Scott shares what she has learned and shows us how we can also get through some of the hard turns we face in life.

Zachary was born with cerebral palsy some twenty-five years ago and he defied the doctor’s diagnosis and is still alive. He has never spoken or fed himself or even rolled over but his life is full. His life has been one of doctors and healthcare. Of course this was never easy for Sandy and she had to learn how to deal with her son. She has been able to get through some very difficult situations and has been able to help her develop our unknown potential and she, in turn, helps us to do the same.

It was due to the very challenges if her son’s condition that caused her to discover her own hidden inner resources and a whole new level of compassion among other people. She became a life coach and took on roles in the disability community.

I have a very close friend who is blind and who has made me aware of people with physical disabilities. I believe that many are afraid of people with disabilities and that comes from a lack of knowledge as to how to deal with them. One must be directly faced with disability to realize that we are not as inclusive a society as we should be and it requires time and patience to understand that we need to do something about the way they are treated. It led me to be part of the inclusion committee at my temple and to make sure that we are set up to deal with anyone who wants to be with us. Sandy shows us how to gain insight and to be better persons as we help those who, in many cases, cannot help themselves.

Sandy shares her fears and dark moments and as we take heed to what she says, I believe that we become better people. This is a story about taking on values that make life more meaningful and it is Sandy’ candor that makes this book such an inspiration.

“ARAF”— Facing War

araf-poster

“Araf”

Facing War

Amos Lassen

In a small home, a wife and mother (Basti Jafarova) takes care of her weak and suffering (Sabir Mammadov). She knows that they need food and help so she prepares herself to go look for it even though he husband does not want her to do so. , despite the feeble protests of her ailing spouse.

araf3

In another room, the couple’s young daughter Feride (Konul Iskender) is terribly frightened and unsettled by the noise outside, even when her mother tries to comfort her.  Ali (Afdil Damirov), another family member is a solider who is fighting in the struggle. Believing he is ok, the mother chooses to go out into the night, to gain the needed supplies against the protests of her daughter. Left alone, Feride checks on her bedridden father whose suffering continues to worsen. Wanting to relieve his pain, Feride goes to find the medicine that her mother told her to give him.

The noise we hear is the sound of war. Azerbaijani filmmaker Tofiq Rzayev has teamed up with co-director, Fidan Jafarova, a young paint/rugmaker/filmmaker/actor, who wrote the screenplay from Rzayev’s story. We begin to understand that a son is fighting in that war while his father is dying and mother and daughter are left to cope as best they can. Despite the dark theme and visuals, the film is beautiful to watch. The film asks how it is possible to deal with so much bleakness during wartime and gives us an emotive look at people who must do so. In just nine minutes, we are slapped across the face as we see the realities of war.

Seeing Feride at home with her sick father as war rages outside is heart-breaking. We see the mother risking and losing her life for her husband and understand that so much now depends upon the daughter.

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As you can imagine, this is quite a depressing film even with the viewer never seeing the war and only hearing it on the soundtrack. We become one with the protagonists as they struggle against terrible odds. This is a story about feelings and makes us realize just how lucky we are as we sit in the comfort of our homes.

“SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE”— Seduction, Murder and Nobility

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“Something for Everyone” 

Seduction, Murder and Nobility

Amos Lassen

I did not think we would ever see “Something for Everyone” on DVD. It is one of the most memorable films, I have ever seen, yet it, until now never been released on disc. Now it has re-mastered in HD. The film is a blend of drama and black comedy with a fairy tale setting in a Bavarian castle. Set in post WWII Germany, we see that the aristocratic Von Ornstein family has fallen on hard times. Countess Von Ornstein (Angela Lansbury) can’t maintain her castle, but suddenly things begin to look a bit better when a handsome and young footman named Conrad (Michael York) comes for a visit. Conrad is determined to become a member of nobility and one by one, cons, seduces, corrupts and compromises everyone he meets. He charms his way into getting a butler position at the castle and before long the he runs the entire household. He starts to have affairs with both the countess’s son and the daughter of a wealthy businessman under the idea of getting his two lovers to marry each other and make the house rich again. Humor and suspense come together and the ending is totally surprising. Harold Price, noted Broadway producer, directed (his first film) the movie (in 1970) that is loosely based on “The Cook” by Harry Kressing.

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The film opens with Conrad (Michael York) bicycling in a lovely forest in Germany. When he stops for a rest, he sees a castle atop a nearby hill. Living in the castle are a widowed Countess and her two teenager children who have been living in poverty since the war. They are upper class but impoverished since the war.

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In order to get to the family, he casually commits murder to make a vacancy for himself and goes on to seduce everyone as he begins his scheme to make his childhood dream of becoming a lord of a castle come true. He is a logical genius, who cunningly anticipates every evil move takes. The countess has emasculated her beautiful, glum son (Anthony Corlan). Her daughter (Jane Carr) is fat and rather nasty. The countess refuses to adapt to poverty and spends her time changing her elegant clothes, philosophizing and wondering why the direct descendant of Attila (which she is) has to be poor now. Conrad enters her household as a footman and, while having an affair with her son, is able to restore the von Ornstein fortunes by arranging marriages and murders of convenience.

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Visually the film is gorgeous   and the actors work well together. York is properly cool and collected as Conrad, a role that is a comic variation on a bisexual hero. Angela Lansbury gives a remarkable virtuoso performance supported by York, a very seductive young Anthony Corlan, and gifted Jane Carr.

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Conrad begins by focusing his attentions on the countess’ beautiful, lonely son Helmut. Helmut’s sister is dumpy and annoying and she has Conrad’s number right off the bat and even dares to ask him if he is a murderer or pervert. His response is congenial and commendably candid.

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So we finally have “Something for Everything” on DVD and blu ray and yes, it is everything I hoped it would be. I felt as if an old friend has joined me for a short visit and I enjoyed every moment of it.

“ESTEROS”— Friendship and Sex

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“ESTEROS”

Friendship and Sex

Amos Lassen

Matias (Joaquin Parada) and Jeronimo (Blas Finardi Niz) have known each other since childhood and have been best friends. During the holiday before they begin high school, their friendship takes a new turn as they both experience their sexual awakening. However, when Matias’s father takes a job far away, the two are forced apart. Because of distance and family contempt for homosexuality causes Matias to deny his friend, and ultimately, himself. When more than ten years have passed, Matias returns to his old town for Carnival with his girlfriend and he unexpectedly runs into Jeronimo. Feelings between the two men slowly reappear, leading to a long-repressed awakening.

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This is the first feature film by Argentine director Papu Curotto. It is a classical story of estranged friends and their past is relayed in flashbacks throughout the film. We watch as the young Matias and Jeronimo go from inseparable best friends to something far more intimate and this ultimately leads to a break in their friendship. Because of Matias’ father changing careers and moving away, the two lose contact until, Matias’ girlfriend happens to ask Jeronimo to do makeup for a party the couple are attending. Unaware of their history, Jeronimo and Matias re-ignite their friendship and ultimately take a brief vacation to a family home that is so very close to both Jeronimo and Matias’ hearts. “Esteros” is a nuanced and tender look at the power of true love in the face of doubt be it both self inflicted and generational.

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Visually, this is a beautiful film. It is shot against the beautiful Argentinean countryside. Director Papu obviously loves his country and is proud to show it off here.

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While Matias (or “Matu” as he is affectionately called as an adult played by Ignacio Rogers) has grown up to share a relationship with Brazilian Rochi (Renata Calmon), the adult “Jero” (Esteban Masturini) has reached adulthood as a proud gay man. A trip to Santiago del Estero del Ibera (the wetlands of Argentina) seals the deal and reawakens the feeling long thought forgotten within Matias. Rogers is able to keep a mature and serious detachment from his feelings while Masturni demonstrates a reserved longing from their first meeting to the last moment before the credits roll.

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The overtly and ostensibly innocent Rochi stands by as her relationship and her world changes around her. In the film, events happen as they do in real life. There’s no lesson to learn or moral to the story aside from the idea that “love conquers all”.

When the men returned to the spot where they had been many times before, they are ten years older. A lot can happen in ten years but love is not lost.

“LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED?”— A Role Reversal Tale

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“Love Is All You Need?”

A Role-Reversal Tale

Amos Lassen

“Love is All You Need?” takes us into a world where nearly everyone is paired up in same-sex couples, and those who fall for someone of a different gender are looked down on. Jude (Briana Evigan) is a female football star at her high school, with a gorgeous girlfriend (Emily Osment) and she is very popular. When she meets university fraternity pledge Ryan (Tyler Blackburn), she begins to have unexpected thoughts. As their relationship develops, Jude begins to wonder whether she’s really a ‘ro’ (a derogatory shortening of heterosexual).

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Then there is Emily (Kyla Kennedy), who is interested in boys and not girls like the ones her mothers and society expect her to fall for. She befriends Ian (Jacob Rodier), who she begins to have feelings for and suspects that he might feel the same way. When her liberal teacher (Jeremy Sisto) announces that rather than doing the usual “Romeo & Julio”, they’ll be performing it as “Romeo & Juliet” and this excited Emily.

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Connected to all of them is the Reverend Rachael (Elisabeth Röhm), a fundamentalist Christian who believes God is clear that only homosexual relationships are acceptable, and that people should do whatever it takes to stamp out perverted heterosexual behavior. Jude, Ryan, Emily and others all begin to face prejudice and threats that begin to turn deadly.Rocco Shields’ film, which she co-wrote with David Tillman, features a hypothetical America in which homosexuality is the norm.

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“Love Is All You Need?” began as a short film in 2011 and won awards at several film festivals. At the same time, Shields received hate mail for it, and she flew to Florida at one point to defend a teacher who had come under fire for showing it in his classroom. Even before Shields completed the short version of her story, she had her eyes on a full-length version. “Love Is All You Need?” follows the intertwining stories of several characters, including a female quarterback whose romance with a boy causes great anger. At the same time, a younger girl endures savage bullying when her preference for males becomes apparent, and a drama teacher shocks parents by teaching Shakespeare’s same-sex romance “Romeo and Julio” the way it was “originally written” as an Elizabethan boy-girl love story.

The film reverses reality in some ways, but not in others. While characters with opposite-sex attraction are jeered as “ros”, they are also referred to as “gay” and other nasty names. As for the logical question of how a society can survive with only same-sex couples, the film makes mention of “breeding season,” in which men and women momentarily pair off for the sake of prolonging the human race.

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Of course there is a villain who comes in the person of evangelist Reverend Rachel, whose calls for her followers to do “God’s work” provoke violence by the film’s end. The idea was for the film to create empathy — to feel what someone has gone through.

“Love is All You Need?” is set in a typical all-American town filled with loving married couples enjoying life in the suburbs with “white picket fences, happy children, and an evil hatred for anyone identifying as a “ro.”

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Many of the situations in the film are true to life events that have happened either to Rocco, to her writing partner David (an openly gay man) or something she read or heard about in the news. The movie was created with a hope that the world could get a glimpse into what it feels like to be bullied for being different and make waves of empathy throughout each person. 

“WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH GERALD?”— A Social Comedy

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“What’s The Matter With Gerald?”

A Social Comedy

Amos Lassen

Matt Riddlehoover’s “What’s the matter with Gerald?” is a social comedy about wealthy Gerald (Jacob York), a “Hush Fund baby” who is basically paid by his father to keep a low profile about his sexuality. Gerald is a bit overweight and completely neurotic. He is involved in a comfortable relationship with the business orientated gay republican Charles (Jonathan Everett). They live a regular life in Nashville, Tennessee.

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At the suggestion of a friend at a cocktail party, Gerald seeks the advice of a mysterious jeweler May (Kathy Cash). Not long afterwards, Gerald begins his spiritual and sexual reawakening after using crystals to enhance his life and to broaden his horizons. Those horizons include cruising a handsome young jogger (Daniel Choico).

Gerald has complicated and somewhat dependent relationship with his wealthy and snobbish mother Doris (Claudia Church) is another problem that he has to solve. This is Gerald’s story of his reawakening through a series of events brought on by his chance meeting with May who tells him that most men only do not become mature until age 50.

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Matt Riddlehoover has brought us seven feature films and a couple of shorts are all good examples of “boy-lite cinema” (They are all reviewed here at reviewsbyamoslassen.com).  His films are stories of contemporary gay men just trying to get their act together. Gerald doesn’t real have a job aside from worrying about his own wellbeing. His live-in partner of ten years Charles (Jonathan Everett)  is so wrapped up in himself, and his business which takes him away often, and his gay republican buddies, that he  can really cannot stand being in the same room with Gerald.

At first, Gerald is very skeptical about May’s methods but when he starts to see the changes in his well-being that May predicted, he takes her and the whole process very seriously indeed.  She helps empower Gerald to find his own way forward.   Gerald starts seeing the ghost of one of his ex- boyfriends, Scott (Angel Luis)  who is unimpressed with seeing hat Gerald feeling sorry for himself and he gently nudges him to take action. Sure, this is something of a fairy tale but the characters are likable and convincing and we begin to care about them. The performances are quite good.  

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We soon understand that what the real matter with Gerald is that is not that he has forgotten how to live and how to love and he has lost his ability to differentiate between what is worth striving for and what is not.  He has to understand that until he loves himself, he will never be capable of loving someone else. Now this is a serious aspect off life but when relayed to us humorously we enjoy the experience. When the film is over we are left with the idea that Gerald will be okay.

“Bread Givers: A Novel” by Anzia Yezierska— Jewish Immigrants— A Classic Story

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Yezierska, Anzia. “Bread Givers: A Novel”, with a Foreword by Alicia Kessler-Harris, Persea, 2013 (reprint).

Jewish Immigrants— A Classic Story

Amos Lassen

I think of myself as a literate man yet I am not too embarrassed to say that until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of Anna Yezierska or her novel, “Bread Givers”. The only reason I am now aware of it is that it is going to be the basis of a three session class at my temple so I got myself a copy and read it.

“Bread Givers” was originally published by Doubleday in 1925 and was soon lauded as a masterwork of American immigrant literature. It is set in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and tells the story of Sara Smolinsky, the youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who rebels against her father’s rigid conception of Jewish womanhood. We red of Sara’s passionate struggle towards independence and self-fulfillment.

Sara describes with urgency and detail the lives she, her sisters, and her mother live in order to support their revered, Torah-reading father. They live in crowded shared rooms so that he can study undisturbed and the numerous jobs they undertake in order to maintain the family and support his books, charities, and dress along with his constant and almost impossible demands. Sara struggles to remain loyal but shares that she begins to feel different from her sisters who were too frightened of their father to hate him the way Sara does. Through the use of wonderful dialogue, Anzia Yezierska brings to life a heritage whose strength, wisdom, and idiom continue even today. Yezierska takes us inside an early twentieth-century American immigrant Jewish family, a family without a son to lighten their load and/or brighten their lives. “Bread Givers” is testament to the struggle of Jewish immigrants and more correctly Jewish female immigrants as they struggle to find their places in America and the world.

Yezierska’s themes of self-discovery, conflicted Jewish identity and Americanization challenge us to look at who we are. novel). Yezierska’s novel looks at the themes as self-awareness, cultural marginalization of immigrants, loss and recovery of ethnic identity, feminist discontent and awakening sexuality. Most of the action occurs through dialogue and the use of internal soliloquies gives us the opportunity to test our own judgments against those of Sara Smolinsky. Her father exudes tyranny and omniscience when he is present and causes Sarah to face conflict head on. The father-daughter relationship and situations are filled with universal truths even though the setting is particular to the Eastern European Jewish experience.

On the most literal level, Yezierska writes of the struggle of Russian/Polish Jews to assimilate in the New York just before the First World War. The action takes place over twelve years and Sara Smolinsky, who begins the novel as a ten year old girl and one of three other sisters becomes an adult before our eyes. Since she is the narrator, we see the action through her eyes and we, therefore perceive events as she does. However, what she sees is so emotionally shattering that we, the readers begin to substitute our own experiences as a way to filter what goes on.

Sara and her family live in New York but their world view is heavily shaped by their origins in the Old World of Eastern Europe. In that society, the male head of the household is the master. Not only does he dare claim and openly feel and say that women have no place in running a household, he can also can use the Torah as justification. We see Sara’s father, the Reb Smolinsky, as a nasty, vindictive person who is a “one dimensional caricature of all that can go wrong when one hides behind saintly words as an excuse to bully others”. He will not work for pay—that is the job of his family so that he can study Torah. His daughters lack confidence do to his constant insults and arranges disastrous marriages for them. When these marriages go bad, he avoids responsibility by telling his daughters that they must sleep in the beds that they have made. He is the center of dramatic focus and he is hateful that we cannot even think about why. We can question if this comes from Torah but we know Torah scholars who are not like him. We see the results of what happens when a weak-minded individual takes words and ideas which are noble and makes them into something monstrous.

The father, the Reb has the ability to twist meanings from the Torah. Sarah and her sisters suffer and wait for the chance for revenge Sara, however, tries against stupendous odds to come to grips with whether one should return good for evil. Sara is the only one in a book full of hurt people inflicting verbal pain on others who even tries to look behind what is happening and she comes across as a figure of strength and discipline that stays with is after we have finished reading the book. Sara does not allow her father to completely dominate her. She does not allow him to marry her off to a man that she does not love–like he did to her three older sisters. She leaves home around the age of seventeen and works in a laundry store all day and takes night classes at night for years so that she can go to college. She has to make so many sacrifices along the way, but she never gives up on her dream of graduating from college and becoming a teacher. The fact that she was able to work her way out of poverty, get an education, and obtain her dream of becoming a teacher is truly inspirational. We are reminded that words can heal as well as hurt.