Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Of Fat, Fault and Blame

I had hoped to post about these books individually and at length but time is running out before our trip and I don't want to wait until we return.

Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen
I have been a fan of Allan Sherman since I was wee. Like most people, I'm sure Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp) was the first tune I heard but unlike most people my age, I had the albums and I learned the songs by heart and marveled at the wordplay and melodies. I have happy memories of listening to these records with my Father as we laughed and laughed together and I was thrilled that a much overdue biography was to be published. 

Author Mark Cohen gets all the facts down on paper--Sherman's musical success was truly meteoric. He went from performing these ditties at friends' parties to having three LPs selling millions in the span of about 18 months. His appetites were enormous and enormously self-destructive. He died at 48. His talent couldn't save him. 

However, I think Cohen goes overboard with many of his theories and his analysis of Sherman's mental state and upbringing. As early as the introduction, Cohen's prose seemed more like hero worship than objective biography. He succeeds in providing a portrait of a talented man whose career has faded into obscurity. Sherman deserves the recognition, if not the theorizing.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers 

A big bestseller and award-winner, this one is already out in paperback but it's worthy of your time even if I have come to it late. Don't shun it because it's a book about war. I know people who can watch NCIS and other grisly initialed TV melodramas but somehow can't bear to watch a war movie because "the violence is too real". Really? Grow up. Buck up. Shut up and fer chrissakes stop encouraging Dick Wolf! 

Author Kevin Powers served as a machine gunner in Iraq in some of the actual places where the book is set. The narrative, which jumps back and forth from post-war to pre-war to during the war, follows two soldiers, Privates Bartle and Murphy. Murphy is a few years younger and Bartle is charged with looking out for him during their time in service.  

The Yellow Birds is bleak and brutal as war novels should be. Powers is a very gifted writer whose descriptions of the barren, war-torn landscapes reminded me of Stephen Crane, especially when he evoked color. His characters are memorable and doomed but they are ordinary and that makes them recognizable to us. This work is a valuable gem and a window into the Iraq wars. 

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

I don't tend to read YA novels but I'm so glad I read this tale of love, cancer, death, and life (Notice I didn't say teen love, cancer, death and life). John Green is immensely talented and makes the story universal. 

This touching tale centers around Hazel and her ongoing struggles with cancer and Augustus, whom she meets at a teen support group meeting. They cautiously fall in love and find something deep and meaningful aside from their respective maladies and histories. The characters are not just wisecracking adolescents but smart, endearing, very real and very funny.  

The Fault In Our Stars was thoroughly absorbing.  This post hardly does it justice but I was touched by it and, of course, cried throughout this fine novel. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

No Country For Old Men?

Among the abundant charms and gifts my wife possesses is a sincere appreciation of old men. Unlike most of us who, if we see them at all, see them as they are now, Mrs. Next has a rare ability to see them as they likely were: strong, healthy, vibrant, virile, each with a story to tell and a past lit by their youth. 

Years ago, when she waited tables, these grandfathers and widowers were her favorite customers. Sure, they could be parsimonious with their tips and run her like crazy or talk her arm off when she had a full section and needed to check her other tables but she managed to give them her time and her attention and they loved her for it. She was especially fond of my people, the old Jews. I told her to remember that because one day down the road, she would have an old Jew of her very own.  (In fact, he is showing up with increasing regularity these days.) The unlikely hero of Derek B. Miller's charming new novel, Norwegian By Night, is just the kind of man Mrs. Next would fall for.  

Retired, recalcitrant, and recently widowed, Sheldon Horowitz has uprooted himself to live with his granddaughter, Rhea, in Oslo, Norway, along with her Norwegian husband, Lars. Rhea, whom Saul raised as his own daughter after her father, Saul's, death in Vietnam, is trying hard to make him feel at home in a country that is absolutely foreign to him.  It isn't the US, it isn't New York, it isn't the Berkshires where Sheldon was raised, and it certainly isn't Jewish. Worse, Rhea fears he is suffering from dementia. So begins our story.

Trouble arises when violence erupts in the apartment upstairs. As an argument between a man and woman in another language becomes more heated, the woman runs with her son to the presumed safety of the apartment below. Here she finds Sheldon, who somewhat sanctimoniously shelters the pair. However, instead of calling the police, he hides with the boy while the mother is brutally killed. Sheldon and the boy, whom he calls Paul, flee to safety but they will be hunted for the rest of the novel.

Ok, an interesting premise for a novel but there's something more. Not since Leo Gursky from Nicole Krauss' The History of Love have I been so taken with a character. We are treated to a most compelling chase and, because the boy remains silent, the contents of Sheldon's head and that's what makes Norwegian By Night much more than the thriller or police procedural as it might have been written. Instead, we get a tale of a man facing the end of his life, his long memories, his many regrets, especially his immense guilt over his son's death, and his unique perspective. Often, within the same sentence, Sheldon is both tragic and hilarious. And just who in hell is he? Was he really a well-trained sniper in Korea as he purports or a Marine desk clerk like he told his family? Is Sheldon at fault for his son re-upping for the second tour of duty that ultimately killed him? Is he losing his marbles or is he just cagey and playing the Old Man card?  Read on.

There are only a few weaknesses. About half way through, it seems like everyone--the police inspector, the thugs, the family--is just a little too smart for this to remain believable but I was able to forgive this because I grew to love Sheldon and wanted to see him safely through this terrifying ordeal. The author writes well and there are some real pearls scattered throughout the book but it is the story itself and the strength of Sheldon's personality that carries us through, much like the child he is trying to protect.

Norwegian By Night is as thrilling a romp and as touching a tale as I've read in ages and deserves your full attention. Sheldon is a singular character that will stay in your heart long after you've finished the book.