Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Collini Case

by Ferdinand von Schirach
Translated by Anthea Bell
Viking   2013
187 pages     Fiction

It has been more than 75 years since Hitler began his march across Europe, but the repercussions of World War II continue to resonate in current literature. In the brief novel, The Collini Case, German lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach tells the story of a murder and court case based on a case that actually was prosecuted in Berlin quite recently. 

The Collini Case is a very spare story dealing with only one thing, the murder of German businessman Hans Meyer by an Italian Fabrizio Collini. Caspar Leinen is a young defense attorney whose name has been drawn to take on a public defender case. It will be his first big case. He quickly learns two things: first, Collini has admitted to killing Meyer in a particularly gruesome way and he doesn't want to reveal the motive to his defense lawyer; second, Meyer, the victim, was Leinen's long-time friend and mentor. Leinen tries to remove himself as the defense attoroney, but he is advised by another lawyer that he must remain on the case for the sake of his future career and the case's political significance. As Leinen begins to unravel the circumstances that led to the murder, he uncovers yet another ramification of the ethics of Nazism and its continuing hold on the German population. 

Because it is so spare, the interest of the reader is not deflected from the ethical dilemma the author is presenting. The love affair between Leinen and Meyer's granddaughter, Johanna, is only included as another indication of how the heritage of the Nazis continues to play itself out in current German life. I once edited a psychology PhD dissertation that had a profound effect on me. The thesis of the dissertation was that trauma that happens in one generation continues to play itself out in families for many generations to come. The author of the dissertation was speaking particularly of  family members affected by the Holocaust, but in The Collini Case, we see the effects of the trauma on the lives of modern day Germans. It is sobering to think about. What it means, of course, is that war continues to affect peoples and countries for many generations; that we in the United States continue to be affected by the wars of our parents and grandparents. The point is made eloquently by Johanna at the end of the book when she asks Leinen, "Am I all those things too?" He responds, "You're who you are," meaning that we are the sum of our heritage as well as our own beings.

The Toronto Star review mentions that the book became a sensation when it was published and was cited as one of the reasons that the German Federal Minister of Justice appointed a commission to look into how crimes related to the Nazi regime are prosecuted. The author is a famous German lawyer and he has written a couple of collections of short stories that are very popular in Germany. I particularly appreciated his writing style and the lack of extraneous detail. The Toronto Star reviewer makes this point: "Von Schirach is not interested in creating, maintaining and releasing tension in the reader, not interested in performing an entertainment. His focus is entirely on the upheavals in his characters. By highlighting only what actually takes place and rarely giving us a glimpse into their emotional state, or indeed even contextualizing the city, the politics, or the time in which the story takes place, he forces us to confront the ethics of everyday actions. Not just scandalous political cases."

The Collini Case can be read in a couple of hours but the impact of the story will stay with the reader for days. It is well worth reading. Written in German, it is just being released for the American market on August 5. It is skillfully translated by Anthea Bell. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2013
397 pages     Fiction

Is it hard to enjoy a family novel when life at your house is chaos?  Or is it easier to love a family novel when everything is peaceful at your house? That is the question I asked myself as I was plowing through Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. It is  a very well-written novel, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. Probably I should have put the book down and started it again when things calmed down in my life. It is to the author’s credit that I finished the book, as hung up as I was on our own family dramas. For you see, we have a wedding in three weeks and I am in Chicago taking care of a grandchild instead of at home doing little bits and pieces for the wedding. However, it’s not much better at home; there’s a guy there refinishing the living room floor and another guy painting the house trim. No matter where I turn, it’s chaos. 

So before I go on and on about my own drama, let’s talk about Kate and Vi, the twins who are the protagonists in Sisterland. They are the product of a depressed mother and a distant but loving father and spend most of their lives in St. Louis. Like most twins, they are inseparable as children and raise themselves because their mother has a hard time getting out of bed. Kate, who was born Daisy, and Vi realize early in their lives that they are psychics…they have premonitions about things, and see things that other people don’t see. Kate marries conventionally, and Vi tries out all sorts of things before she becomes a professional psychic. “All hell” breaks loose in both of their lives when Vi predicts a devastating earthquake for St. Louis on national television. Although Vi becomes a celebrity following her appearance on the Today show, Kate’s life is affected the most, and she makes some rather unseemly decisions that are as much an earthquake in her life as the earthquake her sister has predicted.

The story moves back and forth between the past and present. In other novels that aren’t linear, it sometimes is difficult to figure out the past from the present. Sittenfeld makes effortless transitions. We know exactly which time frame we are in, which I appreciated. The characters are all complex; but some of them are difficult to like, although Sittenfeld says that it is not her job to create likeable characters. The New York Times reviewer says, “Kate and Violet may look alike, especially as children, but it’s the artful rendering of each one’s idiosyncrasies that makes this novel so affecting. In this, as in her other books — “Prep,” “The Man of My Dreams” and “American Wife” — Sittenfeld’s confident, no-frills style belies the complexities of her characters and their relationships. Her protagonists tend to be shrewdly observant outliers, neither Queen Bees nor Wannabes; they seem relatable, and they make us feel complicit.” Of course in a family drama, it is the choices that family members make that drives the plot. Sometimes, in Sisterland, the reader is shaking her head wondering why this or that particular decision was made. Frankly, the spouses of Vi and Kate are the real heroes of the novel; they love these women despite the implausible decisions they make. In the end Vi is a much more enjoyable character than Kate, and we can’t help questioning  the decisions Kate makes, psychic or not. 

One of the most intriguing parts of the story is the twin’s psychic abilities. The NPR reviewer suggests that “Sittenfeld handles Kate's contact with the psychic realm with a light and logical touch that keeps Sisterland artfully within the bounds of believability.” In other words, Sittenfeld doesn’t overplay her hand with this as a plot device, although a couple of the reviewers felt that she could have done more with it. Vi embraces her gift while Kate is embarrassed by it and tends to push her premonitions into the background. This becomes a key plot device, because when Vi is predicting an earthquake, Kate knows that she is right, but Kate is embarrassed by the very idea that she knows it. In an interview in the Chicago Tribune, Sittenfeld talks about interviewing some St. Louis psychics as she was researching the novel. Interestingly enough, she didn’t probe them about their psychic abilities as much as she discussed with them the way in which they operated their lives and their businesses.  This is apparent in the book because Sittenfeld doesn’t go too deep into the inner workings of either of the twin’s minds.

I have twin granddaughters, who are twelve, and every time I read a twin novel (which has happened several times in the last four years), I look at my beautiful granddaughters and wonder what the future holds for them. If you enjoy Sisterland, you might also enjoy The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross or I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass. I have to say that I liked I See You Everywhere more.

Sisterland is a very intriguing novel.
It appeared on many lists of best books for summer and it is well worth reading. Just read it on the beach or somewhere peaceful where your own family dramas aren’t playing out. The publicist who sent me the advanced copy also sent copies to my sisters, which was much appreciated. We will talk about it on the beach later this summer.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Trick of the Light

By Lois Metzger
Balzer + Bray, 2013
196 p.      YA

A Trick of the Light is a disturbing, but ultimately redemptive, look at the debilitating condition of anorexia. Not through the eyes at a teenage girl but through the eyes of a teenage boy. The author, Lois Metzger, says that 10 percent of the cases of anorexia are boys, although it is usually girls that are portrayed in fiction. 

Mike is a seemingly typical teenage boy, good at school and good at baseball, with one really good friend and lots of casual friends as well. However, when his parent's marriage falls apart, his security begins to crumble. He begins to hear a voice in his head telling him how to be in control and how to create a "new" Mike. The voice becomes the narrator of the story just as it becomes the narrator of Mike's life--calling all the shots, as it were. Mike becomes drawn to a strange classmate, Amber, who seems to have it all together. She teaches Mike how to control his eating, and the narrative voice tells him how to control his behavior. Both of these influences, one internal and the other external, succeed in pushing Mike until he ends up in a treatment center for anorexic teenagers. It is only then that he is able to get some perspective and find ways to mature and move forward.

Reviewers have called A Trick of the Light "raw" and "honest." It is that and more. The teenage reader will see people he/she knows in the cast of characters and some teenagers will see themselves in the tormented portrayals of Mike and Amber. Teenagers often think that they are the "only ones" who have angry, or anxious, or distressful thoughts. It will be comforting to some teenagers to know that through therapy Mike is able to move beyond his distress and find his balance again. 

The author, Lois Metzger, mentions in an interview that she felt compelled to deal with anorexia very carefully and not glamorize it in any way. She says:  "There was something I was aware of the entire time I was writing A Trick of the Light (over what turned out to be almost ten years) -- a whole culture out there that glamorizes anorexia, complete with web sites that proudly call themselves "pro-Ana."  One of my characters, Amber, is someone who sees anorexia as "a lifestyle, a choice" and not a disease.  Writing Amber was tricky.  I didn't want her to be a "trigger" (something that sets off an eating disorder in people).  I wanted readers to find her sad and lost, certainly not a role model.  I omitted particular details about anorexia for fear that readers would copy them.  That balancing act was the hardest thing -- being true to Amber as a character and letting her be herself, while not making anything she does appear desirable."

I am not sure who the ideal audience will be for this book. My husband thought that the book was about gay teenagers. And frankly, when the book arrived and I looked at the cover, I thought so too. I envisioned a boy at the school library or the local bookstore, picking up the book and looking at the picture and putting it back down again. Or buying it thinking it was about being homosexual. It takes a lot of looking to realize that the cover is about body image. Once you know, you say, "Oh, yeah. Of course."  It would take a skilled librarian to put this book into the hands of the appropriate reader. But then, of course, there are always readers who love "problem fiction," and this is an ideal book for that market as well.

Lois Metzger's website:

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Fierce With Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn

by Carol Orsborn
Turner Publishing, 2013
244 pages     Spiritual

Sometimes a book comes along at just the right time. That's the case with Fierce with Age by Dr. Carol Osborn. I have been having a few hard months. First, I turned 70; then I was working way to hard; then a dear friend died quickly and abruptly. Then I read Orsborn's memoir of a hard year she had after she turned sixty, and I found sustenance and the will to move beyond the restlessness that has been plaguing my days and nights. Orsborn is an expert on the "baby boomer" generation and the author of several self-help books.

Orsborn describes a year in her life through entries much like a diary. She is on the "wild side" of sixty when a job change causes the couple to move from Los Angeles to New York. She left behind her work, which was waning anyway, and found herself at loose ends and feeling very old. At first she rages against the concept of "ageism" and loses her spiritual footing. Then slowly, she finds herself becoming spiritually whole again and ready to move on fiercely. She says that she is "surprisingly re-energized about who I am becoming, and fiercely curious about what lies ahead."

But becoming "fierce with age" doesn't come easily to Orsborn, and apparently it is not coming easily to me. We see Orsborn's progress through the year from a bout of self-pity to the moment when she rages against God and comes to the spiritual understanding that while she is not about to give up, she is at a new stage in her life's journey. And like most women, she feels like she is on this journey on her own with very little guidance.

The Publisher's Weekly reviewer suggests that this is not "naval gazing" but a rich description of what most thoughtful women of a certain age experience. Before her year is over, she has developed 11 spiritual truths of aging, some guiding principles that she wishes to convey to others moving past middle age. I particularly like number five which says, "We can dance with rather than struggle against the essence of who we are."

"But I now understood, not just intellectually nor even just emotionally, but in the very depths of my mortal soul, that it was not only my destiny but also everybody else's to die someday. I would not, could not, make peace with aging until I had come to terms with the finitude of existence, including the possibility of suffering and the guarantee of death, none of which were likely to be on my own terms."

Nearly everything Orsborn struggled with resonated with me. Last night my husband and I were discussing her book and we mentioned how people--like servers or store clerks--now view us as old, when, in fact, we forget that we look that way. It is always a shock to be treated with deference to our age.

A year ago, I had the opportunity to work with a major children's publisher on a large project, which lasted for four months. It was a very exciting gig for me and extremely satisfying. At one point I mentioned to the 30-something woman who was running the project that I hoped I was being useful. "Oh." she said. "It is wonderful to have you in the group! You know the backlist so well." meaning that I knew all the old books. A back-handed compliment if I ever heard one.

I was inspired when Orsborn detailed the moments when her focus changed from fighting against the aging process to being inspired by the process. She vividly describes the moment when she realized that " is mysterious, awe-some and awe-ful all at once. Can we be wise enough to embrace it all?" That is what I want to do. Embrace the mystery. Live to the fullest with grace and wisdom.

Carol Orsborn's website, aptly called "Fierce with Age."