- March 9, 2012
Today’s snapshots include two debut novels offering two different takes on the family, a mystery set in Utah replete with mountains, cougars and a missing child, and a review of Perlmann’s Silence.
Today’s snapshots include two debut novels offering two different takes on the family, one marvelously funny and the other moving and insightful. There is also a mystery set in Utah replete with mountains, cougars and a missing child. And Y.S. Fing reviews Perlmann’s Silence, a major international success that he did not like very much.
Solomon Kugel has moved his family to a farmhouse in Stockton, New York, partly to escape his own past and history. It doesn’t work. His mother obsesses about the suffering she and her family endured in the Holocaust, even though she was in fact born in Brooklyn in 1945 and had no close relatives killed in the Holocaust. It’s worse than that, though. Kugel discovers Anne Frank living in his attic, and she is a combative and demanding old woman. An arsonist is burning down farmhouses in the community, and Kugel worries that his will be next. Kugel’s therapist tells him that he is guilty of hope, which is the “greatest source of misery in the world,” and that Hitler was such a monster precisely because he was a great optimist. This is Shalom Auslander’s first novel, although he’s published a memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, and a short story collection, Beware of God. The writing is snappy, acid and comic, even when dealing with Kugel’s obsession with death. Consider his late-night thought on an epitaph for his mother: “MOTHER / Here she lies. Big surprise.” He would never have survived Auschwitz, he muses, partly because of his gluten intolerance, which means he can’t even eat matzoh: “His stomach was anti-Semitic. His bowels had assimilated. His rectum was self-hating. Anne Frank would be pleased.” Auslander’s wicked prose is a treat, although the character of Kugel becomes a little tiresome by the middle of the book. His constant whining and staggeringly poor decisions become boring, so a reader may wish he’d just fire his therapist and call the cops. The final bizarre plot twist, though, and Kugel’s final words in the novel, render him more interesting, and show how well knit this work is.
~Susan Storer Clark
This reader has always had the impression that the burden of secrecy is far heavier than the secret itself. Secrets have an “unlanguage” that silences its keepers and has a long reach ― rifling through generations. Secrets that remain so generally develop into unwieldy yet invisible life forces, and in The Underside of Joy, the Capozzi family have held their tongues for so long that what is unsaid seems to wait at the edge of every important conversation. The Capozzis’ secrets circle around them like nettlesome gnats not only as they struggle to keep their store open but also when their son, its manager, dies and the struggle moves to the fight between the children’s stepmother and their natural mother who seeks to reclaim them. The backdrop to the entire story is a community of friendly and active neighbors who know and care about one another. The reader may cry, get a little angry and wish to be right smack dab in the middle of Elbow, California so that he or she can hug the children, pat a few characters on the back and have a good long look at a reclusive painter’s artwork. The story is vibrant with clear prose and the reader feels close enough to head west to the Capozzis’ general store so they can fill handmade baskets with sumptuous food and find a place to picnic. A giant cove of redwoods is enough to lure us, too. The Underside of Joy is not a new story, not even a unique story, but it reminds the reader how wonderful we can be when we step outside ourselves in consideration of others.
Pamela Beason excels at writing about nature. The reader gets to live among the canyons, ruins and pine forests of a Utah national park where cougars roam. She describes the intricacies of camping, the internecine competition between local and national agencies, and most grippingly, the disappearance from the campgrounds of a small boy at dusk. Sam Weston, a wilderness biologist on assignment for the Save the Wilderness Fund, is the last person to see the child before he is reported missing. She thought she had left him with his father as he toddled down a path away from her toward a man calling his name. Where is the missing boy? Clues are human, animal and fossil. Yet there are so many details about each lead that sometimes the urgency of the hunt becomes diluted. A team of FBI agents is assigned the case. In the immediacy of forensic work a female agent “switched into black jeans and a gold sweatshirt. On her the combination was elegant.” These observations continue though the most harrowing moments of terror, diluting the adventure. Did the cougars kill the boy? Did the park ranger live through the cougar attack? Did the male FBI agent fall in love with the girl (the biologist)? The ending has some surprises, and is intense. The conclusion would be more effective without the extraneous thoughts of the biologist.
Would you read a book with this as its epigraph?: The others are really others. Others. Would you want to read a book about two-dimensional scholars in conflict about unnamed, unidentified abstruse linguistic theories, and translators’ responses to their readings? Would you want to read a book that was all abstraction and no “sensory content”? Of course not! Would you want to translate such a book? Poor Shaun Whiteside, the translator who had to take this book seriously, for goodness knows how long, to transform its vacuity into English. The first line forewarns the reader: “Philipp Perlmann didn’t know how to live in the present.” His wife has died. He is not motivated to work anymore, even though he is signed on to be the lead scholar at a five-week conference among his ambitious peers. Perlmann has no more ambition and the entire book is told through his uninterested eyes. Heaven help anyone who picks up this 616-page book.