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brooklyn bugle book club


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Assault” by Harry Mulisch

October 24, 2014

In January 1945, Haarlem in the Netherlands still awaits liberation from the Nazis. Anton Steenwijk, 12 years old, lives with his mother, father and older brother in a canal-side house, among four houses that were meant to be the beginning of a housing development. The Steenwijks have kept their heads down throughout the Occupation, and survived so far, even without enough food for two growing boys or enough fuel to heat their house. Then a collaborator, the Police Chief of Haarlem, is shot and killed in front of one of the four houses. In the ensuing Nazi actions, Anton’s father, mother, and brother are killed. Anton, sitting in a police car, is forgotten for a while. He is taken to a jail, where he spends a dark night in a cell with a woman, whose name he never learns, who has been wounded. Eventually the Nazis deliver Anton to an uncle in Amsterdam, who adopts him.

BUY NOW: The Assault by Harry Mulisch

Anton grows up, becomes a doctor, marries once and has a child, divorces and remarries and has a second child. The events of January 1945 are buried, except that they’re not: in subsequent years, Anton goes back once or twice to Haarlem to visit. Various people who were involved that night reappear in Anton’s life, including the son of the murdered man who is a former classmate of Anton’s, and the resistance members who planned the assassination. The Netherlands is a small country, and Mulisch is skillful at making what might seem too easy a coincidence utterly persuasive. Each person Anton meets has his own experience of that night, and his own understanding of what actually happened. With every piece of the puzzle, Anton relives the assault, but also comes to a fuller understanding of the roles everyone around him – his parents, the resistance fighters, the neighbors, the bystanders – experienced as events played out.

Mulisch assumes the Germans’ guilt, of course, but it’s the degrees of guilt of nearly all the parties involved that Mulisch explores. The Steenwijks become involved when one of their neighbors moves the body in front of their house. Why move it there? Perhaps because one of the neighbors has something to protect. Does Anton’s school friendship with the assassinated man’s son Fake make him guilty in some way? It’s through Fake that Anton learns a central piece of what happened. What about the resistance? They were willing to sacrifice Dutch families to a cruel fate in order to remove a hated collaborator.

Anton doesn’t need closure, but he does learn why events unfolded in the way they did. He lived through the war, Mulisch tells us, grew up and had children. In the face of that fact the guilt or innocence of others almost doesn’t matter. “The Assault” is a disturbing and gripping story about everything that makes us human from one of the 20th century’s best writers. What’s your take on this small gem? Let us know in the comments.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Gods Behaving Badly” A Novel by Marie Phillips

October 17, 2014

Eternity is a long time, even for an immortal. Thanks to a good real estate deal in the 1660s the Greek Gods have been living in London for some time, or so the premise of Marie Phillips’ hilarious novel has it. Although they are heartily sick of each other, they avoid mortals to the extent possible. That’s unfortunate, because with the exception of Ares and Hermes the Gods don’t have much to do – the banning of fox hunts, for example, limits Artemis’ scope – and they’re also short of funds.

The gods’ needs are minimal – they don’t eat or, evidently, need electricity, but each does what he or she can to bring in a little money. Artemis is a dog-walker; Dionysus runs a wine bar; Apollo is trying out a gig as the psychic host of a TV show on an obscure channel. Aphrodite has a successful phone sex business. Athena may be the goddess of wisdom but she finds communicating – anything – a challenge.

One day Alice, a mortal, presents herself at their door. Alice has a degree in linguistics but makes her living as a cleaner, and the Gods need help cleaning their house. Alice is madly in love with Neil, another mortal, and he with her, but both are too shy to express their love. Through a series of circumstances much too complicated to summarize here, Alice catches the eye of Apollo, is killed by one of Zeus’ lightning bolts, and the world threatens to come to an end.

Only Hades and Persephone can keep things going, it seems, and they are of course in the Underworld. In fact, Persephone has come to prefer life there as the Gods’ circumstances in the Upper World decay. A hero is needed to persuade them to step in, and Neil, much to his surprise, is that hero. It helps that Alice is in the Underworld (you get there, appropriately enough, by the Underground), and that Neil hopes for a second chance. If you are thinking of Orpheus and Eurydice at this point, Ms Phillips is well ahead of you.

The effect of the disjunct between the Gods’ past glory and their present circumstances (the portrait of Zeus as a decrepit old man will be familiar to readers with aging parents) is deeply dispiriting to them (though Eros finds some satisfaction exploring Christianity). Neil and Alice are not particularly religious, and there is some nice argument about who is – and is not – a God. Fortunately, the mortals provide the liveliness and initiative missing in the Gods. (The Gods do have active sex lives. Not Artemis, who continues to value chastity.) Phillips wraps everything up very satisfactorily. If you have a long plane ride or vacation planned, take this witty book with you. Or give it to a friend who is convalescing. Your friend will feel better immediately, and so will you.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” by Katha Pollitt

October 10, 2014

It’s been more than 40 years since the United States Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, limited the restrictions that states may place on abortion. For many of us, the fight for legal abortion seemed to be over. But in the intervening years an organized, effective opposition has persuaded several state legislatures, to chip away at a woman’s ability to terminate a pregnancy. The US Supreme Court has allowed them to impose restrictions such as waiting periods; required sonograms, parental permission for teenagers. Most chilling, opponents have now hit on the tactic, still being litigated, of imposing hospital admitting privileges so onerous (and unnecessary) that clinics will have to close because they are unable to comply. It’s an effective tactic that puts abortion out of the reach of many women, particularly poor ones. Yet most Americans continue to support the right to abortion, and more than a million abortions take place every year. How this disconnect happened, and what we can do about it, form the core of Katha Pollitt’s new book “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.”

Pollitt points out that polls show there to be a large blurry middle consisting of citizens who support the right to abortion and take it for granted. Our sense of security in this right is baseless, she argues, and it is this middle whom Pollitt seeks to engage. One of the ways she does so is by telling the stories of women who’ve chosen to have abortions. She supports those stories with facts:

By menopause, 3 in 10 American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy; about half of all US women who have an abortion have already had a prior abortion; excluding miscarriages, 21 percent of pregnancies end in abortion . . . around 6 in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers.

Abortion isn’t for someone else, Pollitt argues, it’s for us: our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, or friends. The people who are hurt by the chipping away of access are ourselves and people like us.

Pollitt also takes apart the arguments of the small but vocal and persistent minority (approximately 20% of Americans, she says) who oppose abortion in all circumstances. Her points are consistently mordant. Here’s one example:

Do abortion opponents really believe that a fertilized egg or a pea-sized shrimp-like embryo is a child? True believers surely must. After all, American life is full of things large numbers of people consider coarse and callous and wrong, but nobody shoots up porn studios or burns down gambling casinos or physically waylays men seeking to enter massage parlors . . The anti-abortion movement . . . is also a protest against women’s growing freedom and power, including their sexual freedom and power.

That’s the crux of Pollitt’s argument: that the issue isn’t so much about the fetus, despite the large amounts of attention paid to it, but about the woman, and her sexuality. After all, it’s not as if the US pays much attention to the child – or mother – after the birth. In fact, she argues, underlying the opposition to abortion is the idea that women shouldn’t be having sex, certainly not sex for pleasure (even women who already have all the children they want or can support).

“Pro” is a necessary and deeply engaging book about an important issue. One final quote: “Few contemporary Americans would say a woman should marry a man just because she slept with him, so why should she have a baby just because she slept with him?” Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

October 26, 2012

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On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Elliott Dunne disappears from the Missouri home she shares with her husband, Nick Dunne. The living room is in disarray, with furniture that has been knocked over, and eventually blood is found in the Dunnes’ kitchen. Amy is the daughter of a pair of psychologists who have made a fortune from a series of children’s novels based on the character ‘Amazing Amy.’ Nick, a magazine writer who lost his job, and Amy moved to Missouri to help care for Nick’s divorced parents, both of whom are in ill health. Amy, a composer of quizzes and other ephemera for magazines, has been unhappy about the move, and Nick has been ambivalent, though he is very happy that he can now run a bar with his twin sister, Margo. As time passes from the day of Amy’s disappearance and she doesn’t return, the police increasingly fear foul play. And their suspicion centers on Nick.

In preparation for their anniversary, Amy set up a scavenger hunt for Nick, leading him to various places they have been together. But as the book progresses, it becomes evident that each of these clues, if that is what they are, has a double, if not downright sinister, meaning. Nick and Amy tell their story in alternating chapters (while she is missing, Amy’s story comes from her diary entries; they give us her perspective on the history of the relationship). This structure is one of the novel’s great strengths, as it allows Flynn to reveal personalities, clues, and above all reversals slowly, in a compelling way that keeps the reader turning the pages.

The structure also allows Flynn to explore the theme of roles, roles we take on, or roles that our relationships force upon us. In addition to ‘Amazing Amy’ (although her parents insist that the character isn’t real, what child wouldn’t feel she had to live up to the standard set by a fictional avatar?) Amy is also Ozark Amy, Pregnant Amy, and Victim Amy, but she is presenting herself, throughout most of the book, to just a few readers. (The diary is also a clue.) Nick is the Loving Husband, at least until the national media, including several reporters who specialize in outrage over domestic abuse, become interested in the case, when he has the roles of victim and villain thrust upon him.

“Gone Girl” is not the most nuanced book I have ever read, but the structure and story more than compensate. I particularly admired the way Flynn is unafraid to show her characters in all their human complexity and frailty, and found it to be a perfect beach book. “Gone Girl” has been described as one of the “it” books of the summer of 2012. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club – Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff, out in paperback

September 6, 2011

Who is Cleo? What is she? Any number of different things, including Elizabeth Taylor, depending on who you ask. (And Angeline Jolie in the new movie version – Ed.)

Stacy Schiff’s terrific biography of Cleopatra has just been released in paperback, and the publisher has released this video to mark (ok, to market) it. The book was a bestseller in hardcover and e-book versions – if you haven’t yet read it I suggest popping over to BookCourt for the paperback. You can follow Stacy Schiff’s Twitter feed here.

There’s a school of thought in this household that the most likely place to find Cleo today would be the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Who is Cleopatra to you? Where do you think she would turn up if she were around today? Discuss in the comments.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Bossypants” by Tina Fey

September 2, 2011

OK, I didn’t really read Bossypants, Tina Fey’s recent memoir, except for the excerpts in The New Yorker (available, behind a paywall, here. One of the local teenagers downloaded the audio version from, and we listened to it as a family during a long car ride.

While reading the excerpts I thought that Fey’s writerly voice was a little, well, bossy is the word that comes to mind, but her tone while I was listening (Fey reads the work herself) is masterly. This is as it should be; Fey was trained as an actor. The book is hilarious and appealed to our entire family, which includes two college-aged kids. The I’m-an-awkward-girl-growing-up scenes felt all too familiar yet made both my daughter and me laugh out loud (though there was some squirming from squeamish male family members). Fey’s descriptions of her friendships with gay men and her college-age efforts to connect with unavailable men ranged from charming to a “that’s so familiar” cringe-inducing honesty. Her descriptions of tortured Christmas-time drives across Pennsylvania with a toddler in a car seat hit a little too close to home, even though our kids have reached driving age.

And then there were the descriptions of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Fey includes the script of her first appearance as Sarah Palin (the one where Amy Poehler is Hillary Clinton) in the hard copy of the book (I went over to a local bookstore and looked), but the performance is included in the audio book, a distinct advantage. Everyone in the car enjoyed that – I’ve provided a link to a youtube clip. Beyond SNL, Fey is generous to her 30 Rock writers and co-stars without giving too much away about the show, and I admit I’ll be looking up a few more episodes to watch what she called the best jokes.

The audio book comes with a pdf download of the hard copy book’s photos (and you get to avoid that weird cover photo.) In general the audiobook feels like a rare improvement over the actual book. What do you think of audio books in general? This one in particular? Tina Fey? Comment away!

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “To The End of the Land” by David Grossman

August 25, 2011

A parent’s work is never done, the saying goes, and there’s a reason for that. Several, in fact, but the existential one is the subtext for David Grossman’s fascinating book To the End of the Land. The work of organizing a home, and feeding nurturing and caring for its inhabitants always falls to someone, and in that work – cooking and eating and dishes and laundry – a lot of living gets done. This appears to be true regardless of culture. Grossman is an Israeli and Israel, with its three years of compulsory army service, asks much more of its parents than we do.

In the novel Ora, separated from her husband of 20 years, Ilan, and estranged from her older son, has left her home to go on a hike the length of the country, to pass the time while her second son, Ofer, extends his military service by a month. More importantly, she wants to be out of reach of the messengers she is desperately afraid will come to tell her of her son’s death in action. On the way to her starting point, she has an irremediable fight with her long-time Arab-Israeli driver, and plucks her old friend Avram out of his drab existence to accompany her. Avram has a tragic history of his own, slowly revealed through the course of the novel, that is inextricably intertwined with Ora’s and Ilan’s.

Ora spends the walk describing her family’s life to Avram. “A family is a perpetual occurrence,” she says at one point. She is still simultaneously avoiding and puzzling out the cause of its sundering. Avram, it is not giving away too much to reveal, is Ofer’s father. In the course of their walk, with Ora relating the story of Ofer’s 21 years, Avram becomes his parent. They walk from signpost to signpost but also from memorial to memorial, for soldiers, almost all aged 21. Regarding one, Ora says, “There’s no more room for all the dead.” Meanwhile, in a subplot I found to be not completely credible, Ora witnesses Avram slowly return to life, until, in a more realistic twist, she realizes that he has managed a life without her and Ilan despite their guilt.

The ending of the novel is ambiguous, though readers of The New Yorker who read George Packer’s 2010 profile of Grossman (available behind a paywall here) will remember that Grossman’s son Uri was killed during the time he wrote the book. It’s not an autobiographical novel; Grossman says in an endnote, “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”

Endless conflict has a pernicious effect on the soul, and that’s what, in the end, this novel is about. What happens when living a good life, and teaching your child to be good, isn’t enough to protect your child? From circumstances? From the consequences of the choices he has had to make? Recently the New York Times ran a story about Israeli women picking up Palestinian women and children from the West Bank and taking them to the beach for the day. Is that enough? The morality may be particularly ambiguous in Israel. The universal truth, vividly exposed here, is that all the choices are bad and the compromises we have to make are ugly indeed.

Have you read this beautiful and troubling book? Does Ofer survive his extra month? What do you think will happened in the end to these characters? Use the comments and talk back!


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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Air We Breathe” by Andrea Barrett

August 18, 2011

I recently finished reading Andrea Barrett’s 2007 novel The Air We Breathe. It’s set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the fictional Adirondack town of Tamarack Lake during 1915-1917, while the Great War was under way but before the US had entered it.

The story involves a quadrilateral romance. Miles Fairchild, a wealthy industrialist patient staying at a private boarding house in Tamarack Lake loves Naomi, his landlady’s daughter. She in turn loves Leo Marbury, an impoverished German-Jewish émigré confined to the public sanatorium. He loves Eudora, a nurse’s aide there, who is also Naomi’s best friend. Part of the plot turns on Eudora figuring out whether she loves Leo back. They all get to know each other after Miles organizes a series of discussions in which the various patients lecture their fellows on something they know from the outside world.

And the plot also turns on those discussion groups, because during one of them there’s a suspicious fire. Miles, who has become a leader in a homeland security vigilante group, undertakes the investigation and, partly because he is jealous of him, throws suspicion on to Leo. Circumstantial evidence supports his theory.

Tamarack Lake is not an otherworldly place like Hans Castorp’s magic mountain. The novel considers issues of class and origin, and Leo is suspected partly because he is German. (An irony, of course, is that had he stayed in Germany, and lived long enough, he would have been a victim there because his mother was Jewish.) The Great War does not stay out of patient’s lives—one measure of the repression they experience is their changing access to information from the outside.

Ever since I read “Ship Fever” I’ve thought of Barrett as a writer who lets the bones of her stories show, but here the bones are covered with muscle and skin, and clothed in flowing silk that shifts and uncovers, now the curve of a breast, later a glimpse of inner thigh. (To extend the metaphor, there is no fat in this narrative.) This impression is strengthened by an unusual narrative device: the rest of the patients take over the narration occasionally, becoming a shared unconscious, demonstrating how quickly an unsupported rumor can spread among a community and take on the aura of truth. Read one way, the story is an allegory of our present-day mistrust of immigrants, particularly Muslims. Read another, it’s a story of class in American life.

I keep thinking about this book, and every time I do, I come up with a new possible interpretation. Have you read it? Do you agree or disagree? Which of Barrett’s other books would you recommend? Use the comments to discuss and make your recommendations.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: Revolutionary School – Daughters of the Revolution by Carolyn Cooke

July 15, 2011

Carolyn Cooke’s novel, “Daughters of the Revolution,” is a curious book, in all good senses of the word. The novel covers the years 1963-2005 at the Goode School and its surrounding town. Several revolutions—the sexual revolution, the quieter, smaller but still potent revolution that resulted in first, African-Americans, then girls, then African-American girls being admitted and eventually becoming valued—provide the events, and the subtext, of the novel. “Daughters of the Revolution” more or less describes events in the lives of the Headmaster Goddard Boyd, known familiarly as “God,” and a few other alumni, staff, spouses, and children connected to the school. And to each other.

The school itself, though its influence is deeply felt, never actually takes form. It floats mistily off the shore of Cape Wilde, the mythical North Shore town where much of the novel takes place. This is not The Rector of Justin. I found it potent stuff, though I’m aware that some readers might find it obvious. (The “Goode” School. Really?) What do you think? Which revolutions did you live through? Did Carolyn Cooke capture them? Share your impressions in the comments.

(Note: Updated August 25, 2011)

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: Christianity The First 3000 Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch

July 9, 2011

Back in 2003 Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford don, published a magisterial book called The Reformation: A History. That book weighed in at 687 pages of text, every one of them a model of clarity, but, as MacCulloch explains in the introduction to the new book, it raised more questions for him. Now the American edition of his subsequent book, Christianity: The First 3000 Years, written to answer those questions, has made its way into the house. As you can see, this one is even longer. Continue Reading…

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