Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Book of Stoned

Readers will have no sympathy for protagonist Matthew Stone, who spends much of this novel whining and aching to be a mass murderer.

I have this habit of starting to read a book without looking at its back cover. Or in the case of an e-book quickly downloaded, I dive into the first chapter without bothering to check its description on Amazon. This habit may have been a mistake in the case of The Book of Stone by Jonathan Papernick (Fig Tree Books, May 2015).

The marketing text says this: “The Book of Stone examines the evolution of the terrorist mentality and the complexities of religious extremism, as well as how easily a vulnerable mind can be exploited for dark purposes.”

What that description doesn’t tell you is that the religious extremism is Jewish extremism and the blood-thirsty terrorists involved make Meir Kahane’s followers in the Jewish Defense League seem like kindergarten teachers.

The problem with this book, however, is not its examination of terrorist mentalities but the main character of the story. Matthew Stone, son of a famous, although disgraced judge; and grandson of a Meyer Lansky-like gangster; is probably the least likeable protagonist you’ll ever meet. The younger Stone has spent his life “chasing after disastrous sexual entanglements, clutching the sinking lifeboat of hopeless relationships and cheap marijuana highs” so much that The Book of Stoned is a more appropriate title. When not smoking weed, or drinking booze, or self-mutilating himself, or nearly strangling his girlfriend, or threatening to kill his mother, Matthew treats us to a whiny obsession-filled monologue that becomes more disturbing with each repetition.

One reviewer said that the book follows “a nice Jewish boy’s slow slide into madness,” but there is nothing nice at all about Matthew Stone. At one point we do feel some sort of a connection to him. This is during a flashback to the time he spent in Israel, recovering from a mental breakdown. We actually root for the young man when he falls in love with an Israeli Arab woman, but the minute he stands her up and readily submits himself to his father’s belt whipping, we again realize that Matthew Stone has never been a “nice Jewish boy.”

The author utilizes a jumpstarted word game to make us better understand the guy. “Change a couple letters in Stone, he thought, you had alone; change another, you had atone; split that word, you had at one.” But despite Matthew’s return to the Jewish fold in time to say Kaddish for his father and join High Holiday services with their “mysterious rhythms and eternal cadences”, no atonement is possible for his numerous sins.

Matthew is about to commit suicide when we first meet him; he later becomes an accessory to the murder of a friend; and by the end of the book he volunteers to commit mass murder. As readers we cannot sympathize with his struggles. We wish we could part company with Matthew Stone much sooner than the book’s conclusion. A surprise twist at the very end may be the only reason to force one’s way through the lengthy narrative.

Jonathan Papernick was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He lived in Israel during the mid 1990s, working as a journalist in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His first collection of short stories The Ascent of Eli Israel was published by Arcade Publishing in 2002 and received a full-page review in the New York Times. His second collection of short stories There is No Other was published in 2010. Papernick is currently Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Are Writers Certifiably Crazy?

This article is satirical and is not intended to offend anyone in the mental health community - my apologies if my humor is misunderstood.

The symptoms are getting worse. I wake up at night, my mind racing at a frantic pace, the ideas flooding me with a tidal wave of creativity. Afraid that I will forget something, I race downstairs to jot some notes so that I will remember everything in the morning. When I come to the breakfast table, I find my laptop surrounded by a sea of sticky Post-Its.

My sleepless nights might be considered a bad thing, but for me - a writer and author - they are very, very good. I write a lot in the dark hours, if you accept that coming up with ideas is a vital part of the writing process. Between these bursts of creativity, I manage to get in some actual sleep as well. As tired as I may be the next day, physically, mentally I am alert and hyper-awake.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Not a Single Clue Is Missing

"The Missing"
This is a review of a BBC television series so good, so expertly plotted, so professionally edited, and performed by such talented actors and actresses - that it is literally impossible to review.

By writing this review I run the risk of revealing a clue that would make the show just a fracture less enjoyable. If I write something here that proves to be evidence to what will happen, you will hold me responsible for kidnapping the excitement in your viewing experience.

"The Missing".

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's Getting Hot in Egypt

Alexandrian Summer – Yitzhak Gormezano Goren's 1978 novel now translated for the first time – is a nostalgic look at the life of secular bourgeois Jews in Egypt's second largest city.

It's the summer of 1951. Farouk rules as "King of Egypt and Sudan". Only in October will the Parliament cancel the treaty allowing the British to control the Suez Canal. In a year's time Gamal Abdel Nasser will overthrow the monarchy and lead Egypt into Arab nationalism. But meanwhile in cosmopolitan Alexandria, Egyptian Jews continue to enjoy a very sedate, dignified, European style of living. As they go to the track to watch the horses, or play cards and gossip, there is a growing awareness that something is about to happen.

The Alexandria described in the novel Alexandrian Summer (New Vessel Press, April  2015) is very sensuous. "Surrounded by water. Water, water, water. In the north, her full breasts dip in the water of the Mediterranean. In the south, the waves of Lake Mariout cool her behind with arousing caresses. In the east, her fingers flutter through the Nile as it runs its brown water with limp sleepiness."

As the first person narrator says in the opening pages, "The story of the Alexandrian summer does not present itself easily. It is wrapped in layers of nostalgia, of oblivion, of generalizations." The narrator speaks from his new home in Israel, having left "the Alexandria of the days of King Farouk" when he was ten years old, just as the author did.

Although it seems at times that Alexandria is the protagonist of the novel, it is actually the "story about the Hamdi-Alis, a family from Cairo that came to spend a summer of joy on the shores of Alex[andria]." This family, with its Arab last name, "embodies the joie de vivre, the unending Mediterranean energy." Arriving as guests in the home of ten-year-old Robby, they are the main characters we follow, as Robby's own tale does not capture our interest as fully.

The sensuality of the story is reserved for the city, with the exception of the pubescent experimentation of Robby and his friend, Victorico Hamdi-Ali. This entails a little too much homoerotic humping, in my opinion. Robby's sister is in a relationship with Victorico's brother David, a Jewish jockey competing with Muslim riders at the city's horseracing track. David's father stresses that winning races is a mission, not a game, but David is willing to give it all up to be with Miss Anabella, as her father affectionately calls her.

Robby's family talks about two older sons who are already living in the new State of Israel and there is a growing recognition that one day the entire community will have to emigrate. After all, the locals are shouting "Death to the Jews" at every opportunity. The family realizes that the bourgeois lifestyle they lead, with two servants in every home, "coquettish flirtation at the fashion hubs of Europe," and "French, sometimes English" as the lingua franca, will soon end. In the meantime, though, they can enjoy one last Alexandrian summer.

The action in the novel takes place on Rue Delta, a very real street as described in the book's introduction written by André Aciman, who was also a resident of Alexandria before making aliyah. We learn fascinating information about the city and its Jewish community from Aciman's words, which leave a long-lasting impression of a rich culture that no longer exists.

As the book's narrator says, "One day electric lamps would be installed on Rue Delta, and then the lamplighter would disappear from the landscape, fading along with our forgotten childhood, which grows distant with every passing day."

Yitzhak Gormezano Goren was born in Alexandria in 1941 and immigrated to Israel as a child. He is a playwright and novelist, and cofounder of the Bimat Kedem Theater, which he directed for 30 years. Gormezano Goren is a winner of the Ramat Gan Prize for Literature and received the Israeli Prime Minister's Prize for Literature in 2001.

Alexandrian Summer was translated by Yardenne Greenspan and published by arrangement with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Buy Alexandrian Summer and read it now!

Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Vanished in Gaza

Vanished, by Palestinian-British author Ahmed Masoud, takes readers into the besieged Gaza Strip where Mustafa Ouda has mysteriously disappeared.

Omar Ouda lives in London but his heart is in the Gaza Strip. That is where is house is, that is where family members still live. But his home is under fire, in danger due to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, and Omar must return.

But there is more that ties Omar to Gaza. His father, Mustafa Ouda, has been missing since Omar was a boy. One day Mustafa walked out of the family home, apparently after a heated argument with his wife, and the next day he was gone, vanished. Omar sets off to find his father, or at least to learn what happened to him, and that is the main theme of this short, but powerful novel.

Vanished (Rimal Publications, Cyprus, June 2015) is set against the political unrest in Palestine, from one Intifada to the next. The timeline includes the initial optimism after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the despair resulting from the Palestinian Authority's actions against opposition groups. In the midst of all this violence is the story of a young boy searching for his father. The journey Omar takes is fictional, but what he experiences is very real, and very troublesome.

In order to survive, some of the residents are coerced to work for the enemy. As he grows into adulthood, Omar collaborates with the Israeli army and later he serves with the Palestinian Authority. In both cases, he feels that he has betrayed his people.

The picture the book paints is one-sided, showing only the suffering of the Palestinians living in Gaza, but that's the whole point. The only Israelis readers encounter in this novel are soldiers carrying guns; only one of them is given a name and a speaking role. For many Gazans, armed soldiers are the only type of Israelis they will ever see.

It's hard to imagine how the characters in this book, like the residents of Gaza themselves, manage to lead normal lives in a very abnormal, besieged society. The author wisely stays away from political arguments, letting readers judge for themselves who is right and who is wrong. Unfortunately, as Omar discovers at the conclusion of his quest, there can be betrayal and deceit even among those closest to you.

Ahmed Masoud is a writer and director who grew up in the Gaza Strip and moved to the United Kingdom in 2002. He completed his postgraduate studies in English Literature and has an MA and a PhD research. He is the founder of Al Zaytouna, a UK-based Palestinian dance theatre troupe. He has written a play about the Syrian crisis and a number of other works, including a BBC Radio 4 play. Vanished is his first novel.

Buy Vanished and read it now!

Originally published at The Times of Israel.