Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Vanishing Half

 


The Vanishing Half

 

By Brit Bennett

Published 2020

 

 

·       #1 New York Times Bestseller

·       Longlisted for the National Book Award

·       Good Morning America Book Club Pick

·       HBO will create a limited series from the novel

·       River Highlands Book club choice for December 2020

 

“Acting is not about being seen, a drama teacher told her once. True acting meant becoming invisible.”

 

In the mid twentieth century, the Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, were born in the small Louisiana black community of Mallard.   Writing that “it was a strange town…A town for [people] who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negores,”  the author begins the novel in 1848 with the story of Alphonse Decuir, a former enslaved man who inherited the land from his white father. The light skinned Decuir married a woman even lighter than he and, as generations passed, each was born lighter than the one before.  Soon, the residents of the small black community could all pass for white.

As young and inseparable girls, Stella and Desiree witness the lynching of their father for no reason other than he was black.  They also see the bone crushing poverty in which the family lives.

To make ends meet, their mother, Adele, withdrew the girls from school so they could clean for a wealthy white woman in a nearby community.  That woman’s husband repeatedly rapes the young Stella.  Feeling trapped, the 16-year-old twins run away from home.

The two girls flee to New Orleans where they work at a laundry.  Shortly after being fired from her job, however, Desiree encourages Stella to apply for a secretarial job at Maison Blanche.  Passing for white, Stella gets the job.

Many years later, the girls live separate lives.  Desiree moves to Washington D. C.  where she marries a black man who later abuses her.  They have a child, Jude who is dark-skinned. One day, Desiree and Jude flee and return to Mallard. 

Stella, who has learned that safety, stability, and privilege come with being white, has meanwhile married her former wealthy boss and lives as a white woman.  Able to pass, nobody knows her secret, not even her husband.  Soon, she and her husband, Blake, have a child they name Kennedy.

Though Stella and Desiree lose contact with one another as Stella disappears to protect her identity as a white woman, the paths of their daughters soon intersect.

Though the plot can be a little contrived at times as the novel tells the story of the life of the twins and their offspring over a period of several years, the author has written a family novel about the consequences of decisions, race as a social construct, the tolls of bigotry, and  the damage caused by colorism and passing.

Comparing the costs of living authentically in a racist, sexist, and homophobic world with the costs that come with passing,  the novel--which includes trans and gay characters--broadly explores the continual self-policing and identity performance necessary to pass, and why some people still feel pulled to deny who they are even when the cost is as great as that which comes with denying one's true identity.  

Though I was occasionally distracted by the many plot coincidences the author needed to explore her themes, the novel held my attention with its likeable characters and astute non-judgmental observations. In fact, the author refuses to repeat the common trope of a passing person being discovered and punished.  Most of all, however, I appreciated the author’s refusal to take a definitive position as she explored the consequences—positive and negative--of passing in America.




Monday, November 9, 2020

Lay Your Sleeping Head

 


Lay Your Sleeping Head

(A revised edition of the first Henry Rios mystery, The Little Death published in 1986)

By Michael Nava

New edition published 2019

 

Perhaps one of the most popular literary genres is that of mystery and suspense.  Likely this is because it is one that is innovative and able to give us pleasure from the comfort of our armchair.

Given the many forms mystery and suspense might take, Dr. David Schmid, professor of English at the University of Buffalo says we can consider six questions as we seek to better describe a particular mystery suspense novel:

  •        What is the level of optimism about the power of logic to solve the mystery?
  •        What methods / tools are used to solve the mystery?
  •        Who are the villains?
  •        What is the relationship between the main characters and the law?
  •        Why is the detective in the business of solving mysteries and crimes?
  •        What can the story tell us about the society and time in which the writer lived?

Many critics pinpoint the beginning of this genre as April 1841 when the 32-year-old American author, Edgar Allen Poe, published his story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  This story created many of the standard elements we find in many traditional mystery and suspense novels and stories:

  •        An eccentric amateur detective
  •        A sidekick who records the detective’s deeds
  •        An urban setting
  •        A fictionalized version of a real-life case
  •        A locked room
  •        A competition between the detective and villain
  •        The use of logic to solve the mystery

Later, the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, made use of these standard elements in his Sherlock Holmes stories.  Because Doyle wrote dozens of stories and several novels in this genre, his work is more well-known and influential that is that of Poe who only wrote three mystery stories.

While these traditional elements appear in many contemporary works, there have been changes.  One of the most well-known is the cozy mystery.  The English writer, Agatha Christie, may be the best-known author of this type of mystery story.  Beginning to write in 1920, she wrote more than 80 mystery novels as well as plays and stories.  In fact, the longest running play in history is The Mousetrap which opened in London almost 70 years ago.  Though it closed during the pandemic of 2020, it is scheduled to reopen when safe to do so. 

The cozy mystery downplays violence and concentrates on crimes committed by ordinary people.  Christie also presented her readers with all the clues the detective found so that there could be a kind of competition between the reader and detective in solving the mystery.

Another popular form of the mystery suspense genre is the hard-boiled mystery.  This one was especially popular between 1920 and 1940 in the US.  These mysteries downplayed logic in solving the crime and relied more on violence.  The setting was usually a city such as LA, San Francisco, or occasionally New York.  The criminals and detectives were professionals. The hard-boiled writer, Raymond Chandler, said that this type of mystery reflected real life, not the world we would like to inhabit.

Because the genre is so flexible there are even mystery and suspense novels with gay characters.  One of the best known writers of this type is the award winning author, Michael Nava. The New York Times has declared Nava “one of our best.”

Michael Nava, a native Californian who is the grandson of Mexican immigrants,  is an attorney, former staff person for the California Supreme Court, and writer of a mystery series featuring Henry Rios, a gay, Latinix, criminal defense attorney struggling with his own demons, including alcoholism.   Nava is winner of several Lambda Literary Awards which are given to books with a LGBTQ interest.

Set in the 1980s, Lay Your Sleeping Head is Nava’s first novel in the Henry Rios series.  In it, we meet the gifted, principled, and deeply humane disillusioned criminal defense attorney Henry Rios who becomes involved with Hugh Paris, the drug addicted, gay, outcast son of a wealthy and influential California family. 

Paris had been arrested for “being under the influence of PCP, possession of PCP, resisting arrest and battery on an officer.” When the public defender Rios offers to take Paris’s case, the two men recognize the other is gay.  Paris, however, declines the offer of help though Rios leaves the door open. Days later, Hugh Paris comes through that door with an improbable story.

“I recognized that tone; it was a signal from one lonely traveler to another. We moved through a world so inescapably and aggressively straight that coming across another gay man in an unexpected circumstance was like stumbling into a refuge where, for a moment, it was possible to lower our shields and breathe.”

Being both gay and Latino, Rios is an outsider able to look in at the corruption, injustice, and inequality in the larger society. It is this outside position, as well as his strong principles and belief in justice that makes Rios such a gifted attorney.  But this also makes burning out more likely.

Lay Your Sleeping Head develops themes of personal alienation, obsession, ethnicity, class, abuse, injustice and corruption as Rios finds himself falling in love for the first time.  Hugh Paris who is struggling to stay sober, tells Rios that he suspects his wealthy grandfather years ago had killed members of his family.  Hugh, the descendant of a railroad baron who had made his wealth with the building of the transcontinental railroad, says his own life might be in danger. With no evidence at hand, Rios doubts his lover until one day, he turns up dead. 

Though Rios and several other characters are gay, and this particular book in the series has a few graphic—though integral--sex scenes, Nava creates realistic and complex plots and wrestles with themes that cross over the sexual orientation divide.  Most of all, however, he writes characters who are engaging and three-dimensional, ones we would like to know.  

Lay Your Sleeping Head also illustrates Nava’s connection to the judicial system, his experiences as a gay man, and his understanding that this country has often been built on the backs of immigrants.

If you like mystery and suspense novels, especially those that are thoughtful and hard-boiled, give Michael Nava a try.  The author says he wants to do a revision of all the books in the series now that he is a better writer.  Nava says he intends to rewrite the novels to better explore the HIV/AIDS era by focusing on the life and experiences of the fictional character, Henry Rios.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Live and Become (film)

 


Live and Become

(French: Va, vis et deviens)

Film

French/Romanian film

Released 2005

Streaming on the Tubi app and Vimeo

An award-winning film at many film festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.

·       Directed by Radu Mihaileanu

  •      Produced by Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil, Radu Mihaileanu, Marek Rozenbaum, Itai Tamir
  •      Written by Alain-Michel Blanc, Radu Mihaileanu
  •      Music by Armand Amar
  •      Cinematography Rémy Chevrin

Cast:

  •      Moshe Agazai as Child Schlomo
  •      Moshe Abebe as Teenage Schlomo
  •      Sirak M. Sabahat as Adult Schlomo
  •      Yael Abecassis as Yael Harrari
  •      Roschdy Zem as Yoram Harrari
  •      Yitzhak Edgar as Qes Amhra

 

Live and Become was another film we viewed in my Ohio State University course, Israeli Film and Society.  This has, so far, been one of my favorites.

Live and Become looks at the experience of Ethiopian refugees who emigrated to Israel in the late 20th century.

A Jewish community has existed in Ethiopia for at least 15 centuries though little is known or understood about the people since there are few written records.  The Ethiopian Jews had a low literacy rate, were nomadic, and relied upon an oral tradition. 

From what can be pieced together, it is likely the community arrived in Ethiopia between the fist and sixth centuries.  Some scholars believe they entered as merchants or artisans from other lands while others speculate they may have arrived as one of the “lost tribes” of Israel.

It seems that this was not a homogenous group but were small villages scattered across Ethiopia and with little contact among each other.  Furthermore, because they lacked contact with Jewish communities outside their villages, cultural and religious traditions formed in ways different from the larger Jewish community.

Often other Ethiopians referred to these Jews as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider).

The Ethiopian monarchy was erratic in its treatment of these Jews.  At times, the rulers treated them well, but other times were cruel and harsh. In the 1600’s, for example, the king forced them to convert to Christianity and denied them land ownership.  Many chose suicide others fled and tried to make their way to Jerusalem.

In 1974, Ethiopia came under Marxist rule. Anti-Semitism grew and a massive famine hit the land.  As conditions worsened, in 1977, Israeli President Menachem Begin started selling arms to the Ethiopian government hoping to secure freedom for Ethiopia’s Jews.  Thus, began airlifts of Jews in exchange for weapons.  Between 1977 and 1984, approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Israel.

Then, in 1984 began a massive airlift that culminated in the 1991 rescue of almost 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours. This last rescue was held during political turmoil that caused the Ethiopian ruler to flee the country.

These airlifts were all done under the cover of night to try to prevent reactions from other Arab nations around Ethiopia.  Most were conducted from refugee camps in Sudan.

Once in Israel, these refugees experienced problems.  They held different religious and cultural traditions, spoke a different language, were unfamiliar with the modern conveniences of life, and more.  Furthermore, many Israelis questioned if all the arrivals were even Jewish.

By 2000, however, government programs helped more than 10,000 of these refugees buy homes near the center of major cities, find jobs, and integrate into the modern country.  Even the Ethiopian Jewish religious festival of Sigd has become an official state holiday.

It is within this context that the film Live and Become takes place.

The film begins at a refugee camp in Sudan in 1985.  The film’s protagonist, Shlomo (Solomon) is a young child and a Christian.  After a young Jewish child dies of starvation and disease, Shlomo’s mother convinces the dead boy’s mother to take Shlomo with her to Israel.  To do this, the boy must pretend to be a Jew since Israel was sending back to Ethiopia any non-Jews who tried to emigrate.  (Israel accepts as citizens those persons who can claim a Jewish lineage)

As nine-year-old Shlomo reluctantly and painfully leaves behind his mother, she tells him to "Go, live, and become."

Upon his arrival in Israel, the woman who took him dies leaving the young boy with nobody.  Though adopted by a good family wo tries hard to help the child, Shlomo struggles and lives in deep depression until one day he sneaks away to a Ethiopian religious leader and asks him to write a letter to his mother (Shlomo does not know how to write in his native language).

The film then follows Shlomo’s life in Israel as he carries with him his secret, the pain of losing his mother and the desire to find her, and the need to  find his place in the new land.  In following his journey into his young adult years, the viewer comes to learn more about the immigrant experience but also Israel’s struggle to become a multicultural society rather than one that relies upon assimilation of cultures.

At one point, in despair, Shlomo turns himself in to the police as a non-Jew.  The officer replies, "The newspapers are full of that stuff, the Falashas are no Jews. Now they begin to believe it themselves,” then sends him on his way.

Though the film seems to rush through its last half hour (Shlomo’s marriage, his studies in France to become a doctor, and his return to Ethiopia to care for refugees and search for his mother) I loved this film and its characters.  It is the story of immigration, the strength of women and their love, being a minority, struggling to belong, and speaking truthfulness. More than once a tear came to my eyes.



Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Armageddon

 


Armageddon

By Leon Uris

Published:  1963

 

I remember being in high school and reading Armageddon, the sixth novel by American author, Leon Uris.  My parents had the book sitting in their bookcase and I was intrigued by its cover.  I suppose I also felt the length of the book might be a challenge, one that would make me feel like a “grown up” reader.  I completed reading the book but discovered I lacked enough background in history to fully appreciate it.

Now that I am “considerably” older, know more about history, and have traveled in Berlin, I thought I might enjoy the novel more this second time around.  While true that I was able to make more sense of what I was reading, I was saddened to discover that Leon Uris is a lesser writer than I remembered him to be.  His strength lies in his research and ability to provide an in-depth historic background to his story but--at least in this novel--his dialogue, characters, and even plot, are mediocre at best.

Leon Uris was born in 1924 and died in 2003.  The author of several historical novels including Battle Cry, Mitla Pass, Mila 18, Topaz, QB VII, and The Haj, his best-known work is his third novel, Exodus, published in 1958.  I read all these many years ago and, despite my experience re-reading Armageddon, would like to revisit at least Exodus.

Born in the United States to Jewish American parents, Uris never completed high school but joined the Marines at the age of 17 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Those experiences formed the basis of his first novel, Battle Cry, published in 1953.

After leaving the military, Uris wrote for a newspaper but, after selling an article to Esquire Magazine in 1950, decided to try his hand at writing books. 

After finding success with his first two novels, a public relations person tasked with making Americans more enthusiastic about the new country encouraged Uris to write a novel about the new country.  Uris who had an intense interest in Israel, sold an idea for a film to MGM Studio then spent two years researching and interviewing thousands of people.  The result was his novel and film, Exodus, which introduced thousands of Americans to Zionism, a Jewish nation in Palestine, and the Arab-Jewish conflict.

Exodus was translated into several languages and became an international bestseller though it is clearly biased against the Palestinians who had long been in the land.

A few years later, Uris began writing Armageddon, a novel set in Berlin as World War II in Europe ended.

With meticulous research and detail, Uris explains how the subsequent division of territory among the British, French, American, and Soviet countries, gradually deteriorated as military and civilian personnel began to de-Nazify Germany and rebuild the country.  Ending with the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the American airlift to supply the people of the city, Uris sets the scene for more than forty years of Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union.

Though the book includes numerous characters, there are three major ones:  1) US Captain Sean O’Sullivan who is largely in charge of the rebuilding of Berlin.  An American patriot, he despises the Germans and the Russians yet tries his best to be professional in his actions.  2) Soviet Igor Karlovy who is O’Sullivan’s counterpart.  With hands tied by his superiors, Karlovy slowly comes to understand that not all Germans were Nazis. 3) Ernestine Falkenstein, the niece of the new mayor (Oberburgermeister) of Berlin who looks at the victors in contempt as they reshape Berlin and Germany but soon falls in love with O’Sullivan.

Though I was impressed by all the research behind the story and by Uris’s attempt to bring clarity to an incredibly complex historic event, I frequently felt the need to skim this book of more than 600 pages.  I also found myself “bothered” by the “flag-waving” that tainted his research; Uris was clearly writing at a time well-into the Cold War.    However, if you like historical fiction and novels about patriotism and World War II, this is one you might enjoy.

"The first thing you have to do is get immersed in the project, organizing yourself, knowing what you are going after and not going after. It is extremely important to know what you don't want to find. Research to me is as important, or more important, than the writing. It is the foundation upon which the book is built."  --Leon Uris




Monday, October 12, 2020

Aviva, My Love

 




Aviva, My Love
 

(Aviva Ahuvati)

 

 

·       Film

·       Israel

·       Released 2006

·       Directed by Shemi Zarhin

·       Starring

o   Asi Levi as Aviva Cohen

o   Rotem Abuhab as Anita

o   Levana Finkelstein as Violette

o   Dror Keren as Moni Cohen

o   Sasson Gabai as Oded Zar     

o   Nathan Ravitz as Arie

o   Dana Ivgy as Oshrat Cohen

o   Itay Turgeman as Alon Cohen

  •     Winner of six Israeli Academy Awards, 2006
  •     Chicago International Film Festival - Plaque Award
  •     Jerusalem Film festival - Wolgin Award
  •     Shanghai International Film Festival - Golden Goblet Award

 

Hotel cook, Aviva, lives in a cramped apartment in Tiberias, Israel along with her husband and three children.  Nearby live her sister and parents.

Though the film does not directly tell viewers, the setting makes clear this is a Mizrahi family that had immigrated to Israel at some time in the past. 

The film opens with the family’s dentist telling Aviva that if she would sit nude for him, he would forgive a bill for dental work for her daughter.  Disgusted and angry, she refuses. 

Her husband struggles to find work, her mother is mentally ill, and her son believes he needs therapy.  Aviva herself, dreams of being a writer. 

For years she has written stories during any free moments she could find.  Her sister, Anita, learns of this dream and sends some of her work to an accomplished novelist in Tel Aviv who, after recognizing Aviv’s talent, agrees to help her polish her craft and get published.

However, despite her dreams and promising talent, the reality of Aviva’s world stands in the way of her dream. 

Her mother often threatens suicide but in ways that are almost funny but clearly should be institutionalized.  Her sister is having trouble becoming pregnant and is sometimes the victim of her husband’s abuse.  Her eldest son has sexual troubles with his girlfriend so, on the advice of a counselor, wants to go out of town to a nudist beach to become more comfortable with his body.

Her youngest son is more attuned to his electronic devices than other people. Her husband is out of work, but Aviva is not sure how hard he is trying to find employment. Her eldest daughter has finished army duty and is having trouble getting accepted at a college.  With mouths to feed Aviva is faced with having to sell her body and soul.

Even her mentor, Oded Zar, needs her work.  He has not written anything publishable for a decade. Seeing promise in Aviva’s work, and recognizing her need for money, he uses her and offers to buy her stories and rewrite them under his name. 

While we viewers remember the dentist scene at the start of the film and Aviva’s refusal to “prostitute” herself, we see how desperate her life has become when she agrees to his offer.

Perhaps the best scene in the film is between mother and daughter after the daughter got a copy of Oded’s book with her mother credited as a research assistant but not listed by her full name. 

daughter: mom, I decided not to go to college, I found a job.

Aviva: what? what job is it?

daughter: I have decided to become a prostitute. It is fun and pays like hell.

Aviva: are you out of your mind?

daughter: It is better than selling your soul mom, I am just selling my body.

Though the film is generally well-acted and likeable, it can be predictable.  Furthermore, the issues that form the film’s foundation are serious ones (immigration, betrayal, feminism, poverty, ambition, and dreams) that maybe deserve a less humorous treatment.  Even so, I can recommend seeing the film.