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Mary Whipple (New England)
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The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth (New York Review Books Classics)
The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth (New York Review Books Classics)
by David Stacton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars “Murder was murder, no matter how praiseworthy the cause.”, 27 Mar. 2015
In 1963, author David Stacton was listed byTime Magazine as one of “the best American novelists of the preceding decade,” his name ensconced among luminaries like John Updike, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, and Bernard Malamud. Stacton’s novel of The Judges of the Secret Court, the story of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath, had been published to great acclaim in 1961, when the author was only thirty-seven. A prolific author, whose Wikipedia page lists an incredible twenty-three novels published in only eleven years between 1954 and 1965, Stacton has now, sadly, almost completely vanished from American literary history. He died in 1968, at the age of forty-four, when he was just getting started.

Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court, the only one of his novels currently in print, is filled with real characters acting like real people as they deal with the aftermath of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and the ensuing tumult. Several characters share their personal points of view to give verisimilitude throughout the novel, and the author provides much background for Booth, from an acting family, whose own father was mentally unbalanced. Wilkes Booth’s older brother Edwin, the most successful actor in the family, had been the primary support of the family, and Wilkes was clearly jealous.

Part II begins as Booth, with broken bones in his leg after his leap from Lincoln’s box after the assassination, works his way through the countryside, trying to reach the South. The newly sworn President, Andrew Johnson, tries to maintain order during the emergency, but he must jockey for power with an unusually aggressive Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, whom we watch as he immediately establishes martial law, giving himself unprecedented powers to pursue the murderer and all those he considers to be “co-conspirators.” As the search for Booth evolves and continues, the author develops all the characters and their backgrounds.

In Part III Stanton’s craven machinations, his determination to have show trials, and to have military trials instead of civilian trials, all affect the reader’s understanding of what has happened. The novel becomes more compressed and more involving as the action comes to its conclusion. Part IV is a moving commentary on military justice and the power of those in control. The trials of several well-developed characters, innocently caught up in the swirl of events, people who have no real evidence against them and who would undoubtedly have been declared innocent if civilian trials were held, become victims of Stanton’s ambition.

The author is careful to keep his well-researched details accurate, and the only “fudging” of the facts that I found came with Edwin Booth’s desire to keep a portrait of John Wilkes Booth by John Singer Sargent in his apartment after Wilkes’s death. The only portrait I have found of Booth by John Singer Sargent was actually a portrait of Edwin Booth himself, not of his brother. Sensitive and well-researched, this is a do-not-miss historical novel.


Young Skins: Stories
Young Skins: Stories
by Colin Barrett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.83

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “So much of friendship is merely…the saying of nothing in place of something.”, 17 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Young Skins: Stories (Paperback)
Colin Barrett, a thirty-two-year-old author from County Mayo, has already won three major prizes for this wonderful collection of short stories, his first book. Setting these in the fictional town of Glasbeigh, located near the Atlantic and “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline,” he tells the stories of “young skins” who have been born and bred and probably will always live in Glasbeigh, stories which not only ring true but come alive in surprising and often darkly humorous and ironic ways. His main characters, young men in five of the stories, and only slightly older in the last two, have the same urges and needs of all young people, but these youth are limited in their outlooks by the paucity of opportunities, and while some may have dreams, they are most often the small dreams of people who lead constricted lives.

“The Clancy Kid,” which establishes the tone and the themes for the entire collection, opens in a pub, where the speaker, Jimmy Devereux is sitting with his friend Tug, whose real name is Brendan. “Brendan” was the name of Tug’s older brother who died as a thirteen-month-old toddler, and Tug “was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen,” never able to shed the vision in the cemetery of “the lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.” Within brief descriptions, the author conveys important themes and ideas and sets up the conflict that will erupt in the story, though the author lets the story unfold in surprising ways that change the focus from exterior plot to a study of character.

This perfect introduction shows the first of many characters dealing (or not dealing) with their lives and their environment. Most are, by nature, limited in their abilities to handle problems. “Bait,” the second story, shows two more characters, the protective and thoughtful Teddy and his cousin Matteen. As in the case of Jimmy and Tug, one character, Teddy, is the “minder” of the other, less thoughtful one. Here, however, the characters’ roles change, moving in ironic directions. Though Matteen has a real skill as a pool hustler and is able to earn money, the girls they meet have devious plans of their own. “The Moon,” a story about Val, a bouncer, and his right-hand man Boris, shows them also coming under the spell of women who have more insights into the world than they do.

Fate and the accidents which occur as a result of a character’s choices, misjudgments, or lack of insight create unexpected twists in the story lines, often leading the reader to feel sympathetic to these characters even when they bring on their own disasters. “Calm with Horses,” the ninety-page novella, has two main characters, Dympna and Arm, both minor dealers in marijuana, who, like the other characters live on the edge, physically and emotionally. Here an act of fate – or miscommunication –leads to disaster and horrific violence. The final story, about two men trying to decide whether to attend the funeral of a woman they both loved provides an appropriate ending and vision of hope. Straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, Barrett creates consummately Irish characters and crises, bringing the whole collection alive.


Blood Brothers
Blood Brothers
by Ernst Haffner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “Betrayal is something that can only be washed clear with blood, and plenty of it.", 14 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Blood Brothers (Paperback)
At last. A novel recently discovered in Germany but written in 1932, at the end of the Weimar Republic, presents a picture of Berlin as it really was, not as it appears in the sterilized portraits released by Hitler’s army and staff beginning a year later, when Hitler officially came to power. Like many other cities recovering from a Depression, Berlin did have its seamy underside, along with the poor, the homeless, the street gangs, and the petty criminals dependent on pickpocketing and small thefts in order to eat. Whole sections of the city were occupied at night by the wandering homeless, including young teens.

Ernst Haffner, the journalist who wrote this novel, uses a collection of individualized vignettes, connected by the overriding story of two of the young men, Ludwig and Willi, to show Berlin as it really was. Little is known about Haffner, who, because of his insights into the nature of the lives of the young homeless, might have been a social worker. The book, published in 1932, was well reviewed in Germany for its honesty and its insights, but it was outlawed by Hitler the following year, and virtually every copy was burned in the Nazi book-burnings. Haffner himself vanished in the 1930s.

The novel opens on a cold winter day as eight youth, who consider themselves “Blood Brothers,” are waiting at a welfare office where it is warm and where they can sleep. They have been up all night, out in the cold, and as the number of people waiting there is large, they can sleep relatively undisturbed. When twenty-one-year-old Jonny arrives with cigarettes, the group, awakened, knows that he has money and that they will get food that day. The author’s descriptions are depressingly specific, as each person reflects uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring. Their interdependence is their only survival tool.

Gradually, the reader comes to know Ludwig and Willi, who become the main characters, their stories alternating with those of the majority of the gang. Willi has escaped from “the institution,” and the unsophisticated Ludwig has fallen for an old scam and ends up in jail, gulled by an older man. When Ludwig and Willi meet up later, their meeting affects their future lives. The fates of other individualized characters from the gang show the fickle nature of fate and the difficulties which groups acting as gangs can create from within: The influence of peer pressure and group action leads to a loss of individuality and sense of responsibility for the actions of the group. Ultimately, Haffner creates a full picture of Berlin’s lower life - real, clear, and uncompromising, far different from the Nazi photos of clean-cut, well-pressed blonde youth celebrating the arrival of Hitler. An important and realistic book that gives a fuller picture of life in Germany in the early 1930s


Viper : A Commissario Ricciardi Mystery
Viper : A Commissario Ricciardi Mystery
by Maurizio de Giovanni
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “Welcome to springtime, thought Ricciardi. Nothing is more dangerous than all this apparent innocence.”, 12 Mar. 2015
Maurizio de Giovanni’s sixth entry in his series of Neapolitan novels starring Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi will delight fans of the series and, perhaps, send new readers thronging to bookstores to get some of his earlier novels. De Giovanni’s novels have become increasingly sophisticated and complex in their structure in the course of this series. At the same time, his odd characters, his relaxed narrative tone, and his sometimes humorous details provide a teasing narrative which will keep readers guessing throughout the action.

Set in Naples in 1932, during the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, the novel’s atmosphere reflects the deterioration of the economy and the rise of the fascists and their thugs. Commissario Ricciardi, a baron, is independently wealthy and socially well connected, however, and he is secure enough in his position that he does not bow to the Blackshirts or back off when he believes that police cover-ups are under way. Still, he is an unusual protagonist, painfully shy with women, often taciturn, and a loner, a person who has an unusual talent (or curse): If he arrives at the scene of a murder and tries to communicate with the victim, he can hear the victim speaking his last thoughts.

The action begins when Viper, the most beautiful prostitute at Il Paradiso, a bordello, is murdered on the job. As her professional time was almost completely occupied with only two clients who have alibis, the investigation soon widens to the whole of Naples, but when Ricciardi hears her last thoughts, they provide no clue. The murder takes place in the week leading up to Easter, and the author contrasts the investigation into the low life of Naples with all the elaborate preparations and luscious, fully described home cooking being done for Easter by Brigadier Maione’s wife and by Ricciardi’s Tata Rosa. The holiday descriptions become particularly poignant in their contrasts with the lives of the poor and the homeless.

This novel, like the others in the series, is filled with repeating characters – Commissario Ricciardi, his best friend Brigadier Maione, Ricciardi’s elderly Tata Rosa, the chaste Erica Columbo who worships Ricciardi from afar, the transvestite informer Bambinella, the bold and fearless Dr. Modo, and Livia Vezzi, a socially connected widow who wants to marry Ricciardi. Long-time fans, familiar with the characters, will be richly rewarded here as they develop even more fully. De Giovanni is also careful to provide for new readers, however, incorporating much background throughout the novel to make the narrative understandable to the careful new reader. Sure to bring him new fans, this is de Giovanni’s best novel yet – great fun!


H is for Hawk
H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Goshawks were ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious, and foreign.”, 11 Mar. 2015
This review is from: H is for Hawk (Paperback)
Devastated by the sudden death of her father when she is in her early thirties, author Helen Macdonald finds herself lost, overwhelmed, and dealing with a “kind of madness.” She and her father were especially close. They had loved walking for hours in the woods of Hampshire, and she had always wanted to become a falconer. Her parents, sympathetic, had even allowed her, after much pleading, to accompany a group of falconers hunting with goshawks in the field when she was only twelve. Within the first twenty minutes, she sees an enormous goshawk kill a pheasant, an event which draws her to the site of the kill, where she picks six coppery feathers free… It was death I had seen. I wasn’t sure what it had made me feel.”

Now, much older, she understands. Following her father’s death, she says, “I felt odd…like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with something like microwaved aluminum foil, dinted, charred, and shorting with sparks.” Her instinctive reaction is to go to “the broken forest” to see the goshawks, “spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets.” Though she had never before been interested in owning or training a goshawk, she now begins to think that owning one is inevitable, and she decides to use the summer to train a wild goshawk, a job which will make her face her fears and her talents in new ways.

Her guide in this task is author T. H. White, who, in addition to writing The Sword in the Stone andThe Once and Future King, also wrote The Goshawk, about his own attempts to train a goshawk in the early 1930s. In alternating narratives of her own discoveries and those of White, Macdonald describes the taming and training – the “manning” of the hawk – eventually going in her own direction in the belief that White made some serious errors with Gos, his hawk. In the vocabulary of the “austringer,” a person who trains goshawks, Macdonald explains the equipment she uses – jesses, anklets, creances, hoods, and bells for the hawk – and each milestone is a cause for celebration, not just for the author but for the reader.

Hunting with Mabel teaches Macdonald some important lessons, climactic moments here. “Hunting…took me to the very edge of being human…yet every time the hawk caught an animal, it pulled me back from being an animal into being a human again.” Eventually, she learns that falconry is “a balancing act between wild and tame – not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer.” In this brilliantly described and vivid depiction of life and death, Macdonald connects with readers in unique ways, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who will not be changed by this incredibly moving work. “In my time with Mabel,” she says, “I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known…what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.”


A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz
by Goran Rosenberg
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "These are the days when the people of the ghetto do not cry like humans. They bark like dogs, howl like wolves, roar", 4 Mar. 2015
Goran Rosenberg's memoir, monumental in its insights into post-war survival, clear and unequivocal in its presentation of facts, artistic and beautifully written, and emotionally involving for the reader, is more than the story of the Rosenberg family, with its difficulties and its triumphs, however much we want them to succeed. Here Goran Rosenberg makes them symbolic of all the survivors of World War II, as they try also to survive the traumas of their survivorhood, during the post war years in which everyone around them seems to be ignoring the past. For David Rosenberg, the father, however, the war never ends despite his outward successes.

Swedish author Goran Rosenberg, the child of two Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland, begins his memoir about his father's life with his father's journey to Sweden immediately after his liberation from Auschwitz. There, his father will close the book on his earlier life in Poland and his incarceration at Auschwitz and settle down to make a new life in a completely alien world. In his early twenties and weighing just over eighty pounds when he arrives, his father David eventually reunites with and marries Hala his long-time love from Lodz, Poland. For Goran, the son later born to them, "This [town] is the Place. This is where my world assumes its first colors," a place that feels like his home.

From the earliest beginnings of his life, however, Goran Rosenberg is aware that his parents carry an entirely different world around with the. A great deal of what they can't remember, or don't want to remember, they cannot forget. Everything reminds them of something else and somewhere else, and it is the child who is the only thing that binds them to the Place. His father seems to have neither past nor future. The town in which they live provides no tangible link to his father's life elsewhere, no common language, no family, no long-time friends, no memories, and no sense of home. And there are always shadows, hovering.

The author's decision to trace every aspect of his father's life in an effort to understand him better and to recognize not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also the horrors of survival in a world that seems to have forgotten them gives his memoir a sharp focus, unlike so many other stories which concentrate more on the Holocaust than on the "recovery." The book unspools in a circular fashion which follows themes and patterns, instead of a chronological timeline, and Goran's own memories from about the age of three until the present provide a perspective on his father which, in its innocence, becomes particularly moving. Touching at the very heart of what it is to be human, this is a brilliant and very special book.


Dorothy Parker Drank Here
Dorothy Parker Drank Here
by Ellen Meister
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.65

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The gun's not loaded....Go see for yourself. It's in the night table under my copy of Strunk and White.", 24 Feb. 2015
Dorothy Parker had no real need for Strunk and White's Elements of Stye manual - she could use the English language to perfection, bending it to her will and molding it with her ascerbic humor, sarcasm, and caustic wit, often flicking it like a switchblade in her satire. Parker, a charter member of the Round Table, was part of a group of about a dozen novelists, dramatists, journalists, and critics who met for lunch regularly at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where many of them had apartments or studios throughout the 1920s. Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, and Alexander Woollcott, among the regulars, were often joined by guests like Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, and Tallulah Bankhead, many of whom appear in this novel.

Ellen Meister, author of Dorothy Parker Drank Here, the second novel in a series in which the ghost of Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) is a main character, has set this novel at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker's spirit still resides, thanks to the fact that Parker once signed an old guest book on display in the Algonquin's Blue Bar. Her signature, like those of other Round Table members, guarantees that her spirit will not leave the earth until it has decided it wants to go, and Parker is not ready yet. Lonely in her ghostly life, however, Parker hopes to persuade Ted Shriver, an author now living at the Algonquin, to sign the special guest book and keep her company after his death.

Norah Wolfe, a young assistant producer of a TV talk show, is also trying to contact Ted Shriver, a man who was disgraced when three paragraphs in his last book were shown to have been plagiarized, and he has lived as a recluse ever since. Shriver's novel Dobson's Night saved Norah Wolfe's emotional life when she was a teenager, and she is desperate to talk with him. Eventually, Norah and Dorothy Parker team up. A third plot line concerns Audrey Hudson, Ted's wife at the time of the plagiarism - the person most likely to have planted the plagiarized paragraphs in Shriver's manuscript. When Norah calls on her, however, she discovers that Audrey's fragility is much like her own, and as Norah's past is revealed, her need to connect becomes clearer.

Writing this as pure entertainment, author Ellen Meister pulls out all the stops, juggling these plot lines and keeping them moving in surprising ways. She plays on the reader's interest in the characters and their connections to books and writing while also developing an atmosphere which crosses timelines. With a light, sure touch, she conjures up some hilarious visual scenes which beg to be filmed, and it is easy to imagine her sitting at her computer with a grin on her face as she writes. Meister's "Dorothy Parker" feels true to what we know about Parker, not a caricature created for the sake of amusement, and Parker's interactions with other literary characters and their often hilarious patter bring the whole literary scene to life. Her interactions with Tallulah Bankhead, Groucho Marx, and Lillian Hellman, and her opinions of Alexander Woollcott and Dashiell Hammett made me wish I could have been there, too. A fast-paced and amusing glimpse of Dorothy Parker and the writing life.


Lies, First Person
Lies, First Person
by Gail Hareven
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Anyone who has once dwelled in the Garden of Eden will forever fear being cast out,”, 22 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Lies, First Person (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) Aaron Gotthilf’s book, Hitler, First Person, plays a key role in this stimulating experimental novel in which Israeli author Gail Hareven plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction, truth and lies. Most readers here will probably agree that a fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler as a “real,” and presumably sympathetic, human being would be too small a gesture to “advance our understanding of the horrors of the twentieth century” in any meaningful way, but the idea that it might is just one of the many twists, turns, ironies, tours de force, and even dark-humored reversals that take place in this extraordinary novel. To tell her own (fictional) story, Hareven creates another author, Elinor Gotthilf from Jerusalem, who is a cousin, once removed, of the “Aaron Gotthilf” who wrote one of the most controversial novels ever published.

Elinor tells her story in the first person, explaining that she has avoided her cousin Aaron for most of her adult life. When she was a young student, Aaron had stayed at her family’s “Pension Gotthilf,” a modest hotel, and she equates his stay there with the Devil/Serpent inserting himself into the Garden of Eden, images which repeat throughout the novel. It gives nothing away to say that while he was at the pension writing, he had abused her “slow” older sister Elisheva, requiring her to read The 120 Days of Sodom aloud to him and repeatedly raping her. Her sister’s abortion, her mother’s mental breakdown, and the dissolution of her family were sad by-products of this abuse. Now Aaron plans to return to Jerusalem from abroad to attend a writing conference, and Elinor fears for the future.

Hareven’s approach to her novel is thoughtful and literary, despite the novel’s surprises and reversals. She incorporates a broad artistic and philosophical history within its structure, and though the novel contains some elements of a mystery novel, these are subordinated to the stories and experiences of the people, especially Elinor, who live within the novel and grow (or not) from their actions as they confront their own hatred during their search for justice and truth. Elinor goes on to describe her family life as she and Elisheva were growing up, then, in circular fashion, doubles back to her present life as wife, mother, and writer, then returns to earlier issues, concerning her mother, sister, and father in the aftermath of Aaron Gotthilf’s stay.

Ultimately, Elinor and her husband Oded develop a plan for dealing with Aaron Gotthilf when they themselves inevitably meet him, and as they begin to put their plan into action, the author creates a spine-tingling conclusion mixed with dark humor, the ultimate twist. Though the novel is occasionally disjointed and the characters are thin, the author has created a novel which is a never-ending source of surprise and intrigue, and as Hareven raises the question of whether, if ever, it is possible to forgive someone like Hitler, and whether it is appropriate to do so, she keeps the novel in the realm of serious moral and ethical issues. Exciting, unusual, thoughtful, and darkly ironic.


Frog
Frog
by Mo Yan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I was a living Buddha back then, the local stork."--Gugu, a Chinese obstetrician, in 1955., 8 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Frog (Hardcover)
When Chinese author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, controversy swirled. Mo has been able to publish his works in China because he works within the existing communist system and is considered part of the establishment, while other talented but less discreet Chinese writers are prohibited from publishing without serious censorship. He has avoided attention by living a quiet life and by writing about the small communities in which he has lived. By creating "small fry" characters with all their peculiarities, he depicts everyday life in the rural countryside and provides rare insights for non-Chinese readers.

In this novel, Mo's speaker is Tadpole, also known as Wan Zu or Xiaopao, who writes letters to his Japanese teacher, Sugitani Akihito, from 2002 to 2009 detailing his progress on a play about his Aunt Gugu, a woman who has worked as a rural obstetrician for more than fifty years - a fearless woman who has seen and done it all - before, during and after China's "one-child" policy. As he works on his writing project and reports to the sensei over the next few years, Tadpole recreates all aspects of Gugu's personal and professional life, beginning in 1960 and continuing to the present. He vividly reconstructs several historical periods, from the famine of the late 1950s through the country's efforts at population control, stressing the emotional effects of these policies, not just on the population, but on medical personnel themselves.

Including side bars throughout, in which he talks about such topics as the choices of personal names, and branching out into traditional stories and occasional tales of animals and legends, the author introduces the subject of famine in 1960 through a casually told story of children eating pieces of coal and exclaiming over how tasty it is. By 1961, Gugu notes, that "over a two-year period...not a single infant was born in any of the more than forty villages that made up the People's commune," the result of this famine. In 1962, an unexpectedly large sweet potato harvest changes lives, however, and people begin referring to the "sweet potato babies." Almost three thousand babies are born that year in just fifty-two villages. The government's stringent one-child policy is an outgrowth of its need to feed this burgeoning population

The immediacy and honesty of Tadpole's writing to his teacher, and the powerful personality of Gugu herself combine to expand the issues of population control from the small community in Gaomi County, where they all live, to the population at large. The author varies his styles throughout this broad picture of late twentieth century China. A scene in which one character tries to get his father to have a vasectomy devolves into a slapstick scene featuring a saber, a pigpen, and a chase. Another scene, in which a character is about to remarry, is emotionally moving - and totally different, filled with symbolism from nature. Ultimately, Tadpole's play, called Frog, is reproduced in the novel, adding a touch of magic realism and fantasy to the ending of the novel. Many ideas related to reproduction and contraception and many different literary styles highlight the various individualized characters here, as Mo Yan takes on fifty years of history and a wide variety of characters to bring rural China alive in ways completely unfamiliar to most western audiences.


Happy are the Happy
Happy are the Happy
Price: £6.64

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Old folks are people from the past who are stuck in the future.", 1 Feb. 2015
In the opening salvo of this darkly humorous but deeply sensitive collection of interconnected vignettes, French author Yasmina Reza sets the scene for her exploration of love and marriage, family and home, romantic satisfaction and dysfunction in modern France. The often huge gap between what people, including the reader, see from the outside and what the characters are really thinking creates opportunities for great irony and delightfully witty exchanges as the author, also a successful dramatist, reveals her characters through small, everyday details and animated conversations. Each of the twenty vignettes is limited to six or seven pages, and the author's witty and rapid-fire presentations lead to each vignette having its own punch line and thematic development.

The pure delight of reading Reza's lively prose (artfully translated by John Cullen), grows as the reader discovers that the characters in one sketch often appear in other sketches, too, leading to a broad picture of several families, their friends, and their lovers, as seen from several different points of view. Robert Toscano and his wife Odile, whom we meet in the opening scene, arguing about his unfortunate selection of cheese at a supermarket, have two vignettes apiece and reappear in each other's lives, while Odile's family - her father, mother, and aunt - also have their own points of view which broaden the focus.

Additionally, the psychiatrist who is treating one person appears several times here in sketches for three other characters. Robert's friend Luc Condamine, a fellow journalist, is trying to set him up with Virginie, a medical secretary, who has her own touching sketch. Odile, Robert's wife, is having an affair with another character here, someone she believes will save her "from Robert, from time, and from melancholy." The new lovers and former lovers serve as contrasts to the present romantic attachments and separations. Ultimately, each sketch becomes an integral part of the overall depiction of time, place, and character, and this collection begins to resemble a novel in its interconnectedness.

Despite the structural interconnectedness, the theme of personal isolation, even among characters who are surrounded by others, pervades the book on all levels, and the ways in which the characters attempt to connect with each other or deal with their loneliness privately, engage the reader because they feel ordinary and familiar. Death lurks in the background throughout. Filled with ironies, the book is great fun to read and is often very funny, even as the author also depicts the emptiness of these lives. Concise and insightful.


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