Monday, 16 October 2017

GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2017

Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb.

  
          Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Goldah has just arrived in Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1947.  He is to live with his only surviving relatives, cousin Abe Jesler and Abe’s wife Pearl.
            He stands on the railway platform, feeling ghostly and entirely detached as his new-found family fuss around him;  they are all painfully polite to each other, as strangers invariably are – but Abe and Pearl have no conception of the impact their security and prosperity has on Goldah:  after years of unimaginable hell in the camps everything that is happening to him now is like a dream that is happening to someone else.  He is a ghost among the living.
            Savannah has a thriving Jewish community and Abe has done well in the shoe trade, rising from very humble beginnings to live in the best neighbourhood when he prospered.  He is proud to show his thin and exhausted cousin what he owns, especially his late-model car – ‘Brand new, Forty-Seven Ambassador with the unitized body.  You know your cars, Yitzhak?’
            No.  Pearl drops some clangers, too, about closing the drapes to his room as the sun could bake him ‘like an oven’, then weeps at her thoughtlessness:  it will take time before everyone relaxes enough to feel ‘normal’ again.
            As time passes Goldah endeavours to make his hosts know how grateful he is, what life savers they are, and how their generosity has given him another chance at life.  He has started work at Abe’s shoe store – a far cry from his job in Prague as a former overseas journalist for the prestigious Herald Tribune – but it occupies his time in a therapeutic way, and it doesn’t take him long to notice that Abe’s negro assistants, while not treated badly by him are regarded in the South as worthless.  Like the Jews of Europe.
            There is much for Goldah to absorb in his new life in America, not least the tremulous hope of a romance with one of Abe’s customers, a young war widow, the daughter of the local newspaper editor – a liaison frowned on by Pearl because the young woman’s family are ‘reformed Jews’ who go to a Temple, not to Shul, but this is not even worth thinking about for Goldah:  his life is starting again.  Hope, that vital emotion, has returned!
            As does another survivor:  The woman Goldah had pledged to marry, long thought to have perished in the camps.  She arrives in Savannah, irreparably damaged and holding Goldah to his promise:  she is now his responsibility – and his burden.  What this woman has endured was unspeakable, but Hope, for her, has died;  instead she despises the well-meaning people who want to help and comfort her, those fat smug Jews in Georgia who never knew what the war was really like – they never suffered a day in their lives!
            This is a very fine book.  Jonathan Rabb has told a story that aches with sadness at the same time as its lyrical prose fills the reader with hope:  what a literary accomplishment, a powerful chronicle of those who have the capacity to heal, and those who cannot.  His parallel story of Abe’s negro workers – unwittingly embroiled by him in shady dealings to their detriment – starkly underscores the age-old racism that blights even the very best of intentions.  Rabb’s characters are unforgettable and will remain with me for a long time, especially Goldah, who eventually becomes a Man Among the Living.  SIX STARS!

The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney

            Ms McInerney is a writer of astonishing talent, smart enough to leave the reader gawping at her superlative imagery and language that swings a punch on every second page – that is, once one can figure out the local idiom for, as this novel is set in the city of Cork in Southern Ireland, English is not immediately recognisable as the main language.
            Fair enough.  This is not so much a warning as a respectful caution NOT TO GIVE UP EARLY!  I nearly did until I got hooked eventually by the plight of hapless Ryan Cusack, drug dealer and sad sack extraordinaire, a young man whose life is unravelling, thanks to an overindulgence in what he is dealing, a depressive episode (coming down off whatever he is sniffing/smoking only makes things worse), the imminent break-up of his long-term relationship with his True Love Karine, and a very risky deal to import ‘New Product’ from Italy by his Boss, Dan Kane.
            Ryan is essential to the success of the Italian venture, for he is bi-lingual.  His late mother was Italian and he still has relatives in Italy who dote on him, little realising what he is using his language skills for:  to his Nonna he and his siblings are perfect in every way:  the fact that he is facilitating drug deals between his boss and the Camorra would probably send her off to Heaven early.  She cannot know what he is really doing.
            No:  life is not good, and one night Ryan decides in a drugged-up haze to resign from the Human Race:  there are just too many insoluble problems all requiring his immediate attention;  it will be much easier to leave them all behind for someone else to deal with.  BUT!! 
            His cowardly exit is thwarted by an Ould Biddy, miraculously out for a walk on the very footbridge Ryan is contemplating The Dive.  She achieves the near superhuman feat of hustling him off the bridge and home to her place to come back to the land of the living, no easy task for Ryan is a snivelling quivering mess, in his own words ‘not worth saving’.
            Fortunately for him the Ould Biddy doesn’t believe him, and his eventual resurrection with her assistance (no:  it’s not a Damascus Moment – that would be too corny and corn doesn’t feature here) is one of the highlights of this great story, as is the revelation of her identity:  she has known him all his life, for she and his ill-fated mother were friends.
            And that is not the only revelation in store for Ryan.  I am not going to reveal any more plot shocks, (no spoiler alerts from me!), suffice it to say that Ms McInerney’s tale has more twists than a pretzel, with lies, betrayal and murder most foul playing a starring role – and humour, that wonderful Irish craíc that we have come to expect from even the least-talented of Irish writers – and Ms McInerney could never be on the lower rungs of contemporary Irish literature.  What a talent she is.  WHAT A BABE!  SIX STARS!!  (And I’ll really have to go easy on the exclamation marks.)

The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 

            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)   

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