Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Fixer: Rose City Reader's review

Based on a true story, The Fixer is the story of a Russian Jew who, in the early 1900s, is unjustly accused of murdering a Christian boy. Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Yakov Bok has a hard luck life as a handyman, or fixer, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Although political reforms following the 1905 revolution gave Jews new freedoms and political clout, life in the Pale had not improved. After his childless wife abandons him for a goy, Yakov leaves the shtetl for Kiev, where he ends up working in, and living above, a Christian-owned brick factory. With an assumed name, no papers to allow him to live in that part of the city, and anti-Jewish sentiments on the rise, Yakov is headed for trouble.

When the mutilated body of a neighborhood boy is found stuffed in a cave, the evidence – circumstantial and fabricated – mounts against Yakov. He is arrested and left to rot in prison while the sham investigation drags on for years as anti-Semitic authorities try to build a case of ritual murder. With no indictment, no lawyer, and no idea of what is to come, Yakov’s situation is a downward spiral of gloom.

Yakov is motivated by his dwindling hope of exoneration, only meagerly spurred on by a few rare contacts with the outside and tidbits of news about his case. Although claiming to be non-religious and non-political, Yakov worries that his case will spark violent retribution or even a new pogrom against the Jews.

Malamud incorporates Yakov’s tragedy into the larger picture by having characters discuss Russia’s anti-Semitic history and Tsarist politics. It is this contextual detail that raises Yakov’s story above that of one individual’s tribulations and makes it a morality tale about freedom and responsibility in the face of evil and suffering. One of the characters explains Malmud’s thesis:

I am somewhat of a meliorist. That is to say, I act as an optimist because I find I cannot act at all, as a pessimist. Once often feels helpless in the face of the confusion of these times, such a mass of apparently uncontrollable events and experiences to live through, attempts to understand, and if at all possible, give order to; but one must not withdraw from the task if he has some small thing to offer – he does so at the risk of diminishing his humanity.

Or, as Yakov put it more succinctly as he was finally being taken to his trial, “[T]here’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew.”

Malamud is an incredible writer. Even though this story is horribly grim, he grabs the reader and does not let go. The Fixer is a book that everyone should read and, once read, ponder.

This book was my "double dipper" choice for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Laura's Review - Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout
270 pages

Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel centers around Olive and Henry Kitteridge, an older couple living in a small town in Maine, grappling with aging and the changes in the world around them. Good friends have died; young people are a mystery. Their son Christopher has married and moved away. The novel is actually a baker's dozen of short stories, each featuring Olive in some way. Sometimes the story is all about Olive; at other times she is but a passing figure seen on the stairs or on a balcony, or a casual observer of another's life story.

Olive is a former middle school math teacher both feared and respected by her students. She's a large woman, grown even more so in her sixties and seventies. She has difficulty showing her emotions, keeping her son's estrangement to herself rather than sharing this grief with friends. She can also be a bit brusque and abrasive. But despite this I couldn't help liking Olive. The stories flow chronologically through Olive's later years. I found a few especially memorable:
  • Pharmacy: This is the first story, and introduces Olive and Henry and is also the only story focused primarily on Henry's thoughts and feelings. The reader meets Olive first from Henry's point of view.
  • Starving: An amazing story of Harmon, who is in a lifeless marriage with Bonnie and befriends another woman named Daisy. She helps him discover himself, and he takes a significant decision in hopes of happiness, but the story ends a bit unresolved.
  • A Different Road: A traumatic incident disrupts Olive and Henry's peaceful lives and has a lasting impact.
  • Security: Olive visits her newly-married son after a long time apart. They have difficulty relating to one another as adults and this further strains their relationship.
While each of these stories can stand on its own, this book is wonderful when read cover-to-cover, as a novel. Full of rich characters and emotional impact, it will remain with me for some time. ( )

My original review can be found here.