Thursday, May 31, 2018

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

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☺☺☺_  _
There don’t seen to be great books for opera lovers. Sometimes they are too romantic, sometimes they are too dry. In The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee has created a novel that sweeps through history the way an opera does, with romance and tragedy, giving honor to both.

The book opens with Lilliet Burne, a “falcon” soprano, at a ball where she is presented with the book to a new opera. Unbeknownst to the book’s writer, he has a created a work based on Lilliet’s own life. Thus, begins the telling of her tale, from a farm in the mid-western United States, to the stages of Paris. Through this novel, Mr. Chee takes us on a journey that intersects the lives of some of the most influential women in Paris during the era leading up to the Franco-Prussian War.

At over 500 pages, The Queen of the Night takes the reader on an in-depth trip through life in Paris during the 1860’s. Mr. Chee takes advantage of the fact that historical fiction can play with what is real and present a better story than reality. Lilliet falls from one situation to another, never really in control. She has no plan for her life, although she is really good at thinking on her feet.

What Lilliet has in her favor is an amazing voice. She is a “falcon” soprano, which is very rare. Her voice has a range from the lows of a mezzo-soprano to the fairly high sprint soprano. Time and again, it is her voice that saves her. It attracts “The Tenor,” the nameless antagonist of the story. His obsession with Lilliet drives much of this tale.

During her life, Lilliet crossed paths with some of the real-life figures in the history of Europe. This includes some amazing women including The Empress of France, and Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione , a spy for the Prussians, who became the lover of Emperor Napoleon III. Mr. Chee has done a good job of weaving key events and real people through the book.

If you are an opera fan, or someone who loves historical novels Queen of the Night  is a fun read. If those are not your interests, this is probably not the book for you.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Berlin for Jews by Leonard Barkan

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While I was planning for a soon to happen trip to Germany, a close friend suggested that I read Berlin for Jews by Leonard Barkan. Mr. Barkan has written a short book (about 180 pages), but he gives an in depth look into the history of Jewish life in Berlin.

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Photo from
Berlin for Jews presents its history by concentrating on a cemetery, a neighborhood, and three people. You may think that this specificity would narrow to author’s scope. However, this focus allows Mr. Barkan to explore wide swaths of Berlin’s history through the lens of Jewish life that spans almost two centuries.

Taking us to the past, Berlin for Jews starts its journey at the end of life – The Shönhauser Allee Jewish Burial Grounds. This cemetery was the primary burial site for Berlin’s Jewish community from 1827 to 1880. While it is not the largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, its residents represent a key time in the growth of the community’s size and influence in Berlin’s life, business and government. Mr. Barkan takes us on a tour of the people who are buried here, sharing their lives, their memorials, and their epitaphs.

From their final resting place, we travel to the living quarters of a large part of the Jewish population.  Bayeriches Viertel was an integrated neighborhood, south of the center of Berlin. It was built in the mid-1800’s using the newest architectural theories to provide light and fresh air to all apartments in the buildings. Bayeriches Viertel became a center of culture and night-life. Its cafes attracted writers and artists. Its buildings became home to a wide variety of Jewish and Christian residents. Businessmen, writers, artists, and teachers all lived here. Mr. Barkan takes us on a walking tour, leading us to buildings that are interesting both because of the architecture of their design and the people who occupied them.

Rahel Varnegan via Wikimedia Commons
Which brings us to the next section of Mr. Barkan’s tour of Berlin. This time he introduces us to three prominent Jewish residents of the city, each representing important moments in Berlin’s Jewish history. Rahel Varnegen (1771-1833) hosted one of the premier salons of her era. At a time when Berlin was becoming a major European city, her salon attracted the biggest names in Berlin society. Jews and Christians, entertainers, composers, members of government, and the royal family all spent time in her parlor. James Simon (1851-1932) was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and art collector. He was a cotton merchant and textile manufacturer. He spent most of his fortune collecting art and financing archeological digs in the Middle East. Most of his vast collection was donated to Berlin's various museums and today it makes up a large part of their collection.
James Simon via Wikimedia Commons
Finally, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a philosopher and a literary and social critic. He wrote extensively on the philosophy of history, art criticism and role of the physical city in social connections, that is how the design of an urban area can influence the interactions of its residents.

Walter Benjamin - By Photo d'identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These three people represent various aspects of Jewish life in Berlin. Not so much religious life, but they illustrate the degrees of integration into German society, role of Zionism, and social progressivism. They also give a view to the conflicts between Jewish and German social structures, and those within the Jewish community.

The weakness of this fascinating book is that there is almost too much information. Too many names, too many dates, all crammed into a short book. At times I lost interest and desire to work my way through it all. However, where the book worked well, where Mr. Barkan takes us inside his own tour of Berlin, it is an excellent guide for walking in the footsteps of history.

If you want to explore parts of Berlin that are not in the main tour books, and see a section of the city that has been under developed in the post-WW II era, Berlin for Jews is a good rescource.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood

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The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most intensely psychological plays. Like Othello, it is all about revenge, but it is also about forgiveness. It posits the question “How does a person that has been deeply wronged move beyond that injury?”

In the play, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, and his daughter are living on island in the middle of the sea. Prospero has ordered the sprite Ariel to a create a storm that ship-wrecks the people that removed him from power – Antonio and Sebastian. Prospero plots his revenge, but eventually forgives those who acted against him once they agree to restore him to power.

Hag Seed is another in Hogarth’s series of Shakespearian updates. Written by Margaret Atwood, Hag Seed is an example of what happens when an excellent writer takes a wack at a good story. Ms. Atwood has presented a “meta” view of Shakespeare’s tale in a world of theater and prison. We are introduced to Felix, he artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival, a summer selection of Shakespeare and other plays in Canada. Felix is prideful and oblivious to the machinations of his second in command, who has him removed from the festival and sent into obscurity. Twelve years later, Felix is running a theater program at a local prison. When he finds out that his nemesis is coming to the jail, he plots his revenge, using a performance of the Tempest to carry it out.

I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Atwood not only presents us with an updated version of The Tempest, she uses the play itself as a key plot device. This allows her to have characters to go beyond the story and delve into the meaning of the original play. By having Felix exact his revenge using the actions of Propsero, she presents a “meta” analysis of The Tempest, something she obviously relishes, as she has all of the main characters offer a final thought and prediction about the characters in The Tempest at the end of the book.

Dig into Hag Seed and enjoy The Tempest. Margaret Atwood has done a great job with both.