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The Golem and the Jinni

Author Helene Wecker

Author Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni is the first novel by author Helene Wecker. It takes place, mostly,  among the immigrant population of New York’s Lower East Side at the end of the 19th Century.  It begins, however, in the Prussian city of Danzig. Before emigrating to America, a merchant visits a Jewish mystic and pays him to create a golem, who will be his bride. In Jewish mystic tradition, a golem is a creature created from earth who is then bound to a master. Rotfeld wakens his golem on board ship, shortly before perishing from acute appendicitis. This leaves the golem in New York City with no master, and with no understanding of the culture.

Meanwhile, in Little Syria, a woman brings a worn copper flask to a tinsmith. She asks him to repair the dents and restore the polish. The flask had been handed down to Maryam Faddoul from her mother. As Arbeely begins the repair work a naked man, a jinni, pops out of the flask. The jinni has been imprisoned in the flask for over 1000 years, and he has no recollection of how he got there. Arbeely takes the jinni in and teaches him the tinsmithing trade.

The golem, meanwhile, falls under the protection of an elderly Rabbi, who realizes what type of creature she is.

Eventually, these two otherworldly creatures meet. They begin roaming the city together at night, as neither of them has the need for sleep. Their involvement with humans leads to trouble. When the golem’s creator comes to New York to look for her, things get really difficult.

Although this book is about two mythical, mystical creatures, it has a ring of reality. The Lower East Side at the turn of the century is crowded with immigrants. Most of the inhabitants are poor, and many speak no English. The clash of cultures, the teeming tenements, the often deplorable working conditions; all are depicted realistically here.

This is a very well-written engaging story. It was a fun, quick read. I recommend this highly!

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Harper-2013
Softcover edition-harper Perennial-2013

The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.)

Alone

Although this suspense novel is a few years old, I had never heard of it. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Lisa Gardner although she has written over a dozen books, many of them best-sellers. It was actually recommended to me by my Kindle! So I downloaded it and 30 seconds later I began reading. And I kept on reading.

Alone begins as a Massachusetts state trooper named Bobby Dodge finishes a very long shift.  Before he can make it home, he is called back to duty. In addition to his regular patrol duties, Bobby is a sniper for the State Police STOP team. He is the first one of his team on the scene, and takes up a position with a view of a Boston townhouse. He sees a man holding a gun on a woman and child. When he believes the man is about to shoot the woman, he fires his weapon, killing the man.

What ensues after the shooting is the crux of this novel. The dead man is from a wealthy and influential family. His wife, whom Bobby believed he saved, was a victim of a horrible crime as a child. Their four-year old son has been ill and weak since birth. Nobody is really who they seem.  As Bobby finds that his career is on the line, he starts his own investigation into the incident, and begins to fight for himself.

Alone is one in Lisa Gardner’s series of D.D. Warren novels.  Warren is a Boston Police detective whose character is not really fleshed out in this novel (the first in the series). But she is an old friend of Bobby Dodge, and quite a character herself.

Alone has some interesting twists and turns, and was a quick fun read. I’ll definitely be looking for more of Lisa Gardner’s novels.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Bantam-2005
Softcover edition-Bantam-2005

Alone: A Novel of Suspense

Gran Torino

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Only Clint Eastwood can growl, point his finger like a gun, and sell tickets! Gran Torino is definitely a vehicle for Clint. As well as starring in this movie, he directed it. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker and Korean War Veteran. After the death of his beloved wife, Walt is alone in the house they have shared for many years. The neighborhood has changed dramatically. Most of his neighbors are Hmong refugees, from Southeast Asia. Walt is an unrepentant racist and, from his time in Korea, he bears a particular dislike of Asians.

As part of a gang initiation Walt’s neighbor, Thao, attempts to steal his prized 1972 Gran Torino. Using the M-1 he keeps cleaned and at the ready, Walt thwarts the burglary. As an act of repentance for his crime, Thao’s family demands that he work for Walt. The fatherless Thao learns many things from Walt, not the least of which is home repair skills. Walt develops a friendship with Thao, and with his family.

Walt also develops an unlikely friendship with Father Janovich, the local priest who ministered to his late wife. Walt and Father Janovich are both concerned about the gang violence that plagues the lives of  the Hmongs. And, of course, they have different ideas about the best way to stop it.

Walt also has to deal with adult children. His two sons are financially successful, and they have little affection for their father. On Walt’s birthday, his older son brings brochures for retirement communities, so Walt can be more comfortable. This, of course, is unacceptable to the curmudgeonly Walt. Walt’s oldest grandchild wants nothing from him but the Gran Torino, and possibly a sofa for her dorm room.

While the plot of Gran Torino is rather predictable, I would still call this a must see movie. Clint Eastwood is doing very little acting lately, and it’s great to see him play a part that seems as if it were made for him.

SIGNED ‘GRAN TORINO’ MOVIE POSTER + COA!

Slumdog Millionaire

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Slumdog Millionaire will undoubtedly be an Oscar contender in any number of categories. It tells the story of a young boy from the slums of Mumbai, Jamal Malik, who grows up and becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?  Jamal’s regular job is serving tea to the workers at a telephone call center in Mumbai. The country is captivated and astounded at the “chai wallah” who can answer questions that even doctors and lawyers cannot.

The movie is told through flashbacks of Jamal’s life, and the various events that have shaped who he is, and how he can possibly know the answers some rather arcane questions. It is an inventive way to tell a story, and it is quite effective. Jamal and his older brother Salim have as poor and difficult a life as one can imagine. After being orphaned during a sectarian riot, they befriend Lakita, another poor orphan. It is Jamal’s adult quest to reunite with Latika that leads to his desire to be on the show.

While it is difficult to watch the violence and poverty of Jamal’s life, this movie is definitely worth the effort. At different stages of their lives, Jamal, Salim and Latika are each played by three different actors. Each of them does an excellent job of portraying their character. The child actors, in particular, are great.

Slumdog Millionaire is not playing in lots of theaters, but it’s worth seeking out. And if you enjoy a bit of Bollywood, stay for the closing credits.

Slumdog Millionaire

Milk

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Milk is the latest entry by director Gus Van Sant in the Oscar sweepstakes. I have yet to see all the competition, but I think that this year he has a shot (nominees to be announced January 22). Milk is topical, well written, and has a great cast. In the wake of the passing of California Proposition 8, Milk is sure to receive extra attention.

This film tells the story of the last eight years of the life of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco City Supervisor who, along with Mayor George Moscone, was gunned down by former Supervisor Dan White. For quite a while White’s story, particularly his “Twinkies defense” has captured the public’s imagination. Hopefully, Milk will help to correct this inbalance.

Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk who, following his fortieth birthday, moves to San Francisco to live as an openly gay man with his partner, Scott, played by James Franco. Harvey becomes involved in local politics, running unsuccessfully for office several times before becoming the country’s first openly gay public official. Penn is very convincing as the formerly closeted gay men who chooses to fight for civil rights for gays and others. Penn’s appearance changes several time throughout the film, to show how Harvey’s character is growing. One unfortunate side effect of this is a slight resemblance to Penn’s character in 2001’s I Am Sam.

That, however, is just a minor issue with a very good film.  Emile Hirsch was noteworthy with his performance as Cleve Jones a young man who, under Harvey’s tutelage, moves from turning tricks to becoming an effective political operative. The film is full of characters whose lives were changed by Milk’s activism.

I do wish we had seen more of Mayor George Moscone, portrayed by the extraordinary Victor Garber. I think there’s another film in that story! So-go see Milk, a realistic and moving portrayal of a very important person and era.

MILK

Doubt

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If any part of your educational history includes spending time in a Catholic Elementary School in the 1960s, as mine did, then you must see Doubt.  Or, if you just want to see a riveting movie with a splendid cast, then you must see Doubt. Screenwriter and director John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, adapted from his 2004 off-Broadway play of the same name,  features Meryl Streep in a featured role with a strong cast and an equally powerful timely story of suspicions surrounding the conduct of a Catholic priest and an altar boy.

The story takes place in the autumn of 1964 in the Bronx, New York neighborhood parish of St. Nicholas.  Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) is the iron-gloved principal of the parish elementary school with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing beautifully the seemingly kind Father Brendan Flynn, the pastor of the parish.  Both give performances worthy of their Oscar-laden careers and their screen interaction is dynamic.  Two other actresses contribute memorable supporting roles:  Amy Adams as the naive and idealistic Sister James and Viola Davis, who portrays Mrs. Miller, the mother of Donald Miller, the young altar boy who may have been molested by Father Flynn.

Doubt deals with a very real problem still confronting the Catholic Church today. Not just the problem of identifying troubled priests who molest youngsters, but also the Church’s handling of the situation. Recent reports from dozens of cases from Catholic parishes across America and around the world have demonstrated that, in general, the Church’s hierarchy has handled these situations very poorly.  Often times, their only solution to the problem was to transfer a priest to a new parish rather than barring him from serving as a priest.  In this powerful religious environment where the pastor of the parish is the ultimate authority, Shanley’s Doubt shows how hard it is to get at the truth.  Sister Beauvier is certain she knows what happened between Father Flynn and the altar boy.  “I have my certainty!” she cries out to her accused, though she admits to others that she has no evidence to back up her suspicions.  Always calm and in control, Meryl Streep does seem to break Fr. Flynn’s cool facade at one point when he shouts back:  “What did you hear, what did you see that convinced you so thoroughly?”  Some may share the “doubt” felt by young Sister James and Mrs. Miller who believe that Father Flynn’s caring nature make him incapable of such a horrible crime.  They view his being overly attentive to young Donald Miller as an act of kindness to the first black student admitted to St. Nicholas.  “The church is changing and we should be friendlier,” Father Flynn lectures an unbelieving and suspicious Sister Beauvier.   Just how friendly Father Flynn was to Donald Miller is the question that drives the plot and sows the seed of Doubt.

As a youth, I never served as an alter boy and was never (thankfully) inside a Church’s Rectory until I was an adult.  Doubt brought back many memories of my own Catholic School days, especially the performance of Meryl Streep as the school’s principal.  The movie’s scenes inside the hallways and classrooms of St. Nicholas School, the attire of the nuns and students, and the strong authoritative portrayals of the Church’s hierarchy by this wonderful Ensemble cast of Doubt was incredibly accurate for 1964.  I almost found myself needing to rise to proper attention when, on the screen, Principal Beauvier walked into the classroom.  For a moment, I thought Meryl Streep was my first-grade principal – Sister Vincetta – from St. Joseph’s School on Long Island.

Doubt: A Parable

Etta

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Etta is the first book written by Gerald Kolpan, a long-time features reporter for a television station in Philadelphia. This novel is a fictionalized account of Etta Place, who is best known as the paramour of the Sundance Kid, and portrayed by Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You need not have seen the 1969 movie to appreciate the fine storytelling in Etta.

Kolpan took a few bits of what is actually known of Etta Place, combined it with extensive historical research, and created one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. This novel weaves together numerous documents (all fictional) into a coherent and fascinating story. These “documents” include the journal of Lorinda Jameson, the “real” Etta Place; letters from Sundance to his father; and internal memoranda from the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Throughout this novel, Lorinda/Etta becomes an outlaw, a philanthropist, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and a patron of the arts. She rides horses and shoots well enough to substitute for Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and save the life of President Teddy Rossevelt from an assassin. It is all unlikely, of course, but Kolpan makes  character so real that disbelief is totally, and willingly, suspended.

I received this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewer program. It will not be available until March. I suggest reserving a copy now.

Thanks Library Thing!

In USA:

To be published in hardcover-Random House 2009

Etta: A Novel