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Debra Hamel is the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

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Book Notices | Time Frame by Douglas E. Richards

Douglas E. Richards, Time Frame


Not too long ago, I accidentally reread a book I'd read and reviewed already in 2016, Douglas E. Richards' time travel novel Split Second. It wasn't until I was halfway through that things started to seem familiar, and I finished the book again anyway because I couldn't remember what happened. I had a similar reaction to the book as I did the first time through. (My consistency was heartening.) And this time, too, I said to myself, yeah, I'd read another book by this author. Turns out, the sequel to Split Second was published in 2018. I figured if I didn't read it now, I never would. So I did.

Time Frame follows the characters from the first book as they attempt to use time travel for good (to assassinate North Korea's Kim Jong Un) and prevent nefarious forces from using it for world domination. I'm not going to give away the cool time travel twist that informs much of the plot of both books, so I can't say a lot. But Time Frame, like its predecessor, is a fun read with characters I was happy to spend time with.

Book Notices | The Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid

Yishai Sarid, The Memory Monster


This short book is written in the first person and purports to be a letter written by the unnamed narrator to his boss, the chairman of the board of Yad Vashem, explaining "what happened there." We don't find out what event he's alluding to until the very end of the book. In seeking to explain it, the narrator provides an account of pretty much his whole adult working life, and in quite a lot of detail. He is trained as a historian and wrote the book, literally, on the Nazis' methods of execution in the Polish camps. He also regularly leads tours of the camps for students and other groups. Initially detached from the subject, he becomes increasingly unhinged by the emotional toll his career takes on him, and he is plagued by the question of what sort of Jew he would have been had he lived through the Shoah. I'm not sure that I really understand the book's ending, but my guess is that "what happened there" is a sort of answer to that question for him. 

Book Notices | Masquerade by Tivadar Soros

Tivadar Soros, Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi-Occupied Hungary


In his memoir Masquerade, Tivadar Soros (the father of George Soros) writes about his experiences during the ten-month period between March 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary, and January 1945, when the Russians arrived in Soros's neighborhood in Budapest. Soros determined early on that his and his family's best chance for surviving the war would be to try to pass themselves off as Christians and live apart from one another, a plan that involved a lot of back-and-forthing with document forgers and landlords. Soros was quick-witted and resourceful, and he managed to save his family and a great number of other people besides. His account of the machinations that were needed to do so and his run-ins with different characters—a master forger, a 17-year-old German soldier, a woman on a park bench who had escaped from Germany—is surprisingly readable, and although one is hit in the face by details of man's inhumanity to man while reading, it is also a surprisingly hopeful book.

Soros was born Tivadar (or Teodor) Schwartz in 1893. In 1936, in an attempt to make themselves less of a target for anti-Semitism, Tivadar and his family changed their name from Schwartz to Soros, a name with meanings in both Hungarian ("the one who is next in line") and Esperanto ("will soar"). (This early attempt to camouflage themselves presages the tactics the family would adopt in 1944.) Tivadar had learned Esperanto during World War I and founded the Esperanto journal Literatura Mondo in 1922. Masquerade was written in Esperanto and published in 1965 as Maskerado ĉirkaŭ la morto: Nazimondo en Hungarujo ("Masquerade Around Death: The Nazi World in Hungary"). Humphrey Tonkin edited and translated this English version, which was published in 2000. Tonkin also adds an excellent afterword in which he puts Tivadar's story in its larger historical context and summarizes the author's life outside the period here described. 

Guterson, David: Ed King


2.5 stars

Normally, if I don't like a book as much as I didn't like this one, I don't bother finishing it. So you won't find a lot of really negative reviews on this blog. But in this case, I persevered because I was intrigued by the concept—it's a modern retelling of the Oedipus Rex story—and because the writing was sometimes good, but mostly because of the sunk cost: by the time I was really unhappy with the book, I'd already invested enough time in it that I wanted to be able to review it.

Sophocles' Oedipus grows up unaware that the people raising him are not his biological parents; he unwittingly kills his biological father in a road rage incident; and he ultimately sleeps with and marries his mother, maybe not in that order. (Hopefully that much isn't a spoiler, but there are spoilers in what follows.) Guterson follows this general storyline in his account of his modern Oedipus—Ed King (get it?)—and he also preserves some smaller details: Ed has problems with his feet, for example; he names his company Pythia. But Guterson also diverges from the canonical story in some important respects: his Ed doesn't have children, and he does not blind himself. Indeed, Ed doesn't live for very long with the horror of the big reveal, as Oedipus did. Rather than roaming Greece for years as a blind outcast, Ed endures an uncomfortable few hours. These major departures make me wonder why Guterson opted to hang his story on Sophocles' framework in the first place. I suppose it's a hook to attract readers, but his references to Oedipus Rex sometimes seem like afterthoughts.

Let me just get some smaller complaints off my chest before I mention my main issue with the book: no one in this novel is likable; Ed's private pilot is particularly irritating; Ed's grandfather's constant Yidishisms are annoying; Guterson addresses the reader directly about 75% of the way in, having not done that earlier in the book; Ed's thoughts after discovering the truth of his situation are banal. But the main problem is that Guterson writes in excruciating detail about people and events that are not relevant to the story. Sophocles had the grace not to bore his audience with the details of Oedipus' preschool curriculum. Guterson? You guessed it. We get that and so much more: Ed's bar mitzvah speech, his brother's graduation speech, mind-numbing conversations between Ed and that god-awful pilot and between Ed and his AI assistant Cybil. Guterson also fleshes out the lives of characters who don't matter to the story: his biological father's other son; Ed's mother-wife's brother; Ed's adoptive brother and grandfather. Guterson thus fills in the family tree quite a bit while also, as I mentioned, omitting an aspect of the Oedipus story that makes his incest particularly abhorrent (and thus all the more interesting), that he fathered four kids by his mother.

On the plus side, the fact that Ed's marriage is childless probably means Guterson won't be tempted to write a sequel.

Book Notices | Out of the Ashes by Kara Thomas

Kara Thomas, Out of the Ashes


This book starts out well. Samantha Newsom, driving past a police cruiser, reminds herself not to behave like a criminal: "I hadn't killed anyone. Not yet." That line hooked me for a while. Sam is heading back to her hometown to take care of that "yet," and while there, she confronts the defining fact of her life, the unsolved murder of her family and her life afterward as the unloved ward of a miserable relative. She starts playing private detective, hunting down old acquaintances and anyone who might have some insight into her family's fate. About halfway through the book, I realized that there were too many characters who were related to one another who I couldn't keep straight and too many different crimes that Samantha became interested in solving. And I lost count of how many people she thought the murderer of her family might be. By the time I found out who actually did it, I didn't care. I think this book had a lot of promise. I just felt like I was drowning in extraneous details after a while.

Book Notices | The Forgetting by Hannah Beckerman

Hannah Beckerman, The Forgetting


In The Forgetting, Hannah Beckerman tells the story of two women in problematic relationships. Livvy married Dominic after a whirlwind romance, and they now have a baby, Leo. She's still in the honeymoon phase of her marriage, and what she doesn't see clearly—and we do—is that Dominic is manipulative and controlling. Our second protagonist, Anna, has been married longer to her husband, Stephen, and their relationship isn't perfect either. Stephen can be a little controlling, too, but it's harder for us to recognize and condemn it in his case because the issue is complicated by Anna's amnesia, the result of a car crash that occurred just before the book opens. So is Stephen keeping her from looking at their old photo albums, for example, because he wants to aid in her recovery, as he claims, or is something else going on? Beckerman tells the stories of these women in chapters that alternate throughout most of the book. It's a highly readable story, but also sometimes maddening. I wanted to reach through the pages and slap Livvy into awareness, or just slap Dominic. His gaslighting, the way he warps truths to undermine his wife's sense of reality, is infuriating. Things come to a head, of course, and readers may not be expecting the way the story is resolved. I wasn't.

Book Notices | The Trap by Melanie Raabe

Melanie Raabe, The Trap


Linda Conrads is a best-selling author who hasn't left her house in 11 years. She went into seclusion not long after finding her sister Anna murdered—and seeing the face of the murderer before he ran off. The murder is still unsolved, and Linda is still haunted by that face. So what if she sees it one day on TV? Melanie Raabe's debut novel, translated from the German, is a twisty thriller that really did keep me guessing until the end. With very few pages to go, I still half expected a different outcome. There's also a story within the story, as Linda seeks to lure her sister's killer out of hiding by writing a novel based on the crime. Passages from that text are interspersed throughout The Trap, and they provide information—lightly fictionalized, and filtered through our protagonist's perhaps imperfect memory—about what happened in the aftermath of Anna's death. An enjoyable read.

Book Notices | Rebel with a Clause by Ellen Jovin

Ellen Jovin, Rebel with a Clause


Rebel with a Clause is a sort of grammar travelogue. Since 2018, Ellen Jovin has been setting up a folding table in public with a "Grammar Table" sign and answering any grammar-related questions that passersby happen to have. She started in New York, where she lives, but at time of writing, she and her husband (who films the interactions at the table for a Grammar Table documentary!) had hit 47 states. This book is an account of her conversations with people from all over, organized by topic rather than geography. Chapters include, for example, discussions of the Oxford comma (of course; I don't really understand the world's obsession with this one piece of punctuation); affect vs. effect and lay vs lie (see below); its and it's and your and you're and their and they're and so on. After each chapter, Jovin includes a quizlet so readers can test their skills.

I love grammar, but this book wasn't really about the grammar for me. It's more about the author's personality. Jovin is an immediately likable narrator who, with her friendly vibe, managed to coax a lot of people nationwide into talking about their grammar-related issues. She is far from a grammar scold, and in fact admits to some grammatical laxity that would draw ire from some, e.g., her lack of concern about the distinction between “farther” and “further.” (This is the sort of thing that may have earned her the term "rebel" in the title.) Anybody who likes grammar will enjoy the conversations in this book. If you're a grammar expert, you're unlikely to learn anything new, but I think you'll enjoy the experience anyway.

Two notes:

(1) This is the perfect place for me to promote the rule of thumb I propose for those who can't remember the difference between "lay" and "lie." It is this: If you're in doubt, if you're questioning which word to use, you almost certainly want "lie." Most people (especially those who are not bricklayers and are not involved with chicken farming) can get away with never saying "lay." Why?

"Lay" is one of two things. (a) It can be a transitive verb (one that takes an object), as in "laying brick" or "laying eggs" or "laying a book on a table." But how often do you say any of these things? Chances are, if you want to say that you put a book on a table, you wouldn't say "lay," you'd say "put." And I think you're unlikely to be confused when you're talking about bricks or eggs. (b) The second possibility is the one that trips people up. "Lay" is also the past tense of "lie." So, you might say, "I am lying down right now." "I will lie down soon." "You should lie down." "Lie down!" (Not "lay"  or "laying" in any of those cases!) But, if you're talking about the past tense, you'd say, "Yesterday I lay down." If that explanation is enough to make you remember the distinction, great, but if not, just don't use "lay"! Because you can get away with saying, "Yesterday I was lying down." So I repeat, if you're wondering which to use, you almost certainly want "lie" (or you can get away with using "lying").

(2) In her introduction, Jovin notes that one of the three states she and her husband did not set up shop in was Connecticut—despite its proximity to New York. They did visit Connecticut, but rather than doling out grammar advice, they got pizza. This is perfectly reasonable behavior, even expected. But as a native of New Haven, I'm sure I join a chorus of other readers from the area in my need to know, where did they get their pizza from?