Book Reviews: Pirates, Parrots, Prisoners and Protagonists Prove (Predominantly) Pleasing

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Pirate and Parrot Make A Pleasing Team

Yiddish for Pirates
Gary Barwin
$18, paperback
Vintage Canada

No matter how many times you’ve read the likes of Chaucer’s colorful characters, you’ve probably never met a narrator like the one in Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates.

His name is Aaron. He’s about 500 years old. He speaks Yiddish.

Oh, and he’s an African Grey parrot.

Unfortunately, due to that last fact and a childhood growing up on Disney movies, the voice in my head was that of Gilbert Gottfried and his parrot alter-ego, Iago.

Nu, of course, that’s not Barwin’s fault. And it didn’t take away any enjoyment of this creative and oft-hilarious historical fiction novel.

A fitting read for this week, as Yiddish tells the five-part swashbuckling tale of young Moishe, whose enchanted pull to the sea leads him from his shtetl to a ship’s crew and set asail to new worlds.

Along the way, he lands in Spain and Portugal and meets characters such as Christopher Columbus, whose 1492 voyage to the Indies takes the stage (or the sea?) later in the novel as Moishe joins him on his quest. (We all know how that turns out, though Yiddish provides its own spin on the inhabitants Columbus meets instead.)

Aaron is there through it all, providing colorful and rousing commentary on the dangerous Spain they inhabit in the times of the Inquisition.

He tells jokes infused with Jewish humor and Yiddish puns. He becomes an omniscient presence, providing the reader with extra details and scenery as he flies overhead. He tells tales of escape and revenge as he and Moishe find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations. When he becomes separated from his “shoulder” (Moishe’s shoulder), he introduces the reader to characters and stories that if it were Moishe narrating, we’d never have seen.

Through it all, Moishe remains on a quest to rescue his love Sarah, whom he met when they were young and who was captured — and worse — when her Jewishness was revealed.

It’s a delight to read and a creative challenge that Barwin tackled masterfully.

Beneath the jokes and scenes of wonder in arriving to new places — and brief parrot coitus, but I won’t go into more detail — are the themes of persecution and, more importantly, perseverance.

Setting the novel in such a dangerous time and complementing it with tales of treasure-hunting, Fountain of Youth-seeking and the bonds of love and friendship is no easy task.

But Barwin is able to realistically describe the horror and fear in Jewish Spaniards in the Inquisition and balance the narrative with Moishe’s adventures and adolescence.

If you’re looking for a tale of love, adventure, courage and friendship, “X” marks the spot. You won’t read anything else like it.

by Marissa Stern

Dinner Struggles to Pick a Main Course

Dinner at the Center of the Earth
Nathan Englander
$26.95, hardcover
Alfred A. Knopf

Back when Saturday Night Live seemed revolutionary and was consistently funny, a fake commercial about Shimmer Floor Wax hit the mark.

Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner play a married couple arguing over whether Shimmer was a dessert topping or a floor wax. Product spokesman Chevy Chase settles the disagreement by telling them it’s both. Problem solved!

The problem with Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth is that, like Shimmer, it tries to do multiple things. Unlike Shimmer, however, it doesn’t always do them well.

At times, Dinner comes across as a romantic novel. At other times, it’s a political thriller. And there are enough farcical moments to make you question what you’re reading.

Characters include Prisoner Z, who’s been held for more than a decade somewhere in the Negev Desert; we learn via flashbacks that he’s an American spy who gave away Israeli secrets.

There’s also a comatose Israeli leader known as the General; his caretaker Ruthi; her son, a prison guard responsible for Prisoner Z; and a Palestinian named Farid who’s trying to fund anti-settlement programs.

Englander tries to mesh all these storylines, but doesn’t entirely succeed. The fact that he adopts the trend in television and movies to flash forward, flash backward and, seemingly, flash sideways, just seems to muck up the works.

A more linear storytelling style would have paid dividends, as the framework for a good tale is evident.

by Andy Gotlieb

Dark Thoughts Proliferate in Nicole Krauss’ New Novel

Forest Dark
Nicole Krauss
$27.99, hardcover
Harper

Nicole Krauss’ new novel Forest Dark captures attention starting with the front cover blurb.

“A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration” — Philip Roth.

Really? Who gets blurbed by the author of American Pastoral on the front cover?

Well, it’s easy to see why once one gets inside this winding tale of dual protagonists (or is that dueling protagonists) as their narratives hopscotch from one to the other without — what seems at first — any connection at all.

But a connection there is, an existential angst, a feeling of separation, disconnection from friends, families, history, the world.

The book opens with Jules Epstein consciously emptying out his world, selling off all of his truly prized possessions after a lifetime of acquiring them, reconfiguring his will as his collection of fine art and artifacts becomes smaller and smaller, until one day after a high-level political event, someone takes his cashmere coat (by mistake?) from the coat check room and leaves him in an ill-fitting cloth coat minus his phone with the thousands of pictures of his family and a cherished book by an Israeli poet about a man alone facing God — a gift from his daughter.

He has been reduced to, although not literally, the specter of a homeless person wandering without roots, possessions. Unmoored. Sound familiar?

Is it just coincidence that his coat had been switched by a Palestinian? One of Mahmoud Abbas’ so-called “henchmen,” who he sees getting into a limo that “floated down Fifty-Eighth Street”?

The second chapter, “Out in the Blue,” opens with the second protagonist, Nicole, a troubled writer. Are we to believe it is Krauss, the author? Perhaps, but that is left ambiguous. This is a novel, after all.

Nicole is a writer in search of a novel, who, like Epstein, is experiencing an existential crisis, and flees New York and her family for Israel. Both escape to the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Within their narratives lie what seem like rambling bocks of flashbacks and interlacing anecdotes that touch on this angst — the questioning of life, existence, faith, reality and even the possibility of the multiverse introduced early on in one of Nicole’s chapters in which she posits on string theory, branes, cosmology, the Big Bang and “the theological ramifications of multiverse theories.”

In both narratives, the history and legacy of their Jewishness and their roots and religion is pondered. As the book progresses, they both seem to dodge and duck it the more it comes into play.

By about page 50, stark black-and-white photos are introduced that relate to the narrative, but that have no identifying text to place them solidly in it. They illustrate the text but also feel intrusive and foreboding.

The novel, too complexly woven to breakdown simply here, is a wonder of interwoven themes, thoughts, anecdotes, people and places, all of which combine into a richly colored fabric that, like a hammock, supports the story of two people trying to navigate the dark forest of the self.

by Susan C. Ingram