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"The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency" by Alexander McCall Smith

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Mma Ramotswe opens a detective agency in Botswana, has a series of cases, friendships, and relationships, and succeeds in more ways than one. This s a wise little book, in its discerning observations about people and human nature. The main case involves a kidnapping, which our heroine solves and of which she rescues the victim. The lead-up to and the execution of the rescue are both very satisfying.

This is a pleasant, funny, compassionate, light and easy read. Recommended.

"Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger

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With many books, you can proceed with the sensation that the plot is interesting, or the theme a worthy one, or there is a new slant on something, but often with wonderful thoughts like these, we get workmanlike prose, or something basic and serviceable. But in "Peace Like a River" not only is the plot interesting and clearly unfolding, the words along the way hold such enchantment and fun that it has an effect, where one wants to keep turning the pages and finding the next delight.
This piece is told mainly from the viewpoint of an 11 year-old boy. This boy has a very devout father, who is literally capable of miracles. After a full novel of suffering from asthma, 11 year-old Reuben is shot, and by all rights should die, but his father, also shot, but not critically wounded, performs his last miracle by giving Reuben his healthy lungs so he can live.

The prose serving this lovely tale is charming, flowing, witty, and knowing throughout. It takes us on an unusual journey (plot-wise and idea-wise), and at the end we're given a glimpse of heaven: brightly lit, humming with life, where a river flows uphill. Reuben sees his father, who takes his place in the peace that is like a river.

This isn't really a coming of age. Rube experiences some awfully weighty things for a sixth-grader, witnessing miracles and seeing his fugitive brother, and sitting by, awe-struck and envious, as his little sister composes remarkable verse. This is an extremely enjoyable book, kindly, wise, and a little fantastic. Time quite certainly well spent. Don't pass it by, by any means!

"Adios Muchachos" by Daniel Chavarria

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"Adios Muchachos" is nothing more or less than a caper. A bicycle hooker in Havana is recruited to perform for a pair of male peeping toms - one is gay and one is bisexual. The sex is steamy and the greed is palpable.

Alicia is the highly mercenary sex worker and the scheme that she and Victor (the "bi" peeping tom) cook up on the accidental death of Victor's millionaire boss goes at length awry - an inside man makes off with the $4 million ransom. All ends in the clover when our two scurrilous schemers find their ultimate niches: Alicia kept as a wife of a wealthy older Argentinian, Victor kept as the lover of his boss's hot and distraught widow.

A guilty pleasure, I have to say. Venal, saucy, sly - a diverting peek at shady dealings.

"House Made of Dawn" by N. Scott Momaday

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A bleak depiction of a Native American man struggling to adapt to life in America in the '40s and '50s. The diction here is such that we can apply the words "stark" and "lyrical." The story is told in multiple viewpoints, and for me sometimes it was hard to keep clear who was doing the telling. However, the pain and recovery of Abel, the main character, are the meanest, grittiest, and clearest aspects of the plot. There is an interesting character here who styles himself a sun priest; he's a preacher in L.A. and has a very perceptive take on the difference between creation and the way St. Paul tells it. Eventually he is no help to Abel and although he may have the inclination to help, he does not understand Abel or his problems.
This book is full of wonderful, vast Southwestern imagery, and it is peopled with iconic characters. In the Bible, Abel is murdered, but this Abel is able to return to his roots and reconstruct his house made of dawn. (There is a wonderful description of the sun coming up over the rim of a vast crater, and it's a key image in the book.) Another key here is a song sung by a Kiowa chanter, which grows into a sacred litany of holy and beautiful things. Thus do we see Abel, who gives up trying to change into an Anglo, and takes his position in a long, sacred line of Natives, and eventually reproduces and perpetuates it.

These images and geography are not to my taste, but this is a very well-crafted book. For what it is and what it covers, I do recommend it.

"Wedding of the Waters: the Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation" by Peter L. Bernstein

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A superb, comprehensive, well-detailed history of the planning and building of the Erie Canal. Begun at a time (1817) when there was not one professional civil engineer in the U.S., the canal's proponents overcame Washington's indifference, immense physical challenges, and roiling New York State politics to build their water highway. By cutting nine tenths of the time and expense of moving goods from the Midwest to Atlantic seaports, the Canal made the economic development of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys possible. It also catapulted New York State into an eminent position in the Union, having abjured federal help; pushed New York City into world-class status; made Chicago the second-most important city in the U.S.; served as a model for federal funding of the Civil War; and vaulted America into the limelight as a world power. Not bad for a serviceable little ditch.
Bernstein weaves a fascinating tale of the indomitable political will it took to even sell the idea to the bond-buying public. The story includes the stunning ingenuity of the men responsible for the work, and it's all placed perfectly in the context of the canal-crazy era. This is wonderful - not to be missed.

"The Final Solution: A Story of Detection" by Michael Chabon

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In "The Final Solution," Michael Chabon gives us the story of the world-famous detective cracking the case of the interrogated parrot. It turns out someone did the parrot's owner in, and was questioning the parrot. It turns out the parrot knew and could recite rail car numbers of Jews being transported in the camps in the Final Solution. The "world famous detective" is not identified in the book, but no doubt is left before you finish. Conan Doyle's hero cannot be mistaken.
This is a haunting little story, with a favorable ending; it's a sweet confection weighted with heavy themes. I enjoyed Chabon quite a bit at this length. "Kavalier and Clay" is too long.

"Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates

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Frank and April Wheeler live in the New York suburbs in 1955, which they somehow cannot explain ... the one thing they agree upon is that moving to Paris might save them from the bourgeois existence they find themselves in. This novel is strongly tinged with social satire - the Wheelers and their friends have all the advantages of modern life, but think all of it is somehow reprehensible. Enter John Givings, a paranoid schizophrenic, who alone among the characters, sees and appreciates the efficacy of the Wheelers' Paris dream. The dream falls apart of course - April becomes pregnant, Frank newly committed to the career in the middle of the "hopeless emptiness" of the American Dream. Once the pipe dream of Paris cannot come about, John speaks out loud of the betrayal in it, the surrender to the material and orthodox American nightmare.
I think it's a wonderful thing Yates does with this character: he puts the clear-headed voice of conscience in the mouth of a mental patient, turning all of existence on its head. This is balanced, wry, funny, and completely unblinking - and for all those reasons, I appreciate and recommend it.

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

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"The Life of Pi' struck me as a book-length parable - what does the stranded mariner do to save his life when he shares a flimsy vessel with a Bengal tiger? The reader and the Japanese authorities are given the choice of buying into the parabolic parable version or the more orthodox version.
Pi is a believer in each major religion, each of which has within it the seeds of its destruction, or at least the grand antagonist which lends each faith the sense of urgency. The fanciful version of Pi's adventure and rescue is really the vivid, compelling one, and it's the one that contains the most effective lessons.

This book is overly unorthodox - not a bad thing, I love to be taken out of the mundane. But its setup and resolution, and the minutiae of its long ordeal, left me puzzled about the real intent. I'm tempted to equate the hero with the human race sailing on dangerous seas, but that just seems too facile, a selling-short of Martel. If the intent lay elsewhere, then I couldn't find it, not that I was motivated very strongly. Praise for this book is appropriate, but the over-the-top praise heaped upon it is not. If you're worried that you are missing something very special by not reading this book, don't be. It's an unusual journey with parable-like overtones. Choose accordingly.

"The Egyptologist" by Arthur Phillips

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In "The Egyptologist" Arthur Phillips gives us a murder mystery that features an Australian con man named Caldwell, who poses as Trilipush, another character who is a foppish Brit who "read the Pharoahs" at Oxford, and a dim Aussie detective who'd like to sell his idea of this story to Hollywood. All this is set in the exciting backdrop of Egypt in the '20s, while the world is agog with the King Tut discoveries.
Principal among Caldwell/Trilipush's ambitions is the hand of Margaret Finneran, daughter of mobster money, but he believes he has to find a real Egyptian treasure to make himself worthy. His belief in this treasure is the driving energy behind the narrative. Too bad the belief is based on poor information, incomplete evidence, and outright falsehoods. In the end our protaganist's belief becomes maniacal: he comes to equate himself with his apocryphal Egyptian king, and kills himself. He leaves in his wake, confusion, uncertainty, murder, blackmail, and a dead gangster.

Phillips is very generous with his readers. We learn in plenty of time of Caldwell/Trilipush's delusion; there is wonderful dialogue - witty, and spot-on with the vernacular of the times. We have a complete understanding of story when the two men die at the end - the dream of discovery, the mystery of the Egyptian king who never existed, and the mayhem our would-be social climber causes.

This book has a wondeful cast of characters, an exciting climax, and takes us on a trip to a far-away land and time. I recommend it - take and enjoy.

"The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" by Richard Zimler

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"The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" deals with the horrific 1506 pogrom in that city, and it deals with it at some length. The detail and the lengthy, lengthy recounting of it wore me down. The narrative follows Master Abraham, who is murdered, and his nephew Berekiah, who works assiduously at finding his uncle's killer. Amid all the death, furtiveness, and horror, who can tell where to look?
Unfortunately, I also had trouble keeping the suspects straight. The book contains some philosophical musings about the Kabbal, God, persecution, and the coming secular world. I understand praise for this book - certain scenes are vivid (although for the most part descriptions are sketchy and inadequate) and powerful, and a sense of injustice is the lifeblood coursing though this novel. I found it weighty and wearing - so much so that I considered putting it down halfway through.

"The Monsters of Templeton" by Lauren Groff

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Congratulations to Lauren Groff on publishing such a full and thought-provoking novel. Templeton's first and foremost monster dies in the lake by the little village - goes belly-up and, being the size of a bus, is winched up on the dock and sheltered from the sun by a canopy. Of course, the title has a plural noun, but I didn't find anyone else in the book particularly monstrous, at least in the present.
Groff unfolds a historic backdrop for Templeton's current cast - complete with a long story on the town's founder and a family tree. These are the real monsters, I guess. There are more rogues here than you can count; there's also insanity, serial murder, serial arson, more children born out of wedlock than within it. And that brings us to Willie Upton, the story's heroine, who undertakes a quest to find her father among the town's affable men in the generation before her.

"The Monsters of Templeton" is a noble effort - full and mature. I felt the tiniest bit like it lacked a focus - diverting descriptions, unnecessary plot directions - and became indistinct. It's a terrific first effort, make no mistake, but if Ms. Groff comes out with subsequent work that's praised, you'd do all right to start with that.

"An Unpardonable Crime" by Andrew Taylor

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This is a long and interesting mystery set in late Regency London and Gloucester. Our schoolmaster protaganist stumbles into a labyrinth of murder, embezzlement, bankruptcy, and deathbed treachery. He uses his considerable wits to solve the various mysteries and help a beautiful and charismatic widow in need.

All this occurs with a large and diverting cast of characters. We have old Carswall, the story's chief villain; there's the lovely and bereft Sophie Frant, desired by both Carswall and our hero, Tom Shield. And at the eye of this storm is young Edgar Allan Poe, visiting in England (in Shield's care for much of the story) and oblivious as to who his father is and also to the role his father plays in the events of the tale.

The book moves slowly and is somewhat overlong. We never lose focus on the real issues, but sometimes we revolve around them at a considerable distance.

"The Other" by David Guterson

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While I was reading it and afterward, I could not escape the notion that "The Other" by David Guterson deals with a shadow character, a rumored extension of the first-person narrator, a superego. Neil Countryman, our narrator, makes the acquaintance of John William Barry, the eponymous Other, during a half-mile race in high school. They become close friends, and Barry's character becomes clearer over time, and over time it becomes more and more intolerant.

Barry is a young man of considerable abilities who holds himself and everyone else to outrageous standards. He's an over-the-top idealist who depends on Neil to keep him in contact with the outside world. In fact, at length he separates himself from the rest of the world by going to live in a remote cave on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. From this height he comes to depend completely on the down-to-earth aid Neil can and does give him. Eventually a snowstorm prevents Neil from bringing up the needed food and supplies, and when he finally gets to the Other's cave, he finds him dead. Later, when the authorities finally find him, Neil discovers he is the sole heir to Barry's very considerable estate, hundreds of millions.

This is one of those stories that provokes the highest kind of speculation in me. As I ponder the relationship of the two men, how irresistible it is to think how the uncompromising idealist-hermit represents the higher, more virtuous plane, and how living on that plane necessarily alienates you from society. Our earth-bound narrator eventually receives a mind-boggling financial legacy - isn't it something like learning what true virtue is - in the sense that it is of inestimable value?

David Guterson has produced a masterpiece, a novel for the ages. His prose, as always, is wonderful, and is one aspect of the book that stirred these deep thoughts in me. Each sentence and paragraph serves the higher shining truth - is an exhibit of supporting evidence. I think he ranks as the finest living American author - alongside Marilynne Robinson. If you seriously read fiction, read this.

"A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" by Marina Lewycka

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A bit of mildly amusing fluff, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" brings us the adventures of a naturalized British citizen, who gives up feuding with her older sister to work toward getting a Ukrainian woman divorced from their 84 year-old father.

This is a comic effort, mostly of the word-play kind; the sisters wind up sisters again, and interact happily ever after, presumably. There is some charm here, and no harm, but also no compelling reason to pick it up.

"The Feast of Love" by Charles Baxter

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Three interweaved narratives populate Charles Baxter's "The Feast of Love." One involves Bradley Smith, something of a putz whose two unfortunate marriages (so far) ended badly: one wife leaves him for a woman, and the second leaves him for her long-time sex partner. That relationship ends badly for the self-absorbed cheating wife.

My favorite plot has to do with Chloe (pronounced clo-WAY). Chloe has outrageous sex with, and then marries, Oscar. A couple of months later the poor thing is widowed. Chloe has visions; she's quite young but has wisdom in worldly matters; she sees mystical things while high, but understands their import in the cold light of day. She undergoes the worst heartache in the book, but she emerges from it. She's a goddess - she even says so. You can't read this book and not fall in love with her. She's Venus with 21st century techno-patter.

"The Feast of Love" is replete with lessons: don't pick someone based solely on looks; don't blame the other person exclusively when he or she cuts and runs; don't settle; don't invest too much emotion in your partner; trust your local psychic.

This highly readable book will engage you with its characters. You will come away wiser and with an appreciative smile for the author. By all means, read "The Feast of Love."

"The Storyteller" by Mario Vargas Llosa

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Saul Zuratas, the son of a merchant in Lima, has a highly distinctive birthmark which divides his face in two. He leaves Lima during the course of "The Storyteller" for the Amazonian jungle and the Machiguenga tribe. He retells and preserves the oral tradition of this people, and stands in opposition to its acculturation.
The adversarial force against the Hablador (storyteller) features American missionaries working assiduously to translate and transcribe the tribal tradition. Our young man-with-both-faces believes this will destroy the Machiguengas and maybe other tribes in the process. Our titular hero is imbued with sufficient mystery and remoteness to take on godlike qualities. It appears that Llosa wholly endorses his aims.

"Evidence of Things Unseen" by Marianne Wiggins

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"Evidence of Things Unseen" is the remarkably-told story of Ray Foster ("Fos") and his wife, Opal. Their story spans World War I, in which Ray is a combatant, and continues, portraying his interest in the science of flashing, of bright things, taking us through World War II, and some years beyond. He meets Opal (after the Great War, I believe) in the coastal plains of North Carolina, and the half-dozen pages describing this encounter, so alive with the force of attraction and possibility, are worth the price of admission all by themselves. A true delight in storytelling.
This is a book about the scientific method and its antithesis, the tribal knowledge of emotion. Fos and Opal find wonder in the same thing, but look in opposite directions for it: each autumn they trek from Knoxville to Kitty Hawk to see if there is more undersea bioluminescence during the full moon and the Perseid meteor shower. Here we see Fos and Opal's similarity in opposites: Fos's light comes in outer space, in discrete bits, spectacular, disposable. Opal looks underwater for the more solid, unified, and durable earthbound shining.

Opal and Fos, inseparable, are recruited together to work in Oak Ridge, and they only find out too late that they have been working on the ultimate bomb. Its detonation in anger over Hiroshima leads the same day to Opal and Ray Foster's deaths, and makes a ward of the state out of Ray Jr., called "Lightfoot."

The scientific method runs through the book, but the idea, which Ray and Opal share, that science is beneficent, is dashed all to hell. Flash, Ray's partner (!) is incarcerated through most of the book, but ultimately guides Lightfoot to the West Coast to discover love in the person of a lovely young artist. She echoes the older couple - she paints with a mixture of fish blood that glows in the dark, but is invisible in daylight.

"Evidence of Things Unseen" will break your heart several times, in several ways. But you will finish uplifted, and full of wonder at the perceptions, lessons, and sheer artistry of Ms. Wiggins. Superbly done!

"Train" by Pete Dexter

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Packard, a war hero returning from the Pacific Theater, joins the police force in Southern California. It seems, though, he has returned in a kind of personal fog, or limbo. Outward signs are that he's only interested in sensations, wants to test various things to see if he can feel an emotion. He golfs with some lowlifes, but meets a black caddy named Lionel - called "Train" - who, it turns out, is also a brilliant golfer.
This is a book about racial prejudice and segregation in Southern California after the War. The blurb on the back cover is true: Pete Dexter's writing cuts to the bone. There are no holds barred here. Packard takes justice into his own hands - good thing too, because it's one of the few areas where he can exercise reliable judgment. Packard, called "Miles Away Man" by Train, is finally snapped back into the human race when after a tumultuous argument with his wife, she shoots his lower leg with a shotgun, after which he finally shows emotion and breaks down into tears.

"Train" is hard-edged, honest, and deft at the same time. Dexter is a virtuoso. Pick this up and read it - I assure you you won't regret it.

"The Emperor's Children" by Claire Messud

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Set in New York in 2001, this novel chronicles the yearnings and failings of three friends, Danielle (perhaps our main protaganist), her best friend Marina, and their gay friend, Julius. Along the way, Claire Messud instructs us very skillfully about love and loss, about idealism and disillusion, honesty and hypocrisy.

An innocent would-be disciple moves to New York and secures a position with his hero. He finds himself disillusioned in due course (where a more worldly apprentice might not), and writes a hatchet-piece in all starry-eyed honesty. Predictably, the hero banishes the youth from his employ, who moves to a Brooklyn hovel and is perhaps lost when the twin towers are hit on September 11. Whither truth? Whither idealism?

Ms. Messud is particularly strong when reflecting the thought processes of her characters. Emotional forces running through friends and family ring true; I was never confused over motivation, nor by emotional cause and effect. The prose is graceful and fluid, touched perfectly by idiom. This is a writer who knows her milieu and puts you square in the middle of it. She's very effective.

Character, plot, style, and theme meld ineffably here. Most definitely worth your while.

"Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I don't really know how to rate this book. As most political novels are, this was widely hailed on publication. I found its perspective on the famine forced upon the Biafran population by the Nigerian government different and interesting, because it is personal and somewhat oblique. Otherwise we have capable storytelling of one small group's participation in the horror of the Biafran war for independence.

I guess I don't approach fiction with much of a political mindset. If the praise, by contrast, is for the artistic merits of the book and not its subject matter, then I become confused. If books that deal with events such as these is your cup of tea, then this will fulfill your desire.

"The Pale Blue Eye" by Louis Bayard

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I was very much looking forward to this book: a murder mystery featuring Edgar Allan Poe as a character, set in the early years of the 19th century at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point - what's not to love?

Well, this book is pretty much not to love. I don't usually let a pervasive emotion put me off a book, but this hits me as a very sad book indeed. I don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment of this novel, but there is NO ONE in the book who should be above suspicion. Some of the descriptions of the area are quite effective, and the protrayal of Poe rises above the pedestrian - I liked it - but overall, you might want to spend your valuable time elsewhere.

"Coastliners" by Joanne Harris

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One might assume all of Ms. Harris's fiction deals with French women and rich men (see "Chocolat"). One would by the same token assume all her fiction deals with an open and truthful heart about life's important issues: family, love, life, death, greed, hauteur. "Coastliners" tells the story of Madeliene - "Mado" - and her mute father on an island off the Vendee coast of France. We have a land grab, a con game, partisanship, religion, and superstition, and life lived stubbornly on an island which can barely support it. Through all of it - the greed and cynicism, the baggage of family life, the changing coastline - life muddles on, and our heroine learns a little of what it takes.

This is a reasonably good story, and if you're interested in France, or this corner of it, you could do worse.

"Popular Music From Vittula" by Mikael Niemi

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What a very unusual piece of work! We're here in the far north of Sweden, getting a very close acquaintance with Matti, a young teenage boy whose exposure to Western pop culture must come from a Finnish radio station.

This book is partly a series of tall tales, part gothic horror, and all coming-of-age story. I thoroughly enjoyed the unfamiliar setting married to the universal themes of exploration and discovery when coming of age. Additionally, this work has some exotic features which add spice, like Scandinavian folk tales, and the electrifying effect when Elvis Presley's #1 hits reach town. Laurie Thompson's translation (from the Swedish, I think) is seamless, transparent, and wonderful.

I took note, while reading this, of the question of why music should come from female reproductive parts. Because vittula, the name of the town from across the border, is a Finnish word for ... well, let's just say the boy is an adolescent.

I recommend this book very highly. It's a quick, easy-to-read, very different and diverting romp.

"Rameau's Niece" by Cathleen Schine

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"Rameau's Niece" by Cathleen Schine is a funny piece about a young woman who becomes confused, or flustered, and seeks out a sex partner outside her marriage. There is erudition on display here, but to what end? Its one posessor, protaganist Margaret, is a darn fool. The humor comes from her internal decision-making process, and from her imbecilic intellectualism. Her search for knowledge is really a search for carnal knowledge. The whole thing was annoying, is spite of the acknowledged humor.

"The Pieces from Berlin" by Michael Pye

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In "The Pieces from Berlin" Michael Pye gives us a very spare consideration of guilt over past sins. The sin? Stealing or hoarding artwork in the face of Nazi confiscation from Jews. The miscreant in this case is a now-elderly woman who took custody of a considerable number of pieces, who while purportedly doing a service to her Jewish clients, nevertheless becomes wealthy and prominent as the holder of the valuables.
I stuck with this lean, almost skeletal, story, but it fell short for me on multiple counts. The characters' motivations, particularly the old woman's son (who kills himself), are a mystery. We're not placed in the time or place effectively at all, and the oblique thought processes that run through the book left me unconvinced. As I finished this book, it felt simply like an exercise that I was dutifully finishing.