ElCicco #CBR5 Review #29: The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

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The Golem and The Jinni is a fantastical story, a fairy tale of sorts that takes place in turn-of-the-century New York’s Little Syria, but also throughout hundreds of years of history. Like other tales, it deals with themes such as the consequences of greed and selfishness, true love and self sacrifice. But having creatures such as a golem and jinni in New York among immigrant communities in the process of losing touch with old traditions and beliefs as they are assimilated into the melting pot gives this novel a unique spin.

The main characters are, obviously, a golem and a jinni. The female golem, Chava, was created from clay by an unsavory former rabbinical student to serve/be wife to a man en route to New York from Poland. The man dies on the trip and Chava is masterless, a dangerous situation for a golem. A kindly elderly rabbi discovers who and what she is and takes her under his wing to try to guide her and keep her safe. The jinni, Ahmad, springs out of a metal bottle in Arbeely the tinsmith’s shop in Little Syria. Ahmad was enslaved by an unknown evil wizard hundreds of years ago and wears an iron cuff, which keeps him enslaved in human form but allows him to use some of his magical skills, such as creating heat and fire with his hands. He makes an excellent metal worker, and Arbeely takes him in and hides his secret.

As neither Chava nor Ahmad require sleep, they roam the streets of old New York at night and happen upon each other. While the average human would not notice anything unnatural about the golem or the jinni, they each immediately recognize the unnatural in each other. Chava sees that the jinni is made of fire and Ahmad can tell that Chava is made of clay. They form a truly “odd couple.” Ahmad is angered by his loss of independence and guided by his passions. He cares little for the consequences of his actions. Ahmad seems reckless to Chava, who can read others’s thoughts, is a rule follower and tends to be much more practical in facing her life situation. She is happy serving, as it is part of her nature to serve, while Ahmad bristles at servitude.

Ahmad and Chava are surrounded by a caste of characters who have their own tales, each fascinating in its own way. Schaalman, the man who created Chava, is a dark and frightening man. Saleh the ice cream man lives on the periphery of his community and is deemed an oddball deserving some pity, but his past tells a very different story. Sophia Winston is a young woman from a wealthy family whose encounter with Ahmad changes her and turns her life on its head. There are several others as well, and while it might seem in the first half of the book that these various story lines cannot come together, Wecker beautifully weaves them into a marvelous magical story with a big showdown at the end. The Golem and The Jinni would make a great graphic novel in the right hands.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and The Jinni. It’s an impressive and lovely first novel from Helene Wecker and a sweeping tale of old New York and some of the immigrant communities that formed it.

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HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #36: I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

If you love Nora Ephron, for her movies, or her advice, or her everything, you will love this book. Ephron was a wildly successful writer and director. And her personal life was fascinating as well – married to Bernstein, writing Heartburn about the dissolution of her marriage, and finding stability and an actual partner in her subsequent person.

The book is a series of short stories. They are odes to the things that Eprhon, 65 at the time she authored the book, loves, hates, and wonders about. Much of the book is very focused on New York, as Eprhon lived there most of her life, in an apartment she was deeply attached to, fostering her intense New Yorkness. New York seemed as much of a presence in her life as most of her friends, and lovers, and family, and I always find it fascinating when “place” overtakes “people” in terms of priority in someone’s live.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #25: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist is a fascinating new novel that fans of The Great Gatsby, Gone Girl and The Dinner will want to read.  The action takes place in 1925 New York, in a Lower East Side precinct where Rose Baker works as a typist. She and several other women have this new kind of work, taking confessions in shorthand and then transcribing them for the records. Rose is the fastest typist and a straight-laced, no-nonsense kind of girl in her early 20s. Having grown up in an orphanage, Rose has no family or friends to speak of and spends a lot of time in her own head. She greatly admires the old-fashioned, paternalistic sergeant whom she works alongside and places him on a pedestal. She is not overly friendly or familiar with her fellow typists and is especially cold toward the young lieutenant detective, who frequently tries to engage Rose in light conversation. Her life changes dramatically once the new typist arrives. Odalie stands out for her new fashion and fine jewelry, and later for her fashionably bobbed hair. She is a self-possessed, modern woman who is also blessed with beauty and charisma. She seems to mesmerize everyone around her. Rose is initially wary (and judgmental) of her, but they become friends and eventually roommates. Odalie introduces Rose to the modern world but something seems amiss. How does Odalie afford her apartment, clothes and decadent lifestyle? What is the truth about her past?

Rose serves as narrator and the question you ask throughout the narrative is do you trust her? Rose reminds me of the narrator in The Dinner. They both are narcissistic, condescending to those around them (who never seem to measure up to their standards), proudly holding ideas that are no longer popular, not seeing how they appear to others, assigning selfish and hostile motives to others. I found myself constantly wondering whether to believe her assessments of people and situations, whether any feelings of sympathy were misplaced. Is she mentally unstable? Is she an innocent victim of others who take advantage of her naivety? As the story unfolds, we see that Rose is telling her story in retrospect, as part of a therapy for her doctor, but where she is and why she is there is a mystery until the end.

First time author Rindell does a wonderful job of setting her story in historical context. She provides details of crime in 1920s — bootlegging, murder, the growing need for professionals to handle it, and the possibilities for corruption in the system. And there are plenty of details showing a changing society — young women becoming more independent but still vulnerable in so many ways, new fashions and opportunities to spend wealth. The Other Typist is an engrossing tale with a terrific ending. A good choice for those who are drawn to psychological thrillers.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #18: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth is another selection from The Atlantic‘s list of books by and about women that men should read. The novel was published in 1905 and examines the fate of a single woman in New York society who has connections but lacks wealth. Miss Lily Bart loves living well and is known for her great beauty as well as her manners. She always knows the right thing to do and say in her social circle, and her presence is desired at society events. Lily’s goal is the same as most other women in her position — to marry a rich husband with the right connections to maintain this lifestyle of travel, parties and finery. To accomplish this goal, Lily must cultivate her friendships so as to stay invited to society’s inner circle. This becomes increasingly difficult as Lily’s lack of money and growing debts put her in a position that jeopardizes her societal ties and her very future.

Wharton’s writing is a joy to read. Descriptions of characters are often amusing and always colorful. One matron of society is “…a monumental woman with the voice of a pulpit orator and a mind preoccupied with the iniquities of her servants.” Lily’s aunt, Mrs. Peniston “… was the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast. Lily had never seen her when she was not cuirassed in shining black, with small tight boots, and an air of being packed and ready to start; yet she never started.” And on her spinster cousin: “Grace Stepney’s mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, to which the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and where they hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory.”

While Wharton’s characterizations of individuals are vivid and entertaining, it’s her dissection of this particular social class that is so illuminating, especially the position of women within the upper class. Lily’s beauty is her power, and she knows it. She has had a few opportunities to capitalize on it and marry well but always seems to undermine her own efforts. Her friend Carry Fisher, a divorcee who  lives off the wealth of her friends, says, “…sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.” Lily is very fond of the trappings, the finery of society, but she sees that the milieu in which it exists is a crass and dirty place. Her wealthy married friends are happy to have Lily around, but there is a price to their hospitality, whether it’s writing correspondence on behalf of the hostess or keeping a husband preoccupied while the wife engages in an affair. Because Lily is so beautiful and desirable, and because she becomes financially indebted to one of the husbands, she eventually becomes an object of resentment. This is where the real trouble for her begins and Wharton delineates the rigid standards to which women were held. When gossip of Lily’s debts and supposed involvement with married men reaches the ears of her wealthy but tightfisted aunt, Wharton writes, “It was intolerable of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.” When her friend Gerty Fisher, an independent but somewhat poor single woman, urges Lily to fight against the accusations against her by telling the truth, Lily replies, “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s the easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”

The men is Wharton’s world are largely wealthy, capable of funding their wives’ extravagances. In The House of Mirth, however, there are two men who don’t quite fit the mold and both figure prominently in Lily’s life. Lawrence Seldon is socially connected and financially stable but not rich enough for Lily. They are attracted to one another but Seldon prefers to remain detached from society. Simon Rosedale, on the other hand, is extraordinarily wealthy but lacking in connections. Rosedale, who is a Jewish businessman, is infatuated with Lily, but she and most society women find Rosedale’s presence at their gatherings distasteful. By the end of the novel, the image of Rosedale softens and it is apparent that Lily and Rosedale have quite a lot in common. At one point, he tells her, “Why should I mind saying I want to get into society? … a taste for society’s just another kind of hobby…. But I know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones….”

Lily at first might seem shallow, but she is introspective and understands that she is a product of her upbringing and environment. Lily recognizes that she cannot be satisfied with less than what she wants, and she realizes too late the mistakes she has made. Lily does have some moral rules, unlike many of the circle she aspires to join, and her adherence to those rules, at personal cost, is both admirable and tragic. While I was ambivalent about her at the beginner of the novel, by the end, I admired and pitied her. The House of Mirth grew on me the more I read and has stayed with me.

HelloKatieO’S #CBR5 Review #21: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

Another selection from the Girls’ writer’s room reading list. As much as The Groupmade me think a lot about how little the way women interact with each other, and the world, has changed, I straight up enjoyed The Best of Everything much more.  Valley of the Dolls is one of my all time favorite books, definitely top 5, and I’ve easily read it 20 times.

This book had the same premise as Valley of the Dolls: a few young women all living in New York with the promise of something more – a show business career, finding love, becoming a career woman. And it takes place in around the same era. But The Best of Everything is the story of what happens to those girls if they never make it out of New York.

The stories of each character ended in a way that feels depressingly realistic. Some of the girls got their happy endings: the wedding, the baby, the man they wanted divorcing his wife. But some of the characters don’t – they’re abandoned by their lovers, screwed over by their jobs, or settling for a marriage that will surely be unsatisfactory. And most of that is by chance, or by circumstance.