Microviews Vol. 44: Flippin' The Good Lord Bird at the Firing Squad

on Monday, November 25, 2013
Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy
Ailing music critic Otto Steiner has somehow managed to avoid being outed as a Jew. While the war rages around him, he is tucked away at a sanatorium, slowly dying of tuberculosis. Through his diary (interspersed with a couple of letters to his son who has escaped to Palestine) we come to appreciate the general ennui of a great mind left to rot. His observations of everyday life are peppered with moments of vigour and vitriol - a chance to kill Hitler comes and goes, he rages against the Nazis' misappropriation of his beloved music - but it is his sense of impotence that is most palpable. As Steiner's strength fades and the sanatorium gives way to a hospital for injured soldiers, he prepares for one great act of rebellion. It will, in the scheme of things, mean nothing but in a totalitarian state, where the essence of humanity is being squeezed from its people, rebellion for its own sake might be the only way to save your soul. An immensely powerful book told with economy and heart.
4 Out of 5 Requiems

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Now that he's bagged a National Book Award, James McBride must be splashing around in a veritable sea of adulation. Unfortunately, fireworks of this kind (if I may continue piling on the metaphors) tend to produce a lot of smoke that obscures the actual work from view. Such is the case with The Good Lord Bird, a sassy, fun and vibrant slice of historical Americana, but one a little lacking in real substance. Don't get me wrong, this story of a young slave boy freed and mistaken for a girl by batshit crazy abolitionist Old John Brown is a great read. McBride absolutely nails his narrator's peculiar patter. He also manages some glorious set pieces, particularly the disastrous fight scenes. You really gotta feel for poor John Brown, starry eyed at the prospect of success, being left out to dry by those who promise to help. At its deepest, The Good Lord Bird is a fascinating portrait of the divisions that marked American society as the abolition movement got going. But for the most part it's just a rollicking adventure full of booze and guns and trains. Again, not a bad thing at all, but not exactly the Great American Novel.
3.5 Out Of 5 Broken Chains

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees
Ten years after Nihad Sirees penned The Silence and the Roar this novel of corruption, claustrophobia and oppression remains an amazingly urgent portrait of life in Syria. Fathi Chin, a literary young gun, is arrested one day after trying to stop the police beating up a student. Down the rabbit hole he goes - sucked into a grinding bureaucracy set up to silence dissent and turn its brightest stars into pamphleteers for the dictator. Chin's will is assailed from all sides: professionally, personally, sexually, but it is not until one of the leading generals draws his mother into the maelstrom that things become unbearable. It is very easy to call The Silence and the Roar Kafkaesque but these aren't hidden machinations crushing the young author. The state bears its fangs for all to see, with neither thought nor care about being exposed. All the more then is the horror. A minor masterpiece.
4.5 Out Of 5 Poisoned Pens

The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary
Buckle up, Holocaust purists, you ain't gonna like this! Moishe Cohn was a small time clown on the Yiddish burlesque circuit. Murdered at Auschwitz, his last and most glorious prank happened at the moment of death - he turned around and bared his arse at the firing squad. Twenty five years later he is still up to his old tricks, albeit only in spectral form, possessing and messing with the mind of the man who killed him. Detective Schatz, formerly SS officer Schatz, is now a high ranking policeman in a small German town where he is enmeshed in an investigation into a series of murders. The victims, all men, are found naked with smiles of absolute ecstasy plastered across their faces. As community pressure to find the killer mounts, Schatz gradually loses his grip, much to the enjoyment of his poltergeist. Gary mines this rather wacky setup to hilarious comic effect, but in doing so manages to tackle some very big issues - complicity, reconciliation, retribution and the absurdity of de-Nazification. It is as disturbing as it is funny; sometimes Gary misfires, sometimes he is weighed down by very 1960s concerns (it was written in 1967). But for the most part The Dance of Genghis Cohn explores Holocaust taboos with insight and mad style. While the French literati now throw prizes at anyone who so much as mentions the H word quite irrespective of whether their books are any good (I'm lookin' at you Haenel, Littell and Binet), this long out-of-print classic is the only one that really matters.
4 Out of 5 Mooning Poltergeists

Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal
From what I gather, Lore Segal is something of an American national treasure. By no means prolific, her output is anxiously anticipated and well-recieved. Now, at 85, she brings us her treatise on old age, a tender, funny novel about an Alzheimer's epidemic in post-9/11 New York. There's no great narrative thread to be found here, just a bunch of old folk suddenly losing the plot and driving their family and medical carers around the bend. There's some tangential stuff about an investigation into it all being some terrorist attack but that is by the by. Segal paints her characters with a gentle bittersweetness that will have you warming to them in a way that makes you second guess your mirth. Given that most of her characters are Jewish (of the Catskills variety), the guilt factor is a brilliant joke in itself. So too are some of Segal's stabs at the world of writing, where the immediacy of the internet has allowed for a deluge of material to drown prospective publishers. The back cover boasts some glowing puffs from some of America's literary greats. I must be missing something. Half A Kingdom is a charming distraction, sure, but that's about it.
3 Out Of 5 Blue Rinses


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