Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

February 22, 2014 


The Wherewithal

Philip Schultz, W.W. Norton, 182 pages

Philip Schultz’s “The Wherewithal” is a book in which time has come undone. Taking place in San Francisco in 1968, it also reaches back to the Holocaust – specifically, the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, when Polish civilians killed more than 300 Jews. The link is 25-year-old Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzkowski, whose mother sheltered seven Jews in a hole she dug in the floor of her Jedwabne barn. Now, Henryk is trying to dodge the Vietnam draft by working as a clerk in a basement office, filing public assistance claims. What drives both stories is a sense of human misery, whether of the acute or chronic sort.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Henryk is translating his mother’s Jedwabne diary, a document created in her end-of-life dementia, which confuses “things she didn’t see / but overheard and was later told, / with things she saw firsthand.” The same is true of Henryk, who asserts he was a young child during Jedwabne, although the chronology doesn’t bear him out. He also recalls driving a cab in San Francisco on the night the Zodiac killer targeted a cabbie, and yet, that murder didn’t occur until October 1969.

So what is going on? Schultz offers a clue at the very end of the book: “In her delirium,” Henryk explains, referring to his mother, “and in mine, scenes unfold / with the force of a living chronicle.” What he’s suggesting, then, is that “The Wherewithal” is narrative as fever dream, chopped up, fragmented and stitched back together, less about realism than allegory. In that regard, it’s only fitting that it take the form of a long poem, “a novel in verse,” since its logic is less the logic of fiction than of poetry. Schultz is an accomplished poet; his sixth collection, “Failure,” won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

Los Angeles Times

An Unnecessary Woman

Rabih Alameddine, Grove Press, 320 pages

Rabih Alameddine’s beautiful new novel is ostensibly about an elderly woman living alone in her Beirut apartment. Once married but quickly divorced, Aaliya appears to be “An Unnecessary Woman.” But Aaliya’s solitude is filled with incident and wonder. She lives in a city whose very name is synonymous with conflict and disorder. In Beirut it’s perfectly normal for a spinster to don a pink tracksuit and pick up an AK-47 in defense of her abode.

The wonder comes courtesy of Aaliya’s voracious reading habits. The imagined worlds of writers as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust and Roberto Bolano are her companions. She translates their books into Arabic, which no one else has ever read.

Alameddine is the author of four previous works of fiction (including the international best-seller “The Hakawati”). He is a resident of San Francisco and Beirut. In the latter city, Aaliya witnesses a series of battles between militias, an invasion by the Israeli army. She suffers the indignities of endless power outages and shutdowns of the city’s water supply. Through it all, she reads.

“An Unnecessary Woman” is a unique love poem to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it’s a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates.

Los Angeles Times

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