I once made the mistake of bringing the wrong book to the beach. Instead of a light novel, I found myself reading a wonderful literary work about World War I. Unfortunately, the anguish it featured made it hard to enjoy the sun and sand. In fact, the book was so good, each time I raised my head from a page, I was surprised to find myself sitting by the ocean. So, while the beach didn’t spoil the book, the book certainly made it harder to appreciate the beach. That doesn’t stop me from reading serious works during the summer or when I’m on vacation. I just try to be a little more careful about matching the mood of the book to my surroundings.
For a long time, I resisted asking for a review copy of "Boxer, Beetle" by Ned Bauman (Bloomsbury), even though it was shortlisted for two British awards. Its main characters sounded unsavory and the plot details struck me as more strange than interesting. However, after it won the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for outstanding debut fiction, I finally gave in. To my great surprise, the novel is funny and absorbing. Yes, it is also weird and unusual, but Beauman does a great job wrapping all his plot lines together for a tidy, satisfying ending.
"Boxer, Beetle" focuses on three characters: Kevin Bacon, Philip Erskine and Seth "Sinner" Roach. Bacon, a 21st century London collector of Nazi memorabilia who suffers from a medical condition that makes him smell like rotting fish, finds himself drawn into a mystery focusing on events that took place during the mid-1930s. Featured in these events are Erskine, a gentleman scientist who believes in eugenics and studies beetles, and Roach, a short, brutal Jewish boxer who has nine toes. Erskine longs to study Roach in order to learn how to improve the Aryan race, although Roach suspects his attraction is of another nature. The scientist’s research is considered so important that someone in the 21st century is willing to commit murder to uncover its secrets.
The plot slips neatly between the two time periods and the three main characters. My favorite section takes place during a conference of fascists who meet at a British countryside estate. Never would I have expected to laugh out loud at such pontificating idiots, but somehow Bauman makes their stupidity funny. The author’s ability to tie all the disparate elements of his novel together makes "Boxer, Beetle" an unexpected success.
"These Days Are Ours"
It’s hard to plan for your future when tomorrow might bring disaster. However, six months after 9/11, the 20-somethings in Michelle Haimoff’s "These Days Are Ours" (Grand Central Publishing) are balancing their fear with the problems and challenges of daily life. For example, Hailey, who narrates the novel, wants to find a job, if only to afford to move out of her mother and stepfather’s apartment. However, she spends more of her time obsessing about her crush on someone she considers the perfect Jewish male, or staying up all night drinking with her friends, than she does on her job search. All of these young adults are rich and privileged, but that just makes it harder for them to consider their futures. After all, they’ll never be able to compete with their parents’ success. Then Hailey meets Adrian, the one person who takes her seriously, something that forces her to look more carefully at her life and desires.
While at first "These Days Are Ours" might seem superficial, with its focus on the lives of wealthy, spoiled brats, Haimoff has something more complex in mind. The novel digs deeper into Hailey’s psyche than first expected, while at the same time, shining a light on American expectations in the 1990s – particularly those of the 20-somethings who believe they should walk out of college into perfect jobs and perfect lives. Slowly, Hailey comes to appreciate that the world is more complex than expected and understand how important self-awareness is in order for her to succeed. The ending of "These Days Are Ours" is really a beginning, which makes this novel a realistic portrayal of life in its times.
"The Last Nude"
When you understand the reality of a person’s life, it’s amazing how your opinion of them can change. This was true for 17- year-old American Rafaela Fano, the main character in part one of Ellis Avery’s "The Last Nude" (Riverhead Books), which takes place in Paris in 1927. At first, Rafaela – the daughter of a Catholic Italian mother and a Jewish father who married for love – seems a user of men and women. However, my disdain turned to admiration as the story of how she came to Paris is slowly revealed. The main emphasis of the plot, though, is her personal and professional relationship to Tamara de Lempicka, a real life Art Deco painter, who treats Rafaela as her muse. Unfortunately, even though hardened by experience, Rafaela must learn difficult lessons about love and trust. A much shorter second part focuses on de Lempicka decades later, which leaves readers to ponder Rafaela’s fate.
My feelings about "The Last Nude" were mixed. The first section, which focuses on Rafaela, was wonderful. She’s a terrific character, a mixture of toughness and naiveté who believes herself a harden realist. Unfortunately, she also finds herself blinded by the ideals of love and romance. The abrupt change of main character in the final section, which featured de Lempicka’s thoughts, was disruptive. I found her to be of far less interest than Rafaela, although Avery does use the narrative switch to an advantage at the end. To reveal more would ruin the plot, but the novel provides a satisfying conclusion to their relationship, even as it leaves some questions unanswered.
Eli Schwartz bucks the trend of 20-somethings moving back in with their parents, but only because he never moved out in the first place. To be blunt, Eli, the narrator of Adam Wilson’s "Flatscreen" (Harper Perennial), is a first-class loser who lives with his divorced mother in the family home and mooches off his remarried father. Spending his time getting high and watching television, he compares himself to his more successful brother, but rather than feeling inspired to go to college or find employment, he only succeeds in feeling more disgusted with himself. When his mother finally sells the house, Eli’s life changes when he meets the new owner, Seymour J. Kahn, a former actor now confined to a wheelchair. Kahn is also a sex and drug addict whose friendship finally forces Eli to reconsider his future.
What saves "Flatscreen" is its humor. Eli views the world as if it were a movie or television show, which allows him to speculate on alternative endings to his life, for example, if done in the style of a screwball comedy, a made-for-tv movie or an art house film. My favorite sections are his lists of everything from "facts about my brother" to his dream of a "recipe for love." Readers do need a high level of tolerance for whining, though, in order to appreciate Eli and his increasingly stupid behavior. However, while Wilson does not manage to turn this unlikeable character into a person you admire, you may be surprised to find yourself rooting for Eli to succeed.