Quick Book Review: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (DNF)

The Finkler Question by Howard JacobsonOne of the members of my book group had bought this book but had not get round to reading it, so she suggested it for our next meeting. I was curious about the book and the others were happy to read it too, and so we did.

Or at least, I read until about 2/3 of the book and then I had enough of it.

This book is about a middle-aged man, Julian Treslove. He used to work for the BBC but now he is a celebrity look-alike. His best friend back from when they were young is Sam Finkler, and together they befriended their mentor Libor Sevcik. Both Finkler and Sevcik are Jewish and Julian has always been fascinated by their Jewishness.

One night, on the way back from a party at Sevcik’s house, Julian is attacked and robbed in the street by a woman. The woman says something to him which sounds like “You, Jules!” (his mother’s nickname for him) but could also have been “You, Jew.” He becomes obsessed with the idea that he might look Jewish and investigates whether he has Jewish ancestors.

Sam Finkler, meanwhile, doesn’t live much of a Jewish life. In fact, he joins the ASHamed Jews, a group of people who are not happy about what is happening in Israel.

I didn’t get further than about 2/3 in the book, as the whole obsession of Treslove with Jewishness was getting too much for me. And that while I loved Chaim Potok‘s books that are absolutely full of Jewishness. Granted, it was many years ago that I read those books, but I think it’s not so much the amount of Jewishness but the obsession itself that I started to tire of.

While the book had some funny parts, it was sometimes too silly. Regularly there were conversations between people in which someone misunderstood the other, whether on purpose or not (“‘Come over’, he said, ‘I’ll order in Chinese’. ‘You speak Chinese now?'” [page 41]). It’s funny if it appears some of the time, but these kinds of conversations happened too often for my liking.

As it turned out, only one or two people in my book group finished the book. The others couldn’t get through it either.

Rating: No rating, did not finish the book

Number of pages: 312 (read to page 200)

First published: 2010

Genre: contemporary fiction

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The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne (The Dutch title is “Het Winterpaleis”, I read the book in English)

This 2009 book is by the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which got a lot of attention and has also been made into a movie. That book was a children’s book about WWII.

The House of Special Purpose is a historical fiction novel for adults.  It was chosen by my RL book group for our meeting coming Friday. Otherwise, I’d probably picked it up some time anyway, but maybe not for a while.

The story starts in 1915 when Georgy, a Russian boy of 15, is employed by the Tsar as a bodyguard for his young son, Alexei. The story ends in 1981, when Georgy and his wife Zoya are elderly people living in London.

The order in which the parts of the story are told is interesting. In fact, I think this is the most interesting and novel thing about the book: One storyline is the story of Georgy, starting in 1915 and going through the next few years. This is alternated by the story of the older Georgy, but while this starts in 1981, it goes back in time, until the two stories meet not long after the first World War.

The story is not suspenseful as such, but becomes more and more interesting the closer the two time lines approach each other, as apparently, something happened that impacted on the lives of Georgy and Zoya in such a way, that even in 1981, they are worried that someone from the past will search them out.

This way of building up the story is the great strength of the novel. I also liked the fluent way the book was written, easy and pleasant to read.

I had a big problem with my belief of the story. With some of it, I thought: “Yes, I bet!” which of course made the whole story less believable. In the end I could more or less guess what was coming and again, I had to suspend belief in order to enjoy the end of the book.

But altogether, it was a pleasant, adventurous read and I’m glad I read it. I have the feeling there isn’t a lot we can say about the book during our discussion in the book group, but I’m sure most members will at least feel the book wasn’t a waste of their time.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help

I read this book for our real-life book group which came together last Friday. Most of the group thought the book was worth a 9 out of 10 while some voted for an 8 or 8.5. Not bad, as we often differ very much in our liking of the books that we discuss. For instance, Wuthering Heights was rated from absolutely awful to very wonderful.

We noticed that the story in the book didn’t take place all that long ago (1960s),  but we all felt the story seemed very old fashioned. I guess part of this is that since after World War II, not many people in the Netherlands have had servants, as in this book.

Here’s my review of the book:

Beautiful book! The story takes place in Mississippi, USA, in the 1960s and is told by three people: two are colored helps that work for white families and one a young white woman who wants to write about the life of domestics and tries to get the other two ladies to help her with this.

Segregation is the norm, so the women talking to each other about such a topic has to happen in secret. Skeeter, the white girl, refuses to publish an item about separate toilets for domestics in the Junior League newsletter that she edits, and is seen as suspect by her peers, and faces being ostracized by her white friends.

Aibileen, one of the domestics, has raised 17 white children in her career, but her own son and only child died at the age of 23 not so long ago. Still, she’s very good with the girl she has to look after, but has her own opinion about the issues she hears the white ladies talk about during their bridge games.

Minny is the other domestic that has a voice in the book, and she only has a job because her current employer comes from out of town and does not know no one is to hire her (Minny has been falsely accused of stealing the table silver of her previous employer).

The book is a brilliant account of how Skeeter gets several domestic helps to tell her their stories and how she tries to get the stories published as a book.

Discussion

In our discussion we used the questions from Readinggroupguides.com. We managed to identify at least one real-life Hilly (the woman all other women listen to, if they want to stay in their exclusive women’s club). We could not think of anything positive that Hilly did – she’s just not a nice woman.

We found the writing style a bit difficult to read sometimes (Aibileen writes an ungrammatical English that was (or is?) used by blacks a lot in talking). However, we could totally imagine Aibileen talking like that and it gave her a stronger voice.

With regard to the cake, some thought they would have done exactly the same as Minny. Personally, I don’t think I could ever have done that, though! What Minny did exactly, I cannot reveal, it’s a big secret in the book that is very helpful in eventually getting Hilly to sing a different tune.

Raspberry cakes for the book group

Long did I hesitate, shall I try out a recipe for raspberry cakes that I had recently found in a magazine, or shall I prepare Minny’s cake, a chocolate cake with a secret ingredient, that features in the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett that we were going to discuss at the book group meeting (for insiders: I would of course have left out the secret ingredient for health and safety reasons)?

I found a recipe for Minny’s cake but it required a pie shell which was hard to get. So, I made raspberry cakes.

Raspberry cakes for the bookgroup

Unfortunately they were a little high in calories, so I only had a small piece to try. Yummy was the word! So thought the samplers: husband, son1, son2 and grandma.

At the book group they were eaten by some, while others preferred the also-delicious brownies made by Ingrid. The petit-fours, lovingly bought by Pauline, were also popular, and later on we had some savoury goodies.

More importantly, we discussed the book. More about this later.

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