By Jack Fischel

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
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The Dialogues of Time and Entropy

By Aryeh Lev Stollman

Riverhead, 208 pages, $24.95.


The new story collection by Aryeh Lev Stollman demonstrates the power of narrative to reveal the complexity, pain and beauty of human experience. Some of the stories illuminate, like flashes of lightning, the strong forces that persist beneath the apparently placid surface of adult lives. In “Die Grosse Liebe,” a young boy discovers his mother’s secret betrayal folded within her love of a romantic German movie that justifies her wartime devotion to her husband. “Enfleurage” reveals the resurgence of youthful desire beneath mature adaptations achieved by a Holocaust survivor — a cantor who longs, still, to be an opera singer. Other stories trace complex human responses to pain. “Mr. Mitochondria” describes a family’s silence in the face of a child’s death — and its consequences. As locusts invade the land, and the mother seals off the family home from poisons used to control them, the loss this family will not speak of invades the pattern of their lives. Still other stories work mysteriously at the interface of the spiritual and the quotidian. In “The Seat of Higher Consciousness,” a young girl — devoted to her observant father, her once brilliant but now brain-damaged mother and her rebellious, rationalist brother — becomes a woman. When the image of her lost brother appears suddenly on the television news the girl recognizes, in the nervous, quivering electricity that briefly animates the air around her mother, a presence that dignifies the physical debris of mortal life. “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy,” like the author’s prize-winning novels, “The Far Euphrates” and “The Illuminated Soul,” restores one’s confidence in language and refreshes the sense of possibility in a richly varied but damaged world.

Janet Burstein

A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate

By Marc Reisner

Pantheon, 192 pages, $22.

Unlike water, denial is in excess supply in California. Some 80% of its population lives in an area where a major earthquake has occurred. Northern Californians, in particular, straddle 60 miles of the deadly Hayward fault and, as Marc Reisner notes, these are “sixty of the most populous, industrialized, infrastructure-dependent (eight great bridges, among other things), economically valuable, strategically important miles in the United States.” In “A Dangerous Place,” Reisner, author of “Cadillac Desert” (chosen by the Modern Library as one of the “100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century”), evokes in breathtaking detail the consequences of a moderate earthquake along the Hayward fault. Reisner, whose parents were active in the Nazi resistance movement in Germany, died from cancer in 2000 while at work on “A Dangerous Place,” and it seems that both histories colored his writing. Not only would the loss of life be disastrous to the immediate San Francisco Bay Area, but, the ailing Reisner writes, there would be unprecedented environmental consequences felt throughout the west. If levees on the Sacramento Delta were breached from the quake, saltwater from the Pacific Ocean would pour into the freshwater delta, creating an “80,000-acre extension of San Francisco Bay.” Twenty million Californians to the south would lose their water supply, as well as irrigation water to “four million acres of the world’s richest irrigated cropland.” Still, despite all these well-documented dangers, as recently as the mid-1990s 20,000 people a month were moving to Los Angeles.

Stephen J. Lyons

A Memory of War

By Frederick Busch

Norton, 352 pages, $25.95.

In the beginning of Frederick Busch’s masterfully imagined new novel, “A Memory of War,” a man arrives for an appointment with a psychologist named Alexander Lescziak. The man, William Kessler, claims to be Alex’s brother, the product of his Polish-Jewish mother’s adulterous liaison with a German prisoner of war in England during World War II. With this visit, Alex begins to move both backward and forward in time, imagining his mother’s affair with the German prisoner as well as his own wife’s probable affair as she begins to extricate herself from the unhappiness of their marriage — even as he tries to discover what has happened to a young patient, Nella, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, with whom he has fallen in love. As the novel develops, it becomes clear that something about each character’s story is grossly untrue. Not only is it questionable whether Kessler is indeed Alex’s brother, but, as a revisionist historian, he claims that the Holocaust was an invention. Nella has described her father as withholding and pathologically silent, but when we meet him late in the book, he is neither. And what of Alex’s speculations about his mother’s and his wife’s love affairs? “A Memory of War” asks questions about the nature and limits of knowing and perception. How reliable is memory? Whose version of events does one accept? Is there such a thing as objective truth? This stunning novel gives us versions of events — witnessed, created and re-created — in the lives of several compassionately rendered characters who, in their various ways, search for the truth and for the compensations of love.

Edra Ziesk

Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II

By Ruth Gay

Yale, 352 pages, $29.95.

In the aftermath of World War II, postwar Germany become a haven for Jews from Eastern Europe, as well as the 15,000 native German Jews who survived the Nazi regime and re-established themselves in Germany, although not without angst about returning to the country that had been bent on their destruction. Following the end of the war, more than 12 million Europeans, including the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, became refugees. The Polish Jews who returned to their homes encountered virulent antisemitism, which, in the first two years after the war, manifested itself in pogroms that resulted in the murder of nearly 2,000 Jews. With Palestine and most of the Western world still closed to them, thousands of Jews fled westward seeking some sort of asylum. In one of the great ironies of postwar Europe, they found that the one place that offered them shelter and safety was the Allied zone of divided Germany. A Jewish historian who won the 1997 National Jewish Book Award for “Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America,” Ruth Gay in this richly textured history chronicles how European Jews overcame their almost total destruction during the Holocaust to recreate a Jewish presence in the very country that sought their annihilation. Surprisingly, it turns out that not only has there been a Yiddish renaissance in Germany, but that Jewish culture in general is popular among the German public.

In present-day Germany, Jews from the former Soviet Union outnumber the surviving German Jews. Escaping the overt antisemitism that continues to plague Russia, they encountered in Germany a place of not only freedom and opportunity, but also a country where they seek to reclaim their Jewish heritage. Given their lack of familiarity with Jewish tradition, Gay concludes the possibility that Soviet Jews may innovate “something quite original… creating a fresh way of living as Jews in modern times — an original way of being a Jew in Germany.”

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