FLASH FRAMES

By Simona Fuma Shapiro

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.

Carrying the Body

By Dawn Raffel

Scribner, 126 pages, $18.

* * *

Staccato pacing, poetic phrasing and dark settings characterize Dawn Raffel’s debut novel. “Carrying the Body” is a thin volume that belies its emotional weight. The plot is simpler than the execution. A wayward, transient woman, Elise, returns to her childhood home with her young son, James, whose speech deficiencies and bloody cough are evidence of neglect. Awaiting them is a bitter, gin-slugging sister — “Aunt” — who attends to a chair-ridden widowed father who weaves in and out of consciousness, his memories filled with fiery images of war. After Elise abandons her home again, leaving James, Aunt repeatedly reads the sickly and scabrous boy “The Three Little Pigs.” With each reading, the story takes on a more sinister and personal tone. “Listen to me. The story is meant to be bloody, you know: the third little pig, the third and supposedly good little pig, was guilty of murder.” Instead of medical care and decent food, Aunt gives her nephew sips of gin and sarcasm. Still, they form an unlikely bond that propels Aunt to finally listen to her own call to freedom. “Carrying the Body” is not an easy novel. The haunting images of a once orderly home blown to bits are indelible. All four characters are flawed beyond repair. Their mouths fill with mineral tastes, and sheets remain soiled, while rodents and insects scuttle across tattered rugs littered with broken pottery and sticky crumbs. Yet Raffel’s writing is unforgettably original. Despite the hard work deciphering the family mysteries, there is a reward for careful readers. Transforming the bleak into a beautiful ruin is no easy literary feat, yet Raffel has done just that, with prose that is gauzy and entangling, like a spider’s web. Once begun, it is impossible to look away from this strange and wonderful book.

Stephen J. Lyons

Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart’s Librettist

By Sheila Hodges

University of Wisconsin, 288 pages, $19.95.

Remembered primarily as the librettist for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Lorenzo Da Ponte was also an influential, if hidden, figure in American cultural history. Born Emanuele Conegliano to Jewish parents in Italy in 1749, at 14 he took the complete name of the local bishop who sent him to a high school otherwise closed to Jews. After adventurous sojourns in Venice, Vienna and London, reflecting a taste for what we would now call risky behavior, he immigrated to New York around 1805, becoming a teacher of Italian, a dealer in Italian books and incidentally the co-founder of one of the first opera companies here. In 1825, at the age of 76, he was appointed a professor of Italian at Columbia University, becoming an American citizen three years later. An Italian librettist to his death in 1838, he continually spelled his most distinguished collaborator’s name as “Mozzart,” which makes sense in Italian but not in German or English. The first virtue of this biography by Sheila Hodges, a retired British publisher, is recalling Da Ponte’s other activities, initially as the writer of a memoir from which she repeatedly quotes, probably because it is so elegant, even in English translation. If Da Ponte had any significant Jewish friends, Hodges doesn’t mention them, though frequently noting that others thought him Jewish, his conversion notwithstanding. Though few Italian immigrants to the U.S. wrote as much distinguished poetry, I don’t recall his work appearing in any anthology of Italian-American poetry. Nor does it appear in any anthology of Jewish-American poetry or even Sephardic-American writing known to me. All this is lamentable because, before his time in more ways than one, he ranks among the greats.

Richard Kostelanetz

Marika

By Andrea Cheng

Front Street Books, 163 pages, $16.95.

“Marika” is an evocative, intelligent young adult novel about a privileged Jewish girl living in Budapest from 1934 to 1945. Her world is threatened by the Nazis and tainted further by her father’s love affair and by the unexpected construction of a wall in her parents’ apartment. Now her father lives on one side; she, her brother Andreas and her mother — “layers of lipstick on her lips while everyone else’s mother had only a thin line” — remain on the other. As the Nazis advance, her father begins to call her Maria instead of Marika and even urges her to change the name of her rag doll, Maxi, to something “less Jewish… like Zoltan.” “These are Jewish names,” her uncle explains, “that make us stand out.” But celebrating Christmas and procuring baptism papers marked with the new last name of “Katolikus” relieve no one’s anxiety because their neighbors know the family is Jewish. So Marika uses her “best calligraphy” to forge illegal identity certificates, which have been dyed with coffee to age the paper. In July 1944, when the Russians search the apartment where she is being hidden by a gentile friend of her father’s, it is these papers that save her. Marika, a querulous child with no saint-like qualities, serves the reader well on this journey, particularly when she quotes her father: “He said he wonders why Jews are called the chosen people when it seems we’re always chosen for the wrong things.” One of many good questions with no easy answer.

Mickey Pearlman

Blue Latitudes

By Tony Horwitz

Henry Holt, 480 pages, $26.

The 1992 publication of “Baghdad Without a Map,” a wacky travelogue from the Middle East and Israel, happened to coincide with the Gulf War, propelling Tony Horwitz onto best-seller lists. Horwitz’s latest book, “Blue Latitudes,” takes the author to areas further afield: the South Pacific, New Zealand, Australia and Alaska. His goal is to trace the voyages of Captain James Cook, the 18th-century English navigator who mapped a third of the world’s territory and is arguably the greatest explorer of all time. The book describes many scenes of “first contact” in such places as Tahiti, where women lined the beaches in expectation of sex with the crew, and New Zealand, where several crewmen fell prey to cannibalism. Horwitz follows such accounts with those of his own visits to these places 230 years later — long after colonization, foreign trade and Western cultural influence robbed these places of much of their specificity. The story of native peoples losing their distinctive identities is balanced by a hilarious account of the odd places and personalities that have resulted. In a globalizing world, where no patch of earth remains unexplored and the once-exotic has become kitsch, Horwitz has a knack for teasing out the unique and colorful. Which makes it all the more surprising that Horwitz himself emerges as an indistinct and rootless personality. At one point in the book Horwitz labels himself a “wandering Jew,” but a more apt description would be “world citizen.” Though well-entertained, one comes away with little understanding of why he chose James Cook and not, say, Ferdinand Magellan or why he visited this particular set of regions on the map as opposed to any other.



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