Monday, December 24, 2007

You Should, You Really Should

Chrismas Eve on Pelican Bay
Taken 12/24/07 at Smith River, California

I’m in love with Lev Raphael. There, I’ve said it. If you don’t know who he is, you should. And I’m not just saying that because he actually sent me a thank you note. Raphael is the leading gay, Jewish author in America today. I say that unequivocally. If you haven’t read his work, you should. Take my word for it.

Dancing on Tisha B’Av, published in 1990, is a collection of short stories where the central characters are Jewish, children of Holocaust survivors, and, in many instances, gay. I read the book shortly after it first came out and have reread it, or selected stories from the collection, several times since. Once in an on-line discussion group, someone raised the question of being Jewish and gay, and I suggested that he get a copy and read Dancing on Tisha B’Av. It wasn’t long after that my campus mail had a lovely note from the author thanking me for recommending his work.

In January 1997, Raphael published the first of his Nick Hoffman mysteries, Let’s Get Criminal. Because I’m a sucker for mysteries written with a sense of humor, and since I already knew I liked Raphael’s writing, I picked up a copy the first time I saw it. It was an easy read, and very enjoyable. (Note that when I would go to the library as a youngster, Mother would always ask me to bring her back something “light and frivolous.” There are a lot of tensions in our world, and I must say that I have found that “light and frivolous” is often a good way to go.) The Edith Wharton Murders (August 1997) followed Let’s Get Criminal as the second Nick Hoffman mystery, and by that time, I was hooked. I know I’m not alone. Marilyn Stasio, writing in the New York Times Book Review, gave the second book “a flat out rave” according to Raphael. Whenever I’m in Portland, I head to the gay mystery section at Powell’s City of Books to see what new material is out. I’m always pleased to find a new Nick Hoffman book.

This September, as I was beginning the 6,000 Mile Sunday Drive, I stopped at Powell’s to pick up some road reading. I found the seventh and most recent Nick Hoffman mystery, Hot Rocks, and quickly added it to my pile. Now please understand, I read mysteries for the fun of it, not to try to figure out “who dun it.” I am drawn to formulaic mystery series such as the Sneaky Pie Brown books, or Diane Mott Davidson’s cookbook mysteries. I can’t say I wouldn’t enjoy a more serious tone, but if the author has a sense of humor that shines through all the murder, I eat the book up. With the Nick Hoffman series, I’m happy to say that Raphael’s humor is fully on. What’s even better, from my perspective, is that Nick Hoffman is a faculty member at Michigan State University, and University politics play a major role in the intrigue. Now maybe I spent too many years in academia, but I’m convinced that academic politics are about the dirtiest in the world, second only to church politics. Nick Hoffman is also gay, Jewish, and living with his tenured faculty member partner, Stefan Borowski. What’s not to like? I would love to have his life—without all the dead bodies, of course.

Whaddya Mean the Hibiscus Isn't a Christmas Plant?
Taken 12/24/07 in Smith River, California

Lev Raphael writes more than just fun mysteries. His novels include Winter Eyes and The German Money. Himself the child of Holocaust survivors, Raphael’s work is usually tied, one way or another, to that seminal event, and often to the secrets and lies that people used to surround and protect themselves. Understand that my own academic background centered on the Fascist movement and National Socialism as it played out in French literature of the mid twentieth century. Secrets and lies are a major force—both for the victims and for the perpetrators. Raphael is an expert at exposing the game for what it is. I highly recommend both Winter Eyes and The German Money—the latter of which was the first of Raphael’s books to be translated into German.

Just last week I ordered (and received) Raphael’s book of memoirs, Writing a Jewish Life. This collection of thirteen essays covers such topics as Raphael’s childhood, purchasing a home in suburban Lansing Michigan with his partner, travels to Israel, book tours, and the unfailing love of a good dog. Reading it last night, I was again struck by just how compelling an author Raphael is. Speaking as a gentile, I can say that Writing a Jewish Life has something in it for all of us. All of us who care about the truth, about good writing, about what makes an author tick. This is an honest and forthright exploration into the mind of a man who has learned how to be authentic.

I must admit that I have not read any of the books Raphael has co-authored with his partner. These books, Stick Up For Yourself!, Dynamics of Power, and Coming Out of Shame have achieved a good bit of critical acclaim and one of these days I will pick them up. But the fiction lover in me is drawn to his works of imagination, of which I have two books yet to read.

There are few writers who grab my attention and keep me with them throughout their oeuvre. Yves Navarre was one. Navarre once told a reporter that every time he published a new book, 20,000 people would buy it. I was one of those 20,000. I pick up and read everything I see by Joanne Harris, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Rita Mae Brown. Currently I’m in the midst of reading all of the works of Orhan Pamuk and I will be writing a critical essay on that Turkish Nobel Prize winner’s novels. I’m happy to say that Lev Raphael is part of my personal canon. Besides, as I said at the beginning, I’m in love with him.

You've never seen the Christmas Octopus?
Taken 12/6/2006 in Brookings, Oregon

The Nick Hoffman mysteries don’t have to be read in order, although later books in the series do refer to events recounted in the earlier novels. Should you be interested in checking out Raphael’s work, and you really should, below are some links to where you can order any of the books you want.

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