Strange Things

This Week’s Hot Reads: July 2, 2012

From 'Parsifal,' a reimagining of the Arthurian legend of the quest for the Holy Grail to the true story of how one of Wall Street’s biggest con men was himself conned out of $100 million.

07.02.12 8:45 AM ET

By Jim Krusoe

A repairman goes in search of the drinking cup he used when he was a child, as everything from turkey fryers to washer-dryers is falling from the sky.

‘Parsifal’ by Jim Krusoe. 264 pp. Tin House. $16.

The sky isn’t falling in Parsifal, Jim Krusoe’s latest novel—but everything else is. Paper clips, cutting boards, and a Chevy Impala are just a few of the items that rain down from above in this dystopian novel. Why? Simply put, there is “a war between the earth and sky.”  

But fountain-pen repairman Parsifal has other concerns. Thoroughly scarred by his past, Parsifal leaves an urban life to return to his childhood forest home. In this holy-grail story, though, the object Parsifal seeks is simply the drinking cup he used when he was young. Parsifal’s journey takes him back into the wilderness both literally and metaphorically. As he wanders the woods in search of his home, dodging falling deep-fat turkey-fryers and washer-dryers, he replays scenes from his upbringing, reminisces about the many librarians he’s had affairs with, and reconsiders conversations with his therapist, Joe.

Although Parsifal has the trappings of adulthood—home-ownership, jail time served, and a fleet of ex-lovers—his essential attitude toward life has remained childlike. It’s youthful trust and hopefulness that lead him deeper and deeper into the woods, fueling his dreamlike, at times even poetic, meditations on good, evil, blindness, and sight. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether he finds the cup. As Parsifal’s mother says, “It only matters if you try, my son, because all searches are the same search.”

By Francine Mathews

A spy thriller charts a young JFK’s trip across Europe in 1937, complete with a sexy affair with an older secret agent and run-ins with a Nazi serial killer.

‘Jack 1939’ by Francine Mathews. 368 pp. Riverhead. $27.

This historically minded spy-thriller was inspired by a photograph of young John F. Kennedy on the streets of Germany “wearing clothes he’d probably slept in for a week, hair tousled, head thrown back, mouth open in a grin”—and juggling fruit. After seeing that, novelist Francine Mathews began poring over every account she could find of the summer the future president spent researching his senior thesis in Europe and the Balkans.

What results is a highly entertaining cocktail of 20th century political history and sexy-spy-novel tropes. Jack 1939 imagines then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly tapping the bright son of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy to work for him as an undercover agent in the weeks and months ahead of World War II. Jack 1939 charts Kennedy’s passionate affair with an older, drop-dead-gorgeous international secret agent and repeated run-ins with a Nazi serial killer, as he chases German intelligence through London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Danzig, and Prague.

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For all its invisible ink, secret codes, subterfuge, and sex, Mathews’s plotline still more or less coincides with Kennedy’s real-life itinerary across Europe. She also includes just enough historically accurate touches—from the break-up telegram sent by Kennedy’s ex-girlfriend Francine Ann Canon to George Kennan’s unkind reception of the young “ignoramus” at the Czech border—to lend an authentic flavor to a thoroughly escapist fantasy.

By Pauline Chen

Based on the greatest of all Imperial Chinese novels, this isn’t a simple translation. It turns the focus to the inner lives of three young women caught in the dynastic soap opera.

‘The Red Chamber’ by Pauline Chen. 400 pp. Knopf. $27.

The excesses of Imperial China frame this elegant story of shifting fortunes, power struggles, palace intrigue, betrayal, and love. Though the novel is loosely based on Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber—a Chinese literary masterpiece of 2,500 pages and 400-some characters—writer Pauline Chen admits she “makes little attempt to remain faithful to the original plot.” 

Instead, The Red Chamber turns its focus to the inner lives of three young women in the Jia family: unflappable daughter-in-law Wang Xifeng, who runs the household with exceeding competence; obedient, rational Baochai, who (despite a romantic streak) is ever mindful of family hierarchies; and free-spirited Lin Daiyu, the long-lost cousin who, after becoming an orphan, is thrust into the middle of her extended relatives’ in-fighting and familial politics.

Lin Daiyu is the Cinderella figure in this intricate dynastic soap opera. She is the beautiful, perceptive outsider, unschooled in Beijing’s high-society ways. Her emotional honesty and fearlessness set her apart from her cousins, but they also come at the cost of her security. The Red Chamber takes a long hard look at the complex interconnected desires, ambitions, and conventions that can bind a family together—or tear it apart.

By Brian Castner

Although the stress and terror of war is tough, this memoir shows the return to civilian life presents the biggest, longest challenge.

‘The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows’ by Brian Castner. 240 pp. Doubleday. $26.

Castner offers a brutally honest, sharply observed account of life at war—specifically, as head of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Iraq. Castner’s descriptions are written with a clarity that brings alive not just the stress, terror, and anxiety of disarming improvised explosive devices, but also the difficult stretches of boredom and loneliness, not to mention the glimmers of joy and brotherhood that go along with it.

Even more compelling is Castner’s account of just how hard it is to return to civilian life. Back in the U.S. with his wife and children, Castner struggles to keep at bay a host of troublesome emotions and reflexes—together denoted simply as “Crazy” in his telling. The Long Walk is both harrowing and poignant—an intensely personal story of what it takes not just to survive war, but also to fully leave behind the nightmare of combat and readapt to ordinary life.

By Guy Lawson

An absolutely true story of how one of Wall Street’s biggest con men was himself conned out of $100 million, illustrating the permissive climate that led to the financial crisis.

‘Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street's Wildest Con. 368 pp. Crown. $26.

Before he faked his own suicide and was featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” Samuel Israel III was a high-profile Manhattan hedge-fund owner. His fund thrived at first. But when it hit a rough patch in the late ’90s, he and his partners simply fudged the numbers rather than face the facts, reassuring investors that all was well. Secretly, they hoped to make up the losses undetected. Instead, Bayou, Israel's hedge-fund group, continued to flounder and the deception only grew. As Bayou’s losses mounted, Israel’s health rapidly deteriorated. He fell in with a group of eccentric international traders who claimed to have access to a secret “shadow market,” and here is where the story takes a turn for the truly weird. Conspiracy theories, death plots, and a mysterious Federal Reserve safe-deposit box feature prominently. It is here that Lawson’s talents as a reporter and storyteller truly shine.

Octopus is the incredible, infuriating, and absolutely real story of how one of Wall Street’s biggest con men was himself conned out of $100 million. Lawson patiently unravels Israel’s delusions without losing sight of the man himself, who is an affable if deeply flawed oddball who simply couldn’t admit defeat until it was far too late. Israel’s spectacular downfall is also a powerful parable about the egregiously permissive economic climate that led to the financial crisis.