Saturday, February 13, 2010

STARDUST by Joseph Kanon

Publisher: Atria
Publication Date: September 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5614-8
Historical Fiction, Mystery
Reviewed by Gina
Obtained via Publisher

At the close of World War II, soldier Ben Collier makes his way to California. Tasked by the Army to make a film of the closing days of the war and the liberation of the prison camps he embarks on a journey he never expected. By ironic coincidence he meets Sol Lasner, head of Continental pictures, on the train west. In the right place at the right time, Ben is with Lasner when he suffers a heart attack. Grateful for Ben’s intervention Lasner takes him under wing and offers him a place at Continental. There he meets former child star, now turned right hand man to the studio head, Bunny. Bunny, who can and does fix everything. Everything except for the private war Ben suddenly finds himself fighting.
Danny’s widow, Liesl, a lonely, tragic woman who fled Europe for the safety of the United States becomes enmeshed in Ben’s life. Questions whirl around her—did she love Danny, even a little? Does she truly care for Ben? Or does the lure of Hollywood’s bright lights obliterate sense of anyone but herself?
Entwined in the aftermath of Danny’s death comes the first wave of the Red Scare. Congressman Minot is hell bent to bring the communists to their knees and make America safe. The web spins outward as brother is turned against brother, and a people who thought they were safe suddenly find themselves under scrutiny.
At each turn Ben wonders just who his brother truly was.

Joseph Kanon’s STARDUST plays out like a daisywheel turning in on itself rather than unwinding to reveal a hidden answer. Behind the backdrop of Hollywood’s facades Jewish, American, German and Hollywood cultures come together, join, undermine, unravel and entwine with each other. STARDUST is a rare story in that the reader can choose to take it as a mystery and leave it at that or he or she can absorb and sort through the multitude of layers in the story. I was struck from the beginning with what I felt to be the symbolism of Hollywood. Movies create magic, illusion and divert from every day cares. Walk down “western street” on a back lot and you can feel you are back in the old west. But look behind the facades and all you see is wood and dirt and the real world. Much of STARDUST plays on this mechanism of creating a world, a belief, a scene and behind each set piece Ben finds a real life twist.
Early on Mr. Kanon’s writing reminded me of Dashiell Hammett’s snap shot style of writing. I’m a fan of Hammett’s, but each time I read something I need a few pages to get into the rhythm of the writing. Once I get into the story, however, I am hooked.
The subject matter of STARDUST isn’t the easiest to sit with. It delves into an ugly period in American history on the heels of an even uglier period in history. The clash of the cultures, the intertwining, the necessary to survive and the under currents of survival are mesmerizingly woven in the pages. It was a conflicted read for me; one I couldn’t put down because I wanted to see the layers of mysteries solved and at the same time wanted to hide from the ugliness of those times.
It is a serious and thought provoking read. A haunting story that will stay with you long after the last word is read. One I would suggest be added to a high school English curriculum as well as to be discussed in reading groups. I look forward to reading more of Mr. Kanon’s work.


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