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The Award Winning Writer Returns With A Major, Absorbing, Atmospheric Novel That Takes On The Most Dramatic And Profoundly Personal Subject MatterSan Francisco In The S Free Love Has Given Way To Radical Feminism, Psychedelic Ecstasy To Hard Edged Gloom The Zodiac Killer Stalks The Streets A Disgraced Professor Takes An Office In A Downtown Tower To Plot His Return But The Walls Are Thin And He S Distracted By Voices From Next Door His Neighbor Is A Psychologist, And One Of Her Patients Dislikes The Hum Of The White Noise Machine And So He Begins To Hear About The Patient S Troubles With Her Female Lover, Her Conflicts With Her Adoptive, Avowedly WASP Family, And Her Quest To Track Down Her Birth Mother The Professor Is Not Just Absorbed But Enraptured And The Further He Is Pulled Into The Patient S Recounting Of Her Dramas And The Most Profound Questions Of Her Own Identity The He Needs The Story To Move Forward The Patient S Questions About Her Birth Family Have Led Her To A Catholic Charity That Trafficked Freshly Baptized Orphans Out Of Germany After World War II But Confronted With This New Self I Have No Idea What It Means To Say I M A Jew The Patient Finds Her Search Stalled Armed With The Few Details He S Gleaned, The Professor Takes Up The Quest And Quickly Finds The Patient S Mother In Records From A German Displaced Persons Camp But He Can T Let On That He S Been Eavesdropping, So He Mocks Up A Reply From An Adoption Agency The Patient Has Contacted And Drops It In The Mail Through The Wall, He Hears How His Dear Patient Is Energized By The News, And So Is He He Unearths Clues And Invests And In This Secret, Fraught, Triangular Relationship Himself, The Patient, And Her Therapist, Who Is Herself German His Research Leads Them Deep Into The History Of Displaced Persons Camps, Of Postwar Zionism, And Most Troubling Of All Of The Nazi Lebensborn Program With Ferocious Intelligence And An Enthralling, Magnetic Prose, Ellen Ullman Weaves A Dark And Brilliant, Intensely Personal Novel That Feels As Big And Timeless As It Is Sharp And Timely It Is An Ambitious Work That Establishes Her As A Major Writer


10 thoughts on “By Blood

  1. says:

    3.5 5Please don t judge your reception of this book by my rating It is a product of the dashing of too many expectations, trends of hope that either concluded too soon or fizzled out after too long a run, and a particular pet peeve Despite all that, I am keen on seeing from Ullman, as it is clear from this work that she is not a mediocre writer fulfilling the mediocre, but an author of great potential operating through some caveats.First off, my loves the care with which Ullman set up the narrator, the theme of bloodborne identity as an enigma of cancer or cure, and most of all, the setting of San Francisco and the wider Bay Area The latter is not nearly as auspicious or intellectual in the context of literature as the previous, but San Francisco was my first urban excitement, my initial venture on my own from the suburbs to the city within the easy confines of the rapid transit system, a chill diaphanous of concrete bones and ocean soul and nary a trace of the landlocked childhood where the lights of the Golden Gate could be seen on the clearest days from the roof of my house It is also my claim to a career suffused with literature, supported by both historical past and my own experiences at both bookstores and internship, so forgive me my bias it is not often that my current trend of reading skips over the East Coast Usual to settle in the local hues of the Pacific, and much to my pleasure, Ullman did indeed deliver.As mentioned before all the cityscape rhapsodizing, I also enjoyed the philosophical bents of how much is one determined by the two halves of a recombinant DNA, nature expressed on the pages at its finest purity if not its most beloved state However, I feel Ullman held back on the crazed aspects of such an endless itching at the self, choosing to illustrate the confusion with the mundane events of taking the wrong train to sexually liberated realms SF, after all , creeping on another s therapy session, pinning hopes of survival on one s existence as a fly on the wall in the house of sins of the mother The added dashes of Zodiac Killer vacuoles and Patty Hearst turnarounds were sensationalist structurings around the chosen period than anything else, and could ve been easily replaced by disturbing narrative breaks in the first person spiel for reader destabilization purposes Finally, the aforementioned pet peeve that sunk my rating down was the author s succumbing to sentiment of the worst degree I was thrilled when Ullman gracefully used lesbianism as a trait without relying on it as a linchpin, and didn t even mind the whole trial of parent child disconnect, overused but here revitalized in a engaging enough matter However, this avoidance of stereotypes did not extend to the cloying thematic overload of Germans, WWII, and the Jewish people I cannot stand this crutch of a pathos ever since reading Kert sz Fatelessness, and by the last invocation of awe stricken horror that is all too often abused for audience catharsis of the Pavlov sort, I was through As said, the previous is a personal aggravation, and if this sort of thing doesn t bother you, go for it I myself am still interested in Ullman s other works, as it s not often I run into a contemporary author who still has time to flourish My hopes are only that she finds her way to some Jelinek in the future should Ullman do so, whether she loves her or hates her, I believe the effect would be a delicious one.


  2. says:

    very, very frustrated with the book as a whole It felt like a good 150 page novella wrapped in a boring therapist plot wrapped in a bad narrator plot, all working to drag the book out as long as she could The numerous chapter breaks didn t help things at all, making it very easy to walk away from the book, and padding out the page length further.A large part of the frustration is that it felt like Ullman decided how the plot had to be punched up at certain points, and use the most transparent devices to get there For example, at one point she decided that the book needed some time pressure, so the manager re appears with his request The narrator needed to feel a certain aggressive engagement with the patient s story, so we get the therapist s background We need to get across certain facets of the narrator, so he wanders into various parts of San Francisco, with flimsy justifications for why he s doing so.We can certainly backfit explanations onto his behavior, as Ullman clearly did, but they feel like deviations from the flow of the novel thrown in to achieve a specific end The novel never really cohered for me, and it felt like while the characters all dealt with identity as a core question, those threads never really informed each other outside of the patient s immediate families.All in all, this felt like what could have been a good book was buried under countless concessions to punch it up into popular fiction Information was doled out sparingly to draw the reader along, in what must have been 5 15 minute therapy sessions judging from how much is actually discussed before the inevitable interludes And even though I liked that central narrative that the patient actually experienced, as a whole, It s easily the book I ve liked the least so far this year.


  3. says:

    This book is so very well written, such compulsive reading, that at times I found it hard to put down But it isn t a book that I can say that I enjoyed.We, The reader, have the story related to us by an unnamed man, who himself overhears the sessions between a therapist and her patient.So immediately I felt a little, well, dirty, as if I was reading something that I wasn t supposed to be, because it should be private.As the story progressed it did become very interesting The whole nature versus nurture thing, was well done, and I never guessed which way the story was going to go next.The book itself was about a hundred pages too long, I thought But it was compulsive reading, and that carried me along Very good book, very well written But rather unsettling reading, in ways than one The story of how the man came to be in that office, in fact everything about him, I did not like, and I m sure the author must have recognised the character she was creating, and meant for him to be that way.


  4. says:

    In 1970 s San Francisco, a troubled Classics professor is on mandatory leave from his university position He rents office space in a building that has period architecture accented by gargoyles and cherubs that appear sepulchral as the professor s state of mind becomes questionable Although he intends to study the scholarly writings of Aeschylus, he spends his days and nights alone, ruminating on his self worth and taking long walks through the city, recalling his long ago suicide attempt and his forays into psychotherapy The flimsy walls of the individual offices allow sound to penetrate, and he overhears a German born psychiatrist and one of her female patients in the adjoining office the doctor turns off the white noise machine at the patient s request.What follows is kismet, in this professor s compulsive mind The patient is an adopted woman who feels an emptiness and sense of disconnection from the world at large She believes that finding her birth parents will extricate her from the engulfing misery and dismal relationship with her adoptive parents, cold and secretive people who failed her in just about every way The eavesdropping professor had always admired a childhood adopted best friend, Paul, for his distance and singularity from his adoptive family The narrator thus imagines his own release from heredity, as his parents were mentally and morally weak, and his father an alcoholic.By accommodating the stories of his best friend and the patient next door as a fundamental desire of and for identity, the professor envisions a way that he could extract himself from the clammy hand of ancestry He envied Paul and this patient the significance of their adoptive circumstances, and over identified with their aspirations If Paul and the unnamed patient could free themselves from their parents, why couldn t he learn the art of being parentless, of self creation Absolve himself through the patient s quest Born unhappy Built in Original, like sinThe patient and I were kin, I suddenly knew, spawn of the same cursed line the tribe of the inherently unhappy The book gets off to a stellar start with its enigmatic air of mystery surrounding all the characters in this book The professor, our narrator, eavesdrops at each session on this woman s story, which is revealed gradually by the patient as her search continues Murky background information of a Catholic adoptive organization and a German displaced persons camp during WW II heightens the tension The narrator professor finds a way to intrude invisibly and help the patient, which raises the stakes Meanwhile, the psychiatrist begins to feel guilty for her own ancestry, as she learns information on the patient s background.The asset AND the problem with this book is the structure Initially, the narrator is beguiling, and the reader is just as eager to understand the details of the professor s story as the patient s story Much is implicated from the start that there is psychological overlap between the professor and the adopted woman, and the short chapters alternating between the concerns of the professor and those of the patient have a Venn diagram valence to it, especially enhanced by the art cover of the book.However, as the story progresses, the professor s relevance to the patient becomes strained and periodically forced His own story is limited and, as the pages turn, static, so that there is a taste of filler posing as a teased unfolding As a matter of fact, instead of receding naturally or nearing organically to the concerns of the patient, the narrator becomes an unnecessary obstruction to the story s progress, even as his mind unravels, stifling instead of alluring His presence becomes extraneous, then spurious, but the author hamstrung him because, it seems, she didn t know what to do with his character after using him to amplify a complex tale of lineage and origin The pace thrums at the opening, and with the events that uncover the patient s history and expose her raw emotions However, it crawls with uneven and desultory madness when the professor continues to alternately share the spotlight.The patient s duress is intriguing, drawing all the empathy of the reader to her biographical history and emotional state Her ethnic identity troubles her, and is tied in with her self esteem as a daughter She yearns to be loved by a parent, to be known, belonged, and connected, which is at the heart of the theme The professor s anxiety and obsessive behaviors as well as the guilt of the psychiatrist had potential, but feel unfinished and occasionally tacked on The author, throughout, displays a talent for historical fiction, and, despite the flaws, exhibits a ripe talent for transference and counter transference issues of psychotherapy, and identity issues that transcend blood and biology.


  5. says:

    The premise is simple and surprisingly not considered in fiction A man rents a work space in an old building and ends up next door to a psychiatrist While most of her clients are muted by the doctor s white noise machine, one patient cannot stand the whooshing unorganized sound and asks that she turn it off The man listening in and the patient in Ellen Ullman s novel By Blood is nameless But he latches on to the woman s story as though the sessions are his own personal reality program He falls into something that falls between love and paternal protectiveness He becomes so obsessed with her and what she is going through that he develops disdain for the doctor, compassion for the patient and is forced to meddle, helping her in unseen ways Meanwhile he s mad and getting madder in a frantic, dizzy, stumbling way that is very Edgar Allan Poe The man, a professor, is on leave from the university during the period of the Zodiac Killer and Patty Hearst s kidnapping He is being investigated for an inappropriate obsession, maybe even stalking, of a male student He moves to San Francisco, rents a cottage near the water and office space in a building so old that the marble steps have bucked from years of use His office is a small room with a door that links it to the doctor s office He s so close that he can hear the swoosh of her nylons rubbing against each other as she shifts positions When she smokes, the smell curls under the door Every Wednesday the doctor meets up with the patient a lesbian who works in finance and is sorting through relationship and identity issues, namely that she was adopted and is curious about her past and what it would mean to look like one of her relatives He is immediately captivated by the theme I was like a person who had happened upon a novel fallen open at random, he thinks The eavesdropper can relate He comes from a long line of mental illness and he is envious of people who can separate themselves from the baggage of family Would it be better to be an independent person, free from the knowledge that this relative and that relative committed suicide To go blindly into the future not knowing what his chin will look like when he has aged He thinks so The doctor wants the patient to shake down her adoptive mother for the details of her birth The adoptive mother is as emotionally shaky as their relationship and must be about three martinis deep before she will spill any of the details Eventually she reveals that the woman was born of a Jewish mother during World War II She was given to a Catholic charities organization, which baptized her and sent her to America, where she was adopted by an off shoot of a Catholic church near Chicago a cult whose leader balks when he learns that her birth mother was Jewish and gives the child to his son, who has left the church The patient, Protestant by birth, has her mind blown Everything she has believed about her life is topsy turvey She s Jewish She came from Germany She was abandoned by her original adopter While smart in areas of finance and numbers, the patient doesn t have the research skills to even know how to begin a hunt for her birth mother, so the professor steps in He sends her anonymous packages to guide her hunt, the address label bearing the fictitious stamp of a researcher at an organization in Chicago In the meantime, he is losing his mind He is subsisting on these weekly sessions, planning his life around them He sits in the dark and doesn t move so as not to attract attention He arrives when the doctor is on break so she doesn t hear the door open He receives notice that the university has begun a thorough investigation He digs in deeper to the patient to distract himself His rental home is in shambles with messes he doesn t remember making This book is a real thinker about identity and how upbringing molds people and what is changeable It s about recognizing one s face in the face of a relative and about not wanting to see that map of the future It is also a Holocaust narrative from the perspective of a woman who shed her Jewish identity and married a family friend who was Catholic, converting and changing her name and then faking pregnancies so she can pull the Aryan fetus trump card in the face of being sent to a work camp Meanwhile, all around her, she must see the faces of old friends who know what she has done Ultimately, this doesn t save her from a fate similar to her neighbors The story is told in this very frantic way and the narrator is a real creeper It s hard to stop reading which is both satisfying and not Ullman has mastered the art of the cliff hanger, although it becomes a little self conscious about midway through the story when every chapter ends with someone taking a deep breath, seemingly seconds from a big reveal about the patient s background only to start the next chapter with a long story that ends with another cliff hanger These frustrations aside, the story is a real tickler filled with intrigue and Yeah, but then moments.


  6. says:

    This is a fantastically written, weighty book, different than almost anything I ve ever read Taking place in San Francisco in the mid 1970s, the country is gripped by Vietnam, the energy crisis, fear of nuclear war, and the panic generated by the Zodiac killer The book s unnamed narrator is a disgraced college professor suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, who is trying to pull his life back together as he is being investigated for an inappropriate relationship with a student Determined to work on a lecture series but unable to resist the obsessions of his beat up beach house, he rents an office in downtown San Francisco Shortly after beginning his work, he discovers that from his office he can hear the constant din of a white noise machine used by a psychotherapist in a neighboring office While that nearly unhinges him, he suddenly realizes that one client doesn t like the noise machine to be used during her therapy sessions so he can hear everything she says during her analysis.While at first, the patient discusses her challenges with her work as an economic analyst, and her relationships with her family and her female lover, the crux of her problem is revealed shortly thereafter an adopted child, she is struggling with her real identity and what it means for the person she is The narrator is fascinated, and the patient becomes his new obsession Her questions lead her to a Catholic charity that moved freshly baptized orphans out of Germany after World War II But after discovering her mother was named Maria G, and disappeared after surrendering her infant daughter, that is as far as the patient s search can go Determined not to lose his weekly glimpse into this patient s life, he takes the research into his own hands, and quickly finds the patient s mother in records from a German displaced persons camp But he can t let on that he s been eavesdropping, so he creates a persona at an adoption agency the patient has contacted, sends the reply from there, and mails it to the client Through the wall, he hears how his patient is energized by the news, which drives him to unearth clues and become and invested in her case And the patient s journey to find her birth mother takes her a great distance, both physically and psychologically.There are many improbable things about By Blood, but Ellen Ullman s storytelling ability is so powerful, you, like the patient herself, is content at times to gloss over the threads that don t quite make sense This is a book that wrestles with the question of what role our biological and genetic identity truly has in determining the person we become More than nature versus nurture, it is an exploration of whether you can ever transcend the circumstances into which you are born The story of the Jewish struggles, particularly at the end of and after World War II, and both the horrors and the victories experienced by Holocaust survivors in the displaced persons camps, are truly powerful This book definitely transcends its simple beginnings of a man eavesdropping on an analysis patient, and while it leaves unanswered many questions, Ullman has created a powerful, moving book unlike any other.


  7. says:

    Narrative as poison working in the veins, seductive and benumbing Reader as addict, greedy and self interested History as spectre, prismatic and unsettling Memory as pathology, compulsive and circular Family as Stockholm syndrome, insulated and perverse Therapy as midwifery, hasty and imperilled Nabakov and De Palma had a baby.


  8. says:

    Stepping into the language of this book is like entering a warm familiar room Ullman astutely captures the voice of her narrator from the very first page For me, the effect was not unlike reading London or Conrad, by a voice unmarked by overt modernism And yet, it s not antique or unaware of its time Her control and astute deliberation with language, her comfort in the telling voice, her overall conceptual daring with this story speaks only to her mastery of her craft and art Simply said, I have read two books by Ullman now, and I will forever read whatever she publishes as soon as she publishes it She is one of the finest writers working today.There are a few moments in the middle where the narrative sags, where the props of the story are showing like bones under thinner skin, but this is small complaint for the great flesh of this work She manages drama without melodrama, grief and emotion without pathos or cliche May she live a long life, may her career inhabit it, and may she never run out of whatever spark it is that brought her to first tell a story.


  9. says:

    This book got a lot of good reviews but I m afraid I just didn t like it at all I found the narrative device to be way too contrived I found the narrator to be so creepy as to be repulsive to me Each of the main characters was filled with so much self loathing that I could not muster up any degree of concern for them But, I did read the whole thing, so something about it was compelling It s just that when I finished I was left feeling like I had wasted my time.


  10. says:

    Maybe it is the setting of this book San Francisco in the mid 1970s or maybe it is the novels s exquisite use of aural imagery that reminds me of the film The Conversation Like the film, this book expertly dangles bits of a woman s life to the reader, as the narrator eavesdrops through the all too thin adjoining door between his office and a psychiatrists office The narrator a mentally ill college professor on leave during an ethics investigation into his behavior becomes increasing engrossed in the story of one of the psychiatrist s patients as she attempts to unravel the skein of her emotions about her adoption, to the point where the life of the patient becomes an over riding obsession As the narrator silently lies in the dark listening to the next chapters in the story next door, he wrestles with his desire to follow the patient home, to connect with her, and in some instances, to do her harm Ullman s construction of tension and sense of pacing, as we watch the narrator s struggles, is reminiscent of Hitchcock.In The Conversation , Harry Caul is always the center of the story, and his subsequent devolution into madness is all the affecting for it Here, Ullman structures the book so heavily around the patient s story that, while the story is entirely gripping and fascinating, the reader is left to wonder about the narrator s past and motivations which are hinted at, but never fully revealed Ultimately, this book becomes about knowability historical and personal truth become eroded over time, and in some cases what is true will never be known As the patient delves and into trying to discover her origins with a little help from her silent partner next door , she continually finds herself contending with the conflicting memories of conflicted others, their and her own reluctance to explore the past, and the lack of official records from agencies and governments during WWII The book seems to ask, Who are we, when we don t know from where we came and How do our identities and ethics change when acted upon by historical forces beyond our control It also addresses the limits of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and each other Our accidental geneologist s madness and obsession is ultimately another story lost in the summer fogs of San Francisco, and perhaps we don t feel as sympathetic to him as viewers of The Conversation feel about Harry Caul The stories in By Blood are none the less affecting and heart wrenching.