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By Blood; A Novel

By Blood; A Novel

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3.6

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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 1970s. 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 more 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 more clues and invests more and more 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.
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 1970s. 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 more 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 more clues and invests more and more 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.

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Publish date: Feb 28, 2012
Added to Scribd: Feb 20, 2012
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux18 West 18th Street, New York 10011Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Ullman All rights reservedDistributed in Canada by D&M Publishers, Inc.Printed in the United States o AmericaFirst edition, 2012Library o Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataUllman, Ellen.By blood : a novel / Ellen Ullman.p. cm.ISBN 978-0-374-11755-9 (hardback)1. Adoptees—Fiction. 2. College teachers—Fiction. 3. Identity (Psychology)Fiction. 4. Triangles (Interpersonal relations)—Fiction. 5. San Francisco (Cali.)Fiction. 6. Caliornia—History—1950—Fiction. 7. Psychological fction. I. Title.PS3621.L45 B9 2012813'.6—dc232011041626Designed by Abby Kagan www.sgbooks.com 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
By Blood
is a work o fction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters with theexception o some historical and public fgures, are products o the author’s imaginationand are not to be construed as real. Where real-lie historical or public fgures appear, thesituations, incidents, and dialogues concerning those persons are entirely fctional and arenot intended to depict the actual events or to change the entirely fctional nature o thework. In all other aspects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirelycoincidental.
 
3
1.
I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory or me. At the endo it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changedme, although I never learned her name.My involvement with the young woman in question began severalyears ago, in the late summer o 1974, while I was on leave rom the uni-versity. I sought to secure or mysel a small ofce in the downtown busi-ness district o San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series o lectures about
The Eumenides
The Kindly Ones—the third play in Aes-chylus’s great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge o a rough,depressed neighborhood. And my frst sighting o the prospective ofcebuilding—eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, theireyes eaten away by time—nearly caused me to retrace my steps. Yet there was no question o my turning back. Immediately upon myarrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descendedupon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in thearea. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me aparticularly obdurate spell o the nervous condition to which I had beensubject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man o fty years,the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions o my preadoles-cence, as i I remained unchanged the desperate boy o twelve I hadbeen. Indeed, the very purpose o the ofce was to act as a counterweightto this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out o the house, to orceme to walk on public streets among people, to immerse mysel, howeveranonymously, in the general hum o society; and in this way, perhaps,sustain the gestures o normal lie.It was thereore imperative that I do battle with my trepidations. I sup-pressed my ears o the neighborhood and my distress at the building’sdreary mien. We were in the midst o the Great Stagation, I remindedmysel. The whole city (indeed the entire country) had a blasted, ex-hausted air. Why should the building beore me not be similarly aicted?I thereore turned my gaze rom the eyeless gargoyles, told mysel therewas no reason to be unnerved by the shuttered bar on the ground oor(whose sign creaked in San Francisco’s seemingly perpetual wind).

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kgib_1 reviewed this
Rated 3/5
Took awhile to pull me in because the characters and dialogue felt a bit forced (plus the list of historical events going on in the background... stagflation, Vietnam, Patty Hearst, Zodiac Killer...). However, by the middle of the book I was into the atmosphere and the suspense. The book started to fade again at the end, as too many twists were added to the WWII story. I would definitely read more of her work, though.
theageofsilt reviewed this
Rated 3/5
I must agree with some of the negative reviews below. The narrator is completely uninteresting. The narrator acts to help the patient of a therapist learn about the circumstances of her birth, but the well educated patient herself is able to accomplish this on her own. Why? Discovering the truth about her adoption and birth family comes about all to easily and is dramatically, but tidily resolved. It all felt so improbable.
maneekuhi reviewed this
Rated 3/5
"By Blood" is a 2012 NYT 100 notable. In the book there is a sentence: " A Jew by blood". Clue. There is another clue. The story takes place in the early to mid 1970's. This is a 2012 NYT 100 notable and the book's description talks of a professor eavesdropping on a therapist's sessions with a patient re the adopted patient's birth parents. That's it, that was the entire description and based on that I ordered the book on my Kindle. I now regret that I didn't check reader reviews on Amazon more thoroughly. If I had I likely would have not read the book, and that would have been fine with me. The professor is the narrator, an incredible loser, a sad sack, someone who accidentally happens upon the gay scene in 1970's San Francisco, both male and Lesbian. He happens to have an office next to a counselor, a therapist whose patient (never identified by name, tells her sad and frustrating tale of not knowing her true identity, i.e., she was adopted). Though nothing more than a lowly. creepy eavesdropper, the prof wants to help and does some research on his own and sends clues to the somewhat befuddled patient. Read Amazon reader reviews at this point and you will discover that the plot has to do with - no surprise - the atrocities perpetrated on the Jews during WWll by the Germans. There are some interesting perspectives, mostly by the patient's birth parent at this point, but frankly I have read a number of German atrocity novels up to now and this theme is one of a long list of plots, storylines, and themes that I have already enough of. So the best advice that I can offer you is before committing money and time to this book, do more research than I had done and determine for yourself if this is something that you want to invest time and money in. I did and I do not recommend that others do so.
tuke_1 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
This is a wonderful novel - great story, a fascinating aesthetic challenge, and a provocative dip into real history.

Set in the late 1970s, The story is about a disgraced academic who, while on hiatus from his university, takes an office in San Francisco to work on a research project. While there, he discovers that he can hear the therapy sessions being conducted by the analyst next door. He becomes fascinated and obsessed with the sessions for a young woman who is excavating her past. The protagonist listens to the sessions and becomes attached to the analysand: Himself an emotional basket-case, he feels that there are some common points between their situations.

After awhile, the therapy sessions come to an impasse, and the protagonist intervenes by sending some letters to the analysand.

At this point, that's about all I should say. The book is all about "listening in" on conversations, and what it means to constitute a fully-lived representation of life from fragments. What the reader does with this novel is not unlike what the protagonist does with what he overhears in the next room.

There is also a profound historical dimension to this novel: Much of the analysand's personal history is wrapped up with German Jews and their experience from 1935 to the 70s. One thing that is quite radical is that Ullman delves into the real history of the leading Jews in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen - e.g., Hadassah Bimko and Josef Rosensaft. Readers will think that these names and personae are made up: But they're not. Knowing a bit about Bergen-Belsen, I was shocked that Ullman went into the territory of these real people, who have living offspring. Daring stuff.

I've known about Ullman for awhile. She is the author of the crucial non-fiction essay about computer-mediated communication (CMC), "Come in, CQ," and also wrote one of the most important books about the impact of technology on communication, Close to the Machine. She also has a novel called The Bug, which is not quite as good, but an amazing read if you're a software developer. (Ullman was a software developer herself for quite awhile.)

The connection with CMC is important, because this novel takes up a lot of the themes that interested her in those non-fiction writings: Namely, can we really "connect" through a low-bandwidth channel? How cruel can we be through signs and symbols?

I hope this book gets the scrutiny and reward it deserves.
bellettres reviewed this
Rated 3/5
Interesting, suspenseful, good writing, but ultimately disappointing. The ending left me hanging, as I'm sure the author intended. The novel itself calls into question what constitutes identity, providing enough "plot" to keep me turning the pages.
peggygillman reviewed this
Rated 2/5
Damn, I didn’t want to read any more about the Holocaust and this had a lot in it. The writing was compelling but the story was annoying as was the main character. And it just ended-no resolution. Weird story of strange man who listens to “my dear patient” and her psychologist. Uck....3/29/12
bobbieharv reviewed this
Rated 5/5
I LOVED this book. I've now read all the reviews on Amazon, as well as the interview with the author. Several people commented that it was slow; that they only got into it after the first 100 pages; but I was hooked from the first page. The device of the mysterious narrator was fascinating. It removed us from the protagonist, the patient whose therapy he overheard, in the same way she was removed from her mother. The sense of place, San Francisco in the 70s; the descriptions of the building; grounded us, providing a counterpoint to the almost dreamlike recounting of the patient's (and the narrator's own) story.Until the end, it was a 5 star book for me - but I didn't like the ending, which I won't give away. I also became so intrigued with the narrator's own mysterious difficulties that I wanted the book to go on and on. But perhaps Ullman wil give us a sequel!
karieh_2 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
The first half of this book took a LONG time to get through. The nameless narrator was too much of a mystery to me – the intrigue about who this was and why he was telling the story soon faded. My interest piqued a bit once we met the also nameless “patient” who becomes one of the objects of his obsession…but until the story of her heritage begins to unfold, there was very little in “By Blood” to hold my interest. There was so little life in the narrator prior to his discovery of “the patient” that I began to doubt his existence. “My presence in the hallway, my body before the door so close to hers, would force upon her the very fact of my existence, my face and physique giving visual form to any sound she might hear. Yet she must not imagine a body in Room 807; she must believe the room holds nothing but air.”And THEN (while on a long plane ride – perfect timing) – I was all in. The story of the patient’s mother(s) and her conception was fascinating. This young woman, frustrated with her inability to connect with the mother she’s always known, reaches out to the birth mother she never knew. And her frustration only increases. “I knew she was lying, that I did have another name, one she gave me, or intended to, a name she carried around in her mind all these years – or one she wanted to forget. In any case, I was angry. I felt my names belonged to me, and that I should have them, know them. I couldn’t stand being a person dealt out in little pieces, different people owning parts of me, different ideas of me.” “I wanted to gather up all the pieces and own myself.”This story deals with characters that are missing pieces of themselves. Pieces of their history, pieces of their heritage, pieces of their soul – taken from them through monstrous acts of others…and pieces of their sanity as evidenced by the narrator. (I still haven’t decided if I believe that he existed at all, but he certainly did not exist in the fashion he believed himself to. Which probably doesn’t make any sense…but so goes this story.)This story also deals with love. Messy, frustrating, flawed and incredibly strong human love. Most powerfully, it reminds the reader of the horrors that humans can inflict on one another – as evidenced by the Holocaust.“You will see this in all the stories of us survivors: improbable moments like the one I just described, events that turn on luck, on nonsensical holes in the fabric of logic, tears in reality itself. Otherwise if we had followed the inevitability of normal events, one thing expected to follow another, the way the world works most of the time, we would be dead. There would not be that moment when the guard hesitates. The disgusting tenderness the tormentor feels for the object of his evil deeds – it could not exist.”There are few names in this story. Some omitted, some only temporary. Maybe that is because these stories represent so many names, so many lives. It becomes increasingly important that we remember them not only as individual lives, but as a group. A group of fellow human beings that experienced what no person should, and certainly no person should experience again. The impact of their individual lives matters, as does the impact of their lives as a group, and what that scope of loss of life means.“The dead were buried in mass graves – tossed in with bulldozers – just as everyone has seen in the magazine pictures. But if you have never seen anything like it before, you can search the depth and breadth of all you have ever learned about language, and you will not find a word or a figure of speech, or a form of rhetoric, to help you pronounce in your own mind what you are seeing.”This is a vague review, I know. But this book is unlike any I have read before. The reader knows so little of what might be true, what might be lies. What (or who) might exist and what might be delusion. Yet at the heart of “By Blood” there beats a heart of pain and loss…and a very human desire to be loved.
darcia_10 reviewed this
Rated 3/5
I have mixed feelings on this book. If I eliminate the narrator, the story of the nameless patient in search of her birth parents and her origins is a powerful one. The journey is rich in information on Europe during the Second World War, the Nazis and the Jewish people's battle to survive, and what it would feel like to find out you'd been born in this environment. That being said, that part of the story was far too removed for me. We learn all this through the eavesdropping of the narrator, a mentally unstable man whom we learn little about. All of the patient's emotions are interpreted and given to us through this narrator. The details are there but the emotion is lacking.Other problems I had with this book: The narrator rents an office to supposedly do some sort of research, yet he never does that. In fact, he spends his time doing a whole lot of nothing. He seems to have an endless supply of money, since he doesn't work and never worries about paying rent or buying food, but he lost his job and isn't looking for another. Aside from his obsession with the patient and his occasional desire to stalk random people, we learn little about him. For me, his character is more of a block to the real story than enriching to the story. I couldn't connect to him, didn't have enough detail to know who he was. And because everything else came through this character, I never got to know the patient well enough to connect, either.The very fact that he hears every single word of what goes on in the office beside him didn't feel believable. Not only does he hear the entirety of each conversation, he also hears subtle things like the therapist's nylons rustling as she crosses her legs and the patient pulling a tissue from a box. I can't hear these things from one room of my house to another, much less from one office to the next, with closed doors between. Overall, the book is slow moving. I felt like I was digging through weeds to get to what could have been a powerful story.
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