Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potuk (1972) April 10, 2017

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 11:27 pm
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51a4de5ha8l-_sl500_aa300_I’ve never taught this book, and as an English teacher, I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’ve not read it until now. I do know this: there is no way I could have appreciated this book as a student the way I can as a parent. I’m sure some students would really like it, but I think others would get bored.  While it may engage them with the familiar theme of rebellion, I don’t think students could comprehend the agony of choices that comes with parenting. In a nutshell, Asher is born into a Ladover Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1950s (Wikipedia was my friend here–I knew we were talking about orthodox Jews, but I had no idea what Ladover or Hasid actually meant).  His father works for the Rabbe (which also confused me as I initially thought it was just a different spelling of Rabbi, but apparently a Rabbe is more of the top guy among a whole sect of people), essentially creating schools and communities that spread their brand of Orthodox Judaism throughout the world. The kids–Asher included–go to school all day learning Hebrew, praying, and reading the Torah, and not seemingly much else. So the goal of school is not so much an education but an indoctrination.  I couldn’t help but think this is pretty much what some of the current Madrassas in the Middle East are–schools that teach you to be a religious zealot.

Anyway, Asher is pretty much a child prodigy in art, creating amazing drawings at age 3 or 4. So, it’s a story of conflict: Asher wants to pursue his gift and his dad wants him to pursue his religious teachings and one day carry on his work. The real complexity begins when we see the father not as a villain but as a man who has seen 6 million Jews led to their death in the Holocaust, someone who wants to rebuild what has been taken away. He doesn’t understand Asher; he cannot understand passion for art.  It is outside his ability to see the world. And yet, Asher’s gift is so strong, he often paints even when he does not realize he is doing so–when he’s not holding a brush or pencil, he paints in his head, seeing and feeling colors and textures that others cannot even perceive. What does a family do with such strong and dire differences? That’s where the mom comes in, and it’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching to watch her try to bridge this gap between her son and her husband. To allow her son to pursue what brings him life–but to know that further study of painting also means studying Christian traditions, artists, movements, and all aspects of “the Other Side” that so pains his father. What Potuk handles so well is the innerworkings of the family, the struggles, the drive within us that we have little control over.  Not that much happens in this book, but the conversations and the body movements are emotionally terrifying.  There are no villians or heroes–only a family trying to do their soul’s work without painfully damaging one another.

Just a day after I finished the book, I opened the NYT to this story (The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life) about an organization in Brooklyn and other areas of New York offering counseling and sanctuary to adult children struggling to leave their ultra-Orthodox Jewish families.  I had no idea this is still such a challenging issue.


Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015) August 12, 2015

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:11 am
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Before opening Go Set a Watchman, I read at least five opinion articles in the New York Times about this much anticipated “new” book by Harper Lee (keep in mind that Watchman was written before Mockingbird but not published until 2015). Most of the opinions—some written by folks who had not even read the book—focused almost entirely on Atticus’s character having morphed from the “justice for all” Atticus of Mockingbird to the racist Atticus of Watchman, leaving the reader wondering which one is the real Atticus Finch. So I’ll chime in with my own ideas, mimicking some of what I read from others, but also, I hope, adding something new.

First and foremost, Watchman comes across as an amateur work. It’s clearly a first (or at least an early) draft of Mockingbird and not a new book or a sequel. I find it most intriguing as an exercise in creating the same story from a different point of view much like I might assign my own students: once a story is “finished,” try retelling it from a different perspective and then compare them and see which one works better. From that sense, reading Watchman was kind of fun and felt like a Where’s Waldo puzzle. I’d read a scene and figure out how or where or what aspect of that scene ultimately became part of Mockingbird and what was changed from its original conception. The strongest scenes in Watchman were the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, so it’s little wonder that Lee’s editor told her to revise the book and tell the whole story from a child’s perspective. Those were the scenes that felt natural, that rolled off the page with ease. By contrast, many of the other scenes, particularly the animosity between Scout and Atticus felt forced and clunky. Lee had an agenda to expose Southern racism from a New Yorker’s point of view—but overall, it just didn’t feel convincing. Scout, despite her 26 years, seemed bratty and immature. Thus, in her conflict with Atticus, she came off as the less likable character.

Since Watchman is set in the 1950s, it makes sense that Atticus would question school integration, the NAACP, and the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the drawback to Atticus’s character in Mockingbird is that he seems too perfect which makes him, at times, not believable. It’s easy to be all about justice and equality in the 1930s when the black population had no rights and no voice. It’s much more difficult to live by this same ‘justice and equal rights for all’ when schools are integrating and the black population (which often outnumbered whites) could potentially gain voting rights and positions of power. In Watchman, Atticus is more realistic, more human. Good or bad, he’s a product of his times. Like many whites (the majority?), he’s fearful, and he has strong reservations about the future and their way of life. Expecting his character to remain unchanged from one book to the other is rather naïve since one is set during the depression and the other during the Civil Rights movement.

The idea that Atticus is a man of justice and yet fears life in the South in the midst of the Civil Rights movement is a valid idea, and one that could have made for a compelling novel. It makes sense to show how these two sides of a man might come into conflict with one another and how that man’s daughter—living in New York City—would not fully understand this conflict. But the way that Lee tries to bring this out in Watchman just doesn’t work. Her racist Atticus seems over the top and disconnected from his other side. Lee is much too heavy handed, and with this approach the dichotomy that she wants Atticus to represent falls apart.

In addition to the flashback sections to Scout’s childhood, the other strong scenes in Watchman are the conversations between Scout and Uncle Jack, a character who has only a minor role in Mockingbird. In this book (especially pgs 195-202 and 260-271), he’s the voice of reason in that he can convey to Scout why the South—with its anti-government blood—will struggle with and push back against a new way of life, an equal rights way of life. Uncle Jack is a much more believable character, and while his musings don’t excuse Southern racist views, they dohelp explain where these views come from. Through Uncle Jack’s character, I think Lee achieves her intended message. The flaws in Scout’s and Atticus’s characters only serve to muck it up.

Watchman offers an interesting and complex premise, but in the end, Mockingbird is the better book–better point of view, better character development, better writing. (fiction)


The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (2011) February 23, 2012

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 11:01 pm
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I feel like I should have loved this book, but to be honest, I only liked it.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mindset, perhaps I was too focused on finishing it in time for book club, or perhaps my reading it on a Kindle (my first e-reader experience) clouded my judgment. Whatever it was, the book did not pull me in the way I expected to be pulled in.  It was more like a current sweeping me along than a wave forcing me into its curl.  Eleven-year-old Michael travels from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England in the 1950’s on a three week ship’s journey.  He and his companions find themselves eating each night at the “Cat’s Table,” the antithesis to the Captain’s table because it is made up of third class passengers: the misfits, the poor, the troublemakers.  But the very social status that keeps them out of the limelight allows them freedom to roam to ship largely unnoticed which is perfect for Michael and his two friends. So we get little snippets of their adventures aboard the ship, all of which are quite entertaining. Ondaatje’s descriptions put us right there in the hot engine room, the salty pool, the deck flooded with powerful waves in the midst of a typhoon, the lifeboats where the boys hide and eavesdrop on conversations. The first half of the book is largely made up of these stories, but after a hundred pages of little boy gallivants, I started to wonder about the point of the story.  Was it merely a collection of ship mischief?  And the stories not only included Michael and his two cohorts, but also about 30 other characters, most of whom are intriguing, but largely undeveloped.  Just about the time I felt like I knew a character,the focus shifted to someone else.  Unfortunately, I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters to love the book.

The story then begins shifting back and forth between  Michael’s life as a grown man in England and his life as a boy on the ship.  I appreciated the child vs. adult perspective this offers the story, but I still didn’t care enough about the characters to then zoom in on a few of them as adults, delving into Michael’s complicated relationships with them.  What I did like–and what I wished he had spent more time on–was the cultural challenges of leaving Ceylon behind and forging a new life in Europe, something a few characters from the ship ultimately struggled with. We get snippets of life in Ceylon, and I was pulled into that culture, immediately diving into a Google search to learn more about its history, culture, and precise location.

Despite, some of the book’s shortcomings, Ondaatje offered some notable insights on human behavior and he created numerous memorable images.  A few of my favorites: In describing loss Michael narrates,  “I am someone who has a cold heart.  If I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss cannot go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.” I think many of us have “cold hearts” because it is a coping mechanism that keeps grief and loss from creeping into our daily lives. A  young girl named Asuntha is described as “deaf, and that made her seem even more frail and alone. . .We watched her once, exercising on a trampoline. . . in mid-air, with all that silent space around her.” And later we get a description of the boys roaming the ship “bursting all over the place like freed mercury.”  Those are great descriptions.  The kid that made me stop and reread the sentence.  I just wish Ondaatje developed the characters as well as he developed some of his images.  Still, it’s a worthwhile story.  (fiction)


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