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.


The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003) July 2, 2012

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:25 am
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It took me three tries to get through this book, but as the adage goes, the third time was the charm.  You can’t be in a hurry or distracted by other tasks or in the mood for a page-turner.  So a lazy summer weekend was the perfect time for Lethem’s detailed descriptions of 1970’s Brooklyn with its grit, racial tension, industrial pollution, graffiti, cocaine, comic books, and gentrification. It reminded me of four other books morphed together: Kavalier and Clay (comics, superheroes, and Jewish kids), Let the Great World Spin (a story held together by setting more than plot or characters), The Corrections (detailed characters that take a while to care about), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (punk music and abrupt scene changes). This story centers around Dylan Ebdus (aka whiteboy), raised by his artist father, and Mingus Rude, black, and raised by his washed-up-musician-cocaine-addict father.  Dylan sees Mingus as an “exploding bomb of possibilities” It’s an unlikely friendship begun in elementary school with comic books and stick ball and tagging and life on Dean street.

Lethem’s writing is like a zoom lens.  He focuses in on a scene, giving us every detail, and then boom—switches to a new scene, new characters, new setting.  Not much panning around or smoothly shifting to a new focus.  It’s a little disconcerting for the first hundred pages or so, but then I got used to his style.  What’s most striking, though, is the writing itself—the way he captures the landscape, physically and sociologically.  His description of NY public schools: “Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong.  Nothing changed outright.  Instead, it teetered.  You’d pushed futility in public school 38 so long by then you expected the building itself would be embarrassed and quit.  The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors.” And later, Lethem writes about gentrification: “The white families appear continuously these days, now too many to count, but collectively they’re still a dream, a projection. . .The renovators—that’s a polite word for them—they’re a set of ghosts from the future hunting the ghetto present.  They’re a proposition, a sketch.  Blink and they might be gone.”

Impressive stuff.  He cuts to the heart of issues without preaching or moralizing.  He just describes.  This is a book that could—and probably should—be read twice.  (fiction).


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