My Name is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
First sentence: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. ”
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Content: It’s long and often philosophical. It’s in the adult fiction section, but I think high schoolers who are interested in art should read this.

I’ve briefly talked about this book (in 2004 and in 2007), but I’ve not written a proper review. I probably haven’t picked up the story of Asher Lev in about 10 years, and doing the #ICTReads challenge gave me a chance to revisit this world of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews and the struggle between religion and art.

The basic story — if you haven’t heard — is that of  prodigy artist and orthodox Jew Asher Lev’s childhood and teenage years. His father was an ambassador for their sect leader, the Rebbe, and his mother ended up going to school to learn Russian to help with the work as well. They were both fully committed to their religion, to helping build up yeshivas (schools) around the world, and to helping Jews escape communist countries in the years after World War II. Asher’s passion, on the other hand, was to draw. He had a drive to do it, sometimes not even realizing that he was drawing. That’s not to say he wasn’t religious — he was. He went to school and to synagogue, he studied the Torah, he kept kosher. But, he wanted to create art. Which meant that his parents just didn’t understand him or his desires to do something so frivilous.

And it all comes to a head in his 20s, after he goes to Florence and Paris and has been abroad for many years. He comes back with paintings that use the form of the crucifixion —  he says in the book something along the lines of “what better way to depict anguish?” — and his parents, for whom Jesus is the symbol of suffering and hate, just cannot accept that.

It’s a very introspective book, musing about the meaning of art and the purpose of religion and whether there’s a place in religion for art that doesn’t conform to the rules of religion.  And while it’s often philosophical and sometimes has a tendency to be sluggish, I do think Potok does an excellent job walking the line between religion and art, and showing not only the conflict within Asher, but also between him and his parents (especially his father) and between his parents. And while I wish, now, that there were more female characters (there’s his mother, their housekeeper, and the art gallery director), it’s still an excellent book.

 

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Lions & Liars

by Kate Beasley, illustrated by Dan Santat
First sentence: “Frederick Frederickson was thinking about strawberry daiquiris when the dodgeball slammed into his face.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence and some mis-adventures, and a few intense moments. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Frederick Frederickson (whose mother wanted a name everyone would remember, bless her heart) is not high up on the totem pole of popularity. And this bothers him. Even though he has a couple of friends, he wants more: people who laugh at what he says (and not because they’re being mean), to be respected, to be Liked. To not be the bottom of the totem pole. So, when the one thing he looks forward to every year — a cruise with his family — is taken away (poor pity Frederick) he gets into a fight with his friends and ends up adrift on a river… and lands at a weekend camp to Reform boys.

Pausing here for a minute:  I’m sure his parents were frantic when he goes missing (though there’s hardly a word about that), and I know middle grade books can only happen with bad or absent parents, but the fact that Frederick so casually integrates himself into the camp and COMPLETELY FORGETS ABOUT HIS FAMILY kind of doesn’t make me like him. At all. In fact, I kind of just wanted to smack his spoiled, privileged face. (REALLY? You’re pitching a fit because your cruise got canceled because a HURRICANE is coming? I know you’re ten but give it up already.)

Frederick ends up impersonating a kid called Dash, and discovers that maybe the kids in cabin 13 — who go by Ant Bite, Nosebleed, Specs, and The Professor — aren’t so bad, after all.

I know this was supposed to be a heartwarming story about a kid who learns how to be a decent friend (because he’s pretty dang awful to his friends, and they’re pretty dang awful back) and I’m sure there are kids who will like this a lot (because who doesn’t want to run away from home and go to a weekend camp?) but this was just not for me.

From Twinkle, With Love

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “Hello, namaste, buenos dias, and bonjour, Mira Nair!
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, and lots of kissing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Twinkle is a budding filmmaker. She loves looking at the world through the eye of her camera lens, and it’s what she wants to do with her life. She has a YouTube channel (though not many subscribers), and a dream. The rest of her life isn’t so hopeful: she’s not really high up on the popularity totem pole at her prep school, her best friend has begun to ditch her for other girls (who are higher up in popularity), and her parents are often gone. Thankfully, she has her grandmother and her crush on the most popular kid in school, Neil.

Then comes the Midsummer Festival. Popular guy’s twin brother, Sahil, talks Twinkle into making a film — they decide a gender-swapped Dracula — and that fact sets a whole lot in motion.

I wanted to like this. It’s got everything that should hit for me in a summer romance: a cute guy, some conflict, a lot of swoony situations… it feels like a Bollywood film with kissing. I should have loved it.

But, I didn’t. I was talking to a co-worker about it, and she said that Twinkle was annoying — and she was, being so obsessed with being popular and getting her friend “back” that she didn’t realize what was right in front of her — and because of that, she couldn’t get into the book. I think that’s a lot of it. Twinkle was very human, and very much a teenage girl, and I appreciated that. I thought the relationships, at least between the girls, were very realistic. Maybe what didn’t sit well with me was the juxtaposition between the friendship arc and the romance arc. The romance was all very “true love”-y; Sahil’s had a thing for Twinkle since they were 11 and he’s finally on it (that’s what came off as unrealistic to me!) and he’s all “you’re my One True Love”, and I think that’s (for a high school book) what didn’t work for me. I understood the friendships, and Twinkle’s desire not to have things change, but when you put that in the same book as a meet-cute, fluffy summer romance that you’r trying to make weightier with declarations of True Love. Maybe that’s also what didn’t quite sit well with me. If Menon had just kept it fluffy, Bollywood-like (with kissing!), then maybe I would have liked it better.

Scythe

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “We must, by law, keep a record fo the innocents we kill.”
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Content: There is, by the very nature of the book, violence. Some of it is graphic. There is also mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but, like Hunger Games, I’d be wary about giving it to overly sensitive kids.

My co-workers have been on my case to read this since it first came out. A couple of them love it (and Shusterman), but I just didn’t have time. (Sometimes, when I need to sell a book at work, I rely on other people’s opinions rather than just reading it myself, since I won’t have time to read all the books. Unfortunately.) But then, it won a Cybils award, and was picked for my online book club (and then they picked it for one of my in-person book clubs), so I figured it was about time I read this.

And, oh wow, everyone was right. This is an excellent piece of speculative fiction.

The basic premise is this: in the future we will have figured out how to defeat disease and death, thereby becoming immortal (pretty much). However, the earth couldn’t handle the subsequent population growth, so a group of people — called scythes — were organized to deal with that. They have a set of commandments, are outside the general law, and basically get to decide when people should die. There are rules governing that, as well — they have quotas they have to meet and can’t go over, and they can’t do it with forethought or malice. The book follows two teenagers, Citra and Rowan, who were chosen as a scythe’s apprentices. As it follows them through the year of their apprenticeship, it’s fascinating reading about their scythe and his philosophies, and then the difference between scythe philosophies (including a radical one who was just horrid). There is a bit of a romance(ish), but that didn’t really go anywhere (thankfully). Mostly it’s about humanity and the meaning of immortality, and how one deals with the power over life and death. There is definitely much to think about and talk about in this book.

A Short Stay in Hell

by Stephen Peck
First sentence: “Although I have loved many, there has been only one genuine love in my near-eternally stretched life — Rachel who fell to the bottom of the library without me.”
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Content: There’s some violence. It would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, if we carried it.

This was not the Stephen Peck book I set out to read. I was supposed to read Scholar of Moab, but about 1/3 into that, the apostrophes were driving me nuts (they were in the wrong place — do’nt as opposed to don’t — and while I understood why they were that way, it didn’t stop it from pulling me out of the story) and so Russell threw this book at me and said I might like it better.

The idea behind it is that everyone’s idea of the afterlife is wrong (except for the Zoroastrians). And our main character, who was a good Mormon in this life, is in hell. Which happens to be a big library, containing every possible book that could ever be written. Which means, it’s very very very very very large. The idea for him to get out of hell is to find the book containing his story, except that’s an impossible task. (Well not impossible, just very very very hard.) It follows him as he meets people, is part of a university, finds and loses his love, gets captured by a wack job, falls for days, and on and on. It’s an exercise in trying to grasp what infinity means (spoiler: you can’t).

And while I liked it enough to finish it (it was short, which helped), I’m not sure I get what makes Peck such a great writer. Maybe it’s because I’m too literal a reader (plausible), and his works are full of symbolism and metaphor and satire, all of which escape me. Give me a good plot, some great characters, and decent writing and I’m happy.

At least I tried.

State of the TBR Pile – June 2018

I have one more month (more or less) to read all the books before my summer class starts. Which means, I ought to stop piling new books on my pile, and just read these already!

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Charlie Hernandez & the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
The DarkDeep by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs
Moonrise by Sarah Crossan
Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

What are you looking forward to on your TBR pile?

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman
Read by Cathleen McCarron
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Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some disturbing material, and quite a few f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Eleanor Oliphant is fine. She has a job — the same job she’s had since she graduated from university — as a finance clerk in a graphic design firm. She goes to work, she comes home, gets drunk on weekends, and talks to her mom (which is not a pleasant experience) on Wednesday nights. She has food, shelter, and work. It’s not a bad life.

Then, one day, she sees a musician that she decides she wants to have a relationship with, so she starts changing herself superficially. And at pretty much the same time, she ends up talking to Raymond, an IT guy in the building, and purely by happenstance, they end up helping an older gentleman who took a bad fall outside a store. And suddenly Eleanor’s life opens up.

This was such a delightful book! It has dark undertones with emotional and physical abuse, but it wasn’t graphic, and it played a role in Eleanor’s growth arc. As a character, she was delightful to spend time with, and the other characters that Honeyman populated the book with were absolutely charming. I appreciated that Raymond and Eleanor developed a close friendship, but not a romance (though that door wasn’t completely shut). That, and the narrator was absolutely delightful! It was one of the those books that I found myself immersed in, and one I didn’t want to get out of the car when I was listening.

An excellent read.