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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145th Street

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The way I see it, things happen on 145th Street that don’t happen anywhere else in the world.”
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Content: There’s violence but the stories are short and to the point. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’ll be honest here. I’m not a fan of short stories, and I had to read one for class, and I’ve never read Walter Dean Myers, so I picked this one. All the stories surround people on this street in New York (in Harlem?), their lives and experiences. But, as I sit back and think about this, what comes to mind are the stories in Bronx Masquerade. Which means this one just kind of went in but slid right out. I’m pretty sure I looked at the words and turned the pages, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I read.

I’m sure that’s not because Myers isn’t a good writer. It’s more I’m not a great reader of short stories.

York: The Shadow Cipher

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes.”
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Content: It’s long, and there are some challenging vocabulary words, as well as a few intense moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to any adventuresome 4th grader and up.

I’ve been looking at this book since before it came out in May, thinking, “I really need to get to this one.” And so I was overjoyed that it ended up on the Cybils list. Even so, I put it off… perhaps thinking it wouldn’t live up to the hype I’ve heard surrounding it.

Boy, was I wrong! This is a difficult one to describe: it’s an alternative New York City, one in which there were genius twins — the Morningstarrs — in the 19th century who invented steampunk-like machines (many of which are still in use “today”), and then, when they disappeared mysteriously, left behind a Cipher to be figured out. Except in the intervening 160 years, no one has figured it out. That is, until a different set of twins, Tess and Theo Biedermann, and their friend Jaime Cruz, get a mysterious letter and set about following a whole new set of clues, in the hopes of saving their apartment building. Following the clues leads them on an increasingly dangerous path, full of wonders and betrayals, all the way to the end. Or perhaps: just another beginning? (Yes, it’s a first in a series.)

I was talking about this to A the other day, and trying to explain it, and she looked at me like this was crazy. And in a way, it is. But it’s SO very good. The characters are fun (Cricket needed a larger role!) and Ruby keeps the plot moving along. I have heard some say that it’s complicated, but I think she manages to mesh the mystery and the steampunk elements (plus good, if distracted, parents) quite seamlessly. I’m definitely on board for their next adventure!

Voracious

voraciousby Cara Nicoletti
First sentence: “Growing up in a family of butchers and food lovers, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds and smells of cooking from an early age.”
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Content: There’s nothing. Hand it to anyone who loves books and food. It’s in the cooking reference section of the bookstore.

The premise of this book is simple: Nicoletti, who studied English and Latin in college but whose professional life has been as a chef (and currently a butcher), has a passion for food scenes in books.  This is something she’s always enjoyed in books, especially since she grew up in a house surrounded by both books and food. So, pairing them both — first a blog, and then in this book — is a natural thing for her.

The book itself is a series of short vignettes, each about a particular book, followed by a recipe that, for her, fits each book. It’s a delightful read; she writes about experiences in her life, about where she is when she reads each book, and about what the books mean to her. I haven’t read a lot of the books (especially as Nicoletti moves into her adult years), but it didn’t seem to matter. She doesn’t go through plots and she doesn’t make you feel on the outside if you haven’t read them. This is what these particular books mean to her, and hopefully, it will resonate with you. (It did me.) And the recipes sound delicious! From donuts and cakes to soups and blinis and caviar, it all sounds delicious, and I will probably get around to making at least a few of them (hopefully). Even if I don’t, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the recipes. (Is that just me?)

An excellent read for those of us who prefer a little food with our books.

The Sun is Also a Star

sunalsostarby Nicola Yoon
First sentence: “Carl Sagan said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: November 1, 2016
Content: It’s mostly swearing; there’s a lot of swear words, plus a handful of f-bombs. There’s some penis jokes as well, and references to wanting sex, but none actual. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Natasha is being deported. They came to NYC from Jamaica when she was eight so her father could pursue an acting career. It didn’t work out the way he envisioned and now (after a drunken night and several missteps) they’re being deported.

Daniel is being forced into a life he doesn’t really want. His parents, Korean immigrants, want him to go to Yale (“second best school”) and be a doctor, so he can have the life they never really had. He knows this, he wants to make his parents happy, but his life seems so… narrow.

Then on one fateful day, Natasha and Daniel are in NYC at the same time, and they just happen to bump into each other. And they just happen to connect. And, well, the  rest is history.

This is an Epic Love Story for the ages. Seriously, people. It’s got fate, chemistry, romance, angst, second chances, near misses, and a whole lot of heart. I adored both Natasha and Daniel, and it was absolutely delightful watching the wonderfully messy way they fell in love. It’s not a simple love story, and it goes deeper than just fluff; Natasha and Daniel talk about the immigrant experience, how it’s hard being in this country, and the ways in which things are different, and sometimes difficult, for children of immigrants. There’s science and poetry and karaoke, and it’s absolutely wonderful.

And I loved that the ending wasn’t perfect. There was no magical save or happily-ever-after, but rather a peek and a hope. It made me cry honest tears, which are the best kind.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.

Another Brooklyn

anotherbrooklynby Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: August 9, 2016
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs, and a lot of illusions to off-screen sex as well as drug use. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The death of August’s father, and her return to Brooklyn for the first time in many years, sets off a chain of memories from her childhood. When she, her brother and father left the farm down South, soon after her mother committed suicide. The friendships she had with girls her age, and the different paths their lives eventually took. The way her father and brother turned to Islam and the hope and guidance their religion gave them. It all comes crashing down on her, in a series of reflective snippets, as she tries to make sense of her childhood.

I’m not sure I fully unpacked all that this novel had to offer. In fact, I know I didn’t. It’s deceptively short and it goes quick, and I know I missed things. Not only Big Things (not that there was much of a plot; it really was a series of short, almost poetic vignettes), but the Meaning behind those Things. It’s a harsh place, Brooklyn of the 1970s, a sexist one as well as a dangerous one. And August, through Woodson, tries to unpack what it all Means. And even though I enjoyed the lyrical flow of the book, and related to the women in it, I’m not sure I understood what Woodson was trying to do.

That said, I think it’s an Important book, and one that will be great for book groups to sit and hash over. (I’d love someone to talk to about it.) And, I can’t deny the beauty of the writing; Woodson is supremely talented. I just wish I were a better reader.

Towers Falling

towersfallingby Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “Pop groans.”
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Release date: July 12. 2016
Content: It’s simple enough that the younger set can understand it but complex enough that it won’t bore the older kids. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Deja is starting over at a new school, but not by choice. Her family was evicted from their home in Brooklyn, and they’ve moved into a homeless shelter closer to Manhattan. It’s not a happy situation; her father suffers from headaches and can’t hold down a job, and her mother — an immigrant from Jamaica — can only work so many hours.

So, when Deja’s new school starts studying the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Deja wonders what on earth it has to do with her. But, as the weeks and months go on — and she learns more about the attacks that happened before she was born — she and her friends Ben and Sabeen learn that no one is unaffected by history.

Rhodes is doing a couple of things here: first, she’s telling the story of the towers falling for kids who may not know anything about it. Sure, it’s not super distant history, but there are still kids who aren’t really familiar with it. And I’m not sure how much it’s being taught in schools (C got it a lot, A got a lesson or two in 5th grade, and I’m not sure anyone at school has brought it up for K) anymore. So, there definitely is a need for a reminder. But, Rhodes has gone bigger than just “hey kids, this happened” history. She’s encompassing issues of kids being homeless, of religious tolerance (Sabeen is Muslim, and she and her family face discrimination because of that), of diversity. She strikes a nice balance in the book between teaching the kids and preaching to them, and  manages to be diverse and moral-centric without being didactic and moralistic.

It’s definitely a book worth checking out.