The Book of Lights

When I finished reading all of Chaim Potok’s novels for the first time in the early 2000’s, I considered his novel The Book of Lights my least favorite. In re-reading it, I think I’ve gained a better appreciation for it.

book of lights

Potok’s novels usually have an element that is uplifting as his protagonists struggle to figure out where they fit in to their world – leaving behind some aspect of their traditional faith or upbringing. In The Book of Lights, however, things are more bleak even if it does end on an affirming note.

As a rabbinical student in the 1950’s, Gerson Loran studies Kabbalah, mystical Jewish texts from medieval times – a topic not all of his professors feel is worthy of study. As he moves on from seminary to become a chaplain in Korea, he frequently sees visions and hears a voice from the “darkness” pointing out the sad state of affairs in which his century finds itself. Adding to his confusion, his experience in the Eastern world leads him to appreciate the beauty of God in what his tradition considers a pagan land:

Do you flee from the giants of your century, the great ones whose lights blind the eye and whose faults numb the heart? They fill you with hurt, with anger, with awe, do they not, these giants? They make ashes of great ideas, do they not? Do you flee to pagan worlds remote from the civilization of your teachers – to test their teachings? To escape their visions, their echoes, and the shadows that lie between what they are and what they teach? How far will you flee? Or are you done? Did your journey end in the fused light and darkness of the Macao brothel? I ask cruel questions of truth, Gershon. Truth. I come from the other side.

Gershon’s seminary roommate, Arthur Leiden, also struggles with the events of his century in that Arthur’s father helped develop the atomic bomb. And in an interesting twist, Arthur’s mother also had a hand in the United States’ decision to drop the bomb on Japan. Arthur’s struggles seem more self-destructive than Gershon’s questioning but both of their journey’s take them to Hiroshima where Arthur movingly says the Kaddish  at the Peace memorial – but the journey still doesn’t end.

While the voice out of the darkness could easily be only a literary device, Potok uses it to provide depth to the questions Gershon and Arthur ask. These questions are not just their own questions but questions for an entire generation. Questions that don’t come with any answers. Questions that produce the prevailing sadness of the entire novel.

 

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Ray Bradbury: En La Noche (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 41)

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In the many, many wonderful stories written by Ray Bradbury, it’s okay in my opinion if there is one “klunker” and “En La Noche” might be that one.

A woman misses her husband (who joined the Army) so much that her crying at night keeps her entire apartment building awake. The other tenants get so frustrated that they nominate one of the men (they are all married) to go to the woman and – well – get her to stop crying. I’ll let you use your imagination as to how he might do that.

I guess the humor in the story comes from the wife of the nominee who doesn’t really care what her husband does – as long as she and their five children get some sleep.

It’s kind of funny and kind of cute but just not my favorite Bradbury story.

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I usually have trouble figuring out which paragraph or sentence to quote from a Bradbury story because every one of them is so great. That’s not the case, though, with this story. I’ll throw this one out there:

Silence lived in every room like a light turned off. Silence flowed like a cool wine in the tunnel halls. Silence came through the open casements like a cool breath from the cellar. They all stood breathing the coolness of it.

“En La Noche” is included in Bradbury’s collection A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts for Week 41 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

James Alan McPherson: Gold Coast (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 40)

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That spring, when I had a great deal of potential and no money at all, I took a job as a janitor.

This first line of James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast” contains a lot of promise or may be potential to use his own word – and it lives up to that promise.

Robert, the narrator, takes a job as a janitor in an apartment building around Harvard Square. A few hints let the reader know that he is a writer. He also tells his story and the stories around him with a sharp wit and an articulate depth.

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Robert looks down on the previous janitor in the building possibly for not showing the kind of potential he, himself, has. But after a while, the older man reveals that there is more to him than one might immediately guess. While this breaking down of stereotypes may be one of the themes of “Gold Coast”, I think the loss of potential might be another one. Though we don’t know the outcome of Robert’s life, his optimism seems to say that he lives up to his potential – unlike his predecessor. And while this nice little line from towards the end of the story speaks to a specific time in the story, I think we could see the reference to summer and winter as indications of potential obtained or lost:

 Everyone was restless for change, for August is the month when undone things must be finished or regretted all through the winter

“Gold Coast” is included in The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Five of Clubs for Week 40 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I Am the Clay

In Chaim Potok’s novel I Am the Clay, an old Korean woman remembers the words of a hymn she heard from her mother who heard them from a white missionary: have thine own way Lord, Have thine own way, thou art the potter, I am the clay.

clay

The woman doesn’t understand the words or their meaning but sings them anyway. While the question is never asked explicitly in the novel, as the reader, I couldn’t help wondering what the woman would think if she did understand them. The woman and her husband, referred to as “the old man”, flee from their home and village as the Chinese and North Koreans attack. They flee to a refugee camp amidst all the horror of war. How could one truly believe that a loving God could have his way and this is what the world looks like?

At the same time, the old couple finds a boy badly wounded ready to die. The woman insists on helping the boy and eventually nurses him back to health much to the dismay of her husband who sees the boy as a burden. As the boy regains his strength, though, he becomes a blessing to the old couple in his ability to find food and barter for needed supplies. While the old woman saves the boy’s life, he eventually saves her life and her husband’s. Is there something out there that can mold something beautiful – like a family – out of something horrifying? Is there something out there that can change the old man’s mind:

…and one morning, as he watched the boy climb the hill to the grave wearing the hat of mourning, he felt deep within himself a slow and tortuous turning and then an opening of doors to deeper and deeper recesses inside himself, caves leading to caves, and his heart raced and he wondered if this was what was meant by the word love…

This is the only novel of Potok’s that doesn’t center around his own Jewish faith. He does include a Jewish chaplain as a minor character, just as Potok himself was a chaplain in Korea.

 

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

It came slowly. The rain became lighter and lighter until it fell in slanting showers. Sometimes the sun shone through the rain and a light breeze blew. It was a gay and airy kind of rain. The rainbow began to appear, and sometimes two rainbows, like a mother and her daughter, the one young and beautiful, and the other an old and faint shadow. The rainbow was called the python of the sky.

My exposure to and knowledge of African literature is woefully lacking. I’ll be honest that I had never heard of Chinua Achebe’s 1959 novel Things Fall Apart until I saw Sarah Jessica Parker talking about it on one of the episodes of PBS’s Great American Read. She made it sound interesting so I picked it up at my library and I’m glad I did.

Okonkwo is raised in his village by a father who is considered “lazy” by most standards (not just the standards of the village). It seems throughout Okonkwo’s life, he is trying to get out from under the stigma of his father. He grows up, works hard, becomes one of his village’s leaders, but he somehow always feels an outsider. Achebe weaves the contrast between Okonkwo’s individualism and his membership in his community throughout the story as the village exiles Okonkwo for what one might consider a crime – but it’s more like a “disobedience”.

The title of the novel references the arrival of white missionaries to the village. The culture and customs of the village give way to the influence of these outsiders. For the most part, this influence isn’t portrayed as a “good” one; however, Achebe sees the outsiders insistence that the community stop sacrificing children to their gods as possibly not being such a bad idea.

Achebe puts all of this together in a story with sparse prose that lends itself well to villagers’ conversations that are filled with fable-like myths about the world around them such as the paragraph I quoted above.

If one is just getting in to African literature, one could do well to start with Things Fall Apart.

Graham Greene: The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 39)

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It was not so much the theft of the Eiffel Tower which caused me difficulty; it was putting it back before anyone noticed.

Hyper-real or surreal? That is the question.

I had to think about which one of these would best describe Graham Greene’s intriguing little story “The Man Who Stole The Eiffel Tower”. If I understand hyper-real correctly, it means a situation that is highly exaggerated and highly unlikely but technically still possible. A few years ago I heard author John Green speak and he suggested that his novel An Abundance of Katherines was hyper-real because it was very implausible that one high-school boy could date 19 girls in a row named Katherine but technically, it’s not impossible.

I looked up a definition of surreal and it said simply “weird, bizarre, unreal”. I think this one fits Greene’s story.

As the title states, the narrator of this four page story steals the Eiffel Tower. His “fleet of outsize lorries” goes unnoticed as he moves the landmark out to the country where he can polish it up a little. He also dismisses questions from tourists by indicating that they just took a wrong turn, they need to go down the street a little ways to get to the tower.

Yeah, kind of weird. Is there a purpose to this? Is Greene making some kind of political statement? Does he like France? Does he not like France? I’ll be honest in saying I don’t know. In the past, I’ve had a few visitors to this blog give some explanations of Greene’s work.  So if you’re out there and understand any deeper meanings to this story, feel free to let me know. I’d love to hear more analysis. Otherwise, I find the story kind of cute.

And I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying the narrator eventually returns the tower.

“The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower” is included in Graham Greene’s Complete Short Stories. I read it when I selected the Ten of Hearts for Week 39 of my Deal Me In short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Stephen Crane: The Little Regiment (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 38)

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Ultimately the night deepened to the tone of black velvet. The outlines of the fireless camp were like the faint drawings upon ancient tapestry. The glint of a rifle, the shine of a button, might have been of threads of silver and gold sewn upon the fabric of the night. There was little presented to the vision, but to a sense more subtle there was discernible in the atmosphere something like a pulse; a mystic beating which would have told a stranger of the presence of a giant thing – the slumbering mass of regiments and batteries.

Stephen Crane’s “The Little Regiment” makes me wonder what I may have been missing all these years in which I’ve put off reading his novel The Red Badge of Courage. I’ve read other stories by Crane that I’ve enjoyed but for some reason have not picked up his most well-known work. I’ll say that needs to change – but I’ve said it before. It’s a novel I want to read, though.

stephen crane

“The Little Regiment” centers around two brothers, Billie and Dan, in the same regiment during the American Civil War. Billie and Dan don’t like each other and Crane makes it obvious that this is not simply playful sibling rivalry.  I found it interesting that Crane would go this route with a Civil War story as so much is made of brothers (who perhaps don’t hate each other) being on separate sides of the war having to fight each other. Billie and Dan are on the same side.

The hardness these brothers already have for each other mirrors the hardness the soldiers have to muster in doing their jobs in battle. But it contrasts with Cranes eloquent and emotional descriptions of the war’s landscape and atmosphere. As beautiful as his writing is, there is no glorification of war – only the fear and futility of it. Behind the writing lies a silent “Why?”

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction to the story, she indicates that “The Little Regiment” is not a story that has been often anthologized. I’m glad she includes it in this collection.

I read this story when I selected the Three of Spades for Week 38 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.