The Promise by Chaim Potok

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There’s a scene in Chaim Potok’s The Promise in which Danny Saunders, studying for his Doctorate, takes his fingers to the side of his face and tugs on the now imaginary earlocks that were once there. They are one part of his Hasidic upbringing that he chose to leave behind as he studies Psychology instead of taking his father’s place as leader of his community. Continuing from Potok’s The Chosen, Danny seamlessly moves between his Old World Hasidism and his new intellectual and professional pursuits. It’s not that he hasn’t had his share of struggles and conflicts but he now appears comfortable in both of his worlds.

Reuven Malter, on the other hand, has conflicts within his own world as he studies for his rabbinical ordination. In his Talmud class, he uses more modern methods of interpretation as opposed to the traditional ones much to the dismay of some of his teachers. Reuven’s conflict is wonderfully expressed in this sarcastic rant characteristically listened to by Danny in a supportive and gentle manner:

“We are at war, friend. Didn’t you know we are at war?”

Danny said nothing.

The enemy surrounds us. The evil forces of secularism are everywhere. Look under the bed before you say the Kriat Shma at night. Look under the bed before you pray the Shacharit Service in the morning. And while you’re at it check the books on your desk and look in your typewriter and close the window because they come in with the wind. Did you know they come in with the wind?”

“All right,” Danny said quietly.

“The hell it’s all right. We become like dead branches and last year’s leaves and what the hell good are we for ourselves and the world in a mental ghetto. The hell it’s all right.”

To have a friend to whom one can truly express their frustrations is presented as a huge blessing by Potok and I think it’s what continues to fascinate me with Danny and Reuven. Their friendship stays strong.

While a rabinnical ordination may not usually be intense drama, Potok brilliantly lets the tension mount between Reuven and his teachers to the point that his oral examination becomes a nail-biter for the reader.

How disagreements over tradition can cause hurt and pain both endured and inflicted becomes a major theme for Danny and Reuven and the friends they make as they continue their spiritual and intellectual journeys.

 

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The Chosen by Chaim Potok

 

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Chaim Potok’s The Chosen introduced me to two of my favorite characters in all the books I’ve read.

The narrator, Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jewish teenager living in Brooklyn in 1945, observes the commandments and believes in God. His father is the one who has brought him up this way and is also the one who recognizes his son’s intelligence. While his father studies the Talmud with Reuven, he encourages his son to think critically and on a more scientific and historical level than most Orthodox Jews would during this time.

Danny Saunders, a Hasidic Jewish teenager living a few blocks from Reuven, follows more rigid traditional practices and is next in line after his father to take over as leader of his sect. However, like Reuven, Danny also has a brilliant mind and secretly reads works by Darwin and Freud which have been forbidden by his Hasidic community and his father.

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The two boys meet during an intense baseball game between their respective schools. And they become fast friends in spite of their differences as evidenced by Reuven’s comment during their first conversation:

“I’m all mixed up about you. I’m not trying to be funny or anything. I really am mixed up about you. You look like a Hasid, but you don’t sound like one. You don’t sound like what my father says Hasidim are supposed to sound like. You sound almost as if you don’t believe in God.”

And as their friendship grows, Reuven continues to have questions. Questions that Danny doesn’t necessarily answer but is comfortable with Reuven asking:

…Danny was patient, as patient as my father, and slowly I began to understand the system  of psychological thought Freud had constructed. And I, too, became upset. Freud contradicted everything I had ever learned. What I found particularly upsetting was the fact that Danny didn’t seem to have rejected what Freud taught. I began to wonder how it was possible for the ideas of the Talmud and the thinking of Freud to live side by side within one person. It seemed to me that one or the other would have to give way. When I told this to Danny, he shrugged, said nothing, and went back to his reading.

As the story unfolds leading to the emotional conclusion between Danny and his father, the boys learn to think on their own. But what has always attracted me to this story is the fact that neither boy walks away from his faith. They question many aspects of it and choose to eliminate ideas or practices that they can’t reconcile to the world they see themselves living in – but they continue their religious and intellectual journeys.

Potok manages to pull the reader into these boys’ worlds with only ever so brief explanations for those (like myself) who might not be familiar with the Jewish culture. The author teaches the reader about this world while they think they are only reading a good story. An amazing feat!

This is the third time I’ve read The Chosen and I’m still moved by the friendship of these two boys and the fathers who let them go.

 

 

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen presents one of the more memorable protagonists that I’ve encountered in my reading in a while. Right from the start, we know this unnamed narrator is a Communist spy in South Vietnam. He has a Vietnamese mother and a French father which sets him up as an outsider for most of his life. We also understand that as an adult he has two close friends, one of which knows about his spying (because he is a spy, too) and one doesn’t. And finally, we know from the beginning that he is presently in an isolation cell writing a confession to a Communist superior. What is he confessing? That’s where the story takes us.

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I would describe the plot as a “slow boil”. We go deep into the mind, background and character of the narrator while small plot turns add up to a satisfying and explosive conclusion. But the novel’s focus remains on the duality of the narrator’s character. In spite of his role as a communist spy, he has been educated in the United States. In spite of his dislike for much of the U. S. foreign policy, he gets “westernized” through music and literature.

The most fascinating aspect of the narrator and the novel to me, though, is the fact that he has what many would call an ability to see politics, history and religion from more than one point of view. This ability is probably what alienates or isolates him the most. At the same time, it’s probably what allows him to have the few close friendships that he has.

And on a final note, the depth and complexity of this novel still allows for comedy – not just something funny stuck in for comic relief but a humor that works. Perhaps since the narrator easily sees things from multiple viewpoints, this also lets him see the humor in life:

After love, was sadness not the most common noun in our lyrical repertoire: Did we salivate for sadness, or had we only learned to enjoy what we were forced to eat? These questions required either Camus or cognac, and as Camus was not available I ordered cognac.

 

 

 

 

 

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

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“There’s a black violence on this valley. I don’t know – I don’t know. It’s as though some old ghost haunted it out of the dead ocean below and troubled the air with unhappiness. It’s as secret as hidden sorrow. I don’t know what it is, but I see it and feel it in the people here.”

After being on my shelf since I was in high school, I finally read John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I don’t know why I waited so long. I’ve gone back on goodreads.com and wondered why I have given so many books 5 stars in recent months. I don’t necessarily regret these ratings and I’m not going to change them but now I want to somehow signify that East of Eden reached out and grabbed me more than these other books. I want to give it more than 5 stars.

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I consider Steinbeck one of those American writers that grapple with the disillusionment felt by so many after World War I.  In East of Eden, the Biblical allusion in the title got me thinking that maybe the reason for the disillusionment is the sense that something has been lost, something of value is gone. What that something is could take a hundred posts to discuss and maybe we still wouldn’t come to a definitive answer. Maybe the Eden that is lost is so lost that we don’t know what it is anymore.

In the center of the novel, though, Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton, the patriarchs of the two families involved in the novel, discuss the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel with Lee, Trask’s Cantonese servant. It prompts Lee to ask some learned members of his family about the meaning of the verses in Genesis 4. After two years of learning Hebrew, the scholars determine that a certain word that can be translated as a command actually means something closer to “thou mayest” or “to choose”.  The power to choose good or the power to choose evil – maybe that has something to do with what is lost. Are we no longer able to choose good?

In spite of being family patriarchs, neither Trask nor Hamilton are strong the way we might think of family leaders. To me, they seem more inherently good than inherently strong. Their struggle to choose good made them shine as characters – even with their weaknesses and imperfections.

And then there is Lee who I think is both strong and good – and, by choice, a servant. He now firmly has a place on my list of favorite literary characters.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I would have told her that Davis and I never talked much, or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter, because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.

Of the YA authors that I have read (and admittedly, I haven’ t read a lot), John Green is one of the best. As I enjoyed his novel The Fault in Our Stars so much, I looked forward to reading his latest novel Turtles All the Way Down. I wasn’t disappointed.

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Narrator Aza Holmes plays internet detective with her friend Daisy as she deals with her unnamed mental illness. While experts in mental illness would make a better case for exactly how well Green portrays this aspect of Aza, I will say that he easily pulls the reader into Aza’s world. The mystery that Aza and Daisy try to solve plays second to the ups and downs of the teenage characters and their relationships with friends and family- and to Aza’s illness.

In the two other Green novels I’ve read – The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines – the humor Green uses made me occasionally stop reading because I had to laugh so hard. While Turtles All the Way Down has some very funny moments, I don’t recall having to stop reading. That’s not necessarily something negative, its just different.

Green’s use of science in this story blends perfectly with all of the human emotions and reactions to things that can’t always be explained – such as human suffering. I think Green is a master at taking the lives of teenagers and showing how they fit in with the deeper meaning and bigger picture of the world and life in general.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise, is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, and speedy shall be her descent from it.

I have finally finished Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey! At only 187 pages, this has to be the shortest book that its taken me the longest to read. I can blame the holidays, work or perhaps its because its the third Austen novel I’ve read in a row. But I have now finished all six of Jane Austen’s novels and I have no regrets in doing so. I think I’ve rated all of them as 5 stars on goodreads.com.

Northanger Abbey

I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I find Austen’s satirical humor similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s. While they write in different time periods with different styles, they both manage to write with such a wonderful twinkle in their eye. And in Northanger Abbey, I found another similarity. They both put themselves in their story as a sort of fictional creator of the other characters in the novel. Northanger Abbey‘s heroine Catherine finds life imitating art as she explores the mansion of her new found friends the Tilneys and then as Jane situates herself as not just the author but a creator, as well, life tends to imitate art imitating life imitating art. And maybe Jane could ingeniously keep going on and on and on.

Yes, by now, I can pretty much tell who will end up with whom and who will give up the social and monetary status for true love. Jane doesn’t change much in that regard but that doesn’t really matter. Going where we know what will happen has never been as delightful as in Jane Austen’s novels.

Jane Austen Read All

I read Northanger Abbey as a participant in the Jane Austen Read All Along over at James Reads Books. I’m a little late in finishing and since I read Persuasion last year, I opted to not re-read it.

So here is the list of Austen’s novels in the order of my own personal enjoyment, but as I stated before, I gave them all 5 stars:

  1. Pride and Prejudice
  2. Emma
  3. Sense and Sensibility
  4. Northanger Abbey
  5. Persuasion
  6. Mansfield Park

 

Emma by Jane Austen

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…and it really was too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year.

I probably consider Emma my second favorite Jane Austen novel next to Pride and Prejudice but I have to read Northanger Abbey to make a definitive statement and that novel is on my list to read this month.

With Emma, I got that familiar “twinkle” in Austen’s eye as the novel unfolds – that twinkle that I didn’t see as much in Mansfield Park or Persuasion. Emma Woodhouse is not necessarily as likeable a character as some of Austen’s other heroines; however, Emma’s snobbery comes across like a character from Seinfeld. Yes, we know about her selfishness but she’s going to make us laugh, anyway.

Then there’s all the carrying on about minutiae: how to have the best ball and who writes the best letters – more reminders of Seinfeld. Whoever said Jane was ahead of her time wasn’t kidding.

For me, though, the funniest aspect of the novel was the long-running “gag” about Harriet Smith. Harriet goes from an Emma-protege to an Emma-annoyance all because of Emma’s own doing.

It made me laugh out loud.

I read Emma for the Jane Austen Read-All-Along hosted by James over at James Reads Books.

Jane Austen Read All