It only took me three days to read Leif Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander. I read his other two which are also pictured above while I was taking a break from blogging. I’ll try to write something about them soon. All of them are great but Virgil takes the prize for favorite.
When the title character accidentally drives into Lake Superior and is then rescued, he gets what might be called a new lease on life. In fact, he refers to himself before the accident as “the previous tenant”. It’s not so much a drastic change as a subtle one, but its a change nonetheless. The “previous” Virgil probably wouldn’t have invited a kite-flying Norwegian stranger to share his apartment – but the new one does.
Virgil runs the local movie house in Greenstone, Minnesota on the banks of Lake Superior where the movies he shows are still on reels of film as opposed to digital. He lets on that he is a failed theology student who “ran out of God”. His change after his baptism of sorts is more one of perspective. All the bad things about his situation are still there. He just sees them in a different light. Nor does he shy away from them anymore.
Somewhat of a loner, Virgil still lives within his community but now he is more willing to get involved with people with the help of his new kite-flying friend. Toward the end, he has the thought that “your tribe is always bigger than you think.”
This novel reminds me in some ways of Wendell Berry’s stories of Port William, Kentucky, especially Jayber Crow, I’m curious if Enger intends to write more about the folks in Greenstone. I’d love to hear about them.
There is also something slightly personal about the novel in that I lived in Hibbing, Minnesota for a brief time when I was growing up. Located on the Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing isn’t far away from where Greenstone is fictionally (I think) located. It’s mentioned briefly in the novel as a place where someone’s sister is from. It also happens to be the birthplace of Robert Zimmerman who later became known as Bob Dylan. In the novel there is a running joke about how Greenstone’s mayor, Lydia, keeps a correspondence with Dylan who always turns down her request to headline at Greenstone’s annual festival “Hard Luck Days” (great name!). But then this happens at the end of the novel:
Last spring Bob Dylan overcame his wariness and played our Main Street stage. I missed it, but Lydia went with a lemon pie, and ate it with Dylan after the show. She reports he said little, but his eyes were expressive. He called the pie “better than the Nobel.”
Deal Me In 2019 – Week 16
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If any story deserves a TRIGGER WARNING for somebody who has been the victim of sexual assault, it would be Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan”. I had heard from time to time that this story could be disturbing and controversial. And I would have to agree now that I’ve read it.
I’ve been an admirer of Hemingway’s work for a long time so I admit I don’t really know what to do with this story. I can’t really recommend it and it’s difficult to defend it. If someone is studying Hemingway’s work in depth, they could use this story as the epitome (and I use that term in a negative sense) of Hemingway’s hyper-masculine male and subservient female.
Yes, I could point to some of Hemingway’s major novels in which he has some very strong female characters and not-so-strong male characters but I feel it could be interpreted as defending this story so maybe I’ll save that for another post.
I read this story when I selected the Four of Diamonds for Week 16 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
“A shallow mind is a sin against God…A man who does not struggle is a fool.”
Many of Chaim Potok’s novels revolve around a relationship between a father and a son – a relationship usually in conflict.
That’s no different in his novel In the Beginning; however, in Potok’s other novels the father and son usually have more in common than different even when the son moves away from some of the traditions the father holds dear. In the case of In the Beginning, though, a very young David Lurie realizes he might be considered polar opposite to his father Max.
Max Lurie is a doer. He prides himself on his strength. He led a small band of Jewish men in fighting against the Cossacks in Poland when many of his faith refused to fight. He saved most of these men’s families and brought them to the United States to start a new life in Brooklyn continuing to work to bring more from Europe during the 1920’s.
Young David is sickly and weak by most standards. He has a huge mind, constantly asking questions and constantly reading books. He doesn’t always know how to relate to people – even those of his own faith who teach at his Jewish school. As a child, he walks alone in the park pretending and dreaming that he is his father fighting the Cossacks and saving his community in Poland.
The conflict of the father and son isn’t simply cerebral. It goes straight to the heart of who each person is. When a grown David tells his father he will be studying the Bible at a secular college with secular students and professors using secular methods and ideas, Max has difficulty accepting David’s plan. At the same time, Max knows that he can’t stop David and even if he could, it wouldn’t be right. This is where Max becomes more similar to Danny Saunders’ father in The Chosen or Asher Lev’s father in My Name is Asher Lev. Max shows a willingness and knows the necessity in maintaining a relationship with his son – as different as they might be.
As with all of Potok’s novels, In the Beginning proceeds with a slow tender pace in revealing the protagonist’s coming of age as they struggle to find their own way. And finding their own way never seems to require a complete abandonment of their faith.
It’s taken me quite a while to get through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But I don’t think I’ve ever struggled through a novel only to be so taken by the ending – especially the very last words:
…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.
The idea that people must do great things to change the world is put to rest by the stories Eliot tells in her novel. The residents of Middlemarch, of which there are many, live their lives and dream their dreams. Some hold on to the status quo with dear life while others bend the rules and go against the grain of tradition. With Eliot’s final words, she brilliantly shows us that the small decisions and the little acts of those in which we are unaware help shape and mold the world into a different place – one that is better for all of us.
Each character in Eliot’s novel becomes the important one – the protagonist – during the sections of the narrative in which they are involved. How intimate Eliot can make these characters is remarkable. Perhaps it’s easiest to consider Dorothea Brooke the true heroine. She’s the one that goes against the wishes of her husband and the general traditions of her family. She’s the one that grows from a timid girl to a strong woman willing to make needed sacrifices not just for her own happiness but for the happiness of others, too.
Eliot also can paint conversations between individuals as well as anyone. As readers, we get both the outwardly spoken thoughts and and the hidden unspoken ones all at the same time. The several conversations between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw leading up to their final decision are beautifully written and puts the reader in a wonderful suspense waiting to see what might happen.
While this probably isn’t my favorite of Eliot’s novels (of the ones that I’ve read anyway), I’m glad I read it. If I was going to recommend an Eliot novel with which someone might start, it would be Silas Marner. It has all of Eliot’s wonderful writing – but it’s not as long. And I still intend to read Daniel Deronda, another Eliot novel on my shelf that is on the lengthier side. It just might be a little while before I decide to tackle it.
Occasionally I come across books that I try to read and then come to the conclusion that life is too short for me to spend so much time to get through a specific book. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is NOT one of those books; however, given how long it’s taking me to read it, anyone might think it should be in this category.
I can make the excuse that I started reading it just as my busy season at work began. Next time, I won’t try to read a book of this magnitude during this time of year. But I do plan on finishing it.
I’m right in the middle of the novel, now. The depth of character and Eliot’s ability to paint so much of the human condition into a small provincial town amazes me. Dorothea Brooke appears to be the protagonist among a large variety of people. And the main plot twist at the moment seems to be the reading of a will – something that rarely fails to intrigue.
Have you read Middlemarch? How long did it take you and what was your experience with the novel? What books have you not been able to finish that everyone else seems to like?
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.
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.
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.
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.