I've read it at least ten times. Life changing read! I think that if I had to pack a few books and flee, this would be the first one I woul2008 Review
I've read it at least ten times. Life changing read! I think that if I had to pack a few books and flee, this would be the first one I would grab.
Dear Mr. Potok:
As you may recall, I sent you several letters in the early nineties thanking you for your work. And while I am glad I was able to communicate my adoration of your work while you were alive, I'm not sure I did a very compelling job of addressing the swelling, Beethoven-esque themes of My Name is Asher Lev. If you don't mind, I'd like to give it another shot.
As a prelimiary matter, I must note that in the Courtney constellation of books and iconography, Asher Lev might be as close as it gets to the definitive north pole. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is your main contender, but you win on prose. At least today. Which is not to say I was a child prodigy (not to say I wasn't), but more to say that the theme of betrayal of family and community for the needs of the self identity resonates so strongly with me that it feels, on re-reading, that you are telling my own story in parts.
And what a great, great story it is.
Asher Lev is a Hassidic Jew in New York, raised in post-war Brooklyn, where his father is the trusted associate and advisor of the leader of his Hassidic sect, and his mother, initially a housewife, becomes her father's colleague after her brother dies. They travel the world, getting followers out of scary places (basically everywhere), spreading the word to followers, and bringing books and other seditious materials to places like Moscow or Romania, still under the grip of Stalin.
From a very early age, Asher is a frighteningly good draftsman. Not only can be draw, but he can breathe life into a two dimensional page. But drawing is not studying the Torah. And it makes our Asher crazy and obsessed, because it's not enough to draw, he needs to see. He wants to see EVERYTHING, especially faces and bodies, to make those people come alive on his pages. It causes nightmares, and his father says enough. Asher is prohibited from reading and ordered to study and go play outside in traffic, his traditional side curls blowing in the wind. During this period, his Mom experiences a shattering loss and begins to make changes in her life, leaving him home alone more, seeing everything, with nowhere to put the images in his head.
With a less skilled writer, this section would be trite. Almost bad turn in a fairy tale bad. But with you, Mr. Potok, your reader sees every step of the agony between the expectations of family and community and the unstoppable voice of the self. Prose wise, you are part of the oral storytelling tradition, a bit of foreshadowing, a bit of dialogue, but good, old fashioned, effortless, delicious narrative. Reading your narrative is kind of like drinking a fountain Coca-cola after years of diet coke in the bottle. Your readers raised on show rather than tell finally get an understanding that some writers were born to tell, and do tell, stories in such vivid ways readers stay up late, drinking the last drop of melted ice and corn syrup magic.
Eventually Asher breaks and the community and his parents decide to let him draw, and paint. He's maybe ten and the community finds a teacher for him, we imagine some cross between Max Weber and Marc Chagall, who primarily scultps, but also paints. And shocks our Asher a thousand times. Forcing him to draw in his understhirt and ritual fringes on the beach. Making him draw nudes and cruxificions. And generally making him join the conversation between artists that has existed from, and within, generations since time immemoriam. For me personally, Mr. Potok, as a reader and an artist, that conversation is so fascinating. Hearing it told as a story, conveyed in narrative, dialogue, and description, is one of my favorite parts of one of my favorite books. I get a little teary even thinking about it.
And in many ways what happens next is part of that larger conversation among writers because nothing ever comes easy to a protagonist coming of age. And things are very hard for Asher. You, like those before you and after you, describe his need and ability to place what he sees and must express above the needs of his family and community with perfect inevitability. By this time our young hero has waded through a few landmines. He avoided leaving home and his teacher for Europe with his parents, he had his first show, and he has entered the world as a young prodigy. And while he has many, many pieces that will make his teacher and art dealer rich and happy, his work is missing something.
Because he keeps seeing and remembering his parents. Their experiences, his childhood, his truth, their truth. It haunts and blocks him. And until it gets out, he can't find the next thing to see and paint.
So he paints cruxifictions. First of his father, a methaphor for his relationship to his work. Then his mother, most haunting, for her being tortured by living between two men who cannot reconcile themselves to the other or their lives. Who suffers because of it.
Mr. Potok, can I call you Chaim? This is where the writing gets sick. Describing and narrating the process of an artist painting in a frenzy is like describing a murder. One thinks not so hard, anyone can do it. And then trying to do it and make it feel real and vital and moving is so difficult. I spent a month writing a murder chapter and I kind of think its okay. Not amzing.
This writing is amazing. As I think of the painting chapter, I can see the visual representations of the words, the slash of black, the fast pace, the slow realization, the quick changes, flash across my eyes. Your storytelling is impeccable, your readers cheer Asher on, knowing this is going to be a black and white betrayal to his parents, knowing this will set Asher free, knowing this will break Asher's heart, but he has to do it.
And in those last moments of the book when his parents see the painting and leave without a word, when Asher tries to explain the betrayal as anything but, and when Asher gets on a plane, his teacher gone, headed to exhile, we are holding Asher in our arms because we know, if he still does not, that he had to paint the Brooklyn Cruxifictions.
We stand a little taller, feel a little braver, and think of those betrayals that we must make to announce to the world I am here, I have seen, I have a voice.
There have been a million books written on the history of the holocaust, but this remains the authoritative tomb. Must read for every liberally educatThere have been a million books written on the history of the holocaust, but this remains the authoritative tomb. Must read for every liberally educated person. Must, must!...more
I am plowing through Suite Francaise but clearly struggling with some part of it. There are points where the story becomes so painful while the plot mI am plowing through Suite Francaise but clearly struggling with some part of it. There are points where the story becomes so painful while the plot moves so slowly that I simply want to put it down, but the author's story is so sad and her daughter's act of preserving their mother's novel so courageous I keep reading when the book itself makes me want to stop.
I stole my goodreads pal Leslie's synopsis of the history of the novel as I find it so well said. She writes:
"Ukrainian-born author Irene Nemirovsky was executed at Auschwitz in 1942. Prior to her deportation, she had fled to the French country-side with her family to attempt to avoid the Nazis. While living in the central France, she began an epic novel about life in France during the War. She complete the first two parts of what was to be a 5 part story before she was killed. Her young daughters managed to hold on to the manuscript and 60 years after their mother's death, the store was published."
I also found Leslie's observations about the story very compelling. She said, "[T:]his story captures human nature at strained points and time and highlights the baseness of humanity. The reader is thrown in the mass exodus of Paris ahead of the German occupation and the lack of humanity displayed by the vast majority of characters. . . . [T:]he triumphs of good are so tarnished by by the cruelty of the crowd that I have a tough time reading these stories."
I just finished and am almost heartbroken that the story does not continue as the author planned. About halfway through the second part, I took a break to read the author's notes in the appendix, which alone are an incredible historical find - to see an author fighting to create, craft and complete a novel in the midst of war while her rights as a Jew are swiftly stripped a way is a mind altering experience.
The notes are also helpful to the reader because at a certain point the book feels disconnected. Normally, one would just give the author a certain amount of credit and plow on, but with less than 100 pages left, I felt as if I was reading a book without a core. The notes regarding the author's plan for the unwritten sections gave me a firm sense of what she was trying to accomplish and suddenly, the "sweetness" (or dolce, as the part is called) opened up for me. I was absolutely riveted when I finished and am kind of mourning for the loss of the three unfinished parts.
In so many ways, the book is a masterpiece, albeit, a fragmented one, which might even be better read as two separate novellas than two parts of a novels. But above all, to know that the author's daughters saved this work of art for 60 years after their mother died in Auschwitz makes me proud to have read it. We should all hope to honor our mothers so grandly. ...more