Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reading update...

I picked up a couple more books by Patricia Cornwell at the library the other day, thinking that because I enjoyed reading The Scarpetta Factor, I would give more of her work a try. Yeah. Not so much.

I gave Predator (Berkley Books, 2005) most of 100 pages, but I could not stick with it. The main problem with the book, from my point of view, is that it is written in the present tense. That hardly ever works, and in this case it not only did not work, it bugged the crap out of me. My brain kept switching the verbs to past tense, but then reading along that would mess the whole sense of a paragraph off. I refrained from throwing the book against the wall, because the wall hadn't done anything to me and I couldn't see inflicting that on it. But, the book is now back on the library, no doubt lurking on the shelf and ready to snag some other unsuspecting reader.

I still have Scarpetta (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2008) out of the library and might give it a try later today. I hope it is better...and not in present tense.

Meanwhile, I've been reading in Medieval Women Writers (University of Georgia Press, 1984), edited by Katharina M. Wilson, not as recreational reading, but in beginning the research for a project called (I think) the 50 Challenge, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA), of which I am a member. The idea is for members of the SCA which, for those of you who are not familiar with the organization does medieval re-enactments, to celebrate the founding of the group by doing 50 of something tied in to each person's interests in the Middle Ages. For example, to learn to do 50 things that someone living in the time of the individual's society persona would know how to do, or to make 50 items that their persona would have used or, in my case, to write a 50-page research paper on some aspect of the medieval period.

Choosing to write about women writers in the Middle Ages was a fairly easy decision for me, as I am both a woman and a writer, and because I don't really know that much about women who wrote in that era. So far, what I'm finding is fascinating. There were more women writing in that period that I expected, and not all of them were nuns. This surprises me, I suppose, because of the general perception that the only way a woman in the Middle Ages could gain an education was by entering the religious life. Apparently, this was not always the case.

I expect, however, that it will be a challenge to find sources for research, and that I'll probably end up spending some time in the library at the local CSU. Which is fine, since I love to play in libraries. The parking situation over there is hideous (knowledge I gained while living right across the street from the school for five years), but a main bus line goes right to the campus, so I'll probably just take advantage of that.

I've also been doing some other reading in history, as I'm gearing up to do some general writing on history, part of which will land up in a blog (once I figure out what to call the blog), and which is meant to end up as a book about exploring various aspects of history.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading Update: The Scarpetta Factor, by Patricia Cornwell

I just finished reading The Scarpetta Factor (Berkley Books, 2009; 572 pages), by Patricia Cornwell. I'm not completely sure how I feel about it.

There's no doubt that it kept me turning the pages. However, 572 pages to tell a story that takes place in about a day and a half sometimes seemed a bit excessive. And there were places in the story where two or three things were taking place all at the same time, and it was, occasionally, slightly difficult to follow. This could also have had to do with the fact that I have not read all of the other books in the series, and so probably lacked some background that could have made some of the relationships between characters easier to follow.

Also, I've had a sort of variable relationship with the books of Cornwell's that I have read. I've liked some of them a lot; others, not so much. This one probably isn't one I'll read again, but the journey was interesting, and I'm glad I picked it up at the library and read it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

When I read Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev (Knopf, 1972; 369 pages) years ago, I loved it at least enough to buy a copy so that I could read it again someday. So, without anything else I wanted to read the other day, I picked it up and reread it. I hadn't been expecting it to capture my attention in the way it did, and spent a couple of nights up reading much later in the night than I should have done because I couldn't put it down until I got so sleepy that my eyes wouldn't stay open any more.

It is the story of Asher Lev, an Orthodox Hasidic Jew, who also happenes to be, almost despite himself, an artist. He shows promise in his drawings from a very early age, but in his community his talents - his genius, for he is a child prodigy - are not valued and in fact are considered a waste of time better spent doing other things. Those other things, in Asher's case, include following in his father's footsteps in promoting his branch of Judaism all over the world at a time (during the Cold War) as well as bringing Russian Jews out of the Soviet Union, which was a difficult and hazardous undertaking in the 1950s and 1960s, when the story takes place. He does this at the behest of his Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the branch of Hasidic Judaism that Asher's family belongs to. Asher is expected to go to school and learn the things he must to take over for his father someday, as Asher's father took over for his own father in doing this work on behalf of the Rebbe.

But art has hold of Asher and, after not drawing at all during the first years he in school, the art does not just take hold of him again. It seizes him. He sometimes draws without even knowing that is what he is doing. This is not just a problem for Asher, but for his whole community, which is very conservative and has set ideas of what boys like Asher should and should not be doing, with the "should not's" including drwaing picutres of the Rebbe in one of his religious books.

As Mr. Potok pointed out in a talk in 1986, "The Jewsih tradition is essentially an anti-iconographic tradition for the most part. Certainly it opoposes the making of any human image." He explained that this goes back to Mosaic monotheism and continued, saying "Therefore Jews have never participated in art of any kind that was connected to worship."

The Rebbe, though, sees that Asher has a talent that will not be denied and arranges for him to study with Jacob Kahn, an acclalimed artist who is a non-observant Jew but who counts the Rebbe as among his friends. Inevitably, the clash between Asher's artistic vision and his community becomes too much for the community to take, and as the book ends, Asher, still a young man, has acclaim as an artist but is asked to leave the Brooklyn community he grew up in and to return to Paris, to the yeshiva there where, the Rebbe says, "You did not grow up there. People will not be so angry in Paris."

In Mr. Potok's hands, Asher's story becomes about being an artist in a community that does not approve of being a visual artist and does not really understand what it means to Asher to be an artist. It is also about being an alien child to one's own parents. This is something I understand very well, having been my own mother's "alien child", who she did not understand after having grown up in a family that did not value any of the things I was interested in as a child and still am interested in as an adult. She never disapproved of my interests, as Asher's father does in Mr. Potok's novel, but she did not understand, either, why I couldn't be a "normal" child. We used to have what became a sort of ritual exchange when I was growing up.

My Mother: (to me, when I was reading, which was most of the time): "Go do something."
Me: "I am doing something. I'm reading."
My Mother: "Go outside and do something."

She wasn't a reader and to her, reading wasn't "doing something."

My Name is Asher Lev is a good book, told in Asher's voice and from his point of view. He never strays from his religious beliefs but, after his childhood break from drawing, never seriously strays from his determination to be an artist, although he wonders from time to time if his gift is, as he is told from time to time by others, from the Other Side, meaning that it is not from God but from more malevolent forces in the universe. The main flaw of the novel, from my point of view as a reader, is that sometimes years are glossed over in a few sentences. It is a trivial complaint, though, and I recommend this book highly.

There is a sequel, by the way, called The Gift of Asher Lev, and I'm looking for it right now so that I can read it again, as well.

Monday, August 8, 2011

And...I'm back

Yeah. It's been strange the past month or so, and I haven't been reading much. So there hasn't been anything to write about.


I just finished reading "My Name is Asher Lev", by Chaim Potok. It's a re-read, actually, and I loved this book as much as I did the first time I read it, but I suspect that the reasons this time are entirely different from last time. I've got to go think about it for a little while, and then I'll be back to write more about this book and what it meant to me when I read it this time.