My Jam

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I’ve said before, quoting naughty Jonathan Franzen, that literature is my religion, which is mostly true, but I am just as religious, if not a little more addicted. As I shift between yoga morning me to work to the barn, the range, or other activities, to home to sleep, my extremely eclectic, basically weirdo taste in music helps me make the mental shift more smoothly. Perhaps most critical for me is the post-work to barn playlist. It’s a longish drive from downtown STL to my suburban/semi-rural barn where I simultaneously need to shake off the often frantic end of my day, calm down, clear my mind, but also maintain good energy for a long ride. Here’s a typical to the barn jam:

1. Missing Pieces – Jack White (preconcert pic above)
2. Let the Rain – Sarah Bareilles
3. Tonight, Tonight – Smashing Pumpkins
4. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Live version) – Indigo Girls (sorry, Buffy, but Amy owns this song)
5. Where is My Mind – Pixies
6. Gold Lion – yeah yeah yeahs
7. Superwoman – Alicia Keys
8. Come As You Are -Nirvana
9. Burn – Elle Goulding
10. This Charming Man – Smiths
11. Parachute (accoustic version) – Ingrid Michelson
12. Such Great Heights – The Postal Service
13. Nail in My Coffin – The Kills
14. Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes
15. Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden

It’s a long drive.

To work is a different situation because I need to both calm and center my mind, and get in a good mood. Generally I’ve been up for hours, but I still might be tired.

1. Steady as She Goes – The Racounters (also name of the first filly I breed)
2. So What – Pink
3. Run this Town – Jay-Z
4. Sugar Cane – Missy Higgins
5. Girl Gone Wild – Madonna
6. Fidelity – Rebecca Spector
7. We Are Going to Be Friends – White Stripes (sensing a pattern?)
8. Maps – yeah yeah yeahs
9. Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
10. Come Out & Play – Offspring

Heading home, I am always tired and need to calm down and breathe

1. Sober – Pink
2. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out – Bessie Smith
3. Never Gonna Dance – Fred Astaire
4. All Apologies – Nirvana
5. Samson – Rebecca Spektor
6. The Way I Am – Ingrid Michelson
7. Today – Smashing Pumpkins
8. Fleet of Hope – Indigo Girls
9. Blackbird – Beatles
10. The Chain – Fleetwood Mac
11. Oceans – Jay-Z/Frank Ocean
12. Old Timers – Leslie and the Badgers
13. Bravado – Lorde
14. White Blank Page – Mumford and Sons
15. Workin’ in Corners – Nanci Griffith (second gen blue grass, the original rockabilly songstress)

The rest of the day, either working (when I can) or puttering around the house/garden is classical or jazz. I am a classical junkie, particularly German cello and piano concertos.

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Including this brilliant cellist, Daniel Lee, who has a Schumann concerto this weekend.

And jazz, both instrumental and vocal. Sometimes I play Miles Davis’s Someday My Prince will Come for my horse when I’m grooming him, because he is most definitely my Prince Charming. Often I will sing silly Ella songs to him when he’s cantering on his right lead to calm him down or bust out old Gershwin songs.

And if I’m lost and need to find inspiration, I lay under the stars and listen to Rhapsody in Blue and So What and am usually up in a handstand, backbend, or forearm balance against a tree before the grand finale of Rhapsody.

What music gets you through the day?
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30 Days of Book Reviews: Day Ten – Atonement

Read in December, 2007
 
This is sort of a slap-dash review, because I am still digesting Atonement and figuring out what I think about its various intricate parts.

But let me say, I loved Atonement. In fact, I read it because I was not completely happy with the movie and wanted to see why I thought the movie didn’t work for me. It had been on my to-read list forever, but I started reading it almost immediately after I got home. I love the imagery, I love the inner dialog of Briony’s about the nature of being a writer and I especially loved the description of the evacuation of Dunkirk and the resulting chaos at Briony’s hospital. Mostly, though, I loved the ending. I thought it was far superior to the movie’s and made a great deal more sense. Of course, I still envisioned Vanessa Redgrave as Briony, but I liked it better.

Dear Ian:

Seven and a half years later, I decided you deserved a proper review. In part because you are one of my most beloved writers for whom, like Donna Tartt and Margaret Atwood, I wait and wait and wait for your next novel. Curious that I picked Atonement first to properly review, however, since its not actually my most favorite of your novels. But it does have a couple of extra-special awesome parts that I want to dig into with you.

The first is the genesis of the story, which I understand came from Jane Austen’s {book: Northanger Abbey]. Perhaps its your writing style, but unlike Saturday where I could see your conversation with Virginia Woolf jumping off the page, it took me awhile to understand the connection. But in both a little naive girl with dramatic proclivities sees a small things and allows it to bloom into an untruth. Jane shuts the little girl down quickly an redirects her, but you take that kernel of an idea and run with it, leading whole families into ruin and destruction. What makes your conversation with Austen so perfect is that you take a moment in her book and use it as a plot device to say, “what if no one told the girl to stop?” And your plot evolves from there.

The next is the mother of ALL unreliable narrators. Sneaky McEwan gives us some hints that the story may be a literary form created by Briony, but they are sneaky, hidden gems and if one (such as me) is so distracted by the larger story of Dunkirk and England during the blitz misses it, finding out that nothing we’ve read is exactly true is a shock. Briony is an unreliable narrator on two fronts. One, because she is telling a tale, she is recounting things through the lense of her experience, not through a more knowing omniscient narrator, but more importantly Two, because she is largely making the entire novel up to make up for the story that she told early in the book. This i her homage and her apology for the lives she’s ruined. So we can never know the truth. We can only know what Briony wishes had happened.

Except there are some known truths because you report with exquisite and often painful detail the experience of living in England and working as a nurse during WWII to a degree that made my nerdy historian’s heart skip a beat. The time you took on Dunkirk, easily one of the most interesting and courageous battles (I could start crying here thinking of all of the English fishing boats hauling soldiers, starving and thirsty, out of the channel after the German’s drove them into the sea. Okay, fine Ian, a few tears. I can rarely talk about Dunkirk without getting misty). But for such a critically important battle, Dunkirk gets so little attention in modern media. I savored (and sobbed) through every moment. And we know these things are true, despite Briony and her sketchy narration, because they are known historical facts and we know she has little to no incentive to create stories about them. Her job as a nurse is not what drives her to tell this tale – its a desire to give her sister and her lover the life they deserved.

Which is really where the magic comes in because so much of it is true that we can suspend our disbelief and understand maybe Briony sees something that would have happened but for her lie. That would have happened had a grown up questioned her, as the grownup (future boyfriend) did in Northanger Abbey.

Masterful work. And while I prefer your more everyday stories, this is a gem.

When is the next book coming, Ian?

Kisses and hearts.

–C         

 
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30 Days of Book Reviews: Day Nine: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Read from December 12, 2013 to January 11, 2014
I am so obsessed with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay that I am both listening to it and reading it. How did I miss this?

Dear Michael,

Please excuse me while I bat my eye lashes at you a little. I am reading Maps Legends right now and enjoying it so much I actually stopped reading until I had a pen and a cup of tea. Your prose is sick – either in fiction or non-fiction form – and your thoughts on the literary market are like the most trenchant observations taken from years of rants with Rebecca and others. But I should be clear that I only discovered Maps Legends because I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay.

When I was reading K&C, I wondered how I missed it, but you published smack in the middle of law school. Mind you, I still read a ton of novels in law school, but mostly I read a ton of crap. Shameful, shameful pulp, chick lit, mass market mysteries and, oh yes Michael, romance novels. Don’t tell anyone, okay? It’s kind of embarassing for the aspiring queen of Victorian literature to admit the rubbish she’s read. 

K&C was yet another Nikki recommendation (sensing a theme here), but I didn’t pick it up until this winter. In fact, I put off starting The Goldfinch, my literary obsession of the decade, to read K&C. And I’m glad I did, because but for Finch, you would be my Donna. 

With you, I want to talk about place, which probably makes some sense to you, brilliant man that you are, because the physical and metaphyscal place K&C describes is what makes it so enjoyable (and you discuss hit the lack of reading for enjoyment so hard in Maps Legends. K&C has brilliant, richly drawn characters, and a large plot that moves and makes sense, but its magic comes in its places, which you deliver, in large doses, through the use of the golden age of the comic book. 

Honestly, Michael, the use of the comic book as a story device made me want to go back to age 11 or 12 and be a girl who reads comic books, who thinks in terms of drawing and writing in those ways, instead of the larger, messier, and less potent canvas and manuscript. As you know, Joe Kavalier is an artist and magician who escapes Prague as the Germans invade to protect the mythical Golem of Prague (google the legend, readers, if you are not familiar with the story of the jew who breathed life into a clay child by putting God’s name on his tongue. I cannot do it justice here). And that magical place of your Joe’s childhood leaps off the page. Suddenly we are doing illusionist tricks by the river. But once you get out, the place shifts and we are enchanted. 

You end up in New York, sharing a room with your tiny cousin Sammy. Within basically no time, the two of you discover you have a knack for comic book creation. You draw, Sammy writes, you collaborate on ideas. And so many of the great themes of what an American consumer wants come out of these discussions. I could have read another 100 pages of Joe and Sammy writing comic books. But instead you take us from their micro level to the macro level and discuss the development of the comic book genre – the major characters, the sales, the story lines and the companies who publish them – and it becomes a place. Like a corner of Manhattan we might walk around, you take us on a long walk through the places of the golden age of comic books and its a long, epic walk that spans the origin until the senate committee hearings. 

At some point, Joe splits leaving Clay to fend for himself as well as Joe’s pin-up girlfriend. But the place he ends up is its own magical space. A small room in a giant building. So much of this feels like the perfectly shot 1940s/1950s New York film and the characters’ ease and disease in the space creates an epic that spans time, themes, and lives. It is worth every last word.

Thanks again, Michael. See you later in your essays. 

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30 Days of Book Reviews: Day Eight – Gone Girl

Read from June 07 to 17, 2012

*******SPOILER ALERT ************

Seriously, I mean it. If you haven’t read this yet, step away from good reads and go buy the book at an independent book store. Trust me, they have it.

Dear Gillian, 

We became friends when Nikki put your book in my hand (second trip to her store) and said READ THIS NOW. At that point her face was buried in it. I am sure I’m going to have a giant bone to pick with you about the movie – you should have sold it to HBO or Netflix and had WAAY better casting, but I will wait to see the movie before getting up in your business about it.

This was one of my favorite books of 2012. I proselytized it all over town, and it led my to Megan Abbott, who I adore. Your other books are good, and definitely worth reading, but Gone Girl like Abbott’s {book: Dare Me] is a thing into itself. 

The book centers around two characters – AMAZING AMY and her douchie husband Nick Dunne. 

When the book starts Amy Dunne has disappeared, by all accounts murdered by Nick. Everyone believes he did it. Hell, his parents probably believe he did it. And evidence slowly sneaks out incriminating him. it doesn’t help that he has kind of a trampy girlfriend, lives in a rented McMansion, increased his wife’s life insuramce, appears soulless on tv or lives outside of Hannibal, where he and his sister run a bar paid for with his wife’s trust fund. Nancy Grace has a daily report on him. By the end of part one, we all believe he did it, except we’ve seen that show and have to believe Flynn has a trick up her sleeve. Part one is entirely in Nick’s narrative and he has precious little good to think about Amy. 

PLOT TWIST. 

Amazing Amy – so called because her parents wrote a bunch of children’s books based entirely on her, made scads of cash, gave her some, and shamelessly spent the rest, sending her to some second best St. Louis private school where she meets her super creepy high school boyfriend. She meets and marries Nick, they live in New York, all is well, and then BAM. 

Nick loses his job as a journalist. He forces Amy to move back to Missouri. So really, one can hardly blame her for painstakingly and with incredible diligence and attention to detail faking her own death and framing her husband. Who is pretty much going to fry if she doesn’t emerge soon.

Once we learn Amy is alive and snacking on hostess products while plotting from a hotel room with an evil grin, the narration switches between Amy and Nick. Both of whom are unreliable narrators. Nick thinks his wife is just kind of a cold, mean heartless, b!tch intent on demeaning him and his hometown. Amy believes she is amazing and that Nick is an ambitiousless, cheeting, tacking, gross Missourian who runs a bar. In actuality, Amy is a high functioning sociopath and Nick is kind of an everyman, only just the worst parts. We atrain to see the best parts. 

Or maybe people do see the best parts, but I didn’t. I am solidly on Team Amazing Amy. One of my most favorite lead characters ever. I root for her every evil thought and admire her ridiculous attention to detail. In the end, she runs out of cash, shacks up with her ex from high school, who ends up being a little Steven Kingish and slimy (a younger Spader could have played him). He wants to lock her up in a white dress, so she kills him and then emerges, claiming the boyfriend kidnapped her. In the meantime, Nick gets some gumption and decides to figure out why all of this is happening to him. He finds a tiny thread Amy left hanging and the story unravels. When she comes home, he knows she faked her death, is a scary sociopath, and has a written expose. Except Amy plays her trump, her arrow aimed at Nick’s achilles heel. She’s pregnant. Actually, legitimately pregnant with Nick’s baby. And so he can’t out her because his life’s ambition is to be a Dad (apparently with a sociopath). Amy starts writing a memoir and he deletes his book.

Amazing Amy WINS! I loved the ending. Seriously, this woman faked her death and framed you and you are so wowed by the idea of a baby that you will stay with her and forgive her (at least enough so that she doesn’t stab you in your sleep) because of a baby.

Oh Nick. You deserve what you got. But I only think so because Amy is such an INSANE, WICKED, CRAZY genius that she should win. She tries harder. And any writer who can get a reader to root for the sociopath over the every man is a genius. 

More please, Gillian.

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Suburbia 1 – LifeoutsideofLaw

Suburbia 1 - LifeoutsideofLaw

Pastel on Canvas 18×24

My Ode to Jennifer Bartlett – A Year of Suburbia

Hey Reader - 

This is an odd and courageous (or self-aggrandizing) moment for me, but I want a little accountability and my friend Evelyn suggested I try blogging about my drawings when I finished the #365project (which completely changed my life and my view of myself on a million levels).  So here I am, waiting for edits on a brief, and I’ve decided to share the first significant piece from what I hope will be a Year of Suburbia series of drawings and paintings.  My goal is two significant pieces (meaning polished, on canvas, thought out, hangable) a month, with many more sketches, drawings, visual thoughts, perspective puzzles in between.  I’ll post the significant pieces as I finish them and may share a drawing, sketch, or perspective puzzle if I think of something to say about it.

The first photograph is #1.  Pastel on canvas.  St. Louis 1950s Ranch House

The second photograph is from Jennifer Bartlett’s iconic 1983-1984 collection of drawings she did of a swimming pool.  I believe it is pastel on paper.  Anyway, as the story goes, Jennifer rented this house with a tuscan pool and thought it would be an amazing place of emotional, spiritual, and artistic growth.  And she hated it.  The house.  The area.  And especially the pool.  The pool was hideous.  A suburban rectangle with a pretentious sculpture stuck at the end.  But she was stuck with the house, and so she spent a year panting, drawing, and sketching nothing else besides the pool.  Which resulted in a massive body of work, some finished, some unfinished, some polished, some drawings.  Which not only showed the evolution of her eye, but the evolution of the pool over the seasons (cue Vivaldi).  

I am feeling a little why am I living in a 1950s ranch home community right now.  So here we go.  Let’s see what I can learn from Jennifer Bartlett

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30 Days of Book Reviews: Day Seven – FIFTY SHADES

Read (painfully) sometime in 2013.  Exact details have been blocked from memory. 

Author’s Note:  If you LOVED Fifty Shades of Gray, please stop reading immediately.  The level of snark this review will employ would have made David Foster Wallace write an even longer, even more strained, even more impassioned plea against snark.  I promised Virginia Woolf a Woolfian snarky review and this is it.  I’m not going to be sweet about it.  If, however, you have considered reading Fifty Shades, consider this the cliffnotes and a cautionary tale. 

 

To:  E.L: 

I’m not sure if you know who Virginia Woolf is, despite Bella’s (oops, I mean Anastasia’s LOVE of all things Brit, but I promised her a few weeks ago that I would write an acerbic review.  Really I wanted to review Goldfinch, or A Discovery of Witches, or something I love.  But I can’t bring myself to even tackle Henry James’ insane passive voice with the knife Ms. Woolf used.  So I picked you.

Really, I am astonished your book ever sold.  But more to the point, I am astonished that you are not locked up in the Hague for crimes against humanity and literature.  Because I do believe you have destroyed literary erotica.  As in flattened it.  So its you, your many subby accolytes, or porn.  I choose none of the above.  Frankly I’ll just write my own.

Which is how I got into this mess in the first place.  I picked up Fifty Shades halfway through the first draft of a piece after noticing my writing tends to veer towards literary erotica.  Who knew?  I mean, I murder people, and write plots, but apparently the bits I write best tend to be in.out.around the bedtroom.  So that will be five more years in therapy, but in the meantime, as a devoted reader, bookbuyer, and follower of book trends, I was finally flattened by curisoity as to how and why this series went crazy.  And then I started reading your work and blanked.  My inner goddess is bored and confused.  Oh my.   I am wearing my superhero librarian glasses and giving you my sternest look. 

Sex is inherently interesting.  People who have odd or unsavory sexual fantasies are generally even more interesting.  Add a little gothicy romance and you have a made for you plot and novel.  Just develop the characters, give them some wants and needs and connect the sex to the romance or conflict or wants.  Book done.  If your prose is good, then it’s an added plus and we can start talking about Nin and Miller and all kinds of things.  But amazing prose isn’t a requirement.

Some passing recognition that prose has value in a book is important.  I think Bel…Anastasia said oh my 743 times.  You stole lip biting and its her one reaction.  The sole redeeming virtue in your book is Christian’s (ew) “laters baby,” which I always want to use, but then what if people think I actually like your work.  Fail.  

But rather than pick at you, Here is my actual review.  My apologies for my bluntness. 

Fifty Shades is TERRIBLE. The writing is awful, the story is stolen largely from Stephanie Meyers, which is largely taken from gothic romances, but at least Meyers tells a story. The worse part is the sex scenes (of which there are many) are all tell and no show, and not remotely sexy or erotic (or disturbing/interesting).  The only remotely interesting scene is the tampon scene, which is pretty awkward, but goes nowhere.  I’m not reading these for fun (where is the fun??), but I’m trying to figure out by way of market research what, besides consumption porn makes these so commercially profitable. I am left believing my fellow sisters have such low expectations for sex that this sounds amazing.  No.  no. no. no.   To save my fellow readers the trouble, here is my synopsis so that none of you need to read the actual book:

Hi Ms. Steele

Hello Mr. Gray

You are pretty, want to be my sub and sign this contract

Not really, because spanking = beating (really?)

Fine, let’s have sex, but no touching, growl

But I want to touch you,

You can’t, I’m 50 shades of f*cked up.

Now stand in the corner

Okay

I like how you do what I say, here’s a car

Please like me for more than my obedience and shiny hair

Laters baby

My inner self conscience warns me not to push him too far, while my inner goodess says more sex

More sex

Oh my x 57

Inner goddess wins medal

Let me touch you

No

Fine, I’m going to spank you super hard with a belt

You are a monster, I can’t believe you like this stuff you’ve told me since day one you like.  We’re breaking up, here’s all your stuff back

Here’s the check I promised for selling your car with an extra zero on the end, but you’re totally not a sex worker

Sobs

Broods

The end

There you read it. Go check it off as read on goodreads.

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30 Days of Book Reviews – Day Six: The Outlander

Read from February 27 to April 22, 2014

Dearest Diana,

Sometimes I want to punch you in the face. Not sometimes, but almost always at your 1/3 and 2/3 plot twists. Shortly thereafter, particularly with your masterful way of wrapping things up – rather genius for a writer who doesn’t do plot well (your words, not mine, dearest), I want to hug you and cry. And when I feel as though I need Outlander rehab I want to call you in tears asking you why you have done this to me. 8 books, plus novellas and off shoots, that are each 700-900 pages long. Not that I am, please understand, afraid of a long book or reading a lot. Both are fine and generally encouraged. But you do know how to make your readers suffer both during and after a book, and sometimes I feel a teensy bit resentful, as if you have ruined my life.

Mostly, I love it.

Let’s be frank about a few things right off the bat. You are not really a terribly literary writer. Your prose is a bit clunky, you have a bag of tricks and you do not tend to go outside of it. Your reader is never entirely sure if your books are romance, historical fiction, fantasy, some other thing, but we know that they are enough genre that we can read them quickly, without a pen, pausing over the naughty or horrible bits. We expect your plot to move at an uneven pace, or not at all – that it will be our own desire to see and know Claire and Jamie that will move the plot. You’re not going to win the Booker or the Pulitzer until you kill Claire and Jaime, get out of Scotland, and write something completely different. But why would you when your readers love you more than their favorite crack dealer? Outlander the show starts in August (but Diana, the casting is TERRIBLE. Claire is okay, but Jaime? Still. I’ll be calling my cable providers to make sure I have Starz and tuning in).

To be fair, you do some things really, really well.

(1) Storytelling – While you are not quite as adept with the storytelling tradition as say, Chaim Potok who I wrote yesterday, you know how to tell a story. You couldn’t get away with these bloated books without this skill and you have it in spades. You are a teller, which is fine because you are good at it. In fact, plot makes sense within the confines of the story telling tradition. If we understand your voice is moving the show and that you are telling it to us like a giant, awesome, terrifying bedtime story, we beg for another chapter. Not many writers have this skill and you have honed it over the two decades you have been writing this series.

(2) A sense of place – I can always count on you Diana dearest to get me through the stones and to the place I am supposed to be. I can close my eyes and be in 1947 Scotland, 1745 Scotland, Culloden, Boston, really wherever you want me to be. You have an eye for the big picture and the little detail that capture the readers imagination, which allows the magical movie in our heads to unfold. As I prefer that magical movie created by a good storyteller to almost anything, I find you captivating: “I leaned back on my elbows and basked in the warming spring sun. There was a curious peace in this day, a sense of things working quietly in their proper courses, nothing minding the upsets and turmoils of human concerns. Perhaps it was the peace that one always finds outdoors, far enough away from buildings and clatter. Maybe it was the result of gardening, that quiet sense of pleasure in touching growing things, the satisfaction of helping them thrive. Perhaps just the relief of finally having found work to do, rather than rattling around the castle feeling out of place, conspicuous as an inkblot on parchment.”

(3) Big themes – I’ve been writing about this a lot lately, because modern literature seems drained of them, as if all of literature had used them up and only ten or fifteen writers had the right to use them in proper literature. Before I met you, I was worried only the most genre of genre still held onto the idea of themes, but oh I was wrong. You not only explore all the major, minor, and newly discovered themes about love, but so many about self, duty, community, honor, and more. If anything theme and character move your novels,“Sometimes our best action result in things that are most regrettable.” You handle them deftly and it adds depth and richness to your work.

(4) And the obvious – Your Characters – If I have a particular poison (other than prose) that I cannot resist in my reading, characters are it. I swoon, faint, purr, fight, argue, and cry over characters and that is just as I like it. I will put up with bad writing, bad plotting, all manner of literary irritations if the characters are finely drawn, motivated by known and unknown desires, and moving through the world, or their corner of it. So truly, it’s no wonder you have essentially ruined my life. Claire and Jamie (I’ll hit the ratbastard Jack Randall in another review) are epic. Fierce individuals with wide and sometimes contradictory wants. A fierce couple with a crazy love, such a crazy love that their two-some really becomes another character that your reader roots for and despairs when the couple spars with an individual. They are distinct and not derivative.

I can say nothing more about them because I leave that to you. I commend readers to your characters. Whether they like or dislike any other aspect, they should meet Claire and Jaime. With the knowledge that meeting them might very well ruin their lives.

Much as you have ruined mine.

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30 Days of Book Reviews – Day Five: My Name is Asher Lev

2008 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.

2014 Review

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 Hasidic Jew in New York, raised in post-war Brooklyn, where his father is the trusted associate and advisor of the leader of his Hasidic 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.

Thank you.

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