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Category Archive for 'Israel'

Having given up his thesis on “Jewish Views of Jesus,” young Israeli student Shmuel Ash needs a job and a place to live. On the college bulletin board, he finds a notice advertising a job for a Humanities student willing to spend five hours each evening chatting with a seventy-year-old invalid who craves company. The notice indicates that the employer will provide housing for the person who accepts this job, but the new employee will have to agree to have no visitors and to keep confidential everything he learns about his employers. With nothing to lose, Shmuel accepts the job. As Oz develops the stories of these mysterious people and how they are connected, he also establishes deep-seated theological and historical conflicts which continue to plague the world, especially the Middle East, to the present day. What begins as a highly descriptive novel of the real world quickly blossoms into a grand exploration of the ideas and theological beliefs which are the bedrock of Christianity and Judaism, their history and cultures – a novel “writ large” in the best possible meaning of those words. Though the book is dense, it is also enlivening, and for an American audience, it provides historical context for some of the issues between the US and Israel in the present. The religious subject matter, new to me, was stunning, and the connections between desire and error, and betrayal and vengeance, seen throughout, have never seemed so small.

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Mai Al-Nakib, an author from Kuwait who got her PhD. in English literature from Brown University, knows how to capture an American audience, and her descriptions and her narrative style in this remarkable collection of stories are so attuned to her characters and subjects that readers will actually experience – not just “learn about” – parts of the world which most of us know only second-hand. Set in Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine, and, through the travel of some of these characters, in Japan and Greece, her stories are filled with word pictures so vivid that many readers will come close to feeling the reality of day-to-day life in these places. She opens new worlds, and by the time the collection ends, many readers will be viewing life in these parts of the world with clearer vision and greater empathy. The passage of time, the fragility of life, the effects of change, and the transcience of memory unite this story and connect it to other stories in this collection. The title of the collection, The Hidden Light of Objects, attests to the importance of the story objects within these stories, and while none of us, perhaps, regard our own “souvenirs” or keepsakes as “story objects” in quite the same way as they are used here, it is impossible not to identify with the characters here as they share their intimate thoughts and feelings with us as readers. Separating the ten short stories are series of ten short vignettes, which sometimes connect with each other and within various stories. This extraordinary collection deals with the biggest, most universal themes of literature, told through the eyes of characters with whom readers will identify and, perhaps, gain in understanding.

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As Israeli author Yoel Hoffmann begins his wild metafictional, and often metaphysical, tale, he invites the reader along with him, as he experiments with his format, lets his mind wander in new directions as one idea leads to the next, remembers the past and the people in it, thinks about God (or not) and death, and creates a tale that is both serious and full of fun at the same time – not a description which can be applied to many other novels these days. As the author himself says, later in the book, “At first glance this book would seem to be a hybrid. That is, a book that sometimes laughs and sometimes cries. But in fact (as logicians say), it’s laughing and crying at once, and to the same degree.” The book challenges the very nature of genre, emphasizing that all books are stories, just as life is, and the best way to distinguish between them is to classify them by their feelings – happy or sad, “a book that can laugh or smile or cry. The book itself. The reader can behave however he likes.” Through flashbacks, Hoffmann recreates his own life, imagines new lives, and returns to the image of his father wearing his Schaffhausen watch, emphasizing that the men who created this watch are now either dead or very old and that their wives are also dead. Music, and dreams, and poetry, and parallel languages also gain attention from an author so alive and so full of ideas that anyone who chooses to read this marvelous book will be profoundly affected.

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Although author Herman Wouk talks about writing as a crapshoot, he himself also had a talent for being in the right place at the right time, recognizing new opportunities and new avenues of communication (such as television) as they have arisen. This talent, combined with his incredible dedication to long-range goals and seemingly unlimited energy – several times spending seven or eight years on a single book – led to popular success as well as literary recognition. Though many people over the years have suggested he write an autobiography, he has always been reticent about his private life, and his wife even told him, “Dear, you’re not that interesting a person.” This book, which he has declared will be his last, is a memoir, but in it, Wouk limits its scope to his work and the people and events which influenced it. About the author, one learns only as much as he deems necessary to understand how and why he wrote what he did. One of the most ambitious and principled writers of the past century ,Wouk has said that this book is his last. With a career which has spanned comedy, serious historical fiction, popular fiction, philosophy, and religion, Wouk has sold hundreds of thousands of books and had a major impact on the people and the culture of this country. He will be one-hundred-one years old on May 27, 2016, but with his energy, I would not bet anything on this book being his last.

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In this stimulating experimental novel in which Israeli author Gail Hareven plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction, truth and lies, Aaron Gotthilf’s book, Hitler, First Person plays a key role. Whether or not an Aaron Gotthilf really existed and whether or not his book was real is irrelevant to the writing of Hareven’s book and its themes. Most readers here will probably agree that a fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler as a “real,” and presumably sympathetic, human being would too small a gesture to “advance our understanding of the horrors of the twentieth century” in any meaningful way, but the idea that it might is just one of the many twists, turns, ironies, tours de force, and even dark-humored reversals that take place in this extraordinary novel. To tell her own story, Hareven creates another author, Elinor Gotthilf from Jerusalem, who is a cousin, once removed, of the “Aaron Gotthilf” who wrote one of the most controversial novels ever published, a book published and circulated in Europe, but never released in Israel. One of the world’s most important Holocaust researchers described this book as a “vile piece of filth not worthy of relating to.” Hareven’s approach to her novel is thoughtful and literary, despite the novel’s surprises and reversals. She incorporates a broad artistic and philosophical history within its structure, and though the novel contains some elements of a mystery novel, these are subordinated to the stories and experiences of the people, especially Elinor, who live within the novel and grow (or not) from their actions as they confront their own hatred during their search for justice and truth.In my Favorites List for 2015.

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