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.
Category Archive for 'Literary'
In a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. Opening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export. The opening chapters introduce the first of eight generations as reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi is shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath. Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels within this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.
The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.
WORLD THROUGH BOOKS, here is the list of my own favorites from among the many wonderful books I read this year:
Michael Cunningham’s ten tales, distortions of fairy tales we have all heard as children, will make most readers smile in recognition and sometimes sardonic glee, while annoying some traditionalists who would like to preserve intact their memories of an idyllic childhood. All readers will probably agree, however, that Cunningham’s interpretations of these stories deserve the more serious thought that none of us were able to accord them when we were much younger. Including stories based on Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and several other less famous tales, Cunningham begins by examining the answer to the real, unasked question which haunts the traditional fairy tale conclusions. The convenient “And they lived happily ever after” no longer applies here, as Cunningham employs reason and some dark humor to develop the tales in more modern and more surprising ways. With these stories, we get the answers to “And then, what?” The joys and burdens of fate, the delights of dreams fulfilled and the horrors of dreams destroyed, the ability to survive life’s vagaries and the need to accept some things that cannot be changed are all themes here which make Cunningham’s depictions of life in these new tales feel more honest than the fairy tales they emerge from, and, certainly more fun for adult readers, many of whom have outgrown the black and white tales of the past.