Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Chosen

"I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it."

This is a story of relationships.  The relationship between a father and his son.  The relationship between two good friends.  The relationship between a person and his faith.  The relationship between an immigrant and his new country.  In his most well-known and highly praised novel, Jewish-American author Chaim Potok explores all of these relationships, and in the process teaches us how personal pain and struggle makes us more compassionate.

The Plot:

Reuven Malter is a young orthodox Jew growing up in Brooklyn in 1944.  He is very bright and his professor father hopes for him to also have an academic career.  One day, his school softball team faces a rival school of Hasidic Jews.  The game is intense and Reuven is hit in the eye with a ball hit by Danny Saunders.  Though Reuven is initially reluctant to forgive Danny, his father encourages him and the boys soon become friends.  Though raised in a strict Hasidic upbringing, Danny is extremely intelligent (to the point of genius) and he often sneaks away to the library to read secular works like Freud.  Reuven and his father help foster Danny's enthusiasm and make recommendations as to which books to read. 

One day, Reuven is invited to Danny's house for Shabat and to meet Danny's family.  Though only a few blocks from Reuven's home, Danny might as well live in another world.  At once intrigued and mystified by the Hasidic way of life, Reuven is especially in awe of Danny's father, Rabbi Saunders.  It is obvious that Reb Saunders is an extremely intelligent man, but that intelligence is kept strictly within the bounds of his faith.  More than anything, Reuven can't understand why Reb Saunders never speaks to his son except to discuss the Talmud.  Though Danny's friendship with non-Hasidic Reuven is tolerated by Reb Saunders, outside influences soon come in and threaten to tear these two friends apart forever.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):

I was drawn to this book because I had seen the 1981 film adaptation and was very moved by it.  I found the book to be just as interesting (if more in-depth) and even with my Protestant background, I found that I could relate to certain aspects of the story.

Certainly one of the more intriguing aspects was Reb Saunders' decision for Danny to be "raised in silence".  Danny was very intelligent even from a young child, but he also had no compassion for others who could not mentally keep up with him.  Reb Saunders perceived this and fell before God wondering what he could do with a son who had a great mind, but no soul.  He chooses to put Danny through the painful process of growing up cut off from almost all communication with his father.  This not only makes Danny more introspective, but also teaches him to show compassion for others in pain.  Danny is able to explain to Reuven (who finds the whole process disgusting) that he is actually able to use silence as a form of communication.  It is revealed in the end that Reb Saunders is satisfied to let Danny leave the Hasidic community and go to Columbia University because it is clear that Danny now has a heart for others and will be able to share the roots of his faith with the world outside.  The struggles of young people trying to fulfill their parents' wishes and yet to become their own person is wonderfully portrayed here and I found it to be deeply touching.

Though the overall themes of the book are universal, the nuts and bolts were certainly different from anything I have experienced.  Though I had a basic understanding of the Judaic religion, and even the differences between certain branches, I was not prepared for the depth and complexity presented here.  Much time is taken in discussions of the Talmud, comparisons of commentaries, the history of the Haisdim, and the Judaic rituals.  At times it was almost dizzying.  Then there was the history of Zionism after the second World War which I had never really learned about. It was certainly an intense introduction to turmoil and struggle within the Jewish community after their almost total annihilation during World War II.

I really enjoyed this book overall and there are too many interesting points and themes to discuss here.  I will say that this a pretty slow plot with little direct action.  If you're someone who needs the plot to move at a fairly good clip, then this book probably is not for you.  But if you enjoy books that spend time musing on friendship, culture, and theology then I really recommend that you give The Chosen a try.  I am sure that more of Mr. Potok's works will be finding their way onto my reading list.

The Movie:

The 1981 adaptation of this story is very good and streamlines the plot very well.  Like the book, it is somewhat slow but I still enjoyed it.  I especially found the climatic scene between Reb Saunders  and Danny to be very moving and shed more than one tear watching it.  It stars Robby Benson as Danny, Rod Stieger as Reb Saunders, and Barry Miller as Reuven.             

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Masterpiece Theatre: Great Expectations

With 2012 marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, Masterpiece has decided to present new adaptations of two of his works. The first is one of Dickens' most enduring works; the story of an orphan boy who finds himself swept up in the life of a ghostly spinster and her beautiful adopted daughter. This adaptation stars Douglas Booth as Pip, Vanessa Kirby as Estella, Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, and David Suchet as Jaggers. Here are some of my thoughts:

-It has been awhile since I read Great Expectations, and it wasn't really my most favorite of his works, so I wasn't overwhelmingly excited about this one. All in all, it stayed pretty true to the story as I remember it. The first major change I noticed was that Wemmick is not as big a part in this adaptation and the Aged Parent is missing completely, thus losing a lot of the humor that Dickens put into the novel. The other major change is the ending. I really don't remember Dickens' ending (either of them) resembling the happy get-together of this one. Not enough changes to make me hate it, but mainly because I don't remember that many details from the story.

-I thought that Gillian Anderson was very good as Miss Havisham, though nowhere near the caliber of Lady Deadlock in Bleak House. I liked how she really let her inner frailness, bitterness, and need for love come through instead of simply playing her as a demented old woman. Her standing there constantly rubbing and picking the scab on her hand was a great image of how she constantly kept her own emotional wound open and bleeding.

-The cinematography in this was very interesting. The people were so bold in front of the background scenes that at times it was almost like watching a moving painting. And the scenes on the moors were especially eerie and gloomy. Also, if you are a fan of Little Dorrit, you may have noticed how the Marshalsea became Pip's apartments and Bleeding Heart Yard became Herbert Pocket's place of work.

-One of the things that I do remember from the book is that Estella is supposed to be stunningly beautiful. And none of this is to say that Vanessa Kirby isn't pretty, because she is. But Douglas Booth is handsome in the extreme, like underwear model good-looking. This makes Estella (and pretty much everyone else) pale in comparison.

-To me, Joe Gargery is the best thing about this story and the poor guy keeps getting screwed by those he loves most. Makes you want to cry.

This adaptation is certainly not on par with Little Dorrit or Bleak House, and based on the reviews out there it seems to be a like it or hate it type film. If you haven't read the book or have not read it in a long time (like me), you will probably find this one interesting and even satisfying. If you think that Great Expectations is the best thing Dickens ever created, then you might want to give this one a pass.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

"Not all pioneers went west."

For centuries, Paris has been the center of western culture. Art, medicine, fashion, cuisine, and intellectual thought have found (and continue to find) their epicenter in the city on the banks of the Seine. And as different as our two cultures are, perhaps no city on earth has as much allure and mystery for Americans as Paris. In his newest book, renowned historian David McCullough explores the lives of the many Americans in the 19th century who sought to improve themselves and their native country in the glittering and whirling capital.

The 19th century was one of great change for America. The early years of the century saw the first American-born generation turning to the Old World to learn from its cultures and apply them to the one they were creating. They were especially drawn to Paris and many went there to learn and to find excitement. Some went to study in the famous medical schools and would bring back many new innovations which would change medicine in America. Some, like James Fenimore Cooper, would spend their days writing adventures of life on the American frontier and their evenings strolling along the banks of the Seine. Others went to enjoy free access to the world's greatest collection of art in the Louvre and to hone their craft while studying from the masters. The book follows these Americans and the generations who came after as they each search for their own destiny.

This book was very enjoyable, not only for someone who loves Paris, but for someone interested in 19th century American history as well. What was most fascinating to me was how these Americans spent so much time in Paris (some the majority of their lives), and yet they never stopped identifying themselves as Americans. Cooper wrote many of his wildly popular "Leatherstocking Tales" in a house on the Rue St. Dominique, and yet you would never know it to read them. They seem to be written in a cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky. August St. Gaudens is most well known, not for art found in European museums, but for memorials to famous Americans. It was amazing to me how each of these people took the things they learned in Paris, and applied them with an American twist. Truly, this is not really a story of a few Americans, but of the influence that Paris had on a developing America.

That is not to say that the individual stories are not fascinating. I was especially intrigued by Samuel Morse, who is bet known as the inventor of the telegraph, but who spent most of his time in Paris studying art in the Louvre. I also enjoyed the story of Elihu Washburn who was the only foreign ambassador to brave out the Prussian siege of Paris and provided aid not only to the trapped Americans, but also to the suffering German population. And the stories of American artists like John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassat showed how even we could earn renown in the world of French art.

McCullough's writing is smooth, amusing, and accessible. It is definitely something that most people can get into. The only issue I could see is that Paris itself serves only as a backdrop for the stories of the Americans. We don't really get the nitty gritty stories of the city and it's people, and what we do get is seen through American eyes. Rather than being the center of the story, Paris serves as a link between the otherwise disconnected vignettes of life for famous Americans. That being said, this is still a fun and interesting read. A definite must for those who love Paris.

Monday, April 2, 2012

International Children's Book Day

oday is International Children's Book Day. To celebrate, I'm highlighting some of the books that have played a prominent role in my siblings and my childhood.

The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner

This series was a great favorite of mine when I was young, and now my seven year old sister has fallen in love with them as well. You just can't resist these classic adventures of the Alden children who live with their kind grandfather and solve all kinds of mysteries.

The Adventures of Tintin series by Herge

Though my 10 year old brother is not the biggest reader in our family, he simply can't get enough of these stories. Created by Belgian author Herge, these comic books relate the adventures of a spunky young reporter and his sidekicks Snowy (the dog) and Capt. Haddock. From the Congo to China to Tibet, Tintin is never far from excitement. The recent Speilberg/Jackson film is now bringing this popular European series to a North American audience.

Hank the Cowdog series by John R. Erickson

This was (and still is) a great favorite of my 18 year old sister's. Hank the Cowdog is head of ranch security on High Loper's Texas ranch, and he take's his job seriously. If only things didn't keep happening to mess things up. For a fun family read, nothing beats these hilarious stories.

The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola

From the time she was small, my (now 20 year old) sister was a huge fan of Tomie dePaola's work. She loved to look at his illustrations of various books. Her most favorite of his works was his Legend of the Indian Paintbrush which was part of his collection of legends, fables, and folktales from around the world. In this story, a young Indian brave struggles to fulfill his dream-vision of painting the sunset.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

There are few people who are not touched by this series at some point in their childhood and my other 20 year old sister is no exception. Lewis' beautiful stories are not only a wonderful example of fantasy literature, but they are also a beautiful picture of the Christian story. My sister's favorite novel from the series is The Magician's Nephew.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

I've read many classics of children's literature in my time, but few have stuck with me the way this one has. Kenneth Graham's enchanting and beautiful tale of life on the river continues to haunt me to this day. I love thinking about Rat "messing about in boats", Mole doing his spring cleaning, gruff Badger in his hole in the woods, and Toad careening through the village in his motorcar. This is a story that, in my opinion, should be read to every child. A gem of a book if ever there was one.

How about you? Do you have a favorite book from your childhood? Is there one that you discovered by reading to your own children? Please share and take the time to celebrate the role books play in the life of a child.