Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*SPOILER ALERT* Although the title might sound a little bit creepy, the graveyard is intimidating only if you have the misfortune to be one of the live human characters in the book. Generally, the ghosts who live in the graveyard are witty and hilarious. The living people are funny too. For example, here are the thoughts of one of the living characters, Scarlett Amber Perkins, when caught in a life threatening situation:

page 258. “If I get out of this alive, I’m going to force her [Mom] to get me a phone. It’s ridiculous. I’m the only person in my year who doesn’t have her own phone, practically.”

As always, Neil Gaiman grips the reader and doesn’t let go until he’s shaken your world completely. I could feel him walking through various graveyards checking to make sure there was a ghoul gate in every one of them, checking the inscriptions on the headstones imagining characters to life. His descriptions are so vivid that when Bod walks through his home, you are there with him. The characters earn the reader’s trust as they earn the trust of other characters, and when they betray them, they betray the reader.
There are things we think about when we think of a graveyard, of ghosts, of the dead. Things we aren’t sure about. These are the things Neil Gaiman takes and crafts masterfully into the world of the people of the graveyard.

page. 174. “Fear is contagious. You can catch it. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they’re scared for the fear to become real.”

People who die leave an echo of themselves in the world of the living. The people in Neil Gaiman’s graveyard have the ability to access the world of the living in a way which is kind of an eerie explanation to that echo. They can fade – meaning, they can be present without being noticed. They can dreamwalk – enter people’s dreams and sometimes even create a dream. They can create fear and haunt. It is fascinating to question these experiences we have as living people, but through the eyes of the dead.

Characters
There are a few different kinds of creatures in the world: the living, the dead, and of course the most intriguing characters – the ones in between.
1. The protagonist – Bod, is a living boy, but he lives in the graveyard and therefore has the ability to do what the dead who live there can. In his reality the lines between living and dead are blurred, and his mind is so open he believes anything is possible.

page 167. “Someone killed my mother and father and my sister.”
“Yes. Someone did.”
“A man?”
“A man.”
“Which means,” said Bod, “you’re asking the wrong question.”…”the question isn’t ‘Who will keep me safe from him?’”
“No?”
“No. It’s ‘Who will keep him safe from me?’”

Bod’s abilities to behave like the dead come from him having the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” I think the Freedom of the Graveyard is the privilege given to those who have already died, thus been relieved of the fear of death. It is freedom from the fear of the unknown.

2. Silas, Bod’s guardian, is neither living nor dead, and it’s not entirely clear what he is, but here’s what we do know about him:

page 32: “I want to be like you,” said Bod, pushing out his lower lip. “No,” said Silas firmly, “you do not.”
page 194. “There are ways to kill people like me,” he said. “But they do not involve cars.”

3. The third intriguing character is the villian, the man Jack. While he is clearly alive, he also has some mysterious abilities which living people usually do not possess. The book opens with Jack committing a murder. His motive is not clarified until the very end, but he creates a kind of paradoxical cycle of events: if he had not tried to kill the boy in the first place, then his reason for wanting to kill him would not exist. It reminded me of two of my favorite pieces of literature: Harry Potter and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If Lord Voldemort had not tried to kill Harry, he would not have created his own worst enemy. If the witches had not predicted that Macbeth would become king, he may not have tried.

There are also legends relating to the world of the graveyard, the ancient. The first, the Lady on the Grey, was so convincing I googled it to see if it was something I should have known about. The second, the legend of the treasure – the brooch, the goblet, the knife – was not entirely explained, but everyone in the world seemed to know about it. They did not, however, know about the Sleer – the guardians of the treasure. The sleer were a particularly interesting entity because you never knew exactly what they were. Whether the sleer is good or bad depends on what you want: power, or freedom.

The story is amazing, with such a shocking twist I actually gasped out loud while reading it. It says it’s a book for children, but come on – we all know the best books for grown ups are kids’ books.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Akiva’s Orchard by Yochi Brandes

הפרדס של עקיבאהפרדס של עקיבא by Yochi Brandes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book if you are interested in Judaism or Jewish history, or Jewish. The main thing it does is takes the million Rabbis you’ve heard of and organizes them in your head: Who lives when, whose student is whom, where they taught, how they were related and how they interacted with each other. When reading about them in the scriptures these things are never clear, and one can easily get the illusion that they sit around a table and discuss things, although many of the characters at that table lived in different times. Each Rabbi is depicted as unique, so it is impossible after reading this book to forget who Rabbi Akiva studied with and who his students were.

Yochi Brandes takes the time period (70-135 A.D.) with its central characters and brings it to life. She reframes the famous stories we already knew, telling them from a different point of view or using her imagination to explain missing details. Because the stories are familiar, the book is engaging from the first page to the last, and often surprising when she presents a different view on a story you thought you knew. The language is not pure literary Hebrew (probably why I managed to read the book), it is diluted with references from the Bible and the Mishnah, so that famous phrases will jump out at you and often help you get deeper into a character’s mind by understanding what their situation reminds them of.

The book takes you on a journey through the lives of these beloved characters. Through their experiences the foundation of modern Judaism begins to bud. The author uses the lifestyles of the leaders of the time in order to critique the way we interpret Jewish laws today. For example, where the privilege of studying torah full time and not working was once reserved for the wealthy, today it is common for people to choose not to work and accept their poverty as a consequence. One rabbi may have emphatically objected to teaching Torah to women, but the fact that other rabbis in his own time taught their daughters teaches us that there was never a consensus on the matter, and no excuse for the concept that the Torah solely belongs to men. There is much conflict regarding the relationship which develops with Christianity, which was just beginning to blossom at the time and had not yet been declared its own religion, but it’s clear that while some rabbis believe they should be shunned, others believe that there is nothing more important than keeping peace with those who are different, whether or not they are Jewish. A main theme throughout the book is the changing of the Jewish religion – mainly the removal of God from the religion. You might be raising your eyebrows but truth be told, we don’t realize how much less the concept of God is present in our religion now than it was back then. The temple was still standing until 70 A.D. Prophets and miracles were common and accessible. The teachings of Rabbi Akiva were revolutionary in the way that they took the Torah from heaven and brought it down to earth, where it is now ours to interpret whichever way suits us best. The free interpretation is a controversial topic these days, but it is clear from the book that it shouldn’t be. According to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, we are allowed to understand it in our own way.

The book is told from the perspective of the famous Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel. Jewish scriptures describe their loved her as passionate and romantic. They say that although they were poor, he promised to give her Jerusalem of Gold. We know that Rabbi Akiva leaves her for twelve years to study Torah. One sources says that at the end of twelve years he came home with a trail of thousands of students, and before he saw her, turned on his heels and returned for an additional twelve years. I was glad that this approach was not followed in the book. Brandes describes Akiva and Rachel’s relationship as romantic at first. Then Rachel begins to pressure her husband to travel to the Yeshiva and study torah, believing (correctly) that he is gifted. As a man who learned to read at age forty, Akiva begrudgingly leaves, swearing not to return until he becomes a Rabbi. This aspect of the relationship was difficult for me to swallow, because we see it so often in ultra-orthodox couples. Rachel is the image of the original ultra-orthodox woman, whose only wish is for her husband to study, and works around the clock to support her family on her own. Akiva is the original ultra-orthodox man, forswearing contact with women and immersing himself in his studies. The phrase often attributed to Rabbi Akiva, “Love your neighbor like yourself,” stands in contrast with many decisions his character makes in the book.

The ending is difficult, even for those who know how the lives of these Rabbis ended. It seems that the cruelty of the Roman Empire knows no limits. Each one of ten famous rabbis of the time died tortured, humiliating public deaths at the hands of the Romans (Jesus being nailed to a cross doesn’t even come close to what these guys went through). It seems like in the last chapter, the entire world turns upside down. The horrors are impossible to digest. Read it anyway.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Living in Israel

Plain Truth…?

Last night at dinner with some friends of my grandmother’s, I found myself casually throwing out the statement, “Everyone hates the Jews.” I said it without thinking, but instead of getting the expected chuckle, it started a conversation.

“Is that how you really feel? That the world hates the Jews?” I was asked a question I had never had reason to answer. Usually I would simply say yes, that is how I feel. But tonight I began to wonder if perhaps my statement could use some rephrasing, or further investigation.

Do I really feel that the world hates the Jews? No. I firmly believe that generalizations can never be made, so already my assumption is inaccurate. Of course not everyone hates the Jews, but some certainly give me that feeling. Misconceptions about life in Israel upset me the most.

When people think of Israel, do the terms “full human rights” and “complete religious freedom” come to mind? They do for me, but I know a lot of people think the opposite about Israel. I am in no way qualified to say who is right. All I know is that for me, Israel is day to day life, so obviously I would see it differently than someone whose only exposure is through the eyes of the media.

Last year a bomb went off at the central bus station in Jerusalem. I was very upset by this, particularly because the bus in question, bus no. 74, was a route I take almost daily. I was horrified when an online blogging friend of mine posted an article about the attack along with a painfully judgmental comment about Israel provoking Palestinians into setting off bombs. For him this reflected a failure on behalf of the US government to resolve an age-old conflict in the Middle East. He had no way of knowing that for me it was bus number 74, the bus I took to work. It hurt me to hear what I thought was an accusation against my own government, when truly it was just a different view of reality.

Cover of Plain Truth by Jodi PicoultIn her book, “Plain Truth,” (which I finished reading yesterday) Jodi Picoult tells the breathtaking story of an Amish woman who goes to trial for killing a baby. Although each of the characters came from a different background, every one of them faced the challenge of having to thrive in unfamiliar territory at some point during the book. Katie, Jacob, and Samuel had to adjust to the ways of the “English” world, while the prosecutor, the judge and Ellie, Katie’s attorney all had to get used to the Amish traditions. They all struggled to bridge two worlds which rarely met. They were forced to confront the one thing they had in common – humanity, which is not always good, and not always what you expect it to be. (For my full review on Goodreads, click here.)

When people come from completely different backgrounds, it’s no easy task to try to understand the way the other person thinks, especially when their actions seem offensive to you. I try my hardest to understand human nature, but some worlds are so far away from me that I’m baffled by their logic. Sometimes it is unreasonable to expect to understand someone so different. I think it all comes down to the message written in this wonderful book by Jodi Picoult. When it comes down to reality, even aliens can find a way to communicate.

The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.

– Wade Davis

The world in which you were born is just one model of reality...

Posted in Book Reviews, Mirror, Mirror

Collins, Dr. Seuss, and the Mockingjay

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, I’ve finally finished the Hunger Games trilogy. It was like riding a roller coaster. Once you get in, you’re hooked until the end. You’re stomach flips over but the rush of excitement is worth it.

I was fully prepared to be disappointed by Mockingay. I was ready for all of my favorite characters to die, ready for Katniss to never make up her mind who she loves more, Gale or Peeta (I was actually hoping she would end up with Finnick). But the book had much more to give than a story. It has an important lesson to teach us, and although I was not impressed by the plot, I was satisfied by the message the book delivered.

Continuing the holocaust metaphors I pointed out in my review of Catching Fire, I was not at all surprised to find the authorities of District 13 stamping things on people’s forearms. The children gathered outside President Snow’s mansion made me think briefly of the Palestinian civilians the PA uses to guard terrorists. It’s hard to imagine that the things Collins talks about are anywhere close to reality, but they are. Frighteningly close.

I heard a theory once that what made World War 2 unique was not the number of casualties, but the advancement of military technology which happened in those years. The technology revolution was the mark of the twentieth century. People were killed in inconceivable ways. The first and only nuclear bombs were used to end the war. Along this line, the Hunger Games is punctuated with brilliant, terrible inventions.

The thing is, I don’t agree that the holocaust is unique. I think, and Suzanne Collins agrees with me, that if we were capable of doing it once, we are capable of doing it again.

“Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” I ask.
“Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says.

“But collective thinking is short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.

“Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”
“What?” I ask.
“The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.”

We need to start learning from out own mistakes. We need to wake up and start acting to change the future, instead of weeping over the horrors of the past. If we don’t, history will continue to repeat itself. In the words of Dr. Seuss in his book (and my all time favorite) The Lorax,

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

So, yeah.

Think about that.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Mirror, Mirror

Book Review: The Time traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveller's Wife  The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to admit: I didn’t cry when Dumbledore died. But I was moved to tears by The Time Traveler’s Wife.

This is not the kind of book which is impossible to put down. Instead, you get to read it at your leisure, enjoy it, and actually remember it when you’re done. The author succeeds in giving the reader the same experience as the characters. Clare moves through time linearly, to keep the reader grounded, while Henry jumps from time to time and allows the reader to experience the suddenness and confusion he does. The love story pulls the reader into the book so that even when you aren’t reading, Henry and Clare are present at the back of your mind, as a real life lover would be.

Audrey Niffenegger writes with a lot of words, but she uses them masterfully. Her metaphors and descriptions only contribute to bringing the book to life.

“I eat ten Oreos, slowly, gently prying each one apart, scraping the filling out with my front teeth, nibbling the chocolate halves to make them last.” (page 31)

And yet, it’s not just long breathtaking cookie eating scenes like this. In some places the writing is so concise you do a double take and ask, did that really just happen? For instance, I think this is the shortest sex scene I’ve ever encountered:

“[Henry] says, ‘Does that door lock?’ and I flip the lock and we’re late for lunch.” (page 165)

From the first page, the book is ringing with moral dilemmas and existential questions. The author asks her own questions through the characters, but also uses the questions to tell the story. The fact that her characters ask makes them even more human, especially because it makes the reader wonder if they will change their answers as the story progresses.

“But don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to just be okay for your whole life?” (page 231)

Any book in which one of the characters is a cellist becomes an automatic favorite of mine. In this case, the cellist is Alicia, Clare’s younger sister. There aren’t many references to it, but the few were done well. “Alicia is seventeen and a senior in high school. She’s a cellist.” (page 16) It is as if being a cellist explains everything about her character, which is quite accurately how we cellists feel about ourselves. 🙂

It is rare to find a love story which begins in childhood and continues through entire lives, especially in books which are meant to make money. This love story is so detailed and so real, and still it is so gripping as Henry and Clare grow up and get married. Their relationship changes, and their lives change, but the love story is intriguing to the last moment. There is one moment where Clare describes them sitting on swings on a playground which made me think of how a love story can be thought of as a sequence of memories – the moments we choose to string together into a chain we call “romantic.”

“I try to put my heart into hers, for safekeeping, in case I lose it again.” (page 370)

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