*Based on a true story*
The two travelers were soaked from head to toe by the time they reached the Spaniard’s home. The canoe pulled up into the mud and they toppled out of it, grateful for the chance to stretch their legs. They thanked the local and handed him a sack of coins, which he stared at confusedly for a moment before pocketing it. As the canoe pulled back into the river, they heard the local man laughing to himself. Grinning at each other, they looked up at the small hut which camouflaged into the forest.
The Amazon. They had finally done it.
This is a story I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I heard it first hand at a party about three years ago and was fascinated. So bear with me, keep reading and I promise you an adventure.
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.
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.”
Think about that.
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)