Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for April, 2014

I Am the Clay

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2014

by Chaim Potok (Fawcett Crest, 1992)

I’ve read The Chosen and The Promise, Potok’s well-known novels about the friendship between an Orthodox Jew and a Hasid in 20th century New York, so I was very surprised to discover this novel about three Koreans caught up in the Korean civil war: an elderly couple fleeing marauding northerners and the young boy they rescue along the way. The story unfolds from the point of view of all three characters: the woman who, childless herself, is driven to save the dying boy; her husband who resents the boy and is somewhat jealous of his hold over the woman; and the boy himself, the only one to miraculously escape the slaughter of his family and neighbors and the destruction of his village. We learn their thoughts as a stream of consciousness; at times the thoughts of one blend seamlessly into the thoughts of the other so that it’s difficult to figure out who is thinking what.

It’s hard to read about the threesome’s experiences on the road. They must overcome injuries, infections, illnesses, extreme cold, lack of adequate clothing, shelter, and medicine, and the betrayal of their fellow refugees, all of whom are desperately doing whatever it takes to survive. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they have nothing–except perhaps love, which is slow to develop, at least for the man and the boy. The reader mentally extrapolates their suffering to the hundreds of thousands of refugees not only in Korea at that time, but in many countries and at many different times. How can one person suffer so much and still hang on to life?

Eventually, they are able to return to the couple’s village, where the boy finds work in an American military compound, and where the connection between these people and Chaim Potok at least becomes clear: the boy encounters a Jewish chaplain who will help him. And yes, Potok served as a chaplain during the Korean War. I wonder whether he based the story on someone he actually met and helped while he was there–or he may have heard about the story from someone else. Or he may just have made it up. regardless, the man, the woman (neither of whom are ever named), and the boy are very believable, sympathetic characters, and the story moves quickly to its sad conclusion.


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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2014

by Jared Diamond (Norton, 1999, 1997)

This book was one of the recommended readings for a Coursera MOOC I took last fall (A Brief History of Humankind, taught by Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), which is not surprising. Many of the startling new (to me) perspectives on human history that Dr. Harari put forth seem to have come right out of Diamond’s book. They were no longer startling but seemed even more convincing. For example, the “agricultural revolution” was not such a good deal for people as individuals; they ended up working harder and more, eating a worse diet and getting sick from all kinds of new diseases that they contracted from their domesticated animals. Compared to a hunter-gatherer, they got the short end of the stick. But Homo sapiens as a species flourished, because agriculture made permanent settlement possible. Permanent settlements enabled women to have more children, and agriculture supported larger populations. The agricultural revolutions launched H. sapiens on the road to where we are now: seven billion and still increasing, literally crowding out other species of animals and even plants. Dr. Harari called this “history’s biggest fraud”; Diamond devotes seven chapters to “The Rise and Spread of Food Production,” arguing that it was agriculture that made it possible for Eurasian peoples (and in particular, European peoples) to drive out, absorb, or slaughter other “first peoples” of the world.

The question that Diamond is attempting to answer with this book was posed by a New Guinean friend of his: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo (=stuff) and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  Diamond broadens the scope of his friend’s question, applying it to native peoples of Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Polynesia, who, he explains, had the misfortune to populate continents that lacked many large mammals and plants suitable for domestication (he delineates certain indispensable criteria that make a plant or animal suitable for domestication). This lack put them at a huge disadvantage against the European explorers with their “guns, germs, and steel” (better weaponry and technology and having built up some resistance to the devastating illnesses that have plagued us since the agricultural revolution). (The Chinese and Japanese were among those who conquered other peoples before being conquered themselves by Europeans.)  In addition to the paucity of domesticable plants and animals, Africans and Americans were also disadvantaged by the north-south axis of the continents where they lived, because the differences in climate and geography made the transfer of technology impossible (oceans and deserts fulfilled the same function in Australia and Polynesia).

Diamond claims that when we understand the factors that led to the defeat by Eurasian conquerors of other peoples, we can no longer blame this defeat on some intrinsic weakness or deficiency of the people themselves–in other words, racism.

It’s a fascinating book, one I recommend strongly!

Posted in History, Non-fiction | 3 Comments »

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2014

by Eve Harris (Sandstone Press, 2013)

My friend Carmen lent me this book to read on the plane to a conference last week. She got it from her daughter, who lives in London; it hasn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Apparently it burst on the literary scene out of nowhere (first novel, unknown author) and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. It was really good, one of those books you find hard to put down. The book is narrated from the point of view of several characters who live in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in London, including the eponymous Chani, 19 and unmarried in a community where girls marry young; her fiancé Baruch Levy; Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and his wife Rebecca, whose role it is to instruct the groom and bride as to their marital duties and responsibilities, but whose own marriage is under great strain; and the Zilbermans’ son Avromi, Baruch’s closest friend, whose stint at university leads him into a temptation he cannot resist. Avromi’s and Chani and Baruch’s stories unfold in 2008 London, while the book flashes back to Chaim and Rebecca’s romance and attraction to ultra-Orthodoxy in 1981 Jerusalem. While Harris writes from the points of view of all of these characters, I would say that Chani and Rebecca are the real protagonists. Then again, maybe that’s just what I read into the story.

The book affords a fascinating glimpse into the insular world of the ultra-Orthodox. It’s a world most of us can hardly imagine, where women and men relinquish their freedom of choice to the laws of the Torah and of their community, and those who break those laws risk ostracism and banishment. Chani is known to be a bit wild and “brazen,” with the result that she has been rejected by several suitors already; whereas Baruch, normally compliant and risk-averse, refuses to obey his parents’ wishes to find someone else. Meanwhile, the Rebbetzin is dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage and questioning her role in the community. Each chapter focuses on a different person or people. Harris has made all of her main characters extremely likable even as she pits them against each other. A reader wants things to turn out well for everyone, but this just isn’t possible.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment »