Archive for June, 2012

My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

June 24, 2012

Gift from author Shawna Ritchie

The opening chapter of My Name Is Asher Lev tells us that the birth of the title character marks “the juncture point of two significant family lines, the apex, as it were, of a triangle seminal with Jewish potentiality and freighted with Jewish responsibility”.

Asher’s father’s great-great-grandfather was the manager of a Russian nobleman’s estates, transforming them into a source of enormous wealth. When drunk, the nobleman sometimes killed serfs — once he burned down an entire village. In his middle years, Asher’s ancestor (he will become Mighty Ancestor in the boy’s dreams) began to travel: “To do good deeds and bring the Master of the Universe into the world.” That tradition of travelling and devotion to spreading the message of the Torah has continued in the Lev family for generations ever since. Asher discovers the central force of its origin as a boy when he contemplates his father Aryeh studying the Sanhedrin:

“Any man who has caused a single Jewish soul to perish, the Torah considers it as if he had caused the whole world to perish; and any man who has saved a Jewish soul, it is as if he has saved a whole world.”
I asked him once, “Is it only if he kills a Jewish person, Papa?”

“No, Asher. Elsewhere the same passage appears without the word ‘Jewish.'”

“Papa, how can a man who kills one person be like one who kills a whole world.”

“Because he also kills all the children and children’s children who might have come from that person.”

While those children will never come to the real world, the corollary is that the guilt of the travesty will extend through succeeding generations of the perpetrator. For Asher’s father, devoted to following the directions of the Ladover Rebbe in Brooklyn, saving Jewish souls in the early 1950s comes down to two central tasks: getting Jews out of Stalinist Russia and set up yeshivos in the United States. When the Stalinist era eases, that latter task will extend to all of Eastern Europe.

Aryeh is forever departing — or arriving — home on aspects of those missions and Asher’s mother painfully watches both his departures and awaits his arrivals at the front window of the Lev family apartment in Brooklyn. She too comes from generations of Eastern European Hasidim that stretch back centuries with many family members persecuted or massacred. For her, the latest persecution arrives when Asher is six — his mother’s brother, travelling on behalf of the Rebbe, dies in a car accident in Detroit, sending her into her own crisis of faith and guilt.

And then there is Asher, the apex where potentiality and responsiblity meet, the product of generations of faith that extend back centuries: “But he was also born with a gift.”

I have no recollection of when I began to use that gift. But I can remember, at the age of four, holding my pencil in the firm fist grip of a child and transferring the world around me to pieces of paper, margins of books, bare expanses of wall. I remember drawing the contours of that world: my narrow room, with the bed, the paint-it-yourself bureau and desk and chair, the window overlooking the cemented back yard; our apartment, with its white walls and rug-covered floors and the large framed picture of the Rebbe near the living-room window; the wide street that was Brooklyn Parkway, eight lanes of traffic, the red brick and white stone of the apartment houses, the neat cement squares of the sidewalks, the occasional potholes in the asphalt; the people of the street, bearded men, old women gossiping on the benches beneath the trees, little boys in skullcaps and side-curls, young wives in long-sleeved dresses and fancy wigs — all the married women of our group concealed their natural hair beneath wigs for reasons of modesty. I grew up encrusted with lead and spectrumed with crayons. My dearest companions were Eberhard and Crayola. Washing for meals was a cosmic enterprise.

It is this artistic talent that will bring to a head all the tension in the triangle of the Lev family. As it preoccupies young Asher more and more, his father’s frustration only increases: the boy is avoiding study of the Talmud and other texts (not to mention algebra) to indulge himself in drawing, which is not only a waste of time but threatens to take him to the Other Side. Asher’s mother appreciates both the artitistic need of her son and the resulting work, but that merely establishes her as the focal point in growing friction between father and son.

Asher, not yet ten, internalizes this tension, as any child would. It rises to the surface, however, when he meets one of the Russians whom his father has successfully help come to America after “eleven years in a land of ice and darkness” — Siberia. Asher returns home and begins to draw the Russian’s face:

Now there was ice and darkness inside me. I could feel the cold darkness moving slowly inside me. I could feel our darkness. It seemed to me that we were brothers, he and I, that we both knew lands of ice and darkness. His had been the past; mine was in the present. His had been outside himself; mine was within me. Yes, we were brothers, he and I, and I felt closer to him at that moment than to any other human being in all the world.

The first half of My Name Is Asher Lev is devoted to a relentless exploration of those conflicting tensions. The guilt and responsibility, as defined by the Rebbe. Burying individual feeling in the name of promoting the greater goal. Denying any urge or talent that is not directed at those goals. For a reader who is not religious, it is as depressing as reading can get — an illustration that faith sometimes becomes its own version of tyranny. I’ll admit that had I not been aware of the reputation of the novel, I could have easily set it aside.

My Name Is Asher Lev takes a dramatic turn midway through as Asher approaches his bar mitzvah. The Rebbe, knowing of both his artistic talent and crisis in faith, entrusts him to Jacob Kahn, a lapsed Jew who is an artist of some renown whom the Rebbe feels can serve as a guide, even if Jacob and the Rebbe have their differences.

If the first half of the novel is about responsibility and historical guilt dominating individual potential, the latter half is about discovering and realizing potential. The depressing elements of history and dogma don’t go away, but they become part of the background. It is no spoiler to say that the art Asher will produce — and for which he will gain global attention — is anything but cheerful. He remains the apex of competing tensions, but he at least exercises some control over how they will play out.

For this reader, My Name Is Asher Lev was a very unusual experience. I frequently read novels where the first third is very impressive, the middle third slides into some disappointment and the final third provides either recovery or failure. I can think of few that provided an experience like this one — near total frustration in its first half, complete fascination and engagement in the remaining 200 pages. And yes, the author does need to establish that depressing world before he can allow himself to explore the challenges of the comparative freedom of the creative one.

My response to the novel is not an unusual one: just google Jacob Kahn (who does not appear until halfway through the novel) and see how much attention and analysis that character has provoked in the critical literary world. We cannot appreciate how Asher Lev comes to realize his talent unless we recognize the conflicts that threatened to force him to deny it. Even then, of course, he remains the apex of a triangle of tension — but Potok’s great achievement in this exceptional novel is that that is a fair portrayal of the way the world works.


The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

June 14, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Peter Carey is one of those “A list” authors who provoke a lot of debate. He is certainly prolific: 12 novels (with a new one every two or three years, it seems), a couple of short story collections, four non-fiction works and two screen plays. He sells well and wins prizes: two Bookers (for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001), a couple more shortlisted titles and three Miles Franklin Awards in Australia (although the last of those was Jack Maggs in 1998). He’s still presented as an “Australian” author, although he has lived in New York for the last twenty years — that might explain the lack of recent Miles Franklin recognition.

It is also a challenge to put a label to his fiction. “Historical” probably comes closer than anything else, although he is peripatetic both in time and geography — the Kelly Gang is obviously Australian, Parrot and Olivier in America is equally obviously American (and with a far different tone). And my personal favorite of his novels, Theft: A Love Story, is an exploration of art world corruption that involves no historical aspect at all.

So it is little wonder that his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, both invites comparisons to his backlist while defying any attempt to frame a tidy description of it. One narrative thread is set in 2010 London, featuring Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at the Swinburne Museum. A second involves her immersion in eleven diaries connected with her latest project, the restoration of a nineteenth century automaton, commissioned by an Englishman but built in Germany. And the third goes back to the construction of the automaton itself and introduces a strange cast of mystical characters in the depths of the Black Forest.

That first thread is set moving by the death of one of Catherine’s superiors, the Head Curator of Metals at Swinburne — he had also been her lover for 13 years. It was a secret affair, but known to Eric “Crafty” Crofty, the Head Curator of Horology (“the master of all that ticked and tocked”). Clocks are Catherine’s expertise and “Crafty” figures that a major clock-like project, restoring a nineteenth century automaton that has been bequeathed to the museum (commissioned as a duck, but actually a swan — one that “eats”, “digests” and “expels” the artificial fish from the artificial pond that is part of the mechanism), would be a suitable and compelling distraction for her grief. Here’s the section as he introduces his proposal:

“Good.” He beamed and the creases around his mouth gave him a rather catlike appearance. He turned off the extractor fan and suddenly I could smell his aftershave. “First we’ll get you sick leave. We’ll get through this together — I’ve got something for you to sort out,” he said. “A really lovely object.” That’s how people talk at Swinburne. They say object instead of clock.

I thought, he is exiling me, burying me. The Annexe [which will be home to the project] was situated behind Olympia where my grief might be as private as my love.

At the start, the “project” consists of a number of packed tea chests, filled with protective old newspapers, tobacco tins containing small elements of the automaton and much larger pieces. It is worth providing an extended quote to indicate the flavor that will dominate this narrative thread:

I tipped the contents into a metal tray. That they were small brass screws would be obvious to anybody. The horologist’s eye saw more — for instance, most of them had been made before 1841. The later screws, about two hundred of them, had a Standard Whitworth thread with a set angle of 55 degrees. Could I really see those 55 degrees? Of yes, even with tears in my eyes. I had learned to do that when I was ten years old, sitting beside my grandfather at his bench in Clerkenwell.

So I immediately knew this “object” had been made in the middle of the nineteenth century when Whitworth thread became the official standard but many clockmakers continued to turn their own screws. These different types of threads told me that Crofty’s “object” was the product of many workshops. Part of the restoration would involve matching holes and screws and this might sound maddening but it was exactly what I liked about clockmaking as I had learned it from my grandfather Gehrig — the complete and utter peace of it.

That is impressive detail concerning something that I know nothing about — a characteristic that will become a constant in this thread. The link between the original construction of the object and its present restoration comes in the form of 11 handwritten exercise books that Catherine discovers in one of the tea chests, written by Henry Brandling, the Englishman who commissioned the object and went to Germany to both observe and document its creation.

Brandling has a sickly son (and has already lost his firstborn) and he is committed to seeing Percy through a painful and difficult hydrotherapy treatment. Somewhat conveniently, he finds a role for himself:

Then, quite by accident, I came across the plans. They had been already a century old when they were published by the London Illustrated News but I immediately saw their possibility and I had one of my brother’s draughtsmen draw them afresh and by the time he was finished with the transverse sections and so on, it might have been part of the offering plan for the new Brandling railway.

When my little fellow saw the design for M. Vaucanson’s ingenious duck, a great shout — huzza — went up from him. It was a tonic to see the colour in his cheeks, the life brimming in his eyes where I observed the force of what Dr. Kneipp calls “magnetic agitation” which is a highly elevated form of curiosity or desire.

I thought, dear Lord, we have turned the corner.

Henry’s trip to the Black Forest to arrange construction of the object introduces a whole new set of characters — an artisan who simply seems too big and clumsy for such detailed work, a child genius, a rather predictable hag and a fairy tale teller among them. Carey’s reference to the Brothers Grimm is oblique, but the whole thread reads like it was originally collected by that pair — and this is not one of the sanitized versions of their tales.

For this reader, all of this produced a confusing and often frustrating novel. Carey is a more than competent wordsmith and it is a good thing or the experience would have been worse. Each of the three narrative streams not only involves its own set of characters, it also carries its own “intrigue” which requires careful attention from the reader. As the author moved between the three, I found myself continually needing to refresh myself on what had happened before — which meant, of course, that I kept overlooking the highly significant details of what was happening now (requiring even more refreshing later on).

Catherine became an interesting character and the present day third of the novel was the most satisfying for me — indeed, I would have liked more from this aspect of the story. The diaries and her reaction to them did help fuel this part of the book. Alas, the Black Forest thread just didn’t yield significant return for the attention that it required.

The result of all this was a reaction remarkably similar to the one I had to Carey’s last novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, even though the two books have almost nothing in common. In both, I was very impressed along the way with how much care Carey had put into the detail of the historical aspect of his novel — I was equally frustrated by how little reward I found myself getting for paying attention to all that detail. For me, less would have meant much more.

A final critical qualification on my own opinion. Those who liked Parrot and Olivier (and it was Booker shortlisted, so many did) cited that attention to detail as one of the most positive aspects of the book — they may well find that the aspects of The Chemistry of Tears that frustrated me most are exactly what makes it a good book for them.

Dirty Tricks, by Michael Dibdin

June 8, 2012

Purchased at

Let’s face facts: There is a soft spot in the KfC reading heart for the charming rogue. Certainly Tom Ripley ranks at the top of that pile — I’ve read and reviewed three of the five Patricia Highsmith Ripley novels and will certainly get to the remaining two. And Matt Freeman, “star” character in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, earned himself a place in the pantheon. The narrator of Michael Dibdin’s 1991 novel, Dirty Tricks, is unnamed but whatever he is called he is the latest to join the group.

I’d also be less than honest if I didn’t own up to the fact that I rely on other bloggers who are far better at discovering these dark characters than I am to alert me to their existence. Dirty Tricks came to my attention through reviews from Kimbofo at Reading Matters and Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations (and a comment on this blog from Max of Pechorin’s Journal) — their comparisons with the Sutton novel were enough convince me that Dirty Tricks would be an ideal escapist standby for when I wanted a totally unreliable, selfish scoundrel to hold my attention. I was not disappointed.

The conceit of the novel is that it is a self-authored document by the narrator, submitted to a court in an unidentified, corrupt nation apparently in South America where he is facing extradition back to the United Kingdom in connection with a couple of murders and assorted other crimes he is alleged to have committed. Even before the novel opens, Dibdin offers an epigraph from Paul Theroux’s My Secret History that encapsulates what is to come:

Comedy is the public version of a private darkness. The funnier it is, the more one must speculate on how much terror lies hidden.

The opening of the manuscript itself underlines that sentiment and also effectively establishes the total unreliability (but winsome charm) of the book’s narrator:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

It has to be admitted that this sub-genre does adhere to a formula. As with Highsmith and Sutton, a minor slight or event escalates into something more serious which in turn escalates into murder — and at that point we are still less than halfway through the book, so things get even more seriously criminal and complex in the remainder. Another aspect of the formula (when successfully executed) is that the author uses the slower opening sections to allow his or her anti-hero to make some cryptic observations on class and society (that’s how they sow the charm). These tend to ebb at about the three-quarters point of the novel — from there on in, most of the narrative is devoted to tying up the complex web of plot strands the author has put in place. That structural summary is true for Highsmith and Sutton and applies equally here.

The set-up for Dirty Tricks starts innocently enough at a dinner party in tony North Oxford. Our narrator, a contract teacher at the highly suspect Oxford International Language College, arrives by bicycle at the residence of Dennis and Karen Parsons (where a BMW is parked in the drive). Dennis is the accountant for the corrupt owner of the College — the narrator met the couple at a College party the week before and it somehow resulted in an invitation to dinner. Let me offer two of Dibdin’s trenchant observations that come from this section:

It began, inevitably, at a dinner party. That’s where the social action is in my country, among people of my class. Half the English feed fast and early and then go down the pub to drink beer, the other half eat a slow meal late and drink wine before, during and after. (I am anxious that you should understand the customs and manners of the country where the events in question took place, so different from your own. Otherwise it may be difficult to appreciate how very natural it is that things should have turned out as they did.)

That is quickly followed with his thoughts on the phoniness of the Parson’s opulent home and circumstances:

Nevertheless, even though it wasn’t quite the real thing, Dennis had done all right for himself. When I was young, accountants used to be figures of fun. Not the least of the many surprises I got on returning home [after living abroad for some time] was to find that all that had changed. For the kids today, the people we used to snigger at are role models, swashbuckling marauders sailing the seas of high finance, corporate raiders whose motto is ‘Get in, get out, get rich’. Dennis Parsons was an accountant of the new ‘creative’ variety, for whom the firm’s actual turnover represents only the original idea on which the completed tax return is based. When it came to cooking the books, Dennis was in the Raymond Blanc class.

Remember, Dibdin wrote this novel in 1991 — the fallout from the economic corruption that he presaged in that quote did not actually come to pass until almost two decades later.

Our narrator is sufficiently “under class” in the assembled party that he gets nervous, which leads to a leg cramp which in turn causes him to grope around with his foot under the dinner table. He is astonished when moments later “I felt an answering pressure on my own foot” — it has come from the hostess, Karen Parsons.

Literally one-half page later, our narrator heads to the loo — where he is “jumped” by Karen, who straddles his hips and begins frantically French-kissing him, an embrace that ends only when her husband approaches in search of more wine and is less than six feet away. Their “affair” has started and, also, acquired its central characteristic. Karen is not so much interested in sex with the narrator as she is in having sex with her husband dangerously close by.

To keep this “affair” going, it is required that the narrator spends a fair bit of time around both Parsons — and Dibdin uses those occasions to good satiric effect. Without giving too much away, that leads to the first “accident” (or “crime”, depending on your point of view) — a drunken Dennis insists upon a punting trip down the swollen Cherwell right into the even faster flowing Isis/Thames where he topples from the punt and the narrator “accidentally” pounds him fatally on the head with the pole while trying to rescue him.

For those familiar with Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin I am sure that sounds an echo, one that is well-placed. Dibdin not only makes reference to Zola’s novel, much of Dirty Tricks is an homage — albeit one with humor — to the French master’s work.

As in that novel, Karen and the narrator get married shortly after Dennis’ demise and start a relationship that just doesn’t work. It is at this point that the plot dominoes start getting larger and falling more rapidly — you can check out both Kimbofo and Guy’s reviews above for more details on that if you need them.

If the satire carries the first part of the book (and it certainly did for me), the author needs to have his characters firmly and three-dimensionally lodged in the reader’s mind when the plot takes over (although it is worth noting that Zola said his novel was “to study temperments and not characters”) — and again Dibdin succeeds. And he has in reserve the additional element that this manuscript is a formal court document in a shady foreign country; he uses that device to exceptionally good, if somewhat tidy, effect as the novel concludes.

All in all, Dirty Tricks provides another excellent addition to the charming rogues gallery — I do rather wish he had a name for convenient reference. While it doesn’t have the literary quality of the Highsmith novels — or the modern bitterness of Sutton’s take on contemporary London — it is an entirely worthwhile read. Highly recommended.

Canada, by Richard Ford

June 1, 2012

Purchased at

First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.

Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren’t strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would’ve thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular — although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.

Those are the opening paragraphs of Richard Ford’s Canada so, despite how it might seem, quoting them is not a spoiler. It is worth noting, however, that it will take the author almost 200 pages until we get to the robbery that he is going to first tell us about — Canada is about what lies behind the action, not the action itself.

Canada is a memory book, brought to life almost 50 years after the events as the narrator looks back on the crucial year of his youth. Dell Parsons, the first person narrator in the book itself, is 15 and living in Great Falls, Montana, when the novel opens in 1960. His father, Bev, was a bombardier who served in the Phillipines and Japan during the war; he stayed in the Air Force as a supply officer after the war which meant the Parsons family were service brats who moved around America for the next decade before they “landed” in Great Falls four years earlier.

Bev is Alabama-born, with a healthy dose of Dixie charm. He’d used that charm on Neeva Kamper back in 1945 in Fort Lewis, Washington when he was retraining after hostilities ended. The fling resulted in the pregnancy which produced Dell and his twin sister, Berner. Bev and Neeva did what was then the right thing and got married: “…while from a distance, it may seem that our parents were merely not made for one another, it was more true that when our mother married our father, it betokened a loss, and her life changed forever — and not in a good way — as she surely must’ve believed.”

Neeva is half Jewish and, in character and interests, is the opposite of Bev and his Dixie charm. She both reads and writes poetry and, in the words of her 15-year-old son, was meant “someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from who she did marry”. The itinerent service existence is the antithesis of what Neeva would want from life; the result is that she consciously refuses to engage herself or her family in whatever community they happened to be living in for a couple of years before moving on to the next base.

This kind of growing up, I know, can leave you either cast out and adrift, or else it can encourage you to be malleable and dedicated to adjusting — the thing my mother disapproved of, since she didn’t do it, and held out for herself some notion of a different future, more like the one she’d imagined before she met our father. We — my sister and I — were small players in a drama she saw to be relentlessly unfolding.

As a result, what I began to care about was school, which was the continual thread in life besides my parents and my sister. I never wanted school to be over. I’d spend as much time inside school as I could, poring over books we were given, being around the teachers, breathing in the school odors, which were the same everywhere and like no other. Knowing things became important to me, no matter what they were.

That last paragraph is a pretty fair summary of Dell’s character: regardless of what may be happening around him, he is a passive adaptor, avoiding trouble and searching the circumstances around him for a safe haven where he can retreat, bury himself and “know” things. When you are the adolescent child of bank robbers, that seemingly ordinary goal can be a bit of a challenge — finding the path of least resistance is anything but a simple chore.

Bev and Neeva didn’t set out to be bank robbers, rather they fell into it. As the supply officer at the Great Falls base, Bev had been part of a scam that involved stocking the officers’ club with rustled beef supplied by nearby Indians (and, of course, skimming off some of the profits). When he mustered out of the Air Force and failed at a number of jobs, he went into “business” with a similar enterprise as the middleman selling the stolen beef to a dining car steward from the Great Northern Railway. When that project went astray and left a substantial debt owing to criminal elements, Bev reverted to his own natural character: if his son’s response to crisis is to look for a safe haven, Bev’s is to pursue the most dramatic option, in this case travelling over the state line to North Dakota to rob a bank.

That story takes up the first half of the book and you’ll note I have yet to mention Canada. Once the robbery has taken place, Neeva is sure the pair will be caught (and they are within a few days). She makes arrangements for a friend to take her children to Canada — Berner runs away instead, so only Dell makes the trip.

The second half of the book takes place in the Cypress Hills area of southwestern Saskatchewan, where Dell finds it even harder to find his idea of a comfortable refuge — don’t forget those murders the author has promised in his opening paragraph. He is unfamiliar with both the territory and the people in it, so “adapting” is pretty much a full-time occupation.

Richard Ford is an author of considerable reputation, best known for his trilogy featuring Frank Bascombe — The Sportswriter, Independence Day (which earned him the Pulitzer Prize) and The Lay of the Land. While I have read all three, I did so with some frustration — Ford’s interest is in what is happening inside his main character’s head, not in what is happening in the world around him.

Canada shares that trait and, for me, was even more frustrating. Dell is a semi-complete, if maturing, teenager — given that the entire novel comes from his point of view, he simply isn’t interesting enough to sustain a book that extends to 418 pages. The world around him — be it Great Falls or Saskatchewan — has much of interest in it, but the narrator simply doesn’t have the experience to bring it to life.

Regular visitors here will be aware that I’ve read and reviewed a fair bit of fiction set in that territory:

— Larry Watson’s Montana, 1948 and White Crosses are both set in Montana in roughly the same era as Canada — both also feature young protaganists dealing with the discomfort of their surroundings.
— Guy Vanderhaeghe (who is included in Ford’s Acknowledgements) set his own Western trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy, The Last Crossing and A Good Man) in exactly the same territory, albeit close to a century earlier. Alas, I read the first two before I started blogging, but there is a review of A Good Man here.
— Dianne Warren’s debut novel, Cool Water, is also set in Cypress Hills country, a few decades after Ford’s novel but not much has changed in the interval.

Given Ford’s substantial reputation, I know it is verging on heresy to say this, but I’d take any of those six over this book — and there is considerable overlap in the seven books cited. While Frank Bascombe’s existential response to his surroundings eventually kept me interested in all three of those novels, Dell Parsons was just too incomplete a character to carry this book — I kept wishing for more of the insight into the surrounding community and terrain that Watson, Vanderhaeghe and Warren all delivered.

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