Thursday, May 03, 2007

Recent Reading

I've recently read two good books, very different from one another. Both are relatively new -- first published in 2005. One way or another both books were on my reading lists, and I recently ordered and received them, leaving only a few hundred more books to go.

The first book, No god but God by Reza Aslan is a historic study of Islam, with lots of attention paid to the modern ramifications of each historical development. I heard John Stewart interview him on "The Daily Show," and decided to read the book.

I can't get really committed to learning details of quarrels and power struggles among the desert tribes of Arabia in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages (to use the European names of those eras). However, I was particularly interested in the portrayal of the pre-Moslem religions of Mecca and the region, and in the author's conviction that the current disastrous confrontation between the West and Islam is really a side-effect of an internal struggle between Moslems. Specifically, Aslan sees the fundamentalists vs. the modernizers as the real struggle, and the Moslem-Western battles as peripheral.

The second book, The Genizah at the House of Shepher is a novel by Tamar Yellin. I read that it won the first Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, awarded by the Jewish Book Council in March. Besides the honor, the prize equals $100,000.

At times The Genizah... is a little romance-like for my taste. The plot is slightly forced: about an ancient codex over which a large family are quarreling, with a variety of motives. The main character -- who narrates the tale -- has roots in both Israel and England, and her family connects to other Jewish centers going back into the 19th century. Despite the constant mental and physical changes of location, the book seemed very coherent to me: a personal and family story of discovery and searching.

I found The Genizah... very beautifully written, especially the descriptions of Israel and the portrayals of the main characters. Here's an example of a passage about the narrator's English childhood that I enjoyed:
Mine was a kind father but a melancholy man. All day long he worked at the factory, measuring lengths of timber with his thick fingers. He fed the timber to the jigsaw with his workman's hands. Sometimes in the evenings he would tell me stories, for in late middle-age he had remembered the stories of his youth: about Sandalfon, the guardian angel of birds, who was responsible for forming children in the womb, and about Metatron, author of the Book of Secrets and God's heavenly scribe. About Moses, who saw God through a clear glas and Elijah, who saw him through a darkened one. About the dangers of moonlight and about the resurrection of the dead. At weekends we walked the streets of our neighbourhood, stole raspberries from Mr. Mankin's garden, bamboo sticks from the municipal park. We picked up coins from the pavement and jewellry from gutters, and wherever we went I ws taught the pleasures of being light-fingered and sharp-eyed.

There was also education by omission. My mother took responsibility for that. (p. 146)
Another passage, about her return to Jerusalem, that I liked:
I came to Jerusalem at night, in darkness, after a long absence, rain streaking the windows of the taxi as we rode from the plain to the hills. Outside, at first, there were bright signs, a golden egg, a drive-thru takeaway, a gian smile surrounded by flashing lights. We might have been in America. We might have been anywhere. Then we were on the highway. We were nowhere. Darkness, hunched trees. A change in the air. A whiff of petrol and bitumen, a hint of the sea or the desert. Strangeness. Rain.

Then as we began to climb I closed my eyes and thought I had recognized the old route, its rises and turns inscribed on my memory. But the road had changed. It had flattened, uncoiled and stretched itself into something unfamiliar. And when I opened my eyes, instead of the darkness of the hills there were masses of lights, strings and clusters of lights as far as the eye could see.

"What's that?" I asked.

The driver answered: "That's Jerusalem." (p. 11)

No comments: