Monthly Archives: December 2015

Jessie Mei Mei, Sharon Guest & Stuart Neal

download (2)I don’t know much about the world of adoption. I was blessed with children. I never knew the pain of barrenness.

The story of Jessie Mei Mei is an important one. It’s a story that uncovers so much tragedy on so many different levels – the tragedy of these parents who can’t conceive, the tragedy of children abandoned, often because their parents have no choice, the tragedy of a flawed system for parents who bring home children like Jessie Mei Mei.

I am in awe of Sharon Guest and Stuart Neal. Their book so clearly conveys their commitment to their children and to all the children who are so clearly under-represented. I commend them for their tenacity and their ongoing and unyielding love for Jessie Mei Mei, despite their inability to care for her full time. At the same time, there is a resonance of deep sadness that filters through this book and while I am humbled by Guest and Neal, I can’t help feeling a terrible sorrow for this child and all children who suffer her fate.

We have so much to learn about ourselves and others and I am eternally grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Jessie Mei Mei is a story that needed telling and Guest and Neal have told it well.

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

760096_origDickens never ages. In spectacular fashion, his fiction is timeless and stellar. It’s been a while since I indulged in Dickensian splendour but none of its glory had faded and I delighted in every moment of the language and colour of this awesome tale.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before, – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”

Great Expectations is filled with these types of divine insights. About weakness:

“So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.”

About love:

“I’ll tell you,” said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smitter – as I did!”

And about expectations:

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good.”

It is this exploration of man’s essence that classifies Dickens as one of the great canonical writers of our world, his ability to flesh out characters, expose them and toy with the readers’ own sensibilities through his story-telling that defines him as brilliant.

I had forgotten so much about Dickens’ magic, and revisiting Great Expectations has brought some of this back to me. Not sure which Dickens I will be revelling in next, but whatever it is, I know I won’t be disappointed!

 

 

The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer

download (1)It is very hard to write about this book because it is quite simply one of the most brilliant books that I have ever read.

I have had the pleasure of reading Singer’s work before but I have never experienced the depth and complexity of a book like this.

This novel tells the story of a Jewish man called Jacob who finds himself sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres. Jacob, a devoutly religious Jew, spends years isolated on a mountain, working for pagan peasant farmers. Every day the farmer’s daughter, Wanda, climbs the mountain with food for Jacob who despite his slavery, attempts to maintain his religious observance, abstaining from meat, maintaining a calendar so he knows when Jewish festivals occur and trying to sustain himself by reciting from memory Jewish texts. Over time, Jacob finds himself falling in love with Wanda and despite his ongoing efforts to resist her, he eventually succumbs.

Wanda takes on Jacob’s Jewish conviction, immersing herself in the river as a type of ritual cleansing (called a mikveh). She covers her hair and dons the dress of religious Jewish women. Together they find a village in which to live, Wanda adopting the name Sarah and pretending to be a deaf mute so as not to arouse suspicion about her inability to speak Yiddish.

Despite all that Jacob and Wanda/Sarah have endured in their struggle to survive, they are plagued by the gossip of the village – Wanda’s pretence of deafness leads the women of the village to talk about her in her presence, to mock her and defame her, to  ridicule her and make snide comments about her, all the while thinking that she can’t understand them.

Jacob’s experiences with his wife both privately in teaching her about Judaism and in the village where they live, lead him to raise profound questions about his belief and the power of free will.

“But now at least he understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows. Man’s obligations toward God were easy to perform. Didn’t Gershon have two kitchens, one for milk, and one for meat? Men like Gershon cheated, but they ate matzoth prepared according to the strictest requirements. They slandered their fellow men, but demanded meat doubly kosher. They envied, fought, hated their fellow Jews yet still put on a second pair of phylacteries. Rather than troubling himself to induce a Jew to eat pork or kindle a fire on the Sabbath, Satan did easier and more important work, advocating those sins deeply rooted in human nature.”

There is so much more to this text. It is filled with internal dialogue, with profound questioning and deep emotions. It explores the most complex passages of man’s conviction as he struggles to maintain a balance between his own desires and how he believes the world should be. I have never read a journey like this and there are elements of this book that will stay with me forever.

Furthermore, this is a book to which I will need to return time and time again in order to ensure that I digest all its complexity and beauty, and to not miss a drop of its essence.

Isaac Bashevis Singer is a clear genius and this, his only self-translated work, defines him as one of the greatest writers ever to have lived.

To read more of Singer’s brilliance, don’t miss his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

When Life Gives You OJ, Erica S. Perl

downloadSo I read this series backward – Aces Wild first and then When Life Gives You OJ and I am thrilled to announce that it made absolutely no different at all to the way that I enjoyed the reading experience!

Erica Perl is a genius. She has crafted a most delightful story around a group of incredibly realistic and lively characters. On the surface, this book is about Zelda’s desire to have a dog – perfectly depicted in this book trailer. It’s a great story – Zelly’s quest to convince her parents that she is mature enough, responsible enough, caring enough to have a dog is bolstered by her grandfather’s legal brain.

But, what lies beneath this quirky and often ridiculous tale, is a beautiful sense of empathy and connectedness that characterises Zelly’s family and is a sort of icon to the eternal value of Jewish emphasis on family and community.

I fell in love with Zelly’s grandfather all over again in this book – Ace is cranky and brilliant and sad and ever so caring about his family, specifically Zelly. He is clearly a treasure chest of stories waiting to be told and I can easily imagine myself sitting by his side and listening for hours as he waxes on about his life and his experiences and his infinite wisdom.

“Even without his name on it, I would’ve known this was Ace’s work. The rubber band was a dead giveaway. Ace is the proud owner of the world’s largest rubber band collection. He doesn’t trust Scotch tape.

Ready for what? I thought. I sat up in bed, staring at the jug. If Ace was behind this, I was definitely not ready for it.

Ace is grandpa. His real name is Abraham Diamond, but he likes everyone to call him Ace. My name is Zelda Fried, but I like everyone to call me Zelly. Ace doesn’t call me Zelly, or even Zelda. He calls me ‘kid’, so I call him Grandpa to get him back.”

The banter between these characters is delightful and refreshing and I found myself intrigued by their honesty and the depth of their connection.

Truthfully, I think what I liked most about this book was the humour and insane quirkiness of the narrative.

“I knocked quietly on Ace’s door. No reply. The sign hanging on his door says GONE FISHING, but it’s just for decoration. I don’t think Ace has gone fishing once since we moved to Vermont and Ace moved in with us. GONE TO HENRY’S DINER or GONE TO BEN & JERRY’S or GONE TO BATTERY PARK TO A BAND-SHELL CONCERT WEARING MY LUCKY FISHING HAT? Yes, yes, and yes. But GONE FISHING, not so much.”

It’s hard not to laugh and laugh I did.

If you have young readers in the pre-teen age group or if you are simply young at heart, this is a great book for you to read. I promise it will make you smile!