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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chaim Potok

One of my friends is moving to upstate New York at the end of the month. Sad day. His plan is to move back down in a year, but who knows what will happen? That being said, he's given me a delightful task to complete before he takes off; he wants a list of book recommendations. I've begun the preliminary sketch, something which I'm sure won't be complete until long after he's already left. It's great fun, as it has me thinking back over the last ten years and remembering what my favorite books have been, and why they're so awesome.

One of the first books I ever gave to someone was Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Those of you who know this author love him, I am sure. I've never heard anyone who has read him say anything negative about his work. I don't know anything, really, about his personal history, but based on the subjects of his books (and his name) my guess is that he's an ethnic, if not practicing, Jew with Eastern European roots. If you're looking for thought-provoking summer reading, particularly if you're a guy anywhere between the ages of 13 and 30, you should read The Chosen. It's about two teenage boys in New York, one of whom has been raised as a strictly orthodox Hasidic Jew, and the other as an observant but not nearly so conservative Jew. They meet playing baseball, and become friends after one hits the other in the eye with the ball, landing him in a hospital bed with glass shards in his eye socket. As you might imagine, it's a rocky start to an unlikely friendship, but it's a beautiful book, an easy read, and well worth the time you might put into it. Also, buy it. Don't get it from the library. It's one to own. If you doubt it, you should know that the two literary characters I've ever thought of naming children after come from Crime and Punishment and this book.



The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen. I wasn't as impressed with it as I was with the first one, but as you'll love the characters already, it's worth reading just to know what happens with them next.

Finally, another of his books that I've read and re-read is Davita's Harp. The heroine of this story is a young girl of Jewish descent living with her parents in New York during the days before World War II. It's a much darker book than The Promise and The Chosen, and thus harder to read, but all the more strikingly tender because of that. Certain passages from it are indelible marks in my mind, and just seeing the outside cover of the book makes me achy in a good way. Some bits and pieces of the first chapter to get you started:
My mother came from a small town in Poland, my father from a small town in Maine. My mother was a nonbelieving Jew, my father a nonbelieving Christian. They met in New York while my father was doing a story for a leftist newspaper on living conditions in a row of vile tenements on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my mother worked. This was in the late 1920s. They fell in love, had a brief affair, and were married.
My fathers family -- except for his uncle and his sister -- did not attend his wedding because he had left home against the will of his parents to go to New York to become a journalist, and because he was marrying a Jewish girl.
My mother had made the journey to New York from Europe soon after the end of the First World War. During the war she had attended a prestigious school in Vienna, where she had concentrated in English literature and modern European philosophy. She was about nineteen when she arrived in America. Her aunt, who had inherited some money from her late husband, the owner of a small garment-district sweatshop, saw her through college and certification as a social worker, and then suddenly died.
My parents' wedding was attended only by their friends, an odd assortment of leftist writers, editors, poets, theater people, journalists -- and that one New England uncle and my father's sister. It was, my mother told me years later, a very noisy wedding. Angry neighbors called the police. My father's uncle, who was responsible for much of the noise, invited them in for a drink. He was from Maine and had little knowledge of the humorlessness of New York Police.
Seven months later, I was born.
The novel details the frequent moves of Davita's family, her father's time as a journalist in Spain during the violence of their 1930s Civil War, and the after-effects of the pogroms that Davita's mother experienced in Europe before she came to America. As you might imagine, these events and their results are no small happenings. Like The Chosen, the writing style is straightforward and easy, but the material is a little heavier, and certainly not for younger audiences or the faint of heart. All the same, you should read it at some point.

Now, as far as getting my friend his list of books is concerned (oh the honor! oh the responsibility!), what do you think I should add?

1 comment:

  1. Oooh! How about The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr?

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