Category Archives: Books We Love

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

asherReading this book was rather like swimming. I could only dive into a few pages at a time before having to stop and breathe. This is a beautiful book, full of tenderness and trembling. It is a journey through different kinds of anguish, the anguish of a child, and the anguish that fuels a need to create. It is about art as an expression of being, and how such expression inadvertently causes hurt. It is a book about “the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats”, about “dreams of love”, “nights of waiting”, “memories of death”, about things which should be remembered but are forgotten, about love that overwhelms yet cannot find its voice to speak, and most of all about the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world, Asher concludes, cannot be comprehended.

The world – so full of love and memory it is. So full of suffering love and painful memory so powerfully expressed in the aesthetic mould chosen by Asher for his major works. And that mould is none other than the crucifixion, where one mystery is chosen to answer another.

 

It is difficult to pick quotes from this book, because it is so full of poignant running prose that loses its significance when is taken out of context. Nevertheless, I have attempted to jot down some parts for safekeeping:

1. “The fact is that gossip, rumours, mythmaking and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a causal chain. So it is time for the defence, for a long session in demythology. But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.”

2. “Often on Shabbos or festivals, I would see him in the living room, studying Talmud or a book on Hassidus…

‘Why do you study that so often, Papa?’

He smiled faintly and his eyes grew dreamy. ‘My father liked to study it often, Asher’”

3. “‘It’s wrong rivkeh,’ Her sister said. ‘The boy will have scars.’ Then she said, ‘Rivkeh, it is forbidden to mourn in this way.”

My mother was very still.

‘The torah forbids it?’ she said quietly. ‘It is forbidden? Yes?’

‘Yes,’ her sister said.

‘But there are scars everywhere,’ my mother said. ‘And who will hold my pennies?’”

4. “There was his face, very clearly; not truly his face, but the way I felt about his face. I drew his face inside my head. I went to my desk and on a piece of blank white paper drew how I felt about his face. I drew the kaskett. I did not use any colours. The face stared up at me from the paper. I went back to the bed and lay on it with my eyes closed. 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 then that we were brothers, he and I, that we both knew lands of ice and darkness.”

5. “’No one likes my drawings,’ I said through the fog of half sleep. ‘My drawings don’t help’

My father said nothing

‘I don’t like to feel this way, Papa.’

Gently, my father put his hand on my cheek.

‘It’s not a pretty world, Papa.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ my father said softly”

6. “I remember that night very clearly, the texture of it darkness, the echoing resonance of its sounds. I lay in bed in the enveloping night and felt myself one with all the vast and endless arc of the universe, felt myself as raw flesh connected to near and distant pain… to draw, to make lines and shapes on pieces of paper, was a futile indulgence in the face of such immutable darkness…”

7. “’It’s only a taste,’ my father said once, looking out across the buildings and trees. ‘But remember, Asher, some tastes remain a long time on the tongue. A taste of the Ribbono Shel Olom…’”

8. “’The world is a terrible place. I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world truly is. Nothing is real to me except my own feelings; nothing is true except my own feelings as I see them all around me in my scilptures and paintings. I know these feelings are true because if they were not true they would make are that is as terrible as the world. You do not understand me yet, Asher Lev, my little Hasid…’”

9. “The girl sat very still, bathed in sunlight. I looked at her and worked carefully, translating her body into lines, making choices, each curve, each subtle change in the flow of her flesh, necessitating and interpreting choice of line”

10. “Do not try to understand. Become a great artist. That is the only way to justify what you are doing to everyone’s life.”

11. “I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of colour and line and texture and form.”

12. “He listened attentively to what I was saying. But there was nothing in his intellectual or emotional equipment to which he could connect my words. He possessed no frames of reference for such concepts. He could not even ask intelligent questions. My world of aesthetics was as bewildering to him as his insatiable need for travel was to me”

13. “And it was then that it came, though I think it had been coming for a long time and I had been choking it and hoping it would die. But it does not die. It kills you first. I knew there would be no other way to do it. No one says you have to paint ultimate anguish and torment. But if you are driven to paint it, you have no other way.”

14. “I did not know, but I sensed it as truth”

Growing Pains by John Lauren and Paula Sandford

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Children are closest to grief. Not yet able to examine the world with their mind, they feel the world with their spirit. And in their spirit they may have knowledge of events that happened that they have never been told about. Most of our personality is crystallised by 5, and most hurt happens to us when we are at our most vulnerable. Issues that beset the adult often have their origins in the womb, and our emotional responses in adulthood are often fueled by experiences and reactions made in early life.

How is a person born again? A person is born again when he is carried in the hearts of people who love him. We are all healed by love.

Quotes (emphasis my own):

“As we mature, we interpret experiences with our mind, but before we have developed intellect with which to reason we have a mind in the spirit within us. As soon as we begin to form within the womb, that breath from God, which is the core of our essence, is breathed into us, or we would not have life at all”

“A chronic state of uncertainty, fear, and deep-seated anxiety is built into a child in utero whose mother smokes, and he will react when his mother even thinks of having a cigarette… Dr. Verny related numerous fascinating stories of prenatal memory and many case histories in which the doctors concluded in some way the child made decisions to react, such as refusal to bond with the mother after birth because of her refusal to bond with the child before delivery. He reported the formation of attitudes and personality traits as a result of prenatal or birth trauma”

We begin to store treasure in our heart from the moment we become a living being; our treasure is made up of every experience we have ever had, the responses we have made to them, and the attitudes, judgments and expectations we hold”

“Whether you are praying for a baby or an adult, the reality of Jesus affecting the spirit of a person is made possible through prayer for the innermost being of the tiny child inside the one for whom you pray… asking Him to identify with a wounded spirit all the way back to the time of conception… we speak the comfort, reassurance, and affirmation of the Lord directly into the spirit of the child”

“Very young children may be prayer for aloud as they sleep, and their spirits will hear the prayer and be gradually secured in love”

“The inner one is like a little child, and so he says, ‘Tell me again. Tell me again.’ He needs many repeated prayers. Christians who pray with him may need to associate on a regular basis as spiritual mothers and father in Christ to do for him what his natural parents failed to do”

The spirit of a young child experiences far more than he can know with his mind and that it is possible that he had known in his spirit the absence of his parents”

“Little girls want to be the apple of their daddies’ eyes. They come to earth innately knowing they are God’s gift to ravish their daddies’ hearts, to comfort, delight, and please. Being received by an appreciative father builds confidence in what is to be a woman.”

Real fellowship is dependent upon the ability of our spirits to reach out and deeply connect with one another… We can understand and be refreshed in one another’s company only if our spirits are able to meet and nourish one another. Anyone who has touched the clamminess of a corpse has recognised the absence of spirit”

“But what of the many tragically wounded who are not healed by love? To the degree that each of us has formed a heart of stone we have to that degree failed to become fully human. To that same degree, we have closed down the very faculties needed for real interchange of heart and mind. We will not let the spirit be vulnerable, open to touch and embrace. It hurts too much. We hide behind stone walls.”

Some people have talked all their lives and have never known a moment’s communication

“Real conscience is cultivated solely by the ability of our spirit to love, to meet, to enter in and share another’s life for the other’s sake”

“In ‘I-thou’ encounters, each ‘I’ meets and treats any other person as a revered ‘thou,’ spirit to spirit, heart to heart, mind to mind, openly and without impediment. I-thou can be pictured by imagining two sparks radiating light into and through each other until, if one is blue and the other yellow, a green field suffuses both equally without eradicating either, at once brightening both the original yellow and blue. Whoever learnt to live in I-thou relationships learnt to cherish the other. He hurts in anticipation of the other’s hurt and therefore stops before a personal action might wound the other. The is the true function of conscience

“The tragedy of our culture is that men and women are becoming progressively less human. God wants to raise human beings… In Him, we are to become more and more human, more warm and loving, vulnerable, and compassionate. ”

“She needed God’s love through human vessels. Good friends and prayer ministers must know their worth as God’s messengers of love”

“Ministers, doctors, and lawyers most commonly are afflicted with hidden, ossified hearts. Those who were born with loving natures but were prevented from learning true give-and-take have often built strong walls to protect those naturally tender hearts”

[Of a dyslexic boy healed by prayer and ministry] “’Because of emotionally painfully circumstances surrounding his birth, he didn’t want to be born. His spirit is in his body backward.’ That was probably a symbolic description of the way his spirit was turned away from life.

“As dyslexics often do when we pray for them, James felt like he was spinning inside. It was as if God was turning him around to face into life, instead of away from it, and the quick change was momentarily disorientating… In the coming days, the ‘fog’ continued to clear”

“For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.” ~ Psalm 109:22

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

9781408801086Anne Michael’s writing is meant to be absorbed slowly. In every brief exchange, every lyrical conversation and every heartbreaking image, you feel the presences, absences and essences that pervade in the lives of the characters, and also your own life. No other author has taught me so much about the universality of loss, about finding beauty in broken places, about how beautiful and alive with love everything in the world is – even death.

I took down so many lines as I went along and it felt almost sacrilegious, to be removing the words from the book. I actually enjoyed this book more than Fugitive Pieces, perhaps because over the past year my mind has become more able to receive the sensitivities in the author’s writing. Perhaps also because there is a lot in this book about mothers and fathers and children, a subject which always pulls at my heart.

Quotes:

(1) “My life formed around an absence. Every bit of pleasure, each window of lamplight against the night snow, the drowsy smell of the summer roses, attached itself to the fact of her absence. Everything in this world is what has been left behind”

(2) “I think we each have only one or two philosophical or political ideas in our life, one or two organizing principles during our whole life, and all the rest falls from there…”

(3) “Long after you’ve forgotten someone’s voice, said Jean, you can still remember the sound of their happiness or their sadness. You can feel it in your body.”

(4) “– Daughters don’t stop crying for their mothers, Marina said, and I had ten more years with mine than you had with yours. We long for our mothers more, not less. Suddenly she jumped up and rushed to the oven. The seed biscuits had shrivelled into charcoal. She opened the window and the winter air filled the kitchen.

— It’s like a spell, said Marina. Nothing eat away time like the past”

(5) “In every childhood there is a door that closes, Marina had said. And: only real love waits while we journey through our grief. That is the real trustworthiness between people. In all the epics, in all the stories that have lasted through many lifetimes, it is always the same truth: love must wait for wounds to heal.”

(6) “Every object,” my father used to say, “is also a concept.” If you place two or three or ten things next to each other than have never been next to each other before, this will produce a new concept. And nothing proves the existence of a future like a question…”

(7) “—We do not like to think about children’s fears, Marina had said one afternoon in the weeks alone with Jean. We push them aside to concentrate on their innocence. But children are close to grief, they are closer to grief than we are. They feel it, undiluted, and then gradually they grow away from that flesh-knowledge. They know all about the terror of the woods, the witch-mother, things buried and not seen again. In every child’s fear is always the fear of the worst thing, the loss of the person they love most”

(8) “We must learn the value of each other’s words, what they cost”

(9) “Love permeates everything, the world is saturated with it, or is emptied of it. Always this beautiful or this bereft”

(10) “The past does not change, nor our need for it. What must change is the way of telling.”

(11) “For better or for worse, said Marina, slowly rising from her chair, love is a catastrophe.”

(12) “A moment passes, with all its possibilities. All that love allows us, and does not allow.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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So I finished reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves yesterday, and I’m still reeling from the surges of emotion than hit me as I tore through the last few chapters. I hardly dare to open the book again, because I’m afraid I cannot bear to let it wreck me a second time. Yet somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to give this book away to anyone until it stops whispering to me.

The story was strangely apt, somehow. I dare not say anything about its content because this story is one that is crafted true to its medium, meant to be opened page by page. But this is a book with a lot of psychology in it. I recognised many familiar terms and familiar experiments, given a spirit which they don’t have in textbooks. When the author mentioned Harry Harlow my stomach lurched. I always found that photograph of a baby monkey clinging to a fake, wire “mother” in my psychology textbooks extremely harrowing. The story is also resonant because it’s as story about every ordinary family, they ways we wound each other, the way “well-intentioned actions lead to heart-breaking consequences”. It’s a book about humanity and animality, about trying to tear through the veil that separates the conscious from the unconscious, to go back to the beginning of things, to find things lost and learning how to handle the broken pieces of things fallen apart. That last scene – Rosemary and Fern, their foreheads pressed together separated by a pane of glass, is just burned into my memory.

It’s a story that wrecked me and yet also dearly soothed me. Walking with Rosemary made me wonder if perhaps the stars will soon align for me too. If I also can begin to walk into memory – not as playing a video tape, but as trying to peel back those layers and layers of transparency that have coated each other over the years. I wonder if I can raise up the ghosts of those who I have lost, and put aside memories of those I cannot forget.

Rosemary never really has a real friend until she meets crazy Harlow, and I felt Harlow’s loss painfully when she disappeared from the story. Perhaps it is because I miss my Harlows too. There are some friends whose presence in your life is less that of a confidante and more that of a sort of trigger. Not exactly people you can pour your heart out to, but rather the ones who make things happen just by virtue of their craziness, and the way their very being challenges something deep and fundamental about you.

To put a stop to my rambling, here’s 10 of my favourite excerpts from the book:

  1. “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened. The mist lifts and suddenly there we are, my good parents and their good children, their grateful children who pone for no reason to talk, say their good-nights with a kiss, and look forward to home on the holidays… Just for a moment, I see us that way; I see us all. Restored and repaired. Reunited. Refulgent”
  2. “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly. It’s hard to always come in second. It’s also hard to be the favourite.”
  3. “Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on. Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”
  4. “And here we are, finally back in the middle where we left me, a bright-eyed undergraduate saddled with her very own arrest record and someone else’s powder-blue suitcase. The prophetic stars are hopping about the sky like fleas. One: the appearance and immediate disappearance of my mothers journals. Two: A muffled message from Lowell, the knock in the dungeon wall from an adjacent cell. Three: Harlow”
  1. “I once thought of the monkey girl as a threat only to myself. Now I see how she could blow the whole caper. So, added to the old fear of exposure, is this other fear that I’ll mess up, miscalculate just how much monkey girl to let out. There’s no data to suggest that I can make you love me whatever I do. I could be headed back to middle school, no hallways and classrooms this time, but the tabloids and the blogs instead”
  2. “Next time, I’ll put things right between my father and me. Next time, I’ll give Mom the fair share of blame for Fern… Next time, I’ll take the share that’s mine, no more, no less. Next time I’ll shut my mouth about Fern and open it about Lowell… I’d always planned to forgive Dad someday.”
  3. “No one is easier to delude than a parent; they see only what they wish to see.”
  4. [About Harry Harlow] “The baby monkeys clung pathetically o the fake, uncaring mothers, until they all turned psychotic or died. “I don’t know what he thought he’d learned about them,” Lowell said, ‘But in their short, sad little lives, they sure learned a hell a lot about him'”
  5. “It’s true that, as my brother grew larger, he also grew dangerous, same as my sister. But they’re still ours and we want them back. They’re needed here at home”
  6. “The wine was red. Mom took another sip and turned her softly sagging face away from mine. ‘I wanted you to have an extraordinary life,’ she said.”

Walking with Athos

“We’re nearly at the top. Jakob, when Nikos died I asked my father if he believed in God. He said: How do we know there’s a God? Because He keeps disappearing.”

We bent down to pass through the bushes at the edge of the hill. We emerged from the scrub of the ravine into the garden and lifted out heads to emptiness. Chorley Park, built to outlast generations, was gone, as though an eraser had rubbed out its place against the sky.

Athos, stunned, leaned heavily on his walking-stick.

“How could they have torn it down, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city? Jakob, are you sure we’re in the right place?”

“We’re in the right place, koumbaros… How do I know? Because it’s gone.”

~ Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels