Sunday, September 30, 2012

Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

   Ever since reading The Chosen by Chaim Potok (for my review go here), I have been collecting all the books I can by this wonderful author.  I have done this primarily by belonging to Paperback Swap  This is a web site where you can trade books for free.  For every book you mail to another subscriber, you get a credit that you can then use to request a book from another member.  I have gotten several books this way.  If you’re a cheapskate like me, or, if you’re trying hard to be a good steward with your money (also like me) this is a good place to feed your book habit without paying full price for a book.

     Anyway, as I was saying this is how I am getting books written by Potok.  Chaim Potok is an interesting person.  He was trained as a Rabbi, but was also an editor.  His first book, The Chosen brought him international attention.  He continued writing for the next thirty years, producing several successful novels. Old Men at Midnight was his last book published before he succumbed to brain cancer in 2002.

    Old Men at Midnight is a collection of three short stories.  Each is about a Jewish man and his unique life.  The common thread is a woman named Ilana Davita Dunn.  Each man tells his story to her.

        In the first story, The Ark Builder Davita is a young woman, only eighteen years old.  She is hired by a Polish couple to tutor in English their teenage nephew, Noah, who has just arrived in New York.  As Davita tutors Noah, she comes to find out that he is the sole survivor from his Polish village of the Holocaust.  As their friendship develops Noah opens up and begins to relate his final days in his hometown.  He shares a particular story that continues to haunt him.  It is about a man in their synagogue in Poland who made arks out of wood.   Noah and his brother helped him make the ark in their synagogue. As Noah recounts this episode in his life, Davita comes to understand the tragedy that haunts this young man’s life and left him with deep scars.

        The second, The War Doctor, finds Davita as a college student.  At Columbia University, where she is enrolled, she meets a guest lecturer who has defected from Russia.  At her encouragement he writes his story.  It is a horrific one of someone who compromised his values, his Jewish faith and dignity as a human in order to work up the echelons of Stalin’s regime.

        The last one is called The Trope Teacher, and is the strangest.  Davita is now a middle aged woman who has moved in next door to a Professor at Princeton.  Again she is instrumental in getting someone, Benjamin Walter this time, to tell his story.  His is a story inside of a story.  It harkens back to his childhood where he is given musical instruction by a friend of his father’s, Mr. Zapiski.  Mr. Zapiski is a trope teacher and teaches Benjamin how to chant in Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah.  Benjamin’s father and Mr. Zapiski were close friends in Germany where they fought in WWI together.  A tragic story exists between the two friends, but neither Benjamin’s father or the trope teacher will divulge what it is.  The story comes about in an unexpected way.  

    Those are the base plot outlines for each story but what makes them worth reading is the eloquence of style and ability of Mr. Potok to make each person- I can’t call them characters- not only extremely interesting but sympathetic.  Chaim Potok is a master storyteller that uses rich colors that draw the reader into each scene, making you want more and regretting when the tale comes to a close.  Or rather, when he stops telling.  One gets the feeling that the stories continue on in their own reality.  Which is why I am trying to read as many of Chaim Potok’s as I can get my hands on.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

 This is the fourth post in a series of book reviews on war.  Click on the  hyperlinks for the first and second and third.

    The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara was first published in 1974.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and is the basis for the movie Gettysburg.  

    Focusing on the Battle of Gettysburg, Shaara starts with the days preceding it and brings us step by step up to this momentous and horrific occasion.

      In the beginning of the book, Shaara introduces the reader to all the key players, who they are, where they come from, and how they ended up commanding or serving in certain armies.  At the end of the book, he lets us know how they all ended up after the war-those that survived it.

     In between, we get to hear the thoughts and decisions each leader and other soldiers make.  Reading the book I felt as if I were a phantom, an invisible third party, witnessing and experiencing one of the most profound turning points of our country’s history.  Shaara is impeccable in his use of language.  He is not guilty of the sin so many modern writers commit by putting today’s thoughts and words into people from eras who never thought and spoke as we do today. (Author Margaret Atwood is guilty of this and it's why I no longer read her books.)

     His language and descriptions of how the men spoke, carried themselves, interacted with each other, no doubt based on researching letters and documents written during the time period, carry an eloquence sadly lacking in today’s modern language and behavior.  The south may have lost, but the rest of us lost a dignity in our culture that grace and manners had given it once upon a time.    

On June 15, the first troops of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee commanding, slip across the Potomac at Williamsport and begin the invasion of the North.

It is an army of seventy thousand men.  They are rebels and volunteers.  They are mostly unpaid and usually self-equipped.  It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.  It is Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  Though there are many men who cannot read or write, they all speak English.  They share common customs and a common faith...

...Their main objective is to draw the Union army out into the open where it can be destroyed.  By the end of the month they are closing on Harrisburg, having spread panic and rage and despair through the North.


  Late in June the Army of the Potomac, ever slow to move, turns north at last to begin the great pursuit which will end at Gettysburg.  It is a strange new kind of army, a polyglot mass of vastly dissimilar men, fighting for union.  There are strange accents and strange religions and many who do not speak English at all...

....they have lost faith in their leaders but not in themselves.  They think this will be the last battle, and they are glad that it is to be fought on their own home ground...

It is the third summer of the war.   (From the foreword)

       That sounds nice and neat but anyone who knows their history knows that the Spanish populated the south before the Anglo Saxons and many fine old Southern cities such as Mobile, Alabama did and still have Roman Catholic majority populations.  It wasn’t only the Anglo Saxon Protestants who marched against the north.

     That is the only thing to remember.  As convincing as Shaara’s writing is, it is still a work of fiction and no one really knows what any of these historical figures were thinking or saying amongst each other-even though as I said, I think he captured the style and culture superbly.

 I appreciate Shaara’s even handed writing.  It permits us to sympathize with each side.  Each side was populated by humans, young men, many who never returned home to their families.  Shaara allows us to see how hellish war is and especially this one.  The Battle of Gettysburg is the Confederate army’s defeat that prompted Lee and other southern generals to request to be relieved of their command.  The book quotes Lee as taking full responsibility for the Confederate’s loss but I also believe that he and the others then understood that this was a war the South must ultimately lose. 

      As history shows us, he is refused, and it finally takes Generals Grant and Sherman to persuade Jefferson Davis that there is no hope. 


      I received this book from Paperback Swap.  A great website where you can trade books for free. 

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Beautiful Wild Rose Girl by B. Magnolia

     B. Magnolia is a modern day teller of fairy tales.  His fairy tale Beautiful Wild Rose Girl is a strange and thought-provoking story about a young girl who lives alone in a swamp.  All day long she hears the frogs croak.  This is what she hears them croaking: 

      TroOonk! TroOonk!  TroOonk!
       What a stupid Ugly girl!

    This young girl hears them all night and she believes them. 

   To make a living the girl picks roses from a field of wild roses.  These roses are so wild that no one can pick them because of their terrible thorns. Nevertheless, out of pity for the lonely girl, they let her pick  and sell them to the village people.

     The village people believe that she must be someone very special indeed if she can pick roses from such a dangerous field.  The men of the village consider her very beautiful and come up to her, calling her Beautiful Wild Rose Girl and ask her to marry them.

   She does not listen to them because she thinks that they must be mistaken.  She believes what the frogs say about her.  The men assume that she will not marry her because she is so beautiful and only the roses must be good enough for her.

      There’s a definite moral as well as an acute observation of human psychology in the story. 

  It doesn’t matter how others perceive us but how we perceive ourselves.  The girl allowed the frogs to determine the picture of herself to the point where she can’t listen to anyone else.  Her rejection of others results in them misperceiving who she really is.  They conclude that she thinks she’s better than everyone else instead of understanding that when people reject others it’s because they have first rejected themselves.

   Another interesting aspect of the book is its construction.   The illustrations are pen and ink by Jamila Kepba, a local artist in San Francisco.  There are three versions of the book.  One is paperback but the other two are made out of handmade paper in the style of Japanese art.  The publishers have committed to bring back the art of the handmade book that is affordable.  Visit Maganolia's web site for more information.

I received a free copy of this book by the author.


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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Once an Arafat Man by Tass Saada with Dean Merrill

I reviewed a number of books about the American military.  Here's a story about a man from the "other side".

Tass Saada was an angry youth. A displaced Palestinian living in Qatar, he wondered when the Arab countries were going to make good on their promise. The promise that if the Palestinian families left Palestine, they would soon be able to return. After they defeated their enemies, Israel, that is. Well, the defeat never happened.

Tired of waiting Tass ran away from home to Palestine where he trained to become a member of Arafat's Fatah. By the age of seventeen he was carrying a high-powered Simonov rifle, was an elite PLO sniper and chauffeur for Arafat.

Once an Arafat Man is the incredible true story of how a young man filled with hate came to know the One who only had love for him.

After a couple of years, his father tricked him into returning to Qatar and confiscated his passport. He could only receive it back if he went abroad to get an education. Tass chose America. Even though he hated Americans because of their alliance with Israel, his defiant attitude made him go somewhere his father didn't want him to go.

He decided to marry an American girl for the sole purpose of obtaining a green card then leave her and America for good after he received his college degree.

When his American fiancee brought him to a priest for premarital counseling the priest asked point blank, “How do you know he's not just marrying you for a green card?”
The girl huffed, “I know him. He would never do that do me!”

In fact that was his plan. But things didn't go as planned. When his family found out that he married an American they disowned him. “How could you do this?” They shouted. “You are engaged to a girl here already! You have brought shame on her. You have brought shame on us!”

Even though it was not Tass' plan, it was God's plan. By staying in America he became a successful business man obsessed with success. The success did not ease the hatred or emptiness in him. Finally, a businessman whom he had become good friends with shared how he had become a Christian. What happened to Tass is what is reportedly happening to many Muslims world wide. He started having dreams about Jesus Christ.
 When he finally prayed to receive Jesus in to his life he came off of his knees a new man.

He began reading the Bible and was surprised to discover that it had more to say about the Arab people than the Koran.

I had run into some fascinating information about my people, the Palestinians. Our ancestor, I knew, was Ishmael-the firstborn son of Abram. Ishmael's mother was Hagar...

I had heard of at least some Christians who called Ishmael everything from a bastard to a brat, and had even nastier things to say about his mother. But that is not what I read in the actual Bible.

When tensions arose during Hagar's pregnancy, so much so that that she fled into the desert, she was not left to fend for herself. No less than “the angel of the Lord” came to her aid.
The angel instructed her to go back home and then promised:

“I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”
I leaned back in my chair and thought of all the people who trace back to this woman-not just us Palestinians, but all the Arabs. What a massive population we had become, just as the divine messenger had predicted.!”

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers.

When I read those words, I (realized) we Arabs were not cursed by God after all! The one God, the only true and living God, is the God of the Ishamelites, too.

I was feeling prouder of my heritage all the time, thanks to what I saw here in the Old Testament. The Christian book (actually the Jewish-Christian book ) was building up my self-esteem as an Arab! (Chapter 11 pg 115-117)

Now instead of being obsessed with success and material wealth. Tass' heart broke for his people who were so filled with hate, living in a darkness they could not free themselves of. He and his wife eventually settled in the Gaza strip where they started up schools and house churches for the poverty and war stricken Muslim families that live there.

I think I had always been brought up, as a Christian, to see Ishmael's birth as an act of disobedience to God. Perhaps it was, but I also remember God telling Abraham that Ishmael and his descendants would be blessed, (Genesis 17:20). It's time to remember that long before there was a Muhammed, there was a people blessed by God. A people that Islam has taken hostage. Let's pray for these people to understand who their true Creator is and His plan for their salvation.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

inSignificant: Why You Matter in the Surprising Way God is Changing the World by Chris Travis

     Don’t think all black people are like this, the police officer said.  He squeezed me in a rough bear hug.  I could feel his bulletproof vest underneath his starched uniform shirt.  It was like being hugged by a tree.  He said these words to me, I think, because he was a black man, the principal of my school was black, and almost all the students and teachers were black.  He said this to me because I was the only white person around, and I was the only one with a swollen eye.  (pg.13)

     Chris Travis was the much loved and respected pastor of a church.  He and his wife decided to move to New York City where she could pursue a career in acting.  He decided that he was going to make a difference in children’s lives.  He chose to become a school teacher in the worst performing school in the city, deep in the heart of Harlem.

      I used to get nervous about preaching in a church... I used to actually feel anxious before standing in front of well-mannered church people who never throw things, never push you, never threaten to rape your wife.  I didn’t know what it was like to stand up in front of a crowd that openly hated me, gnashed their teeth at me, and said the foulest things you can think of to me.  I didn’t know how it would feel to see an entire class lunge out of their seats, energized by the simple, sadistic joy of watching one kid punch another.  And guess who stood between that classroom of students and the two who were fighting in the hallway.  (pg.13)

       Chris worked two years at this school.  The third year it was closed down.  In the two years he was there he learned a lot.  A lot about what God’s purpose is in our lives.  How He uses everything, including- or especially, the toughest times of trial to make our lives count.  To show us that we’re significant. 

        In the nine chapters of the book Chris discusses discovering what God wants for us, what  loving others really means, what it means to be a servant of God where ever you happen to be in life.  He shows how when we allow God to change our heart, and depend on Him in all circumstances He gives us spiritual gifts to use and impact others.  He concludes that whatever we do, it is not insignificant.

      Interlaced through out his message, Chris shares his experiences as a first year rookie teacher who went from crying on the subway home every night to an experienced no nonsense classroom manager the second year.  Applying the principles he writes about in these chapters, he became an expert teacher who got his kids to perform academically and improve.  He connects the principles he discusses in each chapter to how he applied these principles to his own daily life and how they worked.

     The end of the book has discussion questions for each chapter so a church group could use the book as a Bible study.

    What I found valuable about this book was that I, too, taught at a high minority, high poverty school for nine years.  My school wasn’t as bad as his but I daily fought high stress and depression and the sense that I wasn’t making any difference to anybody.  This book had me thinking that when we look at our lives from an eternal perspective, we are doing things that are making a difference.  I may never have won a “teacher of the year” award, but the love I showed my students and the work I did with them to make each and every one of them successful musicians did matter.

     After reading this book, I can appreciate how God used my teaching years as a time of testing and trial to “complete a good work in me.”  I am not the same self-absorbed, clueless person I was when I first began teaching.

    We may never know in this life time the difference we made in people’s lives, but God knows.  He knows and He sees-even if no one else does. 

    The only thing I would have liked to have read about were specific techniques the author used to manage his class.  He only tells us he was awful the first year and was effective the second year.  He doesn’t go into detail about what he did to become effective.  As an educator I would have found that information useful.

    All in all, this book will be an encouragement to all of us who wonder if we or what we do really matters.  Chris Travis shows that when we find our place inside God’s will, it all matters.
Chris Travis is the bestselling author or Unnamed and the pastor of Everyday Christian Church in Manhattan.  Before that he taught math at eh most dangerous middle school in the New York City public school system, Chris is a former atheist who met Jesus in the pages of Scripture and never looked back.  He lives with his wife in New York City.

I received a complimentary copy of this book by Bethany House Publishers.

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