Saturday, March 19, 2011


I just finished Hush, by Eishes Chayil (a pseudonym meaning "woman of valor" in Hebrew). I'd never read a novel set in the Chassidic community before, though I took the bus through the Chassidic community in Williamsburg twice a day for a year on my way to and from work, and I lived within walking distance. But you can be a goy walking through Williamsburg and that doesn't mean you know anything about what's going on around you. I knew that the Chassidic community goes to great lengths to maintain their isolation from the outside world.

That's as far as I got in my review. I started reading other reviews of it, and I thought this one by a California rabbi was interesting, and there are many things about the book that he "gets" more than I possibly could, though he acknowledges that he is not Chassidic and says he would love it if a Chassidic reader would read this book and comment on the accuracy of it.

However, the book is, as he notes, primarily narrated by a young girl--the narration goes back and forth between Gittel at nine and Gittel at seventeen then eighteen. He says,

"The worldview portrayed in the book is absolutely terrifying. Anyone that is not exactly like 'you' is an enemy or at best a heathen. The self absorption and ignorance about almost everything is shocking. Characters in Hush describe any custom they have as 'The Torah say', even when the Torah certainly does not say the thing they are quoting. Characters in Hush subscribe to every possible superstition Jewish culture has to offer. And perhaps worst of all, every kind of prejudice about 'outsiders' that I am sure outsiders can sense in their real life interactions with the community. Characters in Hush have no working knowledge of what most communities call common sense and the facts of life."

I would argue that this is largely colored by the narration. It isn't what the author would argue that the Chassidic worldview is--it's what Gittel sees as the worldview in her community. And we learn what Gittel knows about the world, and therefore what she assumes others know.

This interview with the author is also fascinating.

And this review, by a Jewish woman, is recommended as well.

I liked this book a lot. I think I didn't understand a lot of it, being so far outside the community in which it is set, but at the same time, Gittel is a strong character and I liked watching her grow. Horrible, what happens, one of the big events in her life that makes her grow, but so clearly, honestly illustrated.

This is one of those books that I obviously can't talk about coherently, but I want to talk about it because I want people to read it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Orson Scott Card and Ender

I am reading my third book by Orson Scott Card in about a week--I started Ender's Game last weekend, after picking up a copy in a thrift store--a lot of my students had talked about it, and even kids who didn't like reading had said it was a good book. So I knew I wanted to add it to my classroom library, but figured I'd add it to my "to read" shelf first. My "to read" shelf has about a hundred books on it--okay, my "to read" bookcase--and a lot of them are library books and a lot of them are borrowed books. I try to read those first, which isn't really possible because it's not like I'll ever read them all--I read a couple, I pick up a couple more... but I do try to read library books and borrowed books before I read my own books. Except I wanted to get that copy of Ender's Game out of my house and into my classroom--plus I picked it up and glanced at it and it was, like, magnetized to my eyeballs or something. Completely fascinating, though not the kind of book I usually find completely fascinating. It's closer to "hard" sci fi than anything I usually read, and it's all about battle ships and aliens and brilliant little kids recruited to save Earth. But it's more the story of those little kids than anything else, and I wanted to know how things would resolve.

So then I found Ender's Shadow already in my classroom library, and I took that home to read. When I finished that, I put the other three in the original series on hold at the public library, then I realized I didn't have to wait, I could go down the hall and get them from my school library! So now I'm reading Speaker for the Dead, and after that I'll read Xenocide and Children of the Mind. Maybe then I'll be done for a while. Maybe. But it turns out that Orson Scott Card has been busy--the wikipedia entry for "Ender's Game (Series)" includes an impressive flow chart listing these titles and many others, including a bunch of short stories. And that's just the books and stories he's written about what has become known as "the Enderverse."

Of course, by the time I was nearing the end of Ender's Shadow, I'd gotten so curious about the writer. I was somewhat shocked and horrified to learn that he is Mormon! I would add, "Like, really Mormon!" but I don't think that Mormon is one of those labels that exists in degrees. You're either Mormon or you're not. You believe it and live your life according to it or you get the hell out. At least that's what it looks like from here.

But I'm now in the middle of Speaker for the Dead, and knowing about Card's Mormonism, I am even more impressed by his broad knowledge of political history, including a complex understanding of how religion plays into this. In his fabulous introduction to the edition of Speaker for the Dead that I'm reading (1991), Card says, "My real life is being with my wife, with my children; going to church and teaching my Sunday school class..." but he talks so much about his reasons for writing Speaker of the Dead, and what he was trying to do. Here's the essay on Google books. I think it's valuable reading for anyone who's a writer or curious about writers. He talks a lot about the process of writing this book, and how many times he started over. He notes that most fiction deals with adolescents and with "footloose heroes." He wanted to write another kind of story, and so far (I'm about halfway through), he seems to be succeeding. He's the kind of ambitious, creative, thoughtful writer that I'd take this trip with even if he doesn't succeed, though, because even if he screws it up, he'll screw it up well.