Saturday, March 29, 2014

CBR6 #2: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

This book has been favorably reviewed by many, including Cannonballer Jen K, so I bought it on my recent trip to Bangkok, where they have an expansive Kinokuniya. I was intrigued by the idea of a golem -- have always been intrigued by them since it was first mentioned in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay as a character in a graphic novel by the protagonist Josef Kavalier -- but this was the first time I've thought of them as a Jewish equivalent to a djinni, which we so commonly see spelled as genie.

The Golem is Chava, a Golem created in the shape of a human-like woman at the behest of a not-so-nice businessman who's about to immigrate to America. During the journey over the ocean, the businessman passes away from an illness and she is left master-less, and feels lost. A golem, in Jewish lore, is created to fulfill the wishes of its master, and without her "husband," Chava feels a gulf within her. She can also hear people's desires and her nature pressures her to help people, without thinking of the consequences.

Luckily, she encounters a rabbi, who recognizes her for what she is, and he takes her in and teaches her how to suppress her nature as he is fearful that people will destroy her once they find out what she is, or worse, she would destroy them.

A counterpoint to Chava's personality is the titular Djinni, who gives himself the name Ahmad. While we often equate genies to Robin Williams' personality in Aladdin, author Helene Wecker creates an entire back story to these creatures, who seem like invisible powerful spirits that roam the deserts of Africa. We first encounter Ahmad as he spills out of a gas lamp that was being polished and fixed by a tinsmith named Arbeely living in Little Syria in New York, which is today the Financial District (or more pointedly, around the area where the World Trade Center was). With him, we have to uncover the mystery how of he ended up trapped in a gas lamp, with an iron chain around his wrists. (Iron is a material most hated by djinnis and it prevents Ahmad from assuming his real form, and is thus forced to stay as a human.)

 What was interesting for me was the idea of nature. Obviously, both of our characters are magical creatures but they have human traits -- and since humans have also created these beings in our cultures, it is significant to me what types of characteristics we impart to our creations. Chava is essentially a slave to her master, and if she has no one to obey, she feels uncomfortable and unmoored; Ahmad, however, is a free being who's been trapped, so he does not really care about how his actions affect others, almost to the point of callousness. There's also an idea of where our personalities come from -- characters in the book keep talking about how "it is in their nature." But this never excuses Ahmad's insensitivity or Chava's blind obedience.

While I thought the novel started with really interesting ideas and posited potentially evocative themes, I am disappointed that it never builds up from that, that it never explores how both cultures -- who in the media is portrayed as being fundamentally suspicious and antagonistic to each other -- are similar or different, and it never really allows the people from the different neighborhoods to interact.

Moreover, while I was stabbed with nostalgia (of what I've never know or experienced) over her descriptions of New York City at the turn of the century, I was not very impressed with her writing and character development when it came to the actual people (and creatures). I was also a bit annoyed by how neatly the ending tied itself up, like the stupid TV trope of how coincidence and luck somehow allows for everyone to be in the right place at the right time.

Overall, this was definitely a book worth reading, and I actually finished the 600+ page book in two days. But more than for sake of the writing or the story, I'm glad The Golem and the Djinni has reminded me, once again, how interested I am in New York City's history and the communities that were cramped there which has so drastically shaped the city into what it is today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

CBR6 #1: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Wow, three months into the New Year, and this is literally the only book I've completed. Usually, I'm a "Read-a-ton-but-blog-nothing" kind of girl, which is what has been my downfall over the past few Cannonball Reads. But this time, it truly is because I'm lazy/busy/not in the mood for reading (I know, crazy talk, but it happens!)

Gentlemen of the Road is a slim book and it really shouldn't have taken me so long to complete. But I found myself stopping in mid-read a lot and then picking it up like... a month later. Which made it really difficult for me to remember the plot. So what I did was re-read it. And re-read it. And re-read it. I re-read it about three times before I completed it.

My inability to finish it in a timely manner speaks more to my general laziness than to the writing quality because Michael Chabon's writing is, as always, fantastic here. Compared to his other epics that I've read (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union), this book is slim in comparison and it is also organized in a slightly different manner. Chabon functioned more in Gentlemen by relying on the reader's ability to infer certain happenings and plot points, rather than actually spelling it out for us -- which is why, as I said, I insisted on re-reading it when I forgot bits of the story.

The novel centers around two friends, Amran and Zelikman, who have been traveling across the Caucasus. Zelikman – a very skilled, very thin physician with a hat fetish – is from the country of Francia (wherever that is in made-up Europe); Amran is an Abyssinian, or African in this context, who has a huge sword called Mother-Defiler, and is very good at a game I surmised was the Chabonian version of chess. Throughout their travels, they have to resort to certain tricks to cheat money out of villages they pass through. During one such attempt, they encounter an old, blind mahout who wishes to hire out Amran and Zelikman's services to protect a young prince who had just been orphaned by a warlord now ruling over the kingdom.

Zelikman and Amran. I kept picturing Amran as Michael Clarke Duncan, RIP. 

Anyway, the mahout is murdered by assassins sent by the warlord, so Amran and Zelikman immediately take up the charge of the young prince, Filaq, who keeps attempting to escape the pair to to avenge his family's murder. And so begins the two friends' adventure into trying to swindle, fight, and cajole their way through a royal takeover.

In the afterword of the novel, Chabon said that he had initially titled his book Jews With Swords, a notion that was always met with some snickering because I guess the average American's idea of a Jewish person is more... Yiddish grandma in Coney island, or Jon Stewart. Not one who is a swashbuckling hero on a perpetual adventure. Gentlemen is Chabon's way of revisiting the modern (and I would argue, New York) idea of what a Jewish man is like, and he is almost defensive about it in his afterword.
The illustrations within the book by Gary Gianni were really well-done. 

All I can say is that Chabon could have switched the religion out to anything else, and I think I would have been just as interested and captivated by the plot and his use of language. My sole complaint in Gentlemen is that Chabon's propensity for long, run-on sentences really stood out for me – either they weren't as obvious or as painfully distended in Kavalier and Clay and Yiddish Policemen – which may be have also been why I had to keep rereading it from the beginning.

But I also understand that Chabon was trying to mimic a certain type of genre, and usually, if I persisted for more than two chapters, I found it easier for my brain to adjust to the long sentences and the made-up language/words. That's sort of the genius of writers like Chabon – he can use a word I've never read before, but it would make perfect sense to me in the context of the story, and even extend an illustrative idea in my head of what it entails.