Friday, September 25, 2009

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

Having begun homeschooling in earnest this year, we are reading aloud chapter books after lunch every day. Our first selection, which took us 3 weeks to finish, was Charlotte's Web. Even the two-year-old sat quietly (most of the time), for what two-year-old doesn't like barns and animals? Thanks to Grandma, we have the large format "Signature Edition" that is pictured, and I think the larger, color pictures helped to keep the children's interest. Even though there wasn't an illustration on every page, there was at least one or two per chapter, which gave them something to look forward to. The favorite picture was of the "Big Pig," not Uncle, but Mr. Zuckerman's dream about a giant Wilbur the day before taking him to the fair.

E. B. White is an author that I admire. For one, he lived in and loved Maine, and he seems able to capture the wonder and beauty of nature in general as only one who lives close to the land can. This edition of Charlotte's Web contains an Afterward that explains how White came to write children's literature, how he patterned Zuckerman's barn after that on his own farm, and how carefully he crafted the story - which brings me to the second reason I admire E. B. White, namely that he is an expert wordsmith. In my opinion, he often attains an ideal balance between brevity (in narrative and plot) and description (with an abundance of colorful language and carefully chosen words). Of course, that is only to be expected from one of the co-authors of The Elements of Style (THE classic text on writing well).

If you ever go to Maine with children, you must make a trip to the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor, a children's museum where there is almost a whole floor devoted to children's books by Maine authors, including E. B. White and Robert McCloskey, and books such as Goodnight Moon and Miss Rumphius. As you ascend the stairs to this floor, you are greeted with a larger than life Wilbur, Fern, and Charlotte, bearing the apropos quotation from the closing chapter: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."

Now I must decide what chapter book to read aloud next. Should we continue with E. B. White and read Stuart Little or The Trumpet of the Swan? Or try something like The Wind in the Willows or the Little House on the Prairie Series? Any suggestions for a captive audience, ages two and five?

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I don't have much time for reading anymore, and I'm debating about whether it is worth taking that precious little time to blog about the books I've read. (I'd rather be reading another Lord Peter Wimsey mystery right now instead of typing, for instance.) But for now, I'll keep blogging and try to keep it short(er) than usual, although brevity is always difficult...

So I didn't make it to the book club discussion for My Name Is Asher Lev, but at least I finally finished it two weeks later. This was my first introduction to Chaim Potok, and I hope to read more of his novels, though I've heard that some of them are very different in character.

My Name is Asher Lev is a coming of age story for a Jewish boy in a very observant Hasidic home. Asher has a rare gift for drawing and painting, and as a result is misunderstood, ridiculed, and shunned at times by his family and religious community in Brooklyn after WWII. Nevertheless, the Rebbe, the head of the Ladover Hasidic group recognizes Asher's talent and encourages him, allowing him to study with another Jewish artist and become a truly great artist himself.

I really liked the way Potok used the title as a structural element to set apart important events and characters in the story. At times, the stream of consciousness narrative seems a little advanced for the age Asher should be, but I suppose the fact that he is a prodigy with artistic vision could account for some of that, not to mention that his home life is rather atypical for a young boy. Asher's mother is certainly not your stereotypical Jewish mother, and her character is developed in a unique way, first as Asher perceives things as a child and then later as he reflects as an adult on the sacrifices and sorrows his mother has endured over the years. When he is compelled, by remaining true to his artistic vision, to express her sorrow in art, he makes a masterpiece for the artistic world, but drives a wedge between himself and his family and community.

The Jewish worldview is not overtly preached in this novel, but one can easily discern some of the more important elements: honor for family and community, refusal to be tainted by the "other side" or the Gentile world, the influence of the Rebbe and other interpretations over the Torah itself, the idea that spiritual work is far more noble than other vocations. I find it interesting to speculate how Asher Lev's artistic gift would have been perceived and fostered in other religious communities. At least in Reformed Protestant theology (though praxis may differ), there is value in all vocations, appreciation for creativity and beauty as reflective of the image of God, and not disparity between the spiritual and temporal.

I hope to read the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, in the near future. It sounds like it will also deal with perceived conflicts between faith and calling, which is a tricky topic to explore in any faith tradition.