Saturday, July 20, 2013

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok


I wish I had the discipline (and the time) to review each and every book I read, as soon as I finish it.  I finished My Name is Asher Lev, back in June.  Other things, other books, other reviews just got in the way.  It is a bad idea to wait an entire month to review a book, but I'll give it a shot.  To the best of my recollection.

Anway -- Asher Lev was a gift from my good friend Amanda, who used to blog about books but now mostly blogs about other things.  I put this on my TBR 2013 Challenge list because I didn't want the entire list to be books by authors that had been dead for years and years (Potok did pass away in 2002, but he's pretty contemporary compared to the rest of this list).

So, Asher Lev is an artist, and he begins his story by telling the reader that he is most famous for creating a painting of a crucifixion, a blasphemy for an observant Jew.  He's not just an observant Jew -- Asher was raised an orthodox Jew, a Hasidic, very traditional and conservative.  Asher lives in New York and was born shortly after WWII, and it is the life's work of his father to help other Jews in Europe, so that they can practice their faith safely.  His mother is studying Russian to be able to help persecuted Jews in Russia.

However, young Asher has different ideas.  As long as he can remember, he's been obsessed with drawing and painting.  It's part of him, he can't stop doing it, much to the chagrin of his father, who believes that he's just wasting his time on frivolity -- Asher's father wants him to do something to glorify God and help other Jews.  Every day, Asher struggles with his need to create art against his family's wishes -- he wants to please his father, and win his love, but his art is a part of him.  This is the story of his coming of age, as a young man and an artist, and how he tries to reconcile the two.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read another book about an artist after my disappointment with The Masterpiece by Emile Zola, which I finished a couple of months ago.  In that book, the main character was so obsessed by his art he lets it ruin his life and the lives of the people around him.  This book is quite different.  Asher is really struggling to satisfy his need to create art and his need to please his family.  It's a really interesting character study.  I'd never read anything by Chaim Potok, but the writing was excellent and the characters interesting and well-developed.  I took a few art history classes in college but I really don't know much about modern art.  I don't think Asher is necessarily based on a particular artist, but I tried to imagine what his art might have looked like.  I was also quite pleased that I recognized most of the real artists and works of art mentioned in the book, like Chagall and Modigliani, and Picasso's Guernica.

La Mariee by Marc Chagall.  
I've also been very amused this summer as many high school students came to the reference desk at my library looking for this book!  Apparently it was on the summer reading list for a local high school -- the choice was My Name is Asher Lev or The Count of Monte Cristo!  I still haven't read Monte Cristo but now I can definitely recommend Asher Lev.

14 comments:

  1. I remember really liking this book. I should reread it.

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    1. It's definitely one of those books that made me sorry for waiting so long! It was really good.

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  2. I am so behind on reviews at this point that I'm always having to reread bits. I am glad you enjoyed this, since it's on my list for "20th Century Classic" in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

    I imagine your students have looked at the page counts for Asher Lev and Count of Monte Cristo -- Asher Lev is bound to be popular ;)

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    1. It's a great choice for a 20th century classic -- I'm personally stuck on the 18th century or pre-18th century. I might break down and read some Shakespeare.

      And I will never, ever catch up on reviews. I've read plenty of books this year, I just can't seem to sit down and collect my thoughts.

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  3. I just saw the Off-Broadway play of this, and it made me really really want to read the book. I loved the other Chaim Potok book I read, The Chosen, but I haven't read anything else by him since.

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    1. I saw in the N Y Times that it was adapted into a play! How was it? I think it would be a good adaptation.

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  4. I know this author's name but have never read anything of his. This sounds really interesting! (and unless there's an abridgement of Monte Cristo, I can't imagine anyone is picking that one, which is a shame!)

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    1. My daughter actually had to read Monte Cristo for her freshman year summer reading a couple of years ago. It was 1400 pages long and somewhat torturous for her. However, the following year she read East of Eden, which she really liked, and last semester she read Anna Karenina (her choice!) and loved it, so it hasn't turned her off classic lit forever.

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    1. It was great, thanks again for giving it to me!!

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  6. I haven't read this one, but I saw it as a play and it was so interesting!

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    1. I'll bet it would be a great play. Wish I lived closer to NY and could go see it!

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  7. This was one of my favorite books in high school. I have no idea how I came to have a copy--it wasn't on my high school reading list--but I had a copy and probably read it 3 times. I agree, it was a fascinating character study, and I thought that Asher was admirable in being true to himself and his talent but wanting to respect and honor his family. A classic struggle.

    I wanted to see the play when I was in NYC in the spring, but we couldn't fit it into our schedule.

    It's always fun for me to read a review of a book I've loved--and yours was great, insightful and appreciative.

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    1. Thanks!! I thought the character was so well-developed -- Potok did such a great job of making the reader feel Asher's personal struggles. He was really good at showing, not just telling, with all these tiny details. I felt like I was right there growing up with Asher in Brooklyn. Too bad I can't draw at all!

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