Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"My Name is Asher Lev" - book review

This book was recommended from a few places so I finally got around to diving in.  Chaim Potok is a wonderful storyteller - I previously read "The Chosen" (see review here).  This story is of an art prodigy growing up with an irresistible urge to create within an Orthodox Jewish household.  I'm amazed at how much I was hooked into a story with basically no action.  No car chases.  No ninjas attacking dragons.  None.  If I recall correctly, knife is used to sharpen an artist pencil.

The father tries but just cannot understand art and his son wanting to create art - "this is something I cannot reconcile."  The son, Asher, wants to respect his father but cannot resist drawing.  The mother is torn, as any mother would be, by loving her husband and loving her son and seeking to keep them both.  Toss in a Rebbe, the religious leader, who directs the father to continue vital and risky work in Europe  following the death of Stalin.  The Rebbe also directs Asher to study art and keep doing it.

That's the premise and basically the whole story.  Potok lets you look into lives of characters and once again I found them not only believable, but compelling.  You care and understand for each of the main players.

The book starts with Asher at a young age and I chuckled frequently at how well Potok captured the mind and restlessness of that age.  It progresses through the years and you get to see Asher mature.  I was pulling for Asher.

Asher's mom makes goes through a mourning period following family tragedy.  I wanted her to get better.  She does.  She makes tough choices and sacrifices for her family.  I couldn't help but care about her and see her as honorable.

Asher's father is devoted to the the faith and doing work for the Rebbe.  He works very hard in his duties for the Rebbe and has put himself at huge risk at times.  He struggles to understand his son, he tries but it isn't easy.

Asher himself is torn by this irrepressible gift and serving his faith and honoring his father. 

All of the characters popped out of the book to give you a sense that they are real.

My $0.02 on the conclusion.  I'll try to convey my thoughts without giving away too much.

I was disappointed with the ending.  Not that it was poorly written, or fell out of the story.  I was just pulling for Asher to make some different choices.  Did he really have to paint that and let it be displayed?  Is it required that all art causes some level of strife?  Is it wrong for a great artist to make great pretty art?  I don't that is necessarily being a "whore" as Jacob Kahn, the mentoring artist, had warned.

I enjoy and believe the call to be artists.  Art = created beauty.  I see that artistic spirit flowing through beautiful blueprints, well setup spreadsheets, furniture, good meals, music, stories, etc..  I don't think the artistic call would make a chef sneak meat into a vegetarian's meal.  There are lines that do not need to be crossed for the sake of the "art". 

Do all artists sacrifice for the sake of the art?  Is it really a choice between offending your audience (or a crucial part) and selling yourself? 

There is a deep underlying reality that "My Name is Asher Lev" told that I never considered before.   The artist pours his view and spirit into a work, and then sells it.  An artist sells something with huge personal meaning which ends up being a simple conversation piece completely removed of the story behind the vision behind the art.

There is a mattress store in town that is covered with art from the owner.  He readily talks about his art, and art in general.  He said doesn't sell them.  I wondered why not but now I have a glimmer of understanding.

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