Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Meditations on the Holy Land and Book Review: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

23. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

What I noticed most about my time in Israel last month was the overwhelming sense of community-that and (not coincidentally) everyone's tendency to force-feed me. In that vein, a friend of mine teaching in Israel for the year lent this book to me during my travels. "You'll give it back to me when I see you again," he said vaguely, and because both of us were feeling just confident enough in our Israeli-Jewish bubble, I knew that I would.

That sense of community persists in this book about three contemporary Israeli women, but in a weird and not quite as comforting way. The blurb on the back of the book is misleading. It begins, "Yael, Avishag, and Lea grow up together in a tiny dusty Israeli village...passing notes to each other to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life." The blurb implies a togetherness that the characters technically experience, but as the writing makes quite evident, do not feel. From the beginning of the book, Lea is isolated socially from the other two, though it's implied that the three played together as children. When Avishag and Yael have a fight, Avishag yells "I don't even know you!" and Yael takes this to heart. Despite the togetherness of their shared experiences, shared town, shared dysfunctional families, each girl feels alone, and each girl is ultimately presented alone, in Boianjiu's alienating prose.

When the women are deployed as soldiers in the Israeli army, they really are separated from everyone they have ever known. Even here though, there is an unsettling similarity of experience that will haunt each woman for the remainder of the book. This is a society that is intimately familiar with each others' experiences, and yet weirdly isolated for all that. They remember together, but they suffer separately. Each of their experiences are colored by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to treat the other is a fundamental issue in the book, as it is in Israeli society. Neither the author nor Israel has yet answered the question, though both dwell on it to macabre degrees. It is Yael who expresses a sentiment that I found in some Israelis, one of sympathy and frankly, brotherhood, with the Palestinians. On her base, Palestinian boys from a nearby village begin stealing things. In one scene, Yael describes:

It is the most ludicrous, charming thing I have ever seen.
The fence around the base, by the ammunition bunker, it is gone. Not anymore. Vanished.
Those boys. Those devil boys. They have stolen it.

My laughter echoes, across mountains I cannot see in the dark.


Boianjiu writes in stream-of-consciousness fragments, a format that I have probably mentioned my distaste for in the past. I think the style has its place, as it echoes the rhythm of human thoughts, but it can also be unvarnished, if you will, in a way that some readers find raw and emotionally honest, and I often find unfinished or lazy. Of course, Boianjiu's method is deliberate, and her characters are raw, unfinished, and lazy, and so it suits them well.

My biggest qualm with this book is that I do not feel the characters go through any significant changes, as a traditional novel would call for. But this is not a traditional novel. It is more aptly looked at as a series of short stories or snippets in the lives of Israelis, anchored around the nationally unique army experience. Boianjiu, a young Israeli woman herself who served in the army, hauntingly portrays the effects that army duty can have on impressionable adolescents. But though the army undoubtedly scars Yael, Lea, and Avishag-and brings them back together (that is, to their habitual aloneness-in-togetherness)-they remain the same self-obsessed, melodramatic people that they were at the beginning.

I sincerely hope that Boianjiu's portrait isn't truly characteristic of Israeli society, though it is certainly characteristic of teenagers and young adults. But there is hope. The young people that I met on my trip, both Americans and Israelis, were astoundingly open-minded and caring people, and I will carry the memories of our questions and discussions for a long time to come.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

22. The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

Travel and short stories make a marvelous combination in my book, and so when I found out that Elizabeth Gilbert had edited a compilation of travel short stories, it seemed like a magical combination. In her thoughtful introduction, Gilbert promises "you will not be bored"-and I was not disappointed.

Every single one of these stories is unique and meaningful. I liked some better than others, but I did not skip or skim a single one. For example, bull-running and rooster-eyeball-licking are not really elements I look for in my stories, but I can think of quite a few students who'd get a kick out of it. The story that appealed most to me included "Blot Out" by Colleen Kinder about what it's really like to wear a niqab, a full head and body covering with a grille for eyes to see through. When one of the characters says "the best part was looking strangers square in the eye," I had a glimmer of recognition. It's like staring from behind the safety of sunglasses. Clothing as social shield. My second favorite was a tale of Bedouin kidnappers who characterize their crime as a "free safari." And the best part of all? I could tell you the plot of every story, and each would still be worth reading. The value is in the perspective, the turns of phrase. And to my mind, that's what good writing, good stories are all about.

Entertainment with a global perspective. Now go read these stories. Go on. Now.
(Especially recommended for reading on airplanes, at the beach, or on the bus).

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Dance with Dragons

After Israel, I spent some time in San Francisco and Chicago. I thought I'd have time for blog posts, but apparently not. Before my travels, I read:

21. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

I finally finished the extant Song of Ice and Fire oeuvre. I have to say, I like where the series is going much better now. Nothing surprised me terribly (because with Martin, you are expecting the most terrible events), and the arc the books have followed has become more consistent with predictions I made after reading the third book.

So, basically, let's all breathe a sigh of relief that Tyrion is still okay (though things look bad on HBO right now), and look forward to Baelish and Varys wreaking havoc that won't matter so much when the White Walkers come 'round....

Enjoy the season finale tonight!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Novels, Stories, and Poems Read Most Often in Schools

Litlove's post about Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" got me thinking about pieces of writing that I had to read repeatedly in the American school system. Now, I think some of these may have been regional, others national, and perhaps others the product of particular teachers I had, but I'm curious: what are the most commonly read works of literature in schools, and why?

In my own experience, these are the writings I have been asked to read more than once in school:

1. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

2. "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare

3. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot

4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

5. Elizabeth I's Armada speech

6. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech

7. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

8. The Odyssey by Homer

9. "Ode to a Grecian Urn" by John Keats

10. "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury

11. "All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury

Other readings that I did not have to read, but gather were common:

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

3. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

4. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin

5. "The Lady or the Tiger" by Frank Stockton

6. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

7. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

What books did you have to read in school, what books did you get assigned in more than one class (feel free to include college), and do you have any thoughts on why those were popular readings?

Feel free to comment on the post or take this survey