Book Reviews

My Name Is Asher Lev

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Aristotle Socarides Series

My Name Is Asher Lev

Author:  Chaim Potok

My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of The Brooklyn Crucifixion.

This book and its sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, should be required reading for every creative person, not to mention all those poor, bewildered souls trying live with us.  As both a writer and painter himself, Potok more than understands eyes that see in unusual ways as windows to a soul that, in order to thrive, must translate vision into form.  One of his messages might be summed up as, “We who’ve been given creative gifts have to be true to our gifts or live as cripples.”

But, as we all know, living with creative people can be tough, bordering on impossible.  Potok displays genuine compassion for friends and family struggling to understand a loved one driven by the creative process.  The author doesn’t flinch.  He grapples with the hard questions and forces us to grapple, too.

  • Where are the lines drawn?
  • Can the artist take others’ feelings into account and still remain true to his calling?
  • Does he have to stand for his art, even if that means he stands alone?  Against the people he loves best?   Against beliefs he has been taught to cherish?
  • Is art a magnificent obsession or self-indulgent self-absorption?

As he struggles to balance his art with his culture, Asher Lev obsesses over the apparently indissoluble link between the spiritual and the creative.  Is art from Heaven or the sitra achra, the other side?  He eventually comes down on the side of the angels, but wrestles with God as the Inner Power Who both compels the work and rejects artistic compromise.  The Creative Force flowing through the almost helpless Lev out to an amazed world in unexpected, often unwelcome or misunderstood, ways.

Meanwhile, everyone involved—Asher, his parents, and the Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community–struggle with the concept of true piety.  Does the pious man follow the well-worn path?  Or is God deeper, more enigmatic, and infinitely more surprising than we could possibly imagine?  Can we be humble enough to allow for the possibility that His call for one man’s life might astonish the rest of us?

Potok draws you into a culture and a conflict with skill and compassion.  He draws you into the art—process, canvass, the artist himself—with mystical zeal.

Be you writer, sculptor, painter, poet, these books will speak to you … and to your gift.


Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Author:  Lynn Truss

We [punctuation sticklers] are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation.  Whisper it in petrified little-boy tones:  dead punctuation is invisible to everyone else–yet we see it all the time. No one understands us seventh-sense people.  They regard us as freaks.  When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to ‘get a life’ by people who, interestingly enough, display no evidence of having lives themselves.

The title of this book is taken from an old joke:

A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich.  He eats the sandwich, pulls out an AK47 and starts to shoot up the place, shattering windows, chewing up the bar, destroying tables and chairs.  The moment he stops, the bartender pops up from behind the bar.

“What’s wrong with you?  We made your sandwich just the way your ordered it.  Service was fast and polite.  WHY ON EARTH DID YOU DESTROY MY PLACE?”

The panda tosses a badly punctuated wildlife manual on the bar.  “I’m a panda.  Look it up,” he says, and walks out.

The bartender opens the book.  He reads, “Panda.  A tree-dwelling mammal of Asian origin.  Distinct black-and-white markings.  Eats, shoots and leaves.”

READ MY LIPS:  Bad punctuation is no laughing matter.

Nevertheless, I laughed myself silly reading this book.  As a matter of fact I was reading it at lunchtime one day, laughing out loud, laughing so hard I cried, when a co-worker passed by.

Co-worker:  “Good book?”

Me:  (Gasp, giggle, snort, guffaw) “Great book!”

Coworker (smiling with interest, because she’s always on the hunt for good books):  “What’s it about?”

Me (still chortling):  “Punctuation.”

Co-worker with rapidly fading smile:  “You’re kidding, right?”

Not even.

Look, any grammar lover in his/her right mind is gonna love a book built around the rallying cry, “Sticklers unite!”  A book that exhorts you to “unleash your Inner Stickler,” despite the fact that “members of your family abhor your Inner Stickler and devoutly wish you had an Inner Scooby-Doo instead.”

Inner Scooby-Doo?  Tell me you didn’t at least crack a smile.

Dry Brit wit notwithstanding, Sister Truss has come to preach the gospel.  Punctuation is important.  Punctuation keeps words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs in line.  Periods, commas, semicolons and dashes are like traffic signals, regulating the the clear flow of thoughts and information.  A world without punctuation would be a world of muddy communication and muddled thought processes.

I mean, come on.  Isn’t this world muddled enough, already?

Lynne also knows, however, that a book about punctuation better be entertaining if it’s going to make the point.  Because, let’s face it, most folks find punctuation almost–but not quite–as exciting as watching paint dry. I don’t understand the mindset, but there you have it.

Anyway, trust me.  Stickler or no, you’ll have a good time with Lynn’s book.

Don’t believe me?

Okay, let’s make a deal.  You give Eats, Shoots & Leaves a try.  If you don’t chuckle at least three times, send me an email with no punctuation at all.  What better revenge than knowing you’ve driven a stickler right over the edge?


The Artistotle Socarides Series

Author: Paul Kemprecos

My name is Aristotle P. Socarides.  The middle initial stands for Plato, something I don’t advertise because it makes me sound like the first three chapters in a book of Greek philosophers.  I live in a weatherworn boathouse on the eastery shore of Cape Cod …. I share my lodgings, as Dr. Watson would say, with a mostly black and constantly hungry Main coon cat named Kojak.  Generations of mice who know they have nothing to fear from Kojak have transformed the walls into cooperative housing.  Two noisy racoons live under the boathouse, and from the decibel level of their frequent arguments, I’d guess their marriage is on the rocks.

In the past few years Paul Kemprecos has made a name for himself, co-writing the NUMA Files series with Clive Cussler. You know, the swashbucklers featuring the incredibly broad shouldered Kurt Austin, Latin lover cum brilliant engineer Joe Zavala, and more deep-sea adventures than you can shake a stick at?  Yeah, those.

I’ve enjoyed several books in that series, but my favorite Kemprecos predates them. See, way back when, Paul wrote these terrific mysteries starring (although the novels’ protagonist would be amused by my choice of words) Aristotle “Soc” Socarides:  Cool Blue Tomb, Neptune’s Eye, Death in Deep Water, The Mayflower Murder, Feeding Frenzy, and Bluefin Blues.  (Not necessarily in that order.  I’m just pulling the titles off my bookshelf, where the books are neatly arranged by size, as opposed to publishing date.)

Our hero (sorry, Soc, I know you would hate the tag … but if the gumshoe fits) is a former Marine and ex-cop turned part-time fisherman and even parter-time private detective.  Seems that classical education Mom egged him into didn’t dull those heroic Greek impulses after all.  Anyway, home is a comfortably dilapidated boathouse on the Cape—sprung sofa, musty blankets and dirty laundry, fridge well stocked with beer but short on grub.  Soc’s rust-streaked old Ford pickup is on its last pistons.

Soc is wry.  Soc is sardonic.  Soc quotes the old Greeks.  Soc is smart, brave, tough, dogged, chivalrous, and has trouble committing to his long-suffering love interest, marine biologist Sally Carlin.

Kemprecos surrounds him with a cast of secondary characters second to none, my favorites being Kojak the cat and Sam, the laconic Maine fisherman who says nautical stuff like, “Still looks a little sloppy, don’t it?” and “Finestkind.”

Yes, I laughed out loud while reading these books, but Soc’s life isn’t all chuckles and 9-Lives cat food.  Murder and mayhem abound.  Trust me, the mysteries are page-turners.

Okay, that’s the good news.

The bad news is, the Soc series is out of print. You can still get the books through Amazon, though, or through your local library, if you’re lucky.  Either way, Soc is well worth the effort.

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