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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni: A magical review of a book by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni: Helene Wecker

Can you remember reading books as a child?  Do you remember reading tales of magic and wonder that dazzled your mind with wild adventures set in faraway places?  I sure do.  And I think that as a reader, I'm always trying to retrieve that feeling I once had when reading Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  Late;y, I've been having trouble recapturing this experience.  So many books are full of slick, quick-paced prose that leaves little chance a reader will become wrapped up in what he or she is reading.  I think editors believe we don't have the time to read such stories any more.  There seems to be this delusion that people won't read stories with detailed description and back stories.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel with these very elements just a few weeks ago.

In Helene Wecker's debut novel, Chava, a magical clay being called a golem, comes to New York City in 1899.  Created to serve a master, she is adrift in this great city after her master dies before he can arrive on the shores of America.  Chava is taken in by a kindly Rabbi who lives in the Jewish quarter of the city.

At about the same time, Ahmad, a jinni  from the deserts of Syria (another magical being, though this one is made of fire), is released from his copper flask of a prison by a tinsmith in little Syria, an Arab section of New York City.  The tinsmith helps Ahmad adjust to life in the city, for the jinni is not yet free.  He is still bound by his jailer, though he has no memory of who that might be.  He only knows he has been trapped for thousands of years.

And then, one night, these two creatures meet.  Though people cannot recognize that they are not human, the golem can see that the jinni is made of fire, and the jinni can see that she is made of clay.  But this does not mean they will immediately become the best of friends.  Ahmad is lonely, and a bit reckless.  Chava is timid, afraid of discovery.  She is not willing to immediately befriend the man of fire.  She is not sure if she can trust him.

And that is all I will tell you.  From this point on the story goes its own way, full of enticing descriptions of Jewish baked goods and Syrian treats.  We are allowed a glimpse of two exotic, pulsating ethnic neighborhoods at the turn of the twentieth century, all through the eyes of these magical beings who are as new to the city of that era as we would be.  

The author, Helene Wecker.  (image source:
Wecker is masterful at combining the fairy tale elements of these two mythologies with a turn-of-the-century period novel.  As the story is a marriage of two cultures and mythologies, so too is the writing a marriage of simplicity and complexity.  There were times I thought I was reading text from an old Child-Craft volume followed by times when I thought I was reading the poetic prose of Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale.  However, at no time does this sink into a childish Disney-like story, nor does it bog down with the weight of a period piece that is filled with too much detail.  Wecker knows adult readers have a desire for mature prose and child-like wonder and magically keeps this balance throughout the whole of the novel.

There are many secondary characters in this book that complimented this balance; a wonderfully villainous Rabbi who practices dark, Kabbalistic arts; Saleh, a mad ice-ream vendor; Fadwa, a young Syrian girl; and many others.  The ice-cream vendor really stood out in this mix.  His story was fascinating.  I can imagine that if this were ever made into a movie (a full mini-series would certainly be worth it here) the character of Saleh would be a juicy part for any veteran actor looking to pick up a top award.

I did feel that the end of the novel lost a bit of its originality at the end.  I had the feeling an editor demanded that the end include a bit of a stereotypical Hollywood-climax.  However, this did not have a negative effect on the book.  It merely was not something I had hoped to find at the end.  It would, however, make adapting this to a mini-series quite simple, and the screenplay could remain extremely true to the novel.

The Golem and the Jinni was nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel.  There have been complaints about its length and pace but if you've ever read any of my reviews you know that I only consider these a plus for any book.

This is the sort of book in which you can really lose yourself, perhaps best read on a cold winter's night.  If you love to read magical stories filled with exotic settings and empathetic characters, be sure not to miss this first novel from a very talented writer.

Check out Helene Wecker at her website:

Click below for the eBook version:

Friday, July 18, 2014

5 Fully Fabricated Facts to Feed the Frenetic, Trivia-Famished Folks on the World Wide Web

Because all of us love lists that allow us to learn the latest ludicrous trivial bon-bons as we surf the truth-challenged waves of the global information sea, I thought it would be best if I offered up this list of fictional facts that in no way relate to the truth.  You'll be shocked at what you are about to read, and will wonder time and again: How is it I've never heard any of this before?  And I hope that once your incautious appetite for counterfeit trumpery has been satiated, you'll merrily and recklessly pass this along for consumption on the World Wide Web.

Hidden Messages lurking within...
5.  Hidden Messages in the Songs of The Beatles.  When you take the notes of any Beatles song and assign numerical values to them based on the Beaufort Scale then substitute letters from a backwards alphabet according to their numerical place value the resulting sentence reveals itself: The Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones.  The only exception to this is in the song I Am the Walrus.  The substitution cipher for Walrus reads quite differently, saying simply: Our fans scream like little girls.

The best tip for removing coffee stains.
4.  The Best Way to Remove Coffee Stains.  Coffee stains on table tops are most effectively removed by rolling the table with an ivory tusk.  Coffee is drawn to real ivory and will adhere to ivory indefinitely.  Since ivory tusks are no longer available you might be forced to use a synthetic tusk, which will work as long as the coffee stains are from a synthetic coffee.

Sleep?  Never!
3.  Children do not need sleep.  In a 2011 study conducted by Stanhope University's College of Psychology and Phrenology, children between the ages of six months and five years remained awake for seven straight months.  The only adverse side effects observed were mostly related to the amount of noise coming from each child.  Male children, while making far more noise than female children, showed less of an increase in noises made as their total number of sleepless days began to mount.  Female children, on the other hand, showed a marked increased in noise level as well as variety of noises created by the second and third month without sleep.  When asked how the researchers were able to keep the children awake, a spokesperson for the Department said they simply did not put the kids to bed.  The study was originally meant to last for twelve months but the researchers found the decibel levels of the sixty-five children intolerable and it was determined that the children should finally be put to bed.  No matter that the children had been awake for seven months, it still took the researchers three hours to settle the kids and get them to sleep.

Don Knotts: Too Violent for the The Godfather?
2.  The Godfather that Could Have Been.  We all know that Tom Selleck was originally offered the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But did you know that Francis Ford Coppola first offered the role of Vito Corleone to Don Knotts?  According to sources inside the production of Coppola's 1972 The Godfather, Don Knotts screen tested for the title role and had actually signed a contract before Coppola decided Knotts was too dark and violent.  Mario Puzo supposedly fought against this change, as he felt the frighteningly psychotic Knotts was just the way he had imagined the head of the Corleone family.  Coppola, according to some, refused to change his mind, even when Knotts stormed into his office and threatened to tear out Coppola's liver with his bare hands.  An assistant to the director once admitted that four body guards were required to pull Knotts off the Academy Award-winning director, though he has since tried to say the incident never occurred.

1.  Reading a Book is the Number One Activity of All Age Groups.  A recent poll, conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, in which every citizen of the United States was asked "what is your favorite way to spend time?", has shown that a stunning 89 per cent of the country's population prefers to read books over any other activity.  This included eating (a mere 7 per cent), playing Candy Crush (a paltry 1.2 per cent) and watching "Dancing With the Stars" (which came in as the second most popular on the list at 11 per cent.)  The dramatic increase in book readers is being attributed to the complete conversion of television programming to reality shows such as Top Gear and Myth Busters as well as Hollywood's refusal to produce any more movies unless they are connected to Marvel Comics in some way.  Cultural watchdogs are calling this the single most important step for our society, suggesting we are no longer destined to descend into hell in a hand basket but rather we are ready to climb up yet again to the pinnacle of our hopes and dreams.  One former Librarian of Congress has suggested that the increase in readers is directly attributable to the rise in sales of Kindle eReaders, saying "once the awful smell of books was removed from the reading process, and the thrill of playing with an electronic device was added to the thrill of reading, it was an unfair fight.  Nothing was ever going to be, and nothing will ever be, more fun than snapping open an eReader and reading a book from cover to cover.  There's no way to compete with that sort of experience."

And now you know.  Now get out there and pass this along so everyone else will know what you know.