Review of “Eternal Life: A Novel” by Dara Horn

This book is about a first century couple: a woman, Rachel, and man, Elazar, who make an eternal vow with God, exchanging the right to have their own lives end for the healing of their son Yochanan, who fell deathly ill while still a baby. It could have been philosophically dense, but instead it is a love story (on many levels) that is full of wit as well as trenchant observations about the meaning of life. It is told from the point of view of Rachel, who is – in her current “version” – an 84-year-old Jewish grandmother in present-day New York. But of course Rachel has been around for much longer than she appears. (She doesn’t “look” 84, which she tells others is because of “good genes.”)

The story begins in Jerusalem 2000 years ago during the era of the Second Temple, so this book is somewhat of a retelling of ancient Jewish history. Three of the main characters have real historical antecedents, including Elazar, governor of the Temple at the time of its destruction; Elazar’s father, the high priest Hanania; and the son of Rachel and Elazar, Yochanan, son of Zakkai, who lived to become an important Talmudic sage in his era. The early part of the story includes the Jewish revolt against Rome, and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.

Since Rachel and Elazar live on and on, it is also a story about memory. What stays with you over the years and what doesn’t? In one of the funniest motifs of the book, Rachel is still mad about something Elazar did two centuries ago. But in addition, how does current technology change the whole dynamic that determines what and who gets remembered? Does everyone live forever now, in a sense, when you can find them – dead or alive – on social media?

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Fans of Dara Horn may recall that in her book A Guide for the Perplexed, she tackled the topic of memory as well. In that book, the main character created a computer program which she called Genizah, designed to store personal memories. (A Genizah is a storage area in a Jewish synagogue or cemetery designated for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics prior to proper cemetery burial. It is, in effect, it is a physical memory storage area.) The character Josie in that story hypothesized that if we can “recreate” people from these memories, haven’t we in some senses “resurrected” them from the dead? Haven’t we made them immortal?

Rachel might answer: yes, but at least they are only immortal in virtual form, and don’t have to live through immortality.

Rachel occupies the centuries mired down in the minutiae of every day life. She used to wonder if these trivial activities actually concealed something godly; whether “miracles” were actually manifested in the ordinary:

“Many days and years and people had passed before she understood that the details themselves were the still and sacred things, that there was nothing else, that the curtain of daily life itself was holy, that behind it was only a void. Yet some days she still wondered.”

She has considered the reasons for being alive, and comes up with a number of theories: To love the Lord; to serve others; to experience joy; to build for the future; to correct mistakes; to avoid regret; to accept regret; to change; to make oneself superfluous. About this last, she thinks: “And therein lay the root of the problem. There was no point in any of it, none at all, unless one had plans to leave.” So she spends her life having children and chasing them around when they are young, “running after another reason for living.”

The author, her husband, and their children

Her current son’s girlfriend has a different twist on that theory:

“Children are a gift from God, right? Why? Because they’re so wonderful? Honestly, they aren’t so wonderful. They’re a gift because they give us permission to fail. Because then we can at least imagine we’ve done something for the future, and we can die without thinking about what we haven’t done.”

But Rachel doesn’t have that “luxury.” She is haunted by thinking about not only her own apparent lack of purpose, but by how many children she has lost, because they could die but she could not:

“New parents think of each day as a cascade of beginnings: the first time she smiled, the first time she rolled over, her first steps, her first words, her first day of school. But old parents like her saw only endings: the last time she crawled, the last time she spoke in a pure raw sound unsculpted into the words of others, the last time she stood before the world in braids and laughed when she shouldn’t have, not knowing.”

And every few years – sometimes after a few centuries – Elazar finds Rachel. (She tries to stay mad at him, however.) This time he warns Rachel it’s not as easy to “die” and take on a new life as before. He tells her: “…this is the fifty-eight century, Rachel.” She says, “Or the twenty-first.” “‘Fine,’ he responds. The point is, he explains, the technology governing international security, including biometric identification requirements, make starting over ever more difficult. But he will take care of arrangements for her. (As he told her when they met, 2000 years ago, “You need me. You just don’t know it yet.”)

But Rachel doesn’t want to “start over” anymore. She wants to die. She goes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Moskowitz, who asks her “What brings you here today?” Rachel answers, “I’m repeating old negative behavior patterns, and I feel it’s very destructive.” She tells Dr. Moskowitz she can’t die, to which the psychiatrist replies, “Everyone feels invincible when they’re young.” Rachel tries to summarize her many lives. The doctor gives up and prescribes an anti-psychotic for her.

Some readers might be reminded of “The 2000 Year Old Man,” the comedy skit persona originally created by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in 1961.

Mel Brooks played the oldest man in the world, who was interviewed by Carl Reiner in a series of comedy routines. (One of my favorites: “Did you know Joan of Arc?” “KNOW her? I WENT with her!”)

The humor in this book as well as the basic plot remind me of their routines. The idea of eternal life has such hilarious potential for comedy, although Horn adds poignancy to the mix. She also feminizes it, by focusing on Rachel’s life as a mother and a wife. (Rachel has always avoided doing something more “public,” so as not to draw attention to herself.)

Rachel’s current granddaughter Hannah is a geneticist, and gives Rachel the idea that she might be able to find a way to die, after all. Ironically, Hannah, “who looked more like [Rachel] than anyone else had in two thousand years,” is trying to solve the problem of how to achieve eternal life, which would also, as a by-product of that research, illuminate the processes that end life. (Rachel says to Elazar, “High priests used to have this power. Did it ever occur to you that Hannah [feminized form of Hanania] and people like her are the new high priests?”)

Rachel cautions Hannah: “The hard part isn’t living forever. It’s making life worth living.” As she once complained to Elazar (after 300 years): “We don’t grow. We’re like an old book, full of stories and also full of errors, and no one can completely understand us. . . . But the problem is that we don’t change. Only the people around us change.”

But this time, maybe Rachel can die. Or maybe she can find something new that would make life worth living.

Discussion: This is not a long book, but it is dense with thought-provoking ideas. An underlying theme of this story is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament: the Akedah, or Binding of Isaac, told in Genesis 22:1-19. God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Abraham agrees, but then is stopped at the last minute when God sends an angel who tells him to sacrifice a ram instead.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (1966), by Marc Chagall

The Akedah became in Jewish thought the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God’s will.

In this book, the characters do a reversal of sorts. They agree to die themselves an infinite number of times to save their child. Rachel, at least, thought the vow she took was “metaphorical” like other religious teachings. And if she just agreed to give up on her child instead? What if God felt that way, and gave up on His children?

The high priest Hanania (Elazar’s father), tells Rachel at the time of her vow: “This vow will make you die without dying. If you make this vow, your son will live, but so will you.” The sacrifice, he explains, is her death. She tells him: “I would gladly die for my son.” “‘No,’ he explains. You will live for him.” Rachel almost smiled. “I’m already living for him. All mothers live for their children.”

And over the years, Rachel does indeed live for her children, hundreds of times.

[Horn points out in the book that in around the ninth century, the Jews came up with the Kol Nidre declaration during Yom Kippur. The formula proactively annuls any personal or religious oaths or prohibitions made upon oneself to God for the next year, so as to preemptively avoid the sin of breaking vows made to God which cannot be or are not upheld. (The Kol Nidre declaration can invalidate only vows that one undertakes on one’s own volition. It has no effect on vows or oath imposed by someone else, or a court.) In any event, this somewhat conceptually extraordinary ceremony came too late for Rachel and Elazar.]

Yom Kippur: “Day of Atonement” by Isidore Kaufmann (Wikimedia)

In another theme, just as there are different “versions” of Rachel, there are different versions of her children. Some remind her of past children, but of course she could never tell them. One reason she likes her own current incarnation so much is that her son Rocky reminds her more than anyone of her first son, Yochanan. Rocky is not quite as successful, however; he is 56 and living in his mother’s basement after several failed businesses and marriages. He doesn’t make any sense to Rachel, just as Yochanan did not. Both of them – Rocky with his ongoing study of “blockchains” and money mining, and Yochanan with his ongoing analysis of Torah passages are connected in a way we don’t fully discern until the end of the story. Rachel may not understand bitcoins or the Torah like her children, but she sees both Yochanan and Rocky as “trying to achieve what [their] mother already had: a permanent record of the past that can never change….”

The Cairo Genizah with textual remnants of nearly a millennium of Jewish life in Cairo from divorce documents to children’s doodles

Eternal love plays a role as well. Rachel’s love for Elazar abides even through centuries of anger. Her love of her children, especially her first child, never leaves her. Elazar, too, does not find time a barrier to love. Tweeting in the hashtag thread #EternalLife he complains: “After 2000 years she still doesn’t love me like I love her. In a normal lifespan I might not have noticed. #EternalLife’s a bitch.” Someone responds, “Um, maybe it’s time to move on? 2000 yrs seems like long enough to get over your ex.” But Elazar answers, #EternalLife: I will love her until the end of time. Every man on earth will tell her that, but I am the only one who will ever mean it.”

The changing roles of men and women over the ages inserts itself intermittently; for Rachel, perhaps the biggest miracle she has ever witnessed is men starting to help with household chores.

And the meaning of parenting is always in play. In some ways the novel is an ongoing joke riffing on the theme that motherhood and the sacrifices one must make for it seem never-ending.

Finally, on a higher level, there is God’s meaning. Yochanan theorized that every story in the Bible or Talmud was “kind of like a secret message,” because “people aren’t as smart as God, so everything is like a stupid version of the real story.” Maybe all we can ever hope to know is “the stupid version.”

Evaluation: Besides the themes mentioned above, there are others worth contemplating, but too many to delineate in a review. Horn incorporates so many clever references and topics into this story that it would take a book of my own to explicate them all. Or one can just read it as a love story that lasts through all of time. If you like intelligent fiction – fiction that makes you think about religious, philosophical, political, technical, and personal issues and how they intersect – Dara Horn is one of the best authors I know who makes this happen.

Rating: 4/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2018

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National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “The Watcher” by Nikki Grimes

Normally I eschew books with religious themes, but I could not resist the combination of author Nikki Grimes and illustrator Bryan Collier.

This clever and surprising book begins with a modernized translation of Psalm 121, one of the most beautiful of the psalms, which begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?”

Each two-page spread of the book then features a free-verse poem ending in a word of the psalm in bold text, and telling the story of Jordan and Tanya, the latter being the class bully. For example, the book begins with narration by Jordan:

“Some days, even the ant towers over me, and I
Cower in a forest of grass, waiting for the fear to lift
Like fog, so I can be brave, rise up.
But the class bully growls my name, and I shiver in my
sneakers, feel the wet fill my eyes.
Then I remember how Mom told me to
Roll my fear like a ball, toss it high in the
Air where you can catch it, and fling it to the hills.”

When a new boy named Israel comes to the school, Tanya decides she will befriend Israel, because, as she says, “the kid needs a protector, name like Israel.”

Jordan tries hard to understand why Tanya is so mean:

“People are puzzles, even Tanya – not all good, nor
all bad, but mixed. I try not to care, but the
Lord pokes me with his Word, mentions the moon
Tanya and I both sleep under, dream by.
God loves us the same, tucks us both in at night.”

The story has a fantastic ending.

As the author explains in a note at the conclusion of the book, The Watcher is written in a form of poetry called “the golden shovel.” She writes:

“In this form, you take lines from an existing poem or, as in this book, from a psalm, and create a new poem using the words from the original.”

She explains the process a bit more in detail, then encourages readers to try it themselves.

Bryan Collier is a four-time Caldecott Honor winner for his watercolor and collage artwork, and his illustrations are excellent, as usual.

Evaluation: Imagine how surprised I was at myself to love a book based on a religious theme. But I don’t think any particular belief is at all necessary to enjoy this beautiful story. It is an excellent guide on how to cope with bullying, on understanding others who are different or mean, and on the redeeming value of friendship.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017

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Review of “Saga: Volume Eight” – Tackling the Issue of Abortion – by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan

It’s always a happy day for me when I learn there is a new volume out of this exceptionally good space opera/graphic novel series. It tells the continuing story of the little family of Marko and Alana – a mixed-race couple – and their daughter Hazel. The family is struggling to stay together in spite of a war between their two races.

Alana is from the planet Landfall, where inhabitants have wings on their backs, and Marko is from its moon, Wreath, where all people have horns on their heads. The two defied all convention (and propaganda, viz: those people have horns on their heads!) and fell in love. Hazel was born with both horns and wings, and it is Hazel who narrates the story.

This volume begins with a very pregnant Alana and Sir Robot in Abortion Town. Hazel then backtracks to fill readers in on how this came about. She tells how Alana and Marko fell in love, and how both then had to go AWOL from their respective militaries. She says, “my parents had plenty of adventures…including making ME.”

She explains that Alana got pregnant again, but the baby died while still inside the womb. Petrichor, an adult who was sort of “adopted” by Hazel when they were in prison together, has also reluctantly become a part of this odd but increasingly bonded family, and she insists Alana must get the baby removed before her health is threatened.

At first they don’t know where to go for help, because doctors from Wreath would “sooner take their own lives than help a woman with wings” and doctors from Landfall would react the same to a baby with horns.

Prince Robot IV, who is traveling with them in order to get back to his young son Squire, has a plan. And that plan is what takes them to Abortion Town.

Right behind Alana when she returns to tell Marko of their progress are a swarm of Dung People getting ready to attack. It is then Alana discovers the miscarriage has given her new powers. It was believed only those with Wreath blood could cast spells, but apparently the mixed-blood child transferred powers to Alana. And it turns out Hazel has them as well.

Besides the Dung People, other potential enemies are afoot: the violent “pro-life” foes of abortion. Hazel comments: “Every culture in the universe has a very different opinion about exactly when life begins. But we’re all pretty much in agreement on when it’s over.” She also observes that “Whether we like it or not, most of our deepest-held beliefs come straight from the people who made us. Even when we turn against them, our parents still help define exactly what kind of ‘rebels’ we’ll be.”

The dead body Alana is carrying inside her also results in her having crazy dreams, dreams in which she experiences the guilt she has over taking the drugs that might have caused the miscarriage. She also begins to “forecast” – i.e., use a very powerful projection spell that simulates future outcomes. Thus, she has forecast a son named Kurti.

Hazel sees Kurti and asks, “Is that a nice ghost? Or a scary ghost?” Kurti says “I’m not a ghost, ding dong. I’m your favoritest brother.” Hazel concludes: “Scary ghost.”

While the little family, including Kurti, is off seeing to the removal of the dead child, Sir Robot admits to Petrichor he knows she is a transgender individual, and tells her “Between us, I have always been rather….fluid.” They discover they have even more in common, with not unexpected results…

Petrichor and Sir Robot

Back on another planet, Sir Robot’s son Squire waits for his return, along with others in their group who are starving to death.

Ghüs and Squire hunting for food

Marko’s ship returns with provisions just in time. Hazel meets Squire, and it looks like the beginning of a great relationship.

But their troubles are far from over. Marko and Alano were at one time being pursued by mercenaries, among them The Will. At the present time though The Will is tied up: he is getting tortured by a being named Ianthe. The Will killed Ianthe’s fiance Hektor, and she is intent on punishing him. She is tapping The Will’s memories to find people he loved so she can kill them and show The Will videos of it. She thus discovers the existence of Hazel, and determines to find her and get rich from the payment both sides in the war would make to her in exchange.

Ianthe and The Will

Discussion: Once again in this volume, it is Marko (i.e., the male) who argues that violence is never acceptable, and the women who counter with “Nonsense, Marko. Violence is often essential….” This book has not only explicit violence though, but also love, loyalty, humor, and razor-sharp political commentary.

As always, there are sad parts: “When did you first know that you’d give up your life for someone?” These usually relate to the recurring theme of love and loss. As Hazel muses:

“My parents taught me never to get too attached to new people who come into my life, since attachment is the root of suffering. But the times I’ve suffered most were when I had NO attachments, so who knows, right?”

This particular volume also takes up the theme of when it is right to take life and when is it wrong. Is there such a thing as a “just war”? What about abortions? Should babies be aborted only when a mother’s life is in danger? What if fetuses show evidence of birth defects? As the abortion doctor said of one of her clients: “Her little one may have survived, but there is no question the child’s life would be short and painful.”

And the authors never miss a chance to insert trenchant jabs at sexism. When Hazel and Kurti sit in the waiting room of the abortion clinic, Kurti expresses his fear that if their mama is fixed, he will disappear. He asks Hazel to sing him a lullaby, and she sings one that Izabel used to sing to her: “Sleep tight, Chubby baby, And please don’t get me wrong, You’re a perfect-sized baby, So never accept fakey beauty standards or develop unhealthy body issues…. from this dumb song.”

Illustrator Fiona Staples is again listed as first author, which seems appropriate. Her art work contributes to the meaning of the story in ways it would be hard for words to do alone. She not only imbues the vivid panels with dynamism and astounding creativity, but the way she captures emotions of all sorts of creatures is incredibly impressive.

Evaluation: This is an outstanding “saga” whether you like graphic novels or not. This is not by any means a series for kids but it is nevertheless a story strongly supportive of families – both the kind you are born with, and the kind you make as you go through life.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Image Comics, 2017

Note: If you are new to the series, be sure to read the books in order!

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Review of “The Accident” by Chris Pavone

This thriller features some of the characters from Pavone’s earlier book, The Expats, although it is not a “sequel” per se.

The story, taking place over one day, is focused on a manuscript called “The Accident” submitted to a literary agent by an “anonymous” author. (Alternate chapters are narrated by this author, who continues to be referred to as “the author” even though we learn his identify very soon in the book.) “The Accident” contains some shocking revelations about Charlie Wolfe, a (fictional) media mogul who now wants to run for the Senate. Thus this unauthorized biography details a number of crimes that Wolfe does not want to see the light of day; intriguingly, nor does the CIA.

Therefore, a number of people are looking to destroy any and all copies of the manuscript. The “thriller” aspect of the book involves chasing down the manuscript and anyone who has read it, and the danger posed to those who have seen the contents of the book.

In the process, we learn a great deal about various aspects and politics of the publishing business, which is probably the best written part of the book.

Occasionally a couple of characters, while narrating, act as if they don’t know the identity of another person they refer to, even though the readers know they know, so what purpose does that serve? It certainly can’t be to throw out red herrings, so it only serves to suggest that Pavone may have had another plot scheme in mind, but abandoned it and forgot to edit it out. Other red herrings aren’t quite as clumsy but still are awkwardly constructed, and never as cleverly done as in his first novel.

Additionally, many of the “bombshell” details in the manuscript, especially those involving the CIA, are not shared with the readers, so we never know exactly in what ways the information could be damaging. Without a clue as to what could possibly justify murder, the plot never is convincing in that regard.

Discussion: A sub-theme of the book concerns the type of media organization run by Charlie Wolfe:

“Wolfe Worldwide Media’s implicit mission was to de-news the news, to legitimize sensationalism. They instituted a system of news-gathering by amateurs who had no legal relationship or responsibility to the publishers, with a content bias toward gossip and innuendo, voyeurism and scandal, openly espousing unabashedly partisan rhetoric.”

Charlie explains:

“I came to the realization that all events, all facts, were to some extent negotiable. . . . I’ve spent the past two decades negotiating reality. Manipulating other people’s perceptions of it.”

That is to say, Wolfe’s organization is a bit of a play on Fox or Breitbart News. But this theme is very underdeveloped; almost thrown into the mix as if the author thought oh-yeah-there’s-this-other-issue-in-publishing too. That same theme is much better handled, and better integrated into the story, in the book Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (see my review here).

Pavone would have almost been better off leaving it out altogether instead of just covering it half-heartedly.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this author’s first book, The Expats, so much that I was quite disappointed with the inept execution of this one. For those who want an inside look at the book publishing world though, it is quite elucidating.

Rating: 3/5

Published in the U.S. by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, LLC, 2014

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Review of “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

This story was first published in a shorter form in the April 1959 issue of “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction” and was expanded into a novel in 1966. It has never been out of print since then. Since I never read this, and it is touted as a “classic,” I decided it was probably time, but I didn’t know much about it in advance.

Charlie Gordon is a “retardate” – a 32-year-old developmentally disabled man with an I.Q. of 68 – who has the opportunity to undergo a surgical procedure that will dramatically increase his mental capabilities. He is highly motivated; he wants desperately to be “smart.” As the story unfolds in “progress reports” written by Charlie, we learn that his mother rejected him because his “dumbness” was an embarrassment to her. More than that: it was anathema. She wanted him out of her sight and away from his “normal” sibling (ironically named Norma).

Alice Kinnian, his teacher at a center for retarded adults, recommended him over other pupils for this new technique, which was apparently successfully performed on the mouse named Algernon.

A short time after undergoing the surgery, we can see from the progress reports that Charlie is getting ever more intelligent, and soon his I.Q. is at the genius level. But his emotional development was not affected by the surgery, and moreover, unanticipated side effects are starting to show up in Algernon.

There are no end to the heart-breaking aspects of this story, from Charlie’s mother’s mistreatment of him and society’s ill treatment of, and condescending attitude toward, the handicapped generally; to Charlie’s misreading of cruelty before his operation to his understanding of it afterwards; to his frustration with the disconnect between his intellect and his affect. On top of it all, Charlie sees what happens to Algernon and knows he will have the same fate.

Evaluation: Well this is like The Most Depressing Book Ever. But it is a good story, and would make a great selection for a book club. There is much to discuss, from the ethics of experimentation to the way society treats those who are less fortunate, and to the many trenchant observations Charlie makes about status, human nature, friendship, and forgiveness. Have kleenex and/or chocolate on hand; I needed both.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Harcourt Brace, 1966 and has been issued in many editions thereafter.

Note: This story has won a number of awards, including Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1967), Nebula Award for Best Novel (1966), Locus Award Nominee for All-Time Best Novel (1975). But it also made the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999.

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