Wednesday, May 30, 2012

To the end of the land

To the End of the Land (Vintage International)To over simplify, this book is about mourning someone who is not yet dead, or whose death may be immanent.  In the prologue we meet two young people in an Israeli hospital who have essentially been left on their own due to a conflict raging outside.  Ora and her young friend Avram connect, share secrets and as their time together wears on he brings his silent, and also very ill roommate Ilan into their circle.

Turn the page and it is more than 25 years later.  Ora is devastated to learn that her son has voluntarily reenlisted in order to serve at the West Bank.  Ora's husband, Ilan (what!?) and their son Adam are on a holiday, and rather than stay home and wait for the inevitable knock on the door informing her of her son Ofer's death she drops everything, sort of kidnaps Avram and goes for a walk throughout Galilee.

As the walk, she heals a broken Avram by telling him every detail of Ofers life, his birth, his growth, his stubbornness, and his compassion. As Avram learns more and more about the son he fathered, but never parented (I'm not ruining it, it is not a secret) he is able to shed the pain of his own horrific army experience.

They walk and talk and avoid all news and modern communication in order to delay the inevitable for Ora.

Our readers mostly finished this book (three read to completion, two to almost the end, and one read to a certain point then skipped ahead to the last two chapters) we had one hold out who didn't become engaged.  (There is no judgement from me on that front, sometimes a book doesn't grab you and it is ok to move on!)

My notes from the meeting are as follows:

The narrative was repetitive, with Ora unable to move past her belief that her son was dead but very important details of the characters and their story unfolded when you were not expecting it.

The consensus was that Ora's plight was raw, honest and amazing, but that it was hard to read.

There were several stories that gave insight into what life must be like for people living in this perpetual land of upheaval.   Ora rides the public buses to markets that have been attacked by suicide bombers.  She seems to enjoy stepping on a new bus and having the regular riders assess if she herself is a potential threat, and then as they get to know her she assesses strangers who get on the bus.  Is she facing her fear, or testing fate in order to feel closer to the reality of the conflict?

These episodes point out the fragility of life.  We, in the US for the most part have the luxury of believing we will live into our old age, but the Israeli's don't have that safety.  They are aware that going to the market for milk is a dangerous activity and they have a different relationship with death.  We agreed that a mother would mourn her child to the same level regardless of geopolitical circumstance, but we couldn't decide which would be worse, a constant nagging "it could happen today" feeling or the utter shock of an unexpected death.

So much of this book is centered on Ora and her storytelling, but it is also a lovely tale about fatherhood.

The Master and Margarita

I'll be honest and tell you that this book lost me on about page 3 and I gave it about 50 more pages of total confusion before I gave up the fight.

After attending our discussion (or their discussion) it seems I missed out on a book that was worth the effort.   However, with a character list that includes  a large walking, talking black cat, several slightly odd Soviet writers and Satan.

I gathered there are several plot lines running, including commentary on life in Russia under the Stalin regime and a reworking of the stories of
Pontius Pilate and Faust.

The discussion of the book, especially the Pontius Pilate (or Pilot as I always thought he was named) was nicely timed at our near Easter event.   Pontius Pilate was the judge who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  At one point he 'washed his hands' to show he wasn't responsible for the execution of Jesus, but still sent him to his death.  In The Master & Margarita he is living with his conscience in a never ending state of penance. 

Of our readers who (mostly) finished the book, the reviews were that it was worth the effort.  I walked away from our discussion with a renewed interest to give it a second try.  It is now on the night stand atop the other book that I didn't read that they loved... War and Peace.  I'll get right on it.