Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ruined House (Namdar) and Fools and Mortals (Cornwell)

Two VERY different books...I won't even try to connect them....
So, if you are anything like me, this book may send you searching for a quick primer on how to read ancient Jewish texts. The good news is there's lots of information online and it is actually kind of interesting. The bad news is it isn't always easy,

The main journey in this book is Andrew's. On the surface, he's a successful academic who manages to keep a positive relationship with his ex-wife, his daughters (one grown, one teen), and his young (former student) flame. However, his life starts to slowly dissolve when he finds himself beset by strange dreams - waking dreams or perhaps visions - an intense religious nature. Although he identifies as a Jewish man, he largely attends services on the high holidays and it is more of a cultural identity than a religious one, making these visions particularly perplexing. As these moments grow in intensity, other elements of his life seem to unravel from articles that just won't get written to confrontations in his personal life to an odd obsession with strangely pornographic websites. It's a midlife crisis, but not a typical one. And, to bring back in that first paragraph, the book is peppered with (fake) Talmud sections detailing and explaining elaborate rituals centered around Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.

This is the kind of book that leaves me searching for the right words, both to fully describe the text itself and to describe my experience with it. I can't say I truly liked it...I definitely didn't like Andrew (I don't think the reader is expected to....and I can enjoy unlikable protagonists in the right hands) and he wore on me more and more as the book progressed. The sections that mimicked the Talmud fascinated me in the beginning but they also wore on my patience and part of me found the whole conceit a bit offensive (my honest reaction as something of a secular/cultural Jew myself, even if it is by a Jewish man who hails from Israel and originally wrote in Hebrew).

Two and a half stars..rounded up to three because there is some (often strangely) beautiful language here, but it generally left me perplexed. This review is based on an advance readers edition received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I must admit, when this ARC arrived from the publisher (provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review), I did a double-take and it took me a moment to remember that I had indeed asked for it. After all, Cornwell isn't my typical fare. I may like literary fiction set in another time, but true historical fiction is rarely my cup of tea, especially that surrounding war and kings and such. But, this is a bit of an atypical Cornwell novel.

The protagonist is Richard Shakespeare, William's fictional younger brother and a struggling actor. He's typically been relegated to playing women's roles and yearns for meatier (and manlier) dramatic fare (plus, there are younger men who are better suited to the female leads). Through most of the book, the troupe is rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream for a wedding presentation while Will puts the finishing touches on some play about two star-crossed lovers (truth: my least favorite WS play). Along the way, there's a love interest and some intrigue associated with a new competitor looking for plays to showcase in a new theater. 

This was a fairly quick read and generally a fun one. It did drag in places and there are parts of the story that just wrapped up a little too quickly (and off of the main stage, although we get glimpses of its resolution). Yes, the ending was somewhat predictable, but once you know whether you're enjoying a comedy or a tragedy, so is Shakespeare. The characters were fun and there were enough plot lines to keep the reader's interest while also avoiding becoming too many moving parts. I also enjoyed that Cornwell is clearly a researcher and I learned a good bit along the way, including from the author's note which addresses how theater really evolved in the early Elizabethan age (although I imagine it helps to have a basic handle on WS's works and times).

Four stars. Nothing too taxing, but definitely best for someone who enjoyed rather than loathed their own experiences with Shakespeare.