Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review – Change of Heart

A Change of Heart, by Jodi Picoult is an excellent novel that examines several factors, from the death penalty to religion and politics, and to the dynamics of organ donation.

Shay Bourne is awaiting execution on death row in New Hampshire, for the murder of policeman Kurt Nealon and his stepdaughter, Elizabeth. Bourne wants to donate his heart to Claire, sister of murdered victim, Elizabeth. It will be the first execution in 69 years. Bourne feels it is the only way he can find redemption and salvation, within his personal spiritual belief. The problem is that in order to donate his heart to Claire, death must be by hanging in order for the heart to be able to be useful, and he has been sentenced to death by lethal injection.

It is not without reason that I find Picoult named the prisoner Shay Bourne. The given name Shay in Hebrew means supplanter and also gift, and the Irish meaning is hawk and also can mean admirable, while the Gaelic meaning is gift. The surname Bourne means spring or stream, or one who lives near a spring or stream, or even border/boundary. It can also mean birth, beginning, rebirth. The variable meanings of these names can apply to the personality, mindset, and the endeavor of Shay Bourne to donate his heart to Claire.

Change of Heart is like a woven tapestry, and alternates between Bourne, June Nealon..wife of Kurt, Michael…a priest who was on the jury that convicted Bourne… now Bourne’s spiritual advisor, Lucius…a prisoner, Maggie…Jewish and an ACLU representative, and finally, Claire…who is awaiting a heart transplant. We view the events unrolling through their individual perspectives.

Shay is viewed by some as the Messiah, due to certain incidents in prison where others feel he performed miracles, such as reviving a dead bird, bringing wine through the prison water system, etc. The Gnostic Gospels come into play, also, as Bourne seems to be able to quote from them, with sayings supposedly made by Jesus. Bourne becomes a martyr of sorts for the death penalty.

Jodi Picoult has written a compelling novel, on many levels, including mother-daughter relationships, prisoner rights in relation to religious beliefs and their choice of how to die, forgiveness and love, and church and state. Many questions arise. At what point is organized religion the answer to our faith? Can religious boundaries be crossed through over-zealousness? Is the death penalty the answer to murder? Should prisoners donate organs? There are many thoughts to ponder, and no clear or definitive answer to the questions that are conjured in our mind. Jodi Picoult brings those issues to the forefront in

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Jewaicious Review – Chains Around the Grass

Chains Around the Grass, by Naomi Ragen is a novel that is about family dynamics, expectations, resilience and so much more.

The book opens in Queens, New York, and it is 1955. From that point forward, the underlying context of the story line goes downhill. It is a depressing read, within the less than desirable confines of the low-income housing projects.

David Markowitz is a Jew who has done what so many other Jews have done in the past, given up his Jewish identity and assimilated into the folds of America. He changed his son’s surname to Marks. He has high hopes of making it big in a world filled with schemers and dreamers.

Capitalistic mores and values are strong within the pages. They overtake the social aspects of identity and culture, creating realities that family members don’t want to face. The “American Dream” turns into a constant nightmare for the Markowitz family.

David’s wife Ruth and their three children become the victims of poverty. In David’s mind the children become the scapegoats of dreams that have turned to nightmares. And his children are victimized as their innocence is broken at too young an age.

David’s wife passively allows him to be the decisive one in the family, making all of the decisions, even though she doesn’t always agree with them. As hard as he tries to move his family out of poverty and out of the less than desirable living conditions they find themselves in, he fails. He tries to sound optimistic and speaks in a positive tone, often too loudly, hoping against hope that they will be happy in their environment.

David feels that with each move they have managed to somehow move up in status, when in actuality they have been bumped down several notches. This reflects in the attitudes of his children, and how they adjust to, and accept, their new surroundings. They see the truth behind the superficial attempts David makes at overplaying the situations he has put them in. Eventually David begins to see the reality, but it comes at a time when it is too late.

The “chains” are metaphorical for not only the reality of their oppressive existence, but also for the emotional levels that keep each of them bound in a regressed state, unable to move forward.

One area of the novel that is filled with clarity is David’s daughter, Sara’s eagerness to accept and find fulfillment in education and Judaism. She finds a sense of comfort within the Jewish day school, whereas her brother, Jesse is the opposite. He forsakes education and religion, and in the end is filled with self-hate, which shows in his destructive behavior and interactions. Sara begins to value herself, and her self-esteem is slowly enhanced by her religious and educational pursuits.

Ragen is adept at reflecting the individual mindsets within the family interactions, the situations and the devastating events. What I found a bit lacking in Chains Around the Grass was the fact that the characters didn’t seem to have much substance to them. But, of course, that all ties in with the extreme euphoria that David often projected, and superficial aspect behind the enhanced exterior presented to others. It also makes sense in the scheme of things with Ruth and her passiveness, due to his overbearing behavior which masks his underlying insecurities.

Ragen writes with her usual flair, enhancing the theme of Jewish illuminations within an environment of despair. She tries to weave a sense of hope within the prose, and sometimes it works, and at other times it doesn’t within the chapters of Chains Around the Grass. It is not a happy read, but a sad one, and I feel that the inspiration that Ragen might have wanted the reader to come away with left this reader without hopeful glimmers during many of the passages within the pages. Of course, this could be intentional on her part, due to the themes of the demeaning and debilitating circumstances of lives that are filled with adversity and poverty, lives that often do not have hope. She more than likely wanted to underscore the severity of their lives.

Naomi Ragen is brilliant at writing and creating stories of despair. Within the slow-moving pages I began to recognize the slow-paced emotional and logical development of Sara, and even her mother, Ruth. Many may not like Chains Around the Grass, due to its slowness and/or often depressive content. If you stay with the book, there will be illumination, although it is often slight, nonetheless, it is illumination that radiates hope.

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I personally own and have read this book.
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May 10, 2012 – 18 Iyyar, 5772

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Jewaicious Review – Rhyming Life & Death

Rhyming Life & Death, by Amos Oz, is an amazing work of fiction, with a unique perspective. The book is a fascinating look at writing, life and death, fantasy and reality, and the comparison of how opposites need each other in order to complete the whole.

The protagonist is known as The Author, and we never learn his true name. The use of third person narration is subjective in Rhyming Life & Death.

This form of narration affords us to be inside the mind of The Author, and we know his thoughts and feelings. This format is perfect for the novel, in that it exposes the immediate train of thought of The Author. He is a man who is bored with the task at hand (before it even begins), that of having to attend a literary event where there will be a reading of his work, and he will speak and answer questions regarding his writing.

I won’t go into the descriptions of the characters The Author develops, as the book is a slim volume, and I would give the entire story away. Suffice it to say that there are some interesting individuals in the story, and there are both humorous and poignant moments. Oz is incredible with his vivid and detailed imagery, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination.

The Author’s stories are just that, stories, and most do not have a plot, but are a form of amusement for him. There is a often a fine line between reality and fantasy, and in Rhyming Life & Death, it is often difficult to separate the facts from the imaginary. They often seem as one, and at times it appears that the characters seemingly have taken on a life of their own, within The Author’s mind.

In my opinion Rhyming Life & Death is a powerful book (although some might not think so, as it can seem disjointed), and one that is an illumination on writing and on reading, and on the life cycle. Within the intensity, it can be humorous at times. It is almost as if Oz is assailing or ridiculing writing itself, or at least the process of writing and being published, and the effects of the endeavor, both during and after. That is the beauty of Amos Oz, his ability to infuse the absurd within the pages, to leave beginnings with no endings, and yet brilliantly show that clarity of mind can coexist with one’s imagination.

I am an avid Amos Oz fan, and I personally own and have read this book.

April 5, 2012 – 13 Nisan, 5772

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