Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An Unusual Fantasy

I think my body and brain want to be on spring break this week because concentration has been hard. I resorted to doing busy work that needed to be done but that didn't require much actual thought. We're supposed to get another drastic weather change tomorrow, and the cooler weather may spur me back into work mode.

I've learned that the audio books are doing surprisingly well, so it looks like there was a demand for them!  It's cool that so many things are coming together for me at about the same time, but it does seem to be yet another case of all the time and effort that often have to be spent in order to become an "overnight" success. There are some people who hit it big right out of the gate, but most people have to put in a lot of work and be very patient before it all pays off and starts to look like success. That work and patience is the part of the iceberg below the surface of the water. The success is the only part most people get to see.

But enough about me. I have other books to talk about. Last week, I read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and it's a very interesting and unique fantasy novel. I love the setting among the immigrant communities in turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th) New York, and I love that it deals with some mythologies and cultures that are outside the usual realm of fantasy. Plus, it does that thing I love in books (and wish I could pull off) of having multiple storylines that converge as the story progresses. There's just something about the "oooh!" response of seeing the pattern created by all those threads weaving together that gets me every time.

One story thread in this book starts with a Polish Jew planning to emigrate to America, and since he wants a wife but is generally too much of an arrogant jerk to get one, he gets an elderly (and rather shady) mystic to make a golem for him -- a woman made of clay who will be the perfect wife and who will exist to serve him. He ships her to New York as cargo, but can't resist saying the words to wake her during the voyage, then he dies before reaching New York. She's left awakened and masterless in a strange world. Meanwhile, a Syrian tinsmith in New York is doing repairs on an antique copper jar when, much to his surprise, a jinni appears. He'd been imprisoned in the jar for centuries, and an iron cuff leaves him trapped in human form. Now he's in a strange world he doesn't understand and frustrated because he's limited by his form. The story follows them as they adapt to their new lives and learn about a threat that links them.

This is a very atmospheric book. You really feel like you're there. I've studied this period a lot, ever since I studied Jacob Riis in a journalism history class in college and became fascinated with his work. That gave me a lot of mental images to work with, but I think the book describes the setting well enough that you would get it even if you hadn't seen tons of photographs of the setting. I also liked seeing the cultures depicted. I knew more about the Eastern European Jews, but the various Syrian/Lebanese communities showed a sense of nuance. There's a general sense in popular culture that Middle Eastern=Muslim, but there was a large Christian population, including Eastern Orthodox and Maronite Catholic (there's a Lebanese Catholic church nearby that does a food festival, so I'm somewhat familiar with that). It's like an education while reading! But I also really got into the characters and felt for their plights. In a way, the fantasy elements provide a metaphor for immigration and that sense of being a stranger and having to rebuild a life. It's not really an action-packed book, though it does build toward the end. It's a really good rainy-day read when you can immerse yourself in that world.

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