Friday, July 23, 2010

Tamar Yellin - The Genizah at the House of Shepher

Religion has always fascinated me. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and have a pretty decent grasp of the Bible. Biblical stories were my bedtime stories and I prayed to the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. As I grew up, I began to explore other religions - never as faith-altering explorations, just to understand the similarities and differences. I suppose I always have been and always will be hungry for knowledge – maybe that’s why I read.

I’ve read books that center around all sorts of faiths – from Eastern Religions to spirituality of natives from Africa to South Dakota. I respect the beliefs of others. When I saw Tamar Yellin’s The Genizah at the House of Shepher (2005), I had to grab it; it contains all things I know I love in a book – religion, family stories, intrigue, love, and loss.

A genizah is a “hiding place” for old or damaged sacred documents. Jewish faith requires that sacred texts and anything containing God’s name not be destroyed, thus these depositories were established. When Shulamit Shepher returned to her family in Jerusalem, she knew she’d be facing her family’s ghosts and demons, but she never expected what she actually found in the attic, the family’s genizah – a place to store more than just religious artifacts.

Shulamit is a rootless person; after abandoning her faith and her family, she buries herself in her studies and has become a true scholar, lecturing in biblical studies. Twenty years pass and she receives a letter from her uncle telling her that the family house is going to be destroyed and if she wants to see it one last time, she must come. She flies to Jerusalem.

When she arrives, her uncle tells her about the Codex, a religious document found among the family’s belongings. Thought to be worth thousands, the Codex is a keter Torah – a handwritten copy of unknown origins. Shulamit’s uncle has given it to the Institute to authenticate, but the Shepher family has already started bickering and fighting over it. Shulamit is eager to see the document, to study it – what biblical scholar would not want to see the unknown manuscript that has been in her family for years? The Codex could MAKE her career.

With the thread of the Codex holding the story together, Yellin presents a family saga of faith, loss, and exile. Shulamit, going through items in the genizah, begins to learn more about her family, begins to remember the legends she’d been told as a child, and slowly begins to connect with her past – she begins to “heal” when she embraces her family and their combined history. The Codex is a character, but it is a secondary character; do not read this novel if you’re looking for a thrilling suspense novel like The Da Vinci Code.

The writing is simply stunning and the family lore is fantastically dependent on religion and myth. I thought the novel slightly incomplete – it began to fall flat after such an amazing start. This is Yellin’s first novel so there is plenty of time for her talents to improve and her novels to be consistently “tight.” It’s definitely worth a read, even with the problems I have with the last fifty or so pages. If you like family sagas and have a fascination with how faith runs families, read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don Coldsmith - Runestone

I love historical sagas, always have. I’m quite fond of the books by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear, and when I saw their glowing words of praise on the cover of paperback sitting on the book cart at work, well, I knew it would make a perfect poolside read.

Don Coldsmith’s Runestone (1995) offers a “theory” about how a Viking made his way to Heavener, Oklahoma in the 11th century. Heavener is the home of an inscribed stone that has been attributed to Norsemen. People don’t really know how it got there and it’s apparently pretty heavily disputed. Personally, I’d never heard of the Heavener Runestone prior to picking up the fictional saga. But I do like how something real spawns one’s imagination the way the Heavener Runestone gave birth to Coldsmith’s historical saga.

Runestone is the story of a Viking explorer, Nils Thorsson, who travels to Vinland with the excitement of adventure running rampant in his body. Two ships make the voyage, but they are attacked by a band of Indians after leaving Vinland for further exploration. The only survivors are Nils, his steersman Svenson, and a one-eyed Indian they call Odin. Odin had escaped from the band of Indians who ultimately destroyed the crew and sought refuge in the settlement. The reason the settlers allowed him in is not really explained. He stows away on Thorsson’s boat in the hopes that they bought will take him back to his people.

The three men survive the attack on wit and intelligence on Odin, a man they originally considered as beneath them – an ignorant savage. Their journey brings the men close together and the two Norsemen realize that Odin is far from a savage. The attacking band of natives pursues the three persistently – they cannot afford to have anyone escape if they want to send a strong message. They surround the three men and all hope appears lost – Nils, Svenson, and Odin have no water and will be killed if they leave the cliff they’ve become pinned in. Nils decides to go “berserk” – a Norseman’s deathsong in battle. He takes off all his clothes and begins chanting and making animal sounds. Instead of responding to his advances, the attacking band is terrified. They are convinced he must be some holy man with lots of magic. Odin jumps on this assumption and plays it to their advantage. The men are not only released, but given provisions for their journey.

The two Norsemen end up assimilating with Odin’s tribe. They take wives and start families. The conflict of wanting to return to their people shows up but it’s never really developed and when they do attempt to return (or Thorsson attempts with his family and Odin), it’s quickly over.

The first half of the novel was well-paced and exciting, but once they reach Odin’s people, the novel loses steam and becomes a bit redundant. I’ve read better historical sagas.