Book Review: Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Eyes, Stones–Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry and the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award–is an extraordinary feat of poetry and clear-mindedness.  Each of these 40 small poems are dense explosions of beauty and clarity, encased in language that is both modern and antique, beautiful and brutal–much like the countries that she writes about.

In her poetry, Bell attempts to look and understand the worlds that are Palestine and Israel. She moves from biblical stories to modern events and much in between. Her topics range from the ancient relationship of Abraham and God, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Hagar to the modern Holocaust, the Zionist movement, the 1968 Egypt-Israeli War, and the most recent Intifada.

But what is remarkable about these poems is that they don’t stink of politics, of nationalism, of self-righteousness.  They are simple poems that lay bare the simplicity of man’s pain, the artlessness of his troubles, the wonder of his existence. Often, in these poems one is unsure which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Bell sits, her treatment is so even-handed.

Take for instance her poem “Naming the Day,” which is a composite both of those Jewish villages in Eastern Europe destroyed or made “Jew free” AND those Palestinian villages destroyed or evacuated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” the speaker admires the Palestinian woman Amal:

Amal laughs with all her teeth and her feet
tickle the soil when she walks. She moves
through her land like an animal. She knows it
in the dark. She feeds stalks to the newborn
colt and collects its droppings like coins
to fertilize the field. Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it.

Amal’s rough existence she compares with her own existence in the settlement that surrounds Amal’s land:

All around her land the settlements sprout like weeds.
They block out the sun and suck precious water
through taps and pipes while Amal digs wells
to collect the rain. I am writing this poem
though I have never drunk rain
collected from a well dug by my own hands,
never pulled a colt through
the narrow opening covered in birth fluid
and watched its mother lick it clean,
or eaten a meal made entirely of things
I got down on my knees to plant.

Yet Bell’s work does not rise from the guilt of the occupier.  It comes from a genuine love of the people–both Arab and Israeli–and a horror of the world that has evolved around them.  A particularly poignant poem, “In Another Country It Could Have Been Love,”  laments what could be between the two:

The next time I saw her, a rifle
strapped her shoulder. The tip
of it fingered my ribs, my hips
the inside of my thighs.
Cold metal instead of her hands,
her eyes.

Elana Bell herself is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and as such, her examination of Jewish and Arab relationships is strikingly honest. She maintains an embracing love of the land through its many incarnations: biblical landscape and Zionist dream, modern nation and occupied territory.

In the end of the collection, she returns to Brooklyn where she lives. There she will “watch the Super Bowl…eat organic greens and make love on Saturday afternoon…[She will] listen to jazz in tight-packed clubs…and sleep on clean cotton sheets.” It is during this sleep, however, that the Mid-East comes to haunt her, to remove her from her comfort, and to tie her to the lands of her heritage.

Eyes, Stones won the 2011 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.  Five of her poems (along with her bio) are published on the Academy’s website. Check it out. She is a remarkable woman and a fine poet.


Book Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Cover of Bernhard Schlink’s book.

A scene from Stephen Daldry’s film, The Reader

The old question of the book and the movie: Can a film ever do a novel justice?  Or should we look at them as entirely separate works of art and not make the comparison at all?  Just the parameters of a roughly  two hour viewing experience seriously limits what a film maker can do with his source, a source that usually comprises a multi-hour/multi-day experience for a reader.

Certainly there are films that are more successful than others in capturing the essence of a novel. And just as certain there are real travesties. But the successes are such because they capture the spirit of the novel rather than getting lost in trying to relate every detail.  I am thinking of Mike Nichols Catch-22 based on the Joseph Heller novel.  The film works because it perfectly captures the inanity of bureaucracy, the numbness of war, and the black humor of Heller.  It is a large novel, non-linear in its arc, and Nichols captures its essence without getting bogged down in trying to capture every character and sub-plot.

I saw the film The Reader when it was released in 2008 and only got to reading the book in 2012. (I had two friends who refused to see the film because they had loved the novel so much.)  Regardless, it was a compelling film with a maddening and dramatic twist.  A young school boy (Michael) has an affair with a older woman who insists that he reads to her every time before they have sex.  He reads her all the classics–The Odyssey, War and Peace, etc. But she seems oddly aloof, and at the end we realize why. The boy, on the other hand, grows into an unfeeling man, and his coldness and inaction when needed is what is infuriating.

The novel–by its very nature–is quite different. First, it is much more internal, narrated by the boy who often questions and analyzes his own thoughts and his own actions. There are ruminations on the ethical choices made by ordinary citizens during the Holocaust, on the responses of the following generations on the actions of their own mothers and fathers. (These scenes take place in 1966, two decades after the war.) And yet while the narrator weighs, dissects, conjectures about these ethics, his own actions–many years after the war–must also be examined.  His coldness, his lack of human kindness, his decision not to act is all quite similar to that which he condemns in the female guards who are on trial in the second half of the novel.

When Hannah (the older woman) confesses to a crime she did not commit rather than reveal a secret she is much more ashamed of, she is given life imprisonment. Michael has information that could acquit her that he does not reveal.

To me, the ending is insignificant, despite the attempt to redeem Michael. Yes, he does reach out to Hannah, he does realize his own hardness, and he does try to do right.  But it is all too late. I had grown to dislike him so much by then that his redemption was all but impossible for me.

Most of the details of the plot remained the same from  book to  film but the internal voice was missing–or at least adulterated. The novel also starts out quite erotic which simply cannot be captured adequately on film with the same impact–words seem always more intimate and immediate than soft-lit actors and actresses.

The old question of book and movie?  In the case of The Reader, both.  They are two different things, two very good experiences, two separate ways of engaging a reader/viewer.