THE DAYS OF AWE

Hugh Nissenson

The Days of Awe is a complex, compellingly readable and skillfully executed novel that deals with one of the most profound realizations that must come home to nearly all of us at one point or another: the real understanding that we and all of those we love are going to die.

It is August 2001 in New York City, and Artie Rubin, author of numerous illustrated books of mythology, has reached 67. His friends are beginning to deteriorate one by one – and his beloved wife of forty years Johanna has recently been diagnosed with elevated blood pressure and cholesterol and is at high risk for a heart attack.

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The Days of Awe is a complex, compellingly readable and skillfully executed novel that deals with one of the most profound realizations that must come home to nearly all of us at one point or another: the real understanding that we and all of those we love are going to die.

It is August 2001 in New York City, and Artie Rubin, author of numerous illustrated books of mythology, has reached 67. His friends are beginning to deteriorate one by one – and his beloved wife of forty years Johanna has recently been diagnosed with elevated blood pressure and cholesterol and is at high risk for a heart attack.

As the summer progresses, Artie struggles with his current project, an illustrated retelling of Norse myths, featuring the journey of the god Odin to the land of the dead. He learns that his only daughter Leslie is pregnant for the first time, half-heartedly goes to schul at Etz Chaim on 90th Street and West End, and reads about the cycle of violence in Israel, the current “land of the dead”. He pops a Viagra once a week to sleep with his wife and happily plans their 40th anniversary trip to Venice.

And then, at 8:30 on a lovely September morning, over 3,000 people die horrifically at the World Trade Center, and Artie’s comfortable world, his views on morality, mortality and God, all begin to unravel.

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  • Sourcebooks Landmark
  • Hardcover
  • 2005
  • 294 Pages
  • 9781402207563

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About Hugh Nissenson

Hugh Nissenson is the author of eight books, including the recent illustrated novel, The Song of the Earth, which received a number of superb reviews in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and the The Los Angeles Times among others. His previous novel The Tree of Life was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pen-Faulkner Award in 1985. He lives in New York City.

Praise

“Poignant and powerful… Here he [Nissenson] more than holds his own in the arena of gritty, all-too-present-day realism, brilliantly conveying his characters’ anxiety and suffering, their conflicting ideas, emotions and beliefs, and the love for one another that makes them so vulnerable but also lends enduring value to their menaced lives.” — The Wall Street Journal

“The best art hurts. It’s excruciating. If you crave it, take a look at The Days of Awe.”
— The Washington Post

“Lucky readers of The Days of Awe will experience what we’ll call goldenoscopy. It’s a procedure in which you insert marvelous novelistic antennae into holes that long lives have left, and make everyone feel a little better about things that can’t be changed.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer

“I just finished The Days of Awe. I am too moved to move. (Even this pen). An amazing novel. It is like eavesdropping on life.” —Cynthia Ozick

Discussion Questions

The Days of Awe, like all of Nissenson’s work, is about the religious impulse, the religious experience, and the ultimate question: is there a loving God who concerns Himself with human affairs? Which two characters–one Jewish and the other Christian–who are in a sense doubles, wrestle with their belief in God? As examples of contemporary New Yorkers, they each seek psychological help to assuage their anguish. Why? Does either of them resolve his spiritual struggle? Which character, at the end, is left grappling with God?

Artie Rubin is the novel’s main protagonist. He begins as a secular Jew who is obsessed with pagan mythology. As the novel progresses, who is the deity to whom he turns? Is there an irony inherent in this development?

The Days of Awe is first and foremost a love story. Artie and Johanna have been happily married for nearly forty years. Her heart attack precipitates a spiritual crisis in Artie. How does Johanna respond to the catastrophe? In what way is her appreciation of ordinary life deepened by her experience of dying and, in a sense, being reborn? How does her fixation on the words of the Navaho Ceremonial dramatize her new vision of life?

Artie’s final vision of life and death reflects Johanna’s. How is it expressed? By what action? By what artistic creation?

Chris, Artie’s son-in-law, objects to having his son circumcised. Why? How does Artie feel about this? Why? Do you think that child will be raised as a Jew? How will Artie respond?

Rabbi Klugman is the truly observant Jew in the novel. How does he express his love for God? And his compassion for his fellow human beings? How do his religious beliefs affect his politics, as expressed in his sermons?

How does the Holocaust influence Artie’s attitude toward his people? What is the significance of the destiny of Jacob Fuchs? How do his poems reflect his religious beliefs?

What role do the current policies of the state of Israel play in the novel? How are the young Israelis living in America portrayed?

As his first name indicates, the protagonist is an artist. How does Nissenson dramatize Artie’s talent to make words into pictures and a picture from words?

What thematic purpose do these examples of Artie’s artistic creations serve? Why is he concerned about creating a digital image of Odin? How does this dramatize his growing obsession with Orthodox Judaism?

What thematic purpose is served by the poem at the end of the book? How does it dramatize Artie’s final vision about life and death?