Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel

Jesmyn Ward novel Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel, is a very conventionally successful novel which highlights a community which often does not have a “voice” in the wider world.  Ward is strong writer, and knows how to exploit the form of the novel.

I suppose I am a bit disappointed by the multiple voices for each chapter.  There is not much of a difference in tone or sentiment from voice to voice (although what they express is mostly profound and moving).  I would have also liked a lighter touch on the multiple ghosts that inhabit this novel.  The theme is not lightly used, and gets cumbersome toward the end.

With all that, this novel is still a tantalizing read.  Ward delivers a strong work.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

Mordecai Kaplan, lived to 102, June 11, 1881 – November 8, 1983

We are very fortunate that Mel Scult has written The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan.  Kaplan is one of the most influential Jewish figures of the twentieth century, but he is often not credited for the legacy he left behind.  Scult goes to great lengths to show the strengths of Kaplan, how he changed the nature of modern Judaism, while never shying away from some of Kaplan's weaknesses. 

Kaplan set about on the very necessary project of reorienting Judaism for twentieth century American Jews.  He was a naturalist and process theologian, who was influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey, William James, and the writings of Emerson.

Kaplan is the father of reconstructionist Judaism, and part of the reason he is not well known, and is no longer read widely today, is from the very dynamism of the movement he formed.  In moving Judaism away from fixed and traditional worship models, he created a process rather than an entity.  Most Jewish people who are reconstructionist or are influenced by it would not find much in Kaplan’s writings that is overtly familiar.

In 1945, Kaplan was excommunicated by a group of 200
orthodox rabbis for the publication of his
 Sabbath Prayer Book 

Scult’s book shows us why this is the case; Kaplan crafted a creativity unstable movement.  Designed to change, in many ways it has changed beyond anything Kaplan would imagine.  The author is also very honest about the difficulty and deficiencies of Kaplan’s writing style.  Unlike Buber and Heschel, two other influential Jewish thinkers and writers in the twentieth century who wrote well and clearly, Scult needs to rescue Kaplan from his own opaque works, mainly through his now published diaries.

So if you want your Kaplan, this is the book.  As someone who has never gotten through a long work by Mortdecai Kaplan, Schult’s work is essential.

The first page of Kaplan's writ of excommunication 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Salvage the Bones: A Novel

Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones is about as perfectly paced as a novel can be; the author continues to build on events in the work, and by the end, the reader is fully invested in the characters and their outcome.

The characters in this novel are up against so much: race, poverty, climate change, yet they persevere. This is a most refreshing outcome.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank

Leo Frank at the time of his trial

The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank is the subtitle of a book by Frey Seitz Frey and Nancy Thompson-Frey (the title is awful, no doubt a concession to the publisher to sell books).  Despite this salacious title, this book is a well-researched, sober and organized attempt to make sense of the murder of thirteen year old Mary Phagan in Atlanta in 1913 in a pencil factor. 

Factory manager Leo Frank, a Jewish man, was charged with the murder.  Despite flimsy circumstantial evidence, the threat of mob violence and antisemitism Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.  In 1915, the governor of Georgia commuted his sentence to life in prison, believing that with time and a more sober assessment of the evidence, Frank would be eventually pardoned.  

Men and boys posing with Leo Frank's body, in a patch of woods near Marietta Georgia

But he never lived to see that day.  He was lynched in 1915 after being kidnapped from prison by the so-called “Knights of Mary Phagan”.  The core of this group became a resurrected Klu Klux Klan, which would grow in strength in the years before World War Two.  The blatant antisemitism of the Frank lynching led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation league.

In 1986, Leo Frank was pardoned by the state of Georgia.  He bears the unfortunate title of the only (known) Jewish person to be lynched in the United States.  Until recently, it was a high-water mark of Anti-Semitic violence in America.

Marker at the site of Leo Frank's lynching, just off highway 75 in Marietta 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos is an extraordinary book, giving the reader real insights into the darkly ironic society of Communist China and its capitalist economic system.

At first, this book has the unfortunate tone of ridiculing the Chinese.  Osnos writes about people with extreme idiosyncrasies.  But as the book progresses, it drops this tone, and the author is able to paint a picture of the nearly unbearable pressure of both ordinary and famous citizens of the PRC.  He talks to people from all walks of life, and draws insights into their predicaments.

The "Peoples" Liberation Army suppressing the people, 1989

What we get at the end is a book that chronicles the nearly unfathomable amount of change that China has experienced in the last few decades through the lens of its people. Osnos certainly suggests that China, politically, economically, and socially, can’t be sustained.  The state apparatus to suppress criticism and revolt, and the growing legions of well-heeled Chinese people who want greater reforms and freedoms – will certainly clash.  And what it will bring no one knows.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

In the Very Abstract: Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven by Barry Holstun Lopez

Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven by Barry Holstun Lopez, is a series of essays about the American southwest desert.  This is an odd critique coming from me, but I found the book too abstract and mystical.  Yes, it is about the desert, but it is not really grounded enough in the reality of the desert.  It is a thought bubble most of the time.

Yes, he writes well; sure, the work is lyrical.  But in the end I wanted a better sense of real time and real place.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance...

George Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790


While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington