Friday, February 14, 2020

Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege: Essays on Hawai'i

Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege: Essays on Hawai'i by Liz Prato is a book with a great deal of heart.  This is not an intellectually strong book.  Nor does Prato do many interesting things with language.  Her tone is conversational.  But these 'shortcomings' are balanced by an emotional bravery and honesty which permeates this work.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Cloud of Unknowing

One thing Carmen Acevedo Butcher ‘s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing: With the Book of Privy Counsel certainly has going for it is that it is a very readable, modern version of this work, which was written in Middle English.  As Butcher explains in her introduction,  this is a translation that takes the sense of the book to the forefront; this is not a word for word translation.

In that regard the book is a great success.  Try reading any other versions and you will see what I mean. 

Despite being a “radical” Christian work, whose centerpiece is contemplative prayer, this is still a VERY Christian book, embedded in orthodox Christian beliefs.  For someone like me, these long passages overshadow the more revolutionary utterances and positions here.  But of course, that is on me.

Monday, February 3, 2020

A New Hasidism: Branches

The editors of A New Hasidism have done the Jewish world a great service by producing these two volumes:  Roots, and here Branches.  This volume explores the range of what we call Neo-Hasidism, which is quite broad and deep.  The articles here lay out the groundwork of this extensive,  hard to pin down,  multi-faceted, and engaging Jewish movement.

This book, and its companion volume, act as both an anchor and line to those who wish to study and enact progressive Judaism.  Here we can find many approaches to what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century; how we can preserve the past, while moving boldly into the future.  

And perhaps most importantly, we can be creative in our expression of Judaism.  We can have fun!  We are only inhibited by our lack of imagination or hang-ups.  These books provide the keys to wider worlds that are ours to explore.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The River of Heaven: Poems by Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo is a poet who inhabits many worlds.  This is very clear in The River of Heaven.   The poems are uniquely Hongo’s, inhabiting his world, exploring the people, flora, and landscapes of the poet’s eye.  It certainly helps, but is not necessary, to read Hongo’s rich and moving memoir, Volcano.  So much of what he writes in this collection of poems is reflected in that book.

In the years since this collection has been published, the last poem, “The Legend,” has become popular.  On YouTube numerous people recite and analyze the work.  Reading it in today’s environment, it is understandable.  The story of a senseless act of violence on an immigrant Asian man, and the refusal or inability of the people around him to help, is an apt symbol of alienation for our times. As the man dies a gunshot wound, as he lay dying in the street surrounded by people, even “[t]he noises he makes are nothing to them.”

He dies alone, separated, even from the poet who feels “…so distinct / from the wounded man lying on the concrete / I am ashamed”

All that the poet can give the dead man is a Chinese legend, of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, who, despite their love, are banished on opposites sides of the heavenly river, and can only meet once a year across a bridge of magpies.  

Hongo gives the man one day of solace in death.   The hands of the weaver girl will take up his cold hands.  The implication, perhaps, is that her hands are warm and gentle.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Strange Tribe: a family memoir, by John Hemingway

In Strange Tribe: a family memoir, by John Hemingway, the author laments efforts by his extended family to capitalize on the Hemingway name to sell everything from furniture to eye-wear. This memoir does much the same, but with key differences and more nuance.  The author is telling his story, and the story of his father, Greg Hemingway, which in turn relates to his father, Ernest Hemingway, and long shadow he cast over their lives.  But we wouldn’t read this book without Ernest Hemingway as its anchor.    

I suppose the greatest justification for this book, from a scholarly angle, is the light it sheds on Ernest Hemingway and gender.  Since Lynn’s biography in the late-eighties, scholars have cast a new, and entirely justified eye on Hemingway, his characters, and gender.  The fact that his youngest son, Greg Hemingway, cross dressed, and sometimes called himself female names, and began to transition to a woman late in life, is this supposed to give us insight into Ernest Hemingway’s  experiments with gender, both on or off the page.

I’m not entirely sure.  Authors experiment with whatever they wish to explore.  Perhaps it comes from their core, or maybe it is just a form of play.  Who knows?  Without that connection, this book is a very sad recitation of mental health issues, substance abuse, and child endangerment.  John Hemingway's parents were unable to parent him.  Hemingway or not.  This book is about a broken family.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority

Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority, by Sue Fishkoff, is simply a fascinating read.  The author takes many areas of the modern kosher scene, places them in social, historical and political context – and in the process, does so in an entertaining and instructional way. 

This book plots the rise of the modern, post-war, kosher food boom.  One reason for this boom is the growing affluence of many American Jewish communities.  This is combined by the very nature of kashrut to become more exclusionary over time, and with the fracturing of Jewish communities.  A kind of frum arms race begins, as each group seeks to out kosher the other.  Soon, we are looking for microscopic crabs in the NYC tap water, and scrubbing the green out of a leaf of lettuce.

I can’t imagine another work that handles this topic, and others, with quite so much depth and range.  Fishkoff has written a definitive book.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Forever War

In reading The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, most of the time I thought, simply, that this man is crazy.  Sure, he is a war journalist, and his job is to go out and report in war zones.  So Filkins does just that in this book.  He is in Afghanistan covering the civil war before 9-11.  He is up in Tora Bora a few days after America’s unsuccessful attempt to kill Bin Laden.  

He is in Iraq for the American invasion and then the costly insurgency.  He is with the Marines as they take back Fallujah. Bullets fly passed him.  Marines are hurt or killed in horrible ways.  After pages of this, it beggars belief that one person would put himself in harm’s way so consistently.  He is in dangerous places, where he could be kidnapped or killed.

Filkins, no doubt, had his own motivations.  And probably paid a price.  What we get is without cost: reporting that is so real, so authentic, it is often difficult to read.  The life and death struggles of the people Filkins reports are gut punching palpable, sad, enraging.  American’s twenty-first centuries wars still drag on; Filkins was an early and unique witness in the thick of it.