Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Empires of the Word



Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word is wide ranging examination of how languages evolve, spread, and die out.

Ostler takes a wide view: we move from India, to China, to Arabic speaking countries, to Europe and end on English, the current lingua franca.

Ostler’s book is fascinating, and VERY detailed, so it demands some patience on the part of readers.  But readers will be rewarded for their effort with some firm analysis of the complexities of how languages live and die. 

Ostler does not leave us with any hard and fast rule about why some languages spread and others do not. Often, language spread because of conquest, as Latin did; or through a combination of conquest (British English) and prestige (American English).

Language is as complex and as multivariate as we are; really, we should expect no less.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Hunger Games




This has all been commented on before, and Suzanne Collins has long pointed out that The Hunger Games owes a great debt to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.  

Katniss, like Theseus, volunteers to become a tribute in the King of Crete’s intentionally cruel, and unwinnable, tangle with the Minotaur in his maze.  He defeats the Minotaur, and becomes King of Athens.  

Katniss confronts an equally, if not more senselessly cruel state (more like Rome, as the name of the nation Panem, as in Panem et Circenses, Bread and Circus, alludes to). It is a country where blood sport is both a reminder of a rebellion long crushed, entertainment, and social distraction.

Of course, these is more here.  But I’ll leave it at that.  Reviewing YA books is not part of my bailiwick, and this book has already commented on extensively. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Wuthering Heights & Die




Wuthering Heights is a Romantic novel with the capital “R”.  The Age of Reason is over, and Emily Bronte seeks, and succeeds, in exposing our most irrational natures.  In this novel, characters just speak about their great passions, and get sick, and die.  

Heathcliff and Catherine are the prime exemplars of this; Catherine’s love for Heathcliff is strong, but inchoate. She dies.  Heathcliff is constitutionally stronger than Catherine, but after years of tormenting, both emotionally and physically, those around him, he suffers death by Romance as well.

I write this tongue-in-cheek.  Wuthering Heights is a novel that should be read.  Certainly it makes demands on its readers.  But we should rise to meet its high mark.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Book I’ll Never Read



I am not disposed to discuss books I have never read.  I shouldn’t have to explain this, although it is a habit many people have – in so much as they read anything at all.

But any book that laments the loss of a version of New York City has no appeal to me and I will never break its spine.  Vanishing New York is such a book (and blog).  

From viewing the author’s blog, it chronicles the closing of every semi-landmark diner, cafĂ©, or flower shop. This is an old motif: New York was better in ________ (fill in the decade or year).  

As a boy "Regis and Kathy Lee" where always on in my house, every week day morning.  Regis would fill in the blank at “New York was better in the 1950s.”  No doubt he had good reasons for this stance.  The city had yet to enter its long decline through the 60s and 70s.  He was young, hopeful, and the city reflected his dreams and aspirations and could fulfill them.  Who  can blame him for thinking this?

In a round about way, this is the shadow side of that old saw that "New York City is the greatest city in the world". With that as a premise, NYC is always primed to topped from that lofty perch. The shadow version says the same thing, but on the other side of the coin, in whiny and nostalgic tones, that the city was better in _________ (fill in the decade or year).  The New York City you know and experience is but a shadow city.  You should have lived in the real city. As far as I can tell, this yardstick has always existed and is distinctly a New York historical dynamic.

The problems are self-evident.  The voices that lament the town’s gentrification in the late 80s and 90s (my generation) laid its groundwork.  They came in as “artists” whether they were or not, and laid the foundation for pushing low income people out of the Village or Alphabet City.  They planted the seeds of gentrification – and then bitched when those plants grew and morphed beyond their comfort or control.

My sense is that all this fuss has more to do with aging, articulate people afraid of what they have lost over the years, and we all lose something – who use NYC as a symbol or token of loss. I sympathize.  Loss is difficult.  As we age, the world feels less and less made for us.  It muscles us out. This hurts. New York leaves us behind.

But ultimately, NYC is good or bad according to a sliding rubric that can satisfy no single group, or even person.  If you want to jack off in a porn theater in Times Square, clearly that is a loss.  If you wanted to buy crack in Washington Square Park – yet another check in the loss category.  If you are an artist who requires a minyan of like-minded folks to sit in diners and drink old man coffee as you express ideas or concepts, clearly something vital is long gone. 

Ultimately, people will write eulogies to dying worlds.  Why not? You can no longer get a sandwich at the Carnegie Deli (as if delis were ever eternal?)  So lament and cry.  Write books about it. Despite being born in NYC, this is not my concern.  I try not to fall into the trap of narrowly defining my worth or joy to a place. In our world of rapid change, to do so seems masochistic.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Garden of Emuna by Rabbi Shalom Arush




The Garden of Emuna is an extremely doctrinaire Bratslav book.  HaShem is good, therefore everything that happens to us is good, no matter how bad it may seem.  I have nothing against this particular religious perspective.  Very often negative events in our life, down the road, flower into positives.  Of course, there are the extreme cases like dead children and the Holocaust.  But Rabbi Arush more or less steers away from these cases, and for good reasons. 
  
Bad things happen to us because we do not have sufficient emuna – or faith.  It is not HaShem’s fault, but our fault that bad things came our way.  But Rabbi Arush gets himself into a little trap:  the obstacles that life brings our way are for our own good, in that surmounting them helps us build more emuna.  Yet the obstacles came because as punishment for our lack of emuna.  No matter what the case, Rabbi Arush sees any bad occurrence as springing from a lack of emuna – no matter how much you claim you have emuma, if you suffer, in Rabbi Arush’s calculus, it is your own fault.

Yet another issue: Rabbi Arush claims we can get nearly anything we want if we pray with sufficient intensity.  We didn’t get it?  We’ll, you did not pray enough.  You pray some more and still have cancer, well, still not enough.  Pray more for remission.

This book does have some of the nourishing spiritual fare I associate with Bratslaver Hasidim (which has influenced my Jewish practice enormously) especially in chapter four.  Yet this book, for all its talk about being always positive, is stern and puritanical.  So, I warn you, this book is not for people with poor self-esteem.  You will come away from this work with a profound feeling of guilt and inadequacy.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Bahir: Illumination by Aryeh Kaplan





The Bahir: Illumination, by Aryeh Kaplan, is one of the legs in the three legged stool of Kabbalistic books.  Along with the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, and the Zohar, Jewish mysticism is more or less  based on these works.  The Bahir is an early work, and in it can be found most of the ideas that would fully flower in later Jewish mystical traditions, including the "Tree of Life" and the Sephirot.

The layout of the book is challenging.  Kaplan’s translations and commentaries are together, but to read the Hebrew text, which is vital, you have to flip to the back of the book.  I photo-copied the Hebrew text, so I could follow along.  

But this is petty concern.  We are lucky to have this English translation and commentary.  For one interested in expanding his or her Jewish religious literacy, this book is essential.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff



Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die, by Garrett M. Graff, is a revealing history of the attempts by the US government to insure the continuity of government (COG) since the dawn of the Cold War, and with renewed and slightly shifted vigor after 911.

The title is telling.  At the beginning of the Cold War, there were plans in place to save large population centers through evacuations.  But as nuclear weapons grew in size and strength, these efforts were largely abandoned.  The government, particularly the Executive Branch, was widely acknowledged to be the only entity that could  possibly survive a nuclear exchange with the USSR and govern what was left of the country.

Graff’s book is detailed, knowledgeable, and for those of us who lived during the Cold War, frightening in the sense of how close we came to nuclear war through accidents, computer malfunctions, and faculty communications.  At times only luck saved us from Armageddon.