Friday, July 15, 2016

The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham is an extremely bright, clever, and novel series of stories.  Wickersham is able to tell compelling tales about real life human problems, while still maintaining a moderate level of narrative experimentation.  She keeps readers guessing with unexpected twists and turns of both plot and character development.  Simply put, she writes strong, vivid stories.

Reading this collection heartened me that there are still people out there adding to the stature and range of the short story form.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results That Shaped America, by Tony Williams

The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results That Shaped America, by Tony Williams, is a generally solid book, telling the story both of attempts by the English to settle North America (unsuccessfully) before the colony was founded and Jamestown itself.

Jamestown is a compelling story - and therefore hard to screw up. What shines through in this work is Williams obvious agenda.  He ties the success of the colony to free-enterprise, freedom of religion and association – all ideals that would be a part of the founding of the United States.  He denigrates the early years of the colony, when it was ruled by un-elected overlords who did not respect private property or enterprise.

The problem with this view is that early Jamestown required a dictatorial hand to prevent it from collapsing.  So, there are not two ideologies at war here, but one by in place by necessity in the struggling years of the colony, and the other by luxury of its more prosperous times.

I can only imagine that Williams’ connection to The Bill of Rights Institute and other such organizations provides him with this neat, not entirely accurate depiction of the early days of English settlement in America.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro, is a surprising collection of short stories.  Munro has the unique ability to take an everyday situation and impart a strangeness to it.  

"Wenlock Edge" is one of the more obvious examples.  In this story, the young female protagonist appears to inhabit our world, until she gets involved with experiences at the very margin of the normal.  And her reactions to her situation are telling, and reveal what Munro thinks about human behavior and our reactions to the liminal.

These stories are gripping, compelling, and have the force of necessity.  This is high praise for art: the feeling that it must be written; that it is good that it has been written.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Keter Baal Shem Tov

Keser Baal Shem Tov, the Crown of the Baal Shem Tov, is a collection of stories and teachings from founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov did not write his teachings; he amassed followers, most of whom would found Hasidic dynasties which continue to exist today.

This collection was published thirty years after the death of the Baal Shem Tov. So, no doubt the work was preserved orally, or written down in different sources until complied into this volume. Really, I know nothing of its history of its composition, which, no doubt, is probably fascinating.

If you are someone like me, and you have read a great many Hasidic works, it is a revelation to sit and read the Keter, seeing such well-known stories and teaching in one place and in their origin context. It is the closest we can get to the Baal Shem Tov himself.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency by James Bamford is an extremely detailed historical analysis of the NSA, from its origins just after the Second World War, to the time period of the late 1990s.

This book is perhaps too detailed for someone who wants an overview of the history of the NSA.  Bamford presents an entire chapter on the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, for instance.  This, in itself, could be the subject of an entire book.

Also, Bamford treats, again in great detail, the NSA's failings to keep up with the expansion of technologies in the late 90s, including the rise of the internet and emails.  He presents these subjects as if they are ongoing (as the book was written at that time), when we all know that the NSA now has a firm grasp on this type of surveillance, and has had so for many years.  So, the book sounds out of date in these sections.

So, although there are odd parts of Bamford’s book, it still holds the attention of the reader with an average interest in the NSA; it is certainly an education in the topic.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Eirik Maolruanaidh - The Not Me of Me

I’ve been researching names for something I am writing.  People's names invite a kind of archaeology - as other meanings and usages are below the dirt, often making people closer to the bones of their origins than they appear.

My name is Eric Maroney.  Eric is anglicized from the Old Norse name Eirik, which means, roughly, Always Ruler, or Eternal Ruler.  Maroney, which was Moroney until 1910, is from my Irish paternal great-grandfather.  It the anglicized version of the Gaelic last name Maolruanaidh, which means follower of the saint Ruanadh, who lived in Ireland and Scotland around 700 AD or so.

So, my names are Old Norse and Gaelic, two cultures and languages that do not even lightly brush my sense of identity.  Yet here they are, the original names, malformed in the vice of anglicization - forced to assume English, modern forms.  I have to pay attention, even if it feels like someone else’s identity, and some other person’s name. They are the mark of origins. Eirik Maolruanaidh - an Old Norse-Gaelic fusion - me and not me at the same time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

One God, Many Worlds: Teachings of a Renewed Hasidism

One God, Many Worlds: Teachings of a Renewed Hasidism: A Festschrift in Honor of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l has highs and lows.  The first half of the book holds the most interest. It is composed of tales told by Rabbi Zalman’s Chasidic rebbes, with a modern, updated flavor.  One would imagine some contextualized material about Chassidism was also removed or altered.  Overall, this part of the book is informative and inspiring.

But the volume peters out somewhere in the middle.  At this point, the content is less informative, and the format and themes do not belong in the book. Do we really need Matisyahu lyrics?  The rest is throw away material to take up pages and little else.