Friday, September 19, 2014

The One Volume Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power is a well-written, engaging biography of a man who not only helped create our country, but also had a host of talents, skills, areas of expertise that moved far beyond the statecraft.

The book is not afraid to be a critique of Jefferson, even as it is a cheerleader at times.  Jefferson was had many contradictions (as well all do) that his were larger simply speaks to the greater role he played in his times.

For someone who wants to understand Jefferson without getting into many volume tomes on the details of his long life and career, this book is a fine middle of the road treatment.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Wedding Reading

My reading from a Wedding -- July 2012

Helen and Kris asked me to add a Yiddish and Jewish element to their ceremony.   Obviously, there are traditional formal ceremonies that are performed at weddings, but Judaism also has a strong tradition of vernacular story-telling, and is also a very matriarchal culture.  So before I read the eight traditional Hebrew wedding benedictions, I think it’s appropriate to share this Yiddish story:

Among Yiddish speakers, the expression Skotsl kumt, which means “Skotsl’s here,” is used by a woman to greet another woman when she comes into the house.  There is a story that explains that domestic greeting.  The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, women complained that everything in the world belonged to men.  Men got to perform the mitzvoth, or Jewish religious commandments.  They were called to read from the Torah… the world seemed to belong to them, and they got to do everything.  As for  women, they got nothing.  In fact, no one paid them much attention at all.  So they decided to form a group that would take their complaint to the Lord of the Universe.

But how was it to be done?  Well… they decided they would heap women up into a tower, one on top of the other, until the woman at the very tip could pull herself into heaven.  

The first thing they did, then, was to dig a pit in which one of the women knelt.  Then the other women climbed on her, one on top of the other.  They decided that at the top of the pile would be a woman named Skotsl.    Skotsl was very clever and as skillful speaker, so she was chosen as the one who would talk with the Lord of the Universe.  

Everything went well as the women were climbing onto each other.  But just as Skotsl reached the top of the tower, the woman at the base twisted about, and the women came tumbling down.  Well, of course there was nothing but noise and confusion, with everyone trying to locate everyone else.  And though they searched for her everywhere, Skotsl was nowhere to be found.

It was unclear whether she had reached heaven or not, but the situation of the women remained unchanged.  Everything still belonged to the men.  But from that time on, women have not lost their hope that Skotsl will complete her talk with God and come back.   

And that’s why, whenever a woman comes into a Yiddish home, all the other women call out joyfully:  “Skotsl kumt,” or “Here comes Skotsl!”   Because, they reason:  Who knows?  One day she might really be here, and change will be possible.

This is a story about cooperation and about hope.  Cooperation and hope are the best elements of a good marriage.  Cooperation is essential… but when things in this story went wrong, the women stuck together and hoped for the best.  Without hope, the entire story would change.  These women didn’t blame each other.  They didn’t despair that things hadn’t gone as planned.  They remained joyful, and continued to greet and welcome each other into their domestic spaces. 

The story is also about mystery.  Did Skotsl make it to the Lord of the Universe, or was she somehow lost along the way?   

There are some things that can’t be known, and mystery should not be feared.   But I think that weddings like this one are evidence that Skotsl did make it to the heavens.   Things are changing, and change is good.  Helen and Kris, continue to be cooperative and hopeful, and welcome mystery into your lives. 

And with that, we’ll start the eight Hebrew benedictions, or traditional wedding blessings.  I’ll read them in Hebrew, and then translate them into English

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Education of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams, is often cited as the best non-fiction book in English in the twentieth century.  I suppose it is given this designation because Henry Adams, as the great-grandson, and grandson, of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, was an heir to the first great American political family,and had the rare gifts to chronicle the end of an era.

The Education is, in a way, a chronicle of the long decline of this family.  Henry’s father, Charles Adams, was the Ambassador to England during Lincoln presidency, and played no small role in preventing England from entering to war on the side of the Confederacy.  But after him, no Adams would ever play a prominent role in national politics.  It simply ended, and Henry Adams was a witness.

This very long and detailed work is a combination elegy of colonial and early American national politics, catty, name dropping memoir, as well as the decline and fall of one man, Henry Adams, who, due to his talents and unique position as an historian and writer, was able to capture the changes in American politics and society from the Civil War and its end to the dawn of the twentieth century.  Failure, the theme of the work, is the character Henry Adams most often turns to to make the changes that American has undergone.

This places Henry Adams in a unique and odd place.  Of the many members of the Adams family who have been accomplished on the national stage as politicians or scholars of both, three will be remembered.  John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and the man who penned their and his epitaph, Henry Adams.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Great American Short Fiction

Great American Short Stories is the kind of book I have form a sentimental bond with; a Dover Thrift Book, it reminds me of the days of old, when Dover Books, in their flimsy paper or plastic covers, were located near the register of a bookstore, like an impulse buy of candy or gum at a Supermarket. 

This volume contains great American classics: "The Tell-Tale Heart," Melville's "Bartleby," Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp," "To Build a Fire," by Jack London, "The Real Thing" by Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," plus stories by Mark Twain, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway.

There are some stories here that readers will be very familiar yet.  Still more that they once were from high school English class, and now can revisit in this volume.   

Regardless, not a bad value for three dollars (in an age when a latte costs far more).

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Enchiridion or Manual of Epictetus

The Enchiridion or Manual of Epictetus, is a shorter summary of Epictetus much larger and more inclusive book on Stoic philosophy, The Discourses.   

For many familiar with The Discourses, the Enchiridion can seem a little thin, and the editors and compilers of the work even admit that some of the material is, in all probability, not from Epictetus. 

But if you do not have the stamina to hit The Discourses, this small book is an excellent way to tip one’s toes into the ideas of this great Stoic.