Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bone Dry: Hawaiian Natural History, Ecology, and Evolution

Hawaiian Natural History, Ecology, and Evolution by Alan C. Ziegler is the “go to” text for the study of Hawaii’s ecology.  You need some degree of natural science knowledge to read this book and get something out of it.  This book is a textbook, and the bone-dry prose leaves no doubt as to its status.  The writing here is inspirational.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by Ian Johnson, certainly has an insider perspective on the topic at hand.  Johnson is fluent in Chinese, knows many people, and explores the issues generated by the practice of religion in China deftly and thoroughly.

Johnson shows how religion has become a greater part of life in China following Tienanmen Square.  Many people have turned inward following the political crackdown of 1989, mainly in semi-legal, small Protestant churches.  

The government, in turn, has attempted to promote some religion, especially Confucianism, to the replace now empty Socialist values of “Communist” China with a philosophy and religion of that is still ingrained in the Chinese psyche. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

Douglas Starr’s The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, is a fascinating journey examining the emerging field of forensics in the late 19th century.

Catching a serial killer necessitate the tools of modern, mass life which were just emerging in the 19th century.  Medicine, psychology, police investigation, were all become more scientific.  The telegraph allowed police departments to share information about crimes in disparate location.   Physical details of career criminals were kept on file and widely shared.

Generally, what we now call the collection of data came into being;  with an organized, and accessible body of traceable information, serial killers could no longer move from place to place, commit their terrible crimes, and go undetected, as this book clearly illustrates.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs, is a first-person narrative of Ms. Jacobs, who was a slave in the antebellum south.  Her story as a slave really begins when she reaches puberty, and her master makes it known he will control her sexuality (he already has children by eleven other slave women).

Ms. Jacobs, although a slave, works tirelessly to avoid victimization and works for the betterment of her life and the life of her children.  Her sacrifices are monumental. She hides in a crawlspace for seven years after running away from her master before heading north. 

Slave woman were victims of sexual exploitation and violence, of course, in many if not most case.  But Ms. Jacob’s shows how much agency some slaves had; they tirelessly worked to improve their lot, and the lot of those around them.  The were real, whole people in every sense.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Devotion: A Novel, by Madeline Stevens

Devotion: A Novel, by Madeline Stevens, is certainly a fascinating work, full of tension and strangeness. Stevens is a strong writer, with a wonderful ability to build a sense of menace from all the accumulated details of life, both the banal and extraordinary.  She uses language powerfully.  Her sentences have punch. 

But when I was done, when I pulled back from the novel, I could not resolve broader, almost philosophical issues of the work.  It is about gender, power, class, sexuality and sexual power, the private self and the public self – all this is true.  But I don't know how they fit together. 
As I can't fit the pieces together, I fall back on the narrator as mentally unwell... which seems like a cop out. There is a vexing complexity or confusion at the heart of Devotion.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine

Rabbi Leah Novick’s On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine is a very gentle introduction to Judaism’s premier symbol of God’s feminine side.  The Shekinah, in her most advanced form, acts as a seemingly independent entity in Jewish mysticism (although we are probably in the realm of allegory here).  She is the Queen, who yearns to be reunited with the King, God.

Allegory or not, there is no denying that the Shekinah injects a dose of the feminine into masculine Judaism.  Rabbi’s Novick’s treatment is a soft treatment the Divine Feminine across the centuries.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A novel by Richard Flanagan is far from easy to read.  Primarily about POWs in a Japanese camp building the Burma Railroad and starving to death, in a wider sense it follows the life of a Tasmanian doctor, his loves, losses, gains and failures.  The novel has a uniquely Australian, and what I suppose a Tasmanian voice, which gives it a firm sense of people and place. 

Flanagan does juggle many characters, stretching the narrative a bit thin.  The romance at the center of the novel is gripping at times, but perhaps veers toward hackneyed expressions and sentiments. 

But The Narrow Road rises above these faults.  This is a novel that has narrative strength and drive.