Friday, March 16, 2018

Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi

Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi is certainly a solidly written, detailed account of Nafisi’s life.  She and her family are deeply involved in the twentieth century history of Iran.  As such, life, culture, religion, and politics are in no way separable in this account.

Nafisi does seem to collude with her own doom.  It is obvious that her mother was an incredibly destructive force in her life, but she makes no meaningful steps to distance herself from her (until the very end).

In a wider sense, reading this account paints Iran in a totally negative life.  One wonders, when reading this, if there are any benefits from being in Iran or Iranian at all?  Nafisi covers a great deal of ground, most of it unhappy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Calculus of Death

Livia Bitton-Jackson was saved at least twice from the Nazi death machine by her blue eyes and blonde hair.  On the train ramp at Auschwitz, Mengele, may his name be blotted, noticed her long blond braids and blue eyes.  He asked her if she was Jewish.  She said yes.  He asked how old she was, and she answered 14.  He told her she is now 16 (the cut of age for work rather than immediate death), and allows her and her mother to move to the right.

Another time, women are sorted at a munitions plant.  The manager examines their hair and eye color.  Women with blond hair and blue eyes, like Bitton-Jackson, are given an easier assignment that are more intellectual challenging.  Darker woman are given more difficult jobs.

And so it goes in the Nazi Empire:  absurd rubrics and nonsense become the stuff of life and death.  Like many Holocaust memoirs, Bitton-Jackon’s Elli makes us wonder how any person could survive such ordeals.  Well ,many, most, did not.  And that was the point.  The Holocaust's awful calculus was that it was far more likely to die than to live.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Homesick for Another World: Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh

Homesick for Another World: Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh is a surprisingly interesting and engaging collection of stories.  Moshfegh has an odd sense of the world,  the timing of life’s events, and this is reflected in the stories.  

There is a continuous off-kilter sense of sexuality (characters are fascinated at putting fingers in people’s mouths), work, play, intellect and maturity.  Her character’s struggle with the sense that they should have more and be better.  Yet they lack the tools to surmount their strange realities.

Except for the last two stories, written in a different, nearly fantasy style (and less successful) this odd and perverse collection is well worth reading.  The author works with a unifying themes, and delightfully exploits them.

Monday, March 5, 2018

God is Everywhere, Even There

Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach is a unique collection of stories about the Shoah.  Hasidic tales are essentially modern in tone.  The Almighty does not intervene in the lives of the characters through direct action, but behind the scenes, in the social or natural world.  Often, a character is saved from a word or deed that happens, seemingly, by accident.

Yet there are no accidents.  Everything is guided from the hand of HaShem.  Including, it seems, in the ghetto and camps of World War II.  These stories may strain credulity for some, but that is the point.  If G-d works through everything, than meaning can even be found in the most dehumanizing and cruel of places.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What We Know and What We Never Will: The Michigan Murders: The True Story of the Ypsilanti Ripper’s Reign of Terror

The Michigan Murders: The True Story of the Ypsilanti Ripper’s Reign of Terror by Edward Keyes, tells the story of the brutal murder of six young woman and one thirteen year old girl in the college towns of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. These crimes occurred between 1967 and 1969, when hitchhiking and walking through deserted areas did not necessarily inspire fear or caution.

These were all brutal sexual murders.  As is so often the case, the killer was questioned early in the investigation, but police did not take him seriously, and did not have enough evidence to tie him to the murders until an additional six women were killed.  By that time, he had become sloppy and overconfident; when he was arrested, he never admitted to the crimes.  He continues to deny them to this day as he serves life behind bars.

He was only tried for the last murder, on circumstantial evidence, and one of the seven victims was tied through DNA evidence in 2014, to another man who was convicted of the murder.  So one is left with a curious sense of void at the center of these crimes.  Despite a conviction, questions linger.  Points don’t match up.  There is a curious sense that something is not yet resolved.  It gives one a sad sense of the human inability to both discover and punish the evil ones among us.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli lives up to its title.  The author explains the foundations of modern physics, doing so gently and easily.  He essentially lays out the importance of modern physics, which is so much at odds with our perception of the world.

We live in a very complicated universe modeled by mathematics and abstraction.  For Rovelli, the challenge is explicating the complicated (and in many ways, inexplicable) both clearly and meaningfully.  He accomplishes this in these finely crafted essays.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity

The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity by James D. Tabor, explores the very logically and historically sound thesis the early Christianity (and that word is anachronistic in this work) was a family enterprise.  After the death of Jesus, and for nearly a century afterward, the Jesus movement was run by members of his immediate family as heirs to the Davidic throne.

A particular standout in this chain of command is a brother of Jesus, James the Just.  We have records related to him in early Christian sources, and he was widely admired. Yet, he is largely written out of the record of the early Church. His teachings no longer remain.

Tabor shows, through archaeology and textual analysis, that the early Jesus movement had two core pillars.  The movement as led by James and the brothers and relatives of Jesus, in and around Judea and the Galilee.  And the one led by Paul, to non-Jews, in Greek speaking lands.  Paul’s version was hostile to Judaism and on the ascent when the gospels were written.  Stories of James and the family of Jesus are found in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, but in truncated form.  The Jesus movement was breaking away from Judaism into a new religion when the Gospels were written.

The Jewish context of its birth and early days, although evident, were downplayed for centuries. This books reclaims that, and it is really firm and indisputable evidence, unless one is clouded by theological concerns.