Monday, April 30, 2012

Korean Folk Religion

Folk-religion: The Customs in Korea is a well-made book, with many wonderful photographs of Korean folk customs.  I can’t use any superlatives about the narrative.  Professor Joon-sik Choi writes in somewhat stilted English.  There are poor word choices and grammatically clumsy constructions in abundance.  This takes away from the overall usefulness of this small book, and the information that it could impart to readers. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Woman in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin has been discussed as an important document about life in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Germany in Second World War.  The book is the diary of an anonymous German woman of an upper-middle class background, who, like thousands of other German woman in 1945, is repeatedly sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers.

Suffering is suffering, and the author chronicles it well.  But she strikes a delicate balance between depicting the horror of her situation, and also showing a rounded portrait of a fully thinking, acting, surviving woman.  She is no mere victim.  She is also the agent of her own fate, to an extent, and she exercises that agency when she can.  The diary is proof of this, and in numerous instances she shows with great artistry the power that each of us possess as human beings, even in situations where we have little outward control. 

And this, in turn, is the promise of art.  It enables people to rise above their fortunes, even briefly, even as they depict them.  The powerful ending, when the writer begins to type her handwritten diary, in order to provide a record of events, to make people understand, is where private life is transformed into art.  It is when one person’s suffering becomes the suffering of us all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Naked Economics

Charles Wheelan does a remarkable job in explaining the fundamentals of Economics in his Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science.  The purpose of the book is to provide an accessible corridor for the non-specialist to get her dose of ECON 101 without wading through the math that often clouds the big picture of what Economics is intended to do.  Each chapter is devoted to a particular type of economics, from Micro to Macro and everything in between.  

His overriding concern is to get his readers thinking like economists, which can be a disconcerting experience.  He readily admits the shortcomings of Economics.  Like Meteorology or Climatology, Economics deals with complex systems with multiple factors and variables acting upon each other, making understanding and prediction difficult.  Yet Economists plow ahead with a certain hard-headed certainty, providing answers for nearly all human behavior while at the same time conceding that their theories and explanations might not hold water. 

So, readers are left with inconsistent expectations.  As a science, how useful is Economics in theorizing how people behave?  Are its experiments indicative of real scientific procedure?  Can any of its conclusions have real world applications? In many cases, I have my doubts.  But as an Economist, Wheelan will definitely give you the answers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Life and Mission of Otto Frank

Unless some compelling new document comes to light, it appears unlikely that we will even know who betrayed the Frank family, calling Gestapo headquarters and alerting them that Jews were hiding in 267 Prinsengracht Street.  There were at least two official Dutch inquiries in the matter.  Many people were interviewed, there were some suspects who seemed likely to have betrayed them, but in the end there was a lack of evidence to arrest anyone.

Carol Anne Lee, in her biography of Otto Frank, The Hidden Life of Otto Frank, makes a case for Tonny Ahlers, a Dutch Nazi, informant, and general low life.  But the case against him is not very convincing; in the end, it is simply circumstantial, and weak at that.  Ms. Lee tries to show that Otto Frank was being blackmailed by Ahlers after the war, since Frank’s company had business  dealings with the German Army.  Again, this in itself does not constitute proof.  Much of what she marshals is inadmissible hearsay.

By far the best part of this book is her exploration of Otto Frank’s life following the death of his family.  In all ways, he was responsible for carrying on his daughter Anne’s legacy following her murder with the publication of her diary. As the promoter of the diary, he was Anne’s postmortem extension in the world.  He carried on her work because she was unable to; at first this took a heavy toll on his health.  But eventually, it became his life’s mission.  We can safely say that his sorrow would have been more encapsulated if it were not for Anne’s diary and its great popularity.  Carol Anne Lee does a very good job at exploring the life and mission of Otto Frank.  She shows how even great loss can lead to a kind of redemption.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Kings David's Trees

The literary journal Per Contra, run by the very capable Miriam Kotzin has published my story King David's Trees in their Spring 2012 edition, issue 23.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

David Gelernter is smarter than you and is not afraid to show it

There is no doubt that David Gelernter’s Judaism: A Way of being is an interesting book.  He has many sharp and insightful things to say about being Jewish and the Jewish experience, and his image of the overlapping translucent layers of Judaism (an image he is fond of in his other creative and academic endeavors) is somewhat useful to see the interconnected tissue that runs between Judaism’s vast field customs, literature, languages, and religious practices. 

Gelernter, a noted computer scientist at Yale, knows he is smart, and if he does not openly proclaim it, his lack of humility and somewhat dismissive attitude towards perspectives that differ from his denote it clearly.  After all, he states at the beginning of the book: “This is a  book about Judaism, but I believe you’ll find it unlike any other book on Judaism you’ve ever read or are likely to read.”  This book, he seems to proclaim, will somehow trump all other books on the vast subject of Judaism now and forever more.

His views on women and Judaism are conservative and I believe, regressive.  His tone about innovation in Judaism is dismissive and insulting.  Even though he claims halakah is ridged but Judaism, somehow, is not, he wants adjustments made to Judaism only by those who are “learned in Torah and Talmud and the rabbinic tradition.  Changes cannot be decreed by amateurs, kibitzers, or scholars learned not in the Torah but something else.”

Who these authorities are to makes changes, and who are the amateurs and kibitzers we are not told.   I have a sense those who can make changes are those who Gelernter conveniently agrees with.  The rest of his, the woman who wants to be a rabbi, the gay person who wants to be married under Jewish law, well, they are just bumbling amateurs and kibitzers. How nice to dismiss people's humanity and aspirations to be fully human and fully Jewish with one cute sentence.

Gelernter's book is smart but narrow.  It is too self serving of a narrow set of concerns of an ideological Judaism.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Bravest Battle

It is easy and understandable to engage in hyperbole when writing an historical account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  Dan Kurzman does this a bit in his “The Bravest Battle: The Twentieth Eight Days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”  Rather than let the story tell itself, he sometimes interjects his own enthusiastic voice.

But by and large he sticks to the facts as we know them.  The book's sources are meticulously noted, and range from German files and photographs, courtroom accounts, eyewitness interviews, and assortment of documents and secondary sources.

In the end Kurzman has written a compelling account of a most improbable military engagement.  And he never once forgets the terrible conditions of those both living and fighting in the ghetto had to endure.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Passive Readers Beware

Elie Weisel’s The Town Beyond the Wall is written in a fractured manner, moving back and forth in time and place.  Some of the text is in italics, for reasons that are not fully revealed until later in the novel.

Keep reading, as the fruits of this novel are fully revealed at the end.  Then, the entire book makes sense, although it leaves many questions about weighty matters unanswered.   

Weisel is a master at this type of storytelling.  He reveals nothing until it is absolutely necessary.  He does not feel the need to coddle the reader in the first chapter, lulling him or her to continue to read.  We must work to read his novels.  If we wish to derive benefit from them, there can be no passive readers.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pantheism: The Big Picture

Sharman Apt Russell takes on a big topic in her Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist.  Part religious/philosophical inquiry, part autobiography, Apt Russell is not afraid to explore the pitfalls of a religious or spiritual life.  It is difficult to keep up the intensity of religious experience, and maintain a vision as comprehensive as pantheism. Apt Russell is honest with this in ways few other writers of religion will confess

Apt Russell does an admirable job mixing intellect and emotion in a balanced ratio.  Interspersed within are examinations of some well-known pantheists like Spinoza, Marcus Aurelius, and Bruno, among others.  Apt Russell’s treatment is deeply human, exploring the pros and cons of trying to find deeper meaning in our lives.