Friday, May 30, 2014

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate

Robert Kaplan’s intriguing and thought provoking book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, is a densely packed book filled with ideas about how geography shapes and molds human behavior on a meta-level, even while human beings shape geography through their own agency.

This thesis may seem paradoxical, but really it is just advanced common sense.  Nations are subject to both the limitations and benefits of a particular location.  The United States benefited from excellent harbors on its eastern seaboard, which provided the jumping off point for westward expansion.   The real lack of any other national group to stop American expansion led to a relatively stable, democratic form of government over a large swatch of territory.

Russia, on the other hand, has a large swatch of territory with no natural boundaries and is surrounded by nations and peoples who have, at various times, invaded them.  Russian forms of government and expansion has been more autocratic as a result, and we see the results of this as of this writing (in Ukraine).

Kaplan’s book is dense but well written.  If you want to change how you look at the world and how it shapes and its shaped by people, there is no better book.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Dream Assembly: Tales of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

The Dream Assembly: Tales of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Collected & Retold by Howard Schwartz, is a clever, modern take on the classic Hasidic tale.

Schachter-Shalomi is the father of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and these stories reflect that very post-modern sensibility (although the stories take place in nineteenth century Poland).   

The Reb Zalman of the stories leads a group of Chasidim who experience all manner of mystical understandings.  This includes richly layered dreams, visions, classic coincidences in the world which show that the seemingly random events which clutter the human space are really part of God’s plan.

Interesting, the Reb Zalman of the stories is painted in Messianic colors.  Is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi trying to broadly hint at his own role in the contemporary Jewish world?   

It is hard to know; what we can know is that these sharply written, beautiful stories convey a very Jewish and worldly sensibility while transporting the reader to a Judaism and world that exists, perhaps, only in dreams.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Real Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those books which  has a host of satellites orbiting the work.  These are people’s expectations, memories of reading the book in school or seeing a movie.  Like standing next to Starry Night in the MOMA, reading the original is both astonishing and underwhelming at the same time.

Huck Finn is underwhelming in this aspect: Twain relays on the same plot devices to get things moving as he did in Tom Sawyer.  Mistaken identity, faked murders, childhood pranks that seem to never end, and regional stereotyping.  The book runs long in certain sections, dragging along, losing the thread of the plot.

But then there is the astonishing Huck Finn.  When Twain explains Huck’s interactions with his father, we realize this is an abused, neglected boy.  The comic aspect of the character turns a touch sadder, with our more modern sensibilities of such things.   

The very long appearance of Tom Sawyer and his help in trying to free Jim, the escaped slave,  becomes an accidental moment of pathos.  Here is a man’s freedom on the line, and it is entrusted to a boy with an overactive imagination and nothing to lose.

With its strengths and weaknesses The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will always loom large in American fiction.  It capture a time, a place, a style of language and takes this local manifestation and makes it uniquely national.  Few novels can claim such a feat.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Escape from Sobibor

Richard Raskhe’s Escape from Sobibor is considered the go to work for this, the largest escape of prisoners from a Jewish concentration camp in Nazi Europe.

Sobibor was used during Operation Reinhard,  part of the Final Solution for the Jews in Poland.  It had a work camp, but existed primary to murder Jews on an industrial scale.  Along with its sister camps Belzec and Treblinka, nearly 3 million Jews were murdered in Operation Reinhard and its camps, nearly half of all Jews killed in the Shoah.

Raskhe reveals why the uprising at Sobibor  took place and was reasonably successful.  The Nazis put Jewish-Russian POWs into the camp just before the revolt, giving the camp resistance movement much need personnel with military experience.  It was these men who planned and led the revolt, and most of the Russian POWs successfully escaped to join the partisans or to regroup with the Red Army.

One flaw in the book is the lack extended information about Leon Feldhendler.  Raskhe acknowledges that Feldhendler was the ‘spiritual’ leader of the revolt, but we get little about Feldendler himself, who survived the escape but was killed by nationalistic Poles in 1945.  Is there not enough material about Feldhendler, or are there unsavory aspects to this man that Raskhe, or those survivors he interviewed, are unwilling to share?

The updated 2012 edition of this book  provides the latest information about survivors and research into Sobibor.  

Sadly, the camp site still has no major lasting monument.  It remains fields and pine forest and is an open mass grave strewn with bits of human remains.  In 2013, plans were introduced to protect and stabilize the site, erect a museum and monument to the over 250,000 Jews who were murdered in the camp.