Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The English Patient's Full Stop

The English Patient is a beautiful, lyrical novel, where the author’s engagement with the language is at times transcendent, creating a nearly a super-sensual world where all human actions are fraught with deep, chilling, often loving , but never boring actions.

The only criticism I can level against this novel is the end.  And in the context to the overall work, which comes close to ‘masterpiece’ status, it is very damning.
Not enough groundwork is laid for Kip’s transformation. Ondaatje was done with the novel, and needed a plot connected element to bring it to an end.  But we get no sense that Kip is maladjusted to his situation at all.  He seems quite content until he is suddenly not.

The effect is jarring, and the reader feels robbed of another ending that would have been more fitting to the rest of this superbly crafted novel.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gate to the Heart: A Manuel of Contemplative Jewish Practice

Gate to the Heart: A Manuel of Contemplative Jewish Practice, is the latest iteration of an essay that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zl, wrote for the First Jewish Catalog back in the late 60s.  As he explains in the introduction of this book, really this is the third or fourth incarnation of the ideas presented in this book.

This small book, at 118 pages of text, is loaded with big ideas and practices to express them.  As such, it is a book that must be read slowly, and re-read.  Reb Zalman does very little to expand upon the concepts in this book; quite the contrary, he appears to want this work to be cloaked in mystery.  Perhaps he is harkening back to the pre-Hasidic days when esoteric knowledge was written in opaque language to fool or tire the uninitiated. 

So buy the book, read the book, read it again.  Take notes, go slowly, try his exercises.  The struggle is worth it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, by Alan Lightman

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, by Alan Lightman, is a wide ranging series of essays exploring the most recent advances in modern science, and their impact on society, human psychology, philosophy and religion.

This collection starts off strongly, with an exploration of the nature of reality, the universe, and the new, perplexing notion of the “multiverse.”  It is a shame that Lightman did not keep up the momentum he built on the first essay.  Each subsequent essay has a little less punch, slightly less strength, ever so less reason for existing.

At the end, The Accidental Universe does not give the reader much to chew on; what is said has been said before, and better, and what is written is largely uninspired and thematically disconnected.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashu

Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua, represents a rising voice in Israeli literature, the Israeli Arab writer writing in Hebrew.  Such a  a writer is no doubt has a fracture deep within his or her soul.  Kashua’s novel explores this fracture from every conceivable angle.

Yet Kashua wants to expand his vision beyond the unique social position he is in; Dancing Arabs is filled with humor and sorrow, a coming of age novel that does not spare the reader the full measure of pain that growing up can bring.

That this happens straddling the world of Hebrew speaking Israel and Arab speaking Galilee makes this novel all the more extraordinary. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

In God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible,  Adam Nicolson tells to compelling story of the translation of the bible into English commissioned by King James.  This bible, of course, would become the beloved version in the English speaking world.

Nicholson tackles the subject from all sides.  He is interested in the details of translation.  It was done by committees, and committees reviewed the translations before the final product was approved.  We know a great deal of some of the men who translated the works; they were important members of the seventeenth century church of England.  But for many others, we know only a man, or perhaps native city. Nicholson takes the scant evidence left of their working methods and clarifies it for his readers.

The King Jame Bible was truly the work of a culture, not the brand of a single person.  And in that, Nicolson finds it genius.  At the time, the Church of England was being rocked by early stirrings of Puritanism.  They wanted a bible close to the source material that downplayed the roles of bishops and official clergy.  King James had no interest in this, and commissioned the bible, in part, to trump other translations that promoted radical Protestantism. 
Yet there were moderate Puritans on the translation committees.  They made their mark on the work.  And therein lays its great strength.  The King James Bible, behind its apparent uniformity, expresses a range of opinions, reflected in the translator’s choices.  This gives the work a depth it would not otherwise have.

The translation also reflects a particularly rich period in English.  When it was started, Shakespeare was writing his last plays, and English was in a rapid period of expansion, adding new works and modes of expression.  Nicholson shows the place of the King James Bible at the time of its composition, and its influence over the subsequent development of the language.

Nicholson does a thorough job of researching this topic.  For the layman in this subject, this is the go-to book.