Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Paper Love: searching for the girl my grandfather left behind

In Paper Love: searching for the girl my grandfather left behind, Sarah Wildman provides a paradigmatic example of how the thrust of Holocaust studies will move forward in the twenty-first century. 

We have had scholars investigate the wider phenomenon of the Holocaust like Raul Hillberg and Claude Lanzmann.  Of course, their work is extremely important, and should be studied, but the negative consequences of the ‘big picture’ analysis of the Shoah is the abstract nature of the results – the mind simply can’t comprehend the enormity of the events.

Paper Love is a painfully individual account, placing a human face on the Shoah. Wildman, in fleshing out a single woman’s life from memory, documents and letters, plucks a life from oblivion. 

It is as if Valerie Scheftel died once, and was at risk of dying again until Wildeman gave her life in narrative form.  An amazing feat – taking a person who existed in half-light and placing her firmly into the light of memory.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Jews and Words by Amos Oz Fania Oz-Salzberger

Jews and Words by Amos Oz  Fania Oz-Salzberger is an engaging series of essays by Amos Oz and his daughter Fania on the relationship of Jews and Judaism to the written word.  They handle many diverse topics which revolve around this theme: the resurrection of Hebrew as a spoken language, the growing importance of English as a Jewish language, and, overall, the centrality of language in the history and story of Jewish people.

This book is trying, and largely succeeding, in taking back Hebrew from religious zealots; Oz wants to read Jewish religious books from a secular perch, and teaches the reader how this can be successfully done.  Both Oz father and daughter have a profound respect for the stories of the Jews, even when they do not believe their overt religious content.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sophrosyne, a novel, by Marianne Apostolides

Sophrosyne, by Marianne Apostolides, is both a complicated philosophical novel and deep investigation of the simple impulses which motivate people to live and love one another.  

The novel revolves around the Greek philosophical concept of sophrosyne, a word that is difficult to translate, but comes close to meaning self-restraint.  Alex, a young boy who lives with his single mother Sophia, or Sophrosyne, as she is known when she belly dances, is inculcated with Greek philosophy at an early age from his sensual, mysterious mother.  Alex is drawn into her world of mind-body harmony without fully finding that balance himself.

When Alex leaves home for Princeton, he studies philosophy, but quickly finds himself mired in problems of definition and method; these, in turn, are deeply entwined with his struggles to attain a balance between mind and body, and satisfying his sexual needs. His horizons only expand when he becomes emotionally and sexually involved with a fellow classmate name Meiko, a Japanese-American woman, moving him closer to the ideal of sophrosyne.

Apostolides has written a highly intelligent novel, largely guided the theories of posthumanism and Japanese religious philosophy. Her strident prose conveys both a sense of the promise of rational investigation, while projecting a hazy, imprecise mysticism. Noriko Maeda’s exception brush paintings compliment this duality, creating a work that is as harmonious as it is challenging. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow is certainly comprehensive. In a little over 900 pages, Chernow details Washington’s life, from his ancestry to his legacy.  All the while, he fills his book with fascinating details culled from letters, contemporary accounts, newspapers, political association meetings and diaries.

There has always been the sense that a genuine historical analysis of Washington is impossible.  The real man (whatever concept that might entail) is hidden behind so many layers of myth.  Chernow’s book throws a wrench into this idea: there are thousands of original documents relating to all the phases of Washington’s life.  A precise historical biography is not only possible, but largely accomplished by Chernow.  The reader comes away from this book with a real sense of Washington and his times.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path

Jay Michaelson’s The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path seeks to create a much need corrective path from New Age books, talks, and seminars devoted to finding and attaining happiness through spiritual and religious pursuits.  Rather than viewing sadness as an impediment to the spiritual path, Michaelson frames it, quite correctly, as integral; without dark times, we would lack the necessary cognitive and mental tools to refine our sense of being in the world.

Even when the sadness appears to serve no purpose, Michaelson explains techniques to hold the sadness, to allow it to dwell within us without comment or judgement. This Buddhist technique can reveal startling results.  By sitting still with the sadness, we can come to an understanding of it as a fleeting state.  It moves on, just like all our emotional states.  Sadness has no more hold on us than any other emotion.

Michaelson writes this book in the first person, giving the work an intimate feel, revealing much about himself and the ups and downs of his quest.  This book is excellent ballast for the scores dangerous Pollyanna spiritual guides we find today. It's OK to be sad. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Matthew Brzezinski should not be considered a definitive history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Brzezinski does not try to handle the full sweep of events of the Uprising, nor does he give us a picture of the entire spectrum of people involved.  Rather, he zooms in on some leaders of the movement, examines some Jews who escaped Warsaw altogether and lived in hiding or in convents.  Finally, he handles, in great detail, the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish Home Army as the Russian army approached from the east.

So, this is not the definitive book; rather, it is a well-written, smooth slice of the topic. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Swim, a novel by Marianne Apostolides

Swim, a novel by Marianne Apostolides, takes all of her concerns as a writer and shifts them both in the form and content.  She questions her materials from different angles and new vantages.

In Swim, the main character Kat is swimming, and most of the novel consists of her musings while doing laps ­– her activity is fitting.  For at the same time she swims Apostolides performs some marvelous feats of narrative experimentation to try and loosen up that trap of language freezing reality, to get it to swim along too, and not to be so bound by yhe conventions that make writing, for the authors, such an ambiguous enterprise. 

The new prose style in Swim is an answer to the problems of the author’s former books: how to write about the past without trapping it in amber; how to set the body free: how to give it expression without the limitations of its flesh.  The act of swimming, being suspended in a liquid medium, comes as close as possible for a fleshed creature.  Yet later we learn that Kat was taught to swim by her father, who wanted her to swim from her “core” – a problematic enough notion in general, but given Kat’s difficulties with mind, body, self, even more fraught.   The bodily core is both a danger zone and a place of expression for Kat: it carries hazard and possibility.

Yet there is intimations of the problems of language.  Kat sees her daughter writing a letter to her father.  Kat explains that she will “She’ll never commit these thoughts to written words; they will remain perfect, on in her mind.”  We have the problem: words are still best when they remain in utero.  There is a real problem here with expression.  What to do?

As if to answer this, as Kat swims, her stream of thought mirrors this idea that language, if it must be expressed, should be multivariate.  We see this in the ample use of “/” which often pairs words with similar meaning “physical / awareness” or completely opposite “done / undone.” For language to have more meanings, some words must be spilt up into at least two pairs, either to complement or offset each other.  There is also the ample us of the dash “–“ to suggest the flow of ideas in Kat’s mind, one idea moving to the next, which connotes rapid shifts in meaning and process.  Such as: “– he’s physically left the place they’d shared where he – other, at home in bed – was present in bed but gone – to be/away – from self.” ­Again, we get the sensation of swiming: language here is a liquid medium, not confined to any one meaning or fixed location.  Rather, it flows from one form to another, often with a high degree of ambiguity.

Yet another way language goes through transformation in this work is paradoxical given the flow theme: the atomizing of words.  As Kat swims, she breaks down words like respect, into its Latin parts.  But this too is done in order to, once more, take language and make it more fluid, to provide indefiniteness – to get words out of the trap of their fossilized meaning.

Then there are the boundaries of the body, yet another theme in Apostolides’ writing. There is much giving and taking of bodies in Swim, from birth to sex and everything in between.  But the body undergoes a profound change from her other books.  It is more permeable, more a membrane than a skin.  Kat has the incredible urge to scream in the water, not outwardly, but inwardly “a scream as a suck of water” an amazing image, both possible and impossible.  The body wants to burst its closures, nearly… to become more than this fleshed-thing bound by all kinds of dead ends.  Kat wants an oceanic feeling – the ability to strip away the falsehood of everything, hidden in bodies, minds, and language.  As she contemplate her failing marriage, this wonderful cascade of images of exposure appears:

She wanted – she thinks.  She wanted– like the goring of her cunt by his cock – she wanted some confrontation: some grapple with the covered now.  She wanted to shout the problem – her betrayal, his depression, her hatred of this, her lost (complete) of belief in trust and faith in him / her / them  – and love and honour and family / vows.  Her loss of self as she’d defined: a woman / mother / wife, not tainted by the lingering smell of want.

The goring image is strong, disturbing.  And as it leads to the cascade of items, all bad and tinged with sorrow.  A lingering small of want.  All that stuff, all that those feelings and senses hidden by the “covered now.”

Marianne Apostolides accomplishes much in 93 pages. Swim radiates great struggle, yet it finds, in certain moments, a way around them.  The form of the novel and its narrative texture – work in perfect tandem.  Toward the end, Kat’s daughter and the young Greek man struggle to name a butterfly before it flies away.  They simply name it butterfly in Greek – a hint that Greece and thinks Greek, with all its problematic history for Kat, still has much to offer.  Kat knows that her daughter would not be paying attention to a butterfly if it was not “held in this man’s hand” But best of all is her daughter’s experience of “purity of wonder – her joy at sensing the unnamed possible.”

After a novel that is obsessed with definition in language, human life and relationships and history, we get “a purity of wonder” a “joy at sensing the unmade possible.”  These few words almost overthrow the whole course of the book – they are, really, the simple sense of reality that eludes Kat, but that she can see in her daughter.  The novel ends with a hint of hope.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross and Contributions by Irena Grudzinska Gross

Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross and Contributions by Irena Grudzinska Gross explores the photograph on the cover, widely believed to be taken at the Treblinka death camp shortly after the war.  Here, peasants are digging up the remains of Jews killed at the camp in search for valuables (mostly gold and silver).  They stop for a semi-causal snapshot before human remains, arranged for the camera.

As the subtitle suggests, the book investigates how the outrages of the Holocaust continued well after the war was over.  This is true not only of the dead, but of the living.  In many instances, Jews were killed in Poland and elsewhere following the liberation as they tried to settle in their former towns or retain lost property. This books shows that not even the dead were safe!  Their graves were desecrated with casual disregard and/or outright scorn.

People who study the Holocaust know this well; this book will not come as a surprise.  Most of the Operation Reinhardt camps in Poland continued to be desecrated until present times (all but Sobibor are now museums and protected, but in the past access to the sites were unrestricted).  This photo, although shocking and savage, is only a small slice of the lingering, shameful events of the post-Holocaust era.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Marianne Apostolides’ Voluptuous Pleasure

Marianne Apostolides’ Voluptuous Pleasure is an exceptionally strong collection of non-fiction pieces.  The subtitle “The Truth about the Writing Life” is cleverly connected to the last piece “You”. The final words are “….we let you take our memories, these tiny moments that swell to fill our selves.  These moments that, when exposed to light, become naked and ugly.  Shameful.  Yes: you pulled this from our bodies.  We have all been sullied in the process.”

Is this the truth of the writing life? Is it is akin to stripping a body of some vital parts?  If so, it is a harsh  conception of storytelling. For Apostolides, writing is almost like murder: in order to tell the story, the writer must, in a sense, kill the story.  The vibrant element of memory alive and fluid is solidified in the act of writing – and stripped of its power and mutability. For Apostolides, writing of the past is necessary to save it from oblivion, but she is keenly aware of the limits of her art.

This problem primarily revolves around the murder of Apostolides’ grandfather in World War Two era Greece; in fact, it is nearly a manic concern in this collection, as the author tells the story repeatedly (it is also the focus of Apostolides’ novel The Lucky Child) in various guises.  Telling, re-telling, and telling of the impossibility to tell it, while all the while telling it becomes, is her artistic axis.  It is a story, but the uncertainty around its details is like a cloud of dread that will shatter the story into pieces:  We are told “[t]here are no scenes; there is no narrative – beginning and end, cause and effect, climax and denouement.  There are, instead, details.”

For Apostolides, the body is a somewhat more accurate storyteller than words on the page. In the piece “Like a Cat,” the body becomes a vehicle to convey truths.  But the body can also be a false messenger.  In the wonderful “Two Dialogues” we get this:  the narrator’s father has suppressed his desire for revenge of his father’s death, and paid a heavy toll: “In order to resist his appetite for blood, my father created tight binding rules about exercise and consumption, mistrusting the body’s physical impulse.”  Then the narrator responds “I saw his compulsive resistance and demanded my own logic, namely, ten years of anorexia/bulimia.  I was a girl who weighed eighty pounds, her muscle eaten from within, feeding on its own organs since meat wasn’t given from without; a daughter who swallowed the palpable silence around my father’s past; a woman who finally asked: “Tell me about Greece.  Tell me what happened there.” Bodies are plundered, even eaten from within, like the memories torn from bodies –– shamefully ripped from those bodies. 

There is in Apostolides’ work a struggle between the positive and negative poles of two strong attractions: storytelling and its impossibility.  Apostolides’ is a masterful storyteller, using vivid language and images to convey a world of exterior and interior struggle.  The body too is a stage for storytelling.  But struggle is here as well: the body can dance, and reach a state of transcendence, can become a wordless form of storytelling, but it also lies: it suppresses and starves us, and is the vessel where we hide our secrets; we hide our shameful memories inside us until they can no longer even be told as a story.  Only bits of detail to reconstruct remain.

These dichotomies drive the author forward.  The stress between telling and concealing appear to be a marvelous place for Apostolides to do her work; a fruitful place, even if it is fraught with danger.  But the reader gets to enjoy the results of this author’s strong, evocative drive to struggle to produce what she considers impossible.  Seldom has a self-conceived “failure” been such a success.  These pieces illustrate that despite the limitations of writing, in the strong hands of a writer such as Apostolides, limitations can take us far indeed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy by Robert Neuwirth

The Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy by Robert Neuwirth delves into an area where formal economics seldom ventures: the so-called shadow economy which works behind the scenes in most nations, but particularly in the developing world.  

The chapters on Nigeria are particularly instructive, since the entire nation is built on this informal economy (which Neuwirth calls System D).  Without a fully functioning government, infrastructure, power grid, or legal system, Nigerians have found ways to make a living despite these formidable obstacles.  

Neuwrith believes that nearly half the workers of the world labor under System D, and System D is now tied with the legitimate economy in ways that are nearly impossible to eradicate.  At the conclusion of the book, he offers suggestions on how to make System D enterprises more firmly a part of the above board economy.

Neuwirth weaves individual stories of people involved in Systems D with wider issues with great dexterity. This book gives a fascinating glimpse into a world most of us never see, yet rely heavily upon. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Lucky Child, by Marianne Apostolides

If you read Marianne Apostolides first book, Inner Hunger, you can see connections to her family history novel, The Lucky Child. In Inner Hunger, the narrator is completely innocent of her world, her history, and her place within her largely silent family.  This is one of the factors which contributes to the narrator’s struggles with eating disorders.

If Inner Hunger is about personal and family ignorance, The Lucky Child is about the unflinching investigation of clan and self.  Apostolides tells the story of her family during the Greek Italian War of 1940, through the Nazi occupation of Greece starting in 1941,  into the post-war period and Greece's costly civil war, and well until the narrator’s father leaves Greece for the United States.

The Lucky Child is written in spare yet beautiful prose, as if Apostolides does not wish to hide her intentions behind florid words.  Here and there we get glimpse of both the promise and impossibility of writing history.  In one part, a teacher is guiding student’s through Homer, explaining origins of The Odyssey as oral tales, sung by traveling bards.  With the arrival of the written word, the Homeric stories became forever framed by the written word.  The teacher explains: “It is a tragedy… the tragedy of the written word.  To get this work of art, we must end its evolution.  We must deny the complexities of its past, and seal it from whatever future interpretations might possibly have developed.”

In Inner Hunger there is pain and ignorance, but the promise of a story unfolding and evolving.  In The Lucky Child Apostolides performs a Homeric act, finally writing down the saga of her family.  She provides the version that will become canonical for all time ­– but there is a sense of sadness in this necessary act.  For to write her family story is to seal off its evolution.  But not to write is to lose that history entirely. 

The Lucky Child is the result of this uneasy comprise between memory and writing.  The result is a great success.  The novel charts a course through history that combines a gripping story with a complex set of questions about the art of storytelling itself.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

My Rebbe - Steinsaltz

Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a luminary among modern orthodox-Chasidic writers.  He has written a number of works on mysticism, Talmud, prayer, mussar, among other topics.  In My Rebbe, he writes about his long associated with Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l, the last Chabad Rebbe.

Part memoir, part history, this book holds some interest.  It is not nearly as encyclopedic at Joseph Teluskin’s: Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.  But it has an intimacy which Teluskin’s book lacks, as Steinsaltz was an active Lubavitcher and had a long term association with the Rebbe.

So, if you want to get a more brisk, intimate feel of the Rebbe’s life than Teluskin’s large work, then this an excellent book.  For a more comprehensive treatment, go for Teluskin.  Of course, you can read both with no harm done to yourself!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How to Pray as a Jew

How to Pray as a Jew is a comprehensive guide to the orthodox siddur.  For those who attend orthodox services, or prayer at home, this book does not have all that much to offer; it does delve a bit into the history of the siddur's composition, but not to any great extent.

For the rank beginner, the major drawback of this book is that the author does not explain the siddur in order, but by level of importance.  So, for those not familiar with siddur, having one handy while reading this book is key.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Little Cat: Tarmara Faith Berger

In Little Cat, Tamara Faith Berger attempts, with a great deal of success, to take the genre of pornographic writing and blend or elevate it with elements of literary fiction.  

When the two novellas in this collection (Lie With Me, and The Way of the Whore) are the most successful is not when the prose exhibits the pure mannerisms of pornography.  Rather, it is when Berger takes the vast, strange, twisted and grand topic of human female sexuality and twist our view of it on its head, creating new angles, giving the reader fresh viewpoints and unusual, disturbing vistas of this all too human pursuit we think we know so well.

That is when these two book rises above the confines, demands and expectation of the genre.  We get more than titillation.  We get a writer exploring one of the most common of human pursuits in novel, odd, exciting ways.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Life and Though of A.D. Gordon: Pioneer, Philosopher and Prophet of Modern Israel

The Life and Though of A.D. Gordon: Pioneer, Philosopher and Prophet of Modern Israel, by Hebert H. Rose, was written in 1964 to chronicle A.D. Gordon,an early Zionist figure who left a unique mark on the movement.  He was, in many ways, the paradigm of the New Jew being created in Palestine in early twentieth century.  He was an intellectual, but he advocated the sanctity of physical work.  He was from the middle class, but wished to create a land of laboring Hebrews.  He was a Socialist who coordinated Zionist nationalism with collective ideals. 

It is easy to mythologize Gordon.  In a modern Israel that is very far from its ideological roots, and is split into many secular and religious factions, Gordon looks back to an early era of rough and ready idealism; a time when Zionism had yet to bloody its nose on too many intractable facts on the ground.  Gordon’s status is a myth, but at this point in the history of Israel I find it a pleasing one, uncluttered by too many conflicting details.

Unfortunately, Rose buries Gordon under the weight of contextualization. There is some straight biography, but he is far more interested in showing the readers Gordon’s intellectual influence and precursors.  So in the end, the reader gets only a small taste of A.D. Gordon.  The man is buried in the thing he tried to escape --- crippling abstract thought.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Until the Mashiach Rabbi Nachman’s Biography: An Annotated Chronology

Until the Mashiach Rabbi Nachman’s Biography: An Annotated Chronology, is a work by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, most known for his books on Jewish meditation.  He was one of the figures who started the movement to bring meditation to the front and center of Jewish practice, and in a sense, much of Jewish meditation practiced today can look to him as their forefather.  He died quite young in 1983 at 48, but left behind an impressive array of writings.

He was also one of the first  to translate Rebbe Nachman into English, and had an early association with the Breslov Research Institute.  He helped spread the Rebbe's ideas to a wider audience and is one of the reasons Breslov has grown so much in the last forty year.

This work is a rather dispassionate look at the Rebbe's life, death and legacy.  Kaplan appears to have combed through the Rebbe’s work and that of his followers to provide a nearly day by day account of the Rebbe’s life.

Instead of a dry rendition of the Rebbe life we would suspect, we instead see how dynamic a world Rebbe Nachman inhabited.  He was always on the move, traveling here and there to his far flung communities.  We get a picture not of a man sitting at his study, writing books (all things he did do) but a traveling man creating a divine community.  This community, he believed, was a harbinger of the coming of the Mashiach (hence the title of this book).

For anyone who wants to read about the sweep of Rebbe Nachman’s life without psychoanalysis of his complex personality (as in Arthur Green’s fine book) this is an excellent treatment.  A better illustration of the birth and growth of Breslov Chasidim I do not know.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Inner Hunger - Marianne Apostolides

Marianne Apostolides’ book Inner Hunger hits home for me in an unusual way.  Not directly because of the subject matter of bulimia and anorexia. Rather, she grew up in my suburban New York City town and her brother was in my class. So I can't help but see her struggles against the wider canvas of my home town's culture of indifference and a lack compassion.

In Apostolides’s book, the community is in part responsible for her disorders.  She does not write about any organized response to her terrible pain from the school or community.  In the culture of upper middle class achievement of Garden City, painful displays of emotion are best hidden, as they deviate from the prevalent narrative of the town.  For me, this hits hard.

Her book is powerfully written and deeply moving.  The pain and agony of her condition is only offset by the gradual recovery of her emotional life and widening sense of self-understanding -- of the realization that she must confront her pain directly, and not through any buffer.  This is hard life lesson, one many of us never learn. 

Friday, October 23, 2015


I am late on the Freakonomics bandwagon.  It appears that the franchise (a blog, a a sequel, a radio show, a movie!) is finally over, and it is most likely a very good thing.

When I worked with Economics students a first year PhD student, with a firm conviction of his own superiority propelled by his  lack of skills (he failed out after the qualifying exams) kept a secret blog (a very early 2000s phenomenon, which held a fascination it no longer holds) trashed this book in the blog, and all attempts to creating a pop or even understandable economics.

He was wrong; as he was wrong about his own chances in the program, as no doubt  he is wrong about many things right now. Popularization of a particular field in the form of a book is not some bastardization that sullies the sacred art of economics, physics, or chemistry.  Rather, it is the ultimate challenge to expose a broader audience to the importance of a discipline.  It is not bastardization as much as proselytization. 

Freakonomics only fails in its extreme dogmatism.  The book propose the not very novel idea that the authors are completely right about particular topics they examine while everyone else is wrong.  Yet we all know that in any field of study, differences of opinion, questioning of study methods, research design, and interpretation of data are the bread and butter of organized and scientific inquiry. Without it, we have articles of faith, and not free and open inquiry.

And this is where Freakonomics fails. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

In Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, Dr. Judy Melinek, in tandem with her husband, have written a more than average account of her time as an apprentice medical examiner, which overlapped with the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9-11. 


Parts of this book may make the squeamish cringe.  She explains that many of her tools can also be found in a butcher shop; when she depicts how a brain is cut into thin slices for examination, I imagined deli slicer working on a breast of turkey .  Melinek does an admirable job illustrating how a medical examiner must treat the human body as a scene for clues; and how the medical examiner must divorce him or herself emotionally from the job of dismembering the human body.

The only time she admits to losing her professional guard is when victims of American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001 were brought to the morgue.  A bag marked “body parts” instead contains small children.  Pregnant herself, she steps back, unable to further look.  A male colleague performed the autopsies in her stead.  In this one case, motherhood, it seems trumped science.  And one can see how.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Jack London's The Iron Heel

Confession: I do not think Jack London is great writer.  He inhabits a niche in American fiction, certainly, his story about lighting a fire in Alaska finds its way most anthologies of American short stories, but as an artist, I find him lacking.  On the level of language, he really does nothing new or exciting with English; his prose is often dull or commonplace; his characterization weak and underwhelming; his plots, unimaginative, and under stimulating.

So, this brings us to The Iron Heel.  Written in 1908, it is a dystopic novel which tells of the rise of an oligarchical class which seizes power in the United States, robbing the Socialists, backed by the working class, or their legally won seats in the House of Representatives.  This starts a repressive war which lasts for three hundred years.

But the reader must suffer through at least a hundred pages of flat Socialist hero characters making long speeches to cardboard capitalists, insisting that the rise of socialism is an evolutionary and biological inevitability.  This is old reading, more interesting for its naivete than its content.

The book gets up a head of steam when the actual armed conflict begins when the oligarchy, the Iron Hell, but this is well into the novel, and many readers won’t have the drive to get to this point. 

This novel bears the conceit of being a manuscript written by one of the Socialist hero’s wife.  It is annotated by a scholar after the Socialist revolution has brought back the Garden of Eden.  There are many obvious and cringe worthy footnotes about this heaven on earth set nearly four hundred years in the future.

The Iron Heel is a novel of great promise that ends in disappointment.  The story has an excellent setup without adequate execution or design.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov

Alexandra Popoff’s Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov is a fascinating tale adding much needed insight into one of the world’s most complex writers and thinkers.  

Tolstoy, in his later years, had a group of followers who exercised a wide influence on him.  According to Popoff, the greatest of these was Vladimir Chertkov, a man who eventually wrestled control of Tolstoy’s legacy from his family after he died, for monetary gain and personal prestige.

Popoff paints Chertkov as a very unsavory character: mercurial, dictatorial, flattering, lazy  ­– he still had a certain charm and charisma.  For certain people, Chertkov was irresistible. This was the case with Tolstoy.

Popoff’s plots the many ways Chertkov was able to manipulate the great writer.  Tolstoy, in turn, appeared to need something in his relationship with Chertkov, which he continued to the day of his death.  This man greatly attracted Tolstoy.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Chertkov’s control was the idea that Tolstoy’s wife prevented the writer from living the ascetic life he preached.  Popoff shows how Chertkov purposely crafted this perception to gain posthumous control of Tolstoy’s image and to make it acceptable to Soviet propaganda.

This fascinating book is clearly written and provides great insights into Tolstoy’s life and legacy.  It  plots both the complexities of Chertkov and Tolstoy, and the gives the reader an excellent picture of the historical and political context in which they lived.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order

Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order by Philip Coggan is timely, informative, clearly written, and utterly depressing.  Coggan takes us through the history of money, credit, debt, illustrating the various ways people give credit and take on debt, and how this dynamic has changed with history, location, and circumstance.

The New World Order in the subtitle is just that: we are on the verge of a debt cataclysm, probably to be enacted in stages, and from this will develop a new monetary system.  It will be just as radical a change as after the Great Depression, or World War II and Bretton Woods; it will most likely benefit China, the world's largest creditor.

The sky will not fall down (at least forever), people will still buy and sell, establish credit and take on debt, but America’s preeminent role as the world’s largest economy and most stable monetary system will be gone, according to Coggan.  The system will fail as most do: the very dynamics that made us wealthy, paper money no longer pinned to a gold standard, will cause it to collapse. The wealth we easily gained will cause from printing money will cause the system to devolve. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

In Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, the author is careful to state, near the end of the work, that “terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.” 

If that statement sums up the book, the lesson is a sobering one. Fighting terrorism is always depicted as a moral battle which a superior force is bound to win.  Yet in Hoffman’s historical examination of the right-wing Jewish terrorist groups the Irgun and Lehi and their struggle against British rule in Palestine, he makes a good case that terrorism, and violence generally, is the most effective means to solve intractable political problems.

Yet if we look at this phrase carefully, there are many caveats. There must be the “right conditions” in this case, a British administration in Palestine that was underfunded and demoralized, backed up by a financially bankrupt country depleted by two world wars.  There must be “the appropriate strategy and tactics” and as Hoffman shows, Lehi, and in particular the Irgun and its leader, Menachem Begin, knew how to hit the symbols of British control in Palestine for the maximizing demoralizing effect to the occupiers.  Then, terrorism may succeed “in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”  Here, 'some' is the operative world.  The Irgun and Lehi had grand designs for the Jewish state, and most of them were not realized.  The Irgun became a political party after independence, and did not have substantial power in the State of Israel until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. Yitzhak Shamir, the head of Lehi, did not have significant power in Israel in the 1980s

So, Hoffman leaves us with a disturbing vision.  We don’t want violence, especially terrorism, to achieve its goals, yet in the example of the Irgun and Lehi, Hoffman makes a good case that the departure of the British from Palestine in 1948 was if not caused, than at least hastened the end of British rule.  But much of the fault also lay with Great Britain.

Hoffman examines a trove of documents relating to the British government and the governance of the Palestine during the Mandate, and it is apparent that Britain fell far short in two key ways: 1. it failed to have a consist policy on Palestine regarding Zionism, and 2. In the face of the urban terrorism of the Irgun and Lehi, the British intelligence service, police and military were particularly inept.  They simply did not have the drive or creativity to fight effectively, and to fix Palestine, and we live with the legacy of their errors to this day.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Greater Consummation: Salter's A Sport and a Pastime

Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime… –Koran, LVII19.  

James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime has this Quranic quote as an epigraph.  Given the book's content, it is hard to know if Salter is wielding these words as irony or cautionary tale.  In this book of total sensual immersion of both main characters, a sexual oblivion that orders reality in a mysticism light, it appears to convey both meanings.   Dean and Anne-Marie's story of love and eroticism, although successful, ultimately fails as it encounters the rock bottom of the human physical and spiritual trajectory.  This books shows how the great oblivion which sex and love seek and often find is easily swallowed up in the greater consummation of death.

Monday, September 21, 2015

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser sheds light on the not always exciting or racy framer of the Constitution and fourth president of the United States.Brookhiser paints a portrait of a man both idealistic and practical, caught somewhere in the middle of the reality of how things are, and his dreams of how things should be.  

This is fitting with Madison’s position among Americas first leaders: he was young during the revolution, and was among the second wave of leaders to came after the mighty Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton.   Yet he was never completely overshadowed by them, even if he did not share their gifts.   He lacked Washington’s martial prowess, Adams’ aristocratic bearing, Jefferson’s philosopher’s detachment, or Hamilton’s business acumen. 

Or, if he had these qualities, they were always measured against the men who came before.  In that sense, Madison gets shafted in the historical record.  But in quite another the Madison which Brookhiser provides us is often a small man, concerned with petty ideas and political dealings. Brookhiser stresses that he was America's first true politician.

So, we get many Madisons in Brookhiser’s biography.  This, perhaps, is the greatest measure of this man complex man.  His ideas evolved over time to meet the exigencies of the moment.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Song of Longing

Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey is part travelogue, part memoir, and part coming of age tale of a young scholar in search of intellectual and emotional fulfillment.  It is also the story of the degeneration of a country; its plunge into chaos, war, and famine. 

Shelemay went to Ethiopia in the early to mid-seventies to study the Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia (which she calls Falasha throughout the work).  In the process, she met her future husband, a scion of a wealthy Adenite Jewish family living in Addis Ababa.

This book evolves into an exploration of some of the more distant areas of the Jewish diaspora, but is also about the gathering together of Jews.  Shelemay, an Ashkenazim, marries a Sephardi man as she makes contact with the Beta Israel.  During her studies of Beta Israel and Christian liturgy (mainly through song), she is one of the originators of the origins of the Beta Israel, a theory which still holds currency among scholars today.

She is one of the last witnesses of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia before their immigration to Israel, and their complete evolution to Ethiopian Jews.  As such, her well written book is invaluable. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Holy Whistle

This High Holiday season I have been reading a book on “hanhagot,” or acts of personal piety. So far, this is the best I have encountered:

Once, Rebbe Zusya visited the holy genius, Rabbi Mordecai, who gave him a room for the night. After midnight, Rabbi Mordecai heard how Rebbe Zusya woke up and jumped around the room. After doing this for a while he called out, “Master of the World, I love You! What can I do for You? I can’t do anything!” Then he… repeated the same thing a number of times… [and]… ran around the room until he said, “I know what I can do! I can whistle for you!” He began to whistle with such fervor that Rabbi Mordecai said to his comrade who was standing near him, “Let us leave here quickly before we get burned by the breath of his holy mouth.” ----from Ohel Elimelech.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cheshbon HaNefesh: accounting for the soul

Cheshbon HaNefesh is in many ways characteristic product of mussar, an ethical movement which originated among Lithuanian Jews and spread from there.  Although used by all or any Jews today, originally mussar, with its emphasis on rational analysis of emotion to build solid character traits, was distinctly Litvak --- expressing the special concerns of Lithuanian Jewish scholars.  

What makes Cheshbon HaNefesh so interesting is that that author provides a  concrete system for self-improvement based on notebook notations of character traits and charts. It is very practical, and has a very modern feel; mussar, in many ways, anticipated certain self-help trends.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Jabotinsky, a Life

Jabotinsky, a life, explores the life and work of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940).  All too often in  Zionist studies, Jabotinsky and the movement he created, Revisionist Zionism, is given short shrift in the official narrative of the creation of the State of Israel.  In fact many of his very early pronouncements on the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine have proven to be prophetically true, and his political descendants have more or less ruled Israel since the late 1970s.

Hillel Harkin wants to set the record straight in this biography, showing that Jabotinsky was not quite the Jewish fascist which his opponents claimed.  Rather, he was a man of many dramatic and self-contradictory impulses.  An ardent Zionist nationalist, he lived in Palestine on and off, but appeared to prefer the cosmopolitan life of Paris to the rustic Holy Land.  He fought hard for a robust, military Zionism, one expressed in the armed wing of his movement, the Irgun, but he was against tit-for-tat revenge attaches by Jews upon Arabs and urged restraint.  He was not nearly as radical as the organization he helped found.

This is an excellent book to read it you want to get at the bedrock foundation of right wing Israel politics. Jabotinsky is the political father of Bibi Netanyahu, yet, as Harkin points out, it is difficult to say if Jabotinsky, if he was alive today, would have agreed with all the policies and opinions of those on the Israel right.  He was far too independent minded and worldly to take narrow or parochial views on most geopolitical. He could embrace the little picture while keeping an eye on the wider field of events. His successors appear to lack this vital trait, to their detriment.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War

In a certain sense, the events depicted in the book Black Hawk Down very much reflect America’s concerns in the (recent, 1993) post-Cold War world.  The Iron Curtain was down, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and we were the world’s only superpower.

Along with this hubris came missions like that to Somalia, outwardly a humanitarian effort, inwardly a nation building exercise. This was American at its shining, superpower best, or so it seems: using its might to deliver food to starving people, right wrongs and defeat thugs around the globe.

But the sub-title of this book: 'a story of modern war', tells the other side of the Battle of Mogadishu.  It was written in 1999, before the bombing of the USS Cole, before 9-11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   The term modern war is prescient if we change the word modern to what they author really means :asymmetrical.  

For the Battle of Mogadishu clearly showed the major difficulties of fighting a very determined enemy, on his own turf, even with the benefit of the latest military, surveillance, and intelligence apparatus.  Things can still go terribly wrong, and in this new kind of new war, they certainly have.  Mogadishu was a herald of challenges to come; shades of a decade of war among hostile people intent on using their weakness to their own strategic and tactical advantage.  Forcing the United States to realize that being the only superpower on the block is not synonymous with invincibility.

Bowden’s book does not have this long view, as it was written in 1999.  But the inference is there: this is the face of 21st century warfare, and it is unlikely to change very soon.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

Billy Budd by Herman Melville

One would be hard pressed to find a more homoerotic novel, masquerading as quite a different tale, than Melville's Billy Budd. Certainly homo-eroticism is a deep concern in all of Melville’s books, even Moby Dick.  Yet Billy Budd surpasses them all; the entire plot, the strange attraction which the crew members find in the young sailor Billy Budd, is the beat of the entire narrative.  His beauty is his salient feature, his good nature his secondary charm.  Combined, he is called an Adonis by the narrator; it is explained that if he removed his clothes, he would be as perfectly formed as Adam.  An older sailor calls him baby, a play on his name Billy, but also as a show of affection.

Billy Budd’s strange stutter, his wild homicide, his execution… do you they all really fall back on his great beauty, both the power conveyed by it, and the inability of other men to bear it without artifice or subterfuge?  This is a difficult question to answer.

I suppose this is part of the ongoing fascination with this small, strange novel.  There are Melville’s famous asides on topics not completely related to the plot, and the plot itself has an odd, jumpy feel, as if Melville is trying to fit congruent into a seamless whole. Anyone who has read Moby Dick will find this familiar.

So what we get is an odd novel with implausible events and murky, human motivations.  In other words, a work by Melville.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln certainly lives up to its hype.  By examining the cabinet Lincoln compiled in his first term, Kern shows readers a side of Lincoln that is all too lost in accounts which stress his kindness and sagacity.

Instead, Kern show how Lincoln was able to juggle the competing political agendas of the men around him, harnessing their ambitions both for his own good and the good of the nation during a Civil War.

The Lincoln in Kern’s book is a man who gets people to do what he wants by a combination of patience, excellent timing, and a kind of forbearance of the shortcoming of those around him that seems, at times, nearly superhuman.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Life in Death and Death in Life: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

After reading this novel long ago in college at 19, I approach it now at 45, and see the profound distrust of life in this novel, and the creeping sense that life and death are both intertwined, with horrifying results.

Victor Frankenstein creates his creature from strong dread of death. He creates life, a function reserved for God and women.  What he gets disgusts him to his very marrow, so much so that he flees the creature immediately after its creation.

This sets in motion yet more bizarre actions and reactions.  The creature evolves to be more fully human than its creator, only to be emotionally crushed by the burden of loneliness and rejection.  He then becomes the “demon” in Frankenstein’s terms, an entity to be destroyed.  He too takes life, as he is unable to create it after Frankenstein denies him a mate.

Finally, in grand Romantic style, they pursue each other to the ends of the earth, Frankenstein intent on destroying the life he made, while the creature finds meaning only in the (negative) attention his creator bestows.

Frankenstein is Romantic in the high tradition of the word.  Nature is the abiding substance, but it has a dark, menacing element. There is ice, rock and towering mountains as the backdrop of the struggle between man and his creature.  If nature is Nature, then it is morally blind, indifferent to the struggles of the living.  

So this novel is far more than a critique of human technological hubris, but of the Romantic dream of creation as the ultimate human goal.  With creation comes death. This novel is replete with images of birth, and abortion.  They are all tied together and can’t be torn apart.

Shelly's vision is grand,horrible, and enduring:  we all must live with the entities we create.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Great Set Up, But Failed Delivery: Phillip Meyer's American Rust

American Rust by Phillip Meyer starts with great promise: a dark novel about young people living in a fading rust belt town, the novel has all the pieces arranged to create a work that is both penetrating and interesting; a work that provides commentary on a part of the American situation while keeping an eye on character and plot.

But Meyer, a very good writer, stumbles on many elements.  Some of the characters provide internal monologues, or more correctly, an altered stream of consciousness on the Joycean side.  But Meyer never quite pulls it off quite successfully: rather than feeling we are in the character’s mind, there is simply the sense that Meyer is trying to pull off a technique he can’t quite master.  Rather than a flow of thoughts, we get choppy sentences. This ruins the sense of flow in the novel in many places.

There are also implausible scenarios involving police procedures, incarceration, and crime investigations.  These are less problematic, unless you are a stickler for such things.  If you are, it seems that Meyer wants to force his plot along certain lines to prove social and political points --- not to provide veracity to his story. In the process, he cuts the legs out from his plot.

Certainly, his characters are interesting, but they suffer from a degree of under treatment.  It is only partially clear why Poe did not take his football scholarship.  Billy English stays to take care of his ailing father, despite his being a genius, and despite the fact that father and son dislike each other;  there is little interplay to suggest some deeper meaning behind their attachment or estrangement.  Poe is willing to take a murder rap for Billy, because of his love for Lee, yet there is no sense that the duo has a love so strong that Billy would do such a thing.  Poe is given chivalrous impulses he never earns.  The main problem is that Meyer has his characters perform acts before he has laid the necessary motivations and groundwork for them to do so.

Meyer appears to have put the cart before the horse: he wanted to write a social story, an important statement about America, but he allowed the social critique to dominate plot and character, and as such, the novel underachieves and disappoints.