Friday, January 30, 2015

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

In Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval manages to provide a very funny, insightful, and completely depressing account of the history of the office.  (I say depressing because I am a man who has spent nearly 100% of his working life in offices).  Saval manages to write  about the history of the office while juggling a great deal of research in related areas like architecture, interior design, ergonomics, logistics, psychology, and what economists would call industrial organization.

So this book has a wide reach and covers much ground.  Saval could easily lose control of his material, but he stays focused on the topics at hand, moving us through the history of the office from early “Counting Houses” through the first large, downtown offices, to the cubicle and attempts to break out of it.

What we get in the end is a solidity written, entertaining book which explores what most of us do for a larger percentage of our lives than we wish to face. By turning his sharp eye to the topic, Saval attempts to find solutions to some of the more historically intractable elements of office work.  Whether the recent innovations he details will work or not has yet to be seen.  If his work shows anything, it is that the law of unintended is very much the axis upon which office work revolves.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The March : E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow does some interesting work with narrative flow and character in The March, his historical novel of Sherman’s march to the sea.  The march becomes a grand metaphor in Doctorow’s hands.  A line of 90,000 men fighting, burning, looting, pillaging, freeing slaves, acting nobly and barbarously, is a type of barometer for the mutability of human nature.

Characters change their social roles as easily as shedding Confederate grey for Union blue.  An extremely light skinned slave marries a white solider to enter the northern white community.  Southerners quickly change allegiances and turn to the Union.  Love turns to hate.  Hate turns to love.  Everything is in flux.

Doctorow captures a fluid time in American history, where so many things seemed possible.  The March is both apt allegory and finely told tale.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Red Beads Stitched on Black - Maroney

Dark is numbly silent
Outside our windows.
The dark crawls on all fours
Like a sooty hyena
Our light stabs him furiously
But this is his shire of dark
He hardly cares he prowls
Around our fence, sniffs the garbage
Paws our bruised Brussels sprouts
Split to the roots by frost
His hot breath mists up the glass
His eyes are red beads stitched on black
He scratches up a root down by the creek
And thinks its a dead tumor
But it only sleeps
He holds the dark incompletely
The vessel is nearly full
The light is a seed in the earth.
But the coma of winter is mine-shaft deep
Spring, the shudder of light
On our stiffened kale.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Promised Land

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit is one of the more refreshing series of essays on what it means to be Israeli and Jewish I have read in a long time.  

Seeing some of the professional reviews on this book, I am reminded how much even feelings regarding Israel, its existence, its history and development, are colored by so many subjective lens.  And certainly, Shavit has his “take” on the Israeli experience.  But he is more or less balanced in his approach.  He does not leave any stone undisturbed in the various issues he treats, and his language is penetrating and strong.

I had vowed to read no more books about the Israeli experience, thinking that American Jews should focus on the American Jewish experience (and having not done so, it has been much to our detriment).  But reading Shavit’s book informative; he weaves the promise and misfortune of modern Israeli history into Jewish history, sewing some very vital seams between the diaspora and Israel in this excellent, comprehensive book.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created is one the most uniquely fascinating books I have read in a long time.  Well written and researched, Mann explains in great detail how the world after 1493 was shaped by the rapidly expanding reach of what we know call globalism.  After Columbus, there would no longer be isolated pockets of people, plants, or animals.  The era of homogenization, which we still live in, commenced.

Mann's major take away in this book is the interconnections of everything.  The movement of plants, animals, people, ideas, and technological, form a web.  When one part of the web tightens or snaps, it has ramifications across the globe.

This book explores those ramifications from an impressive array of disciplines: economics, demographics, the natural sciences (especially ecology and geology), political science, sociology, and history.

The end result is a book with a far reach.  When read with care and attention, it gives us, its readers, a better idea of how our complicated world works and how it got that way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Speaking Torah, Vol II

I’m a tremendous enthusiast for the work of Rabbi Arthur Green, so it is really no surprise that I found his Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table a deeply informative and engaging book.

For years Rabbi Green has been a leader in the so-called Neo-Chasidic movement.   Deeply engaged in Chasidic texts, this group of rabbis and writers find the spiritual teachings of Chasidism informative, but downplay their firm commitment to halakah, religious law, and the social organization of their lives.  Green and others are trying to capture the original commitment of Chasidism, which was designed to innovate and stir Jews to reaching higher spiritual levels by radically reinterpreting Jewish teachings and life.

So for Green and his co-editors, the spiritual in the subtitle is a very operative term.  They take elements of Chasidic teaching where Torah portions are given "spiritual" rather than strictly phyiscal interpretations.  Really, it is fascinating to watch the interpretative work that Green lays out for us.  It is part allegory, part metaphor, a strong element of Hebrew wordplay (which is pointed out in the text) and a dose of religious creativity.

After every chapter there is a short explanatory paragraph laying out the salient points of the passage. After each major section, Green and his editors break out and discuss the text, sharing their sometimes conflicting opinions.  This adds yet another layer to the book: modern scholars of the Torah are taking nineteenth century Chasidic texts meant to be applied to real life and applying them to our time. 

This book is an excellent way to navigate the difficult realm of early Chasidic literature.  If you can’t read Hebrew and catch the wordplay, a book like this (in two volumes) is essential to understanding what is going on.

And what is going on?  Simply put, that God is everywhere, that his Torah is everything, and we are all connected.  If we understand the Torah correctly, if we obey not just its physical demands but also its spiritual meaning, this door opens up for us. Of course this sounds easy.  Getting to this understanding and living with it is the challenge. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Kosher Sex: Traditional Despite the Marketing

Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy by Shmuley Boteach is by turns interesting, informative, advanced, reactionary and frustrating.  I suppose that is what kept me reading a book that otherwise annoyed me.

As an Chasidic rabbi, Boteach, despite his celebrity type exposure and hip language, is very much satisfied with traditional Jewish sex roles, both in and out of the bedroom.  

In this book he will offer the majority opinion on a topic: for example, a married Jewish couple can make love any way they wish. He endorses this mainstream religious Jewish opinion, but then explains why he thinks the missionary position is the better.  This is a common trend in this book.  Alternatives within the tradition are offered, but not explored. Tradition narrowly conceived is always the high road for Boteach.

Boteach is not a post-modern Jew.  He believes the old ways, tweaked here and there for modernity, are just fine.  So we Jews who struggle with sex in a complicated, post-modern world, will find this book, so promising at first, disappointing.  

He also engages in some deep seated gender stereotyping, makes comments about staying in difficult relationship which people in such relationships will find repugnant.  He means well, but his advice is liable to cause such people, particularly women, much harm.

So, beware of this book.  Read it, but do so critically.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East, Gerard Russell covers some interesting ground, exposing readers to Middle Eastern religions they in all likelihood never knew existed.  The Mandeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts and Kalasha, Russell provides a first-hand account of these groups with the keen insight of a former British diplomat stationed in the Middle East.

While Russell is very thorough as a travelogue, the book is very short on history.  For the reader who wants the historical background of these groups, this is not your book.  Russell treats history, but only in passing.  He is far more interested in the current state of these religions, both in the Middle East and abroad.

This gives Heirs the sense of something missing.  Russell could have written this book far more comprehensively

Monday, January 5, 2015

Jerusalem: The Biography

In Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author does an admirable job of providing the history of the Holy City in condensed form (the paperback runs over 700 pages).  

There is nothing extraordinary about the book, and by the same token, nothing that stands out as poorly done or incomplete.

This book is simply a good, informative account of the complex history of one very important city.  To me, it appears exhaustive, covering every time period from the prehistoric to the modern city and everything in between.

I suppose this is a “go to” book for the layman interested in the city holy to three major religions.