Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tolstoy's Resurrection

As the editor of Tolstoy’s Resurrection points out, Tolstoy published this novel late in life, and did so for the money.  He had long given up writing, lived as a simple peasant like existence, and gave away the royalties to his books.  Resurrection was written, or more correctly updated for publication from an older manuscript to support the emigration of a “heretic” Russian religious sect to Canada.

Hence Resurrection, definitely a Tolstoy production, is a late work. The mastery of the form of the novel that we find in War and Peace and Anna Karenina is not present in this book.  Yet despite this, Resurrection is a fascinating cluttered, confusing novel; it is full of long ruminations on human nature, God, and government.  So intense are these debates, that they are  appealing.  The dark vision of Russia this novel provides is unflinching. In its  depictions of all social ills, corruption, crime, avarice, vice, economic injustice, indifference and inhumanity, the reader can see the roots of the Russian Revolution.  The society of Resurrection could not continue as it was without a bloody upheaval.  It was simply too hopeless and dark a place .

So I imagine an older, shaggy Tolstoy, brimming with rage over the conditions in Russia, more than slightly misanthropic as a result, pouring out his social and religious theories and ideas while composing this novel.  If this is kept in mind, then reading this novel becomes less of a chore and more of a delight.  Here was an author with nothing more to prove; he used this novel for his social propaganda, with rich results.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Your Animal Body

Your animal body
Uncurled itself
On a mid day in May
All quivering synapse
A velvet touch
Of unforgotten vestiges

Beneath my thumbs
Writhing like a snake
Enmeshed, the tangled hands
Hushed breath and whispers
That you mimed to me

I have not forgotten
Your lusty animal crouch
The genus, phylum and species
The taxonomy that you paraded
Beneath my nose
In you unfurnished room
It was the frozen time

Of your old wedding ring
Discarded in a cardboard drawer
The root of your being
Buried in nightshade
Your son, the facsimile
Face of you
Leaning on my leg
Like a stalk
As I held open a book
He’s poised to grow into you
Lean, short, quick
The indrawn, sudden breath
Of a startled response
The darting nervous edge
Etched from your womb

He’ll become a stalk of
You, an undemonstrated
Remonstrance of your plastic

Past, growing

Monday, February 23, 2015


Insufferable snow
Slapping the hide off my back
Flaying the skin off the hand
That I use to zip the coat  

Friday, February 20, 2015

The True World of Bliss

Sometimes book ideas never get beyond a half finished TOC.  Which, in many cases, is good.

   The True World of Bliss:  The Biography of Three Mystics
     Abraham Abulafia (1240 -1292)
     Nizamuddin Auliya  (1238 - 3 April 1325)
     Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is a prolific writer of Jewish religious themes. His most recent book: The Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, takes a hard but wholly sympathetic look at the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.  

So, this is an entirely positive appraisal of the Rebbe and his work.  Rabbi Telushkin calls him the most influential rabbi of the twentieth century and the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides.  I suppose both labels are correct.  It is hard to argue with success.  The Rebbe took Judaism, which tends to be insular in its outlook, divided by squabbling denominations, and not really interested in engagement with the wider Jewish or Gentile world, and turned that on its head.   His had a vision for world Jewry, and was largely successfully in carrying it out.  When post-war Judaism was dying on the vine of indifference, the Rebbe gave it a shot of spiritual adrenal. Even those outside of Chabad and somewhat hostile to it find much to admire in his work. 

Rabbi Telushkin explains that the Rebbe was one of the early critics of two approaches to Judaism which, with hindsight, have harmed the advance the religion.  One was the overwhelming sense of the Holocaust hanging over post-war Jewish life.   Pressing Jews to stay Jews based on guilt, fear, or hatred, the Rebbe believed, has no future.  He also did hinge his Judaism on the emerging State of Israel.  He was not interested in Jews in the Diaspora taking on the Zionist cause.  He wanted to help Jews practice Judaism wherever they lived. {Note did not think the Holocaust or Israel were unimportant; he just believed all the eggs should not be in either basket).

In these two senses, he was prescient.  As liberal Jews shy away from hawkish Israel, the Zionist connection to Jewish identity has been tarnished for many American Jews.  As the fear and guilt of the Holocaust has worn off, nothing has filled the gap, and annihilation by love, through intermarriage, is ironically Judaism's greatest threat in Europe and America .  

That the Rebbe realized this in 1950 shows great insight.  Jews must learn to be Jews wherever they live.  They must concentrate on practicing Judaism in the moment, without guilt from the past or allegiance to another country.  

So, this is a fine work on the Rebbe.  It is not a critical biography in any sense.  It is a gentle form of hagiography.  If you want a hard hitting biography, you must go to other works recently written about the Rebbe.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Rabbinic Stories

Rabbinic Stories, translated and annotated by Jeffrey Rubenstein, takes some of the well-known and lesser known stories from the Talmud and presents them as standalone entities.  Approached without explanation, these stories can be confusing, if not downright inexplicable.   

Rubenstein places these tales in context, explains why they are so minimal, and gives the historical context of the world in which the stories were originally told.  He also provides an excellent way to compare and contrast stories told and retold in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.

The tales of the rabbis often get short shrift next to biblical stories.  But for Jews and others looking to flesh out the picture of biblical exegesis, as well as understanding the emerging world of rabbinical Judaism,  the stories Rubenstein translates and explains is key.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

After the Apocalypse: Stories

After the Apocalypse: Stories, by Maureen F. McHugh is an uneven collection, with some excellent, stand out stories, and others that fall flat.  Despite this, the collection is interesting, and even with the uneven terrain, I continued to read.

For the stories that work, McHugh provides excellent balance.  She nods to the demands of the genre of post-apocalyptic literature, but does not sacrifice her stories on its altar.  In other words, the stories carry the day; the characters, their conflicts, dreams, reflections, are the real meat of the stories and collection, not the doomsday scenarios.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Book of Daniel

E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is a fictionalized exploration of the Rosenberg’s arrest, execution, and the impact it had on their two children.  Unlike other historical novels written by Doctorow, this novel does not use the names of real historical figures (for when the book was written, they were still alive) but he employs the same techniques he does in subsequent novels, weaving fiction and non-fiction elements into the whole.

As this book was written in 1971 so there are very many post-modern elements within.   Most of the novel is Daniel’s first person exposition of events, but suddenly the narrative changes, often in mid-sentence, to third person.  The book is fractured: letters, journal entries, Daniel’s dissertation, and presents us three endings, one more than The French Lieutenant’s Woman, written in 1969.

Doctorow is a masterful novelist, at home in any genre or technique, so these stunts are not forced or frivolous but integral to the plot.   If you want to read a POMO novel without the gags and tricks of someone with a fresh MFA, playing with their new found toys, read this novel.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington

In Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, David Mark Epstein explores the mutual world  Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman inhabited during the Civil War era.

Not knowing the specifics of their interactions, I was surprised as I read the book that these men never met.  In the beginning of this work the connection between Lincoln and Whitman appears tenuous, especially on Lincoln’s side.  Epstein explains that a copy of Leaves of Grass was on a table of Lincoln's law firm in Illinois, and there is some anecdotal evidence he may have read the poem.  But it is not certain. When he became President and entered the tumultuous years of the Civil War, there is little to no evidence that Lincoln paid attention to Whitman at all. He had more important matters to attend to than the shaggy poet from Brooklyn.

But Epstein eventually lays a case that both men inhabited the same world.  They had friends and acquaintances in common, and at least for Whitman, Lincoln grew in stature with the progress of time.  The poet saw him as a muse of sorts, the beatified leader of a struggling democracy.  And with Lincoln’s murder, he took on the role of both eulogist and deifier, binding Lincoln up in the hopes and aspirations of the Union in the years that followed.

Epstein writes well about both men.  Whitman lived longer than Lincoln, and his celebrity grew with time.  So the book overwhelmingly focuses on Whitman and his poetry.  Lincoln became for Whitman both a grand symbol of American greatness and the high water mark of national sacrifice.  And in the long, corrupt years after the war, both Lincoln’s and Whitman’s stars rose on the tide of national, collective disappointment. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Tuscan Jewish Itineraries

Tuscan Jewish Itineraries is certainly a handsome book, with excellent photographs, maps, and general explanations of Jewish life in Tuscany.   Unfortunately, over 90 % of the book chronicles Italian gentile life in Tuscany.  Of course, this is an important element of life of the Jews in this area of Italy (especially considering their relatively small numbers and integration into Italian life).

Despite this, the book still spends too much time on matters that have little to do with the history of the Jews in the area.  It is more a book of overall history, with a smattering of Jewish matters.