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.