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.