Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Birth of Modern Politics. Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828




The Birth of Modern Politics. Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 is a historical work that uncannily reflects issues we face today. 

The 1828 election between the patrician John Quincy Adams and the backwoodsman Andrew Jackson was a defining moment.  For instance political parties, which sputtered during the first years of the republic, were solidified.  Even the seeds of a rudimentary kind of polling were planted in 1828.

Four years before, no candidate had enough electoral votes in the 1824 election. John Quincy Adams won through supposed collusion with the speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay; here yet another seed of modern presidential politics was planted: conspiracy theory, paranoia, and personal attack.  

The rematch of 1828 was mainly about the personal qualifications and fitness for office of each candidate.  In other words, it was not about much at all expect demagoguery, misinformation, and sheer rank emotion

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies




The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, holds the thesis that we are now at a pivot point, with changes in our economy and society occuring at a rapid pace, in keeping with the changes that accompanied the first effective steam engines.

They tackle the rise of new technologies both from an historical, economic, and practical standpoint.  At this point, the most interesting part of this work is the income inequality that our new technologies have created.   The cite a graph like the one below, where we see an increasingly large spread between those with a higher education, and those without.  

This is a direct outgrowth of the new information economy (one of the factors that brought Trump to power) and therefore very germane to what is happening now.  Those without an education have been earning less each decade, with a dramatic downturn recently.

Overall, this is an informative, enjoyable read, interesting; both engaging and educational – it covers so  many elements of what a great book should seek to accomplish quite successfully.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer



Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer is a difficult work to read, written by one of America’s top non-fiction writers.  Krakauer investigates the acts of sexual violence committed by members of the University of Montana football players during the last decade. 

The work is about these cases, but also about the wider problem of violence against women in our country.  He examines the various aspects of rape and sexual violence, from the effects on victims, the involvement of law enforcement, and the prosecution, or lack thereof, of reported rape cases.

This is a challenging book to read; the descriptions of sexual crimes are graphic and distributing.  There is also the palpable sense that we have a problem of massive proportions on our hands, with little in the way of quick answers. Yet this work goes a long way in helping to define the parameters of this horrible problem.  It should be a mandatory book for college freshmen.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick




Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick, is an intelligent and readable account of Benedict Arnold’s career.

Rather than the Arnold of myth, Philbrick delves into the complicated motivations of the man.  Arnold was a bundle of contradictions.  He was brave nearly to recklessness, held his personal honor in high esteem, while at the same time suffering a persecution complex (sometimes with just cause) and an overestimation of his talents.

Philbrick’s thesis is that Arnold’s treason was the cause that rallied the stalled American Revolution.  That is debatable, of course.  Washington’s overall goal was to fight the British in a war of attrition; to grind them away in the wild interior of American.  I’m not sure if Arnold’s defection helped or hurt that strategy.

Regardless, Philbrick’s book  paints the characters of the American Revolution in subtle and detailed shades.  We think we know these men and women; Philbrick throws this into doubt.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

True Existence





This Chabad work, titled in Hebrew Mi Chamocha, and in English True Existence, is one of the source texts of Lubavitcher Chasidism.  It was written by the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shmuel of Lubavich in 1869.

This text or sermon is meant to flesh out one of Chabad’s prime theological positions, captured in the Hebrew phrase ein od milvado, or there is none beside him [G-d].  This is part of an overall biblical phrase regarding divine oneness, the classic position of monotheism.  There is but one G-d. 

But Chabad takes this quote in a more radical direction.  As the Rebbe explains, this phrase does not mean there are no other G-ds but G-d, or that God is one in a numerical sense, but that nothing else exists but G-d.  Our existence is radically contingent.  We appear to exist, as does our world, but it is only from our very narrow perspective.  From the divine perspective, there is nothing but the divine –  called monism in philosophy.

So ein od milvado becomes a Chabad rallying cry.  The closer we move toward monism, the clearer we see reality for what it is; in the process, our human concerns transform.  We are less attached to them, even as we fulfill them; we become more calm, compassionate, and involved. 

This book has a lofty goal.  But really, there is no goal.  We just need to open our eyes to what really exists.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Crossing to Safety



Wallace Stegner’s is a great, perhaps brilliant writer, but his work is marred by a distracting and unfortunate misogyny.  This is certainly the case with Crossing to Safety.  Essentially the story of how an overbearing wife destroys a weak willed husband, it has much the same theme as the only other Stegner book I have read, The Angle of Repose.


This is a big and off-putting problem.  Stegner depicts woman as either too strong, or too weak, almost as if the female of the species has no real part in our world but to help or hinder men.  This is a bit of a simplification of how Stegner depicts the women characters in Crossing to Safety, but not by much.  It is a shame that this otherwise brilliant writer and story teller has this flaw at the core of his creative heart.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

There Is No Messiah―and You're It: The Stunning Transformation of Judaism's Most Provocative Idea, by Rabbi Robert Levine




There Is No Messiah―and You're It: The Stunning Transformation of Judaism's Most Provocative Idea, by Rabbi Robert Levine, is very much a Jewish Lights production.  It is liberal and open in its outlook, and unapologetic in transforming one of Judaism’s long standing concepts into a form amenable for modern, mostly secular readers.

As the title strongly suggests, Rabbi Levine is not in favor of the messiah as a single person.  Rather, he is enamored of certain ideas of the messianic age, when people will reach greater moral heights, and overcome their evil or bad inclinations.

Who can argue with such a supposition?  For those not familiar with messianic concepts in Judaism, this is also a good primer.  Levine walks us through the evolving ideas of the messiah throughout Jewish history.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It



Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It by James Climent is an utterly fascinating story about the unintended consequences of the “slave” republic established the American Colonization Society, which supported the settlement of freed slaves to Africa.

Climent presents us with a tragedy from the very beginning of Liberia’s founding in 1847.  Former slaves establish a colony in Africa, under the best intentions of both the white people who financially supported the colony, and the slaves who settled it.  Yet the settler class, who were often multi-racial, ruled the country to the exclusion of the native Africans.  Liberia was two countries, one in which native Africans were ruled by arrogant and at times corrupt official in the capital, Monrovia.

A bloody civil war erupted in the late twentieth century, essentially ending the reign of Americo-Liberians.  But their legacy remains: Liberia is still a much divided country and poor country, trying to recover from its searing legacy.

Climent presents a fascinating story of this alternate America known to few Americans. Our story is also their story.  This book should be mandatory reading.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Ineffable Name of God




I must admit, I enjoy Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ideas far more than his writing.  Generally, his writing lacks thrust and drive.  When you see interviews of Heschel, you can understand his appeal among his students and associates: he had a vibrant, persuasive personality.  Without the man behind them Heschel’s writing get a bit repetitious… even… blasphemy… boring.

These early poems have a certain vibrancy to them, and the original Yiddish next to the translations, for those able, adds an element of solidity.  Despite the title, these poems run the range of topics; there are strictly religious poems, secular poems, and ones in between.  Of course, the secular poems can be interpreted as religious, especially those devoted to the imaginary woman.

That said, some are right on religiously non-dual, such as “The Most Precious Word” were we find these lines: “I’ll make every word a name for You! / I’ll call you: Forest! Night! Ach! Yes! / And collect moments, / weave a bit of eternity, a gift for You.”

Here Heschel plays with themes he will fully exploit later.  And he does so in a more compact, condensed form.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Zen Rake



I know that rake 
A mocking tool
It notes my hurt
Without a word
Keeps a register
Of all my fears
And wishes me ill

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga




When I attended shul on Friday night, our rabbi, who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, called Trump’s victory an reassertion of a white supremacist state.  One gentlemen, from out of town, collared the rabbi afterward to vocally disagree.

Perhaps that wayward man should read Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga.  Newkirk documents how anthropologists and scientists exploited an African “pygmy” taken or stolen from the Congo. Oto Benga was displayed at the turn of the century at the St. Louis World Fair, and eventually in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo, where he was forced to “attend” to the primates.

Voices at the time, especially African-American clergy, protested, but it was a hard and bitter struggle to wrestle Oto Benga from the control of his captors.  That his life ended in ended in tragedy is hardly a surprise, given the harrowing experiences he had in the Congo and America, and the violent dislocations he suffered.

Ota Benga was not considered fully human by most of white America. This was not an abnormal view in early twentieth century. Pseudo-scientific race theories were gaining currency, and Africans, and particular Africans of Oto Benga’s tribe, with their short stature and distinctively sharpened teeth, were considered a lower form of human being.

Outward forms of American racism may have changed in a hundred years, but the underlying premise remain.  The man in the shul should read this book and read it well.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ease my suffering with a tall tale



The young woman that we found on the side of the road, unresponsive, last summer, has died.  I made a few efforts to contact her, get her some help, friended her on FB, and then nothing. On the side of the road she said she was eighteen.  Now at nineteen she is gone.
 
Below are her words. I read here a powerful and emerging voice, struggling to write about unrestrained emotions.  I read here the voice of a writer negotiating the rough terrain of expression at a very deep, painful level.  At nineteen, a difficult task.  But I hear that voice in these poems and entries. They are powerful, particularly the entry from July.  She would have been a powerful writer. So, her words:

August 16:
You woke up today, I'm so happy. You got out of bed, I'm proud of you. You made it through another day, let's celebrate!
You may not always be able to beat your demons, maybe one day they might even win the war. But the point is, you fought.

People seem to think there's intelligence underneath. Please believe when I say that although I might not be completely stupid, I am not very smart either.  I say and do the things I do simply because I can. There is nothing underlying that, no deep thoughts, no brilliant ideas

August 6:
I've come to realize how many people will never mean the same to me as they once did. I'm not sure if I should applaud them, be indifferent, or break down in tears.

August 4:
Whenever someone leaves, grab their arm with a solemn expression. Bow your head and whisper, "you might not make it back"

August 3:
I'm done. 
I'm done with pretending, I'm done with truth. 
I'm done with hope, I'm done with fear.
I'm done with life, I'm done with death.
I'm done with love, I'm done with hatred. 
I'm done with dreams, I'm done with reality.
I'm done with humanity, I'm done with people.
This is not a suicide note, this is fact.
I'm just done.

August 1:
That secret you almost shared.
Those tears you almost cried.
The scars you almost revealed.
Those emotions you almost showed.
The words you almost spoke.
They killed you and you almost didn't feel it.

July 27:
Tell me a lie. Comfort me with a falsehood. Ease my suffering with a tall tale. Help me get over you with empty words. Change my mind with fables. Let me move on with fairytales. Hold me in the embrace of deception. Send me forth into a world of myths. Show me that nothing and no one is what they seem. Because the only truth you will find, is that everyone lies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World



The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Berlin is an utterly absorbing book which details the cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district in 1854.

The book follows the investigations of Dr. John Snow, a local physician and the local Soho Anglican priest, Henry Whitehead. Together they provided convincing evidence that the outbreak of cholera was due to contamination of the Broad Street water pump and ushered in the modern science of epidemiology.

The book has many merits.  Berlin understands that the discovery of the cause of the epidemic was a crossroad in medicine, urban planning, demographic studies, municipal and public policy. The outbreak and the discovery of its source made large scale urban living, without massive outbreaks of deadly disease, possible. 

So although the title contains the hyperbole of so many recent non-fiction books, the case examined here really does deserve credit for ushering in the modern field of health care and its related policies and the most salient feature of modern living - mega cities.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Scoured : a poem



















Ghost trees scrubbed
Scoured by swags of snow
Already I feel numb to this
Why and how
Of season’s cycles
The brown the gray the blue
Circle back to bleached
And I strive and scrape
Exhausted of bounded life
Burnished by dull cold.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Green Bus : a poem



The late bus and its light
Like a neuron dissolving into
Green and blurry haze 
Some light from alternate minds
Gathered on the late, late bus
And the woman in the blue coat
Inside this world staring at what?
The ruddy sun trying to hide
Behind nude trees
Thinking what?
Maybe a lonely thought
Just the faded impress
Of some hurt healed long ago
But still felt

Monday, November 7, 2016

Winter Wheat : a poem



Winter's tenant has arrived
Speaking the testament of frost
The rows of blades like soliders
Guarding the once burnt field
This year the corn ravenous 
Nitrogen mad, enraged
Their roots like ribcages
Leaf and stalk bedraggled innards
Laying stool in the earth's mouth
Now this winter wheat is
A blanket for dry furrows
Sleeping, cleansing, hiding
The secret of rebirth for
Winter's dark night
Of snow and ice
Frost and freeze

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide of the Perplexed




Micah Goodman’s Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide of the Perplexed was a best seller in Israel.  The English translation was published in 2015.  

I learned Rambam primarily from Leo Strauss’ writings and his students.  The ‘secrets’ of the guide for Strauss were the dramatic depictions of G-d (allegorically) engaged in reproduction in the so-called Account of the Chariot and Account of Creation.  Untangling this mystery was the prime focus of Strauss and his students.

Goodman defines secrets far more broadly.  So much so that I am not exactly sure what the secrets of The Guide are under his rubric; perhaps there are many, and his broad approach is in keeping with that.  Goodman aptly says that the Rambam complied halacha from the confusing array of rabbinical sources to create one rational, easy to approach source - the Mishnah Torah.  

When he wrote The Guide he purposely took rational, logical philosophical accounts and broke them into pieces.   The Guide is a book that conceals more than it reveals.  And according to Goodman, whereas the Rambam is certain on matters of Jewish law and practice, he allows philosophy to be a highly equivocal pursuit, open to uncertainly. And that is the Rambam we get in this book.  Both Goodman’s The Guide of the Perplexed and Maimonides are very post-modern.  They are not comfortable with meta-narratives.  The subjects under study are uncertain and equivocal, and so are our conclusions.  Maimonides comes across as non-dogmatic and within constraints even pluralistic.

Although Goodman presents a solid summary of The Guide, I can’t see how, with this conclusion, the book changed Judaism.  Oddly, Goodman does not provide a summary of this claim.  What changed after The Guide?  For the most part, Jewish philosophy is a backwater of Jewish history.  The Kabbalah and its various incarnations have changed Judaism far more than the Rambam’s intriguing work.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs: A Novel




I do not want to condemn Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs: A Novel because it all works out in the end.  An adolescent desire to have all fiction descend into a scenario of gloom, with the accompanying doom, is a trap I try to avoid in life, so why not in the fiction I read and write?

The problem is less with the tying up the loose-end ending, than with some of the predictable turns of the plot.  Even in Rebecca Winter’s sorrow and stress, Quindlen never wants to cause her readers too much pain.  That said, Winter’s despair during her long period of solitude is disquieting, and something most have experienced.  

But overall, Quindlen does not want to tax us too much.  In the end, this leaves us with a novel that does not expand our horizons as readers, or stretch the possibilities of the novel.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Worship of the Heart




The Rav’s Worship of the Heart, as the title implies, explores the emotive elements of Jewish prayer. The Rav examines the general aspects of prayer in such essay as “Prayer and the Medium of Religious Experience” and “The Human Condition and Prayer.”  He also explores specifically Jewish prayer themes in essays like "Intention (Kavvanah) in Reading Shema and in Prayer," and "Reflections on the Amida."

The Rav’s writings are always heavy on halakhah.  As the first sentence of the introduction explains  “[a] hallmark of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach is his insistence on elucidating Judaism from within the sources of Halakhah.”  And indeed he does.  So, this is not an easy read.  He is an analytical writer, completely at home in the world of the intellect.  That said, there are passages where the Rav waxes on the love of G-d as any good mystic or Chasid would do (often while explaining passages from the Rambam):

“It is not a coincidence that Judaism, in describing the relationship between man and God, has taken advantage of a very rich reservoir of sexual symbolism, similes, and metaphors…. Man’s love of God [is compared] to a love-sick individual whose mind is at no time free of his passion for a particular woman… God fascinates and charms, beckons and whispers like the fairest of lovers.”

But such rhapsodies are rare in this collection  This is a religious inspired analytical examination of prayer.  The reader must bring a forcused mind and steady attention to this book.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt's New World




The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, Alexandra Wulf explains the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859), a naturalist and scientist. Wulf convincingly describes the far reaching impact of von Humboldt on the science that would eventually be called Ecology.

He worked at the dawn of the specializations of the sciences, yet saw early on that in the study of any subject, particularly nature, is best understood as a complicated web of interactions between life forms.  No plant or animal can be adequately studied in isolation. As the sciences became more specialized in the nineteen century, his was a voice in the wilderness.

Von Humboldt traveled extensively, wrote a great deal, and had an impact on the progression of science for several generations. Charles Darwin was inspired by von Humboldt to travel around the globe on the HMS Beagle.  The ecologist and naturalist John Muir was moved by von Humboldt’s early calls about the preservation of natural spaces.

Wulf makes a great case that Alexander von Humboldt, a man not known to most, laid the foundation of our understanding of the natural world.  He invented nature in the sense that he reformulated age-old ideas about the natural world and its ancient hierarchies into the forms we are more familiar with today -  a world tied together by intimate bonds of reciprocity. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Founding Life of the Patriarch



Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Founding Life of the Patriarch, are a series of essays from various sources, culled by the editors of this series from the writings of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Like many Jewish commentators, the Rav views Abraham as a Jewish archetype.  One reason is that Abraham adopted monotheism and was bound to the Torah well before it was given.  There is a Jewish side to Abraham, one that was concerned with his Jewish progeny and the mitzvoth.  The Rav also sees the other side of Abraham, his universal approach and appeal.  He will become a father of many nations, not just the Jewish nation and his ideas will move beyond the Jewish people.  As such, his impact is felt everywhere.  Importantly for Jews, the essential tension in Judaism between its parochial and religious goals, and its universal messages play out in Abraham’s life, utterances, and actions.

The Rav says: “The Jew is a member of humanity.  G-d’s command ‘to be fertile and multiply; fill the land and conquer it, dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks on land’ is addressed to non-Jew and Jew.  As human beings, Jews are duty bound to contribute to the general welfare regardless of the treatment of them by society.”

Then the other side.  Jews are bound by G-d's covenant.  The Rav says: “The covenantal commitment creates an existential tension, because the Jew has a commitment the non-Jew does not understand.”  So Jews must obey the universal element of Judaism, it commitment to justice, peace, and equality, while also following in the way of “an elected community” which started with Abraham's call from HaShem.

In this work the Rav lays out one of the fundamental conflicts and challenges to modern Jewish people: both how to belong and diverge from society. Abraham is a great jumping off point for this speculation, as both the first Jew and the first ethical monotheist.  He is the first to encounter this timeless struggle.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Visions of Man Evolved



I never much read the magazine Omni during its tenure.  Its vision of the future was too multi-dimensional for my teenage mind.

One article, however, has stuck with me over the years, "Visions of Man Evolved" from the November 1982 issue.  The pictures pretty much speak for themselves.  The speculative article strains credulity, but at least we survive 50 million years, which strikes a hopeful note.







Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss



When Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir The Kiss was published, it caused quite stir, and rightly so.  Harrison was estranged from her clergyman father from an early age, and when he came back into her life as she began college, their relationship became sexual.

This dark memoir is certainly about incest between two consenting adults, but that is simply the covering for the deep level of one family’s dramatic dysfunction. Love and its absence guide Harrison through an act considered morally abhorrent, and illegal.  

Harrison’s narrative is bleak, and clearly illustrates that the sexual relationship is stripped of all pleasure.  Rather, it is a compulsion, an addiction for a love she never had and desires.  She says: “Like more prosaic addiction ­– to alcohol, to heroin – mine for my father consumed the rest of my life.  I take no pleasure in its satisfaction, and yet I cannot see beyond it, him to anything else, even myself.”

The incest is the symptom of deeper levels of need and hunger.  Rather than fully face the twisted dynamics of her family, the incest stands as a proxy.  It is so beyond the pale, so all consuming, that it allows Harrison “to avoid contemplating the enormity of what we’re doing – an act that defines me, that explains who I am, because in it is all the hurt and anger and hunger of my past, and in it too, is the future.”

So, this is not a book that anyone will enjoy in a conventional sense.  Really, it is a cautionary tale of how far the need for unconditional love can be twisted; although most people would not travel down Harrison’s path, we all make awful decisions to feel loved and wanted – even when the love, as in Harrison's case, is an illusion.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories





Edward Hollis’ The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories has an interesting premise which Hollis largely exploits.  He examines the active life of buildings, from their conception, construction, use, decay and re-use.  

The Parthenon is the model Hollis uses in all his other examples.  This icon of western architecture is contextualized by Hollis, shown to be mutable and unstable and is contrasted to the imperfect life of other well-known buildings.

Sometimes Hollis stretches connections between his essays, or stories, as he calls them.  They appear to be independent entities, and he fiddled around to make them connect.  But overall this does not hamper the effectiveness of this work.  Informative, entertaining, interesting… Hollis has produced an unique book about our built/physical environments.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

William Craig’s Does God Exist



William Craig’s Does God Exist takes you through a beginner’s tour of the traditional, rational arguments for God (or at least, versions of them).  His chapters handle the Cosmological argument, the Teleological argument, the Moral argument, and the Ontological argument.

Oddly, the last argument gets short shrift.  The Ontological argument holds the greatest promise, as it does not rely on observation; it is strictly deductive, while the Theological argument, for instance, flies in the face of the theory of evolution.

But don't fear. William Craig has a number of other books and videos on YouTube explaining rational arguments for G-d’s existence.  So, if you read this book, and feel unsatisfied at its brevity, there is far more out there to explore.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Toni Bentley's The Surrender




Can finding G-d and anal sex be commensurate activities? Before reading Toni Bentley’s The Surrender, I would have paused.  But she makes a forceful and appealing case of how the flesh and the spirit (if we can even make such distinctions) are the same players on one team.  The sex act Bentley discovers,frees her from the physical and mental bonds which crushed her for years, giving her a broader, more universal view of life.  If that is not a religious experience, than what is?

Part of the appeal of this act for Bentley is, of course, its transgression.  It fits well with Bentley’s desire to be free of conventional encounters with men.  She says:  “If a man can possess a woman sexually -really possess- he won't need to control her ideas, her opinions, her clothes, her friends, even her other lovers.” 

The possession, and ultimately the surrender, is at the heart of this memoir.  When Bentley finds a man to engage in sodomy (a word she often uses, and seems to prefer) her voluntary act of submission is a catalyst toward a new found freedom.  So we get prose like this:

“I recognized it immediately the first time it happened... It is the sound of a woman who is caught inside the mystery of the universe, in the irony of the angst, in the place ego abhors. Bliss.”

Bentley is uniquely qualified to find bliss in this act.  As a former ballerina, she encounters beauty in the movement of a body which is often in pain.  For Bentley the discomfort is integral to the experience.  Just as in dance, where the body is flesh in beautiful motion -- while often subjectively uncomfortable for the dancer -- anal sex too carry some measure of the pain of motion and the trigger to transcend it. 

That said, large portions of the book read like conventional porn.  Bentley explains the act, its mechanics, prep, etc.  So, in that sense, there is nothing new here. The book is meant, in part, to arouse the reader.   On the other hand, it transcends porn.  This is an exploration of how we enter the Garden of Eden, and how we will inevitably lose it. From the first encounter with the man who brings her to this state, Bentley realizes that eventually this all will end.  There is no avoiding her expulsion for paradise.  She takes solace in writing down each encounter, like a holy person detailed her visions.  And ultimately those notes and journals produced this book.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus: A Novel




Claire Vaye Watkins' novel Gold Fame Citrus begins with a great deal of promise, but Watkins gets lost in the weeds of complexity, dangling too many plot points and then trying to tie them together artificially at the end.

The set-up is great: the California drought has reached epic proportions, and California, for so many Americans, is the dream of America, the hope and aspirations of a life that is larger than life. That is gone in Watkins’ novel.  And with the dream gone, something has been lost from the fabric of American life and it will never return.

After the characters leave California for the Dune Sea, Watkins loses control of her novel.   She does not sustain the drive of the set-up. So, although this is a good novel, it falls flat in most of the major areas of novel writing, particularly character development and the forward motion of the plot.  



Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews



The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews by Patrick Desbois is not a particularly well structured or well-written book, but its importance far outweighs its narrative flaws.  Father Desbois spent the better part of a decade in  rural, western Ukraine, searching out the mass graves of the Holocaust. 


Without his efforts, much of the testimony gathered in this book would be forever lost.  Most of the people interviewed are old Ukrainian peasants who were children when the mass extermination of the Jews began.  They were able to assist Father Desbois in finding mass graves.  In turn, he collaborated their locations using German and Russian documents.  He even oversaw a dig of a mass grave.

This is important work.  A million and half Jews were killed with guns.  There was no need for capos,  workers in crematorium, prisoners to maintain a work or death camp.  So nearly all Jews were immediately killed; Jewish survivors are few and far between.

So Father Dusbois’ work is a vital part of the history of the Holocaust.  There are thousands of mass graves in the Ukraine. And he has done much work in identifying them, and in many cases, commemorating the sites. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Halakhic Man



Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s (the Rav) seminal work is Halakhic Man; and it both echoes a work it mocks, The Organization Man.  Both books reflect the ethos of post-war America: the rise of collective bureaucracies in both the corporate world and government, the presence of massive totalitarian states in the Communist east, and the rising tide of discontent at the loss of personal identity and meaning.

The Rav, of course, believes that Halakhic Man, the individual who follows Jewish religious dictates, is most situated for a meaningful life in the world. The other types of people he creates and explores, Religious and Cognitive Man, stand in distinction from Halakhic Man.  

Interestingly, Religious Man is farther from the human ideal that Cognitive Man.  The Rav has little good to say about emotive forms of religion.  Following in the Litvak tradition he hails from, he finds Religious Man far too prone to extremes of behavior to follow the straight line of Judaism.  The Rav takes aim at Kabbalah, mysticism of all sorts, Chasidism, and even reading of psalms.  These subjects and pursuits take a person out of the world.  “Halakhic man will not dance on the streets on the Passover night, nor will he shout out his prayers on the Days of Awe…”

Cognitive Man, the person of science and empiricism, is much like Halakhic Man in that she obeys certain immutable laws of nature, and puts them into practice in living reality. Halakhic Man experiences religious enthusiasm, but this “experience is modest, retiring, very delicate, but strong as flint.”

Halakhic Man is an existentialist: “The Halakhah does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence… it fixes its gaze upon empirical reality and does not allow its attention to be diverted from it.”  He does not broker in spiritual dualities: “The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities, for it is there that the realizations of Halakhah takes place.”

The Rav believes that intellect should guide Jewish practice.  I think his characterization of Religious Man is often misguided.  He sets up a straw man  in order to raise the stock of  Halakhah Man   Despite this, and certain opaque prose near the center and end of the book (particular in part two) this is an important work which sheds vital life and light on the Jewish experience. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson



Fortune Smiles is a National Book Award winning collection of short stories by Adam Johnson.  The quality of these stories suggest Johnson deserves the prize.  He has a firm command of a very pliable yet believable short story “voice,” and has a considerable range within the voice.  The stories are compelling and interesting.

A personal favorite for me, as I have often done this myself, is that he writes stories in English while depicting characters speaking other languages.  So "Fortune Smiles", the last story, features Korean characters.  Johnson knows enough about Korea to make the difference between the northern and southern Korean accent integral to the tale.  He does this without submersing us in a story which feels overly exotic or ethnic.  He is just telling a compelling story about people!  There is a sense that we are them and they are us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Lost Girls: an unsolved American Mystery




Despite the now overused, somewhat salacious title, Robert Kolker has written a very humane, non-exploitative treatment of the sex workers whose remains were dumped along Long Island’s south shore barrier beaches. 

In Lost Girls: an unsolved American Mystery Kolker mainly tells the story of the women (they are all over 18, and hence not girls!)  He gets deeply involved in their worlds, interviewing their parents, relatives and friends.  We find an all too common thread.  These woman, for the most part, were not full-time sex workers, but advertised on Craig’s List because they could make more money in a single night than most can make in a week or two weeks. This new incarnation of sex workers are lower middle class woman who just can’t make ends meet. 

Kolker shows us, however, that they are prey to uncertainly and violence like all sex workers.  In this case, that of a serial killer who used Ocean Parkway, east of Jones Beach and west of the Robert Moses Causeway (and, likely, a remote location in the Pine Barrens for earlier crimes) to hide his deeds.  And as the title informs us, he has yet to be caught.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy



The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy is a non-technical book that deals with the Baysian Statistics.  

Thomas Bayes (1701–1761) was a Scottish clergyman who developed the technique.  Basically, Bayesian statistics is a set of mathematical formulas  where “one's inferences about parameters or hypotheses are updated as evidence accumulates.”  Simply put, Bayes allows for our subjective inferences as the starting point of inquiry.  Then, with accumulated evidence through  testing, those initial assumptions are refined.

This sounds a great deal like our common sense approach to life, and it is.  We all make hunches about probable outcomes of future events based on incomplete current information, and then change and alter our assumptions based on the results.  A somewhat technical explanation of how Bayes’ rule can be found here.

This book walks a fine line between a technical exposition of Bayesian statistics and a popular one.  It does this to the point where I think many readers will feel like they are missing something --- as if the surface is only being skimmed.  But the author had no choice; otherwise, the book would have gotten bogged down in technical details most readers can’t understand.

So, this book has a fair balance between the two… if not somewhat thin in math while being thick in history!

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Lonely Man of Faith


Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), called the Rav, taught at Yeshiva University, and was one of the founders of modern orthodoxy, with its emphasis on Torah Umadda, or Torah and Knowledge; that is, the study and practice of Torah from an orthodox perspective, along with that of secular knowledge. Soloveitchik was trained in science and philosophy as well as a diverse slice of Jewish topics.

This can be seen clearly in his book The Lonely Man of Faith. Published in 1965, it bears the stamp of existentialism, stressing the split between organizational, scientific, objective life, and that of faith --- here seen as opposing elements.  

The jumping off point is Torah, with its two stories of the creation of man.  For the Rav Adam One is the man of science, while Adam Two is the lonely man of faith.  Adam One is created along with the female Adam to subdue nature.  Adam Two is placed in the garden not to rule it, but to till it.  One objectifies nature while the other confronts reality on a subjective level, finding meaning in everyday tasks.

The Rav explores these kinds of themes more fully in the more fleshed out Halakhic Man, another venture wedding Judaism with existential thought. Both enriching works bear the imprint of a man wrestling for find meaning for Judaism in our age.



Friday, September 16, 2016

The 'Normal West': My Antonia



Willa Cather’s  My Antonia is a book you would read in junior high or high school twenty years ago given its value as a document about the American experience, and Cather’s obvious skill as a writer.  This novel is a ‘perfect’ example of storytelling prose.  It is a kind of novel’s novel of a certain kind: plot, character, location, time, all fit together to form a seamless whole without challenging the reader to confront new forms.

Cather is often hopelessly sentimental.  She certainly shows the rough side of pioneer life, but it is often wrapped in a sugar coating.  That said, she has a dark edge as well. Antonia, her heroine of this story, is often painted with ideal colors, but she is also a narrow person, limited in her goals and aspirations.  There is the distinct sense at the end of the novel that the men in her life,  her husband in particular, are trapped by her domestic aspirations. Antonia is both the ideal of womanhood and a trap.  

An unsettling conclusion to this novel which illustrates that Cather has far more power and weight as a writer than she is credited.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Kid and the Judge in Blood Meridian



On reading, once again, Blood Meridian, the Judge figures prominently - as he shouldThe character is so multilayered, elusive, evil and alluring, that a simple explanation of what the Judge is… what kind of character or entity he represents... proves difficult.  This writer explores the Judge as a philosophical Romantic, a pre-cursor of a game theory operator, an extreme moral relativist, and a symbol of American expansionism.

These are all true.  But provocatively, this writer views the Judge as a kind of moral mirror held up against the actions of his comrades.  The Judge does just what his title proclaims, he judges the sins of men.  

And the group of men he is with have sins aplenty.  The Kid is an appealing character, who is largely immune from scenes of drastic violence.  The outhouse ending between the Judge and the Kid is interpreted in this blog as the Judge's final moral reckoning with the Kid, who may be no saint; who is fact, is as morally reprehensible as the Judge.