Friday, February 26, 2016

Healing with God's Love: Kabbalah's Hidden Secrets

I’ll admit to mixed emotions to the whole premise of Healing with God's Love: Kabbalah's Hidden Secrets by Douglas Goldhamer and Peggy Bagley.

Goldhamer and Bagley’s book is a full-on venture into what is called the practical Kabbalah, i.e. those areas of Jewish mysticism which seek, though human manipulation, to use the flow and power of G-d to help people’s lives or in some way alter nature. In the case of this book, the Kabbalah is used to heal sickness.

Historically, Goldhamer and Bagley are on firm ground. The Kabbalah had a “practical” element, which became entangled in many folk traditions regarding healing such as the intervention of malevolent spirits to the detriment of human life, the exercise of what can only be considered magic, the writing of healing amulets. This was always are part of Kabbalah, and can never be safely ignored.

This book is not so extreme in its orientation; overall, the authors provide “healing” exercises, usually involving an experienced person (Goldhamer, in all instances) and someone in need. He uses visualization techniques, the recitation of special prayers, meditation and visualization, to facilitate healing. He stresses that people must continue their course of Western medicine even as they use his program. The authors are scrupulous non-dualists, and when they write on this subject, we do not differ in opinion at all. All in all, no problem here.

But Goldhamer, to my memory, never investigates an instance when his administrations did not succeed . And I find it hard to believe they were always successful. Hence the pitfalls of this approach. Sometimes you ask G-d for healing, or perform rituals or acts designed to bring this about, and they apparently fail.

This approach to prayer or mediation can have harmful results. It can lead to a distrust of spiritual practices, a falling away of all forms of emunah, or faith, and a view of religious leaders as charlatans. This book is a loving and gentle approach to such work – regardless, the dangers listed above still present.

For me, prayer and meditation are not about petitioning or attempting to manipulate anything for my good (even my good health). For me, it is about accepting things as they are… finding the peaceful knowledge and intuition that we live ordained lives. We need to sync our lives to G-d to accept things – even something as serious and scary as our own mortality.

This approach is difficult, and has problems to overcome. But in my opinion, they far less onerous than ones offered in this book.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad

Peter Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad is a fascinating, brisk read, by one of the few western journalists who ever interviewed Bin Laden.  He is also a journalist with deep and wide contacts in the intelligence and military communities; this shows in the number of sources he must re-name, as they are still involved in sensitive operations.

I would imagine that Bergen’s work will remain the “go-to” book for the intelligence and military operations that led to the capture of Bin Laden until documents and information are revealed to historians at some future date.

Until then, the War on Terror will draw a tight shroud around anything other kind of investigation but the kind of journalistic footwork that Bergen 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro

Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro avoids the pitfalls of many post-apocalyptic novels by rising above the demands of the genre to take a clear look at the prime force that forms and informs human society: memory. 

Fiskadoro takes place on Key West,  called Twicetown, roughly in the year 2060.  Not much remains of pre-war culture expect scraps and bits the characters try to fit together, often with alarming errors and misunderstandings.  In trying to resurrect the old world, the characters unwittingly create a new one based on superstition, folk religion, magical thinking and tribal fatalism.

In this sense the novel is fixated on both collective and individual response to trauma.  This fixation is most deeply personified in Mr. Cheung, the most urbane and intelligent of Key West’s residents.  But he feels the dull ache of forgetfulness at every turn.  Against the tide of a history wiped nearly clean, his efforts to revive culture are largely doomed. 

The protagonist of the novel, Fiskadoro, becomes a living monument to the power and even effectiveness of forgetting in the face of overwhelming loss. He seems better off not knowing.

In the end, Johnson appears to endorse forgetting as an effective way of moving beyond trauma.  In a world with no cultural resources, and with little to endorse the effectiveness of memory – forgetting seems like the best route.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, by Susan Southard is a precise and gut wrenching account of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki, and its lasting impact on the city, its survivors, and Japanese post-war sentiments regarding the war. Although the title suggests only the aftermath of the bombing will be explored, Southard examines the time period both before and during the delivery of the bomb, from both the Japanese and American viewpoint.

This book shows the terrible suffering the bomb brought upon innocent civilians; Southard is definitely in the camp which holds that the dropping the atomic bombs on Japan were not necessity to bring a conclusion to the war. I have always thought otherwise, while fulling recognizing that using atomic weapons on Japan (as well as the massive conventional bombing campaigns of 1944 and 1945) were terrible, however militarily, necessary events.

Southard gets into this debate in detail. Despite this slant, the book is a splendid example of history written as a living entity; her prose combines the quest for historical facts of war with the very real life struggle to understand its impact on individual lives.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Chaim Kramer’s Hidden Treasures: Based on the Kabballah and the Teachings of Rebbe Nachman

As a follower of Rebbe Nachman, I am predisposed to enjoy Chaim Kramer’s Hidden Treasures: Based on the Kabballah and the Teachings of Rebbe Nachman.  I think it is fair to say that Kramer is the most accessible and accomplished Breslov writer for wider audiences.  He has a way of balancing the frum life he maintains, with the demands and needs of the secular world.

So all in all he is not heavy handed in this book.  He genuinely wants to help people reach their potential, both through a program of Kabbalistic understanding of human psychology and Rebbe Nachman’s unique insight on living a more Godly life.

Part self-help, part Chasidic lore, part Kabbalistic theosophy, this book as something for nearly everyone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Miriam Kotzin’s The Body’s Bride

Miriam Kotzin’s The Body’s Bride highlights the author’s extensive range of voices, which is evident from the different tones of the three sections of this book of poems.

Nature imagery dominates part one: “The trush’s song glints like opal glass” “the feckless wing has turned its back and gone.” The emotions of the narrator’s voice are connected to the various ‘moods’ of nature . In “Nuptial”, the “brazen backyard bride” and the old pear tree without fruit are linked: “Spring’s a passing blight each year.”

The second part reveals the poet’s sly sense of humor. Her sustainability poems have a cutting wit: “Just praise sustainability and keep your margins wide” “Claim the penis mightier than the word? My darling, pending proof, I am not stirred.” The rest of the poems are clever evocations of other poems, as in “Thirteen Ways of Reading a Poem – after Stevens” “I do not know what I prefer / The mixing of metaphors / Or the tangle of images / The poet clearing his throat / Or just after.” Here the poetic voice is turned in on itself and its poems; word play and games with language are on display.

Part three grows darker in mood and style. A family in turmoil leaves its mark upon the poet's voice. In “Thundergust” “My mother used to push me out” in “The Marriage” “She stood, small, beside / him, stood nullified/ vanquished.” Family tension is further laid out in the poetic narrative “The Listener” and fills the remainder of the poems with a sense of dread.

The collection ends in “Cemetery Visit” where the “grass is purpled with flowers, / an uncertain bloom / at the mercy of mowers.” After the turmoil of her upbringing, the narrator is set to place stones on her parent's graves, a Jewish act of loyalty to a mother and father who engendered dark emotions.

Kotzin’s range and styles are truly broad and capable. These poems have the impression of a strong hand at work, knowing exactly what it needs to do to create powerful language, images and rhythms.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Betrayers by David Bezmogis

I wanted to be very blown away by David Bezmogis’ The Betrayers.  The novel has many elements I find appealing, the setup, mood, characters, all had the potential to coalesce into a great novel.  Alas, this is just a good novel.  

Part of the problem is compression: it is a relatively short novel, and the author’s themes are very large -- so he has no real chance of treating them adequately.  He does an in-depth job when he does, but the overall picture adds up to a thin novel.

There should have been more character development, plot set-up, and time span; this should have been a big novel capable of handling its themes.  As it is, it reads like a sketch of a much longer work yet to be written.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War

Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War follows the combat mission of Marine Battalion 3/5, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any platoon in the Afghan War.  

West, a former marine with combat experience in Vietnam, writes with sympathy and intelligence about the experiences of infantrymen fighting a guerrilla war with an enemy who is not in uniform.

He makes some of the boilerplate observations and comments about a Marine’s life, but  the combination of his compassion and professional tone prevent them from becoming cliché or shopworn. His voice is real and identifiable to solider and civilian alike.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History

Joseph W. Esherick Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, examines the story of the Ye family through several, mostly tumultuous periods in Chinese history.

The family are lower-level Confucian-Scholar officials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are steeped in the Confucian classics, and strive for the honor and wealth which comes with governmental office.

Eskerick then moves forward in time showing how the Ye family fares as times change; by the twentieth century they are in the merchant class, which is growing in power and prestige.

With the end of the imperial Chinese system, the Ye family fought for both the Nationalists and Communists. During the early years of Communist rule, the family prospered in relatively peaceful years, but with the Cultural Revolution in 60s and 70s, they are exposed to all manner of danger and deprivation.

Finally, with the rise of the capitalist system in the early 1980s, the Ye family engages in all manner of middle class professions: they go to college, train as scientists, doctors, and lawyers.

The lesson in this book is simple but profound. The Ye family, and most Chinese people, adjusted to changing times. Not only adjusted, but also prospered, even in trying times.

Eskherick’s book is an excellent way to view recent Chinese history through a very human lens.