Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Light Years, a novel by James Salter

Light Years by James Salter sets a mood, a pace, a feeling about the passage of time, about the beauty and ugliness of the world, and our ability, as people, to make the best of the situations we find ourselves entangled within, to such an accomplished degree it is difficult to even discuss this novel.

As a writer, it amazes me how high a bar Salter sets with this work. He never misses a beat. The passage devoted to light, how the sun or lamps or streetlight illuminate (or fail to illuminate) a location, could be written about and heaped with superlatives.

I won’t say much about this novel except that it should be read; this is especially the case of all those who write. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be

Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be, has a somewhat misleading title. Naim is not so much writing about the end of power, but its radical transformation at the very end of the twentieth century and onward.

Power, although in many instances still concentrated in the hands of the few, is now spread out among multiple players - more so than anytime in history. This makes power more difficult to procure, exercise, and maintain.

Naim’s book is wide ranging and full of examples of how our world of decentralized power has had an impact on everything from politics, religion, economics and warfare - to name a few. His section on the decentralized nature of power and the rise of demagogues has a particular and eerie resonance with the rise of Donald Trump.

Naim’s book is part contemporary history, exploring leanings that are very much in the news right now, and part prophecy. There is a danger in this; if trends veer in another direction, this book will just chart an historical dead end.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles deserves its accolades. Like all science fiction, Bradbury uses the issues of his time, late 40s and early 50s America, and creates a future that reflects the extension of those concerns, only vastly expanded.

Bradbury's main concern is nuclear war between the United State and the Soviet Union. But he tackles many more topics. With the human settlement of Mars, there are shades of the colonial interactions of Europeans with indigenous peoples. All of the Martian settlers are American, and most are Mid-Western. The settlement pattern is familiar: first recluses and adventurers, then miners and prospectors, followed by store keepers, companies, merchants, and the rich. They build towns and cities. Mars becomes an outpost of Earth much as Ohio was once an outpost of the east coast of the United States.

But there are deeper spiritual elements. The Martian people, quickly on their way to extinction, are able to read minds and shape shift; they often appear to Earth people as dead loved ones. Bradbury taps into the deep human desire to recapture loss. Mars, in this sense, is a fantasy setting where people try to unravel the terrible calamities of life.

In his introduction, Bradbury explains he wanted to create a book like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but on Mars. In a sense he has done this; each character, in his or her own way, is mentally and emotionally isolated like Anderson's Ohioans. Bradbury’s Mars is not only physically distant, but reflects the existential distance between all people.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Syrian-African rift, and other poems, by Avot Yeshurun

The Syrian-African rift, and other poems, by Avot Yeshurun, is presented in a bi-lingual format, and excellent for anyone who wishes to stretch his or her Hebrew muscles. Yeshurun wrote a varied Hebrew, drawing influences from the bible, the rabbinical period, the Middle Ages, modern, Israeli Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish, English and Arabic, among others.

So, these are inherently complex poems – while at the same time eclectic, democratic, and open in their approach.  For anyone who wants to delve into the modern Hebrew venture with language, these poems are a great source.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, presents some obvious conclusions about the role of history in Jewish collective life.

First, he explains that the Jewish people never produced history like the Greeks.  The bible, although treated as a “history” of both the world and the Jews, really has no similarity to the ancient conception of history. 

The teachers and leaders who created Rabbinical Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in the first century also did not have an interest in history.  They reference life in the Roman world, but only in the context of elucidating points of Jewish law.  There was a brief time in Spain during the Middle Ages when Jews produced what could be called history, but it was fleeting.

The author informs us that historiography only began among Jews in the early 19th century. Then, Jewish scholars turned a critical eyes upon Jewish history.  

I’m really not sure why this is considered a ground breaking book. Anyone who has studied Judaism from a religious vantage knows that the “history” of the Tanach, the Talmud and other books is sacred lore, and not modern history.  The Rabbis did not believe in a linear history.  They saw the events of the bible as repeating themselves through time. We know this, and have known this, for some time.

So, why do we need this book?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Montreal author Gil Courtemanche dives right in, elbows deep, into the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As such, this is not an easy novel to read.

Necessarily, it is filled with barbaric violence, committed on a wide scale, mainly in face-to-face encounters with machetes, knives and clubs. The novel also depicts a number of graphic, horrifying accounts of the sexual violence which accompanied the genocide, and no doubt this too belongs in this novel.

Courtemanche, however, takes an artistic stand toward love (and sex) and death, which again, considering the subject matter, is probably appropriate, although at times, particularly the protracted death of Gentille, hovers above a strange nexus. Would a woman undergoing a sexual assault think the thoughts that Courtemanche places in her head? I don’t know; the subjective fixation of this novel, its keen eye on the existential issues of sex and death and violence, preclude an easy answer. But many times it seems the author is off the mark and well into the domain of gratuitous expression. Women are treated as bodies to either love or abuse.

This is an unsettling novel, written in an odd register, with concerns and fixations that are both mundane and odd. At times it reads like an extended political book, with long speeches, at others, it is painfully naturalistic. The result is mixed, not extremely satisfying, and off-kilter.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible

The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviya Kushner is a book I was primed to love and enjoy, as Kushner follows my concerns about Hebrew, the bible, Jewish life, and the problems of the modern encounter with Judaism.

Overall, Kushner writes well about the topics she sets out to examine, building a wide frame of questions to investigate about the nature of Hebrew, its translation into English, and the importance of words and how they are conveyed in this very important text.

The core of the book has and stays true to these goals, but it is the periphery of the book where Kushner goes wrong.  She is trying to write a very accessible text about Hebrew and the bible, so she takes the language and contextualizes it in her life.  This is a fair approach: language lives in life, and should be explored in life.  But her approach is bumpy and uneven.  The stitching between the didactic and memoir parts of this book are too jarring.  The work does not have the sense of an organic whole.  At times, it appears Kushner did not know what kind of book she wished to write.

Despite this, Kushner’s work is still worth reading, especially for those without any knowledge of Biblical or Israeli Hebrew.  It is a fair introduction to the topics say lays out. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

All That Is, a novel by James Salter

Although it is fashionable, and generally useless, to call a writer underrated, if I were to do so, James Salter (who passed away in 2015) certainly fits the bill.  

Salter saw much critical but not commercial success. He was the kind of writer who was not flashy or ostentatious. His prose is solid and rewarding to read.  He crafts sentences of great beauty and strength.  He knows how to create characters and move them through time, forming their characteristics with exacting detail.  He is a steady, reliable writer who is never, however, boring.  Reading his works are rewarding experiences.

His last novel, All That Is, is a bit more loosely constructed than most of his other work.  Characters appear, only to disappear, and we wonder if they will return.  But they do, even if Salter allows them to wander to 75 pages or more.

So, this novel is an exercise in patience and openness.  Give this novel a substantial chance.  Read 50 pages and reserve judgement.  You’ll be compensated for your persistence.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Merton

Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Merton, is far more focused on the monastic life then some of his other works, therefore this book has less of any appeal (for me).  To give Merton credit, he does say that this work is a book by a monk for monks, but he believes that just as some books written by psychologists for other psychologists benefit non-professional readers, so too will his book.

Perhaps, but the “professional” orientation of this book is very strong.  I practice and have read many books on contemplation, and I can say with some confidence that this is not a book for general audiences, but for Christian monks.