Friday, November 17, 2017

Class & Gender: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests, showcases this author’s distinct ability to take a momentary emotion, a fleeting feeling fed by a glance, a touch, a smell, and then shape her words into a multilayered and dense examination of our emotional lives.  

Waters has this touch, and more; she manages to create the world of 1922 England which we expect, but seldom to never does she rest on cliche or stereotype.  This novel is about gender and class in a typically English way, but Waters brings a fresh edge to these well-worn topics.

Perhaps the novel goes on for too long.  Toward the end, events grow belabored as the novel takes a sudden and dramatic turn.  This blemish is forgivable given the first three fourths of the book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Zap: a novel, by Svetlana Lavochkina

Svetlana Lavochkina’s novel “Zap” offers readers a rare combination of a well-written, smart novel, combined with biting, often bawdy humor.  

The author knows her trade.  She deftly brings the reader through various eras of the Soviet experiment (and the pre-Soviet era) in her native Ukraine with an insider’s knowledge, bringing a verisimilitude of place, a fixation on accurate, often hilarious detail, to an otherwise sprawling, epochal, novel.

I know the author, and this work was long in the making.  The reader will be amply rewarded by the author’s effort.  Lavochkina writes in an English idiom largely of her own making, crafting a work that is unique in the sound and tempo of the language, something a native writer would be hard pressed to construct.

In fact,“Zap” is very different in tone, style, pacing and structure from most novels.  It is a truly singular work, with exceptional insights, style, tone and pacing. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South

In Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South the author explores what he characterizes as “A war launched to preserve slavery [which] succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise.”

In other words, had the south not seceded from the Union, slavery would have probably been preserved in some form or another in America for years to come.  For Levine, the Civil War quickly became a second American Revolution - really a social revolution, as he calls it; the south would not only be defeated, and soundly, but the entire structure of the American Republic would be altered.

In the decades prior to the Civil War, the planter class wielded a great deal of authority in all branches of the government ­­­– far exceeding their size or economic importance.  The war would end that dominance in 1865.  

Of course, this revolution was incomplete.  Levine only handles reconstruction, its failure, and Jim Crow, very briefly.  The promise of the Civil War would not truly be realized into law until the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later.  And we continue to grapple with the issues of the Civil War today.  In a real sense, the revolution is ongoing. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My European Family: The First 54,000 Years

In My European Family: The First 54,000 Years, by Karin Bojs, the author explores her own ancestry using a variety of tools.  She explores the archaeology of various areas in Europe, especially Scandinavia, the oral stories of her family, and the technologies that have developed recently in the genetic study of ethnic origin.

Bojs is a science journalist, and so is adept at explaining complicated details for the laymen without dumbing down the material.  At the same time, she is apt at weaving her own family and personal story, along with the wider scope of human historical trends.  This makes for a both very intimate and yet objective book.

Of course this book would not have been possible without the recent rise of relatively cheap genetic tests.  Bojs explores the possibilities and limitations of these tests, raising legitimate concerns about the limitations, which are often downplayed.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Fiend: A Novel

Peter Stenson’s Fiend: A Novel had just enough verve to keep me reading, even though the initial premise of the book seemed thin or lacking.  In Fiend, meth users are the only people to survive a zombie apocalypse.  Stenson pulls this novel off largely by not straying from the mark.  I admire this kind of writer, one who stays true to his or her vision.  In the end, it provides the ballast for a story.

A note: a sloppy read of Fiend makes using meth seem a romantic or enhancing experience.  It is neither, so please don’t read the novel in a sloppy manner!  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

When Corruption Rules: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns, is an account of the political and military unrest in the Congo for much of the 1990s onward. Stearns does a remarkable job considering the complexity of the war, and the ignorance of people about the Congo.

What we get is an account of how the Congo works, or fails to work, as a political and social entity. This makes for sober reading.  If a culture can develop, or evolve, into such an utterly corrupt entity where any contact with it comprises a person’s moral sense, we should all be very troubled.  For if it happens in the Congo, it can just as well happen here.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Race, Class, & Gender: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed, is an exhaustive look at race in America, both during the time period of Thomas Jefferson’s interactions with Sally Hemings at Monticello, and American as a whole.

Yet the complexities of this story extend beyond race as well.  Gordon-Reed must and does explore gender inequality, social inequality among whites and blacks, as well as race and ethnicity along with the idiosyncrasies in the lives of particular white and black people; this makes for a layered complex story.

Rather than shy away from this, Gordon-Reed dives right in.  She is hobbled by the fact that half of her subject matter, the enslaved people of Monticello, particularly the Hemingses, have little if any written records of their lives. What we know of them is from their own recollections years later, memories of descendants, or any records kept by Jefferson and his employees.

Therefore, Gordon-Reed must make many speculative jumps.  She has no other choice.  Yet these are very well informed jumps, and I believe most readers will be satisfied with the voice she gives to people who were very purposefully blotted from the Jefferson family history.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Lonely World: On re-reading Of Mice and Men

I remembered Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as misogynistic and racist.  Yet returning to the book eliminated those notions.  Steinbeck's central theme illustrates how our prejudices, our social class, the color of our skin, and our sex – erect barriers, creating lonely creatures who are desperate to reach out to others.

Take Curley’s wife, who isn’t even given the dignity of a name.  In my memory, she is a plot device, the floozy who “had it coming” because of her loose morals.  But it is very clear that she is a tragic figure: trapped in a loveless marriage, isolated from other people, she yearns for human connection above all else - and even says so in one informative moment of dialogue.  It is the ranch hands who  paint her, wrongly, in misogynistic colors.

Then there is Crooks, the African-American.  He is made to suffer alone for his skin color, just as Curly’s wife is because she is a woman.  Forced to live in an empty bunk house, he is constantly reminded of his second class citizenship – one which prevents him from forming lasting human bonds.

Then there is Lennie and George.  At first glance they seem ill paired.  But they are bound by one powerful impulse: hope.  The need to form an attachment, to watch out for each other, and, most importantly, to dream of a time and a place where they will no longer be the pain of separation and loneliness.

But in this world, people are fundamentally estranged and there is no remedy.  And their attempts to form loving bonds are so strong, they lead to destruction. Lennie is yearning set loose upon an indifferent world - and that yearning to love is so strong he must be killed before he destroys everything he loves.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Survival of the Chinese Jews; The Jewish Community of Kaifeng: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng by Donald Leslie

The Survival of the Chinese Jews; The Jewish Community of Kaifeng by Donald Leslie is a comprehensive look at the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng.  In their long history of nearly a thousand years in China, this community has left clues as to their origins, daily life, and ultimate extinction.  Leslie takes these topics in turn

The merits of Leslie’s book are the detailed drawings and photos.  The shortcoming is that this work was written quite some time ago so the prose is sometimes clunky, and the Chinese transliterations are in the old style, and odd to read.

However Leslie’s book is overwhelming helpful.  Hopefully, there is a scholar of Chinese and Jewish history out there who can take Leslie's work, update the translations, analysis their Hebrew books and Chinese inscriptions and provide a definitive work on the Jews of Kaifeng.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: A Millennium of Adaption and Endurance

The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: A Millennium of Adaptation and Endurance, edited by Laytner and Paper, is divided into two parts, Past and Present.  By far the past is the most interesting section, with the papers by Berstein and Paper examining the unique Chinese Jewish elements which characterized the Kaifeng community during its prime.

The Present is far less interesting, as it is readily apparent the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews show little interest in returning to Judaism in any meaningful sense.  Although some of the essays on the Chinese government crackdown on attempts by descendants of Chinese Jews and Western Jews at reviving the religion are fascinating.  

Judaism is not an “official” religion in China.  The Chinese government is wary of religions they don’t understand or control, as some of the most destabilizing wars in Chinese history (like the Taiping Rebellion) were led by messianic figures at the helm of east/west hybrid religions.

The Chinese government even covered the old well on the former grounds of the Kaifeng synagogue with gravel, the only remnant of the building on site, the last bit of the synagogue in situ!

Kaifeng synagogue well, now buried

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

I had high hopes for Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant, largely because of the glowing preface by Michael Ondaatje, whose novel, The English Patient, I admire greatly.  

Unfortunately Gallant’s stories tend toward the ponderous, both in style of the prose and pacing.  She is writing for another time and place, and while that does not discount a book’s quality (and in fact, it can be a virtue) for Gallant this scars the whole collection.  I found myself constantly searching for a perch where, as a person, I could feel the pulse of Gallant's stories.  I only found a few.

Yes, Gallant can write, and write well.  And therein may be the central problem: her stories are too solidified, too set into place; they do not breathe, and this makes for suffocating reading.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Weehawken dueling grounds, New Jersey

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a masterpiece of a biography.  Chernow presents this complicated man without shying away from those complications, or relying on overly reductionist explanations of why Hamilton could be so noble at certain time, and petty at others.

In this way, Hamilton was no more or less like any other person.  But as a public figure, and as one of the founders, his actions were writ large.  So, his highs were high, and his lows, low.  This should be familiar: our leaders suffer the same extremes.

Chernow’s biography is instructive not only about Hamilton, but about the entire founding generation.  They were men (all were men) capable of selfless, statesman-like behavior.  But they were also petty, mean, and held lifelong grudges against their perceived enemies.  

What we call the spirit of partisanship was rampant in those early days, especially in Washington’s second term.  It threatened to tear our young republic apart, just as its  similar form of political polarization today places our country in existential jeopardy.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Provost’s Review of the Social Sciences at Cornell

I seldom write about Cornell, my employer of nearly 19 years, except in a veiled way.   The university, overall, has been very good to me, providing a vital and challenging environment to work and exist.  But here I break that rule for the email below.

As an organization, Cornell tends to think and coordinate as organizations do: they form committees and generate studies.  In the context of the long email below, Cornell administration tends to be disingenuous in its statements.  In keeping with other committees investigating similar themes and topics, the sentence containing the statement that the goal of the committee is to “identify opportunities for continuing to strengthen the social sciences at Cornell” means one thing: to somehow centralized the Social Sciences at Cornell, and strip power for the individual units.

The reason for this move is cost savings.  The end result will be some overarching entity, The School of Social Science, The Social Science Entity,  Social Science Incorporated; this entity will supposedly pool resources and eliminate redundancies.

Centralization certainly has its place in congregations of people gathered together to perform some task(s). But it has a shadow side in all but ignoring the benefit of organic growth and the decentralization that fosters it.  The centralized folks, of course, prefer centralization.  It is where they derive their power and authority.  Decentralization is tantamount to disorder, and even chaos. And it is supposed to be less cost effective.  Yet where is the evidence that Cornell’s centralizing drive saves money?  Has anyone studied that outcome?

The Provost is a shadowy and strange presence on campus, feeding money or not depending upon their internal (and often opaque) reasoning.  Besides tightening a belt that may very well be on the waist of bogie man, what do they do?  Why do they exist?

Provost’s Review of the Social Sciences at Cornell

Review the current state of the social sciences at Cornell, and identify opportunities for continuing to strengthen the social sciences at Cornell.
The review will focus on the traditional social science disciplines as they appear in all colleges and schools, as well as research infrastructure units that support the social sciences. However, the review will also recognize and consider disciplines that intersect traditional social sciences. Contributions to the research, teaching, and public-engagement missions of the university, as well as the organization of social sciences faculty throughout the university, will be included.
First, a small internal committee will be convened to develop a document that describes the current state of the social sciences at Cornell. The report produced by the committee will be descriptive—it will not provide a critique of social sciences, nor will it be prescriptive in tone. The report will be informed by data and information that are internal and external to Cornell, pertaining to the teaching, research, and public-engagement missions of the university. The internal committee is not intended to be representative of all social science disciplines, but rather is meant to be a small group with enough knowledge to produce the descriptive report. The Provost will invite nominations from the campus and will appoint the membership.
Second, a group of highly regarded scholars, external to Cornell, will be identified and invited by the Provost to review the report of the internal committee and to participate in a site visit that will include interviews, tours, and discussion. This group will be asked to provide its assessment, together with recommendations for further strengthening the social sciences at Cornell.
Progress reports will be provided to the Faculty Senate Committee throughout the process.
Internal Committee
Co-Chairs: Judith Appleton and Ted O’Donoghue
Members: Rose Batt, Jesse Goldberg, Katherine Kinzler, Yael Levitte, Katherine McComas, Kelly Musick, Holly Prigerson, Jed Stiglitz, and Martin Wells.
September 2017 Update
Following completion of the self-study, receipt of the report of the external review committee, and a period of invited comment on the report, the next step in Cornell’s review of the social sciences will be to address the central issues raised in the process to date.
Committees will be formed to address:
1.     Organizational Structures: university level organization of the social sciences, including academic units and centers/institutes (work to begin late September 2017)
2.     Idea Panels: explore areas of strength and opportunity for radical collaboration in the social sciences (work to begin October 2017)
3.     Administrative Issues: specific concerns regarding current policies and practices that impact faculty productivity (work to begin Spring 2018)
Charges for all three committees, along with up-to-date committee membership, can be found here [current draft September 20, 2017]
Any questions or concerns you may have on the review process may be submitted to

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass: vast profunditie obscure

Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, derives its title from this section of Milton’s Paradise Lost

On heav’nly ground they stood, and from the shore
They view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss
Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,
Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windes
And surging waves, as Mountains to assault
Heav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole.
Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace,
Said then th’ Omnific Word, your discord end:
Nor staid, but on the Wings of Cherubim
Uplifted, in Paternal Glorie rode
Farr into Chaos, and the World unborn;
For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine
Follow’d in bright procession to behold
Creation, and the wonders of his might.
Then staid the fervid Wheeles, and in his hand
He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he center’d, and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profunditie obscure,
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.
—Paradise Lost bk vii, lns 210-31 (1667)

The literal golden compass of this tale holds the secrets of creation. The device is both an artifact of religious veneration, and a piece of technology.  Lyra, the protagonist, is obviously some vital piece of a cosmic drama which holds the secrets of “the vast profunditie obsure,” although the first book only alludes to this. In book one it appears that the world and creation are more complex than the official church doctrine.  And of course, this can only lead to a bewildering drama.

Monday, September 18, 2017

English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions)

English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions) hits all the major Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelly.  

If you are like me, and have not read these poets since high school or college, and when you read them you did so apathetically, then this is a book loaded with gems.  Stylistically, thematically, and linguistically, these poems are at once familiar and numinous.  They are protean forms in the mind and heart, forming shifting, evocative images and scenes.

The Dover Editions once sat on a rack near the register of book stores (do they still?)  As if these little one or two dollar books were an impulse purchase like a pack of gum.  The world has changed a great deal. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith H. Beer

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith H. Beer is the story of Beer’s rather remarkable survival during the Second World War.  She became a “U-boat,” a Jewish person hiding under false papers.  But she went much further than that: she married a member of the Nazi party, became a Nazi hausfrau, bore a daughter, as the rest of European Jews, including her family, were murdered.

There is a telling moment after the war where Edith searches for family in the camps.  When she reveals to former Jewish prisoners who she is, and how she survived, they call her terrible things, in essence equating her survival as on less of a parallel plane to those in the camps.

But this is a blunt and ugly way to view her story.  Beer survived both because of her tenacity, and because four Germans helped her at pivotal moments.  Without them, she probably would have been discovered. These Germans, her former employer, a man in a Nazi office (who had a connection with her employer) in charge of racial certification, a young friend, and her husband, saved her, at the risk of their own lives, for no other purpose than their great love for her.

If more Germans took such risks, more Jews like Edith Beers would have survived the war.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Torah Sutras - A New Direction

My book, The Torah Sutras, will be published by Albion-Andalus Press.  Publication date TBA.

This work is the  type of book I have long wanted to publish.  The book is mixed genre: non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and religious philosophy.  This work does some heavy lifting, shifting the emphasis and definition of certain time honored Jewish concepts and pouring them into a classical, Chinese, religious mode.

The Torah Sutras is the direction I want my future religious writing to take; unlike my first two non-fiction books on religious topics, I will now write religious works that are more activist than descriptive.  The fact that this book emerged from a such descriptive book, which failed to find its axis (and was to be my third book) supports my hunch that the death of the book was a productive "failure" which I was fortunate to experience. 

I want to breathe life into “old” modes of religious thought.  This book is the start of new directions in my writing – a nexus where old and new meet to combine and create novel forms. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp

James M. Deem’s The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp is an account of a relatively small prison in Belgium during the Second World War.  Deems takes the investigatory path of many recent Holocaust scholars: he concentrates on a few individuals in a camp, both the victims and the tormentors, and through their story, tells the story of the camp at large.

What we get is almost a day-to-day account of life in Breendonk.  He charts the course of the prison as the war proceeds, details how prisoners were tortured and killed, what they ate and where they slept.  The prison was photographed for propaganda purposes, to show how well treated the inmates were.  Despite this, the wealth of photographs can’t hide malnutrition and physical abuse.  One prisoner was an artist, and the camp commander commissioned him to sketch prisoners for his private collection. The artist drew one for the commander, and one for himself.  These drawings are startling, giving an inside, unexpurgated view of camp life.

Suddenly, reading about the Holocaust is quite important again.  As the world contracts toward ridged nationalism and parochialism – reading accounts of the end result of this process, its most raw and inhuman form, is extremely relevant.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Mindfulness Solution to Pain: Step-by-Step Techniques for Chronic Pain Management by Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix

The Mindfulness Solution to Pain: Step-by-Step Techniques for Chronic Pain Management by Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix has a simple theoretical premise which is difficult, but not impossible, to put into practice.  This is necessarily the case, for mindfulness demands a great deal of focused attention.  It takes practice and work.

One of the chief insights in this book is that physical pain and our mental states go hand in hand. Pain is a physiological response to something wrong with our bodies, certainly, but equally important in this equation is how we frame the experience of pain in our minds. 

This book sets out many techniques on how to frame, or re-frame, our experience of pain.  This is helpful for alleviating our pain level.  Even sitting still with our pain, allowing it to happen, not fighting it or judging it, is helpful, and a great start.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Birds of America: Stories

Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America: Stories is a compelling read, but not for reasons that most readers may find.  Almost all the stories start off on very unpromising notes.  Moore veers this way and that, and the reader may wonder where she is going and what she is doing.  There is unfortunate goofy descriptive language.  Most of the stories, with an exception or two, begin this way, and it is perplexing.

But Moore has the very strange ability to “turn” her stories around, often in the last few pages.  She veers us away from the verge of doom again and again, creating stories with great insights and pathos. So, if you read this book, stay with the task.  You will be rewarded in the end.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Empires of the Word

Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word is wide ranging examination of how languages evolve, spread, and die out.

Ostler takes a wide view: we move from India, to China, to Arabic speaking countries, to Europe and end on English, the current lingua franca.

Ostler’s book is fascinating, and VERY detailed, so it demands some patience on the part of readers.  But readers will be rewarded for their effort with some firm analysis of the complexities of how languages live and die. 

Ostler does not leave us with any hard and fast rule about why some languages spread and others do not. Often, language spread because of conquest, as Latin did; or through a combination of conquest (British English) and prestige (American English).

Language is as complex and as multivariate as we are; really, we should expect no less.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Hunger Games

This has all been commented on before, and Suzanne Collins has long pointed out that The Hunger Games owes a great debt to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.  

Katniss, like Theseus, volunteers to become a tribute in the King of Crete’s intentionally cruel, and unwinnable, tangle with the Minotaur in his maze.  He defeats the Minotaur, and becomes King of Athens.  

Katniss confronts an equally, if not more senselessly cruel state (more like Rome, as the name of the nation Panem, as in Panem et Circenses, Bread and Circus, alludes to). It is a country where blood sport is both a reminder of a rebellion long crushed, entertainment, and social distraction.

Of course, these is more here.  But I’ll leave it at that.  Reviewing YA books is not part of my bailiwick, and this book has already commented on extensively. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Wuthering Heights & Die

Wuthering Heights is a Romantic novel with the capital “R”.  The Age of Reason is over, and Emily Bronte seeks, and succeeds, in exposing our most irrational natures.  In this novel, characters just speak about their great passions, and get sick, and die.  

Heathcliff and Catherine are the prime exemplars of this; Catherine’s love for Heathcliff is strong, but inchoate. She dies.  Heathcliff is constitutionally stronger than Catherine, but after years of tormenting, both emotionally and physically, those around him, he suffers death by Romance as well.

I write this tongue-in-cheek.  Wuthering Heights is a novel that should be read.  Certainly it makes demands on its readers.  But we should rise to meet its high mark.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Book I’ll Never Read

I am not disposed to discuss books I have never read.  I shouldn’t have to explain this, although it is a habit many people have – in so much as they read anything at all.

But any book that laments the loss of a version of New York City has no appeal to me and I will never break its spine.  Vanishing New York is such a book (and blog).  

From viewing the author’s blog, it chronicles the closing of every semi-landmark diner, cafĂ©, or flower shop. This is an old motif: New York was better in ________ (fill in the decade or year).  

As a boy "Regis and Kathy Lee" where always on in my house, every week day morning.  Regis would fill in the blank at “New York was better in the 1950s.”  No doubt he had good reasons for this stance.  The city had yet to enter its long decline through the 60s and 70s.  He was young, hopeful, and the city reflected his dreams and aspirations and could fulfill them.  Who  can blame him for thinking this?

In a round about way, this is the shadow side of that old saw that "New York City is the greatest city in the world". With that as a premise, NYC is always primed to topped from that lofty perch. The shadow version says the same thing, but on the other side of the coin, in whiny and nostalgic tones, that the city was better in _________ (fill in the decade or year).  The New York City you know and experience is but a shadow city.  You should have lived in the real city. As far as I can tell, this yardstick has always existed and is distinctly a New York historical dynamic.

The problems are self-evident.  The voices that lament the town’s gentrification in the late 80s and 90s (my generation) laid its groundwork.  They came in as “artists” whether they were or not, and laid the foundation for pushing low income people out of the Village or Alphabet City.  They planted the seeds of gentrification – and then bitched when those plants grew and morphed beyond their comfort or control.

My sense is that all this fuss has more to do with aging, articulate people afraid of what they have lost over the years, and we all lose something – who use NYC as a symbol or token of loss. I sympathize.  Loss is difficult.  As we age, the world feels less and less made for us.  It muscles us out. This hurts. New York leaves us behind.

But ultimately, NYC is good or bad according to a sliding rubric that can satisfy no single group, or even person.  If you want to jack off in a porn theater in Times Square, clearly that is a loss.  If you wanted to buy crack in Washington Square Park – yet another check in the loss category.  If you are an artist who requires a minyan of like-minded folks to sit in diners and drink old man coffee as you express ideas or concepts, clearly something vital is long gone. 

Ultimately, people will write eulogies to dying worlds.  Why not? You can no longer get a sandwich at the Carnegie Deli (as if delis were ever eternal?)  So lament and cry.  Write books about it. Despite being born in NYC, this is not my concern.  I try not to fall into the trap of narrowly defining my worth or joy to a place. In our world of rapid change, to do so seems masochistic.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Garden of Emuna by Rabbi Shalom Arush

The Garden of Emuna is an extremely doctrinaire Bratslav book.  HaShem is good, therefore everything that happens to us is good, no matter how bad it may seem.  I have nothing against this particular religious perspective.  Very often negative events in our life, down the road, flower into positives.  Of course, there are the extreme cases like dead children and the Holocaust.  But Rabbi Arush more or less steers away from these cases, and for good reasons. 
Bad things happen to us because we do not have sufficient emuna – or faith.  It is not HaShem’s fault, but our fault that bad things came our way.  But Rabbi Arush gets himself into a little trap:  the obstacles that life brings our way are for our own good, in that surmounting them helps us build more emuna.  Yet the obstacles came because as punishment for our lack of emuna.  No matter what the case, Rabbi Arush sees any bad occurrence as springing from a lack of emuna – no matter how much you claim you have emuma, if you suffer, in Rabbi Arush’s calculus, it is your own fault.

Yet another issue: Rabbi Arush claims we can get nearly anything we want if we pray with sufficient intensity.  We didn’t get it?  We’ll, you did not pray enough.  You pray some more and still have cancer, well, still not enough.  Pray more for remission.

This book does have some of the nourishing spiritual fare I associate with Bratslaver Hasidim (which has influenced my Jewish practice enormously) especially in chapter four.  Yet this book, for all its talk about being always positive, is stern and puritanical.  So, I warn you, this book is not for people with poor self-esteem.  You will come away from this work with a profound feeling of guilt and inadequacy.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Bahir: Illumination by Aryeh Kaplan

The Bahir: Illumination, by Aryeh Kaplan, is one of the legs in the three legged stool of Kabbalistic books.  Along with the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, and the Zohar, Jewish mysticism is more or less  based on these works.  The Bahir is an early work, and in it can be found most of the ideas that would fully flower in later Jewish mystical traditions, including the "Tree of Life" and the Sephirot.

The layout of the book is challenging.  Kaplan’s translations and commentaries are together, but to read the Hebrew text, which is vital, you have to flip to the back of the book.  I photo-copied the Hebrew text, so I could follow along.  

But this is petty concern.  We are lucky to have this English translation and commentary.  For one interested in expanding his or her Jewish religious literacy, this book is essential.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die, by Garrett M. Graff, is a revealing history of the attempts by the US government to insure the continuity of government (COG) since the dawn of the Cold War, and with renewed and slightly shifted vigor after 911.

The title is telling.  At the beginning of the Cold War, there were plans in place to save large population centers through evacuations.  But as nuclear weapons grew in size and strength, these efforts were largely abandoned.  The government, particularly the Executive Branch, was widely acknowledged to be the only entity that could  possibly survive a nuclear exchange with the USSR and govern what was left of the country.

Graff’s book is detailed, knowledgeable, and for those of us who lived during the Cold War, frightening in the sense of how close we came to nuclear war through accidents, computer malfunctions, and faculty communications.  At times only luck saved us from Armageddon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation

Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation as translated by Aryeh Kaplan, is a nearly impenetrable book, examining the theogony of G-d’s attributes.  This book is written in a highly esoteric style.  The Hebrew, while formally simple, is compressed and open to many interpretations.

Kaplan takes a decidedly mathematical and mystical approach to this work.   He believes Jewish mystics used this work to induce numinous states.  He may very well be right.  The work also has a strong and unavoidable tone of magic; for example, astrology, largely forbidden in the Jewish tradition, is given a pass in the Sefer Yetzirah.  In a note Kaplan explains:

There is a commandment, “There shall not be found among you… one who calculates times.  In the Talmud, according to Rabbi Akiba, this specifically applies to one who calculates auspicious times, and a number of authorities accept this opinion as binding.  This, however, only means that one should not make astrology a dominant influence in one’s daily life… when one is engaged in these mystical techniques this prohibition is not applicable.

So, astrology is a tool used in Sefer Yetzirah, but never is prime directive.  Instead, the book of creation blends philosophy, midrash, astrology and earlier kabbalistic works in a melange.  In the end, it really belongs only to itself; read it, and it will be more than apparent. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers: Exploring Spirituality and Existence in the Modern World by Richard Sylvester

Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers: Exploring Spirituality and Existence in the Modern World by Richard Sylvester examines the author’s uncompromising stance on non-duality.  This books is a series questions asked and answered by via email.  There is no particular order to the emails.  There is a great deal of repetition.  If you are unfamiliar with Sylvester’s view on non-duality, this is not necessarily bad; the repetition reinforces the topics, which are difficult to express in words.

Sylvester offers no system or strategy to “see” our non-dual status. We are already there, so there is nothing to be done.  We may be offered an experience of non-duality, and from that see that the world of our perceptions is like a “walking dream” and there is no self.  For many, that experience leads to depression.  If the world of phenomenon, where most of us get our vital reinforcement, is empty or a “walking dream,” then what is the point of anything?

But Sylvester explains that a second “state” can often arise, where we see meaning, or love, in the emptiness.  Beyond those two things, the author eschews any system (if these two points can even be called any program at all).  People are “awakened” to non-duality with often profound results.  Others simply see it as a given, and it has a minimal impact on them.  Still others plunge into crisis. 

I don’t agree with all that Sylvester writes.  I still think certain religious practices can help us understand our non-dual state.  He mentions Kabbalah in a limited, dismissively sense with apparently no much knowledge of the tradition.  But I understand Sylvester’s skepticism of methods.  Some people use them and they work; others do, and they fail to work.  A great deal of emotional discord can be created by the spiritual quest. We must be careful to not be always 'questing.'

In the end, Sylvester has the same advice for most of his correspondents who are undergoing a crisis or striving to understand non-dualism. Take a walk in the park.  Have a cup of tea and a cookie.  There is good reason he tells us this: we can’t intellectually or emotionally understand non-duality.  Perhaps the best places to 'experience' it are in simple tasks divorced from any process.  For this author, there is no difference from seeing the face of God and having a cup of tea.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph Ellis

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph Ellis, examines the role of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in the creation of the Constitution.

For those unfamiliar with American history, it seems as if a national sense existed in 1776, when we declared independence from Britain.  But as Ellis shows, the picture was far more complex.  The document for a common government following 1776, the Articles of Confederation, in many ways recapitulated the dysfunction of the Continental Congress.  It was more about the rights of the states than some overarching national government.

The quartet of the title had born the brunt of this system either in the Continental Army, or by serving in the Confederation Congress and sought to redress its shortcomings.

By the end of the Constitutional convention in 1797, the tide had decisively moved away from the moribund confederation, to the structure of government we more or less have today.  Ellis is correct in calling this a second American Revolution.  The quartet sought to enshrine the revolutionary spirit of 1776 in the Constitution.  The Articles threatened to tear the country apart, creating little republics or dictatorships at war with each other.  The Constitution sought to balance blocks of power against each other to promote comprise and prevent tyranny.

Ellis makes fascinating observations about the outcome of the Constitution.  It was felt by all delegates, especially by James Madison and Gouverneur Morris, who more or less framed the document, that it was incomplete in many ways.  They believed it would grow and evolve to meet the times.  So much for “original intent” conservative jurists who see the constitution as having some basic and unchanging meaning, as if frozen in amber.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The Story of the Lost Child is Elena Ferrante’s final of her four “Neapolitan” novel series.  Ferrante certainly delivers in this final novel, wrapping up the saga of Lenu and Lina, and along with them, their poor neighborhood in Naples, its residents, and the trajectory of modern Italy.

I suppose part of the success of this novel, and the series, is the sense of ego-related claustrophobia that Ferrante is able to express. She is so skilled at parsing the lives of her characters, their minute motivations, their shades of thought and feelings, that it is often a relief to put the books down.  At times it is almost too intimate and probing.

Regarding this novel, I think Ferrante overplays her hand when the dolls are delivered near at the end.  It strains credibility.  It is obvious what she is trying to do, but in a novel of subtle chords, this note is a bit shrill.

Beyond that Ferrante never really misses the mark; she has created a masterful work about the heart of friendship.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The World Without Us

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is supposed to explore what would or could happen to our world if humans suddenly ceased to exist.  Weisman does do this, but he must of necessity discuss how we have altered/destroyed much of our world, in order to illustrate what would happen if we were to disappear.

So, Weisman takes us on a tour from the mass extinction of the passenger pigeon in North American, to the Moa bird in New Zealand.  We look at climate change, nuclear waste, and plastic islands in the oceans.  It is a depressing catalog.

The only bright spot is that, to quote Jurassic Park, nature finds a way.  Animals, plants and birds no longer found in Korea thrive in the depopulated DMZ.  In the quarantine zone around Chernobyl, wolves have returned, along with moose, deer, badger, and horses.

The take away, the world will do fine without us.  In fact, it might just thrive.

Monday, June 19, 2017

I Hope You Die Soon: words on non-duality

Richard Sylvester, in his book I Hope You Die Soon: Words on Non-Duality, expresses a form on non-duality that is radical to the core, and extremely difficult to express in language. Because non-duality means there is no self, no “I” separate from the world, words, which describe our physical and mental experience, fail us on this topic.  

For non-dualists are always part of the world.  For various reasons, primarily, I think, our biological heritage, we fail to view existence as non-dualists; we tell ourselves “stories” about reality, that are narrowly true, if true at all.  So, I agree with Sylvester on this account.  Where we part company a bit is his idea of how we get to such a state of “awakening,” to use Sylvester’s term.  For Sylvester, we can’t do anything to bring it on.  Not meditation, or drugs, or religious practice.  It simply happens.  It happens because it is always there anyway.  He explains one of these experiences (which, of course, is not an experience at all, it is just the way things are, in this passage):

…I am standing in a shop in an ordinary country town. Suddenly but with great gentleness the ordinary is displaced by the extraordinary. The person again disappears completely and now it is seen clearly that awareness is everywhere and everything. The localized sense of self is revealed to be just an appearance. There is no location, no here or there. There is only oneness appearing as everything and this is what ‘I’ really am. ‘I’ am the shop, the people, the counter, the walls and the space in which everything appears. When the self disappears, and awareness is seen as everything, then this is seen for what it is, a wonderful hologram sustained by love.

What makes Sylvester radical is that he does preach a path or technique that brings us to the awareness of our non-dual state.  It just happens.  It will be or not be.  He fond of such deterministic language.  We can do nothing at all. For many, this idea will be difficult to swallow.  We want to be spiritual or religious seekers, either attempting to merge with the Greater Whole, of God, or Whatever.  We want action.  Sylvester sees this as futile.  Things will be, or they won’t be.  We move from state to state without control.  We are already "there."  There is nothing else. We have to grow accustomed to his own brand of quietism without a fuss. Otherwise, this book will infuriate you.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales

Margaret Atwood’s collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales, overwhelming focuses on macabre and lightly Gothic tales.  But the first three don’t really fall into any wicked or macabre categories.  They deal with the circle of woman who live or have lived with an aging, and finally, dead poet.  They don't belong in this collection.

“Touching the Dusties” is far more interesting, told from the prospective of an elderly woman growing blind in an old age home. The place is best by a group of terrorists in baby masks, set on killing the residents of expensive old age facilities who consume the resources on our starving planet.

These are all accomplished stories.  But Atwood is one of the one percent of great authors, so I expect much when I pick up her books (in the acknowledgment section, she thanks her office staff.  She has an office staff!)  So it is disappointing when some of the tales here have predictable paths. No one tell her no: this story does not work. But stories like “The Dead Hand that Loves You” and “Touching the Dusties” balance those out.

So, in the end, maybe the staff is worth the expense.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel chronicles the tale of Christopher Knight who spent twenty-seven years living a life of seclusion in the Maine woods.

Finkel has written a fine book, but I don’t think he really gets at the heart of the reason why Knight left society.  Part of this is not Finkel’s fault.  Knight expresses his motivations very enigmatically, and tends to downplay his deeds.  There is more to his story, and despite the fact that Knight tells Finkel he wants him to be his Boswell, you won’t find learn Knight's secrets in this book.

So, despite Finkel's wealth of detail, there is a curious hole in the center of this book.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry is a fascinating look at the four years of James K. Polk’s presidency (1845-1849).  Often overlooked by both historians and non-historians alike, Polk accomplished more in four years than most presidents do in eight. 

By far his greatest accomplishment was making the United States a continental power.  After years of dissatisfying and often contentious joint rule with Great Britain in the Oregon Territory, Polk negotiated the current border between the US and Canada. Although his predecessor, John Taylor, laid the ground work for the annexation of the Republic of Texas into the Union, it was Polk who sealed the deal.

This led directly into the Mexican-American War, where the US seized much of the American southwest and California.  Polk gave America geographical depth, and access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  He laid the groundwork for some of the issues that would cause the Civil War (should slavery be permitted in the new territories) and America’s rise as a world power in the twentieth century. 

A detailed and exacting book, A Country of Vast Designs can only further a reader’s understanding of our unique history.