Friday, April 21, 2017

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss



Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss, is truly necessary education for all.  In great detail, Moss explains how the food industry seeks and has sought to “hook” us to their products, most of which are extremely bad for our health.

Processed food, snacks, and prepared meals, only exist because of the special combinations of the three ingredients in the title, which cause obesity, high-blood pressure, and a host of other medical conditions.

The processed food trend began following World War Two, as more women entered the job market.  There was less time for prepared meals, and food companies filled the growing niche.  In the seventy years since, this type of "food" has perched us near the precipice of a health crisis on par with smoking.

Moss’ book is fascinating, instructive, and enlightening.  If you want to learn more about what you put into your mouth, this book is essential.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Age of Miracles, a novel by Karen Thompson Walker



The Age of Miracles, a novel by Karen Thompson Walker, has an interesting premise: the earth begins to slow its rotation.  Days and nights are extended.  Society, by turns, adjusts and breaks down. This premise holds the novel together.  Thompson does little in this work that is new or interesting in terms of story or language, but she has a solid plot device which she fully exploits.

Another saving grace is the preteen narrator.  She is adjusting to her changing world on two levels: as a girl growing up, and to a world that is coming apart at the seams.  Thompson links the two elements very effectively.

We are left with the distinct impression at the end of this work that humanity, and this girl, may still have a chance to survive in this strange world of long days and nights.  But we are far from certain. Humanity is always on the cusp of destruction, Thompson appears to tell us, yet somehow survives.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, by Hal Moore




We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, by Hal Moore, tells the story of the first large scale battle of the Vietnam War.  The Battle of Ia Drang was the first to use helicopters to ferry infantry (in this case, air cavalry) deep into the Vietnam central highlands.  The battle became a paradigm of the “search and destroy” missions that would characterize most of the conflict.

After reading this account, which includes the battle at LZ XRAY, and then the terrible ambush at LZ Albany, it is difficult to believe that any military planners thought this war could be won; America did not have the stomach for a war of attrition with the North Vietnamese, and one of the signs was the heavy casualties taken by American troops in the Ia Drang Valley.  We won both engagements, but this paradigm was not sustainable. 

This book is strongly written, detailed, and packs a powerful punch.  If you want to see the pivot point of the war in Vietnam unfold before you, read this book.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Deep Salt Water by Marianne Apostolides



Marianne Apostolides has written a rich, textured memoir in Deep Salt Water. This work is about abortion and its outcomes, but it also explores the overall sense of the nature of life, how it comes about, and how it is destroyed.

In this delicate balance of themes, Apostolides also weaves a narrative about the ecological destruction of our planet.  People are making choices to maintain life or destroy it; the complexity of these decisions, both on a micro and macro level, is the fuel behind Apostolides’ narrative.  We are all cut from one cloth.  What we decide has a wide impact. Apostolides holds us to account with passion and empathy.

Like all her books, Deep Salt Water has a firm sense of drive, mission, and the overarching sense of necessity.  Apostolides has the rare gift of presenting us with writing which has the emotive tone of absolute and rich compulsion.  When all of these are taken together, it is inevitable that the reader will be profoundly rewarded by this remarkable book.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper



Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper takes a firm, post-modern, and as the title suggests, twenty-first century look at what it means to be Jewish.  

Tapper explores the numerous narratives of Judaism.  He certainly explains the so-called “normative” narratives of orthodoxy, Ashkenazi Judaism, but his real purpose is to open the conversation of how diverse this thing called Judaism really is; in that vein, the books asks more questions than providing answers.  It presents other narratives of Judaisms for our examination.

But in the end, Tapper illustrates that he is clearly speaking to millennial and Gen X Jews who no longer feel at home in traditional Jewish denominations and organizations.  Such people do not know “what it means to lost family to the Nazis, to watch the birth of an all Jewish-majority country… or to fight fiercely for the right of Jews  in the former Soviet Union to freely practice their Jewish identities.”  

This book is attractive to just such people; those who are looking to open the avenues of Jewish expression beyond those developed since the conclusion of World War Two.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante




Elena Ferrante’s Italian language novel My Brilliant Friend strikes a strong note in the well-traveled genre of Bildungsroman, or coming of age novels.  Ferrante’s novel weaves a strong sense of place, Naples after the Second World War, with stellar, on point character development to form a novel that is nearly perfect in its pitch and tone.

The novel does not degenerate into a detailing of the “exotic” other.  Nor does it tumble into the pitfalls of coming of age novels, with their mawkish sentiments and set piece sexual scenes.  No, through Ferrante’s narrator Lelu, a bookish, hardworking girl, and her magnetic attachment to Lila, another girl, equally smart and driven, we get a fully formed view of a time and a place.  

Ferrante has written a fearless novel about a city and its children.  Despite its universal reach, for anyone with southern Italian ancestry, the characters and situations will be (often disconcertingly) familiar.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman



Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman chronicles the famous 1943 revolt.  There are important things to keep in mind about this event, which Gutman’s stresses throughout this work.  The uprising did not take place when the ghetto was filled with hundreds of thousands of Jews, but only after nearly all had been transported to Treblinka.  Early efforts to provide resistance were blocked or stalled; both the rank and file in the ghetto and the Jewish Council still had a flicker of hope that their end point was not mass murder.

When the Great Action occurred, and the ghetto was emptied, there were no more illusions.  The uprising was led by young members of various Zionist organizations and the socialist Bund. Most were in their early twenties and had no military experience.  The commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, considered experienced, was only twenty-four  The right wing Betar movement also had a fighting force, but the ideological differences between right and left were too great to bring them together, even on the eve of complete destruction.  They were never a part of the Jewish Fighting Organization.  Therefore, accounts of their exploits are meager.


Emanuel Ringelblum, a noted historian of Polish Jewish history, started a secret organization, Oyneg Shabbos, to collect details and artifacts from daily life in the ghetto, creating an archive.  Three milk cans were filled with material as the Uprising approached and buried.  In the post war years two have been discovered, but the third is still buried in Warsaw, awaiting discovery. In that sense, part of the story of life in the Warsaw Ghetto still awaits to be told

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Elie Weisel’s All Rivers Return to the Sea: Memoir



Elie Weisel’s All Rivers Return to the Sea, the first or his two part memoir, provide the reader with a wider view of Weisel than either his popular image, or many of his books provide. 

Of course, his experience in the Shoah is paramount.  But this book also shows that Weisel led a varied, well-traveled life following the Second World War.  He was no one’s victim: despite his experiences, or maybe because of them, as a journalist he placed himself at the center of many epochal moments.  He led a full life.

It is also interesting that he fails to explore the personal element of the trauma of the Shoah in his life.  He write about his experiences in the camps, of course, but the post-war material stands on its own.  Again, this is not the story of a victim or victim-hood.  It is the story of a life lived fully.  Weisel presents a picture of himself as a man active and functioning in the world. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life by Harold Kushner




I don’t agree with all the things that Harold Kushner says in Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life, his most recent book. The guru of the limited G-d, of the Deity who does not control the world (who was propelled to fame with When Bad Things Happen to Good People) he is extremely humane and kind.  There is no doubt that reading his work is well worth the time.  But in my humble opinion, his view of God removes a vital part of much of what gives Judaism its dynamism.

Of course, if we believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, activist Deity, than 'the bad things that happen to good people' is a problem, for one could and should option attribute our misfortune to the Deity.  Granted. 

Answers that have satisfied some people over the centuries find no perch for Kushner, like the bad things that happen are part of an overall plan that we fail to understand.  Kushner fails to see how needless suffering can satisfy a plan.  Nor would he want to believe in such a G-d who would use suffering like this.  This makes sense. So his Deity is limited in power. God doesn't give us cancer. Kushner's G-d helps us face the challenges of having cancer honestly and bravely.

Again, why not?  I think that is a genuinely helpful way to view   G-d. But the Jewish soul in me resists the notion of a limited Deity. There is a legitimate, and long tradition in Judaism of holding G-d accountable for seemingly unjust actions and events.  From Abraham to Job to the Holocaust, Jews demand a moral accounting from their G-d.  They plead, seek, and rail against a G-d who will not deal justly with (his) creatures.

I want to have full control of my views of G-d.  Sometimes G-d is personal, and I am devoted to G-d like a friend or lover. Sometimes I seek G-d's succor; I can’t take any more of what the world dishes out, and ask for solace and help.  At other times G-d is a force, an impersonal entity, as the Stoics imagine the Divine.  Often G-d is Reality, big R, the sum total of all that is. Sometimes, G-d is absent, nothing, a lack and an ache.  I look for G-d and fail to find him, like a lost child.  G-d is all those things, and more; the mind fails to grasp the Divinity.   We are left with a G-d who wears many masks. Why would it be any other way?  Why should G-d only wear Kushner's mask?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget



Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget by David Wessel is a fascinating, though uniformly depressing survey of the state of the Federal Budget.  Wessel has written an excellent, easy to understand book about the challenges our nation faces.  He picks topics like the military, health care, and delves into specifics, and then explains the overall implications of the cost of government programs and on our massive, intractable debt.

Reading this book, it is easy to see how the US will become a second rate power if our indebtedness continue on this path, that is, unless we make some difficult choices.  And as we all know, as a society and polity, we appear to be incapable to making hard decisions. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Slaughter House Five: 25 years later



Revisiting Slaughter House Five after more than twenty-years is an instructive read.  In this, considered Vonnegut’s greatest novel, you see his strengths and weaknesses combine as a writer work in tandem to make a very powerful statement about the nature of time, loss, and the persistence of human pain. 

Like all works laced with irony, it is hard to know this narrative at its "core"; is the view of the extraterrestrials, who do not see the sequential nature of time like humans, and therefore do not feel loss or pain, an escape valve, a gag, if you will, that highlights how helpless people are in the face of fate?  Or are we to take this seriously as a real ontological view of the world -- almost a new article of faith?

There is no way to know.  All that is certain is that we are trapped in a human world, with a human world-view.  The novel ends in a firebombed Dresden with the chirp of a bird to highlight human helplessness  ­– thousands of civilians are burned to death, a great city lay in ruins – yet life goes on, without an overarching commentary or elegy.  In the face of such destruction, words lose power.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pig Flies over Snow



Cornell has a long tradition of endangering its faculty, staff, and students, by remaining opening during severe snow storms.  All other institutions close, but Cornell soldiers on, despite the strictures of common sense and nature's mandate to halt human activity.

Well, today Nature won and Cornell lost.  I have worked at Cornell for nearly 18 years and this is perhaps only the third closure (or so? do we count partial closures?) in that time frame. A tough loss for Cornell.  But CU will be back to fight another day.


A message from CornellALERT
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This a CornellALERT message from Cornell University
Due to severe winter weather, Cornell’s Ithaca Campus will close at 12 p.m. (Noon) today, Tuesday, March 14, 2017.
Please use caution while traveling or commuting home. Classes and exams are cancelled while the university is closed. Essential student and campus services remain in operation.
Visit https://now.dining.cornell.edu/eateries for more information on Cornell Dining operations. 
The university is expected to reopen Wednesday, March 15, at 12 p.m. (Noon).
Visit https://emergency.cornell.edu for updates on Cornell’s operating status.
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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Notes from “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth”



Confession: I owe Cara Hoffman one note of unqualified praise: she was the first person to read through my fiction, mark it brilliantly up with a rosy pen, and then look me steadily in the eye and tell me I was “the real thing.” All this nearly two decades ago.

At that moment I assumed, with good reason, that I had met a rare specimen, the large-hearted person.  She was singularly gifted at the exceptional art of delicate, individual attention ­– a species of consideration that we always crave.  In truth, I would soon learn, praise and blame are twins.  

Our friendship soured.  With distance and a cool head, I could stand in her shoes, and see the world she beheld.  She rotated around the axis of Us vs. Them.  Once I shifted from Us to Them, I found myself in an unfriendly state of existence.  

Looking back, that exile was a blessed occasion.  For Hoffman followed her Us vs Them paradigm with a devotion close to fervor. In her first major novel, So Much Pretty, small town life in Upstate New York is clearly east of Eden – a place beyond the pale.  The heroine of the novel is more intelligent, discerning, and condemnatory than the flat characters which surround her; she flees the “Them” of the weeds and the wilds. 

I skipped her second novel.  Her third, Running, I read in manuscript form all those years ago.  I have not read the current rendition of Running.  What I read in 2001 was definitive: the damaged and drained heroine escapes her all too real life of deprivation; she transforms her defeats into victory through the gathering of secret gnosis. The rest of us, the flock, the hoard, simply don’t get the indefinable “it.” We are doomed

This brings us to the very reason for this post.  In the Paris Review Hoffman explores her relationship to a painting. All is fine and well.  Then my home in the Finger Lakes is stripped of life and sun and joy and laughter of little children, and cast under the rubric of “Them”.  She writes:

I spent another decade in low-wage work, living in the liminal, and largely white, landscape between former industrial cities, among people who would often refer to their towns—because there were lakes there for summer people or because there were waterfalls, or because they hadn’t traveled or didn’t want to admit failure—as “the most beautiful place on earth.”

These chilly words fail to match my reality.  Cornell University never feels liminal; in fact, it is a hub, a dynamic place, not the realm of unadmitted failure.  I look at those around me, my friends, my colleagues, and they are widely traveled folks. They read and think deeply. They can't be described by any blanket statement of status or identity.  They are a varied and beautiful lot and I love them. Arguably this region may not be the “most beautiful place on earth” but it is not peripheral to anyplace or any person. It is central and vital to excellent people.

But for Hoffman, it  makes sense.  For Hoffman, Manhattan is now the realm of Us; she and her partner, the guardians of gnosis, the strident elect, bound down Essex Street like ubermenschen, awash in translucent orange light; their shadows are “tall beneath the flame-blue sky.” She had once more winnowed reality and drawn a line between the tall shadowed people of lower Manhattan and the homunculi of the land of faux beauty. My land.  My people. 

If writing is an invitation to a reader to walk through an open door, Hoffman’s fiction will always contain closed doors for someone, somewhere.  Her stories of travel, deprivation, election and sainthood feed off denigration.  An Ur-tale is being unfurled. She chips at the edges of some literary pathology.  She circles back, again and again, to ennobling those myths she deems enlightening, while demeaning the fairy tales of the lost. 

Unfortunately, this is a visible stain on the garment of an otherwise talented writer.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language




Melvyn Bragg's The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language is an entertaining and informative romp into the history, transformations and vicissitudes of English

As Bragg correctly points out, English went through a number of radical transformations while it was the language of England.  When it became the language of America, Australia, and, to an extent, India, the entire scope of English changed.  It transformed from a series of dialects on a small European island, to a world language.

The adventure in the title is journey from the English spoken by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, to that of the internet, the global economy, and the currency and marker of education and advancement on every continent.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Theodore Rex





Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris’ second book in his trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt, deals with his presidency.  I am struck by two things about this work. 

First, Roosevelt came to office after an anarchist assassinated William McKinley.  This effort paid off in placing a man in the White House who employed the executive branch with as much power (if not more) since Abraham Lincoln.  The presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt were either corrupt or eclipsed by the people in American with the real power, the so-called captains of industry.  Roosevelt was the first president to view government as a kind of referee, balancing the competing interests of groups for the benefit of all.  In order to do this, the executive must have real power.

Second, American, despite being over 120 year old, was a young republic.  We were just flexing our muscles on the world stage, and there was a sense of optimism.  Things were just getting started for us, and so many set-backs of American in the modern age were not even on the horizon. If you were young, white, and hardworking, Roosevelt’s America held great promise.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert



Lewis Glinert is correct to assert in his The Story of Hebrew that a book like this has not been written since the 1950s.  William Chompsky’s Hebrew: The Eternal Language, 1957, is well out of date; A History of the Hebrew Language by Angel Sáenz-Badillos, 1996, is written in a style that leans more toward the expert in the field of linguistics (it is also a translation from Spanish, and the section dealing with modern, or Israeli Hebrew, is positively anemic). In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language by Joel Hoffman, 2006, is an accomplished book, but spends just as much time on the theory of language and writing in general as it does on the specifics of Hebrew.

Fact is, it is difficult to write a book about the entire span of a 3000 year language history.  But Glinert has done an admirable job. He focuses on particular eras and important individuals to explore how Hebrew began, expanded, slumbered, and was reawakened as a spoken language. There are two chapters on the impact of Hebrew “On the Christian Imagination” and although interesting, I wonder if the author would have best spent precious pages elsewhere, as Christian investigations into Hebrew, by and large, seldom interested Jews, especially in the time period he explores.

With that said, this is a fascinating book, and long in coming.  The history of Hebrew is singularly fascinating.  An ancient language, it was at once literary (biblical Hebrew), spoken (rabbinical Hebrew) and a language of poetry, letters, and religious study.  When it once again became a spoken language in the late nineteenth century, Hebrew entered the world of European nationalism, forming a cohesive bond in a land of immigrants.  In the process, it expanded and modernized, developed modern literary forms and informal, spoken modes of speech.

For fans of language study, this book has about all areas of interest; we are lucky to have this work.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Miasma : a very short story



A ride with increasing unknown pressure, no resolution.  Driving into a pin prick of light at the end.  And all around it, the odor rising from all sides like a silky black curtain streaming up from the land caked with night-shade

            Cars seats
            Cheese
            Canned fish
            Salt
            Pepper            
            Soda

            She enumerated the needs of the family, but the list was too long, and the trunk was narrow, tall, and all the articles could not fit without a reorganization of both the list and the space in the trunk…

            Tissues
            Toilet Paper
            T-bone steaks, frozen
            Surgical masks… boxes and boxes..

            So she began to stack items everywhere, although she knew it would distract the twins.  But what did it matter?  It was imperative to get away.  So she began to pitch things into the car without a semblance of control.  More toilet paper, an extra packet of diapers – no way of knowing right now what would be key and what would be discarded and beyond this terrible reality, this field of unknowns in a new world.

            The twins were strapped in their car seats.  She pulled away from daycare in a sharp k turn.  The sat wide-eyed and plump, seemingly cognizant of their world, but neither forming a cogent word at this late age.  They took no notice of the mask on their mother’s face.

            “She I worry about them?” she asked Dr. Kane a year ago.

            “No, not at this point,” and he explained standard distribution of human abilities to her, a pointless exercise, as she knew already.  “Some children speak early,” he told her, “but most speak about an average of X months,” she could no longer remember the time.  “Then some children are behind the bump of the curve.  They don’t use words till late.  That’s what is happening with the twins.”

            So there they sat in their seats, still on the leading tail of the curve, too fat puti exchanging objects they could grasp: Dixie cups, paper towels, and gum drops, all the while gurgling and trilling as if labeling the word fresh like Adam.  She watched in the rear view mirror, transfixed as they dismantled the minutiae of their world: a baseball without its leather cover, a teddy bear bereft of stuffing, a plastic lizard without a tail.

            Distracted, she hit a curb and was on the sidewalk.  A plume of gas erupted from the dying Zoysia.  People peeled away from the car like water vapor hissing from the onslaught of a flame.  When she reached the cross street, she cursed, for a line a traffic extended back from the bridge like the tail of a sluggish snake.  She pulled on the sidewalk once, again, pressed down the gas, and after taking out a decorative Japanese red maple nearly stripped of its leaves, was speeding on side streets sharply for another route.

            24 Flares         
            Flare gun
            10 writing tablets
            20 boxes of bandages
            16 rolls of duct tape
            27 yards of plastic sheeting

            She knew she had little time.  When one began to cry, and the other would start as well.  There wasn’t conscious coordination in this act.  It simply happened, just like rain turning into snow on a progressively colder day, or snow changing to rain on increasingly warmer day.  She hope to reach the ferry before that. 

            The single late country road was nearly empty, which was good in the sense that no one was heading toward the ferry, but bad in that the ferry might very well not be running.  She imagined an empty dock, a sealed ship, a car full of supplies and two twins on the verge of a mammoth collapse.

            When she skidded on the gravel of the ferry parking lot, a fog had rolled in off the water.  She pinched her nose around the mask as she opened the door, and then tried in vain for two minutes to get masks on the twins.  They resisted in their playful, thoughtless way, not heedful of the subtle moods and exigencies of the moment.  She gave up, even as she began to cough in heavy air, and as he head swam in the dizzy soup of her disintegrating mind.

            She turned and peered through the fog, she saw the running lights of the car deck of the ferry.

            She was the only one on the ferry.  The twins sat upright in their car seats, improbably asleep as the night set in early.  Usually one was always up, but something about this night, the thick fog, the rolling darkness, the slight pitch of the wave, had lulled them into slumber.  A teenage walked through the bulkhead and into the room with long, chipped orange benches, a closed snack stand, and life vests stowed away in the overhead.  He stopped by her, about to say something, and then seeing the babies in their seats, he hushed his tone.

            “Heck of a night,” he said just above a whisper.  His twanging tone revealed his country origin – a boy from the farm now working on a ferry between the old town center and the mainland.

            “Yes,” she answered.  “Crazy… I just don’t…”

            “Know what to make of it,” he finished her sentence. “No one does.  Everyone is streaming out of the city to the north, and look at this ferry.  Empty but you are your babes.  Crazy thing.  Just crazy.  Where are you headed?”

            “I have a brother in Greenburg,” she answered. 

            “Have you heard about the situation there?” he asked.

            “I’ve heard some stuff, but not everything.”

            “I hear everyone has decamped,” he answered.  “Just left the city.  Gone.”

            “Well, no one knows for sure.”

            “That’s true,” he answered, his face skewed to the left.  “All we have is rumor.  Well, good luck miss.” And the boy left the cabin.


            When the ferry docked at the port, the deep fog enveloped the land.  The twins were up, playing with a squashed Dixie cup, cooing and murmuring in their dialect.   She turned to car up the ramp.  She felt the gravel beneath the tires, but could not see above or below, ahead or behind, right or left.  But she had no choice.  She had to move.  The twins had somehow taken hold of her carefully stowed gear.  With the wonder of naive savants, they passed the objects between them: cheese, canned fish, salt, pepper, tissues, toilet paper, T-bone steaks, surgical masks, a flare gun, flares, writing tablets, bandages, and rolls of duct tape, yards of plastic sheeting, more.

            She was already in the deep haze before she realize they had opened a window, and tossed the supplies on the road.  And by that 
time, it was too late.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Good Mother



Sue Miller’s 1988 novel The Good Mother raises a great many questions about the guilt and punishment men mete upon women’s sexual impulses and deeds.   Anna (as in Anna Karenina?) divorces her husband and maintains custody of her small daughter. Then her lover, appropriately named Leo Cutter, enacts a mild, yet still disquieting, sexual misdeed with Anna's daughter.  Cutter, true to his name, does just that: cut off Anna's primary contact to her daughter, while at the same time bruising and damaging her self-worth, and strength of will.  He finished the job her first husband stared.

Reading this book is disquieting on another level.  Here we have another story illustrating that women will invariably be punished for having, and especially enjoying, sex.  Is Miller reinforcing this paradigm or stereotype, or simply laying out a dynamic that already exists?  Do we need such stories anymore, or are they just the confining narrative of patriarchy?  

This is difficult to know for certain; all that we know is that in The Good Mother, a woman can’t be a good mother and enjoy good sex.  Why this is or even is case, is left for us to decide.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis



Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,  by J. D. Vance, is the book everyone is reading now post-Trump victory, to attempt to understand the forces that brought that man to the White House.

For people who know something about poverty in America, there is little to learn from Vance.  Children from dysfunctional families, raised around drugs, without a loving and fostering authority figure, fall into the same cycle of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, and unemployment as their parents.  This is the plight of the poor everywhere. Vance, in a sense, is lucky; his grandparents played a dominant role in raising him, giving him stability and love. This saved him. 

Perhaps the most fascinating parts of this memoir is Vance’s deep ambivalence of his culture. He knows that Appalachian Hillbilly culture lay at the root of some of the social problems he experienced .  He is harsh on his own people, while maintaining his compassion.  But at the same time, he is proud of his culture.  One section about Barack Obama is telling:

“Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”

In one place he presciently writes about the Appalachian distrust for government:

“This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society.  And it is becoming more mainstream.”

All of this may be true and should be read and discussed. But I must admit I come to this book with a great deal of preconceptions.  My ancestors came from Europe in the 1890s with nothing; and at least one side of the family was worn down by grinding poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness.  Life was difficult, but their descendants have, by and large, left that culture behind.  Rather than ennoble a life that crippled them, they changed and adapted to the dynamic of New York City and were rewarded.

Vance's book shows that the Scotch-Irish culture, with its insularity and sense of victimization, is  a crippling agent.  My ancestors chucked their culture away to build a new one.  They had no choice.  And that adaptive sense, the idea that America demands flexibility in nearly all areas of life, I carry with me. That is what America demands of us, or we are left behind.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Olive Kitteridge: a novel, by Elizabeth Strout




Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, holds much promise in the title, before we even open the book.  There will be a central protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, and like Anna Karenina, other characters will be introduced; yet the central axis of the novel will remain the title character.

When Strout does this, her novel soars.  We fully explore the interconnected world of Olive Kitteridge, her family, friends, and acquaintances. 

But Strout overshoots the mark in places.  She introduces too many characters, and often their connection to Olive Kitteridge is slight, or missing.  At moments like these, the novel goes into the weeds. Had Strout kept control of her material and stayed on the mark, this book would have been a masterpiece.  As it is, it is a very good, perhaps even great novel.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters




In Elie Wiesel’s Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters, Wiesel artfully blends conversational and erudite discussions of characters from Judaism’s most sacred texts.  

The strength of this work is the great breadth of the material covered.  Despite this, Wiesel is never stretched thin; he brings a life-time of study and reflection to these chapters, providing fresh insights and details, and we are the beneficiaries of his work.

If you want to know how Jewish people read their sacred books (or should!) this work is a necessity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Minted Riot : a light poem



The Winter Sun is warming
The charming time is dawning
We stand here at the lip
No more to skinny-dip
In winter’s great gloom

We write a little rhyme
To pass away the time
Till spring’s sun does shine

Then we slip into the quiet
Of life's newly minted riot
Leaves a buds on fire
Our nose the eager buyer
Of the season's fresh scent
Our souls, doubled and bent

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith,




The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith, explores, just as the title suggests, the world as it could be in 2050.  Smith examines this scenario through four lenses: demography, natural resource pressure, globalization, and climate change.  The book was written in 2010, so Smith was trying to peer forty years into the future.

Forecasting is an extremely difficult venture, and given the topics he picks, even harder.  He sets certain ground rules.  One is the current conditions will continue for the next forty years.  There will not by World War III, nor will great technological advances come to the aid of our ailing planet.

These premises are hard to swallow, especially technological advances. But Smith must have some fixed point, or the book would not have a steady foundation.  

Really, we learn far more about the present conditions of our planet in this work, rather than the future.  Smith is also a climate scientist, so expect far more about climate change than the other three steams.

We can argue about details – yet this is a sound work that explores difficult problems.  What can we expect in forty years?  Our planet and society is changing profoundly.  Where does it lead?

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson,



The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, deserves all the accolades it has received (including a Pulitzer).  He has written a monumental book, both familiar and strange, dense and fluid… the kind of novel novelists should strive to write.  Despite the title, the overused formula of "The ____’s Son or Daughter," the book delivers the goods. 

The novel takes place in North Korea, with excursions in Japan and Texas.  The main character, Pak Jun Do, is a kind of clever and driven Forrest Gump.  He keeps getting into tight squeezes (most deadly) but gets out of them from the force of sheer luck.  He sheds jobs and identities like shirts.  

Ultimately, in the dystopic world of North Korea, you are what the Dear Leader wants you to be, and this will spell doom for Park; yet in the end, it is Park's selfless act of love that makes him a uniquely free person, despite his fate.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by John A. List and Uri Gneezy



The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by John A. List and Uri Gneezy, explores the new wave of economic thinking (by new I mean post-1990s). 

Before that, economics has been dominated by theory and a limited set experiments on university campuses.  List and Gneezy engage in pioneering research using field experiments, widening the range of the field, and in the process, exposing some of the factors that motivate the choices people make.

For most, the thrilling part of The Why Axis is that it disabuses us of the notion that economics is strictly about money. Indeed, economics is about the incentives the impel people to engage in some action or activity, or dissuade them from doing so; of course, money is a great incentive, but as this book shows, sometimes and in certain circumstances, it is not the best.

This book is fluidly written, clear, and the authors employ a refreshing sleeves rolled up, real life attitude to help solve some of our most thorny social problems.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France



Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France, takes a long, lingering look at religious and philosophical recluses through the ages. He picks examples that are, no doubt, close to his heart.  There are chapters on the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, the Startsy of Russia’s northern forests, Thoreau, Ramakrishna, Merton, and the poet Robert Lax, among others.

The central problem facing all these hermits is the tension between isolation and society.  Overall, these men chose to live alone not from misanthropy, but from an overriding sense that solitude is the only way to achieve direct access to G-d.  Yet, there is the other pull, toward society.  Often, ironically, people seek hermits; because of their purported purity, they have always been sought to give advice about matters they have no direct knowledge of: like marriage and child-rearing. Some hermits became so popular, they had to leave their huts and seek solitude in new locations!

France’s book is an approachable to a topic that really is close to the human experience: who does not seek solitude, while at the same time, yearns for company?  This is a dichotomy are the very heart of what we are. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr



Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr. tells the harrowing story of the 1876 presidential election.  Ironically occurring in the year of our centennial, this election is probably the only presidential election [?] with historical, documented proof of outright systemic fraud.

Morris shows how this election was essentially stolen from Tilden though a series of moves on the state and federal level.  Perhaps the most shameful outcome of this was that Hayes and his associates agreed to remove the last troops from South Carolina, formally ending Reconstruction (which was already on its last legs).  Now nothing prevented white domination of the south, and the formalization of Jim Crow laws.

This is an important books.  First, it shows how terrible fraud can occur even without an overtly conscious attempt to commit it (although much conscious fraud was initiated in 1876).  Fraud is sometimes stumbled into; a sobering though.  Second, in a bizarre sense this book is heartening,  If our republican institutions can survive an election like 1876, perhaps they are elastic enough to weather Trump.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends




It would be easy and lazy to label Elie Wiesel’s Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends as mere hagiography: simple stories of saintly man without human flaws.  But this collection of stories and tales belies hagiography.  

Wiesel takes these figures, brings them to life, and maintains their human complexity. Hasidic rebbes were public figures. They had followers and students. This came with a great cost.  The need for solitude and connection to G-d was strong, and often stymied because of their functions as rebbes.

Wiesel observes that nearly every master died in some state of despair.  Often, it is not clear why, but Wiesel seems to be telling us that these men, who gave so much to their people, lost things in life through their service; this brought some measure of despair at the end.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery




The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery, by Wendy Moore, follows the story of John Hunter (13 February 1728 – 16 October 1793) who is widely credited as laying the groundwork of the modern science of surgery.

Moore’s book is detailed, entertaining, and informative.  John Hunter was both inwardly driven, a self-made man who became Europe’s greatest surgeon through pluck, intelligence, and hard work and also at a crux in the history of science: empirical methods were beginning to supersede the ancient reliance on Galen and his theory of the humors.  Hunter dissected corpses, performed autopsies, used precise methods and practices and relied experience, not medical books; he applied scientific norms to surgery with great success.

In a sense this book is perhaps a bit too long.  Moore delves deeply into the times, and in the process, perhaps adds too much.  That said, this book is intriguing.  In our world, were we are often confronted by over determined fields hamstrung by methodology and held in the vice grip of bureaucracies – we cannot help but be nostalgic of Hunter's time and life, when men (and all were men) could use their talents, skills, and drive to get somewhere in the world - and to make a difference.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Too Good to be True: Memoir



Benjamin Anastas’ memoir Too Good to be True, should probably be required reading for every young person who wants to write and make a living at it.  Make a living is the operative term. Anastas appears to spare no little detail in this work, documenting his plunge as a writer, and along with it, the rest of his life.

Of course in such a book which chronicles decline and failure, there is no little amount of self-pitying. This is to be expected; some parts are difficult to read, but at the least the author maintains a voice that is at once true and unsparing.  Anastas is also very well aware of how he laid the ground work for his artistic, financial, and perhaps relationship fiascoes.

Most of all, this memoir shows just how dangerous it is to have high and inflexible expectations about writing.  In the end, talent may not be enough; work may not be enough; contacts may not be enough.  Persistence and fortitude, however, may get you through the disappointments. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer




Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, has a good book somewhere within it covers, but it takes difficult, often tedious exploration to extract it.  Granted this is an academic book, where some denseness is expected; yet even by this rubric, this work is extraordinary impenetrable.

Quietism is defined as “devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism.”  The author explains how this form of religious expression was part and parcel of Hasidism from its earliest days.  The first Hasidim, and their founder, the Besht, were "a group of decided spiritual (pneumatic) cast, which fashioned for itself a specific communal life-style built, not  around family units, but rather on meetings organized around prayer circles. As a matter of principle, this patterns served as the basis for the development of the classic Hasidic community.”

The author concedes that Hasidism stressed a this-worldly orientation, viewing such physical acts as eating and sex as holy, when performed with the right intention, but all quietism and spiritual retreat were hidden in the Hasidic agenda.  The "meeting and prayer circles" of the early days laid the seeds for Hasidic quietism.

Eventually the nullification of the ego, or the self, evolved into an Hasidic preoccupation, especially for the Maggid of Mezhirech and his followers.  The Maggid believed that “a person should not pray concerning matters of his needs.”  The Maggid was concerned with “the issue of the nullification of ‘the intellect’ and the nature of thought.”  By eradicating the ego, then “man may acquire a new intellect, a form of pure spiritual thought which is beyond time.” This kind of agenda, the author claims, is a “quietistic doctrine which equated human activity with Divine activity,” a classic definition of quietism.

The Maggid believed that only “spiritual prayer” had real meaning.  Therefore “a person cannot find the way from his own concrete personality to G-d save by way of the spirit, for it is there that G-d is revealed to him…”  The authors goes on explaining that “the Maggid advocated a spiritual life removed from the world” where “the power of the spirit [negates] the feeling of physical existence.

The thesis of this book is rather straightforward, as you can read from the above quotes.  But the tangled structure and language of this book makes it nearly unreadable.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira F. Stone



A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira F. Stone, is generally disappointing.  Mussar is a system or program of Jewish ethics and behavior developed, mainly, by Lithuanian Jews in the nineteenth century.

Stone’s work revolves around the writings of Rabbi Simcha Zissel (died 1898) who Stone quotes quoting a passage from Mishnah Avot: “Our Sages taught: one of the methods by which the Torah is acquired is by bearing the burden with our fellows.”  Bearing the burden with our fellows, and variations on this phrase, is the axis of Stone’s book.

I’d like to say that this focal point gives the reader some traction, as Stone explores the ramifications of this phrase and what it means for our lif life and behavior.  But Stone, despite exploring these words in different contents, offers a very dry and uninspiring prose.  The author gets lost in over analysis, high concepts, and dullness.

So, sharing the burden with our fellows sounds like a very unpleasant thing from my read of Stone’s version of mussar.  It makes me want to avoid my fellows.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Short Method of Prayer” by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon



The Catholic Encyclopedia defines religious quietism as:

…the doctrine which declares that man's highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life. In the state of "quietude" the mind is wholly inactive; it no longer thinks or wills on its own account, but remains passive while God acts within it.

For the Catholic Church, this doctrine, which was banned, is a grave error or sin.  It leads to erroneous notions which, if consistently followed, would prove fatal to morality. It is fostered by Pantheism and similar theories, and it involves peculiar notions concerning the Divine cooperation in human acts.”

Yet it is difficult to see any of this dangerous material in “A Short Method of Prayer” by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648-1717).  Rather than being about “anything goes” and the abandonment of either religious or conventional morality, this book, and the quietism it expresses, is mild and inviting.  By laying down your will, or parts of it, we invite the Divine into our formerly restless minds.  

Of course, if you are running a church, want to fill pews, and fill up the collection basket, this kind of religious stance could be dangerous.  But for the rest of us, quietism is a perfect way to enter into a relationship with the divine unhindered by organized structures, either spiritual or religious.