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.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic The Dog Stars has many redeeming elements in a novel otherwise written to be larger than life (and therefore, more cinematic than literary).  Yes, Hig cuts off slices of intruders to make jerky for his dog.  This is dark, but with what we grow to learn about Hig, it strikes an odd note. Heller wants his hell-scape, but also a bit of film love thrown in.

Overall, Heller has written a perfectly acceptable novel that will become a movie.  It will have a haunted, uncertain ending, but it will be wholly predictable. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It by Burton Visotzky

In Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It, Burton Visotzky provides us with both a sweeping and focused view of how Greco-Roman culture worked to mold rabbinical Judaism.  

For example, the Passover Seder is quite purposefully designed after Greco-Roman style symposiums (with more decorum, no sex, and less drunkenness).  In fact the classic Seder was celebrated reclining, in the Roman style.

But Visotzky explores far more than styles of eating.  Roman culture permeated all areas of Jewish life, despite many Jews hostility to Rome.  As the predominant culture, it was bound to impact all areas of Jewish life.  The author explains an important point: after the destruction of the Second Temple, it took at least two or three centuries for rabbinical culture and authority to extend to most Jewish communities.  This meant that certain Jewish communities, like the one in Dura-Europos in modern Syria, decorated their synagogue with human and other figures – something forbidden by rabbinical Judaism.  Eventually, the rabbi’s version of Judaism would win.

But even their Judaism was permeated with Greco-Roman culture.  The number of loan words in rabbinical Hebrew alone attests to that. This book throws light on an area of Jewish history that few ponder.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Economics Rules. The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik

Economics Rules. The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik is a rather good middle of the road account of both the promise and shortcomings of Economics.  Rodrik is quick to point out that Economics will never have the predictive power of certain natural sciences.  Social forces are too varied and layered.  Instead, Economics deals with a variety of models (another name for theories) of how social/economic forces work. 

Unlike physics, which has, more or less, a central theory of how the universe works, Economics will always be a pluralistic pursuit.  One model will never suit all areas of the economy.  So, an economist must pick a model that suits a particular problem.  Rodrik admits that this is more art than science, and involves a great deal of intuition.  This, Rodrik explains, is not taught to graduate students, and is largely learned by economists early in their career by trial and error or informal professional guidance.

Overall, this is an informative book.  Rodrik does go into the weeds sometimes, getting off target, getting a bit too technical at times.  Still, Rodrik makes great points about the field.  He provides a view of Economics that is not dogmatic, while also not overly cynical either.   

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third of her Neapolitan novels, takes some time to gather momentum.  But mid-way through it certainly does, and the end is truly shocking.

This novel of friendship has been primarily about Lina; she is, in a sense, an elevated being in downtrodden circumstances.  In this novel, Elena Greco is more front and center; she is less the cipher, and more the axis of the narrative.

And what she does with the life she worked so hard to create and build is astounding.  The reader is left wondering about the spells various characters cast upon each other, and why they fall into the same old traps.  Fulfillment escapes these people again and again.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Translation Notes of "Truly the Light is Sweet"

My story, Truly the Light is Sweet, originally published in Lowestoft Chronicle, has been translated into Tamil and published in Padhaakai Magazine.  Below are the translator's very astute notes on some of the challenges of translation. 


Early in the story, 'Truly the Light is Sweet' by Eric Maroney, in the very first paragraph, there is this sentence - "In front of me there was a little crocus." I did not know if crocuses are common. So I googled and came across this YouTube with a recording of the crocuses that had flowered along a sidewalk. The visuals of what was just a little patch of flowers among grass runs for more than three minutes.  Wondering what was so remarkable about this, I looked some more and understood that the crocus of this story could be a symbol of regeneration - a website celebrates Crocus thus, "When it seems like winter will never lose its icy grip, the dainty goblet-shaped crocus pushes through the snow to put on a show of colorful revival. If you are not planting this perennial bulb, you are missing an early season of delight." (The Old Farmer's Almanac ).

In reading fiction from other cultures, we are attracted by that which is different, novel, and exotic. But attraction turns to love only when we recognize in it something which is familiar and belongs to us. At that point, we desire to make it our own - and translation affords the closest approach to a text. Every word is weighed, and every meaning explored across words, sentences, passages, and across cultures. An ideal translation which reflects its original impulse should simultaneously feel strange and familiar. The language is one's own, but some of the references and manners of speech point outward, which when explored might resonate with some inward sense.

Crocuses might be familiar to those who people Eric Maroney's story, so ideally it should be translated into a familiar word in Tamil.  But it has a significance in the story, and that seemed to be more important - crocus is not a mere word, or flower, it stands for regeneration. Hence, I chose an unusual translation- Naṟavu. It is not a word in contemporary usage; it is found only in classic literature. A.K. Ramanajan has translated a poem by Kapilar, where the Tamil word, 'Naṟavu' is translated into English as 'Crocus'- (Kalittokai 54) . It is a remarkable translation in the context of this story- crocus finds mention in these lines of A.K. Ramanujan-

              "Not only that, he took
        my fingers
                (unfolding now
                like crocus buds,
                I suppose)"

The poem, like many of these love poems, describes the pain of separation. It ends with these lines,

       "May the sweet smells
        of my marriage in our house
        cling to no man
        but him,
        and that will be good.
        It will guarantee a lasting place for us
        in this world that doesn't last."

After this, 'Naṟavu', which also means, honey, nectar, wine, fragrance etc., became the natural choice. It provides a significantly strong parallel image to what is present in the story; even to its conclusion where "the slightest trace of breath" alone remains of the fellow traveler - he is absent and present simultaneously. He has his imperfections, but even in his absence, he leaves behind a scent, a hope, the promise of what has been and what could be. That promise of regeneration is signified by a small, ordinary flower, a crocus, noticed by a man who had come back to life as it were, and whose narration carries traces of its fragrance to the end of the tale.

The greatest challenge in translating this story was the replication of its tone. A sentence like, "Now, take it from me, this was a no-big-deal flower," employs idioms which have no equivalent in Tamil. The light, conversational tone of English runs a risk of sounding heavy and unduly pedantic.  It is necessary to negotiate these challenges as best as one can. 

The Tamil translation of, "I was right in front with the big shots…" might be taken to mean, "I am in direct contact with all the big shots". "My wind was gone…" might remind the reader of a punctured tire- "I had lost my air"! And what is worse, 'fancy hospitals' are transformed into 'modern hospitals'. But a reasonable amount of pride could be allowed for successfully dodging the booby-trap of "he has a mission…" with "he has come with a purpose..." Mission, if translated into Tamil as such, would sound so high there would be no climbing down.

Some words in English are transliterated into Tamil. Spa, Goyim, Yarmulke are unknown in Tamil. They are transliterated and the meaning is provided in footnotes. Other words, such as tea-kettle and rack, are common in conversational Tamil. They are retained. Beet is known as beetroot, 'slumlord' transformed into a owner of rented houses, since despite the widespread prevalence of slums, slumlords are scarcely a known entity in Tamil. Carpet bag has become a bag made of cloth- the unsuspecting reader in Tamil might mistake its size to be negligible, but since this bag of cloth is on a rack in the carriage of a train, I think he might bring to mind a bag with considerable heft.

Such are the many usual trails encountered in the often frustrating process of translation. But the act of translation provides the deep satisfaction of getting involved not only in the act of translating words, but translating cultural concepts and ideas. I must thank Eric Maroney who kindly allowed me to translate his story.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides, a 1949 post-apocalyptic novel written by George R. Stewart, is by turns fascinating and boring, long winded and action packed.  In this uneven novel, a plague has wiped out humanity, and Isherwood Williams, a naturalist holed up in a cabin, survives.  Ish becomes the new Adam (and ish in Hebrew means man) and works, by fits and starts, to once again create civilization.

Ish can be annoying.  He is fascinated by first principles, when he really should be galvanizing his energy toward practical work.  Others join him in a community humorously called The Tribe.  The name takes on greater significance later. Stewart’s post-apocalyptic community is relatively calm, given the genre; it is largely free from disease, strife, and want.  In fact, Ish worries that the abundance of the previous world, all the cans of food in supermarkets in the Bay area, for instance, will hobble The Tribe.

By the end, Ish is the last member of what the thousand or so progeny of The Tribe call the Old Ones.  He is treated as a god.  Members pinch him for good luck, and ask him questions as if he was an oracle.  Ish is satisfied with The Tribe.  A group of young men, untroubled and stalwart, become the new leaders of humanity.  The message is clear: people have had a severe setback, but they are undaunted.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, by James S. Robbins

In This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, author James S. Robbins offers a revision of the famous Viet Cong, NVA surprise offensive of 1968, a battle which supposedly uncovered the impossibility of winning the war in Vietnam.

Robbins writes many things that make sense: Tet was a decisive loss for the NVA and VC.  In fact, the VC were essentially destroyed as an operating force in South Vietnam following Tet.  Robbins then enumerates the many ways that Tet was lost, even though the US won.  Not surprisingly, he points out that the media was firmly anti-war.  Robbins contends the media did not have the right facts in its evaluation of the war and Tet.  The media was looking for quick, black and white headlines.   

As one form of proof, Robbins extensively examines the famous “Saigon Execution” photograph taken during the Tet Offensive.  He argues that in a very short time, the photo’s context was eliminated or altered.  The media molded the photo to further its own narrative.  People did not understand the moral complexity of a summary execution, on a street, in a city under martial law.

Perhaps that is true, but I wonder what Robbins hopes to accomplish.  Everything is understood in context, and through the informed or uniformed perception of the viewer.  Robbins does not make a profound point here.  Is he saying that the US lost the Tet Offensive because of photos like “Saigon Execution”?  This may be the case, but what do we really learn from this?  Ultimately, every human event is a matter of perception.  I am not sure what to do with Robbin’s analysis and conclusion.

Still, this is a vastly informative book about a momentous time in our history.  Robbins delves deep into Tet and the events before and after the offensive.  Readers unfamiliar with this battle will learn much useful information and explore complex issues.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

The Story of New Name is the second novel in Elena Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan novels.”  This work takes Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, the two main characters, and moves them from adolescent to young adulthood.

There is little to prepare the reader for Ferrante’s work.  She is unflinching and completely devoid of fear.  She writes honestly and brutally about her world – post-war Naples.  In the process, she has written a book that is at once beautiful art, and also, a kind of journalism.  Naples is on trial in this work, and the characters face the harsh reality of what their region, and country, offers and fails to provide.

Everyone was poor in the first novel, My Brilliant Friend.  Now a measure of prosperity comes to most – especially Lila.  But this fails to bring her any lasting satisfaction.  She is a sixteen year old wife who is raped by her husband on her honeymoon.  Her fierce determination to be herself eventually leads her to the very margins of Neapolitan life.

Elena, or Lenu, on the other hand, goes to college in Pisa.  She discovers that while becoming more Italian, and less Neapolitan, she is really neither. Even the language is at war. Those who speak dialect, local people, the lower class, who are not educated, are measured against those who speak Italian, the spoken and literary language of modern Italy.  How we view ourselves, and how we are viewed, often through the lends of dialect and Italian, is a prime concern in Ferrante's writing 

For Lenu, we get a glimpse that writing may save her; that her fractured identity may be healed.  But on this, we are far from sure.

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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CornellALERT - Ithaca Campus

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 for more information on Cornell Dining operations. 
The university is expected to reopen Wednesday, March 15, at 12 p.m. (Noon).
Visit 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.