Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass: vast profunditie obscure

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions)

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Torah Sutras - A New Direction

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Birds of America: Stories

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Empires of the Word

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Hunger Games

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Wuthering Heights & Die

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Book I’ll Never Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Garden of Emuna by Rabbi Shalom Arush

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Bahir: Illumination by Aryeh Kaplan

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The World Without Us

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

I Hope You Die Soon: words on non-duality

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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.