Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Birds of America: Stories

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Empires of the Word

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Hunger Games

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Wuthering Heights & Die

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

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

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