Thursday, October 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Kaifeng synagogue well, now buried

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

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

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

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