Thursday, December 20, 2018

You are wise and You are young

by the late Carver Lamb

He is protective
Like her father

And the sharp
Stirrings of this love
Hobble him.

The love of the
Young woman
Has shambled
The old bastard

This woman firm
Never craving
His old wares
His water runs
To her red

And what can he say?
“You are wise
And you are young”

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Secret Knowledge of Water: There Are Two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning

Craig Childs' The Secret Knowledge of Water: There Are Two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning is difficult to review, as it is about one man’s fascination, really, enthrallment, fear and respect for water in the desert.

This simple sentence does not do justice to Child’s book.  In his quest to find water in the desert, Child delves deep into what it means to be alive, to exist, to be a rock, a tree, or a simple organism.  In this book Childs has created a meditation on life and death, fecundity and bareness - on the nature of the universe.  

The book is unavoidably spiritual in tone, but Child is well-versed in the science of water.  There is no divide between spirit and science here.  The writing is superb; even if you have no interest in water, Childs will pull you in with his compelling language, his fascinating marshaling of facts, and his infectious curiosity - even his evident madness.

This is by far the most compelling book about “nature” I have read in a very long time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

Erik Larson’s Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History is the kind of book we can expect of Larson, an informative and entertaining piece of non-fiction.  Larson documents the killer Hurricane that struck Galveston Texas in 1900, mainly through the lens of the chief government meteorologist, the Isaac of the title.

But the book is far broader than one man’s story.  It is about the emergence of meteorology and weather forecasting with its accompanying strengths and pitfalls.  This book is also about how weather can destroy not only a community that is rebuilt, but its future. 

Galveston was poised to be Texas’ great port city.  The hurricane exposed how vulnerable it was to massive storms, and that, along with the discovery of oil around Houston, pushed Galveston aside.

A city molded and destroyed by climate – still a timely story.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Ma’aseh Book

The Ma’aseh Book, a collection of stories and legends, is here, in this edition, divided into three parts.  The first is devoted to popular stories told in the midrash and Talmud.  They ring odd to the modern ear; a very helpful companion to this book is Ruth Calderon’s “A Bride for One Night” were she tackles these strange and disturbing tales.  She contextualizes many of these stores with an even hand

The tales in this book are worth reading.  We just need a teacher.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Night Wanderers: Uganda's Children and the Lord's Resistance Army

The Night Wanderers: Uganda's Children and the Lord's Resistance Army by Wojciech Jagielski, tells a story of such utter horror that it is hard to believe that people committed such acts.  And I say this fully knowing the atrocities humanity has committed in our long and often violent, ugly history.

In Uganda, children were (and are?) used as instruments of terror.  What this author shows us is a society whose very foundations are corroding.  This book is also fascinating in showing the role of spirit possession in African culture; it can explain nearly every event, no matter how horrifying.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Jew in the Woods - Pages from a Diary

A Jew in the Woods - Pages from a Diary by Berl Kagan (Kahn) is a unique Holocaust account as the author wrote this journal between the sentences of a book, while in hiding in the Lithuanian countryside.  Kagan explains the hardships he and his comrades suffer hiding in the barn of a friendly (and brave) Lithuanian peasant.  Later, Kagan must live in the woods and brush outside the farm.

Against the odds, he and his wife survive the Shoah.  Reading his account, it is difficult to imagine the privation, the exposure to the winter and heat, the insects and the fear of discovery.  Kagan experiences this dissonance too, for the diary ends with an explanation: after twelve years, he reads the account again.  He no longer imagines having lived through his experiences; it is a testimony to human durability, he explains.  People will do what they need to survive.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson is a book which Larson does best: an intelligent non-fiction narrative that reads like fiction.  The title is a bit salacious, but Larson must sell books.

As the Dodd family becomes more exposed to the nascent Nazi government, it is difficult not to draw parallels with today’s events.  The United State government fails to realize the Nazi menace, or decides to ignore it due to more pressing matters.  Ambassador Dodd realizes, fairly quickly, that the Nazis mean to conquer all of Europe, regardless of their protestations of peace.

We are now knocking on a door much like this. When a radical menace exists, how do we act?  Do we hope that menace will mellow with power?  Do we take steps to meet and squash that menace?  Do we trample the rules of democracy to save democracy from autocrats?  Difficult questions.

Looking back, it is obvious that France and Britain should have invaded Germany once they began to militarize in violation of the Versailles Treaty.  They had a window, but no one stepped through it, and millions upon millions died.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Three Swastikas in 9 Days: Anti-Semitic Incidents on Cornell’s North Campus Stoke Fear

As these incidents at Cornell continue, it is all the more apparent that Cornell is not a safe place for Jewish people. Or more charitably, it is growing less safe every day. I get the feeling we are more and more on our own despite the good intentions of many. It may be time to firm up and organize our own resources for community awareness and self-protection

The slow and halting response by the Cornell administration only provides incentives for people to commit anti-semitic acts. Only swift and immediate action and a punishment with real teeth will make the price of anti-Semitic expression too costly for even for the most hardened Jewish hater. Cornell needs to do better. If not, we Jews must take control of every aspect of our welfare and safety.

My great concern is that the slow response is indicative that non-jews at Cornell are beginning to accept anti-semitic incidents as a part of our new social landscape. I hope the administration and Mr Lombardi's delay is not indicative of this shifting level of tolerance toward antisemitism - even passively. All forms of racial, religious and ethnic bigotry are abhorrent. But the rise of American anti-semitism should worry Jews, non-jews and Mr Lombardi. Growing anti-semitism in a culture is an indication of a social disease driven by conspiratorial thinking, the failure to see reality as it is, and the need to simplify a society's problems to a easy to digest , and hate filled formulas. All this bodes poorly for American democracy.

Three Swastikas in 9 Days: Anti-Semitic Incidents on Cornell’s North Campus Stoke Fear

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel

Jesmyn Ward novel Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel, is a very conventionally successful novel which highlights a community which often does not have a “voice” in the wider world.  Ward is strong writer, and knows how to exploit the form of the novel.

I suppose I am a bit disappointed by the multiple voices for each chapter.  There is not much of a difference in tone or sentiment from voice to voice (although what they express is mostly profound and moving).  I would have also liked a lighter touch on the multiple ghosts that inhabit this novel.  The theme is not lightly used, and gets cumbersome toward the end.

With all that, this novel is still a tantalizing read.  Ward delivers a strong work.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

Mordecai Kaplan, lived to 102, June 11, 1881 – November 8, 1983

We are very fortunate that Mel Scult has written The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan.  Kaplan is one of the most influential Jewish figures of the twentieth century, but he is often not credited for the legacy he left behind.  Scult goes to great lengths to show the strengths of Kaplan, how he changed the nature of modern Judaism, while never shying away from some of Kaplan's weaknesses. 

Kaplan set about on the very necessary project of reorienting Judaism for twentieth century American Jews.  He was a naturalist and process theologian, who was influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey, William James, and the writings of Emerson.

Kaplan is the father of reconstructionist Judaism, and part of the reason he is not well known, and is no longer read widely today, is from the very dynamism of the movement he formed.  In moving Judaism away from fixed and traditional worship models, he created a process rather than an entity.  Most Jewish people who are reconstructionist or are influenced by it would not find much in Kaplan’s writings that is overtly familiar.

In 1945, Kaplan was excommunicated by a group of 200
orthodox rabbis for the publication of his
 Sabbath Prayer Book 

Scult’s book shows us why this is the case; Kaplan crafted a creativity unstable movement.  Designed to change, in many ways it has changed beyond anything Kaplan would imagine.  The author is also very honest about the difficulty and deficiencies of Kaplan’s writing style.  Unlike Buber and Heschel, two other influential Jewish thinkers and writers in the twentieth century who wrote well and clearly, Scult needs to rescue Kaplan from his own opaque works, mainly through his now published diaries.

So if you want your Kaplan, this is the book.  As someone who has never gotten through a long work by Mortdecai Kaplan, Schult’s work is essential.

The first page of Kaplan's writ of excommunication 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Salvage the Bones: A Novel

Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones is about as perfectly paced as a novel can be; the author continues to build on events in the work, and by the end, the reader is fully invested in the characters and their outcome.

The characters in this novel are up against so much: race, poverty, climate change, yet they persevere. This is a most refreshing outcome.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank

Leo Frank at the time of his trial

The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank is the subtitle of a book by Frey Seitz Frey and Nancy Thompson-Frey (the title is awful, no doubt a concession to the publisher to sell books).  Despite this salacious title, this book is a well-researched, sober and organized attempt to make sense of the murder of thirteen year old Mary Phagan in Atlanta in 1913 in a pencil factor. 

Factory manager Leo Frank, a Jewish man, was charged with the murder.  Despite flimsy circumstantial evidence, the threat of mob violence and antisemitism Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.  In 1915, the governor of Georgia commuted his sentence to life in prison, believing that with time and a more sober assessment of the evidence, Frank would be eventually pardoned.  

Men and boys posing with Leo Frank's body, in a patch of woods near Marietta Georgia

But he never lived to see that day.  He was lynched in 1915 after being kidnapped from prison by the so-called “Knights of Mary Phagan”.  The core of this group became a resurrected Klu Klux Klan, which would grow in strength in the years before World War Two.  The blatant antisemitism of the Frank lynching led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation league.

In 1986, Leo Frank was pardoned by the state of Georgia.  He bears the unfortunate title of the only (known) Jewish person to be lynched in the United States.  Until recently, it was a high-water mark of Anti-Semitic violence in America.

Marker at the site of Leo Frank's lynching, just off highway 75 in Marietta 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos is an extraordinary book, giving the reader real insights into the darkly ironic society of Communist China and its capitalist economic system.

At first, this book has the unfortunate tone of ridiculing the Chinese.  Osnos writes about people with extreme idiosyncrasies.  But as the book progresses, it drops this tone, and the author is able to paint a picture of the nearly unbearable pressure of both ordinary and famous citizens of the PRC.  He talks to people from all walks of life, and draws insights into their predicaments.

The "Peoples" Liberation Army suppressing the people, 1989

What we get at the end is a book that chronicles the nearly unfathomable amount of change that China has experienced in the last few decades through the lens of its people. Osnos certainly suggests that China, politically, economically, and socially, can’t be sustained.  The state apparatus to suppress criticism and revolt, and the growing legions of well-heeled Chinese people who want greater reforms and freedoms – will certainly clash.  And what it will bring no one knows.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

In the Very Abstract: Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven by Barry Holstun Lopez

Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven by Barry Holstun Lopez, is a series of essays about the American southwest desert.  This is an odd critique coming from me, but I found the book too abstract and mystical.  Yes, it is about the desert, but it is not really grounded enough in the reality of the desert.  It is a thought bubble most of the time.

Yes, he writes well; sure, the work is lyrical.  But in the end I wanted a better sense of real time and real place.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance...

George Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790


While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward, is devastating look at the author’s upbringing in coastal Mississippi.  While Ward does concentrate on the women in her family, but it is the men that are front in center.

The phrase, being a black man in the south, is repeated many times in this work. This phrase is brimming with swarms of challenges, frustrations, sorrows, and deaths, and is the arch of the author’s narrative.  Growing up, Ward lived in a world much like a war zone composed of the very old, and the very young. The men in her life were both strong presences, but also fleeting.  They were incarcerated, dead, addicted, or gone.  

Men We Reaped is the story of one black family.  But it is also the story of the legacy of racism in our country; the awful toll that it takes on the lives of men, women and children.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Gods Without Men: a novel

Hari Kunzru’s novel Gods Without Men is a familiar type of work, one that is very prevalent these days.  Spread across many characters and time periods, there is a linking element, a three spire pinnacle rock somewhere in the American desert southwest, which ties the work together.  All sorts of people are drawn to these to rocks, miners, religious fanatics, UFO nuts, hippie communes, tweakers cooking meth, and day trippers.

Kunzru writes well, keeps the lines of his sprawling novel untangled, and winds up producing a solid novel.  Despite its complexity, its premise is rather simple: does life have some kind of organized, rational meaning, or is it random, chaotic, and only intelligible through flashes of intuition.  In this novel (as in life) we never find out.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes

More than five-hundred years after Columbus arrived in America, there are still thousands of uncontacted Native Americans deep in the upper Amazon.  The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, documents the 2002 expedition to monitor the tribes (without contacting them) and gather evidence of encroachment by loggers and miners into their protected land.

aerial photos of uncontacted people

The author accompanies the mercurial Sydney Possuelo, the often unlikely “savior” of uncontacted peoples.  At the time of the writing, Possuelo was a high ranking official in FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation of Brazil.  This government agency attempts to keep the tribes in the state which they are in; one such group, called “The Arrow People” actively enforce their isolation through force in one of the most remote portions of the upper Amazon.

aerial footage of uncontacted people

Reading this book is an education.  In a world where we expect complete contact, instant information, Google street view - to have a group of indigenous people out of contact is simply astonishing.  That a government agency fosters this is even more astonishing.

aerial footage of uncontacted people

We must wonder, thought, how long can this go on? Will the will to keep these people isolated continue, or fall victim to greed, corruption, indifference, and racism.  Are these people the last of victims of Columbus?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Wilderness Tips

Margaret Atwood is such an accomplished writer, that it is difficult to find any fault with her work.  This is especially the case with Wilderness Tips, a collection of short stories.  The stories mainly revolve around various girls summer camps outside of Toronto.  There are some deviations here and there. 

Atwood is so good, she is nearly too good; I come away from her stories, realizing that the craft is nearly perfect, marveling at her abilities, but soon I can’t really remember much of what she wrote – at least not specifics. 

Is she too perfect?  Could her writing use some jagged and rough edges?  Some jarring and strange landmarks?

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Way of Man: According to Hasidic Teaching by Martin Buber

The Way of Man: According to Hasidic Teaching, by Martin Buber, does not suffer from the often labyrinthine language of his later works (I and Thou!)  This work is short, simple, explaining the lives and examples of various Hasidic rebbes - but its very simplicity masks its profundity.

Buber re-worked the Hasidic world-view for a wider, less halakically oriented audience, and this is evident in this collection.  The unity of living that Hasidism fostered in its early years, a world without barriers or walls, is what Buber seeks and finds. The light of God is everywhere, and the individual person exemplifies this potentially highest form of existence. 

I admire parts of Buber's Jewish existentialism.  It is a shame his brand of Judaism did not find a wider audience.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Democracy: An American Novel

Democracy: An American Novel by Henry Adams, written in the years after the Civil War, explores the implacable connection between corruption and participatory government.

Adams is, not surprisingly, not sanguine about the prospects of political idealism and selflessness in our form of government.  Moneyed interests, narrow thinking, and self-interest always “trump” the greater good.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips, should be essential reading for all Americans.  Phillips details what would be called, in a Jewish context, a pogrom.  

A sadly typical tale of Jim Crow era racism and lynching in 1912 leads to far wider and more drastic consequences.  In a few short years, Cumming Georgia and Forsyth county were “cleansed” of African–Americans.

This ban was enforced by terror, both latent and manifest, well into the 1980s. A series of civil rights marches in 1987 heralded the beginning of the end of Cumming's apartheid.

But the end came not so much from a change of heart by the white residents of Cumming, but by changing demographics.  In the 1990s Cummings was transformed from a rural farming community into an affluent Atlanta suburb.  African-American farm plots, stolen by white residents in 1912, are now the sites of multi-million dollar mansions.  Old Cumming and its haters just died – both biologically and economically.

We are left to ask, has what racism and violence did quite well, is gentrification now carrying on? 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends

Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends by Gertrude Landa is a book from the turn of the century, written for children, and hobbled faux archaic English and a lack of sources.  

Where did these stories come from?  Some I recognize from the Talmud, but a simple source list would help immensely.  Many stories are non-Jewish with an extremely light Jewish veneer.  This is fine, and natural, but in a book without notes, it sets the reader adrift.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson is not really a novel, as much as a meditation on romantic love, sex, and what it means to be an embodied being.  There are some neat tricks in the novel.  We never find out if the narrator is male or female.  So eros becomes free floating, detached from gender.  This brings with it limitations.  Male and female desire have elements in common, but also, generally, dissimilarities.

When the novel actually develops a plot, Winterson’s power wanes.  She is not as adept at telling a story as outlining the landscape of human desire.  So the end comes with a plop.  After some gorgeous prose, we are treated to a happy conclusion that brings little joy.  

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Disappearances

Scott Thybony’s The Disappearances: A Story of Exploration, Murder and Mystery in the American West follows three somewhat interrelated tales in 1934 and 1935.  All take place in southern Utah and northern Arizona.  The first deals with a “lost” young explorer who was really only late emerging from the wilderness.  The second, an unfortunate murder and kidnapping.  The third, the life and disappearance of Everett Ruess, wandering painter, writer, poet.

Davis Gulch

His examination of the Ruess disappearance was my reason for reading the book. The author examines an interesting lead about the twenty year old's fate. In the 1970s, a California man boating on Lake Powell with his family hiked up Davis Gulch looking for Indian ruins, and discovered a skeleton in a crack in a rock.  The remains showed signs of a broken hip and fractured color bone.  The man took a few of the bones, put them in a bag, and flagged down a park ranger once back on the lake.  The remains were taken and the California man gave information about the location of the rest of the bones.

Thybony located the park employee in 1991 and heard a similar story.  The park employee said he gave the remains to his boss and then heard nothing.  Similarities of the California man’s description of the site of the bones and a cave where a “Nemo 1934” inscription has been found, led Thybony to examine the area anew.  

He found the description of the place matched the California man’s story. He found an area of the Nemo cave which showed signs of a brief stay many years ago.  He discovered the crag where the bones were probably discovered.  He scaled down it, and realized that anyone who was scaling down and slipped and fell would likely receive fatal, or near fatal, injuries. In all likelihood Ruess fell while exploring for Indian ruins, as he often did during his travels.

Thybony can’t prove the bones discovered in the 1970s were the remains of Ruess.  He didn’t find bones in the crag (it is flushed out yearly during floods) and the remains are nowhere to be found in Park Department storage.  There has never been any evidence that Ruess left Davis Gulch.  The 1970s bones many very well be his. But shy of finding the bones in Davis Gulch, or some shelf in the Parks Department, the mystery remains.

And excellent article on this theory can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War

If you want to eliminate your post-Cold War feeling of security regarding nuclear war, than The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg, is the book for you.  Ellsberg (of the famous Pentagon Papers) here documents all the ways and means by which a nuclear war could have accidentally occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union. He also delves into the false sense of security we all walk around with now that Russia is a second rate world power; a nuclear war between us is still very possible.

He will also burst your balloon about a ‘regional’ nuclear exchange between Indian and Pakistan.  Smoke and dust from those burning fires (along with killing hundreds of millions of people outright) would lower ground temperatures world wide for a decade.  It would be impossible to grow grain in Canada.  Widespread famine would occur.

This is an important book, but difficult to read.  Also Ellsberg is often, oddly, self-congratulatory regarding nuclear planning he did in the 60s, which now he sees as wholly misguided, and even insane.  He is aware of this, but at times can't help but be proud of his work.

Friday, September 14, 2018

American War: A novel

Omar El Akkad's American War: A novel is so tremendously successful because the author is able to transplant events and circumstances that Americans think of as happening over "there" to here.  This is the chilling aspect of the novel.  

What we see now, the shrinking of American economic and military power, our retreat into tribalism/regionalism, the massive gaps in income and ethnicity that are widening in our society, and environmental degradation become, in American War, our social and political reality.  This unmasking of American exceptionalism makes for sober and scary reading.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Cool Water: Poems and Songs by Robert Burns

Reading Poems and Songs by Robert Burns is a fascinating journey into a linguistic landscape that is like English, but also extremely different.  His Scotch-English, at times light, at others heavy, unmistakably bears the imprint of his land and culture. 

This work is deeply refreshing.  We are so hidebound to our formal language; we are afraid to write the way people speak, to create alternate spellings... to be creative and playful with our language.  Burns shows us how to do this, and it is like a swimming in cool water.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Nothing illustrates both the problems and distortions of the “American Dream” than the settlement pattern of desert west.  At once part of our mythology, and collective nightmare, the American desire 
the author in a pool in Las Vegas
to live in places (in large numbers) where rain does not fall from the sky in sufficient quantities to support human life, is far more than a footnote in our history.  Rather, it is our history.  [The wrangling over water in the west pits the environment, politics, capitalism, bureaucracy, greed, corruption, and degradation against each other – mirroring many other of our national struggles.]

The titanic struggle over water in the American West's proof text is Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, by the late Marc Reisner.  Written in the mid-eighties, when the west still had plenty of water, now, in 2018, as the west continues years of terrifying drought, Cadillac Desert reads more like prophecy than history. 

In this book American hubris is on naked display.  Our attempts to tame and control nature have only shown us how powerless we actually are in the face changing climatic conditions.  But we are not only helpless - we make things far worse.

the author in the Utah desert

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sex at Dawn

In Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, the authors set about the nearly impossible task of showing  the “original” state of human sexual nature, and how our current culture cuts across that grain of this state, making us miserable.  There are two main problems with this quest. 

First, although the authors state, quite correctly, how varied human sexual arrangements are, both cross-culturally and at various times, they ultimately decide that our hunter gatherer ancestors led free sexual lives, and that is our real sexual “state”.  The hunter gatherer social structure prevented monogamy in the modern sense; the paternity of a woman’s child was simply not important.  That is why human males appear to evolved to engage in sperm competition.  Sex was not exclusively tied to romantic love, but a more elastic act, used to cement the bonds of small groups of people.

Unfortunately, a true original “state” of any human behavior or social arrangement is very difficult to prove.  The evidence is purely conjectural.  We are pragmatic and fluid creatures; we mold our behavior to social, ecological and political circumstances.  Do we really have such a thing as human nature?

Second, the authors do not stay true to their own model.  Because of research about the different way men and woman perceive sex outside of a monogamous arrangement, they hold that woman must be accommodating to men in their efforts to provide themselves sexual novelty; they must do this in order to keep families together.

This is an odd ending, given what came before.  They destroy the very premise they have built for three fourths of the book.  Why?  It confounds me.

Truth is we will never know what sex at dawn was like; given what we know about ourselves as a species, it was probably widely variable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Girls: A Paean

Nic Kelman’s Girls: A Paean is a wide-ranging novel that really has one premise as it zig-zags around its target: the thirst of older men for younger women (in one case, an underage girl).  Kelman's men have money and power, and are able to satisfy their appetites with those two accouterments. 

Kelman wants everything in this novel, and is less than consistent.  Many of the encounters in this work are not between older men and young women, but relationships based on some foundation of equality (at least in age).  Some sections are straight out pornography, while others digress into the etymology of the rude term for the female reproductive organ. among other items.  Passages from the Iliad are interspersed here and there, seemingly to illustrate how powerful men have always had a yen for younger woman.

The results here are mixed.  Kelman is saying something with this novel, but it is difficult to say exactly what.  This in itself is fine, if the novel is exploring topics without easy or firm resolutions.  But Kelman ends up with a semi-mess because of a lack of control of the narrative, and inconsistency in the arch of his stories.  He could have done more with less.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Water Knife: a novel

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a well-written, if not a fairly conventional post-apocalyptic novel.  It takes much of its premise from Desert Cadillac, Marc Reisner’s 1986 novel on the water crisis in the American west.  The book is mentioned many times in this novel – and performs a vital function to advance the plot (one that does not, I confess, make a great deal of sense).

If this genre of speculative fiction is supposed to really be about our present, and not our future, then The Water Knife is a success.  It is stuffed to the gills with our present fears and anxieties.   

Monday, August 20, 2018

Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Rick Stroud’s Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General, is certainly entertainment history.  Terrible things occur in the recounting of this story, but Stroud does not dwell on them.  He has a factual sense of the violence of war; he tends not to judge his heroes.  Even the enemies of this tale aren’t given a firm drubbing. 

In the end, everyone involved in this story, and the kidnappers themselves, wonder if abducting one German general was worth the cost.  There is no way to know with certainty; the British intelligence people who interviewed General Kreipe certainly did not think so; he provided very little intelligence of value.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Promise and Failure of Long Island: East Meadow

East Meadow, one of the Images of America Series books, chronicles the history of this unincorporated area of the town of Hempstead, in Long Island.  East Meadow is so named because it was the meadow east of Meadow Brook. This stream once flowed from the middle of Nassau County to South Oyster Bay.  Now the stream is nearly gone, buried beneath a highway (some portions still flow to the very south). 

what is left of Meadow Brook

East Meadow was part of a 60,000 acre prairie, called the Hempstead Plains, that was primarily rural until after the Second World War, when the post-war expansion of New York City, returning GIs, and the baby boom, transformed the area.  

the Hempstead Plains in the 1900s
This book lays out the area’s transformation and development with a series of fascinating photos.  What they show, in the end, is that the promise and failure of Long Island: a rural oasis for New York City workers, green open spaces near an urban area, which has become a golem of over development that can no longer be controlled.

the Hempstead Plains Preserve, a few acres of plains remaining

Take the area around Nassau Coliseum, not far from East Meadow; it is a nearly abandoned vista of acres of parking lot.  The residents are unwilling to allow building projects to take some of the windblown, post-apocalyptic vibe from the area, fearing (rightly) the traffic and congestion such a project would bring, in an area that is no stranger to either.

parking lots surrounding the Nassau  Coliseum

In the end Long Island can no longer grow, since residents (except for real estate moguls) nearly all think that there has been too much growth; too much traffic; too many malls, roads, and concrete.  Yet there isn’t an effective strategy to create more green space; to allow areas to “revert” to nature, to give the island the initial promise it held for those who moved there: a green spot of earth.  A bit of breathing room.  An uncrowded American Dream.