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May 18, 2006
Novelists invade the Mideast ... literally
USA Today rounds up five new novelists whose stories revolve around the Middle East. Still absent? Harry Potter and the Prince of Palestine.
posted by Benyamin | 10:18 AM | permalink | (5) comments |
March 28, 2006
Reckless Rites: The 5-second review

Just in time for next Purim, Princeton University Press decides to publish Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence a good 11 months before the holiday comes round again. Um, paging the Pricenton University Press PR department: Here's a Hebrew calendar. Use it.

As for the book itself, well it's certainly a doozy. How's this for a topic? Remember the last section of Megillat Esther when all the Jews go all Son of Sam on their non-Jewish enemies? Ok, so let's use that as a springboard to discuss Jewish violence throughout history. You'd think it was an anti-Semitic polemic if it wasn't for the fact that it was written by a Jewish guy named Horowitz who teaches at Bar Ilan. An interesting -- if controversial -- topic indeed, but one that's tied to Purim for sex appeal. And, since they decided to wait until April to publish it, well, serves 'em right.
posted by Benyamin | 8:42 PM | permalink | (2) comments |
January 19, 2006
Oprah meet Elie. Elie meet James Frey.
Oy. Is there any other word for the juxtaposition of James Frey, whose memoir/novel/load of bunk has been revealed to be a gross exaggeration (at best) or a gaggle of outright lies (at worst), and Elie Wiesel, whose originally Yiddish, then French, then English and now English again Night has just been announced as Oprah's next book club selection?

Wiesel's retelling of his life in Nazi concentration camps is one of the most prolifically read books in the modern Jewish canon, and the author himself has won the Nobel Peace Price for his tireless efforts to use his literature as a force against similar genocides and injustices. Nevertheless, there has been criticisms made in the almost fifty years since the book was first translated into English. Was it a novel or a memoir? Entirely true, or essentially true with some deviations, however small?

The debate has been minor, and largely irrelevant to the millions who've read the book and been moved by its power. If the details were off, what does it matter? The man still survived these camps, and one wonders if their horrors could ever be truly exaggerated.

Then came Oprah, or rather James Frey. The controversy swirling around his book A Million Little Pieces has caused the Oprah pick of Wiesel to shed new light on the old, quiet debate about Night. Without question, nobody is comparing Frey's fabrications to Wiesel's writing, even if the Holocaust survivor got some details wrong. But in a culture that eats controversy for breakfast and lunch (dinner is reserved for family-friendly fare, so sayeth the FCC), it can invite less informed readers (or would-be readers) to look at Wiesel's story with a degree of skepticism that is hardly warranted.

I won't say this is a horrible danger, even in a time when Holocaust denial grows ever more vociferous and ever more effective in gaining a platform to preach to the mainstream. But if it cheapens, even a little bit, even in the eyes of only a few, the power and accepted truth of Wiesel's work, then Frey has done more than a disservice to his own readers. He's done a disservice to Elie Wiesel's as well.

But don't take it from me. The New York Times has an article on the subject, and NPR has run a commentary by Peter Manseau on the same subject.
posted by Bradford | 1:18 PM | permalink | (0) comments |
December 29, 2005
REVIEW: The Bubbelah Factor

Getting advice from your friends is always good. Getting advice from your parents is also good, for the most part. However, your parents are apt to say, "See, we told you so," after you tell them how that really hot Emory girl dumped you more than your friends. Getting advised by your grandmother-no matter how dear she to you she may be-can be excruciating. "What happened to that nice girl, Cindy?," my own bubbe asked me before she departed this world. "Grandma, I haven't seen Cindy for months," I replied, shaking my head. "Ah, she was so good for you too, Silas," she clucked and then continued to chide me as if I were still eight years old. Natasha Glasser's book, The Bubbelah Factor, is chock-full of real and mock advice, filtered through the guise of an older, wiser woman. The guide covers dating, shopping, grooming, and even sex. Oy.

Remarkably, while most of the book is meant to be humorous, "Its always bathing suit season under your clothes," Glasser's faux advice is quite insightful. On the topic of dating, Glasser relates that, "Pay attention to what he does, not what he says." The chapter on shopping includes an interesting two-page spread that reveals the truth behind those hollow cheery statements that salespeople make as you try on clothes. The suggestion, "Lets get you a wrap," becomes "Your upper arms look like ham hocks," after Glasser's translation. The photos accompanying the tidbits of advice -- gaudily overdressed elderly matrons that daintily sip tea and waggle their accusing fingers at the reader -- will create fits of laughter alone. Glasser's book would be an excellent bat mitzvah present, or a "just because I love you" gift for your favorite rebellious daughter. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to clean my room before mother kvetches again.
posted by Silas | 10:59 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
December 19, 2005
REVIEW: Matches
War novels are not for everyone. War is a dirty thing, a taboo topic. In many books on the subject, authors struggle with capturing the reality of what is often a horrible situation. The author must also show the depth of the characters as they deal with their inner conflicts, as well as the external horrors of war. Alan Kaufman's latest novel Matches is a fictional account of Nathan Falk, an American-born Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, serving his three years in the Israeli Self Defense Forces. The book is loosely based on Kaufman's own tour of duty in the IDF as a combat infantry soldier.

Spread across 13 chapters that each deal with a separate IDF patrol, the gritty narrative follows Nathan as he deals with the stress of inactivity between patrols, the tension of ground operations in Arab-occupied territory, and the moral implications of waging a incessant war with an ancient and inexhaustible enemy. The other soldiers tease Nathan for coming to Israel to fight with them, "What brought you to this insane mess? Why join the army if you don't have to?" Nathan doesn't reveal his true intentions behind joining - a combination of his desire to be immersed in a "kinky-haired majority" and guilt - but he jokes with his comrades, "Truth is, once I saw you Israeli soldiers, Clint Eastwood Jews with big guns in your hands, man, I couldn't even pretend that I didn't want to serve."

Kaufman's prose is descriptive and rough. His sentences are weighted with the burden of truth, from the scenes of Falk's unit nervously stalking terrorists in the shadows of Tel Aviv, to Falk half-heartedly committing adultery with the wife of his best friend. By the end of the novel, I felt as though I had been with Falk and his unit in the dark orchard while we waited patiently for the sound of gunfire, expecting each breath to be our last. Kaufman's novel is an amazing testament of the spirit of the soldier and a fascinating exploration of the psyche of a man conflicted.
posted by Silas | 9:34 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
December 05, 2005
The art of the interview
If I am asked anything about what I do -- and I am often asked anything, things you can't imagine and wouldn't want to -- it is what it's like to sit down and speak with So-and-So. So-and-So, you see, is a mythic creature of great power and untold fame. So-and-So is not human, though it occasionally looks like it might have once been, before it evolved into something far more glamorous than mere mortals.

So-and-So. Nice guy. You should interview him some time. Or her, they come in both varieties.

I bring this up by way of an interview Robert Birnbaum recently conducted. This interview with with Robert Birnbaum (or Isadore, to make it easier). Yes, Mr. Birnbaum interviewed himself, and in his defense he was asked to do it. JBooks.com thought it would be good for him to do this rather odd thing and publish it on their site, and I thank them for their quirkiness.

Birnbaum (sorry, Isadore) brought up the mythical So-and-So when he said, "I am somewhat discouraged by a sad consequence of celebrity culture, that sometimes friends and readers say to me, 'Wow, you talked to So-and-So,' as though So-and-So were a different life form."

So-and-So is a different life form. Let's get that out of the way. At the very least, continue to tremble in awe at how we members of the press get to mingle with So-and-So. Aren't we important? No, really. Aren't we?

Nevertheless, when I read this I was immediately convinced that I must write about Mr. Birnbaum, JBooks.com and the art of the interview, something Birnbaum is vastly better at than I (or at least, more practiced at).

Let us start with JBooks.com, or the online Jewish book community. It says that right under the logo, therefore I assume it to be an accurate description. Nextbook.org gets more press, I think because they refer to themselves as "a gateway to Jewish literature, culture & ideas." That sounds more interesting, but perhaps a bit less descriptive. Colorful, I think is the word I'd used.

JBooks.com, I think, should get more attention. This is due to its ease of use, better organization, and generally clearer content. I like book reviews, and I especially like ones that don't read like book reports. JBooks has those, lots of those. Self-referential essays on books (like the poorly written one you're currently reading) are not as much my cup of tea, though they're not bad. Nextbook has lots of those.

But what I like most about JBooks, and what I wish more places would engage in, is the capacity for using books as launching pads. Bar Mitzvah Disco (which will be getting a mention in our upcoming issue) is a fine piece of coffee table amusement, but it can (and should) be more than that. Enter Donald Weber, who writes an entire review of the book as a way to discuss the uncomfortable cultural niche of the bar and bat mitzvah in modern Jewish life. A book full of god-awful photos and half-baked essays by the self-annointed purveyors of Jewish hip is turned into an intellectually enriching discussion by an English professor.

I like English professors, academics in general. I like them more than self-important (and self-indulgent) "critics." JBooks has more of the former, less of the latter.

All of which brings me back, in some very poorly constructed way, to Mr. Birnbaum. He is a journalist, not so much the academic I am so fond of, but he belongs to a class of journalists (most of whom are now bottled up as literary journalists) that are either dying out or are condemned to live as a besieged minority churning out more than their fair share of cultural material. They're very Jewish that way.

He does interviews, which are more like conversations, and he does them in such a way that we're not finding out the dirty little secrets about the people being interviewed. We are instead learning the only thing that makes these people worth our time... their thoughts on actual subjects of import and interest.

Take for example Birnbaum's (Isadore's) answer about the tricks of his trade: "The only thing that is consistent about my talks is that I have at least read and familiarized myself with the most recent work that someone has done and when I am with that person I am quite enamored of them. I guess that kind of makes me like a hooker. Except that I am sincere."

You see that? Birnbaum reads enough to be able to turn a clever phrase himself. He's like a hooker, except sincere. That's good. That's the color, but it's not the point. Birnbaum gets this, which is why he goes above and beyond what you'd get from someone else, say your run of the mill celebrity-obsessed hack. He actually reads and invests time in the cultural contributions of his subjects.

Then he listens, and this, I suppose is what we interviewers do. We read, then we pay attention, and though we can turn a clever phrase we're not enamored of ourselves (too much, I swear). We're enamored of the people who do this better than we. So are our readers. It's a nice system.

Birnbaum gets this. He gets it so much that he concludes his own interview with a T.H. White quote: "The best thing for being sad...is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails."

This is the art of the interview, the art of literary review and cultural analysis. It is not the capacity to get a subject to cry on camera. Nor is it how good you are at engendering yourself to a celebrity, getting them to tell you something juicy that you can trumpet as printed gossip for money and minor fame. It is most certainly not to determine that which is cool, that which is hip and happening, and then tell others so they may follow after your trendsetting lead.

It is to learn, and then perhaps pass this learning onto others. What is the purpose then of writing and art if not to illuminate, and to give us the chance to do that which never fails? And we, the interviewers, the reviewers, and the writers who flock after this gift and try to drag an unwitting public along... we fail too often.

But I don't believe Mr. Birnbaum fails so much. I know this, because I read his interview.

(Robert Birnbaum, for those who are interested, is presently the Editor-at-Large of IdentityTheory.com, yet another example of cultural analysis as educational and good.)
posted by Bradford | 11:15 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 23, 2005
REVIEW: The Jezebel Letters
Give Eleanor Ferris Beach credit. Ancient archeological research isn't exactly the most scintillating of subjects (though I admit to being quite the nerd in my own interest in the topic), so why not dress it up in novel-esque clothes? It's a noble effort, an attempt to show the intrigue and drama that so typified the lives of such epic figures as the Kings of Israel and she who has been immortalized as the ultimate corruptor: Jezebel.

A noble effort. One deserving of credit. But let's leave it at that.

The problem with Beach's well-informed piece of speculative fiction is that it reads less like a novel and more like the contents of an academic paper's appendix. Letter after fictional letter, too many written in the style of dull Biblical passages, unfold until you're literally numbed into submission. Your eyes will glaze over long before you can get wrapped up in the "assassination plot supported by the conniving Queen Jezebel." It sounds sexy. It isn't.

Which is perhaps why this realm of academic research is so confined to the dusty back rooms of universities or museums that draw too few visitors. It styles itself too much like its antiquated subject matter, and finds itself utterly incapable of telling the vivid stories it discovers. Archaeology is fascinating, and its stories are dramatic, sometimes even sexy.

But without a strong framework of well-crafted prose, these "letters" read like so many chapters in some obscure book of the Bible. Hebrew school was never so boring.

'Tis a shame, really. The rise of alternate histories, particularly those that revisit the viewpoints of women figures, is ripe for grand tales. If ever there was a character more deserving (and more appealing), Jezebel is she. This book, however, doesn't make the cut.
posted by Bradford | 10:18 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 21, 2005
INTERVIEW: Rochelle Krich
Rochelle Krich was an unlikely author. The Orthodox Jewish author was raising six children when she embarked on her writing career. A high school English teacher, she admitted to having fantasized about becoming a published author for years.

"I think my husband said stop kvetching about it and do it," Krich says during a recent phone interview. She admits, however, there were difficulties.

"Sometimes when I would be a way on a book tour and I would miss some of my children's events at school, I hated that. You make choices, and you don't know if it's the right one," says Krich, a hint of regret sneaking into her words. After a pause she adds, "My youngest, he was three or four when I started writing. I would sing lullabies to him on the phone, but it's not the same as being there."

Fifteen years and thirteen novels later, it's hard to argue that Krich made the wrong choices. Her first book, Where's Mommy Now? won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original, and she's gone on to win or be nominated for plenty more. Still one wonders why Krich took on crime novels.

"As a child, I was an avid reader of mysteries," remembers the author. "I'm a puzzle person, I love trying to figure out whodunit. More than that, I've come to appreciate the whodunit, the thought that justice is restored, that the world is set to order."

For Krich, and her readers, the crime novel becomes a form of therapy. As Krich describes it, in a world where "so often the bad guys even if they're caught aren't convicted" writing a mystery novel allows the author an opportunity to "put the bad guys away." As therapy goes, it's not bad, though maybe not as good as mah-jongg, which Krich has played weekly for thirty years.

This brings us to the Jewish side of Krich, who has increasingly worked Jewish characters and subject matter into her novels. As an educator prior to being an author, I ask her if she sees a chance to bring the Orthodox Jewish world to a larger audience of readers.

"I love telling stories, and in the framework of the story, if I can take the reader on a journey, and expose him or her to things that I am trying to become exposed to, thing that don't necessarily have answers, that's a bonus," says Krich.

She points to Angel of Death, "the second in my Jessie Drake series. She's a homicide detective, who finds out that she's Jewish, that her mother was a hidden child in the Holocaust. I wrote that book because I'm outraged and appalled by Holocaust deniers." Some reviews, including one from Publisher's Weekly, took umbrage and criticized the book as being to preachy.

"I didn't really care. It's my feeling there are many people, good people, not anti-Semitic people, who may not have the opportunity to come into contact with Jews, who might buy into Holocaust deniers. They may not pick up a non-fiction book, but they may pick up my book," argues Krich. She actually received a letter some time later from a woman in North Carolina who had exactly that reaction and promised to stamp out some bigotry in herself. "I was crying," says Krich.

In her recent book, Now You See Me, the author continues her Molly Blume series and her dive into Jewish topics. The Jewish crime reporter, Blume is married to Rabbi Zack, and when a former teacher (and rabbi) shows up desperately seeking help in finding his runaway daughter, Hadassah, the heroine ends up with plenty of regrets and (obviously) plenty of mystery on her hands.

"One of the reasons I chose to make the runaway teen an Orthodox Jewish teenager is because I wanted to show that no community, no matter how sheltered, are invulnerable to the dangers that are lurking out there for teenagers," says Krich. Once again, the author is writing a message into her text. And once again, critics are mixed. Publisher's Weekly has once again taken aim, calling the book "lukewarm" and lamenting that "Krich's usual solid plotting suffers."

The book, which includes chapters written from the perspective of the runaway girl, isn't as tight as earlier releases. This much is true, but it still retains suspense and most of all becomes another example of Krich's greatest strength as an author: her ability to portray a world foreign to most American readers, the world of Orthodox Jewry.

Her early books didn't include Jewish themes, or at least Jewish characters. "My agent showed me a rejection letter from another publisher that said great book, great story, but is there really going to be a market for this overtly Jewish story," remembers Krich of her early experience. She nevertheless had a desire to write overtly Jewish stories.

"I wanted to write about my world. I wanted to share my Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, the very mainstream lifestyle that I have," says the author with a sense of passion in her voice. "I guess it took me a while to get comfortable enough. Lots of people are responding to it. I'm really gratified by that response."

Plus Krich sees the Jewish milieu of her books as an advantage. "I know when I read mysteries, I love reading about some exotic world that I would probably not come into contact with outside the pages of the book. I would hope readers who read my book would experience that as well," she argues.

Considering the quality of her writing, I could hardly disagree.

You can learn more about Rochelle Krich by visiting her website, RochelleKrich.com. She also blogs for your reading pleasure.
posted by Bradford | 11:06 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 18, 2005
REVIEW: The Genesis Prayer: Discover the Ancient Secret to Modern Miracles
Oh bother.

This is what I think of a particular genre of books (I won't deign to call it literature) that seeks to show us how we can be filty rich, find the most stunningly beautiful spouse, cure cancer, make peace in the Middle East, and be named supreme ruler of the world. No really, if you just buy this book and follow its advice you'll get all of that. You'll walk on water too.

When its self-help books for the business dreamers, I find them inoffensive if annoying. When it pops up in the realm of religion, it just becomes insidious. Spare us the absurdity.

So it was with a deep sigh that I picked up The Genesis Prayer by Jeffrey Meiliken. The inside flap was more than enough to spike my Nonsenso-meter (I trademarked that, really). "The Genesis Prayer," it reads with all candor, "the first and most powerful prayer in the Bible, is a source of untold riches."

I crap you not. According to this humble description, this one little prayer "creates miracles," "brings blessings, health, happiness, soul mates, or children," and "plugs us into the forces at play in the universe." You'll be a superhero after reading this book. Really.

The book, written by a mathemetician, and using some simple (ha!) formula that underpins the Bible sheds its immense light on our ability to get whatever we want! Those last four words should be enough to send any rational person running. Absurd enough, I admit, but what intrigued me (in a very bad way) was how the book ties in so many legitimate threads.

Gematria, for one gets is due. I don't know that this is actually gematria, but it gives the whiff. The numerical study of the Hebrew canon isn't intended to show us the doorway to the universe, some secret backdoor into the Matrix where we can make anything we want happen. It is intended to give us a deeper insight into the texts, and even when it veers into the mystical it still retains a sense of humility. No serious mystic makes the kind of grandiose promises that this load of tripe does.

Then there is the avenue of religious studies that seeks to find the commonality between religious faiths. At its most developed, this particular veign of philosophy argues that all religions are essentially the same message in different packaging. Think of it as a philosophical Rosetta Stone, showing us there one divine source can emanate into a variety of fractured religious denominations.

Underlying this book is the notion that all religious faiths tap into this underlying code in some respect, though the author focuses on the Hebrew texts. The problem is that this form of religious theory isn't a conspiracy theory but an honest intellectual attempt to show our commonality and lessen division. It's not a get rich quick scheme, for crying out loud.

Nevertheless, people will get this book. They will read this book. They will utter a prayer and something good will happen. They will think the two are linked. Post hoc ergo propter hoc!
posted by Bradford | 9:45 AM | permalink | (4) comments |
November 17, 2005
REVIEW: The Truth (with Jokes)
I should probably just admit it. I'm not an Al Franken fan. His radio show, which I tried to listen to, does nothing for me. His style is not engaging. His wit falls flatter than a warm Coca-Cola left out in the southern sun.

See that last sentence? See how badly it was written. That's kind of how I feel about Franken. That's kind of how I feel about his film work and his stand-up "routines."

But, and this is a big but, the man does something very well. He finds a way to lampoon the propoganda and fear-mongering of the right-wing punditry (and politicians) without getting so serious and depressing. He's an activist in the Jon Stewart mold, using humor and parody to show the utter ridiculousness of his political opponents.

He's no Jon Stewart, but he ain't shabby. Thankfully, he writes books. It is without a doubt true that his humor carries better on the page than in person (or over the airwaves). I don't doubt I'm in the minority here. I'm sure plenty find Al Franken to be absolutely hilarious, and that's fine. I find him to be fairly intelligent and possessed of a talent for satircal zingers, but he's not my cup of tea.

His latest book, The Truth (with Jokes) is perhaps one of his better forays onto the partisan battle field. He vivisects the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, which isn't particularly difficult but it is hard to do it with jokes, good ones in any event. Franken succeeds in doing just that.

Nevertheless, the real high points of the book are the utter absurdities it reveals to us. For example, when President Bush tried to sell his Social Security reform package, he tried to scare the bejesus out of everyone with news of an impending $11 trillion shortfall. Franken dutifully points out the lie of this figure: they stretched life expectancy out to 150 years with a retirement age of 67. Having to pay for an 83-year retirement can be expensive, but as Franken also writes, "They're never gonna get to that without stem cell research."

Frankly, if you can find it in your funnybone to vibe with Franken's humor than this book is a must read. I can't, but I did enjoy the book. What I (and all liberals) should enjoy more is that Franken will do what all the polemically-outraged pundits on the left have failed to do with a litany of books on this subject -- he'll draw an audience. People will read this who would never have picked up a book on the subject if it weren't... you guessed it, with jokes.
posted by Bradford | 9:45 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 16, 2005
REVIEW: 700 Sundays
Billy Crystal guesses he had about 700 Sundays to spend with his father. After that, his father died when Billy was just 15-years-old and immediately after an eternally unresolved argument between the two. There lies the weight that keeps Crystal's book version of his popular Broadway one-man show from being little more than a series of zingers and laughable riffs.

Indeed, 700 Sundays is just this side of unpredictable which makes it refreshing as opposed to other celebrity memories which are more, what's the word -- oppressive. For those who expect Billy to dwell on his Hollywood highlights (Harry met Sally once, did you know?) will be disappointed.

Or perhaps they won't. After all, the comedian chooses instead to focus his wit on the Long Island oddball roots that produced his genius, and that's far more entertaining than a rehash of old movies.

As for Crystal's father, he was a big-shot jazz promoter. His uncle, Milt Gabler, launched the Commodore music label and recorded Billy Holiday before she was Billy Holiday. Louis Armstrong even showed up at a family Seder, and the rough-voiced singer was asked why he didn't "cough it up." Amusing to be sure, anecdotal indeed, but the real magic of Crystal's tale is in the relationship he shared with his father.

It was his father that got him a tape recorder when he confessed his desire to do comedy and it was his father who didn't come down hard when the son showed up at the family dinner table doing off-color schtick lifted from the best of the Borscht Belt. We should all thank Billy's father, because we got Billy out of that deal.

We should all thank Mr. Crystal for this poignant and funny piece of literature (not to mention a little one-man play). Sure the early jokes don't translate nearly as well on the page as they do coming out of the comic's own mouth, but these are the warm-ups to the rest of the book. The rest of the book is priceless.
posted by Bradford | 9:30 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 15, 2005
REVIEW: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
We often take it as indisputably obvious that religious tolerance is good, that a pluralism of belief is a recipe for cooperation and prosperity. When people argue that religion is its own evil they are marginalized only slightly less than those who argue that science is the Devil's playground.

So it is certainly a tempting read when an author pipes up and pens an entire book on why religion really is bad, science really is better, and we should abandon our dogmatic faith in favor of an empirical rationalism. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Sam Harris gets kudos for his willingness to put his arguments out there in stark detail, utterly without sugar coating. Mary Poppins he ain't.

But kudos only go so far, and Harris perhaps could have used a dose of sugar somewhere in the process of writing this mess of overgeneralizations and uninformed libel against the believers of our world. It goes without saying, of course, that absolute belief that denies even what our rational senses tell us is a path towards disaster. Those who, in the words of one reviewer, "do not fear death for themselves, and who also revere ancient scriptures instructing them to mete it out generously to others" are a problem without question.

Harris falls down by imagining that all of religious belief either subscribes to such a worldview or tacitly endorses it by promoting supernatural dogma in the absence of proof. One wonders if the author wouldn't have been well served to read another book reviewed here, The Measure of God. Had he done so, he might have stumbled across the Gifford Lecture of one William James, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. That lecture took place in the first years of the 20th century, and one-hundred-plus years later its insights are as informative as ever.

Most significantly, James eloquently showed something that Jewish proponents of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) had articulated long before, that religion can do more than coexist with reason; religion often relies upon it.

Harris, on the other hand, is overly blunt and hyperbolic in his disdain for religious faith, so much so that he fails to fully understand that which he is denouncing. If he did, perhaps his prose would be better tempered and much more effective. As it is, he generalizes to the point of absurdity -- Publisher's Weekly cited the following line: "mysticism is a rational enterprise; religion is not" -- and that is a shame. The underlying question of how much mainstream religious faith excuses fundamentalist interpretations is one deeply in need of being addressed with seriousness and without polemics.
posted by Bradford | 9:30 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 14, 2005
REVIEW: Radiant Days, Haunted Nights
Yiddish, they say, is all the rage. People just love their Yiddish. Musicians insert Yiddish into their lyrics. Authors rewrite old Yiddish folk tales. Long dead authors who wrote in Yiddish are finding their work consumed by an audience of their great-grandchildren.

I'm not altogether sure why Yiddish is so popular, though I won't complain. There is a treasure of mirthful stories and wonderous folk tales buried in the stacks of Yiddish bibliophiles. The problem with this Yiddish revival is that the vast majority of people who are so interested don't read Yiddish. Which means a monumental translation job, and something of a overwhelming trickle of Yiddish publications.

All of this makes it a bit easier to survey the landscape of translated Yiddish literature and really savor the best bits. Radiant Days, Haunted Nights falls into that category. A sweeping survey of Yiddish literature, it begins with the 16th century writings of... well, we don't know. "The Song of Isaac" has Anonymous as an author. The book continues in more or less chronological order through the 17oos, into th elate 19th century and up through the end of World War II.

There are sermons, poems, and simple short stories. There are well known authors and the less well known. There is epic midrash and mundane narratives, and for some reason the last half of the book utterly abandons the chronological order already established. All in all, however, the breadth and quality of this volume is a notch above the rest of Yiddish translations.

If you're looking for a favorite, jump to the next to last story. "The Birth of Satan" by Sholom Asch tells of the intimacy between God and Lilith that produced the offspring Satan who would compete eternally with the Almighty for the will of humanity. That's epic.
posted by Bradford | 9:30 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 11, 2005
REVIEW: Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
It is -- we might as well stop fighting it -- possible to recognize the necessity of something while simultaneously recognizing the hardship it places on others, and our moral responsibility for that. It's never as simple as a reasonable justification excusing the need for further contemplation or attempts to alleviate the suffering caused by an action. And if you were at all having problems with that, you should read Isabel Kershner's latest book.

Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is... what's the word, good. Impressive even. An examplar of fine reporting work and lucid prose. All of that jazz that literary critics like to say.

What Kershner has accomplished here is to distill the whole issue of the security barrier being erected by Israel more or less along the boundaries of the West Bank. She's pulled it out of the cloudy rhetoric of partisans who look at the barrier and quite literally can't see the other side. Palestinians placed under incredible hardship, farmers cut off from their groves just for starters, find it difficult to impossible to see the Israeli need for security. It's a security that, for better or worse, is effectively provided by the wall, the fence, the whatever you want to call it.

Israelis, on the other hand, can't bring themselves to admit to the hardship the barrier places on ordinary Palestinians. To do so, perhaps, would undermine the barrier and force Israel to abandon it. I don't actually believe it need play out that way, but too many Israelis nevertheless refuse to give an inch more than the Palestinian militants.

In this breach, or seam as she aptly describes it, goes Isabel Kershner. Her reporting conveys the myriad realities that find their intersection along the barrier route. The bureaucracy imposed on Palestinians caught on the wrong side of the wall -- The fence? Again, call it whatever you want -- is discussed in detail. One wonders if Kershner's legs ever got tired chasing down so many protagonists who help tell of the real life hurdles presented by the barrier.

No biased apologist, Kershner then jumps over the fence -- The wall? Politicized speech can be the worst kind -- to show us Israeli planners, academic opinion-makers, disillusioned activists too close to the action, etc. If ever there were a physical crystallization of the conflict, it lies in this monstrosity of a barrier that nobody wants and nobody has an alternative to. Kershner's empathetic depiction and massive on-the-ground investigating yields a moving and deeply informative look at that symbol, and at the reality it disrupts.
posted by Bradford | 9:38 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
November 10, 2005
REVIEW: The Promise of Politics
Yet another piece of previously-unpublished material from Hanna Arendt was released under the tender care of editor Jerome Kohn. As opposed to Responsibility and Judgment, this latest volume (published in July of this year - a hardback edition of Responsibility and Judgment was originally published in 2003) entitled The Promise of Politics isn't nearly as, what's the word for it... good.

This is not Hannah Arendt's fault. She is, after all, long dead and this was an unfinished and unpublished manuscript. One imagines if she'd lived long enough, she'd have taken a healthy dose of editting to the thing. Jerome Kohn, much as he might try, fails to make this more readable. Non-philosophers beware.

All of which is a shame. For a "philosopher" (Arendt didn't think of herself that way) the controversial woman was accessible to wide audiences. She spoke in heady terms, reminded us of what democratic discourse was ideally meant to be, and served as an examplar of the responsibility we share to think for ourselves. And in all of that, she managed to produce something you'd actually want to read.

This volume is harder to sink your teeth into, mainly because it's hard to get a hold of it long enough to take a bite. Once you finally get some semblance of bearings, there's simply not enough to sustain a reader. Nevertheless, for those who are willing to waid into the muck, there's plenty of substantive stuff here about the overarching course of Western political development and how it intertwines with our personal philosophies.

Just don't take it to the beach with you.
posted by Bradford | 9:30 AM | permalink | (0) comments |
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