Books About Books: The People and the Books by Adam Kirsch

About 10 years ago Grove Atlantic Press published a series of books called Books That Changed the World. By enlisting established writers and other subject matter experts to write a brief “biography” of some of history’s most seminal books, Grove Atlantic produced a nice line of books devoted to the West’s most significant works. With Karen Armstrong writing about the Bible, Christopher Hitchens discussing Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Bruce Lawrence weighing in on the Quran, how could any lover of history, comparative religion or bibliophile not fall in love with a series like this.

Late last year, I learned  W. W. Norton & Company recently published a book by Adam Kirsch in which he took Grove Atlantic Press’ Books That Changed the World concept and applied it to the great works of Judaism. When I discovered my public library recently purchased a copy I immediately put it on reserve and before long I had my hands on a treasured copy. The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature is gifted and poet and literary critic Kirsch’s history of Judaism as seen through what he considers, and probably rightfully so, its most important books. From the Biblical books of Deuteronomy and Esther to the Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (think Fiddler on the Roof) it’s a detailed but still readable and relatively concise look at the books that profoundly shaped Jewish history.

I found The People and the Books full of fascinating and thus pleasant surprises. For instance, I never would have considered the book of Esther such a significant text, but after one takes into account the substantive issues it touches on like assimilation, civic duty and the threat of genocide, all within a very surprising secular context (it’s probably the only book in the Bible, including the Christian New Testament that rarely, if ever mentions the name of God) one quickly realizes Kirsch appreciates the book’s vital significance. While I expected to see mentioned in a book like this works by luminaries Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, Maimonides and Spinoza, my own subject matter ignorance precluded me from considering worthy of inclusion the writing of  Tsenerene, whose Yiddish paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible served as one of history’s early adventures in chic-lit.

I didn’t know a lot about The People and the Books before starting it but in the end, Kirsch impressed me. (The only part of the book I didn’t like that much was portion on the Zionist fiction of Theodor Herzl.) Not only has he crafted an excellent book but my goodness the man knows his stuff. For anyone seeking quality books on Jewish history, The People and the Books should by all means be including in that reading list.

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Filed under History, Judaica

Soviet Spotlight: The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel

The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet JewryLast year, when I heard the news Elie Wiesel passed away like many others I was saddened because the world lost not only a powerful writer and wise man but also a survivor one of history’s darkest episodes. Over a prolific career spanning over half a century, his extensive body of work was undoubtably shaped by not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also his quest for meaning in the modern age. Throughout his many writings he asked how does a Jew, or really for that matter any person live a just and fulfilling life?

Saddened to hear of his passing, I later found myself inspired to read more from his extensive body of work. I even thought about doing some sort of ongoing series, perhaps calling it an Elie Wiesel retrospective. Unfortunately, like so many blogging projects I’ve vowed to embark upon, I never got around to doing so. Typical of me.

I stumbled upon his book The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry completely by accident while fumbling through my public library’s catalog of available Kindle downloads. Seeing it was a collection of Wiesel’s newspaper dispatches he wrote in 1965 chronicling his travels across what was then the western portion of the former USSR observing Jewish life under the authoritarian rule of the Communists I simply HAD to borrow this book. So of course, I did.

Despite being a slim book (the paperback version is only 144 pages) it nevertheless punches above its weight. Wiesel recalls in detail the conversations he had with his coreligionists throughout the major cities of the USSR including Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Vilnius. He describes meeting Jews who are free, but not completely free of oppression. He learns despite the Soviet lines of proletariat equality and all men are brothers old prejudices die hard. The USSR’s Jews are still looked at with suspicion by some in power, and are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans” with questionable allegiance to the Soviet state. Worse, some see them as a potential fifth column secretly supporting America or the (then young) modern state of Israel. All of this is made worse by living under one of the mid-twentieth century’s most oppressive regimes.

The Jews of Silence left me wanting to read more stuff by Wiesel. It also made me wanna read Gal Beckerman’s 2010 book on the Jews of the USSR When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone which I’m happy to report I bought myself as a Christmas present late last year. So with that in mind, look for more books by Wiesel and one by Beckerman to show up on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The topic of this post, Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests has been on my list to read for about three years, ever since I heard Maureen Corrigan’s glowing review on Fresh Air. My desire to read Waters’ novel was reinforced not long after that, when a well-read co-worker of mine raved about it. But I think it was reading Margaret MacMillan outstanding history book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World with its detailed look at Europe in the immediate post-WWI era that finally inspired me enough to read The Paying Guests. (Set mostly in the London district of Camberwell, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention maybe even another reading challenge or two.) So duly inspired, I found an available copy through my local public library and began reading it. I’m happy to report I was not disappointed.

I won’t say too much about the story, but for those unfamiliar with The Paying Guests it takes place in 1922, when a down on their luck mother and daughter team decide to solve their cash flow problem by renting a room to a young married couple. Of course any situation in which a family is left with no choice but to share their home with a couple of strangers is not the best of all possible worlds. However, when a lesbian romance blossoms between daughter of the house Frances and border Lillian you know things will end badly. You just don’t know when and disastrous it will be in the end.

While many, rightfully so, have praised this novel for its charged but nevertheless nuanced eroticism, I’d like to applaud The Paying Guests for other reasons. One, as far as I can tell Waters researched the hell out of it. Reading it, you feel like you’ve been transported back to England in the years immediately after World War I. Two, undoubtably because Waters long ago established her bona fides not just a lesbian writer, but one who excels at portraying how those romances could have played out in historical contexts much less accepting than our present one. (In one interview she prided herself on her ability to “pay attention to women’s secret history and lives.”) Since I can’t articulate it better than Maureen Corrigan did back in September of 2014, I’ll just quote her:

What’s so immediately compelling about our protagonist, Frances Wray, is that, in a way that doesn’t seem at all anachronistic, she’s comfortable in her own queer skin. It’s most of the rest of the world — and, tragically, some of the people in her own house — who have serious problems with Frances and her so-called unnatural sexuality.

Three, for all the above-mentioned reasons and probably a few others I didn’t mention, The Paying Guests is just one hell of a well-written novel. It’s got me wanting to explore more of Sarah Waters’ stuff and something tells me that’s not a bad thing.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

About Time I Read It: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

My last post featured The Golem and the Jinni, a novel we read for my fiction-oriented book club. The post before that featured The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, an anthology we read for my science and nature themed book club. The subject of this post, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness we read for my nonfiction book club. Three posts, three books, three book clubs. That’s how we roll at Maphead’s Book Blog.

Published back in 2012, The New Jim Crow has been on my list to read for half a decade or so, ever since I saw it mentioned on a number of my favorite book blogs. Alexander’s insightful, hard-hitting and heavily footnoted analysis of how and why our supposedly colorblind criminal justice system has stacked the deck against the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has generated and continues to generate a ton of buzz, especially among those involved in the Black Lives Matter campaign. With more considerably more African-American men languishing in prisons, jails or subject to some sort of parole or probationary restrictions than enrolled in college, all of this happening in a nation that recently boasted a two term African-American President, not to mention countless anti-discrimination laws on the books should cause any intelligent American to take a step back and ask what’s wrong with this picture.

After taking a detailed and focused look at our nation’s history Alexander concludes while America successful dismantled the old Jim Crow system of laws and practices that kept African-Americans away from voting booths, jury boxes and decent public schools and colleges a more subtle and sophisticated means of societal control has arisen in its place. This one, while officially racially blind, targets black and brown-skinned individuals in the guise of the War on Drugs and assorted get tough on crime measures. Focussing these aggressive policing measures on the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has resulted in not only high incarceration rates, but also political disenfranchisement; (in many states felons can’t vote) and high unemployment; (most employers are hesitant to hire ex-cons). In The New Jim Crow Alexander asserts our nation’s zealous anti-drug crusades have produced an American version of Apartheid.

I guess my only knock on The New Jim Crow is it could have used a tad more editing. Reading it, I felt Alexander’s editor could have cut about quarter of the material. By doing so it could have created a tighter and more focused book without sacrificing the author’s powerful message. Lastly, while her critics might accuse of her of bias or promoting her own political agenda, one must remember her book is a call to arms. And you can’t have a call to arms without passion.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History

About Time I Read It: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The subject of my previous post, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 happened to be the selection of one of my three book clubs. In keeping with this theme, the book featured in this post, The Golem and the Jinni, was recently selected by one of my other book clubs. Yesterday I met with members of my book club at a local wine shop/bar to discuss it. I’m happy to report to the last man and woman, all of us enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, and when a whole book club likes a book, it means it’s a pretty darn good.

Published in 2013, I’ve been wanting to read The Golem and the Jinni ever since one of those those “based on your history, you should read this” algorithms utilized by Goodreads brought the novel to my attention. Once my book club chose it as our May selection, I was able to secure an available copy through my public library. Despite being 657 pages long, it felt like I made my way through the novel rather quickly. Which, like having your whole book club praise a book, is never a bad thing.

Blending elements of fantasy, romance, mythology, religion and historical fiction, Wecker’s tells the story of two supernatural beings, who through strange twists of fate find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York City. One is Chava, a beautiful golem originally created by a one-time rabbinical student turned malevolent magus to serve as a submissive wife to a somewhat moneyed but nevertheless loser lech. The other, a roguish but likable Jinni named Ahmad, suddenly finds himself in Gotham after spending the last thousand years or so imprisoned in an old flask. While physically appearing normal, neither Chava or Ahmad are human. But on the other hand, neither are lacking in humanity. Their interactions with the diverse denizens of New York show the depth and width of the human condition. We readers are kept entertained by their supernatural abilities (physical as well as mental) as well as their sometimes fumbling attempts to pass as lowly mortals.

Despite The Golem and the Jinni popularity among readers, some reviewers were critical, taking issue with the novel’s length. I on the other hand have no such complaint, since it allowed Wecker to flesh out the unique and memorable cast of supporting characters who populate the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni and can easily see it making my year-end Best Fiction list.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, History, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016

Although I don’t read them at the rate I used to, I’m a big fan of anthologies. You know, those end of the year compilations featuring the year’s best writing in a particular genre, whether it’s short story, essay or mystery. While I don’t consider myself a true crime aficionado, I love The Best American Crime Writing, finding those collections hard to resist whenever an available copy surfaces at my public library. But the one anthology I’ve always loved is the Best American Science and Nature Writing. So when one of my book clubs voted to read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I went running to the public library in search of a copy. After finding one, I leisurely plodded my way through it, reading the selections out-of-order just as I usually do with these anthologies. In the end, I was happy with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016.

Traditionally, the knock of these kind of books is they’re”uneven”, meaning some of the selections are great, some are OK and some, well are meh. With this particular offering, I didn’t get that feeling. Of the pieces chosen for inclusion by guest editor Amy Stewart only Amy Leach’s “The Modern Moose” was not to my liking. In what some might consider a no brainer, Stewart elected to include Kathryn Schulz’s outstanding Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker article on the horrors of a possible Cascadia mega quake “The Really Big One. ” (When her piece appeared in the New Yorker it generated a ton of buzz here in my fair city of Portland, Oregon.) On a bittersweet note, there’s a short offering from the late Oliver Sacks, one of the last things he wrote before losing his battle with cancer.

I believe behind every successful anthology is a talented editor. With that in mind, there’s pair of pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I thought for sure I wouldn’t like, but loved the hell out of them. Their very inclusion in this anthology proves Stewart was the right editor for the job. Being male, I had no desire to read Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” but her powerful and well-written expose of the serious health risks facing nail salon workers is top-notch. Likewise, with every Tom, Dick and Harry weighing in online with their varying opinions on autism, I figured Apoorva Mandavilli’s article “The Lost Girls” on the little known and misunderstood challenges faced by autistic females wouldn’t hold my interest. Much to my surprise it would up being one of my favorites in the anthology.

Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 reminded how much I miss reading these anthologies. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you start seeing more of them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Science

Trieste by Dasa Drndic

Every once and awhile I grab a book that wasn’t exactly what I expected. Mind you, whenever this happens it hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. More than once it’s turned out pleasantly surprising. Other times, I’ve been disappointed. Then there’s the times I’ve been left scratching my head, unable to decide if I my disappointment was justified or had I really been treated to an excellent book that just didn’t work for me.  Croatian novelist Dasa Drndic’s Trieste is one of those books.

After spying an available library copy of Trieste I was drawn to Drndic’s 2014 novel for a number of reasons. One, it’s set in Italy and therefore eligible for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Two, much of it takes place during World War II. Three, I’ve always had a fascination with the “border cities” of old Europe: cities located on the border of two countries that over history find themselves tossed back and forth between empires. Cursed by geography, places like Gdansk (Danzig), Lviv (Lemberg) and Trieste have always had special place for me.

As novels go, Trieste is a bit of an odd duck. If there’s a chief storyline, it’s that of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian Jew who, during the Second World War had an unlikely love affair with a German SS officer that resulted in the birth of her son. Tragically, mere months after his birth the infant was stolen by German agents as part of the Lebensborn project: an SS-coordinated plan to fill Hitler’s Reich with Aryan infants by any means necessary, including kidnapping children from across occupied Europe. 60 plus years later the elderly Haya has pulled off the near impossible task of locating her long-lost son and nervously awaits a reunion with him in the northeastern Italian town of Gorizia.

I called the book an odd duck because in addition to lots of Hays’s familiar history, the rest of the books seems to alternate between fiction and history, in addition to taking a number of odd and lengthy detours.  Therefore, while there were parts of Trieste I enjoyed, there were parts I didn’t. If you ask me if I liked this book or not, I’m not sure I can offer up a convincing answer.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica