The Sacred and the Profane (alternately titled Rabbis and Wives or more literally from Yiddish, The Synagogue and the Street) is a collection of three...moreThe Sacred and the Profane (alternately titled Rabbis and Wives or more literally from Yiddish, The Synagogue and the Street) is a collection of three expertly-crafted novellas very loosely focused on three scholarly men. The first is an kind, unambitious Rabbi of a small town who is prodded and maneuvered by his wife into a high place. The second is another small-town Rabbi who leaves home (and the Rabbinate) for a poor courtyard where he could spend all his time studying. His major trait is that he hates saying no, much to the chagrin of several of his courtyard neighbors. Finally, there's The Divorced Rabbi, a studious shopkeeper who becomes involved in the lives of a dying merchant's family after the man elicits an oath from his to study with the Rabbi. If it was up to any of these men, they would spend all of their time in the Beth Midrash (study hall or synagogue) poring over the Torah, and yet each time life intercedes and they are forced to deal with matters profane (or "street") -- hence the title.
Most Yiddish stories take place in small, almost claustrophobic, Jewish communities. Grade's stories follow the model with practically all of the action taking place inside the houses, courtyard, and Bet Midrashes of observant Lithuanian Jews. Like the setting, the general values of the character across all of the stories are similar. These are not necessarily tales of struggle against convention (though there is a difficult marriage and adultery in the third story, "Laybe-Layzar's Courtyard"), instead Grade puts his unassuming protagonists at the whim of a tempests of others. In "The Rebbetzin" (a rebbetzin is a rabbi's wife), the prime mover is the Rabbi's wife; actually wives play an important role in all the stories. Outside his wife, there are congregants, other rabbis, etc. all with their own motivations. Likewise, "Laybe-Layzar's Courtyard" is a hothouse of gossip and internal politics, with Rabbi Weintraub becoming embroiled in ethical and practical disputes, until eventually (view spoiler)[he is pulled back to his former post. (hide spoiler)] In Grade's world, characters are malleable beyond their defining traits, consequently they are always changing -- occasionally minor suspense is built stories as we wait to see if characters both minor and major will change.
And there's plenty of space for that to happen with every novella full of lyrical transitions describing seasonal changes of which their are many. On page 11, for example, in the first story, Grade writes,
"In winter Graipewo sank in a sea of snow that lapped onto the sealed double windows of the houses. The gray daylight and the early nightfall cast a lethargy over the town, a deep gloom. After these long nights the people of Graipewo would arise with cold aches in their bones, as if they had been sleeping all night in a swamp. The only bright and cheerful times of the week were Friday night, with the golden flames of the Sabbath candles in the houses, and the Sabbath day in the beth midrash-- the cantor's melodies in the morning services, the Rabbi's sermon in the afternoon after services, and the chanting of Psalms by the congregation in the dim twilight. But then, on the Friday before Hanukah, one man disturbed the serenity of the Sabbath."
Aside from the obvious contrast between the oppressive winter and the warmth of the Sabbath tradition, we also see the people of Graipewo as a unified whole. Furthermore, the last sentence does everything to shake us out of this reverie and move the plot forward. Later in the same story, after the his wife and gotten Rabbi Koenigsberg a place a the maggid of the town, Grade showed the passage of time with this elegant paragraph:
"Toward the end of summer an early autumn wind shook the tree branches, rustling leaves that had been dried and curled by the intense summer heat. The clouds fled in silent panic one over another, but no rain fell. It did not take long for the winds to pick up, chasing away all the clouds, until nothing stood between heaven and earth except a deep empty sky that gradually filled with darkness. In the back rows of the synagogues sat the laborers with worried faces and, with them, thin shopkeepers with pointed beards, wearing long cloth coats. They wanted the Rabbi to speak still longer, to soothe their hearts with yet another word of consolation. The gloom in their eyes shone back at him like a silent mirror, reflecting a dark night sky" (33-34).
Here again we have two parts, but reflecting not contrasting this time. Still we see similarity in the yearning for peace from difficulty that comes with days that darken earlier. Moreover, we feel from these few sentences how comforting Rabbi Koenigsberg's sermons are to the townspeople, a point his wife cares for not at all when she pushes her husband's position to one ever more prestigious.
In going through the book as I just did, I could have picked out many more examples of descriptions superior even to these, but that would deprive readers of discovering them for themselves. Despite these descriptions, the leisurely pace of the stories was a little slow for me, still I enjoyed luxuriating in Grade's technique as his stories unfolded over many pages with numerous interactions coloring my view of his hardy yet fragile characters. I don't know if I'll go back to these three stories again, but I do know that I will think about them in the future and appreciate their many splendid qualities.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Coming off of the mean-spirited Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (published in 2010), this book shows Sedaris back to doing what he does best, write humorous e...moreComing off of the mean-spirited Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (published in 2010), this book shows Sedaris back to doing what he does best, write humorous essays about the events in and around his life. But the individual essays, which are delightful, are not what I thought about when I finished listening to (Sedaris read) Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, instead I began to mull over whether after eight books, numerous essays, countless performances, and plenty of awards, David Sedaris would remain an enduring face in American Comedy in the long-term, meaning well after his death. It's a serious question for me as a fan of the funny in general and David Sedaris in particular. Especially because despite the great number of writers and comedians that are remembered (Sid Caesar, James Thurber, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Abbot & Costello, Mark Twain, etc.) there are also many that, for whatever reason, are no longer considered "names" in American Comedy. I know, I see their books donated to the library and do not add them to the collection because nobody knows who they are!
Currently, Sedaris' books are not among that heap since they continue to circulate well. But then, the man is alive and active -- promoting himself and his work all over the world. When that stops, will his essays, which are essentially family stories and personal anecdotes stand the test of time? It's difficult to say. For the most part, his humor is not of-a-time and his stories have a general appeal, but do they have a stature that lifts them above the masses? Will they be able to push aside everything that comes afterwards and continue to be read and anthologized? More importantly, do they capture an "American Experience" in a way that makes them essential reading for understanding ourselves? Rarely do comics stay relevant because they can write a funny line, instead their stuff has to be worth revisiting; it must do more than simply entertain. Does Sedaris' work do that?
Perhaps some would say that his status among American humorists is tied to his being a gay writer. That point has the potential to go both ways in ensuring Sedaris' legacy. Sure, just the fact of his homosexuality might turn some people off (though hopefully much less people in 50 years), but let's get beyond that. It is a common theme for gay writers to be "ghettoized" for their sexuality; even writers like Sedaris who infrequently write about their sexuality tend to become reduced to a representative of the category. On one hand, that very reduction can be a boon to a reputation letting future readers instantly "place" Sedaris into a narrative of American Comedy. On the other hand, it also narrows the appreciation one would have for his work. Imagine only reading essays in Sedaris' oeuvre that deal with sexuality, it would be like watching Dave Chappelle's comedy for references to pot smoking. However silly as that sounds, it must be considered whether Sedaris' range of themes and topics is wide enough and is his commentary important enough to allow him to endure as more than a gay writer.
To be sure, as his career has progressed so have his themes and topics expanded. His first few books are solely about him, his own stories with occasional references to family and friends. Later, he begins to write about experiences as an ex-pat in France (later England), and devote much more time to family memories. He also notes idiosyncrasies of international perceptions of American politics, the expectations put on a well-known humorist, and other topics that go beyond his usual genre. Subjects aside, has his method changed over the years? To be sure, he was funny from Barrel Fever onward, but was it in the same way? Has his approach matured? Has his writing become better? These are questions a biographer or literary critic would ask. All I'm asking is the simple query of whether he'll be remembered 50 years from his death!
Luckily I don't have to answer that. But if I were to guess, I think that Sedaris will stay relevant for enthusiasts of humor from a variety of perspectives. Do I think he'll remain a must-read? Probably not. Where I do think several roads converge in Sedaris for future readers is that he influenced quite a few writers (some of whom I'm sure we don't know of yet). Likewise, his extraordinarily successful work with NPR and The New Yorker will lead to inclusion in future anthologies and compilations. Whatever happens, I sure hope his work sticks around, because I like it. (less)
How past wrongs affect the present is the main question in Henrik Ibsen's play, Ghosts. Though a relatively short play (three one-scene acts), the plo...moreHow past wrongs affect the present is the main question in Henrik Ibsen's play, Ghosts. Though a relatively short play (three one-scene acts), the plot is strewn with revelations that have nearly every one of the play's five characters scrambling to readjust their idea of each other, and themselves. At the outset we find ourselves in the home of Mrs. Alving, the long-suffering wife of the late Captain Alving, a secret philanderer. It is the day before an orphanage is to be dedicated in his honor, an act designed to bury the shameful past for the Captain's widow. Unfortunately, putting the "ghosts" of the past to rest turns out to be more difficult and complicated then anyone expected. An inflexible morality personified by the naive and dogmatic Pastor Manders appears to be the play's main villain, though it is at no disadvantage when placed against the opposite end of the spectrum as personified by the manipulative (and morally ambiguous) carpenter Jacob Engstrand. Indeed, as the play progresses and we become privy to the machinations of the past from various perspectives, it becomes increasingly difficult to know with certainty just what constitutes morality. Even the actions of the stalwart widow Alving may be questioned, an act unlikely in the beginning.
Though I read Ghosts with no thoughts of staging it, my theatre background certainly came into play (no pun intended). As with other Ibsen shows, this one has a few flare-ups punctuating a lot of internal, understated drama. Less time would be spent with the set and costumes, in order to focus on effectively blocking out key moments in each character's development. Slight changes in lighting might underscore these key moments, but mostly it would be within the actor's realm to highlight the forces that motivate each character -- the turning on major themes, Ghosts is a character-study at heart. Bringing out what is likable in each of the dramatis personae would be a challenge worth pursuing.
As a reader, in any case, the play gives one a lot on which to meditate. If I was taking a class on it, I would have no trouble identifying paper topics. But alas, I read it for enjoyment, and as three stars indicate, I "liked it". (less)
A law librarian recommended this to me after I told him how much I enjoyed the interpretative twists and turns of Levi's An Introduction to Legal Reas...moreA law librarian recommended this to me after I told him how much I enjoyed the interpretative twists and turns of Levi's An Introduction to Legal Reasoning. It is now among my favorite legal thrillers. SPOILER ALERT! They don't find Legislative Intent because it doesn't exist!!! What the authors do is methodically codify the ways one might ascertain, argue for, or discredit the mythical Legislative Intent (which means, in essence, the idea that the WHOLE legislative body had when they passed a statute). The book is tight and logically organized and every method of interpretation is made clear in short chapters (footnotes abound citing numerous cases as examples). I have read this book and the shadow of mystery that has thus-far surrounded statutory interpretation has been made less imposing. Bogey would be proud.
p.s. - A side-effect of reading this book for an amateur like me (it was written for lawyers, judges, and law students) is that I now want to have philosophical discussions about various methods of statutory interpretation in which I casually allude to my new-found knowledge. That fact that I have said knowledge accounts for all four of the big stars above this review.(less)
Upon recommendation of a lawyer friend, I took this book up and am glad I did. Dr. Levi uses plenty of appropriate and lucid examples to concisely des...moreUpon recommendation of a lawyer friend, I took this book up and am glad I did. Dr. Levi uses plenty of appropriate and lucid examples to concisely describe the process by which legal ideas evolve in relation to case law, statutes, constitutional law, and the tensions between them. Levi's long essay is perfect for anyone who enjoys clever logical turns expertly explained -- and when all three examples of legal reasoning were neatly brought together in the end I threw the book down and cheered. This book has whet my appetite for more books about legal reasoning! I'd say that makes it a resounding success.(less)
Betty Smith's coming-of-age story of an intelligent pre-teen in turn-of-the-century New York charmed the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of me. From the...moreBetty Smith's coming-of-age story of an intelligent pre-teen in turn-of-the-century New York charmed the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of me. From the beginning I was taken with Francie and the rest of the Nolans, and engaged in Betty Smith's story of the trials they endured during their slow rise in the world. It's true, sometimes Smith talked too much in her role as omniscient narrator, but what of it? The precious scene of young Francie on her fire escape reading is just a small peek into the feelings A Tree Grows in Brooklyn evokes. Is the book sentimental? Perhaps. Are all the characters likeable? It's arguable. But reading this book as an adult (whereas many seem to fall in love with it during their teenage years), I got the impression that Smith deliberately created imperfect characters whose flaws ranged from unforgivable to essential. Alcoholism, adultery, and dishonesty were all there, and yet they are swept aside in a story that elicits love. I suppose what makes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn special is that it turns a cruel world into one that is eminently habitable, even desirable. Especially when you get a cup of hot coffee to do with what you will.(less)
While I did not find anything wrong with the writing style or coverage of Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, the world of finance as a subject failed to enth...moreWhile I did not find anything wrong with the writing style or coverage of Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, the world of finance as a subject failed to enthrall me. Covering the creation of financial "innovation" like credit default swaps within J.P. Morgan (later JP Morgan Chase) from the mid-nineties to the midst of the Great Recession in 2009, Tett's book does a good job of explaining complex financial products within the greater "too big to fail" narrative. As a result, I was able to get to know the major players and their feelings about how their ideas were put into (mal)practice. Since a basic orientation was my purpose in picking up Fool's Gold, I am satisfied, however I would hesitate to recommend it to those not specifically interested in the topic. Frankly, finance is dull and while Tett managed to squeeze what drama she could from fluctuating markets, financial maneuvering, and emergency meetings, she could not change the fact the drama of finance is largely made up of lack of discipline, greed, and group-think. All fascinating in their own right, but not so much within this context largely because most of the human drama was happening on the streets, whereas the market - an inanimate construct - continued on its merry way. (less)
The drama was clear in the art, but that couldn't save City of Light, City of Dark from simplistic characters and a hokey premise. In the story, A tee...moreThe drama was clear in the art, but that couldn't save City of Light, City of Dark from simplistic characters and a hokey premise. In the story, A teenage girl must save the island of Manhattan from freezing by carrying out a mission to find a coin set forth by a mystical, age-old tribe. It's a weird overall plot punctuated by subplots in which the girl's father has a strange master-slave relationship with a power-hungry blind inventor (who somehow communicates with pigeons), and an strange manipulation of the girl's mother (who possesses the lineage necessary to search for the coin). The general rules of the world were confusing and unconvincing. It would probably satisfy younger audiences but I was expecting better.(less)
Dissolution of identity is a constant companion in the graphic novel of Paul Auster's City of Glass. My assumption, having not read the book, is that...moreDissolution of identity is a constant companion in the graphic novel of Paul Auster's City of Glass. My assumption, having not read the book, is that this slippery view of self is what the artists chose in this solid adaption.
Mystery author William Wilson (who writes about a P.I. named Max Work) is the pseudonym for Quinn, our protagonist, who gets a call for Paul Auster (the author of the book we're reading) which sends him on an enigmatic assignment to protect an emotionally-disturbed young man and his sexy "wife" from his unbalanced convict father. In the course of the assignment, Quinn/Wilson/Work loses what sense of himself we had, and in the end, we are only left with Auster.
Is it confusing? Yes, but it's a satisfying conclusion inherent in a work of literary fiction. In the same vein, however, one can't help but feel that despite the admirable efforts of the adaptors, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, that there is so much more to the novel than this thin graphic novel could convey. So as a standalone, it is an interesting story portrayed well, but as an adaptation it butts into the threshold of representational limits. A tension which limits its potency. (less)
I admit, my soft spot for the adorable moments of early courtship made Clumsy appealing to me from the beginning. Combined with a crude style and sens...moreI admit, my soft spot for the adorable moments of early courtship made Clumsy appealing to me from the beginning. Combined with a crude style and sensitive protagonist, the graphic novel is meant to evoke a smile. The choice to show Jeff and Theresa's relationship out-of-sequence invoked further pathos through dramatic irony; we knew early-on that the two 20-somethings, both inexperienced in the ways of love, would become involved, and later break up, and that made it all the more fetching. The abundance of sex puts Clumsy above the reading level of early adolescents, however adults who generally don't go in for that sort of thing shouldn't be put off since the artistic style makes what would otherwise appear lewd or risque, cute. Something in me wants to dub Clumsy, Blankets-lite, but their only real commonality is a budding relationship as a central subject. In fact, Jeffrey Brown's book doesn't aspire to the same things as Blankets, which is heavy in weight and emotional toll. Clumsy is a light, simple chronicle of a relationship. I found it delightful.(less)
Entertaining coming-of-age juvi of a naive young man gifted with an extraordinary memory and desire to “space”. Typical appeals of Heinlein’s juvenile...moreEntertaining coming-of-age juvi of a naive young man gifted with an extraordinary memory and desire to “space”. Typical appeals of Heinlein’s juvenile novels — this one especially reminded me of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn trilogy. (less)
Nuclear war sends a family into a very different world several millennia into the future. Felt like three books, mostly satisfying in themselves, but...moreNuclear war sends a family into a very different world several millennia into the future. Felt like three books, mostly satisfying in themselves, but ragged as a single novel. Besides the disjointed feeling of multiple completely unique settings, Heinlein practically forgot about character development; though events happen and characters react, they do not change. Throughout, Heinlein's thesis seems to be that regardless of conditions, basic human nature remains unchanged as well. While he demonstrates this to a certain extent, I can't help the desire to argue several dull points. Let's just say Bradbury's short story "The Other Foot" (from The Illustrated Man) made the point more effectively then did Heinlein.
Overall, Farnham's Freehold shines when Heinlein develops his settings, but like the simplistic ending of the book, the rest of the novel does not reach the heights of the author's other work. An unusual dud in Heinlein's middle period.(less)
Though I'm not a big fan of rats, I decided to try this one since it was one of the 101 Best Graphic Novels as selected by Stephen Weiner. The Tale of...moreThough I'm not a big fan of rats, I decided to try this one since it was one of the 101 Best Graphic Novels as selected by Stephen Weiner. The Tale of One Bad Rat follows a teenage runaway as she traverses England with her pet rat (later a hallucination) on the way to coming to terms with an abusive father. Perhaps the fact that the book deals directly with sexual abuse was a bigger deal in 1995 before Young Adult novels made books about "issues" unremarkable, either way it wasn't a major selling point for me. Other then the Lake District setting (where I spent just over a week in 2006), which figure into the latter part of the book, I felt lukewarm about The Tale of One Bad Rat; the emotional turmoil Helen goes through was potent enough, as was the charm of the Beatrix Potter tie-in, but the manifold of the book felt like many elements thrown together. It didn't pull me in.(less)
If you were going to be killed in the woods and your only option was to kill the other guy first, would you do it? That's the question James Dickey ra...moreIf you were going to be killed in the woods and your only option was to kill the other guy first, would you do it? That's the question James Dickey raises in this testosterone-fueled novel. Very quickly, characters are placed in circumstances so extreme they are forced to expose their essential natures. Whether Dickey's view of that nature suits the reader is crucial in determining whether one will enjoy Deliverance. To that end, I found my relation to the book parallel to that of protagonist Ed Gentry to his friend Lewis, not always in agreement but inspired by its intensity and conviction.
Deliverance follows four men seeking adventure, escape, and perhaps a last hurrah. While their journey canoeing down a largely uninhabited piece of river starts out nicely enough, a deadly encounter forces them to fight for survival against man and nature. Isolated, and with little but their willpower to bolster them, every move determines whether they'll make it out alive.
If there is such a thing as a stereotypical masculine novel, Deliverance is it. Everything about the book is couched in confrontation and conflict; the river which is inherently viewed as dangerous or something to be conquered and overcome is also an object of communion that brings man spiritual solace. Even the men, who can be considered friends or acquaintances, are also rivals whose valuation of each other is generally unmerciful. Emotion, or anything short of logical, systematic thinking is a weakness whereas physical strength and endurance rank high. Lewis Medlock, Ed Gentry's best friend, is looked at as a sort-of ideal man under these principles -- consequently, the narrator frequently alludes to Lewis's views of life and his excellent physical fitness.
But is this elevation of individualism truly a characteristic of manhood? Though Gentry occasionally mentions his family, and obviously appreciates his wife, he and Lewis clearly have highly developed internal lives separate from their families, jobs, and even largely from each other. There is some temptation in thinking about this going back to Hemingway's men, and perhaps even consider this embodiment of masculinity an American trait; think of the silent Scandinavian farmers, and going West, the rugged John Wayne-types. James Dean's sex appeal was a sensitivity as seen through practically immovable features; in fact, wasn't that a whole genre of leading men? Or Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (published four years after Deliverance) who is pretty much all inside?
Regardless of whether separation is a trait of masculinity or not, Deliverance is every inch the thriller it sets out to be. Violence, confrontation, and the sound of roaring rapids are all omnipresent in this book. Having not seen the movie, I don't know what the famous "Dueling Banjos" sound like, but based on experiencing Deliverance, I am sure that they are quick and menacing. Is this book one of the best American novels ever? I don't think so. Is it a solid book that goes all twelve rounds? Absolutely. And I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it on that basis.
p.s. - I listened to Will Patton's award-winning audio version of Deliverance and was duly impressed. The audiobook is well worth the price of admission.(less)