In the last few years, due to various circumstances, I've been forced to become more and more cognizant of my mortality. Not only mortality, but alsoIn the last few years, due to various circumstances, I've been forced to become more and more cognizant of my mortality. Not only mortality, but also the essentially linear nature of life itself. You're born, you live, you die. And as you live there are some things that happen only once, if at all, and if you miss an opportunity, it's gone, no "redo's" no second chances, it's just you, yourself, and the time you have left to do with what you will (or can, to nudge away the fatalist in me).
It's with this mindset I approached this collection. Now, I'd read The Death of Ivan Ilych years ago in a community college literature class. It hit me hard then as (I recall one reviewer putting it) one of the most realistic portrayals of death and dying ever put to the page, but reading it a second time, along with Tillie Olsen's Tell Me A Riddle, felt far more effective, even jaggedly transformative. Tolstoy's prose is at once grand yet unassuming, over the top (like Dostoyevsky) but somehow restrained enough to allow the reader to place his or herself with his or time in place of Tolstoy's. This is not to say that the story isn't an evocative piece of distinctly Russian taste, not at all, but very much like Joyce or Kafka, Tolstoy manages a fiction so well-crafted that it accomplishes the near impossible, the having of the best of both worlds. It's incredibly particular and acutely personal yet so much so it crosses the line into the generally applicable and even humanly universal. I think they call that great writing.
Tillie Olson's story was the true revelation for me in this collection, however. Like I said, I'd already had the pleasure of watching Ivan Ilych die (and writing a paper on it too!) but Ms. Olsen and I hadn't had the pleasure until just a little while ago. I have to admit I was a bit hesitant to read her story, especially after Ilych. I thought "How could anyone follow up Tolstoy's opening act?" But, really, I was wrong. While Olsen's story "Tell Me A Riddle" might lack the austere polish of Tolstoy's Ilych, it has something just as important, in spades, that his story lacked, that is, corporeality, uncleanliness, dirt, passion, heat, and well calculated (and well executed) imperfections in literary execution. Where Tolstoy's story was one you could practically read and set your watch to, Olsen's was a passionate evocation, a mournful primal howling at the moon, at God, at everything and nothing, that didn't and doesn't give a damn about the proprieties and strictures of orthodox storytelling. More than that (and I realize this is a personal affection of mine) it's an incredibly Jewish story, but going further it's a profoundly Secular Jewish story, mentioning beautifully, painfully, poetically, the failures and limitations of our dogma, our cultures, and our traditions, while meanwhile clinging to them as fanatically as we all do, in our own ways.
After the overrated and plastic Disney-esque schmaltz of Jonathan Foer and his wife Nicole Krauss, I'd forgotten what true Jewish writing was, and I'm glad to be reminded of its power and necessity. But, personal digression completed, I can say that this collection is an incredible and needed addition to any die-hard reader's library. If you'd like a pair of painful but reveletory looks at life and death, at the meaning capable of being gleaned from the meaninglessness of it all, then you owe it to yourself to take the plunge into these, the coldest of true waters. ...more
Doing my due diligence (and being under-viewed in much cinema) regarding Miranda July I was at once excited and a bit discomfited to see her associatiDoing my due diligence (and being under-viewed in much cinema) regarding Miranda July I was at once excited and a bit discomfited to see her association with the same crowd (a Millenial Rat Pack?) that boasts Lena Dunham as a member. Now, on the surface of things this is no big deal. But diving into "The First Bad Man" proper, one can quickly see the tropes and traits that have come to embody much of the Millenial and, god help me, "Hipster" mindset. Ms. July, however, doesn't fall prey to these tropes, not completely at least. And it's because of this partial in partial out Schrodinger's cat status that Ms. July's inaugural novel succeeds in some surprising ways...but also fails in just as many.
Ostensibly a character study wrapped in a romance (or several) the protagonist of the novel, Cheryl, is an interesting but tragically waifish character who doesn't so much as act but is acted upon. Her friends, her co-workers, the homeless man who tends to her garden, all of these characters simply exist "on" Cheryl and take her for granted. This situation reaches a head when Cheryl's bosses unload their daughter, Clee, on her. Said daughter is, fascinatingly, a complete inversion of the god awful "manic pixie dream girl" trope that has become so in vogue in the last few years that is, hopefully, on its last legs. The character of Clee is brusque, rude, ignorant, a bully, physically beautiful and a wonderful send up of crass entitlement.
Over the course of the novel Cheryl and Clee clash mentally, emotionally, and physically. Not to venture too far into spoiler territory but the relationship between them evolves in surprising ways, hitting many signposts of traditional romance while subverting these ideas with shades of role play, fetish, S and M and other variants that make that section of the novel really shine above the rest of the proceedings. If the whole novel was just about this relationship and didn't lose itself among the handful of sub-plots that ruined the polish and drag the pacing, then my rating would have been higher. But as it is, the relationship between Cheryl and Clee is just the shiniest ornament in a tangled wreath of Millenial ennui and entropy.
The ennui and entropy of this novel is in the side characters, namely, almost any character that isn't Cheryl or Clee. Very much akin to some of her counterparts, July has composed a cast of characters that, as (mostly) adults, act almost to the letter like spoiled, embittered, narcissistic children that do nothing, passively aggressively abuse, and seem to truly think they're "good" when, really, they a gaggle of non presences. Is this honest writing? Sadly, yes. I've seen and work for many people like this. So verisimilitude has been achieved. But I have to ask: why? These characters don't further the plot, their presence doesn't symbolize anything outside of realistic precedence (as in, hey look, I know people like this) so, again, why are they here?
But I might be missing the forest for the trees here. And really, the characters are bearable save one. Phil. Oh, Phil. This character, this complete and utter shitting on of modern American adulthood, my GOD, was his every moment in this text an absolute punishment to get through. And the worst part? He's not even an "evil" character. He's the ostensible love interest for Cheryl who quickly shows himself to be a wretched wretched creature. Take and imagine every sin of the other characters and augment it by 50 or so, and you'll just begin to approach the utter and complete degradation that is this literary parasite. Again, no spoilers, but the wind up between him and Cheryl is just perfect and actually had me cheering.
So, in the final estimation, this is indeed a good book. It's not great and this lack of transcendence can be seen by its too sycophantic adherence to the Millenial tropes of the moment. But there's a good story with some burning and even revelatory ideas regarding sexuality, love, age, and finally, what it means to live past one's "prime" and still live, still really live with all that that entails....more
A masterful collection of one of the most distinct playwrights who ever lived. High praise, granted, and yes I'm woefully under-read in my theater andA masterful collection of one of the most distinct playwrights who ever lived. High praise, granted, and yes I'm woefully under-read in my theater and haven't seen as much as I should have. But this is something I hope to rectify as soon as time and sanity allow (living that grad student life).
Some specifics, Pinter's writing is brilliantly precise in delineating what's implied and what's left out completely. A true master of ratcheting up dread and tension, Pinter gives his readers (and audiences) just enough to apprehend the ripples of something bigger and (usually) more horrible rumbling just beneath the surface of the dialogue and setting.
Coming as I do from a mostly prose background reading this collection was a crash course in mood and ambiance, in showing such restraint that you become a master of manipulating your audience's sense of frustration, anxiety, and, yes, even comedy too. Black Comedy, Kafkaesque definitely, but akin to the spirit of the rest of his abilities as a writer, Pinter's humorous asides are as well calculated as a finely tuned watch.
Though maybe not as hammer to your face effective as his predecessor and friend Samuel Beckett, Pinter trumps his friend in subtly with taut prose that talks around a story, a point, a philosophy and even an ideology in a way that would make Ernest Hemingway jealous.
In summation, this is an incredible collection and one that I'm already sorry to see go (it was a rental) but I will not soon forget the effect Pinter evoked with his words, his nuances, his infamous pauses, and most memorably, his absences on me. In what was left out and left behind for the sake of what was to be implied and hinted at, whispered towards, Pinter truly has no equal....more
There were moments of this book that enraged me as well as many that opened my eyes. For every instance I felt Hillel Halkin was talking with me thereThere were moments of this book that enraged me as well as many that opened my eyes. For every instance I felt Hillel Halkin was talking with me there were just as many where I thought he was talking at me, or more precisely, talking down to me. But before I get too far into my feelings regarding the book, let me take a step back and delineate a bit more professionally just what this text is as opposed to what it claims to be.
First of all, the title "Letters to an American Jewish Friend: a Zionist's Polemic" is a bit of a misnomer. Most friendships, so I believe at least, are based on some kind of equality and a comfort and even freedom of intimacy to exchange honest ideas (and dirty jokes) between two or more people. But unfortunately Halkin shakes the foundation of his use of the word in two ways. 1.) We never actually see any of the letters this American Jewish friend has written to counter Halkin's literary self (save for the occasional paragraph here and there), as such, we're automatically predisposed to more believe what Halkin is saying rather than his friend by sheer dint of quantity alone. And 2.) The use of 'friend' is ill-informed as the equality I believe and I figure most would believe is symptomatic of most friendships, seems absent in the exchange we do see between Halkin and this "American Jewish friend". This absence is most evidenced for me in Halkin's tone which, though not completely pedantic is more then a little, and even substantially condescending (not to mention a tad hypocritical and disingenuous but we'll get to that).
Let me speak positively first, if I may. Hillel Halkin is clearly a very intelligent, well spoken, and well read man. His level of education both cultural and common sense based is substantial. And he approaches the reader as someone equal to his intelligence which is very refreshing given the potential of many (with this same subject matter) to become mere ideologues, bully pulpit amateurs, and arm chair mouth pieces with nothing of actual substance or original thought to bring forward save for the same tired rhetoric that has driven so many to tears, boredom, or at worst, indifference and even anger. This is especially telling when one realizes, as I did, that the points Halkin is trying to drive home are not so substantially different from the likes of Arutz Sheva in Israel or any of its idiotic and borderline fascistic acolytes (the likes of clownish boor Tzvi Fishman and his ilk come to mind, sadly) are also trying to put forward (or ram down Jewish people's throats, but I digress).
But what is the difference, then? Let me go on record by saying that I despise Artuz Sheva (think Fox News in Israel with not even the pretense of objectively presenting the news or caring about the secular viewpoint) and the viewpoints of many of their contributors. The difference lies in presentation. Halkin presents well reasoned, well thought out, and well described arguments that, while relying far too much on metaphor and Romantic, borderline kitsch language, appeal not only to pathos, but to the ethos and logos as well. Instead of parading around a 'you are doomed unless you do as I say narrative' like any hack street preacher of any faith on any street corner in the world does, Halkin treats his readers with more respect and offers genuine intellectualism as opposed to the petty scare mongering and petty shaming many in the far right camp in Israel (mostly English speaking) attempt to use to convince people of their arguments (with genuine Jewish 'love' being their excuse).
Also, I'd like to point out that, again unlike many who agree with Halkin's end goals, Halkin himself doesn't offer a life in Israel as either a guarantee of Jewish survival or as anything completely patently 'Jewish' in comparison to the idealized Judaism of the past (partly fictionalized, exaggerated, and Romanticized) in the Diaspora. He's too smart, too honest, and thankfully too intellectually responsible for that. Israel and Zionism are not a panacea for the ills of the Jewish people. Israel could fall and as a nation is far from perfect and, like many a nation (America included) has committed many sins to get where it is now. But, Halkin contends, it's the best option we as a people have, and, frankly, I agree.
And herein the negatives begin. Remember when I said before that Halkin misused the word 'friend' in his title? Yeah, I still believe that he did. This isn't a book involving the exchange of letters between two Jewish equals. Halkin clearly doesn't think much of the achievements of Diaspora Jewry (outside of the name-checked 'acceptables' such as Kabbalah and other outgrowths of an essentially religious nature) except for those that he claims have some intrinsic link to Judaism (usually Hebraic and again, religiously based) that can be used as the grist for the burgeoning, or he might say stagnated, secular Jewish culture in Israel He lambastes the entire canon of Secular Jewish literature, American and otherwise, mainly because these works failed to be Jewish 'enough'. Absolute value judgments like this bother me in a number of ways. Primarily they bother me because no one appointed Halkin an arbiter of anything let alone what is and isn't definably Jewish. This is especially galling when Halkin himself states that Judaism, like any culture, isn't immune to the transformative influence of time. But whereas the Jewish religion itself gets a pass from Halkin due to the strictures of orthodoxy acting as a vanguard against modernity (which Halkin claims still acted as an influence on Orthodoxy which kind of softly shoots his point in the foot as numerous times Halkin claims he isn't religious but cites so many religious texts and authorities it becomes kind of hard to take his 'I'm not religious' claim that seriously substituting it instead for something like 'I'm not THAT religious' might have been more helpful) secular Jewish culture itself gets no such pass.
I guess I'm a bit more forgiving and understanding than Halkin. I look at the likes of Kafka, Spinoza, Mailer, Proust, and many many others and I don't bemoan that they wrote in a language that wasn't Hebrew (how dare they?) but instead rejoice that these minds ever lived at all. These minds have given us some of the greatest literature and philosophy the world has ever seen, and I think to dismiss them based on such a narrowly subjective view as what language they wrote in (not taking into account that they might not have had the same Hebrew language based upbringing and opportunities to learn said language that the likes of Halkin himself had) is just grossly myopic and more than a little ignorant. Is Secular Jewish literature perfect? Far from it. Has it damaged Judaism in places and at times? Oh yes. But, so I contend, has religious Judaism itself.
I love the interplay between Secular and Religious Judaism because within that dialectic, I believe, lies the true fire and brilliance of Judaism in its totality. Strict orthodoxy might be the heart of Judaism but it's also frighteningly incestuous and stagnant. And Secular Judaism might be the mind of Judaism but it's transience and corruptibility make it something difficult to find tangible purchase in. So, why not take from both? Why not see in Spinoza's exile and Kafka's alienation not a deviation from Judaism but instead a personal restructuring of it to fit the needs of the individual Jew in the face of ideological, religious, and philosophical abandonment at the hands of the majority of Jews, religious or otherwise, Zionist or otherwise? Just a theory, who the hell knows.
In the end though, this is still a rock solid work. Far from perfect, it does however perfectly engage the willing Jewish reader, with bracing ideas that are equal parts galling and potentially enlightening. Mr. Halkin, while I may not agree with everything you've put forward, I do agree that these points needed to be brought up and I'm thankful that you've put them forward in such an erudite and well crafted way. I'd offer up a Hebrew saying but unlike Halkin I don't have the Hebrew language skills to take for granted. As of yet anyway, still learning, still trying. Some of us have to make to do with what we have, and even go so far as to earn what is our birthright as opposed to those clueless who are simply gifted it by no more partial a judge than blind circumstance.
I'd originally come upon this book from a list entitled "The Most Depressing Modern Fiction" or something to that effect, and being a downbeat guy witI'd originally come upon this book from a list entitled "The Most Depressing Modern Fiction" or something to that effect, and being a downbeat guy with a mild obsession with the cynical and the depressive in modernity, I picked it up.
Now, it's a solid read. Barbash tells his stories well and the depressive dread is skillfully delineated. But he does have a few weaknesses, namely his propensity for ending his stories on the symbolic and the metaphorical. These aren't bad ways to end a story per se, symbolism can be shattering and deeply affecting, but only when used appropriately. There were a handful of times when Barbash would end a story with a piece of symbolism that left me saying "Well, that was nice, but what the hell does it have to do with anything other than reading and sounding nice and borderline deep?"
But overall it's a very good collection of short stories with a few real standouts of artistry that all describe adroitly the everyday sadness, miseries, and mild to major traumas that weigh us down but might define us just as much as anything else. It's not as horribly depressing as I was led to believe but there's a skill apparent here and I very much look forward to reading more of Barbash's creative output....more
Working as a SI (supplemental instructor/sort of a TA 'lite') for my university's Freshman English Composition class, we were, along with many other cWorking as a SI (supplemental instructor/sort of a TA 'lite') for my university's Freshman English Composition class, we were, along with many other classes, assigned this book to read. At first I thought it would be a 'tap water' read. Quick, palatable, and not being able to leave much in the way of an impression. How wrong I was, and how glad I am.
Much like Max Brooks' "World War Z" this book's readability belies its complexity. This surprising amount of depth is evident in author Drew Magary's commendable ability to tease out the central concept of his book in such a way that it feels like most every conceivable issue that need be addressed is addressed. And considering that this book's central concept is the finding of a medical cure for aging, and that Magary manages to touch on religion, war, politics, economics, love, morality, family and a few other key human 'endeavors' and all in under 400 pages, that's a hell of a feat.
But in doing this (and this is where I dock Magary a few points) the writer unfortunately sacrifices pacing (most notably towards the end of the novel) and dialogue (it all feels very workmanlike and exposition based, even when the intent is humor or pathos). These aren't major issues and as I commented over the course of my reading I was constantly and consistently surprised by this book's treating of not only its central conceit but also of its readers as an audience willing to deal with the limitations of their own moral and ethical, as well as cultural, horizons. We need more books like this in the US of A, please.
I needed to read this book right at this moment. Equal parts a tribute to unfettered ambition and a ruthless lampooning of clueless dreaming (with litI needed to read this book right at this moment. Equal parts a tribute to unfettered ambition and a ruthless lampooning of clueless dreaming (with little to no talent or cognizance to back it up) The Disaster Artist is, in it's own way, a brilliant work.
It's a brilliant work because of how honest it is. And that honesty can be boiled down to: LA and the dread 'Hollywood Industry' are, frankly, quite awful. I say this as someone who's lived in LA for most of his life and wouldn't live anywhere else (mostly). But Sestero shows the ruthlessness of his industry along with the abject level of clueless of its many many victims. These victims seem to be Sestero himself, and the center of the book's storm Tommy Wiseau. The former looks to have stepped back and gained (or always had) a level of awareness about it, while the latter...well..the latter?
Tommy Wisaeu is one of the most brilliantly conceived fictional characters who just happens to be an actual living person. I don't know how much if any of his story (the various and contrasting iterations he gives notwithstanding) are true. And Sestero does a wonderful job illustrating him on the page. He's funny, he's scary, he's kind, he's a jackass, he's faithful and a surprisingly good friend, he's Ahab and King Lear blended together and held together, just barely, by his utter and complete obliviousness not only to the world around him but the world within him as well. In short: He's clueless to a level that can only really be described as Biblical.
And the book works. Sestero's and Wiseaus' struggles to be actors, to be seen, regarded, to perform, feel incredibly well and are delineated passionately. The taste and feel of LA is on full display here and along the way we get good descriptions of life simply going on and on around these characters in the best way possible, in that as the characters fail, life goes on.
I'm way out in outer left field here, outer outer outer left field, but when I mentioned that I needed to read this book, this is what I was talking about. Reading this book has taught me (or re-taught me, or reminded me, go pick one) that it's okay to fail. No, really, it's okay to try and fail and to even try and fail repeatedly. This may sound like simple logic to some but for many years, due to an upbringing slathered and saturated in post baby boomer nonsense salted with some gen-X nonsense and dunked by some additional gen y and millennial nonsense, I got into my head what can only be termed a pathological fear of failure.
But reading this book reminded me, which is weird given how otherworldly Wiseau himself is, that not only is it okay to fail, it's probably far better for you than any victory. One learns with loss, one changes and matures and grows and yes, even evolves. I feel Wiseau by the end of the book has changed, having become just slightly cognizant with everything reality had thrown at him, despite his near unbreakable shield of bottomless (and mysteriously sourced) financing. But it's the voice of the narrator himself, presumably Greg Sestero, that showed me true transformation and beneficial evolution in the face of repeated rejection and failure. In the book's closing pages he seems to have really accepted just what it is to be a passenger on Ahab's ship and much like Keroauc's On the Road has become older but most certainly wiser, even intelligently melancholy and wistful for the nonsense of his younger days.
But more than anything else, it's a funny book, hilarious even. Go read it for that if nothing else.
To write about the ineffable or the incomprehensible is not easy, inherently it can't be. So to write about the Holocaust and the toll it took on itsTo write about the ineffable or the incomprehensible is not easy, inherently it can't be. So to write about the Holocaust and the toll it took on its victims and its perpetrators...it must be handled with grace, skill, delicacy, if the work is to be taken seriously as a work of merit or true worth or weight.
And, oddly enough, Jodi Picoult does this...but she also doesn't. On the one hand her writing of the atrocities of what Jews, Poles, Communists et al went through at the hands of the Nazis (following the now well worn progression of 'accepted' anti-semitism to slow disenfranchising, and eventual tightening of the strangle hold and finally the knotting of the noose and the lighting of the ovens) is convincing with a refreshing absence of the usual pap and plastic flair and attempt at whimsy many American Jewish authors of late have tried to insert into their shtetl/Holocaust/European Jewish stories (I'm looking at you, Jonathan Safran Foer and your wife Nicole Krauss too!). But where Ms. Picoult falter is, unfortunately, her modern American need for definition and declaration in the realm of a story, real in history, imagined in her mind, that defies analysis.
I have no doubt as to the moral ambiguity inherent to all humanity on a good day, let alone during the conditions of war and microscoped down even more to during the conditions of mechanized genocide. And Picoult understands this well. But some, or almost none, can write about things like this with the gentle but powerful hand it requires. I'm sorry, but Ms. Picoult unfortunately cannot have her cake and eat it too. You can't infer a moral equivalency between the few, the individuals, while bemoaning the absolute evil of the many and the majority.
The power of story as discussed here, as confession, as catharsis, as hope, is a powerful one. But this message is threaded too thinly with too many disparate influences jockeying for attention. The conceit of the literary Nazi officer with a fondness for literature being charmed (or at least made curious) by the bookish leanings of one of his Jewish prisoners has been done before, and better I will add, by David Grossman in his superior See Under: Love, as well as, to a lesser extent, in Yoram Kaniuk's novel Adam Resurrected.
But the book has power and the effort and passion shows. Though I should mention that the modern portions of the book, detailing Sage and her (eventual) romance with government agent Leo Stein, are a pain to outright punishment to sit through. And this brings me back to one of my main concerns regarding not only this story but American storytelling sensibilities as a whole, at least, modern ones.
In essence, the story (despite the genuinely surprising and well crafted twist at the end) is too clean, it's too neat, and aside from the relevant and maddening questions of morality and justice brought up towards story's end, is concluded and wrapped up too neatly. This robs the story of the necessary bravery it needed to be a real literary statement about one of history's most horrific moments. The romance between Sage and Leo is too plastic, too forced and 'cute', too much a piece of wistful and forcibly romantic American pap in the face of something dark, ineffable, incomprehensible, something Hebraic and human, Old Testament and brutal.
As it stands, it's a decent and even good read. But it could have been and maybe should have been something so much more than what we were given....more