After reading The Dark Lady from Belorusse, it’s difficult to say where the author’s life ends and his novels begin. This is Jerome Charyn’s memoir ofAfter reading The Dark Lady from Belorusse, it’s difficult to say where the author’s life ends and his novels begin. This is Jerome Charyn’s memoir of growing up with an immigrant mother who takes on the corrupt and cacophonous Bronx of the 1940s and bends it to her indomitable will. As he’s done with fictional treatments of historical characters like Emily Dickinson (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson), George Washington (Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution), and Joe Dimaggio (Joe Dimaggio: The Long Vigil), when writing about his own life he populates it with larger-than-life characters and delicious dialog we could only hope real people really said.
Charyn’s mother earns her “Dark Lady” nickname when one of her many male admirers compares her to a character called that in a Chekhov story. But unlike the tragic heroine of that story, Charyn’s Faigele (as she is known) does not drown herself in despair. As she says when the borough president tells her her factory job will kill her: “Fat chance, Mr. Lions. I survived the tzar, I’l survive a candy factory in the Bronx.”
But this isn’t just the story of a strong woman surviving in a man’s world (is his mother one reason Charyn had such an attraction to Emily Dickinson?). It is also the story of a sickly and persecuted child who learns to be the man he will become at his mother’s knee. Young Jerome is in tow as the beautiful Faigele, whom men compare to Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, navigates wave after wave of con men, mob bosses, and would-be lovers who threaten to drown her, but always end up helpless under her own tidal force. Through his eyes we see her adapt the courage she learned from her beloved brother hiding from cossacks in the swamps of Belorusse to conquering the strange new world of war-time Bronx, NY.
In a memorable scene Faigele removes the portrait of FDR from the wall of her family’s apartment, a sacrilegious act in solidly-Democrat Bronx of that time. She is angry at Roosevelt whose political machinations she blames for the death of a friend and benefactor. Her husband protests that he is the President of the United States. “Not in my house,” responds Faigele. Mrs. Charyn is fiercely loyal to those she loves, but anyone who crosses her will not be spared her scorn, even if he is the President.
Just as in his novels, Jerome Charyn gives us as much pleasure in his use of language and imagery as in his vivid storytelling. For example, recalling a favorite cafe called “The Bitter Eagles,” Faigele describes her lover and son who have gone into the house painting business together as “bitter eagles…who like to fly near the ceiling.”
The Dark Lady from Belorusse then is a memoir that slides right in amongst Charyn’s novels, a raucous yet moving carnival ride of the human spirit rising above the muck of our communal swamp. In its pages, he reveals to us how an impoverished “bitter eagle” from the Grand Concourse could learn to fly.
Few people could write a book about young people dying that is never maudlin or sentimental, and is actually entertaining. This book will make you facFew people could write a book about young people dying that is never maudlin or sentimental, and is actually entertaining. This book will make you face up to death, not "bravely" or "heroically" or any of those cliches which this book destroys, but in reality, because it is the ultimate reality. You will spend nearly an infinite more amount of this universe's time dead than alive, but as they say in the book, "some infinities are larger than others."
(I must be honest that you should see the 5 stars I'm giving this book through this filter: I am both someone who is currently surviving cancer myself, and I am lucky enough that so far both my children and all six of my grandchildren show no signs of dying early. So there is no doubt this book had a better chance than many to impact me deeply. That being said, because of those things, my bullshit detector was on pretty strong, and it only emitted beeps too weak to notice as I read this novel.)...more
Excellent coverage of the multiple threads of evidence that make evolution of species as close to scientific fact as anything we know about our world.Excellent coverage of the multiple threads of evidence that make evolution of species as close to scientific fact as anything we know about our world. Very readable and able to be understood by anyone with a reasonable amount of education....more
Every bit as good and non-put-downable as Pressfield's Gates of Fire. Both intricately detailed and emotionally satisfying account of the allies improEvery bit as good and non-put-downable as Pressfield's Gates of Fire. Both intricately detailed and emotionally satisfying account of the allies improbable push-back victory against the forces of Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox."
The book follows the exploits of a Long Range Desert Group patrol in the vast North African deserts in 1942-3. The group is tasked with a seemingly-impossible mission: infiltrate behind German lines and kill Rommel. It turns into a nail-biting saga of survival, as these semi-autonomous desert rats time and again have to evade an ever-pressing enemy, not to mention the enemies of desert privation and mechanical breakdowns.
As with Gates of Fire, Killing Rommel celebrates the courage and heroism of the warrior, but also explores with philosophical depth the terror, madness--but also the extraordinary humanity--that takes place in war....more
It's been a while since I read a novel that truly fit the old cliche "page turner." I can truly say, though, that I only ever put my copy of Gates ofIt's been a while since I read a novel that truly fit the old cliche "page turner." I can truly say, though, that I only ever put my copy of Gates of Fire down because of the necessities of life. It gripped me from page one and did not let go.
Gates of Fire is so much more than an attempt to recreate the legendary last stand of a handful of Spartan warriors against multitudes of Persian invaders, though it accomplishes that task beautifully. It also manages to serve as a philosophical treatise on courage, brotherhood, sacrifice, dedication, love, and a host of other themes without ever becoming pedantic or boring.
As his storytelling device, Steven Pressfield employs a fictional Spartan squire who, though mortally wounded, survives the slaughter at the "hot gates" and falls into the hands of the Persians. He is brought before king Xerxes, who commands the squire Xeo to educate the king on the nature and background of these soldiers who managed to hold off his world-conquering troops for three days. Xeo agrees, but only if he can tell the tale as "the muse" leads him. The court historian records his words verbatim, and thus we have the text of the book before us.
This narrative device allows Pressfield to give us moving and deeply personal insights into the Spartan culture and how it produced these men (and women) of great valor. He humanizes Sparta for us, digging beneath the stereotype of cold, heartless killing machines. One of my favorite aspects is his highlighting of the critical role women played in the deliverance of their homeland.
One of the central questions of the novel is, "What is the opposite of fear?" In a campfire talk with some youthful warriors, an old veteran raises this question. He tells them it can't be "fearlessness," which is just a non-thing; it must be something positive. When this warrior finally discloses his discovery of the answer, at the climax of the epic battle, you have the true theme of the novel. I'll only say that it is a theme that can be fully embraced and appreciated by even pacifists, such as myself. Though this novel takes one into the brutal realities of war, it is about so much more than that. It is about what it means to be truly human; to be human in ways even the gods can never know.
(Disclosure: a free copy of this book was provided to me by the author's publicist.)...more
The War of Art goes on my short shelf of "books that have changed my life"...even though I only finished reading it an hour ago.
This is one book I'm gThe War of Art goes on my short shelf of "books that have changed my life"...even though I only finished reading it an hour ago.
This is one book I'm glad I bought instead of borrowed, as I know I'll want to return to it again and again.
This is not your typical self-help book. Steven Pressfield kicks ass and takes no prisoners. The title is not just clever, it's very appropriate. Taking a cue from Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War, Pressfield uses the metaphor of battle throughout. The person who aspires to being creative--to bringing into existence in this world anything which wouldn't be there without his efforts--is in a continuous war against powerful forces that would defeat that purpose.
The book is divided up into three mini-books. The first names the enemy: Resistance. Resistance is the personification of all those forces--internal and external, but mostly internal--that fight against us actually doing creative work. In short (usually one page) chapters, Pressfield names every attribute of Resistance so we can identify it's influences in our own lives.
The second book is about Professionalism. Professionalism is the decision to "just do it." The author encourages us to treat our creative endeavors like a real job: show up every day, sit down, and do your work until its time to stop. Oh, and tell the critics, internal and external, to go to hell.
The third part may be off-putting to some, but Pressfield is nothing if he is not honest throughout the book. Here he sets forth his belief that there is a mystical element to creativity. He thinks the ancients with their Muses and the medieval theologians with their guardian angels were on to something. As he quotes from William Blake: "Eternity is in love with the creations of time." Pressfield does not require that you believe there is some spiritual reality behind all this (he does), but the important idea here is that once one sits down and actually begins to create, something larger than that person's own intelligence takes over.
Overall I found this book easy to digest but often thought-provoking. The very short chapters make this a good candidate to dip into randomly from time to time just for the inspiration it would provide. Now I've got some writing to do. Take that, Mr. Resisitance!...more
**spoiler alert** The first thing to keep in mind when approaching The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is that it was written as part of a ser**spoiler alert** The first thing to keep in mind when approaching The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is that it was written as part of a series called The Myths. Canongate Books commissioned a number of the best-known authors alive today to retell classic myths in a modern/post-modern perspective. I put this caveat up front because, for those like me whose previous experience with Philip Pullman was through the His Dark Materials Trilogy series, the style of Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ may at first be off-putting. He writes here in the sparse, matter-of-fact style of classic myth-telling, but once the reader is aware of that, the different cadence becomes natural and even beautiful. So at its most basic level, this book is a retelling of the Jesus myth/story as found in the canonical Gospels as well as a few gospels (such as those of "Thomas" and "James") that didn't make the cut into the New Testament. Think the style of Tolkien's Silmarillion as contrasted to The Lord of the Rings.
Of course, treating the story of Jesus as myth is going to result in controversy, to say the least. Pullman has already reported receiving numerous death threats. To those familiar with his Dark Materials books, his very negative take on organized Christianity (and the Roman Catholic Church in particular) should come as no surprise. More about this controversial aspect below.
Myths usually come about to explore something core to the civilization that produces them. Pullman casts his myth to deal with two engines humming in the sub-basement of Western Civilization (one general and one very specific): the Christian Church and the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Again, readers of His Dark Materials will not be surprised that Pullman takes a very dark view of the organized church. In Good Man / Scoundrel, the Christ character is mentored by a shadowy figure known only as "The Stranger," who is reminiscent of the officials of the Magisterium in Dark Materials. The Stranger seems to be part of an unnamed conspiracy to use the popular Jesus to produce what will become the organized Church. To that end, The Stranger pushes Christ to embellish the historical record of Jesus' life and teachings he is writing. (Christ would seem to be the elusive Q recorder many scholars posit must lie behind the synoptic gospels.) The Stranger wants to deemphasize the very "earthy" Jesus, who is mostly concerned with issues of justice and how his followers treat each other, and build up a more ethereal, spiritualized, "heavenly" Jesus Christ, the more better to manipulate the masses into cooperation with the larger aims of the Church.
It is in exploring the question of who exactly Jesus was that Pullman's myth takes its most startling (and therefore bound-to-produce-outrage) bend on the story as we know it. He has Mary giving birth to twin boys. The older is given the name Jesus and grows up to become the itinerant preacher/teacher who runs afoul of the powers-that-be and ends up getting himself crucified. We are never told the given name of the younger brother (shades of the Man in Black in the TV series LOST!). He is referred to by Mary's pet name for him: Christ. Christ turns out to be many characters in "real life" who would later be renamed and recast in the finished gospels, among them the Satan of Jesus' wilderness temptations and Judas the betrayer. At the end of the novel, Pullman hints strongly that Christ in later life took on one more role crucial in Christian history, but that hint will only be picked up by those most familiar with the New Testament.
Pullman uses this twin brother schema to deal with the at times nearly schizophrenic portrayal of Jesus that many modern scholars have found in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Specifically, while there are tantalizing hints in those gospels that this Jesus must be something more than an ordinary man, exactly what he was is never completely clear. What was his primary message and purpose? To push his followers toward a better, more just and loving, life in this world, or to get them to ignore the suffering of this world in light of a better world to come? Pullman casts Jesus as the preacher of the former and Christ as the re-interpreter of Jesus toward the latter aim.
Certainly many Christian believers will protest that this bifurcation is unnecessary. Why can't Jesus be concerned with both this world and the next? But readers must remember that Pullman's novel is first and foremost an exploration of how and why stories/myths/accounts develop toward their canonical form. As he says in a quotation on the back cover, "Parts of [my story:] read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale. I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories" (emphasis added). Even conservative scholars now concede that there is diversity among the canonical gospels primarily because each shapes the story around certain themes and with a certain community of readers in mind. Pullman isn't so much trying to propose "this is how it might have happened" (as was Hugh Schonfield's notorious The Passover Plot) as he is trying to get us to consider honestly that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history or an unshaped story.
For that reason, my one criticism of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is similar to my main criticism of his His Dark Matters series. In both, Pullman's writing becomes weakest when he can't resist getting preachy about his obsession with perceived evils of the Church. His critique works best when he keeps it subtle, as he does in the first book of the Dark Materials trilogy or in early parts of Good Man / Scoundrel. When he feels the need to get "in our face" about it, it becomes annoying and distracting. A good example of this is in his rewriting of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he has Jesus angrily protesting in foresight the present priestly pedophilia scandal of the Roman Catholic Church. It leaves one surprised that he didn't also have Jesus mention Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart by name in his prayer.
On the other hand, a great strength of the novel is Pullman's complex portrayal of both of his main characters. I believe that the "good man vs. scoundrel" duality of the title is meant to be ironic. Jesus is not wholly a "good man"--as a child he often gets into mischief that Christ has to bail him out of, and as an adult preacher he is portrayed as undermining family life. Neither is Christ wholly a scoundrel. In common with many postmodern portrayals of Judas, Christ is shown as a man of complex motives. It is difficult to separate at times his lust for fame and reputation with his sincere (if misguided?) desire to see the life and message of his brother result in some greater good that lasts forever.
I won't give away any more of the plot as Pullman develops it, but suffice it to say that Christ finds himself drawn further and further into the conspiratorial web being cast by The Stranger. Christ ends up being a key player in the great climax of the Jesus narrative. And, in a deliciously subtle exercise in restrained clue-dropping, it turns out that Christ would go on to become yet another highly influential New Testament character.
It is sad that inevitably many Christians will probably view The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as an anti-Jesus book. It is anything but. It is true that Pullman a la Thomas Jefferson removes the supernatural from the "actual" life of Jesus, substituting naturalistic explanations for most of the miracles (Mary is essentially date raped by a neighbor she believes to be an angel; the feeding of the five thousand turns out to result from Jesus' shaming his listeners into sharing their food with each other). But he seems to do this mostly to aid his larger purpose of demonstrating how historical accounts can come to be altered by those who believe insertion of their "timeless truths" into an account are justified by the greater good of their agenda.
Moreover, Pullman's novel serves as an exploration of the postmodern critique of narratives. According to postmodern theory, narratives often exist--whether intentionally or not--as tools of manipulative power over others. When intentional such manipulation can become quite insidious (think of all the evil that has resulted from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for example). The Stranger pushes Christ to enhance the stories and sayings he is writing down, teaching him that "truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God." The intentional shaping of a narrative is often justified as "letting truth into history," but the discerning individual should always ask, "Whose truth, and to what end?"
The strong protests of many against this book and some of Pullman's previous writings I think points to modern readers' inability to grasp myth. We have been taught to expect ancient accounts to adhere to journalistic standards of "truth." But in the ancient world there was not such a clear dividing line between truth and storytelling. In fact, it was assumed that story/myth was a better conveyor of truth than literal, "factual" accounts (witness the parables that dominate Jesus' teaching in the gospels). At one point in Good Man / Scoundrel Christ is upset by the apparent injustice in one of Jesus' parables. However, Pullman writes, "Christ knew as he wrote it down that, for all its unfairness, people would remember that story much longer than they’d remember a legal definition." In the modern world--and in modern theology in particular--we are obsessed with the "legal definition" of things. Pullman's work serves as a reminder that such definitions can never be containers of the whole truth about anything....more
Historical fiction is a daring enterprise, which is a polite way of saying that it borders on the foolhardy at one extreme and the arrogant at the othHistorical fiction is a daring enterprise, which is a polite way of saying that it borders on the foolhardy at one extreme and the arrogant at the other. If attempting to recreate a time and place neither author nor reader can visit to verify smacks of foolhardy hubris, then fictionalized autobiography might be something worse. However, after reading The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, the reader is glad author Jerome Charyn risked something worse to achieve something better: an engaging, intriguing, dreamscape creation of an Emily Dickinson who, if not the one who actually existed, leads a “secret life” we would wish for the reclusive bard of Amherst.
Emily Dickinson does not seem like the most fertile ground for novelization. Aside from the words of poetry she left us, she is best known for hiding out in her bedroom for decades, communicating with others only by notes or from behind a partially-opened door. Charyn seemed to want to pursue the question “how could someone who barely ever left her room write so convincingly and sensuously about the world?” Charyn’s answer is to hypothesize that shy Emily may have been more the adventuress than we have known.
Charyn’s Emily certainly gets out more than her historical counterpart did. Though for the most part Emily of Secret Life stays true to the famous reclusive image, she can’t resist getting herself up close and personal with flesh-and-blood representatives of some of the more salacious eroticisms hinted at throughout her poetry.
To facilitate those adventures, Charyn freely mixes his own created characters in among the real historical persons who surrounded Miss Dickinson. Some of these act as the chief dramatic foils to the poetess’s otherwise carefully controlled and constructed life. Most intriguing is Zilpah Marsh, one of Emily’s classmates at the Holyoke Seminary. Zilpah is every bit as intelligent and witty as Emily, but her lower class origins drag her down a different, more ignominious path. Even still, Emily finds herself often envious of her less fortunate rival. We are introduced to Zilpah as she and Emily battle over Tom, the school handyman, who oozes both raw sexuality and pure romance. Though Emily seems to appreciate Tom more, it is Zilpah who ends up living with him.
Tom is another fictitious character, who Charyn brings into Emily’s life to be that ideal of the pure man whom she will always pursue but never own. Tom is “that blond Assassin in the sunlight” (from Dickinson’s poem “Apparently with no surprise…”). Like an assassin, he appears unexpectedly and in many disguises throughout Emily’s life, and the bullets he shoots at her are the ways his presence reminds her of what she sacrificed for her art.
But the character who looms largest in the life of Jerome Charyn’s Emily is her very real father. Emily may have an active “secret life,” but the central motivator for all she does is a need to please and be admired by her father. Squire Dickinson of the novel is at the same time Emily’s biggest cheerleader and harshest judge, though he almost never speaks either a word of praise or of judgment. His ability to be both intimately close and coldly distant is a painful enigma for Emily. He is a driven man, well-aware of his position as the most prominent citizen of Amherst. She describes him as “a ferocious engine on a lonely track.” Yet Emily is able to see a warm and tender heart that she wishes he could turn more toward her. When her father laments that Emily’s return from Holyoke Seminary means no more of her letters at the post office, she teases that she could plant letters there for him. He tells her it wouldn’t be the same, “because I couldn’t hear the hunger in your lines.” Her father’s aloofness is his way of encouraging the hunger he knows essential to her art, and it is both Emily’s greatest pain and her most useful inspiration.
A painful and shocking sampling of this tough love occurs fairly early in the novel. Visiting her rival doppelgänger Zilpah in an insane asylum, Emily observes her father showing the half-mad woman a tenderness and compassion she herself had never known from him. Though she takes this as the universe’s recompense on her for her earlier mistreatment of Zilpah, she also realizes that this will be the way of her life. Denial of intimacy with those from whom she most desires it drives her to the world she can create on slips of paper with the pencil stub always tied by a string to her dress.
Yet Emily’s relationship with her father is not all ice and distance. When she discovers that her father actually had read some of her poetry she had left out for him to find, she asks why he never told her. “Dolly [his pet name for her:],” he said, “it’s taken me two years to recover. They nearly tore my head off.” For Emily, such an impact on her father is nearly as good as a tender embrace, though she would have welcomed the latter. She seeks a replacement for that embrace in a succession of men she courts from afar, but that kind of fulfillment is not to be hers.
While these interpersonal conflicts drive the plot of the novel and sketch out Charyn’s thesis for possibilities of why Emily turned out the way she did, it is the language of the novel, its use of words and turns of phrase, that raise The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson to a work of brilliance. The author succeeds in creating a voice for Emily that rings true. We can never know, of course, if this is really how she felt and thought, but if somehow it turned out to be close to the truth, we would not be surprised. Once when a friend asks Emily what the actual subject of one of her poems was, Charyn has her respond, “Verses do not have a subject, I should think, but a kind of shudder, as if the whole world were born again within the flash of an eye.” Another time she remarks, “I have no terrain. I dance on a precipice, knowing I will fall.” These are lines we could easily believe the Belle of Amherst actually uttered.
Historical fiction and biography at their best offer us an alternate world of the past. While almost certainly not “historical” in the strictest sense, nonetheless they provide us not only with insight into the past figures who serve as characters, but also a window into the human condition which transcends all time and place. While many of Emily’s struggles as depicted by Jerome Charyn are specific to her historical situatedness (e.g., the resistance to women as “serious” authors), yet we recognize the universal joys and sufferings of any creative person in any time. That The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson succeeds in doing this with one of the more obscure personages of modern literary history is a credit to the skill of the author.
Brueggemann forces us to unblinkingly confront the God actually presented in the Old Testament, not the God we wish was there via the colored glassesBrueggemann forces us to unblinkingly confront the God actually presented in the Old Testament, not the God we wish was there via the colored glasses of our Western rationalistic theology. He shows us that the Israelite conception of YHWH was as a god known only in relationship, an "unsettling" god, who while in some way "sovereign," could also be capricious, irrationally angry or generous, and who could be changed by relationship with covenantal partners, even as they were indeed changed by their relationship to YHWH.
Brueggemann explores this relationship through each of YHWH's four main "partners": Israel, the human person, nations, and creation. In a final chapter, he issues the challenge that only an embracing of this unsettling God of abundance, suffering, and hope can provide a counter to the Enlightenment's assumptions of scarcity, denial of brokenness, and ultimately despair. Israel in the Old Testament never concerned itself with an apologetical need to try to prove that YHWH exists, nor did they try to arrive at some kind of exhaustive definition of YHWH (both high concerns in Western Christian theology). Rather for them YHWH is the god who fits with "the way things are" in their experience of abundance / the Pit / restoration. So Brueggemann does not bother with such apologetics. Rather his interest is in how this very Jewish way of looking at existence might provide a pattern of counter-cultural living for those of us disillusioned with what our Enlightenment-Western culture has come to....more