Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise" by Sandra Allen; Scribner (275 pages, $26)

When Sandra Allen was studying nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, her Uncle Bob sent her the typescript of his autobiography. This would be her "crazy" Uncle Bob, a chain-smoking, good-natured, long-haired oddball who lived a hermit existence in California. The autobiography was typed all in caps, its curled pages stinking of cigarette smoke.

The spelling was haphazard and the prose almost unreadable, with no paragraph breaks. "Each page was a wall of text," Allen writes in "A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise," her memoir of her uncle's life.

She did not know if the manuscript was truthful, delusional or a pack of lies; it was pockmarked with racist and homophobic comments and disturbing confessions, and she had no idea what to do with it. So she stuffed it in a drawer and ignored her uncle's phone calls.

Eventually, though, she began to read, using it as raw material for essays and then this book. But she does not, or cannot, articulate why.

"Why did I choose to write about Bob? What interested me so much about his story?" she writes. "I've never had good answers to these questions."

This is ultimately the book's weakness – although Allen translates Bob's prose, researches his life and includes a lot of information about mental illness, the book lacks a strong central point.

And yet in its own way it is enthralling, offering a view from the inside of life with mental illness.

As a teenager, Bob was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. He was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for many years, going off his meds frequently, cheerfully and for all kinds of reasons. (He forgot to take them. Or God said he no longer needed them.)

The book toggles between Bob's memoir and Allen's research. She does not reproduce her uncle's prose verbatim, which apparently would be unreadable. Instead, she translates it into proper English, preserving occasional all caps and some of the odd spellings and punctuations, perhaps to give a flavor of the original. But we lose something in not seeing those tobacco-browned pages as they are; we get, instead, a rewritten diary that sounds, well, perfectly sane.

Prettied up or not, Bob's writings are by far the most interesting part of the book. He presents his delusions as fact (being abducted and returned by aliens; predicting the 9/11 attacks decades before they happened; jamming with Kenny Rogers in the psych ward), and while Allen attempts to fact-check ("I tried to reach and never heard back from ... Kenny Rogers") sometimes we never know what was real and what was not.

Although he does odd things – walks naked down the hallway of the hospital, waves a butcher knife around in a crowd – Bob never seems scary or dangerous, and perhaps this book will help readers understand that mental illness does not automatically turn people into murderers. Bob is endearing, fascinating and, almost certainly, exhausting – for himself and his family.

There are many places where Allen confesses that she is unsure of her material, or delivers information with little or no interpretation. She interviews Bob's parents and stepparents, and even when they disagree she draws no conclusions, just relates their differing perspectives flatly. At the end of the book she seems as conflicted about Bob's memoir as she was at the beginning.

And so we are left with Bob's words (Bob's heavily edited words). And maybe that is enough. Being inside his head, seeing how life felt and looked to him, is a miraculous thing indeed.

Heritage of the Mughal World: The Aga Khan Historic Cities ProgrammeAug 11, 2015 by Philip Jodidio Hardcover (Prestel, 296 pages, 293 illus., $75.)

Originating in what is now Afghanistan, the Mogul Empire ruled much of the Indian subcontinent for 300 years, from 1526-1857. In that relatively peaceful and prosperous era, exquisite gardens, lavishly tiled temples and gilded marble tombs fused Hindu architecture with Islamic symbolism. Though abused and neglected over the past 150 years, some key Mogul sites are being restored by the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, whose work this book handsomely documents. One delightful surprise is the plan for a traditional Islamic garden to be built in, of all places, Edmonton, Alberta.

This beautifully illustrated book explores the historic cities, buildings, and gardens that flourished during the Mughals’ three-century rule, highlighting valuable conservation and restoration projects in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. From 1526-1857, the Mughal Empire presided over an extended period of peace, prosperity, and unprecedented artistic achievement in the Indian subcontinent. For more than a decade, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme has been working to preserve and restore historically significant sites to their original splendor. This book takes a close look at a wide variety of such projects, such as Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul; Humayun’s tomb and garden in Delhi; and the walled city of Lahore; and places them in the wider context of the Empire’s social, aesthetic, and ethical mores. In addition, it includes contemporary projects being developed around the world that reflect aspects of Mughal and Islamic heritage. Filled with stunning new photography by Christian Richters, this book offers a detailed study of the myriad achievements of the Mughal world and their lasting effects throughout the globe. This book also includes texts written by leading specialists on the subject as well as those who were actually in charge of the restoration projects.

Art in Vienna 1898-1918 By Peter Vergo. (Phaidon, 288 pages, 250 color, $59.95.)

Luxurious, decadent and highly erotic, the paintings and drawings of the Vienna Secession era — especially those of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele — are enormously more popular now than when this book was first published 40 years ago. Now updated and redesigned, it is a definitive survey of the interplay of art, architecture, music, literature and the design of everything from fabric to type and teapots that gave Vienna its febrile sizzle at the beginning of the 20th century.

The artistic stagnation of Vienna at the end of the 19th century was rudely shaken by the artists of the Vienna Secession. Their work shocked a conservative public, but their successive exhibitions, their magazine Ver Sacrum, and their application to the applied arts and architecture soon brought them an enthusiastic following and wealthy patronage. Art in Vienna, 1898–1918: Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele and their Contemporaries, now published in its 4th edition, brilliantly traces the course of this development. Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele were the leading figures in the fine arts; Wagner, Olbrich, Loos and Hoffmann in architecture and the applied arts. In other fields, Mahler, Freud and Schnitzler were influencing the avant‐garde.
The book includes eye‐witness accounts of exhibitions, the opening of the Secession building and other events, and the result is a fascinating documentary study of the members of an artistic movement which is much admired today. Some 150 color images and 75 black and white archival illustrations make this a sumptuous and historically engrossing study of a period when Vienna was the centre of the European art world.

Forms of Japan By Michael Kenna and Yvonne Meyer-Lohr. (Prestel, 304 pages, 240 black and white illus. $75.)

Forms of Japan: Michael Kenna

Having spent decades photographing Japan, Michael Kenna presents the country’s sea, land, trees, sky and “spirit” in this handsome collection of elegant black-and-white photos. No neon signs, crammed trains or jostling crowds disfigure his minimalist landscapes of fenceposts in snow, raked gravel, lanterns in a forest, a single tree in a sea of white. His is an idealized, austere and meditative Japan that may exist only in his mind and camera, but every image is a tranquil benediction.

This beautiful book presents a meditative, arresting, and dazzling collection of 240 black-and-white images of Japan, made over almost 30 years by the internationally renowned photographer Michael Kenna. A rocky coast along the sea of Japan; an immense plain of rice fields in the snow; Mount Fuji towering over misty wooded hills; silent temples devoid of people but brimming with Buddhist deities; a Torii gate mysteriously emerging from moving clouds and water—these are a few images from this remarkable collection of photographs by Michael Kenna, whose black-and-white work is highly renowned. Forms of Japan, brilliantly designed by Yvonne Meyer-Lohr, is organized into chapters simply titled, "Sea," "Land," "Trees," "Spirit," and "Sky." The quietly evocative photographs, often paired with classic haiku poems of Basho, Buson, Issa, and
others, provide a contemplative portrait of a country better known for its energy and industry. Gorgeously reproduced to convey the enormous subtleties that exist in Michael Kenna’s traditional black-and-white silver prints, the photographs in this book include both well-known and previously unpublished images from all corners of Japan: Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, Okinawa, and Shikoku.

Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems By Scott Gutterman. (Prestel, 144 pages, 60 illus., $34.95.)

This novel book would make a charming gift for a literary sort with an eye for art, or vice versa. Art ranges from Vermeer to Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko and Larry Rivers. The poets flow from Shakespeare to William Carlos Williams and Rainer Maria Rilke. Could it have been a Minnesota winter that prompted John Berryman to pen a few lines about Pieter Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow”? Perhaps.

The world’s great poets interpret the world’s great art in this exquisite book that investigates the connection between art and words, deepening our understanding of both. The poet and the artist share a special kind of vision—an ability to see and penetrate the very essence of their subjects. This volume features poems by writers who turned to paintings for their inspiration, as well as paintings by artists who based their works on poems. Stretching across centuries and styles,this collection includes Rossetti’s haunting sonnet based on Botticelli’s Primavera; Wallace Stevens’s "The Man with the Blue Guitar," a masterful meditation on an iconic painting by Picasso;William Carlos Williams’s joyous interpretations of scenes byBreughel; and Adrienne Rich lending a compassionate voice to the subject of Edwin Romanzo Elmer’s The Mourning Chair.

These and other pairings appear as elegant texts facing full page, glowing illustrations of the paintings. An introduction to some of the greatest poets and painters in history, this remarkable book makes a perfect gift, offering compelling insights into the worlds of art and literature, and the relationship between the two.

The Art of Wonder: Inspiration, Creativity and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA/University of Minnesota, 164 pages, lavish color, $25.)

A perfect gift book, this attractively priced volume celebrates the Minneapolis museum’s centennial with invitingly personal responses to the museum, including photos of the galleries at night, a comic-style story and essays by staff and unexpected people, including hip-hop artist Dessa, late New York Times writer David Carr and photographer Alec Soth.

On the occasion of its 100th anniversary in 2015, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts asked some of the finest writers, photographers, and illustrators working today to muse about art—the nature of creativity and wonder. No instructions. No rules. The MIA commissioned these imaginative works not as a celebration of itself but of art as inspiration—an anthology of wonder.

The contributors rose to the challenge with fiction, essays, photojournalism, and illustrated stories, by turns delightful and reflective, a contemporary argument for art’s ongoing vitality. Interspersed in the book are personal reflections from the museum’s own director, curators, and staff on beloved artworks in its collection.

The Art of Hanukkah Hardcover – September 13, 2016 by Nancy M. Berman and Vicki Reikes Fox (Contributor), Universe / Rizzoli, #IBRArtBooks

A breathtaking collection of Hanukkah art - a coffee-table volume - but one to return to again and again, before, during and after Hanukkah. To read, study, and appreciate. A rich celebration of Hanukkah, featuring centuries of extraordinary art and artifacts. One of the most joyous weeks in the Jewish year is when families gather for eight evenings to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. Jews the world over mark this holiday of freedom with the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, while children spin a dreidel and eat sufganiyot and potato latkes. Presents are exchanged, and the story of Hanukkah is retold through songs and prayers. The Art of Hanukkah, through its selection of forty-eight masterpieces of holiday ceremonial and fine art, tells the story of the desecration of the holy Temple, its subsequent reclaiming and rededication, and the miracle of the single, tiny cruse of oil that continued to provide light for eight days. From individual oil lamps to medieval creations, through the sumptuous flourishes of Baroque decorations to contemporary times, these Hanukkah menorahs reflect the adaptability of Jewish culture throughout the Diaspora. Menorahs, paintings, dreidels-all the wonderful elements of the celebration of Hanukkah from around the world and throughout the centuries have been brought together in this one marvelous book. Clear, insightful, and thought-provoking commentaries make this book a perfect complement to the holiday..

A rich celebration of Hanukkah, featuring centuries of extraordinary art and artifacts. One of the most joyous weeks in the Jewish year is when families gather for eight evenings to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. Jews the world over mark this holiday of freedom with the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, while children spin a dreidel and eat sufganiyot and potato latkes. Presents are exchanged, and the story of Hanukkah is retold through songs and prayers. The Art of Hanukkah, through its selection of forty-eight masterpieces of holiday ceremonial and fine art, tells the story of the desecration of the holy Temple, its subsequent reclaiming and rededication, and the miracle of the single, tiny cruse of oil that continued to provide light for eight days. From individual oil lamps to medieval creations, through the sumptuous flourishes of Baroque decorations to contemporary times, these Hanukkah menorahs reflect the adaptability of Jewish culture throughout the Diaspora. Menorahs, paintings, dreidels—all the wonderful elements of the celebration of Hanukkah from around the world and throughout the centuries have been brought together in this one marvelous book. Clear, insightful, and thought-provoking commentaries make this book a perfect complement to the holiday.

Oskar and Mo Hardcover – November 7, 2017 by Britta Teckentrup (Prestel)

Oskar, the bird who loves so many things, is back, and this time he has brought his friend, Mo. Britta Teckentrup delighted children around the world when she introduced them to Oskar, the charming raven who loves the ocean, snow, books, the sun, and the rain. Oskar Loves was named one of the best children’s books of 2016 by School Library Journal. Now Oskar has a new friend, Mo. Featuring the same gorgeous colors and geometric collages that have made Teckentrup such a popular author and illustrator worldwide, this story will speak to young readers, who will learn about the many forms friendship takes while enjoying Teckentrup’s beautiful illustrations.

OSKAR LOVES... by Britta Teckentrup ; illustrated by Britta Teckentrup Age Range: 2 - 4 (Prestel)

There isn’t anything that Oskar, a small bird, doesn’t love. How about you?

In a minimalistic litany to senses and experiences, Teckentrup portrays a stylized black bird, possibly a crow, in a series of very simply rendered activities. Oskar loves the “deep blue ocean” and “soft green grass,” the “smell of spring” and “yellow autumn leaves.” He loves to take his “little fluffy cloud” for a walk, to lose himself in books and in pictures, to walk beneath the sun and the moon, in rain and in silent snow. In full-page illustrations that have the look of prints and appear on recto opposite short lines of text, Oskar poses with each favorite thing. He is made up of simple shapes: crescents for body and wings, a triangle for his tail, a semicircle for his head, and two enormous triangles for his beak, the bottom jaw ever so slightly curved to suggest a smile in many pictures. The closing question turns the narrative over to young audiences, who won’t be slow to chime in. Unlike such similar invitations as Anthony Browne’s How Do You Feel? (2002), there’s not much room here for any response short of full-blown adoration (not to mention less positive feelings)—but the suggestion that Oskar can have an emotionally intense life without having to share it with anyone else (he’s alone in every picture) may be reassuring to solitary sorts.

A not entirely one-dimensional corvine bliss-out. (Picture book. 2-4)

BEFORE I WAKE UP... by Britta Teckentrup ; illustrated by Britta Teckentrup Age Range: 3 - 7, Prestel, #IBRChildrensBooks

Together they venture into the night in a bed carried along in a hot air balloon basket suspended from a yellow moon. They travel over a meadow and deep into the ocean, making friends with animals along the way. Author and illustrator Teckentrup owes something to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in the style of her illustrations as well as the book’s design. In full and partial double-page spreads, the companions float on the seas in a simple sailboat with a triangular sail. The dreamy, sparse text is frequently set opposite the illustrations, surrounded by white space. The story conveys both a sense of adventure and the comfort of a protective companion: “You make me feel safe, / you are always near. / That’s why I am brave, / without any fear….” Mottled, textured collage and mixed media in a gentle, subdued palette propel the story from the dark of night until dawn, the journey echoed in the endpapers. The lovely illustrations on matte paper are an evocative match to the simple prose, drawing readers into the child’s dream. Even the binding of this well-designed book adds to its success, as the large pages fall open with a satisfying sound.

This charming bedtime read-aloud, a German import, assures children that a new day awaits them.(Picture book. 3-7)

Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival By: Aisha Bain, Jen Marlowe, Adam Shapiro

Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival


In November 2004, three Western, humanitarian filmmakers secretly traveled into the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan on a quest to raise awareness of the situation by bringing firsthand accounts of the atrocities to the screen. Their journey was not always easy with travel plans often being made on the fly, riding on top of trucks, or even trudging miles through the desert, but ultimately, they found the hardships to be well-worth the effort, for they paled in comparison to those of the people they interviewed. The Darfurians they spoke with had borne witness to or been victims of horrors that most people cannot imagine including the violent death of family members, yet they exhibited a quiet dignity and strength which is inspiring. Sometimes the interviews are very serious and poignant and at others light and breezy, finding humor even in the darkest situations. In the end, these three young people were able to learn much about the history, hopes and dreams of their subjects, and succeeded in making a film that would tell the stories of the Darfurians in their own words.

At it's heart, Darfur Diaries is about the journey of three young filmmakers who went on a quest in 2004 to foster more widespread awareness of the events that were unfolding in Darfur, but not receiving a great deal of media attention at the time. I was impressed with the courage that these three humanitarians exhibited in traveling to and spending weeks in a dangerous, war-torn region, but what impressed me even more were the people that they met along the way. These Darfurians showed a spirit of generosity in sharing not only their food and transportation, but most importantly their personal stories. While a few of the interviewees expressed a desire for revenge, usually for the deaths of family members, I was surprised that several did not seem to harbor ill feelings toward their oppressors, instead simply wanting to live in peace again. Another thing that really stood out to me was how much the Darfurians value education. Living in a country where we seem to take this privilege for granted, it was very enlightening and affecting to see such a passion for learning being expressed. I was also amazed by the resilience of the human spirit, how these people somehow still manage to continue living even in circumstances that most Americans or Westerners in general could hardly fathom. The authors attended a wedding that took place in the midst of all the destruction and in spite of the potential dangers. I found that story to be a stirring and poignant reminder of life still abiding in the midst of death.

The only real complaint I have is that when I saw the title of this book, I thought that it would chronicle in depth stories of survivors of the conflict in Darfur. It did cover the personal narratives of many Darfurians, and while some were long enough for me to get a pretty good feel for the person being interviewed and what they had been through, others were just too brief to satisfy me. Perhaps this is a good thing though, as the details of the atrocities these people had suffered would certainly not be for the faint of heart. As it is written though, I think that almost anyone could read it without feeling too depressed or overburdened, which may give it appeal to a wider audience.

Darfur Diaries was certainly not a deep political treatise on the area, but I did learn some things about the history of Sudan and the political climate that led to this conflict. I think that not bogging the book down with too many details on history or politics made it an easy read that would be accessible to anyone who would like to know more about Darfur and it's people, and I would readily recommend it in this capacity. The companion film which the authors finished and released in 2006 is titled Darfur Diaries: Message From Home. After reading Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival, I am now very interested in checking it out, so that I can see and hear the people to whom I was introduced in the book.

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade By: Diana Gabaldon Series: Lord John Grey


Seventeen years ago, Lord John Grey's father was found dead of a gunshot wound. The death was ruled to be a suicide and his father branded a traitor for being part of a Jacobite conspiracy. John has always questioned it, but since he was only twelve at the time and was sent away to live with relatives in Scotland, there was little he could do. Now pages from his father's missing journal have been turning up, along with mysterious attacks against John himself. John believes that someone, quite possibly his father's murderer, is making threats against his family. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of his father's death, John turns to the one man he can trust, the Scottish Jacobite, Jamie Fraser. But as John waits for answers, his military service takes him abroad and a forbidden love affair with his new stepbrother leads to heartache and complications. In the end, John must choose between preserving his family's honor and following his conscience both in dealing with this new situation that has arisen as well as avenging his father's death.


Unlike the first three stories in the Lord John Grey series which are primarily mysteries, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade takes a little different turn. The book is solidly in the historical fiction genre, covering approximately a year in John's life and detailing all the things he does during that time which are widely varied. There's still a mystery threaded throughout the book, but sometimes a few chapters can go by with little development taking place on that front. Then there is John's military service which is a big part of who he is as a character. We also get a bit of romance as John strikes up a relationship with another man. Last but not least, we learn even more about historical attitudes toward LGBT persons, particularly gay men, which is always interesting to me. Perhaps most exciting of all for me, though, were a few scenes involving Jamie Fraser, when John goes to visit Helwater, where Jamie works as an indentured servant, serving out his parole. I struggled a bit with how to rate the book, because there were some things that kept it from being a perfect read for me, but overall, I did enjoy it.

The mystery that John takes part in solving this time takes on a more personal flavor, because he's investigating his own father's death, which occurred when he was only twelve and which was ruled a suicide. John's father was also disgraced as having Jacobite ties, so John is understandably eager to restore his family's honor that's been in shreds for over fifteen years. I have to admit that this part of the story lost me at times. There are a number of players involved and some of the names started to blur together. I think maybe having it play out so slowly over time with lots of other things happening in between made me forget who a lot of the characters were and how they related to the case. In the end, I understood the gist of what actually happened, but there were other aspects of the story that I enjoyed more than the mystery.

As I mentioned, we once again see John in action as a military officer. A large part of the story takes place in England during the wintertime, while the British troops are awaiting their orders to go back to Prussia where they're allied with the Prussians in the Seven Years War. During this time, we see John interacting somewhat with the troops and other officers, including his brother, Hal, and friend, Harry Quarry. He also spends some time training his new step-brother, Percy, who has just bought an officer's commission, but has no military experience whatsoever. Finally, around the last third or so of the book, John actually does return to Prussia and sees some wartime action. I think I found this part more interesting than I did in the previous novella of the series, because it's more action-oriented with John in the thick of battle. Also Ms. Gabaldon doesn't go into quite as much detail on troop movements and such.

John also gets a little romance in this book, although I hesitate to call it romance due to the relationship ending and there being no HEA. However, I did enjoy it while it lasted and felt like their interactions were on par with some romances I've read. As to the particulars, John becomes involved with Percy, who was introduced in Lord John and the Private Matter as a patron of Lavender House, the underground men's club that caters to gay men. In this book, Percy is the stepson of the man who is about to marry John's mother. Although he's referred to as John's stepbrother throughout, I didn't feel like their relationship was in any way incestuous, because they're not even close to being blood related and had barely met. I liked that, for a while, John had someone in whom he could confide and be intimate, and who made him happy on some level. For those who might be wondering, there are love scenes between the two, but while it's clear to the reader what's going on, the narrative doesn't go into a great deal of detail when compared to most of the gay romances I've read. I had hoped that maybe John had found someone with whom to share his life or at least some long-term happiness, but unfortunately, due to John still being in love with Jamie and other events which I won't go into so as to not give away too many spoilers, their love affair is not meant to be.

Having a strong interest in sociology, I was particularly interested in the social attitudes toward gay men of the era who were known as sodomites back then. I learned quite a bit from Lord John and the Private Matter, but this book expands that even further. I was especially struck by the knowledge that as difficult as it can be for LGBT persons in our modern age, it was far worse for most of them nearly three centuries ago. Ms. Gabaldon brings out the stark reality that for men to engage in gay sexual relations was not only taboo, it was also illegal and a "crime" punishable by imprisonment or worse yet, execution. Also, not unlike today, it seems that gay men, being viewed as morally bankrupt, were often blamed for other crimes as well. Any traitorous acts against the government, whether true of not, were often blamed on sodomitical conspiracies, and the burden of proof was pretty low, sometimes leading to a man being executed as a sodomite (even if he wasn't) rather than as an actual traitor. Of course, any man caught in such circumstances brought shame to his family, so other means of getting out of a public trial and hanging were often preferable. It was all rather fascinating and made me look up the books that Ms. Gabaldon recommended in her author's note at the end.

Of course, as would be the case with any true Outlander fan, my favorite parts of the story were the Jamie sightings. John speaks with him on three different visits to Helwater, the first of which was to attend Geneva Dunsany's funeral. In typical Jamie fashion, we can see that her death has affected him, not because he loved her or anything, but because he feels in some way responsible for what happened. On this visit, John, being the highly intelligent man that he is, puts the pieces together and begins to suspect that Jamie is the true father of the child Geneva died bearing. John and Jamie's conversations give insights into the unusual relationship they share. We know from the Outlander books that they developed a respect for one another and became friends while at Ardsmuir Prison where Jamie was a prisoner and John the warden. I thought it rather telling that when John is faced with the difficult dilemma of choosing between a man's life and his own honor, Jamie is the only person he can talk to about it. However, it leads to some things being said that stir up a bit of a hornet's nest between them over the topic of homosexuality. I'll be very interested to see how this is resolved in The Scottish Prisoner, because again based on the Outlander books, I know that they do continue their friendship and share another bond as well.

I strongly debated on whether to give Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade 4 or 4.5 stars and eventually settled on the latter. The story may be a little slow in places and occasionally more challenging to follow, but overall, there was enough to hold my attention, the romance, the LGBT history lesson, and Jamie being chief among them. I also enjoyed John rekindling his friendship with Stephan von Namtzen, who is finally more overtly implied to be gay as well, something I'd suspected from previous stories in the series. For various reasons, a more romantic relationship between them isn't possible at this time, but I'll be interested to see if anything more develops in future stories of the series. So despite a few misgivings, I still felt the book was worthy of keeper status. John is a strong and interesting hero who I've very much enjoyed getting to know better and who is worthy of his own books series, so I'm looking forward to continuing on with it soon.

God’s Country Kibitzing.... The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver Alfred A. Knopf, 464 pp., $45,Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust, and the Literary Imagination edited by Holli Levitsky and Phil Brown Academic Studies Press, 416 pp., $69, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland by Marisa Scheinfeld, with essays by Stefan Kanfer and Jenna Weissman Joselit Cornell University Press, 200 pp., $29.95

Vintage postcard from “the best place on earth,” ca. 1950s–1960s.
Mention the Catskills to any Jew of a certain generation and what immediately comes to mind is the “Borscht Belt”—the string of elegant, oversized resorts, basically all-inclusive compounds, in upstate New York where, for decades, Jews from the Eastern Seaboard spent their summers swimming and basting in the sun; playing canasta, shuffleboard, bingo, canasta, mah jongg, and “Simon Sez”; laughing at fresh young comics and some famous older ones (and not laughing too); being tickled by tummlers who roamed the premises to provide mischief and fun lest the guests find themselves bored for an instant; occasionally seeking romance; and three times a day, without fail, eating—above all, eating, lots and lots of eating. “Jews ate like Vikings,” remembered Billy Crystal.

The famous Catskills fortresses—Kutsher’s, The Concord, and Grossinger’s heading the list—were, in novelist Mordecai Richler’s words “Disneyland with knishes” and in Damon Runyon’s “Lindy’s with trees,” which meant that they weren’t just fancy resorts in the mountains. They were quintessentially Jewish resorts—of, by, and for Jews. This is the Catskills of Marjorie Morningstar, Dirty Dancing, and of Stefan Kanfer’s boisterous, bawdy, and ultimately wistful history, A Summer World. It is the Catskills where so much of Jewish entertainment was born and where so much of the American Jewish experience was defined.

It may come as a surprise, then, that there is an entirely different Catskills, the one described in Stephen Silverman’s and Raphael Silver’s encyclopedic new book simply titled The Catskills. Yes, the Borscht Belt is there, but it is not center stage, just one tableau in a long set of tableaux. The story Silverman and the late Silver (who produced the films Hester Street and Crossing Delancey, both directed by his wife, Joan Micklin Silver) tell is the story of a pristine wilderness, God’s setting, along the river named after its discoverer, Henry Hudson, who aptly enough found it while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient, and of man’s attempted conquest of that wilderness.

Jews didn’t play much of a role in this contest until much, much later in the Catskills’ history. In the beginning, a land-speculating Dutchman named Johannes Hardenbergh got a grant from the British in 1708 for two million acres. (The name Catskills means cat creek in Dutch and may have had something to do with the mountain lions that roamed the forests at the time.) Over the following 200 years, the Catskills became America’s “first national landscape,” even as its natural riches were serially plundered. In telling this story, Silverman and Silver introduce a gallery of eccentrics: Zadock Pratt, who, in the 1820s, discovered that the bark of the Catskills’ plentiful hemlock trees was useful for tanning hides and denuded the forests while making the area a capital for tanning; “Bluestone King” John Fletcher Kilgour, who quarried the bluestone for pavement and construction, but wound up penniless; Undersheriff Osman “Bud” Steele, who was murdered trying to put down an anti-rent protest by angry, exploited tenant farmers; multimillionaire Jay Gould, who opened the area to the railroads; and gangsters like “Dutch” Schultz, who, according to a legend sparked by his dying words (“Wonder who owns these woods? . . . he’ll never know what’s hidden in ’em . . . My gilt-edged stuff . . . What did that guy shoot me for?”) allegedly left a fortune buried in the Catskills.

It was Catskills resident Washington Irving who, in stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” imputed to the mountains a magical romance, and America’s first great novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, who, in his Leatherstocking Tales, celebrated the untouched wilderness, invoking a time before the Catskills were corrupted by intruders. For them, the Catskills represented what was best about this young country—its beautiful, awe-inspiring, primeval rawness. And if this gently mountainous land was our first national landscape, it was also, because of that, a place where America first became America—a place that defined us as both rustic and reverential.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the second painting in The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole, 1834. Note the size of the human figures in relation to the landscape. (Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.)

Perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than in the magnificent and magnificently large Hudson River School paintings of Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Church, men whose canvases functioned in their day the way blockbuster movies do in ours. People actually paid to see these cinemascopic paintings that gave testimony to the verdant lushness of the Catskills and to its providential glory. In these lush landscapes, man was always subordinate, both literally and figuratively. He was a small dot dwarfed by nature. Cole’s great five-painting series from the 1830s, The Course of Empire, which depicts one landscape through history, illustrates what happens when man asserts himself against nature. What happens is destruction and desolation.

The Jews who came to the Catskills didn’t fit neatly into this schema. They didn’t want to ruin nature, but they didn’t exactly come to commune with it either. There had been Jewish farmers in the Catskills from the 1770s, though it was an improbably difficult place to raise crops. A Jewish agricultural community in Ulster County in the 1830s lasted only five years. (One feels a Borscht Belt joke coming, but Henny Youngman and his colleagues didn’t do history.) By the last quarter of the century, farming had faded, and the Catskills had become a recreation retreat with monumentally large hotels perched on the mountainsides and a railroad disgorging guests directly from New York City.

But not Jews. The hotels were restricted—so restricted that in 1877 even the prominent Jewish banker Joseph Seligman, a peer of John Jacob Astor and Andrew Carnegie, and a friend of President Grant, was denied a room at the Grand Union Hotel, on the edge of the Catskills in Saratoga Springs. He wrote an indignant letter to the hotel’s owner, and their exchange was picked up by newspapers across the country, triggering a brief national debate on anti-Semitism. It was a debate the Jews lost. If Gentiles were going to God’s country to relax, the last thing they seemed to want was to have communicants with the God of the Old Testament there with them.

When Selig Grossinger, a Galician immigrant with a fourth-grade education who had failed at everything at which he had tried his hand, came to the Catskills in the 1910s, he had no intention of opening a hotel for Jews. Not heeding the warnings of history, he bought a farm in Sullivan County. After failing yet again, he converted his farm into a boarding house catering to Eastern European Jewish immigrants from New York City. Usually they stayed either at boarding houses or at what were called kuchalayn, where one cooked one’s own food in bare rooms with few amenities, aside from the beauty of the outdoors.

Jennie Grossinger with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, mid-1950s.

Grossinger’s evolved into something very different, both from the kuchalayn and from the Gentile resorts. Run by Selig’s daughter, Jennie, who would become the grande dame of the Borscht Belt by recognizing that Jews enjoyed opulence no less than Gentiles, Grossinger’s was somewhat overwrought in the American-Jewish tradition of too-muchness, where more was always more. It had tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a 400-seat dining room, and a theater. But, as Silverman and Silver describe it, that didn’t seem sufficient, so Grossinger’s kept growing and adding: a newspaper, a fire department, a shul, a riding academy, a ski slope, a post office, and, perhaps the pièce de résistance, an airfield.

Belying its Jewish grandiosity, however, was its gemütlich atmosphere, which was also prototypically Jewish. By contrast, Silverman and Silver quote historian Samantha Hope Goldstein on 19th-century Gentile activities in the Catskills: “sketching, writing poetry, strolling . . . and other focused activities which emphasized a refined passivity,” which she attributed to the old Hudson School idea that a visitor there was a “vessel to receive the greatness of God through His landscapes.” The Gentiles came to the Catskills to glory in nature; the Jews came for something else. For them, the Catskills were not nature idealized; it was Jewish family life idealized, which is why it was no coincidence that the two greatest Jewish resorts, Grossinger’s and its rival, The Concord, were run by women, basically Jewish mothers fussing and tut-tutting over their guests. More, for Jews, the Catskills resorts weren’t only an escape from the crowded city; they were also an escape into—into the Jewish community of friends and relatives, many of whom would return year after year after year, underscoring the sense of family on which these resorts were predicated. At Grossinger’s, The Concord, and Kutsher’s, Jews didn’t dissolve their identities into some Whitmanian universal; they asserted it. And for Jews, the last thing they desired was passivity—the Jewish resorts positively buzzed with activity.

As for the God thing, Jews were different from Gentiles there too. For the Gentiles, vacating to the Catskills was all about reverence. Jews were no less religious; the kitchens were, after all, kosher. But they were less reverent. And maybe that’s where the humor came in. Perhaps, humor was to Jews what gazing upon nature was to Gentiles: a reckoning with God.

As much as anything, the Borscht Belt would become known for the great comedians and comic writers who interned there—among them, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Red Buttons, Alan King, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, and, in later years, Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld. In short, where Gentiles communed, Jews laughed. Humor was self-protection, negotiation, and balm. You kibitzed with everybody, including God. You had to.

As one old joke goes, a Jew is walking in the forest and, feeling the spirit of God, begins to speak to Him. “God, are you there?” And God says, “Yes my son, I am here.” So the man, in a philosophical mood, says, “God, what is a million years to you?” And God replies, “Well, my son, your million years is like a second to me.” The man lets that sink in. Then he looks to the sky and says, “God, what is a million dollars to you?” And God replies, “My son, your million dollars is less than a penny to me. It means nothing to me.” So the man thinks a moment, then looks up to the sky and says, “God, can I have a million dollars?” And God replies, “In a second.”

Not everyone appreciated this kind of thing. In his novel Enemies: A Love Story, set partly in the Catskills, Isaac Bashevis Singer has his protagonist ask, “Why is it all so painful to me? The vulgarity in this casino denied the sense of creation. It shamed the agony of the Holocaust.” Singer compared the refugees from Nazism who had flocked to the Catskills shortly after the war to moths “attracted by the bright lights, deceived by a false day,” eventually dying by beating themselves against a wall or singeing themselves on light bulbs.

A Hasidic family out for a walk, Woodbourne, NY. (Courtesy of Eli Wohl.)

He wasn’t entirely wrong. It is hard to square the noisy, voluptuary, funny Catskills with the Holocaust, and easy to see it as a kind of willful refutation of Jewish suffering. “It’s so peaceful here at night,” Art Spiegelman says in Maus of the Catskills, “It’s almost impossible to believe Auschwitz ever happened.” To the Singers of the world, it didn’t matter that, in some measure, this was one of the points of the Jewish Catskills: There was no time for reflection there and no desire for it.

Coffee shop, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, Liberty, NY. Bottom: (Courtesy of Marisa Scheinfeld.)

Phil Brown, in an essay in an anthology he co-edited with Holli Levitsky titled Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust, and the Literary Imagination, calls the dissonance between American Jews’ summer pleasure and the recent mass extermination of their European cousins a “horrific contradiction,” though it was also, in some ways, cause and effect. Obviously, the great Jewish resorts pre-dated the Holocaust. But the so-called Golden Era of those resorts was the 1950s and 1960s, after the Holocaust. And while the Holocaust made no overt mark on the resorts, it did serve as subtext. As the cliché goes, you laughed so you wouldn’t cry, you played so you didn’t have to contemplate, you gorged to compensate for the European Jews who couldn’t, and you occupied yourself so you wouldn’t have to remember. Brown calls the Catskills a “mini-Jerusalem” where Jews could be Jews. But clearly it was a Jerusalem without grief.

The Borscht Belt wouldn’t last. In part it was a casualty of the very thing that had helped create it. As restricted hotels declined, so did the need for unrestricted ones. At their height, there were some 2,000 hotels in the Catskills. With the rise of assimilation, the need for a mini-Jerusalem, a Jewish refuge, was obviated. Grossinger’s closed in 1982 and was demolished in 1986; The Concord lasted until 1998. Kutsher’s, where Wilt Chamberlain had once been a bellboy, outlasted them all, but it finally closed in 2013 to be converted into a yoga retreat. There was still a Jewish presence in the Catskills after the resorts’ demise. Now, however, it was Hasidim who replaced the secular Jews by buying up some of the old resorts and bungalow colonies, and bringing Yiddish (and a very different kind of Yiddishkeit) to the Catskills.

Outdoor pool, Vegetarian Hotel, Woodridge, NY. (Courtesy of Marisa Scheinfeld.)

But the ghosts remain. Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld has documented the end of the great resorts in The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, which features page after page of photos of waterless, cracking pools, dirt-caked floors, weathered and withered wooden cottages, gashed ceilings and gushing insulation, graffiti-bedecked walls, rows of bereft beach chairs, and, perhaps above all, emptiness where there had once been fullness. Scheinfeld’s photos remind one of the old Catskills’ theme of nature despoiled, a contemporary counterpart to the desolate final painting in Cole’s The Course of Empire.
It is hard to imagine a place once so overstuffed with life now so devoid of it. Scheinfeld’s photos are images of desolation and destruction.,

Zion's Lamp .....The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel by Steven Fine Harvard University Press, 304 pp., $29.95

The Lamp of Zion

According to Steven Fine, the menorah’s 3000-year history makes it “the longest continuously used religious symbol in Western culture.” Unlike the cross, the crescent, or the Star of David, which are each composed of a few clean lines, it’s a busy image. Images of the menorah, even minimalist ones, seem more like representations of an object out there in the real world than the abstract symbol of a people, its religion and its aspirations. How did the visually complex menorah come to be such a symbol?

For Fine, the answer is deeply entwined with the image of the menorah carved into the Arch of Titus two thousand years ago. Following Rome’s military victory over Judea in 70 C.E., the city honored its returning heroes with a triumphal procession, the highlights of which are depicted in bas-relief inside the arch. On one side, a panel running the length of the arch’s interior depicts the victorious general (and future emperor) Titus in his chariot, being crowned with a wreath by a winged god of victory, Nike. On the other side, Jewish humiliation is represented by the plundered vessels of the Jerusalem Temple carried into Rome on the shoulders of strapping Roman soldiers, who are likewise crowned with wreaths. The golden seven-branched candelabrum, jostling above the heads of the Roman soldiers, stands out among the Temple vessels.

The Spoila Panel, bas-relief, Arch of Titus, ca. 81 C.E. (Photo by Unocad, courtesy of the Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project.)

No matter how lifelike or faithful to its model the arch menorah may have been, it is not a neutral or objective rendering of this celebrated Temple artifact. Etched into a monument memorializing the recently deceased Roman emperor, the arch celebrates Roman majesty by telling the story of a triumphal parade. Fine helpfully explains that the Romans would have understood the Temple vessels being carried in the triumphal processional as “cult images” of the God of Israel, brought to Rome to join other subjugated deities in the Roman pantheon. The arch menorah stands at the intersection of conqueror and conquered, exalting the triumphant Romans and laying low the vanquished Jews and their humiliated God.

Built to lift up one nation while laying low another, the arch requires its visitors to take a side. Will they exult with the triumphant Romans (as the Roman builders and artists intended) or will they sympathize with the Jews captured for all eternity at the moment of their defeat? As a 21st-century American Jew, Fine faces little to none of the humiliation endured by the Jewish slaves marched into captivity, but he is drawn—almost compulsively—to identify with their subjugation. He writes the following of his face-to-face encounter with the menorah while leading an international team of researchers there in 2012:

I stood, imagining the parade before me, with triumphal Romans, Jewish slaves—their mangled bodies and festering wounds hidden beneath fine Roman garments, and “our” holy vessels passing by.

A few pages later, Fine writes “I found myself fidgeting and thinking about the humiliations that my ancestors had felt here.” He contrasts this “flesh-and-blood” response to the cooler irony of the 19th-century Jewish visitor imagined by Percy Bysshe Shelley in a famous prose fragment. Shelley’s Jew sees the Arch of Titus “mouldering to its fall.” This “monument of the power of our destroyer’s family,” he wrote, is “now a mountain of ruins.”

Jewish gold glass, Rome. (From the collection of Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn, Zurich. On loan to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

For many years the arch menorah was inaccessible to the majority of the world’s Jews. It was in Rome, and they were elsewhere. But images of the menorah proliferated in the centuries following the arch’s construction. Visual representations of the menorah are found in synagogues, “on mosaic floors, wall paintings, lintels, ‘chancel’ screens, oil lamps, and fixtures for hanging glass lamps . . . Jewish tombs, Jewish jewelry and even household goods,” such as gold-decorated glass. The rise of the menorah in late antiquity, however, was not inevitable. During the late Second Temple period, several cult objects had been associated with the Temple. The menorah appears with the golden table that held the showbread on reverse sides of a Hasmonean coin, Josephus mentions the showbread table, the menorah, and the incense altar, and, of course, the showbread table, silver trumpets, and a Torah scroll are featured on the arch along with the menorah. Interestingly, coins minted during the Bar Kokhba revolt (60 years after the Temple’s destruction) depict the showbread table, but not the menorah.

But in late antiquity, the showbread table fades from view and the seven-branched menorah emerges as the premier symbol of the lost Temple. It’s hard to know exactly why. One wonders if it’s related to the familiar nine-branched candelabra of post-destruction Hanukkah celebrations. Fine doesn’t address this, but he supplements the visual record with literary depictions of the Temple menorah. The 6th-century poet and liturgist Yannai mourns the extinguished flames of the menorah, all the more so because the lights of Rome burn ever brighter:

The lamps of Edom [Rome] strengthened and increased.The lamps of Zion were swallowed up and destroyed.The lamps of Edom prevailed and glittered.The lamps of Zion were crushed and extinguished.The lamps of Edom prance over every pitfall.The lamps of Zion receded.The lamps of Edom their brightness shines.The lamps of Zion were darker than soot.The lamps of Edom were filled and they dripped [oil].The lamps of Zion were lowered and broken.

Fine astutely notes that “the extinguished menorah represented far more than just the extinguished lamp of the Temple. It symbolized the Jews themselves.” Yannai’s liturgical menorah may have been conjured from the imagination, but it expresses many themes conveyed by the arch menorah, albeit from the perspective of the conquered rather than conqueror. Drawing on Yannai’s poem, we might speculate that the menorah draws interest in late antiquity because it recalls a glorious past that is no more.

One danger of a book like this is the temptation to include every menorah one has found in the course of one’s research. While interesting insights can be found throughout, at times the book takes on an encyclopedic quality as it catalogues one menorah after another. What is missing at those points is an absorbing narrative thread to pull the reader along. The book is at its strongest when Fine tells a story about his visual data. Especially helpful are the numerous illustrations and vivid color photographs, many taken by Fine himself or his research team. Positioned alongside the relevant prose, the images help the reader grasp Fine’s insightful interpretations of the evolving iconography.

Mosaic pavement, Hammath Tiberias Synagogue, 5th century C.E. (Courtesy of the Photography Department, Government Press Office, Israel National Photo Collection.)

The 19th century brought a wave of European tourists to the sites of classical civilization, among them the Arch of Titus. In this context, the menorah morphs from a nostalgia-evoking relic of the past to a nation-inspiring symbol pointing forward:

[V]isits to the arch are well documented from the late nineteenth century onward, and it seems that it was a standard stop on the Jewish pilgrimage route. . . . Jews ranging from Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, to noted rabbis, politicians, and simple Jews—Zionists, culturalists, Hassidim, and reformers—often made (and make) their way to the arch in a kind of ritual, reciting to themselves, one way or another, “Titus you are gone, but we are still here, the people of Israel lives.”

Foremost among modern Jewish reactions to this site was a resolve to transcend the degrading circumstances depicted there. The new Jewish take on the arch emphasized that, as Shelley had already noted in 1819, Rome stands in ruins, while the Jewish people endure. It was during this period that the “now well-known Jewish ‘tradition’ of not walking under the arch took hold—a kind of ritualized negation of the arch ‘so as not to give honor to Titus.’” The arch invites Jews to act out resistance to Rome’s overwhelming might (as well as that of Rome’s contemporary successors!).

The modern period witnessed an interesting reversal in interpretation of the arch’s marching figures. Modern Jewish viewers superimposed their own aspirations onto the figures carved into the panel. Where earlier viewers (like Yannai, if he had had an occasion to visit the arch) would have seen despair on history’s captive Jews, these viewers saw Jewish resilience. And lo and behold, the panel’s triumphant Roman soldiers, the ones bearing plundered Jewish gold, were transformed into unbroken Jewish captives carrying their national treasure into exile with pride. In a fascinating reversal of iconography, figures who were carved as Roman victors become symbols of Jewish resistance.

Illustration for the letter mem by Ze’ev Raban and Levin Kipnis in Alef Bet/Alphabet, Berlin, ca. 1923. (Bezalel Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, Gift of the Jesselson Family.)

In the 20th century the arch became a locus of Jewish self-determination. A striking example involves using the arch as the site of two major demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In one, in 1947, Roman Jews and Holocaust survivors from across Europe gathered at the arch to celebrate the United Nations vote in favor of the partition plan allowing for a Jewish state in Palestine. In a clever use of the arch’s iconography, the crowd marched through the arch from west to east, reversing the direction that the “Jewish captives” pictured on its wall had marched some 2,000 years ago. Another 20th-century expression of Jewish aspirations for autonomy involves depicting the long dormant flames of the arch menorah rekindled. The image of the relit arch menorah appears, for instance, as the hat insignia of the British Jewish Legion during World War I and in a 1923 children’s alphabet book illustrating the letter mem.

Fine’s book is filled with many more of history’s menorahs, those of Maimonides, Chabad, and Israel’s state seal, to name only the most well-known. And while I have focused here on the menorah as symbol, the book tells an equally fascinating story about the menorah as object. What was it made of? (Different materials at different times, bronze, silver, and gold depending on economic conditions.) What did it look like? (The curved branches of Second Temple depictions are more authentic than the straight branches that Maimonides posited.)

What can we learn from the biblical instructions for its construction? (Not much. Contemporary artisans would have understood the detailed technical specifications, but we don’t.) Why are there conflicting images of the menorah from the Second Temple period, especially the base, when it was accessible for all to see? (Exodus doesn’t provide instructions for the base, so successive generations constructed it in the image of contemporary Greek and Roman lamp bases.) Was there more than one menorah? (Yes! The idea that there was a single authentic menorah is a myth.) If so, how many? (At any given time, at least two, sometimes three, were in circulation; Josephus actually says that two (!) were exiled to Rome.)

What happened to the Jerusalem Temple’s menorahs after they were brought to Rome? One was on display at Vespasian’s Temple of Peace. The record runs dry after a major fire there in 192 C.E. If the menorah survived the fire, then it was likely melted down for its gold value during the Sack of Rome. In any event, it is long gone. It is not submerged in the sands of the Tiber River, nor is it sequestered in the Vatican basement. These myths are promulgated because of the very human fascination with relics. We want to be able to touch the past, to assure ourselves that it really happened. In the meantime, the menorah etched on the Arch of Titus will have to suffice. As Fine eloquently reminds us:

It is a tangible object—an ancient relic that has outlived the “real” menorahs of antiquity. Unlike the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail—the most significant “lost” artifacts of Western culture—it can be touched and measured, and has been for centuries. In the end, however, the arch menorah is just an approximation—so close to the original, but not it.

And we’ll have to be okay with that.

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry by Mark Johnston Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $24.95

God and Idolatry

Notwithstanding Johnston’s pose of equal disdain for all three Western monotheisms, it turns out that he assumes the truth of the Christian idea that human beings are “fallen.” Original sin for Johnston is nothing as simple-minded as flouting God’s command and eating a piece of fruit (with or without a blessing). It is, rather, the “condition that comes with being human [which] is … not just the self-will that resists the other-regarding demands built into one’s internalized conception of the good. It is self-will combined with a covetous and violent protection of the compromised fruit we have plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The all-encompassing nature of this condition necessitates a dramatic cure and (a philosophically reconfigured) Christ eventually enters the picture. Thus, despite Johnston’s apparent intentions, the book turns out to propound and defend a sort of post-Christian Christianity.

In what way is Saving God Maimonidean? Maimonides’ God is of very little use or comfort for most Jews. As the late Israeli gadfly Yeshayahu Leibowitz never tired of insisting, for Maimonides, humans are meant to serve God, not the other way round. (Leibowitz was not always wrong in his interpretations of Maimonides, only most of the time.) It is not the point of Judaism thus configured to see God as existing to serve our needs, answer our prayers, or comfort us. According to Maimonides, when Job realized this, he achieved enlightenment.

For Maimonides, worshipping any entity other than God is literally avoda zara, foreign worship, or idolatry. A Jew who worships a God with any corporeal qualities or a God with any human characteristics (such as anger, love, or mercy) is no less an idolater in Maimonides’ eyes than a Catholic genuflecting before an image of Jesus or a Hindu making offerings in a Temple filled with idols. Maimonides may or may not have believed in an after-life in any recognizable sense (the debate has been going on for over 800 years), but if he did, he certainly did not expect to find the next world a very crowded place. And of those who did make it in, far more would be physicists and philosophers than rabbis. In short, Maimonides was an intellectual elitist of the strictest sort—and so is Mark Johnston, though he is unequivocal in his rejection of an afterlife, even for metaphysicians.

The Jewish Bible: A Material History by David Stern University of Washington Press, 320 pp., $50

Black Fire on White Fire

What is a Torah, exactly? If you were trying to explain it to a visitor from Mars, the easiest way might be to lead him to a synagogue, open the ark, and point: This scroll of parchment covered with ink is what Jews call a Torah. But of course such a response would not come close to exhausting the meaning of Torah for Judaism. After all, the ancient rabbis believed that it preexisted the created world, which obviously cannot be true of any physical object. Unlike every other book, which comes into existence only in the act of writing, the text of the Torah is prior to its script. When the Talmud says that the Torah given to Moses was written “in black fire on white fire,” it again emphasizes the distinction between the language of the Torah, which exists eternally (or, as we now say, virtually), and its physical medium.

It is a kind of paradox then that the Torah scroll is the most changeless of Jewish objects. If the original Torah was made of fire, why should it matter whether we read it as a parchment scroll or a printed codex, or for that matter on an iPhone screen? Why do Jews reading Torah in a synagogue today use exactly the same technology as their ancestors two thousand years ago? In the first chapter of The Jewish Bible: A Material History, his brilliant and fascinating new book, David Stern makes the point with a pair of images. One illustration depicts the oldest surviving complete Torah scroll, a product of Babylonia in the 12th century; the other shows a Torah scroll written in the United States in the 20th century (actually, a Torah in use at Harvard Hillel). Both are open to the same passage, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, which is written in a distinctive pattern known as “a small brick atop a full brick.” The text and its layout are identical in both scrolls; the passage of eight hundred years has changed the physical appearance of the Torah not at all.

As Stern points out, the highly conservative nature of the Torah scroll makes it difficult to study its history as an object. “Because these scrolls cannot contain any extratextual notes or features, it is very difficult to date or localize Torah scrolls with certainty or to trace their histories,” he writes. Yet in the last half-century, the scholarly turn toward “the history of the book”—to study books as the material objects that actual readers encountered rather than disembodied texts—has affected Jewish studies no less than other fields in the humanities. In The Jewish Bible, Stern masterfully synthesizes this scholarship, offering a chronological history of Jewish sacred books from Qumran to the JPS Tanakh. For if the Sefer Torah itself hasn’t changed, other ways Jews encounter their scripture definitely have. Indeed, as Stern shows, the Jewish book serves as a lens through which we can study central themes of Jewish history and thought.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Michelle Obama: First Lady of Hope By: Elizabeth Lightfoot ( Lyons Press)


Michelle Obama is a wife, mother and career woman. Her life had a humble beginning on the South Side of Chicago, but even if the Robinson family wasn't wealthy, they had plenty of love and strong family bonds. Academics were important to Michelle who worked hard in school and eventually was admitted to Princeton and later Harvard Law School. Her law career was on the fast track when she met and later married Barack Obama, and then realized that she would rather dedicate her life to public service. When her husband decided to make his now famous run for President of the United States, Michelle found herself thrust into the spotlight where everything from her college thesis to what she was wearing became fodder for gossip and the opinions of political pundits. With dignity and poise, Michelle showed that she was Barack's "rock", and "the closer" on the campaign trail, while still maintaining a strong, healthy home environment for their two daughters. Michelle Obama: First Lady of Hope takes the reader through the early years of Michelle's life and on through the presidential campaign and her husband's historic win, which made her the first African-American First Lady.


Ever since now-President Obama burst onto the national political scene several years ago, I have been closely following his career. I can't recall exactly when I first saw his wife, Michelle, but right from the start, she impressed me as being a confident, eloquent, poised lady who was also a great wife, mother and career woman. When I saw Michelle Obama: First Lady of Hope in the book section of our local grocery/department store chain, I thought it looked like a good book to read for me to gain more information and insights into the woman I had come to admire. Unfortunately, the book didn't turn out to be quite what I had expected, nor as good as I had hoped.

By her own admission, the author wrote the book rather hurriedly. Because her publisher was eager to release the book in e-book format in time for the peak of the presidential campaign season, they only allowed her a couple of months from start to finish to write it. Only a few more days were allowed after the election for editing to reflect those results, before the print version was released. In my opinion, there were places where the rush showed, particularly in the repetition. I have no problem with an author reiterating something for the sake of emphasis, but I seemed to keep seeing some of the same quotes and information over and over, not only between chapters, but sometime within the same chapter. Elizabeth Lightfoot has worked as a newspaper and magazine columnist, but from what I can tell, this was her first book. In my opinion, each chapter of the book read more like a newspaper or magazine article than a section from a biographical tome. The author also had a tendency to editorialize quite a bit, frequently inserting her own reflections and opinions which didn't particularly seem appropriate for a biography. These types of comments fit the preface quite well which brought back some fond memories of my own from the campaign season, some of which mirrored the author's experiences. However, placing personal asides into the narrative of the book, to my way of thinking, caused it to become something entirely different, a book that was part biography of Michelle Obama and part memoir of the author's experiences.

In all honesty, Michelle Obama: First Lady of Hope seemed to be less about Michelle Obama and more about the campaign season in general. Granted the first few chapters focus mainly on Michelle and her background, but even during those sections, Ms. Lightfoot seemed to veer off onto rabbit trials discussing things that were somewhat related to Mrs. Obama (eg. the history of blacks at Princeton), but were not things that she had directly influenced. As the book progressed, the chapters seemed to be less and less about Michelle herself, and more about the presidential campaign. There were some of these chapters where I think Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and John and Cindy McCain received as many mentions as Mrs. Obama. The author does engage in some discourse on how Michelle Obama affected, and was affected by, the campaign, but there just wasn't enough about the woman herself to suit me. I did enjoy the chapter on motherhood and family life, probably because this is the area in which I relate to Michelle the most. On the flip side, the chapter on fashion wasn't quite my cup of tea. While I do think that Mrs. Obama always looks beautiful and well put together, I'm simply more interested in a person's personality than what they wear. The last 25 pages or so contain extensive bibliographical notes on the author's sources for the book, and a complete index.

Michelle Obama: First Lady of Hope wasn't a bad book, but it wasn't a great one either. It didn't really give me the kind of insights into her character that I was hoping for, which is probably understandable given that the author was not able to interview Michelle personally. Most of the information that was shared were things that I already knew about Mrs. Obama. In fact, I think I've gotten a better feel for the woman herself through my own casual "research" and watching interviews with her. This book might be useful to anyone who knows little or nothing about Michelle Obama (or anyone who might have been living in a cave during the 2008 presidential campaign season ;-)), but those readers like myself, who have been following the Obamas closely for years, will probably not learn anything new here.

Night (Night) Paperback – January 16, 2006 by Elie Wiesel (Author, Preface),‎ Marion Wiesel (Translator) (Hill and Wang)

Tucked away in the border town of Sighet in Romania, Elie Wiesel and his fellow Jews heard rumors of the atrocities being committed by the German army throughout the early years of WWII, but they couldn't quite bring themselves to believe it was true or that the Germans would ever reach them. In the spring of 1944, the Germans did come and after being rounded up and briefly forced to live in ghettos, the entire Jewish population of the town was transported to concentration camps. At the time, Elie was only fifteen. He and his whole family were sent to Auschwitz where his mother and little sister perished. Elie and his father struggled to remain alive and together. Night chronicles their desperate fight for survival in the camps over the next year until finally being liberated.


Night is a gripping first-person narrative of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel chronicles his life from the time the German soldiers invaded his hometown and started gathering the Jews together in ghettos through his experiences in several different concentration camps, including the notorious Auschwitz and Buchenwald, until he and his fellow prisoners were liberated. This relatively short volume packs a powerful emotional wallop that goes straight into the reader's soul. I didn't even realize how deeply it was affecting me until I spent a restless night, having bad dreams after finishing it, and yet, I think every person should pick this up at least once in their lifetime. I didn't feel that most of the story was rendered in a particularly graphic way. It's more the edge-of-your-seat tension and the fact that I have a pretty well-developed imagination that made this book so intense for me. My teenage son, however, seemed to have no trouble reading it for his literature class. Each reader's reaction will vary depending on their ability to distance themselves from the subject matter.

When the story opens, I was struck by how the Jews in Mr Wiesel's hometown didn't believe the reports of a man who had escaped from the Nazis. They either dismissed him as a madman or refused to believe that the Nazis would make it to their town. I guess perhaps it's human nature to not be able to fathom acts of such barbarism. I found it ironic that when the German soldiers did finally come to town, they temporarily lodged in the homes of some Jews and even treated them nicely, just before carting them off to the concentration camps. Once in the camps, it was strange how some of their fellow prisoners in supervisory positions could sometimes be nearly as cruel as the SS officers themselves. It was also very sad how family members could sometimes turn on one another. Even Mr. Wiesel confessed to occasionally having thoughts of survival possibly being easier for him if he didn't have the responsibility of his father to care for. Existence in the camps became nothing more than a desperate fight for individual survival in which family ties often were rendered meaningless.

Through Mr. Wiesel's simple, yet powerful words, I was able to gain a small sense of the sheer terror that he and the other thousands of prisoners in the concentration camps must have experienced. Stark fear emanates off the pages every time there was a selection or some other threat to their lives, as does the anger, especially at God for not putting a stop to such evil. Mr. Wiesel speaks very poignantly about loosing his faith in God after the atrocities he witnessed. He writes of how one of his first experiences in the camps was seeing babies and children burned alive and that it still haunts him, and I can certainly understand why. The mere image his words evoked in my mind deeply affected me as well and is something I would never want to witness first hand. It's no wonder he tried to trick himself into believing they were already dead, because the mind simply cannot cope with things like this that are too horrific to logically understand. The last days in the camps before liberation finally arrived and the death of Elie's father are very vividly rendered. I could feel the sense of hopelessness permeating the air, and how many simply gave up on life and couldn't go on, even though they could hear the sounds of the Russian army advancing on the German front.

Night is written essentially as a series of short vignettes of the author's experiences, which is more consistent with how one would expect a person's memory to be. There are some details he deliberately chose to leave out, such as his state of mind after his father died, which I can fully respect, but there were a couple of other omissions that were mildly disappointing, eg. it's clear that his father, mother, and little sister died, but he doesn't overtly tell what became of his other two sisters (I found out via the Internet that they also survived). However, this was a minor thing in another otherwise incredibly stirring and eloquent story of survival against all odds. I would characterize this book as a must read for everyone from mature teens on up. It is my fervent belief that in order to not repeat the horrific events of the past, we must never forget them, and one way to keep these memories alive is to explore the stories of those who prevailed against this oppressive evil.

Chris Mouse and the Promise Paperback – November 20, 2015 by Tina Jane Lackey-Adams (Author),‎ Pamela Hopkins (Illustrator) (IBRChildrensBooks)

Chris Mouse recalls her best Christmas ever: After putting her children to bed, she saw a beautiful star in the sky. Right after that a man and his pregnant wife came to stay in the humble stable where Chris and her family live. The woman gave birth that night to a very special baby, and when she whispered his name, Jesus, Chris knew this was the Promised Child she'd been told about all her life.

There are numerous re-tellings of the blessed birth of Christ in children's literature, and I'm always interested in checking out new ones. Chris Mouse and the Promisewas a cute enough story of a mother mouse's reminiscence of the first Christmas, but I thought it was missing that little something extra to make it truly special. I realize this is a children's book and there is only so much one can do with such limited words, but I still couldn't help but feel the story needed a bit more development. As one example, Chris Mouse mentions the wise men visiting Jesus, but not the shepherds. I'm not a historical stickler when it comes to putting the wise men in the nativity, but considering that they most likely weren't there at the actual birth of Christ while the shepherds were, not including them seems a rather big omission. I don't think I've ever read a Christmas story before that left them out. I thought it could have been a bit more original too. After reading Chris Mouse and the Promise, I went to my bookshelf and found no less than three other children's books told from the perspective of animals who were present in the stable when Jesus was born.

The illustrations were also a bit different than what I'm used to seeing in a children's story. When it comes to picture books, the illustrations are half of what makes the book engaging in my opinion. The pictures in Chris Mouse and the Promise are very simplistically rendered, appearing to be pencil and crayon type drawings much like a child's artwork with a bit more sophistication. They appropriately complimented the story being told, but didn't really draw me any further into it.

Children are likely not going to be as particular as an adult reader like myself, so for anyone who is simply looking for something new to read with their young ones for the holiday season, Chris Mouse and the Promise may be the perfect choice. Those readers who are looking for gorgeous illustrations or a compelling story may want to borrow a copy first to make sure it is the right type of book for them and/or their children. Some of the pictures can also be viewed on the author's website. At a cover price of $16.95, it is a bit pricey for a paperback edition of a children's book. Usually, only hardcovers are that expensive. However, a signed copy can be purchased at Ms. Adams website for nearly $5.00 less including shipping.

Strange Weather byJoe Hill,( Orion, )

Alzheimer's, guns, fantasy and hard rain are the subjects of the four novellas in Joe Hill's great collection.

Joe Hill’s new collection of four novellas, Strange Weather, is a great one – and not only if you’re a Capetonian staring down Day Zero with its poverty porn, blame and bad neighbourliness.

The first novella, Snapshot, is a reverse Alzheimer’s metaphor.

Butterball teen Michael Figlione finds himself taking care of his childhood nanny, Shelly Beukes. He realises that it’s not just her dementia talking: there really is a creepy stranger, Polaroid Man, with a special camera like a gun that takes photos of people to steal their souls. In a parallel process, as the Polaroids famously develop – and Shelly’s memory gets patchier – Michael finally understands how much she really loved him.

Shelly’s worried husband is a Schwarzenegger-esque South African expat cheekily named Lawrence Beukes. While that’s not incredibly significant, it illustrates how much Hill actively enjoys writing.

Named Joseph Hillstrom King (after the activist and songwriter) by his famous parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, Joe Hill writes under his own name. In-jokes, thought experimentation and sarky political commentary aside, writing is also a serious commemorative act – for the dead, and for our own dead selves. That goes double for horror, and triple for horror as beautifully rendered as Joe Hill’s.

Look here: “There is no system of measurement that can adequately quantify how much resentment I carried in my heart when I was young and lonely. My sense of personal grievance ate at me like cancer, hollowed me out, left me gaunt and wasted. When I set off for MIT at 18, I weighed 330 pounds. Six years later I was a buck-70. It wasn’t exercise. It was fury. Resentment is a form of starvation. Resentment is the hunger strike of the soul.”

We see it particularly in the second novella, Loaded – a didactic, heavily sexual exploration of America’s “national hard-on for The Gun”. Hill says that he “had that one in my head ever since the massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut”. The story is incredibly powerful: a young woman’s affair with her jerk-off boss ends in tears and bloodshed for everyone in the mall, including a Muslim mother with her baby strapped to her chest, the carrier conveniently mistaken for a suicide bomb.

The weakest – most deliberately fluffy – novella is Aloft, set mostly on a cloud. A one-sided crush on his fey bandmate, Harriet, makes Aubrey Griffin determined to skydive with her. At the last minute Aubrey tries to back out, but there are technical difficulties with the plane and everyone is forced to jump.

Aubrey lands on a cloud (cold, and a bit like mashed potato) and must confront his sad realisation that he can touch either terra firma or Harriet’s boobs again, but not both. The novella is a palate cleanser and a spot of stylistic showing off, but it’s no great shakes other than as a continuation of the real theme of all the novellas – how to let go.

The brilliant Rain completes the quartet. Boulder, Colorado, suffers a rain of fatal and needle-sharp shards of space-age rocks. Hill has fun with our beliefs and what we need to tell ourselves in order to survive. The histrionic president blames cloud-seeding religious fanatics, while the crazed comet cult next door accepts all comers. We follow Honeysuckle Speck, whose angelic girlfriend Yolanda was one of the first to die, impaled by the celestial spikes.

Honeysuckle must deliver the news to Yolanda’s minister-father, travelling a highway of murderous shards.