Category Archives: summer reading

Detours

Each year I release a reading list to my congregation of books I plan to read over the summer. I generally read the books that make the list, but I also add one or two unexpected titles. These are my reading ‘detours.’ I discover them in local book shops or in the NY Times book review. They catch my interest for one reason or another and before I know it the official list books are on the back burner and I am deeply immersed in some new narrative.

This year two detour books have appeared. One is the 2013 Mann Booker prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Cattan, and the other the new David Grossman novel To the End of the Land. I finally finished the Catton book a few days ago. A monster of a read at 850 pages.  It is beautifully written, but I had the feeling I was watching a magician’s trick – it was enthralling but at the end it didn’t ring true.  I have high hopes for the Grossman novel but want to finish Hillbiilly Elegy before I get to it.

Some summers it is the detour read that ends up the best of the batch. This summer the jury is still out, but I have a feeling nothing will beat Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved, a book that truly moved me.

In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for further detour opportunities. After all, isn’t that part of what summer is about? Finding the hidden roads, the never before tasted treat, the unexpected delights and pleasures of being away?

What is it that Bobby Weir sings in Lost Sailor?

Drifting, you’re drifting; drifting and dreaming; ’cause there is a place you’ve never been; maybe a place you’ve never seen; you can hear them calling on the wind…

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Make America Gilead Again

A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times.  It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through.  But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world.  In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup.  It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.

Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures.  Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’  And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan.  How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes.  As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context.  As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday.  When you read great literature you find out what always happens.

Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead.  The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women.  And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way.  And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.

But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it.  Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age.  The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God.  Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society.  They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized.  They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.

Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will  take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel.  Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong.  No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message.  What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.

“No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke;  to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;  when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

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Summer Reading List 2017

Enjoy the books!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Roz Chast – Chast, a cartoonist at the New Yorker for years, published this graphic novel in 2014.  It is a poignant and brutally honest confrontation with what it means to age, and what it means to care for aging parents.  And it is definitely presented through a Jewish lens.  228 pages, and the first time a graphic novel has made the list.

The Handmaid’s Tale  Margaret Atwood – This chilling novel from 1986 describes a world where women have been subjected to a secondary role in society, where fundamentalist religion rules, and where the elected United States government has been forcibly removed via a military coup.  To read it today is to understand how great fiction both unpacks the past and warns about the future. 300 pages (give or take!)

American War Omar El Akkad – The second dystopian novel on this year’s list.  El Akkad’s debut work of fiction explores a near future where a second American civil war between blue and red states takes place.  If our partisan political divisions grow even greater, if terrorism becomes a regular occurrence on American soil, if climate change continues to escalate, what will our world look like?  El Akkad has created a stunning vision of one possible answer to that question.  333 pages

Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance – Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Vance writes movingly about the world he grew up in, the culture that defined it, and the experience of watching that world slowly but surely fade away.  This book explores the dynamics of the poor, white, working class world in rural America at a time when its culture is in crisis.  260 pages

All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot – This beloved book from 1972 takes you back to a simpler time.  The author chronicles his ‘adventures’ as a veterinarian in the remote Yorkshire Dales, tending to the various animals (and sometimes humans) who need his help.  It is a powerful page by page reminder of the great beauty that exists in God’s world that we all too often fail to see. 425 pages

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders – In this debut novel a grief stricken Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently deceased 11 year old son Willie.  While in the cemetery he encounters the ghosts of others who are buried there, and listens to their life stories told from beyond the grave.  The novel is a meditation on national loss and an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak that are inevitable components of living a human life.  343 pages

Measure for Measure William Shakespeare – This late comedy explores themes of justice, mortality, and mercy, as well as the fine line that sometimes exists between corruption and purity.  The line “some rise by sin, some by virtue fall” (Act ii scene 1) reads as fresh and contemporary commentary given today’s political climate.

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Peeking Into Days of Future Past

Working my way through my summer reading list I’ve taken a detour.  It happens every summer, some previously unexpected, off the radar novel comes to my attention, grabs my interest, I track it down, and the reading begins (or continues).  This summer that book seems to be three books, a trilogy, written by Ben H. Winters, entitled The Last Policeman.   Classic dystopian literature.  A dark and disturbing world, intimately familiar, exists under the threat of extinction.  People go about their normal lives, work, converse, eat, fall in and out of love.  Everything is the same, but everything is different.  When you know the world is about to end, who can blame you for acting a bit strangely?

The genre of dystopian fiction is more popular than it has ever been.  We all remember Orwell’s 1984, having read it in high school.  The protagonist Winston Smith is on a fool’s errand, a quest for independence and freedom, thinking his own thoughts, straying from the prescribed program, leaving the party, and with it Big Brother, behind.  It is a quest that can only end badly.  Deception, capture, and torture; the inexorable power of the State bending Smith’s will and twisting his psyche, robbing him of every free thought and feeling.  1984  paints the portrait of a world that on the surface functions at least semi-normally, but where just under the surface – just – everything is wrong.

Something draws us to these stories.  Think of the success of the Hunger Games series, or Lois Lowry’s The Giver, required reading in virtually every middle school today.  But the list goes on and on.  Surely Huxley paved the way with Brave New World.  Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explored the darkness of a world without books.  More recently Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake have delved into a near future where the average man or woman is boxed into a life totally controlled by invisible, shadowy forces.  These narratives are marked by a sense of ominous presence, of someone or something always watching, of inevitable violence and decay and the destruction of the human spirit.

Can there be anything better to read in this summer of our discontent?  With bizarre political processes playing out before our very eyes, with violence in the streets, citizens and police being shot, guns everywhere.  With the menace of terrorist attacks, where every bag can hold a bomb and every truck can suddenly become a terrible weapon of destruction and death.  As distrust and division grows deeper, what can be done?

Perhaps the first step is simply naming it all, looking unflinchingly at what is happening and acknowledging how troubled these times truly are, and how far we have to go, how much work there is to be done to change this tide.  That is precisely where art comes in, where music and literature and painting can help us step outside of our world for a time so that when we return, when we walk back through the door, we have context, a deeper understanding of what we see and feel, of what our world is and should be.

 

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Summer Reading List 2016

My annual list – these books will keep you company on rainy days and sunny beaches (provided the sun ever comes out!).  As always, a ‘caveat emptor’ – some of these books might already be in the bag (I’ve read them), some might not get read at all, while I might read a book or two not on the list (if so, I’ll post additions on Twitter).  Enjoy the books!

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehesi Coates  This powerful book, part memoir and part political treatise, is a stunning depiction of the emotional impact of growing up black in America.  In a time when racial and ethnic differences are front and center in the national conversation this is a must read.  152 pages

SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard  The classicist from Cambridge University has written a compelling account of ancient Rome’s rise and fall.  Like the best written history, this book teaches us about the past while giving us a chance to reflect on the present.  575 pages

Doomed to Succeed – Dennis Ross  The historian, diplomat, and Middle East expert has written an insightful review of the history of American-Israeli relations, focusing on the presidents and their administrations and how they have either supported (mostly) or not supported (rarely) the Middle East’s only democracy.  474 pages

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo  The author paints a vivid picture of small town life in upstate New York, incorporating a bit of ‘who done it’ along the way.  They say you can’t go home again, but every once in a while you can visit.  500 pages

Purity – Jonathan Franzen  Arguably America’s greatest contemporary novelist, Franzen turns the structure of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ into a twisted tale that reminds us of how deeply inter-connected we all are, while at the same time confronting us with the knowledge of how challenging it can be to maintain our closest relationships and to fully open up to another person. 500 pages

This summer’s Shakespeare play is Macbeth.  Can there be any better play of the Bard’s to read during this deeply unsettling election season?  What does power mean and how much is it worth?  And remember, be careful what you wish for!  Who can forget the striking couplet from the end of the Witches speech in Act IV, scene 1 – “Double, double, toil and trouble – fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

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The Good Old Days

In yet another summer reading list detour, I am about half way through a wonderful little book called The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.  The book is part memoir, part ode to England’s Lake District, part tribute to the ancient farming culture that has existed there for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Rebanks is a wonderful writer with an eye for the little details that fully immerse the reader in the story he is telling.  The book has been well reviewed, and as I make my way through the pages I understand why – it is an evocative portrait of a family and a culture in which we can see ourselves and our own lives.

The Shepherd’s Life is also a book soaked in nostalgia.  For childhood.  For a simple life of steady work and uncomplicated days.  For a lost grandfather, the patriarch of the Rebanks family.  And of course, like all things nostalgic, for the past, in this case an ancient farming culture that slowly but surely gives way in the face of modernity.  There is a wistfulness to the carefully composed sentences, a longing for things gone by and memories long cherished.

We are all familiar with that feeling, in one way or another.  And it seems to me that summer is a particularly nostalgic time, perhaps the most of any season of the year.  Vacations and visits often bring us back to places we’ve known for many years, often reunite us with family and friends who have known us from the time we were children.  The old haunts, the old activities, games, rituals, stories, jokes, conversations, even feelings!  They can flood back into our minds on long summer days and warm summer nights.  There is often a sense of mystery in the remembering.  How did we get here from there?  Where have the years gone?  I came to this place when I was a child, or a young adult, or first married.   How is it that now my children or grandchildren come here?  This great line from the John Prine song Angel from Montgomery comes to mind:  But that was a long time, and no matter how I try, the years just flow by like a broken down dam.

The key, of course, is to remember the past but not to be trapped by it.  The old places and memories and thoughts and feelings remind us of who we once were, but also of how far we’ve come in the intervening years.  We can’t go back, not all the way.  But the past is with us, part of who we are, coloring the way we see the world, the thoughts and feelings we have, the sense of where we’ve come from.   Each day is truly a new day.  But soft summer breezes remind us that new days are built on old ones.

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