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Summer Reading 2019

How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – With the recent popularity of meditation and yoga as spiritual pursuits, Pollan explores an alternate, once frowned upon method of opening the mind, staying present, and finding meaning – hallucinogenics.  A blend of travelogue, scientific research, medical history, and memoir, the author ponders one of the oldest and most significant human questions:  how can we find meaning in our lives? (460 pages)

The Uninhabitable Earth (Life After Warming) by David Wallace-Wells – Concern about the devastating effects of climate change has grown exponentially in recent years.  Relying on the most recent scientific evidence, David Wallace-Wells imagines what challenges will confront humanity if climate change continues unchecked.  He also offers hope that time is still left to make changes in our behavior and environmental policies before it is too late.  (300 pages)

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton – In the information overload age there is precious little time to ponder, reflect, and just think.  Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, argues in this slim volume that moments of quiet reflection are necessary for personal health and growth, and also for the cultivation of a society of tolerance and respect for all.  (130 pages)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – In a vividly imagined Africa filled with superhuman creatures and supernatural forces the Jamaican write Marlon James uses the mystery of a missing boy to weave layered stories of survival and quest.  Filled with references to popular culture, the book draws on the hero myth structure identified by Joseph Campbell to propel its protagonist, Tracker, through a violent, dangerous, and mysterious world.  (please note!  the book contains multiple violent passages – rating PG 15!)  (420 pages)

These Truths by Jill Lepore – The Harvard historian has written a brilliant one volume history of the United States.  As is so often the case, the more we know about the past the better we understand the present.  Beautifully written, Lepore shines a light on some of our greatest people and most important moments, but also reminds us of how often we fall short of the ideals that define our nation.  Every American should read this book. (800 pages)

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Days of Future Past

Preposterous.  A second Civil War, once again between the North and the South.  Rebel forces and suicide bombers (all American).  A shadowy faintly Islamic caliphate that is manipulating events on American shores.  Biological weapons of mass destruction.  Political assassinations.  This is the dystopian near future that Omar El Akkad describes in his debut novel American War.

Akkad’s United States is a shattered and humbled country.  North and South have split over a fundamental disagreement about the use of fossil fuels, with the South refusing to accept the North’s ban on gasoline and oil.  As is often the case with arguments, there are deeper issues at work, and old grievances and unhealed wounds festering.  The North wins the war, and a reconciliation process is put into place.  But there are those in the South who will never surrender, and rebel groups and individual terrorists continue the fight.  Refugee camps are set up, civil rights taken away in the name of safety, human dignity stripped, individuals tortured, and in the process, the moral compass of an entire nation swings out of balance.

It does indeed sound preposterous, at least on the surface.  As bad as things might be at any given moment, there is no way we can get from here to there, from where we are now to the tragedy and terror that the book paints, from the United States to a divided North and South.  Is there?

But think for a moment.  How far is it really from here to there?  All of the elements that Akkad draws on to create his compelling narrative are already in place today.  We live in a country with deep, angry divisions between Red and Blue states, that only seem to be getting deeper and angrier.  The government is dysfunctional, unable to pass legislation to address today’s pressing needs.  Our leadership is polarizing.  Terrorist networks are operating all over the globe, many of them with the express intent of destroying the American way of life.  Weapons of mass destruction exist, whether biological or nuclear, and we have for years worried about what would happen if those weapons were to fall into the wrong hands.

The truth is Akkad doesn’t make anything up from whole cloth for his story.  It is all out there right now, today.  All the author does is put the elements into one pot at the same time, heat them up a bit, stir them in exactly the right way, and follow the explosion to its terrifying, and also logical, conclusion.  He is not really writing about some far distant time and place.  He is writing about the here and now.  His work is not so much an act of imagination as it is an act of re-organization.   It is not a picture of the future.  Instead, it is a warning about the present.

Will we figure out a way to heed that warning?   That is, at the end of the day, the question Akkad sets in front of us.  And we are the only ones who can provide an answer.  American War is a novel about the future that could not be more contemporary.  It is a sharp critique of today’s cultural, societal, and political trends.  It is a mirror in which our images look back at us with uncomfortable and uncompromising honesty.  And it just so happens to be a heck of a read.

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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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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One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.

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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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