Tag Archives: summer reading

Summer Reading List 2018*

Each year around Memorial Day I publish a summer reading list, letting the congregation know what books I expect to be delving into during the summer months.  Happy reading!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel – A post apocalyptic tale of a traveling Shakespeare troupe, this novel explores memory, friendship, family, and asks the ultimate question:  what is it that truly makes us human? (378 pages)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe – Published in 1968, this book (non-fiction) chronicles the early hippie movement in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the escapades of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters.  In a time when psychedelics are making a bit of a comeback this is worth a re-read, just after the author’s death at the age of 88.

The Story of the Jews:  Belonging, 1492-1900 – the long fight to survive, by Simon Schama – The British historian has just published part 2 of his history of the Jewish people.  The second installment covers a 500 year span as the Jewish community struggled with what it meant to live in the Diaspora.  Will the Jews be accepted or rejected?  Questions of antisemitism, assimilation, and Jewish identity come to life in Schama’s lively prose, and reading his book reminds us those questions are just as relevant today as they have ever been. (some 600 plus pages!)

The Great Shift, Encountering God in Biblical Times, by James Kugel – One of the best modern Bible commentators, Kugel explores the shifting sense of God that is conveyed by the Hebrew Bible.  Why is God present and active when the Bible begins, but remote and invisible when it ends?  This book is Kugel’s answer to that question.

On Middle Ground, a History of the Jews in Baltimore, by Eric Goldstein and Deborah Weiner – As advertised, a comprehensive history of Baltimore’s Jewish community, from its very first Jews to Pikesville.  Close readers will find that Rabbi Mark Loeb z’l does get a mention! (about 400 pages)

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi – One of Israel’s most thoughtful writers, Halevi explores with frank honesty his sadness at the Palestinian situation, his longing for reconciliation, and his fierce belief in Israel, its mission, and its right to exist.  In a world where we are all too often driven to extreme views, Halevi’s nuanced exploration of the ‘matzvah’ is poignant and necessary.

* As always, a caveat emptor – I may not read all of these books this summer, and I probably will read one or two books not on the list!  Enjoy the reading!!

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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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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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