September 18, 2019

Book review: “Safekeeping” by Gregory McDonald

When Bill Sikes is introduced in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes him thusly: “The man who growled out these words, was a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings which enclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves—the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days’ growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.” In that first sentence, Dickens makes clear that Bill Sikes, called Mr. Sikes by the boy Oliver Twist throughout the novel, has the appearance of someone who belongs in chains, hence, the legs looking incomplete “without a set of fetters to garnish them.” In other words, Bill Sikes is a bad one.  And […]
September 16, 2019

Book review: “The Bounty Hunters” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard’s first novel The Bounty Hunters was published in 1953, just eight years after World War II, and it was part of a movement in American arts to reevaluate the national myths. On the surface level, the war seemed to endorse the rightness of U.S. ideals and actions. Nonetheless, artists, such as those in movies, painting and novels, were expressing what might be called the Great Ambiguity.  Yes, the United States fought for freedom and democracy against the soul-crushing, murderous Nazis and their allies.  Still, there is much that America and American soldiers did in battle that unsettled the consciences of thoughtful people.  “By white standards” With The Bounty Hunters, Leonard is setting forth the subject matter that he will deal with more than 40 other novels as well as short stories and screenplays. First, there is Leonard’s affinity for those on the edges of society, an affinity for the zest and piquancy that other cultures and other approaches to the questions of living bring to the communal life. In this novel, it’s expressed in his openness to the Apache way of life which, in American myth of that time, was seen as debased, pagan and inhuman.  By contrast, […]
September 11, 2019

Book review: “The Song of Songs: A Biography” by Ilana Pardes

The Song of Songs is one of three very odd books in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes expresses a deep mournful existential angst not found anywhere else in the Jewish and Christian scriptures; life is short and hard.  Meanwhile, Job wrestles with the question of why bad things happen to good people — and loses; God essentially says in a long rant out of the whirlwind that God’s ways can’t be comprehended by humans, and Job comes to give up on his whining and say: OK.  The essential act of faith. Neither book provides the message that’s found in the rest of the Bible — that, if you do the right thing, God will take care of you in some way. The Song of Songs is even more singular.  It is, on its face, a joyfully sensual celebration of romantic and physical love.  The female lover is identified as the Shulamite, and her breasts are extravagantly praised eight times in the 2,700-word poem.  Depending on the translation, God is mentioned once or not at all. Nonetheless, as Ilana Pardes notes in The Song of Songs: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 280 pages, $24.95), Rabbi Akiva, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism […]
September 9, 2019

Essay: Tweet at me, Mr. President

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling sort of left out. This past weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted about how much he dislikes singer and activist John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen, throwing schoolyard insults at them. But, so far, at least, that little rant pales in comparison to his tweet storm a month or so ago against a whole lot of people, including five members of Congress — Reps. Elijah Cummings (Maryland), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts). Also targeted was Rev. Al Sharpton, a private citizen and public activist. So, I thought, Well, why not me? True, I haven’t been elected to Congress. Neither am I like four of those U.S. Representatives a woman, nor am I a person of color like the six people targeted in these tweets. Nor am I as accomplished artisticly as Legend and Teigen, also people of color. But, like them, I am an American citizen.  If President Trump is going to spend a lot of time trying to bully these people, I’m OK with him trying to bully me.  It’s gotten to be a kind of badge of honor, in a […]
September 4, 2019

Book review: “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, published in Italian in 1975, is a literary memoir of high art and broad ambition.  It covers the waterfront. The periodic table, of course, is a major subject — that list of chemical elements, now totaling 118, that comprise everything in the Universe. All matter. (The sole exception is dark matter which, according to scientists, is made up of something other than the chemical elements but no one’s sure what that something is.) Levi, who worked all his life as a chemist — indeed, his chemical expertise saved his life during the Holocaust — constructs his book with 21 chapters, each keyed to an element on the periodic table.  Two of these, the ones for lead and mercury, are short stories that a 22-year-old Levi wrote when he was working off by himself in a plant on an island in 1941.  He was, he writes, in semi-hiding as a Jew in Fascist Italy, pondering “my freedom, a freedom I would perhaps soon lose.”  He writes, in Raymond Rosenthal’s English translation: From this rocky love and these asbestos-filled solitudes, on some other of those long nights were born two stories of islands and freedom, the first […]
September 2, 2019

Essay: Let’s celebrate working when we’re working

On the occasion of this 126th Labor Day as a national holiday, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Let’s have a second one — Labor Day 2 — that’s not a day off. I know that might sound like heresy.  A day off has been intertwined with the idea of Labor Day since the late 19th century when it was a holiday in some states but not yet nationally. But the deeper aim of Labor Day is to honor workers — all those millions of women and men (and, at times in our national history, children) who have struggled throughout the past 243 years to keep body and soul together and help this nation accomplish, grow and prosper.  To honor them with a day, the way we honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation’s armed forces veterans. A day off is a fine way to bestow that honor, and, let me say, I’ve got nothing against a day off.  When I was working for a boss, I was just as glad as the next person to have paid time away from work.  Saying, “Thank you,” on Labor Day 2 But here’s […]