• People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn **** (of 4)

    In a series of essays, no not essays, but rather really well-done rants, Dara Horn made me pause and reconsider a lot of what I have accepted about Jews that have died. She opens with Anne Frank, probably the most famous dead Jew, and Frank’s long lasting message. Something to the effect of, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” Seriously?

    Is Anne Frank revered because she offers absolution to non-Jews who participated in or stood-by as the the steamroller of the Holocaust desecrated millions? Would Anne Frank have become an icon if she instead of dying, she had survived the war, published her diary, but gone on to be an aging, embittered housewife living on Long Island. People love dead Jews.

    Or consider the book’s longest chapter about a righteous gentile doing his best to save Europe’s most famous artists from Nazi decimation. He was supported by others hoping to save the best of western civilization. At first, laudable, but Dara Horn asks, what about the less famous, the less artistic, the apparently less intellectual, and more religiously Jewish. Were their lives worth less?

    Horn’s willingness to dig deeply into Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a masterpiece of literary and historical analysis. Defenders of one of Shakespeare’s most oft-produced plays is that his portrayal of Shylock is not anti-Semitic because of a single speech.

    But as Horn unpacks the rest of the play and its historical antecedents she makes a compelling case that Shakespeare was trumpeting the anti-Semitism of his day. During the middle centuries surrounding its writing Jews had been expelled from England, derided in virulent anti-Semitic sentiment across England and Europe, confined to Venetian ghettoes and the enforced business of usury. Shakespeare knew all that. Today’s critics are whitewashing a play whose very caricature of a blood thirsty money-lender (“I demand my pound of flesh,” cries Shylock) is a continuation of centuries old tropes about the conjured belief that Jews killed Christian babies to extract blood for Jewish bread. Excusing Shakespeare, says Horn, is to overlook the basis upon which Jews have been slaughtered for centuries.

  • What it is Like to go to War ***(of 4)

    There are not a lot of books about the philosophy of war, but there should be, especially as we are a country that in the last couple of decades has sent our troops to Iraq (twice), Afghanistan (for the longest war in U.S. history), Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Uganda, Syria, and Niger. The goal of war, this book makes perfectly clear, is to kill people. Karl Marlantes asks a simple question. What happens when we send our youth — young people whose full sense of judgement and character has not yet reached maturity — to contravene the fundamental tenets of society.

    Raised with the legal, moral, and religious tradition that Thou Shalt Not Kill, we nonetheless ask 18-year olds to kill other human beings. Often the requirement comes in a situation where opposing youth are being asked to do the same to them. Increasingly, however, the use of so-called smart weapons means a gunner or drone pilot could be 100s or 1000s of miles away. Still, their job is to kill, and to know that no weapon is smart enough to always distinguish between an enemy combatant and innocent bystander.

    Karl Marlantes descriptions of battles he engaged in while in Vietnam are surreally alive and frighteningly tangible. Interspersed with battle scenes are Marlantes’ discussions of what it feels like to kill another person, to be involved in a life and death situation, and to try to reintegrate into society afterward. Marlantes calls upon literature from the Illiad and Baghavad Gita forward. He investigates psychology and spirituality. He talks about PTSD and pain and love and recovery.

    Unfortunately, he, like many military professionals is still processing the last war, rather than thinking fully about the next one. Hand to hand combat and trench warfare, though they are at play again in Ukraine, have been displaced by drone and satellite driven technology. Killers take lunch breaks and go home to their spouses at 5 PM. Their spouses, unlike in Vietnam, are often husbands. Today’s volunteer Army is comprised of individuals whose motivations and backgrounds may well be different than those drafted in the 1960s. His book needs to be updated to match the trials of more modern warfare, but his principles remain very much in need of discussion.

  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar **** (of 4)

    The title says the book is a novel, but the voice is the author’s and the story is about his life. News events, timelines, and characters are real and it is impossible to discern when fact is being replaced by fiction which makes the story only that much more intriguing. Akhtar’s elegies, generally defined as serious poetic odes to the dead are largely long form, stand alone descriptions of his life in America: the American born, Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants.

    His father loves America, his mother not as much. The laments are for the losses of home back in Pakistan as seen through rose colored glasses of hindsight; for the breakdown of a relationship between father and son; a father’s loss of his bearings as a doctor in the United States; a mother’s loss of health offset by his parents pride and befuddlement at a son who succeeds in America as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Akhtar’s plays have won Pulitzers and his ability to write a scene and fill it with authentic dialog feels so realistic it is hard to imagine it was conceived by an author and not simply filmed on the spot.

    Running the full length of the book are the tribulations of being Muslim in a country in the throes of deep anti-Muslim sentiment. Akhtar’s recounting of his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, what he endures upon being pulled over by a state trooper near Wilkes Barre, PA, or how Trump gave voice to anti-Muslim attackers are horrifying.

    His conclusion about America is subtle and surprising. While he makes a decent case that our country was founded by Christians for Christians, he makes a stronger case that our true object of worship is money and that the drive to acquire monetary status at the personal, political, and corporate levels of society are insatiable and insidious.

  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee **** (of 4)

    Mukherjee begins with the ancient Greeks.  They wondered from whom and how did children inherit characteristics that made them look like their parents.  Mukherjee continues to follow the thread of investigation through the centuries to Mendel and his peas, to Watson and Crick and their double helix, on into cloning and genetic engineering.  He dives headfirst into eugenics and its tragic outcome under the Nazs as they attempted to control the combination of chromosomes by eliminating undesirable characteristics and the hosts that carried them.  After describing all the science of genes and chromosomes he asks us to consider the ethics of where we stand today:  on the precipice of once again being able to engineer the outcome of human procreation and development.

  • On Immunity by Eula Biss **** (of 4)

    immunityEvery once in a long while you read a book by an author you recognize is much, much smarter than the rest of us.  Christopher Hitchens is one of those.  Eula Biss is another.  I picked up On Immunity thinking I was going to learn about New Age parents thinking they are protecting their children by forgoing inoculations.   And yes the book does dig into the science of how vaccinations succeed and how pseudoscience survives on the internet forever.  The study purporting to demonstrate that some vaccinations could lead to autism, for example, has been so thoroughly discredited as to exist only in a world inhabited by believers in alien abductions.  It would be a mistake, however to think On Immunity is only an account of germs and antibodies.  Rather, it is a work of philosophy covering the nature of who we have become as overprotective parents, men and women so concerned about perceived threats to our children, and our desires to keep them immortal like Achilles, that we are in practice creating national and international health hazards that will be borne by the poor and underserved in the healthcare system.  Our desire to remain undead forever is an invitation for Biss to discuss the inherent fear of parenting and the curse of Dracula who never died, and like a bacterial infection survived on the blood of others.

  • Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens **** (of 4)

    A memoir of Hitchen’s 60 years on earth most of it he spent as an irrascible, cantankerous, and largely contrarian thinker, writer, and agitator.  As a careful student of history he focuses his energies on upheavals in 1968, 1989, and 2001 reaching the following internally illogical yet self-aware conclusion.  Hitchens defines his life as unalterably intolerant of intolerance and utterly convinced in his belief that those religious, fanatical, tyrannical, and dictatorial leaders who believe theirs is the only path to salvation are absolutely and without question wrong.  I could plainly see the contradiction and still found myself mesmerized by an intellect of such power that I struggled to find counter arguments.  The man has not only apparently read every writer in the English language, but seemlessly manages to place the ideas of the following in precisely the right context:  Richard Dawkins, Shakespeare, Orwell, Socrates, Rushdie, Auden, Sontag, Bellow, and dozens more.

  • Winter by Rick Bass *** (of 4)

    At the age of 29, Bass forsakes his worldly belongings, save for his broken down truck, and leaves Houston for the very limit of the United States, a remote, sparsely inhabited valley in Montana on the edge of the Canadian border.  His goal is to explore Yaak, learn about himself, become a writer, and above all else, survive winter.  At times he is overcome by self-importance and the self-consciousness of recapitulating Thoreau’s Walden, and at others, he is so observant and elegiac that he can make individual snowflakes or the crack of split wood so important we cannot believe we have never before taken notice.  The book’s shining message is the imperative to slow down, escape the drive of modern American life, even if all we do is read his book.  January 2007.

  • Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein *** (of 4)

    Just like the authors say, “understanding philosophy through jokes.” The book is twenty percent philosophy – ethics, existentialism, epistemology, relativity, meta-philosophy – and the rest is vaudeville. Nearly every page calls for a rimshot. I’m not sure how much philosophy I learned, chapter summaries would have helped a lot, but I loved the jokes. I read the whole book in a sitting and the truth is when I was talking to a friend recently I realized I understood the philosophy of the Stoics well enough to explain it. A Stoic, a Priest, A Rabbi, a Lesbian, a grasshopper, and a lawyer are on a boat…ba Da bum! January 2008.

  • Lying Awake by Mark Salzman ** (of 4)

    A short novel, or long exercise, about a Carmelite nun in an LA cloister. Nun meets God, nun loses God, nun finds medicine, nun finds God, nun loses God and I won’t tell you how it ends. An investigation into the nature of faith and how doubts infect everyone, even women who have forsworn all earthly pleasures to be in monogamous relationships with Jesus/God. Maybe this book about doubting the nature of God’s intent could only have been written by a Jew. June 2007.