and hell followed with him

It’s time to play catch-up with my book reviews, even though I haven’t read as much as usual and these are not the most popular posts. But I like reflecting on and writing about what I’ve read. This summer I finished three books dealing with death and its pursuant hell: of war, of the criminal justice system, and of the otherworldly variety. It was not as gloomy a turn as it sounds. Plus, all three were fiction, which is unusual for me.

It started at the beginning of the summer with The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. A few days after moving to Boston, I joined the Brookline Public Library, a branch of which is just up the street from our apartment, and on a whim decided to pay homage to New England’s adopted son. I did this with not a little trepidation, since I generally can’t stomach anything in the horror genre. And it probably didn’t help that I read most of the book while at a remote Mexican resort during Tropical Storm Debbie, making leaving even the room, let alone the grounds, almost impossible. And, yes, the image to the left is indeed the cover art of the book I checked out: It probably should have been harder to scare me with visuals like those, but King is a master. The story has become such a part of popular culture — particularly because of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson — that even I was familiar with the plot, though I was surprised that some of the most iconic features of the story are from the film rather than the book. I won’t call it great literature, but King certainly knows how to write a page turner and a scary, suspenseful story: I couldn’t put it down, even would it would have been advisable to do so as I grew stir-crazy, trapped in a hotel of my own. Tortured writer Jack Torrance, his conflicted wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny all provide their perspectives on the events that occur when Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado, leading to their months’ long isolation with only the company of the ghosts of residents past. It’s hard not to want them all to make it out alive, which the survivors do only with the help of cook Dick Hallorann, an early occurrence of the unfortunate “Magical Negro” stock character. Overall I am glad I read it, if for nothing else than the fact that I now get the references to it (even if most of them are from the movie). I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my previous knowledge of the book had come from a Friends episode in which Joey and Rachel trade favorite books. “‘What’s so great about The Shining?'” Joey asks incredulously. “The question should be, ‘What is not great about The Shining?’ — and the answer is, ‘Nothing!'”

I next tackled Téa Obreht’s highly acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife, which was the only decent choice in the Cancún airport after I had disposed of The Shining. It was another page turner: I finished it on the return journey to Boston (which admittedly was made longer than it should have been by delayed flights). Despite its glowing reviews, I didn’t love it. And I should have! Obrecht has been compared to some of my favorite authors, including García Márquez, Hemingway, Bulgakov, and Dinesen. And the novel was quite a good story: A young doctor in a war-torn Balkan country, searching for answers in the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, turns to the magical stories he told in her childhood. His fanciful folklore is told against the backdrop of a country, based on Obrecht’s homeland of the former Yugoslavia, enveloped by a heartbreaking succession of wars. Maybe it was the crankiness of travel that intruded on my reading experience. Conceivably the narrator’s attempts to justify a character’s beating of his wife — she actually says, “Luka was a batterer, and here’s why.” — lost me. Or perhaps I found distracting the photo of the author, who looks all of 12. I realize these are not all good reasons; then again, I’ve disagreed with award bestowers before (see The Inheritance of Loss).

Finally, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, recommended as a summer beach read by one of my favorite blogs, CrimeDime. I’ve loved Atwood’s fiction in the past, and this one did not disappoint. Like the two above, it was also a quick read. Based on the true story of a 16-year-old Irish servant convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and lover in antebellum Canada, the book jumps between the young woman’s story and that of the physician she tells it to during her incarceration. Atwood also makes use of contemporary historical accounts as interstitials. The real Grace Marks was one of the world’s most notorious criminals at her trial in 1843. She and a fellow servant were convicted of murdering their employer; after receiving death sentences, the trial for the murder of the housekeeper was deemed unnecessary. Her accomplice was hanged while her sentence was commuted, mostly due to her age, and public opinion — as well as that of those closest to her — remained divided about whether she was femme fatale or naif. Readers will likely remain as confounded, as Marks claimed not to remember the murders and later gave at least three different versions of what happened at the time of the deaths. Atwood writes to give Marks the chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in her time to tell her story — but draws no conclusion. Trigger warning: Atwood brings to light the issues of gender and class (but only race incidentally) that permeate the 19th century, most of which seem to be sexual advances of powerful men towards vulnerable women. In Atwood’s imagining, Marks holds herself a victim, and thus, she relates, her stints in an asylum and a penitentiary constitute a special hell for her.

What were your enjoyable, light summer reads?

distopiae

orphan master's sonI woke up on Sunday to a cold, rainy day, nixing my plans to do the first round of planting in my garden. Instead, I stayed inside and read all day. After I finished Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son — a novel about a young man’s many careers under the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il — I took a quick walk to the D.C. public library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial branch to pick up a book on hold for me, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the YA genre, I haven’t been purposefully avoiding the novel — as I generally did with Harry Potter, for instance, the faux Latin of which set my teeth on edge. (I initially experienced a similar dread with the name of the country in The Hunger Games, Panem, but that’s where the Latin ended — and that reference was A) actually Latin and B) appropriate to the circumstance.)

I’d heard great things about Collins’s novel from people whose opinions I trust, and I even gave the book to my sister-in-law for Christmas last year based on those opinions. It was the hype around the movie — and the racism by its purported fans that it engendered — that finally piqued my curiosity. And the book was worth the wait: I read it straight through, finishing in a few hours by Sunday night.

My first reaction as I started reading, though, was, “Didn’t I just finish a novel about a central state government that tries to control its citizens in a society of a reality at odds with ideology?” And so I had, and so here I am, reviewing the two seemingly disparate novels together.

They certainly give each other a run for their money in terms of being disturbing — but also in being compelling. Many of the books I’ve been reading lately have managed to be suspenseful despite telling a story with a foregone conclusion (as for example here and here), and The Orphan Master’s Son was a complete break with that trend. I really had no idea what was going to happen next, much as the hapless denizens of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the book. (Well, I had the tiniest inkling from the outset, but I had no clue how Johnson could possibly get there.) Pak Jun Do, the orphan who isn’t, climbs through his impossibly regimented society, going from the backwater Chongjin to the capital Pyongyang as army tunneler, state kidnapper, naval intelligence officer, and finally the prestigious Minister of Prison Mines. Through the 1982-esque propaganda that works indefatigably to make the “Dear Leader” seem like the greatest leader of the greatest nation on earth, it takes a lot of blood and torture to get Jun Do across the country and its class divide; Johnson’s work is not for the squeamish.

The Hunger Games also manages suspense despite the fact that a reader has to expect that a narrator of a to-the-death battle royal is likely going to make it out alive. The Buffy-like protagonist Katniss Everdeen makes a journey similar to that of Jun Do, from her home in District 12, the furthest outpost of the country Panem (which rose from the ruins of North America), to its capital. And she also takes on a new identity, as a competitor in the annual death match.

Side note: Regarding the “controversy” of casting black actors in the movie roles, I just about burst out laughing when Katniss explains, on her train trip to the Capitol, that it “was built in a place once called the Rockies.” I have family in Denver and spent many a summer there and environs, and my cousin and I regularly remark on how homogeneously white Colorado is. (Of course, that reminds me of one of my favorite Tracy Jordan lines ever.) Panem isn’t that different from North America, which means that people of color in the future probably live in the worst parts of that country, too. So astute readers shouldn’t have been at all shocked that a contestant from an outlying district, furthest from the prosperous Capitol, would be black. (Based on the book, the real surprise should have been that Katniss is played by a white actress, although I suppose not really in the whitewashing of Hollywood casting.) Then again, readers who can’t understand that “satiny brown skin” denotes a person of color are pretty much idiots.

Collins’s story is a little easier to take, despite that the fact that it features teenagers killing each other for sport. This is partly because Katniss is an unequivocal hero, pure in heart and deed: Collins carefully constructs the narrative so that Katniss kills only indirectly or with complete justification. The reader has to root for her, especially against the backdrop of the depravity of the other competitors — and of the society itself; indeed, Panem’s televised games were ostensibly established as punishment for rebellion against the Capitol, but it seems clear that entertainment was just as important a factor. Likewise, the extreme control in the DPRK stems from banal pandering to Kim’s ego, and Jun Do’s battering at the whims of the Dear Leader is in the main heartbreaking (although it stands to reason that a character in a “grown-up” novel might be more nuanced.)

Both societies are of course meant to be horrifying. But there are uncomfortable similarities with our own. Collins makes this clear by locating Panem in the not-so-distant future; she’s also stated that she drew inspiration for the novel while channel surfing, switching between a competition-based piece of reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, when the two “began to blur in this very unsettling way.”

The hallmark of Johnson’s DPRK is the contrast between what is said and what is done — which dissonance I’ve been thinking about in the U.S. recently, especially as it relates to motherhood. Pundit Hilary Rosen caused a firestorm a few weeks ago with comments about Ann Romney’s work as a homemaker. Taking the cake for dumbest “controversy” of the election season so far, Rosen’s statement and its aftermath led to an endless series of inane responses lionizing the work of mothers (as if Rosen, a parent of two, were somehow unaware of her own role). But the truth is that we as a society don’t in any way value motherhood — or more accurately, all mothers — in the way we love to claim we do, as Katha Pollitt so trenchantly articulates. The doublespeak on this and many other issues do the Dear Leader proud.

cutting for stone

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

Each summer, my family rents a beach house in Atlantic Beach, N.C., and we spend a week together in what is always for me the most relaxing vacation of the year. I’m generally able to read four or five books — and everyone else passes the time the same way, often swapping books. Usually there’s at least one that forms a line: from the past couple of years, it’s been the latest in the Harry Potter series, Little Bee, and Water for Elephants.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone was last year’s beach book, but vacation ended before the book was passed to me. I didn’t pick it up until recently, but apparently I’m on a kick of novels that take place during mid-20th-century upheaval in African countries. However, I think the book would have benefited more in terms of my review if I had read it last summer rather than when I did read it, which was mostly during Passover last week: my husband’s family is a little less used to me buried in a book than my family is. Some of the difficulty I had in concentrating may have spilled over into my opinion of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book — although I don’t think I liked it as much as my family did, or as much as the gushing reviews on the back cover. The story of extraordinary identical twins born under even more extraordinary circumstances, the novel takes the reader from India to Ethiopia, then to the U.S. and back, delving into the lives of a half a dozen medical professionals, most of whom are related.

The title is a play on words that the book unfortunately doesn’t do much to explain. “Stone” is the surname of the twins, given to them in honor of their absent biological father. But it’s also a reference to a portion of the Hippocratic Oath: “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” In this case, “stone[s]” refer to those of the kidney, bladder, and gallbladder, which must be removed via surgery — the distinction between physicians and surgeons an important one in 5th century BCE Greece. More generally, it’s a promise to do what is best for a patient — what is within the doctor’s skills — and not to overreach. It’s a lesson that the book illustrates, if not elucidates, well.

Born in the oddly-named Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Shiva and Marion are the improbable progeny of the hospital’s main surgeon and his surgical assistant, Sister Mary Joseph Praise. Their nun mother dies in childbirth, and their father leaves the country in grief, leaving the boys to be raised by two of the hospital’s other doctors. They grow up against the background of (historical) political turmoil in Ethiopia, which eventually forces Marion to flee to the U.S., where he pursues his medical studies, reunites with Thomas Stone, and finally decides to return to the land of his birth.

Verghese is a doctor, but he’s also a talented writer who is able to make compelling the intricacies of surgery (much like one of my favorite authors, Atul Gawande, who provided one of the adulatory blurbs). He weaves a beautiful story, told through the voice of Marion, an extremely earnest narrator. Marion is buffeted more than most by forces beyond his control, and my heart broke for him on more than one occasion (I was even in tears at the end of the novel). I was, however, not so sympathetic, when fueled by anger, he forces himself more than once on a vulnerable childhood friend. Verghese even has him use the phrase “took her” in describing one of the encounters, and the thrust of this part of the plot (excuse the terrible pun) is that Marion is justified in his behavior — although he certainly comes to to regret his actions (but for different reasons). It was a disappointing part of a story that otherwise treats relationships, not to mention the importance of humanity in practice of medicine, with sensitivity and wisdom.

anatomy of injustice

Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice reads like a true-crime thriller, and I would say I enjoyed if I hadn’t spent the entire book alternating between anger and horror. A New York Times reporter, Bonner wrote the book from his journalism research, which started in Texas after then-Governor George Bush — who had presided over more executions than any other governor in history — stated on Meet the Press, “I’m confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas on my watch has been guilty of the crime charged and has full access to the courts. I’m confident.”

Since Governor George Ryan of Illinois had just two weeks before suspended the death penalty in his state because of eleventh-hour exonerations of several condemned prisoners, Bonner and a colleague were first sent to Texas, and then later other states, to investigate Bush’s claim and the state of the death penalty in America today. Anatomy examines just one of the many cases they looked into: that of Edward Lee Gilmore, a young black man of limited intelligence convicted of murder in South Carolina in a seven-day trial.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not impartial on this issue. I think capital punishment is just the most egregious evidence that our criminal justice system is broken (second only to the atrocities of mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, and drug war, among others). One of my dream jobs would be to work against the death penalty as a rabbi.

So it wasn’t going to take much to convince me of the miscarriage of justice. Tragically, it took 30 years to convince those who could actually do something for Elmore. He had three trials before he was sentenced to death for the last time, and it took almost 20 years to locate a potentially exonerating piece of evidence that the state thought was lost. The book ends before Elmore’s saga does: Last month, Elmore left a courthouse in Greenwood as a free man for the first time since 1982.

Bonner chose the case as emblematic of the many death penalty cases that occur in the 36 states in our country that allow the punishment. He notes, “Elmore’s story raises nearly all of the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.”

It’s because so many death penalty cases have at least one of these issues that Elmore’s story is sadly familiar, so I won’t go into the details of his story. Bonner is able to make the case for Elmore’s innocence, overwhelming in the narrative and affirmed by his later release, even more compelling by being able to pretty reliably point to the real perpetrator, a neighbor with whom the victim was suspected of having an affair and who died years before Bonner started covering the case. He “discovered” the body and pointed the original investigators to Elmore, and they never even considered the former a suspect.

edward lee elmore, a few years before his arrest for murder

Several things struck me as I read. Abysmally represented at his original trials, Elmore benefited immensely from later (competent, not to mention tenacious and passionate) counsel from the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. This is typical of many of these cases: The best representation is available on appeal. A huge part of Elmore’s experience was the direct result of the complete incompetence of his original lawyers. There are many dedicated lawyers and law students today working on the cases of death row inmates, so why aren’t more of them clamoring to be the original lawyers on these cases? Indeed, the book makes clear that one of the enormous hurdles that Elmore had to overcome during all the years of appeals was that, despite massive evidence of defense ineptitude, no one wanted to imply that previous lawyers, juries, and judges had made a mistake (especially not multiple times), or perhaps more perniciously, were racist or classist (which of course they were). It seems to me that the priority of death penalty opponents should be ensuring that those accused of crimes eligible for capital punishment get the best representation at their initial trials.

Secondly, Bonner devotes a good number of pages discussing the differing roles of prosecutor and defense attorney. The book opens with two epigrams on the subject from Supreme Court cases. Justice Byron White:

Law enforcement officers have the obligation to convict the guilty and to make sure they do not convict the innocent. They must be dedicated to making the criminal trial a procedure for the ascertainment of the true facts surrounding the commission of a crime. . . . But the defense counsel has no such comparable obligation to ascertain or present the truth. Our system assigns him a different mission. He must be and is interested in preventing the conviction of the innocent, but, absent a voluntary plea of guilty, we also insist that he defend his client whether he is innocent or guilty.

In other words, defense lawyers’ primary responsibility is to their clients, guilty or not; prosecutors’ primary responsibility is to the truth. Bonner argues that this prescription for prosecutors has gotten lost — and in the vacuum has risen a culture that values winning above all. Today, prosecutors of death penalty cases are generally more interested in convictions, in assigning blame for (what are often heinous) crimes, in assuaging public outrage and fear, in securing “justice” for the families of victims. Perhaps some of these are admirable, or at least understandable. But ultimately, Bonner argues, prosecutors are derelict in their duties when they lose sight of the fact that they are instead (or at least also) supposed to strive to protect the innocent.

What I know about the practice of law could fit into a coffee cup (just as everything I know about law school I learned from Legally Blonde, as I am fond of telling my amused law student interns), so please excuse my ignorance when I say that I simply didn’t know this legal principle. In popular culture, particularly in sympathetic portrayals of wrongly convicted criminals, prosecutors are routinely portrayed as cravenly careerist and eager to convict. While that may be an at least a somewhat accurate portrayal of reality, it’s not what the law proscribes. And Bonner’s book is an object lesson of why not.

the women behind the missionaries

caleb's crossingI recently tore through both Caleb’s Crossing and The Poisonwood Bible. The first is Geraldine Brooks’ latest, published last year. I’ve read all of her fiction; her Pulitzer-prize-winning March is one of my favorite books.

The second is perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s most well known work, which I’ve never picked up before. Last year I inherited my grandmother’s copy, which made the reading all the sweeter, knowing that she once enjoyed it. It’s a hardcover, so I assume she bought it shortly after it was published 15 years ago. One of her familiar address labels is affixed on the inside flap of the dust jacket.

I just happened to read them in succession (I’m trying to read more fiction), and they dovetail nicely. They’re both set against backgrounds of historical events, and the narrators of both are daughters of American clergymen bent on converting native cultures to Christianity (the Wampanoag on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in Brooks’ novel, and the Congolese in Kingsolver’s). Sadly, though the settings are separated by 400 years, the Price sisters in the 1960s are offered just about as little opportunity as Bethia Mayfield in the 17th century: All of the girls hear a constant refrain about the uselessness of educating women. But in both tales, these women are much smarter, shrewder, braver, and more interesting than their naive missionary fathers.

Caleb’s Crossing is an ill-fitting name for Brooks’ work. Though it’s inspired by the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, the story belongs wholly to Bethia Mayfield, who achieves the book’s more lasting crossing: from the narrow realm of women’s chores to the limitless world of men’s education, from Puritanism to Wampanoag culture and back again, from her sister’s caretaker to scullery maid to wife and mother. She befriends the eponymous Caleb, the heir apparent to the Wampanoag who believes that being fully a part of the Mayfields’ white, Christian world represents the best chance for him to ensure the survival of his people. Caleb studies English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew indefatigably (yes, I was jealous), gains admission to Harvard, and graduates with honors, doing better than many of his white counterparts. But the price he pays is extremely high, and the reader knows that all of his efforts ultimately will not save the Wampanoag. Through the plot’s twists, Bethia is able to accompany him to the mainland, and it is she who is more successfully changed for the experience.

One of the hardest things as a modern reader is to fathom the attitudes of those who believe themselves to be “civilizing” cultures, remaking others in their own image. I felt unspeakably sad reading about the changes Bethia describes that Caleb undergoes as he moves from robust hunter to sallow scholar. The same process in historical fiction such as this and other books of the genre (like Things Fall Apart) makes me, to be blunt, hate white people. The story of the Congolese in The Poisonwood Bible is made only slightly less painful by the fact that the village of Kilanga is largely immune to Reverend Price’s proselytizing.

It helps that Price is something of a ridiculous character (in contrast to Mayfield’s earnest and ethical attempts to engage the Wampanoag): His daughters note his mispronunciation of the Lingala word bangala, which, depending on how it’s said, can mean “dearly beloved” or “poisonwood tree,” leaving Price to preach week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. But Price is lucky to have this gaffe to humanize him, because he is otherwise a vile character. His cultural arrogance and condescension are insufferable, and his complete inflexibility, even in the face of danger because of the country’s unrest (the political turmoil of the post-colonial era), rips apart his family. I spent most of the book hoping for him a violent death. It’s his daughters, who take turns talking about their experience in Congo and afterwards, who charm and delight, even in the midst of their tragedies.

god vs. gay?

I was fortunate enough to be able to hear Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, speak at the Washington DCJCC in October, as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. At the end of his excellent talk, a man in the audience stood up, ostensibly to ask a question. He announced, “Well, I wasn’t going to come to this event, but then I saw a picture of you.” We all laughed. A shallow disclosure perhaps, but Michaelson is indeed good-looking — and I think anything that gets people in the room is good. As many as possible need to hear what he what he has to say.

First and foremost, Michaelson is a scholar. He has a J.D., an M.F.A., an M.A., and he’s working on his Ph.D. — and all of these degrees are from Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Yale, and Hebrew University. He’s also what I would probably call a Conservadox Jew. He makes learned, articulate, and persuasive arguments. This last fact is fortunate, because he covers in this book one of the more contentious issues of our time: what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament say about homosexuality. And Michaelson doesn’t think those texts even come close to what every day we’re told they say.

Note: I am using the word “homosexuality” because it’s the word that Michaelson uses, and because many of the arguments that have been made against equality are based on verses that are concerned with “homosexuality” in the strictest sense (that is, same-sex sexual behavior), the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures having nothing to say about the social or cultural concepts of “being gay” or the same-sex relationships we’ve come to know in modern society. I do acknowledge, though, that the word can be clinical, distancing, and archaic.

Michaelson begins with the premise that while for him — and many others — the secular, constitutional argument for equality is sufficient, many religious people feel conflicted (at best) by the understood condemnation of homosexuality in scripture. He wants to meet these people where they are and address their concerns. “I sincerely believe that our shared religious values call upon us to support the equality, dignity, and full inclusion of sexual and gender minorities — that is, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” It is said that only Nixon can go to China; similarly, only someone truly committed to the importance of religion could convincingly make this argument. And one of the things I like about this book is Michaelson’s willingness to take seriously the concerns of self-identified religious people. I don’t know that those of us who are absolutely committed to civil and legal equality for LGBT folks get anywhere by telling people their religious teachings don’t matter (and indeed, I would say we haven’t gotten anywhere).

I can see how some might feel that this endeavor is either a fool’s errand or completely irrelevant to the current debates about how our governments should treat LGBT folks. It might be both. Michaelson was preaching to the choir with this reader, so it’s hard for me to say objectively how convincing his arguments are, especially in the face of the constant drumbeat from places of worship of “Man shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abomination!” As for relevancy: like it or not, religious beliefs inform opinions about secular issues; I think anything that addresses the motivations of prejudice is a good thing.

Michaelson divides the book into three parts: why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities; what the “bad verses” really say about homosexuality; and why inclusion of sexual minorities is good, not bad, for religious values. I found the first two more compelling than the third, and the second most of all. I am a fan of close textual readings, and it always amazes me when really important issues (like how we treat our fellow human beings) are decided on the basis of modern and often agenda-driven English translations of ancient texts. As Michaelson points out, only seven verses, out of more than 31,000 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, make reference to same-sex sexuality activity. So we don’t have much to go on — and we’d better make sure to get right the limited text that we do have. Indeed, the first part of Michaelson’s book is concerned with the values that should and must drive our understanding of LGBT folks in that absence. For instance, Jesus never made one recorded statement about homosexuality. Christians, then, are left with his teachings about love, compassion, mercy, tolerance, and justice for guidance about this issue.

I did have a few quibbles with Michaelson: More than once he mentions Eddie Long, who has been accusing of sexually abusing teenage boys, in the same sentence as other clergy condemning homosexuality found to be engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. But the problem with Eddie Long is that not that is he a closeted gay man or a hypocrite, as the others — it’s that he’s a perpetrator of child sexual abuse! Michaelson also uses the judgment-laden word “promiscuity” and similarly makes negative judgments about prostitution.

Overall, though, this book was excellent: persuasive and well researched. I picked it up because as a religious person, it’s important to me to know what my tradition says about homosexuality. I had assumed that mainstream interpretations were more or less accurate; I’d just dismissed them as archaic, as much use to me as the prohibition on wearing clothes made of linen and wool. Sadly, I’m not sure of the book’s chances of gaining a wider audience. But I can’t think of a book that our country needs more.

golda

golda In her excellent biography Golda, Elinor Burkett gives her readers an entirely new definition of the word “tenacity.” Her subject, Golda Meir, the first female head of the state of Israel, achieved all that she did through sheer force of will. And she did so with little support from her family — father, mother, sister, husband, or children — and, for most of her career, in extremely poor health. Adored in America, she was reviled in Israel for her role in the Yom Kippur War, but it’s ultimately hard not to have sympathy for this woman from another time, doing the best she could in a modern world that had disappointed her.

Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev at the very end of the 19th century (she became Meyerson upon her marriage and Meir under pressure from David Ben-Gurion to Hebraicize her name), she was shaped by her first memories of pogroms in the Russian empire. As a young girl, she and her mother and two sisters followed her father to Milwaukee, where he had moved to find work. After 15 years in the United States, Golda made aliyah to then-British Mandate for Palestine, where she lived until her death in 1978.

Golda was heavily influenced by her older sister Sheyna, who introduced her to Labor Zionism, which informed Golda’s drive to establish and work for the state of Israel — and led her to try to join a kibbutz upon her arrival in Tel Aviv. But she and her husband’s first application was rejected, as was their second. Golda eventually managed to wrangle a place on the communal farm, but she and Morris were never fully accepted as kibbutz members, in part because of the perception of them, as a married couple, as hopelessly bourgeois Americans. Yet Golda persisted, thus establishing a pattern she would follow her entire life. Motivated by idealism, Golda tries to do something; Golda is rebuffed; and then Golda “bashes heads together” to get her way. Working her way up through pre-state quasi-governmental organizations and later the Israeli state apparatus, Golda would do it again and again.

Interestingly, Golda’s commitment to Israel was purely a matter of ensuring self-determination for Jews, so that they wouldn’t ever again have to rely on other countries for their survival. Her experiences of the pogroms of her youth and the Holocaust of her middle age solidified her militancy on this topic. It’s somewhat hard to imagine, given the influence that the ultra-religious now have on Israel, but its founders were largely completely secular. On erev Yom Kippur in 1973, as the war brewed, Burkett relates how Golda sat down to dinner with her family — on a holiday when even the least observant religious Jews generally fast.

As might be imagined, this ambition — as it could only somewhat accurately be described — didn’t leave much time for even a semblance of a personal life. Indeed, Golda was never as much wed to Morris as she was to her work. Although she did manage to make time as a younger woman for a few lovers (a fairly typical practice among the early, free-love Socialist Zionists, for whom divorce was equally rare), she and Morris gave up acting like married couple less than 10 years after emigrating. Morris died in 1951, and Golda never remarried — or it seems, ever had another intimate relationship. Golda’s children judged her especially harshly for her lifestyle, and while they were certainly justified in feeling so — and Golda admitted as much — Burkett doesn’t address their father’s abandonment, arguably as complete. Morris struggled with employment his entire life; he certainly had the time to step in for Golda. But in 1938, he moved to Persia, leaving their two children to her.

goldaSoftening her edges a bit was her famous wit. The stories are legion of her one-liners and quips, and the press hung on every one. On her 80th birthday, in the midst of peace process negotiations, she declared, “I wouldn’t want the West Bank even if it were given to me as a birthday present.” When Henry Kissinger, mediator after the Yom Kippur war, whined about her public coldness towards him (“When I reach Cairo, Sadat hugs and kisses me. But when I come here, everyone attacks me.”), Golda rejoined, “If I were an Egyptian, I would kiss you, too.”

But she couldn’t joke away her health problems, though she tried valiantly to ignore them until she was ordered into recuperation. She suffered from obesity; heart and circulatory problems; a twisted leg, and later phlebitis and blood clots; migraines; gallbladder attacks; kidney stones; a broken shoulder; and lymphoma. These weren’t helped by her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And as with everything else she deemed inconvenient, Golda barreled through her illnesses, often cutting short treatment to attend to a matter of state.

In the book, Burkett manages the near-impossible: building suspense in the story of the founding of Israel, an incredibly painful narrative. I actually found myself wondering whether the new state would be able to overcome its challenges. But I shouldn’t have, because Golda was always there, willing it into being behind the scenes.

blue nights

I was drawn into Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, immediately. She begins by writing about a season changing from spring into summer into fall:

To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.

I’ve only read one other Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that preceded Blue Nights. Tragically, the former is about the death of her husband in 2003; the latter, the death of her daughter two years later. It’s hard to escape the fact that few have unexpectedly suffered more than Didion.

In both books, the difficult subject matter is made easier by her beautiful writing. Her prose is positively poetic. I read The Year of Magical Thinking weeks after the death of my beloved grandfather, and it helped me immensely in dealing with his death. The book also touched on her daughter’s struggle, who was in a coma at the time of her father’s death (but managed to recover long enough to attend the funeral). When it was published, I was eager, as odd as it sounds, to read the second part of Didion’s saga. Her recent experience is heartbreaking, and accompanying her on her journey through grief is comforting.

But if Blue Nights drew me in right away, I had a hard time finishing it. In some ways, what Didion describes in both books is universal: With grief come questions. How did the illness actually cause death? Did the deceased anticipate the end? How did I fail my loved one? How could I have made the time we had left more meaningful? Why didn’t I . . .? And no one articulates these hard questions better than she.

In other ways, Didion mistakes her experience as universal. Toward the end of the book, she contemplates the suddenness of change: “One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day’s mail with real enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney’s and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.” The general sentiment rings true, to be sure, but the details that are supposed to concretize her state of mind are alienating. Didion uses the word “we” — but her world isn’t one that I recognize.

Indeed, her two works that I’ve read are full of this kind of name and label dropping: Payard and Bouvier des Flandres, Bendel’s and The Bistro, Minton dinner plates and I. Magnin soap, Lilly Pulitzer shifts and Donald Brooks dresses, David Webb bracelets and Christian Louboutin shoes. I don’t even know what most of those words mean. And it goes on. Tasha (Natasha Richardson). Nick (Dominick Dunne). She spends two pages listing the (presumably very fancy) hotels that she and her daughter stayed in on her book tours. She even identifies something as banal as a kitchen implement: a “Craftsman knife.”

I probably would have dismissed these details had they gone unremarked. I’ve come to think of them as window-dressing, ornaments whose specificity probably connote something deeply meaningful for Didion (indeed, a photograph of Sophia Loren at a fashion show in 1968 prompts a lengthy ode to a past era in her life) but which for me are almost meaningless. I feel deeply for Didion’s losses, and these references, signifying wealth above all, give me hope. Whatever else she is — bereft, grieving, heartbroken, broken — she’s not poor. She has the resources to give herself the space to heal. It’s one of the benefits of privilege.

But Didion is angry about this label, and she breaks into a defensive address of the reader halfway through Blue Nights: “‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.”

But she’s wrong. Just wrong. Wrong, full stop. It’s hard to imagine a more privileged type of person in the U.S. than a wealthy white Hollywood family. Didion’s daughter undoubtedly suffered terribly at the end of her life — and, to hear Didion tell, struggled with debilitating mental issues when she was alive. And she did so in a life of privilege. With all due respect to Didion’s experience, health problems, even fatal ones, don’t negate privilege.

I found this refusal to acknowledge her daughter’s — and by extension her own — privilege so troubling that I had to put the book down for several months. I was recently able to finish it, and I’m glad I did. Ultimately, I do recommend the book — how can I not love a book whose author describes a scene of her daughter’s walking to school as “beautiful as anything I’d ever seen”? — but I also recommend skipping chapter 15. Didion should have skipped it, too.

the dovekeepers

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

On New Year’s Eve I finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, my first by her. I picked it up because it’s the next book of a Jewish Reads book club I just started getting emails from (not sure yet if I will go to a discussion).

The book is the about the settlement at Masada, where Jewish rebels in 70 C.E. resisted the Roman army for months before killing themselves in a mass suicide when their destruction was inevitable. The story is told in four parts, each by a woman who took a different path to arrive at the mountain in the Judean desert.

Yael begins the story. Her father is one of the Sicarii, assassins who kill Jews complying with Romans bent on the destruction of the Temple. It’s in this environment of civil war and anti-Semitism that Yael’s brother, also an assassin, and eventually Yael and her father, are forced to flee Jerusalem. On the way across the desert, Yael and one of her traveling companions become lovers, but he and his family don’t survive the journey. She arrives pregnant at Masada and begins to work in the dovecotes with three other women.

One of them, Revka, picks up the thread of the story. A baker’s wife in Shiloh, she leaves with her daughter, scholar son-in-law, and their two sons after her husband is killed by the Romans. En route to Masada, on Yom Kippur, they are set upon by Roman army deserters, who brutally gang rape her daughter. Her son-in-law returns from prayers to find his wife and her attackers dead. They arrive at Masada, her grandsons rendered mute by the trauma and her son-in-law, a brutal warrior with a death wish.

Aziza speaks next. Raised as a boy in the land of Moab, across the Dead Sea, she becomes a skilled warrior. She arrives at Masada, along with her half-brother and beloved half-sister, after being sent for by her mother’s lover.

Her mother, Shirah, the last of the dovekeepers, finishes the story proper. Born in Alexandria, she is raised by her mother to practice magic. But when her mother falls out of favor with the Jewish community, Shirah is sent to her mother’s family in Jerusalem. Unmarried, she is banished after she gives birth to Aziza but is rescued by a Moabite, who takes her to his homeland. She arrives at Masada from Moab, with Aziza and two other children, to reunite with her Jerusalem lover.

The historian Josephus, the main source of the siege of Masada, reports that the only survivors were two women and five children. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s imaging of how a settlement of nine hundred got winnowed to seven. But it doesn’t just seek to humanize those who in modern times would be considered akin to the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple. It is a story of women in the society of ancient Israel that is constructed by and for men. As Hoffman notes in the acknowledgements, “[T]he stories of women have gone unwritten . . . It is my hope that . . . I can give voice to those who have remained silent for so long.”

Hoffman immediately sets up the dichotomy between the world of men and the world of women when Yael seeks out the kephashim for a protection charm for her brother as he begins to kill as part of the Sicarii. She notes,

In the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and imposters by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches.

But in the book, kephashim magic runs the world. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, explained by Yael at the outset, is tuned on its head as the reader is left with the clear feeling that women’s magic, over and over again, sets right the world that is continually destroyed by men. It is not the women who want a civil war, or to fight the Romans (they are used to doing that they need to do in secret), or, least of all, to make a stand at Masada. And that is probably why only women (and children, their wards) survive. Though the men of Masada are fierce warriors, it is the women of Masada who have the real strength.

I am sorry to say that I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of ancient Israel is, although it has been reported that Hoffman researched the book for five years. She explains how moved she was by a visit to Masada — and how her story is built around the remains that were found in the archeological excavation of the site. To the extent that it’s true to life, it did help me understand, at least a little, the motivations of the Jewish rebels. When I visited Masada, in contrast to Hoffman, I was struck by the fact that we might be lionizing crazy people.

In the world of ancient Israel, men set the rules — and time and time again, women break them. And that world is better because of it. In Hoffman’s beautiful and haunting narrative, each of the women gets to tell her story and how she became who she is against the backdrop of impending disaster.

the submission

Last week I finished The Submission, by Amy Waldman. The book was a gift from my boss who pronounced it “an amazing read, but not light.” It is certainly compelling — and beautifully written! — if also problematic in significant ways.

The title refers to a proposed design for a memorial for the victims of 9-11, chosen in a blind competition in an re-imagined New York two years after the attack. The plan details a walled, rectangular garden, bisected twice by perpendicular canals, with pathways lined by trees in a grid in each of the quarters. The names of the dead would be inscribed on the garden’s inner walls. The book opens with the contentious deliberations by the jury, composed of mostly artists and other art world professionals plus one representative of “the families,” who is the main proponent of the garden. The other design, preferred by the the most vocal of the artist contingent, is known as “The Void,” a proposal distinctly less comforting or inviting. In a vote largely determined by the emotion of the widow, the garden barely wins, whereupon the identity of the submitter is revealed: an architect named Mohammad Kahn. Dun, dun, DUN.

The freaking out begins with the chairman of the jury embargoing what he now considers to be a tentative decision. The designer’s name is soon leaked to the press, however, and the jury is forced to acknowledge its choice. To mitigate the ensuing controversy, the jury chairman — under pressure from the governor of New York — decides not to finalize the memorial design without a public hearing. The novel details the mobilization of the stakeholders on various sides of the debate over whether it is appropriate for the memorial to victims of a terrorist attack by followers of radical Islam to be designed by an American Muslim.

As expected, the political right opposes the choice. The debate quickly becomes principally about the architect himself instead of his design, which is, however, interpreted as having Islamic influences, then re-interpreted as being the paradise described in the Quran, then re-interpreted again as a heavenly cemetery for martyrs of radical Islam. Other opponents include ad hoc groups formed in response to the jury’s choice, as well as, it seems, the majority of the families of the victims. The governor also falls into the opposition camp. Its proponents include a coalition called the Muslim American Coordinating Council (MACC) as well as, on principle, the artists on the jury who hadn’t advocated for the design in the first place. It’s the widow from the jury and, ultimately, Kahn himself who struggle with their ambivalence.

Simply put, this book was hard to read at times. The extreme opposition in the novel is rooted in reality, which we saw in the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque.” And Waldman really brings to life one of the victims’ families, whose surviving son acts as spokesperson for that contingent. They are working class family from Brooklyn, and the son is rudderless before and after the attack and becomes increasingly conflicted about his parents’ marching orders to stop the construction of the garden at any cost. At the public hearing, the father of another of the victims is given a particularly sympathetic portrayal; calling the choice “insensitive” and citing the example of the pope’s decision to move a proposed convent from Auschwitz, he notes, “We, who have carried the weight of the loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America’s tolerance.”

The motivations of MACC are fairly easy to understand, and Waldman does a great job of portraying the difficulties of that coalition, coalesced around a shared identity as Muslim Americans which is nevertheless interpreted very differently by its members, religious and secular.

Hard to understand was the character of Claire Burwell, the jury’s widow. Her reaction to discovering the identity of the creator of the garden she loves and fights for is initially unchanged. But upon meeting and getting to know Kahn, she becomes increasingly doubtful of her ability to continue to support the design — mostly, it seems, because Kahn won’t say whether his proposal is “an Islamic garden” and won’t say that he condemns the 9-11 attack. As he says to her when they finally sit down together towards the end of the novel, “‘What is the principle behind demanding that I say it, when your six-year-old son can tell you its wrong? Wouldn’t you assume that any non-Muslim who entered the competition thinks the attack was wrong?'” She is extremely wealthy from her husband’s money, and although great pains are taken to establish her discomfort with the lifestyle she married into, her assertion of her privilege is off-putting. She thinks herself the gatekeeper to design approval, that she represents all of the families — as she goes, so go they, she implies — and that she is entitled to answers from Kahn. The novel is supposed to be about her internal journey towards her true self during this emotional time in her life, but ultimately it’s simply not compelling or sympathy-inducing.

It is Mohammed Kahn who is the standout in the novel. Raised in Virginia by parents who only get involved in a local mosque after the attacks, Mo, as he is known, is Muslim by birth alone. He wrestles with ritual observance during his time in the spotlight, but he is characterized by his talent, drive, and ambition in his field. He is above all supremely rational (and stubborn) and finds completely confounding that he is collapsed into identification with a religion that he hardly knows. His is the experience of many Americans in the post-9-11 world, starting with the scene that introduces him to readers in which he is detained at LAX for flying while Muslim. He is complex, frustrated, principled, lost by the situation he finds himself in, and honestly struggling to make sense of it however he can, all in the center of the extreme pressure cooker of the national debate into which he is thrust.

Missing from the novel are significant contributions from evangelical Christians and Jews of any kind, both of which would have to factor into this situation. And the thought that a memorial design could have been chosen a mere two years after the attacks strains credulity (especially as the actual memorial barely managed to open ten years later). The end of the story is rather puzzling as well; after the protagonists have expended unknowable time and energy panicking about the “source” of the garden — which question is set up to come across as unfounded paranoia — the final scene shows that Kahn did indeed draw his inspiration from a garden he happened across in Afghanistan. The horror! (And it seems clear that this inspiration is purely aesthetic, not religious.) This frustrating development, its placement at the end of the story making it function as a big “reveal,” undermines the narrative argument that Kahn suffered a great injustice in his treatment as the memorial’s creator.

The reader is left with a dull disappointment with Waldman’s America, at the very least for the fact that human prejudice is shown to have vanquished human-made beauty. It is not worthy of the novel’s honest attempts to grapple with how we honor the dead of 9-11.