Category Archives: Uncategorized

“The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America” by Nicholas Buccola— A Clash of Opinion About Race

Buccola, Nicholas. “The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Clash of Opinion About Race

Amos Lassen

The clash of opinions about race in America between James Baldwin, civil rights firebrand and William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism still today illuminate America’s racial divide.

On February 18, 1965, a huge crowd filled the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to watch a historic televised debate between James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and William F. Buckley Jr., a fierce critic of the movement and America’s most influential conservative intellectual. The topic to be discussed was “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” and this is a debate that has never been forgotten. Nicholas Buccola’s “The Fire Is upon Us” is the first book to tell the full story of the event and to share the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the clash between the men continues to show America’s racial divide today.

Both men were born in New York City, 15 months apart Baldwin, born and raged in Harlem and the privileged Buckley were total opposites, yet they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement. By the time they met in Cambridge, Buckley considered Baldwin to be an “eloquent menace.” Baldwin saw Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity  showed “the sickness of the American soul.” The debate was to be an epic confrontation that put Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s elitism and his implicit commitment to white supremacy. What we have here is the story of race and the American dream revealing the deep roots and lasting legacy of a conflict that continues to haunt us and our politics.

“Nicholas Buccola follows the men’s journeys with in great and he gives us tremendous insights into race and America. His study of two lauded American thinkers on opposite sides of the political spectrum shows the enormous race and class divisions in 1960s America, many of which still exist today. We get deep and thoughtful portraits of Baldwin and Buckley and of American culture, politics, and history.

This is the  backstory to that famous debate and a clash of antiracist and racist ideas―over the meaning of the American dream. Here are two important voices with two different visions of America.  Buccola reminds us of the American dilemma of race in the context of the early sixties, as well as today. We are taken back in time to better understand how we got to where we are today. The author’s thesis is indeed controversial and provocative

 

The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home” by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor— An Intriguing and Terrifying Old Woman

Fink, Joseph and Jeffrey Cranor. “The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home”, Harper Perennial, 2019.

An Intriguing and Terrifying Old Woman

Amos Lassen

 Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are the authors of the New York Times bestselling novel “Welcome to Night Vale” and the creators of the #1 international podcast of the same name. Now they have a new book,  “The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home” to add to the Night Vale series.

 “Welcome to Night Vale” is a community radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale, a friendly desert community somewhere in the Southwest and where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are all natural and commonplace parts of everyday life. The radio show reports on the strange events within.  The podcast covers news, announcements, and advertisements but it is very weird.  

In the town of Night Vale, there’s a faceless old woman who secretly lives in everyone’s home, but no one knows how she got there or where she came from.  We go back centuries in time to read of an initially blissful and then tragic childhood on a Mediterranean Estate in the early nineteenth century. The woman was involved in the criminal underworld of Europe and in a nautical adventure with a mysterious organization of smugglers. She plotted revenge on the ones who betrayed her and her spirit has travelled the world for years before settling in modern-day Night Vale.

Today in Night Vale,  The Faceless Old Woman guides, haunts, and sabotages a man named Craig. In the end, her current day dealings with Craig and her history from nineteenth century Europe come together in an unexpected and horrifying way.

The reader is soon involved with what is written on the page and is tricked into embracing the surreal in order to underscore and emphasize the real as affirmation of emotional truths that don’t conform to neat Night Vale. The story explores the coming together of Night Vale, a strange little town with the real world. We sense terror between the lines of the authors’ prose.

We are taken on “a hypnotic travelogue that shimmers and changes as you read. A friendly (but terrifying) and comic (but dark) and glittering (but bleak) story of misfit family life that unfolds along the side streets, back alleys and spring-loaded trap doors of the small town home you’ll realize you’ve always missed living in. When it says ‘welcome,’ it’s mandatory. You belong here.” Night Vale comes to life on the pages and as I said before, it is weird and surreal as well as  an “ existential meditation on the nature of time, reality, and the glow cloud that watches over us.”  Night Vale “feels more like home than home” making us want to live there regardless of the strange happenings.

 

“Philosophers: Their Lives and Works” by DK— The World’s Great Philosophers

“Philosophers: Their Lives and Works”, DK, 2019.

The World’s Great Philosophers

Amos Lassen

I must recommend DK’s “Philosophers: Their Lives and Works” because it is such a beautiful book. It brings together some of the great philosophers of all time from Confucius and Plato to Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky and gives us beautiful portraits and biographies.  Each philosopher is introduced with his portrait and the biographies give us the ideas, friendships, loves, and rivalries that inspired the great thinkers and influenced their work. We also get revealing insights into what drove them to question the meaning of life and think up new ways of understanding the world and the history of ideas. Illustrations include not only portraits but also photographs and paintings, their homes, friends, studies, and their personal belongings, pages from original manuscripts, first editions, and correspondence. This is an easy way to see the key ideas, themes, and working methods of each featured individual. Their ideas are set within a wider historical and cultural context. Taken as a whole, the book shows the development of ideas across the centuries in both the East and West, from ancient Chinese philosophy to the work of contemporary thinkers. Not only do we read about philosophies but we also get a look at  the personal lives, loves, and influences of the great philosophers.

 

“When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom” by Asthma T. Uddin— The Rights of Muslim Americans

Uddin, Asma T. “When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom”, Pegasus Books, 2019.

The Rights of American Muslims

Amos Lassen

Religious liberty lawyer Asma Uddin seeks equal protection for Evangelicals, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Jews, and Catholics alike and she shares that she has seen, of late, an ominous increase in attempts to criminalize Islam and exclude American Muslims from their inalienable rights. 

The view that Muslims aren’t human enough for human rights or constitutional protections seems to be moving  into the mainstream along with the claim “Islam is not a religion.” This affects all Americans because the loss of liberty for one means the loss of liberties for everyone.

When Islam Is Not a Religion also looks at how faith in America is being secularized and politicized, and the repercussions this has on debates about religious freedom and diversity.

As she writes of what is happening on the national scene, writer Uddin tells her own story. She combines her experience as a person of Muslim faith and her legal and philosophical appreciation that all individuals have a right to religious liberty. She looks at the shifting tides of American culture and gives us an outline for a way forward for individuals and communities. 

For years now, Uddin has been the preeminent defender of religious freedom for American Muslims and has been explaining why her faith is no threat to non-Muslims. “When Islam Is Not a Religion” is her  plea for tolerance in which she brings together legal analysis with her personal story. She presents us with an argument for religious liberty for all. She pushes back forcefully on anti-Muslim sentiment and presents us with excellent research, intelligence, and eloquent writing in which she corrects  misconceptions about American Muslims. Not only is this an accessible introduction to key Islamic concepts, it is also a call for the protection of everyone’s religious rights.  This is necessary reading to better understand the scope and the stakes of the religious liberty debate. It explores Islam’s legal place in American society and takes us into one American family’s Muslim faith. Uddin counters ignorance with grace and humility while giving the reader thought-provoking examples of religious persecution that ultimately threaten the religious freedom of all Americans.

Americans began to challenge and persecute Muslims after 9-11 and we have seen numerous examples of this all the way up to President Trump trying to institute a travel ban for Muslim majority countries. Uddin outlines early attempts to portray Islam as a political system in the early chapters of the book and does so by examining speeches and interviews by commentators, television hosts, and political leaders and then showing  how they cast Islam as a terrorist organization.  Uddin traces the development of religious liberty and shows how bias against Islam has found its way into judicial decision-making with Muslims facing hurdles in the legal system that others do not. Stereotypes about Muslims are responsible for this.

Uddin dispels the stereotypes that have led forty-three states to consider bans against Sharia Law. She states that Sharia Law is not a political system but rather a code by which Muslims live similar to the Ten Commandments of other religions. We see how the hijab has become a political symbol and that some Muslim women take off their headscarves because they fear for their safety.

Uddin’s detailed analyses of the legal cases surrounding Muslims in America that have spanned the last decade is important and interesting to read. This is a well-written analysis of the impact American jurisprudence has had on the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans in today’s post 9/11 era. t is an engaging and insightful synopsis of the development of religious liberty doctrine in the United States, and a study of the limits of that doctrine when applied to Muslims. We are challenged to imagine a religious liberty doctrine that is elastic enough to meet the needs of American pluralism. Religious liberty is one of the bases that this country was built upon and “it’s weakness is our collective weakness.

“Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem” by Michael Schmidt— A Lost Poem Rediscovered

Schmidt, Michael. “Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Lost Poem Rediscovered

Amos Lassen

Michael Schmidt’s “Gilgamesh” reflects on a lost poem and its rediscovery by contemporary poets. “Gilgamesh” is the oldest long poem known to exist and the newest classic in the canon of world literature. “Gilgamesh” was lost for centuries to the sands of the Middle East but was found again in the 1850s.

It is the story of a great king, his heroism, and his eventual defeat and of monsters, gods, and cataclysms, intimate friendship and love. Michael Schmidt gives a unique meditation on the rediscovery of the poem and its influence on poets today. We read how the poem is still a work in progress and is an undertaking that has brought forth the talents and obsessions of an unlikely cast of characters including archaeologists and museum curators, tomb raiders and jihadis. Parts of the poem, in fragments, were incised on clay tablets, were scattered across a huge desert when it was finally recovered in the nineteenth century. The poem then had to be reassembled and languages deciphered.  What made it so exciting was the discovery of a pre-Noah flood story and it made front-page news across the world.  With the passage of time, and the allure of the poem continues to grow as more cuneiform tablets come to light. The epic’s translation, interpretation, and integration are ongoing.

Schmidt looks at the special fascination that  Gilgamesh” has for contemporary poets because of its appeal to otherness. We read of the work of leading poets such as Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, and Yusef Komunyakaa, whose experiences with the poem are revelatory. We also look at the many translations and editions.

We most definitely sense Schmidt’s love for poetry and he has written a beautiful book filled with interesting insights. It is as if we are on the poems journey and is a wonderful introduction to a study of the poem. Because it is short and highly accessible, the reader is left to think about what is included.

 

 

“A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust” by Albert Martin— Korczak and the Children

Marrin, Albert. “A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust”, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019.

Korczak and the Children

Amos Lassen

Janusz Korczak was the heroic Polish Jewish doctor who devoted his life to children and then died  with them in the Holocaust. Korczak had established orphanages where children were honored and respected and wrote about his ideas stating that “children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today.” It was his work that eventually became the basis for the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child. He had many chances to escape Poland during the War but he chose to stand by the  children in the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. When  the time came he had the children dress in their Shabbat clothes and led them to the trains that had come to take them to Treblinka and their deaths.

Albert Marrin gives us both a biography of Korczak but a look at his ideology of children. Korczak knew that children were valuable and he shows this in contrast to the life of Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s feelings about children— that they are only to be tools of the state.

We also get an intense look at the Warsaw Ghetto and how it was to live there, how it was governed and run and how Jews lived and how the Poles reacted to that and at who worked to save Jews and who benefited from the way that Jews were treated. In Poland, Korczak became the conscience and soul of humanity without his even realizing it.

This beautiful book is filled with black-and-white photographs and has a lot to say about the man who had compassion at a time when not many others did. He was indeed “a light in the darkness”.

“Frank’s Revenge: Albina After Dark” by Don DuPay— In Search of a Killer

DuPay, Don. “Frank’s Revenge: Albina After Dark”, Oregon Greystone Press, 2019.

In Search of a Killer

Amos Lassen

Frank McAllister is in search of a killer in 1970’s Portland’s dead-end streets and back alleys in Don DuPay’s “Frank’s Revenge: Albina After Dark”. Frank has become the man who takes it upon himself to solve the crime.  He shows us the racism and corruption of the Portland Police Bureau in the mid-1970s. He was fired from the Bureau and now conducts private investigations. With his police past, he knows what he is doing and is good at it.  Now Frank has been hired to find a serial killer who has been active in the black community of North Portland. Be ready for a dark story with lots of twists and turns as we read about Frank’s fight for justice as he is forced to interact with strange characters who make this a real page-turner.

North Portland is home to the Albina Ghetto and there a serial killer has been stalking the residents. Frank is brought into the case by the council of old gangsters who had to use a pretty woman to lure him in. Uncertain as to what they want and why, things get difficult when Black Bart who was once the head man of the St. John drug business returns after having been locked up in prison for eight years. Bart is determined to return to his old positions but times have changed and there are drug dealers are different than they were when he was sent up.

Because this is a mystery, I am limited as to what I can say about the plot without giving something away. What I can say is that we meet some unforgettable characters and situations. I am not much of a mystery reader but I was immediately pulled in and not just by the story. Don DuPay’s prose is filled with detail and character description making everything seem very real and although I have never been to Portland, I feel that I know something about it. This is an excellent throwback to the noir genre and a wonderful way to get to know a writer I had not encountered before.

“THE SHINY SHRIMPS” (“Les crevettes pailletées”)— Heading to Croatia?

“THE SHINY SHRIMPS” (“Les crevettes pailletées”)

Heading to Croatia?

Amos Lassen

 The Shiny Shrimps are a French water-polo team that wanted to go to the Gay Games in Croatia but their road to success was quite a rocky one. They had to deal with personal and emotional problems, social prejudices, homophobia and the conservative thoughts of French.  Directors Maxime Govare and Cédric Le Gallo make their directional debut with this “quirky, uplifting, open, emotional film that teaches us some socially important lessons.”

Nine gay friends living in Paris and all part of the water-polo team called The Shiny Shrimps. These include Jean (Alban Lenoir), Cédric (Michaël Abiteboul), Alex (David Baïot), Damien (Romain Lancry), Joël (Roland Menou), Xavier (Geoffrey Couët), Fred (Romain Brau), Vincent (Félix Martinez) and Bertrand (Pierre Samuel). The team cares greatly about acceptance, being oneself and equality,  French (athletic) society is certainly not that open. 

Olympic champion Matthias Le Goff (Nicolas Gob), after making a homophobic comment to a journalist is forced to coach The Shiny Shrimps and work with them on their ambition to qualify for the Gay Games in Croatia. At first, Matthias lets his homophobia and selfishness get the better of him, especially after he saw that The Shiny Shrimps are real amateurs. He does just the least amount so that the press and the team believe that he is working with them. However, once he gets to know the team and their problems, dreams and their love for the sport and each other, he changes completely. The team had not been too excited about Matthias coming aboard as their new coach begins to accept him.

 

This is a film that took a great deal of work off-camera. To become professional water-polo players, the cast followed the real Shiny Shrimps for six months. They went through intensive training and we see that the personal one-on-one and the exclusive look in their lives paid off. 

The directors capture the dark and insecure moments of the team but choose to make their film lively by the use of fashionable swimsuits and outfits and then has the team appear anywhere and everywhere. “The Shiny Shrimps” is a visually beautiful, musically uplifting and wonderfully performed film that has important lessons about love, friendship, determination, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Each cast member deserves praise —they are super funny, and have positive energy. There’s a lot of extravagance in my life and there are nine characters who are always onscreen. The Shiny Shrimps are so named because “the tail is the best part of the shrimp to eat and everything shiny is just better”. The team is a failing and is made up of a group of swimming misfits. The arc of the film is predictable but lots of fun. Physical and psychological challenges are overcome, personality flaws are sources of conflict and acceptance is an issue. The comedy makes up for the slight script with its sex jokes, bare bottoms and inter community slurs yet, it is all heart.

“HESBURGH”— Leading Notre Dame and Us

“HESBURGH”

Leading Notre Dame and Us

Amos Lassen

Reverend Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. was an educator, civil rights champion, advisor to presidents, envoy to popes, theologian, activist and long-time president of the University of Notre Dame. He was called on by world leaders to tackle the most challenging issues of the day. Yet there is so much about him that the public does not know. The documentary “Hesburgh” gives us a unique glimpse at more than fifty years of American history through Hesburgh’s biography.  

Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh was an ordained priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and  from 1952-1987, he was President of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Others knew Father Hesburgh as a confidante and as an advisor to American Presidents including, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Director Patrick Creadon and producer Christine O’Malley go behind the public persona and give us an amazing story of an amazing man.

Father Hesburgh transformed Notre Dame from an average academic institution with a great football team into a leading university “for personal examination, exploration and learning” all the while living in a true state of compassion and understanding for others. A priest lives a life of solitude in order to serve  a higher power but we get no idea of loneliness in Hesburgh’s writings or in those of words of his friends and relatives.

Hesburgh  just really cared about people. For his students, his counsel was available to them as long as the light was on. He never sought attention nor praise, yet he received both. and perhaps that’s why the attention came. The film documents his work on the United States Civil Rights Commission where he used his ability to bring people together (including political opponents), to agree to resolutions that would become the foundation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “after failing to persuade John F. Kennedy before his own change of heart just before his assassination.”

He united people and was able to show that there is an inherently correct way, based on the humanity that holds everyone. What I really love about this film is that it finds significant conflict between what would seem to be Hesburgh’s progressive ideals and his initial reaction to student protests during the Vietnam War. His primary goal as a university president was education and he enacted and enforced a policy that would suspend or even expel any student who continued to protest after being told to cease. Some were expelled and that was almost a guarantee of being drafted into combat. I use this example to show that we can disagree with Hesburgh and still hold him in the highest regard.

The human elements are brought out greatly and we really see these in the relationships that Hesburgh cultivated, the warmth that was such a part of him, and the love that expressed those who knew Hesburgh. This is a powerful human interest story that is both a testimonial to a life well lived and as an addition to the national historical archives. Director Creadon sets the tone, mood and pacing for this beautiful film about an amazing man.

“The Andromeda Evolution” by Michael Crichton and Daniel H. Wilson— Fifty Years Later

Crichton, Michael and Daniel H. Watson. “The Andromeda Evolution”, Harper, 2019.

Fifty Years Later

Amos Lassen

It has been fifty years since Michael Crichton published “The Andromeda Strain” which brought about the technothriller genre and now it is back and just as real and terrifying as ever.

In 1967, al microbe from outer space came crashing down to Earth and almost caused the end of the human race. Exposure to the particle which became known as The Andromeda Strain was responsible for the death of every resident of the town of Piedmont, Arizona, aside for an elderly man and an infant boy. During the following five days, a team of top scientists who were assigned to Project Wildfire worked valiantly to save the world from an epidemic of great proportions and they succeeded.

During the years that followed this, research on the microparticle continued and everyone thought that all was good. We go to Fairchild Air Force Base where Project Eternal Vigilance has continued to watch and wait for the Andromeda Strain to reappear. Since there has been no activity the project is on the verge of being shut down, the project has registered no activity but then a Brazilian terrain-mapping drone has detected a bizarre something of otherworldly matter in the middle of the jungle, with the chemical signature of the deadly microparticle.

With this, the next-generation Project Wildfire is activated, and a team of experts from all over the world is sent to investigate the potentially apocalyptic threat. The microbe is growing and evolving and if the Wildfire team can’t reach the quarantine zone, get into the anomaly and figure out how to stop it, it will destroy all life as we know it.

Because of the nature of the plot, I can’t say anymore about what happens next. Crichton died in 2008 but he left behind the seed for this new novel. Daniel H. Wilson brings Andromeda to life again and has you turning pages as fast as possible.