Monthly Archives: January 2016

“The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read” by Michael Berube— New Thoughts on Reading

the secret life of stories

Berube, Michael. “The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read”, NYU Press, 2016.

New Thoughts on Reading

Amos Lassen

Narrative is such an integral part of our lives that I doubt we stop and think about it. We use it while thinking, planning, remembering and imagining. Every day we listen to stories and we tell stories and we begin this as soon as we learn to talk.

Michael Bérubé gives us a compelling account of how “an understanding of intellectual disability can transform our understanding of narrative. Instead of focusing on characters with disabilities, he shows how ideas about intellectual disability inform an astonishingly wide array of narrative strategies, providing a new and startling way of thinking through questions of time, self-reflexivity, and motive in the experience of reading”. He brings together his own stories along with readings of texts such as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip. Bérubé puts his theory into practice, giving us a purview of the study of literature and the role of disability studies within it. The only tools he uses are those of close reading and through them he demonstrates the immensely generative possibilities in the ways disability is deployed within fiction. He finds in these powerful “meditations on what it means to be a social being, a sentient creature with an awareness of mortality and causality—and sentience itself”. Reading this will fundamentally change the way we think how we read.

Berube demonstrates the multifaceted pleasures of reading. We begin to understand why things happen, in literature and in life. 

“FLOWERS”— Love, Loss and Memory

flowers

“Flowers” (“Loreak”)

Love, Loss and Memory

Amos Lassen

Ane (Nagore Aranburu) lives a quiet life and she feels the pressure of being trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage. She suddenly starts to receive bouquets of flowers anonymously. Tere (Itziar Aizpuru) wants nothing more than a grandchild, but her only son Beñat (Josean Bengoetxea) and his wife Lourdes (Itziar Ituño) have other plans. A sudden, tragic event changes their lives and brings into a new reality, and flowers start to appear anonymously and they represent an emotional memory.  

flowers1

Directed and co-written by Spain’s Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garaño, themes are reflected through the unexpected reverberations of a tragedy that impacts three women very differently and the themes of romance, loss, remembrance and missed connections affect each of three women very differently.

The image reflected upon my flowers express many different feelings and emotions depending who gives flowers, where they come from, the contest when they are given and who they are meant for. “Flowers” is Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards and is the first movie submitted in the Euskara (Basque) language that is indigenous to the Basque region of Northern Spain and Southwestern France.

“Flowers” looks at   the influence that a few vases of plants exert on a handful of people who’ve reached unhappy occurrences and what might have been different. As the film begins, Ane learns that she’s entering menopause even though she barely appears to be in her early 40s. She feels as if she’s been robbed of her youth and did not get the chance to enjoy being middle-aged. She had already felt unnoticed.

flowers2

The audience learns that Ane is already a woman who feels unnoticed, as she’s in an unhappy marriage that might be cooling, while working at a construction site anonymously behind a desk as others hover high in the sky in the company crane. Out of nowhere, she receives a vase of gorgeous flowers, with no card to indicate who sent them she and continues to receive vases, once a week, week after week, until something happens to stifle their arrival. She feels wonderful about the flowers because to her they mean that she is finally being noticed.

There’s a wonderful scene in which one of Ane’s co-workers at the construction company where her job is located, Beñat looks down at her from the crane and Ane briefly takes her helmet off while searching for a lost piece of jewelry. The way the two look at each other is beautiful. From that point on, Ane gives Beñat a little pleasure and we learn that his marriage is also not doing too well. Ane provides Beñat with a dosage of “quotidian transcendence”, which, of course, is what the flowers come to offer Ane. This symmetry is fitting and we, the viewers, become fairly certain that it is Beñat who’s sending Ane the flowers.

The film is a melodrama that is performed subtly and lets the viewer understand the sadness of the characters. We understand that Lourdes and Tere, are lonely and adrift, even though they hide it with alienating behavior that ironically reinforces their conditions.

flowers3

The filmmakers show the resonances of the flowers as they circulate through the various characters’ lives. The film explores the existential reverberations of death. The three women we meet here are consumed by different emotions. One is caught up in yearning, another in loss, and the third by the need for closure to pain. Flowers play a central and important role in their lives, especially as they deal with the death of a person who leaves behind a series of mysteries.

When Benat dies in an automobile accident, the three women are unable to react and they also come to know each other. The film shows the vulnerability and fragility of our lives and that we heal when we make others feel important. What we really see is that flowers and the emotions they arouse within us are very important.

“Can You Keep a Secret?” by R.L. Stine— Temptation, Betrayal and Fear

can you keep a secret

Stine, R. L. “Can You Keep a Secret?: A Fear Street Novel”, Fear Street, 2016.

Temptation, Betrayal and Fear

Amos Lassen

Eddie and Emmy are high school sweethearts from what is considered the wrong side of the tracks. As they look for a way to escape their sad lives, they decide to take an overnight camping trip with four other friends in the woods of Fear Street. While Eddie is carving a heart into a tree, he and Emmy discover that there is a bag hidden in the trunk that is filled with thousands of hundred dollar bills. They try to decide whether to take it or leave the money where they found it. After speaking with their friends about what they do, they decide to leave it where it is. However, tragedy hits Emmy’s family, they are tempted to take some of the money. However when Emmy returns to the woods, the bag and the money are gone and so is the trust she had for her friends.

This is one of those books that once you start reading you will find it impossible to stop.

“Lilith’s Demons” by Julie Enszer— Reimagining Lilith

lilith's demoms

Enszer, Julie R. “Lilith’s Demons”, A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2015.

Reimagining Lilith

Amos Lassen

According to legend, Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden was Lilith who was later banned from the site. Because she rejected her husband, she was sentenced to lose one hundred of her children every day after she was expelled. Each night she gave birth to a hundred demons who then did what she told them to do but by the time the sun rose they were all dead. Through Julie Enszer’s wonderful poems here, we get to meet some of the demons. The word “demons” has come to connote evil for us but that is not the case here. Instead we see these as other worldly beings that follow Lilith’s instructions and bring hope to those who seem to be beyond hope. We see the demons as marginalized and live with Lilith for there short lives and the only rules that they are held are those of their mistress who is not bound by rules. Her land is one where women are safe and Lilith makes sure that it remains that way.

Enszer’s Lilith is a contemporary woman with her own battles. Like the Lilith of myth she is strong, independent and determined but she is also vulnerable. What the poet has so beautifully done is take what is useful from the older Lilith and then give us a Lilith for today. The book is divided into three sections. The first “Lilith Speaks” introduces us to Lilith by quoting Isaiah 34:13-14 where we learn that she will eventually find a resting place but first we read of her first-person account of her birth and about her demons and what they can do, “They alter women’s lives, they reshape the world”. In “Stars”, she names the demons and as she does they come forth from her body and each day Lilith “lives among the humans” and she like her demons is “alone, very alone and lonely”. I have to comment on the names of the demons. They have biblical and/or historical names and many of these names are recognizable— Ahuva, Yocheved, Naomi, Ruth and Zimra just to name a few.

In the second section, the poems are about the demons and the poems are not just about them but the demons are the narrators and each poem here is about how they will do what Lilith commands. Amira says, “To turn a few cells from healthy to haywire” while Rivka uses the squeeze of death and others use ways we have not thought about.

In section three, “Lilith’s Angels”, we read how the demons who are now referred to as angels protect Lilith who lives as an outcast from the world. It is here that she is powerful yet rules do not exist for her in this safe place for women.

The poems here are not what I call pretty and they remind us that neither is Lilith’s story pretty. However, they have a lot to say about the state of women and in many places in the world today, those places are also not pretty. Understand that when I say not pretty, I am speaking of the subject matter of the poems. As usual Enszer’s poetry is gorgeous and what she has done is describe “ugly” in beautiful words.

I love that Enszer went back to the original story of Lilith and then brings it forward. In these poems we see Lilith as independent and strong, reclaiming what is rightfully hers. We get a new feminist cosmology. We sense the poet’s longing for the independence of Lilith and her demons and we get a sense of hope that all will be fine.

“She remains luminous.

Her own guide.

 

She has the certainty

of the divine.

She makes me want to fall.”

 

 

“Good on Paper” by Rachel Cantor— Second Chances

good on paper

Cantor, Rachel. “Good on Paper”, Melville House, 2016.

Second Chances

Amos Lassen

Shira Greenberg is not happy with her life—nothing has happened, as she had planned it to. She is a single mother who lives with her daughter, Andi, and her gay Pakistani friend, Ahmad. He has a PhD based on Dante’s “Vita Nuova” which does not have any kind of job security or even a job and her career as a translator has barely begun. Shira surprisingly receives a telegram from Romei, a Nobel Prize laureate poet who says that he is the only one who can translate his newest book. With this, Shira realizes that her life could change and she sees a new beginning calling her forth. She can achieve academic fame and demands for her to translate if this works out and there is the added bonus that perhaps love in on the horizon since she feels good about the advances from a local bookstore owner.

However Shira also realizes that this is dependent on her translation and she begins to work only to discover that the book is impossible to translate. This postmodern version of Dante’s “Vita Nuova” focuses Romei’s relationship with his ill wife – and eventually starts to comment on Shira’s own life in surprising ways.

As we read, we learn that both Shira and Ahmad have a good deal of baggage. They have both had unhappy marriages and Shira mother has been missing for some time. We see many contrasts here and one of the most obvious to me was when Shira moved in with her gay best friend who joins her in co-parenting Andi. They have been living for years like this and this allows us to see how tenuous Shira’s life is. She has no regular job and works temp positions to say afloat. Let us just say that this light novel is also full of intelligent characters and serious thought. It is about poetry and language in large part. And in that way, the title really gives no hint to what the story is about.

In order for the book to work these contrasting ideas must come together… and they do. There is also a bit of mystery here. What did this Italian poet with all of his fame ask Shira to translate his book? What is his poem about anyway and does that play a part in the story? There are answers of course, but you will have to think about then for a while. I figured this out but only when I had read half of the book.

I am not sure how to classify this book; it seems to sit somewhere between reality and a dream world. Of course, this is not new to fiction; especially Jewish fiction and Saul Bellow used this in “Herzog” as did Philip Roth in “Portnoy’s Complaint”.

Jewish tradition seems to male Jewish intellectuals vulnerable to reality. Heroes of these perpetually surprised to find that life is not the way it appears in books.

Shira is led astray by Dante’s book and its poetry and prose by which Dante describes Beatrice, his lover and his love for her. We learn that as a graduate student, Shira translated Viva Nuova”, and in it she saw a reflection of life and love as they were supposed to be, But when the man she was seeing falls way short of a paragon— he is married to someone else and Shira’s faith in both love and poetry is broken. We meet her after this has happened and she really does not seem to be going anywhere with either her professional or persona life.

When we meet Shira, this great disillusionment is already past, and she has settled into a makeshift life that seems to be going nowhere. I would have liked to know more of what happened in Shira’s life before the book began. We learn a little but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. We do know of disastrous love affairs and that her mother abandoned her when she was a child. This is the first book by Rachel Cantor that I have read but I see that she writes about literary parallels and philosophical musings. When her characters face guilt, they talk about Jewish theology, and when they endure lost love, they talk about Dante’s poetry. The main topic of novel is translation and it is not only the focus of the plot but it also drives the plot forward.

The character of the fictional Romei is invented by writer Cantor and she has done so with detail. He was born in Romania and he might be Jewish. After the war he moved to Italy where he wrote great Italian poems, and won the Nobel Prize. Shira cannot understand why he wants her to translate his new poem. Romei and Shira communicate only by fax and he sends only one section at a time of his poem and this lets Cantor fill the novel with paraphrases of this imaginary text. Shira is both ambivalent and excited about this intellectual challenge and it does not take long before her ambition interferes with her domestic duties. She begins to suffer maternal guilt

By letting the burden of parenting of Andi falls on Ahmad, she, in a sense, does the same thing that her mother did to her. As Shira reads more and more of Romei’s work, she considers the possibility of fidelity in translation, which of course becomes a metaphor for fidelity in love. This theme gives Cantor the opportunity to expand on literary-theoretical questions in a voice that is totally academic. Bringing together Shira’s story and Romei’s work into a unified whole is done by the use of a melodramatic twist that the reader will probably see coming long before the narrator does. What we really read here is “The miracle of a text moving from one language into another, the struggle to translate the languages of our own family to other people and to ourselves”.

This is a story of love, family, language, and flight that is completely entertaining on many levels. It is playful and smart which wonderfully drawn characters and insight into translation and it reminds me of what literature really is.

“UNCLE HOWARD”— A Gay Man’s Legacy

uncle howard

“Uncle Howard”

A Gay Man’s Legacy

Amos Lassen

Howard Brookner is one of those people who died too soon. In the late-70s and 80s he was part of the avant-garde and became William Burrough’s official biopgrapher/videographer. He had many friends from Andy Warhol to Madonna. He was in post-production on his first feature when he died of AIDS in the late 1980s.

However his legacy and the full rediscovery of the life he led wasn’t revealed until 2012, when the archive of film that he shot and other things he created was brought to light after being hidden away in Burrough’s bunker for three decades. Now a documentary has been made about Brookner by his nephew is premiering at Sundance.

‘UNCLE HOWARD is an intertwining tale of past and present. New York filmmaker Howard Brookner died of AIDS in 1989, while making his breakthrough Hollywood movie. His body of work, which captured the late 70s and early 80s cultural revolution, was buried in William S. Burroughs’ bunker for 30 years. Now in a personal journey, his nephew Aaron unearths Howard’s filmmaking legacy and the memory of everything he was.’

His was a LIFE!!!

“THE TCHAIKOVSKY FILES: CONFESSIONS OF A COMPOSER— Moving Tchaikovsky Forward

the tch poster

“The Tchaikovsky Files: Confessions of a Composer”

Moving Tchaikovsky Forward

Amos Lassen

the tchaikovsky files

I just learned about this film and it sounds fascinating. It is based on Tchaikovsky‘s diaries and letters and director Ralf Pleger discovers an entirely new side and gives us a very different profile of the man whose mind and talent brought us such wonderful music. The focus is on what it meant for Tchaikovsky, a homosexual man, to have to live his life in a homophobic environment. This becomes all the more relevant because of the of recent developments in Putin‘s Russia. We see an emotional psychological portrait of Tchaikovsky and his fate as being at the mercy of a homophobic environment. International artists and experts reveal their very personal approach to Tchaikovsky and his music.

the tch2

The film was produced to tie into the 175th birthday of Tchaikovsky in May 2015. Russian ballet star Vladimir Malakhov and the American organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter reveal their very personal approach to Tchaikovsky and his music.

“The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings” by Joel M. Hoffman— Morality, Lifestyle, Theology and Biblical Imagery

the bible doesn't say that

Hoffman, Joel M. “The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings”, Thomas Dunne, 2016.

Morality, Lifestyle, Theology and Biblical Imagery

Amos Lassen

How can we know what the Bible really says when it has been interpreted over and over again during the last two-thousand-years? Rabbi Joel Hoffman wants to tell us about the many mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings and he does so in forty short chapters. We see that it does not say that homosexuality is a sin, and it doesn’t advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of the family that has been dubbed “biblical” by so many. Other examples include the famous verse about beating swords into plowshares is followed by just the opposite in the championing of war and the phrase “God so loved the world” is a mistranslation, as are the titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God”. We have heard all our lives that the Ten Commandments prohibit killing or coveting but we see here that what is really there is quite different. Other misunderstood statements include those about the Rapture, keeping the dietary laws, and marriage and divorce to name just three. Hoffman tells us about these and many others and he explains where the misunderstanding comes from.

Sometimes, I am sure, we forget that the Bible was written over two thousand years ago and therefore information was either misinterpreted or lost altogether. Hoffman’s goal here is to provide clarity to these misunderstandings and misconceptions. He looks at forty different statements or mistranslations from the bible, and explores them in-depth and gives focus to each of these reminding us each time that the bible was mistranslated and/or that the quotation was taken out of context. This might be confusing since we really do not need two different explanations when one would suffice. We see that the misinterpretations are because of either mistranslation or contextual errors. There is a lot to think about here. Hoffman’s chapters are concise and easy to read and I felt that I would be interested in pursuing some of the topics a bit more.

“A Man Lies Dreaming” by Lavie Tidhar— The Novel that Stunned and Scandalized Europe

a man lidx dreaming

Tidhar, Lavie. “A Man Lies Dreaming”, Melville House, 2016.

The Novel that Stunned and Scandalized Europe

Amos Lassen

Wolf is a low-rent private detective who wanders London’s gloomy, grimy streets while he is haunted by dark visions of a future that could have been. He thinks about a dangerous present populated by British Fascists and Nazis escaping Germany. Shomer, a pulp fiction writer, is held in a concentration camp, imagining another world. And when Wolf and Shomer’s stories come together, we are drawn into a novel that is both shocking and profoundly haunting.

This is a darkly comic alternate history set in the late 1930s, where Hitler never became Chancellor of Germany and was ejected in a coup. He then fled to London where he now works as an unlucky and unhappy private investigator. As the novel opens, he’s been hired by a rich Jewish heiress to track down her missing sister. But this alternative history exists only in the imagination of a pulp crime writer imprisoned in Auschwitz.

Author Lavie Tidhar tells us in his extensive historical notes that there is a long tradition of pulp fiction that has been used by Jewish writers to explore and address issues relating to the Holocaust. Sometimes the approach taken can be shocking and includes sexual exploitation of Jewish people, but it is important to know that this has a long history in enabling a culture to come to terms with its past. We have also seen this in popular culture as well as ‘high’ culture, and this is explicitly referred to in the novel, in the debate between two Jewish writers, one based on Primo Levi, the other on a pre-eminent writer of pulp fiction.

By using fiction and transposing real historical characters, Tidhar is able to explore them in isolation from their context. With no power removed, Hitler becomes a comic figure full of impotent rage and frustrated ambition. This is a Hitler who is at the mercy of the system rather than in charge of it and this makes him pitiable. As the novel progresses we see that this hatreds are insignificant and he begins to lose his grip on reality. The footnotes explain that this portrayal has been extensively researched and grounded in contemporary accounts of Hitler’s life and experiences and these give the book authenticity. There are other senior Nazi figures here and they are at the edges of the law. Rudolf Hess runs a nightclub, Klaus Barbie is involved in people trafficking and Adolph Eichmann becomes the puppet of a U.S. Government seeking to overthrow the Communist regimes that have taken over Europe.

This is a Holocaust novel and so much more. It has much to say about contemporary society, particularly in how we treat immigrants and minorities. In Tidhar’s alternative London, We see that Oswald Mosley is on the verge of becoming Prime Minister. His Blackshirts are a personal paramilitary force who are busy with violent assaults on members of the Jewish community to which the authorities turn a blind eye. A great deal of Mosley’s major political speech in the novel is drawn from genuine speeches and this shows just how little has changed in our attitudes to those who don’t conform.

The Auschwitz sequences are written in such a way as to highlight the brutal treatment of the Jewish community. If we didn’t know it was a historical reality, one would have a hard time finding it Believable that human beings could treat one another in such a way and this makes those parts of the novel appear to be dreamlike rendering those sections of the novel more dreamlike and somewhat unconvincing.

“A Man Lies Dreaming” is not an easy read. There are BDSM sex scenes featuring Hitler, however darkly funny they are written. But this is a rich and complex work that gives us a great deal while reading. The narrative is framed like this: a Jewish man, dying in a concentration camp, comforts himself by imagining Hitler as I have already explained. We have two layers occurring side by side: the inhuman brutality of the camp and the alternative Hitler (alias Wolf) who us investigating a missing person case in London. It is Tidhar’s talent that makes this work and makes Wolf an engaging character that we hate.

The book is politically subversive, and explicit, in both the framing story and the imagined life of Hitler-as-private investigator. Of course there are times when Wolf/Hitler faces off against antagonists that make him look slightly less repugnant in comparison, but it’s a matter of power. The novel has been collecting prizes in Europe as the winner of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, it has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award and is a Guardian Best Science Fiction Book of the Year and a Scotland Herald Best Crime Novel of the Year.

 

 

“The Yid” by Paul Goldberg— Stalin and the Jews, The Jews and Stalin

the yid

Goldberg, Paul. “The Yid: A Novel”, Picador, 2016.

Stalin and the Jews, The Jews and Stalin

Amos Lassen

It is the winter of 1953 in Russia and Stalin had formulated his plans to rid Russia of Jews. Government agents are hard at work making their routine nightly arrests in Moscow. They arrive at the home of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a marginal Yiddish actor from a closed Yiddish State Theater company and knock on his door thus beginning a point of no return and bringing in a strange cast of characters and Kafkaesque events.

Author Paul Goldberg introduces us to Frederich Lewis, a black American who left racist oppression in Nebraska to work in the remote Communist steel mills of the USSR; Aleksandr Kogan, a disillusioned surgeon who had once been a machine gunner from Levinson’s old Red Army unit and is now threatened by anti-Semitic rumors circulating about a “Jewish doctors’ plot” to kill high-ranking Soviet officers and officials with poison-laced syringes; and Kima Petrova, a beautiful girl has only revenge on her mind. Together the three have concocted a simple plan to kill Stalin before his “Final Solution” operation has a chance to do damage.

Writer Goldberg brings in Shakespeare, Gogol, and Sophocles to give us a novel of literary beauty that includes a Passover pageant with the underlying idea that God did not stop Abraham’s hand and there was a flourishing human sacrifice that was staged at Stalin’s private dacha. You may wonder where “The Yid” fits into a literary genre—it is a historical fictional dark that while at times is absurd yet makes a lot of sense.

What many do not realize about Stalin’s plan to rid Russia of Jews is that if it had been carried out successfully, it would have dwarfed the Nazi genocide of East European Jewry. Here we get a look at how Russians lived at a time in which fear and paranoia reigned. It was a time when loved ones suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is a book that demands the reader have patience and stick with it even when it is not easy to do so. The comedy that we get includes what seems to be senseless schtick and the characters seem absurd and surreal but there is a person for this which you will discover as you read.

The book is structured in three acts including lines of dialogue formatted as though part of a script and it is easy to imagine what we read taking place on the stage. The title of the book is as provocative what we find inside. Tremendous and staggering change was about to take place that February of 1953. The story revolves around Stalin’s Final Solution and while there is historical evidence to this, Goldberg embellishes history by the addition of the comedic characters and the way they react to this fact of history. We meet these Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated. I understand that Goldberg bases his characters on his friends and relatives in Russia.

One of the fierce fighters who remembers what happened during World War II is based on Goldberg’s grandfather and he even uses his grandfather’s name. Many of the characters hammy are actors who quote from the Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

The novel begins with the late night raid on the apartment of Solomon Levinson and this is a routine event for the 25-year-old Russian officer in charge of rounding up Levinson. But Lieutenant Sadykov was not accustomed to theatrical behavior. He had expected a clichéd Jew that Russian propaganda has made so familiar. He certainly did not expect the nicely dressed old man in an ascot who is totally polite.

We then meet Friedrich Robertovich Lewis, a black American originally named after Frederick Douglass. He was given a Yiddish nickname and, he prefers Yiddish to the racist talk he heard growing up in Omaha. He can curse in Yiddish much more creatively than Levinson can. The two of them waste a lot of time wishing each other plagues and ailments before figuring out how to make the Soviet leave.

The group of characters enlarges as “The Yid” continues in its structure of a three-act play. Soon there is a core group determined to stop the deportation and pogrom that could become Stalin’s last gift to Russian Jews. Its members will change the course of history. As to how this will happen demands reading this absolutely fascinating book.