Popkin, Nathaniel. “To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis”, New Door Books, 2020.
Facing a Crisis
In “To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis”, Nathaniel Popkin issues a call for us to look at our complicity in the Earth’s destruction.
We are now facing an escalating eco-crisis and yet society has failed to act. Have we thought of how we will explain this to the generations to come? What are the reasons for the widespread passivity? Nathaniel Popkin looks at the moral, social, and psychological dimensions of the crisis and gives us a path for the future. I really enjoyed his philosophical approach to climate change and how he uses examples of other crises in human history. By looking at the major reasons for the climate crisis, he gives us a place from which to rally. He explains the outsize political influence of fossil fuel companies to consumer culture and uses his own experience working for an environmental group where he learned that activism is often ineffective. He refers to my own philosopher hero, Hannah Arendt and her idea of the “banality of evil to show that “silence and inaction about climate change is morally unacceptable.” He goes on to show how the medieval world reacted to the Black Death, and (through the works of Italo Calvino, Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and more). He shares that concrete solutions to the climate crisis are beyond his realm of thought and tells us that we must push others who are concerned about the environment to channel their concerns to act. Above all, he gives his perspective on how to think about and face climate change/
Popkin questions how we can continue as we are while everyday there are disasters of climate change. It seems that we are resistant to our own roles and complicity in climate change.
This is a book that has a lot to say and is thought provoking that makes us look carefully within ourselves. In that way we can change the way things are and live in a better and cleaner world. We must change our aims if we are to have a better world for ourselves and for those to come.
Gross, Max. “The Lost Shtetl: A Novel, Harper Via, 2020.
A Small Jewish Village
In “The Lost Shtetl”, Max Gross takes us to a small Jewish village in the Polish forest that is so secluded no one knows it exists . . . until now.“ For decades, the tiny Jewish shtetl of Kreskol existed in happy isolation, virtually untouched and unchanged.” Kreskol had been spared by the Holocaust and the Cold War and those that lived there enjoyed remarkable peace. There were no cars, no electricity, no internet and no indoor plumbing. When a marriage dispute goes out of control, the whole town comes into the twenty-first century.
Pesha Lindauer, who has just gone through an ugly divorce, suddenly disappears. A day later, her husband goes looking for her and thus begins a panic among the town elders who send out an unprepared outcast named Yankel Lewinkopf into the wider world to alert the Polish authorities.
As Yankel goes beyond the remote safety of Kreskol, Yankel faces the beauty and the dangers of the modern-day outside world> He begins to experience disbelief, condescension, and unexpected kindness. When the truth finally comes out, his story and the existence of Kreskol hits headlines nationwide.
The Polish government returns Yankel to Kreskol with plans to reintegrate the town to the modern world. As this begins to happen, the origins of its disappearance are discovered. What has become of the mystery of Pesha and her former husband? Kreskol is divided between those want change and those who want the shtetl to retain its old world ways. The people of Kreskol will have to find a way to come together or lose their village forever.
There is wonderful humor here but more than that there is in-depth insight into “human foolishness, resilience, and faith.” Here is a tale about “the costs of living in one’s own time as opposed to the benefits and disadvantages of living in a world that has been overlooked by the contemporary world.”
The characters become our friends as we follow then through the narrative. Through the coming together ofthe new world and the old one. We have the concept of being “other” and that anti-Semitism has always existed and what is means to be treated cruelly because of one’s religion.The older citizens of rural Poland are seen as very anti-Semitic. Yankel learns about the Holocaust but doesn’t believe it. He can’t understand the size of the tragedy and sees it as a story that is meant to trick him.
There is a lot to think about here especially about societal developments. We read ofthe traditions and simple life of the isolated villagers and how modern life affects them economically, socially, and culturally.
Everything about the modern world passed Kreskol by, and the people live in isolation until Pesha and Ishmael Lindauer’s marriage explodes and, they end up separately leaving town. Yankel is sent to the nearest town to report the disappearance (and possible murder?) to the police.Once he reaches the outside world for the first time, things spin out of control, both for him and Kreskol, which is finally discovered. We see everything from the viewpoint of Yankel and other shtetl residents while, at the same time, we see the outside world’s reaction to the discovery of such a community.
Theunnamed narrator is a resident of Kreskol, who knows quite a bit of its history. He knows about the pogroms of the past and the Christian neighbors that led to Kreskol’s isolation and their voluntarily cutting themselves off completely from the outside world. He also knows about the residents of Kreskol and their foibles.
While the story is very funny it is also heartbreakingly as we read about antisemitism, past and present.
Kirsch, Adam. “The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century”, W.W. Norton, 2020.
Seminal Jewish Texts of the 20thCentury
Literary critic Adam Kirsch gives us “an erudite and accessible survey of Jewish life and culture in the twentieth century, as reflected in seminal texts.” His previous book “The People and the Books”looked at more than 2,500 years of Jewish cultural expression”. Now he looks modern Jewish literature from the emigration of Jews out of Eastern Europe to the Holocaust to the creation of Israel, and in the works he looks at here we see that the twentieth century transformed Jewish life through Jewish writing: “the novels, plays, poems, and memoirs of Jewish writers provided intimate access to new worlds of experience.”
Through four themes— Europe, America, Israel, and the endeavor to reimagine Judaism as a modern faith, he explores what has been written. He shares discussions of major books by over thirty writers from Franz Kafka to Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel to Tony Kushner, Hannah Arendt to Judith Plaskow and argues that literature offers a new way to think about what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. Kirsch draws interesting parallels between both familiar and less familiar writers sheds new light on the literature of the Holocaust through the work of Primo Levi. He explores the emergence of America as a Jewish home through the stories of Bernard Malamud, and shows how Yehuda Amichai captured what makes up the Jewish identity. I have read many of the writers he mentions here but never in such a fascinating way. The book is areflection on how writers in Europe, America, and Israel dealt with the twentieth century. Kirsch gives us an introduction to our modern literature by introducing us to those who made it happen.
Brown, Leighton, Mary L. Gray, Janet Mock, Matthew Riemer, Drew Sawyer and Luke Gilford. “National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo”, Damiani, 2020.
Outsiders and Chosen Families
Through documenting America’s gay rodeo subculture, “National Anthem” celebrates outsiders and shows us the beauty of chosen families everywhere
Photographer Luke Gilford grew up in Colorado with his father in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He spent his formative years around the rodeo which had been traditionally associated with conservatism and homophobia. Years later, when he discovered the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) and began to see himself as part of a rodeo family. The IGRA is the organizing body for the LGBTQ+ cowboy and cowgirl communities in North America and a safe space for all races and gender expressions.
I attended the gay rodeo several times in Little Rock, Arkansas and saw that it brings in participants from rural regions all over America. These rodeos provide “structured educational programs and competitions, opportunities to hone athletic skills, connection and care for animals, personal integrity, self-confidence and support for one another.” Gilford, himself, has spent over three years traveling the country to document “this diverse and ever-evolving subculture.”
The photographs were shot on medium-format film and printed in a traditional darkroom with emotion and color through which we see Gilford’s close relationship to the community.
“MELLOW MUD” (“Es esmu šeit”)
Coming-of-Age in Latvia
Extremely harsh circumstances force a resourceful and determined Latvian teen to mature beyond her years in “Mellow Mud” from first-time feature director-writer Renars Vimba.
After the death of their father and emigration of their mother to England to find work, 17-year-old Raya (Elina Vaska) and her younger brother, Robis (Andzejs Janis Lilientals), are forced to share a seedy rural cottage with their paternal grandmother (Ruta Birgere), whom they hate. When Raya returns from school one day, she finds their grandmother dead and she and her brother bury her in the garden to avoid the local social worker who has been snooping about so that the family can go about their lives as if nothing has happened. The when a high school English competition promising a trip to London for the finalists provides hope for Raya to escape her desperate situation and maybe even help them find her mother, she makes a series of decisions that bring her to a crossroad.
“Mellow Mud” won the Crystal Bear for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as numerous awards at the Latvian National Film Festival, including Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Director.
Set in the Latvian outback, this is, in many ways, a conventional coming-of-age story about two school-age siblings who are left to be raised by their unwilling grandmother when their mother emigrates to London. However, the rules they break to cope with their situation are both understandable and relatable, even with the consequences they could face.
Raja Kalniņa, in her final year of high school suddenly has the responsibility of taking care of her young brother, Robis when their mother leaves, their father has died, and their grandmother and guardian, Olga, also dies. t Raja looks for a way to rid herself of this burden, and although she cleans the house and cooks for Robis, she also has her eye on an English-language competition that would send her to London for a week.
She ultimately has to take back control of her life yet it seems that everything is happening of its own accord and at its own pace.Two important relationships shape the rest of the plot. The first is the one with Robis, whose frustration with the living situation gradually leads to him engaging in activities he is not ready for and he commits petty crimes and refuses to listen to his sister, who has taken on the role of substitute mother. This relationship moves back-and-forth between playful and abrasive and the domestic situation is strained but intimate, creating empathy in the viewer.
The other relationship is with Raja’s handsome young English teacher (Edgars Samītis), who has moved to the countryside from Riga for reasons never made clear, but we assume that he was looking for an escape himself. Although he has no idea about Raja’s true intentions about London, he is amazed and captivated by her skills in English despite her having missed numerous lessons over the past year. He is slowly drawn to her.
We are always aware of Raja’s resistance against being forgotten by those around her. She is a teenagerwho actually behaves like a relatable human being and gets our empathy not by being completely authentic.
This is an intimate and lyrical character study of an adolescent girl struggling with multiple pressures, from family abandonment issues to budding sexual urges. It is also a delicate drama about an often anguished time of life.
“THE CHRONICLES OF MELANIE”
The Will to Survive
Based on the memoirs of Melānija Vanaga, “Suddenly a Criminal: 16 Years in Siberia,”, “The Chronicles of Melanie” is an account of the mass deportation of residents of Soviet-occupied Latvia that took place as Stalin tightened his grip on power.
On the morning of June 15th, 1941, over 17,000 people from Latvia were taken from their family homes and forcibly relocated under suspicion of “collaborating with the enemy.” Families were torn apart with this mass deportation and people were made to work in Siberia for starvation rations. Separated at gunpoint from her husband Aleksandrs, the prominent editor of a Latvian newspaper and a target of the Soviet purge, Melanie (Sabine Timoteo) and her son, Andres, faced three-weeks on a cattle car that took them to a remote and foreign Tiukhtet village during which a diet of scraps of bread, dirty water and no bathrooms were the beginnings of a long and harsh exile.
This is a powerful and grueling film from Director Viestur Kairiss and it is the Latvian Submission for Best International Film at the 90th Academy Awards. We see the true magnitude of the human spirit and the will to survive in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
Melanie was under the false belief that their destination is a small Latvian border town, but the trains end up going to Siberia. Upon their arrival, the horrible weather conditions, food shortages, hard labor and constant humiliation create a situation where it seems, at times, almost impossible to survive. Finally pardoned after Stalin’s death in 1953, Melanie returns to Latvia, only to find that under the new regime, her process of redemption is still not over.
The film uses black-and-white photography symbolizing the good old days. A classical-music soundtrack emphasizes the hardships. Melanie hardly has a chance to catch her breath before another problem arises and we see doom and gloom all the way through. The merit of the film isin the educational purpose it serves for both foreign audiences and younger generations in Latvia. Developments in Europe today make it pretty evident how easily some historical events are forgotten or disregarded. Memory is tricky and one purpose of cinema is to be a chronicle that would help us to define, understand and construct the future through reflecting on past events.
There is a confounding immediacy to the Soviet guards’ intrusion into the warm and peaceful Vanaga household in the film’s opening moments. Aleksandrs (and his wife, Melanie are told they are under arrest. The lack of explanation with which the couple, along with their young son are forced out of their home to be imprisoned is instrumental in enabling us to join Melanie in her long and painful journey to Siberia.
Melanie and Andrejs are separated from Aleksandrs and forced into a cattle car together with many other prisoners, all of whom are women and children. Provisions are scarce and the conditions are inhumane. Despair is acute and, from this moment on, it is relentless. Director Kairiss never shies away from scenes of unutterable suffering.
The masterful black-and-white cinematography by award-winning cinematographer, Gints Berzins. It is striking with bleak and piercing shots that show human trauma. At the same time, it is beautiful and breathtaking when focused on nature or quiet moments with Melanie.
The first half deals strongly with the theme of maternal love and sacrifice. Melanie is sharply focused on her son’s survival. One heartbreaking moment shows her on the brink of death offering her only piece of bread to her son in a quaking, outstretched hand. Sabine Timoteo, gives a heart-wrenching performance throughout the entire film and excels in moments like these where so much emotion is conveyed through silent expression and gesture.
The second half, the film is a nuanced look at how Melanie, in the face of severely inhumane conditions, manages to hold onto compassion and empathy. She offers selfless nurturing. In an act of sacrifice that’s especially notable in an environment where proper shoes are a matter of life and death, Melanie even gives up her boots in an effort to help a loved one. The threat of death is everywhere, and yet Melanie, with a sense of inspiring dignity, is unbreakable.
This is a devastating film that aptly portrays human suffering and cruelty that I felt that I had to stop several times breaks while watching it. Yet, Melanie’s selfless love for her son and husband shows us humanity against the degrading backdrop of the prisoners’ conditions.
Join us on Zoom for a special virtual conversation with author Patrick Earl Ryan and Series Editor Roxane Gaycelebrating the launch of IF WE WERE ELECTRIC, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction – marking the first time in the nearly forty year history of the award that it has gone to a native New Orleanian. And it is the first winner selected by Roxane Gay.
Each paid registration admits one to the Zoom event online and includes one copy of the book. You must register to participate, and space is limited – so please act now!
“If We Were Electric, the debut short story collection from New Orleans’s native Patrick Earl Ryan is, indeed, fiercely electric. These twelve startling fictions have been crafted by a writer with an assured and absolutely original voice and a remarkable understanding of how place is as much a compelling character in a good story as the people who populate it. There are stories here about unrequited love and youthful yearning, the complexities of desire between men, the beginnings and ends of relationships, deaths both inevitable and untimely, the bitter ache of loneliness, the quiet horrors that unexpectedly befall us, and the magic of the ordinary world. With this outstanding collection, Patrick Ryan makes his mark on Southern literature and how!” – Roxane Gay
Patrick Earl Ryan was born on Octavia Street and raised in New Orleans. His work has appeared in the Ontario Review, Pleiades, Best New American Voices, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Men on Men: Best New Gay Fiction for the Millennium, Cairn, and the James White Review. Founder and editor in chief of Lodestar Quarterly, Ryan has also taught martial arts philosophy and tai chi chuan for many years. He lives in San Francisco, California.
FLANNERY O’CONNOR AWARD FOR SHORT FICTION
More than seventy short-story collections have appeared in the Flannery O’Connor Award series, which was established to encourage gifted emerging writers by bringing their work to a national readership. The first prize-winning book was published in 1983; the award has since become an important proving ground for writers and a showcase for the talent and promise that have brought about a resurgence in the short story as a genre.
Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Harper’s Bazaar, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times best-selling Bad Feminist, the nationally best-selling Difficult Women, and the New York Times best-selling Hunger: A Memoir of My Body. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel and the editor of Best American Short Stories 2018. She is currently at work on film and television projects, a book of writing advice, an essay collection about television and culture, and a YA novel entitled The Year I Learned Everything. In 2018, she won a Guggenheim fellowship.
This will be Roxane Gay’s first event with Octavia Books since her memorable visit in 2017 for Hunger.
If We Were Electric‘s twelve stories celebrate New Orleans in all of its beautiful peculiarities: macabre and magical, muddy and exquisite, sensual and spiritual. The stunning debut collection finds its characters in moments of desire and despair, often stuck on the verge of a great metamorphosis, but burdened by some unreasonable love.
From the author of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, the New York Times Bestseller and Best Book of the Year at NPR, the Boston Globe, Newsweek, and many more
A collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism from one of the most-watched young cultural observers of her generation, Roxane Gay.
From the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist: a searingly honest memoir of food, weight, self-image, and learning how to feed your hunger while taking care of yourself.
Roxane Gay, Tracy Lynne Oliver, and Rebecca Kirby adapt Gay’s New York Times bestelling short story “We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness” as a full length graphic novel, expanding and further developing the unforgettable world where the sun no longer shines.
“When I was a young girl, my husband’s father flew an air machine into the sun.
A national bestseller from the “prolific and exceptionally insightful” (Globe and Mail) Roxane Gay, Difficult Women is a collection of stories of rare force that paints a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America.
Jaffe, Daniel M. “Foreign Affairs: Male Tales Of Lust & Love”, Rattling Good Yarns, 2020.
I am a long-time fan of Daniel Jaffe and look forward to everything he writes so when I received his new book, “Foreign Affairs: Male Tales Of Lust & Love”, I immediately began to read it. Here are eleven stories about American restless men who are vacationing out of the country and each story is special. They are sexy and yet they are touching looks at how we live.
Most of the men we meet here are gay, Jewish and go to unfamiliar places to that will satisfy them erotically and spiritually. carnally and spiritually. I always find it difficult when reviewing a collection to decide whether to write about the book as a whole or to summarize each story. Here I will do a bit of both.
Jaffe has created characters that are well drawn in his lovely prose that is at times humorous and filled with social observation. Strangers in strange lands experience strange adventures. This is not erotica but it is thought provoking. Now on to a few of the stories.
In “The Importance of Being Jurassic,” we read about an American reporter in Dublin who meets a closeted Catholic man who sees oral sex as a filthy sacrament. Ireland is going through its national referendum approving gay marriage. The reporter has sex with Declan, another mature man he picks up in a gay pub but this is not a story about sex but rather it is a discourse on a time and a place.
Sol, the narrator, in “Cobblestone Elegy” has come to Prague to visit Holocaust sites in the place from which his Jewish family escaped. He is in Prague to awaken his historical memory and his journey is emotional and shaking. Time has progressed but not without leaving behind pains of the past. it beautifully evokes the pains and gains of time of each.
Jaffe explores both his religion and his sexuality in “Gift Wrapped”. The narrator is on his way home to the States after been in Tel Aviv for the Gay Pride celebrations. He is dealing with how we, as gay men, should deal with other gay men who pretend to be straight so not as to bother those who do not agree with the lifestyle. We look at prejudice, both internal and external and see that who we are depends a great deal on where we are from, how we were raised and the influences on our lives. I found so much of myself in this story that I reread every line three times.
Other stories deal with pedophilia (“In the Colony”), aging (“The Trickster”), an orgy on the way to eternity (“Walpurgisnacht”), love with a sex worker (“El Bochorno”) and changing one’s ways (“The Return”). There is no way I could fairly cover all of the stories but I do want to mention one more story that really shows writer Jaffe’s skills.
“Innocence Abroad” has no gay sex and is not a gay themed story. Through a simple plot and well-drawn characters, we meeta middle-aged Soviet woman, trying to find a way to immigrate to the United States. She attempts to get a much younger American student to marry her.She is desperate to escape the economic, political, and spiritual repression of Russia and the story is a real heartbreaker.
In each story, the main characters, regardless of their sexual orientation or ethnicity, are searching for something and in most cases it is the fulfillment of desire but there is also a search foe wisdom and knowledge, the past or some form of being redeemed. Jaffe wonderfully gives us the places where the stories take place through fine descriptions and sensuosity.
Jaffe bings humor, suspense, and eroticism together to show that we still have a great deal to do in our lives. I realize that I did not say anything about “Tilting Ilana” and “Where the Old is New” so that there are two stories that those reading this will know nothing about. I can assure that after reading them and the other nine stories, you will feel like a better person. Location, history, personality and prose come together to give us a read that is also an experience.
A Classic Film
Olive Films is releasing the Blu ray of the classic western by John Ford, “Rio Grande”, the third film in his trilogy that includes “Fort Apache (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and this 1950 film.
The themes in “Rio Grande” is perhaps a little diffuse yet this remains a fine film. It is full of warmth and humor whose narrative ambles from point to point. It is a strange romance starring John Wayne as Kirby Yorke, a Cavalry officer dealing with the plundering Apache as well as his disaffected, long separated wife (Maureen O’Hara) and his son (Claude Jarman Jr.) who has just enlisted. Yorke is in charge of a dusty, remote outpost on the Rio Grande, training new recruits, including the son he hasn’t seen in 15 years. He gets him into shape to take on the Apaches but his mother Kathleen shows up to get him out of there. Kirby and Kathleen fall back in love but his unorthodox plan to outwit the elusive Apaches leads to possible court martial.
Bert Glennon and Archie Stout’s beautiful black and white cinematography, Victor Young’s music score and the stars’ performances are the perhaps the main assets. There are charismatic supporting performances by Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Chill Wills, J Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers, Peter Ortiz, Steve Pendleton, Karolyn Grimes, Alberto Morin, Stan Jones, Jack Pennick, Pat Wayne, Ken Curtis and Dick Foran.
“Rio Grande” is probably the least regarded of the trilogy but any Ford Western is still a classic It takes place on a remote Rio Grande outpost after the Civil War, where Lt. Yorke is unexpectedly reunited with the wife and young adult son Jeff he has not seen since he ordered his wife’s house burned during the war.
Jeff is befriended by fellow troopers, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) as he works to prove himself in the cavalry. Meanwhile, as Jeff’s parents gradually come closer to understanding and reconciliation, the children of the fort are kidnapped by Indians.
If you have not seen “Rio Grande”, I encourage you to do so. I’ve seen it many times over the years and each viewing is more rewarding than the last.