Secular Jewish Culture by Yaakov Malkin, Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Secular Jewish CultureSecular Jewish Culture

by Yaakov Malkin (Editor), Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel (Translator)

Kindle Edition, 520 pg.
Library of Secular Judaism, 2017
Read: February 5 – March 30, 2018

I don’t know where the person who offered me this book found me, nor why they thought I’d like the book. Nor do I even remember what it was about this book that I thought sounded like it could be my cup of tea — but man, were we both wrong.

Which is not to say that this is a bad book, or an uninteresting book. But this is not the kind of thing I usually read or blog about — the typical secular Jewish writing around here is Jennifer Weiner or Hagit R. Oron. And the academically-oriented reading I usually do is definitely not the secular variety.

This is essentially a manifesto and apologetic for the study of Secular Jewish Culture as an academic discipline. The various authors definitively state what it is that Secular Jews believe, think, and cherish — which is far less diverse than say, CNN on-air talent, or members of my household. White largely set positively, on the whole much of this book defines Secular Jewish Culture by what it isn’t, and given that most people have a hard time separating the ethnicity from some form of the religion, that makes sense. But it doesn’t make for good reading.

Granted, it’s obvious from the outset that I’m not going to approach the Hebrew Scriptures from the same perspective as these authors, so it’s not surprising that I’d characterize almost all of their reactions to those scriptures as misreading the text — I can handle that, really. But some of the misreadings are so bad, and seemingly deliberately so, that I was frequently angered as I read them.

I had a long list of things I wanted to talk about, but I really can’t muster the interest — and I can’t imagine anyone reading this post will be able to, either — so I’ll just wrap things up.. It was generally a slog to read — but I can’t fault it for that, it’s not supposed to be a page-turner. It definitely set out to accomplish a few tasks, and on the whole, it succeeded. Except for making me want to read anything else from any of these authors. Did I like it? No. Is it a good book? Maybe? Probably? Are there many people that will think this book is a treasure? Yup, but I’m not one of them.

I honestly think this book deserves more stars than this, it’s a good book. But, I didn’t like it and this is my blog, so . . .

Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, I appreciate the opportunity.

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2 Stars

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Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

Opening Lines: Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art) (also, this has a great cover). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest of the book.

from Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid by Sergey Grechishkin:

          

Anekdot

n.: the most popular form of Soviet humor, a short story or dialogue with a punch line, often politically subversive. “Being simultaneously independent from and parasitically attached to mass cultural production and authoritative discourse, the anekdot served as a template for an alternative, satirical, reflexive, collective voice-over narration of the Soviet century.”

Many of the anekdots under this book’s chapter headings were once punishable in the USSR by up to ten years of forced labor under article 58 of the criminal code (“ Anti-Soviet Propaganda”). This article was used freely to put critics of the Soviet government behind bars. Today, of course, things are very different in Russia. Now it’s article 282.

Maybe it’s just given the subject matter, I was expecting something dreary or earnest or incredibly serious — or all three, but man, I cracked up at that last sentence. I tell you, my friends, this book is going to have to work for less than 4 stars from me at this point.

Greek Mythology: Beyond Mount Olympus by in60learning

Greek Mythology: Beyond Mount OlympusGreek Mythology: Beyond Mount Olympus

by in60learning
Series: in60Learning
</brKindle Edition, 38 pg.
in60Learning, 2018

Read: March 10, 2018

“It’s not by chance what Americans say when in need of a specialized or precise term, that ‘the Greeks have the word for it’.” -Aikaterini Spanakaki-Kapetanopoulos

Let me start by saying that I still think that the in60Learning project is a great idea and I hope it puts out a lot of material. I just hope that in their rush for quantity, they don’t skimp on quality. From the typographical errors to the way this was written, I think that’s a real danger.

Still, let’s focus on this volume — they really did go beyond Mount Olympus in their coverage of Greek Mythology, let’s look at the contents of this book:
An Overview of Greek Mythology
The Creation
The Gods of Mount Olympus
Other Gods, Spirits and the Stars
The Underworld and Other Beings in Greek Mythology
The Human Race and the Gods
Greek Mythology in Today’s World
That’s a lot for anyone to tackle in a book much longer than this — it’s a Herculean effort to get that much into a book this small (pun fully intended). But they go for more than an overview of Greek Mythology, they try to suggest some deeper meanings, to tie their topic into philosophical discussions and the like. Some of that worked, some of that seemed like a stretch — and some fell flat (that last paragraph, in particular, was a complete mess). You’ve got to admire the effort, though.

Not only did they cover a wide range of topics, but they worked in a lot of detail — maybe too much in some instances (including the Roman equivalent names at some points felt like they were striving for word count rather than being thorough).

One of the main theses of the book is the impact that Greek Myth had on Western Culture/the English Language, as is seen in the quotation I borrowed above and they utilized to drive home the point. Not only did they prove this point (in case anyone thought it worthy of debating), but they overdid it. At a certain point, the sections along these lines just became lists:

From the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos, is derived the word hypnosis.
From the Greek legend of the King Tantalus, is derived the word tantalize. He was condemned for eternity to stand up to his chin in the middle of a river with a fruit tree above him. Whenever he tried to drink the water, it receded from him, or grab a fruit, it pulled away from him.
From the Greek god of love, Eros, is derived the word erotic.
From the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, is derived the word aphrodisiac. . . .
From the god of fire and blacksmithing, Vulcan (Greek: Hephaestus), is derived the words volcano and vulcanizing.
From the Roman goddess of grain and farming, Ceres (Greek: Demeter), is derived the word cereal.

That goes on for pages (depending how you have your text size set). The facts are good, they’re on point, but it’s not good reading.

The basic overview of the Olympian myths, the origin of the universe, the war with the Titans, etc. was pretty solid. Nothing remarkable, but decently executed. The writing as a whole, however, didn’t impress me — frequently, but particularly as the authors tried to wrap up each chapter, the writing felt like it was lifted from High School term papers. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but I got the impression that this series was supposed to be better than that.

This one didn’t work for me, but I bet there are people out there who will be helped by it. These people didn’t check out D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths so many times from 3rd to 6th grade that the library might as well have given me a copy (not counting the other books on the subject I read, reread, bought, etc. at that age) or haven’t had kids during the Riordan-era of publishing. Basically, I should’ve skipped this one, I think. This slim volume took some big swings — amount of material, range of material, a couple of the “Big Ideas” running through the book, and whiffed on them all (to stick with the metaphor, I do think it caught a piece of a couple of the pitches). A strong effort, but not one that worked for me.

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2 1/2 Stars

Illinois Native Americans: A 9,000 Year Civilization by in60Learning

Illinois Native Americans: A 9,000 Year CivilizationIllinois Native Americans: A 9,000 Year Civilization

by in60learning
Series: in60Learning

ARC, 36 pg.
in60Learning, 2018

Read: February 27, 2018


Man, it’s hard to write about a book this short in a meaningful way. So I’m going to talk a little bit about this project as a whole — there’s this group, in60learning, who write very concise non-fiction (text and audiobooks) on historical topics/events or biographies (other topics are coming, apparently), so they can be read and digested in a brief matter of time. Great idea — I’m on board with this. I found the selection a little overwhelming, honestly, since I was going to try just one — I’m not sure I’d have been any more decisive if I’d had 6 to choose from. So I just told them to send me one at random. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, if you’re interested in this idea and want to get more information about the group and their releases, get yourself added to their LearningList.

Now, the title I got was Illinois Native Americans: A 9,000 Year Civilization. I know nothing about the Illinois, nada. You ask me about Native American tribes from the Idaho area, and I’m good; I know a little about the Delaware thanks to David Brainerd; and a bit about the Cheyenne thanks to Craig Johnson. I’m not sure how reliable a source Henry Standing Bear really is, though. So the Illinois? Fuhgeddaboudit. Making me a prime candidate for this book. The idea that this people group existed as a discernible culture for 9,000 years is mind-boggling.

The book covers all sorts of aspects of the Illinois — the politics, the religion, the familial roles, hunting, interaction with other Native American groups — and present state. It talked about changes that happened when Europeans showed up and altered the way of life for everyone in North America.

I appreciated the matter-of-fact way the book addressed cultural changes when the Illinois came into extended contact with Europeans — apparently, primarily the French. The book didn’t vilify the French (or English, etc.) for the changes they brought to the culture — nor did they act like this was the greatest thing for them. Instead, it took more of a “so this changed” approach, letting the readers draw their own conclusions.

The writing is crisp, clear, and (seemingly) comprehensive. It achieves this great balance of being brief and yet covering 9,000 years of history. Even better, it does this history in a few paragraphs in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re missing a lot.

A couple of short-comings that may or may not be addressed in actual editions of the books, not just the ARC version I received — footnotes/endnotes would be great, or at least a bibliography. Just so a reader could look into some of what’s covered a little more.

I really liked this book and plan on picking up more in the series soon. I think it’s just the kind of thing that could help my kids with some things in school, and yet it could also appeal to they busy adult who just feels like they should get better grounded in some part of history or just wants to read something quick. I don’t see why anyone from 12 on up couldn’t benefit from (or understand) this book, and assume the same is true for the rest of the series. Dive into these, folks, you’ll be glad you did.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion — thanks for this!

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3 Stars

Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

eARC, 368 pg.
Canongate Books, 2018

Read: February 16 – 23, 2018

Time, once passive, is now aggressive. It dominates our lives in ways that the earliest clockmakers would have surely found unbearable. We believe that time is running away from us. Technology is making everything faster, and because we know that things will become faster in the future, it follows that nothing is fast enough now. . . But the strangest thing of all is this: if they were able, the earliest clockmakers would tell us that the pendulum swings at the same rate as it always has, and the calendars have been fixed for hundreds of years. We have brought this cauldron of rush upon ourselves. Time seems faster because we have made it so.

I remember a few books pretty distinctly from my childhood — particularly those I read that were my first forays into “grown up” books — Ian Fleming, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mario Puzo, Richard Hooker, and so on. The first non-fiction book that I remember trying along those lines was Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which may have ruined me for a lot of the non-fiction that would follow (we can talk about my discernment later). It was funny, it taught me a lot, it made me think of the early US Space Program a little differently than what I’d been taught, and it was told in Tom Wolfe’s voice (which I love to this day). But it cemented the way I look at non-fiction books. Today, when it comes to non-fiction reads, there are a number of ways I tend to judge them (rightly or wrongly) — first (always first): Is it well-written? I’m not saying it has to sound like Wolfe, but does the writer know what he’s doing? Even if I end up learning a lot from a book, if it’s not well-written, I’m not going to like it. Secondly, is it informative? Do I actually learn something, or is it a re-hash of things that any number of books have said (do we really need that many biographies of Abraham Lincoln?)? Thirdly, does it make me think of something in a new way, or challenge my preconceptions (does this examination of Don DeLillo make me re-think White Noise? (I know of no book like this, but would love to read one)). Fourth, this is not essential — but is the book entertaining? It gets bonus points for that.

Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers, clears the bar for every one of these standards. Since he does it more succinctly than I could, I’ll let Garfield sum up the book:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He begins with telling the well-known (at least in brush strokes) story about the invention of time zones — but man, did I not understand really how this came about. Then he covers the experiments with the calendar, the clock, etc. tried following the French Revolution (and how some of those experiments live on). We get a couple of chapters on time and the cinema. Music (Beethoven, The Beatles, recording and more), photography, filibustering, the work day, and other sundry topics are covered as well. You can’t forget watch-making, watch-marketing, watch-design, watch-capabilities, watch-symbolism, and a few other watch-related notions that I can’t think of at the moment.

Let’s get to the writing itself. Garfield has a way with words — the number of sentences that I highlighted because of his use of the language is pretty high. If I quoted every one that I wanted to, this post would quickly move into the tl;dr range — and into the copyright infringement range not long after that. It wasn’t just his style, the book simply displays some well-crafted writing. It’s not perfect — but it’s good. I’ll freely admit that not every topic he covered really interested me, but his writing kept me reading — and I was rewarded pretty frequently. Even when my interest waned, his writing would stand out here and there so I could appreciate the how he said it, even if the what didn’t interest me. Rarely, the topics that did grab me would have a paragraph or so that didn’t rise to that level, however. I’m not going to go into specifics on this point, though — I didn’t bother to note those, and I bet that comes down to taste and others won’t think of those passages the same way, and they were brief moments, so they didn’t detract from the whole.

Did I learn something from the book? Much more than I expected to. The chapter on the French experiments alone probably taught me enough to justify the whole book. I didn’t/couldn’t stick with the details of watch-making (I have a hard time visualizing that kind of detail), but even that was fascinating and informative on the surface. Most topics broadened my understanding and taught me something. Also, the sheer amount of trivia that I picked up was great (the amount of time spent recording the first Beatles LP, why pop music tends to be about 3 minutes long, etc., etc.

But it’s not just about the information gained — it’s what that information means (both in terms of the book’s argument(s), but in how the reader considers that information in the light of what they already know and personal experience. Every time that Garfield moves from the “here’s what happened” or the “here’s how this works” bits to the “because this happened” or “because this works” bits, it was something I don’t know that I’d spent too much time thinking about previously. Sometimes those took the form of quick “huh,” moments — but occasionally he brushed against profundity, which I really appreciated.

And yes, Garfield picked up bonus points for entertainment. After the first paragraph in Chapter 1, my notes read “Between the Introduction and this paragraph, I’ve laughed four times. Am going to dig this book.” Later on, I wrote that I didn’t care about the content, really, I was having too much fun reading it to worry about it being right.

There’s room for improvement, I think. If there’s a design to the organization, I’m not sure I see it. He appears to hopscotch around between his topics. I’m honestly not sure how he could have arranged them to flow from one to another, but I do believe it could’ve been done. I think he could’ve lessened the detail occasionally (and increased it in a spot or two). But generally, this is me being nit-picky for the sake of not being a push over. There’s really almost nothing to complain about.

Garfield scores across the board with this one, however. I do think the survey hops around a bit too much without obvious connections between the ideas so that the cumulative punch is less than it could be. In his concluding thoughts, Garfield raises some issues and asks some pointed questions that could be more forceful, more pointed if the preceding chapters had been more clearly linked. Nevertheless, the points were made and I, like most readers (I suspect), had to give some serious thought about my relationship to time and what I actually value. I’ll have to continue this thinking for a while, actually — the fact that I have to — and want to — is because of this book forcing me to consider things I’ve taken for granted about time and how my life is governed. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Thought-provoking, interesting, educating, well-written and generally entertaining — Timekeepers really covers all the bases and covers them well. You’d do well to check it out.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the swell folks at Canongate Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. I’m very sorry this posted after the release date, my notes had that in March.

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4 Stars

Golden Gremlin by Rod A. Walters

Golden GremlinGolden Gremlin: A Vigorous Push from Misanthropes and Geezers

by Rod A. Walters

Kindle Edition, 228 pg.
Omega Man Press, 2016

Read: February 1 – 2, 2018


Edmund Kean (1787 – 1833) — or someone else, it’s unclear — said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Stand-ups, actors, and writers alike will testify to at least the latter. The downside is that those that do the hard work, those that are good at comedy make it look easy. Too often it seems that people (professional and amateur alike) go for the easy approach, and it’s never a good idea.

There’s also no accounting for taste.

I’ll accept either as the explanation for why this book left me underwhelmed.

Walters assumes a curmudgeonly tone, calling himself a misanthrope and taking shots at the foibles of the culture around him. The younger set is a particularly favorite target. Too often his pieces come across as angry Facebook rants, written by someone who spouts off against social media. Still, his points are occasionally clever and his jokes show promise. If he’d subject each of these two a few more revision passes, I could imagine myself enjoying many of these.

I’d strongly encourage reading this in small bursts — the essays don’t build on each other, there’s some references between the two, but nothing you won’t remember even after a few days. I wouldn’t do more than one or two in a sitting or Walters’ charm will wear thin.

Walters says that he wrote to make Dave Barry and Ben Stein laugh. If he’d invoked Andy Rooney, I might have agreed with him. I didn’t dislike the book, but I sure didn’t like it. Walters was frequently amusing — and I have no trouble thinking that many would find him funny. But not me. At least not without a few more drafts.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion and participation in this book tour.

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2 1/2 Stars