Early Decision

Early Decision

by Lacy Crawford. William Morrow: 2013.  

I thought Early Decision would be like others in a certain category of chick-lit that portrays the lifestyles of the rich and famous mommies. I Don’t Know How She Does It or The Nanny Diaries might be considered two examples of the genre I have in mind. But Crawford’s book is of a much different caliber. It still has an aura of chick-lit about it; perhaps this is unavoidable when the protagonist is a single woman in her late twenties who happens to be dealing with a commitment-phobe boyfriend. But though it has that easy-breezy feel of an effortless chick lit, the writing is still insightful and well done (most chick lit writing is over-dramatic and uses clichés; none of that here). Perhaps the reason for this difference is that both the author and the protagonist – who also have in common that they were at one time college admissions counselors to the children of the aforementioned rich and famous mommies – feel passionately about the importance of good writing. An example:

“ ‘All right,’ he said. ‘So how do you know when it’s a good essay or a bad one?’

‘Oh,’ she [Anne, the admissions counselor] replied. ‘You see, kids do this thing…when they’re asked to write in the first person…kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page – you can hear it when they read out loud – gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to…Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’..They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative….Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major of ‘the future’…if they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’”

Let me take the opportunity to proclaim a cheerful, hearty “mea culpa” to probably all of those and more in my own blog posts. I’d also like to acknowledge that I loved my college experience and am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go wherever I wanted. I don’t think this book is knocking any of that. Is going to college a good thing? Yep. Is getting to choose where you want to go a good thing, too? Yes. Are community service, extra-curricular activities, and AP classes great things and worth the struggle? Yes. Has the college admissions process gotten slightly absurd and is it worthy of a good laugh? Also yes.

The book follows Anne, a private admissions counselor, who meets with wealthy high school seniors and their parents to help them get into the coveted brand-name colleges. Besides excerpts like the first one in the post, which tickled my writing fancies, the main character is named Anne, and the author makes offhand references both to Gregor Samsa and Sebastian Flyte. References to Brideshead Revisited are an unexpected delight anywhere but most unexpected in a chick-lit sort of book. The fact that the reference was directed at an overachieving high school student who has not only just ‘come out’ to his disapproving father but also admitted his guilt in stealing Anne’s daily New York Times because he doesn’t want her to be exposed to liberal drivel – well, it leads one to study the author’s bio on the back panel and wonder Who is this person? And then perhaps to google ‘doppelganger.’

This is an area that is ripe for cutting social commentary, and Crawford has plenty of it: “More accurately, how to awaken these families from a fantasy that held colleges up bright and shining and implacably steady in character, to reveal each as just what it was – a living, breathing institution – struggling to serve young minds weaned on ambition and fear and heading into a job market that matched conscription to greed and made interns of all the rest?”

As I expected, Crawford/Anne bemoans the insanity that overtakes parents and their children as they frantically build their “resumes” with community service and extracurricular activities that they would have no interest in engaging in without the specter of college admissions. There’s no easy discernible line between real and satire when she describes characters like Hunter who “spent the autumn doing trail maintenance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…for the winter he traveled to Bogota to brush up on his Spanish and intern with a private equity firm…and in the spring he rented a condo in Miami, where he spent mornings teaching tennis to Cuban refugee children and afternoons focusing on his own [tennis] game with a private coach.” She laments that while college was and can be an exhilarating dream, now it was “an exercise in self-branding. The schools were secondary. Marketing the student came first.”

Yet the best part about Crawford/Anne is not her biting satire but that she has real empathy for her teenage students. She takes their essays seriously and carefully, and reads between the lines to find out more about them, as she does in this conversation with Hunter:

“ ‘…In that case, let me tell you a few things that really interested me in your piece.’

‘Fine.’

‘First, how profound it can be to feel in significant in the face of Nature – to feel both irrelevant and deeply accompanied. Make sense?

‘Sort of.’

‘…Second…the desire to share one’s feelings but the difficulty of putting them into words. Wanting to keep things private but thinking they’d be even more special if you could share them. Yes?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Third, feeling like the world has been hidden from you, like you’ve not been able to see things as they really are. Yes?’

‘Oh, totally…’”

Once a week I teach a class full of teenagers, and I think I can appreciate how Crawford/Anne highlights the twin emotions of frustration and amusement that come with coaching that age group. My [admittedly very limited] experience is that in a group, all is lost, as their self-consciousness of being surrounded by peers will trump any other meaningful action. Yet, from time to time, on their own, there will be flashes, as Crawford/Anne notices: “…If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful…”

She tries to help her students see that, with their background of parental support, privilege, general overachievement habits, and education up to this point, they will probably be successful no matter what college they attend. She comforts one student who wrote her admissions essay about her experience volunteering at a Somalian refugee center and is a national debate star:

“ ‘Alexis, where you go to college is not the same as who you are.’

‘No, but it shapes me. It, like, shapes everything.’

‘Unless you consider that there’s a trajectory to all of this passion. That you have a destiny, an intellectual and emotional destiny, and that this force you feel is driving you toward that. Regardless of whether you turn left or right, you’ll get there. You can’t not get there.’” *

Early Decision does contain some of the usual fare of chick-lit. There are high-strung self-absorbed moms, schmucky dads, and a schmucky boyfriend. Yet besides the prescient insight and empathy, there’s another element that takes it beyond usual chick-lit. Anne’s descriptions of her own experiences post-college, when she attempted to pursue a PhD in English, seem to reveal some political-social conservative leanings (as if the NY-Times snatching kid wasn’t enough). She recalls how “she appreciated that the Marxist students were always first when the [fellowship check] office opened at nine. The very same ones who argued, in the seminar on Moby-Dick, that the whale signified a commodity and that the book was an allegory of the industrial revolution. To which point the queer theorists took great exception: the whale was a phallus…the post-colonial theorists claimed the cetacean was an animation of statehood, and the theory-of-aesthetics folks considered anality relevant to the discussion. The disability studies student – who herself was rumored to have chronic fatigue – stopped conservation with her assertion that the enormous whale signified the longed-for bodily wholeness…Anne wrote her final paper on the whale qua whale. Her professor was thrilled. No one had ever taken this approach before, he said…except Melville, Anne thought.” Ah yes, this is so familiar to me.

All the more interesting is that Crawford/Anne dares to imply that Toni Morrison may not, in fact, be all she’s cracked up to be. During a much sought-after seminar with Morrison, “Anne had sat, mostly terrified, and studied the writer’s dreadlocks….she’d never worked up the courage to ask her first question: how were you supposed to pronounce Sethe?” ** That this would be her most burning question pokes gentle fun at the supposed gravity with which Morrison is treated throughout academia.

As I mentioned, I am with a group of high schoolers once a week, and they are indeed completely obsessed with where they will go to college and how they will get in. But I’ve also taught some college classes at a small, private liberal arts school – exactly the kind all those teens are striving to attend. The funny thing is, the college students don’t seem to care much at all about learning or the class material. And this just makes the whole endeavor seem that much more ludicrous.

None of this social critique on the ridiculousness surrounding college admissions is new (though perhaps the rise in tuition rates is adding another shade of crazy). This movie is technically about law school admissions but very similar to undergraduate admission. It came out in 2001, and, over ten years later, still rings true. These could be any of the characters in Early Decision:

Elle Woods introduces herself at Harvard…

* I’m pre-empting what I think will be the response from my University of Florida alum husband, who would probably agree that being a UF Gator is indeed a big part of his identity.

* *The name of the mom in Beloved who kills her baby. Played by Oprah Winfrey herself in the movie version.

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A Guide for the Perplexed

A Guide for the Perplexed

by Dara Horn. 

Product Details

W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Since the last book I read for this blog delved into Spinoza territory, it seemed appropriate that the next one should highlight Maimonides: the two are opposites in that while Spinoza was famously excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community, Maimonides is so revered that his Thirteen Principles of Faith are lyrics to the yigdal song that is traditionally sung at the end of every Friday night service. Kidding – the books just happened to arrive in that order from the library, but it’s a nice coincidence.

I’d been anticipating this latest novel from Dara Horn the same way I looked forward to Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, since I was familiar with her earlier books and loved them. And perhaps this over-anticipation is what led to the bit of the letdown I felt while reading. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a very good book but it’s not going to be my favorite, and definitely not my favorite Dara Horn book.

The main reason it’s not my favorite is that I felt certain things were presented in too obvious a manner. It was as though I would be really well prepared for my a high school English class on this book. If the teacher asked “what were some of the recurrent themes?”  I could list them:

-asthma

-siblings, and siblings’ spouses

-idealized memory versus true memory; archives

-pits/dungeons/ditches (both real and metaphorical)

Part of the reason why recurrent of these images and themes might seem too obvious is the characteristic way that Horn structures her novel. As in her previous books In the Image and The World to Come, Horn creates several parallel stories, in various time periods of history, which eventually all overlap. It’s a neat trick, but I suppose it was much more exciting the first time around. That sounds a lot harsher than I meant – again, it’s still a very enjoyable book.

Roughly, the parallel stories follow: 1) Josie and Judith, present-day sisters. Josie and Judith both work in a software program that sounds like Facebook and Instagram times a million; people can digitally archive every moment of their lives or the lives of loved ones; 2) Solomon Schecter (a real person) who, among other famous things, re-discovered the Cairo Genizah which was a treasure trove of Jewish historical records; 3) Moses Maimonides and his brother David (also both real people).

Some of immediate broad overlaps are: the Cairo Genizeh is perhaps most famous for having letters and drafts written by Maimonides; Maimonides lived in Egypt for a while; Josie gets kidnapped in Egypt; the girls’ software program is called, appropriately, “Genizeh.”

My other gripe is admittedly a bit nit-picky, but hear me out. Toward the end of the book, Schecter is reminiscing with his brother about the night the two of them left their small town in Romania for the great wide world. Their father gave both of them a little speech: “ ‘I’ll always remember it,’ Srulik said. ‘It was a grand send-off, a don’t-forget-where-you-came-from sort of thing.’” This imaginary conversation would have been taking place around 1896.  I can’t pretend to be an authority on late nineteenth century language, but that long hyphenated descriptor just seemed out of place to me. I think that particular mannerism is a style of our present-day way of speaking, perhaps an indicator of the way we are less facile and less formal (and thus lazier. Instead of taking the time to think of a word that means ‘don’t-forget-where-you-came-from’ we just make one up with hyphens) with language and speaking. So that bothered me as a-historical fiction.

And I am a bit bothered by another place in the book, also with Schecter, but much earlier, as he examines a bit of ancient parchment:

“The letters were inscribed in dark brown ink. As he read them, they burned in his brain like black fire on white fire. Was it possible?”

The phrase “black fire on white fire” comes from Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1 and is a commentary on the line from Deuteronomy 33 about “the fiery law” (the fact that this commentary is filed in the Genesis midrash but is about Deuteronomy is just typical. Midrash is a mixed-up filing cabinet for sure). It bothers me because I don’t see a connection in Horn’s insertion of this phrase and the narrative surrounding it: Schecter isn’t looking at Midrash – and, I don’t know, it just seems like it was put there as a vague reference to “something” that sounded mystical and Jewish, but without full acknowledgment of the origin and meaning of that phrase.

And I know Horn knows better, and that she knows her rabbinic literature, because of an absolutely delightful exchange she creates between Schecter and the hilariously corrupt chief rabbi of Egypt. The two engage in a Talmud-quoting war that devolves into made-up quotes: “Where? Shechter thought. His mind reproduced the Hebrew page of the Pentateuch [Torah], locating in his mind’s eye the margin of the page with the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the text. There was no such hint, of course. The rabbi knew it. They had graduated to fake quotes…the quoting game was much more fun when one wasn’t limited to actual quotes.” I had a rabbinic school professor who used to do this to get our attention, although much more blatantly: he’d paraphrase some sage as saying, “ ‘As the Talmud says, ‘You can do anything you want to do, but uh-uh, don’t step on my cowboy boots’” or some other Hank Williams quote.

In most of the book, too, she displays her usual felicity of language, such as describing Josie and Judith’s studious father as “deboning” a book with a multi-colored highlighter pen. Interestingly, Horn also sprinkles in a bit of untranslated Hebrew. It’s just a few sentences of conversation, but it makes me wonder about her intended audience. Do mostly Jews read Dara Horn? Do I find her stories intriguing because the overlapping stories are all about Jewish history or are they good independent of that characteristic? (Probably a bit of both).

I also appreciate Horn’s jabs at modern Egypt. When Josie first arrives in Cairo, she notes the bizarreness of a national holiday that day  “celebrating Egypt’s victory over Israel in the war of 1973. The fact that Egypt had not actually won the 1973 war seemed in no way to dampen the festivities.” Later, Judith is surprised to hear that a certain degenerate character who is basically a gangster was on the Egyptian Parliament:

“ ‘And now he was elected?’ Judith asked.

Nasreen smirked. ‘Everything we thought was impossible for forty years suddenly happened. You thought that meant only good things, didn’t you? No. It means everything. The impossible is now possible. Even for people like him. Especially for people like him.’”

I can appreciate the way Horn brings to life Schecter and Maimonides, and especially the way she describes the drama of Schecter’s re-discovery of the Cairo Genizeh in 1896. But if I were to recommend a book about Schecter and/or the Cairo Genizeh, I think that Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s book, Sacred Trash, is excellent (Horn mentions it in the Acknowledgments section) and does a better job telling Schecter’s story.

Dave Eggers  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Eggers )also has a new book, The Circle that examines darker sides of social media and millennial culture. Horn’s book is only partly about this topic, and two books does not a backlash make, but the coincidence of their release is intriguing nonetheless. I think a book club can’t really go wrong with a Dara Horn selection, and A Guide for the Perplexed certainly opens up a lot of Jewish topics and presents lively depictions of Jewish historical personalities. But now in this post and the last one I’ve praised certain Nextbook press books, which led me to investigate whether I can order the latest release from the Orlando library. I don’t know if the Orlando Public Library uses any type of digital data gathering on patrons’ online request habits; if so I’m sure I’m pretty easy to pigeonhole so far.

• I can get kind of worked up about this because I think it’s happening with more and more frequency in colloquial speech and writing of my own demographic – I mean people using catchy snap phrases or words that they have heard somewhere, whether firsthand on TV or the internet or just as they generally become popular, without understanding their origin. My pet peeve example of this is the word “uber.” I think it’s wildly inappropriate when fellow Jews will describe anything as “uber,” and I’ve even heard an event described (by a Jewish person) as “uber-Jewy.” I just think “uber-Jewy” is but a half step away from “uber-mensch” which was the Nietzschean phrase that inspired Hitler’s Aryan ideal. A less toxic example is “epic fail.” Noun? Adverb? What’s happening?  I’m not saying that Horn is being that egregious here (or that I’m not often guilty myself!). It was just an opportunity for a tangential rant. Words matter.

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The Signature of All Things

 The Signature of All Things 

Product Details

by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Viking Adult 2013.

Elizabeth Gilbert is probably best known for her autobiographical book Eat, Pray, Love, which was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Both are about Gilbert’s need to more firmly establish The Meaning of Her Life and re-discover her true essence or something by taking a year “off” (she was a novelist and freelance writer, with no kids – not exactly the coal mines). She travels first to Italy, then to India (to a meditation ashram), and then to Bali where she finds a nice boy. The parts of the book and movie about Italy and what she gets to eat there are ok, and there are some nice descriptions of Bali, but I had no interest in the rest of her journey into the pit of naval-gazing:

So yes, I was a little dubious about picking up her new novel, although it is not about herself, so at least it had that going for it. And it turns out that if this is the kind of novel Gilbert is capable of writing, she can take all the self-realization journeys that she needs. Most of the book – the last quarter was disappointing – is fantastic all around: unique story, appealing heroine, and engaging fictional science writing. The main character, Alma Whittaker, is an early nineteenth century American botanist who is fascinated with the natural world and specifically with moss. On that alone, I have to applaud Gilbert. It’s not everyday that one finds a New York Times bestseller-list fiction book with so much scientific botanical detail. As I happen to belong to a family that relishes discussing science I found myself happily relating to some of Alma’s experiences – but I have to wonder how many other readers out there would be as amused I was to read how one character encounters Alma’s mother’s garden:

“ ‘You must tell me, Miss Whittaker – what mad genius took such pains to fabricate this garden according to strict Euclidean geometric ideals?’

‘It was my mother’s inspiration, sir. Had she not passed away many years ago, she would have thrilled to know that you recognized her objectives.’

‘Who would not recognize them? It’s the golden ratio! We have double squares here, containing recurrent nets of squares – and with the pathways bisecting the entire construction, we make several three-four-five triangles, as well. It’s so pleasing! The boxwoods are perfect, too. They seem to serve as equation marks to all the conjugates. She must have been a delight, your mother.’”

Alma’s mother, Beatrix, “encouraged a spirit of investigation” as part of a very no-nonsense Dutch upbringing in their manor in Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s.  Alma’s father Henry made a fortune by maintaining a monopoly on an extract from fever tree bark used for various pharmaceutical purposes.  Alma was given uncharacteristic schooling for girls at that time, most of it from her mother, who maintained that “at no moment in history has a bright young girl with plenty of food and a good constitution perished from too much learning.”  Alma is a prodigious student. From her mother she learns multiple languages and classic literature. In her lonely (Alma grows up with few friends) ramblings across their estate, she studies the natural world:

“In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell the time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened….if Alma was not back to the house with her hands washed by five o’clock – when the globeflower closed and the evening primrose began to open – she would find herself in trouble.”

The third part of her education occurs at the dinner table. As part of his business, Henry entertained often, and Alma “spent the tender years of her childhood listening to the most extraordinary conversations – the men who studied the decomposition of human remains; with men who examined the organic matter of sulfuric springs; and with one man who was an expert on the pulmonary function of aquatic birds…”

Though her father is indeed a botanist by trade, Alma seems to fall in love with the natural world all on her own. Again and again, I found myself admiring Gilbert’s ability to convey true scientific wonder:

“Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her – dozens more such boulders…each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world…this was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel’s mighty telescopes….

In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive. But here is what few people understood and what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone…moss dines about boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. Given enough time, a colony of moss can turn a cliff into gravel…under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray – the traces of the antediluvian moss settlements.”

I for one think that if Gilbert runs out of ideas for another novel she could certainly do well in re-writing high school biology textbooks.

Alma’s relationships with people are just as intriguing as her relationship with the natural world. Alma’s beautiful adopted sister, Prudence (the daughter of a promiscuous house maid) struggles with being known “only” for her beauty and her birth mother’s reputation and, apparently as a result of that ‘trauma,’ turns into an ascetic Puritan devoted to abolitionism. At no point do Alma and her sister get along, due equally to Prudence’s extreme shyness and reticence and Alma’s sub-par interpersonal skills. Alma believes herself to be content between her moss, her father, and her comforting old Dutch housekeeper, until she falls in love. The man is named Ambrose Pike, and he first comes to her attention because of his magnificent lithographs of tropical orchids. If you need a refresher on the symbolism of orchids in regards to amorous interest, go browse around here for a bit: http://www.georgiaokeeffegallery.com/

After Ambrose comes to stay with her father, Alma realizes that her existence “before the arrival of Ambrose Pike, had been a good enough one…she had her customs, habits, and responsibilities…true, she was something like a book that had opened to the same page every single day for nearly thirty straight years – but it had not been such a bad page. By all measures, it had been a good life…she could never return to that life now…Cut loose for the first time in her life into the realm of love, imbued with impossible energy, Alma barely recognized herself. Her capacities seemed limitless….it was not merely Ambrose whom she regarded with such vivid purity and thrill – but everything and everybody…”

This is probably a good segue to point out what I thought were the low points of the book. The first is related to the, um, orchids. Gilbert seems at great pains to emphasize that Alma is not, unlike the mosses, asexual. Alma’s house has a lot of biology books hanging around, so she learns some certain things early on, and from a young age spends a lot of time reading these books in a special dark closet where she delves into self-exploration. Trust me, I didn’t want to mention it on the blog here, but it’s just that Gilbert spends a good bit of time on it, and one just wants to say ok we get it already. Fifty Shades of Moss or whatever.

The other doesn’t happen until the very end of the book. As was probably inevitable in a book about 19th century biological exploration, Alma encounters the work of Darwin, A.R. Wallace.  Spoiler alert – of course she had written about this same theory of evolution, but is a female, and so on and so forth. This could have gone in a somewhat tiresome direction.

But I think Gilbert redeems herself with one important part: Alma hesitated from publishing her evolution theory not really because she was a woman, but because she thinks the prospect of evolution leaves out the “mystery” of human altruism. Alma cannot account for the goodness and sacrifice of self-interest that she saw in Ambrose and Prudence: “if the natural world was indeed the sphere of amoral and constant struggle for survival that it appeared to be…then what was one supposed to make, for instance, of someone like her sister Prudence?…Alma could answer that question from a moral standpoint (Because Prudence is kind and selfless) but she could not answer if from a biological one (Why do kindness and selflessness exist?)” I was impressed that Gilbert gives this to Alma. This sort of view seems to respect and value a Judeo-Christian view that says, wait: people and our relationships are about more than evolutionary survival. There is something about love for others that is not simply biology, but something that makes us human – something that has, perhaps, to do with the spark of the divine.

It might be appropriate at this point to mention Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher.  I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the book begins and ends in Amsterdam, Spinoza’s home, though Gilbert herself never explicitly mentions Spinoza. But in Signature, Gilbert seems to be exploring some the complex interchange between science and religion, and with Holland in the picture it’s hard not to think of Spinoza, who in many ways is a symbol (or maybe mascot?) of the tension between those two worlds. * Just a few highlights of this leitmotif throughout the novel:

– Alma encounters several other characters who see “God’s handprint” (or, the “signature of all things”) in the beauty and genius of the natural order of the world; personally she longs to understand the “architect” that created all this natural wonder

-Ambrose is the opposite of Alma’s sensibility and practical-mindedness; he is sort of a Transcendentalist, communing with spirit and the ephemeral and says he can hear the stars singing and so forth

-A crucial character named Tomorrow Morning gives Alma clues to the purpose of her life and that of Ambrose, and he happens to be a preacher

-As mentioned earlier, at the end of her life, Alma finds she cannot account for altruism in biology/evolutionary theory.

It seems to me that Gilbert has presented four viewpoints: 1) Early Alma – reason and rationality behind everything/everything can be explained through scientific processes; 2)  bad scientists who use coincidences of biology to ‘prove’ God; 3) bad religion such as people like Ambrose who are spiritual to the point of losing touch 3) late Alma, who believes firmly in her evolutionary theory and loves moss dissection but finds that there is something mysterious and unexplained about human relationships.

Personally, I think Gilbert hits the nail on the head when she has Alma realize that altruism is counterintuitive and makes no “scientific” sense. For me, this is where Torah comes in. I don’t think that the mitzvoth of the Ten Commandments are instinctive in humans. Yes, many people automatically follow them, but that’s because they have been born into a society in which those principles have become norms. But they weren’t “biological” norms, so to speak; they were introduced – that is, they were “revealed.”

Just one more coincidence to mention – Gilbert’s writing, specifically her appreciation of science, reminds me of Rebecca Goldstein. Goldstein has written several novels, including The Mind-Body Problem (another Spinoza reference) with brainy heroines, though hers tend more toward the mathematical/philosophical than biological. But Goldstein also wrote a fun book just about Spinoza:

http://nextbookpress.com/books/239/betraying-spinoza/

So between Goldstein’s book, Spinoza background in general, and Signature, I think there’s more than enough to work with here for a Jewish book club session.

Gilbert is such a popular culture darling – she was featured in a recent edition of Oprah’s O magazine – that I wouldn’t be surprised if the timing of this New York Times magazine article was part of a PR effort from her own publisher:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0

Whatever associations and conclusions one wants to draw between this article and Gilbert’s book, I suspect that a bowdlerized Hollywood version of The Signature of All Things with Roberts or anyone similar, would not do anyone any favors.

*Also, I think there’s a gentle current of pantheism running the book – not only do various characters express wonderment at the order of the natural world, but the title implies a sort of divine stamp in every aspect of nature – and whether or not Spinoza himself was a pantheist, later pantheistic writers drew heavily on his work. According to Goldstein’s book, Spinoza believed not only that  “God is immanent in nature, not transcendent” but also that “the difference between right and wrong is immanent within our human nature.” For Spinoza, “logic is sufficient to reveal the very fabric of reality.” I think Gilbert’s Alma believes this for most of her book/life, but certain people and her relationships with them bring her to question those early beliefs.

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Hummus Among Us: Jerusalem vs. Balaboosta

 Jerusalem: A Cookbook.

 By Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Ten Speed Press: 2012. 

Balaboosta

by Einat Admony. Artisan: 2013.

           

Israeli and middle eastern food seems to be very “in” right now:

            http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/146650/talking-new-israeli-cuisine-in-new-york-city

 So I thought it might be fun to look at this trend by comparing two cookbooks – Jerusalem and Balaboosta (also the names of their authors’ respective restaurants).

The Jerusalem cookbook, by Ottolenghi and Tamimmi, is so so trendy, there was even an entire New York Times dining section devoted solely to readers’ favorite Jerusalem recipes. Why so trendy? Theories abound. People want to be involved in their food preparation again. Maybe they can’t resist the kumbaya of Ottolenghi, a Jew, and Tamimmi, a Palestinian. Maybe their cute accents are irresistible.

I was impressed by a few of the essays that they use to introduce the book, especially since I don’t expect too much in terms of actual writing with cookbooks. Ottolenghi and Tamimi acknowledge that few recipes can be traced solely to one particular culture or religion, and that Israeli recipes in general tend to showcase the cultural borrowing and trading of 5000 years of interchange. They acknowledge that while “tensions run high” in the region (um, to put it lightly?) that perhaps the love of food and yes, hummus, can bring everyone together someday. Makes me think of the Adam Sandler movie, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, in which the characters use hummus for everything from hair gel to fire extinguisher to, as in the scene below, coffee creamer:

In contrast to the charming smiles and accents and I’d-like-to-buy-the-world-a-pita act, Einat Admony plays the tough Sabra, with an emphasis on the prickle. In the opening photo, she stands unsmiling (or maybe she would tell us that this is her smile. What else do you want), in unglamorous pigtail braids and looking vaguely annoyed.  If I could caption the opening photos of the authors of Jerusalem and Balaboosta, the former would say “Welcome to our kitchen. Let us make you some lovely foods. How about a nice glass of tea to start? You look good today,” and the latter would say “What? Did you need something? I’m kind of busy.” Throughout the whole book, Admony emanates toughness – a temperament I most strongly associate with no-nonsense Israelis, but perhaps brewed even stronger by the brutal restaurant industry. Directly opposed to O&T’s warm paeans to various grandmothers’ recipes and warm sunlight, she comes out throwing knives:

“Long before I won Chopped or appeared on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, before there was cooking school, a husband, a better husband, and a couple of kids…there were Friday afternoons with my mother….they were hell…”

Brace for impact?? But the one positive takeaway she will attribute to her mother (you have to turn the page and keep reading to find it, though) is that her mother was a balaboosta and passed this on to Admony. Herein lies is, for me, one of the great unsolved mysteries of Admony’s work: why use such a Yiddish word if all the cuisine is going to be decidedly Mediterranean/Sephardic?

I haven’t seen many reviews or articles that, when discussing this Israeli food trend, really address the kashrut issue. Both O&T and Admony ignore it. Neither discusses the particulars of how to make a dish kosher and while neither goes so far as to succumb to the bacon-fat-everywhere trend, they do both offer a number of shellfish recipes. And Admony’s challah recipe calls for milk? I guess this works better if you’re having a Shabbes fish rather than chicken soups.  With O&T I shrugged and moved on, perhaps also because Tamimmi’s presence indicated more Arabic-style food and I don’t know all the rules for that. But it’s particularly strange in Admony’s book, since in her introduction she indicates (though not explicitly) that she grew up in a very kosher home: her memories are about Friday afternoon busyness and she recalls how they “scoured lettuce for microscopic worms.” I think that all three authors do a disservice with this, as they freely acknowledge that their cuisine is highly influence by Jewish culture and history. And Admony especially, with her intriguing nuggets regarding her feelings on religion – such as in her notes for the challah, which she says is “maybe not the way God intended it, but I’m sure She understands.” I for one would love to hear more on her thoughts about religion if that’s what she thinks when braiding her challah.

I’m probably not the person to do a real comparison of the recipes for things like ease, flavor, authenticity, etc, since I mostly appreciated Admony’s inclusion of a “kids” cooking section for recipes that kids might like to eat and also help make. That is, I appreciated the simplicity of this section just for my own cooking. Even though Admony with kids conjures up yet more Zohan references:

Other reviewers have acknowledged that a hallmark of middle eastern cuisine, whether traditional or nouveau, is the use of many, many different herbs and spices for each recipe. It’s what makes the recipes taste new and different – all the various combinations – but it is, everyone admits, labor intensive, and you have to have a large spice cabinet.

I thought I would do a hummus comparison of their recipes, but it turns out that Admony and O&T’s recipes for this are pretty similar. Significantly, I thought, both recommend the use of a little baking soda when simmering your chickpeas, and both are heavier on the tahini and much lighter on the olive oil than I had seen in various other recipes.

I have been bringing this recipe books to the class that I teach at the Hebrew High on Jewish cooking, and enjoy hearing the students’ squeals when I invite them to find the strangest or most unexpected recipe (Admony often wins with her oxtail soup recipe, but really any old picture of a whole fish can send the kids into apoplexy). I like the general idea of promoting Israeli culture in the great world, so that people see Israel’s vibrant culture and understand it as a place that is more than just endless conflict and territorial wars. After all, we are all hummus-sapiens and nothing brings us together like foods.

hummus

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The Lowland

The LowlandProduct Details

by Jhumpa Lahiri. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2013.

I didn’t intend to really write anything about Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, The Lowland, since I’ve already read so many other reviews about it and wasn’t sure I’d have anything new or insightful to add to those discussions. Still, I thought I’d mention some bits that particularly stood out to me.

I found the first fifty pages or so disconcertingly slow. But after the main storyline shifts to America, I couldn’t stop (anyone else have Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby children’s books still virtually memorized? Ramona’s book report: “I can’t believe I read the whoooole thing”). Lahiri is excellent – as she is in her other books – when she describes American scenes and landscapes through a newcomer’s viewpoint, simultaneously evoking a sense of the foreign and the familiar. Main character Subhash and his wife Gauri move to Rhode Island, and the salt marshes and windy beaches and white clapboard churches are instantly recognizable to anyone who has been to New England. Yet the scenes are dramatically opposed to the crowds and humidity of their previous home near Calcutta, so the mentions of Rhode Island’s cold rain or eating beef stew seem new and refreshing.

Lahiri’s other books are also about Indian-American immigrant experience over several generations, and obviously some of these experiences are similar for all sorts of ethnic groups. Probably many of us, at various stages of removal from our immigrant ancestors, have heard or can relate to anecdotes such as this one:

“On the other side of the campus she entered a little grocery store next to the post office. Among the sticks of butter and cartons of eggs she found something called cream cheese, which came in a silver wrapping…she bought it, thinking it might be chocolate, breaking the five-dollar bill Subhash left for her each day…inside the wrapper was something dense, cold, slightly sour. She broke it into pieces and ate it on its own, standing in the parking lot of the grocery. Not knowing it was intended to be spread on a cracker or bread, savoring the unexpected taste and texture of it in her mouth, licking the paper clean.”

Lahiri’s portrayal of these day-to-day challenges and adventures, as well as the broader existential ones, is why I would love to see one of her books as a selection for a Jewish/synagogue book group. What would be the comparisons with various Jewish immigrant experiences? It would probably be a lot of fun to share those.  I think that the fact that Lahiri is not explicitly describing the Jewish-American experience would create a fresh environment for discussion, and  lend a new view on old – but still important and valuable – cliches.

As she does in The Namesake, Lahiri also emphasizes the cultural divides and expectations about marriage and academic or professional achievement, other areas that are probably similar across immigrant groups. It’s all a bit more (wonderfully) complicated, I think, in The Lowland than in The Namesake. Most of this complication comes from the characters’ various levels of involvement with the Naxalite uprising of 1967, which sounds something like the Indian version of SDS. Actually, another minor character makes this same association:

“She had an hour, she told Dipankar, before she needed to get back to campus. Tell me, what’s this book about?

-You were at Presidency in the late sixties, right?

He’d gotten a contract from an academic press, to write a history of students at the college when the Naxalite movement was at its height. The idea was to compare it to the SDS in America. He was hoping to write it as an oral history. He wanted to interview her.

Her eyelid twitched. It was a nervous tic…I wasn’t involved, she said. Her mouth felt dry…she was suddenly afraid that he knew something. That maybe her name was on a list. That an old file had been opened, an investigation of a long-ago occurrence under way.”

Interesting, I thought, as I finished the book, that a book about the dangers of those types of movements – as young impressionable students are drawn in and end up involved in criminal activity – would be such a hit here in the US. A few hours later, though, I realized it’s not entirely clear where the book/Lahiri comes down with the Naxalites. Does Lahiri end up making the reader feel sympathy for them? Where is the line of responsibility between the leaders of the movement and the college students who carried out their demands? Gauri, one of the main characters, becomes more and more intriguing as we learn more about her true feelings.

Earlier this year we saw this movie:

which just has in common with The Lowland the re-examination/re-evaluation of 60’s political movements. Like The Lowland, it doesn’t glorify the participants. Interested to see if this thread will continue and/or will be picked up in any other books or cultural venues.

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The History of Us

The History of Us 

by Leah Stewart. Simon and Schuster, New York: 2013.  

I picked this book up from the “new arrivals” section at the library because the jacket said it was about Cincinnati. (Also it has an epigraph from Middlemarch, which was only more encouraging, in my opinion). I lived in Cincinnati for four years, and am generally intrigued by books that are about places I’ve been or lived.  And there is a lot of Cincinnati in this book, which is what made it fun for me to read. The main story happens to be largely about place and identity: the protagonist, Eloise, is a professor who is attempting to write her second book about that very subject while simultaneously figuring out whether to sell or keep the large historic house that she inherited. Eloise has lived there ever since she moved in when her sister and brother-in-law were tragically killed and Eloise was given care of their three children (along with the house to live in).  Now, as the children – Theo, Josh, and Claire – are all post-college and trying to figure out what to do with their own respective lives, Eloise realizes that the house is costing a lot to maintain and perhaps it is time to move on.

But not without protest from the kids, who love the house dearly. And not without reason, from the way Stewart describes it: “The house was on Clifton Avenue near the intersection of Lafayette [meaning it was also near my school!]…It, annd the houses around it, had been built by men of note and wealth in the nineteenth century, when Cincinnati, Queen of the West, City of the Seven Hills, was as grand as its nicknames, when it meant something to be a river town….even the people who been there before were struck again by the old-fashioned loveliness of the place. The way the arches of the porte cochere conjured images of the elegant necks of horses, the skirts of ladies alighting from carriages. The way the columned, semicircular portico and the bay windows above it resembled the top tiers of a wedding cake…” I think I know what sort of houses Stewart means. They were huge, probably from old steel or shipping tycoons, with extremely big lawns, and looked very sturdy (for the winters) yet still elegant. Stewart and her characters are all too aware, though, that the majesty of the house does not match the current condition of the city: “In Cincinnati when locals asked where you went to school they meant what high school. In Cincinnati when locals met a newcomer they asked, ‘Why’d you move here?’ It was a dying city, no matter how Theo winced and protested when Eloise used that term.” Josh good-naturedly pokes fun at himself while on a date: “ ‘I lived in Chicago, during college and for years after. And I came back to Cincinnati. Voluntarily. For no reason.’ She laughed. ‘And that’s not normal?’ He shook his head. ‘Not at all…..but in Cincinnati you don’t have to work too hard to be stylish.’” No arguments there. Cincinnati is definitely Dansko clogs and fleece country, not that I had a problem with that, ever.

Stewart mentions plenty of Cincinnati landmarks, especially Hyde Park, Graeter’s, and the Ludlow art-houses and new age coffee shops. In fact, with so much Cincinnati pride throughout the book, I was pretty surprised that the [inf]famous Skyline chili never makes an appearance. But the characters walk all over plenty of other neighborhoods, including Northside, which is one that I never really visited.

There’s more in the book than just Cincinnati memorabilia, even if that was the most enjoyable part for me. Each of the four main characters is dealing with the transition time. The kids are all trying to find their perfect career path, and also on the brink of marriage or at least serious monogamy.  Their aunt Eloise, who raised them since early childhood,  is struggling with how or whether she will regain a new identity or purpose with the kids all “grown” so to speak.  Stewart is full of prescient observations about this time of life, and also with this specific demographic, in which two of the adult children are still living “rent-free” in the big rambling house because, well, why not (they’re still single). With more choices in life seems to come not more but at least different complications, and Stewart is good with the brief yet insightful asides: “…Now she couldn’t think how to fill up three days. She’d always marveled at the calm with which characters in Jane Austen novels pursued their cloistered lives, filling up hours with visiting and stitchery, passing the time, just passing the time. Now it seemed to her she’d expended a lot of energy inventing purposes to disguise the fact that she was doing the same thing. That everyone was doing the same thing, just passing the time, blog posts [hello!] and emails and Twitter feeds instead of stitchery and whist.”  Several characters are involved with the Cincinnati Ballet, and it’s interesting to peek into that seemingly mysterious and magical world of ballerinas.

Even as each of the four characters is involved in various forms of relationship or dating, I think the real love story is between Eloise and the three kids. As Eloise’s mother (the kids’ grandmother) reminds them, when the accident happened, Eloise “…was twenty-eight…Everything that mattered to you, just on your own, you’d have to set aside….you might never finish your dissertation. That would haunt you…” And Eloise, in moments of maternal [no other word for it] frustration, furiously thinks “she wanted her job back, and her little apartment…she was selfish and solitary.” And yet, having now had her family and raised the children, “the prospect of being left alone had become the worst she could imagine…” When Theo asks Eloise if “they” were all “worth it,” Eloise, after reflecting on a montage of little moments from the children’s lives, finds that of course “yes, for God’s sake….I promise you. I wouldn’t change my life” and that “it was an enormous relief to find that meant it, and that she could say it aloud.” So, spoiler alert, but all’s well that ends well here.

There’s a Talmudic principle called “kal v’chomer” which is usually translated “from easy to difficult” or  “so much the more so.”  It’s used to compare two cases to prove a point of law, as in “if X is true in case A, then kal v’chomer, so much the more so, would X be true in case B.”  When my boyfriend-now-husband informed me that he had a good job prospect in Orlando and did I think that might be a good place to live, I wanted to use a kal v’chomer declaration: “If we were able to have fun and enjoy each other’s company in Cincinnati in the middle of February, kal v’chomer, so much the more so, will we be able to have a good life in Orlando” – Amen!

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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.waldman book

by Adelle Waldman. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2013.

I like and agree with the droll praise that the NPR book reviewer gave to this book: “Before I read Adelle Waldman’s brilliant debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I had about as much interest in reading about the hip, young literary types who’ve colonized Brooklyn as I do in watching Duck Dynasty, that reality show about a family of bearded Luddites who live in the Louisiana swamps. Both clans are ingrown and smug, each, in their own way, disdainful of the American mainstream. I’d still steer clear of the Duck people, but Waldman, who is herself a hip young literary person living in Brooklyn, has written such a crisp, comic novel of manners and ideas about her own tribe that I was completely won over.”

The reviewer perfectly mimicked the sort of shocking juxtaposition that those literary Brooklyn types so love by matching them with the duck swamp people. As the reviewer and the book’s dust jacket say, Waldman does in fact belong to this set, so I have to wonder whether there’s any awkwardness when she’s at dinner parties or bars with her friends.

Every book I’ve mentioned on here before has had some element of Judaism, and this one isn’t completely without – but just the barest mention. Nate, the protagonist, went to a Jewish day school, and his parents are immigrants, although they are the kind with “good jobs – they were engineers and defense contractors.”  But this book, like All That Is, has a lot of elements that have a vague sense of a Jewish world about them. Nate recalls being bad at sports but very very good in school, eventually getting to Harvard where is far more intellectual than some of his WASP-y peers. It is at Harvard where Nate learns “to make finer distinctions between the homes of his most sophisticated classmates – the old school WASPs versus the academic intellectuals (Jew or gentile)….when Amy Perelman [Nate’s high school friend] went to Vail, everyone at school knew they stayed at a ski lodge that sounded like some kind of alpine palace…people at Harvard, on the other hand, referred to their ‘places’ in Vermont or New Hampshire…Nate, too, went skiing once with a group of kids from his synagogue… They stayed at a Holiday Inn and ate at the Denny’s across the parking lot.”

On perhaps a more positive note, it is also at Harvard that Nate “began, really, to read…The spring of his sophomore year he began to read from feverish loneliness, a loneliness he began to fear would be permanent…” Been there. After Harvard, though, he finds his way to Brooklyn and falls into a group of young people who all work various freelance writing jobs, a few as assistants to editors of New York Review of Books and similar publications, all while working on their own big novels. Their conviction of the worth of this enterprise is something – not quite admirable, but close? On Nate’s first date with Hannah, a main love affair of the book, she says, “ ‘Nobody I know from home writes or does anything close…They have regular jobs, at banks and insurance companies. Things like that.’” Well, FYI, Nate and Hannah, those “regular” jobs actually are probably pretty interesting – the chance to meet and help many different kinds of people, challenges of unexpected events, etc. What sounds boring is the endless self-absorption and naval-gazing a la the Brooklyn literary bubble.

While I’m ranting – is this the reaction Waldman wanted? – let me point out that Hannah and a few other characters smoke. How stupid does one possibly have to be to smoke? These girls are obviously not undereducated about smoking, or in such dire circumstances like the army or prison that it’s their only release. No, they do it as a social statement: “’ I just get so sick of the antismoking thing,’ she said. ‘It’s so totalitarian.’” This is where life experience, perhaps in the form of volunteering, could come into play. One glimpse around your average hospital ICU unit and one would see why anti-smoking campaigns aren’t just one more boring adage from your parents. Did Waldman put the smoking in there as a sort of symbol for how some of these young people are shooting themselves in the foot, cutting off ties with parents or making meaningful career moves, for the sake of playing a part?

Nate doesn’t hate his parents. In fact, he secretly admires them. On dates and at parties, he ritually mocks them – “he too often found himself making fun of their middle-class immigrant ways” – but “he didn’t like the derision that habitually crept into his voice when he talked about them…” and he “felt more empathy for his parents than his tone implied.”

And for all of these “bright young things’” desire to be unique and different, it’s still the same old story: at dinner parties where they debate whether their own Whole Foods latte-liberalism is just Marxism disguised and check out each other bookcases to notice a lack of Graham Greene, still, the girls are all just trying to find a guy. Nate recoils at the idea of everyone wanting to be in a relationship: “If Nate’s idea of a nice dinner involved hunching over his kitchen table with a Celeste Pizza for One and a copy of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, who is to say that his ideal is worse?” I find that last sentence so amazingly sad. To retreat into a defensive shell angrily proclaiming that “alone is better” is easy and understandable. But there is better out there.

And even Nate “knew what the response [to his supposed preference to being alone] would be: maturity, it’s what adults do, et cetera, et cetera.” By the end of the book, Nate has come to drop the annoyed adolescent “et cetera” and find a relationship that he enjoys.

It’s not with Hannah. After Nate drags his feet in terms of commitment one too many times, he and Hannah break up. He tries to excuse his behavior by making it philosophic: “ ‘Sometimes I think I’ve lost something,’ he said to Hannah. ‘Some capacity to be with another person, something I used to have….’” Hannah, thankfully, calls him on it in what I think is one of the best paragraphs of the book: “ ‘I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential s**t. But to me, it looks like the most tired, the most average thing in the world, the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can’t have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.’” Bravo, Hannah! And it cycles back to the opening dinner party of the book, where again, despite the namedropping to Eggers and Svevo and “multisyllabic European film directors” they’re all just trying to get paired off.

Is this a conservative book? Politically and/or culturally? I think maybe. Here are my reasons.  First, a very subtle clue: Nate negatively reviews a “left-leaning Israeli novelists” new book. Second, Nate’s feeling that his parents really are right, that solid work and overachievement and a little materialism (and feeling proud of it) are good and fine, and that mocking those sensibilities is insensible. Also, it seems as though Waldman mocks the vague and thoughtless pretensions of some of these literary teenagers, such as smoking for no good reason or feeling oh-so-separate from former classmates who are now bankers. But send-ups of the self-absorbed literary glitterati are nothing new: see Breaking Ranks by Norman Podhoretz and others like it.

 

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