Saturday, December 27, 2008

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Didn't Like - 2

As I've written here previously, I read a lot of mysteries. I've been a fan of the genre since I discovered the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner when I was fourteen.

Writing mysteries is like eating Lay's potato chips: you can't just write one. The dedicated reader of mysteries expects their favorite authors to publish a book every year, or they'll lose interest in the series and find other authors.

However, it is almost inevitable that the writer of a mystery series will grow tired of the detective who is the focal of the series, run out of interesting plots, or just plain get bored. And three of my favorite mystery writers published books this year they should not have.

I've read all of Patricia Cornwell's novels about Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner. Cornwell's novels are known for the forensic details the author brings to the novels, as well as complex plots and an interesting group of core characters. One reads Cornwell as much for the changes in the lives of Scarpetta, her lover, an FBI profiler, her niece, a wealthy, gay computer geek, and the retired policeman who works for Scarpetta and is in love with her, something she never notices.

Book of the Dead is an unbelievably bad book. Where Cornwell almost always writes from the point-of-view of Scarpetta, in this novel she uses third person omniscient, which could be a sign that she is bored and needs a new way to tell a story. But this change in p.o.v. only confuses a boring story. She either had a deadline to meet, or she is taking her readers for granted and thinking we will like anything she writes. I’m glad I got this one on my Kindle and didn’t pay as much for it as I would've paid if I'd bought in hard cover.

Bad, bad, bad.

One of my favorite mystery authors is Archer Mayor. His series centers around a Vermont policeman named Joe Gunther, and Mayor brings a thoughtfulness and compassion to Gunther that is very different for a mystery. His latest, The Catch, like Cornwell's book, uses multiple points of view, which is a radical departure for Mayor. The strength of the series is Joe Gunther's decency, and the reason I like the novels is that I like spending time with Gunther.

In this novel the reader is taken inside the minds of the criminals as well as other policemen, but Mayor doesn't make us care about them. In addition, most of the novel takes place in Maine rather than Vermont. When writing about Vermont, where Mayor lives, he is obviously writing about what he knows. But Maine is not embedded in his psyche like Vermont is. I could tell he'd done a lot of research about Maine but I didn't get the feeling that he loves Maine. I felt I was reading his research.

The worst aspect of the book is that the reader is taken on a wild goose chase. A policeman is murdered in Vermont. Because the suspected killer is a drug dealer, the trail seems to lead to Maine. But the murder was committed by the policeman's former mother-in-law and could have been solved in the first 15 pages.

As a reader, I felt disrespected.

The third writer is Bill Moody, a jazz pianist. He does not write a book a year, and his latest, Shades of Blue is only his sixth in this series featuring Evan Horne, a jazz pianist, who finds himself in situations that involve not only having to solve a murder but also some mystery in the history of jazz.

The series is interesting because Moody writes about jazz from the inside, being a practicing musician, and his descriptions of improvisation as well as his insights into the music are always interesting.

In this novel the main story line does not deal with solving a murder but on searching for the widow of his mentor. He learns, however, that the widow is his actual mother and his mentor was his father. This part of the novel is really good, but Moody mucks a fine story up with two unnecessary subplots.

One subplot deals with a grad student from UCLA who had been taking care of his mentor’s dog. Evan inherits the house, meets the grad student, and they develop a very nice relationship, the grad student obviously falling in love with Evan. This creates a little tension because Evan has a girl friend, an FBI agent whom I don’t like, whom Evan isn’t sure of. Out of the blue the grad student is killed accidentally. I felt Moody didn’t know what to do with the developing relationship between Evan and the girl, didn’t want to have to deal with her in the next book, so he killed her off. I thought it was a cheap trick to kill off a character Moody had made the reader really like.

The second subplot is even too dumb to mention. Neither subplot supported the main plot. It was like Moody felt like he didn’t have enough material for a book so he padded it with subplots which sabotaged what could have been an even more moving story.

Cornwell has a new novel out, Scarpetta, but I don't think I'll read this one as the reviews I've seen have been very negative. However, I'm hoping that Mayor and Moody return to form in their next novels.

Next time I'll write about mystery writers whose books I read this year and loved.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas

Chanukkah is not a major holiday on the Jewish calendar. But in America, Chanukkah is attaining a significance that is changing it from the commemoration it was intended to be into a commemoration of the exact opposite.

First, the history. It is the second century, B.C.E. Palestine is under the control of the Greeks, and the Greeks have brought with them their culture and civilization, in other words, their value system. The Greeks understood that the most effective way to conquer a people is not by military might alone. Instead combine military might with persuading the people to accept your value system, to make your way of life attractive.

The Greek way of life became so attractive that Jews began changing their names to Greek ones. In Jewish cemeteries Greek inscriptions began appearing on headstones rather than Hebrew ones. Jews became so fluent in Greek that they could no longer read the Torah in Hebrew. The Greeks loved masculine beauty and would exercise and participate in athletics in the nude. Some Jewish men were so eager to be accepted into Greek society that they had operations to have their circumcisions reversed by having a piece of skin reattached so they could exercise in the nude and pass for Greek.

However, trouble ensued when the Greeks set up statues of Greek deities in the Temple in Jerusalem. They went into villages with pigs and demanded the Jews worship the animal. In one such village, however, when a Jew stepped forward to bow to the pig, a Jew named Mattityahu stepped forward and killed him. Thus began the revolt that eventually led to the reclamation of the Temple, its cleansing of idolatry, and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.

The war that led up to the reclamation of the Temple represent the first instances in world history of what we now call guerilla warfare, and the tactics used in that war are taught to this day at West Point. That war also represents the first time in history that a people fought for the right of religious freedom. In other words, Jews fought for the right to live and worship as Jews.

Because of Chanukkah's proximity to Christmas, Chanukkah, the Jewish holiday which was a rebellion against assimilation, is becoming the holiday of assimilation.

While I can understand the good intentions of Gentiles wishing me a "Happy Chanukkah," I have problems when Jews do it. In a Jewish context, the words are meaningless. The word, Chanukkah, means "dedication", dedication to Jewish values. Unfortunately, the eight day observance is becoming a dedication to assimilation. And nothing represents that more than the increasing proliferation of the word, "Chrismukkah".

It will not be too many more years before Christmas and Chanukkah will each be devoid of meaning.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Monday, December 22, 2008

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Didn't Like - 1

As I've written in previous blogs, I keep a personal "commonplace book" in which I write about the books I read and record the sentences and paragraphs I underlined. I try to read at least a book a week, and this year I read fifty-five.

I'll begin with books I really, really didn't like:

Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander:

Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew with a yeshiva (religious school) education. The book is his screed against his upbringing. It is supposed to be funny, and in places, it is. But overall, this is an angry, ugly book.

He details his early rebellion against kashrut [the laws that govern what an observant Jew can and cannot eat] by sneaking off to eat non-kosher foods, his love of pornography, and most of all, his disgust with the concept of God as the Being who metes out punishment for every little violation of Jewish law.

What is clear is that Auslander never had a religious experience. If a religion is nothing more to you than restrictive rules, I suppose one response is Auslander’s.

Perhaps my response would be different if I were younger, or if were a born Jew. But I am neither and I found this to be an unpleasant book.

In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson by Sue Erikson Boland

This was an odd book. I was looking forward to reading it because I’d read Robert Coles's book on Erikson, as well as Erikson’s books on Martin Luther, Gandhi and his book on childhood and society, These books were important to me in my own attempts to forge my identity.

His daughter’s book addresses the disparity between her experience of her father and that of the many who idolized him. The Erik Erikson who wrote with such insight about childhood was not much of a father. The disparity between her father’s image and his actuality as a father leads her to what becomes her life’s work - an analysis of fame and how people project onto the famous their need for heroes.

I didn’t find what she had to say about fame, the famous and projections to be very original or insightful. And, though she wrote more than once that she loved her father, the love does not come through. That Erikson was not as good a person as his words did not surprise me or bother me. But she does not include any of his words, and perhaps there was a good reason.

Once she was going to deliver a paper about her father to a group of colleagues, a paper that eventually led to this book. She began by playing a videotape of her father speaking. Too late she realized that she had lost her audience because they were totally captivated by her father. If she had included excerpts from his writings in this book, readers might not have believed her words about him. But including some of her father’s words would have given a more balanced experience of him.

When I finished the book I wondered why she'd written it, or, perhaps more important, why she published it. I sure she would find it ironic that all she accomplished for me was to make me want to look again at his books and Coles's biography to see what I'd underlined in them, and I recall that I underlined a lot. Erikson's writings were crucial in my journey to defining myself.

She does admit, however, that her older brother, Kai, had a very different relationship with their father because Kai became a prominent sociologist, and he could talk with his father about things that interested them both. I would have found the book to be more honest if she could have acknowledged that she was writing as much, if not more, about herself and not her father.

Reading the book I could not help trying to imagine what one of my children might write about me, if their memories of me as a father would be a record of all I did not do that they wished I had? In so many relationships, the hurts we experienced live within us for decades, and the joys, that were part of the same relationships, are scarcely remembered, or, if remembered, have little meaning for us.

I hope that my children will be merciful to my memory, when that is all that remains of me, that they will know that I did my best. And if my best was not good enough for them, that is neither my fault nor theirs. This is merely what it is to be human.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

An Apology and Words

Well, it seems that the economy recovery program I supported in my previous blog was based on poor arithmetic and wishful thinking. Several people e-mailed to point out that however many trillion it was divided by however many million results in $425 per person, not $425,000. Well, it was fun to fantasize about.

Words. The Times of London reports that Collins Dictionary has announced that it is going to drop some words because they are no longer used. Well, how can we use a word if we don't know it exists? Here are the words, some of which I can definitely use.

Abstergent: Cleansing or scouring

The word itself sounds cleansing.

Agrestic: Rural; rustic; unpolished; uncouth

I can now tell someone they're being uncouth, and they'll think it's a compliment.

Apodeictic: Unquestionably true by virtue of demonstration

I have no idea what this means. Collins can take it out.

Caducity: Perishableness; senility

If I can remember this word, it'll prove I'm not senile.

Caliginosity: Dimness; darkness

Compossible: Possible in coexistence with something else

Embrangle: To confuse or entangle

I need this word. I get embrangled a lot.

Exuviate: To shed (a skin or similar outer covering)

Fatidical: Prophetic

Fubsy: Short and stout; squat

Has something of the onomatopoetic about it.

Griseous: Streaked or mixed with grey; somewhat grey

Malison: A curse

Mansuetude: Gentleness or mildness

Muliebrity: The condition of being a woman

I had to look this one up. It comes from the Latin muliebris and means, "the female genitalia." In the Merriam Webster Unabridged muliebrity is defined as "the state of being a woman, or of possessing full womanly powers."

Niddering: Cowardly

Nitid: Bright; glistening

Olid: Foul-smelling

Oppugnant: Combative, antagonistic or contrary

One of my favorites. Makes me think of the kind of person who, no matter what you say, takes the opposite side because they like playing "devil's advocate". Instead of telling him or her to stop being an asshole, I can say "Don't be oppugnant."

Periapt: A charm or amulet

Recrement: Waste matter; refuse; dross

Roborant: Tending to fortify or increase strength

Skirr: A whirring or grating sound, as of the wings of birds in flight

I love this word. A true onomatopoeia. It reminds me of one of my favorite words - drizzle. I just love the sound of that word whether it's drizzle rain or if a recipe says "drizzle butter...." Which reminds me of my favorite onomatopoeia, ronron which is French for a cat's purr. Say it with that French "r" rolling from the throat and it sounds exactly like a cat.

Vaticinate: To foretell; prophesy

Vilipend: To treat or regard with contempt

I hope there's a word here that you can adopt. I hate to think of a word dying.

Julius Lester

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An Economic Recovery Plan That Would Work

This economic recovery plan comes from someone named Bill Searle. I do not know who he is. It was sent to me by a college classmate, Lesley Green Huffaker. If you like it, share it with as many people as you can. It certainly makes sense to me.

My Dear Fellow Americans ,

I'm against the $85,000,000,000.00 bailout of AIG. Instead, I'm in favor of giving $85,000,000,000 to America in a We Deserve It Dividend.

To make the math simple, let's assume there are 200,000,000 bonafide U.S. Citizens 18+. Our population is about 301,000,000 +/- counting every man, woman and child.. So 200,000,000 might be a fair stab at adults 18 and up. So divide 200 million adults 18+ into $85 billion that equals $425,000.00. My plan is to give $425,000 to every person 18+ as a We Deserve It Dividend..

Of course, it would NOT be tax free. So let's assume a tax rate of 30%. Every individual 18+ has to pay $127,500.00 in taxes. That sends $25,500,000,000 right back to Uncle Sam. But it means that every adult 18+ has $297,500.00 in their pocket. A husband and wife has $595,000.00. What would you do with $297,500.00 to $595,000.00 in your family?

Pay off your mortgage - housing crisis solved.

Repay college loans - what a great boost to new grads

Put away money for college - it'll be there

Save in a bank - create money to loan to entrepreneurs.

Buy a new car - create jobs

Invest in the market - capital drives growth

Pay for your parent's medical insurance - health care improves

Enable Deadbeat Dads to come clean - or else

Remember this is for every adult U S Citizen 18+ including the folks who lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and every other company that is cutting back. And of course, for those serving in our Armed Forces.

If we're going to re-distribute wealth let's really do it instead of trickling out a puny $1000.00 ( 'vote buy' ) economic incentive that is being proposed by one of our candidates for President(Obama).

If we're going to do an $85 billion bailout, let's bail out every adult U S Citizen 18+!

As for AIG - liquidate it. Sell off its parts. Let American General go back to being American General. Sell off the real estate. Let the private sector bargain hunters cut it up and clean it up. Here's my rationale. We deserve it and AIG doesn't.

Sure it's a crazy idea that can 'never work.' But can you imagine the Coast-To-Coast Block Party! How do you spell Economic Boom?

I trust my fellow adult Americans to know how to use the $85 Billion. We Deserve It Dividend more than I do the geniuses at AIG or in Washington DC.

And remember, The Searle plan only really costs $59.5 Billion because $25.5 Billion is returned instantly in taxes to Uncle Sam.

PS: Feel free to pass this along to your pals as it's either good for a laugh or a tear or a very sobering thought on how to best use $85 Billion!!

When told the reason for Daylight Saving time the old Indian said...'Only a white man would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket and sew it to the bottom of a blanket and have a longer blanket.'


Bill Searle

The Economic Crisis

The current economic disaster shows just how rapacious a system capitalism is. Why are millions of people having their lives destroyed? Because a minority of people thought only of themselves and satisfying their lust for money. It's really just that simple. The central idea of capitalism is that the individual is more important than the group, and that the highest principle is the satisfaction of greed. And nothing is going to change until these precepts are overturned and replaced by ones that say the individual and the group are of equal importance, and the highest principle is compassion.

By definition, capitalism appeals to our most narrow self-interests. Capitalism makes a virtue of selfishness. Capitalism makes greed sacred. Capitalism preaches that it is better to be in debt than it is to save. Capitalism makes us crave THINGS, and we go into debt in order to buy THINGS. The economy needs us to BUY THINGS. And, worst of all, perhaps, capitalism has convinced us that this is the best way to live, and dammit, we seem to be convincing the rest of the world of this.

Maybe out of the current economic debacle, more and more people will begin to see the capitalism primarily benefits a minority and pacifies the majority with THINGS and dreams that one day members of the majority can join the wealthy minority.

Tomorrow, I'll pass on an economic plan someone passed on to me from someone who passed it to her. I hope you'll pass it on to others.

And even though Barack Obama believes in capitalism, as of 2 A.M. (EST), I'm still happy that in 49 days, 10 hours and 1 minutes, he will become the 44th president.

© 2008 by Julius Lester