Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s UnionI’ve been told by a handful of people that I have to read Michael Chabon. Given the sources–thankfully not the same people who told me I had to read Dan Brown–I kept it in the back of my mind. I still haven’t gotten to the book generally regarded to be Chabon’s masterwork (thus far), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Klay, but my gut tells me that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union would likely give its predecessor a run for the money. I mean, this is a book you’d get for the title alone, if you’re of a certain cast of mind. If you’re a browser of other cultures, if you’re inexplicably drawn to things Yiddish to begin with, and you generally like the better class of detective fiction (the kind that doesn’t prominently feature crime-solving cats), it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

Chabon follows the rules of noir–there are nods to Hammett and Chandler in a few places–but makes up most of the rest as he goes along. All the familiar tropes are on display: the drunken, disillusioned detective, his long-suffering and more level-headed partner, the ex-wife–I could go on. But Chabon isn’t content to stop there. In prose that’s alternately hard-boiled and incandescent, he unravels Jewish religious and social strata, examines family ties and obligation, and puts identity politics and fundamentalism through a meat grinder. Best of all, he does all of this in a cadence readily familiar to anybody who’s watched the earlier films of the Marx Brothers. Even the story’s red herrings–and they are legion–are served pickled, in sour cream.  Continue reading “Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”

Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved ChinaReading Simon Winchester is a bit like listening to a well-traveled friend at a cocktail party who’s always just come back from somewhere, brimming with interesting stories about people you would otherwise never have heard of. His previous books, among them the bestsellers The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, A Crack at the Edge of the World, and The Meaning of Everything, have shown the author’s unerring knack of unearthing subjects you would never have thought to explore and making page-turners of them. Before I discovered Winchester (courtesy of Professor some years back), I would never have given much thought to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Krakatoa would only have been a footnote in life that brought no small amount of amusement to my fifth-grade teachers.

Winchester returned in 2008* with The Man Who Loved China: The Fascinating Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom which, like The Professor and the Madman, is equal parts biography of the creation of a sprawling tome (in this case, the unfinished-but-still-in-progress Science and Civilisation in China) and of its creator, the eccentric polymath Joseph Neehdam. Needham set out to answer a single question: Why, after centuries of unparalleled innovation–times that saw the invention of movable type, gunpowder, suspension bridges, and the abacus, among scores of other useful stuff, sometimes centuries before their appearance in the West–did China suddenly, and for hundreds of years more, effectively shut off the lights, backsliding to the status of a scientific backwater? His quest to answer that question animates Winchester’s book, and–the author suggests–may yet underpin our understanding of a modern, very resurgent, China. Continue reading “Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China”

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard BookI shouldn’t be surprised that Neil Gaiman’s latest offering, The Graveyard Book, is as good as it is. Many moons ago, when he and Terry Pratchett wrote Good Omens (which I’d also suggest you read), they captured the kids to a “T.” These weren’t a bunch of adults trapped in little bodies, nor were they a bunch of one-dimensional hellions. Nearly twenty years later, Gaiman delivers a book that’s properly “for” kids, though it’d be short-sighted to dismiss it as “just” kiddie lit. Adam Young, meet Nobody (“Bod”) Owens.

Much has been made of the book’s genesis in, and parallels with, Kipling’s Jungle Book, and the English major in me could probably while away the better part of an afternoon finding the parallels between the two. I’ll leave that to the folks over on Amazon, likewise leaving them their complaints that Kipling did it better. So much in literature–whether for adults or kids–cannibalizes so much of what came before that it seems silly sometimes to point out that really, Kipling did Kipling better. There’s satisfaction enough in reading The Graveyard Book on its, and its author’s, own merits. Continue reading “Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book”

Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft Jesus

Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft JesusRobert McElvaine is one pissed-off individual. It’s hard to escape the conclusion, all the way from the cover to the very last page of his Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America. On the other hand, all the old saws about not judging a book by its cover aside, once you get to the contents, it’s easy to see why he might be–ahem–slightly perturbed.

The author’s interest is in those who’ve read the New Testament so closely that they can’t see the forest–in this case, Jesus’ teachings and central message–for the trees (i.e. the individual, highly legalized, very specific and often very specious focus on certain bits that make the more difficult bits of Jesus go down easy). To say that he’s disturbed by the shape of the religious landscape in this country would be putting it mildly. Writing of those he calls “Lite Christians,” he says:

They’re all about having fun, spending money, and seeking pleasure, but when it comes to the fundamental teachings of Jesus, they take a pass. Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!

And, as it turns out, McElvaine’s in a target-rich environment. Continue reading “Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft Jesus”

John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue“The ideal antidote to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Okay, we’ve gotten that part out of the way. Now, on to the book. John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is like manna from heaven for people who get all weak-kneed over discussions of grammar, linguistics, and how, exactly, the English language took the shape that it has today. Like other books on the subject written for the mass market–Richard Lederer’s or David Crystal’s works come to mind–it’s engaging and informative; unlike much of the rest of the (admittedly not very crowded) field, it’s also funny; McWhorter’s enthusiasm for his subject, and his tongue-in-cheek delivery, are contagious.

The best place to begin is at the ending, where the author sums up much of the 190-odd pages that went before:

The History of English we are usually given is rather static. Some marauders brought Old English to Britain. The Celts scampered away. Pretty soon the Brits went cosmopolitan and started gathering baskets of words from assorted folks, such that we now have a bigger vocabulary than before. The only thing that happened to English grammar during all this time, other than minutiae only a linguist could love, is that it lost a lot of endings, and this made word order less flexible.

That does a decent job of summing up the popular conception of how we arrived at the modern English language; it’s what we’re told in grammar school, alongside penmanship, diagramming sentences, not splitting infinitives, and never writing sentences with prepositions at the end. Only that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. Continue reading “John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”

O Rappa: 7 Vezes

O Rappa: 7 VezesYears back, I remember reading an article in Musician magazine where they asked a couple dozen musicians what they hoped the music of the ’90’s would sound like (this would’ve been in late ’89 or early ’90). I don’t remember most of the responses, save for one: Vernon Reid said something to the effect that he’d love to see something that’d be a fusion of rap, metal, and world music; I read that, and thought to myself, “Okay, interesting, but what would it sound like?

It’d take almost ten years, but I’d eventually find out, almost purely by accident. I was working in a chain record store, and one morning before opening had slipped the then-new compilation Red Hot + Rio into the player, proceeding then to go absentmindedly about my morning, half-working, half-listening. At least until “Maracatu Atomico” came thudding through the speakers and stopped me dead in my tracks. For the next fifteen or so minutes, through repeated plays, I couldn’t pay attention to anything else. All of a sudden, what Vernon Reid had said made perfect, crystalline sense. This–in the form of a performance by Chico Science and Nação Zumbi–was it.

So what’s that got to do with O Rappa? Hold on, I’m getting there. Science’s death in 1997 spelled the end of CSNZ, and left me wondering where I might find something with that same spark and originality. A chance conversation with a customer in the aforementioned record shop clued me in to O Rappa. While the sound isn’t apples-to-apples alike (which is a good thing; if they’d been too close, I’d have been more disappointed than thrilled), I think the spirit in which O Rappa operates would’ve done Chico Science proud. That said, now let’s get down to their latest offering, Sete Vezes. Continue reading “O Rappa: 7 Vezes”

Lenine: Labiata

Lenine: LabiataYou could call Lenine a late bloomer; although his first album (with Lula Queiroga) dropped in 1983, when he was 24, there was a break of nearly ten years before his collaboration with Marcos Suzano, Olho de Peixe, would appear; another five before his first proper “solo” album, O Dia em que Faremos Contato. At 38, in other words, he finally hit his stride. And now, some years on–he’s celebrating his fiftieth birthday somewhere as I write this–he shows no signs of slowing down.

Lenine’s sound is instantaneously identifiable. There’s the comfortably worn voice, a guitar style that sounds like Michael Hedges channelling João Gilberto, and a sense of rhythm and texture that’s as forward-looking as anything Chico Science managed. On one hand, the sound is so identifiable that even someone covering Lenine ends up sounding more than a bit like him (like Daude’s take on “Hoje Eu Quiero Sair So,” from her debut album); but then, even songs he’s written for other artists–try just a chorus from Fernanda Abreu’s “Urbano Canibal”–bear his stamp. As if that weren’t enough, even his takes on others’ music end up sounding as though he wrote them, as was the case with the excellent “O Atirador,” from his 2005 acoustic release. On his latest disc, Labiata, he sounds like none other. Continue reading “Lenine: Labiata”

Sugar-Free Jazz: The Jazz Ear, by Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff: The Jazz EarIf trying to define jazz is difficult, trying to get a jazz musician to talk about his or her approach to the craft seems harder still. As Ben Ratliff notes in the introduction to his latest book, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, these interviews often as not take place as part of promotion of whatever the artist happens to have most recently released; much less often do they take place for no other reason than the conversation, with their subjects’ guard down.

Ratliff’s approach–to have his subjects use someone else’s music as a conversation-starter–yields some great results. As it turns out, musicians, like the rest of us, tend to tell the most when they’re talking about something other than themselves or their own output. The interviews contained here capture both their subjects–the musicians being interviewed, and the music to which interviewer and interviewee are listening–in miniature, revealing insights into their own personalities, listening habits, and their  approaches to composition and playing. Continue reading “Sugar-Free Jazz: The Jazz Ear, by Ben Ratliff”

Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond ToleranceSo when, exactly, is tolerance a bad, or at the very least counterproductive, thing? Former New York Times religion writer (and current Syracuse professor) Gustav Niebuhr sets out to answer that question in Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America , a far-ranging overview of the work that’s gone on in our recent past toward fostering religious understanding and cooperation.

At some point early in our education, we’re told that the United States was founded in no small part by religious dissidents, and on the basis of religious freedom. What this manages to overlook–though Niebuhr, thankfully, does not–is that this freedom was most likely to be extended to one’s own, but not as much to those who believed and worshipped in a way that was different from the rest of the community. As with other freedoms we cherish (see last week’s reviews of Commager and Lewis on the First Amendment), our religious freedom has long been a work in progress.

Somewhere amid all this research and development, among all the intramural squabbles among the various Christianities that flourished in the new soil of the New World, and between the fits and starts of schisms within schisms, a Christian consensus of sorts started to emerge. That consensus didn’t often–well, to be honest, didn’t usually–take in other religions. Beyond Tolerance is driven by the efforts, from America’s earliest days, to rectify that error. Continue reading “Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance”

Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not

Henry Steele Commager: Freedom, Loyalty, DissentAnthony Lewis: Freedom for the Thought That We Hate With the inauguration of Barack Obama looming, and soon-to-be ex-president Bush embarking on a round of image rehabilitation and retroactive whitewashing, it seems as good a time as any to look back over the Bush legacy and look ahead–create a wishlist, if you will–to what one might hope from the Obama administration. Thousands, if not millions, of words have been written over both the past eight years, and America’s prospects for the future. While it’s true that only the passage of time will provide sufficient perspective on all that we’ve experienced since November of 2000, we still have to live in the present with the consequences of all that’s been done since.

The aftermath of the Bush presidency, for the short term, has been an evisceration of the Constitution, of our rights, and of our civil liberties. Those on the Right seem to have been concerned with the Second Amendment, but precious little else; we’ve seen the Bill of Rights otherwise consigned to the shredder. The NSA and the government’s wiretapping programs have given the lie to the Fourth Amendment; the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without the right to trial, and without access even to counsel, makes a mockery of both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments; and the First Amendment–the “first freedom,” as Nat Hentoff once dubbed it–has been honored more in the breach.

It’s against this backdrop–a dismal near past, and what one would hope would be a brighter future–that we take up two books published half a century apart. The first, Henry Steele Commager’s Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, was published at the height of McCarthy-inspired hysteria and anticommunist witch-hunts; the second, Anthony Lewis’s Freedom for the Thought We Hate, appeared just shy of two years ago. Continue reading “Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not”