Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who wins the diversity challenge?

"The Israelis", by journalist Donna Rosenthal, is a terrific read, each chapter devoted to a different group in Israel - the Ashkenazi, the Bedoin, the Mizrahi, the Arabs, the Christians, the Druze, the Ultra-Orthodox, and more.  Who would have thought that the Jewish nation of Israel would contain such insular and varied groups, each with its own customs and agenda? The book reads easily, like an extended newspaper feature, and is enlivened by many interviews with ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives amidst the social and political challenges. Chapters address the army, social and sexual norms and more, filling out the picture of life there.

I could not put this book down. Ultimately, it provides a vastly better understanding of the challenges facing Israel from within as well as from its neighbors, challenges which seem overwhelming.  Highly recommended.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Weathering the Storm

I've read several examples of post 9/11 fiction – Joseph O'Neill's “Netherland”, Don DeLillo's “Falling Man”, Amy Waldman's “The Submission”- but this is my first post Katrina read. The action in Jesmyn West's Salvage The Bones takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi during the twelve days leading up to and just after Hurricane Katrina. The narrator is 15-year-old Esch, the only girl in a poor black family. I have developed somewhat of an aversion to plucky young female narrators, so I'm happy to report that Esch is not plucky. She longs for her mother, who died giving birth to Esch's younger brother Junior, she moons over a boy named Manny, whose interest in her is purely sexual, and she buries herself in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” as she attempts to liken her situation to Medea pursuing Jason.

Ignoring the impending storm, despite warnings from their father, the four children battle the complications of their young lives. Most powerful is the story of Esch's brother Skeetah, whose life revolves around his devotion to his dog China and her newborn pups. But fair warning – his unconditional love for his dog doesn't prevent him from pitting her against another dog in an extraordinarily vicious and bloody fight. It took me four tries to get through that chapter.

But, as the storm bears down on them, West gradually reveals the love that binds these tough, gritty siblings to each other and lifts their simple lives to the grand themes of honor, revenge, tragedy and loyalty of mythology. She occasionally wallows in too many metaphors, but her language is as powerful and tender as the family she describes.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Remembering Everything

"The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" sure sounded appealing, what with my increasing lapses lately.  But "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer isn't about that at all.  It explores the history and science of memory. And it describes the bizarre memory competitions, U.S.and World Championships in which competitors memorize the order of decks of playing cards, large lists of numbers, entire poems and more, with time limits of just a few minutes. The author, a journalist, becomes so fascinated by his subject that he himself trains and competes in the U.S. Memory Championship.

The methodology of memory competitors, which is interesting because it could be put to more practical use, involves constructing vivid visual images for each item.  A visual image, the more outlandish the better, placed in a mental location such as the front door of one's childhood home, is the key to retrieval.

I found it amazing that even the Greeks had a well-developed memory methodology which was similar. Remembering things was so much more important in early times before widespread access to written material. And today we have externalized so much to electronic devices that we barely need to recall anything, only where we're stored the information.  Who knows the phone numbers of their friends any more? Or their own schedules?

This was a fun book, with an intruiging subject, lots of scientific anecdotes as well as nearly certifiable characters.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Smart Girl

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I've always been an admirer of Tina Fey. I read an excerpt from her autobiography Bossypants in the New Yorker, and it was so smart and funny that I went to my friendly local library and checked it out. Fey started her career at Saturday Night Live as a comedy writer, and she's got the chops.

She has Nora Ephron's talent for witty self-deprecation, but mixed in with hilarious stories about her awkward adolescence, her ill-fated honeymoon cruise and her insecurities about motherhood, are doses of honest and practical advice about succeeding in a male-dominated field.

Here's one of my favorites: “So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: 'Is this person in between me and what I want to do?' if the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you're in charge, don't hire the people who were jerky to you.” See what I mean? If you want to know her advice if the answer is yes, you'll just have to read the book.