02 January 2010

On the Reality of God

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Initially, I found John Avant's book If God Were Real to be … terrible. A brief catalog of complaints: The language is sometimes repetitive and unsophisticated, and initially the ideas seemed similarly simplistic and unevolved. The introduction to the book—a story about the capacity for love and desire for a father figure in a much-abused little girl—seemed to be there solely to condition the reader, to manipulate emotions in order to preclude rational judgment. The inclusion of a long statement from the author's (adult) daughter, about her experiences as a committed Christian in the New York theater scene, felt naïve.

Then there's the devotion to god—or, more accurately for Reverend Avant, Jesus—that continued to present problems for me. I’m not a Christian, or even a Jew for Jesus; while I respect many of the principles Jesus espoused, I have never been able to get over the intellectual hurdle of the whole “son-of-god-in-man is god who died for our sins” construct. (Yes, yes, I know: it’s about faith.) To be fair, it must also be noted that I am clearly not Avant’s intended audience. This is a book written for Christians, so Avant's repetitive refrain that “we should all love Jesus” is, I can only assume, more appealing to a Christian audience.


However, my view of Avant and his book began to change, and rapidly, as I got further in. After the first chapter, Avant writes as a strong, passionate individual with a very definite, out-of-the-mainstream perspective on “organized” religion. He frames very clearly his objections to the contemporary "church" of Christianity: not the religion itself, but the ways in which it is interpreted and applied by the institutions that wave the banner most loudly. (This short poem, by a friend, gets the sentiment just right.) This is where the book is most successful, in aggressively engaging with the way that religious institutions often become more focused on themselves than on the values they espouse. While I will never share his passion for Jesus, I came to respect his faith and his logic.

Avant calls for a new “Jesus Movement,” his preferred term in place of Christianity. He writes: “Can we see a new Jesus Movement in America? Probably not in traditional, institutionalized Christianity as I have described it. It’s too absorbed in guarding its turf and protecting its turf lords. Institutions tend to protect themselves at all costs, and I see no sign that the institution of Christianity will move toward Jesus.” (Page 54)

This is the meat of Avant's argument. He carefully builds this out, exploring a range of issues, from how modern American Christianity deals with drugs addicts (there’s a chapter titled “If God Were Real … the Church Would Be Full of Addicts”), to the risk-averse nature of churches and communities and a sense of expectation of using religion as a means of achieving prosperity (there’s another chapter, titled “If God Were Real … You Would Be Really, Really Rich”). (For more on the concept of the prosperity gospel, see these two articles from the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic.) His section on the absurdity of Christian attacks on J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series is sharp and insightful.

All this reminded me of my own feelings about much of contemporary (American) Judaism, where the importance of institutions—and institutionalized beliefs and perspectives—sometimes feels like it has overtaken the importance of the values at the heart of Judaism. Everything from the “Yom Kippur appeal” fundraising tactic to the American Jewish fetishization of Israel is driven as much by a commitment to the status quo as anything else. Rare is the organization (religious or otherwise, to be sure) that boldly embraces downsizing in the face of diminished resources or audiences. Instead, external problems are blamed, and used as foils to generate support. (Surely it isn’t simply that some young Jews find modern Judaism less-than-compelling, perhaps because of the relentless focus on the trifecta of the Holocaust, Israel, and intermarriage to which we have been treated for the last five decades.)


Now, like the rest of us, Avant is not free from certain contradictions. He criticizes organized Christianity’s focus on political hatred as a distraction from Jesus’s call to love everyone … and then makes some rather strong statements against homosexuality and gay marriage. Oh, well.

But, as someone famous once said, let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone. Overall, Avant has written a strong book, one worth reading for contemporary Christians or others interested in the role and ongoing development of the largest religious denomination in the United States. Avant even includes a section on atheism towards the end of the book—a book littered with quotes from atheist or questioning friends and commentators—that again represents the value of an open mind, and is evidence if needed that a believing individual can co-exist with a non-believing one, without necessarily feeling threatened. The subtitle is “A Journey into a Faith That Matters” and it’s Avant's ongoing journey. I wish him well.

FCC idiotic disclosure notice: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, via LibraryThing, as part of its Early Reviewers program.

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16 August 2009

Climbing The Mountain

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I bought my copy of Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain on a trip to Denver in 2006, where I stopped at that great bookstore The Tattered Cover during a few minutes of down time. I like Stegner, and there I was in the Rockies, and the book jumped out at me, and then it sat on my shelf until last year. About a year after that, I’ve finished reading ithaving consumed many, many other books in between. That sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Actually, it is. I am here to report that The Big Rock Candy Mountain was well worth both the wait and the effort. A semi-autobiographical novel about the Mason family’s challenging existence in the first three decades of the 20th century, the story is more layered and expansive than other of Stegner’s workssuch as Crossing to Safety, a book that is very dear to my heart—and less angry than the Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose. Both of those books are the work of a more mature author; The Big Rock Candy Mountain was published in 1943, when Stegner was just 34 (and it wasn’t even his first book).

This is also a multi-generational story, with the kind of hardship and long journeys that I usually associate with the great Russian novels of the 19th century. Harry “Bo” Mason begins as the escapist son and ends as the repressive and alienating father, and throughout there are pockets of stability and (very minor) wealth punctuating the Mason family’s life. There is a devoted if tortured wife, and two sons working to figure out their own lives in the middle of the messes created (over and over again) by a rum-running father. Mostly, however, there is poverty—and trouble.

Amidst all that, there are three things that make this a beautiful book. The first is the role that the American west plays in the story, as a series of secondary actors reaching from the plains of the north to the mountains and then desert further south. The Masons cover terrain from Minnesota to Washington, and from Salt Lake City to Reno. The environment can be brutal and barren, or placid and blue-green like the Mason’s house on Lake Tahoe, but it always needs to be respected for its inherent strength and character. Even the descriptions of winters along the Canadian / American border in the early part of the century—when cars were still a real novelty—are thrilling.

The second element is the complicated way in which Stegner has bound together a story of great sadness with that of an inherent American optimism. The Big Rock Candy Mountain clearly owes a small debt to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939). But where Steinbeck used his Joad family to argue a particularly pro-union, pro-worker perspective on Depression-era America, Stegner’s Mason family is focused on a very internalized sense of self-reliance. Bo Mason is a muscular man even in old age, a former skeet shooting champion, who sees in the world challenges to overcome through sheer force of will. But this isn’t some Ayn Rand-ian caricature; Bo is the kind of all-American man one can relate to precisely because he struggles with his feelings, instead of simply rejecting them. He considers himself the bearer of bad luck, someone who needs to keep looking for his lucky breakand as much as he might blame others for his problems, this comes only in the narrowest sense of bad people doing malicious things. Mason’s America is a land of great opportunity, if only he can figure out a way to take advantage of it.

The third aspect of the book that makes it so beautiful is its evolution into a bildungsroman in the final third, as the author’s characterBo’s younger son, Bruce grows up and away, and over time becomes the family’s only surviving member. Anyone who has ever had a close relative with whom they have had a challenging relationship can probably relate to Bruce, who never quite came to terms with either the hate or the love he felt for his father.

In her New York Times review of Crossing to Safety in 1987, Doris Grumbach wrote “Clearly Mr. Stegner has not gone unnoticed. But neither is he a household name, as he deserves to be.” She was right. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is not summer beach reading, but it is the kind of book to embrace on a quiet winter night by a fireplace, and with a comfortable chair and a tumbler of scotch it will yield rich rewards.

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27 June 2009


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

His Wikipedia entry makes a comparative reference to Thomas Pynchon. The back of the book says “He is like Pynchon, Barth, and William Gaddis.” But Harry Mathews is no Pynchon, nor a Barth or Gaddis for that matter.

It was back in late-April that I heard Mathews’ short story Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) read on the Symphony Space program “Selected Shorts” (and available as an MP3 here; I highly recommend it). I had never heard of him, and after digging up his biography online, I was both comforted in my ignorance and surprised, given the odd pathways of literature that I have followed, not to have found him earlier. I bought three of Mathews’ books, and have just finished Tlooth, his second novel, originally published in 1966 and (in the case of my copy) republished in 1998 by Illinois State University’s Dalkey Archive press. And off we go...


“Fully dressed, Dominique had worn sixteen garments and ornaments. She shed four of them on the first day, three on each of the next four days, and at the end she danced naked, shielded only by her hands and hair. Every piece of her jewelry and clothing had been fastened with an inextricable knot, from which one or several tassels hung. The dancer’s enchantment worked yeastily through her audience while for hours she slowly tried, with shakings and suave caresses, to pamper loose one cluster of dangling strands. When the voluptuous ferment became unbearable, the girl, turning away with a mild complicit shrug, would draw from a scabbard fixed upright near her a wicked blue scimitar, and slice the knot. The sword, always visible to the crowd, gathered terrific significance as the moment of its use approached; and each severing of trivial cords fell on the tormented mass like a scourge, exciting hysterical shrieks, fits, faints, onsets of importance, confessions of speakable crimes, miraculous cures, numberless psychic and physical traumata, and the exchange (settled by the unpredictable time of the event) of millions of francs among the slightly cooler-headed gambling element.” (Pages 151-152)

This might be one of the most inspired, enervating paragraphs I have read in a long time, alive with words not often found in fiction (“yeastily”! “traumata”!), combined with a description of a series of acts of such improbability that it still comes as a surprise to learn in the next paragraph that Dominique the stripper has died on the sixth day of her marathon dance session. One has a sense of Dominique as trapped by these knots she cannot remove, and yet empowered to remove them; she is performing, voluptuously, but also bored, as the shrug suggests This Moroccan stripper’s is, on the one hand, considered so tangential that it is entirely parenthetical. On the other hand, Mathews’ frames her death as of such magnitude that “she was proposed to Rome for canonization.” It hadn’t once occurred to me she might be a Catholic.

If Mathews owes a debt to anyone, it is Georges Bataille and his Story of the Eye. Tlooth is less aggressive (if no less violent) but just as manic in its appetites, and just as absurd in its approach to the same. A long section—at least, long in the context of this story—in the middle of Mathews’ novel is itself another fiction, a living walkthrough of a movie script, highly pornographic, that the narrator has been hired to write. I call it a “living walkthrough” because, as the reader, you lose your own sense of whether you’re reading the script that Mathews’ protagonist has written, or if that same protagonist is now actually in the story.

We get references to how the camera should pan in one direction or the other. We get a mixture of highly specific, scene-setting detail—from clothing to the use of Wedgwood china to the acts being performed and in which locations—and at the same time a glib skipping over of any kind of context that might help the reader establish a genuine point of reference. It doesn’t really matter. And still, at the end of the whole section, after so much absurdist human interaction, it comes as a surprise to find the script completely dismissed by the crazy Count who commissioned it: “It’s interesting. But where is the character development? In the last scene we do not really know anything more about Sister Agnes than we did in the first.” (Page 136)

Indeed, we do not learn much at all about Sister Agnes. The character development is ours, the readers’. We learn something of ourselves from Tlooth, as we do from most difficult (and may I here use the word surrealist?) works. Yes, we learn about ourselves and our ability or willingness to read through challenging literature. More importantly, I think, are what novels like this teach us about our sense of self: whether, in wading through complicated, deeply layered and hidden ideas, we find things at which to smile or laugh, and whether we can see in small, absurdist details, analogies to how most of us also fixate on the little bits of errata in our daily lives. We just don’t normally see such things as particularly absurd—but perhaps we should. We might be happier that way, and more alive.

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22 March 2009

Back Noir

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I love the city of Buffalo. I have a soft spot for it because it's where I spent many summers, with my paternal grandparents, whom I loved. The city has a beauty and charm that, even in its darkest moments, helped keep it alive. (And I say that not just because I have a Buffalo client, but because from Frederick Law Olmsted to Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright to Eliel and Eero Saarinen to a longer list of people and institutions than I can mention here, Buffalo has a lot to offer.)

Therefore, it was with pleasure that I discovered that part of the action in Richard Stark's 1963 novel The Outfit takes place in Buffalo, and that the location Stark gave—798 Delaware Avenue—is, as the story has it, one of the city's glorious old mansions. It turns out that it’s the house right across the street from Temple Beth Zion, my grandparents' synagogue. There’s some kind of serendipity in there.


Much has been written about Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) and his "Parker" series of novels, and with good reason. Forty-six years after The Outfit was written, it still holds up as a tightly constructed and engaging novel of crime and vengeance, with a David and Goliath twist to it.

It was while reading The Outfit, and the earlier Parker story The Man with the Getaway Face, that I started to wonder about the timelessness of certain fiction, and how we, as readers, respond to a story. It strikes me as a challenging intellectual question: is it harder to read not-so-old fiction than very old stories? Are the anachronisms of more than a century ago easier to deal with than the missed technological opportunities of the last couple of decades?

In reading books from the pre-industrial age, the reader can make an easy mental leap to an environment in which characters are just different: bound by conventions of a period that we may or may not understand, but to which we can immediately relate as distant from our reality. On the other hand, reading a story from what we might loosely call the modern age raises a different kind of challenge: can you, the reader, make a very small mental leap backwards?

In these two Parker stories, the anti-hero protagonist maneuvers through a world that is much like ours—cars, electricity, airplanes, beer in a bottle—and yet drastically different. Parker, and his friends, can fly with fake ID with great ease, and even bring a gun on the airplane (given an absence of x-ray scanners at the airport). That’s hard to imagine these days. Conducting a stakeout, Parker has no cell phone with which to contact his friend, and the technology for breaking into the Delaware Avenue mansion is about as basic as possible: some brute force, a gun, and a small flashlight. Perhaps this is less difficult to imagine, given what movies show us about how cell phones and e-mail can be tapped and our general sense of privacy an illusion. But it is also hard to think of the situation as normal, given an absence of security cameras or other of the other electronic devices we take for granted.

In a sense, it becomes one marker of whether a book or a story can withstand the test of time: whether it is written in a way that captures our imaginations and overwhelms our sense of the present reality. Stark's “Parker” novels do just that. The author might never have imagined, back in 1963, that years later I could use my computer to zero in on the Delaware Avenue address he put in his book; perhaps he took it on faith that any reader would assume the detail to be true, and any Buffalo native would have easy confirmation if desired. But the fact that I can Google, and the fact that it exists, does not diminish the story one bit.

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04 November 2007

Fiction Then, Reality Now

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Jeffrey Hantover’s (forthcoming) The Jewel Trader of Pegu is a beautiful story engagingly written. This might be the first “JewBu” novel, a step beyond Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew In The Lotus, in which Kamenetz detailed his experience accompanying a group of American Jews who traveled to India to meet the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists. Here, Hantover’s fictional construct allows him to create fresh insights into the challenges of human growth and cross-cultural understanding, using an epistolary form that enhances the strength of the story and the clarity of the characters’ voices. Exploring simultaneously the values and world-views of Judaism and Buddhism, Hantover uses the historical lens of foreign trade and travel to express the wondrousness of spiritual and physical freedom.

The outline of the story is as follows: in 1598, a widowed Venetian Jewish trader named Abraham makes the long journey to the city of Pegu, in lower Burma, to sell cloth and other wares, and to buy gemstones to take back to his uncle in Venice. Orphaned at a young age, and generally confined to the Jewish Ghetto by Christian society, this trip is more than eye-opening for Abraham, as he enters a world that does not care about his religion or the limitations placed on him by the anti-Semitic traditions of Europe. Writing letters to his cousin Joseph back home, Abraham reveals new aspects of himself as he discovers them, as his experiences in Pegu shift from those of a trader-tourist to someone who starts to feel more like a native. One poignant early moment finds Abraham looking in his trunk and discovering that the yellow hat he is forced to wear in Venice has become moldy and decrepit in the humidity – and he throws it away, “...with the fish bones and coconut husks.” [P. 45] In Pegu, he does not need the hat; he is as foreign as every other trader from abroad, no more and no less.

Maung Win is the royal gems broker assigned by the king to assist Abraham, to facilitate his transactions, show him around the city, and safeguard his belongings. Win speaks a little Italian (much to Abraham’s surprise) and in turn teaches Abraham a bit of the local language. Together, they conduct Abraham’s business and, in their social time, discuss and explore their different perspectives in the world, as driven by religion and by their life experiences. As the result of a complicated local ritual, Win introduces Abraham to Mya, a young Burmese woman who is about to get married. Mya is the third protagonist and the second of the book’s two key voices, presented in the form of her inner monologues, fashioned much like diary entries.

“All I know is what the Buddha teaches – we live, we suffer, we die, and we are reborn. All of us. Not you or me alone. All of us.” [P. 104] So says Win in one of his discussions with Abraham, who struggles to understand the logic in such a straightforward and unsentimental religion, because it seems to deny the kind of higher purpose he has been raised, as a Jew, to believe central to life. Eventually – as he witnesses an execution, as he sees small slights and larger affronts in the world around him – Abraham begins to realize that Win’s Buddhism is not nihilistic but life-affirming, just as Win concedes (eventually) that suffering for suffering’s sake is not always noble or desirable. Life can be complicated, more complicated than the devotions of any religion can necessarily explain.

Ultimately, Abraham learns that freedom is “something real that exists in the world. Not just an ideal. Not just a prayer at Passover.” [P. 26] In discovering freedom of movement, he starts to allow himself to explore his soul, his beliefs and his passions, and thus finds freedom of thought – and a free life. He becomes liberated in a way that he had not previously acknowledged as a possibility, and with that liberation he seems to achieve the kind of enlightenment that Buddhists themselves strive for.

At times, Hantover’s story crosses over into the saccharine, and reminded me at a few points of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, a tale of self-discovery that also involves dreams, travel, cross-cultural religious understanding. What can be frustrating about Coelho (and surely what makes his books such big sellers) is his simplicity, that sense of an author wanting the reader to get the message, to make sure we don’t miss the point. But where Coelho traffics in the ethereal and mysterious, Hantover is grounded: what he writes about Judaism and Buddhism rings true, and his characters are not just archetypes, but people to whom the reader develops an emotional connection because of their complexity and idiosyncrasies. Moreover, where Coelho’s book is a parable addressed to the reader, Hantover’s is a literary expression of the beauty of life, even amid challenge and tragedy, and the many ways in which we humans can learn to understand ourselves and others. I highly recommend The Jewel Trader of Pegu.


Hantover set his story during a period of Burmese history we know a little bit about: an unpopular king, Nandabayin, fond of jewels and baubles, is eventually brought down by an invasion of neighboring tribal armies. In the process, the Burmese people themselves suffer more than they should, despite – or perhaps in part because of – their religion and its teachings. For more than 20 years now, the military junta that controls Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been strangling that nation’s people and testing their faith. Recent protests against the regime by the country’s monks have resulted in vicious responses from the government, which has killed many of the be-robed people that this nation of devout Buddhists consider quite holy.

Responding to a contemporary work of fiction based on its “timeliness” is generally not a good idea: a novel that is truly timely may not hold its value in the future. However, it is hard to overlook the current political nightmare of Myanmar, and the connections to the history about which Hantover writes. For example, an execution scene in the book is hard to disassociate from contemporary politics in its cruelty, and as a representation of the degree to which Burmese leaders – then and now – cannot tolerate any dissent. Like it or not, the news does make Hantover’s story rather timely. Fortunately, that only adds to its value and makes the book that much more powerful.

(Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to review this book!)

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29 October 2007

Ex Libris Interregnum

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, I’m working on a review for book that will be published in January. I have enjoyed the book, and my review should be done in the next few days. UPDATE: my review of Jeffery Hantover's book The Jewel Trader of Pegu is posted here.

In the meantime, this seemed like an auspicious moment to do a quick review of my own book reviews. The list below reflects several years worth of reading, although there are significant jumps in the chronology. It isn’t as though I wasn’t reading (or was reading only dull books) during most of 2005 and 2004; I suppose it’s just that whatever I was reading must not have needed a review by me. Moreover, book reviews take a completely different kind of style and thought process, and it is a form I have always admired but not always worked at successfully. Some of mine are better than others, but then, the same can be said of the books, too.

Enough intro. Following is the round-up: the book’s title links to its LibraryThing entry – and the date links to my review. In reverse chronological order:

Requiem for An Assassin, by Barry Eisler – 12 August 2007

Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham – 10 August 2007

A selection of books by Lawrence Block14 March 2007

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry – 4 March 2007

Good and Plenty: the Creative Successes of American Arts Funding, by Tyler Cowen - 1 February 2007

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham – 7 January 2007

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl – 29 October 2006

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore – 4 September 2006

Absolute Friends, by John le Carré – 22 August 2006

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst – 31 July 2006

Joint reviews: Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, by Pamela Paul, and How To Make Love Like A Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss – 25 June 2006

Love Creeps, by Amanda Filipacchi – 18 June 2006

Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again, by Norah Vincent – 23 April 2006

Joint reviews: The Surrender: an erotic memoir, by Toni Bentley and The Camera My Mother Gave Me, by Susanna Kaysen – 21 January 2006

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy – 14 January 2006

A Return to Modesty: Discovering The Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit – 05 March 2006

41 Stories by O. Henry, by O. Henry10 March 2005

The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuscinski – 5 January 2003

The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski – 8 July 2002

If I’ve missed any ... forgive me, and feel free to let me know!

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