Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best Jewish Non-Fiction of 2011 (A Little Late...)

As the genre of non-fiction proliferates it becomes increasingly hard to create any sort of coherent “Best Of” list. While not much unites this list, all entries evince the essential traits of great non-fiction authors: deep curiosity, powerful insight, lucid prose, and a desire to see past the obvious or the dogmatic. This year offered us a great smorgasbord of non-fiction ranging from a genre-busting biography to innovative psychology. Besides for Deborah Baker’s book, The Convert, which deserves the title of best non-fiction book of the year, the rest of the list does not correlate to any ranking.

1. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism - Deborah Baker - Baker wrote a stunningly brilliant biography of Maryam Jameelah, previously known as Miriam Marcus, a secular Jew who converted to Islam and became a famous writer of Anti-American books in Pakistan. Baker weaves Jameelah’s story from her letters to her parents and others, but eventually Baker widens the book’s scope to investigate the charismatic leader that guided Jameelah’s transition, Mawlana Mawdudi, the divide between Islam and the West, and ultimately, an exploration of Baker herself: her assumptions about life, about civilization, and the limits of knowledge, all while pushing the boundaries of a biography considerably past what we expect from the genre.

2. The Swerve: How The World Became Modern- Stephen Greenblatt -  Winner of the National Book Award 2011 - Greenblatt, a Harvard Professor, is famous for his work on Shakespeare and his uncanny ability to teach dense ideas in a clear manner. Recently, Greenblatt wrote this fascinating, strangely suspenseful and intelligent book on something so minute as the saving of a poem: On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, a poem, he contends, convincingly, changed the world forever.

3. Thinking, Fast, and Slow - Daniel Kahneman - For decades Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman has made it his life’s goal to shatter our conceptions of humans as rational beings. His research into the cognitive mistakes we systematically make helped give birth to the new field of behavioral economics, and pioneered many parts of cognitive psychology. Besides these monumental accomplishments, the basic gift captured in this book, which puts together a lifetime of research, lies in the humbling experience of a documentation and explication of the mistakes we as humans consistently make, despite our pretensions to rationality.

4. J.D. Salinger: A Life - Kenneth Slawenski - I don’t envy the job of a biographer faced with the task of writing the life story of one of the most reclusive authors in history. Yet, somehow, Slawenski provides the reader exciting details of this beloved author’s life: his loves, his traumas, and his idiosyncrasies. However, even when Slawnenski lacks access to facts that many of us desire, he turns to his fan-like obsession with Salinger’s writing, providing insightful keys and analyses of Salinger challenging repertoire.

5. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything - Joshua Foer - In a time when every non-fiction writer looks for an experience to capitalize on, with mixed results, (A.J. Jacobs acting as a sort of pioneer in this regard) Foer writes a deliciously playful book about his insinuation into a strange world of memory competitions, while concurrently, exploring the nature and importance of memory itself.

6. The Eichmann Trial - Deborah Lipstadt - How do you write about the Eichmann trial without running into the cement wall of Hannah Arendt and the academic proliferation surrounding this momentous case? Well, if you’re Lipstadt, a consistently brilliant history scholar, you do so with intense research and scientific rigor to create a proper political, legal, social, and historical context for the case and its universal implications. What emerges is a book that frees the trial from the towering presence of Arendt and explores the larger impact of the proceedings on the Zionist image, and the trial’s ability to propel the Holocaust into the global consciousness.

7. In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief - James Kugel - Kugel, a distinguished Bible critic, would have made this list three years ago for his honest and brilliantly clear introduction into the world of Biblical criticism, How to Read the Bible. This year, he makes it on the merit of this drastically different book in which he explores his beliefs through his experience with cancer. Kugel, never one to shy away from the struggles of contemporary Judaism, seeks, with the mind of an academic and the heart of poet, to find “the starting point of religious consciousness,” and takes the reader on a journey into the depths of religious experience.

8. The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity, and the Zionist Moment - Mikhal Dekel - Dekel, a Professor of English Literature at City College, wrote this timely book that explores the literary roots of the Modern Israeli Identity. This book investigates, through a vast array of literature ( including Pinsker, Herzl, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Nietzsche etc.) the complex foundations of Israeli identity with roots in the emerging issues of gender, nationalism, and universality,  all in a pellucid prose that belies her academic proclivities.

9. Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights - Matt Shaer - Who knew a story about two rival vigilante groups in Crown Heights could be this interesting? Matt Shaer did, apparently. Shaer, a journalist for Harper’s and New York Magazine, wrote a journalistic novel/novelistic long piece of journalism that explores the innards of a Crown Heights Lubavitch society torn apart by the Messianist debate. He does this through the lens of a fight between two different vigilante groups, or what appears as a game of cops and robbers that spiraled out of control. The book signifies the announcement of a considerable talent who can write eloquent, insightful prose with the eye of a journalist, and the pen and empathy of a novelist.

10. The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael - Pauline Kael, the deceased eminent movie critic from the New Yorker almost single-handedly created the genre of movie reviews we recognize today. Kael’s style of brazen, incisive, highly opinionated, and intelligent reviews set the stage for trenchant analysis of all types of movies as well as the proliferation and veneration of the movie critic. This book introduces a new generation to one of the voices that started it all, a voice that famously, feared no one. Famously, Kael criticized Landzman’s seminal movie the Shoah, and called the the message of the Sound of Music "a sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat”. Kael transformed the movie review into a form of art and social critique. This tome of a book offers an easy door into the world of Kael and her development as a writer.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Biblical Expression in the Movies - a Dwindling Art Form. (Also a Review of A Serious Man)

 This post, hopefully, will serve as a lead in to an important Malick topic, but it is a digression. Malick's movie display a complex relationship with the bible, so I found it interesting to think about the Bible and movies.
Fact: In the 1950s and 60s studios churned out explicitly biblical films.
Can you imagine going to see a blockbuster film entitled Esther and the King, or David and Bathsheba?
“Hey what you guys doing Saturday night?”
“Oh, well, we are really excited to see Solomon and Sheba!”

True, we all know that Cecil B. Demille’s Ten Commandments succeeded not only in its time, but for posterity, but we usually view this movie as an anomaly, even a joke. Disney tried Prince of Egypt, but we all felt embarrassed by that movie. Even in the Christian world, the Passion of Christ made perhaps way too much money, but most critics panned it, it stirred anti-Semitic controversy, and generally feels like an exception to the general type of movie today.

We’ve turned away from biblical themes, motifs, and imagery, let alone explicit reinterpretations of biblical stories. The shift away from the Bible as a source fits with the larger cultural Biblical illiteracy. I imagine the connection as symbiotic in which the illiteracy takes saps a writers desire to infuse their work with biblical themes, but at the same time the reason people care less about the Bible is the same reason people don't want to hear biblical stories. (The reasons of which deserves its own discussion)

People lament this fact for drastically different reasons. Some, who believe in the divinity of the text blame this religious malaise for some of the cultural ills we suffer. Others, just believe the book holy, the divine writ that can show people how to lead a proper life. Consequently, they view this neglect as a lost opportunity. The last group, a very different group, believe that when we disregard the Bible, we disregard some of the most influential cultural history. We forget how the ideals, the ideas, the themes, and forget that even the phrases we use as cliches  come explicitly or are based off the Bible. Our tropes, our archetypes, our paradigms, our artistic muses grew from the Bible. Many make this claim, but for the most eloquent, though not the most scholarly exposition of the matter read Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron, and for a more the more overblown, poetic, grand, distinct style of Harold Bloom see his new book on the importance of the King Jame’s Bible.

Here’s Alter who writes with more expertise and eloquence than myself, “What I should like to emphasize in regard to the American novelists from the nineteenth century to the twenty first whom I shall be considering is that the language of the Old Testament in its 1611 English version continued to suffuse the culture even the fervid faith in Scripture as revelation had begun to fade.”
Alter goes on to explain how this pervades our culture, but neglects to mentions its cultural irrelevance to most of the movie world. I find it interesting, and worthy of study, that for the most part, literature still works off the background of the Bible, while movies, again, with exceptions, do not. Perhaps this stems from the difference between literary language and tradition, and the new medium of images and movies. Either way, the difference exists.

Though I believe in the abiding beauty of the Bible, I understand the need to move away from these images and supplant them with images that we feel more relevant: superheroes, spies, anti-heroes, new villains, new myths, evil bosses, bureaucracies etc, but I find it interesting when biblical themes and imagery peaks through, in the mainstream, and how people react or do not react to it. The first time I realized that important directors riffed purposefully of the Bible was in my encounter with A Serious man. (True, both the third Matrix movie, Matrix: Evolution, or Matrix: The Architect, or Matrix: Awful, and Spiderman 2 drew heavily on the image of Jesus on the cross, both visually, and conceptually,  neither of these movies use consistent or particularly artistic visions - Spiderman 2 evincing some artistic sense, but lacking consistency while the Matrix, consistent by often incoherent and just lame.) The Job story, so universal, is hard to attribute fully to the Bible, but the Coen brothers made such a concerted effort to model their movie off the style and structure of the biblical Job that intertextuality screamed out from the movie. Yes, many critics discussed the Jobian aspect of the movie, but none I read explained how not only the content, but the style and structure mimics Job, which ironically fits with the general Biblical illiteracy.

First off, though just an allusion, The Coen brothers tempt Larry with a forbidden woman that he sees bathing from his roof. I’m not sure how this nod in the way of the biblical David story fits in, I’m sure it does, but the fact of the matter strikes me as more important. The movie itself, much beloved critically and by long-time fans, not only works off the content of Job, but follows its rigid structure. In each story the beaten up main character consults three people, with a black screen and white title introducing each rabbi, before he confronts the whirlwind (OK, Job visits four friends, but this small discretion is purposeful.) However, sadly, the whirlwind in the Coen Bros. vision does not herald the coming of the divine, but bears the ominous persistent mark of death.

In a way, because of the similar structure, it bears enough resemblance to deserve analysis of their commentary, or their take on the Job story. Here, they do not disappoint. There’s a sharp jab at each point, that both takes issue with the biblical account or updates the biblical account, translating an older text into a modern context. The three rabbis he visits, each one acts more ridiculous then the next, but while this might appear as poking fun at the pulpit, it is also a fair adaption of the plot. Three righteous friends try to comfort Job with platitudes, with unhelpful theology, and with the allure of silence, but all of them fail and anger Job, except Elihu, which the Coens, cleverly do away with. The greatest contrast lies out of the whirlwind. The Coens create an odd ominous aura of beauty. The tornado darkens, it approaches, people know to run, but they can’t look away from it’s destructive sublime nature. Larry finds out his worries about cancer were legitimate. Nothing appears out of the whirlwind as opposed to Job in which God appeared out of the whirlwind. Here, we receive, just the whirlwind, the signifier emptied of the signified. Nature: destructive, arbitrary the sign of nothing, but nothing.

But man, the beauty of it all. Why make it so beautiful, why end with such a snarl of a rock song? Though critically adored, some criticized the brothers for their relentlessly childish, angry, immature, unlikeable story and character.  I can’t help but imagine that they anticipated these claims, or the claim of rehashing the Jewish humor of Philip Roth, but that’s taking the movie, ironically, so seriously. The movie investigates the viewer, so to speak, can you take this as a joke, can you realize the absurdity of a lot of this? Anger need not inhibit true creation of art, it depends on how the artists molds and shape the anger. Philip Roth channels it well, Auslander, on a considerably smaller scale has started strong.  The Coen brothers do not fit into this category (I truly don’t understand the critics who take the Coen brothers at face value when they make simplistic or cryptic statements. Why not focus more on their work?) It’s less of a personal attack of the stupidity of religion or religious guides than an exploration of the absurdity and stupidity of the human condition, ourselves included. How absurd can we act? How little this all seems to mean? What are we willing to tolerate before we laugh? The Coens learned a thing or two from Kafka.  We tend to think of this movie as somehow different than the rest of their repertoire, but why assume their artistic vision doesn't intrude on their most personal stories?

And perhaps in spite, or on top of their desires for playfulness, for something raw and fresh and alive, they sought to capture the true feeling of the beautiful traces of an entrancing concept that we once accepted. People complain that it grounds itself so much in anger, but I find the effort to evince a true love. They recreate their childhood with such care, obsessiveness, and attention to detail. Nostalgia always seems mixed a little with anger and love, like all important things in life. It’s very easy to call the Coen brothers childish, but since when is that a insult? The Coen brothers care about the playfulness of art, of it’s ability to gaze its view upon anything and still find the absurdity of it all. Kundera see’s this as one of the highest goals and indicators of true art:
People often talk about Chekhov’s philosophy, or Kafka’s, or Musil’s. But just try to find a coherent philosophy in their writings! Even when they express their ideas in their notebooks, the ideas amount to intellectual exercises, playing with paradoxes, or improvisations rather than to assertions of a philosophy...Having crossed over the boundary of the novel, the serious philosopher becomes a playful thinker. There is not one serious sentence in the novel—everything in it is play.

By which Kundera means to say that all ideas in art are developing, flexible, in flux. They are not assertions, positions; they are explorations. He believes we err when we say a director or writer espouses a position of violence if he creates a violent movie etc. Artists live to investigate ambiguities, ideas, existential issues, not assert opinions. With this in mind, whenever I watch a Serious Man, besides the hilarity of it all, I see two brothers creating an exploration, of pain, suffering, absurdity, meaning, family, God, and temptation in a playfully ambiguous manner.
Here’s the out of the whirlwind scene. Let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading,