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31 October 2012

Book Review - The Golden Notebook

The Golden NotebookThe Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Now this is a book that baffles me.

I often felt much like I did when reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I just wanted the characters to shake themselves out of their delusional selfishness and behave like decent, upright folks.

At other times, particularly in the final stages of the blue notebook, I felt as if I was coming untethered from the plinths of sanity I have so carefully built and maintained throughout my life.  It's been a long time since a book has affected me so deeply; caused me to question my own tenuous mental health and gaze in wonderment at my own constructs designed to keep me moored.

And still at other times, I felt a complete disconnect with these creatures of another time, another social more, another political viewpoint.

And then, at the end, the whammy hit me.  Free Women, the short novel, says nothing about the turmoil of the life Anna Wulf lived.  It can only intimate it; draw a sketch, an outline.  And perhaps that's the point of this oddly formed book; any order that comes life's chaos cannot possibly be fully true.

And maybe that's why this book unnerved me so.  I'm comfortable with believing that order can be manufactured.  It's the construct that keeps me sane.  It's the plinth to which I've tethered myself.

Boy Howdy.

But this book also unnerved me because of its obtuse and seemingly pointless wandering.  I wanted to take an editing pen to each notebook but, if I had, I would have created order out of chaos.  Well played, Lessing.  Well played.

Even without the big themes and lessons, there are nuggets of wisdom, thoughtful ideas and downright original thought peppered throughout the web of chaos.  But these are oddly hard to use as pull-quotes.  Most of them scream for context.  I dog-eared over 50 pages and the only pulls I can really face including are below.

In Lessing's 1971 Introduction to the book she laments the loss of the isolated artist; "The young...have created a culture of their own in which hundreds of thousands of people make films, assist in making films, make newspapers of all sorts, make music, paint pictures, write books, take photographs.  They have abolished that isolated, creative, sensitive figure -- by copying him in hundreds of thousands."  What, praytell, does she say about our current world where every denizen of the internet is a blogger, photographer, critic, graphic artist?

"There are more broken hearts than there have ever been, just because of the times we live in.  In fact, I'm sure any any heart we are ever likely to meet is so cracked and jarred and split it's just a mass of scar tissue."

The gap between what we believe and what we do ...

"It seems to me something like this--every so often, perhaps once in a century, there's a sort of--act of faith.  A well of faith fills up, and there's an enormous heave forward in one country or another, and that's a forward movement for the whole world.  Because it's an act of imagination--of what is possible for the whole world...Then the well runs dry, because, as you say, the cruelty and the ugliness are too strong.  Then the well slowly fills again.  And then there's another painful lurch forward.  Yes--because every time the dream gets stronger.   If people can imagine something, there'll come a time when they'll achieve it.  Imagine goodness.  Kindness.  The end of being animals.  And for us now, what is there?  Keeping the dream alive.  Because there'll always be new people without--paralysis of the will."

"There's something very arrogant about insisting on the right to be right."

"Do you realize how many generations it takes to make a society where buses run on time?"

"He was the man who performed actions, played roles, that he believed to be necessary for the good of others, even while he preserved an ironic doubt about the results of his actions."

"There's a great black mountain.  It's human stupidity.  There are a group of people who push a boulder up the mountain.  When they've got a few feet up, there's a war, or the wrong sort of revolution, and the boulder rolls down--not to the bottom, it always managers to end a few inches higher than when it started.  So the group of people put their shoulders to the boulder and start pushing again.  Meanwhile, at the top of the mountain stand a few great men.  Sometimes they look down and nod and say: Good, the boulder-pushers are still on duty."

Here's to being a boulder-pusher.

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Book Review - The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (Sergeant Cribb, #2)The Detective Wore Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bare-fisted pugilism was apparently illegal in Victorian England, so what better setting than the circle of law-breakers who prepared the fighters and ran the fights?  Except the execution left much to be desired.  This one rather turned me off reading the rest of the Sergeant Crabb books.  Giving them a break for a while before I dig in again.

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24 October 2012

Book Review - Wobble to Death

Wobble To Death (Sergeant Cribb, #1)Wobble To Death by Peter Lovesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well this was fun.  Who knew that Lovesey came to mystery writing through his love for the Victorian sporting world?

And who knew that a "wobble" was a six day pedestrian race?

And who knew that Piccadilly Weepers were another term for mutton-chops?

Lovesey evokes Victorian England fairly well for someone who has read a lot of Dickens and Doyle but I would have enjoyed more of a portrait of the time.

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29 August 2012

Book Review - Upon a Dark Night

Upon A Dark Night (Peter Diamond, #5)Upon A Dark Night by Peter Lovesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Diamond at it again. Intriguing amnesia storyline, a wonderfully crass and colorful shoplifter with a heart of gold and Saxon artifacts, all rolled up into a pat-answer burrito.

One of the dependable, likable main characters makes an exit at the end; wonder how the series will suffer as a result.

And, yeah, despite the fact that this series is a bit of a stretch, I'm enjoying the ride. Onward.

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Book Review - Bloodhounds

Bloodhounds (Peter Diamond, #4)Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My favorite Diamond so far, perhaps because it includes all the aspects of the "cozy" that I enjoy; small cast, iconic and a solution that stares you in the face the whole time without you seeing it, despite the fact you're looking.

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22 August 2012

Book Review - The Summons

The Summons (Peter Diamond, #3)The Summons by Peter Lovesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Diamond is brought back to Bath to appease an escaped convict who is holding a hostage claiming his innocence.

Diamond solves it all, with the help of a softspoken female detective with an wonderfully dry undercurrent of sassy.

Jane Austen shows up again, too.

And he finally has the sense to get his CID job back, which, I hope, will make for more classically constructed sequels.

Which, of course, I'm going to read. Right now.

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Book Review - Diamond Solitaire

Diamond Solitaire (Peter Diamond, #2)Diamond Solitaire by Peter Lovesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just plowing through these things; this one has Diamond chasing all over the world trying to track the family of a mute Japanese girl he found while on the job as a security guard at Harrod's. Diamond gets bankrolled by a Sumo wrestler, repaints a teacher's lounge a horrible tomato color, flies on the Concord and gets tossed in the Hudson river. Not necessarily in that order.

Meanwhile, a priest touches a woman's breasts, speeds off in guilt on his moped, stops by the side of the road to look at a tower of flame and causes a wreck in which two men are killed, neither of whom are the priest. The flame is caused by a suspicious fire at the Italian subsidiary of a drug company whose CEO commits suicide instead of dying of cancer and his son must run the company.

How does this all fit together? Good question. Lovesey stretches and elasticizes and comes up with something barely plausible.

But he never returns to the priest who fondled the widow while giving her a massage. And I really want to know what happens to him.

And yet, I'm off and away on yet another one. These things are like crack.

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15 August 2012

Book Review - Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, LoveEat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I did not want to like this book.

I even waited until I had an e-reader so that I could surreptitiously peruse its pages without anyone seeing the silly cover and the silly title and the silly middle-aged lady reading a book by another silly middle-aged lady about how to handle a midlife crises through food, God and sex.

Gilbert sets herself up as a serious seeker ("Sincere spiritual investigation is, and always has been, an endeavor of methodical discipline.  Looking for Truth is not some kind of spazzy free-for-all, not even during this, the great age of spazzy free-for-all.") while at the same time writing in a voice that sometimes screams "hippie-dippie ohm-chanting flake!" and other times screams "look how silly it would be to be a hippie-dippie ohm-chanting flake!"  She writes in such a self-depricating, reader-depricating, tongue-in-cheek fashion that the moments that resonated with me, and there were many, tended to get lost in the quotes like "...since I have introduced that loaded word-GOD-into my book, and since this is a word which will appear many times again throughout these pages, it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get" or "And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do..."

Cheeky, right?  Funny.   I admit to giggling.  But am I supposed to giggle at someone's spiritual journey?

But then she turns around and writes things like, "I'm still deeply ambivalent about mood-altering medications.  I'm awed by their power, but concerned by their prevalence."  Deep, resonating stuff.  No cheek.

So what to make of this book?

I have no idea.  It suffers from an identity crisis; serious tome of self-discovery or goofy Bridget-Jones-Diary of finding oneself?

It's both.  And perhaps the same qualities I'm decrying as inconsistent made it readable for me; almost as if by so openly inviting my scorn she effectively defused it.  No one wants to slog through a self-congratulatory memoir like this one could have been.  But if I can laugh at Gilbert's idiocy while simultaneously respecting her quest then maybe I can see what she did as more than just possible for me but slightly probable, even.  Maybe.  If I can get an advance for the book I'm going to write to pay for the venture.  Maybe someone will see this well-penned review and give me a six-figure advance to go to the Maldives.  Because I want to go to the Maldives before they are underwater.  And I'm sure I could write alternately deep, thoughtful, meaningful prose interspersed with amusing stories about why I'm such a blooming idiot.  Anyone want to take me up on that?

I promise to relax while in the Maldives.  I've always enjoyed the countries that engage in the siesta and the cafe culture where true success means you get to sit sipping espresso or wine while the rest of the rat race passes you by.  Gilbert is with me on that one;
"Generally speaking, though, Americans have the inability to relax into sheer pleasure.  Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one.  Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that's not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment ... Alarming statistics back this up, showing that many Americans feel more happy and fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes.  Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure).  Americans don't really know how to do nothing"

The Italians have an expression;  bel far niente - the beauty of doing nothing.  Italians also get "beauty" more than Americans do.  The world is corrupt and unfair;  Italians tolerate incompetency in so many professions, but never in art ... "In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted.  Only artistic excellence is incorruptible."

Hells yes.

Gilbert also has a wonderfully sketched metaphor that describes the conflict and cooperation of fate and choice better than any other attempt I've ever read;
"We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses--one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will."  And the question you have to ask every day is--which horse is which?  Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it's not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?"

Hells yes.

And what of organized religion?  Don't get "...too obsessed with the repetition of religious ritual just for its own sake.  Especially in this divided world, where the Taliban and the Christian Coalition continue to fight out their international trademark war over who owns the rights to the word God and who has the proper rituals to reach that God, it may be useful to remember that it is not the [ritual] that has ever brought transcendence, but only the constant desire of an individual seeker to experience the eternal compassion of the divine.  Flexibility is just as essential for divinity as discipline."

Hells yes again.

So my final verdict?  Read this book but don't expect it to deeply change your life.  And then, when you're done, give me an advance for the self-exploration memoir I'm going write in the Maldives entitled "Laughing My Way to Enlightenment."  I promise you, you're going to love it.

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23 July 2012

Book Review: Savvy

SavvySavvy by Ingrid Law
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great conceit, great characters within a great structure and a good story bogged down by a writing style that borders on the preciously overwritten.  From the opening paragraph;

"I had liked living down south on the edge of land, next to the pushing-pulling waves.  I had liked it with a mighty kind of liking, so moving had been hard - hard like the pavement the first time I fell off my pink two-wheeler and my palms burned like fire from all of the hurt just under the skin."

Thankfully, I either got used to it or Law calmed down the metaphoricsimile a tad and though I rolled my eyes a couple of times at the language, it usually didn't get in the way of the story.

And sometimes it created deep insight;

"'I'm not perfect, Mibs.  Nobody's perfect.  I just have a knack for getting things right.  Maybe that looks a lot like perfect sometimes.  Besides you'd be surprised at how many people dislike spending time with someone who constantly gets things right.  It's not always an easy way to be.'"

"Maybe we all have other people's voices running higgledy-piggledy through our heads all the time.  I thought about how often my poppa and momma were there inside my head with me, telling me right from wrong.  Or how the voices of Ashley Bing and Emma Flint sometimes got stuck under my skin, taunting me and making me feel low, even when they weren't around.  I began to realize how hard it was to separate out all the voices to hear the single, strong one that came just from me."

"When something like that comes along, whether it's an accident or a savvy or a very first kiss, life takes a turn and you can't step back.  All you can do is keep moving forward and remember what you've learned."

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22 July 2012

Book Review: 1861 - The Civil War Awakening

1861: The Civil War Awakening1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love history but it is rare, even for me, to pick up a historical tome and not be able to put it down.

This is one such tome.

Goodheart takes nine seemingly trivial situations/happenings/ideas from the year 1861 and weaves them into a tapestry of such strength and conviction that the reader is rather gobstopped that the authors of the various and sundry other books she's read on the topic of the American Civil War did not expound or, even mention, these subjects.

Goodheart starts with Fort Sumter but presents it as a prologue;  it's not the story.  It's really going to be a culmination of one story and the impetus of another.  And for a third it will only be a minor detail.  And so on.

But on to the real story;  the story of how the Union was willing to tolerate slavery to save the Union.  How Lincoln would have happily continued to abide by that compromise had events allowed him to.  How Garfield, who would become a president so reviled for his civil rights fervor that he would be shot because of it, started out as a professor and preacher who was ambivalent about freeing the slaves.  This I'd heard about before.  But Elmer Ellsworth?  The Zouaves?  Jesse Benton Fremont? The telegraph and how it affected the war?  Thomas Starr King?  The uprisings in St. Louis and the German heroes? Benjamin Franklin Butler setting the ball rolling towards emancipation by employing a legal loophole that most thought laughable?  Fort Monroe and contraband? Lincoln's 1861 July 4th address to congress?  If I'd heard of them, I'd forgotten them.  And Goodheart makes them unforgettable.  Indeed, he makes them sea changes in a year that determined how we'd wage war and how we'd wage peace.

Goodheart is a travel writer and writes a Civil War blog, so his prose is engaging.  Certainly, there are probably some staid historians out there who would frown at his parenthetical references and his periodic exclamation points and his inside jokes.  For this reader, however, the style made the subjects inherently interesting.  Goodheart paints a picture.  And he doesn't hit you over the head with footnotes (though the book is highly researched and referenced).

Goodheart makes the most remarkable connections throughout the book;  take 1861 comet, for example.  In riffing on the effect of the astronomical occurrence on the course of human history, Goodheart writes,

"So much had changed in the past few years - even the past few months.  Fixed truths seemed to be casting themselves adrift; familiar stars departing from their orbits.  Revolution, in the sense that astronomers at Washington's Naval Observatory used the term, meant something stately and predictable, an orbit tethered by the gravity of the sun.  Elsewhere in the capital city, of course, the word meant something quite different;  elsewhere in the nation, different things still.  Until recently, America's own revolution had come to seem like a fact moored safely to the ever-more-distant year 1776.  That was now no longer the case.  It blazed again across the sky, a thing of wonder and terror, still uncertain in its import."

And Lincoln, who has the reputation of brilliance because he jotted the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope?  Well, he took three months to draft a message to congress in 1861.  He wrote.  He rewrote.  He pondered.  He tested his message.  And after those three months, he emerged, no longer a railsplitter on the rail but a man decided and firm about the steps he needed to take to assure the fate of the nation.  Goodheart writes,

"Although he might not have scribbled his 1863 address on the back of an envelope, as legend would have it, it should be no surprise that he wrote it fairly quickly.  Lincoln had already done the hard work of the Gettysburg Address, the heavy intellectual lifting, in 1861.  The two intervening years would go to pare away the nonessentials, to sculpt 6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry.  When people like Emerson had criticized Lincoln for spending so long toiling over the Independence Day message, they did not understand that the president, in doing so, had in a very real sense been fighting the war.  Through his lonely Emersonian struggle, all those torturous hours alone with his thoughts and his half-filled pages, he had been arming himself for the terrible conflict ahead.  Again and again over the next four years, those who knew Lincoln would express their amazement at his lack of self-doubt, his tenacity in staying the course-so different from the early weeks of his presidency.  But once he had written his address to Congress, Lincoln never again needed to ask himself whether he should be fighting or what he was fighting for.  With these large questions settled, the smaller ones of how to fight often answered themselves.  The proper resolution of the Sumter crisis, which had tortured Lincoln in March and early April, seemed almost obvious in retrospect.  Reasoning backward from the principles he articulated on July Fourth, he could not possibly have behaved any differently.  Reasoning forward, much of his course ahead was clear."

The whole book is full of a-ha moments arising from facts and situations forgotten by large scale tellings of history.

And reading it in an election year, when the country seems just as polarized as it was then, was an exercise in "the more things change, the more they stay the same."  I wish the lesson of history - those who do not learn it are doomed to repeat it - held more sway with our current leaders and politicians.  For them, I close with Goodheart's words about the sudden sense of purpose of the Union after Fort Sumter;

"The attack on Sumter forced Americans everywhere to pick sides; to stand either with the flag or against it ... Northerners chose to stand with it.  And that expression of national unity, in turn, became the strongest possible argument for the Union itself: for the idea that the flag could shelter beneath its folds Americans of many opinions and temperaments, and that disagreement need not mean disunion.  The pure wordless symbol of a piece of cloth could represent both the deepest traditions of American radicalism and those of American conservatism."

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04 July 2012

Book Review: The Historian

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Boy did I get suckered into this one.  I remember when this came out;  it was everywhere.  I'd just had a baby so I glanced at it several times and thought "That would be a fun DaVinci Code kind of read when I have time someday." Never picked it up.  Never even looked very carefully at the cover.

Then we bought a Nook so that we could travel with our precociously well-read 8 year old without hauling a steamer trunk of books along with us. I was perusing the e-books available at the library and this popped up.  "Perfect!" I thought.  "I'll read this on vacation!"

But wait. It's about VAMPIRES?

How the hell could I have missed that?

I'm about 2/3rds of the way through;  finding it ponderous, convoluted and stodgy but still engaging because of Kostova's ability to evoke a sense of place.  You can almost smell Istanbul. In a good way.

But what editor anywhere thought it would be a good idea to faithfully fictionalize a scholarly article about a 14th century travel log?  Zzzzzzzz.

And, wait.  Vampires?  Really?

And now I'm done and feel the need to edit the whole damn thing so that it has a sense of pacing and story arch.  

And, really? One lucky shot was enough?

BUT I did, in fact, read the whole thing, so that's saying something, I suppose.

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13 June 2012

Book Review: Regarding the Fountain

Regarding the FountainRegarding the Fountain by Kate Klise
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delightful.  Truly delightful.

And being mired in an organization where I am charged with being creative while balancing that creativity on a general ledger and booking a profit, I found particular joy in the exchanges between Florence Waters and Walter Russ, the principal of the school.

Principal Russ requests, "Product: drinking fountain.  Style: plain.  Price: modest."

Florence Waters answers, "You sound just like the author of that little book of directions that came with my blender."

I left this book wanting to find more strength to be a Florence Waters in a world run by Walter Russes.

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Book Review: The Lemon Tree

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle EastThe Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Whenever I read books like this, I wonder about the men who sit around in secret rooms, redrawing the world's boundaries.  It never goes well but people keep doing it.  The founding of Israel is one such moment in time.  

This book focuses on one house and two families that call it home;  this is the microcosmic metaphor for the whole larger quagmire.  The Jew acknowledges that she stole the Arab's home but cannot go so far as to say he can have it back.  It is not enough for the Arab to hear that the Jew admits that wrongs were perpetrated;  nothing short of return is good enough.

There is no middle ground.

And if there is no middle ground, there is no resolution possible.

The Lemon Tree presents the history of the land interlocked with the smaller histories of two families caught in the whirlwind sociopolitical change told through the lens of a house that means so much for so many reasons.

The book is eminently readable.  It gives no answer.

But at the end, the Jew plants a new lemon tree in the courtyard of the home which used to be the Arab's home but was then the Jews home and is now a school for Arab children in the heart of Israel.  "This dedication is without obliterating the memories.  Something is growing out of old history.  Out of the pain, something new is growing."

And that is all we can hope for.

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29 May 2012

Why Visiting Mr. Green?

Why Visiting Mr. Green?

If I had to grandly declare a theme for our 2011-2012 season, it might be “How we, as a society, treat ‘difference.’”  In Avenue Q, a motley assortment of puppets accept one another and work, in their own small ways, to make the world a better place.  In Beau Jest, Jewish parents struggle to accept that their daughter may not choose to marry within the faith.  In Tommy, a young man struggles with a burden that makes him close himself off to the world, and the world reacts in a variety of ways.  In the Laramie Project docu-dramas, issues of tolerance are viewed through many lenses, and reactions to these views are explored, dissected and pondered.

On the surface, Visiting Mr. Green doesn’t really fit in with this theme; it’s an odd-couple comedy about a crotchety old man and a young, upwardly mobile man caught in the corporate gerbil wheel.  But boiling underneath the light-hearted one-liners are themes of persecution, group identity and what one generation can expect or demand from another generation.  Mr. Green and Ross have nothing in common.  Yet they have everything in common.  It’s all in how you look at things.  Both have allowed difference to stand in the way of living and loving.  And both need to find a way to come to terms with that.

From the first line of the play, Ross and Mr. Green confront their difference (that’s the seed of the comedy), but as the play progresses, the characters embark on a journey leading them to confront their sameness.  Suddenly we’re in a deep, heart-wrenching drama.  They are both Jews, but that is not what makes them the same.  In fact, they seem to occupy polar opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum.  As Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard has written, “Jewish identity is made up of choices. We pick, consciously or otherwise, from a sort of identity menu that offers us options for behaviors that we understand as ‘Jewish’ because we see them as ‘Jewish things to do’ or as ‘done in a Jewish way.’”  So Ross and Mr. Green are both Jews, but their shared Judaism doesn’t really share anything.  At all.

And that’s a very potent metaphor for the larger theme of the play; we are the same, yet we are different, yet we are the same. 

Although the characters are Jewish, the core learning in this play is that people are the same everywhere. Everyone knows someone like Mr. Green, and everyone knows someone like Ross. Their specific characteristics make the story interesting, but their human-ness and their individual struggles are universal.

We all face challenges.  You may face the same challenges I face but for different reasons. You may face different challenges than I face but for the same reason.  But we all face challenges.

Tolerance comes from knowing that. 

Acceptance comes from understanding that.

Visiting Mr. Green is a blueprint of how we can move from hatred to dislike, to tolerance, to acceptance and, in the process, learn not only how to heal ourselves but also to mend the lives of those around us. 

Krista Lang Blackwood
Director of Cultural Arts
Jewish Community Center of Kansas City

17 April 2012

Why The Laramie Project?

Why The Laramie Project?
In 1993, five years before Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die, a rock was thrown through the window of a home displaying a menorah in Billings, Montana.  The people of Billings rose in silent protest and paper menorahs appeared in windows all over town.
Nothing much changed for Jewish families in Billings in the aftermath of this event. Nothing much except the reassurance that there were people in their town who had a deep capacity for compassion.
Sometimes nothing much is a whole lot.
The most straightforward statement of the principle of compassion in the Torah is Leviticus 19:18; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This ethic of reciprocity, this “golden rule,” is said to exist in every world religion.  
And that’s fitting because the question of how to treat others is a universal human question.  In a Jewish context, the ethical approach to compassion is referred to as “accomplishing a mitzvah.”   In its most literal meaning, to accomplish a mitzvah is to carry out one of the 613 Commandments of Sinai. But Jewish texts and teachings take the notion of a mitzvah further; any act motivated by spontaneous kindness toward another person can be considered the moral equivalent of one of the original Commandments. Translated this way, mitzvah means “good deed.”
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Ben Azzai is cited as saying, “Run to perform even a minor mitzvah, and flee from sin; for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the consequence of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the consequence of a sin is a sin.”
Run to perform even a minor mitzvah.  Sometimes nothing much is a whole lot.
The problems of the world are huge and overwhelming.  Watching the evening news can be bewildering; story after story about the human capacity for hate, greed and violence.  Hate is complex.  It’s big.  It can seem unconquerable.  The power of The Laramie Project lies in the fact that the plays don’t gloss over that complexity, that largeness, that invincibility.  The Laramie Project plays face it all head on.  They don’t pretend to heal the wound with a contrived set of pat answers; instead they rip the scab forcefully off the wound and leave the audience free to decide how best to heal.
Perhaps one way to heal is to walk out of this theater newly resolved to do good deeds; to re-enter the world determined to find ways to accomplish a mitzvah.  Even tiny good deeds can make a difference; holding open a door, smiling at a passerby. And if you pay enough attention to the world around you to smile or hold open a door, chances are you’ll be well-placed to notice opportunities for more good deeds. 
Sometimes nothing much is a whole lot. 
There’s a story in the Talmud in which a young man walks up to Rabbi Hillel and promises to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi will teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel lifts one foot off the ground and replies, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your comrade; this is the whole Torah in its entirety; the rest is commentary: go learn.”
Go.  Learn. 
And, as Plato said, be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Krista Lang Blackwood
Director of Cultural Arts
Jewish Community Center of Kansas City

07 February 2012

Why Tommy?

Why Tommy?
Released by The Who in 1969, the concept album Tommy was an important landmark of popular culture. After a couple of theatrical presentations in the early 1970s and the daft and delirious Ken Russell film of 1975, Tommy took a stage hiatus.  Then, in 1993, Pete Townshend teamed with theatrical director Des McAnuff to make Tommy into a Broadway musical. 
The seeds for the Tommy concept album lie in a stream-of-consciousness poem that Townshend wrote in 1967, inspired by his discovery of Indian mystic Meher Baba.  Drawing heavily on the writings and life of Meher Baba, the Tommy story was interwoven with allusions to Christianity, Eastern philosophy and twentieth century popular culture.

But, at its heart, Tommy is musical parable about false prophets and the human inability to see what’s good in the midst of what’s not.

What is a false prophet?  Deuteronomy 18:18-22 gives us one of many Biblical instructions on how to detect one; if his or her prophecies don’t come true, he or she is not a prophet.  Seems obvious, but it’s still good advice; we should always carefully inspect both the message and the messenger before investing our future in a forecast. 

Sometimes, however, our irrational high hopes, paired with our sense of helplessness, create “accidental prophets.” We hunger for answers - for someone to lead us out of the darkness - but often the people we follow are just as lost as we are.  And we follow them anyway.  Tommy is one such accidental prophet; the prophet who is false because he never meant to be a prophet in the first place.

“Why would you want to be more like me?” Tommy asks Sally near the end of the show.  “For fifteen years I was waiting for what you've already got.  In my dreams I was seeing it, hearing it, feeling it. Those are the true miracles and you have them already.”

In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview, Townshend is quoted as saying, "Tommy's life represents the whole nature of humanity - we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness.”   It is part of human nature to close our ears, our eyes and our minds; to shut out the parts of the world we cannot deal with.  And too often, in doing so, we fail to acknowledge the good that surrounds us, because we’re so busy blocking out the bad. 

There is a Jewish tradition that encourages a person to recite a hundred blessings each day. That’s a lot of blessings; to get them all in, one would almost have to go straight from one blessing to another, putting one in a constant state of counting blessings each day.   

And that’s probably the point.  Counting our blessings, all of our blessings, inspires us to exist in a continual flow of gratitude; gratitude directed toward the things we see, hear and feel.  

And what could be better than that?

Krista Lang Blackwood
Director of Cultural Arts
Jewish Community Center of Kansas City

09 January 2012

Book Review Exodus

 ExodusExodus by Leon Uris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A reviewer on Goodreads says that Exodus is to the History of the Jews as Gone With the Wind is to the Civil War.

I can think of no better review than that;  this book is readable, disturbing and enlightening.  It is packed with historical events but also marred with the omissions that one all too often finds in historical fiction.

However, for 20 years now, I've been meaning to take steps to solidify my education on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the founding of Israel.  To this book's credit, this is the first time I've actually finished taking the first step.  So now I'm ready to move on to more scholarly tomes, primed with the empathy this book allows the reader to feel for the people involved.

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