Monday, May 28, 2007

Empire Falls

The Book: Empire Falls by Richard Russo. A novel.

Empire Falls, a small, struggling mill town in Maine, is the setting for this story unfolding around Miles Roby, a town native. Miles spent his entire life growing up in Empire Falls and watched its population and economy dwindle with the closing of the textile mill. Despite the opportunities presented in the world beyond Empire Falls, Miles quit college to assist his ailing mother back home, and has been spending the subsequent twenty years there running the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whitening. Mrs. Whitening, the rich town widow owns a nice slice of the town black and white, and the rest is just written to her in gray ink for power.

Mile’s own dream, his mother’s dream for him and his dream for his daughter Tick is and can further be compromised by the limits of this struggling town. Nonetheless he finds himself incapable of doing anything about it. He’s not bound to the town by any legal obligation or tangible force, but he can’t gather the courage to stand up to the authority, Mrs. Whitening, and do what he wants for himself.

The author paints the characters exceptionally vividly, and when Miles confronts Mrs. Whitening for a Liquor license for the grill to enable a profit after many years of none, she denies it to him, and we can understand why he doesn’t push his position. He’s silenced under her power. Much of his financial dependency provides her with the ability to manipulate him, so she’d rather not he become too self-sufficient. She constantly reminds him of the help she’s provided his family through the years, and with that further fixes her authority. The shrewd old woman has a way of pulling puppet strings to the effect he is frustratingly dancing to her beat, unable to gather the hutzpah to tear himself apart.

What I found most intriguing is that something deathly and disturbing had to happen to the town for Miles to find the strength to act. In all its simplistic daily events, in its organized agenda of everyday, the character cannot break out. It’s only a tragedy that can finally set him free. It’s only something very painful that can immune him to the other.

The story’s ending was merely a beginning, and a satisfying one. Contrary to what I’d anticipated, Miles finds his freedom in heading back home. His own town, now starting to revive its economic strength, past the death of Mrs. Whitening, is the very place he finds his independence. What’ like the familiar place we call home --- with some improvement?


This book won the Pulitzer Prize. Although the writing is great, the plot is a tad too slow, then fast, for my liking. The characters are three-dimensional and real, the setting is faithful to its subject. The issues of thought and conversation throughout the book often touch profound life question as faith and family. However, I have a hard time understanding how a book wins an award against so many masterpieces. What it is that make one book better than the next.

Favorite Line: “people are themselves, their efforts to be otherwise not withstanding…”

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Echoes of Glory

The Book:
Echoes of Glory by Rabbi Berel Wein. Nonfiction.

The Review: By "Skeleton", our reknown commenter who once again shares her incredible talent with us!

The artist paints with a wide brush in this sweeping literal canvas encompassing Jewish history from Beis Sheini (c. 350 BC) to the Geonic period c. 750 AD. Civilizations rise and fall, empires explode and implode, and nations and ethnicities appear and disappear, like so many prairie dogs sniffing the climate before burrowing underground once again. These form the vast backdrop for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that are the history of our Nation, Israel.

Rabbi Wein provides the structural elements in a bare-bones historical narrative that draws on Jewish sources like aggadata and Josephus and contemporary secular literature to fill the gaps. Photographs of archeological finds and classical works of art and architecture add a thoughtful touch of life to subjects that are long dead, living on in the legacies they left behind.

The stories are specific; the themes are universal and eternal. When we abstract the glitz and gore, the story of the two warring brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobolus of the Hasmonean family easily parallels our elef hashishi ‘politics’. The hatred, lust, and will to power that was Israel’s force of destruction then has remained her nemesis, a Teflon-like substance that sticks to you but won’t stick to anyone else. The Zealots, those self-destructive Kannaim are still easily identified, burning down the storehouses so that none of us eat unless we join their fundamentalist fight. Then we have our own brand of Essenes, moral and righteous to the nth degree, yet a dying breed, upholding impossible standards in their righteousness.

There are of course the major players. The Pharisees (פרושים) and Sadducees (צדוקים), the former pretty much our Rabbinical precursors. Contrary to the fizzy drink mix schoolgirls are fed, the schism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees wasn’t merely one of theology, although perhaps theology was the driving force. The Sadducees were made up mostly of the upper class, the royals, priests (Kohanim), and many of the Sanhedrin. It was a power play between the ruling and governed classes, with the Torah and the Temple being the battleground. An interesting “what if” game would be if the situation was reversed and the Pharisees were comprised of the upper class. Orthodox Judaism today would have had a distinctly different face, if one at all.

Several interesting figures no yid or yiddene should go to sleep without knowing about:

Ptolemy ben Chovov – talk about hating the in-laws. This oldest son-in-law of Shimon, the son of Mattisyahu the Hasmonean, hacked his shver and brothers-in-law Yehudah and Mattisyahu to pieces at his palace in Jericho after inviting them on the pretext of participating at his son’s bris. Then he imprisoned his shviger, Shimon’s wife, where she was publicly beaten on a parapet as her son Yochanan Hyrcanus*, who had escaped being hacked to pieces by fortune, watched. At then end of all of it, Ptolemy kills his mother-in-law and vanishes. They just don’t make soaps like this nowadays.

Shlomis (Shlomtzion) Alexandra – the sister of R’ Shimon ben Shatach and wife of king Yehudah Aristobolus (son of aforementioned Yochanan) who died childless after reigning for only one year. She was then married to his brother Alexander Yannai in a levirate marriage (yibum). An esrogim attack and a civil war later, Alexander Yannai died and Shlomis became ‘king’. For ten years, until her death, she brought peace and prosperity back to the war-torn and troubled Judah with her fair and even-handed reign.

Agrippa I – An almost-Dickensian character. Grandchild of Herod who had his grandmother Mariamne (מרים), his father, and uncle executed by Herod at the age of 3 for allegations of treason, he was sent on to Rome for his education. He returned a half-breed, Roman yet Jewish, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of an American Conservative Jew. In spite of his violent background, or perhaps because of it, he provided Judah with its last peaceful years before the scheisse irretrievably hit the fan.

Shimon ben Kosiba (Bar Kochba) – Called “Son of the Star”, he was indeed a fallen star. Initially widely successful in spearheading the rebellion against the Romans, and endorsed by Rabbi Akiva as being the Messiah, things headed downhill quickly and the fall of Beitar resulted in a slaughterhouse probably unparalleled until the 20’th century death camps.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, R’ Meir – For shining through in tragedy. Interestingly, both were descended from geirim, who are supposed to be קשה לישראל כספחת. They proved that “He who laughs last, laughs best”. In the good ‘ole tradition of דער אונגארישער היים, Klal Yisroel is still chuckling centuries later when Greece and Rome are past their last hiccup.

Footnote: Besides for a glaringly obvious whitewash of Jewish slavery on pp. 56-57 and bit of a tendency at one-dimensionality and glibness, the historical veracity of the contents [of the book] have not cross-referenced by me.

*This is the “Yochanan Kohen Gadol” mentioned in Brachos 29A who became a Sadducee after serving for 80 years.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


The book: Roots, By Alex Haley

Review by our resident It's All Good Now. Boy, this girl can write! Thanks tons for contributing your time for this excellent report!


This 700+ page book is a masterful work of non-fiction by prolific author Alex Haley. In this book, Haley chronicles his family's journey harking back 7 generations to a tribal village in Africa. Haley's great-great-great-great grandfather lived in an African village, was kidnapped by white men, and was eventually sold to a plantation owner in one of the southern states in America. The next 5 generations lived as slaves until Haley's grandfather bought his freedom.

Haley's colorful narrative really helps the reader envision life in the African villages of the 1800's, and I suspect that those areas of the world haven't changed much. One recurring theme throughout the African portion of the book is the sanctity afforded to the customs and traditions of each tribe. No infraction is deemed minor, and no sin goes unpunished. There is tremendous value placed on each person - be it man, woman, child, or infant, and the pecking order is strictly adhered to. Every person knows their place, the reason for their creation, and their value to the tribe. Each person also knows that they are accountable to the entire tribe, and that they will be taken to task if they fail in their duty. Corruption is non existent and personal, inner happiness is in abundance. Probably in direct proportion to their total lack of laziness and material comforts. The transition from Africa to America takes place when Haley's forefather is captured by white men engaged in the slave trade. Haley describes the torturous journey endured by the captives in a way that leaves the reader no doubt as to the presence of hell on earth (or ocean, as the case may be). This portion of the book is gut wrenching, nauseating, and leaves me pondering the animal instinct displayed by the capturers and their captives; the former for being so sadistic and the latter for being able to survive despite the senseless cruelty inflicted upon them.

Once in America, Haley's forefather is sold into slavery. He endures long years of pain and suffering, both in the physical and psychological sense. On the physical front, he has a hard time adjusting to the life of a slave, he is unaccustomed to American amenities, and his body takes a long time acclimating to American diseases and climate. Psychologically, his wounds are much deeper than even those on his back from the beatings he received after numerous unsuccessful attempts to escape. He must wrap his mind around the fact that he is beholden to another human, for no discernable reason other than the fact that this person purchased him. He must give up his tribal customs and his tribal way of thinking, and that shatters his self image. Eventually he marries, and bears a child. This child defies the master, and is sold to another plantation owner. With slight variations and several more sales to different slave owners, the next few generations of Haley's forefathers live and breed as slaves, until Haley's grandfather purchases his freedom and sets up shop as a free man.

There were 2 interesting concepts in this portion of the book. First, I found this portion of the book to be a fascinating portrayal of psychological havoc. What was the atmosphere and the mindset that gave birth to slavery on such a widespread basis? Who was the first white person to muster up the audacity to lord it over black people to the point of allowing himself to capture them against their will? And how did he think he would get away with it? Also, white folk were entirely dependent on their slaves, and yet they thought nothing of treating their slaves as dispensable commodities. The slaves lived with a fierce desire to escape burning in their bellies, but for the most part, they went along with whatever hand fate dealt them. Unfathomable in modern day America!

Second, Haley's detailed portrayal of so many generations was only made possible because each parent had the self imposed task of recounting the family's history as told to them by their African ancestor. They realized the importance of continuing the family's legacy, and they realized that the only way to preserve and fully appreciate it was by making sure that it was imbued in every family member from the very day they were born.

After all, if you want to know where you come from and where you are going, the best place to look for answers is by going back to your ROOTS!