Thursday, November 5, 2015

Temple by Robert Greenfield

Temple by Robert Greenfield, which won the National Jewish Book Award for best novel in 1983 is a book I bought years ago and thanks to my 50 book reading challenge have finally gotten around to reading.

When Temple begins the main character Paulie Bindel is living in Cambridge Massachusetts with his girlfriend, Lesley.  He has dropped out of graduate school and works nights in a bookstore for minimum wage,  He hates his job and no wonder since he is seriously underemployed.  The one thing Paulie does love is music.  Going to a popular nightclub in Cambridge the Charity Ward for Paulie is akin to a religious experience.  But when he discovers his beautiful girlfriend Lesley has been cheating on him (something he was sure was going to happen eventually) there doesn't seem to be a reason to stay in Cambridge and so Paulie heads back home to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up.

Can you go home again and find answers regarding how you should live your life?   That's one of the questions Temple asks, home not being just a geographical location but returning to your family, your neighborhood, your faith.  Since Paulie is still young he's 's lucky.  His parents,  Morty and Esther Bindel, are alive and in good health.  Paulie though is somewhat dismissive of his parents.  He has come back primarily to reconnect with his grandfather who he loves and who he is hoping will provide him with answers.

The novel is about Paulie's journey and he narrates certain chapters.  We also learn about other characters in the novel whose life revolves around Temple Ahavath Mizrath and the old Brooklyn neighborhood.  Paulie's grandfather a deeply religious man and Holocaust survivor who bravely got his wife and kids to America before trying to leave himself.  Paulie's father Morty who served in WW 11 and has worked hard to support his family and pay for Paulie's education.  Paulie's mother Esther who sat up nights with him when he was a kid treating his asmtha.  Rabbi Simeon Hakveldt spiritual leader of the temple who worries about how his congregation feels about him.  The guys at the post office where Morty gets his son a job who spend their time drinking and fighting.  The ladies at Toni's Beauty Salon where Esther and her friends go to get their hair done and catch up.

And actually its the supporting characters in Temple that most interested me.  Robert Greenfield does a masterful job telling us about their lives, their fears, their dreams and a few warrant a novel of their own. And as I learned about them I found my attitude changing towards Paulie.  He is bright or as his father says "too bright, that's always been his problem". And though Paulie is funny and self deprecating he is also very judgemental about himself and others.  Maybe if he could learn to cut himself some slack he could go easier on others or visa versa.

Temple published in 1982 describes a different world than today.  But the lessons in this book about finding your place are timeless.  Robert Greenfield is a gifted writer who has written other books as well. Temple is out of print but you can order a used copy at Amazon and its worth cbecking out.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Oxford History of the United States

My 50 book reading plan will include one book from the Oxford History of the United States.  So far the books in this series are as follows.:

Glorious Cause (1763-1789) by Richard Middekauff
Empire of Liberty (1789-1818) by Gordon S Wood
What Hath God Wrought (1818-1848) by David Walker Howe
Battlecry of Freedom (1848-1865) by James M McPherson
Freedom From Fear (1929-1945) by David M Kennedy
Grand Expectations (1945-1974) by James T Patterson
Restless Giant (1974-2000) by James T Patterson

I say so far because though The Oxford History of the United States was conceived in the 1950's the project is still not finished. There are no books yet written covering 1865 through 1929 for example.  A few years back Atlantic Magazine and the Boston Globe published articles asking what's taking so long?  Good point because each of the above books are huge and many readers may want to wait until the entire series is written taking you all the way through American history with no gaps.

That having been said the above list have won two Pulitzer Prizes, two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and a Bancroft Award.  So if you are interested in a particular period of American history covered by one of the history books above you might want to invest the time.  As for me in the months ahead  I do intend to pick one of these books to read and review here at Reading Matters.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If you've never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes stories a good place to begin is The Hound of the Baskervilles. It remains his most popular novel and the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter's night.  

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes and Watson in their London flat on Baker Street.  The time is the 1880's and Dr. James Mortimer comes to see Sherlock Holmes to find out what really happened to his friend Sir Charles Baskerville.  The death was ruled a heart attack but Dr. Mortimer has questions.  He tells Sherlock Holmes that in the months leading up to his death, Sir Charles worried about the Baskerville curse.

The curse began in the 1600's when Hugo Baskerville captured a young woman imprisoning her on his estate.  She escaped and Hugo and his friends raced after her with their hounds in hot pursuit.  The young woman fell to her death but Hugo was killed too, savagely attacked by a monstorous hound. Since that time bad luck has befallen the Baskerville descendents.  Dr. Mortimer wants Holmes to investigate since he is sure he saw footprints of a very large animal near the place where Sir Charles had his heart attack.  

Holmes is skeptical but decides to take the case particularly since Charles Baskerville was worried about his nephew Henry Baskerville's well being. Henry was next in line to inherit the Baskerville home and it turns out when Holmes and Watson meet Henry they find that someone is following him but who and why?  Sherlock with the help of Dr Watson solves the case and the resolution is satisfying and believable.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is narrated by Dr. John Watson and he is a great observer of all that is going on including the brilliant mind of his friend Sherlock Holmes.  As someone once wrote there's a timelessness about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  No matter what else is happening in the world we can open our book and suddenly its 1884 and Holmes and Watson are sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper trying to decide which case they'll take on next.  Some things never get old.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Should We Finish Every Book We Start?

We begin books with the best of intentions, wanting to read through to the last page. But certain books start out well and then 100, 150 pages in they become a chore to get through.  I'm in that position now with a critically acclaimed book I have wanted to read for some time but I'm struggling with it and have decided to put the book down for awhile and move on to something I might like better.

There is a guilt I feel in not finishing books because for years that's all I did, get to page 70, 80 and move on to the next thing. And if a book is a classic there is a sense of obligation to finish it as well.  But life is short and when a book becomes a desert that you've been walking through for weeks hoping to see water up ahead, maybe its time to move on. Reading should be fun.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion is Jane Austen's final novel completed in 1816, a year before her death at age 41.   Some critics say its her most autobiographical work dealing with lost love and second chances.  Having read and loved Pride and Prejudice I wondered if Persuasion might be a let down.  I shouldn't have worried.

Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot who is 27 and unmarried.  Life and certainly romance seem to have passed her by.  But eight years prior Anne at 19 was engaged to Frederick Wentworth, a young man just starting his career in the British Navy. They were very much in love but from different classes. Anne the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot was upper class.  Her family a part of England's landed gentry.  Frederick Wentworth from a lower class.  Her family objected to the match and at 19 Anne didn't have the strength to go against her family.  She broke off the engagement. Frederick was heartbroken and furious  He left England to pursue his career in the navy.  As for Anne, Austen writes:

"time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, but she had been too dependent on time alone; no aid had been given in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture), or to any novelty or enlargement of society.  No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth as he stood in her memory"

Fast forward to Anne's present day life and the Elliot family are in financial difficulty.  Nothing dire but it will require Sir Walter Elliot to rent out Kellynch Hall, for a few months to Admiral and Mrs. Croft.  Sir Walter is not thrilled and he expresses his frustration with the Navy as follows:

"I have two strong grounds of objection to it.  First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of, and secondly as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man.  I have observed it all my life.  A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line."

But Sir Walter agrees to rent his estate to Admiral and Mrs Croft and Mrs Croft it turns out is the sister of Frederick Wentworth now Captain Wentworth who has returned from the Napoleanic wars a very rich man.  Has he forgiven Anne or is he still angry?  Does he still feel about her the way she still feels about him?  Are second chances possible or has too much time gone by?

Jane Austen  is one of the greatest writers in English literature, world literature and its hard to convey in a review why she is so special.  She must be read. Her novels center arund marriage, a woman making the perfect match because back in the early 1800's a woman's entire future happiness and financial security depended on it.  Her novels also deal with class, money, family, men and women. She was popular in her day and is even more popular now with movies and miniseries of her novels still being produced as well as Jane Austen literary societies, contemporary authors writing sequels to her books etc.  But nothing compares to reading Jane Austen and if you haven't already read her, Persuasion, at a little over 200 pages, is a great place to start.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Many Minds, Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss M.D.

One night over 25 years ago I was listening to the Barry Farber show and Barry's guest was Brian Weiss M.D.  His book Many Minds, Many Masters: The True Story of A Psychiatrist, His Young Patient and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both of Their Lives had just been published. I don't remember the interview but I must have been impressed since I bought the book and now many years later I've reread it to see if it holds up.

In Many Minds, Many Masters Dr Weiss tells the story of his patient Catherine who came to his office in 1980 to see if her anxiety could be cured.  Regular therapy was. not working and so Dr Weiss decided to hypnotize Catherine back to her childhood to uncover possible traumas that led to her current problems.  To the astonishment of Dr. Weiss, Catherine started remembering fragments of past lives she had lived.  A soldier in battle, a servant girl in the 17th century, a woman living in ancient Egypt etc.

Dr. Weiss tells us that prior to meeting Catherine he was an agnostic.  His life had been on a successful path. He was Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at a major teaching hospital, married, two kids, had the respect of his colleagues but he had also experienced tragedy.  His young son Adam had died years before from a rare heart ailment.  And so ten years later Dr. Weiss was not prepared for what Catherine would tell him.

During one of her hypnotic sessions Catherine was able to reach that in-between state where according to past life beliefs, souls that have died, recuperate and learn what they need to for the next life. Catherine told Dr. Weiss that Adam and his father were there and they were happy. Dr Weiss never revealed anything personal to patients. How could Catherine know that he even had children, let alone the name of his father and son and the rare disease that had killed Adam?  This had a powerful impact on Dr. Weiss and as he says, his life would change forever.

If you are interested in learning about reincarnation Many Minds, Many Masters is a good place to start.  I would say though that a large part of the book is taken up with Catherine's past life memories which would be okay if Catherine could give more details but since she can't we get pages and pages of brief fragments of her past lives and it can get boring.

Since he published Many Minds, Many Masters in 1988, Dr. Weiss has become a leading figure in the field of reincarnation and past lives.  He's 70 now, lectures widely and holds seminars worldwide.  He has written 6 more books on life after death and how past-life therapy can be used to treat people with anxiety, depression, addiction, the way Catherine's emotional problems were healed.

As for me I'm not a believer in reincarnation but there is something comforting about going through life knowing that this isn't it and that there is no hell but rather the mistakes we make can be rectified in the next life and that we will meet our love ones again.  Finally, Dr. Weiss is an interesting man who in response to a tragedy decades ago found a new path to make sense of it and has stuck to that path all these years later.  Its inspirinng

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why This Blog?

I love to read.  Anyone who knows me knows that. But for years now I have had trouble finishing books.  I'll get to page 70 or 80 and want to be on to the next thing. I end up storing books in my kindle rather than reading them.  Maybe its an embarrassment of riches I have so many wonderful books in every genre (novels, biographies, romance, westerns, books on religion, current events, mysteries etc etc) its like what to read first?  And so instead of reading what I already have in my kindle I'm looking for the next book to add to the pile.  Since books are not cheap this is not a harmless activity of mine and so I am starting this blog to read what I've already purchased.

But another reason I am embarking on this 50 book reading project is about follow through.  I've never been good at completing tasks, weight loss being one prime example. And so as in the movie Julie and Julia where Julie Powell made a plan to cook all of Julia Child's recipes from her classic book on French Cuisine and completing this task spurred her to change other things in her life, I'm hoping for a similar result.

I'm hoping to get to the end of this 50 book reading project healthier and happier, realizing of course that there are no guarantees in life.  In any event I will spend the next year, two years reading alot of great books already in my kindle and posting my thoughts and I hope everyone who visits my blog enjoys the journey.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

The second book in my 50 book reading challenge is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a highly acclaimed novel that won the National Book Award in 1991 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.  A Thousand Acres was also made into a movie starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer which received not so great reviews but critics agree the novel itself is a masterpiece.  But be warned, this novel is very tragic, some would say on a Shakespearean level which is not a coincidence since A Thousand Acres is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Jane Smiley has set A Thousand Acres in a rural farm community in Iowa.  The year is 1979 and Larry Cook is the wealthiest farmer in Zebulon County.  He has three grown daughters. The eldest two, Ginny and Rose live on their father's farm and with their husbands help him run his thousand acres, catering to his wishes and never challenging his authority.  The youngest, Caroline, is the only daughter who has moved away and shaped a different life for herself.

Then one day Larry Cook announces he is retiring and giving the farm to his three daughters. Ginny, Rose and their husbands are pleased to finally have something of their own but Caroline replies "I don't know".  Her father immediately cuts her out of the inheritance and gives the farm to Ginny and Rose setting the stage for all that is to come (which is considerable)

A Thousand Acres is about families and long buried secrets reverberating through many generations.  Its about fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, life in rural America, the perils of farming and how terrible accidents can happen in an instant and much more.  Utimately it's the story of Ginny and her sister Rose and the bond they share forged in childhood.  Ginny narrates the novel.  We see it all through her eyes as she looks back from a future time trying to understand what happened that fateful summer of 1979.

I wish I could quote the many passages that stood out for me in Jane Smiley's book but I feel hesitant without the okay of the author.  So I would say read A Thousand Acres for yourself.  If after 50 pages its not for you, no problem but I think you will be hooked.  It's a reading experience you won't soon forget.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Duel With The Devil by Paul Collins

Just finished reading Duel With The Devil by Paul Collins.  It falls under the category American History/True Crime about a sensational murder that took place in New York City 1799 and came to be known as the Manhattan Well Murder.  The victim, Elma Sands, was a young single woman living in a boarding house in New York City run by her cousin.  On the the night of December 22, 1799 Elma went missing.  Her body was later found at the bottom of a well in the Soho section of Manhattan.  Once her body was discovered the city was in an uproar and fingers pointed to Levi Weeks a young man also living at the boarding house.  The theory was that Elma went out with Levi on the night of her death thinking they were going to elope. Levi was immediately arrested and thrown into prison awaiting his trial.  What makes this case historically interesting is that Levi Weeks' defense team consisted of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.  A rare moment when these two bitter adversaries agreed on anything.

I wouldn't say Duel With The Devil is the best true crime book I've read but once the trial gets going it did pick up for me and the author, Paul Collins, does a good job laying out what New York City was like in 1799 - 1800.  Manhattan was just getting over a Yellow Fever outbreak and the conditions around the city were very unsanitary, the water in particular being undrinkable.  It was not a safe place for a young woman living by herself in a boarding house either.  Paul Collins agrees with the jury verdict, which took them only minutes to arrive at, that Levi Weeks could not have been the killer. As to who killed Elma Sands, Collins points to another boarder who had a history of insanity and violent behavior towards women and young girls and who seemed too eager after the murder to spread rumors that Levi was responsible, taking the focus off himself.

After the trial Levi Weeks had to leave the city.  Despite the not guilty verdict many continued to see him as guilty but his carpentry skills after he set up a new life for himself down South provided a good living and he went on to rebuild his life, get married and have children.  As for Hamilton and Burr their next major encounter would not end happily.  They were brilliant but flawed men which led to their famous and tragic duel in which Burr killed Hamilton.