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Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States)
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Lamb in His Bosom (Modern Southern Classics)
Lamb in His Bosom (Modern Southern Classics)
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.10

4.0 out of 5 stars A Novel of Georgia Pioneers, 15 Dec 2013
The Pulitzer Prize for fiction generally is awarded to novels that celebrate the diverse character or ideals of American life. In 1934, "Lamb in his Bosom", an unusual first novel by an unknown southern writer, Caroline Miller, received the Prize and became a best-seller. Miller (1903 -- 1992) continued to write through her life, but she never duplicated her initial success.

"Lamb in his Bosom" is a historical novel set in rural south Georgia from about 1840 to the end of the Civil War. The setting is rarely explored in history or in literature; Miller brings it to life. Pioneers from North Carolina and Kentucky migrated to this remote area, full of swamps and pine forests and established hardscrabble farms. The population was sparse and life was hard.

Miller's novel covers the lives of several generations of the pioneering farmers. Her primary character is a woman Cean Smith, who at 15 marries an older man, Lonzo, and begins life with him in a cabin six miles from her family, the nearest neighbors. She helps Lonzo with the farmwork, keeps the house, and over the marriage bears 13 children, 8 of which survive. The farm is self-sufficient, run entirely by husband and wife. There were no slaves in this part of Georgia, whose population consisted of small, yeoman farmers. Once each year Lonzo and other men travel 80 miles to the Georgia "Coast" to engage in barter. Miller threads Cean's story into the life of the community, particularly her parents and siblings. Her brother, Lias, marries a woman he meets on the coast, Margot, whom his family fears will be of questionable virtue. Problems in the marriage result instead from Lias' own wandering, violence, and unfaithfulness.

Miller recreates beautifully the dialect of the place and time. The speech patterns are worth preserving and draw the reader into the story while making for slow reading. Miller offers beautifully descriptive passages of the nature and wildness that formed the settlers' lot -- including the swamps, capricious weather, animals, and snakes. She also offers a convincing portrayal of the rigors of farm life, from planting to cutting wood, to travel, and, especially bearing and raising many children.

The book centers on the travails of life. During her first pregnancy, Cean is bitten by a rattlesnake and nearly dies. The pregnancies are always life-threatening. Many people die during the course of the book. Injuries from animals, momentary carelessness with an ax, and fire, for example, are rampant.

Miller shows the gradual development and growth of the region. As the Civil War approaches, the population increases, and more formalized religion and education come into the area. When her husband dies, Cean gradually develops a relationship with a New Light minister, Dermid O'Connor. The religious nature of the simple farm pioneers receives much emphasis in the book.

"Lamb in his Bosom" offers a realistic historical portrayal of a small, isolated area of rural America. The characters in the book have rude, harsh lives. Miller develops them with a great deal of sympathy and affection; she clearly considers these early Georgia pioneers as the salt of the earth and she effectively conveys her portrayals to the reader.

Miller's book had a considerable influence on Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind". There is little of the romantic in Miller's book and the characters and stories in the two novels are far apart. Miller's novel had been almost forgotten before it was reissued in this this 1990's edition with an afterward by literary scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. The book describes a specific place and moment of American time but it echoes something universal in American experience and in Americans' visions of themselves. The book deserved the Pulitzer Prize it received in 1934. Readers with an interest in the literature of the American South will enjoy getting to know this book.

Robin Friedman


Post Office
Post Office
by Charles Bukowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Dead Letters, 14 Dec 2013
This review is from: Post Office (Paperback)
This toughly-written short novel tells the story of anti-hero Henry Chianski's two deadening periods of employment with the U.S. Post Office in Los Angeles. "Post Office" was the first published novel by the now famous underground novelist and poet, Charles Bukowski (1920 -1994). Chianski is the protagonist in Bukowski's other novels, and he is modeled loosely on the author. Bukowksi did, in fact have two long stints at the post office. The second, of more that twelve years, ended when John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press, offered Bukowski a monthly stipend to quit the job and devote his time to writing. Bukowski agreed and wrote "Post Office" within a month after resigning. Thus, unlike some of his later novels such as "Ham on Rye" and "Factotum" where an older Bukowski looks back on his younger life, "Post Office" has a strong feel of immediacy. The novel is funny, sharp, vulgar, and in-your-face.

The writing in "Post Office" is raw and simple. Bukowski turns his back on what many today regard as political correctness, especially in his attitudes towards women and sexuality. Also, many people, particularly those in the professions and those with substantial education, tend to define themselves in terms of their work. As far as the post office is concerned, Bukowski rejects this attitude as emphatically as a bucket of ice water in the face. He shows no sentimentality towards the post office or towards the value of his occupation. But in part this is because Bukowski had not found what he wanted to to. His vocation was as a writer.

The novel is written in six chapters, each of which is divided into short paragraphs. The opening chapter deals with Chianski/Bukoswski's initial two-year employment with the post office as a letter carrier. This section is more concentrated than the rest of the book, as Chianski describes his relationship with Betty, probably the love of his life, and a series of short affairs with other women. Chianski describes his difficulties with an overbearing supervisor, and there are funny scenes, such as that involving mailman Chianski's encounter with a German shepherd who seems enamored with him.

When Betty splits with Chianski, he becomes involved with the wealthy Joyce who divorces him after two years of marriage. Chianski has returned to the post office, this time as a clerk, where he remains for 12 years. Chianski hates his job and malingers whenever possible, spending his time at the racetrack, with women, and drinking. The book includes effective scenes of life at the track and of its hangers-on. Chianski is written-up often for misconduct but somehow never gets fired. He manages to walk away freely, on his own terms. During this time, Chianski fathers a daughter with an aging hippie named Fay. When Fay moves out, Chianski pays child support and remains surprisingly attached to his daughter. Also during this period, Betty, whom Chianski has continued to see intermittently, dies. Chianski takes Betty's death hard.

There is no John Martin in "Post Office", as there was for Bukowski, but Chianski finally works up the courage to leave a job he hates. Bukowski wrote of himself and his own decision to leave the post office: "I have one of two choices -- stay in the post office and go crazy -- or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." At first Chianski does not know what to do with the freedom he has chosen for himself, and he goes on a drunken binge. But "Post Office" ends on an optimistic note as Chianski finds his vocation at the conclusion:

"In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did."

While "Post Office" is not as good as either "Ham on Rye" or "Factotum", it has much more of a sense of presence -- as Bukowski wrote the book immediately upon quitting the post office without the opportunity to reflect upon the experience through distance and the passage of time. The book in its humor,irreverance, and directness makes an excellent introduction to Bukowski.

Robin Friedman


36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
by Rebecca Goldstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Philosophical Novel for the 21st Century, 12 Dec 2013
Introductory note: I learned a great deal from the Amazon/UK reviews, many of which show a critical skepticism towards this book. I loved the book nevertheless. The book has nearly 200 reviews on the United States Amazon site. My review follows.

Rebecca Goldstein's 2009 novel "36 Arguments fo the Existence of God" has the rare accomplishment of succeeding both as a story and as a work of ideas. The characters in the book come to life in their individual situations rather than as stick-figures for arguments. The philosophical questions the book addresses arise from the story line. Goldstein explores the questions engagingly rather than didactically. She shows respect and consideration for positions she does not adopt.

The primary philosophical question the book addresses is whether God exists; the penultimate chapter of the book consists of a lengthy, staged debate on the issue at Harvard. But the book probes even further as it considers the psychology of religious belief and why the question of God's existence continues to excite mind and passion in contemporary life. The question of belief in God may be a misplaced issue in understanding religious life.

This lengthy novel moves in tone from satirical to serious. The scenes and characters shift frequently between chapters, making it difficult to keep up in places. Besides discussing God and religion, Goldstein's novel focuses on the question of finding a self, and finding love. The book also includes a lengthy satire on academia.

The primary character, Cass Seltzer, is a psychologist at a Massachusetts university who has just attained success with this book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion". The book, of course, alludes to William James' study "The Variety of Religious Experience" (as well as to Freud's "The Future of an Illusion"). William James echoes throughout Goldstein's novel.

The book traces Seltzer's life beginning with his childhood. His parents were Othodox Jews who in adulthood abandoned Judaism. Seltzer's father, a physician, hoped Cass would follow his career path. His mother was raised in a small Hasidic town but she abandoned Hasidism and any form of Jewish practice. Seltzer had been pre-med but an encounter with a charismatic professor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, changed has path and resulted in his fascination with religion and ultimately in his book. The brilliant, verbose, dictatorical Klapper is satirized throughout this novel for his dogmatic rigidity, pompousness, criticism of science, and control over the lives of his graduate students. He is nevertheless a key influence on Seltzer.

Seltzer has had difficulty with women in his life, as the novel describes his past and continuing relationships with a series of women, all of whom are academics of various kinds. Goldstein describes the breadth and excitement of the life of the mind. Goldstein's book also illustrates the pettiness, competitiveness, quests for gender-issue related independence and space, and, frequently, the difficulty of finding love in intellectual life.

A substantial part of this novel is set in the small fictitious community of Hasidic Jews in New York State in which Seltzer's mother had grown up. Klapper and Seltzer become drawn to the community during Seltzer's days as a graduate student. He becomes fascinated with the way of life of the Hasidim, with the Rebbe, and with the Rebbe's son, Azarya, six, a mathematical prodigy.

The author and her character, Cass Seltzer, are pulled in many different ways by religion and by its significance in human life. Raised herself in an Orthodox Jewish home, Goldstein feels the force of religion and considers it respectfully. The argumentative sections of the book display a well thought-through and articulated skepticism about God's existence. The book includes as well an Appendix, modeled on the Appendix of Seltzer's fictitious "The Varieties of Religious Illusion" considering and analyzing succinctly 36 proffered arguments for God's existence. The final scene of the book is set among the Hasidim who, mostly ignorant of life elsewhere in the contemporary United States and of academia, pursue their path with joy.

Goldstein's novel is both intellectually challenging and enjoyable and gripping to read. Readers of far differing views on God and religion have praised the book, and deservedly so. I found the novel insightful and liberating. Readers who have struggled with religious questions in their lives will benefit from exploring their questions with Rebecca Goldstein in "36 Arguments for the Existence of God."

Robin Friedman


David Goodis...To A Pulp [DVD] [2010] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
David Goodis...To A Pulp [DVD] [2010] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Larry Withers

5.0 out of 5 stars A David Goodis Documentary, 10 Dec 2013
This 2010 film documentary "To a Pulp" explores the life and work of the noir writer David Goodis (1917 -- 1967). Filmmaker Larry Withers researched, wrote, and directed the film. Upon the death of his mother, born Elaine Astor, Withers discovered that she had been married briefly to Goodis in the 1940s. Wither's mother and Goodis alike had been highly secretive over the course of their lives in discussing their early marriage. Withers became interested in Goodis and in the marriage, with this film as a result.

When Goodis died in 1967, all his novels were out of print. Since that time, there has been a strong revival of interest in his work which was well in evidence at the time of this documentary. In 2012, the Library of America published a volume of five Goodis novels to accompany its publication of his novel "Down There" in an earlier volume of American noir. The LOA volumes will keep Goodis' works alive and give them a deserved place in American literature.

If for no other reason, Withers' documentary is valuable because there are no detailed biographical studies of Goodis in English.There is a full-length biography of Goodis in French but it has not been translated. The film offers a good, reliable introduction to Goodis' life and work. But the film is much more than an overview. It captures intimately a great deal of the author, his friends, marriage, and the places he lived.

The film takes a chronological approach to Goodis' life narrated by Withers. It includes interviews with people who knew Goodis well, including relatives, friends, and scholars. The film discusses Goodis' marriage with candid reflections from his ex-wife's second husband, Withers' father. Goodis is portrayed a complex, reclusive individual, attached to his family and to his emotionally disturbed younger brother. He had a penchant for fun and for practical jokes. Goodis also had a troubled sexual life which apparently included masochistic relationships with large African American women. Goodis and Elaine Astor immediately proved incompatible and their short marriage probably soured Goodis' attitudes towards women.

The film includes invaluable footage and photographs of the places where Goodis grew up and lived and of the gritty streets in Philadelphia that constitute the settings of many of his novels. The film effectively uses voice-over, as Goodis (through an actor) is portrayed banging away at his old typewriter while the typed passages from his work are read in progress over the screen. The film offers many worthwhile insights into Goodis' novels.

I have been reading Goodis for some years and had knowledge of the basic facts of his life. I learned a great deal from this film. It captures the man well. Readers interested in this dark noir writer and his world will enjoy this film. It is available for "instant viewing" and rental on Amazon's United States site for a low price and will reward viewing.

Robin Friedman


Steppenwolf (Penguin Translated Texts)
Steppenwolf (Penguin Translated Texts)
by Hermann Hesse
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Rereading Steppenwolf after many Years, 9 Dec 2013
I first read Herman Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf" in the late 1960s, as did many baby boomers. Although I loved the novel at the time, I gradually became embarrassed by the book as an error of my youth My growing disenchantment, probably was due to my increased discomfort with the counterculture, which never appealed to me, and to "Steppenwolf's" adoption by the movement. I have always been generally conservative about most things. My unwillingness to revisit the book persisted even when I became seriously interest in Buddhism, more than fifteen years ago. I decided to revisit "Steppenwolf" upon reading a recent book about philosophy. The author mentioned Hesse's novel several times and obviously thought a great deal of it. The references in a book I liked prompted me to reread "Steppenwolf" at last.

After rereading the book, I thought that I was right to love it upon the first reading, right to leave it alone for more that 40 years, and right to revisit it. As with so many books, "Steppenwolf" loses something when read by the young. In a 1961 author's note, Hesse claimed that "Steppenwolf" often was "violently misunderstood". He attributed the misunderstanding in part to the book's popularity with young readers. Hesse also pointed out that the book tended to attract loners and intellectuals who identified with the loneliness and apparent alienation of Harry Haller, the novel's main character. This certainly would have been true in my case. Hesse wrote:

"[T]his book knows of and speaks about other things besides Harry Haller and his difficulties, about a second,higher, indestructible world beyond the Steppenwolf and his problematic life. The 'Treatise' and all those spots in the book dealing with matters of the spirit, of the arts, and the 'immortal' men oppose the Steppenwolf's world of suffering with a positive, serene, superpersonal and timeless world of faith. This book, no doubt, tells of griefs and needs; still, it is not a book of a man despairing but of a man believing."

The book tells of Harry Haller's, the "Steppenwolf's" redemption from a life of loneliness and despair through his efforts at writing and self-understanding and through largely hallucinatory meetings with a range of characters, including his alter-ego Hermione, a lover, Marie, a strange saxophonist and band leader, Pablo, and the historical figures Goethe and Mozart. Much of the story is set in bars and in Harry's lonely rooms, as he revisits his impoverished love life, divorce, loneliness, and wanderings. A long final scene is set a strange "Magic Theater" where Harry undergoes a series of transformative, if sometimes shocking experiences.

The "Magic Theater" and a small number of ambiguously meant references to drug use in the course of the novel understandably contributed to its appeal to the counterculture. The book has also been read as a strong critique of "bourgeois" society and its
conformity, an interpretation I find misdirected. Harry comes to terms with his life and with the different aspects of himself during the novel. He learns to accept the "bourgeois" world of respectability and business just as he learns to accept and be happy with his own sexuality, learning, independence, and his past. Harry learns to love his life as it is.

The strongest parts of the book are the long descriptions of spiritual Buddhist-derived teachings which discuss the nature of selfhood and the need for letting go and acceptance. The book relies heavily on Buddhist teachings on the lack of a fixed, substantial self. The book integrates Buddhist teachings with Harry's tortured experiences to offer a convincing, if extreme, novelistic portrayal of non-self. I learned much more from rereading this book after I had acquired both "life experiences" and a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism than I learned when I was young and more foolish and when I knew comparatively little about Buddhism.

Hesse (1877 -- 1962) was born in Germany but became a Swiss citizen in 1923. He wrote the strongly autobiographical "Steppenwolf" in 1927, and it was first translated into English in 1929. The popularity of the book soared in the 1960s and has remained high. Those readers who read "Steppenwolf" when they were young, as I did, might well enjoy revisiting and rethinking the book as they have gone forward in life.

Robin Friedman.


Heggie: Moby-Dick [Jay Hunter Morris, Stephen Costello, Morgan Smith] [Euroarts: 2059654] [Blu-ray] [2013]
Heggie: Moby-Dick [Jay Hunter Morris, Stephen Costello, Morgan Smith] [Euroarts: 2059654] [Blu-ray] [2013]
Dvd ~ Jay Hunter Morris
Price: 29.31

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From Great American Novel to Great American Opera, 8 Dec 2013
Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick" has fascinated composers, resulting in a number of large orchestral and vocal settings. This grand opera by the American composer Jake Heggie with libretto by Gene Scheer is the most recent attempt to transform Melville's profoundly tumultuous work into music. The opera premiered in Dallas in 2010 and has since already been performed in several venues. The San Francisco Opera directed by Patrick Summers presented the opera in 2012 and produced this DVD version.

The opera and production are stunning in every way. Heggie's music is both declamatory and lyrical. It is distinctly modern but accessible while capturing the varied aspects of life at sea. The music is passionate and tragic with moments of tenderness and playfulness. The crew dances. In one of the best scenes of the opera, Captain Ahab and his mate Starbuck reminisce about life at home. The music for this moment has a nostalgic quality. In other scenes Heggie captures Ahab's madness and obsession with the destruction it brings in its wake.

Gene Scheer's libretto condenses Melville's 600 page novel into about two and one-half hours of music. The opera is well-;paced and captures the spirit of Melville's masterpiece. The large opening section of "Moby-Dick" which takes place on land is omitted entirely as are the long passages in the novel on whaling and whales. The opera takes place entirely at sea with much of the action telescoped and condensed. Melville's famous opening sentence "Call me Ishmael" is transformed to the final sentence of the opera.

The staging of this opera presented a task. The setting captures the large, foreboding quality of the Pequod replete with the whaler's three tall masts. There are also scenes in the whaling boats with their harpooners and, of course, the large scene of destruction at the end. The settings were presented convincingly.

The vocal lines in this opera are difficult in range and mirror the speech patterns of the characters. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris rants and raves as Captain Ahab. In addition to his singing, Morris acts his role convincingly with his movements, gestures, and with the glints in his eye. Jonathan Lemalau offers a sympathetic portrayal of the harpooner Queequeg, his face and body replete with tattoos while Steven Costello plays "Greenhorn" or Ishmael, the lonely new crew member. Ismael's role in the opera is reduced from his central role as the narrator in Melville's novel. Morgan Smith portrays the anguished Starbuck and captures the first mate's moral dilemma when he is presented with the opportunity to kill his mad captain. The opera includes an expanded role for the cabinboy Pip, performed by the only female member of the cast, Talise Trevigne. With tambourine, "flying", and subtle commentary on the action Trevigne's Pip is a highlight of the production.

This set presents the entire opera on a single disk. The second disk consists of interviews with the composer, librettist, and several of the singers.

Heggie's "Moby-Dick" joins a growing list of American operas, including Joplin's "Treemonisha", Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", and Copland's "The Tender Land", among others. It is the second opera in recent years setting an American classic, following Robert Aldridge's 2007 "Elmer Gantry" with libretto by Herschel Garfein. Heggie's "Moby-Dick" is a grand accomplishment in American opera.

Robin Friedman


Humans of New York
Humans of New York
by Brandon Stanton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.95

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New York Tendaberry, 5 Dec 2013
This review is from: Humans of New York (Hardcover)
Brandon Stanton's "Humans of New York" (2013) captures the joy, diversity, and promise of American and New York City life in a book of 400 glossy color photographs. Taken over a three-year period, the photographs show people of all ages, races, economic classes ,religions, and conditions of life. There are photographs of people alone, with their pets, with lovers, or with friends and family. Some of the subjects are homeless street people while others clearly live a life of opulence. People are shown at work and play, dreaming, talking fighting, extroverted and meditative. The photographs in the volume are all taken with the knowledge of the subjects and thus, to a greater or lesser degree, posed rather than candid.

The variety of New York City, with its busy downtown streets, residential areas, apartments, bridges, buildings, parks, and some surprisingly quiet places serve as the background. The focus of the book is on people - on their faces, clothes, hands, and jewelry. The city locations, however, constitute an integral part of each photo. A short caption accompanies most of the photographs. In many cases, the photos are accompanied by a short anecdote or story about the subject.
Many readers came to this book through an extensive blog of an even larger collection of photos that the author took and maintains. I did not know of the blog until I found the book. I was glad of the opportunity to enjoy and respond to the book fresh in seeing it for the first time rather than to come to it with expectations of its content from viewing the blog. I found effective the arrangement of the photos, the use of captions, and the relatively spare use of stories to accompany the pictures. The photographs speak for themselves.

Brandon Stanton the author, developed his talent for photography in an unusual and pressured way. He had been working in the financial markets of Chicago as a bond salesman and received a camera a gift. The gift allowed Stanton to begin taking pictures of buildings and places in Chicago as a hobby and then to branch gradually into photographing people.. When he lost his job, Stanton decided to make a career change. He began to move from city to city, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, taking photos with his interest moving to photographing people. Stanton became fascinated with New York City and its opportunities, moved to the City, and began to photograph in earnest. He soon received widespread recognition on media which translated into this book. Thus, Stanton's photos of a city and its people reinventing themselves parallel s his own reinvention of himself and his path in life.

Many artists, poets, novelists, and photographers have been fascinated by the speed and diversity of America's greatest city. With all its predecessors, Stanton's book is poignant and alive. The book speaks of optimism, diversity, and hope for the city and its people.

Of the many allusions this book could suggest, the one that came to mind was "New York Tendaberry" a 1969 album by singer, composer, and pianist Laura Nyro (1947-- 1997). Nyro's album with its eleven songs is essentially an ode to New York City. In particular, in the title track, Nyro writes of New York:

"Sidewalk and pigeon
You look like a city,
But you feel like a religion to me."

Nyro's song concludes in a paean to the city:

"Where quakers and revolutionaries
Join for life, for precious years
Join for life through silver tears

New York tendaberry."

Stanton's photos have the intimate feel of Laura Nyro's song. The book and the song convey messages of hope about the ideals of American urban life and of the American experience.

Robin Friedman


Crossroads
Crossroads
by John Milward
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars World Boogie, 4 Dec 2013
This review is from: Crossroads (Hardcover)
Music Critic John Milward explores the many interconnections and cross-influences between the blues and rock in his detailed and alive history, "Cross Roads: How the Blues Shaped Rock 'N" Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues)" (2013). The book moves from Depression-era blues singers in the deep South through the Chicago blues clubs of the 1950s' through the flamboyant world of rock. The artist Margie Grieve, Milward's wife, prepared the wood-cut style illustrations of the blues and rock musicians that begin each chapter.

The book begins with an overview of the discovery of the rural blues in the 1950s by a small group of dedicated record collectors. I wasn't uware that several of these individuals lived in my hometown of Washington, D.C. The early chapters of the book focus on the Chicago blues scene of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and others. Non-Chicago bluesmen B.B. King, Gary Davis, and John Lee Hooker also figure prominently throughout. Milward delves into the southern roots of these musicians and follows their lengthy careers over the course of more than 50 years. Milward also describes the rediscovery during the early 1960s of Depression era bluesmen Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James. Each of these figures enjoyed a resurgence during the 1960s and added to their recorded legacy. The legendary bluesman Robert Johnson also pervades this book.

On the rock side, the book offers portrayals of British and American musicians and details the great influence of the blues on their work. Milward discusses Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Vaughan, and Bonnie Riatt and their groups among many other rock performers, famous and lesser known. The book shows the performers when young listening to the blues and then learning from and working with their mentors. Bluesmen typically were born to poverty and struggled performing in small African American clubs while the rock stars tended to be young well-to-do white males who played in large venues, sold millions of records, and became wealthy. Bluesmen and the rockers frequently worked together during the heady days of rock. Many of the famous rock songs, as Milward, shows, had strong blues roots.

The book includes much biographical information about the performers, discussions of their music and recordings, and stories of their relationship. Milward shows how blues and rock crossed generational and racial lines. Much of the book is a celebration of the power of music or, as Milward puts it, of the "emotional alchemy of a voice alongside fingers pressed against steel strings." Milward also describes the dark side of the blues and rock life, including violence and excess, the pervasive use of drugs and alcohol, the shady business practices, the strains of unending performances which allow little opportunity for growth and the commercialism.

The book is replete with intimate details and observations. For example, Milward tells the story of a Memphis 1960's bluesman, Jim Dickinson, and his sons Luther and Cody, who formed a group in the late 20th Century that performs hll country blues. The book quotes Luther Dickinson's observations on the blues-rock relationship.

"Dad always said that the essence of rock 'n' roll was young white boys crossing the tracks to hang out in the juke joints and soak up the blues. ... It's all about racial collision. It's Chuck Berry trying to play Bob Willis and getting in not quite right. It's the Beatles and the Rolling Stones trying to play Chuck Berry and getting it not quite right. It's me trying to play like Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside but letting Duane Allman get in there too."

Milward comments: "This potluck stew of black and white music pretty much defines what Jim Dickinson called 'world boogie'."

My interest was primarily in the blues. Lovers of either or both genres will learn from and be moved by Milward's informed and devoted history of their influence and cross-fertilization of one another.

Robin Friedman


The Pox Party: 1 (Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation)
The Pox Party: 1 (Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation)
by M. T. Anderson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.02

2.0 out of 5 stars An American Revolutionary War Novel for Young Readers, 19 Nov 2013
M.T. Anderson's novel, "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: the Pox Party" received the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. The book was written as a challenging contemporary read in a Gothic format that would appeal to high school students weary of standard literary fare. The book has also received a great deal of attention from adult readers and provoked varying responses, as shown by the reviews here on Amazon. I read the book for a book group. It might be possible to try to separate out the ways in which an adult might see the book differently from the high school audience for which the book was primarily intended. Similarly, the book could stimulate a discussion of the qualities in a book that make good reading for young people. I will for the most part avoid these issues here but focus instead on my own response to the book. I disliked it.

The book is set in Boston prior to and during the Revolutionary War. The title character came to America from Africa when his pregnant mother, a princess, was sold into slavery. Mother and son ultimately wind up in Boston in a mysterious situation. Octavian is unaware at first that he is a slave. Readers, of course, should be aware of the existence of slavery in the northern states during the revolutionary era.

Octavian and his mother, Cassiopeia, are at first blush not treated as ordinary slaves. They are held in a mysterious gothic-style house in a school called the "Novaglian College of Lucidity" founded on Enlightenment principles ostensibly to promote science. Cassiopeia is taught to play the harpsichord and young Octavian receives an excellent classical education consisting of, among other things, Latin and Greek and science. He is taught the violin which he plays beautifully. The faculty of the school are described as eccentrics and they are known by numbers such as 03-01 rather than by name. As the story progresses, Octavian learns the character of the school. He is punished frequently in the course of the work by severe beatings, tortures, and by the forced wearing of bizarre masks, adding to the Gothic quality of the story. Octavian's story becomes conjoined with the ongoing rebellion of the colonists against Britain, as shown by the Boston Tea Party. The title "The Pox Party" derives from an episode of the book in which various individuals, including Octavian and his mother, are quaranteened for innoculation against smallpox. The quarantine and innoculation was common in the era. The book shows Octavian fighting in the Revolutionary War. The novel comes to a dangling ending. Anderson wrote a sequel two years after this book.

The book is somewhat lengthy, but the chapters are short and it reads quickly. Anderson did his research, and the book captures well the style, speech patterns, dress, and basic history of revolutionary Boston. He also shows an appreciation of music. The book failed for me because it is ham-fisted, sophomoric, and overwritten. It does not, on its own terms, purport to offer a full balanced portrait of America during revolutionary times. The exaggerated, Gothic elements of the story themselves would preclude such a portrayal but the problem goes deeper. The book is a polemic aimed not only at the early American revolutionaries but at what the author sees as the contemporary United States as well. Perhaps the author meant the Gothic, iconoclastic, and moralizing elements of the story and the exaggerated depictions to provoke thought in young readers. For me, the book backfired.

It is presented as Goth, but the book is grossly unfair in its treatment of the Enlightenment and of science. The book may parody the excesses of what is sometimes called "scientism" but readers deserve a fuller account of Enlightenment, science, and their purposes. The "College of Lucidity" is parodied because it receives funding first from a wealthy Englishmen and later from wealthy businesses with the suggestion that it, and contemporary universities, are rather sadly lacking in objectivity in their teachings. The colonists and their revolution receive harsh treatment in the book. In addition to the admittedly dismal treatment of black people, the book stresses the intolerance and violence of the colonists towards Great Britain and towards their sympathizers in the colonies. The leaders of the revolution are depicted in the novel as motivated solely by commerce and by their commercial interests. They and their supporters have no higher goal than wanting people to go shopping, in another dig at contemporary American life. There is no hint in the novel of ideas that might have sparked a revolution or of any legitimate discontent with Britain. In sum, I thought the novel was deflationary in tone and took an unjustifiably negative view of revolution and its history.

In a note at the end of the book, the author describes his novel as "Gothic and fantastic in mood". He also acknowledges that his book should not be taken as a balanced historical account but that his presumably young readers should turn to reliable historical studies to understand the revolutionary era. Anderson writes:

"The issues of Loyalism and patriotism, populism and class, and of the role of race in the Revolution are tremendously complex, and readers interested in these questions should turn to histories of the period to learn more. Historical narratives, untied to a single fictional point of view, will inevitably render a fuller picture of the subtleties and nuances of the conflict than a fictionalized account such as this may do."

Anderson's advice to turn to a history for a judicious account is well taken. Unfortunately, the advice leaves open the question of the worth of reading a polemical, unbalanced historical novel of the type he has written. I have, in fact, read histories of the revolution and I didn't find this novel particularly instructive or entertaining. It says little for a novel if its only goal is to turn its readers to history for a thoughtful presentation. Americans and students of the United States of all ages need to relearn how to appreciate our country and its history.

Robin Friedman


Ibn Gabirol's Theology of Desire: Matter and Method in Jewish Medieval Neoplatonism
Ibn Gabirol's Theology of Desire: Matter and Method in Jewish Medieval Neoplatonism
by Sarah Pessin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 55.78

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Medieval Jewish Neoplatonic Philosopher, 17 Nov 2013
The School of Philosophy of The Catholic University, Washington, D.C., sponsors an annual Fall public lecture series. The topic of the ongoing 2013 series is "Philosophy in Islamic Lands". After attending a lecture in the series by a young scholar, Sarah Pessin, on the Jewish philosopher Ibn Garirol, I was moved to find and read Pessin's recent book, "Ibn Gabirol's Theology of Desire: Matter and Method in Jewish Medieval Neoplatonism" (2013). Pessin is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.

Ibn Gabirol was an 11th Century poet and philosopher who lived in Spain. His primary philosophical work is called "Fons Vitae" or "The Fountain of Life" written in the form of a discussion between a teacher and his student. Ibn Gabirol wrote his work in Arabic; but, with the exception of fragments the original has not survived. The work is known in a 12th Century Latin translation and in an abridged 13th Century Hebrew translation which omits the teacher-student presentation. Because the book is primarily known in Latin, authorship was attributed to "Avicebron" a Latinized form of Ibn Gabirol's name. Ibn Gabirol's authorship, and the Jewish source of the book, remained unknown until the 19th Century. There is no current in-print translation into English of the entire "Fountain of Life." Pessin's book constitutes the first book-length study of the text in English. All this suggests that Ibn Gabirol remains an obscure figure, even to specialists. In Jewish Studies, Ibn Gabirol's poetry, but not his philosophical treatise, receives attention.

Pessin's book explores and interprets Ibn Gabirol's thought with the goal of showing that he is a thinker of weight and value. She writes: "My project's main goal is to convey the living, philosophically and theologically vibrant voice of a thinker whose teachings have been rendered mute in the histories of philosophy and theology." Pessin argues that Ibn Gabirol has been "rendered mute" by a series of medieval readings and misreadings of his text and by medieval misunderstandings of Ibn Gabirol's important teachings. Pessin tries to expound Ibn Gabirol and to correct what she sees as the scholarly misreadings. These aims make her book dense and give it in places a polemic, overly-argumentative tone. Pessin offers detailed critiques of other scholars and thinkers for a philosopher who will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Pessin sees Ibn Gabirol as a philosophical Neoplatonist whose major philosophical predecessors are Plotinus and a thinker known as Pseudo-Empedocles. She offers an exposition of the Neoplatonic character of Ibn Gabirol's thinking while finding that he differed from his predecessors in the emphasis he placed on matter. Most Neoplatonists followed Aristotle in placing matter and material things low in the Neoplatonic chain of emanations. For Ibn Gabirol, matter was critical and pervasive to all being, ranking just below the One.

In the history of philosophy, Ibn Gabirol's Neoplatonism has been questioned because readers have found he teaches a Doctrine of Divine Will. This doctrine has been conflated with Biblical creationism, "creation out of nothing", which is found to be inconsistent with Neoplatonism. Pessin denies that Ibn Gabirol teaches creationism in this sense and argues that the confusion may result in part from the Latinization of Ibn Gabirol's book. She expounds Ibn Gabirol to teach a doctrine of "Divine Desire" which she frequently leaves untranslated from the Arabic, Divine "Irada".

This discussion may seem to be, and frequently is, dry and abstruse. Pessin offers her exposition of Ibn Gabirol, however, with a strong sense of the philosopher's importance and with a wonderful passion. Her book moves frequently from difficult philosophical concepts to more colloquial summaries, such as her down-to-earth description of Neoplatonism's key teaching as "love makes the world go round". She finds Ibn Gabirol's teaching, with the high place it accords to matter, of deep philosophical and religious significance as a depiction of the human condition. It presents a picture in which human life is rooted in matter and in fallibility and in which individuals conduct their search for God, truth and goodness -- both separate from and identical to themselves in complex ways. In Pessin's account, Ibn Gabirol describes life as a multi-folded interplay between the Divine and the human. Pessin formulates the goal of Neoplatonism in different ways in her study, but she focuses on the teaching as "discovering the truth of what it is to be human."

Most of Pessin's short book of about 160 pages of text consists of an exposition of Ibn Gabirol and of a rebuttal of what Pessin sees as misreadings. The book also includes a lengthy Appendix exploring treatments of the nature of matter in Ibn Gabirol and in other ancient and medieval thinkers. In the final chapters of the study, Pessin broadens her approach to offer a discussion of the nature of Neoplatonism and, again, to combat misreadings. Her focus is on the Neoplatonic teaching of emanation. Pessin finds that in Plotinus and in Ibn Gabirol, emanation is less a teaching than a way of describing and working towards a basically unknowable and undescribable God who is sought by human beings as the source of all good but is known only through shadows or metaphors. She rejects various "cartographic" or "scientific" discussions of emanation in which the various emanations of the One are treated, say, in the manner of an exploded scientific theory or of Kansas on a map of the United States. Her account relies on poetry and metaphor, including in particular Ibn Gabirol's own religious poetry. Pessin summarizes the conclusion of her study as follows: " Ibn Gabirol's Fons Vitae masterfully crafts open an 'embroidery' of meaningful human living, a textured picture through which we are invited to live only and always with a desire for wisdom, goodness, and God, and only and always through a spirit of a fragile and dependent receptivity."

This book will not have a wide audience, but I was moved to have the opportunity to read it. I found the book stronger and more convincing in its treatment of the nature and value of Neoplatonism than in its specific exposition of Ibn Gabirol. Pessin offers insights about a Neoplatonically based religious philosophy. Neoplatonism is relatively rare in Jewish thought, and Pessin seems to want to offer alternatives to more traditionally-based Maimonidean accounts in thinking about being Jewish. Her focus on Ibn Gabirol seemed to me too narrow in certain respects, as she works hard to distinguish his thinking from the Neoplatonism of the Jewish mysticism and from the teachings of the great Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria. Philo seems similar to Ibn Gabirol in many ways. Both Philo and Ibn Gabirol exerted their largest initial influence on Christian thinkers and were reincorporated into Judaism at relatively late dates. I was glad to have the opportunity to hear Pessin lecture at Catholic University, to struggle with her book, and to think again about Neoplationism and about Neoplatonism and Jewish thought.

Robin Friedman


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