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Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States)
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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: 56.73

0 of 1 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


Economics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Economics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Partha Dasgupta
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Economics in the Very Short Introductions Series, 10 Nov 2013
The Very Short Introductions series of Oxford University Press provides succinct introductions to more subjects than a person can reasonably hope to know. Parath Dasgupta offers a brief, pointed look at Economics in this 2007 volume in the series. Dasgupta is the Frank Ramsey Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge. Dasgupta was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his work in economics and has written many important books and studies.

"A little learning is a dangerous thing"; and a "very short introduction" does not have to be easy. Dasgupta's book is not written "for dummies" and it does not present its subject in the manner of an introductory textbook. Instead, Dasgupta offers the lay reader an example of how economists define problems and issues and try to solve them. In other words, the book offers the reader an example of how to "think like an economist". This gives the book a dense character. Dasgupta develops his own way of approaching and his position of questions of economics, neither of which might be fully shared by all members of his profession.

At the outset, Dasgupta makes two broad worth noting. First, he ties in economics with politics and, especially with ethics. Unlike some scientists who might try to minimize ethical, philosophical questions, Dasgupta is quite clear that ethical commitments are a driving force behind economics and politics. The second point involves Dasgupta's approach to economic questions. He rejects a historical, "narrative" approach because of the difficulty of supporting one proposed "narrative" over another. Dasgupta's approach is heavily analytical and quantitative, relying on mathematical modeling, statistics, and game theory. He tries to identify and weigh the factors involved in economic growth.

The material is daunting, but Dasgupta presents it well, if briefly. He enlivens his account by telling a story. Dasgupta introduces the reader to two fictitious girls, , Becky, 10, who lives with her parents in the American Midwest and Desta, 10, who lives with her family in a village in tropical southwest Ethiopia. Becky's father is a successful attorney in a law firm while Desta's father is a subsistence farmer on a small plot. The family is heavily involved in the farming. Becky's family is prosperous, and she has dreams of excelling in school and becoming a doctor. Desta lives at subsistence level. She knows she will marry at a young age at the behest of her parents and be expected to continue in essentially the same harsh life in which she was raised.

Dasgupta tries to show why the circumstances in which Becky and Desta find themselves differ so markedly. He writes: "Economics in great measure tries to uncover the processes that influence how people's lives come to be what they are. The discipline also tries to identify ways to influence these processes so as to improve the prospects of those who are hugely constrained in what they can be and do. The former activity involves finding explanations, while the latter tries to identify policy prescriptions. Economists also make forecasts of what the conditions of economic life are going to be; but if the predictions are to be taken seriously, they have to be built on an understanding of the processes that shape people's lives; which is why the attempt to explain takes precedence over forecasting."

Dasgupta examines the economic factors that shape Becky's and Desta's lives in a series of chapters that include local, national, and international considerations. He begins with the concept of "trust" in economic activities between people which he develops using game theory modeling. In subsequent chapters, he considers communities, markets and households, trying to develop and explain factors common to both the United States and the Ethiopian village. He presents an important chapter on science and technology and on the institutional structures which allow their development. The book becomes broader in scope and probably more controversial in the latter chapters as Dasgupta describes hidden environmental costs, human capital, and natural resources such as air, water, and the ocean fishery in ways that the author claims are not usually followed by other economists. He discusses inequities in the distribution of wealth between the two countries he considers in addition to growing disparities between rich and poor in the United States and other developed nations. He also tries to tie economics in to politics and to the structure of government, based on the virtues of democracy and majority rule.

The book shows an economist thinking and practicing his discipline in a way a lay reader can, with effort, understand rather than offering an overview. The book helped me understand how an economist works. Dasgupta helped me see different ways of thinking about important matters, which is a worthwhile accomplishment and the goal of a "very short introduction".

Robin Friedman


Black Friday
Black Friday
by David Goodis
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars David Goodis at his Darkest, 2 Nov 2013
This review is from: Black Friday (Paperback)
David Goodis (1917 -- 1967) had the rare talent of combining the formalized qualities of the genre of nor fiction with unique portrayals of loneliness and desperation. "Black Friday" is perhaps the most extreme of Goodis' novels in its depiction of lost, tormented individuals. In its portrayal of the bonds that tie a group of criminals together, the book resembles Goodis' earlier novel, "The Burglar" which is included in a Library of America collection of Goodis novels. "Black Friday" also portrays an outcast who becomes unwittingly involved with the group, to his own and the group's sorrow.

The story is set in Philadelphia in a 1950's winter. The protagonist, Al Hart, wanders the city streets and steals an overcoat from a clothing store. He is running away from New Orleans where he is wanted for the murder of his older brother. The motive of the murder, it appears, is to inherit the large wealth his brother had earned. As the story unfolds, it develops that Hart was well educated and had gifts as an artist. Goodis' words "He had no idea of where he was going and he didn't care" describe Hart's life.

The body of the story describes Hart's relationship with a small group of criminals under the control of Charley, 59, who had done at least five years time earlier in life. The group lives in an old house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and supports itself by robbing large, wealthy homes on the city's mainline. The group consists of two men, Rizzio and Mattone, and two women, Frieda, a buxom blonde, and the much smaller and more reserved Myrna. The group has just killed one of its members for disloyalty and left his body on the street. When Hart, fleeing the police, chances on the body, he becomes involved with the group, but not before getting into a fight with another one of its members, Paul, and giving Paul what proves to be a mortal injury.

Most of the book is set in the home. Goodis describes each of the highly idiosyncratic and damaged characters and the tension in their relationships to one another. The chief source of tension becomes the relationship between Charley and Hart. Charley is unable to let Hart go alive, but Hart persuades him that he is an experienced criminal and professional killer, chiefly based on Hart's story that he has killed his brother for money. Charlie allows Hart to join the group and to participate in a robbery of oriental art from a large mansion scheduled for a Friday the thirteenth, "Black Friday".

The robbery occupies only a few pages of the story with Goodis concentrating on the criminals, their backgrounds and relationships. The book is almost unrelievably squalid and sad with some scenes not suitable for the fainthearted. There is deep mistrust between Hart and the rest of the group. Sexual tension develops between Hart and both women. Frieda, lonely and frustrated had been nominally Charlie's mistress. Myrna was the sister of Paul, the man Hart killed in the fight early in the book.

Goodis writes in a style that is both lyrical and hardboiled. His prose is rhythmical and descriptive, possessing its own type of lurid beauty.

Published as a pulp paperback in 1954, "Black Friday" was reissued by Black Lizard Press in 1987. The 1987 edition includes an introduction by Geoffery O'Brien which offers a good overview of Goodis' novels, including several that are difficult to obtain. O'Brien describes Goodis as "a poet of the losers, transforming swift cut-rate melodramas into traumatic visions of failed lives."

O'Brien describes Goodis' themes in more detail as follows:

"The central law of Goodis' fiction is that happiness is forbidden. All true love remains unconsummated; all petty criminals (a breed with whom the author closely identifies) are caught ignominously; all proud old men are humiliated; all virgins are molested. The sentimental lyricism of Goodis' prose masks a savage perception of life."

"Black Friday" bears out O'Brien's description of Goodis' writing. It is a raw, wounded work that will have most appeal to readers of Goodis' more accessible novels published in the Library of America. Unfortunately, "Black Friday" is currently out of print. The novel and O'Brien's introduction deserve to be reissued.

Robin Friedman


Hell Drivers [DVD] [1957]
Hell Drivers [DVD] [1957]
Dvd ~ Stanley Baker
Price: 15.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gritty British Noir from the 1950s, 30 Oct 2013
This review is from: Hell Drivers [DVD] [1957] (DVD)
The 1957 British film "Hell Drivers" is not well known in the United States, but it has been featured recently in several 2013 film noir festivals, including "Noir City DC" held at the American Film Institute. The beautiful British noir actress, Peggy Cummins (b.1925) was honored at the 2013 San Francisco noir festival where "Hell Drivers" was presented together with several more of her films. The American-born Cy Enfield (1914 -- 1995) directed the film. Enfield had been blacklisted and spent the latter part of his life in Britain, unable to return to the United States.

"Hell Drivers" is a gritty tough noir film that features several stars including Cummins and a young Sean Connery in a supporting role. The movie tells the story of an ex-convict, Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) who seeks to make a new life for himself upon his release from prison. He secures a job driving a truck at what appears immediately in the film as a questionable company, Hawlett Trucking, and its manager, Cartley, (William Hartell). Hawlett's business consists of hauling gravel in trucks from a pit down the road. The trucks are shaky and poorly maintained. The company makes large, unreasonable demands on the drivers in terms on number of loads to be hauled per day. The drivers must speed, break traffic rules and drive recklessly to meet their quota.

The drivers are also pitted against one another in terms of the numbers of their runs. The leading driver, a sinister figure named Red, (Patrick McGoohan) doubles as the foreman. Red and Tom take an instant dislike to one another as Tom unwisely tries to compete with Red for making the largest number of hauls Tom makes friends with another driver, Gino, an Italian immigrant (Herbert Lorn). Tom and Gino become unwitting rivals for the attentions of the alluring and flirtatious company secretary, Lucy (Peggy Cummins).

Much of the movie consists of scenes of the gravel pit, Hawlett's service yard, and the narrow, twisting roads that the drivers must travel many times daily in their hauling. The tension builds as the carry their dangerous loads in ill-maintained trucks, and compete with one another. The movie also creates noir atmosphere in its settings in a cheap rooming house where the drivers stay, in the greasy café where they eat, and in a sleazy dance hall where the drivers try to find entertainment and women. The friendship between Tom and Gino and their affections for Lucy play a critical role. The movie builds to a sharp climax in a road battle between Tom on the one hand and Red and Cartley on the other hand. The acting, particularly by the two villains, captures the dark character of the story. The film is raw and disturbing in its build-up and tension and in its atmospheric portrayal of lower-class British life in the years following WW II.

I was fortunate to get to know "Hell Drivers" at the DC film noir festival. Devotees of film noir will love this unusual British movie.

Robin Friedman


The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Eric R. Scerri
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Periodic Table in the Very Short Introductions Series, 28 Oct 2013
In this 2012 "very short introduction" from Oxford University Press, Dr Eric Scerri offers an account of a major symbol of science, the periodic table.. An author, chemist, and philosopher of science, Scerri is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, UCLA. Although he has written many detailed, technical research studies, Scerri also shows a flair in writing for and explaining scientific concepts to lay readers. In addition to this very short introduction, Scerri has written a longer book on the periodic table, "The Periodic Table: its History and Significance". (2007)The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance

Scerri shows an enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of his subject in this short, engagingly written book. The book is historically informed as Scerri begins with the understanding of the elements of the ancient Greeks and works forward. The book allows the reader to appreciate the many preliminary scientific steps over the course of years on which the periodic table was based. The book has a strong element of human interest as Scerri offers brief biographical information about many of the individuals who contributed to the development and understanding of the periodic table.

Scerri emphasizes the importance of the periodic table in displaying what he terms the periodic law which states that "after certain regular but varying intervals, the chemical elements show an approximate repetition in their properties." He explains how the periodic law functions in both the horizontal and vertical rows of the periodic table.

The book offers a discussion of the development of the periodic table while also raising deep scientific and philosophical questions. For example, Scerri explores the impact of quantum theory and quantum mechanics on the understanding of the periodic table. Many scientists tend to reduce questions of the chemistry of the table to questions of quantum mechanics. Scerri argues that to date the chemistry of the table has not been reduced to purely quantum mechanical explanation. Scerri admits that it might be so reduced in the future. Thus Scerri opposes a reductionist account of the sciences which reduce all questions to questions of physics.

Scerri also develops the interplay between scientific and philosophical questions. He pronounces himself a "realist" as far as the periodic table is concerned. He holds that "the approximate repetition in the properties of the elements is an objective fact about the natural world". He contrasts this position to "instrumentalism" or "anti-realism" which holds that "the periodicity of the elements is a property that is imposed on nature by human agents." This philosophical disagreement may have consequences in the way scientists view the search for alternate versions of the periodic table. The instrumentalist would hold that different versions might be appropriate for different purposes while the realist would hold that the search for the best formulation of the periodic table was a search to discover, as nearly as possible, the properties of nature and to find the truth. The realist/anti-realist dispute has many formulations in philosophy and ramifications for how science is to be understood. Scerri also offers a great deal of insight into various philosophical understandings of substance and their impact on the development of the periodic table and of the philosophical/scientific understanding of the nature of matter. At one time, many scientists thought the elements were separate, and irreducible. With the development of atomic theory, it appears that all matter and all the elements have a fundamental underlying unity.

As a high school student, I was interested briefly in chemistry but never pursued the subject beyond college. I studied a good deal of philosophy. This very short introduction brought the fascination of the subject back to me after the larger part of a lifetime. The book teaches a great deal about the periodic table, about the development of scientific thought, and its relationship to philosophical thinking. I was grateful to have Scerri as a guide in this very short introduction to teach me about the periodic table and about the scientific way of thinking.

Robin Friedman


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