Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review: A Flutter in the Dovecote by Jemima Norton ***1/2

A Flutter in the Dovecote is an entertaining introduction to a mystery series set in what I've always thought was a surprisingly neglected historical period - the Restoration. The English Civil War is over and the monarchy has been restored in the person of Charles II, but neighbors who were on different sides, as well as members of the same family who have been physically separated by the conflict, are still unsure of each other. Hal Westwood, whose father supported the Royalists with the result that he has been mostly raised in France, has just married the daughter of a wealthy family that stood with Cromwell, and has brought her to his ancestral home. His uncle, who owns the property and intends to leave it to Hal, is missing, as is a tapestry that has been in the family for generations. The whereabouts of both are soon discovered, but this complicates the situation even more, as the crime is now not theft but murder.

This is a promising start to the series but it still has quite a few weaknesses. I saw the solution fairly early on, and felt that it was pretty obvious. Also, I wasn't too sure how accurate the dialogue was, although the author did provide a glossary at the end and seems to have done a fair amount of research, However, most of the characters, with the exception of Hal's seductive French stepmother, who was a bit of a walking cliché, were well drawn and believable. I will definitely be checking out the other books in this series.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Most beautiful words

http://worddreams.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/103-most-beautiful-words-you-decide/

Nice. L, S, M and R seem to predominate.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review: Naomi and her Daughters by Walter Wangerin Jr. *****

In this powerful and original retelling of the story in the book of Ruth, National Book Award winner Wangerin gives Ruth's mother-in-law Naomi, portrayed in the biblical story as an unsympathetic character, embittered by tragedy and grief, a back story and a character that explains and justifies Ruth's devotion to her. The character of Boaz, the man who befriends Ruth and Naomi in their impoverished widowhoods, is also given motivation and a past.

Moving back and forth over some thirty years, Wangerin never loses control of his narrative and paints a vivid portrait of an entire society, effortlessly weaving in other biblical stories and poetry from the Psalms and the Song of Songs, particularly through the chants and musings of Naomi, who is portrayed as a hakamah, a wise woman, healer and storyteller in her native village of Bethlehem.

Naomi and her Daughters is sure to deepen any reader's appreciation of the book of Ruth and the world in which it is set.

Friday, February 04, 2011

My mother and Huck Finn

Over on the Amazon boards the recent censorsh- uh, "revision"- of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been a topic of discussion. (So far the consensus seems to be, "Bad idea.") As a result, I've been thinking of the way my upbringing has influenced my thinking about race, and have been appreciating my mother anew.

First of all, on my mother's side (which is really the only one that matters here), I come from a family of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, though more the virtually extinct Rockefeller variety than the more right-wing type we see today. Momma loved Ronald Reagan, but I think it was more his personality and the general "small government" philosophy than a deeply held agreement with his more extreme (though relatively moderate compared with today's Republicans) policy positions. Beginning with the first Bush administration, she became more and more disenchanted with the party, although she never officially changed her registration. So while I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, she wasn't exactly on the cutting edge in civil rights issues - politically, that is.

Personally, however, she educated us by example. While the small town where we lived had a very small black population (there was one African-American boy in my class in elementary school), we were never allowed to think that there was any difference between us and people of any other race or creed. We never heard the "n-word" from her except in an explanatory sense, and if she had ever heard it from us, there would have been hell to pay. Her supervisor at work, whom I believe she considered a friend, was black, and she and my grandmother also had a friend from Buffalo whom we saw with some regularity until he retired to Florida and with whom we traveled down to Washington, D.C. when I was seven or eight. The respect and affection which they had for him was obvious. They called him Hanks, but he was always Mr. Hanks to us.

The thing that strikes me the most, however, was the shock I felt when she admitted frankly to us that our beloved grandfather, who died when I was five, had held racist views. My mother adored her father, while her relationship with her mother was adversarial to say the least. I never cease to be amazed, at how she was able to break with the parent whom she loved more by far, seeing with clear eyes that he was wrong, yet never relinquishing her love for him. (I can't help but think of people today who refuse to espouse a position if someone they dislike holds it, regardless of whether it's right or wrong.) I know it's not a great story of heroic rebellion - just an ordinary person doing her part to make the world, and the next generation, a little better.

Momma passed away in 2005, and I don't remember if I ever asked her when she thought it would happen, but I think she would have been pleased to see an African-American man elected President only three years later.

In 1985 when I told Momma that I was converting to Judaism, her original reaction was violently negative, mainly because she felt that I was rejecting her and the beliefs with which she had raised me. As I told her then, I was actually embracing what she had taught me, by word and deed, which was to think for myself. She was able to continue evolving in her thinking until the end of her life; if the same can be said about me when my time comes, it will be in no small part due to her.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Coming out of hibernation

Below are a couple of older reviews that I wrote for the temple newsletter last year, but I just posted them on Amazon and thought I would put them up here as well.

I've also been jolted out of my extended inactivity by the tragic shooting in Tucson last Saturday. Needless to say, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.

However, I have found the reaction to it interesting and somewhat disturbing, particularly in the media. On the left there has been discussion of the part played by the violent rhetoric of the last election season and, while the feeling is obviously that most of that has taken place on the other side, there has also been introspection and self-examination, most notably by Keith Olbermann. (I personally, would like to apologize for any intemperate language on my part; I'm sure there has been some, although I can't think of specific instances.) In the so-called "mainstream media," there has been a false equivalency; if rhetoric played a part, well, everyone does it in equal measure. On the right, with a couple of exceptions, there has been little but finger pointing at the other side and a hysterical defensiveness.

I find it sad that we can't agree on one thing: painting one's opponent as evil and not just mistaken but malicious, using language such as "take him/her out," "Second Amendment remedies" (which by no stretch of
my imagination, at least, can be construed as "metaphorical"), and shooting automatic weapons at campaign events, particularly at cutouts labeled with the opponent's initials, should be beyond the pale - at least as of now. I can only agree with Bill Clinton's remarks on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing:

"What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold - but that the words we use really do matter, because there's this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike," he said.

"One of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have."

Book Review: Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg *****

The starting point of Annie's Ghosts is when journalist Luxenberg hears that his elderly mother, who always claimed to be an only child, has mentioned in a talk with her doctor that she had a disabled sister, who was "sent away" as a young child. Several years after his mother's death he learns the sister's name, Annie, and that far than being a brief presence in his mother's young life, she was actually committed to a mental institution on the eve of her 21st birthday.

The remainder of the book is Luxenberg's account of his attempt to learn more about his aunt, who lived a further thirty-two years after her commitment, and to understand why his caring, loving mother had felt the need to hide the fact of her sister's existence from everyone in her life. Along the way, he interviews many of his parents' old friends and relatives, archivists and psychiatrists, as well as visiting the town in Russia where his family originated. He also weaves in information about the history of mental health care in twentieth-century America, the eugenics movement, and the lives of Jewish immigrants in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Annie's Ghosts is a moving meditation on family secrets; the stigma all too often attached to disability, both physical and mental; and a son's coming to terms with the fears and cultural attitudes that informed his mother's choices in life.

Book Review: The Prophet's Wife by Milton Steinberg ****

At the time of his premature death in 1950, Milton Steinberg, respected rabbi and author of the acclaimed As a Driven Leaf, left the unfinished manuscript of a second novel. After sixty years, The Prophet's Wife has finally been published.

Set in the days before the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom of Israel, The Prophet's Wife revolves around the life of Hosea, one of the earliest literary prophets and the one about whose personal life we know the most. Hosea talks in the book named for him about how he married a woman who betrayed him with other men, yet took her back as God would do with unfaithful Israel.

As in his other novel, Steinberg gives us a vivid re-imagining of ancient Israelite life and customs, as well as a very human portrait of Hosea, the scholarly yet unappreciated son of his pious father, and Hosea's erring wife Gomer. Steinberg's stately prose brings to mind the cadences of the Tanakh, yet is never inaccessible to the modern reader.

The editors of The Prophet's Wife have made the bold and unconventional decision to leave it in its unfinished state, ending at a pivotal point in its subject's life, adding two very different essays by modern scholars speculating on how Steinberg would have finished the book if he had lived. The reader, as well, can come up with his or her own ending for Hosea and Gomer's story.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr ****1/2

A graduate of the Sorbonne, student of English literature, and talented musician, Hélène Berr began her journal in April 1942 at the age of twenty-one. At that time it was still relatively easy to ignore the increasing restrictions being placed on the Jews by the Nazis, and the first part of the book is taken up with her own personal concerns, her studies, and her love life. Soon enough, however, she is directly touched by the decree that the yellow star must be worn by all Jews, and records her conflicted feelings, humiliation and determination to hold her head up high, as well as the small kindnesses she receives from strangers, which give her comfort and strength.

As things become worse for the city's Jews, deportations, suicides and arrests (including the temporary detention of her own father) become a litany interwoven with Hélène's determination to live as normal a life as she can while maintaining her own humanity and dignity. She becomes engaged but her fiancé flees to Free France to work against the Nazis from there, while she feels bound to remain with her family and continue her work saving Jewish children from deportation and resettling them when their parents have been arrested. After abandoning the journal for a year, she returns to it as a changed, more serious person. The entries become longer and more introspective as this courageous young woman is forced to face the likelihood of her early death and finds comfort in friends, family and the literature that she loves so much.

Hélène Berr was arrested in 1944 and died in Bergen-Belsen only a few days before its liberation, but her journal, which was kept by a friend and given to her fiancé after her death, ensures that her vital, intensely humane spirit lives on.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

25 Favorite Books (for now)

(One has already changed.) We were coming up with lists of our favorites on one of the Amazon discussion boards. These are in no particular order except that mysteries are first, since it's a mystery group. Some are childhood favorites, some are just fun, and others, as Cathy says about her dreams in Wuthering Heights (on the list!) "have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind."

  • Stone Angel by Carol O'Connell
  • The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
  • Die for Love by Elizabeth Peters
  • Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters (or any of the Peabody/Emerson books where Ramses is young and obnoxious)
  • The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
  • Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook
  • Streets of Fire by Thomas H. Cook
  • Past Caring by Robert Goddard
  • As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (all of them, but if I had to pick one it would be Deathly Hallows)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse
  • The Ghosts by Antonia Barber
  • Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson
  • A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin