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Chanting the Hebrew Bible (Complete Edition): The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation
Chanting the Hebrew Bible (Complete Edition): The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation
by Joshua R. Jacobson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $79.78
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5.0 out of 5 stars An exhilarating guide, November 18, 2015
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I have not read the entire book yet (it will probably take me a few years), but it has won my trust and admiration. I am reading it in two ways: from start to finish (slowly) and as a reference book. Each time I read a few pages, I gain insights into cantillation, Tanakh, and Hebrew grammar. In fact, this is a beautiful way to study Hebrew: through close analysis of the structure and trop of individual verses. Over the course of the book, the author reveals the logic and art of cantillation; whoever reads the book gains much more than a skill. I look forward to many years of reading and rereading this book.

Later Novels & Stories: The Chateau / So Long / See You Tomorrow / Stories & Improvisations, 1957-1999
Later Novels & Stories: The Chateau / So Long / See You Tomorrow / Stories & Improvisations, 1957-1999
by William Maxwell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.55
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5.0 out of 5 stars "And who said incontrovertibly that things are what they seem?", October 18, 2015
There's so much to browse, read, reread, and love in this volume. It's worth having just for So Long, See You Tomorrow (good to have a durable edition of something that calls for so many readings); the stories and improvisations are absorbing as well.

I just finished reading So Long, See You Tomorrow for the second time, so my mind is filled with it. I can think of few works with such subtle strangeness and soul. It takes you into a part of the conscience that doesn't get visited often--the part that knows how much damage can be done through minor, seemingly trivial acts--and builds from this a neighborhood of lives, real and fictional at once, with geography that expands and breaks. The style is so gentle and soft-spoken that you don't realize what's happening to you as you read.

I haven't read all of the shorter pieces yet, but there's one treat after another, from "The Game of Chess" to "The Lamplighter" (quoted in the title of this review). Accustomed to the shortage of time for reading (except in preparation for a class that I am taking or teaching), I find that this book turns things around. When it's in my hands, I don't have time to do anything but read, until the reminders of deadlines get too loud.

Joy, Despair, and Hope: Reading Psalms
Joy, Despair, and Hope: Reading Psalms
by Edward Feld
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful guide to psalms, October 1, 2015
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This humble and illuminating book takes you into fifteen psalms, one by one. What I especially love here, besides the selection of psalms themselves, is the way Edward Feld combines personal search and scholarship. He does this not by discussing contemporary life (his own or anyone else's) but by uncovering the Psalms' meanings, structures, gestures, and yearnings.

Although written in English, the book grapples with problems of translation, from specific words and phrases to larger issues such as conceptions of time. One can read it gracefully alongside the Hebrew texts. Feld offers not only insights but beautiful prose; each chapter makes its way to a bare and new perspective.

I treasure this book and look forward to rereading it--and reading many more psalms.

Fourth Street East
Fourth Street East
by Jerome Weidman
Edition: Audio CD

5.0 out of 5 stars A moving novel and performance, September 30, 2015
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This review is from: Fourth Street East (Audio CD)
Over two years ago I purchased a used copy of the audiobook of Jerome Weidman's Fourth Street East. I am glad I did, because it is difficult to find now. Each chapter has stayed with me: the voices, accents, landmarks, and witty melancholy. Each one can be taken as a story in itself.

The stories typically begin in the everyday. Then the voices multiply, the narration becomes like music, and something unusual happens, only to be transformed later into something else. The stories carry a perspective of wit and time; in each of them, something comes clear long after the thick of events. Life leads to punch lines of many moods.

My favorite chapters are "The Head of the Family" (particularly the Esta Mollka part, which has both a sadness and an extraordinary illumination), "Draft Status" ("the sudden and inexplicable cessation of the familiar"), and "Mafia Mia" ("What did she say?"). There is a generosity to these tales: an openness to quirks and rough-edged kindness. Not everyone in Fourth Street East is good, of course, but the good makes its mark. It has a slight eccentricity and loneliness; it must find its own way, though it does not live for itself. Maybe this is part of immigrant existence: carrying, learning, and inventing ways of life, alone and together.

Sam Guncler’s performance brings out the stories’ voices, cadences, and subtleties. I look forward to listening again and reading the book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 11, 2015 5:37 AM PDT

Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
by David Bromwich
Edition: Paperback
Price: $25.00
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exemplar of discernment, October 27, 2012
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Every once in a while I read a book that both meets and lifts my intellectual yearning. David Bromwich's Politics by Other Means is such a book.

Bromwich shows how both the static right of American politics and the self-contained left of American higher education, both the "culture of assent" and the "culture of suspicion," reinforce group thinking and impede thoughtful intellectual discourse. First published twenty years ago, the book gives more insight into the problems of education today than many a recent work I have read.

It is Bromwich's careful and discerning argument that distinguishes this book from most. He makes illuminating distinctions between seemingly similar assertions. He disassembles and examines many oft-bandied catch phrases and terms (such as "values" and "mass culture"). It is easy enough to say that the right and left are insular and misguided; it's another matter to explain how. Bromwich's explanation unsettled me in the best of ways, as it made me reconsider some of my own assumptions.

He distinguishes between (a) studying tradition in order to adopt a set of pre-established views and (b) studying tradition in order to think about it independently and take part in conversation about it. He shows how George F. Will and other self-proclaimed conservatives not only differ fundamentally from Edmund Burke, whom they regard as a predecessor, but do not merit the claimed inheritance.

He shows the deep problems (not just the immediately obvious ones) with the trend toward teaching mass culture in literature departments--which occurs in a larger context of "professionalization." The one who "specializes" in mass culture has the triple advantage of supposedly relating to the people, being unassailable by colleagues, and having a claim to a "marginal" field.

I was fascinated by his commentary on Burke and Mill (and Hume and Butler) and by his analyses of literary study and the change it has undergone. I bring these up in the same sentence because some of the dangers of which Burke and Mill warned became the reality of the literary academy. As it replaced the study of literature with the study of theory, the literary academy lost both its "historical imagination" and the experience needed for attentive reading.

One of Bromwich's most intriguing observations occurs on p. 130, when he writes, "Dependence and group-narcissism are the paralysis of genuine scholarship; but scholars, like citizens, to whom that seems a healthy state of things will always invoke the argument of growing solitude." (He then quotes Nietzsche to provide the source and original context of the phrase "growing solitude"). Indeed, those who welcome group thinking tend to be the very ones who suggest that there's too much solitude. Solitude, Bromwich suggests, is in part a discipline of the mind: the ability to work without regard for popularity or immediate approval.

Occasionally I find myself disagreeing with Bromwich or disputing his reasoning--but that's a sign of a book that has me thinking along with it, replying to it, questioning it. Something would be wrong--and counter to the book's spirit--if I accepted everything in it without question. For instance, Bromwich objects to the conformism inherent in the phrase "we need," but I see room for this phrase, provided one uses it judiciously. Bromwich is right, but I'd qualify his point.

One of my favorite passages is in the third chapter, where Bromwich states that "conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before." Reading the book was a conversation of this kind, a conversation I have longed for. I had just been remarking how rare the art of conversation has become--how frequently and unabashedly people interrupt each other, switch topics, or reduce an exchange of ideas to "whatever." Politics by Other Means invites the reader to the best kind of conversation, the kind that transforms at least one of the participants. I hope to continue this conversation by reading the book again.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 20, 2014 7:10 AM PDT

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
by William Deresiewicz
Edition: Hardcover
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91 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "the sweetest form of usefulness", May 2, 2011
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I came to this book with excitement and skepticism--excitement because I already admired the author's writing, and skepticism because I am wary of books that tell about "what such-and-such means to me in my personal life." A book about what someone learned about life from the novels of Jane Austen? Could I trust in such a thing?

Well, I am actually glad for the mild initial skepticism, because it put me in the author's shoes. I could see myself in the author as he describes himself at the outset--sarcastic, rebellious, and (in his view) too intelligent for everything around him. And so, as I read the book, I was able to enter its lessons, one by one.

Each thing Deresiewicz learned from Austen's work came not from a first reading, not from a quick reaction, but from a slow sinking into the work. As he takes the reader into each novel, as he leaves behind his own misconceptions of it, something remarkable starts to happen. The whole book is about close listening and the slow process of growing up. And it is about coming to love the work of an author--not adoring it immediately, not getting it right away, but discovering, over time, what it is really about. In the first chapter. Deresiewicz writes, on pages 12-13:

"I returned to the novel in a completely different frame of mind. Mr. Woodhouse's banalities, Miss Bates's monologues, all that gossip and small talk--Austen put them in as a sign that she respected her characters, not because she wanted us to look down on them. She was willing to listen to what they had to say, and she wanted me to listen, too. As long as I had treated such passages as filler and hurried through them, they had seemed impossibly dull. But once I started to slow down enough to take them on their own terms, I found that they possessed their own gravity, their own dignity, their own sweetness."

Likewise, the way he tells his story, it possesses its own gravity, dignity, and sweetness (and candor and roughness and wit). He doesn't mince words, about his family, his acquaintances, or himself. But the stories are not gratuitous or indulgent; again and again they lift into an understanding and come back to Austen and her work.

The book's lessons can be found in any life. The way the author tells them, it seems to me that I am learning them now, whether in fact I learned them long ago, am in the midst of learning them, or haven't learned them yet. By the end, I was actually beaming. I won't say more.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 5, 2011 7:05 AM PDT

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
by Sherry Turkle
Edition: Hardcover
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223 of 230 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No robot could have written this, February 16, 2011
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That was one of my thoughts as I read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: no matter what robots learn to do, they will never learn to write a book as thoughtful, informative, and intense as Alone Together. They would not know how to pose the questions, let alone use such discernment in addressing them.

It is interesting that Turkle chose to discuss robots in the first part of the book and the Internet in the second part. By presenting the "strange" part first, she gives us a sense of how strange our everyday lives actually are, how far we have moved away from enjoying each other's presence.

Turkle quotes children and adults who hesitate to use the phone because it seems awkward and intrusive; it is much easier, they say, to dash off a text or email. At the same time, Turkle points out, because of this very convenience, people expect quick responses. She describes the anxiety of teenagers when they do not get an immediate reply to their text messages. One girl talks about needing her cell phone for "emergencies"; it turns out that what she means by "emergency" is having a feeling without being able to share it.

Turkle shows how our Internet communications mix the deliberate with the unconsidered. On the one hand, people put great effort even into short email messages. On the other, they "test" ideas and expressions in formation to see how others react. Some create fake online profiles just to try out different sides of their personality. The problem with such experimentation is that it is conditioned almost entirely by online reactions, often reactions of strangers. There is little room to form thoughts independently.

Throughout the book, Turkle brings up the question of solitude. What happens to our solitude when we are able to get responses to anything and are expected to provide responses in turn? What happens to our sense of dissent when everything we say and do online bears a trace? She points out how important privacy is to dissent, for if we have no place where we can think and act unseen, we end up policing ourselves and censoring our own thoughts. We tame and restrain ourselves, knowing that anything we do and say may end up "out there" forever. "But sometimes a citizenry should not simply 'be good,'" Turkle writes. "You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent."

Also, Turkle points out, when we have no privacy we lose the ability to privilege some thoughts and actions over others. She quotes Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who says that "if you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Like many others, he ignores the possibility that there might be privacy without shame or crime. We might want to keep things to ourselves for any number of reasons; when we "put everything out there," that "everything" is somehow trivialized. Turkle quotes a girl who claims there's nothing much to know about her; "I'm kind of boring." Will the loss of privacy lead more people to dismiss themselves as boring?

One of Turkle's most powerful points is that we have come "to take the performance of emotion as emotion enough." Who cares, some might say, if the robot cannot feel? It behaves as though it feels, and that's enough. But is it? I see similar assumptions in education, where test scores are equated with learning, and students' visible activity in class is equated with "engagement." How do you go about defending something that is not tangible, visible, or measurable? It is difficult, but Turkle does it.

Because this book is so informative, because Turkle understands the complexities of technologies, she can make bold statements. She insists that we have the capacity and obligation to question the principles behind new inventions. She suggests that the touch of a human hand is indeed different from a robot's, that a handwritten letter is different from a text, that thinking and remembering have value even when it seems there's no more time for them. I won't give away the ending, but it left me with a surprising sadness, as though in a movie theater, when it's over and the place is dark, and you sit there for a few minutes, stunned, before getting up and walking out into the blink-provoking street.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 28, 2015 11:52 AM PDT

First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
by Paul Woodruff
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.99
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book to keep nearby, January 29, 2011
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This is not a book that I read and put away. I have it on my desk now so that I can return to favorite passages. Eloquently and urgently, Paul Woodruff explains what democracy is, drawing on ancient Greek literature while pointing out some of the weaknesses of Athenian democracy. His underlying argument is that we have to understand what it is in order to defend it. If we fall for any of democracy's "doubles," as he puts it, we will end up with something far from democracy. The most insidious of democracy's "doubles" is majority rule, which justifies the suppression of dissenting views.

One of the most interesting (and, at first, perplexing) concepts in the book is "reasoning without knowledge." At first I thought: how could Woodruff be arguing for "reasoning without knowledge" and for common education, "paideia," at the same time? Well, by "reasoning without knowledge" he does not mean uninformed or ignorant reasoning; rather, he means reasoning without full knowledge of the matter at hand or its outcome. Education is essential to such reasoning, as the participants must have a common language. For the Greeks, much of this common language was poetry, and one can see why.

I especially love the frequent references to Sophocles' Antigone. You can tell when Antigone is about to come up; the language starts hinting at it, and you know Creon or the Chorus is around the corner. In some ways the book seems to be a meditation on Antigone. I look forward to reading it again in that light. I am glad to have this book nearby.

Seize the Day (Penguin Classics)
Seize the Day (Penguin Classics)
by Saul Bellow
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.33
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5.0 out of 5 stars "If thee thyself couldst only see....", December 13, 2010
I would love to give this book to all of my friends--under the condition that they read it. But since I make no such demands of my friends (having my own backlog of unread books, and not always liking the books I am given), I can only hope that people will come to it on their own.

Seize the Day reads like a poem--taut, inevitable, every detail propelling the story and meaning. It is hilarious up until the end, but with brooding sadness mixed in. It plays with the preposterous and possible, the phony and genuine; the elusive (but "present") psychologist Tamkin is a mixture of them all.

Tamkin's ridiculously bad (but sincere) poem gives me bellyaches. I will quote the first four lines.

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

Tommy Wilhelm is overwhelmed by his losses and cannot even find the right words for them. There are hints of Job throughout, but an American, adolescent-middle-aged Job, whose laments are as profound as they are silly. (One of my favorite parts is where he uses the phrase "a question of morale," and his father suggests that he meant "moral question." He becomes flustered and tries to justify his word choice.) At the end Wilhelm finds a place--but how, and what this means, I won't say here. It is worth reading the book in order to find out.

What Is the Good Life?
What Is the Good Life?
by Luc Ferry
Edition: Hardcover
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning and important book, November 15, 2010
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This review is from: What Is the Good Life? (Hardcover)
Luc Ferry's What Is the Good Life? asks whether it is possible to come to a transcendent understanding of the good life in a world that regards success largely in terms of money and prestige. The answer is yes; but the reasons are what make the book so interesting. Ferry takes the reader through some of the most perplexing philosophical dilemmas regarding the good life--from the seeming contradictions in Nietzsche, to the question of free will in Stoic philosophy, to the relation between Greek philosophy and Christianity, and onward. The book is at once scholarly and spiritual; it provides excellent background and commentary while addressing questions that affect every life.

I have read the book twice now, and both times I have emerged with my mind singing. It is not breezy reading, but it is well within the grasp of the layperson. One must take time with it and sometimes pause to reread a passage. It is worth the effort. There are wonderful quotes from philosophy and literature--works that I want to read or reread in full. The quotes of Epictetus, Donne, and Hugo are among my favorites.

The minor points along the way are as interesting and compelling as the overall argument. For instance, on page 13, Ferry points out that while jealousy has always existed, modern-day envy is deeply affected by our lack of a sense of the "beyond." That is, there is no reparation for our failures; if we see someone doing better, we take this as a judgment on ourselves. There is no later; we believe we are supposed to have a better life right away, and the only place we can find it is "where it's happening." I have seen evidence of this in our schools, whose success is measured by their immediate results, and on the Internet, where great value is placed on minute-to-minute updates and being in on "the latest."

The book does not call for a return to religion or philosophy of the past; instead, it points to a view that is both responsive to the modern world and resonant with insights that have retained their meaning over the centuries. But I will not give away the ending.

One of the signs of an excellent book (especially on a subject like philosophy) is that it takes you to other books. I found the Epictetus quotes so striking that I started reading Epictetus's Discourses. I am very glad that I did.

I hope that many will find their way to this book.

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