Sunday, November 22, 2015

When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman'

Gal Beckerman has a single-minded, driven passion: the plight of the Jewish people suffering under oppressive regimes.  If nothing else comes through in his book, When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone, this heart cry does. His concern for his fellow Jews across the world originated in his synagogue where the practice of celebrating a particular Soviet Jewish boy's bar mitzvah along with one's own created an awareness of people suffering outside his own insulated upbringing.

Beckerman meticulously traces the history of the efforts of Jewish people inside the Soviet Union as well as outside to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel or the United States. He highlights specific leaders in America who organized Jewish youth as well as adults in the sixties to massive civil rights demonstrations and also the leaders inside the Soviet Union, called "refuseniks" who created underground organizations to get Jews to resist assimilation, protest discrimination and ultimately leave and help populate Israel.

Beckerman's treatment was surprisingly even-handed for one who believes so ardently in the cause of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. He unflinchingly describes certain American Jewish leaders who, while they may have been intent on getting the U.S. government to pressure the Soviet government to release Jews, they also enjoyed the fame, notoriety and using any means necessary to gain national attention.  This included using bombs, violence and other acts of terrorism here in America to pressure the President (Nixon at the time) and his secretary of state (Kissinger) to speed up talks with Brezhnev concerning Jewish emigration.

The most interesting part of the book for me was learning about the different presidents and Soviet Leaders.  The book starts with Nixon and Brezhnev and their touchy negotiations concerning detente.  I found Kissinger, a Jew whose family escaped Nazi Germany, to be an intriguing individual and I plan to find a good biography of him.

Beckerman's observations of Carter and Reagan were also interesting.  The Soviets did not take Carter seriously, even though he probably tried harder than any other president to work with the Soviets.  Of course I'm old enough to remember that Carter succeeded in making American look soft to the rest of the world, the Iranian hostage situation not being the only example but the most dramatic.

Reagan did not play softball with the Soviets but he also understood the psychology of each leader. Andropov was a remnant of the old school and clung to his communist and regime's ideologies, Gorbachev, on the other hand, saw the writing on the wall and knew the USSR's days were numbered.  Consequently he was more amenable to discussion.  Reagan intuited this and worked with him in a way that did not appear as strong arming but was effective.  Under the Reagan era one million Jews were granted exit visas to Israel.

This triumph for Israel was short-lived when they discovered that over 81% of the Jews with Israel visas did not travel to Israel but went on to America.  This presented a new problem for the Zionists.

And the Soviet Jews didn't care.  They didn't care about Zionism or detente.  They simply wanted to pursue a normal life with the opportunity to provide for their families and gain good professions without persecution or discrimination.  And frankly, who is anyone to judge that?

What amazes me is the demands of mostly secular Jews that an atheistic government exercise and protect human rights.  Based on what grounds?  That the Bible says so?  I know many, if not most atheists, conduct their lives according to a moral compass but that would be inside countries that have had Christian foundations that say there is such a thing as moral absolutes and human beings have value.

Governments like the Soviet Union, as well as many totalitarian regimes, say that the state is god and might makes right.  So I found the demand that the Soviets act according to a foreign principle somewhat strange and rather unrealistic.

One other thing that bothered me about the book was its myopic view of Soviet persecution and discrimination.  The Jews may have been the most organized and possessed the most political clout in the U.S. and received the most media attention, but they were not the only people group that was persecuted and oppressed inside the USSR.  No religion was tolerated, other than an Orthodox church that paid lip service to Christianity and agreed to stay firmly inside the boundaries set by the atheist regime they lived under.

When I was in college a Soviet dissident came to speak at my school.  He spoke of the oppression and lack of religious freedom in his country, as well as the deprivation of human dignity and rights.  He described an incident where as an example, the government destroyed an entire town: burned it to the ground and annihilated the entire population.

During the question and answer session, an elderly lady in a babushka jumped up and demanded to know why not one thing was mentioned about the plight of the Jews in Russia.  The dissident explained that he himself was Jewish but that so much attention and support had been given to the Jews that they had become objects of resentment in the Soviet Union. Nobody knew about this annihilated town.

While this book is definitely tunnel-visioned and one wonders how objective, I still found it to be a great book that informed me and made me far more cognizant of the history of Jews, in the Soviet Union, Jewish activism in my own country, and how four presidents dealt with it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bike Trip Along the Rhine Day 3 From Mainz to Worms

View outside our cabin window

Our boat/bike trip was not only through medieval villages but also across dikes and nature trails. The following photos were taken as we biked along the countryside.

They're not very visible (unfortunately I don't own zoom lens) but there are storks in this field.

 Can you see the stork among the hay rolls?

Finally I had the good fortune to come across this fellow who let me come quite close before he flew off, but only a little ways away.

After four hours (some thirty miles) of biking we arrived at our next town:  Worms

Nibelungen Bridge

Sunday, November 8, 2015

In and Out of the Moon by Jeff Mcinnis,204,203,200_.jpg
Mr. McInnis has come out with a new edition of his book and I agreed to re post my review of it and add links where you can purchase it at the end.

In and Out of the Moon is a tale filled with adventure and imagination.  Readers of fantasy worlds from ages seven to ninety-seven will enjoy reading it.

A young boy named Kabe with his sister Meg and brother Troy live with their father in a normal house, leading normal children lives.  

At least as much normal as is possible after their mother has passed away and their father has emotionally checked out.  Each cope in their own way.  The oldest, Troy, simply buries himself in video games, so in a sense, he has learned to deal with life the same way his father has.  No human interaction, just keeping his mind busy on the small screen he holds in his hands.

Meg is six and still has a lot of the guileless cheer and trust a little girl of that age has.

Kabe shares much of Meg's innocence and optimism.  He has a close relationship with his grandfather who has stepped in to be a parent to all three children.

This comes to an end when the grandfather becomes ill.  The story begins with the children visiting him in the hospital.

"Papaw, can you show me what light is?"

Kabe, you see, is blind.

These are our main characters.  They lead not so abnormal lives, though it is unusual to be blind from birth and though not everyone has a parent die when they are young, too many children grow up in single parent homes.

As you might guess, things are about to change.   While playing fetch with his dachshund, Daisy, Kabe picks up what he thinks is an ordinary stick and throws it to her.  It is, in fact, not a stick at all but a magical, musical type wand.  Not a wizard's wand but something more.

This magical wand leads the three children and Daisy into another world where they meet all sorts of fantastical creatures and people.  As it turns out, this world is in grave danger.  There are shadow creatures trying to overthrow the leaders and absorb the population.

There are also brave men, like the gardener, who turns out to be a King, and rises up to lead his army against the destroyers.

Troy finds he now has better things to do than play video games.  One of them is protecting his sister Meg as the travel through this strange world.  They end up crossing oceans and sailing library ships. That particular scene really resonated with me.  I would love to sail the ocean in a ship filled with books.

I won't retell the story.  Suffice it to say that there are all sorts of wonderful places and creatures that Kabe, Meg and Troy encounter while helping the King fight evil forces.

To me, it is the perfect kind of story.  A story where a child's fantasy comes true.  Didn't we all imagine ourselves meeting bears that could talk and unicorns that let us ride them and fighting along with centaurs? 

The story-line is of course the basic good vs evil. One reads a book like this for the vicarious experience.  McInnis spends a great deal of time describing the world the children have entered and succeeds in producing a highly satisfactory, charming setting.  If I could compare this story it would be to George MacDonald's fairy tales, C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, and The Never-ending Story all wrapped into one.

This is not surprising because the author is a MacDonald and Lewis scholar, receiving his PhD in English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  These authors' influence of McInnis' writing is unmistakable.

What I also appreciate about In and Out of the Moon is that it is refreshingly free of the dystopian angst that is so prevalent in fantasy novels today.  Our heroes suffer setbacks but never lose their hope or optimism.  There is a sense of overriding compassion  throughout.

Another thing I like is that there is no "heroine saving the world" which seems to be cropping up in a lot of YA today since The Hunger Games have been so popular. Each child rises to the occasion and shares an equal role in working with the citizens of this other world.  Even more importantly, Meg, Kabe and Troy become the family they needed to be before setting off on this extraordinary adventure.

The story ends somewhat mysteriously but there are supposed to be sequels which I hope will tell us more.

  It is a perfect book to read aloud to elementary age children but I encourage fantasy lovers of all ages to read In and Out of the Moon.

 Dr. McInnis is also the author of Shadows and Chivalry:C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald on Suffering, Evil and Goodness.  For my review you can go here.

To purchase the book in Kindle, print or audio, click on the links below:

Print Version

Audio Version

Audio on Amazon

Friday, October 30, 2015

Vampire Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Great Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft

Happy Halloween!  I am currently attending a Writer's Conference being held at the University where I work.  I attended a good workshop tonight about creating effective dialogue.  Tomorrow I give up most of my Saturday to attend a full day of workshops.  I hate to let Halloween pass me by, so here are three brief reviews of books that I am currently reading.,204,203,200_.jpg

The first book is by a master of the detective novel.  Before Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes he wrote a number of vampire short stories for magazines.  These vampires do not much resemble Dracula but what they do have in common is animals, people and even plants that devour people.  Not always physically, often times it is spiritually.   From giant Venus Flytraps, evil, hypnotic women who destroy desperate men, to ancient Egyptian mummies who cannot die, the stories are different in plot and character but carry an equal amount of suspense that keep you turning the pages to see how it all works out.,204,203,200_.jpg 

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire  is not very scary but is an  amusing attempt to make grammar more interesting.  The book is filled with gothic Victorian images while explaining punctuation, participles and parts of speech (and alliteration).  The examples are in keeping with the book's spooky theme.  For example, sentences demonstrating "complements":

A vampire has supple limbs
Cronopios have many quirks.

Gargoyles spout.  Spout what?
Gargoyles spout nonsense. or rain. or syllogisms.

And last but not least, one of this century's master of horror, H.P. Lovecraft.  

Lovecraft's writing style resembles Edgar Allan Poe's in that the narrator is usually writing from an insane asylum, or going insane, or still tormented by his experience or about to give in to his experience.  It takes them the entire story describing harrowing scene after harrowing scene, never quite revealing what is happening or about to happen until the end.  The story quickly culminates on the last page, usually the last paragraph, with a huge, horrifying whollop.  Then the reader often has to reread the rest of the story to make sense of what was going on all along. 

 Little Bear (next to the pumpkin) and Marcus Hambone (sitting on Lovecraft) were delighted with my selection of Halloween reviews but Percival Piggybottom was disappointed I didn't include his favorites: Poe and a collection of Penny Dreadfuls.  I had to promise him that a review was coming in the future.  He was satisfied with that (and a carrot).

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, The Arabian Nights, Steampunk

Book-buying fast update:  I have so far read thirty-one books and have sixty-nine to go before I can buy another book. As I have said before, I read several books concurrently.  The following reviews are on three books I finished this week.,204,203,200_.jpg 
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Handlebar Publishing in exchange for my honest opinion.  

Authors Jerry Root and Mark Neal wrote a book that provides an analysis of C.S. Lewis' works and how the imagination is a crucial element in his writing, particularly his fantasy novels.

On the one hand, stating that the imagination is a crucial element of fantasy is unnecessary, but Root and Neal break down how the imagination functions, how fantasy captures that imagination and, in Lewis' work, how the imagination is ultimately a yearning and journey toward God.

I felt at times that the authors devoted too much time retelling Lewis' stories and then explaining to us what Lewis was saying in those stories.  But they also delved into different categories of imagination and how these different types of imagination are sparked in his various works.  Root and Neals' analysis of the human imagination is the most valuable aspect of their book.

Overall the book is a good introduction to Lewis' writings and would be an enjoyable addition to the library of any fan of Lewis.

This edition of Scherezade's thousand and one tales (it only includes twenty-one of the more well-known stories) is Sir Richard Burton's famous translation which is quite flowery and formal in its language, which I found at times burdensome to trudge through. 

While many of us (myself included) consider The Arabian Nights as fun adventure tales for the children, the content of this edition is quite adult. It omits none of the sex, racism-especially against African races- or pejorative cultural attitudes towards women that are lacking in kid-friendly adaptations.   

They still contain adventure, Middle Eastern folklore with jinn, magic carpets, rings, wily men and women who meet Allah's judgement, as well as heroes and heroines who, after much hardship and trial win in the end.

The illustrations are what set this particular book apart from other editions.  My Barnes and Noble edition is laced with rich, colorful pictures painted by Czech artists Renata Fucikova and Jindra Capek.  These two artists took meticulous care to render authentic looking Persian paintings that are beautiful and make this book a prize for any personal library.

And speaking of Barnes and Noble, I was browsing through a local branch when I came across the above book.  "What's Steampunk?" I asked my then fiance, Josh.  He explained the whole movement to me from it's origins in the 19th century to the fantasy style costumery worn by some young (and old) people today.

For those of you wondering (that would be people my age or older) Steampunk is Victorian science fiction.  With the arrival of the steam engine, 19th century writers' imagination went off in a direction that had their stories soaring to the moon, into the future, and into all kinds of weird and wonderful possibilities in science labs.  But these stories are pre-World Wars.  The women wear petticoats and the men dress for dinner, wear top hats, are gallant and chivalrous. They also happen to be (sometimes mad) scientists.

Strictly speaking, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, of course Jules Verne, and even Arthur Conan Doyle could be said to be contributors of Steampunk.
This book is a collection of  now mostly obscure writers who wrote for late 19th and early 20th century science fiction, fantasy and penny dreadful magazines.  While the writing is not as brilliant as the better known contemporaries listed in the previous paragraph, they are still interesting and I'm sure provoked  their audience's interest with their animal cyborgs, inventions gone awry and other dystopian possibilities that came with the industrial age and the steam engine.

Next week is Halloween and I am reading some new scary stories by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle (no-nothing to do with Sherlock) and even a Vampire grammar book.  I hope to have a couple of reviews ready in time for the Holiday.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mainz, Germany

The following photos are scenes as we floated down the river to Mainz, Germany.  If there is a country with more castles on rivers than Germany's Rhine river, I'd like to know about it.

Rows and rows of cultivated vineyards.

  I like to take photos of historical buildings.  Josh likes birds.  The following photos were taken by him.

An eagle circling overheard.

For the life of me I can't place this building.   I think it is a government building, probably at one time a Lord or Duke's palace.

Outside the Mainz Museum, standing next to Mr. Gutenberg.  Inside is the Gutenberg press and some of the Bibles that were printed there.  Unfortunately it was Sunday and closed.  I did my best to look through the windows but didn't see much.

Mainz Cathedral

 Mainz Museum with the Gutenberg press.

St. Stephen's Church.  The stained glass images are by Marc Chagall.  It was a real treat to finally see these in person.
It was Sunday evening, therefore church was about to start.   Josh and I slipped in and sat down.  There was choir rehearsal with organ so in addition to enjoying Chagall's art we got to listen to lovely organ music for a half hour.  Then Mass began.  We thought it would not be respectful to continue snapping photos during the service so we slipped back out.

I am an organist and play on an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ for my church.  I appreciated the beauty of this man's playing and the superb quality of the organ.

Old Town Mainz.

This interesting fellow was guarding the Mainz Cathedral

Thus endeth our first boat stop. From here, no more boat rides.  Josh and I biked from town to town.   Next stop: 20 miles to Nierstein.