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These are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded. Bold the ones you've read, and italicize the ones you own but have not read.
Big List of Books )
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But it's going to be hard. Daniel Matt is going to be at Temple Israel this weekend as a scholar in residence. He will be speaking from the Bimah tonight, leading Torah Study tomorrow morning, speaking again after lunch tomorrow, and again on Sunday morning. To all intents and purposes, it's a Shabbaton.

Daniel Matt is a rabbi and scholar currently working on a solid, academic translaton of the Zohar, one of the texts comprising the Kabbalistic tradition in Judaism. This is no fluffy, feel-good translation for the red-string crowd, but a serious academic treatment being published by Stanford University Press. He is working from a text he edited using standard paleographic methodologies from multiple manuscript sources and some early print editions. His translator's preface details his methodology, and calls to mind many of the same textual issues I remember wrestling with in grad school. The text, as he edited it and is translating from it, is available as PDF's from Stanford's Web site, in all its unpointed Zoharic Aramaic* glory. Matt's translation is not afflicted with victorian coyness that hampered the Soncino translation published in the early 20th century, which is good because one can ill afford such coyness when working with a text that relies heavily sexual metaphor to carry its meaning forward. Another area in which Matt's translation/edition excels is in his notes. The Zohar has lots of inputs - Torah, Prophets, Writings, Talmud, Midrash, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, classical (i.e. Greek) sources, and texts that, while referenced by name, no longer appear to be extant - and is nearly incomprehensible unless you can follow what is being referenced where. Matt's notes do an excellent job of citing and summarizing these references, allowing the reader to be able to understand the text before him. Notes range in purpose from citing a source, to illuminating a bit of wordplay being made in the original, to demonstrating the relationship between vaious elements of metaphor and the nodes of the sefirotic paradigm to which they refer.

But in addition to being an amazing Scholar, he is also a great theologian.

He wrote God and the Big Bang, a magnificent work that goes beyond merely "reconciling" religion and science to viewing scientific observation and discovery as a path to belief. It probably won't convince hardcore rationalists or young-earth creationists, but I tend to regard it as an excellent work of natural theology.

So anyway, I'm excited about this weekend. I hope I don't drool on him, and I hope my expectaions are not unreasonably high. The two things one worries about when one is a hopeless fanboi I suppose.

*Zoharic Aramaic is a bit of a different animal from biblical or talmudic Aramaic. It is rife with loan words, from not only the spanish spoken in the area, but from Greek as well. As if that weren't entertaining enough, it is also full of neologisms, often combining roots from mutiple language families. This is another thing discussed at length in the translators preface.
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Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

The premise of the Plot Against America is that instead of FDR being elected to a second term as president, Charles Lindbergh is nominated by the Republican Party and wins on an isolationist platform. He then perpetrates the meme that WWII is a "Jewish War" and begins a campaign of relocating Jews to rural communities where they will be easily assimilated. He is aided in this by a Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who he places in charge of the Office of Assimilation Services.

The story is very compelling, told through the eyes of the young Phillip Roth and tinged with that vaguely surreal haze that accompanies a young boy's discovery of the world. It touches very nicely on the theme of the moral choices we make as individuals and as a nation, and how no choice, regardless of how positive it might seem, is not without negative consequences.

Roth's writing is not quite up to the demands of his story. He frequently pens lengthy sentences which turn vicious on him and bite him in the ass. He also stops the movement of the story every time a new character is introduced to give a synopsis of that character's existence up to that point, rather than revealing it within the narrative. The result is that large blocks of the text are given over to lengthy expositions as Roth blithely ignores the first law of Narrative: "Show, don't tell."

Recommendation: Despite the problems presented by Roth's prose, the story is sufficiently compelling, the world-building sufficiently deep, and the themes sufficiently profound to justify reading it in spite of that fact.

Terry Pratchett: Going Postal

This latest of Pratchett's Discworld novels shows Pratchett at the very top of his form. He takes on the entire telecommunications industry, from the people who created the technology through the Worldcoms of the world, and wrestles very intelligently with the problems of public and private ownership of information delivery systems.

The narrative itself is brisk and will keep the reader turning pages. Exposition is integral to the story, and is accomplished in a manner that seems like a good striptease, slowly revealing what was not known before only as the plot demands that it become known.

In many ways this is, perhaps, one of the most complex of Pratchett's works and I would recommend it very highly. It helps to have read The Fifth Elephant, which introduces the Clacks, and Monstrous Regiment, which introduces cryptography and compression to the Clacks, but neither is strictly necessary for taking Going Postal on its own.
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I was living in Rego Park, Queens, in New York City when news of a shadow called the Ayatollah Khomeini passing over Iran reached my ears. It was a confusing time, as the news recounted how this force of darkness was unseating that agent of sweetness and light, the Shah of Iran. Things got a little blurry though, when more news reports revealed that the Shah peeled the fingernails out of the fingers of his prisoners. Iranian immigrants flocked to Queens and many of their children were my classmates. Then the American Embassy was taken and its occupants held hostage. Graffiti covered the walls at school that said things like "Fuck Iran." We had become angry. I couldn't help wonder what my Iranian schoolmates thought of all that, what they had gone through to get here, and what they had been through before they left. But somehow, one didn't want to ask; it seemed risky somehow, like it might dredge up painful memories, remind them of things better left forgotten. Now, Marjane Satrapi has invited us into the erudite Iranian home of her youth to explain it all to us.

She tells the story of the revolution, its causes, and its consequences unflinchingly through the eyes of her 11 - 14 year old self. From this point of view, the adult world seems surreal even in the healthiest of cultures and in the best of times. So revolutionary Iran seems doubly so even as it seems frighteningly real. The home she invites us into is led by her very politically astute father, and a cunningly resourceful mother. The Satrapis are no sheep, but a family that has suffered the consequences of changes in the political wind for generations. The result is that we get a very nuanced view of the politics of the revolution, of what different people were envisioning would come of it, and the disappointment at what did come of it.

Satrapi begins her story by discussing the veil. As I laid my eyes on the first chapter title, "The Veil," I braced myself for it being about the oppressiveness of wearing the veil. But what actually followed was what happens when you make a bunch of eleven year old girls adopt a garment they see no reason for. They were playing the usual array of school yard games with them. As the revolution proceede we are invited to share her puzzlement as the the teacher who had, only weeks earlier, told them that the Shah had been appointed by God, instructed her class to rip all pictures of the Shah from their books.

The revolution itself, we learn, wasn't Islamist. The Shah was the common enemy of a wide range of political factions, from secular democrats to communists to the islamists. In the end the Islamists won out because, as Satrapi tells us through the voice of her father, it is impossible to rally an illiterate populace around anything but religion and nationalism. In some ways, as political debate in the U.S. seems to be coalescing around issues of religion and nationalism, it seems almost as if Satrapi is putting us on notice that if we do not use our intellects to choose our government, we will end up no better off than Iran.

Satrapi's art is the perfect vehicle for her story. It is stark and simple: black and white, with no mid-tones, ever. It has the feel of linoleum-printing, and yet it ranges from light hearted and humorous (I am apparently not the only cartoonist in the world who thinks that striking phenomenologists in the head with hard, heavy objects makes a great sight-gag, as she shows Marx pelting Descartes with rocks.) to the dark and moody as she shows the ravages of war. One sees in her settings and backgrounds the richness and beauty of Iranian decor. She renders the full range of emotions very well, and has created characters that have that all important quality of being fun to look at.

Marjane Satrapi is definitely on of the folks who is, to borrow a phrase from Scott McCloud "reinventing comics." She has created a graphic novel with a poignancy that would have been impossible in text alone. I would call this a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened then and there, and what is happening now.
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Johnny Jihad is a graphic novel that speculates on the Radical Islamization of a typical American boy from a typical American town. It is, of course, inspired by the discovery of John Walker Lindh, but it should be noted that it is not an attempt to recount Lindh's experiences. It is a speculation on what might lead an American teenager down the path that Lindh followed, and what might be the outcome. It is a complex work, a multilayered article of propaganda with apparently confused allegiances, and therefore somewhat difficult to parse. I will tease that bit out a little later, but first I want to talk about the art.

Johnny Jihad is executed primarily in scratchboard, and Inzana does an excellent job with it, maintaining a moody darkness throughout the work. He exploits the tendency toward angularity intrinsic to scratchboard to create a very tense, conflicted look, but he does not became enslaved to it -- when curves and circles are called for, they are rendered smoothly and cleanly. Essential to a work like this is a solid use of shading, and values are rendered stunningly. Johnny Jihad is an ambitious story, and Inzana's art fully lives up to that ambition.

The premise of the story is simple enough. Looking at John Walker Lindh, the author asks himself "how could this happen?" The narrative he develops in answer to this question is, of course, very different from the Lindh narrative. It is Inzana's own answer to this question, his own hypothetical scenario which he weaves into a dark tale of treason and treachery, of multiple betrayals. But, it is obvious that Inzana believes what he is supposed to when it comes to Islamic terrorist networks. The result of Inzana's acceptance of these assumptions, combined with his skeptical cynicism regarding the U.S.'s role in creating the Taliban is a tale in which no heroes emerge.

This book is not, for example, going to win any prizes for creating a balanced portrayal of Islam. By choosing to portray only terrorists, and giving short shrift to those voices within Islam that the terrorists oppose, Inzana fans the flames of anti-Islamic prejudice. He indulges the notion that reading the Koran is the gateway to becoming a terrorist. The first Muslim he portrays works at a supermarket so that he can skim the registers and steal food which he then sells at his own store. And yet, when the protagonist is shown the terrorist group's indoctrination video, Inzana seems to be urging us to look at how we have brought the terrorism upon ourselves.

And so, this book is not likely to win the George W. Bush award for patriotic inspiration, either. It does not show Americans behaving significantly better than their enemies. Once Johnny falls into American custody, we see justice subverted, utterly, as CIA men give him a choice between becoming an operative in Afghanistan or being summarily executed, along with his mother. We also learn at this point that the U.S. is selling Russian weaponry to the Taliban, and that the U.S. put them in place. And yet, Inzana seems ultimately to validate things like the USA PATRIOT act and Military Tribunals by assuring us that these things are for other people.

By creating a protagonist who was basically a sociopath prior to the events narrated in the story, the child of an abusive father and a mother driven mad by said father's suicide, Inzana further advances the myth that one must be desperate and crazed to be vulnerable to recruitment. We know from the John Walker Lindh story that this is not the case. By working as hard as he does to create a protagonist most readers would have little empathy with, he gives us the assurance that this fate awaits other people, unlike ourselves. By defining the protagonist as so thoroughly Other, he contributes to the mythology that allows us to define American citizens as "enemy combatants," and deprive them of due process. The message is clear: unless you're a depraved, glue-sniffing sociopath who builds bombs for fun, you have no worries.

By the time this book reaches its inevitable conclusion, we find very little except a protagonist who has become the thing he hates most. In the end we are left with a son who can only say to his father, in the fashion of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," "I grew up just like you, dad."
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I have been reading American Splendor, a comic book anthology written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by a variety of rather stunning icons of cartooning including Robert Crumb and Gary Dumm. It is basically a set of autobiographical sketches of Pekar's life, episodes of the unremarkable. Ironically this is precisely what makes it so fascinating. Pekar's writing, with its unerring gift for dialect and colloquialism, and a remarkable narrative continuity for a text that is both episodic and non-linear goes a long way to establish a sense of place. Add to that artwork from R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Greg Budgett, Kevin Brown, and others and the scene becomes palpable. Indeed, Crumb's dark and gritty linework, heavily hatched and beautifully textured, goes a long way to convey the sense of quiet desperation that pervades the book. In terms of mood, Pekar is very similar to Leonard Cohen before he discovered synths.

And while the overall mood of this work might be somewhat depressive, it manages to remain upbeat in its way, seeking to learn and convey life lessons from the events portrayed. It is surreal in the way that a life lived on the fringes of society often is, and yet it speaks to some universal human concerns. Of course, I also happen to see a lot of myself in Pekar; we share that whole "growing up Jewish" experience (and not a few bad habits besides).

Being interested in the art of the comic strip, I also find the various artists' techniques to be and education in themselves. These range from pen and brush techniques to stippling, mechanical tint, and collage. The art of pictorial story telleing is mastered and beautifully showcased in rich variety in this work.

August 2017

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