September 27, 2010

Book 52: Boychiks in the Hood

Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground
Robert Eisenberg

Upon admitting only the most passing familiarity with the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim, and indeed with many strains of modern Judaism, a friend recommended Boychiks in the Hood to me as a lighthearted, casual introduction to a growing facet of modern Jewish life. It fulfilled on both fronts, which can hardly be surprising from the immensely clever title, but lacked a strong editing eye from either the author or his own editors and is disappointing in aggregate despite some excellent moments. Boychiks in the Hood is, despite its singularity of purpose, oddly disjointed and often distracted, providing a haphazard and often confusing introduction to Hasidism and its many facets where Eisenberg promises simplicity. Indeed, there is a strange paradoxical feel to the book, at once simple and complex, straightforward and taking the most twisted of turns only to return to the point of origin with almost nothing gained of the temporary distraction. It certainly is not beyond the capability of a travelogue to entertain, but this book often seems confused as to what kind of narrative it is actually providing: one moment, Eisenberg is enjoying the company of a Hasidic family on the Sabbath, only to elaborate on the history of that sect's leaders. Fair enough, but all of this is accomplished in a fine frenzy, with nary a line break in sight. Paragraphs and topics materialize out of thin air, only to be absorbed the prematurely aborted narrative as if nothing ever happened; surely Eisenberg could have conjured the slightest of transitions, either thematic or visual?

It is this kind of schizophrenia which far too often characterizes the book both within page-sized chunks and on aggregate; it would hardly be surprising if the bulk of the contextual and historical information within this book is actually lost because of its poor and shortsighted organization. Despite some witty and wry observations (which occasionally become overbearing, shouting, "I'm so clever!" far too often), the book fails to capitalize on a built-in organizational scheme and instead languishes in a kind of purgatory. The good intentions inherent in the book's intuitive, geographically-based chapter divisions go to waste as Eisenberg cannot sit still long enough to tell one simple story without a barrage of confusing and ill-placed details. A crucial element of understanding Hasidic culture is recognizing some of the major differences that distinguish particular branches of Hasidim, but the pinball nature of description, elaboration, and comparison in Boychiks in the Hood makes it almost impossible to separate one sect from another. Instead of building logically based on the communities the reader has already been introduced to, Eisenberg focuses on groups yet to come, returning to previous information as erratically as he adds new points. This Frogger-type deluge is accompanied by some fervently reiterated points that make Boychiks in the Hood occasionally read like an ill-defended dissertation. Eisenberg seems almost obsessed with the population explosion of Hasidim, particularly in relation to secular Judaism (though he never makes it clear whether 'nonreligious Jews' are secular in the traditional sense or include those who practice within the more mainstream Reform and Conservative branches), but his repeated assertions that nonreligious Judaism is dying become distracting after the fourth or fifth feverish repetition.

These stylistic flaws and distractions are almost tragic, for Boys in the Hood begins with a noble purpose and does have a talented writer, if not a fully fledged author, behind it. There is, as I have noted, a lot of valuable information in this book, which takes a compassionate look inside a heretofore mysterious alternate lifestyle and does much to demystify its ways. Eisenberg makes his own views on religion clear throughout the book, but always disagrees respectfully and draws equal attention to shared cultural and historical elements of Jewishness as to the differences between the ultra-Orthodox and the completely secular. Cultural tidbits that linger long enough to make an impact are intriguing and do much to explain certain well-known elements of Jewish cultural and religious practices in further depth. While the history of and differences between Hasidic sects may be almost as elusive as a useful definition of Hasidism, shared practices across different Hasidic communities are clearly defined and explained as Eisenberg draws the reader into his own learning experiences. His biographical and descriptive portrayals of yeshiva students and Talmudic scholars may occasionally trend toward the dismissive, but the author's representations of their arguments may be taken at face value and provide interesting points for reader rumination.

Readers will, despite Eisenberg's repeated efforts at distraction, leave with an increased knowledge and understanding of modern ultra-Orthodoxy throughout the world. The geographic scope of Boychiks in the Hood may be its most important aspect, as far-flung communities illustrate the complex interplay between situational and more specifically Jewish customs. Eisenberg also has a mind for history, using modern communities in two very distinct parts of Europe (Antwerp and rural Ukraine) to illustrate the devastating effects of the Holocaust and to link modern practice to the flourishing pre-catastrophe centers of Jewish life. Indeed, this book's examination of the Holocaust and its effects on Judaism are some of the most insightful I have read, though their offhand nature often belies their subtly profound significance. Boychiks in the Hood is not, then, without many redeeming qualities. The book balances incredible frustration with incredible articulation, creating a singular reading experience that is hard to pin down. As Eisenberg bounces merrily from topic to topic, so the reader is alternately enthralled and maddened by the lively prose and simple editorial oversights, intellecutally provoked by the wry observations but emotionally provoked by moments of condescension that seem out of place given the general congenial tenor. Boychiks in the Hood is, like the modern Hasidic communities it presents, impossible to pin down completely, but represents a mildly rewarding experience for those who want a nonacademic and personal introduction to the Hasidim in most of their modern incarnations.

Grade: B

September 14, 2010

Book 51: Sandman Slim

Sandman Slim
Richard Kadrey

Some books are designed to be, above all, fun, where others strive to connect with readers on a more intellectual level, provoking thought and engaging the reader at every twist and turn. Sandman Slim is, at a visceral level, and incredibly enjoyable book and a truly unique sarcastic fantasy-noir quasi-apocalyptic novel. The devil, however, lies in all of the details of this book, including the plot, the characters, and Kadrey's maddening inability to maximize the deep philosophical potential of his work. Sandman Slim deals with the devil and with heaven, including a hierarchy of angels and imps and a main character who firmly resolves to stand between the two ever-warring forces. This philosophical conflict, while evoked beautifully by the gruff and cynical first-person prose, is never fully realized as Kadrey seems more concerned with adding interesting plot elements than using them. The book seems in this way to be built toward an inevitable sequel, but readers may feel somewhat conned by the tantalizing hints of higher meaning and philosophical depth, which could easily have been offered regardless of Slim's potential as a series. There is a lot to be said about the themes upon which this novel only fleetingly touches, and though it seems Kadrey has something to say about death, love, and morality, which are easily the book's major themes, what it is remains uncertain after hints and miscues.

This problem with overall vision, whether too little or too much of it, is reflected in some plot holes and inconsistencies within the book. Death, injury, and immunity are key factors throughout, but are neither adequately explained nor consistently treated. Characters who should have immunity according to the book's internal logic (insofar as it exists) find themselves subject to crippling attacks, and other characters appear invincible one moment and vulnerable the next. It is as if Kadrey wished to introduce plot elements without paying careful consideration to how they would affect the believability of the world he has otherwise so realistically evoked. This, and Chekhov reigns supreme through transparent foreshadowing. Sandman Slim consistently hints at something bigger but is weighed down by minor inconsistencies that add up to a somewhat frustrating reading experience. This is incredibly unfortunate, as it is obvious that Kadrey is a top-notch author and provides a quirky narrative voice. Protagonist and narrator Stark may have the inconsistency imposed upon him, but damn can he tell a story. The language in this book is vivid and pitch-perfect, absolutely consistent and simultaneously creating a dark and dirty noir L.A. as well as a grungy ex-con (of sorts) whose primary motivating factors may surprise without becoming unbelievable or inconsistent.

Likewise, Kadrey's imagination is at once astonishing and terrifying, with some of the best and most evocative fight scenes I have read as well as an arsenal of weaponry that readers can't help but wish to see on a big screen and indeed, this book is almost screaming to be made into a film despite the prominence of language as its driving element. The tiniest of details combine to create a truly extraordinary view of the darker side of human nature and a much-maligned L.A., which makes it all the more maddening that other elements of the book are not as tightly constructed. The book is full of potential constantly showcased, only to crash in disappointment when its promises are not fulfilled or the author distracted from building theme or plot by a fancy turn of phrase or wry observation. Sandman Slim begins as a rough-and-tumble revenge story with celestial implications, and ends with a flimsy, under-explained apocalyptic aversion. It is a novel that attempts to explore the middle ground between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, but which too often gets caught up in its own cleverness. Sandman Slim will fulfill readers looking for a fun and unique thrill ride, but will frustrate those who hope for a little more weight behind its hefty themes.

Grade: B

September 3, 2010

Book 50: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
Stieg Larsson

This, the final book in Larsson's sadly posthumous Millennium Trilogy, presents a captivating and ultimately worthy end to the intertwined stories of renegade journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander. Though it lacks a bit of a punch and, like its predecessors, may suffer from a lack of a more critical editorial eye, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest will please readers who bring high expectations and a thirst for further adventures with the extremely well-drawn and vivid cast. This book directly follows the concluding lines of the previous installment, and does not dwell too long on recapitulation before launching directly into an attack on Swedish society and people around the world who allow violence against women to drive their actions or policies. Larsson can be forgiven for his lack of subtlety as he sticks ruthlessly to this theme, allowing it to direct and shape his narrative while only occasionally allowing his passion, which is evident, to overwhelm the narrators. This is mostly a matter of obvious over-eagerness and does not overshadow the greater merits of the book, which builds wonderfully on the ideas, plots, and characters built so painstakingly through its successors. It is clear from the start that Larsson knows where his story and his characters are going, and his management and integration of several subplots is superb, with only the rarest small detail vanishing into obscurity. The Millennium Trilogy is both sharply and intricately plotted and the meticulousness of the author adds to its mystique and, ultimately, the strength and clarity of its moral message.

The durability of Larsson's characters through three large books, and the continuing revelations about their variously complicated pasts is a testament to his meticulous planning as well as his talent for building complex, rich characters who can handle the pressure imposed by strong thematic currents as well as the plot-centered nature of a crime novel. It's a shame that Lisbeth Salander, the girl on whom the series hinges, does not feature more deeply in the climactic episode of her life, and his decision to place the action most significantly on his (male) journalist hero is interesting given the attention paid to women, and particularly women in positions of power. Lisbeth is far from neglected, but though the issue of agency is strongly addressed throughout the novel, some of its conclusions appear to be at ends with its ultimate message. This conflict, if taken as unintentional, re-casts the entire thesis of the book in a different light, as even Larsson's headstrong and ferocious heroine must be saved by a man. In Mikael, too, Larsson is not all-forgiving, but it is at times too easy to see him as a Mary Sue, given the repeated assertions of journalistic integrity and Mikael's own self-importance. Again, however, these flaws in the book(s) are both hidden just beneath the surface and are actually referred to more blatantly by the supporting cast. The real progress of women remains ambiguous, which though it may be unintentional does suit the novel quite nicely.

These flaws, as with most found in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest and in the greater Millennium Trilogy, are minor and detract only very slightly from the more present matters at hand. The books are incredibly well-written and captivating from start to finish. The characters are far from the cookie-cutter protagonists who haunt most crime series, and their individuality does not appear drawn from a checklist or forced upon them; these people seem, moreso than many characters, vividly real. Larsson can hardly be faulted for foreign readers' unfamiliarity with Swedish geography, which does generate some confusion, and the consistently high quality of the books is remarkable given their length. It is true that, with some editing, some extraneous matter could be removed, but the books always pick up just when they appear to drift into dullness and readers can always expect to be further intrigued. This final installment leaves a bit to be desired with regards to suspense, but Larsson's brilliant, if long, courtroom denouement is as satisfying for the reader as it must have been for the author to write it. There is nothing too unexpected after the first two books, but the Millennium Trilogy should nonetheless hold up as a classic and original series in a genre plagued by cliche. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest has, as all novels do, its minor flaws, but it is a worthy conclusion to the story of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant and fiercely original character whose fame is, in the end, justly deserved.

Grade: A-