Monday, November 27, 2023

Review: The Games: A Global History of the Olympics

The Games: A Global History of the OlympicsThe Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Quite disappointing. There is some interesting and useful information; especially about the early games and the 19th century context that the Olympic revival comes out of. But as it gets further on; the book suffers. Frankly, it is probably trying to do and say too much in too little space. There is no overarching theme or narrative; no through line, that connects the chapters. There are some focal points; but these are not as well developed as they could be; and sometimes forced as the author tries to shoe horn in all the games of a specific time frame into the focus. But, as often as not, these focuses get lost in the details. The author tends to spend more time on the planners (and their backgrounds) than the games themselves. The latter half is almost entirely focused on the broader sociological and economic contexts of the host cities and games with very little discussed about the games themselves. There is only a tiny bit about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, for example, when discussing the Summer Games in 2008. A good chunk of the Rio games is taken up by a discussion of the Brazilian presidential impeachment and surrounding scandals. Also, the closer to our own era we get, the more the authors particular political biases come through, muddying the analysis.

The subtitle of the book is the “A Global History of the Games” but it is not at clear what is particularly global about this history. Obviously, it is global, since the Olympics is global, but beyond that, I am not sure what they are trying to get at with that.

There is also a kind of elitist aesthetics expressed throughout. Inevitable, Olympic projects, such as buildings, slogans, or mascots, are described as kitschy, banal, vacuous, or ugly. There is a lot of sneering at the consumerism around the Olympics—which seems to run counter to the author’s concerns about the IOC’s long history of clinging to 19th century amateurism.

There are some errors as well; the most egregious being when he inexplicably labels the Christian identity nationalist, Eric Rudolph, the terrorist responsible for the Atlanta Olympics pipe bomb, a libertarian.

Overall the author’s cynicism and elitism get in the way of the valid criticisms of Olympic projects. As this and other histories show, there are many problems and criticisms to be made, but this work doesn’t do the work necessary to develop these, explain why they are concerns, or offer much in the way of alternatives. In most cases, the reality of the games is implicitly compared to some unstated majestic and idyllic system where the Olympics could take place without these problems.

Furthermore, as critical as the author is of the vision of Coubertin’s Olympics, the author actually seems to in a way share this utopian vision of pure sport. But since the reality of the Olympics can never live up to this vision; it gets lots of righteous scorn and rhetorical sneering.

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Review: The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World

The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent WorldThe Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World by Dan Senor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Israel is a small country facing tremendous obstacles. It is threatened and attacked by well-funded genocidal enemies. Meanwhile the international community, such as it is, is ambivalent at best and internally, Israel is regularly rocked by protests and religious and ethnic divisions. Yet, Israel, according to various international metrics, is one of the happiest countries. This apparent paradox is what Dan Senor and Saul Singer have set out to explain.

Looking at the different parts of Israeli society, they try to find out what makes Israel resilient and happy in the face of the many challenges it faces. This is what they mean by the “Genius of Israel”: how it is able to deal so successfully with its unique challenges as well as the problems afflicting most of the rest of the wealthy, liberal democracies. The short answer is that Israelis share a collective meaning and purpose, with a sense of community cementing that meaning and purpose.

This ties together much of what they look at: the educational system, the military, the tech sector, the family, the sabbath, and the regional historical connections. They explore the ways these elements all connect to, create, and reinforce that purpose and community.

They also look at the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) and Israeli Arab communities. While outliers in many ways, they also share some of the features that create that purpose and community. They point out how Israel has to do better by these two groups by incorporating them more into the mainstream. But they also show the ways that this integration is being driven internally in these communities.

All in all, an informative and engaging exploration and explanation of Israeli society. Important to read to understand Israel.

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Thursday, November 23, 2023

Review: Damascus Station

Damascus StationDamascus Station by David McCloskey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed, but didn't love, this spy thriller; it had an authentic feel and the plot was engaging. I really liked, or rather found interesting, some of the characters, though the central protagonist was somewhat weak. I just didn't connect to him or really get a sense of his character. The supporting characters around him where far more rich and well drawn. I cared far more for these characters than I did for Samuel. The book does a good job of showing the pressure and sense of being trapped that many must feel in a regime such as Syria's. The kind of compromises one has to struggle with just to survive. I thought it also dramatized the conflict many have between being loyal to one's country while watching the regime destroy it from within. So overall a good read.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Review: Traitor's Blade

Traitor's Blade (Greatcoats #1)Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a delightful discovery. I don't recall who recommended this to me or how it came into my to-read pile, but thank you! A fresh story that is exciting, thoughtful, and funny. It has a good heart; the characters are interesting. It has twists and turns, keeps you on your toes, from the first to the last words. The writing is crisp and the storytelling is intricate without being baroque. de Castell spins a dark, corrupt world but rests the story on hope and honor. I'm hooked.

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Sunday, November 05, 2023

Review: The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish IdentityThe Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity by Micah Goodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating examination of the complex nature of Jewish identity. In particular, Goodman is focused on the various strands of Judaism and Jewishness that are within Israeli culture. Though primarily focused on Israeli Jewishness, it is rooted in the long intellectual and religious traditions of the Jewish People: from Beit Hillel in the Second Temple period to Maimonides to the 19th and 20th century religious and secular thinkers. I very much appreciate the insight Goodman brings into Jewish and Israeli thought; sharing with the reader many ideas that normally are not accessible (because they are in Hebrew).

The main idea Goodman starts with is that within Israel—and because its Israel, the Jewish national homeland—there are new ways of being Jewish developing. Just as older forms developed in response to the tensions and conditions of the world they were in, being Jewish in Israel is evolving and responding to pressures and tensions in Israel. These include the interaction of tradition and modernity; community and individualism; authority and liberty.

Many know that Israel seems to be divided into two camps: religious and secular. Goodman argues this oversimplifies things. Within each camp there are further divisions, divisions that mirror each other in the other camps. That is, there is a more strident, religious camp that holds fast to the religious laws and traditions as expressed in orthodoxy. This is mirrored in the secular camp by the strident secularists who reject and forswear religious tradition and learning. But as well, each camp has what Goodman calls “alternative” movements. There are religious Zionists who are interested in the more open and dynamic aspects of modern life. This is mirrored by the secularist Zionists who are interested in connecting to the richness of Jewish tradition. The religious are not secularizing: they are not compromising or losing faith. And the secularists are not becoming religious: they want to enrich and deepen their secularism by connecting with the ideas and texts of the tradition.

His main argument is that these alternative threads are, or are potentially, forming a more balanced, middle way of Israeli Judaism.

Goodman argues that that these threads, the alternative and mainline ones, have long pedigrees in Jewish history and roots his analysis in those traditions. This history deals with, in its own ways relative to its time period, the problems and tensions of tradition and modernity; community and individualism; authority and liberty. As such, there is much to learn about how these alternative stands in contemporary Israeli society might deepen and expand: enriching Israeli society, but also Jewish culture worldwide.

And this can move beyond the Jewish world as well. The lesson is that if one is religious, they can enrich their faith with modern ideas and ideals without losing their religion; and if one is not religious, they can enrich their connections and community by exploring and learning about their traditions without having to submit to the authority of the tradition. This helps, as Goodman argues, to balance many of the tensions and values of modern life. That is, at least, the hope Goodman leaves us; and it is one I share. As a secular Jew, who loves learning about the tradition but is not likely to be observant, many aspects of Goodman’s discussion appealed to me deeply. Lastly, it is wonderfully written: clear and approachable even while condensing and articulating complex theological, philosophical, and sociological ideas.

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Thursday, November 02, 2023

Review: Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders' Dreams?

Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders' Dreams?Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders' Dreams? by Daniel Gordis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2023 is the 75th year of Israel’s re-founding. In May 1948, the leaders of the Jewish community declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” was read aloud by David Ben-Gurion. Broadcasted live on the radio, the text of the declaration was also sent out to the world’s media.

Daniel Gordis takes the ideas and principles expressed in this declaration, unpacks them, and asks how well the state has lived up to the vision expressed by the founding generation of Zionists in this momentous document.

This ingenious method of exploration Israel’s 75 years of modern statehood allows Gordis to focus in on some of the central questions about Zionism and the rationale for a Jewish State as well as the achievements and failures of Israel. By exploring the meaning of the founding principles and visions, and then looking at how Israeli society, culture, and governance have either met and surpassed that vision, or have at times fallen short of those principles, we get a clear set of themes and standards to consider and evaluate.

Gordis provides a balanced approach, one that pulls few punches in criticizing Israel when appropriate. He does not shy away from pointing out the internal tensions in the founders’ visions and principles, and the sometimes inconsistency of the application. This allows Gordis to also express his profound love and admiration for the breathtaking achievements of Israel’s 75 years.

This is a wonderful book that helps reiterate the purpose and need for Israel, as well as understanding Israel within the context of its founding purposes. Reading this after the pogrom of Oct 7 and subsequent explosion of world-wide antisemitism was heartening and reaffirming.

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