Book Review

Book Review: Shosha by Issac Bashevis Singer

Book Review: Shosha, Isaac Bashevis Singer

Kind of a review. Kind of a philosophy chat.

I’ve been married twice, and both times my wife got tired of me wanting to name a daughter Shosha. I still remember buying the book: it was winter in Maine, and cold. Back home in Seattle, people were shivering under REI down jackets in 40 degrees and overcast. Here? Everything was covered in frozen snow and frigid, and I worried that my car tires wouldn’t roll. I was twenty-something and working in Wiscasset for a couple of months and needed something to do. The local bookstore was – and is – always the answer. 

By the great Isaac Bashevis Singer, it’s an odd story from a Jewish section of some city in pre-WWII Poland about a boy and girl who grow up together and then apart and then come together again. I laugh, giving the same caveat about many books I review: if you love the action and sex in the genre-of-the-week, this isn’t for you. But, if you like…say, how Pasternak wonders aimlessly in and out of the philosophy stacks at the library, this will be more to your liking. I’ve reviewed it before – I’ll try to find the review – but was struck this time by two things.

First thing

First is the theme that snakes through all the book and maybe all of Singer’s work. Maybe through all of Hebrew Scripture: G makes the mouse, and G makes the cat.  

Shosha’s world of ragamuffin pre-war Polish Jews.

I see this everywhere now and have taken it as my own. Last week I was in the Post Office, behind an older lady – older than me – who was having a fit. I only know this because she announced it to the entire building, but every year some financial institution in Europe sends her and her husband their annual wad of cash. Usually, they get a check in the mail, but this year, with security and all, the dirty rotten oafs want her to pick up her check at the embassy. 

She is incensed. And so is her husband, she says, who has to wait in the car. From disability or from the fear of being seen with this woman, I can’t say. Me? I’m sitting in line wondering what kind of largess you have when your bank wants you to pick up your check at the bleedin’ embassy?

There’s no way she’s driving to DC, so she made some kind of deal with who-knows-who and is sending them paperwork to release the money to her. All this is played out for the very nice people of my town and the Post Office, all making $8.75 per hour. In a huff, and not being used to this kind of rough treatment, she pays to send the letter and storms out.


I carry my box to the counter, hoping that any residual anger in the clerk stays bottled up, though I consider it a Christian’s job to be a shock absorber for this kind of silly business. The clerk looks like she’s already had a lousy day, and it’s only 11:00.

I grimaced and spouted my new philosophy. “Well,” I said, “ G makes the mouse, and G makes the cat.”

She chuckled with me, and I was glad to relieve some of her built-up pressure.

It’s a forgiving philosophy, and an acknowledgment that G made you as you are. Love yourself and forgive yourself. Do the same for others. G made them, too. It’s a harder pill to swallow in Shosha, with the Jews knowing what comes with Hitler. I think of it now, reading about the Babylonian exile and how bad moderns can be on history. We think it was bliss back in the good old days when America was great, but would we – would I? – sing a song about how G makes us all when being separated from my family for maybe the last time? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

Second thing

Also in the book – spoiler alert – Shosha dies. The boy and girl are married now, and WWII looms, so they meander on rough dirt roads, carrying everything they own in suit cases, out of the city. Shosha walks with her husband until finally, she sits down, and dies. Just gives up the ghost. She’s tired of trying so hard to carry her load. She’s had enough.

Settling in for some great reading.

This time though, the sentiment resonates in me. I am no fan of any death and swear to my wife that G will have to strike me down and that I will fight for every breath. Only once, during my hospital stay because of my accident, did I not care if I woke. It wasn’t for me, but for my wife and family that I cared about dying, knowing that death would cause more grief. 

So, my takeaway here? G made the mouse and the cat. Learn it, and meditate on it, and the next time someone treats you wrongly, repeat it under your breath. Don’t try to figure out who’s who: it’s just a dance, and we’re all players.



See the book here on Amazon.
Here at Barnes and Noble, my hometown bookstore.
Go here to Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore.
Or you can see if your hometown indie bookstore has it or if they can order it for you.

Thanks so much for reading. Can you think of someone who would like the post? Please mail it to them or share it with your favorite social media using one of the icons below. And won’t you follow me? You can do so in the sidebar. Thanks again and feel free to comment! 

FWIW, I am not an Amazon Associate or an associate of any other ilk, and make nary a red cent if you purchase the book through a link. I do accept donations, though…

Book Review: Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

From a couple of years ago…

Book Review: Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

I was on an annual hunt for a scary read (not my normal read, and I don’t know the genre), and Geek Love was on every list I looked at. I’m afraid of the truly scary, but this came with a promise of disturbing oddity – just what I was looking for – so I picked it up.

I have to say that there is a truly creepy tone to the book, like something has burrowed under your skin. The story centers on a family with parents who feel that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is a marketable freak-show deformity. It’s out of love then that Pa shoots Ma up with all kinds of nefarious dope while she’s pregnant in hopes of giving birth to ‘freaks.’ Some babies don’t live, and they’re put in jars where patrons of the show pay to peer at them. Those who survive work the show and contribute to this truly odd family. Each has a deformity, and just like Marilynn Munster, the most normal are the least respected. Aqua Boy, with fins instead of arms, is most special.

The writing is engaging. And, like the flamboyant and proud freaks, the prose is never dull and always witty. But the story didn’t carry me as I expected. Once the novelty of conjoined twins and children stored in formaldehyde wears off, the reader is left with a normal-ish story of families and relationships. But – make no bones about it – the story is creepy. Author Katherine Dunn takes everything dark, everything hidden, and everything feared and shines the full light of the sun on them after setting them all on the podium. The reader -me – squirms.

The book is a good read and worthy of any Halloween list. An advance review by Kirkus likened the book to ‘a collaboration between John Irving and David Lynch,’ and I think that’s spot on. I had the same weird and uncomfortable feeling reading Geek Love as I did watching Lynch’s Eraser Head: nothing really frightening, but just plain weird, like seeing something I’m not supposed to, which is exactly why we read these books. Just to show what I know, the book was a finalist for a National Book Award. Also, the book was published in 1989, and I wonder now, some thirty years later, if it might offend or trigger certain readers. In times past, this was a badge to be held high – any fame is good fame – but we are more sensitive now, or more squeamish, or more afraid, and there are definite things here that might startle any normal human reader.

Overall a good read for the coming season. Especially for David Lynch fans. 


See the book here on Amazon.
Go here to Barnes and Noble.
Go here for a probably used copy from Powell’s in Portland.
See it here on Goodreads.

Thanks so much for reading. Please share the review via email or on your favorite social media using one of the icons below. And won’t you follow me? You can do so in the sidebar. Thanks again and feel free to comment! 

FWIW, I am not an Amazon Associate and make nary a red cent if you access and buy anything on Amazon. Or Barnes and Noble. Or anywhere. I am strictly supported by donation only.

Number 5

Book Review – I Was Blind But Now I See, James Altucher

He can see now…

A good book with a gaping hole…

Per the title, Altucher divides the book in two: he opens with blindness, and then, natch, moves on to where he is healed and sees. He does this, of course, without a Savior except for his keen insight into the workings of the world. Raising his hand high, like a prairie frontiersman, he preaches the old Americanism that few live out, but everyone agrees to: quit believing the truth of what you’re told. 

Don’t be fooled: he urges you to ignore everyone, but the tacit message – he wrote the book, after all – is to listen to me and do what I say. I have the answers you seek. He admonishes against blind fealty to parents and grandparents and girlfriends and newspapers and stresses repeatedly that moderns are bombarded with a rain of messages about what makes us happy. “Of course, you’re sad and lonely,” a commercial says. “You need a WARM CUP OF TOMATO SOUP to make you feel like life has meaning again. See this good-looking mom? She’s having a cup of soup and has life down pat! But, look at you? Still in sweatpants? Then point your rusty Toyota to the grocery to get a can of TOMATO SOUP so you can be a happy gal too!” He harps A LOT about how, for most people, college is a waste of time. And he’s positive that banking and buying a home are the greatest ruses ever foisted on humanity. Think Howard Stern and self-help, and you’re close.

In his defense, he’s not adamant that you swear off these things wholesale. Instead, he asks that you consider their truth before you sign on as a devotee. He deftly steps through the brainwashing of every person alive since the day they were born. Then, he outlines the Religion of America whereby we believe truths because we are brainwashed to do so. It’s a circle.

In the second half of the book, he takes these tenets of the Religion of America and explains why they’re bunk. I expected something more nuanced, a professorial argument enlightening the reader to facts and nuances they haven’t considered, but instead, he mostly calls you a dope for buying into this mess. Seems like a contradiction of the first half to me.

A couple misgivings

Overall, it’s a good and worthy book, with lots to think about, but he fails in two ways:

The first is glaring. I haven’t read other reviews but know I’m not the first to see this. In the middle of his diatribe about logic and effects and testing, he defines ‘happiness’ as the most important thing a human achieves. I guess readers are supposed to acquiesce to this because everyone wants to be happy, and because he said so, right? But, is a murderer happiest when murdering? Is a molester happiest when molesting? So, in a book about logic and clear thinking, I reject out of hand the assertion that happiness is the pinnacle of an individual’s pursuits.

Secondly, continuing down the same rabbit trail, he equates the best outcome with the most happiness. It’s a weird logic to me. Again, what is the best outcome? Moral purity or getting away with the crime?  

My experience with Altucher

Truth be told, I have made a fair living ala Altucher, doing what I want to do and ignoring the gatekeepers. Way back when, when my hippie side fought more to escape than it does now, I made custom furniture. Let’s all agree that my foray into the craft business started slow, and my growing family enjoyed the largess of friends. I was convinced, though, that beautiful furniture, made lovingly with real wood, would catch the eyes and hearts and pocketbooks of people who saw that value in such things.  

I made a wee living like this and loved every morning going into the shop to awake to the smell of linseed oil and maple. I finally quit the business, but not the doing, and went back to medical research. One place I love as much as the shop is the lab.

I do the same thing now, and that’s why I read Altucher’s book. As a writer, I seriously do what I want and ignore almost everything people tell me to do. It doesn’t escape me that these people are selling me the one thing I need for success. But, just like in furniture making, I am a firm believer in the success of doing my best work with G’s blessing.   

So, to that end, I agree with Altucher, but even more so. In whatever you love, ignore what he says, and ignore what the gatekeepers say, and ignore what I say. Sharpen your chisels in a way that makes sense to you and write for yourself. 

A weird note

After reading the book, I went to his website and clicked the box next to YES, I CHOOSE ME and submitted my email for a newsletter. The newsletter, which I kept hoping would get better, never did, and the constant ramblings about signing up for more of his not-free special financial insight resulted in me unceremoniously unsubscribing. I’m sure he’s doing just fine.

Three stars

Amen and Selah.

See the book here at Amazon.

Go here to Barnes and Noble, my neighborhood bookstore.

Thanks so much for reading. Can you think of someone else who would like the post? Please mail it to them or share it with your favorite social media using one of the icons below. And won’t you follow me? You can do so in the sidebar. Thanks again! And feel free to comment! 

FWIW, I am not an Amazon Associate and make nary a red cent if you access and buy anything on Amazon