Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Friday cat blogging

I understand this is a tradition, so of course Shadow must be blogged, whether she wants to be or not. She always looks a little PO'd when the flash goes off, so it might just be that, but I have the feeling she's not thrilled with me. It probably didn't help that I abandoned her for most of the day, between work and taking my friend Carol grocery shopping. Then I brought her home a nice piece of yarn last night and haven't even played with her that much, so I guess I'd better go and do that before we head off to bed, me to read, her to sleep.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

With apologies to Mel Brooks...

To read entire article click on link

It's good to be King George
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
By Reg Henry

As I was saying to a fellow peasant just the other day, it is ironic that this country should rebel against one King George only to bow down before another monarch of the same name more than 200 years later.

That our own King George -- he of the House of Bush -- is truly of royal blood has become clear in recent days with the announcement that he has empowered the National Security Agency to spy on whomsoever and whatsoever it wishes under royal decree...

Monday, December 26, 2005

Book Review: To the Tower Born

To the Tower Born by Robin Maxwell ****

To the Tower Born
is an enjoyable historical novel revolving around the enduring mystery of what happened to the "Princes in the Tower," the one-time Edward V and his brother Richard. Were they murdered by Richard III, the original Wicked Uncle? Was it Richard's closest adviser, their calculating cousin the Duke of Buckingham, who had his own eye on the throne? Was it Henry VII, who defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field? Or is it possible that they were not killed at all but kidnapped and/or rescued by other interested parties?

Robin Maxwell, the author of several books set in the Tudor period, serves up some gripping suspense, well-drawn characters and an original and intriguing solution to the mystery in this novel, which is told from the point of view of the princes' sister Elizabeth (Bessie), later the queen of Henry VII and the mother of Henry VIII. Since Elizabeth was in sanctuary with her mother and sisters during the crucial time and a lot of it takes place away from London, she is provided with an additional pair of eyes and ears in the person of Nell Caxton (based on a real person), the daughter of England's earliest printer, William Caxton, who was patronized by the kings throughout this period. As the author argues in her afterword, Caxton's daughter would certainly have been educated, which provides the opening to place her first at the side of Edward as his temporary Latin tutor and later as a secretary to Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother, where she is a witness to vital events and picks up important information.

As was pointed out by a reviewer on Amazon, there are a couple of annoying historical inaccuracies, but I found the story and characters to be compelling enough that they are mere annoyances. (Also, although Elizabeth Woodville did not attempt to marry her brother to the queen of Scotland, she did try to marry him to a Scottish princess.) There was also doubt expressed that a princess of England would have been allowed as much freedom as Bessie appears to have, but as I recall, the medieval courts were much less formal than those of the Renaissance, and I can imagine Edward IV, who was known for his "common touch," not being overly concerned with protocol. Some readers who are used to the later customs of keeping young noblewomen innocent of sexual matters may find the bawdy jokes and remarks of the two girls to be a bit jarring, but I suspect that there is a certain amount of accuracy in this as well.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The gift of sanity from Frank Rich

Click on link to read entire article.

I Saw Jackie Mason Kissing Santa Claus

by Frank Rich
The New York Times
December 25, 2005

THE good news today is that the great 2005 war on Christmas, the conflagration that launched a thousand op-ed pieces and nearly as many battles on Fox News, is now officially over. And yes, Virginia - Christmas won!

Hanukkah Books & DVDs

The Road to Dune by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, Frank Herbert
Judaism, Physics & God by Rabbi David Nelson

Pride & Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Book Review: The Rabbi's Cat

The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar****

The Rabbi's Cat is a sometimes humorous, sometimes profound graphic novel about an unworldly rabbi, his daughter Zlabya and her cat in early 20th century Algeria, as told by the cat. The cat gains the ability to speak by swallowing the family parrot, an act that he, of course, immediately denies. The conversations between the cat, the rabbi, and the "rabbi's rabbi" are some of the funniest parts of the book, but along with such questions as whether the cat should be considered Jewish or whether his age (for bar mitzvah purposes) should be calculated in human or "cat" years, is some serious and wide-ranging philosophical and theological discussion. What is a Jew? What does it mean to be created "in God's image"? What is the difference between the cat's feeling for his mistress and the love of God?

Eventually the cat pronounces the sacred name of God and loses his ability to speak, and from this point the book concentrates more on the relationships between human beings, although still from the cat's perspective. He experiences the pangs of jealousy when a young rabbi from an assimilated French family comes to their town and falls in love with his young mistress. He and his master then travel with the young couple to Paris to meet the groom's family, and must adjust to a very different kind of Jewish life before they return home to Algeria. On their journey they encounter several delightful minor characters, from the rabbi’s cousin Malkah of the Lions (and his pet lion) to a cabaret singer in Paris.

The Rabbi’s Cat can be read on several different levels - as an entertaining “talking animal” story, an affectionate portrait of Sephardic Jewish culture, or a complicated story of human (and animal-human) relationships. Caution to parents: This book contains brief nudity and some mature language and themes.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Book Review: The Queen's Fool

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory *****

I remember being extremely impressed by Ms. Gregory's first novel, Wideacre, a sprawling family saga whose protagonist made Scarlett O'Hara look like a Girl Scout. Although she has been writing historical novels for a few years, this is the first one I have read, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Hannah Green (nee Verde) and her father are secret Jews (at least to the extent that Judaism has been passed down to them) who have fled from Spain after the arrest and burning of Hannah's mother, and Hannah, who has "the Sight," is brought by John Dudley, the Protector of the young Edward VI, to the king's court as a "holy fool" and spy. Dazzled by Dudley's son, Robert (the future favorite of Queen Elizabeth I) and caught up in the intrigues of court life, Hannah lives through the turbulent final months of Edward's reign, the short-lived attempt to place Lady Jane Grey upon the English throne, and the five-year reign of "Bloody Mary." Torn between conflicting loyalties to those she serves and to her family, including her betrothed, later her husband, she moves back and forth between the public and private spheres, giving a unique perspective on both the historical events and on the lives of "the People," as she calls the Jews. She moves from resentment to acceptance and finally to embrace of her responsibilities to both family and faith.

To me, this book is unusual in that it offers a rare sympathetic and primary view of Queen Mary. Although those that focus on Elizabeth usually do portray Mary with some understanding, she is always subordinate to her younger sister, who outshines her in fiction as she did in life. Hannah's view of Elizabeth, on the other hand, while sometimes admiring, sometimes censorious, is much more objective than her warm regard for Mary. Perhaps it is her status as a Jew, but she seems able to look upon both as living, breathing women rather than as the symbols of religious and political power that they can often be to other characters. Other historical personages also have depth and ambiguity, including Lord Robert, who is ambitious and a practiced seducer but ends up having a real regard and respect for Hannah. I thought she was a little hard on Robert's wife Amy, portraying her as not only virtually illiterate and incurious but also mentally unbalanced.

Hannah and her family, particularly her faithful husband and her scholarly father, also feel like real, vibrant people, although her disapproving in-laws may hew a bit too closely to stereotypes. I would like to have seen more exploration of the motivations and background of Daniel's mother.

I don't know if Ms. Gregory has any real-life connection to Judaism, but the thing that I found most powerful about The Queen's Fool, apart from the scene where Hannah finds herself unable to burn her father's "heretical" books, even to protect herself, is the haunting sadness of a culture that is being lost generation by generation, as her father and mother-in-law struggle to remember the prayers and practices that have been passed down to them, and to pass them on to their children.

L'shalom -

New books (drool, drool!)

I just ordered these from Quality Paperback Book Club and lo and behold! Here they are, via FedEx, for only $1.99 shipping. And they're not even gifts, except for myself.

Science Friction: Where The Known Meets The Unknown
by Michael Shermer
Essays on science and skepticism by the author of Why People Believe Weird Things

The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes by
David Willis McCullough
A cultural history of the labyrinth and an examination of its modern revival.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D.
"A fascinating, important book about what makes good people good and bad people bad, and how good people can protect themselves from those others." - Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This week's Torah portion - meanderings

This is really a tough one since I've committed myself to concentrating on the fifth aliyah, which is extremely short this year. The story is that of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, which should leave a lot of opportunity for commentary, but unfortunately the really meaty part is in the sixth aliyah. All we are told this week is that Joseph was sold to Potiphar, that he was trusted by his master, that everything he touched turned to gold, and that he was "well built and handsome." Interestingly, the same Hebrew terms are used for his mother Rachel (yafei/ah to'ar viy'fei/ah mar'eh). This is the sentence that jumps out at me, maybe because it doesn't seem to relate to the previous verses, but of course it is a setup for the next part of the story.

Just before this chapter came the seeming digression of the Judah-Tamar story, although as many commentators argue, there is an implicit contrast set up here between Joseph's restraint in the face of temptation and Judah's lack of it. I would argue that there is also a practical safety angle here. A slave sleeping with his master's wife is far more likely to get into trouble than a respectable widower paying a prostitute, sacred or otherwise. Perhaps Joseph would not have been quite so virtuous in Judah's situation.

It's also pretty amazing that Joseph, a pampered seventeen-year-old suddenly seized by his own brothers and sold into slavery, should have enough aplomb and expertise to do so well, but then, like the children of Lake Woebegon, our biblical heroes, whatever their flaws, are all above average in ability. (Even Isaac, whom we generally consider to be a bit of a nonentity, reaps a hundredfold what he sows and hobnobs quite comfortably with kings and chieftains.)

Movie Review: Pride & Prejudice ***

I saw this movie last Saturday night (12/17), and I have to say that although I enoyed it, I don't think I would expend the money or effort to see it again, even after it comes out on DVD. Like the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma, it is good enough on its own terms but falls far short of either of the mini-series adaptations, particularly the 1995 BBC/A&E version, generally known, to my everlasting annoyance, as "the Colin Firth version." (Jennifer Ehle, who plays the main character, makes the mini-series for me; while Colin Firth certainly did a wonderful job, it would have suffered far more by her absence than by his.)

One thing that I did think that this adaptation was better at, surprisingly, was authenticity. I say "surprisingly" because I usually think of the British mini-series (plural) as using actors who look more like real people than Hollywood stars. This may be more true of the ones that were made in the 70's and 80's - the '95 version was more polished in every way. However, in this theatrical release, the people (apart from the leads) were plainer, the clothes looked handmade, and the atmosphere in the public scenes (particularly the dances) was almost claustrophobic, which I found more realistic, considering that the concepts of privacy and "personal space," as we understand them, were only beginning to come into their own during the Enlightenment and afterward.

The acting seemed to be well done and there was chemistry between the main characters, but I didn't really care for the changes that were made to the original story. Of course, any book must be condensed to fit into a 2-1/2 hour movie and they seemed to move a lot of the action outdoors to take advantage of some truly stunning landscapes, but some changes seemed unnecessary and some of the relationships in the book weren't as fully developed as I felt they should have been. I would like to have seen more attention given to the friendship (at least on Jane's side) between Jane and Caroline Bingley; it seemed that they hardly spoke to each other at all in the movie. As another example, it is made clear in the book that the Bennet girls' Aunt Gardiner is several years younger than her husband, which makes it more understandable that Jane and Elizabeth confide in her so easily, but in this version she appears to be about the same age as their uncle and parents.

On the whole, this was an enjoyable movie, but I would not recommend it to Austen purists.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

From one of my favorite sites

Bush in 2004: We're "Getting Court Orders" and "Value the Constitution." Did He Know He Was Lying?


From a BuzzFlash Reader:

Notice what President Bush said in 2004 about wiretaps during a speech discussing the Patriot Act. This was from the White House Press Archive:

"Secondly, there are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires-a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution."

- White House Press Release, April 20, 2004

Monday, December 19, 2005

An intriguing possibility

Did warrantless spying program target journalists?

This would be a good explanation for why they didn't want to go to the FISA court.

Another post (I forget where I read it but I think it was somewhere on The Huffington Post earlier today) suggests that could also be one reason why the administration fought so hard against releasing the NSA intercepts that John Bolton had requested - that they might be from this program.

If you need a laugh on a Monday

Top 10 Conservative Idiots

Unfortunately, they won't be publishing for the next two weeks, but today's is a good one.

Why we shouldn't torture

As many have said, it's sad (and frightening) that this should even be open to discussion.

Below are links to some excellent articles on the topic. The first is by Ray McGovern, a retired intelligence analyist with 27 years experience and the founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. The second is by John Dean, former White House counsel. The third, and most powerful, is by Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for nonviolent human rights activities and knows about torture from first-hand experience as well as from living in a totalitarian society.

McCain's Defining Moment

Shocking The Conscience Of America: Bush And Cheney Call For The Right To Torture And Are Decisively and Correctly Rebuffed by the House

Torture's Long Shadow

Sunday, December 18, 2005

An excellent column!

A Challenge for Bill O'Reilly
The New York Times
December 18, 2005

Let us all pray for Bill O'Reilly.

Let us pray that Mr. O'Reilly will understand that the Christmas spirit isn't about hectoring people to say "Merry Christmas," rather than "Happy Holidays," but about helping the needy.

Let us pray that Mr. O'Reilly will use his huge audience and considerable media savvy to save lives and fight genocide, instead of to vilify those he disagrees with. Let him find inspiration in Jesus, rather than in the Assyrians.

Finally, let's pray that Mr. O'Reilly and other money-changers in the temple will donate the funds they raise exploiting Christmas - covering the nonexistent "War on Christmas" rakes in viewers and advertising - to feed the hungry and house the homeless.


For whole column, see

Reading List

Whether I will actually succeed in reading all of these is an open question, but here is a list of some of the books I have from the library.

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory (historical novel about secret Jews in the Tudor royal courts)

Thou Shalt Not Kill
edited by Anne Perry (Biblical mystery stories)

Life After Death by Alan F. Segal ("A history of the afterlife in Western tradition")

Bad News by Tom Fenton ("The decline of reporting, the business of news, and the danger to us all")

The Borgia Bride
(historical novel about the Borgia court, told from the viewpoint of Lucrezia Borgia's sister-in-law)

Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt (instances of significant corruption - sound familiar? - in New Kingdom Egypt)

Sex With Kings (not as sleazy as it sounds - a history, at least over the past 500 years, of royal mistresses and the influence they wielded)

Torah: Vayishlach

I have been attempting since Rosh Hashanah to write a brief d'var torah each week, based on the fifth aliyah of each portion, which we are concentrating on this year in my congregation. A blog doesn't seem to be the place to post them, so they will have to wait until I get a website going, after which I will link to longer pieces of writing.

This last week we studied the story of the "rape" of Dinah, a very difficult and challenging episode in the life of the patriarch Jacob, found in chapter 34 of the book of Genesis. For a feminist treatment of this story, I highly recommend The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, although my criticism of the book is that there doesn't seem to be a decent male character in it, which only works to confirm the prejudices of the right wing that feminists hate men.

The story of the "rape," however, always seemed highly suspect to me, especially since it is told entirely from the viewpoint of men who are attempting to justify a truly horrifying attack and slaughter of the entire male population of a city. It seems far more likely to me that, assuming for the point of argument that such a thing happened, there may have been a consensual relationship that was unacceptable to Dinah's tribe, who then concocted the story of the rape, since obviously, in their eyes, no decent Israelite girl would willingly consort with a man unapproved by them.

L'shalom -

Book Review: The Wish List

The Wish List by Eoin Colfer ****

Colfer is better known for the Artemis Fowl series, which I have to say I have not been able to get into. Apart from being a boy named for a Greek goddess (grrrrrrr!!!), as of the end of the second book the title character seems to be a bit of a psychopath whose main redeeming quality is his love for his father. Perhaps he will gain more of a moral compass and more humanity as the series goes on, but I don’t know if I have the patience. The Wish List, while dealing with children and teenagers in the shadowy world of petty crime in Ireland, seems to be a horse of a different color. While “Belch” the main antagonist, is a thug and a brute, Meg Finn, the protagonist, is appealing in much the same way as Lyra in His Dark Materials - feisty and rebellious but with her own inner sense of decency that comes out from the first scene onward, however much she tries to hide it.

At the beginning of the book Meg, Belch and Belch’s malevolent pit bull Raptor are breaking into the flat of a pensioner, Lowrie McCall, who catches them and is attacked by the dog. Meg begs Belch to call off Raptor, which he does, but while trying to escape all three are killed in an explosion. Belch, his personality merged with that of his dog, goes straight to hell, but Meg, presumably because she has not truly set out on the path of evil and also because of her compassion for the old man, finds herself evenly balanced between good and evil. She is sent back to help McCall, who only has a short time to live, fulfill his “wish list” of things he wants to do or set right before he dies, Belch is assigned by the “other side” to stop her, and the race for Meg’s soul is on.

Over the course of the novel, Meg and Lowrie, who start out in an antagonistic, mutually suspicious relationship of convenience, come to truly respect and even love each other as, through the quest to fulfill the wish list, they learn more about each other’s previous lives, vulnerabilities and regrets. I truly came to care about both characters and to cheer them on in their journey.

In addition, there are several other characters who, although they do not grow and change, either to the briefness of their appearance or their status as denizens of hell, are wonderfully and comically drawn. Examples of the latter are Beelzebub (“Don’t call me ‘Bub!”), portrayed as a resentful and nervous second-in-command to Satan; St. Peter, as suave and smug as any doorkeeper at a prestigious hotel; and Elph, a hologram created by a Japanese computer programmer (and yes, evidently Satan has the best technicians, as well as the best entertainers), to guide the incorrigibly stupid Belch/Raptor in his mission.

L'shalom -

Book Review: Phoenix and Ashes

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey ****

This is the third book in Ms. Lackey'’s “Elemental Masters" series, based on an intriguing premise according to which there are “mages" and "“masters"” in the world, each of whom is affiliated with one of the traditional four elements, air, water, earth and air. Another thing she is doing in this series is retelling fairy tales in a more emotionally "realistic" mode, but still with one foot in the land of fantasy.

This book is a reworking of Cinderella set in WWI-era Britain, with elemental masters "doing their bit" at home and at the front. The realism is particularly compelling when she details the feelings of Reginald Fenryx, Lord Devlin, who is the "prince"” of the story, about his experiences in the war, as well as the physical privation that the entire nation must endure. Some of the haunting images involve Reggie'’s reaction to photographs, where the dead stand with their arms about the living, smiling and laughing. Lackey truly seems to have captured the shattering experience of shell shock” and of seeing one'’s own generation cut down in its prime for what seems like no reason.

Obviously, I found the portrayal of the war and its effects to be the most powerful aspect of the book, but the characters of Eleanor Robinson, the "Cinderella” character, and her truly evil stepmother Alison are also well drawn, as is Sarah, the village "witch" who is also Eleanor'’s godmother and initiates her training in the art of elemental magic. Another ingenious and extremely well thought-out part of the book is the process of Eleanor'’s “advanced" training, as she encounters (and must defeat or win over) each figure in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck in her dreams before she can come into her full power.

In the end, as in all good fairy tales, Eleanor and Reggie must stand together and fight Alison and her minions, who “get their comeuppancein a horrible but emotionally satisfying way. Although since Eleanor is a modern young woman the book ends not with their wedding but with her happily ensconced at Oxford, an equal and emotionally fulfilling marriage is clearly in the cards.

Also recommended: The Gates of Sleep (Sleeping Beauty), set in the pre-Raphaelite era

L'shalom -


Welcome to my blog.

I've never done this kind of thing before so it could be interesting, or I could fall flat on my face and either be incredibly boring or just never post anything after the first few.

One of the things that I care a lot about is what's happening to this country under George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the latest revelations about spying on US citizens by the NSA, while they outrage me, do not surprise me. It just seems like one thing after another until it's almost impossible to either keep track or focus on any one that is more of an outrage than the others. I was raised as a Republican but left the party during the George H.W. Bush administration, and I can't support the Democrats until I see them show some backbone and "stay the course" - you should excuse the expression. With some honorable exceptions such as Howard Dean, Robert Byrd and now John Murtha, most of them either stay shivering in the corner or occasionally speak up before a thundering "Treason!" or "Coward!" from the administration's hacks sends them scuttling back into their holes.

I live with my cat, Shadow, whose picture will probably be posted before mine is, She is 8 years old, a little fatter than she should be because she loves "people food," especially grain products, for some bizarre reason, and her favorite hobby is sleeping, which she's doing right now.

One thing I can do right away, at least, is to post a couple of "reviews" of books I've read recently, and maybe a list of what's hopefully coming up in my reading list. I also saw the new theatrical release of Pride and Prejudice so will give my thoughts on that eventually.

L'shalom -