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Jewish Journal

Getting a read on summer

by Jonathan Kirsch

May 31, 2013 | 10:49 am

Poetry is a literary enterprise with enormous allure to the amateur, and yet it is an art form that one can study for a lifetime. And who is a better teacher than Robert Pinsky? The former poet laureate of the United States — and perhaps the most familiar face among working poets, thanks to his frequent television appearances — offers instruction and inspiration to his fellow poets in “Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters” (W.W. Norton, $25.95), an annotated anthology of poetry that ranges from Sappho to Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath. Each of the 80 poems is selected for the lesson that it can teach the working poet, a principle of selection that makes for a rich reading experience. The premise of his book owes something to Yeats: “And there’s no singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence.”  


Carol Jean Delmar is known to readers in Southern California for her distinguished work as a reporter on several local newspapers, but some very different times and places are explored in the pages of “Serenade: A Memoir of Music and Love From Vienna and Prague to Los Angeles, 1927 to World War II to 2012” (Willow Lane Press, $27.99). It is a nonfiction account of the author’s own parents, Franz Jung and Franziska Perger, and Delmar announces at the outset that it is “a symbolic serenade,” a tribute to the role that love and music played in their lives. Of course, the dire shadow of the Holocaust falls across the narrative, but it is ultimately a saga about the redemptive power of the arts: “[M]y passion for music had only grown out of your compassion for me,” Franz writes to Franziska during one of their heartbreaking separations. “I sing Schubert’s ‘Ständchen’ to you now, my darling.” Against every effort of history to eradicate these two gifted people, as Delmar shows us, their remarkable relationship sustained them until they finally reached a place of refuge.


One sign of the ubiquity of psychotherapy in American civilization is the fact that the so-called DSM — the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” a standard reference work published by the American Psychiatric Association and used in the health care industry for diagnosing mental illness — is no longer an arcane title. Indeed, as we discover in Gary Greenberg’s “The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry” (Penguin, $27.95), it has distorted the practice of psychotherapy in profound and disturbing ways that reflect the contending agendas of powerful players in the health care industry. “Psychiatrists,” writes Greenberg, “have yet to figure out what a mental illness is, or how to decide if a particular kind of suffering qualifies.” And yet, they know that they will not be paid for their services by the insurance companies unless a diagnosis falls into one of the pigeonholes of the DSM, a moving target that has recently been wholly rewritten. Greenberg, a practicing therapist and an acerbic critic of his profession, succeeds in showing how a dry technical manual is now ground zero in a certain kind of culture war.


More evidence of the special role that the DSM plays in pop culture can be found in “The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas,” a gag book that has been “potchkied together” by Jay Neugeboren, Michael B. Friedman and Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D. (Create Space, $10). The first-named author is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer, and the other two co-authors are mental-health professionals, but they all share a comic (and markedly Yiddish) sensibility about the DSM. Their book is intended to “enable readers to transform ordinary tsuris and mishegas — the glooms, blues, angsts, and general chazzerei of their lives, heretofore catalogued by the DSM — into transcendent and easy-to-understand categories.” Unlike the DSM, their goal is to offer what they laughingly call “treatment modalities” that offer the hope of learning “to live at peace with their inner mishegas, and to treasure its precious, absurd and life-giving looniness.”  


If you savor a real mystery of history, put down Dan Brown and pick up Margalit Fox’s “The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” (Ecco, $27.99), an account of the eccentric lady who set out to solve the riddle of the ancient alphabet known as Linear B. Working from clay tablets that were recovered from an archaeological site on the island of Crete, Alice Kober worked in humble isolation at her own kitchen table to penetrate an unknown language that had defeated other scholars. Fox’s compelling book is an intellectual mystery story that describes how a lost language can be recovered, but it is also a tribute to a dauntless woman who has been almost entirely eclipsed by the male scholar who relied on her unsung efforts to finally crack the code after her death. 


And on a final, more personal note: As an author and book editor of the Jewish Journal, I will be featured in conversation with Louise Steinman on the subject of my new book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright), at the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, on June 18. A book signing will follow the program. For free tickets and additional information, visit http://www.lfla.org/event-detail/859/A-Boy-Avenger-a-Nazi-Diplomat-and-a-Murder-in-Paris.

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