1. The Events at Politics and Prose. It is a treat to live three blocks from perhaps the most active independent book store in the country, in part because it is one of the stores where every book looks like the one you want to read next, in part because you always see someone you know there, and in part because of their nightly author presentations/signings. This past week, we went to two author presentations.
The first was by Steven Johnson, author of the new book The Invention of Air, a short (but obviously packed) biography of Joseph Priestly. Priestly didn’t actually invent air (or, more specifically, he didn’t invent oxygen), but he did discover the plants let off oxygen (by putting a plant in a closed container with a candle, lighting the candle with prismatic sunlight, having the candle go out when the oxygen was depleted, waiting, and relighting the candle to discover that now, once again, there was oxygen in the container), he did “invent” carbonated water (while doing some water experiments atop a beer vat which let off gas), he did write a 700 page book about electricity (where he first told the story of Ben Franklin and his kite), and more. He was also one of the founders of the Unitarian Church, and a supporter of both the French and American revolutions. He and Franklin were great friends, he was a mentor to Thomas Jefferson, he was hounded out of England because of his views and emigrated to America, where he tried unsuccessfully to found a utopian community in rural Pennsylvania, and wound up caught in the chaos of John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts. A fascinating story of a fascinating man.
The second presentation was by Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and current Brookings Institution scholar whose new book Innocent Abroad tells of his years as an advisor to Bill Clinton and ambassador, when peace in the Middle East seemed both close and possible. Indyk’s retelling of the chronology was interesting; he believes that peace could have come into being, but for certain specific events that three things off kilter, the most important being the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, but also the death of Syrian president Assad, the last minute hesitancy of Yassir Arafat, the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, and of course the election of George W. Bush. Indyk thinks that there were eight lessons learned. Most important perhaps is that the Middle East will not be made over to be more like the United States. Also, that in the Middle East, the focus is on survival, not change. That things take a long time there. That lack of American involvement is fatal. That is everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else.
The questions from the audience showed a lot of frustration and depression. Indyk said that you cannot give in to the frustration because the alternative is much worse. He thinks that peace is still possible, and when asked “do you think there really is light at the end of the tunnel?”, he said “That is not the right question. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is that we haven’t located the tunnel.”
The Restaurants. The new year has started off for me as a slow restaurant year. I had supper one night at the restaurant at the DCJCC, where the food is presentable, but you wouldn’t choose it for gourmet dining. I’d give the carrot soup a C+ and the tilapia a B-. And yesterday, I had lunch at the Iron Gate Inn with a friend. A little too pricey for a regular lunch place, but the salmon gets an A, as does the coffee.
The Books. Perhaps, because it is winter and roaming around is discouraged, there is a little more time to read. After I finished the two Christopher Isherwood books, I picked up Manischewitz: the Matzo Family by Laura Manischewitz Alpern. It is exactly what the title says, a book that chronicles the founder of the company and his wife, from their early life in Lithuania, to their initial struggles and success in Cincinnati and their ultimate move to New York and New Jersey. Now, one of the Manischewitz’s is married to my wife’s first cousin (does that make him my cousin?); he is the brother of the author. So, my interest in the book was more personal than it otherwise would have been. I enjoyed the book, my cousin (?) Jack’s great grandfather came across like someone I am happy I never had to deal with, but the family seemed to settle down as time went on. We already have a dinner date in a couple of weeks, and I have a long list (mental) of questions. The book itself is very readable, and only about 200 pages long. It is also very interesting. One caveat, though (and this is the basis of some of my questions): it is clearly, as to the early years, a somewhat fictionalized biography, extrapolated from the few known facts. Thus it is hard to tell how much is truth, and how much is fiction (but perhaps this is case with any book).
After I finished this short book, I went to another, Kristallnacht by Martin Gilbert. Gilbert is one of those “I don’t understand how he does it” authors, who has written over 80 books (he is 72 years old), mainly books on twentieth century history, including biographies of English and Jewish figures, histories of the Second World War, and countless books on Jewish historical topics. Kristallnacht was published just last year. Again, a relatively short book, about that fateful November night in 1938 when the Nazis ordered synagogues burned, Jewish businesses torched, and the initial massive arrests of Jewish men in Germany and in recently annexed Austria. It is based on written sources, to be sure, but also on countless interviews with survivors.
Gilbert tells the story of the early Nazi years, the increasing pressure, the murder of the German official in Paris by a young Jewish man, the retributive Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Crystal), its effect on Jews living through Germany and Austria (mostly the stories of now living survivors, who were young children or teenagers at the time), the changes in their lives, the Gestapo raids, the arrests and tortures (even before the 1942 “Final Solution”), the attempts (often successful) to get families or children (through Kindertransports) out of Germany and Austria, the people who helped and those who hindered, and the shameful decisions by most other countries to refuse entry of immigrants, even when Germany was still granting exit visas. Although you do get a bit bogged down in the many eyewitness accounts of what happened on November 7, 1938, the book would be an excellent choice for someone who wants to learn about Kristallnacht and its aftermath.
The Exhibits. Not much to say here, I am afraid. The only museum that I have been in over the past two weeks is the National Geographic Society, which has a fairly large presentation of whales, from massive skeletons, to South Pacific Island mythology, to uses to which whales have been put over time. The concentration is on the South Pacific, so you don’t see anything about Nantucket or Japanese whaling. I went through the exhibit rather quickly. I did not stop to see any of the many videos that are constantly being shown. Like many NGS exhibits, this is a kid-friendly exhibit that adults can enjoy and learn from.
The Caps. I did get to two Caps games, January 1 and January 3. Both victories, bringing their home streak to 26 wins out of the last 28 games and, I think, four and five in a row. But, lo, last night (we weren’t there), they lost.