1. Neighbors by Jan Gross. This book, about the Holocaust in the Polish village of Jedwabne, was a National Book Award finalist, but appears to be somewhat controversial. Written by a Polish born New York University European Studies professor, it analyzes what happened in the village of Jedwabne, which before the German invasion was approximately 50% Catholic and 50% Jewish, and after the war was 100% Catholic.
Virtually the entire Jewish population, about 1600 people, were murdered during World War II. The question is: who killed them?
Jews and Catholics had lived in Jedwabne for some time, and by and large had relatively good relationships with each other. The Polish message to themselves (and to the world) is that, between 1939 and 1945, 3,000,000 Polish Jews died at the hands of the German Nazi invaders. That the Poles, to the extent that they were involved, were forced to do what they did by the German occupiers.
Gross’ thesis is that this is simply not true. And particularly that it is not true in Jedwabne, where the murders appear to have been carried out by the Poles of the village (of course, not by all, but by a very large number of them, with no apparent opposition), without specific coercion from the Germans and often without any German presence.
Did Gross enhance the facts to reach his conclusion? That seems to be a question, particularly in the mind of many Poles who have protested both the book and the award consideration.
And assume that Gross is correct about this one village. Does that mean the same could be reached at the thousand or more other villages where Jews were killed?
With all the books that have been written and the studies that have been undertaken, there is still so much more to learn.
2. The Franklin Affair by Jim Lehrer. I had looked at another Lehrer novel (I don’t remember which) some time ago, and didn’t care for it. I am not quite sure why I opened this one. It wasn’t bad, I’m happy to say, although it certainly is not the great American novel. The book is indirectly about Ben Franklin and his compatriots, and more directly about contemporary university scholars, particularly those who are Franklin experts and fixated on every action he ever took. It’s also about university politics, and about plaguerism. And its written well enough that it carries you right along, although at the end of it, I wondered whether there was enough there to make it a worthwhile read.
3. The Long War for Freedom by Barry Rubin. This book, published in 2006, is subtitled “The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East”, but is really a book that describes, in 11 distinct chapters, why the Arabs continue to fail to come close to anything even approaching democracy. Islamists and totalitarian dictators, enemies of each other in most respects, they support each other because it keeps Western thinking democrats at arms’ length. The Israeli problem as an excuse for democratic achievement. Keeping women out of political life as another way to avoid democracy. On and on. What did I learn from this book? Only that Barry Rubin and I tend to agree with each other. That and a dime (or rather $1.60) will get you a cup of coffee.
One point Rubin made bears repeating, I think, as it is not something that I had thought about before – that the one trait the Arabs seem to be totally without is the ability to self-analyze and self-criticize. How true.
4. Facing the Lion. This is a fascinating book, written by a young Masai man, who through hard work and a little luck found himself in the United States for university study and then as a teacher in a Washington DC area high school. Now, he has returned to Kenya, where he is a member of Parliament.
The book was written for highschool students (actually, grades 5-12), but I think it is equally appropriate for an adult. The account of life in a Masai village (actually not a village, but life with a nomadic Masai tribe) in Northern Kenya is absolutely fascinating. The contrast between that life, and the life author Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton found at an English language board school, is hard to contemplate. Then to move from there to a small college in upstate New York, and then to life in Washington DC required even greater adaptation.
Clearly, Lekuton was able to master all of this, and then to decide to return home and go into public service. If you can find a copy of this book, you should read it.