When it’s over 100 degrees outside, it is time to avoid too much running around, and to stick to the books. I have read some interesting ones lately.
1. Some years ago, I read an extremely interesting book, “Constantine’s Sword”, by James Carroll, telling the story of the relationship between the Catholic church and the Jews. I’d recommend it to anyone a required reading…..In 1996 (I believe), Carroll, who has written many books, won the National Book Award for non-fiction for his memoir, “An American Requiem”. Again, required reading.
In loose terms, Carroll tells the life story of his father (and one that is as interesting as it gets), the story of his relationship with his father (not good, but understandable under the circumstances), the story of his growth as a person, and – incidentally – much of the story of the United States and the rest of the world between 1950 and 1975. All in under 300 pages.
Carroll’s parents were Irish Catholics from Chicago, devoted to the church and each other. His father, originally planning to become a priest, was diverted when he met his future wife, and instead became a lawyer and an FBI agent in Chicago, where his main job was tracking down World War II draft dodgers. After taking a major role in the capture of Chicago gangster Roger Touhy, he was transferred to Washington where he worked closely with J. Edgar Hoover, eventually growing into the head of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division. Then, when the Air Force separated from the Army, there was a question as to which branch of service would be in charge of intelligence regarding dangers to the American nuclear program; Hoover detailed Carroll to the Air Force for six months, but the Air Force (with his help) was selected for the task, and Carroll was put in charge and commissioned as a Brigadier General. He stayed in the Air Force and eventually, upon the creation of the Defense Intelligence Agency, became its first director.
This put Joe Carroll right in the middle of American defense and war policy, working closely with Robert McNamara when he was Secretary of Defense and when the American commitment to defeating the Vietcong was growing exponentially.
In the meantime, James Carroll, following his father’s footsteps, was training to be a priest and was ordained as a priest, having as his first pastoral job being the Newman head at Boston University, where he became heavily involved in the Catholic anti-war left, putting him totally at odds with the father that he so admired and who refused to speak with him at all about the security information he was privileged to as a result of his governmental positions.
After five years, Carroll left the priesthood, to the disappointment of his father, and the even stronger disappointment of his very religious mother, became a writer and, several years later, married and had a family. His relationship with his family did not improve.
After Carroll’s father died in 1991, Jim Carroll still had a lot to work out, and he obviously spent a lot of time researching American history during his father’s high level career, and his father’s role in that history. In doing so, he learned many things that his father refused to discuss openly with him. This includes the FBI’s campaign against Martin Luther King, the role of the Catholic church (and especially Cardinal Spellman) in setting the stage for the Vietnam War, and much more.
I have not done justice to this book in describing all that’s in it – it is highly recommended.
2. In 1948, even while the first Arab-Israeli war was raging, shortly after the new State of Israel had declared its independence, the Israeli began an airlift of Yemenite Jews to Israel. Against the opposition of the Arab countries and Britain, but with the agreement of the sultan of Yemen, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Yemenite Jews walked from their villages to the port of Aden (under the auspices of international non-profits) and were flown to Israel. The flights, on unmarked planes belonging to various charter, non-scheduled airlines, with the planes stripped of their normal fittings to enable up to 150 passengers to be carried by a vehicle that normally carried less than half that, went on for months.
One of the flight engineers was an American, Edward Martin, who wrote a 64 page pamphlet for the Herzl Press entitled “I Flew Them Home”, outlining how the airlift worked from a pilot’s perspective. Working for Trans-Caribbean Airlines (owned by O. Roy Chalk), he was a member of a three man crew who flew the route for two months, flying from Lydda, Israel, across the Negev, over Eilat, down the Gulf of Aqaba, over the Red Sea to Aden, and back (an eight hour flight each way), always in danger of finding itself off-course over unfriendly territory at great risk. The description of the Yemenites themselves, their emaciation, their dress, their jewelry, and their learning to use modern toilets and wear trousers. An interesting and hard to find pamphlet. Recommended.
3. I have seen a lot of Shakespeare, of course, but had never read much about his life, only hearing (and usually not remembering) a tidbit here and there. So, I attacked Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World”, a somewhat odd biography which combines both what is known about Shakespeare’s life, with additions that come not from direct biographical information, but rather from his plays themselves. Sort of: he wrote about this subject in six plays; therefore, he must have come upon it during his life; and the most likely time and place would have been……..”
I am not sure that this is a very successful technique, and I had to take much of what he said with many grains of salt. But the book is nevertheless interesting and well written, and does give you basics of his life story (to the extent they are known), along with glimpses into life in Elizabethan England. Here are some quotes in this regard:
(1) “Normally, a wedding ceremony could take place only after the banns – the formal declaration of an intent to marry – had been publicly proclaimedd on three successive Sundays in the local parish church.”
(2) “the mean age upon marriage for males in Stratford in 1600…was twenty eight. And it was unusual for a man to marry a woman so much his senior; women in this period were on average two years younger than their husbands. The exceptions were generally among the upper classes, where marriages were in effect property transactions…….”
(3)”London was a city of newcomers, flooded every year with fresh arrivals from the country, mostly men and women in their late teens and early twenties drawn by the promise of work…….For many their destiny was an early death: rat-infested, overcrowded, polluted, prone to fire and on occasion to riot, London was a startlingly unsafe and unhealthy place.”
(4) “But one sight in particular would certainly have arrested Shakespeare’s attention; it was a major tourist attraction, always pointed out to new arrivals. Stuck on poles on the Great Stone Gate, two arches from the Southwark side, were severed heads, some completely reduced to skulls, others parboiled and tanned, still identifiable.”
(5) “Shakespeare’s imagination was excited as well by the less innocuous amusements of the suburbs. Henry VIII bequeathed to his royal children a love of seeing bulls and bears “baited”, that is, penned up in a ring or chained to a stake and set upon by fierce dogs.”
(6) “As a person with deep roots in country life, Shakespeare would have heard of and perhaps directly known cases where sick cattle or damaged crops or children dying of lingering illnesses were blamed upon the ….poor, ugly, defenseless old woman in the hovel at the end of the lane.”
In addition to snippets about Elizabethan life, Greenblatt puts Shakespeare in context with the religious battles of the time, and their effect on English royalty – the Catholic/Protestant disputes, and, particularly in connection with “The Merchant of Venice”, the various legends and beliefs about Jews, who had not lived in England for almost 300 years.
Recommended, but with caveats.
4. Finally, I read a book that probably has not had much readership, “Vixi” by Richard Pipes. When I was a Russian History college major, Pipes was teaching at Harvard and, although I did not take any classes from him (he was away much of this time, I believe), he was one of the readers of my thesis, and he praised it and thought I should consider continue working on it for publication (something I did not do, largely because I was not able to do research in Yiddish, a language needed to give the subject matter full consideration). Therefore, I have always had a warm feeling for him. (Not so much for his ultra-right wing son Daniel, whose writings on the middle east are unnecessarily harsh, in my opinion.)
His memoir is subtitled “Memoirs of a Non-Belonger”, and he views himself as typically been correct in his thinking, but almost never a member of the majority in his thinking. This is a feeling I can identify with.
Pipes was born in Poland to an assimilated Jewish family (he said that about 10% of Polish Jews were assimilated, and that he believed he had more in common with intellectual Polish Catholics than shtetl Jews), and was 16 when he and his family were able to escape Nazi controlled Europe through Italy, and wind up in the United States. A bright
young man, he learned Russian in the U.S. army, and attended Harvard, where he eventually taught Russian History. His politics were always anti-Soviet, believing the worst intentions on behalf of the Russians (this attitude also existed with regard to Israeli-Palestinian issues, and has been inherited by his son, Daniel), and he brought this belief into his years in government (where he worked for the NSC in the Reagan years), where he was one of Reagan’s most conservative advisors. In his governmental work, as somewhat in his academic work, he was again often an outsider, whose relationships with others with whom he was working were
not always the best. At Harvard, which he considered the greatest educational institution in the world when he first joined its faculty, he believed that the 1960s (and the years following) were a disaster, changing the quality of American academics for the worse and on a long term basis.
Pipes does not come across as a pleasant guy, who strives to get along with everyone. But he comes across as a very honest fellow, determined to pursue those paths he deems correct, often at a cost to himself, and rarely as “one of the guys”.
Do I recommend the book? Maybe, but probably not for the general public.