Four Books: Judt, Timmons, Reston and Englander (2 cents)

1. Of the four books I have recently read, Tony Judt’s collection of essays, “Reappraisals”, is the hardest to critique briefly. These essays were written over a period of twelve years, 1994-2006, and were published as a collection in 2008. Judt, British born and Jewish, taught modern European history at New York University, and passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. The essays in this collection, which Judt terms “reflections on the forgotten twentieth century”, are lengthy and challenging to read (many of them had previously appeared in the New York Review of Books), and are reflective of what I assume to be Judt’s primary interests (twentieth century – and often Jewish – European intellectuals, the continuing mistakes of Israeli policy makers, and various topics involving European or American politics).

In the first category, there are essays on familiar figures, such as Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt and Edward Said. But there are also articles on Leszek Kolakowski, Eric Hobsbaum, Manes Sperber and Louis Althusser, about whom, I must admit, I knew nothing at all. In the second category, there are vitriolic essays on the evils that have been wrought in Israel’s 1967 victory and failure to give up all of the conquered and occupied territories. In the last category, there are interesting articles on France, on Belgium, and on Romania, as well as on the Cold War, Henry Kissinger, and the collapse of American liberalism.

Clearly very bright, I can’t say that I would have liked to have sat next to Judt on a cross country flight. In these essays, he comes across as a very opinionated writer, seeing most things in black and white, and nothing in shades of gray. And I doubt that he was someone eager to change his mind, once he had reached a conclusion. This comes across most strongly when he speaks of Israel, but it also present in his discussion of his biographical subjects (and the others of the books that are the focus of some of these articles).

At a book sale, I recently saw a very nice copy of a later book, published after he death, also containing his essays. I could have bought it for $3, but I let it pass on by.

2. I had read Nathan Englander’ss short story (which also provides the title for his latest book of short stories), “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”, which I enjoyed reading. Over the past few days, I read the remaining stories in his collection, and found them to be rather uneven. A few, I don’t have much use for. There are a couple, however, that i enjoyed immensely. One of these “Sister Hills” tells the story of two women pioneering with their families a West Bank settlement which, over the years, becomes a large suburban community. When they had the only two houses on the two hills on which the settlement was located, one of them women had three children, and one only one very young daughter. The daughter was very ill, which her mother viewed as her own punishment being visited on her daughter. To enable her daughter to escape the evil eye, she “sold” her to her neighbor (sort of the way you sell your chametz at Passover). The girl recovered and life went on. Until, years later, under very changed circumstances, the validity of the “sale” was pursued. The other, “Camp Sundown”, takes place at summer camp for Jewish seniors, now chaperoned by a young rabbi in his first year at the camp, who is faced with a dilemma when an elderly married couple, obviously not quite right in the head (as they might say), decided that another camper, an elderly man, was in fact not an innocent Jewish senior, but rather an ex-Nazi concentration camp guard. And they insisted (to put it mildy) that the rabbi do something about it.

I recommend these two stories highly and, while you are at it, read the rest. You may find something that hits you more than it did me.

3. I recommend James Reston, Jr.’s, “Dogs of God”, published in 2005, for a number of reasons. First, because it is a well written and compelling read. And second, because it fills in some of the blanks (at least it did for me) in what I expect maybe your knowledge of the history of 15th century Spain and Portugal. You may know that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed for what turned out to be the New World under the flag of Spain. Reston tells the story of how this Italian born, but Portuguese oriented seaman, was able to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to finance and support his trip (and how until the last minute it appeared that this would never happen). You also may know that in 1492, the Jews of Spain were given two choices: convert to Catholicism, or leave the country. But how did this come about? Jews had been in Spain for over 1000 years – why did the final century turn out so tragic, and what were the events that predated the expulsion. And, as 30,000 of the Jews, fled to Portugal, why was their ability to practice their religion freely there so short lived? Thirdly, North African Muslims conquered Spain in the 8th century. As the Christians gained strength, the land was slowly “reconquered” from the Moos, so that by 1492 only the city of Grenada and surrounding countryside remained in Muslim hands. In that year, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the last Muslim kingdom in Spain. How did that occur? Why did it take so long? And what happened to the Muslims?
And, finally, by the way, who were Ferdinand and Isabella anyway? And how did they get together and unite Spain? There is a story here, too, that I was not familiar with.

A little something for everyone, I hope. I think you should read the book,

4. I picked up (why, I don’t know) a book called “Charles G. Dawes, Portrait of an American”, published in 1953 by one Bascom N. Timmons. I had never heard of Timmons, and vaguely knew that Dawes was Coolidge’s vice president. But no more.

It turns out that Dawes was quite something. Born in Ohio during the Civil War, he went to law school in Cincinnati, and then headed out to Lincoln, Nebraska (as did his life long friend and rival William Jennings Bryan),, a growing city with a promising future, to practice law. He was successful in his early years, and also made investments in various utility and railroad companies and eventually moved to Chicago when he was in his middle thirties and where he spent the rest of his life. He became very involved in Republican politics and became a staunch supporter of William McKinley, for whom he organized convention support, and then voters in Illinois and Ohio. He left his business interests in Chicago a number of times, to have a fascinating career in the federal government. He was the first Director of the Budget Bureau, he was the Comptroller of Currency, during World War I he was in charge of all American procurement for the military in Europe, working hand in hand with another lifetime friend, General John J. Pershing. After the war and Versailles, when Germany first defaulted on its reparations payments, he led an international commission whose goal it was to restructure European finance (it succeeded until the rise of Hitler intervened, and for this work he won a Nobel Peace Prize), he was Vice President (and an active one at that) from 1924 to 1928, and subsequently was named by President Hoover as the United States Ambassador to Great Britain. And, in the midst of all of this and his continuing business interests, he also took time to re-design the financial structure of the Dominican Republic, to raise the funds for Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition, to lead a “good government” campaign to root out corruption in Illinois politics, and, with one of his brothers, to establish a group of “hotels” for homeless men across the country.

Quite a career, you have to admit. And Timmons has written quite a book, laying out Dawes career in such a readable manner.

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