More Book Quickies

Having just written part of this post and watching it disappear without reason, I am perturbed and unwilling to start from scratch – so I will abbreviate the listing of the books I have read over the past month –

  1.  “117 Days – An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law” by Ruth First (1963), anti-apartheid activist.  Worth reading.
  2.  “Married to a Bedouin” by Marguerite van Geldermalsen (2006), a New Zealander married to a man from Petra, the book recounting their lives from 1978 to 1985, a time when Petra’s Arab population were still living in the caves looking over the city, before they were relocated to close-by towns.  Very worth while reading.
  3. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin (2014), a pleasant, harmless novel about a bookseller in a small community on a Massachusetts island, who finds a toddler in his store, with a note from her mother (who later that day commits suicide) and decides to keep her.  Easy reading.
  4. “The Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi” by Edward Cohen (1999), the story of a young man’s life  in Jackson MS.  Everyone has a story, and this one is no more interesting than most.  Probably not worth your time.
  5. “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000).  I have decided to read a lot of Roth this year – this is the second after “Letting Go”.  The story of a “Jewish” professor who isn’t really Jewish at a New England college who gets in trouble by making a “racist” remark that really wasn’t racist.  The book is a bit too long, perhaps, but contains a sampling of Roth’s fine writing and has a intriguing story line.  I previously have seen the film made from this book, and can only say that the character Faunia in the book sure didn’t remind me of Nicole Kidman.  Worth reading.
  6. “Everyman” by Philip Roth (2006).  One of his shorter books, the story of a New Jersey jeweler that starts with his funeral and reaches back through the various mistakes of his life.  I really liked this one, although there were a few scenes I could have done without, and especially liked the structure.  I think the structure of a novel is one of Roth’s special gifts.  Definitely worth reading.
  7. “The Ghost Writer” by Philip Roth (1979).  The first of the nine Zuckerman books, this one introducing the young writer/alter ego, who is invited by well known Jewish writer E.I. Lonoff, to spend some time with him and his wife at his secluded home in the Massachusetts Berkshires, finding that idols are not always ideal. Very worth reading.
  8. “The Director” by David Ignatius (2014), a contemporary thriller about the CIA and related American intelligence agencies that turns out not to be too thrilling, in part because it was for me too complicated.  Too many agencies, too many players doing too many things.  And a very complicated rationale for all the havoc which was created.  I’d skip this one, if I were you.  (But maybe you’d feel differently?)

Even More Brief Book Reviews

Since the last posting, I have read:

  1.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of Seven Gables”, this one a re-read from years ago.  Parts of it seemed a little stiff this time, but the good parts are worth the slow parts.  An evocative picture of a New England town in the 1850s, with flashbacks that go more than 150 years into the past of the Pyncheon family.  Ah, the Pyncheons, down on their luck, their fortune dissipated.  Who remains?  Gloomy old maid Hepzibah, her ailing brother Clifford just released from prison, their young, sprightly and innocent cousin Phoebe, visiting from the country, and cousin Jaffrey, the “Judge” and only successful member of the family.  They suffer from a curse (perhaps), and live out their lives in fear or a repetition of evil doings, and of course their fears come true, but with a surprisingly happy ending.
  2. Celia Sandys’ “Churchill: Wanted Dead or Alive”, the story of Sir Winston’s time in South Africa during the Boer War, including his prison capture and somewhat amazing escape.  Charisma and guts win out.  Sandys, of course, is Churchill’s granddaughter.  Her prose is not the best (also not the worst), but the insight that she obtained talking to the children and grandchildren of so many of those who interacted with Churchill in South Africa adds an extraordinary dimension to the story.
  3. Anita Shreve’s “The Weight of Water”, a novel which takes an historical event (the murder of two women on barren islands off the coast of Maine in the 19th century, and interposes a contemporary story of a photographer with an assignment to photograph the island for an article on the murder.  I have seen the film, which I enjoyed, and found the book to be at least as good, but (to my memory) not quite the same.  The photographer travels with her husband, her husband’s brother, her husband’s brother’s current girl friend, and the photographer’s young teenage daughter.  But in the film…..where was the daughter?  Did I just forget her?  (I don’t think so.)
  4. Philip Roth’s “Letting Go”, his second book after “Goodbye, Columbus” and first full length (and then some) novel.  Not quite a coming of age story (his protagonists are in their late 20s and full members of society), but yet still a coming of age story.  Two college instructors at the University of Chicago, both Jewish, one from the mid-west, married to a young woman who converted to Judaism, and the other, a a New Yorker, unmarried, with a strange relationship to his widowed dentist father, and a series of involvements with strange, strange women.  Doesn’t sound promising?  In fact, I found it very appealing.  To my surprise.
  5. “Egypt: the Elusive Arab Spring” by Wafik Moustafa, an Egyptian-born British doctor who still gets involved in Egyptian politics.  A liberal who has not lost hope, but who provides a very readable and credible explanation of 20th century Egypt, King Farouk, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, the Moslem Brotherhood, the British, Israel, and all the rest.  The book is hard to find, published by a small British Press (Gilgamesh), not published here.
  6. Richard Cote’s “Theodosia: Theodosia Burr Alston – Portrait of a Prodigy”, supposedly the story of Aaron Burr’s daughter, carefully taught by her father as if “she was a boy”, who married a southern planter, had a child who died young, was ill most of her adult life, and was lost at sea, still in her 30s, off the American coast during a storm.  But the book is as much a biography of Burr himself, the Burr who was Washington’s aide, Jefferson’s vice president and creator of a conspiracy to take the Louisiana Purchase and more out of the United States.  What a strange life was his; was a sad one was hers.
  7.  “An Interesting Career: the Life and Work of Luther Giddings (1823-1884), this one by one of my college roommates, John Eric Fredland, and published privately in Annapolis.  Farmer, lawyer, soldier and more – all before he died at 60.  Very influential in Annapolis.  And as an extra in this short book, Eric gives quite a bit of information as to Maryland politics in the 1850s.  Who knew?

The Pleasure of Reading Interesting Memoirs

I have been lucky in stumbling (and I do mean stumbling) on a number of memoirs over the past few years, each of which has been written by a talented writer who has lived an interesting life.  The most recent is Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk’s “Life on Sandpaper”, which I recommend very highly.

This is not a well known book.  It was published in Hebrew in 2003, and then in English translation in 2011, as a soft cover book (not issued in English in hard cover) but apparently not widely circulated. And I am not sure why.

Kaniuk was born in Palestine in 1930 and died in Israel in 2013.  He has been widely read in Israel.  He fought as a 17 year old in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, where he was injured.  He then went to Paris to study art (he started his professional life as a painter), but soon left Paris and came to the United States, where he lived for about a decade, mostly in New York.  During this time, he gave up painting, and decided he was going to be a writer.  From looking on-line at some of his paintings, I think he probably made a good choice.

There are two things about this book.  One is that it is written with extraordinary style and humor (does this mean that some of what he says has been changed to create a better story – perhaps, but who cares?).  The other is that Kaniuk was one of those Zelig-like figures who, without really trying, seemed to know and befriend (and be befriended by) everyone (and I mean every one).

“Life on Sandpaper” covers his time in the United States, basically (although he does not give a lot of specific dates) from 1949-1960, or to put it another way, primarily during the 1950s.  Through virtually all of this time, he lived in New York, and when in New York he lived in or around Greenwich Village.  This was Greenwich Village before it became an upscale neighborhood, when it was the home of New York’s large bohemian, literary, musical, and artistic community.

And Kaniuk became a part of the inner circle of both New York City artists and New York City musicians, mainly jazz musicians.  He became a very close friend of Charlie Parker, for example, and Billie Holiday.  And all the others.  And he was with them in good times and in bad times.  So, if you are interested in the New York jazz scene of the 50s, this is your book.  Similarly, he was a part of the inner circle of every well known painter working in New York in the 1950s, and retells incident after incident involving them.

Then, of course, there were his impoverished Israeli friends, all in their 20s and trying to figure things out, including those with whom he opened Greenwich Village’s first basement falafel shop with a loan from a man who turned out to be a Chicago gangster.  (“We invited Pete Seeger from the Weavers who played and sang.  Harry Belafonte sang.  Hordes of Israelis hungry for hummus, tahini and falafel came, they brought the Tel Aviv Falafel King, who was visiting America and they waited to to hear what he’d say and he pronounced it good.”)

After going through a large number of young women in New York City, it was at the falafel shop that he met Miranda Baker, a Christian women ten years younger than he (which meant at the time she was 17), tall, thin and elegant, and the daughter of a family which held a place in the most ethereal rungs of American society.  And how he convinced her family that it was OK that their daughter was marrying a failed Israeli painter/future writer/current falafel shop owner/ Jewish atheist even though she was only 17 (or 18 when the date of the wedding was set).  Now you know that such a marriage wouldn’t last right?  Well, it did – it lasted until Kaniuk’s death in 2013, and it lasted not in New York, but in Israel, where the young couple at the first daughter (they had two) moved in 1960.  (After their first daughter was born, Kaniuk and his in-laws went out for a drink:  “Then Miranda’s father, the new grandfather, asked me what we were going to call her.  I said Chamoutal.  Her mother asked if I’d consulted my wife.  I said I told her.  She asked me to repeat the name and I did: Chamoutal.  They had another couple of J&Bs without water or ice and began to try to pronounce their first granddaughter’s name.  The new grandfather said, Jamoutal?  And his wife said, no, Bobby, not Jamoutal, Camoutal.  And he, Gamoutal? She tried very hard, Amoutal? I tried again Cha-mou-tal. They said it was a lovely name, Jamoutach, and said it again, Jamoutal, they tried, their mouths open, their lips searching for the correct angle.  I looked at them in despair and said, Aya.”)

The difference between living in New York and Tel Aviv struck Kaniuk after he, Miranda and Aya went back to Israel. (“In the evening a friend who had visited us in New York took us to Cafe California on Frishman Street.  There were all kinds of artists and poets there, it was noisy, there was cigarette smoke, shouting, a huge table to the right, and there were people there who remembered and shouted Shalom, and a man I didn’t know got up, smiled at me and saidhe was Yossl Bergner. I knew the name, he was a goo painter and he asked if I was Yoram Kaniuk and I said yes, and he said in Yiddish accented English: I’ve read your book.  In English.  A very bad book.  I looked at him for a long moment and understood that I had come home.”)  So the book ends.

Find it and read it.

The book is 400+ pages long, but has no chapters; it is one narrative, and sometimes the paragraphs stretch over pages and pages.  Normally, this would make something difficult and frustrating to read, but not here.  It flows, and flows and flows.

An example:

 

 

“Black Earth” by Timothy Snyder – a Brilliant Book

A year or so ago, I read Yale Professor Timothy Snyder’s masterful history of World War II in Central Europe, primarily land that belonged to the Russian empire prior to the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, and then which was divided into newly created republics, either independent such as Poland or Soviet Socialist Republics, such as Belarus and Lithuania.  Much of this land was occupied first by Germans, then by the Soviets, then again by the Germans, and finally (directly or indirectly) again by the Soviets.  And through these twists and turns during the course of a vicious war, millions were murdered, especially Jews, not only in concentration camps but in the villages and cities in which they lived, and the nearly farms, forests and fields.

Would I classify “Bloodlands” as creating a new history of these tragic years.  Perhaps not, but it certainly provided a widened view of what the residents of this region faced during the six years of the war.

Now, I have just finished Snyder’s newest book, “Black Earth”, subtitled “The Holocaust as History and Warning”.  It’s a brilliant book.

I have read a number of reviews, and the reviewers don’t seem to know what to make of it.  They can’t decide if Snyder has presented a careful analysis of World War II and the Holocaust, or if he has described a real event in unreal terms.  This is because, of all of the thousands of Holocaust books which have been published, this one might be the best example of thinking “outside the box” about what happened.

Frankly, I don’t know if Snyder’s analysis is spot on, if it is pretty close to the truth, or if it is not sufficiently centered.  In fact, I don’t really care.  He brings up so many issues, and caused me to think about so many things that I have never thought about regarding these tragic years, that whether or not his conclusions are or are not accurate become, for me, secondary.

When people have asked me to tell them what Snyder says, I have demurred. I tell them they have to read the book themselves.  There is so much there that any summary I would attempt to give would be inaccurate.  This is both because it would necessarily be incomplete, and because my own accuracy would be compromised in the retelling.

But let’s see if I can give you some ideas of what this book is all about.

First, there is the concept of what is a “state”.  Poland between the wars is, to Snyder, a state – a state within certain boundaries whose majority might be ethnic Poles, but which also included Jews and Germans and Ukrainians, all of whom were considered to be citizens of the Polish republic.  Nazi Germany, on the other hand, was not a state – its boundaries were subject to shifts and expansions (with plans to expand even further), and its non-German citizens were second class citizens at best, and eventually non-citizens.

This is because Hitler, he says, did not believe in the concept of the “state” as we think about it; he believed in the concept of “race”, and he looked at human history as the story of the conflict between races – the Germanic, the Slavic, the Anglo-Saxon, and so forth.  His belief in the superiority of the German race led him to have no problem in waging war against, for example, the Slavs, whose lands he thought would eventually serve as the breadbasket for the Germans (an expanding German population would be unable to feed itself locally), and whose people would be subservient.

And, as to all of these competing races, the worst were the Jews.  Why?  Not because of any theological position, to be sure, but because the Jews were not conquerable as were the Slavs, for example.  You want to beat the Slavic race, you invade the Slavic countries.  But the Jews were everywhere.  You could not engage the Jews in battle, because they were abnormal; they had no army, no state structure.  Worse than that, the Jews were believers in everything cosmopolitan – Jews and Germans should live together, Jews and Slavs, Jews and Frenchmen.  The Jews believed in political states of various kinds, and each of these states would include not one race, but multiple races, always including the Jews themselves.  And as teachers and philosophers, the Jews created the concept of the cosmopolitan political state, as opposed to the primacy of the race.  And, because of their education and cosmopolitan thinking, the Jews over-influenced the culture of each place where they lived.

OK, now let’s go on.  Hitler’s German race was going to conquer the Slavic race, and to do this, it had to get rid of the Jews.  Hitler also had to trick the Slavs to make victory over them easier.  Hence, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which allowed the Germans to take over the western part of eastern Europe and the Soviets to move into the eastern part.  But, from Hitler’s perspective, there was a distinction.  The German invasion was to be permanent while the Soviet occupation was to be temporary – very temporary.  Thus, in places like Poland, Lithuania and so forth, where the Soviets moved in, the Germans a year or so later kicked them out, only to be kicked out in a few more years by the victorious Soviets moving west.  Snyder calls these areas “double-occupied” – he has harsh thinks to say about both occupying powers (see “Bloodlands”, where he came under some criticism for seeming to equate in some respects German and Soviet occupation), but he also talks about how it literally drove the residents crazy.  Take Lithuania. For the non-Jew, the Soviet occupation was worse – it turned society upside down, and they looked with relief at the reoccupation by the Nazis.  But during the brief Soviet period, a number of things happened.  Jews were treated well by the Soviets (except of course those who, along with non-Jews, had been involved in capitalist activities) and some of the Soviet occupying authorities were themselves Jewish.  And many Lithuanians, Jewish and not, collaborated with the Soviets, for what else could you do?

But then the Germans came in and pushed the Soviets out.  Everyone knew the German position regarding Jews – including (as could now be corroborated to some extent by some limited experience) that the Jews were in cahoots with the Bolsheviks, and the concept of Judeobolshevism was born.  In Lithuania, the Soviets were the enemy and, by this theory, so were the Jews.  And if you were a non-Jewish Lithuanian who had abided, or perhaps even cooperated with, the Soviet occupation, how can you prove to the incoming Germans that you are an anti-Soviet patriot?  You go after, and kill, the Jews – what better proof could you give the Germans.  And this in a Lithuania which had no history of pogroms, and which was even a center of Jewish immigration between the wars.

The same dynamics more or less are followed in all of the countries which Germany occupied.  But only more or less.  Poland was another example – the Polish republic too, between the wars, was tolerant of its large Jewish population.  During the Pilsudski years, antisemitism was frowned upon, and after Pilsudski’s death, although antisemitism grew, there was no movement to ghettoize or destroy Jewish communities.  What there was, in fact, was a feeling that Poland would be better off if some (most? all?) of its Jewish population moved elsewhere.  After some thinking that Madagascar would be a good “elsewhere”, the Polish authorities began to think that only Palestine would be an appropriate place.  In this of course, they had strong allies – the large Polish Zionist movement.  And Snyder talks a lot about the relationship between Jabotinsky and the other right wing Zionist leaders, and Polish officials.  The government supported the Zionist efforts through official activities not only in Poland but in Palestine, and supported financially the various training facilities for the Betar movement in Poland (which trained young Zionists).  But of course, none of this outlasted the German/Russian invasions (and in the east of Poland, the Russian/German/Russian invasions).

The key to much of this, in Snyder’s view, was the German destruction of the “state” – destruction of the governments of many of the places it invaded and occupied.  For example, when the Germans invaded Poland, they didn’t invade the Polish republic.  For them, the republic (which of course was set up after World War I) was never legitimate.  The minute the Germans invaded Poland, the only government (to the extent it was a government) was that which was set up by German invaders.  Poland itself never existed.  (And Snyder reports that the invading Germans did not at first specially target the Jews; they targeted the Polish opposition – the Jews came later.  Similarly, when it was time for the Russians to move into Poland, they first murdered tens of thousands of Poles living in Russian borderlands, so that they would not oppose the movement of Soviet troops.  The Poles did not have it easy, either.)

The story was similar in the Balkans – and of course in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, taking over by the Germans early in 1939.  (The Sudetenland, by the way, was to Snyder a pure German construct – it was not a geographic location earlier and the concept that it was in effect occupied German territory was a myth.  The Sudetenland was filled with non-Germans.  What it did have was a significant amount of heavy industry and a defensible frontier – all important to the spread of the German race.)

Where the state withered (not only to the east, but to the west as in France), the Jews became stateless – they had no defenders.  Where states continued to exist, the Jews fared much better (that does not mean they fared well, but better).

Snyder also focuses on economic issues.  For instance, food was scarce both in Germany and occupied territories throughout the war.  Why share it with these Judeobolsheviks?  Housing became scarcer as the war continued – he says that part of the reasons that Jews were moved to ghettos was to open up their housing and their possessions to the non-Jews.  Certainly, once this was done, the non-Jews were not looking forward to a period of time when the war would be over and the Jews could return to their homes. Yes, says Snyder, a lot of what took place regarding the Jews in eastern Europe involved scarcity….and thievery.

Snyder also speaks about Germany itself – how most of the German Jews left the country and how in some respects the remaining Jews were treated better than in neighboring Poland, for instance.  There were no death camps in Germany – when German Jews were finally sent to death camps, they were moved out of the country, and into places where the “state” had ceased to exist.  There were no ghettos in Germany.  And, although rights were lost as well as jobs and educational possibilities, it was not until the destruction of another state – this time the Austrian republic – with the 1938 Anschluss and the immediate unbridled actions of gentile Austrians against Austrian (largely Viennese) Jews, that the Nazis realized that Germans would stand for more violent actions.  This is what led to Kristallnacht, which Snyder says got so out of control in Germany itself that the Nazi leadership viewed the action as a mistake.

And who perpetrated all of these atrocities?  Everyone – some gladly, some out of legitimate fear that failing to follow extermination orders would lead to their own deaths (and that someone else would kill the Jews anyway) or that of their families.  And who were the rescuers – those that saved or hid Jews.  Again, Snyder shows them to be a mixed bunch – hard to generalize.  There were those who liked Jews or had connections with them.  There were those who didn’t believe in killing.  There were antisemites among them whose antisemitism had its limits.  There were those who didn’t know why they acted as they did.  And the rescuers were certainly not all “angels” – like so many people, there were many who could do both great and terrible things at the same time.

As I said above, my description of this brilliant books incomplete and undoubtedly not accurate – but it gives you an idea of what you are in for when you read it.  And a final word must be said about the concluding chapter – where Snyder wraps up and summarizes much of what he has been writing about, but then goes somewhat off topic, to suggest what could happen in the future, as a result of shortages brought about by a changing climate.  And how, if today’s nations are not careful, once again one race could be pitted against another, leading to another Holocaust.  Is this last chapter brilliant?  I am not sure about that – perhaps it is in the wrong book, perhaps it deserves more than summary treatment, perhaps it is not Snyder’s forte.

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading

I haven’t been posting, so I guess I must have been reading.  Here is what I’ve read over the past month or two:

  1.  “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War” by the late Anthony Shadid (American journalist who later died leaving Syria). Published in 2005, it is the story of America’s attack on Iraq in 2003, with a little on the history of Iraq and the city of Baghdad thrown in for good measure.  Observations and reports of conversations with several families – Sunni, Shiite, rich, poor.  How the invasion was understood in Iraq, how America was understood, and how and why the Sunni revolt and the Shiite militias developed.  Well worth reading – very well written.  You will gain insight.
  2. “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by Israeli novelist David Grossman, published in English in 1994.  One of Grossman’s early novels, it is a coming of age story of a young teenager in Jerusalem.  Written in a unique, almost stream of consciousness style, it can be hard to follow for the reader (I often wondered exactly what was going on).  But it was also hard to live through for the unfortunate and sympathetic young protagonist.
  3. “Akiva: Life, Legend Legacy” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, hot off the press.  The first biography of the second century rabbi in over 60 years, a number of points are made.  Some of the most popular stories about Akiva are legends and most likely unhistorical – that he abandoned his wife to study, that the Romans tortured and executed him. But the more important points are the biblical interpretative work of Akiva, using analogy and not literalness, and his mystical perspectives, and Akiva’s role in organizing the oral law which forms the basis of the Mishnah.  Worth reading if you are interested.  And you may be without even knowing it.
  4. “Captive in Korea” by Philip Deane, published in England only in 1953.  A British journalist during the Korean War, he was taken prisoner by the North Koreans and held for 3 years with other non-combatant prisoners.  Horrific (obviously) but worth reading if you want to know what was going on in Korea during that war.
  5. “Haunting Legacy” by Marvin Kalb and his daughter Deborah (2011).  The tragedy of Vietnam, and the continual fear that the country would enter, or be drawn into, another Vietnam has haunted American presidencies for more than 40 years.  This book looks at the presidents from Nixon to Obama and analyzes how the legacy of Vietnam affected presidential decision making.  Worth reading.
  6. “Let There Be Water” by Seth Siegel (2015).  Siegel tells the story of Israel’s relationship with water, how a society which started in a part of the earth without sufficient water turned into a society where water is so carefully managed and cultivated that it has turned into a country with a water surplus, able to serve some of its neighbors and enabling it to consult with governments across the world as to how to best use and conserve water resources.  Goes through the history of Israel’s innovative water management, agricultural usage, and water conservation.  Think this is boring?  Wrong.
  7. “Under the Banner of Heaven: a Story of Violent Faith” by John Krakauer.  Published in 2003, Krakauer uses the story of a double murder in small town Utah in 1984 to discuss not only the crime, but the history of Mormonism and in particular fundamentalist Mormonism.  Fascinating reading.
  8. “88 Days to Kandahar: a CIA Diary” by Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s station in Pakistan (which also served Afghanistan) detailing the difficulties in the initial attempts to find Osama bin Laden and convincing the Afghan warlords to be our allies, and the Pakistani government from allowing radicals to hide out within the territory of the country.  Grenier, whom I heard at Politics and Prose, also deals with some of the American personalities involved and the difficulties in coordinating not only the various American governmental agencies involved but also coordinating the CIA guys at Langley with those out in the field. Published in 2015.
  9. “Washington Irving: an American Original” by Brian Jay Jones (2008), fascinating biography of the American author, diplomat and man about town.  I have been interested in Irving since I visited his house in the Hudson Valley, and read his “Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York” and “Astoria”.  Read the book if only to learn how the Knickerbocker book was written and publicized.  Jones describes a very human Washington Irving and thus humanizes much of what happened during his eventful life.

 

More Quick, Quick, Quick Reviews

  1.  The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee (2014).  If you are interested in Russia and Russian cultural life, this book is one you should read.  It’s the story of Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago, and how he wrote and distributed the book, and survived, during the worst years of Stalinist Russia, when cultural figures were being arrested and murdered every day.  Well, in fact, his survival is a mystery (as was the survival of Ilya Ehrenburg, whose biography I read about a year ago) – perhaps it was a result of world wide notoriety (although this did not help people like Isaac Babel), perhaps the results of luck – but survive he did.  He was able (while leading a strange life with, in effect, two families, one with his long time wife, and the other with his long time girl friend) to write in the worst of times, and gave his manuscript to a visiting Italian communist who took it out of the country.  In spite of mixed critical reviews, the book (translated into several languages) became a world wide hit, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 (did he win it for the poet he was throughout his life, or for his first novel?) a prize he was not able to claim.  Well worth reading.
  2. Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (2012).  I had not read much about the Eisenhower years, so learned a lot from this book.  A lot about the Eisenhower personality, a lot about the Eisenhower who held strong opinions about a number of things, but who held them close to his chest until the last minute as a facet of his carefully crafted political sense, the Eisenhower who was president during a period of time when many felt that nuclear weapons were like any other and should not only be threatened but should actually be used in war time, an Eisenhower dedicated to peace but who was somewhat misled by those who designed the U-2 spy plane missions and the plan to overthrow Castro.  As all of Thomas’ books, this one is both readable and informative.
  3. Democrat & Diplomat: the Life of William E. Dodd by Robert Dallek (2013).  Historian Robert Dallek wrote his PhD dissertation on Dodd decades ago, and had it updated and published 45 years after it was written.  Dodd of course was Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany during the early Hitler years, and was given a bit of fame from the recent book In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson.  Dodd’s book gives a broader description of Dodd, far from the naive academic that I perceived from the Larson book.  A southern scholar of American history, who taught at the University of Chicago, an intellectual historian fluent in German, he was not Roosevelt’s first choice for ambassador, but a good choice.  And Dallek’s book lets you learn about Dodd (both as an academic – where the changes in southern historiography become important – and as an ambassador) without the enticing distractions of the antics of his daughter Martha.
  4. Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1935).  I had never read a Marsh mystery, so thought I would give it a try.  Probably will not read another.  This is a theatrical murder — blanks were to be fired in the final act of the play, but one night, the blanks weren’t blanks and the leading man was killed.  Who done it?  Who cares?
  5. The Follower by Patrick Quentin (1950).  Patrick Quentin is apparently the pen name of two authors who together wrote about 30 mysteries.  As much as a thought that Enter a Murderer was a bit trite, this one was pure enjoyment.  The young, impoverished, but ambitious engineer marries the free thinking daughter of New York society millionaires.  He goes to South America for business, comes back early to surprise his new wife, finds her missing from their apartment, and discovers the bloody body of her former lover on the living room floor.  Where is his wife?  Who committed the murder?  All sorts of things flit through his mind, as he hides the body, and tracks her down (after a few wild goose chases) in Mexico, where he finds her involved in all sorts of shenanigans, is totally disillusioned by her, but meets the love of his life.  What more can you ask for?

How the NY Times Rewrote My Letter

First, this is not a complaint – I am just reporting to show what happens when you write a letter to the editor of the NY Times book review section.

Here is what I wrote:

“David Margolick did not give a very good review to Wil Haygood’s recent biography “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America”.  He felt that Haygood left out some important events and facts, and that his writing left a lot to be desired.  He also insinuated that there has yet to be an adequate biography of Mr. Justice Marshall and that a more complete telling of the Marshall nomination would likely await the completion of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.

“Not having read the Haygood book, I cannot comment on Margolick’s review of teh book.  But I certainly disagree that Marshall’s life has not been well documented.  I am most familiar with Juan Williams’ 1998 book “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary”. It seems to have all of the virtues that Margolick claims the Haygood book does not have.  It is a full biography of the Supreme Court Justice, discussing his home background and education, his entire legal career, and certainly his relationship with President Johnson, his nomination to the Court, the Congressional hearings and his Supreme Court career. And it’s beautifully written; you will certainly not find the book, or any part of it, “rough going”.

No reason to wait for Robert Caro.”

And here is what the Times published under my name:

“I certainly disagree with David Margolick’s suggestion in his review of Wil Haygood’s “Showdown” that Thurgood Marshall’s life has not been well documented.  Juan Williams’ 1998 book “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary” is a full biography of the Supreme Court justice, discussing his background and education, legal career, relationship to President Johnson and nomination to the court, as well as the congressional hearings and his Supreme Court career.  And it’s beautifully written; you will certainly not find the book, or any part of it, “rough going”, as Margolick said of “Showdown”.  There’s no need to wait for Robert Caro to reach “that part of the story”.

Interesting……

Kazuo Ishiguro’s “When We Were Orphans” – a Disappointment

It happens every now and then.  You start a book, and it draws you right in.  You are intrigued by the characters, the setting, the plot line(s), and the writing.  You sit back, relax, and enjoy, and you look forward to the remainder of the book.

And then it happens, in this case over 2/3 through the book.  It falls apart.  The characters become caricatures, the plot lines lose all credibility, the rhythm of the writing dissipates.  You don’t know if you should finish it, or just put it back on the shelf.  What a disappointment.

Christopher (a/k/a Puffin) Banks is born in the International Settlement of Shanghai around the turn of the century, the son of an employee of a company which made a lot of money importing opium into China and a mother who is an anti-opium activist.  His best friend is Akira, a young Japanese boy who lives next door.  Sadly, he is “orphaned” when his parents, one by one, disappear, and he is sent to his aunt in England.

He grows up, goes to the university and fulfills his lifelong ambition to become a private investigator, and a successful and well known one at that.  He is personally a little awkward socially, but his fame overcomes this and he develops a strange, extended but not deep relationship with an interesting woman who is portrayed as a social climber, who “wants it all”.  She marries a man much her senior and they resettle in Shanghai, where her husband embarks on some unsuccessful mission to preserve the peace, as the city withstands the beginnings of the Japanese invasion of the early 1940s.  She convinces Christopher to come to Shanghai as well, and he does for the first time since he left.  He meets old friends, gets the lay of the land, and then decides that his parents have been kidnapped so many years before and have been hidden since then in house he is determined to locate and visit.

What?  How could he believe his parents have been held prisoner for over 20 years in the same house?  And when you follow the steps he takes on this fantasy-like journey, you keep asking yourself: “What?”  It sure lost me – how he located the house, how he by chance found Akira whom he hadn’t seen since childhood, how they got caught on the Japanese-Chinese battle front….none of this made any sense to me.  And the credibility of the first 200 pages, when I was intrigued by the characters, simply vanished.

Too bad.

Chimerica at the Studio – Just a Few Thoughts

With all of the hoopla surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United States, the unexpected resignation of John Boehner, and the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the visit to Seattle and Washington of President Xi Jinping of China (otherwise a major, major event) has been lost in the shuffle.

In fact, I was reminded of it only because last night we went to see “Chimerica” at the Studio Theatre.  “Chimerica”, which takes place both in Beijing and New York (back and forth, forth and back), is a play about the confluence of Chinese and Americans and their respective countries.  Written by Lucy Kirkwood, a young British playwright, “Chimerica” is an award winning play which opened in 2013 in London to sellout audiences, and is being premiered in America at the Studio.

The term “Chimerica” is the creation of Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson and is meant to show the two countries as now dependent upon each other, in a symbiotic relationship.  And, I guess, that is one of the goals of the play, as well.

It’s a long play, running over three hours, not counting a 15 minute intermission.  It is a complicated play in that it is composed of dozens of small scenes, some in New York, some in Beijing, with no set changes – often just with the drop of an oriental screen, and its lifting with new characters standing in place of the old.  Many of the actors play multiple roles.

It is 1989, and Tiananmen Square, Beijing.  A young American photographer is in his hotel across from the square photographing the demonstration and the violent army reaction.  Amazed, he watches a lone man carrying two shopping bags walk in front of a battery of tanks, as if daring them to strike him down.  Facing down the Red Army.  He is the tank man.

There really was a tank man.  Photos of his stance were shown world wide.  No one knows his fate, or his identity.

Decades later, the American returns to China.  He visits an old friend, a Chinese man, a teacher of English.  He knows that his friend was a Tiananmen protester and wants him to help him locate the tank man.  His friend thinks it a foolish thing to do.  But he pursues.

Of course there are complications.  The English teacher has problems with the Chinese government and especially their cover-up of air pollution activities, and in return the Chinese government has problems with him. His brother works in a factory and thinks you have to go along with the system.  The English teacher continues to mourn his young wife, who was killed in the 1989 massacre. His brother’s son attends Harvard. The photographer wants his boss at the newspaper in New York to support his search for the tank man and publish the results.  The newspaper depends upon financing from a Chinese institution and cannot afford to offend the powers that run the country.  The photographer’s girl friend (so to speak) is an expert on Chinese demographics and earns her living explaining Chinese consumer preferences to American companies seeing entree. Until she is fired. The photographer gets a lead on his prey – pursuit of the lead gets him arrested. And then he is fired. You can see the complications – and begin to see how the double nation of Chimerica operates.

How does it turn out?  I won’t tell you.  You need to invest the three plus hours to find out.

Is the investment worth it?  That’s the $1.8 trillion question.  The structure of the play is very interesting.  The acting is excellent, without exception.  The basic story line is intriguing.  The plot details are too numerous and too dependent upon happenstance and coincidence.  Is the investment worth it?  That’s the $1.8 trillion question.  The London reviewers generally liked the play; the Washington Post not so much.  The audience was enthusiastic; myself, closer (but not as close as possible) to the Post. I did not find the play profound.  I don’t think it gave me much insight.  But then again, insight is a funny thing, and sometimes it hides deep inside you, popping out when you least expect it.

Why I Think the Pope’s Speech to Congress was Brilliant

I was fascinated as I watched the live telecast of the Pope’s talk before the Joint Session of Congress for a number of reasons.

I was surprised, for example, that the Pope’s speech was not religious in a sectarian sense, not only not Catholic but not Christian – for example, I don’t recall that there was a single mention of Jesus.  To me, the talk was not a sectarian talk but a humanistic talk (humanistic talk being, to me, more religious in nature than a sectarian talk would be).

I was also surprised that the Pope, who clearly has some beliefs that are very different from mine, didn’t say anything (that I can recall) that I disagree with.  Even when he touched upon those doctrinal positions of the Church, such as the sanctity of life (i.e., prohibition of abortion) and the importance of the family (being against homosexuality and gay marriage), he did it in such a sensitive way that he was able to respect the position of others, while not turning against important teaching of his Church.

Take abortion.  He segued into the importance of respecting life in all of its stages.  Of course, to today’s Catholicism, life in all of its stages would include conception. But, no, he didn’t go there.  I don’t think the word “abortion” was mentioned (much less “contraception”, another Church holding that I, and most Catholics, disagree with in its entirety).  Instead, the talk immediately went not to life pre-birth, but rather to the end of life.  The Pope came out for a universal position against the death penalty, forcing some of those clapping conservatives in the chamber to keep their hands apart and sit back down.  He had talked about the death penalty before, but the reference here was not expected.

Similarly, when he spoke about his upcoming Philadelphia stop for a conference of the importance of families, he did not mention gay marriage or homosexuality in general.  He simply spoke about the importance of strong families, without defining the word “family”, something that almost everyone would agree with, as they would with his emphasis on families struggling financially.

At our synagogue this Yom Kippur, the rabbi gave a sermon on the evils of polarity – speaking in a Jewish framework, talking about how the opinions of Jews on various issues have become so polarized that people are not only no longer talking to each other, but are talking insultingly about each other.  Pope Francis did the same thing, but on a larger scale, putting the member of Congress in their place, instructing them that the goal of a political leader was to reach “pragmatic” answers to the problems they are facing.  His attack on polarity and the rabbi’s attack were totally parallel.  Perhaps the Pope was listening to the rabbi through our synagogue’s telephone call-in facility.

The Pope came out for environmental protection, citing our mutual responsibilities for protection of the planet, and clearly insinuating that mankind’s activities were implicated in the current climatic changes we are experiencing and fearing.  He talked about the responsibility of governments in helping their citizens who are poor and homeless, on the basis of human being to human being (this paralleled another sermon at our synagogue on Rosh Hashana, given by another of our rabbis – teaching us that the person on the street you want to avoid is a person, just like you or me).

And of course he talked about immigration, about seeing the immigrants and the refugees as individuals.  He pointed out not only that he is the son of immigrants (from Italy to Argentina), but he guessed that many in the chamber were also the children of immigrants, again making the human connection.

Capitalism?  He did not attack it, but he made it clear that income “distribution” should be a matter of government policy, that business was important, but only when used for the overall good – he said particularly when it creates a significant number of jobs, not only when it increases wealth for a few.

And religious fundamentalism?  It’s bad, he said, and (just like President Obama said at that infamous prayer breakfast –  I think that the national prayer breakfast should be abolished, by the way) every religion has or has had its dangerous, violent fundamentalists.

So, it was a highly humanistic speech, with references to the Golden Rule abounding, with controversial issues softened. It was a call for collaboration and cooperation, something sorely lacking (as the Pope pointed out) in the world today.  And it was reaching for the best of mankind’s instincts – for this reason, to me it was brilliant.

Even at the very end, standing on the west balcony of the Capitol, he brought his message to all.  “Pray for me” he said, and – if you aren’t a believer or can’t pray, please at least send me your good wishes.  Here they come……..