R(evolution)aries

With the two political conventions just behind us, it seems fitting that this post should be about my brother Jack’s book, Revolutionaries, since it is a political history of the American revolution told through the evolution of many of the major players.  I have to start this post with the story of a purse.  From the time we were young, it was apparent my brother was going to do something impressive with his very large brain.  He worried about the space race with the Russians when he was 6 years old; he embraced reading about the Constitution when he was 8; he even liked Hebrew school. And of course, he did do a lot with his big brain, getting his PhD at Harvard – where else – with some big fellowship – of course –  and ending up with a chair at Stanford – we saw that one coming. I dealt very well with all of this in my years of weekly psychotherapy sessions.  But 1997 was a particularly trying year when my brother won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Constitution, Original Meanings, a book I still haven’t quite been able to get through.  When my brother called me with the news, I handled it in the healthy way I usually did when he got some accolade.  I got under my desk at work for about 20 minutes, and from my crouching position called my oldest friend Nancy who is both a therapist and also cursed with a high achieving academic brother and let her talk me out from under the desk. Later that week, I was over at my mother’s house for dinner and she presented me with an amazing beautiful purse from Nordstrom’s.  It wasn’t my birthday or Hannukah so I knew. “Mom,” I said, “is this purse because I didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize, too?” “Yes,” she replied. “I just didn’t want you to feel bad.” Oh, good.  Pity on top of my already rampant insecurity.

So fast forward to 2010 when my brother’s “trade” book – the one for the rest of us, is published.  At least Revolutionaries doesn’t win the Pulitzer Prize. No – it gets a BIGGER honor.  My brother gets on The Daily Show.  You can watch that here:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-may-10-2010/jack-rakove

But like John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and my brother’s fave founding father, James Madison, all of whom he writes about so beautifully in Revolutionaries, I too have evolved.  Maybe something happened when we became orphans together – our mom died several years ago.  Maybe hitting 60 made me see the world more clearly.  Whatever the cause, I am simply proud of my brother’s achievements now.  And this book is certainly one of them.  The first few chapters are a bit heavy going – he assumes we all know a lot more than we do.  But most of the book is a remarkable work on how the figures we all studied in school as icons evolved into visionaries and leader.  None of them started there.  Yes, they were a once in a century – or centuries – gathering of men.  But what Jack’s book does so well is take us through how how history combined with their talents and circumstances to bring about transformation.

I thought about this a bit looking at two of our big political figures during the Democratic convention this week – Clinton and Obama. They are two of the most fascinating political figures of our time. We think we know these guys but we don’t yet.  The reason historians like my brother exist is that we need them to look back from a distance to analyze and measure the intersection between historical events and individuals.  Hopefully, someone will do that with Clinton and Obama with as much skill and insight as Jack has done for our founding fathers.

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I’m Back

Of course, I didn’t remotely make 100 books but I turned 62 on Thursday and I am starting fresh.  I blame the Illinois State Legislature – I mean, why not.  I was doing okay when all hell broke loose with the Medicaid budget and as my friends know, I am a lobbyist on that very topic.  Now you might think that spending three days a week for weeks on end from February to June in Springfield, Illinois would be the perfect place to read a lot but oddly it’s not.  It’s – as another lobbyist friend said – mind numbing.  So I got hopelessly off track and never got back on. The other reason I got hopelessly bogged down is I decided to read my brother’s most recent work – Revolutionaries – and in the end it turned out to be great but it did take me an awfully long time.  There will be a separate post on that one since I spent over a month on it. I have decided to renew my lease on this blog and try again and have already begun my first book for this birthday year.

But first some clean up.  Books I did not post on but read included:

A Fortune Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani, a kind of travelogue by a travel writer in Asia who was told by a fortune teller that he shouldn’t fly for a year and decided to believe him.  Turned out the fortune teller was right – the travel writer who took his place died in a plane crash.  It’s a book about Asia about why we believe in odd things like fortune tellers, about slowing down and traveling in a different way.  I was intrigued for two reasons – one was that I stopped driving and see the world very differently because I walk so much, and the other because I too have visited a fortune teller.  Not in Asia, of course, but New Orleans, nearly as good, and I bet many of you have as well.

I found a new mystery writer, Canadian, named Louis Penny, recommended by my friend Maureen.  I read a novel and novella by her – Still Life and The Hangman.  For you mystery lovers out there, I definitely recommend her.
Two historical fiction continuation of famous books – Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D.James.  If you are a P.D. James mystery fan and/or a Jane Austen fan, you’ve probably already read this continuation of Pride and Prejudice with a murder thrown in .  How could it not be good?  And a retelling of Tale of Two Cities that appeared on my Kindle called A Far Better Rest by Susanne Alleyn which turned out to be a pretty erudite French Revolution novel telling us a whole lot more about Sydney Carton. I’m not sure where it came from on my Kindle but it was an ok read.

I reread Small Changes by Marge Piercy, one of my favorite feminist novels from my college years.  Unlike The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which turned out to be unreadable when revisited, it has really held up.  (I was relieved to read that both Nora Ephron and Gail Collins found The Golden Notebook to be unreadable in their book group.  How did we all read it so much?  My copy actually fell apart from overuse.)  Small Changes captures a lot about a certain period in time that was my time – late 60’s and early 70’s – and I can still recommend it.
There are three books I want to do real posts on – two by Andrew Weill – Eight Weeks to Optimal Health and Guide to Healthy Aging and, of course, my brother’s book Revolutionaries. Those will be next.  So happy Labor Day to all. I am older and wiser and hope to do a better job this year.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Occupy London 1843

I love reading Charles Dickens.  I have loved reading Charles Dickens for as long as I can remember.  Dickens is to me for literature what Bob Dylan is to me for music – the place you always go back to, that you never get tired of, no matter how often you have visited. And like Dylan, he sure has a lot to say.

So of course, my Christmas post is the best holiday story anywhere, anytime, and any holiday – A Christmas Carol. I have always thought that David Copperfield was Dickens’ perfect book, but A Christmas Carol comes close.  And to read it this year is almost startling in the contemporary feel of the issues and morals of the book. It is, I might add, the perfect Christmas story for those of us who didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday.  Because, ultimately, it is not a book about Christmas or Christianity.  It is a book about income inequality and the emotional and moral emptiness of the pursuit of money. Dickens uses the frame of a holiday story to craft an indictment of a society that does not provide a decent standard of living for all. (Does any of this sound familiar?)  The most dramatic moment in the story is not when Scrooge sees his name on his own grave – we could see that one coming.  It is when the ghost of Christmas Present reveals two starving children under his robe.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more. “They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking upon them…”This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and of all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand…”Have they no refuge or resources?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him one last time his words. “Are there no workhouses?”

So let’s end with a message for Wall Street, the Republican presidential field, and John Boehner’s caucus. If Dickens were alive today, I am quite sure he would have been in Zuccotti Park. Here is Marley’s ghost replying to Scrooge’s statement that Marley was always a good man for business:

“Business!…Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating, and a wonderful Chinese meal and movie to those who are not.  As Tiny Tim (the character, not the singer) would leave us with, God Bless Us Every One.

My Cliff Notes Catch Up Blog -The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow, His Illegal Self by Peter Carey, and A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka

Yes, I am even more behind but I have been reading quite a bit.  So in the interests of time, I am combining four books in one post.  They have nothing to do with each other except that they were wonderful reads and they were both recommended by three devoted readers with good taste – my dear friends Teri and Toni, and my very literate husband, Mick. I have to get this post out because I do have a special Xmas post for Sunday.  So though each of these books deserves their own post, this is going to have to be like one of those New York Review of Books articles where the reviewer comments on multiple books, mostly writing about their own thoughts with little to do with the books.

Why am I so behind in posting?  Blame is an ugly word, but I have to blame it on one of our cats and our chief information officer at my place of work. I generally write at two times – early in the morning or, occasionally, on my lunch hour at work.  Yes, I confess I have written on my lunch hour.  If this gets out, it could end my employment but I need to point out that I attend numerous evening events on behalf of work and have to stay overnight in our state capitol way too many evenings so I figure that a few quarter hours spent writing instead of eating would be ok.  As to the mornings – one of our cats, previously featured in this post as the one who eats books, has taken to knocking everything over in our bedroom at about three in the morning.  Locking him out doesn’t work because he pounds on the door and anyway, we all know the cats are in charge here.  Therefore, I have been half dead at my usual 5 a.m. writing time.  As to work – our new security software seems to be blocking blogs, along with the ability to print airline tickets, and websites with anything related to women in the title. But no excuses – I am back on the case.

So first, for you mystery/police crime readers out there – The Redbreast is an early book in a series featuring detective Henry Hole by Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo.  Jo Nesbo is an economist, a musician, and a mystery novelist who looks like Daniel Craig would play him in the movie. My friend Maureen told me that everything I read didn’t have to be serious, so to recover from Cleopatra, A Life, I allowed myself the pleasure of a new mystery writer.  I don’t want to go into the plot here because those reviews end up wrecking mysteries for anyone who hasn’t read them.  Like the Wallender mysteries or the Girl in the Dragon Tattoo series, The Redbreast makes you think that life in Scandinavia is not exactly on the sunny side.  I don’t get it.  When I was hitchhiking around Europe as a student, we always envied the Scandinavians we would meet at youth hostels.  They were blond, repulsively healthy, athletic, and had great social welfare states. For some reason, the mystery novels that are making their way into English translation suggest that’s not enough to make for a happy society.  In any case, The Redbreast is great with a conflicted detective, neo Nazis, and a fascinating view into World War II collaboration in Norway.  I missed my stop on my el train reading this one. Thanks to Teri for the recommendation.

The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow is a much more serious undertaking.  It’s one of those American classics most of us never heard of but we definitely should have.  I’ll admit that when my friend Toni gave me the book, and I saw it was close to 700 pages with a pretty grim story line and a positive review from Joyce Carol Oates, I panicked.  But this is why you should pay attention to your friends when they give you their favorite book to read.  This is one of those books that you inhabit rather than read.  It is the story of an Appalachian woman named Gertie Nevels, who brings her family from Kentucky to join her husband who is doing factory work in Detroit in WWII. It is an amazing portrait of a family that embodies what we claim are American virtues – thrift, incredible hard work, family, and community – and yet are constantly battered by American capitalism. Gertie Nevels has the heart and soul of an artist and her art sustains her through poverty and tragedy. Every character is beautifully drawn.  So for once I am going to agree with Joyce Carol Oates whose review of The Dollmaker called it “our most unpretentious American masterpiece.”

I started reading His Illegal Self by Peter Carey the same week I ended up sitting next to Bernadine Dorhn at a luncheon.  For those of you too young to remember the 1960s and 70s, Bernadine Dohrn was a leader of the Weather Underground anti-war group.  She has gone on to do great work on behalf of children as an attorney.  What is perfect about starting this book when I met her was that she is actually in the book so it seemed very fitting.  His Illegal Self is about a young boy named Che who is the son of revolutionary parents involved in anti-war actions during Vietnam.  He is being raised by a wealthy grandmother while his parents are living underground. Early in the book a  young woman named Dial, formerly involved with the movement who has just accepted a teaching job at Vassar is passed a message by a professor with the phone number of Che’s mother, she is drawn into taking Che to see his mother.  The mother blows herself up while constructing a bomb.  This begins a chain of events that puts Dial and Che underground.  The movement sends them to hide in Australia where they end up living in a remote area with a vaguely menacing hippy colony.  Okay, I’m not doing a good job of summarizing a pretty complicated plot, but if you were there in the 60s and 70s, none of this seems strange. Peter Carey, as my husband promised me, is a great writer.

And finally – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is a lovely quirky novel, half Eastern European and half British.  Two Ukrainian sisters raised in England are confronted with their 84-year-old father marrying a truly dreadful Ukrainian woman in her 30s who wants British residency, a Rolls Royce, and an Oxford education for her son.  It weaves together coping with an aging parent you may not have ever liked, making peace with your sibling, being an outside in another culture, and family secrets. If  you can find it, read it.

On December 25th, I will be posting about my favorite Xmas book by one of my all time favorite authors.  It should be pretty easy to guess what it is.

Cleopatra, A Life or The Problem with Book Groups

I have fallen off pace, no question about it.  This is not because I have not been reading.  I have.  I have been trapped reading Cleopatra, A Life, a biography by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff.  I already had some negative feelings about Stacy Schiff.  My boss lent me her biography of Benjamin Franklin which got lost under one of the many book piles in our house and in the interests of job security, I replaced it for him. I found the book eventually and it now sits on my bedside table  Maybe it will make it into the list of 100 but after Cleopatra, I’m just not sure.  In all fairness, the reviews on Cleopatra, A Life were great (check out Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times if you want to read a rave) so if you like really long biographies that have few actual sources for research and therefore contain a lot of sentences that start out “Cleopatra probably” or “Cleopatra might have” or “We can assume that Julius Caesar” – be my guest.  If the suppositions were cut down by 50% and the details of extravagant banquets and processions were similarly edited, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more.  Also I could not shake a mental picture of Mark Antony looking like Rick Perry which also took away from my enjoyment.

I didn’t find Cleopatra totally uninteresting.  As a second wave feminist, I very much enjoyed the information on the powerful role of women in Egyptian society.  “Egyptian women …liberties had increased to levels unprecedented in the ancient world.  They inherited equally and held property independently.  Married women did not submit to their husband’s control. ..They loaned money and operated barges.  They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows, or divorcees, they owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes (I want one of those), ships perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes camels…”

As someone with a background in public health, I was pretty fascinated by the descriptions of birth control in ancient Egypt/which included crocodile dung, mule’s kidney, and eunuch’s urine. Or how about this recipe for a morning after pill – salt, mouse excrement, honey and resin?

In the end, everyone comes out as pretty unlikable.  Yes, Cleopatra turned out to be a powerful and intelligent leader, not the sexpot Elizabeth Taylor version, but it’s hard to warm up to someone whose idea of a good time was developing poisons and testing them on slaves, prisoners, or just people she didn’t like.  Mark Antony comes across a bit like the kind of frat boy you really didn’t want to know in college. Assassination, particularly of your family members, was so common it seemed almost like a hobby, an ancient version of scrapbooking.

I am sure there is an audience for this type of book, it just isn’t me.  It was a bad sign that, trapped for three days in Springfield, Illinois, better known as the City of the Damned, I preferred watching Law and Order reruns on cable at night than finishing the book.  So why was I reading this?  That question brings me to the second part of the title of this entry. It was a book for my book group.

I love my book group.  It’s made up of a great group of women who are smart, funny, dedicated readers, interesting, and great cooks.  And let’s be honest here, the cooking part is key to a successful book group.  The baked goods aren’t bad either. We actually discuss the books, and we are very disciplined about not descending into gossip. The only thing I haven’t loved, and I think this is common for many groups, are many of the books. I’m not the only one in my group who feels this way, by the way.  When we read The God of Small Things, several members confessed to using the online equivalent of Cliff Notes because they couldn’t get through it.  And I’m noticing, since I’m the host for Cleopatra this week, the rsvp’s contain a lot of comments about not being near finishing. Could one of the main reasons for joining a book group – that you will read books you wouldn’t normally select – be the cause of this problem?  I’ll be interested to hear thoughts from you book group types out there.

Anyway, I needed to read something really different, so I am on to a mystery by the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo.

 

 

Mr. Dodd Goes to Berlin – In the Garden of the Beasts

Okay, I know that I am behind.  What can I say – I am at that point in the semester when you just start to get somewhat, but not desperately behind because there are a lot of weeks left.  Work travel, fun travel – I slacked off. Dangerous – I have to read quite a bit this month to stay on target.

But I do have a new book to add – In the Garden of the Beasts – Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson, the description of the tenure of Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Berlin from 1933 to 1937.  So here’s a little video to get us all in the mood.

I know a lot about Germany in the 1930s. When I arrived at Pitzer College in 1968- one of the more out there lefty colleges in the 1960s – it was one of the first colleges to experiment with freshman seminars. I was assigned to a seminar on Hitler – trust me, I didn’t request it.  All of us who were assigned to this particular seminar were part of another experiment – they had us all room on the same floor of our dorm which became affectionately known as Hitler Hall.  Our common room was adorned with posters about Nazi Germany. My friend Maureen who has commented on these posts so eloquently joined the college in the spring semester and was quite baffled by the decor on the first day.

Like so many Jews of my generation – the first to be born after the war – the story of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany was one of the major narratives of my childhood.  Today, I doubt that Jewish families discuss genocide much with 1st graders but because the war was so recent and such a big part of our parents’ lives, we heard about it everywhere.  We lived in an apartment in East Rogers Park in Chicago and I somehow had it in my mind that Hitler was alive and living in the gangway between our apartment and the one next door.  (When I told this story to my shrink, she muttered something about Jewish girls and their fathers, but what she meant by that is still a mystery.) I described this to my friend Nancy when sleeping at her house when we were 15 and the fear so unnerved her she couldn’t fall asleep.  It’s a sign of how much this history became a part of my consciousness that when I meet someone new, I still place them in one of two categories – would I be safe hiding in their attic or not?

So I have read and thought about this topic quite a bit.  In the Garden of the Beasts is a wonderfully readable account of an accidental ambassador to Germany at the start of Hitler’s rise to power. William Dodd was a University of Chicago civil war historian who only wanted to finish his major work – a history of the “Old South” – who, because of the unpopularity of the Berlin post (Roosevelt offered it to at least ten others first) and the fact that he had some influential friends and spoke German fluently, ended up as the U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is the exact antithesis of the usual wealthy and elitist State Department types and is generally reviled by them as he drives around Berlin in an old Chevrolet he ships from home. His daughter, the other major character in the family, uses much of her time in Berlin to sleep with a really astonishing range of characters, that includes the author Thomas Wolfe, the head of the Gestapo, and a Soviet intelligence agent.  In a match that eHarmony would hopefully never make, someone even tries to fix her up with Hitler but it just doesn’t take off.

The really fascinating part of this book is the description of Germany as it slips into terror and the response of Germans, the diplomatic corps, and the appalling U.S. State Department to the Storm Troopers, the Night of the Long Knives, the increasing restrictions on Jews, and the clear military build up of Germany.  Dodd’s development from a low-key observer to a ferocious critic of the Nazis parallels the descent of Germany into psychotic fascism.  This book is not an academic exploration of how Hitler rose to power, or how a society adapts to daily terror.  It doesn’t answer how or why not only Germans but other Western governments could not see what was right in front of them. But by telling the story of those years through the eyes of a decent and scholarly man In the Garden of the Beasts  provides a fascinating description of what the day-to-day life felt like – a juxtaposition of the “normal” with horror and repression.

House of Mirth – not so funny

Somehow, even though I was just one senior thesis short of a literature major in college (I finished the poli sci one) I never got around to reading Edith Wharton.  I’ve been meaning to do so ever since reading a Grace Paley short story where she returns The House of Mirth to the library 18 years overdue, which is long even by my standards, and promptly checks it out again. The combination of Grace Paley’s recommendation with one from my friend Toni and the fact that it was available free on the Kindle led me to read it this week even though Toni kept saying, “It’s incredibly sad.”

Well, she was definitely right about that.  Despite the title, there are no jokes in The House of Mirth.  There is, however, a lot to think about. For those of you who haven’t read the book, which made Edith Wharton the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, it follows the downward spiral of Lily Bart in 1890s New York.  Lily is a beautiful 29 year old woman with one foot in and one foot out of New York “society”. She is a popular part of the upper class circle, but her one foot out is because she has no real money of her own, existing, like the great Streetcar Named Desire quote, on the kindness of strangers – or the kindness of an aunt and numerous invitations to country house parties and cruises.  She is also one foot out because she cannot quite take the step that society accepts as the only one for her – marrying into social class and money. She keeps coming close, but keeps backing out.  It’s the backing out that made me like her somewhat, even though most of the time I wanted to shout, “Get a job, already!”

Getting a job, however, is not looked upon as worthy by the society to which Lily aspires and she has been completely unprepared for one.  Hardly anyone works, and those who do seem to have that part of their life viewed with contempt. Instead of working, most of the characters spend a great deal of time on pointless affairs, dinner parties, shopping, and gossiping.  Lily’s inability to take the steps necessary to enter into a marriage, combined with a series of innuendos about her conduct with other women’s husbands – all unfair – cause her to become an outcast. Oddly, when confronted with a moral choice, she always behaves admirably. But her ethical behavior combined with her inability to hold even a simple job in a hat factory because of a complete lack of skills leaves her impoverished and finally – spoiler alert -dead. Talk about a persuasive argument for women seizing their own economic destiny.

The character that I liked best in the book is one whose life Lily would rather die than embrace – her friend Gertie.  Gertie works, volunteers with working class women to help them with basic needs, and is a selfless friend. She is a reminder that there is another world out there – the one documented by Jacob Riis in his photographs of 1889 New York tenements in How the Other Half Lives. Lily even joins her at one point in some of the work and actually finds it more satisfactory than playing bridge at house parties.

So here’s my what if – what if Lily, instead of wasting her time with trying to fit into a really unappealing and boring social milieu, chose to go through the door Gertie opened for her?  She could have picked up the newspaper one day, read about the founding of Hull House, taken her small legacy from her aunt and paid for train tickets to Chicago for Gertie and herself.  They could have headed out to Halsted Street, joined Jane Addams and the  social workers at Hull House, become involved with the suffragette movement, organized textile workers – well you get the picture.  Now that would have been a happy ending.

On to the next book for a change of pace- In the Garden of the Beasts – Nazi Germany at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power.